The final assignment for SOC419 is an essay detailing a reform measure that could be taken to respond to the crisis in American education. The following is a student recommendation for public education policy.
The basis of pedagogy is the dissemination of information from one to many. There are peripherals that for better or worse we have come to rely on, but the best policy of the state is to insure that quality teachers are in the classroom. The best any education system can do is to facilitate a teacher in a classroom with a group of students with an appropriate atmosphere in which to best practice their craft. The professionalization of teaching is essential to attracting, retaining, and fully utilizing good teachers. This paper proposes to accomplish those ends by fundamentally restructuring the system of administration and evaluation.
While those who call for better teacher quality often blame low salaries as the reason low-quality candidates are being attracted, the truth is that despite relatively low pay, people still want to teach. The problem is not so much a lack of new teachers being available; it is the rising rates of attrition. 33 percent of all teachers leave their schools in the first three years, 46 percent within five years.
As pointed out by a study done on teacher retention, “there are a plethora of causes for teacher attrition, although most involve nonsalary-related dissatisfaction, such as excessive workloads and high-stakes testing, disruptive student behavior, poor leadership and administration within schools… studies have found that moderate salary increases are only marginally effective; raises of 20 percent would be needed to make a significant impact.”
This shows that throwing more money at the problem (unless it is a whole lot more money) is not necessarily going to be what it takes to build a steady, professional, and respected teaching corp. Teaching always has been a labor of love. It is those who will teach regardless of monetary recompense that are the most desirable candidates as well.
Instead, the emphasis of the system must be shifted to the administrators. I propose a plan which would fundamentally change the power structure in schools to insure more fair and accurate assessments are being made. In addition to creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and accountability in the relationship between the administrators and teachers, this plan would create a self-sustaining structure to ensure high-quality administrative candidates in the future.
The first aspect of the new system must include a dissemination of the power of evaluation. Because of the deficiencies of an assessment system based on standardized test scores, this paper proposes a new model in which a number of co-principals or vice-principals make assessments of teacher inside each school based on a number of factors. To give a basic idea of how this would work, let us examine an average school. The average number of classroom teachers to a school in the US is 51 with about a 15 to 1 pupil to teacher ratio.
Either four co-principals or one principal and three vice-principals at this average school would be able to effectively appropriate their time to cover all the teachers. With 36 weeks in the average school year, if each evaluator spent one third of his or her time in the classroom observing the teacher or evaluating by another method, that would allow 60 days of evaluation for each administrator. Their duties could be organized on a rotational basis in order to allow efficient use of time.
A second key factor of this plan is the breakdown of responsibility for assessment. In a system with 4 co-principals, each administrator would have a quarter of the assessment liability. In the 3-and-1 system, which might be more palatable, it being a less drastic change, the principal would have a 40% say while the three vice-principals would have 20% each, enabling them to overrule. This breakdown of power is essential to the success of the new evaluation system. It aims to correct for flaws in current principal evaluation systems in which favoritism and politics play the most significant role. By distributing the power of judgment to multiple sources, the potential for these abuses is reduced. The beneficial aspects of principal evaluation are preserved however, most significantly the ability to evaluate within the specific context of the school and the access to classroom evaluation. It allows evaluations to take into account the intangible qualities which make a teacher great, like staying after school to help a student or painting a mural in the hallway.
Equally important is what is at stake. In order to grant more extensive autonomy inside the classroom to teachers there must be consequences for underperforming teachers. To achieve this, I propose we designate a new category of teachers that will be known as “Master Teachers.”
In every school, the top ten or twenty percent of teachers (as decided by the evaluators above) would have a designated status that would recognize them as masters of their profession. This position could be tied to whichever benefits that particular district chose to extend, such as tenure and seniority as well as merit pay. The flexibility of this system allows it to be implemented on a large scale.
There are two other benefits, however, which would apply universally and be more significant. The first is that teachers who became established Master Teachers would be placed on a fast-track to jobs in the administration, ensuring that our most competent and accomplished educators are in the assessment role in the future. The second is more abstract. The larger goal behind creating this program would be to create a position which would mean something significant to society. With the right publicity effort, this position could become an exclusive designation that would be considered an important accomplishment. While there is much discussion on “professionalizing” the teachers in this country, little has been done to enhance their status. If we publicly recognize excellence in the field of teaching on a consistent and yet sufficiently exclusive level, it would be possible to restore prestige. The exclusivity (only 10th or 20th percentile) is essential because it sets a challenge for ambitious teachers while keeping attainment within the realm of possibility (unlike other recognition such as the Teacher of the Year Award).
The opposite could also be true. In an effort to ensure that unambitious teachers are motivated to perform as well, there could be a bottom tier of teachers (the bottom 10 or 20 percent) who would face consequences as a result. These consequences, once again, could be as varied as pay cuts, loss of tenure, or simply the humiliation of a public designation as sub-par.
The beauty of this system is that it allows for a great deal of flexibility and autonomy when it comes to policy. In no way is this proposal attempting to prescribe methods of assessment, a much larger and scarier topic, simply to alter the focus of the system. Teachers should not be extensions of the state; teachers should be free and creative thinkers who impart knowledge through genuine passion. By attempting to standardize and regulate the teacher, we have degraded the profession. It is instead the administrators who ought to be the state incarnate. It is their job to look out for the interests of the state and of the system. Let the teachers be free of that.