Teachers speak up

Posted on January 11, 2015. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , |

To keep the discussion going about my suggestion that a formal, front-line survey be conducted among teachers to identify and gauge gaps between education establishment theory and classroom realities, I’m sharing some of the emails I’ve received since last week’s column.

It’s worth noting that every reply was well thought-out and articulate (hey, they’re teachers!) and that none reeked of flippant “gripe session” boilerplate. Some contained very specific instances and insights. None proclaimed to have all the answers, but each was appreciative to offer opinions and shared my belief that, if pursued vigorously, a full-blown teacher survey would yield highly valuable data.

One overriding theme was that better collaboration–teachers and administrators working together–is not only a key concept for real change, but also a welcome approach.

I’m keeping responses anonymous, simply because this discussion is about ideas and not people.

One teacher wrote that she has taught in both a high-performing school and one that did not perform as well, and it simply didn’t make sense to think that any uniform education “reform” could possibly prove effective in such disparate situations. She suggested structuring education priorities on a school-by-school basis.

“Each child learns differently,” she said. “Each school has different challenges. Give individual schools autonomy to initiate reforms when needed.”

It’s easy to fall prey to the misguided notion that standardization translates into equality. A blanket, formulaic response to grossly dissimilar scenarios is unlikely to work, in education or anything else.

She mentioned that teachers face student disparity on a daily basis, “from health care to social issues to technology challenges to character development.” One-size-fits-all solutions wind up fitting none.

“Every family and household has individual rules,” she said. Empowering teachers and allowing individual schools the leeway to meet their specific challenges makes way more sense than applying statewide mandates.

It’s arguable, as well, that administrative overload harms underperforming schools more than others. The policy of paying teachers more to work in distressed schools is already in place. How about reducing the paperwork requirements for teachers in those schools, too? That’d be more time to spend on teaching, not pencil-pushing.

Another teacher wrote about bearing witness to the rise of what he termed the Education Industrial Complex. His observation after 10 years in the classroom was that the focus of the education establishment has become managing teachers instead of actually teaching children.

He questioned the large sums of money routinely spent on consulting firms, education gurus and the “next greatest thing” that survives only a few short years till the next great thing comes along, with identical fanfare.

The warning President Dwight Eisenhower issued 54 years ago about another more famous industrial complex sounds uncomfortably applicable to today’s modern education.

To paraphrase Ike, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence over schools by the apparatus of its industry. He worried about persisting potential for “misplaced power” and the dangers it could present to our democratic processes. Only an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” can compel the proper meshing, Eisenhower believed, for security and liberty to prosper together.

Here, for too long the education bureaucracy has prospered but its primary deliverable–student learning–has not. That’s no surprise to this “teacher in the trenches,” as he signed his letter. “Our professional development time is spent on how to help administrators evaluate us rather than content or teaching skills,” he wrote.

As an example he described a day-long back-to-school seminar on Bloomboard, an online administrative tool. No time was spent on how to use the new state gradebook program where teachers record grades, take attendance, etc.

“What is relevant in the classroom and to our kids comes second,” he wrote, “to what we need to produce for administration to check a box downtown so downtown can check a box in Little Rock.”

The proliferation of superfluous paperwork was the main topic of another email from a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience.

“More time and focus is spent on completing forms, which can be made to say anything,” he wrote, “and yet they actually have no bearing whatsoever on what happens in the classroom.” He suggested that some classroom experience–five years was his idea–be required before anyone is allowed to become an administrator.

It seems, indeed, a slippery slope for administrators without classroom experience to have a top-down view of education and thus drown, perhaps unwittingly, teachers in a deluge of paperwork requirements.

This former teacher also stressed that moving out from the classroom itself, those involved in the education system become less connected with genuine improvement in student learning.

“Curricula developers,” he noted, “have a product to sell, the same as tennis shoes and cell phones.”

Suppliers like that are peddlers, he said, who simply wish to market their product. Notions regarding quality and education improvement take a back seat to selling.

He also shared a friend’s idea to prompt more parental involvement.

“Before a parent takes the child tax credit on their taxes,” he wrote, “they should be required to show proof of attending all parent/teacher conferences throughout the year.”

Keep the ideas coming!

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One Response to “Teachers speak up”

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I was trying to find an article you had in the paper and wanted to know how to.? The article was about two weeks ago and made reference to the amount of money being spent in schools and other education related issues.


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