Category Archives: philosophy

Group Work vs. Working In Groups

I sit my kids in groups. But I don’t like “group work”.

No, that’s not a paradox. Sitting in groups isn’t “group work”.

Group work is an activity that falls under the larger rubric of “collaborative learning”, an organizing bubble to collect techniques and strategies like “Think Pair Share”, jigsawing, peer tutoring, and the like. The most fully-realized collaborative learning pedagogy is probably complex instruction, which was developed by Elizabeth Cohen. (That’s CI, not CISC.) To illustrate, CPM curriculum is based on complex instruction, whereas Everyday Math is not.

Complex Instruction had been in development for over 20 years, but really caught on during the early 90s, when detracking was all the rage, thanks to the Demon Goddess Jeannie Oakes and her book Keeping Track, a synthesis of the arguments against tracking developed since the late 60s, when the feds and the Supreme Court decided by god, they were serious about this integration business, enforcing busing and other means of insuring that no schools were too white or too brown.

In Keeping Track, Oakes accused parents and schools of racial discrimination, and a good chunk of the 90s was wasted as districts and states desperately tried to win her approval. Fortunately, they all ultimately learned it was easier to disappoint her.1

Complex Instruction was also developed by tracking opponents, but opponents who nonetheless cared about learning. It’s explicitly designed to give schools a tool for the havoc that results when kids with a 3 to 8 year range in abilities are put in the same room, and thus was grabbed at by many schools back in the early 90s. Many CI concepts are also found in “reform math”—Jo Boaler’s Railside study on San Lorenzo High School was all about Complex Instruction. Carlos Cabana and Estelle Woodbury, who just co-authored Mathematics for Equity, a book on teaching math with Complex Instruction, both worked at San Lorenzo High School during Boaler’s study.

So start with the theory, articulated here by Rachel Lotan, the late Cohen’s key associate. You should watch this, or at least fast forward through parts, because Lotan clearly articulates the admirable goals of complex instruction minus the castigation, blame, and fuming ideology. Or, Complex Instruction’s major components in written form:

ci3components

Both Lotan and the writeup offer much that is problematic. Reducing the ability range: not good. Creating busywork tasks (writing down questions, getting supplies) to let everyone feel “smart”: not good.

The write up mentions “status problems”. Lotan gives a great account of an absurdly pretentious term, “mitigating status” that is something every teacher in every classroom–no matter how they are seated—should take seriously. Lotan does a better job of explaining it, but since many won’t listen to the video, here’s a written version:

CI targets equity and, in particular, three ideas: first, that all students are smart; second, that issues of status—who is perceived as smart and who is not—interfere with students’ participation and learning; and third, that it is teachers’ responsibility to provide all students with opportunities to reveal how they are smart and develop/recognize new ways of being smart. The complex instruction model aims to “disrupt typical hierarchies of who is ‘smart’ and who is not” (Sapon-Shevin, 2004) by promoting equal status interactions amongst students so that they engage with tasks that have high cognitive demand within a cooperative learning environment.

(emphasis mine)

Ed schools wanting to hammer home how putting kids in groups doesn’t by itself address status usually show this video, but brace yourself. I tell myself that the ignored kid is probably a pest all the time, that everyone in the class is tired of his nonsense, that we’re just seeing a carefully culled selection to maximize the impact of exclusion and of course, race. It doesn’t matter. It’s still hard to watch.

And the video also reinforces the practical message that CI advocates are pushing, as opposed to the theory. In theory, status can be unearned by anyone of any gender or color. In practice, most CI advocates expect teachers to shut down white males. In theory, kids learn that everyone is smart. In practice, kids still know who’s “smart” and who’s not.

But then, CI advocates have their own frustrations. In theory, they’d put teachers in PD designed to indoctrinate them into realizing the error of their racist ways. In practice, teachers who haven’t already drunk the Koolaid either politely fake it until they can find an exit or get really annoyed when they’re called racists, as an excerpt for Mathematics for Equity makes clear:

CIPurpose
Cite: Mathematics for Equity1

Complex Instruction done well is pretty interesting and often thought-provoking. Cathy Humphreys is a long-time advocate of “reform math” and complex instruction. She was at the center of one of those “rich educated parents” meltdowns that you saw over reform math back in the 90s. Humphreys represented the reform side, of course, and further endeared herself to parents by proposing to get rid of tracking at a Palo Alto, CA middle school. That went over like a water balloon down a balcony, she quit, worked as a math coach for a while, and then taught for years at a diverse high school in the Bay Area that had ended tracking. She also teaches at Stanford’s education program, according to her bio. Carlos Cabana, one of the co-authors of Mathematics for Equity, has also been teaching complex instruction for a long time; he’s one of the teachers at Railside, Jo Boaler’s pseudonym for San Lorenzo High School.

You can see both Humphreys and Cabana here at a website put together by the Noyce Foundation to promote the 8 essential practices. (Notice the link between “reform math” and supporting “common core”? As Tom Loveless says, Common Core is a “dog whistle” for reform math. Humphreys and Cabana are teaching high school math in the videos. You can also see Humphreys teaching at what I assume is the middle school that melted down. Humphreys and Cabana are much better demonstrations of complex instruction than the absurdly flashy promos that Jo Boaler puts out.

When I began teaching, I thought sitting kids in groups was absurd. I remember being pleased one of my mentoring teachers put kids in rows. But my primary student teaching assignment required me to sit kids in groups, as we were using CPM, a reform text that requires groups. I adjusted and liked it much more than I thought I would, especially when I took over the class and could group by ability. But my first year out, I happily put my desks in rows, thinking that groups were good, but now I could finally run my class the way I wanted.

Four weeks later, I put the kids in groups. It just….felt better. Year 2, I was teaching all-algebra, all the time, and thought rows would make more sense. The rows lasted 2 weeks and since around September of 2010, the only time my kids sit in rows is for tests.

I have….mixed feelings about CI. When promoted by the fanatic adherents, it’s both Orwellian and despicable. Teachers have to squelch kids who know the answer, force kids who understand the concept to explain, endlessly, to the kids who don’t, and then grade the kids who know the answer not on their demonstrated knowledge but on the success of their explanation and their willingness to do so. Teachers have to pretend to their students that asking a good question or taking notes is just as important as understanding the math (no, say the fanatic adherents, teachers aren’t pretending. These tasks are just as important!).

But while no student is ever going to believe that everyone is smart, “issues of status” do absolutely impact a students’ willingness to participate. Let the “smart kids” talk, everyone thinks, and sits back and zones out.

However, in my opinion and experience, CI methods often achieve exactly what they are defined to avoid, precisely because of their Orwellian insistence on ignoring reality. Kids know who is smart. They shut down if the smart kid is in their group, and go through the motions when the teacher walks by.

Ironically, I “mitigate status” by violating Complex Instruction’s most sacred tenet. Complex Instruction holds that student groups must be heterogeneous. Organization can’t be based on the rigid, academic version of “smart”. But I group my kids by ability as the most effective way of “mitigating status”.

I don’t want the weakest students in my class feeling as if any success short of an “A” is irrelevant. I also don’t want to try and convince them they’re just as “smart” as students who don’t struggle with the same material. That way, my students know that they can talk about math, what they need to know, what questions they have, knowing that other students probably have similar issues.

