What does the 2015 PDK/Gallup Poll tell us about teacher leadership?

Findings from the recently released 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll suggest that the public strongly trusts teachers to make their own judgments. So why do policymakers continue to tamp down opportunities for teachers to lead in bold ways?

The recently released 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll tells us a great deal about what the public thinks about teachers, teaching, and school reform. There is a lot to consider about the attitudes of Americans toward school choice and vouchers (yes to the former, no to the latter), as well as high-stakes accountability and the use of student test scores to judge teachers (no to both). This year’s poll offers up new insights into the different takes of our nation’s white and minority citizens.

But here is what intrigues me most: About two-thirds of Americans say there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing” in public schools, and a strong majority—about 8 in 10—believes the effectiveness of their local public schools should be measured by “how engaged the students are with their classwork.” Only 14% report “scores that students receive on standardized tests” as “very important” measures of schools’ effectiveness. And 55% oppose requirements that “teacher evaluations include how well a teacher’s students perform on standardized tests.” When asked directly about which approaches would provide the most accurate picture of a student’s academic progress, the public favored “examples of the student’s work” (38%); “written observations by the teacher” (26%); and “grades awarded by the teacher” (21%). By contrast, “scores on standardized achievement tests” represented only 16% of selections.

These findings suggest that the public strongly trust teachers to make their own judgments about which students are doing well or not. They recognize, from a consumer’s point of view, what most researchers claim about the limitations of standardized test scores for high-stakes accountability and particular inaccuracies of using value-added methods to assess effectiveness of individual teachers. Enacting a new kind of accountability system, befitting of what the American people are seeking, will demand more of teachers as leaders of assessment reform, not just analysts of data. It will require them to have time and space, as well as a new set of skills, to serve as learning architects, action researchers, and policy advocates.

But decisionmakers have neglected to provide opportunities for teachers to lead in these bold ways. As my colleague Mark Smylie has noted, while teachers have been “looked to with increasing regularity as agents of school and classroom change,” the stark reality has been that their leadership potential has been tamped down by administrators who “appoint or anoint” them to serve in narrow roles.

Why is this?

Education historians often point to teachers being held back because teaching, as an intensely female-dominated profession, plays into gender discrimination in the American workplace. Also, researchers have noted the long-standing, highly privatized practice of teaching—which makes effective teacher leaders somewhat invisible to practitioners and policymakers alike. I have seen some school reformers, who are dead set with their answers to closing the achievement gap, resist teacher leaders who are incubating and executing their own ideas (that may run counter to the ideas of reformers).

The good news is that the Internet is rapidly allowing teachers to see directly—and indirectly—what teaching and learning can look like. Teaching is becoming de-privatized. We have learned how teachers, once unknown in their districts, are practicing their leadership skills in the private space of well-facilitated virtual communities—like our own CTQ Collaboratory. Now teachers—often without permission from their supervisors—are showing their colleagues how to teach to the new standards, developing new student assessments with non-profits like the Center for Collaborative Education, and flipping rigid, test score-based teacher evaluation systems on their sides with a peer review process.

We know from several recent polls from PDK that the vast majority of the public trusts teachers. The next step is to make sure the public knows more about teachers who are already leading in the ways they seek—and to help build demand for them among what was once a reluctant policy community.

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