There appears to be a lot of support, right now, among politicians, the media, and rest of the "opinion-making" class, for Education Reform.
I understand that. The Education Reform movement has a lot of very attractive bumper-sticker type slogans that appear to make a lot of very good sense. Who wouldn't be in favor of firing bad teachers? We've all had a bad teacher who should be fired - haven't we? Even if you haven't had a bad teacher, you've heard the horror stories about them. Who doesn't think accountability is a good thing? Who wouldn't support innovation and choice? It all sounds really good and worthy of our support. Morover, anyone who opposes it, such as teachers' unions, must be doing so for their own selfish purposes.
It's only when people go past the bumper-stick slogans, get past the anectdotes and myths, and begin to consider the realities that the elements of this vaunted Education Reform start to break down.
That's the path to effective communication. I think it wise to begin the conversation by acknowledging how attractive those slogans are and by acknowledging how convincing those stories can be.
Tell these people that you are totally with them, but that you want to advance the conversation beyond just vague talk and turn it into action. That's when you can get them to confront - for themselves - the real difficulties of the Education Reform effort and they can see - for themselves - how thoughtless it is.
We should definitely assess teacher effectiveness. That's for sure. Now, how can we measure teacher effectiveness? Student test scores? Yeah, but there are lots of much bigger influences on student test scores than teachers, aren't there? Are all of the teachers in low-income schools horrible and all of the teachers in affluent schools wonderful? How would we measure the effectiveness of teachers in untested courses such as music, art, history, world languages, and P.E.? What about teachers who have high performing and low performing students in the same class? How does that happen, and what does it indicate about the teacher's effectiveness? If the teacher is good, then how did any student fail, and if the teacher is bad, then how did any student do well? It's a puzzle, isn't it?
Gee, it's a shame, but it's pretty clear that student test scores really aren't a good indicator of teacher effectiveness, are they? We'll need to think about this some more - and it would be pretty stupid and unfair to move forward without a really sound basis for evaluating teachers, wouldn't it? Does anyone have a good measure of teacher effectiveness? Looking around, I don't see one.
Hey... waitaminnut... if there is no good measure of teacher effectiveness, then how can there be studies that show the strong positive impact of effective teachers? It turns out that those studies identify effective teachers as the ones with high-scoring students on standardized tests. It turns out that those studies measure the impact of teacher effectiveness by student test scores on standardized tests. So those studies essentially conclude that teachers with high scoring students have students who get high scores on standardized tests. Kinda circular, huh? Is this a study that we want to use to make decisions about children's education or teacher's jobs? I don't think so.
If we fire a whole bunch of bad teachers (how many of them are there?), then who will we hire to take those jobs? There are lots of qualified people who would be wonderful teachers - they just don't have teacher certificates. That brings us to the thinking behind the alternative teacher certification processes and programs like Teach for America. The thinking here is that people who have not had teacher training are as effective or more effective as teachers than people who have been through teacher training. Does that even make sense? Even if this were true - and it may not be - that doesn't strike me as a negative for teachers so much as a negative for schools of education. Only it turns out that the only studies that show this are studies from people who sell the idea. Not exactly unbiased. Is it unreasonable to expect people to get a teacher certificate before we allow them to teach in a classroom? Is that an unreasonable burden? Aren't we, at the same time, demanding that teachers be MORE qualified? Hmmm. We may need to give this idea some more thought as well.
And this charter school thing. What is it that charter schools can do that regular public schools can't do? Apparently the only difference is the freedom to set their own curriculum and the freedom to extend the teachers' working hours. So shouldn't we allow our regular public schools more freedom to set their own curriculum? If it's good for charter schools, then isn't it good for other schools as well? If charters are so great, then shouldn't we be promoting and supporting more alternative schools? Yet that doesn't seem to be happening, does it? As for the teachers working longer days, has anyone approached them about that? I know that there are schools here in Seattle with extended days - Aki Kurose, Hawthorne, West Seattle Elementary, and STEM to name a few. We have public/private partnerships at a number of our schools, so that's already happening as well. There doesn't appear to be much that can be done at a charter school that cannot already be done in a public school. Tell me again why we need them?
And so, like this, we can constructively engage the folks who want to thoughtlessly push the Education Reform agenda. We can begin by assuring them that we all share the same goals. Encourage them to take the next step after echoing the bumper-sticker slogans. Ask them to think a little deeper about what is being proposed, why anyone thinks it is good, how it could be implemented, and what is already being done. They will quickly - for themselves - come to see that the "movement" is empty. They will quickly - for themselves - come to see that none of the proposed simple solutions are either simple or real solutions at all. You don't have to convince them - they will convince themselves. The Education Reform movement is bankrupt. Not one element of it can survive taking as many as three steps forward.
The conclusions that these folks will quickly reach are:
1) School administrators and district staff are more to blame for failure than teachers, much less prepared for their jobs than teachers, less accountable than teachers, and much more highly compensated than teachers. Yet these people don't do anything for the students.
2) The at-home determinants of student achievement vastly outweigh the at-school factors. It is ridiculous to hold teachers or schools accountable for factors beyond their control.
3) Schools of education are not to be trusted.
4) The people who are pushing Education Reform haven't thought it through very well, have they? Why not? Why don't they have answers to the very next questions? Why aren't they ready to actually implement anything they propose?
5) There are no quick fixes - not charter schools, not busting the unions, not firing a bunch of teachers, not hiring a bunch of unqualified people.
Then you can begin to promote a different vision for public education - one that isn't the status quo, but isn't the vision put forward by Education Reform advocates. One that is student-centered. One that isn't based on the industrial model. A post-industrial vision for education in which students get the lesson they need when they need it. In which students working below grade level get support and acceleration to bring them up to grade level. In which students working beyond grade level get challenge to keep them engaged. In which all students are engaged and motivated in a culture of achievement. In which all of the adults are held accountable for making these things happen for students.
Now THAT's a reform I can support.