Teachers Feel Ignored In Education Debate
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went to Capitol Hill this morning to promote the president's education agenda. Key to that plan is the role of teachers. The president wants better programs to train and recruit teachers. He also says he supports rewards for schools that fire teachers who underperform.
Today we want to hear what the teachers have to say. A new national survey out today asked more than 40,000 teachers their views on how to improve education in America. Among other things, the majority said they were more interested in school reform and student achievement than in the size of their paychecks.
As we discuss the survey, we want to hear from teachers in our audience. What do you think will make schools better? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, "Burma VJ," one of the documentary features up for an Oscar come Sunday. But first, teachers on education. Margery Mayer is president of Scholastic Education, which paid for this survey with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We should note that that same foundation also provides funds to NPR. And she joins us in a moment.
But let's begin with - here in Studio 3A with NPR education correspondent Larry Abramson. Larry, always nice to have you on the program today.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And we have to acknowledge that this survey comes out in the context, political context, of a week in which the president angered an awful lot of teachers.
ABRAMSON: Yeah, I think he did, particularly the teachers in Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, 93 of whom, along with some administrators, had been told that they would be fired because of poor performance by the schools' students, actually. The administration in that school district decided that this was the way to solve the problem. They had been unable to reach an agreement with the teachers union, and one of the options open to them under a federal grant that they were applying for was to fire everybody.
Now, it should be noted that half of those teachers can get their jobs back if they re-apply, but the president and the secretary of education came out and said, well, if that's what it takes to improve chances for our nation's kids, then that's what they should do.
And that was a little unusual, Neal, as you know, for a Democratic president to come out and antagonize the teachers union in that way.
CONAN: Who are big supporters of Democrats in general and the president in particular.
CONAN: Margery Mayer joins us now. We turn to you. The name of this survey is Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools. It took place, obviously, before this Rhode Island story broke. It does come out in the middle of the debate, though, over the future of No Child Left Behind. And let me ask you: What value does your survey show that teachers put on reform?
Ms. MARGERY MAYER (Scholastic Education): Well, we were delighted at the incredible engagement teacher had with reform. We found that teachers, when you asked teachers what they think they'll tell you, and we heard from 40,000 of them. We heard from teachers at elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, from every state, from charter schools, from public schools.
Any you name it, we heard from them, and they told us that they were interested in a lot of the things that we're talking about as a nation in terms of reform. For example, there's a great deal of support among teachers for common standards, and standards are, of course, the things that we teach. Teachers tell us that they understand the value of having common standards across all 50 states as one way of raising achievement.
CONAN: You also asked them about the best way to measure student achievement, and what did they say to that?
Ms. MAYER: Well, they felt that standardized tests were only one way of looking at student achievement. They felt that they needed multiple measures. They were interested in formative assessments, which are assessments that are done in class by teachers, and they wanted this kind of more nuanced data so that they could really look at how to differentiate instruction.
CONAN: Again, in the context of this story from Rhode Island, and again, this happened your survey took place well before that happened but I wonder, did you ask teachers what they thought about these proposals whereby teachers could be fired for underperformance?
Ms. MAYER: We did not ask teachers that, but we did ask them what their views were on impacting teacher retention. So specially, we asked them about different factors in terms of retaining good teachers, and it's a little bit of a flip on your question, Neal, but it was interesting because teachers put higher salaries in the middle of things that they were looking for in terms of retaining good teachers in the classroom.
They certainly do care about being paid, but the things that they were looking for in terms of retention of good teachers were number one was supportive leadership, and number two was more time to collaborate with other teachers.
CONAN: That was interesting. That part of the survey said we're with children all day - K-through-12 teachers we're talking about - it would be nice to talk with some adults from time to time.
Ms. MAYER: Well, you know, when we look at our data as a country, and we compare it to other nations around the world, sometimes we're not very happy with what we see. We don't always look like we're not usually ranked at the very top in reading and science and math, but a lot of the countries where we see the high rankings, they do put an emphasis on giving teachers time to collaborate and having teachers have time to work together as teams to raise achievement in the schools.
