First Person

Is This a Model for Excellent Teaching?

The path toward teacher certification is laden with demands that prospective teachers prove that they’re sensitive, socially conscious, and self-critical. If a national group of education agencies has its way, those demands could soon extend throughout teachers’ careers.

Teachers and others would do well to look at the “Model Core Teaching Standards: A Resource for State Dialogue,” released in July for public comment. Developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (InTASC), the new teaching standards (separate from the Common Core State Standards that have been in the news recently) retain much of the language of the 1992 teaching standards, with some reordering and rewording to match the “new times.” Whereas the 1992 standards were intended for beginning teachers (and adopted by 38 states), the new standards are for all teachers.

The ten standards fall into four categories: The Learner and Learning, Content Knowledge, Instructional Practice, and Professional Responsibility. Each standard is broken down into Performances, Essential Knowledge, and Critical Dispositions. Like the 1992 standards, the Model Core Teaching Standards downplay subject matter knowledge while emphasizing the social processes of the classroom and the attitudes that teachers should have. Because these standards come so soon after the Common Core State Standards, they might influence how the Common Core standards are interpreted and implemented.

The 1992 document devoted the first standard to content knowledge; the new standards address content in standards 4 and 5. Two standards devoted to content seem like more than one, but neither standard addresses the need for specific knowledge. They treat content as fluid and relative, not enduring or precise. One of the “critical dispositions” for the fourth standard states that

the teacher realizes that content knowledge is not a fixed body of facts but is complex, culturally situated, and ever evolving. S/he keeps abreast of new ideas and understandings in the field.

This statement reflects only part of the truth. Content is both changing and unchanging. Teachers should be aware of developments in one field, but they must know the subject well, down to the details. One cannot teach physics unless one knows its rudiments–regardless of recent discoveries in physics. One cannot teach a language well unless one is thoroughly versed in its grammar, idioms, pronunciation, inflection, and nuances. Anyone can babble about the latest theories on Shakespeare’s identity; fewer can illuminate the logic of Sonnet 146 or help students grapple with folly and reason in “Lear.” Such understanding requires years of immersion and thought.

The standards appear to treat knowledge as a subjective, personal, social matter. Consider one of the “performances” for the second standard, “Learning Differences”:

The teacher brings multiple perspectives to the discussion of content, including attention to students’ personal, family, and community experiences and cultural norms.

Why should this be expected of all teachers? There is a time and place for multiple perspectives, but when you take this too far, the teacher may deny students the clarity of a right answer or direct approach to a problem. In algebra class, for instance, it is important that students actually learn how to solve algebra problems. Personal experiences, likewise, can obscure as well as illuminate. Even champions of “text-to-self connections” warn that faulty connections can lead to confusion and distraction.

Collaboration is mentioned far more often in the standards than independent work; this imbalance may undermine the collaboration itself. Collaboration is valuable when students have something to collaborate over. Sadly, the more they are asked to collaborate, the less they will bring to the table, unless they also learn how to wrestle alone with problems, ideas, and language. There should be equal emphasis on rigorous solitary thought. The best collaboration happens when the members have worked on their own and put thought into the project. If they are unable to do that, the collaboration quickly degenerates into chatter.

The standards articulate many attitudes and “critical dispositions” expected of teachers. The ninth standard (Reflection and Continuous Growth) states that a teacher

reflects on his/her personal biases and seeks out resources to deepen his/her own understanding of cultural, ethnic, gender, and learning differences to build stronger relationships and create more relevant and responsive learning experiences.

Yes, teachers should be able to question their own actions and assumptions. An introspective bent is important if not essential to good teaching. However, things become murky when teachers must show evidence of their self-questioning. Teachers who resist that sort of public display might receive low evaluations in this area, while those who produce confessions may be praised. It is fair to expect teachers to abide by an ethics code; it is not fair to require them to display their self-questioning. This may be hardest on teachers who take introspection seriously (and there are many such teachers), for they will be asked to bare their souls or else come up with a superficial version of their thoughts.

All in all, the “Model Core Teaching Standards” rely on faulty premises. They downplay the importance of concrete knowledge. They disregard the enduring aspects of subject matter, the things that need to be learned, pondered, read, and reread. They emphasize collaboration without likewise emphasizing independent thought. They expect teachers to be reflective, but without autonomy of thought. None of this is particularly new; many education schools have similar value systems. Once upon a time, such requirements were part of a teacher’s initiation; once you made it through the hoops, people left your thoughts alone, unless there was reason for concern. Now teachers may have to demonstrate “correct” attitudes and thoughts throughout their careers.

Far from meeting the needs of a new world, these standards ignore the qualities that have characterized fine teachers over the centuries: knowledge and love of the subject; keen awareness of the students and respect for their privacy; and the ability to demand concentration, precision, integrity, and hard work. Within this, there are many personalities and variations — but these qualities are not outdated, nor will they ever be.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.