Tag Archives: teacher preparation

Math isn’t Aspirin. Neither is Teaching.

First, congrats to Dan Meyer, who finished his doctorate at Stanford and just hired on as CAO for Desmos, a tremendously useful online graphing calculator. He persisted in the face of threatened failure, and didn’t give up even when he had an easy out into a great job. (Presumably Dan and most of the Math Twitter Blogosphere are still annoyed at my jeremiad about the meaning of his meteoric rise, in which Dan played the part of illustration.)

Dan has asked math teachers for ways to create “headaches” for which math can be considered aspirin:

dmeyeraspirin

And this interested me because the request completely, perfectly, captures the difference between our two philosophies, which I also wrote about a couple years ago:

meyervsme

The comparison is an instructive one, I think. Both of us find it necessary to build our own curriculum, rejecting the one on offer, and both of us, I think, tremendously enjoy the creation process. Both of us reject the typical didactic contract described by Guy Brouseau, setting expectations very different from those of typical math teachers: explain, work a few examples, assign a set. Both of us largely eschew textbooks for instruction, although I consider them completely unnecessary save as reference books that often provide interesting problems I can steal, while Dan dreams of the perfect digital textbook.

And yet we couldn’t differ more in both teaching philosophy and curriculum approach.

Dan’s still selling curiosity and desire for knowledge, assuming capability will follow. I’m still selling capability because I see confidence follow.

Dan still believes that student engagement captures their curiosity which leads to academic success, that the Holy Grail of academic success in math lies in finding the perfect problems that universally stimulate interest in finding answers, which leads to understanding for all. I hold that student engagement leads to their willingness to attempt what they previously thought was impossible but that the Holy Grail doesn’t exist.

Meyer thinks teachers skeptical of his methods are resistant to change and the best interests of their students. I advise teachers and recommend curriculum; if they find my advice helpful, great. I encourage them to modify or even reject my advice, to continue to see an approach that works for them and their students.

Dan wants to be “less helpful”. I want to teach kids to use their own resources, but given a kid who wants to give up, I’m offering help every time.

Meyer’s methods would probably need tremendous readjustment if he worked in a low-income school with a wide range of abilities. I’d probably be much “less helpful” if I taught at a school with a high-achieving, homogenous population obsessed about grades.

Meyer rose quickly in the rarefied world of rock star teachers. I aspire to the role of and indie with cult status.

Dan’s query: “Why did mathematicians think this skill was worth even a little bit of our time? If the ability to factor that trinomial is aspirin for a mathematician, then how do we create the headache?

My answer: You can’t.

The commenters, mostly teachers, took the question seriously, understanding that it was another way of looking at the students’ demand, “When will we use this?”. Answering this question clearly troubles most of the commenters—or they have an affirmative answer they’re satisfied with.

My answer to the student demand: “Probably never. But the more willing you are to take on challenging tasks you learn from, the more opportunities you’ll have in life, both professional and personal. Call me crazy, but I see this as a good thing.”

Dan Meyer is wrong, I believe, in looking for the Holy Grail that makes math “aspirin”1. But that’s not the point of my running through the Dan vs. Ed showdown.

Instead, consider the comparison yet another data point in my slowly developing thesis that ed schools need more flexibility and even less prescription. Few people understand the vast scale of values, philosophies, management and curriculum found in the teaching population.

Two teachers developing uncommon curriculum who agree on very little—yet both of us are considered successful teachers. (one has much more success selling his ideas to people with money, I grant you.) Take ten more math teachers likewise who build their own curriculum, have their own takes on philosophy, discipline, and even grading and they’re unlikely to change to suit another model. Take 100 more–ditto. Voila! an expanding population of teachers who have successful teaching approaches and curriculum design that they’ve developed and modified. None of them are going to agree on much. They have come to widely varying conclusions that they will continue to develop and enhance on their timeline as they see fit. No one will have anything approaching a convincing argument that could possibly convince them otherwise.

The point: the current push to “fix” ed schools, a fond delusion of reformers, progressives and union leaders alike. People as diverse as Benjamin Riley, Paul Bruno, Rick Hess and others believe we can find (or already have) a teaching knowledge base that can be passed on to novices.

Teachers are never going to agree.

Agreement or even consensus is impossible. Teachers and students form infinite combinations of interests, values, incentives and unlike reformers, teachers are going to value their experience and unique circumstances over anything ed schools tried to pretend was the only way.

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience. Treat it as a medicine, mandate a particular course of treatment, and hundreds of thousands of teachers will simply refuse to comply because it won’t cure the challenges and opportunities they face.

So when the status quo has prevailed for the next 30 years, don’t say you weren’t warned.
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1which isn’t to say I don’t plan on writing up the how and why of my quadratic equations section.


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?