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Teachers Face the Future

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

With teachers under increasing scrutiny, it’s a wonder that anyone entering college today considers entering the profession.

Granted, with student performance on a downward slide for years, most of the education reforms that have swept the country in recent years were sorely needed. Using objective, standardized tests to judge school performance was the best thing to happen to New Orleans education, for example, since John McDonogh’s philanthropy built 30 schools.

On the other hand, if education officials take the current “blame the teachers” mentality too far, they may find themselves with thousands of unfilled positions in the coming years. The Utopian minded Baby Boomers are beginning to retire and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reportedly told Xavier University graduates in May that 1 million teaching positions are waiting on the horizon.

Will the Millennial Generation care?

Knowing what I know about this up-and-coming generation combined with the tough standards that teachers will need to meet to keep their jobs, I’m guessing the answer is “no way, Jose.”

They may tinker with the profession for a while, but unlike Baby Boomers, who tend to stick to jobs like flies on flypaper, the Millennials will flip-flop right out of there if they feel unappreciated.

Researchers characterize the Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and ’95, as sheltered, independent, confident, technically literate and well-educated. They job-hop to get what they want, and they expect career advancement.

And let’s face it, most teachers’ futures look like their pasts: 30 years of plowing the same rows of knowledge.

Now consider the newest fad in education reform: the “value-added” system for measuring teacher performance.

This system determines job retention, pay and promotion on individual student and classroom performance. In other words, if teachers’ students don’t perform well enough according to an annual, complicated evaluation formula, they could be booted to the street.

In theory this idea sounds reasonable, but for anyone who has ever taught a classroom of 25 or 30 rowdy, resistant, sleepy, undernourished, distracted or unloved students, it sounds threatening. Moreover, teachers understandably don’t want to be held accountable for other people’s failures, both parental and instructional.

Data-driven teacher evaluations are favored by federal education officials who are in control of $4 billion in Race to the Top grants that states are competing against each other to win. Several states have adopted “value added” or “growth” evaluation systems. The concept is gaining momentum in Louisiana, despite teacher unions’ reasonable objection that research doesn’t yet provide a clear correlation between teacher effectiveness and value-added evaluations.

Louisiana officials say every effort will be made to ensure that the new evaluation system will be fair to teachers and will take into consideration outside factors such as students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and past performance. Individual test scores and other student-related data will only make up a portion of each teacher’s evaluation, they say.

Even so, given the behavioral problems that teachers often face – especially in high poverty schools – such microscopic scrutiny could start feeling a lot like a horse whipping.

Many teachers in New Orleans are already working longer school days, typically from before 8 a.m. until after 5 p.m., to advance students to grade level. Nights and weekends are spent preparing lesson plans and grading homework. While it’s true that teachers get summer breaks to make up for longer hours during the academic term, the extended school year adopted in previous reform measures means their break is only a few weeks, nothing like the three months of yesteryear.

In the most troubled schools, working conditions can also be unsafe. More than one public school teacher of 6- and 7-year-olds in New Orleans has told me that the children she teaches are sometimes so violent that she fears them.

Their stories include a second grader who started a fire in the girl’s bathroom and another student who punched a teacher in the stomach.

All this pressure for an average salary of $40,000 to start, and $48,000 after 10 years? Louisiana Department of Education figures show that a teacher in New Orleans with a bachelor’s degree and 25 years of experience earns an average of $54,813.

The prospect of earning $40,000 right out of college and possible student loan forgiveness may encourage some Millennials to consider teaching as a starting profession. But the prospect of earning only an additional $15,000 after 25 years of service may not be so attractive. Mediocre pay and tough requirements for salary increases could off college students in the future, says Angela Daliet, executive director of Save Our Schools, an organization formed to give New Orleans parents a voice in education decisions.

“For young people making lifelong decisions,” Daliet says, “Pay is always a factor, not just the amount of pay, but what they have to do to get that pay.”

So far, longer hours and difficult working conditions haven’t dampened enthusiasm for teaching jobs in New Orleans’ traditional Recovery School District schools, but Daliet says that the applicants are usually inexperienced and unprepared for the type of behavioral problems that they would encounter in RSD schools.

“Even if we have the quantity, we don’t have the quality,” Daliet says. “They don’t have the qualifications to deal with these issues. I don’t know who will be willing and able to do that in the future.”

At the present, many New Orleans schools rely on first- and second-year teachers trained by Teach for America and other alternative programs to staff schools. Principals praise these novice teachers for dedication, but research shows that after three years in the classroom, a teacher’s professional growth levels off. That is about the time Teach for America contracts end and these high-energy 20-somethings take their enhanced resumes and head home to Boston, Atlanta and Seattle to start their “real” careers. This cycle of hire, train and turnover creates a system where many of the neediest students are consistently taught by inexperienced teachers.

Evaluating teachers annually according to student performance data won’t adversely affect short-term teachers, but they could unintentionally encourage potentially long-term teachers to stay away.

 

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