What Comes First? Teachers or Ed-Reform?
Yesterday, the House passed a bill by Congressman David R. Obey that would save 100,000 to 300,000 teaching jobs by cutting Race to the Top funds in the tune of $300 million. There have been lots of rumbles of both dissension and relief by those who keep up with the education reform debate.
One thing is clear, at least to teachers in the field: no reform will take place without actual teachers in place to implement it.
It might seem like common sense to state this, but there are those out there who feel saving teachers’ jobs is a ploy of the teachers union who only care about employment and tenure. I would disagree with this portrayal. Teaching, by definition, is about change and reform. Each day, each class even, presents an opportunity to reflect on the success of a lesson, and to ponder ways in which the lesson can be improved. I know teachers who teach 7 sections of the same class and have a different lesson plan for each of them. You can’t even use the same lessons year to year (although there is a percentage of teachers who do) because the student population is dynamic; forever changing.
Before the term “ed reform” came into being, teachers were reforming on a regular basis. That is what belonging to a professional organization is about. Teachers attend conferences where they learn the latest techniques, strategies, and creative approaches to their subject, usually from other practitioners or from college professors or education companies. Unfortunately with the nationwide funding cuts it has become harder and harder to facilitate these types of opportunities for teachers. With pay cuts and furloughs, it is even more difficult for the regular classroom teacher to pay out of pocket for a plane ticket, hotel, registration, etc. to attend these events. Many teachers have formed critical friends groups or book clubs to bounce ideas off of each other. Teachers at my school meet once a month on Saturdays at Panera Cafe to discuss “reforms;” thanks to these caffeine-fueled Saturdays we have created many programs and initiatives that have served our students and school community. We do not think it is a coincidence that our middle school is the school of choice in the neighborhood; parents can sense when a school is on its way up.
But the last several years of No Child Left Behind have also resulted in the unintended consequence of rigidity and uniformity in K-12 schools. Because schools and districts get predominantly judged on English and Math scores, many districts have imposed uniform, cookie-cutter curriculum programs that forbid teachers from deviating from the step-by-step lessons in an effort to ensure the maximum focus on tested standards, thus remaining in compliance with NCLB. Now, teachers are often in intellectual and creative conflict with administrators and district personnel whose job is to enforce compliance. A sub-culture of ninja-teachers has emerged, where teachers secretly read novels with students or accelerate through pacing plans in an effort to meet the needs of that particular set of students. It is regretful that it has come to that.
Unions, contrary to what some may say, have also been involved in education reform. Lobbying for small class-size, local school control, and “pilot schools” that operate free of District restrictions are just a few initiatives of the last 10 years in Los Angeles. But union members are also skeptics, and perhaps this is so because reforms from outside of the teaching ranks tend to come from legislators, philanthropists, businessmen, etc. who have no background in education and sometimes propose reforms that have not been thought through, or are plainly wrong. The small schools initiative was a favorite of Bill Gates. In theory, it makes sense to build small schools where you can get to know more of your students better. But building such schools increases construction expenses, support service personnel, and balloons the bureaucracy. All of these end up taking money away from the classroom budgets and students. To his credit, Bill Gates has taken responsibility for the lack of expected success with this initiative. Unions react indignantly to the lack of consultation by the decision-makers, and lack of consensus becomes the norm.
There is no guarantee that the Obey plan will be passed by the Senate. But it’s good to know someone is listening to the experts, the teachers, when we say that overcrowded, underfunded classrooms taught by substitutes will guarantee that no education reform will come to fruition ever, in any school, should this bill be vetoed. We hope the Department of Education is listening.