Where is the voice of the teachers in the Oshkosh Public Schools Board Room?

Public school systems create a unique leadership challenge. At the top of the organization is a superintendent, and in Oshkosh, there are several senior leaders at central office including two assistant superintendents along with various directors and administrative staff. Some have doctoral degrees, others may have master’s degrees. These are the people we hope to be experts and lead us to better outcomes for the sake of our children.

I would argue that there are two primary struggles these educational leaders face. First, despite the ongoing efforts of our academic brethren within colleges of education throughout the last century, we still don’t know definitively how best to teach our students. This is more of a statement of the difficulty to understand how the human mind works rather than an indictment against educational researchers.

Take, for example, the popular Science of Reading (SOR) movement rooted in systematic phonics instruction. While the name sounds appealing in that “Science” must have been used, I can assure you that advocates of the balanced literacy approach would argue that they too have used “Science” to demonstrate the advantages of this framework. Despite the political advantage the SOR programming has garnered over the last several years, the reading wars will continue. In addition, the SOR is a collection of knowledge and many curriculum publishers have implemented varying programs with vastly different levels of rigor in adhering to the SOR approach. It is not a prescriptive approach whereby we could believe that if only we had leaders appropriately trained, we could be assured they would select the optimal methodology to teach literacy.

The second struggle educational leaders face is that their subordinates, the teachers, are typically just as well, if not more qualified to make or significantly contribute to the decision making process. Continuing education requirements have teachers taking many of the same graduate courses our administrators have taken, in addition to allowing them to move up the stepped pay system. While increased coursework may help develop teacher performance, classroom experience can lead to far greater insights into what will work than what an administrator at central office may gain from reading scholarly articles.

However, if one pays close attention, the voice of the teacher tends to be conspicuously absent in the board room. Many teachers that I have talked with have suggested that our district perpetuates an environment of silence within its workforce. That is, if there is an issue that one sees happening, it is often times better to ‘keep silent’ or ‘tow the line’ rather than speak out. But given the teachers are just as much experts as the administrative staff, this is truly unfortunate.

Our board of education must insist on hearing the unfiltered voice of the teacher before making decisions. I would advocate that our director of information technology creates or acquires a survey tool which could assure the respondents were the teachers within the district, but at the same time, ensure that the responses were completely anonymous. Finally, appropriate summary metrics should be made available to ensure that we are seeing is an unfiltered view of the respondents and truly the voice the of teachers.

I suspect that this tool might illuminate the board to the reality that our educational leaders are not always in consensus and that further evaluation might be needed. Right now, our board seems to take it on blind faith that our central office administrative team knows best and will lead us to increased academic proficiency. However, the results over the last several years should have us questioning this. I would argue that the future of our youth is too important of a topic to leave to blind faith and that the collective knowledge of the teaching staff needs to be tapped into to achieve the success our leaders talk about.

Read more issues:
Accountability in Oshkosh Schools
Fiscal Transparency