Standardization & Professionalism in Teaching & Leadership
Reader Steve Peha emailed me today with a great response to my previous post that I will share (with his permission) in its entirety:
I enjoyed reading your piece today on curriculum. But something you said struck me in a rather visceral way and I wonder if you would consider it here:The strength of such a system is that it actually specifies when and how each concept and skill will be taught. The realities of schooling may prevent students from experiencing exactly this scope and sequence of instruction, but it's better than a system in which a patchwork of individual decisions leaves little chance that students will master all of the content in the standards.
Imagine that you are a talented principal in Seattle and that your job consists of little more than doing what the state has written in a book for you to do. Everything that is important in your work is specified in such a way that you know when and what to do; your job is effectively standardized and is no different than the job of any other principal in your state. Does this seem like a very respectful and satisfying way to treat a professional like yourself? Does it encourage you to go the extra mile or to make the most of your talents? Does it even encourage you to develop new talents knowing that at any time your state can tell you not to use them?
And what if you're a writer for EdWeek and the publisher specifies when and how each concept you write about will be written? Not very good either, I would imagine.
Yet this this is exactly what most people get excited about when it comes to standards for teachers.
Only those lowest on the economic totem pole in our society are treated this way in their work. It's certainly true that one's favorite Starbucks barista has to do exactly what's specified in the "standards" of the employee manual. And I doubt that my postman or FedEx delivery guy has much freedom either.
But as someone who finds the greatest thrill of teaching to be assessing a group of kids, figuring out exactly what they need, and giving each one exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, I can think of no more demeaning state of affairs in teaching than being told "when and how each concept and skill will be taught." For one thing, there's no way a group of people who've never met or the students I'm working with can predict the correct scope and sequence for an entire class with any accuracy years in advance.
There's a difference, I think, between being a "teacher" and being a "curriculum delivery system". As a teacher, I'm recognized, just as you are, as a full-fledged human being. As such, I get to make human decisions about other little humans. This is what makes education meaningful—the connection between my choices and kids' results. As a curriculum delivery system, I'm no better than a computer—and, of course, no more emotionally invested than a computer would be in kids' outcomes. After all, with no control over what I do, I have little incentive to take any ownership in how things turn out, right? Don't like my test scores? Just "reboot" me and try again.
Putting yourself in this same situation—as a principal whose boss in Seattle has specified literally everything you're supposed todo on any given day by standardizing your job—what is it, exactly, that you find personally so attractive about this approach? What if you come up with a terrifically effective way to coach teachers in your school? What if you come up with a unique schedule model? What if you find better, richer, and more dynamic curriculum that is more suited to the particular needs of the kids in your community? Aren't these the things that make it exciting to be a principal?
I'm not writing here to be "cheeky" as the Brits might say. I, and many other educators, are sincerely wrestling with this issue. With each passing year, we find ourselves doing less "teaching" and more "curriculum delivery". I guess the camel's back-breaking straw for me came last month when a national board certified teacher told me she'd been forced by her district to read her lessons on US History from a script as part of her school's approach to adhere to standards. Needless to say, she's already begun looking for another career. As she put it, "My kids are in 11th grade. They can read the script just as well as I can. So if I just gave them the script, there wouldn't be any need for me to teach."
I realize this is an extreme case. But there are many more that are similar. I know many principals, too, for whom the joy of their work is in the strategizing and execution of building a fine staff and seeing to the academic care of their students in ways that match their personal talents and inspiration. Surely, the principalship is the wrong place for standardization. Why, then, do so many people think the classroom is?
I will reply in a separate post, but wanted to share Mr. Peha's comments on their own for discussion. Clearly this is an important issue, and I find Mr. Peha's thinking on it compelling and thought-provoking.