I don’t want to make it sound as if “mitigating status” is the only reason I sit kids in groups. Groups allow me to differentiate tasks slightly (or extensively) and enables me to quickly give help or new tasks. Groups allow kids to work together, discussing math, developing at their own speed with peers who have similar abilities.

But whether it’s status or some other curricular reason, when I sit them in groups, they start working and talking about math. They discover they are working with peers who won’t make them feel stupid, and they start to have discussions. Should we do this or this? They call me over to adjudicate. They try things. They check their notes, engage in all those excellent student behaviors. Not always, of course. But many times. They are less likely to sit passively and wait until I come by to personally tutor them through problems.

Moreover, because they are working with students of their own ability, they don’t feel alone or stupid. They work to improve. Maybe not great, maybe not good. But better.

Sitting kids in groups is not group work. But sitting kids in groups based on ability and giving them achievable tasks makes them more likely to work, and as math teachers often know, that’s no small thing.

******************************************
1 I was thinking crap, I don’t want to have to look up the whole history of the ebb and flow of tracking and then went hey, Tom Loveless has to have something on this and by golly he does: The Resurgence of Ability Grouping and Persistence of Tracking covers the whole era, Oakes included. I would only quibble slightly with this sentence: Although the call to detrack was not accompanied by conventional incentives—the big budgets, regulatory regimes, and rewards and sanctions that draw the attention of policy analysts—detracking was, in a field famous for ignored or subverted policies, adopted by a large number of schools.

Loveless appears to forget the biggest incentive of all: lawsuit avoidance. Detracking lawsuits were the rage in this time period. Unlike new curriculum or teaching styles, detracking is achieved by executive fiat by district superintendents. No training, no carrots needed. Shazam! But leaving aside that minor quibble, a great piece documenting the move to and then the move away from heterogeneous classrooms (de-tracked).


Teaching: My Retrospective

Okay, I’m rolling along on my task of drawing clear lines of demarcation between my particular brand of squish and traditional progressive education (heh–traditional progressive. Get it?). First up was my new no homework policy.

I then decided to take on sitting my kids in groups (as opposed to group work), which led me to look back at some old post, which forced me to look back at my practice over the years, and that’s been a trip. So much of a trip that I decided to do the retrospective first.

The introspection kicked off when I reread one of the first posts I ever wrote on this site, over 3 years ago, halfway through my third year of teaching. Some key observations:

  1. I focused almost entirely on classwork, even then. The essay doesn’t even mention homework which, at that time, I assigned in much the way I describe in my last essay.
  2. At that time, the school I worked at used a traditional schedule of 60 minute classes, so the 3 day span per lesson is about two days at my current school. Additional evidence I was focused primarily on what kids learned in class, although as I said, my original homework policy goes back even further than this post.
  3. Here’s a real change. Me on low ability students three years ago: lowabilstds3yrs
    I’m so cheered to realize how much I’ve improved. I had good student engagement back then, but in rereading this I can remember how many students I had to nudge endlessly, how I had to constantly pick up pencils and hand them to kids to get them to work. Recall I was teaching algebra and geometry, and had just begun what is now my bread and butter class of Algebra 2. So my experience at the time of writing those words was with a lower level of math class, which will always mean lower engagement. Nonetheless, that simple paragraphs reminds me of the struggles I had to get total engagement. I’ve come a long way. Yay, me.

  4. Interesting to see my off-hand mention of EDI. No one seeing my teaching would think of me as using the direct instruction mode, but in fact I always, at some point, give kids specific, explicit instructions on the concept at hand.
  5. While I talked about differentiation and my need to challenge top students, I have actually moved away from different assessments for different students. At that time, I was just three months of teaching out from year two, all-algebra I-all-the-time, and I basically taught 4 different classes. I’d tentatively planned on continuing this approach, but learned that year (and confirmed in later years) that this wouldn’t work for any class but algebra I.

I wrote this post on January 8, 2012, at almost exactly the same time I began an experiment that utterly transformed my teaching. I speak, of course, of Modeling Linear Equations, which I’m amazed to realize I wrote just one week after the “How I Teach” post. So shortly after I began this blog and described my teaching method, I started on a path that took my existing teaching approach–which was pretty good, I think–and gave it a form and shape that has allowed me to grow and progress even further.

I haven’t really read this post in over two years—I tend to link in Modeling Linear Equations, Part 3, written a year later (two years ago today!), when I’d realized how much my teaching had changed. So reading the original is instructive. I talk about the Christmas Mull, something that stands very large in my memory but don’t remember quite as described here:

modelingchristmasmull

The part that’s consistent with my memory: Christmas 2011, I was depressed by the dismal finals in my three algebra II classes. In the first semester, I had gone through all of linear and quadratic equations, including complex numbers, at a rate considerably slower than two colleagues also teaching the course. Yet the kids remembered next to nothing. Every single person failed the multiple choice test–the top students had around half right. I had experienced knowledge fall-offs in algebra and geometry, but nothing that had so sublimely illustrated how much time I’d wasted in three months. So I came out of the Christmas break determined to reteach linear and quadratic equations, because to continue on teaching more advanced topics with these numbers was purely insane. And I wasn’t just going to reteach, but come up with an entirely different, less structured approach that allowed my students to use their own understanding of real-life situations.

What I hadn’t remembered until reading this closely was my rationale for ignoring the regular curriculum requrements. At the time, Algebra 2 was considered a “terminal” class; students weren’t expected to take another course in the college-prep sequence. This has changed, of course–these days, algebra 2/trig is, if anything, experiencing a fall-off in favor of a full year of each course. But at the time, I justified my decision to go off-curriculum based on the student needs. These students’ primary concern, whether they knew it or not, was what happened to them in college. How much remediation were they going to need? Could the best of them escape any remedial work and go straight onto credit bearing courses? This, of course, still remains my priority–I’d just forgotten how linked it was to my initial decision to try something new.

Also interesting that I described this approach by the specific method I used for linear equations–using “inherent math ability”. That’s not how I describe my approach these days, but I can see the germination of the idea. At the time I wrote this, I had no idea I would go beyond linear equations and use this approach consistently throughout my instruction.

I think the best description I’ve come up with for my approach is modified instructivist, which comes in one of two forms: “highly structured instructivist discovery, and classroom discussions with lots of student involvement”.

As for the latter: I don’t lecture, with or without powerpoints. When I do explanations, they are classroom discussions, and you can see this demonstrated in all my pedagogy posts. However, I am constantly migrating my classroom discussions to structured discovery.

What’s structured discovery? Imagine a teacher and students on a cliff, with a beach below. There’s a path, but it’s not visible.

In a traditional lecture or classroom discussion, the teacher shows them the path and leads them down to the beach.

In a discovery class, the teacher doesn’t even tell them there’s a path or even a beach. In fact, to the discovery/reform teacher, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a path or not—the kids will all find their own way down. Or maybe they’ll just find some really cool flowers and stop to examine their biology. Or maybe they’ll just kick back and have a picnic. It’s all good, in reform math. (sez the skeptic)

In what I call structured discovery, the kids are given a series of tasks that use their existing knowledge base and find the path themselves. They may not yet know there’s a beach. They may not know what the path means. But they will find the path and recognize it as a consistent finding that makes them go “hmm”. In some cases, an interesting finding. In other cases, just something they can see and understand.

Sometimes the path they’ve found is the concept–for example, modeling linear equations or exponential functions, or finding gravity in projectile motion problems.

In other cases, the model just introduces an inevitable observation that leads to the new concept. For example, I teach my kids about function operations when we do linear equations–adding and subtracting are good models for simple profit and loss applications.

So I kick off quadratics by asking my students to multiply linear functions, which they can see clearly as an extension of adding and subtracting them. This is an activity they can start off cold, with no intro (I haven’t written it up yet). I designed this because parabolas just don’t have a natural “real life” model other than area, which gets kind of boring. Plus, I need to cover function operations anyway, so hey, synergy. In any event, the kids are seeing an extension of a concept they already know (function operations) and seeing a new graph form consistently emerge. Then we can talk about factors (the zeros) and realize that we are looking at products of two lines. Could a parabola exist without being a product of two lines? Well, this is algebra 2 so they are fully aware that parabolas don’t have to have zeros. But what does that mean in terms of multiplying lines being factors of parabolas? Well, they must not have factors. So are all parabolas the product of two lines? And we go from there.

Understand that my classes still have lots of practice time where kids just factor equations and graph parabolas, learn about the different forms, and so on. But rather than just saying “now we’ll do this new thing called a parabola”, I give them a task that builds on their existing work and leads them into the new equation type. I don’t define the path. But nor do I let them go off on their own. I give them something to do that looks kind of random, but is in fact a path.

And all of this came from the results of the Great Christmas Mull. The previous Christmas had been productive, too–it’s when I came up with differentiated instruction for my algebra class.

So what can I say about my teaching, 5.5 years in? What’s consistent, what’s changed?

  1. I never lectured. I always explained, with increasing emphasis on classroom discussion.

  2. I have always been focused on student work during class, emphasizing demonstrated test ability above everything, and minimizing (or now eliminating) homework.
  3. I have always tried to move the student needle at all ability levels, from the no-hopers to the strugglers to the average achievers to the top-tier thinkers. I’m not always successful, but that’s consistently my stated priority.
  4. I have always designed my own curriculum and assessments.

  5. My teaching was transformed Christmas of 2011, when I realized I could introduce and teach topics using existing knowledge, forcing students to engage immediately with the material and start “doing” right away, increasing engagement and understanding. I have evolved from a teacher who mostly explains first to a teacher who only occasionally explains first. And that is a huge change that takes a lot of work.
  6. The observer might think that this change makes my classes student-centered, but I disagree. My classes are definitely teacher-centered, and let’s be clear, I’m the star of my teaching movie.
  7. Thanks also to the Great Christmas Mull, I’ve become far less concerned about curriculum coverage than I was in my first two years of teaching.
  8. I have always been a teacher who values explanation. It’s the heart of my teaching. I’ll explain through discussion or demonstration, but I’m not a reformer letting kids “construct” the meaning of math. I’m there to tell them what it all means.

I have plenty of development areas ahead. I’m working on tossing in the occasional open-ended instruction, just to see if I can come up with ideas that don’t waste hours and have some interesting learning objectives. I still have many concepts waiting to be converted to a “path to the beach”. And I’m now teaching something other than math, which gives me new challenges and more opportunities to see how to construct those paths without running off the cliff.


I Don’t Do Homework

Our school had its second Back to School Night. Attendance was spotty. I don’t judge. As a parent, I rarely attended.

But boy oh boy, could four sets of parents generate some excitement. I had a genuine culture clash.

It all began when I was going through my brief dog and pony show for my second trig class.

“Student grades are 80% tests and quizzes, 20% classwork. But I don’t grade classwork. Students get a B or A- just for showing up and working, which bumps their grade slightly.”

Until recently, I weighted homework for 10% and classwork for 15%–but not really. More accurately, if a student did most of his homework in a relatively timely manner, he’d get a little more of a boost. He couldn’t get the boost by “making up” missed homework; nor could he get the boost for just a couple homework completions. But if he didn’t do the homework at all, no harm no foul.

A few of my students got the boost, and they came from all points on the ability spectrum. I always remembered to assign homework through the first semester, then I’d fall off. For my first five years of teaching, homework had always completely stopped at some point in the third quarter.

“But last term, I suddenly realized that the end of the first semester was weeks away, and I hadn’t been assigning homework for a very long time.”

Remember my mentioning it had been a busy first term? Well, yeah.

“Most of my kids don’t do homework. So this realization just reinforced my awareness that I was only engaging in the homework ritual because I didn’t want to stray too far off the beaten path in comparison to my colleagues. But once I’d given up homework by accident, it seemed natural to make it official.”

The fact that I got that glorious tenure email and didn’t have to worry too much if my colleagues complained may have played a teensy, tiny part.

“So if you’ve got one of those kids who gets an A on tests but pulls his grade down by ignoring all homework, he–and it’s a usually a he–has probably mentioned it by now, and worships at my feet. I accept Starbucks cards or sixpacks of Diet Coke in tribute.”

One parent raises his hand.

“But don’t you find that homework ensures the students will get more practice? They need practice, just as we did when we were kids. I think it’s best for students to genuinely learn the math with practice.”

Uh oh. I take a deep breath.

“My students have always been graded overwhelmingly by what they do in class and the learning they demonstrate on tests. Homework was always optional, and I didn’t assign enough of it for students to practice fluency.”

“But I want my son to have practice material.”

“Well, I use the book pretty regularly, and there’s plenty of relevant practice material in there.”

“But do you think that’s how we all learned math?”

“Well, we weren’t all required to take advanced math. Look, I want to be clear: my method is the ultimate in hippy dippy squish.” Two parents laughed.

“I’m not trying to pretend that it’s normal for a math teacher to abandon homework. The whole homework ediscussion is basically a religious issue–and I don’t mean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish. People have strong ideological beliefs about the best way to achieve academically. However, the research on the intellectual impact of homework is very weak. But no research has shown that doing homework is the cause of comprehension.”

Another parent spoke up with a, er, very pointed tone. “I am so happy that you grade based on their work in class. So much better than to have them confused with nothing more than busy work after school. They can’t ask questions, they feel lost, and then they get discouraged.” Another parent nodded.

Original parent: “But the confusion is part of learning. Then they can come in the next day and ask for help.”

“They learn in class. If I take the bulk of one class to explain something, then they spend the next day working on that concept. I ensure students demonstrate their understanding, to the best of their ability. They won’t be able to copy the work from someone else; if I spot them not working, I work with them until I can see them understand it. If they’re talking or goofing around, they move to a different seat. My kids work math while they’re here. And ninety minutes of working or thinking about math is plenty.”

“But shouldn’t the students be practicing at home? Couldn’t you go through the course much quicker if they did?” the original parent is not to be discouraged.

“Again, they are welcome to work additional problems of their choice. But in my experience, students forget a lot of what they ‘go through’. My goal is to ensure that if they do forget material in this course, at least they really did understand at the time, rather than just follow through on some algorithms.”

“Exactly. I want them to understand the math.” said another parent.

“One last thing: I follow my students’ progress in subsequent classes. For the most part, they are keeping up and doing fine. I teach some of those subsequent classes, and so am able to compare my students to those given a more traditional course, and they’re doing fine. Many of my students go to junior college or local public universities, and I track their placement results as well. They, too, are ending up just as I’d expect. The weakest ones need some small amount of remediation, but most are placing in college credit courses. Meanwhile, they have far more accurate GPAs and weren’t forced to retake courses and slow down their progress simply because they didn’t do homework.”

