Teaching Profession Opinion

Educators, You’re the Real Experts. Here’s How to Defend Your Profession

5 guidelines for bringing about education change
By Jo Boaler — November 03, 2022 5 min read
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Education improvement is important. NAEP scores, released to nationwide dismay last week, showed the largest declines in mathematics since NAEP testing began in 1990. Only one-third of students in the state of California were rated as “proficient” on the 2021-22 mathematics state assessments, and racial inequities are alarming nationwide. But when California decided to act on more than 20 years of education research by laying out a path toward a much brighter and more equitable future, the response from some quarters was negative.

News articles and op-eds in national newspapers, organized by political groups and those who have benefited from the current system of mathematics teaching, opposed the changes. Most of the op-eds were inaccurate and misinformed. Thousands of educators have shared their support for the California mathematics framework, but their views were overshadowed by a smaller group of science, technology, engineering, and math professors and their political allies, who have been adept at getting attention for their fervent pushback.

This particular example of opposition reflects a dangerous phenomenon. People who are not K-12 educators deciding they know what is best, ignoring the deep expertise K-12 educators have developed, and casting downward glances on that knowledge and training. When people disrespect and oppose the expertise of K-12 educators—whether they are parents telling teachers they should be using drill and practice or STEM professors opposing frameworks—they do not recognize or understand that education is one of the most complex and difficult areas of work and knowledge that exists. K-12 educators should welcome parents, professors, and others into conversations about education change. But those people need to work with and alongside educators, instead of against them.

An intractable, oppositional stance parallels the divided and dangerous trajectory of our national political life. And we should want to do better.

I am someone who knows a lot about pushback and aggressive opposition. For years, a small group of mathematicians has worked to stop my research evidence from being released, including publishing misinformation about my work because they disagreed with me personally. When I became one of five authors of the proposed framework for California, people organized against the framework and started a social media campaign. I was subsequently attacked personally, which then led to not only being doxed but also receiving death and rape threats. I have learned to weather these attacks and have gained new strength through a series of guidelines for bringing about education change. I believe they are worth sharing more widely.

Know your worth and share your expertise. Carl Wieman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and professor of physics and education at Stanford, who now spends his time working to bring inquiry-based learning to university STEM students. He shared a reflection on his work in an email to me that is both interesting and important. In part, he wrote, “When I talk about physics, almost no one will question my statements. However, when I talk about education, I frequently have physicists lecture me on how I am wrong. The difference is that nearly everyone (not just physicists) believes that they are an expert on education, just by virtue of having been to school or having a child who has attended school.”

If you are feeling disrespected, know you are not alone. Nothing is more educative than the act of teaching. People who disrespect educators do not realize that those in K-12 education learn from every moment of teaching. They experience countless opportunities to refine what is learned in their teacher education years. Educators have not always made a practice of sharing their expertise, but it may be time to develop some classroom examples, including vignettes, that highlight the value of education decisions that you have made in the past and share these in conversations with those who are invested in the status quo.

An intractable, oppositional stance parallels the divided and dangerous trajectory of our national political life. And we should want to do better.

Start the conversation with empathy. Recent Stanford research discovered that when you communicate with empathy for your opponent’s positions and ideas, you are much more likely to influence their thinking. Consider starting a conversation by saying that you understand their concerns and have collected some research or classroom examples that might be helpful as they continue their thought processes.

Find supportive colleagues. You cannot take on a system as large, old, and discriminatory as the education establishment without help. Find allies to support you. These could be teachers, administrators, colleagues, friends, or family. When I eventually shared the attacks on my own work in this webpage, I was contacted by hundreds of women scientists who shared similar experiences of harassment and defamation. That mass support changed everything for me. People who are attacked have a natural tendency to turn inwards and stay silent when the most restorative and generative approach is connecting with others.

Collect and share data. Some of the greatest changes I have seen came about when a Toronto school principal collected video data from student interviews in which students discussed how they felt about math. He was committed to the value of growth-mindset principles permeating teaching. When he played the videos for teachers, they were moved to work on widespread changes in teaching and assessing mathematics. Collectible data on students’ pathways, student achievement, and racial inequities can be just as powerful as video data in effecting positive outcomes.

See yourself as a warrior. A warrior is not someone who is endlessly positive or fighting all the time. A warrior is someone who acknowledges the strength of their own goodness and projects it to others. When doing the work of the warrior, it is important to remember this: You should expect and even welcome pushback. Education is an inequitable system that enables privileged students to maintain their privilege, and it makes sense that some people will fight to keep it the same. If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.

Each of us must stay true to our ideals and follow a path that encourages high achievement for all students, even if it means that we could pay a personal price. Nothing is more important than advocating a brighter future for young people.

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