What “The Cage-Busting Teacher” Means For School Reformers

If you’re an aficionado of the Education Gadfly or Education Next, there’s a fair chance you’ve read or heard me discussing my new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher.  It’s written wholly for educators and fueled by interviews and discussions with hundreds of teacher-leaders. In it, I observe that even terrific teachers routinely say they feel stymied, offer insights on how teachers can create the schools and systems where they can do their best work, and explain where practitioners tend to stumble on this count.

But what about policymakers and reformers? What does The Cage-Busting Teacher mean for them? How can they create the conditions whereby cage-busting teachers can thrive? Let me offer four suggestions.

First, policymakers and reformers need to keep in mind that they’re not the ones who educate kids. Heck, they’re only occasionally in classrooms—and they’re not the ones held accountable for how students are faring. From the teacher’s perspective, they—we—are backseat drivers. Everybody gets frustrated by backseat drivers, even when they have good advice to offer. Passengers can carefully study the GPS or old-fashioned roadmap while the driver focuses on the road. They can see signs that the driver missed, maybe even the truck out front making an unexpectedly fast stop.  But backseat drivers need to remember all the stuff they’re not dealing with…because they’re not actually driving. It’s one thing to offer alternate routes or constructive feedback; it’s another to ding the driver for being lazy or irresponsible from the comfort of the backseat. Yet that’s how the rhetoric of reformers and the proposals of policymakers often strike educators. Some of that’s inevitable, even when reformers are speaking carefully and offering well-crafted policies. But condemnations of “failing” schools and proposals for teacher evaluation often feel untethered to any awareness that they’re being proffered from the back seat.

Second, policymakers and reformers should understand that the role of schools is seen differently by experienced practitioners.  For “reformers,” results are what matter most about schools. Schools are routinely labeled “good” if their reading and math scores and growth rates are robust. Period. Any effort to qualify that or emphasize other metrics gets dismissed as “excuse-making.” Well, schools are real places where educators work with individual kids. They see and gauge their work accordingly. Like other professionals, most educators strive to do a good job. They take pride in their work. They’re attuned to the challenges that kids can face, the easy-to-overlook value of a choral group or an arts project, and when the practical impact of policies seems arbitrary or unfair. Policy types and practitioners see the education world through different lenses—opposite ends of the telescope, actually—and that’s mostly healthy. Policy types don’t need to ignore their concerns and defer to the practitioner perspective, but they need to respect it and show that they get it. Instead, far too often, they seem to casually belittle it.  (For their part, teachers should keep in mind that the policy folks may have pretty good ideas for the “system” as a whole, even if they’re remote from day-to-day classroom realities in real schools.)

Third, policymakers and reformers need to become better listeners.  In my book, I push back hard against those educators who wish policymakers “would just get out of schooling” and “leave it to the educators.” I tell them that they’re being paid with public funds to serve the public’s kids, and therefore it’s inevitable (and appropriate) that public officials will have a lot to say about how schools work and how they’re held accountable. That’s what it means to be a public servant. But the reciprocal obligation on policymakers and reformers is to listen carefully and acknowledge that educators are the ones in the schools every day. They’re the ones who do the work and see how new teacher evaluation systems, state tests, or interventions are playing out. Their insights on all of this should be solicited and valued. This requires more than talking to the leaders of teacher advocacy groups who are in our email address books and who show up at familiar conferences. It means making an effort to hear from a cross-section of practitioners. And it means listening to what they have to say; their concerns can’t be routinely dismissed as bellyaching or “adult interests.” I’m a pretty jaded guy but, in talking to hundreds of folks for The Cage-Busting Teacher, even I was surprised by the number of accomplished teachers who admitted to being hesitant to speak up because of scars they carried from when they had previously done so.

Finally, listening to educators doesn’t mean pandering to them. We have an unfortunate habit of talking to educators like we do to Cub Scouts: They’re awesome. They’re heroic and great and we’re grateful for their existence; now won’t they please go play quietly in the corner while we deal with the serious stuff. Both parts of that are wrong. Policy types can and should say that some teachers are terrific…and that some aren’t. (It’d also be a nice step if reformers did more to acknowledge that the same holds true within their own ranks.) The key is to treat teachers as adults who are able—and who deserve—to hear both the good and the bad. This is how we talk to professionals we respect. Of course, as I frequently tell teachers, it’s then on them to respond in kind.

We’ve been caught in a destructive cycle for years now, fueled by intermittent but mutual distrust between policymakers and practitioners. That dynamic has fueled increasingly aggressive policies, which has spurred teacher backlash, and on and on. Reversing that cycle requires educators to do their part. But they can’t do it alone. Their efforts will only matter if reformers and policymakers do theirs too.

– Frederick M. Hess

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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