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Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Deep Desire to Be Reviled is Not Why I Chose to Become a Teacher

I started writing this article under the title of “WEAC Has Let Me Down (and Why You Should Feel the Same)” after the announcement of the “'Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms' Platform” by WEAC (Wisconsin Education Association Council) president, Mary Bell on Tuesday, February 8. You can find information about this proposal from this link:  http://www.weac.org/Libraries/PDF/WEAC_UNVEILS_MOVING_EDUCATION_FORWARD_-_BOLD_REFORMS_PLATFORM.sflb.ashx

The proposal by Bell was almost completely eclipsed by Governor Scott Walker's announcement on Friday, February 11 that he wants to make severe changes to the relationship between all unionized public employees and their employers. It is still important to take a look back at Bell's proposal as it emphasizes the sweeping significance of what Walker is proposing.

“Moving Education Forward: Bold Reforms” dealt with two of the most popular political topics in education: teacher evaluation and performance pay. It also included a plan to divide the Milwaukee Public Schools into several smaller sections; while this third component raises concerns as well, I want to focus on the first two reforms proposed.

In the press release linked above, Bell is quoted as saying, "The union is accepting our responsibility for improving the quality of the profession, not just for protecting the due process rights of our members. Our goal is to have the highest-quality teachers at the front of every classroom across the state.”

I disagree on a fundamental level; the only purpose of a union is to protect the rights of and secure benefits for its members. I understand the argument that the union can and maybe even should be involved in discussions about teacher quality as it might relate to helping preserve jobs. This proposal was, however, a very unsuccessful and near sighted attempt to insinuate the union into this process.

The proposal laid out by WEAC for teacher evaluation includes a component of teachers evaluating other teachers. Once you are passing judgment on a colleague you are no longer a colleague. While I understand the logic of having someone who is a classroom teacher be part of the evaluation process, I am all too familiar with the realities of human nature that will cause this program (if it is adopted) to allow teachers to be targeted unfairly for termination.

More over, this proposal might cause people to avoid actual constructive collaboration. I seek out the advice of colleagues all the time on classroom management issues, curriculum development, and specific teaching activities. In a future where my colleagues are in a position to judge the quality of my work, seeking such advice might give them reason to consider me a flawed teacher. Or if they have a personality conflict with me, they could use my genuine desire to improve my teaching as false evidence of my inability to do the job.

Such a radical change in position should have been put to a vote of the members. These proposals add considerably to the role of the union and alter the relationships between locals and school districts.

In the press release Bell goes on to say, “This is a pivotal time in public education and we’re in an era of tight resources. We must have systems in place to ensure high standards for accountability – that means those working in the system must be held accountable to high standards of excellence.”

I will interpret this quote sentence by sentence: The state legislature has made it clear they are not going to live up to their obligation to fund education. So, we have to figure out how to make all of these changes they want on the limited budgets we have - that means we are going to focus on the only thing the politicians care about, test scores.

All of these evaluations (test scores, evaluations, etc.) would be part of a pay for performance plan. These plans simply make no sense. It has been proven many times over the last 50 years that trying to pay someone for creative and/or cognitively challenging tasks is counter productive. On the other hand, pay for repetitive, manual tasks can encourage a slight improvement in output. So, are we believing the lie that we can pay for performance or are we saying that it is okay to dumb down the profession of teaching to the point where little cognitive effort is required?

Dan Pink explains the findings that prove the disincentive that pay for performance represents in this video from the TED Talks: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html.

When you ask people to do the unlikely sometimes they are able to succeed; however, when you demand people do the impossible they will either cheat or resign themselves to defeat. We have already seen ample evidence of teachers and administrators altering test, removing failing students from rolls, and coaching students on test answers in order to meet the impossible to reach goals of No Child Left Behind.

Governor Walker's proposal adds just one more layer of difficulty to an already difficult job. No one does their best work when they feel they are under constant threat.

Mary Bell seems sincerely distraught in her response to Governor Walker's proposal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTfy8ZTEjzQ. I believe her when she talks about the reasons she got into teaching and became involved with the union. I also suspect that she is upset because her big political gambit failed and the impact of that failure is settling in.

I believe that Bell got into education for much of the same reasons I did. Becoming a teacher provided (what I used to believe was) a stable job in a community where I could build a life. It doesn't provide pay that will make me rich, but it pays the bills. Teaching allows me to be involved in a field I am passionate about while also working with young people. I have come to greatly appreciate the chance to see adolescents mature into young men and women.

In his own biography, Walker boasts about the small town values that he learned going through “lean times” in Delavan, WI. He seems to only remember the values of balanced budgets and “small government.” I suspect he must have learned a lot more than that.

Though times were tough Walker still got a good enough education to be selected for Badger Boys Nation, attend Marquette University (though he didn't graduate), and work for IBM. The proposal he has made will guarantee every student in this state receives a lower quality education than they should. As a teacher in another small town in Wisconsin, I wonder how Walker has forgotten other small town values such as the importance of an education that allowed him to “escape” that small town. I can't imagine what his former teachers at Delavan-Darien High School are thinking today.
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