Education isn’t as much in the mainstream media as it was just this past school year, which is sad given the march on Washington that recently happened (psst! As a former activist, i have to say that emergency rallies, while harder to populate, are much more effective).
So while this post also may not be as timely, I feel I must weigh in.
Not long ago, I was discussing (here?) a colleague from a nearby school who was being scrutinized for no clearcut reason. Her principal said things like, “I don’t think you know how to teach children how to read.”
The teacher in me cringes when I hear this because, while quite pointed, it isn’t helpful criticism. Is there a strategy she’s using that’s ineffective? Is there some aspect of the program she isn’t implementing to the principal’s liking? With the principal’s few extra years of teaching experience, was she able to problem solve and lead the teacher to find and address her weaknesses? Or is teaching children to read suddenly as easy as A, B, C?
The researcher in me cringes even more. The children this particular teacher is responsible for tend to be young, English-learning immigrants with limited or no prior education or experience with literacy in their native tongue, and have no exposure outside school with oral English. They typically aren’t read to at home or included in meaningful conversation since parents work long hours or are illiterate or alliterate themselves. Anyone who knows anything about ESL knows how pivotal oral competency or proficiency are to literacy. And there is scant research on how children such as these are learning to read in this new tongue. Much of the existing research is based on older students. They can’t “transfer” in the same way literate children can (in terms of reading skill and habit), even though some people like to talk about transfer as some magical element that just makes literacy in the target language “happen”.
Teachers responsible for teaching these children — and their administrators– are doing them little good if they are simply regurgitating the same approaches used to teach English-dominant kids. Yet that is what some teachers are being told to do. They are given teaching points such as, “good readers make sense of new words by asking themselves ‘does that sound right?'”. What a worthless lesson for newcomers! Yet when these teachers’ students don’t advance as quickly as native English-speakers, they are the ones being held accountable by getting their probation period extended before tenure is granted. Who does this help? It’s like setting a fire and locking the exits.
Anyway, back to my colleague. After two years of getting observed months apart, her principal came to teach a lesson to the students in this class. Only then did she realize the problem wasn’t with how this teacher was teaching. She saw how much they still needed to hear their first language to understand complex ideas (and codeswitching is outlawed), how several had clear learning disabilities, and how the current curriculum was severely deficient. This colleague was finally given some validation and the S grading she deserved.
My purpose in recounting this story is to show that the problem isn’t tenure per se. It isn’t a lack of tools for assessing teachers. It is sometimes a lack on the part of those assessing them. It might be pragmatism, relying too much on “data” (which is neither objective nor completely accurate), laziness, and lack of experience implementing the new curriculum and strategies they are pushing.