The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again” if you like) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With No Child Left Behind and its coercive accountability mandates, teaching has surely been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.) in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring. What the successor to NCLB–Every Student Succeeds Act–will accomplish as states now have far authority over standards, testing, and accountability has yet to unfold.
With Common Core standards instituted in most states since 2010, the push to standardize K-12 instruction (e.g., close reading for first graders; textual analysis in non-fiction works; conceptual math) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching reduce somewhat the variation in lessons that teachers teach will fail to end variability in how and what teachers teach. Teacher autonomy continues to exist in the age-graded school with self-contained classrooms.
The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.
Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice seldom produce homogeneous lessons
Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts. The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.
David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.
Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.
Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.
Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is bathed in irony.
Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students. Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey. Few policymakers understand that.
The same pattern of adopted policies ending up in classroom lessons in stunningly different versions occurs nowadays when districts seek to “personalize” learning. Classroom observations document clear differences across academic subjects and elementary school classrooms (see here, here, and here). These examples reaffirm that teachers, not policymakers, have the last word on what happens during a lesson.
Teachers are policymakers
As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in daily lessons. The fact is that once teachers close their classroom doors, they choose what to do.
Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher wherewithal and judgment are crucial ingredients to successful student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked, purposely ignored, or under-funded.
As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation.
It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.
The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing anew that teacher choice makes them in reality, policymakers. Such an insight is hardly quantum physics but unlearned by those who make decisions targeted on altering how teachers teach.