Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start: I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate. For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember. And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.
Don’t misinterpret me here: Of course I believe public education is crucial! I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get. From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve. And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so. Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none. Yeah, I think education is important.
But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence. I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central. Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam. Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change. And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?
Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money. For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year. That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs. These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities. There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools. Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools. (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.) And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school. The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong. We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions. Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.
On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving. It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative. Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations. Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools. Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids. Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work. I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better. Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses. For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.
Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet. Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons. Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department. Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury. Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon. Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it. Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock. Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior. All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.
Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor. Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder. So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?
The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being. More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened. Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids. As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her. That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective. That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.
Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position. In this case, we have a bad woman candidate. I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills. Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years. I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments. Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school. But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence. And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices. Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.” (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor. So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)
I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge. Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get. But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education. I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington. State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal. With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.
And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across. Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial. Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause. These articles come from the following sources: Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.
And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well. Take that, Betsy!
As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do. Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.
What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort. She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools. She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform. So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience. Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses. If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…
So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences? When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices. Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it. What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education. And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one. If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you. You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good. If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding. You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open. Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits. Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?). These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns. The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.
Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids. Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents. But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children. (Not very, this parent would argue.) There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number. Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses? Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs. Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.
It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent. Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education. Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree. Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education. Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible. The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely. Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools. At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.
I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington. And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them. We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better. Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.
Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did. Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth. But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address. Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.
But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately. Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.) What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are. My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations. And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way. Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill. And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.
We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education. The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next. If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage. I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations. Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread. But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now. Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.
If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire. Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.
With significant bi-partisan support in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a new law was overwhelmingly approved in December to replace No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is being hailed as a significant improvement on NCLB, but an analysis of its components shows that it is a long way from the kind of federal reform that can really improve American public education.
First off, it still requires standardized tests be administered to all students in grades 3 through 8, plus once during high school, pretty much exactly the same as NCLB. It has the same mandates about reporting the results of not only the total student population, but also breaking out subgroups based on race, special needs, and low income. At a first glance, ESSA does little to alleviate the standardized testing mania which was a huge negative characteristic of NCLB.
The key difference, however, has to do with the consequences for schools that don’t do well on those standardized tests. Basically, what measures will be taken to improve schools with poor scores will be left to the states, which is a significant modification. Under NCLB, under-performing schools had various federal hoops to leap through in order to keep Washington money flowing, when not enough students made “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on the exams. Under Arne Duncan’s reign as Education Secretary, schools could apply for waivers from those specific requirements, provided they met different requirements as outlined by, yep, Arne Duncan. The chief way for that waiver to be approved was for “underperforming” schools to accept to the Common Core and put its standards in place. Both NCLB and the waiver system used by the Obama administration shifted much control over how schools operated to the federal government. According to every analysis of the new law that I have read, that changes under ESSA.
Instead, states will have to determine what standards and consequences come from the tests results. So that could be either a good or a bad thing depending on how each state operates. Many fear that the benign neglect our weakest schools received for countless generations (generally urban districts with much larger minority populations than the rest of the country) will surge back into prominence. ESSA does mandate that states institute some interventions for schools scoring in the lowest 5% on the tests and high schools where less than two-thirds of students graduate, but it doesn’t specify what those interventions should look like, who will be responsible for seeing that they are implemented, or what consequences will ensue should those interventions fail. All that’s required is that Washington approve the “evidence-based” methods the states impose on those low-performing schools. The testing aspect of ESSA will resemble NCLB, but what happens after those tests will be determined by fifty different state legislatures.
So it’s way too soon to claim that this will be an improvement over NCLB or the Duncan waiver system unless you believe (as some do) that any federal interference in school governance is bad. The most probable outcome is that some states will do a better job navigating the extremes between overly intrusive, one-size-fits-all mandates being handed down by those with little understanding of a specific school’s needs or problems, and leaving all reforms and financing to local school districts that vary widely in both their resources and community involvement. There’s little doubt that some states will be awful and indifferent to their problem schools, some will be way too autocratic and controlling, and a few will find the balance to nudge problem schools into improving without intruding too much. The percentages in each of those categories will determine if ESSA facilitates reform that can help schools in America get better.
A new feature of ESSA is that it will provide for more tax dollars being funneled into private and parochial schools. States will now have to fund “equitable services” for children in those schools who are deemed eligible. Every state will be required to have an “ombudsman” to make sure those non-public schools get their funding in a “timely” fashion. As an advocate for public schools, I worry about this as all funding is precious and I believe should be given only to schools subject to public oversight—the state has little say on how private/parochial schools run, compared to its control over public schools. That being said, “equitable services” should mean that the schools receiving this money will get oversight to make sure the cash is spent on those services, which, by the way, should be equitable. Despite my reservations about non-public schools receiving public money, at least the goal here is to make sure all special needs kids are treated equally. That intent I can support.
Then there is the “Pay for Success” initiative, which does not originate with ESSA, but is endorsed by it. Basically, Pay for Success allows private corporations to earn a profit by investing in educational programs. In Utah, for example, Goldman Sachs spent $1,700 per pupil on a program designed to prevent pre-school kids from ending up in special education programs once they entered public schools. When 99% of the targeted students did not need special education placement at the end of the program, Goldman Sachs earned a profit of roughly $260,000. That 99% figure, however, has been called into question by virtually every early education expert (you can read about it in much greater detail here). There’s also the fundamental issue of allowing private corporations to make profits from public education funds—I would argue that the entire public education system is a huge benefit (profit) to the business world in the literate, creative students it churns out (the high school district where I worked certainly produced hundreds like that every year), and it is morally reprehensible for corporations to try to bilk additional profits out of public schools.
