Merrill Vargo

Merrill Vargo

The unacknowledged crisis in public education is not teacher quality but teacher motivation. The engine of any major change process in any human system is people. We cannot change education without the enthusiastic and heartfelt participation of teachers, administrators, and, ultimately, students. As longtime reformer Michael Fullan puts it in a recent paper, “The key to system-wide success is to situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force. This means aligning the goals of reform and the central motivation of participants.”

This should be obvious. But one result of the last decade of “education reform” has been to discourage, demoralize, and disempower teachers. Any review of any of the various surveys of teachers confirms this. If still in doubt, do your own data collection: Find a teacher and ask. Then put yourself in their place. Outsiders to education may think that including test score data as part of teacher evaluation makes obvious sense – but coming on top of a decade of focus on scripted curriculum, high-fidelity implementation of adopted textbooks, high-stakes accountability, teaching to the test, and massive layoffs, it feels to teachers like one more blow. It is lucky for us – and for kids – that teachers are a tough and committed bunch of people. But we need to stop taking them for granted.

All this means that, as California gets more serious about implementation of the Common Core, we need to think clearly about a couple of things. First, Common Core has huge potential to reenergize teachers and revitalize public education. It is good stuff, because it is about teaching and learning, and teachers who are exposed to the Common Core by and large are responding with enthusiasm. But let’s face it, if we implement the Common Core as No Child Left Behindwith a more challenging test and fewer resources, teachers will not find this approach to be motivating.

So, what’s the alternative? If we took on Common Core from the perspective that this is our chance to reinspire a generation of teachers, what would we do? First and foremost, we would keep this goal front and center. Second, we would do a lot of talking with teachers. Third, we would keep in mind what we know about change management: In brief, effective change processes engage both hearts and minds and they also are connected to a concrete plan that does not require people to try to change everything at once.

This is the challenge: No one, whether kindergarten teacher or corporate CEO, can manage complexity in multiple dimensions. We need to do what Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch call “shrinking the change.” But we need to shrink it to the right thing, which is not testing or accountability or buying a textbook and teaching it or teacher evaluation or data. All these are things we need to think about later. What we need to lead with is a focus on a collective effort – teams of teachers and administrators working together to explore these new standards, understand what teachers across the nation are doing and learning about them, and build new systems whose goal is the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

There is no simple sound bite in this approach. But it is the only approach that can work.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

 

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  1. Suzanne Burchell 4 years ago4 years ago

    After 38 yars as a drama teacher I retrired a year early form secondary school because the behaviuoural issues in the class did not allow lessons to be delivered effectively.I left secondary school and am currently a lecturere in Drama in education at Brock University. I loved teaching drama and being a part of student development.As a drama teachers decade after decade had been wonder filled years seeing students succeed.I was fortunate to have the … Read More

    After 38 yars as a drama teacher I retrired a year early form secondary school because the behaviuoural issues in the class did not allow lessons to be delivered effectively.I left secondary school and am currently a lecturere in Drama in education at Brock University. I loved teaching drama and being a part of student development.As a drama teachers decade after decade had been wonder filled years seeing students succeed.I was fortunate to have the benefits of years where if I wanted to do profressional development I was given financial support and time release as well as support form effective administators. I attended 25 years of 2 conferences for drama teachers as well as many extra conferences on teaching. My union,OSSTF, provided me with additional training in with repsect to treaching. I was filled with new ideas and motivation for classroom practices. I was renergized and able to pass my passion on in lessons inthe classroom. I had the support of effective adminstrators who dealt with behavioural issues.I was given respect by adminitrators who acknowledged my competnecy to develop program that benefited students.I was proud and passionate. In the last year emotionally out of control students were sent to class disrupting everyone.These students were under the ‘protection’of the student success program devised by the government but which had not been well thought out.There was little effective support from adminstrators who were not going to set boundaries with troubled students in order to keep parents ‘happy’ and not ‘upset’ the superintendent. The administration chose to reply to me with epithets such as the students were “not engaged” because of the lessons or look for “baby steps” when clearly the student’s emotional issues over rode their ability to cope in a classroom. There were no boundaries on late assignments, special exams took place for many students who needed to be accommodated when they did not attend class because thye choose to skip. Some were legitimate special exams some were students taking advantage of a sytem they had figured out.There is a disconnect between administration and teacher since the days of the Mike Harris government.Producing data at any cost has replaced credit integrity. Adminiatration seek not to address issues in the school but to be yes people to the superintendent so they can rise in the ranks of administrators. There is a top down political agenda for administrators who do what they are dictated to do with no consultation from teachers. Exams are written and teachers have a day to mark and record and enter reports. Deaflines have become impossible. Course outlines are changed at the demand of the principal.Many adiminstrators are upwardly mobile focussed on promotion, many do not have masters degrees in education, many have become bullies towrd teachrs and many were not devoted classroom teachers but those who strove to leave the classroom asap. Eductional assistants have been withdrawn from the class.EA’s were the most essential part of student success for specila needs students. Thankfully I had a few peer tutors to assist special needs students.PD days were spent on new initiatives that have one size fits all concepts with no imput from teachers or whatever falvour of the day new idea comes along . My voice of reason was not welcome at staff meetings or with vp’s despite my success and expertise as a classroom teahcer. Alfie Cohen speaks of this disenfranchised effect on classroom teachers.We do not need trendy ideas in teaching we need available teacher training and reasonable expectations of student committment to classes.

