The Great Divide

A new survey supports what educators have known all along: when it comes to educational priorities, policy makers and parents don’t see eye to eye.

The Center for Michigan just released the results of its latest survey on public attitudes on education in Michigan. The results indicate Michigan teachers, students and parents showed the most support for three key ideas:

• Increased access to early childhood education for the state’s four year-olds
• Greater respect, support, and training for teachers both before they enter the classroom and once they’re there
• Reducing class size

These priorities — established by teachers and the families they serve — have little in common with the policy priorities announced by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. The governor and the public share an interest in improved early childhood education, but the remaining two items on the governor’s educational priority list are increased online learning and increasing school choice. Both of these items were at the bottom of the priorities of those participating in the survey.

The study’s findings are notable for two reasons. First, there is a long-standing outcry that school reform thinks too much about the teachers, and not about the students–or, using language a venture capitalist like Governor Snyder might better understand, the reforms seem to be coming from the company, not the customer. This survey addresses that concern by including the customers — who, it turns out, have nearly identical priorities for education reform as the teachers who serve them.

These findings don’t exactly match the picture painted by some anti-union forces in Michigan’s recent debate about right to work legislation, rhetoric that portrayed teachers as self-serving, out-of-touch minions who seek to feed off the excesses of a bloated bureaucracy. It’s rare when workers ask for more training; teachers are doing just that, but their request is nowhere to be found in the state’s budget.

This leads to the second point, the price of policy. Smaller class size is expensive, since it requires more teachers and more schools; so is providing more teacher training, especially once they are in the classroom. On the other hand, online learning doesn’t require more classroom space, and more choice allows students to go to schools that are already “working” — and there’s no need to train teachers who already know how to teach, or so the argument goes.

Class size may not always make a difference in student performance, but any teacher at a school of choice will tell you teaching a class of 35 leads to less learning than teaching a class of 27, no matter what the standardized tests say. The same is true for online learning; some students can master the directions and multi-tasking required of an online course, but many more need the right word at the right time delivered by a friendly face that’s pixel free. This is clear to the parents and teachers who live, love, and work with students face-to-face, but seems to be lost on those who study them as cohorts on a spreadsheet.

School choice and online learning are high on the governor’s education agenda for the same reasons fast food continues to thrive in a tight, more health-aware economy — they give the illusion of being a thrifty alternative, when in fact that are a poor substitute for the real thing. Now that parents and students are shown to agree with teachers on the essential steps to true educational reform, policy makers must put aside the caricature of teachers that have shielded them from understanding the real needs of schools, and embrace the opportunity to engage in the hand-in-hand combat that will truly reform learning.


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