Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

I invited a number of my department’s alumni back to campus this week for an informal panel discussion about our preparation program, their experiences as early career classroom teachers, and what we can do to improve the experiences of our current undergraduates.  It was a fantastic evening, largely because the young people with whom I had been impressed when they were here remain an impressive group of early career teachers.  They had many insights about knowledge, both practical and theoretical, that would have aided them even more as they began their careers, and myself and my colleagues have been similarly considering several of those ideas as we engage in our constant work of program assessment and renewal.  Beyond those ideas, however, a consistent theme seemed to emerge from our conversation:

Schools today need to slow down.

Our graduates told us of their experiences with phenomena that we know about and that we have observed in schools during field visits and from regular discussions with teachers in partner schools.  However, we have never directly experienced those changes as teachers in the classrooms effected by them.  They spoke of having to create and measure “Student Growth Outcomes” with no practice, no training in creating statistical measurements, and no release time to do analysis.  They spoke of rapid changes with little time to adapt, and they spoke about constantly shifting technology demands made upon their teaching and their record keeping/administrative tasks.  They spoke about the changing nature of the young people entering their classrooms, many of whom have grown up in a world of information that constantly streams into their hands with few opportunities to truly comprehend and analyze that information and with few adults who truly understand the technology’s strengths and pitfalls — even while they demand that teachers find ways to use them productively in the classroom.

As our alumni spoke about these issues, one overarching description of their work lives became clear to me: hurried.  It is not that teachers have ever felt entirely relaxed in the profession.  In his 1975 book, “School Teacher: A Sociological Study,” Dan Lortie (1975) notes that feeling pressed for time because of constant demands from outside of the classroom is a common complaint among teachers:

“First, we can think of time as the single most important, general resource teachers possess in their quest for productivity and psychic reward; ineffective allocations of time are costly. Second, from one perspective teaching processes are ultimately interminable; one can never strictly say that one has “finished” teaching students. At what point has one taught every student everything he might possibly learn about the curriculum?  More broadly, when can one feel that one has taught everything that any particular student should learn? The theme of concern about incompleteness ran throughout the interviews; unfortunately, it occurred in various places, making systematic collation next to impossible. Presumably teachers develop defenses against overexpectation for themselves; yet these defenses do not always seem to work. If one is inwardly pressed by a feeling of not having finished one’s work, inert time must be particularly galling.” (p. 177)

Little in the teacher education research suggests that this has changed, and quite a lot of new education policies and changes to how young people seek and consume information has layered on top of Lortie’s observations rather than replaced them.  If teachers are being required to account for the impact on students’ learning in new (and statistically questionable) ways using standards and examinations with which they have little familiarity and inadequate training and no release time, if teachers are required to utilize new tools and accounting procedures without substantial in school support, and if the students they have are used to a constant stream of unfiltered information but have never been taught discernment in the use of that information, then there is little doubt that teachers today are feeling heavily pressured and constrained in their time.

My former students’ conversation on such matters got me thinking about the “Slow Food Movement,” which began in the late 1980s to educate consumers about the benefits of food that is local, minimally processed, and diverse in both culture and biology.  As a response to the rise of fast food and factory styled agriculture, slow food emphasizes the variety of local cuisines that should be preserved and the value of food that has to be prepared and cooked rather than defrosted and heated up.  Slow food obviously takes time that fewer and fewer people believe that they have, but it also represents more knowledge about food and its preparation, and it preserves more of the inherent nutritional value in ingredients.

I want a Slow Schools Movement.

While teachers grapple with the pressures of new and unfamiliar standards whose scopes are being narrowed with the highest stakes testing in national history, it is unsurprising that the pace of everything in school is being increased.  In the history of education, it is almost always more common for duties and responsibilities to be added to what teachers are expected to do rather than to see them peeled back.  Teachers’ duties are not restricted to classroom work, but with 35 states still providing less per pupil funding than they did in 2008 and with over 324,000 jobs in K-12 education being lost, remaining teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals have even more work that they need to accomplish on a daily basis.  The number of school aged children ages 6-17 has declined slightly since 2008, from 49.9 million to 49.6 million (it is set to rise again in the near future), but with a larger proportion of people working in schools gone, each individual has more to do.  In a policy environment that provides high stakes standardized tests the power to put teachers’ jobs in the balance and with an active movement afoot to remove teachers’ workplace protections, pressures today rival those at any point since the Common School movement began in the 19th century.

How detrimental to the practices of teaching and learning.

