Why Top-Down Structures and Excellent Teaching Don’t Mix

Carnegie Offers a Hopeful Alternative

By Deborah Meier

“A Nation Prepared” the report of the Carnegie Corporation on teaching as a profession, speaks very strongly to many of the issues school people are concerned about today. It is an effort, according to its director Marc Tucker, to “work out ways in which teachers will have much more to say about how schools operate than they do now.” {Education Week, 3/25/87). It stresses the argument that what is needed is not more of the same, just tougher standards — but different forms of learning that put the focus on students as thinkers. It is a report on redesign, on changing the view of teachers from at best high-level technicians with little control over what and how their schools and classrooms operate, to a vision of schools as collaboratively run institutions. The- report, in short, raises some of the right questions at the right time; when most of the reforms being put into operation are moving in exactly the opposite direction, further eroding teacher autonomy.

“A Nation Prepared” should be applauded for acknowledging that any effort to reform the schools must first and foremost involve teachers, and involve them as decision makers. The report presents a vignette of what such a school might be like someday in the future. The school of the future described in the Report is a collegial model where teachers work together toward common goals. The curriculum is designed by the teachers and the school operates on a flexible schedule organized by the staff. 

There are (naturally) contradictions in the report and in its recommendations for reform. Its significance, I believe, lies not, however, in these contradictions, but in the extent to which it departs from the rhetoric of the past decade in favor of non standardization, experimentation and collegiality.

Contradictions in Report

What are the contradictions? One example is found in the very same vignette that so attractively describes this collegial and intellectually purposeful environment. We join a-faculty that would enhance student achievement, keeping in mind the goals set by the parents and community, as well as its own knowledge of students’ needs. In the midst of this discourse the discussion shifts to figuring out how to maximize staff bonuses based on a productivity model that ties staff salaries to student achievement test scores! “If they set the objectives too low, they might be easily accomplished, then the teachers’ bonuses would be commensurately low. Achievement of ambitious objectives would bring substantial rewards under their bonus plan, but none at all if they were not met”

It is difficult to believe these same teachers, who have so much autonomy and control over their workplace, would participate in this kind of cynical calculation and be willing to accept such a shoddy method of assessing achievement.

Top Down Structure Demeans Profession

Nor is the Report’s single-minded focus on the economic purposes of education — to help us compete internationally — reassuring, with its implicit assumption that it is our schools, not our corporations, who have let America down.

The decision of the original Task Force to focus on raising the professional standards of teaching through the creation of a national examination is also open to question. It is presented as a strategy aimed at both increasing public respect for teaching and attracting and holding the most talented teachers. On both counts it remains to be seen whether such a strategy is helpful. Surely it wiU achieve nothing if it does not go hand in hand with the proposed restructuring of the schools. For it is that top down structure that demeans the profession, it prevents us from utilizing the expertise of our current teaching staffs, and makes recruiting the “brightest and the best” pointless.

The Standards Boards that the Task Force proposes to create would have a majority of its members picked from among a variety of lay sources (school boards, parents’ organizations, schools of education, governors, etc.) Its task would be.to determine what the profession itself deemed to be appropriate standards for teaching. Professional certification, not licensing (which would remain a local or state function), would be its goal. Thus it would not affect those who might enter the profession, but would set a “higher” standard which all teachers would presumably seek to meet if they decided to remain teaching. Such standards would consist of a variety of measures — mostly performance based, but ultimately determined by the teachers themselves.

We have all long experienced the problems inherent in any examination system. Whether this one would be better than those we now all take (NTE, etc.) remains to be seen. They would be hard put to be worse, and offer at least an opportunity for teachers to collectively think through some of the issues of what makes for good teaching.

Whether such a proposal would help solve the problems the Report itself raises is, however, still conjecture. What is not a conjecture is that the discussion it opens up could be; if we join in it, an important forum.

If schools were to be restructured, and if Board certified teachers were to become available, how would their roles differ from those of present-day supervisors? (A point the administrators’ organizations are making in attacking- the Carnegie proposals.) Would this new collegial model break down into a two-tier system with one tier of “superteachers” who have some power, and an underclass of “regular” teachers with none? Given the crisis in attracting minority teachers to our schools, would this proposal make it easier or harder to redress the alarming absence of black and Hispanic teachers in our schools?

Would the top tier be largely white, and the bottom tier less well-educated minorities? This is not a question only of job equity, but of potential success of our schools to teach minority children and to teach children about democratic values and respect for diversity. A school system in which minorities are always in the least respected roles is miseducative. There cannot be high standards where this condition persists.

Report Cannot Stand Alone

Concepts raised in the Report such as “lead teacher” are valuable to begin to discuss. But it is important to remember that the Report stresses the importance of experimenting with a variety of models of school leadership. The critical thing for us to insist upon is not mandating still another ideal mode.

Thus, while I welcome the Carnegie proposal, and believe it offers us a golden opportunity to put our issues before the public (and before our colleagues), it cannot stand alone, nor can it stand to be left to its own device. It will assist us in our struggle to improve schools only in so far as we infuse it with our concerns, engage in local and national debate over the issues posed, and involve teachers in the decisions that such a Board will be addressing.

And it will require a great many other reform measures if it is to help and not hinder. 

Other changes will not follow “automatically” from this — good or bad. But the Carnegie proposal adds weight to other items on our agenda.

  1. We must raise consciousness about alternative structures possible for schools. Where such alternative structures already exist they need to be publicized and made visible.
  2. We have to develop our alternative legislative agenda — an agenda that would help teachers gain more say in the life of their schools and that would also help parents and the community become better informed and involved participants. How about legislative mandates requiring schools to provide teachers with the time and space they need to discuss professional matters? Or legislation requiring employers to give parents time off to visit schools and meet with teachers?

As we daily witness teachers squeezed and harassed by more and more top-down directives, this report offers us a highly public rebuttal. It offers us a hook. It challenges the assumption that good schools can be created by central fiat. As such it should be welcomed. To welcome is not to avoid criticism, but it sets a tone for the nature of criticism. It suggests a collegial critique rather than an adversarial one. There’s a time and a place for both. But at the present time, I strongly .believe we-have more to gain than lose by using this vehicle to expand a needed collegial discussion of where and how our schools can be restructured.

Deborah Meier is principal of Central Park East School, New York City Public Schools, and has been appointed a member of the Carnegie Forum’s Task Force on Teaching as a Profession.

Reprinted from Networker, Vol.2 No. 3, 1987, available from the Public Education Information Network, 7133 Washington Ave. St. Louis, MO 63130.