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How to Provide the Best Education Possible

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced his plans to push for education reform in 2015.
His intentions may be noble, but his use of tired clichés that perpetuate negative narratives is not.

Cuomo claimed in a letter to the state’s education leaders that he is seeking “to dramatically improve … schools that condemn generations of kids to poor educations and thus poor life prospects.”

He oversimplifies issues and neglects myriad educational challenges by presenting an uncomplicated and clear paradigm – inept, ineffective schools and teachers are failing hard-working, engaged students.

Too often blame is placed largely on educators, while factors such as poverty, lack of family cohesion, limited parental involvement, and lack of student work ethic are ignored or downplayed.

Teacher certification requirements and increased accountability are positive, needed reform measures. They ensure that competent, capable persons who use the best teaching practices are in the classrooms.

Nevertheless, focusing on teacher requirements and assessments while avoiding other issues has made educators a scapegoat.

When reform measures do not result in the desired improvements, primarily higher scores on standardized tests, the evaluation system that the reforms initiated have, ironically, become the focus of critique.

For example, Cuomo asked in his letter, “How is the current teacher evaluation system [in New York] credible when only 1 percent of teachers are rated ineffective?”

His critique is aimed at 2010 reforms that sought “to make it easier to identify which teachers performed the best so their methods could be replicated, and which performed the worst, so they could be fired.”

Assuming that a large number of teachers are inept and ineffective, which is what Cuomo’s statement implies, is problematic and counterproductive.

Too often, no matter what teacher certification and evaluation practices are implemented, if students struggle with standardized tests, the presumption is that teachers are the problem that must be fixed.

Cuomo’s perspective suggests that students are doing everything they can to learn and succeed, and that their parents are engaged in helping with their studies, while teachers are failing to provide quality instruction.

This is one of the most pervasive myths in the education discussion.

To suggest that some students succeed in spite of their teachers in light of all of the initial and ongoing requirements for educators to be certified paints a false picture.

I imagine one would be hard pressed to find any schools, even those carrying the label “failing,” whose teachers were so ineffective and inept as to prevent students from learning.

More often than not, I imagine you would find educators putting in long hours and using proven strategies to try to help students succeed.

You would also find principals and district personnel regularly observing teachers and offering feedback on how they can improve.

Students are at school for around eight hours a day, but at the secondary level teachers work with students for one class period of 45 minutes to 90 minutes in a given subject area.

To provide additional help, teachers often tutor students outside of class – during lunch or after school.

In my wife’s middle school, they have mandatory tutoring for students who are failing or in danger of failing. Sadly, many students skip.

Calls to parents and other disciplinary measures – not being able to attend a school dance, for example – have proven ineffective in compelling these students to attend.

No matter how skilled or experienced an educator may be, he or she cannot ensure the success of a student who is not committed to completing homework assignments, attending tutoring sessions, receiving parental support at home and reviewing concepts outside of class.

This is not to shift the blame from educators to students or parents, but to provide a glimpse into the circumstances faced by many educators.

The “blame game” that politicians and pundits too often play in front of the cameras with regard to education must end.

It should be noted that some teachers’ unions add to the impasse when they portray education reformers as anti-public school or anti-teachers.

Just as Cuomo’s paradigm is inaccurate and his rhetoric unhelpful, so too are such caricatures.

Educational success requires commitment and collaboration from educators, students, parents and community leaders and organizations. Both public and private schools are needed, as well.

As I’ve written previously, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution for improving America’s education system” and we should seek “a multi-faceted approach, combining the best practices of both public education advocates and school reformers.”

Substantive progress is possible if each “side” will stop portraying the other as the enemy or treating them as a scapegoat. Everyone wants to provide the best education possible, even though they advocate for different means.

Disagreements will remain, but eschewing divisive rhetoric avoids obscuring the fundamental issues and allows the various groups to learn from each other.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.