How reformers can’t stop alienating teachers

Education reformers are alienating teachers needlessly, writes Roxanna Elden, a Miami teacher and author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers, who’s guest-blogging for Rick Hess. She lists Five School Reform Sound Bites That Hurt Teacher Buy-In.

“There is a growing assumption that education reformers are anti-teacher and teachers are anti-reform,” Elden writes. She thinks “most reformers became reformers for the same reasons that most teachers became teachers: a hope that we can provide a higher quality education to a greater number of children in a fairer and more equal way.”

But she wishes reformers would stop saying things like “We know what works.”

Teachers . . .  recognize this claim as an exaggeration used to introduce short-term fixes that in many cases don’t work. We also know that teaching is complex. Even in the same room, a successful lesson from first period might bomb after lunch. Likewise, instructional strategies may work for teachers who use them by choice, but lose their benefit when special-ops teams of non-teachers are deployed to mandate them throughout the district. In most cases, this approach leads to dog-and-pony shows that let observers walk away thinking their mandates “work” as advertised. At worst, it damages instruction by taking away teachers’ autonomy to make judgment calls about what really does work in our own classrooms. On the other hand, teachers are happy to hear about what has worked well for other teachers–as long as it is presented as such, not oversold by the same presenter who pushed a contradictory foolproof formula last year… using many of the same Power Point slides.

Also on her list of teacher-alienating sound bites:  “Demographics don’t determine destiny! (You lazy racist!),” “Measurable results,” “If grocery stores were run like public schools…” and “We need transformational change!”


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  1. What we need are reformers who are willing to look at, and work at, the consumers of education rather than the providers.

  2. Tom Linehan says:

    This type of article tends to make me think that there is no hope for public education as we know it. The offensive phrases to which the article objects come not just from arm chair reformers. They originate mostly from leaders in schools that beat the demographics. There are now countless such schools. “Demographics is not destiny” is practically the motto of Achievement First. Something like “If the kids did not learn the material, the teachers did not teach it” is on the web site of countless top schools such as the original AICPS, a school that uses drug dealers as truant officers and is the top rated Jr. High in California. “Teaching more by teaching less” is in fact the motto of the Singapore Ministry of Education. “We know what works” comes from many sources that look at high performing schools and teachers. Getting rid of bad teachers, raising teacher quality, achievement oriented as opposed to process oriented, accountability, high standards in many areas not just in scholastics and a “no excuses” attitude are common denominators in most research on high performing schools and in talks by leaders in these schools such as Michael Block. The first person I heard use the term “culture of excuses” was Tony Blair in an expression of his frustration with trying to reform public education.

    In short, these phrases and similar ones come from people both within and outside of education who have produced results and have demonstrated that they are valid. Often “No Excuses Schools” is used as shorthand for schools that beat the demographics even if the schools themselves never use the term.