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John Thompson: Can Education Reformers Learn the Art of Compromise?

Guest post by John Thompson.

My attempt to describe Common Core as an example of the old-fashioned "status quo," which contemporary "reformers" have sought to destroy, seems to have hit a nerve. In the past, educators of different stripes would battle, negotiate, and compromise. Corporate powers were well represented, but there was no effort to assert complete dominance over the field. I argued that the search for "transformative" change and "disruptive innovation" was a historical dead end. I speculated that Common Core and other standards-based reforms would have had a better potential for helping kids had we not just endured more than a generation of scorch and burn politics.

Perhaps I'm beating a dead horse, but I would like to try again, and to pose a thought experiment. What would have happened if accountability hawks had sought to work within the system, and not wipe the slate clean so they could impose their own preferences? What would have happened if the Gates Foundation had built upon existing teacher quality initiatives, as opposed to starting a multimillion dollar effort built solely on one school of thought? What if market-driven reformers had sought to improve and expand established efforts to build career ladders and provide incentives for teaching and learning in high-poverty schools? Whether we agree or disagree with Standards-driven reform, would it not have been smarter to build on imperfect systems that have already guided millions of students into college? Would it not have been better to expand those pathways so low-income students could have a fighting chance to make it to college, as opposed to pushing Common Core - or any other "silver bullet" - as a "game-changer?"

The less controversial part of my idea was prompted by John Wilson's "National Certification for All Teachers." The roots of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) lay within our democratic traditions of public education and a system of higher education that has produced excellence in the liberal arts, social science, science, and technology. All are based on peer review of evidence. All are based on collegiality and protecting the free exchange of ideas. The National Board principles of instruction were adopted after all stakeholders had a chance to express their views, cross examine each others' positions, and reflect on their discussions. National Board certification was designed to be a dynamic process that adjusts to lessons learned through real world practice.

The 25-year-old NBPTS anticipated many of the methods that were rediscovered by the Gates Measuring Effective Teacher (MET) experiment. Candidates videotaped their classroom instruction and reflected on their lessons. Foreshadowing the findings of Gates scholars, the NBTPS paid special attention to improved questioning techniques for nurturing higher order thinking. Long before Doug Lemov and others sought to "build a better teacher," candidates were pushed to recognize and practice concrete methods for grabbing students' attention and managing behavior. Contrary to many of today's reformers, National Board candidates were required to practice more than one type of pedagogy.

National Board certification opened the door for many incremental ways to make teaching a more attractive profession and to retain our top talent. Not only did it nurture school-level leaders, but it pointed the way towards creating school cultures where teaching excellence and learning for mastery could flourish. It thus identified a promising approach for recruiting teams of the most effective teachers to the most challenging schools. If market-driven reformers wanted to supplement the NBPTS process with financial incentives, that would be great. But, what would be a better way to achieve equity than attracting the best teachers by funding an opportunity to work with teams of other National Board certified teachers to turn around the toughest schools?

So, what would have happened if the Gates Foundation had invested $50 million to expand National Board certification instead of starting from scratch? On one hand, corporate money would have influenced the NBPTS and it probably would not have always been for the better. On the other hand, it would have been good for Gates' experts to participate in a process where all theories were subject to rigorous reviews by the full range of experts and practitioners.

My more controversial suggestion would be to offer Advanced Placement and/or International Baccalaureate for all. What if the enormous resources committed to Common Core had funded the supports that would have been necessary to give all low-income children an opportunity to master a college prep curriculum? What if the prodigious efforts to align a new curriculum with new assessments had been devoted to aligning the supports that students in the toughest schools need to succeed with existing curricula?

I would not conscript unwilling draftees into A.P. I would not take a social engineering path to A.P. for all. I would seek innovative ways to encourage all students to tackle a college prep curriculum and allow all students to choose it, if that is what they were comfortable in choosing. One way that I would encourage students to give A.P. (or any other advanced curriculum) a try is through financial incentives. I would pay students a generous wage for attending tutoring sessions. I would not try to bribe students into getting higher scores, but if others wanted to reward students for earning 3's,4's or 5's, I would not throw cold water on their efforts. Again, I would encourage, fund, and experiment with a full range of ideas for extending the opportunities enjoyed by affluent students to all of society.

At this point, I should mention my experience with NBPTS and A.P. I went through the certification process during a year when our school endured five funerals and we collapsed into anarchy. I fell just short of earning certification. Fourteen years ago, I did not believe that their rubrics were completely fair to teachers in the toughest schools. I knew, however, that the process was outstanding and it made me a better teacher. Similarly, I only taught A.P. for one year and I had a modest pass rate. I had recently made the jump from teaching as an adjunct in a liberal arts university, and I did not believe that A.P. captured the full richness of the learning experience that I sought to pass on to my inner city students. Although I sometimes disagreed with the process for grading essays, I could always see why more experienced A.P. teachers and scorers took the approach that they did. Although my heart was not into A.P., having great teachers who were committed to it made our school better.

So, I seek a return to the ethos which encourages debate, while giving all flowers a chance to bloom. We cannot turn back the clock to the time when teachers' biggest complaints were that Learning Standards were too broad or too narrow, and the College Board was too powerful? We can compare those disagreements, however, with the demands by today's "reformers" that we commit educational malpractice by teaching to the primitive test.

What do you think? Would the contemporary reform movement have been more successful had they joined in the give and take that traditionally has characterized educational institutions? Would they have gotten more bang for their bucks if they had funded reforms within the institutions that they condemned as the "status quo?" Given the lackluster results of test-driven "reform," might we soon have a chance to welcome some of our wayward brethren back into reforms that grew out of our various progressive traditions? Or, am I still being naïve? Did data-driven "reformers" fail to listen to veteran educators because they were too prideful, or did they ignore us because they always wanted to privatize schools? Anthony suggested the title "What if the Wolves were Vegetarians?" Would that have been the better question?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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