And with all of this, we still are inextricably tied to standardized tests as a means to assess the quality of both our students and the schools they attend. We’ve been over and over how wrong this approach is (see this for one of my many anti-testing rants), but ESSA does little to alleviate that problem. There may be a slight lessening in all the needless testing prep that schools now feel compelled to do since the new consequences for poor standardized test scores will vary from state to state as well as ESSA’s not requiring teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores, but that could easily change depending on individual state actions. Regardless, as long as tests are mandated, results are published, and poor scores get punished; schools will feel obligated to spend valuable class time in getting students ready for them, not to mention the additional hours used in administering them.
Overall this is a slight move in the right direction since Washington is admitting that more local control is better than a central locus. But the wrong-headed educational moves of governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Florida’s Rick Scott, and our very own Bruce Rauner show that state-level control often isn’t any better than Arne Duncan or NCLB, and can be worse. Schools can’t and won’t improve unless we move to a more teacher-centric approach: Where all parties (parents, students, community members, school boards, politicians, and especially teachers) work collectively to create the standards for which our children should strive and then get out of the way to let those with the most expertise and experience—the teachers—to help the students strive for those standards using methods the teachers believe to be best for their unique situations. No matter how brilliant or comprehensive a federal law or state program is, it will not significantly impact our classrooms unless the teachers enthusiastically see it as beneficial to their individual students and schools.
Of course I hope that ESSA works more effectively than NCLB or the patchwork federal control Duncan used through the Common Core years. Based on what I’ve read, however, I’m not optimistic. You can read some of the articles I’ve looked at to see how others are previewing this new law in
The Washington Post, The New York Times, EdSource, IllinoisTimes, The PBS News Hour (video), U.S. News and World Report, Brookings, and The Progressive. These offer a variety of opinions on both the need to change NCLB and how beneficial ESSA might be.
For more understanding on how schools work and can really be improved, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools. To read some sample chapters, you can go here.
In a couple of past entries (see this one and this other one), we went over the issue of teacher independence in the age of “Everybody Knows What Teachers Should Do Better than Teachers Do.” By now, I’m hoping you are at least considering my premise that the only way for any public school to improve is through the efforts of teachers who have made curricular, assessment, discipline, and procedural decisions for themselves based on their unique circumstances (school districts, schools, classrooms, students, materials, expertise, skill sets, etc.). Please understand that I’ve never suggested those teachers shouldn’t get lots of input on the standards to which they should hold their students (although teachers need to be in on, if not leading, those discussions), nor am I against their being exposed to any and all interesting ideas that come from outsiders (experts, politicians, and even billionaires occasionally have worthwhile things to offer).
The problem of the last couple of decades in American education has been that these outsiders have tried to push their agendas to become standard operating procedure for all teachers, regardless of how ill-suited some things are to specific schools and circumstances. From No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to Common Core (and probably the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act), not to mention all the state initiatives these federal programs have spawned, big mandates have done little to improve our children’s education while wasting many dollars which could have been used in much more effective ways, if only we’d allowed teachers to make decisions based on their particular situations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear likely that the nonsense foisted on our schools by politicians and wealthy hobbyists is going to end any time soon, so I believe teachers need to take issues into their own hands to seize control one classroom at a time.
What this means is that teachers should accept responsibility for what happens in schools and refuse to let anyone else get to their students’ brains without their approval. The ultimate authority on what works or is worth trying in any class is the teacher of that class, and she needs to believe that herself. Once that fundamental tenet is absorbed, the next phase is to assert that power. Power, though, is something that requires some experience to understand and to wield effectively. Given the hierarchical nature of school systems as well, asserting teacher independence isn’t something new teachers should be too quick to do.
Inexperienced teachers are…well, lacking the experience to understand how all the variables that go into their classrooms interact to a significant enough degree so they can be sure the choices they make are the best ones. For me, it took at least three years, and probably more like five, to have learned enough to assume the independence to decide for myself what would be best for my students. No, I hadn’t achieved anywhere near a 100% grasp on the mysteries of public education, but I had gained enough insight to surpass anyone else’s ability to evaluate what would function most effectively for the classes/students I had been assigned; my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher; and the environment/resources available from my school, district, parents, and community. It’s impossible to measure objectively or precisely at what level that understanding was—and again this will vary for everyone—but I’d probably put it at about a 35% grasp after three years, 50% after five, and at my peak, maybe I had a handle on 75% or so of my teaching world (about average for the teaching profession, from my vantage point). It takes a few years to learn enough to understand what works.
Yet, even that puny 35% figure is miles and miles better than anybody else could have done in my classroom. Teachers are the only ones who have the slightest idea what should happen in their classes with their kids. That truism is the key to the kingdom of better schools, if only the ones with power over (control of the purse strings for) schools could accept it. Actually, you could also say that the only way for schools to improve (and the reason our best ones do reasonably well) is when teachers are the ones in charge. That we’re moving in the opposite direction, however, with teachers’ control declining, is the whole reason for this series of articles.
As to the second reason new teachers need to be cautious about asserting their independence (after lack of knowledge of both their personal teaching skills and their schools’ cultures): They can be easily fired. For the first few years in states with collective bargaining laws that grant tenure and have unions (some states don’t have collective bargaining laws at all), newly hired teachers can be let go without any reason being given, either written or orally. (Before you start quoting all the propaganda you’ve heard regarding the evils of tenure, I’ve already gone over, a couple of times, why I believe tenure is beneficial to the educational process. The most in-depth explanation can be found in my e-book, Snowflake Schools, and if you’d like to check it out, you can read some sample chapters at this site.) Right now regardless of what tenure haters think—and for a long time to come, I would hope—tenure is granted in Illinois, and our probationary period is four years. Because of the arbitrary nature of firings during that probationary time, this is the most delicate period of teachers’ careers, the phase when they are fearful that the slightest mistake they make or disagreement they have with one of their many bosses could cost them their jobs.
