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Seven things teachers are sick of hearing from school reformers

A senior from TechBoston Academy reacts as President Obama walks into her classroom with Melinda Gates (C) and  Education Secretary Arne Duncan (R) in Boston in 2011.  (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers have long been accustomed to “going along to get along” but increasingly are raising their voices to protest standardized test-based education reforms of the last decade that they see as harmful to students. In this post, Georgia teacher Ian Altman explains what he and his colleagues are really sick of hearing from reformers. Altman is an award-winning high school English teacher in Athens, where he has lived since 1993, as well as an advocate for teachers and students.  He has presented at several national conferences and published in the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. He won the 2014 University of Georgia College of Education Distinguished Alumni Crystal Apple Award as well as the 2012 University of Chicago Outstanding Educator award.

Altman’s list of seven things that reformers should stop saying to teachers comes from conversations he has had with educators across the country and speaks to the fury felt by many teachers who see their expertise being devalued and their profession denigrated.

By Ian Altman

A recent psychological study concludes that polite people are far more likely than ornery and contrarian people to harm others because they are more likely to follow orders — bad ones as well as good. Teachers, acting from their socialization into the profession but also as a result of fear and intimidation, are far too likely to stay quiet about harmful practices school reformers are imposing on classrooms. It’s past time for teachers to stand up for themselves and their profession. In that spirit, here’s a list of things reformers should quit saying to teachers because they are wrong-headed. This list is not exhaustive, but it is a start.


1. Don’t tell us that you know more about good instruction than we do. 

This tells us there is an institutionalized disregard for our professional judgment. Some teachers get scripted curriculum that is often sub-par and that gets in the way of real teaching and learning. Others work under policies that are so broad that they are essentially meaningless.

The purpose of the policies is the same in both cases: to serve a top-down structure that is in place not to help students but to serve a kind of aesthetic of educational toughness, which itself is in place to combat a “crisis” in education that scholars such as David Berliner have thoroughly exposed as a sham.  Most instructional policies are unnecessary and empty at best, roadblocks to real learning at worst, and either way merely devices to make the whole top-down structure appear justifiable.

How about leaving instructional policies to us, the instructional experts?  Good teachers are good because we know what we’re doing, not because we blindly follow instructional policies.

Good teachers are good because we know what we’re doing, not because we blindly follow instructional policies that make little or no sense.


2. Don’t talk to us about the importance and rigor of the standards.

I teach high school English, and I can tell you that language arts standards, whether the current Common Core Standards or some other set of standards, are neither rigorous nor non-rigorous. Everything depends on what individual teachers actually do with them.

Furthermore, language arts standards simply describe an assumed, conventional set of behaviors that competent readers and writers are expected to display.  But though a competent and hardworking student may incidentally do what the standards describe, displaying certain literate behaviors is not the same as seriously and conscientiously engaging texts and writing.

I work very hard to ensure that students do not simply go through the motions of studying literature and writing, even though going through the motions is usually enough to ensure good test scores. I require that they take the texts and assignments seriously and learn something important from them beyond what the standards specify. All of it is standards-based, not because I try to make it so, but because the Common Core language arts standards are so general that just about any assignment can be interpreted and defended in terms of the standards. Two teachers can teach the same standard using different texts, different methods, and with different purposes, giving students radically different experiences.In essence, that means the standard, ostensibly the same in both cases, is internally incoherent, and in that sense non-standard. “Standards-based” is a meaningless criterion for high school language arts lessons.


3. Don’t tell us about testing data.

I do not believe that standardized tests (End of Course Tests, PARCC exams, Graduation Tests, Georgia Milestones, AP Exams, the SAT, the ACT, IQ tests, or any other) have any value whatsoever, for anybody except those who make money from them.  In fact, I believe the use of those tests is inherently and necessarily damaging to all of us, including to those students who do very well on them.

Educators talk about and analyze test score data, and supposedly let that data “drive instruction,” but the truth is that numbers and measurements gleaned from those tests are not data.

They are a flat, bleached replacement of data, because they replace the substance of learning with an abstraction, a false image of learning, much the way Descartes replaced the idea of physical things with the concept of graphable spatial extension.  The acts of thinking, learning, and knowing, are not objects that can be replaced with abstractions about thinking, learning, and knowing. In that specific but crucial sense, all school test data are fake.


