Teacher Regulations Worthy of George Orwell

Who will remain to teach the nation's schoolchildren when the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) succeeds in its plan to force every single pupil, teacher, school, college and university to conform to its Orwellian plan for constant surveillance and measurement of teachers via standardized tests and surveys?
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Who will remain to teach the nation's schoolchildren when the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) succeeds in its plan to force every single pupil, teacher, school, college and university to conform to its Orwellian plan for constant surveillance and measurement of teachers via standardized tests and surveys?

The proposed regulations on Teacher Education released in December by USDE are the latest example of federal over-reach into the nation's classrooms at all levels of education. Through 75 dense and difficult pages of reading in the Federal Register, a picture emerges of a federal bureaucracy obsessed with controlling and measuring virtually every aspect of a teacher's work. Despite my own legal training, parsing the Fedspeak of the proposed regs was a turgid slog through too much jargon. Rules that are this long and so obtuse cannot be good. I found myself wondering how many teachers are actually able to read and understand what is about to happen to them. Even more, I found myself asking the unthinkable: who would even want to enter a profession that has so little freedom and so much governmental oversight?

Great teachers need the oxygen of freedom to create, to imagine, to inspire and lead their pupils on the journey of discovery that is the essence of acquiring knowledge and skills. Sure, that journey requires some structure and sequencing across ages and grade levels, and we need local, state and national agreement around the framework of what knowledge is important to learn at each age, what skills a student should be able to manifest after certain years of learning, and what diplomas, certificates and degrees represent by way of baseline learning mastery at each level. People entering the teaching profession need to know and accept the legitimate structures of curricula and programs, accreditation and assessment practices appropriate for their schools and locales. But the proposed regulations suck the oxygen out of the classroom, depleting freedom in favor of federal mandates. This is quite the opposite of what education in a democracy should be all about.

We all agree on the need for rigorous standards for learning, for teachers and students, and for schools, colleges and universities. Without a single federal bureaucrat sitting on our shoulders, we educators are the first to want our students to be wildly successful. We also know far more than Big Brother about what blocks student success. The problem is not the idea of standards that have teeth. The problem is the methodology of the federal government, and its arrogation of power to itself to address issues of teaching and learning in ways that are threatening, wasteful, inappropriate and, ultimately, ineffective -- but not before also being very harmful.

What do the proposed new regulations do? Boiling down 75 pages of dense Fedspeak into a few plain English terms, the proposed regulations would dictate to states the criteria for approval of teacher education programs, and through the states would dictate to teacher education programs the criteria for student admission, assessment and graduation from those programs. The states would have to assess all teacher education programs based on four elements every year: student learning outcomes as measured by standardized test results for the pupils taught by the teachers of the schools of education; employment data for graduates of schools of education including placement and retention in first jobs; opinion surveys of graduates and employers; and accreditation. The state assessments of each teacher education program would then translate into a rating that the school must display on its website and other materials. Teacher education programs that fail to get satisfactory ratings would run the risk of losing eligibility for their students to get federal financial aid.

Because this process is annual, the schools will be in a constant state of testing, test prep and more tests, and the data collection machinery alone will have to be astonishing. Did I mention the cost? Typical of people who have no real life experience with the cost of implementing regulations, the rule writers at USDE claim the whole thing can be done for about $42 million over ten years. When did any governmental initiative requiring massive new data collection work cost so little? The imposition of cost burdens on institutions of higher education to comply with this latest regulatory scheme will cost millions that the rules do not presently account for, and those costs will be passed along to students in the form of even higher tuition.

Many educational experts have provided incisive commentary on the problems with these regulations. Among the best is a commentary from the National Education Policy Center that identifies numerous concerns with the proposed regulations, perhaps most notably the fact that the proposed rules rely heavily on standardized testing to evaluate new teachers even though the use of such tests has been repeatedly discredited as a valid tool for this purpose.

Other problems with the proposed regulations include the likelihood that the regulations will:

• unfairly punish schools, colleges and universities that serve low income students;

• disproportionately impact schools and colleges with high minority populations;

• use the results of standardized testing in completely inappropriate and invalid ways;

• substitute federal mandates for the role of state and local school authorities;

• completely ignore the judgment and experience of teachers, principals and parents in local communities, as well as local collegiate educators working to address educational challenges that are often influenced by local conditions; (the Department should look no further than a map of its own local jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, to see the impact of poverty on the condition of families, children and schools east-of-the-river);

• inappropriately use job placement and retention data to impute quality to teacher education programs with no regard to individual human choices about employment or the condition of schools;

• inappropriately use opinion surveys as academic quality measures;

• inappropriately dictate federalized standards of admission and academic assessment for colleges and universities;

• impose significant additional cost burden on institutions far beyond the woefully low estimates in the proposed regulations;

• inappropriately threaten participation in Title IV student financial aid programs;

• create an enormously complex and confusing web of data collection imperatives that detracts from the primary work of teaching and learning in schools, colleges and universities, the expense of which would be better devoted to specific programs to strengthen teacher education for at-risk and impoverished students.

(I have sent a version of the list above in a letter to the Secretary of Education commenting on the proposed regulations.)

Ultimately, the proposed rules seem unlikely to do much to improve the quality of education at any level. However, they pose the possibility of substantial harm by discouraging talented college students from ever considering the teaching profession. Why bother trying to enter a professional field where the individual, herself, is subjected to repeated scrutiny by unseen forces that neither the employer nor even the school system will be able to control? A fundamental premise of labor in a free and open society is that the worker should have some engagement with the means of evaluation and assessment, and those means should be rationally related to the conditions of work. The federal regulations for teachers and schools of education have no rational relationship to local school conditions; they are the product of sterile laboratories of thought among people who make rules for a living, not those who teach for a living.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has often labelled as "silly" any criticism of his administration's proposals. By that standard, I suspect he might find this column just hilarious. I hope that, between guffaws, he pauses to hear the profoundly serious criticism of the proposed regulations. He should step back, withdraw the proposal and take the time to get it right.

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