Is Teaching a Profession, an Occupation, a Calling, or a Job?

(I have edited the original 2015 essay to include new information, contributions from thoughtful readers, and some ‘must read’ footnotes. For those interested in pursuing this issue further, please look at my most recent book, Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education.”)

“So, are they quitting because they’re fed up with their heavy-handed union bosses?” The hostility of the question took me by surprise. I was explaining to my dinner companion, a veteran lawyer, that 40% of teachers leave the field within five years, and right away he jumped to his anti-union conclusion disguised as a question.

No, I explained. Unions don’t seem to have anything to do with it; it’s most often related to working conditions: class size, discipline policies, and how much control and influence they have over their daily activities.

“It’s not money?” he asked, aggressively suspicious. Not according to surveys, I explained.

I described what I’d seen of a teacher’s daily work life. He interrupted, “How can it be a profession if you can’t take a leak when you need to?”**

While that’s not a criterion that social scientists use to define a profession, my cut-to-the-chase acquaintance might be onto something.

Can teaching be a true profession if you can’t take a bathroom break when nature calls?

Certainly, teachers and their supporters want teaching to be seen as a profession. They’ve won the linguistic battle. If you Google ‘the teaching profession,’ you’ll get nearly 3 billion references, while ‘teaching as an occupation’ and ‘the teaching occupation’ produce only 69 million.

Social scientists have no doubt about the status of teaching, according to Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania. “We do not refer to teaching as a profession. It doesn’t have the characteristics of those traditional professions like medicine, academia, dentistry, law, architecture, engineering, et cetera. It doesn’t have the pay, the status, the respect, the length of training, so from a scientific viewpoint teaching is not a profession.”  He carefully refers to teaching as an occupation, noting that it’s the largest occupation of all in the USA. And growing at a faster rate than the student population.

Jennifer Robinson, a teacher educator at Montclair State University in New Jersey, disagrees with Ingersoll. She believes our familiarity with teachers and schools breeds disrespect for teaching. “We don’t treat teaching as a profession because we’ve all gone to school and think we’re experts. Most people think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ which we would never do with doctors.”

Robinson suggests that a significant part of our population–including lots of politicians–does not trust teachers. She cites the drumbeat of criticism in the media, blaming teachers for low test scores.

A common criticism is that teachers come from the lowest rungs of our academic ladder, a charge that Ingersoll says is simply not true. “About 10% of teachers come from institutions like MacAlester, Yale and Penn,” he says. “Perhaps 25% come from the lowest quartile of colleges,” meaning that close to two-thirds of teachers attend the middle ranks of our colleges and universities.

According to Ingersoll, one hallmark of a profession is longevity, sticking with the work. In that respect, teaching doesn’t make the grade. As noted above, his research indicates that at least 40% of new teachers leave the field within five years, a rate of attrition that is comparable to police work. “Teaching has far higher turnover than those traditional professions, lawyers, professors, engineers, architects, doctors and accountants,” Ingersoll reports. Nurses tend to stick around longer than teachers. Who has higher quit rates, I asked him. “Prison guards, child care workers and secretaries.”

(The always thoughtful Curtis Johnson had a response: “There are now some 75 schools where teachers are in charge, have authority over everything that counts for student and school success. At EE we called them ‘teacher-powered’ schools. In these schools, the teachers are in fact professionals and turnover is very low. For readers who find this interesting, check it out at”)

(A contrary view came from James Noonan: “Howard Gardner may be best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, but he has spent a far larger proportion of his esteemed career studying the role of the professions in creating a more just and ethical world (see The framework that he and his colleagues developed would suggest that teaching (in the U.S.) is not a profession, but that’s not to say that its status is inevitable or immutable. Many countries and systems of education (like Finland, as you suggest, and Ontario and Singapore and a host of others) have placed teachers on par with other professionals and they have found great success.
        … Teaching is not a profession currently, but the first step in changing that is envisioning something different and creating spaces (like the “teacher-powered” schools mentioned above) where teachers can experience what true professionalism feels like.”)

Perhaps teaching is a calling? Those who teach score high on measures of empathy and concern for others and social progress, Ingersoll and others have noted. As a reporter and a parent, I have met thousands of teachers whose concern for their students was visible and admirable.

Trying to elevate the profession’s status (or arguing about it) is a waste of energy. That’s the view of Robert Runté, an associate professor of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. In a fascinating essay** written more than 20 years ago, he wrote,

“Since one needs schools before one can have school teachers, teachers are stuck with their status as salaried employees working within large organizations. Teachers have always been and will always be subject to direction from their school board and the provincial bureaucracy. They are, to that degree at least, already proletarianized.  Consequently, the whole question of whether teaching is a profession, or can become one, is a red herring. The real issue is the degree to which teachers can resist deskilling and maintain some measure of autonomy within the school bureaucracy.”

To some, he may be going off the deep end when he asserts that the construct of ‘profession’ is a trumped-up label created to flatter workers and distinguish themselves from others.

The only feature that ever really distinguished the professions from other occupations was the “professional” label itself. What we are is knowledge workers, and as such we have a responsibility to both ourselves and to the public to become reflective practitioners. As reflective practitioners we can reassert, first our ability, and then our right, to assume responsibility for the educational enterprise. We must stop worrying about unimportant issues of status and focus instead on the real and present danger of deskilling.

(When this piece first appeared, reader Susan Johnson responded: A student of history knows that professions evolve over time. There was a time when a barber could do “surgery” and a lawyer could practice after being apprenticed to another lawyer. My own grandmother ran into trouble for delivering babies without the benefit of specialized training and credentials because that practice was fairly common in her place and time.
        When teachers first formed an association, they wanted the authority to make decisions about curriculum, instruction and personnel, but were only granted the ability to bargain for salaries, benefits, and working conditions. And so, this association became a union, which will only exist as long as teachers are not the decision-makers. So it is likely true that union bosses do not want to see professional independence for teachers. However, these unions have the potential to evolve into powerful professional organizations similar to the American Medical Association.
        But change is on the horizon: teachers are starting to take control of the schools in which they teach. When schools are run by teachers who make almost all decisions regarding curriculum, instruction, selection and retention of personnel, then they will be full professionals. When the next teacher shortage hits, and the “captive women” are no longer available to teach our children, I believe districts will start to offer professional autonomy to people willing to staff the nation’s classrooms.
        In the meantime, I hope talented young people who want to be teachers look for positions that guarantee professional autonomy. It’s time.”)

“Deskilling” is the enemy, a concerted effort to reduce teaching to mindless factory work. Remember that awful graphic in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” where the heads of students are opened up and ‘knowledge’ is poured in by teachers? That’s how some politicians and education ‘reformers’ understand the role of schools and teachers. And how much skill does it take to pour a pitcher? Not much, and so why should we pay teachers more, or even give them job protection? Just measure how well they pour (using test scores of course), compare them to other teachers (value-added), and then get rid of the poor pourers. Bingo, education is reformed!

