Theme III: Barriers to Innovation and Improvement - National Council of Teachers of English
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Theme III: Barriers to Innovation and Improvement

Educators gathering at NCTE with Teacher Ambassador Matt Presser
Educators gathering at NCTE with Teacher Ambassador Matt Presser

Last month, 24 teachers and school leaders, mostly NCTE members and ranging from early childhood educators to high school technology coaches, gathered at NCTE Headquarters in Urbana, Illinois to share their concerns. They were joined by one of the US Department of Education’s Teacher Ambassadors, Matt Presser, a literacy instructional coach from New Haven, Connecticut, who was in town as part of the Secretary of Education’s annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. (See the second blog,  Teachers and Assessments and Accountability.)

 A tragic consequence of this punitive, competitive, test-driven education policy environment is that it both discourages and distorts innovation. Real change takes time, perhaps five to seven years, longer than any political cycle. Genuine innovation may lead to test scores going down before they go up, which the current system will see as a sign of incompetence.

Matt Stark, High School Principal

Matt Stark, principal of Urbana High School, argued that policymakers mistakenly think about education as a production model, rather than as a Research & Development model. The goal shouldn’t be to produce identical, flawless students. Rather, innovation—both in educational practice and through students’ actions in the world after they graduate—comes from differences and experiments, both successes and failures.

Bus Tour at NCTE-1812
Jill Quisenberry, First Grade Teacher

Jill Quisenberry, a first-grade teacher at Wiley Elementary School, Urbana, commented that when policy makers do celebrate innovation, they often confuse genuine ingenuity with compelling everyone to embrace the “next big thing.” Rather than digging into the real issues, we “cut ribbons and throw confetti.” Echoing a point made by scholars such as Louis M. Gomez, Quisenberry commented that the form of innovation most likely to make a meaningful difference may look closer to the less sexy “improvement,” in which expert teachers and school leaders work together over time to get better and better at practices and tools they have evidence are working.

Innovation in any form is impeded when resources are limited and collaboration is difficult. The combination of funding cuts and competitive distributions of what funding remains means that school leaders have to make untenable choices between, for example, lower class sizes in kindergarten and staff support for technology integration. When innovations are developed in this challenging environment, there are few opportunities to share them across districts. In fact, most of the teachers reported not even having the opportunity to visit each others’ classrooms within their own schools.

NCTE believes that the best way to support innovation and improvement is through collective capacity building, Much of our federal policy work over the last decade has focused on establishing federal formula funding for comprehensive literacy education, encouraging the use of effective practices through inquiry-based collaboration of teams of educators across grade levels and subjects. The LEARN Act—which NCTE helped write, and portions of which are included in the ESEA reauthorization bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate earlier this year—codifies this approach.

In its 2015 Education Policy Platform, NCTE writes, “As a society we share collective responsibility for building the capacity of all those involved in improving the conditions for literacy learning. Instead of pointing a finger and placing blame, our focus should be on creating informed and knowledgeable stakeholders who are responsible for optimal learning environments for all students, including legislators, school board members, administrators, teacher educators, teachers, and parents.”

It is time we all work together to create an environment in which our students learn and thrive.