Education Opinion

The Token Teacher

By Nancy Flanagan — August 16, 2010 3 min read
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I have a friend whose developmentally delayed adult son has a job at a local grocery. One of his regular tasks is collecting the grocery carts scattered around the parking lot and taking them back to the entrance of the store. He enjoys having a real job, and takes pride in getting those carts back quickly and competently. The grocery chain hired an efficiency expert to teach employees how to standardize their daily routines, to work economically. The experts took this young man out to the parking lot and showed him the diagram and sweep pattern they had decided would most swiftly and effectively clear the parking lot and get carts back into circulation. The young man was troubled and confused--why would they ask him to follow a diagram? It made no sense. He’d been bringing the carts back efficiently for years--but they wanted him to start at the far corner of the lot and methodically traipse over areas that were rarely used. He kept saying: But that’s not where the carts are!

For all of the education critics currently pointing out that teaching, duh, is not rocket science, you wouldn’t know it from the current Race to Standardize going on in policy world. Is teaching a cake job that requires little more than a boatload of acquired knowledge, enthusiasm and a knack for working with kids? Or is it serious intellectual work requiring deep understanding of learning standards, curriculum development, valid formative and summative assessments, age- appropriate pedagogical design and 21st century skills?

The Obama ED folks certainly seem to think good teaching is the key to improving our low-performing schools, since they’re convinced that one strategy to turn around a low-performing school is firing an arbitrary percentage of the teachers. States are now leaping on the Common Core standards wagon, hoping to earn backpats and money from the feds, who have also sent a big chunk of cash to multi-state consortia creating common assessments aligned with the standards. Is it essential for a good teacher--the kind of teacher who will raise achievement in tough schools--to have fluent mastery of these common standards, assessments, curriculum benchmarks, 21st century skills, and so on...? Apparently, yes.

So here’s what I want to know: Why is all this critically important work--the intellectual framework and the professional heart of teaching--being done by people who are not K-12 teachers? Isn’t this analogous to the grocery store parking lot, with outside experts defining the content and the tasks? Who is there to tell them where the grocery carts are?

Most educational task forces these days are including an award-winning teacher or two on their blue-ribbon panels. Teachers provide context, the rationale goes: they can give examples from the classroom, review instruction and assessment design for developmental levels, and gosh, doesn’t their name look good in the preface of the hundred-page glossy-cover report? Almost as if they were present at the conception and critical to the work.

There aren’t any big initiatives currently in development--the Common Core standards and proposed accompanying assessments spring to mind here--where teachers are leading the work. The funded assessment-consortia proposals allow for teachers in “validity check” roles--after the standards, benchmarks and assessments are written. There’s a lot of happy talk about teacher “involvement,” but in the end, teachers and their work are targets of the reform, a trickle-down pattern familiar to generations of classroom practitioners.

Here’s a quote on historical turning points from Gail Collins:

We always need to remember that behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.

If we want to invest in a highly skilled teaching force, perhaps it’s time to stop positioning teachers as drop-in observers who should be grateful for the chance to “represent” their peers in important decision-making bodies. Enough with the boring and frustrating process of trying to get teachers to the table.

This should be teachers’ core work. Teachers should be at the head of the table, calling the meeting. The more professional responsibilities we take off teachers’ plates, to standardize and homogenize, the more teachers’ professional judgment is weakened.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that teachers need guiding frameworks, benchmarks and exemplars, and ongoing learning around creating curriculum. But they are the policy enactors--the people whose careers and moral purpose depends on student success--so they need some measure of control and power.

Because they’re the ones who know where the carts are.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.