And like all exaggerated concerns, there is an element of truth to those fears. When you don’t have to be given a reason for being let go, you can’t be sure why it happened. Maybe it was the time you disagreed with your department chair, your principal saw you leaving early, or a parent complained to your superintendent about the grade her darling earned in your class. So the first key to reaching the point where independence can be asserted is to follow the rules and be cooperative when you’re new, period. There’s just too much insecurity, especially in school districts with many applicants for every job. To give you a personal example, I took a tennis coaching position I really didn’t want at the beginning of my second year teaching high school (my tenth year overall). I knew it would be hell given my teaching assignment coupled with the many extra hours coaching would consume every school day, not to mention some Saturdays, but since I was up for tenure at the end of that year (it only took two years to reach tenure back then), I had absolutely no desire to wonder, should I get fired, if this one assignment refusal had cost me my job. And it turned out that two of the other four non-tenured English teachers in my department were released at the end of that year. Did coaching tennis save my job? I’ll never know for sure, but I’m very glad that I agreed to do it. It just makes sense to be as compliant as possible when you’re vulnerable with few rights.
Also understand that almost all teacher firings in Chicago’s suburban areas will be publicized as resignations. Often, administrators will “sell” teachers who are to be fired what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial arrangement: If the teacher resigns, rather than being terminated (“contract non-renewal”), then (they are told) the administration is free to give the ex-teacher a positive recommendation to future employers. It will appear, ironically enough for this series of articles especially, that the teachers in question made their own choices and independently determined that they no longer wanted to work at their schools; however, the reality is that most of them were forced to resign. I’m not sure why so many school districts insist on “resignations” as opposed to “dismissals,” but it does prevent the resigning teacher from claiming unemployment benefits. I would speculate as well that it makes administrators more secure when teachers they recommended in the first place resign “voluntarily” rather than terminations appearing on administrators’ records as evidence of poor hiring judgement. Anyway, for clarity’s sake, keep in mind that when a first or second-year teacher leaves a good school, it’s generally these forced resignations or because of declining enrollment which meant positions had to be cut. Of course, there are some new teachers who leave of their own accord, but for most of those, it’s because they don’t like teaching and want out. And some of those “resigning” teachers go on to become excellent instructors somewhere else—the learning curve in teaching is steep, and it just takes some longer to get the hang of it or for their immediate supervisors to recognize how good they are.
Need a scarier example? Okay, there was a first-year teacher I knew who had elective surgery done while school was in session, missing several days just one week before winter break. Yes, this person had every right to plan an absence when it worked best for that individual and no, it didn’t have to be over the holidays when no substitute or sick days would have been used; but needless to say the bosses were not happy with this decision. Was it a coincidence that this otherwise competent teacher was axed at the end of that first year? Nobody ever suggested taking time off right before break was the reason or even a contributing factor, but the non-tenured are held to different standards than the tenured since it is much easier to get rid of them—and they would be wise to keep that in mind. No, how someone reacted at a golf outing when an errant ball cracked a car windshield or how someone else might have been significantly inebriated at a school (staff only) social gathering should not have been a factor in either dismissal, but you know how persistent some of these stories become when two events merely by the oddest coincidence, coincide. (I have more inside knowledge on these topics than most teachers because of my different roles as a union officer; especially as grievance chair, I was privy to most of the job difficulties teachers in my bargaining unit were having.)
New teachers, therefore, need to be obedient and precise when it comes to all the objective factors of the job: Regular attendance, parental issues, promptness, agreeing to administrative requests, paperwork, submission of grades, student discipline, and getting along with your fellow teachers are just a few of the many public education rapids new teachers have to learn to negotiate. Take too many “psychological” sick days, have lots of parents calling your boss to complain, show up late often, refuse to be on committees your principal is forming, ignore or turn in late any of the endless forms others will demand you fill out, be extreme (high or low) with your grade distributions, send kids to the dean’s office too regularly for disciplinary reasons, or irritate those with whom you work every day; and you will increase the likelihood that you will get bounced from your school quickly. During my time, I witnessed otherwise decent young teachers fall prey to all of these examples. I’m sure this isn’t different for new people in any work situation; “fitting in” with the job culture of your specific workplace is an important task, especially when you’re the least senior employee.
My guess is that many of those emotional “I’m leaving the teaching job I love because the system is so messed up” articles we see every year come from younger teachers who just couldn’t play the low-person-on-the-totem-pole game that everybody has to endure. However, “I loved being a sales rep for an office supply company, but no one respected my creativity or new ideas so I quit” articles never get published since most readers would rightly consider the author of such a piece an idiotic prima donna who got exactly what he deserved. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but accepting the challenges of being new on the job and being smart about how you present yourself to those who make firing decisions are how things work everywhere, and public education is no different.
Thus, lesson one in becoming an independent teacher is to learn to be a good employee. (Granted, one of my favorite movie quotes of all time comes from Night after Night, when a hatcheck girl comments to Mae West, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” to which Mae responds, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” You can watch the scene here if you’ve never seen it.) As shown in that potential problems list above, where actual pedagogical ability never came up, it’s not really about teaching skills when you’re new; showing up, being on time, not leaving early, not making waves, and acting interested and smiling whenever one of your bosses deigns to speak to you will not turn your struggling students into Advanced Placement scholars. These are hardly educationally crucial or brilliant insights, but you’d be surprised how often people simply ignore common sense and adopt a pre-Copernican view of the cosmos (that the universe revolves around them) when it comes to their jobs. Especially before they have established themselves as reliable or achieved tenure in places where it is still granted, younger teachers need to be perceived as steady and compliant. And that “steady” necessity is true for all teachers who want to be less compliant as their careers go on.
Once teachers have learned how the system works (not to mention earning tenure in places where that is applicable), it is then time for them to take more charge of their worlds. In upcoming articles, we’ll begin detailing how teachers can be masters of their domains, regardless of the silly, wasteful, expensive, and/or destructive procedural, political, and/or technological hail storms they will inevitably have to endure.
