An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons (Spring 2009)

Trivializing Teaching: a critique of administrative micromanagement

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 2/13/18

Back in the sixties, my high school newspaper quoted a fellow student: "There comes a point when boredom becomes a mystical experience." Now that I'm approaching my own sixties, I find myself revisiting that quote more and more frequently. Unfortunately, I revisit it most often when I am out in the schools. And it's especially sad that many of those teachers know their teaching is usually boring -- sometimes pointless and even unjustifiable. They are just doing their jobs as instructed. Most, clearly, will not last long. That's sad enough, but I'm even more upset when I run into new teachers who actually believe that the intellectually stultifying teaching which has been imposed on them is a good thing, or at least "normal."

Some scholars, like Valerie Chapman and Duane Inman, argue that our current fondness for rubrics in teaching and assessing might be overdone. In our desire to teach effectively, grade fairly, and guarantee accountability, some of us have jumped on yet another bandwagon that overpromises.1 Way too often, they allege, we are rubricizing the creativity and initiative right out of our kids.2 Sure, we can excuse ourselves by claiming that we are just following orders . . . I beg your pardon, following "current best practice". . . but that argument seldom withstands serious scrutiny.

The Rubber in the Rubric

Chapman and Inman lament that under a rubricized regime, "[S]tudents must adhere to prescribed criteria with no deviations," and recommend a return to flexibility, or as they describe it, putting some "rubber into the rubric." Are they being hyperbolic? Not from what I'm seeing. But I'd like to raise some broader issues. Maybe, while we're at it, we should challenge the whole concept of a required curriculum. And even if we grant that a required curriculum is a good idea, the questions of what is worth requiring and how it is to be taught keep coming back at us.

The pat answer -- "our elected representatives decide, through their appointed officials" -- begs far too many questions about the proper role and competence of government in raising our children. While I'm glad that we hold teachers accountable, I am growing alarmed at teachers' inability to stray from prescribed curricula when circumstances merit. Increasingly I am hearing from teachers who have been told that they may not deviate more than fifteen minutes a day from the required schedule. Despite all the "birdwalking" -- tangents, reveries, and outright babble -- that has in the past been excused by fatuous "teachable moment" reasoning, I'd hate to see teachable moments disappear from public schools altogether. I don't think Chapman and Inman are overwrought here.

Micromanagement in education bears the same evidentiary burden that micromanagement always bears: the burden of proof is on the managers much more than on the managed.3 Chapman and Inman worry that the restrictive uniformity of rubrics will work against "problem solving, decision-making, and creativity -- traits needed in a democratic society for governance as well as for economic productivity." Here their case may be a bit weak, since we may be entering an era in which those traits will not be considered necessary. . . for most.

If the last century demanded that education channel kids toward the lower strata of an industrial world,4 twenty-first-century schools may be principally oriented toward preparing kids for an information age with sinister similarities: perhaps the vast majority of people will be information workers, rather than information producers or consumers. They may be processing and transmitting information, but with little responsibility for selection, nor opportunity for innovation.

Of course, the not-so-nice word for "information workers" is "bureaucrats." Bureaucrats do not need the traits my colleagues have listed, nor need they analyze, synthesize, or evaluate very often. Nonetheless, ultimately I'm on the authors' side: I do not care to promote such an age or prepare such people. Bureaucratic skills may be necessary in the new century, but they can never be sufficient. And for those of us who are serious when we say "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done," the bureaucratization of souls comes mighty close to blasphemy.5

Walking the Lobster

Chapman and Inman wonder if students regularly guided by rubrics come to see such guidance as the way school and society should operate. Does the next generation see a system of carefully delineated requirements as "normal"? Certainly I'm hearing many more complaints than ever before whenever a writing prompt requires invention and daring on the student's part. We've seen this sort of kvetching in previous generations: students taught by the "soft pedagogy" of the progressive and life-adjustment eras all too often came to believe that they had a right to be entertained, that the world revolved around them, and that "good teaching" was more or less synonymous with "fun teaching."6

A generation or so before that, the opposite viewpoint prevailed: unless the learning was "hard," it was deemed not worthwhile.7 At other times, the popular mind has associated broad liberal education, specialized job preparation, dead languages, and even the ability to recite vast quantities of scripture as marks of the well-educated person.8

My hunch is that members of this generation, like those of all the previous generations, will painfully learn that their schooling didn't prepare them for the real world, a world that is rife with ambiguity. I can live with that -- they can still learn new stuff. My real concern is what they define as bad education -- or conversely, what do they omit from their concepts of good education and, subsequently, good living? Will they view open-ended teaching as bad, and hence to be disregarded? Ambiguous assignments as unacceptable, and thence to be shirked? Ambivalent or nuanced positions as unworthy, and to be shunned? Opportunities as "uncertainties," so safer to steer clear of? If so, they really will be handicapped in life, because one never learns from a challenge that has been avoided.

But how can we avoid despondency, when teachers in a nearby inner-city elementary school (97 percent minority, 90 percent economically disadvantaged) are required to spend inordinate time creating "standards-based bulletin boards," which are then subjected to rigorous evaluation by teams of administrators brought in from around the district?9 I'm sorry, but those kids have more important problems needing teacher attention. A Catholic writer, Kathleen Norris, reminds us of the nineteenth-century poet Gérard de Nerval, who kept his Paris neighborhood amused by walking his pet lobster on a leash.10 After contemplating standards-based bulletin boards in a high-needs elementary school, that no longer seems so odd.

