Who is in charge here?

Teaching: Despite research supporting systemwide programs, the fight continues over central vs. school-based authority over curriculum.

December 21, 2003|By Kalman R. Hettleman | Kalman R. Hettleman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the Baltimore City school system recently laid off nearly 40 percent of all central administrators - about 300 employees - many principals and classroom teachers might have been less than disappointed by the decimation of central curriculum positions.

Many educators share the general public's perceptions about a bloated bureaucracy. But there is a deeper, more troubling explanation: the fierce, often underground battle in the education wars over control of what teachers teach and how they teach it.

Those closest to the classroom resent growing central authority over the design and delivery of instruction. Before the city-state education partnership created by the General Assembly in 1997, individual schools and teachers were pretty much left to their own pedagogy; textbooks and teaching methods varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. But under the new city school regime, this policy shifted strongly in the direction of systemwide curricula, particularly in elementary and middle schools.

The same strains are being felt across Maryland and the nation.

In a recent Sun story, an admired principal in Anne Arundel County said she was retiring prematurely because her control was slipping away: There was too much emphasis on tests, and the imposition of identical textbooks and programs in every school "just saddens me," she said. The New York City school system is embroiled in a bitter fight over Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's centrally imposed curriculum.

This upheaval in the balance of power between central vs. school-based authority over curriculum is being driven largely by federal and state standards intended to pinpoint accountability for poor student performance. At the same time, it is igniting a new phase of the long struggle to win the hearts and minds of teachers on the quintessential issue of control over school reform.

In the past, proponents of teacher autonomy at the school level usually prevailed. In their view, teacher professionalism must be respected and trusted. The heart of teaching, they proclaim, lies in the ability to diagnose the needs of individual students and adapt to their learning needs.

As one teacher speaking in the book Teachers At Work put it, "The kids are different every year, ... there might be some of the same problems, but each class that goes through has its own personality. You have to adjust; you have to adapt."

Advocates of teacher autonomy are among the most visible opponents of federal and state intrusions on local control, but what the public rarely sees is that they resist being controlled by their local system as well. As a result, what one scholar has called the "ethic of atomized teaching" has undone many attempted education reforms, giving rise to the famous maxim that "education policy begins when the teacher closes the classroom door."

Still, the central-authority, systemwide curriculum side is gaining considerable ground for many reasons. First, restrictions on teachers have taken hold because of emerging research showing that certain instructional programs and methods are better than others, particularly for low-income, low-achieving students. The federal No Child Left Behind Act essentially requires that low-performing schools use "scientifically based" programs.

Education may be the only profession in which the use of research-proven practices must be coerced. The most prominent example is early reading, in which a series of national studies have shown the superiority of "phonics" compared to "whole language" instruction. But resistance remains because of the closed-door mentality of some teachers as well as ideological passions that perpetuate the reading wars.

Proponents of central control argue that reliance on research does not denigrate the professionalism of teachers. Notably, Albert Shanker, the late, legendary head of the American Federation of Teachers, said that what defines a profession is standard practice. Another educator observed, "In medicine, if you don't follow the standard practice, they have a word for that: malpractice."

A second factor behind the movement toward a central curriculum is the frequency of student transfers. Inconsistent curriculum is regarded as a major cause of the correlation between student mobility and indicators of poor achievement (test scores and dropout rates).

The U.S. General Accounting Office reports that student turnover is often more than 50 percent annually in inner-city schools. Many students transfer two or three times a year.

Third, the growing number of new teachers is expanding the ranks of systemwide curricula supporters.

The historic divide over central vs. school-based authority may be less philosophical these days and more generational. A team of researchers at Harvard University has confirmed anecdotal evidence that inexperienced teachers want fairly prescriptive guidance. In the Baltimore school system, about one-third of teachers have less than three years experience.

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