Education Opinion

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

By Nancy Flanagan — June 02, 2010 3 min read
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Reflecting on all the vigorous reporting about how the Old Regime (seniority protections for unionized veteran educators! zero attention to accountability!) has been busted up--shattered!--and the New Regime (free-lancing Marine teachers relentlessly belly-crawling toward improved data indicators! plus private-sector funding!) has finally gotten a toehold on the Omaha Beach of school reform...

It strikes me that authentic school reform--the kind that yields long-lasting, productive alterations in daily practice--never happens until a critical mass of key players shift their thinking. This is the generative principle of The Cynical Educator’s Mantra: This too shall pass. It’s the reason why actual classroom practice hasn’t changed much in decades--and why the Secretary of Education still schedules colorful photo ops in elementary schools with time-honored bulletin board and classic phonics-poster backdrops. There’s a lot of oratory about transformation going on, but not much mind-changing. School still looks the same.

Right now, the “reformers” in power are beating up on Representative Judy Chu (for having the temerity to buck her party and put some different thinking about struggling schools out there)--and thanking their lucky stars that Arne Duncan & Crew have not strayed far from the Invisible Hand School of Education Policy.

On the other side of the ring, organized teachers are stoutly insisting that merit pay will cause teachers to viciously compete for resources, charters are skimming their good kids, schools are not businesses and besides, all those other problems aren’t their fault. Their patron saint du jour--and a splendid organizational deity she makes--is Diane Ravitch, who (drum roll) changed her mind. And is now right.

Well, here’s the thing. Ravitch changed her mind because the evidence was pointing her in the opposite direction.

Wouldn’t it be great if all parties to the public education discourse could periodically re-think what (in Oprah’s immortal words) they know for sure? What if Kati Haycock admitted that the “no-bigotry/high-expectations” strategies embedded in NCLB don’t seem to be working flawlessly for urban kids--and perhaps some serious tweaks need to be made? What if Dennis Van Roekel acknowledged that paying teachers for mindlessly accruing graduate credits was not producing higher student learning outcomes--and got specific about performance indicators that might lead to differentiated pay for teachers?

What if everybody stopped trying to score points for their side? What if everyone were allowed to equivocate, or give their advocacy direction a quarter-turn?

This mind-changing thing has to filter down to where the rubber meets the road: the classroom. You can’t legislate substantive changes in practice without a lot of wide-spread revisionary thinking--there are just too many teachers, and too many ways to subvert policy intent once the classroom door is closed. But it’s possible--teachers do change their minds. Here are some of the things I changed my mind about, over 30 years in the classroom:

• I no longer believe that the single-salary schedule is a fair way to pay teachers or incent the right behaviors.
• I no longer believe that grades are easily manipulated, but standardized tests produce scientific truth (simply because I’ve seen the opposite case, repeatedly).
• I no longer believe that charter schools threaten the existence of a strong public school system; now I think that charters--good ones and atrocious ones--have forced public schools to take a hard look at their own strengths and weaknesses.
• I no longer believe that more numbers in the grade book produce a clearer assessment of student learning.
• I no longer believe that policy-makers are the bad guys and educators are the good guys.
• I no longer believe that I don’t have to pay attention to struggling schools because I live and work in a community with reasonably good schools.

And the list goes on. What changed my mind? Evidence.

Has evidence changed your mind?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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