Education, Teachers — March 27, 2014 at 6:52 am

The one reform education in Michigan needs (and it has NOTHING to do with money)


As Gary notes below, this post will be his last at Eclectablog. It’s been a joy to have him writing for the site and sharing his wisdom and insight into the world of an educator who is on the cutting edge of science-based education models and who understands both the benefits and perils of the use of technology in the classroom. We wish Gary, his wife, and their new baby all the best and invite him to come back to share his knowledge with us any time.

– Chris

Note: This month marks the close of my tenure with Eclectablog. I have thoroughly appreciated, enjoyed, and learned from the opportunity to write with this talented and caring team over this past year. It’s been an honor to work under Chris Savage, and his mentoring through Eclectablog has helped me gain tremendous insight into education at a larger scale here in our state and beyond. I am moving on to focus on some state-level projects focusing on improving science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, but I am glad I spent some time here. I am a better educator for it. Thanks, #TeamEclectablog!

Education reform” is a powerful phrase used widely among corporatists, politicians, and even some educators. Its connotation suggests something must change for education, and that’s certainly true: something must change.

In Michigan, we have seen reforms in recent years that target tenure and evaluations for educators, retaining students who cannot pass state reading tests in third grade, and more recently expanding the monopoly that the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) has over the state reform district.

As the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year, I have had the opportunity to work with schools and education organizations all around the state this year. From visiting schools and serving in an advisory role on the State Board of Education, to presenting at education events and consulting with thousands of educators on school improvement projects, I have witnessed education in Michigan through just about every lens beyond that of my own classroom walls. What I have seen has been inspiring, illuminating, and discouraging all at the same time.

This experience has revealed a number of “reforms” that education needs in Michigan, and possibly across the country. I’d like to boil them all down to one idea that I will reveal toward the end of this post. It is perhaps lesser known in the general discourse about our schools, and it also might surprise you. So, here it goes:

Consider this…
If you went to the dentist and were told you that your persistent mouth pain was the result of a cavity and required getting a filling, you’d likely not think twice about scheduling the procedure. Chances are that between realizing you are in pain and trusting the dentist’s training, professionalism, and expertise, you would not question their work nor plan.

You would probably not try to come up with your own dental plan of action, pitch it to the dentist, and then round up a group of your like-minded friends to lobby the dentist’s office to adopt your plan over that of the dentist…unless, of course, you were a dentist, maybe. Similarly, you wouldn’t go into a pre-operation appointment with your surgeon wielding a bunch of WebMD printouts and instructing them to follow the treatment plans described therein.

No one would do these things. It would be like going to a restaurant for dinner, handing the server some home recipes to give the chef and saying, “Here. You should cook food like this.”

Now, consider this…
In education, it is a much-to-the-contrary situation, unfortunately. Regularly, people with no formal training in education offer their armchair solutions to the ostensible “problems” of education. By virtue of the fact that most all of us have sat in a student desk at some point, we somehow feel that we are qualified to speak about education with authority. Moreover, there are plenty of folks out there who convey their suggestions, policies, and even plans for education directly to educators. Essentially, because we have been a student we somehow know about being an educator or education at large. But why? We do not feel that being a patient enables us to diagnose disease. So, why don’t we believe in educators and education like we do healthcare professionals?

Just because you’ve sat in the dental exam chair doesn’t make you qualified to diagnose an impacted molar any more than being a high school graduate puts you in a position to dictate the best way to teach math or reading to children.

Putting faith in the professionals who educate our kids is tantamount to putting your open mouth in the hands of the dentist; yet, we haven’t achieved equitable faith in education to other professions. Perhaps the coverage of failing schools, low test scores, and kids who can’t read has cast or propagated this doubt of educators. Whatever it is that has catalyzed this, it has opened the door for countless unqualified individuals to get involved in education and offer their reform ideas. It seems that anyone who is anyone in education these days is not an actual educator.

Experts on the matter of school reform and education innovation range from philanthropic software mogul Bill Gates to a YouTube tutor turned education pundit and businessman named Sal Khan. While the spirit behind their efforts to improve education is noble, their qualifications are about as good as those of Derek Zoolander in opening a literacy school. Neither Bill Gates nor Sal Khan have ever been a teacher nor are they now. And, still, the opinions and voices of self-declared education pundits like these carry far more weight in the discussion of what we should do for our schools than that of actual educators.

