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Educational Reform through Simplicity

This post is written by NCTE member Amanda Wallace. 

AmandaWallaceOur life is frittered away by detail . . .  simplify, simplify. —Henry David Thoreau

I’ve always loved Henry David Thoreau, and although we cannot all go and live at Walden Pond to simplify our lives, I believe we should examine our educational system by heeding his advice.

I have been teaching in North Carolina for 19 years, and during this time the teaching profession has been assailed by a blurry assembly line of quick fixes and “innovative ideas” that were supposed to “turn it all around.” These programs or products are usually acronyms, and invariably they are tried for a brief moment and discarded as the next shiny package makes its way down the line.

I first taught in a county that was dedicated to TQE (Total Quality Education) based on TQM (total quality management). Every classroom had to have a Plus Delta Board and a lot of sticky notes (flow charts were also big, and I don’t know why or how they are different from a graphic organizer.) As I stayed in the profession, we were then subjected to ABCs (Accountability, Basic Skills, Control). They paid us if we made growth, but that went away when the money ran out. Then there was OBE (Outcome Based Education), ML (Mastery Learning), and PBL (Project Based Learning). Then powerful educational advocacy groups believed that smaller learning communities (SLC) were the answer, so my school received a grant and implemented them. The money ran out, and now the smaller learning communities are gone.

As the years went by, we watched Learning Styles Theory come and go, and whatever happened to those CRISS strategies, a training that was mandatory at one time in my district? One school I worked in set up an lab for “Self-Paced” learning. It was just a skill and drill computer program—not innovative, but expensive.

Don’t forget EQs (Essential Questions), which I actually still use, BBL (Brain-Based Learning), and PBIS (Positive Behavior Integration Systems). And on a darker note,  EVAAS, a value-added measure program that diminishes beautiful and talented students to a growth number.

How long will these programs and approaches last?

The tragic truth is that though many of these have some useful components, they are often marketed as the only solution, and a lot of money is spent on consultants and programs by districts when that money could be used elsewhere for lasting improvements. Ask many educators how to fix education, and the answers will be much more simple and concise than the barrage of acronyms.

Spend money on good support staff, counselors, social workers, tutors, and translators. Make sure the support staff have a systematic approach to helping students. Students and their parents need to feel that schools are a place where they will be safe and get the help they need. Do not bog these professionals down in paperwork, but make sure they are focused on helping students as a team.

Administrators need to support teachers and students by making sure that classrooms are free from behavior disruptions. The old way of sending students to the perceived “stronger” authority figure in the office is an outdated remnant of a patriarchal system that uses threats and power assertions to get compliance from teachers and students. Administrators and teachers must focus on developing relationships with students, not doling out rewards and punishments.

Recognize that teachers are just like students; we are individuals with our own unique talents and ways of teaching. Do not mandate that we all follow the same prescriptive formula. For example, I love teaching with essential questions and structuring my classroom around global issues. Some teachers may be more detail oriented and systematic. It benefits students to be exposed to a variety of teaching styles, just as they will be exposed to many different opinions and perspectives in college and in the workforce. Give us autonomy over our own professional development, and give us time to synthesize new methods and research before we are mandated to try the next new product.

Teachers and administrators should make schools a place where students want to be. An overemphasis on testing just kills all of our enthusiasm. All classrooms should be like AIG enrichment classes. The students who struggle the most should not always be remediating with skill and drill, but should be included in the creative science lessons and the innovative projects.

I did not have to pay a consultant or buy a program to come up with these solutions. I simply spent 19 years talking to other teachers and seeing what actually works.

The answer really is to “simplify.”

Amanda Wallace teaches English at Watauga High School in Boone, NC. She is certified in Middle Grades Education, High School Language Arts, and she has a Master’s Degree in Reading Education from Appalachian State. She is also Nationally Board Certified in Language Arts. Amanda has been a cooperating teacher with the Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program since 2011. She participated in the Watauga Pakistan Exchange Program in 2014, and she was awarded a fellowship with Teachers for Global Classrooms in 2015, a year long program which culminated with a field experience in the Philippines. She is currently a teacher fellow with Hope Street Group’s North Carolina Teacher Voice Network.