Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

NYTimes Article on Teacher Shortages Doesn’t Dig Deep Enough

August 11, 2015 1 comment

Mokoto Rich’s article in Monday’s NYTimes, Teacher Shortages Spur a Nationwide Hiring Scramble“, misses the mark on three points: it’s too narrowly focused; it fails to call out the impact of “reform” on the desirability of teaching as a profession; and if overlooks the possibility that this shortage presents an opportunity for colleges and States to re-think the path to a teaching career.

Rich’s article focuses exclusively on California, which has the worst decline in teacher preparation program enrollments…. but hardly the only one. According to Steven Sawchuck’s 2014 article in Education Week decline in enrollments is a national phenomenon, with vitally every state in the union affected.

Rich also links the decline too the economic problems schools have encountered without addressing the drastic change in the teaching profession that occurred in response to the RTTT “reform boom” that happened afterward. The Education Week article didn’t shy away from that topic, noting that “reforms” like the elimination of tenure, the emphasis on robotic teaching-to-the-test, and the lowering of wages, benefits and working conditions. The political environment in schools doesn’t help either, as this paragraph from the Education Week article indicates:

If an uncertain economy is one likely explanation for the drop, analysts also point to other, less tangible causes: lots of press around changes to teachers’ evaluations, more rigorous academic-content standards, and the perception in some quarters that teachers are being blamed for schools’ problems.

Finally, neither Rich nor Sawchuck see an opportunity in this crisis: teacher credential programs could become two-year paid positions that would not only help prospective teachers pay for their college degrees but also serve as a means of providing in-the-classroom experiences that would be far more valuable that any college class. I know I learned more in my student teaching experience than I ever learned in any undergraduate or graduate class… and I daresay anyone who you talk with about their experience in teacher training would echo this sentiment.

So, CA, take the advice from an old Apple computer ad: think different… and as for the Times, dig a little deeper before you write your net article: look up “teacher certification enrollments” in Google… you might find out that your articles that echo the reform sentiment that “bad teachers are the problem” is contributing to the problem.

Nonsensical “No Nonsense Nurturing”

August 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Daily Beast blogger John Warner describes a new canned classroom management system called “No Nonsense Nurturing”… a method that sounds like it was made up by the writers of The Onion. The “No Nonsense Nurturing is described in an aptly titled post “Public Schools to Teachers: Run Your Class on Fear or Get Fired“. Teachers first receive training and then are coached in real time by observers who give directions the same way a coach gives orders to a quarterback on the field. Amy Berard, a teacher who was coached in the method, wrote a blog post on her experiences that Warner recounted in his post:

As my students entered the room, I was supposed to say: “In seats, zero talking, page 6 questions, 1-4.” I don’t even talk to my dog like that. Constant narration of what the students are doing is also key to the NNN teaching style. “Noel is finishing question 3. Marjorie is sitting silently. Alfredo is on page 6.”

But Berard’s application of the method displeased her observers. She expressed too much enthusiasm. She started injecting “I see” into her observations, (“I see Victor is on page 6.”), and was told to return to “is.” Seeing through the B.S., Berard’s students began mocking the method, turning it around: “Mrs. Berard is helping Christian.” “Mrs. Berard is reviewing the answer to question 4.”

In the end, Amy Berard’s own students implored her to “just be herself.”

Warner laments how this “no nonsense” approach, which is less algorithmically applied in most classrooms since the focus is on passing standardized tests, has affected students in his college classroom:

I see the results in my college classroom, where students increasingly arrive drained of curiosity and enthusiasm, waiting to be told exactly what to do and how to do it so they can jump through the next hoop, and the next.

They are anxious, and depressed. They have a hard time articulating their own goals and desires.

And these are the success stories.

But Warner also notes that this method of  “teacher proof” instruction where fear is used to motivate students is favored by the reformers who value results on tests more than the development of curiosity or the desire to learn:

Somewhere along the line, the school reform movement decided that fear would be their governing value. We will be afraid that students aren’t learning. We will be afraid that teachers aren’t teaching. The reformers are now so desperate, that they’re repackaging fear as nurturing.

To overcome this fear, we embrace these systems, things we can control, without questioning if those things we can control really have value. Standardized testing begets standardized instruction, which squeezes out electives like art, music, dance, which begets bored and disengaged students, which requires programs oriented around compliance and control.

Here’s the worst part. Even when these programs “work” and raise student achievement on these standardized metrics, they are harmful.

He concludes by noting that these methods are used predominantly in low income “failing” schools and seldom applied in the private schools where the children of “reformers” or affluent parents attend:

We also cannot help but notice that these systems are exclusively visited upon poor and minority school districts, where precious dollars are funneled to consultants and training, rather than teachers and teaching.