4. Don’t tell us “The research says…” unless you’re willing to talk about what it really says.

It’s not that we don’t care about research, but that most often when research is mentioned in a school context, it is used to end legitimate conversation rather than to begin it, as a cudgel to silence us rather than an opening to engage us constructively. Very often when confronted with a “research says” claim that I find dubious or irrelevant, I ask for a citation and get a blank or vaguely menacing stare, or some invented claim about the demands of the Common Core, or a single name, “Marzano,” as though he completed all instructional research.

Instead, cite the article, explain the argument and evidence, and most importantly, tell exactly how you think it might apply to my classroom. Then, let’s talk about it. Because research is not some giant, single edifice of settled conclusions; it is multifaceted and full of endless debates.

Research is also of varying quality. Peer-reviewed journals are to be taken seriously; ideological think tanks not so.

Don’t talk to me about “the research” as though I’m a student in need of guidance.


5. Stop with the advice about teaching critical thinking skills.          

Be careful what you wish for. Our current education “reform” leaders like to preach about the importance of critical thinking.  Of course critical thinking is important what exactly does that mean? For many reformers, critical thinking usually means problem-solving skills, and they say the phrase with technical and technological innovations – the STEM disciplines – in mind.

For me, critical thinking means analyzing ideas to understand them completely and find ways to improve them or dismiss them, including ideas about the value and purpose of technical and technological innovation.  That is why it’s important to know and teach about the nature and history of ideas themselves in English classes. Here are some of the questions for critical thought that my American literature students engage through both fiction and nonfiction sources:

* In the wake of the Citizens United decision, may we still claim to live in a democracy? And what then are we to make of the notion of “free speech”? In what exact sense is it free? (The Common Core says to study major court decisions.)

* How may we ethically defend or condemn our wealth gap? (See Frank Norris, “A Deal in Wheat,” and many other titles especially from the naturalist period.)

* What constitutes an American identity? What is a “real” American and what does that look like? Who gets to decide that, and how? (Along with hundreds of articles, novels, plays, and stories, we can do a rhetorical analysis of the Common Core standards themselves to engage those questions. )


6. Stop using education reform clichés.

Here is a compendium of common education reform clichés:

“After consulting the research and assessment data, and involving all stakeholders in the decision-making process, we have determined that a relentless pursuit of excellence and laser-like focus on the standards, synergistically with our accountability measures, action-oriented and forward-leaning intervention strategies, and enhanced observation guidelines for classroom look-fors, will close the achievement gap and raise the bar for all children.”

You can’t talk like that and expect to be taken seriously by educated adults.


7. Don’t tell us to leave politics out of the classroom. 

Don’t be naïve.  Learning always has some kind of political efficacy. Some opinions are more sensible than others, some arguments stronger than others, some interpretations and theories better supported than others. It is okay to say so out loud.  One need not disparage another to do so, and good teachers do not shy away from it.

For example, the theory of intelligent design made a big splash a few years ago among creationists who insist that evolution is merely an unproven theory on equal footing with other theories in the “marketplace of ideas.” It is very easy to show two vitiating things: there is no contravening scientific evidence against evolution, and intelligent design derives from Aristotle’s teleological argument which was soundly critiqued by David Hume and Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century.

Explaining these things to students will harm one side of the political spectrum more than the other. As far as I’m concerned, that is the fault of the politicians themselves for getting involved in classroom issues that are beyond their legitimate concern as politicians. They can say whatever they want, of course, but it is acceptable academic practice to teach why and how their arguments are strong or weak, and it’s not our fault if that involves politics, too.

Verbal logic and argumentation are the province of English teachers, especially now that under Common Core, we are told we have to teach more non-fiction texts. I expect all my students to learn how to argue sensibly and with decency, seeking the truth rather than just defeating the opposition, and I expect them to push those arguments with each other and with me.  The vitality of my classes depends on it.

Too many people never learn how to discuss and debate sensibly and with decency. Too many people are trained to shy away from controversial ideas for the sake of being polite because confrontation might be considered embarrassing or impolitic. My students will not fall to those trappings if I can help it. I will continue to do everything I can, as a teacher and as a citizen, to disrupt everybody’s settled thoughts.


Teachers didn’t choose this fight. It has been imposed on us by a misguided and deeply conservative “reform” movement. It’s time for reformers  to back off because I, and my colleagues, will do a better job if you just get out of the way.

I welcome you to disrupt my thoughts with real argument if you can. But don’t insult me and my profession by telling me just to believe what I’m told and accept the way things are.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 13, 2014

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