The Sky Isn’t Falling

Training demonstration at Homestead Air Reserve BaseAs if teachers in the Granite State didn’t already have enough demands to respond to, following the 2016 election teachers have been increasingly the scapegoats for nothing less than the death of democracy.*

Recently, an important leader in the state, and champion of historical education jumped into the fray in a letter to the editor, where he maligned the “alarming history deficit” present in the thousands of students who visit the New Hampshire Historical Society each year. As I have done in other blog posts in the past, I find myself in a position of wanting to defend public school teachers and, more generally, the quality of public schooling in the United States.  I am compelled to disagree with this and similar narratives of crisis that tinge statements about education in our country.

It’s important to acknowledge first that I share Mr. Dunlap’s concern about the lack of time spent on historic and civic education in public education in the elementary years. No Child Left Behind yielded a hyper focus on math, reading and high stakes assessments like the NECAP (and now the SBAC).  Something had to give, and this meant many schools devoted disproportionate amounts of instructional time to those subjects typically to the detriment of social studies and the arts (among other things like recess, by the way!).  In many ways, he is quite right to highlight this as a negative consequence of the Accountability Movement. Yet, while I agree that things aren’t great, I disagree that things are getting worse.

In fact, evidence suggests when it comes to both civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

Evidence suggests when it comes to BOTH civic and historic knowledge nationwide things are actually improving significantly.

  • Since 1998, eighth grade student performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) civic literacy and historic literacy test has risen.
  • Score gains for Hispanic-American eighth graders have narrowed what was once an intractable “achievement gap” by 14 percentage points since 1998.
  • White children, Asian American children, children enrolled in Free-and-Reduced Lunch programs (a proxy for childhood poverty), non-English speakers and children with disabilities have also seen a significant improvement in scores since 1998. This data can be accessed on the NAEP website.
  • In NAEP history assessment, the percentage of children scoring at or above the “proficient” category in history rose significantly since 1994. (Recall, “Proficient” and “Advanced” are the top two categories of the NAEP. This would be similar to scoring 3 or 4 out of four possible points on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.)
  • Regarding the sudden drop in civic and historical knowledge, the data does not appear to bear this out with no decline in civic knowledge or historical knowledge on the NAEP.
  • In both civics and history, New Hampshire does significantly better than the national population. How do we know that when the data isn’t disaggregated for these tests at the state level? The data show that English-native speakers, white children, children living in homes with a college graduate and children being raised outside of poverty perform much better than the national average – a phenomenon called “the Achievement Gap.” Similar to all of New England, New Hampshire’s über-homogeneous, English speaking, college-educated population generally does exceptionally well on these measures of academic success. In fact, the New England states – and NH in particular — perform equivalently to the highest performing nations globally.

While there is reason to take heart, there is not yet reason to celebrate.

Civic and historical awareness in our children and adolescents can still improve. While the average scores on civic knowledge nationwide are consistently well above the “basic” level, only 23% of our nation’s children score in the proficient or advanced range.

Despite these clear shortcomings, I caution Granite Staters against adopting the tone of crisis in our state’s public schools. This is because in my work with Granite State teachers, I have become acutely aware of the fact that this narrative of crisis, and “lack of knowledge “of our children, unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

The narrative of failure and crisis in our schools unfairly maligns and shames an already battered profession.

While it’s tempting to adopt the narrative of crisis, where we express shock, alarm and even disgust with what our children don’t know, Granite Staters must work productively and positively to continue to improve the outlook for civic health in New Hampshire.

So, instead of shaming students and their teachers for what they don’t know, we might focus on the many successes in our education system that reflect the hard work and dedication of our state’s public teaching force. When looking for outliers and success stories, it’s easy to identify high-leverage, promising practices that yield results and use that to our advantage for teaching children how to engage. So what are some of the success stories?

  • Between 2013 and 2015, the state of New Hampshire’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders ranked the first, second and third in the nation on math, reading and science. In other words for the last seven years, New Hampshire public schools have outperformed more than 47 other states in our scores on these tests.
  • Nationwide scores are improving in math and literacy. Some academics and researchers have credited the shift to the Common Core State Standards, and the massive push in professional development and training for teachers to support it – as the underlying cause. Civics and Social Studies advocates must leverage the social studies literacy standards embedded in the Common Core State Standards to assure that more time is spent in these areas including non-fiction “informational text” literacy and writing. Informing oneself is a civic virtue and connecting these dots takes very little effort.
  • One highly-regarded academic, Diane Ravitch, an active public school advocate, former Deputy Secretary of Education during the Bush administration, and researcher at New York University, has frequently highlighted data showing the improvement of our nation’s school children on multiple measures of academic success – besides the high-stakes tests on which many middle and high school students exert questionable effort.

