The more things change, the more they remain the same. Along those same lines a very common expression in Washington DC these days is: “We promised change - you believed us?” It captures the spirit of American politics at this moment. What many people want from policymakers is a little less talk and a lot more action. This is true at every level of government: local, state and national.
Recently, Governor Haslam convened a summit to discuss education. The goals of the hastily arranged conference were somewhat vague and very unclear. It was still a smart move by the administration to bring a focus on an area where many practitioners and pundits believe Governor Haslam has squandered public support and confidence. The key is continued dialogue and discussion. Most importantly, the “my way or the highway” approach of the administration needs to give way to the “let’s build this together” attitude.
Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey stated that perhaps the biggest decision the Tennessee General Assembly will make in the 109th legislative session “is which assessment tool we'll use.” While that may be accurate, the debate over standards and a flawed evaluation system are expected to continue. Those issues are far from settled. There are many other issues that need to be addressed in education.
Our own open-ended survey conducted on Sept. 14, revealed that educators want to be treated as professionals. They feel devalued as professionals and people. Morale is an issue. Common Core is also an issue statewide. Educators see implementation issues and growing concern with the role of the federal government in public education. They would like to move forward with Tennessee standards. They believe the evaluation system is unfair. They feel we are testing too much. They would like to see a change of leadership at the Department of Education, with an educator in charge. They see a lack of trust from policymakers in their ability. Policymakers have provided empty rhetoric and broken promises on issues such as promised salary increases.
To build consensus, the starting point is that every policymaker and stakeholder in Tennessee certainly must embrace is a desire for strong public schools. Yet, there is no denying that communities that need quality public schools the most are typically those with the highest poverty rate. Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University wrote: “When you break down the various test scores, you find the high-income kids, the high-achievers, are holding their own and more.” He added, “It’s when you start getting down to schools with a majority of low-income kids that you get astoundingly low scores. Our real problem regarding educational outcomes is not the U.S. overall, it’s the growing low-income population.”
Most of the changes articulated by policymakers such as common core standards, increasing standardized testing, and holding teachers accountable for students’ academic progress make good sound bites, but they really do not address the growing issue of poverty. While poverty cannot be an excuse for maintaining low standards or expectations, these children are the ones who need the greatest amount of help in our public schools. That issue has to be directly confronted by stakeholders and policymakers alike.
Quite frankly, the standards debate should have been resolved several years ago. Rather than constantly debating the issue, let’s move forward. Both sides of the Common Core debate have made their points. Proponents are losing or have lost the battle. Opponents have not put forward an achievable solution. Let’s boldly change the dialogue.
There is no dispute we needed to raise standards in our state. But the whole argument that we must put a system of standardization in place by utilizing a “common” set of standards across the nation falls flat when you exclude a significant number of students in private schools, charter schools and home school. So the solution is to establish a permanent standards commission that consists of Tennessee educators, with at least 3 years of experience in a Tennessee classroom. Parents should also have a voice on this committee. This commission could provide the necessary leadership for professional standards and accountability in Tennessee moving forward. And these Tennessee standards should continually increase and be aligned with our assessment.
Many stakeholders believe a one-size-fits-all approach to public schools have created an over-reliance on standardized testing, which they say is killing creativity, narrowing curriculum, and de-professionalizing teaching. We have turned assessment into a punitive measure and have lost good teachers in the process. The need to take a stand on assessment has been accelerating for many years, and will continue to be an issue. The pendulum has swung too far, and we need to recognize that in the name of quality, we are making testing companies wealthy and the results are mixed at best.
Public school educators yearn for the same opportunities to lead students with creativity and professional judgment as those in private schools or their international counterparts in countries like Finland, Brazil, South Korea, Singapore, and Canada. Educators want education policies that help all students flourish – and they want legislators to remember that implementing those policies takes resources.
The biggest issue for educators in the next legislative session is to recapture our position as respected professionals on the issue of public education. The hardest part of this journey will not be the first step; it will be the third, fourth and fifth steps. Do you want change you can believe in? Closing the classroom door and hoping things will get better is not acceptable for educators. You, the classroom teacher, are the voice they need to be talking to, but you have to talk. You must use your political will to do the things needed to create that change and remain engaged on the journey.
JC Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tenn.