Sunday, October 2, 2011

Education Nation Teacher Town Hall

Last Sunday, I spent about 2 and a half hours watching (and participating in via Twitter) NBC's Education Nation webcast of the Teacher Town Hall. I applaud NBC's efforts to provide a forum for longer discussions on the state of education in our country. Often, the voices of actual teachers are missing from the national policy debates. Brian Williams in particular seemed to be a force in opening up the conversation to teachers, as evidenced by his advocating and obtaining permission from NBC for the broadcast to continue on the web after the MSNBC broadcast time slot was over. That step allowed several more teachers in the packed tent on Rockefeller Center and on the web to make their voices heard.

The teacher summit included many fascinating guests on the stage. Though I was disappointed to see the focus so heavily slanted toward elementary school participants, I thought the educators were articulate, interesting, and outspoken. I was a bit disappointed by Melinda Gates, who sounded good, but actually said some disturbing things (I'll talk about that more below). The on-stage participants included:
  • Annie Bogenschutz, Community Resource Coordinator at Ethel M. Taylor Academy, Cincinnati, OH
  • Sophia Faridi, 6th grade Language Arts teacher at Indian River Middle School, Broward County, Florida  
  • John Hunter, an elementary gifted and talented teacher from Charlottesville, VA
  • Brian Crosby, an elementary teacher from Sparks, NV
  • Melinda Gates, Gates Foundation
  • Maddie Fennell, 4th grade teacher from Miller Park Element from Omaha, NE 
  • Candido Brown, a reading, writing, and Math teacher from Harlem Success Academy in New York City
  • Gigi Dobosenski, a teacher at EdVisions Off-Campus, an online, teacher-run school
  • Matt Presser, a middle school teacher and winner of an Education Nation essay contest, New Haven, CT
These teacher guests, live audience members, and virtual (NBC forum, Twitter, and Facebook) participants spoke on a wide range of issues. In fact, that wide range of issues was the greatest weakness of the summit. I'm not sure, even in 2-plus hours, one could hope to host a meaningful conversation on all of the following topics. I've added a couple of brief reactions on each, but I could have blog posts for months on these alone.
  • Is education to educate kids or get them ready for the wider world? 
    • Many audience members and panelists Bogenschutz and Faridi argued that this might be a false dichotomy. If the question had been college prep or job-readiness, the discussion might have touched more on vocational education and the focus on college as a career path. Honestly, the debate over the purpose of education deserves its own forum. We have not decided what we really want from education and rely on discussions of "21st century skills" without defining what that actually means. In addition, college has become the corporate checkbox much in the same way that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are gatekeeper tests. Does one really need a college education for administrative jobs? On the other hand, should we be focusing education on job readiness/what the corporate world wants or is the purpose of education to produce informed citizens who are capable of evaluating information? There are so many questions raised here.
  • What services should schools provide to help students succeed in school and to alleviate the effects of poverty on student success? How do we get communities engaged in education and how do we align the allocation of resources to kids' needs?
    • Bogenschutz's Cincinnati school is discussed in an American Federation of Teachers article. I truly think this could be a model of how schools can become community centers. We need to stop pretending that poverty, family, and health factors do not significantly impact education. Again, this question alone is worthy of its own program and Brian Williams did host a poverty panel, which I have not yet had the chance to watch.
  • Are students prepared for college? If not, is it lack of motivation, lack of academic preparation, or lack of encouragement? 
    • That last question was answered by teacher participants on the web and in the audience via a live poll. The audience had much to say on the issue.
    • My own view is that motivation is the most significant of the factors presented in the question. I wish the Town Hall had shown more examples of what works. Even when discussing programs that make a difference, like those of Hunter and Crosby, the discussion simply described the programs in more general terms. Until the national discourse begins to acknowledge that there are things that work, and our nation's decision makers treat teachers as education professionals and stop the insane focus on testing, our schools will not change.
  • How can we find and build on student passions to motivate them to learn? 
  • How can we create spaces for children to experience failure so they can "have the luxury to fail because that's really a part of the learning process"? 
