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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Guest Post: What Has Changed?

Peter Greene, a "Very Seasoned" teacher guest posting for John Warner, answers "That Question."

March 13, 2018

Guest post by Peter Greene 

I started my first teaching job in the fall of 1979 in Lorain, Ohio. The year started with a six week strike and ended with a 74-teacher layoff. Out of work, I came back home to northwestern Pennsylvania, subbed around several districts and due to some unexpected openings (one teacher died, and another won the lottery), I landed a job in the same school I from which I graduated. I’ve been there ever since; I’m currently the most thoroughly seasoned teacher in the district.

As a finely-aged dinosaur of education, I often get That Question -- how have things changed?

Sometimes this is an invitation to complain about Kids These Days, so much worse than they were Back In My Day. This is not an invitation I can take. Students today have a different set of stresses and pressures than students of earlier generations, but they are young humans, and human beings have not changed dramatically for quite a while now.

The question can also be an invitation to talk about the lack of change. Education reformers all the way up to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos love to claim the schools haven’t changed in 100 years. That’s just silly. Some school fundamentals have remained unchanged in the same way that some automotive fundamentals haven’t changed (still running on wheels, still used to drive people places), but education changes steadily and constantly, because every half-decent teacher is always looking for new, better, more efficient ways to get the job done. A good craftsman is always in the market for better tools.

There are other changes that I’m happy to discuss, changes related to policy and regulations and the general management of the public education world. Those have created a fundamental shift in my job as a classroom teacher.

There have always been Great New Programs pitched at us. I remember the 1990s and the hard sell we received for Outcome Based Education, an approach that has now resurfaced as Competency-Based Education. The advent of Common Core, the rise of test-centered evaluation, the cult of accountability -- none of these things are new. What is new is how they have been promoted.

I remember a time when the state would present in-service program and the underlying message was “We really, really want you to buy into this. We really want to convince you to get on board and make this the next big thing to save schools.”

But about 15 years ago, the tone of these sessions changed. There was no more “We want you to enlist as our ground troops.” Instead, the tone was more, “We’re going to do this, and we don’t really care whether you get on board or not. You’ll go with the program, or the program will roll right over you.”

This was startling. It was hard to grasp at first. Like many teachers, as No Child Left Behind rolled out, I listened to the rhetoric and thought, “You guys are talking as if you think I’m the problem -- me, the guy who has devoted his whole adult life and most of his adult evenings and weekends to doing this work.” We looked at the Big Standardized Tests and thought, “But this can’t be right. It’s almost as if they want us to fail. But that can’t be right.” We looked at the goal to have 100% of our students score high on the BS Test and said, “Well, that’s just plain impossible. What are they thinking?”

By the time Common Core rolled around, I was more actively reading up on education reform. We had to, because nobody was bothering to explain anything to us any more -- the new rules and standards and regulations just showed up, tossed at us roughly without so much as a grunt of professional engagement. And what information was handed to the public was, we were shocked to discover, untrustworthy. The Common Core hadn’t been written by teachers at all. Some states had “adopted” them sight unseen. We had never even had a conversation about the wisdom of adopting national standards, and yet here they were. We all knew that standardized multiple-choice tests were a lousy form of assessment, but nobody ever asked us. It was enough to drive me to blogging.

K-12 teachers are good rules followers. We’re good soldiers, doing our bit for the team and trusting the People in Charge to be doing the right thing. I was no different. It took me a while to understand that educational malpractice was now being demanded by the people up top.

I’ve been a union president during a local strike; I’ve seen how angry people can get at teachers. But the last 15 years have been marked by a general degrading and deprofessionalizing of the teaching biz. Common Core has not fulfilled its creators’ dream, but parts of it have stuck, and one little-discussed transformative feature has been the notion that classroom teachers are not educational experts, that we lack the skill, knowledge, experience, training, pedigree, hair style -- you name it -- to make our own decisions or function with autonomy in our own classrooms.

In the very worst of districts, a “teacher” has no job but to unpack the curriculum in a box and read a script, or to float around the room while students hunch over computers. In the worst of states, anybody with a pulse can be put in charge of a classroom. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer students enroll in teacher preparation programs? “I just want to grow up to help more students bubble in the right answer on a standardized test,” said no bright young person ever.

So that’s something that has changed. Policy has shifted to treat teachers like obstacles rather than educational warriors. We still get in there and do the work of one of the best jobs in the world, but it has become increasingly clear that we have few allies and that many leaders don’t even believe in the work any more.


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