Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sink or Swim

  Part 1
Like all veteran teachers, I occasionally encounter situations where I am reminded how long I've been teaching.  This is especially true each time it is brought to my attention that many of my colleagues began teaching after No Child Left Behind became law. The law went into effect in 2002, but for some new teachers, that was an entire career ago.  These teachers know teaching only within the context of the new world order established by the law. Due to no fault of their own, they lack the perspective another educational paradigm would afford them, a perspective necessary in order to accurately judge the merits of the post NCLB world.  When my younger colleagues struggle to fully understand my frustration and anger over this law, I try my best to explain what it was like before the law was enacted and how we got where we are today.
A long time ago, before schools were punished for their test scores; before program fidelity; before boxed curricula, scripted lessons and pacing guides;  before design teams, Baldrige, and Response To Intervention; before disaggregated data, data collection frenzies and talk of vouchers and merit pay; before these and other draconian measures were applied to education in an attempt to fix it, there were good teachers, bad teachers and a lot of average teachers.  I estimate the proportion of good and bad teachers at about 25%, respectively, with the middle 50% representing average teachers.  And the 25% of good teachers weren't just good; they were very good.  Likewise, the 25% of bad teachers weren't just bad; they were likely doing damage to their students' overall education.  And the 50% in the middle were teachers who virtually no parent would complain about.
How did the good teachers get so good and the bad teachers so bad?  When I was a new public school teacher in the late 1980s, I entered a classroom not unlike those of 50 or 60 years before; that is, a classroom virtually devoid of instructional materials.  What passed for materials were, as you might guess, shelves and shelves of bland, sterile textbooks.  In this environment, a new teacher was likely to either sink or swim.  That is, a teacher could choose to swim to the highest levels of instructional creativity by shoving the textbooks aside in favor of developing curricula and materials on her own.  This would necessitate working hundreds of hours beyond the duty day and spending hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars of her hard earned money on materials.  But the result was invariably an accomplished, creative, enthusiastic teacher whose dedication to teaching and effectiveness as a teacher were directly proportional to the degree of ownership she believed she had in the instructional process.  
The logical alternative to swimming was, of course, to simply sink slowly into the void of professional and material support while relying on textbooks as instructional life preservers. This choice resulted in a corps of bad to mediocre teachers who felt no ownership of the educational process and whose instructional practice was consequently as bland and sterile as the textbooks they felt obliged to use.  
As we all know, the largest group of teachers, the middle 50%, practiced some combination of sinking and swimming.  Call it treading water.  They mostly turned out to be teachers who weren't all that bad . . . . nor all that good.  
Part 2
In 2001 the Bush administration set about to correct what it considered a sorry state of affairs.  Its core strategy, which was based on the belief that most teachers were bad and that bad teachers were the problem in education, was to offer private school vouchers to students who wanted an escape plan from bad or average teaching.  That way the government would not have to actually fix the problem;  just offer a privatized alternative to it, privatization and deregulation being the Bush administration's cure du jour for most of our country's ills, from education to war.  Much to the administration's dismay, however, the voucher provision was jettisoned at the last minute in order to garner votes from Democrats.
The law's new focus became the establishment of minimal teaching standards and curricula for all teachers so that, at the very least, no child who found herself "stuck" in the public schools would be obliged to be the victim of bad teaching; that is, so no child would be left behind in the classroom of a bad teacher.   
This was, incidentally, just shy of the administration's dream solution:  marginalizing teachers altogether and delivering instruction directly to students.  But of course, as things are currently structured, instruction can't yet be delivered directly to students without teachers.  So the federal government has done its darndest since 2002 to cultivate a corps of compliant, non combative teachers and administrators in order to further its agenda.  The federal government has already completely circumvented America's teachers when it comes to the administration of standardized tests.  Circumventing teachers in order to implement the government's preferred curricula is not inconceivable.
At any rate, these new minimal teaching standards and materials emerged from the obedient and autocratic design teams as low level, prepackaged curricula that were so basic and foolproof that essentially anyone with a college degree (or less) could read the instructions and carry out the activities. Furthermore, they were designed to sit neatly on the line that separated the 25% of bad teachers from the 50% of average teachers.  That way, the government could rest assured that the teaching standards and materials would be within reach of even the worst teachers. 
The final step in this solution was to apply pressure to the bad teachers in order to force them to either buy into the plan or get out of teaching altogether.  If they choose to stay and were competent enough to read the instructional script and carry out the prepackaged activities, they would be magically transformed into average teachers:  teachers no parent would complain about.  Problem solved. 
Part 3
Well, sort of.  When one lowest common denominator is established and enforced for all teachers, it is obviously positioned below the competence levels of most of the average teachers and far, far below those of the best teachers.  And since, like bad teachers, these good and average teachers are subject to the same rigors of program fidelity, they too are forced down into the lowest allowable levels of acceptable teaching practices.  All instruction is essentially dumbed down because no one is teaching outside the box anymore.  This is exactly what is happening today.  The result is a national teaching corps that, overall, is destined to be worse than that which existed prior to NCLB.  
  This movement downward in teacher competence and autonomy consequently creates a rapidly shrinking cadre of good teachers who question and resist the new order (or who have gone completely underground) but who, because of their reduced numbers, can be successfully marginalized and labeled as disgruntled old fogies who have lost the ability to change with the times.  With good teachers marginalized and all teachers forced into lockstep obedience to low, generic teaching standards and practices, the administration can claim a double victory: saving children from being victims of the worst teaching practices while gradually steering public schools to such low levels of instructional competence that private schools and their vouchers will remain palatable to politicians and the public for a long time to come.
Since NCLB has partially succeeded in establishing practices that virtually guarantee that new, good teachers will neither develop nor thrive, does that mean that in order to turn back the damage that NCLB has inflicted means necessarily returning to the pre NCLB world of sink or swim, where at least there was some guarantee that some good teachers would emerge?
Of course not.  Instead, it calls for a reasonably differentiated teaching corps whereby those who need basic support and materials in order to survive for their first few years are provided with what they need, while those who don't need it any more, or who never needed it in the first place, and who have demonstrated that they are far more effective teachers without the constraints of prepackaged lessons and the expectation of fidelity to the program, are encouraged to draw from the well of professional creativity and teach the way they know is best. (Thanks to Tom Keyes at the University of New Mexico for the kernel of this idea.)
As we frequently tell our students, equal isn't always fair.  To treat teachers at all levels of experience and talent as beginning teachers, as NCLB does through its various "solutions," is insulting to veteran teachers and discouraging to intermediate teachers.   But is it especially disheartening to beginning teachers as they watch their intermediate and veteran mentors work overtime to undermine federal mandates while they simultaneously slog toward a sad and anticlimactic retirement whose original promise of blissful relaxation has been transformed into a burning desire to simply stop the pain.  
This is the story I tell new teachers.  One lesson we can draw from the story is that we can both acknowledge the shortcomings of the past while valuing its successes.  The lesson from the other story, the one told by NCLB, is that throwing the good teachers out with the bad is a viable solution. When you do that, when you throw the baby out with the bath water, you are left with nothing but a soggy yard and an unhappy baby; a baby who, now deprived of water altogether, will never learn to sink or swim, but will forever tread the dry sands of mediocrity.