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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Loss of Academic Freedom

By Peter DeWitt — December 30, 2011 4 min read
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“Because teaching as a profession is so poorly understood there’s always the temptation for those not active in the classroom to try to “codify” it and make it seem like some mechanical process which can be “time and motion” studied and optimized.” Scott Johnston, Australia

In decades past, teachers were allowed to teach what they wanted when they wanted. Administrators did not enter the classroom unless they were there to discipline a student. Usually they stopped at the doorway and with a wave of the finger, the student in trouble left the classroom, as the students left behind whispered and made eye contact with peers. Going to the principal’s office is something students remember forever.

Those were the days when there were clear boundaries within the school building. Principals were not in school to be educational leaders. They were there to be disciplinarians, although there were many who provided academic guidance to their staff. The roles were defined. Principals disciplined students and teachers taught them.

That was not a perfect system, so as the years passed by parents, educators, students and politicians were looking for more out of their school system. In the early 1980’s educators were hit with, the now very famous, “A Nation at Risk.” Teachers and administrators learned they were failing and things needed to change, so those in power did what they do best, they moved forward without trying to maintain balance. Education became standardized and ultimately testing dominated, even though research cautioned that this was not the best approach.

It must be disheartening to work so hard and spend so much time honing a craft and finding out that you are failing anyway. Oh yes, that is the lesson we are learning now in our present situation. There must be another lesson in here for all educators, which is that we have to be careful not to do the same thing to our students. If they need help, provide it, but don’t do to them what is being done to us. Don’t make them feel like failures if they are working hard. Everyone has strengths, help them find it.

Loss of Balance
Our current system has to do with money more than it has to do with good educational practices. Most of those in power do not know about education and research and buy-in...yes BUY-in to what large wealthy publishing companies sell. If our school systems are not failing yet, they will be by the time state and federal education departments, and some of the politicians who surround us, are done.

Education clearly cannot go back to the way it used to be because there were too many inequities. Too many inequalities. Unfortunately, those inequities and inequalities still exist today and high stakes testing has done very little to change that. Education cannot keep going in the present direction. There must be a balance between the good ole days where teachers and students could be do whatever they wanted and the present situation where educators share a unified curriculum.

I understand the need for a shared curriculum. Too many schools were not meeting the needs of their students and a curriculum provides a road map to meet those needs. A shared curriculum is strict enough to provide guidance but loose enough that teachers can approach it differently. They can still be creative with their students. What educators do not need is the present textbook dominated test taking oriented state of affairs. Testing is ruining education.

They’re Watching us Abroad
The other day I received an e-mail from Scott Johnston who is a correspondent in Australia. Connecting with educators is the best part about writing for Education Week. Scott shared his views on the education woes we are facing in the U.S. He touched on high stakes testing and the privatization of the public school system and he said that many countries follow the lead of the U.S. so teachers and administrators in other countries are watching what we do and they are worried.

“If what you are involved in ever felt like a freedom fight, I think it actually is. And because Australia slavishly follows American trends it’s in my interests that you succeed!” Scott Johnston

What if their countries follow suit?

This loss of academic freedom is creating situations where educators have to focus on results and not on process. Perhaps it’s because I am in the middle of reading the Republic of Noise by Diane Senechal (Rowman & Littlefield) but I feel as though our educational system is filled with a great deal of noise. Educators are being bombarded from all sides and all of that noise is affecting classroom and building climates.

Educators hear that they are failing at the same time that they are tirelessly working to incorporate 21st century skills and all types of technology into their classrooms to meet the needs of students. Those educators fortunate enough to have proper resources, and supportive administrators, spend months getting students ready for longer and longer state exams, when those same students lack the attention spans to sit down and take exams that last longer than 60 minutes per day for numerous days.

We need to find a better balance between the days of old when there wasn’t a unified curriculum and our present system that is killing creativity. The education systems at the state and federal levels can provide us with our curriculum, just as long as they really take into account the “feedback” they often say they are asking for, and they can take back the over focus on exams. Educators can create their own formative and summative assessments on a local level.

As educators, we need to find a balance for our students. We need to be creative and create positive classroom experiences but at the same time, we need to speak up and speak out about the present testing focus. At a time when we are concerned about testing, some state education departments are increasing the time of the tests. That is a loss of balance that we can no longer afford.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.


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