Sunday, October 23, 2011

Public Education: The First Steps of Change

All involved need to move forward.

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As a parent, I felt kind of lonely as I sat in the opening session of the Fairfax Education Summit last weekend. The audience seemed to be composed mainly of teachers who cheered the goal of smaller class size, grumbled at student assessments, and appeared ambivalent at the notion of technology in the classroom. There were mentions of long hours and burdensome requirements.

I have no doubt that teachers are feeling the dual pressures of No Child Left Behind requirements and from the influx of technology in the classroom with little training on what to do with it. Both issues involve change management, and the pressure teachers feel is caused by school boards and administrators failing to manage change. But teachers and their leaders need to change and evolve the teaching profession. In turn, parents and students -- as consumers of educational services -- need to change our perceptions of school and the school day, and to see teachers as professionals.

Step 1 for parents is accepting an 8-hour "business day" for students, going to school 200 days a year, and erasing the memories of long, lazy summer vacations that are relics of an agrarian past. (I always tell my kids that it's their "job" to go to school.) Time in the classroom is a better indicator of student success than class size or technology implementation.  With year-round school comes a valuable change in perception that teachers are no longer part-time employees.

Step 1 for teachers is to insist on a full year of 8-hour days for themselves and stop taking work home. Teachers now work 10 hours or more each day and occasionally weekends; that adds up to a full year for any other profession. Teachers need to say: "I'm going to put in a productive 8-hour day, work 235 days a year, not take work home, and not ask for more money." And posterity will see this as teaching's Greatest Generation.

Along with the change in the school year comes the need for teachers to embrace specialization, asking themselves: "What do I like to do and what do I do best?" I have seen teachers burn out in the classroom and leave the profession completely. Variety can be the spice of life and longevity for teachers. Classroom specialists, instructional systems designers, and web developers all have a place in the teaching profession. Specialization brings increases in productivity and the possibility that a large class can (gasp!) be an effective learning environment.  Further, teachers must seek and insist on effective professional development when not teaching to continually improve both themselves and the classroom environment.

Step 1 for the teachers' unions is to get out of their egalitarian mindset that all teachers start and end at the same place. We're all different; so are teachers. We already know that some teachers are best at elementary education where others excel in secondary. But some excel in the classroom; some don't. Some are terrific at lesson plans; other are best using a plan developed by someone else. Some thrive on technology; others ... not so much.

Look beyond the teaching certificate. For instance, look at the plumbing profession that differentiates its members into levels of proficiency such as apprentice, journeyman, and master. Why are teachers with 20 years experience checking homework and grading tests? That's the job of an apprentice or a computer. (Computer-based testing can also ease the pressures of student assessment.) There must be differentiation among teachers, removing those teachers that fail to perform at any level. The unions need to change their narrow focus from increasing membership to increasing teacher effectiveness.

Step 1 for school boards and administrators is adjust to a year-round school year where students are in the classroom for 8 hours a day, 200 days a year -- allowing the difference between the student-year and teacher-year to be spent on teacher professional development and change implementation, whether that's in the mix of professional skills or technology integration.

FCPS Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale said that "we need to challenge ourselves to design a new system and design it at perhaps 60 to 70 percent of the cost of the current system." Labor is the biggest single cost for any service-oriented organization. It's time to embrace, begin, and manage change -- one step at a time.