However, the need for “slow schools” goes well beyond a simple desire to lift added and poorly thought out burdens from teachers who already had important work to do.  It goes towards fundamental aspects of what learning actually requires.  A productive school is one that hums with energy, but it is not the energy of people rushing anxiously from one obligation to another.  It is the energy of people grappling with challenging ideas and materials, working through from what they do not understand to what they do understand, and proposing and testing new hypotheses about how the world works around them.  That is a specific kind of energy that cannot happen under constant pressure to perform on command.  In order to foster it, teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their subjects and how to structure lessons that move students along in their understanding.  Jerome Bruner (1960) writes about this in “The Process of Education” where he quotes elementary mathematics teacher, David Page:

“…’When I tell mathematicians that fourth-grade students can go a long way into ‘set theory’ a few of them reply: ‘Of course.’ Most of them are startled. The latter ones are completely wrong in assuming that ‘set theory’ is intrinsically difficult. We just have to wait until the proper point of view and corresponding language for presenting it are revealed. Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or lead the child to ask trivial questions.  It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions.  The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and can take you somewhere.  This is the big job of teachers and textbooks.’  One leads the child by the well-wrought medium questions to move rapidly through the stages of intellectual development, to a deeper understanding of mathematical, physical, and historical principles. We must know far more about the ways in which this can be done.”  (p. 40)

Of course, what Mr. Page says to Jerome Bruner is not simply a matter of finding a “trick.”  Rather, it is a complicated interplay of knowing the subject, knowing the pedagogical means of asking questions that transform children’s understanding, and of monitoring how students are developing in response to those questions, often in ways that are not precisely rapid or predictable.  Doyle (1983) explains students’ work in terms of “tasks” comprised of the products students are to produce, the operations  necessary to produce them, and the materials or models available to assist.  He further notes that tasks with the greatest learning rewards are often the most complex and difficult to establish in the classroom: “The central point is that the type of tasks which cognitive psychology suggests will have the greatest long-term consequences for improving the quality of academic work are precisely those which are the most difficult to install in classrooms.” (p. 186)

Eleanor Duckworth (1987) of Harvard University explained many of these issues eloquently in her essay collection, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas.”

“One of the teachers, Joanne Cleary, drew on the blackboard this picture of the earth in the midst of the sun’s rays and was trying to articulate her thoughts about it. Another member of the group was asking her to be more precise.  Did she mean exactly half the earth was in darkness? Did it get suddenly dark at the dividing line or was there some gray stripe? The one who was trying to articulate her thoughts grew angry, and gave up the attempt.  She said later that she knew the questions were necessary at some point, but she had not been ready to be more precise. She was struggling to make sense of a morass of observations and models, an idea was just starting to take shape, and, she said, ‘I needed time for my confusion.’

“That phrase has become a touchstone for me. There is, of course, no particular reason to build broad and deep knowledge about ramps, pendulums, or the moon.  I choose them, both in my teaching and in discussion here, to stand for any complex knowledge. Teachers are often, and understandably, impatient for the students to develop clear and adequate ideas.  But putting ideas in relationship to each other is not a simple job. It is confusing; and that confusion does take time. All of us need time for confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that gives significance to our knowledge.” (p. 102)

Consider how important this is from the perspective of a learner.  A deep and layered understanding of complex ideas cannot be forced to happen simply through intensity, although significance and deep understanding have intensity of their own.  Students necessarily must be frustrated as they grapple with complex and unknown concepts, but they need time in order to work through that confusion, and when forced or hurried to move they not only fail to develop the desired understanding, but also they become needlessly frustrated and disengaged from the task of learning.  Taken together, Bruner, Doyle, and Duckworth denote essential truisms about classrooms and learning:  1) students are capable of better and deeper understanding of more complex ideas than we often think they can; 2) the products, processes, and materials that support the development of that understanding are often highly ambiguous and complex to enact in a classroom; 3) confusion is an important part of the learning process, and learners need time and space to be where they are in their emerging understanding without being forced to move faster than they need.

Even though I have recently criticized the Common Core State Standards in the English Language Arts for being too narrow in their reading perspectives, I would like to use an example from them to illustrate this point.  This is taken from the sixth grade writing standards:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.a
Introduce claim(s) and organize the reasons and evidence clearly.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.b
Support claim(s) with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.c
Use words, phrases, and clauses to clarify the relationships among claim(s) and reasons.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.d
Establish and maintain a formal style.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.1.e
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the argument presented.

