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Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:58 PM ET, 03/17/2011

Ironic extremes: Lauding and bashing teachers

How’s this for ironic extreme?

Thursday an international conference on the teaching profession is being held in New York to do the following, as explained by the U.S. Education Department, a co-host: “To identify and elaborate on best practices from around the world for recruiting, preparing and supporting teachers in ways that effectively enhance the teaching profession and ultimately, elevate student performance.”

Educators from countries around the world, some of them representing education systems hailed for excellence on international student tests, gathered to look at what commonly works across systems and what doesn’t.

What the top-achieving school systems -- in countries including Finland and South Korea -- have in common is that teachers are well-respected. In varying degrees, teachers are also well-paid, well-supported with resources and development, unionized, and considered capable of designing curriculum and lesson plans themselves without interference from non-educators.

Contrast that with what is going on in Florida. A new law is about to be put on the books that will go a long way toward dissuading anybody from wanting to be a pubic school teacher there.

How?

For starters, legislation awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s (R) signature takes away teachers’ job security; starting in July, all new hires will be offered only one-year contracts, as will veteran teachers moving to a new district. As for teachers already with tenure, it will be very easy to lose it.

Then there’s the provision that requires that at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and thus pay, and thus, job -- is dependent on how well kids do on standardized tests. (It didn’t matter to the legislature that research has repeatedly shown that there is no validity to such a linkage.)

And let’s not forget this: New tests are to be created to cover every single course offered in public schools so that kids can take more tests than they do now (and they take a lot), though the legislature didn’t provide state money for their creation, leaving districts to pick up the tab.

Did I mention that the legislation calls for teachers to be eligible for “performance bonuses” based on standardized test scores, but, alas, there is no money by these bonuses. Or that there is no money or requirement that struggling teachers get professional assistance to improve.

Supporters of the bill say that the measure is simply meant to align state policy with promises made by the state in its successful quest to win $700 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top sweepstakes.

Race to the Top has plenty of problems of its own, including a standardized testing emphasis, but it doesn’t insist that states strip teachers or their due process rights, or undertake initiatives without funding. In fact, any districts that find they can’t carry through with their Race to the Top commitments can withdraw. This Florida law stays on the books until/unless the Legislature changes it.

Still, Race to the Top was the spark for the legislation.

Florida isn’t the only state to reduce and/or eliminate job security for teachers, or to link standardized test scores to teacher evaluation and pay. Rather, it is just one of the most egregious examples of a trend sweeping the country, encouraged by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top to use test scores for high-stakes decisions.

The Department of Education is trying to have it both ways. It wants to be seen as trying to elevate the teaching profession; hence, a conference about elevating the teaching profession. Meanwhile, it promotes policies that are being used as weapons for a front assault.

As always, the ultimate losers will be the kids.

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By  |  03:58 PM ET, 03/17/2011

 
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