1st Anniversary Repost: Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike (EdWeek)

Writers Reflect on Chicago Strike

Education Week

Stephen Dyer (Expanded)

Andrea Kayne Kaufman (Expanded)

Missing the Forest for the Trees (Expanded below)

The Chicago teachers’ strike has sparked even more debate over the role of unions and the importance of teacher quality in public education. Yet, arguments and policy associated with teachers’ unions and teacher quality share one serious problem—missing the forest for the trees.

Carefully examining the debates themselves, in other words, pulling back from the trees to consider the forest, offers an opportunity for the public, educators, and policy stakeholders to reframe those debates and thus improve the likelihood education reform can achieve what it has failed to accomplish over the past thirty years.

Debates about teachers’ unions and teacher quality share a pop culture problem, captured in the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and the feature film “Don’t Back Down.” In both, unions are portrayed as powerful as well as detrimental to needed educational outcomes while the influence of “bad” teachers is linked to those same protective unions.

If we pull back, however, from these repeated and enduring narratives (the public eagerly accepts them both in pop culture and the mainstream media), the evidence fails to support the claims.

For example, the union narrative—that unions are primarily to blame for school failures—falls apart once a few facts are examined. Unionized states tend to have higher test scores than non-union states (such as my home state of South Carolina, a right-to-work state that regularly is ranked at the bottom of traditional test data). But this fact is not pulling far enough back itself.

Unionization, poverty, and measurable student outcomes are so deeply interconnected that focusing solely on union influences on student outcomes misses the central obstacle facing public schools, teachers’ unions, and political leadership—poverty.

Next, the teacher quality debate exposes a nearly identical pattern if we focus on how to hold teachers accountable (arguments such as value-added methods of teacher evaluation) instead of asking whether or not teacher quality is a genuine problem in student outcomes, and if so, to what magnitude does that problem exist.

Like union influence, teacher quality is nearly inextricable from poverty and student test data.

The current education reform debate, then, captured by the Chicago teachers’ strike, represents a self-defeating problem of focusing on the trees (solutions and policy) without consider the forest (problems, goals).

The solution to education reform is not trying to win the trees arguments, but stepping back and addressing the forest; for example, consider the following:

• What is the broad purpose of universal public education? If we reach back to the founding of the U.S. and consider seriously Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to public education, we can identify enduring goals for public schools, goals linked to a thriving democracy and the need to focus strongly on people and children trapped in poverty:

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries.” ([1817], pp. 275-276)

• What are the influences of unions across the U.S., and what are the essential roles unionization should serve in public education as a force for democracy and equity? The education reform debate must separate arguments about the failures of union bureaucracy and the importance of workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and teacher professionalism.

• What is the proper relationship between teacher autonomy and teacher accountability? Possibly the greatest failure of the teacher quality debate has been the absence of a public recognition that accountability policy has removed teacher autonomy while imposing accountability for outcomes beyond the power of teachers to address. No educator is calling for no accountability, but educators are seeking the professional autonomy they deserve while rejecting test-based accountability as not valid. The first step in teacher accountability and education reform is teacher autonomy.

• Who is designing and mandating education policy? What are their experience and expertise in education? Too little attention is being paid to the historical fact that educators have had little to no direct influence in education policy, most powerfully linked to the political process. In the past three decades, political leadership has intensified that reality.

The education reform debate is no longer a partisan political battle because Republicans and Democrats are nearly indistinguishable in terms of education policy. Yet, the reform debate remains a regrettable failure of ideology over evidence.

The Chicago teachers’ strike exposes that political leaders are starting with solutions without defining the problems, and then promoting those solutions without grounding them in the wealth of evidence available to them. Claims about “bad” teachers, protective unions, teacher evaluations tied to test scores, “miracle” charter schools, and the “missionary zeal” of Teach for America recruits resonate until the right questions are asked and the evidence is considered. Then, these so-called reforms fall apart.

We all need to pull back, start with clearly established problems, and then pursue solutions that match those problems in the context of building universal public education that fulfills its role in supporting and achieving democracy and equity.

