Many philanthropic organizations have entered the world of school reform, confident in their ability to transform schools. Chief among them is the Gates Foundation, which invested untold sums of money in a series of innovations (from small schools, to bonuses for high performing teachers, to evaluation and accountability systems based on test score, to uncritical support for the Common Core), buoyed by the belief that it could achieve the same success in schools that it had in the world of commerce. The foundation is finally learning the perils of hubris and is acknowledging what most educators have known all along: There is no magic bullet for improving schools.
Teaching is hard work — much harder than imagined by well-meaning philanthropists who offer solutions to problems they don’t understand. The same can be said of politicians who propose new diploma requirements, new regulations for teacher education programs and teacher evaluation systems, mandate new grading systems and promote ideas like charter schools and voucher systems that have no track record of success.
The Race to the Top is an example of wishful thinking run amuck at the federal level. Millions of dollars were awarded to states where data showed a lack of progress toward goals. Here in Maine, we have had several iterations of the Maine Learning Results, a series of shifting state assessment systems for student learning and several attempts at evaluating teachers.
The results of these efforts have been less than inspiring. While our students scored above the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, they scored below the other New England states in reading and math at grades four, eight and 11. While 86 percent of Maine students graduated from high school, only 49 percent do so with proficiency in math.
And inequality persists in the form of disparities in achievement between schools that serve different economic groups and populations. A simple comparison makes this point when we compare a homogeneous, high-income district in which almost 88 percent of students met or exceeded standards on the state assessment with a more heterogeneous and lower income district where only 35.5 percent reached standards. If we want to see real improvement in our schools, we have to look for solutions other than those proposed by self-styled school reformers.
Good teachers make an enormous difference in the lives of students. Yet policy makers and school reformers have given short shrift to what teachers can tell them about the complexity of student learning and the craft of teaching. Perhaps if we were to listen to teachers more, we would make fewer policy blunders.
Primary and elementary grade teachers would explain that development is not a straight line, that not all students progress at the same rate, and that grade level standards do not acknowledge the diversity of student needs. They would tell stories of children who come to school hungry and who they know would benefit by having a free, nutritious breakfast to fuel their powers of concentration, and they would describe how children with a solid preschool experience enter their classroom ready to learn and make a strong case for universal, public preschool education.
Middle school teachers would describe the complexities of the social world of early adolescents and would speak to the what they see as the need to attend to emotional health issues that too often undermine academic achievement. High school teachers would describe how the pressure on students to achieve harms some while alienating others, and they would push back against the assumption that the only path to success in life lies in mastery of a narrowly focused academic curriculum.
Teachers at all grade levels would describe how policies that monitor their every move and that dictate what they should teach, how they should teach, and how they should evaluate student progress undermine their capacity to do their job well. They would advocate instead for policies that support teacher learning and development over time.
These understandings fly in the face of those school reform efforts promoted by groups and individuals with no experience or knowledge of how education works at the ground level. Rather they are based on the lived experiences of teachers that go far beyond anything that outside “experts” can tell us. Perhaps it is time we listened to what teachers have to say.
Lynne Miller is a professor emerita at the University of Southern Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.