Teaching has taken some big hits in recent years, driven in great part by the education reform movement that argues, disingenuously, that “great teachers make all the difference.” This position allows them to ignore the very clear effects of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health and substandard housing on a child’s achievement.

Most parents are not fooled by this. Their respect for their children’s teachers and schools remains high, which must frustrate the Michelle Rhee/Campbell Brown/Democrats for Education Reform crowd.

So what’s to be done? Professor Lethbridge asserts that teachers should embrace their role of ‘knowledge workers,’ and I agree, sort of. I believe that schools ought to be viewed as ‘knowledge factories’ in which the students are the workers, teachers are managers/foremen/supervisors, and knowledge is the factory’s product. In that model, students must be doing real work, an issue I wrote about recently.

To show respect for teaching and teachers, I suggest we leave the ‘profession/occupation’ argument to academics. Instead, let’s consider doing three things:

1) Supporting leaders whose big question is “How is this child intelligent?” instead of “How intelligent is this child?”

2) Electing school board members who believe in inquiry-based learning, problem solving, effective uses of technology, and deeper learning.

3) Insisting on changes in the structure of schools so that teachers have time to watch each other teach and to reflect on their work. These are givens in Finland and other countries with effective educational systems.

Oh, and bathroom breaks when necessary….****

** Susan Graham, a teacher, was upset by this. “It seems to me that taking a bathroom break whenever the individual feels the urge has little to do with professionalism and a lot to do with time, context and management of workflow.  Do lawyers take a “potty break” when ever they want? I can’t remember a single episode of Law and Order where a recess was called for Jack McCoy to “take a leak” or “Claire Kincaid to “go to the ladies room.” Of course that’s just TV. A lawyer would tell you that they spend most of their time meeting with clients, collecting information, reviewing case history, meeting analyzing potential outcomes, negotiating with other lawyers, and preparing presentations. The courtroom is just the tip of the iceberg.
        The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be an awareness that the time in front of the classroom is the tip of the iceberg of teaching. No, teachers don’t get to “go” whenever they need to. For one thing, teachers are expected to practice in isolation, something neither “professionals” or “knowledge workers” rarely do. Not having “enough time to pee” isn’t as much of a complaint as not having enough time to plan, to assess student work, to collaborate with colleagues, to do or read research, to make meaningful contact with parents. Teachers don’t expect to stroll out of the classroom for a potty break any more than lawyers expect to “take a leak” during the middle of cross examining a witness. What they seek is acknowledgement that teaching is highly complex work.
        Whether you call us “professionals” or “knowledge workers”, what we want is enough time to do our job well; the discretion to apply the knowledge and skills we have worked to acquire; sufficient collaboration to continue to inform and improve our practice; and respect for our intention to act in the best interest of our students.”

***: Is Teaching A Profession? Reprinted from Taylor, Gerald and Robert Runté, eds.
Thinking About Teaching: An Introduction. Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

**** Richard Hersh, a distinguished former college president, shared this excerpt from his essay, Teaching Ain’t Brain Surgery-It’s Tougher!”
        “In 1983, school reform efforts were catalyzed by the report of “A Nation at Risk.” Reform to date has largely failed. Today we are a nation at greater risk educationally but the political pandering about “Leave No Child Behind” will get us nowhere because the issue of quality teaching is ignored.
        High quality teaching is the single most important factor in helping students to learn, a truism confirmed by many years of research. This fact has been blithely ignored by critics and politicians attracted to the siren calls for facile remedies such as school uniforms, computers, vouchers, and the latest bromide, high-stakes testing. The result is inadequate student achievement and more than 50% of all teachers who leave teaching in the first three to five years of their career.
        The reasons for this state-of-affairs are straightforward and swept under the rug– the training of teachers and the conditions for teaching are grossly inadequate. Moreover, in the face of an acknowledged short and long-term teacher shortage, the imperative for excellent teachers and teaching conditions is profoundly undermined by a patronizing “teaching ain’t brain surgery” mentality–the belief that anyone with an undergraduate degree can teach. Teachers in a very real sense operate on the brain too but teaching ain’t brain surgery–it’s tougher!
        How are brain surgeons educated? Four years of undergraduate work, at least four arduous years of medical school, and several additional years of internships and residencies are required to master the knowledge and skills to operate on the finite topography of the brain. With such training, these superbly prepared surgeons are expected by society to operate on one anesthetized patient at a time supported by a team of doctors and nurses in the best equipped operating rooms money can buy. For this we gladly pay them handsomely.
        How are teachers educated? They receive a spotty four-year undergraduate education with little clinical training. At best, an additional year for a Master’s degree is also required for professional certification. Teachers are expected by society to then enter their “operating rooms” containing 22-32 quite conscious “patients”, individually and collectively active. Often the room is poorly equipped, and rarely is help available as teachers also attempt to work wonders with the brain/mind, the psychological and emotional attributes of which are arguably as complex to master as anything a brain surgeon must learn. For this we gladly pay teachers little.
Conditions for professional service matter. Contemplate the results if our highly educated and trained brain surgeons were expected to work in the M.A.S.H. tent conditions equivalent to so many classrooms. In such an environment we would predictably see a much higher rate of failure. 

        Or, consider if the roles were reversed-that brain surgeons were educated and rewarded as if teachers. It is virtually impossible to contemplate because it is hard to conceive of any of us willing to be operated on by someone with so little education or clinical training in a profession held in so much public disdain.
        We take for granted that the current professional education, training, rewards, and working conditions for brain surgeons are necessary and appropriate for the complexity and value of the work performed. Not so obvious is that teaching well in one elementary classroom or five or six secondary school classes each day is as difficult, complex, and as important a task as brain surgery. But to do it well, to be truly a profession, teachers require exponentially more education, training, better working conditions and rewards than are currently provided. Unless and until we acknowledge this reality we will not solve the teacher shortage crisis and school reform will inexorably fail.
        To guarantee excellent teachers, effective school reform, and ultimately high student achievement, we first need to understand that teaching is at least as complex and as difficult as brain surgery and requires significantly greater education, training, monetary reward and supportive operating conditions. …
        Transforming the education and training conditions is only one-half the solution. The “operating” conditions in schools to enable professional teaching practice must be radically altered. Elementary and secondary teachers today find themselves isolated in their classrooms. Teaching has become professionally stultifying. With the additional school burdens of violence, drugs, multiple languages, bureaucratic impositions, mainstreaming, and the obvious personal needs of so many students across all social and economic strata, is it really surprising to find that so few are willing to enter or remain in this calling? The best trained teachers will fail unless we provide a school setting that enables students and teachers to be successful.”


A Teacher Speaks Out

Dear Friends and other readers,

How do classroom teachers feel about standardized, machine-scored testing?   Below is a letter from a young classroom teacher whose identity I am not revealing.  This teacher, who has been teaching more than 6 years, fears retribution, apparently with good reason. The letter arrived last week.

