MAXWELL: View teachers as partners rather than villains

12/10/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Beating up on public schools, long an American pastime, has grown more acrimonious in recent years and clearly has produced an undeserving scapegoat: classroom teachers.

Though a lot of today’s criticisms of public education are deserved, and should force some educators to lose their jobs, the finger of blame is too often pointed in the wrong direction. Education bureaucrats _ university theorists, district and state administrators and elected officials _ often escape harsh blame themselves by deflecting the lion’s share of the villainy onto teachers, who typically are forced to work within the guidelines shoved on them.

But society as a whole, not teachers alone, is to blame for the crises our public schools face. All of us _ administrators, parents, students, business leaders, politicians _ have pretty much abandoned our responsibilities to our schools. And as the 21st century approaches, we have convinced ourselves that future generations will be unable to compete with their peers in other advanced economies, and we are scrambling to reverse the crippling effects of decades of hostile anti-intellectualism aimed at public education.

“Reform” is the modern-day alchemy, as new and warmed-over remedies emerge almost daily, packaged as “standards,” “curriculum frameworks,” “accountability,” “school-based management,” “distance learning,” “school-to-work transition,” “learning outcomes,” and so on. All of them are both useful and limited.

Nationally, the worst efforts are those that elected officials concoct for political gain. These top-down initiatives are harmful because they tend to devalue teachers as viable partners, leaving them embittered, alienated and demoralized. The best reforms, on the other hand, are those that universities, public schools and communities establish collaboratively. Because these programs seek systemic reform, teachers become bona fide participants.

Florida, the fourth most-populous state, is a bellwether for the kind of reforms, good and bad, being considered elsewhere. In Florida, Commissioner of Education Frank T. Brogan seems to be committed to raising academic standards for students, holding individual schools accountable for student performance and toughening professional standards for teachers. On the downside, because he is a Republican ideologue, he has crafted an adversarial relationship with the teachers and their unions.

And, because of his politics, he apparently is blinded to many genuine reforms under way within the very system that he manages. For example, the University of Florida, where Roderick McDavis is the dean of the College of Education, is developing a collaborative program between the university’s professors of education and student-teachers, and the school district and community.

“Commissioner Brogan is right to focus on standards,” McDavis said, “but he needs to spend more time talking to the teachers about the new directions. If he doesn’t do that, he’s going to create a gap between his policies and the practitioners in the field who are being asked to do these new things. Teachers are the most critical part of educational reform because they are with the students every day.

“Unless they have bought into educational reform, you’re not going to see any significant changes. We’ve got to seek out teachers’ input and advice. There is far too much negative criticism of the work teachers do every day. We don’t give them enough praise. And we certainly don’t pay them what they’re worth. We don’t value them as we should.”

Because Florida’s public school population is becoming more racially, ethnically and economically diverse each year, because deep reforms are inevitable and because more learning disabled students are being “mainstreamed,” McDavis believes that new teachers _ who will continue to be mostly middle class, white and female _ must be trained differently.

A recent Florida report found, for example, that 52 percent of the state’s elementary students live in poverty and that many experience the learning difficulties associated with this population. Because of factors such as these, all prospective teachers will be trained in “regular” and “special” education, McDavis said.

In regular education, students master science, math, reading and writing. The belief is that teachers who are competent in their fields are able to get their pupils interested in these critical content areas. At the same time, training in special education, and psychological, sociological and counseling concepts and practices enables new teachers to manage their classrooms.

McDavis cautions lawmakers and others not to expect quick fixes: “We’re probably a few years away from seeing some dramatic benefits from this kind of preparation.”

Student interns and their professors will be immersed in a “professional development school,” a traditional elementary facility where most of the students are on free or reduced lunches. Many of the university’s education classes will be taught at this public school, and the interns and their professors will interact daily with the pupils and will work jointly with the school’s teachers and the administrators.

“Our main objective is to make the experience real, to train a new type of teacher who can improve the academic achievement levels of all of the children at the school,” McDavis said. “We’re training a teacher who can be effective in the 21st century.”

Cynics will point out, of course, that Florida’s model is experimental and limited. But McDavis, who has not fallen hopelessly in love with his own reforms, is on the right track. He is creating a seamless, collaborative web among the affected stakeholders.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.