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, this is not an uncommon complaint, and actually, we should remember that we're talking about all these issues in the context of this budget recession that we're facing. Many school districts, despite the recovery in some areas, are still facing very tough times, and one of the first things that they have to cut is planning time.
You hear this all the time. Well, we used to have planning time, and now it's gone, and I have to teach another class. And many teachers feel like they just don't have time to get better. And in the context of the president's insistence that teachers really are key to improving student performance, it is a shame, and I think the teachers are very aware of the fact that they could probably do a better job if they could sit down, collaborate and critique one another.
CONAN: Larry, I know you've had a chance to read the survey. In fact, I only got it after you had sped-read through it. But in any case, I know you've been talking to teachers as well. How does what this these findings of this survey, how does that square up with what the president's agenda is?
Ms. MAYER: Well, you know, it says that the president really agrees with teachers on a lot of issues, the idea that Margery just referred to, which is they don't want to be judged just by the standardized tests that come at the end of the year. It's something that you hear all the time from teachers and which was echoed in this survey.
And the truth is, most of the standardized tests that are given out for state performance data, the results come back much too late to help the students who just took those tests. They are often given in March, April or May. Results come back at the end of the summer, and by then some teachers have moved on, and certainly their students have often moved on.
I think, though, that it puts them at odds with the president when it comes to the idea of performance pay, which used to be called merit pay. Teachers in the survey, as far as I read it, indicated that this was a very small issue to them as far as improving their performance. They didn't think it would make a big difference. They were more supportive of more pay as opposed to pay for performance.
The president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, I think, both feel that these could be very useful tools to try to incentivize people and to incentivize innovation, which is a big topic in Washington. So I think that that's an area where you're going to see continued friction, even though many teachers unions have kind of warmed up to this idea, at least in concept.
CONAN: Go ahead, Margery Mayer.
Ms. MAYER: Yeah, I was just going to say, I think that what we found in the study - one of the issues about so-called performance pay was, how is that how is performance going to be measured? And I think that some of the reticence that we heard in conversations with teachers was this concern about being measured on one measurement, a standardized test, when they felt that that wasn't probably the best measurement of what they've achieved.
The other thing that we heard in conversations with teachers was a sense that they want a system for compensation that values collaboration and devalues competition among teachers. They feel that it's really important to have a high-performing team across the school and that performance pay needs to acknowledge the reality of what's going on in the building.
I think that what we found was only about a third of teachers thought that performance pay was not at all important. The other two-thirds of teachers thought that it was somewhat important or very important. I think the issue here is coming up with a system of evaluation that really makes sense to teachers and engaging them in the conversation on this.
CONAN: Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education and one of those who funded the new report, "Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools." Also with us, NPR education correspondent Larry Abramson.
We want to hear from the teachers in our audience, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. What would make schools better? Larry's on the line from Laramie in Wyoming.
LARRY (Caller): Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi, go ahead, Larry.
LARRY: Hello, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air. Go ahead.
LARRY: Okay. So the most difficult thing that I find is having to teach people in one class that have a huge range of knowledge, like for example, a ninth-grade math class where you have some students that are, like, at a fourth-grade level, and then some students are actually at the ninth-grade level.
And I think that if we truly want to help teachers, we need to have an exam to get from one level to another or an - actual education-based courses rather than an age-based courses so that we're teaching to, you know, a common population.
CONAN: So you're not trying to teach seven different grades of mathematics all at the same time, yeah.
LARRY: Right, or that we're not teaching to the lowest common denominator, and therefore the students in the upper, you know, one-third of the class learn nothing.
CONAN: Margery Mayer, did this concern come up in your survey?
Ms. MAYER: Well, we know from our survey, and we also know from NAEP, which is our Nation's Report Card, that we have a wide range of achievement levels in our schools, and it absolutely did come up.
We found that about three-fourths of our teachers are differentiating instruction on a regular basis in the classroom, and one of things that they told us they needed was materials and assessments that really help them do that.
I think this is one of the biggest challenges in our schools, and one of the interesting things that we found was this need to differentiate in the range of abilities. We found this in schools at all economic levels.
CONAN: Larry, I know you've been talking to teachers too.
ABRAMSON: Yes, well, you know, it's interesting. In the survey, I noted that teachers felt even more strongly about this, if I got this right, Margery, when you move up into junior high and high school, that they felt and statistically, according to the Nation's Report Card that Margery referred to, that is where you see the biggest falloffs, the biggest increase in the achievement gap, that there's more and more of a differentiation, and it's harder for teachers at that level to differentiate because they're supposed to be preparing these kids for college, and there's much more of a standard bar that you can set. You can't just drop your expectations in order to pull a student along. So it's very difficult.
CONAN: Larry, thanks very much for the call, and good luck there in ninth-grade math. We're talking with teachers about how to improve education in America. Teachers, what do you think will make schools better? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. More with NPR education correspondent Larry Abramson, and with Margery Mayer with Scholastic Education, the co-sponsor of this new survey we've been talking about. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.
Some of the interesting findings of the survey of U.S. teachers released today: More value digital media over textbooks. Seven in 10 report attending student events at night or on weekends. Almost a third say monetary rewards for teachers have no impact on increased student performance.
More than 40,000 teachers took part in the survey, what may be the largest national survey of teachers ever conducted. Today, we want to hear from teachers in our audience about how to improve our schools. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Larry Abramson, NPR education correspondent, and Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education, part of the Scholastic Publishing Company. They teamed up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to sponsor the report "Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools."
To read the full report, you can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go next to Judy, Judy with us from South Webster in Ohio.
JUDY (Caller): Yes, hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JUDY: When you were talking about the idea of merit pay and how to go about ascertaining what teachers are - you know, like, what standards to apply in order to, you know, like, get that merit pay or performance pay, I would like to put forth the idea that national board certification is one of the best standards that I've ever come across.
I'm a National Board-certified teacher, and I have mentored other teachers through that process. And I think that it's rigorous, and it truly gets to the root of what it means to be an accomplished teacher.
ABRAMSON: Well, National Board Certification, for those people who aren't familiar with it, is something that sort of is modeled after board certification for doctors, where you basically have to go through a process to show your mastery of certain sort of instructional strategies. You have to put together a portfolio. You videotape yourself. It's quite elaborate, and I think - I've talked to a lot of teachers who felt like it was a wonderful experience to go through.
Many districts pay a substantially higher salaries to people who have gone through board certification. Some don't.
ABRAMSON: The controversy is that a lot of research has shown that national board certification does not necessarily improve student performance. So while I know a lot of teachers are big on this, a lot of researchers aren't convinced that it actually yields results for the students.
JUDY: Well, I have seen some studies that show that students who are in the classrooms of national-board-certified teachers do outperform other students on several factors.
Another thing I'd like to put forth, too, instead of perhaps monetary compensation for teachers would be if you do have a teacher that is, you know, like, an exemplary teacher, maybe not offer more money, but offer some time for that teacher to go into classrooms of other teachers that are perhaps, you know, struggling and work with them - not have the classroom work and not have the paper load, but have, you know, more of a mentoring, you know, function, instead of perhaps monetary compensation.
I think you would retain your good teachers if you did that, and it would also certainly help the teachers that are struggling along the way.
ABRAMSON: Yes. This is actually an interesting idea that you do see in a lot of districts. Mentor teachers and master teachers are sometimes -you know, people graduate into that kind of role. They're allowed to go out and observe.
I did a story a couple years about a school district in Colorado that did this with some of its better teachers. Of course, there are downsides with every bright idea. The downside there is you have your best teacher, and what do you do with them? You pull them out of the classroom and you make them an administrator.
