On Autonomy, Scalability, and other nonsense words of the graduate student life

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…


Quit Hiding the Ball—We All “Teach to the Test”

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]

In the United States decentralized education system (Kober, 2006), those who directly serve the system’s students are often too far removed from national education policy.  People in classrooms and schools are disconnected from policymakers inside federal chambers and executive departments (Chubb and Moe, 1990), and there are no functional feedback mechanisms.[1]  These disconnects aggravate education reform: school leaders implement policy ineffectively because they misunderstand the macro effects of their work, and policymakers misdiagnose because they fail to account for the “institutional realities” inside schools (Elmore, 2004, p. 203).  Focusing reform at the national level may be appropriate to develop strategy, but it is unsuited to fix American education realistically.  Progress will depend on a different set of actors.
School-site leaders and principals are on the ground actors that directly affect schools’ outcomes.  They manage overall school performance and personnel from positions that are more meaningful than policymakers and more central to command than classrooms teachers.  It has proven so difficult to create more good schools in the United States because the national agenda has underemphasized the role school leaders play in driving student achievement.  Additionally, many school-site leaders in public schools, where approximately 90% of our nation’s students attend (Mehta lecture, Sept. 8, 2010, slide 8), are ill prepared to implement the myriad of policy decisions that accompany the positions.  An accurate prescription for education will require increased national support for strong school leadership and policy implementation if reform is to reach struggling public schools that are otherwise “isolated” (Warren, 2005, p. 136) and confused by bureaucracy (Chubb and Moe, 1990). 

[1] The lack of input is observed despite the breakthrough of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 in bringing “Washington to local schools” (Cohen and Moffitt, 2009, p. 12) and the federal legislation that has followed including No Child Left Behind Act of 2001: this infrastructure “does not ensure excellent education, that depends… on how educators use it” (Cohen and Moffitt, 2009, p. 15-16).  In large part, policy does not meet the realities of practice (Elmore, 1992, p. 39).  Education is like many other fields where there is an internal misunderstanding between theories of change and practice (Argyris and Schon, 1974).


They Say “Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant” [Reading Response]

I am just like the optimistic, problem-solving spirits that want and believe we can fix education. I am also like the hard-look, cautious, and critical realists that demand our solutions to be complete, robust, and honest. So when I hear the message from Rothstein‘s “Class and Schools” is that there is no schooling model that we can use to indicate how to teach disadvantaged minority, low-income children well across subjects in consistent years (so stop looking), I come to a standstill. I am not moved to throw stones nor am I moved to shout Amen. One of those, “ok, so what do I do with this?” moments set in. It forces me to come back around to the paper’s shouting opener that there is a design flaw within value-added approaches to measure teachers’ ability to move students.  I am left in a place where I am (1) a bit disappointed and (2) asking “who is the intended audience for this piece?”, “What does the author seek to accomplish?”, and “Does this help or hurt the work of these education actors?”

For transparency and integrity reasons, many should read and consider Rothstein’s piece. Information is powerful—it can make people more cognizant of their messaging and consumers more demanding of their sources.  Having information about reform outcomes is like sprinkling disinfectant over veils of benign ignorance: It’s better than not knowing. However, I do fear that such “guess what” news will turn people off to ideas of innovation—or worse, give ammunition to those who would rather we stop making education excellence and equity discussions such a big deal. But after data and independent variables have been disaggregated about model schools, charter performance, and student achievement, I believe there can still be resolve (and rationality) to keep at the goal of finding solutions. Even if that resolve comes from no other reason than there is no next best alternative: if we stop trying, what else are we going to do?

“Local Control” should not be an obscenity [Reading Response]

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. 

Wolf in “Status Quo” Clothing [Reading Response]

Flexibility and accountability. Laboratories for innovation. Starting Over. Having More Options in the Market. I think the point has been clearly made that the system as exists isn’t serving us well for student outcomes (nevermind test scores or performance). It has also been underscored that it takes lots and lots of effort from the people on the ground and lots and lots of vision, guts, and a refreshing stubbornness from those that are to lead. But how do we get the stability from authorizing political environments (and I mean the voters and taxpayers, not necessarily those making the direct appointments) that is needed to prove a reform is working? To allow a reform to work? That will hold the cord, but won’t yet pull the plug. This is what I want to know. Because as much as I would vote for the bull-in-a-china-shop candidate if it meant grade levels of students would be saved, I dunno how many others would…

I posit that it takes someone that knows both sides of the issues and is party to both worlds. Someone who is legitimate enough to stay, or stay for now. The person who is hungry as a wolf to do the things mounds and mounds of education reform readings tell us work, but who has enough political cover that the status quo posse likes her too (or at least is not calling for her hide). We either find such people (begin to create them) or continue to feed the mob.


Two Thoughts Emerge In My Mind—On “Bad” Schools & “Race” [Reading Response]

Thought #1: What makes a “bad” school? The general answer might include schools with poor student test scores, school violence, dilapidated buildings and grounds, old textbooks, and unhealthy lunch programs. The unsaid, less politically correct answer is schools with lots of black and brown faces (obviously not because they are black and brown faces—though some of the theorists from last week might propose that it is because of those identities--but because, as this week’s readings amplify, segregated schools (bad) and high concentrations of students on free lunch (bad) are more likely to be the experiences of black and brown faces than white faces). Traits of “good schools” consist of the opposite features (perhaps explaining the teacher transfer trend in Georgia from Orfield and Lee, p. 17). And for the most part, our general solution has been to use money to transform the former into the latter. Yet, I find myself asking the same question asked by others: does one overcome the bad schools of the impoverished simply by having more money? I cautiously assert that the answer is “no” (though I make a sharp distinction between poverty being an aggregate condition that needs a large-scale remedy and “poor” as an individual status that might in fact benefit from a wealth transfer). So, I am left to choose amongst other model solutions to meet the challenge… but I am just not sure the importation of one particular model is the way to go.

Thought #2: In this week’s Washington Post, the conversation arose again about the inability of using race as a factor for diversifying schools as a result of Parents Involved v. Seattle School District (2007) ( It seems this article and this week’s readings illustrate the core connections between the identities of the education have-nots and the resources of the education haves, and how our decentralized system needs but struggles to disperse identities and resources within its populations. But this effort at social engineering is a huge undertaking. Perhaps I am simplistic—but I drink of the water that says the teacher-leader and student-parent relationships are the key levers for change. Systems have an obligation to diversify student experiences, but if we are to advance student outcomes, the solution requires far more teacher and administrator self-awareness and vulnerability that I think most are ready for. 


Be Extreme [Reading Response]

Before I approached the readings, I jotted down my preliminary reaction to the Week 2 Student Questions prompt: “What’s your view of the purpose of education?” I suppose now, and assumed then, that I am similar to other classmates in that I have an engrained view on this topic before consulting the readings. My purposes of education? To teach/acquire concrete skills (the three R’s at minimum and occupational expertise through apprenticeship at the other extreme), to socialize maturity and self-awareness as individuals and identity groups, to create civic awareness and promote engagement, to facilitate the competency formations about what we think of one another within and across cultural groups, and to inform our personal and systemic methods of preserving mankind and the environment. I acknowledged that these areas may overlap, and I referred to education as an institution with desired outcomes—rather than as aggregated learning (perhaps with less defined outcomes but more qualitative aims).

The readings reminded me not only of a substantive conflict about “who wins” in the persuasiveness of their viewpoint (like the First Face of Power, “which do I believe in most?”), but also of a battle of relativity (“how much of each viewpoint am I willing to accept?”). Views such as Count’s criticism of Progressive Education may seem harsh or extreme, but the slight adoption of even some of his premises (like accepting that education should teach curiosity—an aspect missing from my purposes list) signals a relative victory for the author. Ultimately, I believe educators and education-interested people need to deeply grapple with such conflicts—without being forced to reconcile different viewpoints. I appreciated them “being laid out on the table,” but perhaps it’s because I started from a pluralistic assumption about education’s purpose. For me, when every side has at least someone who thinks her view is the only view (or that the accepted view should be taken to a more extreme position), I become more engaged—hoping for robust conversation. And, I admit, that’s where I think the real purpose of education lies—somewhere between the extremes.