"Good-Bye, Teacher…”

By Aaron Barlow

Behavioral psychologist Fred Keller’s essay “Good-Bye, Teacher . . .” appeared in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis in spring 1968. Through it, Keller challenged teachers to experiment, providing his own “Personalized System of Instruction” as an example, and he warned teachers that if they did not start improving their methods, students would bypass them. At the end, he wrote: “I learned one very important thing: the student is always right. He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement. But if we don’t provide them, and provide them soon, he too may be inspired to say, ‘Good-bye!’ to formal education.”

“Soon” has not yet arrived. Yes, effective formal education still has to begin with the student and student needs and possibilities, not with the system, not with the philosophy, not with the method. Yet it does not. In fact, today’s student seems farther away than ever from academic decision making, even as today’s teacher, too, is pushed away.

Although it starts with the student, effective formal education is predicated by the teacher. Not by a facilitator, a lecturer, or a specialist, but by all three, and more, in one body. Because it starts with the student, education has to be guided, inspired, and formulated by those with the most contact with students—and those people, the teachers, need to be provided with the space and power to implement educational processes that do indeed start with real students, not with students in the aggregate or as imagined from an administrative distance.

Over the past forty-five years, Keller’s catchphrase has been twisted, turned from a sly affirmation of the importance of the teacher to a rationale for diminishing the teacher’s role in education. If education starts with the student, why not reduce accent on the teacher? Teachers, after all, cost money and get in the way of “effective,” top-down, quantifiable administration. They have accrued so much power that they can’t even be fired, in many cases, at will.

The erosion of the position of the teacher is evident in increased reliance on contingent faculty whose ability to form long-term relationships with their students is curtailed, in developments in online education that run roughshod over any idea of significant personal interaction between student and teacher, and in attempts by textbook manufacturers to expand into course development far away from the students. It is manifest in the widespread attempt by many administrations to step away from philosophies of shared governance, replacing them with top-down models developed with little input from either teachers or students.

All these concerns—and more—are addressed in the following pages. Helena Worthen explores consequences of the turn to dependence on contingent faculty, as do Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey; Leslie Bary and William Vesterman both discuss the sidestepping of shared governance; and Joe Moxley proposes an alternative to costly textbooks and the encroachment of publishers into curriculum development.

What else to do? Teach well, says Silvio Laccetti. And organize. Rick Perloff shows how this was done twenty years ago at Cleveland State University and how it can be done today on those campuses without union representation.

If we don’t manage to use faculty power to return the student to the center of education, strengthening the teacher’s ability to keep the student at that center, education is going to continue down its road to mechanical process. When that happens, it won’t be students saying, “Good-bye, teacher.” It will be administrators saying it instead, together with those—not students—who stand to gain from the new profit-centered, restricted-entry highway of systematized education.