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Education Opinion

Five School Reform Sound Bites That Hurt Teacher Buy-In

By Roxanna Elden — November 10, 2011 5 min read
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Note: Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She is a National Board Certified high school teacher currently teaching in Miami.

There is a growing assumption that education reformers are anti-teacher and teachers are anti-reform. Disagreements between these groups have become so heated and so public recently that this seems like a reasonable conclusion.

The real story is more complicated. Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to speak with many people in the education reform world. I have come to believe that most reformers became reformers for the same reasons that most teachers became teachers: a hope that we can provide a higher quality education to a greater number of children in a fairer and more equal way.

As a teacher, though, I share my colleagues’ frustrations with some of reformers’ catchiest feel-good phrases. Teachers are not so much against education reforms as we are downstream from them. We see the way well-meaning changes play out in our schools and classrooms, and often hear troubling subtexts in talking points that sound great on TV. Here are a few examples, along with tips on how to engage teachers in the real conversations that we should be having about these issues.

“We know what works!”
This line promises a great sigh of relief to the non-teaching public: Now that we finally figured out what works in education, all we have to do is get teachers to do it! Then we can move onto fixing healthcare and jumpstarting the economy! Teachers, on the other hand, recognize this claim as an exaggeration used to introduce short-term fixes that in many cases don’t work. We also know that teaching is complex. Even in the same room, a successful lesson from first period might bomb after lunch. Likewise, instructional strategies may work for teachers who use them by choice, but lose their benefit when special-ops teams of non-teachers are deployed to mandate them throughout the district. In most cases, this approach leads to dog-and-pony shows that let observers walk away thinking their mandates “work” as advertised. At worst, it damages instruction by taking away teachers’ autonomy to make judgment calls about what really does work in our own classrooms. On the other hand, teachers are happy to hear about what has worked well for other teachers--as long as it is presented as such, not oversold by the same presenter who pushed a contradictory foolproof formula last year... using many of the same Power Point slides.

“Demographics don’t determine destiny! (You lazy racist!)”
No one really says the part in parenthesis. It would ruin the alliteration. However, the line above suggests those who disagree with the speaker are insisting that demographics DO determine destiny--and presumably think it’s not worth working hard to teach poor, minority students. This phrase sets off alarm bells for teachers, who know that while demographics don’t “determine destiny,” they don’t tell the whole story, either. Kids from similar demographics or neighborhoods aren’t necessarily similar kids. Factors like motivation, behavior, parent involvement, attendance, and distractions outside of school all affect academic progress. Charter schools can select for these non-demographic factors in a variety of ways that neighborhood schools can’t, which means not only is their population different, but they may change the makeup of district schools nearby. Charters involve tradeoffs. District teachers may see some merit in these tradeoffs, but only as long as they are presented honestly. In many cases teachers who seem to be anti-charter are really just resentful of suggestions that instructional quality is the only difference between charters and neighborhood schools.

“Measurable results”
Some information in education lends itself to accurate measurement. In other cases, measurements can be counterproductive. For example, pushing for improvements in “discipline numbers” encourages schools to let behavior problems slide rather than processing discipline referrals. It’s also no secret among teachers that the obsession with test scores often forces schools to do things that are bad for kids. This is especially true during “crunch time,” the unspecified period leading up to a high-stakes test. During crunch time, non-tested subjects like science and social studies are eliminated, and schools replace the type of reading instruction that yields long-term improvements with strategies meant to maximize points on test day. The higher the pressure to put a rush-order on reading scores, the more of the year becomes crunch time. This means more fourth graders who think Texas is a country and Martin Luther King was president, plus more high school freshmen who have never read a novel and think of reading as a tedious chore. As we increase the emphasis on “data driven instruction” that “moves the needle” on reading scores, we must also be willing to examine whether data collection affects instruction more than it reflects instruction.

“If grocery stores were run like public schools...”
This is supposed to be an argument about how introducing market-based competition in education encourages innovation and leads to better opportunity, especially for low-income families. If kids and families are treated as consumers, the thinking goes, they will have the buying power to demand a quality education. There may well be some truth to this, but teachers have experience with kids and families as consumers of educational products. We’ve seen, for example, how hard it is for high-school students to distinguish between respected universities and for-profit career colleges that advertise on daytime TV. It is also worth noting that businesses aren’t run for the benefit of consumers. They are run for profit, and many businesses make their biggest profit on people who don’t read the fine print. Teachers have insight on how market values may translate to the world of education, as well as the dangers of opening a huge new market of “consumers” to an industry that will likely include the education version of predatory credit card companies and mortgage brokers. After all, there is a long history of corporations marketing destructive products in poor neighborhoods, which are often saturated with billboards for liquor and fast food... and poor quality supermarkets.

“We need transformational change!”
Bashing the status quo is so 2010. This year, the issue is transformational, disruptive change (cue applause) vs. incremental change (eeewwww). In 2011, reformers delivering gleeful knockout punches to anyone who disagrees with them have drowned out their more reasonable colleagues. This leaves teachers uneasy. After all, history (and the history of education, according to Rick’s most recent book) is filled with examples showing that good ideas, taken to extremes, become bad ideas, and that change can bring unintended consequences. Teachers have a huge interest in curing education’s ills, but we can only be open to reformers’ prescriptions if we know reformers are willing to address the side effects.

--Roxanna Elden

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.