Education Opinion

Grizzled Veteran’s Rant

By Nancy Flanagan — February 11, 2011 3 min read
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“I am finally realizing that one of the main thing that divides reform-y types from career educators is the thought that reform could make things worse rather than better. This possibility might seem hard to believe for reformers, many of whom can’t imagine things being any worse (and many of whom, it should be said, have yet experienced few major setbacks in their own lives). But for those with a longer perspective (historical, personal, professional) the possibility of things going from bad to worse is real; they’ve seen good but wrong-headed ideas take root before, sucking energy away and wasting a lot of time, and they know that there’s no guarantee that the current status is a baseline below which nothing worse can happen.” ~ Alexander Russo

Thanks to Alexander Russo, for nicely summarizing one aspect--not the only one, but a salient one--of what it’s like to be a grizzled veteran educator: the proverbial pendulum swing of education reform and its impact on daily life in schools.

For some of us--teachers who fell in love with the classroom early on and continue to fine-tune daily--"reforms” can be good (the National Writing Project, for example, or professional learning communities) or merely annoying (incessant changes in special education classifications and paperwork) or downright destructive (much of what appears in the Blueprint to refine and reauthorize NCLB).

A decade or more in the classroom gives teachers broad perspectives. It’s not only the stoicism of “been there/done that/wait until the next Big Thing arrives.” There’s also the benefit of experiencing the exhilaration of terrific, effective lessons or units--and the solid evidence of real learning generated by that work. Or the collaborative creation of a program to address local issues--graduation rates, challenging the gifted, tweaking pre-school options, whatever--and having it yield good results.

It’s axiomatic to say that teachers seldom excise ineffective habitual practices, but simply incorporate the new requirements and programs, layered over the old. There’s a lot of blah-blah about how fidelity to spiffy new programs is the key to raising achievement scores and if only the stuck-in-concrete old teachers would see the necessity of sticking to the script. And there certainly are some teachers who are at this very minute standing at the copy machine, trying to get those c.1980s dittos to print legibly.

But-- it’s excruciatingly hard to let go of something that works. A policy that guts good and useful instructional practice created by teachers (and believe me, this happens all the time) is going to be resisted. Not because it’s impossible to change. But because it’s not helpful. Often, changes are imposed from a considerable distance.

Since 2002, with the passage of No Child Left Behind, federal intrusion into classrooms has been unrelenting. Control over local issues has diminished and states, beleaguered by increased NCLB requirements and hoping to get some of the $4.3 billion dangled in the Race to the Top, have passed an array of legislation that directly impacts a dozen different things that teachers cope with every day: The reading program. Test prep. The elimination of social studies--and recess. The loss of the core group of engaged parents to a new charter school. Worry over whether their poor urban school will face turnaround, shattering all the work they’ve done. Whether their name will appear in the paper as “less effective” when they volunteer to work with ESL kids.

Thanks, AR, for the opening.

Here’s wishing every teacher a day in which nothing worse can happen.

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.