Hardly one education policy class goes by without hearing the words "autonomy" and "scalability." The two usually appear in fantasy sentences such as "teachers need more autonomy in their classrooms" or "I think we should consider the scalability of that model before we adopt it." I try not to roll my eyes when it comes out—because it always does, I really do try to be helpful in the discussion. But, there's always that one student—no "one" in particular but "one" all the same—that, trying super hard to sound very smart, interjects with one of the above choice words and then settles back into his or her seat smugly as the rest of the room considers the ridiculous proposal as though it was said by Dewey himself.
Here's what gets me:
Autonomy sounds great… but pursued to its fullness… means probably the very opposite of the point the student is trying to make. (I use "trying" lightly.) When a statement such as the one above is made, "teachers need more autonomy in their classrooms," what I hear the student trying to say is that teachers feel powerless and out of control in a sphere that was designed especially for them. That on their very throne, teachers feel/are-made-to-feel that they aren't worthy of the title they have been given to wear. Teacher as educator. Teacher as instructor. Teacher as leader. Teacher. I empathize with those feelings. I've felt/been-made-to-feel the same humiliation. But I don't think that the tag word "autonomy" is what teachers are really after. "Autonomy" is simply the new "it" word for academics discussing education or graduate students trying to sound insightful. Instead, what I think captures that desire to be appreciated are words like "respect," "contributor," "decision-maker," or "support." Of course, those words don't fit as easily into the same sentence. Any of those words requires that the sentences be restructured to actually mean something or to actually contribute a solution to the discussion. It would be vocalizing that "teachers need to be treated as co-equal decision-makers about how to structure the learning in their classrooms" or "teachers need to be respected when they offer evaluations of students' needs" or "teachers need to be consulted on school policies regarding instructional practices and viewed as policy contributors in best ways to structure curriculum" or "teachers need more instructional support to increase the efficiency of classroom procedures." Any of those will do. But "autonomy" alone is insufficient for me for some reason. What I want to instinctively ask is "autonomy over what?" but then I become the dissenting thorn.
In fact, I would argue that teachers do not want complete autonomy! Most teachers, I would argue, want to know that when they push the little intercom button, someone will be at the other end to address what the teacher needs and (gasp) provide it for them. Most teachers, I would argue, want to know that if they are having "difficulty" with an individual student, they will have a chain of command that will "assist" by diffusing the situation, providing extra monitoring or momentary relief, removing the student, or giving quick professional coaching on how to handle the "situation." Most teachers, I would argue, do not want to have to provide all the supplies in their room (though they often do) or be the only one responsible for restocking the pile when items run low. Most teachers do not want to clean up the "accident" on the floor, the "boo-boo" on the skinned knee, or the pools of water from the roof when it rains. I could go on with my lists, but I think you see my point. It is simply to say that "autonomy" means many things: self-governing, directing oneself, and freedom are among those things. But, I highly doubt that teachers truly want to be left alone in their classrooms to fend for themselves or to make their own ways. Teachers want control over their spheres—just as most professionals enjoy—without the controlling mechanisms that employees and servants are subjected to. Teachers are employees of the school system… not of their administration. The frustration is real, but so is the distinction. So, to use "autonomous" as a word a student is encouraged to throw out into a graduate level conversation without some background statement or context does a disservice to the conversation, to the student and the class, and to my eyeballs until I learn better to control them.
We're here for solutions people! How can we get them if we continue to say nothing….?
Next on the chopping block?: "Scalability" and how its paternalism and indefiniteness make me unable to take it seriously…
One of the more common responses to performance-based measurement systems and an anthem of its critics is that performance-based decision-making in education further enshrines one of the "evils" of modern teaching practices. The argument goes something like this: by measuring teacher outcomes of student performance, "teachers are encouraged to teach to the test instead of teaching _______" [insert the content/skills knowledge of your choosing].
Here's a little secret from a former educator turned education policy graduate students: everyone teaches to the test.
