Imagine a School without Teachers: Would that Work?

This weekend, the drive along the New York State Thruway was full of wind, ice and snow. It was challenging to keep the windows clear, and the road was so bumpy that I thought maybe I had blown a tire. Or two. I was escorting my high school senior to another college audition, and we had already laughed about how this was the perfect time to see the school, in the worst weather conditions possible. We arrived safely, and the next morning made it to campus and a welcoming reception and series of presentations while the kids all took their music theory tests and headed to their individual auditions. What stood out for me were two conversations I had in which Governor Cuomo’s name surfaced in relationship to careers in education and the increasing degree of jeopardy in which teaching jobs have been placed most recently.

Where will we be without the music?

Because we were at a college of music, the focus of these conversations centered on arts education and the migration of prospective music education applicants to other areas of study because of ongoing cuts to music and art. This is a shame. The curriculum for a degree in music education is rigorous, including both performance and pedagogical requirements. These programs prepare students for a broad range of teaching responsibilities. To see these programs declining is to portend the decline of one of the most significant components of a K-12 education.

How are we approaching evaluation and professional development?

But of course conversations about the Cuomo plan do not end at shortfalls in funding to arts education. Much of the controversy today comes out of the challenge to teaching and teachers in general. “The 2015 Opportunity Agenda” includes proposals to evaluate teachers based on essentially two criteria.

  1. 50% of evaluations will be based on student performance on state exams (Proposal #37)

  2. 50% of evaluations should be limited to independent classroom evaluations (Proposal #38)

On the surface, it is easy to say that if your class is not performing well on the test, you as a teacher are not performing well at your job. But it is more complex than that. As we know, the advent of Common Core has introduced serious challenges to those schools who have adopted these standards. Test scores have dropped recently as both teachers and students venture into unchartered territory.

As I have previously written, bravo to those pioneers in edtech and teacher development who have provided a range of tools to help prepare teachers and to support students who have been immersed in the CCSS curriculum. But if the issue is with the curriculum itself, will any amount of professional development improve overall outcomes? We are painting our teachers into a corner. Where does that leave our students?

Are we abandoning public schools? And by extension, are we abandoning our teachers?

Charter schools are a political hot button and under as much fire now as ever as people question Governor Cuomo’s request for additional funding for and a raise in the cap on charter schools. That these schools play a vital role in both the populations they serve and in innovating teaching practices should not be questioned. This should not be an either/or argument. All public schools can benefit from best practices in teaching and curriculum design from the nation’s charter schools. But at what cost to the overall budget? Should young people have to “go where the money is” rather than choose an honorable profession because of an allocation of dollars? What we really need here is some creative business modeling to further leverage the private dollars going into education these days.

What is the forecast moving forward?

My high school senior and I were lucky enough to arrive at our weekend destination safely despite the difficulty of the journey. The road upon which our kids are undertaking their educational journey is well-worn and bumpy, and the conditions under which they are traveling are quite stormy. As an educator, as an optimist, as a lifelong learner, I want to envision our kids all arriving safely at their destination. I can’t see them doing that without well-trained and motivated teachers there to help them along the way. Right now, the conditions are a tad hazardous.

How can we ease the way?

A well balanced and well-designed curriculum that both requires and lets teachers do what they do best will provide some enticement for people to continue entering the profession. Most teachers I know want their students to succeed in life. In most cases, that means providing the skills to make better decisions and to sort through masses of data to effectively problem-solve in a wide range of situations and in confounding circumstances.

As long as we have a curriculum based on achieving well on tests rather than understanding how to effectively gather and use information for problems solving, we won’t be best serving our students interests. And if we decide to judge a teacher’s ability to teach based on the results of and prepping for that exam, we won’t be serving anyone’s interest. And we’ll probably be losing some valuable teaching candidates moving forward.

Let’s get back to the drawing board on this one, folks!

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© 2017 by Sheri Handel