By MARIA FERGUSON
Earlier this month, the Center on Education Policy released a report that detailed the results of a national survey we administered to public school teachers late last year. The survey contained a broad set of questions, designed to draw out the views and voices of teachers on timely and important issues in education. The goal was to produce an actionable report that reflected teacher voices, hence the title, Listen to Us: Teacher Views and Voices.
Truth be told, conducting a national teacher survey can be tricky business. Like many issues in education, commentaries and analyses on teachers are often loaded with bias and judgment. Some feel that teachers’ complaining about their work is de rigueur and simply not worth paying attention to. Others believe the problems facing teachers are too complex and impossible to resolve. And no matter how well intentioned the inquiry into teacher practice is, the ensuing conversation about how best to use the results rarely generates concrete action.
Although Listen to Us elicited some fairly predictable answers about teaching (most come to the profession with altruistic intent; some are dissatisfied and would seek other employment if possible; the demands of teaching have become more complex and demanding), the survey also revealed how politics and the challenges of implementing reforms in a large, locally controlled system can create chaos for teachers and students.
For example, half of the teachers surveyed for this report said state and district policies that interfere with teaching and a constantly changing set of demands represent the biggest challenges in their profession. Considering the academic and social challenges that most teachers deal with on a daily basis, this data point is compelling. Instead of focusing on the very real challenges associated with the successful implementation of higher standards, teachers are instead dealing with the political folderol that has followed the Common Core and the new assessments like an ominous storm cloud.
With the politics of education churning in the background, teachers are trying to focus on the very practical aspects of implementing new standards and assessments. The survey asked deliberate questions about teacher autonomy and the curricular materials being used to teach the standards. Most math and ELA teachers said that, despite concerns that the standards would limit teacher autonomy, their classroom autonomy has remained the same or increased under the new standards. And while states and districts are providing many teachers with curricula for the standards, teachers also are making autonomous decision about developing and/or revising their own curricula.
The cautionary note here is that teacher autonomy could be a double-edged sword if teachers have to scramble to find high-quality curricula to teach the standards. If the access to and quality of curricula is wildly inconsistent, surely that will affect student achievement under the new standards.
The adage “the devil is in the details” has never been more apt. Providing all teachers with high-quality curricular materials aligned to the standards should be an essential part of implementation. Without that piece of the puzzle in place, any effort to raise the bar for all students will be hamstrung.
MARIA FERGUSON (@mvferg) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. She writes Washington View in each issue of Kappan magazine.