Listen Up, Teachers

Syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. really lets teachers have it with his column printed in the Sunday Times, Teachers and teachers unions: Get on board or get out of the way.

Basically he asks why teachers are so firmly against being accountable. He tells the story of receiving an e-mail from a teacher who said the union protects teachers or "she'd be at the mercy of some boss who decided one day to fire her."

He continues:

In other words, she'd be just like the rest of us. The lady's detachment from the reality most workers live with struck me as a telling clue as to why our education system frequently fails to educate. When you can't get fired for doing bad work, what's your impetus for doing good?

Many of us seem to be wondering the same thing.

I see the direction he is going in and I actually agree. Teachers need to be evaluated just like any other job or profession.

He goes on to say that it is really the teachers unions that are at fault. (He said he was a teacher at one time and does support unions.) He does manage to say that no, the sole responsibility doesn't rest with teachers; parents must be accountable as well. Then he says this:

All that said, it is troubling to see teachers unions reflexively reject anything that smacks of accountability.

Enough. It is time teachers embraced accountability. Time parents, students and government did, too.

People like my correspondent need to understand: There is a groundswell building here. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Okay but Mr. Pitts, how come you mention principals one time and not a word about accountability for them? Do teachers pick the books or curriculum? Do teachers decide how district funds are allocated? I could go on. Any thoughts from Mr. Pitts about principals, administrators or school boards?

Oh, then that may be why teachers unions are circling the wagons (and the AFT HAS supported teacher evaluation so he got that wrong). You need more than a nod to the responsibilities of parents to believe that teachers will be fairly and accurately evaluated to support a sea change in teacher evaluation.

I believe that you need, as I have read is done in some states, a classroom visit at least 3 times a year from the principal AND an outside educator. You need to look at everything in the class, not just test scores.

I'm sure there is a lot of pushback from teachers and I have heard it evidenced by the desire to keep seniority at the top of the list for RIFs. But I am simply not going to throw all accountability for public education on the backs of the teachers. That our own School Board gets singled out by our State Auditor for not doing their jobs and yet they go on as if nothing as happened should tell you something. Where is the accountability for them?


Eric M said…
Where did this idiotic idea that teachers are not accountable come from?

I work my goddammed ass off every minute, and work weekends, and at night, 60-70 hours a week. Every day, I put on a well-organized, well-researched, interesting show. It has to be a good show, because my audience has a short, short attention span.

I'm accountable to myself first and foremost. I like doing a good job. And I put in the time and energy to make sure that happens. (And I wouldn't do it if all curriculum gets dumbed down and "aligned:", so that there's no creativity involved)

Most of my colleagues are the same way. What motivates teachers?
What motivates people? Check out Daniel Pink:

I wish our fearless leaders would watch this.

There are processes already in place to remove bad teachers. As is only just, these processes require an administrator to document, remediate, and then pursue removal. If there are bad teachers in place, look to the administration that didn't know or care what was happening in classrooms.

Sorry, but it's not the teacher's union. Our union only serves to enforce due process. Believe me, if you worked with teenagers as your customers, you'd want some due process in place.

Last time I checked in this district, it was the leadership - the Superintendent and the School Board- who were struggling with accountability.

Teachers, including me, are tired of being the public whipping boy. And unions? The states with the best educational outcomes are states with strong teachers unions. Check it out.

Why doesn't Mr. Pitts ask why we invest sooooo much money in the military (more than the next 18 nations combined)?

Or prisons (1 out 100 adults are incarcerated in the US) ?

Or why the gap between rich and poor has grown sooo huge in the last 2 decades?

Or what public school test scores are really predict (that would be the level of affluence or poverty that students live in) ?

No, the big problem is teachers and their unions.
Unknown said…
It's hard not to be angry.
What the heck, Melissa? Why do you keep beating this dead horse? You're very well informed, and surely you know by now, if for no other reason than that you've read it on your own blog a hundred different times at least. But here we go, once more:

Teachers are already accountable.
Teachers are already evaluated.
There are already procedures in place for removing poorly performing teachers.

Is it something in the air making people forgetful? This is a non-issue, and I'm surprised to see you, Melissa, saying, "teachers need to be evaluated." It makes me lose faith in your entire mission.
Unknown said…
Oh, and that "quote" from "an e-mail from a teacher"? So you can take one alleged quote out of context and riff on it and that's supposed to constitute some kind of evidence?
More disinformation.
vitamincee said…
How dismaying to read what Leonard Pitts wrote. Though there are some issues with the union, most teachers work really hard with very little thanks. (During the summer too?) How many of us are preparing for the following year? Probably most of us. Many of us take classes to stay progressive and current, not just to maintain our certificates!

And you are very correct, we don't have much say in curriculum choices, therefore curtailing some teachers' creativity, which engages student learning, thereby increasing student academic achievement.

Principals accountability? Who knows how/when that takes place?
Sahila said…
I too wish that we would spend more time challenging these teacher and union bashing items wherever they arise, rather than regurgitating them here once again...
Mark Ahlness said…
You know, I usually agree with Leonard Pitts. Unfortunately, he's over his head and out of touch here. Teachers are not objecting to being accountable. It's that the measure of accountability is simply a joke: standardized tests, because they're real handy, because we already do them... because we can't think of anything else...

I'm about to enter my 30th year teaching elementary school. The morale of teachers is at a level I have never seen before. Not just in Seattle, it's everywhere.

Teachers' backs are up against the wall. We are afraid. We are incredibly demoralized. We are angry.

We are about to start teaching your children.

Please let your elected officials know. Please talk to teachers. We are NOT the problem with education in the USA.
Megan Mc said…
Teachers and their union need to be prepared to negotiate for the things that their students need that get in the way of their academic performance. They can tell Leonard Pitts and the rest of the public, "Sure we will accept accountability for academic achievement when you (the district/public) provide adequate social and health services such as clinical social workers, nutrition and health services, SAFE housing, parent education." When the public is willing to be held accountable for the social well being of their fellow citizens then teachers can be accountable for educating them.

I think if teachers had more competent and stable principals and central administrators to deal with they would be more amicable to being held accountable. When you don't trust your bosses and they are the only game in town then of course teachers are going to work to protect yourself. Accountability starts at the top and as we've seen from the recent State Audit findings, the top of our schools are extremely dysfunctional.
Megan Mc said…
I feel compelled to play devil's advocate because I know many people who agree completely with Pitts. These individuals hated school. They had no positive relationships with their teachers, and some even had legitimately unprofessional teachers. Most of them never went to college because they never believed it was possible. They resent the time off that teachers get while at the same time professing awe that someone would choose to spend their day with a room full of children/adolescents.

They want someone to acknowledge that the American model of education does not serve many of the students that are forced to participate in it. And since teachers are the first line of interaction for most people - that is who they place the blame on. These individuals are not sophisticated in the the politics of public education. To them, school = teachers so if there is a problem in lies on the teachers' doors.

Fair or not this is where a lot of voters are thinking. If I had not decided to become a teacher to spite all my bad teachers only to discover how nuanced the field of education is, I would probably feel the same way.
Mary, I can see you are upset. Look, the e-mail was from Mr. Pitts column, not me (I have now added the link; I forgot to do that originally.)

I'm not arguing (and indeed have never said) that teachers aren't accountable. But the way they are going to be held accountable IS changing. Mr. Pitts is right about that and I agree with the AFT to be part of the process instead of totally fighting it. At the SAME time, administrators and principals and school boards should be held accountable. That is my main point.
kprugman said…
Pitts graduated USC (scl). Imagine a 20 year old editor working for SOUL Magazine (that's Pitts). He started writing for SOUL when he was 18. Pitts is a gifted, versatile, engaging, and imaginative writer and a college teacher. If teachers are alarmed now, they should have been decades ago.

Pitts' anger, like so many people, is directed at the public school system - they're anger might be misplaced but from an outsider looking in, unions are as good a target as any - he's throwing a grenade and the more people he offends the more rational he appears.

Presently, its easy for a teacher to sit in a classroom full of failing students and do the simplest task of failing them. The lie in this profession is that nobody knows what a successful classroom containing these students should look like, not even the principal who is doing the evaluation.

I happen to find Pitts' reading of history both accurate and prophetic.

You might enjoy reading this article when you find it on the internet.

When ignorance of history, civility meet
kprugman said…
Public education is personal for all parents. If you haven't had a gut-wrenching experience like supporting a child who is failing school, then you would probably disagree with Mr. Pitts.

Its all too easy to blame kids, but ultimately its the teacher who parents feel is responsible. Personally, I don't think its good policy to lay off an entire staff. It plays into the hands of extremists.

The NEA has always refrained from resolutions that concerned curriculum. Its a bit like being a home inspector. Legally, the buyer shouldn't tell the seller what to fix - the buyer should only ask that the seller verifies the operation and safety of a particular concern - and if the curriculum is already on the state's list of adopted curriculum than it meets a so-called standard (even when it is sub-standard). But that is left for school boards to determine and certainly teachers give their input, although they rarely get listened too.

Obviously, I don't agree with the process - because its open to all sorts of abuses from profit-seeking individuals.
Teachermom said…
Oh, my. I think that the real secret that isn't being revealed is that teachers are often completely unsupervised, along with being unsupported.

My experiences with principals, who are supposed to be my mentors...

1. I was a first year teacher and was not observed once. I was given a good evaluation and asked to sign it at the end of the year. The principal called me "girl". I did not join the union that year. I thought the union members were complainers.

2. Good principal who observed me regularly, gave constructive feedback, and taught me how to do things I did not know how to do. She sat on the floor with my kindergarteners and demonstrated teaching methods. I became a much better teacher that year. She did, however, have poor communication skills and little tolerance for older teachers who were not so quick to worship her as a newbie like me was. Still not a union member.

3. Principal who disagreed with me at the very beginning of the year about something and refused to discuss it with me. Gave me the "silent treatment". This is when I joined the union.

4. Principal who "went after" people who disagreed with her, many of them excellent teachers. She would give bad evaluations to good teachers who stood up to her, and good evaluations to her buddies. Glad to be a member of the union, but I was not targeted. I hid in my room most of the year. This principal did not show up for our scheduled observations, and never visited my room otherwise.

5. Great principal, like principal #2, but with strong communication and interpersonal skills. I will continue to belong to the union, just in case....

These are just building level administrators - there is a lot more of this extreme variability all the way up. And don't count on working with a good principal for long - they may be plucked out the next year for a re-org. And the administrators above the principal have never even known who I was, so there is one person who holds my job/career in their hands.
Anonymous said…

I like how you organized your note.

This'll be my 28th year in the business, and I'd have to say that my experience has been very positive. (Note - though I am an SPS parent, I have never worked in SPS.) I've felt positively challenged and supported by my supervising administrators, principals and assistant principals. They weren't all perfect, mind you, but in my time I have never felt that they were somehow lacking in insight, ability, earnestness, or integrity.

You do hear a lot about them in the trenches, certainly, all kinds of horror stories. But those horror stories never matched my reality, and in truth, the story tellers in general I found to be folks I had little understanding of as teaching colleagues anyway.

I also think that the administrative ranks have improved in my 28 years, and that principals today are much more focused on instruction and learning than they were when I first started.

I'm not bothered by Mr. Pitts and his ilk - frankly, I say bring it on. I do think we all need the challenge of greater accountability, and frankly, we have folks teaching kids that simply should not be. While I don't believe that standardized tests are the single measure for this accountability, they might be one part of a larger system - I'd love it if someone could post the Seattle proposal. What about considering our own grade data for one thing? How many times have you sat in the staff lounge and heard some old fogey (not me, of course!) holding forth on how many kids he has failed - like that's some badge of honor! Surely there's data to be mined on student failure, failure rates, graduation rates, etc. Surely there's the potential for dialogue and understanding and growth for a teacher by examining and targeting those trends - I know there has been for me.

As for the union - like any entity, they are only as good as the people in those positions. I've seen the union actively support moving a poor teacher out, and I've seen the union protect a teacher who has hit a child. I don't have much to say about unions in education, though I like the proactive stance of the AFT on this issue.

wseadawg said…
Bad Teachers and/or teacher accountability is/are the least of our problems. This is scapegoating 101 and I can't believe you're "actually agreeing" with it MW, in light of all the blatant fallacies, lies, incompetence and lack of accountability at every desk and office in JSCEE. Gas fillups after 1 a.m.?

I'm 100% and then some behind the teachers AND THEIR UNION on this one. Frankly, I cannot believe the level of naivette and gullibility from people who, in light of all the obvious corruption, double standards, and incompetence in this district would take one step along the reform or "accountability" path when it's so obvious we have starved and handicapped teachers and our classrooms for decades. We're lucky we have as many good teachers as we do for all the sh@t they have to put up with on a daily basis. Teachers are people too, and God bless them. Those who buy into the "Waiting for Superman" propaganda, you might as well be waiting for Obe Wan Kenobe or Yoda to show you the way. Meanwhile, let's stick with reality and the facts. Teachers are not the problem. Let's grow up and take responsibility at home and quit pointing fingers like spoiled little brats.

And for the union bashers, remember how Saturn cars were going to be so great and so much better because their plants were in non-union so-called "right to work" states? If unions were the problem, why did Saturn fail?

Stop taking the bait.
dan dempsey said…
The Union has been a problem for a while but not for the reasons many think.

The SEA has done little for their members. The SEA leadership spent several years partnering with District Admin.

Unfortunately this cooperative attitude led directly to the sorry mess that currently prevails. The SEA leaders ignore both what is best for students and their members in many situations. The ridiculous fiasco of Cleveland STEM is one expensive example of funding funneled away from dozens of schools into a situation in which existing employment contracts were tossed out. NTN contract approval, and New Student assignment plan both contributed to this mess but the SEA appealed neither.

The SEA should have filed an appeal of the Performance Management 02.00 policy and the NWEA/MAP testing but looks to be 0 for 2 on that.

Olga did a great job of posing objections at the "Performance Management" School Board meeting complete with a walk out because she failed to understand the rules for testimony. The natural follow up would be a legal appeal to a decision that the SEA so strongly opposed but as usual the SEA did nothing.

YUP the SEA is a problem and like the District's problems the principle source is the inept leadership at the top.
Jet City mom said…
Most of my colleagues are the same way

And the other ones? They receive same pay and benefits? So where is the motivation to perform?

I agree that principals need to be held accountable, but how much remediation should have to be attempted before you can get a poor teacher out of the classroom?
LouiseM said…
Megan MC: "I feel compelled to play devil's advocate because I know many people who agree completely with Pitts...."

Thank you Megan for writing this post. Yours is the first realistic interpretation of what's going on out there. I think folks on blogs like these (education wonks or educators themselves) really forget that the general public/parent doesn't know the inner workings and are really working from their own direct experience or their child's.

My children have experienced excellent, good and useless teachers. All of these teachers "worked hard" but from my point of view the teacher can work as hard as s/he wants and still be ineffective--in other words the students aren't learning a damn thing because the teacher's communication style and delivery is flawed.

I'm a very involved parent and if I weren't my children would be in trouble because there were a couple of years where each of them had REALLY bad teachers who didn't know their students or their content--and that's elementary school!!! And these teachers were at the senior level so when there's a RIF they will still have their jobs and when a principal tries to get rid of them, they have the union on their side.

