Sunday, May 30, 2010

A word about beating up on teachers

Some time ago I posted a blog on the importance of raising expectations for parents. That engendered an excellent dialog with commenters on whether it was appropriate to demand more of parents, and well, whose fault it is that we don't have more parent involvement. Some people thought that I was trying to "blame parents" for the failing of public schools. Pretty soon, some commenters were beating up on teachers, and one commenter was beating up on me just a bit, because he claimed that the school board doesn't appreciate teachers.

One of the regrettable trends in today's society is that people are more and more demanding that you must align with their point of view exactly: we are living in a "for me or against me" world. I reject the contention that if you don't agree with Education Minnesota 100 percent down the line, then you don't appreciate teachers. I reject the contention that you don't believe in reform unless you constantly beat up on teachers. We have great teachers in District 742. The vast majority of them are hard working, dedicated, highly qualified. We have the best teaching corps around, I believe, and that's based on years of experience with my own children.

Periodically we hear from the labor camp that St. Cloud's board of education doesn't appreciate teachers. To that, I can only say that refusing to bankrupt the school district to pay teachers more than we have is not a slap at teachers. Before I joined the school board, the district had taken a $6 plus million unreserved fund balance and had driven it down into the negative. When I joined the Board, the prior boards had left us with just about the smallest fund balance in the State of Minnesota--a negative $160,000. We were in the hole. I don't think that those Boards, the ones that persistently increased pay more than they received from the State of Minnesota were showing their love for teachers. In fact, if one really believes in public education, its your obligation to say no, when unreasonable demands are made. We still have major financial problems left over from that decade, when past boards decided to pay out in raises money that they didn't have. During that time, our textbook stock was bled down, and its going to take us years to recover from that neglect. We've gradually increased our fund balance, despite hard times, but we are still way behind where we need to be. Trying to balance the budget has nothing to do with your attitude towards the teaching profession.

Here are my thoughts on our professional teachers of District 742.
  • I believe that one of the great tragedies in education in the last decade is the trend towards claiming that the main problem with public education is the quality of teachers. As a result, it has been open season on teachers across the country. At the White House, the Department of Education, on television, in St. Paul, in the newspapers. But I believe that in St. Cloud, and in many school districts, the people who are doing the most for kids who live in poverty, or who are immigrants, or in an minority group, are teachers. They do more than ministers, more than advocacy groups, more than Mayors, councilmen, school board members, Congressmen, and education pundits. There are schools in Chicago, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Texas, that may hire and retain incompetent teachers. And so it has become popular for people like Arnie Duncan in the Obama Administration and the Secretaries of Education under Bush II, who hailed from Texas, to pretend that the entire country is one giant educational wasteland, as if all teachers everywhere are just like the ones in Washington D.C. One of the things that we need to do in our community is to recognize that we are blessed with fantastic teachers, far better than the teachers you and I had decades ago. They are confronting more challenges, and despite those challenges, they are offering much much more to students who care to take advantage of opportunities. Calculus, advanced economics, introduction to engineering, American and European history at the highest level, advanced writing.
  • I'm tired of so-called social justice advocates in this community, and from outside this community, who are constantly berating teachers and principals and blaming them for all of society's problems. There is nobody doing more in our community to give minorities, immigrants and first generation kids opportunity, absolutely nobody, than the teachers in our school district. They do more than ministers, more than advocacy groups, more than Mayors, councilmen, school board members, Congressmen, and more than education pundits. Listen. It's easy, when you've never taught a class, to pretend you are an expert on what teachers should be doing, and what they aren't doing. But when you talk to real teachers about real classes, it is obvious that they are dedicated to kids.
  • I find it ironic, that when students do well, people give credit to the parents, but when they do poorly, they blame teachers. When I talk to folks in St. Cloud, I am constantly telling them that my kids had great teachers, teachers who were better prepared and whose classes were more demanding than the classes I had when I was in school. When I point out that all three of my kids were offered a semester to a full year of college credit at world class Universities, they almost invariably say, "well that's because of the parents." No, its because the parents and the students took advantage of superb teachers. We can't have it both ways in our community. At our two high schools, we have more students taking harder courses, and doing well in those advanced courses, than in all other area schools combined. Our high school teachers graduate hundreds of high school students with advanced placement credit year after year. We send these students to outstanding universities, well prepared for rigor. Its time we give credit where credit is due. Parents are part of the equation. Students are a critical part of the equation. But great teaching is also a part of the equation as well, and we have a lot of it.
During my 30 plus years here in St. Cloud, I've been a consistent supporter of real teachers and the teaching profession. I've advocated that teachers should have more involvement in the planning of staff development. I've advocated that teachers should have career ladders, so that they can be more integrated into the decision making process when it comes to teaching and learning. I've advocated that classroom teachers should be deeply involved in the mentoring of other teachers. I've constantly opposed those who argue that the learning gap is a symptom of bad teaching. For a small segment of the labor movement, however, that's not good enough. My conscience is clear: Education Minnesota doesn't deliver instruction. I will continue to support sustainable budgeting. But at the same time, I reject the movement to blame our great teachers for the failings of society. The fact that Education Minnesota uses its labor power to demand that school boards pay out more money than they have, while true, is not an excuse to beat up on real teachers, doing their job.

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