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Once Upon a Time, Not Too Long Ago, Teaching Was Considered a Profession, But Then Came Standardization, Tests, and Value-Added Merit Pay Schemes That

The Rest Is No Fairy Tale

Posted: 2011-12-20

This is from National Association of Independent Schools, Summer 2011.

Westheimer finds it necessary to throw a sop to the importance of standards but then gets to the meat of the matter: Since we can't measure what we care about, we start to care about what we can measure. Great example of how perverted policy has become: feed hungry kids because it increases test scores.



by Joel Westheimer



Picture the history teacher who draws heavily on his own experience and interests to make history come alive for his students. Maybe you know him. Students, parents, and colleagues admire him for including in a 20th-century American history course a unit on the role of protest music in the political upheavals of the 1960s. Imagine another teacher whose students study changing immigration policies in urban centers. She uses original documents as fodder for debate. Imagine a math teacher who uses three classes between her units on abstract and linear algebra to have students investigate the biographies of famous mathematicians, or another math teacher who leads students in a critical exploration into the origins of algebraic thinking.



These are just four real-life examples of teachers who have now been asked to work closely with their colleagues to "standardize" their curriculum. The problem? Different teachers seem to be assigning different projects, not always covering the same material, and holding students to different expectations with regard to homework, in-class discussions, and choice. The inconsistency, in turn, results not only in variation across what is taught but also in complaints from a handful of parents and students about fairness. The solution? "We would like to develop greater consistency with regard to subject matter and teacher expectations of student work," reads one edict handed down to a group of teachers in an East Coast independent school. "Please use this development day to establish a common set of standards" begins another from a Midwestern school.



Increasingly, teachers in both the public and independent sector are being asked to teach the same material in the same way at the same time so that standards and accountability measures can be established.



Of course, there is nothing wrong with standards. Most teachers -- indeed most professionals in any field -- have them. And there is nothing wrong with aiming for some common core of knowledge to be taught in, for example, ninth-grade English. But increasingly, a bottom-line for minimum standards and uniformity is being raised to the top of all curricular considerations. And as our cultural obsession with standardization and accountability measures is increasingly reflected in our schools, the most common complaint I now hear from both teachers and administrators is this: I have been stripped of my professional judgment, creativity, and freedom to make decisions in the best interests of my students.



The degree to which "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" legislation and related reforms have negatively impacted teacher'̢۪ abilities to act in a professional capacity is only beginning to get the attention it deserves. The most offensive examples belong to the public sector, but, increasingly, independent schools have also borne the brunt of the global assault on teacher professionalism. In classrooms and schools across the country, teachers are under attack and the public trust that many teachers once enjoyed is threatened by the media, politicians, school boards, and sometimes even by fellow educators.



De-Professionalization and the New Hypocrisy

Historically, teaching -- especially of the primary years -- was a women's profession. That made teachers easy game for paternalistic administrators and board superintendents. Late 19th- and early 20th-century schoolteachers were bound by strict rules governing not only what they taught but also how they taught it, what they should wear, and how they were to conduct themselves outside of the classroom on their own time. Teachers' contracts typically stipulated that (female) teachers were not to keep company with men, get married, travel too far from the school, consume alcohol, or (this is true) spend too much time in ice-cream shops.



Once teachers might have complained that hard and fast rules dictated from above prevent them from teaching the material that they deem essential or in the way they suspect will be most effective. In a 21st-century twist, it is now the teachers themselves who are often asked to be the architects of their own pedagogical straightjackets.



Through the latter half of the 20th century, the most egregious examples of teacher infantilization diminished. But the various waves of distrust the public has shown for teachers in the form of "teacher-proof" curriculum continued. The popular "Success for All" and other scripted instruction programs continue to be implemented in a large number of schools across the country. Scripted instruction programs and dozens of other examples of regimented curricular strategies seek to minimize the risk of bad teaching by standardizing instruction across classrooms.