As we begin 2016 with a new federal public education policy in place (The Every Student Succeeds Act, which we’ll take a more detailed look at in the near future), it seems appropriate to review that which preceded it: recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s last seven years as Washington’s education leader.
It’s important to recognize and be transparent about one’s biases right from the start: As a retired junior high and high school English teacher of thirty-three years, I have been a supporter of Barak Obama from the time he was a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois. In many ways—health care, energy, economic directions, equal rights issues, gun control, tax code, and many other domestic policies—I believe he has done an excellent job, or at least (in the case of gun control, specifically) articulated a view with which I agree. His foreign policy has seemed much less successful to me; but my expertise there is minimal at best, and it’s debatable just how much one leader can influence the world in this day and age. His greatest failing during his two terms in office, however (from my vantage point at least), has been how federal education policy was managed by his appointee, Arne Duncan.
The problems with the previous administration’s key education initiative, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, were clearly understood and negatively impacting schools when Duncan took over in 2009. Basically, school districts were required to use standardized testing to determine how well they were doing, with schools considered “Failing,” if a single sub-group population of students (based on race, special needs, and/or economic status—often representing a very small percentage of all a school’s students) did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on those tests, with the standard for AYP being set by the federal government. By 2014, 100% of all students were to be achieving at the “meets or exceeds standards” level on these tests, regardless of the fact that each year a different set of students would be taking the tests. (One-twelfth of the students from the previous year would have graduated, for example, meaning that the overall group would be at least 8% changed from one year to the next.) Regardless of the specifics of NCLB, the law pushed schools in the direction of using standardized tests as created by for-profit companies as the single most important metric in evaluating how effective or “good” a school was. Again, my biases shine through, but I believe a school as excellent as Hinsdale South High School (where I worked for twenty-five years) being rated as “failing” several years in a row based on NCLB, shows just how misguided this policy was.
Enter Duncan in 2009 with a clear mandate to address NCLB’s problems. But, instead of attempting to rectify the obvious failures of NCLB’s direction, he increased the importance of outside influences on schools with his Race to the Top program which doled out federal money only to schools deemed deserving based on criteria such as tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests—making them even more important to school districts than they had been previously. More Duncan policies were pushing schools to adopt standards created by those with no understanding of or experience with specific schools (the Common Core), as well as encouraging for-profit corporations to take over public schools, greatly increasing the number of charters in the country. The term, “Corporate Reform,” basically describes Duncan’s philosophy: More centralized control of schools achieved through weakening teachers’ rights and local school boards’ power in order to give state and federal governments more say in how schools are run. The goal was to use data (standardized tests) to identify poor-performing teachers, principals, and schools so that those resources could be redirected to privately run charters. Vouchers and tax credits were also favored, in theory so that parents could have more choice in which school received their tax revenue. Under some proposals along these lines, public funds could even be spent on private or parochial schools.
In short, Duncan presided over a period of the federal government’s trying to make public schools more like private businesses. If a business provides a good product (by Duncan’s criteria for schools, high standardized test scores and low costs), then it will attract more customers (parents who want their children to attend that school). If the product is inferior (poor test scores or high costs), the company (school) should go out of business (close) to be replaced by those who will do a better job using a different business model (privately run charter schools funded with public funds) and fostering more competition for customers (parents shopping for schools among different charter and public school options).
Although there have been a few positives with this model—high school graduation rates have increased, and there have been modest improvements on some standardized test scores—overall, Duncan did not improve education in America. For every small gain, there have been much larger losses. Excessive standardized testing has led to a narrowing of schools’ curriculums, especially since only English and math tests counted when evaluating a school’s worth. Art, music, and physical education programs have suffered, with some schools dropping elective courses and even programs. Teachers now spend way too much time trying to prepare students for these tests, despite believing test prep to be a poor use of class time. And the results have shown little improvement in the test scores in comparison to other countries, many of whom do significantly less testing.
In the meantime, tests have stressed everyone, while enriching testing companies. Teacher dissatisfaction—difficult to measure accurately, I will concede—seems to have increased. My direct evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I do come from a teaching family and have had contact over the years with hundreds of teachers; and from what I’ve seen, teachers are significantly unhappier now than they were twenty years ago. And some evidence of this has cropped up in recent years as the baby-boom generation of teachers has retired. Many school districts are having difficulty in finding capable replacements as the profession of teaching has suffered the erosion of hard-earned rights and status in the public’s eyes with many outside “experts” attacking tenure as a refuge for incompetent, lazy slackers. The Common Core has also negatively influenced schools as teachers were compelled to change successful methods and programs in order to comply with what the experts had determined was “better.” One of the poorly understood aspects of Duncan’s granting schools waivers from meeting the aforementioned AYP targets of NCLB was his then being able to pressure schools into adopting the common core—the federal government’s “ransom” for not enforcing the unrealistic goals set for all schools by those completely unfamiliar with them.
Teachers’ feelings of powerlessness, lack of respect, and not being valued have increased to the point where many of my former colleagues are simply serving their time until retirement, encouraging students to stay away from the teaching profession, and/or leaving the field entirely for better working conditions and pay. The steady progress teachers made in the 1980s and 90s has given way to stagnation and regression. And despite all the time, effort, and billions of dollars spent on these federal initiatives, neither Race to the Top nor Common Core has improved public education for students, teachers, or parents.
In short, very few in the education field are sorry to see Arne Duncan go. That’s not to say that he was evil or bigoted or mean-spirited (unlike several of the current Republican Presidential candidates), but he pushed our schools in a negative direction. (And you really observant readers will notice how I’ve loosed my avalanche of criticism on Duncan, as though President Obama had nothing to do with this. He clearly has, and I do believe it has been his major shortcoming.) As mentioned earlier, we’ll take a look at the new federal law passed last month in the coming weeks, and it’s way too soon to evaluate the new Secretary of Education (who will probably be in office barely a year anyway); but Arne Duncan’s legacy (with Obama’s imprimatur) is not one that many will see in a positive way.
