This guest post is from Connecticut Educator Jeannette Farber;
2015 is upon us. Instead of staying on the road known as “education reform,” I have 12 resolutions – one for each month of 2015.
Two words: Investment and Innovation
But first… The myth of “our public schools are failing.” We erroneously base a school’s success on standardized test scores. We are duped into thinking public schools are failing based on an international test known as the PISA test. In the five decades of our students taking this test, we have never done well. Yet, our nation continues to drive innovation and our nation has the world’s best universities. We are compared to countries with a 3 % poverty rate, Finland. We are compared to countries that do not educate or test everyone. Meanwhile, in the US, we educated everyone and test everyone. If test scores are the basis of success (again, an erroneous measure), we currently have the highest test scores in our history. We also have our highest graduation rates – 80% in four years and 90% for those who take more than four years or who earn a GED.
There are many myths: They are perpetuated by the corporate media and those profiting from privatizing public education.
Any lack of progress in school improvement is due to the lack of teacher empowerment and to equity in funding. We need to invert the power dynamic and create schools that work from the classroom out, not the federal, state, central office, and/or principal “down.” We need to focus on schools where there is intense poverty. These are not “failing schools”: they are schools that are being failed by society.
“Education reform” as we know it, began in 1983; since then, teachers have had to respond to initiatives that come and go whenever there is a change from “above.” Unfortunately, many folks driving policy and influence – like Arne Duncan, the Waltons, Bill Gates – have never been educators. Current drivers of education “reform” are “corporation education reformers.” Corporations profit from public schools by selling “solutions” that are anything but solutions. They brought narrow, not rigorous, standards, The Common Core, written by testing companies. What follows the Common Core? Canned assessments, scripted lessons, and an increasing onslaught of standardized testing – all purchased with taxpayer money.
And worse, this replaces the joy of life-long learning with the dread of a one-size-fits-all regime. It is not real learning. It is soul crushing.
So, instead of staying on this doomed road of corporate education reform, what should we do instead?
The 12 resolutions I offer are framed by two concepts: innovation and investment.
To start, by innovation, I mean this: We do need to transform public education as we still largely work on a century-old model – the factory model. We do need to make education more innovative, creative, student centered, and constructivist – all focusing on critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. The current road of “corporate education reform” will not take us there. In fact, it will take us in the opposite direction.
By investment, I mean this: Equity in funding and resources. When public education became compulsory a century ago, education leaders vowed to make public education the great equalizer. We have failed at that for a century. Usually, wealthier students receive more funding; poor students, less. That is a betrayal of our democratic values.
- Innovate, invert, the power dynamic: Starting from the “bottom” (See how we are conditioned to think?), educators need to take back our classrooms and schools for the sake of real learning and for our students.
- Innovate the purpose of “unions.” We can re-envision our teachers’ unions as true educational associations. Teachers need a credible way to ensure a seat at the head of the table. Education associations need to shift the paradigm from being narrowly focused wages, benefits, working conditions to transforming our organizations to lead the profession. We are the experts.
- Innovate the federal and state roles in education. Departments of Education (state and federal) should not be controlled of an administration. Administrations like to change the pieces, and even the game board, every 4 or 8 years. Rather, DoEs should be independent educational institutions that reports to an administration. Institution leaders should be actual educators. Every time we get a new principal, a new superintendent, a new governor, a new president, schools have to change direction. There is never continual focus on addressing the real problems. And, teachers have no voice in these “initiatives” or “reforms.”
- Innovate by creating the education institution just mentioned – a national organization that has state and local organizations – education associations! Teachers need professional development in the latest research and best practices. This national education institute and its state and local associations can provide professional leadership through affiliations with researchers and practioners in education, K – 12 or university experts. This would create ongoing, meaningful, and lasting transformation.
- Innovate how schools improve. Schools can work with these education organizations to create a vision and action plan for individual schools. Schools cannot fit into a one-size-fits-all reform. Instead, this model would be akin to how accreditation organizations work but more for the purpose of helping schools/teachers continually work on school-improvement that works from the classroom/school out.
- Innovate how schools and teachers help other schools and teachers transform themselves. Each school could have a profile describing it – its strengths and challenges – so it can be part of a consortium of other like schools, all working together to affect meaningful change – all teacher/administration/expert led, of course.
- Invest in universal pre-school education in all 50 states. Have additional programs for children living in severe poverty that engages the parent/s and child from birth until s/he enters preschool. Such programs can offer parenting classes and stress the importance of reading to a child. This can help close the gap before children enter school.
- Invest in wrap-around serves in all school districts with a high percentage of poverty. School districts can work with outside organizations and non-profits to supply families with wrap-around services: continuing education for parents, mental health services, rehab programs, heath care, conflict mediation, character education, after-school programs, tutoring, etc.
- Invest in teachers. In order to have a real and lasting effect, teachers need meaningful professional development, time to collaborate, and reasonable students loads. Currently, 46.2% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years. That statistic, obviously, tells us we do not treat teaching as the profession it is.
- Invest in collaboration. We need to invest in schedules that allow schools to be learning communities not just for students but also for teachers: these are inter-related. Teachers learn to be better teachers through continual reflection, collaboration, implementation, and innovation.
- Invest in lead teachers. Public education has become an incalcatrant bureaucracy. Approximately 51% of K-12 employees are classroom teachers. The remaining 49% is administration and support staff. We need to distinguish between administrators who have a managerial role (scheduling, policy, etc.) and administrators who are educational leaders (experts in curriculum, instruction, and assessment). I’ll call these folks Lead Teachers. We could trim the bureaucracy if we empowered teachers, unleashing their expertise in order to lead schools in a continual growth model. And, let’s narrow the wide gap between teachers’ and administrators’ salaries.
- Invest a rich curriculum. Since NCLB and RttT, curricula have become very narrowly focused on math and reading – both vital components to education. However, students deserve a rich curriculum. Art, music, history, world languages, electives, etc. And young children need play time. We need to bring our curriculum into the 21st century: more interdisciplinary and focused problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration.
The future of public education is truly at risk. We must resolve to transform our public schools by entrusting the experts, American educators, to lead the way.
Jeannette Faber has been teaching high school English in CT for 19 years. She holds three advanced degrees, the most recent a doctorate in English Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dr. Faber resides in New Haven, CT. © Jeannette C. Faber 2014