I am back from vacation, and slowly gearing up to post more on Gifted Exchange as the school year resumes!
In my inbox this week -- a fascinating story from LA that is not about gifted education per se, but gets at one of the major problems in American education: a failure to reward and nurture excellence.
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez recently wrote "A Lesson from a Good Teacher" about a young and energetic teacher named Susan Requa who moved from Chicago in order to teach at James Monroe High School in the LA Unified School District. She won rave reviews from some veteran teachers in the school, and was taking on leadership roles and proving to be a natural in the classroom.
But then LAUSD ran short on cash and needed to lay off some teachers. So who goes? The teachers with the least seniority. That would be Requa -- not, as Ron Harris, a supervising teacher at the school laments, the burn-outs or the Holocaust denier he has on staff.
It's easy to blame teachers unions for this state of affairs -- and Lopez, the columnist, does -- but school districts have also acquiesced in creating these rules. We know that teacher quality matters a lot to student outcomes. It should not be a huge jump to look at student advancement during a year, coupled with supervisor, peer, parent, and student reviews (aka "360 degree feedback"), and figure out which teachers should be rewarded and which should be retrained or else seek a different line of work. But in the vast majority of districts, compensation and job security are based primarily on years of experience and advanced degrees. Not an honest comparison between teachers or against a set of standards of best practices.
This problem in LA is just part of a broader philosophical woe in American education: we do not value excellence. We are perfectly willing to squander talent in pursuit of someone's idea of "fairness." This is why challenging bright students to the extent of their abilities always gets the short end of the stick in funding and other resource allocation. It is why schools squash acceleration in favor of "socialization" and refuse to use homogeneous grouping as broadly as they could.
I am not sure where this idea comes from. In many other spheres, Americans are very much into talent. Sports is the obvious counter example, but we also swoon over entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas, or CEOs who truly transform their companies. Indeed, if you look at the bookshelves these days, it seems that companies everywhere are engaged in wars for talent. So why isn't the LAUSD fighting to keep teachers like Requa? Why aren't schools in general fighting over talent among students and teachers? The lack of competition is certainly one reason but the philosophical issue goes deeper than that. I wish I knew.