Education Opinion

Teachers and Education Reform: Can We Get Beyond “NO!” ?

By Anthony Cody — August 23, 2010 3 min read
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In the past week on this blog, we discussed the ethical dilemma teachers face when we are finally invited to sit at the table where education policies are made. One reader posted the following comment, which I think is worthy of further discussion. From Oakland teacher Dave Orphal:

Even if teachers and teachers’ associations get a place at these educational reform tables, the tables were still set, the menus provided by educational reform pundits who are not teachers. Oh, we may be able to strike some of the items off the menu, and I am sure there will be dishes we don’t like... but it’s not our dinner party, it’s not our chef, it’s not our restaurant.

Instead, we need to finance and build our own restaurant, hire our own chefs and create a menu that will serve the needs of our customers (students and teachers.)

For decades, teachers have been political only on defense. We either scream “NO!” at the reforms being offered, or we beg/force for ourselves a seat at the table to try to massage away some of the worst elements of a proposed reform.

We do this, because we are tired after a long day of teaching. We don’t have the time to spend in our own think tanks strategizing about what a high-functioning school could look like or dreaming of what skills and knowledge a well-educated graduate will have in 2030 or 2035. We do this because we are strapped for cash. Teachers do not make nearly enough to fund our own think tanks and pay some of us to take a year or two away from the classroom to strategize on our behalf. So we continue to allow the other side to set the agenda and we either decry, “NO!” or beg for a seat at the table.

“NO!” is rapidly becoming an exhausting answer for the public
. Teachers and administrators, parents and students, voters and politicians are all now agreeing that the status quo is no longer working. Teachers and teacher unions are losing their credibility and now even our once-political allies are seeing our organizations as obstructionists and more interested in protecting so-called bad teachers than promoting a positive learning environment for our kids.

How would WE fix these problems? How would we evaluate teachers so that good teachers who want to get better can receive meaningful feedback from professionals they trust? How would WE remove the 1-5% of teachers who really don’t or no longer belong in our profession? How would WE measure student learning in ways that make sense academically and make sense to the non-teaching community? How would WE organize a charter school that really works? How would WE recruit, train, and support new teachers who can be successful and remain in the classroom after 5 years?

I think this is the next step for teachers and teachers associations in the realm of educational reform. WE have to commit the time and the money to imagining what a well-running public school system will look like and what steps can take us from here to there. The days of saying, “NO!” or for securing a seat at someone else’s table are over. It’s time to set our own educational reform agenda.

Dave Orphal teaches history at Skyline High School in Oakland, California. After receiving his BA and Teaching Credential at Humboldt State University, Mr. Orphal began a ten-year career at Zoe Barnum High School in Eureka CA and lectured at the University in the Education Department. He is an active member of the Teacher Leaders’ Network and CTA’s Institute for Teaching. Mr. Orphal and his partner, Wendy Bliss, live in El Cerrito, California.

What do you think? Is it time for teachers to turn the tables?

photograph by David Stacy, used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.