That is what I see from my own experience. There are millions of parents out there like me. Do not discredit us.
seattle said…
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seattle said…
While I have found that the vast majority of teachers that my kids have had were absolutely fantastic, and humbling, I have also found that in every one of their schools there has been a handful of well known "bad" teachers. Teachers with such poor reputations that parents heard about them before their kids even got to the school. Teachers for which parents will pull their kid out of the school if their kids land in their class. Teachers that are impatient and burned out who don't belong in a classroom setting, or teachers that are completely ineffective at classroom management, or teachers that can't clearly communicate a lesson, or who can't master the content of their lesson themselves, or who are verbally abusive, dismissive, and belittling to their students. I've seen those teachers, my kids have had a couple of them. And I've seen them continue to teach, without intervention or assistance, despite vocal outcry from many parents, year after year after year.

So, while I don't agree with standardized tests being the mechanism for teacher accountability, I do understand why parents back accountability reform.

When various groups of parents go to a principal year after year, for decades in some cases, with the same complaints about the same bad teacher, and nothing gets done, it seems clear to me that the system needs to be fixed. And I dare say this is not uncommon.
Ditto Rabbit and that's my point (which I think some people missed). My son had two bad teachers in high school the same year. Multiple parents pulled their kids from the classes while they could (we gave the teacher the benefit of the doubt, a mistake) and stayed.

The principal, to his credit, did work very hard to follow the protocol to get rid of them but it took almost a year. And where did they go? I hope they left our district but I don't know.
SPS mom said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
seattle said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
seattle said…
Why are we not just as outraged at the district using MAP scores to do 6th grade math placement, and determine need for summer school? Or the use of the HSPE as a HS graduation requirement?

If teachers shouldn't be accountable to these tests, should our kids be?

And great point SPS mom "We do a lot of work at home to make up for the District's poor choice of materials, so it's hard to attribute test scores solely to the quality or content of the teaching. "

I think this could be said about most active, involved, parents in the district. We tutor our kids, help with homework, inspire them, travel with them, put them in private music, drama, and art classes, encourage them to read for pleasure ....and all that adds up to higher performance on standardized test, but none of it has a thing to do with what's happening in the classroom.
SPS mom said…
I'm also concerned about the other uses of MAP results, but that's a topic that could have another thread (again).

The District quietly "updated" the Board assessment policy in April, which now allows for just about any use of MAP results, valid or not.

The reduced opportunities for summer school and the math placement are just perplexing. All this talk about increased learning time, then summer school is cut back? And why is it that math advancement is being limited?
Charlie Mas said…
FightingForKids wrote a number of important things. I'd like to highlight two of them.

"the general public/parent doesn't know the inner workings and are really working from their own direct experience or their child's"

"That is what I see from my own experience. There are millions of parents out there like me. Do not discredit us."

First and foremost, I would never try to discredit FightingForKids' experience. There are teachers who aren't very good. Everyone acknowledges this.

Now, what are we going to do about it?

I think the first thing we need to do is contact the teacher's supervisor, the principal, and share our concerns.

I think the second thing we need to do is hold the principal accountable for taking appropriate action.

Now, it may be that the teacher's communication style is simply incompatible with the student's. It may be that other students in the classroom are doing just fine. Even so, the principal should take some action - whether it be moving to the student to another class or working with either or both of the parties to improve communication. It may also be that the teacher just isn't very good.

Every ineffective teacher has a principal who is allowing that teacher to remain in the classroom. Principals who allow ineffective teachers to remain in the classroom need to be held accountable. It is the principal's job to make sure the teachers are doing their jobs.
none1111 said…
SPS Mom said: "And why is it that math advancement is being limited?"

I'm also very interested in this. The new Math Placement Contract would appear to make advancement easier in many cases, but cuts off the APP kids for no good reason.

Anyone have any more info on this? My limited inquiries have turned up nothing.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
Is Education about preparing children to compete on some race to the top? To have our 4th graders and 8th graders to be on top of Singapore's students on TIMSS/PISA international science and math tests?

Or, should all of us adults focus on all our children growing into successful adults...In their own unique way, at their own pace? Does anyone consider NOVA a failure because they don't compel students to graduate "on time?"

