What Public School Teachers Want: Less Disruption

Opinion | Teaching and Learning

What Public School Teachers Want: Less Disruption

By Danielle Arnold-Schwartz     Feb 27, 2020

What Public School Teachers Want: Less Disruption

It’s a novel idea to consider what teachers want in this time of disruption and corporate education reform, which have by most measures failed our public schools. Teachers have been gagged, muted and forced to wear our poker faces when we speak with parents about their children.

In the same way that shock absorbers in our cars take the bumps so our ride is smoother, teachers have become the shock absorbers of the unethical reform effort often made by politicians, philanthropists and others who may be unqualified to do so. Frequently, these reforms have to do with “disruptive” initiatives, designed to disrupt schools, and premised, as one teacher anonymously noted, on “the assumption that disruption breeds innovation... Anything that will unsettle the community and cause friction between neighbors will suffice.”

Teachers shoulder the stress and try our best to ensure that true best practices are used in our classrooms, while at the same time we are often forced to sip the Kool-Aid of the highly-paid consultants du jour in lieu of designing our own professional development. Many school districts used to have a teacher who served as head of professional development at the administration level. That made fiscal and pedagogical sense. Under the ed reform push to get public money in private hands, some very powerful people want teachers to shut up and do as we are told.

Since the 2008 Time magazine cover story on Washington, D.C. chancellor and ed reformer Michelle Rhee, which set up the anti-teacher, pro-privatization movement, there has been an attack on teachers and our profession. Disagreeing with an administrator could get a teacher labeled aggressive, afraid of change or not a team player. There has never been a time that George Orwell’s truth was truer: “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Teachers and parents have counted on our local school boards to protect the quality of education of the children we serve, as they are the last line of defense for locally controlled education. Approximately 90 percent of U.S. students attend public schools. School board members are dedicated and caring, but they are often laypeople who may be unaware of the many ways those in power work to manipulate them. For example, a school board is the only body that can hire or remove a superintendent, yet they depend on the superintendent and his staff to keep them abreast of the district happenings. When a problem arises, they turn to the superintendent for his advice. If there are no school board members who are experts on corporate education reform and disruption, they may be blindly led to decisions that are not in the best district of students or the district.

The list I have compiled below is a must read for school boards, parents, grandparents and anyone who cares about having a well-educated society.

You may be surprised by this list if you aren’t a classroom teacher. Think of teachers as the canaries in the coal mines. It’s time to heed our warnings.

Teachers want our field returned to us. Think Dewey, not “thought leaders.”

Since the Reagan administration’s Nation at Risk, an alarmist and misleading report that has since been discredited, there has been a bipartisan attempt to break open the education “market” and put public school dollars into private pockets. Consultants galore have ridden the coattails of disruption and sent over a seemingly endless and ever-changing array of “best practices” that teachers know are not really best practices at all. When federal dollars incentivize new reforms, such as outcomes or competency-based education, consultancy groups, such as the Marzano Corp., conveniently tailor their offerings accordingly.

We are long overdue to return to the philosophies of John Dewey, and those who are true experts of child psychology and neuroscience. We want school leaders who don’t jump on the bandwagon of corporate education reform jargon, which has given us terms such as 21st-century skills, college and career ready, professional learning communities, stakeholders, close reading, backward design/curriculum mapping, benchmark tests, competency based learning, personalized learning, data-based instruction, rigor, grit, no excuses, flexible learning pathways and many others. This jargon is often used by administrators who support corporate education reform and distraction or by those who are simply unaware.

What’s wrong with the jargon? Many of the terms I am referring to have been co-opted from teacher vernacular and tainted as they are used to sell products and ideas. Terms such as “professional learning communities” and “data-based instruction” take the focus off of children as developing human beings, and force conversations to be about standardized data points from benchmark tests and high-stakes standardized assessments, which can dehumanize the way we address student needs.

What do teachers want? We want all children to attend a public school where there is a nurse, the arts, band, orchestra, novels, field trips, technology and daily classes in the “untested subjects” (such as science and social studies).

Teachers want fair funding for all schools.

I live and work in a properly funded school district, and only 3 miles away the children of the Philadelphia School District find many of their public schools shuttered and encircled shark-like by charter schools. Brick and mortar charter schools have been known to use questionable (and unethical) recruitment techniques and “counseling out” poor standardized test-takers. Charter schools have been known to cherry pick students by race, class and even disability levels. In fact, charter schools have been accused of re-segregation. Donna Cooper, the current executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia, argues they erect “barriers to entry” to achieve a desired makeup, and studies show it works: Students with more severe disabilities as well as English language learners are more likely to attend traditional public schools.

The remaining public schools often lack nurses, the arts, basic school supplies, heat and even toilet paper. We want bipartisan support for all public schools, and a stop to the push for charter schools and vouchers.

Teachers want the focus off of the flawed standardized data culture and back on the children as developing human beings who deserve more than test prep and basic skills.

All of America’s children deserve to love learning and to develop creativity and critical thinking skills, not just rote memorization. We would like parents and administrators to trust our professional judgment and knowledge of children, which is not based on testing data points, but on seeing the whole child and understanding his or her individual development.

Yong Zhao, presidential chair and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership at the University of Oregon, warns us against creating a culture tied to standardized testing, as China has. Doing so impacts students’ career development, mental health and capacity for independent thinking.

“The biggest price China has paid is the loss of creative talents,” Zhao has written. “Its education system stifles creativity, suppresses individuality and induces conformity by forcing all children to compete for better test outcomes in a narrow set of subjects. Testing rewards those who are willing and able to give the right answers in the right way as demanded by the authority, while eliminating those who are unwilling or unable, but who may be talented in other areas. It thus fosters the spirit of compliance. It also results in impoverished educational experiences by forcing schools and teachers to teach to the test.”

It shouldn’t be this difficult. It’s time to return the education field to the educators. What do teachers want? Get the business folks and corporate sharks back in their own lane, fund all public schools fairly, eliminate the push for vouchers and charters schools and let the teachers teach.

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