Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Education Gadfly Podcast for 4/13/06

Podcasts are a new thing for me. I installed the iTunes reader a couple of weeks ago and went looking for podcasts related to education, but didn’t have much luck beyond the Merrow Report and a TV news show from England. That being it, I was pretty excited to hear that Edexcellence.net was going to be starting a podcast to accompany the always-interesting Education Gadfly column that Chester Finn does every week.

The results so far aren’t bad, and I hope the show sticks around. It’s a little too jocular for my tastes sometimes, and I do wish Mike Petrilli would be more than the Colmes to Rick Hess’ Hannitty. They could learn a lot from the John Merrow podcasts, actually—they’re excellent shows that combine informative and entertaining in a very tight package.

There is one segment this week that I’d like to talk about, based off of this new report from Robert Gordon at the Brookings Institute:

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Petrilli: So, here’s the question though: we now know that a teacher who is horrible in their first or second year in the classroom is most likely going to be horrible 5 years later. They’ll get a little bit better, but they’re never going to be as good as the teacher that looked pretty good in the first couple years, you can predict. So if we see teachers who are flailing in their first couple years, more so than their peers, that are clearly not getting any results in student achievement, we should just do them a favor and fire them on the spot.

Hess: You know, a lot of this is just common sense. In any walk of life people can and do get better, but certainly when we’re talking about how we want to invest money and who we want to keep and who we want to pursue, there’s a bunch of this common sense stuff, and what we’re seeing is bi-partisan agreement on what it looks like.
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My first year of teaching was spectacular. I’d never really wanted to be in the lower grades, but when my first principal called me up and offered me a 1st grade position I jumped at it just to get my foot in the door. It was great. Heck, it was magic. The kids made spectacular gains across the board. They were diligent, intelligent, and every single last one of them gave an incredible effort day in and day out. They made the job easy.

Year 1 was heaven, and year 2 was hell. I could tell from the first day that this was a completely different group of kids and I was never able to establish control. My biggest problem was a little girl with pre-adolescent bipolar disorder, which I wouldn’t have believed existed until I met her. She was a kicker, a biter, a thrower, a screamer, and she sent me home bruised on several different occasions. Compound that with the seizure disorder and Oppositional-Defiance that she also had, and we had a grand time.

The kids weren’t learning, and I was burning out fast. I remember sitting at my desk with tears in my eyes one night at around 8:00, trying to figure out the right buttons to push. It had been so good the first year; how could it have gone so wrong, so fast?

My principal took notice, but anyone could tell that the group I had was difficult. It was a difficult time in a lot of places that year; this was the 2002-2003 school year, and the buildup to the war in Iraq meant that a lot of the moms and dads would be leaving soon. When June came and the kids moved on, it was a happy thing for everyone involved.

Then came year three, and I sucked again. Screwed the pooch, as my high school football coach used to put it. Again, I had no control. Again, the kids weren’t making gains. One year you can call an aberration, but two years is a trend, and my trend was sinking like the Titanic. Happily for me I had passed the two-year probationary period and couldn’t be non-renewed outright.

Here’s where the public policy aspect comes into play. If my principal had fired me then and there I would have left teaching, and I couldn’t have blamed the guy a bit if he had let me go. I was doing a bad job and everyone knew it. The trick is that I got better. Love and Logic saved my career by teaching me a better way to talk to the kids and handle the problems that came up. Here in the northwest Dr. Gib Bennington is pretty famous for teaching a class called “Disrupting the Disruptor”, and it too made a great difference. Year 4 was great. The behavior problems that had ruined the last two years were nearly non-existent, and this year I think I have a real shot at getting 85% of my kids to pass the end-of-year DRA reading assessment. The majority can be above average, and that’s cool.

The neatest thing is that this year the staff picked me to be the teacher of the year for our school. That meant an awful lot to me, being recognized by the people who I work with for the things that I do.

So, despite two bad years, I’ve improved. I’m making a positive difference with all of the kids and my scores prove it. If I’d been let go after that 2nd or 3rd year, I wouldn’t have had that chance. Could my school have found someone else? Sure. Would they have been better than me? Quite possibly. Would they have been doing me a favor, or my kids a favor, by firing me as Petrilli suggests? Debatable. Is this clearly common sense, as Hess calls it? In my opinion, no.

My point is that so much of the success of a class is based on the type of kids you have. I'm a better teacher now than I was three years ago, but I still don't think I could have done much with that group even if I knew then what I know now. The two ladies that teach across the hall from me are both incredible teachers, but one in particular has felt like she's really struggling this year, and it's based off of the kids more than anything.

This is leading me into a post about value-added models and getting the teachers who are the best to the kids who need them most, but I'll leave that alone for now.

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