Sometimes the stripping of professional authority from teachers can reach comic heights. A couple of years ago, Ontario decided that teachers could not be trusted to decide on a case-by-case basis whether students should be penalized for handing in late homework assignments. In a blanket policy, teachers were forbidden to penalize students no matter when they handed in an assignment. This may have pleased a few select parents (and students), but it made teachers feel as if they had little wiggle room to make decisions on how best to encourage each of their students to succeed.



Although attempts at de-professionalizing teachers are not new, the newfound hypocrisy is striking. There is a veritable avalanche of calls for "teacher professionalism" in school mission statements, policy documents, and strategic plans, but the professionally respectful rhetoric co-exists with newly minted top-down edicts that strip teachers of exactly the curricular and pedagogical decision-making authority that allow them to act as professionals. Once teachers might have complained that hard and fast rules dictated from above prevent them from teaching the material that they deem essential or in the way they suspect will be most effective. In a 21st-century twist, it is now the teachers themselves who are often asked to be the architects of their own pedagogical straightjackets. More and more teachers are being asked (and, seeing little choice, are agreeing) to adopt the task of standardizing curriculum or developing accountability strategies that can demonstrate numerical "value-added" comparisons. A growing number of teachers̢۪ professional organizations are jumping on board as well.



Indeed, attacking teacher'̢۪ professionalism has recently become something akin to a national pastime. In the past year, educators watched in dismay as conservative politicians in Wisconsin, Colorado, New Jersey, and a dozen other states earnestly proclaimed teachers -- not hedge-fund managers, sub-prime mortgage lenders, or bankers -- to be the root cause of their respective state̢۪s (and the nation's) problems. Teachers, they said, earn too much money, have too much time off, and have too much freedom to teach how they please. They called for not only stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights, but also for closer monitoring of their work, for merit-based pay schemes (imagine a politician suggesting that individual doctors within each hospital or clinic compete for their salary on the basis of how many of their patients get better or more sick), and even for video-surveillance of classrooms and laptops teachers take home from work. The message behind many of these campaigns is not subtle: teachers can̢۪t be trusted; they need to be monitored and their practices homogenized.



Even in the some of the most selective independent schools that once prided the immense creative and intellectual power of their teaching force, teachers are being asked by administrators to devote their planning efforts to standardizing the curriculum. These are schools where a majority of the teachers (like the ones I wrote about at the start) have doctorate degrees or previous careers related to subject areas of special interest that they so freely and passionately incorporated into individualized teaching approaches. These are schools where students used to benefit from the creative and intellectual contributions that highly professional individual teachers made in a myriad of ways. Scarce resources (both time and money) are also squandered on stifling new technology such as so-called curricular mapping software in efforts to further regiment a formerly creative and free-flowing process.



In other words, in the name of standardization and equity (of homework assigned, books read, topics covered, and so on), the teachers are being asked to make themselves interchangeable. As a result, the once passionate, personalized, and professional process of curriculum development and teaching is now characterized by assembly-line malaise in a growing number of schools. And students may lose the opportunity to explore the kind of idiosyncratic topics that demonstrate the richness of inquiry itself.



How did this happen?

There is an old parable about a man searching on his hands and knees under a streetlight. A passerby sees him and asks, "What are you looking for?" Hunched over, eyes not leaving the ground, the man replies, "I've lost my car keys." The kind passerby immediately joins him in his search. After a few minutes searching without success, she asks the man whether he is sure he lost the keys there on the street corner. "No," he replies, pointing down the block, "I lost them over there." Indignant, the woman asks, "Then why are you looking for them here?" The man replies, "Because there's light here."



Behind the onslaught of testing and so-called "accountability" measures of the last decade lurks the same perverse logic of the man looking for his keys. We know what matters to most teachers, parents, school administrators, board members, and policy-makers. But we are far less sure how to find out whether teachers and schools are successful in teaching what matters. Since we have relatively primitive ways of assessing students̢۪ abilities to think, create, question, analyze, form healthy relationships, and work in concert with others to improve their communities and the world, we turn instead to where the light is: standardized measures of students' abilities to decode sentences and solve mathematical problems. In other words, since we can't measure what we care about, we start to care about what we can measure.



