14 June 2010: SB 191 debate not yet over

SB 191 debate not yet over

During the days prior to passage of Senate Bill 191 (Ensuring Quality Instruction Through Educator Effectiveness) and over the weeks afterwards, I engaged in an exchange with one of the laws more zealous supporters and defenders, a retired engineer with a yearning to improve education through innovation.

“The problem is,” I said cutting to the quick, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Despite brilliance in his field and being well-intentioned, he was out of his league when it came to education.

As a life-long teacher, I would not presume to instruct Gen. David Petraeus about strategy and tactics in Afghanistan. Nor do my credentials qualify me to set standards for dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers. And if I were a legislator facing the task of ascertaining and setting professional standards for a group, I would consult primarily with those whose expertise — dentists, lawyers, architects, engineers — allows them to speak to issues germane to their field. Yet when it comes to education, we have a host of neophytes declaring with authority what is best practice. Everyone, it seems, is an expert.

As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

This is the essential truth: The primary experts on education are long-term teachers and principals, not politicians or interest groups and private think tanks with an agenda or graduates or parents. It’s important also to keep in mind that a few years of practice does not make one an expert in any field. Even master teachers and sound educational leaders understand there is always a lesson to be learned.

In the day, I would tell parents teaching is like multiplying your kid by 30, putting them into an enclosed space, getting them to do something they likely don’t want to, convincing them it is for their own good, beguiling them into performing well on tests, and working even more outside of class. If it were that easy.

To teachers, education is no theoretical study or experiment. Teachers are there on the ground, daily and even hourly, dealing with complexities, nuances and ironies that come with a population reflective of the greater one: diverse, mixed, talented, brilliant, merely proficient, struggling, disabled, driven and scared, tuned in and turned off. And from that mix emerges one product: a graduate.

The mantra, chorus singing, from the backers and enactors of the law is now about “joining the SB 191 team.” For them, it’s a done deal. For those who have committed their lives to the universe of learning, this must serve as a teachable moment.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, late senator of New York, once famously quipped, “You’re entitled to your opinions but not to your own facts.” I qualify Moynihan’s aphorism with this postulate: You’re entitled to your opinion, but it should be based on facts.

It was interesting to read the responses and reactions to my last article, including the one from the writer who admits to not having read the bill and to not being “sure what education is.” I only wish others, especially legislators, were as honest about their knowledge and expertise.

With regard to the legislators, though, I found curious the writer’s belief that while teachers should be evaluated through something over which they have no control, legislators in a representative democracy need not be held accountable for that which they do control: speaking with and listening to those they represent.

What is refreshing, nevertheless, is that the debate, essential to a free society, is continuing. Learning, after all, ought to be a life-long practice.

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