When Crisis Presents an Opportunity: How about a National Teacher Plan?

Remember Katrina? Remember when schools were closed and the students who went to public schools in NOLA fled, a diaspora, as the city tried to clean up and rebuild and restore?

My friend Jill Saia, who was teaching in Baton Rouge at the time, described days where batches of new students would appear, shell-shocked and sad, and teachers welcomed and made room for them. They didn’t have enough chairs or textbooks–or toothbrushes–but kids sat on the countertops and teachers bought pencils with their own money. Going to school was normal, and however imperfectly, those children were invited into functioning schools and classrooms for a bit of healing normality.

It certainly was one of those ‘Every Crisis is an Opportunity’ moments.

Unfortunately, we know what happened. Wipe out a school system (and, not coincidentally, remove a large number of its poorest and least protected students) and you’ve got yourself the opportunity to let the market create a profitable, PR-driven system of charters. We’ve spent the last 10 years arguing about the all-charter NOLA system, while those students’ schools open, then close.

It’s become abundantly clear that nothing will be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic abates: the economy, the obviously failed American approach to health care and pandemics, our goals in electing political leaders. And, of course, education.

Glass-half-full people (a subset of the population that includes a lot of teachers) have been proposing ways to make society better after we’re back on our feet. From their—healthy—perspective, the only way to see this global catastrophe as a moment that could have a silver-lining backside is to tap into our capacity to change, to make things better. Otherwise, we’re just surviving.

As Ali Velshi said:
We can take this moment to change the policies that have failed us…why not be the first generation that fixes wealth disparity, and income inequality, and universal healthcare, and poverty, and homelessness, and racial economic inequality?

Not to mention education.

My friend Mary Tedrow and I have been discussing this.  Mary spent many years as an award-winning teacher in Virginia, and she also has serious policy chops. Mary said:

I want to go on record. When Trump was elected, I said, “He is going to burn everything to the ground, so we’d better be ready to build an education system that makes sense.” So. The fires are raging. How can we come together to replace the test-and-punish, top-down system with one where reform happens close to students, because teachers are well-trained, work collaboratively, and are free to make informed decisions on how to extend student capabilities to the maximum? When there is a leadership vacuum, leaders step in. What is first on our agenda?

WE NEED A NATIONAL TEACHER PLAN. And we need teachers to help draft it. Here are some of our rough-draft ideas.

  • First step: Get rid of mandated standardized tests at any point in 2020. (Should be easy–everyone agrees that the tests will tell us nothing, and we now have permission.) And then, lay the groundwork to demonstrate, clearly, that tests have never told us more than who the haves and have-nots were. The 2021 tests will only tell us who got supplementary instruction during the school hiatus—let’s scrap those, too. Instead, let’s focus on assessment expertise for teachers, who can use appropriate tools to do what assessment is supposed to do: Tell us what our students know so we can tailor our instruction appropriately, and give our students useful feedback.
  • Second step: Focus on actual student needs instead of comparative, tested common standards. When kids return–in the fall, or whenever–the learning inequities, always present, will be endemic. There will be kids who had zero instruction, and kids whose teachers and parents did yeoman work to keep them moving forward. Let’s stop comparing them–forever. Let’s look, district by district, at where kids are, and start there in rebuilding our instructional models and curricula. Let’s use existing standards only voluntarily as broad frameworks—suggestions, possibilities– to guide custom-tailored learning.
  • Third step: Let’s understand that technology–something that always should have been considered an interesting tool of highly varying quality in instruction–will never take the place of face to face instruction, and stop pretending that online schools are the answer to educating our people. We have data to show us that students in online schools do not do well. And we are currently running a national experiment in online learning which has already yielded gargantuan problems and revealed the resource chasm between well-off children and the poor. Let’s value and re-invest in bricks and mortar schools.
  • Fourth step: Repurpose the testing dollars for teacher education, given the current shortages. All preK-2 teachers should be reading specialists, for starters. We can extend and improve field experiences. We can increase teacher pay and make teacher education more attractive. We can open schools of ed that are cutting-edge models of teacher education and provide a full ride to teacher candidates who then agree to work where they are needed. The answer is not making it easier to get into the classroom—it’s selecting good candidates and giving them in-depth training and experiences.
  • Fifth step: Re-think grading as ‘normal’ required practice. There’s been a national brouhaha over directives to not grade on-line assignments. Not just because no access to the necessary tools and bandwidth cripples some students—but because teachers wonder how to ‘make’ students do the work without a grade hanging over their head. It’s a great question to ponder. If students are only working to get a grade, what does that say about the motivational underpinnings of learning in America? There are plenty of ways, absent grades, to provide feedback, encouragement and additional instruction to students. And for all the aspects of education that currently hinge on grades—who gets into what college, who gets to be valedictorian, who’s on the honor roll—maybe they all need to be re-thought, as well.

There are five, just off the tops of our heads.  Would you like to propose another? Would you like to participate in a conversation about our educator-sourced National Teacher Plan? Here’s the page where the conversation is just starting to bubble up: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1355753381300151/

 

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11 Comments

  1. “All preK-2 teachers should be reading specialists, for starters.” I would add all k-12 teachers should study how to reduce math anxiety (we used to know how) and immediately return to successful past practices (manipulatives, group work, hands-on)

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    1. I would also argue that ALL teachers should have in-depth mathematical understanding. This goes beyond the basic operations. In order to be creative and teach true problem solving teachers need mathematical understanding far beyond what they plan to teach. I’m not sure who said it first but I love the quote “There’s nothing elementary about teaching elementary math.” I believe that when teachers are properly educated about mathematics their confidence will help grow student confidence.

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  2. Here’s a bit from John Dickerson about leadership. Leadership is what public education needs right now. We have a vacuum at the very top, of course–but there are leaders out there, who can reassure us that our students have never stopped learning, can be valuable in dozens of ways as we cope with this, and are also looking for reassurance that we will go on. Here’s an short, inspiring video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRT9qsLVxEQ

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  3. Eliminating federal ESSA mandated testing requirements in ELA, math, and science is a start. This would still leave the fundamental shift in standards/curricula that was ushered in via Common Core and NGSS that replaced content and procedural knowledge with soft, subjective, so-called 21st century thinking skills. That pendulum desperately needs to swing back.

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    1. Not sure that CCSS replaced content knowledge with so-called 21stc. thinking skills.

      Want to expand on that? I certainly agree that eliminating or (more likely) seriously reducing fed testing requirements would save a lot of money on something that doesn’t provide information we already have.

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  4. I think that this time is a good time to sit down and dialogue about perspectives regarding how we educate all children. My area is early childhood, which I think has lost its way in many ways. Among the issues that come to mind immediately are the following: pushdown curriculum; the elimination of play as a way to learn; the relegation of the arts to the sideline rather than as a way to express one’s ideas. Let’s go back to beginnings and discuss why we do the things we do in the classroom and how we determine whether a child has learned what we feel is necessary. Let’s also look at our relationships with families and reset them so parents really are our partners. Let’s look at leadership and the beliefs that drive leaders to behave in a certain way. Let’s look at how to engage teachers in leadership rather than look at them as robots implementing scripted curriculum regardless of who the children are in front of them.

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    1. Many good ideas here. On the FB page (linked at the end of the blog), there is a lot of discussion about many of these, including thinking about what has happened to early childhood in the era of ‘accountability.’ Thanks for posting.

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