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COMMENTARY
teachers
(Kathryn Zittel)

Earlier this week, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released results from a survey of teachers who no longer teach in state classrooms. The survey (embedded below) focused on about 5,500 respondents under the age of 65 who are not currently teaching in Oklahoma public schools but who retain active teaching certificates.

A press release posted on the SDE website Monday afternoon opens by stating: “Teacher pay and education funding are among the chief reasons former Oklahoma educators have left the classroom …”. Even the 80 percent of teachers who say the quality of the workplace has declined indicate that the lack of funding is part of the problem. Meanwhile, 31 percent indicated that a pay increase would convince them to return. Significantly:

… only in the age 18-24 category did more respondents indicate that pay alone, as opposed to more than pay, would bring them back to the classroom.

Since State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister convened the Teacher Shortage Task Force in September 2015, the number of emergency-certified teachers has nearly doubled — to over 1,800. Those numbers don’t count the classes with unfulfilled positions. Even as our teacher shortage has grown worse, a pay raise would largely fill our teacherless classrooms.

To get our schools back on track, however, the teachers’ other main concerns – a lack of professional autonomy and the problems interfering with classroom teaching and learning – must be addressed.

Top-down mandates define differences in perspective by age

Special attention must be paid to the pattern where those under the age of 45 were more concerned about pay than older teachers. At the same time, the more experienced teachers complained about testing, unruly students, school leadership and obstacles to effective instruction. We must realize that this pattern has been seen as a feature, not a flaw, of school reform.

The difference in views of teachers linked to experience reflects the decline in our nation’s educational values due to test-driven, competition-driven reform. As Harvard’s Dan Koretz documents in The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a new generation of educators only know schools where “… the test becomes the curriculum.” Today’s teachers are often taught that the test “… should define what they teach …” (emphasis Koretz’s).

Koretz provided 125 superintendents with a packet of test-prep lessons. All were “… boring as sin.” Some would jack up scores but without providing any redeeming benefit. Some were “potentially OK,” and some were “completely unacceptable.” He asked the administrators to classify the different test-prep methods as good or bad. About one-third of the superintendents “got the point,” and would say things like, “If you think this is bad, you should see what goes on in some of our schools.” Most “labeled virtually everything as ‘good,’” and many became visibly angry.

A different but comparable pattern emerged when the experiment was conducted with former teachers, who were no longer pressured to engage in trickery. He was told that “… this exercise would make no sense to many young teachers.” A former teacher said that the bad test-prep was “… precisely the sort of thing that she had been told explicitly is good instruction.” Koretz’s students told him that he was misunderstanding test-prep as something that competes with good instruction, because, “… in their experience, raising scores had become the end goal, the mark of a ‘good’ teacher” (emphasis Koretz’s).

It’s up to voters, legislators and local school systems

And that bring us back to the Hofmeister administration’s great work. It is doing what it can to increase teacher salaries and liberate the profession from mandates that engage in educational malpractice. School reform was based on the theory that technocratic micromanaging could “build a better teacher.” As former PBS education reporter John Merrow explains, the better approach would be making teaching a “better job” by bringing back holistic teaching and learning while making education a team effort.

The SDE now allows districts to heed Merrow’s humane and evidence-based wisdom, so it’s up to voters, legislators and local school systems to bring back teachers and high-quality teaching.