Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 2): the Battle over Autonomy

[this is the second on a series of posts on the status of the teaching profession in American culture, the causes and implications of that status. Read part 1 here.]

Randi Weingarten, in 2010
A couple months ago, I read an article in The Times about a movement in a number of American schools and school districts to reduce homework loads, through policies that limit the amount of homework per night or designate certain holidays as homework-free. The most interesting thing in the article was only incidentally connected to homework:

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, views policies dictating how to do homework as “taking something that should be professional practice and making it into an assembly-line process.”

—i.e. don’t tell us how to do our job.

One might fairly reply: are we to have no say over what happens in our schools? If parents feel that homework loads have spiraled out of control, shall they have no recourse? After all, if our electrician starts putting dimmer-switches on every fixture in the house, we are perfectly entitled to tell her we don’t want dimmer-switches; and if our lawyer wants us to plead the fifth, we’re entitled to insist on taking the stand. Professional status is not a talisman against meddling, it’s simply a mark of expertise—or it’s supposed to be.

What struck me about Weingarten’s comment on the homework issue was how knee-jerk it sounded, how much it smacked of raw nerves. After all, we’ve heard this rhetoric from the union before:

Albert Shanker (center) and the United Federation of Teachers striking at City Hall in New York City in 1968, at one of the most politically divisive moments in the history of American teachers' unions
“The biggest frustration for teachers in New York City is the Bloomberg administration's total disregard for their professional judgment and creativity. The mayor and chancellor must abandon their one-size-fits-all, top-down management style that treats teachers like assembly-line workers and children like widgets.”

“Too often, testing has replaced instruction; data has replaced professional judgment;… and so-called leadership has replaced teacher professionalism.”

"This (the current) system makes sense if you think of the student as an inanimate object going through an assembly line - if you view the schools as a factory in which teachers are the workers and the students are inanimate objects being worked on."

Evidently, the union leadership feels that teacher autonomy is under attack and has felt that way for decades.

This anxiety over autonomy is more central to the culture and politics of teaching than is usually recognized. Take high-stakes testing, for example. We’re so used to thinking in economic terms, that we assume that the unions’ opposition to tying salaries, bonuses, and teacher evaluations to test scores is about job security; but teachers’ unions were against high-stakes testing well before their own financial interests became involved. Tying their financial interests to the test results just adds injury to insult, but it’s the insult that smarts.

When teachers talk about the issue, their arguments are usually about pedagogy: “The excessive emphasis on testing and test-prep has harmed efforts to provide students with a well-rounded education and help them develop critical-thinking skills…,” writes Weingarten, in a recent Huffington Post article. She’s right, but it’s what comes after that ellipsis that really goes to the heart of the matter: “…and [that excessive emphasis] has in many ways de-professionalized teaching.”

Why “de-professionalized”? There’s nothing hysterical about that concern. The high-stakes test takes from the teacher a responsibility that is traditionally central to her job: that of assessing her students, of assigning grades, of determining the criteria of success. The implications are vast. No longer is the teacher the repository of knowledge; she is now only the transmitter, and an imperfect one, for the accuracy and validity of her knowledge is subject to the judgment of the exam. Her authority is gone, her status reduced from that of expert to that of laborer. No wonder she needs a union.

Even the arguments over how and when teachers can be fired reveal interesting subtleties in the light of the struggle for autonomy. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a teacher-evaluation program based entirely on observations by principals and other teachers. In the eleven years since its inception, the program has led to the dismissal of 40 times the number of teachers fired under the old system in the ten years prior to the program’s inception. Yet, despite the obvious reduction in job security, teachers like the program. The key element, according to both the superintendent and the head of the local teachers’ union, is trust. Montgomery recently turned down $12 million in federal Race to the Top funding, because to get the money, they would have had to include test-scores in teacher evaluations. Apparently, the Montgomery County Public Schools deserve their teachers’ union’s trust; what they offer in exchange is something even more important: respect.

Actually, that respect is really just another kind of trust. The Montgomery teachers’ union trusts the board of ed. to uphold their end of a bargain; that’s trust in the moral sense: the assumption of honest dealings and good intentions. The board of ed offers the teachers that kind of trust as well, but that’s trivial—plenty of people believe in teachers’ good intentions; what they don’t believe in is teachers’ expertise. By insisting that evaluations be based on observation and peer review rather than the simplistic and unreliable dipstick of a state exam, the Montgomery system acknowledges the complexity and subtlety of the teacher’s job. The implication is that a teacher’s performance cannot be judged by anyone but other educators and that to measure it is a complex process, requiring rich, qualitative data. This is the nature of expertise, that it can be judged only by experts; and this is why expertise accords autonomy—because none but an expert can tell an expert how to do her job. The Montgomery board of ed has gone even further: they have demonstrated that the recognition of teacher expertise is worth more to them than twelve million dollars.

The situation in Montgomery County reveals a lot about what teachers really want: not job security (they’re getting less of it) and not money (I’m not saying they don’t want money, but that $12 million could have gone straight into teacher bonuses, and it still wasn’t worth taking it) but recognition as experts in their field—in other words, professional status.


  1. The distinction between professional and laborer is new to me. Your explanation of the standardized-test-as-assessment's affect on the teacher's position was really interesting, and not something I'd ever considered before. I suppose I thought that everyone secretly knew standardized tests were not any good, but if teachers are the alternative to the standardized test, the inherent superiority that teachers have may not mean anything inside the system.
    I wonder whether you need to go so far as saying only an expert can evaluate an expert (for example: an attentive student, usually on some level, knows whether his teachers are good), why not just say the evaluation involves rich, qualitative information? Unless you're talking about systems of syntax and vocabulary, e.g. the expression of the evaluation.
    Finally, I agree with your views on Montgomery, they seem like they have their heads screwed on straight. Kudos to them.

  2. All though on second thought, I see the point about expert evaluation: the development of standards by which to measure teaching, etc.