Are We Deskilling Our Teachers?

I’ve always been an advocate of standards, high ones, to be sure – those benchmarks that target minimum levels of competency. They seem to me to be something to shoot for, a guarantee, if you will, that the goals we set for our students will ready them to do whatever they decide to do with their futures. On the other hand, I’ve never been a fan of standardization. I’ve had many a conversation with parents over the years explaining the difference between standards and standardization. Standardization suggests sameness in how one reaches those outcomes. And as we all know, students are not the same, do not learn in the same ways, and do not do well in standardized environments. But standards? Standards are outcomes: a vision of where we need to go. High standards ought to denote excellence.

So when the conversations around improving schools began to talk about teaching standards, it felt right. A decade ago, researcher Deanna Burney wrote about the importance of craft knowledge, of finding ways for teachers to build their professional repertoire of effective practice, touchstones to define the profession of teaching (2004). During my days as a coach with Harvard’s Executive Education for Educators program, we helped districts to create “points of view” around teaching – working toward that craft knowledge and a common vision of excellence for every student. Not long after that, instructional frameworks became the vogue, some more specific than others, but still intended, I thought, to move toward that craft knowledge Burney suggested. In fact, it wasn’t until I wrote my first blog on teacher evaluation that I began to wonder about the potential that teaching standards could narrow, rather than strengthen, the profession. My second blog took my uneasiness into the policy realm.

Not that I didn’t notice other things along the way. I spend perhaps 80% of my own practice in classrooms, watching teachers work with kids as I guide educators through the instructional rounds process (link to blog here). I have seen many, many beautiful lessons, perfectly designed and executed, illustrating dozens of the components outlined in almost any set of professional teaching standards. But I have also seen many of these beautiful lessons flop when it comes to actually engaging the students. How many of us can say we’ve either observed or taught textbook perfect lessons to an audience of lethargic students? It’s become a puzzle to me. Teaching standards seem like a good idea. Other professions have them. Why not teachers?

My question became more complex when I haphazardly picked up a book I had started perhaps 15 years ago with an intriguing title: Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age (Apple, 2000). Interested in how it might still be relevant, I thumbed through it and found the author arguing that “when [teachers] cease to plan and control a large portion of their own work, the skills essential to those doing those tasks self-reflectively and well atrophy and are forgotten. The skills that teachers have built up over decades of hard work – setting relevant curricular goals, establishing content, designing lessons and instructional strategies, ‘community building’ in the classroom, individualizing instruction based on an intimate knowledge of students’ varied cultures, desires, and needs, and so on – are lost. In many ways, given the centralization of authority and control, they are simply no longer ‘needed’ (p. 117-118). He claims that, as a result, we are seeing the “deskilling of our teachers” (p. 117). His thoughts made me wonder if our highly specific instructional frameworks, pacing guides, and “best practices” orientation are, in effect, deskilling our teachers.

If this is so, if we are, in effect, deskilling our teachers, would it not be an unintended consequence of attempts to strengthen the profession? And if this is so, is it not paradoxical for this to be taking place when the need for deep teaching expertise – and by association, discretion – is greater than ever? But as I consider some of the challenges I see, including those of my friend about whom I wrote almost a year ago*, I do wonder if we have gone the route of standardization in lieu of standards. And if that is so, how can this possibly bode well for the increasingly diverse group of students who need our teachers’ expertise, their skills, more than ever?

*who has, in fact, decided to leave teaching after another demoralizing year of administrators attempting to script her relationships with students and the content they’re intended to learn

References

Burney, D. (2004). “Craft knowledge: The road to transforming schools. Phi Delta Kappa, 85(7).

Apple, M. W. (2000). Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age. New York: Routledge.

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