Finally, we must understand:

There has simply never been a “golden era” of historical knowledge.

This is a bitter pill to swallow for college educated Baby Boomers and those from the Greatest Generation, but these are the facts. It’s likely that rather than our kids getting dumber, the nature of knowledge, the patterns of behavior, and the skills of engagement look differently when viewed through the generational lens.

We have many assets working to our advantage here in New Hampshire beginning with our talented and dedicated teaching profession who have put New Hampshire consistently at the top. We need to stop asking why our kids don’t know “basic facts” and begin to ask how we can transfer our state’s children’s abundant talents and passions for other subjects into history and civics. We have an excellent foundation to make this happen, it’s a matter of framing the challenge appropriately and directing our energy for positive change.

*See, for example, this article ( which makes the case that most civics teachers’ lack of content expertise is to blame. The author goes on to claim (without providing any numbers to substantiate the claim) that civics teachers are all primarily athletic coaches

What’s a “Microcredential?” No one seems to know, but everybody wants them.

We don’t teach teachers to teach in the manner that we know learners learn. It reads like a typo, but the problem is as simple as that.

Cognitive psychology is clear about the manner in which children and adults learn. Humans are not blank slates, as was once argued. Rather, we know that individuals reflect on confusing phenomena they observe. They gather data, form hypotheses and test those hypotheses. They discuss their observations and ideas with others to gain multiple perspectives. When a hypothesis checks out, they adopt it as a theory and begin to build schema and conceptual frames that explain how related phenomena function. As their expertise grows, they form linkages between those conceptual frames.

Yet, we still teach as though individuals learn by listening to lectures. We teach as though all students have experienced the same things at the same time, and in the same ways. We still teach as if all the learners in a classroom are there for the same reasons and need the same knowledge.

Learning is more effective and fruitful if we take the lessons of modern cognitive psychology, and teach students they way they naturally learn, customizing lessons to the needs and experiences of individual students.

The currently emerging online platforms are poised to enable a revolutionary change in the ways we implement teacher education. It is for the first time in my decade and a half as a classroom teacher, teacher educator, and education researcher, possible to optimize the learning experience to not just match what is possible in a conventional classroom, but actually surpass it. In my experience, when taught with these methods, students respond with engagement and curiosity, and learn more effectively.

Using these methods I have seen students take risks, and feel ownership for their learning in ways that are unparalleled in the traditional high school or college environment. My students have reported that they are intrinsically motivated to participate in online coursework. While they may not use terminology like “intrinsic motivation,” what they describe about their learning experience conveys precisely that. When reflecting on a well-designed hybrid online course, students describe their desire for knowledge; the clarity they gained about the applications of knowledge; their total loss of a sense of time while they followed a thread of thought around curated sources on the internet for hours on end.

My ambition is to extend these online learning techniques to current classroom teachers. It is a professional and personal goal of mine to prepare teachers to recognize the individuality of students in their classroom, and to aspire to be more than lecturers. Yet, the obstacles to achieving this goal are numerous and deeply entrenched.

In various roles in multiple organizations I have witnessed two different avenues of teachers’ professional learning, and I see a clear path for a third way. Here, I lay out the challenges in these two conventional avenues of professional learning and development, and describe how they will be eclipsed by a high-quality, online microcredentialing environment.

In my role as a faculty member at Saint Anselm College, where we prepare teachers for the classroom, I have used flipped classroom environments to train preservice teachers to design curriculum and assessments rooted in an inquiry approach to learning. Students understand that a foundational objective of the class is to design student-centered curriculum, in which teachers’ set goals and objectives for students that require individually tailored activities and assessments. This approach to curriculum design requires teachers to meet students where they are in the classroom, and to scaffold learning experiences that will allow students to realize his or her particular ambitions while simultaneously demonstrating mastery of clearly defined competencies.

When students leave the class, and the program for that matter, they are prepared to teach ambitiously and with individual students’ needs in mind. However, the dominant teaching culture – to which those novice teachers were exposed through their own P-12 experience, and into which they will return as practicing professionals – is saturated with a traditional, transmissionist pedagogy. Studies of the socialization process for novice teachers demonstrate time and again that the pressure to return to a transmissionist stance typically overwhelms even the most ambitious graduate.

