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Thompson: Kamenetz & Gallup Nail the Key to School Improvement

EngagedAs the Hechinger Report’s Anya Kamenetz notes in Almost 70% of Teachers Are Not Engaged. Here’s Why That Matters So Much, “there’s an intimate connection between the schoolroom engagement of students, and the workplace engagement of teachers.” She then cites the truism that has been lost on school reformers, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” 

Kamenetz reviews a brilliant analysis by Gallup Education, The State of America’s Schools. My joy in reading the study, and Kamenetz’s explanation,  was tempered only by a sense of regret that its main themes were not the basis of the contemporary school reform movement.  

Data-driven reform, in part, was born of an ill-considered effort to sound macho. Testing, like attacks on teachers, allowed reformers to chant tough-sounding words like “accountability” and “outputs.” 

Gallup explains how reform produced “a rigid set of education standards.”  It created “a stranglehold on teachers and students.”  Consequently, “teachers are dead last among the occupational groups Gallup surveyed in terms of their likelihood to say their opinions seem to count at work.”

As Gallup’s Brandon Busteed reports, reformers got it backwards. The path to school improvement requires a commitment to “soft” measures, such as hope, feeling valued, emotional relationships, and being engaged in teaching and learning. Busteed says, “quote unquote ‘soft’ measures move the quote unquote ‘hard’ measures, like grades and test scores.”

Top down, standardized reform focused on "the Head," ignoring “the Heart.” It overlooked the truth that Gallup explains - emotion drives learning. The goal should have been the nurturing of school cultures where more, not fewer, teachers are deeply engaged.

As Kamenentz and Gallup understand, the best teachers see “their role as more than just a job or career — they see it as a calling.” But, today 56% of teachers polled are “not engaged.” They may be satisfied with their jobs, but they are not emotionally connected to their schools. Another 13% are “actively disengaged.” 

Gallup documents the most obvious flaws in the contemporary reform approach. High stakes testing and incorporating value-added measures into evaluations were bound to undermine school cultures. That must be a big reason why 46% of teachers report high daily stress. That is nearly identical to the stress reported by physicians and nurses. 

The State of America’s Schools is great in portraying the educational big picture. It is even better in describing the subtle ways that testing damaged teaching and learning. NCLB created an “overwhelmingly remedial focus” and it resulted in schools wrongly concentrating on students’ weaknesses. 

Gallup’s findings regarding student engagement mirror their conclusions about teachers. Hope is the key. Students need adults to help them “envision their futures.” Sadly, 32% of the students surveyed feel “stuck.” They “find it difficult to overcome challenges in pursuing their goals.” The prime purpose of school reform should have been helping more engaged teachers help engage more students. 

I disagree with Gallup on only one point. I agree that the first step in improving instruction is listening to teachers about curriculum, pedagogy, and other issues and incorporating their feedback into the decision-making process. We should partner the most engaged administrators and teachers with new teachers. But, the study recommends the removal of “the most disengaged teachers from the classroom for a brief period.” If the most disengaged educators cannot be helped to reengage, however, I want them efficiently fired. 

The State of America’s Schools is an outstanding portrayal of education as it really exists today. If we respect its recommendations, perhaps tomorrow’s schools will be very different.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.




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