“A Realistic, Pragmatic Approach” to Rejecting CCSS

“Should Teachers Resist the Common Core?” asks a blog post at Education Week, continuing the debate about CCSS among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, David Cohen, and me.

This posting highlights a point made by David that I want to return to (again) because I agree strongly with David’s focus: “And as for the critics I’ve cited, to my knowledge, none of them is currently a K-12 teacher. That fact does not invalidate their criticisms, but I think it colors their perceptions regarding a realistic, pragmatic approach, here and now, for those of us trying to serve our current students and schools most productively.”

I have argued repeatedly that the central flaw with the current education reform movement and its major elements—CCSS, new high-stakes testing, Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, and charter school advocacy, such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ)—is that these reforms-as-solutions are not based on any clearly identified problems and that the leading advocates themselves have no (or very little) experience and expertise in education.

Let me repeat: I have almost thirty years of combined public high school teaching (18 years), college teaching, teacher education, and scholarship in education that all have occurred during the thirty-year cycle of accountability-driven education reform.

I have ample experience with state standards, state and national (SAT) high-stakes testing, teacher certification, and education accreditation. A central thread of my scholarship over those years has included the negative impact of accountability, standards, and testing on literacy instruction (notably writing) and high-poverty students and schools.

Also let me repeat my answer to the blog title above: Yes, teachers should resist CCSS.

I have already argued for our resistance as part of our teacher agency so I want here to address the obligation teachers have to resist CCSS grounded firmly in our classroom experiences.

I began teaching in the fall of 1984, the exact academic year South Carolina first introduced accountability based on state standards and high-stakes testing. Over the next thirty years, SC has revised those standards three or more times, as well as reformulating our testing at least three times—from BSAP to PACT to PASS (with part of that testing reform driven by a desire to move beyond “basic” [the "B" of BSAP] and to the glory of “challenge” [the "C" of PACT]). In education, it seems, it is all about the branding.

SC and virtually every state in the nation has had decades and multiple versions of standards and high-stakes tests implemented. What is the result? Today no one is satisfied with the outcomes, and the dominant solution is to try the exact same strategy, except at the federal level.

And here is where I wish to assert David’s point as support for my argument: Teachers across the U.S. know from their lived experiences as educators that the bureaucracy of implementing and revising standards and tests over the past thirty years has wasted a tremendous amount of time and funding as well as inhibited our ability to teach and ruined learning opportunities for students—especially in high-needs schools.

Three decades of the accountability era with its standards and high-stakes testing have not improved teaching, have not increased learning, have not closed the achievement/opportunity gap, have not solved the drop-out problem, and have not succeeded in a single claim of made by political advocates of any aspect of this movement.

Why? Because the accountability model built on standards and high-stakes testing is the wrong solution and a complete failure of acknowledging the problem. Educational problems in the U.S. are not a lack of accountability, a lack of standards, or a lack of testing. In fact, increasing all three has increased the real problems because they are distractions from facing the tremendous inequity of opportunity facing children in the U.S. both in their lives and then in their schools.

Teachers must reject CCSS, and we must do so in a collective voice of our experiences in the exact environments of accountability that we know have done more harm than good to the children we serve every day.

Nothing is more real or practical than that.

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

Blogging at Education Week, Larry Ferlazzo posted a series of blogs addressing ways to prepare students for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/Language Arts. In a response post, Ferlazzo and Stephen Krashen—an outspoken scholar, along with Susan Ohanian, who steadfastly rejects implementing CCSS and the inevitable tests to follow—shared a series of exchanges.

Krashen, in part, argues that implementing flawed practice simply because CCSS requires them is inexcusable:

No. There is no evidence supporting this view. There is massive evidence for the superiority of comprehensible input/reading as by far the best way (really the only way) to develop academic vocabulary and academic writing. Just because the common core demands these competencies, doesn’t mean we should use ineffective and painful methods to try to teach them.

