How to Push for Reform without Alienating Teachers

By 06/11/2012

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For all of its victories over the last couple of years, including Scott Walker’s on Tuesday night, the school reform movement finds itself in a pickle. To succeed in creating world-class schools and raising student achievement, it needs education’s front line workers—a.k.a. teachers—to feel motivated, empowered, and inspired. And yet, according to the recent MetLife survey and anecdotal reports, many teachers are down in the dumps.

Sure, low morale might simply reflect tough economic times; when (or if) state and local coffers finally recover, higher morale might too. But let’s be honest: The message we reformers are sending isn’t all peace, love, and happiness, and that’s probably having an impact, and not for the better.

We think many teachers are dumb (look at those SAT scores!); greedy (look at those gold-plated healthcare and pension plans!); racist (look at those achievement gaps!); lazy (look at those summers off!); ill-prepared (look at those crappy ed schools!); uncaring (look at all that bullying!); unnecessary (look at what computers can do!); and incompetent (look at those low value-added scores!). Or at least that’s how many teachers hear it, I suspect. We love teachers—we just hate everything about them.

One option, according to union leaders, Diane Ravitch, and others, is to stop pressing for reform. Stop complaining about unaffordable pensions or healthcare plans. Stop worrying about across-the-board raises. Stop measuring teachers’ contributions to student achievement gains. Stop pressing for LIFO and tenure and collective bargaining changes. Stop obsessing about online learning.

That might get us happier teachers but it won’t get us dramatically better schools.

So what’s the other option? How can we continue to make the case for reform without alienating teachers, without turning them into the enemy, the problem, the object of our disdain?

One way is to put teachers in charge of their own schools. That’s the argument Ted Kolderie and his colleagues at EducationEvolving have been making. (See this great Education Next article for an overview of teacher-led schools.) If we want teachers to feel respected and motivated, we should treat them as true professionals. Let them call the shots. Set the budget. Hire new teachers. Deal with management concerns. In all likelihood, these teacher-leaders will come to some of the same conclusions as reformers. (Such as: low performers need to go; there are trade-offs between small class sizes and more generous salaries and benefits; all teachers need their craft to be regularly evaluated against some clear and common expectations around good practice; etc.)

Another way is to champion reforms that teachers do support. For instance, make it easier for educators to discipline unruly students, or to use “ability grouping” in their classrooms instead of mandating the nearly-impossible strategy of “differentiating instruction.”  In other words, remove the obstacles (often ideological in nature) that are getting in the way of teachers achieving success in their classrooms. If we don’t want to put teachers in charge of their own schools, at least give them more control over their work, as Richard Ingersoll argues. And get their backs when they are faced with ridiculous demands from parents or others.

Another possibility: find smart ways to give teachers a “voice” that doesn’t entail subjugating them to union bosses. That’s part of the idea behind Teach Plus, the Association of American Educators, and Educators for Excellence. The other side of that coin is to get better information to rank-and-file teachers in the first place, so they aren’t learning about reform solely through the filter of union rhetoric.

None of these are perfect solutions. As long as reformers are talking about curtailing teachers’ benefits, or making their jobs less secure, or evaluating their instructional practices, there is going to be some anger and resentment. And talk about those reforms we must. Let’s just try to make some effort to heed teachers’ concerns, and inspire them to excellence, too.

-Mike Petrilli

Special thanks to Ty Eberhardt, Joanne Jacobs, Steve Farkas, Ted Kolderie, and Amber Winkler for seeding several of the ideas mentioned above.

This blog entry originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

Comment on this article
  • jeffreymiller says:

    While I sincerely appreciate your acknowledgement that teachers are dispirited about how we are being portrayed, I don’t think we need to go as far as the examples you cite, many of which are just charters. Just eliminate standardized testing except for the ACT/SAT, repeal NCLB, make it harder to be a teacher, raise the pay, get politics out of education, let teachers create their own curricula (and reward them for being good entrepreneurs if other schools pick up on their work), and create a system more like Finland’s. There, problem solved. See how easy that was?

    Listen, this whole problem was self-inflicted to begin with. If the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report had been a real piece of considered research based on commonly-accepted standards of excellence, as opposed to a political screed, we might have better schools now. But because the actual problems were misdiagnosed and polarized the stakeholders, improvements were and will continue to be hard to come by.

    Mark my words everyone, if you reformers continue to bash teachers, attempt ham-fisted political shakedowns of our rights, and continue to push privatization, we will fight back.

  • Leonie Haimson says:

    What about listen to what they say would let them be more effective by reducing class size? Now that would be treating them like the professionals they are.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    EducationNext has two articles, this and policy wonk dad, getting their heads out of the clouds and putting their ear to the ground.

    I really wonder after what he has been writing about and arguing for over the years, why Michael has written this piece?
    It took a survey for him to realize that teachers take his attacks on pensions and LIPO and due process (and support of lying teacher bashers and self promoters like Michelle Rhee) etc as dispiriting?

    Had he listen to his critics (like Jeff, Leonie or me and others), he would have been all ears to teachers who are the schools.

  • PhillipMarlowe says:

    Meanwhile, up in New York:
    Bloomberg spokesman Mark Botnick blamed the United Federation of Teachers for any roadblocks.

    “The UFT’s decision to defend a broken system that allows adults to prey on children tells New Yorkers all they need to know about their priorities: this is an organization that will put adult job security over children’s safety every time,” Botnick said.

    UFT spokesman Dick Riley countered that the union “believes in zero-tolerance toward sexual misconduct.”

    He said the teacher contract already mandates the automatic dismissal of anyone found guilty of sexual misconduct with children.

    “The vitriol that the Bloomberg administration directs toward the UFT on this issue can only be seen as an attempt to draw the public’s attention away from the widespread evidence of its disastrous mismanagement of the public schools,” Riley said.

    Read more:

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