Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shooting for the Luna

I can’t say I know much about Idaho State Superintendent Tom Luna or his plan for education reform.  But what I do know worries me.  Here is another education administrator whose closest experience to K-12 education is far from the classroom, a 7-year stint on the Nampa School Board, according to his Wikipedia page.

I guess that is why the main points of his reform seem completely devoid of genuine measures to support teachers in improving instruction and learning.  The plan appears to me to be largely based on gimmicks.   Here are the main points of Student’s Come First, Luna's reform legislation:

1.       Distribute laptops to students
2.        Have all students take online classes
3.       Increase minimum pay for teachers
4.       Institute a performance-pay model
5.       Phase out tenure by implementing 2 year rolling contracts

Let’s look at these point-by-point…

1.       Laptops.  Technology is a love-hate thing in schools.  As soon as you equip that beautiful new computer lab it is time to upgrade again and even if the machines can handle the increasing demands of software, the Tech Guy or Gal probably doesn’t have time to service them and the machines function slow if at all.  It is a huge commitment of money, and what for?  Does a laptop make a student a better learner?  No.  Do laptops make teachers better instructors?  No.  Show me a study that says otherwise.  All technology allows you to do is present things in different ways.  Laptops do not a priori create active engagement, that still requires trained and experienced professionals.  I can tell you from 15 years in the classroom, including cutting edge education back in the 1990’s when the internet was brand-spankin’ new (I did a presentation once on integrating the internet into curriculum for Autodesk), that computers are useful tools and having them in the classroom is super-convenient, but they are not always the most effective and engaging instructional method.

2.       Online Classes.  I did a Masters Degree online and I loved it because I could cut through all the excess and right to the meat of what I needed to know.  I had a similar experience doing correspondence school when I was in 7th grade.  I could do a week of school in a few hours.  But, I am a pretty good student.  When I watch my students take online courses I see varied results.  Those who are like me, a quick study and good test-taker, do just fine, but those who operate in a less linear manner often do not have a positive learning experience.  Nothing can replace the face to face interaction with the teacher for these students.  Seeing the examples done before their eyes and the immediate feedback the classroom provides is irreplaceable.  Not even the best online classroom software is effective at this.  Online courses may be good for some students who have exhausted local offerings, beyond that it runs a real danger of alienating students.

3.       I don’t know what the current minimum pay for teachers is in Idaho, but considering the salary schedule was frozen for several years and the minimum is being raised to $30,000 a year, this doesn’t seem like much of a bone to throw.  Furthermore, it won’t help to recruit skilled teachers, largely because other parts of the reform do not support longevity (see number 5).

4.        Performance pay.  We’ve been here before.  The science says it does not increase student learning (see my posting “Pay Me More… but I won’t perform better”).   Luna’s plan for performance pay appears to be awarded on a group or school basis.  If the school does well, everyone benefits.  This at least does not squelch collaboration within a school.  There also appears to be some stipulations for local control over the measures used to determine performance, which is a step in the right direction regarding testing and accountability.  In the end though, whatever measures are used and all questions of equity aside, performance pay just does not improve learning.

5.       Rolling contracts.  Luna’s nod to multiple measures is good (by requiring only a portion of performance be determined by test scores) but the reality of this process is bleak.  Teaching is an investment, it takes time to develop and build a repertoire of successful lessons and practices.  Being on the chopping block every two years will not promote the risk-taking that can lead to innovation and creativity in teaching.  I know what it is like to be pink slipped.  I was pink-slipped the first three years of my teaching career.  Every time you get that slip you feel unvalued and deflated.  It affects your desire to show up to work.  This system is like being pink-slipped every two years.  Evaluations are good and even useful if done properly, but only teachers who feel supported to improve and safe to innovate will increase student learning.

In all, very few of Luna’s reforms will improve student learning.  His package does have appeal to those romanced by the pseudo-reformer movement.  By tackling a full hand of tenure, unions, and performance pay, Luna is attempting to shoot the moon.  But let’s call a spade a spade.  Luna’s motivations are not entirely clear and his emphasis on privatization of education is as dubious as his ties to for-profit education companies are deep.

Eat a spade for the team to stop Luna’s lunacy!  Reclaim public education!

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