Turn to teachers to lead

For teachers, professionalization never brought power — and it’s time to change that, historian Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz said in her UND Faculty Lecture

History can not only explain, but also shape. And the more one learns about the history of teachers in American public schools, the more one understands how fresh approaches might make a real difference for teachers, students and society.

That was the theme of the Faculty Lecture Series’ latest installment delivered via Zoom Wednesday night by Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a historian of education reform and social policy, and an assistant professor in the Educational Foundations and Research program at UND.

Pawlewicz’s recent work has made her one of the most prominent historians of public education in America today. She has written op-eds for the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, talked on a podcast with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and seen her research published in journals such as the Harvard Educational Review.

Moreover, she has turned her observations into a new book, “Blaming Teachers: Professionalization policies and the failure of reform in American history,” available on Amazon and published by Rutgers University Press.

Clearly, Pawlewicz has tapped a reservoir of interest in teachers and public schools that stretches from coast to coast, said Cheryl Hunter, associate professor and department chair of Teaching, Leadership, and Professional Practice in the College of Education and Human Development at UND, in introducing her colleague’s lecture. That’s in part because public schools affect the deepest elements of American life, including careers, inequality, race relations, gender relations and, most recently, COVID.

Cheryl Hunter, associate professor and department chair of Teaching, Leadership, and Professional Practice in the College of Education and Human Development at UND, introduced Wednesday evening’s speaker for the UND Faculty Lecture Series. Image: Zoom screenshot.

But primarily, it’s because Pawlewicz’s approach informs her proposals with lessons from the past, giving people real hope for the future, Hunter said. “She thoughtfully adapts her work in the service of public scholarship — the scholarly or creative activity that joins serious intellectual endeavor with a commitment to public practice and public consequence for and with communities.”

Hunter closed her introductory remarks with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

Those are the words that best capture Pawlewicz’s work, Hunter said.

For her UND Faculty Lecture, Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz shared with viewers (via Zoom) a series of PowerPoint slides such as this one. Zoom screenshot.

Asking ‘Why?’

Pawlewicz started her talk by describing key aspects of public education and asking, “why.” Why are most public-school teachers women? Why is teaching not only a female-dominated profession, but also, largely, a white one?

And speaking of professions, why are teachers so much more limited in their autonomy than are other professionals, such as doctors and lawyers?

That’s what Pawlewicz’s research is all about. As importantly, answering those questions is the key to figuring out where we should go from here, Pawlewicz said.

So: Why are most public-school teachers women?

Because in the 1800s, public schools arose in an effort to solve specific social problems, Pawlewicz said. Those included the perception of disorder — specifically, the urban disorder that immigration seemed to be bringing about, as huge numbers of lower-class, nonwhite and other ethnic-minority immigrants arrived on America’s shores.

That’s when Victorian notions of gender, nurture and motherhood came into play, leading advocates to think women — young white women in particular — would make excellent teachers.

“But from the start, teachers followed a separate trajectory from other professionals,” Pawlewicz said.

For one thing, their work was devalued, with school committees paying female teachers much less than male schoolmasters would have received. For another, teachers were hit then and have been hit ever since by a double whammy: while they were denied the stature and independence that the male-dominated professions were accruing, they nonetheless were blamed for the public-school system’s deficiencies.

“Policymakers, teacher educators and union leaders, among others, blamed teachers and built a system in which teachers were always the targets of reform,” Pawlewicz said.

In short, “this was a fundamental contest of power,” with the net result being that “teachers increasingly found their work regulated and managed in all sorts of ways.” That still is the case today, as shown by the national focus on standardized tests and on efforts such as Common Core to put in place a nationwide curricula.

“We need to wrest power and authority to make decisions from traditional moorings, and turn instead to teachers to lead,” Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz said during her UND Faculty Lecture. Zoom screenshot.

Not supply, but demand

As for race, whenever someone asks “Why are there so few teachers of color?”, the usual answer is “supply,” Pawlewicz said: too few people of color become teachers.

That’s a convenient answer, especially because it suggests the problem lies within the marginalized communities themselves. “But it’s only plausible if we choose to ignore history,” she said.

For example, while the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case famously and rightly desegregated schools, the change carried a hidden cost: the forced exit from teaching of huge numbers of black educators who staffed black-only schools.

“After the decision,” as a 2019 story in Education Week describes, “tens of thousands of black teachers and principals lost their jobs as white superintendents began to integrate schools but balked at putting black educators in positions of authority over white teachers or students. … Today, many scholars say the persistent lack of black teachers in the profession can be traced to the aftermath of the Brown decision.”

In other words, the real problem is not the supply of black teachers, but the demand for them — demand that has never fully recovered since Brown, Pawlewicz showed in her lecture.

It’s not an individual issue, in other words. It’s structural. And of all the insights that come from studying the history of teaching, that one probably is the most important, she said.

That’s because understanding the structural nature of the problem points one in the direction of realistic solutions. In particular, “we need to invest in systemic change,” she said.

“We need to embrace discomfort and accept the fact that those who have benefitted from existing arrangements may be displeased.

“We need to wrest power and authority to make decisions from traditional moorings, and turn instead to teachers to lead.”

What school boards can do

During the Q&A that followed her talk, Pawlewicz was asked what a school board could do to bring about the needed change.

The answer is, the board members “can and should defer to teachers much more than they do now,” Pawlewicz said.

That means de-emphasizing standardized tests, while at the same time trusting teachers to choose textbooks, manage classrooms and evaluate students. It also means changing the relationship between teachers and principals: “I think about hospitals and even universities,” and how they’re managed in ways that respect doctors’ and professors’ autonomy, she said.

That’s the model that marks some of the world’s most respected school systems, such as the one in Finland. And it’s practical enough that individual school districts such as the Grand Forks Public Schools could give key elements a try, Pawlewicz suggested.