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The Question of Seniority

With school districts insisting they are facing the possibility of wholesale layoffs, it seems likely that the youngest, least experienced teachers will lose their jobs.  The most senior teachers will, in all likelihood, remain entrenched. 

New York City schools may see as many as 8500 layoffs, prompting Chancellor Joel Klein to face off with the head of the union over seniority rights, which have been in place for years.  “Nobody I’ve talked to thinks seniority is a rational way to go, “ Mr. Klein observes.   Mr. Klein probably doesn’t talk to veteran classroom teachers.

The seniority issue isn’t particular to New York; California and Arizona are currently trying to get their respective state legislatures to allow schools to ignore seniority when furloughing staff. Teaching  

But while it is clearly in students’ best interests to keep the best teachers, who are they? What are the criteria for judging?  Who’s got the rubric?

A New York Times analysis of the city’s own information indicates what other research has shown – that teachers with five to ten years’ experience seem to be most effective.  After that teachers tend to plateau.  Some plateau at a high degree of effectiveness; others at a more modest level.  Some, of course, continue to grow. 

While new teachers bring enthusiasm and excitement to the classroom, they often lack good classroom management skills.  While veteran teachers can control the class, they no longer teach like their hair’s on fire (if they ever did).

Two Democrats are sponsoring a bill in the state legislature to give principals the power to choose who goes and who stays.  Klein says that experience is important, but the “individual’s track record of success” should be considered.

The problem is this:  Most districts do not have a clear and viable manner to assess teacher effectiveness.  Some don’t even have a regular supervision and evaluation process in place.  Unions continue to fight against using test scores and other data to evaluate teacher effectiveness and then complain that without seniority they are at the mercy of a principal’s whims. 

It’s not about seniority.  It’s about evaluation.  Until that issue is settled, we’ll continue to sacrifice the youngsters.







Not Reality. Actuality.

So I hop on the treadmill and start looking for something to watch on TV while I walk fast.   I flip through the guide and suddenly find something called “Principal’s Office” on the cable channel TruTV (“Not reality.  Actuality.”)

Well, why not?  I have 30 minutes of exercise to get through.  “Principal’s Office” has four of the next 30-minutes time slots on the channel.

The “actuality” of this show is short vignettes of high school principals dealing with discipline issues one or two students at a time.  In the show I watched, there were four different principals in different states dealing with the usual high school violations – skipping class, being disrespectful to teachers, engaging in PDA, etc.  Each problem is dealt with in about 3 minutes, and then, out in the hall, the student looks Gorilla-Animal-Costume-with_8C5BFB03   directly into the camera and opines about the fairness of the penalty.  Back in his or her office, the principal makes an observation about his or her actions.

Actually, I have to admit that the whole thing was fascinating for 30 minutes.  If you’ve done this job, 30 minutes is about all you want to watch.  The range of kids is what you’d typically find in high school.  Some are glib or sulky until the penalty phase.  Then they can’t believe they are actually being suspended.  (“Just for wearing sweatpants to school?” one boy protests incredulously.)   Some are belligerent.  Others are quick to blame somebody else.  In short, it is kind of “actuality.”

The principals range from firm and understanding to sarcastic and humorless.  My favorite vignette was about a kid who got into trouble with a teacher and came to see the principal for help.  She refused to intervene on his behalf, but she offered to rehearse with him what he needed to say to the teacher to whom he’d been disrespectful.  I also got a kick out of the low-keyed conversation another principal had with three boys who came to school dressed as gorillas (“There’s nothing in the dress code about gorilla suits,” one kid protested.)

It’s worth a look.  Some if it is pretty funny if you haven’t already dealt with it today.



When B is Average

A new study reports that the average GPA in private colleges and universities is 3.3.  The average GPA in public colleges is 3.0.

Authors of the study, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, in an article in Teachers College Record, collected data from 160 schools.  The authors conclude that teachers at private schools are more “generous” in their grading, but note that grading in all colleges and universities is easier than it was before.

On the other hand, Jean Twenge, in her book Generation Me, notes that 70% of college freshmen report that their academic ability is “above average.”  She found that students who have an inflated opinion of their abilities are more likely to drop out when the work becomes more rigorous.   Report_card  She concludes that some students have come to believe in high school that minimal work is satisfactory and are surprised to find that some college professors expect more.  Apparently this is not true in all colleges.

My guess is that many veteran teachers would agree that they have become easier graders over the years.  Some will say that kids just don’t do the assigned homework anymore.  Others will say that pressure from parents or even principals not to fail kids is intense. Still others will see better grades as proof of “accountability.” 

The average grade today may be a “B” instead of a “C.”  On paper we may look like Lake Woebegone where all the children are above average.  It’s a relative, not an absolute scale after all.  In the end, however, you know what you know.

Walking the Talk

Anthony Bourdain shuffles onto the stage in jeans, boots, and open shirt over t-shirt.  He waves to an enthusiastic audience, exchanges a few words with the fans in the first few rows, and begins a rambling, amusing, irreverent monologue.

