At mid-nineteenth century, public schools were under attack by the Catholic church; Bishop John Hughes “described the public schools as a ‘dragon…devouring the hope of the country as well as religion’” (Jacoby, pp. 257-258). Throughout the twentieth century, the political and public messages were about the same: public education was a failure.
Ironically, the rhetorical math has never added up: U.S. prosperity and international competitiveness depend on world-class public schools + U.S. public schools are failures = the U.S. dominates the world economically and/or “U.S.A. is number 1!”
As the school accountability era began in the early 1980s, the “public school as failure” mantra began to focus on low-performing schools and underachievement by students—as the early wave of accountability focused primarily on schools (including school report cards for the public) and exit exams as well as increased high-stakes testing for students.
The twenty-first century has added to the accountability target a new focus on the “bad” teacher. As a result, teachers; educational historians, scholars, and researchers; and public school advocates have been forced into a corner, reduced to nearly a monolithic reactionary voice of rebuttal.
That position of reaction has drawn fire—charges of inappropriate tone, defense of the status quo, masked self-interest, and a failure to offer alternatives.
That last point is important, especially in the debate over teacher evaluation that has seen a rise in value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and a resurgence in merit pay policies despite both practices being at least tempered if not refuted by a growing body of research.
Peter Smagorinsky’s “Authentic Teacher Evaluation: A Two-Tiered Proposal for Formative and Summative Assessment” (English Education, 46(2), 165-185) offers an important place to acknowledge that the field of education, in fact, has numerous evidence-based alternatives to the reform agenda and highlight the reasons why those alternatives remain mostly absent from the public debate.
First, I highly recommend reading Smagorinsky’s entire piece, but that raises an important aspect about why evidence-based reform policies coming from educators, scholars, and researchers tend to carry little weight in the political and public debate about schools: high-quality, peer-reviewed scholarly work tends to be inaccessible except to fellow researchers and subscribers to relatively obscure journals.
Thus—as Smagorinsky notes himself in this essay about his increased public work as an academic—I want to touch on some of the most important points offered as an authentic alternative to teacher evaluation below.
Teacher Evaluation, Much More than What We Can Measure
Smagorinsky begins by noting the inherent failure of focusing heavily on measurable teaching and learning, an argument well supported by research but which appears to fall on deaf ears among politicians and the public.
Key in his proposal is refuting a false narrative, notably coming from Eric Hanushek, that teachers reject being held accountable. This is a powerful and important point that must be clearly understood.
The current approach to accountability in education includes holding teachers responsible for external mandates and teaching conditions that they have not created as well as measurable outcomes (student scores on high-stakes standardized tests) that are mostly out of their control (teacher impact on measurable student outcomes is about 10%, dwarfed by the influence of out-of-school factors, between about 60-80%).
As Smagorinsky notes, educators are rejecting that flawed approach to accountability and calling instead for professional accountability, which begins with teacher autonomy and includes holding teachers accountable for only that over which they have control (which is not measurable student outcomes).
If teacher evaluation policies, he explains, focused more on the conditions of teaching and learning—increasing the likelihood that both teachers and students can succeed—and less on punitive practices (such as firing the bottom X% based on VAM rankings, as Hanushek and Bill Gates have proposed), many of the goals for improved teacher quality and student achievement could be met.
Another key shift suggested by Smagorinsky is lessening significantly the amount of high-stakes testing (every 3-5 years, for example) included in teacher evaluations both as a recognition of the inordinate cost associated with testing (we rarely note that fully implemented VAM-like teacher evaluations would require pre-/post-tests of every student in every class taught in order to be fair and consistent among all teachers) and of the validity and reliability concerns that remain for VAM-based evaluations. This is a similar compromise to the one offered by Stephen Krashen, who has argued for not implementing Common Core and the so-called next-generation high-stakes tests, but to use the sampling process already in place with NAEP.
Teaching is a social activity within and for a community, and Smagorinsky envisions teacher evaluation that is more than a number, including a wide range of stakeholders. This point reminds me of the use of the SAT in college admissions. When discussing the weight of SAT scores with a dean of admissions, he pointed out that even when SAT scores are weighted less in admissions formulas, most of the other categories cancel each other out (as they are similar) and SAT, although a lower proportion in the formula, essentially remains the gatekeeping data point.
Any percentage of VAM, then, can prove to be powerful in teacher evaluations that are not aggressively nuanced and multi-faceted, including expanding the input of most if not all stakeholders in the teaching of children.
While much of Smagorinsky’s discussion includes the complex details that should be involved in teacher evaluations (and thus, I recommend reading his essay in its entirety), a few key points can serve to conclude this consideration:
- Teacher evaluations should be designed as “some form of mediated discussions, with artifacts from teaching serving as the basis of the conversation” (p. 171). Important here is a process that sets aside hierarchy for dialogue, seeks teacher growth instead of ranking and punishing, and builds a consensus on a rich body of evidence (artifacts) instead of reductive metrics.
- Teacher evaluations should address the entire spectrum of teacher influence, not restricted to classroom and content only. In short, Smagorinsky highlights that being a teacher is more than lessons presented to her/his students.
- Implicit in Smagorinsky’s discussion, I would add, is that teacher evaluation should not continue the assumption that teacher impact is solely between one teacher and one student. Learning results from the input of many people in a child’s life; teacher evaluations should acknowledge collaboration as well as individual competence and impact.
“I again return,” Smagorinsky notes toward the end, “to the idea that what matters is how well a teacher can justify an instructional approach and relate it to student work”—and I would add, demonstrated student need (p. 182). Teacher quality should not be about teachers fitting a prescribed mold, but about the professional efficacy of a teacher’s practices in the context of the field and students that the teacher teaches.
While I recommend Smagorinsky’s proposal because he emphasizes that “[t]eaching and learning are human pursuits” (and thus, likely unmeasurable in any meaningful way), I also want to stress that this essay is but one piece of evidence that the field of education already knows what to do.
Common Core, VAM-style teacher evaluation, and the entire array of education reform are ultimately misguided because they are commentaries based on flawed assumptions about the field of education.
Despite the education bashing that has occurred in the U.S. for over 100 years, we in fact know what to do—if only politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats could see fit to get out of the way and allow the opportunity to prove it.
Until that happens, we educators must begin to make our case for alternative to misguided reform, and in ways that are accessible to all stakeholders in public schools.
A central aspect of my blog about Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters highlights that the silencing of teachers is a subset of the silencing of women. That post followed my claim that teaching is an invisible profession.
Since posting that blog, I have read A Feminist Critique of Marx by Silvia Federici, which in part asserts the invisibility of women in Marx’s analysis of capitalism:
At the center of this critique is the argument that Marx’s analysis of capitalism has been hampered by his inability to conceive of value-producing work other than in the form of commodity production and his consequent blindness to the significance of women’s unpaid reproductive work [her emphasis] in the process of capitalist accumulation. Ignoring this work has limited Marx’s understanding of the true extent of the capitalist exploitation of labor and the function of the wage in the creation of divisions within the working class, starting with the relation between women and men.
[click above to enlarge]
From the above, Federici’s first point about scarcity invites a reading of Scarcity (Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir) as well as considering how scarcity in the lives of people trapped in poverty as a consequence of a market economy that pools wealth in a small number of people at the top impacts every aspect of their lives, including their ability to learn.
Seeking gender, race, and class equity cannot be separated from the need for wholesale workers’ solidarity—a solidarity that requires teachers to envision themselves as workers and to embrace the status of worker as a noble possibility for free people.
I’m not prone to New Year’s resolutions, but I have decided that with the arbitrary designation of a new calendar year, I have a way to focus on new commitments, specifically in how I interact in the virtual world. So when I read a derogatory comment on one of my blog posts (describing my post with “stupidest” and then making a word choice error or typo), I resisted the urge to comment, but posted how painful it was not to do so on Facebook.
Many of my wonderful former students commented, leading to two threads and many comments that genuinely made my day and evening—justifying my decision not to interact with the person leaving the comment.
From that exchange, I wrote Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters because I began to think about my 18 years teaching high school English as well as how I both failed my students and served them well (by the way, my former students tend to be stunningly kind and recall our days and years together with a fondness that makes my heart enlarge like the final scene of How the Grinch Stole Christmas).
The reason my exchange with former students spurred a blog about teacher autonomy and classroom experience is that, upon reflection, I believe when I was at my best as a high school teacher, I was functioning at an autonomous level—doing what I knew to be best for what any one of my students needed (especially when that meant listening to them while they struggled under the weight of crying about a boyfriend or girlfriend)—and when I was at my worst, I was complying with mandates I felt were at least misguided.
So as I blogged about the need for listening to teachers’ voices, for honoring classroom experiences not solely but initially, I was making a case about the conditions of teaching—a case that I failed to connect to the conditions of learning and how teacher autonomy is inextricable from student autonomy.
While I remain, frankly, stunned at the antagonism expressed when I call for teacher autonomy and voice, I am equally dismayed that we tend to render both teachers and students essentially invisible and mute.
Two comments on pieces of mine, then, need to be highlighted.
On my teacher invisibility post included at The Answer Sheet, StudentsLast added: “If teachers are invisible to policy makers, what then are students? Non-existent?”
To which I must respond, yes.
And responding to Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters, Martha Kennedy highlighted:
Something I have never seen brought into this conversation is the fact that many people look at teachers through the lens of their own experience in school. I don’t think most people liked school. Judging from my university students, the teacher is viewed as an adversary, classes are obstacles, it’s all just “hoops to jump.” I think as long as this is true, teachers will have a hard time with “the public.” There’s also the fallacy that if a kid hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught. Judging from my students, many don’t even really understand WHAT the teacher is teaching. This is a larger problem since the advent of NCLB where students are taught to pass exams. Students are conditioned to find a discrete answer to every question. This pretty much steals from questions their intrinsic interest.
The first point above is extremely important: How often are the actions of teachers inculcating in students negative associations with not only school but also teachers? How often are those actions the result of misguided mandates imposed on those teachers? How might all teachers embrace their autonomy so as to avoid these conditions in the classroom?
So as I return to my blog post about honoring teacher voice and classroom experience, I must emphasize that calling for a reconsideration of how we view teachers, how we honor (or don’t) teacher autonomy, and whose voice matters, I must stress that the conditions of teaching are the conditions of learning.
And how teachers feel as well as how students feel about those conditions matters in ways that must not be ignored, must not be marginalized against a normalized rational view of the world.
As we become more and more entrenched in “an age of infinite examination” where teachers and students are “never finished with anything,” we must begin to ask new questions and then seek different answers. And as we seek ways in which teachers and workers can embrace a new solidarity, let’s not forget our solidarity with the students in our care.
For about two decades from my early 20s into my early 40s, my first (and I believed only) career was public high school English teacher. Around 2002, I moved to higher education where I am primarily a teacher educator but also maintain in part a role as a teacher/director of writing in our first year seminar program—meaning I have been a teacher now for 31 years.
Throughout my time as a K-12 public school teacher, I was most of those years a department chair, a position for which I received no stipend and no release time. Along with being a full-time doctoral student for 3 years and adjunct instructor at local colleges while remaining a full-time high school English teacher in the mid-1990s, I spent the last third of my K-12 teaching career also coaching soccer (at first, as head coach of both the girls and boys teams, and then as boys head coach). My coaching stipend, by the way, after taxes, added about $70 a month to my check, and I remained an uncompensated department chair throughout those years.
My first years teaching high school included five courses in a six-class-period school day (with a planning period and including my role as faculty sponsor/teacher of the journalism class) of about 30 (occasionally 35) students per class; each class required a separate prep (different courses with different textbooks for each class, totaling about 15 vocabulary, grammar, and literature textbooks I had to juggle along with learning to teach). From my first day teaching English, as well, I considered my primary responsibility to be the teaching of writing.
Since I kept a record of my work as a teacher of writing, I can attest that over those 18 years, I read and responded to about 4000 original multiple-draft essays as well as about 6000 journal-type single-draft writing assignments each academic year.
While teaching and coaching, my day went something like this:
I’d arrive at school between 7 and 7:30 a.m., rushing into the athletic offices to put my teams’ uniforms in the washing machine. After my first period class (class change time was five minutes), I would run down the hall, back to the athletic offices to move those uniforms into the dryer. Between second and third periods, I’d run back to the athletic offices to take the uniforms out of the dryer. My planning period was spent folding and sorting the uniforms, placing them in the players’ cubbies for the next match.
