Category Archives: standards

#TeachStrong? Brother, Here We Go Again…

Education reformers in the 21st Century seem incapable of seeing any problem as something other than a marketing campaign.  Faced with growing grassroots opposition to the Common Core State Standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, backed with fresh cash from the Gates Foundation, launched a #SupportTheCore event on social media to try to make CCSS support look genuine and natural.  As they felt control of the education reform narrative slipping from their grip, major corporate backers of standardized testing and school privatization handed $12 million to former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham to launch The Education Post, a pro-reform blogging outpost, providing content for itself and editorial pages.  Needing to dress up her campaign to destroy the collective bargaining and due process rights of our nation’s teachers as something more noble, former news anchor Campbell Brown set up her own web headquarters called The 74, referencing the estimated 74 million children under the age of 18 Brown claims she is defending from greedy unions.  It seems that whenever they want to tackle difficult and contentious issues, reform advocates turn immediately to the tools of viral advertising and public relations to create the imagery of genuine, natural support rather than bothering with the hard work of building it.

Cue #TeachStrong.

Let’s agree to set aside the choice of a name that inevitably invokes one of the worst doping scandals in the history of sport (although, seriously?  millions of dollars in expert branding experience and nobody thought about that??).  “Teach Strong” is the name chosen by a new group of stakeholders organized by the Center for American Progress to make teachers and the future of teaching an issue in the upcoming election.  The campaign launched this week with a splashy web site and social media campaign, which is is par for the course these days, and a declaration of 9 “principles” that they believe will “modernize and elevate” the teaching profession.

Lyndsey Layton mentioned in The Washington Post that the coalition includes “some strange bedfellows,” and she certainly was not kidding.  On one side, Teach Strong has both major national teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT.  It also has the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, the national association of college based teacher preparation programs, and it has the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a long standing national organization for public school leaders.  Also in the coalition is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which grew out of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy’s response to A Nation At Risk and the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, whose early work was heavily influenced by executive director Linda Darling- Hammond, indisputably one of the leading experts in teacher preparation. Teach Strong is also joined by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a long time education advocate for disabled children and by The New Teacher Center, a non-profit that grew out of the nationally recognized teacher mentoring and support program at University of California, Santa Cruz and which now assists states and school districts across the country in developing new teacher induction and mentoring.

On the other side?  There is the omnipresent Teach for America which recruits high achieving college students, gives them less than two months of preparation, and then places them in some of our nation’s highest need school districts for two years.  They are joined by “Educators 4 Exellence,” a foundation funded astroturf group dedicated to promoting the Common Core State Standards and hosting a pledge that has members standing up for assessing teachers using standardized test scores.  The similarly foundation backed “Deans for Impact” joins the table as an extremely small group of education school deans committed to various aspects of current reform efforts, and Relay “Graduate School” of Education is also present, bringing their odd posture as a graduate school that produces no research and which basically uses no excuses charter school teachers to certify other no excuses charter school teachers mainly using online modules.  Former Arne Duncan aide Peter Cunningham’s Education Post is present, which is bizarre given its status as primarily a content delivery forum for education reform advocates.  Revoltingly, the National Council on Teacher Quality is also on board – NCTQ is a self appointed watchdog of teacher “quality” which has such a rigorous system for reviewing teacher preparation programs that it basically sits in its offices in Washington reading online course catalogs before informing the nation that our teacher preparation programs are all horrible.

I suppose representatives from the Center for American Progress, an organization that has long been on the reform side of the Common Core and standardized testing debate, would call this a “Team of Rivals” to match the famed Lincoln Cabinet.  I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  Another way of looking at it would be if the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnered with the Hormel corporation to design a school lunch program – you hope the more knowledgeable partner is guiding the work, but you strongly suspect that a lot of snouts and tails are going to get in there too.

What will TeachStrong aim this odd set of partners at?  Nine principles are given top billing:

teach-strong-infographic

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation rightly notes that many of these principles are laudable – depending upon what actually materializes from them.  Given the perspectives and previous projects of many of the partners in this effort, including TFA which stated in The Washington Post article that it felt no need to change its own five week training program to meet the principles outlined above, it is right to be cautious about what will materialize here.  If “Reimagining teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice” means helping to bring more university-school district professional development schools to scale so that prospective teachers can constantly learn from practice while universities and schools inform each others’ work, that would be wonderful.  If it means setting up more outfits like Relay “Graduate” School of Education where people with no teacher preparation get competency based modules on no excuses charter school practices, no thank you.  If “Provide significantly more time, tools, and support for teachers to succeed” means giving teachers genuine collaborative control of their professional development and having administrators facilitate teachers getting what they determine they need, fantastic.  If it just means more “granular” standardized testing data and a few more resources to jump through SLO hoops, that’s a big meh.  If “create career pathways” means acknowledging excellent teaches and finding roles for teachers to play in induction and mentoring, curriculum development, and setting school and district policy, let’s talk.  If it just means finding teachers with high value added measures on tests and giving them bonus cash, forget it.

While the devil remains in the details, a bit of that devil also resides in some very obvious retreads of past efforts to reform teaching.  In fact, efforts to “modernize and elevate” teaching go back to the founding of many of our comprehensive public universities that began as normal schools before morphing into teacher colleges and then to regional universities.  At every step of this evolution, there was an odd relationship whereby the field of education was held in disrepute even though the emerging comprehensive universities relied upon the teacher preparation mission of education schools.  While the model of teacher preparation within a university setting was well established by the middle of the 20th century, this lack of status for the work persisted, and, following the release of A Nation at Risk in 1983, a flurry of activity was aimed at enhancing and improving teacher preparation.  In fairly short order, reports from the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy and The Holmes Group produced proposals on how to improve teacher preparation and make it more in line with professional preparation in high status professions.  Clinical language and portrayals of teaching as at least a partially technical practice subject to data driven analysis became more common.  John Goodlad weighed in with Teachers for our Nation’s Schools that included 19 “postulates” outlining the professional territory and responsibilities of teacher preparation.  The National Commission for Teaching and America’s Future also provided a summary report called What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future which further detailed a professional vision of teacher preparation aimed at replicating crucial elements of high status professions.

nation preparedtomorrow's teachersgoodlad

NCTAF

So let’s just stipulate that this is hardly a revolutionary concept, okay?

