The Quagmire of Education Reform

Is there any better word to describe education reform today than quagmire? Can anyone deny that the mixed messages, rules, “guidelines,” and financing formulae contrived by education reformers have resulted in “a perilous, mixed-up and troubled situation”?

My biggest concern with current education reform is that it involves so few educators with any classroom experience. Am I qualified to regulate the auto industry just because I’ve ridden in cars all my life and am a pretty decent driver? Clearly not, yet others seem to be using that logic to justify their involvement in education reform. After all, most of the reformers have spent years in school and really believe they know what will make our schools better.

Since there is a lot of talk about the “factory model” of education, let’s think about that for a moment. Have you ever taken a behind-the-scenes tour of a factory or watched a craftsman create a piece from start to finish? If so, you likely said, “I didn’t know all that went into making (whatever).” The same is true of education. If you have never spent time in a real, operating classroom (and I’m not talking about countless tours of schools that provide great photos ops and sound bites), if you have never been the person responsible for educating students, then you may not realize the impact relationships and factors unrelated to curriculum have on instruction and achievement.

Building relationships with students takes time. Sometimes that time looks (to the outsider) as frivolously used, wasted time, yet “fun” is a great relationship builder. Often teachers are told all their time MUST be spent on INSTRUCTION – instruction that will yield results on an accountability model that clearly assesses isolated, factual knowledge, with NO consideration of thinking, problem-solving, creativity or affective development. They are told they must post their lesson plans so anyone entering the room will know what should be happening and criticized if what is happening does not match the written plan. This criticism often happens in writing, without any opportunity to explain why the lesson deviation occurred and creates a culture of defensiveness.

Time, unfortunately, is a finite quantity, and teachers are often placed in an untenable position. If they do what they know is right for students but deviate from the system-sanctioned, system-monitored guidelines, they jeopardize their jobs. The fact that (in too many places) teachers are held strictly accountable to pacing “guides” that no human could adequately teach to mastery is not addressed. The curriculum is king in public schools, anointed by the politicians, and the test is the evil enforcer. Even though the most successful charter schools provide wrap-around services that address the underlying problems of poverty and parenting, these elements often get short shrift in public school in favor of content curriculum and “the test.”

Which brings me to my second biggest concern about current educational reform – the charter movement. A bedrock premise of charter schools is the ability to do things more innovatively by cutting the red tape that ties the hands of public school practitioners.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to Ron Clark address the Tennessee LEAD audience. Throughout his engaging, entertaining speech, I couldn’t help but mentally juxtapose his out-of-the-box, creative, connected, relationship-rich philosophy against the rigid strictures by which public school teachers must operate. Those rigid strictures are IMPOSED on teachers by the governmental bodies – be they local, state, or federal – who deride and demean teachers for the results of education within those systems then laud the performance of isolated charter schools who have been exempted from many of the outside constraints.

Ron Clark would likely wither in a public school environment today. The first time he jumped on a desk or disturbed the class next door by frequent chanting, the documentation trail of his “deficiencies” would begin. He would be beat down by warnings to conform and driven to leave as many of our best teachers are. Oh wait, that already happened. He left the public schools to create a rich environment with rich resources and tons of parental involvement – an environment that is not driven by a state test.

I realize Ron Clark worked in a difficult public school setting, but he was very fortunate to work with quality administrators who allowed his gifts to shine. Plop him down in another setting with a rule-following, conformist administrator with no tolerance of his antics and ideas, and he could just as easily have been hounded out of the profession.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the ideas behind Ron Clark’s school. I completely believe that students can perform well on assessments if teachers provide rich, high quality learning experiences. But rich, high quality learning experiences take time – time that is not available to most public school teachers, particularly since teachers are not the people in charge of allocating how time is spent. When district guidelines mandate teachers cover WW I in four days (and monitor to make sure you keep pace with the other teachers), there isn’t much time for implementing rich, high quality learning experiences. Nor is there much time allocated for designing these rich, high quality assignments. As I visit schools, I see almost every moment of the school day consumed by assigned tasks. Personal planning time is very rare in many places. During planning time, teachers hold data meetings, serve some kind of assigned duty, meet with parents, etc. Almost every day has a prescribed use of planning time. Is it any wonder that some teachers fall back on letting the textbook guide instruction and use “canned” lessons of questionable quality?

Let me be clear. I believe teachers have become the scapegoat de jour for the ills created by others. That is not to say they are blame free nor that there aren’t bad teachers who need to be removed. I am saying teachers are not the sole cause for the mess in education today, yet they are being abandoned to sink in the quagmire of reform efforts that often conflict with each other. Which leads me to my final point.

As teachers, teacher-leaders, and concerned others, we have GOT to overcome the passivity that seems pervasive among teachers. I see so much blind acceptance of all that is imposed from above and way too much “this, too, shall pass” attitude that urges people to keep their heads down and stay out of the line of fire. If we don’t like the changes, we have GOT to become more vocal and communicate our objections and the reasons upon which we base those objections. We have GOT to showcase our successes more than the failures. We have GOT to get past grumbling and complaining to actually taking a stand and DOING something to change the situation.

That will be hard for many teachers. We can’t forget, particularly in these economic times, that many teachers rely on their paychecks to support families and can’t afford to rock the boat too much. That’s one reason they are so vulnerable to the misguided dictates of rich reformers. Teachers’ commitment to students is another vulnerability. When politicians say it’s OK to take away pre-planning days and furlough teachers without pay before school starts because the teachers “will work anyway,” they are blatantly taking advantage of many teachers’ sense of commitment to the well-being of their students.

It’s a real dilemma.

There are no easy solutions to reforming education, but we, the teachers, need to be at the table whenever possible. That might sometimes mean we need to crash a party to which we are not invited. Becoming more vocal can only help. Participating in the REBEL Education Reform day of blogging is a start. Let’s strive to escape the quagmire of current reform by adding our common sense ideas to the conversation and put education back on solid ground.

Thank you, Tom Whitby, for organizing this day of blogging for education reform.

Explore posts in the same categories: Reflections

One Comment on “The Quagmire of Education Reform”

  1. Austin Boehm Says:

    Hi Nancy,
    I first stumbled across your twitter account today, which led me here…it looks like you haven’t updated this in a while, but hopefully this goes through to you as an email!

    I’m a former math teacher in a low-income and low-performing environment, and what you said about hearing Ron Clark speak resonated directly with me. As part of my current job I get to explore teacher blogs on Fridays to seek out innovative teachers and strategies to spread to more classrooms around the country – with an eye toward educators who are working to transcend “canned” lessons and move toward an attitude that aims to transform learning and create exciting opportunities for students, regardless of the quagmire that surrounds!

    Reading this post, your blog and your twitter, I wanted to let you know about Sokikom, which is an online tool teachers use to (1) streamline classroom management, and (2) differentiate math instruction. Sokikom is free product built based on the feedback from teachers and U.S. Department of Education research grants. As I read your blog it seemed like you might be interested…so I thought I’d pass it along. We’ve gotten an incredible amount of feedback from teachers using Sokikom, but are always looking for new suggestions as well, so if you decide to give it a try, please don’t hesitate to reach out me personally with questions or feedback! I think your deep and engaged perspective on the landscape that faces teachers would be incredibly insightful for us to learn from.

    I hope your week is going well, and have a great weekend!

    Austin Boehm, Director of Teacher Happiness

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