Teachers Under Attack
When Dr. McCoy invited me to contribute to her blog, and then gave me free rein to address any educational topic I wished, it gave me pause because there are so many pressing topics vying for attention in the field of education these days.
I gave consideration to writing a reflective piece with the timing of the 1st anniversary of the Newtown Tragedy. It would not have been from the logistical perspective of school safety but rather the focus would have been on the transformational impact that tragic events like Newtown and 9/11 have had, and continue to have, on the culture of public education in America.
I have been intrigued by how Norway responded to their own Newtown. When the fanatical gunman Anders Behring Breivik went on trial for killing 77 people, the majority of whom were teenagers, the country rallied together to send a strong message to Breivik and those like him. While Breivik was in the courthouse on April 26, 2012, tens of thousands of Norwegians gathered in the capitol and in town squares across their country to sing in unity “Children of the Rainbow”. It was a public testimony to demonstrate that Breivik’s hatred would not be met in kind. That particular folk song held significance because Breivik had expressed how that particular song epitomized how much Norway did not share his extreme right-wing values and as such, in his view, was brainwashing Norwegian children.
The Norwegians’ response to Breivik’s attack on a youth camp inspired me to instead take a look at what we can do about a completely different kind of attack impacting those who teach and learn in schools. Schools and the educators who work in them are facing some of the greatest challenges in the history of our nation’s educational system. This blame game may very well have its genesis in the widely publicized 1983 report: A Nation at Risk, which sought to raise the alarm that American education was on the decline as evidenced, in part, by falling SAT scores. Interestingly the subsequent 1991 Sandia Report pointed out glaring errors in A Nation at Risk, such as analysis of SAT scores misreported as falling when in actuality overall SAT scores had demonstrated a steady increase. The Sandia Report received little public notice.
Adding to the challenges facing educators, and in some part because of them, teachers and administrators have found themselves accused of being to blame. This steady barrage of negative attention, specifically portraying educators as the crux of the problem, instead of being seen as holding the keys to the solution to achieving educational reform is wearing down and wearing out these dedicated professionals.
Diane Ravitch made one of the most powerful analogies yet about current efforts at educational reform. Dr. Ravitch asks us to imagine an analogous system in law enforcement, where societal crime prevention measures included penalizing those cities with the highest crime rates by dismissing their police officers and rewarding those cities with the lowest crime rates by redirecting funds to their departments. When characterized this way, it emphasizes the ridiculousness of our current approach to educational reform. Characterizing teachers as the villains of the education system makes no more sense than vilifying police officers in cities with high crime rates or blaming a war on the soldiers sent to fight it.
Are there ways for teachers, police officers, and soldiers to improve their practice? The answer is undoubtedly - YES. Should teachers be held accountable for staying current in their field and employing best instructional practices? Again, the answer is yes.
It is a fallacy to think in terms of one group of individuals who want schools to improve and another group who do not want the schools to improve. The desire for school improvement is pretty much universal. Somehow educators have been characterized as resistant to change that will improve schools. In my experience as a former school leader nothing could be further from reality. What teachers are resistant to is uninformed change.
Teachers, and their students, are the ones who live the futility of every few of years adopting a new initiative in a seemingly unending succession of ineffectual unproven educational initiatives. The term “research-based” firmly implanted itself into educational lexicon with the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act. As such, every educational program needed to be “research-based” to be adopted by a school system. Instead of educational publishers embracing the spirit of the legislation and raising the bar, the opposite seemed to occur. The market was quickly flooded with myriad programs not meeting the traditional scientific understanding of based in research. Instead it became easier to offer watered down pseudo-scientific “research” based programs lacking any real causal relationship between program and improved student achievement.
If a coach wants his basketball team to have a winning season, his solution is not giving them a new ball. To improve a team’s game performance coaches work to improve members’ individual and collective skill. The key to improving student achievement is in improving instructional practice and honing teaching skills. While educational curriculum is important, it is secondary to effective instruction.
Teachers do not belittle students by having them reflect upon their work, neither will teachers not be belittled by challenging each other to reflect upon their work. We as educators are not conditioned to openly ask other educators to shine a spotlight on the weaknesses in our practice. This has caused those outside of the field of education to cast their spotlights on the practitioners. There is a certain degree of irony in the fact that schoolteachers spend every day correcting children but when challenged to constructively offer criticism to a fellow colleague they balk. Educators shy away from openly criticizing other educators; we find it uncomfortable. Are we fearful that those same colleagues would turn around and criticize us? School leaders (not just principals) who build a culture where teachers are expected to openly challenge one another’s practice hold the key to educational reform.
In the book published this year that I co-authored with Hal Portner on the role of principals in cultivating teacher leadership, Hal and I speak to the importance of creating a positive school culture. Leader of Leaders: The Handbook for Principals on the Cultivation, Support, and Impact of Teacher-Leaders, is a guidebook for all school leaders on how to break this vicious cycle and finally get off of the hamster wheel of ineffective efforts at educational reform.
It is high time we in the United States bounce back by refocusing our approach to improving education. Blaming teachers is unproductive. We must separate the practice from the practitioners and refocus attention on workable solutions. There are many promising approaches that school leaders can adopt for the focus on instructional practices and professional growth. Two of these non-evaluative and “gotcha-free” approaches to building a culture conducive to improving student achievement include communities of practice (CoP’s) and instructional rounds.
About the author of this blog entry: