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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 21, Number 6, April 2009 

Paths to Professional Autonomy

Teacher professional autonomy and accountability

By Paul Shaker 

During March, I was invited by the Coalition for Public Education to tour British Columbia and keynote forums on education in four of our cities. The audiences included citizens at large, politicians, media, and officials from the member organizations of CFPE. As a topic, I chose to speak to these three questions:

  • Why do we, educators, find ourselves at odds about education and accountability with many others in politics, media, and public life?
  • Why are our motives continually questioned and our professional judgment overridden?
  • Why is the foundational institution of public education subject to threats to its survival?

Continuing along these lines, in this article I wish to focus on how the issue of accountability interacts with our professional autonomy and identity.

In our recent book, Reclaiming Education for Democracy (Routledge, 2008), there is a lengthy discussion of the conflict between “advocates and authorities” regarding our public schools. I define authorities as expert practitioners and scholars in the profession. The “advocate” ranks include politicians, journalists, think-tank denizens, and other laypersons who self-appoint as spokespersons on education. In BC, obviously, Peter Cowley and The Fraser Institute are archetypal examples of this category. The editorial page of The Vancouver Sun, the leading proponent of Cowley’s Report Card, is another. The “advocates” are hostile to teachers and our public schools for a variety of reasons. Some honestly believe the system is too closely held and would benefit from an infusion of “market competition.” They may honestly adhere to notions about the magic of markets—even in light of the crashes of 2008. Some openly favour private schools and want to see them receive increased tax dollars. Others are serving hidden agendas, such as boosting the fortunes of political parties that are antipathetic to teachers by weakening the progressive lobby that educators comprise. Another hidden agenda for some is the hope that they can profit from making public education dollars accessible to them through business activity. For others, their careers are tied up in promoting the free-market ideology as researchers and consultants.

Those with hidden agendas who seek to influence education from outside the profession are not compelled to honour the standards for ethical behaviour that apply to teachers. They have obligations as citizens, but these are little codified and unenforceable. They need not see education as a public good, for example, or the relationship between society and students as a sacred trust. They may not accept that our schools should function in a zone of protection, insulated from partisanship. They are not obliged to work toward equity and multiculturalism. If they choose to exploit our schools for political or financial gain, the only rules that pertain are those of the market—caveat emptor. Clearly, the difference in worldview and role between such persons and education professionals sets the stage for a good deal of conflict.

Once again, there are those whose advocacy is honourably motivated, with whom I may simply disagree. Here, the important factor to contemplate is their expertise. How much should their honest, but ungrounded opinions count for?

As the debate ripens in the public square, other unfortunate phenomena surface. I characterize these as the questioning of our motives and the overriding of our professional judgment. A continuing example of the former is the repetitive criticism of teachers that they object to school rankings because they wish to be free of accountability. The discussion rarely goes beyond this insulting allegation as if it were true, prima facie. The question of whether the arbitrary and unscientific applications of test scores may not be a fair or accurate form of evaluation typically is not posed. Nor is the larger and graver issue: are our teachers actually such a scurrilous lot that they close ranks and protect their interests at all costs? I find this implication to be more than insulting. Non-professional persons typically make such allegations without full awareness of the significance of what they are claiming. As a group, if we are putting our self-interest ahead of those we serve, we should be put out of our classrooms.

I also place in this category the minister of education’s penchant for calling educators “irresponsible” as was done in December 2008 when a strong majority of teachers voted to boycott the FSA until school rankings were halted. The minister went on to allege that these actions were politically motivated to serve the opposition party. I was the recipient of the minister’s wrath in an identical fashion when Shirley Bond labeled me “irresponsible” for my public admiration of the principled stance of Katherine Sihota in her act of civil disobedience with respect to testing that she thought was improperly conducted in Sooke. This name-calling is an ad hominem attack that does not provide a basis for policy debate and reformulation. Such methods of demeaning those who disagree are fair enough in politics, I suppose, after all, politics is not a profession.

As we know, the conflict has progressed and the Labour Relations Board has overridden the professional judgment of teachers with respect to resisting FSA/ school rankings. The entire event signals the difficult position of professions in society. The teachers have expressed themselves repeatedly, and with one voice, in opposition to the abuse of the FSA and the politicians who govern our public schools have turned a deaf ear while attacking our character. Our motive is the welfare of BC’s students. Educators are attending to the studied view of experts in testing and measurement. It is not educators who in this narrative are “irresponsible” or partisan. The critics and advocates should look in the mirror.

Finally, why is our institution, the public school system, under constant assault, and teachers, who are on one level among the most trusted of professionals, frequently besieged and disrespected? One straightforward explanation is that educators, as well as artists and liberal religious folk, are the bastions of progressivism in an era of conservative, free-market ascendancy. There are hopes the pendulum is swinging away from neoliberals, free marketeers, and fundamentalists of all stripes, but if so we are emerging from a long, cold, ideological winter—particularly in our neighbour to the south. In this narrative, we are caught in a partisan battle that we cannot avoid; few of us could bear to be educators in an environment dominated by the philosophy of the political right. This includes the dominance of economics over spirituality in educational goals; a narrow form of unbridled and test-driven competition in schools; limited opportunity for students that is distributed along class and racial lines; and a skeptical view of the nature of children and learning that is characterized by concepts such as “the empty vessel” and “original sin.”

To amplify this explanation, I would assert that, for all our faults, educators as a group embody an emergent cultural change that threatens the dominant order. That is what it is to be progressive. When a person makes the commitment to work in a human service profession that is modestly compensated, he or she is making a statement of values—a commitment to personal meaning and humane association at a cost in material earnings. I think we are so suffused with meaning in education that we tend to take this experience for granted. We never have to ask the question of whether our work is constructive and humane. Alternately, we don’t go home at night with feelings of guilt that we cleverly exploited the unwary for our personal profit or served to advantage some group over another as a paid hack. The service role is true for many others in society, but teachers are the largest, most visible representation of such alternative values. As such, we are a threat to the materialist model that a person’s value is measured by their pocketbook and one’s success is synonymous with how much they earn. How many of us were told when they entered education as a career that they were wasting their talents? I was.

But the earth has shifted under our feet in the past year. The free market has failed and a new order of politics is emerging. The values teachers represent offer a promising alternative to the era that is ending and the pendulum of accountability is swinging back on those who launched it.

Paul Shaker, PhD, is professor and former dean of education at Simon Fraser University.

See Paul Shaker's television program featuring BC educators at www.youreducationmatters.ca 

For other publications visit www.paulshaker.com


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