From Doyle’s perspective, these quoted standards denote tasks that are both high in ambiguity and high in risk (p. 183) if taken seriously.  Sixth graders are required to perform a complex series of cognitive moves in order to write arguments that are organized, supported with evidence, follow a logical order of argumentation including a conclusion, and use formal language and syntax to enhance readers’ understanding of their argument.  For accomplished college level writers, this is probably a task that appears simple, but the simplicity is entirely the product of its familiarity to those same writers.  For sixth graders, this is a complex set of cognitive moves that requires significant modeling and experimentation as well as a wealth of preexisting knowledge about how to write coherently and connectedly and an ability to adjust argument and tone depending upon the purposes for writing and the author’s sense of her or his audience.

More important than these skills, however, is that in order to accomplish what is envisioned in the standard, students will need the time and the safety to fail, possibly often.  Writing is a messy and often nonlinear endeavor, and even the most accomplished of authors revise often, change direction, and even throw out entire ideas and start over again.  For a student in the classroom open recognition of imperfect performance is often overshadowed by a fear of the consequences such imperfection often provokes.  Teachers who genuinely want their students to write in this way have to create conditions where students are willing to risk that their imperfections will be a source of improvement rather than of punishment, and students will need time to understand themselves as writers and to develop not merely the forms of analytic writing, but also an inwardly critical eye.

And this is where the increasingly hurried pace of schools and teachers’ work is more than a concern for how teachers measure their job satisfaction; it becomes a threat to children actually learning.  It is not that we have merely adopted new, complicated standards that have been pushed into classrooms far too quickly and with questionable materials for classroom use, but also it is that by tying teachers’ promotion and job retention to student performance on standardized tests that, at best, can only approximate student learning (and then only when they are well-designed), we have incentivized teaching to those tests as literal make or break decision for teachers and schools.  Teachers are most heavily pushed in the current policy environment to focus on those student skills that prepare them for performance in multiple choice, timed examinations.  Students learning to process confusion and teachers promoting classrooms where students can risk failure so that they build genuine understanding over time?  Today’s concepts of teacher accountability can make teaching for powerful and transformative purposes a career ending decision.

Consider the process by which teachers in New Jersey are held accountable for “Student Growth Outcomes” (SGOs) in addition to student annual progress in standardized exams via Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs).  SGPs are related to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness which use predicted gains on student test scores as a measure of how well teachers are teaching.  The SGO process is supposedly a professional research investigation that every teacher in New Jersey must accomplish each year by examining what students know at the beginning of the year, making predictions about student growth after a year of instruction, designing instruction to promote that growth, and then demonstrating the students’ actual growth in the classroom.  SGOs are set every year by every teacher working with an administrator and submitted to the state for verification.  While layered with external accountability, the concept had potential to help teachers see their work as a process of continuous improvement in the “teacher as researcher” mode of professionalism.

In practice, this is, charitably, far more dicey.  New Jersey insists that SGOs must be clearly measurable, so qualitative investigations are out of the question.  However, teachers are not, by trade, quantitative measurement experts, and the instructions issued the state department of education strike me as highly questionable.  Consider the following selection from page 16 of the DOE handbook:

Setting the Standard for “Full Attainment” of the Student Growth Objective
In order to develop a scoring guide based on how well you meet your SGO, determine the following:
a) a target score on the final assessment that indicates considerable learning;
b) the number of students that could reasonably meet this mark;
c) the percentage of students in the course that this represents; and
d) a 10-15 percent range around this number.
For example, you and your evaluator may decide that 80% on a challenging assessment indicates considerable learning. Based on an initial evaluation of the 65 students in your course, your evaluator agrees with the assessment that about 50 of them could reasonably make this score at the end of the year. This is 77 percent of the students. You make 70-84 percent the range around this number. This means that if between 45 and 55 of students (70-84 percent of them) score at least 80% on the final assessment, you would have fully met the objective. This is shown in Figure 4 on page 16.
Setting Other Standards of Attainment
Once a range is established for “full attainment,” subtracting 10-15 percent from the lower range of “full attainment” will produce the “partial attainment” category. Any number below this range is the “insufficient attainment” category. Above the high end of the “full attainment” range is the “exceptional attainment” range.

The problem here is that there is absolutely no indication upon what teachers will determine what represents “considerable learning” and what percentage of students can be expected to meet this target other than a cursory examination of an early year assessment. Such determinations would have to be fairly complex statistical exercises if done with any recognition of the complexity of predicting individual student outcomes, and, in fact, give the very questionable reliability of VAMs and SGPs, we should question the SGO exercise being based upon similar assumptions.  Worse, the state handbook encourages setting of ranges that are entirely arbitrary, probably favoring a neat reporting of the data rather than a valid one.  Upon what basis are predicted ranges of student performance set in 10-15 percent intervals?  What individual and group characteristics make those ranges plausible?  If the state requires ranges of performance in 10-15 percent intervals, what happens in classrooms where initial student performance falls into different ranges?

