Monday, December 3, 2012

Memphis, Shelby County School teachers face changes, challenges in programs and initiatives ahead

Memphis, Shelby County School teachers face changes, challenges in programs and initiatives ahead
By:  Michael G. Lander

Memphis and Shelby County School System teachers face more than just the issues of school consolidation in the year ahead.  As they adjust to the integration of two distinctively different school systems, they can expect the implementation of several programs and initiatives, some of which will not only affect how they teach, and how they are evaluated, but could tie student performance to their pay. 

For teachers, the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI) may be one of the issues that has the greatest impact and most far-reaching implications for them.  Shelby County Board of Education member, Martavius Jones, is one school board member who endorses it. 

"Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI) could have game-changing implications, not just in our school system, but nationally," Jones said.  "This initiative will help us better identify those traits and qualities that some of our better teachers possess and identify candidates who have similar characteristics and provide them the training and support that would allow us to increase the talent pool of educators." 

Fellow school board member Tomeka Hart echoed those sentiments.  "Through the initiative, we are better able to measure the effectiveness of teachers, to determine their professional development needs, and to provide the support they need to improve," Hart said. 

The TEI is funded by the Gates Foundation and "with support of the foundation, we are able to transform how we evaluate teachers from a system that was mostly punitive, to one that is substantive and allows us to focus on the support our teachers need to be effective," Hart added. 

For Memphis Education Association President, Keith Williams, however, there is a downside to TEI.  "The Teacher Effective Initiative was established to coordinate the implementation of the Gates Grant which now has control over evaluations and other areas of MCS," Williams said. 

Memphis City School teacher, Anita Huffman, has mixed feelings about TEI.  Huffman teaches Kindergarten at Fox Meadows Elementary and has nine years with Memphis City Schools and 17 years at St. Michael's Catholic School. 

"A big part of TEI is focused on professional development, but it is not real and relevant to use in our classroom," Huffman said.  "We're spending so much on this that it takes time away from the classroom and in preparation for teaching," she added. 

One change that teachers are also likely to experience is the approach in how the new consolidated school system will solicit their opinions and concerns. 

Currently, in the Shelby County School System, the "focus on Professional Learning Communities (PLC's) has created a culture of collaboration with leadership teams in schools that value the input of teachers and staff, and working teams that give teachers and staff an opportunity to influence important decisions and provide input on key school-wide issues," Shelby County Schools Communication Specialist, Shawn Pachucki, said. 

In the Memphis City School system, Jones referenced a school climate survey that is conducted annually to provide decision-makers with the feedback that they receive from their teachers.  While both systems solicit the input of teachers, Williams, however, does not think that this has carried over to the Transition Planning Commission (TPC), which is responsible for consolidating the Memphis and Shelby County School Systems. 

"The TPC did not solicit much input from teachers,"  Williams said.  He also said that there were no teachers on the TPC and "in the absence of practitioners who will actually do the work, how can anyone expect the proper conclusions to be drawn?"  For teachers, like Huffman, she does not see any benefit or change that has come from the annual online surveys that she and other Memphis City teachers take. 

"In general, most teachers probably don't think that our voices are being heard and that what we say seems to falls on deaf ears," Huffman said. 

When it comes to whether or not teachers should be paid according to their students' performance, Williams thinks it does have its place; however, by itself, it will never work when it is based on a projection model like the TennesseeValue-Added Assessment System (TVAAS). 

"There are too many variables with TVAAS.  It's like working with your hands tied behind your back.  A much better plan would be to have a pre-test when students begin the school year and a post test at the end of the school year," Williams said. 

Both Jones and Hart agree that the student achievement should be part of a teacher's evaluation.  "Achievement is the desired outcome of a teacher's work; thus, we should measure and hold teachers accountable," Hart said. 

"The overall effectiveness of teachers should be measured as objectively as possible and teachers should be promoted based on their performance.  Students' performance should be part of the effectiveness measure, but it is not the only component," she added. 

One of the biggest concerns for some teachers, like Huffman, comes from the evaluations that she sees as being unfair.  "My problem is that a percentage of whatever the school score is, affects your individual evaluation as a teacher," Huffman said. 

