Apr 22, 2011

A Teacher's Perspective--It's Time To Take A Risk And Support Real Reform

Ben Salkowe is a fifth grade teacher in Nevada and co-leader of the Scholars Working OverTime (SWOT) program at Keller Elementary School. SWOT is the first extended-day, college-prep program for students in East Las Vegas, and now Ben is working to support education reform legislation that would impact communities across his state.
By any measure, my state ranks at the bottom of the nation for the quality of education we offer our kids. Nevada's achievement on standardized assessments is dismal and our annual dropout rate is heartbreaking. This reality is what makes the state hearing I recently attended so extraordinary.
Last Saturday morning, the Ways and Means Committee of our state assembly heard several hours of testimony from teachers, school districts, and community leaders on a landmark education reform package. The reforms moving through the legislature would tackle Nevada's challenges directly by making students' academic growth the bottom line at every level of our system.
It is hard to overstate the potential impact of these reforms. This year, hundreds of great teachers in my district are in line to be laid off due to budget cuts. Nevada's "last in, first out" (LIFO) rules require that these layoffs be based solely on the years a teacher has worked, with no consideration of the achievement a teacher has led in his or her classroom. The proposed reforms tell districts forced to layoff teachers that they should do so based on effectiveness, not seniority.
We also have an evaluation system that rates nearly every one of us as satisfactory, despite the fact that our state has been one of the lowest performing in the nation for years. That just doesn't add up. How can we evaluate an educator without considering the growth they lead students to achieve? The new legislation says evaluations in our system, for both teachers and administrators, should be based on the academic growth students make in their classrooms and their buildings.
The morning after the hearing, I scanned the local headlines. When I saw the story at the top of the Reno Gazette-Journal, I was puzzled. "Teachers argue against Nevada bill that would cut tenure." I had been at the hearing and I knew many educators who supported this legislation. How could the takeaway have been that teachers opposed the reform package?
When I thought back to the testimonies, I started to realize the challenge we face. Despite some strong statements from teachers who wanted to see LIFO ended, many veteran educators who spoke up did so in opposition to the proposals. They were not opposed to the goals of the legislation, but worried and confused about what it would look like to overhaul a system so many of them had worked in for years.
Change may be difficult, but our status quo is unacceptable. It is time to take a risk. Those of us teachers who have questions about these proposals need to ask them with the understanding that all of us want to produce better outcomes for our students. And those of us teachers who support these reforms need to step out of our classrooms and start talking to our colleagues and our community members about the chance we have to make history.
The real game changer in education reform -- the thing that will really turn our state around -- will not be a piece of legislation. It is going to take a shift in the mindsets of people throughout our communities. That starts with those of us who understand these challenges the best. That starts with teachers.

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