To exacerbate the situation, the typical “in-service,” professional development model can replicate this transmissionist stance. Workshops follow a predictable approach: Teachers gather in the audience where they remain seated throughout the day to listen to presenters describe their experience in the classroom. While nearly 100% of teachers engage in up to 30 hours of professional development a year, only a small minority of those teachers report satisfaction with development workshops (Grunwald Associates, LLC & Digital Promise, 2015).

In this fully uninspiring environment of teacher socialization and professional development, it doesn’t take a leap in logic to understand why teaching practices have changed so little over the last 150 years.

In my role as an inaugural trustee for the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education and as the principal investigator for a community grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, I have had several opportunities to design and execute professional development experiences for local history, social studies and civics teachers. We have worked hard in planning sessions to create experiences that break that mold, and which allow teachers to engage with and explore new material. To assess the quality of the workshops, teachers are asked to design lesson plans, in which teachers illustrate how they will integrate these new activities in their practice. A simple guideline for the lesson is that it must include the content of the professional development, and it must include inquiry-based activities that students can engage in. (Read: NO lecture!) The ultimate performance assessment for teachers is to actually observe teachers applying new learning in practice. This assessment model does not reach that gold standard, but it does provide an example of a promising practice that comes close.

Still, even in light of our efforts to have teachers apply new learning in practice, we also know that in service days like ours have a short shelf life. This is due to the “drive by” nature of the workshop. In other words, teachers come and go from these “one-off” development workshops. Without networking the teachers, without creating a community of inquiry, without follow-on communications and designing subsequent development opportunities with feedback from prior participants in mind, the new strategies gained in the workshop quickly fade with time.

We cannot logically demand access for students to a tailored education that meets their authentic and individual needs without first revolutionizing how teachers are trained, and how they think about teaching.

Geographically independent, asynchronous online microcredentials offer a third avenue for professional development and will mitigate many of these problems by providing lasting, meaningful content. Critical to this effort will be engaging leading thinkers in education who can consolidate knowledge from the fields of cognitive psychology, curriculum design and assessment, and instructional technology including digital platforms. An effort like this must also harness the content knowledge and expertise of leading teacher educators in critical shortage fields as well as those dedicated to working with high need populations. A leader on this project must also possess a deep and integrated understanding of the structures higher education and professional development, and local, state and national policies that govern teacher learning and licensure. In my analysis of this fluid but rapidly expanding industry, I have not identified an existing model for online microcredentialing that meets this high bar or integrates knowledge from these divergent fields.

Certainly, we know of several interfaces that provide online learning opportunities at low or no cost including Kahn Academy, Udemy,, EdX and Coursera. A survey of the MOOC offerings through these well-known platforms will quickly generate the conclusion that these spaces aren’t designed for educators who wish to improve their pedagogical practice. Rather, these sites largely serve the scientific and technological industries. Digital Promise and similar organizations are building a comprehensive and diverse online platform, but the buy-in from teachers hasn’t been significant. Something is missing.

In a recent study of a representative sample of teachers, Grunwald Associates, LLC and Digital Promise found that early adapters of online microcredentialing are open to using this system as a way to improve their teaching. However, their findings also suggest that teachers question both the credibility of the staff that design the curriculum as well as those evaluating the teachers’ work. Participants in the study, though intrinsically motived by the desire for more knowledge and better teaching, wondered how “badges” and “microcredentials” displayed on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages would garner the recognition the teacher desires and deserves for their efforts. State credentialing agencies in New Hampshire and other New England states have yet to respond meaningfully to the call to formally recognize teachers’ work on microcredential programs. Digital Promise is on the leading edge of the work to consolidate learning tasks, but we can also learn from the challenges that this business has faced and seek innovative ways to address those challenges.

First, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to standardize the language of “microcredentialing.” In traditional teacher education programs, the coursework and clinical hours required to earn an endorsement for a teaching credential are relatively uniform. By referencing a “credential,” whether “micro” or otherwise, the online microcredentialing industry is promising something that it seems ill equipped to deliver. The online microcredentialing industry must network with state education agencies to determine what commitment and what display of competency should be required of teachers to earn a “microcredential,” and this “microcredential” must translate to something meaningful and more precise with the credentialing agency. For example, to earn a teaching credential, typical teachers must complete an accredited teacher education program, pass the requisite state sanctioned high-stakes exams, undergo a background check and complete an application with the state. The component that calls for a completion of an accredited teacher education program alone requires several semesters of coursework where one course typically implies 120 hours of student work. Meanwhile, the “microcredentials” offered on Digital Promise take fewer than two hours to complete. There seems to be a mismatch in work demand and measures of mastery.

