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School Reform: It's about the Students, not the Teachers

Teachers are front and center in the current education reform debate. Many reformers have cast teachers as both villains and possible saviors in our schools. Everything would be fixed if we just got rid of bad teachers, according to Newsweek. Since we are often blamed for failing schools, it is easy to fall into a posture of defending ourselves by pointing the finger at others. A few weeks ago I saw teachers celebrate when Bill Maher said "Let's not fire the teacher when the students don't learn - fire the parents!!" But the harder we try to shift responsibility onto others, the more it looks as if we are unwilling to accept our share as educators.

New York University professor Pedro Noguera said something very interesting in this interview a few months back.

(Teachers') unions need to make it very clear that the interests of the teachers are aligned with the interests of the children. Whatever's good for the teachers better also be good for the children. And if it's not, then it's a problem. It should be the case that parents and children are in total solidarity with their teachers. Because they recognize that when teachers' work improves, they also benefit. Right now, in too many places, that's not the case. The teachers' union has defined its interests in terms that are often antithetical to the interests of the children, and that's a huge problem. It's a problem for the unions, because it means that a lot of times they are not getting the political support that they need. And it's a problem for the schools, because too often the schools work for the adults, and not for the children.

We are preparing for the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, and over at Teachers' Letters to Obama, we have been discussing what we want to say to Secretary Duncan when we speak with him soon. This federal law has been a disaster for teachers. It has narrowed the focus of our instruction, and taken away our autonomy as professionals, as we are given scripted curriculum to make sure we are teaching what will be tested. The schools where we work have been labeled failures, and some have even been closed or reconstituted. Efforts to tie our pay and evaluations to test scores threaten our livelihood and job security. But for each of these things we would criticize, there are countervailing reasons that can be offered based on the interests of our students. The narrowing of the curriculum can be defended as a necessary focus on basic skills. What is a lifeless scripted curriculum to one person is a research-based curricular innovation to another, one that makes sure all children have access to solid instruction. The schools that have been labeled failures and targeted for reconstitution have had low performance for years, and are not serving their students well. Why should we protect the jobs and pay of these teachers, when the fate of thousands of students hangs in the balance?

Please do not take me as a defender of NCLB, or the new, modified version in the works. I do not agree with these defenses of the law, and think we could do much better. But as we prepare for deeper public dialogue, I am challenging myself and other teachers to revisit the reasons we are dissatisfied. Yes, we want to be trusted, we want time to collaborate, we want to be respected as professionals - these are all reasonable things to desire. But none of them cuts to the heart of the matter in school reform. We will prevail in the public arena, as Pedro Noguera suggests, only as long as we build our vision around what is best for our students, and build solidarity with them and their parents.

What do you think? How can we better connect our interests and ideals as teachers to the interests of our students?

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