And….the bell rang. Saved!

The original parent came up to me and asked, “You will assign my son additional homework?”

I smiled at the dad and the son. “All he has to do is ask.”

(He hasn’t.)

I decided to describe my policy change thusly because, well, the story happened and it was fun. All parents were respectful; I did not feel insulted or bothered by the first parent’s concerns. If I have in any way seemed contemptuous of the parents involved it’s unintentional. That said, ethnic stereotypes will prove helpful in deciphering the anecdote. The reason for the change is as described—I was busy, suddenly realized I had stopped assigning homework, decided it was time to cut the cord.

I usually just pick holes in everyone else’s arguments, but math homework is a teaching issue I have strong feelings about. Grading homework compliance is hurting a lot of kids, and all it does for those who comply is give them higher grades, not better academic skills.

Administrators understand this more than most, as they’re the ones putting additional math sections on their master schedule to accommodate all the kids with reasonable test scores who nonetheless flunked for not doing their homework. That’s the impetus behind all those stories you read of a district limiting homework’s percentage on the grade.

So as I wave goodbye to homework, let me take this opportunity to urge my compatriots to consider a similar policy, particularly if their classes look something like this:

The class opens with a warmup, designed to either review the previous material or introduce a new concept. Teacher reviews the warmup problem, then lectures or holds a class discussion on a new concept, works a few problems, has the class work a few problems, assigns a problem set, and those problems are called “homework”. Your basic I tell, I do, we do, you do.

The kids have the rest of the period to work on the problems, while the teacher is available to answer questions. If they finish in class, no “homework”! If they don’t work in class or do work for some other teacher, no big deal. It’s just time-shifting. They’ll turn in the work tomorrow, maybe do it with their tutors, maybe just copy it from friends who did it with their tutor.

Or they won’t do the problem set, either because they don’t understand, can’t be bothered, or just forget. The teacher will encourage them to come in and ask for help, or go to after school tutoring. Some of them will. Many of them won’t show up. Then they’ll get a zero, or turn it in late for a reduced grade, or stop doing homework altogether until they flunk. Or maybe their parents will call a conference and the teacher will be persuaded to accept a bunch of late homework to help the student pass the class.

How many high school math classrooms does this describe, with the occasional variation? A whole lot.

Notice that it’s only “homework” for those who can’t finish the work in class. The kids who don’t understand the material have to struggle at home. The students who really understand the material and could use more challenge get the night off.

High school teachers borrowed this method from colleges fifty years ago or more, a method designed for highly ambitious 20-somethings with demonstrated ability and interest. Today, our well-meaning education policy forces everyone into three years or more of advanced math, regardless of their demonstrated ability and interest. The college model is unlikely to work well with many students.

So go ahead and sneer at me for being a softie who skips homework, but understand that my students work to the bell. More often than not, my introduction is 10-20 minutes or even less, so the students are working the entire class period, taking on problems of increasing challenge. On those occasions where I have to explain something complicated, they focus on the relevant concepts for another day or more. But all my students are getting 60-90 minutes each day actively thinking and working about math, and my student engagement level has always been high. Strong students who finish early just do more problems. The student who treats my class as a study hall for her other homework because she has a tutor will experience teacher disapproval, often for the first time, and I’m a cranky cuss. She rarely makes the mistake twice.

When I did assign homework, I didn’t just continue from the same classwork problems, but created or selected much easier problems, designed for students to determined if they understood the basics of that particular concept.

Most education debates are tediously binary and thus wholly inaccurate. And so the math homework debate becomes “teachers who want to challenge their kids assign demanding homework” vs. “teachers who want to coddle their kids neglect their responsibility to prepare kids for college.”

In my classroom, kids are working pretty much non-stop, usually much harder on average than in the classrooms where kids are left to their own devices to finish their work. But somehow I’m the squish because I don’t engage in the great morality play known as homework. Are there teachers who don’t assign homework and also allow their kids to discover their pagh? Sure. That’s why the binary debate is a waste of time. The reality of classroom activity requires many additional points on a compass–not a bi-directional spectrum.

Finally, none of this really has anything to do with the actual teacher quality. Many teachers are doing a great job explaining math in those I do, etc lessons. Nor would any observer consider me hippy dippy or squish, which is why the comment always gets a laugh.

I was going to end with a joke about being a Unitarian in a Calvinist world. But hell, that plays right into the wrong sterotype.


Troubling Students

My classes are easy to pass, hard to do really well in. I’m a pushover for a D, but think three or four times about giving out an A. I didn’t fail a single kid last year. Save for Year Two, All Algebra All the Time, I’ve failed fewer than six kids a year, and even Year Two I had the second lowest fail rate of the math teachers.

I teach mostly math at a comprehensive high school, and the previous paragraph is very near heresy. Some math teachers cheer me on as a brave, admirable soul, but I spot them making the Mano Pantea while they walk away, just in case the Overlord is Watching. Others think I’m What’s Wrong With Education Today. These teachers hold as gospel that math standards could be upheld if we teachers were just willing to fail 60-70% of our students. In contrast to Checker Finn, who thinks teachers like me are spreading out two years of math content over three years of instruction because we can’t be bothered, these folks don’t think I’m lazy. They think I’m soft. They think I’m damaging their ability to cover all the course content they could get through if there weren’t all these kids who shouldn’t be there.

I became a lot less conflicted about my high pass rate–not that I ever lost sleep over it–after teaching precalc and discovering that a third of the kids had forgotten how to graph a linear equation and half couldn’t graph a parabola. These were kids that those other teachers had, teachers who had covered everything. Meanwhile, my kids do well in subsequent classes, so I’m not doing any harm.

But I digress. The students who trouble me aren’t the strugglers. I can take a kid who hates math, doesn’t want to be in class, and get him (it’s usually a him) to try. I can get that kid to attack a projectile motion problem and, even while making multiple small mistakes, beam with pride because by god, he kind of gets this and who ever would have thought? Kids like that, I can pass with nary a qualm.

The worrisome ones pretend they understand, but don’t have a clue. They cheat whenever they can, and not just on tests. They copy classwork in the guise of “working together” or “getting help”, and do their best to sit next to strong students. I group students by ability and, unless they can cheat on my assessment test, they are outed and placed up front, where I can keep an eye on then. They will then ask if they can sit next to John, or Sally, or Patel, their friend, because “they explain it so well”. I say no.

But if they cheated on the test, they can sometimes escape notice for a while. I circle constantly, watching kids work, changing seating when I see too much “consulting” with little discussion. Still others are more clever, and it takes a while before I realize they’ve been cheating not only in classwork, but on the tests–even when I create multiple tests. As a new teacher, I would sometimes miss these kids through the first semester. My success rate at pegging them early has improved.

This isn’t a big group, thank god. I might run into one or two a year. They have a telltale bipolar profile: for example, failing English entirely one year, and passing it the next year with Bs. Passing algebra with straight As, failing geometry completely–and failing the mostly pre-algebra and algebra state graduation test with a spectacularly low score. They aren’t fooling all of the teachers all of the time.

These kids are not your Stuyvesant cheaters, conspiring with others to satisfy demanding parents and create a fraudulent resume to get into a good school. Nor are these the low achievers who just want to get a passing grade in these time units called classes organized into a larger time period called school that others apparently view as a place of learning but they see as little more than a community network in which they have invested considerable social capital.

In fact, they’re almost worse than identified low incentive low achievers, cheating or otherwise. These kids almost seem incapable of learning. I can’t get them to slow down. They often resist help from me. Typical conversation:

Me, stopping by: “Okay, let’s start this again. You’ve plotted these points….”

Student: “Oh, yeah, I see.” Frantically erases.

Me: “Well, hang on, I want to be sure…”

Student: “I got it I got it I got it.” Starts to plot a point, then pauses.

I realize the student is waiting for me to say where to plot it in order to say “Yes, I know, I know.” So I wait. The student takes a deep breath and plots the point then lifts his pencil. “No, that’s not right, duh…”

Me: “You aren’t sure how to plot points.”

Student: “Yes, I am.”

Me: “Great. Plot (7,-7).”

Student plots (-7, -7).

Me: “Stop there.” I go grab a handout I have specifically for these situations, a simple handout that explains plotting points with some amusing activities to drive the point home.

Student: “I don’t need this. I know how to do it!”

Me: “Great. Then it should just take you a few minutes.”

At this point, I get a variety of reactions. Some students become furious. Others get sulky. Still others do the handout, making many mistakes, all the while assuring me that this is easy. I obligingly correct the mistakes, make them do it correctly. The ones that get furious, I shrug and let them continue.

Regardless, within a day, they are making the same mistakes. Nothing sinks in. Don’t get overly focused on plotting points; the problem could be anything–factoring, solving multi-step equations, working with negatives, exponential properties, fractions, whatever. Or a new concept. They have absolutely no clue, and can’t do much of anything.

Yet they don’t have the profile of a low ability student. Test scores, yes. Profile, no. They often have As, win praise from teachers for their teamwork and effort. They are heavily invested in appearing “normal”. Serious control freaks. Sometimes, but not always, with parents who expect success. More often, but not always, Asian. All races. Both genders.

I haven’t taught freshmen since oh, lord, fall 2012.1 I teach relatively few sophomores these days, running into them only in Algebra 2.

That matters because when I taught freshmen and sophomores, I would go full-scale intervention. I might talk to a counselor to see if they should be assessed for a learning disability. I would insist that they stop lying to me and themselves. I had no small success at getting some of them to acknowledge their desperate attempts at fraud, get them to work at their actual level, deal with the discomfort. They didn’t make much progress, but it was real progress, and they had skills to move forward. I ran into some of them again the next year, and we could start on an honest basis and make additional progress. Those who didn’t acknowledge their issues were among the few students I failed.

But that’s a lot harder to do when dealing with juniors taking trigonometry or, god forbid, precalc. Should I fail them? They will probably do better in a class with teachers who give “practice tests”, study guides that have exactly the same questions as the eventual real test but with different numbers. They will definitely do better with teachers who actually grade homework and count it as 25% of the overall.

A small problem. This approach turns my grading policy into: work hard and honestly acknowledge your ignorance and I’ll pass you. Lie and do your best to cheat with similar ignorance and I’ll fail you. I’m comfortable with holistic grading at the bottom of the scale, but I don’t like morality plays.

Then I remember that kids who honestly acknowledge their inability in a trig or pre-calc class are usually seniors, off to junior college and a placement test that will accurately put them in remedial math. I’m only ensuring they are learning as much as possible for free before paying. If they are juniors, I always have a talk with them about their next steps, telling them not to take the next course in the sequence but maybe stats or something else that will keep them working math, but not out of their league.

The kids who cheat and fake it in trig and precalc are usually juniors, and they will be going onto another course. They will not listen to me when I tell them under no circumstances should they continue into pre-calc or, god forbid, calculus. I might be teaching that course, which just gives me the same problem again. Or they’ll be cheating their way through with another teacher–or, that teacher will do what I should have done and flunked them.

This quandary doesn’t make any sense unless you realize that in my view, these kids are pathologically terrified of facing reality, the sort of thing that some of them, forced to face up, might not survive in good form. These aren’t blithe liars gaming the system to look good. Then I remind myself that they’ve been caught before, they’ve flunked other classes, they’ll survive. But I still don’t like the quandary, because these are kids who literally can’t learn. (And remember, I’ve seen them in my non-math classes, too). By junior year, given their denial and fear, does it do any good to make them aware of this? They’re going to be able to point to any number of teachers who disagree with my assessment, and have all sorts of excuses for why they got those Fs. Besides, they just don’t test well. It’s always been a problem.

At times like this, I envy my colleagues who never notice the cheating, or who focus purely on achievement and aren’t interested in the distinctions I’m making.

But these are the students who trouble me.

************************************
1Holy Crap. That’s an amazing realization. New math teachers doing your time in the algebra/geometry trenches, take heed. If you want variety, it will come.


Don’t Treat A Cop Like a Teacher

So to build on an idea from my last post:

Unlike most people who aren’t police officers, many high school teachers, particularly those in high poverty areas, can say they know what it’s like to be faced with a furious teenager who might possibly be armed, high, both–or, as is usually the case, neither.

As one of those teachers, I know, for example, that when Ezra Klein says Darren Wilson’s story about Michael Brown’s actions is simply not credible, Ezra’s either showing his white privilege or simply not credible himself.

However, I also know that when others claim that Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger simply because a large black teenager was charging him, well, not so much. Not simply from that.

The sequence of events: 1) Brown mouthing off and refusing to get out of middle of street, 2) Wilson moving his car to block Brown and Johnson, 3) Brown attacking Wilson in his car, hitting him and grabbing for his gun, 4) Brown running away, 5) Brown turning around and charging.

If I leave out the gun grab and play out that same sequence of events, I still envision Wilson shooting Brown. A nearly 300 pound young man was charging a police officer after having assaulted him in the car. Of course it was reasonable to shoot Michael Brown. The kid was out of control. Who wouldn’t feel endangered in that situation, in fear of his life?

Well, high school teachers in high poverty schools, for one. My employment has been in relatively mild Title I schools*, but I have frequently faced down angry, hostile, potentially violent teens. I know teachers who’ve had kids get violent, and the stats back this up: 3-5% of teachers are physically attacked. And surely most teachers in high poverty schools have spent time trying hard to talk down a potentially violent kid, even if Plan B is throw something and leave the room. Better that than screwing up his life by assaulting a teacher.

But then there’s the grab for the gun. This excellent comment from cro on my last post agrees with everything I know from frequent viewing of Numb3rs episodes: taking a law enforcement officer’s gun is a Very Bad Thing. Cro, my police officer commenter, says “…you are under orders to kill that person if necessary to retain your weapon.”

I have no reason to doubt cro–hey, he’s an anonymous commenter on my blog!–but if he is correct, then Darren Wilson had a second line of defense that hasn’t gotten as much play. This defense is not a “reasonable person” defense, but a “cop defense”. Attempts to take a police officer’s gun are punishable by deadly force.

My own belief, and I’m certainly not unique on this point, is that cops consider non-compliance a deadly force situation. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Michael Bell all died because they didn’t comply with police officers.

But “look, the guy didn’t do what I told him” isn’t a viable line of defense if the actions come under scrutiny, so instead these legal fictions are constructed, in which juries can consider a cop just a normal guy who was in fear of his life.

My effort to unpack Michael Brown’s actions and Wilson’s defense is not intended as an attack on police officers. Nor am I saying that teachers and cops have similar responsibilities or face similar dangers.