Second, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to diminish the variability in quality in the coursework offered. In my market research, I dug deeply into online offerings of various institutions and online companies that are gaining traction in my home state of New Hampshire. In my quest to determine who was designing and executing these online microcredential and professional development opportunities, I was surprised to discover that I could rarely determine who authored the content. In the instances where I could determine who authored the content, I was similarly surprised to find that it was not authored by teacher educators or education researchers. In other words, while the authors of this content may be highly regarded practitioners in classrooms, there was little to suggest that the pedagogical techniques they conveyed are evidenced-based. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire alone I could name highly regarded teacher educators who have been designing inquiry-based, evidence-driven coursework and training programs for teachers for decades. Why are these expert faculty members not solicited to generate content for online microcredentials?

Third, a robust online microcredentialing program must offer module templates that reflect what we know about how people learn. As detailed at the outset of this letter, cognitive psychologist and education researchers know quite a lot about how people learn – despite what we typically see in classrooms. We know that best teaching begins with the teacher identifying what his or her students already know, and then using students’ prior learning and experiences as a springboard to further learning. The teacher can curate sources of new information that provide scaffolds for students to acquire new knowledge and demonstrate new competencies. Students’ capacity to transfer and enact that new knowledge must be assessed by the teacher. My traditional and online course design has followed these guidelines for years. Yet in an examination of the assessments of current models of online microcredentialing, the assessment process appears quite uneven. While I commend current models that require participants in the module to demonstrate their knowledge on performance assessment, a lingering question for me is, “Who is determining what mastery looks like for this assessment?” To put the question in the language of a student, “Who is correcting my work, and how do I know they know what they’re doing?” This model goes beyond the transmissionist, one-way-street model of platforms like (which only provide the content to students) by trying to mimic the dialogical nature of the teacher student relationship. However, it stops short of more ambitious models in the sense that these offerings are unable or unwilling to guarantee the credibility of the assessor. Additionally, we know that when a teacher provides timely, direct and standards based feedback students have more opportunity to reach mastery. No models exist online where the back-and-forth conversation between student and teacher are present and sustainable.

Finally, a robust online microcredentialing program must work to leverage existing educator networks to identify common challenges with professional learning, and to develop innovative solutions which address those challenges and work to scale the service. Teachers want professional development that helps them answer the question, “What can I use in my classroom right now strengthen my content knowledge and enhance my pedagogical technique?” When teachers find professional development offerings that work for them, they naturally return to those sources for more, and the word spreads. Currently, New Hampshire finds itself in a position unlike any other state. All of the institutions of higher education that prepare teachers have voluntarily joined forces with the aim of improving teaching quality, and the equitable distribution of quality teachers in the state. During my time as the Secretary of the New Hampshire Institutes of Higher Education Network, it has become increasingly clear that this network needs an institution-independent platform to serve as a warehouse of content, training and resources for our region’s classroom teachers. Many of the teacher educators in this network have been training teachers for decades in the state. Their professional networks of practicing classroom teachers are experientially varied and geographically vast. Classroom teachers in New Hampshire are loyally connected to the programs that prepared them. Leveraging these existing networks through an online microcredentialing program is a first step to expanding these programs to scale.

It will take significant resources to realize these short and long term goals. A successful initiative must acknowledge the ongoing technological requirements for hosting a healthy online microcredentialing environment including costs to host the platform, the platform itself (e.g. Moodle or Coursera), the requisite storage for multiple media sources like video, infographics, sound and image files; and plugins to enhance user experiences and interactivity (e.g. Zoom, )

Though these technological costs are diverse and revolving, they are minimal compared to the investment an initiative like this requires in people power. Short-term goals like developing an interface with user experience design will require contracts with graphic designers and instructional technology experts. Developing a single module, stack and microcredential series requires contracts with experts in course management systems to ensure that course designers will be able to sequence their content and customize their modules with standard and emergent technologies contemporary students have come to expect.

Long-term goals including building and diversifying microcredential offerings require contracting with content area experts including course buy-outs or stipends for university faculty by module. Videographers will need to be hired and software procured (e.g. Camtasia or Canvas) to enable content authors to establish an online presence with their students. Administrative costs for this endeavor are extensive and include everything from pulling copyrights for supporting course texts to issuing acknowledgements that participants in the modules have demonstrate competencies. Leadership on this initiative will require at the very least summer salaries for professors, consulting costs to exchange ideas about design and development with intellectual property and contract lawyers (whose content is this?), business consultants (how do we market and scale our site), state education policy actors (how can we get teachers the recognition they deserve through the credentialing process).

