Tuesday, July 5, 2011

when will we realize we're all on the same team?

A good friend mentioned a piece in the NY Daily News about the polarization of the education debate. The article presents education reform as the new abortion- two sides completely at odds with one another- with little respect for one another's opinions, theories, and beliefs. That's certainly what it feels like as a teacher- that the entire world has turned against us- and I was curious to read the article.

I think the article has a lot of truths to it, but I also think it in itself is very telling of the debate as a whole. It seems to state that the two sides are Reform vs Teachers- those who want to improve the education of our children and close the achievement gap, and those who want to live with the status quo.

For an article attempting to point out the differences between the two platforms I could easily tell you what side the author of the article falls on- and it's not pro-teacher.

When I first moved to DC out of college and told people I was a teacher I got the "oh, cute" responses when I was out and about. I found myself trying to prove my intellect to these strangers and somehow show that I had made a better choice than my peers when I decided to go into teaching and not law school.  I could live with the condescension- I knew what I was doing day to day was extremely important. But now when I tell people I'm a teacher I almost watch then recoil in horror. "Not one of them...  those creatures trying to hold our kids down?" I feel they want to ask. "Why don't you do real work that will make a difference, like work at a non-profit? You didn't do Teach for America? You must have only gotten into teaching for the summers, not to improve the lives of children in underprivileged areas"

This new condescension is worse- before I was ok with my intellect being questioned, but now it is my intellect AND my motives. My passions. Why I get out of bed in the morning.
When I talk about the amazing things my school does people immediately ask, "Oh, you work at a charter school?"
NO! I want to scream. A public school!  And surprise, we are not the devil! We work our a**s off for our kids- we want the BEST for them. Yes, at a public school!
But now I'm letting my emotions get in the way of my argument and I no longer sound reasonable. I'm only proving their point- that I am a hot-headed teacher.

When did we become public enemy number one?

I think my biggest problem with the debate is the assumption that teachers are against reform. We absolutely want the best for our kids. Do we want more testing? No, but not because we are lazy, we are scared for our jobs, or because we have low expectations for our kids. We don't believe testing, as it has been implemented, improves the students' education. In fact, in many ways, when working in the trenches, we watch how it is a determinate to actual student learning. We watch how children lose out on essential instructional time because of the amount of classroom time dedicated to test prep. We struggle knowing what best practices are and knowing they are out of our reach as we drill and kill for the test.

We want reform, but we'd like to have a straightforward conversation about how that is best done. Yet anytime one of us opens our mouth we're immediately told that we have low expectations for our students- after that our arguments are cut off at the knees. We mention what we know are best practices- research-based practices that will give success but no one wants to hear it. We're told that where we learned those best practices and theories- in graduate school- was a waste of time. The general public tells us that we only went back to school to get a raise in pay, that our masters degrees are worthless, and that we are simply working the system.

I'd love to have a real conversation on reform with someone from the other side- when just once 'high expectations' and 'what's best for kids' are not phrases used as shields to protect themselves from having to acknowledge what they do not know about teaching, but instead as phrases that will truly let us find the right answer.
The author of the article writes:
"From the perspective of most teachers, poverty explains education problems. A valid point. Reformers insist that school quality, especially effective teaching, can make a sizable dent in the learning inequities we see across the lines of race and income. Also a valid point."

I don't think we, as teachers, are standing around saying, "Our kids can't learn because they are poor, therefore we wont try." We'd like to find exactly how to make a change in teaching to reach ALL children. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that children come from different backgrounds in order to make sure they will be successful. My kindergartners do not come in knowing the alphabet. Therefore I cannot start teaching them to read as though they all went to preschool.  I need to back up and make sure they know the alphabet. This doesn't mean I have low expectations- I still expect them to learn to read by the end of the year- but I first have to acknowledge that the road to get there will be different than at another school.  We're not using poverty as an excuse, but we do need to acknlowedge it in order to match the curriculum with our children.

YES- we want to have great schools and effective teaching- we WANT to make a sizable dent in learning inequities. We just want to do it the right way. Yet frequently what is brought to us as reform is just additional testing- it's not how to improve instruction. (But remember, if we go back to grad school to learn to improve instruction we're clearly wasting our time). Too many reformers do not have a background in education, do not understand how children learn, and do not have a grasp on recent break throughs in best practices.  When someone comes to us with a true, improved teaching idea we celebrate. We sit through afternoon workshops we don't get paid for in order to learn how to improve our teaching. We are always seeking how to improve our teaching. Yet what is brought to us by "reformers" is not helping our teaching.  We'd love it if it was different. 

