Mike McClellan: Education reform is the buzz lately around the country, in both government and the media. And last week, three reforms hit the news. National math and English standards were introduced, an attempt at raising the bar for what is taught in our nation's classrooms.
Education reform is the buzz lately around the country, in both government and the media. And last week, three reforms hit the news.
National math and English standards were introduced, an attempt at raising the bar for what is taught in our nation's classrooms.
I can't speak to any of the math standards, but the high school English standards are pretty much what Arizona adopted several years ago. And they're good ones, improving on Arizona's only in the language used, which eliminates the education jargon of Arizona's standards.
But having common standards is only a baby step in improving education. Having the standards and teaching those standards and teaching them effectively are three different things.
Ineffective teachers with good standards still equals bad education. Because, as we've read repeatedly, the most important variable in a kid's education is the teacher.
Which leads to a second step in reform: Teacher training.
Schools of education have been rightly criticized for emphasizing theory rather than practicality. That's been the case for at least as long as I was in college, 40 years ago.
But colleges of education are slowly evolving into more skill learning and less theory. At Arizona State University, for example, the school is connecting prospective English teachers with experienced teachers to review lessons, to discuss and review curriculum and effective teaching of that curriculum.
Good for ASU.
Equally important is what to do with teachers who are at best average and have been in the classroom a while.
A New York Times Magazine article from last week reveals one way to help those struggling teachers. A charter school operator felt that merit pay would be the key to improving teacher effectiveness. He found out that more pay didn't necessarily equal better teaching, which sent him on a journey to assess what makes effective teachers effective. And he's come up with some practices that teachers struggling with classroom management or questioning skills or simply conducting a lesson could use. The book version of that is soon to be published - "Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College," by Doug Lemov.
A third step is found on Newsweek's cover story this week: "Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers."
In Arizona, like most states, after three years of teaching in a district, a teacher basically has a lifetime job. Few teachers are fired for simple incompetence.
Even worse, as the article points out, evaluation of teachers is a haphazard process.
And so, mediocre teachers have no reason to improve and bad teachers too often escape the consequences of their incompetence. For the rest of the teachers, those incompetent ones are infuriating. They drag the kids down, and they make teaching more difficult for the good teachers. The better teachers take up the slack for those lousy ones, getting the toughest schedules.
So Newsweek suggests we need to empower administrators to do their most important job: ensure that there is effective teaching going on at their schools.
But to do that, we need to realize that the administrators' jobs aren't what they were a generation ago. Now, in addition to evaluating and managing a school budget, these administrators must also be public relations people for their schools, selling the schools and their programs in this Brave New World of competition, which means they have less time to do their most important jobs.
Still, everyone knows who the truly bad teachers are in a school. It doesn't take long to figure that out. And administrators know that, too.
So here's a suggestion for Arizona: Instead of requiring administrators to have a formal evaluation (and in some years of the evaluation process, multiple classroom visits) of all teachers, why not allow them to evaluate more selectively, to give them the chance to focus on the weaker teachers rather than having to evaluate each teacher every year?
These reforms are far from silver bullets, no panacea for what ails education. But they're steps in the right direction, steps we should encourage schools to adopt.
Mike McClellan is an English teacher at Mesa's Dobson High School.