I’m just trying to resolve the paradox. It doesn’t seem credible that Darren Wilson thought he would die simply because Michael Brown hit him and then was charging at him. If an angry, irrational, violent teenager can so easily put an armed police officer in fear of his life, then many countries should be re-evaluating the regular danger that his teachers and oh by the way the other students at his school live in every day. And few schools have just one kid like that.

A DA who wanted to shoot down (oops, unintended) Wilson’s claim that he feared for his life might have subpoenaed teachers from Michael Brown’s high school, an extremely violent environment which had recently graduated Michael Brown, and asked them about a typical day. That would be an interesting switch, wouldn’t it? Usually witnesses testify to what a great guy the victim was, the “gentle giant” in Brown’s case. Instead, bring on teachers who say “Yeah, he’s just a wild guy. Always going off, threw things at teachers when they pissed him off. But he always calmed down and took his suspension like a good sport. Scared? Naw. It’s pretty common at this school.”

It might be more difficult to convince a jury that Darren Wilson was endangered if unarmed, middle-aged teachers described getting a faceful of pepper spray while trying break up a fight between two girls. Such testimony might cause questions about a 6’4″ police officer’s claim that his pepper spray and night stick weren’t sufficient self-defense, given his choice not to carry a taser.

But such testimony would make it harder to sell the polite fiction of “reasonable belief” while actually upholding the unwritten rule that says, “obey the cops or sh** happens”. This rule holds true even if you’re a Presidential pal; Henry Gates and the President no doubt expected far worse to befall James Crowley for arresting a quarrelsome, disobedient Gates than a forced beer summit, until poll numbers caused President Obama to change course.

Obviously, all sorts of vested interests aren’t terribly interested in observing this contrast. I’m personally not certain we’re better off in a country where we all don’t fear cops, so perhaps preserving the polite fiction is the best of several bad options.

But then you have the disconnect, a dilemma captured by Robert Heinlein (thanks to commenter Mark Roulo for the reminder). Kids who live in poverty receive profoundly mixed messages about adults in authority. Angry, sometimes violent, adolescents attend high schools and are rarely if ever killed on campus for being a threat. Yet at the wrong time, in the wrong situation, these young men can be killed by police officers, supposedly for threatening the officers lives, more likely for being defiant and violent in ways not dramatically different from their high school behavior. Thus my observation, “One might say Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.”

So from here I see two clear questions.

First, does the systemic bias towards forgiveness and second chances in public schools create additional dangers for adolescents who get the wrong idea about the role of state authority in their lives?

Second, does the fact that teachers can handle the same students that cops claim put them in danger point to ways in which cops could mitigate their harsh reaction to defiance without using their guns? Leave aside, for the moment, the legitimate question as to whether it would diminish police authority. If Darren Wilson hadn’t had a gun, does anyone really believe he’d be dead instead of Brown?

I have my own thoughts on the first question, some of which I’ve discussed obliquely.** My thoughts do not include any foolhardy notions that school choice, accountability, higher test scores, or the insane notion of corporal punishment will help us find the path towards salvation.

I have some thoughts on the second point, too, since I do believe Darren Wilson would have survived Michael Brown’s charge without a gun.

However, let’s get caricatures out of the way. Cro reminds me that most cops, like teachers, often look for ways to defuse situations. I agree, and never thought otherwise. I do not see police officers as tyrannical bruisers, polar opposites to kind and tolerant teachers.

But then Cro starts his comment with an equally ridiculous caricature, conflating teachers with social workers. Um, no.

Old joke I first read in a Dick Francis novel:

“A man was beaten and robbed by thieves, left bleeding and unconscious in a gutter. Two sociologists came along, gasped in horror. One said to the other, ‘The man who did this needs our help.'”

I can’t speak for sociologists and social workers, but anyone who thinks this caricature applies to teachers isn’t paying attention. High poverty schools don’t offer cottony platitudes of love and understanding, supporting and excusing victims for all their actions. They have a wide range of reactions and consequences: some planned, some spur of the moment, and some forced on them by public policy. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of cro’s comment are just insanely off-base. I know many reformers think this way as well, think that “No Excuses” philosophy is something public schools reject because they don’t want to be mean.

Begin by assuming that cops and teachers have a great deal in common when working with at risk populations, but have widely different constraints.

The question, to me, is to what degree do we want to tighten constraints on police or loosen the constraints on public education? Is there a way we can do this that will help at risk teenagers get the multiple chances they sometimes need to get it right, without putting their lives at risk or endangering public safety?

I’m not sure any solutions get past “do what the cop says, or else”. But perhaps our priorities will change. As John Podoretz wrote, after the Wilson non-indictment, “Americans have often responded to an era of relative calm by deciding that the authorities have been too restrictive and cruel — resulting in a subsequent period in which greater laxity led to higher rates of crime.” If there was a way to thread the needle, to be authoritative without as much cruelty, without it leading to more crime (which I agree is a risk), that’s a discussion worth having.

*******************************************************************

*My view, entirely anecdotal: Dealing with kids who’ve been ensconced in homogenous, multi-generational, welfare-reliant poverty is a very different and more difficult task than working with kids equally poor, but living in a racially and socio-economically diverse area. This difference is not related to test scores, and of course both highly motivated and incredibly unmanageable kids are found in both groups. Again anecdotally, the violence is much less of a problem in the second group. This is why it’s harder to set up charters for the suburban poor–both kids and parents tend, on average, to like their schools.

**

  1. Start with Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways to the end,

  2. Start with charter schools succeed because of their ability to control students, not teachers to the end.

Mentoring Teachers

Last August, our new AVP asked me if I wanted to be an induction mentor. I fought off the urge to look at her in shock and said sure. I am not a fan of induction, but what the hell. My views on ed school have changed round the edges since that post, so maybe I could re-examine my firm belief that induction is the devil. Besides, neither of my induction mentors taught math, and if I’d refused this assignment the new teacher would have been assigned to someone Not a Math Teacher. Plus, amazingly, I get paid extra.

I would have done it for free, simply for the novelty of having been asked. Apparently, the move to my third school mad me a terrific teacher. All the administrators say hi unprompted and look at, rather than through, me. They ask my advice and want my feedback on interviews. I’m in my third year here and still haven’t really gotten used to being considered a valued resource. And the only thing that changed about my teaching practice was the address.

My mentee is a third year teacher who was very nervous that her induction mentor would treat her like a newbie whose ears needed wiping. Once we got past that, I think we’ve been doing well.

Induction itself has been a challenge. I’m a good mentor for new teachers (more on that in a minute), but she doesn’t really need mentoring on the basics. She needs me to play the other half of the induction process. Order. Following instructions. Attention to detail. Listening more than speaking. All attributes missing from my toolbox. I actually wake up nights every so often worried I’ve neglected something, that I’ll have let her down. Which means, I think, the exercise is good for me.

In addition, induction requires regular conversations about teaching practice, conversations that require give and take, as opposed to just jabbering about my own teaching which, it will come as little shock to regular readers, I am very fond of doing. I have to think about asking good questions of a peer, to be probing and challenging without dominating the conversation.

And at some point, I’ll have to observe her which means getting a substitute. Not crazy about that part. Still, this has really been useful professional development. Quite apart from just being thrilled to be asked, I’m learning a lot and working outside my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, we finally hired a full-time math teacher to replace the long term sub who was being terrorized by her Discovery Geometry class. Watching that go down was to witness a grueling demonstration of student brutality that I felt helpless to stop.