Ferlazzo takes a different view, one committed to implementing CCSS as well as possible since their adoption is a done deal, he believes:

I can think of no realistic political scenario that would stop Common Core from being implemented for at least ninety percent of millions of teachers and students in the United States. I have also not heard anyone else share one, though I am all ears….

Given that political reality on the ground, I think the political capital of teachers, students and their families is better spent on other issues that also affect the working and learning conditions in our schools and the living conditions in our communities — teacher evaluation procedures, adequate funding for schools, class size, parent engagement — just to name a few. In my political judgment, teachers and their allies are much more likely to be able to influence those issues.

While I think it’s useful to debate which instructional strategies might be most engaging and effective for our students and also enable teachers to say they are implementing Common Core, I just [think] it’s less useful to fight a battle that has already been lost.

Given the tremendous political, professional, and commercial momentum behind CCSS, Ferlazzo appears to have a solid point. But this exchange raises an important question about fatalism and teacher professionalism that is much larger than just debating CCSS

Fatalism and Teacher Professionalism

The debate between Ferlazzo and Krashen mirrors a similar debate within the National Council of Teachers of English, one in which Krashen, Ohanian, and I have had little success as we have argued for teacher professionalism and autonomy instead of implementing CCSS and preparing students for the tests with commercial materials focusing on those standards and the new tests.

Concurrent with the debate at EdWeek, as well, has been faculty at Garfield High School refusing to implement MAP testing. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield, explains:

America faces incredible challenges: endless war, climate change and worldwide economic implosion. Our kids will need both traditional academic abilities and innovative critical-thinking skills to solve these real problems. If we inundate our students with standardized testing year-round, these larger lessons are lost.

Garfield’s teachers are preparing students for the real-life tests they will face, and reject the computer multiple-choice rituals that fail to measure grade-level content — not to mention character, commitment, courage or talent.

Since this act of professional conscience by Garfield teachers, a group of educators has issued a statement of support, rejecting the misuse and abuse associated with high-stakes standardized tests.

If implementing CCSS is inevitable as Ferlazzo claims and if school, district, state, or federal mandates will continue to support those standards and the related high-stakes tests, teaching is reduced to an act of fatalism, and in effect, teachers are de-professionalized and students are similarly reduced to passive recipients of state-mandated knowledge, what Paulo Freire (1998) labeled as “the bureaucratizing of the mind” (p. 102).

Fatalism about inevitable education reform or current policy and practices benefits neither students nor teachers—and ultimately devalues education in a free society.

For students, Freire challenges the prescriptive nature of standards and high-stakes testing stemming from a neoliberal ideology:

If I am a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination, I have no responsibility for my own action in the world and, therefore, it is not possible for me to speak of ethics….It means that we know ourselves to be conditioned but not determined. It means recognizing that History is time filled with possibility and not inexorably determined—that the future is problematic and not already decided, fatalistically….The most dominant contemporary version of such fatalism is neoliberalism….From the standpoint of such an ideology, only one road is open as far as educative practice is concerned: adapt the student to what is inevitable, to what cannot be changed. In this view, what is essential is technical training, so that the student can adapt and, therefore, survive. This book…is a decisive NO to an ideology that humiliates and denies our humanity. (pp. 26-27)

If teachers, then, see CCSS implementation or fulfilling ploicies to implement MAP testing as requirements of their role as compliant workers, they have succumbed to “conformity in the face of situations considered to be irreversible because of destiny,” Freire explains (1998, p.102). Then, “To that degree, there is no room for choice. There is only room for well-behaved submission to fate. Today. Tomorrow. Always,” Freire believes, adding, “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing” (pp. 102-103).

And here is where I must side with Krashen.

To see CCSS or MAP testing as inevitable, to see our roles as educators being reduced to technicians working to implement CCSS or MAP testing as well as possible, to allow students to be reduced to “a pure product of genetic, cultural, or class determination” is to render both teachers and students fatalistic—both as tools of others’ determinations and as products of those who create the inevitable system.

The financial, cultural, and human costs of fatalism are simply too high.