I listened to most of the second meeting of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students yesterday (you can too, as soon as BIT posts the audio to BluRTFTS’s Meeting Materials archive). I heard lots of presentations from experts, some questions from panel members, but zero focused, deliberative discussions about how to meaningfully fund K-12 education, the sole question Governor Dennis Daugaard convened the panel to answer.
Tara Darnall, chief financial officer of our Department of Education, opened the meeting with more data on school finances, demographics, and teacher salaries.
Dr. Julie Mathiesen, director of Technology and Innovation in Education (TIE), reported the qualitative data collected during the post-it-note World-Café sessions held around the state in June. Of the five major themes distilled from responses to the call for guidance for the task force, the two that weren’t vague rah-rah lines were “Identify new revenue stream or partnerships” and “Pursue increased teacher pay and incentives.” But Dr. Mathiesen reminded the task force that “qualitative” is a synonym for “squishy.”
Dr. Richard Ingersoll flew from Pennsylvania to Pierre to present his thesis, based on national data, that the “perception” of a teacher shortage comes not from a lack of good teachers but high turnover rates. He reported decade-old data that found 30% of 1993 teacher graduates left the profession by 2003 (the rate for new cops over that period was 28%). He said the four leading reasons teachers leave the profession are too little prep time (64%), too heavy teaching load (57%), poor pay and benefits (54%), and too big class sizes (54%). He offered no data specific to South Dakota. He appeared to have done no background research on South Dakota prior to flying in to give his presentation. The single major solution he proposed was teacher mentoring, which South Dakota started with a federal grant thirteen years ago at the recommendation of two previous education task forces.
After lunch, Northern State told the Blue Ribboneers about their wonderful E-Learning program, which teaches about 1,200 high school students, about 3.3% of our grade 9–12 population, with 16 instructors. Extrapolate that 80:1 student–teacher ratio to our entire K-12 system, and we could teach all of our 130,000+ kids with 1,640 teachers. We currently have over 9,300 certified K-12 teachers.
Dr. Mathiesen then returned to the mic with an impassioned and swoopy Prezi presentation that called for transforming our educational system from the obsolete assembly-line model designed to make 75% of student-widgets into unskilled laborers to a system of individualized, student-centered instruction patterned after iTunes and customized blue jeans. Dr. Mathiesen’s brilliant critique of one-size-fits-all education can be read as an indictment of Common Core standards, but BluRTFTS isn’t supposed to be talking about Common Core, so that point was perhaps lost on the task force.
The South Dakota Innovation Lab offered the final presentation, also on distance education. Mid-Central Co-op director Dan Guericke appeared to advocate a model in which schools would share circuit-rider teachers: five teachers in five subject areas would rotate through five schools throughout the week:
Sure. That’ll work.
Just as the Governor didn’t appoint many teachers to the task force on teachers and students, the task force isn’t bringing many teachers to the table. Of the nine experts who spoke to the Blue Ribboneers yesterday, not one is a full-time K-12 teacher. Several are former teachers. Perhaps the panel members should call those experts back and ask, “Why did you leave the classroom?” Blue Ribboneer Jim Scull might do that: he said he’s going to back to Rapid City and ask teachers what they think (bless you, Jim!).
I hate to say it, but yesterday’s BluRTFTS meeting felt like wheel-spinning, not policymaking. The task force has used two of its five face-to-face public meetings for informational sessions that could have been conducted by the personalized and distance learning methods so vaunted by the experts in the afternoon session. Unwittingly exemplifying much of what Dr. Mathiesen said is wrong with assembly-line, one-size-fits-all education, the panelists herded themselves into one place at one time to hear a whole bunch of experts talk. The panelists got to ask questions, but they didn’t get to take advantage of their time together to work with the material themselves to produce the solutions they’ve been charged with producing.
If distance learning is so great, the Blue Ribboneers should have practiced it yesterday. The speakers should have put all their presentations online a week ago. Panelists should have been assigned to review all of those materials (and more that’s been available since before BluRTFTS launched, like SDBPI’s research on K-12 funding in South Dakota and ASBSD’s Dec. 2014 report on the teacher workforce pipeline) and come to this week’s meeting prepared for constructive discussion of K-12 funding policy responses. (Once we hit Ingersoll, discussion of actual K-12 funding almost disappeared.) Instead, we’ve burned up two of the five available meeting times and a lot of mileage and meal money for panelists and presenters, and all we’ve gotten in terms of practical policy direction are the vague hints of things to come from panelists’ one-minute closing thought-sharings.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Teachers and Students has yet to do any real work in public, and they’ve got darn little time remaining for that work. Yesterday’s Blue Ribbon K-12 task force meeting felt like a dog-and-pony show, a series of presentations chosen by someone behind the scenes to provide the basis (see Daugaard chief of staff Tony Venhuizen’s summary of the day’s meeting: retention, not recruitment, is the problem, and distance education is vital) for a policy package that’s already drafted and waiting for distribution to the members at their final meeting.
Blue Ribboneers, it’s time to knock off the slideshows and get to work. At your next meeting on September 9, we’d better see an agenda for action. We’d better see task force members discussing the knowledge they’ve gathered from their research and conversations with teachers and other experts (all conducted before the next meeting, please) and translating that knowledge into a variety of practical policy proposals. We’d better see signs that this task force exists for a purpose greater than delay and rubber-stampage.