Giving Teachers Freedom

An Article from REASON Magazine


I know my friend The Grumpy Giraffe may like this Reason article. The Grumpy Giraffe writes a lot on educational matters. This is worthy of the giraffe’s analysis.


Teachers know their classrooms better than administrators do. Why don’t they have more power to act on that knowledge? | May 4, 2013

Last year there was a major change at the private Waldorf elementary school my son attends. His second-grade class had only about 10 kids, and the third-grade class above him had a similarly small number. The teachers were concerned that so few kids in the class would hurt learning; in a tiny class, they felt, kids would have fewer opportunities to form friendships and fewer opportunities to learn from and teach each other. So the teachers consulted with the board, and they eventually decided to combine the two classes into a 15- to 20-student third/fourth-grade class. The change seems to have worked out well.

In some sense, the way this decision was made seems natural. Teachers know what’s going on in the classroom; teachers, therefore, should be the main people making major decisions about their classes. And yet in most public schools, this local knowledge is ignored. Teachers are rarely consulted about administrative changes. And this is not an accident. Subjecting teachers to outside control has been the major goal of school reform policies for the past century, as Jal Mehta, an assistant professor of education at Harvard, explains in The Allure of Order.

Most people think of the current wave of school reform—the push for centrally defined standards, testing, and “accountability”—as something that began in the 1990s. Mehta suggests that the blueprint was set in the Progressive Era. It was tried again in the 1960s and ’70s before finally culminating in George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and our current rage for standardized tests.

All of these movements, Mehta explains, were based on the idea of rationalizing schools. The Progressives worked to systematize and control (mostly female) teachers under the control of (mostly male) superintendents and administrators. The reformers of the ’60s and ’70s worked, with sporadic success, to establish standards and increase state control over district schooling. And Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have overseen a nationalization of education policy, demanding testing and “accountability” nationwide. The effort to control schools from afar through a stern bureaucracy, and to impose excellence by fiat—this is not a new solution. It’s the same old problem.

For Mehta, the issue is not so much teachers themselves as the teaching profession. That profession—in part because it was early on dominated by women, and so was considered low-status—never fully professionalized. Unlike medicine or law or higher education, teaching never staked out a rigorous body of knowledge which practitioners had to master; it never established self-imposed criteria for proficiency; it never created self-administered barriers to entrance.

Because teachers were never systematically able to separate themselves from laborers, Mehta argues, they have been unable to defend themselves from outside administrators who seek to impose a factory discipline upon them. They are not viewed as professionals striving for excellence, but as recalcitrant, incompetent workers who need managing if they are going to work at all. In reaction, teachers, understandably, did what workers have often done when they feel alienated from management, and unionized. But while this gave them a better bargaining position in terms of benefits and wages, it compounded the problem; in acceding to the definition of themselves as workers, teachers ceded the professional claim to moral authority and expertise. Rather than participating in shaping the educational direction of their schools (as they do at my son’s Waldorf school), they instead hunkered down into the traditional antipathy between management and labor.

One result, Mehta argues, is that teaching has little cultural ground on which to defend itself. Teachers unions can protects instructors’ jobs, but they have had little ability to combat the testing regime. Thus educators have gotten swept along (with mostly ineffective protest) by the vacillating administrative dictats of the moment. The Chicago school system decides to create small schools; five years later they change their mind and get rid of the small schools. They decide they need to build new schools; then they decide that 50+ schools need to be closed. Or they decide that Persepolis should be banned, and while teachers can criticize, they can’t really launch a counterattack. After all, reading Persepolis isn’t going to help you on tests. And what else are schools there for, if not for the tests? The idea that education has a value in itself, or that schools are first and foremost communities of learning, has little cachet and little power. Instead, first the administrative bureaucracy and then teachers themselves have locked themselves into a vision in which educators are little more than balky automatons hammering out widgets in accord with an endless succession of government-imposed Five-Year Plans.

Children aren’t in fact widgets, so it’s not much surprise that treating them as such has not worked especially well. But when you fail to turn children into widgets, the answer offered is more reforms aimed at making better widgets. And then that fails, and there are more reforms, and on and on, scantron without end.

Mehta suggests several….. Read More

Noah Berlatsky is a Chicago-based writer whose work appears in The Atlantic, The Chicago Reader, and other outlets. He blogs at The Hooded Utilitarian.


About RightFromYaad

A view from "the Right", as a source of ideas to create a new vision of freedom and what it promises for Jamaicans, to counter the tyranny of the status quo of Jamaica's reality since 1962. Website: Email: Twitter : @rightfromyaad Facebook:
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