Education, Freedom, Education: (1) Tilting at Windmills for No Apparent Reason

When I retired, there were many metrics that verified too many American children were not learning to a worrisome degree, and when there is no learning, there has been no teaching, just educators tilting at windmills for no apparent reason. Two things that are most frustrating to me about the failure of American Education are: there are no secret formulae for how to be an effective teacher, and contrary to the countless times each of us has heard protests to the contrary, good teachers are not born. The reality is, effective teaching is not rocket science. Teachers can be trained in the application of best practices.

My principal career objective and nemesis

There are literally thousands of pieces of research and other sources that tell us what should and can be done to increase student achievement. Bob Marzano is one of many Boomers in Educational Research who have contributed significantly to that body of work; unfortunately, my experience (my non-scientific sample of one) has convinced me that at the moment when I retired, too many (most?) educators had been choosing for years to ignore what research has verified as effective practices.

And yet I still encounter a delusion I have heard all of my professional life, an assertion made by a respondent to a Wall Street Journal op ed. The woman insisted that a solution to the disappointing academic achievement of American children should involve providing teachers with more freedom and autonomy; unfortunately, it can be argued that the failure of American Education for far too many students is due precisely to the amount of freedom and autonomy teachers have been granted for the past half-century.

My experience as an educational administrator, and as a bureaucrat who was once responsible for overseeing the process of school improvement planning for over 800 Pennsylvania schools, I can assure you that how freedom and autonomy plays out in the majority of cases is brought about by a remarkable lack of oversight and accountability of teachers in classrooms. Teachers who are poorly prepared by ed schools (Google that supposition) and who are not properly supported by management in providing training and insisting upon implementation of best practices with fidelity, are teachers who have the freedom and autonomy to practice incompetence.

It is this massive cadre of poorly prepared, unaccountable individuals who unintentionally have been harming our students. The situation is not unlike that of “bad cops” coloring all police officers as incompetent. I would argue the difference is that the proportion of law enforcement officers who are “bad” is far smaller than the proportion of “bad” teachers.

Unlike other professions, the Teaching Profession does not “police” itself. For example, clinical peer review is one way that professionals in the medical profession hold themselves accountable for implementing best practices with fidelity. One of the educational best practices that is part of a remarkable and statistically validated program is peer review, a process where teachers are collectively–not individually–given freedom and autonomy to oversee the application of best practices. That program was designed decades ago by Los Angeles County–TESA, Teacher Expectations Student Achievement–and it remains one of the very few programs that has been shown, statistically, to have a causative impact on student achievement.

That such programs exist, have been shown to be effective, and yet are implemented in only a miniscule number of schools or districts across the country, represents what I mean by tilting at windmills. How many times have I conducted best practices training for teachers over the years only to have them disregard the training with this common justification: “It’s not my fault kids don’t learn; I’m teaching the same way I always have–it’s up to them to learn. I love them, but what can I do with all the baggage they bring to school?”

The truth is that every day across this country there are teachers with students, who, despite being loaded down with “baggage” are achieving because their teachers–often exhausted, sometimes overwhelmed–are committed to the application of research-based best practices. As the professionals in the classroom, those teachers know that if their students aren’t learning, they have the freedom and autonomy and responsibility–in collaboration with their colleagues–to identify the relevant best practices they can use to bring about student achievement.

Why do we as a society allow a profession to exist that does not expect its practitioners, who insist upon being recognized as professionals, to practice professionally?

Is it because we as a society lack the compassion and will to do the right thing, which has always been and remains the shared responsibility to ensure that all students are provided with meaningful opportunities to learn? Or have those in positions of cultural dominance and power just not given a damn about the children of those Americans who are the victims of History? Likely, it is both.

If we were a truly compassionate people who cared about others regardless of their race, ethnic background, or economic status, if all teachers applied what is known about motivation and effective instructional practices, if educational leaders cared more about making a difference than they do about making a career, then all children would be receiving the education that America’s Mother Culture professes is the promise of equality of opportunity. At this moment in our history, that promise—as it had been during my entire career—is an undeniable and immoral lie for millions of our children.


Several months after my retirement from Education at the end of 2014, while idly poking about folders on my hard drive, I came across dozens of documents I had prepared that were related to various aspects of my work as a teacher, district-level curriculum and assessment specialist, high school principal, and state-level bureaucrat. Sifting through the documents, I felt the need to share those that I believed addressed some of the significant reasons why American Education was failing to meet the needs of those students who most needed a sound education, and I did share via a blog: Education Follies.

In time, I came to understand that what I needed was not the opportunity to share because I knew it was likely little would come of it; instead, I realized I had an emotional need to reflect upon my career. That insight inspired me to select and assemble blog posts and documents from my personal archives into a memoir of sorts** which shed light on the over forty years I had spent tilting at educational windmills for no apparent reason. I thought compiling the memoir would bring personal closure–tie a bow around–my career. To the contrary, the memoir provided the opportunity to process what I had experienced and learned over the previous decades so that I could seek, clear-eyed, other windmills lying just beyond the horizon.

