De-Professionalizing Teachers in the Age of Accountability

Teacher/student/activist Cory Steeves has done an important analysis of the discourse of “21st Century” education reform in (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work: A Discourse Analysis of British Columbia’s 21st-century Policy Agenda. His work covers a lot of ground and touches on many important areas of education reform. He specifically looks at what is going in his home of British Columbia, but his analysis can be applied to any place touched by neo-liberal educational policy.

A striking example of Steeve’s thesis is his analysis of the de-professionalization of teaching via the attack on public education. He shows that corporate leaders have disproportional weight in policy development- teachers are rarely asked to be involved while corporate leaders are over- represented. Policy makers lean on the influence of corporate business leaders rather than those who actually do the work of teaching. Steeves writes, “My belief that teachers must have meaningful influence over the policies which shape their work is grounded in the awareness that it is teachers not policy makers- who are solely entrusted with the responsibility of ‘enabl{ling} all learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralist society and a prosperous and sustainable economy.’ (B.C. Ministry of Education, 1996, p.. C-13)” If teachers are not involved in the creation of the policy, and yet are held accountable for its results, then clearly this is something that is being done to teachers rather than with them, and thus represents on attack on public education. As Steeves puts it, “I believe that if teachers are not meaningfully influencing policy-level discussions about what constitutes teachers’ work, then public schooling might be seen as under attack, or ‘terrorized’.”

In a recent interview that Steeves held with Dr. E. Wayne Ross, Ross described the language of accountability this way: “Accountability is an economic interaction within hierarchical, bureaucratic systems between those who have power and those who don’t. (It is) a means of dispersing power to lower levels of hierarchical systems. Those who receive power are obligated to ‘render an account’ of accomplishing outcomes desired by those in power. Accountability depends on surveillance and self-regulation. Its power is spectacle that results from accounting. Accountability schemes obfuscate identity of higher authority; serve interest of status quo/unequal power relations.”

What Ross describes is exactly the process that Steeves explicates in his analysis of the power relations between the corporate interests represented through policy, and the teachers and children who are the victims of that policy. Teachers become ‘technocrats,’ objects of policy which is determined by business interests, and are held ‘accountable’ via the surveillance of testing without ever being asked for their input. This ‘accountability’ disperses power through teachers (and their evaluations based on test scores, for instance). The professionalism of teachers, which assumes the ability to make decisions, is thus greatly denigrated. Teachers become the tool for increasing test scores, which Steeves calls ‘accountingization’, rather than professional decision makers concerned with the complexities of educating (not the simplicity of ‘achievement’) the students they are entrusted with.

Steeves works from the belief that if we want schools to be laboratories of democracy that serve the ideals of justice, and thus teachers to act as democratic agents, then the policy making process needs to be democratic, which assumes including the voice of teachers. Otherwise we are left with a hypocritical, cynical attack on the commons, a continuing erosion of the public in favor of the private as represented by the ‘market,’ which is the highest value of neo-liberalism. Scary indeed.

What I’ve written here is really no more than a superficial distillation of Steeves’ work. Please read it for yourself.

See Steeves’ abstract here.

His complete work here.

Follow Steeves on twitter: @symphily


2 responses to “De-Professionalizing Teachers in the Age of Accountability

  1. Teachers need to be accountable BUT to the learners. The learners need to be active in understanding what they want to learn and articulating that.
    Also we need to raise the professionalism of many teachers. Most probably anyone reading this is already there but in my opinion there are many who lack professional ethos and personal standards.
    School administrations also impose decisions on classroom teachers without input so they need to improve too!

  2. I read something yesterday about what is happening in the Middle East with ISIS—how the state of Iraq and Syria are failing to combat ISIS but non-state groups—militias, tribal and other religious factions—are combating ISIS (for instance, the Kurds). What’s happening was compared to the Middle Ages and the Crusades when non-state organizations were the major force in maintaining a balance (for instance, the Nights Templar or the Hospitallers).

    After reading that piece and reading this post, I think what we are seeing is a world in regression where the state is under attack by non-state forces and the result—if successful–will be political fringe groups, religious and financial factions that are equal to or more powerful than nation states and the power of the state to enforce, for instance, the Constitution of the US and the Bill of Rights will be severely eroded or extinct.

    The neo-liberal/Crony Capitalist war of greed against the transparent, non-profit, democratic public schools is clearly moving in that direction—a return to the ruthless and unstable politics and conflicts of the middle ages where the power rests in the hands of a few, and the people have no power at all unless they are willing to risk everything in rebellion—give me liberty or give me death.

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