One significant change has been the personalization of education. We all have memories of elementary school and our favorite teachers. At my elementary school, the desks were bolted to the floor in rows and the teacher taught the same lesson to every student. In elementary schools today, teachers tailor lesson plans to multiple ability levels and to students with identified learning disabilities. Students move in centers that have activities that match their various learning levels. The amount of planning required to make this work is overwhelming. When budget cuts forced us to increase class size, this level of personalization was impossible to maintain. Students at the high end and low end academically are often most affected by this.
Another significant change is the amount of data teachers have access to and the analysis performed to interpret the information. From the moment students enter school, we begin to assess where they are and then develop strategies to help them grow academically. Some of these assessments are familiar to parents and the community-at-large and include End-of-Grade (EOG) and End-of-Course (EOC) tests. There are other assessments though that are given as early as Pre-K. These include DIAL screening, CIRCLE Assessments, ClassScapes, DIBLES, mCLass, ACT and many others. Giving these assessments can be time consuming, but they allow teachers and administrators to tailor their instruction directly to the student’s needs. By reviewing the results of the assessment, they can determine if a student has an academic issue or if they are in need of special education services. We are now identifying these concerns earlier and catching students up, and because of this, we have seen a reduction in the number of students who are identified as needing special education services. Another area in which budget reductions have had an impact is when the teacher assistants were eliminated. This reduced the time that teachers had to do assessments. This can mean that student academic issues go undetected for longer periods of time, thus making catching them much harder.
Over the last decade, the level of top down regulation has added to pressures teachers face. Starting with the No Child Left Behind Act and continuing to today’s Race to the Top (RttT) initiative, the mandates of schools have become extremely intrusive. States and districts have taken federal money to fill gaps in the traditional funding sources. Unfortunately, taking the money brings hidden costs that impact what happens in the classroom. Often the additional assessments that are required for the students will be used to evaluate the teacher as well. RttT is a prime example of this. In exchange for additional funds, districts are being required to administer exams called Measures of Student Learning (MSLs), which will be used to determine teacher effectiveness. These MSLs are not validated in the same manner as EOCs and EOGs, and their reliability as a measure of teacher effectiveness is suspect at best. Many of these top down mandates bring with them added costs in terms of both money and instructional time.
A disappointing change over the last decade that concerns me greatly is the diminished respect that teachers have in the community. This is being driven by a number of factors that include a combination of politics, economics, and in some cases, self-inflicted wounds. There are too many groups on both sides of the aisle who see tearing down public education as a way to advance their personal agendas. Too often, teachers are the ones caught in this cross-fire. This applies to businesses as well who want to offer cure-alls for what ails education. They remind me of the snake oil salesmen of the old west. Their pitch of a program that can fix what a highly-qualified teacher couldn’t undermines the public’s view of what happens in the classroom. While there are some great programs and ideas out there, at the end of the day, the best tool is still a great teacher. This is where we do ourselves a disservice. We as educators must not tolerate incompetence, nor must we protect those who are not up to standard. The vast majority of teachers are doing the job and doing it well. To allow a small percentage a free ride only contributes to those who seek to undermine public education.
There are many other changes that could be enumerated here, but I think these give a sense of how much has changed in this profession. We are educating more students to a higher level than ever before. More students are graduating, more students are achieving at increased levels, and we are meeting the needs of more high needs students than ever before. Teachers are doing this with fewer resources, higher levels of scrutiny, and more burdensome regulations than ever before. The skill set of teachers today is higher than it has ever been in the past and I truly believe it bodes well for the future of education both locally and nationally. So despite all of the challenges, I am still excited when I visit classrooms and talk to teachers in our district. I believe in public education and I have no doubt we have the talent to compete with anyone.
Next time, I will continue to look at how education has changed in the role of principals and how it has evolved from a building manager role to that of an instructional leader.