Reculturing the Schools: A Call to Action for Teachers and Parents

CONTENTS:

Introductory Thoughts | Re-Culturing | The Industrial Model | The Artisanal Model | 
The Confrontation| The Ghost in the Machine: Natural Evaluation | A Call to Action

1 INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein

The question always is “Are you better off now than you were before the new program, ideology, system, tool, or philosophy was announced?”

TERMS: The term “teacher” or “teaching” is applied as: the activities of educating or instructing; activities that impart knowledge or skill. The term parent is applied as: one who sends a child to the public schools. The term student is applied as: a young person attending the public schools.

Excerpt from the New Yorker: December 15, 2008, “Most Likely To Succeed” by Malcom Gladwell. An unfortunate article in a great publication.

“One of the most important tools in contemporary educational research is ‘value added: analysis.’ It uses standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year. Suppose that Mrs. Brown and Mr. Smith both teach a classroom of third graders who score at the fiftieth percentile on math and reading tests on the first day of school, in September. When the students are retested, in June, Mrs. Brown’s class scores at the seventieth percentile, while Mr. Smith’s students have failed to the fortieth percentile. That change in the student’s rankings, value added theory says, is a meaningful indication of how much more effective Mrs. Brown is as a teacher than Mr. Smith.

“It’s only a crude measure, of course. A teacher is not solely responsible for how much is learned in a classroom, and not everything of value that a teacher imparts to his or her students can be captured on a standardized test. Nonetheless, if you follow Brown and Smith for three or four years, their effect on their students’ test scores starts to become predictable: with enough data it is possible to identify who the very good teachers are and who the very poor teachers are. What’s more — and this is the finding that has galvanized the educational world — the difference between good teachers and poor teachers turns out to be vast.”

Having said all of that, there is still far more that needs to be known about the students, the parents and the school administration before judging percentile movement. The very nature of testing, how students perceive it, and how they perform on the tests is a topic in its own right. Multiple choice versus open answers can reverse the results. Then, of course what elements are we testing for: factual recall, creativity, problem solving, critical awareness … there are so many to choose from. Perhaps, when all is said and done, behind this mania for “standardized testing” the aim is not to actually help students but to control teachers and their creative initiative in the classroom. When administrators and politicians cast about for raison d’état, their eyes scan the parents (too many law suits/lost votes there), then the students (whoa … behavior correction costs big bucks, and who can control kids anyway?) and finally they find a laser-like focus on the paid employees (as some see them) .. aha … the helpless, hapless teachers: the last refuge of superintendents looking for work, politicians looking for headlines, and desperate parents who have surrendered all control to their own children. The teachers! There’s the mother lode of shifting blame.

2 RE-CULTURING

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” — Malcolm Forbes

The need to re-culture generally takes root in issues of control and power, and forces things away from a natural and beautiful complexity toward an unnatural and ugly monotony; that is, from a plural cultural to a mono-culture.

It remakes an existing system with highly-evolved definitions and intricate relationships which take time to understand and appreciate into one with all new definitions and an unnatural and impractical forced consistency. An obvious and immediate result of re-culturing a system is the loss of individuality and institutional experience, radically empowering the re-culturers. In educational systems this movement is from an artisanal model to an industrial model. The square peg into the round hole paradigm.

An artisanal model emphasizes master craftsmanship and prizes experience above all things. An industrial model emphasizes incremental tasking that requires little or no craftsmanship and de-emphasizes experience as irrelevant.

 Management in an artisanal model is generally self-management with support systems that are developed from within the model purely for assistance. Management in an industrial model is always top-down directed with systems imposed purely for control. 

Artisanal management has sole purpose of maintaining and increasing quality of craftsmanship. Industrial management has the sole purpose of maximizing “profit,” which can mean many things, not just financial gain or cost containment, although these are the most common outcomes.

In an artisanal model the craft and the craftsman are inseparable. In an industrial model, the craft and the craftsman must be separated.

 In an artisanal model smaller is almost always better. In an industrial model larger is always much better.

3 THE INDUSTRIAL MODEL

“
Don’t expect perfect products unless you are willing to pay for perfection.” — Robert Siegmeister

In an industrial model it’s no wonder that chief executives are paid fantastically high salaries and give themselves big bonuses. Profit is the product. 

