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).