Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Report Calls for More Teacher Support and Less Testing

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
If California wants to improve student academic performance, it needs to emphasize recruiting, educating and retaining teachers, according to a new report by a state task force, the Los Angeles Times reported on September 9. The task force also rejected making any links between teacher evaluations and students’ standardized test scores.

This latter finding is particularly salient in light of the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, in which the union (CTU) aggressively resisted attempts by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to require a substantial portion of teachers’ evaluations be based on such test scores. Disturbingly, just days before this study was released, the CTA (the state’s largest teachers union) and state legislators agreed on an evaluation “reform” bill that would require student performance data be used to evaluate teachers. The agreement does not exclude the use of student standardized test scores, though it does give local bargaining units the right to collectively bargain what portion of teachers’ evaluations, if any, will be based on the scores, thus opening the way for many more battles like the one in Chicago.

While the task force’s findings regarding teacher recruitment and training make a lot of sense, the state has been moving in the opposite direction through budget cuts that have forced districts to slash or freeze wages, add furloughs, increase class sizes, decrease benefits, increase workloads, and numerous other “stopgaps.” These may help close budget deficits, but they also reduce the ability to recruit and retain the best quality teachers by deteriorating their working conditions and remuneration.

The Task Force, which was created by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, was co-chaired by Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond and included researchers, academics, elected officials, district officials, labor leaders, parents, teachers and principals. Its report repeatedly emphasized that more and better support for teachers was needed throughout their careers, not only to improve their effectiveness, but to decrease attrition and improve recruiting potential. It also called for new laws that would ensure schools have “expert principals who provide support for instruction, time for collaboration and planning, collaborative leadership, reasonable class sizes, a trusting collegial environment and involvement in decision-making at the school.”

Many principals are already doing some of these things. However, the collaboration time is often taken up with unproven snake oil reforms and pet projects of district administrators that are imposed on teachers, rather than allowing teachers themselves to decide how to collaborate. Furthermore, to really be effective, teachers need more than an hour or two per month, which seems to be the norm in the districts that have built-in collaboration time.

Teachers’ Working Conditions are Students’ Learning Conditions
While all of the above factors would dramatically improve the working conditions for teachers, improve their status, and decrease their job stress, they would also vastly improve the quality of education for children. For example, the report called for smaller class sizes, noting this is in the best interests of the students. Fewer students decreases the workload for teachers by decreasing the number of assignments to read and grade, giving them more time to provide meaningful feedback on the ones they do assign. Fewer students allow teachers more time to provide one on one attention to children during class time. Smaller classes are easier to manage, allowing teachers to better monitor and intervene in the case of accidents, injuries, teasing or disruptive behavior, thus improving safety.

Despite these obvious advantages of smaller class sizes, most districts have been increasing class sizes due to budget cuts that have forced them to lay off teachers. Additionally, the task force noted that lower salary school districts had 20% larger class sizes on average than higher salary districts, again highlighting the positive correlation between teachers’ pay and working conditions and students’ learning conditions.

With respect to test scores, the task force was not simply buckling to pressure by teachers unions or the influence of the teachers on the task force. Rather, its report identified studies showing that student test data, when used to evaluate teachers, produce results that “are very unreliable and often inaccurate at the individual teacher level.” Yet when pundits, business leaders, philanthropists and politicians like Obama, Arne Duncan and Rahm Emanuel demand that evaluations include such unreliable or meaningless data, they not only demean teachers and undermine their status as professionals, thus harming districts’ ability to attract and retain the best teachers, but they force districts into the untenable position of having to layoff teachers en masse, thus harming students and districts’ very existence. In Chicago, for example, CTU president Karen Lewis has argued that the new evaluation system Emanuel wants to impose on teachers could result in 6,000 teachers, or 30% of the entire teaching staff, could lose their jobs over the next two years.

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