Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Excellence Myth & Poverty in America

Over at transformED, Dan Brown discusses the impact of poverty on over 46 million Americans.  Part of the problem is that it's hard to be poor in America.  And when poor people go to school, it's often hard for them to learn well.  And when students don't learn well, teachers get blamed.  Dan argues that the "No excuses" mantra about teachers doesn't really address the debilitating violence of poverty.

I think Dan has also picked up on the myth of excellence. It's the same ideology that produced "Waiting for Superman," as if teachers just worked hard enough, everything would change.

Although individual teacher excellence is important, we also should look at lateral relationships, or capacity, or what some call social capital. If our society can help cultivate each person's or community's social capital, then kids (and teachers) will show up at school well-rested, well-fed, feeling safe, curious and nurtured, and ready to learn.

Poverty diminishes social capital in that people have little influence over their environment/surroundings (i.e safe neighborhoods, stable networks, access to healthcare, libraries, food, etc). If you're a teacher, your social capital is diminished when policy decisions happen without you, when PD is done to you, and when your creativity and initiative are smothered by standardized testing or teacher-proof curricula.

It shouldn't be a crime to be poor in this country, but it is. And families and children (and teachers) are punished for their proximity to poverty.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Effective Teacher Evaluation: Stuck in the Middle

According to an article in EdWeek, New groups giving teachers alternative voice, "...52% of teachers now have 10 or fewer years in the profession...."  Many of these new teachers are interested in new models of compensation, teacher leadership and career choices.  Not all teachers, regardless of their experience, agree on what it means to be an effective teacher.

Some of the newer teachers are finding their voices in new teacher advocacy groups, some of which are aligned within unions (see NEWTLA in Los Angeles) or outside of the local (see Educators 4 Excellence in NYC). Some of these groups receive funding from the Gates Foundation, while others do not.  It is arguable that E4E could be characterized as neo-liberal in its call for 1) teacher evaluation to be based on student growth and 2) the elimination of seniority.  Other groups, such as Teachers Union Reform Network, seek to integrate labor, professional and social justice models of unionism.  And as a member of Teacher Leaders Network, I've seen my own positions on educational policy be characterized as either too conservative or too liberal.

Some of our own colleagues may agree with some or all of these new teacher groups' platforms.

There is no clear political designation for these emergent groups, yet I would argue that our unions could be more communicative, both horizontally among members, and vertically between members and the union officers. For example, with Philadelphia's upcoming negotiations about the teacher contract (which expires in 2012), effective communication is a concern.  Where and when do teachers get to influence the direction of contract negotiations?

The issue of "teacher evaluation" is moving towards Philly, and it would be wonderful for teachers to have more of a say in what it could look like. In order to do that, we'll all have to do a lot more research on effective teacher evaluation policy.  If we're going to influence our union to cultivate teacher voice more often, then we're going to have to have concrete ideas that we can get out in the public discourse.

I'm delighted that some site-based unions will be taking a closer look at teacher evaluation. I wonder where Philly's Teacher Action group is.

What do you think is effective teacher evaluation?  What does it look like?  How can it be designed to foster student engagement, teacher voice, and professional growth?