A continuing dialog relating to school reform, inspired and enabled by blog postings. 

Earlier this month I posted a blog entry entitled “Yes we need supportive families, but we need school reform too,” which was a response to a thoughtful article written by Thom Powell in Oregon concerning school reform– posted on Ian Jukes’ weblog.

Thom emailed me directly with some additional feedback and comments, which I have included below at the end of this post.

I certainly agree with Thom that when it comes to educational reform, we need to look at practical and effective ways to help teachers who remain in our classrooms become more effective teachers. However, I disagree that we don’t have lots of people entering the teaching field each year. The Center for American Progress has some statistics on this which support my position, I think: We primarily have a teacher retention problem in the US, rather than a teacher recruitment problem. We discuss this frequently in our College of Education at Texas Tech University, where I presently work. When I have an opportunity to teach and work with preservice teachers, especially our student teachers, I emphasize this point: What we need are committed, idealistic teachers who want to make a difference over the long haul in our classrooms. Of course money is part of the problem, and part of the needed answer, but research (which I don’t have a ready link to now) has shown that administrative support (or lack of support) is also a huge factor in why teachers choose to leave the profession. In fact, as I recall, lack of administrative support is often a more decisive factor THAN money in the decision of many teachers to leave the profession.

I go back to to one of the points I made in my earlier post and response to Thom: We have got to find ways to get rid of the “dead wood” educators in our public school systems that are not motivated to become better teachers, are not interested in authentically engaging students in the learning process, and are resistant to help from administrators and others.

Thom is right, we should look at the ways administrators are effectively helping some teachers learn, grow and improve. Sadly, I think many principals are so busy dealing with non-instructional issues all day long that they have limited abilities (constrained primarily by time but also by legal requirements) to do this in our present environment. I know when I had the chance to interview top-notch Texas principals and superintendents in Spring 2003 as part of our statewide Technology Leadership Academy project, I was struck by the way many administrators ARE able to encourage their teachers to grow and learn positively– using technology as a lever for instructional change. The 7 minute video I put together (Keys to Technology Integration) contains some evidence of this, I think. Thom echoed this idea in his email as well: many administrators may tell you they are working hard to promote instructional excellence on their campus, but if you look at the amount of time they actually are able to dedicate to instructional issues on a daily basis, you will probably find it is miniscule.

Technology is not a panacea for any educational problem, but I think one to one technology immersion may offer hope as a lever of broad instructional change in public school classrooms. My doctoral research next year is going to focus on this question.

I am 100% in agreement with Thom that administrative leadership makes a HUGE difference in the lives of students and teachers: whether it is good, bad, or lukewarm. But I stand by my previous statement that we need to find ways to enable both teachers and administrators who do not belong in the classroom or the school house to be shown the door. The organization “The Common Good” has a great website on the ways our law currently hamstrings public education, including the ridiculous number of steps required to fire an inept teacher.

The principals I have interviewed this semester for my Educational Policy and the Law class have echoed the sentiment that it is very difficult, under our present educational system, for administrators to really help new teachers improve their instructional skills. The way the system (at least in Texas) is setup, unless a principal identifies a new teacher almost immediately as not having the skills to teach effectively in the classroom and starts documenting the evidence of this perception, the teacher will continue to have his/her contract renewed in the future. As soon as a new teacher (or more experienced teacher) is placed on an “improvement plan” the relationship between the administrator and the teacher becomes adversarial (if it was not already). These problems are real and deep seated, and need to be addressed better.

I will not pretend to know the answers, but I will profess a continuing desire to search for answers. The future of our children and our nation as a whole is at stake. I don’t think I am exaggerating. We need to find ways to positively improve and reform education, and high-stakes testing combined with ever increasing numbers of curriculum standards ain’t the way to do it– at least from my limited vantage point here in West Texas.

—- Thom’s email reply to my post is included below —-
date: 4/14/2005
full_name: Thom Powell
message:
Feedback to Wesley Fryer on "Redesigning Obsolete High Schools"
Wesley:
Thank you for reviewing my article. No arguments with any of your observations. If I had not already exceeded the newspaper's limit of 750 words on the opinion piece I submitted, I would have offered some thoughts on how education reform might be inexpensively enacted:

Truth be told,there is no uniformity to the educational product that we currently deliver. I do all I can to provide a quality educational program for my students, but the teacher right next door to me, who ostensibley teaches precisely the same material, offers a vastly different, and sometimes very inferior product. I offer to help them improve their delivery, but who am I to tell them what to do? I'm certainly not their boss.

So who is their supervisor and are they even paying attention? Ay, there's the rub! Show me a lousy teacher and I'll show you a lousy principal. Ineffective, hands-off principals are the single biggest barrier to the improvements in education that could occur with no additonal money spent! But most pundits and concerned outsiders do not even know what an educational administrator is. Nor do they realize that they are the ones who hold all the cards necessary to make huge improvements in education effectiveness. And teacher unions do not stop principals from helping teachers improve, despite what anti-labor pundits assert. No way, no how.

I did not want to ballyhoo my own effectiveness in the original piece, nor did I want to criticize my boss, but I honestly believe I'm doing all I possibly can do for the 185 students I teach every day. In fact, I feel that I know precisely how to inspire students to pursue science well into their future. Feedback I regularly receive from parents suggests that this bold claim is no lie. Parents often tell me that they are amazed at the sustained enthusiasm for science that their child acquired in my class. Yet, some other teachers in my building (certainly not all) languish in the quicksand of ineffectiveness and there is little I can do about it. Should we just replace all the ineffective teachers? No, you would not be wise to fire them and get new ones as most suggest. Not because the teacher union prevents it but because the replacements you get will likely be just as bad, maybe worse.

Why? Because people are not lining up to jump into education these days, that's why. The work is hard, the conditions are deplorable, and the pay generally sucks. So administrators had better figure out how to make bad teachers better. That means getting off their administrative butts and showing ineffective teachers how to improve.

[A paragraph here was deleted from the original email]

You want better value for current education dollars? Ask what principals are doing to improve teaching in their respective buildings? I guarantee you that the answer you get will not be the truth. If there is a scandal in today's educational system, that's it!

Thanks for reading and reviewing my article. I didn't think anyone saw it. Your counterpoints are well taken. Hope this helps.

Thom Powell
Clackamas County, Oregon 

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