Support from foundations to achieve these short and long term goals is crucial. In the absence of this support, individuals, agencies and businesses will continue to shape and define the nature of online professional learning opportunities for teachers. What is missing in this equation is the input, guidance and innovation of education researchers and teacher educators who have the content knowledge, the pedagogical expertise and the established networks to bring demands of high quality to this initiative. In the industries of higher education and online learning, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can continue to reproduce online faulty assumptions about how people learn and, it follows, how one should teach online. Or, we can recognize the convergence of research and capacity to scale online is presenting us with an opportunity to not just replicate what we have always done, but to surpass that work in a virtual environment. With help, we can work to teach teachers to teach in a way that reflects what we know about how learners learn.



When Teachers Strike

Photo by Ben Sutherland

I am torn on teachers’ unions.

As a first year teacher in Connecticut, I resented being compelled to pay over $700 in yearly union dues, but within two years I was the building representative for our districts’ teaching association. Even as a rep, I still felt torn on two union mainstays: teacher tenure and the threat of strikes.

On reflection, I realize my distrust of unions stems from two things. First, teachers unions do sometimes defend pretty lackluster teaching. Frankly, I find that deplorable. Second, my knee-jerk response is to buy the anti-union rhetoric. I suspect the standard anti-union zingers resonate with many other Americans as well.

Yet, as I watch a contract dispute unfold in my state’s biggest public school district, it is clear that, though intuitively easy to buy into, the anti-union rhetoric is based on some seriously misguided perceptions of teachers’ work.

These misperceptions must be considered before any parent or community member can meaningfully comment on union activity.

Misguided Perceptions of Teaching

It doesn’t take much to find examples of wrong-headed beliefs about teaching. If you follow any headline story about teachers’ union activity, a quick scroll through the “comments” sections will yield some pretty consistent messaging.

  • Teachers’ salaries are already bloated. How dare they negotiate for raises?
  • Our district just negotiated a new contract. Why are teachers asking for more?
  • Teachers should be there for our children, and not there to “line their pockets.”
  • Teachers should only get raises if their students perform well.
  • The teachers’ union is threatening to strike when our children need them most. Why did the teachers wait until the eleventh hour to make this an issue?

And the most seriously misguided sentiment:

  • Teachers get several vacations throughout the school year. They have a two-month break over the summer, and work six hours a day. Part-time pay for part-time work is fair.

On first blush, it would be easy to buy into all of these popular sentiments. Though, all of them are mostly wrong.

An 8 o’clock to 2 o’clock workday? Yes, I’ll have what they’re having.

My suspicion is that most of the American public bases their understanding of the work of teachers on their experiences with teachers when they were children in school. Beyond this first hand experience with teachers, many Americans don’t think very hard about the true work of teaching unless they live with a teacher or they are one.

For example, if my students’ perceptions about what I did during the school day were true, I would be sleeping on a cot in the broom closet in my classroom, and my life would be sustained through a steady diet of apples and chalk dust.

Okay, that’s overstating it, but students were always shocked when they saw me eating real food in the cafeteria, and let’s not even mention what happened when they saw me in public. All this is to say students give little thought to what goes into teaching, especially when they are not sitting in a classroom.

I liken assumptions about “knowing what it means to teach” to going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite dish and deciding – as you wait for then devour your meal – that you know what it means to be chef.

Clearly, when that dish is presented to you, you know very little about the ingredients, the preparation, the cook time, the training or the thought that went into that dish. The same can be said for students in a classroom. You are only consuming the finished product of teaching.

Teachers work much longer than six hours a day. Six hours a day is the amount of time teachers spend with your children. Six hours a day is the amount of time it takes for teachers to present their fully-cooked dishes to students.

The six-hours-a-day calculation leaves out the “cook time” that went into lesson planning, their assessment of students’ performance and feedback, the continuous training and professional development, the committee work and communication with parents. Let us also consider the constant preparation, clean-up and organization of materials that classroom teachers manage every day, all day. (Those lima beans didn’t count themselves into those twenty-five little plastic Dixie cups, kid!)

Teachers’ work day starts well before the school day begins (which is earlier and earlier every year). Teachers’ calendar year also starts well before the school year begins as teachers prepare the classroom for the school year, and they’re there well after the school year ends writing reports, debriefing and unpacking the school year, and making plans for the next one to come. That two-month summer vacation is something your children enjoy, not their teachers.

