After spending 12 months serving the educators of the state of Michigan as the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I have learned a lot about what can help make education better. When you boil away all of the reforms, bills, and policy initiatives, it all comes down to trusting the professionals.
In Michigan, we have seen reforms in recent years that target tenure and evaluations for educators, retaining students who cannot pass state reading tests in third grade, and more recently expanding the monopoly that the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) has over the state reform district.
“Education reform” is a powerful phrase used widely among many groups with an interest in improving education for the youth, including educators. Its connotation suggests something must change for education, and that’s certainly true: something must change.
As the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I have had the opportunity to work with schools and education organizations all around the state this year. From visiting schools and serving in an advisory role on the State Board of Education, to presenting at education events and consulting with thousands of educators on school improvement projects, I have witnessed education in Michigan through just about every lens beyond that of my own classroom walls. What I have seen has been inspiring, illuminating, and discouraging all at the same time.
This experience has revealed a number of “reforms” that education needs in Michigan, and possibly across the country. I’d like to boil them all down to one idea that I will reveal toward the end of this post. It is perhaps lesser known in the general discourse about our schools, and it also might surprise you. So, here it goes:
If you went to the dentist, who told you that your persistent mouth pain was the result of a cavity and required getting a filling, you’d likely not think twice about scheduling the procedure. Chances are that between realizing you are in pain and trusting the dentist’s training, professionalism, and expertise, you would not question their work nor plan.
You would probably not try to come up with your own dental plan of action, pitch it to the dentist, and then round up a group of your like-minded friends to lobby the dentist’s office to adopt your plan over that of the dentist…unless, of course, you were a dentist, maybe. Similarly, you wouldn’t go into a pre-operation appointment with your surgeon wielding a bunch of WebMD printouts and instructing them to follow the treatment plans described therein.
No one would do these things. It would be like going to a restaurant for dinner, handing the server some home recipes to give the chef and saying, “Here. You should cook food like this.”
Now, consider this…
In education, it is a much-to-the-contrary situation, unfortunately. Regularly, people with no formal training in education offer their armchair solutions to the ostensible “problems” of education. By virtue of the fact that most all of us have sat in a student desk at some point, we somehow feel that we are qualified to speak about education with authority. Moreover, there are plenty of folks out there who convey their suggestions, policies, and even plans for education directly to educators. Essentially, because we have been a student we somehow know about being an educator or education at large. But why? We do not feel that being a patient enables us to diagnose disease. So, why don’t we believe in educators and education like we do healthcare professionals?
Just because you’ve sat in the dental exam chair doesn’t make you qualified to diagnose an impacted molar any more than being a high school graduate puts you in a position to dictate the best way to teach math or reading to children.
Putting faith in the professionals who educate our kids is tantamount to putting your open mouth in the hands of the dentist; yet, we haven’t achieved equitable faith in education to other professions. Perhaps the coverage of failing schools, low test scores, and kids who can’t read has cast or propagated this doubt on education. As that might be the case, the catalyst, whatever it might be, has opened the door for countless unqualified individuals to get involved in education and offer their reform ideas. It seems that anyone who is anyone in education these days is not an actual educator.
So-called experts on the matter of school reform and education innovation range from philanthropic software mogul Bill Gates to a YouTube tutor turned education pundit and businessman named Sal Khan. While the spirit behind their efforts to improve education is noble, their qualifications are about as good as those of Derek Zoolander opening a literacy school. Neither Bill Gates nor Sal Khan have ever been a teacher nor are they now. And, still, the opinions and voices of self-declared education pundits like these carry far more weight in the discussion of what we should do for our schools than that of actual educators.
Are our students really being failed by our schools? Are kids so grossly underperforming that we need to turn to anyone other than those in education for help? Aren’t students still graduating? Aren’t they still going on to great colleges, universities, and career pathways?
Yes, they are. In Michigan, fourth graders are seeing improvements in reading for the fourth year in a row and graduation rates have been rising for years. Furthermore, a Fordham Institute report shows that the U.S. produces many more high-achieving students than any other comparable nation. Does that sound like grounds for alarm or disbelief in our educators and the education system?
We always want to strive for better, seek to improve, and yearn to achieve more for the next generation. Well, that’s exactly what educators do every day. While it might not be visible to those outside of schools on a regular basis, educators are constantly learning more, improving their practice, and making strides to help students.
Certainly something must change in education—the public perception of our education system that has prepared students to inherit the world for decades in Michigan. Education doesn’t need fancy reforms and policies, it needs your trust.
Image: Courtesy of the Detroit Free Press
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