Over the past year, as I have begun to read more about education, I’ve become more conscious of what I would term the “Reform Industry” in the United States: the web of companies, foundations, philanthropies, and advocacy groups that insist that public education is 1) in crisis, and 2) must adopt whatever their chosen idea is right NOW. Because I have this remarkable fellowship opportunity this year to drive school change (thanks to the Rowland Foundation), I’ve gotten to be in both worlds at once: the world of day-to-day public school teaching, which was all I’d ever known before, and the world of policy, school change, and school reform, a more rarefied place I’d rarely spent much time in.
In doing so, I’ve started to see how much educational policy in the United States is shaped by people who don’t teach now and in many cases never have. Or certainly not for any stretch of time, and not in anything remotely resembling a public school.
It strikes me that many of the reform groups calling for major changes to public education — those who would seek to charter-ize or privatize education, break unions, tie evals to test scores, push software — are often strikingly ignorant about what exactly goes on in most public schools. They’re not privy to the tremendous successes happening every day, the ingenuity of individual teachers and students, and — dare I say something so heterodoxical — the wisdom of the way the public education system itself is set up.
(I know, I know — how dare I? We need RADICAL change — RIGHT NOW!)
Even as someone trying to enact very SMALL change in a small public school where I have actually worked for the past eight years, I am struck by how continually surprised I am at the good work going on IN MY OWN SCHOOL that I had no idea about. For example, it wasn’t even until this year, as I started stepping outside my own classroom, that I really understood some of the innovative alternative programs our school offers for students. We have several programs in particular that, when I started explaining them to people I’ve begun meeting from other schools in Vermont drew amazed remarks. I’d never thought much about them before, but everyone else was quite impressed. These programs, these bright, creative teachers are content to go along every day, keeping a low profile even in their own building, content to keep their successes where they belong: among themselves and their students. They know. The wider world, including teachers just across the hall, often do not.
This happened to me again this fall when, interested in studying promising literacy practices, I stumbled into some remarkably high-quality ones going on in the elementary schools right in my own district, staffed by driven, experienced professionals, well versed in research, and, in one, case, a nationally-sought-after writer and workshop leader. Who would have thought?
I keep learning about the wisdom within the system. It’s when I propose something crazy and someone tells me, “We already have that; it’s called . . . ”
Now here’s the thing. If this sort of thing is still surprising to me, in my own school, just imagine how little the wider public or the policy-makers and string-pullers know about our successes?
Public schools have a PR problem. It’s very difficult to simultaneously teach well and also promote yourself. You’re so busy trying to prep, grade, instruct, contact parents, deal with kid problems — that you don’t have a lot of time and creativity left over to promote all this great work you’re doing. There are always a few teachers who sort of do this — they put up pictures of their kids doing some project on social media. But it’s a drop in the bucket. I’m reminded of this whenever I try to communicate with parents about what we’re doing. Most teachers I know are *great* salespeople. Anyone who can convince teenagers to read Thoreau is by definition pretty darn good at the dark arts of persuasion. But when it comes time to go the next level and promote our work beyond the classroom (say, to our students’ parents in any kind of consistent way), well . . . I’m usually too exhausted to even start.
Compare this then to the other side — to the public school “reformers” — the philanthropists, advocates, and think tankers who’re constantly trying to remind us that public education is in crisis and needs to do exactly what they want it to do, right now. On our side, we’ve got a bunch of tired, overstressed teachers with state college degrees and sensible shoes. They’ve got cellars full of writers and spinners, loaded down with fancy MBAs and Advocacy degrees, some with a year or two slumming it in a TFA school, white saviors, now setting to work building whole shinning castles in the sky: websites, conference presentations, white papers, articles, policy presentations. They’ve got the money too — Gates and Zuckerberg and all the venture capitalists who do things like throw $175 million at a new start-up ed company like AltSchool, founded in 2013 by some ex-Google workers. The only thing we’ve got 175 of is essays tonight to grade. This fight’s not fair.
It doesn’t help that journalists who write about education don’t usually talk to real teachers either.
I don’t think the answer is for teachers to do better PR, although I do wish we could. Instead, I’m starting to think that the answer is that more teachers need to stay abreast of what’s going on out there in the bigger world beyond their classrooms — the world of advocacy, the world of policy. We need to do more to call these know-nothings on their you-know-what, to push back and remind them that we’ve got a lot of hard-won wisdom too, and that sometimes things are what they are not because of mediocrity or complacency, but because the business of educating a diverse citizenry with public financing is a complex negotiation. As a bonus, maybe we can remind them that the history of education is littered with the graves of would-be reformers who underestimated entrenched problems.
You can’t fix a thing until you understand it. That much I am beginning to appreciate this year. And how complex a thing is even a single, local public school — how varied, how churning, how constantly alive and changing. And how vast and broad is this country — some schools still paddle their kids, while others wire them up to computers all day and send them out into the ether, while others are palaces, and some, just across town, have bars on the windows. How broad an wide the world is, and the schools in it.
But we must let them know — we need them. We need reformers and critics and the unconverted — because they are right. We do need to get better. We can always do better. That’s part of the dream of a nation devoted to forming a more perfect union. But that means that we must ensure they understand us first. We must hold THEM accountable, too — to ensure that those outside our schools have a clear picture of exactly what’s going on inside.
Because in the end, informed reform is the only effective reform.