Jay Matthews has a good article on the dangers of national mandates in education and how short-sighted and overly prescriptive they can be. But I think it misses an underlying point--a prime cause, if you will. How can we stop penduluming back and forth between "teachers are idiots--tell them what to do" and "teachers are saints--leave them alone"? Both arguments are foolish and uninformed, and nothing is ever brought to bear to examine the arguments. So the partisans for each side repeat their mantras and we continue to swing back and forth.
State and federal mandates didn't erupt like Athena, fully clothed, from the mind of some bureaucrat or politician. We once had a culture of leaving teachers alone to do their thing. Now we don't. Why? I think we can trace the dissatisfaction back to the 1970s. I think it began there--softly, quietly, and only in some places--and began to grow. And there are two things that were happening in that decade that, I think, contributed to this change.
The first is desegregation. God knows, middle class whites did all they could to avoid it, from picketting in the South to fleeing to suburban enclaves in the North. But by and large, over time, the population of public schools became more and more heterogeneous. That, along with the move to mainstream students with disabilities, made our classrooms more diverse in every possible way. And, therefore, more difficult to manage effectively. This is something we talk about on occasion, but often without clear connections to NCLB or the standards movement.
At the same time, the women's liberation movement was giving women more professional options that being a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. With the glass ceiling lifted, if not shattered, Ivy League and other high-performing women could pursue careers in medicine, law, and business, who otherwise might have had to opt for teaching. As they fled the teaching profession, we did nothing to change that profession in order to attact talent. We did not rasie teacher pay, change the working environment, or offer any new incentives. We continued to act as though we had a captive population coming into the profession, when we no longer did. And so we started to attact lower-perfoming young people, who didn't have those higher professional options available to them. This is something we rarely talk about.
Look at the what this combination of factors has wrought: without changing the structure of how we do schooling, we've thrown a wide and wild diversity of students into the mix--different needs, different backgrounds, different cultures, but the same 45-minute class period. And we've done nothing to attract the best and the brightest to come teach them. We get them, sometimes, out of a sense of mission, but we don't do a great job of holding on to them. If fact, the latest attempt to recruit high-performing college gradutates, Teach for American, doesn't even pretend that these kids will stay in the profession for more than two years.
If we've moved into a world of micromanagement, is it because the managers are insane and oppressive, or is it because there is an absolute lack of faith and trust that the people being managed know what they're doing? I'd say it's the latter. Our educrats aren't evil; they just have zero faith in the people they manage.
The sad thing here is that you can't move from bad faith to good faith through oppressive mandates. You can't move people from low competence to high competence by telling what to do, every minute of the day. So what should we be doing?
How about if we started treating teaching like a profession, instead of hired labor? I know we talk about it, but what if we actually did it? By which I mean: create state or national teaching standards and align the university programs with them. Instead of mandating what every student should so, create industry-wide standards, expectations, and protocols for professional behavior, with real training, support, professional onboarding, and long-term mentoring, so that you have the best chance of placing a qualified teacher in front of a classroom...and the best chance of having agreement across the profession as to what "qualified" means. Prepare a teacher the way you prepare a doctor, and I think we'd safely be able to do away with the micromanagement.
But we don't have agreement as to what qualified means. And we don't have agreeement as to what good teaching means. We don't have agreement within our own profession about much of anything...except that we should be left alone.