Hi Mr. Merrow,

We’ve corresponded before.  I’ve been teaching in (WITHHELD) public schools for the past (WITHHELD) years.  I’m an ESL teacher but am also certified in Remedial Reading.  I want to tell you about administering of the (STATE NAME WITHHELD) test to 3-5 grade ESL students last April.  This event was the thing that broke the camel’s back for me when it came to deciding whether or not I could continue with a career in public school education.

As I’m still teaching in (WITHHELD), I chose to email you rather than respond on your blog. They told us they can monitor our social media use and ‘discipline’ us based on that, so…

For three solid weeks I had to administer a computer-based test that was not only too difficult for my students to navigate (computer issues, not having adequate keyboarding skills, English language deficits, etc.) but had specific lessons to be taught prior to the exam, lessons that were bizarre at best.  As any good teacher would tell you, you don’t teach a lesson and test on it immediately, yet the (WITHHELD) exam seems to think it’s perfectly fine.  Hmmm.  My third grade students were instructed to cite three sources in their answers, yet this is not a skill that they are taught in the third grade.  The layout/format of the test was such that most students simply answered the questions, and didn’t read the passages.

As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best.  I can’t help you in any way.  Do your best.”  We could touch the computer only to log on a student.  Some computers crashed up to 11 times each test session.

The most heartbreaking part, the one that tipped me over, was having to test a third grade student who had only been in the country a few weeks and was suffering trauma due to family issues. She had to be tested on the math part.  She spoke no English.  She was faced with a math test of mostly word problems. She looked at us pleading for help, but all we could say was, “Do your best…”

We used Google Translation to try to tell her that it was OK, she could just guess, just finish the job, etc. but she really didn’t understand.  This child had to take THREE Math sections.  She understood nothing.  When she finished each day (it sometimes took hours), I had to return her to her regular classroom with both of us in  tears. After I told her classroom teacher what had happened, the teacher would be in tears, too!

What did this measure?  What did this tell us about our teaching?  What did this do to help the student?  NOTHING. If she was reluctant to come to school before the test, now she was MORE reluctant.

All states give a ‘pass’ to ESL students who have been in the country less than a year, but ONLY on the English Language Arts part.  You could literally arrive in the country on Monday, and if the Math test is administered on Tuesday, you must take it.  But today’s math tests include “explain your answer.” Or they are word problems.  Or they test on math aspects that the student may not have been taught yet in his or her country.

The party line we get is “Math is universal…”  Rote calculations, yes, but word problems, and introduction of geometry and algebra concepts in third grade are not universal.

I love teaching my students, but I feel, as do many of my ESL colleagues, that our voices are irrelevant.  And when we complain that the tests are not measuring anything or that they test skills that have not been taught, we are told (or at least the message is implied) that we are ‘negative,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘old-school,’ et cetera.

Thanks for letting me vent.  I know that there are MANY ESL teachers who are feeling the same way.

Do you have any advice for this young professional?  Stick it out, or find a new line of work?

How many other teachers feel as this one does?  Can our system afford to drive away teachers like this (GENDER WITHHELD)?

Three weeks of testing, sometimes for three or more hours a day?  Have we lost our minds?

The current ‘moratorium’ is the ideal time for state-wide conversations about testing and assessment.  I hope many of you are asking your school boards and superintendents to fill out that form I provided last week.

For your convenience, here it is again:

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

Of these tests,  _____ were selected by the district, and  _____ are required by the state.

A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take  _____ standardized tests during his or her time in school. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. {{1}}

Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach?  How useful is this information?  Should we test only a carefully drawn sample {{2}} of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?

Right now we test all students in only  _____ subjects.  However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.  Is this advisable?

There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.)  This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget. {{3}}  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.

Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.

Last year we investigated  _____ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests,  _____ by students and  _____ by teachers and other administrators.


[[1]]1. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.”  She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.”[[1]]

[[2]]2. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently,[[2]]

[[3]]3. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.[[3]]

Something’s Coming (Something Good)

“Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost….”
When I adapted Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” earlier this year, I was aware of the growing resentment among parents, teachers and students toward machine-scored tests and test-prep. However, I had no idea that it would–pardon the pun–bubble to the top with such energy.

That said, some of what looks like support for reduced testing may turn out to be something quite different.  What people say is not as important as what they do!

A lot has been happening.  In late August the Lee County (FL) School Board voted, 3-2, to opt out of the state’s testing program, in what one Board member called ‘an act of civil disobedience.’  For six days Lee County, the 37th largest school district in the US with 85, 000 students, was the epicenter of the ‘too much testing’ movement, but on August 27th the Board reversed itself, again by a 3-2 vote.  The School Superintendent had expressed grave concern about the possible penalties, financial and otherwise, that Florida might impose if Lee County boycotted the state tests, and that apparently was enough to push one Board member, Mary Fisher, to change her vote.

For a list of what Florida could do to penalize boycotting districts, click here.

Robert Schaeffer, the Public Education Director of the anti-testing organization FairTest, has lived in Lee County for 15 years. By email I asked Bob what had just happened there. After acknowledging that he has been collaborating with the protestors, he added{{1}}:

“As expected, given the announcement that one member had reversed her position in the face of a massive, disinformation campaign by the Superintendent, the Lee County School Board just voted 3-2 to override its previous decision. However, four of the five board members spoke out against “test misuse and overuse” as well as “the punitive use of standardized exams.”  The two Board members who opposed the original motion (allegedly due to the lack of an implementation plan) pledged to take their concerns to a meeting of the Florida School Boards Association, which is holding a statewide conference beginning tonight, and one threatened a lawsuit against unfunded state testing mandates.
“After the vote, several Board members said that there would be a public workshop next week to discuss how to move forward to reduce testing overkill, and two members pledged that they would make implementation motions at the Tuesday night, September 9 regular Board meeting.The hundreds of parents, teachers, students and taxpayers who packed the room viewed the decision as a temporary tactical setback, not a long-term defeat, for the assessment reform movement.”

The Palm Beach County Schools are reported to be flirting with a possible boycott.

If something like this can happen in Florida, an epicenter of what is called ‘test-based accountability,’ then the rest of the country ought to be paying attention.

It’s not just Florida, of course.  This spring as many as 80% of students in some New York City public schools were opted out of standardized testing by their parents.

The Superintendent of Schools in Colorado Springs, Colorado, says he wants to test randomized samples of students to gather data about school effectiveness, which would reduce the number of bubble tests that all students now have to take.

More than half of the school boards in Texas supported a resolution calling upon the State Board of Education to reduce the number and significance of bubble tests.  That was two years ago, and the Texas Legislature got the message. It passed a bill drastically reducing the number of standardized tests required for graduation, and Governor Rick Perry signed the bill into law in June 2013.

The rebellion may be spreading to New Mexico, where concern about computerized testing is growing.

