An Open Letter to Education Reformers

Dear “Education Reformers”:

You know what? I’m convinced. I’ve decided to believe you when you say that you want what’s best for kids, and that you are concerned about the future of the children of this country as well as the future economic prosperity of the country itself. I, and every other educator and parent I’ve ever met, share your concern and your desire to improve education in this country. It is, after all, important.

But let’s talk about the methods you’ve chosen to achieve this goal, shall we?

Do you have children yourself, Mr/s. Ed reformer? Have you ever tried to convince one of your children to do something they didn’t want to do? And, in this attempt, did you threaten your child with consequences if they didn’t do what you wanted them to do? How did that work out for you?

“Eat your peas, or no dessert!”
“Clean your room, or you’re grounded!”
“Mow the lawn, or you can’t use the car this weekend!”
“Stop crying before I give you something to cry about!”

Odds are, you got the behavior you wanted, be it eating peas or a mown lawn. But did your threat of punishment make your child enjoy eating their peas? Was the lawn mowed better than it ever had been before? What was the quality of the work the child produced? Was it the last time you ever had to threaten punishment to get the same behavior? Did the quality of the mowing, or the enthusiasm of eating peas maintain the same high level? Or did you get a half-hearted, bare-minimum attempt to fulfill the request you’d made, along with a bitter, surly child who said they hated you? Or was it that you simply wanted compliance, not a real change in behavior, not real quality work?

Have you ever tried to get an adult to do something for you? A co-worker, subordinate, spouse, or stranger? What approaches have worked best for you? Threatening discipline or termination, divorce, or physical violence? Or appealing to their sense of professionalism, responsibility, or community? Asking them to change, or telling them to change? Have you seen significant drops in crime that you can attribute to the threat of severe consequences alone, or do such drops come with an accompanying increase in police presence and community improvement initiatives?

I think you’ll agree: you can’t threaten or punish people into doing what you want them to do; at least, not if you want them to continue doing it after you let up on the punishment. You get them to do what you want when you work with them, treat them with the respect they are due, and value their contributions.

So, being the smart, dedicated people you are, I ask you: why do you think taking away teachers’ unions, due process rights, salaries, and professional standing will make them teach better?

“Care more about students, or we’ll cut your salaries!”
“Teach better, or we’ll cancel the collective bargaining agreement!”
“Work harder, and longer, for less money, or we’ll replace you with long-term subs who work cheaper!”

Look, we get it; the economy is bad, and everyone has had to tighten their belts (well, at least everyone who isn’t a CEO, but we’ll ignore that point for now.) Teachers and other school employees around the country have done exactly that, accepting pay freezes and cuts, furlough days, and abbreviated school years along with reductions in support staff, cuts in classroom supplies, fewer visits from the custodian, and larger class sizes, all accompanied by the ever-present threat of the RIF notice, and have accepted them largely without complaint and while minimizing the impact on kids in their classrooms. And in exchange for these sacrifices, we’ve been told that we’re overpaid, lazy, and concerned more about our big, fat pensions than we are our students’ achievement. We’re told we can’t be trusted to do our jobs without frequent visits from “experts” who have never actually worked with kids to make sure we’re doing it right. We’re told that years of experience and advanced degrees are meaningless in comparison to the “enthusiasm” of a Teach For America teacher with 5 weeks training and an Ivy League college loan debt they’re hoping to have forgiven after 2 years. We’re told that insisting on the right to bargain collectively for salary, benefits, and working conditions makes us “defenders of the status quo” who don’t care about kids.

So, we comply, but our heart isn’t in it. We’ll administer the standardized tests that don’t really tell us what you say they do, and in the process we’ll kill our kids’ natural curiosity and joy of learning, because “you measure what your treasure,” and if it’s not on the test, we don’t care. We’ll read scripted lessons to our classes of 35+ kids, and refuse to answer questions that aren’t in the teachers’ guide because we can’t be trusted to do so. We’ll skip art, music, and PE because they aren’t tested. And we’ll burn out and leave the profession in droves, because that’s what you want, and you’ll find (probably too late) that our kids are worse off than they were before.

Well, here’s another option: include us in the process. Let’s work together to make schools better for kids. For kids, not for CEOs, not for politicians, but for kids. We want to do what’s best for kids; not what’s cheapest, or most popular amongst the Tea Party set, but what is best for kids. Treat us with respect, and we will be willing to listen. We want to make our profession better, just as you claim; work with us to make it so. Please.

Sincerely,

Jim

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16 comments so far

  1. Matt on

    Perfectly put. Perfect.

  2. Barry Rapoport on

    no wasted words.

  3. John Thomas on

    Thank you for a powerful piece of writing. You express many of the frustrations of my friends and family who teach in American schools.

