Published Online: November 12, 2013

First Person

A Teacher's Defense of Education Reform

In the midst of new efforts to improve education, from the shift to the Common Core State Standards to the implementation of new teacher-evaluation systems, a set of voices has emerged arguing that these changes are a step in the wrong direction. They say that the wool has been pulled over our eyes and that there's really nothing much wrong with our education system per se.

This movement has offered a litany of arguments against the common standards in particular: that they represent a top-down, corporate takeover of education; that they strip teacher authority over curriculum; that they are using kids as guinea pigs for a program that should have been voluntary or more thoroughly piloted; and that they detract attention away from the larger problem of poverty.

But as a practicing teacher, I have to say that, while far from perfect, the common-core standards are a clear and significant improvement for students and teachers. Compared side-by-side with my state's previous standards, the new standards are clearer, less arcane, and more logical in their scope and progression. Not to mention that they allow me to directly compare notes with colleagues across the country. All in all, they make it easier for me to do my job more creatively, not less.

They are also, I believe, more intellectually honest than previous standards. That is, I know they represent the kind of work kids already do in high-performing schools. I know this is the kind of work college freshmen have to have under their belts. I teach in a low-income, inner-city middle school, and I also recognize that most of my kids aren't where the common standards expect them to be. But if my goal is for my students to have the option of going to college (and not having to take remedial classes when they get there), then why shouldn't the target at least be the real finish line, and not someplace short of it?

The Poverty Excuse

But the argument that bothers me most is that efforts to improve education, like the common standards, are somehow a distraction from tackling poverty. I recently attended a conference where a keynote speech nominally about the common core turned into a lengthy lecture on how wealthy kids stack up just fine on international tests. The speaker highlighted the effects of poverty on student outcomes and argued that our efforts to improve education are misguided because schools aren't the problem—poverty is.

By the end of the speech I felt disenfranchised, without clear direction for how to improve my teaching practice or profession or attack poverty. Needed structural reforms in education such as the common standards have the potential to make teachers and schools stronger, which should be reason enough to move forward with them. Why should we think they preclude organizing to address poverty in other ways?

In the United States, we don't have the degree of social programs present in many academically high-performing countries to cushion against the effects of poverty, nor have we committed ourselves to reducing income inequality. In my view, that's not acceptable. But until this moment, we also haven't had standards in place that demand rigorous, higher-level literacy and thinking of all our students, including those living in poverty. And we haven't made the systematic and structural commitments to improve the quality of teaching, from teacher preparation to on-the-job performance.

Now we have a chance to do these things. Should we abandon real, logical progress toward improving our profession just because the current policy reforms aren't perfect or don't fix every problem simultaneously?

Avoiding the Extremes

Don't get me wrong. Valid concerns are being raised about the current reforms, as well as about the need to address poverty more directly. But I don't think those offering the criticisms most loudly are fully aware of the danger posed by how they frame their message. If these well-intentioned critics urge for indefinite delays, solely point out the flaws in reform initiatives, and reject sensible changes outright rather than focusing their efforts on refining them, then they may block teachers from seizing the potential of this moment in education.

For us in California, that moment is already here. Recently signed legislation suspends the old state tests aligned to the old standards and delays any high-stakes use of new assessments aligned to the common standards during a transitional field-testing period. Significant decisions will be made in the next few months about how to implement these standards and how to hold stakeholders accountable to them. This process can happen with the direct involvement of educators and well-intentioned supporters, or with all of us grousing on the sidelines. If there were ever a time for educators to inject a rational sense of perspective into this discussion, it is certainly now.

Educators need to feel empowered, not disenfranchised, to lead positive changes within their profession. And this can only happen when a variety of voices offering different solutions, in thoughtful debate, stay focused on what works best for kids. We shouldn't allow the positions at either extreme—schools are the only problem or poverty is the only problem—to pull the wool over our eyes.

Taking ownership of this professional responsibility to improve teaching and schools doesn't make us sheep. It makes us shepherds.

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