31 Mar Leaving No Culture Behind
President Obama made his (potentially) landmark education address earlier this week: watch here.
Many people agree (including Jay Mathews from the Washington Post) that Mr. Obama’s proposals offer something for everyone. And they’re right. His vision pulls together seemingly disparate ideas, ideals, and ideologies into a sweeping reform that could forever alter the landscape of our education system.
By doing so, he calls all parties to the table — from traditionalists to reformists to progressives. He makes clear that he expects standards and accountability, but that he is open to innovation. He also recognizes the need for more sophisticated measuring devices for truly understanding student gains and school effectiveness.
President Obama calls out the stagnant on both sides of the aisle and in various states. His willingness to lift the rug to expose the dust that’s been swept underneath is a refreshing spring cleaning. It signals that the potential for accountability to extend beyond individual schools all the way up to policy makers exists.
He asks for a new generation of teachers to “make their mark with an legacy that will endure.” He goes on to implore, “We need you in classrooms.” Mr. Obama follows this appeal with methods for keeping teachers in the classroom once they get there: mentoring, performance pay, higher pay for teachers in critical areas. They are a smart start, but hardly innovative.
He walks a fine line — one part leveraging us out of well worn ruts, but being cautious not to upset the cart too much. He keeps old language “standards, accountability, etc.” even as he call for a new era. While I do not take issues with those terms in and of themselves, I caution that he continues to put the weight of the effort on the teachers. While this is fair to a degree, there are larger currents at play that should be addressed.
Teachers bear a considerable responsibility by choosing to enter classrooms; they are charged with opening empty minds and shaping them into critical thinkers. It is a huge task and a huge responsibility. They (We) should be held to a high standard and given clear expectations for professionalism. We should be able to answer to accountability and transparency.
At the same time, other nations who surpass us in skills assessments do not do so simply because teachers are expected to uphold the standards set. That is a part, sure, but not it is not the whole. Another part is a cultural norm that holds teachers in high esteem — they are paid well from the start, not just when they raise the scores of their students. The field of teaching, even in lower grades, commands the respect of people and politicians alike in the same way that professors, lawyers, and doctors do. This culture of appreciation attracts the best and the brightest.
It is in this realm that our nation is sorely lacking. Teachers, as a whole, are often treated as the whipping boy (girl) for the system’s ills. They are often characterized as impediments to growth rather than allies in it. That they often do not have a place at the table when policies are created may help fuel this us vs. them mentality.
Changing the culture of what light we cast on the teaching profession may be one of the most necessary areas of development for our nation if it is to capitalize on President Obama’s proposed changes. There must be a paradigm shift in how we treat our teachers when we talk about them and about education. We need to send a signal that people electing to enter the field will be met with both challenges and support.