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Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed back, for the third time, his deadline for New York City to devise a new teacher evaluation system. On the surface, it seemed a benevolent move that recognized the enormity of this undertaking—one in which many school districts across the nation are similarly taking part.

The truth of the matter, however, is that Cuomo—along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—has misunderstood entirely what it means to build capacity for thoughtful education reform.

school reform
Eric Shieh is a founding teacher of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, “A School for a Sustainable City,” in New York City, where he teaches music and leads curriculum development.

Imagine, for a moment, that everything Cuomo, Duncan and Bloomberg have promised will happen if New York City fails to deliver an evaluation system actually happens. In January, when the first deadline was moved from January 17th to February 22nd, Cuomo threatened a total loss of over $500 million to the city, a loss of control over Title I and Title II funds, and an evaluation system imposed by the state.

Dutifully, Mayor Bloomberg interpreted for parents and teachers that this would inevitably mean teacher layoffs (beyond the non-replacement of some 2,300 educators retiring or otherwise leaving the classroom in an average year). Additionally, Duncan said in 2012 that a New York City decision to be a “laggard” would jeopardize the $700 million grant that New York state received in 2010 as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative.

Imagine that an agreement on new evaluations isn’t reached, and that this pile-up of punishments actually occurs. The results would not simply be catastrophic—they’d be idiotic.

Any teacher, myself included, can appreciate the temptation to ratchet up a series of punishments in the hopes of deterring a student from misbehavior. At our worst moments, we teachers have all threatened something—usually a detention or extra work—that we wish we hadn’t and that we often know won’t truly support the student in his or her development.

I recall a question I once asked when dealing with a student who had a chronic habit of clowning around in class. After calling a conference with him, his parents, his teachers and a principal for the third time in as many months, I wondered openly to my principal how many more such meetings we’d have. “When do we just start giving him detentions for his misbehavior, rather than investing the energy these meetings and their accompanying plans require?” I asked.

My principal replied, “When we decide to give up on him.”

He’s correct, of course. Arbitrary, and often rigid, consequences designed as part of a deterrent system tend to fail—and they certainly fail to support the students who too frequently fall into their grasp.

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Make no mistake: over a half-billion dollars of education funding diverted, thousands of teaching positions cut each year for the past five years, and the erosion of local control over funding and evaluation decisions—each of these qualifies as an arbitrary penalty destined to backfire. The equivalent punishments given to a struggling student—withholding breakfast, perhaps, or forbidding a child to speak in class—are unimaginable.

My analogy is, admittedly, imprecise. Many will disagree with my characterization of the New York City schools as a student. But I do wonder how different the school district is from the student when it comes to designing mechanisms for reform. Or, to ask a more targeted question, for whom do we believe punishment is a promising avenue to reform—students, schools, teachers, society?

* * *

In my eleven years in education, I have witnessed the dramatic proliferation of punishments driving the levers of education reform, from schools to students.

I taught in St. Louis the year its schools were taken over by the state of Missouri as part of a series of consequences for failing to make “adequate yearly progress” under No Child Left Behind. NCLB, of course, is infamous for its punishments, which bear a startling resemblance to those currently facing New York City’s schools: state control, loss of funds, mandated turnaround packages.

None of these is designed to be anything more than a threat. Only the green or the naïve would expect schools to improve as a result of such threats. No state government truly wishes to supervise schools any more than a teacher wishes to supervise a student in lunch detention.

In St. Louis, the transition to state control resulted in a prepackaged curriculum for teachers and students—a “reform” mandate that punished teachers by removing our autonomy as curriculum leaders. In the first year of the takeover, a colleague of mine was disciplined for supplementing the scripted reading curriculum with additional activities for special-education students. Under NCLB, as a bizarre punishment for low test scores, students across the nation have been deprived of engaging classroom opportunities and rich curricula.

