Thursday, July 31, 2008

Teacher Quality and Working Conditions

I have issues with the very expression "Teacher Quality" because people all too often view TQ as digital - either you are or you aren't a QT – while I view it as analog - on a scale of say 1-10 that can vary depending on school conditions, the year, the time of day, a particular kid that bugs the hell out of you, a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil, and who knows what else?

I also object that the phony ed reformers only want to look at TQ in terms of results on narrow high stakes tests. They have recently changed the vocabulary to "teacher effectiveness."

In the great debates with Teach for America teachers that we had here and at Chancellor's New Clothes, I noticed how so many of these newly minted current and already gone TFA teachers use the "teacher effectiveness" expression. TFA's certainly have all the jargon down.

I've been reading comments on various blogs from Nancy Flanagan, a long-time teacher, now retired, who thinks out of the box. She works with teachers on teacher quality issues and I promise to take a closer look at some of the work she is doing with the Center for Teacher Quality. Take a look at the link to working conditions.

Nancy recently left a comment at this Ed Notes post "Teacher Quality in Context".

Thanks for your acknowledgment of the excellent work done by the Center for TEACHING Quality, in North Carolina. CTQ is an organization dedicated to the idea of putting the teachers' voice into the policy-making process. That concept is played out in their sponsorship of the Teacher Leaders Network (see TEACHER magazine and EdWeek for lots of TLN teachers' essays and blogs)--as well as some great research (like the working conditions studies). One of their crown jewels is Teacher Solutions, a policy creation model where diverse groups of actual teachers come together to study key issues and issue reports and recommendations.

I emphasize "Teaching" because a lot of the issues you're discussing in this post turn on the distinction between selecting presumably good teachers vs. improving practice--teaching--in the teachers who are already in place in high needs schools. Making working conditions and professional learning better might go a lot further in fixing schools than sorting and selecting in the teacher pool. [my emphasis]

Nancy blogs at Teacher in a Strange Land.

I am interested in the focus on working conditions in many inner city schools. Some of my colleagues in buildings where charter schools have been put in place have pointed to a difference in working conditions. The teachers at Jamaica HS in Queens called it "educational apartheid" when 100 people showed up at the monthly meeting of what passes for a joke of a NYC Board of Ed (known as the PEP, but is actually the PEPLESS) to protest the difference in resources being given to a college prep school being added to their building while they were being starved. (See Gates Foundation Supports Apartheid from our post in May.)

I saw this occur when I did computer support at JHS 126 in Greenpoint in Brooklyn in the 90's when Bard HS took over the 4th floor which underwent a million dollar plus renovation while the junior high school's grades 7-9 were squeezed into the rest of the building. After a few years, Bard wanted the 3rd floor too and when denied, they left to push into a struggling elementary school on the lower east side. JHS 126 was left with a 4th floor full of half classrooms that could not fit a full public school class into them. We told that story back in November.

Here are a some comments on working conditions from a few blogs of young NYC teachers.

A 2nd year NYC teacher comments on working conditions at Miss Brave Teaches NYC:

...while on vacation last week I met up with a friend of mine from graduate school who now teaches at a private school in a wealthy suburb. She teaches for only two and a half hours a day, so the rest of her day is free for planning and grading, which means she never takes work home with her. She has no more than fifteen students in each class. She has an office with a computer provided to her by her school, which also paid for her to fly cross-country to national educator conferences. Her last day of school was at the beginning of June and she doesn't go back until after Labor Day, which means she gets a full three months off. And, most jaw-dropping of all, there is a chef at her school who cooks a delicious lunch for the staff every day! And to think, the teachers at my school are practically foaming at the mouth when we get a bagel breakfast twice a year. I was nearly salivating just listening to her describe those working conditions. When I told her that I'd had 420 students on my roster this past year, she exclaimed, "That's a school, Miss Brave! You were in charge of a whole school!" At one point, I inquired as to whether her school had a security guard; in response, she laughed at me.

As a chapter leader, I often asked my principal to hire a chef.

Mildly Melancholy is leaving a public school for a charter in Brooklyn:

What I do know and love is that the school has adequate facilities, and it has excellent resources. The teachers' room has a free copy machine (at my previous school, teachers had to buy a copy code [cheaply, but still] AND provide paper) and shelves of books, just sitting there (not stashed away in a secret room in a secret stairwell, covered in asbestos dust). Plenty of money for classroom books and supplies. Plenty of schoolwide expectations and reinforcement systems. A longer school day and a longer school year (several mandatory weeks in summer for students and teachers), but also a 10k raise.

Jeez. A copy machine in the teachers room.

I'm sure these gals are high level teachers no matter where they teach. But a career of bad working conditions take a toll. I can't tell you how much time and effort it took to navigate the "system" to get resources. The road blocks take a toll over time. I found myself beginning to wear down sometime in my 17th-19th year, almost totally as a self-contained classroom teacher in grades 4-6, especially with an administrator who had only an interest in test scores and actually discouraged any creativity.

Probably why I took a sabbatical to get an MA in computer science around my 20th year.

When I came back, she maneuvered me out of the self-contained class and into a cluster, which I turned into a computer job. I loved building a computer program from scratch for the next 10 years.

But my best work as a teacher was behind me.


  1. Hey, thanks for the mention--and do check out the Center for Teaching Quality, which is as good as it gets.

    Here's a story:
    I am sitting on the dias with a researcher from Famous Research Org and a honcho from the US Department of Education at a conference convened around the issue of teacher quality. Of course, there are 200 people in the audience and perhaps 4 of them are actually classroom practitioners. But we're having a nice conference to discuss how to fix the, ummm, problems with teachers.

    Person from USDOE says: We have now achieved a very high percentage of "highly qualified" teachers, through the impact of NCLB. We are turning now to "highly effective" teachers as our next goal. What's a highly effective teacher? One who leverages gains in test scores, of course. Soon, we will have data analysis systems in place in every state and will be able to identify teacher effectiveness such that we can lop off the bottom quartile of ineffective teachers (and replace them, no doubt, with novices who had high SAT scores, and thus are more promising).

    I ask her: What is the USDOE doing to strengthen actual teaching--you know, the things teachers do that cause these gains?

    Her response: We're agnostic about that. We don't care what teachers do--only about the measurable results that they get.

    So there you have it. It's about quality teachers--not about quality teaching.

    Thanks again--good debate!

  2. when i started to teach, regularly appointed teachers were placed according to the score received on the teacher exam. the lower scoring teachers were placed in what were called special service schools (the precursor to chapter and title 1 schools). i did not score high so i was sent to williamsburg. many teachers stayed on sub lines to avoid such a placement and got their own jobs in less difficult schools.

  3. My teachers are very pleased with a change that was implemented this school year as a result of their responses on the Teacher Working Conditions Survey. A significant number of teachers indicated that more planning time is needed. After I implemented a weekly, uninterrupted, common planning, and collaboration time; teachers continued to thank me for addressing this need. When I visit the common planning time sessions, I see the teachers fast at work planning and sharing to better meet the needs of our students.


Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.