Improvements are doomed without practitioner support
By ROD PAIGE | Houston Chronicle
Dec. 18, 2008
T'S been 25 years since the landmark report, "A Nation at Risk" sounded the warning alarm that America was slipping into educational mediocrity and a troubled future.
Those years have seen a lot of money spent, a lot of theories advanced and a lot of new requirements at the local school — but not much progress.
As the Obama administration takes office promising sweeping change, I have a suggestion for the new secretary of education: Get our best teachers involved in policy making. Years of working for improvements have taught me that without their involvement, changes in the local school too often won't take root.
When we actually began measuring student performance with the No Child Left Behind Act, it revealed the unacceptable achievement gap between our minority, low-income and special needs students and the mainstream population of students.
We confirmed that dropout rates were dangerously higher than previously understood and that too many American schools were in desperate need of fundamental improvement.
Hopeful exceptions exist that demand attention. When we find schools that really work well — like the outstanding KIPP charter schools or the nationally recognized Carnegie Vanguard middle school in Houston — we find teachers deeply involved in setting education policy.
At Carnegie Vanguard, for example, teachers determined that the school district's accepted social study texts were too elementary for these very bright students and that reading subject requirements were too lax. They adjusted the course material to fit the students and the school enjoys a 100 percent graduation rate and is considered one of the top 100 public schools in the country.
Teachers at our most successful schools create policies that fit their student population because they understand the students at these schools and because they understand what will actually work in the classroom.
But education policy at the state and national level is largely missing the local practitioner's perspective. Sadly, teaching has become as much a matter of compliance with new ideas, developed far away, as connecting with students or focusing on a curriculum that will actually resonate in the classroom.
Education policy is the mechanism federal and state officials use to improve student performance. It is usually developed in state capitals and Washington, D.C., and is heavily influenced by the work of education think tanks, education lobby organizations, politically astute advocacy groups and with everyone's eye on the political and funding realities of public education.
The most prominent teacher's voice in policy making almost always comes from union officials focused on employment issues and often at odds with any education policy reform. Those who actually teach children, manage schools, deal with the realities of poor health, poor nutrition, less-than-supportive home environments and widely diverse cultural norms in the classroom simply don't have much of a voice in setting policy. Their absence translates into policies that don't work, resentment by front-line practitioners and kids dropping out in numbers that threaten our economy, our society and our culture. And while they have little voice in setting policy, it is the teachers, school boards and principals left holding the bag when things don't work out as intended.
Improving student performance cannot be achieved alone by politicians, education think tanks, researchers, pundits, business groups or others, no matter their worthy goals, expertise, good intentions or resources. To get the enthusiastic involvement of those charged with making schools work, we need their help in crafting workable solutions. Our teachers, principals and school counselors understand the socioeconomic realities, the cultural differences and the motivation challenges they find every day in the classroom and they understand how to match policy goals with classroom realities so that our children come alive to the excitement of learning. Bring teachers together with those experts who focus on the long view and the equation for real and immediate improvement will begin to work.
Change is needed in the public school system but we must first close the policy/practitioner gap so that future reforms reflect both what we desire in educational outcomes and the means to achieve those results. The absence of such involvement leads to the absence of "ownership" by those tasked with implementation. Smart generals listen to smart sergeants because it is those in the field who translate policy into action. If we want all of our children to understand the world they have inherited and the world that is theirs to change, our education policies must reflect the wisdom and experience of those on the front lines with them.
Paige is a former secretary of education and former superintendent of the Houston Independent School System. He continues to work for educational reform and has authored "The War Against Hope" and the soon to be published "The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing it is the Civil Rights Issue of Our Time," written with Dr. Elaine Witty.