  2. Theodore Lobman 4 years ago4 years ago

    Among many sources of academic motivation, Children’s Defense Founder, Marian Wright Edelman used to say, is belief that it matters to their future. It was hard enough in decades of economic growth — and a high correlation between affordable diplomas and income — to support academic motivation and move more teachers to cultivate it. What now?

  3. Eric Premack 4 years ago4 years ago

    Great piece Merrill. We also need to motivate students--perhaps even more so than teachers. Here the Common Core may present a formidable obstacle. Common Core presumably provides an opportunity to really connect with and motivate some segments of the student population. Common Core could, for example, be especially compelling for those who have or intensely value verbal-abstract approaches. At the same time, Common Core could be a real buzz-killer for those without … Read More

    Great piece Merrill.

    We also need to motivate students–perhaps even more so than teachers. Here the Common Core may present a formidable obstacle. Common Core presumably provides an opportunity to really connect with and motivate some segments of the student population. Common Core could, for example, be especially compelling for those who have or intensely value verbal-abstract approaches. At the same time, Common Core could be a real buzz-killer for those without strong aptitude for verbal-abstract approaches. Imagine, for example, trying to motivate students who lack strong English language aptitude or interest with the reading exemplars offered by Student Achievement Partners (a leading Common Core proponent):
    http://www.achievethecore.org/steal-these-tools/close-reading-exemplars

    Common Core could be a wonderful opportunity to reach some kids, but a disaster in the making for many others. It would seem appropriate to establish a process by which schools may opt out of the Common Core, provided they pursue rigorous alternative standards and goals.

    Replies

    • Merrill Vargo 4 years ago4 years ago

      Eric, thanks for raising the issue of student motivation, which is the other half of the equation. I am not convinced that that solution you propose - for some kids or schools to opt out - is necessary, though only time will tell. I do think we need to keep the window of opportunity open for creative teachers to experiment with ways to engage more kids in, as Ted Sizer used to say, … Read More

      Eric, thanks for raising the issue of student motivation, which is the other half of the equation. I am not convinced that that solution you propose – for some kids or schools to opt out – is necessary, though only time will tell. I do think we need to keep the window of opportunity open for creative teachers to experiment with ways to engage more kids in, as Ted Sizer used to say, “learning to use their minds well” in school. To the extent that the Common Core represents this broad goal, we should keep it on the table for all. But let’s not rush to adopt a curriculum! The example you cite is certainly not going to engage all and is a sobering example of what could go wrong.

  4. ChristophLA 4 years ago4 years ago

    Evaluating teachers on student test scores is fraught with the same risk as evaluating doctors on patient outcomes. If patients don’t follow doctors orders, its not a reflection of the doctor’s skill or knowledge. And not all teachers work under the same “standardized” conditions necessary to separate the student’s learning environment from his learning ability.