On more than one occasion, I was reprimanded by administration because I wasn’t stationed at my door, shirking my hall duties.
My lunch period was about 20 minutes; I ate in my room, responding to essays essentially every day.
During soccer season, I rushed directly to practice or matches as soon as the school day ended—my work day concluding around 6 p.m. when we practiced and 10 or 11 p.m. on match days.
What’s my point? My point is that this is a typical day for K-12 public school teachers. We almost never pause, and we are being watched by students and administrators virtually non-stop (there is a psychological weight to this that few people other than teachers understand). And along with our responsibilities to know our content and to teach our students, we are also responsible as adults for the safety of other people’s children.
My atypical days, by the way, included coming home with my clothes splattered with the blood of two young men I separated fighting in study hall when I was passing by on my way to the restroom. My atypical days included walking out of my room and bumping into a student gunman (someone I was teaching). My atypical days included receiving a call that the school building in which I was teaching (and where I had attended high school) had burned to the ground.
My point, however, is not that my story is some herculean feat worthy of praise. Again, my story is replicated and exceeded daily by thousands and thousands of K-12 public school teachers—many doing so three and four decades, not just my two.
Over about 150 years, the more-or-less modern public school teacher has worked in ways I describe above, and mostly, they have done so without having much voice in how their profession is administered and what policies mandate their practices.
Since public schools are government agencies, policies are mostly designed by elected officials (and in unionized states, influenced by unions, but that influence has dwindled while many teachers work in right-to-work states, where we have almost no power or voice), with virtually none having classroom teaching experience. Historically, even school-based administrators rise to their positions with minimal time teaching day-to-day; administrators (mostly men) teach and coach 3 or so years, and then become assistant principals, and then principals, district office officials, and superintendents.
Teaching as a mostly voiceless and powerless profession must not be separated from the reality that teaching has disproportionately been the work of women. Where educators have had the most power (and highest salaries), you find, again disproportionately, men.
So, now, let me raise my larger point: I continue to see a number of people weighing in on the education reform debate bristle at classroom teachers calling for their voices being heard and at the recognition that education debates and policies are being driven by people with no or very little K-12 classroom experience (such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee).
Although not a simple argument, it is an essential argument: Classroom teaching experience and teachers’ voice should matter, by driving the education reform debate as well as informing education policy. Let me explain how that should look.
Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters
Let me state clearly here that I am not saying—and I believe no one else is either—people without classroom experience should have no voice in the education reform debate. My primary argument about professional autonomy and education policy is that the initial and primary voices that matter should be classroom teachers and people with significant classroom teaching experience (this is also a problem in teacher education where education professors can and do hold positions with little or no classroom experience).
Historically and currently for the field of education, the public voice and policy paradigms are greatly flipped since those without classroom experience hold most of the public voices and almost all of the power to create and impose policy on schools.
As an illustration, consider the influence of education historian Diane Ravitch, whom I have characterized as Ravitch 1.0, Ravitch 2.0, and Ravitch 3.0. Ravitch serves my point here because many who reject criticisms of educational reformers without classroom experience point out that few people raise any concern about Ravitch, who openly admits that she has no K-12 classroom experience (in fact, when Ravitch spoke at my university, this is the first point she raised at her pre-speech talk to our education students).
Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards and high-stakes testing, and during those high-profile years, she wasn’t often championed by classroom teachers (she may have in fact been considered one of the enemies); I argue she wasn’t even known by many classroom teachers.
Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0, however, has become if not the at least one of the most high-profile education faces and voices embraced by classroom teachers—a phenomenon that is at least ironic, if not puzzling. So what gives?
The evolution of Ravitch has included not only changes in her positions related to education but also a willingness to listen to as well as honor the experiences and voices of classroom teachers.
This means that if you decide to hold forth on education and have no classroom experience, you should not be surprised if you are held accountable when your claims do not ring true among those who teach every day under the policies that you endorse or have implemented.
Ravitch 1.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supported policy that did not ring true to those of us in the classroom (notably the first two decades of high-stakes accountability throughout the 1980s and 1990s).
Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supports, echoes, and endorses policy that rings true to those teaching in K-12 classrooms day-in and day-out.
If you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you are unlikely to understand what it is like to spend your entire weekend writing lesson plans for the next week, meticulously correlating every thing you and your students will do, minute-by-minute, to the required standards and then having your principal or assistant principal drop in and ask for those plans, only to reprimand you for not being where you said you’d be. Or calling you in to tell you your students’ test scores on high-stakes tests correlated with those standards are not adequate.
As a result, if you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you may offer a cavalier claim that Common Core is no big deal; you may trivialize the passion and even hyperbole coming from the mouths of teachers who live the reality of high-stakes accountability aligned with CC.
And it is there that your credibility correlated to not having classroom experience comes into question. When we call you on this, we are not attacking you, we are not failing the debate with our tone, we are not over-reacting. And when you follow up with any of those charges, you are stepping into an ugly tradition that includes, as I noted above, the silencing and marginalizing of teachers, what tends to be associated with women’s professions, and women—as explained on this Feminist Legal Theory blog post:
Similar to “bitch,” the word “crazy” demeans women. But, instead of negatively characterizing women, “crazy” marginalizes and dismisses them. When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as “crazy,” “oversensitive,” and “hysterical”—contrast to men as “sane” and “rational.” These words reduce a woman’s response to irrational behavior. Consequently, she believes that her feelings are not normal and are thus ultimately worthless. This behavior is similar to what is known as gaslighting: “psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.”
Classroom teachers are almost entirely powerless, disproportionately accountable for mandates they did not create and outcomes over which they have little or no control, and working every day in high-pressure, frantic (and tenuous) working environments. When you discount their emotional responses, their efforts to express the inexpressible through metaphor, their insistence that someone listen to them, you have failed the debate, and you have exposed the flaw of people without classroom experience driving the education debate.
There is a paternalism and oppression of the rational in the education debate that must not, as well, be discounted, ignored, as teachers and their experiences and expertise routinely are.
And the CC debate is just one example. I could spend many more paragraphs detailing this same disconnect about value-added methods for teacher evaluation, high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, and the primary elements of education reform now being proposed and implemented.
Classroom teachers aren’t perfect, or universally “right.” I’ve struggled with classroom teachers over grade retention, corporal punishment, isolated grammar instruction, and such. I once taught a graduate class that included a colleague from my own English department who flippantly said in class, “O, you can make research say anything you want.”
So don’t accuse me of offering some romantic tribute to the infallible classroom teacher. I’m not.
What I am saying is that education is a field rich in experience and expertise and bankrupt by the unwillingness not to tap into that goldmine.
If you wish to be a part of the discussion and you have no experience in the field, your solidarity needs to start with you listening, really listening, before making claims yourself—your solidarity needs to include the same level of passion we teachers feel, to recognize that those feelings matter as much as the rationality you believe you are offering.
In the U.S., “solidarity” and “community” are very difficult concepts. Having lived my entire life in the rural South, I’d argue ”solidarity” and “community” are nearly foreign concepts here—a very painful claim to make.
But the South is an important phenomenon to examine in order to come to some understanding of what it means to be a K-12 teacher in U.S. public schools. The rural South includes mostly workers, we live and live among visible poverty, and we are nothing if not the embodiment of “community.” Yet, Southerns are prone to bashing people in poverty—railing against welfare and the lazy poor—and reject unions with a self-loathing glee that is hard to understand.
These self-defeating qualities among my South remind me of the self-defeating qualities within my profession, teaching. [And for the record, I love few things more and more deeply than the field of teaching and my South—and about few things do I get more angry than teaching and my South. As with family, we often walk a thin line between passion and anger in matters of the heart.]
And I believe we are now at a point when K-12 teachers in the U.S. must examine who they are and how solidarity is essential if universal public education is ever to achieve its purpose as an essential pillar of democracy among free people.
So it is there that I begin this open letter to K-12 teachers as a call for solidarity.
My career as a teacher is grounded in 18 years teaching public school English in the rural South as that has been informed by my dissertation work, writing a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. Three aspects of her career serve me well in this open letter:
- Much of LaBrant’s early scholarly work focused on the importance of free reading and libraries (work she conducted and published throughout the first half of the twentieth century); as well, she published much of this work with a librarian, Frieda Heller, modeling, I think, a powerful message about teacher scholarship, teacher agency, and who constitutes “teachers” within the field.
- In 1932, LaBrant was offered and accepted a position at the University School newly opening at the Ohio State University. One of her first acts once hired was to lobby with the school that English was not a separate course (the position for which she was hired), but that literacy (reading and writing) were elements essential among all disciplines. Even at an experimental school, LaBrant was an outlier voice of critical re-imagining how we do school.
- LaBrant was notoriously hard on other teachers; many who knew LaBrant believed that the phrase that best captured her was “She didn’t suffer fools.” Once when she was giving a talk, a teacher in the audience stood to ask just how teachers were supposed to know and do all that LaBrant demanded (and, yes, LaBrant demanded). Without missing a beat, LaBrant told the teacher if she didn’t know how, then she should quit, learn how, and then come back to teaching.
It is at this last example that I find myself torn when I advocate in public writing for both public education and public school teachers. And that is why I write this open letter.
Public advocacy for schools and teachers is a lightning rod for angry responses; what is interesting is that the venom I often receive comes from a wide spectrum of stakeholders in public education, including K-12 teachers.
Just as one current example, my stances on Common Core and high-stakes testing (I reject both entirely) are routinely challenged by K-12 teachers—not just reformers and school-bashers.
K-12 teachers and advocates for those teachers and public schools face, then, a tremendous number of tensions, and I believe our solution to those tensions rests on forming a level of solidarity teachers have yet to achieve.
In order to create that solidarity, we must confront the tensions before us:
- The greatest tension facing a K-12 teacher is the call: “first, do no harm.” We must always be advocates for each child in our care, each child in our schools, each child in our community, each child in our state, and each child on this planet. This is a massive weight, one that makes our work monumental.
- Another tension is the need to admit that K-12 teaching, historically and currently, is not a profession. K-12 teachers are bureaucratic employees. As hard as this fact is to face, the greater tension lies in making the case that K-12 teaching should be a profession. K-12 teacher have little autonomy and muted voices; further, K-12 teachers work under the thumb of external accountability for implementing the mandates not of their design and for outcomes beyond their control. That is not the context of a profession.
- As is the case within all fields of work, that there exists a wide range of competencies among teachers is a burdensome tension. This tension confronts K-12 teachers with the need to become good stewards of their own field, even when that field is corrupted by non-expert bureaucracy.
- Another incredibly complicated tension is what K-12 teacher need to admit about public education: Historically and currently public education has failed and is failing, but not in the ways often expressed by political leaders, the media, and the public. This tension, however, is ripe with possibility since the fact that schools have not yet succeeded and currently do not succeed must be placed at the feet of that bureaucracy and then K-12 teachers must claim their own table for demanding and enacting the reform we have yet to address.
- Finally, K-12 teaching is criticized and portrayed as if the field is far more unified that it is, a rarely identified tension. Teaching in a unionized state is far different than teaching in the mostly right-to-work South. Teaching in a rural school is distinct from teaching in an urban school. Ironically, however, one thing most K-12 teachers share is that our work is incredibly isolated as we spend most of our working day the sole teacher behind our closed doors among our students. K-12 teaching is a frantic exercise that pushes us deeper and deeper into that isolation, in fact.
Yes, much is being done to K-12 teachers—baseless teacher evaluation and merit pay schemes as well as increased and misguided accountability mandates simultaneous with the dismantling of teachers unions and job security.
And that, I suppose, is the great tension: How do K-12 teachers achieve the autonomy and professionalism they deserve in positions so bereft of power?
K-12 teachers are not being served well by political leadership, the media, professional organizations, or unions. While all of these entities should be within the power of teachers to change, we are faced with growing evidence that will not happen.
This means K-12 teachers need solidarity. Solidarity to become the profession we have been denied so far. Solidarity among teachers and all workers to create the conditions of working that all people deserve in a free society.
Solidarity is a unified voice, but not a singular mind.
Solidarity is taking ownership of being good stewards of the field we imagine even before it comes to fruition—possibly because we must imagine before it can come to fruition.