What might be ground breaking is the standard imprint of 21st century education reform – slick marketing, an emphasis on jamming things through quickly without thinking about consequences, and generally treating problems as public relations issues instead of as structural concerns.  I am apprehensive that this is precisely where this is heading in no small part because, like so much else we contend with today, the campaign appears rooted in the notion that everything we are doing in school is obsolete and must drastically modernize immediately or we are all doomed.  This is painfully wrong, and anyone who thinks that teacher preparation has remained unchanged in the past 30 years (Yes, that’s you NCTQ) needs to retreat to a library and not come back for at least two semesters.  While I will never say that teacher preparation is unable to improve, it is also true that anyone who has gotten a teaching certificate since the 1980s has likely seen significant changes, often positive changes, as a result of efforts previously mentioned.  From increased time spent in classrooms prior to student teaching, to stronger pedagogical and content preparation, to vastly improved preparation for working with students with disabilities, teacher preparation has not been standing still, and it would behoove a number of the Teach Strong partners (Again, that’s you, NCTQ) to familiarize themselves with the kinds of evidence that the 656 teacher preparation programs accredited by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (since merged with TEAC and changed to the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation) have had to provide in order to demonstrate their strengths.

The reality is that our teacher workforce, whether made up of recent graduates from traditional programs who have benefited from changing preparation in the last 3 decades or whether made up of experienced veterans who have been continuously improving their practice over time, is not a static and obsolete lump that threatens our future as portrayed in the Teach Strong launch rhetoric. How we prepare and license teachers grew and developed over a 100 year long period, and there have been significant efforts to develop that process over the past three decades that have actually impacted change.  If Teach Strong can work thoughtfully to help increase the scope of the most beneficial of those practices, it will be a positive influence, but if it simply tries to rush in the shallow metrics of NCTQ and the fly by the seat of your pants preparation of TFA and Relay, well, you get the picture.

There is, however, another, deeper, problem in all of this.  While the teacher professionalization efforts of the 1980s and 1990s had some positive impacts, they had one seriously negative effect, an effect that has been compounded since test-based accountability took control of education policy.  By emphasizing the type of preparation practices in high status professions, teacher professionalization tended to emphasize teaching as a technical and rational act with special emphasis on those aspects of teaching that can be measured or demonstrated.  While this has some merit, over emphasizing it has diminished a critical aspect of teaching: vocationalism.  David Hansen wrote cogently on this concern:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

If Teach Strong is serious about a pipeline of great potential teachers, it had better look harder than most recent reform efforts that constantly emphasize getting the best students into teacher preparation without being concerned whether or not they are driven by the best motivations.  It also means that rather than focusing on impossible goals like elevating the salaries of 3 million teachers to the salaries of doctors and lawyers, it would be much better to focus upon working conditions that grant teachers significantly more autonomy and input into how their work and workplaces are conducted.  People driven by vocational aspirations may be willing to forgo some compensation – but they cannot forgo having a say in what they do.

This is the kind of teacher we should all be working to see with all of our children:

6 Comments

Filed under Media, NCTQ, politics, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism

Announcing the iSchool, or Something

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was not known as a philanthropist during his lifetime, but his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, had a significant track record in philanthropic endeavors by the time of his death in 2011.  Educated with a Stanford MBA and with experience as a trader in Goldman Sachs, Ms. Powell Jobs has an extensive record in philanthropic activities since at least 1997, and education appears to be a specific interest. Beginning with a mentoring program for first time minority college attendees, she now sits on the boards of a number of familiar organizations such as Teach for America, New Schools Venture Fund, and Stand for Children.  According to her “Inside Philanthropy” profile, Ms. Powell Jobs is interested in education reforms that are “results driven” which is education philanthropy speak for “raises test scores”.  Hardly surprising, since her board memberships are groups that contribute to the deprofessionalization of teaching (TFA), raise capital for charter school ventures and advocate legislatures to allow charter school teacher training “academies” (New Schools Venture Fund), and which consistently attack teachers’ workplace protections and advocate for increasing the role of test scores in education and teacher evaluation (Stand For Children).

It should not, therefore, be a great surprise when The New York Times announced that she would donate $50 million towards a new education venture “to rethink high school.”  The effort is called “XQ: The Super School Project” and Ms. Powell Jobs said in an interview, “The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago. Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We’ve seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we’re saying, ‘Start from scratch.’ ”  This “from scratch” take on the American High School essentially looks like a grant program from the pot of $50 million that will eventually be distributed to 5 to 10 grantees sometime in the next year.

I know they are serious about this.  They’re advertising on bus kiosks in Manhattan:

super schools

The project website tells you precious little about the values of the project itself, which might be a good sign if they are serious about soliciting widely for actual, community based, ideas for school experimentation instead of just opening the doors for a bunch of ready made “disruptors” already at work tearing down public education.  The composition of her core team as reported in The Times is not encouraging. There is a consultant named Keith Yamashita who has worked apparently mainly in technology and start ups.  Russlynn H. Ali is the former undersecretary of education for civil rights under Secretary Arne Duncan and has been working with Ms. Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.  More troubling is the presence of former senior adviser to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Michelle Cahill.