  5. CarolineSF 4 years ago4 years ago

    Many of the veteran teachers being constantly beaten up by the so-called "reformers" and treated contemptuously as deadwood and burnouts -- and accused of been a bunch of sex offenders by high-profile so-called "reformers" such as Michelle Rhee -- are minorities; the majority are women. From what I've heard, the temp beginner teaching force that's now touted as superior and that is displacing the scorned veterans is mostly white and privileged. Just something to think about. Read More

    Many of the veteran teachers being constantly beaten up by the so-called “reformers” and treated contemptuously as deadwood and burnouts — and accused of been a bunch of sex offenders by high-profile so-called “reformers” such as Michelle Rhee — are minorities; the majority are women.

    From what I’ve heard, the temp beginner teaching force that’s now touted as superior and that is displacing the scorned veterans is mostly white and privileged.

    Just something to think about.

  6. Chris Stampols 4 years ago4 years ago

    I am glad you bring up the topic of motivation because the after-hours commitment of teachers can be as important as their classroom efforts. Young teachers bring the idealism of fresh graduates who are, often, younger than the parents whose children they serve. Then comes the 30s and the transition to balancing career with raising one's own family while teaching the kids of age peers. Commute times lengthen. Coordinating pickup and … Read More

    I am glad you bring up the topic of motivation because the after-hours commitment of teachers can be as important as their classroom efforts. Young teachers bring the idealism of fresh graduates who are, often, younger than the parents whose children they serve. Then comes the 30s and the transition to balancing career with raising one’s own family while teaching the kids of age peers. Commute times lengthen. Coordinating pickup and dropoff of one’s own kids becomes complex, especially when added to figuring out dinners and juggling household chores and the growing difficulty in leaving work at work. By mid 40s many teachers have been in the classroom for 20 years, super-skilled at pedagogical leadership, but perhaps less in touch with the neighborhood to which one commutes daily, as well as a bit disconnected from the realities of the new generation of young parents. By one’s 50s, it has been 30 years of teaching and the these teachers are extraordinarily well-skilled in the classroom. However, some teachers may become less enthusiastic about dealing with complex cultural changes around their schools, including language shifts, immigration impacts and the rapid speed of change, including internet criticism of teachers.

    Few public school teachers live near where they work, especially for Title One-eligible urban schools. This commute disconnect combined with a range of morale issues should be addressed regularly by school boards. We have to treat our teachers like professionals and encourage their ongoing growth. We need to ask experienced teachers for broad-minded solutions to local achievement gaps. Collaboration really means working together, respectfully and with high mutual expectations. California’s diversity and growing populations are strengths, but we have to acknowledge how much the landscape has changed in 30 years – even for the most competent classroom teachers.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley-Mission Community College District
    State Board Member, California Community College Trustees (CCCT)
    408-771-6858 * stampolis@aol.com

    Replies

    • navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

      fwiw, we have more school choice. fewer and fewer public school students go to their neighborhood school. In some districts this is well over half of all students. And in a pure school of choice it is all of them. The 'community' defined by that group of people is not geographic. It is defined by the families that attend that school. In fact, elementary teachers probably spend more time with their students than their peers … Read More

      fwiw, we have more school choice. fewer and fewer public school students go to their neighborhood school. In some districts this is well over half of all students. And in a pure school of choice it is all of them. The ‘community’ defined by that group of people is not geographic. It is defined by the families that attend that school. In fact, elementary teachers probably spend more time with their students than their peers or even parents do. If there is anything that creates a ‘disconnect’ it is raising class sizes past that magic point where the students start to look like a group instead of individual kids or where the number of families to connect with become untenable.

      Last night I read this piece and tried to think of the 10 most motivated people I know. Only one of them is not a teacher (I come from private industry). This is astounding to me given what has and is happening to them in the press and the battlefield of state politics. Oh, and almost every school in our district is title I.

      I do agree that local hires would be ideal. In fact, I think that should be a policy for district central administration. If there is anything that is poison, it is a district administrator making decisions about district policy without knowing the culture or the history of the area and its people.

  7. Lawrence Pallant 4 years ago4 years ago

    Thank you for speaking for teachers. As a public school teacher, I fully agree. It looks to me that the education reform movement has been hijacked by a movement that is trying to destroy public education. One way this is happening is by creating unrealistic goals, that all students need to meet regardless of socio-economic background, home and primary language, or learning disability, and then blaming schools and teachers for not meeting those goals.