How to Survive Education Reform Without Losing Your Job, Your Ideals, or Your Mind

About a year and a half ago, The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) contacted me to ask if I’d write something for the new teacher edition of the magazine Educational Leadership.  So I wrote something called ‘The Don’ts And Don’ts Of Teaching’ about the sorts of mistakes that new teachers are prone to, and this piece seemed to be appreciated by a lot of people.

Then, about six months ago they asked if I’d write something for the back to school issue for this year.  I thought about it and then wrote this piece about ‘How To Survive Ed Reform.’  At first I was reluctant to submit it to them since I was worried it might seem contrary to my ‘the sky is falling’ posts about the dangerous side effects of the corporate reform movement.  But I submitted it anyway because I had come up with one of the greatest last sentences of anything I’ve ever written.

Well, of course they wanted to change my very lengthy title ‘How to Survive Education Reform Without Losing Your Job, Your Ideals, or Your Mind’ and my awesome last line.  I was able to convince them to restore the title, but not the last line.

So here I’ll publish the original unedited essay, though you can see the edited one on their site.  I hope this isn’t too rosy of  a picture.  They wanted something to lift the spirits of the troops a little, and I hope this accomplishes this without undermining any of the work I did over the years in exposing all the negative consequences of ed reform dictated by people who don’t understand education.  I do think that corporate reform is very dangerous, but I also have always maintained that it is temporary.

How to survive ed reform without losing your job, your ideals, or your mind

A modern day Paul Revere could ride through the halls of your school calling “The common core is coming, the common core is coming” causing the collective adrenaline of all teachers, but particularly veterans, to spike.  Though we have all lived through various waves of ‘reform,’ we’ve shaken them all off, possibly saving a useful morsel of this one or a bite of that one but, in general, ignoring them.  But this latest onslaught is a lot more ominous.  We start hearing that teachers are finally going to be held ‘accountable’ for their sins and when we hear it enough we begin to wonder if it is true that we are a bunch of lazy sloths whiling away the hours until our big fat pensions become ripe.  I want to help teachers, particularly veterans (particularly myself!) that we will survive this latest epidemic.  Remember the bird flu?  Remember Y2K?

I’ve studied these latest ed reforms from every angle and, yes, they do have the potential to do a lot of harm.  In some cities they have already done a lot of harm.  But I truly believe that we will emerge from this still standing, and maybe even a little stronger for the struggle.

The common core are the new standards sweeping the nation.  They have cost taxpayers millions of dollars and by the time it is all done, hundreds of millions.  Much of that money was spent on little silver stickers that say ‘aligned with the common core’ for textbook publishers to slap onto copies of their old textbooks in the warehouse.  The fact is that the common core isn’t all that different from what we have already been doing.  We are told that the old standards were ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’ implying that we were all racing through every topic without savoring any of them.  While it is true that there were some topics that I would cover only superficially, for a lack of time, there were others that I would go into extreme depth.  It was a matter of prioritizing a nearly unlimited set of topics to fit into a limited amount of time.  The common core, as far as I can tell, has not alleviated us from daily making a choice of how much time to spend on this lesson or that.  There are still too many topics.

We have also heard there are going to be big changes in teacher evaluations.  We hear that ‘everyone’ agrees that the old system was horribly ‘broken.’  So it will be replaced with a new system that, in theory, factors in student ‘achievement.’  Except it doesn’t.  Unless by ‘achievement’ you mean how well your classes do compared to what a computer thinks your class would do if they had an ‘average’ teacher.  This ‘value-added’ component which, in some states, can be as much as 50% of the evaluation, are incredibly fickle.  In New York City there are middle school teachers who teach two different grade levels so they get two different value-added ratings.  While one would expect a teacher to add about as much value to her 3rd period 7th graders as to her 4th period 8th graders, we find that she is ranked as a ‘highly effective’ teacher for 7th grade, yet ‘highly ineffective’ for 8th grade.  Value-added is practically a random number.  The good news is that it is very unlikely for a teacher to be rated ‘highly ineffective’ multiple years in a row.  It would be like rolling double 6s on a pair of dice three times in a row.  My predication is that as the flaws in these new systems are revealed in various ways — known ‘effective’ teachers getting low scores, known ‘ineffective’ teachers getting big value-added merit pay bonuses — the public will demand that these systems are dismantled before they do any more damage.

The gravest threat posed by all these reforms is that they encourage teachers to forego ‘real’ teaching for test prep.  This will, ultimately, hurt the students they teach.  As teachers we cannot fall into this trap.  When I am tempted to compromise what I know is good instruction, I will think back to the letters I’ve received from students over the years.  Though I certainly can’t claim to have ‘inspired’ every student I’ve ever taught, I know from these ‘thank you’ notes I’ve received over the years that I have, at least, inspired some.  When a student writes to me that she used to hate math and now she likes it, well, that’s all the merit pay I need.  We must be aware of what our true value is — inspiring kids to enjoy learning — whether or not a computer can detect it.  So stock up on batteries and duct tape if you must, but remember if you allow the quality of your teaching to suffer the ‘reformers’ have already won.

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5 Responses to How to Survive Education Reform Without Losing Your Job, Your Ideals, or Your Mind

  1. Jane G. says:

    As a veteran teacher, my thinking is the only way to survive education “reform” is to keep a low profile and keep and keep my mouth shut. I honestly think that the complexity, absurdity, and overall destructiveness of the new “reform” movement will cause it to crumble on it’s own. However, there will be many teachers who will be crushed by it in the meantime. Lastly, the ones who will be the frontline soldiers against the “reform” movement will be the parents in middle, upper class areas. Once they see their children involved in constant test prep factories and loosing classes such as art and PE, they will make a big stink and we will finally see some sanity return to our school systems.

  2. Newark Teacher says:

    I wish I were as optimistic as you are. Fights won by activist parents in suburbs have little impact on urban education systems. Parents who are burdened with day to day survival struggles have different priorities. The last thing an illegal parent would do is cause a stir in a school.

  3. Pingback: How to Survive Education Reform Without Losing Your Job, Your Ideals, or Your Mind | Gary Rubinstein's Blog ← NPE News Briefs

  4. CarolineSF says:

    It may be the parent protest that persuades the funders to stop writing checks for irrational and damaging “reform” fads. When the checks stop, the fads are toast.

    • Michael Fiorillo says:

      Yes, and the way to do that is to do everything in our power to ensure that the pain and embarrassment – questionable, since we’re dealing with such shameless people – inflicted by parents and teachers for promoting the standards exceeds the projected benefits and profits they foresee.

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