Teacher Agency in a Time of High-Stakes Accountability

I entered the classroom as a high school English teacher in 1984, the exact fall that South Carolina implemented the first incarnation of high-stakes accountability built on standards and standardized testing. I taught in that rural, moderately impoverished community—my home town—for the next eighteen years, during which the state revised and changed standards as well as tests multiple times.

I taught, chaired the English department, and coached for many of those eighteen years while also being a college adjunct and completing my doctorate, and my wife still teaches K-2 PE as well as coaches, as she has since 1995

In 2002, I became a teacher educator, and thus directly involved with classroom teachers in my graduate courses and teacher candidates certifying and then entering the field.

From those experiences I can attest to a few clear realities of being a teacher during a time of high-stakes accountability:

• Teachers have rarely had much power for the past century, and that agency has significantly deteriorated as the accountability era has accelerated.

• The goals and claims about the potential for standards (including Common Core State Standards [CCSS]) and high-stakes testing are irrelevant once they are implemented since how schools, districts, and states tend to implement standards and testing is far more prescriptive, corrosive, and dehumanizing than advocates for standards and testing are apt to acknowledge. “What is tested is what is taught” will be the consequences of CCSS once tests are administered as high-stakes mechanisms in the schools. Teachers and students will lose in that, again.

• Teachers have historically been told not to be political and are conditioned to be implementers of policy, not designers of policy. That de-professionalizing and marginalizing of teacher agency has increased proportionately with the rise of high-stakes accountability and the deterioration of worker’s rights for teachers (especially in right-to-wrok states where unionization has been and is absent).

• Teachers tend to be incredibly practical, and predisposed to functioning in survivor mode since the conditions of teaching often ask more of any teacher than can be humanly accomplished. I lived that and I have a great deal of respect and empathy for that fact.

With all that said, let me return to the current CCSS debate among Larry Ferlazzo, Stephen Krashen, and now David Cohen.

First, I want to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for Larry, Stephen, and David as exemplary educators, scholars, and advocates. Since I cannot say I have the same respect for many of the leading personalities in the education reform debate, I want to be clear that when I agree or disagree with this particular group of educators, the debate is about the topic, and there is not implied any challenge to the people or their credibility intended. None.

Yet, I remain in disagreement with Larry and now David—both of whom have offered solid and thoughtful arguments about their skepticism regarding CCSS but also their belief in compromise that includes setting aside trying to stop CCSS and the coming tests being implemented.

Two points from David’s post are important to address, I think.

The end of David’s post repeats the fatalism that I have addressed:

“And I might agree with Thomas (and Friere) in the abstract, but here’s the problem: such a transformation of public education could not happen in a vacuum, could not happen solely by the willpower of teachers even if we all agreed with each other, and could not happen quickly – maybe not even in one generation.”

Many practitioners balk at theory and philosophy, and to discount Freire and my concern as “abstract” is part of the problem of classroom practitioners being predisposed to the practical and trapped in survivor mode.

To me, David’s comment highlights the worst aspect of adopting, implementing, and testing CCSS—education is in a constant state of adopting and implementing new standards and new tests, a process that keeps teachers busy, busy, busy. In fact, too busy to be professionals.

On this point, I believe David is hitting a key problem, but my response is not to agree. In fact, I think David’s point proves why we must simply all say “No,” as the teachers at Garfield High have about MAP testing.

Is it easy to say “No” as a teacher? No. Is it risky to say “No” as a teacher? Yes, very.

But taking principled stands is necessary for our profession. A collective and principled stand by teachers could in fact bring about the change David has grown fatalistic about.

A second point, which is related to the first, is that David and Larry are advocating compromise, a stance that always appears reasonable and tends also to seem practical.

Here, I must state again that a compromise between wrong and right can equal only wrong.

In the CCSS debate, the problem with compromise is that the frame within which teachers are being asked to compromise has been set for them, not by them.

In 2013, standards and tests have had ample time (and consumed more than enough funding) to show that they are effective reform strategies. They have never worked, and they never will.

The CCSS movement is a tremendous waste of time and money. Implementing and testing CCSS will further erode teacher agency and student achievement.

No compromise will stem those realities, but teachers claiming their own agency as professionals, collectively, can stop these consequences if we all agree to stop saying “can’t.”