Can we produce innovative students with teachers chained to a script?

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky responds to my interview last week with high school reformer Ted Dintersmith.

By Peter Smagorinsky

In a recent Get Schooled post, venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith made the point that today’s schools remain stuck in an industrial-age, production-line mentality at a point when they need to be emphasizing innovation over conformity. With jobs increasingly being turned over to automated systems and robotic devices, he argues, schools should no longer be in the business of training people to follow directions and keep their ideas to themselves.

Mirza_Khushnam_14Fall_Illu764_AJC 6Unlike many who see the business model as appropriate for public education, Dintersmith sees the increasing reliance on industrial business practices to be problematic, producing, in his words, “greater intensity and more testing. The result: Disengaged students, unmotivated teachers and flat test scores.”

He continues: “If we don’t have kids coming out of school being innovative, we are going to have kids coming out of school being unemployed.” The current emphasis on filling in bubble sheets, he contends, leads today’s students on a path to obsolescence before they even begin their journeys.

Instead, he values schools that ask of students: “Can you be creative? Can you be resourceful? Can you innovate?” His solution is to base learning on projects through which students construct products that have value and utility in the real world.

I agree with pretty much everything Dintersmith says, and hope his investment in schools produces the sorts of results he seeks. I find his goals to be far more worthwhile than the failed efforts of other philanthropists to energize education by making them as “accountable” as possible, with reductive test scores the sole measure of achievement. The development of real job and life skills, if anything, is set back by the overemphasis on answering someone else’s questions about texts rarely read outside the setting of a standardized test.

I would like here to look at what I see as the other side of Dintersmith’s solution to making student learning more vibrant and practical: the effects of a system based on industrial assembly lines on teachers.

Few students feel joy at the prospect of going to school to take another standardized test, or to prepare for one, and these tasks have increasingly taken over both instructional and assessment time in education. What seems overlooked in considering this problem is the way in which teachers’ enthusiasm and dedication for their work get undermined by the manner in which their thinking has been taken away from them by the standardization of teaching and learning.

When the whole of the curriculum is scripted and designed to prepare students for multiple-choice tests developed by people in the assessment business, what happens to teachers’ emphasis on preparing kids for life, their delight in helping kids understand concepts and apply them to life, and the reason d’être for many people who undertake teaching as a career?

Part of what I do as a researcher is study how teachers’ careers unfold over time. I’m now in the midst of a long-term study of a set of teachers whose academic and professional careers I began studying during their sophomore years in college. They are now halfway through their fourth year of teaching English in public schools in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. What I share next comes from the most recent round of interviews conducted via Skype to help me understand how their career trajectories have been shaped by the conditions of their teaching.

My space here is limited, so I will focus on one of the teachers. She described her transition from a small school district in a rural part of an adjacent state to a school in a large Atlanta metro-area suburban district. She described the difficulty she has had in relinquishing the thinking behind her teaching to the corporate textbook and assessment publishers whose scripts she must follow so she is on the same page as every other teacher in the county every day.

I have studied other districts that have moved toward completely centralized decision-making in the past, from well before today’s high-octane drive to standardize education down to the last minute of every school day. The intention is often noble: to make sure each school provides equal educational opportunity to each school and student, no matter where they stand in the system’s socioeconomic hierarchy.

The reality is the corporate model takes the heart and soul out of schools by assuming every teacher should be identical to every other one, and students can all be equitably measured by the same assessment. This mechanistic perspective on teaching has made teachers feel, in the words of the teacher I interviewed recently, “robotic.” In this capacity, innovative and provocative teachers are denied the opportunity to use their good judgment to decide what their students need the most, deferring instead to the script provided by someone else far removed from their classrooms.

Sadly, she noted taking decisions out of teachers’ hands and minds is actually welcome to those of her colleagues who prefer not doing all the planning and grading that come with what Dintersmith sees as critical to project-based learning. Such learning is centered on carefully conceived tasks and environments that support their undertaking, and on dedicated time to assess the projects throughout their production.

The teacher has begun to question why she is teaching. She got into this profession because she loves working with kids, but finds the conditions of teaching in this district to be thoroughly stultifying.

Great teachers always seek to do whatever work it takes to make learning a dynamic, important, and growth-inducing experience for their students. This teacher finds the system has taken this prerogative away from her, replacing it with prescribed materials for her to trot out on schedule and administer to rows of students as if they are on the production line Dintersmith sees as obsolete.

She is considering leaving the profession because it no longer allows her the latitude to work hard to design instruction her students find engaging and worthwhile. Are there, she wonders, ways of working with kids that aren’t crushed by the standardization of schooling?

If she and others like her continue to bail on a teaching career, what will be left is a teaching force filled with those who are content to let the corporations plan their classes for them. That would be tragic, both for the kids whose learning needs will remain unmet and the teachers who loved their jobs until their dynamism was stolen by the robber barons from Pearson et al. and the administrators who have let it happen.