But a lot of these people and this relates to the survey I think were glad to have the chance for career advancement, because otherwise, you can be a teacher for 50 years, and you're still a teacher. You may earn more money, but you're kind of doing the same thing. And I know some people would like the chance to change what they're doing. And I think that that was reflected in the survey, wasn't it, Margery?
Ms. MAYER: Larry, I'm not sure what you're referring to, but, I mean, I hear that from teachers, too. There are some teachers that are - they don't want to leave the classroom. They're given opportunities to leave, and they don't want to. But there are other teachers for home a career path would be part of what would be involved in staying in education.
ABRAMSON: Right, because they don't necessarily want to become a principal or something else and have to leave the kids altogether.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Judy.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to this is Ron, and Ron in Ocala, Florida.
RON (Caller) Yes, sir. I'm a physical education here in Florida a physical education teacher. And all the data proves that physical activity during the school day is very important to academic learning, and what's happening is they're pulling kids out of physical education to remediate them, which is counterproductive.
There's - a guy named Dr. Rady(ph) has proven that a student that sits down and does not move for more than an hour, an hour and a half, starts to lose their absorption rate of education. And there needs to be a lot more physical activity during the school day. I'm talking about K through 12. And instead, we're decreasing that amount, and it's very counterproductive.
Our brains are hardwired for movement, and we're just these kids are just sitting around in class and they're getting bored, and they need to get up and move and get more physical activity during the school day.
CONAN: Ron, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate that. And I Margery, I can hear the music teachers and the art teachers seconding it, that we need to have more music courses and more art courses, as well, the things that have been pared down due to budget crises and also the focus on, well, the three R's.
Ms. MAYER: Well, the number one thing teachers told us that they thought was important in achieving for kids was student engagement, and I think this really goes to Ron's point. We have to be teaching kids content that they care about. They have to be applying it in a real world. We have to have kids that are ready to learn.
I think Ron's right. Kids do need some physical movement. They do have to be we have to consider their needs. But teachers get it. They understand that kids do need to be engaged. I mean, that was one of the reasons, Neal, that I think that digital materials came up high on the list.
CONAN: Because it so engages students.
Ms. MAYER: Yeah.
CONAN: Here's an email question that we have, this from J.D.: Could your guests comment on the reality in today's schools, where teachers face open hostility and downright unsafe conditions in many of our schools today? I found this to be a reason not to continue teaching. Was there concern reflected in your survey about safety in the classroom?
Ms. MAYER: No, there wasn't. And one of the things that we found very interesting was how engaged our teachers were in reaching outside of the classroom to their parents.
For example, we had about half of all teachers willing to go to children's homes to do parent-teacher conferences. We had about half of our teachers handing out their phone numbers and their email addresses.
I mean, what we saw were teachers that were really ready to make that family connection, to be super-engaged with their students, to really connect with them in a deep, personal way.
CONAN: Okay. Here's another email question, this from Ms. Deacon(ph) in California, who says she's a teacher. Another hurdle in teaching is the revolving door of educational theories that mandate their own textbooks, a process driven by textbook companies. It makes it difficult to teach when the materials and methods change every two to three years.
Ms. MAYER: Is that a question for me?
CONAN: I think it is. Well, I think it's one of the things you addressed.
Ms. MAYER: Yeah, it is one of the things we addressed. Well, first of all, I should just say that Scholastic, we are not a textbook company.
I think that, in general, textbooks are written to reflect what the states are asking for in their standards. So one of the things I think we can look forward to if we do agree on a common set of standards is a common set of content that can be delivered through textbooks, through digital media, through open source, and there'll just be a much more universal way of getting to this content. And hopefully, the content will settle down a little bit around these standards.
ABRAMSON: Well, I think I'm definitely sympathetic as a reporter to the frustration that many teachers feel with the, you know, variety of fads and fashions that they have to go through.
CONAN: But what would you to report on if there weren't fads and fashion?