I met with this sub on many occasions. I personally handed her referral slips and wrote down the number to call to get students removed. I called supervisors to the room when the thumping and banging went on for more than two minutes. I told her not to let the kids even go to the bathroom and certainly not to let them go twice. Instead, she kept her door open in defiance of rules we’d been repeatedly told of, and kids came and went as they pleased. The other teachers in the surrounding classrooms were equally troubled; one of the most respected teachers on campus came in the classroom when the kids were throwing paper and empty water bottles at the sub. She told me privately she’d never shown so much contempt for students as she did in yelling at them—and that she could see some of them were ashamed. But they were at it again the next day. Those two months were an exercise in abuse psychology I’d just as soon have skipped, thanks. I learned that some teachers who can’t manage their classrooms just….go somewhere weird in their brains. They see themselves as helpless, even when they aren’t.

All of the teachers who witnessed this met with the administrators at various times to formally report the problem. I asked that supervisors stop by the classroom each day once or twice and just randomly remove kids who were acting out. Doing that a couple times would get kids leery waiting for the next supervisor appearance. It would have worked, I think. But no such action was taken.

While I wish our administrators had responded more vigorously, I’ve heard of this happening at other schools and it seems to be a universal response. I have concluded tentatively that administrators simply can’t bear to deal with the problems that occur when teachers—long-term subs or out-of-their-league probationaries—can’t control their classes. They look away. They have other things to do—including hiring replacements so they won’t have this problem next year.

What administrators ignore–or maybe just don’t let themselves think about or worst of all do think about and don’t ignore but can’t prevent—is the damage done to the kids. Never mind whether or not they lost instruction time (in fact, this sub was good on content). Kids in control of a classroom upsets the natural order. Students are troubled by this. Even the defiant nasties, the ones who’d do their best to disrupt in any circumstance, are bothered by teachers who just sit there and let it happen.

Anyway. When the new teacher came in, I came by to see him in his first hour on campus and recounted this history. He’s an intern, so he’s finishing up ed school while teaching (we should all be so lucky), a mild-mannered young guy with long hair and multiple piercings. I told him that I had zero authority over him, that he could take or leave anything I said, but that I believed he could permanently destroy himself as a teacher if he didn’t make classroom management his top priority. I don’t know how teachers recover from the memory of entire classes that hold not just their authority but their very existence in such contempt. I’m not convinced that most of them do.

I told him to come see me if he needed anything at all. He asked what he should do for the first day, and I suggested my algebra assessment test.

“But I don’t want to give them a test they haven’t had time to prepare for.”

“Tell them the only way they can get a bad grade is if they don’t try, and that you’ll be able to tell if they aren’t trying.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea. So this gets me through the first 20 minutes, then we can grade it, then what?”

“It will take them 45 minutes, then you can grade it, then you can go over class rules, which start with no one goes to the bathroom for a week in your classroom. Again, suggestion, I promise. But a strong suggestion.”

“This assessment will take them 45 minutes?”

“Your geometry class. The Discovery Geometry kids probably will need an hour, but some of them will just stop after that point.”

The next day, he reported with considerable astonishment that the geometry kids took 45 minutes; the Discovery Geometry kids took longer. I had street cred now.

He came by and asked for advice and curriculum frequently. Time and again, I was proven correct in suggesting he was being too ambitious in setting instructional rigor, ensuring he had a backup plan in case he needed to slow things down. He tells me this has helped him not only gauge student ability, but keep his classes successful—thus ensuring he keeps the students’ trust. He’s not a great classroom manager yet–the most disruptive class is still giving him trouble—but he’s male, which helps, and the classes are now well in hand.

He’s not eligible for induction, but it turns out we have another program to help intern teachers. Our school rep for that program reached out to him to see if he wanted a mentor and damned if he didn’t say “Hey, I already have one.” So now I’m getting paid to help him, too. I’m hoping I can combine all the observations for this and my induction mentee in one day.

Veteran teachers rarely reach out to help “the new guy” (or girl). At my last school, in just my third year of teaching, I was the go-to resource for two new math teachers whose induction mentors couldn’t be bothered. They both mentioned often how much they appreciated my help. One of them is now a department head (See? Told you he was a rock star) and he makes a point to give new teachers the support I provided him.

Key information:

  1. Copier information
  2. Referral slips
  3. Tech guy contact
  4. Principal’s secretary
  5. First day activity
  6. What to do if you don’t have logins to attendance system, grading book, and email. (First rule: Don’t let anyone make this your problem.)

In parenting, Jean Illsley Clark has defined assertive, supportive and conditional care. This paradigm works well with any kind of mentoring relationship, too. I could tell that my inductee was worried I would be assertive or conditional—that is, tell her what to do or withdraw my support if she didn’t share my teaching values. My other newbie told me apologetically he didn’t feel ready to teach a geometry subject the way I suggested, that he was more comfortable “just explaining it”. I told him that was fine, that methods like mine need commitment and confidence, that he shouldn’t extend himself until he feels ready.

I work hard to be purely supportive. I’m there to help, not make a teacher into a mini-me. Short of seeing a teacher break the law or endanger student well-being, I would never offer “assertive care”. And if there’s one thing that long-term sub taught me, it’s that “assertive care” doesn’t work without authority to back it up.

The upshot of all this: I’m an experienced teacher. I mean, I knew that. But now it’s official. I don’t want to go into management, have no interest in being a department head, and I’m not into sports. So I guess mentoring new teachers is where I go next. Huh. Not what I would have expected. But it would be fun to do this in a methods or classroom management course.

Note: Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, for a number of reasons. I’ve been doing all sorts of research but couldn’t settle on anything. I’m going to take on undemanding topics for a while to break the block.


The Teacher Wars: A Review

Before I start: I mind Dana Goldstein (could it be she really called herself Daisy, or is this a different Dana Goldstein who graduated from Brown in 2006?) a whole lot less than I do Elizabeth Green or Amanda Ripley. I do have a complaint about book publishers handing book deals to dilettantes. Now Dana is dubbed a brilliant young scholar when in fact, she’s a reporter, a journalist, with a BA in international something or other. I mean, please.

So first off, the title’s a serious case of wishful thinking. This book can’t even be considered an inadequate history of teaching. Goldstein loses sight of her brief within a chapter or two. Anyone looking for a more systematic approach to the development and changes in the teaching profession should check out The Trouble With Ed Schools, by David Labaree, or dip into The One Best System: A History of Urban Education by David Tyack. Perhaps The Great School Wars, by Diane Ravitch, or even her The Troubled Crusade, which addresses mostly k-12 and college developments since World War II, but still gives a good accounting of developments in the teaching profession.

Yes, The Great School Wars is about the history of New York City schools, and Tyack’s work is limited to urban education. But Dana doesn’t stray much from New York all that often, and when she does, it’s usually urban education: Chicago and LA both make an appearance in that regard. But she rarely leaves the Eastern Seaboard. Goldstein leaves out much of America’s diversity: the word “Asian” makes two appearances, neither of which involve teachers working with students, Hispanics are only after the “and” (blacks and Hispanics), rural America not at all, save for the post-Civil War African Americans. This in a book that has the time to sigh wistfully over Catherine Beecher’s drowned fiancé and give a few pages to Horace Mann’s obsession with phrenology.