Education blogger, author, and Louisiana teacher Mercedes Schneider once dubbed Chancellor Klein as “The Man From Whom Nothing Good Comes,” and I’d daresay he earned the title.  Certainly, the Klein Chancellor’s office unleashed a fair deal of havoc on Newark when Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar grant to remake the city’s schools was announced.  Former Klein insider, Chris Cerf, created a consulting firm that hoovered up a fair amount of the available cash, and Cerf himself moved in 2010 to the New Jersey State Commissioner’s office, meaning he was now overseeing the district. Klein’s NYC department of education also provided Newark with Superintendent Cami Anderson, whose disastrous tenure is chronicled by retired Star Ledger journalist Bob Braun.  Cerf and Anderson are most directly responsible for turning the Zuckerberg donation into the “One Newark” system, and Mark Webber helps fill in the holes in the most recent accounts of how that has turned out – especially in regards to Brick City’s charter sector.  Short version: Joel Klein’s office provided a significant portion of the reform “talent” that spent lavishly on consultants and threw the city’s schools into an incompetently and callously managed mess that has benefited the biggest charter operators most of all.

So let’s just say that the presence of another member of Joel Klein’s inner circle in a grant program to “rethink” schools requires serious skepticism.  At least the amount of money being spent is only half of a Zuckerberg, and it will be spread around rather than dropped into a single school district with the intention of blowing the entire kit and caboodle up.

However, I’d like the challenge two premises of the entire endeavor.  The first premise is that we still have the high school we created “for the workforce 100 years ago.”  In some respects this is actually true.  The school model based upon a set of discrete subjects taught in Carnegie units with students moving from subject to subject during the day was an organizational choice of the early 20th century.  Similarly, the comprehensive high school and extra curricular activities and sports with which we are familiar were choices incubated in the Progressive Era — none of these came down with Moses on Mt. Sinai.  However, to suggest that the school structure you recognize as school is somehow rooted in place, unchanging and incapable of meeting more modern needs, is not supported by evidence.

For example, that same school structure that Ms. Powell Jobs says was created for the workforce “100 years ago” has also graduated the workforces of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the workforces of the 1980s and 1990s – all economic periods vastly different than 1915. If one were to cite threats to the workforce in 2015, one would have to look at falling union membership, declines in wages for recent college graduates, a young work force burdened by mounting debt, corporate hoarding, unmet infrastructure needs, and taxation policies that have abetted income inequality before looking at how most ninth graders will study English for 50 minutes before moving on the their Algebra class.  Schools contribute to the shaping of the workforce, but they do not create the economic demands for workers that necessitate that workforce on their own.  And the reality is that the American economy has grown leaps and bounds with this same school system.  In fact, from 1929 to 2015 “real” Gross Domestic Product in 2009 dollars (opens in Excel) grew from 1056.6 billion dollars to 16,324.3 billion dollars — all with that school system lamented as being designed for the workforce of 1915.  Not bad.

Further, schools have changed in the past century, in meaningful and significant ways.  The landmark report, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait from the Department of Education’s Center for Education Statistics details a school system that has made vast developments in both the reach and equity of the system over time.  From the general formation of the comprehensive high school, the institution has continued to expand both the population it includes and the services it provides within its walls, reflecting major changes in how society views the reach of the political franchise.  Consider these two charts:

Total School Enrollments 5-19 year olds

Total high school completion by race

Similar progress and change can be seen in statistics relating to the educational attainment of women and to the number of children with disabilities being accommodated within public schools.  And these statistics on increased participation, completion, and services provided do not account for changes in subject matter content over time as well. The fact is that there are many things about our high schools that have been significantly dynamic over the past 100 years.

The second premise that needs to be challenged is that the schools we need should represent a “start from scratch” approach.  There are powerful ideas for change that many districts could implement with very little difficulty.  In their historical study Tinkering Toward Utopia: a Century of Public School Reform, scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban demonstrated that many “big ideas” for school reform tended to be changed by school as much as they changed school, but that certain little ideas can have substantial impact.  For example, a simple offset of classroom walls creating niches changed the way teachers used their space substantially.  So while the XQ little marquee questions “What if we take our desks outside?” “What if learning is a game?” “What if we knock down these walls?” – I am left wondering “what more will you get with $50 million than 5-10 boutique programs that may not be scalable while you could be trying to leverage more meaningful changes within the existing system that already serves almost 15 million high school students?”

The fact is that we have some pretty good ideas already about what would leverage substantial change in our schools. Some of these ideas are larger than others and would require significantly more political capital to achieve.  However, if Ms. Powell Jobs is actually serious about our schools being “the great equalizers they were meant to be,” she should shake off the “disruptive start up” mentality of the XQ project and put her talents to work on some of the following ideas that never seem to make it into education reform’s portfolio of strategies:

  • Integration: It matters, for both the majority and minority populations that are integrated, and we have historic evidence to demonstrate this.  The decrease in achievement gaps between white and black students as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress closed rapidly and for a sustained period of time in the 1970s and early1980s before the cumulative impacts of white flight and abandonment of fair housing and integration policies stalled progress.  Since then, racial and economic segregation have increased vastly, to the great detriment of our students and their schools which saw an initial, large, burst of the gap closing after NCLB only to see it stall again.  While the issue of the achievement gap is extremely multifaceted and overlaps with declines and rises in child poverty, integration of our communities and schools remains an important and currently unutilized tool in school improvement.
  • Fair Funding: Advocates of current reforms like to scoff at school funding, but the reality is we maintain a perversely unfair and inadequate system of school finance that all but guarantees wealthy communities can fund the schools that they want while the rest of the system struggles to get sufficient state and federal aid to plug the holes in their budgets.  Resources and policies the reduce inequality cost money, and the reluctance to fund those resources and policies is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to educational improvement.
  • Class Size Reductions: Among the policies that can cost more money that politicians are reluctant to spend is class size reduction. It works.  It works well.  It works even better for poor and minority students. Increasing class sizes causes real and long term harm.
  • Teacher Retention and Development: This will come as a surprise to the organizations on whose boards Ms. Powell Jobs sits, but experienced teachers are better than newcomers.  The exuberance of youth is fantastic and necessary in the ongoing work of school, but it is best paired with experienced teachers who know what they are doing and who are willing to mentor their younger colleagues. If we want to improve schools, we should be looking at improving teacher retention, starting with a hard look at working conditions.
  • Reverse High Stakes Testing’s Detrimental Impacts: We’ve increased the amount of testing.  We’ve increased the stakes on testing.  To the surprise of nobody who understands policy incentives that means we’ve increased the amount of time spent teaching to the test and to test preparation, to the detriment of a rich curriculum and especially to the detriment of students attending majority minority schools threatened with closures and other punitive measures due to test scores.  The narrowing of the curriculum also has a detrimental impact on the very skills so-called education reformers claim our students need the most in the 21st century.  If Ms. Powell-Jobs really wants to improve high school, she could do a lot worse than to imitate her late husband’s business practices and to try very hard to kill off something that Bill Gates has worked to promote: high stakes testing in teacher evaluation.

