Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me….That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact….you often doubt if you really exist….It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core (CC), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Education: The Invisible Profession

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers and well as theorists and philosophers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

In LaBrant’s unpublished memoir (written during the Reagan administration), she also catalogued living and teaching through three back-to-basic movements, highlighting the bulk of a century of digging the same standards-based reform hole that has never once been shown to work.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

For example, Regie Routman  and Stephen Krashen documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman confronted the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

Krashen presented a a detailed, evidence-based unmasking of the Plummet Legend:

The Great Plummet of 1987-1992 never happened. California’s reading scores were low well before the Language Arts Framework Committee met in 1987. There is compelling evidence that the low scores are related California’s impoverished print environment. There is also strong and consistent evidence that the availability of reading material is related to how much children read, and how much children read is related to how well they read. The skills and testing hysteria that has gripped California and other states was unnecessary.

Perpetuating a similar pattern to the whole language Plummet Legend, the current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CC, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

Alternative Education Reform: Among the Invisible and “Preferably Unheard”

Educators as workers in a profession rendered invisible and “preferably unheard” are increasingly being demonized, marginalized, and challenged as defenders of the status quo and anti-reformers.

The Sisyphean hell of being a teacher includes having almost no autonomy or power in educational policy but receiving the brunt of the blame when the outcomes of those policies do not meet the goals promised.

Yet, throughout the academic and scholarly press as well as the public media and “new” media, such as blogs, educators, researchers and scholars present daily alternatives to the repackaged reform movement committed to the same failed policies that have plagued education for a century—standards, testing, and assorted business models of efficiency forced onto education.

Education is a massive and complex endeavor, and the common sense perception of how to address teaching and learning, how to reform schools that appear to be broken, envisions equally massive and complex solutions (think VAM and merit pay).

And here is where educators may be trapped in our quest to discredit misguided reform and to take ownership of credible reform: Our alternatives appear too simple on the surface but are incredibly complicated, unpredictable, and unwieldy in their implementation. In short, most credible calls for education reform are outside the box thinking when compared to traditional education, business models, and social norms.

For example, Larry Ferlazzo in one sentence dismantles much of the current reform movement and offers alternatives:

Even though it’s not necessarily an either/or situation, I would suggest that both educators and students would be better served by emphasizing creating the conditions for intrinsic motivation over teaching techniques designed to communicate standards-based content.

Again, maybe this is too simple, but education reform does not need new standards, new tests, or new accountability and evaluation/merit pay policies.Education reform is needed, but should be re-imagined as a few different paradigms:

• Instead of a standards-based education system that places the authority for curriculum in a centralized bureaucracy, teacher autonomy and expertise should be the focus of reform—paralleling the culture of higher education in which professors are hired for field expertise as well as the teaching of their fields. [This change in the midset of reform and the culture of K-12 schools, thus, creates the conditions in which a revised paradigm in accountability can be implemented, see below.]

• Instead of a test-based education system that measures, quantifies, ranks, and evaluates, high-quality and rich feedback for both teachers and students should be the focus of reform; feedback is formative and thus contributes positively to learning and growth.

• Instead of high-stakes accountability focusing on outcomes and that demands compliance as well as blurs causation and correlation (teachers, for example, being held accountable for student outcomes), teacher accountability focusing on the learning conditions provided by the teacher should be embraced. This reform measure should emphasize the equity of opportunity provided all students [1], regardless of the teacher, the school the community, or the home environment.

• Instead of devaluing teacher preparation through alternative programs or ideologies that suggest content knowledge is more valuable than (or even exclusive of) pedagogy and through teacher evaluation policies that label, rank, and seek to fire teachers, teacher preparation and teacher evaluation should honor the complex nature of content knowledge and the pedagogy needed to teach that knowledge (see the first bullet above) while emphasizing mentoring and teaching as constant learning over stack ranking and dismissing a predetermined percentage of teachers.

Educators know what and how to teach. Education is a rich field with a tremendous amount of consensus and enduring debates along the spectrum of subcategories that constitute education—pedagogy, curriculum, assessment, teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and more.

The great irony of the need to shift away from the historical dependence on bureaucratic efficiency models of education reform and toward a professional and scholarly culture of being a teacher and conducting schooling is that the latter is far more challenging for teachers and students, and as Felazzo explains:

Let’s look at what some research shows to be necessary to create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to flourish, and how that research can be applied specifically to teaching and learning about reading and writing….Pink argues that there are three key elements required for the development of intrinsic motivation—autonomy, mastery, and purpose…..Helping students to motivate themselves is a far more effective and energizing teaching/learning strategy than the faux magical one of extrinsic motivation.

Both teachers and students can and will benefit from education reform that focuses on the conditions of learning that honor “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” in ways that allow for failure, revision, and unpredictable outcomes—none of which are fostered in the efficiency model that historically and currently corrupts education reform.

[1] See Wright’s examination of access to equitable early childhood education


Krashen, S. (2002, June). Whole language and the Great Plummet of 1987-92: An urban legend from California. Phi Delta Kappan, 748-753.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

11 thoughts on “Education Reform: Our Field, Our Voices Simply Do Not Matter”

  1. Most states in which collective bargaining for teachers is permitted have an explicit statutory *exception* for educational policy. In other words, teachers’ unions are barred from including policy matters in contracts. The courts and other quasi-judicial agencies have expanded the definition of Ed policy to include pretty much anything that truly matters to teachers. So whatever good may come from bargaining, it won’t be in the Ed policy arena.

