Let Us Teach!

Vern Williams takes on the issue improving public education in his comments on the debate over  How to Raise the Status of Teachers, published on March 27 2011 in the NY Times.

Vern is widely considered one of the best math teachers in the United States.  He teaches honors math in Fairfax VA and served as the ONLY teacher representatives on the National Math Advisory Panel.   When he speaks about math education, people ought to listen.  His comments can be summed up on three words – Let us Teach!

Here’s some of what he had to say:

I really doubt that it is possible to raise the status of teachers and teaching in the U.S. considering the major stake holders currently involved in K through 12 education. I understand why students in the top third academically refuse to become teachers, while in Finland, Singapore and South Korea, teaching candidates are selected only from the top third.

Until classroom teachers are allowed to make real decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, textbooks and professional development, the status of teachers will remain low.

What we, as teachers, need to do is take back our profession. Most teachers will take to the streets and protest over salaries, pensions and working conditions, but how many teachers would do the same if someone who has never taught their grade level or subject, imposed a new curriculum or demanded that certain pedagogy be followed? Until practicing classroom teachers are allowed to make real decisions regarding curriculum, assessment, textbooks and professional development, the status of teachers will remain low.

At the moment, our profession seems to be in the hands of politicians, researchers, special interest groups, school system bureaucracies, unions, technology companies and textbook publishers. Even though I highly respected the members of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel I served on, I was the only practicing K through 12 teacher on the panel. Why should bright high school students decide to become teachers if they suspect that everyone will make decisions concerning their profession except them?

Vern is absolutely right. Several years ago I became involved in the fight to improve public education when TERC Investigations was mandated in Prince William County Schools.  That fight was part of what prompted me and other concerned parents to form this blog.

Over the past few years we have all come to realize that real change in our public schools is virtually impossible with the power and money at the highest levels in the schools of education, NSF EHR, textbook publishers, and politicians.  Any real substantive change which has the potential to undermine or compromise the power and money enjoyed by those groups from taxpayers will be quashed.  And we’re talking billions here all provided for by federal, state, and local taxpayers.

Vern argues that the solution, or at least something that might improve things, is to teach teachers the content they need to teach their subjects and allow them to teach.

What an amazing concept!  Teachers who are experts in the subject they teach and are allowed to to teach it.

That might seem easy to achieve, but I doubt it will be.

First is the whole power dynamic, and allowing teachers to teach their subject without mandates or intrusion, undermines that power dynamic.  People who have power don’t want to give it up, which mean empowering teachers isn’t high in their list of priorities.

Second is the knowledge gap.  Some of our teachers, NOT ALL – JUST SOME, aren’t fluent in the subjects they teach.  Many, especially at the elementary level, are self described Math phobic, but they’re expected to teach math to small children.  Education officials tell us that their professional development makes up for the lack of subject matter expertise, and we spend a small fortune on professional development (PD) for teachers.  When those classes are provided during the instructional day was have to pay for substitute teachers to cover classes.  Teachers have to attend several PD classes each year to remain certified. Teacher PD is big business.

Yet many of our teachers have no idea what students one grade above the grade they teach are expected to do.  I’ve had several conversations with several different teachers who were unaware of the standards of learning for the grade above them and were utterly uninterested in learning them.  How can a teacher ensure that she’s taught her students effectively if she doesn’t know what her students will be doing next year? If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you make sure you get there?

Empowering our teachers to teach without dictates or mandates is desperately needed, but achieving that means teachers must understand what they’re teaching and what their students will expected to do in years to come.  That means the PD we spend a small fortune on must focus on content and expectations as opposed to following program X.

None of that is likely to happen when there are billions at stake in PD, textbook development and publishing, assessments, schools of education, and education research.

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