Schedule a conversation – Eric Isselhardt


More on Guiding Principles


As you know, I have been engaging is a series of conversations with colleagues in education policy and membership organizations, about NNSTOY and our goals.  In describing those goals – positioning teachers to have a voice in policy making and implementation, and, advocating for differentiated staffing models for teaching to promote retention and student achievement, the conversation has sometimes shifted to one of the structures that seems to be lacking in teaching – guiding principles.

Industry has systematically created measures for determining effective performance through Generally Accepted Accounting Principles or GAAP.  These guiding documents are often referred to in other professions as Professional Principles, Ethical Principals, or Guiding Principles.  One definition of GAAP analysis is the accounting rules used to prepare and standardize the reporting of financial statements, such as balance sheets, income statements and cashflow statements, for publicly traded companies and many private companies in the United States (Stephanie Paul, LegalZoom)  http://www.legalzoom.com/articles/article_content/article14076.html

Paul goes on to explain that GAAP is determined through measurement and disclosure principles and that it provides a consistent measure of accountability by which companies’ performance can be judged.  GAAP principles vary by profession but they all focus on standardizing a means of holding a company – or a profession - accountable for its performance.

Given this definition – essentially, using a set of measures to determine expectations and measure existing performance against those expectations to determine where an entity is and is not meeting expectations - should the teaching profession not have such a set of principles in place, developed by practitioners for practitioners?  In fact, could there not be three sets of principles - equally important areas of study followed by action:  GAAP for individual teacher effectiveness, for school leader effectiveness, and for school performance?

In looking at over thirty sets of such documents for career fields as diverse as accounting, medicine, plumbing, event planning, and real estate, it is a distinctive characteristic that these sets of principles are typically developed by practitioners in the field for practitioners.  The resulting documents are used by practitioners as one means of accountability for adherence to professional dictates that govern the profession.  In other words, these principles are used to hold the profession accountable to itself.  These are not standards but principles; the difference is that standards typically focus on specified content while principles define behavior.  We have no set of principles to which we hold ourselves accountable as professionals in education.

In addition to having established guiding principles, many other professions have governing bodies that oversee these principles, as well as the operationalizing of them.  These bodies are responsible for establishing procedures for dealing with professionals – members – who do not uphold the principles.  Think of the American Medical Association for physicians, the American Bar Association for lawyers, the United States Personal Chefs Association; I could go on.

In raising the point with policy experts, wonks, and others that education lacks these foundational principles, there has initially been a moment of genuine surprise.  Surprise that education does not have these in place, and that this point has not been raised more emphatically in the past.  And then, the conversation typically turns to the nitty-gritty issues of how would they be put in place, by whom, and who would oversee them.  It is this last point that is typically the sticking point.

In my experience thus far, there is little disagreement, once the lack of their existence is recognized, that education should have guiding principles.  There is not much argument that these should be developed by educators, for educators.  Where there is argument, it often dissipates when the point is pushed, “if the U.S. government were going to pass legislation mandating operating theatre procedures, who is it most likely ask to help define professional standards?  Policy makers?  Business people?  Or physicians?”  This seems to help bring the conversation around to recognizing that educators are the experts who should define professional practice for the education field.

No, the sticking point is usually around who would oversee and implement these principles, a governing body for the profession.  The conversation often turns to who should not – not the unions (not their function), not the professional associations (they represent specific segments of the educator population), not the states (again, not their domain).  Should a governing body be formed to serve this function, like the American Dental Association, for example?

In two conversations last week, with really smart people who I know and respect, it came down to there not needing to be such an enforcing body.  One proposal was that there might be a body to oversee the principles and issue a certification, so to speak, that the individual had signed a document committing to adhere to these principles.  The signing of that document might be requirement for licensure in the individual states.

I usually ask why teaching, education, is so different from other professions in not needing this governing body.  Are we not deemed capable of governing ourselves, holding ourselves accountable?

The answer that I received from both really smart people, was that teaching is a public profession.  Unlike almost any other profession – except government workers – educators truly are public employees.  A third genuinely brilliant person, whom I respect tremendously, responded that teaching is the only profession actually written into the Constitution and that makes it different.  Honestly, I had never thought of that.

One pundit (I am using this word positively) speculated that if we did have guiding principles for the profession, we would likely see a reduction in the amount of attention focused by numerous outside agencies on holding us accountable to numerous sets of standards.  The vacuum into which they have rushed would be filled.

This might be reason enough in and of itself, to see such guiding principles established – by educators, for educators.  This is a project that I would like to see NNSTOY lead, in partnership with other education organizations, using a research-based methodology, and best practices for development of such documents.

If there were a set of guiding principles for teaching, it would likely include a set of ethical standards around professional behavior with students, parents, and colleagues.  But it should include more than this.  What are some of the other domains that such a document would define?  Professional learning?  Collegiality?  Participation and attendance?

This is a conversation that I would love to see STOYs engage in, through Facebook, or other mechanisms over time.  I am reminded of a saying that a friend loves:  “if not we, then who?”  In this instance, it has been proven that if not we, many will jump into the vacuum and dictate for us to what we should be held accountable.

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