Education Opinion

Waking the Sleeping Giant: Practitioners’ Power to Fix Education Policy

By Justin Minkel — May 28, 2014 3 min read
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Here’s the thing that most mystifies me about the current state of public education:

Parents, teachers, and administrators agree that the current testing climate is bad for kids. Too many tests that measure the wrong things, with consequences that often have the exact opposite of their intended effect. Even Arne Duncan has said, “I believe the day is not far off when bubble tests will seem as old-school and outdated as vinyl records and payphones.” With few exceptions, everyone seems to agree that NCLB was a train wreck.

Why are we hanging on to so many bad practices?

Linda Darling Hammond and Randi Weingarten wrote last week in a piece about Common Core, “Trying to implement ambitious goals for deeper learning through an outmoded testing model tied to a long list of punishments for children, educators, and schools is like pouring new wine into old bottles. It will certainly turn sour.”

When I talk to fellow parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents about what schools are and should be, I hear consensus on two key topics:

Purpose of school: We believe that school should help students become good people and good thinkers. We agree that critical thinking, creativity, and ingenuity should trump rote memorization and lists of facts. We also believe that the boundaries between school and the world outside the classroom should be permeable, with more field trips, classroom visits from actual scientists and architects, and opportunities to apply new learning to real-world contexts.

Testing: We see a disconnect between this purpose of school and the kinds of knowledge reinforced by current tests. We believe that kids are over-tested. We think assessments should measure the abilities that matter most for college, a career, and leading a meaningful life. Most of us agree, too, that tests should be used to determine what kinds of support a school needs, rather than triggering pre-packaged punishments that drive skilled teachers and principals away from the schools that most need their expertise.

Yet there’s a chasm between these shared beliefs among those closest to students and the policies, legislation, and rhetoric imposed by those furthest from them.

When I started teaching, I had a tribal mindset that viewed teachers as the just and righteous superheroes, while administrators--everyone from Assistant Principals to Superintendents to Commissioners--were the nefarious, clipboard-wielding villains.

At some point, my sense of my tribe expanded to include most of those administrators. Almost every time I talked to a principal or superintendent, I came away with the sense that in the end, we’re on the same team.

We’re practitioners. We work all day on behalf of students, and we usually agree on pragmatic policy solutions that lie between the extremes. I don’t see most administrators as adversaries these days, but as allies who share most of the goals, pressures, and frustrations of teachers.

If there are adversaries out there, they are the non-practitioners who are furthest from kids yet want the biggest say when it comes to determining the policies that shape their lives. Corporations who profit from the testing frenzy, even when their products don’t work. Think tanks that see students as the means to some political end, not as the purpose of education in themselves. Politicians who gut food stamps and early childhood education, secure in the knowledge that their own children and grandchildren will never need these programs.

How do these non-practitioners have so much power? Why do we allow them to have so much power?

Practitioners--parents, teachers, and administrators--are the sleeping giant. We’re closest to the children we raise and teach, so we have the most skin in the game.

The value of education isn’t an abstract ideal for us. It’s rooted in the faces, voices, and personalities of the children we care for. We know which pieces of education policy are working and we know which pieces are broken, because we see the good and the bad in our kids’ faces every day.

We’re also a tremendous voting bloc for everyone from school board members to state Senators. Our shared convictions don’t matter, though, unless we act on them.

Let’s make it clear to textbook companies, school boards, and state and federal legislators that they serve students and families, not the other way around. Let’s prove to outside billionaires like the Koch brothers that they can’t buy our votes, stack our state legislatures, or sway our beliefs with distorted rhetoric.

Let’s remind Secretary Duncan and President Obama that six and a half years into their tenure, they have a lot of work left to do to build a system that measures what matters and meets our children’s needs.

We are the sleeping giant. It’s time to wake up.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher 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.