Friday, September 26, 2014

The Rational Teacher

A couple of the "core" observations that come from economics (at least as experienced at the generalist--read, undergraduate--level) are that incentives affect/shape behavior and everything comes with tradeoffs.  According to economists, people respond rationally to the arrangement of incentives and tradeoffs, as they perceive those.  They (economists) leave it to psychologists to describe and explain the non-rational peculiarities of people, and instead assume that behavior reflects revealed rationality (in this economic sense).  Yes, this view of things relies on a certain set of assumptions (yes, yes, assume a can opener), but every academic discipline does its share of assuming.  For an excellent general and sociologically interesting overview of incentives and tradeoffs, read Nudge.

Teachers are like everyone else...they respond to the incentives you give them--whether intentionally or unintentionally.  So just what do the incentive-tradeoff structures look like for teachers?

The current battles over reform and Common Core obscure, in some degree, deeper issues about varying philosophical orientations to education, particularly the teacher's role vis-à- vis students, and the organizational consequences following on the regulatory realities of the reform movement.

Across the top of the chart below are summaries of an approach to education wherein teachers are thought to have some specialized set of knowledge, wisdom or skills that they are trying to impart to students.  I don't mean indoctrination as a negative, though this "model" is indeed out of favor in Ed. schools and the reform movement.  By contrast, the now preferred emphasis is on teachers "co-learning" with students.  The rhetorical short hand for these models is "teacher-centered" vs. "student-centered," with student-centered held in moral superiority today. 

Down the left side are summaries of two "social" environments in which schools find themselves.  Increasingly, regulation (NCLB, standardization, CCSS, obviously, but other rules about requirements regarding protected groups as well) undermine trust.  It may be the unintentional byproduct of the regulation, but a decreasing sense of trust (of and by teachers) is a real consequence of deepening control by bureaucrats that work at some remove from class rooms.  High Trust and Regulated Environment are inversely related, though low regulation doesn't necessarily mean high trust exists.  Low trust and low regulation would reflect a near total dysfunction, and is not covered in this discussion.

Philosophical View of Education ---->

Patterns of values and behaviors regarding schools
Education as Indoctrination 
Teachers have content knowledge and skill sets to deliver to students; learning accomplished to the degree students receive this knowledge and make it their own
Education as Individual
Teachers “come along side” students to encourage and direct students’ educational processes in more student-driven discovery; education as self-started enquiry

High Trust Environment
Decisions are local and in the building; parents are involved; teachers collaborate with each other and families; schools and teachers safe to try new things
Sage Culture
Must be sure that the teachers are the sages you want, which can be done only with strong and high-functioning relationships between staff and parents.  Currently in disfavor as it’s not “student-centered.”  Also thought of as “traditional” or belonging to bygone era.
Guide Culture
Can be effective education for children--with capable, flexible and adaptive staff, involved parents, and “open” curriculum.  May be delicate to maintain, as high trust is essential, as is good performance.  Both are probably difficult to maintain in the face of creeping bureaucratization.

Regulated Environment
Decision authority resides further up the bureaucratic hierarchy--state and federal departments of education; rules can hamstring relationships by binding teachers and parents
Competing Top-Down Cultures
If the teachers are delivering the content and achieving the outcomes required by the regulation, this will work.  
“Sage” teachers will tend to feel put upon by overweening regulation, though, so this would be a tenuous situation, at best.  If teachers feel the regulatory bodies are alternate “authority” figures undermining or challenging them, this will not work.
Overdetermined Culture
Much more difficult to do, as regulation means structured, routinized and standardized curriculum.  Would likely not be the environment of collaboration between effective teachers and involved parents, because regulatory bodies intervene between the two.  The regulatory authorities heavily determine curriculum, so looser structured classes are less possible.  Since these teachers are more process-oriented than the Sages, the regulatory authorities simply have to assert compelling demands about structures (curriculum, standardized tests, etc.) and outcomes--guides will work with this.

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