Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Public Servants Should Be Supporting Education": Wake Forest Professor's Open Letter to the North Carolina Gen. Assembly

Wake Forest Professor Alan Brown has published an open letter about education to the Senate President of the North Carolina General Assembly. In the letter, Brown writes of his concerns that the state's education measures will prove to be destructive rather than helpful or efficient. Brown, an English professor, wrote to NC Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger about the education bills that Derek has been covering this summer, including budget cutscharter schoolsand replacing teachers with Teach for America recruits.

The Gen. Assembly's laws on education, voting rights, and abortion sparked "Moral Mondaysprotests at the state house. Brown's letter, published last Sunday in the Greensboro New-Record, is reprinted below:

As a native of Guilford County and a former public school teacher, let me first thank you for your interest in K-12 education in North Carolina. I believe it is important to see our state representatives openly discussing the work of public schools while considering potential improvements.

Sadly, I fear you have set us on a destructive path to privatizing education while cutting many crucial budgetary items that make our schools successful. Instead of collaborating with educators to implement public policy, you and your colleagues seem convinced that ending teacher tenure, eliminating class size caps, cutting teacher assistants, adding armed guards, increasing funding for standardized tests, and encouraging recruitment of teachers with limited preparation will be some sort of saving grace for North Carolina schools. While I cannot possibly speak to each of these policies in such a limited space, I hope to highlight a few that seem the most perilous. 

Let me begin with your interest in private school vouchers and charter schools, both of which will likely push resources away from public schools at a time when so many, particularly schools serving low-income areas, are desperately in need of greater assistance. While few educational stakeholders would argue against the theory behind school choice (i.e., parents choosing the best schools for their children), you are clearly staking the futures of countless students on private schools, many of which will remain unaffordable for parents despite vouchers, and charter schools, well-intentioned organizations that have become direct competitors of public schools thanks in part to the influence of private donors.

In addition, caution is warranted because private schools generally require no teacher licensure and provide limited public accountability. Moreover, numerous studies have found that the average charter school is no more effective in educating its students than its average public school counterpart. As a result, I cannot help but wonder whom your policies serve to benefit most: the students who need the most support or the students whose parents have the economic resources to move their children out of public schools.

This brings me to teacher preparation. I want to commend you for considering alternative pathways for entering the teaching profession, but your emphasis on placing teachers with little to no preparation for the classroom through programs such as Teach for America also deserves closer examination.

Allow me to refer you to a 2012 study published in Educational Researcher by Gary T. Henry, Kevin C. Bastian and Adrienne A. Smith. This study offers a fascinating look at North Carolina’s nationally recognized Teaching Fellows Program, which I am disheartened to say is being phased out and replaced by a glorified lateral-entry program called N.C. Teacher Corps.

In this study, researchers found that, while N.C. Teaching Fellows are less likely to teach in lower-performing or high-poverty schools, they were highly qualified to enter the teaching profession, well prepared for their roles as teachers, better able to produce gains in most content areas, and more likely to remain in teaching beyond two or three years, the average retention rate of candidates placed in low-income schools through Teach for America. (See Donaldson & Johnson’s 2011 Phi Delta Kappa article on the attrition of TFA teachers.)

While you and others seem quick to pronounce alternative certification pathways as the next big trend in teacher recruitment, your desire to knowingly push unqualified candidates into the classroom further destabilizes an already unstable system that counts teacher turnover as one of the costliest financial challenges facing local school systems.

What I believe we should expect from future teachers is more, not less, preparation for the diverse and multifaceted roles they will face in K-12 schools. Although multiple pathways should be provided to help prospective candidates pursue a career in teaching, particularly in lower-income areas, we must expect teachers to enter the classroom with a firm understanding of content and pedagogy, the diverse ways in which children learn, the needs of English language learners and exceptional children, the hurdles of classroom management and the use of multiple forms of assessment.

Teachers receive years of preparation within teacher education programs and mere weeks of training in alternative certification pathways prior to their first day on the job. Ideally, we should encourage alternative certification programs such as Teach for America to partner with teacher education programs, not tout them as a more effective approach for recruiting teachers while providing them with public funding.

Likewise, your decision to cut pay for teachers who desire to further their education through an advanced degree is equally problematic, unless, of course, you argue that less-educated teachers are cheaper sources of labor in your current market system view of education. While experience is one of the greatest assets for inservice teachers, how can we possibly turn around underperforming schools when teachers have so little opportunity for advancement and no clear motivation to consider systematic changes or innovative pedagogical solutions through further academic study?

In what other profession is this restriction considered beneficial or advantageous? What message are we sending our students about the importance of education when we are not willing to support teachers who strive to remain lifelong learners?

Sen. Berger, I fear that you and your colleagues have become part of the problem with public education, not the solution. If you truly desire to have an impact, leave your political rhetoric behind and sit down with teachers, administrators, parents and teacher educators to explore innovative reforms that might actually effect positive change in local schools.

It is essential that we help public education remain a unifying process, not a series of divisive financial arrangements based on the political motives of partisan lawmakers.

If you believe teachers need additional preparation, mentoring and/or induction, I hope you will support them by valuing their professional expertise before considering major modifications to the landscape of public education.

My continued hope is that public servants, like yourself, will endeavor to work with public education advocates to improve instruction, not pit themselves against the teachers who spend their careers educating future generations of students with limited time and energy to oppose the political forces that are lining up to destroy their professional livelihood.

This letter reflects my personal beliefs and professional opinions and not those of any organization with which I am affiliated.

Sincerely,

Alan Brown

Alan Brown, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English education at Wake Forest University.

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