The “How” of Trusting Teachers

February 11, 2013 • Kim Farris-Berg

Amidst a chorus of governors ramping up efforts to fix K-12 by controlling teachers, California Governor Jerry Brown sang a different song in his January State of the State Address:

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

…Distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.*

Charles Taylor Kerchner quickly followed up with some insights about how to move the idea into practice. “There need to be policies that establish legally protected zones of professional practice, and there are several policies the governor might consider . . . This vision won’t materialize without intervention from the top.” On Ed Source, Kerchner outlined some concrete ideas for intervention.

Larry Cuban also wrote a follow-up, called “Trusting Teachers and Doctors,” which he posted on his School Reform and Practice blog. “The evidence over the past century has been clear that when policymakers and managers concoct high-stakes incentives to measure job effectiveness, award dollar bonuses, or fire employees, professionals and non-professionals learn to game the metrics. What’s worse, of course, is that doctors, like teachers, become the target rather than the political and socioeconomic structures within which they labor.

Thus, over time, teachers and doctors come to see the ‘quality’ measures used to evaluate and pay them as perverse destroying bonds they have to their students and patients, the institutions, and the very process of teaching and healing . . . I do not know whether you are an outlier or a sign of an emerging sensibility but I thank you Governor Brown for your recent words.”

Cuban invited a three-part guest post from me, which he ran throughout this past week. I welcomed the opportunity to dig into some of the topics we covered in Trusting Teachers with School Success: Can we trust teachers to manage whole schools? Are teachers interested in calling the shots? And, does collective teacher autonomy make any difference for student achievement?

We hope you’ll check out these links and comment below with anything you would like to add, question or discuss. As always, our goal for this Education How blog is to advance the conversation about how to get it done.

* If you’d like to read more of what Governor Brown said about trusting teachers, Valerie Strauss posted the text on her Washington Post blog, The Answer Sheet.