I attended a “morning coffee with the principal” at an elementary school in a rich suburb of Boston.
The principal explained the hiring process. For every open job “hundreds” of nominally qualified people will apply. There are, nonetheless, seldom more than two or three candidates about whom he is enthusiastic and these candidates may be getting offers from other districts as well. Once hired, a teacher gets “professional status” (what used to be called “tenure”) after three years. Back in the early 1990s Massachusetts imposed a regulation that all teachers must obtain a master’s degree within five years and thus teachers will spend a portion of their nights, weekends, and summers getting a degree that typically enriches our local universities even if there is scant evidence that it affects their classroom performance.
As with getting into many colleges, women are discriminated against when seeking employment as elementary school teachers. The principal explained that he favors the academically inferior sex (i.e., men) when screening applications. However, a disproportionate number of these guys turn out to be duds during interviews and therefore the workforce is mostly female.
What if a tenured (4th year or beyond) teacher does absolutely nothing, I asked? Tells the kids to look at their iPads and not bother him? The principal explained that after two years of complete non-performance he would be able to write a recommendation to the superintendent that the teacher be fired. So the teacher is gone after doing nothing for two classes of students? “No,” said the principal. “Of course there is a legal process that begins after two years.”
Parents asked a lot of questions about standardized testing. Massachusetts has its own MCAS system for grades 3-10. There has been talk of adopting a national PARCC test that is more aligned with the Common Core standards. Unlike the paper forms that we filled out in the 1970s with our #2 pencils and that found their way into a scanner to be graded by an IBM mainframe, the PARCC test must be taken on a computer. This leads to two problems for school districts. One is that they don’t have enough computers for all students to take the test simultaneously, thus creating a logistical challenge of herding batches of students into computer labs. The second is that the software has tended to be broken and students are unable to take the test at all. I said “Well at least this will provide jobs for the programmers who built healthcare.gov since it seems unlikely that Amazon and Google are anxious to hire them.”
How hard are these standardized tests for a group of children who are mostly from at least upper-middle-class families? The principal explained that about 87 percent of the students score “proficient” or “advanced” in the first years of the test and nearly all are “proficient” or “advanced” by the time they complete 8th grade.
Homework was another topic of conversation. With a school day so much longer than in other countries how come there is homework at all? The principal explained that there was no pedagogical theory behind the homework but the school assigned it because some parents demanded it. “It is really about preparation for high school,” he said, “but teachers can also use it to see what students learned the day before.”