We deserve much better than this.



Reader Comments 11




ROFLMAO, Smaggy rails against the "corporate model" of education, but fails to realize the university Schools of Education are big business.  Millions (billions?) of dollars exchange hands every year so that prospective teachers can get that diploma that allows them to enter the teaching profession.  Hundreds (thousands?) of Smagorinskiy's contemporaries publish "research based" opinions on how to best teach little Johnny that 9+7=15 and we shouldn't count off because he got the final answer incorrect, but he did show his work.

If you want to criticize someone, criticize the politically correct, equal outcomes pathogens who think that a student with an IQ of 70 should be taught at the same pace and level of instruction as the student with an IQ of 120.  Criticize the administrators who refused to do their jobs and get rid of the not-worth-a-crap teachers.  Criticize the university schools of "education" who lobbied to ensure their paycheck was guaranteed by getting the requirements to become a teacher to flow through their own schools of education.


The issue is a terrible teaching/learning environment because of the lack of discipline options for teachers.  Until the admin removes trouble making students, this will continue.  

The idea that "corporate environment" is the issue is insanity.  Trouble makers are fired from corporations.  They need to be fired from "normal" public schools as well - so they are no longer able to detract from teachers and students alike.

Another comment

What happen when you have bored free and reduced lunch students above 20% at any school with these mindless script programs? They act out. The bully the rich white kids, they distrupt for those who actually might be able to grasp something.

I had my youngest abused at one Cobb school in 4 th. Got a transfer to a better school in 5 th. Then moved to what was suppose to be a good Fulton school. But those dang apartments can flip on a dime and your school can suddenly be overloaded with free lunchers.

I had to remove my child from the toxic environment of Public schools but don't have the $26k tuition of ITTP schools. Nor am I willing to sallow the right wing bible thumping crap of some of the other ones. I have had to piece together a couple of the hybrids that at less Christian more just school, so my child interacts with kids who want to learn a couple of days a week in a class room setting . She is now taking three classes on the Georgia Virtual school to make up the rest.

Many parents as soon as their bright and willing child hits 16 is entering them in the dual enrollment with the dual enrollment being all in college.

Sad that so many of our kids have to miss out on middle school and high school. Due to testing companies, lack of discipline, adult salaries and the mechanisms to fund them like a free lunch or ESOl kid being more valuable than a real homeowners child who owns home that cost $500k and up. Continue crapping on the homeowners and see where it gets you!


And while we're on the subject, innovation isn't all that it's made out to be.  For every corporate innovation that really works, the floor is covered with hair-brained ideas. 


And how about the business/Hitler model we were forced to use when bribed into Reading First/scripted reading?  We were ACTUALLY TO USE A DOG CLICKER TO ELICIT RESPONSES FROM THE CLASS!  I refused to do it; I also refused to stick to the script of simple-minded questions.  Instead of asking, "What color was the jacket?" <click> "Red!"  I preferred asking, "Why might he be wearing a jacket?" (no click) Then students might volunteer their own reasons, drawing on their previous experiences.

I still cannot believe our system bought into that ****, mistaking calling words fast as "reading." (DIBELS)  What an insane travesty--and it was claimed to be "research based!"  Actually it was the ADULTS who learned to salivate for the "free money" to the sound of those ****** dog clickers!



"I still cannot believe our system bought into that ****, "

Keywords:  YOUR  SYSTEM BOUGHT INTO THAT.  It's not like the publishers held a gun to their heads and forced them to buy the junk.


Wonderful article that should strike a cord with those who want to go down the business-model rabbit hole when schooling our children. My guess is you never have a child jumping out of bed screaming in excitement that they have another standardized test to take.


I agree completely with the thoughts of Professor Smagorinsky in this article.  Here is a repeat of what I had previously posted on this blog regarding the destructiveness of the business model in education:

"They (supporters of the business model in education) will have produced a generation of teacher worker-bees incapable of creative thought, not even able to use their own analytical skills effectively. 

The business mind, I am sorry to say, is a limited mind in the area of education.  Maybe the idea is ultimately to make all schools into charter schools run by for-profit corporations and to hire so-called 'teachers' at close to minimum wage without any benefits.  Good for business, perhaps, though I doubt it; a horror story for education."



“The business mind, I am sorry to say, is a limited mind in the area of education.”

Shoot, the business mind is even a limited mind in the area of business.


@EdJohnson @MaryElizabethSings 

I have long believed that the world would fare better if those of business world would attempt to emulate some of the best practices of the educational world, rather than the reverse. Now, here is a metaphysical thought for some who are so inclined.  The business world is symbolic of the masculine psyche (contained within both men and women) and the educational world is symbolic of the feminine psyche (contained in both men and women).  The world, through spiritual evolution, is in the process of moving more toward the consciousness of the feminine psyche (nurturing) than that of the masculine psyche (dominating).

    • Lee_CPA2
      @Wascatlady "I still cannot believe our system bought into t
    New Comment