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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Isn’t It Time We Take Back Education Reform?

By Peter DeWitt — January 22, 2015 4 min read
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When we think of the words “Educational Reform” our minds go to Michele Rhee on her soapbox about failing teachers or US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talking about “white suburban moms.” Just like any good branding, educational reform has symbolized the destruction of public education or the saving of it...depending on which side you are on. It has created an “Either you’re with us or against us,” mentality on both sides.

According to the dictionary, reform really just means “To make changes in order to make something better.” We should really stop allowing one group to dictate what that means, because I have met very few teachers who think what they do is good enough. Actually, I have worked with many teachers who work very hard to improve on practices, they may just not be the same practices that others want them to focus on.

We should be able to prove what we do works.

One of the areas of educational reform that seems to have been marketed in a way that is good for one side and bad for the other is the use of data. I have seen Tweets, Youtube videos, blogs and articles bashing data for killing creativity in the classroom. I’m not so sure that is the fault of data. I actually believe it’s the human reaction to change that has led to the killing of creativity.

One side believes that the effective use of data is the silver bullet needed to save education, while others believe it is the very thing killing education. There are many in the middle who strive to find a balance between both. Just because someone uses data to drive their instruction doesn’t mean that they cannot have creative moments as well. And just because someone wants to have creative moments in the classroom doesn’t mean they can’t learn to use data as well.

Why is it always either or?

Using data is complicated because it means that we have to be open about how our students are doing in the classroom, and that is hard for people. Teaching and learning have always been a private experience between the students and teachers in individual classrooms. Using data effectively means that we all have to be more open about those experiences.

Unfortunately, there are whole states that have not used data correctly. There are state education departments that have used data against teachers, principals and whole schools filled with children in order to make a case...or fulfill their self-fulfilling prophecy. Data should really be discussed at the grade level and building level in order to make real changes, but accountability standards in education reform efforts have skewed how data is used and perceived.

Using data against people works no better than a teacher using data against a student. Shaming the receiver of the information is not what education should be about. Education should be about helping one another to move forward. Reform is about making changes to make things better.

Nether Side Will Win

The issue is that one side believes that students should learn a list of standards and then they will all be on an even playing field, and somehow we will all be smarter because our students know the same things. The other side believes that learning is natural and we don’t necessarily need data in order to drive instruction, and that if we teach students how to learn they won’t have to be worried about standards.

And then there are many, many, many people in the middle who think that both are needed. Standards are important because it gives a benchmark to teachers, students and parents. Within the realm of teaching those standards we also teach students important aspects of learning that they can adapt to other parts of their life. Standards don’t take away creativity, our mindsets do.

Figure skating is filled with standards of all the ways skaters have to jump and twirl...or whatever they do in figure skating, and yet that is still considered a beautiful sport. Why can’t we have a better balance in education? Yes, this is where the finger pointing comes in. It’s the vicious cycle that will lead us back to the same exhausting point every time.

Prove It

John Hattie was speaking to a crowd and he said that if a teacher uses lecture as a model of teaching and that all students were showing growth then we shouldn’t ask that teacher to change their teaching style. After all, the students were all learning. Changing for the sake of changing is ridiculous, especially if what teachers are doing seems to be working in the first place.

Thus far, education reform seems to be asking all teachers to change when not all of them need to. It’s complicated because of the politics that are attached. A person’s opinion of educational reform differs based on their experiences with school and why they are involved in public education in the first place.

Reform is supposed to be about making changes to make things better, and that looks different for all of us, but we shouldn’t let one group control the dialogue around those words.

Overall, just like the teacher who lectures, the bottom line is we need to prove what we do works. There are times when we will find that offensive but the reality is that parents send their kids to us every day and we need to make sure we are meeting their needs. Too many of our students still leave us unprepared. That’s not the fault of the teachers. It means we have to reform some of the methods we are using.

I’m not overly convinced that the educational reform methods coming from “reformers” work, and I’m not talking about people like Michele Rhee. She’s not a true reformer...and we shouldn’t give her the platform to tell us what we need.

However, I’m also not convinced that we have always done works either, which is why I think we should all own the word “reform,” and figure out what will best meet the needs of our students.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.