Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Love the One You're With

I've listened, read, and watched a lot of debates and opinions on how to improve education over the past few years.  There's lots of disagreement over many, many things.  Two things that are irrefutable and backed by the data of many studies are:

1.  Student socio-economic status is the factor that correlates highest with achievement in school.
2.  The quality of the teacher in front of a student is the largest in-school factor in his/her achievement.

Since the focus of this blog is not on decreasing poverty, teaching parenting skills, nor building stronger relationships between parents, I'm not going to talk about the first statement above.  I'll simply state that if we are serious about improving education in this country, we had better not ignore the fact that poverty in the United States is at its highest point in decades.
Flickr/McConnell Center

I would like to focus on the second statement, though.  We've known that the quality of our teachers is important for a long time.  We've known since well before No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the charter school movement, union-bashing, and the push for school vouchers.  In all that time, we've never focused on making teachers better.

We hear talk of firing bad teachers, using student test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, and eliminating collective bargaining rights.  We focus on "accountability."  We never focus on developing our teachers and making them better.

Imagine a farm where the farmer tried to make his pigs larger by weighing them more often instead of feeding them.  Imagine a greenhouse that tried to grow larger plants by measuring them more often instead of giving them more fertilizer. 

We hear "experts" claim that getting rid of the bad teachers is the answer, however we know that we are facing a national teacher shortage in the future.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics we will need 1.6 million new teachers in the next few years.  It's time to start looking at how we can improve the teachers we have.  To borrow from Stephen Stills, "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

It's difficult to determine how much money we've spent on standardized testing in the United States in the past decade.  If you look at only the cost of developing and administering the tests, the figure is somewhere between 5 billion and 10 billion dollars.  If you include the costs districts and schools are forced to spend to buy test preparation materials and meet the federal mandates, the cost rises much, much higher.

What if we spent that money on developing our teachers and improving teaching in this country?  What if we used it to identify great teachers and develop mentorship programs with those new to the profession?  What if we used it to provide time and opportunities for teacher collaboration so that the best ideas were spread to as many classrooms as possible?  What if we created exchange programs where teachers from struggling schools could spend a year in a high performing school?  What if we made teacher improvement our focus by bombarding our teachers with professional development opportunities the way we bombard them with standardized testing pressure?  What if we spent our resources developing our talent instead of hoping that talented teachers will suddenly appear if we keep turning over our faculties enough times?

What if, instead of looking for one to love, we started loving the ones we're with?

Do that and you'll see the improvement in learning that we are all hoping to find.