$50 million is going to buy the XQ project a handful of high schools that may or may not be innovative and which may or may not be able to be scaled.  Or it could begin the process of lobbying policy makers to endorse what we actually knows works in education.  It would certainly be a lot better to see on the side of a bus kiosk.

7 Comments

Filed under Funding, Newark, schools, standards, Testing

Reading at Frustration Level with J.K. Rowling

One of the more esoteric and interesting debates centered around the Common Core State Standards for English centers around text complexity and the concept of reading at “frustration level.”  The general idea behind instructing children at this level of text is that in order to improve as readers, children cannot only read texts that are within their current skill level and should be instructed using materials that challenge their reading.  As this article at Education Week notes, this is hardly a new concept, and it recapitulates debates that have gone on in reading circles for some time about the “best” ways to encourage young readers to develop.

On the one hand, the idea of instruction at so-called “frustration level” should not be exceptionally controversial if done by skilled teachers using high quality materials and carefully planned instruction.  After all, education theory has long accepted the idea of a “zone of proximal development” where a learner can accomplish a particular task with guidance and scaffolding and which exists between what the learner can do comfortably and what the learner cannot do yet.  Within this concept, we accept the likelihood that a learner will experience some degree of frustration and will make mistakes which can be actually instructive.  Movement from one “side” of the zone to the other is a matter of real accomplishment for learners, and since reading is a skill where learners move from simpler tasks to ones that are far more complex, it makes sense that teachers would have to use texts that push their students.

However, what the exact balance of “frustration level” texts should exist within the curriculum is a matter of healthy debate.  Proponents of the Common Core standards have generally believed that current popular reading programs in recent decades have allowed students too much “comfort” in instructional reading and have made significant increases in the amount of time students are expected to spend with texts they cannot read entirely independent of scaffolding.  For the record, researchers who I admire both personally and professionally have voiced support for increased text complexity, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and expertise of P. David Pearson, for example.  At the same time, I tend to agree with other critics who have rightly questioned the quality of materials aligned with Common Core for classroom teachers, the depth and quality of development for teachers expected to adapt the standards to their classrooms, and whether or not it is appropriate to TEST students at “frustration level” on the Common Core aligned PARCC examinations.  As Russ Walsh notes:

What happens when students are asked to read very difficult text? For those students who find the text challenging, but doable, they will redouble their efforts to figure it out. For the majority of children, however, who find the text at their frustration level, they may well give up. That is what frustration level in reading means. The ideal reading comprehension assessment passage will be easy for some, just right for most and challenging for some. The PARCC passages are likely to be very, very challenging for most.

But I want to set aside the testing and implementation questions and simply focus on a more fundamental question:  if we expect students to spend more time reading at levels that a truly challenging for them, what, apart from very careful and extremely skilled teaching, do they require?

This is not actually theoretical as my wife and I have been observing an exercise in this very question all summer long with our oldest child.  While a remarkably skilled and precocious verbal story teller, it has been a bit of a longer road for reading skills to develop.  Mind you, our child has had perfectly fine reading skills and is reading above most grade level assessments, but reading has not developed as visibly as spoken language skills.  What we found out a few years back after some examination was that many reading skills that we could not observe (such as segmenting and blending) were fully intact, but our child, being a perfectionist who hates displaying skills that are not completely independent, would hesitate to try them in front of others.  In fact, until our child had enough confidence to read reasonably interesting chapter books independently, reading together time was often a struggle between an adult trying to patiently coach breaking down unfamiliar words and a child stubbornly waiting for us to give up and read it ourselves.

Our child has progressed in school reading assessments using the “Fountas and Pinnell” leveled reading system. I have my suspicion that these assessments are tracking lower than our child’s actual reading level.  From reading together, I have noticed tendencies to read words that appear on the next page while trying to jump ahead when excited or having attention wander when bored.  Hardly surprising as this is not an exact science made a bit more problematic when working with a child who is easily bored by very strict academic tasks and who does not like feeling under scrutiny.  Regardless, one thing has been absolutely clear in the past year of schoolwork:  given a choice of free reading material, our child often selects books that fall into a very comfortable reading level and will sometimes opt to reread familiar books instead of branching out into new series.  This again is not especially worrisome for pleasure reading:  repetition can reinforce development of sight words and casual reading is best done by choice.

Which makes the past two months quite remarkable.

For family reading time, I often go to books above either of our children’s reading skills but with real potential interest as stories.  Our oldest child took to The Trumpet of the Swan this way and read it in bed for over a week after I finished reading it aloud.  Both of our children were rapt with attention to The Hobbit, although it did not become an adventure in self reading.  I have my eye on A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, just to really push matters a bit, The Sword and the Stone.  The reason I have some hope that one of those titles will become beloved in our home has to do with what we must only call The Summer of Harry Potter.