Solidarity is teacher-led modeling of what it means to be a professional teacher and a scholar-teacher, and not merely a bureaucratic employee.
Solidarity is teacher-led praise and criticism of teaching and schooling, that is unlike what politicians, the media, and the public have offered.
K-12 teachers, among whom I align myself, can we begin the process of solidarity around the pursuit of teaching as a profession and of public education as a democratic essential?
Can we begin the process of teacher solidarity as a beacon for the solidarity of all workers within the larger pursuit of human dignity, human agency, and human autonomy?
As we turn the page to 2014, I will remain a voice calling for the actions needed for this solidarity, and I’d be honored to have you all there with me.
While film critics have offered mostly negative reviews of This Is 40, I have watched all and then parts of the film multiple times during its run on cable TV because I am drawn to the scenes that include the children (who in real life are writer/director Judd Apatow’s children with lead actress Leslie Mann).
In one scene, the older daughter, Sadie (Maude Apatow), charges into the kitchen and unleashes a profanity-laced diatribe onto her parents. Many years ago, my daughter did the same to my wife and me, and when the two of us burst into laughter, my daughter stomped upstairs to her room, doubly infuriated at our response.
Maybe This Is 40 isn’t a good film, but I am nearly 53 and my daughter is 24 and carrying her first child. And she and I are quietly emerging from many dark years between us so I admit viewing films and reading books through a sort of middle-aged nostalgia that allows me to appreciate things I probably didn’t recognize when I should have.
The dark years and incessant tensions between my daughter and me often included yelling, first by me and then by my daughter, who enjoyed accusing me of being bi-polar. Today, I recognize that throughout my life I have fumbled almost all of my close relationships because I have struggled with nearly paralyzing anxiety combined with a proclivity toward feeling things deeply, feeling things too deeply.
As a result, my love has often manifested itself as all-consuming, overwhelming, suffocating.
My only child, then, had little choice but to rebel, to seek freedom from the tidal wave that was my love. She is now an adult—working, married, and with child. I have been forced in many ways to set aside the worst parts of how I tend to respond to loving another, and thus, we are re-building now how a father and daughter can be.
While I have struggled with personal love relationships, I have had two other loves that provide different contexts, ones that have confronted me with challenges as well—my love of books and my love for my students. Because of these three arenas of my life, my life loving, I am in the midst of a journey as a teacher that involves stepping aside as teaching.
On Stepping Aside as Teaching
The film The Words presents a multi-layered narrative about writers and their relationships with people as well as words. One story examines a writer that Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) creates in his eponymous novel in the film; Hammond explains to Daniella, ”You have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close but they never actually touch. They are two very, very different things.”
In Hammond’s novel, the novel published by Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) but actually written by The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) explores a writer who comes to love the words more than the woman who has inspired him to write the words.
I think the film speaks to what happens when anyone begins to covet the extension of what one loves even when that displaced urge corrupts the original love. And thus, this film speaks to parents, lovers, and teachers who are all bound by their passions as essential to who they are.
This brings me to books and teaching—two of my greatest loves— and a foundational question about how books matter in my teaching.
Since I have been an English and writing teacher for most of my 31 years of teaching, books are the lifeblood of my classroom. But I have always been deeply conflicted about the use of books when teaching. Traditional practices such as assigning required books and meticulously analyzing books (from the historical dominance of New Criticism in English courses to the more recent obsession with close reading in the Common Core) have always felt as if the inherent dignity of books was being violated.
I feel much the same way about how traditional teacher-centered instructional and discipline practices deny students autonomy and even their own dignity.
Because I have always sought ways in which I can remain true to my love of books and my students, then, I have struggled in formal educational settings. My only recourse has been to create classes where both my students and the books we read are honored over me and my role as an authority (or realistically as the authority) in the classroom. In other words, I have come to view stepping aside as teaching (much as I have learned to view stepping aside as parenting).
Setting Free the Books*
I have returned recently to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, fascinated by both the enduring power of the novel and Bradbury’s own love affair with books. In the 60th anniversary edition of the novel, Bradbury (in the text of an audio introduction) explains:
I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians and book people, and booksellers. So my love of books is so intense that I finally have done—what? I have written a book about a man falling in love with books.
Bradbury’s love of books as a learner, a reader, and a writer creates for me even greater tension in my roles as reader, writer, and teacher—especially in the context of Charles Bingham, Antew Dejene, Alma Krilic, and Emily Sadowski’s “Can the Taught Book Speak?” The authors address three questions:
First, what does the banning, and the unbanning of books have to do with teaching? Second, what is the nature of a book, and do we honor the nature of books when we teach them? And third, is it possible for educators to let books speak for themselves? (p. 199)
Throughout the discussion, the role of the teacher—I would add the corrupting role of the teacher—is confronted:
If a book is banned because it is dangerous as a written text, then a book could only be un banned by letting loose the dangerous potential of such a written text. A book is only unbanned when it is let loose to be read by anyone, anywhere, any time. It is unbanned when it can be read in public or in private, aloud or in silence, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, without “a parent to protect” the book. When one teaches a banned book, one falls short of unbanning the book on a number of counts, but primarily on the last count. When one teaches a banned book, one does something different from unbanning the book. One parents the book. One stands against Plato’s fear of writing to be sure, but one also sides with that same fear. One lets the book be read, but one makes sure there is a parent present at the reading. (p. 201)
Teaching a book, then, is the same as parenting that book—both the teaching and parenting here characterized as intrusive in the ways I have experienced and discussed above as both teacher and parent: “What Derrida thus reminds us is that the very act of teaching is always a parasitical act.”
Teaching and parenting as necessarily “parasitical” and destructive parallels the way writers and the their love of words above people is destructive in The Words:
This figure of the teacher vis-à-vis the book might be formulated as follows: A teacher teaches a book. However, the teacher is not fully a teacher unless the book is not fully a book. That is to say, a teacher needs a book, but she needs a particular kind of book: a book in chains, a banned book, a book that does not speak for itself. If a teacher were to teach a free book, a book unfettered by place, space, or human voice, then the teacher would not be a teacher. A teacher without a book to call her own —without a book to chain in some way, shape, or form — ceases to be , as a teacher.