Work to Rule

Union activity doesn’t happen out of nowhere, either. There are many activities a union might engage in well before they resort to a strike. Before a teachers’ union strikes, they might call for a “work to rule.” In a nutshell, “work to rule” means that the teachers voice their grievances by refusing to work beyond the terms and conditions outlined by the previous contract.

This means teachers may be asked by the union not to return to the classroom earlier than they are required to set up for the school year. Teachers might be asked to be at the school and in the classroom the minimum required time of the school day. They will be asked to refrain from purchasing equipment for the classroom with their own money (about $500 per teacher amounting to billions of dollars a year across the nation). 

In other words, work to rule means the community gets what they’re paying for, which is far less than the bargain many communities usually get out of teachers.

For teachers who typically work far and above the terms of their contract, a work to rule order represents a significant change in their pre-school-year practice, and is emotionally difficult for many dedicated teachers. When you think of the things that these teachers are not doing to prepare for and serve their students, it is clear a work to rule order makes their workday much more difficult.

The truth is that it is hard to know how many teachers actually carry out the work to rule even if they say they will.

For example, that same school district that is now embroiled in the contract dispute I spoke of earlier has experienced work to rule orders before. During a work to rule order a few years back, the district changed busing companies to cut costs. As an outcome of serious mismanagement, the busing company failed to pickup children on time from school to be bussed home. Several teachers told me that they violated the work to rule order by waiting in their classroom with the children for the bus to come until after four o’clock pm.

You ask, “Yes, but what cruel and heartless teacher could leave a group of scared and abandoned 8-year-olds in the classroom unattended to comply with a work to rule order?”

The answer is very few if any of them.

So, a work to rule order in a district that is regularly mismanaging funds and contracting mediocre services for children isn’t a very effective tactic.

The Long and Winding Path of a Failed Teaching Contract

Teaches strike out of desperation when all other avenues have failed, but even then their efforts are often in vain. This is because teachers can’t win the media war when they’re out of their classrooms and picketing in the streets. When there is even the threat of such an activity, the anti-union rhetoric and false assumptions quickly kick in.

The irony as I see it is that the media glare focuses only on the teachers’ actions and spares not even a second to consider the role played by community leaders, like mayors, who may share responsibility for failed union contracts.

So, I’ll offer a bit here on the anatomy of contract negotiations, but with the caveat that my experience is limited.

Teachers typically negotiate a “master contract” with the municipality or the district every few years. This is known as collective bargaining and it happens again and again because, written in the terms of the contract is the contract’s own expiration date.

There are many people involved in contract negotiations including the mayor, the board of education, aldermen or local representatives as well as the teachers. The contract involves much more than annual salary. Rather, negotiations often focus on things like health insurance, retirement and minimum work safety standards.

These contract negotiations typically happen in the springtime for the upcoming fiscal year, and are usually settled in time for districts to predict staffing needs, post advertisements, and fill open positions by the late spring.

Contracts often reach a stalemate when any of these moving pieces or players gets hung up. Often it has nothing to do with teachers’ salary. Sometimes contract negotiations fail because of complex municipal spending and investment guidelines, like determining what percentage of healthcare costs the teachers will cover and what the municipality will cover.

Sometimes, a contract fails because teachers don’t want riders in their contracts that allow municipal governments to divest earnings from teachers’ pension plans to offset other costs in the district with a promise to replenish the pension funds at a later, indeterminate date (go figure).

To be honest, these are the types of nuts and bolts of contract negotiation that make my eyes glaze over, but it can never be said that these are trifling details.

In the largest district in New Hampshire, the contract dispute is a perfect storm involving an impoverished district, an impatient electorate and the reelection aspirations of the city’s mayor.

First, their budget timeline and decision making seems to happen three months later than other districts in New Hampshire. This results in critical contract questions being made late in the summer months. One summer, the last-minute budget shortfall led to the district firing 137 teachers (about a sixth of the teaching force) two weeks before the school year began. The results were chaotic, with children looking forward to meeting their assigned classroom teacher (who had been fired) and classrooms of over 30 children assigned to one teacher.

In the current contract dispute, 7 out of 10 members of the Board of Alderman and all elected Board of School Committee members supported the contract. Regardless, at the eleventh hour and with little warning the mayor vetoed the contract.

In a complete denial of his role in the contract negotiation breakdown and his role as leader of the city and the Board of School Committeethe Mayor called on the teachersto iron out” the details of a new contract. Meanwhile, it should be noted the mayor is up for reelection on September 15th, and many citizens turn the other cheek while the mayor distances himself from the contract negotiation failure and focus instead on his claims of fiscal responsibility.

