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. . . And What Is Your Solution?

May 3, 2010

It is a warm and somewhat balmy evening in our nation’s capital.   The standard “teacher uniform” of comfortable pants and sensible shoes is replaced with classy gowns, high heels, and pressed tuxedoes.  Tonight is a celebration of some extraordinary teachers from across our country and an opportunity to hear from some folks who are working hard to influence education policy at the national level.

After some mingling, appetizers, and customary introductions, the program begins.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks first about the “Blueprint for Reform” and the reauthorization of the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (in upcoming posts, I will speak more about this speech as well as additional meetings with the Department of Education).  He emphasizes the need for each student to have access to a quality education with a quality teacher, reiterating the Department’s commitment to supporting states and districts that define, measure, and develop “effective teachers” and “effective leaders.”  He also addresses the limitations of No Child Left Behind, pointing specifically to the importance of a more well-rounded curriculum that “strengthens the teaching and learning of arts, foreign languages, history and civics, financial literacy, environmental education, and other subjects.”

Next to address the audience are leaders from two major teacher unions.  Their speeches are well-rehearsed and emotional, with moments of humor and sadness.   They speak about the 100,000 to 300,000 possible teacher layoffs that face our fellow teachers.  There is also considerable time spent criticizing the weaknesses of standardized testing as a sole means to gauge student and teacher effectiveness.  Some jabs are directed at the “Blueprint for Reform,” specifically with regards to assessment.  At the end of the speech, the woman sitting next to me says:  “Entertaining speech, yes; solution driven, no.”  This sums up my own impressions as well.

Unions have traditionally played a significant role in our education establishment.  Sure, they exist primarily to protect the interests of their members.  But they have also been the loudest, and sometimes the lone, voice speaking about the importance and value of teachers as critical components of a functioning educational system.  However, as Nancy Flanagan pointed out recently in her blog, there is so much more teacher unions can do to promote innovation and progressive reform in teaching, learning, and leadership.

The absence of any of specific solutions, proposals, or remedies for education reform from the union representatives at this evening’s gathering is clearly evident.  Rather than a forty-five minute speech criticizing a policy that has yet to be implemented or even approved, I am much more interested in hearing specific recommendations to fix the problem.  Yes, many, including me, agree that our current system of standardized testing is severely flawed.  Many also recognize that finding a good system to quantify teacher effectiveness is elusive.

However, as I travel throughout the state this year visiting with teachers, parents, students, and legislators, there is also recognition that there must be accountability.  As a profession, we cannot accept or condone mediocrity . . . from our students or from our colleagues.  We need to create a system that supports teachers and treats them as professionals, but at the same time acknowledges that we have the duty to provide a quality learning experience to every child.

It is time for unions to put their mottos into action.  Rather than object to proposed systems of accountability passed down by others, there needs to be a serious discussion about how we, as teachers, will hold each other accountable.  Whether it is through teacher-created rubrics and portfolios, such as those used at my own school, or some other reasonable but rigorous model, we need to come up with specific proposals for reform.  One size may not fit all, but let’s start trying on some models.

Shirley Hufstedler, our nation’s first Secretary of Education, stated:  “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining.  You make progress by implementing ideas.”  As teachers, we cannot be afraid of being held accountable. It is time for us, and our trade associations, to discuss and propose progressive and reform-oriented models of accountability.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 5:58 am

    I don’t know… I think the problem is more cryptic than that. It isn’t as if the unions don’t have their own plans and proposals for these issues, including ones that have been implemented in various states and districts.

  2. May 3, 2010 6:48 am

    While I agree that teachers need to be held accountable for the education of their students, it constantly and consistently irks me that seemingly everyone forgets that the students should also be held accountable for their own education. Like the old saying, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” you can give students all the tools and tricks and individual attention in the world but unfortunately, sometimes, they just do not want to learn and, also unfortunately, we cannot force them.

    As for the thousands of layoffs across the country, it makes me feel ill. I worked hard to become a teacher and I could not find a job then (7 years ago). I cannot imagine what it’s like now. I struggled and finally capitulated and took a job working in a daycare just so I had something that was loosely related to my degree. I hated every second of those 54 weeks. Now I’m back in school working on another BA in special education. If I cannot find a job in this field, I will be sorely disappointed and I have no idea what I will do.

  3. Terilyn permalink
    May 4, 2010 12:33 pm

    To Renee Anne: I’m happy to hear that you are going into Special Education, I serviced my students for a decade and loved the small class size and the wonderfully diverse personalities and learning needs of the students. Good for you! (Think universal design for learning and instruction)

    To Kelly Kovacic: Excellent article, thank you for sharing your experience that evening. Also, thank you for sharing Shirley Hufstedler’s words, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”

    I hope that all parties involved, from the State Department of Education to the unions to students and their parents and higher education departments, collaborate to define, measure, and develop “effective teachers” and “effective leaders” assessments (from hiring to firing and everything in between).

  4. May 6, 2010 3:33 am

    Part and parcel of the need to find solutions is the need to find solutions together. The conversation on public education has become very polarized lately. That makes it all the more difficult to be constructive.

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