Industrial economies of scale are used to maximize profit. An over devotion to quality is a undesireable element in this model and must be rooted out. The loss of or, at least the downward redefinition of, quality is highly desirable. The re-culturing of schools requires that a fatal blow be dealt to the art of teaching, because until teaching is commodity-ized there can be no real central control exercised over the classroom and all of its derivative elements. It is far easier make money with corn once the kernels are all standardized in size and content, as in #2 industrial corn. The effort to rule all of education through standardized testing is nothing less than the effort to create commodity education where individual teachers are irrelevant and content and delivery is programmed by central authority. In this model, control is crucial and not to be confused with influence even though during the transition from art to industry absolute central control will assume many forms, some seemingly benign and bewitchingly beautiful perhaps, but always on the inexorable path to total domination.

In the industrial model of education, test scores are the catalyst of change.

Parents who mourn the loss of the neighborhood schools often ironically applaud this trend toward commodity education. Truly, they unwittingly fall into the “straining out gnats and swallowing camels” syndrome, which conspires more thoroughly for the utlimate failure of their children than any other possible element in education today. These same parents intuitively defend their own “artisanal” parenting model, rightly resisting all efforts to control the way they raise their own children. The core of educators who figuratively and literally stand between the parents and the industrialization of their children’s education are the last hope; the seawall before the tsunami. And yet, as the industrial re-culturers do their work, they pit the parents against the teachers in a classic divide-and-conquer tactic. The natural alliance of parents and teachers is anathema to control, thus it must be broken. As it turns out, it’s quite easy, really. Easy to do and, fortunately, also easy to stop. It is a question only of who — parents or administrators — has the strongest will to win. I would argue that parents actually have the strongest motivation to win. But that administrators have the strongest organization (and the most time to work at it) and of course they are highly paid for their efforts. On top of the administrators are the politicians. In the industrial model the politicians are the Board of Directors. It is amazing to me how often School Committees become the pawns of the administrators, when they are, more often than not, actually parents of children in the school system. The natural constituency of the school committee are the parents and the parents’ natural allies are the teachers. But in an industrial model, these consumers are actually the enemy and must be divided, conquered and controlled just as thoroughly as every other component of the production system. When consumers organize, quality becomes a factor, profit goes down, and control is diffused. This spells the end, and every re-culturer knows it. So, in the process of re-culturing the schools, the teachers must be isolated and their influence weakened dramatically. Parents must stay misinformed and docile, or at least agitated to act against their own best interests. All organizations of parents and teachers must be marginalized, co-opted, weakened and, if possible, dissolved entirely. Politicians who support this process must be elevated to leadership.

 All of the high-end, high-quality elements, in the industrial model, are rounded off into standardized, acceptable (easily controlled) units of production. In the same way, and perhaps more violent in ultimate effect, the low-end, low quality elements are simply discarded. This may seem at first to be a benefit of re-culturing, but remember all the definitions have been changed. “Low quality” may now simply mean “difficult to manage” and thereby be disqualified for the new world. As every teacher knows, sometimes the lowest performers actually have the highest potential. This applies to students and teachers alike, but not to low-quality administrators in the industrial model; they are already in charge.

It is impossible to derive a clear path to consistent and actual improvement in the delivery of individual educational content and intellectual actualization by starting with the denial of the intrinsic artisanal nature of teaching. But this is what re-culturing clearly does. The planned commoditization of education guarantees, at the outset, a sterile and ludicrously overblown pendantry that belittles and then obscures actual, effective, and efficacious learning. If we are not careful, this looming travesty of education, once embedded completely, will be difficult and painful to remove its awful barbs because it comes camouflaged as a bouquet of easy answers, all of them wrong. There is an old Dakota tribal saying, “When you find yourself on a dead horse, dismount.” Even as you consider that statement, the definition of “a dead horse” is being rewritten.

4 THE ARTISANAL MODEL

“
It’s not about the writing. It’s about the feelings behind the words.” — Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata

Take, for example, the hypothetical “worst teacher who ever lived.” Let’s fill him out a little. He grew up in a small town where kids played in the street and walked back and forth to school, sometimes miles each way. His mom was always home, and his dad worked in the city, commuting each day, tired at night. His teachers were strict and taught rigidly with little variation. They taught arithmetic, English, history, math, some science and the kids played games like dodge ball at recess. He had friends but none really lasted throughout his life. After high school he went to college and then found a job teaching. His life was between wars so he never served in the military. After ten years of teaching he really didn’t like it anymore, but he stuck it out until retirement at 65. His retirement party was not really a party and attendance was sparse and uninspired. However he did have at least 700 students over the years. Somewhere between 1,000 and 1,400 parents, 8 principals and 45 different school committee members all interacted with him. He did spend 6,300 days in the classroom and approximately 44,100 hours in front of students. He did have some successes along the way. When he looked at students did he see what a first year teacher sees? Even this teacher, imbued with years of teaching badly and without inspiration, brought to his students an understanding that no “new” plan, or “new” model can replace. The first question to ask, in this case, is “how bad were the principals and school committees who wasted this teacher’s career?” In truth, it’s not about the teaching. It’s about the feelings behind the teaching. And if the worst teacher that ever lived had some success, imagine what could have been.

The inherent nature of teaching is artisanal. To take away the art in teaching is like removing all imagination from poetry and have a computer jumble random words into groupings. The result may look like a poem, but it is not a poem.

The human side of teaching is undeniable. The one-to-one nature of all teaching is obvious. Experience is what we teach, not subjects, really. This last is the hardest concept for the re-culturers to grasp since experience is their enemy. But be that as it may, who do you want as a lawyer, a surgeon, a pilot, or even a cab driver? But now, experience in teaching is being disregarded, mostly because those in power today have forgotten their history … or perhaps they were not paying attention in class. Subjects change. Curriculum change. Approaches change. Agendas change. Truths change. But, without the context of experience change is quixotic and directionless, worse than the status quo; a driver-less car speeding down the highway, a bull in a china shop. Worse, change without experience is disrespectful of what so many have tried for so long to do for countless students with so much amazing success, and importantly, spectacular failures as well. Change without a warm embrace for experience, good and bad, is a deep insanity from which nothing good will ever come.

In the artisanal model of education, experience is the catalyst for change.

5 THE CONFRONTATION

“Good battle is objective and honest–never vicious or cruel. Good battle is healthy and constructive, and brings to a relationship the principle of equal partnership.” — Ann Landers

The isolated leader is essential in the industrial model, and in the reculturing of schools, because when the leader is seldom seen, people wait for instructions from on high. With definitions all new, and experience marginalized, a certain feeling of situational ignorance settles in among even the most educated people in our society, the teachers themselves. Reculturing is deemed most successful when all innovation and ideas come from above. Any ideas from below will be quickly hammered down like a protruding nail, especially in the early phases.

But this is exactly where the call to action (“the good battle” as Ann Landers has it) must begin: from below. If there is to be any success, ironically, even in the top-down reculturing process, it must come from below. Therefore it is essential that the teachers fight back against that feeling of ignorance and irrelevance, situational or otherwise. The reculturers are in a conspiracy against their own success, but they don’t know it. The teachers do know it. So what weapons are there? Well, for one, and a powerful one it is, there’s the teachers’ contract. It usually spells out exactly what the teachers’ role is, how they are evaluated and paid, and what rights they have. By implication it is also a binding contract on the administrators and the community itself. It is a legal document that has high standing under the law. It is a tool that must be used wisely and often. The real conflict will begin the moment the teachers begin to use the contract to fight back. The reculturers know this and work hard to circumvent, misinterpret and abuse every element of the contract and every teacher-initiated action to actually work according to the contract. Plus, they personally attack anyone who attempts to invoke the contract even though most teacher contracts have hard fought provisions to protect teachers from exactly this form of retaliation and abuse.

It is not an easy thing to accept the call to action, but the easy thing and the right thing are almost never the same thing in any walk of life that I know of. So, the sooner the confrontation begins, the better for everyone. Anyone who is a member of a teachers’ association or union is covered by the contract, whether they have professional status or not. Some may have stronger standing than others, but that does not change the fact that all are protected. This is another fact of life that the reculturers will deny and relentlessly attempt to change. Regardless of how far this situation may have slipped against the teachers, the contract is still in full force the moment teachers assert it. The contract is a powerful tool. And, it can be made even stronger. It is the ignorance of the contract that creates or allows unfair situations. The most potent contractual ignorance is not that of the teachers who intuitively know what is fair and put the students first; it is the ignorance of the import of contract on the part of the administration that is the most damaging and debilitating factor in creating better schools. When there is a feeling of working in different directions frustration rises and morale declines.

The bait most easily swallowed is acting as if we can do someone’s job better than they can do it. This is true of administrators who somehow come to believe they are actually teaching. And, it is sometimes true of teachers who may feel they are actually running the schools. At the School Committee level this is exponentially increased to the power of two: members may think they are both running the schools and teaching the teachers how to teach. Any one of these components can create problems, but taken all together they are a clear prescription for disaster.

Each component of the educational system must do its part, defined and constricted; and each must allow the others to do the same. There are only two overarching, and highly dynamic actors in the system, the union president and the superintendent, who actually cross the boundaries by definition. These two components comprise the two sides of the confrontation. All other elements must independently perform the tasks to which they are assigned. The members of the union follow the contract and vote on recommendations of the president. The administrators administrate based on the instructions of the superintendent. The school committee concentrates on building and maintaining an overall, systematic plan of action for the district and on obtaining the necessary funding to implement it. If one component starts doing the job of another everything falls apart.

6 THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE: NATURAL EVALUATION

“Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.”— Pearl Buck

The school committee is evaluated on how well the superintendent they appoint does, or should be. The superintendent is evaluated on how smoothly the school committee’s plan of action is implemented, and usually is. The administrators are evaluated on how clearly the teachers understand the plan of action and how high the morale of the teaching corps is, or should be. Teachers are evaluated on the progress each student in their care makes each year in the subject or subjects they are assigned to teach, but this is difficult due to the cumulative nature of teaching and other variables. The union president is evaluated on the enforcement of the contract, or should be.

Here are immutable truths in education: How each teacher assesses day-to-day progress for each of the students is up to the teacher. How each administrator chooses to communicate the superintendent’s instructions and to assist or impede the teachers in implementing them is up to the administrator. How the superintendent communicates and implements the school committee’s plan of action is up to the superintendent. How the school committee develops the plan and communicates it to the superintendent is up to the school committee. How the union president enforces the contract is up to that individual. It’s not always pretty but that’s how it works.

The accountability of this system should be automatic. If the Union President does not enforce the contract he or she will be immediately voted out. If the school committee does not maintain and quality school system, they will be voted out. If the superintendent cannot communicate and implement the school committee’s action plan, he will be fired. If the administrators are not able to gain the cooperation and understanding of the teachers they will be replaced. If the teachers do not facilitate student progress they will be replaced. In a working system, this is how it is. The evaluation system is natural and intrinsic to the process if everyone is doing their job.

If the teachers facilitate student progress, the administrators communicate well and enthuse the teachers about the superintendent’s implementation plan, if the superintendent properly builds a system to support the school committee’s plan, and the school committee develops an educationally sound plan and effectively advocates funding… then success is inevitable, unstopable.

If any link breaks down it becomes paramount that action is immediately and effectively initiated to fix it. This element is the call to action. Everyone, every element of the system, must do the job they have been given and have accepted. Challenging each other, questioning when a role is not performed, is essential to success. Fear in a system such as this is catastrophic. Everyone must feel free and unrestricted in questioning and searching for answers to problems.

In the end, the teacher’s union or association will always be the catalyst for change in this. The parents will always be the force driving success, if they are in partnership with the teachers. If the parents are in partnership with the administrators chaos will ensue. If the teachers and the parents are in unison the politicians will join them. This alliance affecting of positive change for the good of the children creates the Ghost in the Machine… natural and effective evaluation by performance: that is, unmistakably improving education. Success.

7 A CALL TO ACTION

“A loud voice cannot compete with a clear voice, even if it’s a whisper.” — Barry Neil Kaufman

The was a Gallup Study about confidence and competence. It quantified an inverse relationship. The more actual competence a person had the lower their confidence in their abilities tended to be. And the reverse was also true, of course: the most confident people tended to have the least actual competence. So, the over-confident re-jargoners shouting their newly minted definitions from every forum may seem competent. And the quiet teacher who works with 20 students and who sees the vicissitudes of daily human life walking in and out of the classroom every day may seem incompetent in the face of the daily daunting challenges. But neither of these situations is true. The teacher, shying away from applause lines and public displays of bravado has the competence of experience and training. The re-jardoneers are incompetent and bring mostly meaningless and self-serving plather to a situation that demands true servant-leadership. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is gospel today in education and there has been a terrible price to pay of not “no child left behind,” but a whole generation of children left behind. A large piece has been lost from the great American puzzle and we are going to have to craft a new one to replace it or forever be left incomplete. The test taking has bred a generation of test takers who feel that the score is the game and once achieved it really doesn’t matter how they got there. They walk away from dialogs they don’t understand, no reason to participate. They respond in anger when challenged because they know the answers, of course they do, they passed the test. They actually believe that life’s Cliff Notes are as good or better than life itself and why wouldn’t they? They passed the test. And worse by far, they are now coming into parenthood, into the teaching profession, into politics, and into school administration. Before they become entrenched we must protect from utter destruction what they do not understand.

