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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 10/02/2012

Teacher: What school reformers don’t know

Policy makers and pundits don’t stop giving their opinions but we don’t hear enough from teachers in the debate about school reform. Many teachers ear their jobs may be jeopardized if they express their opinions; others say they have no time sit down and write a thoughtful piece.

One who accepted my invitation to write about the most pressing issues is Lisa Farhi of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, who has worked as consulting teacher within the school district’s professional growth system, a kindergarten classroom teacher and now a staff development teacher.

By Lisa Farhi

“We’re citizens and teachers—and neither is easy. Good luck.”

— Deborah Meier, 2002, inscription in my copy of “In Schools We Trust

Back in 2002, I approached the microphone at the Washington D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose and told the author of “In Schools We Trust” that as a teacher degreed in human development, I was feeling
(Mike Keefe/DENVER POST)
muzzled by the burgeoning high-stakes standardized testing movement. I said that in 10 years we would be slapping ourselves, saying, “OMG, we forgot about poverty” in our driven pursuit for so-called “accountability” of teachers and schools. We were choosing to ignore the conditions in which children live and how they affect their achievement in school.

Deborah Meier, still one of my lifelong heroes in education, told me to fight poverty as a citizen, not as a teacher.

That turned out to be good advice, considering that my schools superintendent at the time was a hard-liner who insisted that great teaching could overcome poverty, and because in the ensuing 10 years, proponents of No Child Left Behind hurled accusations of low expectations bordering on racial bias toward any teacher who raised concerns about economic struggles in the lives of children. I was heartened to read Helen Ladd’s and Edward B. Fiske’s comprehensive New York Times op-ed piece “Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?”, which chastises us as a society for ignoring the effects of poverty on student achievement.

Daniel Pink, author of “Drive,” recently expressed disbelief that those purporting to reform education through pay-for-performance think that a student’s test score represents solely the influence of the teacher, not any other variables in the student’s life. He is astounded by the lack of logic in this argument.

Since Montgomery County’s new superintendent, Joshua Starr, invited Pink to a public book club discussion of “Drive,” I feel that the muzzle has been loosened by a couple of notches.

I am now almost brave enough to fight poverty as a citizen AND as a teacher. Through these years of standardized testing domination and de-facto gag orders on my concerns about the effects of poverty on student achievement, I have served as a consulting teacher within the Montgomery County Public Schools professional growth system, a kindergarten classroom teacher and now a staff development teacher.

Linda Darling-Hammond’s March 20th Huffington Post piece about a recent Met Life survey, which found the lowest level of teacher satisfaction in 20 years, was entitled, “Maybe it’s Time to Ask the Teachers?” Well, since someone asked. . .

As a mentor, trainer of teachers and classroom teacher, my most profound conflict has been to convince detractors, pockets of the teacher-bashing media and random cocktail party guests that it’s possible for me to hold the highest of expectations for every student who crosses the schoolhouse door, while also caring mightily about whether or not they’re fed, clothed, housed and healthy.

In my own training and in the training I deliver, equity is paramount; I actively coach teachers in how to engage every student, every moment for optimum teaching and learning. In those same sessions, poverty has been taboo for fear that if teachers discuss it, we will AUTOMATICALLY lower our expectations for student achievement. I find this mutual exclusivity insulting to our intelligence and an assault on our freedom of speech. Why are we not trusted as professionals to be capable of holding high expectations for student achievement while also caring about whether or not families need support?

It’s hard to be an informed citizen and sustain teacher morale these days. Value-added, a method of using student standardized test scores to ealuate teachers, is the new, unwieldy way reformers are rooting out perceived poor teachers.

Some of my colleagues in New York didn’t make the value-added cut by a percentage point, despite their glowing observation reports by administrators. Good luck replacing all of the dedicated New York teachers willing to work in settings where the neediest students toil. Transiency, varied content areas, out-of -control class size and unaccountable upper management affect value-added scores more than my dinner party mates will ever acknowledge.

But who is paying attention to whether or not local, state and federal agencies are dealing withour 22% child poverty rate? We all know that countries such as Finland out-test us on international exams. Finland has a child poverty rate of about 5 percent.

If I were not in favor of evaluating teachers, I never would have participated as a consulting teacher in the peer assistance and review program in Montgomery County Public Schools. Like employees everywhere, we teachers need to be evaluated. I support MCPS’ professional growth system because it has built-in checks and balances that, when challenged, can be brought to hearing through due process. The program provides one year of intense support for improvement prior to any dismissal decisions.

To use Pink’s terminology, teaching is a heuristic, complex task. Teaching cannot be codified enough to be rewarded like widget making. I’m glad to work for a school system that understands the difference.

Yet since I read and advocate a lot, it hasn’t been easy being the recipient of widespread condescension. It seems that the most respected thinkers in education reform are those with the least experience in my field, yet with the most money. Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Business Roundtable and the Governors’ Association are heard way above the din of harried teachers, trying to lesson-plan their way to continued employment, while spending their daytime hours reaching students with a set of variables so differentiated that these teachers are making up to 1,500 decisions per day.

What we do know is that the schools demonstrating the most success in closing the achievement gap are addressing families’ struggles outside the schoolhouse. I will gladly open my mind to programs that wrap services like health care, psychological support, nutrition programs, employment counseling, adult literacy support and parent advocacy around the school. I will fight as a teacher and as a citizen to get these services paid for within our public school system via local, state and federal funding.

But why privatize and then tout what is known to work, while simultaneously abdicating a societal responsibility for putting such services in place in all public schools? From the perspective of a public school employee, it feels like a bait and switch: here’s what works but you can’t have it; look over here, doesn’t it look nice? Too bad, it’s not for everyone.

Finally, if Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama wish to keep the good (closely examining subgroup achievement) and throw out the bad (narrowing of the curriculum, lack of creativity) of No Child Left Behind, then why have they created Race to the Top, which relies heavily on test scores to evaluate teachers? The curriculum will be no broader, no more creative and no more focused on subgroup achievement, if teachers’ personal livelihoods hinge on individual student scores. It’s contradictory, demeaning and it’s also a deterrent to equity. Will the finest among us want to teach struggling students under that type of algorithmic pressure? Instead, we should be using student data to make better daily instructional decisions, not as cut scores for continued employment.

I encourage any education reformer to spend a month in our shoes. They’ll soon see that teaching is not only rocket science, but also an art. It is complex and human. It should be measured humanely and supported by programs that elevate students out of poverty.

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