In 1981, I was a sophomore in high school, and I decided to be a teacher. In 1988, I was in front of middle school classroom filled with science students. I still have the observations in which my department head and principal attested to the quality of my interactions with students. My wife still reminds me of the day I came home and said, “I would go to work even if they didn’t pay me.” In 2019, I am sharing my “why I left teaching” story. I left because everything really is different now.
Early in my career, I heard the grizzled veterans in the teachers’ room talk about how things had changed, but I suspected they were just complaining. As I was able to count the years of my career on two, then three and four hands, I concluded those old veterans were just being curmudgeons. Students, parents, principals, colleagues all remained the same over the years. There were good years and there were tough years, but within what one might call the normal limits, things did not change.
As my career neared the end of its third decade (and I needed five, then six hands to count its years), I realized things had changed. Maybe those curmudgeons had been right and I just needed a few more years to see that they had seen. I doubt it. When I knew them, they had children in middle school and high school. My children are now out of college, so I suspect I have seen more than they had seen when I knew them. So, just what has changed?
Mutually Contradictory Initiatives
Good educators seek to improve. We can be more efficient; we can be more effective. We can be more efficient and effective with particular students. We can change our practices to accomplish different goals. This has been consistent throughout my career. Early in my career, I joined a school that had redesigned its curriculum and the instruction for young adolescents to reflect a middle school approach. After a few years, politically powerful parents began to rebel against middle school approaches; they wanted to replace middle school practices with junior high school practices.
While both were promoted as “what our students need,” it was clear to all that the styles were mutually exclusive; we could not be both middle school and junior high school. The principal was reassigned to another school, several teachers (I was among them) left as the transition was underway. Some were upset, but at least it was clearly explained and understood this was an either-or decision. What has changed is that leaders no longer recognize the contradictory nature of their initiatives.
Since the turn of the century or so, “standards” have become very deeply embedded in school practice; they seem a natural and essential aspect of teaching. I am not going to criticize standards or their rationale (others have written volumes on that topic and that work has largely been ignored—both outside of education and inside of education). I am going to maintain they have exacerbated teaching that produces what Alfred Whitehead North referred to as “inert knowledge.” Our students may be able to answer test questions, but they cannot use that knowledge or skill otherwise.
More recently, there have been renewed calls for different types of education. It goes by many names, such as active learning, project-based learning, and authentic learning. Further, we seek competence-based education, personalized instruction, flexible pathways, and experiential learning. In general, these types of education are promoted to counteract inert knowledge. Such methods focus students’ learning in the real world through relevant and important problems, original work, and individualized plans.
My grandfather (had had also taught science) and I used to talk about the similarities between the “new” methods I was using and the “new” teaching methods he learned 40 years earlier. We realized that if we taught so that students could perform well on standard tests, then we could not allow them to explore real world problems and solutions.
The real-world is far too complex and messy to be summarized in standards and standardized or standards-based tests. When we follow advice to “let students demonstrate the standards through real-world projects,” we are reducing the complexity and sophistication of what they learned and valuing our framework rather than their learning. We take rich knowledge and make it inert.
In several decades of negotiating the space between standard curriculum and authentic curriculum, I have come to see these are fundamental different types of teaching and learning. In my work teaching teachers, I have seen the conflicts that arise from the failure to realize this difference. In my reading on the nature of learning, I have seen the reasons why these are different. I often explain this situation with arrows. Some methods take us in one direction while others take us in a different direction. What has changed is that educators no longer see the directions of their arrows.
Protocols over Teaching
Learning is largely an organic process. Think about some of the most important things we learn to do as humans: We learn to speak. We learn to play. We learn cultural expectations and taboos. Even sophisticated skills like reading happen organically—put children in spaces with text and adults who read to them, and most will learn to read. Learning is the outcome of interaction such as modeling, explaining, asking, coaching, and many other activities that are replicated in good classrooms.
Organic learning is not perfect, however. When it appears to have failed, teachers intervene. They use specific strategies to help students build the skills others have learned organically. Most of these interventions are designed to meet the needs of specific populations of students. These interventions include protocols which help organize unfamiliar actions. Skilled teachers have internalized the protocols of interventions, so they understand what is important in the situation and how to address it. These teachers have refined the craft of designing effective lessons, but they do not rely on protocols.
This is a craft that is being lost largely because of how teachers are being taught. In the time since I entered the profession, we have learned that reflection and interaction are essential part of building knowledge. Later in my career, “think-pair-share” has become ubiquitous in workshops. A protocol to help teachers who have not learned how to reflect and interact and to have their students reflect and interaction. We have not learned how to make meaning from the protocol, but we always use it. We used to move beyond protocols once we developed our own expertise in valued interventions. Educators now conflate following a protocol and teaching.
Another difference between education today and education in the past is educators; strange notions of data. Several factors seem to have converged to introduce mythic data into schools, and despite the dubious rationale and even more dubious value, educators have become among the most vocal advocates for data, and it is a red herring.
Data arrived in schools around the time No Child Left Behind became law. At the time, we were about 20 years on from A Nation at Risk, and there was much political advantage to be gained by being perceived as an advocate for improving education. It was good for children, good for the country; but it wasn’t being achieved. It as reasoned that “if we can measure ‘good education,’” then we can begin demanding it, punishing those who don’t provide it, and use government funds to provide only those practices that provide it.