Are our students really being failed by our schools? Are kids so grossly underperforming that we need to turn to anyone other than those in education for help? Aren’t students still graduating? Aren’t they still going on to great colleges, universities, and career pathways?

Yes, they are. In Michigan, fourth graders are seeing improvements in reading for the fourth year in a row and graduation rates have been rising for years. Furthermore, a Fordham Institute report shows that the U.S. produces many more high-achieving students than any other comparable nation. Does that sound like grounds for alarm or disbelief in our educators and the public education system?

We always want to strive for better, seek to improve, and yearn to achieve more for the next generation. Well, that’s exactly what educators do every day. While it might not be visible to those outside of schools on a regular basis, educators are constantly learning more, improving their practice, and making strides to help students.

Certainly something must change in education: the public perception of our education system that has prepared students to inherit the world for decades in Michigan.

Education doesn’t need fancy reforms and policies, it needs your trust.

Image: Courtesy of the Detroit Free Press

  • Amy Lynn Smith

    Thank YOU, Gary. You will be missed but we wish you all the very best!

  • TeacherPatti

    Yes. I feel the same way about people who homeschool…they think they can do it better. Do they homedentist, too?

    All the best, Gary!

    • LOL at “homedentist”. FTW!

      • TeacherPattiS

        Thanks! Let me tell you sometime about the formerly homeschooled kids that I worked with. It’s quite a story.

  • judyms9

    I hear the trust detractors already because everyone has had teachers who were less than effective for all their students, but they may have been effective for some or most of their students. Teachers are as variable in a given person’s life in the same way that parents, bosses, spouses, and friends are, and guess what–we manage to co-exist. As we must.

    . Note that the nations that outperform us academically are those that have homogenous populations (Finland, South Korea, etc.) and cultures which certainly narrows the methods and focus of education in their countries. Here teachers must be more expansive, flexible and universal in their approaches.

    Our variability and diversity are our national strength. Once a USAF base commander friend of mine told me that we can criticize the educations our kids receive all we want, but it was his experience that when a group of new recruits were put to work on a project they always did him proud because they were quick and adaptable and could team-up, and importantly and consistent with Gary Abud’s message, they knew they were expected and trusted to get it done.

    Your insights will be missed, Mr. Abud, but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of you. Good luck.

  • Chuck Fellows

    Never been a teacher, which must mean never been a traditional teacher with a certification from a school of education that has actually worked in a traditional public school classroom. That’s a pretty narrow, and false, definition of a teacher.

    Although I agree with the dental analogy I disagree vehemently with the suggestion that voices outside the “profession” have no credibility. I mean, Doctors would still not be washing their hands and infections would common if not for an outside voice suggesting to doctors that washing their hands might stop infection.
    Although Sal Khan is not a “teacher” he teaches tens of millions around the globe – for free!

    Bill Gates is trying to put his money to good use – to support learning (which is far different than education).

    There is one word that describes the status of teachers. Trust. Despite the fact that the teachers, and the students, are the ones that actually do the work their voices are absent from the discussion. All sides of the education debate must earn some trust. They are not doing a very good job of that especially when you listen to the thin thinking of the reform experts and the misinformation being spouted by special interests and politicians.

    • Um, well, your example is wrong. You might look up “Semmelweis” on Wikipedia. Turns out the one who was “suggesting to doctors that washing their hands might stop infection” was … wait for it … a doctor! That means that it wasn’t “an outsider,” but a practicing physician who was pointing out a problem with physician practices at the time.

      It’s one thing to “support learning,” but the problem with Gates is that he’s promulgating methods that may or may not work, without adequate data. He’s also leans towards promoting technological solutions (expensive) instead of “what is working already.” I might also note that “producing videos” does not mean “teaching.”

      • Well said. Thanks, my friend.

        • TeacherPatti

          I was irritated by the certification process at first, too. JUST SO I CAN BRAG ON MYSELF let me say that before I started teaching special ed, I had a doctorate and had taught college level classes for over a year. Yet they still made me do the certification process. If nothing else, it helps keep integrity in the profession. That is, we know that teachers in public schools have at least gone through x, y and z to get there; they weren’t washing dishes at Denny’s the day before and then just wandered in to teach. (There is nothing wrong with washing dishes at Denny’s but I would like to see a little something between that job and teaching).

