Stop Blaming Teachers
Written into the the New York State Common Core curriculum modules is this: "Feeling invigorated, students take their seats for Sprint B, ready to make every effort to complete more problems this time." It's a scripted math curriculum, and many, especially veteran, teachers have concerns about specifying student responses, not to mention their own teaching. Math teachers find problems with the chronology and compression of the learning, feeling they have to rush the kids along and suppress their own expertise and training. "Good teaching is about knowing the children in front of you—knowing where they're at and where you want to take them," says Marla Kilfoyle, a teacher at Oceanside High School in Long Island. She wore a T-shirt that read, "Stop Blaming Teachers," when speaking at Enough Already! Kilfoyle says the creation of a lesson is like a work of art. "You spend a lot of time building up to points and making sure that at the end of the year you've met this framework of standards." But with corporate reform in the driver's seat, the teaching profession is being relegated to the back of the bus.
Kilfoyle is the general manager of the Badass Teachers' Association (BATs), which started as a Facebook page in June 2013. Within the week, it exploded to 10,000 members, and to date there are almost 60,000 in the group. The BATs staged their first event right away: calling for the resignation of then Education Secretary Arne Duncan by flooding the White House with calls. The following year, they staged a protest outside the Department of Education in Washington. It resulted in a meeting with the Civil Rights Department, where they outlined how education reform policies were violating the civil rights of urban children (through school closures), children with disabilities, and English-language learners, to start. Halfway through the meeting, Secretary Duncan joined them, and Kilfoyle says the BATs let him have it. They said his strategies transformed education into a billion-dollar market.
The Alt School in Brooklyn Heights was founded by technology industrialist Max Ventilla and recently profiled in the New Yorker. Students explore curriculum through specially developed software playlists on tablets and laptops. The idea is to create a personalized learning experience where data is collected in minute detail on each student's progress as they work through digital tasks. AltSchool's curriculum is roughly aligned to Common Core Standards but enjoys an independent school's freedom to operate outside the system. In fact, as Rebecca Mead reports, "AltSchool's ethos is fundamentally opposed to the paradigm of standardization that has dominated public education in recent decades, and reflects a growing shift in emphasis among theorists toward 'personalized learning.'" That idea of streamlining individualized instruction through new technologies holds appeal for champions of progressive education. The school meets its needs through tuition but also receives funding from investors. "None of these backers want merely to own part of a chain of boutique microschools," writes Mead. "Rather, they hope that AltSchool will help 'reinvent' American education: first, by innovating in its microschools; next, by providing software to educators who want to start up their own schools; and, finally, by offering its software for use in public schools across the nation, a goal that the company hopes to achieve in three to five years." But tendering it to a public school setting has its challenges. As Kilfoyle points out, "Districts can't always afford the type of technology that they're going to be expected to use. And they can't afford to sustain it."
Teachers want technology use to be balanced. In a computerized, 21st-century classroom like those at AltSchool, students sit at screens for 30 percent of the day, clicking on lessons while the teacher tracks their progress. Kilfoyle feels that lack of human interaction and creativity impacts a child's ability to work with others, compromise, and problem-solve—important nonacademic skills learned in school. "Teachers don't mind technology," says Kilfoyle. "But they want to be able to use it to enhance what they're doing with children. They don't want it to replace what they're doing with children."
When the BATs' Quality of Work Life Team collaborated earlier this year with the American Federation of Teachers, 30,000 teachers participated in their national survey. "Basically what we found is, teachers are superstressed, and they're feeling demoralized," Kilfoyle says. They're concerned with increasing understanding around teacher working conditions because of their effect on students. "This is what a lot of people don't understand—public education teachers are the advocates on the ground for children. We're the ones who speak up when we can about the conditions of our schools." Kilfoyle says protecting teachers' rights protects their ability to advocate for students.