In our post-Vergara world, the “reform” battle lines are being drawn in stark contrast. For months now, we have heard the California state court decision described as a victory for students and a defeat for adults.
As a former CEO of a state-based education reform organization, I know all too well the rhetorical red meat that can be tossed around when declaring a K-12 policy victory.
But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed. Beginning with the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, which largely turned on educator opposition to new teacher-evaluation processes, and continuing through current events, one thing is crystal clear: The negativity and false choices used by all sides simply won’t get us to our intended destination.
There are three issues, in particular, that demand a new look—classroom teaching, charter schools, and instructional practice.
The buzz following the Vergara v. California decision—in which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that aspects of the state’s teacher-tenure and due-process protections violated the constitutional rights of the neediest children—has reinforced a belief that teachers are the enemy.
From arguments around budget choices (e.g., limiting contributions to teacher pension funds, or sending more money to charter schools) to calls for eliminating tenure, educators have been positioned as foes of school improvement. At the same time, they have been portrayed as the root cause of our learning gaps and as concerned only with their job benefits and personal standing.
In reality, educators and those in what I term the reform movement agree on far more than they disagree. We want to see all children succeed. We want to ensure our classrooms have the resources they need. We want parents to be more involved and better informed. We expect more from ourselves and from those in the teaching and learning process.
We must also realize that real change and improvement come only with the involvement and support of teachers. We fool ourselves when we ignore that teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and getting more so by the day. We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process. Without them, even the most meaningful changes will be denied passage at the schoolhouse door.
For decades now, charter schools have been positioned as the cure to all that ails the public school system. Supporters point to them as the gold standard. What we fail to acknowledge, however, is that for every successful KIPP or Democracy Prep, there are mediocre or struggling charters that aren’t improving outcomes. There are leaders and laggards in the charter movement, and many observers choose not to make the distinction.
Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. Currently, about 4 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools. Even if we doubled the number of students in charters tomorrow, that would still leave more than 90 percent of public school students in traditional public schools. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don’t attend, and likely will never have access to.
Instead, we should focus on how to take the most promising practices from our charter schools and begin to implement them at traditional public schools. From professional development to family involvement, Common Core State Standards implementation to innovative scheduling, how do we take the lessons learned from these supposed incubators of innovation and bring them to the system at large? What if, instead of fighting, supporters of charters and the like worked together with teachers’ unions and individual educators to:
• Open lines of communication. While the two sides may not agree, there is no need to surprise each other with attacks. Have regular discussions about the issues to explore areas of agreement and look for ways to work together. When I led Connecticut’s state reform group, ConnCAN, I took more than my fair share of swings at the unions. But before I publicly released projects like our teacher-contract database, I reached out to the heads of both unions so they knew what was coming and why we did what we did.
We must also realize that real change and improvement come only with the involvement and support of teachers."
• Look for areas to partner. At the end of the day, we should all share the goal of improving learning opportunities for kids. How can we work together on areas where we do agree?
• Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences. It is easy to write off teachers because of what the state union or an individual educator might say. It is just as easy to write off reformers because one group calls for vouchers. Don’t generalize. Again, find areas of common ground with teachers.
• Establish a practitioner advisory board. We need to admit that there aren’t a lot of educators working in what people like me call the reform arena. And that means we may not always understand many of the challenges of moving from idea to policy, policy to school, and then school to classroom. Identify educators who bring interesting ideas to the table. Create a formal advisory board to get feedback and solidify ideas from those teachers. Have them be part of the reform process, and not just someone reform happens to.
For years, many advocates virtually ignored instructional issues. Instead of focusing on what was happening in the classroom, they keyed in on operational issues—school finance, budgeting, alternative certifications, and the like.
While these topics are important, they will not lead us down the path of improved student outcomes. If we want to improve student learning, we need to focus on what is taught and how. Yes, many people have jumped on the common-core bandwagon. But standards aren’t instruction.
We need to zero in on how to ensure all classrooms are following research-based approaches to teaching reading and math. We should ensure that history and civics and the arts are taught in all schools, not just those in well-to-do suburbs. Rather than only pressing for common standards, we should talk about how those standards effectively translate into meaningful instruction and professional development, and the proper assessments to measure standards’ impact. We should examine not just how students score, but also what they actually learn.
Yes, some may see it as heresy for someone who calls himself a reformer to take issue with the what-about-the-kids, charters-first, all-but-the-classroom approach to school improvement. But as a father, a former school board chairman, and someone committed to improving opportunities for all children, it seems worth taking issue with this view.
The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.
Otherwise, we are merely tinkering around the edges, seeking to set the next boundaries for the next fight. Our kids, our communities, and our nation deserve far better than such rhetorical posturing.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2014 edition of Education Week as Eduflack: It’s Time to Reframe The K-12 Policy Debate