Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Don't let a few bad apples ruin the whole bunch

Alternatively titled--Yes, we'll have no bad apples...if we just break the unions

How many more twists on fruit-related idioms and song titles can one blogger come up with???

Time magazine has, in its inimitable way, fanned the flames of the education culture war by joining the battle against teachers, or at least “bad” teachers.  With a pithily evocative cover about “rotten apples” and an analysis urging the breaking of the unions’ supposed vice grip protecting sub-par teachers, we are subject, once again, to the flaccid thinking that encourages the misguided politicization of teaching and learning.  

Let us be clear, there are some teachers who do not perform very effectively--as in any other profession.  But let us be equally clear that greater ease in firing bad teachers is no panacea.  Indeed, hope that such a narrow and specific administrative change will “fix” education dangerously simplifies the complex reality of what teaching, learning and schooling are.

Whereas teaching and learning are highly relational activities, education is a complicatedly bureaucratic activity--and growing more complicated and bureaucratic all the time.  Rules, regulations and reform programs of all types have caused decision making and monitoring authority over schools to migrate further up the organizational flow chart to the bureaucrats who work in state capitals (or in Washington, DC).  While good-intentioned, these organizational actors work with a limited number of educational standard operating procedures for what a school should do and be, protocols which have varying degree of relevance to the particularities and peculiarities of the broadly diverse schools under their bureaucratic care.

Creating something of a chicken and egg riddle, this increasing bureaucratization goes hand in hand with the drive to “measure” every educational outcome.  Indeed, this process has stimulated the generally accepted insistence that we identify and privilege only outcomes that can be numerated for easy and supposedly objective measurement.  All the while we assume that what we can numerate actually corresponds to “getting an education,” which is itself a richly nuanced process that varies from learner to learner.

But enough philosophizing.  A more fundamental and practical problem follows from the oversimplification indulged in the “fire bad teachers” approach.  The standardization of education has wrought the routinization of teaching, because curriculum designed to maximize test scores also minimizes the chance of variance among teachers.  

This sounds appealing, but when that curriculum comes in the form of pre-fabricated material and lessons, mandated by district central offices, teaching is routinized (not to mention learning) in such a way that we undermine our very desire to get high quality personnel into class rooms.  Engaging, thoughtful and challenging teachers tend, on average, to want to create--with curriculum, with supplementary material, with subtle changes to the assigned work, and so on.  They’re less inclined to want to work within narrow bureaucratic mandates about numerated goals that may or may not reflect anything worth learning.

Suffice to say, the kind of teacher I’d like my children to have is probably less likely to survive or thrive in an education environment bureaucratized in the way in which we are currently heading.  As one of my colleagues put it, “why bother doing anything unusual--or interesting?  It’ll just get vetoed by the bureaucrats.”  

Consider the metaphoric apple imagery of Time’s cover.  The routinization of teaching and learning, to make both fit within the bureaucratic requirements of education, risks leading us to a world of Red Delicious apples--a steady stream of bright plump fruit that are revealed, upon eating, to be a tasteless pulpy mass housed in a tough leather exterior.  Teaching and learning are activities as richly diverse--indeed, more diverse--than the breadth of apple varieties.  

But the education bureaucracy--the educracy?--making centralized administrative decisions about what schools should do and be will generate a preference for the attractive looking Red Delicious, and in the essentially human task of passing knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next we will have less time and attention for the Gala, the Granny Smith, the Fuji, the Honey Crisp, and so on.

Finally, if we do go down the road of firing all the “bad” teachers, it is imperative that we identify--ahead of time--what success and failure of the policy will look like.  Far too often, as in the Race to the Top School Improvement Grants, we endure philosophical claims about what will happen, and no amount of evidence to the contrary dissuades proponents of their self-assured, but empirically unfounded, confidence in their favorite programs.

Ultimately, we should check our confidence about any of this.  Teaching and learning are not only relational, they’re repetitive, a bit sloppy, and most of all, idiosyncratic to each learner.  Hoping there’s some sort of short cut through the hard work of them both is a fool’s errand.

No comments: