For reform — and for teachers

Education reformers need to reach out to teachers, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli.

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,” he writes. Let teachers become school leaders.

I don’t think this will appeal to many teachers. They want to teach, not deal with management hassles.

When Petrilli asked for input, I suggested that teachers need to know that reformers understand the challenges they face in the classroom and are proposing ways to help them do their jobs well. He writes:

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. . . . And get their backs when they are faced with ridiculous demands from parents or others.

Petrilli also sees non-union groups such as Teach Plus, the Association of American Educators, and Educators for Excellence as a way to give teachers an independent “voice” and ensure “they aren’t learning about reform solely through the filter of union rhetoric.”

I think education reformers need to listen to teachers about what they think would improve their schools and help more students learn.

Update: Self-pitying Tantrums Are a Poor Way for Educators To Win Friends, Influence People, writes Rick Hess. He quotes “venomous” comments in response to his column on Gov. Scott Walker’s recall victory in Wisconsin. “Which words or phrases showed a profound hatred for educators or public education?” he asks. “Because, honestly, when I went back and re-read it, I didn’t see ’em.”

Both sides of the ed reform debate need to “ease back from the self-righteousness,” urges Matthew DiCarlo on the Shanker Blog.

Men dominate the education reform debate, writes Nancy Flanagan. “Men are making the policy arguments and pronouncements, hosting the virtual communities and producing the media. Women are carrying out the policy orders, teaching kids to read using scripted programs and facing 36 students in their algebra classes.”  True?

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    Ultimately very few groups with the clout to change education listen to the group of teachers as a whole. If they do listen to teachers, they listen to a few individuals whose situations cannot be replicated across the board.
    I don’t want dramatic change…I just want steady, slow-going run-of-the-mill improvement.

    • Since it’s “very few groups” perhaps you could name them? I’m curious what groups you feel place a high value on teaching skill.

  2. At least with the existence of charter schools, good teachers in the public sector can vote with their feet for the educational practices they like best. (This works better when unemployment is lower, of course.)

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      Interesting. I’ve NEVER heard of a teacher leaving a public system (willingly) for a charter — and we have lots of different charters around here.

      • Same here. I know many people who teach at charters; in every single case they were not able to get a job in a district school. And I know some at district schools who started at charters, moved eagerly to district schools when they could.

        I do know a principal who moved from district schools to a charter, after being offered a huge raise.

  3. There is, in my mind, a connection between those two things you mentioned that make being a teacher an exhausting proposition — unruly students who cannot be removed or effectively discipilined, and the requirement to differentiate instruction beyond reasonable amounts — and the way that teachers cling to seniority and their sometimes (not remotely always) very generous pension arrangements.
    Teachers come to expect what some would call combat pay, and others would call a soft landing after a lifetime of struggle.

    If the job were not so grueling, teachers would not be so stiff-necked about their pensions and their seniority protections. I speak as one who started out life as a teacher but found out I wasn’t good enough (as do many).

  4. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I think you’re right, Joanne. Teachers who want to deal with running a school go into administration. As a dept chair, I do quite a bit of administrative type stuff, but I have absolutely no interest in becoming a principal.

    Since much of the rhetoric about teachers has been framed around bad teachers, I find people really aren’t interested in what we think about our jobs — the presumption is that we’re trying to preserve some sort of part-time gig we’ve scammed off the taxpayers. For example, Deidre thinks we don’t have to pay for childcare because of our hours. Huh? I WISH I’d saved all that money when mine was little! Why would anyone be interested in our expertise when we’re presumed lazy, stupid, and otherwise unemployable? While it is true that I work with teenagers for a living (and love it), and so in many ways I’m probably simply Not Right, that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to, well, teach teenagers.

    Slow, steady improvement is the way to go; it’s just not politically expedient. There is untold waste in the cycle of ditching one reform and adopting another.

    FWIW, I learn about reform from the media for the most part, not the union. Unlike Petrilli, Joanne, et. al, I actually have to spend time making it all work with real teachers and real students. That tends to make the shortcomings crystal clear.

  5. I’m in a state without collective bargaining rights. Teachers have pretty good salary and benefits, but nothing that’s bankrupting the state and taxpayers. I have often thought that all it would take for reformers to win teacher support is to ensure that teachers in charters or other school choice models receive the same retirement benefits as other public school teachers. It wouldn’t be hard in our state since teachers already pay toward their own retirements, and the pension account is presently pretty close to or fully funded.

    I think a lot of teachers would be attracted to more reform, school choice, or radical reinvention of public school if only moderate financial security were part of the picture.

    I think it’s a terrible mistake to assume that teachers have a uniform view of what’s good in education. Many of us would love to teach at and support the overall mission of a narrowly focused school, rather than having to be all things to all people. But for reform to really be attractive, it needs to seem fundamentally less risky to one’s lifetime bottom line.

    I know that people in the private sector experience risk, but teachers can’t reasonable expect, I don’t think, the big financial rewards that private sector employees can expect for similar career risks. You aren’t going to get stock options at a charter, etc.