    When politicians like Chris Christie or Rick Scott speak of “education reform” they usually mean “education cuts”. (It’s the same with “welfare reform” by which they usually mean “welfare cuts”.) Removing teachers’ right to collective bargaining is a cost cutting measure that does nothing to improve learning outcomes.

    Unfortunately these politicians don’t seem to understand the importance of a good education and they certainly don’t know how to deliver one. Remunerating teachers according to the test scores of their students is nonsense.

    As for Teach for America, it sounds like a good idea – on paper. The problem is that most teachers don’t become good teachers until they’ve been teaching for a number of years. Most TFA teachers are inexperienced teachers attempting to help underprivileged schools that are badly in need of experienced teachers. There is evidence to suggest that TFA teachers compare favorably to traditional teaching graduates, but this only serves to highlight the problem the teaching profession has in attracting talent. If you have talent, why would you want $35,000 a year as a starting salary? Fortunately some talented people continue to choose teaching, but most look for a more secure financial future.

  4. Mark on

    I agree with most of what you say. The current round of reforms are not what is good for kids. My disagreement is that over my career of 16 years in the classroom during the last 20+ years, we teachers have been at the table. We did get to provide input on policy, at least in the districts I have worked in. Time after time we did not step up to the plate. Time after time we were given the opportunity to design the curriculum, to create innovative programs, to do things differently. But we sat in the meetings reading the newspaper, talking among ourselves, paying lip service to reform opportunities. Then we went back into our classrooms and did the same things over and over again.

    That is how it has gone in the schools I have worked in. I see nothing to convince me things are any different now. Sorry but that is how I see it.

    • middleschoolap on

      Thanks for the comment, Mark.
      I agree, teachers bear some responsibility in the current state of the profession; we adopted a “this is just another swing of the pendulum” approach to change within our schools, and so as the current cycle gained momentum we waited for it to swing back the other way. But it didn’t.

      As for having a place at the table, that’s true at district-, maybe even county-level. But a look of what’s going on at the state and national levels would reveal very few educators involved in policy making.

      And while we may have missed, even squandered earlier opportunities to influence the direction of change, that doesn’t mean that we should continue to all these “reforms” to be done to us without comment.

  5. Twitted by RicardoRamOK on

    […] This post was Twitted by RicardoRamOK […]

  6. Tiffany on

    Such a good post. Thank you for writing it and sharing your thoughts.

  7. Jonathan Wilson on

    My issue is with the format and design of a system that is completely irrelevant to a post industrial society. IMO, Sitting kids down in florescent lit boxes, facing them forward and rewarding the most boredom tolerant ones is of no value. The real intelligent ones with the fertile minds (often the so called ADHD trouble makers who are literally being tortured…the next Bill Gates, Ford, Edison Wright Bros….fill in the blank) are the ones who really get squashed in this horrible scheme. Arbitrarily setting some sort of high test score standards and hoping this design will work is like expecting to win the Indy 500 in a model T (A once relevant car). Even the best driver driving a model T is no contest for today’s Ferrari. The model T in this case is the current K-12 design. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a better result is insanity. Punishing the driver of the model T for not winning the race is stupid. The whole John Dewey thing needs to be scrapped, put in a museum (preferably grave) and re-designed completely. It is a poor design and does not fly. Ditch it.

  8. Michael Gushue on

    Two things argue against believing education reformers truly want what’s best for our children. First, they say it too much–always a good indicator of lying and bad conscience. Second, since their reforms transparently do not work in the best interests of children, they would have to be psychotic to want what is best for children, and then do what they do.

  9. Dick on

    Why do teachers feel they are doing their job if most of the colleges have to have incoming students take remedial
    courses?

    • Matt Arguello on

      Because some students have to remediate certain courses does not mean teachers as a whole are not doing their jobs. A lot more than good teachers goes into preparing kids for college, and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

    • Kristin on

      Maybe because the teachers were so busy teaching to the mandated test that they had no time left to actually teach the kids how to THINK.

  10. Dale on

    I appreciate that, for the many dedicated teachers out there, the efforts of some education reformers may seem an attack on their profession. On the other hand, I think that these hard-working teachers may be quite ill-served by the methods and rhetoric of teachers’ union leadership, which appears to be primarily focused on higher compensation, fewer hours, and less accountability. Examples abound, but the public focuses on high-profile examples such as NYC’s “rubber room” or the shuffling of poor-performing teachers in which many districts engage. Accounting for those examples, and the larger facts that (i) per-pupil, real education spending has doubled in the past 40 years [http://1.usa.gov/1uRf7V] and (ii) that the US per-pupil education spend is among the highest in the industrialized world, both without commensurate results [http://bit.ly/gvcnh5]—isn’t it inevitable that some sort of reform movement would take root? Isn’t it inevitable that such a reform movement would stress greater accountability, and therefore greater scrutiny of expenditures and a greater emphasis on testing? For the many hard-working and dedicated educators who deliver real results, this is a great opportunity. And, to the extent that you can influence union leadership to turn away from the destructive practices which have cast a negative light on an honorable profession, I think you would be well-advised to do so. In short, I think it would be better to acknowledge the shortcomings which have spawned the education reform movement and to welcome the increased accountability–it is an opportunity for highly effective educators to again demonstrate their contribution to society.

