What Education “Reformers” Do Not Understand About Teaching and Learning

It is often hard to understand the disconnect that seems to exist between the belief of prominent figures in education reform and the reality of teaching in America’s classrooms.  For example, at the end of September, Politico published an interview with self appointed education reformer Bill Gates, whose documented support for the Common Core State Standards, mass high stakes testing, teacher evaluations tied to testing and charter schools has greatly influenced the reform landscape of the past decade.  Gates, perhaps taking part in the efforts of reformers to have a “new conversation” to save the Common Core, treads familiar territory for himself in this interview.  Previously, he called upon teachers to defend the Common Core by appealing to its obvious utility and comparing it to industry standardization:

“If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive,” he said. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers, he said.

If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. “To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful,” he said.

He sounds off on similar themes in the Politico article, stating, ““Should Georgia have a different railroad width than anybody else? Should they teach multiplication in a different way? Oh, that’s brilliant. Who came up with that idea?”  Let me pause for a moment and give the technology mogul his due.  In industry, he is correct that standardized platforms for, say, delivering useful electricity from a wall socket, help spur technological innovations that make consumers’ lives better.  However, let me also state that the question of how to teach a child multiplication or how to read is vastly more complicated and has infinitely more variables than the question of how to attach an electric motor to a hand blender.

And besides, as teacher and blogger Peter Green notes, Gates simply does not understand the parameters of his metaphor and why it does not apply to teaching and learning.  Green writes:

Railroad gauges and plug configurations are, within certain engineering requirements, fairly arbitrary choices. Had railroad gauges been set a few inches wider or a few inches, it would not matter. The purpose of setting a standard is not to impose a choice that’s a better choice for the rails, but to impose a choice that makes all the rails work as parts of a larger whole. Within certain extremes, there’s no bad choice for gauge width; the actual width of the gauge matters less than the uniformity.

Decisions about educational standards are not arbitrary. Some educational choices are better than others, and those choices matter in and of themselves. The choice of standards matters far more than the uniformity. Human children are not in school for the primary purpose of being fitted to become part of a larger whole. Imposing a bad standards choice simply to have uniformity is a disastrous choice, but that is what the Common Core has done– sacrificed good standards in order to have uniformity, which is not even a desirable goal for human children in the first place.

Green’s point here should be crystal clear to anyone who is either connected to schooling or willing to think like those involved:  standards in education have to pay far more attention to the quality and impact of the standards than the standard of railroad gauges or electrical outlets have to because while a rail car can run along a track whatever size it is or a blender can draw electricity from an outlet regardless of its organization, a bad standard, if incentivized coercively enough will flow into instructional materials, teacher planning and assessments.  At the end of that journey, it will still be a bad standard regardless of standardization.

But even good standards are not guaranteed to leverage change in the classroom unless they are approached in manners that offer genuine support, collaboration and authentic buy in from the teachers involved in implementing them.  David Cohen, writing 24 years ago about efforts to enact mathematics reforms, presented the case of “Mrs. Oublier” in which he demonstrated that even with a teacher who was sincerely enthusiastic about teaching students to understand rather than to recite mathematics, her lack of fully understanding the conceptual changes to mathematics and her lack of a community of teachers continually working on their understanding led her to very questionable “reform” of her teaching.  Change was a three-legged stool, and with only one leg, her enthusiasm, Mrs. O was unable to really change.  The Common Core  so enthusiastically embraced by Bill Gates has the exact same problem on steroids.  Rushed in development and implementation, the standards are hardly uniformly excellent, supporting materials, similarly rushed, often confuse more than assist teachers, students, and parents in understanding expectations, and teachers have had no choice but to “buy in” to the reforms as states were required to use tests aligned with common standards if they wanted to drink at the trough of Race to the Top.  Nothing about this enterprise has demonstrated the least understanding of what it means to teach and to learn to teach.

