“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.”
Hmm. Does this seem like an insight that could have been applied to the world of education reform over the past few decades of policies imposed by non-teacher policy mavens who ignored the advice and insight and expertise of teachers (and then, years later, announced the very problems teachers had warned them about in tones usually reserved for the discovery of fire)?
Is that where this article is going? Is this going to be a reformy acknowledgement that, "Yeah, we should have involved teachers and listened to what they had to say about education before we started trying to remake the whole institution?" Spoiler alert-- no.
So what is it about?
Porter-Magee starts out with a tale of starting out teaching science at a parochial school, where she was given a room and a closet full of books and told, "Have at it." This, she observes, was probably not the best way to get her started in the classroom.
Porter-Magee, we should note, is a fellow at the ever-reformy Fordham, and the superintendent of the Partnership for Inner City Education, a sort of charter-style management organization that runs some Catholic schools in New York City. (At least one former employee is not a fan, but that's a small sample). She has also worked for the Archdiocese of DC, the College Board, and Achievement First.
She refers us to Tom Nichols's new book, The Death of Expertise, from which she pulls this quote:
[W]e cannot function without acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and trusting the expertise of others. We sometimes resist this conclusion because it undermines our sense of independence and autonomy. We want to believe we are capable of making all kinds of decisions, and we chafe at the person who corrects us or tells us we’re wrong.
So here's where we're going. In Porter-Magee's model, "proven" curriculum is the expertise, and teachers are the ones who need to learn trust. Some more quotes from her article:
We valorize teacher “freedom” and “creativity” over things like proven curricula, which are too frequently perceived as a constraint on teacher autonomy.
In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
So, teachers should suck it up and defer to curriculum that is research based and proven effective.
On the one hand, she absolutely has a point. Having good materials is half of the battle in a classroom, and it gives me an absolute pain in the gut to see some teacher do a quick google search and download their materials from God-knows-where. I have also had the experience of teaching with a bad textbook, and it is far easier to just park such a text in the closet and build all your materials yourself.
On the other hand, there are some real issues with her point.
First, who decides and selects the "effective" materials. She seems to be suggesting that such selections be made by someone other than the classroom teacher, perhaps based on some hard and fast criteria. But "effective" these days too often means "research links it to higher test scores" and that's a problem because A) test scores are a lousy measure of effective education and B) test scores only exist for reading and math.
She's distressed at a RAND study that shows teachers getting materials from Google and Pinterest. But both, as well as the various teacher-to-teacher sites, are excellent places to find materials that are tested, proven and endorsed by other teachers who use them. Porter-Magee stops just sort of saying so, but she seems to be from the camp that believes that teachers lack the expertise to make curriculum and materials choices. I can't dismiss that out of hand-- it has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as more ed schools concentrate on training proto-teachers to align to the standards and teach to the test. But for the most part, I believe she's wrong. I am the number one expert on teaching my subject in my classroom. Nobody else knows the content, the students, and my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as how all those things intersect and interplay-- nobody knows that better than I do. Does that mean I ignore other experts and fail to consult other sources of expertise? Of course not-- that's part of how I got to be an expert in the first place.
Freeing me up from curriculum decisions-- don't do me any favors. Like every other teacher on the planet, I will rewrite whatever curriculum you hand me on the fly in the classroom every day as my professional expertise sees fit. The ongoing attempts to teacher-proof classrooms, to create a seamless system in which it doesn't really matter which teacher you get-- these do far more harm than good. Framing them as concern trolling ("We just want to save you from having to do all this hard work") do not make them any more helpful.
Porter-Magee says, "We owe it to our teachers to give them the tools they need to succeed" and I don't disagree. But among those tools we will find teacher autonomy and the freedom to use our expert judgment in our classrooms. Porter-Magee has here once again repeated the classic reformer mistake, even as she seemed to understand it-- she has assumed that the experts on education are to be found somewhere other than standing in a classroom.
We are educational experts. Not the only ones, not infallible ones. But any system that ignores our level of expertise is making a mistake that experts should know enough to avoid.