Reformers Without Chalk on Their Hands

Classroom Strategies

Nov 22

This blog post is part of the Day of National Blogging for Real Education Reform. You can find other post like it here.

One of the most disturbing trends in education right now is the assumption that anyone can run a school. With rising support for alternative certification routes like Teach for America whose members are swept into the classroom after only 6 weeks of preparation, to the choice of non-educators to head large school districts, it seems that America is ready to substitute passion for pedagogy and results for real reform. In fact, in some cases, it seems that just having attended school once makes you qualified to run one.

The results however, have told a different story. Superintendents without chalk on their hands have not as a whole done any better, and in some cases, have done much worse than superintendents with educational chops. As James Harvey of the National Superintendents Roundtable points out, “After 20 years, nontraditional superintendents have not provided unambiguous evidence that they were better able to improve urban schools than their traditional counterparts.” In fact, many leave after only a few years at the job, without a marked improvement in teaching and learning.

Teachers who jump into teaching through alternative certification routes typically leave after only a few years and often get more out of the experience (in terms of resume boosting and a broader perspective on life) than their students do. In fact, most leave after only a few years’ experience. And, while some studies show slight gains in student achievement (or at least no drop in student achievement) for students taught by uncertified or alternatively certified TFA teachers, other studies argue that “while a band-aid on a bleeding sore is helpful in a crisis, healing wounds of inequality and poverty is also a policy problem worth solving.”(Linda Darling-Hammond).

It just makes sense that reformers need a little chalk on their hands. As Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation points out that “a veteran of public school teaching will have a better idea of how a particular education reform is likely to be implemented in practice.” Without a solid understanding of pedagogy, these reformers focus on what they know — a focus on management rather than leadership, market-based reforms, bureaucratic tweaks, and labor controls. The results are frightening.

Two results are particularly disturbing. The first is The commodification of learning where student learning is reduced to only what can be measured by a test and those test scores are trafficked and traded like corn and beans. Many school annual reports read like annual reports to shareholders, noting that scores are up or down but giving little evidence that students are thriving or becoming good learners rather than merely adept at taking tests.

The second disturbing result is Reform by HR where reformers focus on hiring and firing as a catch-all solution to whatever ails a system. Ideas like firing the lowest performing 5-10% of teachers in order to improve the profession with little thought given to why those teachers are performing so poorly in the first place or what structures need to be in place to prevent that kind of low-performance from the next batch of recruits. Others talk of firing bad teachers and hiring good teachers as if good teaching is a static quality rather than an evolving process of growth.

In both cases, the assumption that anyone can teach or run a school is not only flawed, it’s downright dangerous.  As Rudy Crews of the Global Partnership Schools points out “What’s needed are skillful relationships between a teacher, a student, and a family. Every child, every day needs that relationship. And to characterize that relationship as something which anybody in business can produce without having the slightest hint of technical understanding and skill is an insult to the very children, parents, and communities now in [their] care.”

I don’t blame those who embrace these ideas. I believe their misguided attempts to “fix” schools are on some level well-intentioned. But, without chalk on their hands, their reforms are doomed to fail. Until they shift their focus from blame and finger-pointing  and take time to understand pedagogy, until they in other words get a little chalk on their hands themselves, they will never develop reforms that actually make a difference.

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[…] Reformers Without Chalk on Their Hands | Mindsteps Inc. → November 22nd, 2010 → 1:09 pm […]

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[…] Absolutely not. (Check out my many posts on why we shouldn’t blame the teacher here here here and here). But do I think that there is more that we can be doing in the classroom to help all […]

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