To put this another way, as soon as a teacher teaches a book, then the book ceases to be a book. (p. 203)
As Bradbury’s own experiences reading in libraries and not attending college show, the book is its own reason for being, as Bingham, et al., explain:
A book, after all, is meant to be free . A book is written. It is written to be read. A book is a book precisely because it is meant to be read, and to be read by anyone. It is meant to be read by anyone who chooses to read the book. If it were not to be read by anyone, then it would not be a book, but would rather be a private communiqué. This bookness of the book signifies something important for educators. Namely, it is not in the nature of a book to be taught. Why? Because a book is, itself, language. It is language that speaks. If the book was not language, if it did not speak, then it would not be a book. A book is not intended to be interpreted into speech. A book does not require that people come to consensus about what it says. A book is itself consensus. It already says something before any consensus. There is no book that requires or expects a teacher, just as there is no speaking person who requires or expects a teacher. A book speaks in and of itself. It speaks without the need of parasites, chains, or megaphones. (p. 203)
So what are we to do, we who are lovers of books and teachers?
Simply stated, the problem is this: the taught book cannot speak. Indeed, the solution to this problem would seem simple now that the problem has been identified. The problem would be solved if teachers were to leave books alone. (p. 206)
At the intersection of love, books, students, and teaching, I have come to recognize the importance of setting free the books by seeking ways in which I can practice stepping aside as teaching. Just as I had to understand that loving my daughter required me to leave her alone, I must leave books and my students alone—and thus the highest form of respect, the highest form of trust, the highest form of love.
The risks are high in this practice because so few adults trust children, so few adults trust books. And in our paternalistic culture, parenting is viewed as necessary and good—not intrusive and corrupting (in fact, we see books as potentially corrupting and childhood freedom as corrupting).
Ultimately, stepping aside as teaching is a paradox likely to be perceived as not teaching at all—by students, parents, colleagues, and the public.
But risk we must, in the name of those things we love.
* I had a long and wonderful love affair with the novels of John Irving, mostly in my 20s and 30s. Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, is intentionally alluded to in this subhead.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught English in the rural South Carolina high school I attended as a student. Many of those years, I taught Advanced Placement courses as part of my load (I taught all levels of English and usually sophomores and seniors) and was department chair.
Over the years, I worked hard to create an English department that served our students well. We made bold moves to provide all students in each grade the same literature textbooks (not different texts for different levels, as was the tradition, thus labeling students publicly) and to stop issuing to students grammar texts and vocabulary books (teachers retained classroom sets to use as they chose).
And a significant part of our English classes was the teaching of writing—having students write often and to produce multiple-draft essays. I stressed the need to end isolated grammar instruction (worksheets and textbook exercises) and urged that grammar, mechanics, and usage be addressed directly in the writing process.
Even though the principal was supportive and a former English teacher, at one faculty meeting while the administrators were discussing recent standardized test scores for the school (yes, this test-mania was in full force during the 80s and 90s in SC), the principal prefaced his comments about the English test scores with, “Keep in mind that the English scores may not reflect what we are doing here since we don’t teach grammar.”*
In a nut shell, that sort of mischaracterization and misunderstanding about best practice is at the foundation of my previous post exploring Joan Brunetta’s writing about how standards- and test-based schooling had failed her.
A few comments on the post and a follow up discussion in the comments with Robert Pondiscio—as well as a subsequent post by Pondiscio at Bridging Differences—have prompted me to continue to address not only how we still fail the teaching of writing but also how that failure is a subset of the larger failure of students by traditional approaches to teaching that are teacher-centered and committed to core knowledge.
Revisiting “The Good Student Trap” in the Accountability Era
Adele Scheele has coined the term “the good student trap,” which perfectly captures how schools create a template for what counts as being a good student and then how that template for success fails students once they attend college and step into the real world beyond school. My one caveat to Scheele’s ideas is that especially during the accountability era—a ramping up of traditional practices and norms for education—this trap affects all students, not just the good ones.
And the trap goes something like this, according to Scheele:
Most of us learned as early as junior high that we would pass, even excel if we did the work assigned to us by our teachers. We learned to ask whether the test covered all of chapter five or only a part of it, whether the assigned paper should be ten pages long or thirty, whether “extra credit” was two book reports on two books by the same author or two books written in the same period. Remember?
We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.
And it worked. We always made the grade. Here’s what that process means: You took tests and wrote papers, got passing grades, and then were automatically promoted from one year to the next. That is not only in elementary, junior, and senior high school, but even in undergraduate and graduate school. You never had to compete for promotions, write résumés, or rehearse yourself or even know anyone for this promotion. It happened automatically. And we got used to it….
What we were really learning is System Dependency! If you did your work, you’d be taken care of. We experienced it over and over; it’s now written in our mind’s eye. But nothing like this happens outside of school. Still, we remain the same passive good students that we were at ten or fourteen or twenty or even at forty-four. The truth is, once learned, system dependency stays with most of us throughout our careers, hurting us badly. We keep reinforcing the same teacher-student dichotomy until it is ingrained. Then we transfer it to the employers and organizations for whom we’ll work.
This model of traditional schooling includes a teacher who makes almost all the decisions and students who are rewarded for being compliant—and that compliance is identified as “achievement.”
In English classes, a subset of this process is reflected in how we teach, and fail, writing. As I noted in my earlier post, Hillocks and others have noted that traditional commitments to the five-paragraph essay (and cousin template-models of essays) and a return to isolated grammar exercises have resulted from the rise of high-stakes testing of writing. As well, the accountability era has included the central place of rubrics driving what students write, how teachers respond to student writing, and how students revise their essays.
So what is wrong with five-paragraph essays, grammar exercises, and rubrics?
Let’s focus on rubrics to examine why all of these are ways in which we fail writing and students. Alfie Kohn explains:
Mindy Nathan, a Michigan teacher and former school board member told me that she began “resisting the rubric temptation” the day “one particularly uninterested student raised his hand and asked if I was going to give the class a rubric for this assignment.” She realized that her students, presumably grown accustomed to rubrics in other classrooms, now seemed “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value. Worse than that,” she added, “they do not have confidence in their thinking or writing skills and seem unwilling to really take risks.”
