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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

It’s ‘The Bad SYSTEM,’ Not ‘The Bad Teacher!’

By Guest Blogger — August 11, 2014 4 min read
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Note: Maddie Fennell, a literacy coach for the Omaha Public Schools, is guest posting this week.

I read something on Facebook today: “If you’re looking for the next innovative idea, don’t listen to the folks sitting comfortably at the top of the heap. Check out the people at the bottom, who are hungry and are tirelessly, slowly, and steadily working their way upward. These are the people who have a far clearer view of the battlefield, the reality.” It was from Sonny Barger; OK, I now know he started the Hells Angels in CA, but I LOVE that quotation!

So what I’m going to share this week is the view I’ve had this summer as a teacher who has traveled between many professional worlds. I’ve talked with colleagues across the country, worked at the US Department of ED, participated as a delegate at the NEA annual meeting, and learned with the nation’s best at the National Network of State Teachers of the Year annual conference. I did this in my “summer off” (she says scoffing) and while keeping my heart FIRMLY planted in my little slice of Heaven, Miller Park Elementary School in Omaha, NE.

Let’s start at the 50,000 foot level with “The System.” I’m going to get more in depth as the week goes on, but we need to start by focusing on the right “levers” for change.

It’s not sexy, it’s not what makes a hit movie, but can we PLEASE admit that it’s not about finding “the bad teacher” but about rebuilding “the bad SYSTEM?” We cannot build a world class education system from a deficit model that is all about finding and rooting out the SMALL percentage of truly bad teachers who NONE of us want in the classroom.

If we are to be the best in the world, school funding cannot be defined by zip code; the greatest resources must be provided to students with the greatest needs. We can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that everything ISN’T equal from conception - too many kids don’t have access to good prenatal and ongoing medical care, quality childcare, and learning experiences before age 5. We must have an equitable economy that supports families and provides a living wage to reduce the number of children in poverty. Let’s seriously address the income inequality in America that says it’s OK for a corporate exec to make millions running a company into the ground while we still have a pitiful minimum wage. It’s not OK for a teacher from North Carolina to qualify for free lunch and food stamps for his kids. I’m proud to be from the same hometown as Warren Buffett, who calls out the fact that his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does and whose daughter Susie is leading transformational work, including providing a great start through the Educare Early Childhood Centers throughout the US and spreading the GOOD news about public education through Nebraska Loves Public Schools.

The whole system needs to be overhauled - classroom practitioners and colleges of education need to work together to transform our preparation programs. Our induction into the profession needs to be more supportive and better at “weeding out” those who just don’t have the chops to make it over the long haul. We need strong evaluation systems that are geared towards growing great teachers instead of finding bad teachers (grow ya’ instead of gotcha’) and then we need compensation systems that draw people into the profession and reward their work with a professional wage. We need professional development that isn’t cookie cutter and uses information from the evaluation system to help teachers develop targeted plans of skill and knowledge development. We also need new career paths and more hybrid roles that allow great teachers to STAY in the classroom and still exercise their leadership skills for the good of the profession and their community (the National Board and ED are working to highlight these roles through Teach to Lead).

But the system doesn’t just need remodeling - we also have to make sure that all of the parts are in alignment and working together. And that’s only SOME of what we need to do to actually get this right... YIKES!!!

One year, when I was attending the International Summit of the Teaching Profession, I heard someone from another country say that their country set their education policy on a path that was good for students and followed that path irrespective of who was elected to office. They commented on how different it was in America, where each new round of elections brought a new focus.

Several times this summer, I heard policymakers tell me that the timeframes of political office forced them to accelerate their actions. Someone else described this to me as, “We always seem to have enough time to screw it up twice, but never enough time to get it right the first time.”

In this country, we make our schools -- and our kids -- sway in the political breeze. This has to stop.

To remodel and align all the parts of the American education system, we are going to need a tremendous amount of political will that is independent of parties and dependent upon those who write good policy collaborating with those of us on the ground implementing the policy.

--Maddie Fennell

Disclaimer: Because Maddie works in many roles, she needs to say that these comments are not the official statements of anyone; they are her personal opinions that she may change any time if she is convinced!

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.