Joe Nocera’s NYTimes column today is titled “Teaching Teaching“, the provides an overview of a forthcoming book by Elizabeth Green. Ms. Green’s book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone),” talks about efforts underway to improve the teaching of teachers. The book emphasizes that teaching is a skill that can be taught and SHOULD be taught effectively before a teacher is assigned to a class of students. The article has three flaws, which I hope to address with three separate comments.
First, the article does not mention the contradictory and wrongheaded approach to teacher training being taken by the “reformers”, who want to deregulate teaching and eliminate certification. This, when combined with the overemphasis on standardized tests, leads new teacher to teach-to-the-test instead of meeting the needs of each student.
Secondly, Nocera’s article makes no mention of the need for aspiring teachers, and ESPECIALLY aspiring urban teacher, to learn behavior management skills. Until and unless a teacher can control student behavior in a classroom nothing will be learned.
Finally, Nocera’s list of best education books of the past few years does not include Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch…
Todday’s NYTimes Magazine features an article by Elizabeth Green titled “Why Do Americans Stink At Math?”, an article well worth reading because it provides a good description of what it would take to make Americans perform at a higher level but an article that underemphasizes or overlooks some of the subtle reasons that contribute to our deficiencies.
Ms. Green contrasts the Japanese methods of teaching mathematics with those used in the US, focussing on Akihiko Takahashi, an education reformer from Japan, and Takeshi Matsuyama, an elementary teacher affiliated with a university-based lab school who was his mentor. Together, they transformed mathematics instruction in Japan. Like Deming before them, Takahashi and Matsuyama implemented the recommendations of US experts, recommendations that our country rejected because they did not fit the hierarchical “factory model” of management that blinds us to new and different ways of thinking. Surprisingly Ms. Green overlooked the parallel to Deming’s experience, which mirrored that of Takahashi and Matsuyama and continues to limit our ability to innovate.
Ms. Green also contrasts the Japanese method of teacher training, which is ongoing and organic, with the virtual absence of training in our country. Instead of stand-alone workshops or the accumulation of graduate credits, Japanese teachers engage in “lesson study”, which is time provided for teachers to meet and discuss their teaching methods and to observe each other’s instruction. But she fails to emphasize the funding that would be required to provide the time needed for teachers to have the time for lesson study nor does she note that shift in thinking that would be required to move away from our credential-based method of measuring teacher learning, a method that is often based on seat time.
As one who led school districts from 1980 through 2011 I saw two other factors that Ms. Green overlooked or underemphasized: our country’s obsession with standardized tests and the unwillingness of parents and school boards to accept “non-traditional ways” of teaching mathematics and scheduling teacher time.
Ms. Green described how the emphasis on standardized tests reinforced “traditional” methods of teaching when she noted that while “…lesson study (in Japan)is pervasive in elementary and middle school, it is less so in high school where the emphasis is on cramming for college entrance exams”. In our country, the emphasis is on cramming for examinations from the very outset… and that emphasis is deleterious. Especially since to date, standardized tests have NOT measured the kinds of mathematics instruction valued by NCTM: they have focussed on the “skills” traditionally taught to parents and school board members, skills that are easy to test (see yesterday’s post for evidence of this).
Ms. Green made no mention of how any effort to introduce “non-traditional” methods of mathematics instruction meets with resistance from parents who complain that “they can’t help their children with homework” because they “don’t understand” the work assigned. And when that attitude is combined with our obsession with test scores, if the scores don’t jump immediately the “new math” books are soon be abandoned in favor of the worksheets that match the tested curriculum and the meme about the “failure of new mathematics” is reinforced.
School boards not only face resistance from parents, they also face budget challenges, which can pose the biggest obstacle to introducing innovation. When administrators contemplate the implementation of something akin to “lesson study” they need to hire additional staff to provide release time for teachers to engage in such a program. One way to provide more release time is to increase class sizes (Japan has much larger class sizes than the US), a recommendation that flies in the face of conventional wisdom in the US and meets resistance from teachers as well as parents.
Finally, as noted repeatedly in this blog, we need to stop thinking of our schools as factories that pour information into students who progress along an assembly line in lockstep based on their age and whose progress is measured by standardized tests and hours spent in the classroom. The bottom line: until we stop thinking of our schools as factories we will see no meaningful change or improvement.
Charles Blow’s op ed piece in today’s NYTimes, “In College, Nurturing Matters“, describes the impact college professors had on Charles Blow as attended Grambling College a few decades ago. He described the professor who read his essay aloud in class that earned him the applause of his classmates, the professors who encouraged him at every turn as he progressed through college, and the six measures of college experience that dramatically increased the probability that graduates would “have a strong sense of well-being and engagement at work”. Those measures, drawn from a survey conducted by Purdue University, were:
• (Having) at least one professor at [College] who made me excited about learning.
• (Having) professors at [College] (who) cared about me as a person.
• (Having) a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.
• (Working) on a project that took a semester or more to complete.
• (Having) an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom.
• (Being) extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending [College].
I read Charles Blow’s column today through two lens: David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book I am listening to as I drive to consulting assignments and my dismay at the over-emphasis on standardized achievement tests as the ultimate metric for measuring teacher, student, and school achievement.
The David and Goliath chapter I just listened to talked about the Big Fish in the Little Pond phenomenon, which describes why is it often more advantageous for someone who is a strong student to attend a less prestigious school than a larger and more prestigious university. The reasons almost matched the list above because invariably the stronger students get the full attention of professors and greater opportunities and if a student is in the lower half of the top 1% (e.g. a student in the lower third of an Ivy League school or MIT) they will not get as much attention as a student in the upper half of the top 40% (e.g. a student in the top third of a State college). I have to believe that Charles Blow could have gotten in to a “brand” college or university, but I think Gladwell would assert that Blow was better off at a small college where he could get the kind of attention he received as an undergraduate at Grambling.
The second thing that struck me as I read Blow’s column was that the qualities of college that result in graduates possessing “…a strong sense of well-being and engagement at work” cannot be measured through the use of the standardized achievement tests that are the ultimate metric used by “school reformers”. That led me to enter the following comment:
The “school reform” movement’s emphasis on standardized tests as a means of measuring good teachers completely overlooks whether a teacher gets students excited about learning, whether a teacher cares about students as individuals, and whether teachers are good mentors to students. The emphasis on testing also undervalues any assignments or projects that take more than a semester to complete. Schools also tend to reserve internships for a select group of students and completely overlook the embedded learning that takes place when students work part time. And last but not least, when schools need to cut the budget to provide I-pads to take on-line multiple choice tests the first thing to go are “frills” like extra-curricular activities and field trips. In our fevered desire to boost scores on tests that are given once a year we have sucked the life out of our schools. Is it any wonder our students are disengaged?
In our passion to reduce the measurement of schooling to a mathematical formula we have completely overlooked the human dimension of school… and in so doing we are taking the joy and soul out of our schools, out of our youth, and out of childhood.