Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post has posted the comments of retired teacher Kenneth Bernstein concerning the task facing college professors when working with the high school products of No Child Left Behind. These are dire warnings from a highly respected former U.S. Government teacher and are well worth the time necessary to read carefully. But there was one portion of his thoughts that I felt deserved special attention:
“Please do not blame those of us in public schools for how unprepared for higher education the students arriving at your institutions are. We have very little say in what is happening to public education. Even the most distinguished and honored among us have trouble getting our voices heard in the discussion about educational policy. The National Teacher of the Year is supposed to be the representative of America’s teachers—if he or she cannot get teachers’ voices included, imagine how difficult it is for the rest of us. That is why, if you have not seen it, I strongly urge you to read 2009 National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen’s famous blog post, ‘Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard.’ After listening to non-educators bloviate about schools and teaching without once asking for his opinion, he was finally asked what he thought. He offered the following:
“’Where do I begin? I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non-educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value. “I’m thinking about the current health-care debate,” I said. “And I am wondering if I will be asked to sit on a national committee charged with the task of creating a core curriculum of medical procedures to be used in hospital emergency rooms….
“I realize that most people would think I am unqualified to sit on such a committee because I am not a doctor, I have never worked in an emergency room, and I have never treated a single patient. So what? Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
Not an isolated event
An educator for whom I have great professional respect once related a similar story to me. He explained that he had come from a meeting to “discuss the future of education”. The group consisted of twenty educational policymakers. There was only one problem. “I was the only person in the room who had ever taught a class, evaluated a teacher or been responsible for the daily running of a school. And they were making recommendations for everyone else to follow”.
Expert advice requires expertise
These stories about “educational summits” remind me of sports talk radio. It is a scene full of opinions by people who rely far more on their “gut instincts” than any knowledge about how athletic competition actually works. To acquire a hundred or so misguided ideas explaining why San Francisco lost the last Super Bowl, just listen for half an hour to your local jock talk station. But rest assured that no one in the 49er organization is taking voluminous notes.
What needs to be followed is the model that occurs in the best schools. The most successful principals understand that the input of their teachers is critical to the academic achievement of the school. Likewise, excellent teachers are constantly collecting information from their students in order to better craft the delivery of the curriculum. Pyramids perform best when the elementary, middle and high schools are consistently exchanging ideas. But this interaction is the result of experiences gained in the classroom and administrative offices. Their reliability would be severely diminished if they were not based on actual personal experiences.
And yet just such an approach is being taken at the highest levels of education decision-making. It is a practice that needs to stop.