Monday, September 15, 2008

Compliance Is Not Always a Virtue

When teachers do not speak out at gatherings such as staff meetings, that does not always connote compliance with what is being said. No Child Left Behind can require the federal and state governments and school districts to send any number of mandates our way but that doesn't mean we will comply.
We will not comply when we feel in our professional judgment that the mandate is ill conceived, irresponsible, bad policy, bad pedagogy, unethical, bad practice, teacher harassment, etc. What makes most of the mandates even more distasteful is that they are frequently handed down by people who are not teachers: mainly, mid-level administrators who don't know what we know and can't do what we do. They rarely hand down mandates because they actually believe the mandates will amount to improvements in education. More often than not they hand them down so they can keep their cushy jobs, justify their salaries, enhance their dissertations, obtain their administration credentials, or climb an invisible ladder to some vague but higher administrative position. Instead of being filters for bad educational policy, they often become the very conduits of bad policy, virtually devoid of any professional critical thinking skills.
At some schools it is especially discouraging to witness an increase in the implementation of unreasonable, untested or unwanted initiatives before they are even mandated, simply because we believe they will be required of us in the future. If for some reason you are led to believe your house will soon burn down, do you jump up and set it on fire? Or do you take steps to prevent it from burning down?
The negative effect lock-step compliance has on teacher morale, expertise and creativity is bad enough. The effect this blind compliance has on students is even more disturbing. Only in the last five years have my colleagues and I heard growing numbers of students state that they hate school. We might hate it, too, if we were students today. The reason they hate it is because their teachers are increasingly not allowed to be the good teachers they once were. The rigid and ill-informed mandates of NCLB have greatly reduced their professional independence, creativity, flexibility and thus their effectiveness as teachers.
Two years after the implementation of NCLB Alfie Kohn, one of the best and most outspoken minds in education, stated: "Ultimately, we must decide whether we will obediently play our assigned role in helping to punish children and teachers. Every inservice session, every article, every memo from the central office that offers what amounts to an instruction manual for capitulation slides us further in the wrong direction until finally we become a nation at risk of abandoning publish education altogether. Rather than scrambling to comply with its provisions, our obligation is to figure out how best to resist."
It is time to resist, not time to comply. Many veteran teachers prefer to work at schools where the staff doesn't lie down and take it but, as Kohn suggests, stands up and opposes the nefarious forces at work, forces that are absolutely ruining public education. Our school used to be one of those schools. Many of us have faith it can be that kind of school again.
With apologies to Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of bad education policy is for good teachers to do nothing." Let us not do nothing.