    • Again, John Hunter advocated visionary leadership that supports teachers as professionals who know what to do to help kids learn.Our schools do not currently provide this opportunity to fail. We don't see failure as a part of achievement in schools, despite a business-driven emphasis on creating a risk-taking culture emphasis in management. In the corporate world, there are many articles on the benefits of mistakes when used as learning vehicles. But we don't let kids make mistakes or learn how to strategically take risks. An F is to be feared and dreaded. I've seen parents flip out over an "F" on a 4 point assignment that counted for less than 1% of a total quarter grade. 
  • How can we use technology to enrich education and to provide access for students who might otherwise not be part of a traditional class environment? 
    • Brian Crosby's Nevada classroom uses blogs and helped a homebound student undergoing chemotherapy join the class via Skype. I loved the idea of including this student by incorporating technology. I've had several homebound students since I started teaching, but no use of technology has been encouraged and I think the idea is worth pursuing for those kids who cannot attend a full-days' classes.
    • An analogy between teaching students how to use scissors and how to appropriately use technology was particularly powerful for me. If we incorporate more technology, we have a responsibility to teach students how to use it. But several online participants--myself included--pointed out that technology can be a distraction and isn't the only way to teach.
    • Poverty and access to technology were also addressed by Hunter and Crosby as well. There is a digital divide, even in wealthy districts. Over the last few years, more of my students are on free/reduced lunch. They do not always have access to technology at home, and yet their access in schools has been curtailed as we have cut late bus days to one per week. Kids who don't have technology and who lack transportation to school or to the local library cannot be expected to keep up.
  • Are high salaries important to retain good teachers? What other factors are even more important to teachers surveyed in a national poll regarding teacher retention? What would the effects be on teaching if we as a nation treated teachers as professionals in the same way we treat doctors or lawyers?
    • Respect and treating teachers as professionals were key components of this discussion. Teachers feel demoralized by the national emphasis on bad teaching. Whenever they advocate for salary increases, they are characterized as greedy opportunists who don't care about children. 
    • What a sad commentary on our valuation of education it is that people who could be wonderful classroom teachers can't afford to be teachers. Personally, I took a 5 figure pay cut to become a teacher and 7 years later, my salary has not caught up to where it was when I left the corporate world. Teaching is work I love, but if I wasn't married to another professional who takes home a good salary, I couldn't have afforded to switch careers in my 30s. Had I had a young family at the time, I would never have considered making the switch. 
  • How should we determine teacher compensation in light of how many teachers work 60 hour weeks, often buy materials used in their classrooms, and have second jobs to make end meet? 
    • Best comments from this segment included: "My doctor does not buy his own surgical instruments," Maddie Fennell. "We have to stop saying that higher salaries will not retain good teachers...Those who say teachers are getting paid enough, and they say that because they do it by the's about $29 an hour. But the reality is that teaching is not a 9-5 job. It's an all day job. It's a weekend job," Candido Brown.
    • These comments reflect my own experiences. 
      • I, too, buy materials every year for my classroom. I'm given $100 in supply money through the school. I teach around 148 students, so that's less than $1 per student in supply money. I tend to order the basics and then supplement with my own personal class library books and other supplies as needed.
      • Most days, I'm in by 6:15-6:30 and I don't leave until 3:30, even though school starts at 7:20 and ends at 2:10. In that time, I get one block for planning and 30 minutes for lunch. I've spent some of this time doing actual planning, coordinating with my team teachers and grade-level teams, photocopying, and performing other administrative duties, like contacting parents via email and telephone or providing teacher narratives for special education individual education plans and re-evaluations, which have to happen during the school day. I've attended 3 after-school meetings with students and parents, with more on the horizon, and had a back to school night that lasted until 9:30 p.m. I've stayed after my "contract hours" to help my current students prepare for and complete assignments, and looked at college essays for a couple of last year's students. I also have college recommendation letters and counselor information forms to complete, most of which I do on weekends. I'm a club sponsor for our literary magazine and in the winter and spring seasons, I will keep score for the basketball team and be the onsite manager for some of the spring sports events. In addition to all of this, I have to grade what I assign and return this material in a timely manner to students. Since the beginning of the year, I've graded 13 assignments for 63 of my AP students and 7 for 60 of the team 11 students. I'm lucky in that I have a team teacher who switches off grading with me so I didn't grade the other 25 students in my 11th teamed classes. Some of this grading has happened in school, but much happens after 2:10. So, I don't come close to a 40 hour work week for most of the school year. I can safely say I work harder and longer hours as a teacher than I ever did in the 12 years I spent working in corporate settings.
