Quick update on Tenure

After a conversation with a friend, I have new thoughts to share on the nature of tenure.  Stay tuned.

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When I reflect on the current debate surrounding tenure (in the NYTimes, Congress, and elsewhere), I often find myself perplexed.

Currently, teachers in the public school systems of this country are eligible for tenure.  Essentially, they cannot be fired, except for gross misconduct.  Ideally, this system protects academics from the rash impulses of a democratic society when they say something unpopular.  The tenure system in this country, however, is broken, and especially so at the primary levels.

Like so many of our public debates these days, we have two sides making claims and talking past each other.  The trouble is, they are fighting over there wrong thing!  That is, they are asking the wrong question.

Conservatives tend to want the tenure system abolished completely, citing failing test scores and bad teachers who are protected by the tenure system from any accountability.

Liberals, on the other hand, blindly and stupidly refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with the tenure system, jamming their fingers into their ears while mumbling incoherently about academic freedom.

President Obama seems to be one of the few willing to have an honest conversation about the whole mess (look at the Race to the Top Program), but few will engage him, preferring instead to continue shouting past the opposition.

I have another way of framing the conversation that I think is helpful, and builds on what I said about community in my last post.

First we must recognize the tenure system serves a very rational and crucial purpose.  Democratic societies are passionate places, and reasonable thought can be unpopular.  In order to protect unpopular yet valid thought, teachers out to be given tenure.

Tenure, however, is not to be doled out willy-nilly to anyone and everyone.  Instead, a clear process and fair process to earn tenure must be instated.  The best way of doing this, especially at my school where interference by administrators will be minimal, is by formal faculty review.

If a sense of community and shared purpose is developed, peer review will be the surest way of holding teachers accountable to the mission of educating our youth.  The fear I most often hear expressed in ‘debate’ is that teachers are lazy, and when they have tenure, there is no way of compelling or even encouraging teachers to perform.  First, I find that the assertion that teachers are slothful reeks of jealousy.  Second, there is, as always, at least a grain of truth in this line of argumentation.

People must be given incentive to work.  There will be a strong monetary incentive to come and teach at my school, but when it comes down to it, I do not think it wise to have people motivated solely by money in charge of raising our children.  It is base.

Instead, more noble motives must prevail.  This is why, once again, a true sense of community must exist.  Teachers must be collegial, and engaged in a common enterprise about which true passion is felt.  The word passion means, literally, suffering.  I want my teachers to suffer for their pupils.  I want them to be kept up at night, worrying about whether their students are becoming good human beings under their tutelage.

I do not want them thinking about the sweet Lexus they can afford because they have a cushy job with three months off in the summer.  I will pay my teachers handsomely, but that is not what will motivate them in the classroom.

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Community of Learning

‘Community of learning’ is a label touted by many institutions, but my institution would really be such.  Let me explain.

If teachers are to be paid well, then there must be very little in the way of an administrative apparatus.  In order to make that possible, teachers will have to perform many tasks they currently are not asked to in the typical public school setting.  This will likely be most felt in the faculty meetings.

Staff meetings must be completely revamped.  How often have I listened to teachers complain about faculty meetings?  They are such a burden!  At my school, I hope to avoid this sentiment by having staff teaching the same subject get together and design their own curriculum from the top down.  By this I mean that teachers will get together and have regular conversations about what they want to see their pupils achieve in class.  Too often the decision of what to teach our students comes from the worst possible place: politicians.

Politicians are, in the ideal case at least, a noble breed.  Yet, they are completely engaged in the practical realm.  Understanding the human soul, understanding virtue, understanding education: these are defined and comprehended solely through philosophical discourse.  Politicians possess neither the time nor the inclination to pursue such lines of thinking.  Instead, education becomes just another bargaining chip.

Placing the power back in the hands of teachers will do much to remediate the situation.  A charter school is by no means freed from the constraints of state testing, but if our teachers come together and have open and frank discussions about the nature of the enterprise of educating our youth, students will undoubtedly benefit.  To have a large number of intellectual role models all in one place must have a profound effect of pupils, for too often they are bombarded by anti-intellectual messages.

But it is not only the students who will benefit, but the teachers themselves will make great gains through the introspection and careful thought necessary to what I propose.  Friendships will form among faculty members based on the common pursuit knowledge, not simply as a matter of taste.  Moreover, it is my hope that a sense of enthusiasm for the project will overtake teachers actively engaged in their work which will be contagious for the entire school.

My hope is to create a place where the process of learning is much more important that what is learned.

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Sorry for the lapse in posts.  It feels good to be back.

The question inevitably comes up: who will be your teachers?  Who is equipped to show students that books can have meaning in their lives, that books can be important in shaping the lenses through which they will view the world?

The teachers who made a big impression on me as as a young man had real enthusiasm for their craft.  Moreover, they were committed and brilliant.  It is easy to find teachers who possess one, or even two of these qualities.  And, undoubtedly, these teachers have an impact in the lives of their students.  But what sets the incredible teachers apart is the nimbleness of mind and willingness to teach the depths of a work to students.

Finding human beings that possess all three traits of enthusiasm, commitment, and brilliance is no easy task.  However, to attract the best, you must pay the best.  Money is not the one-stop solution for the problem of recruiting incredible teachers, but money certainly plays a large part.

Imagine paying teachers a salary of $100,000.  That is more than the going rate of must public universities (and many private ones, at that).  My school could do this, of course, because we would not be burdened to have fancy classrooms with computers, smartboards, and other new-fangled contraptions.  There will be no keeping up with the Jones’ at this school!  Moreover, the administration at the school will be a bare-bones crew of dedicated individuals; no bureaucratic bloat here!  There will be no college councilors, for example.  Teachers can and should fulfill such rolls for their students.  Administrators and teachers will be paid the same salary.

