[Note: The following is transmitted with the permission of Mr. Zoch.] *************************************************** Rethinking Teacher Accountability
Paul A. Zoch, Public School Teacher, Houston, TX
It is an article of faith among reformers and critics of public education in the US that the key to improving our schools is holding educators accountable for students' success; their success will be gauged by their performance on standardized tests. When the students learn, according to the plan, the educators will be rewarded, and when students fail, the educators will lose their jobs, presumably to someone else who can get the job done.
That way of thinking, however well intentioned and logical it may seem, does not promise much hope for improving our substandard education system. By focusing on teachers as the focus and source of students' success, it implies that the most important thing in the learning process is what teachers do, as if the students play a subordinate or even unimportant role in their learning. It wrongly assumes that teachers and administrators have an all-encompassing control over students' minds and thoughts, and thus relieves students of responsibility for doing anything and everything they must in order to succeed. Thus it inadvertently hurts the very students that it seeks to help, for it tells them very clearly that the secret of their success is found outside of themselves, in someone else's actions (e.g., the teacher's), rather than in their own actions and behavior; consequently the students learn the invaluable lesson that someone else is responsible for their success or failure in life and, tragically enough, they never learn what they are truly capable of accomplishing through hard work. It further alienates the already beleaguered teachers, by holding them responsible for things far beyond their control, namely students' minds and thoughts; teachers then become cynical and burnt-out, because they are expected to do the impossible: making recalcitrant, lazy, apathetic students smart. Society suffers because it does not gain educated citizens willing to take responsibility for their lives and actions. Ironically enough, the only benefit gained from that way of thinking goes to the monstrous, bloated network of colleges of Education and school administrators.
To see why the strict accountability plan will not work as envisioned, let us first recognize this one basic fact of learning: one learns through experience. What we know and feel is the result of our past experiences; when we learn, we always and inevitably relate new information to those past experiences in order to understand it. Learning can therefore be difficult and toilsome, as the learning process demands changes in the individual, and making those changes can be difficult. One must reconcile new information with the old, and doing so will demand changes in how we view reality, for the new information might, for example, invalidate knowledge that we previously valued, or it might clash with previous beliefs, or it might be so untenable in the old mental schema that only with the greatest exertion can we gain understanding. Nonetheless, learn we must, if we wish to improve and progress, and to learn, we must work through the sometimes discomforting changes.
The most important thing in the learning process is therefore the student or learner and his will to understand, NOT the teacher and his desire that the student learn, for the student is the only one with access to his memories and control over the detailed knowledge of how he views reality. The teacher does NOT know the myriad past experiences of each student, the teacher CANNOT know those past experiences and how they intertwine and interact to produce the student's personality and view of reality. The teacher has no power to customize the knowledge for each student; each student has the profound duty and responsibility to gain understanding, while the teacher can only help the student understand.
Let's use a comparison from sports. I wish to learn how to shoot a free-throw in basketball. The coach can help by analyzing my actions, making suggestions for improvement, and cheering me on; still, I must learn to coordinate my muscles to apply the exact amount of force and trajectory to throw the ball into the basket. The coach cannot make my brain and muscles understand; I must go through the tedious experience to gain that understanding. Or an example from medicine is apt: I wish to lose weight and become healthy. My doctor can only urge me on and give advice; my body must experience the unsatisfied pangs of hunger, the dull pain of long unused muscles flexing and strengthening, and my body must sweat and hurt as I burn off fat. No pain, no gain, as the athletes say, a saying just as appropriate in educational matters, but regarded as reactionary ranting by Educationists. A student's learning of academic subjects is not much different; learning demands changes in our view of reality and in our mental construct, and that change comes ONLY through experience. Students gain that experience when they study, pay attention in class, subordinate emotions to intellectual development and, most of all, STRIVE to understand.
Although Educationists know that one learns by doing, they and the members of the public are bound by Education's Romantic and sentimental view of childhood, as well as by its customary anti-intellectualism. Schools, according to many Americans, should be places of joy, spontaneity, and vivacity, where children go to be delighted by learning. Learning should be fun, they say. Consequently we cannot expect students to toil and struggle at school; we must pity those poor children in China, Japan, Korea, and Germany who must study and toil and struggle to understand. If anyone must toil at school, let it be theTEACHERS, who must provide learning games and fun activities that will enable children to learn effortlessly, automatically, and joyfully.