You will not find No Nonsense Nurturing at Sidwell Friends where President Obama’s daughters attend, or Lakeside in Seattle where Bill Gates sends his children.

Those schools treat their teachers as what they are: professionals. They recognize learning for what it is, a process that must be at least a little bit messy if it is going to be meaningful, where beginning teachers get better by working closely with those who are more experienced.

Warner concludes with this gloomy description of the teaching profession:

I cannot think of another profession that is treated more poorly—that is subject to so much counterproductive oversight and monitoring—as teaching. A teacher working with students while wearing an in-ear monitor should be something out of a dystopia, not a real-life classroom.

Teaching is not algorithmic, students are not empty repositories waiting to have knowledge poured into them, and schools re not factories whose output can be measured by test scores. The sooner we disabuse ourselves of this kind of thinking the sooner we will get life back in our classrooms.

Wrongheaded Metrics in Surgery Mirror Those Used in Public Education

July 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Giving Doctors Grades“, an op ed article in today’s NYTimes by Sandeep Jauhar, describes the consequences of using simplistic metrics to determine the effectiveness of a complex operation: heart surgery. In the early 1990s, NYS decided to issue “Report Cards” to surgeons in an effort to provide easy-to-understand information on the ability of various medical practitioners. The result?

(T)he report cards backfired. They often penalized surgeons, like the senior surgeon at my hospital, who were aggressive about treating very sick patients and thus incurred higher mortality rates. When the statistics were publicized, some talented surgeons with higher-than-expected mortality statistics lost their operating privileges, while others, whose risk aversion had earned them lower-than-predicted rates, used the report cards to promote their services in advertisements.

This was an insult that the senior surgeon at my hospital could no longer countenance. “The so-called best surgeons are only doing the most straightforward cases,” he said disdainfully.

This sounded VERY familiar to me… and I left the following comment:

This wrongheaded method of measuring the performance of surgeons is analogous to the “Value Added” evaluation methods promoted by “school reformers” and adopted by Arne Duncan, Andrew Cuomo, the Regents, and host of other governors and State Boards. The standardized test scores used to “measure” teacher performance mirror the economic standing of the parents. Consequently teachers who choose to work with the most challenging students, like the surgeons who tackle the riskiest cases, could lose their jobs. Grading schools using test scores only serves to humiliate the entire faculty who choose to work with children raised in poverty. Both of these failed metrics have one thing in common: they are attempts to bring mathematical precision to fields of endeavor that are crafts more than sciences.

The notion that service organizations should be run like businesses leads to the need for “precise” metrics like mortality rates and VAM to be used in lieu of “the bottom line” so revered by businessmen. But service enterprises do not provide neat and tidy outcomes: they defy the kinds of measures that can be used to develop “stack ratings” or “grades” because they serve individuals who have different backgrounds, temperaments, and physical compositions. The desire to reduce everything to a single number to rank employees using some kind of “objective criteria” is ultimately a means to replacing the judgement of human managers with algorithms. It has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future— unless the future is led by robots.

Fairborn, OH, Loses a Committed and Dedicated Teacher. Somewhere in Ohio An Affluent District Would Welcome Him

July 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Valerie Strauss’ turned over her Washington Post Answer Sheet blog to Scott Ervin, a Fairborn OH third grade teacher who outlined his reasons for quitting as a third grade teacher after 15 years. From his description of his work ethic and dedication to working with the most challenging students in a school that serves children raised in poverty I am confident that there is an affluent school district within driving distance that will be happy to hire him… and in that district Mr. Ervin won’t have to put up with Ohio’s laws that pertain to “failing schools”. As I wrote in an essay published in Education Week several years ago, this is the form of “merit pay” that is already in place in public education.

I base my assertion that Mr. Ervin could land a job in an affluent district on my experience as the former Superintendent of an affluent district in NH surrounded by several districts that had “failing schools” full of dedicated teachers, some of whom would jump into our applicant pools whenever we had an opening. Why? Because they knew that teachers in our district did not have to worry about test results because our students scored at the high end of the bell curve and their year-to-year performances never put the school in jeopardy of failing. Mr. Ervin’s experience brought to mind a teacher we recruited from a nearby district to work with students who were not eligible for special education services but did require one-on-one attention because of their inability to “fit” in the classrooms. Through behavioral interventions we were able to provide these students with the support they needed to do the kind of independent work teachers assigned and parents expected. Such a position was affordable in our district in two respects. First, we had the resources to pay for the position (though it was questioned whenever we needed to consider budget cuts) and second, we did not have to devote any resources to “test preparation”.

I consulted in financially strapped areas of the state after I retired in 2011 and worked in many under-resourced school districts in the pre-NCLB era. In less affluent districts after NCLB the focus was on avoiding designation as a School In Need of Improvement (a “SINI” status) or, as happened over time, working to get out of a SINI designation. The SINI focus meant that every class was dedicated to preparing for the NECAP, the standardized test used to determine whether a school was “failing” or “succeeding”. Many of the administrators and teachers I worked with thought the use of tests to measure their schools was preposterous but they all accepted it as a “given” and worked tirelessly to get enough of their students over the NECAP “cut score” so that their school could get out of the SINI status…. but the practical reality was that even when the school was out of the SINI status it was still obsessed with maintaining that status by, you guessed it, doing well on the next round of NECAPS. I found this vicious cycle astonishing and completely wrongheaded since I had spent seven years in a district that effectively paid no attention to NECAP scores. I also saw that the focus on NECAP scores took time away from the focus on what was most important: the cultivation of the love of learning and the ability of students to work independently on projects that interested them. The obsession with testing was taking the joy out of school for students as well as teachers.

I hope Mr. Ervin continues to teach and has applied to districts in his region that are not “failing” and that a Superintendent in Ohio reads Mr. Ervin’s post, looks through their applicant pool, and invites Mr. Ervin in for an interview. He may be good enough to merit a job in that district… THAT’s the kind of “merit pay” we have in America today.

The Contingent Workforce: The Future Direction for Public Schools?

July 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Over the past four decades there has been a trend in employment in our country: corporations, in an effort to improve their bottom line have moved away from full-time employees in the direction of “contingent workers”. An article in todays NYTimes by Noam Scheiber titled “Rising Economic Insecurity Tied to Decades Long Trend in Employment Practices” describes how this shift played out in corporate America this way:

Far-flung business units were sold off. Many other activities — beginning with human resources and then spreading to customer service and information technology — could be outsourced. The corporate headquarters would coordinate among the outsourced workers and monitor their performance.

The article described at length how this shift was advantageous for some highly skilled workers whose talents enabled them to earn high wages while working flexible hours. But it downplayed the impact on unskilled employees whose work was scheduled “efficiently” to help the corporations achieve a higher level of profit while viewing their labor as easily replaceable. And here’s the rub: as technology advances more and more iterative jobs will be eliminated and more and more unskilled laborers will be marginalized. Worse, as technology advances, so-called “robots” will be able to perform more and more tasks that now require “skilled” workers, further diminishing the workforce. Those “robots” may take the form of DIY devices like ATMs and scanners that enable shoppers to replace check-out clerks or may be literal robots that take orders and deliver food at restaurants replacing the waitstaff.

Public education has not been exempt from the outsourcing phenomenon. Just as the organization of schools mirrored the corporate organizations in place through the 1950s, today’s schools, particularly larger school districts, are moving toward the corporate models when it comes to the provision of support services. It is not unusual for a school district to outsource food services, custodial services, maintenance, technology support, bussing, payroll, and a wide array of testing programs. All of the jobs associated with these services were once staffed by school district employees who resided in the district and willingly paid taxes to support their local schools. Once the jobs were outsourced, however, the employees no longer had an allegiance to the school district and no longer had the assurances that their jobs would be secure.

Until the past decade or so, teachers have been exempt from this outsourcing phenomenon… but no more. One of the results of NCLB and RTTT is the “takeover” of “failing schools” by non-government organizations who, in many cases, were staffed by uncertified college graduates who could provide the iterative instruction needed to improve test scores which are the primary metric used to determine the effectiveness of schools. And here’s the rub: as teaching-to-the-test increases the skill level required by a teacher diminishes and the availability of on-line instruction increases. This vicious cycle mirrors what is happening in corporate America… and the results have not been beneficial for employees or children.

I believe there is a way out of this cycle for public education. If schools embrace the opportunity to use on-line instruction to provide iterative instruction and demand that teachers use their talents and skills to diagnose individual student needs, to counsel students, and to provide the “soft” skills that cannot be measured by standardized tests but are critically important in our democratic society they can emphasize the craft of teaching  and provide teachers with the same opportunities (and wages) that skilled workers receive in the “contingent economy”. If teaching is reduced to training students to pass tests, however, teachers will quickly become as replaceable as Walmart employees and burger flippers.

