How to Push for Reform without Alienating Teachers

For all of its victories over the last couple of years, including Scott Walker’s on Tuesday night, the school reform movement finds itself in a pickle. To succeed in creating world-class schools and raising student achievement, it needs education’s front line workers—a.k.a. teachers—to feel motivated, empowered, and inspired. And yet, according to the recent MetLife survey and anecdotal reports, many teachers are down in the dumps.

Sure, low morale might simply reflect tough economic times; when (or if) state and local coffers finally recover, higher morale might too. But let’s be honest: The message we reformers are sending isn’t all peace, love, and happiness, and that’s probably having an impact, and not for the better.

We think many teachers are dumb (look at those SAT scores!); greedy (look at those gold-plated healthcare and pension plans!); racist (look at those achievement gaps!); lazy (look at those summers off!); ill-prepared (look at those crappy ed schools!); uncaring (look at all that bullying!); unnecessary (look at what computers can do!); and incompetent (look at those low value-added scores!). Or at least that’s how many teachers hear it, I suspect. We love teachers—we just hate everything about them.

One option, according to union leaders, Diane Ravitch, and others, is to stop pressing for reform. Stop complaining about unaffordable pensions or healthcare plans. Stop worrying about across-the-board raises. Stop measuring teachers’ contributions to student achievement gains. Stop pressing for LIFO and tenure and collective bargaining changes. Stop obsessing about online learning.

That might get us happier teachers but it won’t get us dramatically better schools.

So what’s the other option? How can we continue to make the case for reform without alienating teachers, without turning them into the enemy, the problem, the object of our disdain?

One way is to put teachers in charge of their own schools. That’s the argument Ted Kolderie and his colleagues at EducationEvolving have been making. (See this great Education Next article for an overview of teacher-led schools.) If we want teachers to feel respected and motivated, we should treat them as true professionals. Let them call the shots. Set the budget. Hire new teachers. Deal with management concerns. In all likelihood, these teacher-leaders will come to some of the same conclusions as reformers. (Such as: low performers need to go; there are trade-offs between small class sizes and more generous salaries and benefits; all teachers need their craft to be regularly evaluated against some clear and common expectations around good practice; etc.)

Another way is to champion reforms that teachers do support. For instance, make it easier for educators to discipline unruly students, or to use “ability grouping” in their classrooms instead of mandating the nearly-impossible strategy of “differentiating instruction.”  In other words, remove the obstacles (often ideological in nature) that are getting in the way of teachers achieving success in their classrooms. If we don’t want to put teachers in charge of their own schools, at least give them more control over their work, as Richard Ingersoll argues. And get their backs when they are faced with ridiculous demands from parents or others.

Another possibility: find smart ways to give teachers a “voice” that doesn’t entail subjugating them to union bosses. That’s part of the idea behind Teach Plus, the Association of American Educators, and Educators for Excellence. The other side of that coin is to get better information to rank-and-file teachers in the first place, so they aren’t learning about reform solely through the filter of union rhetoric.

None of these are perfect solutions. As long as reformers are talking about curtailing teachers’ benefits, or making their jobs less secure, or evaluating their instructional practices, there is going to be some anger and resentment. And talk about those reforms we must. Let’s just try to make some effort to heed teachers’ concerns, and inspire them to excellence, too.

-Mike Petrilli

Special thanks to Ty Eberhardt, Joanne Jacobs, Steve Farkas, Ted Kolderie, and Amber Winkler for seeding several of the ideas mentioned above.

This blog entry originally appeared in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly.

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