Sifting Through the Voices of Education Reform

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For a long time I have been trying, pretty much unsuccessfully, to convince the upper crust of the education reform movement (State Department of Education, school districts, superintendents, principals, school board members, and pundits) that their commune is largely uninformed by the ideas and suggestions of the real experts: teachers. (I do not mean teacher unions, by the way, which were not organized around the notion that they would someday be thrust into the center of school reform debate; they were charged with looking out for the health and well-being of their members, who pay them well for their efforts.)

No, reform is about state and local funding (the federal government supplies less than one-fifth of one percent of the Saint Paul Schools budget); state laws, regulations, and requirements; curricula; licensing; and district administration of local schools. The problems, shortfalls, and failures that we ascribe to unions and their members are the love children of politicians and business leaders, and the consuming public has been invited into their bedroom. Unions and teachers have been scapegoated. Sadly, both have allowed themselves to be drawn into the fray and, for the most part, demonized. In a fair world they would not be thanked if the Race to the Top money came through, nor blamed if didn’t.

The tragedy in all of this? Teachers are trained by colleges and universities that are regulated by the state, and then issued a license by the Department of Education. But then a large number of them give up the profession before they are tenured, and the vast majority of the rest do the best they can with the resources at their disposal. Why aren’t we questioning the process of training and licensing? Is it inadequate? If not, then why are so many teachers “failing”? Why don’t we have higher standards for teacher training and licensing? Are the folks at the Department of Education thinking outside the box? What responsibilities do school boards bear? Why don’t district administrators take more of the heat? What have they done to raise test scores?

I have spent much time and energy listening to so-called education experts air their views in the media. I have spent even more time writing news articles, commenting on  radio call-in shows, and blogging; in other words, I’ve been reacting instead of responding.

On Friday, April 2, I had a nice conversation with Bill Walsh, Communications Director at the Minnesota Department of Education. I was impressed by him; he returned my call promptly and was listening to my questions regarding the Race to the Top effort. He, in turn, asked me questions. We were communicating, so, by definition, he was doing his job. What’s more, and much to my delight, he confidently ventured out onto a delicate limb and declared that I had brought up a good point. (I had expressed my concern that actual teachers were not included in the initial application process and were not slated to be a part of the “second” effort that began this week.) Then, as I was basking in the glow of recognition and legitimacy, he did something even more amazing: he took my message, bid me good-bye, launched himself up, up, and away, soaring toward the commissioner’s office with my advice to her in tow. It was a learning experience for both of us, but especially me.

Mr. Walsh helped me realize that response is more productive than reaction. Teachers react to well-intentioned reform initiatives in many ways, but they mostly accept their lot quietly, often out of fear of retribution. They go along. They are not the angry type. They are prone to be martyrs. But they talk. They bitch and complain to each other. They threaten to quit. They go to workshops that turn out to be a waste of time. They are interrupted during their measly lunch break by administrators. They go to school-restructuring meetings, and they become demoralized, which affects the kids.

 

So, I am going to begin responding rather than reacting. I am going to blog with a purpose. I will offer teacher-informed ideas for improving our schools. I want and need other teachers to participate, so please stay in touch through the Daily Planet. (Don’t worry; they won’t know who you are, and they can’t fire me.)

Next time: What damage are we causing as a result of our devotion to raising test scores? Is there another way?