“Teachers Matter”

Last evening, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address to Congress and the nation.  The speech focused on the four pillars the President and his team see as necessary for turning around the United States and strengthening our community and our economy.  No surprise for those following the pre-game shows, education stood as one of those four pillars.

Five paragraphs committed to education.  One pointing out our states and districts are cutting education budgets when we should be strengthening them.  One on the importance of teachers.  One on high school dropouts.  Two on higher education and how we fund a college education.  (We have a sixth if you include the President’s call to do something to help hard-working students who are not yet citizens.)
So let’s go ahead and dissect what the President offered up last evening.
“Teachers matter.”
Absolutely.  No question about it.  We cannot and should not reform our K-12 educational systems without educators.  Teachers (and I would add, principals) are the single-greatest factor in education improvement.  They need to be at the table as we work toward the improved educational offerings the President and so many other dream of.
“So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.”
Sign me up.  As the son of two educators, the last thing I want to do is bash a teacher (I’ll get in trouble with my mom if I do).  As I’ve said many times on this blog, teaching — particularly in this day and age — is one of the most difficult professions out there.  Most people aren’t cut out to do it, or at least do it well.  We need to make sure our precious tax dollars are being directed at recruiting, retaining, and supporting great teachers.  We should reward classroom excellence with merit pay and other acknowledgements.  But the President is also right in noting we cannot defend the status quo.  We can no longer debate whether reform is necessary.  Reform is necessary.  The discussion must now shift to how we change how we teach, not whether we change.
“In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”
Yes, yes, yes.  Great educators know how to help virtually all kids learn.  They know to tailor their instruction based on data and other research points.  We should be encouraging that and empowering teachers to do so each and every day.  But we can’t lose sight of that last clause (and many may have missed it last night over the cheap applause line of not teaching to the test).  We must “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”  In our quest for a great educator in every classroom, we must also realize not everyone is cut out to teach.  We need serious educator evaluation systems that ensure everyone is evaluated, everyone is evaluated every year, and those evaluations are based primarily on student learning.  And, like it or not, student performance tests still remain the greatest measure we have for student learning.  So if we can’t get struggling educators the professional development and support necessary to excel in the classroom, we need to be prepared to transition them out of the school.       
And lastly, President Obama’s “bold” call to action to ensure every student is college and career ready.
“I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.” 
And here we have the President’s big educational swing and a miss.  This is a process goal, not an outcomes goal.  Based on AYP figures and recent on school improvement and turnaround, we know that far too many kids — particularly those from historically disadvantaged populations — are attending failing schools.  This is particularly true of secondary school students.  
Why force a student to stay in a school that has long been branded a “drop-out factory?”  Why keep a kid in school until he is 18 when he only reading at the grade level of an eight-year-old?  Why stick around for a high school diploma when it also requires massive remediation to attend a postsecondary institution?
No, the call should not be to require students to stick around a bad situation, giving us nothing more than a process win.  Instead, we should be focused on improving the outcomes of high school.  How do we demonstrate the relevance of a high school curriculum?  How do we engage kids?  How do we provide choices for a meaningful high school education?  How do we show the college and career paths that come from earning that diploma?  How do we make kids see they want to stick around, and don’t have to be mandated to do so?
At this point in time, we all realize that a high school diploma is the bare minimum to participate in our economy and our society.  For most, some form of postsecondary education is also necessary.  Until we improve the quality and direction of our high schools — and help kids see that dropping out is never a viable option — that mandatory diploma will be nothing more than a certificate of attendance.  We need to make a diploma something all kids covet … not a mandatory experience like going to the dentist.
 

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