Monthly Archives: July 2014

Education Schools: Prescriptive Training and Academic Freedom

I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on ed school, when someone retweeted Peter Sipe’s op ed about his ed school training, which he went through at the same time his wife went through med school.

It’s a good piece that accurately captures, not caricatures, graduate ed school (the only type I’m discussing). My ed school did not make us throw around a medicine ball. I recall posters and drawings and gingerbread men.

But I part ways with the second half of Sipe’s article, and our difference characterizes an important philosophical conflict in teacher training.

The difference begins and ends here: “The thing is — and it’s the thing that still bugs me — I don’t recall learning how to do anything.”

Ed schools, the complaint goes, want their teachers to “reflect” on their philosophy and methods, but don’t teach the “hows” and the “what’s”. I find this charge to be somewhat misguided. While most ed schools don’t spend a lot of class time on these topics, they require apprenticeships in the form of student teaching where plenty of hows and whats are discussed. Leave aside the issue of the quality of student teaching experiences for the minute. Ed schools as currently designed explicitly allow for teachers to experiment with the hows and the whats. But yes, ed schools do not mandate a specific list.

A second charge against ed schools is their lack of academic freedom. Ed schools are disastrous and keep FIRE in business, say the critics, because the “teacher dispositions” criteria allows them to expel anyone who just, well, doesn’t have the personality or the right qualities to be a teacher, providing a convenient tool to reject or expel students lacking the correct ideology.

So ed schools are insufficiently prescriptive on technique and overly prescriptive on political ideology.

But wouldn’t prescriptive teacher training decrease academic freedom?

As Paul Bruno observes, both reformers and progressives argue that teachers should be more like lawyers and doctors. But law schools and med schools aren’t exactly bastions of academic inquiry and experimentation. Peter Sipe’s wife spent all her free time memorizing madly. Law and medicine have huge bodies of knowledge, and candidates don’t get to challenge the professors or argue about the necessity of given approaches and techniques.

In ed school, teachers are actually encouraged to examine approaches and try them out. Paradoxically, despite the legitimate complaints about ideological demands, ed schools grant teachers far more academic and intellectual freedom than law and medical schools do (at least in their early years), and are in that sense more like MBAs. Think of ed school as the equivalent to the last year of law or medical training, when students have demonstrated mastery of the basics and encouraged to explore options and specialize. (this is necessarily simplified, I know). In ed school, the content knowledge tests are “the basics” and we demonstrated that competency as an admissions requirement. From that point, all we have to do is explore options, find our identities as teachers, develop an education philosophy.

So why is ed school so open-ended? And here we come to the issue that has plagued education policy since its inception: teaching doesn’t have an extensive body of knowledge. It never has. The profession has no best practices. I started to expand on this, but really, it’s best to just read David Labaree. I may put some more thoughts down in a second post, whenever it arises. For now, even those who disagree with this assertion would not dispute the lack of agreement about best practices.

Given the lack of any accepted body of knowledge, any attempt to put a stake in the ground is necessarily ideological. .

As an example, consider an ed school that mandates one particular set of hows and whats: Relay Graduate School of Education. (Facts pulled from various places but mostly here)

Charter schools that can’t or won’t hire credentialed teachers hire college graduates who are then shuttled through an alternate certification program while they teach. Back in 2005, Norman Atkins of Northstar and David Levin of KIPP decided they could eliminate the middle man. Rather than using alternative credential programs, they built their own program. They began by running their program through a university (Teacher U), but it was pretty clearly their goal from the start to have their own ed school.

Relay’s teacher “trainees” are put through a largely scripted curriculum, the instructors often literally reading from a script. The program is “competency based” (critics would say bereft of theory or any intellectual exercise).

I put “trainees” in quotes because Relay students aren’t actually training. They’re teaching, usually at a charter school, often KIPP, ACHIEVE, or Uncommon Schools. Students must be full time elementary or middle school teachers—that is, students must have obtained a teaching job without a credential, which limits their hiring pool almost entirely to charters. They can only graduate when they have demonstrated that their students make a full year of academic progress—which again, limits their hiring pool to schools that will boot absentee kids, troublemakers, and unmotivated low achievers.

