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On Serving The Wrong Masters

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Recently, I've been caught in a real bind. No matter where I turn, I'm being told what a lousy educator I am. As a college professor (one of my jobs), I am being told by the Holmes Group that my courses aren't "authentic'' enough. As a grade school teacher (another job I hold), I've recently been informed by the U.S. Education Department in a report titled "National Excellence: A Case for Developing America's Talent'' that any students I teach whose abilities are above average are bored beyond tears in my 5th-grade class. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards keeps telling me that if I was a really good teacher I'd want a credential from them that attests to that, and a veteran player in the game, the Educational Testing Service, has a new idea called Praxis, which is supposed to eliminate incompetent teachers from our ranks. Through Praxis, a first-year teacher will have to spend $1,000 or so to be assessed as competent (or not) by someone they've most likely never met before and shall probably never see again. Now, there's a good way to spend some of those big bucks my undergraduates will make as beginning teachers.

The bind I'm in is this: Even though I think I'm helping a heck of a lot more students than I am hurting, one panel of "experts'' after another is telling me that that's not true.

Working from deficiency models that assume incompetence, one "blue ribbon'' commission after another is trying to convince the American public that our entire educational system is a shambles. At first, this message was a hard sell to John Q. Public; survey after survey found that Americans ranked their neighborhood schools as "good,'' even if they weren't so laudatory about schools somewhere else. But now, the tide is turning. Thanks to many "reformers,'' American education is being treated as an international laughingstock. Akin to the snake\oil salesman of a bygone era, Holmes, the N.B.P.T.S., the E.T.S., the Education Department, and others are offering magic elixirs that will cure all our woes. Unlike the snake-oil savants, though, no money-back guarantees are being offered if we're dissatisfied with the results.

I hate to ask this question, but I feel I must: What gives "experts'' outside the walls of my classrooms the right to say that what's going on inside them is lousy? No one from the Holmes Group has ever set foot in my Monday-evening course, even though I've been teaching it for the past seven years that our college has been a Holmes Group member. (Perhaps Judy Lanier will read this as an invitation. I hope so.) And U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has never helped me plan a lesson that would reach both my most and least capable students. (I'd welcome his input and his expertise, though.)

My point is this: Before condemning me and the millions of other educators who are doing the best jobs we know how with the limited resources we have come to accept, take a minute to consider that you might, in fact, be wrong. It's tough to fix something that isn't really broken.

I can almost guess what the response from the groups I've criticized will be. They'll tell me that I don't understand their missions, or that I'm taking too personally something that is more a generalization than a specific. They might even invite me into their "loop,'' feeling that it's easier to quiet an inside critic than an outside one. Who knows? They might even send me copies of their publications (in the absence of concrete ideas, groups and commissions always offer philosophical treatises on their goals and beliefs).

But instead, I'd prefer something else. I'd request that representatives from any group "empowered'' (a great buzzword) to reform education spend a week or two with me and my teaching colleagues in our elementary or college classrooms. I'd ask them to observe, I'd ask them to listen, I'd ask them to teach 30 students for 50 minutes on a topic required in my 5th-grade curriculum guide, or to lead an educational-psychology lecture on Piaget. Instead of writing about educational reform, I'd ask them to implement it one step at a time, just the way that every educator I know is trying to do. I think the ensuing discussions at their next board meetings might take on a different tone, one that is more concrete than abstract; more realistic than ethereal.

I have another suggestion as well. I propose that there be a two-year moratorium on any group that claims to be working toward educational reform. The operating budgets of these groups--the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Holmes Group, etc.--would then be transferred directly to some of the target schools that groups like these say they are trying to improve. Then, a coalition of K-12 teachers and undergraduate education faculty from these institutions would devise their own plans for educational improvement, using the tens of millions of dollars that have become available through this switch in funding priorities. I'd bet a week's salary (granted, a small wager) that the money would go more toward books and supplies and resources for students than for the extensive travel expenses often incurred now by reform-minded groups which insist upon "sharing'' their wisdom with each other at weekend retreats in Hilton hotels. Heck, with the few extra dollars my plan would provide, I might even splurge on an overhead projector that works, and a screen that doesn't need to be tied to a chair to keep it from going airborne.

Hey, what's the worst that could happen if my plan failed? For two years, at least some students would be touched directly by educational innovation and, given the speed that most reform groups have worked at up to this point, they'd be no further behind in two years than they are right now.

And if my plan worked? Then maybe we would enter an era in which educational reform takes place in the only way it has ever succeeded: from the bottom up, from the individual teacher, in an individual classroom, to the individual school, to the individual educational institution in which they reside.

I've served lots of masters in my 18-year career as an educator, but only recently have I realized that many of these masters were as filled with hollow promises as a certain fairy-tale emperor was lacking in clothes. Isn't it time to "re-form'' the reformers?

James R. Delisle is an associate professor of education at Kent State University. He also teaches 5th- and 6th-grade students weekly at Orchard Middle School in Solon, Ohio. He is the author of five books, including Kidstories: Biographies of 20 Young People You'd Like To Know (Free Spirit, 1992).

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