“Where I Stand” (Sabrina)
“Where I Stand” (A School Reform Survey)
Name & role: Sabrina, 4th/5th grade teacher & community activist
What “reform” means to me, and why I think it’s important: I think reform should be an ongoing process of making sure what’s happening in schools matches our ideals (fairness, justice) and helps students be productive members of society. I think it’s important to understand how our school system works, and build on what works well, instead of assuming that it is wholly “broken”. Almost all of us attend public schools, so what goes on in schools is very important.
Where I Stand on…
The purpose(s) of schooling: I think schools should prepare students for citizenship in a democracy, and help them to be productive and caring people (at present and in the future). I’ve written at some length about this elsewhere.
The school reform discussion (general thoughts): It bothers me that we hear the least from those who are most directly affected by current reform efforts. Teachers, students, and parents in the schools that have significant problems are almost never asked what we think is going wrong or right, or how it should be changed. I think that’s why efforts at positive change have been largely unsuccessful.
How to create high-quality learning environments: First and foremost, trust and empower teachers. Right now, teachers have very little control over what we get to do in our classrooms. The textbooks and curriculum guides we’re pressured/required to use are some of the most boring, non-stimulating “resources” I’ve ever encountered. (And how retro is it that we’re still so reliant on them at all?!) If we’re forced to read from these things, and kids are forced to listen and regurgitate their “learning” on stupid, low-level tests, we shouldn’t be surprised that so few kids (and increasingly, teachers!) like school.
Let us spend less time on testing and test prep, and more time doing projects, experimenting, reading, writing, and creating! (Teachers can use all of that to assess and meet students’ needs, and it wouldn’t take time away from the learning process.) Free us to use our knowledge to work with our students, their parents, and the local community to build the kinds of learning environments that we think will be most engaging and effective. Hold us accountable for helping kids become readers, writers, etc., but don’t mandate certain ways to accomplish that, or force all kids to do it the same way at the same time.
Also, make sure resources are allocated equitably and efficiently. Schools in low-income communities, or with higher concentrations of special-needs students, need more funding than they currently get. Likewise, let’s stop spending money on things that don’t fuel learning, like excessive testing, test prep materials, and public relations people. (Yes, most big school districts have
PR media relations departments, and some of these people make way more than teachers. I’m sure central office secretaries can disseminate info about snow days and public meetings. The “rah-rah-we’re-so-great” stuff should be cut or done on a volunteer basis, if we’re in the sort of times where we’re laying off teachers, having furlough days, and requiring parents to pay for office supplies!)
Recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers: Train, treat, and pay teachers like professionals! (Our work is so satisfying, when we can focus on teaching and learning instead of forms and other crap for other adults.) Instead of focusing on “firing bad teachers”, we should be talking about how to make sure we have great ones in the first place.
I know I’m obsessing over Finland this week, but I think they’ve got the right idea in this area. They require (and pay for) three years of Master’s level education for all teachers, and have teachers spend two years apprenticing in classrooms before they run their own. They then give them the freedom to determine how they’ll teach, instead of beating them over the head with clunky standards and scripted programs. They don’t rely on external testing to judge teachers and students, which we know can be distracting and demoralizing. They’re paid similarly to other professionals, so they can provide comfortably for their families.
Accountability: Student outcomes are influenced by many factors that are beyond our control, so it’s unfair to make “accountability” all about their performance. Instead of trying to catch people doing something wrong (“Your students are failing! You must suck!”), we should observe and support all teachers to continuously improve (and yes, remove those who resist). Likewise, I think the more power you have, the more accountable you should be. (Be afraid, Joel Klein. Be very afraid…) If students and teachers haven’t been given the support (resources, feedback, etc.) they need to be successful, then we need to make sure they do get it.
Standardized testing: They’re imperfect and incomplete, but they can be helpful for directing our attention to potential problems when three conditions are met: when we use them for their intended purposes (value-added fails on that criterion!), in conjunction with other information, and when the stakes aren’t punitively high. I think criterion-referenced tests are better than norm-referenced tests, since they don’t automatically create failure by arranging test-takers on a distribution. I think we need to require test-makers to be transparent about quality control measures and scoring protocols.
School choice: I’d never support vouchers. I don’t believe in or support charter schools that are run by corporate management chains. I do like charters that operate transparently, and are started/run by community members and educators. I also think their teacher and administrator compensation should be comparable to regular neighborhood schools if they receive public funds.
Power & agency (Who should be in charge of schools? Who should have the most decision-making power?): I support local control. State and federal government should help equalize funding and resources for communities that have less, and enforce civil rights laws. They shouldn’t influence things like curriculum or pedagogy.
What I’d like to understand better: How do successful countries allocate the money they spend on schools? How do some countries marshal the political will to spend a greater proportion of their national wealth on schools?