  • What makes a good teacher? How can we tell whether a teacher has made a positive impact on students? 
    • This issue is the focus of the Gates Foundation research. I was pleased to hear that Melinda Gates mentioned other factors that affect student achievement and the relationship between student perspective and achievement. Though she stressed multiple measures of effectiveness, including peer observations, principal observations, scores, student feedback, and teacher voice, her ultimate measure was still test scores, which I find disturbing, as does Education Week blogger Anthony Cody.
  • Are standardized tests an accurate measure of student achievement?
    • Most of the panelists and most of the audience and online participants mentioned that tests are one facet of teaching. Even Gates paid lip service to this idea. But the reality is that more and more of teacher evaluation rests on test performance. Mary Tedrow has addressed this much more eloquently than I could in her blog post "Controlling My Own Work..." and I cannot recommend her blog highly enough.
    • How should teachers be evaluated? 
      • Candido Brown provided an interesting multi-faceted suggestion for evaluation that even included factors such as student and parent input and what a teacher is contributing to the life of the school. As a teacher who believes that these contributions benefit both the students and the classroom environment, I liked his idea to include participation as a measure. I have connected with students by showing them that I care about what they do outside of the classroom and have seen dramatic in-class turnarounds as a result. Being a caring adult goes a long way toward creating a positive learning environment.
      • Maddie Fennell commented, "We have to stop treating teaching just like vocation and realize it is a profession. Just because we love our kids doesn't mean we're not professionals."
    • Why aren't teachers, students, and parents given more of a place in the school reform decision making?
      • When things are going well, we don't hear from parents and students. When things are going poorly, we hear only from parents who have time and feel empowered to advocate on their children's behalf. Even in schools where parents and communities want to be involved, they often don't know who to ask or what to suggest. 
      • Gates mentioned the Gates Foundation research has identified 6 questions posed to students that correlate to good teaching, which is discussed in a New York Times article from December 2010. However, those questionnaires are still correlated with value-added measures of test scores. We need to look beyond test scores as a measure of success and look at evaluative and survey instruments that give students a voice in education. NBC did have a special forum dedicated to student perspectives, which is a good start toward including more stakeholders in discussions of what a quality education looks like.
    While I enjoyed the contributions of the panelists on these issues, with so many panelists and so many topics, none of the issues were discussed in depth. I found myself wanting more of certain panelists, but there was not time for them. In addition, the sheer number of panelists prevented many of the teachers in the audience, among whom were several past state and national teachers of the year, from getting a turn at the microphone as well. Those were lost opportunities to discuss what's working in education.

    Even with all of these topics, many weren't addressed, including special education, English language learners, rural schools. So, while the Teacher Town Hall was a step in the right direction, its wide breadth neither did justice to the topics it addressed by allowing for complex and nuanced discussion, nor was wide enough to even introduce many other important education issues.

    To be fair, NBC hosted other, more directed panels, including an interesting one that consisted solely of students. But most of those were on Monday and Tuesday during the day, right in the middle of my working hours. So, participating in those events was not an option for me or for most of our country's teachers. 

    Perhaps next year, NBC would consider making the summit a Friday-Sunday event instead of a Sunday-Tuesday affair to encourage even wider participation and hosting topic-focused Teacher Town Halls throughout the year to add depth to the conversation.