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Teacher-Proofing Education Reform

Teacher-Proofing Education Reform

Patrick R. Riccards

“There is no way you can say teachers are underpaid. At first I believed it, then I looked at the numbers. Teachers get paid for just 1,500 hours a year, not the 2,000 hours I have to work. And they CHOOSE to defer a third of their compensation for when they retire, getting a pension I never get. If anything, teachers are overpaid.”

No, this isn’t a spoof of a discussion coming out of Wisconsin this past week. It is a real conversation Eduflack had with a real adult about the real issue of teacher compensation. And it points to a real problem that has surfaced in our battle for education reform, school improvement, justice, and the American way.

Without question, teachers are central to most of the issues discussed in modern-day ed policy issues. Performance pay. Achievement gaps. Last in, first out. Qualified and effective teachers. Turnaround models. you name it, teachers are central to it.

In years past, teachers were considered central to the discussion. The thinking was you couldn’t enact real, meaningful change in the classroom without winning over the hearts and minds of those classroom educators who had to put it into practice. Then along came NCLB, and an Administration that focused on “teacher-proofing” the curriculum. Today, we have movies, governors, and segments of the media that identify the teachers’ unions as public enemy number one when it comes to school improvement.

For the record, I believe in pay for performance. Years ago, I worked with New Leaders for New Schools on their TIF-funded model, and have the privilege of working with and learning from the folks out in Denver who established the ProComp system. ProComp is one of the only successful incentive pay programs in the United States, and for good reason. There, the superintendent (now U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet) worked WITH the local teachers union to build an merit pay system that was beneficial to both the school system and the school teachers. The union was at the table. And with both sides collaborating, there was one clear winner — the students.

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Yes, we have much work to do to provide a high-quality, effective education for all students. We need better-trained, better-supported teachers in the classroom. We need to shift from a culture of tenure to a culture of performance. We need to focus on the outcomes (student learning and student performance) and not just on the inputs (teacher ed programs and praxis exams). And we need a major shift toward a consumer-based system, where all those involved recognize that needs of the customer — the student and the family — are being met.

But we also need to realize that the strongest path to getting there is collaboration and partnership. Teachers want to see their students succeed, so what is preventing it from happening at the expected levels? The answer to that question doesn’t come from attacking the teachers unions, stripping teachers of collective bargaining rights, or ranting about teachers only working three-quarters of a year or getting their summers off. The answer comes, as it did in Denver, by finding that common ground where the school system, the taxpayers, the teachers, and, yes, the students all win.

Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat what we have seen for decades in “education reform.” New ideas and new programs coming down from on high, with teachers shutting their classroom doors, ignoring the reform, and just doing what they’ve always done.

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