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Stop demoralizing teachers

By Kay McSpadden
Special to the Observer

In the preface to her new book, Reign of Error, education historian Diane Ravitch recalls a conversation with New Yorker writer David Denby.

“Your critics say you are long on criticism but short on answers,” Denby said.

In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Ravitch addresses that criticism, but only after spending the first half of the book taking the current corporate school reformers to task for their failed policy initiatives.

This week she did the same in her speech in Raleigh at the Emerging Issues Forum. Ravitch pulled no punches in her assessment of recent North Carolina legislation that demoralizes and scapegoats teachers without addressing the real issues impacting student achievement.

“North Carolina stands today as a negative lesson to the nation about how to destroy public education and how to dismantle the teaching profession. That may sound harsh,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s true. The duly elected officials of this great state are destroying the very institution that made the state great and demoralizing the very people who are trusted every day to care for its children.”

N.C. Rep. Rick Glazier, a Democrat from Cumberland County, posted this reply on Ravitch’s blog:

“Your speech to the IEI Forum was extraordinary and really sparked immense discussion on the floor of the Forum and later this afternoon. It cogently summarized the dramatic and destructive effect of the Republican policies of the last session, which has led us to 49th in the nation in teacher pay, 46th in state spending on education, the abrogation of career status for teachers while offering only 25 percent of teachers a long term contract no matter how many on merit deserve them, elimination of mentor pay and all professional development funds, termination of our nationally recognized Teaching Fellows Program, massive cuts to teacher assistant positions, student support services, administrative capacity, textbooks and supplies; and creation of a new voucher system and all but unregulated charters, unmoored from their original purpose and accountable supervision, soon to litter every corner of the state.

“Five years ago our commitment to public education was the envy of most of the nation; today, we are the example of all that is wrong with the term ‘reform’ of public education by those who, in reality, too often seek to abandon it, and [are] a betrayal of our children of and their educators in the process.”

In a move that signals the beginning of serious pushback, the Guilford County school board decided this week to sue the state over the law that abolishes tenure, which Guilford officials called unconstitutional and unclear.

Unlike higher education, where tenure confers academic freedom and job security, in K-12 education tenure simply means that teachers have a right to due process before termination. Otherwise teachers could be dismissed for reasons having nothing to do with their abilities as teachers: racism or sexism, for example, or to replace higher-salaried experienced teachers with novices making less.

Eliminating tenure would make all teachers “at will” employees with no recourse if they are targeted unfairly. By agreeing to give up a guarantee of fair treatment, 25 percent of North Carolina’s teachers will be offered a compounded pay increase starting with $500 the first year.

Not surprisingly, teachers have responded to the change with dismay. Not only does it insult teaching as a profession, it pits teachers against each other as competitors, ignoring the collegial structure of schools.

Teachers in South Carolina aren’t feeling much love these days either. Last week, House Bill 4419 was discussed in the Education and Public Works Committee. One of its most egregious missteps is basing 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation on student achievement.

Problems with tying student test scores to teacher effectiveness are well-documented. Both the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education argue that the types of measures being touted by legislators as ways to evaluate teachers are invalid and unstable.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University researcher who specializes in teacher evaluations, points out that teacher ratings “largely reflect whom a teacher teaches, not how well they teach... This is true even when statistical methods are used to ‘control’ for student characteristics.”

Why are elected officials of North Carolina and South Carolina pursuing demoralizing, debunked “reforms” that harm public education?

Because tackling the real challenges of public schools – the growing income gap, the uneven distribution of resources, child poverty and all its attendant miseries – is hard work.

Hard, but not impossible. Diane Ravitch spends half her book talking about the ways to improve the education of all America children. One place to start is with an attitude change in Raleigh and Columbia, and a reversal of the current push to de-professionalize teaching.

Guest columnist Kay McSpadden can be reached at kmcspadden@comporium.net.
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