Saturday, September 03, 2016

Teachers Opting Out

I have always assumed that I would remain a university professor until retirement age, because I absolutely love what I do, and the people with whom I teach and learn every day. But it is no longer a certainty. Twenty percent of K-12 teachers near retirement age are now leaving early, for reasons that are starting to threaten higher education as well.
Carrying the Load of False Accountability Measures
Image: LA Johnson/NPR
I was both saddened and mildly encouraged to hear the story of one such teacher -- Rick Young of Colorado -- on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday this morning. I was saddened, of course, because this educator has been pushed out early, robbing about seven years' worth of students of his passion and expertise.

I was mildly encouraged, though, because NPR bothered to tell his story, and to identify the burden of paperwork as the culprit. The description of this burden was superficial, but it is a start. NPR cannot exercise very rigorous journalism in this area because its funding comes from some of the culprits -- the Walton and Gates family foundations.

These and other "reformers" are applying some of the weakest ideas from the business arena to education at all levels. "You can't manage what you can't measure" is simplistic thinking that serves as a crutch for weak managers, but it is now applied with abandon in education, in the guise of greater "accountability."

Imagine following Picasso, Madonna, or Mick Jagger around with a clipboard, asking them to document the objectives and metrics of each brush stroke or song note. Ludicrous, right? Imagine me demanding that a ballerina describe her performance ahead of time in terms I can understand (knowing little about ballet) and being subjected to my metrics of her performance. This is what is happening in education, as great teachers are asked to explain themselves in ever-greater detail to managers with little or no teaching experience.

Higher education has been insulated from these movements, with university professors hired for their expertise and then being allowed to exercise it. Academic freedom has given us a nation full of top-notch colleges and universities, but this is changing quickly as accreditation bodies start to demand more uniformity, and that more time be spent on fads and measurements than on teaching and learning. And although we are encouraged to teach our students to dream big, we are asked simply to play along.

I remain an optimist -- otherwise I would not be a teacher at all -- but the cynics are better funded and better organized than those of us in the classrooms. So my expertise in Latin American geography might be shifted from developing lectures to locating a retirement community, earlier than expected.

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