Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaching and accountability

The teaching profession, especially in the public schools, had as changed significantly in the last thirty years. Certainly, the content taught has changed some, but the content change is irrelevant to the major change in the profession.

Thirty years ago, society presumed that teachers knew their students, cared about their students, and appropriately tailored the content to the abilities of each student within systemic constraints. Systemic constraints include time available, the number of students in the class, etc. A teacher would devise a lesson plan for the entire class. Then, in teaching the material and interacting with the students, would presumably seek to tailor instruction within systemic constraints to reach as many students as possible. As I retroactively reflect on my first thirteen years of schooling, I can identify ways in which most of my teachers did this. One or two of my teachers were probably incompetent, e.g., my physics teacher loved Newtonian physics and had no inkling of quantum physics.

Today, the presumption has changed. Teachers must document an individual education plan (IEP) for each student in writing to demonstrate that the teacher has tailored each lesson to meet individual abilities and learning styles. This has imposed a tremendous paperwork burden (an ironic term when so much of the material is electronic rather than on paper) on teachers. The massive quantities of documentation required ensure that teachers will use a great deal of boilerplate in drafting IEPs (or whatever a local school district may term the requirement). The massive quantities of documentation also divert teachers from focusing on their primary task: teaching.

This paradigm shift – from presuming that teachers will, as professionals, use prudential judgment in adapting their teaching to each student in so far as possible to presuming that teachers must prove that they perform in that manner through bureaucratic documentation – has numerous parallels in other aspects of our society, e.g., reports required in business, healthcare, and the military.

Not only does the documentation diminish the amount of time and energy available for the real task (such as teaching), requirements for extensive documentation invite gamesmanship that unintentionally encourages unethical behavior, wastes valuable resources on largely non-productive activities, and, perhaps most critically, erodes vital social capital. The gamesmanship emerges when people, not surprisingly, seek to minimize the hardships reporting requirements create, e.g., a teacher using boilerplate to produce IEPs rather than giving in-depth thought to how to best teach student. Complying with these bureaucratic requirements is largely non-productive because most of the people who must satisfy the requirements act (like humans in general) from habit or without conscious thought, e.g., the great teacher who almost instinctively interacts with each student as an individual but cannot explain the why or how of that process.

The erosion of social capital occurs because the imposition of paperwork requirements inherently presumes a lack of trust in the persons/institutions on whom the requirements are imposed. Systemic requirements will never eliminate a relative handful of individuals who either fail to perform adequately or who want to abuse the system, e.g., an individual like my high school history teacher who was an alcoholic. Dealing with such individuals demands managerial and leadership competence for which no amount of written reporting can substitute.

When requiring IEPs failed to produce quality schools, society then demanded tests to measure success in the schools. When a class failed to progress on a projected schedule, the teacher was failing; if too many classes in a school failed to progress, the school failed. Teachers now spend inordinate amounts of time testing students, e.g., a kindergarten teacher testing each of 20 students for 15 minutes in each of 3 subjects 4 times a year is testing rather than teaching 60 hours per year (this is an actual case).

Here is a radical alternative: Trust school administrators to evaluate teachers and learning using subjective assessments; trust school system administrators to evaluate schools and their administrators using subjective assessments; eliminate the requirement for written IEPs and at least 90% of all standardized testing.

Two obvious advantages of this alternative are the dramatic reduction in teacher workloads (no formal, written IEPs to prepare and many fewer tests to administer) and the refocusing of schools on education rather than testing. Basic skills (reading, writing, and arithmetic) are important. However, school children also need to learn social skills (things like good manners that are too often not taught/learned at home), resilience, perseverance, honesty, and other important character traits.

The potential disadvantage of the proposed alternative is the reliance on subjective assessments. One hallmark of a professional is a person who has developed prudential wisdom in a particular field, e.g., pedagogy. Although subjective assessments inherently allow for personal bias, good professionals seek an awareness of their biases and work to overcome them. Furthermore, some important skills and results are not quantifiable, i.e., objective measurement is impossible. Today’s best standardized tests for measuring student learning ignore a host of important variables (e.g., student readiness to learn) and results (e.g., social skills).

Emphasizing results in education is the right approach. Defining results too narrowly ignores critical pieces of what happens in schools, regardless of whether taxpayers, parents, or school personnel believe that those pieces should happen in school. These important pieces include socialization of children into society. Measuring results too narrowly reinforces the emphasis on essential skills to the detriment of other, equally if not more essential, aspects of what children learn at school.

Here are suggestions for improving schools:

1.    Reduce central office district, state, and federal staffs by 75%. States, for example, can specify curriculum – why should each district pay for its own curriculum experts? Stabilizing curricula (apart from knowledge updates in science and history, for example) will reduce overhead costs, diminish the need to replace books, and cut teacher prep time.

2.    Minimize funds spent on building construction and renovation costs to free money for teacher salaries. Teachers, not buildings, are the key factor in providing a quality education.

3.    Start teacher salaries at $50,000 per annum and increase them proportionately thereafter. The social standing and prestige of the teaching profession will immediately jump, as will the quality and quantity of people earning teaching degrees. When teaching becomes a competitive profession children and society will win.

4.    Focus educational efforts and resources on obtaining the right results: good citizens. Anything that does not directly and proportionately contribute to achieving those results represents mismanagement and poor stewardship of tax dollars.

Free and compulsory public school education for all children was instrumental to the United States’ economic prosperity and democratic flourishing. Today, many public schools achieve disappointing results in spite of substantial funding. Large numbers of people despair over the ability of government to improve the schools, turning to misguided options such as charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Every citizen who gives up on the public schools makes a fix that much more difficult. More than any other factor, the nation’s depends upon the future of the public schools, a value consonant with the emphasis that the biblical book of Proverb places on education.

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