Soundings : On letting teachers teach
High-stakes testing and the No Child Left Behind Act are changing public education in ways both obvious and subtle. One of the most troubling effects of this "accountability" movement is the way it reframes the discussion to give the very people who know most about what goes on in the classrooms - the teachers - the least say.
"This is a scary time for education on Martha’s Vineyard," says Peg Regan, who retires this June as principal of our regional high school.
Ms. Regan says that properly used, the Commonwealth’s MCAS tests can be a valuable source of data on what kids are learning and what they aren’t. "But that’s not what the state and federal governments are using those tests for," she says. "It’s all stick and no carrot. The legislators and governments don’t believe that the teaching profession is professional enough to become better unless they intervene with laws, policies and the threat of withholding funds. It’s scary, because it’s become a teacher-proofing industry. They don’t want to leave education up to the teachers. They want to teacher-proof the schools because they don’t believe - and this is very condescending - that the teachers will actually improve themselves."
Meanwhile, says Ms. Regan, one local aspect of this teacher-proofing trend, this steady shift of power from teachers to ever more distant bosses, has been the growth of the Martha’s Vineyard superintendency.
In recent years, the superintendent’s office has had by far the fastest-growing educational budget on the Vineyard. And the regional high school, which pays 20 percent of the superintendent’s budget, feels the burden. Finance committees across the Island are pressing school leaders because enrollments are going down.
"But you know," says Ms. Regan, "the superintendent’s enrollment is going down, too. I mean, the superintendent’s office doesn’t seem to exist in the same world as the schools. When I’m having to cut back staff, how can you be adding people up there?"
What we’re seeing under the leadership of superintendent James Weiss, Ms. Regan believes, is the birth of a new top-down structure. "Our superintendent likes the K-through-12 model," she says, "and he’s superimposing it on the Island."
The backdrop for this shift is a moment in which politically weaker principals, several of them newly appointed, are in place in the Island’s public schools. Just think of last year, when Mr. Weiss stepped in and started running faculty meetings at the Edgartown School, after it missed an MCAS score target by seven-tenths of one point. Can you imagine longtime principal Ed Jerome allowing that?
"At one time," says Ms. Regan, "we were the principal/superintendents of our own schools. When I came here, the schools were so autonomous that it was almost absurd. Now, the superintendency is this big umbrella that sits on top of everybody, and it’s getting bigger and bigger, and I’m not sure anybody is examining why it needs to. I just think we need to know where we’re going, and how we’re organized to go there."
Ms. Regan sees a great reservoir of local pride in the Island’s elementary schools and believes that sense of pride and of ownership is a significant boon to the teachers and students. "One of the things I think Vineyarders need to look at is the question of how do we want to be organized around education in the next five years," she says. "Do they want to be organized with the same level of redundancy and local control - which I think they do - and if so, how can we do it? Because we can’t keep adding more and more people to the top, to make sure that the people at the bottom are doing their job."
Ms. Regan agrees that the Island needs a superintendent’s office to help coordinate curriculum among the elementary schools and that it can provide those schools with savings in the area of shared services. But the high school is already a regional institution, she argues, and why does it need another regional entity layered over it?
And, she forcefully rejects the notion that the path to better public education involves micro-managing teachers from the top down. "My great fear for education is that we will continue to teacher-proof and principal-proof our schools, and create these lock-step organizations where problems aren’t being solved and designs for learning aren’t being created at the classroom level. The things that teachers need, that schools need, are the resources to do it well. We don’t need interference and mandates; we do need resources."
Everything in education, Peg Regan maintains, finally comes down to the quality of the discussion in that crucible of learning, the classroom. She says, "There’s nothing you can do, top-down, in education that’s really going to change anything, if it doesn’t impact the classroom discussion.
"What we’re hearing from our students is that they want rigorous instruction in all their classrooms, but they do not want to lose the uniqueness of the art of teaching. The one thing students respond to the most, in a skillful teacher, is authenticity. When a teacher is so text-bound that they can’t deviate, not only do the kids not learn, but they can torment a teacher to death. They realize that the teacher is teaching from a script. There’s no authenticity to it.
"The level of discourse in the classroom, whether it’s a second-grade class on marine science or a twelfth-grade class in physics, should be as high as possible to draw the teacher and the students into this world of analysis and understanding."
Local control versus regional authority; teachers empowered versus teachers marching in step - this is a conversation that needs to get out of administrators’ offices and into the larger Island community. In this conversation about the future of our Vineyard school district, unsurprisingly, superintendent Weiss has quite a different point of view. We’ll explore his perspective in this space next week.