I tried reading the stories out loud for our children two years ago, but our oldest child, having a really empathetic nature and a difficulty with characters getting in trouble, did not want to listen past the first book.  But we began again in June, and as soon as I was done reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both children begged to see the movie, insisted that I dive right into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and our oldest child began taking book one to bed every night and devoured it.  The Chamber of Secrets  was quickly read, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban fell to a combination of night time reading and reading on the bus to and from camp before I could begin reading it out loud for both of our children.  I have just begun reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud, and our older child is about two thirds of the way though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Our children go to bed around 8pm, and on more than one occasion, I have found our oldest child still awake after 10p, reading by headlamp.  I have been asked to turn off the television so more Harry Potter can be read.  The entirety of the supplemental Hogwarts Library series has been read independently, and my wife and I were bombarded with Quidditch facts and informational about magical creatures.

Now while I have said I believe our child’s tested reading level is below the actual skill level, it is also true that the advertised reading level of even the first of the Harry Potter books is probably still pretty high and that our child is spending at least some time reading at the so-called “frustration level” where the mechanics of the syntax and words not yet in sight word vocabulary will trip our child up.  Yet this is not slowing things down.  In fact, our child is reading with enthusiasm books that must occasionally frustrate mechanically and in situations that are increasingly scarier and more humanly complicated than anything read before.  Our child has had an historic dislike of main characters being mad with each other, but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend a good portion of Goblet of Fire angry at each other and that did not deter reading in the slightest.  From conversations, I know that the stories are understood.

So what is going on?  What would propel a young reader who has been reluctant to try out new books and who has never really taken to academic tasks with books to push so hard on known boundaries and comfortable texts?

Well, love.

Our child loves these books: the world J.K. Rowling created, the characters with depth and the ability to grow, the situations that test them.  Our child loves the overall arch of the story that is becoming evident as it progresses school year by school year.  The characters are at once entirely human and understandable while simultaneously inhabiting a world of surprising wonders.  If there is a reason to keep reading even though the books stretch on both a technical level and on an emotional level, it is because of love.

I think all of us, Common Core proponents and skeptics alike, want children to grow as readers — to stretch and to challenge themselves.  And we should all want children to have comfortable spaces within which to challenge themselves and within which they can just relax with the familiar and enjoyable.

But we should also remember what it is that inspires children to really push on their boundaries.  In school, it is with highly attentive teaching that provides sufficient modeling and supports and gives children a sense of agency to understand why they do what they do.  Outside of school, it is a deeply personal combination of factors with a lot of love in the mix.

And that’s something we ought to figure out how to get more of in school reading instruction as well.  Our oldest child loves what J.K. Rowling has created so much that just about nothing can deter total immersion in that world – not even how it pushes skills to develop.  That’s a good object lesson for school too.  Do we want children to really engage with their “frustration level”?  We ought to find out what they love…and maybe “frustration level” will seem a lot more like “a challenge I enjoy”.

6 Comments

Filed under child development, Common Core, standards, teaching, Testing

Frank Bruni, See Me After Class

Hey, New York Times, I’d like to offer a deal.  Please stop letting Frank Bruni write about school. In fact, get a clever programmer who can arrange so that any time he writes the words “school” “teacher” or “student” his keyboard gives him an electroshock.  In return, I will never again complain that you charge my family $20 a month for an electronic subscription that doesn’t include the cell phone app and which still has advertising.  I’ll even promise to refrain from leaving comments on any David Brooks column where he opines about the nature of character.

Do we have a deal?

I have good reason to want Mr. Bruni off the education beat.  In 2013, he briefly suggested that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “impolitic” to place opposition to the Common Core State Standards upon “white, suburban moms” who don’t want to find out that their children are not brilliant — just before he jumped in and declared that Secretary Duncan was right to be concerned that “a laudable set of guidelines” would be rejected for making kids work too hard, characterized most opposition to the standards as “welling hysteria” from the right and left wing, and chided parents concerned about the increasing lack of joy in school with declarations that portions of school ought to be “relatively mirthless” while blaming stories of students breaking down from stress upon their parents. A year ago, he jumped into the teacher tenure debate with a breathtakingly one sided column that could have read as a press release from Campbell Brown’s anti-tenure lawsuit — shocking, given his personal friendship with Ms. Brown — and relied upon precisely ONE former Teach For America alum and current State Senator from Colorado as a source.  Mr. Bruni went even further in late October last year with an entirely uncritical review of former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein’s book on education, despite the fact that Mr. Klein is a serial misleader about his personal biography and that his record as Chancellor does not actually stand up to scrutiny.  Mr. Bruni tossed 27 words about respecting teachers into the mix while calling on them to “partner” with people like Mr. Klein who want to diminish their workplace protections and offer pay for increasing standardized test scores while completely ignoring issues like persistent and rising poverty.

So when it comes to education, and to teachers in particular, Mr. Bruni is something like William Kristol opining on foreign affairs — always wrong and frequently advocating for disasters.

Mr. Bruni was struck over the weekend by Times education reporter Motoko Rich’s story on the nationwide scramble to find credentialed teachers and the precipitous drop in college students seeking teaching degrees:

And he followed it up yesterday in his on Opinion page column, “Can We Interest You In Teaching“?  His opening laments the state of affairs in the teacher preparation pipeline and supposed competing draws for potential teachers:

When the economy improves and job prospects multiply, college students turn their attention elsewhere, to professions that promise more money, more independence, more respect.

That was one takeaway from a widely discussed story in The Times on Sunday by Motoko Rich, who charted teacher shortages so severe in certain areas of the country that teachers are being rushed into classrooms with dubious qualifications and before they’ve earned their teaching credentials.

It’s a sad, alarming state of affairs, and it proves that for all our lip service about improving the education of America’s children, we’ve failed to make teaching the draw that it should be, the honor that it must be. Nationally, enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2014, as Rich reported.

