Tag Archives: obama administration

Finding the People in the Picture

This fall, I will be teaching an introductory qualitative research course. My own dissertation research used a qualitative methodology to learn more about how teachers plan for the use of technology. I interviewed and observed teachers at work in their classrooms with their students. I wrote short vignettes describing that work and the challenges they faced from high-stakes testing to inadequate access to resources. While I’m sure my research will not have much of any impact, I am proud of the way I represented the complexity of the classroom through the voice of the teachers.

For me, that’s the value of this kind of research. Certainly, quantitative research with its percentages and statistics and measures of error, is useful for wider “big picture” sort of research, providing access to general trends and suggestions for practices that might lead to greater success in whatever given area is being studied. But, qualitative research paints a different picture, of the people themselves, the ones who make saying anything definitive about education very difficult. I am often much more interested in those personal stories and insights than in the big picture ideas because they remind us that education is first, and foremost, about human beings.

If you’ve been following the news about the school in Rhode Island that had decided to fire all its teachers as part of its reform efforts, you’ve seen a glimpse of this tension between the big picture and the individual people. The latest news is that the administrators and teachers have negotiated an agreement and they will not be fired after all. My thoughts about the agreement itself are for another post, what I’m interested in here is the way the story plays out in the version I read at NPR.

You have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the people in the story. The teachers are only present in the person of the union boss while the school district itself is represented by the Superintendents and a state administrator. They aren’t really “people” in my book but talking points who are saying all the right things about this agreement and the efforts they are making to improve education in their district. Even the Obama administration plays a role, but again, one that is preordained and peppered with words like “accountability” and “chronically underperforming.”

But there, in the last few sentences are the people: the parents and students who haven’t been involved in the agreement and yet who will be influenced by its outcomes.

The teachers largely have won the support of students and parents, many of whom believe the staff has been made a scapegoat for the woes of a high school in one of the state’s poorest cities. Norma Velez, whose 15-year-old son, Jose, is a sophomore, said she was pleased to see the teachers return. “When the teachers teach to students — some of them — they don’t want to cooperate with the teachers,” Velez said. “They just do what they want, and they hold up the rest of the students.” Julia Pickett, a 17-year-old senior, bristled at the description of the school as failing. “I don’t like that perception of us. I think we’re a great school,” she said. “Just one test score doesn’t determine whether a school is good or bad.”

Here’s that glimpse of the real people behind the “facts” of the story…the brief insight into the kinds of classrooms these teachers face each day. The momentarily glimmer of the idea that the human beings behind the numbers don’t see themselves as failures. And, in support of my own bias, the suggestion that teachers are not the only ones to blame but have been part of a wider failure of imagination throughout the education community that has developed simplistic, easy to evaluate definitions of student achievement and success. It does often get boiled down to a number–just one test score–and the human beings get lost.