Since then, educators have been complicit in the data industry, and we believe that “the data” will both guide and support every decision in lessons, classrooms, schools, and all the way up the hierarchy of governance. The problem is that “the data” are illusionary. I will not rehash the well-known evidence that the sources of data in schools are not valid, reliable, or objective. That evidence supports my conclusion that what is different about education today is that educators find illusionary patterns in illusionary data and these are given more credence than their observations and interactions and relationships with students.
Dismissal of Evidence
Education is a conservative industry. We change slowly. Other than a few societal changes that have caused wide-spread changes, such as the rise of high schools in the early 20th century, educators tend to resist change. This is in large part grounded in their assumption that what they are doing is worthy and valuable for their students. Educators practice the precautionary principle: they do not change until they are convinced the change will be positive for their students.
Educators’ dismissal of evidence seems to contradict their stance towards data; one the one hand they insist on data to support their decisions (and concoct data to support them), but on the ether hand they reject evidence that contradicts their practice. We know the importance of play, especially in early childhood education, but I saw academic curriculum creeping into the curriculum for younger and younger students. We know the importance of physical education and arts in children’s growth as learner, yet we reduce those in favor of more academics.
Calls to reduce those areas are not new. That was happening when I was a student in the 1970’s and early 1980’s and in has continued throughout my career. What has changed, however, is who has made the changes. In the past, it was school boards and others who sought to reduce the costs of schools by cutting extracurricular activities along with the arts and other non-academic areas. Many taxpayers understood the damage that was being done to children by those cuts, as did teachers and school leaders. Now, we see educators making the reductions, and their rationale is completely contrary to what we know to be good for children.
Several years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert became famous for his use of the term “truthiness;” he applied it to situations in which those in authority spoke with conviction, but without regard to whether their statement accurately reflected reality. Similar to truthiness, expertiness is characterized by ideas promulgated by experts who lack any knowledge in the field. I have seen it creep into schools in two insidious ways.
First, philanthropists become advocates for their most favored pedagogy, then support its inclusion with large sums of money. Their bags of money immediately catch the attention of school leaders, who begin to makes decisions based on the single reason “they are paying for it.” In essence these school leaders have given access to schools over to those with money. I can at least understand the fact that money buys access to political leaders; it is shameful, but understandable. I cannot understand school leaders allowing outside money to make their decisions.
Second, the increasing access of parents and other outside stakeholders in committees and other groups affecting school decisions. I know diversity is a good thing; I value different perspectives and have worked hard to be more inclusive in my professional and personal life. I cannot understand, however, the degree to which outsiders seek to affect educational decisions. “The Standards” are perhaps the most prominent example. Decades ago, we science teachers got together and discussed what we should teach and how we should teach it. We made our decisions based on what we had learned from our mentors in higher education; we also relied on textbooks to help us decide (I tried to avoid that and supplement textbook materials with other materials). I have refused to revise my curriculum in computer applications courses to reflect the latest curriculum standards. I reasoned my academic research focusing on technology, knowledge gained by publishing my writing about technology, experience managing information technology in schools, and teaching at the stat university gave my sufficient expertise to make decisions about what to teach. The school administrator (who frequently proclaimed she was “not a computer person”) disagreed. I left the school.
Nonchalance Regarding Stress
When I started teaching science those decades ago, the attitude “it is my job to teach science” was common. Others of us saw the importance of enhancing students’ well-bring. I was on teams that started recycling efforts in the school, our students had recess and a rich exploratory curriculum including wellness, and I was trained in drug use prevention. As attentive as we were to students’ needs, our attention stopped at the classroom door.
I am sure there were many of my students in rural Vermont who were food insecure, homeless, and dealing with many other distressing situations. At the time, we did not truly understand the cognitive effects of those problems. Since then, we have learned that toxic stress is factor that has real, devastating, and lasting effect on children. Those effects were as real when I started as they are now. The difference is that we understand them now. The difference is that toxic stress affects a far greater portion of the student population. Educators may see their role as primarily academic, but ensuring their students are ready to learn requires they become advocates for the mental and physical health of their students in w way they are not currently.
As I look back over what I have written, it seems to capture what I believe has changed in schools and the educational profession in the last 30 years. I also see a trend that is disturbing and that is what ultimately led to my departure from k-12 education. Education has become “deprofessionalized.” I was trusted to make decisions about how I taught when I started. I sought to be as responsive to the needs of our students as I could. When I left, my decisions were influenced more by curriculum gurus, politicians, industry trends, and tests than by my knowledge and abilities.
Even more disturbing is my conclusion that educators have been complicit in this process. We have passively allowed this to happen, and in a number of cases, we actively allowed this to happen.
Dr. Gary L. Ackerman worked for three decades in Vermont schools. His titles included science teacher, math teacher, computer teacher, technology coordinator, technology integration specialist, digital project leader, and flexible pathways coordinator. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Education, a Master of Arts in Education, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Education. Currently, he is supporting technology-rich teaching and learning and online learning at a community college.