Claiming the Education Reform Narrative

If the education reform movement is transitioning into a next phase and if my call for teaching with our doors open as an act of resistance can gain traction beyond the school house, educators must also begin to lead when our leaders fail, in part by claiming the education reform narrative away from political, media, and non-expert reform advocates.

Here, then, I want to outline the how’s and why’s of raising our professional voices as educators in order to succeed in a public arena:

  • Too often, educators have been on the defensive, historically and during the recent three decades of accountability, in the education reform debate. That has left those without expertise always determining the ground and content of the debate, framing educators as professionals as always rejecting reform and having little to offer as an alternative. Step one, then, is we must begin to initiate the narratives about what educational problems exist and then what policies better address those needs. This must include avoiding both the people and policies dominating mainstream reform. Instead of rejecting over and over the edu-reform leader of the moment, we must speak with authority on our own terms—not as a response to the person or the policy.
  • If Edu-reformer X is wrong and lacking credibility, we must not rush to pat Edu-reformer X on the back if/when he/she expresses a position we have offered credibly often. Our evidence-based professional stances are credible on their own; we do not need those without credibility but with misplaced authority in order to be right. For example, as an alternative to refuting edu-reformers, at the school level, since standardized test scores are problematic across public education, we must not celebrate if our school has high test scores, but instead, find more valid ways to celebrate our schools that also honor all public schools.
  • We must stop trying to out-do the edu-reformers: stop offering better accountability, stop offering better testing, stop offering better standards. The accountability approach to education reform and education is a failure, period. Just as educational leaders have failed by fighting for a place at the accountability table, educators have also too often made this mistake. We must make the case for professional and shared responsibility for the good of each student as well as all students.
  • We cannot fall prey to government bashing. “Publicly funded,” not “free,” is the heart of a democracy, the essential foundation for economic commitments to work well and for a people to achieve justice. When our government has failed, in fact, it has failed to act as government. It is ours to show that public education rests beside other essentials, such as the fire department or roads/highways, that the public tends to embrace positively.
  • Stories matter more than research, and words matter. While as professionals we must assert our evidence-based reasons schools struggle and policies to address those problems, we must take care to craft narratives that accurately reflect that research base; here are real people doing real things, and not “research shows.” But just as we must stop playing at the accountability table set for us, we must set aside the words and phrases at the heart of the failed reform agenda: accountability, grit, no excuses, rigor, achievement gap.
  • More broadly, we must not participate in the decades’ long and corrosive crisis/Utopian discourse framing of current reform: the contradictory education is in perpetual crisis and education is the one true way. They are both false, and they are both counter-narratives to the stories we must tell.
  • One of the most powerful and complicated parts of the flawed reform agenda is the claim about teacher quality, and here, educators have a huge challenge. We must begin to assert that teachers and teacher quality matter, but that value is not easily measured. As I noted above, this will require that we find avenues and techniques to celebrate our schools, our teachers, and our students in credible and complex ways—stories with teachers and children, and not numbers. And thus, we must shape a community narrative; teacher quality is not about one teacher, but about a community of educators and a community of learners, often over many years. Why not take a class of 8th graders at the end of their journey at a middle school and highlight all three years and all the teachers involved—experiences both academic and extracurricular? Teaching and learning are complex, and often messy; thus, we must make this story vivid and compelling.

Yes, some edu-reformers must be confronted, rarely and when egregious, and some policies must be directly and powerfully refuted (as I have with corporal punishment and grade retention), but we now need to shift the balance of our public voices.

The case, however, is now clear that political leaders, the media, and most edu-reformers have weak credibility and support failed policies.

“The challenge is in the moment,” James Baldwin implored, “the time is always now.”

It is time to claim our profession, and part of that includes claiming the education reform narrative, one that is informed, honest, and productive.

4 comments

  1. Pingback: Claiming the Education Reform Narrative | Public Schools Central
  2. szemelman

    Paul– I’ve been working in many of the directions you outline — especially teachers telling their stories. Your point is well-taken that educators should tell about the success of whole groups of teachers, rather than single outstanding stars. However that’s not so easy to achieve. I’ve been shepherding teacher op-ed essays to the Chicago Sun-Times (14 in all, over the past 6 months — see the list and links in the latest post on my blog/website http://teachersspeakup.com) and several do describe the work of a whole school. But most teachers are best situated to primarily tell their own individual story. Further, I didn’t want to act as a censor, so one of the pieces reflects acceptance (though not love) of the Common Core. Teachers don’t all speak with one voice. Further, I don’t know what the impact of this effort is, and I don’t have the resources to gain really high visibility for these stories. But at least some of them are getting out there here in Chicago. I’d be interested in hearing your comments on them.
    –Steve Zemelman

    • plthomasedd

      Shared, and thank you, Steve. You are right that we don’t need (and I don’t expect) teachers speaking with one voice or one message. I think the individual stories should remain and are powerful, although I think even then, each of us can be sure to couch that in the community, in the span of time that teaching/learning exist.

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