Anthony-bourdain  At 50+ years he is cool with an air of endearing geekiness.  The crowd, mainly late twenties to thirties, is boisterous and adoring.  They are foodies.  They get all his jokes and asides about other chefs and hosts on the Travel Channel and other cable networks.  Me, I get the jokes about Rachel Ray.  I have seen the guy who eats bugs, and I sometimes watch Top Chef.  Compared to the rest of the audience, I know nothing.

But I’ve read Kitchen Confidential, I watch No Reservations, and I’ve even been to Les Halles. Here’s that story.

The meal was terrific.  The couple next to us orders Bananas Foster and it’s prepared tableside with great fire and panache.  We order the same.

Ten minutes later the server plops a cold plate with ice cream and a banana in front of me, fresh from the kitchen.  We hail our waiter.  “Hey,“ we say, “what happened to the tableside preparation?” After all, that’s half the fun. 

The waiter peers at us with disdain.  “It was prepared tableside,” he tells us.

 “What?” my husband says.  “It was prepared right next to us and we didn’t notice it?”

“Oui,” he says curtly, and he stalks away.

We look at one another. Crappy ending to a great meal.  But we are not scene-makers, so we pay the bill and leave the frozen banana melting in an ice cream pool.

The next day, I find the restaurant online, click on “Contact us,” and briefly describe what happened.  Within 12 hours I get a reply.  So sorry!  When were you here?  Who was your waiter?  Where did you sit? 

Two days later a gift certificate for $100 arrives in the mail. We use it at Les Halles in D.C. a couple months later. I am always impressed when people walk the talk.

On stage Bourdain is taking questions from the fans. Finally someone asks him, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?”  Bourdain sidesteps the question he’s probably heard at every venue. Instead he says that when you travel, if people offer you food, it’s a gift – something they’re proud of in their culture.  So you just accept the gift -- whatever it is. 

I think about how many ways there are to get an education.




Rebranding Teaching

A few years ago I was one of the authors of a white paper in opposition to the New York State Regents proposal to allow alternate certification for school administrators.  The idea was that individuals who had a history of leadership in areas outside of education – the military or business, for example – could be fast tracked to becoming certified as school superintendents.

Writing as a member of the New York State Association for Women in Administration, I was concerned that fast tracking these “outsiders” would exacerbate the gender discrepancy that already existed when it came to the superintendency.  In a state where roughly 75% of teachers were women, they constituted less than a quarter of the state’s superintendents.  Military or business leaders would also tend to be male.  Most women entered administration later than their male counterparts and tended to work their way through various chairs until they reached the superintendency.  While agreeing that leaders in business and the military could bring experience, skill, and a different point of view to the profession, my colleagues and I believed that fast tracking them was inherently unfair and detrimental to women.

The idea was eventually dropped.  In its place appeared another alternative -- online degrees in education administration.  Without ever having to work on a project with school administrators, interact with professors with experience in the field, or participate in an internship, an individual could become certified as a school administrator. 

Whether these people were qualified to become school administrators would be decided in the marketplace, I thought.  Neighboring school districts promptly hired two of these online graduates. Teach-for-america  

Currently under consideration are proposals for an increase in alternate programs to train teachers for the classroom.  The New York Times reports that programs like Teach for America and N.Y.C. Teaching Fellows attract young professionals wanting to change careers and have managed to “rebrand teaching as both sexy and noble.”  Some say the difference between these alternate programs and traditional college programs is that the former relies on practice while the latter relies on theory.

Clearly there could be many viable paths to becoming an educator.  Yesterday I wondered if the current upheaval in education would make young people think twice before entering the profession.  But maybe now that it’s sexy and noble, we don’t have to worry.


The New Recruits

“If I were in college and thinking about being a teacher I would have some serious second thoughts.”

This was one anonymous response to a story in Ed Week about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s proposals to revamp the state’s schools.  The plan includes expanding charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, and setting aside salary schedules and tenure rules.  Predictably, the head of the Louisiana Association of Educators called the plan “anti-public education and teacher bashing.”

Doris-day  In state after state, battle lines are being drawn between state government and teachers’ organizations. As states find themselves forced to reduce funding for public education, lawmakers are looking to unions for concessions.  In addition, suddenly legislators are interested in what exactly they’re getting for the money they’ve poured into schools over the years.  Facing concessions or mass lay-offs, teachers’ associations are finding themselves vulnerable to changes that were unthinkable just a couple of years ago. 

Clearly the landscape of public education is changing.  So I’m wondering, will young people have second thoughts about becoming teachers?  Is the possibility of losing your job in a school turnaround enough to dissuade college students from entering the profession?  Or will the hard challenge of accountability for improving kids’ achievement attract a different kind of student to the teaching ranks? 




Good Move

No more “rubber rooms.” 

The union and the mayor have agreed to abolish the long practice of assigning New York City teachers under discipline review to centers where they played board games, read, and just basically hung out while waiting for their cases to be resolved.  Mayor Bloomberg called the practice “an absurd abuse of tenure.”