ABRAMSON: Well, exactly. But sometimes you feel like we're basically just closing our eyes and reaching into the box and trying something that maybe we actually tried five years ago, but we gave it a new name.
And to be cynical, if you look through the president's budget, he has a lot of new programs in there that are basically new names for old programs. Sometimes you do feel like maybe if we just settled down, kept doing the same thing for 10 years, not only would it be simpler for teachers to deal with, but we would have more of a baseline to compare with so that we weren't always saying, well, we can't really draw any conclusions from this program because now it's under a different name with a different goal.
CONAN: Let's go next to Drew, Drew calling us from Dayton.
DREW (Caller): Yes, can you hear me?
CONAN: Yeah. You're on the air.
DREW: Yes. I'm a teacher myself, and one of the biggest issues I find is we do not have enough special-education teachers in my building and a lot of other buildings that I see, and it really limits our time working with our other students in our classroom when we have to put so much focus on those special-needs students.
ABRAMSON: This is something that came up at the hearing today, where Secretary of Education Duncan was testifying, and several members of Congress, many of them Republicans, expressed their ongoing frustration that the federal government has never supplied the 40 percent of special-education funding that they were supposed to and that the states and localities are still picking up a lot of that money.
The new Obama budget doesn't include much of an increase at all for special education. So I think we're going to continue to see this as a source of friction and frustration in schools.
CONAN: So Republicans see it as an unfunded mandate.
CONAN: (unintelligible) All right. Drew, thanks very much for the call.
DREW: Thank you.
CONAN: Let me ask about - both of you have said your experience with teachers is they feel that their voices are not heard enough in this debate. Larry, the teachers' unions are enormous players in this debate. And, certainly, they have access to the highest levels of government.
ABRAMSON: Funny you should say that. I said that to some of the teachers too. And they said, well, you know, the teachers' union are one thing, but what I'm really concerned about is being heard in my school. And the happy teachers I talked to are the ones who feel that they can go to the principal, make changes, advocate for changes, advocate for resources and get heard on the local level. I feel - and I don't know if Margery's survey backs this up - that teachers are much more concerned about that than they are about the debate that's going on in Washington.
In the end, all of these things, all of these policies, when they do filter down to the local level, are negotiated in local union contracts. The head of the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association does not negotiate working terms for individual locals.
CONAN: Margery, is that what they mean by by concerns about leadership, which do come up a lot in your surveys?
Ms. MAYER: I think it is what they mean. I think teachers do want to be heard. And the reason that the Gates Foundation and Scholastic did this study is because we really did want to give teachers the opportunity to express their voice. There's a lot of indication in our study that teachers do want to be part of a team, they do want to be heard. I mean, they rank number one among all factors, supporting retention of effective teachers with supportive leadership. And you've got interpret that, partly, as leadership that listens and watches their back.
CONAN: And that would be - if teachers were more part of the discussion, if their voices were heard more, would that be the biggest change, do you think?
Ms. MAYER: I think that would be - I do think in a lot of schools, in a lot of districts, teachers are heard. It's not that they're not heard at all. I think that our goal in doing the report was to say we are not going to be able to deliver on true reform unless teachers are bought in and executing on that reform. And they need a seat at the table. So that's really the goal here. Give them a seat at the table. Let's listen to them. Let's use their wisdom and that's what we try to do in our study.
CONAN: And, Larry - this will be unfair to ask of Margery - but how might that answer be different if you had a survey of school administrators?
ABRAMSON: Well, I think it would definitely be very different. And let's remember, we probably should've said this at the top. We're talking about between - well, I guess it's over six million individuals, so trying to give, you know, draw any sort of broad conclusions about what those people want is very difficult. I run into teachers...
CONAN: Well, 40,000 plus is a statistically significant setup.
ABRAMSON: It absolutely is. No, and I'm not saying that we should ignore them. But I'm saying that there are still a huge variety, a lot of disagreement among teachers about what they want. I talked to teachers all the time who are deliriously happy in their jobs. And I talked to teachers all the time who are completely miserable.