Questions to Ask when Teachers Strike

While I’m still torn about unions, including some of their goals and their tactics, and while the research on unions is far from a consensus, it’s clear to me that these contests raise more questions than community members and parents are often willing to ask.

As with everything in education politics the story is much more complex than the headline.

Work strikes seem to me like an outdated tactic that yields only negative and unintended consequences. Meanwhile, teachers themselves have difficulty following through with a work to rule. Teachers don’t seem to have a winning strategy or tactics. This is especially true when teachers are hung out to dry for political gain. In this case teachers are being blamed for mismanaging city revenue and being asked to find a solution on their own.

Who wants to be a teacher, kids?! Can I get a show of hands?

When teachers threaten to engage in union activity, rather than spinning out the same wrongheaded one-liners, community members and parents might question where their city leadership went wrong.

  • How long have negotiations been going on?
  • Where are the sticking points in the negotiation?
  • What does the school board say?
  • What does the superintendent of schools in the district say?
  • How are teachers being treated in my community’s schools?

Most importantly, they might ask what role their community’s elected officials have played in the stalemate, and what those same political leaders stand to gain from selling the teachers in their district down the river.

Posts in the cooker… Bringing research to the foreground

I have scores of ideas of things I’d like to blog about, but here’s the shortlist. If you’re interested in knowing the history behind features of schools, or what the “research says” about schools, please comment with your suggestions!

Cheers – Dianna

  1. What does it mean to “Opt-Out” of a standardized test, and should I do it?
  2. How do schools in different states stack up?
  3. Louis C.K. broke my heart when he called out the Common Core
  4. Is homework for kids or their parents?
  5. LGBTQ kids ARE our kids
  6. What’s the deal with 7 AM start times?
  7. Is there really a teacher shortage?
  8. My child’s report card makes no sense to me (& competency based grading)
  9. What’s the point of “group work?”
  10. Why is the site called “Our Kids?”
  11. Calling a truce in the mommy wars.
  12. Talking about American race relations with kids – a white momma’s work.
  13. The manner in which teachers are portrayed in the media is killing the profession.
  14. My friend says her kids are “totally average,” and I admire that attitude.
  15. The shocking reality about how few kids finish college.
  16. College shouldn’t be “four years at Hogwarts” (truthfully put by Martin O’Malley)
  17. The U.S. is actually not doing badly in international ratings – it just depends on how you slice the data.
  18. Should we lengthen the school year?
  19. Reforms that might work in our schools.
  20. How parents can support schools.
  21. Things *not* to say at the parent-teacher conference & questions to ask.
  22. Decoding the standardized test report
  23. The obesity epidemic and school lunch programs.
  24. The anti-Vax movement and CA’s new mandate for measles vaccine.

2014’s Best and Worst States for Teachers

Ask the Experts

Like any professional seeking an ideally balanced work situation and personal life, educators are no exception. Teachers must be able to make a reasonable living in order to meet the challenges of their positions. To propel the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on teacher-related issues and offer advice to both job seekers and local policymakers.

Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell
Assistant Professor of Education, Saint Anselm College

What are the biggest issues teachers face today?

Teachers are sometimes held solely responsible, and unfairly so, for the quality of education in America. If students don’t perform well internationally or nationally, within their state, their district or the school, Americans want to know where to put the blame, and it often falls on teachers. Of course to some extent the classroom teacher plays a significant role, but there is a host of other reasons for the uneven performance of American schools. So there seems to be a real undercurrent in the discourse that holds teachers accountable, and wants to evaluate a teacher’s quality on the “value” they add to students’ standardized tests scores in a single academic year. This is a considerable, and as I mentioned, rather unfair burden to bear for a novice teacher just entering the workforce.

Relatedly, the amount of support a new teacher receives in his or her job is extraordinarily variable. That is to say, some teachers get a great deal of support through induction and mentoring programs in their schools, while others are left to “sink or swim” with little to no support for improving their teaching skills. We know that the quality and quantity of support in the induction years plays a large part in terms of whether a teacher decides to stay in or leave the profession. With half of the teaching force leaving the profession in the first five years, attrition from the teaching career is a significant concern. So, a school’s mentoring and induction program merits a second look when a teacher is considering a job offer. They should ask the question, “Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”

Finally, I would say the variability in students’ “preparedness for school” – shorthand for the skills, knowledge and behavior students bring into a classroom – can be a real shock for teachers. A new teacher’s capacity to differentiate their instruction for an exceedingly diverse student body is a crucial skill for new teachers and an issue on the national stage just as much as it is at the district level.

