Teacher Autonomy – An Often Ignored Victim of High Stakes Testing

 

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When I think of the modern day public school teacher, I think of Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Not because I’ve ever taught the Jonathan Swift classic to my students, but because of its most indelible image.

 

Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of the Lilliputans – tiny people who have tied the full sized sailor to the ground with thousands of itty bitty strings.

 

If that is not the picture of a public school teacher, I don’t know what is!

 

We are constantly restrained – even hogtied – from doing what we know is right.

 

And the people putting us in bondage – test obsessed lawmakers, number crunching administrators and small-minded government flunkies.

 

You see, teachers are in the classroom with students day in, day out. We are in the best position to make informed decisions about student learning. The more autonomy you give us, the better we’ll be able to help our students succeed.

 

But in an age of high stakes testing, Common Core and school privatization run amuck, teacher autonomy has been trampled into the dirt.

 

Instead, we have a militia of armchair policy hacks who know nothing about pedagogy, psychology or education but who want to tell us how to do our jobs.

 

It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that educator self-determination ever was a value people thought worth preserving in the first place.

 

Whereas in generations past it was considered anywhere from merely advisable to absolutely essential that instructors could make up their own minds about how best to practice their craft, today we’d rather they just follow the script written by our allegedly more competent corporate masters.

 

 

The way I see it, the reason for this is fivefold:

 

 

  1. Testing

    School used to be about curriculum and pedagogy. It was focused on student learning – not how we assess that learning. Now that standardized tests have been mandated in all 50 states as a means of judging whether our schools are doing a good job (and assorted punishments and rewards put in place), it’s changed the entire academic landscape. In short, when you make school all about standardized tests, you force educators to teach with that as their main concern.

  2. Common Core

    Deciding what students should learn used to be the job of educators, students and the community. Teachers used their extensive training and experience, students appeal to their own curiosity, and the community tailored its expectations based on its needs. However, we’ve given up on our own judgment and delegated the job to publishing companies, technology firms and corporations. We’ve let them decide what students should learn based on which pre-packed products they can most profitably sell us. The problem is when you force all academic programs to follow canned academic standards written by functionaries, not educators, you put teachers in a straight jacket constraining them from meeting their students’ individual needs.

 

3. Grade Promotion Formulas

It used to be that teachers decided which students passed or failed their classes. And when it came to which academic course students took next, educators at least had a voice in the process. However, we’ve standardized grade promotion and/or graduation policies around high stakes test scores and limited or excluded classroom grades. When you’re forced to rely on a formula which cannot take into account the infinite variables present while excluding the judgment of experienced experts in the classroom, you are essentially forbidding educators from one of the most vital parts of the academic process – having a say in what their own courses mean in the scheme of students educational journeys.

 

4. Scripted Curriculum

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this whole process has been the attempted erasure of the teacher – as a thinking human being – from the classroom, itself. Instead of letting us be people who observe and adapt to the realities in front of us, many of us have been forced to read from a script. It should go without saying that when you constrain educators to abide by scripted curriculum – what we used to call “teacher proof curriculum” – or pacing guides, you remove their ability to be teachers, at all.

 

5. Value Added Evaluations

 

We used to trust local principals and administrators to decide which of their employees where doing a good job. Now even that decision has been taken away and replaced by junk science formulas that claim to evaluate a teacher’s entire impact on a student’s life with no regard to validity, fairness or efficiency. However, local principals and administrators are there in the school building every day. They know what’s happening, what challenges staff face and even the personalities, skills and deficiencies of the students, themselves. As such, they are in a better position to evaluate teachers’ performance than these blanket policies applied to all teachers in a district or state – things like valued-added measures or other faith based formulas used to estimate or quantify an educator’s positive or negative impact.

 

It’s no wonder then that teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

 

You can’t freeze someone’s salary, stifle their rights to fair treatment while choking back their autonomy and still expect them to show up to work everyday eager and willing to do the job.

 

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a representative sample of more than 37,000 American public school elementary and secondary teachers showing widespread dissatisfaction with the job in general and a lack of autonomy in particular.

In fact, they cited this lack of self-determination as a leading contributor to the nationwide teacher shortage. Having control over how you do your job is essential to being fully satisfied with your work.

Teacher-Autonomy

 

If you’re just following orders, your accomplishments aren’t really yours. It’s the difference between composing a melody and simply recreating the sounds of an amateur musician with perfect fidelity.

Today’s teachers rarely get to pick the textbooks they use, which content or skills to focus on, which techniques will be most effective in their classrooms, how to discipline students, how much homework to give – and they have next to zero say about how they will be evaluated.

And to make matters worse, sometimes it isn’t that educators are forbidden from exercising autonomy, but that they are given such a huge laundry list of things they’re responsible for that they don’t have the time to actually be creative or original. Once teachers meet the demands of all the things they have to cram into a single day, there is little room for reflection, revision or renewal.

School policy is created at several removes from the classroom. We rarely even ask workaday teachers for input less than allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

We imagine that policy is above their pay grade. They are menial labor. It’s up to us, important people, to make the big decisions – even though most of us have little to no knowledge of how to teach!

Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg says that this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing if we really cared about improving both the teaching profession and the quality of education we provide students.

In the United States, autonomy usually stops at the district or administrative level and results in decision-making that ignores the voices of educators and the community, he says.

Sahlberg continues:

“School autonomy has often led to lessening teacher professionalism and autonomy for the benefit of greater profits for those who manage or own private schools, charter schools or other independent schools. This is perhaps the most powerful lesson the US can learn from better-performing education systems: teachers need greater collective professional autonomy and more support to work with one another. In other words, more freedom from bureaucracy, but less from one another.”

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increased autonomy is political.

Lawmakers and pundits conflate teacher professionalism and increased decision making with union membership.

And they do have a point. Having a seat at the bargaining table is vital to educators’ self-determination.

In some states, local teachers unions negotiate annual contracts with their districts. However, most states have statewide teacher contracts that are negotiated only by state teachers unions.

These contracts can directly affect exactly how much independence teachers can exercise in the classroom since they can determine things like the specific number of hours that teachers can work each week or limit the roles that teachers can play in a school or district.

There are even some tantalizing schools that are entirely led and managed by teachers. The school does not have formal administrators – teachers assume administrative roles, usually on a revolving basis. But such experiments are rare.

In most places, teacher autonomy is like the last dinosaur.

It represents a bygone age when we envisioned education completely differently.

We could try to regain that vision and go in a different direction.

But if things remain as they are, the dinosaur will go extinct.

Autonomy is a hint at what we COULD be and what we COULD provide students…

…if we only had the courage to stop standardizing and privatizing our country to death.


 

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Common Core Does Not Cure Student Mobility

Common-Core

We have real problems.

We need real solutions.

But we get deceptions instead. And if anyone tries to complain, they get blamed for trying to avoid solving the problem!

Take Common Core.

Badly designed, unproven, flying in the face of human psychology. It is all that and more.

However, there’s a good reason for its existence – student mobility.

We have too many children attending our public schools that don’t stay put. They move from district-to-district and therefore miss valuable instruction.

And that’s no deception.

This is a real problem that we need to do something to fix. But before any experts in the field – psychologists, sociologists, or (God forbid!) educators – can speak, billionaire philanthropists chime in with Common Core.

If we just had national standards for each grade level in each core subject, they say, it would greatly reduce the amount of material transient students miss.

If an 8th grade student at School A moves to School B, for instance, Common Core would ensure that he misses virtually nothing. Both schools would be teaching the same thing.

Good try. But it doesn’t work.

Common Core only ensures that the same standards are taught in each school during a single year. If a transfer student’s old teacher hasn’t gotten to something yet and his new teacher has already covered it, he might miss the concept entirely – even with Common Core.

Take it from me.

I am a teacher in a state that has adopted Common Core-look-alike standards. I get many transfer students from Common Core states. There is a definite and often profound gap in their grasp of the material.

Pause for a moment and digest that.

Common Core – as it is now – does not solve the problem of student mobility.

However, if we reinterpret that concept, if we appeal to the spirit of the Core, we may find a “solution” to this problem. And in some places this has already begun.

Our billionaire philanthropist friend might look at this problem and say, we need to further homogenize the curriculum at both schools. Educators at both districts should teach the exact same things at the exact same times. On Sept 12, all 8th grade instructors should teach about figurative language. On Sept 13, there will be a lesson on text structures, and so on.

In fact, having the same curriculum at two schools is not enough. We need to coordinate the curriculum at ALL public schools.

But even if we do that at our public schools, there will be gaps for transient students. A student who left School A after Sept. 12 would have had a lesson on figurative language, but what form did the lesson take? It may have been ineffective. Perhaps the text used by the teacher was subpar. Perhaps the teacher didn’t explain the lesson sufficiently. There is just too much room for human error.

What we need, explains the philanthropist – who incidentally made his billions designing computer systems and is not known for mastery of the human psyche – what we need is uniformity. In short, we need scripted lessons.

