Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Dear Brian Lehrer,

I was listening to your show this morning, and heard that you will be taking calls from teachers in NYC about the changes to the school system made by Chancellor Klein. I would love to call in, but I'm going out of town for the rest of the week, so I thought I'd send an email instead.

I imagine you'll get a lot of phone calls from teachers who are angry and upset:
  • they feel the new curriculum limits their ability to use professional judgment about how best to present material.

  • the lower grades teachers hate the new reading rugs, are afraid they are health hazards, and don't want to spend their afternoons vacuuming.

  • they are frustrated by administrators who micromanage stuff like bulletin board displays.


I am fed up by such conversations. They tend to polarize the issue, presenting it as either you love Klein & Bloomberg, are pro-change, and are anti-teacher and anti-union, or you hate Klein & Bloomberg, are anti-change, and are pro-teacher and pro-union. To me, the issues are so much more complex.

The NYC school system has thousands of teachers. In the four years that I've worked in public schools in the Bronx, I've met a few excellent teachers, a few terrible teachers, and many who were neither excellent nor terrible, but struggling to do their best and grow as professionals. I would put myself in the last category.

I believe that excellent teachers, and many good teachers, can take almost any curriculum and adapt it to fit the needs of their students. To do so, they need supportive administrators who focus on the spirit of new policies rather than the letter: principals who can observe a lesson and see the ways that it follows the new curriculum and the ways in which the teacher has adapted it for his or her particular students, and above all, the ways that it does and does not help the students learn. This kind of leader can distinguish between what is important in the new policies, and what is open to adaptation. A micromanaging principal, on the other hand, cannot distinguish between what matters and what is less important. This kind of principal might observe a lesson and comment only on a petty aspect of the bulletin boards, or some other item on a checklist.

I would say to many of the teachers out there: Your complaints are aimed in the wrong place! You ought to be complaining about principals who are not good leaders, who are in it for the money, who can't see the forest for the trees. And keep in mind that every policy passes through several levels of bureaucracy before reaching the teachers, so it is possible that your principal is nitpicking because his or her instructional superintendent or even regional superintendent is setting an example of petty, punitive enforcement of policies rather than open-minded, supportive leadership.

Furthermore, I don't see how we will ever know whether a certain curriculum is a good idea or not until we give it an honest chance to work. Teachers, that means doing your best to put the spirit of the new curriculum to work in your classroom. Administrators, that means supporting teachers rather than punishing them, and focusing on the big picture. Politicians, that means leaving well enough alone for at least two or three years before sweeping in with the next big change, providing the money to actually implement programs completely and successfully, and collecting data on the new curriculum to look at before making changes.

Let's talk about money. A great deal of money is wasted every time a new mayor gets elected, a new superintendent gets appointed, a new principal starts working, and new programs are purchased. It seems like every time we turn around, someone has bought a new set of test prep books or basal readers or classroom libraries, while the old ones rot in closets. Please give policies and curricula enough time to really be evaluated on their merits before throwing them out the back door and spending more money on the next new thing.

Let's talk some more about money. A single adult can certainly do fine on a beginning teacher's salary in New York City. She will have much more difficulty if she's a single mom or has student loans to pay. The starting salary is at least reasonably competitive to attract well-educated people (especially in a slow economy - not so much in the boom times). The longer a teacher works in the system, however, the worse her financial situation becomes. To increase her salary, she has to go back to school. The best master's programs cost a lot, out-of-pocket; lower-tier programs are often paid for by the city or state. After the first ten years, salary increases based on experience are few and far-between. Just at the time when most people are thinking of starting a family, buying a home, etc., salaries start to look really bad compared with what a well-educated person with comparable experience could be making in another profession. Again, think of that single mother, or two teachers trying to raise kids in the metropolitan area on teaching salaries. And think about graduates from the best universities in the country - Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc. - who have their pick of careers. Why would they ever choose a profession where after getting a Ph.D. or two master's degrees, and working for twenty years, they are making only about double their starting salary? By that point, they could be millionaires if they went into banking, full professors in academia, established doctors or lawyers... you get the picture. Money isn't everything, but it's not nothing, either!

And have you ever spent the two days before you start a new job on your hands and knees, scrubbing dirt out of the corners of your office? Didn't think so. Teachers do this all the time in New York! Working conditions stink. Classrooms are too hot or too cold, get repainted only every five years, and get mopped once every couple of months. Those teachers who are vacuuming rugs are right: that's not their job. Don't blame the rugs, though, blame the city for not planning ahead and negotiating with the custodians to include vacuuming rugs in their contract.

Anyway, many teachers go into administration to increase their salaries. Administration is not an advanced form of teaching; while some teachers instantly become great administrators, many do not. Klein would do well to focus efforts on recruiting and "growing" great administrators who will be true leaders in our schools. (ALong these lines, I think he already has a summer Principal's Institute).

Furthermore, I'd love to see my union and the Dept. of Education negotiate a contract with increased salaries at the later steps in the salary schedule, and some kind of significant merit pay system. Teachers who get National Board Certification should get a significant increase in pay, to the tune of at least $10,000 a year. Other forms of merit pay could be piloted on a voluntary basis until a workable system emerges. And the most talented teachers - not just those who've been in the system longest - should get released from half their teaching duties to mentor new teachers. New teachers should get released from half their teaching duties to observe their mentors, meet with them regularly, and fulfill certification requirements. I think this kind of system would improve recruitment of talented professionals, retention of great teachers, and would balance the incentives to stay in teaching versus going into administration. (Don't get me wrong; becoming a principal is a great and important thing. My dad's a principal! But do it because you want to, not for the cash).

Anyway, there's plenty more I could say, but I have papers to grade. If there's one thing I want you to take away from this letter, it's the importance of good, well-educated people, as teachers, as principals, as regional administrators. We need to find those people and support them, recruit more of them, and give everyone opportunities to grow and mature as professional educators.

Sincerely,
Ms. Frizzle

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