There's been a lot of squabbling on the education playground these days.
New York City has begun experimenting with evaluating teachers via student achievement scores. Many states have renewed debates around merit pay for teachers. California school districts are preparing for budget cuts by considering teacher hiring freezes and layoffs.
On the political front, critics of the No Child Left Behind Act have cast education conservatives as inept, draconian bogeyman hell-bent on dismantling public education. Meanwhile, education conservatives pummel liberals for everything from lax teacher education to "soft" academic standards and instructional methods.
Remember former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige infamously describing the National Education Association (one of our country's two teacher unions) as a "terrorist organization" to a group of governors in 2004? Or columnist George Will writing in 2006: "The surest, quickest way to add quality to primary and secondary education would be addition by subtraction: Close all the schools of education."
Of course, the issues and disagreements in education are not nearly this simplistic.
But what interests me is what role teachers get to play in all this high-stakes hand-wringing and school reforming. We hear from politicians and school boards, professors and journalists, community advocates and district superintendents. We watch top-down accountability measures and student exit exams blanket our schools. We read self-righteous op-ed pieces by researchers like me. Yet we don't much hear from, or about, teachers' experiences in - and perspectives on - what's happening in schools these days.
We should understand that teachers are not passive, empty, interchangeable automatons in education but are instead active, unique individuals, often well prepared, with great influence over how student learning unfolds. Research demonstrates, for example, that teachers are always adjusting and altering school reforms as they implement them in practice.
Yet studies highlight troubling contradictions. New teachers prepared to design, enact and assess their own lessons are often required to deliver scripted, off-the-shelf curricula in lock-step fashion. Teacher effectiveness is increasingly measured by misaligned diagnostic student tests masquerading as whole-school performance indicators. There is also growing evidence that the current policy culture in education is pushing good teachers out of the classroom and leaving behind those primed for conformity, decreased decision making, and passive acceptance.
If the restrictive climate in schools doesn't sustain creative, iconoclastic teachers (whom I believe education should covet), many of the refugees are finding that they can make more of a difference in other roles in education. Leaving classroom teaching for jobs in administration, academia or community activism has become an increasingly attractive way for energetic, idealistic educators - especially in high poverty urban communities - to work to improve things for our nation's youth. Education, writ large, and other social service fields may be gaining committed professionals, but our classrooms are losing them.
Teachers matter. We know that. We therefore need to find better ways of inviting them into large-scale conversations about how to improve education. Soliciting teachers' active participation in reform benefits both the teachers and the school reform process.
I'd like to see more schools, districts and states establish official, authentic teacher committees to work with policy makers on school reform. I'd also like to see university schools of education partner more effectively with local teachers, on equal terms, to learn from each other - something my colleagues and I at UC Santa Cruz have been pursuing.
And, finally, I hope we can seriously re-evaluate how we as a society appreciate, learn from and treat the important work our 3.9 million teachers are doing. Our teachers educated us when we were young; we should allow them to educate us - and our children - still.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
This from Brad Olsen (UC Santa Cruz) in the San Francisco Chronicle: