The greatest teacher incentive: The freedom to teach


Some teachers find high-stakes standardized testing a hindrance to creating a passion for learning among their students. (Mark Gail/WASHINGTON POST)
July 19, 2011

In the wake of the Atlanta cheating scandal and recent cheating allegations in other school districts (including Washington, DC), On Leadership convened a roundtable on how best to approach teacher incentives in the U.S. education system — with opinion pieces by Duke University behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, teacher and education blogger from Georgia Vicki Davis, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, and Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein.

“The last thing I will do is refuse to take your test,” said an angry 15-year old to a math teacher who’s a friend of mine in Georgia. “I just wanted to teach him to balance his checkbook, something he would use in the real world,” she said, “but the school system made me sit there and watch him sullenly refuse to write on the ‘high stakes’ standardized test for the two days before his 16th birthday when he would quit school. This is not teaching.”

My friend is just one of the many dedicated teachers who are losing hope in a system that has lost its way.

In our rush to make teachers accountable, we have made them accountable for the wrong things. We are pushing them to turn kids into memorizing automatons who remember a lot of facts only to forget them right after the test. These tests are not the products of educational research. In fact, according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, “remembering” is considered lower-order thinking. It doesn’t even require understanding.

In the video “No Future Left Behind,” made by students at Suffern Middle School in New Jersey, there’s a memorable line: “You can’t create my future with the tools of your past.” They’re right. We’re using a 20th-century measuring stick to measure a 21st-century learner. No wonder businesses are yelling that education is getting worse: We’re using the wrong stick. Students should graduate with portfolios of work ready for a world that will value them on their ability to create. Take for example a student I know from Evansville, Indiana, who finally fell in love with learning during his senior-year project. Using a netbook purchased with curriculum funds, he engaged in stop-motion animation using Legos. His school attendance went up, his grades went up, and he is now graduating and going on to college.

We need to define what it means to be a well-educated person in the 21st century and then support our schools to move toward that vision. And the greatest incentive we can give teachers to improve learning is to let them start focusing on teaching.

What we need in our schools are teacherpreneurs like they have in Finland, where the “teachers choose their own textbooks and customize their lesson plans.” Reginald Garrard, who left his Camilla, Georgia, teaching job after 33 years says, “My biggest complaint was the trend towards cookie-cutter teaching. The fact that we were expected to be on the same page at the same time in the same way. Your creativity is being stymied with the pressure to pass the test.”

Schools should have the ability to personalize learning through technology. Scripts may make a bad teacher palatable, but they make a good teacher (and her students) miserable. Filling out a worksheet is not learning. Students need interactions with teachers and with each other, not with a piece of paper.

I’m reminded of an autistic child in Austria on one of our projects who became fully communicative the first time he was allowed to video himself, unleashing his ability to contribute. That’s not to say it’s just about technology, though. Putting computers in the hands of kids doesn’t make them any smarter than if they rubbed Einstein’s head. It is how the technology is used—by interacting—that improves learning. Students are the greatest textbook ever written for each other, and yet most schools close the book on social learning.

In my own experience, managing the Flat Classroom Projects, the hardest schools to collaborate with are those in China and most U.S. public schools: They both block everything and have inflexible systems that don’t allow innovation. Many U.S. teachers don’t even have the authority to upgrade their web browser or fix a printer. And these schools that have very little technology often still ban bringing devices from home that could mitigate the situation.

As Mike Soskil, a fifth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania says, the main charge for educators should be to “just teach well, and let the chips fall where they may”—whether that’s getting creative about using technology or having the autonomy to customize lesson plans.

Every day teachers across this country are asked to act in ways that cause students to lose their love of learning, and drop-out rates are skyrocketing. Doctors take an oath to “do no harm”; and yet with education, we’ve created a scenario where we’re asking teachers to do harm because we’re missing the big picture as a nation.

When empowered in my own classroom to follow research-based best practices in lieu of testing, I have fallen in love with teaching again. This is what I want for every student and teacher in the country I love: freedom. Freedom to teach, and freedom to make learning come alive for a generation that I am afraid will one day accuse us of educational malpractice.

Vicki Davis is a full-time teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia. She is also a leading educational blogger, with a focus on improving learning for all students—starting with the teacher in the classroom. She tweets @coolcatteacher and is coauthor of Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds (January 2012) with Julie Lindsay from Beijing, China.

 

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