If you would like to see more analysis of Duncan’s seven years in office, you can check out the following sources, listed here by their publisher: The American Spectator, The Nation, Vox, Socialist Worker, The New York Times, this one from The Washington Post, and another one from The Washington Post. For more analysis of positive directions for public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools—you can find entire chapters here.
In this article from the blog section of the American Enterprise Institute, Nat Malkus describes a study he worked on while at the National Center for Education Statistics which found that teacher autonomy has declined in the last ten years. From 2003 to 2012, there was a statistically significant drop in teachers’ perception of how much control they have in their classrooms. In 2003, 18% of teachers felt they had low levels of autonomy, 65% responded they had moderate autonomy, and 17% believed their autonomy was high. By 2013, those numbers had changed to 26% low, 61% moderate, with only 12% claiming a high degree of autonomy in how their classes were run.
As we’ve been discussing for the past couple of blog entries (see this article and this one), teacher independence (another term for autonomy) is a crucial factor in making public education succeed. The trend, of course, has been for outside, non-teacher influences to grab more and more decision-making authority from teachers, attempting to reduce teachers to little more than clerks who follow the orders of those “smarter” than they. Micro-managing school boards, state mandates, federal programs, media stars, and wealthy hobbyists have all taken shots at trying to take control of classrooms, with varying degrees of impact. None of them has succeed in making education better, however; only dedicated, enthusiastic teachers who believe in what they are doing can inspire our kids to learn and achieve. But studies such as this one make it clear that the outsiders are succeeding in one thing—discouraging teachers.
It’s important also to consider the source of this particular blog—the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the most conservative, pro-business think tanks in the country. Among its stands include challenging the veracity of human-induced climate change, supporting voter picture ID legislation (which has been shown to decrease minority groups’ participation in elections), and opposition to minimum wage increases. Normally, you would be safe in assuming that I would be on the opposite side of any AEI position; when it comes to political thought, I have very little in common with this group. But that polar opposites like AEI and me can agree that the trends on teacher autonomy are alarmingly negative speaks loudly to the problems that public education faces.
An overused and not always applicable modern cliché is that until you recognize the problem, you can’t begin to address it, but with an issue as large as teacher autonomy/independence, it does take a long time to affect practices and acknowledging the issue has to be where we start. Because of the glacial pace at which the thousands of public school districts/bureaucracies in the U.S. can implement any changes to how things are done, we have to hammer home certain basic truths over and over until a large enough majority can exert its will to try to push the massive bulk of school systems in positive directions. For the last twenty years, most of the pushing has been toward more centralized decision making, into the hands of fewer people.
In the case of public education policy, the power to make changes in the form of laws and mandated procedures has become increasingly concentrated with politicians, who are in turn influenced by large campaign contributors. And in the last few years, campaign finance law has devolved to the point that money is considered a form of protected speech when it comes to contributions to SuperPacs and the like. Single individuals can, and have, summoned Presidential candidates to their homes for auditions not unlike beauty pageants to determine who merits their largesse. One person can donate enough money to keep any candidate in the election process, despite lack of interest from actual voters. Hence, many public education government programs in recent years have been influenced by these wealthy contributors. Granted, the corrupting power of money has always been part of American politics, so this process is hardly new, but the degree to which our current laws have impacted how our system works has been significant. I happen to believe it’s significantly awful and would love to see the Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission overturned tomorrow. I’ve wandered a bit, as you can see, but Citizens United is just one more point where my view is the antithesis of what AEI would advocate.
Which leads us back to our rare area of agreement: Declining teacher independence is hurting public education. Unfortunately, few others have acknowledged this as a key issue affecting our schools. This lack of awareness has led me to the conclusion that the best way to fight this erosion is for teachers to take back their power, one classroom and one teacher at a time. Yes, this will entail disobedience, stealth, and work arounds; but the stakes are too high for teachers to ignore the issue or quit teaching entirely. That teacher shortages are starting to crop up in some areas of the country (see this for more) suggests that frustration in the faculty room is boiling over. But leaving the profession doesn’t solve the problem; I believe it only makes it worse as the replacements for those who quit will be in an even worse position to do anything about it. What we need is a strategy that teachers can implement on their own, without the permission of those trying to steal their authority, who would never willingly allow teachers to assert themselves.
This quiet revolution starts with teachers recognizing that many of the problems in their work lives come from others trying to control what they do and their beliefs that they know better how to educate their kids. Teachers not afraid of the inherent challenges of teaching have to be able to separate those necessary hard things (like grading papers or dealing with uncooperative parents) from those imposed by outsiders that have done nothing to improve public education, only adding futile workloads on the backs of teachers (standardized testing emphasis, Common Core mandates, and Response to Intervention components of No Child Left Behind). Even those negative programs have some saving graces—some of the standards proscribed in Common Core have led staffs to look more closely at existing standards and revise them for the better—which only proves that teachers are willing to listen to ideas from others, adapt them to their unique situations, and move their students forward.
Nobody here is suggesting that outside influences and input should be eliminated from public schools; instead, those wanting to help need to understand their goal has to be to convince teachers of the worth of their concepts. Simply buying enough influence to get puppet politicians to enact legislative mandates is not only the wrong way to effect change, but ultimately a waste of money as those changes won’t last as resentful, uncooperative teachers will undermine and eventually kill any program which they find not in the best interests of their situation. We’ve gone over and over the truism that until teachers are on board, nothing really positive or lasting can take place, but that basic lesson seems impossible for these brilliant, wealthy, politically connected people to understand. Even if these programs do have some value—of which most of them do have at least a scintilla—unless teachers believe in them as well, they will crash and burn. Then, the brilliant outsiders (with some justification) will blame the teachers for the waste of time and money, and then attack teacher rights, such as collective bargaining and unions, leading to the dysfunctional mess we have been creating for many years now.
All sides need to work together, to cooperate, and to accept the importance of each player’s role in the process before public education can function as well as it is supposed to work. Right now, teachers have been relegated to a minor, walk-on, no-lines parts in the public education movie; and many of them are just walking off the set. Periodically throughout the next year, we’ll suggest ways for those underappreciated extras to start pushing back, to help their kids without caving to idiotic procedures and unworkable programs created by the well-intentioned but ignorant non-teachers who believe they know all because they have accumulated billions of dollars or millions of votes. Eventually, the tide will turn and teachers won’t have to sneak, rebel, or resort to passive-aggressive behaviors. Until that time, however, we all need to work to help them hang on to what autonomy they still have and to encourage them to find ways to educate our kids that work best for the unique situations in which they all exist.
We’ll be back in the new year, but until then, Snowflake Schools would like to wish you and yours a safe, happy holiday season. And if you’re looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer for the public education fan on your list, you can always check out Snowflake Schools, the book, excerpts of which can be found here. Thanks and we’ll see you next year.
Last time, I humiliated myself by parodying one of America’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence, changing it to reflect some of the concerns teachers have in the age of accountability, corporate reform, and billionaire hobbyists. As the outside forces of federal mandates, state edicts, media stars, and business moguls (who believe the complex issues of educating a diverse population can be reduced to the simplicity of supplying mosquito nets to malaria-ridden areas of Africa) continue their various campaigns to “improve” education by wresting control and decision-making authority away from teachers, I do believe (all deference to Thomas Jefferson aside) that the time has come for teachers to take matters into their own hands. Although I am no longer in their ranks, having retired in 2012 after teaching English for thirty-three years in a junior high (eight years) and a high school (twenty-five), I feel qualified to comment on this issue having spent my career confronting or working around those who felt they knew better than I did how to run my classroom.
Those qualifications have to remain somewhat veiled out of respect for my bosses still in education with whom I worked (I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble) as well as not wanting to come across as overly arrogant about my “accomplishments.” Suffice it to say that I regularly publicly disagreed with my department chairs, assistant principals, principals, assistant superintendents (including human resource heads), superintendents, and school boards. There were also many times that I engaged in more hidden passive aggressiveness, where I would tacitly agree to something I had absolutely no intention of doing by not voicing my disagreement or intent of non-compliance at a meeting or institute. I am neither proud of my public stands nor ashamed of my unvoiced opposition—I did what I thought was in the best interests (in absolutely this order) of myself and my family, my students, my fellow teachers, my school, and my profession. I had no desire to be a heroic martyr, and I was always aware of the need to protect myself from disciplinary actions, especially those that might lead to my dismissal. I tried to walk the line between unflinching advocacy and fearful compliance, sometimes with more success than others.
So I get angry when I read about good teachers who have abandoned teaching because of the current environment, which they find toxic. Yes, I’m miffed at the silly procedures and ridiculous attacks these teachers say led them to quit, but I’m mostly pissed at them for giving up. After they leave, their students still need strong advocates who will fight to provide them with the best education possible. When they’re gone, those idiotic mandates and goofy evaluation procedures will still be in place. Their being in a different profession won’t change the Common Core, low salaries, administrative harassment, tenure elimination, standardized test mania, or erosion of collective bargaining/union rights. If anything, their quitting will make all of that worse since their replacements won’t have either the savvy or the experience to do anything but say, “Thank you, may I have another,” as public education’s reformers continue to paddle teachers relentlessly. I can understand teachers who left so they can provide for their families better or if they just hated teaching, but it especially irks me when they write of what wonderful teachers they were and how much they loved teaching, but the big, bad (fill in the name of whatever educational villain you prefer—standardized tests, outside interference, Koch brothers, or administrative meddling, to name a few) pushed them out.
So what we need is for dedicated, hard-working, skilled teachers to stay in the profession, not run away just because Bill Gates or Arne Duncan or their ambitious principal or their unreasonable school board isn’t being cooperative. Teachers need to recognize that this is a battle that has been going on since the “good” old days when some of their early ancestors had to board with a different school family every week, were forbidden to marry, and had to get permission to leave the school community on weekends (see these historical documents from a school district in Iowa, circa 1905, for more). Teachers have had to advocate for better treatment for hundreds of years, so we need to understand that this is a long-term battle and every soldier lost makes our side that much weaker overall. We need teachers who are willing to stand up for what they believe and push for school systems to do the right things, or at the very least, teachers who will work the system so they can quietly do what they think is best.
But first teachers need to believe that they are the key to public education, and that their unique skills and personalities should be allowed to mix with all the other factors that go into a classroom in ways that allow those skills and personalities to help kids learn. Of course there need to be standards, responsibility, and transparency; but first and foremost, there has to be recognition by everyone that there are as many ways to run an effective lesson as there are teachers. Outside experts and politicians have worked hard in the last decade to perpetuate the myth that single approaches or methods will work for all situations. Teachers must challenge that lie every time it rears its misshapen head to interfere with the truth: Teachers know better than anyone what is best for their students, and that “best” will be different for every teacher. Anyone who does more than suggest what teachers might do or insists that one way is the only way is an enemy of public education, pure and simple.
Yes, we need lots of new ideas, techniques, technological advances, theories, and whatever else we creative humans can think of in order to help children learn in our ever-changing world. That will never stop being necessary, but teachers must be allowed to act as gatekeepers for what is allowed through into their classrooms. Just because something works for some teachers doesn’t mean it will work for all. How much more evidence do we need that top-down directives will not work, given the failure of every single school reform movement that didn’t provide the option for teachers to pick and choose, to adapt and modify, to make concepts their own?
