Monday, March 30, 2020

Teachers Are the Leading Experts on Education

We live in uncertain times. No one, even pandemic experts, knows what's going to happen. Yet, all day, every day, we're being offered advice, warnings, admonitions, and opinions, some of which are spot on, but most of which are, at best, partially based on incomplete knowledge, while a huge percentage of it is pure BS, including much of what's coming from the mouths of our elected leaders.

How do we know who to listen to? We check credentials, we research their backgrounds, we assess their motivations, and we check with other experts for comparison. Just the other day, I shared an opinion piece on Facebook from a well respected media outlet that offered a narrative on our current Covid-19 crisis that seemed to offer a way forward while minimizing the economic impact. Immediately after sharing it, I decided to do some quick research into the doctor who wrote it. The first four search engine search results used the word "quack" to describe him. At best he's a controversial figure, so I removed the post. I should have done the research before sharing it in the first place.

What hooked me was that what he wrote sounded perfectly reasonable to my non-expert ears. It played into some of my hopes and fears, shining with the veneer of some of the things I'd already been thinking, but done so with some statistics, which convinced me it must be well vetted. Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time, the internet breeds half-truths, rumors, and outright lies, and never more so than in a time of crisis.

We're all focused on the pandemic right now, but it's only a matter of time (indeed, it's already started) before self-appointed reformers begin to use this pandemic to flood us with proposals about how we can transform education. Peter Greene, writing over on Forbes, recently posted a short and excellent guide for sorting through the deluge to come entitled, "We're About To Hear Many Suggestions About How To Reshape Education. Here's How To Sort Them Out." As he writes, "Some of the ideas that emerge will be useful and worthwhile, some will be opportunistic profiteering, and some will be baloney."

Education in America needs to be transformed, no one disagrees, but just as we lean on medical professionals to help us through a medical crisis, we must lean on classroom teachers when it comes to education:

Teachers know the system better than anyone; they are, in fact, the leading experts on public education in this country. Most teachers have spent their entire career thinking about talking about how to make the system better to serve students.

This isn't to say that good ideas can't come from anywhere, but rather to point out that teachers are the experts and all the rest are dilettantes, even if they are billionaires, even if they run technology companies, and even if they call themselves "thought leaders." This is exactly the sort of crisis in which snake oil salesmen thrive. You're liable to hear that this or that technology has been "proven," that "standardization" will make things more efficient or that "individualization" will make things more profitable, and, naturally, that now is a time to "disrupt the marketplace." This will come from people who are basing their knowledge of how education works upon their own individual experience in school several decades ago. They will present data that doesn't stand up outside their computer models. They will have deep, reassuring voices, full of concern for the children who are hopelessly falling behind and absolutely need this latest innovation. For a limited time only, we're offering two for the price of one. And they will be sure to proclaim teachers as our greatest national resource while simultaneously suggesting that we are sweet little puddin' heads who can't be expected to know what's best for our students.

If there is one thing that can finally be put to bed right now, it's that last one. This crisis has shown us teachers at their flexible, innovative, and thoughtful best. We are engaged in a massive, nationwide research project, one that was forced upon us by world events. Some of it will work, while most of it will turn out to be baloney, and as the leading experts, we would be wise to look to teachers to help us tell the difference.


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 

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