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The Conversation Needs to Change

I am going to be on stage with Brian Williams this Sunday at noon as part of NBC’s “Education Nation” Teacher Town Hall. The week-long Education Nation event, coming on the back of the release of “Waiting for ‘Superman‘” and Oprah’s two education specials this week, has received a lot of negative pushback from educators and parents who feel that their voices are being left out of the conversation. When I was approached, I knew I could not miss the chance to talk about great teaching before a national audience, and I hope I will have the chance to do so, because the current national conversation over education needs to change.

The first change we need is to get over the public vs. charter school debate. It makes no sense to be pro- or anti-charter; the only question that should matter is whether a school is helping students to learn. Until we focus on how to improve all schools, be them public or charter, nothing will change. There is nothing about being a charter that tells us anything about whether or not a school is effective. There are good and bad charter schools, just as there are good and bad public schools. Let’s stop wasting our breath over this debate.

The next change we need is a shift from talking about testing and accountability towards talking about curriculum and learning. There’s a ridiculous notion that bad teachers are bad because they are lazy, and if we could just hold their feet to the fire, they would improve, or leave. That’s simply not reality. Most struggling teachers simply don’t know any better. We need to begin conversations about what they should be doing in their classrooms before their students are assessed, and then figure out how to support teachers in doing this.

While we’re at it, we need to expand our understanding of the term “assessment.” Good and great teachers are constantly assessing their students in a variety of formal and informal methods. They know that a multiple choice exam will only reveal a very narrow slice of what students know and can do. Good assessments that really show what students’ abilities are are open-ended, allowing for students to take multiple approaches to show what they can do. As with most real-life work, they don’t happen in a 47 minute block of time, and students have the opportunity to get feedback and revise throughout the process.

Finally, we need to stop asking questions about teacher retention, because we know the answers. Teachers who feel they are successful will stay (unless they are enticed to move on to “bigger and better” opportunities), teachers who don’t will not. For more new teachers to be successful, they need smaller class loads so they have time more time to plan, reflect, and observe; just like students, they need frequent and regular feedback from both peers and supervisors; and they need to spend time in other teachers’ classrooms to learn from their triumphs and mistakes. I was extremely lucky: my teacher preparation program started with team-teaching a summer school class, where I was observed for the full three hours everyday. The 45 hours of observation and 15 hours of feedback I received that summer is more than my colleagues who entered the profession through Teach for America or the NYC Teaching Fellows receive in the first five years of their career. Then, as a student teacher, my program limited me to teaching two classes so I could sound the rest of the day observing other teachers. These three factors have served as the foundation for my subsequent successes in the classroom.

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