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What Will It Take to Ensure Educators Have the Freedom to Teach?

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Guest post by Zac Chase

In his essay "I - Thou - It," David Hawkins describes the triangular relationship between the teacher, the student and the content of learning. He refers to that final piece as the "It" of education -- the larger themes of a unit and the key principles a school espouses and attempts to enact in a child's education.

Throughout A Year at Mission Hill, much time has been spent examining the "How" of a school. From the importance of making learning real to the family structure Mission Hill wraps its community within, it could appear at first glance as though this is a school that cares too much about the "I and Thou" part of the learning triangle, and not enough about the "It."

As with many first glances, we would miss much in this interpretation.

The moments and structures we have seen throughout the series document the important work of professional education practitioners' charting the course of learning for themselves and their students. Like all of us, these teachers must know themselves and their students before they can truly bring content alive.

As one teacher puts it in Chapter 10, when describing externally mandated assessments, "Those aren't the assessments that help me guide a child through the school year."

This is not to say the daily work at Mission Hill unfolds without any sort of assessment. To use Hawkins' language, the teachers and staff at Mission Hill are "diagnosticians of behavior" in understanding and navigating the pathways that lead to an intersection between the I, the Thou and the It.

Through constant reflection, Mission Hill's teachers -- and others like them around the country -- are building a fuller understanding of what students need in order to fully grasp what counts, and which tools are necessary to learn the lesson that cannot be learned in the course of a single school day or year.

Few texts chart this argument as well and with as much careful detail as Daniel Koretz's Measuring Up. Koretz echos much of what we hear at Mission Hill when it comes to the use (and misuse) of standardized tests.

In essence, if teachers were to exclusively use standardized assessments to guide their daily practice, they would be no better than the character Vizzini from the movie The Princess Bride, throwing about terms whose meanings don't mean what he thinks they mean.

Here, we find the larger issue, and it is the issue that acts as the spark for the entirety of the work being done around this series -- a larger, more complete conversation around American schooling.

It is a conversation that must continue after the shine has faded from Chapter 10 if American teachers are to have the freedom to teach championed by Mission Hill Founder Deborah Meier. That same call for freedom of practice can also be seen in Finnish Lessons Author Pasi Sahlberg's recent Washington Post piece hypothesizing what might happen if the much-touted Finnish teachers were to find themselves in American classrooms.

Performance would not improve, Sahlberg contends, because "education policies in Indiana and many other states in the United States create a context for teaching that limits (Finnish) teachers to use their skills, wisdom and shared knowledge for the good of their students' learning."

How, then, to give more teachers the freedom to teach? The answer is the same as it ever was - knowledge. In this case, though, the knowledge must come in the telling of stories that help the general public better understand the limits of our current deification of standardized assessment.

Although I'm grateful for series like the one about Mission Hill, there are ways to convey these core truths about education that wont require the filming of year-long documentaries. The Internet is rife with teachers networking and telling their stories daily. A simple sampling can be found at the Edublog Awards website which attempts to annually capture and expand the reach of top education blogs.

My task in this space throughout the run of A Year at Mission Hill has been to tie the state of research to the practices seen in each episode. For the most part, that research has been in the form of academic papers, reviewed studies, and texts often relegated to a university study of education. But those texts don't become truly valuable until they are considered alongside the data produced by the practitioners and diagnosticians in the field each day. To secure the freedom to teach, educators must insist on telling the full stories of our schools and their classrooms -- and making sure that the larger community takes the time to listen.

Zac Chase is an education consultant and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes regularly at autodizactic.com.

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