Then-and-only-then will transient students miss the least possible curriculum moving from one school to another.

Of course this assumes the move from School A to School B is nearly instantaneous. Day 1 you’re at the old school. Day 2 you’re at the new school. But this rarely happens. Under the best circumstances it can take a week or two. Realistically, I’ve seen students who have been out of school months even a whole academic year between moves.

Yes, Mr. Gate…  – I mean the philanthropist – may admit reluctantly, transient students will still inevitably miss some school work. The transition from School A to School B may take a couple days, maybe months, but scripted lessons will reduce the gap to the absolute minimum.

And here, he may be correct.

Common Core taken to its logical and extreme conclusion – scripted lessons – may solve student mobility.

Or so it seems.

But is the cure worse than the disease?

If all public school students have scripted, uniform, standardized lessons, what will happen to the quality of those lessons?

As the holder of a masters degree in education, as a recipient of a National Board Certification in teaching, as a teacher with over a decade of experience in the classroom, I say this: the quality of education will plummet under these conditions.

Everyone will suffer – transient students, non-transient students, EVERYONE.

The best possible learning environment is NOT one in which teachers read from a script. It is NOT one where teachers stick to the lesson plan come Hell or high water. It is NOT one where the educator has little to no say in what she is teaching.

It is important to have academic standards, just as it’s important to have lesson plans. However, these MUST be created by the teachers, themselves. Otherwise they imprison instructors in straight jackets and make them less – not more – effective.

Anyone who has spent any time in front of a class knows that good instruction necessitates instant changes in the lesson to meet the needs of your students. You can plan – and you should plan – but you have to be free to move beyond it.

For instance, if you’re teaching students how to write a complete sentence and you have some children who do not understand what a subject and a verb are, you need to adapt. Immediately. On the spot. Otherwise, your lesson will fail.

If you’re asking your students to perform a close read of a science text and they cannot read, you must adapt. Immediately. That very second. Or else you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Rigid academic standards cannot do this. Sacrosanct lesson plans cannot do this. Only teachers can.

This is one of the major areas where Common Core fails.

But what of our transient students? Won’t we fail them if we repeal Common Core?

No. There is a better way. But more on that in a moment.

Say Common Core is the only way. Say scripted curriculum is the only manner in which to meet their needs. It would still be better to get rid of Common Core to meet the needs of the non-transients. Moreover, even transient children will benefit, because the education they receive when they are in a given school will be of a higher quality than the minimally interrupted lessons they’d receive with national academic standards and scripted lessons.

However, let us return to the better solution. Because there is one, and it is easy to see when you aren’t blinded by billionaire’s pet projects.

Instead of homogenizing everyone’s schools to help transient students, reduce the instances of transience.

That’s right. Reduce student mobility.

Stop so many children from moving from school-to-school.

That’s impossible, whines our billionaire savior.

No. It’s not.

You may never be able to stop every student from moving between schools, but you can greatly reduce it.

All it takes is an examination of the root causes.

Why are so many students transient?

It turns out this is a symptom of a larger problem affecting the majority of our public school students. If you can help alleviate this problem – even slightly – you’d greatly increase students’ chances of success.

That problem? Child poverty.

Students don’t move around to see the world. They do it because their parents can’t get a job or can’t afford to live where they are.

If you undertook programs to create more jobs for their parents, you would decrease student mobility. If you provided cheap, safe, stable housing, you would decrease mobility. If you started social programs to bring transients into a community and stop them from being eternal outsiders, many more of them would put down roots.

And if you helped reduce child poverty, you would actually increase the quality of education most children are receiving – even the ones not constantly on the move.

We used to understand that poverty isn’t a defect of character – it’s a product of circumstance. We used to understand that most poor people aren’t to blame for their own poverty. We used to understand that a helping hand is better than a pointed finger.

Common Core is just another great lie told to obscure these simple truths.

Student mobility is just another excuse given to justify this lie.

The time for deceptions and half-truths has passed. Instead, we need to roll up our sleeves and actually do something about poverty.

It’s time to leave Common Core to the pages of history’s failed social engineering experiments.

Because we don’t need national academic standards.

We need a shared morality.


NOTE: Thank you to all my readers who responded to my article “Data Abuse – When Transient Kids Fall Through the Cracks of Crunched Numbers.” Today’s article is the result of your efforts to push me to revisit this subject. Being a blogger isn’t just about writing articles and putting them out there. It’s also about creating a community and entering into a dialogue. I am so grateful to the people who read what I write and engage with it. I can’t do this without you.

-This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.