Opinion
Law & Courts Commentary

Eduflack: It’s Time for Reformers, Educators to Work Together

By Patrick Riccards — September 15, 2014 6 min read

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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

Events

School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Building Equitable Systems: Moving Math From Gatekeeper to Opportunity Gateway
The importance of disrupting traditional American math practices and adopting high-quality math curriculum continues to be essential for changing the trajectory of historically under-resourced schools. Building systems around high-quality math curriculum also is necessary to
Content provided by Partnership for L.A. Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Measuring & Supporting Student Well-Being: A Researcher and District Leader Roundtable
Students’ social-emotional well-being matters. The positive and negative emotions students feel are essential characteristics of their psychology, indicators of their well-being, and mediators of their success in school and life. Supportive relationships with peers, school
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts How a Cheerleader's Snapchat Profanity Could Shape the Limits of Students' Free Speech
Brandi Levy's social media post is the basis for a case before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether schools may punish off-campus speech.
9 min read
Image of Brandi Levy.
Brandi Levy, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was a cheerleader at Mahanoy Area High School in Pennsylvania when she made profane comments on Snapchat that are now at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case on student speech rights.
Danna Singer/Provided by the American Civil Liberties Union
Law & Courts Student School Board Members Flex Their Civic Muscle in Supreme Court Free-Speech Case
Current and former student school board members add their growing voices to a potentially precedent-setting U.S. Supreme Court case.
7 min read
Image of the Supreme Court.
iStock/Getty
Law & Courts Justice Department Memo Could Stoke State-Federal Fights Over Transgender Students' Rights
Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, a Justice Department memo says.
3 min read
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on transgender girls and women from female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D. on March 11, 2021.
Stephanie Marty demonstrates against a proposed ban on allowing transgender girls and women to play in female sports leagues outside the South Dakota governor's mansion in Pierre, S.D.
Stephen Groves/AP
Law & Courts Diverse Array of Groups Back Student in Supreme Court Case on Off-Campus Speech
John and Mary Beth Tinker, central to the landmark speech case that bears their name, argue that even offensive speech merits protection.
5 min read
In this photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, Mary Beth Tinker, 61, shows an old photograph of her with her brother John Tinker to the Associated Press during an interview in Washington. Tinker was just 13 when she spoke out against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband to her Iowa school in 1965. When the school suspended her, she took her free speech case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. Her message: Students should take action on issues important to them. "It's better for our whole society when kids have a voice," she says.
In this 2013 photo, Mary Beth Tinker shows a 1968 Associated Press photograph of her with her brother John Tinker displaying the armbands they had worn in school to protest the Vietnam War. (The peace symbols were added after the school protest). The Tinkers have filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a Pennsylvania student who was disciplined for an offensive message on Snapchat.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP