Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

The Strike in OH

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Late last week I wrote a blog post offering advice to my niece who was about to go on strike in an  unnamed school district in Ohio. I decided NOT to list the name when I wrote the post because I help out some hope that there might be an 11th hour settlement in which case my generally universal concerns about strikes would be applicable. But…

The strike occurred on Friday and over the weekend she— as a parent in the Reynoldsburg School District where the strike is occurring— received the following email (with my emphases added) over the weekend:

Notification from: Reynoldsburg City Schools

Dear Reynoldsburg families,

My administrative team and school principals have spent the weekend adjusting our plans to engage students in learning at school while their teachers are on strike. Although it is understandable, the heightened emotional state and corresponding behavior of some of our older students demands that we structure our school days differently to help everyone focus on academics. Students’ cooperation is absolutely essential. Please review these plans and talk them over with your children ahead of time.

High Schools
At the high schools, we will introduce a highly structured environment until students are more comfortable with the situation and regain their composure. We have reassigned some administrative staff to the high schools in order to facilitate our plans for the next few days. 

  • Students will be greeted on the bus or at the door by an administrator or Reynoldsburg staff member who will escort them in groups of approximately 30 to a classroom, where they will spend the day together.
  • Students will be provided assignments to complete – which will count toward their core course grades. Over the next 1-3 days, all students will receive a laptop and online curriculum. The online work will be much more customized to their individual learning needs.
  • Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to students in their classrooms.
  • Restroom and exercise breaks will be provided on a schedule.
  • Students who are insubordinate will be suspended.
  • Shuttles between the two campuses will be suspended for at least Monday and Tuesday. Students may take a bus home from whichever campus they are on. Students who need to know their home bus assignments will be able to get them from administrators on Monday, but it would be helpful if you looked up your student’s route ahead of time:

In an effort to assist us with our plans for safety, Reynoldsburg police will begin actively enforcing truancy laws on Monday. If you as a parent decide to keep your child out of school for any reason, please keep them home. Students who are causing distractions, especially near any schools, may be taken into custody by police. Police tell us that they will attempt to contact the students’ parents first. If unsuccessful, they plan to take students to Children’s Services until parents can be reached.

Middle/Junior High Schools
Beginning Monday morning, administrative staff will assign students laptops and assist substitute teachers in accessing online curriculum. The software provided will be highly personalized to each student based on their academic needs, so it should seem more relevant and challenging to the students. Students’ work and participation will count toward their grades in core classes. More structure will be introduced where necessary. Students, for example, might not change classes until they are more settled and comfortable. 

Elementary schools
Elementary schools will be the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements until all children can be returned to their regular classrooms. Principals have provided lesson plans for all grade levels and subjects and will focus on ensuring that those plans are being followed. Grades on those assignments will be recorded and turned in to principals. We expect to reintroduce engaging learning activities for students. We are working with some of our long-time partners to bring activities to the schools as soon as this week. 

Despite what you may have read or seen on TV, it is important to know that as I toured buildings on Friday, the first day of the teacher’s strike, there were many students who were highly cooperative and supportive to their peers and substitute teachers. They handled this very confusing situation with the pride and respect that we expect.  

Please understand that my top consideration is the safely and well-being of our students. In a structured environment, we expect to be able to help students acclimate to the situation more quickly so that they do not fall behind academically. We look forward to returning to a more normal schedule as soon as possible. This is a difficult time for everyone and a confusing one for some students. Parents play an important role in making sure that students come to school focused and ready to learn. We urge parents to remind their students that the most important thing they can do during this time is to continue to learn.


Tina Thomas-Manning, Superintendent

I was a school superintendent for 29 years so I have a certain degree of empathy for the position the Superintendent is in. She needs to do everything possible to keep the schools functioning while the strike is going on. I understand the pressure she faces on all fronts.

But I was also an adjunct teacher who trained administrators at a SUNY Graduate School of Education … and in that capacity I offer this feedback to Dr. Thomas-Manning: re-read this memo and look carefully at the messages and meta-messages.

