Mark Anderson has some interesting thoughts here about the role of teacher voice in sustainable education reform. One of Mark’s comments is that people need to get more engaged in “messy issues” of education reform. And I don’t disagree with that; messy issues are messy in part because they have a lot of important stuff tangled up int hem. But you can’t engage a tangled, messy issue all at once, whether it’s at a policy level, at a school or classroom level, or something as personal and mundane as cleaning your house. You have to break it down into targets that you can change and leverage little victories on some of those targets into eventual bigger ones.Mark’s also surely correct that ed reformers shouldn’t think we can “somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.” But I’d challenge both the extent to which education reformers actually think that or some of the implications Mark draws from it. Policy types need to have real humility about what policy can and cannot do. To my mind, a big part of what policy reform needs to do is NOT try itself to change the culture inside of schools, but to eliminate obstacles and put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders to do the real hard work Mark is talking about here (with accountability–and I mean that broadly, not in the specific terms it often takes in the current debate–as the natural and enabling counterpart to that). [Bold added]
I think there’s plenty I can agree with here (especially on the need for real humility–from all involved), but the devil is in the details. For example, when Mead states that you have to break up the messy issues into targets, the question that really matters here is “what targets?” The targets that policymakers have been mostly pursuing are not the targets that I believe will “put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders” to do the real work of education reform. On the contrary, as Will and I have been saying, these targets have in fact traditionally been a hindrance to our work as educators. And a large part of the reason for that disconnect is that teachers have not been directly involved in the process of policymaking.
So there’s an obvious bridge that needs to be built here, and fortunately there seems to be a growing recognition that teacher voice needs to be meaningfully integrated into higher level decision-making processes. But progress along that front is slow, and meanwhile, educators and students are suffocating in the strictures of ill-considered, disassociated policies.
Will and I are forwarding the perspective of schools as ecosystems because we believe this model provides a focus on the targets that will have the greatest impact: the contexts and the content that schools create and deliver. But policymakers have been focusing on targets that will have little meaningful impact beyond political shell games, targets such as the accountability that Mead refers to above. Accountability is the natural offspring of professional environments and cultures, not the precursor. Instead of focusing on the hiring and firing of teachers, we should focus on curriculum. We should focus on scheduled and paid planning time. Focus on the pre-service and in-service training and support that principals and teachers receive. Focus on whether there is enough access to healthy spaces for students to play in and designated time for such. Focus on what students are being fed. Focus on the support and training parents have to raise their children. These are the things that will raise student achievement and enable equity.
Over the months that come, Will and I plan to demonstrate that our model is relevant and meaningful to both policymakers and educators. We hope that we can help policymakers and other stakeholders to see that it is the messy targets that are hardest to touch from a distance that are the most meaningful to pursue — and that the best way to pursue them is from the bottom up, not from the top down.