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Derailing De-Tracking and Progressive and Experiential Learning by Emphasizing Race, Zero-Sum Thinking

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

The preposterousness of tracking in mathematics became evident to me early in my career as a student. As noted in earlier blog posts, when I moved from the (then) small college town of West Chester, PA to Tulsa OK when I entered fourth grade and back again three years later when I entered 7th grade I witnessed how tracking “works”.  Tulsa’s fourth grade mathematics curriculum was identical to West Chester’s third grade curriculum. Consequently, I did extraordinarily well in math and because of that I was identified as “gifted and talented” and put into an accelerated program when I entered sixth grade. Upon moving back to West Chester, though, I was placed in the second “tier” of classes for mathematics and everything else. There was not only a marked difference in the level of instruction I received, but an even more marked difference in the expectations for our class as a whole. As “gifted and talented” sixth graders in Oklahoma, my classmates and I were inculcated with the idea that our nation’s future was in our hands: we had an obligation to learn as much as possible to compete with the Russians who had launched Sputnik. As a second tier 7th grade student in Pennsylvania, though, the emphasis was on working hard to get a high school degree and doing our assignments neatly, orderly, and on time. Because I liked math and did well in it, I eventually qualified for the first calculus class offered in our high school despite my placement in the second tier in middle school. But in retrospect I did so because my parents assured me I wasn’t a “second tier” student and I had an excellent high school math teacher who was able to find “first tier” students in the “second tier” classrooms. 

The intractability of tracking became evident to me as I worked in and led schools and eventually school districts. In the junior high school where I taught in Philadelphia the students were grouped homogeneously in sections from 8-1 (the “highest” group) to 8-37. In both high schools where I worked as an administrator students were grouped into “College Prep” and “Vocational” sections, a grouping that was presumably based on the choices made by parents and students but reflected the homogeneous grouping in the preceding grades. When I became Superintendent, I worked with Middle Schools in two of the districts I led to abandon homogeneous grouping in Middle Schools. Doing so was a political struggle because both teachers and parents had deeply ingrained notions that it was impossible to change: notions that “ability” was predetermined and immutable and when “high ability” children were mixed with “low ability children” both groups suffered. 

The latest manifestation of that intractability was described in Laura Meckler’s Washington Post article “Can Honors and Regular Students Learn Math Together? A New Approach Argues Yes“. Unlike the debates I had in districts that were almost all White, the latest debates in California have added race to the debate and, in so doing, are engaging voices from the Trump wing of the GOP, voices that add a toxicity to an already contentious debate. Here is Ms. Meckler’s description of the issue:

The California Department of Education is considering a new framework that could affect how millions of students there learn math.

There are two approaches to de-tracking: One advances all students in an “honors-for-all” approach; the other slows the curriculum down for all, arguing this will benefit advanced students by helping them to truly absorb math concepts and build a stronger foundation for advanced work later.

The California framework uses the second approach, but amid intense opposition the recommendations are being revised and softened, recognizing that the tracking is likely to persist.

As is, the framework recommends that all students be mixed into classes together through 10th grade, and that everyone wait until ninth grade to take Algebra 1. Today many advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade or even seventh grade. If adopted, it would be a recommendation, not a mandate. But past recommendations have proved influential.

I would quibble with the idea that having everyone wait to take Algebra 1 until ninth grade is “slowing down” the curriculum for everyone (another long post would be required to explain the rationale for that assertion), particularly since students would have the chance to take advanced mathematics courses in high school if they so desire as Ms. Meckler notes later in her column. I am not at all surprised to read about the pushback the California DOE is getting and how the debate is inevitably entangled with race. 

For me, the notions of “ahead” and “behind” are mental constructs the same way that race is a mental construct. As studies in brain growth are illustrating, neuroplasticity makes it possible for people to change their thinking about deeply ingrained ideas… but only if one is open to new ideas and new possibilities. Studies like those referenced in Ms. Meckler’s article, are only persuasive to those who are willing to believe them.  Old notions, like old paradigms, can only be changed through direct experience and direct experiences like those I had in my formative years as a learner, are hard to replicate at scale. 

The Nexus Between Progressivism and Corporatism Revealed in Decline of the Classics

June 8, 2021 Leave a comment

As one who has long decried the desire of politicians to use post-graduate earnings as a “quality metric” for colleges while advocating for more open enrollments in colleges, I was taken aback by Aaron Sibarium’s article in the Washington Free Beacon that showed the link between these two seemingly opposite stances. In his piece, Mr. Sibarium quotes extensively from University of Tulsa’s Classics professor Jacob Howland who elaborates on the link between “wokeness and corporatism”. Noting that the classics, particularly language offerings in Greek and Latin, are on the decline in colleges across America at the same time as business-related courses are on the rise, Howland offers some insights on the relationship between those two phenomena: 

The justifications reflect dueling accounts of what ails classical education, which has experienced sharp declines in enrollment since the 1970s. One narrative attributes this attrition to identity politics and postmodernism, which killed classics by demonizing the “dead white men” who wrote them. The other centers on corporatization and careerism, with students ditching the humanities for majors that promised marketable skills.

