Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Being Political

Politics is dominating the news as the presidential election nears. In the context of the upcoming elections, being political means keeping abreast of the campaigns and taking the time to vote in November. But we educators need to be willing to go beyond just casting our ballots and do what we can to influence candidates’ positions. After all, one of the big issues in the campaign is about us. Writing in Slate today, Paul Tough writes: “The next big debate in the politics of education is going to be about teachers: how to attract them, how to compensate them, how to evaluate them, how to fire them, and, perhaps most importantly, how to get good ones in front of the students who need their help the most.”

Most of us assume that one of the political parties is more sympathetic to the voices of teachers and I think that’s true. Still, neither party has been willing to give teachers much credit or trust. In his acceptance speech at the recent Democratic Convention in Denver Barack Obama gave some indication of his education priorities. “I’ll recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”

I like the parts about recruiting teachers and higher salaries. I’m a bit uneasy about the desire for “higher standards” and “more accountability.” To me, the desire for “higher standards” implies that teachers are at fault. If only teachers had higher standards students would do a lot better. And “more accountability.” What do we make of this? Isn’t the demand for accountability (in terms of higher test scores) part of the problem?

The point I want to make is that over the last twenty years or so neither political party has been particularly warm to teachers. NCLB has been described as “George Bush’s policy” but Ted Kennedy has been an enthusiastic support of this legislation. So, again, we must write to our congressional representatives and let them know what teachers think about “standards” and “accountability.” I’m sure most agree with me that teachers MUST be accountable for student learning but tests scores are a poor measure of what students have learned.

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