Examining the politics of public education: Values
By | Nicci Guagliardo, MBA, PhD
Parents and community members feel justifiably frustrated with the gap in purported values and actionable practices in the public school system. One community member stated, “the district is making decisions, but they don’t really know the community.” I would argue stakeholders feel this way because districts and policy makers have quantified and standardized the most creative and human of systems, schools. Until major shifts in
thinking occur, we will continue to feel a disconnect in what we want from our education system and what we get because it is impossible for a system which has reduced the importance of educators and students to scores on tests to reflect human values.
Kids have to be there, and teachers are paid horribly, so no one in the classroom is in it for the money; but because education is a bureaucracy, there are many other people benefitting off that classroom. There are principals, superintendents, test makers, textbook companies, and webinar coaches, all waiting for the test results so they can have jobs helping kids achieve conflated “standards.” The lack of resources dedicated to the most important part of education – the student and teacher in the classroom – shows a clear lack of values within the system. A young mother in the article put it this way: “the way that they measure success flows from their values even if they don’t realize it. When you look at an organization you can see their values in their budget.”
In this system, the further one gets from the classroom, the more money they make, so why would a talented, motivated, person remain a classroom teacher? Well, many do not; in fact, according to NEA data, 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years for better-paying positions. Moreover, if a novice teacher stays in the classroom, they are evaluated on the same scale as master teachers, regardless of their level of expertise; and in many cases it falls on the novice teacher to find their own mentor. How is a person new to a profession supposed to feel successful if they are compared to experts and given little to no support to learn their craft? I call teaching a craft, but it has become apparent to me that most districts do not value their teachers enough to consider what they do a craft. The fact that over 75% of teachers are white females (NCES, 2017) proves that the people in charge feel classroom teachers matter little. If the system truly supports students, more money would be spent on the recruitment of black and brown educators. It does not take research to know that all people need to see people who look like themselves as role models. However, the system is not truly concerned about students growing or learning beyond what they are able to achieve on standardized testing.
Stakeholders are willing to question most practices, but there is little questioning of the validity of standardized testing as a measure of success. I do not know who decided that standardized tests should be the measure of a person’s intelligence, when the only thing measured is how standardized a person is. We have years of research to show standardized tests are biased (Neill & Medina 1989; Kempf, 2016) yet we continually use them to prove the achievement gap and to determine most college admissions. If districts would agree to stop wasting time and effort on expensive, flawed, punitive, judgment systems, maybe classrooms could get back to teaching and learning; but this system is deeply rooted in punitive measures. Grading practices do not reflect a respect of learning. Especially at the secondary level, grades reflect what a student has not done (has not turned in an assignment, missed 5 out of 10 on the quiz) rather than what they have accomplished. If a teacher can give students extra credit at their discretion, then why are ANY students failing school at all? If the schools are failing too many black and brown students, then the school should stop failing so many black and brown students. Grades are subjective, and we need to stop treating them otherwise. It is difficult to explain the difference between a 59% and a 62% other than one of those grades means a kid passed and the other does not. What good does it do for a teacher, school, or parent to hold on to three percentage points as proof that a kid failed? How did numbers in grade books or bubbles on an answer sheet become more important than the human beings we serve as educators? There can be no values reflected in our education system if the system has none itself.
I have been a public school English teacher for 25 years, and I have been through every type of training possible to help me “fix” the problems in students who do not match the standards of proficiency. I am a mother of three daughters who graduated from the school where I teach. Every parent wants his or her child to be challenged and loved, supported and pushed. This happens in classrooms with talented teachers; there are spaces where vulnerable, authentic learning occurs, but it is not a system-wide practice. It is only happening in classrooms with teachers who are not afraid to teach beyond the standardized test scores, only in places where kids are engaged fully in the experiences of learning. There is no wonder that communities are feeling a disconnect in the way the school says it wants to inspire and challenge young people and the way it continually lets those same young people down. As long as we continue to value a number as a way to determine the worth of a person, the values of the school system will never match the values of someone who cares about people.
Kempf, A. (2016). A Lack of Accountability: Teacher Perspectives on Equity, Accuracy, and Standardized Testing. In The Pedagogy of Standardized Testing (pp. 129-159). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Neill, D. M., & Medina, N. J. (1989). Standardized testing: Harmful to educational health. Phi Delta Kappan, 70(9), 688-97.
National Education Association. (2019). Research spotlight on recruiting & retaining highly qualified teachers. NEA Teacher Quality and Research Departments. online available: http://www.nea.org/tools/17054.htm
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Teacher and Principal Survey (NTPS), “Public School Teacher Data File,” 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 211.10.
Nicci Guagliardo, MBA, Ph.D. is a 25-year public high school English teacher, Colorado native, and mother to three brilliant women. She is addicted to school which helps explain her Ph.D. in philosophy.