I asked these questions at a training session on SGOs last Spring, and the answer was a wan smile.  Unsurprisingly, some reports from implementation suggest that the enterprise is time consuming and confusing.  Consider this account by teacher Douglas McGuirk of Dumont High School sent in a letter to Diane Ravitch of New York University:

The next day, the SGO was rejected, and my supervisor told me that all SGOs had been done incorrectly and that our staff would need training. We held a department meeting to review SGO policies. We then held an after school training session to discuss the writing of SGOs. I attended both of these. After two weeks of writing and rewriting my SGO, complete with all of the Core Curriculum Content Standards pasted from the web site, I finally had an acceptable SGO. I managed to accomplish absolutely no lesson planning during this period of time. I graded no papers. I am a veteran teacher with nine years in the profession. I understand how to manage my workload, overcome setbacks, and complete my responsibilities. In short, I am a professional who maintains a diligent work ethic.

But nothing could prepare me for the amount of time I had just spent on a new part of my job that basically exists so that I can continue to prove that I should be entitled to do the other parts of my job. After I completed my SGO, my principal told our staff to make sure we save all of the data, paperwork, and student work relating to our SGO, just in case people from the State want to review the integrity of the data. Seriously? This is the most egregious assumption that there is an infinite amount of time.

How different this is from more empowering visions of teachers researching their own practice.  Many proposals have been made over the years to have teachers treat their classrooms as ongoing research projects, and, indeed, the best teachers already do this informally by making ongoing assessments of what their students are learning and consistently adjusting instruction based upon what they need.  However, critical components of seeing teachers as researchers are things entirely absent from the SGO process: 1) authentic teacher interest in what is being studied; 2) time, space, and resources.  Consider how Eleanor Duckworth (1987) describes her conclusions about working with teachers researching their teaching:

“I am not proposing that schoolteachers single-handedly become published researchers in the development of human learning.  Rather, I am proposing that teaching, understood as engaging learners in phenomena and working to understand the sense they are making, might be the sine qua non of such research.

“This kind of research would be a teacher in the sense of caring about a part of the world and how it works enough to want to make it accessible to others; he or she would have to be fascinated by the questions of how to engage people in it and how people make sense of it; would have time and resources to pursue these questions to the depth of his or her interest, to write what he or she learned, and to contribute to the theoretical and pedagogical discussions on the nature and development of human learning.

“And then, I wonder – why should this be a separate research profession?  There is no reason I can think of not to rearrange the resources available to education so that this description defines the job of a public school teacher.  So this essay ends with a romance.  But then, it began with a passion.” (pp. 199-200)

Imagine policy and administrators at every level of the system actually facilitating a vision of teaching like this instead of placing roadblocks to thoughtfulness, contemplation, experimentation, and craft at nearly every juncture.  Such roadblocks not only prevent teachers from the careful work of improving their teaching, but also they stand in the way of students having time to truly get deep with their content and skills.  Hurried teachers do not genuinely improve their teaching, and hurried students do not genuinely deepen their understanding.

I want Slow Schools.

References:

Bruner, J. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Duckworth, E. (1987). The Having of wonderful ideas: and other essays on teaching and learning. New York City, NY: Teachers College Press.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

3 Comments

Filed under Common Core, Data, schools, Stories, teacher learning, teaching

3 responses to “Wanted: A Slow Schools Movement

  1. Very thoughtful article, and I tend to agree with the points raised. Often a teacher’s plate is so full that there isn’t enough time to stop and reflect on practice, to regroup, research, talk to colleagues that might be able to help/advise, and properly develop our skills. We wouldn’t expect students to learn well under such conditions, so why are teachers expected to do so?
    Dianne
    PS: I shared your article here: http://saveourschoolsnz.com/2014/10/28/should-we-start-a-slow-schools-movement/

  2. Sarah Keith

    I totally support this movement. My colleagues and my students are constantly barraged, though we have yet to do SGOs, though we already have a ton of data we collect and keep. Hard to believe, but the slowest school I ever worked at was a charter school in New Jersey. (It was a true grassroots, parent-founded one, the Learning Community Charter School in Jersey City, and it was pre-NCLB.)

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