This week, National Board certified teachers gathered in Washington for the National Board’s annual Teaching and Learning conference. They were presented with a beguiling vision of teacher leadership, from both Arne Duncan and Bill Gates. It is beguiling because it offers NBCTs an opportunity to grasp something that teachers desperately desire - a sense of authorship over their classrooms, and genuine influence over future education policy.
But what is being offered calls into question the meaning of true leadership.
Here is what Duncan promised in his speech:
That's why Ron [National Board CEO Ron Thorpe] and I are working together on an initiative called Teach to Lead. Our aim is to encourage schools and districts, and hopefully even states, all over the country to provide more opportunities for genuine, authentic teacher leadership that don't require giving up a daily role in the classroom. And because this only works if superintendents and principals see it as part of the solution, they'll be involved from the start. We will convene a group of teachers, principals, state Chiefs, teachers' groups and district leaders, among others. This group will take the steps necessary not to create white papers to decorate shelves -- but to foster real-world commitments on teacher leadership. This group will announce significant commitments from districts, teachers' groups, and others who want to be part of the solution to make teacher leadership real at scale -- using the ample existing body of work on this as a springboard for action. And I want you to hold us accountable at this event, a year from now, for what we've been able to accomplish.
This initiative, unfortunately will not yield much beyond some plum positions, if I might employ my crystal ball. And if you think I am being cynical, well, I think recent history supports my pessimism.
It was just two years ago that Secretary Duncan launched a similar effort, called Project RESPECT.
Duncan stood before a teacher “town hall” in February of 2012 and said,
So today, we formally renew this national conversation around the future of teaching. I am absolutely convinced that the future of the teaching profession and the future of our nation are inextricably linked. We look forward to hearing your ideas, following your leadership, and pursuing your vision. As we fight to strengthen our nation economically, as we fight for greater social justice through strong and genuine educational opportunity, the voice of teachers has never been more important. This new vision will not appear overnight. There will be areas of disagreement. It will proceed in different ways in each state and district. There will be no single formula for success.
Who has been at the helm of education policy since 2009? How many times is Arne Duncan going to promise to give us that seat at the policy table? Over the past decade and a half we have seen the teaching profession steadily eroded. The Department of Education provides multi-million dollar grants to the already bloated Teach for America, while calling for higher standards for the teaching profession. Secretary Duncan says we should avoid teaching to the test, but NCLB waivers require that teacher and administrator evaluations give significant weight to test scores.
If leadership is appointed and anointed by those in power, then it can be revoked by those in power. So if we want to be leaders, we are better off developing that status in a way that does not rely on such official designations.
Leadership suggests influence over others. That influence is not won easily. It does not come simply from the letters “NBCT” after one’s name. It is earned from the work one does, the example one sets, including judgment, integrity and independence. In a time when our institutions are often subject to unwise policies and pressures, that independence can come with a cost.
Bill Gates’ speech at the conference gave a clear indication of the ends he envisions the leadership of NBCTs serving. He urged the attendees to take a leading role in defending the embattled Common Core standards.
“There are many voices in this debate but none are more important or trusted than yours,”
While Gates now sees that the public trusts teachers, he himself has never trusted teachers much at all, as evidenced by the scant involvement of teachers in drafting the Common Core standards in the first place.
While he came to the National Board to ask their support for this project (and sent a handsome grant of $3.74 million in advance) he has previously disregarded the work of the National Board, and the level of expertise within the teaching profession. In 2011, he and his wife wrote this:
It may surprise you--it was certainly surprising to us--but the field of education doesn't know very much at all about effective teaching. We have all known terrific teachers. You watch them at work for 10 minutes and you can tell how thoroughly they've mastered the craft. But nobody has been able to identify what, precisely, makes them so outstanding. This ignorance has serious ramifications. We can't give teachers the right kind of support because there's no way to distinguish the right kind from the wrong kind. We can't evaluate teaching because we are not consistent in what we're looking for. We can't spread best practices because we can't capture them in the first place.
So to combat this ignorance, Gates came up with the Common Core standards and tests to measure student performance. And as he said in 2010:
Aligning teaching with the common core - and building common data standards - will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.
Gates’ speech also made it clear where he thinks innovation will come from, and it is not from practicing teachers. A report on his speech in the Washington Post relays his message:
Standardization is especially important to allow for innovation in the classroom, said Gates, who used an analogy of electrical outlets. "If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn't be available and would be very expensive," he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said. If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. "To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful," he said.
Our classrooms are now to be the sockets for the various devices that innovators are now working on. Teachers are there to put the plugs in the socket, and show the students how they work. But innovation is the domain of creators of mass-produced tools. Teachers and students are consumers.
A look at Gates-funded teacher “leadership” projects provides a clue about his vision for teacher leadership. Educators 4 Excellence requires prospective members to sign a pledge declaring their support for school choice, for the use of VAM in teacher evaluations, and elimination of seniority protection.
Another teacher “leadership” project that has received Gates funding is Teach Plus, which organized teachers to testify in favor of VAM-based evaluations and the elimination of seniority-based lay-offs in Indiana.
When power and wealth are concentrated, the wealthy and powerful will always look for “leaders” willing to step forward to help them implement their visions. However, when such leadership opportunities are controlled by those in charge, the people in these posts will never be allowed to challenge the privilege and prerogatives of the powerful. These “leaders” lack the capacity to speak independently, and thus have compromised their ability to speak truth to power.
The trust teachers are given is a precious thing, and it obligates us to exercise our consciences and independent judgment. Teachers, students and parents need leaders who draw their strength from their integrity and actions. To take that trust, and use it as leverage to gain positions of privilege, appointed and rewarded by the powerful, is a betrayal of those who trust us.
Remember, if Bill Gates and the Department of Education trusted teachers, they would not have had the Common Core standards drafted by testmakers instead of educators. If they trusted teachers they would not have created the pseudoscience of VAM to try to hunt down the “bad teachers” hiding amongst us. If they trusted teachers they would not create “teacher voice” organizations that require allegiance to their beliefs. If they trusted National Board certified teachers, they would not disregard their expertise until they needed it to sell their Common Core standards and testing system to the public.
Leaders lead. They do not allow themselves to be co-opted and bought off.
What do you think? How should teachers respond to these new forms of leadership being offered by Gates and Duncan?
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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.