Often frustration with the public education system is directed at teachers, even when they are following the standards and guidelines set out by the government. Everyone from politicians, to non-profits to parents tell teachers how to do their jobs better. So it’s no surprise that when the federal state education officials or school superintendents announce a new initiative that not all teachers are ready to jump on the new trend. Education has a long history of reform, each succeeded by another, and teachers have learned to pick and choose carefully where to put their energies.
“There is such a gap between policy talk and what happens on the ground,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and a former high school social studies teacher and district superintendent. Cuban, a respected voice in the education community, says it can take a long time for new policies to actually get implemented in classrooms, and as schools are gearing up, new policies often come in to replace the ones being implemented. It’s a frustrating cycle for teachers and often leads them to follow their own best judgement about what works in the classroom and ignore the winds of change that can shift so quickly.
“They have history on their side,” Cuban said. He’s not surprised that teachers are reticent to immediately accept new trends in learning, especially if that trend is coming around for the second or third time. Take project-based learning, for example. It has become the catch phrase du jour, especially with the arrival of Common Core State Standards, but the concept isn’t new and many schools have been quietly practicing project-based learning since the time of John Dewey and Maria Montessori.
“It’s never disappeared,” Cuban said. Schools that were committed to a project-based learning approach continued to use it and made sure that their students also did well on state-mandated assessments. The practice has a history well over a century long — it didn’t arise just because new Common Core State Standards are now requiring similar skills, he says.
Even with other “new” teaching practices and ideas, “among teachers there are early adopters, so some teachers buy into it very quickly, and then when administrators pull back or funding dries up they’re stuck,” Cuban said. To avoid that kind of disillusionment many teachers have decided the best policy is to keep their heads down and continue to do what works — using trial and error to figure out how to reach kids, sticking to the textbook, and focusing on building strong relationships with students.
THE ROLE OF TECH
Technology is another hot button. Cuban points out that education has a long history of expecting new technologies to “revolutionize” the classroom. Thomas Edison believed the instructional film would replace the textbook, and radio was supposed to change how teachers taught. None of the previous technological inventions have fundamentally changed the purpose of school, he argues.
Similarly, computers have been in schools since the 1980s, but were rarely used. Now that the price point has come down and tech devices have become a ubiquitous part of society, there’s a push for that same change in education. But Cuban is skeptical that this new round of excitement about technology is any different from those that came before. He points out that technology is an expensive investment and an ongoing expense as devices quickly become obsolete. “When dollars get short, administrators bristle at that,” he said. If education funding gets cut, as it often does, he predicts the technology dollars will dry up and that trend will go the way of so many others.
But perhaps even more importantly, the transformative potential of technology has not yet taken hold. “In comparing [mid-1980s] and now … high-tech champions (and vendors as well) expected that teachers using these devices with students would shift from teacher-centered practices to student-centered ones. Comparing then and now, that shift has not occurred,” Cuban writes on his blog.
For Carrie Oretsky, a 40-year veteran public elementary teacher in Oakland, Calif., technology is “here to stay” — but she’s unsure to what end.
“This generation of kids is so much more hooked into it,” she says. But she doesn’t think tech would have made its way into Oakland’s public schools so quickly if it weren’t for the testing requirements under new Common Core assessments. “If we were just asking for the technology for any other reason, like to improve curriculum or books, we would never find the money for that,” Oretsky said. She’s seen co-workers use technology in exciting ways, but for her personally, it would take so long to feel comfortable with technology that she’s better off sticking with what she does well.
“The messiness of learning, which is so vital for the brain to make sense of it, might get lost,” said Oretsky. She worries that too much emphasis on technology in the classroom will deprive it of the unique social interactions that have made school special for so long. “There are so many amazing things that a teacher can do with kids in a classroom,” Oretsky said. “Negotiating, sitting down and figuring out a problem — I don’t know how that happens on a computer.”
TEACHERS AT THE TABLE
Oretsky, who constantly reads about new ideas and challenges herself to think of better teaching practices, has seen her fair share of top-down education mandates in her many years of teaching. Not all the ideas imposed on teachers were bad ones, she said, but none have lasted very long. “Every time Oakland got a new superintendent we’d have a whole new approach to something,” she said. “Every time it happens we just cringe. There are so many things that are given to us that are either time wasters or disrespectful to teachers.” She says there’s something “icky” about having mandates come down from on high without any teacher input.
“That’s one of the problems with people leaving the classroom; they forget how totally difficult it is when you bring it to the kids,” Oretsky said. She knows. She spent one year splitting time between the classroom and work for the district. Even in the half time she wasn’t teaching she’d forget just how challenging it was to work in the classroom.
Larry Cuban agrees that dictating to teachers isn’t the way to get them on board with a new educational initiatives. “One idea that I’ve championed over time is to get teachers involved before the new thing,” Cuban said. “Teachers need a chance to say how this is going to work in classrooms.”
For her part, there are a couple of clear things Oretsky would recommend schools do to improve teaching and learning. She’d like to see more project-based learning in public school classrooms, where students have real choice about the direction of their learning. The rhetoric of student-driven learning is popular right now, but teachers worried about meeting standards often aren’t willing to spend the time project-based learning requires if they aren’t sure their students will ultimately perform well on the tests. Cuban says reformers who champion student-driven learning aren’t being practical about real classrooms. “They have a vision of instruction, where the teacher plays a coach kind of role, a facilitator role, but in a lot of schools, given standards-based assessment, that is impossible,” Cuban said.
Oretsky also wishes public education could develop authentic assessments of student learning. The current assessments aren’t just once or twice a semester; Oretsky says there are benchmark tests every few weeks. And each time they roll around, her classroom plans have to stop while the kids take tests. Some educators have hope that Common Core aligned assessments will provide a more authentic experience, but Cuban thinks the new tests will be more of the same.
Oretsky remembers a program in Oakland public schools called Subject Matter Projects: administrators hired subs, allowing teachers to collaborate with each other and university professors and develop innovative workshops and projects on specific subjects. She says that type of collaboration was exciting and effective. Teachers were willing to put their own time into developing these projects and learned a lot from each other about teaching that could be used back in the classroom. Predictably that program was stripped away after a few years. Oretsky wishes there was time for real collaboration between teachers — not the 20 minutes she gets now.
Lastly, Oretsky says she’d make sure that social and emotional learning is built into every curriculum. When No Child Left Behind was first instituted more than 10 years ago, the focus on those soft skills was completely eliminated. “Teachers realized within a month that they had to bring that back because kids didn’t even know how to work together,” Oretsky said.
Oretsky says she’s getting ready to retire (though she’s been saying that for a few years now).“I really feel like a frog that has been put into a pot of nice warm water and they raised the temperature and pretty soon it’s boiling, but you don’t really notice it,” she said. Time, money and respect for teachers have slowly been stripped away from education and it’s left many committed teachers wondering why they’ve stayed so long.
“I love change, it’s very exciting to me,” said Oretsky. But she doesn’t intend to change her classroom into something worse than what she’s already doing. “If we stop asking, Does this make sense, we’ve lost what’s its all about,” she said.