Is Academic Freedom dead in k-12?

I secured my first teaching job in 1991, a lifetime ago when you consider the amount of change that has occurred in Education.  This is before testing, before standards, before No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top —- In 1991, the current reform movement was just on the precipice of making sweeping changes to k-12 education.

The high school that hired me was going through what is commonly referred to as a “youth movement.”  They had several faculty retire and I, with a few others were the first newcomers to the building in a very long time.  My new older colleagues were educated at colleges and universities during the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  They were products, and at times participants in the student revolt of that period, marchers against the Vietnam war — active in the civil rights movement and witnesses to events like the 1970 Kent State shooting.

In our department meetings, whenever we had to adopt a textbook or discuss curricular changes the issue of Academic Freedom would crop up and several of my colleagues had a passion and belief that absent that freedom to choose what and how they teach — true education of students could not be attained.  They would argue that the very foundation of education and knowledge rest on the ability of teachers to choose what and how they teach.  They would get especially passionate if one or more believed that information was was being manipulated or controlled by entities outside of education. It was a lively and often in depth discussion about the purpose and reason for public education.

Sadly, this kind of discussion and debate about Academic Freedom is absent in today’s department meetings and for that matter in the k-12 setting.  We deskill the professional teacher with McCurriculum, teacher-proof materials, and the imposition of the industrial model of schooling all designed to pass the ever increasing number of standardized  test.  We really don’t want free thinkers in the K-12 setting.  The only ounce of freedom the teacher has in the classroom is how they will teach and even that has been curtailed by imposing standards for the teaching profession that homogenize and repress a teachers Academic Freedom.

If you think about it — everything — and I mean everything about the classroom today is homogenized.  The McCurriculum, the materials available for teacher use and even the teachers evaluation which is grounded in state adopted teaching standards and wedded to the performance of students on the battery of standardized test make it nearly impossible for teachers to truly be creative in the classroom.  Creativity and resistance by a teacher could easily land them in the unemployment line.

We deskilled this group of professionals without much fanfare or resistance.  We no longer see teachers as intellectuals.  We no longer consider teaching a noble profession.  We no longer feel confident that teaching as a profession is stable and many of us, including me, are reluctant to encourage our own children to pursue this pathway.  Teaching has become overly politicized and those who labor in the trenches no longer feel they have any control or say over what happens to them or what happens next in the educational arena.  We have devalued the high level skills needed to teach children effectively.  To what end I wonder?

I like to remind everyone I talk too, that great teaching is still an Art as much as we want to make it a Science.  And my best teachers, the ones who believed in me, inspired me, pushed me to be my best are the very professionals that likely would not have fared well on the new evaluations systems we have in place.  Many of my best teachers may not have talked openly about Academic Freedom but the diversity in the style, form and content each of them brought to the classroom signaled it was alive and well during my educational experience.

Academic Freedom in k-12 if not dead is at the very least on life support.  I still have faith in public school teachers.  I believe they have the wherewithal to provide the needed leadership and direction for the next generation of youth.  We need to Reskill our professional teachers and reignite a discussion around Academic Freedom and the purpose of a public education before it’s too late.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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