The other problem for Huffman is that the evaluation process takes a lot of time away from principals and assistant principals, and is, she contends, very subjective.  She endorses the idea of outside evaluators, which would be more objective and would free up school administrators to deal with school matters. 

Huffman said that teachers receive two evaluations per semester, one scheduled and one drop-in, and that these evaluations do not allow for spontaneity, but assesses  teachers on whether they follow specific criteria that includes the use of common core language.  She claims that this takes some of the joy out of teaching. 

One other casualty from the emphasis in following rigid curriculum and language, according to Huffman, is that there are no more "teachable moments," that are spontaneous and unscripted. 

Another evaluation that teachers receive comes from the students themselves in a survey called "Tripod."  "Every student takes this survey and five percent of a teacher's evaluation score is based on how the students rate us," Huffman said. 

One of the innovative initiatives that may be welcomed by some teachers is one in which the MEA has worked together with the Board of Education to establish last year.  It is the Peer Assistance andReview (PAR) program

This program provides support for new teachers and those who may be struggling in their classrooms.  "It is modeled on a program first adopted in the Toledo school system in the 1980's.  There are several PAR programs in other school systems around the country and MEA has supported such a program for years," Memphis Education Association UniServ Director Tom Marchand said. 

When it comes to state and federal mandates, Williams does not see that it necessarily translates to improved student performance. 

"Federal and state standards can take the joy out of the educational process.  When children are forced to meet certain test scores, they don't embrace the love of learning.  If a teacher can teach a child to think, question, and reason, then they will love the experience of education, " Williams said. 

One of these programs was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which Jones said has not been reauthorized so its future is now uncertain, at best. 

"It was misguided and it assumed that all children learn at the same rate.  It focused  too much on outcomes based upon standardized testing and failed to capture other aspects of learning," Jones said.  "It also focused on highly qualified teachers verses highly effective teachers.  It equated them to mean the same thing, and being highly qualified was largely determined by the number of degrees one attained." 

Marchand described No Child Left Behind as having "actually left many students and teachers behind."  "It may have been well-intentioned, but was destined to failure.  The goals and benchmarks were extremely unrealistic.  This is another example of putting something in place without the input of the teacher,"  Marchand said. 

The Race to the Top (RTTT) is another federal initiative that has had mixed results.  Proponents of the initiative include SCBE members Jones and Hart. 

"The funds allowed us to maintain staff whom we otherwise would have had to terminate as a result of budget cuts, and the program also forced districts to focus more on their struggling schools," Hart said. 

Jones conveyed a similar opinion by saying, "Race to the Top has helped school districts across the state to keep some initiatives in place that may have otherwise been a casualty of budget cuts." 

Williams is less enthusiastic about RTTT.  "Race to the Top is philosophically good, but the implementation is poor.  If the federal government can identify necessary changes that need to be made in order to increase student achievement, then they should just tell us what that is, fund it, and let us do that," Williams said. 

For some, the key to a child's success in school is greatly influenced by parental involvement.  "Parental involvement is immensely important.  Where there is strong parental involvement and support, the stronger the school is.  Parents trusting and supporting their schools lets children know that the school and an education are important," Williams said. 

Hart agrees with Williams and said, "If you look at our schools that are high performing, you will find motivated students, teachers, staff and parents.  We know we can be far more successful with high parental involvement," Hart said. 

She went on to say that she also acknowledges that what happens in the classroom is also of the utmost importance.  "An effective teacher can overcome the challenges of low parental involvement if that teacher is properly supported and has the resources needed to reach all students," Hart said. 

There may also be other factors that impact children's performance in school outside of the classroom.  "It certainly makes it more difficult for teachers to teach children when the children have a tremendous amount of outside forces to contend with.  Children are tempted or pressured to connect with certain groups or live certain life styles that can do nothing but make it more difficult to sit in school all day and listen to a teacher," Marchand said. 

One alternative to public schools is a voucher system that would allow students to leave public schools for private institutions.  "Some state legislators have already said they plan to have a voucher plan passed this year.  MEA and Tennessee Education Association (TEA) have opposed this effort," Marchand said.  He believes that it is supported by wealthy Tennesseans who want to reduce their tuition bills paid to their private schools.  In his opinion, this matter has nothing to do with improving education.

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