While NCLB’s punitive approach has been softened to some extent by the Obama administration, the law’s philosophy has not. Diminished funding, school closings, turnarounds, takeovers, vouchers and the privatization of schools proliferate in a contemporary wave of reforms taking urban districts by storm. Teacher evaluation—the latest in a series of reforms required by grants, mandated by legislatures and backed by a litany of threats at all levels of government—has itself become a kind of punishment.

Enthusiasts will no doubt argue that these consequences for teachers and schools aren’t intended as punishments, but rather aim to build more robust educational systems. I don’t disagree. But the implementation of these systems and the accompanying rhetoric all but eclipse this intention. A school turnaround plan, however spectacular on paper, is understood as punishment rather than support when it’s the result of failing to meet certain targets. The same goes for the reinvestment of public monies or the redirection of students into alternate forms of education, billed as school choice but understood as a vote of no confidence. In New York City, the push for new teacher evaluations comes in the fourth year of Bloomberg’s relentless mission to find new ways to fire teachers, not to mention amidst a nationwide push to end teacher job protections. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine that a better education system is being built.

* * *

If these reforms make sense to you, consider instead a logic of change that doesn’t traffic in threats. The best teachers I know assume that the reason for any given student’s lack of success is a lack of capacity—a lack of knowledge, skills, habits, supports—and work to build these capacities rather than punish students for not having them in the first place. They find that assuming the problem is capacity—not recalcitrance or, heaven forbid, moral decrepitude—respects the humanity of our students and leads to real improvement.

Might we ask the same of school reformers?

What would it mean to stop assuming that teachers or schools don’t make the grade because they don’t want to (or are unmotivated or stupid), but that instead we find it difficult to negotiate new demands with the hundreds of expectations already placed on us? What would it mean to ask, instead, why it seems so many schools’ capacities are stretched to the breaking point?

Thomas Hatch—co-director of National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University—is fond of observing that “it takes capacity to build capacity” for change. What he means is that a school’s ability to change in response to new demands is often determined by its ability to act autonomously, using its various resources and supports to meet these demands. Capacity, in this sense, cannot be bestowed or mandated. Mandates, however well-intentioned, just as often erode a school’s capacity to manage its various resources; most of the time, they simply escalate the number of demands.

So what’s to be done?

I’d argue foremost that we must end our reliance on a kind of bureaucratic logic in education reform that assumes everything can and should be solved managerially. While many school reformers recognize that there are central concerns with school and teacher capacity, few recognize their own limited ability as external or top-down managers to design adequate solutions.

I suggest instead an investment in an associational logic that finds strength in greater collaboration and dialogue. We know that students learn most fully when they are given the opportunity to construct their own knowledge, as a result of rich experiences and exchanges, and with respect for their own backgrounds and understandings of the world.  The same is true for teachers and schools, and the dynamic communities they shepherd. After years of working in schools beset by turnaround programs that turned a blind eye to our individual experiences and communities, I now work in a school with a high capacity for responding to new demands and improving instruction. It is a school built upon daily, thoughtful teacher collaboration, and one that encourages teacher participation in professional spaces beyond the school building.

Over our first three years, we developed a continuously evolving curriculum based on real-world, interdisciplinary projects, created a mastery-based grading system, and began to map our work across not only subject standards, but also character, technology and sustainability standards—all projects that would have been unheard of in my previous schools. More importantly, we have also developed to a large degree the capacity to refuse the pressures of a test-prep curriculum, weighing the outcomes of those pressures against the many aims of education that also compel us as professional educators and as citizens.

What would it mean to invest in building such capacities in schools, with solutions that aren’t driven by external mandates? It would mean finding ways to encourage schools to share practices, and teachers and leaders to visit other schools—both of which are regular occurrences in my current school. It would mean giving all teachers additional time to collaborate (by reducing teaching loads and increasing, not decreasing, the number of teachers), and for schools to envision concretely what that collaboration should be used to develop.

Why can’t we support schools and teachers with more funds, resources, and contact time with administrators and mentors? Just for a moment, imagine teams of education leaders working with our schools, recognizing the agency and humanity of school personnel in the process.

