Wednesday, June 8, 2011 -do-teachers-matter-not-as-cause-agents-but-as-learning-opportunities/

How Do Teachers Matter? Not as Cause Agents But as

Learning Opportunities

Written by Paul Thomas

Lost in the exaggerated claims of “bad” teachers being at the core of all that ails education and the

concurrent calls for greater teacher accountability, often linked to student test scores, is a careful

consideration of why we have universal public education in a free society and what the role of the teacher is

within that purpose.

Debates about teacher quality and education reform are doomed to fail if we do not first place both within our

purposes for and beliefs about education, human nature, and our culture. Universal public education, in its

essence, must rest upon a commitment to human agency and autonomy as well as a full and complex faith in

and support for democratic principles.

Once we embrace human agency and autonomy–everyone is born equal, including the rights of life, liberty,

and the pursuit of happiness–we have chosen a definition of “education” that rejects indoctrination and

enculturation, although these two purposes have dominated how and why our schools have functioned for

over a century. A people who believe in individual freedom must cherish the empowerment of every human

mind. To distrust human autonomy is to reject freedom and to call for some authority to determine the lives

of others–and thus either to diminish some people’s access to education or to reduce a system of schooling

to oppression through indoctrination and enculturation.

If, then, we are truly a people who believe in human freedom and thus appreciate the role of universal public

education as an opportunity for individual empowerment, agency, and autonomy, we must acknowledge the

complex and important role of a teacher within a commitment to individual freedom and democracy.

Let me clarify here that I have been a teacher from the middle school level through graduate education for

27 years now. In that time, I have taught thousands of students of nearly every possible ability, background,

and level of commitment. For the record, I have not caused a single one of those students to learn.

Teachers in an education system designed for a free society and people are not cause agents but

mechanisms for designing, providing, and enhancing learning experiences for every student regardless of

that student’s station in life. Ultimately, a student who is free is the final determinant of whether or not

learning occurs–as long as that student’s life allows that choice.

Calls for teacher accountability tied to student outcomes, such as tests, misrepresent the ethical role of a

teacher in a free society. Few people take the time to consider that viewing a teacher as a cause agent

(holding a teacher accountable for the behavior of another free human) and viewing learning as the mere

transmission of knowledge from a teacher-authority to a passive class of students are antithetical to our

beliefs in individual freedom and democracy.

Can a teacher through coercion, threat, bribe, or force of personality demand from a student a behavior that

appears to match a learning outcome? Of course.

But that is indoctrination/enculturation–not education. It denies the dignity and humanity of the teacher and

the student; it rejects the sacred faith in individual freedom and democratic principles.

Teachers of free people cannot and should not cause learning to happen; thus, we must focus our concern

for teacher quality exclusively on the characteristics of that teacher and the quality of the learning

opportunities that teacher provides. [As well, the pursuit of teacher quality must be situated appropriately in

the larger picture of what influences impact student learning, acknowledging that the quality of the teacher is

a small percentage (about 14%-33%) of those influences that are dominated by factors beyond the walls and

control of the teacher or the school.]

So, how do teachers matter, and how should we seek higher quality teachers, holding them accountable for

providing every child access to the learning opportunities all humans deserve at birth?

Teachers must possess and constantly enhance their knowledge base–the content they teach and their

pedagogy–by being life-long learners in formal classroom settings, such as graduate courses and degrees,

and by being scholars, actively engaged with the fields that they teach (the first is typical of K-12 educators

and the latter, of professors, but both should be elements of all teachers).

Teachers must be reflective and transparent practitioners of their craft, and here is a key element of the

debate about teacher quality that we are consistently failing to recognize. Teacher quality is not revealed in

student outcomes; in fact, student outcomes tend to mask and distort the quality and role of the teacher.

Teacher quality is best revealed in the act of teaching itself–although complicated and time consuming to

capture and evaluate, the act of teaching is the single best evidence of the opportunities a teacher provides

for all students. And those opportunities are the only rightful things for which teachers can and should be

held accountable because it is the act of teaching and creating learning opportunities that is within the

teacher’s power to control (although our bureaucratic approach to schooling has historically denied teachers

the exact autonomy that would support that accountability).

Rightful accountability must be limited to that which a person controls–all other accountability is unethical,

oppressive, and corrosive.

Yes, every child deserves a high quality teacher, one who is in a constant process of growth as a teacher

and not fixed at the moment of attaining a prescribed quality or goal. One truism that should guide how we

evaluate teacher quality is seeking ways to determine the difference between a teacher who teaches one

year twenty times and a teacher who teaches twenty years, informed by an equal commitment to being a


Focusing on prescriptive and external data points (student test scores) works to insure that we create and

reward the worst sort of teachers–fixed at a point in their growth, teaching one year twenty times. Teacher

accountability linked to student outcomes reduces teacher quality to raising test scores–a misleading and

minimal expectation for teacher quality in a free society.

Teacher quality matters, and we can identify and foster better teachers. But that process, if we truly value

individual freedom and democracy, must exist in a spirit of community and with a commitment to human

dignity and empowerment–for both teachers and students.

A system of self-evaluation, peer-evaluation, and supervisor-based evaluation–designed to support and not

punish or reward–that addresses teacher competence (content and pedagogy) and, above all else, the

quality of the educational opportunities offered to students regardless of their background is the sort of

teacher accountability and education reform we must seek.

However, any commitment to teacher quality and education reform for individual freedom and democracy will

not produce the results we seek for our children if we continue to see raising teacher and school quality as a

silver bullet and as an isolated avenue to social reform. Social reform must precede or occur simultaneously

with proper care for teacher quality or we will persist in our greatest failure of all–pointing an accusatory

finger at teachers and schools while the rest of society crumbles over our shoulders.

Finally, while clich├ęs can fail us, let’s consider and revise a familiar one as we face teacher quality:

You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink. And if you do find a way to force the horse to drink,

and the horses die from drinking poisoned water, it may be time to stop focusing on who’s leading the horse

and attend to the source of the poisoned water.

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