By Renee Carlson, Janet Foster, Enid Hutchinson, Ed Kitlowski, Amanda Koonlaba, Nancy Kunsman, Justin McGehee, Lynn Otaguro, Joy Peters, Wendi Pillars, Rachel Rich, Petra Schmid-Riggins, Jim Strickland, Rebecca Gillespie, Jamyle Kathy Acevedo and Josh Thompson – members of the Viva/NEA 360° writing collaborative.
Most teachers see themselves as having little or no influence on education policy. We felt the same for most of our collective 275 years in the field. This is why we jumped at the chance to participate in the National Education Association’s partnership with New Voice Strategies in an online VIVA Idea Exchange™ concerning “360° Accountability”. Over 900 NEA members across the country shared their passions and concerns. Finally, our writing collaborative was charged with synthesizing over 300 Ideas and near 1000 Comments into an official report to present to the NEA Accountability Task Force in Washington, D.C. on December 8, 2014. This was a rare opportunity to share the expertise of teachers with an organization capable of effecting real positive change for America’s students.
From the collective ideas, came six recommendations:
1) Shift Away from Blame, Toward Shared Responsibility
Policies need to be revised so that responsibility does not fall in one place. This requires moving away from models that hold any ONE stakeholder as solely responsible for a student’s learning, and moving to a model acknowledging that teachers, families, students, and policymakers share responsibility for how well students learn.
The credit (or blame) behind student learning is often ascribed entirely to the teacher, or entirely to the student, or entirely to the parent, or entirely to larger social factors like poverty. When a student drops out, or graduates with limited skills/knowledge, or fails the same class repeatedly, we are tempted to lump all the blame in one place. But when the causes are many—as they usually are—we should instead ask what can be done about each contributing factor such as poverty, hunger, or lack of family support for education.
2) Educate the Whole Child
Schools and districts must be given the freedom to work in collaboration with students, families, school counselors, and community members to define the human standards that are most important for students as unique individuals, active community members, and effective citizens in our democratic society. These standards can then guide local curriculum decisions and setting instructional priorities. The fostering of social skills at every grade level is essential; moreover, opportunities to develop leadership skills have to be an integral part of such standards. Assessment may be more subjective in these areas, but we cannot allow this challenge to divert us from the central human purposes of public education.
3) Top Down Funding Without Top Down Control
Interstate and intrastate comparison of achievement results often used to trumpet the failure of public schools merely echo severe inequalities that plague American public education. Corporate exploitation of schools or partnerships that aim to reform education without empowering education professionals will ultimately result in a public education system that is not operated by educators; but instead, by the individuals or businesses with the most money. Educators in every state need to develop education standards, benchmarks, and assessments in all content area due to an increasingly mobile and transient student population – without dictating a specific curriculum. Also, a teacher’s focus should be on students, not on the looming threat of unemployment.
Since states continue to wrestle to find a way to adequately fund schools, here are some options:
- Ideally, amend the U.S. Constitution to require each state to direct necessary funds toward public education.
- Equalize state funding through state legislation and litigation until equitable educational opportunity becomes a recognized federal civil right;
- Supplement inequitable school funding with equitable federal dollars
- Require transparency of long-term costs (hand-scoring, helpdesks, reporting, test prep including lost instructional time) and short-term costs of required standardized tests including technology (hardware and software).
This is not an exhaustive list, but, in light of increasing resources spent on high-stakes testing, the public needs accurate information in order to determine the value and implications of such tests. The answers will no doubt require a pullback of standardized testing. It must be noted that no other nation uses the same tests for the disabled or non-fluent, and that much touted Finland only tests once.
4) Teacher Autonomy and Professionalism
Recognize educators as professionals who care about the growth of students, the climate of schools, and the state of education in today’s world, and allow them the autonomy afforded to such professionals. Given the impact of teachers on student achievement, it is imperative that teachers be treated as trained professionals who know their students, their students needs, and how best to deliver instruction in the most appropriate way. Allowing teachers to determine best practices will result in removing scripted, one-size-fits-all lessons that often emerge from upper-level decision-making, ignoring the human element. Classroom teachers know how to assess, monitor, and adjust, and if allowed to use their professional judgment with their own students, schools will witness student growth.