Keep in mind, this lamentation of the lack of “honor” given to teaching as a profession comes from someone who has repeatedly taken the standard reformer line that all of the ills in our education system can be traced back almost entirely to teachers themselves and who has advocated for policy makers who diminish teachers’ workplace protections and their autonomy and who want to tie opportunities for greater compensation to standardized test scores.  It should be no real surprise, therefore, that Mr. Bruni’s exploration of the growing teacher shortage is focused not upon what people have done to teaching over the past 15 years in the name of “reform” but upon the profession itself.

To give credit where credit is due, Mr. Bruni has expanded his usual Rolodex for this column and has consulted with people actually connected to the world of teachers and teaching.  His spoke with Randi Weingarten who is the President of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union with over 1.5 million members.  He also spoke with a representative of “Educators Rising,” a project of Phi Delta Kappa International seeking to help guide young people to teaching as a profession. PDK is a professional association in education which runs various programs for teachers, collaborates annually with Gallup on a poll of the nation’s education perspectives, and publishes Kappan Magazine, a forum on practice, policy, and research.  Among the members of the PDK boards advising Educators Rising is Dr. Sharon Robinson, President of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.  So Mr. Bruni actually sought input from sources that know a few things about teachers and schools (even if Educators Rising has a logo unfortunately reminiscent of Enron’s).

Sadly, he “balanced” that by seeking input from “Educators 4 Excellence,” one of those imitation grassroots outfits that all have suspiciously similar web page design and sprang up right about when Bill Gates was spreading around tons of money to promote the Common Core State Standards and assessing teachers by value added modeling.  And, sure enough, E4E’s “declaration” includes language endorsing teacher assessments using value added modeling of standardized test scores, a method which is only slightly more reliable than throwing darts randomly at a wall.  Mr. Bruni also spoke to Kate Walsh, the head of the self-appointed national “watchdog” on teachers and teacher preparation, National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization whose caliber of research into the state of American teacher preparation is so rigorous that they mostly read course catalogs and syllabi available online without bothering to visit a single campus. This “method” of “research” is so weak that it produced errors throughout their entire original rating report at such a laughable rate that the organization should be shunned by anyone who bothers to check their record.  So while Mr. Bruni actually spoke to some people who know about teachers and schools, he balanced them with the usual suspects of agenda driven and fact deprived actors.  This is a bit like writing on climate change by speaking with scientists at NOAA and then seeking “balance” from the public relations office of Exxon.

Both Walsh and Evan Stone of E4E basically reiterated very old talking points of teacher professionalization.  Stone claimed teachers are concerned they will be “doing the same thing on Day 1 as they’ll be doing 30 years in” and called for a “career ladder” in teaching while Walsh repeated her contention that most students see teacher preparation as an “easy” major and steer away from it.  Making teacher preparation more rigorous is a well trodden path now that we are 32 years past A Nation At Risk, and Walsh flatly ignores or discounts the decades of work to increase teacher preparation standards and increase clinical practice time for prospective teachers in favor of her organization’s shockingly weak research.  Stone’s contention that teachers want a gradated career ladder is not an especially strong one, and while there is validity to a career structure that places experienced teachers into mentoring and leadership roles, most of the pathways that have been proposed over the years would, of course, require significant investments of time and resources that are notably absent from many reformers’ plans.  None other than Michelle Rhee herself decided that National Board certification was something prestigious but not worth the cost while she was Chancellor in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bruni’s representative from Educators Rising, Dan Brown, suggested that teaching could use its own “Flexner Report,” the document from the early 1900s that set medicine to its current high status in society.  I am at loss to imagine what another round of report writing would do that we have not already had from the Carnegie Corporation, The Holmes Group, John Goodlad, The National Commission on Teaching and America’ Future, or the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.  For three decades, researchers and policy analysts have advocated for and demonstrated value of various ways to improve teacher preparation that reflect the necessary balance of theory, pedagogy, practice, and contact with skilled veterans who inform preparation through their own teaching.  Policy makers, however, have rarely seen fit to fund it.

The biggest disappointment of the article is Mr. Bruni’s conversation with Randi Weingarten of the AFT.  It was not because President Weingarten missed the important message, but that Mr. Bruni gave it so little notice.  President Weingarten stated that teachers wanted “a voice, a real voice,” and she referred Mr. Bruni to the AFT’s collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association on the Quality of Worklife Survey.  Mr. Bruni, however, given a wealth of information on teacher concerns, only mentioned being left out of decision making as source of stress.  What did Mr. Bruni miss?

  • 79% of teachers feel disrespected by public officials.
  • 77% feels disrespected by the media.
  • 73% feel their workplace is often stressful.

While stressed teachers did feel they had less decision making power, Bruni missed that:

  • 55% said negative portrayals of teachers and schools in media caused stress.
  • 71% cited adoption of new requirements without training or support as causing stress.
  • Time pressure was a major source of stress.
  • As were mandated curricula, standardized testing, and lack of administrator support.

He also failed to notice:

  • A full 30% of teachers said they have been bullied in the workplace.
  • Including, 51% of teachers with disabilities, 38% of LGBTQ teachers, 36% of ethnic minorities, and 38% of religious minorities.
  • 26% said that in the past month their mental health was not good for 9 days or more.

Having a voice in decision making is certainly an important part of treating teachers as professionals, and it may even be true that teaching could be made more attractive with certain changes to the professional environment and professional preparation of teachers.  However, it is absurd to speculate that a reported teacher shortage is truly tied to these issues when we have had a similar career structure for teachers for decades without seeing such dramatic declines in number of college students willing to become teachers.  What Frank Bruni misses entirely is that teaching is deeply wrapped up in a sense of vocation as well as professionalism.  People going into teaching have always accepted that they are giving up some economic and social status in favor of enacting a career where they believe they can make a substantial difference in people’s lives.  They are drawn to teaching by positive experiences with teachers and with learning, and they develop a fondness and respect for school and its mission.

