Education Opinion

The Fight to Define the Status Quo

By Anthony Cody — December 06, 2008 4 min read
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Barack Obama was elected with a powerful mandate for change. Teachers are excited because we will soon have an administration that has pledged to reform No Child Left Behind, allowing for a broader range of assessments and less emphasis on standardized test scores. He has promised a high priority for early childhood education, and called for greater investment in high needs schools.

But as I have described in earlier posts, he has not clung to any particular brand of ideologically driven thinking. He has spoken in favor of merit pay for teachers, and advocates expanded support for charter schools.

Now Obama must select a Secretary of Education, and that selection will embody his new direction. In his policies, Obama is pragmatic and reasonable, seeking solutions that will work. In this way, he bridges the divide that separates rival camps of educational reformers.

I think it is important to recognize that there are different visions for school reform. Recent editorials in the Washington Post and New York Times have revealed a campaign to portray these two camps in a way that places one on the high ground of “genuine reformers,” and the other camp as “defenders of orthodoxy.” Articles in Time magazine and Newsweek have sounded similar notes.

The goal of this campaign is apparently to discourage Obama from selecting Linda Darling-Hammond for Secretary of Education, in favor of someone from the other camp, which includes big city chancellors Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein.

The key to this issue is defining the status quo that needs changing.
Once that is defined, then we can get to work. I have worked for twenty-one years in the Oakland public schools, eighteen of them teaching in a high-needs middle school. I served as a Peer Assistance and Review coach for two years, working with teachers who had received poor evaluations. I have experienced the status quo first-hand for my entire career – and I have sought to change it.

So here are the parts of the status quo I would like to see changed.

The status quo is that we now have a Secretary of Education whose only prior experience in public schools was as a substitute teacher in the state of Texas. Wouldn’t it be a great change to have an outstanding teacher chosen for the position of the nation’s top educator? Someone who has actually experienced the realities of working with children in a classroom – wouldn’t that give them a valuable perspective? The Attorney General is someone who has practiced as a lawyer, the Surgeon General will be a doctor. Why not a teacher (or former teacher, like Darling-Hammond) for Secretary of Education?

The status quo is that tests have been used to judge and condemn schools. How about someone who understands that a single set of tests is not a valid means of judging teachers and schools, and that over-reliance on tests leads to poor educational practices and the demoralization of teachers and their students? How about someone who understands that external tests are just one part of a robust accountability system, and that teachers have an important role to play in the assessment of student learning?

The status quo is that schools have been left on their own to single-handedly raise student performance. How about someone who understands that the schools are one part of a complex social system, and that they need to be embraced and supported within their communities in order to succeed. That means broader solutions that include early childhood education, measures to fight poverty, improve nutrition and healthcare for children and their parents as well.

The status quo is that teacher turnover has been rising for the past seven years in my district – and in many urban and rural districts across the nation. We cannot get very many teachers to invest in teaching as a career, and as a result, we have a revolving door of uncredentialed novices who receive a six-week boot camp training before they are given full responsibility for the education of some very needy students. Many of these newcomers are unprepared for the realities they encounter, and ill-equipped to respond. How about someone who understands the value of thorough teacher preparation, including relating to the cultures and circumstances of the families they will be working with? How about someone who understands that until we can create a sustainable, rewarding profession, capable of building expertise from within, reform is going to be flimsy and fragile?

The status quo is that teachers are mostly paid through a static salary schedule that rewards longevity and units of college credit and nothing else. How about someone willing to work with teachers to develop models of performance pay that reward and promote teacher leadership and collaboration? Someone who understands that the goal of performance pay is to motivate and inspire, and that requires the active participation and cooperation of the teachers and our unions?

Teachers have great hopes for the new direction the Obama team will be leading us in. We are ready for some serious changes to the status quo, and they will not all be comfortable. But let’s work to be clear about what the status quo is, because “change we can believe in” -- and a wise selection for Secretary of Education -- will start there. Far from being a defender of orthodoxy, Linda Darling-Hammond’s career has been spent promoting the idea that teaching needs to become a fully realized profession, with all the personal and professional accountability that entails. Nothing status quo about that.
A new petition has been launched to support the appointment of Linda Darling-Hammond to the post of Secretary of Education. If you would like to sign it, go here.

What do you think? What parts of the status quo would you call out? What do you want in a new Secretary of Education?

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.