Research vs. Whim

My project has led me to research educational policy.  This surprised me.  I’ve always considered myself a teacher’s teacher.  I believe in the power of an individual teacher and don’t often involve myself in policy.   Education policy is made outside of the schools and reflects the views and values of the culture, or at least the controlling party.   Policy always seemed uncomfortably out of my control.

Now, as I work on my Fulbright project, I find myself drawn more to policy.  New Zealand teachers are bright, dedicated, and enthusiastic about their profession, just like Chicago teachers.  The students come with similar strengths and challenges.  The differences between education in the United States and New Zealand are differences in policy.  These policies form the context in which we teach and influence how effective we can be as teachers.

Teacher power personified

In general, New Zealand takes a research-based approach to improvements in education, whereas the United States relies more on whim.  We like change for change’s sake.  For example, my project is focused on mentoring programs for new teachers.  Research shows that teachers who are involved in a positive mentoring experience are more likely to remain in the profession.  In 2011, following extensive research and a pilot program, New Zealand developed and implemented guidelines for mentoring programs.

Compare this to the current situation in the States. Three recent studies show that school voucher programs are not only ineffective, but harmful to students.  They lower academic achievement.  Rather than base new education policy decisions on this research, our administration proposes we spend $20 billion on school vouchers.  So go decisions on charter schools, standardized testing, class size, and ed-tech to name a few.  This might be why I feel powerless and have avoided policy.  Still, I’m tempted to get involved in the same way I’m drawn to helping a particularly challenging student.  If these structures were changed to reflect research-based practices rather than whim-based ones, we could build a framework that supports all teachers to make consistent and positive change in the lives of students.

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