Listening to the Experts on Education

In previous posts, I have discussed how teachers’ voices are largely missing from the education debate, and how, sidelined from it, teachers have found themselves cast as the central source of our education woes. Americans hear that bad teachers are holding the nation back from educational greatness. Based on this premise, a complex and dramatic set of reforms are being rolled out that include standardized, even scripted curricula; an increasing battery of standardized tests; and convoluted teacher evaluations and waves of school closures based on these tests.

What would we learn if we did listen?  In travelling around the country over the past few years to do that listening, my Schooled co-author, anthropologist Catherine Lutz, and I learned much.

The teachers we met said that the problems facing education are numerous. Most profound among them is widespread child poverty, with the majority of public schoolchildren today growing up in low-income households. First grade teacher Ulla Tervo-Desnick told how she collects outerwear so that all of her first-graders can take recess in chilly Minnesota. Glorianna UnderBaggage on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation explained how she keeps snacks in her classroom for the students she’s helping get to graduation, many of whom come to school unable to focus, hungry or exhausted from having no bed to sleep in.

We learned that austerity policies have hit schools hard. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 60% of states have failed to restore school funding to pre-recession levels. Teachers talked about furlough days that keep students out of school, about the loss of classroom aides who helped struggling students, about the time and energy they put into fundraising to provide basic supplies for their classrooms, and about increased class sizes that make it more difficult to reach every child.  We saw how Arizonan third grade teacher Lindsey McClintock’s class was inflated further when a substitute shortage created by low sub pay means teachers must take in students from the classes of sick colleagues.

We learned that teachers see some popular reform efforts as counterproductive to learning. Topping the list is the boom in standardized tests and a growing obsession with the data they produce. Teachers witness higher stress among students who frequently face high-stakes tests that can affect their grade promotion, course placement, and graduation, but also their school’s very fate. Colorado special needs teacher Robert Lewis explained how fixating on these tests narrows the curriculum—with the arts, social sciences, and physical education reduced in schools compelled to devote more time to the tested subjects—and fails his students, whose talents can be neglected by a strict focus on a few academic subjects and whose knowledge may not be meaningfully measured by tests.

We learned that teacher pay, quite low for professionals with advanced degrees, means many must take second jobs or consider moving on to more lucrative careers.  At the same time, teachers have been loaded with additional duties, including the work of crossing guards and clerical staff cut from budgets. Although some fortunate teachers retain flexibility and autonomy in what they teach and how they teach it, others are being constrained from fully exercising their craft. Standardized curriculum and scripted lessons mean teachers can’t innovate; such standardization, meant to ensure a consistent, minimum standard of instruction, is instead deprofessionalizing and demoralizing teachers. Illinois English teacher Gary Anderson pointed out, “If somebody else writes the script and then I'm evaluated on how well I read the lines, that's not evaluating me at all.”

We would learn that top-down reforms often misread teachers’ motivations and ignore our diverse communities’ differences. “Teacher accountability” reforms presume that teachers don’t feel intrinsically accountable for their students’ success and wellbeing.  Talking to Ann Marie Donnelly, who teaches the children of immigrants in a Bridgeport, Connecticut Catholic middle school, we learned that she, like many, feels answerable to her students in profound ways. Personally, culturally, even spiritually bound to their communities, the people who choose to teach know the job is a highly complicated art at which most are continually striving to improve.  Experienced teachers believe they know what will work to make their teaching more effective, and this includes changes in the wider conditions of children’s lives.  In their classrooms, they see the promise and the problems, some of which are specific to their communities, every day.  

Teachers are the experts to whom we should be turning for insight on how to design the truly necessary reforms to a system that cannot be meaningfully bettered without their input.  As Pasi Sahlberg, renowned Finnish educator and education policy advisor put it, “teaching is not rocket science: it’s more complicated than that.”  Let’s consult teachers, then, before pundits and businessmen, to restart the national conversation about its future.

Anne Lutz Fernandez became a high school English teacher after a career on Wall Street.  She is the co-author of Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change.