“Now is the time” to take steps towards education reform.


By Janet Foster

It started with an email. My inbox is replete with things that are sent to me without my permission. The fact is, I often don’t read them fully. I had my finger poised over the delete key while I was scanning an email from the NEA in October, when I read about the formation of a writing collaborative through an organization called VIVA (Voices Ideas Vision Action). I read on. For me, it’s kind of like walking into a book store with an unlimited gift card—I’m a sucker for a writing project.

I took a few minutes to compose my response to the question and sent it. I went back to the website a few times over the course of the next couple weeks to see what other people had written, and was encouraged to see so many other teachers writing about the same topics I did. Then I got another email; this one invited me to join VIVA. I hesitated briefly, then jumped in.

Along with my interest in writing, I decided to join because I wanted to see the people who are at the heart of the National Education Association (NEA). The picture I had in my mind was a smoke-filled room with grumpy, old men scowling, smoking cigars, and cooking up impossible ideas for the teachers of America. Teachers, the professionals who should be a part of their conversations, are never present when I imagine this scene. I’m not sure why; something to do with Jimmy Hoffa and union bosses in control of the ignorant masses. So I decided to join this writing group to develop ideas and suggestions to present to the union, to meet some of the movers and shakers of the NEA, and to refine my notion of the union’s intention.

When the VIVA writers finally met in Washington, D.C., we already knew something about each other, but that isn’t the same as being in the same room. We quickly became a cohesive group and we worked on last-minute adjustments to what we planned to say. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but even as we walked through the NEA headquarters’ doors, I wondered just how things would work since we had never rehearsed as a whole group.

Ultimately, rather than the original 90 minutes with three people that we had been told to expect, we spent four hours with a 12-person task force. Not only did we present our information, but we were also given time to join them at the table, literally, and speak directly with them and expand and discuss what we had written.The time passed quickly and some intense conversations on contentious topics drew passionate responses from both the NEA and VIVA groups. For a time during this discussion, the VIVA group dominated the conversation with specific comments and guided the talk toward some significant changes that we believe should be implemented. It seemed that we were being heard, and it was encouraging. In the end, the momentum of VIVA’s influence waned and it seemed that the NEA had reverted to ingrained, traditional thinking and it didn’t sound like they would seriously consider our suggested solutions. But they had just been handed our report and they hadn’t had time to read it yet. I believe that they did hear us, and that when they read and digest our full 50-page report, they will consider our recommendations. The NEA task force members are teachers, too, and they, like most of us, sometimes forget to question the status quo.

My trip to Washington, D.C. was short and I only had about two hours to walk and see the White House and the National Mall. As I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool, I thought of the footage I have watched with my students many times of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing on this same spot, giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. We study his speech because it was a significant turning point for many Americans because he was speaking to a national, multiracial audience, many of whom had heard of him, but had not heard him speak directly.

When my class reads and then watches the old black-and-white footage of this speech, we discuss the marked change in King’s presentation. He begins slowly and methodically, and he seems to have no passion for his audience. Then we notice the distinct point when he breaks away from his scripted speech and begins his impassioned plea to the crowd. One phrase that he repeats to make his point is, “Now is the time.” This inspirational mantra can be used in a new context for us today in the realm of public education in the U.S.

Now is the time for teachers, the union, and the public to work together and reverse the direction of a one-size-fitsall approach to teaching. Now is the time for the voices of teachers to be heard above the din of corporate, profit-making, non-education-based organizations. Now is the time to remember that we’re talking about the hearts and minds of our children.

This writing collaborative has been an incredible journey for me—both personally and professionally. I met my personal objectives by completing the writing task, presenting it to the task force, and taking a walking tour of some of the most iconic symbols of my country. My hope is that the task force will glean some ideas from our writing that will help them suggest specific steps that the NEA can take in the coming year. It will take much more than a single report from the writers of this one report to institute the changes that need to be made in public education, but one step is a beginning.

Fortunately, I found the NEA task force totally contrary to my imagined group. They were engaged and anxious to hear what we had to say. They were led by a vivacious, engaging leader, Becky Pringle, who questioned and prodded us to clarify our writing. The task force not only gave us an opportunity to present our findings, but they also showed a very down-to-earth, compassionate approach to what they were hearing. They did this because they are just as concerned about the future of schools and students as we are in the VIVA writing collaborative. I am glad to have a revised picture of what the NEA actually does behind closed doors.

Though the work is only beginning, I returned home to Oregon with a new appreciation of what it takes to make change happen—especially on a national level.

And incidentally, as I walked away from our presentation at the NEA building that crisp December evening, I am pleased to report that I did not see a single cigar.

FosterJanet Foster is a Language Arts teacher at Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson, Oregon. She participated in the VIVA NEA 360 Idea Exchange.

It’s Time for Parents to Take Control of Education Conversation

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera tells us in his Sunday column, “Addressing Poverty in Schools,” that poverty is the elephant in the public education room   I agree that the name of the elephant in the room begins with a P. But it’s not poverty, it’s parents.

Almost all of our public discussions about how well our government is serving its citizens happen in a weird closed loop of “insiders” or “stakeholders.”  Over time, they develop their own language, their own set of fixes and a pattern to their debates.

This dynamic has permeated every crevice of public education — our policy discussions focus on whether you are “for” or “against” reform; administrators use terms like “best practice,” “multiple measures,” and “value added growth” that sound good but are not what they seem.  Add in a testing system that isn’t designed to do what we want  it to do (give us a legitimate picture of student learning) and isn’t clearly explained (or explained at all), and we’ve got an insiders’ mess on our hands.

It’s time for parents and guardians to take back control of the conversation. We parents—and our children—are the only real education insiders. It’s time for us to step into this conversation in a meaningful way. How? By partnering with teachers who are empowered to be the official translators and ambassadors to the public.

With parents, guardians and teachers as a united front, we will get much closer to the goal of giving each and every child a chance to learn, those who languish in poverty and those who languish in mediocre schools.

Absolutely we have to talk about the plague of poverty—and its effect on every facet of our society, from housing to health care. Yes, education too.

But we cannot make education policy solely through the prism of poverty, which inevitably leads to blame and questions of moral judgment that don’t lead us to solutions.

Instead, we must talk about public education in terms of opportunities and skills development so we can bring a greater focus to the business of public education: Giving young people the skills they need to be productive citizens.

When we talk only about poverty, we let lots of people off the hook. And it becomes a conversation about “those kids” rather than our kids. And make no mistake: They are all our kids.

Why Education Reform Needs Data

Public education is a fragile yet critical resource and we have to do more to strengthen our public schools.  People are willing to acknowledge that too many students are in schools that don’t give them an adequate chance to learn.  Teachers know what it takes to be effective and administrators are working hard to get the necessary resources into their schools.

And yet. And yet.

There’s real concern about whether we can deliver to all students. I’ve been thinking a lot about this gulf between our effort and the nagging doubts about the ability to deliver success.

Why is it there? I think it’s because we’re afraid of the numbers. I can understand the inclination.  I was never big on numbers. In third grade, 8 X 2 frustrated and defeated me.

Nationally, numbers have gotten a bad name in education. Rather than seeing them as helpful, we see them as punitive.

Data, even standardized test data, is an important tool for teachers.But, the numbers hold the key to translating our aspiration for public schools into a success story. The numbers can tell us which concepts our students have mastered and which ones need more work. Teachers need to know that. Parents need to know that and, yes, the taxpayers who fund schools need to know that too.

So let’s have an honest conversation about assessments, tests and all. Rather than an all or nothing question of to test or not to test, let’s start talking about how various measures can be put together to give us a multi-faceted picture of the complex work of teaching and learning.  We need to be bold enough to be honest about what tests measure, what they can’t measure and what other data we can use to fill the gaps.

At VIVA Teachers, we know that teachers can drive this conversation. Put away the anti-testing rhetoric and the blame-the-teachers vitriol. And let the numbers help us find the right answer.

What’s a good example of how to use test data effectively?