The crisis that we don't discuss

September 12, 2012

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Merrill Vargo

The unacknowledged crisis in public education is not teacher quality but teacher motivation. The engine of any major change process in any human system is people. We cannot change education without the enthusiastic and heartfelt participation of teachers, administrators, and, ultimately, students. As longtime reformer Michael Fullan puts it in a recent paper, “The key to system-wide success is to situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force. This means aligning the goals of reform and the central motivation of participants.”

This should be obvious. But one result of the last decade of “education reform” has been to discourage, demoralize, and disempower teachers. Any review of any of the various surveys of teachers confirms this. If still in doubt, do your own data collection: Find a teacher and ask. Then put yourself in their place. Outsiders to education may think that including test score data as part of teacher evaluation makes obvious sense – but coming on top of a decade of focus on scripted curriculum, high-fidelity implementation of adopted textbooks, high-stakes accountability, teaching to the test, and massive layoffs, it feels to teachers like one more blow. It is lucky for us – and for kids – that teachers are a tough and committed bunch of people. But we need to stop taking them for granted.

All this means that, as California gets more serious about implementation of the Common Core, we need to think clearly about a couple of things. First, Common Core has huge potential to reenergize teachers and revitalize public education. It is good stuff, because it is about teaching and learning, and teachers who are exposed to the Common Core by and large are responding with enthusiasm. But let’s face it, if we implement the Common Core as No Child Left Behindwith a more challenging test and fewer resources, teachers will not find this approach to be motivating.

So, what’s the alternative? If we took on Common Core from the perspective that this is our chance to reinspire a generation of teachers, what would we do? First and foremost, we would keep this goal front and center. Second, we would do a lot of talking with teachers. Third, we would keep in mind what we know about change management: In brief, effective change processes engage both hearts and minds and they also are connected to a concrete plan that does not require people to try to change everything at once.

This is the challenge: No one, whether kindergarten teacher or corporate CEO, can manage complexity in multiple dimensions. We need to do what Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch call “shrinking the change.” But we need to shrink it to the right thing, which is not testing or accountability or buying a textbook and teaching it or teacher evaluation or data. All these are things we need to think about later. What we need to lead with is a focus on a collective effort – teams of teachers and administrators working together to explore these new standards, understand what teachers across the nation are doing and learning about them, and build new systems whose goal is the continuous improvement of teaching and learning.

There is no simple sound bite in this approach. But it is the only approach that can work.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.


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