Is Relay using an accepted body of knowledge? No. They don’t claim to–and in some cases, they are using the same content that ed schools would use anyway. Does Relay have a research base to prove its effectiveness? No. Were Relay’s methods developed to enforce a strong ideological bias about education? Yes. Relay’s ideological canon includes notions like test scores are the only accurate measure of effective teaching (not a given at all) , that more time on task is equivalent to more learning, that rigid control is essential for effective teaching, that effective schools must have uniform education philosophies, and that teachers and schools can and should make behavior demands of low income children and parents as a condition of their education, to name just a few.

Could Relay’s techniques be used to educate all teachers? Oh hell no. Relay’s techniques are designed for mid-ability, low income black and Hispanic children in elementary and middle school whose parents are desperate to remove them from schools that aren’t allowed to expel troublemakers. In return for a guarantee of expelled troublemakers, the parents sign up for all sorts of commitments and expectations that parents with any other choice would laugh at. And Relay’s methods won’t work without that anvil hanging over the kids’ heads. Or, as I said in my last post, white kids don’t do KIPP.

Leaving aside the parents, a significant chunk of the potential teaching population would never sign up for Relay’s ideology. As just one example: Relay provides videos of what it considers exemplary teaching—most of them from Doug Lemov, whose taxonomy drives a lot of Relay’s methods. (at the link, look for Strong Voice, Transitions, or Supportive something or other, as examples. Or check out Doug Lemov’s videos).

Regular teachers often find these exemplaries…..unconvincing. My terms range from “flatly incompetent” to “pretty damn creepy”. Carol Burris goes further and while I don’t agree with everything she says here, my general vibe is way more “right on” than “don’t be ridiculous.” Paul Bruno feels this characterization is extremely unfair. You do not need to agree with me about the videos, but understand that many teachers vehemently disagree with the methods and ideology on display.

But remember, Relay doesn’t want typical teacher profiles. No Excuses charter schools are pulling in a fairly high-performing group for their two years and out teachers. The teacher “trainees” drawn to this approach are, as a rule, control freaks who have just (checks watch) two years to save the world before they go to law school or work for a hedge fund. They are the best of the best of the best, to quote Lieutenant Jake Jenson, and they want no truck with those slouchy teachers who didn’t even get straight As and don’t make baggy pants look nearly as cool as Will Smith does. It doesn’t matter that Doug Lemov isn’t a professor, what matters is the man has an MBA from Harvard. He’ll show the way, and they’ll get it done, just like they always do, unlike those idiot teachers who created this mess they’ll have to fix. They are usually privileged, usually white recent college graduates who just want to know the best way of drilling simple facts and good behavior into “disadvantaged” (read really, really poor) black and Hispanic elementary and middle schoolers using a required set of procedures.

As a university, Relay must guarantee its students academic freedom, but as the alert reader may have noticed, Relay’s students want methods and answers, not intellectual challenge. They don’t give a damn about academic freedom.

But good form demands we inquire whether Relay guarantees its students academic freedom. We are assured of its existence. I’m skeptical, but not because I doubt Relay’s commitment to the idea.

Say a teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter is required to use those creepy finger waves that you see in the video. He wants to try to manage his class without the finger waves. But if he doesn’t use the finger waves, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t have a job, he can’t complete his education at Relay.

If all charters that accept Relay mandate that behavior and Relay mandates employment in order to be in the program, and the only jobs for uncredentialed teachers are at charters, is Relay offering academic freedom?

If other charters allow their teachers the freedom to decide on their own methods and techniques, then maybe Relay will see a test of its values at some point. Would Relay tolerate a teacher in its program saying “the finger waving is some sick stuff and I won’t do it. And the countdown nonsense? I didn’t get into teaching to turn out robots. White parents wouldn’t put up with this crap.”

