Op-ed: Common sense (and education reform)

Using the title of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet is not an accident when considering the topic of education reform. I do so deliberately. Though Paine wrote against monarchy — which we do not have —  he was also vexed by the overwhelming powers of an aristocratic class — which we do have in a sense. Perhaps it is not a stretch to compare England’s aristocracy of the 1700s with the relatively small number of extremely wealthy and powerful individuals in 21st century America. Right now the voices of our “aristocracy” are drowning out the voices of experienced educators.

It is time we consider some common sense ideas about education reform — ideas not generated by those of little experience but much wealth — but ideas that reflect actual experience in the field of education.

Common Sense Idea #1: Preserve Public Education

Thomas Jefferson created his first Bill of Education to curtail the undue influence of the wealthy and powerful. Universal public education would ensure that all citizens had access to information and the ability to process such information. The privatization of schools is antithetical to Jefferson’s vision, especially when one realizes that privatization may result in a business model and/or for-profit schools and inappropriate corporate influence. Public school education, the bedrock of democracy, should not be corrupted into anything that even hints at a takeover by a privileged few.

Common Sense Idea #2: Evaluate Teachers Appropriately

One or even a few student tests cannot evaluate the quality of a teacher. Such thinking precludes many variables, including the history of a student. Certainly a student experiences the instruction of many teachers along the way before he or she reaches the teacher being evaluated. One cannot exclude the entire history of a student’s educational experience when making a judgment. More important, we must consider that students have their own varying histories: of health, parental situations, access to educational material both in school — depending on money allocated — and out of school, and varying ways of learning and reacting to specific testing situations. Equating teacher excellence with student testing would be akin to equating a successful medical doctor with outcomes of patient experiences. Many variables are at work.

Evaluations would be better served by the use of feedback by mentors, parents — even students. Perhaps student evaluations would need to be carefully constructed. I remember being amused by the overheard statement of a student describing an administrator: “I hear you like her once you graduate.”

Common Sense Idea #3: Respect the Profession of Teaching; Consider Many Ways of Improving Education

Independent school teachers do not face the relentless scrutiny that public school teachers face. As a product of both public and private school education, I can report that private school teachers were not superior to public school educators. They did, however, work in more humane settings with smaller classes and autonomy in instruction. They were, and are, valued and respected.

When Jacques Barzun stated, “Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition,” he must have been thinking of the teachers of the general public, not teachers protected by an elite tradition of a private school. More important, to denigrate public school educators is to make an easy assumption: all of the perceived problems of public education are the result of poor instruction. Such a conclusion is too pat; this idea of poor instruction is a red herring or, to put it another way, teachers make easy scapegoats. Once again, there are many variables at work.

We need to provide all students with access to reliable pre-K instruction, more equitable school environments and additional support when needed to make up for deficits due to poverty and segregation. Though this will be costly, we can no longer afford to ignore the existence of inequality in education by assuming that poverty does not matter.

Common Sense Idea #4: Look to Private School Goals rather than Common Core

Our government thinks that teachers need to be instructed in great detail as to what students should know and when. Such an assumption reflects a basic disregard for the intelligence of public school teachers. Anyone who attended university with a major in his or her subject and additional education courses, who also possesses the ability to communicate with academic department members regarding specific goals for specific grades, already understands and lives by benchmarks, scaffolding and ultimate mastery. As an aside, I can remember an occasion when teachers were asked to review (already) taught lesson plans with the purpose of demonstrating an alignment with standards. Valuable time was wasted justifying what we were already naturally accomplishing.

We should look to highly regarded private schools for guidance on curriculum creation. If one reviews the English offerings at Deerfield Academy or Westover School, one learns that the English department, deemed worthy, is responsible for its own curriculum development. Individual course offerings obviously reflect the expertise of individual teachers. To ensure an equitable standard for all public schools, basic state requirements for learning in each grade are in order. However, such guidelines should be created by master teachers not by individuals with little or no experience in the classroom.

Public school teachers continue to work diligently to improve student outcomes — often in unacknowledged ways. Teachers deserve respect and, above all, a voice. It is time that we reclaim the “lost tradition of a regard for teaching” — with common sense and by speaking the “plain truth”  — to quote Thomas Paine’s alternate title. We must speak up on behalf of teachers and students. The future of American education, and, as always, a thriving democracy depend on us.

Jane K. Marshall is a retired high school English teacher in New Haven schools.

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