Education Opinion

“When the Economy Gets Better...”

By Nancy Flanagan — November 23, 2010 3 min read
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Looks like I’m a day late. Typical. But, for what it’s worth, this is my official “National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform” post.

Topic? Reality.

I sit on a statewide committee established to create a new, three-tiered licensure system for Michigan teachers. Initially, the committee was supposed to make our Race to the Top application stronger—if we could say we were in the process of raising standards for teacher quality, and formally rewarding our best practitioners, we’d get RTTT points. Since Michigan has crapped out—twice—in the Race to the Top competition, the committee has lost some of its steam. But we’re still meeting, discussing how to improve teacher quality and professionalism.

To some on the committee, there is no urgency to distinguish master teachers, those who have demonstrated exemplary or accomplished practice. Their reality is: a teacher is a teacher. Once certified and licensed, it’s a matter of collecting x credits over y years, and not running afoul of an administrator at evaluation time.

Teacher leaders on the committee, however, believe that there is limitless untapped potential in using teacher leaders to engender real reform in all kinds of schools: collegial professional development, writing curriculum, mentoring, instructional coaching, peer evaluation, coordinating student services, technology support, advocacy for children who have no advocates.

At the last meeting:

TIASL: The purpose of having a third tier of teacher licensure is identifying candidates for teacher leadership jobs, tapping their expertise! There are lots of things teachers can do to elevate their colleagues’ skills and knowledge, to improve their own schools.

Committee Member: Well, I don’t know. Should we be identifying some teachers as better than others? We can’t really think about teacher leadership roles until the economy gets better...
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Lately, the discourse around education reform has been totally driven by economic concerns and voices. Charters, which hire new, cheaper teachers and aren’t bound by negotiated salary agreements. Turnaround models. Firing teachers whose students produce low achievement data. A revolving door of two-year teaching fellows, who keep costs down and provide cachet to school faculties. Schools as training grounds for the economic machine: the assumption that more math and science coursework will result in new jobs. Labeling teacher salaries and benefit packages “gouging the public.”

Money, it seems, is the ultimate reality. The economy is hard fact—and all the rest is just fancy edu-talk about leadership, innovation and leaving no child behind.

What is “real” education reform? How could real education reform—the set of changes that would make our education system better for every child—be leveraged here in America?

A few thoughts about reform and reality:

• We could look at what successful nations do, across the gamut: staffing, instruction, curriculum, class size, facilities, ongoing professional development. I’d be willing to bet that we outspend every other country on athletic programming and facilities. I’d be willing to bet we spend more on administrative costs, too.

• We could put cost-benefit analyses of the advantages of a fully educated society front and center in policy creation. Pay now for high-quality preschool and rich early childhood services—or pay later, for incarceration, remedial schooling and crime.

• We could start believing that investment in teaching, schools and innovation is the only way we will ever have a fully educated populace. Investment is not synonymous with throwing money at problems. But over the long haul, the only way we’ll fix the system is through carefully putting money into quality.

We could stop—once and for all—trying to find quick fixes. Rebuilding public education will take time and excellent leadership. And it won’t be cheap, upfront. But we can’t afford to wait until the economy gets better.

That’s reality.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.