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Teachable Moments in the Classroom and the Capitol

This morning’s EdWeek brought in guest blogger and 2011-12 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, Jeanne DelColle, to cover for Straight Up writer, Rick Hess. Readers were treated to a brief article on teachable moments from a clearly qualified and respected teacher. Her words echoed in our ears as an example of why school choice should be the primary tool for education reform in America.

DelColle is a high school history teacher at the Burlington County Institute of Technology (BCIT), in Westampton, NJ, a 2,000+ student vocational/technical school serving over 20 districts. In her article, she compares writing education policy to writing a lesson plan, an analogy that seems easy to disregard on its surface, but actually poses a telling question: why is education policy so hard to formulate when writing a lesson plan can seem so easy?

The answer isn’t as clear as one might imagine. First off, lesson plans are not that easy to build, and anyone who has ever taught one concept to a group of kids with dramatically different learning curves knows this. But let’s move beyond that for the moment and try to understand what makes education policy so hard to pin down.

We could go on for pages on the destructive nature of teacher unions and the damning effects of anti-choice legislation, but in the end it all boils down to one thing inherent in all policy matters: the interest groups at the table.

You see, American democracy is a beautiful thing. Some may call it outdated, bureaucratic, slow, or even democratic-to-a-fault, but in the end nothing beats the collaborative efforts of a republican democracy in action. Where foreign dictatorships push their nations into policy changes on a whim, democracies ease toward new horizons at the pace of legislation. The only time fast, dramatic change takes place is when one group of people in particular (in the American example, one of the two dominant parties) holds all the power and can push through legislation that may have been trapped in the congressional funnel before. We’ve seen this recently with healthcare, and the Obama election (and re-election) was essentially a referendum partly on that issue, along with financial regulation and, to a lesser degree, ed reform.

The bottleneck of democracy happens at the negotiating table, when interest groups hold almost equal power and a pitched battle of data and theories swings back and forth with no resolution. This is what happened in the recent sequestration, which saw two dominant parties disagree so vehemently and for so long that an unthinkable budgetary doomsday device was set off and everyone was punished for their nitpicking. As it turns out, the sequester wasn’t that big of a deal in the short term as people had thought, but still, did this mean democracy failed?

Of course not. Democracy did exactly what it should do. It held off on a decision because a solution could not be devised. If one had been devised, a lot of aisle-crossing would occur to push it through. At the negotiating table, it’s frequently better for all to suffer than only a few benefit.

But just as dictatorships hand down decisions to their people swiftly and with strict punishments for rebels, policy wonks come up with ideas that are sent up for approval in Washington, after which all the schools in America are expected to adopt them. No Child Left Behind, despite the law’s good intentions, angered many teachers who felt their autonomy in the classroom was being challenged. Common Core standards, despite our need for some manner of nationwide, across-the-board measurement, is still being resisted in five states. It is clear from these reform efforts alone, which are well-meaning and carefully crafted, that American educators want a voice in the reform of their profession.

When Ms. DelColle compares policy to lesson planning, she is referring primarily to the collaborative efforts therein. She uses the example of a teacher who bombs a teaching session after spending hours building a lesson plan. The teacher, midway through the lecture, realizes that the lesson is a wash and he/she has three choices: 1) shove it down the students’ throats anyway, 2) blame the students for not “getting” the material, or  3) humble phase out of teacher mode and into student mode in an attempt to learn from the learners what they need to learn.

The first option is exactly what Washington does to educators now (“If you reform it, they will learn.”). The second option is how the policy writers usually respond once Option 1 is no longer viable. The third option is, by far, the most constructive way to approach any “teachable moment.”  The U.S. DOE can’t really expect to achieve results without a team effort, and no team will follow a leader who shouts orders without first forming a strategy with the unit. A teacher who bombs a session should use this as an opportunity to find out how to correct it.

DelColle used the following words in describing the inevitability of failure:

“Failure. It’s not a matter of if but when. It doesn’t matter that failure happens, because you can’t grow if you always do what you have always done; it is what you do when failure happens that is important.”

The old-guard school system has failed us. Ironically, it has failed us by being too good at what it does, namely hand down a series of cure-all policy measures and maintain a stranglehold on a monopoly not seen since the Gilded Age. This is not the pathway to ed reform. This is the pathway to systemic division.

Ms. DelColle is speaking about school choice in her opinion piece, though, not directly. BCIT itself is a vocational/technical school that requires an admissions test for acceptance, so in a way, that public school is more “private” than a charter school. It even accepts students from other districts, meaning that the school’s geographic accessibility is also charteresque. Ms. Delcolle’s main premise of democracy in education is a hallmark of the school choice revolution. All we’re asking for is parental choice in education, nothing more. Charter schools and voucher systems require less money than the conventional system, and we still find a way to make it work. The school choice movement is only asking for the chance to better the lives of our children in the face of an underperforming system of educational malaise.

We here at American School Choice truly believe that we’re all saying the same thing in the education community, but that certain agents of malfeasance are maintaining a divide among us that should not exist. School choice is our choice. Every teacher wants more autonomy, every parent wants a better education for kids, and every student wants a brighter future. School choice provides all of that, and more, and even if it didn’t it is our right to choose.

Stop letting the enemies of school choice make a mockery of ed reform. The time to act was a decade ago, but better late than never, we always say.


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