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Posted at 9:33 AM ET, 03/12/2010

Why Obama should invest in teachers

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of The Forum for Education and Democracy, a nonprofit organization that is a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
This past week I was in Washington to talk with colleagues and friends about the upcoming debates over the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. While I enjoy the city and my friends, it was great to get back to my school just in time for Friday — one of my favorite days. And it has nothing to do with it being the day before the weekend.

Every other Friday, my staff and I meet for what we call ‘planning period meetings’. Since we are on a semester schedule with long periods, this means we have about an hour to talk about our shared work. During the first semester of the year, we read a book together and discuss it. In the second semester, we take on a protocol called ‘looking at student work.’

The task is simple; a teacher presents work from one of his or her classes to colleagues and asks us to discuss a question generated by the assignment. Usually this involves student work that is not what the teacher had hoped s/he would get. So we examine the lesson, the strategies used, and the student work and try to find ideas that will improve the work of students.

This past Friday lived up to our usual expectations.

We began with an Agricultural Science teacher presenting student essays that did not address the need for evidence in making their case. I sat in the back as the group of middle and high school teachers from math, science, humanities, and special education (along with a couple of student teachers) poured through the work. The discussion looked at how students were coached on such assignments through the term, what the rubric looked like, how to use the building-wide writing standards.

Then, during the second period a team met to look at a 7th grade science assignment, and the discussion turned quickly to how students see work as opposed to how we see it. (In this case the teacher had asked for students to create a poster showing living things from most simple to most complex — the kids mistook it for a chart showing how humans evolved from sponges!)

For third period, we looked at how to create performance assessments in trigonometry; the most interesting ideas came from the band instructor.

We finished with a look at an integrated humanities class that blends history and literature for ninth graders. The assessment of the unit on ‘Revolution and the Enlightenment’ asked students to compare and contrast the ideas that informed the Founders’ calls for independence. Having not received the papers he had hoped for, the teacher wanted us to look at the literacy tools he had used during instruction and see if they were best suited for such writing.

I sat in my office at the end of the day marveling at what I had heard -- the insights shared among colleagues, the seriousness with which they took student work, and the effort to understand instruction as it cuts across content areas. Here was a professional learning community at work.

And I wondered, what if the policy movers and shakers who are responsible for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now known as No Child Left Behind, had been with me today and not back in Washington? Would they finally understand that the most important investment they can make is in teachers and teaching?

Would they see that if we have teachers doing the type of work that we did today, they would not have to worry about micro-managing schools? Would they realize that what we need is less threats and punishments, and more opportunities for motivated teachers to help and learn from each other and improve the quality of their professional practice?

I think the would, so here’s my open invitation: stop by any Friday and spend a day with us. We’d love to have you.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 12, 2010; 9:33 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Teachers  | Tags:  George Wood, Obama, guest bloggers, teachers, teaching  
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Thank you for sharing this important article. Every Tuesday at my school, we meet together during planning periods and we discuss many different aspects of teaching. In the past year, we have discussed and debated the role of homework, studied student test data and analysis, examined our grading systems, evaluated our classroom evaluations, and discussed student behavior. I wish that legislators could attend just one of our meetings, because then they could see that teachers need support, resources, and continual leearning opportunites, not divisive policies and lack of funding. I really don't think that people understand that the majority of teachers want to be better at their jobs and want to see all students learn.

Posted by: Rose82 | March 12, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I too am perplexed by the idea of "reform' that seems to have at it's very core the implication that if we get rid of the teachers, our schools will be the best in the world.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 12, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I too am perplexed by the idea of "reform' that seems to have at it's very core the implication that if we get rid of the teachers, our schools will be the best in the world.

Posted by: celestun100
Why the perplexity?

Politicians with NCLB saw teachers as the scapegoats for government's refusal to attempt to address the problems in educations.

There should no surprise that the President wants to continue the public popularity that can be obtained by bashing teachers and the unions of teachers.

Why do anything that might be expensive and difficult when you can get more votes by having a convenient scapegoat?

Cash For Cars, Cash For Caulking, and bash a teacher everyday.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 12, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Having worked in the education field either as a teacher or a lawyer for the last 30 years or so, I can say that teachers are not the major problem with our educational system- lack of good parenting is the major problem. Yet, there are too many teachers I find who, honestly, have low intelelctual capabilities and low potential. While subbing in a special education class this Wed., I was left a note by the teacher to "..right down the names of anyone who gave me trouble..." This year I have been left a note by a seventh grade English teacher telling me about "...the things the kids could of done..." I would go on and on but...

