Which Pictures of Teachers Implementing Policies Are Accurate?

These are actual radio messages sent to and from a U.S. navy ship a number of years ago.

U.S. Navy Ship: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the
North to avoid a collision.

Reply: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to avoid a collision.

Ship: This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Reply: No, I say again you divert YOUR course.


Reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

I am reminded of this story whenever I consider the
disorderly, even messy way that policies enter classrooms.

In previous posts (September 9 and 12, 2009), I had pointed out competing images of
teachers as implementers. One picture in the heads of most state and federal
policymakers has teachers as one link in a long policy chain implementing new standards and following procedures. That image is a constricted view of teachers as technicians dutifully carrying out orders from the top—even when those orders—see the above exchange with the U.S.S. Enterprise captain—are mistaken.

Another image used to describe implementing classroom policies is pushing pasta. In this image, policymakers are helpless in determining what teachers do in their classrooms once the door is closed. Teachers are policy brokers who decide what they let in their classrooms.

I want to offer a third image nestled between the technician/policy broker ones that may be closer to the realities teachers face in implementing well-intended, even evidence-based policy decisions. That image is one of different worlds that policymakers and teachers inhabit—overlapping in some respects like Venn diagrams—but for the most part driven by different values and incentives. This picture may explain policymaker difficulties with teachers and why teaching practices seem so stable over decades. The world of classroom teachers has its own set of values and incentives that, like the above lighthouse that the U.S.S. Enterprise nearly ignored, few policymakers even notice, much less invoke.

Consider when a new instructionally-driven policy, say, hand-held electronic devices or a new reading program appears. Teachers ask: Can I learn it quickly or do I have to spend a lot of time figuring out what to do? Will it motivate my students? Does the program contain skills that are connected to what I am expected to teach and what students need? What happens if I need immediate help? Seldom do policymakers either anticipate or pay attention to such practical questions.

These questions reveal that teachers prize ideas and actions that payoff in learning and meaningful relationships with students. They seek concrete and specific solutions to practical classroom problems. The incentives that drive teachers to teach better in their classrooms come more from internal values than external rewards: the joys of seeing students learn and achieve goals, the service they render to society, and similar psychic rewards.

The world policymakers inhabit differs greatly. Their world is largely political where election cycles, budgets, media attention, and measurable outcomes determine job longevity and personal satisfaction. Incentives such as re-election, influencing others, and positive media dominate daily routines. The values of efficiency, effectiveness, and popularity rule.

Obviously, the worlds of teachers and policymakers overlap when it comes to the values of effectiveness although each would define differently which effects are most important and the measures used. Efficiency at the school and district levels—squeezing more test scores out of every dollar spent– is far more a policymaker value than one held by teachers.

In these different worlds, teachers bring moral and service values that differ from the technical, scientific, and reputational values that policy makers hold. Of course teachers seek improvement in students’ test scores but they prize far more changes in students’ attitudes, values, and actual behavior on academic and nonacademic tasks.

So which of these three pictures of classroom teachers implementing policy decisions realistically describes what happens in classrooms?

My guess is that on school health/safety issues the image of the policy chain with teachers dutifully following orders for fire drills, emergency exits, and protecting students does describes a slice of school reality. On policies that ask teachers to alter their daily habits of organizing the classroom and teaching differently, however, the “pushing pasta” metaphor is operative.

Why? Because the incentives and values of the policymaker world puts blinders on most federal and state decision-makers; they are either unaware of or choose to ignore the incentives and values that drive teachers thereby neglecting essential resources needed to help those who wish to alter their daily routines.

Most policymakers fail to inspect the pictures in their heads about school systems as organizations. Too often, they assume that teachers are like other employees in business, military, and other governmental organizations. The captain of the U.S.S Enterprise used the command-and-control view until he learned that he was communicating with a lighthouse. Then he shifted course.


1 Comment

Filed under school reform policies

One response to “Which Pictures of Teachers Implementing Policies Are Accurate?

  1. This reminds me of Neil Postman’s work on the hidden, implicit metaphor (in his book “Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk”) and how many clashes exist when worlds (dominated by differing semantic environments) collide and authentic communication cannot occur due to the social, political and cultural layers of language.

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