Can Teachers Drive Conversation About School Reform If They Don’t Believe Change Is Needed?

When I published a commentary in my local newspaper a few years ago entitled “Why Do Our Public Schools Never Improve?” the comments posted by readers suggested that questioning the performance of our nation’s schools means one thing: I must be a right-wing ideologue in thrall to our corporate overlords.

I certainly understood the negative reactions. Questioning the comfortable status quo never makes a lot of friends.

This was, ironically, the main point of my commentary:  Public schools are impervious to all but cosmetic changes because much depends on them staying just as they are. As I wrote back then:

On a local level—particularly when it comes to small to medium sized communities—[public schools] are enormously important as sources of jobs, service and construction contracts, and the free daycare they provide for parents. Public schools are, therefore, only able to effect changes to the extent that those changes are not in conflict with their local economic benefits.

My comments might have been a tad blunt, but I believe they are still accurate.

Anyone who pays the least attention to NAEP, PARCC, or ACT scores—or the twin crises of academic preparedness and degree completion at our nation’s colleges—should be worried, but I cannot recall a time when a local teacher was willing to grant that any concern about our nation’s public schools was warranted.

After all, the typical response went, we are the experts and know best how the job needs to be done. Any problems in our public schools are due to societal and economic forces beyond our control—so back off.

This is the mantra we often hear often: “Teachers are the experts on improving our nation’s public schools.” This notion is, of course, a perfectly reasonable one at a basic level; those on the front lines of any endeavor possess knowledge that others do not.

However, I have begun to wonder whether teachers’ beliefs in their own expertise have become a stupendous impediment to change, and I seriously question whether education reform can ever succeed if we continue to let teachers and their union bosses drive the debate. And I say this more than 15 years after I made a mid-career change into teaching.

It is, of course, true that anyone on the inside of any organization is going to be loath to admit mistakes; it is basic human nature to deflect blame because we all want to believe that what we do is wonderful and valuable. Moreover, we all like to work within the comfort zone of what is familiar—and change inevitably pushes us out of our comfort zones.

It would be foolish to deny the raw reality the public education in our nation is a politicized, unionized, and bureaucratized behemoth that wields vast influence on the local, state, and federal levels, and the enormous amounts of money on the table—not to mention the electoral power that money buys—tends to dramatically affect judgements about what is reasonable or possible.

There is, in addition, a more fundamental problem with teacher leadership in debates about educational reforms: a general lack of knowledge about the world beyond the schoolhouse.

I believe this lack of worldly knowledge can affect classroom practices, and within my own field of teaching, I have sometimes wondered about the disconnection between insular academic practices and the planet outside. Can you effectively teach Business Writing if you have never worked in business? Should you teach Creative Writing if you have never published? How can you teach a student how to write for an audience if you have never, in fact, written for an audience other than your colleagues?

These are questions we rarely ponder because the teaching establishment believes a college degree and state teaching credential triumphs over all, which is precisely the reason Bill Gates could never teach at your local high school—he’s not “qualified.”

Which bring us back to the reason systemic changes to our public schools over the past few decades can be measured with an eye dropper: organizational inertia runs deep in all government agencies divorced from the real world.

Public schools are a perfect example of staid methodology jammed deep into a voluminous book of rules that will never react positively to change or new ideas—particularly because any systemic change is bound to ruffle the feathers of some constituency that depends on the local schools for paychecks, services, or more intangible community benefits.

Unfortunately, too often the dialogue with local schools regarding amazing new ideas and practices boils down to “tell me what you want and I’ll tell you why you can’t have it.” Why? Because there is little actual consequence for ongoing failure—and everyone inside the system, including the students, knows that.

Consider the political firestorm certain to result if we:

  • totally revamp how we train and certify teachers
  • link school funding to measurable student academic outcomes, and
  • require that students achieve minimum cut scores on their standardized tests as a condition of graduation so we can be certain they are taking their coursework seriously.

Unless we are willing to deal with that firestorm, we will continue to chatter among ourselves, peer through the classroom windows, and shake our heads in dismay.

Also published on Head in the Sand ( May 5, 2016

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