In Vermont the State Board of Education has called upon the United States Congress to get its act together and do something about No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007 but remains the law of the land as long as Congress fails to act.  “The motivating force behind the statement is that there is too much testing,” State Board member William Mathis told the Rutland Herald. “Teachers are complaining about it. Parents are complaining about it. We’re just running from one test to the next. It’s tedious, and it’s not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

But it would be a mistake to assume that every expression of concern is genuine.  In Rhode Island, where students have been protesting over-testing, State Superintendent Deborah Gist{{2}} seems to be taking a stand on the issue.  According to the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg, Gist and Katherine E. Sipala, president of the Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association, have created what they call “The Assessment Project” to study the issue.

Their letter to local superintendents reads, in part:
“Over the past year or more, many of us have heard from some students, teachers, and parents who expressed their concerns about over-testing in our schools. We share their concerns, and we want to take action on this matter. None of us wants to test students too much, and each of us can consider ways to streamline the assessment process, to eliminate assessments that do not advance teaching and learning, and to ensure that we use assessments to help us make good decisions about instruction. If assessments do not give us information that informs instruction, we should not administer those assessments.”

To this observer, Gist and Sipala’s message is hardly newsworthy. Rather than a call to action, it’s seems to be a politically safe call for ‘more study.’

I have noticed that those who are upset about testing are being careful to avoid coming across as ‘anti-testing.’ Instead, they say that they are protesting ‘over-testing’ or ‘too much testing,’ which is a far cry from being opposed to all testing.  Language matters, and if their voices are to be heard, they have to fight the ‘anti-testing’ label that some supporters of the status quo will try to stick on them.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk provided this thoughtful overview recently, pointing out how No Child Left Behind still hangs over every state and school district that has not been granted a waiver by the Secretary of Education.

In late August Secretary of Education Arne Duncan weighed in with his own call for a 1-year moratorium (which the NEA called ‘common sense’).

It’s possible that Mr. Gates and Secretary Duncan were motivated by their desire to save the Common Core National Standards, which are under increasing attack from both the right and the left. Perhaps they are now wishing they had taken the time to disentangle the Common Core and the laudable idea of higher standards from the accountability mess and its roots in ‘the business model of education’ that both support.{{3}}

As the lyricist Stephen Sondheim wrote in “Something’s Coming,”
Something’s coming, something good
If I can wait
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is
But it is gonna be great{{4}}.

Will the “something” that’s coming to the world of bubble testing be good?  Is what lies ahead “gonna be great,” or will there be lots of words but little action?  Who knows?  That’s not up to reporters; that’s in the hands of parents and concerned citizens, educators and activists—and the politicians who listen to them.

By the way, you may read the rest of ‘Mending School” here.

If you would like to own your own copy of the fully annotated, four-color, 24″ x 36″ wall poster, simply click here or send your tax-deductible contribution to Learning Matters, 127 West 26th Street, Suite 1200, NY NY 10001.

Oh, I sent the “Mending School” poster to Secretary Duncan, gratis, and I am sending one to Deborah Gist in Rhode Island.

[[1]]1. He sent virtually the same message to Diane Ravitch. [[1]]
[[2]]2. Full disclosure regarding my own relationship with Deborah Gist. She was State Superintendent when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor, and it was her office that detected the unusual patterns of ‘wrong to right’ erasures that strongly suggested cheating. Instead of taking direct action, Gist exchanged memoranda with Rhee for months, during which time Gist applied for and got the Rhode Island job. Because I believed then–and still believe–that the public ought to know Gist’s version of those machinations, I begged her to speak to me on the record. She refused. When Rhee’s organization, StudentsFirst, rated state education programs, Rhode Island received the top score, which some interpreted as Rhee’s way of thanking Gist for her silence. [[2]]
[[3]]3.It’s also possible that Secretary Duncan’s friends and handlers in the White House have realized they need the votes of teachers in the midterm elections, just two months away.[[3]]
[[4]]4.As most of you no doubt know, “Something’s Coming” is a love song of joyous anticipation from “West Side Story.” More here.[[4]]

Who Benefits From Teacher Turnover?

Because complex stories invariably involve both winners and losers, journalists are schooled to ask ‘“Who benefits?” when doing their reporting.  Even in the worst of situations, some people and organizations seem to end up benefiting. For example, in a city with badly maintained roads, more cars are damaged and auto repair shops make more money; in a town with inadequate or unsafe drinking water, those who sell bottled water profit. And when reporters dig deeper, they often find that the beneficiaries are the major obstacles to remedying unfair situations.

However, I cannot recall anyone asking that all-important question about the exceptionally high rate of turnover–some call it churn’–in our teaching force.

So let’s ask it now: Who benefits from teacher turnover?

Precise “churn” numbers are hard to come by, but somewhere between 30% and 50% of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. Turnover is not evenly or randomly distributed: teachers in low-income neighborhoods leave in much larger numbers. I’ve been in schools with annual turnover rates of 25-35% every year.

Turnover is not inherently bad, of course.  When older teachers ‘age out’ of the profession, they retire and are replaced. Alternate-certification programs like Teach for America operate from the premise that most of its ‘graduates’ will not make a career out of teaching, adding to the churn.  Some new teachers turn out to be pretty bad and are let go, and others discover that teaching is a lot harder than they expected and look for greener pastures.

The churn, which seems to be increasing, has had a profound impact on our teaching force. As recently as 1987, schools were hiring only about 65,000 new teachers a year.  By 2008, the last year I found data for, schools were hiring 200,000 new teachers.  As a consequence of the churn, one-quarter of our teachers have less than five years of experience, and that’s a huge change: In 1987 the modal ‘years of experience’ was 15—we had more teachers with 15 years of teaching experience than any other.  Today the modal teacher is a rookie in her first year on the job. {{1}}

So, who benefits when schools have to find replacements for so many teachers every year?

The obvious answer would seem to be school boards (and taxpayers), because green teachers are cheaper than white-haired veterans.  Payments into retirement plans are lower, because those dollars are a function of salaries, and new teachers earn less. {{2}}

But I nominate schools and colleges of education as the primary beneficiaries of churn.  After all, someone has to train the replacements.  Consider one state, Illinois: In 2012, its institutions of higher education graduated over 43,000 education majors, presumably the majority of them trained to be teachers.{{3}}   Illinois K-12 schools employ about 145,000 teachers. If 20% leave in a given year, that creates 29,000 vacancies–I.E., jobs for 29,000 replacements.

If 10% opt out, the schools need 14,500 trained replacements.

But if only 5% of Illinois’ teachers left every year, there would be just 7,250 job openings for the state’s 43,000 graduates who majored in education.

So is in the interest of Illinois higher education and its teacher-training institutions to help make teaching a job that more people want to keep?  Or do they benefit from the churn?

As the lawyers say, asked and answered.

