4 Ways the Coversation about Education Needs to Change

I am going to be on stage with Brian Williams this Sunday as part of NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Town Hall.  The week-long Education Nation event, coming on the back of the release of Waiting for Superman and Oprah’s recent education special, has received a lot of negative push back from educators and parents who feel that their voices are being left out of the conversation.  When I was approached, I knew I could not miss the chance to talk about great teaching before a national audience, and I hope I will have the chance to do so, because the current national conversation over education needs to change.

The first change we need is to get over the public vs. charter school debate.  It makes no sense to be pro or anti-charter; the only question that should matter is whether schools are helping students to learn.  Until we focus on how to improve all schools, be they public or charter, nothing will change. There is nothing about being a charter that tells us anything about whether or not a school is effective.  There are good and bad charter schools, just as there are good and bad public schools. Let’s stop wasting our breadth over this debate.

The next change we need is a shift from talking about testing and accountability towards talking about curriculum and learning. There’s a ridiculous notion that bad teachers are bad because they are lazy, and if we could just hold their feet to the fire, they would improve, or leave.  That’s simply not reality.  Most struggling teachers simply don’t know any better.  We need to begin conversations about what they should be doing in their classrooms before their students are assessed, and then figure out how to support teachers in doing this.

While we’re at it, we need to expand our understanding of the term “assessment.” Good and great teachers are constantly assessing their students using a variety of formal and informal methods.  They know that a multiple choice exam will only reveal a very narrow slice of what students know and can do.  Good assessments that really show what students’ abilities are are open-ended, allowing for students to take multiple approaches to show what they can do. As with most real-life work, they don’t happen in a 47 minute block of time, and students have the opportunity to get feedback and revise throughout the process.

Finally, we need to stop asking questions about teacher retention, because we know the answers. Teachers who feel they are successful will stay (unless they are enticed to move on to “bigger and better” opportunities), teachers who don’t will not.  For more new teachers to be successful, they need smaller class loads so they have time more time to plan, reflect, and observe; just like students, they need frequent and regular feedback from both peers and supervisors; and they need to spend time in other teachers’ classrooms to learn from their triumphs and mistakes. I was extremely lucky: my teacher preparation program started with team-teaching a summer school class, where I was observed for the full three hours everyday.  The 45 hours of observation and 15 hours of feedback I received that summer is more than my colleagues who entered the profession through Teach for America or the NYC Teaching Fellows receive in the first five years of their career. Then, as a student teacher, my program limited me to teaching two classes so I could spend the rest of the day observing other teachers.  These three factors have served as the foundation for my subsequent successes in the classroom.

7 thoughts on “4 Ways the Coversation about Education Needs to Change

  1. Steve! Hello from Providence! So glad to find your blog. Congratulations on achieving National Board Cert.

    I agree with you 100% and I’m so glad you’ll be on Education Nation. As principal of a charter school, and a long time public school teacher, I couldn’t agree more that the issue is making EVERY school a quality choice. The debate about charter vs. public is nonsensical.

    I also agree 100% about expanding our definitions of assessment, and focusing our energies on quality support for teachers, to help all educators grow throughout their careers.


  2. What you say about your own training is important. Better training (honestly any sort of real training) would mean that we had fewer unprepared teachers flaming out, but…

    retention is also affected by many other factors.

    We face in NYC, especially in the Bronx, a host of abusive administrators who routinely drive teachers out. Most of them are poorly trained, esp from the Leadership Academy, but others are just mean and bitter (Bronx Science). It would take a very different kind of training to protect a teacher at Fordham Leadership…

    And while some Teaching Fellows find success in the classroom, Teach for America are short term by design. What’s typical? Two years. Four would be extraordinary. And if a “corps member” stays past 2, TfA bombards them with e-mails about leads outside the classroom. Even the Teaching Fellows (The New Teacher Project) gets a bounty for every new teacher hired, year after year, creating an internal incentive for high turnover. We should be talking about not hiring via anti-retention organizations.

    Finally, I am perplexed that you say we need to stop asking questions about teacher retention. I wish we were hearing those questions. I’m not.


  3. For the record, commenter Becky was the wonderful teacher who observed me my first summer and gave me wonderful feedback!

    @Jonathan – agreed with you on all fronts. Just to clarify, I’m not saying we don’t need to talk about retention, I’m saying we don’t need to ask questions about how to improve it because the answers are clear. And though it hasn’t been on the radar in NYC or at the UFT (at least from what I can tell), there’s been a lot of national stuff on it recently, perhaps most notably this McKinsey Report released this month. While the report focuses on recruitment, it has a lot to say about retention as well. It’s also terribly misguided in the unscientific conclusions they make from their data and case studies, but the data and case studies are invaluable. I’ll probably write a response to it next week.


  4. Steve,

    it sounds like we are mostly on the same page.

    Would you include drawing administrators from the ranks of experienced, successful teachers as one of the elements we already know about?


  5. Steve,

    I really like your point about having more peer and supervisor feedback/observation time. It seems that should be a regular part of immersing new teachers into the classroom full-time. There is a group trying to get more ideas directly from classroom teachers to Arne Duncan and in NY the Board of Regents — http://www.vivateachers.org. It would be great to get your feedback incorporated into the discussion. We need more unvarnished and honest voices giving direct feedback.



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