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Thompson: "Insiders" Voice Disregard for Educators

HateteachersThe Whiteboard Advisor’s latest Education Insider survey provides the best news for public schools since the 2012 election, which was the best news for teachers and students since the Chicago strike. A survey of policymakers, thought leaders, and association heads  found that only 12% on these insiders believe that the teacher evaluation laws that were passed in the last three years will be implemented intact

Rather than asking themselves why they ever thought test-driven evaluations was a good idea, however, many of these “reformers” blame teachers for successfully opposing policies that we (and most scholars) believe are wrong.  Some of the insiders made Mitt Romney’s response to his defeat seem gracious. They blamed their defeats on the "NEA and the rest of the blob,” unions that “speak out of both sides of their mouth,” “educrats and knownothings,” and unions that “get the uninformed out.” Another commented, “Sad to see all the defeats for reform… Reform is show politics for candidates. It’s not serious, even for Obama and Duncan. For the folks with special interests, it’s all serious business. This is why unions and educrats are beginning to run the show.”

One insider exemplified the argument for continuing to fight for value-added evaluations, “The problem is not implementation, but implementing well. …The systems pose technical challenges, but they can be overcome if educators, policy leaders and thought leaders do not make a fetish out of precision. In the long run, though, especially as the new systems are put into action, people will find them either rewarding or not as harmful as worst case scenarios predicted.” (emphasis mine)

A self-identified reformer was more reflective, saying that reformers “talk too much to ourselves. We need to better understand 'real' people who don’t support the status quo, but also don’t want their kids doing more test prep or don’t want public funds going to for‐profit or religious schools or trust what they hear from their children’s teachers or teachers in their neighborhood or family more than what they hear from us reformers.” 

Another said, “the DC‐based, ed‐reform echo chamber just doesn’t understand how much anti‐reform animosity exists outside of the beltway.” Then, as if he was trying to illustrate the wisdom of the above statement, an insider argued, “The Common Core has always been a Trojan horse to get out of accountability.” 

The survey also includes numerous other insights that would be valuable if they would give the blame game a rest. Teachers do not have an animosity toward Common Core, even though its advocates need to start listening to teachers. Most people do not see charter schools as the enemy, and they could become an area where educators and "reformers" start to communicate. Only 33% of insiders believe that education funding will not be cut.  If they want to improve schools with less money, they should heed the professional judgment of educators. And, yes, there is a lot of “anti-reform animosity.”  It would be nice if the insiders would ask why that is so.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.

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Self-proclaimed reformers would do well to note there are NO "anti-reformers," but ample educators and scholars who reject "reforms" that are ideology-driven but unsupported by evidence.

I still see the election as a rejection of the Bain-style management that has highjacked education reform in the last five years. The education reform that inspired me was originally led by people like Ted Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Diane Ravitch -- it sought to empower teachers, not to manipulate and manage them via "message framing" and similar, dishonest subterfuge -- and the charter school movement looked like a good vehicle for making teacher empowerment happen. Instead, all kinds of people with general management diplomas, who have already proved their worthlessness to the overall economy in the business world, moved into education, and did provide some useful insights, perspectives, and techniques; but, just as I found, in my movie career, actors to be the most self-centered people I had (and have) ever encountered, I found business managers to be an unusually power-hungry cabal, a well placed mutual admiration society in a group-thinking echo chamber, but also a caste that knows how to position itself so as to grab the levers of power and then lead us off down this path where few educators ever intended to go.

As a teacher, what I fear most is that the people making the decisions for reform have not a clue about the reality that I deal with every day: there is a wealth of students who simply exercise their power of autonomy to not learn, and to not even attempt to learn. They even gloat about their non-performance. Most already have what they most want, i.e., the electronic devices that connect them to the "real" world, free breakfast and lunch (85% free or reduced in my district--even in the summer when school is not in session!) and parents who acted the same way growing up so that they let them do what they did, which is nothing much, except maybe to start a life or two before "graduating", thereby trapping themselves in a lifestyle of dependence and poverty. Students watch television or, even more likely, play video games all afternoon and much of the night. That's why they come to school too tired to even hold their heads up. In addition, I believe that because they don't try at all in school they easily convince themselves that they haven't failed anything: they just "choose" not to learn what won't be of any use to them, and they are already certain about what won't be. I believe that, sadly, many of these students derive their self image from the video games they play; they aren't losers in life because they are at the Nth level of performance in their video game(s) and are virtual mega-heros who, upon dying, get to start over after 10 minutes. They seem not to understand that life won't be like that for them.

Likewise, the mega-heros stepping in to places where most have never (themselves, under the circumstances of the modern public classroom) tread may believe that education is like it was in their day, or even IS in their experience in the select public or private school in which parents are still involved enough in their children's academic performance that something resembling a competitive environment still exits, producing students whose personal or imposed academic drive will result in their being prepared to face college and life when THEY have to pay the bills. Teachers are on the brink of having to prepare a separate education plan for every student who passes in front of them, and while this may have some sensibility at the elementary level and is already in place, from what I've seen, to impliment this at the secondary level where a teacher may be seeing well over a hundred students per day is incomprehensible. And to empower students to determine the success of teachers and directly affect their earning ability via their selective performance or lack thereof is sheer insanity! I can assure you that students will quickly employ their empowerment over teachers (as if they didn't already have enough power!)to make a game out of undermining the careers of some teachers. I will even predict a direct correlation between younger "cool" teacher and/or lack of challenge vs. the older and/or more challenging ones. That every child wants to learn is bullcrap! I can show you kids who test as brilliant who, nevertheless, withhold all effort academically as well as those who might have a brain but use every bit of it nefariously, and whose only goal seems to be to undermine the education that other students might possibly be able to obtain were it not for their presence in the classroom. The latter we can't touch, and they know it! The Culture of Low Performance is very real, encouraging even the intelligent students to hold the 'bar' low so that they will have only minimal homework and can still qualify as valedictorians even though they have consistently evaided real academic challenge for all of their socially rich "sports-filled" middle and high school years.

What I believe we should do is what is done in the rest of the civilized world, and that is to separate the wheat from the chaff, i.e., to determine some point at which those who have shown a willingness and aptitude for learning, and at that fork in the educational road send them down a path of greater learning while diverting the others to training in the more mundane areas of labor for which they express enthusiasm. We need welders, auto mechanics, computer repairmen, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. A competent plumber, electrician or mason can out-earn a teacher any day, so this fork-in-the-road is not a put-down, it is mearly a realization that delayed gratification and the arduous pursuit of knowledge are not for everyone. I also believe that if the "fork" were to occur at, say 8th grade, there would be a lot more parents interested and involved with regard to which fork their child was destined.

For policy-makers to make well-meaning decisions they need to fully understand the complex issues they are undertaking, and the full ramifications of their "tinkering". We teachers cannot make all students learn because--and most importantly--we cannot control the homes they come from, let alone the parents who produced them and fail them in endless ways, such as instilling morality, pride, sense of self-worth, work ethic, appropriate reproductive counseling, emotional and behavioral support, discipline, etc.

And to the would-be reformers, I dearly hope that your compensation for this endeavor is directly tied to the actual success of your resolutions for education reform. Just be clearly aware that you cannot blame the teachers alone, you have to blame the students, and along with the students, you have to blame the parents and perhaps even the community. Teachers will never be able to accomplish what you (and we) hope, because web cannot control all the other factors that affect learning.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.