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Trusting Teaching and Doctors

When was the last time you heard an elected policymaker tell lawmakers the following about state and federal mandates for curriculum standards, accountability, and testing?

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans. Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child.

We seem to think that education is a thing—like a vaccine—that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.

Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.

Those words come from Governor of California, Jerry Brown, where 300,000 teachers teach six million children in his State of the State address to the Legislature on January 24, 2013.

Re-read that last sentence. “Trust our teachers.”

That is a stunner given the reform-inflated air we breathe filled by federal, state, and district officials eager to evaluate teachers on the basis of student test scores, implement pay-for-performance plans, and get teachers to prepare lessons for state-adopted Common Core standards in reading and math.

On the heels of a statewide referendum that increased taxes—yes, increased taxes for seven years–Jerry Brown is no novice bellowing the latest school reform slogan. He is a 75 year-old veteran of school reform having served eight years as governor before and after Proposition 13 (1978). He is a hard-driving, practical political leader who knows the ins-and-outs of both local and state politics (e.g. mayor of Oakland, 1999-2007, state Attorney General, 2007-2011). When he says “trust our teachers” he means have confidence in teachers to do the right thing and continually work to improve their performance. That is good news for the state and nation.

Does that mean that the reform tide has turned and teachers will no longer be blamed for mediocre schooling and ignored in policy circles? Hardly. For all I know, Governor Jerry Brown may be an outlier and not the vanguard of a movement to restore trust in teachers by shrinking mandates telling them what to teach and how what is taught will be measured. But it is a welcome sign that has been missing for many years.

Less welcome has been the news for doctors who are hip-deep in pay-4-performance plans across the country. There is a national movement afoot to raise the quality of patient care and contain ever-escalating costs by launching plans that measure how well doctors treat their patients. In New York City public hospitals, for example,  doctors’ annual raises will depend upon performance metrics that include:

“how well patients say their doctors communicate with them, how many patients with heart failure and pneumonia are readmitted within 30 days, how quickly emergency room patients go from triage to beds, whether doctors get to the operating room on time and how quickly patients are discharged.”

The evidence over the past century has been clear that when policymakers and managers concoct high-stakes incentives to measure job effectiveness, award dollar bonuses, or fire employees, professionals and non-professionals learn to game the metrics. Incentives corrupt measures time and again.  There is a history in finance, the military, government, education, and other sectors of how metrics get gamed that policymakers ignore repeatedly. What’s worse, of course, is that doctors, like teachers, become the target rather than the political and socioeconomic structures within which they labor. In doing so, their loyalty to the helping profession in which they serve,  erodes.

Thus, over time, teachers and doctors come to see the “quality” measures used to evaluate and pay them as perverse destroying bonds they have to their students and patients, the institutions, and the very process of teaching and healing. Perhaps, the oath that medical school graduates take upon receiving the M.D. degree should also be taken by policymakers eager for pay-for-performance: Do no harm.

One top policymaker, Governor Jerry Brown, understands that admonition. Not trusting teachers (or not trusting doctors’ professionalism) and making rules that attempt to control performance will ultimately do harm.  I do not know whether you are an outlier or a sign of an emerging sensibility but I thank you Governor Brown for your recent words.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...