But with the clear evidence that reform efforts of the past 15 years to place the entire burden of lifting children out of poverty upon schools and teachers have led to serious degradation of workplace life, it is hardly surprising that young people who would be normally driven by their sense of purpose towards education would look elsewhere. They are seeing fewer and fewer role models who are allowed to practice their profession and their craft to not merely raise test scores, but to inspire and ignite young minds.  The data from the Worklife Survey should scream this message to anyone who looks at it, but instead Mr. Bruni chooses to emphasize warmed over servings of 1980s and 1990s era professionalization literature.

Instead of looking to make teaching look more like medicine, we should consider how to make teaching look like teaching again, and that will begin by listening to what teachers have to say about their working conditions.

2 Comments

Filed under Media, NCTQ, schools, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching

Teaching: A Profession Unlike Most Others

Sarah Blaine is the author at the excellent and thoughtful Parenting the Core blog.  She recently explored the question of whether or not teaching is a profession, recounting a law professor who argued teaching was not a profession because teachers did not control entry to the profession as doctors and lawyers do.  Ms. Blaine took that observation to a very intriguing and, I think, valuable discussion of how teachers could play a bigger and, consequently, far more informed than current regulators role in how people enter teaching.  It is worth your time to read the whole piece.

It also has spurred me to ponder the ways in which teaching is a profession, but a profession unlike most others that have high status in society.  Further, I have to wonder to what degree the efforts of the late 1980s and 1990s to construct a vision of teacher professionalism that is similar to those in medicine and law has contributed, at least indirectly, to some of our current dilemmas in what passes today for education “reform.”  Beginning with the A Nation At Risk report, teacher organizations and teacher research cast for ways by which the profession can embody the elements of professionalism and professionalization that define other fields of endeavor, but in doing so, we have opened ourselves to reforms that actually debilitate teaching and learning.

The status of teaching in general and of the teaching as a discipline for study is not a new problem.  David Labaree, in his collection of essays, The Trouble With Ed Schools, traces teaching and teacher preparation’s status anxiety back to the establishment of normal schools which were under pressure to turn out large numbers of mostly working class women to teach in the growing compulsory school systems of the 1800s.  When normal schools evolved into state colleges and universities, the new education schools with their teacher training missions were marginalized by the more established and prestigious fields of classical studies who relied on education schools to bring students to the universities but who did not respect teaching as a discipline of study and who did not respect the largely female population studying it.

The public’s familiarity with teaching and with teachers also complicates questions of professional status.  Unlike most other fields with professional expertise nearly every adult in society has extensive and intensive contact with teachers practicing their profession.  Doctors and lawyers are capable of enshrouding their professions in mystery because the average citizen, thankfully, has only periodic and limited needs of their services.  The average citizen, in contrast, spends more than 13,000 hours in teachers’ classrooms during what Dan Lortie called the “apprenticeship of observation” through which most people conclude that they are entirely familiar with the work of teachers and develop very strong assumptions about what it is that teachers know and do.  However, this familiarity is facile.  Students are not privy to the preparation that goes into teaching, nor do they understand what it is like to enact teaching while maintaining attention on each and every learner in the classroom, adjusting and pivoting as necessary, and taking effective opportunities when they present themselves. The result is that despite the enormous amount of time spent with teachers, very few former students see teaching as a highly complex practice that requires expertise and substantial experience.

The search for a definition of teacher professionalism may not be new, but it  began in earnest with the devastating rhetoric of the 1983 Reagan administration report A Nation At Risk which reported:

  • Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high school and college students.

  • The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in “educational methods” at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.

  • The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.

  • Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science, and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and talented, language minority, and handicapped students.

  • The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A 1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43 States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics teachers everywhere.

  • Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer physics taught by qualified teachers.

Education leaders and policy makers rushed to respond to these criticisms. Teachers and teacher educators are familiar with the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy report A Nation Prepared, the various reports of the Holmes Group, John Goodlad’s Teachers for Our Nation’s Schools, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report What Matters Most, the development of the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium model teaching standards, increasing influence of organizations such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and with a growing industry of educational consultants such as Charlotte Danielson providing standards based rubrics and frameworks for teacher evaluation.

This mass body of work and effort and the attending changes in state and national policies that have flowed from them work on a vision not merely of teacher professionalism, the knowledge, skills, actions, and dispositions of professional teachers, but also of teacher professionalization, efforts to more closely align teaching and teacher preparation with the standards and technical rationales of high status professions such as medicine and law.  Such efforts appeal on two fronts.  First, they attend to concerns that teachers need more rigorous preparation for the difficult work of teaching and that teachers who complete their education with strong content knowledge, deep pedagogical knowledge, substantial understanding of learning and motivation, and who have meaningful experiences in the classroom prior to student teaching will have easier transitions into the world of full time teaching and begin their careers more able to help students learn.  Second, this reconfiguration of teacher preparation and conceptualizing of teaching as a profession akin to medicine and law attempted to instill higher status upon the profession in general.  Terms like “clinical experience” and “professional development school” and “master teacher” all convey a message that learning to teach is a rational experience with technical components that can be measured and that teachers should have ongoing and mediated entry into the professional roles much doctors who master a complex body of knowledge and then move into increasingly responsible roles within practice over time.  By adopting the preparation and learning structure of high status professions, teaching was envisioned to occupy a greater level of respect more commensurate with the importance of its mission.

There is much to recommend in this approach, and such efforts have spurred genuine innovations to improve how teachers are prepared.  It is important to acknowledge that contrary to many popular beliefs teachers possess specialized knowledge far beyond their understanding of the content that they teach.  Further, much as the technical knowledge of medicine and law must be put into practice, knowledge of content, theory, and pedagogy must be practiced in order to become skilled and it must slowly improve over time with the accumulation of experience.  Perhaps the most important aspect of the teacher professionalization discussion has been the continued focus upon moving from theory to practice in a controlled and mediated fashion, allowing prospective teachers to practice and to learn from practice long before they undertake full time teaching duties.