Obviously, there is no amount of evidence that will prove this to the zealots who “know” just what needs to be done; thus the need for teachers to do what they know to be best, experts be damned. The road to quality public schools begins with Teacher Independence, and teachers need to demand that independence for themselves.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy for many teachers who flourished as students, doing well on standardized tests, obeying their teachers, and in general being what in my generation was called “a goodie goodie” (or kiss-up, brown noser, suck up, or whatever current idiom works for you—and yes, I was Exhibit A of this genus). When you’ve historically been teacher’s pet and then become a teacher, your first inclination is to stick with what worked when you excelled in the elementary grades, high school, and college—don’t make waves, do as you are told, and be as agreeable as possible no matter what the teacher or professor says. As a union activist for most of my teaching career, I can’t tell you how many times I struggled to get teachers to stand up for their rights. And regardless of the strength of the union’s position, there would always be a significant number of teachers who wouldn’t step forward to help out because to do so might make administrators and school board members “mad.”
Most employees seek approval from their bosses, but my sense is that teachers are especially prone to avoiding as much controversy as possible, despite many having significant protections against job discipline in the form of due process. Be that as it may, the road to improving teacher independence has to begin with teachers confronting their own need for approval and challenging themselves to speak up on their own behalf. As I’ve already pointed out, I do have some experience with this personally, but there’s no magic formula for transforming approval-seeking mice into assertive lions. (For me, that transition occurred when I was given a termination letter four of my first five years in teaching, despite excellent evaluations, just so the school board wouldn’t have to rush to determine if my position would be necessary the next year, even though they were about 99.9% sure it would be. The first time they did this, nobody could even be bothered to call to let me know that I would have a job the next year when they finally decided I would.) I do, however, have many suggestions, ideas, and techniques for helping the assertively challenged which we’ll go over in the months ahead. To warm up for now, I would ask teachers to consider my basic premise—Nobody knows better than you how to run your class. Repeat that a few dozen times every day. If that doesn’t work, then review all those pointless, worthless “tips” some supposed expert has provided for you to reinforce how clueless those clowns are, and we’ll continue with Teacher Independence 101 next time.
For more on helping teachers to assume their rightful place as the leaders in any school improvement movements, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools. You can read excerpts at this website.
Rise above the Mark is a film sponsored by the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation and created to counter some of the testing and accountability frenzy which has taken over much of education over the past decade. (Information about the documentary can be found at https://riseabovethemark.com/.)
The film was released a year ago and is slowly gathering some interest as illustrated by these two articles—one from the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vicki-cobb/education-reform-and-evid_b_5947980.html) and one from the IndyStar (http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/02/28/rise-above-the-mark-film-sparks-education-debate-/5918459/).
It is interesting that the term “school reform” has taken on such extreme connotations that the debate featured in the IndyStar article puts the issue in terms of those in favor of school reform versus those against. I had always thought that anyone who felt that public education could benefit from changes was considered a “reformer,” but apparently, those in favor of more standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and a more business-oriented approach to our schools have completely taken over the “reformer” label. Rise above the Mark makes the case that we are spending way too much time, effort, and money teaching to, preparing for, taking, grading, and fretting over standardized tests. Hey, testers, leave those schools alone!
I support this movement wholeheartedly. To try to condense what a student knows into a timed, multiple-choice test seems ludicrous to the extreme. Yes, the results do allow us to cast aspersions on schools that don’t score well, but what does that achieve besides forcing low-scoring schools to waste more class time preparing for the tests? Basically, standardized testing has become an end unto itself, rather than one of MANY different measures of how much a student has learned. And they have become a huge negative in that they don’t help schools to improve, instead simply ranking them so that people who know little about teaching or education can sit in judgment on them. Plus, schools are then pressured into diverting their limited resources into experts and materials that claim to have the magic formula for instant “success” (defined solely in terms of test scores).
That a school system in Indiana would find the pressure of standardized testing so negative that it would make a movie asking for relief tells you the problems that our over-reliance on testing have created. It is certainly refreshing to see that some educational supporters are taking steps to alleviate some of that stress. I haven’t seen Rise above the Mark, yet, but I certainly plan to and applaud its attempt to shift our focus back to students and learning rather than multiple-guess boondoggles for the testing companies.
At my daughter’s junior high school’s September Open House, we parents were inundated with how the Common Core standards have impacted the curriculum. For example, in two classes, workbooks based on the Common Core were replacing previously used texts. My older daughter’s high school’s most-recent newsletter featured a front-page story explaining how the Math Common Core will, “show students how math is relevant to the real world.” And with its full implementation set for the 2013-2014 school year in Illinois, you can be sure that the Common Core standards will be dominating our schools in the near future. The question, of course, is whether or not this is a step in the right direction for schools and students.
The Common Core got its start in 2009 when the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers started working on standards in English and math, trying to cull the myriad of skills most school systems were attempting to teach down to a more manageable number. They also strove to increase the rigor of these standards to push students to achieve more in-depth knowledge earlier in their school careers. The federal government has encouraged the move to the Common Core by doling out funds from Race to the Top grants and waivers from No Child Left Behind laws to states which adopt the Core. There are also hundreds of millions being spent on the development of standardized, computer-based tests which will assess student achievement based on the standards of the Core.
This focus on standards is a positive development. Standards need to be in place at each and every school in order to give teachers and students goals. Without something specific to achieve, we all tend to waver and waffle in our resolve to get anything done. Just “losing weight” isn’t enough for most of us; we want to drop ten, twenty, or (“None of your damn business!”) pounds. Clear, explicit standards, then, are one of the cornerstones of any school system, and the Common Core certainly emphasizes them. Placing standards front and center is a solid achievement for the Common Core.
And most of us would be hard-pressed to find fault with those goals. These were taken from the English Writing standards for 9th-10th grades (my area of expertise having taught ninth graders English for twenty-five years): “Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.” Then there’s, “Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.” No English teacher I ever knew would question whether those standards (or the dozens of others which have been created) were worthwhile and useful.
