December 18, 2018

We Have an Education Aristocracy

“When a craftsman is constantly and solely engaged upon the making of a single object, he ultimately performs this work with unusual dexterity; but at the same time, he loses the general capacity to apply his concentration on the way he is working. Day by day, he gains in skill but is less industrious…”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

the-spanish-nobilityRecently, I was talking with a group of teachers who were planning to radically change the way they instruct their students.  I became so excited and inspired by listening to their ideas.  Their classrooms were becoming radically Learner-centered and beneficial for kids.  As I listened to them discuss different ways to structure their classroom and school, a stumbling block arose.  They kept worrying about “covering” the curriculum.  They were fighting against the dominate narrative of covering material versus focusing on student learning.  These teachers recognized the false narrative of covering curriculum and kept designing their future work around being Learner-centered…an act of courage in my book.  Their struggle between covering versus learning highlights a problem in education that all of us must recognize and change. As a matter of fact, those of us engaged in the trenches of education everyday are the only ones that can fix the problem.

I unapologetically believe a great con has been hoisted upon those of us who work in education. A con so insidious that most of us are unaware that we have taken the bait.  A con requires two parts: beliefs and action. It requires a person, or a group of people, to be tricked into changing their beliefs about something important to them.  It also requires a change in behavior that results from the adopted belief system.  In addition, the change of behavior must not be in the best interest of the person who changed. This is what has happened to educators. The con to which I am referring directly affects every educator who works in our schools and indirectly all of the students who walk through our school doors every day.  Here is the con: Educators have accepted, as a fact, the idea of an education aristocracy.

I am starting this new blog with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville.  In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville devotes some time to explain how an aristocracy can result from the formation of an industrial society. His argument goes something like this. As workers in an industrial society become more adept at their task, they become less involved in thinking of the wider implications of his/her contribution to the industrial enterprise.  In effect, workers form mental habits that enslave them to technocratic competence while robbing society of their intellectual abilities geared toward their industrial market.  Let’s view teachers and school administrators through this lens.

Teachers and school administrators have been indoctrinated by our industrial school system to believe the best they can achieve (and to hope for) is to become technically proficient at their job.  Across the United States millions of hours (and dollars) are spent on instructing educators to become more technically proficient at their task.  Teachers gather for professional development that tells them to teach in a certain way at a certain time using certain materials. Curriculum and instruction becomes “teacher proof” as teachers are encouraged (or mandated) implement “proven scientific” strategies.

The high-water mark for professional development in this system is when an educator implements a curriculum or instructional strategy “with fidelity” by blindly following the instructions meticulously laid out in the teacher’s manual.  All of this requires the teacher/ administrator to concentrate so hard on “implementation fidelity” that they accept “fidelity” the only real purpose of their job.  More to de Tocqueville’s point, teachers and administrators are so involved in their task, they relinquish their responsibility to consider the larger picture and purpose of education for their students and society at large to “others”.  It has assigned them to a narrow role in which they cannot escape.

The “others” are those people that are tangentially involved in education but benefit in some way as a result of the narrowing of the teachers/administrators focus to technical skills. They are not meeting students as they walk through the schoolhouse doors in the morning.  They do not have the privilege of being a study hall or cafeteria monitor.  They are definitely staying up late to correct their student’s assessments.   In other words, they are removed from the everyday hurley-burley of education.  The involvement they experience in education is based upon an echo chamber of think tanks, education foundations and academia.  Their distance from the actual work in schools is an inherent weakness in their worldview.  While they develop and defend certain curriculums, methods of instruction, and accountability measures, the reality they inhabit slips further from the reality of schools.  In a cruel twist of fate (for educators and students), these people (let’s call them “education reformers”) accrue power by networking with policy makers, philanthropists and academics.  The education reformers can leverage these relationships to further their personal agenda for education without any meaningful input from the actual people engaged in educating children (or the students themselves).  As a nice side benefit (for them), education reformers inundate teachers and administrators with so much “technical assistance” that the educators become even more focused on technical expertise and relinquish more control to the reformers who monopolize the narrative around education. Exactly as de Tocqueville envisioned.  The result is teachers/administrators working for (and doing the bidding of) the aristocratic education reformers.

The education aristocracy did not institute the con, but they most assuredly benefit from it.  The education con is called a “long con”. It was implemented over time, in stages, to the betterment of the growing education aristocracy.  The education aristocracy acts like all aristocracies throughout history…it works hard to protect its privileges and dehumanizes the actual workers.  The best example of the dehumanization is seen in the obliteration of professionalism of teachers and administrators with the adoption of teacher proof curriculums and the constant (false) narratives of failing schools.  “Accountability” of schools through meaningless test scores hastened the destruction of a truly professional education workforce while increasing the influence (and size) of the education aristocracy.  While school systems were falsely being labeled as failures, the education aristocracy increased their influence in two ways.  First, they perpetuated the false narrative of failing schools.  A narrative of failure allows the education aristocracy to gain “credibility” when they create and impose new reforms.  Second, when the education aristocracy gained enough influence to have their reforms implemented the teachers and administrators became more focused on program fidelity to meet the demands of the aristocratic reforms.   Compliance to programs becomes more important than student learning.

The antidote to education aristocracy is simple: empower teachers and administrators to do the work the way in which they know it should be done.  After all, teachers and administrators have been indoctrinated since their undergraduate training to believe that the best answers for education problems come from people and organizations outside the immediate confines of a school…the education aristocracy. Educators do not realize, in many cases, that they do in fact hold the key to school improvement.  Upon reflection, they will realize that the education aristocracy has kept them in intellectual subservience to enhance the power and influence of the aristocracy and their aristocratic benefactors.  My goal is to empower all educators by assisting them to become more than compliance zombies concerned with technical proficiency. We need to build networks of professional practitioners that share resources, ideas, and hope for a better school system.  A grass-roots effort to expand educator’s thinking beyond technical competence to a wider sense of self in our society is being created right now. Grass roots efforts like these are not glorified by the education aristocrat because it diminishes their influence over the education system. We all need to undertake the challenge to resist the education aristocracy.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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