Saturday, October 22, 2005

Improving teachers or firing teachers?

The Governor has proposed Prop. 74 to make it easier to dismiss new teachers. This is typical of his thinking.
Teachers can already be dismissed (fired) for poor performance in the classroom. Under current law all that teachers get after two years of successful work is the right to a hearing before they can be dismissed.
Rather than scapegoating teachers as this initiative does, educational reformers need to focus on helping teachers to improve.
Teaching is such a complex act that it takes a long time to learn to teach well. Many do not hit their stride until 3-5 years of teaching. It is not like it was in making movies.
And, teaching without necessary support contributes significantly to teacher failure. Research by Ken Futernick and others studies indicate that between 30 and 50% of new teachers quit within the first five years, particularly in urban and low income areas. Most quit because the job is too hard and the successes are too difficult to achieve.
The high turn over rate is a serious problem. In low income schools you may have a school with 30- 40 % new teachers or first year teachers. In such places the new teachers have too few experienced teachers to support them.
In the last decade California has established a program BITSA, for beginning teacher support. It is often helpful, particularly when the BITSA coach is skilled. But, it , like nearly all of California’s school programs is under funded. And it calls upon skilled mentor teachers to work even more hours.
We could improve teacher quality. Essential steps would be to provide more time for learning to teach. Time is a crucial variable, particularly in the first few years. For example, at the secondary level new teachers could have a lighter load for the first year while they are learning. And elementary teachers could have a lighter load by giving them more support personnel or give them substitute teachers for 6 half days per year so they could visit and observe more senior teachers.
In Toledo, Ohio, New York City, and a number of school districts around the nation the teachers union has worked with administrations to assist and to develop new teachers. All teachers have a vested interest in the success of new teachers and in reducing the current high turnover rate.
Teachers working conditions in urban and poverty schools are often miserable. And few administrators have the time or the skills to help new teachers.
If the governor wanted to improve teaching, there are many ways to do so.
Placing Prop. 74 on the ballot is not one of them.
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