Teaching Profession Opinion

From ‘Trusting Teachers’ to Organizing Around Quality

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 05, 2014 4 min read
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A window of opportunity has opened for teacher leadership.

In his state-of-the-state speech last year, Gov. Jerry Brown railed against the education hierarchy and testing system saying, “I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work--lighting fires in young minds.” But how? Public school teaching is embedded in an institution that is deeply hierarchical in its demarcation between teachers and school administrators. Teachers often gain flexibility in their own classrooms, but flexibility signals autonomy, not leadership.

In a little book, Taking Charge of Quality, now 15 years old, my colleagues and I put forward some ideas that might make trusting teachers workable and also support Brown’s principle of subsidiarity. Teachers could and should take charge of educational quality and thereby revitalize both their schools and the unions that represent them.

Teachers are knowledge workers, not industrial workers, and they ought to be organized around how they get and use knowledge as much as they are organized around the industrial unionism touchstones of “wages, hours, and conditions of employment.” To borrow from another book title, unionized teachers should be United Mind Workers.

The confluence of the Common Core of State Standards and California’s local control funding and accountability systems raises the window of opportunity enough to let the knowledge worker part of organized teaching flow from ambition to reality. Here’s how:

Define quality learning. The local control funding system requires that school districts set their goals, not just on how they will do on the Smarter/Balanced assessments that are being piloted in the state. The state requires eight accountability areas, but there is lots of flexibility in what the actual indicators are and how those are going to be measured. What an incredible opportunity for teachers. For the first time, teacher interests and parent interests play out in the same political arena. (See this report on Los Angeles Unified’s 47-member advisory committee.)

Define and enforce standards for good teaching. California has very good standards for teaching; it doesn’t have a good system for building those standards into the everyday lives of teachers. It is one thing for the standards to say teachers ought to be able to demonstrate knowledge of content and pedagogy, but entirely another for teachers to be able to articulate what that means in everyday work. When you talk to teachers about quality teaching, they are likely to say, “well, you just kind of know,” or “you can tell the moment you walk into a classroom.” Perhaps, but teachers need to make that tacit knowledge explicit. Industrial workers don’t have to define and enforce standards because management defines their jobs, but craft workers and professionals create common standards for themselves, and they enforce those standards.

We need everyday practices that require teachers to become articulate about their own work. The confluence of new standards, finance systems, and accountability create the opportunity to make a virtuous circle out of teacher training and selection, professional development, and peer review-driven evaluation.

Substantive Professional Development. School districts that operate peer review systems--such as Poway or San Juan Unified--also invest in professional development. Teachers visit one another’s classrooms. Mentors appear. Teachers increasingly build professional development that they create and control. And they negotiate time in the workday for teachers to work together and build their skills.

Danger or Opportunity?

Organizing as knowledge workers is received badly by some teachers and administrators. “I can’t imagine giving teachers that much power,” an assistant superintendent told me recently. And an angry teacher marked up a copy of Taking Charge of Quality saying, “I do not want to pay union dues to an organization that does anything but help me in defense, income, benefits. Do you understand?”

But others see enormous opportunity. At the most recent California Teacher Union Reform Network meeting, the participants worked on ways to broaden what is measured under the state’s local control accountability system. Shannan Brown, president of the San Juan Teachers Association and California Teacher of the Year in 2011, is seeking to develop an alternative to standardized-testing-driven schooling. “The quick measurement (frequent tests) has taken this idea of a learning institution [and made it] completely backwards. We take test scores as the goal of education instead of saying what do we value and how do we know if it is going well? And what will we do in response? It’s a different mindset. But being in a room like this and hearing people talk about their work makes me hopeful.”

Despite Gov. Brown, no one is going to trust teachers to come up with better ideas until they actually do, and probably not even then. The political environment is not just going to “let teachers teach” as they wish. Brown has not so much provided them a free pass as he has thrown down the gauntlet to come up with a powerful agenda.

The opinions expressed in On California 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.