By Mary Tedrow
The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have joined forces to develop a new set of national standards – begun by a cadre of policy makers, and with little attention given to gathering teacher insights or earning teacher buy-in.
This is a mistake.
No matter what is decided in the latest round of tinkering with standards, here's a little secret: EVERY SINGLE mandate will survive only if a classroom teacher sees that it is effectively implemented.
Do not kid yourself. . .
• Data is collected and reported by teachers first.
• IEPs are implemented, upheld and carried out by teachers first.
• Community connections and parent contact is done by teachers first.
• Rates of attendance, observation of psychological issues, drug dependence, parental abuse, health issues, nutrition issues - all observed and reported on by teachers first.
For those who sit some distance from these issues and make decrees, extend your imagination for a moment to see how that looks on the ground.
In and out of the classroom since 1978, my job has grown ever more complex, all while the hue and cry over failed schools has grown increasingly shrill. Most reform initiatives have been slowly piled onto my original skill set. As a result, I find it hard to imagine what it must be like to walk into a classroom today as a novice, even though I'm working beside them.
There is no longer a learning "curve" that allows beginning teachers to move from beginner to master to expert. Instead, it's a straight vertical climb that most novices can only deal with effectively by working round the clock beginning in year one. Hence: a frustratingly high rate of burnout and departures in the first five years and more finger-pointing at failed schools.
Ironically, hard-working young teachers sometimes see few results because their hard work does not always benefit children but others outside the classroom. I've seen numerous instances where promising teachers have thrown up their hands in frustration and walked out because the initiatives seemed nonsensical, overwhelming, and often child unfriendly.
New teachers, fearful of recriminations, rarely kick about the nuttiness we sometimes endure. But they are voting with their feet. Sadly, those who grow frustrated the fastest are those most attracted by what they believed would be an opportunity to influence the lives of children.
To date, the chief beneficiaries of the new standards movement appear to be test developers and scorers whose profits also rest on the backs of teachers. The College Board, creator of Advanced Placement and SAT tests, looms as a large presence in the newest standards discussion.
If policy makers hear one thing from teachers, it should be that the job must be completely restructured and supported at the ground level if we have a hope of helping all of our students become successful. It really is time to take a bold step and approach reform in its literal sense and RE-FORM the work of teachers. The current standards program just nibbles at the edges of what needs to be done, while sucking in more time and dollars.
And yet, teachers who can speak authoritatively to the needed changes are not seated anywhere near, much less at, the table. Instead we are fed a steady diet of end-of-course testing and little in the way of time and resources to help ourselves and other teachers develop the teaching skills necessary to bring an impoverished child to the state-defined level of college and career ready standards.
From my perspective, devising new ways to "hold teachers accountable" to current conditions is a phenomenal waste of time. It squanders a huge resource — those who know kids and the public system of teaching best — in favor of buying more assessments, holding more blue ribbon panel discussions, writing new laws and creating delays that avoid opportunities to develop and support a truly world-class teaching force.
We won't get anywhere by adding to the list of jobs teachers are already asked to accomplish. The newest set of rules will just line someone else's pockets while ignoring the realities of teaching and learning.
Here's another little secret: There are accomplished teachers who are having great success with real children right now whose knowledge and talents goes untapped for the greater good. Successful classroom teachers already know who is falling behind. We don't need a test or a new definition of a standard to tell us. We already know what we need to get the job done better. Ask us. Give us the support to get the children, and a new generation of teachers, ready for the future.
Mary Tedrow is a National Board Certified Teacher in Virginia, who teaches high school English and journalism.