If I offered that kind of money, the talent pool from which to select fantastic teachers would be unprecedented.  So much talent is wasted in parts of the American workforce by people working jobs that do not produce anything beneficial.  There are far too many attorneys, investment bankers, and lobbyists.  These professionals, for the most part, siphon off value from others.  The intelligence of this country is wasted.  Why not invest in the next generation?  Why not make the commitment to make America impressive and a special place again?  My generation is not capable.  My generation has no shame, and worse, little virtue.

It is time, then, to turn to the next generation.

Having a large and talented pool of potential teachers to hire from is only half the battle.  Wisdom and prudence are required to identify, hire, and retain the best.  Such a task is not easy, and there will be bumps in the road, but we would be so far ahead of the game by having the opportunity to draw on the brightest and best.

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Choice, Purpose, and Core

How can those who are uneducated make wise decisions about their own education?  The concept of the school as marketplace is repugnant to my sensibilities.  Students are not consumers, and a school is not providing a service.  Rather, a school’s function is to shape souls.  Our school in particular will aim to show students the beauty of mathematics, to impart sense of meaning into books we read, to teach how to write, and to observe the world around them actively.  This is not an endeavor to be entered into lightly.

I realize, however, that a strict regime of prescribed courses is difficult to follow, and because not everyone has the same type of soul and this is a public institution, there are concessions I am willing to make.  There will be a core set of classes that everyone must take and pass which comprises the majority of classes, and this core will consist of language, literature and poetry, philosophy and politics, mathematics, science, and physical education.

Rather than allowing students to pick and choose individual classes like today’s public schools, a school ought to allow students to pick out certain blocks of classes, with faculty guidance.  The elective blocks will supplement the rigorous core classes, and will focus on the more practical topics such as finance, music, and technology.

To select an elective block will commit a student to a field of study for at least one year, and a student will have the option of continuing on in this elective track at the end of the year.  There will be a maximum of two electives each year.

At this point, you may be asking what sets this proposed school apart from any other?  Aren’t these subjects taught at public schools already?

I’m glad you asked.  You see, what will set this school apart is what happens in the classrooms.  Instead of attempting to make students familiar with the breadth of American Literature (familiar enough to pass a test, that is), our students will delve into selected works of American Literature and, with the teacher as the guide, come to appreciate the depth of what a particular work has to offer.  Once a student comes to appreciate a work, once a work comes to have meaning in the life of that student, he is then equipped to continue studying on his own.  The trick will be finding teachers able to open up subjects for students in this way.

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The Setting

The first thing I noticed as I arrived on my college campus was the architecture.  Being from the west coast, the buildings were unlike anything I had experienced before.

Before me were impressive buildings dedicated to a higher purpose.  I had experienced other buildings with significance for civic life (churches, courtrooms, statehouses), but here were buildings dedicated not to justice or the sacred, but to knowledge.  The effect was immediate and profound.  Such a setting is not required for a school, but it cannot help but foster an immediate sense of community for those living and learning among the buildings.

To that end, this imagined charter school must occupy either an old, musty former school, or must be constructed anew.  To fill an empty warehouse with fancy classrooms is to lack something intangible yet essential.  Moreover, I will have no fancy classrooms!  Are smart boards vital to learning?  Do computers foster understanding?  I argue that computers should be left out of the classroom entirely until the pupils have mastered their letters and basic maths, and most importantly, learned to concentrate on one subject for a substantial length of time.

Indeed, technology takes us out of the world by removing us from our tactile senses, while education seeks to put us directly into the world.  The natural sciences bring the world around us into sharper relief, while literature and philosophy enliven our interactions within our social settings, and mathematics attunes our souls to the eternal principles guiding the heavens above us and the movements within us.

A classroom should be stark and traditional, everything present working towards bringing us closer to the world.  Tradition ties us to the past and quietly reminds us that we are engaged in a timeless activity.  And we should not forget that while there is nonsense in tradition, tradition serves also as a repository of the hard-won wisdom of the ages.

There will be books worth reading in every classroom (not just socked away in a library), portraits of noble men and women, a flag, a chalkboard, and not much else.  No overhead projectors, no PowerPoint, and no whiteboards.  Old fashioned only here, please.

What I am trying to inspire is a sense of shared purpose held by all those at a school, from teachers and administrators, to the kids and janitors.

Just what that purpose is will serve as the subject of upcoming posts.  Stay tuned!

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How Stuff Works

In little more than forty-five minutes, I have learned more about finance and corporations from www.howstuffworks.com than in all my years of schooling.  As someone who eschewed a practical training for a liberal education, part of the onus surely lies with me.  Still, I can’t help but feel incensed about all this.

Even so, I think it would be extremely helpful to know how a corporation works, for example.  Each and every day my life is, in one way or another, affected by a corporation.  I work for one, I buy things from them, they wreck the economy, etc., etc.  Yet, I managed to go through high school without knowing a single concrete thing about what a corporation is, or what they can do.

As it turns out, the concept of the corporation has been around for a long, long time; at least since the days of Solon in Athens.  The corporation is almost like its own country, with a board of elected officials who draft rules (laws) for the corporation and determine the general course of action.  Officers are appointed by the board to run the day-to-day activities of the corporation, and these officers are lead by the CEO.  If the board is the congress, then the CEO is the president.  Essentially, the corporation is split into executive and legislative parts.

The above serves as a simple example of one of the many ways in which my education is found lacking.  I would not trade my college experience, but I think my high school education left much to be desired.

If I were to found a school, a high school, what would it look like?  What end would it serve?  What would students learn?  How would they learn it?

I will take up this thread in the coming weeks.

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