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.
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.
Diane Ravitch’s blog post this morning reports on a terrible piece of legislation proposed by the North Carolina legislature. The legislature takes two good ideas— career ladders and technology enhanced individualized learning— and corrodes them with two very bad ideas— the notion that teachers are like the wait staff at McDonalds and the notion that public school’s primary purpose is the dispensing of information. Basically, the NC legislature is using technology to put the factory school model on steroids instead of using technology to transform the mission of schools.
The notion of having a career ladder with three tiers is not unlike the structure used in colleges… and having the tiers be labelled “Apprentice/Master/Career”, as proposed in the NC legislation, is supported by research and mirrors what is in place in most school districts across America. Teachers need 3-7 years to learn their craft after which their performance remains at a uniformly high level. Some teachers, who are recruited to serve as “coaches”, are compensated for their expertise and their willingness to assist in evaluations. This is not substantially different from our current arrangement. The typical teacher contract differentiates probationary teachers from teachers who are on continuing contracts and offers a stipend or released time for department heads. It would make sense to me for teachers who achieve continuing contract status to receive a significant bump in pay upon achieving that performance level instead of incrementally advancing in pay over a period of years, a part of the NC legislation. Unlike the NC model, which proposes a 60/30/10 distribution of teachers, I would envision a career ladder model with a 10/70/20 distribution. This mirrors the reality of most districts where roughly 10% of the work force is on probation striving to achieve continuing contract status, 70% of the work force earning a solid middle class wage; and 20% receiving a stipend for coaching or team leadership responsibilities either currently or in the past. This model is based on the fact that most teachers are doing a good-to-excellent job of teaching… a fact that has been substantiated by every method used thus far to evaluate teacher performance.
The notion of using technology to personalize or individualize instruction is one that is happening now… and it’s not all bad… and it isn’t going away. Engaged parents are buying software for their children to help them learn how to read before they enroll in school, how to do well on the tests that public schools use to identify “gifted and talented” children (tests that districts embraced long before Pearson, NCLB or RTTT) and how to acquire skills not offered in public schools (e.g. foreign language, astronomy, etc). Many of these educational software packages are in the form games that are far more interesting than stand-and-deliver instruction and effectively allow the child to progress at their own pace. Disaffected parents— home-schoolers and un-schoolers— are developing DIY education programs for their children using technology. In years past these parents often sent their youngsters to public schools once the content advanced. But as a result of the multitude of on-line courses available, the relentless emphasis on standardized testing in public education, and the expansion of parent networks, more and more parents are homeschooling all the way through high school. Public schools need to find ways to integrate technology into the classroom and individualize learning the same way the commercial software packages an computer games do.
I believe that when those of us who oppose privatization should make it clear we are not rejecting reasonable ideas like career ladders and the use of technology. If we argue against reasonable ideas embedded in unreasonable legislation we play into the notion that we are defenders of the status quo. We need to avoid throwing out babies with the bathwater.
Last Sunday, the NYTimes wrote an editorial praising Attorney General Eric Holder for his remark that “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct” and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division for “…jointly issuing an extensive set of guidance documents, informing school districts of the law and showing them how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory disciplinary policies”. To paraphrase Stephen Covey, the federal government can’t write their way out of problems they behaved their way into. Two examples of bad behavior on the part of the federal government:
- The same government that is decrying schools for criminalizing disciplinary infractions gave full support for putting police in schools to protect children… and the “good guys with guns” have inevitably assumed control when fights occur in school and/or when students engage in the kind of horseplay that might be classified as “criminal”.
- The same government that is decrying schools for zero tolerance programs that disproportionately suspend and expel poor children and minorities supports the public funding for “no excuses” charter schools that expel students for Mickey Mouse offenses and for charter schools that are not open to all students.
- The same government that “…urges schools to train teachers more intensively in classroom management” gives huge grants to Teach For America that places teachers in the classroom with five weeks of training instead of the hands on internships, student teaching, and on-site coaching by professionals that undergraduate teachers typically receive.
If the administration is serious about improving public education and eliminating the effects of suspensions and expulsions, it should increase funding for mental health services and counseling, cease the public funding of “no excuses” charter schools and any charter schools that exclude students based on their previous disciplinary records, and provide more support for publicly funded institutions that train teachers. What you do is far more important than what you say….