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‘Tis the Gift to be Simple . . . or Not?

April 19, 2011

This past Saturday, I visited the local Home Depot. My kitchen sink was clogged and I needed help. As I entered the store, I noticed a middle-aged woman just outside the front doors with a clip-board. She approached another customer and earnestly asked, “Are you interested in helping to save our schools?” Not getting the expected response, she added, “Unions are destroying our schools. Help us end their negative influence.” Initially wary and rushed, the customer stopped. “This is about unions?,” he asked. When informed that the petition supported legislation to end collective bargaining in California, the customer signed and commented, “I just saw that Superman movie. Seems like just about the only thing unions do is protect bad teachers.”

Even in our age of sound bites, I was struck by the simplicity of this exchange. In a minute or so, the complex discussion about education reform had been reduced to a few sentences. Reporter Jonathan Mahler in a recent NY Times article notes that this ongoing discussion about improving our schools is based on false dichotomies. In framing the issues, reformers and the media routinely resort to sweeping rhetoric, broad generalizations, and typecasts. As Mahler writes, the current conversation and coverage present differing and seemingly incompatible points of view:

If you support the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the students. If you are critical of the teachers’ union, you don’t care about the teachers. If you are in favor of charter schools, you are opposed to public schools. If you believe in increased testing, you are on board with the corruption of our liberal society’s most cherished educational values. If you are against increased testing, you are against accountability.

It is an easy narrative. Black and white. Good versus evil. You’re either with me or against me. You don’t need to address the nuances, complexities, inconsistencies, or even common ground of the various positions. Kind of like placing a “Keep the government out of my Medicare and Social Security” sticker on your bumper.

However, it is a narrative that is detrimental to our schools, our education system, and most importantly our students. Simplifying the arguments in such a way creates a perception of educators, policy-makers, and advocates that is neither accurate nor useful.

It is also a narrative that is anathema to what we teach. In history, as in other disciplines, we have our students study multiple resources and analyze multiple perspectives about a set of issues or circumstances. This is done in an effort to help our students develop, practice, and refine critical thinking skills and particular habits of mind. The grown-ups in the conversation, however, often fail to engage in similar thoughtful conversations that are devoid of simplistic rhetoric, accusations, and sweeping generalizations. This is what was so striking about the recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession, where a single narrative about education was replaced with real and honest dialogue, listening, and collaboration.

As a teacher at a charter school on a public university campus, I believe in the value of quality charter schools that work in collaboration with public schools. Justice Louis Brandeis famously found state legislatures to be “laboratories of democracy.” Charter schools can play a similar role – a place where new ideas can be tested to see if they work; to see if they make sense. At our school, the students have one common trait. They all live below the poverty line. Otherwise, our students represent a rich diversity of cultures, languages, traditions, personalities, and academic skills. Quality charter schools like ours provide an opportunity for students of diverse backgrounds and skill sets to access equitable learning opportunities. The flexibility we have to develop effective and individualized lesson plans and programs is invaluable.

However, I recognize that among charter schools there are wide variations in performance and quality as well as wide variations in the student populations being served. Charter schools alone are not the silver bullet that will fix our education system, but can be a legitimate component of a multi-faceted approach. When they work, they improve the system. When they don’t, they can even impede efforts of a neighboring public school. And, as a product of the public school system, I am a staunch supporter of public schools. Public schools are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, committed to educating every child.

In another break from the single narrative, I believe in the educational values upon which our nation was founded, strong systems of accountability, and common standards in education. However, while the Common Core makes significant progress, our current accountability systems are flawed. As a teacher, I have a responsibility to ensure that my students grow as learners and individuals, regardless of their backgrounds and incoming skills. Yet, the current standardized exams used to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness provide only a limited snapshot. They do not render a comprehensive portrait of student skill sets, content knowledge, and dispositions, or teacher effectiveness.

And, even though I am not a member of a teachers union, I am not anti-union. Historically, unions have played a tremendously positive role in the labor movement, helping to create safer working conditions and protecting members, including teachers, from capricious and discriminatory employment practices. To describe unions as only concerned about keeping their members gainfully employed at the expense of student achievement is grossly unfair. However, in education as in life, perception is often as important as reality. Unions are perceived by many as being single-minded, defensive, and ineffectual. They need to do a better job articulating their critical role as a proponent of high quality teaching and improved student learning.

With all these moving parts in the discussion, we need to stop taking sides. We need the communities of educators, policy-makers, and advocates to set aside their differences and collectively ponder some fundamental questions about education reform and accountability:

  • What does powerful learning look and sound like? What are the common norms of practice we want to see in the classroom?
  • What kinds of problems, activities, and conversations do we need to engage our students? To prepare them for the real world?
  • What types of questions are our students able to ask as a result of the learning taking place in their classroom? What do these questions tell us about student knowledge?
  • How do we know that students understand what is being taught?
  • What is it that our students are not learning? What supports must be provided to improve the learning?
  • How do we align all our resources in a way that will help support improved learning for students, teachers, and education leaders?

Education is a unique business. There will never be a 100% reliable or scientific method to assess what a student has learned. However, we must find fair, equitable, and substantive ways to determine if a student is learning and, if not, what supports can be put in place to assist that student. We also must find fair, equitable, and substantive ways to determine if a teacher is advancing that learning and, if not, what supports can be put in place to assist that teacher. The oversimplification of the discussion hurts our students because it avoids meaningful conversations that will lead to lasting, positive, systemic change. We fail our students when we focus only on our differences.

Fundamentally, we all want systems that work for our students. However, there is no quick-fix. The scene that played out in front of Home Depot highlights the divisiveness and inaccuracies that dominate our current conversation about education reform. A real victory for our students, and our nation, will only come when we finally recognize the complexities of the narrative and begin working together to establish fair, thoughtful, and effective policies and supports.

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