Amanda Ripley, who writes for Time was quoted in the article saying:

"You're either with us or against us. What bothered me was that some of these people, who have significant influence on the lives of our kids, seem to have lost all curiosity about this complex subject. That's ironic, given they work in a field that should value curiosity."

Teachers are some of the most curious people I know. We want to learn- in fact, we'd like to have some genuine discussions about this with those in ed reform. When was the last time we were asked? When was the last time someone in ed reform brought us along in a discussion instead of merely criticizing us? 

I'm going to stop there because, well, I'm not sure anyone is still reading. I'm usually a calm person, but anytime my motives, passion, and intellect are challenged I get a bit hot. In the next few days I'll try to write calmer, more intelligent pieces on education that actually flow. I promise. Don't delete me from your reader yet.  


Lea said...

No, no, no! More like this! This is exactly how I feel and how I think a whole lot of teachers feel and I think we need to scream it to the corners of the earth. Maybe then we'll be heard, although I feel like we're all Whos and the reformers are hunting our Horton down.

Jan said...

You said it clearly ad eloquently. I wish somebody would listen.

Kelli said...

Loved it! I feel the same. Your passion shows through in this post.

Alex T. Valencic said...

My state representative in Illinois is putting together an advisory committee on education. Before I throw my name in as a possible member, I want to know if he will listen to me and how many educators he will have on the committee.

Illinois is in the process of passing a change to the school code that changes how teachers are discharged, notably, the teachers who have the best evaluations will be the last to be let go, rather than just dismissing according to the seniority (or the lack thereof). One factor of the evaluation is "student growth" but the legislation doesn't actually define how the growth is to be measured. It is frustrating because, as you said, most of the reformer aren't educators. They don't get it because they haven't been there!

Even more frustrating is this notion that schools are okay with keeping bad teachers and that bad teachers are the bulk of the profession! Makes me want to yell at the world when I hear nonsense like that! Yes, there are bad teachers, but MOST of them are good, determined, educated professionals.

Jenny said...

Here's the quote that jumped out at me: "Reformers insist that school quality, especially effective teaching, can make a sizable dent in the learning inequities we see across the lines of race and income."

If all they want is a sizable dent then I think we're more on the same page than we realized. However, I think reformers believe that school quality and such can erase the inequities and that is absurd.

luckeyfrog said...

I wish that the teachers' unions would push this way.

If they would say, "Yes, there are some things that need fixing. Let's work together to discuss the changes. What can we make better? How can we fairly hold our teachers to higher standards?" it would make such a big difference.

I know they think if they give an inch, they'll end up having to give a mile- but as it is now, their firm hold to the status quo just makes all of us look bad. People read the NEA statement and say "oh, teachers are just protecting themselves." Instead, they could be saying, "Wow. Teachers really want to make education better."

I really think people would respect the opinion of the education community more if they saw people willing to give up some ground to do what's best for kids.

Jason Buell said...

more please.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem is that most people have either had or their kids have one or more REALLY BAD teachers.

By REALLY BAD, I mean, unwilling to show up to work, and/or little subject knowledge, and/or racist attitudes, and or sustance abuse issues, and/or no interest in teaching a particular type of child.

And then these people notice that the school administration have absolutely no problem with the REALLY BAD teacher staying on until retirement. Until that changes, it is hard to see how teaching will be a respected profession.

And, yes, I have heard teachers and adminstrators say, "given the population we teach, we can't possibly be expected to meet the NCLB benchmarks." That is code for the students in this school are too dumb to learn.

I think I am on the same team as some of the teachers/administrators at my children's school. I am not on the same team as those whose goal is the protection of teacher jobs at the expense of the students.

There needs to be some recognition of the damage to that tenure causes to any sense of professional integrity.

Alex T. Valencic said...


In my 13 years in the public school system as a student and the four years in the system as an educator, I have as of yet to meet any teacher who actually fits your description of a "REALLY BAD" teacher.

I've heard of them, of course, but had one? Not yet. Tenure isn't the boogeyman that everyone tries to make it out to seem, nor is it the get-out-of-trouble-free card. Tenured teachers can be removed for violating policy and breaking rules and laws just as well as anyone else.

"And, yes, I have heard teachers and adminstrators say, 'given the population we teach, we can't possibly be expected to meet the NCLB benchmarks.' That is code for the students in this school are too dumb to learn."

Actually, it is code for, "our stupid politicians who know nothing about education have set artificial boundaries to determine whether or not a student has learned when in reality we as the professionals know that learning happens in different ways for each child, and you can't determine it simply by setting a numerical value and telling teachers that if students don't achieve the value then they, the teachers, have failed."