Education Reform is Desperately Needed, But Teachers Need to Take Control


I became a teacher straight out of college. Three days after graduating, in fact. I packed some books, a duffel bag of clothes, and my laptop into my 95 Chrysler Concord, and headed for TFA Institute. I worked 20 hour days, was awful, improved, was awful again, doubted myself, redoubled my efforts. After finishing, I found a full time job as a Special Education teacher at a Title 1 school in LA. I struggled and I hated it and I loved it.

In the three years since then, I've taught everything from 1st grade Word Study, 10th grade World History, CAHSEE Math Interventions, to Life Skills to students with Down’s Syndrome and Autism. I've planned lessons on quadratic equations, on making pancakes, on Mendelian genetics, on the difference between a hard "c" and a soft "c," and on the ways you can make change from a dollar. I've written hundreds of IEPs, celebrated my students' college acceptances, led my school's Gay-Straight Alliance, drank away the sting of a RIF notice.

I take pride in it. Teaching is hard and good professional work. Community organizing social justice work. It’s a lot of things, at once: It is project management. It is public speaking. It is customer and community service. It is data analysis. When done well, it can be transformative, open kids' minds, and open kids' futures. That deserves reward. When done ineffectively, it can put kids on course to lead unlivable lives in prison, on the streets, or in poverty. That is not acceptable. 

It is not, contrary to what people say, always miraculous, uplifting, "rewarding" work. It is not something that requires exceptional patience. It's not the work of saintly miracle workers. It's not alchemy that can't be refined and analyzed and dissected rationally to see what's working and how it's working.

I am still a new teacher, but I’ve been through this and the ringer that is school politics and RIF notices and changes of placement. I've had an administrator screw up and give the job that I was supposed to fill to someone else, leaving me to fill a vacancy I was not qualified or prepared to fill. I've had an administrator tell me, on the first day of school, that there were no books, no curriculum, and no materials for me. I've had five preps a day, and no planning time to deal with them. I've had the "you deal with it; it’s your problem" attitude thrown at me in times of crisis.

I still love what I do, which speaks to what it's about: kids, students, and lives, whether they go on to good things or struggle for decades and decades. That's a decision that I have power over, and I think that's terrifying and magnificent, all at once. It is tremendously important.

Because of that, and because everything is not screwed up beyond the point of being salvageable, teachers need to be there at the table on every matter related to educational reform and reinvention, both of which are necessary given the persistence of truly rotten outcomes for many of our kids. More than that, they need to be at the head of the table with parents and students as the primary stakeholders in and drivers of this fight.

If there's anything that the examples of Michelle Rhee in D.C. or the Chicago teachers back in the Fall or the recent no-confidence vote in John Deasy here in LA demonstrate, it's that there is a real and legitimate feeling of siege among teachers today, with teachers feeling disrespected, discounted, and constantly blamed. "Reformer" has become a byword for "Anti-teacher" and "Anti-union," not entirely without cause.

This demonization of teachers and of teachers' unions is both stupid and dangerous, and is predicated on the erroneous presumption that we don't know what our jobs are about: outcomes. Teachers are smart, innovative, savvy people and we care about students deeply. We know what the system needs and what it is not doing effectively better than politicians, private educational consulting firms, the Heritage Foundation, and Arne Duncan do. What's more, whatever happens, we (and not these other folks) have to implement it.

It's outrageous that district leadership and school boards often lack teacher presence. It's inexcusable that major decisions at the district level often go forward with their plans without bothering with soliciting teacher input. Teacher presence and input should be minimal requirements. Teacher leadership and ownership should be the ultimate aim. Every district in the country should make teacher leadership and ownership of reform initiatives a priority, by regularly bringing in teachers to participate in policy making directly.

Better for us all that, like the lessons we teach, the IEPs we write, and the interventions we administer, we implement something that we have a hand in creating and shaping.

There are definite models for what this looks like in practice, such as in Baltimore, where a new teacher evaluation and career pathway system is being constructed with the active involvement both of school leaders and of the Baltimore teachers' union.

Without following examples like that, we will never have effective reform that meets the needs of students and that improves their lives. Without those things, economic inequality will continue to increase, the country will continue to fall behind in achievement relative to other nations, and the public education system will continue to be in a state of perpetual crisis.