I will not even begin to remark upon the fact that the students are never corrected when they pepper their oral statements with 'like' and 'you know'; or how the vast majority of students think it is okay to start a response to a question with 'because' rather than construct a complete sentence. The students appear stunned when I correct them, but, to their credit, they adapt quickly when I explain to them why I am asking them to correct their speech/writing. They WANT to be correct. However, the sad fact is that the vast majority of teachers talk and write the same incorrect way.

I firmly believe that the lack of decent pay for teachers is why the best and the brightest college students do not, on average, think of teaching as a suitable field. Only in warped America does the notion that you get what you pay for disappear when it comes to our educational system. How sad.

Posted by: bokun59 | March 12, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Dr. Wood for showing everyone what the majority of public educators are all about. We are professional, and scholarly, life long learners who are being bullied with stories about firing bad teachers etc.

I also thank you for sharing what authentic real collaboration should look like. We should be look at student work and not some outside multiple choice test data. I'm so tired of the way we're using the word data these days. I don't even know what the word means anymore. This is part of the problem. We aren't truly thinking solid data. Please take some time, everyone, to read the work of Peter Johnston. He's a brilliant researcher around assessment etc. The International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers English have created a great document around literacy assessment standards.

The bureaucracy involved in public education these days is frightening. We are so intent on meeting government mandates that we don't take time or don't have the vision to implement these mandates correctly. How can teachers be effective when we are met with so many road blocks? I'm not even talking about kids and parents. I can handle that and even thrive on work with this population. In fact some of my kids would not be accepted to charter schools, which is why I want to continue to teach in public schools. And yet I'm tired of the bureaucracy.

Lately, we have been working on RTI. A great a lofty goal that I support. But we are implementing it incorrectly. How do we put the visionaries, like Dr. Wood, and organizations, like the forum for education and democracy, in charge of our education policy.

I would love for CNN and Newsweek to listen to you, Dr. Wood. Also, they should be looking at organizations like NCTE or IRA and other organizations that represent the real public educator.

Dr. Wood, would you please become a CNN education consultant? :-)

Posted by: tutucker | March 12, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Having worked in the education field either as a teacher or a lawyer for the last 30 years or so, I can say that teachers are not the major problem with our educational system- lack of good parenting is the major problem.
Posted by: bokun59 | March 12, 2010 2:29 PM
The lack of "good parenting" is the refrain of millions of Americans.

This makes as much sense as saying that a large number of children that have rickets and are malnourished is because of the lack of "good parenting".

Poverty is the problem where it is common to neglect children from day one. Even the working poor have a difficulty in not neglecting their children when they are scrambling with multiple low paying jobs.

To Americans this is the talk of bleeding heart liberals. These American have no understanding that liberal thought began with the recognition that allowing the problems of the poor to be ignored simply created problems for a nation. Look at our ever growing prison population where most of the inmates come from backgrounds of poverty.

Many children of poverty come from an environment where no attention has been spent on preparing them for school. Is there any wonder that these children have a difficulty in learning in comparison to many middle class children who have not been neglected and actually know how to read when they enter public schools?

Neglected children enter the public school system and it is no surprise that they will have monumental difficulty in learning.

Are there any real programs to deal with this problem or are there heads of school systems and politicians who simply claim that teachers are expected to deal with these problems?

Imagine a teacher who only speaks English and given a class of children who do not speak English and you perhaps approximate the problem of public schools in poor areas. The head of the school systems and the politicians would not dare to say that the teacher should handle the problem.

Currently there is a pretense that poverty is not the problem. This only creates a situation where poverty increases from a public school system that simply refuses to take the steps to save the ones that can be saved from day one.

A majority of students of public schools in poor areas leave the public school system poorly educated and in many cases with behavior problems. These individuals have difficulties in obtaining jobs because of their lack of education and even because of their behavior and demeanor. It is no surprise these individuals simply expand the problems and costs of poverty in this nation.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 12, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

(In this case the teacher had asked for students to create a poster showing living things from most simple to most complex — the kids mistook it for a chart showing how humans evolved from sponges!)
One has to laugh. I can only imagine that these teachers are from an affluent or middle class public schools and not from a dysfunctional public school of poverty.

