by Daniel Buck
During a moment of small group discussion in a professional development session, a teacher near me gave his opinion:
Look, I’ve learned a few things in my time here, and that’s to only do these sorts of things on the days the administration comes in to watch.
In most school buildings, there smolders an animosity of which most people aren’t aware between teachers and administrators. It shows up in staff meetings. It’s heard in teachers’ lounge gossip. “If only they trusted us and gave us the freedom to do our jobs as we saw fit,” goes the refrain of frustrated teachers.
This tension, while a problem in itself, is indicative of a larger issue. There is a handful of different ways to teach that are based on different educational theories; public schools, not committed to any particular theory, mandate a poor mixture of them all onto their teachers. Private schools, a different option where the curriculum may be more aligned to individual beliefs, contain only 10 percent of school enrollment, leaving most teachers to teach a hodgepodge curriculum with which they don’t agree. It’s a matter, then, of hampered choice.
A quick overview of the two broad educational theories to which teachers ascribe is needed to understand this problem. The first has a classical view of education and sees schools as a way to make a well-rounded, generally knowledgeable individual; the focus is on content. The second could be called skills-focused educators who see schools as a way to train the next generation of civically-minded workers. Within each broad theory are a myriad of subdivisions and practices.
Asking “What and how should we read in class?” exemplifies the diversity in teaching methods. Regimented charter schools would model a systematic method for analyzing a text, practice with their class, and then ask the students to do so as an assessment. The progressive urban educators would treat a text as a cultural artifact to compare and contrast the systems of oppression in various eras. A private Christian school would read a work and guide their students into understanding what the author believed. Montessori schools would ask students to pick their books and subsequently discuss what it made them think about. This short list doesn’t even touch on vocational, STEM, or arts-based schools.
In this market of choices, no one method is inherently superior to the other. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Each does, however, require a unique set of skills to create a unique set of students. Speaking for myself, I was educated in the progressive, urban school method and taught myself into a regimented charter school one. During my first year of teaching, an administrator required that I implement a classroom structure I had never learned. Within a few weeks, my class was chaos, as I had no idea how to do what they asked, and I, like the teacher in my anecdote, learned to ignore administrative mandates.
This problem is professionally stifling. Many teachers required to teach Shakespeare stumble through a month of an author for whom they have neither respect nor understanding. Others have a unit that implements Montessori-like choice reading without the knowledge of how to push the depth of a student’s thought when every kid in the class has a different book. Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, says:
I’d rather my child’s teacher were an ardent disciple of a curriculum or pedagogy I don’t like rather than make a forced march through one I prefer, but which has been imposed on [the teacher] unwillingly.
The Benefits of Choice
School choice will create a system without this inherent tension between teacher freedom and bureaucratic mandates. This system ties funding to students and deregulates the system, allowing for a diversification of schools to contend for skilled teachers.
Many teachers worry that a system like this would allow for anti-scientific, overtly racist, or simple bad teaching to spread. Two things can work against this concern. First, any mixture of state or local content standards, intermittent standardized tests, or school inspections can ensure a minimum of quality without the need for the federal government to run schools. More importantly, the system allows for market pressure to keep schools accountable. If a school is ineffective, parents can choose to send their kids elsewhere, thereby draining funds away. This school, with its poor practice, will then either have to change or close.
Sadly, 79 percent of teachers, both Republican and Democrat, oppose school vouchers. Along with their concerns about accountability, many believe they will drain money from their paychecks to private schools, but studies have shown reality to be the exact opposite. Instead, it is a system that will provide them with the freedom they long for.
Ashley Berner of John Hopkins University wrote in a review of the research on school choice that “many educators will find [this] pluralistic system professionally attractive. Funding an increasingly diverse spectrum of schools will likely generate innovative working environments and strong school cultures that mirror teachers’ individual commitments and pedagogical styles.”
A disciple of classical education could leave the mediocre curriculum of the public school and teach strict grammar through philosophy at a private school. The progressive educator can leave Shakespeare behind and teach reading through culturally relevant materials. The Montessori people can say goodbye to curriculum altogether and let the kids guide the class as they go along.
While applying for jobs during graduate school, I had the pleasure of interviewing at a choice-funded Christian charter school in a poor neighborhood of Milwaukee. Every individual teacher in that school had a shared vision and pedagogy that created an energetic atmosphere, which I have yet to feel again.
Seeing the mandated curriculum at this school, a professor with whom I discussed this opportunity drew back in horror. “How can they teach like this?” she gasped. She disagreed with almost every curricular choice this school had made, while I praised them for it all. In a system with choice, she could pick a school that better fit her belief, leaving me happy at a school that fits mine.
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