“Reform” has become something of a dirty word in education policy and advocacy debates, thanks to a relentless disinformation campaign on the part of
reform opponents. However, a
new teacher survey conducted by Education Week shows classroom teachers are pretty warm to reform even if, on the whole, they think there’s too much of it. Moreover, teachers correctly observe that most reforms are driven at the local and state level rather than handed down from Washington as national mandates. This complicates the “federal overreach” narrative among many beltway conservatives and local-control zealots who successfully prodded Congress to weaken federal oversight in the 2015 federal education law, the
Every Student Succeeds Act. More classroom teachers felt reforms had a positive impact on instruction in their classrooms than negative—by a 39 to 25 margin—while 36 percent felt the impact was mixed. Fifty-eight percent said that reforms helped them “change their practice so students learn better.” The same percentage said that the goals of the reform were “in line” with their goals as teachers. The survey of 500 K-12 public school teachers tilted heavily toward veterans with 72 percent having taught for 10 years or more. Federal data from a few years ago shows that the percentage of teachers with more than 10 years of teaching experience is
around 60 percent, so this sample is probably a little long in the tooth. Not surprisingly, many older teachers think most new reforms are just old reforms that have been tried before. They are also more likely than younger teachers to say they want to leave the profession because of reforms.
Given a list of reforms that have most impacted their schools, teachers cited evaluation, curriculum, professional development, testing, new approaches to school discipline and academic standards. In a separate, open-ended question, the top five reforms that “most impacted” their classrooms were curriculum, standards, assessments, technology and evaluation. When asked to describe who is driving the reform or change that has “most impacted” their classrooms, 41 percent said the school district, 36 percent cited the state, 19 percent cited their own school and just 4 percent pointed at the federal government. By the way, the poll has a margin of error of 4 percent, which means the percentage who blame the feds for forcing reform on schools could be as high as 8 or as low as zero. The survey also asked if teachers feel supported in implementing changes and here again, the reaction was much more positive than negative. Sixty-three percent said they can “adjust” as needed when implementing reform; 59 percent said they “have the support” to implement; 54 percent said reforms are “discussed with the entire teaching staff.” A slightly lower percentage, 47 percent, said they can “influence” their schools’ plans for reform. Lastly, when asked to rate whether the amount of reform they have experienced is too much or too little, 74 percent said “too much” or “way too much.” An even higher percentage, 84 percent, feel that every time they get “a handle on a new reform—it changes,” suggesting that impatience is a problem among education leaders. So, the bottom line is that teachers think their schools and districts—far more than the state and feds—are constantly trying out new ideas, most of which are not new at all, but a solid majority think those ideas are helping kids learn and support their goals as teachers. So regardless of whether you call it reform, change or improvement, the message from most teachers is clear: Less is more, but don’t stop.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with