Just Exactly Backwards
Efforts to improve American education must begin by improving the working life of American teachers.
So much of the conversation around education in America focuses on improvement. Improvement in student outcomes, improvement in teaching quality, improvement in "global standing." There is a general sense that American education (and here, I'm speaking specifically of American public education) needs to do better. The purpose of this piece is not to argue over how much of the perceived need for improvement is reflective of reality. In the interest of being upfront, it's my personal belief that various strains of the improvement conversation are reflective of reality in various degrees. But let's leave all of that aside. For the purpose of this argument, let's pretend that every improvement-related gripe that is voiced is uniformly valid and well-considered. I'll cede each and every one of those arguments to make a larger point:
Any large-scale improvement in American education is not possible as long as American teachers are treated poorly.
This seems like a painfully obvious point to have to make. Maybe I'm not looking very hard, but I don't see it being made very often, or very loudly. So much of the conversation around education in my sphere relates to ways to improve that don't explicitly acknowledge the primacy of improving the work of being a teacher. My larger digital PLN is overripe with teachers and other educators sharing improvement strategies and ideas of all types; new (and new-again) pedagogies, resources, and reflective practice-focused conversations. This is lovely, but as long as many American teachers teach in systems where they are poorly treated, it's also inherently limited. It seems to me that conversation about improvement in contemporary American schools can only occur among the minority of teachers. If you are focused on improvement, you are either working in the ever-diminishing number of functional American school systems, or you have such a strong focus on your internal drive to improve that you can tolerate the dysfunctions of the system that you are working in. For the duration of my own 14-year career in an American public school, I was decidedly in the former group. Suburban Long Island public schools are not without problems, but they remain places where teachers make low-six-figure salaries after 10 years, where tenure is robust, and where the associated benefits (403b, well-funded pension, "Cadillac" health plan) do much to remove the day-to-day survival concerns that permeate teaching in many other places in the country. I always tried to focus on my own improvement because my personal teaching situation gave me the freedom to do so by minimizing the other concerns related to keeping myself and my family fed and well-cared for.
My large-ish virtual PLN is such that I have been able to interact with many teachers in the second category-- teachers that clearly have it professionally worse-off than I do, but who still have a strong drive to improve. My hat is off to each and every one of them. I hope I would be similar in similar circumstances, but I'm also glad that I've always had the privilege and good luck not to have to test this. One thing I do know is I do not have any judgment or ill will toward any teacher in a dysfunctional system that isn't able to focus so fully on improving their work. It's unreasonable to expect you to have any bandwidth to devote to anything other than simply surviving and trying to do the best you can to help the children in your charge do the same if you can't make enough money teaching those children to survive, or if the system you work in is literally falling apart around you. And yet, the conversations in American education space continue to revolve around how to improve things, while largely ignoring the fact that most American teachers are treated so poorly.
Fundamentally, this issue is why I'm skeptical of any voice that speaks about ways to improve education that doesn't explicitly acknowledge the need to improve the working life for teachers as the first and primary concern. If you want to talk about a particular pedagogical strategy or the utility of a given resource, that's fine as long as you're also upfront in acknowledging that until such time as America starts treating all of its teachers like the professionals that they are, anything done outside of that goal is definitionally going to be done at the margins.
This isn't to say that the conversations that happen around other aspects of being an American teacher aren't necessary or useful, only that we should acknowledge that they will always be limited in their impact until such time as the teachers who need to do the work we talk about are valued enough to be able to do it. Until they are, the effects of these conversations will never be as robust or far-reaching as they deserve to be. Personally, I'll look to the educators I find most resonant and the politicians that I plan to vote for always to acknowledge that the major problem facing American education is the treatment of the teacher corps, and expect them to have clear and concrete plans to address that issue. Unless that is an ever-present concern, and until such time as it doesn't need to be anymore, I'm always going to have less time to listen to your "other thing" about how to improve the work of teaching kids than I have for this one.