Rubric-based writing and assessment, then, reflect the exact problem I highlighted earlier, one noted by Applebee and Langer: teachers know more today than ever about how to teach writing, but commitments to accountability and testing prevent that awareness from being applied in class; as Kohn explains:
What all this means is that improving the design of rubrics, or inventing our own, won’t solve the problem because the problem is inherent to the very idea of rubrics and the goals they serve. This is a theme sounded by Maja Wilson in her extraordinary new book, Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. In boiling “a messy process down to 4-6 rows of nice, neat, organized little boxes,” she argues, assessment is “stripped of the complexity that breathes life into good writing.” High scores on a list of criteria for excellence in essay writing do not mean that the essay is any good because quality is more than the sum of its rubricized parts. To think about quality, Wilson argues, “we need to look to the piece of writing itself to suggest its own evaluative criteria” – a truly radical and provocative suggestion.
Wilson also makes the devastating observation that a relatively recent “shift in writing pedagogy has not translated into a shift in writing assessment.” Teachers are given much more sophisticated and progressive guidance nowadays about how to teach writing but are still told to pigeonhole the results, to quantify what can’t really be quantified. Thus, the dilemma: Either our instruction and our assessment remain “out of synch” or the instruction gets worse in order that students’ writing can be easily judged with the help of rubrics.
Once fulfilling the expectations of the rubric becomes the primary if not exclusive goal for the student, we have the SAT writing section and the unintended consequences, as Newkirk explains (English Journal, November 2005) about students writing to prompts and rubrics for high-stakes testing:
George Hillocks Jr. has shown that another persistent problem with these types of prompts concerns evidence—the writer must instantly develop instances or examples to be used for support. In a sample of the released papers from the Texas state assessment, some of this evidence looks, well, manufactured….When I first read this essay, I imagined some free spirit, some rebel, flaunting the ethics of composition and inventing evidence to the point of parody. But when I shared this letter with a teacher from Texas, she assured me that students were coached to invent evidence if they were stuck [emphasis added]. In my most cynical moment, I hadn’t expected that cause. And what is to stop these coached students from doing the same on the SAT writing prompt? Who would know?
As but one example above, “the good student trap” is replicated day after day in the ways in which students are prompted to write and then how teachers respond to and grade that writing. The failure lies in who makes almost all of the decisions, the teacher, and who is rewarded for being mostly compliant, students.
While core knowledge advocates and proponents of rubric-driven assessment tend to misrepresent critical and progressive educators who seek authentic learning experiences for students with charges of “not teaching X” or “So what shall we teach?” (with the implication that core knowledge educators want demanding content but critical and progressive educators don’t), the real question we must confront is not what content we teach and students learn, but who decides and why.
If we return to rubrics, well designed rubrics do everything for students (see Education Done To, For, or With Students? for a full discussion of this failure), everything writers need to do in both college and the real world beyond school.
Rubric-driven writing is asking less of students than authentic writing in a writing workshop.
Traditional core knowledge classrooms are also deciding for students what knowledge matters, and again, asking less of students than challenging students to identify what knowledge matters in order to critique that knowledge as valuable (or not) for each student as well as the larger society. The tension of this debate is about mere knowledge acquisition versus confronting the norms of knowledge in the pursuit of individual autonomy and social justice—making students aware of the power implications of knowledge so that they live their lives with purpose and dignity instead of having life happen to them.
My call is not for ignoring the teaching of grammar, but for confronting the norms of conventional language so that students gain power over language instead of language having power over them. Why do we feel compelled not to end a sentence with a preposition? Where did that claim come from and who benefits from such a convention?
Why does academic writing tend to erase the writer from the writing (“No ‘I’!”) and who benefits from that convention?
You see, critical approaches to teaching go beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge that some authority has deemed worthy (what Freire labels the “banking concept” of teaching). Yes, knowledge matters, but not in the fixed ways core knowledge advocates claim and pursue. Critical approaches to knowledge honor the dignity of human autonomy in children, something that many adults seem at least leery if not fearful of allowing in their classrooms.
Core knowledge, rubrics, templates, prescriptions, and prompts are all tools of control, ways to trap students in the pursuit of compliance. They aren’t challenging (or “rigorous” as advocates like to say), and they aren’t learning.
As Scheele explains:
System dependency is not the only damaging thing we learned in the context of school: We learned our place….
Yet most of us were falsely lulled into a false self labeled “good” by fulfilling the expected curriculum. The alternative was being “bad” by feeling alienated and losing interest or dropping out….
So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do-if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does. When we’re afraid, we lose our curiosity and originality, our spirit and our talent-our life.
Beyond Rigor, Templates, and Compliance
In my position at a small and selective liberal arts university, I now teach mostly good students in my writing-intensive first year seminars. Students are asked to read and discuss Style, a descriptive look at grammar, mechanics, and usage that raises students’ awareness and skepticism about conventional uses of language, but rejects seeing conventions as fixed rules. (We ask why teachers in high school tend to teach students that fragments are incorrect when many published works contain fragments, leading to a discussion of purposeful language use.)
Throughout the course, students are asked to plan and then write four original essays that must be drafted several times with peer and my feedback. The focus, topic, and type of essay must be chosen by the student. To help them in those choices, we discuss what they have been required to do in high school for essays, we explore what different fields expect in college writing, and we read and analyze real-world essays in order to establish the context for the choices, and consequences of those choices, that writers make—specifically when those writers are students.
I offer this here in case you think somehow I am advocating “fluffy thinking” or a “do-your-own-thing philosophy” of teaching, as some have charged. And I invite you to ask my students which they prefer, which is easier—the template, prompt-based writing of high school that created their good student trap or my class. [HINT: Students recognize that five-paragraph essays and rubrics are easier, and they often directly ask me to just tell them what to write and how. As Mindy Nathan noted above, good students are “unable to function [emphasis added] unless every required item is spelled out for them in a grid and assigned a point value.”]
My students reinforce for me every class session that we have failed the teaching of writing and those students by doing everything for them in school. They are nearly intellectually paralyzed with fear about the consequences of their own decisions.
When challenged and supported to be agents of their own learning, their own coming to understand the world, and their own decisions about what knowledge matters and why, however, they are more than capable of the tasks.
And with them in mind, I must ask, who benefits from compliant, fearful students as intellectual zombies, always doing as they are told?