  2. I am all for teacher autonomy to teach the curriculum they think works best for their students and the teacher. I have to believe that when teachers are forced to teach a curriculum they do not like, teaching and learning both suffer. However, there has to be some accountability in the event that a teacher’s methods are not working…don’t you think?

    1. The type of accountability currently enforced? No. Genuine accountability—a person being responsible for her/his own autonomy and for things within her/his control—of course. What is called “accountability” now is not accountability.

      1. PLT,

        I think accountability, in educational terms, is different depending on where you are located. In Michigan, accountability extends to the school itself, not individual teachers. In fact, if you go to Michigan’s education website and click on “what do I do if my school is not performing”, it will link you to New York State’s explanation (scratches head).

        I’m sure there are stupid assessment policies in place, but that does not make assessment as a tool invalid. We can all stand on the sinking iceberg arguing that your idea or my idea will not work and all end up freezing to death or drowning, or we can try something. Take the best ideas, put them together, and then run with it as if your life (or the life of the child you are teaching) depends on it. As long as a teacher’s effectiveness is not determined by one criteria, I should think that few, if any, teachers are going to immediately lose their jobs with one less than exemplary mark on their assessment.

        I’m not trying to make light of the obstacles teachers face, especially if you are working in an area with high poverty, minimal parental involvement, high truancy, etc., but we do not all face those obstacles. So, instead of trying to find something that works for every single solitary situation out there before we begin, why don’t we let the innovators get busy and learn from their successes and failures? Form a framework of best policies that can be customized for those schools and teachers in the at risk areas.

  3. This blog was reprinted in The Answer Sheet, and the first comment there was in reference to the line “an influx of English-language learners,” decrying them as illegal aliens who did not want to learn English even though it is the dominant language in this country. I was bothered by this. When I was in school in New York City in the 1950s there were a lot of English language learners coming into the the schools, and a good deal of negativity about them. The thing is, most of those who spoke Spanish were from Puerto Rico. They were already American citizens. They maintained their contacts with family back home, and did not want to lose their Spanish. There is nothing wrong with a family wanting to keep its own language! It may present a challenge to schools, but in fact, we have been figuring out constructive ways to deal with that challenge over the past half century.

    And to cindy0803 above: professionals work with each other to build an understanding of what best practices are, and to make sure every one knows about them; professions are autonomous, and their members are accountable to each other. Think of lawyers, and doctors. The medical profession often has their debates in the public sphere — are we performing too many C-sections?, or are we encouraging expensive procedures when less expensive ones are as effective — but it is the medical profession that decides what it is appropriate for their members to do. Teachers are professionals. They deserve the same respect, and trust.

    1. Margaret,

      I am not certain why my comment suggested that I do not respect or trust teachers. I hold the profession of teachers in high regard. But I give no one my full respect or trust, individually, unless they earn it. That goes for any professional. I suspect you apply a similar code in your everyday life.

      If a doctor or lawyer is not satisfying my needs, I can choose a different one. Education is a unique profession in that many (most?) people are forced to utilize only one professional for a whole year regardless of how effective that professional is. If other professions, like the legal and medical professions you mentioned, required you to use the one closest to your home, I’m sure we would be seeing some of the same fallout we are seeing in the education profession at the moment.

      My comment was in support of autonomy in the classroom. Perhaps that means something different to you than it does to me. Perhaps autonomy to you means that you do not have to answer to parents or administrators at all. To me it means that the teacher is not bound to teach from cookie cutter curriculum, but can use whatever she or he feels works best. In that way, texts could be used as reference material only (not as the bible).

  4. Teacher voices are predominantly female voices, and so will continue to be ignored. Schools are patriarchal institutions, and despite civil rights improvements in the 60s through today in much of society, teachers and schools remained neatly cordoned off from these advances. Teachers today find ourselves in a time warp. We are treated as lesser than other professionals because it is assumed, we, as women, need surveillance, guidance, and rules, as did all other working women in the 19th century women’s work playbook. We are still there. We have not advanced one bit, nor will we. We are a cheap workforce, as we always have been, doing women’s work that is seen as part missionary, part baby-sitting, and totally built on the concept of nurturing and self-sacrifice. This is why we aren’t paid a good wage, and why we are muzzled and muzzle ourselves. Speak about wanting more money, and teachers are labeled uncaring and putting themselves above their students. Why should this muzzle us? Again, because our work is perceived as the nurturing, self-sacrificing work that women are supposed to do. Many buy into this and it paralyzes the profession’s agency.

    Every aspect of teachers economic lives are subject to 19th century gender politics. Consider so-called pension reform in Rhode Island. Only teachers and state workers, not police, fire, prison guards, or judges were forced into a 401k style retirement, while our defined benefit was frozen and cut. The general assembley that inacted these reforms were afraid of the male voices. They were petrified that police and fire would revolt if their 20 and out pensions were affected. Women workers could be sacrificed because our paychecks are seen as “pin” money. Why should we have retirement security? Isn’t that what husbands are for? Of course, this is also why our pay does not keep up with other professionals. Our unions brought us some relief, but If the reformers can dismantle our unions, then we can be put right back into the one room schoolhouse, clapping erasers after school, sweeping the classroom, and making so little, that we will work only a few years and leave for greener pastures, much like teachers in the early days who had to quit once they got married, rendering teaching, once again, a temp job. Isn’t this the goal of TFA and its backers?

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