However, while moves to make learning to teach more clinical have opened valuable efforts to increase time teaching before licensure, it is vital that teachers, teacher educators, and policy makers understand the ways in which teaching is not like those high status professions professionalization has attempted to imitate.  To begin with, while there is an important knowledge base for teaching, it is a much softer knowledge than that held by high status professions.  Before moving into technical practice of medicine, medical students learn a tremendous amount of knowledge that is well-defined and clearly delineated.  This does not mean that medical knowledge is never changing; obviously, it is.  However, those changes take place through pain-staking research and replication before it can become part of the body of knowledge for practice.  When compared to this, teachers’ knowledge is less defined, more subject to change, and subject to particular circumstances that vary day to day and class to class.  Experienced teachers know that a “best practices” teaching strategy may not be a “best practice” for a particular bit of content or with a particular group of students, and because teaching has to be enacted authentically by individual teachers, different practitioners can find that so-called “best practices” are not “best practices” for them. Teachers are constantly experimenting and tinkering with their practice, often within the act of practice itself.

Lawyers can rely upon volumes of case law, and doctors have mountains of medical research backing their choices, but there is no laparoscopic appendectomy for teaching a room of 6 year olds how to read.

This should greatly complicate our desires to present teaching as a profession that can be mapped onto the professional education of fields that employ a more technical/rational approach.  Standards based preparation and evaluation can provide important starting points and frameworks for discussing, assessing, and improving teaching, but the rubrics and evaluation scores cannot become ends unto themselves.  Preparation and evaluation do a great disservice to teachers and teaching when rubric scores become more important than discussions about students and their learning that can be prompted by the categories on the rubric.  Too much of a focus on the technical at the expense of developmental understanding of learners and their needs reduces teachers’ teaching and students’ learning to outcomes which can be superficially inflated without substance.

It is possible that the teacher professionalization movement’s efforts, as well intentioned as they have been, are responsible for some of the mess that education “reform” has made of the teacher evaluation and testing environment.  After all, if teaching is a technical/rational activity whose practices result in observable and measurable outcomes, then it was not a big sell to policy makers for figures like Michelle Rhee and organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to suggest that teachers should be evaluated using supposedly “objective” results like standardized test scores.  Run through statistical formulas that claim to account for a vast number of variables that can impact students’ test score gains, reformers promise that test data, as a component of teacher evaluation, offers a fully objective view of teacher effectiveness. This slots nicely with the view of teacher professionalization that emphasizes measurement of teacher practice — even though the bulk of the evidence now says that such modeling does not work.

There are other reasons to question the teacher professionalization models or at least to insist that they be made more complex and nuanced.  To begin with, unlike high status professions, teaching is, by necessity, a vast field.  Doctors and lawyers maintain careful control on their supply and high skill specialties are even tighter, but the reality of compulsory, public, free education means that we need enough teachers, teaching specialists, and paraprofessionals to teach 50 million students in public elementary and secondary schools.  In any labor market, that means that teaching cannot claim a high status simply because supply has to be high compared to other professions requiring college education and certification.  We may value, or at least claim to value, teachers and the work they do for our society, but from the standpoint of scarcity, we cannot compare the field to others, and it would take a significant change in our society’s values to do so.  Further, the long history of low status associated with fields that are predominantly female is still with teaching, which remains a profession dominated by female practitioners.

Teacher professionalization is also complicated by the previously mentioned apprenticeship of observation.  While the long contact time with teachers and schools does not actually instruct the public about the fullness and the complexities of teaching, it does lend an extreme familiarity with teachers themselves and with the visible aspects of their practice that no other profession really has.  Hard knowledge professions carefully guard their knowledge within specialized preparation and language, effectively blocking outsiders from access without the mediation of the professional.  Teachers, from the public’s view, are in the business of giving knowledge away and making it more accessible.  While pedagogical knowledge is not readily available to non-teachers, the practice of it is visible in thousands of hours spent in teachers’ classrooms, the best of which result in students able to learn on their own.  The public may not really understand teaching, but there would be little value in the profession cloaking itself in the mystique conferred upon lawyers and doctors whose practice depends almost entirely upon their clients and patients being unable to practice for themselves.

The aura of mystery about knowledge and professional language in other fields is often accompanied by a general obligation to be distant and to minimize personal involvement with clients and patients.  Teachers, however, sit in an unusual place in terms of relationships with their “clients” and frequently need to cultivate professional but close relationships with individuals and groups of students that foster motivation and provide the affective support students need to succeed.  Many conceive of this as a mentoring relationship that helps students not only academically but also with social and emotional needs.  This stance both helps students and also comprises a significant portion of the “psychic rewards” that teachers historically report among the most gratifying aspects of their jobs.  Much like the deployment of pedagogy, such relationships and their attendant rewards will remain particular and impossible to measure in any rational sense, yet they remain among the core practices of teaching.

During the height of the teacher professionalization literature, David Hansen wrote cogently about teaching as a vocation and what that means to practitioners:

To describe the inclination to teach as a budding vocation also calls attention to the person’s sense of agency.  It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

This is extremely important as we continue to discuss and debate what teaching as a profession means and what it looks like in practice.  I would not suggest abandoning all of the elements of teacher professionalization as we work to develop a rich view of teachers as professionals, but it is important to recognize the limits of standards and measurement.  Standards and rubrics for evaluation should be used as means to focus conversation on practice and its continued development rather than to focus on specific score bands on evaluations themselves.  We should flatly reject continued efforts to reduce teachers’ impact to fully rational statistical outcomes that have no proper basis in research.  And we should passionately embrace those aspects of teachers’ professionalism that is immeasurable and defend them as essential to teachers’ work.  Maybe we cannot measure inspiration and passion for children and their intellectual, social, and emotional development, but without those qualities, performances on professional standards rubrics are probably meaningless.

5 Comments

Filed under Data, standards, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing