We are very proud to bring you a discussion with Michigan's 2013-14 Teacher of the Year Gary Abud Jr. Mr. Abud is a science teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School. He won the award in part because he uses a broad variety of digital learning and social media to provide his students varied experiences in the class room.
Mr. Abud was selected for the honor in May. Grosse Pointe North High School teacher named Michigan Teacher of the Year, WXYZ, May 23, 2013. However, Mr. Abud was quickly embroiled in an unwelcome controversy. The Mackinac Center filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to learn Mr. Abud's salary. The Mackinac Center then used Mr. Abud's story and likeness to argue for HB 4625, a bill that will prohibit schools from considering years of service or continuing education as factors in pay. Advocacy group StudentsFirst picked up the story and sent an email which many read to mean Mr. Abud supported the bill. Teacher of the Year used by StudentsFirst & Mackinac Center to promote teacher pay bill he doesn’t support, eclectablog, June 14, 2013. Mr. Abud is a strong advocate of comprehensive public school. We wanted to give him a chance to address HB 4625 and also other aspects of education legislation we have discussed. This interview and Mr. Abud's likeness are used with his permission.
Q: Some of our readers might have received emails implying you support HB 4625, a bill which changes teacher compensation rules to make it illegal for school districts to consider length of service as a criteria for teacher pay. What is your position on HB 4625?
A: The emails that some people received did imply I support HB 4625. It’s unfortunate that groups would try to use my photo and my story that way. I currently stand with the State Board of Education in opposing this bill as written. I don’t support any one size fits all model of teacher evaluation. There are many aspects which should factor into teacher evaluation including experience, continuing education, implementation of research-based best practices, contributions to the school and the field of education, as well as student growth. All of these should be elements of a multifaceted approach to evaluation and compensation. One of the words that stands out in the language of the bill is "fair" in reference to evaluation of teachers. Fair is not synonymous with 'equal' and should not be used interchangeably. To create a fair model of evaluation and compensation, local control at the district or school level, as well as teacher voice, must be part of the process; otherwise, establishing a one-size-fits-all method will not be fair, it will simply be equal.
Q: Do you think the Legislature is the institution which is best suited to set standards for teacher evaluations? If not the Legislature, then who?
A: While I have the upmost respect for the work the Legislature does, and I think it’s a difficult job to do under any circumstances, this is one area where local control at the district level, would be best suited to set standards for teacher evaluation, keeping their specific student populations in mind. The Legislature’s vantage point is much more aerial over the entire state, and to best meet the needs of students in a variety of areas across the state, delegating this responsibility to the local schools will be critical. Allowing for local control would empower districts to determine the standards for their specific needs, which will inevitably be different from rural to urban to suburban schools. It has come across somewhat ambiguous from the state-level as to whether teacher evaluation is intended to be punitive. Rhetoric in support of merit pay and test-score-driven evaluation systems, which focuses on getting rid of so-called 'bad teachers' from schools, communicates to everyone that these proposed systems are not meant to reward but rather to penalize. I can't think of a more discouraging way to sell a public policy. I would encourage those at the decision-making table to consider evaluation models that are informative and provide feedback to help teachers improve when possible and not merely punish poor performance or incentivize the practice of teaching & learning.
Q: What are your thoughts about current legislation which will prohibit state funding of Common Core?
A: The Common Core is merely a set of curricular standards in subject areas such as math and English, which were reviewed and accepted by teachers in the state and adopted by the State Board of Education in 2010. Schools have been converting their curricula and lessons for a few years now over to the Common Core. Also, schools have been anticipating statewide standardized testing aligned with them. The legislature decided that this was not an area that was important, despite much suggestion to the contrary. The legislature even heard compelling words from StudentsFirst's Michelle Rhee and Florida's Jeb Bush encouraging them not to give up on Common Core. So, it’s a big surprise to see funding going away and that they are looking to focus our students on learning something else now. It also leaves the curricula of many math and language arts classrooms in limbo for the upcoming school year. This is certainly something they need to revisit and hopefully it will be resolved for the fall. Hopefully, everything teachers have done in these last few years to align to Common Core won’t just be a loss. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Common Core decision is that on one hand the legislature seems to support standardizing education across the state, yet the Common Core and its associated assessments, which have moved schools toward being more standard in their curricula, is not something that is supported.
