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Stop Racing, Start Listening

January 28, 2011

This post was written by Sandy Dean, Director of the National Board Resource Center (NBRC) at Stanford.  (Accomplished California Teachers is a project of the NBRC).

I turned off the television on Tuesday evening after President Obama had finished his state of the union address and vowed to think no more. I have by now become inured to the feelings that follow messages about reforming schools in America. Inevitably though, as I am trying to fall asleep, the messages start to replay and questions rear up in the dark and keep sleep at bay.  On Tuesday night, the questions all revolved around the big disconnect between policy and practice. It is so easy to ignore the impact of decisions made at the top, but so crushing when you are on the receiving end.

So, as I lay sleepless I thought about what would I say if I could give the “rebuttal” to just that one part of Mr. Obama’s speech.  Here is a sample.
No one disagrees that the future of our country and its prosperity is connected to how well we educate our children. I liked that part when the president said, “our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

Indeed, asking questions and encouraging students to ask their own is one of the best parts of good teaching. Unfortunately, it is becoming a part that is increasingly rare in many classrooms. I am sure that Sasha and Malia get to savor and pursue answers to good questions, but many children of the less privileged don’t get to, at least not for long.  For all too many children, there is scarce time to embrace ambiguity or to consider diverse perspectives. They are being drilled on how to answer multiple choice test questions and identify one “right” answer.

Worse yet, as I realized all too often in my own classroom and still hear from my colleagues working in urban schools, the question for many students is not, “What will I be when I grow up?”  It is more like, “Will I live to grow up?” I did not hear Mr. Obama talk about conditions of poverty and crime. Do those who make policies know that those are conditions that matter just as much as parents who turn off the television and insist that the homework is done?

Then there was that part of the speech about Race to the Top.  Does the president not know that this “most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation” was not “the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities”? Winning that race was based on enacting many reforms that are not substantiated by research and experience nor embraced at the local level. The saddest part, though, is that this race along with mandates of the No Child Left Behind legislation (which is still in force because the legislature doesn’t have anything to replace it with) have changed teaching practices in ways that require teachers to do too many of the wrong things – things that will certainly have an impact on the ability of many children to become the innovators and thinkers of the future.  Let me offer some examples.

Several months ago a group of elementary teachers sharing ideas about lessons they were preparing to present for National Board certification were reduced to silence (and some to tears) when one of the group confessed that she could not really show a science lesson from her class because, “she was not allowed to teach science”.  Teachers in her school had been mandated to spend all their time teaching math and reading so that they could improve their test scores. Sadly, other teachers (all from high-poverty, low performing schools) confessed that they, too, were laboring under similar mandates.  The discussion devolved from one about teaching to high standards to one about how to teach science without being caught. So the teaching of science to some of our youngest students has become a subversive activity? Not auspicious for the future we must win!

Finally, I am worried about the president’s message about teachers and the future of the teaching profession. I think the president was really sincere when he talked about the importance of teachers, but I am worried about what he didn’t say. He did say, “Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect (as is done is South Korea).” I am sure every teacher in the country who heard this murmured a quiet “thanks” for the sentiment.  But, unlike a few years ago, when teachers dared to “hope” that they might be respected at last, many probably shared my skepticism. If we are not even being listened to, how indeed will we be respected? Who is listening respectfully to teachers’ views on all the proposed reforms of the day – better teacher evaluations, more charter schools with fewer regulations, common standards and ways to assess them, to name a few?

I have a few suggestions for the president if he is really serious about garnering respect for teachers. He might begin by giving them a real voice in the policies that shape their work.  However, my strongest suggestion is for him to think about enacting policies that build a true profession of teaching, built on a high quality professional education, rigorous standards, high ethical principles, and enlightened professional authority. I would ask him to recognize that improving the quality of teaching will only happen when the profession itself is transformed to one that is owned and monitored by practitioners themselves who are empowered and responsible for instructional decisions that make sense for the children they teach.

If America wants its teachers to be “nation builders”, then surely they should be accorded the kind professional trust and esteem that is due to those charged with such an awesome responsibility.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2011 6:38 am

    Excellent piece, Sandy. Covers a lot of territory.

    The experience you had with National Board candidates who are not allowed to teach science has become the norm in my own work with teachers in urban districts. In fact, the conventional wisdom for teachers who are seeking certification or participating in “Take One!” is choosing the Literacy certificate, to avoid having to demonstrate how they weave science and math together.

    And then–they face the difficulty of having to explain how their own beliefs and experience run smack into the rigid requirements of their scripted reading program. In other words, they have to sneak around to teach reading in a way that aligns with what they believe is best for young readers.

    I don’t see these dilemmas in advantaged districts. The dividing line between “have” districts and “have-not” schools has grown substantially–and will continue to grow, as districts elevate the raising of test scores above all other goals. And that–precisely–is the legacy of NCLB, and the correlated purpose of RTTT.

    Thanks for a great blog.

  2. January 28, 2011 8:47 am

    Well done, Sandy. I’ve even had Natiopnal Board candidates complain that they can’t complete the WRITING part of their portfolio. Too much time focused on reading and math!

  3. January 28, 2011 9:22 am

    An insightful post that captures the deep sadness and frustration many of us felt as we watched the President’s speech. It was especially painful to hear him praise RttT, when numerous teacher groups last year, including a special webinar with over 250 NBCTs, made it very clear to Sec. Duncan that RttT was not a successful strategy. I was personally involved with several other discussion with the Secretary and other members of the DOE, which delivered the same message, as well as criticizing other aspects of the Blueprint. But clearly, the Administration has decided to develop selective hearing where teacher input is concerned.

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