Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shovel-Ready Bullet Points 101

In a recent Ed Week blog post, Nancy Flanagan urges her fellow teachers to speak up and offer their perspective on the Common Core. She encourages them to develop salient ideas, and then asks teachers, "Can you put them into shovel-ready bullet points, for the limited attention span of your average legislator?"

Having teachers weigh in the Common Core is so needed, after all they are the first-order Core users. The much-needed voice of the teacher has been almost absent from the Common Core policy making table. Even as the weight of  educator accountability evolved to the misguided connection between standardized assessment scores and teacher quality, the public has so rarely heard from the teacher. Even as conventional wisdom seemed to turn on the teacher, and as teacher unions were dismissed as self-serving, the teacher voice is missing.

One explanation, and one that I have heard most often, is that teachers are so busy doing the thing they know and do best that they have no time to engage in policy conversations. In a vacuum teachers might spend every waking hour improving their practice to increase student learning; however, our teachers live in the real world. They interact with the public. They are family members, they are friends, and they are neighbors. They are not silent, but we have yet to hear their voice.

This silence has been so difficult to understand. Teachers are rarely, if ever, without a perspective on what is happening outside their classroom or without a prediction on how it plays inside the classroom. They understand the political nature of schools. Teachers know that almost everything they do, from the curriculum they deliver to the contracts they negotiate, is heavily influenced by the greater political environment. It is in their best professional interest to aware of and well-versed in the current atmosphere. Most teachers understand that holiday dinners and friend/family gatherings provide yet another opportunity to tease out the complex state of education to interested parties. Teachers stand ready and able to provide impromptu performances like these. Where have their voices been?

I began to think of "shovel-ready bullet points" in a different way. I started to wonder whether the short attention span and the language barrier of our policy makers were at the core of this perceived silence. Teachers have not been silent; teachers have been speaking in their native tongue.

If our teachers, those who feel the impact of the Common Core first and most profoundly, are to weigh in on the Common Core, they make a commitment. They must first combine their knowledge, experience and insight into a nugget or two of wisdom. Then, they must translate this wisdom into a simple language that our policy makers identify as their own.

The language of our policy makers frowns upon complete sentences, has no patience for elaboration, and delights in numbers and characters, especially dollar and percentage signs. They believe that one message fits all, and by George, it better be a short message. Conflict is inevitable and is resolved as the majority crushes all other perspectives. There is little time for discussion, no interest in putting flesh around the numbers, and  new terminology catches like wild-fire. If it happens to be an election year? This new terminology becomes a staple in every stump and sound bite.

While teachers are speaking in their native tongue, policy makers have been exchanging ideas and topics, considering new approaches to education, determining new standards for our students, and developing assessments to measure student progress toward these standards. Teachers have been discussing the complex, messy thing called learning. while our policy makers have been racing to the top in order to leave no child behind. The public, policy makers, many others have assumed the silence of the teachers to be acceptance of the recent educational reform efforts.

Instead, teachers have been doing just what the Common Core requires. Among other complex skills and abilities, the Common Core requires students to attain higher-order thinking skills, to develop sound arguments, complete with compelling evidence that supports their claims. These sophisticated ways of thinking are difficult, if impossible, to represent in shovel-ready bullet points. Most importantly, developing these skills and abilities take considerable time. In this process, students could not and would not be required to translate nuggets of wisdom into simple language and as soon as possible.

In order to maintain their professional integrity, teachers have not learned policy maker language; they have not registered for Shovel-Ready Bullet Points 101. It pushes against the Core that they have been mandated to deliver. It flies against what they know to be true about teaching and learning.

How do we resolve this situation where two very different cultures, complete with different languages, expectations, and behaviors, are both trying their very best to improve education for all children - especially when the power lies in the hands of those who speak a simple language and display a microwave mentality?