Thus the focus in US education shifts from the students, who are seen as helpless and apathetic, to the teachers, who are professionals paid to do a job. The students' success or failure is seen as emanating not from the students' actions in relation to the subject matter (i.e., reconciling new information with the old), but from the teacher and his use of a teaching method that enables students to learn painlessly and even joyfully. Since we cannot expect STUDENTS to do what is necessary to learn, the TEACHERS bear the responsibility of achieving success for the students. Of course it is absurd, as absurd as believing that the athlete sitting on the bench will get in shape if the coach runs the laps and wind-sprints, or the patient will become healthy if the doctor quits smoking and eating junk food.
Yet such an absurd scenario does in fact exist in public schools across the US: students are sitting back in their desks, arms crossed, waiting for their teachers to MAKE THEM SMART. The students are seen as having no responsibility or role in whether or not they learn. If they do not wish to come to school, it becomes the teacher's responsibility to design lessons that make them want to come. If the students do not wish to pay attention in class, the teacher must design lessons that grab their attention. If the students do not behave during class, it is the teacher's fault, for GOOD lessons prevent discipline problems. If the students are not motivated to learn, the teacher must motivate them. If the students have emotional problems, the teacher must design lessons with affective goals. If the students do not understand the subject, the teacher has failed to teach to their learning styles. Although the students have the most control over their thoughts and actions, they are not expected to do much in order to learn; the teachers must do what is necessary for the students to learn. Because the students' intellectual and emotional problems lie far outside of the teachers' area of control, they never get solved.
Since the teacher's methods and actions are thought to determine whether or not students learn, society has entrusted the colleges of Education with finding the magical teaching methods that will enable students to learn easily, joyfully, and automatically. Finding that pedagogical Excalibur requires legions of researchers in Education, financed by generous tax dollars, to find how to accomplish the impossible, i.e., having students learn without experiencing any struggle. (The latest cure-all is computers and the internet.) Thus when calling for accountability of teachers and administrators, WITHOUT also expecting our students to study as diligently as their Asian counterparts do, the critics and reformers of US public education inadvertently promote the growth and power of the Education monster.
How can we improve our education system? We must first recognize the fact that learning requires a great deal of effort and personal responsibility on the part of the students, and then expect our young people to do what they must in order to learn. That is, after all, what succeeds in the schools of Japan and China. "The Japanese believe that hard work, diligence, and perseverance yield success in education as well as in other aspects of lifeThe amount of time and effort spent in study are believed to be more important than intelligence in determining educational outcomes. Most Japanese parents and educators are unshakably optimistic that virtually all children have the potential to master the challenging academic curriculum, provided they work hard and long enough."* In the US, people believe that students learn because of good teachers, and fail to learn because of bad teachers; we teachers are expected to work nothing short of miracles, and then are excoriated for our failure to accomplish the impossible. Our colleagues in Japan, on the other hand, are not burdened by expectations of the impossible: "Good teachers are considered those who carefully and conscientiously cover the material outlined in the course of study."** Since the Japanese teachers do not bear the additional burden of motivating and disciplining the students-the students are expected by society, parents, and schools to do what they must in order to succeed-the teachers enjoy the luxury of being able to devote all their energies to teaching the subject in depth. US teachers, however, must employ various tricks and games to capture the students' interest; thus valuable class-time, even at the high school level, is typically squandered on superficial, childish gimmicks, thus insuring that few students plumb intellectual depths or create complex knowledge.
The Educationists will not embrace that commonsensical view of education. The Progressive legacy, being the founding charter of modern Education, has too strong a grip on their beliefs; they do not wish to see students toiling and struggling-i.e., changing--in school; that belongs in backward societies and is akin to child abuse. They sincerely believe that it is cruel to make the young struggle to learn, and fervently trust that Education, aided by its scientific research, will eventually find the magical teaching methods that will enable students to learn joyfully and effortlessly. The Educationists have good intentions, but the effects are sinister: their educational philosophy continually fails, yet they themselves capitalize on its inevitable and continuous failure as they receive research grants to identify and solve the problems in our education system.
We seem to think that education is so important we cannot expect the young to accomplish it. We want doctorates and professionals in charge, who will get the job done, so the young can enjoy their youth, free of demands and responsibilities; it appears that we do not want them to grow up. Yet we will make a great advance towards reform if we recognize that ultimately, given teachers who "carefully and conscientiously cover the material outlined in the course of study," the individual who most determines whether or not a 12 year old learns is only in the 6th grade. If we want our students to succeed in school and in life, we must expect them to learn to do what is necessary to succeed.
------------------------- * Robert Leastma, William J. Bennett, et al. , Japanese Education Today (Washington, D.C.: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, ED 275 620, 1987), p. 12. ** ibid, p. 50. -------------------------- Paul A. Zoch is an eleventh-year teacher in a public high school in Houston, Texas. His book Ancient Rome: An Introductory History was recently published by the University of Oklahoma Press. *************************************** * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org