      • Chuck Fellows

        I used a different source from before the Internet – the Nursing School curriculum at the old Grace Hospital in Detroit circa 1968. There is some disagreement on the Internet on who suggested it first. Oh Well, it is the Internet and many doctors still won’t wash theur hands!. Maybe my source was an outsider! Jobs was an outsider that took a tour of Xerox and lifted the concept of the GUI since Xerox didn’t think that was important . . . Henry Ford was an outsider with the arrogance to think that ordinary people should be able to buy cars . . . the point being teachers and students are outsiders to the reform movement. Their voices are ignored. Those not “Certified” by the system are ignored (unless they make a large political contribution, then all bets are off).

        Gates (an outside to the traditional system) is no better or worse than what we have today, our top down one, size fits all, seat time age grading, cohort driven. credit awarding, standardized testing – the factory model of education which pleases some but not all. Those not pleased are discarded by the system. Diversity is a rule in the natural world like gravity – yet we humans fight really hard to ignore it – diversity that is – gravity rules!

        Its not about teaching or education. Its about children learning. The Khan Academy has provided a “tool” (as does Edutopia, that George Lucas thing) that indivduals and teachers, alone or in collaboration. are using successfully to learn. Example, a math teacher with 35 students of all different skill levels can monitor all of the students progress in real time with an ipad, from basic math to the calculus thanks to the features acessory to those not a teacher videos. A child does not need a “teacher” to learn – they need coaches, mentors well training in the cognitive processes of learning and the variations that each individual child presents.

        Please view the brief video “How Schools are Killing Creativity” on – Ken Robinson is the Speaker. Or search under education for the hole in the wall or the school in the cloud.

        Well, must go to the Doctor now (for real). I’ll make sure she washes her hands.

        • Hmm.. hate to break it to you but “Semmelweis” is covered in almost all “history of medicine’ texts, and were back when I was reading them in the 70’s.

          I’ve seen most of the TED stuff, and most of it is the speaker talking up what he or she thinks works, without any data to back them up. I also note that the people you’re pointing to are proposing technology solutions which, again, are unproven or even actively against learning. Unless it’s “push the buttons in sequence and get an answer.” Here’s the funny thing: I’m a tech geek. I’ve run a computer business, and been a programmer. You want to know how much “computer science” and “technology” I had in elementary and high school? None. But, because I learned math (without calculators, even), reading, and writing, I could learn the technology.

          • Chuck Fellows

            Before you pronounce a judgement on the Khan Academy i suggest you take a tour. And is “ideas worth sharing” – not a prescription for action, rather an opportunity to engage in diverse thinking. And if you dig into what the speakers are discussing – on the web site – you will find the data to back them up.

  • Matt

    LOVE the dentist analogy. It’s perfect.

  • Joe

    Nicely stated!

    I’m a retired teacher/administrator, and here is my only concern with your solution. You are correct, provided we (as a profession) can all work together to remove the true losers from our classrooms (and administrative offices). I’ve seen them, I’ve known them, and while they are a small minority, they give all of us a bad rap. Our union cannot continue to protect them, our administrators cannot continue to give acceptable evaluations when they know they are not effective teachers, and our superintendents and school boards cannot continue to be spineless when it comes to threats of legal action from parents, unions, or state governments. Putting teachers in charge means giving them authority as well as responsibility.

    Finally, the idea that we will get the best teachers by paying them less is so convoluted that it’s bizarre. No private sector company would ever suggest this concept, and to expect schools to function under this idea is insane.

  • Barry Fuller

    Excellent points Gary. I would argue the biggest reason that teachers are not held in the same esteem in the minds of the public when compared to other professionals like doctors and lawyers is a result of our professional associations. There aren’t doctor unions that are publicly combative with those who oversee doctors, presumably because the overseers are (or were) themselves doctors. As you pointed out, teachers are not in control of most aspects of education, so we’re forced to band together to “fight the oppressors” which creates a sense of mistrust among the public at large.

    Mind you, I’m not against the idea of teachers forming unions in general, but I think that we would improve our reputation if our unions were more transparent and honestly reflective instead assuming the common mindset of “We stand united regardless of individual differences.” It’s not uncommon for doctors to lose their license to practice medicine or for lawyers to be disbarred, but how often does an association of teachers agree that a single teacher is unfit for the profession?