Sunday, June 4, 2017

Treating Teachers The Same Way

Marc Tucker and Chester Finn have been having a bit of a conversation about a new report about teacher empowerment. We may get to that another day, but among Finn's complaints was this old standard, explaining why the reports recommendations can't work:

the teacher unions have demanded and not deviated far from an industrial model in which everyone is treated alike.

This is an oft-repeated complaint among reformsters, most completely codified in TNTP endlessly self-promoted Widget Effect, which argues that "school systems treat all teachers as interchangeable parts."

I'm at least a tiny bit sympathetic to these complaints. I'm not a very tribal guy, and when any group starts calling for "unity" or "getting on the same page" my hackles levitate, because that almost always means "shut up and do as you're told."

Anyone who thinks that all teachers in a school are treated the same has never spent more than five minutes in an actual school. A school is a web of personal relationships, and every one is different, and so every person is treated differently, which is as it should be. Any decent manager has to know the difference between people who can be trusted with a great deal of slack and people who need to be kept under watch at all times. There are a hundred factors to be considered, but the bottom line is that no human being on the planet treats all other human beings quite the same way in each daily, specific interaction, and schools are no different.

But all of that happens on an "unofficial" basis. It is precisely because humans tend to treat other humans differently that we have formal and official rules.

For example. In any given classroom, there are students that the teacher really likes, and students the teacher doesn't like quite so much. But no parent expects to say to their child, "Well, since you have a teacher who doesn't like you this year, you'd better suck it up and prepare to get lousy grades. Sorry, kiddo, but that's life." No, we expect the teacher to behave like a professional, and that includes treating everyone in the classroom alike.

Likewise, we expect an institution driven by grown-up professionalism to treat all teachers the same, in the sense that management puts aside its personal concerns or reactions. That doesn't mean differentiation can't happen-- but it has to happen on some sort of professional basis.

Treating everyone alike is not limited to schools. For instance, we expect law enforcement and the legal system to treat everyone the same. We get rightfully angry when we see, for instance, people of color or people of wealth treated differently by the system, because the police and the courts are supposed to treat everyone the same. That doesn't mean that the system can't weigh their actions and respond accordingly. But the process of weighing those actions is supposed to work the same way for everyone, the scales of justice always calibrated evenly and not set differently for everyone who passes through the system.

We struggle with this as a society. We complain about defense attorneys and the time and money spent defending bad actors in court. Likewise, a Top Ten union member complaint is seeing dues go to help defend some fellow member who did something really stupid. Why should the obviously guilty get a fair day in court?

The answer is that the alternative is a system in which we say to those in power, "Anytime you're really sure that somebody did something wrong, you can just go ahead and railroad them on through without any hearing." That's a free pass for broad abuse of power. If we don't defend the apparently guilty, we lose the ability to defend the clearly innocent.

I'm a big believer in letting folks have the freedom to employ their own personal judgment. Most of our worst trends in the world of law, medicine and education have been the attempt to strip people on the ground of their power to use their best judgment.

But exercising professional judgment is like painting a picture-- it generally works best if you paint on a blank canvass.

Yes, teachers (and students and defendants and others) should be treated the same-- they should all be treated with the same amount of fairness, the same amount of professionalism, the same amount of justice, the same amount of empowerment. And yes, we often do a terrible job of this, which is precisely why it should be the ideal-- because it's not our natural inclination to do so.

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