In some ways, however, this is not a surprise.  Few of the current proponents of education reform have any classroom experience, and their knowledge of teaching and learning comes from their experiences as students in K-12 education.  Over a 13 year primary and secondary education, that translates to roughly 15,000 hours spent watching teachers teach.  No other college educated profession is so visible to the public as teachers are, and after so much time spent in the company of teachers teaching, vast swaths of the public think that they know what it is that teachers do.  Dan Lortie, in his seminal 1975 book “Schoolteacher: a Sociological Study,” dubbed this the “apprenticeship of observation,” which is largely responsible for the preconceived notions about teachers and teaching that most prospective teachers bring to their preparation.  These notions, while sincerely held and personally important to future teachers, are often simplistic and owe their formation to the narrow view of teaching one can glean simply by observing its most public performances in the classroom.  Development of content mastery, knowledge of students and their individual and collective needs as learners, a richly differentiated pedagogical repertoire that assists in transforming content into something that prompts learning, effectively managing the classroom learning environment, a reflective disposition that considers quantitative and qualitative input about how well students have learned and adjusts plans accordingly — none of that is truly visible to those who sit on the student side of the classroom except in how it is enacted in 40-60 minute long performances.

Untangling those visions of teaching and learning is one of the most interesting and difficult tasks of teacher education.  Even though much of what my students have learned from their time in K-12 school is superficial, quite a lot of it is deeply precious to them.  It is built upon the experience of working with beloved and respected teachers, and it comes from their own genuine enthusiasm for the experiences they had with content in those classrooms.  Our work in teacher education has to involve respecting that, helping students deconstruct their experiences so that they can see the craft involved in teaching, and prompting them to build upon rather than to destroy the visions with which they arrive.  I love this work, but I also recognize how difficult it can be for my students to make that journey in their time with us.  For starters, I do not have 15,000 hours in which to help them critically reflect upon their time in school, build more powerful visions of teaching and learning and teach them the pedagogical knowledge they need to enact those visions.  I have 30 credit hours, four field internships and student teaching.  Nested between the apprenticeship of observation and a, hopefully, long career teaching, university teacher education is necessarily a time when we demand a lot of prospective teachers so that they may best assist their future students.  Their journey to “the other side of the desk” is complex and packed.

It is a journey that Bill Gates has never taken himself, and I think it contributes to his almost entirely mechanistic approach to education reform: make everyone use the same thing, force compliance from teachers through assessment, wait for “innovation” to flow into the classroom via third party vendors all developing products for the same standards, and assume that everyone will get a high quality product at the end of the process.  Even if his assumptions are correct, teachers, and their learning, are left out of the process.  If learning to teach is a complex and iterative process involving close examination of preexisting ideas and critical evaluation of oneself, then learning to teach a reformed set of standards is not any less complex.  Consider again David Cohen’s lessons from Mrs. Oublier: even a teacher enthusiastic about the vision of teaching and learning embodied in a new set of standards needs far more than her enthusiasm and a new set of curriculum materials, and without a complete and robust effort to relearn how she saw mathematics and a community working together to help each other in that task, she fell far short.

This is not an implementation issue, so much as it is a perspective issue.  In the Politico interview, Gates talks about how standardizing teaching of multiplication across states is as obvious as standardizing railroads, and he calls standardization of learning at each grade level merely a “technocratic issue.”  He speaks admiringly of Asian countries that have “nice, thin textbooks,” and he calls the previous education landscape a “cacophony” simply because states had various standards.  And he also says that the standards mean that all students will be taught on what they will be tested, and “we should have great curriculum material.”  This harkens back to his previously quoted March call for teachers to “defend the core” where he promised standardization would lead to better materials.  Again, the teachers and teacher learning are missing from this process.

And that is because Bill Gates has never taught nor has he ever embarked upon the journey from student to teacher.

Despite having undertaken the task of reforming American education, Bill Gates does not understand the least thing about what it takes to become a teacher, nor does he understand the least thing about promoting teacher learning throughout the teaching career.  His reform choices and the elements that he continuously talks up as “reform” make the most sense if he thinks of teaching as the enactment of materials in the classroom, without sufficient comprehension of the long process of learning to teach that only begins with observations and assumptions gleaned from lengthy contact with teachers in classrooms.  These are assumptions about practice and how to bring about meaningful and positive change that no ed reformer would presume to make about the practice of doctors or attorneys, but they make it about teachers and learning.

And it is a big part of the reason why their enterprise is faltering.  You cannot reform what you do not understand.


Filed under Common Core, Gates Foundation, schools

2 responses to “What Education “Reformers” Do Not Understand About Teaching and Learning

  1. For sure, one has to be really being ignorant of education is to compare the standardization of educational standards with that of electrical outlets. Or one has to think that the purpose of education is to produce standardized employment-ready people that will just fit the demands of the labor market. We might as well destroy the school system completely and send kids to work directly, so they get conditioned according to the right standards!

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