Last Wednesday, my son, like so many youngsters around the country, began his second year of instruction at a local middle school tucked away in suburban southern California. Though the name and the exact location have changed, it is essentially the same middle school that both my wife and I attended roughly a quarter-century ago.
By and large, the names and faces of the faculty have changed since the (ahem) late 1980s. But, there has been one constant, and my wife and I could not have been happier to see that my son's 7th grade social studies teacher was, indeed, the same woman who had taught both of us all those years ago.
Indeed, she has been doing so for over a half century now. Yes ... you read the preceding sentence correctly.
When she hit the 50-year mark last year, there was a torrent of praise in the community. Deservedly so. After all, how many lives in this town of 30,000 or so had been enriched by her lifelong commitment to children and education?
Alas, not everyone feels that way. Indeed, the level of respect afforded to those who have devoted their adult lives to the education of children has diminished to the point that the prevailing zeitgeist suggests that comparably junior members of the profession are somehow inherently superior to their more experienced colleagues.
If it seems like I have travelled down this road before, it because I have. Eighteen months ago, I wrote about how "tenure reform" was an attack on veteran teachers and their employment rights, wrapped in the cloak of "improving education" for kids.
But this new trend is far more sinister. Now, the "reform" crowd (including an alarming number that sell themselves as progressives) don't merely want the ability to fire veteran teachers. They want to strip them of something that has greater intangible value: their status as mentors and role models for the profession.
Follow me below the fold for the explanation.
Herein lies "the future of education":
Tyler Dowdy just started his third year of teaching at YES Prep West, a charter school [in Houston, TX]. He figures now is a good time to explore his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.
Mr. Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28. Across YES Prep’s 13 schools, teachers have an average of two and a half years of experience.
This isn't a bug, ladies and gentlemen. It's a feature, as one of the directors of this particular charter school organization made clear later in the piece:
“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ ” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep. “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.”
The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools.
“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”
The premise here, in both cases, is simply insulting. As someone who has been in the classroom for 17 years, I can tell you that any second-year teacher who really thinks "Okay, I've got this" is most likely (a) painfully arrogant and (b) completely wrong.
But it is telling, is it not, that people who claim to be all about education are so dismissive about how easy the profession is?
Are there any other important professions that people would be so casually dismissive? Does anyone say, "Hey, forget about David Boies. He's been around too long. I want this kid just out of Boalt Law School when I go before the Supreme Court. He's been doing this for two years, but he says that he's 'got this.'"
Of course, if your entire ethos (inherent in both the charter school community and TFA, which critics often joke should stand for "Teach For Awhile") is predicated on inexperienced staff, the only way to lend credibility to your cause is to make the argument that experience is irrelevant.
But, in recent years, the argument has grown far deeper, and far more sinister, than that. The argument has essentially become that experience is a detriment to quality education.
Consider the framing of the argument found in this article in this week's Atlanta Journal-Constitution (which, in fairness, is a very balanced discussion of the subject):
Are veteran teachers better than novice ones as a result of their time in the trenches or are new teachers more enthusiastic and open to change?
A national researcher once [argued] that the most effective year for teaching is around year 7, a point at which teachers are experienced enough to have mastered classroom management and crowd control but are still young and optimistic enough to avoid the calcification into seething resentment that can come from the indignities and pitfalls of the profession.
The "reform" crowd has long addressed the issue of veteran teachers as a battle between "youth and optimism" and "calcification and resentment." Not only is the argument offensive, it is also wrong. There have been multiple studies that confirm that teacher effectiveness
is enhanced through experience. What's more, a 2012 study showed that teacher turnover
(a built-in feature of charter schools, as we read earlier) does
appear to have a negative impact on student performance.
But there are other, more obvious reasons for the "reform" crowd to diminish the value of experienced teachers.
The most obvious one is money. Experienced teachers simply cost more than their less experienced colleagues.
But of equal importance is that experienced teachers are often the most vocal and impassioned voices for the rights of professional teachers.
Do not underestimate how much the "reform" community loathes the role veteran teachers play in acting as the guardians of the professional rights of teachers. Much of the intellectual heft, and virtually all of the money, in the "reform" crowd comes from the financial and business elite. For example, when Wendy Kopp founded TFA, she did so by pitching her plan to Fortune 500 execs. That netted her the seed money needed ($2.5 million) to get her plan off the ground.
So the "reform" movement (and the charter school movement) is fueled by corporate cash and wealthy donors. This is a shock to precisely no one. Now, ponder for a moment how that crowd typically conceives of its workforce, and then see the obvious translation to "education reform."
One undeniable component of that corporate mindset in education "reform" (and the charter school movement) is an ingrained hatred of workers' rights in the classroom. Even in their own propaganda, the charter school lobby admits that less than one-in-eight charter schools are unionized. There is no chance of that being an accident.
And that allows the charter school movement to place often outrageous demands on its employees, without fear of conflict. The NYT profile on charter schools points out, as one example, the fact that teachers at the YES charter schools are issued cellphones by the school, and are told they have to be available to tutor students via phone at virtually all hours of the day (the article specifies that faculty are obligated to take calls until 9 PM).
Charter schools need a weakened workforce, dependent upon the goodwill of the bosses, in order to insist on things like demanding that employees offer up to 30 additional hours a week of uncompensated labor. In short, they need a bunch of temp workers, who would never dare challenge the authority structure, because they are more interested in getting a decent recommendation letter to the MBA program in their future than they are to upholding some minimal rights for the profession, since it is a profession that is viewed merely as an attractive line on their bio for whatever is next in their future.
In contrast, veteran teachers are confident enough in their convictions, and have a broad enough depth of experiences, to question the inherent value of "reforms," especially when said reforms are coming from people with scant, if any, classroom experience. What's more, they are fiercely protective of the profession, because they know that they are in it for the long haul. The part-timers will not fight, because either (a) they don't care because they're looking at the next rung of the ladder or (b) they're afraid. Neither of those things apply to veteran teachers, which is why they will fight.
That's why the "reform" community views veteran teachers as a threat, and it explains why they are so interested in diminishing their value to the educational process.
Which is a damned shame, because a sane society would honor the voices of the people who spend decades in the trenches, rather than the people who, at most, spent a year or two in the classroom and then assumed that they gained all the knowledge necessary in that small sampling of classroom experiences. Really, this shouldn't be a debate. But it is, and that speaks volumes about the perilous state of American public education.