The difference between "those teachers" and the acceptable ones, however, is what one of my law professors would probably call the "test/test" distinction. Meaning, critics are choosing to distinguish bad teacher practices from good teacher practices based on teachers who adopt the test that one prefers versus the other teachers who adopt a test that one does not prefer.
I offer this: teaching to the test is what each of us has been conditioned to do and having been taught to the test is what has made us each successful in our various fields.
Now, that said, let me stop hiding the ball and get into the meat of what I am trying to say.
Life has tests. In my athletic youth, I competed on the swim team and on the cheerleading squad—sometimes individually and sometimes as a group. The lessons that I learned there easily apply to the classroom setting. Envision your goal… think about what it will take to reach that goal… plot your course… and then practice your little heart out. When you perform, your performance will be based on the end goal. When you practice, you will be giving yourself the "test" of whether you will be able to make your goal. It is very natural that the more aligned your practice tests are with the end goal, the more successful your final outcome.
Instead of yelling about performance-based measurement systems, perhaps we should take issue with the tests. Perhaps our standards are too low for our students. However, I doubt that our good teachers purposefully teach students below their capabilities. For example, I was instructed to teach my students rigorous content that pushed their performance levels. Though I got conflicting messages that on the one hand urged me to keep the state performance standards in mind, and on the other hand urged me to keep the NAEP standards in mind… both instructions were getting at the same thing. There is a level of performance that we expect from our students and whatever content, skills, character lessons, or life experiences we choose for them should make them more than able to achieve those outcomes.
Perhaps what I am saying is that teaching to the test is only as bad as the expectations that are set for students and for one's own teaching. I want to teach my students to the tests in life. That means I want to instruct them just as much about how to solve arithmetic by different methods just as I want to instruct them how to use deduction and inference to narrow their responses. I don't think that one of these tests is evil while the other is acceptable. I think that both have their place and instead of attacking the practice, perhaps we adults should get into the meat of what we are really fighting about.
Creating More Good Schools by Strengthening School-Site Leadership and Policy Implementation [A Snippet from my Midterm paper]
The federal role illuminates how the very structure of education hails the national expert over the local novice (and the philosopher-king/reformer over the mass-elected schoolboard member). Similarly, the increased federal role in education, from historical social injustice and disenfranchisement, appeals to our moral notions of guarding the rights of individuals over notions that local control of education breeds tyranny of the majority at the expense of the underrepresented. The top-down, federal-over-state approach becomes synonymous to a government as expert model—or, in a slight alternative, to a national-research-applied-to-communities approach. National education research and the concentration of policy experts in the federal government may justify decisions on educational institutional design or even (gasp) national standards and assessments—but the government as expert model should not apply to everything. Orfield and Lee discussed the fallacy of“using exceptions to the rule to prove a relationship” and I easily see how successful exceptions that have achieved amazing educational outcomes become the expert sources for how to “get it right” in education.
I recognize the benefit that a large sample size of educational practices can extract meaningful lessons which can be applied in concentrated areas, but I push-back on our ability to prescribe too far from the ivy tower and capitol hill. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander—even when they are of the same race or background (a notion that is not new to practitioners). If anything, I agree with Cohen and Moffit’s assessment that “the success of innovative policies and program depends… on whether practitioners and others in the environment posses or can improve capability” (p. 15). Our educational research has lead us to become more precise at determining the true causes of the educational outcomes we observe, but as to the ability to generalize findings to other places, I argue that we have a ways to go to make our findings externally valid. Local control over the administration and operations of education ought remain in local hands (CEO/Superintendent), and accountability and decisionmaking for schools ought devolve rightfully to schoolboards and principals. Localities are experts on its people. And until our local communities of control get better at producing the results we desire, we should empower them with experimental options (like participatory governance of Fung) and incentive support systems rather than dishearten them with low expectations that they are unable to solve their own problems. Some will say trusting locals is what got us here in the first place, but because sunlight is the best disinfectant, I think pointing out shortcomings is the easy part—finding ways to build capacity is the solutions part that will better us all.