New America Media, Commentary, Matt Amaral, Posted: Jun 28, 2012
As I often peruse articles on education, I am forever baffled by the lack of meaningful ideas about the direction it should take. The only plans seem to revolve around curtailing collective bargaining rights, evaluating teachers, tenure reform, and Mitt Romney going so far as to say class size doesn’t matter.
It is as if we are in an endless spin-cycle of nothingness. A washing-machine that doesn’t clean.
The only way we are going to make gains in education is if the quality of teachers goes up — and in our capitalist society, that quite simply means paying teachers more. This might be the single-biggest solution no one is talking about.
Let’s take the inane babbling about evaluating teachers. We talk and talk and there seems to be some sort of expectation that if we evaluate teachers more effectively, they will get better. It is as if the problem we have is we just aren’t trying hard enough.
But if we get these great evaluations going and get rid of all the dead weight, who is going to replace the bad teachers? It’s not like our public high schools have lines around the corner of highly-qualified, ambitious people trying to get these jobs.
At my high school we hire 3-4 new English teachers EVERY YEAR. And that’s just in the English department. Choosing a few applicants from a stagnant pool doesn’t ensure any kind of success. And if we got rid of teachers with tenure who aren’t operating at a high level, we have no one to replace them.
Even if evaluations get done right, there just aren’t enough top-notch people out there who want to be teachers. They want to be hedge-fund managers.
Then there is the notion that everything else but the teacher in the classroom – be it the curriculum or a new program — will fix the problem. My high school went so far as to offer a scripted curriculum that told the teacher the exact words to say over the course of the entire two hours. That’s right, cue cards that required no deviation.
As for the administration, there hasn’t been a single principal, vice-principal, department head, superintendent or district official that has ever made a difference in the way I teach. I couldn’t even tell you what our superintendent does, but I can tell you in all honesty he has absolutely no effect on what I do in my classroom. I do know a little bit about what our assistant principals do, and to a lesser extent our principal, but I can also tell you their effect in my classroom is so negligible it might be non-existent.
I should know, in the last six years my high school has gone through 8 principals and 24 assistant principals. The turnover at administration has been just as bad as the faculty. Those administrators have barely figured out how our school works before they run away. Two years ago, we went through four principals.
Oh, and we’re getting a new one next year too.
Let me be real clear, so there’s no mistaking my message. Nothing matters but the teacher in the room. NOTHING.
Unless you’re talking about the development of new teachers and raising the status and pay of teachers in our society, you are speaking on fringe issues. Even class size is a fringe issue because good teachers can teach a class of 38 (I’ve done it).
When I was hired one day before school started for my first year of teaching, they told me I was teaching something called AVID. Within weeks I learned that I was tapped because no other teacher at the school would touch it. It was a broken program. It didn’t work. So they gave it to the new guy because it had been adopted district-wide and my site had to have a section. They were 9th graders.
Fast-forward six years, and the AVID program is thriving. I’ve brought in five other teachers, a counselor, our principal, even people from the local community college to be part of our AVID Site Team. We recruit from our feeder middle schools, we have a Junior Trip to Southern California, end of year banquets, parent nights, field trips, college panels.
How do you explain this?
Did they limit the AVID teachers’ ability to bargain collectively? Did they start evaluating us? Did they take away our tenure? Did they start giving all the AVID students multiple-choice tests all the time? The answer to all of these is no.
It was the teachers. And a counselor.
Call it AVID, Puente, MESA, EDGE, AP, Honors. The programs themselves are meaningless unless you have someone in the room who is doing the job right.
I always find it funny when a student says to another student, “AVID is awesome. It is such a great program.” I feel like telling them, “No it isn’t. It’s a program just like all the others, it just has different letters. In fact, it is a program designed to make you take notes, organize your binder, and get into study groups. You hate that kind of s–t. The only reason you like AVID is because Ms. Eastwood is your teacher.”
If we are serious about improving education, nothing matters but the teacher in the room. You need to show us the money, or all this talk will continue to be what it always is — fringe babble. And in a presidential election year, we sure don’t need any more of that.
Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher from the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a featured blogger at EducationNews.org, a leading international website for education issues. You can also follow his work on the blogsite, Teach4Real.com.