If this seems like an unrealistic vision, ask yourself if you’d rather invest in a wave of school closings and teacher firings—with the attendant trauma they inflict in the short run, and the dashed hopes for real, substantive change they generate in the long run.

In addition to the greater investments in schools that I’ve outlined above, I have come to believe that teacher professional associations also have an important part to play in designing robust curricula and instruction, and in facilitating diverse structures for member collaboration across schools and districts in that process.

But it is precisely these kinds of spaces that have been eroded in today’s climate of diminishing school funding and narrowing curricular opportunity. Our professional associations, reflecting the nation’s infatuation with bureaucratic reforms, now serve disproportionately as lobbying agencies to legislatures and businesses—not really as vibrant places of member exchange. And yet it is these very spaces of exchange and experience that are most akin to the conferences among parents, teachers and students that my school insists upon, in lieu of arbitrary punishments.

I have one final suggestion. I asked earlier whether we believe punishment is a useful mechanism not simply for students, teachers and schools, but also for society more generally. I don’t think it’s an accident that this country’s assumptions about educational change mirror its assumptions about, and obsession with, mass imprisonment. The United States boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate, with a staggering 24 percent of the world’s total prison population, in easily the most widespread example of punishment masquerading as reform.

As a former prison educator, I’ve come to believe that our system of stripping citizens of their autonomy in the name of building a better society lays the foundation for the pervasive belief that punishment is a viable way to effect change. It is not.

What would it mean to begin to invest in the capacities of all individuals, children and adults alike, to grow and change? What would it mean to recommit to this each and every instant we are tempted to threaten and punish?

I have little doubt this would create a better society. Is it too much to believe that education, and recognizing the humanity in our schools, might lead the way?

Eric Shieh is a founding teacher of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, “A School for a Sustainable City,” in New York City, where he teaches music and leads curriculum development.

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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. As an educator for 47 years – elementary teacher, teacher trainer, adjunct professor of education and school board member – I have preached what Mr. Shieh has discussed here. The trouble with education isn’t that teachers “aren’t doing their jobs”. It is that they aren’t even involved in finding the solutions! What Washington and the “reformers” have forgotten is that education -i.e. “teaching” – is a PROFESSION, not a job. I put to you that the “education Establishment” sees teachers as employees only, and they need to be told what to do. Further, their “output” can only be measured by test scores. We forget that tests have a far more important goal than that of measuring achievement (whatever that means)of both student and teacher. They were supposed to be DIAGNOSTIC TOOLS, meant to be used by the teacher to improve their delivery of service to each of their students. I ask you, would the medical profession castigate a doctor if an x-ray or MRI of a patient came to prove that the patient was still ill?

  2. Yours is one of the most thoughtful responses to what we are encountering in education that I have come. Sometimes we as teachers who are overwhelmed by these mandates get caught up in telling people what that feels like, and lose sight of offering any alternatives. There is much pointing of fingers in this culture of school “reform.” (Can any educator use the word without quotation marks around it?) Stepping back and thinking about how what is happening needs to be looked at through a wider angle lens, through the lens of what this is saying about our culture right now, is very important. Your conclusion about this stemming from the way that our society strips us of our autonomy to build a better one really resonated with me and did indeed isolate for me the very issue that is at the heart of why I can’t say “reform” without the quotes. When I often think of how I want to be a model for my students in all that I do, I don’t think the current educational debate is a model for our students about how to treat one another, how to confront difficult issues, how to work together in difficult times. Bringing humanity into a true reform movement would be refreshing–and vital–for the sake of our profession, our students, our country.

  3. “One-sided education equals one-sided thinking” Education must state with parents and/or good teachers from 1st to 12th grades. We have to break the left leaning teachers and schools too show both sides so students will have a choice after 12 grade to learn a trade or college. Charter schools and freedom of choice are the base for saving our nation. Coming soon; Government can not run anything because of faulty leadership/dictatorship!

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