The battle to improve American education falls, roughly, into two camps: those who favor more evaluation of teachers (based, in part, on student scores), and those who insist educators need freedom to direct classwork as they see fit.
The trouble is, both approaches pretty much leave teachers to sink or swim on their own.
“In America, that’s how it’s always been done,” wrote Joe Nocera in a New York Times column earlier this week:
An inexperienced teacher stands in front of a class on the first day on the job and stumbles his or her way to eventual success. Even in the best-case scenario, students are being shortchanged by rookie teachers who are learning on the job. In the worst-case scenario, a mediocre (or worse) teacher never figures out what’s required to bring learning alive.”
Chris Eide, a former math teacher at Mercer Middle School who stepped away from the classroom to run the advocacy group Teachers United, agrees, and his fledgling organization works to inject practicing educators into Olympia-level discussions about what teachers actually need to do the job.
In general, training programs churn out highly educated young people unprepared to manage boisterous kids, lead them in discussion or correct common student mistakes before they become entrenched. Seattle’s Teacher Residency Program, which places apprentice teachers in classrooms under a guiding mentor, is an attempt to address this.
But as Eide sees it, the problem goes beyond preparation to the ways we promote teaching as a career — or don’t.
“High-performance teachers who work in high-poverty schools – every year they leave, and we don’t seem to care,” he said. “No one tries to convince them to stay. We just burn them out. People who get really good don’t stay, they eject.”
Eide, whose group seeks to change the prevailing teachers-union culture, has a resume that will make some pigeon-hole him immediately: He worked at a KIPP charter school, did time with Teach for America and runs an organization funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Still, sending energetic classroom educators to Olympia to give a ground-level perspective on hiring prctices, seniority and evaluation (among other topics) sounds like something most camps can endorse.
Teachers United, which formed three years ago, has about 600 loosely affiliated members and will hold its first “Transformative Teaching” conference at the University of Washington next month.
Wondering about this new strain of activist-educators? Consider listening in.