The Center for Public School Renewal
Barriers to Teacher Leadership
The author, a researcher at the Center for Artistry in Teaching, recounts some decidedly unprofessional treatment that teachers she works with have received at the hands of administrators. Arey says the stories are not isolated experiences.
The author, a BBC News education correspondent, anticipates the impact that the passage of the ESEA act [passed in January, 2002] will have on American schools (via its testing and accountability provisions) through comparisons to the effects that such testing has had on schools in England. He believes the most serious negative impact of promoting a national curriculum via a large-scale testing program is that "the reforms were done to, rather than with, teachers. The teaching profession has not been a stakeholder in the new curriculum or the new teaching methods. This has demoralized existing teachers and deterred many potential recruits." Baker claims that in "countries where accountability measures have undermined teachers' autonomy, there is now a recruitment crisis." He says, "... this is Britain's cautionary tale: Policymakers must involve teachers in the reform process, and accountability must be balanced by professional autonomy." Here we find a writer with an insight into the connection between teachers' freedom to teach and the public's freedom to know. This relationship forms one side of the triangle formed by the three freedoms. Chester Finn (qv.) acknowledges the importance of a second side of the triangle (parents' freedom to choose and the public's freedom to know). We have yet to find an analyst endorsing the third side, the parents' freedom to choose and the teacher's freedom to teach.
In a pithy diatribe against the education establishment, Buchen provides a much-needed critique of typical school reform proposals that finds "the subtlest an most illusory pretense is the often-heard call for leadership by principals and superintendents." The author feels, instead, "that school reform, to be successful, needs to minimize principals and perhaps even dispense with them. It is the teachers who should push site-based management all the way and become managers of learning." Even though he sees teachers themselves as obstacles to their own successful reforms, he feels it is only teachers' "leadership that will make a difference .... They alone are positioned where all the fulcrums are for change."
Buchen, a CPSR associate, argues that the number of reform programs and proposals coming across educator' desks is so overwhelming as to be oppressive. Further, the implementation of one or more or them -- invariably as "add-ons" -- debilitates the implementers. His recommendation is to declare a moratorium on innovations, find out what teachers want to change, shorten the time they have custody of children, and use that "found time" to enact those school improvement solutions that teachers feel they can support. He feels that just the moratorium, if it "resulted in more breathing room and reflective time for teachers, ... might be all that is needed."
Mr. Cohn, former superintendent in Long Beach, California, and superintendent in San Diego, California (the state's third- and second-largest districts, respectively), takes aim at the inadequacies of the No Child Left Behind Act. He complains that "... educators willing to occupy [the] middle ground of praising its principles while pointing out its practical flaws have been guaranteed the educational equivalent of a swiftboating.' Their motives are questioned. They are ... criticized for placing the needs of adults ahead of the needs of children." Cohn lambasts the top-down federal mandates that come with NCLB and the way they were implemented in San Diego before his arrival. He notes that during his long career "the large-scale application of so many theories of school reform [have] failed to live up to the expectations of reformers. ... The lesson of these failures is that there are no quick fixes or perfect educational theories. School reform is a slow, steady, labor-intensive process ... heavily dependent on harnessing the talents of [individual teachers] rather than punishing them for noncompliance with bureaucratic mandates and destroying their initiative." He cites ground-level solutions in individual schools as having the best chance for success, a success "dependent on empowering those at the bottom, not punishing them from the top." We certainly agree.
This short commentary says it all about the loss of status teachers have suffered as a result of 20 years of teacher-bashing at the hands of those who claim to favor school reform.
Another pointed commentary from American History teacher Harshbarger. In it he suggests that principals "don't need more authority. They need less responsibility. They can stop pretending to be instructional leaders.' Instead they can rediscover their roots and become administrators again." Teachers, relieved of "administrivia," will then be free to develop the skills and insights required for the real work of teaching.
The author draws a crystal clear connection between efforts to make teachers more accountable, while also trying to attract the best and brightest to the field. In short, she faults the accountability movement for creating conditions that no above-average (or even average) teacher, or teacher-candidate would find attractive. Those conditions for accountability narrow and "teacher-proof" the curriculum so much that Lederhouse wonders "What would call a bright, caring, and creative teacher to teach in such a defeating system?"
She goes on to note that calls to increase teacher salaries (i.e., "show me the money") are less likely to appeal to teachers than efforts to "ensure that the ability to make intelligent, student-based, creative educational decisions..." and that until we can make that assurance "we will never be able to attract and keep the type of teachers we most want in the profession."
Not only will ham-handed accountability drive talent out of teaching, but Lederhouse feels that it will also slow the development of curriculum and instruction since teachers' roles will not be to assess and improve instruction, but only to deliver instruction designed by others. "Who," she wonders, "is better able to offer such insight [to improve practice] than those caring, creative, and intelligent individuals who are most actively engaged in the discipline? For the future of American education we need to ensure that classroom teachers will have the power to make a difference." Amen
This interesting commentary is based on their book Becoming Good American Schools: The Struggle for Civic Virtue in Education Reform (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002) The authors critique most school reform as a "mill--a system of institutional gears and pulleys that, in sad irony, impedes meaningful change" and "squeezes the moral life out of civic-minded reforms with its unyielding attachment to technical and rational processes." This kind of reform produces "teacher-proof" packaged materials and prescribed training that block, rather than facilitate, fundamental shifts in norms and practices. "Instead of forming professional communities committed to using knowledge, analytic skill, and critical perspectives to shape their practice, teachers are asked to swallow 'expert' prescriptions for such techniques as interdisciplinary units or problem-based learning." The authors see this approach to reform as too weak to challenge those elements in society that are threatened when poor children become better educated, or when a redistribution of power and resources occurs.
Most teachers choose to get along by going along with whatever the reform mill requires. However, in every community they studied, the authors found educators who struggled against the reform mill--people who embraced reform as a civic virtue, rather than a set of packages and practices. Their observations led them to choose "betterment" over reform: where parents, educators and policymakers engage in discourse about how schools promote the public good as well as individual gain. The authors say that betterment asks schools to confront the "cultural contradictions" that define civic life. Here, they mean beliefs that exist among better-off elements of society, who benefit when some of those same beliefs support a substandard education for poor children.
In spite of their focus on local struggles to improve education, the authors see a role for top-down leadership--to create the political clout and capacity schools need to serve the common good. This recommendation is similar to one made by the authors of The Teaching Gap (qv. Stigler and Hiebert), and presents the same dilemma: can top-down reform provide the support (as Oakes, et. al. say, "the necessary safe space") that local reformers need to accomplish their work? We hope so, but we sure would like to see the authors' plan for bringing that about.