Teaching as a team sport: Thoughts after the Chicago teachers strike

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Yes, you read that title right. Traditional schools are structured and managed as if teachers were individual performers. Evidence and common sense say that’s far from being the case.

Given the recent furor over the Chicago teacher strike and the accompanying union bashing that dominates the mainstream media, we’d do well to give thought to what can be learned from successful schools around the globe.

Notes from Dick Bernard: This post has been held for some time, with precedence given to Election 2012. The topic is timeless and crucial.

Bob Barkley has very strong “street creds” in public education, from beginning public school teaching in 1958, through years of Quality Ed work within the National Education Association, through Executive Director of Ohio Education Association and post-retirement consulting.

We talk much about American exceptionalism. A key element of that exceptionalism is our deep-seated belief in the merits of competition. So thoroughly have we adopted the notion that market forces inevitably lead to superior performance, we have great difficulty accepting the fact that schools that emphasize collegial relationships, encourage shared faculty planning, and make use of cooperative approaches to designing and implementing teaching and learning strategies, routinely outpace those that stress competition.

Most teachers know this intuitively, although too few articulate it well. Professional organizations, unions, school administrators, and schools of education are also familiar with the research and conclusions based on experience, but are no more successful than individual teachers at getting the message across. The narrow preoccupation with raising test scores at the expense of all else seems to have so rattled educators they can’t get their sensible messages out.

The need to work together is a major reason why private sector pressure to rate and pay teachers on the basis of test scores and other individual performance measures is a huge mistake. Predictably—given political reliance on corporate funding for campaigns—neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to listen to educators. Vouchers, choice, charters, merit pay, school closings and “turnarounds,” and other silver bullets being fired by politicians and rich entrepreneurs block dialogue that could be productive if they came to the issues open to the possibility that the hundreds of thousands who actually do the work might just possibly know something about how to do it best.

Corporate fascination with competitiveness notwithstanding, in teaching and learning, competitiveness is almost always counterproductive. It blocks a host of useful strategies for evaluating performance, gets in the way of freely sharing good ideas, and wastes the benefits of knowing one is part of a team, the work of which will inevitably be smarter than that of individual members.

It’s ironic that teamwork—an idea the merit of which is taken for granted on factory floors and playing fields, in neighborhoods and families, and just about everywhere else that humans try to be productive—is seen as counterproductive in classrooms. Within companies managers want employees to collaborate with colleagues. An accountant sitting next to a fellow accountant is required to work with that person. No one wants the two of them to compete, withhold trade secrets, and crush the other by the end of the day.

Finding scapegoats, fixing blame for poor performance on a percentage of teachers or on a few individuals, has an appealing simplicity about it, but it’s a lazy, simplistic, misguided approach to improving system performance. As management experts have been pointing out for decades, if a system isn’t performing, it almost always means there’s a system problem. Since teachers have almost no control over the systems of which they are a part, it’s necessary to make the most of a bad situation, and the easiest way to do that is to capitalize on their collective wisdom. If they’re being forced to compete against each other, there’s no such thing as collective wisdom.

For a generation, under the banner of standards and accountability, teachers have been criticized, scorned, denigrated, maligned, blamed. Accountability in education as indicated by standardized test scores is no more about individual teacher performance than accountability in health care as indicated by patient temperatures is about individual nurse performance.

I’m not making excuses for poor educator performance. Teachers should be held accountable for identifying, understanding, and applying practices that produce the highest level of student achievement. Administrators should be held accountable for creating an environment that encourages the identification, understanding and sharing of effective practices. Schools of education should be held accountable for whatever improves the institution.

But the new reformers aren’t interested in improvement, just replacement. Management experts say, “Don’t fix blame; fix the system.” Just about everyone in the system would love to help do that if given the opportunity, but the opportunity hasn’t been offered, so nothing of consequence changes.

Case in point: The Chicago teachers’ strike. Rahm Emanuel, like the rest of the current “reformers,” came to the table having bought the conventional wisdom in Washington and state capitols that educators either don’t know what to do or aren’t willing to do it. He obviously went to Chicago with the same tired suspicion of teachers, the same belief that they’re the problem rather than the key to a real solution, the same confrontational, competitive stance.

Will we ever learn? Don’t hold your breath.

Robert Barkley, Jr., is retired Executive Director of the Ohio Education Association, a thirty-five year veteran of NEA and NEA affiliate staff work. He is the author of Quality in Education: A Primer for Collaborative Visionary Educational Leaders, Leadership In Education: A Handbook for School Superintendents and Teacher Union Presidents, and Lessons for a New Reality: Guidance for Superintendent/Teacher Organization Collaboration. He may be reached at rbarkle@columbus.rr.com.

Bob Barkley did a great deal of significant work within NEA on quality initiatives in a number of states, including Minnesota. Here’s a recent article, “Guerrilla Baldrige in the Classroom” outlining a long term impact of his and NEAs work towards quality systems in public education.