Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.
In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.” I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.
That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.
As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.
And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!
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.
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:http://www.reyn.org/Transportation.aspx
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 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.
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!
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.