Suppose a teacher decides her students are better served by teaching them more slowly, giving them time to explore additional content. Her students don’t make a year of academic progress. She gets excellent results, has few discipline problems, accomplishes miracles with students who would otherwise be expelled and sent back to comprehensive schools, but Relay won’t give her a credential because her students didn’t make a year of progress. Where is her academic freedom, her ability to make pedagogical choices for her students?

These are all just hypotheticals, because most Relay students are Koolaid drinkers who bought into the ideology before they started.

But if you want to skip ed school and Relay’s your only choice, keep FIRE on speed dial.

I am being deliberately flip. My disdain for Relay is irrelevant as anything other than illustration of a basic truth: many, many people are repelled by the school’s techniques. If you want a considered assessment of the different approaches, read this excellent Stephen Sawchuk piece on intellectual vs. technical teacher preparation. And the charter demand for a prescriptive approach goes way beyond No Excuses schools; progressive charters are just as ideologically biased.

A prescriptive method for producing teachers simply won’t work as anything other than a specialized fringe method with a guaranteed market. It’s one thing to mandate a fixed procedure for subcuticular stitches, quite another to mandate weighting homework as 40% of the grade or requiring students to sit in groups or in rows, still another to make teachers force kids to perform transition steps in unison or use a 3-second “wait time” with “strategic narration”.

I believe an open-ended approach to teacher training is the only possible method of preparing teachers. Like legions of teachers, I felt entirely prepared to walk into my first classroom and can’t figure out what the hell Peter Sipe is complaining about. That doesn’t mean traditional ed schools couldn’t be improved. But it’s worth remembering that most of them do a lot of things pretty well, and that many teachers—good ones, even—don’t agree with the prevailing “received wisdom” of the chattering class. Which is what I’ll be writing about the next time I take the topic on.

Okay, I’ve been chewing on this long enough. Posting. Maybe I’ll edit later.

Parents and Schools

John Merrow, a solid education reporter who should stay away from analysis proves me right once more.

If you ask professional educators in a public forum whether they view parents as assets or liabilities, the answers will vary only in decibel level: “Assets,” “Our greatest asset,” “invaluable partners,” and so forth. But what if you caught them off guard, late at night after a few drinks, say?

So I shall start with the mild compliment: he has nicely identified a bit of hypocrisy. Leave aside the vagueness of “professional educators” (he later declares that a 1st grade teacher is not a professional educator. I presume he’s teaching for free?). Without question, school leaders, many teachers, educational policy wonks make big noises about how important a role parents play in their children’s education and they don’t really mean it.

But that’s because we really don’t need parents. Once parents have contributed their genes and produced a child that’s sent to our schools, we’re mostly good, thanks. We don’t need them to do anything other than their jobs. As parents. You know, feed them, potty train them, give them some semblance of understanding of institutionalized behavior, obedience and self-discipline, and most of all, get them to school.

Alas, when it comes to our basic expectations of parents “doing their jobs” as educators define them, low income parents (disproportionately, but not entirely, black and Hispanic) are most likely to fall down on those essential tasks. Moreover, schools are now assessed on student outcomes and the students most likely not to meet the outcomes expected have parents with performance problems on those essential tasks. Many of their kids are absent a great deal, and when they’re present they aren’t on time, aren’t behaving, they aren’t obedient, aren’t really interested in success, and often aren’t fed.

So yeah, educators talk a good line about parental involvement because they are looking for a way to get buy-in from low income, mostly-but-not-all black and Hispanic parents on the school’s expectations—and it’s a bit tacky to say to everyone else no, really, we just mean them.

Schools might be better off without the pretense and speak honestly about the specific behavior they want. But that brings up other issues. Most educators are white females, which means their behavior expectations have been defined by middle class and higher Americans, mostly whites but also blacks, Hispanics, and 3rd plus generation Asians. Most of the time the behavior expectations are reasonable; some of them are probably not. Like many others, I’m dismayed that the feds are enforcing disparate impact regulations on school discipline measures. But somewhere between “black and Hispanic kids misbehave more” (generally true) and “schools and teachers are racist” (generally false) lies the reality: many teachers discipline—or worse, grade—kids of all races, but disproportionately black and Hispanics, for not meeting their own cultural expectations without having really considered the impact on their students.

