The education riddle we must solve now

Riddle me this: What is plentiful in schools but rarely utilized? What matters a great deal for children—yet carries little weight for policymakers? You guessed it: teacher expertise.

A new survey reveals that only 32 percent of America’s teachers report their opinions are “heard and valued” at the district level, beyond their schools. And a miniscule fraction of the 20,000 teachers polled by Scholastic believe their perspectives are embraced at the state level (5%) and or national level (2%).

This is shameful for a nation whose leading policymakers continue to exhort that teachers matter, but do not listen or learn from them.

I work with accomplished teachers each day through the Center for Teaching Quality. For more than a decade, our nonprofit has sought to create opportunities for teachers to lead in bold ways. I’ve looked on (and applauded) as teachers in our virtual community have convinced state legislators to make better decisions. As they have helped administrators understand how their choices will affect kids. As they have shared streamlined, elegant solutions to difficult problems.

I’ve celebrated as even more nonprofits have begun working for and with teachers, helping elevate their voices and engage them in reforms.

But as the survey suggests, such opportunities are far too rare.

Why does it matter?

Expert teachers know students and their families. They understand the new challenges that 21st-century learners face. They have the information and expertise to champion bold reforms—and to tell us when policies flop.

Let’s look to the survey. Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Scholastic poll includes 216 pages of telling data. Here are just a few insightful gems:

Only one in five teachers receives feedback on an “ongoing basis.”

In keeping with policies promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, many states have designed teacher evaluation systems that flunk at helping teachers improve through ongoing feedback. Punishment, not progress, seems to be the goal.

A whopping 43 percent of America’s teachers teach classes in which their students’ reading skills span SIX grade levels.

Wow—imagine walking into this situation as a teacher. Then think about the standardized tests used by many states to gauge the effectiveness of teachers, in keeping with Duncan’s Race To The Top initiative. As any teacher will tell you, these simplistic measures do not accurately capture student growth when reading abilities span six grade levels. Imagine the experience of working to help a child jump three or four grade levels in a year in reading—only to be penalized.

Almost three-quarters of America’s teachers say they are prepared to teach to the Common Core, but four in five report that they must have more planning time with colleagues to successfully develop and teach the kinds of lessons required.

State policymakers and Secretary Duncan’s administration support the Common Core, as do a majority of teachers. But what we don’t see in states or at the federal level are policies that give teachers time to figure out how to help kids master the rigorous new standards. Crazy, right?

But that’s what happens when those who teach are not invited to the table.

In every single school in this country, there are expert teachers who know what works and what doesn’t. Who have bold, practical ideas. Who can keep students in mind—real children they teach daily, not abstract numbers—as they make important decisions.

In top-performing nations (and provinces) like Finland, Shanghai, and Singapore, teachers are systematically prepared to teach and lead, and work in systems that offer them much more time to do both well. (Teachers in the CTQ Collaboratory will soon be releasing recommendations on this very topic.) Well-known journalist Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat, did not mince words after a recent visit to Shanghai, finding there was “no secret” to their rapid rise in PISA rankings—but “a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development.”

It is time for citizens to begin asking policymakers why they are not listening to teachers.

If enough of us ask this question, and if we ask again and again and again, locally and nationally, maybe policymakers will learn their lessons. And students—the true beneficiaries of teacher voice—will experience the teaching and learning that they deserve.