Saturday, October 8, 2011

Reclaiming Choice

Gary Olberman, an effective advocate for progressive democratic education, shared an article from Forbes entitled "Why I Support the Teachers Unions."  One of many lines from the article that caught my attention:

  • Once they take away job security and collective bargaining rights, what’s to stop them from taking away pay, benefits, and everything else?" 
There's also an interesting discussion about how school choice has been used to undermine public education.   I agree.

Though I'm unsure about the demonization of "choice."  I think choice has been redefined, inappropriately, by some sectors within our society,  as a method to privatise public education.  But what if we reclaimed choice as an expression of democracy?

For example, why not advocate for teacher-led public schools that offer a variety of choices in terms of curricula, instructional strategies, community partnership, etc.?  One-size curriculum for all, where all students have to be tested on the same day, doesn't give teachers or students much choice about how or what or where they learn.

At the school level, effective teachers can provide choices for individuals within any particular curriculum.  Yes, we will study "cells as building blocks,"  but what are the myriad of ways that well-supported teachers can help engaged students choose how they develop, or experience, that scientific understanding?

And we've got to give teachers choice in the schools they serve.  In the larger districts, such as Philadelphia's, teachers are assigned without any consideration of "best match" to a specific community.  Students, parents and teachers should be able to interview prospective teacher candidates and then choose those that are best aligned with that community's pedagogical approach -- all in the name of democracy.  

We've got to develop the capacity of our schools to make smart choices that maximize individual freedom while also honoring collective equality (if not equity).  And if we can't trust our teacher leaders to do this, then we have a serious problem.


  1. Gamal, you wrote:

    "In the larger districts, such as Philadelphia's, teachers are assigned without any consideration of "best match" to a specific community."

    Isn't it more accurate to say that in these places seniority rules are written to allow choice only for the most senior teachers? This is the problem of "seniority based transfers" which results in the inequitable distribution of teachers.

    Here in Vermont, with its 247 separate school districts, there are no seniority based transfers, and staffing occurs along the lines you advocate. National policies that weaken seniority protections threaten teachers in Vermont without solving any problem that we actually have.

    Our teaching force tends to be stable and based in the community. Under the circumstances, traditional contract arrangements serve tolerably well.

    How can we develop policies that serve the needs of rural and urban places equally well?

  2. Excellent question Steve: "How can we develop policies that serve the needs of rural and urban places equally well?"

    I think labor agreements should allow site-based (student, teacher, family & admin) hiring, regardless of urban or rural location.

    And labor agreements should protect seniority in terms of retention. In allocation of teaching positions, the more senior of two equally-qualified teachers should retain a position. If a senior teacher (with 20 years) isn't as qualified as the junior teacher (say, 5 years), then why should the senior teacher keep the position? Assuming that both teachers have received superlative coaching, opportunities to enrich their craft, and consistent feedback from colleagues, then I see a fair system that protects seniority.

    As this point, the question becomes "How do we determine what constitutes a 'qualified' teacher?"

    Both the NEA and the AFT are looking to "multiple measures" of teacher evaluation. Does "multiple measures" provide enough latitude for teachers to be holistically and fairly evaluated/coached? If not, what is the locus of the decision-making -- the state DOE, the LEA, the union, or the teachers?