Q: The Legislature has also focused on increasing online classes (we have written extensively about the new requirement for districts to pay for online classes for kids in grades 5-12, here, here, and here). What is your opinion of this focus on online classes?
A: This is really an interesting area in education and I’m hoping to learn more about it. I used to teach in Arizona where online courses were prevalent, but only a few institutions were able to run online classes; this limited students in their options with taking online classes and typically meant they were not receiving the instruction from their home district.
My hope with online classes is that we don’t try to replace the experience of being in a classroom and supplant that with online delivery. Nothing that goes on in my classroom can be replaced by the online courses that I've seen. My classroom is very interactive and hands-on. Students are learning by doing; they are designing and conducting experiments; they are presenting to and discussing with each other based on those experiences; they are learning through interaction with each other. That’s not something I think can be replaced by online courses as they currently exist. I think there is a role for online learning, and online courses seem to be seeing some success for remediation and recovering lost course credits. But, the fundamental classroom experience is so much richer than some people think, and I don’t think that is something that can be replaced with an online course. Learning is not simply remembering information, as is commonly thought to be the case, it is an experience that happens with others.
The online courses, which I have seen, are the digital equivalent of sending a student home with a textbook and worksheets. I've had friends who have taken online courses, and I myself have taught online courses at the college level in the past. The way in which they are set up is based on the most simplistic model of education, remembering what you were told or read. I don’t know why anyone would sign their child up for a class where there is no teacher in the classroom, but rather a video and a book are the sources of learning.
One of the things I’m really hoping people start to look at more seriously is the desired outcome they are seeking to accomplish with online classes. At the college level, online classes are used to satisfy requirements and get through programs more conveniently or as quickly as possible. We’re seeing some of that rhetoric being applied to online courses in the K-12 area, and steering them away from an environment with other students. There seems to be an emphasis that we want to get them in and get them out of school as quickly as possible. This leads to school becoming a checklist of to-do tasks and not a robust learning experience. It really doesn’t seem like the best needs of students are being best served if we’re just focusing on getting through schools more quickly.
Q: A lot of the education legislation which has been advanced in the past couple years has started with the premise that schools in Michigan are failing, so they need radical change. Do you accept the premise that Michigan's schools in general are in need of radical change?
A: I do not.
Both of those terms, "failing" and "radical," are really broadly generalizing and misleading; frankly, I do not believe they are even warranted. A couple of schools in the state might be struggling, but I think that teachers in Michigan are doing a great job. In the hundreds of classrooms I’ve seen over the years, teachers and students are doing a great job. I have a hard time accepting the premise that schools in Michigan are failing. There is tremendous success occurring, we are still sending the vast majority of students on to top opportunities after they leave K-12 education. Those successes are often grossly ignored in the so-called "reform" rhetoric.
The other part that is troubling is the need for "radical" change. I really want to question the need for radical change or what that means in the first place. Some of the things we’re seeing in the radical change proposals are trying to do the same old things better, such as online courses and virtual schools. They are really trying to take the old textbook and memorization model of school and make it more efficient. But that old textbook model is not what 2013 education looks like in Michigan. Education doesn’t look like it did the Cold War era and I think people need to realize that. Educators have been making best-practice changes gradually across the state. If we could get into the classroom we would see the great things teachers are doing, we would see that teachers aren’t just doing the same things better, they are doing things differently.
I would invite anyone to come into my classroom and see if they still believe that radical change is necessary, because the changes have already been made; learning has been transformed. If you walked into my classroom you wouldn’t see the Cold War era model of teaching. I’m not in front of the classroom talking at the students and giving notes. The kids are constructing their learning through experiences. They are doing projects to give learning a context. They are using mobile devices to support their learning. They are collaborating, they are presenting their findings through discussion and learning together. When someone says, radical change, what my classroom looks like to me is already something radically different than when I was in school even 15 or 20 years ago.
Q: In other forums you have pointed out that teaching is a much more technical field today than when many of our state legislators were K-12 students, and many of our state legislators lack the training to understand what goes into teaching today. Assuming that's true, how should Michigan be shaping education policy going forward?
