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How Teachers Can More Effectively Speak Truth to Power

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As I argued last week, classroom teachers can play a pivotal role in debunking misguided reform bluster.  By participating more frequently and more vocally in the ongoing national dialogue about K-12 education—particularly, by explaining how policy plays out in the classroom—teachers can help ensure that discourse reflects reality and not merely the musings of policy elites.

In order to effectively speak truth to power, however, teachers must take care to avoid being drawn into an arms race of extreme rhetoric.  Because under-informed polemics aren't an effective counter to reform bluster.  Rather, they eat away at teacher credibility and undermine the ability of educators to combat top-down policy.

What follows, then, are five claims that educators should watch out for—the kinds of assertions that allow policy elites to dismiss teachers:

Claim 1: Testing is destroying education.  Yes, we test too often and too narrowly.  Our tests are often culturally biased and generally fail to measure real learning.  They have been used to bash teachers.  And they have stigmatized our most vulnerable students.  In short, there's a lot wrong with the way we use tests.  

Yet almost as long as there have been schools, there have been standardized tests.  And schools have yet to be ruined.  This doesn't mean that we should accept all that is wrong about testing.  But it does mean that we should mind our more extreme claims.  Testing can be done right, and can play an important role in providing feedback to teachers, parents, and policymakers.  So rather than staking out an untenable position, educators should work to promote more thoughtful dialogue about what better tests might look like, as well as about how testing might be conducted more fairly and less disruptively. 

Claim 2: Bad education policy is driven by greedy corporations.  Companies like Pearson are making plenty of money in the K-12 market.  And that makes me uneasy.  They are driven by the bottom line rather than by values, their operations are rarely transparent, and they are unaccountable to the public.  But good luck trying to trace all bad education policy back to Pearson, Amplify, or K12 Inc.

Instead of riling ourselves up about the evils of particular corporations, we should be addressing the systemic flaws in education law and policy that create profit opportunities where they shouldn't exist.  More importantly, however, we should not lose sight of the fact that education policy can be ineffective even when it has nothing to do with corporate profits.  Educators should remain critical of all poorly designed legislation and clearly identify its weaknesses, rather than merely attacking corporate straw men.

Claim 3: Common Core is destroying the curriculum.  Much of the rollout of the Common Core State Standards has been politically imprudent.  The Department of Education has pushed too hard, the rollout has been too swift, and the PR work of the two leading testing consortia has left much to be desired.

Yet the reality is that the Common Core is pretty decent—a lot better, in fact, than many existing state standards.  And teachers, themselves, are responsible for implementing the standards through their curricular choices.  Consequently, many teacher critiques of the Common Core are dismissed by policymakers as resistance to the rigor of the new standards.  Keeping this in mind, teachers should make their critiques as specific as possible—pointing to existing standards that are better than the new ones, or identifying particular weaknesses, rather than just dumping on Common Core.  The same is true with regard to the tests being developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced: teachers should ask tough questions, but watch out for overblown and unsubstantiated claims.

Claim 4: Reformers are evil.  People get into education because they want to make the world a better place.  That doesn't mean they're succeeding in that effort.  They can be misguided, under-informed, or ideologically-driven.  They can be ill-mannered or tyrannical.  They can be unapologetically wrong. 

But when we say that reformers are evil, we reveal ourselves as indifferent to the importance of bridge-building and ignorant of what real evil looks like.  Using the language of "evil" tells the world that we have not taken the time to figure out someone's motives, world view, and strategy—at least not well enough to mount a more serious critique.  Better, then, to explain why the rhetoric of reformers fails to reflect the realities of classroom practice as experienced by teachers.

Claim 5: State and federal intervention is ruining everything.  State and federal mandates can be onerous.  As has been particularly clear with the No Child Left Behind law, mandates can come with a freight train of unintended consequences.

To say that local schools would be better without state and federal assistance, however, is to ignore the reality that we wouldn't have a school system without state involvement, and that we would have far less equal schools without federal involvement.  As many school leaders will attest, state and federal funding and support are critical, especially for low-income and special needs students.  So rather than asking to be left alone, educators might make the argument that state and federal authorities aren't doing enough.  How, they might ask, could state and federal authorities do more to build capacity in schools and districts?


There are more claims to watch out for, of course.  But these five seem to be among the most common, and are certainly among the least useful.

Teacher voices are absolutely critical in countering overblown reform bluster.  But these kinds of claims represent an ineffective brand of push-back.  Sometimes you fight fire with fire.  Most of the time, though, you fight fire with water.

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