So it's a huge profession. It really is one of the biggest professions in our country. And as far as national policy goes, it's hard to draw conclusions about what it is that teachers really want.
CONAN: The survey we're talking about is called Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools. If you'd like to take a look at it, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Margery Mayer, executive vice president and president of Scholastic Education, which sponsored this survey along with the Melinda - Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and also Larry Abramson, NPR education correspondent.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: And this email from Ken(ph). My name is Ken. I'm an accredited K-12 art teacher. I have taught art for six years as well as a few other subjects. I feel the number one way for the United States to improve our schools is to allow the teachers to decide what they're going to teach.
Even though I'm a fully trained art teacher and an accomplished artist in my own right, I was forced to choose my lessons from a three-ring binder and teach them exactly as they were written up in fear of being, well, written up.
Autonomy, has that come up in the survey?
Ms. MAYER: Well, I think teachers want to be treated as professionals, and I think teachers feel that they should be measured on - by multiple measures. We didn't ask them specifically about autonomy, but I think that there - if you - I think if you talk to teachers, they are an autonomous group. I mean, teachers want to do their thing, and so there's a tension between accountability and meeting standards, which most teachers got it, why we need to have some standardized tests, but also wanting the freedom to do what they think is the right thing with their kids.
CONAN: Let's go to Karen(ph). Karen calling from Sacramento.
KAREN (Caller): Hi. This is Karen. I'm calling - I'm listening to the conversation. There are so many things I want to say. But a few key points that jumped out to me are that we need leadership. That's the first thing. We're looking at the teacher's performance, but the leadership at the school site - the principals, on up to the superintendent - needs to be there with a clear focus, moving the teachers in the right direction for the students, and giving the teachers the support through the professional development that they need to do their job.
CONAN: And are you a teacher now, Karen?
KAREN: I was a teacher for eight years. And now, I work in educational publishing (unintelligible) teachers every day.
CONAN: And when you were a teacher, did you feel your voice was listened to by the administrators and the superintendents in your district and in your school?
KAREN: Not too much, and I think there's an attempt to do so, but we're all in our own classrooms doing such a big job within that room with all of our students, managing them and the curriculum we're trying to teach them, that it's difficult but it needs to done better.
CONAN: And how would you go about that?
KAREN: How would I go about that?
CONAN: Making it better, yeah.
KAREN: Yeah. Well, again, I think training our leadership, our principals at the site, to really be strong leaders for the teachers, for the students. What is needed at our school site, what is our vision, and then what do I need to do to support my teachers to get moving in that direction for the kids?
Again, I think professional development - we came in the teachers with one, some of us two years of training, and we're handed the biggest job in the world with students who are performing at, you know, well below grade level, well above grade level. There has to be that additional support for the teachers, to train them - ongoing training on how to do their jobs and strong leadership, saying this is where we're going with this.
CONAN: And Larry Abramson, I think you mentioned a diverse group of people who have different opinions. More training, better leadership. I think they would all agree with that.
ABRAMSON: I think there's agreement on that. I think there's also agreement on the idea that there is nothing as helpful to a teacher as a great principal.
Ms. MAYER: You know, Neal, just one comment on professional development, this is Margery. We were a little bit surprised at how supportive teachers were of relevant professional development. Even teachers who's had over 20 years of experience, almost 80 percent of them said that they want an ongoing professional development. So there were a few myths we felt we're debunked by this report. One of them was the idea that teachers arent anxious for professional development. And we were glad to see that they were.
CONAN: Karen, thanks very much for the call.
KAREN: Thank you.
CONAN: And our thanks to our guest, Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education. Their new survey released today, "Primary Sources: America's Teachers on America's Schools." She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.
Ms. MAYER: Thank you.
CONAN: And NPR education correspondent Larry Abramson with us here today in Studio 3A. As always, Larry, thank you.
ABRAMSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Coming up, "Burma VJ," the last in our series on the Oscar-nominated documentaries. This is NPR News.
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