These accounts aren’t mutually exclusive, though, but rather two sides of the same story—one in which economic and political pressures worked in tandem to hollow out the humanities.Fields such as classics are facing a “monstrous alignment of corporate and ideological incentives” that push in the same direction, said Jacob Howland, a classicist at the University of Tulsa. Slashing requirements makes majors easier and, in certain cases, more consonant with progressive sensibilities, drawing in just enough students to keep the liberal arts afloat. It also appeases activists pushing for changes within the liberal arts, which give those fields cover to pursue their own institutional self-interest.

This nexus of incentives has been strengthened by developments in the business world. Large corporations have embraced the ideological outlook of universities, Howland noted—so, by doubling down on that outlook, universities are effectively preparing students for jobs at large corporations.

Later in the article Mr. Sibarium promotes a position analogous to that of Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Proposal whereby all students would be enrolled in a classically-based curriculum for all students that had no elements of job training. In doing so, he shunned the notion that various liberal arts programs needed to water down their standards to “market themselves” to progressive-minded students who don’t want to read books by “dead white men” while also shunning the notion that schools should offer only those courses that lead to high paying careers. 

Here’s my takeaway: the “woke curriculum” and the “career curriculum” ARE opposite sides of the same coin… but the real question for educators— AND the real focal point of education— is this: what it the coin itself made of? 

 

Boosting Teachers Wages to Six Figures Makes an Eye-Catching Headline… But Doing So Would Show that Working Conditions Matter Even More

May 29, 2021 Comments off

The eye-catching headline in yesterday’s NYTimes op ed piece by Colette Coleman read “In a Post-Covid World, Let’s Pay Teachers Six Figures“… and Ms. Coleman does an admirable job of making the case for such a pay boost. Using then Presidential candidate Kamala Harris’ pledge to boost every teachers’ salary by $13,500 at a Texas Southern campaign rally as a springboard, Ms. Coleman makes a reasonably compelling case for an even MORE substantial pay increase. But Ms. Coleman is well aware of the reality that money alone will not matter:

…My dissatisfaction and that of many other former teachers extended beyond compensation. Attracting and retaining highly qualified educators will also require, for instance, improvements in working conditions. Meaningful raises are a strong start, though…

In my 29 years as a school superintendent, I worked in districts that paid teachers in the lower quartile, districts that paid teachers in the upper quartile, and concluded my career in an interstate district comprised of two districts that were among the highest in the state. Here’s what I learned from that experience:

  • Some teachers, including some of the very best I witnessed, were place bound. In some cases they worked in towns they grew up in and in others they worked in communities who valued them. These teachers were not motivated by compensation and they had no thought of leaving for more pay under any circumstances. Their soul-level connection with their schools was not for sale.
  • I can think of only a handful of teachers who left a tenured position based solely on salary.
  • I can attest to the fact that scores of teachers sought jobs in “prestige” districts with high base pay based on their sense of community support for schools in those districts, their desire to teach high-performing students, and, most importantly, their desire to work with a faculty who values continuous improvement.
  • I can also attest to the fact that districts with limited resources cannot contemplate offering professional development opportunities or a wide array of clubs or elective opportunities when they are putting their budgets together. This lack of resources leads to a vicious circle of teacher discouragement. When budgets are fought over year-after-year teachers are constantly fearful that their jobs are in jeopardy, their poor working environment will be even worse in the future, and any thoughts of professional growth funded by the local district are impossible to conceive. This was driven home to me when I left a relatively affluent New England community for a middle-tier district in Maryland. In the affluent community that had 3600 students sabbatical leaves were part of the community culture and, therefore, multiple sabbatical leaves were part of the collective bargaining agreement and built into the budget. They were, in effect, a “given”. By the end of their teaching careers virtually any teacher in that district who sought a sabbatical had received one. The district in Maryland serving 19,000 students, on the other hand, had language for a single sabbatical that would be issued in accordance with a procedure devised by the board— a procedure that was opaque and complicated. Many teachers in that district retired without ever crossing paths with ANYONE who had received a sabbatical. It is no surprise that the ethos of professional development was different in those two districts and the conversations in faculty rooms was also different.

The things that teachers value more than wages often cannot be bought and are often not even brought to the forefront in conversations about teaching as a profession. But here’s a way Kamala Harris and Joe Biden could leverage tremendous change in the working conditions for teachers: instead of providing $13,500 per year in wages for teachers, provide each district with $1,000 per staff member for professional development and invite the school board, teachers representatives, and administrators determine how to use those funds to support improved instruction in the classroom. It’s a cheaper solution than increasing wages but I believe it will leverage more change than an across the board raise…. and it will compel boards, teachers, and administrators to focus on a positive topic. That is unless the teachers believe that seminars on Critical Race Theory would benefit them the most.

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