Public schools can’t require parents or students to comply with behavior norms, and as you see, the feds will step in if their disciplinary attempts are racially skewed. Charters can require both parents and students to meet their cultural and behavioral requirements, and on this count alone, charters should not be called public schools.

It is, of course, a complete coincidence that the No Excuses brand of charters, like KIPP, specialize in working with just that demographic that disproportionately falls down on parental expectations. That the selective “No Excuses” schools are desired by parents from this demographic who want to do their job, but live in districts filled with parents who don’t and can’t afford to move to a district filled with parents who do, is also entirely a matter of random chance.

Also utterly unrelated: “No Excuses” charters can mandate a certain behavior code for their students, as well as a ferocious dress code, and required character traits for promotion.

Parents with real choices would never tolerate this from a school, which is why white kids don’t do KIPP, or any other of the schools requiring absurd behavior. And since whites aren’t there, No Excuses schools can suspend or expel black and Hispanic kids in willful abandon, free from federal intervention, which is why the cities that pride themselves on their charter saturation also have shockingly high expulsion and suspension rates.

So back to John Merrow. Remember Merrow? This is a post about Merrow. (need a cite, o young uns?)

He clearly thinks that schools should think of parents as partners, that they should live up to their rhetoric. Fine. I disagree, but no matter. Merrow didn’t try to make the case for the essential nature of parental involvement. Were he to try and make that case, he’d run smack into the problems I just spend the first thousand words pointing out. If schools can’t require parental involvement—and public schools can’t—then they can’t depend on it.

The rest of his post is insulting, when it isn’t risibly foolish. Here’s the best part:

Suppose the root problem is education’s failure to recognize that parents want their children to succeed but may not know how to contribute? Suppose the real problem is education’s failure to treat parents as assets?

He thinks this is profound. Because it’s never once occurred to “education” that parents want their children to succeed. No, educators’ default assumption is eh, these parents, they just don’t give a damn. They’ve never tried to treat them as partners. They’ve never spent millions of dollars on outreach. For the entire history of American education, no one in policy, teaching, or administration has really given much thought to parents.

Like I said. The man should stay away from opinionating. He’s a hell of a reporter.

So no one asked me, but most people have this backwards. Parents aren’t supposed to support schools. Schools are supposed to support parents.

Teachers aren’t monolithic, on this or any education issue. Some agree with Merrow and blame schools for not seeking ever more input from parents. Some demand an annoying degree of parental involvement. Others blame the parents for not valuing education sufficiently. Still others, like me, think parents largely irrelevant to their job. It often depends—I know you will find this shocking—on their student demographics.

But regardless of these differences, few teachers would deny that their job involves supporting parents. Teachers are the primary adult outsiders in any child’s life from six through eighteen. There’s a reason we’re mandated reporters, why we are legally responsible for our students in our classroom, why you don’t hear stories about teachers running away when the crazed gunman shows up at the door. Most parents have to send their kids to school. Most teachers and the schools they work for take that responsibility seriously. We want your children to be safe and productive, in that order, while in our care. And we have insights and observations about our students—intellectual, social, emotional—that parents might want. Or might not. It’s their call.

Parent interaction isn’t a huge part of the job, thank god. Not that I don’t like parents. I was a parent long before I became a teacher, and my sympathy for the typical suburban parent frustrations is deep and genuine, while my disdain for the usual teacher niceties makes me fairly popular with working class parents of all colors (doesn’t hurt that I came from that strata). But I didn’t get into teaching to be a team player; my quality time is in front of a class and building curriculum. (I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!) So I like my parental interaction to be done via email, with the occasional meeting as needed. No phones, please.

When I mention this view, I invariably get a litany of complaints about the many teachers who don’t return emails within 3 hours, who won’t personally check Sally’s backpack daily because the poor girl has executive function problems and forgets her homework, the principals who didn’t take Bobby’s fear of PE seriously, and, of course, the many stories about teachers and principals who are actually jerks.

