Education: Teachers voices drowned out

Judy Ferro    [Published in the Idaho-Press Tribune on June 16, 2014]

Before the May vote, Sharon Fisher of Kuna posted a Facebook status urging voters to support the Kuna school levy.  One of the negative responses advised readers to ignore her arguments because she just wanted to keep her job.

I chuckled a bit because Sharon is not a Kuna teacher.  She is a computer journalist who writes pieces I can’t understand for e-zines like “IT Knowledge Exchange” and “Software Quality Connection.”  She is not a teacher, but an honest-to-goodness concerned parent.

I thought of that exchange recently when I saw a headline asking why teachers don’t speak out.  Well, some must, or a man reading Sharon’s support for schools wouldn’t have assumed she was a teacher.   Idahoans have seen teachers lead a massive fight against Luna Laws designed to replace teachers with computers and siphon school funds to out-of-state corporations.

Yet, teachers aren’t a major factor in most of today’s big education decisions.

For one thing, teachers feel that parents, kids and communities have as big a stake in the schools as they do.  Years ago, when funding for Seattle’s Highline School District was cut 40%, the school board voted to keep varsity sports while sacrificing programs needed for accreditation.  When members of the education association suggested that its members refuse to coach, one young man objected, “The people of this district have chosen to let their kids go down the drain…”

Teachers know they don’t have the power to make everything right.

Moreover, teachers maneuver through some very political territory.   If the school board decrees that “90% of our students will perform above the 50th percentile,” they must nod without a snicker.  (Percentile benchmarks are revised whenever 50% don’t fall below the 50th percentile.)

And when it comes to Common Core, teachers are as divided as the general public.  Many are happy to see higher level skills emphasized and a wide range of activities and resources shared on-line.  Others have seen so many new programs come and go that they question the need for a new one.

A number of teachers object to the time and money required for testing and technology.    Many believe they are hurtful.  They tell of kids frightened to tears or totally discouraged when a year of hard work doesn’t bring them up to passing.

And teachers are often disgusted with legislators and others who think just having some high-priced test will accelerate learning.   What accelerates learning is engaging students so they enjoy working—and that means allowing them choices and creativity.  For most people, standardized and motivated don’t apply to the same activities.

And the testing is designed to judge our public schools and our teachers.  The idea that a kid can improve 1.5 grades in a school year and still be classified as failing is all wrong.  It means that kids who come to first grade with good vocabularies and basic math skills will always be a step or two ahead.  Why not rate kids on the current year’s gains?  Scoring could tell reflect each student’s progress rather than his position in the pack..

Teachers are speaking out on these issues, but few are listening.  Money drives the national dialogue.   Those who speak for more high tech and testing, like Michelle Rhee, may see every word amplified across the nation.  But the voices of educators across the nation who want to really put kids first are drowned out in the push for testing, standardization and accountability—methods designed to increase control and profit, not learning.

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