Teaching Profession Opinion

Farewell (and Cheerio) From the K-12 Contrarian

By Dave Powell — August 11, 2017 6 min read
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On November 18, 2014—almost three full years ago—I made my first post to this blog as the “K-12 Contrarian.” Now, 110 posts later (this would be number 111), it’s time to hang up the old hat.

There are a few reasons for that. One is that three years is a long time to do anything. I’ve done some things in my life for more than three years, but not many. I never really fulfilled my promise to write as often as I should have, but doing this has sharpened my sense of the issues we face in education and has helped me envision new ways of solving them. I can’t say that hundreds of thousands of people clicked on this blog every month when the posts were still coming regularly, but I also can’t say that I’m upset about that. I tried to write like I teach: with a strong perspective and voice, with a genuine willingness to be questioned and challenged, and with a sense that most of the things I think I know are subject to change. I wanted to reach as many interested people as possible, and I can say that many thousands did read this blog over the past three years, which that’s not something we academics are necessarily used to. It’s nice to write things and have people read them. It’s even nicer to write things and have people read them because they really want to. I hope some of you did.

At any rate, I started this project three years ago with a simple message: now is the time to start thinking like a contrarian. At that point Barack Obama was still our president and No Child Left Behind was still the law of the land. If you want to get academic about it, it looked like neoliberalism might be on its way to winning the last war in education and culture, leading us into a world where data and some brand of multiculturalism and the semi-free movement of people and faith in something resembling “free market” capitalism would lay the foundation for some kind of socioeconomic and political compromise that would reign for the foreseeable future. NCLB was deeply flawed but no one seemed to be in a hurry to fix it. People were complaining about Common Core, but most of the complaints had more to do with political commitments than educational ones.

What a difference three years makes. Today even Alabama is retaining Common Core—"for now"—NCLB is dead, and neoliberalism has been trumped by Trumpism, Brexit, and the belief that some elitist cabal was plotting a future for the world that no one wanted. Now a billionaire school choice activist with no experience in the field is the chief administrator in charge of ensuring that laws passed by previous Congresses are executed faithfully, and instead of that it feels like we’re getting an ideological hatchet job from someone in way over her head. Who knew education could be so complicated? The world we had may not have been great but it’s hard to say that this one’s better.

Point being: we’ve got a long way to go before we’re ready to make good public policy where education is concerned. To get there we’ve got to ask a lot of questions. We’ve got to ask the right questions. A contrarian, to me, is someone who asks questions about things that others might be missing—questions that go against the grain of popular opinion, questions that may expose uncomfortable truths. A true contrarian is not a cynic. It’s easy to be a cynic, especially these days. But it’s possible to be a contrarian and believe that people are capable of making unselfish decisions. Cynics don’t think like that.

So I’ve tried to look at things that way, the way a contrarian would. Sometimes I’ve been accused of not being contrarian enough (or contrarian at all), which is to be expected when everyone confuses cynicism with contrarianism. Most of the time, though, I’ve tried to focus on asking questions I think need to be asked. Value-added metrics may give us some sense of how well students are learning a prescribed curriculum, but is the curriculum itself worth learning—and is it fair to judge the effectiveness of teachers using value-added scores if it isn’t? What if the tests used to evaluate the curriculum aren’t valid? Is there a way to use test scores to provide information to teachers and parents for the benefit of students instead of just using them to punish bad teachers?

In a similar vein, people complain a lot about teacher shortages but what does this mean? It’s demonstrably true that we have no trouble handing out teaching degrees to pretty much anybody who wants one, but there still don’t seem to be enough good teachers. Could there be another explanation for the disconnect, one that goes beyond the common explanation that those who can do and those who can’t teach? Are we providing good teachers with the incentives we need to provide to keep them in the classroom? Are we teaching them the things they need to know to be successful? Should we be getting them ready to teach in the schools we have or the schools we need? Too often the discourse on teaching focuses on how to get rid of the bad apples, but if you throw out all the good apples with the bad ones you’re left with no apples at all. Then all you can do is grow new ones, which takes a lot of patience and is hard to do when people need their apples every day to keep the doctor away. Generally speaking, we have no idea which apples are good and which ones are bad. How do we make sure we’re not throwing out the good apples with the bad ones?

Maybe the most contrary opinion I’ve expressed here has been about curriculum standards. I have some reservations about the implementation of Common Core, but I still believe that one of the most important things we could do for new teachers is give them a fair and firm sense of what it is, exactly, that we want them to do. It’s also essential for policymakers (and taxpayers) to know where resources are needed most. We may, as some disingenuous commenters like to remind us, spend a lot of money “per pupil” on education in this country, but that funding is distributed in a profoundly unequal way. In the absence of clear standards inequality flourishes. Look around if you don’t believe me.

While we were arguing about curriculum standards our kids were in school preparing for an almost endless battery of tests most of us, including our children’s teachers, know almost nothing about—tests that were often used to sort kids into school classes that too often both followed and predicted their social class. That became the standard. We’d be a lot better off making the standard clear, if you ask me. Good standards tell you where you need to go, but they don’t tell you how to get there. That’s exactly the kind of guidance teachers need. It’s the kind of guidance that can turn a mediocre teacher into a good one, and a good teacher into a great one.

These are ideas I want to continue to explore, and I plan to. This blog is ending but I’m hoping to turn up in the pages of Education Week again before too long. In the meantime you’re all invited to follow the adventures of some college students (and their professor) navigating the cultural wonders of London, the world in one city, this fall. Jump over to my personal blog if you’re interested.

Until then, it’s adios and cheerio. If you’ve been a reader—a regular one, an irregular one, or even if this is the first post you’ve ever read—thank you for checking in. I hope that at least once you read something here and it started a conversation with someone else, or at least made you see an issue differently. If it did, I got even more out of this than you did. Thanks for visiting. Keep asking questions, and keep paying attention to the answers. These days it’s the least—and maybe also, at times, the most—you can do to make things better for everyone.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.