Joe Makley shared a thoughtful comment last night to my post from December 2005 on “Educational Banner Evangelism.” Joe is questioning advocacy for constructivism and empowering teachers without accountability and at least minimum expectations based on identified standards. He wrote:

The point being, we still have standards, and they are more important than ever. It isn’t supposed to be easy for kids or us, and I don’t think technology will really play that powerful role unless we have some accountability for its use. If we just become constructivist ideologues and “guides on the side” and no one is minding the store; that isn’t going to work. It’s OK for us to tell teachers what to do now and then. And hold them accountable, and show them why and how to do it…I just get very nervous when people talk about empowering teachers, as if they’re all God’s gift to integration and they just need to be unleashed. In most cases, that’s not been my experience.

I agree that some teachers may NOT be ready and want to be “empowered” in the ways I described in this post. What I was (and am still) advocating is really a response to what I view as a very scripted, almost zero-instructional autonomy approach to instruction which has continued to gain momentum in recent years via NCLB and other efforts, including the standards movement. I acknowledge that no solution is going to meet the needs of every context– but generally I think we need MORE autonomy rather than less so that teachers and instruction itself can be truly differentiated to meet the needs of each learner. I do not want to be perceived as advocating an educational environment devoid of leadership or vision. To the contrary, our need for visionary leadership is as great as ever.

We still seem to be captives of our school-as-factory paradigms, and the fact that few people (if any) seem to have a firm grasp of how technology can be blended into face-to-face learning as well as online learning spaces poses a real challenge to us all. I do hear Joe’s point that some teachers (and even administrators) still refuse to even use email– and as a result miss important bulletins and other informational items. Late adopters / laggards when it comes to digital technology use are and will continue to be an issue with our teacher cadre… but I don’t think these people (who have a variety of reasons for not adopting technology use) should cause us all to remain focused on a standards-based, scripted curriculum in which everyone is expected to fall in line and walk lock-stepped through the instructional timeline of the year.

isolated desk

I continue to be captivated by what David Warlick discussed in his K-12 Online pre-conference keynote regarding “side trips” for learning. Often the “side trips” are the most engaging and worthwhile parts of the school experience for learners, and the times when learning opportunities can become most differentiated. Our present K-12 educational climate of “mandated standards for all learners” assumes that a single mold is going to work for everyone. It hasn’t, it doesn’t, and it won’t. Again this does not mean we have lower expectations for student and teacher achievement: it should in fact mean we have HIGHER expectations. I don’t think we should or must have UNIFORM expectations for everyone, however.

I also think we need to frame discussions about education and a vision for educational reform in terms of BLENDED learning. We should be wary of proposals to make all learning digital. Similarly, we should be wary of absolutist neo-luddites who categorically oppose all digitization of learning environments. Education needs to be RO (read-only) at times but also RW (read-write.) I agree we don’t need to become mindless “constructivist ideologues,” but we certainly need to become more vocal advocates for constructivism in education that we currently see in many quarters. Accountability and the standards movement have effectively crushed support for constructivist teaching and learning methods in many schools, and I think this trend is lamentable.

Is it “wrong” for a teacher to not use email? The neo-Luddite in me is about to emerge. I don’t think it’s wrong if that teacher is a good teacher. My oldest two children’s kindergarden teacher did use email, but that had really nothing to do with her status (in our minds as parents and educators ourselves) as a “master teacher.” Her use of developmental centers, the ways in which she was able to differentiate learning for the students in her care– her ability to challenge students and also have fun learning with them– all of these skills had nothing to do with technology.

So, do we need standards? We need to have curricular and learning goals and objectives. “Standards” have come to reflect the idea that EVERY student in EVERY context needs the same things. This perception on my part probably best explains my opposition to the standards and accountability movements as they have been imposed on me as a learner, parent, and teacher-leader. I am an advocate for differentiated education, authentic assessment and messy learning. I oppose scripted education which holds as its ideal vision every student sitting quietly in his/her desk, open to the same page of the textbook at the same moment in time, filling out the same worksheet that will lead to uniformly “acceptable” or even “exemplary” performance on a subsequent summative assessment measured with a bubble sheet.

