Teacher Autonomy: A Multifaceted Approach for the New Millennium, Student Edition

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Schools felt like factories. For rural teachers, conditions were not necessarily much better.


They had limited resources, with the added burden of keeping up run-down schools. African-American teachers especially suffered from inadequate materials and funding. Though their communities were eager for schooling, teachers found that money was rarely abundant. Well into the 20th century, black school systems relied on hand-me-down textbooks and used equipment, discarded by their white counterparts.

African-American teachers were usually paid significantly less than their white peers and their civil rights were often compromised.

For instance, in a later era, belonging to the NAACP could be grounds for dismissal and southern affiliates of the National Education Association denied black teachers membership. In the early decades of the 20th century, even as school districts put greater emphasis on "professionalization," teachers everywhere felt left behind.

Shame Is Not the Solution

City Boards of Education, increasingly made up of business and professional men, worked to reform teaching. Often their goals were laudable: to root out corruption, to raise the practice and status of teaching, to ensure real student achievement.

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But they rarely had any first-hand knowledge of what teaching actually was like. They worked according to a business model, with clear hierarchies and chains of command -- which left teachers at the bottom. The "administrative progressives" as education historian David Tyack has called them wanted to impose uniformity and efficiency on classrooms of 50 disparate children.

Guide Teacher Autonomy: A Multifaceted Approach for the New Millennium, Student Edition

They supported the move away from Normal Schools to university departments of education, where theory would rule. They discouraged individual initiative by teachers, whom they considered too limited to enact worthwhile change. Not surprisingly, teachers rebelled. At least in urban districts teachers had the advantage of numbers. Cities became the centers for the teachers associations that eventually grew into unions. In Chicago, Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin of the Chicago Federation of Teachers rallied their peers and the city government for improved pay, retirement benefits and tenure.

Haley knew that many women considered teaching genteel, white-collar work. Joining a union was anathema to them. But she convinced them that they needed the union and could do real social good within its embrace. In the process, she laid the foundation for the American Federation of Teachers one of the two main teachers unions today, along with the National Education Association. In New York, Grace Strachan and the Interborough Association of Women Teachers fought for Equal Pay for Equal Work despite men's assertion that they rightfully should be paid more than their female counterparts, since they had families to support.

The NEA was founded in as a policy-making organization, one that hoped to influence the national debate about schools and schooling. Over the next hundred years, it played a significant role in standardizing teacher training and curriculum. Until the s, the NEA tended to represent the interests of school administrators and educators from colleges and universities.

The AFT, on the other hand, was always much more of a grass-roots teachers' organization. It was formed in as the Chicago Teachers Federation, with the explicit aim of improving teachers' salaries and pensions. Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley allied the CFT with the labor movement, going so far as to join the American Federation of Labor - an act that horrified everyone who wanted to see teaching as genteel, white-collar employment. At the same time, the union conceived its work in terms of broader social improvement, bettering the lives of the poor and the alienated.

By , several local unions had come together to form the AFT. In the s, the AFT began collective bargaining with local school boards, which again horrified some people. Collective bargaining always carries the threat of strikes, and teachers, as servants of the community, were long seen as both too indispensable and too noble to engage in work stoppages. The issue of strikes remains contentious today. Teacher militancy has waxed and waned over the past 50 years. But many teachers believe that whatever gains they have made -- in pay, benefits, job security and working conditions -- have come from the efforts of their unions.

Today, the NEA and AFT flirt with the idea of merging and have made significant strides towards combining their memberships. Their common interests -- greater professionalization, increased authority for educators, enhanced clout in Washington, better working conditions and improved schools -- dictate working together, and perhaps even becoming one very powerful union. They gained better and eventually equal pay, pensions and tenure.

They became principals of grammar schools and, in some smaller districts, even superintendents. But men continued to dominate administration, and the increased clout of women teachers made many people uneasy.

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Male educators fretted about The Woman Peril, making dire prophecies about the emasculating effects of women teachers. Through the s, the bureaucrats' grip on schools, and on classroom practice, remained firm. John Dewey, perhaps the most influential educational philosopher the 20th century, challenged the rigidity that characterized many American classrooms. By the s he had become the standard-bearer for Progressive Education, arguing that democracy must prevail in the classroom. Both teachers and children needed to be free, he argued, to devise the best forms of learning for each child.

