Welcome Back To School: Listen To The Teachers

09/10/2017 06:38 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2017
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BOOK REVIEW: Inside our Schools: Teachers on the failure and future of education reform, edited by Brett Murphy. Harvard Education Press.

“In reality, the curriculum that was implemented at my school did not recognize difference anywhere, culturally or linguistically. The version of the reading workshop model they used was deeply monolingual and monocultural, but the principal, literacy coaches, and administrators of my school did not recognize this as a problem.” – Radha Radkar, literacy teacher.

“Each time the principal visited my classroom, he furiously scribbled away in his notebook, yet not once did he initiate a conversation about what he observed. Never did he impart advice, offer constructive criticism, or describe his motivations, even after I had asked him to engage in multiple debriefing sessions.” – Timothy Bernier, middle school teacher.

“PBAs (performance based assessments) helped us with our goal of increasing mathematical rigor by motivating teachers and students alike. Math PBAs consist of a project, written report, and reflective essay coupled with a ninety-minute-long individual dissertation-style oral defense to a committee of teachers, outside experts, and student peers. Students must explain the mathematical concepts learned in class and apply those concepts to real world situations . . . My students demanded my help, in stark contrast to the typical scenario of the teacher coaxing students to come in after school to study.” – Kari Kokka, high school math teacher.

These are just a few of the dozens of insights and testimonials in Brett Murphy’s incisive new volume Inside our Schools: Teachers on the failure and future of education reform, a breath of fresh air in the complicated and contentious world of education debate. We are stuck in a rather narrow echo chamber of narratives about education and complaints about teachers – fed by the large foundations and the media. A smaller voice pushing back is from researchers and academics – who try to bring some evidence to the table.

But academic publishing, and our reliance on the academic experts, too often neglects the people actually in schools. I have often wondered why PhDs write all the books while teachers, those intellectual laborers who make our schools run on a daily basis, are silenced. Even more silenced are the students and community members – but more on that later.

Brett Murphy has produced a book that addresses this deficit and it is an admirable contribution. Essentially, she sets out to address the central issues of the school debate through the accounts and testimonies of a few dozen exemplary classroom teachers. The book is divided into five sections:

1. Accountability: High stakes testing takes over

2. Quality: Measuring a teacher’s worth

3. Choice: Competition as the path to innovation

4. Failure: When schools don’t pass the test

5. Equity: From here to educational justice

As is often the case, the stories teachers tell are nuanced and various – not adhering to the distorted grand narratives of policy wonks. They tell stories of the heart-breaking failures and the daily miracles that make up classroom life. No self-congratulation here, only a determined attempt to capture some of what happens in classrooms. Each section is made up of five such teacher stories and each one is prefaced by an insightful and thorough short essay by Murphy on the topic.

The book reminds you of the great work being done, every day, in spite of the regime of mandates, testing, and teacher-bashing. So much of the culture of so-called reform in school seeks to deskill the profession, to make us clerks who simply read from a script. But on the other hand, schools are one of the great theaters of cultural struggle – it is where we contend, struggle, and enact our vision of what democracy can look like and what it is. There are losses, plenty of them, and the Betsy DeVos regime promises to be brutal. But schools are still where the battle is engaged and the outcome is not foregone. One day a charter management organization is taking over a vibrant school, another day massive community resistance is breaking out. In these pages, we encounter not just horror stories of dull-witted schemes from above but also inspiring examples of student and teacher led success stories.

So much blame is heaped on schools and teachers these days. Politicians absolve themselves from responsibility to deal with poverty and income inequality by claiming that “successful” schools would end poverty. This myth is based on the fact that individuals occasionally emerge from poverty schools to successful college life through extraordinary academic effort. But this is no model for ending poverty. One youth moving into the middle class does not mean whole communities can do so. Still, I think schools can be institutions that take on poverty – but only through acting as incubators for social transformation, for imagining the world as it could be and setting out to construct it. This is what the ruling class fears most of all. And all their efforts in education seek, as the bottom line, to avoid unleashing that kind of power. Perhaps this is why the rich regularly defund our schools.

In this book, we encounter some of the deadening jargon of student blaming (grit, rigor, time on task) and the debates over the problem and solutions (the achievement gap, which here is recast as “opportunity gap,” though I would more agree with Gloria Ladson-Billings’ term “educational debt”). We get a look at a successful example of restorative justice practices (which, if you want to go deeper, you can explore in Trevor Gardner’s book). And we see students directing meaningful curricula of inquiry.

While I have sometimes written about the broader policy debates in education, I have always felt that the story of the classroom is most compelling. Murphy allows us to experience the overarching contradictions through close-in, on-the-ground examination of the teaching life. This is the best way to understand the issues deeply.