Evolving from sponges may be that Sponge Bob is the closest children can come to the idea of simple organisms in the sea. That was a joke.

Children are more creative and more complex than adults. When a teacher asks them to do something mundane many children do not believe that teachers would ask them to do something so mundane and simple.

Why would a teacher want a poster with a cabbage and a cat?

Far more likely that the teacher wants a poster that illustrates the evolution of organisms over time.

The lesson from all this is that teachers should give less inane and mundane make work to children. Of course perhaps teachers feel there is an educational value in training children to deal with mundane and inane tasks. Teachers may find this important since so many adults are perfectly willing to accept inane and mundane make work in their daily lives.

Posted by: bsallamack | March 12, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

For anyone who still believes education is about teachers and not politicians.

Texas ed board adopts social studies standards. Associated Press

...rejected an attempt to ensure that children learn why the U.S. was founded on the principle of religious freedom.

They also agreed to strike the word "democratic" in references to the form of U.S. government, opting instead to call it a "constitutional republic."

In addition to learning the Bill of Rights, the board specified a reference to the Second Amendment right to bear arms in a section about citizenship in a U.S. government class...

Posted by: bsallamack | March 12, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

bokun 59 wrote:too many teachers I find who, honestly, have low intelelctual capabilities
Hmmm. How's that again?

Posted by: notation | March 12, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Again, as in the past, I want to thank those of you who have taken the time to respond to my comments, I appreciate the feedback an enjoy reading even the critical ones.

A couple of notes: First, the average family income in our school is $22,000 and about 80% of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. We serve a rural, Appalachian area. The assignment that bsallamack critiqued was actually a pretty good design to get kids to look at what makes animals more complex--what we discovered was that it could be misinterpreted by the kids because of the type of materials they were given to use. That is, it was a long roll of paper and, in their experience, long rolls of paper are used for either time lines or number lines that go from left to right. Thus the confusion.

I am glad to hear from colleagues that you do the same work at your schools...I never claim to have an original idea; so maybe we started planning period meetings based on what you do.

Finally, while there are teachers who should not be in the classroom (I have relieved several who were at my school prior to my arrival or who did not work out after hiring), the vast majority of them care about their students and their career. What we need to be about is creating the places where teachers can do their best work, supporting them to improve, and moving out those who find the job too daunting.

Again, thanks to all of you who write. I believe we share an agenda of how to support and improve our public school in order that our young people might develop the habits of heart and mind that make democracy possible.

Posted by: DocWood | March 13, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

The National Staff Development Council (NSDC) advocates for every educator engaging in effective professional learning so that every student achieves. High quality professional learning can ensure educators have the knowledge and skills essential to helping students meet demanding standards for success. NSDC is asking Congress to adopt a new definition for professional development as part of the ESEA reauthorization process. The definition shifts resources for professional development away from ineffective professional development to the school-based learning strategies you undertake with your staff. NSDC believes these processes are critical to creating professional learning that can demonstrate its impact on student achievement. I invite you and others to read about our efforts at Congratulations on recognizing that educator learning is key to student learning.
Stephanie Hirsh, Executive Director

Posted by: StephanieHirsh | March 14, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, Dr. Wood, for your notes.

May I also add that your idea of collaboration makes a lot more sense than how I see collaboration working in various schools. It's being done in word only. I like the idea that you actually look at student work, come up with performance based assessments etc. So even though other schools may be doing what you are doing, others are not.

In regards to your comments on dedicated teachers. I often tell my students that, as Ted Sizer would say, I don't only want them to benefit from "using their minds well," but I want to benefit from them using their minds well. (And I'm not talking about merit pay.) I want my own children to benefit from a society that is well educated. I not only teach because I care about children, but because I believe in an educated society.
Dr. Wood, do you get discouraged when you see President Obama's new education plan? Can you tell us if you see a light at the end of the tunnel in regards to providing every student with a quality education. Will we ever get on the right track? What can we do to influence our lawmakers?

Posted by: tutucker | March 14, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

tutucker: Thanks for the feedback. Watch for my next post, coming out on the Blueprint document and what we can do to push it in the right way from the field.

Posted by: DocWood | March 15, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

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