A: The number one thing that can be done now is to include educators from a variety of levels and disciplines across the state; invite educators into the discussion. The State Board of Education does a great job of this already, and I know that they work with the legislature already. I wouldn’t really even call people out and say they don’t have expertise. Maybe they do. But I do think we need to have people who are in the classroom be part of the discussion; otherwise, the disconnect is too great to ensure we are doing what's best for students.
The other thing going forward is that polices need to be more personalized for different areas of the state. Trying to fit all the students and areas of the state into one box isn’t realistic. Policies need to be flexible so that experts, in all the state's geographic areas, have ability to meet the needs of their students while still working with state level stake holders to keep everything within the goals for the whole state.
Q: What are the biggest external challenges facing Michigan teachers today?
A: The number one challenge we face is an image problem. Some of the negative news that has gone around has shaped the public perception of what classrooms look like and who teachers are. I don’t think that it’s reasonable to take a few negative examples and generalize them across the state. The negatives are few and far between anyway.
Another issue is access to quality education across different areas of the state. That is one thing that is trying to be addressed for students with this school dissolution bill; however, we shouldn't just be trying to deal with symptoms of a problem, we should be working on a problem. Not all teachers have access to the quality of professional development programs that have helped me to enhance my practice. If struggling teachers or schools had access to programs to help them develop and improve, we wouldn't be worried about students being in unsuccessful schools or districts that need to be closed. Some of our teachers need better training to provide their students with better instruction. So, the issue of access is something at the student and teacher level that is challenging.
We also have the issue of poverty, and poverty is more of an issue than most people realize. People sometimes think poverty is only a problem in urban areas, but there is poverty going on in the suburbs, and there is poverty going on in the rural areas as well. Poverty really shapes how students see themselves and see their role in society, including school. It can stifle their hope for the future, and make it look like your defeated before you even start with education. Poverty leads to a very strong sense of being closed in and unable to escape. That influences learning and teaching success. If we can get past an image problem, increase access to professional development for educators, and do some things to address the effects of poverty, I think we can address some of the biggest challenges.
Q: With all of the legislative challenges facing K-12 schools in Michigan, is teaching in Michigan a career path you would recommend to your students?
A: I do recommend teaching as a career path to my students. The reason is that you get to influence so many peoples’ lives. Teaching is a profession where you can really have a positive impact and and see that impact in so many lives.
Despite all the challenges, I think educators are doing a great job, and the negative news doesn’t really affect our day-to-day process or the day-to-day reality of teaching. So, I often recommend teaching as a career path to my students.
Q: What is your favorite part of teaching?
A: For me, my favorite part of teaching is the connecting with 180 young people each and every day. You get to know people and their story and play a role in the play that is their life. For me, the reward all revolves around the relationships, connecting with young people and being part of their future.
Q: What is your wishlist for helping Michigan teachers be the best they can be?
A: A little bit of flexibility and space. A lot of people look at education and think it’s a cut-and-dry situation, you either learn the answer or you don’t. Education should not be merely about answers; it should be about knowledge, skills, and process. There is so much more to it than answers, yet so much of the driving forces impacting schools reduce education to selecting a single answer to a question. As educators, we need more flexibility to focus on process and skills more than just answers.
Teachers are great people and we’re there for the best interest of kids. Despite the isolated few negative stories that are out there, we’re there every day for the kids and 99 percent of schools in the state are doing great things that are worth checking out. My wish list includes policies that provide flexibility to schools and classrooms, as well as some space to let educators do what's best for students.
Q: How can people who are reading this help you help Michigan's schools be the best they can be?
A: The number one thing is to find ways to connect with their local schools and get into their local classrooms. Being able to connect with those schools and share that good news that's going on for their students. If the dinner table conversations around the state were about all the good things going on in classrooms, I think that would set the tone that we are putting value on education and how we can be even better.
More than anything, just finding out what’s going on their schools and spreading that good news.
I would also encourage, if you hear a negative story about education in the news, really stop and consider whether that is representative or an isolated incident. I would encourage everyone to think back on their favorite classroom experiences and what made school great for them, and then realize that those same things and personal connections are still going on in schools today for Michigan students.