Education Opinion

Improving Schools From Within #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 06, 2014 5 min read
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This election season was filled with promises. Those running for office often described either common core or tenured teachers as the thing to change. The more the profession is criticized, the greater the likelihood for those within the system to hunker down and push back. There exists little agreement about what failing schools means. Is it a low graduation rate, a high dropout rate, low reading and math scores, violence, low number of certified teachers, high absentee rates, low morale, high poverty levels, bad teachers or all of these? Recently reelected New York Governor Andrew Cuomo described public education as one of the last remaining “public monopolies”. He is critical of teachers’ response to a two-year-old evaluation system and is supportive of charter schools as the way to crack the system.

Leaders Hold a Responsibility
What we can be sure of is in every school there are leaders working with teachers to provide an environment that is inclusive, safe, encouraging, enriching, and information rich. Those leaders are expected to supervise, coach, encourage, and evaluate those teachers as they do their work. If there are teachers who are not suited for the work, leaders must do what needs to be done. When we don’t, we become complicit with perpetuating bad decisions. Some inherit a bad decision from their predecessor. Leaders do move around more than teachers. Improving and changing the practice of an experienced teacher is hard work. Is it even possible to motivate someone to change? If not, is the strategy to make life so painful for them, they chose to leave? The problem is that children go into classrooms every day. Most encounter teachers who welcome them and encourage them to learn successfully; some don’t.

Leaders, take note. But when a corporation is failing, they look to the leader, not the workforce. When a machine part fails, they look to the CEO, not the person on the line who actually made the part. We are not talking about blame. We are talking about a society where the public values a teacher who is known to them but not the teaching profession. It is a curiosity. Where does the leverage for change and hope lie?

The response from outside of our schools comes in the form of accountability by requiring the passing of new performance standards for students and teachers. Twenty-nine years ago an Education Week Commentary reported on a Psychology Today article about performance standards and school improvement. Because its relevance is so startling, here we share it in its entirety:

Pressuring schools to improve by passing new performance standards for teachers and students will result in poorer education, according to Edward L. Deci, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

Writing in the March issue of Psychology Today, Mr. Deci declares that “the recent rhetoric advocating higher standards, [with its] heavy emphasis on control,” could actually hurt students’ motivation.

“When teachers are pressured and controlled to provide results, they respond with rigid, controlling behavior,” which dampens students’ enthusiasm and creativity, he contends in an article titled “The Well-Tempered Classroom.”

Mr. Deci and two colleagues studied the effects of various teaching styles on student motivation and self-image in 35 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-grade classes. They found that children in classrooms of control-oriented teachers showed less intrinsic motivation, perceived themselves to be less competent, and had more negative self-images than other children.

“I, too, would like to see greater excellence in our education system,” Mr. Deci concludes, “but to get it, I think we need to support systems that encourage teachers to be innovative and self-determining and to promote innovation and self-determination in their pupils.”

As a society it remains evident we have not learned how to engage in conversations about what is failing within the system and how to intervene with policy solutions that make a positive difference. As educators, we know there is a confluence of factors that need attention, and, at that, those factors may be different in each school community. But there are some similarities and one of them is teacher and leader quality. It is a popular button to push.

Leaders Do Make a Difference
Leaders, like their teachers, feel pressured, criticized, and overworked. They are required to institute changes at warp speed; they are the fulcrum; within their offices, the accountability pressures are translated into real life working conditions. Some are lucky enough to work with a leader who does that well. The work is not communicated as a “You have to do this now.” but with a sentiment that “We are in this together. We will figure out how to do this best. It is in our best interest to work closely together. I will support you in every way I can.”

Maybe you thought that 1985 was simply an easier time. But it wasn’t. Certainly, the technology was different. But, there were also artful leaders who knew how to work with the community, the board of education, his or her colleagues, and the faculty to usher in changes without allowing it to escalate into what so many are feeling today. “When teachers are pressured and controlled to provide results, they respond with rigid, controlling behavior.”

The criticism of teachers and our schools is not new, but it might feel like it is mounting. The responsibility to create and maintain warm, welcoming, accepting, safe school environments remains in the hands of the leaders and their teachers. Students need to enter classrooms where teachers create learning environments in which students tackle mountains of information voraciously and master skills successfully. The challenge for school leaders was, and remains, at the nexus of what is happening outside our schools and how it happens within our schools. Leadership is an act of translation, bringing the outside to the door and making the inside ready to meet it.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.