Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Indiana’s Destructive Education Reform Plan

Indiana touts its “Putting Students First” education agenda, but the state’s detrimental education reform package puts politics first and students last.

“Indiana legislators have succeeded in passing the most comprehensive education reform package in the nation,” the Indiana Department of Education announced in a press release on Friday. “Today marked the end of the 2011 legislative session, and every component of the state’s ‘Putting Students First’ education agenda has either been signed or awaits the governor’s pen.”

Indiana’s education reform plan demonstrates that the people making decisions about our children’s education don’t understand the needs of students, the teaching profession, or the keys to successful learning.

I find it equally disturbing that Indiana has transformed the misguided movement toward scapegoating teachers into law. Plagued by a lingering economic malaise, politicians have inexplicably targeted teachers, claiming they should be forced to relinquish their “generous” compensation packages. The media has latched onto this ridiculous notion and perpetuated it. Sadly, it’s not difficult to convince people that teachers have it easy when many Americans are frustrated by fruitless job searches, the threat of foreclosure, and mounting debt. They forget that teachers are underpaid and underappreciated in this country, despite the vital service they provide.

So, the politicians in Indiana look like heroes for passing an education reform plan that they claim will improve education by dealing more effectively with teachers. But due to their lack of insight into the school environment, the law is doomed to fail. Here’s why:

* Pressure to contain costs will lead school administrators to replace effective veteran teachers with inexperienced new teachers.

Indiana’s education reform plan will eliminate the provisions in teacher contracts that require school leaders to lay off teachers with the least seniority first. Politicians like to say that this policy is unfair because it penalizes young teachers who bring enthusiasm and energy to the classroom. The reality is that most new teachers bring to the classroom anxiety, bewilderment, and a lack of confidence. They are unprepared to deal with the diverse academic and emotional needs of their students, behavior problems in the classroom, demanding parents, the lack of downtime in the fast-paced school day (even to use the bathroom), and a mountain of administrative tasks. It takes years for teachers to learn how to overcome these challenges and successfully master their craft. This is why the best and most effective teachers are typically those with experience. When faced with pressure to control costs and contain school taxes, a school administrator in Indiana may now opt to lay off the experienced teacher instead of the new teacher because senior teachers are paid more. Teacher effectiveness is a luxury when you’re facing a budget crisis and irate taxpayers. What happens when all of the experienced, effective teachers are replaced with novices who find themselves without any mentors to support and guide them. School districts will enjoy cost savings, residents will appreciate lower tax hikes, and government officials will pat themselves on the back. Who are the losers in this scenario? Students, teachers and parents.

* Merit pay is based on the faulty premise that teachers are solely responsible for student performance.

Under Indiana’s education reform plan, teachers will receive pay increases based on their effectiveness. But a student’s academic success is based on so many factors that even the most dedicated and talented teachers can face failure. Unmotivated students, uncooperative parents and unsupportive administrators all create obstacles to success. In addition, a student’s home life plays a vital role in their academic success or failure. Standardized test scores will likely factor into the evaluation process, even though many educators contend that standardized tests are not a valid measure of a student’s knowledge or skills. But because their students’ performance on standardized tests will determine their compensation, teachers will be forced to spend more time on dull, insipid test-taking strategies and less time on creative and intellectual activities that spark excitement about learning. The focus on testing will widen the achievement gap. High-achievers will spend time on enriching activities, such as music and art, while at-risk students focus on test-taking skills. A student who is not a skilled test-taker may be a gifted writer, artist or musician, but their abilities will be devalued. Once again, merit pay is just another opportunity to pay teachers less than they deserve, and students, teachers and parents are on the losing end of the deal.

* Support for charter schools diverts funding and attention from public schools.

Indiana’s education reform package allows for more entities to sponsor charter schools and provides vouchers for qualifying families who want to send their children to non-public schools. My main question concerning charter schools is this: why are we investing time, effort, personnel and money in charter schools instead of leveraging those resources to bolster public schools.

If “Putting Students First” means filling classrooms with inexperienced, underpaid novice teachers; forcing students to focus on useless test-taking strategies; and diverting much-needed public school resources to charter schools, then I suppose Indiana got it right.