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Thursday / December 1

The Biggest Enabler of School Transformation? Teachers.

Earlier this fall EdWeek published the results of a national survey on the biggest ideas in public education. Researchers asked a large representative sample of educators from around the country to proffer opinions on a heady array of topics, like equity, equality, the quality of national education legislation, and how hot-button political issues affect classroom practice.

Perhaps the most striking insight in the survey, though, was a vivid, future-looking picture of what lasting positive change might look like in American public schools. When asked “What is the biggest enabler of change/transformation in K-12 education,” the most common answer, by a huge margin, was simple:

“Teachers.”

More than one-third of all survey respondents (35%) “point to teachers as change agents,” according to the leadership of the Editorial Projects in Education research center that captured the findings. Teachers were cited three times more frequently than the second choice, which was the always looming topic of funding (13%). Administrators came next, followed by an ignominious array of factors claiming single-digit percentages, with federal elected officials at the absolute bottom of the list with just 1%.

Now is absolutely the moment for teachers to take back the conversation about public schools in America.

I was exhilarated – and to be honest, a little relieved – to see so many teachers thinking of themselves as change agents (and not just because I wrote a book with that very phrase as the title!). The waves of excitement hit me so hard, because now is absolutely the moment for teachers to take back the conversation about public schools in America, and I was thrilled to see that they seem ready to do just that.

This shift is crucial, because for the better part of the last generation, education policy and practice has been dictated from the top down, and not the ground up. Starting in the 1990s, state and federal policymakers – many of them well-meaning – looked at the weak results of American schools compared to other countries, coupled with growing domestic racial opportunity gaps, and made some bold changes to how we organize schools. While some of the spirit behind this endeavor may have been right, the policies on which they insisted – high-stakes testing, coupled with punitive consequences for already struggling schools – were not.

Fast forward to the 2020s, and we were still reeling from the consequences of those top-down decisions when the COVID pandemic hit. After a generation of lackluster reforms that didn’t work, followed by multiple years of disjointed response to the pandemic, it’s time to admit that we need a major shift in who steers education policy in America.

Teachers, fortunately, seem ready.

The work won’t be easy, though. While COVID exposed the infrastructural weaknesses of our public institutions, those cracks run deep and were there long before COVID showed up. And while the much-loathed high-stakes tests put racial opportunity gaps on the front page of newspapers, the tests themselves did not create those divisions. If we want American schools to finally live up to their never-fully-delivered meritocratic promise, we need to confront all these structural divisions head on.

Can teachers do that work alone? Of course not. They need help from every conceivable direction. Children, families, and community members must hold educators deeply accountable for delivering on the promise of a great education for every student. Everyone else in the school – from custodians to food servers to assistant principals – needs to support classroom teachers by making everything that isn’t classroom instruction run as close to perfectly as possible. Meanwhile, if state and federal policy makers want to get out of the change agency rankings basement (hint hint), they need to start taking the work of teachers much more seriously; paying them a hell of a lot more would be a good start.

If we do all of these things, will American schools experience immediate, lasting change? No. Nothing works that way. American schools, in particular, are deeply embedded in the American political landscape and consciousness, both of which are beset by centuries of racial discrimination, housing inequity, and political segregation.

Turning the wheels of change in these larger systems will not happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and the most logical place is the classroom.

There’s a lot of talk about teacher burnout right now, and while some seem to think the response to burnout is easing up on the demands we place on educators, that’s clearly not what educators want.

Teachers are awake, aware, and ready to take the wheel. As change agents.

It’s about time we got out of their way.

Written by

Justin Cohen is a writer, organizer, and activist whose work explores how education, race, privilege, and public policy intersect. He is the author of Change Agents: Transforming Schools From the Ground Up.

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