I don’t mean to pick on Illinois.{{4}}  Every institution in America that prepares teachers is on the horns of a dilemma.  They want classroom teaching to be seen as an attractive career option so undergraduates will choose to major in education instead of, say, sociology or nursing. But, on the other hand, they benefit when teaching jobs are plentiful, and so the exodus of teachers from the classroom works to their advantage.

So, who benefits from our wasteful churning system? Who benefits when teaching turns out to be an unsatisfying profession for so many?

If I am right about schools of education and school boards being the beneficiaries of churn, then it follows that neither of them can be entrusted with the responsibility for making teaching a genuine profession.  In fact, it may turn out that schools of education and school boards have been and will be obstacles to genuine change.

Instead, we may have to ask those who lose from constant churn to provide the leadership.

Who are the losers, and what can they do to make teaching an appealing job?  I have a few ideas about this, but I’d like to hear your thoughts first.


[[1]]1. If you haven’t read ‘The American Public School Teacher: Past, Present & Future,’ I hope you will. (Harvard Education Press, 2011)  Lots of valuable essays, edited by Darrel Drury and Justin Baer. Full disclosure: I blurbed it.[[1]]

[[2]]2. If school boards help new teachers succeed by mentoring them as they learn classroom management and other tricks of the trade, then churn is not a way to save money.  However, my experience has been that many, perhaps most, school systems are content to let new teachers ‘sink or swim’ on their own.[[2]]

[[3]]3. The largest producer of teachers, Illinois State University, has more than 5000 would-be teachers enrolled, and its website reports that one of four new teachers hired in Illinois between 2008-2011 was an ISU graduate.[[3]]

[[4]]4. Catalyst Magazine reports that enrollment in pre-teaching programs is dropping in Illinois, which suggests that more young people are aware of what many call ‘the war on teachers’ that’s been going on for the past 10 years or so.  “After years of holding steady, enrollment fell significantly in 2011 and 2012—by 23 percent overall,” it reports.[[4]]

Mistreating Teachers and Students in the Name of Higher Test Scores

A few days ago I received a letter from an experienced teacher in an eastern state that recalled Yogi Berra’s observation, “Deja vu all over again.” Her story brought to mind the treatment that caused my older daughter, a talented teacher, to leave the profession, and it makes me grieve for students, teachers and the institution of public education.

Below is an excerpt from her letter, followed by my daughter’s story.

Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.

OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.

Reading this letter, I immediately thought of my older daughter’s experience teaching Italian in a middle school in Spanish Harlem here in New York City about ten years ago. She had been hired because she’s fluent in Italian and the school wanted the kids to learn a second language (most kids spoke limited English and Spanglish, but not Spanish). She had energized her 8th graders by challenging them: If they learned Italian to a certain (high) level, she would treat them to a meal in a real Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, an establishment with cloth napkins and real silverware, where they would order their meals in Italian! Most of her kids had never ventured outside of Spanish Harlem or been to a fancy restaurant, but they rose to the challenge. In fact, they were doing so well that she had begun a fundraising campaign to raise the money to pay for the restaurant meals.

At that point—roll of drums—her principal came in and announced in front of the entire class, “OK, Ms. Merrow, that’s enough Italian for the year. The tests are coming in three weeks, and I want you to put Italian aside and spend the time prepping for the math test.”

She protested, but he overrode her, dismissed her concerns and ordered her to get to it.

She did as directed. Of course, it did not work. And while the kids didn’t learn any math (or any more Italian), they learned THREE important–if unintended–lessons: 1) Italian was irrelevant. 2) Their teacher was equally irrelevant. 3) Only the test mattered!

The real world consequence of this idiocy was that, the day after the last test, about 2/3s of her students simply stopped coming to school. It was still May, and the school year did not end in NYC until late June, but the kids had absorbed the essential lessons from that brainless administrator.

I wrote the ESL teacher asking for permission to use parts of her letter. She gave her OK and added, “the testing mania has caused people to lose their minds and their ability to see that having students sit for hours and hours of testing does NOT enhance their abilities, other than their ability to take a test. Last school year I felt like all I did was teach kids how to game the test.

There is nothing intellectual going on in schools, just taking tests to provide quantifiable data that will be used to judge teachers, schools, districts, pigeonhole students into tracks and leave us with a generation of students who no longer find school fun, but find school a boring, frustrating place to be.”

My daughter left teaching, a real loss because she was and is a gifted teacher. I hope the woman whose letter I cite above will persevere. Perhaps her union will get involved, or perhaps she will share her story with other teachers, who will then speak as one voice on behalf of their students. Sadly, it seems more likely that she will choose another profession.

This is insane.

Could Teaching Become A Team Sport?

By rights teaching ought to have become a team sport years ago, because the majority of school superintendents have been drawn from the ranks of coaches for as long as I can remember. Who better than to inculcate team values than ex-jocks turned coaches turned school leaders? But it didn’t happen under their leadership.

Shouldn’t it be a team sport now? After all, our current Secretary of Education knows about the importance of teamwork. Arne Duncan was co-captain of Harvard’s basketball team and later a pro player in Australia. He’s still pretty darn good at the game, as he showed during NBA All Star Weekend. Hasn’t happened–we’re even more focused on judging individual teachers according to their students’ test scores, the antithesis of team competition.

Lots of people are now talking–often with passion and intensity–about teaching as a “team sport,” but wishing won’t make it so. As the old English saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Those who would like teaching to be recognized as a team effort have some work to do.

Teaching has been a solo job from its earliest days. Most of our first public schools were one-room schoolhouses, with, of course, just one teacher. When systems developed, they were what Deborah Ball of Michigan calls ‘cellular structures,’ set up so that any individual teacher could leave and be replaced without disrupting the whole system. Systems were, she said, designed for high turnover.

At the same time, the view took hold that teaching was essentially ‘learned on the job,’ not in colleges of education that passed along codified professional knowledge of the art and skill of teaching. Even today, according to Dr. Ball, most classroom teachers will say that their professional education wasn’t worth much. Their disrespect for their own training feeds the public view that teaching is not a serious profession like medicine, law or nursing.

(Or, to go back to my sports analogy, teaching in the United States is not only not a team sport; it’s also the minor leagues. That can and must change–more about that in a minute.)

I attended Dr. Ball’s informative presentation at “Teaching and Learning 2014” in Washington on Friday. This 2-day conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is the direct descendant of the “Celebration of Teaching and Learning” sponsored by WNET when Ron Thorpe was Channel 13’s Director of Education. When he took over NBPTS, he brought the concept to Washington, but he has redesigned it to make it less of a celebration and more of an intellectually stimulating exercise. As a reporter, I had intended to jump from session to session but got hooked by Dr. Ball’s presentation.

The conference {{1}}, which attracted many National Board Certified Teachers{{2}} and about 3,000 attendees in all, was a veritable cornucopia of riches, with at least half a dozen sessions going on simultaneously most of the time.

