Teaching Profession Commentary

‘Show Me the Power’

By Jillian N. Lederhouse — June 13, 2001 8 min read

Two conversations about teaching are taking place simultaneously across the nation. The first centers on the question, “How can we make teachers more accountable for their work?” The second, on this question: “How can we attract our brightest and best students to the field?” Both questions are valid, and both are important for the future of public education. Unfortunately, most of those engaged in these conversations about teaching are failing to see the interrelationship of the two.

The various interpretations of standards-based instruction and assessment often result in many detrimental effects.

The standards movement and the quest for accountability are noble causes. We need standards to ensure that all students are offered a rich curriculum that enables them to master broad and meaningful content while developing proficiency in the skills needed for a productive life. Standards require us to work toward equity, and remind us of our ultimate educational destination: the development of well-rounded, capable citizens. The various interpretations of standards-based instruction and assessment, however, often result in many detrimental effects. These include “teaching to the test,” inappropriately tying funding to test results, and requiring classroom teachers to adhere to a prescribed curriculum and instructional format in the hope of improving student achievement.

While many debate the ethics of teaching to the test, my concern about that practice is more one of what is being left untaught. With standardized testing forcing so much emphasis on basic skills such as reading and writing, many other aspects of the humanities are being neglected without apology. Few of the fine arts are included in such testing and, if so, are measured only in ways that fit a multiple-choice format. As a result, they get little space in actual learning time throughout the school year.

With standardized testing forcing so much emphasis on basic skills such as reading and writing, many other aspects of the humanities are being neglected without apology.

How do these casualties of testing play out in the classroom? Consider, for example, the frustration of an experienced 3rd grade teacher in a high-scoring district in my state. For years, she and her grade-level team spent eight weeks studying Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” In addition to the fine arts, this thematic unit incorporated literature, geography, history, and writing, as each student wrote, illustrated, and “published” his or her own retelling of the tale. The unit culminated in three performances that featured the singing, acting, and dancing of nearly 100 3rd graders, in a challenging but developmentally appropriate school production. The impact of this curriculum was so significant on her students and their community that the teacher’s school became known as “The Nutcracker” school.

This curricular emphasis did not come without cost, however. The 3rd grade teacher often wondered if her team should continue the innovative study in light of the pressure to improve test scores. Because of state assessments, she and her colleagues already had dropped their spring-semester study of Humperdinck’s opera “Hansel and Gretel,” during which former students returned from high school to introduce their orchestral instruments to the present 3rd grade classes.

“I had to drop it,” this teacher recounts, “because I have too many students who enter 3rd grade without understanding what a sentence is. And by early spring, they have to be able to write a five-paragraph narrative, expository, and persuasive essay with main ideas and supporting details for the state test.” She goes on to explain that, even with a significant amount of class time spent on the writing exercises, some of her children cannot recognize the difference between a main idea and a supporting detail. That skill is just not developmentally appropriate for them.

Creative teachers, devoted to a richly diverse curriculum, are finding their roles as classroom teachers less inviting than when they began their careers.

Here is what else she relates: “When I think of devoting even more time to writing, I recall the number of times I have checked out at the grocery store and been asked by cashiers, my former students now in high school, if I am still doing ‘The Nutcracker.’ They always remind me of the part they played and tell me they still have their book. No one has ever asked me if I’m still giving the state tests.”

Unfortunately, both this highly capable and creative teacher and her memorable unit of study have now retired from 3rd grade. Although I am sure that the creators of state learning standards did not intend such a paring down of the curriculum by the standards’ implementation, this type of fallout is occurring throughout the country. And creative teachers, devoted to a richly diverse curriculum, are finding their roles as classroom teachers less inviting than when they began their careers.

Fortunately, in my state, funding levels are not keyed directly to annual increases or decreases in schoolwide achievement, as is the case in some states. I have heard from several recent graduates teaching in Western states alerting me to discourage other education students from following their career paths. Their principals have told them to eliminate hands-on, experiential learning in favor of direct instruction, in order to cover the entire curriculum before the state tests are given in early spring.

Administrators feel this pressure because budgets are tied directly to achievement. This type of “accountability thinking” ignores differences in present student and teacher resources or student needs and learning styles. Though well-intentioned, it is a philosophy that results in the creation of what William Ayers has described as parallel school systems: one system for the privileged, one for the poor. Under these conditions, those who have much get more, and those who have little get even less. What would call a bright, caring, and creative teacher to teach in such a defeating system?

Because of low test scores, several public schools in Chicago are now similarly required to implement authorized, packaged lesson plans that focus exclusively on direct instruction for every subject area. Teachers’ roles in such classrooms are reduced to delivering, rather than creating and adapting, curriculum. Again, how could an intelligent, idealistic educator feel that he or she could make a difference in this type of learning environment?

In every session at teacher education conferences that has focused on the projected teacher shortage, I have heard the suggestion that we increase teacher salaries. But, unlike the famous movie line from “Jerry Maguire,” I don’t think the total answer for today’s aspiring teachers is “Show me the money.” It is, instead, “Show me the power.” Unless we ensure that the ability to make intelligent, student-based, creative educational decisions remains in (or returns to) the classroom, we will never be able to attract and keep the type of teachers we most want in the profession.

I don’t think the total answer for today’s aspiring teachers is “Show me the money.” It is, instead, “Show me the power.”

I only have to look around the room at such teacher education meetings to find confirmation of this. Every one of my colleagues in attendance started his or her career as a K-12 teacher. All of us traded in the K-12 classroom for one at the college level. Yet, many of us would have made more money in our former positions than we do in our current ones. It was not the money that made most of us leave the schools, but rather the lack of creativity and self-direction. We needed a teaching position with more imaginative space, more ownership, more room to make a difference. This comes only from having the autonomy to make one’s own educational decisions.

It is this decisionmaking ability, I believe, that defines any profession. Consider, for instance, the current frustration of physicians fighting health-maintenance organizations that take the decisionmaking ability out of their hands and place it in the hands of people with no medical training or knowledge of individual patients.

In the same way, deciding on a curriculum and instructional approach without direct knowledge of individual students’ interests, needs, or abilities creates a classroom in which both students and teacher are equally unengaged and frustrated. Talented teachers grow weary of such a system and look to other fields to make their contribution.

Under the guise of “raising the bar,” additional regulation of teacher certification and educational practice can be seen instead as nothing more than layered “hoop jumping” that deters the brightest and best from embracing the profession. Rather than equating a maze of paperwork with competence, educational regulatory agencies need to make securing and maintaining a teaching position a more respectful and user- friendly process.

While offering power to classroom teachers demands a significant level of trust, it doesn’t mean granting a license to harm students. Just as lawyers and doctors are expected to operate according to their professional codes and protocols, teachers with power will still be expected to maintain the high pedagogical and ethical standards required of their vocation.

By removing decisions from the hands of classroom practitioners, public education has more to lose than its most capable contributors. Instructional methods and ways of developing curriculum will change more slowly without the active involvement of teachers. Maxine Greene and other scholars in the field have challenged teachers to continually question everyday practice.

This, in fact, is the fundamental question in education research. The only way to improve educational practice is to constantly scrutinize its commonplace assumptions. Who is better able to offer such insight than those caring, creative, and intelligent individuals who are most actively engaged in the discipline? For the future of American public education, we need to ensure that classroom teachers will have the power to make a difference.

Jillian N. Lederhouse is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Show Me the Power’


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