2015 national teacher on what she's learned about U.S. education after visiting 30 states in one year
Posted April 27
A year ago this week, Shanna Peeples was named National Teacher of the Year from among 51 state Teachers of the Year, each selected from hundreds of applications in their states. Peeples spent the last year traveling the U.S. and the world, speaking with teachers and students about education. As her tenure comes to an end, we spoke with her about what she learned. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
As you traveled this past year, what is the one thing that stands out most in your mind?
Everywhere I went I heard concerns about the overwhelming distraction technology has become for students, and that tension between the wonders it can present to us and the consequences of the distractions. I think that is a universal issue that all teachers are going to have to work together to collectively solve.
You were touring the country at a fascinating moment, involving not just the pushback on testing but also the implementation of the Common Core in most states. What kind of feedback have you gotten on the Common Core?
The Common Core is a story of branding gone wrong. But when you look at it, it’s just a set of standards for literacy and math. All it is is what we think kids ought to know and be able to do. The brand itself became toxic and then became very political. Texas enshrined it into law that they won’t have anything to do with Common Core. They don’t even want you saying it. The Texas standards have a 95 percent overlap with Common Core standards. So it’s ludicrous to get into these fights.
Why so much hostility?
Where it became negative was in places where it blended into the testing that flowed out from these standards. In some places, like Kentucky, the leap was so great that it was really too much in one or two years to suddenly be teaching high-level texts in third or fourth grade. It’s not that the kids couldn’t do it. But it was so much more difficult for teachers to teach, and it took longer to teach these deeper concepts.
Is anyone happy with the Common Core?
There are places that really love it, and it has really helped them. One of those is Mississippi, which you wouldn’t have thought about as embracing Common Core. But Mississippi is struggling with so many different kinds of issues. It really needed the boost that came from aligning their standards with states like Massachusetts.
Have you seen the politics on testing shift in the past year?
Yes. In New York and New Jersey, for instance, you have seen a massive uprising of parents against testing. I do think we’ve reached a tipping point, a reaction against an overreach. I think there is widespread understanding that we have reached a point of diminishing returns (with testing).
How are the testing conflicts affecting teaching on the ground?
I saw demoralized teachers throughout the country, thanks to the bludgeoning of standardized tests to students and teachers, which has taken a creative and human enterprise and attempted to dehumanize it by making it into some sort of factory model.
So teachers feel like they are being asked to churn out chicken nuggets?
My visit to China really brought home the irony of this. China is pushing in the opposite direction from our regimentation. They want to be like us, as far as progressive education, creativity and entrepreneurship. But at the same time, we’re trying to be like China, pushing toward the system that they are abandoning, this rote memorization, standardized testing and standardized thinking.
Were there any places you visited where you felt that teacher morale was unusually high?
New Hampshire. Something very different is going on there. When I walked in there, I didn’t realize that the (state) commissioner of education was the commissioner. I just assumed she was a teacher, because she showed up to these meetings with such a complete lack of arrogance. Everywhere I went in New Hampshire I couldn’t tell who the boss was, in any meeting. Everyone was so engaged in the work, and that included the students. The way that they shared the room with the students was amazing.
Where was teacher morale the worst?
Morale was especially low in places like Kansas, where the state government has done its best to make sure the teachers get the message that they are beneath highway workers in the way that they are viewed and certainly in their pay. Those teachers are being actively recruited by neighboring states. That is also true in Oklahoma and parts of Indiana.
Is there a teacher shortage out there?
There is, and what’s really scary is a continuing drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, especially in New York, California and Texas. And that is a big deal because those three states are the main pipeline for teachers around the country. When I’ve talked to students and asked them why they are choosing other majors, they say they are getting the message that going into teaching means you check your creativity at the door and check your intelligence at the door, and you are signing up to just being bossed. Then they look at teacher pay, and given the amount of debt many of them have to take on, it makes more sense for them to do something like accounting, which asks for the same type of degree and licensing that teaching does, but pays quite a bit more.
What have you learned that you didn’t expect?
That’s a great question, one I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit. It sounds like a cliché or a truism, but when you see it for real, you come to see it as a foundational principle, or a bedrock. I've learned that people who choose this work, no matter their culture or language, are the same type of person, all over the world. And that is true whether they are teaching in an overcrowded school in China, or in a high poverty school in rural Kentucky, or behind a wall in Gaza, with rocket holes in your ceiling. They are people who don’t believe in words like “hope” as an abstraction. They see hope as a concrete action that they live every day.