THE BLOG
03/30/2011 02:26 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2011

Don't Go Off Rootin' and Tootin', and There Won't Be No Cuttin' nor Shootin'

Back when I was an excitable young Teamster, I had the same anger toward my corrupt union leaders as today's "reformers" have towards the educational "status quo." But a union reformer shared the old Okie wisdom of "don't go off rootin' and tootin' ... " and, eventually, democracy prevailed in our labor movement.

Today, data-driven school "reform" is a two-barreled shotgun blast from the hip. The first target, is bad teachers. Given the harm that the bottom 5 to 10 percent of teachers cause, the quick-draw approach of the accountability hawks is understandable, even though their scatter-shot aim is bound to destroy the careers of many good educators.

But the second shot is directed towards our best educators. Anyone old enough to have an institutional memory, and recall the lessons of earlier unsuccessful reforms, is fair game. Since most of today's "reforms" are recycled quick fixes that have already failed, top-down policy wonks want to make sure that young educators are not exposed to the lessons that veterans learned during previous experiments.

History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and David Labaree explains why today's accountability hawks are destined for the ash heap of history. I hate the title of his new book, Someone Has to Fail, when the real message is how to avoid "cuttin' and shootin." Labaree, however, explains why good teachers are so adept at derailing the best laid plans of the educational social engineers.

Labaree documents the shared characteristics of a century of educational reforms, but he does not paint reformers with a broad brush. Instead, Labaree celebrates great teaching. He then explains why reformers invariably feel the need to defeat the best educators in order impose their will on schools.

For learning to occur, teachers must establish a special type of personal relationship. As much as we try to hide it, children are conscripts, but learning will not occur unless kids are persuaded to be willing participants in their own education.

"A surgeon can fix the ailment of the patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who remains mute during the trial," writes Labaree, "But success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student."

Teachers must become adept in managing chronic educational dilemmas. Teachers must embrace the ambiguity in the "local ecologies" that are known as classrooms. "As a teacher I'm not applying laws, I'm choosing from an array of overlapping rules of thumb; my primary skill as a teacher is my judgement."

In order to lead a classroom, the teacher must develop a persona that is similar to that of a method actor. In one sense, teaching is a dramatic performance art, but it only works when the teacher draws deeply from his or her own soul.

The teacher persona, says Labaree, must be likeable and tough, and it is not something that "a teacher puts on lightly or sheds with ease." Teaching "is a form of method acting that lasts not merely for the duration of the play but for the course of an entire career. It is not just a way of practicing a profession but a way of being."

Once a teacher has learned how to motivate students, she is unlikely to change because some new theory is mandated, and that leads to endless conflict with reformers.

"Teachers draw on clinical experience; reformers draw on social scientific theory. Teachers embrace the ambiguity of the class process and practice; reformers pursue the clarity of tables and graphs. Teachers put a premium on professional adaptability; reformers put a premium on uniformity of practices and outcomes."

Today's reformers, like their forefathers, "don't doubt the virtue of their model of reform, so they have little tolerance for teacher resistance ... The reform grid seems to carry the best ideas and highest values of our time, so practitioners of the old ways of doing things just need to get out of the way of progress." Before long, these idealists become obsessed with defeating practitioners, and this is one of the saddest parts of the story. Reformers get frustrated and turn to cuttin' and shootin.' Or as Labaree says, they violate the first rule of teaching, "do no harm."

Labaree says that reformers could play a constructive role if they listened to David Tyack and Larry Cuban and not try to implement their policies in a pure form, but allow teachers to "hybridize" them. Labaree adds, however, that "no reformer worth his salt would take the wimpy and self-negating approach to school change that I have suggested here."

On the other hand, Americans are justifiably proud of our independence. It is good that we have rejected five year plans and other forms of social engineering. The "solution" is to embrace our messy, imperfect, non-rational world.

Young teachers, like young workers of my generation, need the opportunity to at least be exposed to the system's institutional memory. And that is another frustrating aspect of today's "reforms." Good-hearted activists have become so angered by the way schools resist their efforts, that they have become blind to the joys and traditions of teaching and learning.