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“Where I Stand” (Sabrina)

September 30, 2010

“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?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010 1:57 am

    I think we also need to address the ideas that
    1. there are lots of ineffective teachers out there
    2. the fact that only changing/firing teachers and principals will fix the problem….
    the issues mirror our socioeconomic situation in the us….and therefore it should be addressed at its core.

    thanks for sharing


  2. October 6, 2010 7:18 am

    Nice thoughts, Sabrina! But the manifesto and a few bucks will buy you a cup of coffee.

    What’s your game plan for getting everyone on the stand with you?

    • October 6, 2010 6:49 pm

      This hardly qualifies as a manifesto. Rather, it’s just a way to start clarifying what all we’re talking about when we have conversations about school reform (see the previous post). People have gotten really fluffy in their speech, to the point where much of what we say is meaningless.

      People are really engaged around the education issue right now. I’m just one voice joining with other voices to try to make sure that the people “on the ground” are included in that process, since we’re often ignored. Be sure to check out the rest of our writing 🙂

  3. David Triche permalink
    April 3, 2011 10:49 pm

    You are my hero. It is great to know some young people aren’t falling for the Rhee. Propaganda. I have worked with TFAers and NTPers in L.A. , New Orleans and, now Sacramento. Some really look down upon veterans, many use it to get into law school and some just quit. We had a joke in New Orleans that they would go crying to the principal in the middle of the year and quit saying they were going to do something easy like go to law school. Keep telling in like it is. I am old an tired of getting belittled hearing your voice renews me.

  4. Richard Ocampo permalink
    July 4, 2011 1:06 pm

    Hi Sabrina. I recently saw you mentioned in an article titled “Frustrated Educators Aim to Build Grassroots Movement” and thought that I should contact you. I attended Swarthmore College with you, though we never interacted. I graduated in 2005.
    I am currently a public school teacher in Florida, who is extremely concerned and frustrated with the vicious attack on teachers and students. I’m thinking of attending the Save our Schools March later this month. Maybe we’ll cross paths. I would love to see what strategies other folks are using around the nation so that maybe we could apply some here in Florida.

    • July 5, 2011 1:20 pm

      Hey, Richard! Would love to see you in DC. I’ll shoot you an e-mail in the next couple of days to compare notes on education & figure out ways to collaborate 🙂


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