I found next to nothing in chapters seven and beyond on teachers themselves; it’s all on the changing discourse around teaching. I literally went back to the book title at one point; was I mistaken as to the book’s intent? No, there it was: A history of the profession.

Larry Cuban is a resource on the Cardozo Project, an earlier effort to recruit young, white elites into teaching (in this case, ex-Peace Corps volunteers), which gets the better part of a chapter. Cuban is the best progressive voice in education (and a properly skeptical one), but why does the Cardozo Project get so much time in a purported history of teaching that doesn’t once explain, lucidly, how teachers get credentials? Goldstein briefly describes the process for New York, in the mid-century, twice—usually with disapproval. She occasionally mentions the National Teacher Examination disapprovingly, without ever explaining what it was–and is.

Best mention of the NTE: “a controversial standardized test…known for producing higher scores among whites.” Yes, those state credentialing boards had to search long and hard to find a test where whites scored higher than blacks. It’s so uncommon that we all used to call the NTE “that biased test where whites score higher than blacks” unlike the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, every school test in the existence of the universe…

At least she mentions the NTE. The Praxis series doesn’t get one mention. Yes, in three chapters on the current “history” of teaching, one in which Goldstein regularly bewails the lack of black teachers, not a single mention of the increasing content knowledge standards, no acknowledgement of the considerable legal history on teacher examinations, all of which begins and ends with the disparate impact on teachers of color. This is, of course, one of my beats, so I’d be a tough critic anyway. But the idea that anyone could write about the history of teaching, and declare that “most have below-average SAT scores and graduate from nonselective colleges and universities” without mentioning the credential test—hell, just cut and paste NCTQ promotional materials in and call it a day.

Another puzzling gap is any mention of the development of student teaching. I haven’t begun my research in this area, but surely any history of teachers would mention the development of the practicum. Oh, hey, here Goldstein does use NCTQ as a reference:

California essentially prohibited the undergraduate education major in 1970. Prospective elementary school teachers there could choose any major and then spend a post-baccalaureate year student teaching while taking a few education classes. According to research from the National Council on Teacher Quality, a single year turned out not to be enough time to train teachers in the pedagogical skills needed for the broad range of subjects elementary teachers, especially, must tackle. Early-grades math instruction in particular was short-changed in California, and students paid the price.

Goldstein later says she tried to stick to analysis, not opinionating. She must have forgotten this passage. NCTQ is not a gold-standard source. The education major is not particularly well-respected; many reformers call for its demise. I’m also pretty sure every state allows a prospective teacher to “choose any major” and then do a year for a credential. This is, after all, how most secondary teachers get their credentials, and no small number of elementary schoolers. Yet here Goldstein is harshly criticizing the one state that did do away with the education major—without ever backing up the “students suffer” claim. (Sure, California has low test scores, but so do a whole bunch of states that offer education majors.)

But the point is that this is the first mention of student teaching, in chapter 8. How and when did teachers start providing free labor as part of training? Did it start at this point? Shouldn’t that be mentioned somewhere? Look elsewhere. Hell, look here in a month or three.

So considered as a history of teaching, Teachers Wars doesn’t even begin to start to deliver.

The book succeeds somewhat as a series of occasionally entertaining essays intended as a cautionary tale to education reformers, reminding them they haven’t had a single new idea in the past 30 years. But Tinkering Towards Utopia and The Same Thing Over and Over Again have already covered that ground. Goldstein has little new to offer. She’s too busy hitting all the buttons: feminism, check, teaching ex-slaves, check, union formation and feminism, check, communist pledges, check, overly white profession avoiding diversity, check.

And even considered in this light, the book has deficiencies. Goldstein’s time allocation is lopsided; one hundred and fifty years (1830-1980, roughly) are covered in 140 pages, while 30 years get nearly 100 pages, or nearly triple the attention. This doesn’t count the introduction and epilogue, both focused primarily on the present. Three pages on a random teacher getting canned. Kati Haycock gets an ungodly amount of time. In addition to Larry Cuban’s Cardozo Project, Alex Caputo-Pearl gets a ream or so.

I might not object as much to the past 30 years gets proportionately more attention if Goldstein had any new insights, but apart from learning the name of Reagan’s first Secretary of Education (Ted Lewis Bell–ok, so I didn’t learn it), I found little on that front. Goldstein just regurgitates recent history rather than analyze its impact. The last half of the book is slow going indeed, because there’s little we haven’t seen a million times before. I guess everyone’s forgotten the PBS series that Goldstein appeared to borrow an outline from, and will be intrigued by hints that Horace Mann and Catherine Beecher were romantically involved.

A direct comparison is instructive. The Nation published Goldstein’s chapter on the famous fight for control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools, in which an African American community school board fires 19 teachers without cause and Al Shanker calls a city-wide strike that goes on for over a month. Goldstein declares that the real issue involved was teacher competency (“But what could be done about teachers who were just plain bad at their jobs?”), that the board was just trying to fire bad teachers. She singles out art teacher Richard Douglass, saying he was witnessed by hall monitor Cecil Bowen being completely incompetent. Using this anecdote, Goldstein implies without saying directly this led to the May 9th firings which caused a seven month show-down.

I’m unconvinced. I can find no mention of Douglass in any other account, and while I’m not doubting her source (apparently a contemporaneous magazine article), Goldstein’s claim of incompetent teachers isn’t supported by Ravitch’s history (more on that in a minute) nor a recent history of the account, The Strike that Changed New York, by Jerald Podair. Podair explicitly says that Rhody McCoy and the school board made a list of the educators…most hostile to district control. Podair also writes that that the new teachers hired by McCoy tried to teach differently, engage the kids. Engagement vs.rigor is, of course, a debate still to this day. But I could find no real mention of teacher incompetence as the cause, but rather teacher resistance to the board. Douglass makes no appearance in that book, nor is he mentioned in Why They Couldn’t Wait, or Charles Isaacs’ account from inside. The general consensus appears to be not that these were “bad teachers” but that they were trouble makers. It may also have been true that the teachers “didn’t relate” to the students, but Isaacs’ account makes clear that “relating” means an early entry of the hippy dippy 70s teaching style, truly the nadir of recent American education. And, as Goldstein makes clear , the test scores plummeted under Rhody McCoy and community control, so despite all the supposedly rigid teachers, kids actually learned less with the well-meaning newbies and teachers who “related”.

But apart from that one discrepancy, Goldstein’s account doesn’t break any new ground, and can thus be compared to the first history of this incident, which appeared in Diane Ravitch’s The Great School Wars.

And the comparison doesn’t serve Goldstein well. It’s easy to mock Ravitch these days, and her credibility in the elite circles of edu-wonks is apparently quite low (education reporters like Alexander Russo openly insult her on Twitter) but her early histories have chapters that just scorch your psyche. I originally included some quotes, but really, the overall comparison is girl to woman, boy to man, History Lite to Serious Shit. Ravitch was 34 when she wrote The Great School Wars, Goldstein is about 30. Ravitch didn’t have a book deal, she wasn’t a journalist from the right schools (much more important these days then back then), she was a housewife and mom with a rich husband with no one to please, and it shows. Agree or disagree with Ravitch’s overarching themes, her early work really is fearless and purely exhilarating to read.

Instead, we have Dana Goldstein, who made it this far by getting into the right school, writing what’s expected of her, not offending anyone, so why start now?


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.


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.


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