Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trusting Teachers, Public Schools and Democracy

Over 100 years ago, Margaret Haley, the Chicago elementary school teacher who was also the founder of the first American teachers’ union, argued for a vision of public schools as the center of our democracy. However, she proposed, schools can democratize society only if schools themselves are democratic. Haley and another maverick, Ella Flagg Young, a prodigy who passed her teaching examinations at age 15 and went on to become the first women to serve as superintendent of a major American city, both argued that teachers must play central roles in school administration and policy-making, and as professionals who are critical to the nation, must have opportunities and support to continue to grow intellectually throughout their working lives. Without this, they claimed, schools would become little more than factories, with rote assignments administered by teachers relegated to the role of automatons.
The issues and debates about education then were much the same as they are today. What’s different is that we now have decades of evidence showing that Haley and Flagg were right. For example, the nation with the most successful education system by many measures, including highest students scores and smallest spread of scores between schools is Finland, a country in which all curriculum is local and developed by teachers who are charged with designing and pursuing high standards and shared targets within their professional communities. Yet these high levels of success and responsibility don’t translate into top-down mandates. The schools are democratically organized and decisions are made laterally. Teachers evaluate their students, and collaboratively design ways to assess and improve school-wide successes. Students spend less time in school that those in most other industrialized nations and Finnish teachers spend less time teaching than do teachers in many other countries, and are not required to be present at their schools when they don’t have classes or other duties.
The Finnish education scholar Pasi Sahlberg describes a system in which teaching is consistently rated as one of the most desirable and admired professions, ahead of doctors, architects and lawyers. Finnish teachers are considered knowledge workers, education leaders, and critical members of their communities and the nation. So what are we doing wrong?
            While we should certainly learn from the successful educational systems designed by our global neighbors, we should also look back at the insights of our home-grown visionaries in education, like Margaret Haley and Ella Flagg Young. They pointed to the need for what Finland has put into practice and proven as successful for students—a public education system that supports and trusts its teachers. 

Remarks I gave at the Chicagoland Researchers for Transformative Education (CReATE) Press Conference, March 12, 2012

Rousmaniere, K. (2005). Citizen teacher: The life and leadership of Margaret Haley. Albany, NY: State University of New York.
Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.