Transforming Education

There has been a lot of talk in the past year about teachers in Iowa: raising entrance requirements into teacher preparation programs, licensing exams, professional development, collaboration, and peer evaluation.  In the upcoming year, we’ll be hearing more about teachers as instructional leaders and creating new salary structures and career options.

In other words, there has been a lot of talk about a teacher’s relationship to other teachers (like collaboration time and peer evaluation) and to the institutions of public education (like licensing requirements and salary structures).  But there hasn’t been much, if any, discussion of the teacher-student relationship.

The heart of a profession is the special duties that a professional owes to persons with whom we enter professional relationships (think attorney-client or doctor-patient); duties, which go beyond not committing criminal acts against clients or acts of dishonesty.

So what would our public schools and our system of public education look like if we focused on professionalizing the teacher-student relationship instead?

I am a lawyer by training, so the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct (for attorneys), available here (scroll down to Chapter 32), seem as good a place as any to start.  [The Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct (with comments) currently run ninety-one pages and make for interesting reading, in my opinion.  For comparison, The Iowa Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics for practitioners licensed by the Board of Educational Examiners is located in the Iowa Administrative Code 282—25.1-25.3, available here, but you will have to open the Administrative Rules, then Administrative Code, and then Educational Examiners Board.]

There is a lot of potential for interesting conversation about which duties might be applied to a professionalized teacher-student relationship and how.  For example, thinking about how the duty of competence, the duty of diligence, or conflict of interest analysis might be applied to the teacher-student relationship.  For the sake of blog post length, I’d like to focus on just two areas: the scope of representation and allocation of authority, and the duty to exercise independent professional judgment.

Scope of Relationship and Allocation of Authority

It can often seem that all decision-making authority regarding education matters are reserved for educational professionals, which I don’t quite understand.  Attorneys attend years of college and law school to develop specialized legal skills and knowledge and yet the legal profession explicitly acknowledges that decisions regarding the purposes of representation (as well as some particular decisions such as whether to settle a matter) are reserved to the client and not the professional.

Furthermore, if there is a disagreement about the means by which the purposes of representation are to be pursued, the client may terminate the attorney-client relationship.  In other words, where there is an unresolved disagreement, the disagreement is not resolved by the attorney imposing the attorney’s judgment on the client but by a parting of ways.

I wonder what public education might look like if, instead of increasing the centralization of education decision-making, we discussed how we might differently allocate decision-making authority between teacher and student (assuming for purposes of this post that the student’s parents would exercise that decision-making authority for students under the age of majority).

What if students determined the purposes and scope of the instructional relationship?  Would preparation for “global competitiveness,” high-standardized test scores, and “college-for-all” remain the purpose of every teacher-student relationship?  Would we see a continued push for a single, nationwide curriculum?  Or would we see a variety of instructional programs with a variety of curricula and purposes?

What if students had the authority to terminate the teacher-student relationship over unresolved disagreements about the instructional methods, materials, and other school policies?  Would it change the way teachers and schools communicate with parents and students about instructional and policy choices?  Would we still see fifteen minute lunches and decreasing time for recess?  Would we still see widespread implementation of PBIS?  Would educational leadership still be talking about more time in school?  Would we see more discussion about and variety in educational philosophy and choice of instructional methods and materials?

Independent Professional Judgment

Lawyers are expected to exercise independent professional judgment in representing clients [see Rule 32:2.1] and are expected to identify and resolve actual or potential conflicts of interest that would interfere with exercising independent professional judgment or that may otherwise adversely affect the client’s interests [see many of the other rules].  Consider Rule 32:5.4(c):

(c) A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal services.

Now think about applying this rule to the teacher-student relationship:  A teacher shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the teacher to render instructional services for another to direct or regulate the teacher’s professional judgment in rendering such instructional services.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you are either laughing or have already thought of a number of significant institutional obstacles to teachers exercising independent professional judgment on behalf of their students.

When decisions about curriculum, instructional methods and materials, allocation of time in the school day (lunch, recess, pull-out specials, requirements for ninety-minutes of daily literacy instruction), and behavioral/classroom management programs are made by others, what meaningful decisions are left for a teacher to exercise professional judgment upon?

If teachers could meaningfully exercise independent professional judgment on behalf of their students, what would schools look like?  Would there be fewer politically or corporate-driven fads in the classroom?  What are the institutional implications for protecting the exercise of independent professional judgment by teachers?   At the very least, it would seem to require much less centralized control of curricular and instructional decisions.

The trend is clearly towards centralization but I wonder if we would be more likely to get the schools that we (or at least some of us) want, schools that reflect community values and preferences, schools that help every child maximize their potential, and schools that achieve high rates of literacy, if we focused more on professionalizing the teacher-student relationship and less on standardized curriculum, standardized testing, and new top-down accountability schemes.


3 thoughts on “Transforming Education

  1. Chris

    Great post. As for allocation of authority, I think the client’s decision-making power in the attorney-client relationship is related less to the professional nature of the attorney’s role, and more to the fact that clients are (usually) fully enfranchised adults.

    It would be interesting to take a look at the rules governing attorneys when they are exercising guardianship over kids or over people who have been deemed incapable of managing their own affairs.

    I know that we can’t give kids the vote and the kind of autonomy that comes with it. But I do think that most of the problems with our educational system can be traced to the fact that kids have no say over their own treatment. The history of enfranchised groups acting “in the best interests” of disenfranchised groups is a pretty sorry one. I would just like a system where the people in power were more mindful of the hazards of that role, and where the power was more in the hands of the people (parents, teachers) who I think are most likely to see the kids as individuals, not as data points, and thus to come closest to treating them with the dignity that enfranchised people receive.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Chris. It could be you are right about the reasons for the allocation of authority in the attorney-client relationship. I guess I was thinking about informed consent in the medical context where the profession made a move from more paternalistic practices to one recognizing and respecting the autonomy of the patient. When doctors treat minors, informed consent still applies and, in the ordinary course of events, it is the parents/guardians and not the doctor who makes medical decisions on behalf of the child. I guess I’d rather see some discussion about whether it might make sense to allocate decision-making authority differently (and how we could do it), than see more complaints in the nature of “we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink our college-for-all program.”

  2. Pingback: How to Professionalize Teaching « iHack, therefore iBlog

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