Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where are Teachers' Voices in the National Education Debate?

From the Bellingham Herald
Print version - Sunday, February 8, 2009

Feb, 7, 2009

(Cross-posted on the Social Issues blog)

Where are teachers' voices in national education debate?

Discussions surrounding the problems public schools face have become dichotomized in the national debate with teachers increasingly demonized and their professional expertise belittled and often ignored. The recent disagreements over the choice of a new Secretary of Education in the Obama administration along with the petitions that were circulated reveal the immense animosity and polarization of that debate.

Rather than a rational conversation on a direction for alleviating the problems that face the public schools, the problem has been presented as a great showdown between the forces of "good and evil." Even the mainstream media were not immune to this seduction. Newspapers and magazines like the New York Times and the New Republic have presented the decision over a new Secretary of Education as a battle between the "new reformers" and the "old establishment."

Who are the new reformers? Apparently from these publications, they are the outsiders who wish to see the schools privatized and turned into a commodity on the free market. They cry out for high-stakes testing, accountability measures, merit pay for teachers, vouchers, and the expansion of charter school experiments. Who is the "old establishment?" They are the teachers and their unions, the education schools who educate them, and the local school districts that represent the public. They are seen as advocates for things like more equitable funding and smaller class size.

Nowhere in this debate do we really hear the voice of teachers whose relationship with children, their parents and the community are carried out everyday on the grassroots level. Ultimately, it is their actions in the classroom with children, and the understanding they bring from their professional knowledge and experiences that will really make a difference in the achievement of children.

How do we reconstruct the public debate that brings in their voice? With this in mind, I would like to raise six questions for readers to consider if we are to redirect the public debate.

-- Why are individual teachers often acknowledged while teachers collectively often demonized?
The teachers union has been projected as a huge monolithic power structure that resists any reform on behalf of children. Unions, of course, are the mechanism that workers in our society have for a chance at equal participation in the power structure. Why are teachers as workers seen as such a threat to a schooling system of a capitalist society?

-- Why are professional expertise and training seen as a threat to reform?
Why can't we talk about the nature of the professional knowledge that is required to teach effectively in a multi-cultural, multi-racial democratic society that is constantly reinventing itself? How can the institutional structures that are politically set, and out of the control of teachers, be made to be more conducive with what teachers know about the developmental learning stages of their students? Without a serious conversation at this level, the charges and counter-charges are useless and banal.

-- Why does so much of the discussion on teacher incentives rely on a business or corporate model?
The assumption that if teachers receive merit pay, they will perform better has been repeated as an unexamined mantra throughout these debates. Of course, teachers should get more pay. But all teachers deserve a decent wage for what they do. Are teachers going to be more motivated because they earn more than the teachers down the hall? Perhaps, what inspires teachers' work is the support they receive, the respect they have earned, the opportunities to learn more from each other as part of their daily work, the collegiality with their colleagues in purposeful dialogue and goal setting, and the voice of the profession in decision-making over meaningful changes that will bring about real achievements for children.
John Goodlad, the longtime critic of American schools, has called this process "educational renewal" as opposed to "educational reform."

-- Why are experiments like new charter schools articulated in the public debate as the prerogative of one side only? In reality, many teachers across the nation participate in these initiatives and are part of these experiments.

-- Why is the high-stakes accountability movement allowed to appropriate and dominate the language of accountability?
In today's climate, to argue against high-stakes testing and its effects is seen as an argument against accountability itself and used as an example of the status-quo. Why can't we take a serious look at what accountability can and should entail as a moral responsibility to assure equal chances for all our students rather than success on a high-stakes test?

-- Why can't we openly and honestly discuss the class disparities in this country and the legitimate concerns of parents and communities over the achievement gaps in student populations without using it for exploitation and a pretext for privatization and corporate gains?

-- Why can't we openly and honestly debate the public purposes of schooling in America? If advocates for the privatization of schooling really want to take public education in this direction, then let's debate what that means for the future of this nation's public school experiment.

At the beginning of President Obama's new administration that harbingers change and collaboration, a new national conversation is needed that brings all voices to the table. The dichotomization, polarization, simplification, and demonization must give way to a new, more inclusive public conversation that includes the voice of teachers and their communities on a grassroots level.

Lorraine Kasprisin is a professor in the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University. She is also president of the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal and editor of "Journal of Educational Controversy."