About 650 educators, 500 of the teachers, are currently assigned to the centers.  Altogether they earn about $30 million in salaries.  Some have been waiting years for resolution of their cases.New_york_city_1  

I know from experience that bringing charges against a teacher not only takes a long time, but it also costs money because the district not only continues to pay the teacher charged, but also his or her substitute.  Add in the attorney’s fees, and you understand why smaller districts are reluctant to attempt to remove a tenured teacher. Still, the rubber rooms were an embarrassment for the city and for the union.

The practice of assigning teachers to centers was a lose-lose situation, unfair to taxpayers and unfair to the teachers waiting there.  Under the new agreement, the timeline to file charges of incompetence or misconduct has been greatly shortened.  Even teachers assigned to rubber rooms welcomed the changes.

Teachers accused of serious charges will be suspended without pay.  Others will do work outside the classroom including "administrative duties".  I think this arrangement is a great improvement, but I’m wondering what those administrative duties might be.

Another Reason for Recess

As if we needed more proof about the importance of physical activity for children, we have a new government review of research that confirms that children who take activity breaks during the school day are often better able to concentrate on their lessons.  They may even score better on standardized tests.

Jump_rope  Studies show that recess can improve students’ attention so that they can better stay on task.  The same results appear for increased time in physical education.  The study also reveals what some elementary teachers have known for years:  Letting kids take short breaks to do jumping jacks or march in place to music helps kids return to their academic tasks with greater interest and enthusiasm.  And finally, participating in extracurricular sports or intramurals can improve students’ attendance, grades, and graduation rates.  The study was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Adolescent and School Health.

Over the last decade the trend has been to reduce recess or playtime so that kids could focus on preparing for state tests.  Even without research, the move seemed counterintuitive to some teachers. Kids need air and sunlight and unstructured play in the early years along with organized games and team sports as they mature.  And as Charlene Burgeson of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education says, “Sometimes it doesn’t take more money as much as more creativity and imagination.”

Race to the Pool

The first grader completed her six-week Saturday program at William and Mary’s Center for Gifted Education.  She and her classmates designed a community swimming pool.  Everything was measured and built to scale.  On the last Saturday all of the children presented their work to their parents and other adults, explaining how they had learned to measure, to find perimeter, to work to scale.

This has been a rough year for this six-year-old in her regular public school class.   Her reading and math skills are far above those of the average student in her class, which is big for first grade – 22 or 23 students.  It isn’t the number of students as much as it is the range of ability that frazzles her teacher.  One day as the child was working in her Junie B book, making up and writing down new names for people she knew, her teacher was renamed “Mrs. Yelling.”  Every morning the little girl dallies getting dressed before school, does her homework on the bus, and is ecstatic when school is cancelled or delayed.  She likes the special classes best – music, art, phys ed.Swimming-pool-diagram  

On the other hand, she loved the Saturday program.  She couldn’t wait to get there.  She didn’t want to be late.  Her Saturday teacher said she was immersed in the project, asked good questions, created interesting answers to problems. 

Her regular teacher says the child doesn’t like the additional work the teacher gives her to fill her time, and she talks to her friends a little too much. 

So I said to her, “What’s the difference between the Saturday program and regular school?”  She looked at me as if I were joking.  “Well,” she said finally, “we get to do things on Saturday.  Nothing happens at regular school.”

I’m not so sure a child has to be gifted to feel that way. It seems as if every child has a right to be challenged, to be excited about learning, to have fun.  I’m back to wishing that every child in elementary school had an Individual Education Plan – especially in first grade.  The Race to the Top politics of education doesn’t seem to have the same appeal to first graders as  “Everyone into the pool!”  In the end, it’s about teachers good enough to interest kids in learning.

At the Opera

This past weekend I saw The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  It was sung in German, so I switched on the translation box attached to the seat in front of me to read the lyrics in English (or in Spanish).  The words appear in infrared letters that can only be seen by the patron right in front of the box so as not to distract other more erudite patrons who didn’t need it (talk about useful technology!). We were fortunate enough to go with a friend who has seen, by his own estimation, 1300 operas over 40 years in New York. 

Metropolitanopera_6-709556  The music, of course, was wonderful; the sets and costumes spectacular.  This is a more whimsical interpretation of the opera (“child friendly” according to our friend), and it even contained wisps of humor, most of which I wouldn’t have recognized on my own.  Peter, who has forgotten more about opera than I’ll ever know, was a wonderful tutor.  His enthusiasm and his eagerness for us not only to understand, but to enjoy the experience, made it memorable.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, scores of high school kids packed the elevators, huddled together in the halls, knocked on one another’s doors, and generally behaved like high school kids.  They were members of a chorus from Buffalo, thrilled beyond measure to be in the city.  At breakfast one of their teachers told me she had lived in New York for several years, and she wanted the kids not only to understand what they saw, but to have fun too.

In the elevator I asked one of the girls how she was enjoying the city.  “I love it!” she said.  Then she added, “Our advisor lived in New York, so she really knows what to do and where to go.”

Teaching and learning.  The enthusiasm and knowledge of the teacher, at any stage of life, makes all the difference.






Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.