* Although he phrased his comment poorly, my principal was, in fact, making a valid point that a multiple-choice English (grammar) test was unlikely to fairly represent what our students had learned about composing original essays. He intended to make a swipe at the quality of the test, although he did so gracelessly.
It is a bittersweet irony that words are mostly inadequate to express my appreciation to be nominated for and then recognized with the National Council of Teachers of English 2013 George Orwell Award—”established in 1975 and given by the NCTE Public Language Award Committee, recognizes writers who have made outstanding contributions to the critical analysis of public discourse.”
I am first humbled to be added to the powerful list of previous winners. I also fear I pale in comparison, but having been included, I now take on the obligation of fulfilling this recognition that my work does belong here.
So let me highlight briefly that the 2013 Orwell Award directly recognizes my blogging, identifying Evidence? Secretary Duncan, You Can’t Handle the Evidence.
As both public intellectual work and a part of New Media, my blogging is fraught with minefields in the context of my life as a university professor and scholar as well as my status as a teacher, identifying myself always as someone who spent 18 years teaching in a rural public high school in South Carolina.
Public intellectual work and blogging remain marginalized ways of being for academics and scholars, while they both are risky ventures for public school teachers.
I am cautiously optimistic that NCTE’s Orwell Award this year is about much more than me—it is about the New Media of blogging and about the importance of professional voices in public spheres.
And thus we have two obligations before us as educators, scholars, and academics:
- We must work diligently to create safe spaces for all teachers’ voices in public spheres. Currently, safe spaces exist for tenured professors (my status), but such is not the case for public school teachers and their students; as Arundhati Roy has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
- And once those safe spaces are created, teachers must bring our individual and collective professional voices to the public sphere.
Because, as Orwell cautioned, public discourse is dominated by partisan political voices and “[p]olitical language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Professional teachers’ voices in the public sphere must, as NCTE suggests “[contribute] to honesty and clarity in public language” as a form of resistance to the continued failure of partisan political discourse, especially as that partisan political discourse impacts our public school, our public teachers, and our public school students.
If we imagined a pictorial representation of the evolution of education accountability, similar to the standard image we associate with human evolution—
—then we’d have to confront that the accountability era begun in the early 1980s focused first on students, requiring them to pass exit exams (regardless of their having taken and passed all of the required courses for graduation) in order to receive their diplomas.
Next, schools were the target of accountability with the advent and distribution of school report cards.
By the end of the first and beginning of the second decades of the twenty-first century, teachers have found their place at the accountability table, with some suggesting that teachers are now being fed their just desserts. Merit pay linked to student test scores and the more recent flurry of implementing value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and retention in many ways bring teachers into decades-long predicaments faced by students and schools: the misguided and unfair weight of standardized testing used in dysfunctional and invalid ways.
When I posted about how absurd teacher accountability has become, I expected most on my Twitter feed to recognize the situation in New York as unfair and a harsh warning of the mounting weight of failed accountability:
A Bronx performing arts school’s dance instructor will be judged on students’ English exam scores. Physical education teachers at a transfer school in Brooklyn are going to teach Olympic history lessons to prepare students for the history tests that will help determine their ratings. And teachers in Queens are putting the fate of their evaluations into a final exam that they don’t teach, but yields high pass rates.
The scenarios are not unusual — across [New York City] this year, thousands of teachers will be rated in large part based on test scores of subjects and students that they do not teach.
Rather, the scenarios are examples of how schools have tried to comply with a new teacher evaluation system that must factor student performance into final ratings. They also represent how the original purpose of the evaluations, to differentiate teachers’ effectiveness, has been squeezed by restrictive state laws, limited resources, and a tight timeline for implementation.
“It’s insane to me that 40 percent of my evaluation is going to be based on someone else’s work,” said Jason Zanitsch, a high school drama teacher who will share the same “student growth” score with colleagues in his school this year.
However, the first response I received raised a much different point:
@plthomasEdD if teachers don’t like this then way assign all the group work which is just as bad for the kids? hmmm….
My first response was to note that holding teachers accountable for the work of other teachers and the test scores of students they do not even teach is not truly analogous to having students do group work, and then be graded for that group work.
As @Tim_10_ber and I exchanged tweets, I came to recognize that I was arguing from my idealized position on how best to implement group work (group work must require collaboration—or it is simply students sitting close to each other doing individual work—and any grades assigned to group work must be articulated to reflect participation) and @Tim_10_ber was confronting a position with which I agree—that group work is often implemented and graded carelessly and thus unfairly to students.
It is from that recognition, then, that I want to make an argument about the only potential positive outcome related to the unjustifiable use of merit pay and VAM in teacher evaluation, pay, and retention: teachers need to learn how to teach better now that the shoe is on the other foot. Some ironic lessons teachers should learn from invalid teacher accountability include the following:
- Testing and grades often do far more educational harm than good; the time has come to consider de-testing and de-grading our teaching. Teacher feedback, student self-assessment, student-created rubrics, and re-imagined assessment situations (such as group assessments) and formats are all better alternatives to tests and grades, if our goal is equitable and effective learning opportunities for students.
- The central flaw with teacher accountability being linked to student test scores and the standards movement is that teachers have experienced declining autonomy in both their content and pedagogy as well as the high-stakes tests themselves. Accountability without autonomy is tyranny. This lesson translates into how often student learning is reduced to mere compliance. Students being held accountable also must have their autonomy honored; thus, students deserve far more choice in their learning than they have been traditionally allowed.
- As noted by @Tim_10_ber, teachers must be far more vigilant about designing, assigning, and assessing group work, with a keen eye on autonomy, engagement, and causation/correlation (what are fair associations between each student and the outcomes of the group).
The accountability era has nearly destroyed public education. Little about accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing can be embraced or endorsed.
But oppressive and even capricious mandates tend to be leveled at the least among us first; once those policies trickle up to those in power—in other words, when the shoe is on the other foot—living with inequity, unfair accountability, and unworkable conditions can open our eyes to our own flaws as teachers.
As we continue to fight for our professional autonomy and dignity, taking moral stands of non-cooperation, let’s be sure to bring that fight to our classrooms and honor the autonomy and dignity of all our students as a model for those in power who have yet to see the flaws of their ways through the distorting lens of privilege they wear.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau in “Civil Disobedience”:
If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too….
If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn [emphasis added].