It’s a sad irony in American Education today that the “business model” for managing teachers that Gates/Broad/Waltons/Dells, et al, push, that Obama has bought into, that Leonard J Pitts wants to drive a yellow bus over the teachers' unions, has been rejected by those global companies who’ve had the greatest success. They’ve learned, back in the 80′s/90′s of the last Century that eliminating performance ratings and merit pay actually increased efficiency and quality of production. Why? It fostered teamwork rather than resentment and divisiveness over the perception of being treated unfairly.

Anyone of the “reform school movement” who doesn’t believe what I’m saying about successful global business models:

do some research on the history of the joint venture between GM and Toyota at the Fremont, CA auto factory, NUMMI. The same employees that their own union, UAW called "... the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States" were hired back and within one year produced the highest quality cars in less time than any other factory in North America. How did they manage to turn things around so quickly?

They got rid of the top-down management style. In fact they got rid of most of the management/supervisor system. Innovation came from the bottom up, from the workers assemblying the vehicles who were now working in teams of 4+. The single remaining layer of supervisors were responsible for getting the floor workers what they asked for to improve output. Any worker could communicate directly with the executive running the plant (at the time the son of the family head of Toyota). And, pay was based on experience, not on a performance evaluation, not on differentiated merit.

When you have a system like that you have teachers like EricM, "I'm accountable to myself first and foremost. I like doing a good job..." Accountability is not a tool for measurement; it's an integral part that is built into the system.

The teamwork management culture instituted at NUMMI should be the model for Seattle Schools, should be the model for any organization, public or private.
ken berry
Sahila said…
I agree with everything Ken Berry wrote... wish SPS would read some of Peter Senge's work about learning institutions and how to make them function well.... Fifth Discipline and Presence - good/valuable reads....
kprugman said…
There's a certain amount of hypocrisy at work here. Foremost we should ask ourselves, why did the test scores of a particular school go up, especially when we are aware of other factors at work.

Teachers transfer to other schools primarily because they know that the classrooms of these schools are better environments to work in. In my district we know which schools are better and in fact, schools east of the freeway have significantly better test scores than schools west of the freeway. Not much above average, but they're still better. This information is common knowledge.
My school is west of the freeway, but unlike other schools west of the freeway we are actually on target wrt NCLB, but still in a needs improvement status because the school continues failing so many low-performing students (mostly minorities and special needs students).

Our rate of turnover is roughly 50% of the students during the first and second year. There is no incentive for keeping those kids present on our campus and the disappear before May.

AYP overshadows all other directives and the result is a massive failure rate of students. We must rethink this policy, because it is divisive and if you are interested in how children develop into adult monsters than go visit one of these campuses. It should break your heart.

We're into the second week of instruction and I have one class where more than half are attending three or more Saturday Schools. Most for being tardy first and second period. I had one kid get kicked out for having some words with another kid - administrators didn't want to deal with her. My class sizes start out above 35, but by the end of Christmas more than likely they'll be below 25. I don't consider myself good or bad. Kids love me, this administrator hates me. I know myself too well. I'm a survivor and that's it. District trainings are a waste of time for teachers, if principals don't support what the district want.
kprugman said…
Here's another myth - more than half the students in the track i'm teaching in have iep's or they are identified with a learning disability. Everyone is in the same classroom - autistic, ell, hearing-impaired, dyslexic, disgraphic, etc. And I mean that I have everyone - my pace is about 2-pages of reading per day, we do Cornell notes, and we do 'test' preparation.

I have a pacing guide and I use powerpoint. I collect 40 some popsicle sticks per period from students and record their participation. I have classes that are monster size. Can I make test scores go up? Of course I can, they were already so low that it was unforgiveable. But is this an ethical way to teach? I didn't become a teacher for this reason.

Its even more sad that my own children failed in this type of 'structured' environment and yet they are normal, exceptionally gifted young adults. I had to be their source of inspiration, I wonder how many parents could find the luxury of raising their children to do what they loved. It was hard, even for a teacher.
Anonymous said…
Kprugman, what you describe is exactly what's wrong with "tracking".

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