There were also several plenary sessions, two of which I attended. The session with Bill Gates was disappointing. He delivered a pedestrian speech about the Common Core State Standards that seemed to have come off a shelf at the Gates Foundation. His audience included our country’s most qualified and dedicated teachers, but he did not reach out to them. After his talk, he was joined on stage by celebrity interviewer George Stephanopolous of ABC for a Q&A session that was even less impressive. Although Mr. Stephanopolous had access to questions submitted by the audience of teachers, he asked instead about ‘flipped classrooms’ and his own children’s use of mobile devices. That meant that Mr. Gates was not pressed about his Foundation’s role in developing the CCSS or Race to the Top (when the Foundation gave states substantial assistance in preparing their applications), the wisdom of using test scores to evaluate teachers, or any other issues on the minds of teachers.

Arne Duncan’s plenary session was a revelation. The Secretary’s speech was aimed at his audience. He acknowledged their suspicions and concerns and said that he strongly supported teacher leadership as an important vehicle going forward. “Our aim is to encourage schools, districts, and even states all across the country to provide more opportunities for authentic, genuine teacher leadership that doesn’t require them to leave their daily role in classrooms,” Duncan said. “We’ll convene a group of teachers, principals, teachers’ groups, and district leaders. They will take the steps necessary not to create some white paper that will decorate shelves, but to create real commitments around new opportunities.” Immediately after his speech, he submitted to questioning by five classroom teachers, a lively back-and-forth that must have pleased many in the audience.

One day before the conference, Mr. Thorpe arranged for several dozen Board-certified teachers to meet with 16 of the medical doctors now serving in Congress, all of them Board-certified physicians. From all reports, the session was an eye-opener for doctors and teachers alike. The doctors were shocked to learn that not even 4% of America’s teachers have earned Board certification, because at least 85% of doctors are Board-certified. Teachers were reminded of how far their profession has to travel.

Can teaching become a team sport, and a major league one at that? “Teaching & Learning 2014” might point the way to big-league status. Mr. Thorpe has created a ‘big tent’ with room for Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, both teacher union presidents, and critics of test-based accountability like Pasi Sahlberg. Not under the tent this year were Diane Ravitch or Wendy Kopp, perhaps because their very different messages are seen as overly familiar and/or not helpful to raising the profession’s status.

Raising the bar for teachers–particularly for entry into the profession–is an essential step. But, as Dr. Ball noted, tougher admission standards admission for schools of education won’t be enough. What happens next matters more. The training must be challenging, stimulating and useful, she said, a message that Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has also been preaching. Graduates of schools of education must believe that their professional training was valuable preparation for the actual work of teaching.

More skilled teachers must apply for Board-certification and the rigorous process that earning that status entails. States and districts must reward Board-certified teachers.

We also need to address the myth of the ‘born teacher,’ the ‘natural teacher.’ That myth contradicts the meaning of professionalism. While some personalities are better suited to classrooms (and some clearly don’t belong with children), most intelligent and hard-working individuals can learn the skills required to be an effective teacher. {{3}}

Don’t forget that a team sport requires teamwork–teammates having each other’s back. In teaching that means sharing ideas and curriculum; it means having the time to watch each other teach; it means setting aside time for the educational equivalent of medicine’s ‘grand rounds,’ a time when teachers who teach the same students share their observations about those kids.

These steps could bring teaching into the major leagues of professions.

At the same time, we need to explore the meaning of ‘team sport.’ To be precise, how does one keep score? By what measures do we determine who wins? What do we mean by ‘winning’? Winning is easy to figure out in basketball–the team with more points wins the game, and that appealing simplicity may explain why education relies on test scores, which are, after all, points. But the team sport of teaching has to be scored more like ice dancing, or dressage in horseback riding–it’s complex, partially systematic but also partially subjective.

That’s because the object of the team sport of teaching is not higher test scores. The goal is to help grow adults. And all three words matter. “Help” conveys the key concept of a team sport (parents are part of the team, of course). “Grow” indicates that teaching is a process that will inevitably involve setbacks, one that cannot be captured by a single snapshot. “Adults” is the outcome, not a test score, and that means that society has to have serious conversations about what we want our young people to be, and be able to do.

For teaching to become a team sport, we must reverse course and take a stand against test-based accountability, which is antithetical to teamwork. Of course, teachers must be held accountable, but that complex evaluation system must be developed by teachers, administrators and the general public. Could that be the ‘teacher leadership’ that the Secretary of Education says he supports?

Time to find out…..

[[1]]1. Teaching and Learning 2014 is a welcome addition to education meetings, despite being held in Washington’s disastrous Convention Center, a cavernous space with poor signage where every hallway and corridor look nearly identical.[[1]]
[[2]]2. According to the organization, “There are now more than 100,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) advancing student learning and achievement in all 50 states. These NBCTs have been certified in at least one of the 25 certificate areas, which span 16 content areas and four student developmental levels. Even though NBCTs are only a small percentage of the nation’s teachers, they represent the largest group of accomplished teachers as recognized by the profession. NBCTs have had a disproportionate impact on improving education. Nationwide, nearly 50 percent of NBCTs work in high-poverty schools. They are also among the nation’s leaders in math and science. Since 2008, more than 30 percent of all winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are NBCTs. NBCTs are already informing educational policies and practices at the local, state and national levels with their expertise and experience.”[[2]]
[[3]]3. Elizabeth Green addresses this in her forthcoming book, “Building a Better Teacher,” coming out this spring from Norton; I’ve just started reading an advance copy and had trouble putting it down to finish this blog post.[[3]]

Hypocrisy and the Washington Post

Is there any limit to the hypocrisy of the Washington Post’s Editorial Page?  What brings this to mind is the Post’s recent editorial attacking the District of Columbia’s Inspector General, Charles Willoughby, whose work the same editorial writers had praised a year earlier.

What changed? How, in just ten months, did Mr. Willoughby go from being a trustworthy source to an inept hack in the eyes of the Post?  The answer is painfully obvious: Back then, the Post was defending Michelle Rhee, which it has shown time and again that it will do at all costs and in the face of clearly contradictory evidence.

This is what the Post wrote in April 2013: “Several investigations have been conducted into student testing by the public school system. All – including inquiries by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Education Department’s inspector general with the participation of the U.S. attorney  – concluded that no widespread cheating occurred.” (emphasis added)

As the Post knew (and as we had reported in detail on Frontline), the Inspector General conducted a slipshod inquiry that doesn’t really deserve to be called an ‘investigation.’ Despite evidence of widespread ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures in over half of DC’s public schools, Mr. Willoughby spent 17 months–more than 500 days– ‘investigating’ one school.  In that time he interviewed just 34 people!  However, the Post’s editorial writers chose to overlook his inept work–a performance that would unquestionably have gotten a Post reporter sacked. It chose instead to cite Mr. Willoughby’s work as evidence that no cheating occurred.