Teachers! Enforce and improve your contracts. Parents! Form alliances with teachers for the good of your children. Together force administrators to be held accountable for the atmosphere of your educational environment and for ensuring that the joy of teaching be ever present in their schools. Together make the politicians follow and appoint great and experienced educators to administrative posts especially as superintendent. Remember the Chinese proverb that “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves mark,” and start today by marking the paper with encouragement and realism about a complicated world that desperately needs happy, free thinking, problem solving intellectual adventurers, not drones to the factory day after day or suits to the investment firm, greedy hands at the ready.

A call to action: do your jobs. Teachers must teach the whole society including the classroom. Parents must parent all of the children not just their own. Administrators must administrate fairness and encouragement to all. Politicians must listen and serve the public. It’s so simple. But where do we start … if not with you?

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8 A POSTSCRIPT

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” — Herbert Spencer

The concept of evaluating teachers on the academic performance of their students is just another easy answer where there are no easy answers. It does sound good, but it is not. The ideal system would be one that evaluates all students at the age of 40 and records what they have achieved. But, forgetting that gruesome reality, say you do accurately evaluate students at the close of their sixth grade year. They score well. Or, they score badly. What does it say? From kindergarten to the fifth grade … does all that happened on the way to the sixth grade count? Or does the teacher who got them when their brains had matured and everything kicked in that all of their other teachers, good and bad, had taught them over the years, does just that teacherreap the big bonus reward? Or does that teacher become the only one fired? Or should the “credit” be split among all the teachers who taught the child from day one?

Also comparing student performance across nations is even more misleading, since under no conditions will the sample selections (student criteria, measurement criteria) be equivalent. The cultures and histories just won’t line up, and most of all, the prospects for the future (which drives most young people through their education years) will be so different that comparisons can only be made for purely political purposes which have nothing at all to do with getting at the truth.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Who really cares about the academic performance of school children? It’s like the artistic performance of school children. The drawings of kids are precious to their parents but few hang in the National Gallery of Art. The academic performance is over-hyped (remember we once taught that the world was flat), when what we should really be caring about is the student’s academic affinity and enthusiasm for learning. But how do you measure that on a standardized test?

Rating (and hiring) teachers, as stated above is the principal’s job. In my opinion, if his or her school has a surplus of low-rated teachers it is THE PRINCIPAL’S FAULT. The principal’s job is to steer, inspire and encourage teachers into highly successful careers. If a teacher is having problems it should be a challenge to a good administrator to change the situation through leadership, encouragement and professional assistance. But, today, blaming teachers, holding teachers accountable, evaluating teachers and overloading teachers with administrative burdens that brutally interfere with time on actual teaching is de rigor in school affairs. If you walked into a business where the morale was obviously bad, where employees were unresponsive and difficult, who would you blame? In education today the answer always is “blame the teachers.” The question should be, “Who is running this place?” Once you yank the administrator off of their blame-the-employees high horse it becomes immediately obvious that he or she has used the teachers to obviate his or her own responsibility for a quality work environment and “growing” people into positive and successful careers. Teachers today work longer hours, longer school days and years, with more hours of homework than ever before and all of this with little or no support or appreciation from their administrations. Now, this is not always the case, there are caring and responsible administrators but even those stellar examples will tell you themselves how rare they really are. There is more pressure on teachers from parents than ever before, and less support from the administration in dealing with this pressure. I would say that teachers in this country are held in lower esteem than almost anywhere else. Sure people say how important teachers are but how many parents actually encourage their highly educated children to go into the profession? How many are at least a little disappointed when their son or daughter ends up in the classroom? How many people really believe “Those who can, do; and those who can’t, teach?” Better stated is: “Those who can, teach; those who can’t, choose other professions.” Fair enough? Because great teachers are born attracted to the artistry of teaching and then refined through experience and education.

Teaching is an artisanal profession not an industrial one. Just like a sculptor or a poet or musician or an actor, teachers practice an ancient art. They need apprenticeships, mentors, support systems and a safe, positive environment to achieve their optimum results. When the schools are in decline, look to the leadership, the administrators. That is where you will find the solution.