Of course, I am not being entirely fair. Educational testing enthusiasts do have some ways of measuring, for example, skills related to critical thinking. And the reading comprehension tests are evolving to consider not only whether students can understand the words and structure of a particular sentence or paragraph but also whether they can articulate something about its meaning and implications. But when researchers examine education policies broadly, and the classroom practices and habits that follow those policies, it is becoming increasingly clear that our educational goals and the methods used to assess educational progress are suffering from an appalling lack of imagination.



The first step is to convince not only the broader public but also ourselves that, although teaching the basics is important, it is not enough. Of course children need to learn to read and to write and to add numbers. But they also need to know how to decide what is worth reading and what those numbers add up to.



John Holt may have been the most prescient forecaster of this phenomenon. In his classic 1964 text, How Children Fail, he wrote that the most significant outcome of the drive for "so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think." Teachers, meanwhile, may be pushed to the lowest common denominator of content delivery. Frederick Calder, executive director of the New York State Association of Independent Schools, acknowledged (as I would, too) in a speech to the New York City Guild of Independent Schools, that standardized measures of success have some use for all schools. But he warned that the kind of standardization (mostly through standardized testing) that "becomes dominant or overarching in a school. . . destroys curricular autonomy, negates the whole point of the Socratic method, and smothers original thought, all antithetical to everything independent education stands for."



The Test Scores That Ate Humanity

The cultural shifts that have led to overemphasizing standards and accountability measures in a ridiculously narrow range of skills (basic numeracy and literacy) result in an intellectually emaciated curriculum and reduced professional autonomy for teachers. But the most disturbing loss concerns the diminished value attributed to any educational activity that standardized tests do not measure -- in other words, the educational goals that aren't under the streetlight. When activities other than mathematics and literacy instruction remain part of the school experience, they now are often justified by being linked to better standardized test scores. Arts? Maybe, if there̢۪s time and money left after test-prep or if it can be demonstrated that participating in the arts raises mathematical literacy or literary prowess. Recess? Just enough so children can concentrate better on mathematics and reading instruction (sometimes recess is cut altogether -- in particular for those students who are not performing well on the tests). Most educators will be able to name five or six activities that have either been curtailed or refashioned so that their existence can be justified by citing evidence that engaging in these activities leads to better test scores or academic performance.



One example stands out beyond what might have been imaginable a decade ago. The federally funded School Breakfast Program enables individual states to provide free breakfast for more than 7 million schoolchildren who would otherwise go hungry. Deeply committed volunteers and employees work in thousands of such programs nationwide. But a quick round-up of the websites that describe the various programs reveals a troubling development. Nearly all of these programs feel the need to justify feeding hungry children by citing research that demonstrates a link between hunger and low test scores. The Baltimore program proudly cites research that proclaims, "Students who increased their breakfast participation showed significantly improved math grades." Maryland's Meals for Achievement program observes that "classroom breakfast has a positive impact on Maryland School Performance Program (MSPAP) scores and grades." The Massachusetts program assures the public that "participation in the School Breakfast Program is associated with significant improvements in academic functioning among low-income elementary school children." In Ottawa, Canada (the trend is not limited to the United States), the Q & A section of the website lists "Why is it important to feed children who are hungry?" as their number one question. That this question has to be asked is evidence enough for the point I am making here, but the answer takes away any doubt about the need for educational programs to mold themselves in the image of math and reading score improvement mechanisms:



Children who arrive at school hungry do not perform well in the classroom. Numerous studies have shown that students who are fed are more alert, develop greater self-esteem, have better attendance, and fewer discipline problems. Children who receive a healthy, nutritious head start to the day show a marked improvement in academic achievement.