Now, however, the Post is “shocked, shocked” to discover that the same Mr. Willoughby has done sloppy investigative work.  A February 16th Post editorial about questionable ethical behavior by some DC officials charges that Mr. Willoughby ‘glossed over’ the matter and has ‘shown an inability to grapple with these issues in a serious way.’  (emphases added)

The Post editorial further criticizes Mr. Willoughby for producing a 3-page report, in contrast with the 27-page report written by ethics officials who have fewer resources but “have demonstrated a vigor and muscle that is strangely lacking in the work of the inspector general.”  Those words could easily have been written about his work regarding the erasures, of course.

At one point last year I analyzed the editorial coverage of cheating scandals in two major US newspapers, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  It’s a sad story because the Post was once one of America’s great newspapers. While the Atlanta editorial page vigorously pursued the truth despite the embarrassment to the city, the Washington Post has never wavered from its initial 100% commitment to Michelle Rhee’s approach to ‘fixing’ the schools.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “When “Michelle Rhee’s Reign of Error” revealed the existence of Dr. Sanford’s secret memo, with its clear implications that Chancellor Rhee’s own school principals might have done the erasing, the Post called it ‘old news,’ echoing Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson. ”

The slavish devotion of the Post’s Editorial Page to the false narrative that Michelle Rhee transformed DC schools must embarrass the reporters at the Post.  And to its credit, Washington Post journalists continue to produce outstanding reportage.  Witness its receiving THREE of one of journalism’s most treasured prizes, the George Polk Award, this year, as just one example.

And just this morning it was announced that Post reporters took home two awards from ASNE.

The Post’s editorial closes by asking for Mr. Willoughby’s head: “Mr. Willoughby’s term expires in May; we hope the mayor and council take that opportunity to give the office a good hard look and give the public the watchdog it needs.”

I was brought up to believe that a newspaper’s editorial page is also supposed to “give the public the watchdog it needs.” I am truly sorry the Washington Post isn’t fulfilling that role where the city’s public schools are concerned.

A Professional At Work

First I want to tell you about a terrific teacher–and then invite you to watch her at work. When I met Maria Eby, she was wearing a fluorescent green wig and was dressed all in green. As she passed me, I smiled and said something like “You’re either early for Halloween or late for St. Patrick’s Day.” She smiled and said something that I didn’t catch, but it didn’t matter. After all, we were filming in an arts-oriented elementary school, so it was perfectly logical that an arts teacher would appear in a weird costume.

As it happened, the film crew, producer Cat McGrath and I walked into Mrs. Eby’s class shortly afterwards, just as she was telling the first-graders that it was time to hear the story of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the Beanstalk. The light bulb went on in my head: She was the Beanstalk!

As you will see in the video, once she got into that role, she inhabited it. Not only did she explore the characters and elements of the story from the Beanstalk’s perspective, she also, as a representative of all plants, demanded to know from the kids what plants contribute to the world. The first graders knew the answers: oxygen, food and shade. Before long she invited students to join in the drama by playing other parts: the ogre, Jack and so forth, and they got into and stayed in their roles.

At one point I whispered to Cat that this woman was a terrific arts teacher. “No,” Cat whispered back, “She’s a regular first grade teacher.” Oh, wow…..

I asked Mrs. Eby to tell me how she came up with this approach. Here’s her response: “You look at your objectives for the upcoming week and you say, OK, I need to cover this, this this and this. (you ask yourself) what is the best way I can do this? What’s going to be engaging? What integrates more than one of the things at a time?”

Me: So you sat home and thought and thought, ‘I’m going to figure out a way to teach science, higher level thinking, literacy.’ Did you just dream this thing up?
Maria Eby: You kind of start at the end. You start off with what you want to accomplish and then you decide what is the best way to accomplish that, and which part of the arts can I bring into this to meet the needs of the goals and the objectives of my kids.

In other words, no one told Mrs. Eby how to get across the concepts of photosynthesis and role-playing and empathy. She’s trusted to be a the professional that she is. What a concept!

The teachers in her school, the Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina, work together on curriculum, doing their best to integrate the arts into all aspects of learning. (You will see more of the school on the NewsHour soon.)

My favorite moment in the entire class was when one student said she did not want to take a role in the play because….well, you really have to see that play out, especially Mrs. Eby’s response.

Please watch this edited version of her class below (or click here.)

Maria Eby, 1st Grade Teacher, Charles R. Bugg Creative Arts and Science A+ Magnet Elementary
For 20 years Maria Eby worked in Michigan as a graphic arts designer in a company she ran with her husband. Feeling a need for a change after her 2 boys started school, she became a teacher’s assistant and eventually earned a teaching certification through Saginaw Valley State University. In 2008, when Michigan’s economy crashed, she looked for jobs in other, warmer, states. Because North Carolina and Michigan have reciprocal licenses and Wake County was recruiting, she found it an easy transition to move her family to Raleigh. Mrs. Eby took her first teaching position in her early 40s and over the past 6 years has had the opportunity to teach 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. A self proclaimed “life-long learner” Mrs. Eby is currently in the process of obtaining her Masters degree in arts integration at Lesley University. This year, in addition to Jack and the Beanstalk, Mrs. Eby has integrated Theatre Arts into teaching her 1st grade class The Three Little Pigs and the The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff. Although she enjoyed dressing up as a pig and a troll, she says the beanstalk has been her favorite role because it is a unique perspective to think about how the beanstalk might have felt.

Education Predictions for 2012

What can we expect in the world of public education in 2012? (For a good review of what happened in 2011, check out this link.) I’ll start by considering three nagging questions.

1. Will this be the year that some school districts say ‘No mas!” to No Child Left Behind’s harsh rules?

2. Will we have that long-awaited national conversation about the goals of public education?

3. And will political leaders rise up against the excesses of for-profit education, so effectively documented in the New York Times (December 13, 2011), where we learned that the school superintendent of one for-profit charter chain that enrolls 94,000 students is paid $5,000,000 a year? (By contrast, Dennis Walcott, who is responsible for over one million New York City public school students, earns $213,000 a year.)

Sadly, I fear that the answer to those three questions is NO, NO and NO. Professional educators — who are generally reactors, not actors — will be busy trying to keep up with the latest new new thing (this year it’s the Common Core). I don’t expect rebellious behavior from superintendents and school boards, no matter how much they claim to be chafing under NCLB. Expect instead a further narrowing of the curriculum, more testing, larger classes, and the continued heroic behavior of most teachers under difficult circumstances.

Because this is an election year, the politics of public education are even crazier than usual, meaning that serious debate over the federal role in education won’t occur in 2012. Republicans are running against the very existence of the federal Department of Education, not debating subtleties of achievement measures. Not only is there zero chance of a national dialogue, the probability that anything useful will happen in the re-authorization of NCLB is pretty slim, unless it happens very early this year.

And because money talks in education, the for-profit crowd seems likely to continue its creeping expansion. A few more exposés like Stephanie Saul’s wonderful New York Times piece (linked above) won’t be enough to make us care about what amounts to the selling of other people’s children.

