Can we produce innovative students with teachers chained to a script?

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky responds to my interview last week with high school reformer Ted Dintersmith.

By Peter Smagorinsky

In a recent Get Schooled post, venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith made the point that today’s schools remain stuck in an industrial-age, production-line mentality at a point when they need to be emphasizing innovation over conformity. With jobs increasingly being turned over to automated systems and robotic devices, he argues, schools should no longer be in the business of training people to follow directions and keep their ideas to themselves.

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He continues: “If we don’t have kids coming out of school being innovative, we are going to have kids coming out of school being unemployed.” The current emphasis on filling in bubble sheets, he contends, leads today’s students on a path to obsolescence before they even begin their journeys.

Instead, he values schools that ask of students: “Can you be creative? Can you be resourceful? Can you innovate?” His solution is to base learning on projects through which students construct products that have value and utility in the real world.

I agree with pretty much everything Dintersmith says, and hope his investment in schools produces the sorts of results he seeks. I find his goals to be far more worthwhile than the failed efforts of other philanthropists to energize education by making them as “accountable” as possible, with reductive test scores the sole measure of achievement. The development of real job and life skills, if anything, is set back by the overemphasis on answering someone else’s questions about texts rarely read outside the setting of a standardized test.

I would like here to look at what I see as the other side of Dintersmith’s solution to making student learning more vibrant and practical: the effects of a system based on industrial assembly lines on teachers.

Few students feel joy at the prospect of going to school to take another standardized test, or to prepare for one, and these tasks have increasingly taken over both instructional and assessment time in education. What seems overlooked in considering this problem is the way in which teachers’ enthusiasm and dedication for their work get undermined by the manner in which their thinking has been taken away from them by the standardization of teaching and learning.

When the whole of the curriculum is scripted and designed to prepare students for multiple-choice tests developed by people in the assessment business, what happens to teachers’ emphasis on preparing kids for life, their delight in helping kids understand concepts and apply them to life, and the reason d’être for many people who undertake teaching as a career?

Part of what I do as a researcher is study how teachers’ careers unfold over time. I’m now in the midst of a long-term study of a set of teachers whose academic and professional careers I began studying during their sophomore years in college. They are now halfway through their fourth year of teaching English in public schools in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. What I share next comes from the most recent round of interviews conducted via Skype to help me understand how their career trajectories have been shaped by the conditions of their teaching.

My space here is limited, so I will focus on one of the teachers. She described her transition from a small school district in a rural part of an adjacent state to a school in a large Atlanta metro-area suburban district. She described the difficulty she has had in relinquishing the thinking behind her teaching to the corporate textbook and assessment publishers whose scripts she must follow so she is on the same page as every other teacher in the county every day.

I have studied other districts that have moved toward completely centralized decision-making in the past, from well before today’s high-octane drive to standardize education down to the last minute of every school day. The intention is often noble: to make sure each school provides equal educational opportunity to each school and student, no matter where they stand in the system’s socioeconomic hierarchy.

The reality is the corporate model takes the heart and soul out of schools by assuming every teacher should be identical to every other one, and students can all be equitably measured by the same assessment. This mechanistic perspective on teaching has made teachers feel, in the words of the teacher I interviewed recently, “robotic.” In this capacity, innovative and provocative teachers are denied the opportunity to use their good judgment to decide what their students need the most, deferring instead to the script provided by someone else far removed from their classrooms.

Sadly, she noted taking decisions out of teachers’ hands and minds is actually welcome to those of her colleagues who prefer not doing all the planning and grading that come with what Dintersmith sees as critical to project-based learning. Such learning is centered on carefully conceived tasks and environments that support their undertaking, and on dedicated time to assess the projects throughout their production.

The teacher has begun to question why she is teaching. She got into this profession because she loves working with kids, but finds the conditions of teaching in this district to be thoroughly stultifying.

Great teachers always seek to do whatever work it takes to make learning a dynamic, important, and growth-inducing experience for their students. This teacher finds the system has taken this prerogative away from her, replacing it with prescribed materials for her to trot out on schedule and administer to rows of students as if they are on the production line Dintersmith sees as obsolete.

She is considering leaving the profession because it no longer allows her the latitude to work hard to design instruction her students find engaging and worthwhile. Are there, she wonders, ways of working with kids that aren’t crushed by the standardization of schooling?

If she and others like her continue to bail on a teaching career, what will be left is a teaching force filled with those who are content to let the corporations plan their classes for them. That would be tragic, both for the kids whose learning needs will remain unmet and the teachers who loved their jobs until their dynamism was stolen by the robber barons from Pearson et al. and the administrators who have let it happen.

We deserve much better than this.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.