Teachers should be part of the decision making process with regard to all aspects of teaching, providing for avenues for teacher leadership, and consideration of teacher input and concerns. Teachers are natural problem-solvers and should be valued as such. Teachers do not always agree with administrators. Nevertheless, teachers should be free to speak openly and honestly, offering ideas and comments without fear of retaliation, whether that retaliation is reflected in evaluations, teaching reassignment, loss of privileges, or any other methods used to quiet a teacher’s voice. Teacher feedback should be sought and valued.
5) Emerge from Evaluation to Support
Distrust of teachers not doing their job, administrative coercion, evaluation by a checklist, and worship of data (standardized testing) underlie today’s current system of teacher evaluation, has the potential to ruin a teacher’s career. This creates fear and pushes teachers into early retirement, at a time of serious teacher shortages. Other professions such as doctors, lawyers, CEO’s are not observed, rated, or evaluated according to a checklist. With this evaluation system, it gives administrators too much power over a teacher’s career. Some administrators abuse their power with evaluations to get rid of teachers they don’t like. This is extremely dangerous because in the hands of the wrong administrator, one or two bad evaluations can ruin a teacher’s career.
This flawed system needs to be replaced entirely and completely due to its subjective and misrepresentative nature. Rather than administrators observing and rating teachers according to a rubric/checklist, teachers will submit an end of year final report. This report will contain and identify the skills/focus areas the teacher is working to improve, and includes all documentation of professional development, workshops, and teacher collaboration that helped the teacher achieve their goals. This places autonomy back in the hands of the professional educators where it belongs, and gives teachers equal weighted voice and responsibility to their annual professional growth. Equally important, policies tying teacher compensation, evaluation, retention, or placement to standardized test scores must be revoked!
6) One Size Does Not Fit All
Students arrive with their own unique strengths, aptitudes, interests, and life experiences. Education begins with recognizing who our students are as persons and facilitating the development of their gifts. Valuing the positive in student diversity will naturally result in personalized curricula. and diverse educational outcomes. We cannot focus solely on a narrow range of academic skills, because then students who have other strengths or intelligences are made to feel like failures. School then becomes a source of fear and anxiety where individuality is not valued and students do not feel they belong. When this happens, deep, positive learning comes to a screeching halt and social and emotional problems abound.
Education must extend beyond a narrow academic focus to include a broad range of human developmental goals and values. In order to educate the whole child, we need to support student growth through individualized guidance programs, electives that nurture aptitudes and extra-curricular activities that develop social skills. This can only happen in a safe and democratic environment. Schools and school districts must communicate to students that they are accepted, valued, and needed just as they are, regardless of their academic achievements.
Our purpose was to represent the 945 voices in the VIVA Idea Exchange, working as a team and using the democratic process throughout. Teachers nationwide, bona fide classroom experts have spoken and are ready to challenge what is destroying our profession, our schools, our children, and thereby our democracy. We know of the many good things in our schools and have provided solutions for what isn’t working in our schools or our education systems.
The time for us to share our stories is NOW. As professionals, we must have the courage to speak out. We are teachers and we are the experts. We have massive collective expertise, and are precisely the ones who have firsthand knowledge of all that goes on within our students’ academic worlds.
Our writing collaborative delivered this report to NEA with one overarching call to action: “We give you this report in trust—trust that the voices of the teachers we represent will become louder, clearer, and widely disseminated; that these words will be turned into actions; and that those actions will be backed by faithful perseverance. We ask also that this report be featured prominently on NEA’s website, and that a link to this report (and any accompanying multimedia) be e-mailed to all NEA members”. We are grateful for our union’s support and hopeful that the NEA will honor this call to action by amplifying teacher voices!
A Bio of each writer is in the report, downloadable here: Changing the Story: Transformation towards Fair Accountability and Responsibility.
DISCLAIMER: While the guest authors of this blog are NEA members they are not spokespersons for NEA and the recommendations in the report may not reflect official NEA positions.
Update, April 18, 2015: I have posted an update that introduces six posts written by members of the 360 Writing Collaborative, reflecting critically on their experience as part of this process.
What do you think of the recommendations of this teacher team?