What will happen here in 2012?

However, I can imagine four and perhaps five hopeful scenarios for 2012. In ascending order of importance (my judgement call), they are ‘Growth in Home Schooling,’ ‘Shutting Down Failing Charter Schools,’ ‘Board/Union Cooperation,’ ‘Whole School Evaluation,’ and ‘Blended Learning.’

I think it’s safe to predict more Home Schooling, fueled by a stagnant economy, policies that allow home-school students to participate in some school activities, and parental dissatisfaction with public education’s relentless focus on math and reading. Parents want more for their kids, and, if one parent can’t find a paying job outside the home, why not teach your own?

A larger number of failing charter schools will be closed in 2012. It’s happening now in California, New Orleans and Washington, DC. While the stated reason is often financial, as Andy Rotherham wryly notes, that’s how they got Al Capone. What that means: it’s easier to prove financial mismanagement than educational malpractice, but they often go hand in hand. If the non-profit public charter movement gets its act together and both raises and adheres to high standards, there’s no stopping this movement in 2012.

Board/Union Cooperation is not some dream scenario. It’s happening because the Race to the Top competition got the two sides talking, because the Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department are putting dollars behind it, and because quite a few leaders on both sides of the table are reading the tea leaves. Union leaders are well aware of the threat posed by charter schools, which do not have to unionize. Whether there’s pressure on school boards to stop their meddling is an open question, but there’s a trend toward decentralization that could grow. It’s not just Hillsborough, Florida, folks. This could be big in 2012. Maybe we will see shorter contracts that leave more decisions in the hands of the people in the school, instead of dictates from on high.

Whole School Evaluation is a sleeper for 2012 because all the public attention has been directed toward measuring the effectiveness of individual teachers (often so the ineffective ones can be removed). But quietly and behind the scenes, a few leaders have recognized that evaluating every teacher individually would entail testing every subject in every grade — and that’s both illogical and insane!

Concrete plans are being developed and implemented that use multiple measures to draw conclusions about how much or how little the entire school is progressing. And when a school rises, everyone involved — including office staff, custodians, attendance officers and the like — stand to benefit. Washington, DC, which has been in the spotlight (and sometimes the cross hairs) for its controversial “Impact” system, uses what seems like a sensible Whole School Evaluation approach. Esther Wojcicki and I wrote an op-ed, “Trust but Verify”, on this subject a few months ago, if you’d like to know more about how it could work.

But my personal pick in 2012 is Blended Learning, an idea whose time has certainly come. Sal Khan and the Khan Academy are the most visible (and most successful) manifestation, but I hear that forward-thinking educators in many districts are recognizing that, while kids are going to be in schools, there is no reason they cannot be connected with students across the district, the state, the nation and the world. What’s more, the traditional ‘stop signs’ of 8th grade, 9th grade, 10th grade and so forth are now meaningless. If a child can use technology to help her move through three years of math in one, she should be encouraged to dig deep and move at her own pace. And when a child needs a year-and-a-half to get through Algebra, that’s fine too.

There are plenty of hurdles to the widespread acceptance of Blended Learning, chief among them being habit and tradition. Teachers are going to need help with this, because they haven’t been trained or encouraged to ‘let go’ of control, and, frankly, Blended Learning can make life difficult for the adults in charge. After all, it requires close personal attention to individual kids, instead of the usual practice of grouping kids by their age. In this approach, learning is a two-way street that demands exploration and always entails failure. No doubt some are going to try to co-opt Blended Learning either to make money from it or to cut the labor force (teachers), but, all that aside, Blended Learning is my bet for education’s big winner in 2012.

So, there you have my predictions/hopes for 2012. What are yours?

My ‘brilliant’ idea

If you live in or around NYC, John will be appearing in conversation with Randi Weingarten — the topic is “Unions and the Future Of Our Schools” — on Wednesday, December 14. Click here for tickets and info.

Talk it up on Facebook!

Some years ago, when I still believed that I was a pretty clever fellow, I dreamed up a campaign to persuade young people to stay in school. What inspired this brilliant idea was daily sightings of adults standing at intersections wearing signboards advertising one thing or another. This was, to my eye, the ultimate low-skill job because it required absolutely no mental effort and hardly any physical work. I hypothesized that the workers must have dropped out of school.

So I thought about taking photographs of the sign-wearers, blurring their faces, and then creating posters with a slogan something like “It’s your choice. Stay in School or …” with an arrow pointing to the poor guy wearing the sign.

Great message to youth, I figured, because no one could aspire to that work, and the threat of being able to get only that sort of job would be a powerful motivator.

Luckily, I did not do anything impulsive about my brilliant idea. Instead, when I replayed those images in my mind, it dawned on me that almost all of the sign-wearers were brown-skinned men and women. They might have been new arrivals to northern California and working at the one of the few jobs available. Or, a more frightening thought, they might have been dropouts from a California high school or middle school.

Can a simple camcorder be the beginnings of a new wave in education?

Sure enough, the Hispanic dropout rate turns out to be significantly higher than that of any other group. In 2010 the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, released the report “Hispanics, High School Dropouts and the GED.” It found that 41% of Hispanic adults age 20 and older in the United States do not have a regular high school diploma, compared with 23% of black adults and 14% of white adults.

Their reasons for dropping out were complex, as likely to involve school failure as economic imperatives, lack of family support or expectations, and language barriers (meaning teachers, administrators and support staff who did not speak or understand Spanish).

Suddenly my notion of a ‘stay in school’ campaign seemed to be a classic case of oversimplification and ‘blaming the victim.’

Forget my not-so-brilliant idea. What we need is not a(nother) simple-minded ‘Stay in School’ campaign aimed at the kids but a more sophisticated campaign, aimed at both youth and adults. Call it ‘Succeed in School.’ And it shouldn’t be all about how much more money you earn if you get a high school diploma, but instead about ways to succeed and ways to help others succeed. Small steps, or what B.J. Fogg of Stanford calls “Tiny Habits.” Or as another thoughtful leader, Louis V. Gerstner, is wont to say, “No more forecasting rain; it’s time to build arks.”

What small steps and tiny habits are the building blocks of success? I have written about this in The Influence of Teachers, and deeper thinkers like Larry Rosenstock, Don Shalvey, Amy Valens, and Renee Moore have turned words into deeds, so I won’t go into this more deeply here but will ask you for your suggestions. What works to make kids be — and feel — successful?

I have one suggestion, however: help them make videos where community members recite poetry or prose. I wrote about this here, and now I have an example to show you:

In my last post (linked above), I wrote about how projects like this work on several levels. They teach real-world skills like production and cooperation; they give kids the satisfaction of seeing a project through from start to finish and sharing their work with a larger audience; and they demonstrate to the 80% of households without school-age children that great things are happening in our schools.

Small steps, tiny habits.

“Success is a Team Sport” is my nomination for the bumper sticker.

Your thoughts?