Teachers_ScapegoatsChoosing sessions this year at ASCD 2013 has been a challenge because there are so many wonderful sessions against each other. So glad that Kevin Kumashiro’s session, “Bad Teacher!”: Why Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture,  was one of the ones I chose to attend because his  thought-provoking presentation raised issues that should be fundamental to local and national conversations about education in America.  Kumashiro’s comments focused around the big question:

When our national and local debates around education blame teachers (or other simplistic claims), what aren’t we seeing?

Kumashiro argues that the current conversations in education reform debate prevent us from really pulling apart issues of poverty, racism and elitism.  His examples rang true for me because I’ve been arguing similar points (just not so eloquently!).  Instead of trying to “fix” teachers, we should be asking questions such as the following:

The reform movement often focuses on how to be more efficient with our funding, not on how to raise funds to do what we need to do. There isn’t public recognition that it takes more money, for example, to bring our schools up to safety codes—let alone to provide the tools, training, resources and environments necessary to prepare students to participate fully in the 21st century. As long as debates focus on more efficient ways to spend money, we aren’t asking questions about why we don’t believe it’s important enough to raise funds for our students to be in safe schools.

Kumashiro suggests that the achievement gap is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the disparities in education. Using the metaphor of the national debt, Kumashiro argues that when we frame the conversation around reducing the deficit and balancing the budget, we are less focused on the greater issue of the exorbitant national debt that we’ve accrued over the last century. Similarly, when we are too laser-focused on the achievement gap, we miss the larger education gap that has evolved over the same period of time.

Kumashiro’s concern about the current process of de-professionalizing the teaching profession resonated with the audience.  Related, apparently over 90% of the teachers in New Orleans charter schools are Teach for America (TFA) teachers. Kumashiro pointed out that he has no issues with TFA teachers in general—they are often talented, dedicated and effective (my experience as well). His broader issue is that we should be asking questions about designing a system where 90% of the teachers at a school may not stay in teaching beyond their 3 years.  Thinking through the lens of a principal, I can imagine the challenges of managing a revolving faculty, even if the group is highly talented. Similarly, asking the question differently, Kumashiro asks, “Who would say that the way to improve teacher quality is to have less preparation for the teachers?,” which he sees as a current trend.

Kumashiro also cautions that we should be skeptical of any reformers who send their own children to private schools, not the schools being reformed. How many of our law and policy makers send their own children to public schools?

Kumashiro ended his session with a call to arms—he believes we need a social movement that addresses the fundamental purpose of education, to really ask who do we want to succeed in our education system?  Education often becomes the primary battleground for working through who we want our country to be.

His final words stressed that though we may not be able to “fight the political machine,” most change occurs in smaller conversations with people we know.

Let’s start asking different questions about education reform.