Sidelining teachers in the education discussion makes no sense

When I was growing up, we had a kiddie table at Thanksgiving in another room, while the grownups sat at the big table making important family decisions between bites of turkey and sweet potato pie.

This insightful comment from Alfie Kohn sums up what has become to me a parallel scenario in the national debate on education reform: Classroom teachers have been pretty much pushed to the margins, if not shut out entirely.

Alfie Kohn: What Passes for School Reform: “Value-Added” Teacher Evaluation and Other Absurdities.

Unfortunately, the people who know the most about the subject tend to work in the field of education, which means their protests can be dismissed. Educational theorists and researchers are just “educationists” with axes to grind, hopelessly out of touch with real classrooms. And the people who spend their days in real classrooms, teaching our children — well, they’re just afraid of being held accountable, aren’t they? (Actually, proponents of corporate-style school reform find it tricky to attack teachers, per se, so they train their fire instead on the unions that represent them.) Once the people who do the educating have been excluded from a conversation about how to fix education, we end up hearing mostly from politicians, corporate executives, and journalists.

Consider some recent examples:

1) How many of our nation’s leading classroom teachers are included in the list of main speakers and panelists at the upcoming NBC Education Nation Summit? We are, however, invited to a Teachers Town Hall meeting, and there will be separate activities focusing on the students’ point-of-view.

2) An upcoming Oprah Winfrey show on education will have as guests on stage two experts—Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates. (Hopefully, more balance will be added before it airs or in a subsequent show).

If teacher voice is represented at all, it’s usually in the form of a obligatory invitation to the teacher union presidents. Worse yet, we teachers are surveyed or allowed “input” or “buy-in” after major decisions have been made. For example, despite some highly publicized listening tours and town halls, Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education have shown little interest in serious revision of their Blueprint for ESEA Reauthorization, paternalistically dismissing concerns expressed by teachers on how some of these policies will negatively impact students and teaching quality.

Isn’t it a waste not to let the nation hear more from the people who have dedicated their lives to education, and who in fact have done everyday, year-in and year-out exactly what we claim we want to see happen more in our schools? For starters, there are over 82,000 National Board Certified Teachers in this country, and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards is certainly one organization that has led the way in defining and identifying highly accomplished teaching.

Then, there are the many subject area organizations, each with its share of recognized expert teachers. These include the teachers that other teachers look to for examples and advice. I would also proudly recommend my colleagues here at Teacher Leader Network, several of whom are trailblazers in education on many fronts, and have made measurable and meaningful differences for students over their careers.

If the quality of classroom teaching is as important as research and experience tell us it is, why should the ideas and insights of quality teachers continue to be a sideshow to the education reform main events?

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