Why I Reject “School Reform”

This might sound crazy, but I’m a teacher who doesn’t care about school reform.

Sure, I follow the Edweek blogs, the articles, the Twittersphere, the research, the news. “School Reform” is everywhere. I just don’t think we have the right idea of what that is.

If you go to those blogs, those policy advocates’ Twitter profiles, or the news, you will see a lot of lies and myths disguised as panaceas to  ‘closing the educational gap.’ Teacher performance pay. Ipads for everyone. Internet for everyone. Replacing schools with online classes. Charter schools. Teacher evaluation. Of course all of these are a part of the reality of education.

And the belle of the ball…

Increased frequency and duration of standardized testing.  

Little of this is proven by research to ‘close the achievement gap.’ It is hearsay, wishful thinking, and rhetoric designed to get people elected. It is designed for the politicians to make themselves feel better about beating China in the arms race of intelligence. Think about this, if you haven’t already: do you think a senator or governor’s (or Michelle Rhee‘s) child even goes to a public school with standardized tests? Most likely, no. They can afford the elite school and get to call that ‘school choice.’  Do you think that person really cares what goes on in public schools? Call me cynical, but my guess is no. They are not in the school from day to day, experiencing the conditions and witnessing the struggles of those that they so lovingly call ‘at-risk students.’ How can they know? I’m not even blaming them for this lack of knowledge, because it is simply a logistical and situational consequence. They can’t possibly sit in their offices and be in my school building at the same time (they would probably run away in fear anyway).

You would think that they would understand that and then do something about it, but I’ve never known politicians to be very pragmatic. Instead they rely on ‘think tanks,’ ‘research institutions,’ (or worse, the news) to inform the policy they write. Or the teachers’ unions, for what that’s worth.

What’s that, you say? I can make decisions about children’s education without a teaching degree or ANY experience? Oh, that’s right—I just have to sign up for Teach for America.

Former Minnesota Teacher of the Year Ryan Vernosh says it better than I can here:

“Too often teachers are not even invited to the policy process until after policy has been created. Policy without teacher input usually results in impractical mandates that stifle effective teaching. When teachers are engaged in the conversation, the dynamic of policy creation shifts. It becomes far less bureaucratic and much more practical, grounded in the realities of teaching and learning, realities that are more fully understood by people with multiple years of successful teaching experience.”

Excuse me if I sound bitter. I have just sat through a morning of long discussion with my colleagues about how we are going to prepare our students for PARCC. PARCC is the replacement for the Ohio Graduation Test, and is almost quadruple the length. I do not even have words for my frustration with the lack of organization, information, or preparation from the State of Ohio on this test that is going to affect me and my students. I already know it’s setting us all up for failure, when most of my students read at a 4th or 5th grade level and will be expected to read at least at a 9th (most will be 10th or 11th). Those of you who know me know that I am not a defeatist and believe my students are incredibly capable human beings. But I am also practical and realistic, knowing that they are incredibly capable within their zones of proximal development as dictated in their testing results for their IEPs (Individualized Education Plans).

It is not an easy thing to look at the difficulty level (think Advanced Placement or ACT) of PARCC and know in my gut that my kids will not pass it. It hurts, because I desperately believe that they can be successful and I want that for them.  I know they can be successful, because I see it in my room every day. But even I am struggling with answering these questions perfectly (guess I need to go back to high school).*  Please know that I am not bashing testing for the purpose of assessment. But we are focusing far too much on what they can do in a very small amount of time. It’s a terrible representation of an entire school year.

Mostly, though, I’m disappointed. 

Disappointed in the leadership of this state and nation. Disappointed in frivolity of technology and the false sense of security it brings (since the kids will be learning “21st century skills” by taking this thing online). Disappointed in the lack of respect for me and all teachers in that two whole weeks of our instructional time is taken away. Disappointed in myself that I have to sit here and be a captive prisoner for the time being.

‘School reformers’ would tell me that I need to work harder and extend my school day if I want my students to achieve. Or they’d tell me I don’t believe enough in my kids and that I should look for another profession. That I’m a lazy teacher and can be replaced by someone who has less experience than me (yeah, it’s possible to have less experience than me!)

To that, I say that school reform should be about kids. About their mental health, about learning how to understand their behaviors, about positively engaging them, about helping them grow as young adults in all areas of their life, about making sure they are not hungry, that they have a home. About supporting people like me who need the training while in the classroom, about preparing teachers who are about to enter the classroom, about allowing teachers to have a voice (because you know we like to talk). I don’t need a three hour long test to tell me the things I need to know to teach my kids, or if I taught them well enough.

The bottom line is: let teachers be in on the decision-making in a systematic way, and you will see an improvement in student growth.

That’s the school reform I believe in.

I invite you all to hang in there with me and provide feedback, guidance, and advice as I seek out ways to help merge this gap between teachers and politicians.

I’m giving you teachers a chance to sound in here—-have YOU ever been consulted to inform state or federal policy? I haven’t, but who trusts the lowly, inexperienced educator of two years?

-S

*You can try your hand at the PARCC language arts questions here.

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7 comments

  1. As someone who has taken the GRE literature subject test twice, I feel pretty qualified to attest that these PARCC questions are even more designed to trip students up than a test that theoretically measures the knowledge and abilities of students going into the graduate study of literature. I can’t imagine trying to coach even “the best” students through a test like this.

  2. Participating in reform is difficult. Teachers are just one group involved in education — parents, children, taxpayers, businesses, and administrators are other groups. Two main problems in participating in reform are:
    1. It takes a lot of time to join committees and meet with others to clarify what changes you want and then to have your voice heard by others;
    2. Change requires political power, which for teachers means working with your professional organizations (NCTE, NCTM, IRA…) and your teacher union (OEA). This takes time and energy away from your teaching.

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