  • Laptop computers can replace high school and middle school teachers. Computers provide students with lessons that are “…much more customized to their individual learning needs” at the high school level and “…more relevant and challenging” at the middle school level,
  • Structure is important. A more structured environment is needed to ensure that students “do not fall behind academically”
  • Elementary education is more important than high school education. Computers won’t be used at the elementary level and elementary schools will receive “…the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements”.
  • Principals can write lesson plans as well as teachers can
  • We’re going to be tough and uncompromising during this strike: We want the police to arrest your child if they are “causing a distraction” during school hours, so you better make certain that if you don’t send them to school that you keep them in your home… and… We will suspend your child if one of our substitute teachers believes your child was “insubordinate”
  • “Community partners” are supporting us in this strike
  • Substitute teachers without certification or training can do as good a job as certified, qualified, and experienced teachers.
  • We’re expecting this to last a while 

Here’s my concern for Dr. Thomas-Manning: the strike WILL end at some point and teachers WILL return to their classes. Re-read this memo, look carefully at the messages and meta-messages, and start working on the message you will deliver when the doors open and the REA teachers return.


All in the Family: Abridged Version

September 13, 2014 Leave a comment

My favorite economics blog, Naked Capitalism, featured a lengthy post by Steve Frasier, an author and blogger for TomDispatch, where his post originally appeared. The post is worth reading if you are interested in the history of the robber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries and how they contrast to the tycoons of today. I’ve cut to the end of the post, where Frasier describes the tycoons of today who want to “up-end the public school system”:

But the tycoons who founded the Street’s most lucrative hedge funds — men like John Paulson, Paul Tudor James II, and Steve Cohen, among others — are also determined to up-endthe public school system.  They are among the country’s most powerful proponents of charter schools.  Like J.P. Morgan of old, these men grew up in privilege, went to prep schools and the Ivy League, and have zero experience with public education or the minorities who tend to make up a large proportion of charter school student bodies.

No matter.  After all, some of these people make several million dollars a day.  What an elixir!  They are joined in this educational crusade by fellow business conquistadors of less imposing social backgrounds like Mark Zuckerberg, who has ensured that Facebook will remain a family domain even while “going public.”  Another example would be Bill Gates, the most celebrated of a brace of techno-frontiersmen who — legend would have it — did their pioneering in homely garages, even though the wonders they invented would have been inconceivable without decades of government investment in military-related science and technology.  What can’t these people do, what don’t they know?  They are empire builders and liberal with their advice and money when it comes to managing the educational affairs of the nation.  They also benefit handsomely from a provision in the tax code passed during the Clinton years that rewards them for investing in “businesses” like charter schools.

Our imperial tycoons are a mixed lot.  They range from hip technologists like Zuckerberg to heroic nerds like Bill Gates, and include yesteryear traditionalists like Sam Walton and the Koch brothers.  What they share with each other and their robber baron ancestors is a god-like desire to create the world in their image. 

As I’ve noted in several posts, some of the motives of some edu-philanthropists are noble… but their reliance on their OWN way of thinking and their perpetuation of the factor school model are doing a grave disservice to public schooling. My advice to the tycoons: listen to the teachers, Principals, and parents of children who struggle in school. They know more than you do about the fixes that are needed.

Governor Brown’s Appeal

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

CA Governor Jerry Brown and AG Kamila Harris are appealing the decision of Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu to abandon tenure in CA as part of his Vergara vs. California lawsuit brought “on behalf of children” by Students Matter, an organization largely underwritten “…by a Silicon Valley technology millionaire, David Welch.” Mr. Welch’s logic is that since the schools serving students raised in poverty perform poorly on standardized tests it MUST be the poor teaching that causes this and the poor teachers are in the classroom because they have “tenure”.

But here’s the problem with the ruling: contrary to the judge’s assertion in rendering his decision it isn’t based on any factual information. Read this paragraph (with my emphasis added) to see where I draw this conclusion:

In a one-page appeal filed late Friday afternoon, Mr. Brown and the state attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, argued that a decision of such scope needed to be made by a higher court, and that the judge in this case had declined a request by the governor and attorney general “to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.” 

Presumably if the judge HAD provided the “detailed statement of the factual and legal basis for the ruling” AND Brown and Harris were convinced the facts and legal basis supported the ruling they might have thought twice about proceeding with an appeal… but absent this analysis, even though the judge claimed the evidence was “compelling” and “shocked the conscience”, the ruling should be challenged.

I am sure it is no accident that the timing of this appeal– which was driven by the timing of the lawsuit– comes as the gubernatorial election is about to begin. I am sure that the billionaire computer magnate figured out that Brown would be forced to either abandon the teachers or “fight against the removal of incompetent teachers” in the coming months. Kudos to Jerry Brown and Kamila Harris for standing up to evidence based decision making!

Teaching Nocera

July 29, 2014 Leave a comment

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…

Changing Gears in Mathematics

July 27, 2014 2 comments

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.

Tests Don’t Measure What’s REALLY Important

May 8, 2014 Leave a comment

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.

TFA’s Link to the 1%

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Naked Capitalism cross-posted an article written by Pruning Shears blogger Dan Fejes describing Teach for America (TFA)’s link to the privatization movement. In the opening of the article he provides a brief description of TFA’s genesis:

(TFA) was a component of the Americorps program created during the Clinton administration, and plugged willing but un- or under-qualified young people into vacant positions in low income schools for two years. Identify schools that need teachers and have energetic, idealistic recent college grads work to make a difference. Sounds great.

Readers of progressive blogs know how it’s turned out: TFA is seemingly joined at the hip with the privatization movement’s leaders and serves as a low wage labor pipeline to staff newly opened privatized charter schools. Fejes’ post concludes with a good synopsis of how the privatization machinery works— and how TFA could avoid feeding the beast:

The model works like this: Mandate standardized testing, use TFA recruits to teach to the test, use the test results to “prove” the effectiveness of TFA, use the TFA pipeline to close schools and fire teachers, and replace both with charters staffed by lower paid, non-union TFA employees. (And please note that charters go tits up with all the orderliness and accountability of Freedom Industries.)

TFA could resist this trend if it wanted. It could refuse to send recruits to districts that have had (or are considering) substantial layoffs. It could offer to send recruits to public schools as assistants instead of replacements, which would be a huge benefit to schools. TFA chooses not to, though, and that speaks volumes. By all accounts it is content with the status quo (content enough not to buck it, anyway). In the absence of a clear and forceful refusal to cooperate, the only reasonable conclusion is that TFA is happy to collaborate with those who view schools as “ecosystems of investment opportunity.”

Because I want to assume the noblest of intentions in leaders, I believe that Wendy Kopp (TFAs founder) was and is sincerely interested in providing teachers for classrooms that serve children raised in poverty and knew that in order to do so she needed capital…. and the only people with capital were “…those who view schools as “ecosystems of investment opportunity”. 

Assuming Ms. Kopp had noble intentions, here’s another scenario that could have provided TFA with the capital it needed: the federal government could have provided grant money.

“Wait!” I hear you saying, “The federal government doesn’t have grant money to hire teachers!”

Here’s my response to that: IF the federal government was truly interested in helping schools who serve children raised in poverty, instead of spending millions on Race to the Top grants, they could have poured money into states with the requirement that they use the money to hire additional teachers for school districts that serve children in poverty and TFA could have staffed those schools and allied themselves with existing teachers’ colleges and/or teachers unions to provide the training. Under this scenario State Departments of Education, State teachers colleges, and local school districts could have all shared in the benefits of the grant money. Of course private corporations who give tests, provide data, and use non-union staff would have suffered… and campaign contributors who believe in market based solutions to every problem would be dismayed… but students attending schools with high concentrations of poverty would have more support and fewer teacher layoffs would have occurred.

As Fejes indicated in his first paragraph, TFA’s basic premise “sounds great”. Too bad the only source of money for the idea that sounded great was the 1%… and too bad that our government decided privatization was the way forward for PUBLIC schools.