The following is an edited version of a post I made on John Merrow’s blog in which I explained why I was not going to the rally in Washington in July, even though invited to do so by the organizers. Some may be offended by my remarks; try to keep an open mind: I see no value, ever, in blaming forces out of our control or in whining about our enemies. I only see value in changing what is in our control, and there is much in our control that would make schools much better for more kids. To me professionalism begins and ends with taking full responsibility for what happens or doesn’t happen in the classroom:

I was invited to speak at the July rally in Washington to Save Our Schools; I declined. Having spent 30 years at school reform I long ago come to the sad but (I believe) inescapable conclusions that until and unless  –

  • teachers treat students with greater intellectual respect, nothing will change.
  • school is defined as talent development and not a march through The Valued Past, we will fail.
  • we recognize that local teacher-given tests are often invalid and provide inadequate feedback to students we will remain stuck in low-level mediocrity.
  • we stop first blaming others (especially students) and fix what we can fix, no one will listen to our laments.
  • School ceases to be as needlessly boring as it is, standards can never be raised.

The last point is the 800-pound elephant no one will discuss. School is boring for many if not most students; who has the guts to admit it?  (Look at both the national high school study of student engagement and our own AE study results). When was the last time you shadowed students for a day? It is a grim experience: unending dull and pointless worksheets, yakking about little of substance, few truly exciting tasks… Little surprise, magic, or mystery; teacher tone of voice that encourages tuning out. I have a few times seen English classes where the entire period consisted of students taking turns reading the novel aloud; I have seen history classes where kids copy the teacher’s notes from the board all period; I have seen math classes where teachers spend the whole period teaching exactly what is in the textbook (with zero context provided as to why it matters).

It is endlessly easy to blame Others, those outsider bad guys. But if school is boring, you can’t blame that on the Others. From where I sit, the problem is a Pogo problem: I have met the enemy; it is us.

Another disturbing fact underlies the boredom: few teachers truly understand their job at a deep level. By “understand” I mean nothing complicated: those who understand their job have a valid, worthy, and explicit set of performance goals for the year, and work tirelessly to achieve them. Yet, every workshop we do, we ask teachers to write their own Mission statement or the key student take-aways for the year and few can do it. Few have self-conscious priorities; some even say that having priorities is impossible because “there is so much content!”  – as if priorities matter less the more content there is! Most teachers are so unthinkingly drawn to cover content instead of using content to engage minds and cause effective learning that even the best schools are nowhere near as good as they should be.

From where I sit – as a reformer, parent, teacher – the students who succeed are by and large those 
who trust adults and delay gratification. That may be the best explanation for why SATs so closely correlate with income. If schools were truly effective there would not be so tight a correlation.

And please, stop blaming it all on tests. The same aimless teaching as coverage exists in all private schools – with the worst of it occurring in college. And as I wrote in my March 2010 Educational Leadership article, after studying all of MCAS and FCAT released items in math and ELA for the past few years; and after collecting and analyzing all assessments in a marking period in a dozen schools, most of them “good” schools, I had to admit the bitter conclusion that state tests in those two areas are much better than local tests – the only valid way to explain the gap between local grades and state test scores, BTW.

Thus, test prep, the so-called “necessary” response to testing demands, is a bankrupt response. Who will admit it publicly: this is educational mismanagement of the highest order.  It is a FAILED response, a TIMID response, an UNIMAGINATIVE response to one’s obligations as a educator. Test prep is not required by the Standards and tests, i.e.. I have seen no evidence – I defy someone to show me evidence – that teaching must worsen for test scores to rise; I only know that mediocre teachers and principals BELIEVE this. In fact, the best teaching occurs in good schools where teachers know what good teaching is and do it. Simple thought experiment: do you see the most or least test prep in the finest schools? You see it only in schools that have nothing else pedagogically to offer.

On the contrary: over 30 years of work and our training in Understanding by Design has always shown that local control of learning and assessment, led by strong leaders and good teachers who know better, is the determining factor in whether a school is good or not. This is of course what everyone from Lezotte to Marzano has shown to be true in the research for years.

Until and unless students are given a better shake in terms of an engaging and empowering curriculum, classroom by classroom, schools will continue to under-serve our kids. That service has nothing at all to do with federal or state policy: all good education is local. And we have only a few more years to get this right: video games and online learning are knocking at the door, with more engaging, mastery-based experiences that are teaching kids that learning can be fun and not make you feel stupid.

The unions? Puh-leeze; don’t get me started. I have been at dozens of meetings and workshops where “work to rule” means that “professionals” leave at 4 pm on the dot, no matter what was happening or who was speaking, in mid-sentence. I have seen unions veto policies that would have been harder work for teachers but better for kids. I have never seen teachers threaten to go on strike for kids. I have seen grievances filed over educational policies that good teachers in the same school instituted!

The only way true reform can be achieved is if educators own it, and that means owning the problems as well as owning a concrete vision of what school should be. So we must finally get honest and say – mea culpa: school is more boring and ineffective than it needs to be, so let’s get our own house in order before the outsiders force us to do dumb things with their crude policy levers and growing impatience. But that requires a vision. (In my next post I will describe what a true vision is, as opposed to the vague platitudes now relied on by almost all reformers: it is as rich and detailed as an architect’s blueprint, not just a sketch on a napkin which is what now passes for a reform plan).

Had unions and other advocacy groups banded together and lobbied hard for concrete alternatives to current policy we might not be in this mess. But for 25 years the educational establishment has just lobbied hard to complain about what it doesn’t like. Do these people, with their high-priced offices and good salaries, understand Real-World Civics 101? Laws are written by lobbyists and given to key legislators. When was the last time the NEA, AFT, NASSP, NAESP and others wrote model legislation together to advance schooling for the good of students? I haven’t seen it.

You may disagree with me strongly on some particulars; that’s fine. You may wish to blame others for many of the current challenges facing education; I think that’s a terrible mistake that only compounds our marginalization (even if you make some valid points). Because if we keep failing to recognize how we look like a bunch of whiners instead of a bunch of professionals in the policy arena, and if we maintain our passive-aggressive stance in ongoing debates, we will become even less listened to.

What can you do? As always it starts with: be the change you wish to see. How will you better understand, address, and honor – today – your long-term goals, the reasons you got into teaching in the first place? How will you make students more eager to come to school tomorrow? How will you find like-minded colleagues who have a can-do attitude instead of a we-can’t attitude? That’s where true reform and professionalism begins, not at some march where we cheer the good guys and boo the bad guys.