We aren’t servants or employees, and you aren’t paying us by the hour. And rare is the teacher who excels at all aspects of communication, while also being a fabulous pedagogue. Just as many teachers and schools (KIPP, I’m looking at you) are unrealistic in their expectations of students, so too are many, many parents absurdly unrealistic in their demands of teachers.

And this information and support is never going to function ideally. Schools are necessarily imperfect, as are parents. All I’m doing is articulating a basic truth: parents need information, feedback, and support from schools.

Perhaps we should frame the discussion that way and discuss reasonable expectations, rather than engage in the pretense that schools need parents.

What, you’re waiting for the ed school insights? Me, too.

Building Narratives

I will get back to the ed school thoughts, I promise, but thought organization, she’s a bitch. In the meantime, I’m helping others organize their thoughts in my enrichment classes for Asian kids whose parents think free time is for Americans.

Our selected book for the week doesn’t offer much analytical fodder, so they wrote narratives—specifically, a first person account of an actual experience with only an occasional invented detail, no more than a handwritten page.

They came up with their ideas on Wednesday and workshopped them just before the end of class, coming back with a first draft on Thursday. They shared out in at least two pairings, while I reviewed them individually. It’s an hour plus of constant writing and talking. Below are authentic representations, with occasional invented details, of my feedback.

“Ellen, good story, well-executed, flows well, nice attention to detail. But everything needs tightening up. Take a look.”

No matter how badly I wanted to leave my sister to go to the concert by myself, I had to accept that she had a good point. I had been her age when I went to my first concert and I ….

Ellen blushed. “I’m an egomaniac!”

“Naw, I do it too. You just need to edit. Obviously, dump a lot of the glue. Be creative about pronouns. Show, don’t tell. What’s your sister’s name? ‘Jenny always wanted my opinion on new tunes, making it clear her big sister was the final authority. Refusing to take her along might save face with [can you name your friends, please?] but why deny Jenny the same opportunities I’d had? ‘ Something like that. It’s all there; just refocus the action.”

Next up was Ben, another strong writer with good story sense, and in about a minute I’d sent him over to Ellen with a similarly glue-id’ed paper so they could collaborate. On to David, whose closest friends had noticed, on their frequent outings to a local amusement park, that he never rode the roller coaster. Despite his assurances that he simply wasn’t interested, they figured out he was actually terrified and staged a supportive but forceful intervention. No longer afraid, he now likes sitting up front, the better to get the rush.

“David, where’s the essay you wrote the first day? Dig it up for me.”

While waiting, I scanned Jack’s story, which began:

The locked door blocked my last hope for escape. I pounded frantically, hopelessly, screaming for rescue, but my doom was sealed. My fate wasn’t just awaiting me. It was headed my way. One hundred and twenty pounds of hulking, angry sister.

“Jack, this is very funny. But keep the suspense going without identifying the villain. Go through all your efforts to escape, your despair, and then the one-two punch. First, the horrible fate is your sister. Second, with no other escape, you offer up her other common victim, Sister #2, the one who locked that door to leave you to your doom—and who has candy. So you two were always escaping the bully by handing her each other? Why was she always beating you up? She stopped, I hope?”

“Yeah, I was seven, she was fourteen. She’s in college now. I lied about the candy.”

“Very nice. Go change the pacing, and bring out the villain later. Don’t leave out the lie.”

David came back with his essay, and I found the line:

My primary goal in this class is to achieve an essential understanding: I am thoroughly, permanently screwed if I don’t stop playing video games and take school more seriously.

“Where’s that kid?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your quirky quality is clearly in that sentence and nowhere to be found in the narrative. With the voice, your story isn’t really about being afraid of roller coasters, but about you, a unique goofy guy, and your supportive friends who called you on your bs. Without that unique voice, this story isn’t much more than a confession: you’re a baby who’s afraid of roller coasters. Go find the voice. Irene?”

Irene had two typed pages. “I know! Ellen told me it has to be shorter. I’ve already cut eight sentences.”

“Try eight paragraphs.” I read the first couple of paragraphs, stop. “What do you mean, your mother wants you to get CM Level 9 this year in piano?”

“So it’s on my transcript. Otherwise, I’ve wasted the piano lessons.”

“Yeah, this is some annoying Asian thing that’s going to really tick me off, isn’t it?”

Irene, a passionate artist who sketches every spare minute, laughed. “Probably. I take lessons so that I can pass the level 9 test. So my transcript shows I have artistic ability. But mom wants me to pass it this year, before I start my SAT prep.”

I sighed. “Remember if you are writing an essay or story for a wider audience that Americans would disapprove of your mom’s priorities. Those details detract from the narrative. Why not just write about the unexpected outcome from all this?”

“My discovery of anime music?”

“Yeah. Cut everything else out.”

On to Jasmine, whose entire narrative read:

My family left on a 4-day trip to Reno, Nevada. On the way, the car’s air conditioner broke down. We were unbelievably hot. I could feel the heat beating down on my face as I stuck my head out the window, but it was the only way I could get some air. Finally, we arrived. The hotel was airconditioned. I lay back on the bed and felt my body slowly adjust to the cool. It was amazing. I had never felt my body adjust and cool down before. When I began the trip, I had a list of things I wanted to do, but now I was happy to just be in cool air.

“What’s the heart of this story?”

“Um. The heat?”

“Really? I see a huge boost in writing energy when you get to the hotel.”

“Well, that’s because the cool felt so good.”

“Exactly. A blissful feeling so great that you reassessed your goals for the trip. That’s the heart: negative, difficult experiences caused a change in your perspective. Now, what did you think I was going to say about this story?”

“It’s too short.”

“Not ‘too short’ in any absolute sense, but you have to share the suffering, make us feel that heat, feel the endless hours in the car. You are telling a tale of sensations. Give me the sensory info. I want you to sketch your memory of that day. Stick figures, whatever. Or make a list of all your sense memories from that time. How do you communicate that heat? Show your observations of everyone’s suffering. Think who, what, when–heart of summer?–how. Then do the same thing for the blissed-out time in the chill. Overdo it first—you can cut it down later.”

Then Nick, with a well-crafted first draft of his anxious excitement the day he presented his science project at a company-sponsored competition.

“Nick, the opening rocks. Then you lose focus a bit. I want details about the judging. You say he’s nice–what sort of questions did he ask? Was it as you’d imagined it in all your practice runs? And….what’s this?”

“The end? Is it wrong?”

“‘Best of all, this win will really look great on my college applications.’ Dear God. Please tell me you included that little gem to stop my heart.”

He looked puzzled. “That’s why I entered the contest.”

I banged myself in the head with his notebook. “So I’m feeling like I learned something about your love of science, when in fact you did all the work to get a win for your resume?”

“Well, science is okay. But…yeah, I picked the project because I thought it had the best chance of winning.”

“Not because you were interested. See how you’re looking a bit shamefaced? Because you know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded.

“The thing is, I’m torn in these situations, just like I was with Irene. I’m glad you’re writing authentic emotions. But you are so wrapped up in your Indian cocoon that you have no idea how bad this looks to the Americans who aren’t a generation or less away from Asialand. To us, you come off as a slogger who is only interested in appearance, in faking it, not in pursuing excellence for its own sake. And of course because I’m American and you are, too, I want you to want to pursue excellence for something other than a resume bullet. And you don’t. Which is okay, I like you anyway. For now, though, this story gets much better if you dump this last line and allow your readers to delude themselves about your passionate love of science.”

Eddie up next with a story about three families in two RVs travelling to Banff, Canada to see the sights.

“So you were all related? These are your cousins?”

“No, we didn’t really know any of them.”

I was perplexed, but Ben chimed in. “We do that all the time. It’s an Asian thing.”

“You like big vacations?”

“No, cheap ones” chorused Serena, Ellen, Ben, Eddie, and Jerry.

“We either fly and stay in really cheap places, with all the kids camped out in one room,”…

“One time I was with twelve kids!” from Serena.

“But aren’t there occupancy limits?”

“We ignore them; most of us go out to dinner while one family checks in. Then we sneak in.”

“Indians, is this a thing for you?”

“God, no,” says Ace. “It sounds horrible.”

“My parents came here to escape lots of people, who wants to go on vacation with them?” from Jasmine.

“And you got thrown out of an RV park, Eddie?”

“We almost got thrown out of Canada.”

“All because you were teasing your cousin and he started swearing?”

“It was after midnight, and he was screaming, and Henry wasn’t my cousin, just this other kid.”

“And the adults didn’t stop him?”

“They were in another RV.”

“But they apologized?”

“When the ranger came, yeah. They apologized and promised to be quiet. Even tried to give the ranger money.”

“Bad idea.”

“She was furious, told us to go back to Montana. My parents don’t even know where that is. So she just told them to leave the RV park.”

“Huh. See, your family’s thoughtless cultural rudeness offers some great insights, but I’m not sure you learned anything from it.”

“Yeah, I did. I told them it was a bad idea to offer money. Plus I should have told Henry to shut up, or gotten adults involved.”

“Okay. So drop all the stuff about how pretty Banff was and how terrible the food, tell me about these weird cheap Chinese family vacations, and what you learned about Westerners—and where you slept after leaving the park. Ace, you’re next.”

Ace, the oldest kid in the class, shuffled up hesitantly. I read through the story once, read it again. Read it a third time.

“It sucks, right?”

“No. It’s great.” He looked at me in shock.

“It’s not perfect. It needs work. But four weeks ago, you could barely produce a coherent sentence, because you were just writing words to fill up paper. Now your sentences have subjects and verbs and purpose. Your thoughts are organized. You’ve just described a heartbreaking basketball defeat, made me feel your disappointment—and then you bring up the subsequent win to end on a high note. Beautifully structured. Now, go back and read this aloud, first to yourself and then to someone else, and listen to the words. Any correction you find yourself making as you read it aloud, stop and jot them down. Match the words to your memory, see if anything’s missing.”

Ace went back to his desk with new confidence and a purpose.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.

On interviewing and ed school

Up to now, when I spoke of interviews, I was the ‘-ee’. When our school recently had to hire some math teachers, I was naturally entranced at the very idea of being an “er” and gloriously, one of the interviews happened during my prep. For the first time, I got to sit at the other side of the table and see what happened.

I talked to the candidates about teaching, got a sense of their classroom demographics. What’s their grade distribution? What was their relationship with the cooperating teacher? I looked for their approach to teaching. Did they mix things up? Step away from their supervisor to try a different path? Do they build their own curriculum or assessments? What are their goals? I had no required answers. I don’t like too much certainty, unless it’s mine. I just want to know if they think about teaching, about the issues they face in the classroom.

I also asked them about policy via the questions on Common Core, heterogeneous classrooms, differentiation. What do they think about Common Core? Do they group kids, and if so, how? Could I get a conversation going with them? Could I see this new teacher handling the wide range of student personalities that they’d be facing?

Both the candidates I interviewed could talk readily and engagingly about teaching. They clearly gave a lot of thought to their work. Both of them faced student learning outcomes they were unhappy with and on their own initiative made changes to their classroom practice to improve results. Both talked readily about their goals, their planned next steps.

Both had made significant innovations on their own time. One had an excellent website that he used to build resources and put daily lessons. When kids missed a day (a big deal in a block schedule), he gave them the ability to come in and watch the lecture or power point at lunch, for a bit of extra credit. I tend to blow off missed days, even knowing the kids need the material, so I instantly felt guilty. This candidate acknowledged that it’d be much harder to keep up to date with a full schedule—a touch of reality there.

The other guy didn’t use textbooks, built his own curriculum and assessments, had a lot of fun illustrating activities, always had extra activities for his top kids when they finished early. Which might sound familiar to regular readers and, for that reason, I would have tilted slightly more towards this guy than the other, while being pleased to get either candidate.

Race: Between the principal, the AVP, me, and the two candidates, the Big Four all had representatives. The AVP and one of the candidates were the same race.

We had The List of Questions (see link above) that me and the AVP were to rotate through while the principal listened in. While we went through the List (differentiation, English language learners, classroom management, assessing understanding, etc), the format of the interview was much more freeform than not. I was apparently pretty good at asking good follow-up questions and getting the teachers to open up. Unless it’s normal to get an enthusiastic note of praise from both principal and AVP on my contributions, followed by the AVP’s decision that I interview the second candidate, even though it wasn’t during my prep. A oorah day all round, that was.

Both candidates were good. I have no idea who we actually hired or if we went in a different direction, but I would have been pleased with either one.

But here’s the interesting part. One of these candidates was articulate and well-informed on the policy questions. He had an opinion on Common Core, was fully informed about its impact on math instruction, and voiced sincere skepticism. On English language learners, he risked what might be considered a dangerous opinion (except I share it): language difficulties have to be really really major to interfere with math comprehension, and on a day to day basis few of us really have to give much thought to ELLs. He did group his kids, but put strong kids in with weak ones because he’d been advised to by his ed school professors. When I told him I group by ability, he was fascinated and we spun off onto a five minute dialogue.

The other candidate wasn’t nearly as familiar with Common Core; his school hadn’t begun implementation. He didn’t understand the ELL question without further clarification. He wasn’t aware of the “heterogeneous classrooms” debate.

I was taken aback, because he was clearly a thoughtful teacher who had a decent knowledge of math pedagogy. The other candidate had mentioned discussing Common Core in his ed school classes, so I asked how much discussion he’d had about Common Core in his classes. Answer: None. What kind of readings had his school done on heterogeneous classrooms? Answer: None.

The second candidate’s ed school hadn’t covered any of these issues in depth and, like all teachers, he wasn’t terribly interested in policy. So he was largely unaware of the ongoing pedagogical issues and debates in the field. In contrast, the school’s curriculum instruction was pretty good.

You ask why I could blame the ed school, and not the candidate? I wouldn’t have seen so much potential. My sense was he was a good, motivated teacher who’d been through a mediocre program. While I won’t go so far as to say teachers can only be born, not made, I do believe teaching is an art, not a skill. There isn’t a body of knowledge to be passed down as fact, no “how to” manual that we use to bone up on the basics. I’m new to the interviewing process, but felt very strongly that both candidates had “the stuff”, regardless of their teacher preparation.

The stronger institution wasn’t an elite ranked private university, but the local public university charged with producing a huge chunk of the state’s teachers. The other candidate attended a local private university.

Now, before someone points out the obvious, of course I know that hiring administrators don’t consider ed school quality. That’s not the point. Few would realize that the candidate with the stronger ,more informed answers had gone to a better ed school, because most interviews don’t get to the depth of discussion that you’d need to determine the source of the better preparation.

As I’ve said, I considered both to be excellent prospects, and communicated as much to the AVP. In no way should anything written here be taken as critical of either teacher.

But as a result of the interviews, I began mulling the value and purpose of ed school. Paul Bruno has been on a kick for a while about its utility; if I understand him correctly he would pretty much kill it entirely. We’ve had several twitter exchanges on the topic; I also discuss it frequently with Stephen Sawchuk, the only reporter I’m aware of who really groks teacher certification. These conversations paint me, fairly accurately, as a fence-sitter who leans towards ed school.

I’ve been reluctant to argue about this, because I can’t really say that ed school of any sort is essential. I could have started teaching right away, without forking out the cash for a credential. I’ve known good TFAers who were reasonably functional despite a “training” program that’s little more than hours of indoctrination.

But so what? I could also pass the bar without going to law school and everyone says that law school doesn’t teach lawyering. Upon reflection, I realize I am willing to argue for the utility of ed school, that traditional ed school, with all its flaws, is closer to what we need than TFA or the various gulags of highly regarded alternative teacher education (MATCH, KIPP, Teaching Fellows, I’m looking at you).

So in a followup post, I’m going to try and define what ed school should do, where current ed schools fall short, and why they are still better, on average, than any other teacher preparation method.

Here’s a hint: Everything NCTQ says is wrong. But then, ’twas ever thus.