    • middleschoolap on

      Thank you for your comment, Dale. I appreciate you taking the time to join the conversation.
      I agree that the teachers’ unions are largely focused on higher compensation; that is, after all, one of the primary functions of an employees’ union. As for fewer hours and less accountability, though, I disagree. The matter of working hours is, at least where I’ve worked, a function of how many days of instruction and minutes of instruction per curricular area. A local teachers’ association may work for a longer lunch time for its members or to reduce the number of times they may be compelled to attend staff meetings (very little education happens at staff meetings, in any profession), but I’ve not seen, in my own experience, any push for fewer work days.
      As for accountability, I think you’ll find that teachers aren’t opposed to being accountable, but have serious and well-founded reservations as to the measures being used to hold them accountable. Standardized tests are not effective measures of learning or of teacher quality; they are effective at comparing one student’s “snapshot” against another taking the same test, and nothing more. Comparing a student’s performance on the test from one year to the next is also misleading, as the tests often aren’t scaled from year-to-year; you’d have to administer the same test to the same student twice to get a valid comparison.
      Likewise comparisons internationally, where US scores have been more-or-less stable; differences in student and cultural homogeneity, educational systems, and other factors impacting who, exactly, is taking the assessments make comparisons problematic, despite what fear-mongering media may tell us.
      Educational expenditures have increased, true. Teachers and support staff salaries are more in line now with the education and preparation necessary to do the job than they were 40 years ago; benefits offered to staff are hugely more expensive (increasing at about 10-20% per year); everything schools need to operate is more expensive, from pencils to copy machines to diesel for the school busses to the land the schools sit on. Schools offer more support programs for students at need.
      There are plenty of areas where schools and teachers need to improve, but treating them like lazy, greedy leeches on the public teat isn’t going to make it happen.

  11. Caitlin on

    Well, I don’t have kids, but I’m a student myself, and I’m of the opinion that our schools don’t need reform, they need a complete overhaul. Call it unrealistic, but I think it’s the only solution. The US school system is completely wrong-headed.

    Just look at the prevalence of AP and IB classes- the school system is literally doing such a bad job that it has to rely on a corporate third party for classes at 35% of its schools (or more, I’m sure that number has gone up since ’09, the last time it was estimated.)

    Furthermore, the industrial school system, introduced in about 1910 (and the standardized tests it brought with it) is STILL our basic school model, despite the fact that our economy hasn’t been industry-based for a while now. Besides, assuming the current rate of technological development continues, jobs in manufacturing and industry will be made obsolete by robots, which have the advantage of being totally accurate, working 24/7, not collecting a pay check, and lacking the basic mental functions to go on strike. So what’s left? Well, human ingenuity. Ideas. Creativity. Analysis. Most importantly, passion. Basically, all the things that got cut from the school budgets and that can’t be shown on a test.

    What we need is a totally new system. And I think you’re right- kids won’t succeed just because they’re punished for failure. You were, of course, referring to teachers, but I think it’s doubly true of students. We have the wrong cultural outlook on schools. Schools should be an opportunity, not a burden. You know what? There’s nothing worse than a class you’re interested in full of people who don’t want to be there. It really doesn’t matter how good the curriculum or the teacher is, if the students don’t care about the subject and don’t care about their grades than it’s going to be one miserable, interminable period every day where you attempt to dodge spitballs and food items and ask yourself why you ever thought that the course could be intellectually stimulating. Why this insistence on punishing truancy? Beyond middle school, there’s simply no reason to make school mandatory. It hurts students who are there to learn and it wastes the time of people destined to drop out anyway, people who could be looking for gainful employment. Maybe that sounds cruel. After all, more school means a better quality of life. But so long as American high schools are lowering the quality of the education they deliver to everybody in order that they shouldn’t leave out anybody, even those who actively resist what they’re trying to provide, they’ll end up pleasing nobody at all.

  12. la cholita on

    im a paraeducator in a middle school and i agree completely with caitlin—schools need a complete overhaul, not reform

    some people will never be academics and thats all there is to it—-all education should be “special education” —-because there is no such thing as the “average” child—every student has their own unique mix of abilities and challenges—-

    unfortunately the interminable quest for mediocrity and conformity continues in the workplace long after school has become a memory—-sad


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