With reform policies based more on hope than data, you might think educators would speak up more than do. Why don’t they? Here’s some thoughts about why most stay quiet, from Robert Bligh, former general counsel of the Nebraska Association of School Boards. Bligh’s research interest involves the efficacy of the school reform efforts promoted by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act since its original adoption in 1965. He served as assistant professor at Doane College and was editor
and publisher of the Nebraska School Law Reporter.
Many public policies – especially those established at the federal level – seem to be riddled with “reasons” that are based more on hope than data. No category of public policies fits this description better than America’s public policies on K-12 education. About 37 years ago, when I became the first agency legal counsel at the Nebraska Department of Education, I began to suspect that K-12 teachers and their schools were being held responsible for things that were completely beyond their reach. Most of what I have observed since about K-12 education has supported that suspicion.
Federal statutes governing public education have been based more on hope than data since at least 1965. That was the year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act(ESEA) was adopted as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” ESEA’s fundamental approach was to order teachers and schools to solve a host of non-education social problems that all other social institutions – especially families and churches – had failed to solve. ESEA — better known in its current form as No Child Left Behind — and its legislative progeny have all failed. All of the problems have gotten worse rather than better.
I have long been surprised that these irrational policies have been adopted and readopted without serious objection by most education practitioners. Educators could say all of the following:
1. To Parents: “If you effectively raise your children before you send them to school, we can teach most of them. If you do not, we cannot.”
2. To Legislators: “Do not order us to repair the developmental damage that is done to children before they reach school age. We cannot do so and pretending otherwise wastes resources, damages K-12 education and does nothing to help those utterly innocent children who need it (and deserve it) most.”
3. To Reformers: “Academic achievement gaps, robust and intractable, are well-established long before the first day of kindergarten. Those gaps are not caused by teachers and cannot be fixed by teachers. What you like to call ‘reforming’ schools does nothing to help children who spend their first five years living in inadequate, often chaotic, households. If you want to help those children, you must do something to change those households. Any other approach is foolish, wasteful and destined to fail.”
Educators could say those things, but, with rare exceptions, they do not. Consider the following speculation as a possible way to explain why educators are mostly silent when their profession is slandered by politicians and pundits and crippled by irrational public policies.
I suspect that those people who are attracted to the teaching profession strongly tend to be much more humanely motivated than the rest of us. By that, I mean that teachers tend to believe deeply that human behavior is significantly influenced by human experience: the better people are treated, the better they will behave. For teachers, K-12 education is a formalized process of treating children in a manner that will tend to make them become more civilized as they mature.
Of course these humane tendencies serve teachers very well in dealing with their students. Indeed, for very many children, educators are the only humanely motivated adults in their lives. Furthermore, I suspect that these humane motivations are absolutely necessary in order to face classrooms, day-after-day and year-after-year, that almost all include from a few to a great many children who are destined to go through school as academic failures, no matter what any teacher does. For example, consider our depressingly reliable ability to identify – before they enter the 4th grade – those children who will drop out before graduation. I suspect that a person who is not deluded into believing that every child can be educated could not tolerate being a teacher for very long.
I do not use the term “deluded” to belittle educators. I am convinced that the only people I want to be in charge of a K-12 classroom are those who believe that all children can be educated — irrespective of all data to the contrary. However, what might be a necessity in a teacher is a tragedy in a public policy maker. We have accumulated 47 years of data to support that conclusion. School reform, as dreamed up by politicians has been tried many times during the last half century. It has failed every time.
Increasingly teachers are speaking out against school reforms that they believe are demeaning their profession, and some are simply quitting because they have had enough.
Here is one resignation letter from a veteran teacher, Gerald J. Conti, a social studies teacher at Westhill High School in Syracuse, N.Y.:
Mr. Casey Barduhn, Superintendent
Westhill Central School District
400 Walberta Park Road
Syracuse, New York 13219
Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:
It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.
As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.
I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.
A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?
My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.
After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.
For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.
Sincerely and with regret,
Gerald J. Conti
Social Studies Department Leader
Cc: Doreen Bronchetti, Lee Roscoe
My little Zu.
I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.
For many years the school system in Finland has been very successful. In the PISAsurvey, which compares reading, math and science knowledge of 15 year olds around the world, Finland is not only the top European country but also competes with Asian giants like Shanghai Singapore and South Korea. But what makes the educational system in this small country so strikingly different from others in the western world?
First of all, the Finish government makes it possible for all children to attendpreschool, which comes after kindergarten. Compulsory education begins at 7. Teachers work with their pupils in school as much as possible. They have little homework to do when they get home. When teachers are not with the pupils they spend a lot of time in schools working on the curriculum and new projects. They teach in teams if it helps them reach their goals. That is why dropout rates are low compared to other countries.
In contrast to other nations teaching in Finland is a highly admired profession. Finland selects its teachers very carefully. Only talented students go on to a university and receive a master’s degree in education. Finland only takes the best to educate its youth.
Schools in Finland are small, at least for international standards. More than in any other country teachers are ready to prepare children for life. In some cases they know every pupil in their school and can adjust to them. Teachers try everything to succeed with their pupils. Most of the pupils get additional help in their elementary school years, either by the teachers themselves or through specially trainededucators.
Most of Finland’s schools get their money from the government. The people who are in charge of the education system, from teachers to administrators are trained teachers, not politicians like in other countries.
All Finish children, whether they come from the city or a rural town, whether from a rich or poor family have the same opportunities in education. Education experts claim that there is very little difference between very good and the worst students. Two thirds of Finish pupils who finish compulsory education move on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union.
Until the 1960s Finland’s school system had been influenced largely by its neighbor, the Soviet Union. Most students left school after six years; some went on to private school. Only the wealthy ones got a better education. In the middle of the 1960s the Finish government saw the need to change and modernize their education system if they wanted to be internationally competitive. Lawmakers made a simple decision: a single school for all the 7 to 16 year olds. They also put a focus on language learning. Students learn Swedish as their second and English as their third language.
A part of Finland’s success is also owed to the fact that its society is homogenous. There are not so many differences between the wealthy and poor, as in America or other western European countries. This is reflected in the classroom too. Teachers always try to show pupils how to behave socially and care for others. They teach them that taking responsibility is very important for their futurecareers.
“Every time you discuss the future [in English], grammatically you’re forced to cleave that from the present and treat it as if it’s something viscerally different.”
Keith Chen at TED: Could your language affect your ability to save money?