Over the last 25 years I’ve seen a lot of educational reform movements come and go and there has been little overall improvement. Experience has convinced me that the reason that educational reform movements show such little improvement is because responsibility for reform is always directed at teachers and only at teachers. This narrow focus on teachers releases all other stake holders from any responsibility.
Not another call for a change of thinking… Well yes but…
Sure, we read stories of teachers who are achieving miracles but they are more the exception than the rule. Most teachers are doing a fine job of educating students and the better teachers monitor and adjust their teaching whether they are part of a reform movement or not. We teachers are regularly exhorted to, ‘adopt a new paradigm’ or to ‘think outside the box’ (I’m so tired of those clichés) but no other stakeholder group has to change their thinking. Honestly, to get the “high standards” of excellence called for by politicians and the media will require a different way of thinking than has been used in the past or is currently being used. But what I mean by this is that politicians (pundits), administrators, parents and students, not just teachers, will all have to adjust their thinking.
And yes, I am calling for a change of thinking which sounds like more of the same old stuff. But I want you to look at this as a different perspective, or an evaluative tool not the alpha and omega of school reform. Just think of it as another tool in the toolbox.
First, we need to examine the current assumptions driving educational policy. The most erroneous assumption being that if a student isn’t learning it must be the teacher’s fault. I’ll expand on this in a bit.
Secondly, we need a better set of criteria (rules, laws or measurements) to determine which policies to enact. What works for me is to ask ourselves, “Does this policy promote responsibility; is it unduly repressive; or is it just a lot of sound and fury that simply preserves the status quo under a different name?” We answer those questions by examining the consequences of the policy.
Responsibility, repression, or status quo
Before I relate this to teaching, I want to look at some successful examples of the use of responsibility, repression or status quo as criteria. But first, for clarity, let’s understand what I mean by repression. If we all defined responsibility the same and were all able to act responsibly there would be no need for laws or educational policies. But since we don’t or can’t agree on what is responsible behavior we enact laws or policies to define it and encourage it. That encouragement is either in the form of incentives or repressions. The state of balance (or imbalance) between responsibility and repression is the status quo.
Any law, no matter how well meaning, can have elements of repression in it. I have the right to swing my arms. But my right to swing my arms ends at your nose. Your nose is protected. The law represses my right to swing my arms but that’s a good thing because it promotes (the consequence of the policy is) responsible behavior on my part.
It is also possible to enact a law that is so contrary to our way of life and its consequence is so predominantly repressive, it becomes impractical or impossible to achieve its original goal. We could easily end death by automobile accident if we simple outlawed automobiles. But such a policy does not promote responsible driving, it simply overturns a basic feature of our society and hence its consequence is mostly repressive (for now – this too may change). But these are examples of rhetorical arguments. What about real life?
I grew up in a family of smokers.
My mom smoked throughout my childhood. My brother Michael started smoking when he was 15. I lucked out. Smoking always made me ill so I never developed the habit but I did develop sympathy for both the smoker and the the non-smoker. After working all week in smokey nightclubs, I just accepted the fact that every Monday morning I would cough up things that would frighten H. P. Lovecraft!
I was forced to accept that when I visited my family and we’d go out to eat, Michael would always have a cigarette burning at the table and there would always be a fight with one or more family members about it. Michael fought with the family, set fire to himself, and eventually died of lung cancer. No love of family or care for the safety or health of himself or others would make him do the responsible thing and put out the cigarette. That was the status quo.
Then smoking bans began to be enacted. Airplanes, restaurants, public buildings and schools all became smoke free zones. My lungs cleared and non-smokers everywhere breathed a smoke free sigh of relief. Smokers felt the iron hand of repression. But it was for the good health of all. It was relatively cheap and easy to enact. And it promoted responsible behavior. It pained me to witness how addicted Michael was when, as a frail old man, he’d get up from his seat in the restaurant, push his walker out into the parking lot and endure bitterly cold Chicago winter weather just to have a cigarette. But I repeat, this law was for the good of all and was supported by research and was inexpensive to enact. It was a good law. It promoted responsible behavior in those who couldn’t or wouldn’t act responsibly under the status quo.
So how would I apply the criteria of responsibility, repression or status quo to educational policy?
What’s your goal? Since there are those who want to use test scores to evaluate teachers, it might be safe to say that higher test scores is their goal. That’s the status quo. We know from research that students who come from households with higher incomes and with college educated parents tend to score higher on standardized tests than students who live below the poverty line or have undereducated or uneducated parents. Hence, one way to improve test scores is to pass laws that require a certain income or education level before you could have children.
Although this has a certain statistical validity it does not promote responsibility. It would be expensive and impossible to enforce. And it is so misguidedly repressive as to be morally repugnant. I merely include it here to shame those who would use a “business model” of statistical efficiency when dealing with the education of our citizenry.
There are those of you who are thinking, ‘But we don’t just care about test scores. We want to raise fully functioning adults who have a body of knowledge extensive enough to cope with the world and the reasoning power to make it a better world.’ I like that. But does current educational policy promote that?
Dangerous, erroneous assumptions
As I said earlier, we need to examine our assumptions and jettison those which aren’t serving us. Two assumptions which seem to be dominating educational policy but will not serve us are:
Assumption #1: If a student isn’t learning, it is only the teacher who is responsible.
Assumption #2: There is an unlimited pool of teachers who can do better.
A few of the policies arising from these erroneous assumptions are: linking teacher evaluations to test scores; court challenges to teacher unions and tenure; and eliminating due process in the firing of teachers.
A House of Cards
Assuming that the only reason a student isn’t learning is due to the teacher does not promote responsibility in the politicians, administrators, parents, and most importantly it does not promote responsibility in the students. Hence it is unfairly repressive to teachers. Teachers carry all the responsibility, while politicians, administrators, parents, and students carry none. What NBA team would be expected to win if only one out of five players was actually responsible for playing? I’ll be writing more about this when we examine the dirty little secrets of the Common Core.
The policy of making it easier to fire teachers is a total house of cards built on false assumptions. These false assumptions might look like: There is a huge pool of eager young people who want to work in some of the most troubled areas of the city under conditions of disrespect, low wages, uncertain continued employment (i.e. layoffs, RIFFs, & pink slips), and eroding health and retirement benefits. (And I wrote that I love teaching? So don’t listen to me. I must be screwy.) Anyway… Policies based on the above assumption do not promote responsibility in the politicians, administrators, or parents. Most importantly they do not promote responsibility in the students. They do, however, promote fear, anger and frustration for teachers. Hence they are unfairly repressive to teachers.
A friend of mine once said,
“Yeah, it may take a village to raise a child but it starts in the hut!”
We must, as a society begin to hold all stakeholders genuinely responsible for student achievement. Or we will continue inflicting ineffectively repressive policies on teachers. We will simply be preserving the status quo. Steve Miller aptly put it in Space Cowboy, “It’s just the same old story with a new set of words.”