Stop Saying That

by George Wood

When the governor of my state announced his plan for a new school funding formula, he said, "this is not about teachers, this is about the students."  I wish he, and others, would quit saying that.

We hear this refrain almost every time there is an announcement about school reform or funding.  It is meant to send a message:  teachers do not care about kids.

I had hoped that after Newtown, with teachers selflessly giving their lives for their students, the 'teachers don't care' mantra would stop.  Wrong again.

But here is the deal:  this type of rhetoric is not only unhelpful, it is just plain wrong.

First, rhetoric like this does not help.  We never hear it about other public policy debates. (Imagine: "This farm bill is not about farmers, it is about cows.")  I cannot for the life of me figure out why policy makers think teachers are the enemy when it comes to education reform.

It might be that what they really mean is that this is not about the teacher unions.  But that approach is incorrect as well.  As a veteran administrator, I can assure you that there has not been any proof that non-unionized teachers do better in helping students achieve than those who are unionized.  What does matter is how well teacher are supported in doing their jobs, and it's that support that teachers unions fight for.

The real problem with the idea that education reform and budgets are 'not about teachers' is this:  if you want students to succeed, any reform must include teachers.

Imagine any other field where we say the practitioner does not matter.  We will improve health care but it really does not matter if our nurses and doctors are well prepared.  We will have safe streets, but we do not need to provide our police with the equipment and training they need to patrol our neighborhoods. Ridiculous.

Every nation that performs well in terms of student achievement invests heavily in one thing--teacher preparation and support.  It is almost the only thing they have in common. Finland, the poster child for a nation that moved from an educational backwater to leading the world in international comparisons, focuses virtually all of its national school improvement efforts on teachers.  They are recruited from the top of their classes, must have masters degrees to teach, serve an extended internship (with full pay), and then are turned loose to educate kids.  They do not use standardized tests to measure student achievement, nor do they have private or charter schools--they just have good teachers.

We could do the same.  Before President Obama took office, educational visionary Linda Darling-Hammond published a Marshall Plan for Teaching.  It called for 400,000 well-prepared teachers to be produced at restructured teacher education programs, tens of thousands of teachers to be retrained, and stipends for teachers teaching our most challenged children.  While the plan has never taken off, maybe now is the time for it.

I suggest this because back in 2007, when Darling-Hammond advocated this Plan, she noted it would take $3 billion dollars.  Some balked at the cost.  But if you figure that every service man or woman we bring back from Afghanistan will save us $1 million dollars according to recent defense department estimates, we could launch this new plan when as few as 3,500 soldiers return.

I am not so naive as to believe the nation will invest that kind of money in teachers.  For all the recent chatter about how valuable our children are to us in light of the Newtown shootings, we are still pretty cheap when it comes to caring for our kids.  (Raise your hand if you still pay $20 to have your lawn mowed but under $4 an hour to have your child watched while you go to a movie--allow for inflation in affluent areas.)

But if we really want improved schools, we will have to pay the price of supporting and developing our teachers.  The folks who are with our kids every day, who teach them to read a book, tie their shoes, and to be nice to the other kids.  The men and women who squeeze algebra and chemistry in between the life lessons of adolescence and the media barrage that is our kids' lives.  The people who help children learn to write and then stay up nights writing letters of recommendations.

When it gets right down to it, what teachers do is what matters the most when it comes to our schools. The rhetoric that says they do not matter is a sure sign that the so-called reforms being recommended are doomed to fail.