Men without Chests

Maybe the trivializing mentality of our administrative anal-retentives really does pose a serious threat to kids and to society. Do rubrics encourage teachers to set the bar low so that all students reach the bar? I don't think this is necessarily the outcome of the rubrics bandwagon, but I fear that rubricization combined with a bogus version of egalitarianism may bring that about. As C. S. Lewis challenged the "I'm as good as you are" version of equality (it's at best false modesty, and at worst an outright lie: the genius never really means that when he says it to the dolt, nor the industrious to the indolent), so now we ought to consider the possibility that if anybody can do X, maybe X isn't really worth doing.11

Please don't misunderstand me: I am not advocating a return to the pre-NCLB mindset that wrote off the underclass with a breezy "Well, somebody's got to dig the ditches," nor am I suggesting that we build failure into the curriculum; rather I'm suggesting that we seek a more substantive version of equality, one that challenges everybody with an intellectually worthy curriculum, doing stuff that's worth doing.

Presciently, Lewis warned how over-directive, dumbed-down education will turn dystopian: "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."12 He was right: nowadays, we rubricize the gumption out of kids and then wonder why our nation may be once again at risk economically, politically, and morally.

Paint by Numbers

Having said all this, I've got to admit that the rubricists may be obsessive- compulsive, but they are not stupid. I'm not hearing principals boast that they "hire quality, and then let them teach" anymore. Indeed, doing so would be tantamount to professional suicide. But while close administrative support is valuable to new or troubled teachers on the job, it does not bind healthy adults to a calling, and it can be professionally insulting.

If current trends continue the career teacher (or career just-about-anything-else) may soon become an endangered species. The average baby boomer held 10.x8x jobs by the time he or she reached age forty-two, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't even attempt to estimate actual career changing, although some bolder sources estimate three to seven careers per person over a lifetime.13 A highly directive curriculum might well be needed if we assume that most teachers will either be minimally talented or will last in the job only a short time. It might be wise to so teacher-proof the curriculum that the dumbest or newest of teachers can't screw it up too badly. But if we do, we shouldn't expect to retain smart, experienced people.

The final metaphor I'd use to describe the rubrics bandwagon is that of the old Paint-by-Numbers craze of the 1950s. An Internet exhibit remarks: Although many critics saw 'number painting' as a symbol of the mindless conformity gripping 1950s America, paint by number had a peculiarly American virtue. It invited people who had never before held a paintbrush to enter a world of art and creativity. . . . Paint by number functioned as a compromise between genuine creativity and the security of following instructions. Real art began the moment the hobbyist ignored outlines to blend colors, added or dropped a detail, or elaborated on a theme. By doing something that was not art, one could learn what art was.14

As Paint by Numbers was not a bad phenomenon in itself and actually had some virtues, so rubrics should not be scorned. But as with Paint by Numbers, Teaching by Numbers also ends up just tacky if that's as far as we go. Teach by Numbers might be okay if done in moderation with newbies, but don't expect to get many artists to do it. Maybe it's time for a new bandwagon . . . one that good teachers would find inviting.


1. Valerie G. Chapman and M. Duane Inman, A Conundrum: Rubrics or Creativity/Metacognitive

Development?, Educational Horizons 87, 3, 198-202

2. For some thoughts on education bandwagons, see Wade A. Carpenter, "Ten Years of Silver Bullets: Dissenting Thoughts on Education Reform," Phi Delta Kappan 81 (5) (2000): 383–389.

3. At least, that would seem to follow from MacGregor's Theory Y, the Total Quality Management agenda, and the Roman Catholic principle of "subsidiarity" -- that a larger or more powerful agency should not do what a smaller or less influential one can do just as well. See the article on subsidiarity in Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins, and Dermot A. Lane, eds., The New Dictionary of Theology (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1990), 986.

4. The classic work on this theme is Ray Callahan's Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). For more recent thoughts, almost any decent history of education textbook will do.

5. For a readable and insightful study of bureaucracy, with more than a few references to schooling, see James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It (New York: Basic Books, 1991). For a more ideologically driven stance, see Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944). The technicist mindset was analyzed philosophically by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964). Some useful alternatives in education are suggested in my "For Those We Won't Reach" in Educational Horizons 85 (3): 146–155; and for a philosophical basis, see Emmanuel Mounier's Personalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952).

6. Nicely skewered in David V. Hicks, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education (Savage, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield); and Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., Educational Wastelands: The Retreat from Learning in Our Public Schools (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1953/1985).

7. Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880–1990, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).

8. See Joseph W. Newman, America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, 5th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2006); and H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1956).

9. In a noble attempt to find a theoretical or empirical justification for this astonishing piece of intellectual nourishment, social conscience, and spiritual enlightenment, I've spent the past couple of hours surfing the Net. I've found all kinds of instructions, rubrics, and helpful tips on how to make them, and I've found quite a few references to the importance of teacher buy-in. But I have yet to find anything giving a rational argument for the amount of time and effort these teachers are expending. Advocates for this practice are invited to contact me through Educational Horizons, and if your arguments are convincing, I will happily post an apology. As of now, I'd have to say that in thirty-four years of classroom teaching, it's the silliest damn thing I've ever heard of.

10. Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life (New York: Riverhead, 2008).

11. "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," in The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Westwood, N.J.: Barbour & Co., 1961).

12. The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 35.

13. See Bureau of Labor Statistics, Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results From a Longitudinal Survey Summary, available at (200l); http://jobs.lovetoknow. com/Career_Change_Statistics and (2008).

14. Smithsonian National Museum of American History, "The Unfinished Work of Paint by Number, 1960–2001," available at