Solving Big Data’s Big Dilemma in Public Education

June 25, 2015 Leave a comment

As noted in many previous posts, public schools have been collecting massive amounts of data on individual students for decades… data that has been stored in stuffed file folders and various generations of microfiche and computer formats. This inconvenient and inconsistent method of data collection made it impossible to use group data to determine the effectiveness of teaching methods, to track an individual student’s learning, or to do systematic research in education.

The advent of cloud storage, the adoption of uniform learning standards, and the extensive use of standardized tests makes it possible to gather and analyze data systematically. This should be nothing but good news for teachers and parents… but as we’ve seen with the NSA, data collection has a dark side as well. Recent articles in the NYTimes and Atlantic describe the dilemma researchers and practitioners face in making use of the data that is now available: the reluctance of parents to have information about their children stored on line.

The Times article, “When Guarding Student Data Endangers Valuable Research” looks at the Data Dilemma from the research angle. As the writer Susan Dynarski notes, the data gathered is invaluable:

Educators parse this data to understand what is working in their schools. Advocates plumb the data to expose unfair disparities in test scores and graduation rates, building cases to target more resources for the poor. Researchers rely on this data when measuring the effectiveness of education interventions.

Noting that despite the fact that no one has hacked into the student data and despite the fact the student data is not a likely target for marketers, many legislators are proposing laws that would hamstring the efforts of researchers to draw on the data to gain a better understanding of what works and the efforts of teachers to use the data to personalize instruction. To use a phrase of one of my colleagues in Maryland, the legislators are using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. Her solution to this is to provide the Department of Education with the ability “…to impose serious penalties on districts and states as soon as they are found to have violated privacy regulations” noting that “…the states, districts and the courts then need to do the hard work of enforcing laws that protect student privacy.”  A noble idea, but a non-starter in Congress who, even if they passed such a law to pacify indignant parents, would fail to provide the funding for enforcement.

The Atlantic article by Andrew Giambrone describes one way to solve this data dilemma. Given the government’s seeming inability to deal with this problem, and the given the demand for data analytics on the part of schools (e.g. a 2012 survey of educational professionals indicated that 80% of the respondents “…believed analytics would become more important in the future”), developing an acceptable means of defining appropriate use of data may fall to local districts working with eager vendors. Giambrone describes how this is happening across the country… and it calls to mind a Ted Sizer quote I used frequently: “How does change occur in education? Slowly, Carefully, and All At Once”. His concluding paragraphs underscore why the systematic collection of student data is a good idea… and why this change will happen slowly and carefully:

Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, a New York-based company that develops adaptive-learning tools, says a lot of student data is going to waste right now; rather than being forgotten at the end of each school year or semester, it could be harnessed responsibly to drive learning outcomes. His company tracks students’ proficiencies across a variety of subjects, but will not share that information—even with teachers—unless explicitly authorized to do so by a student’s legal guardians.

“If you’re going to touch people’s data, it’s very important that the benefits be clear,” he explains. “‘Why should I let you collect my data? The benefits are fantastic? Now you have to reassure me you’re going to use it in a way I’m comfortable with.’”

Like Ferreira, I am convinced that reams of student data is going to waste.. but like the majority of parents, I am not yet comfortable with the way the data could and might be shared. That will take some time.


Let’s Test Teachers, Too!

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

I read with dismay Elizabeth Harris’ article in today’s NYTimes titled “Tough Tests for Teachers, With a Question of Bias”. The article describes a nascent movement to require that teachers pass rigorous tests in order to get licensure. The article outlines the pros and cons of testing and indicates the racial disparity in the Praxis test results, and offers this paragraph as rebuttal to the critic of teacher testing:

But many public education officials view rigorous entrance requirements as crucial to improving student performance and ensuring a qualified teaching force in the face of uneven preparation programs. In a court document, an expert defending the ALST on behalf of the state is quoted as saying, “The purpose of a teacher licensure test is to protect the public from incompetent teachers.”

It has been four years since I was a Superintendent, but in the 29 years I served in that capacity I can only think of a handful of my colleagues who saw the Praxis test or tests like it as being a valid means of measuring teacher competence. Testing IS cheap and fast means of determining a candidate’s knowledge base of general content, but it was never clear to me that the general knowledge base required for physical education, secondary science, kindergarten, and art had much in common. Moreover, I had at least two instances where we hired a teacher who did extraordinary work as a substitute in the district on the condition that they pass the Praxis tests only to find ourselves releasing them when they could not pass the test: one was a PE teacher and the other was a Special Education teacher. Alas, the talents– the “competence”— they brought to the classroom were immeasurable by a pencil and paper test but I’m sure an expert in the State department and the State Board members slept well knowing they had protected the public from an “incompetent teacher”.