Commentary: In the Name of Reform

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In Tennessee, a Governor is limited to two 4-year terms. The last two years of a Governor’s term is always fascinating. The Governor is entering into “lame duck status,” yet still wields considerable power.

There is the urgency for those who will succeed him, as they try to distance themselves from some issues, but do not want to appear too eager to change everything. It is like walking a tight rope. However, it is clear the Tennessee General Assembly is vastly more conservative than the current Governor, even if they share the same political party.

Therefore, if a current legislator wants to be the next chief executive of the state, especially here in Tennessee, it will be incumbent upon them to oppose the Governor on some issues or at least take the lead in challenging the Governor on issues that they may well inherit. Particularly if any of those issues fall out of the general concepts of conservative principles.

The Governor, who may want to ensure the continuation of his policies then, will likely encourage non-legislators or outsiders to enter into the fray. It really is a dance. The minority party will likely set up an agenda on which their candidate can find success in challenging the other political party.

Is it any wonder that Americans, especially Tennesseans, have grown tired of the political theater?

My organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee, is extremely committed to raising student achievement and improving public K-12 schools across the state, while at the same time championing the concerns of our members in a manner that is reflective of a professional association. That is why our organization meets, and encourages our members to meet, and discuss issues with political, education, media and business leaders regularly. We also embrace local control of public education.

The time for potential gubernatorial candidates or legislators to engage educators is now, not in the heat of an election. The popular metaphor for innovators is that we have to build the plane while we are flying it. To state an obvious fact, an airplane would probably be one of the last things you would build while operating. So too, changing education policy would demand more interaction with our educators. The speed in which the legislature operates generally does not allow for much discourse on critical policy issues. This is unfortunate.

It has long been acknowledged that a strong educational system is essential not only to the successful functioning of a democracy, but also to its future. Educators understand that an engaging and challenging education is the proven path to prosperity and a life-long love of learning.

However, in the name of reform and federal dollars we have often chased ideas that didn’t serve our children or educators very well. We over-test our students and put a tremendous workload burden on educators in the name of accountability. It is past time we question and debate the role standardized tests play in public schools, or redefine the role of the federal government plays in education.

Every law passed frequently adds to the workload of educators. That is why we have to thoughtfully consider excessive legislation. As conservatives promote limited government, personal responsibility, and individual initiative, the most important voice the classroom teacher often remains unheard.

In December 2016, we conducted a sample survey of our educators. We found that not only is the workload considered excessive for teachers, but also for administrators. One principal told us “the number of requirements to complete as an administrator, not only from the district level, but state as well is excessive.” It was a general theme.

One person stated that there was “the continual increase in expectations from teachers without regard for the constraints of time to get everything accomplished.” Another stated that their “already limited planning time each day is frequently consumed by PLC’s, data meetings, RTI meetings, IEP meetings resulting in many after school hours to plan.” Finally, one educator wrote: “We probably work upwards of 70 hours per week.”

Collaboration is critical and we must all work together for public education to succeed and deliver on its promise of a better future for all. The most effective vision for K-12 education is one that embraces local control of public education and listens to those educating our children before the opinions of those who profit off the system.

A top-down, teach-by-the-numbers approach is less preferable to a grassroots, culturally responsive approach to teaching. In fact, “teaching cannot be top-down because whoever is at the top is not in touch with the students being taught,” according to eminent author and professor of education, Catherine Cornbleth.

We must identify what we expect from our local schools, with the understanding that societal problems are often much larger than what any school or district can address. Just as issues are unique in each community, solutions may also be different. One size fits all simply does not work. The next Governor would do well to understand that message, and implement that philosophy.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

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