Friday, January 12, 2018

Why Teachers Are Leaving the Profession

A Louisiana teacher was pushed to the floor, handcuffed and humiliated! Her offense: She dared to question the use of school funds to grant a raise to the local superintendent at the expense of the pupil-teacher ratio in the classrooms. She was declared to be out of order and dragged away for questioning the priorities of the school system.

This incident could be a metaphor for what has happened to the teaching profession in Louisiana and in many other states as a result of radical reforms to public education. Teachers have become the scapegoats for anything that is considered as lacking in our public education system. Repeated rounds of so called "education reform" have resulted in demeaning the education profession and relegating teachers to standardized test rehearsers. Educators are increasingly rated and berated based on the handicapps faced by the students they serve.

Across the state and nation teachers are leaving the profession in droves because many of them no longer believe it is a true profession based on respect and empowerment of its practitioners.  This National Public Radio report on the growing teacher shortage cites mostly concerns about low pay compared to other professions. But while teacher pay in Louisiana and other states is abysmal, it is only one factor resulting in the  extreme demoralization of the teaching profession.

Teachers are handcuffed to lousy state tests

Students in grades 3 through 8 are required to take state tests each spring as a way of measuring their learning and the effectiveness of their teachers. But the tests are not age appropriate. Test scores statewide average only just above 40%. The average passing score is set by the state at approximately 30%. BESE has changed the guidelines for promotion this year so that students who fail all of their state tests can still be promoted to the next grade. Pure guessing on the multiple choice portions of the tests is a major factor in producing the score for each student.

Despite the flaws in the state tests, teachers and schools are rated according to the average test scores of their students. Teachers are extremely frustrated that their job has been reduced to repetitive standardized test rehearsal. Teachers of certain core subjects have little latitude in planing their course work, with little opportunity to use their creativity to motivate and inspire children to develop a love for learning. Instead most schools now are forced to channel teacher and student energy to producing higher standardized test scores at all costs. Some schools have pep rallies aimed at psyching up everyone prior to annual testing. Teachers are constantly threatened with bad evaluations and the possible loss of pitifully low “merit pay” bonuses if students do not produce constantly better test scores.

Teachers have been pushed to the floor and humiliated by legislation striping them of salary steps, due process, and seniority

In Louisiana, as a result of Acts 1 and 2 of 2012, most school systems have dismantled annual step increases that gave teachers an incentive to remain in the profession in favor of a poorly designed incentive program for higher test scores. But since the state legislature has provided zero funding for the merit pay scheme, many teachers have seen no meaningful raises while being subjected to relentless pressure to increase student test scores. These laws also chipped away at seniority rights and due process rights of teachers and pretty much reduced the status of teachers to that of teenage grocery store stockers. Teachers are now relegated to stocking the brains of their students with answers to questions on standardized tests with little regard to real education. Teachers were assured at the time that these new laws would actually empower teachers to seek better salaries and recognition. I ask teachers: "Do you feel empowered?" The few rights for teachers retained since 2012 were won as a result of lawsuits by the Louisiana Association of Educators, their much maligned teacher union.

State standards for students are fake standards

State education officials claim to have raised standards for student performance and preparation for college, but the reality is that practically all students are promoted to the next grade even if they fail all of their standardized tests and teacher made tests. Some students can make it to high school without passing a single state test given in grades 3 though 8! High school students are given shortened credit recovery courses if they fail or miss too much school. Students are being handed diplomas mostly for having a pulse. BESE regulations requiring regular school attendance and the achievement of an average of at least 67% on testing are being routinely ignored in the push to raise the graduation rate at all costs. Teachers are often instructed that if students fail tests that it is the teacher’s responsibility to retest or to give students make-up work so they can pass. The highly touted standardized tests given each year have their passing scores set just above 30%. But students are still promoted even if they fail their tests. Only the teachers and schools are punished for low performance.

Teachers have been humiliated and made less effective by being denied control over student discipline

In an effort to keep students in school at all costs, teachers are often limited in their ability to discipline disruptive students. A special Louisiana task force is presently considering recommending reductions in student suspensions for violations of school rules. Teachers are being told not to report students for disruptive behavior. Just like test scores, it is assumed that only teachers are responsible for student behavior. Many students routinely insult or curse their teacher with little or no consequences.

Teachers serving the neediest and most at-risk students are treated with the least respect. High poverty children consistently produce the lowest test scores, so their teachers are regularly rated most lacking even if they are the hardest working in the entire profession. Teaching in a high poverty school is equivalent to daily torture. Those schools serve students that are often poorly nourished, neglected, often abused, and sometimes homeless, yet are expected to somehow score competitively on state tests. Statistical experts have pointed out that external factors are much more important in determining school performance than the effect of educators. Yet such schools are often rated D or F no matter how hard the teachers work. Early in the school reform movement, such schools were closed or taken over by new administrators. But it turned out that such efforts did more harm than good, forcing children into less stable environments. In Louisiana, the state no longer takes over schools in an effort to reform them but instead schools in poor neighborhoods are subjected to increased competition from new charter schools that seek to recruit the highest performing students.

The NPR report on the teacher shortage found that most teacher training programs across the nation have experienced drops of enrollment of over 30%. The pipeline for new teachers ruptured when our present teachers started warning their children, nieces and nephews to find a more rewarding profession. Here in Louisiana, teachers in charter schools do not need an education degree.  Many schools cannot find math, science or special education teachers.  The Department of education is further insulting master teachers by offering them a measly bonus for helping to mentor new teachers.

The problems listed above are the concerns I hear from teachers every day. The scapegoating of teachers, and yes, the increasing class sizes are the real reasons why teachers are leaving the profession.