These assumptions turned the hierarchy of classrooms and schools upside down. While the implementation of progressive education has been uneven over the past years, its influence on teachers' roles within schools has been notable. Unions declined after achieving most of the bread-and-butter goals they had first set. Larger political and economic issues diverted most teachers' attention. But among African-American educators, significant obstacles remained.

In the s, Viola Duval Stewart challenged the unequal pay scales of black and white teachers in Charleston, North Carolina. Still, most southern schools remained legally segregated, and black schools invariably received less funding and fewer supplies. By the s, desegregation was gaining steam and teachers clearly were at the forefront of a major social issue. Brown v. Ferguson established the principle that public facilities -- including schools -- could be "separate but equal," therefore legalizing segregation as long as facilities were equivalent for both races.

The Brown suit, brought by parents in Topeka, Kansas, argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal. The Supreme Court agreed by unanimous decision.

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In , the Court followed up by announcing that schools must desegregate "with all deliberate speed," although in many places it took ten to fifteen years for schools to become integrated. The later Swann v.

Charlotte-Mecklenberg decision took Brown one step further, recognizing bussing as a legitimate means to end segregation in the schools. That requires change both on the part of the unions and on the part of school boards, administrators and parents and community participants in the process as well. Teachers became more militant, battling for and sometimes against civil rights, community control of schools, anti-poverty programs and the end of the Vietnam war.

Native American and Latino education took on new urgency. Unions again entered the fray, this time over collective bargaining rights, school funding and another round of pay and benefit issues. As America moved towards the s, other concerns dominated. The public seemed convinced that American schools were failing, and that teachers must be at least partly responsible.

The report "A Nation at Risk" depicted teachers who were both underqualified and underpaid, working in poor conditions, achieving poor results. A follow-up report in , "A Nation Prepared," laid the foundations for a new professionalism and a new Standards movement. It proposed improving teacher education, restructuring the teaching force and giving teachers greater say in how they met new requirements for student achievement.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was born the next year to provide a clearing-house for national recognition and certification of exemplary teachers. Swann v. In , the Swanns, an African-American family in Charlotte, North Carolina, brought suit when their children were not allowed to attend the city's white schools. In its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that all schools within a given district didn't strictly have to reflect the district's racial make-up. But, the Court argued, all-black or all-white schools must not be the result of deliberate policies of segregation.

The Supreme Court justices then went a step further and suggested that bussing would be an acceptable means of achieving integration. They are discouraged by the public perception of schools, but heartened by the public will to give education the attention it deserves. They lament the comparatively poor pay and lack of respect that teaching still commands, but see improvement ahead. They are wary of rigid dictates on how to do their work, but excited by the many new forms schools can take today. They remain inspired and challenged by their students, which is what makes staying in the classroom worthwhile.

Assessing Students Assessing students' work has become an increasingly controversial issue over the past decade. Should teachers and the public rely on results of standardized tests, on multi-faceted portfolios of a student's work developed over time, on judgments about a student's process and progress in learning, or on a student's finished product?


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The divide between those who favor assessing process and those who support evaluating a final product has provoked wide debate both in and out of the classroom. As states impose standardized exams on schools, many teachers complain that a single, one-shot test can't provide a clear picture of a student's progress or higher-order thinking skills.

On the other hand, the public largely believes that all students should master a common body of knowledge, appropriate to a given age. Many educators favor what they call authentic assessment, essentially a compromise between the two schools of evaluation. Authentic assessment looks at actual performance, through tests or complex projects, but also requires attention to learning process, synthesis of different modes of learning and student reflection on what they've accomplished and how. Portfolio assessment sometimes falls under this rubric, since it provides a compilation of different forms of learning: papers, projects, and journals, for example.

Teachers voice one reservation about these forms of evaluation, however: they are simply too labor-intensive granted most teachers' workload. Many teachers see up to students a day, and they say that, even with the best will in the world, they're hard put to do justice to that many comprehensive student portfolios. The Standards Movement The call for uniform, high standards in teaching and learning has echoed throughout American history. Catharine Beecher and Horace Mann despaired of the low standards for teachers in the midth century; 50 or 60 years later Progressive educators like John Dewey complained about ineffective teaching methods; all Americans worried about the state of our children's learning in the s in the wake of the Russian rocket Sputnik, and in the s we were convinced we were a "Nation At Risk" because of our low educational standards.

With each outcry has come a new determination to define and implement better standards for our schools. The 21st-century Standards Movement has taken several different forms, primarily relating to curriculum, teacher training and performance, and student achievement.