In Atlanta, noted reformer Phil Schlechty, author of “Working on the Work” and “Shaking up the Schoolhouse,” said there are two current paths being touted for fixing schools by political leaders — bureaucratic centralization or fragmentation/privatization.
“I say a pox on both their houses,” he told the Professional Association of Georgia Educators Foundation at an all-day conference Monday.
Neither path, said Schlechty, recognizes the changing and critical role of teachers in a world where information is now easily obtained by an 8-year-old with a laptop.
“We don’t really understand that the primary role of the teacher has been absorbed,” Schlechty said. “Most of us still see teachers as instructors because we see ourselves in the knowledge distribution business. Today, kids can go out and get the knowledge. What we have to become are knowledge work systems to help kids work on and with that knowledge.”
Teachers today must become designers of work for students and leaders/guides to instruction as opposed to the instructor, he said. As leaders, teachers help students find their passions and their voices and inspire them to great work.
There are folks who complain that teachers, including those in Chicago, have no right to complain about worsening work conditions and escalating responsibilities, that everyone is being asked to do more with less. But Schlechty noted that teachers have been charged with a task never before asked of American educators at a point in time when resources and funding are evaporating: Keep students in school and educate them to higher and higher standards.
“Schools were designed to send 10 percent of students to college,” he said. “In 1960, half the kids didn’t drop out of high school — because they didn’t come to school. They got through eighth grade and left. Schools are much better than they used to be at what they used to do — but we don’t want them to do that anymore.”
Teachers maintain that reform efforts impose the chief responsibility to transform education on them without giving them autonomy. In fact, one of the victories in the new contract in Chicago— which is still being finalized — is that teachers, rather than principals, get to write their own lesson plans.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had wanted tests to make up 40 percent of the criteria; the agreement brings it down to 30 percent. But teachers had other concerns, too, that will not be reflected in the contract, including honoring class size caps and maintaining recess art, music and foreign language instruction.
“The issues raised by Chicago’s educators and parents resonate across this nation because they are being felt by teachers, students and parents everywhere,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “These issues include endless budget cuts that have eliminated art, music, gym and other critical subjects from our public schools; a growing obsession with high-stakes testing, denying kids the rich learning experiences they need; closing down rather than fixing neighborhood schools, which destabilizes neighborhoods; and concentrated poverty that forces schools to take on more in the face of dwindling resources.
“With all of this, teachers continue to be denied the tools and conditions they need to do their jobs,” said Weingarten, “and then are blamed for every problem facing our schools.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog