Draconian and Dysfunctional. . .

Bob—a frequent commenter and regular reader of the Radical—recently posted some interesting thoughts related to our ongoing conversation about scripted curricula and direct instruction over at his blog, called Tablet PC Education.

While his thoughts on scripted curricula continued to push my own thinking, it was his comments on teacher voice that I was most thankful for.  Consider this excerpt:

Education is arguably one of the largest unsaturated markets for mobile PC equipment and software. This market will be difficult to penetrate without knowing the language, logic, and values of teachers. In the long run, teachers, not administrators, boards of education, et al. control the effectiveness and efficiency of student learning, however anyone measures that outcome.

Tablet PC, Ultra-Mobile PC and other mobile PC education software developers and publishers, as well as equipment designers, engineers and manufacturers, both independents and corporates, large and small, should monitor Bill’s and similar blogs (such as Nancy Flanagan’s and Renee Moore’s). These blogs provide a basis for formulating industry focus group questions. They provide a different slant on classroom reality, openness, and barriers from questions generated through industry interests frequently used in market focus groups and industry conferences for educators.

These blogs represent an ongoing streaming sample (a cohort?) of thinking and commitments by opinion makers among (mostly public school) teachers that public policy makers listen to. A few of the million plus education blogs are written by skilled, thoughtful, accomplished, teachers. Some might call them "master teachers," although I’d prefer a PC neutral descriptor, if I could think of one at the moment. Bill and colleagues arguably rank among the masters.

Bob’s standing on my soapbox right now, isn’t he?! 

After all, I’ve been an advocate for involving teacher voice in policy conversations for years and years now because teachers possess a nuanced understanding of the classroom that is—quite simply—lost after a few years by those working beyond the classroom.  There is no substitute for first hand experience when trying to make decisions that are likely to effectively change public schools. 

But teachers are often left on the sidelines when it comes to decision-making.  Rarely are systematic practices in place that seek out teacher voice, whether at the school, district, state or national level.  Instead, decisions are made by those who have "moved up" in the systems that run our schools. 

Perhaps my favorite quote on this educational reality comes from Richard Elmore, who—in a 2003 issue of Educational Leadership—wrote:

Educators are subject to draconian and dysfunctional external accountability practices largely because they have failed to develop strong and binding professional norms about what constitutes high quality teaching practice and a supportive organizational environment.

In our society, educators are usually people to whom things happen, not people who make things happen. Bad policy happens in part because…we have deliberately chosen not to engage in powerful collaborative learning.

Why do you think that "draconian and dysfunctional" happens?  Why are we so reluctant as a nation to involve teachers in key educational decisions?  Is it an honest oversight brought on by the belief that teachers are uninterested in the work being done beyond the classroom?  Is it a nod to the reality that teachers often have little time to invest in work beyond the classroom because they are busy with the day-to-day realities of teaching?

Is it evidence of a sinister plot to hold teachers back and to deprofessionalize our work?  Is it because teachers have proven time and again that they don’t have the skill sets necessary to succeed as key decision makers, failing to effectively articulate or to translate what we know into action strategies beyond the classroom?

I’ve got my own ideas, but I’m more interested in what y’all have to say.  What is it that prevents teacher leadership from being fully embraced?

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11 thoughts on “Draconian and Dysfunctional. . .

  1. Bob

    Yes, we agree: “straight talk,” as always. (ST is in the eye of the beholder.)
    Terms like “high stakes tests” have multiple meanings, some not favorable to teachers. So, leave those terms to others.
    Both teachers and others know these things.

  2. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    You didn’t directly answer my concern, so in the interests of not making this an eternal thread, I’ll assume you have your reasons for not doing so and, as you apparently wish, let that pass. After all, it’s not polite to try to force people to speak about things when they’d rather not.
    However, the terms “mandatory test,” “high stakes test,” or even “mandatory, high stakes test” are in common usage and are hardly uttered only by teachers, nor would their use by teachers be construed negatively except possibly by those grinding political or ideological axes, or who wish to obfuscate rather than to enlighten. In fact, each of the terms is absolutely accurate, while the term “annual test,” is usually not.
    For example, in Texas, where I teach, the TAKS test is not given annually and skips grades. Students take it several times during their elementary years, and when they reach high school, they take it in the 10th grade as sort of a warm up (no, we can’t figure out why anyone though this was a good idea either), and again in 11th grade. The test is mandatory (by law), and it is, in the 11th grade, absolutely high stakes. No matter how well a student has done in their 11 years of education, even if they carry a 4.0 GPA, even if they have already been granted a scholarship at M.I.T., if they do not pass the TAKS in 11th grade (or as a make up in their senior year), they will, by state law, be denied graduation from high school. That’s rather high stakes, and since everyone in the state knows that, I see little value in not saying what everyone knows.
    Interestingly, an increasing number of accomplished students have begun to tell the state where to go regarding the TAKS, refusing to take it, or merely using the written portion of the test to graphically express their opinions about state and federal educrats, and, despite having no high school diploma, have been gladly accepted at universities in Texas and throughout the nation. Thus we have the bizarre prospect of future Doctorate earning students without a high school diploma. I suspect no one will care. Texas is now in the process of doing away with TAKS in favor of something else, no one really knows exactly what as yet.
    We do ourselves no favor by unnecessarily or carelessly using euphemisms. The public deserves straight talk and factual information. They know what these tests are. If we try to sugarcoat them, we isolate ourselves from the public, who might rightfully consider us to be timid, politically correct weenies. That’s a professional education term, by the way: “weenies.” Try it, it’s fun!

  3. Bob

    Just describe it as a(n annual) test. That’s what it is. Use of the term “high stakes testing” allows inferences unfavorable to teachers. Let’s choose not to shoot ourselves in the foot unnecessarily.

  4. Mike

    Dear Bob:
    I’m a bit confused by your last post. You seem to be suggesting that I, and by inference, other teachers, are knowingly using the negative aspects of high stakes tests as a sort of straw man to avoid some sort of accountability. Or perhaps I’m misreading your intent?

  5. Bob

    You describe a good point, Mike. Yes, teachers make choices about what, how, and how much to instruct. Theory explains those choices, including choices labeled “practical.” Respect comes with making choices that result in what others consider “good,” or at least “appropriate.” Results are powerful and frequently persuasive in establishing respect.
    As to “high stakes testing,” I would use that term, while organizing people, to redirect responsibility for results onto someone else, rather than our people.
    Probably, teachers know these things?

  6. Mike

    Bob, I’m afraid your assertion that teachers “instruct beyond the test” makes sense only on a theoretical level. In practice, with contemporary high stakes testing, real world practice is quite different.
    Teachers should surely set high standards, teaching, if you will, at an above average level, in the hope that the rising academic tide will raise all the student boats. If we are using the curriculum as a means of building bigger and better brains, not merely as a means of learning a given body of facts, concepts or methods of doing something long enough to pass the test that purports to measure those things, then what you suggest not only has merit, it’s what all good teachers do every day. But that’s not contemporary high stakes testing. If such tests could measure whether a student is really taking advantage of his educational opportunities, they’d still be unnecessary as any competent teacher can do that, does do that, each and every day, and it doesn’t cost untold millions to write, buy, administer and disseminate the tests. But the students at Washington High scored 6% higher on the test than Lincoln High! Yeah? And that helps the teachers and students at those respective schools in being more effective how exactly?
    Parry makes an interesting suggestion in expanding testing to “capture more of what it means to be a well-educated citizen.” Bravo. Indeed we should be requiring music, art, drama and other disciplines, but the mandatory testing that Parry suggests is a means to hold teachers accountable for results is not at all the purpose or function of such tests, nor are teachers unaccountable without them.
    I know and correspond with teachers across the nation and not one of them imagines that they are not accountable for their performance–which of course includes, but is not solely, the degree to which students progress–nor do any of them imagine that testing in any way makes them more accountable.
    Mandatory high stakes testing, tests that can by themselves deny students graduation, are a political invention whose primary goal is politcal cover for politicians, and whose effects include significantly reducing the time available to build well rounded, capable citizens, as Parry suggests, and forcing teachers and students to spend, in most cases, months each year teaching the narrow set of tricks and practices that will equal success on the test. The scores on these tests are usually not available until the end of the school year, when they are of no use whatever to the teachers of that class of students. Of course, this assumes that the test scores are of any use to teachers and students anyway, and they are not. They tell us only how a given student did on that test on that day.
    Now, to accountability. If I’m a wise principal, and one of my teacher’s classes are doing less well than the classes of other teachers on the test, what does that tell me? Do I have the data I need to administer true accountability? If I’m an idiot, perhaps, otherwise, absolutely not. The wise principal understands that these scores, taken as a whole, indicate that the teacher isn’t as skillful as the other teachers at presenting the narrow skills and tricks necessary to do well on the test. They may very well be excellent in preparing good citizens, just not up to speed on that particular requirement. That’s fixable. Or the principal might dig a bit deeper and discover that through the luck of the draw, that teacher happened to be assigned an unusually large number of low performing students, and yes, that happens all the time, and the list of potential issues goes on and on, unless what you’re interested in is political sound bites and bumper sticker slogans.
    Good teachers want their principals in their classrooms as often as possible and want them to review the portfolios they have their students keep throughout the year so real progress, supportable with genuine documentation, can be tracked. They know they’re accountable, and they want the people who rate them to know exactly what they’re doing. They do inter-disciplinary projects, as Parry suggested. But you notice that none of this has to do with high stakes testing.
    I’m just touching on a great number of issues here, but I want to get to the point of Bill’s original post: how do teachers get more respect and more input into educational policy? We do it one to one, one politician, one school board member, one parent, one voter at a time. We invite people into our classrooms and take the time to explain the little things we know and do that make a huge difference for our kids. We explain why well meaning policies won’t work and which policies do work. We ask them if they really intended us to spend two full months, as my district did not long ago, in rote drill to prepare for the mandatory high stakes tests, and we show them the low level, mindless materials we must use to do that drill. We explain that we’d really rather be engaging in reading great literature, doing good science, singing, painting, acting, but someone thought it was a good idea to do the tests, so…. We avoid using eduspeak, the jargon of which some in education are so fond, but which merely confuses anyone who doesn’t routinely practice it. Common English works great (I know I should have said “well;” I’m making a point). We write well reasoned, to the point, direct letters to the editor, not only on controversial educational issues, but on our trials and our successes, and on our profession and the kids we serve and love. Perhaps we even talk our local papers into a regular educator’s column.
    We must make our voice heard using the media, and make those politicians who would harm us and the kids look petty and small through being reasonable, kind, and heartfelt. We must make it clear that we know far, far more about the abilities, talents, desires and hearts of our students through our daily testing of them in myriad ways than any single yearly test, a test which, by the way Mr. Taxpayer, costs X millions of your dollars each and every year to tell us nothing at all that helps us educate your child. Did you know that Mr. Taxpayer?
    We’ll have a better chance when we take every chance to remind the public, each and every day and in every city across America that the educational experts are in their local schools and not the legislature, not the local coffee shop, and not the editorial pages. We point out that the taxpayers have establishing high educational requirements for us, shouldn’t we use them? Isn’t it a waste of taxpayer money if we ignore the most qualified? The very people we hired to be the most qualified?
    Most of us don’t do that, do we? No one is going to hand us political power, but political power isn’t the only power that matters. If we don’t believe that ideas, words and relationships matter, that they can make a difference, why are we teaching?

  7. Bob

    You make sense, Parry. NCLB test requirements / state standards are minimum content learning expectations. That means, teaching to the test and students earning 100% on the test yields a grade of “C!” Therefore, teachers should routinely instruct beyond the test in order to support faster learners. That will also likely raise school average scores, because faster learners will know more than now to balance scores of slower learners.

  8. Parry

    I really like two points that smh makes, and I would like to expand on them. The first is his/her initial statement: “Teachers SHOULD/MUST BE held accountable producing results.” The second point comes later in the post: “The process begins with student metrics beginning with pre-school and following each student through the conclusion of their education.”
    The current accountability system, with state-based standardized tests, is an attempt to address these points. Using relatively straight-forward metrics (i.e., student test scores), educators are now being held accountable for producing results. I do not quibble with either of these expectations: that accountability or metrics exist. The concern I have is with the nature of the metrics and results that we currently have in place in most states.
    The phrase “teach to the test” has become hotly debated, some claiming that teaching to a test is a bad thing (i.e., teaching to a standardized test limits what we help students to learn) and some claiming it is a good thing (i.e., if a test measures what students should know and be able to do, then teaching to the test means that students are learning what they should). Either way, it has become a truism. Teachers throughout the country really do teach to the standardized tests, using those tests as specific guideposts for what students should learn.
    Getting back to Bill’s and Bob’s initial points, what if we, as an educational community, said this: Yes, we should be held accountable, and there should be metrics used in measuring student learning, but the current metrics are inadequate. As a profession, we are asked to “teach to the test”, but the current test is too narrow. We must expand the test to capture more of what it means to be a well-educated citizen. Students should be completing interdisciplinary projects that allow/require them to demonstrate deep content understanding and problem-solving skills, and these projects should be included in the accountability system. Students should be developing artistic and performance skills—music, visual arts, drama, etc.—and these skills should be measured by the accountability system. Students should be well-versed in the use of various technologies, and effective use of technology to solve problems and create original content should be measured by the accountability system.
    What if we advocated for increased accountability, but using metrics that we believe more accurately measure the full spectrum of student achievement (and the examples above are by no means intended to be an exhaustive list)? Could these metrics all be incorporated into multiple-choice, standardized tests? Hardly, but they could be measured using sophisticated assessment systems, and they could be incorporated into strict accountability programs.
    But if we, as educators, fight accountability, ask decision-makers to lower the bar rather than raise it, can we maintain our credibility? In my opinion, if we want a seat at the decision-making table, our best hope is by setting higher expectations for ourselves and our work, and by translating those expectations into specific metric-based proposals.

  9. Bob

    Good, thoughtful points, smh. I agree that, on the surface, popular rhetoric in the learning mass market asks for guarantees.
    No teacher likely knows the future, so no teacher can warrant how any school learning will affect any student’s life activities, life chances, or life benefits.
    And, teachers only pass on to the next generation what we know. I wonder if we know appropriate content for our students’ lives.
    As teachers, we can and, I think should, approach such matters as calculated risks students will likely face, in the context of if …. , then … propositions. While curricula development and implementation assume such propositions, I think they get lost except by inference.
    I agree that your student who knows only how to find a math problem answer with a calculator or other computer will likely have more difficulty figuring out that answer when the power turns off. And the opposite for students who learn standard Mandarin and English, nano physics and technology, astrophysics and other content existent in some PK12 school curricula.
    It seems reasonable that teachers should consider preparing, thinking, talking, and acting in and out of schools in terms of probabilities vs. absolutes.
    After all, education is the only social institution that gives priority to asking questions without answers necessarily having immediate consequences.
    Oops, sorry, Bill, I stepped on your soapbox again and likely slipped off of your main point. I yield it back. 🙂

  10. smh

    Teachers SHOULD/MUST BE held accountable producing results. Basic education through college should provide focused objectives – otherwise teachers might as well be selling snake oil. From your post, Bob, the marketplace is demanding that education guarantee a child’s place in society to the best of its ability. Engineering school, medical school, and law school strike me as working examples of focused education. Students graduating with any of those degrees is armed with credentials that can take them where they want to go even if it is outside of their specific field of study.
    As for teacher voice, it seems to me that educators convinced school systems in the 60’s to abandon the 3Rs and broaden the scope of elementary courseware. In my experience with adult learners broadening the educational content before the fundamentals are mastered muddles the minds of most learners. Why solicit teacher voice until teachers demand accountability for their results?
    The process begins with student metrics beginning with pre-school and following each student through the conclusion of their education. With good metrics, deficient teachers can be identified, given guidance and helped along the road to improvement. Merit pay provides the incentive to fuel teacher improvement.
    There is no denying that many factors in education are incalculable. But student progress is measurable using a number of methods. Not only can it be measured, it can be automated and correlated with other data. Experience will provide other insights we cannot yet identify.
    Term-to-term student evaluations of teachers can generate more usable metrics. This too can be automated and correlated.
    There is great value in the use of modern technologies in education, but this too must be cautiously integrated into the learning process. For instance, as interesting as a Discovery Channel program might be it is not a good learning tool, but it is an exceptional stimulator that can be exploited for educational ends. A calculator dulls a student’s grasp of math while an abacus expands a student’s comprehension of math. Need I mention the spellchecker?
    In the hands of a skilled teacher, modern technology can be exploited to enhance learning. It will never eliminate the effort required to learn to learn.
    In my view as an adult educator, professional educators demand to take responsibility for the successes and failures of their students.

  11. Bob

    Thanks, Bill, for acknowledging my comments. You raise an intriguing precipitating question for a dissertation or larger research project.
    I think most teachers agree that different views exist about teachers’ participation in formal schooling as well as in the social institution of education. Your questions address both foci.
    At their cores, many teachers hold different visions of schools and education from non-educators.
    A short story illustrates the point about different visions:
    One of my secretaries, an accomplished, hardworking person who took the position for family income, said she wanted her daughter to learn a marketable skill at the state university.
    I said, “Liberal arts higher education prepares people for working, if they so choose, in many vocations, including ones that no one has yet invented.” “I want a guarantee of employment, a certificate for a job. I’m paying lots of money for her to go to school. I want to know that she can take care of herself when she graduates. That’s how I’ll get my money’s worth from her college work.”
    I’ve heard this same syllogism many times from parents and students. Probably you have also.
    They expect a result from schools for which no educator (can now individually or together) accept responsibility. We don’t guarantee anything. It’s an open issue, if we could or should.
    As a teacher, that means they expect that I must figure out how to translate my actions into measurable results that students can show as progress toward their reason for attending school, whether or not I like or agree with those expectations.
    That’s a major challenge, especially when I think I know what’s better for the student than the student knows.
    Point: Teachers must increase student learning results closer to other people’s expectations, and not just those results measured by tests. Teachers and non-educators disagree about who knows what’re best learning results for students. Teachers will likely continue to have to figure out how to increase student learning results, regardless of what we think or say, or the associations we form.
    Does that point make sense?

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