How to Be Taken Seriously as a Reformer (Don't Be an Educator)

If you really want to understand what's going on in them and the direction we need to be headed, don't ask Bill Gates or the Business Roundtable. Ask a teacher.
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In the current upside-down world of education policy, there's one foolproof strategy for being taken seriously as a reformer: Make sure you're not an educator.

Urban districts nationwide, with Chicago leading the way, have hired those with business or legal backgrounds to head their school systems. Major voices in the reform conversation, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and philanthropist Eli Broad, have never been teachers. And when Oprah wants to talk about schools, she invites Bill Gates or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg -- all the while reminding her audience how much she loves teachers.

So it probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise that Performance Counts, a proposal that zoomed to the top of the legislative agenda in Illinois last week promising to "promote great teaching," boasts a roster of local supporters who aren't exactly known for their educational expertise: the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Business Roundtable.

Backers of Performance Counts say it's pro-student, not anti-teacher or anti-union, but the wide-ranging changes it proposes are nearly all aimed at the state's teachers. The legislation would link tenure decisions to performance evaluations, make it easier to fire teachers, prohibit them from negotiating on issues like class size and make it virtually impossible for them to go on strike.

It's also no shock that the proposal has gained traction among corporate-minded reformers. It fits nicely within a narrative that's been gathering momentum since early last year, when both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicly applauded the mass firing of teachers at a Rhode Island high school: Our public schools are woeful and teachers are a big part of the problem.

Shortly after the firings, Newsweek accompanied its cover story, "The key to saving American education," with a photo of the phrase "We must fire bad teachers" written repeatedly on a chalkboard. More recently, the much-discussed film Waiting for Superman hammered home the same theme, depicting teachers as dozing mopes in New York City's infamous "rubber room" or screaming lunatics manipulated by out-of-touch unions.

Focusing on getting rid of weak teachers as a cornerstone of school reform, however, is a distraction from the kinds of changes we should be pursuing.

But what kinds of changes?

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in response to Performance Counts:

"How do you improve schools? Lower class sizes, limit instructional time spent on standardized testing, fund schools based on need, not clout and be sure that all children receive a full diet of art, music, physical education and foreign languages."

That'd be a good start. And it's what affluent parents -- including the Duncans and the Obamas -- demand for their own kids.

But the mainstream discussion about schools has a decidedly different character. An underlying assumption of almost every utterance is that standardized tests are an essential tool and are here to stay. Poverty's not on the radar. And the arts? What arts?

A big part of the problem is that the conversation has been hijacked by corporate leaders who think they know best how to improve our schools. I'll concede that some of these "new reformers" may have good intentions, but their arrogance is astounding and their lack of interest in the wisdom of those who spend their days in classrooms speaks volumes.

The thing is that it's tough to understand the complexity of teaching if you've never done it. Sure, it's possible to come up with catchy slogans like "performance counts." But what exactly is teacher performance? For most of the business-minded reformers, it means raising student test scores. They may nod toward multiple measures of assessing teachers, but they're really looking at "the data," the bottom line.

During the decade I spent teaching in Chicago, I came to understand that being a good teacher is about far more than that. It's taking time after school hours to get to know the community in which you teach. It's figuring out how to create a learning opportunity when one of your students uses racist or homophobic language in class. It's effectively planning research projects even when your classroom has just two computers for 31 kids. How does "performance count" in situations like these?

I'm not trying to dodge the issues raised by the proposed legislation. And I would agree, as would many teachers I know, that tenure and evaluation processes need to be revisited and improved. But if we're serious about making schools places where meaningful learning happens, not just test prep, then directing our energies toward further disempowering and firing teachers is a horribly misguided approach. What's really strangling the life out of classrooms across this country are the myopic, test-crazy policies of the past ten years.

Then again, I'm an education professor, so what do I know about schools? Maybe only this: If you really want to understand what's going on in them and the direction we need to be headed, don't ask Bill Gates or the Business Roundtable. Ask a teacher.

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