Now I am not an expert on teaching arithmetic, but the math standards also sound good, at least to the untrained ear. Here are a couple, also from the 9th-10th grades section: “Explain each step in solving a simple equation as following from the equality of numbers asserted at the previous step, starting from the assumption that the original equation has a solution. Construct a viable argument to justify a solution method.” And, “Represent a system of linear equations as a single matrix equation in a vector variable.” My math qualifications cause me to question whether I even picked a decent subcategory from which to take those two standards, but the number of categories from kindergarten through twelfth grade makes it very clear that we’ve got some serious standards here. The National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices, Education Division, has done good work in creating both publicity around the need for standards and excellent model standards for schools. (You can check out all the standards for yourself at http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards).
And that’s pretty much where my praise for the Common Core ends. Everything else about it—including Education Department Secretary Arne Duncan’s self-serving appearance during The Colbert Report on September 18—is designed to remove control from teachers and place it in the hands of those who don’t know or understand the very classrooms they are supposedly improving. Sure it’s a laudable objective for students to “assess the usefulness” of their sources for a research paper, but once you’ve established that subjective standard, you have to empower your teachers to make their own determinations on how well students achieve that goal—it simply cannot be done with standardized tests, much less standardized tests developed by corporations which will be used to evaluate teachers, to allocate school funding, and to rank a school system as good or failing. (Not to mention the $350,000,000 which has been given to two companies to develop these tests.)
By tying these standards to grants and funding through its Race to the Top initiative, the federal government has essentially pushed the forty-plus states (including Illinois) that adopted the Common Core to assess these standards in inappropriate ways. How could any standardized test possibly determine in an objective manner whether or not millions of students are “using advanced searches effectively” for a research paper? There are many idiosyncratic or impossible-to-observe factors which would render any test on this fragment of a single standard virtually useless. (The quality of the student’s thesis, the availability of information on that topic, the access the student had to on-line sources, and how many bogus or biased sources the student had been able to recognize and reject would be a few of the assessment challenges I would raise based on this one phrase.) And realize that I enthusiastically endorse this standard as a good one for students to strive to achieve. We’re just not able to assess that type of goal on a “macro” level, and to pretend we can creates a fatal flaw in the whole endeavor.
Once the “experts” absurdly claim to be able to assess that which can’t be assessed with a standardized test, they cast a shadow on those terrific standards themselves: “How can we take this thing seriously?” many educators, who have seen this kind of thing over and over again during their careers, reason. “If they are delusional enough to force us to test millions of students’ ability to ‘establish clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence,’ using a single objective test, obviously they don’t understand what their standards are requiring students be able to do. If the disconnect between the standards and competent assessment of those standards is that large, this must be another of those ‘can’t miss’ educational reforms doomed to crash and burn. Eventually it will fade away, just like ‘Back to Basics,’ ‘Whole Language,’ ‘Authentic Assessment,’ ‘Portfolios,’ or countless other expensive ‘can’t miss’ initiatives slowly disappeared.”
And to harass the very teachers we want to educate our children with evaluations based on how well their students score on standardized tests is idiotic. We’ve got to get beyond seeing teachers as these low-level, easily replaceable technicians who simply need to work harder in order to make our demands a reality. Teaching is difficult enough without having outside experts looking over teachers’ shoulders as if those experts were the only ones who have any answers to the challenges our schools face. Unless teachers are included as partners, not underlings, in any reform process, the Core will never have any significant impact, except for wasting teachers’ time and billions of dollars (much of which will wind up in the pockets of…that’s right, the experts).
I understand that everybody wants to hold schools and their employees accountable since we spend so much money on education, but we also have to hold ourselves accountable for understanding our school systems and expending effort to become involved in them if we really want accountability. It has to be a two-way flow, with community members learning about their schools so they can comprehend the challenges each unique situation presents. Currently, most of us sit back in ignorance, insisting schools perform at levels set by outsiders who know nothing about specific schools. Nobody would accept this detached arrogance in any other profession.
Imagine if doctors were treated the same way: Some outside agency would create ideal health objectives for everyone, and we would evaluate how good a doctor or hospital was based on whether or not patients achieved those ideals. Never mind that the patients were subsisting on diets of Cheetos, donuts, and tobacco or if they were living in a country which devoted few resources to health care; if they had excessive cases of heart disease, lung cancer, or malaria, it would be the doctors’ fault. If physicians had done a better job, fewer people would have suffered. But since they (the doctors) didn’t conquer these problems, despite no effort from the patients or governments (or input from the doctors), we would rank the doctors as deficient, no matter how hard they were actually working.
Much better would be to recognize that we’re all partners in this enterprise, that we all have to participate in cooperative, congenial ways to help everyone do better. Of course we have to make sure our teachers work hard to help their students achieve important goals, but we can’t create idealistic standards and criticize from the sidelines as teachers scramble to meet them. There has to be a more holistic approach that involves all the players: students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, schools boards, and local/state/federal governments. “It takes a village to raise a child,” has become a truism we all like to espouse; but when it comes to educating our children, we expect teachers to leap obediently through any and all hoops experts hang while we do little besides critiquing their efforts should a test, created by people who have never been in our school based on standards written by still others ignorant of our situation, determine the students haven’t learned enough. With something as important as educating our kids, that approach won’t cut it.
The Common Core has characteristics that we should applaud: Its focus on standards and the standards created could assist schools in seeking more positive outcomes for students. But using standardized tests to assess things they can never assess, ranking schools and teachers based on those faulty tests, and ignoring the importance of the larger community’s need to participate as partners with the schools in achieving those standards undermine the positives in fundamental ways. If we don’t change the accountability-heavy bias of this program with its treatment of teachers as peons to be ordered about while the pharaohs of governments and experts act as judges on America’s Got Talent or Hell’s Kitchen, the Core will rot as so many other reforms have. The kernels of positive change lurk in this misguided plan, but we must rescue those seeds before they are all scattered on the expensive, infertile ground currently being tilled.