I stand by my original position, but do appreciate Joe’s perspective and challenging thoughts. We need to empower teachers and administrators. If a teacher is doing a poor job, we should help him/her improve– but if they won’t change, we need to get rid of them. Yes, we need to fire them. And principals should have greater power to do just that. The problem today, of course, is that many administrators have a myopic focus on standards and student achievement as measured by summative standard tests– and in such an environment, it is likely to be precisely the out-of-the-box, creative and innovative teacher who is challenging students by teaching in differentiated ways that might be singled out by the principal as being WRONG.

The schoolhouse should not be a factory. We’ve all grown up with factory-style schools, so it is an extremely challenging task to ask each other to envision a school that follows a different model. Yet that is precisely the work to which I think we should all commit ourselves more in the months and years to come. To the extent that “standards” and “accountability” serve to primarily reinforce the vision and outcomes of a factory-style school system, I oppose them.

We need teachers who are able to engage students in educational work that matters, not just meet standards through digital worksheets that permit greater levels of technocratic efficiency. We need a school system that empowers teachers to be creative and passionate, and helps them stretch the learners in their care beyond all expectations. If the standards movement and big-stick accountability was going to “save us” in the education space, I think we’d be seeing much better results than we are currently. My perception is that much of the accountability movement as it has been promulgated most recently has everything with continuing to discredit schools and teachers so the coffers of public education dollars can be opened for private, commercial interests– instead of honestly trying to help students learn and making learning environments more effective. We do need educational deregulation— and our need for visionary leaders as well as teachers with high expectations for learners is as great as ever.

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2 Responses to Reservations about empowerment without accountability

  1. Joe Makley says:

    Thanks Wesley for the response! I wanted to clarify slightly. I do believe there is certain knowledge that everyone needs to have, and that we owe to the state. I am against the lock step currriculum you describe, (which we never had in Maine and have held off even since NCLB, knocking on wood.) For the record, I’m a big proponent of Foxfire, which is about student directed projects. And I positively rage against the factory classroom. The more important point for me is that good teaching with technology is a science as well as an art, and there are certain things it’s OK to make people do at this point. For instance, I have some 5th grade teachers who have a one-one program and don’t yet use the mapping tools (supplied in their IBook image) with their geography unit, and they don’t use GPS devices, even though they have access to them. My position is I can show them how to do that and then (shudder) require them to do it. I understand the constructivist model, but I also believe that certain technologies have matured to the point it’s OK to require their use. Are we really expected to just sit on all this expensive stuff and try to “train” or “empower” the staff into using it to the benefit of kids and then have no accountability factor? There’s room on the bleeding edge for early adopters, but a lot of good technology “integration” is main steam now, or ought to be. To be a Bartleby and just “prefer not to” is no longer an option, because it hurts kids too much, especially the ones on the wrong side of the divide. Students today deserve teachers who can handle technology that is appropriate to their grade level and responsibilities. (Of course this presumes we’ve given them working technology with good support, etc. They shouldn’t have to use stuff that doesn’t work 99% of the time.)
    Thanks again for the discussion!

  2. Joseph Makley says:

    And to further clarify… 🙂 I believe standards are like the Force; there is a light and a dark side. For instance, the CCSS has an anchor statement: “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, audience, and discipline.” There are no inherent lock-step assignments in that, and there are a thousand ways to demonstrate proficiency. And you can put it on a transcript and reassure a college or a parent or a community member that you weren’t experimenting with their kids. So in my view, standards (properly used) can be the factor that liberates creativity and personalization, a kind of sea anchor in the turbulent waters of school redesign. I’ve witnessed this in a couple of innovative schools here in Maine, (Expeditionary Learning schools) where the faculty and students approach standards the way a good cyclist approaches a hill… as a challenge.

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