"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Teaching Profession?: Of License, Compulsion, and Autonomy

At Anthony Cody's Living in Dialogue blog (Education Week), Educators for Shared Accountability have issued a VAM report on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the context of the past nine Secretaries of Education.
The results place each Secretary in one of four categories—superior, average, inferior, ineffective—and Duncan ranks "ineffective," 8 of 9.

This important step in expanding the education accountability movement which started with holding students accountable throughout the 1980s and 1990s and then expanded to holding teachers accountable in the first and second decades of the twenty-first century comes in the context of what appears to be an unrelated event in Major League Baseball—Ozzie Guillen's claim that he loves Fidel Castro, published in Time magazine.

On the ESPN talk show Mike & Mike in the Morning, the topic of Guillen's controversy prompted an email to the talk show hosts asking, "What ever happen to free speech?"

As a nearly three-decades educator, I was surprised and somewhat angered that Mike Greenberg offered one of the most lucid comments about accountability I have heard in some time—particularly as the term "accountability" is used as a weapon over the past thirty years to leverage corrosive education reform.

Greenberg noted that in many countries outside the U.S., offensive or abrupt language results in government actions such as prison or even death. In the U.S., free speech means citizens can criticize our presidents, and even make insensitive or inflammatory comments with little fear of government oppression. But free speech, Greenberg noted, is not license: Freedom is inherently matched with consequences.

In the case of Guillen, his comments are offensive to Cuban-Americans, and he as well as the Miami Marlins is likely to suffer consequences of some sort for the comments.

The current free speech controversy involving Guillen and the mock posting at Living in Dialogue are asking us to consider the baseless and corrosive nature of misunderstanding and misapplying concepts such as "accountability," "freedom," and even "profession."

Three Levels of Accountability: License, Compulsion, Autonomy

Education historically and currently is driven by a lack of expertise. In my home state of South Carolina, the current superintendent, Mick Zais, shares with Secretary Duncan that exact lack of experience or expertise in education.

When Zais published an Op-Ed in several papers across the state (see The Post and Courier, noting the comments section), he stated: "Today, the most important information about teachers does not include the type of degree they have or their years of seniority." When I posted in the comments my challenge to Zais's lack of credibility, John Warner, a persistent attack dog who targets my work by mischaracterizing my positions and by ad hominem barbs, posted this:

just take the zais' view about which thomas is most hyperplexic: "the most important information about teachers isn’t the degrees they have or their years of seniority. their effectiveness in the classroom matters much, much more."

lord forbid we should actually hold teachers accountable for results.

Here is a typical snapshot of the political and public embracing of the inexpert as well as holding a less sophisticated view of accountability than even a morning talk show addressing a current controversy in baseball.

The accountability movement, then, as it currently functions can accomplish only a few corrosive outcomes: reducing learning to following a script, reducing teaching to a service industry, and diluting the impact of public education as a mechanism for supporting democracy and individual freedom. If education accountability is to accomplish higher ideals, we must confront the three levels of accountability, and then change which one we honor.

Accountability comes in three broad forms:

(1) License — In my 28 years in education, I have noticed that children and adolescents confuse "freedom" with "license." Children and teens idealize "doing whatever they please" without considering that freedom comes with consequences. In the U.S., those people with the greatest power have the least responsibility; they function with near license and ironically call constantly for the accountability of others. Return to the mock VAM report above that holds Secretaries of Education accountable for conditions beyond their control—exactly as the current system of accountability does with teachers. License is a type of accountability that is above accountability, and thus, license is cancerous to both democracy and human freedom.

(2) Compulsion — Compulsion is the most common form of accountability, particularly in schools. Compulsion is holding one subordinate accountable for implementing the mandates of some authority. Compulsion as a form of accountability is dehumanizing and a mechanism of maintaining a hierarchy, a structure of authority (see the scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man examined as an example of skewed accountability in education). Compulsion is the form of accountability now entrenched in student accountability built on imposed standards and tests as well as the rising accountability of teachers also built on prescribed standards and state tests. Compulsion produces compliance and, like license, ultimately erodes democracy, human agency, and freedom. Accountability as compulsion in education is designed to create compliant workers from our students and teaching as a service industry.

(3) Autonomy — Autonomous accountability is the complex manifestation of freedom I have noted above. Freedom comes with consequences, just as autonomy, especially for professionals, comes with consequences. But those consequences are not as obvious as most people think. For example, if a medical doctor has a patient with cancer, the doctor has autonomy in the treatment of that cancer and is responsible for the outcomes of that treatment, but that doctor is not accountable for the fact of the cancer. That the patient has cancer may be the domain of that person's behavior (smoking, for example), thus the patient is accountable, or that cancer may be genetic and then completely outside the realm of accountability. Autonomy is the only form of accountability that contributes positively to democracy, human agency, and freedom. Human dignity grows from human agency, and human agency/autonomy results in consequences, consequences connected to those outcomes over which that human in that moment of freedom has control. Anything outside that dynamic is dehumanizing, it is tyranny.

Political and public authorities calling for accountability are often themselves (due to their status and affluence) functioning under License or near-License and promoting Compulsion, primarily to maintain their status and affluence. This is the dynamic currently destroying public education and functioning under the mask of "education reform." This is the type of accountability that I and almost all educators reject.

Matthew DiCarlo has recently highlighted that exact misuse of "accountability":

"In the context of a high-stakes accountability system – e.g., a school/district rating system with severe consequences for poor grades – this might be a big problem. It represents the conflation of student and school performance, which means that you will be punishing schools – sometimes severely, as in closure – based on ratings that may be largely a function of factors, such as students’ backgrounds, that are out of their control.

"This is the exact opposite of what an accountability system is supposed to do."

Educators are essential to fulfilling the promise of universal public education, but not the way corporate reformers claim and never as the result of Compulsion.

Public education needs to honor student and teacher Autonomy as the only form of accountability that can build democracy, human agency, and freedom.

Otherwise, our schools will continue to perpetuate the inequity of License and Compulsion that has created the Corporate States of America—the land of the 1% practicing their License on the backs the 99%'s Compulsion.

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