I should not need to point out that feeding hungry children because they don't have enough food to eat and are hungry should be all the justification any of these programs need. (One wonders about those researchers who are apparently studying children to find out whether alertness and food deprivation are inversely related; should we worry about the control group in these studies?) Rather, gaining public and governmental support for such a program requires evidence that it will help children pass the test.



If educators cannot even provide food to children who are hungry without linking such actions to increased standardized test scores, then the battle for the hearts and minds of the public when it comes to educational goals such as critical thinking, creativity, and civic engagement must be enormous.



But it is not impossible. Teaching what we care about, drawing on our passions and creative ambitions, should not be the exception in our schools.



Reclaiming the Profession: Teacher Professionalism and Democratic Thinking

As of 2009, the U.S. Department of Education listed teacher shortages in almost every state. It turns out that 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years, amounting to 1,000 teachers leaving teaching for greener pastures every day. Contrast that with Finland. "We give our teachers a lot of freedom in their work," said Henna Virkkunen, Finland's Minister of Education. "This autonomy contributes to the popularity of the professionâ€Â¦. After that, it's easy for us when we have the right people." Indeed, in 2010, Finland had over 6,600 applicants for 660 available teaching positions. Getting and keeping the right people in the teaching profession will require a kind of public respect for teachers that is now sorely lacking.



Yet, conveying the importance of a rich educational experience beyond test scores to students, parents, policy-makers, and the public should not be an insurmountable task, despite the recent attacks on the profession. While it is true that a significant portion of the U.S. public harbors distrust and sometimes disdain for the profession of teaching (fueled by anti-teacher animus from media commentators such as those on Fox News), it is also true that a majority of us have had teachers who have made enormous positive impact on our lives, and most parents believe that teaching is about more than narrow tests of performance on myopic measures of school success.



In fact, education goals -- particularly in democratic societies -- have always been about more than narrow measures of success and teachers have often been called upon and appreciated for instilling in their students a sense of purpose, meaning, community, compassion, integrity, imagination, and commitment. Every teacher accomplishes these more artful and ambiguous tasks in different ways. Much as Darwin̢۪s theory of natural selection depends on genetic variation, any theory of teaching in a democratic society depends on a multiplicity of ideas, perspectives, and approaches to exploring and seeking solutions to complex issues of widespread concern. Parents, administrators, and politicians alike all must acknowledge that educators in a democratic society have a responsibility to create learning environments that teach students how to think, how to critically analyze multiple perspectives, and how to develop the passion for participation in the kind of dialogue on which a healthy democracy relies. But only those teachers free to work as professionals, exploiting their own interests and passions have any chance of achieving these goals.



The first step is to convince not only the broader public but also ourselves that, although teaching the basics is important, it is not enough. Of course children need to learn to read and to write and to add numbers. But they also need to know how to decide what is worth reading and what those numbers add up to. And talented teachers need the freedom and professional autonomy to work the magic of their art in a myriad of different ways that defies standardization.



I have one final comment about the parable of the streetlight. Although, of course, shining a spotlight in an area where one did not lose one's keys will not uncover the missing keys, the effects are actually worse than not finding what we are looking for. When we illuminate one area, we simultaneously darken anything outside the circle of light. If you have ever walked at night with a flashlight, you will recognize your blindness to anything beyond the light. If the man and woman in the story shifted their gaze from beneath the streetlight to where the keys actually lay, they would likely be blinded (at least at first) in the newfound darkness -- darker seeming then if they had not been staring in the light for so long. It is the same with our illuminated spotlight on mathematics and literacy testing, on standardization of the curriculum and of teachers̢۪ practices. The first step to drawing attention to the broader walk in the woods might be to soften the focus of the light that now shines so relentlessly bright.



Joel Westheimer is University Research Chair in the Sociology of Education at the University of Ottawa and winner of the 2009 CEA Whitworth Award for Educational Research. His most recent book, with a foreword by the late Howard Zinn, is Pledging Allegiance: The Politics of Patriotism in America's Schools (Teachers College Press). He is currently completing a new book called Reclaiming the Public in Public Education.

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