Monday, November 5, 2012

Instead of "No," how about "Yes And."

It's been a long time. I've been winding down my curriculum work and trying to prepare my home and myself for this edu-switch. But I've also hit pause a bit on the blogging as I process the Chicago teacher's strike and speak to teacher-friends about policy and politics, charters and parents--and my  interest in school reform.

It is unfortunate that "reform" and "innovation" and "improvement" have become dirty words among many educators. When I mention my interest in K–12 education reform to my teacher-friends, a tense, expressionless curtain drops over their features (and how many of you either shivered or snarled when you read that phrase?) But I think most people who feel dedication to and passion for  public education have similar goals. It's disappointing that phrases become slogans or buzzwords and eliminate, rather than encourage, communication.

I think excellent teachers are the key to excellent learning outcomes, but it's nonsense to hold them solely responsible for making changes--they are within a system and a paradigm that requires dramatic change and over which  they have little control. Evaluating the hell out of them won't help, and is mostly a way for policy-makers to avoid the hard decisions and for politicians to look like they care about their constituents' children.

That said, I think there's nothing wrong with setting up accountability structures to track performance and growth. All places of employment should have this. It's just that doing so without setting up sensible, thoughtful support structures, and without providing the time needed within the workday and throughout the school year, is unfair and will not work.

I think teachers' ideas, opinions, and efforts are essential, monumentally important components in real change--but they're not the only components. Bigger-picture observations and considerations related to conditions outside of the school building are also essential, and there are systemic things that have to happen to support, replicate, and institutionalize the sort of success individual schools have built.

I think teachers are treated horribly. I think they are not regarded as or paid as professionals or as practitioners of one of the most important arts in a society. But I also think the union does not protect teachers from indignities. The union fights hand-to-hand combat, beating out tiny victories while the whole ship on which those battles are taking place is sinking.

I think the whole model needs to change. Teaching should be a highly competitive profession, but equally highly paid and respected. Teachers should spend many years in a residency learning to teach with excellence, artistry, and rigor, and be coached regularly there--and, once they make it through the residency, they should be trusted with their students like the professionals they are. They should be provided with the resources they need and the time for research, study, collaboration, and grading outside of the classroom.

The immediate response to this Finland model idea is often that it could never work in a country like ours, a gigantic, sprawling place with an unbelievable richness of demographic texture. First of all,  we haven't tried it, so we don't know; of course we will need to make it our own, but there must be many valuable concepts and processes we can take form that model. And secondly--okay. Great. I'm game: so what ARE  you thinking? Let's do it. Let's not just stop at saying No. Can we take a note from improv artists? Instead of "No," let's try "Yes, and."

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