The Cost Of Leaving Educators Off The Education Agenda

Jeff Bryant

This act is wearing thin.

As implementations of Common Core State Standards falter around the country, supporters of the new academic benchmarks continue a sort of dog-and-pony show to reinforce the message to “stay the course.”

The latest such example came from the Center for American Progress, which staged a panel recently on “A Roadmap for a Successful Transition to the Common Core in States and Districts.” Typical of these sorts of affairs, the panel consisted of two Beltway think-tank execs and two former pols now firmly ensconced in the private sector. There wasn’t an actual practicing educator in sight.

The report bears out the superficial substance of the PR event, a view from 30,000 feet up with seemingly no input from practicing teachers and principals on the ground.

Keep in mind this is an effort to promote implementation – where the rubber really meets the road – with, supposedly, examples of teachers and administrators doing it more successfully. And it’s a “roadmap.” Yet there’s little if any evidence of input from the people actually driving on the road.

With the emphasis exclusively on programmatic prescriptions rather than pedagogical examples, the report leaves the means of how teachers and administrators implement the standards pretty much a mystery.

Whether you agree with the necessity and quality of the Common Core or not, what afflicts implementations of the new standards is not as much the “politics” – what most of the handwringing is about – as it is their practicality – whether educators can get much utility out of standards in improving their practice and whether those changes in practice eventually yield any results.

New York, for instance, is cited as a state exhibiting some strategic turns in the road to adopting the Common Core. Yet that state has encountered numerous practical pitfalls that are completely unaddressed by the report – inadequate teaching materials and textbooks, poor assessments, inappropriateness of expectations to student ages and developmental levels, just to name a few.

There are reasons why implementations of the Common Core are rife with practical problems such as those experienced in New York.

As college teacher Paul Buchheit recently observed at Alternet, today’s policy leaders – who like to refer to themselves as “reformers” – are primarily businesspeople, not educators. Buchheit noted, “Writers of the Common Core standards included no early childhood educators or experienced classroom teachers … Achieve Inc., the key drafter of Common Core, brags about its academic deficiencies, saying, ‘Achieve remains the only education reform organization led by a Board of Directors of governors and business leaders.'”

The lack of educator engagement in policy making and policy enforcing circles is not limited to the Common Core. And the consequences of leaving educators out of policy discussions go far beyond problems with poor policy uptake on the ground – what one panelist at the CAP event, Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn, facilely referred to as “slow trickle down.”

Teachers Feel Undervalued

As too few expectations of the policy wonks in D.C. seem to catch hold at school and classroom levels, what certainly has “trickled down” is the attitude that the voices of teachers don’t matter much.

That’s an outcome reflected in the newest results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the same organization responsible for Pisa tests. The TALIS survey compared international education standards, asking 100,000 teachers in 34 education systems around the world about the quality of their work lives.

Looking at the OECD survey results, Emily Richmond observed at The Huffington Post that teachers in the U.S. feel particularly undervalued – only 34 percent believe their work is valued by society.

Richmond added that the TALIS results aligned with recent findings from a Scholastic/Gates poll which revealed that only one out of every 20 teachers believed their opinions mattered outside of their school.

Indeed, the low value policy makers place on the input of teachers gets reflected in the way schools are run.

As Sarah Sparks noted for Education Week, “When it comes to implementing research-backed teaching practices such as collaboration, many teachers reported not being able to do so. In spite of research touting the benefits of collaboration, the survey found that more than half of teachers in grades 7 to 9 reported they rarely or never co-teach or observe their peers teaching. Moreover, nearly half never get feedback on how they can improve.”

Furthering teachers’ feeling of being undervalued is the fact that they face one of the world’s more challenging teaching jobs.

As Richmond noted, “U.S. teachers said they work an average of 45 hours per week, of which 27 hours are spent on classroom instruction. By comparison, their international peers work an average 38 hours per week, with 19 hours teaching.”

Also, “64 percent of American teachers said they work in schools where at least 30 percent of their pupils are economically disadvantaged. That’s compared with 20 percent of teachers on average for the other 33 countries in the OECD’s survey. In other words, U.S. teachers are three times as likely to work in schools with some poverty. Additionally, 62 percent of U.S. teachers said they were regularly able to motivate struggling students to take an interest in their work, compared with the international survey average of 70 percent.”

Teachers who feel their input is valued and who get the input of their peers are much happier in their jobs. As editors for The Hechinger Report noted when they looked at the survey data, “Teachers who say they get included in school decision-making and collaborate often with other teachers are more likely to say that teaching is a valued profession in their society. In turn, these same teachers report higher levels of job satisfaction and confidence in their ability to teach and to motivate students.”

And when teachers feel they’re not being valued, that’s got to hurt the effort to keep qualified teachers. As Richmond asked, “How is that perceived lack of respect influencing recruiting, hiring and retaining a high-quality teacher workforce?”

After all, education policy leaders today make a big to-do about teachers being “the most important in-school factor” in a student’s academic achievement. So what does it say when you take that factor and muzzle it?

Ignoring Teachers Hurts Learning

What you get, according to Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond, is a negative impact on learning.

Looking over the TALIS survey data, Darling-Hammond wrote for The Huffington Post that work life for the typical American teachers – who presides over larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24) and spends many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children – reflects “a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s.”

What she noted is that the work life of the American teacher, with its lack of collaborative support and input into the education process of the school and the system, differs significantly from the work life of teachers whose students rank high in international tests.

This “gap” between what we know teachers need to advance student achievement and what our system provides could be remedied by “policy lessons,” Darling-Hammond contended, that include more and better support for our students, for sure, but also putting more value on teachers and teaching, and redesigning schools and school policies so that teachers have more time to collaborate and get more substantive feedback from administrators.

“We cannot make major headway in raising student performance and closing the achievement gap until we make progress in closing the teaching gap,” Darling-Hammond concluded.

Trickled Down Or Trickled On

It’s not like we don’t know teachers value and need and exchange in ideas.

In fact one of the recommendations of the CAP report on Common Core implementation is for more teacher collaboration.

But all too often what policy makers and policy advocates – including CAP – tend to reflect in their actions is a disregard for teachers’ voice as they impose policies such as test-driven evaluations and merit pay that teachers generally oppose.

The Common Core appears to be one of those policies that teachers don’t uniformly object to. But when policy leaders in D.C. relegate educator input to platitudes in their reports, instead of placing that voice at the podium and on the panel, there’s little chance they’ll ever see much trickle down. Instead, more educators will feel they are being trickled on.

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