Foolishly thinking that unburdening myself of the frustrations and regrets that resulted from a years-long commitment to Education, I put Education Follies to rest. It wasn’t long before the remarkable ignorance of policy makers and “concerned citizens,” which continues to bubble up from the cauldron of my newsfeeds, motivated me to respond with another blog: Education and Freedom.

In order to simplify my writing life, I abandoned the Education and Freedom blog and began posting all education-related posts in Growing Up Boomer: One Writer’s Impressions of the Past Seven Decades. Regardless of the vehicle of delivery, my compulsion to continue to tilt at windmills is driven by the positive responses of readers and by my conviction that there are no reasonable excuses for failing to teach millions of our children.

This is the first of several re-posts that are to follow in my attempt to update, refine, and assemble all of my education-related posts in a logical, conceptual order. As always, your comments will be much appreciated.

If you are interested in moving beyond the scattered educational wastelands we Boomers are leaving behind, you can access through the Internet a wealth of interesting, research-based approaches to learning. One such approach is DIY GENIUS. This is not an endorsement from me; rather, I offer it as one example of the many intriguing, appropriate, and nontraditional approaches to learning that exist in our world today.

**If you choose to peruse a free .pdf version of this memoir–Education Follies: Four Decades of Tilting at Windmills for No Apparent Reason–I hope you may find things that are enlightening or reinforcing.

(The image of the windmill and of “Karl Myers” are copyright free images from Pixabay. No copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the featured images in this post.)

Click on the image to learn more about Jeff Lee’s Literary Creations

3 thoughts on “Education, Freedom, Education: (1) Tilting at Windmills for No Apparent Reason

  1. Well done. I dropped this link to my “go back and read again” spreadsheet as it warrants another read and considerable thought. I have also taken the liberty of sending that link to a former international business mogul who, for the age-discrimination of late, found himself re-org-ed out of work and unwilling sit idle, got involved in STEM as a new career. His thoughts not exactly mirroring yours, he will find the read interesting. Thanks,

  2. I tend to look at things in black and white—shades of gray are not my forte when it comes to education—but the origin of that is perhaps as much wishful thinking as anything else. That said, the “problem with American Education” is incredibly multi-faceted. First, in places of economic advantage, challenges are far different from those in disadvantaged rural and urban communities. Second, challenges are influenced by the state in which a school exists, e.g. Washington’s involvement in education is very different from Mississippi’s, where the delivery of instruction is influenced by the still lingering and unresolved fallout from the Civil War. What my non-scientific sample of one suggests (a sample which I might argue is still a fairly large one given my life experience in Education) re: whether unions (or professional organizations that are to all intents and purposes, unions!) ultimately and negatively impact student achievement—is that the impact of unions depends upon the personalities of the leaders of both the union and of the district. There are instances where unions and districts have worked together to improve student achievement, as well as instances where unions and management have been locked in fierce battles for years, which distracts from the improvement of student achievement. But even in such worst cases, unions are NOT the single most significant factor that impacts student achievement. Nor is compensation: no research has ever found that increasing teacher compensation has resulted in increased student achievement. And the notion that high salaries are required to attract the best and the brightest to the profession is terribly flawed. First, that view comes from the highly flawed views contained in the repository of “common sense,” which tends to provide little but shallow considerations. Second, such a supposition assumes that more lucrative professions—medicine, law, engineering et al, business management and entrepreneurship—will roll over and not respond to another profession’s attempts to compete for the attentions of “the brightest and more creative” of college graduates. Third, the reason why such souls do not enter the teaching profession (Google: Does American Society value education as a career) is that contrary to what politicians or people at cocktail parties spew, our society does not value education as a career choice. I know of one family where the parents stopped paying for their daughter’s college education when she changed her major to education (and I do realize in offering that bit, that one incident does not prove a case, but it may give one cause to consider…). Statistically driven research says this: the individual classroom teacher has the greatest impact (both positive and negative) on student achievement, far greater than the next closest factors (Impact of classroom teachers on student achievement). While the low socio-economic status of a family and of neighborhoods makes achievement a steep climb for kids coming from such environments—what some would refer to as their “baggage”—that baggage does not preclude achievement; rather, it means (1) that a teacher must truly believe all students can learn regardless of those kids’ baggage (something long validated by research), (2) must apply research-based instructional strategies, and (3) must apply what is known about human motivation (subject matter that is ubiquitous in teacher prep around the world but which, incredibly, is absent in the course lists of American ed schools). So, my hopefully informed opinion is that unions are rarely if ever the primary cause of deficient student achievement; instead, the foundational reason for poor student achievement among large swaths of students who tend to be disadvantaged, a disproportionate number of whom are kids of color, is that the socially dominant mass of our population does not sufficiently care about the poor to demand that the practitioners of the profession of education actually practice professionally. Every time an advantaged person at a cocktail party, in a Facebook post, or in a letter to the editor (or the protestations of advantaged kitchen racists) blames unions or parents or neighborhoods for poor achievement, they are making fraudulent excuses that allows us to retire to our affluent enclaves without having any sense of responsibility for bringing about change. And that is the largest windmill of all against which I have jousted and lost all of my professional life. Every time.

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