How can local officials make their states more attractive to the best teachers?

Local officials should investigate whether new teachers and teachers transferring from other states are provided with the appropriate training and incentives to move to their district. This can be done easily by making sure local officials are current on state policies for certification, and making sure there is a clear link between teacher preparation programs’ expectations for their graduates, and state or district expectations for teacher credentialing.

An easy way to connect schools in a community with high quality novice teachers is to form relationships with particular teacher education programs in the area and to open classrooms of current teachers to pre-service teachers enrolled in those programs. Pre-service teachers can then be “trained up” within the culture of the specific school and gain a better sense of the school and community culture. Local districts that have learned how to do this enjoy the benefit of having “first pick” from a pool of qualified graduates. These are students who already have a great sense of the school and the broader community, and will require less in the way of orientation in their first year of teaching.

There also needs to be greater emphasis for teacher education programs to work with building leaders/principals in local schools to make sure teachers are being trained for the realities they will face in the classrooms in different districts and across states. Higher education institutions are trying to do this by creating networks of pre-service teacher education programs to be sure their programs are responsive to the needs of PK-12 schools, and state and local officials can support these initiatives by simply asking how they can make the “PK-20” alignment more seamless.

Another way to recruit high quality practicing teachers or career changing teachers into the community is to offer incentives like reduced costs to “tuition into” the district. In some cases, the strongest teachers live in a community outside the community that is trying to recruit them. With private schools, teachers are often offered a significantly discounted tuition rate. With public schools that allow people from other communities to “tuition in” to the school, it seems a good and simple budget-line investment would be to reduce the cost for the teacher to tuition his or her children into the school. When you have a high quality teacher who wants to bring his or her children into the district, reduced tuition costs are a win-win, as the school is showing an investment in the teacher and the teacher, with his or her children now in the districts’ schools, has the added investment of creating a better educational reality for his or her own children.

Are unions beneficial to teachers? What about to students?

Yes. Unions get a bad rap, but in some communities signing on with a union is a requirement of signing a contract with the district. In other words, if you’re not represented through the union the district will not extend you a contract. In my experience this is a good thing, because the union provides representation for novice teachers while they’re primarily focused on developing their practice.

In my second year of teaching, a student’s parents threatened to sue me and the district if I did not reexamine a grade I had issued to the student. You can imagine this is a terrifying predicament for a new teacher, but a reality in our highly litigious society. My union membership allowed me free access to counsel so I could continue to hold students accountable for the quality of their work, and to teach ambitiously knowing that, even without tenure, I would not be cast out to pasture when a true problem arose.

In the sense that unions protect ambitious teachers with high standards, unions are good for students. Of course, it makes a much better headline to show all of the unethical conduct that teacher unions appear to condone and even defend – and in those cases it’s clear that teachers unions aren’t always working in the best interests of students. What gets lost in that portrait of unions are the many teachers, like myself, who have tangible experiences that provide evidence of the fact that when unions support good teaching they’re also supporting student learning.

What tips can you offer young teachers looking for a place to settle?

The interests of a typical, young 20-something teacher are quite different from the interests of a family person, a veteran teacher or a career changer, so it’s difficult to offer advice to all of these different subpopulations entering a school as a teacher. The population with whom I have the greatest experience are the “young” teachers you reference in your prompt.

Most times, teachers are just looking for a job – this is true in particular certification areas like Elementary Education and secondary history and English teaching where the candidate pool exceeds job opportunities. In those cases, my best advice is just to find a classroom teaching job, and know you may be working in a community in which you do not see yourself long term. They also must understand that just because they’re in this position now, doesn’t mean they’re bound to that grade, school, district or even state long-term. Classroom teaching experience is preferred to non-experience, and they’ll be able to trumpet the skills they built in those initial years in their next job search. At that point, it’s more appropriate to be looking for a “place to settle.”

In any case, the best advice I have is that teachers should know that if the first job doesn’t feel like a “fit” that does not mean that the career is not a “fit.” They should understand that it may take some time before they find the right school community and culture – a place where they feel at home. Hopefully, that place will have a building principal or curriculum leader who has the development of his or her faculty at heart, and who can see the young teacher’s potential may not just be in the classroom, but could be with a different role within education. This speaks to an earlier response where I noted that a teacher looking for a job should ask the question, ““Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”I would add here “How will I be supported in my career?”

The preceding is an excerpt from an interview I did in 2014 with WalletHub. For the full story by Richie Bernando, WalletHub Contributor, including ratings of each state based on WalletHub’s methodology, please follow this link.