Why Create a Teacher Oral History Project?

Teacher Oral History ProjectEver since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, America’s public school teachers have been subjected to an unprecedented, bi-partisan attempt to transform their workplace environment and to hold them accountable for the alleged failures of the nation’s public schools to produce greater equity and contribute to American global competitiveness.

Under both the Bush and Obama Administrations, teachers have found their careers and their futures increasingly defined by student test scores, while their job rights and tenure protections have been steadily undermined by new policies at the state and federal levels that require closing of failing schools and removal of teachers who consistently rate low on new test-driven evaluation systems.

The atmosphere surrounding these policies has often been toxic, with the press and elected officials keeping up a steady drumbeat of chatter on the dangers posed by “bad teachers,” and with budget conscious officials denouncing teachers as pampered and overpaid.

Alternative certification programs such as Teach for America have added to the sense of insecurity, giving school districts powerful incentives to replace veteran teachers with young people receiving lower salaries who are unlikely to stay in the profession.

When you add to the mix favoritism toward charter schools, experiments with online learning and merit pay, and the implementation of the Common Core Standards without trial runs to demonstrate their effectiveness, you can see why many teachers regard this era as a tragic one for their profession. The statistics bear this perception out. This year, a Met Life Survey of Teacher Satisfaction registered its lowest level in history, and the average length of a teacher’s career has plummeted to five years, from a level that was more than double that in the 1980s.

One of the hallmarks of all the above-mentioned policies is that they were implemented without significant teacher input. Teachers have been conspicuously absent from education reform commissions appointed at the state, local, and national levels, with preference given to business leaders and heads of major foundations. Mayoral control of schools in large cities has also eroded teacher power by removing opportunities for key stakeholders in the public schools to have day to day input into their management. What we have had, for the last ten plus years, is top-down initiatives imposed on teachers rather than developed with them.

Given the total exclusion of teacher voices from the shaping of education policy, and to a large degree from the media, who have bought into the “Bad Teacher” narrative, it is important to find some vehicle for teachers to describe what those policies have meant “on the ground” in their classrooms and communities. This is the purpose of the Teacher Oral History Initiative launched by United Opt Out with the support of teachers and education scholars around the nation. Our goal is to have teachers around the country to describe how they have experienced No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, and the policies stemming from them, in their professional lives, and offer their own suggestions for how to improve classroom learning, promote student engagement, and make schools more integral parts of the communities they are located in.

To promote the creation of local oral history projects, adapted to local conditions, we will be creating a national digital archive for teacher oral histories through United Opt Out, with full protection of the confidentiality of respondents. We have some guidelines and protocols for how to start such projects, but will not dictate the questions asked, the strategies for recruiting participants, or the mechanisms for acquiring project sponsors.

Teachers have had too much experience with policies implemented from the top down for us to mirror that approach in launching this project. We are going to play the role of facilitators. What actually goes on in interviews will be left to the local organizers

mark naisonAlthough the official launch date for the Teachers Oral History project will probably be June 2013, the idea has already created considerable excitement among educators. We already have tentative commitments to launch local initiatives in more than ten locales, including Orlando, Chicago, Upstate New York, Washington DC, Jersey City, Los Angeles, and several places in New England.

We look forward for more educators to come on board and welcome support from individuals, organizations, and foundations who feel that teacher voices need to be heard without restrictions, without compromise, an without fear of retaliation.

Mark Naison
With A Brooklyn Accent

Monday, 29 April 2013

Published by the LA Progressive on April 29, 2013
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