Stop the attack on teachers and schools

It's education "reform" policies, not educators, that are failing our children

The beatings will continue until morale improves… -Unknown

THESE ARE CHALLENGING times to be in education. Today, more than any other time in our history, education is in the national spotlight. Since the publication of a 1983 report by a commission established to examine public education in the United States entitled A Nation at Risk, the dominant narrative in this country has been that America’s schools are failing. Not only are they failing, but that failure is a national security concern placing our country in danger from our rivals on the world stage. This belief has worked to create an environment where everything is an emergency and something must be done to correct the problem now.

The difficulty with this false narrative is that, since the release of A Nation at Risk, we’ve seen the end of the Cold War and the continued growth of the power of the United States on the world stage. Some may question the security of that position in the current global environment, but that is more a product of the polarization of our political process and subsequent gridlock in our national government than it is reflective upon our educational system.

In response to this narrative of failing schools, the response by policymakers has been to increase oversight, standardize content, and emphasize state-mandated testing as the primary metric to judge student performance and teacher and school effectiveness. The primary goals articulated by policymakers are that we must increase overall student achievement and close achievement gaps for our high-need student populations. Therein lies the problem. After 20 years of these standardized, accountability-driven policies our nation’s scores on the international PISA test are essentially flat and achievement gaps remain.

At what point do we stop blaming teachers and the system rather than focusing the blame squarely where it belongs – on these education “reform” policies that have failed our schools?

We are currently experiencing an escalating crisis in education that is real rather than imagined. Around the country fewer and fewer young people are entering the teaching profession. Is it any wonder why? If truth in advertising were to be our guide, the current sales pitch for the teaching profession should be:

Come be a teacher! Enter this exciting profession where you will be undervalued, underpaid, overworked and treated as a cog in the machine rather than a skilled professional.

Research shows that close to 20 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years and in urban districts that number is closer to 50 percent. Young people enter the field driven by their passion for teaching and quickly run into the wall of our current system that crushes that enthusiasm under the pile of bureaucratic requirements we heap on teachers and lack of appreciation by many of our political leaders.

You may believe that this is an exaggeration of the situation. I’ll admit that maybe it is a slight embellishment for effect, but not by much, particularly when it comes to how teachers are treated and perceived by those responsible for crafting educational policies.

Massachusetts is an excellent example. The current executive leadership of our state has no educational policy platform other than to loudly espouse the need for more charter schools. They assert that our students deserve a better education. Their position would essentially provide for the elimination of the current public school system in favor of this quasi-private model, as they believe that this is the only way to drive educational improvement. Consequently, they support raising the cap on charter schools in our lowest performing districts, thus stripping resources from those neediest of schools and children.

This is no less than an attack on public education and a complete devaluation of the hard work of teachers across our state. I agree that these children deserve better. I agree the model needs to change, but to perpetuate flawed policies and then blame teachers when they continue fail lacks reason and logic.

Change should be accomplished by supporting and advocating for all our schools and all our students. Educators understand this and it is why we enter the profession. It is time for policymakers in our state to recognize this as well.

It is time that we fund education to the amounts indicated by the Foundation Budget Review Commission established by the state to research this very topic. It is time that policymakers live up to the obligations they have already made, such as fully funding special education circuit breaker accounts and regional transportation, prior to creating additional requirements further necessitating the commitment of financial resources. Before we consider raising the cap and adding more charter schools, how about we take the novel step of providing adequate oversight, establishing accurate (rather than inflated) wait list numbers, and fully funding the charter school reimbursement formula we have now?

The frustration among educators continues to build, causing disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and inhibiting effective progress. No system can function under constant unremitting pressure without breaking. No person can effectively accomplish the responsibilities of their profession while consistently being told they are failing, particularly when they lack the power to change the parameters under which they labor.

It is time to change the narrative. Any successful organization knows that the morale of its workforce is essential for organizational health and success. It is time to recognize this about public education and listen to the ideas educators have about education reform.

There are times that I feel almost like a hypocrite as, in order to be in compliance with state laws and regulations, I tell my teachers we have to take actions that go against the philosophy I so loudly espouse, expending time, effort, and resources on activities that I know will have little impact on student learning. However, what I refuse to do is treat them like less than the hardworking, dedicated professionals I know them to be.

Meet the Author

It is time to stop the beatings and bring hope, enthusiasm and creativity back to public education.

Todd Gazda is superintendent of the Ludlow public schools.