Teachers Are More Supportive of Education Reform Than You Think

Jan 17, 2018 12:00:00 AM


I’m a science teacher, so it’s in my nature to be curious about how and why things work the way they do. Since I’ve been on an education-reform kick lately, I decided to do a little experiment. I asked public school teachers from different organizations across the state to play a little word association game with me, giving me a short, one-word reaction to each phrase I called off from a list of school reform buzzwords. There were some really interesting reactions. When I said “accountability,” responses were mostly positive, and included “good” and “valuable.” When responding to the very broad phrase “school reform,” I noticed that a lot of the teachers responded back with “necessary.” And when I called off the (infamous) buzzword “Common Core,” most teachers were supportive, and responded with words like “positive,” “innovative” and “rigorous.” There were hundreds of teachers that got involved with my little research project, so I’m obviously generalizing. For the most part, it did seem that a lot of Kentucky’s teachers felt positively about efforts to reform schools and promote better learning for our students. So what was the purpose of that little game, then? A recent teacher survey by EdWeek. Its purpose was pretty similar to what I was trying to accomplish: Gauge teachers’ perceptions about school reform efforts and their impact. If you read the article, you likely noticed that the analysis seemed pretty pessimistic about how teachers were perceiving school reform. I studied the data myself and I’m not so sure that I agree with their conclusions, so I want to talk briefly about what I noticed.

The Headline is Misleading

The survey is misleading from the get-go, simply because of the title that was chosen: “Majority of Teachers Say Reforms Have Been ‘Too Much.’” [pullquote position="right"]That tone sounds pessimistic and the title doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for ambiguity[/pullquote], especially considering that the majority the article is talking about was just 58 percent (with a 4 percent margin of error). At that rate, it’s not much more than a coin toss. That’s not the real issue for me, though. Even if a true majority of teachers really do think that there’s “too much change” going on in education, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all that change is a bad thing. It’s easy to lose sight of this fascinating statistic buried in the mostly negative article: 58 percent of teachers also agreed that education reform efforts have “helped them change their practices so that students can learn better.” In other words, even if teachers are feeling like there are too many changes going on, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want reform efforts to stop.

It Challenges Narratives

Based on teachers’ responses in the survey, most of the changes they’re seeing in education is coming from district and state-level policy makers—not the federal government. In fact, only 4 percent of teachers surveyed said that the reforms they noticed in their practice stemmed from federal initiatives. That may not seem earth-shattering, but it complicates the “federal overreach” argument that we often hear from opponents of school reform. That’s one narrative we hear a lot, but I’m not sure it’s the most important one. In my experience, [pullquote]the biggest trope of school-reform criticism is simply that teachers dislike “all the changes.”[/pullquote] And if you can get past the negative spin of the article, you’ll notice that’s pretty far from the truth. As Patty Hill, one of the surveyed teachers said, “I actually like most of the changes [to the district evaluation system] because it’s trying to get teachers to make their classes more student-driven. [Evaluators] are looking for student engagement, student buy-in, differentiation—all the things we’ve been supposed to be doing all along.” Clearly, not everyone buys into the myth that school reform is an enemy of public teachers. But when it comes to the EdWeek survey, you wouldn’t know that from the headline alone.

Garris Stroud

Garris Stroud is an award-winning educator and writer from Greenville, Kentucky whose advocacy and scholarship have been recognized by USA Today, U.S. News and World Report, Education Post, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and The Lexington Herald-Leader. He served as a Hope Street Group Kentucky State Teacher Fellow from 2017-2019 and became chair of the organization’s editorial board in 2018. Stroud received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Murray State University and is currently a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of the Cumberlands, located in the heart of Kentucky’s Appalachian region. Read more about his work on the Kentucky School Talk and Rural Ed Voices blogs.

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