A Lesson Plan for Education Reform
President Obama, during your victory speech on election night you proudly stated that "We want our kids to grow up in a country where they have access to the best schools and the best teachers." You probably didn't hear my enthusiastic cheers from the far end of the convention hall, but I was there celebrating your reelection with several fellow Educators for Obama who share your passionate vision for an excellent public education system for all students.
As you transition into your second term, I would encourage you to engage in a reflective practice that mirrors what teachers do every day. It begins with lesson planning, a process that involves establishing desired learner outcomes, designing strategies to teach their objectives, and developing tools to assess the effectiveness of their instruction. This advanced preparation is really only the beginning because teachers quickly realize that even the most well thought out lessons can, and usually do, have significant flaws. A skillful teacher can patch up some of these imperfections on the fly to salvage the lesson, but more often than not several trials and revisions are necessary to yield an effective final product.
It would be my hope that your administration reflects and reassesses its approach to education policy reform in a similar manner to ensure that public education is moving forward for our students by utilizing best-practice research in conjunction with feedback from educators like myself. This thoughtful and collaborative approach would go a long way toward repairing the strained relationship that has evolved between many educators and policymakers.
I believe that primary strengths of your domestic policy agenda are your desired outcomes for public education. Under your leadership, your administration has sought to build and maintain a highly qualified teacher work force, been an advocate for equity in access to both early education and higher education, and pushed for the overhaul of NCLB to support struggling schools rather than punish them. These are among only a few of your objectives that should be maintained into your next term.
Teacher quality is a fundamental pillar of any education system. So let's examine your policy objective to recruit, train, and retain exceptional teachers from my critical lens as an educator. One of the primary policy mechanisms with the aim of bolstering teacher quality was the Race to the Top program. We can use your home state of Illinois, where I happen to teach, as a case study to examine the impact of this federal policy.
Dealing with a state budget crisis, Illinois was eager to compete for federal dollars by rushing through the Performance Evaluation Reform Act with minimal input from educators. One positive result of the legislation was that our teacher-evaluation system, which was long overdue for a comprehensive overhaul, received attention from state lawmakers. Unfortunately, many of the policies promoted by Race to the Top were largely untested by current research, including the linkage of teacher evaluation to student-growth measures and the expansion of charter schools. In fact, recent studies have questioned the reliability of incorporating student-growth metrics into teacher evaluations. Studies have also emerged that suggest charter schools are fairing no better than public schools.
Fortunately, Mr. President, just as with the rough initial implementation of a new lesson plan, there is an opportunity now to regroup and refine policy strategies to move your public education vision forward. Alternative approaches to enhancing our teacher work force can be considered, such as creating incentives for higher education institutions to admit and recruit prospective teachers based on workforce demand and to strengthen their teacher-training curriculum.
Currently, many teacher preparation programs are churning out graduates in disciplines that already have an overabundance of teachers, while high-needs vacancies in areas such as science, special education, and bilingual education are left unfilled. Your administration could play a role in promoting and funding programs that allow higher education and their state agencies to elevate professional teaching standards and provide more comprehensive student teaching experiences. Perhaps I could even boldly suggest that student teaching be modeled after medical residencies to provide more on-the-job training.
Educators have a wealth of ideas and collective knowledge, and we are eager to help grow our own profession and provide the very best educational opportunities for our students with the support of your administration.
Bill Farmer has been teaching biology and chemistry for nine years at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill.