About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Of Classrooms and Miracles

Despite a childhood of incantations and incense, of holy cards and stories of crutches being tossed, I don’t believe in miracles. So it is with a mix of sadness and exasperation that I’ve witnessed a language of miracles – along with a search for academic cure-alls and magic bullets – infuse our educational discourse and policy.

 

We started off the new century with the Texas Miracle, the phenomenal closing of the achievement gap and reduction of dropout rates through a program of high-stakes standardized tests. (The Texas Miracle would then spawn the federal No Child Left Behind Act.) Politicians and media-savvy administrators have also found the miraculous; the governor of my state, Arnold Schwarzenegger, referred to an Oakland charter school as an “education miracle.” And the pundits have appropriated the lingo. A recent New York Times column by David Brooks on the charter school of the Harlem Children’s Zone was titled “The Harlem Miracle.” And so it goes.  

 

Upon closer examination, some of these miracles turn out to be suspect, the result of questionable assessments and manipulated numbers. The Texas Miracle didn’t hold up under scrutiny. And some, like the Harlem Children’s Zone – which is a commendable place – gain their excellence through hard work along multiple dimensions, from teaching and mentoring to utilizing outside resources and fundraising. There’s nothing miraculous about their success. (See Diane Ravitch’s May 12, 2009 entry in “Bridging Differences” for more on this.)

           

Along with talk of miracles, we have the belief in educational wonder drugs and magic bullets: single-shot solutions to complicated problems: high-stakes testing, standards, charter schools, small schools, alternative teacher recruitment, slash and burn CEO management, etc. Each of these solutions has potential merit. Standards can bring coherence to a curriculum; small schools can result in increased student contact; alternative recruitment and credentialing bring new blood into the teaching force; some districts need the serious administrative shake-up that managerial house-cleaning can provide. All good. But for these efforts to work, to increase the quality of education, other factors have to be present as well.

 

The structural change that leads to the small school needs to be accompanied by a robust philosophy of education, a set of beliefs about ability, learning, knowledge, and the purpose of education. As well, you’ll need a decent teaching force with opportunity built in for ongoing development. And what about curriculum? Or a set of ideas on how to connect school with community? The structural move of creating the small school may be central in all this, truly important, but, at its best, it will be a necessary but not sufficient condition for educational renewal. As Debbie Meier once said, you can have crappy small schools too.

 

Research on charter schools demonstrates the kind of variability you’d expect if you don’t believe in miracle cures: some charters are terrific, some are average and some are awful. The same set of issues I raise for small schools applies here: what you do within the new school structure matters immensely.

 

The kick-ass-and-take-names managerial clean-up that we’ve seen in places like Washington, DC and New Orleans has indeed disrupted the status quo, and I’ll leave it to those who know those districts well to judge the legitimacy of the shake-up. But what interests me is what happens once the new broom sweeps clean. Then the same weighty questions emerge, questions involving curriculum, teacher quality and development, remediation, school-community connections, etc. To address these crucial issues, the school manager will need knowledge of human development, of teaching and learning, of the wisdom of the classroom. Because few of the new CEO types possess such knowledge – might even consider it less important than structural changes – you have the rush to the magic bullet.

 

Let me consider one more magic bullet, since recently it’s been making its way through opinion pages and commentaries: alternative teacher recruitment, most notably Teach for America. (See, for example, Thomas Friedman’s April 22, 2009 New York Times column or the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer for July 7, 2009.)

 

I admire Teach for America and the public service spirit that drives its recruits. In the early 90s, I met with founder Wendy Kopp, participated in TFA summer training in Los Angeles, and I’ve taught students who have gone into the program or came out of it. And my own introduction to education came via an earlier alternative program, The Teacher Corps. So my concern is not with Teach for America itself but with the way it has been defined as yet another wonder drug, the ingredients of which are the idealistic energy of youth and an elite education. Sadly, Teach for America has become a weapon in the education wars, rather than a laudable vehicle through which young people can contribute to the education of a nation.

 

I’m all for idealistic, hardworking enthusiasm, and I welcome into the nation’s classrooms these graduates of fine schools. But most of them teach for two years (and possibly a third) and then move on to the careers they went to college to pursue.

 

I’m troubled by two more issues related to the magic bullet discourse here. First, many who champion TFA seem to affirm an idiosyncratic model of professional development: that these young people’s elite undergraduate educations and their energy trumps extended training and experience. There is no other kind of work, from styling hair to surgery to the pro football defensive backfield where experience is so discounted. No TFA booster, I’d wager, would choose a med student fresh out of a cardiology rotation over a cardiologist who has been in practice for fifteen years.

           

I also want to consider the assumptions about knowledge and teaching here – or more precisely the use of the status of one’s undergraduate institution as a proxy for being able to teach what one knows. Knowing history or chemistry or literature is essential to teach these subjects, but – again this is common sense – knowing something does not mean you are able to teach it…as countless undergraduates who have sat through bad lectures can verify.

 

Let’s consider this elite school proxy for expertise in teaching from one more perspective. I went through my Possible Lives and Karin Chenowith’s new How It’s Being Done, both of which contain a number of first-rate teachers. I also looked at the Council of Chief State School Officer’s National Teacher of the Year Program. Only a handful of these top-flight teachers got their bachelors degrees from institutions typically defined as elite. A number hail from state universities. And a considerable number come from small, local colleges with teacher education programs. Expertise in teaching is more than a function of one’s undergraduate pedigree.

 

What miracle talk and magic-bullet solutions share is the reduction of complexity, of the many levels of hard, creative work necessary to make schooling successful in the United States.

 

More so than many other domains of public policy, education is bedeviled by a binary polemics, a tendency to define an issue in either/or terms and then wage a pitched battle over the (exaggerated) differences. So we have the math wars, the whole language versus phonics explosion, the knowledge versus process clash, and so on. These are fierce battles in which each side reduces the other’s argument – often to the point of caricature – and then assails it.

 

The miracle/magic bullet discourse plays right into this state of affairs, both emerges from and contributes to it. Part of believing in this single-shot causality requires a simplification of difficult issues and a dismissal of other possible variables and remedies. If you have the single truth, then everything else is a target.

 

There’s one more concern, and that has to do with failure. What happens when the miracle fades, when the magic bullet doesn’t cure the disease?  For some who are ideologically inclined there is despair, a throwing up of the hands and retreat to the dismissal of public education that we’ve witnessed over the past two or three decades.

 

I propose that we leave the holy cards at the schoolhouse door, that we admit that educational excellence is achieved through dedicated effort along multiple dimensions – structural, curricular, and pedagogical – and that we call a moratorium to the demonizing either/or polemics that create more heat than light. Unfortunately, that moratorium would probably require a miracle – but it’s one I’m ready to pray for.  

13 comments:

Nancy Flanagan said...

The desire to fix things quickly -- via miracle or something like it -- and turning every educational issue or initiative into a false win-lose dichotomy is a very American trait.

Other nations have built stronger systems with better outcomes, strategically using human capital, cooperation and a continuous improvement mindset. Investment over time. That's never been the American way, however.

Our cowboy mojo has given us winners and losers in a zero sum education game. Too bad.

Wonderful, thoughtful blog.

ArtSparker said...

My goodness, you are getting tough-minded these days. I keep coming back to what I hear in your description, which is a worshipful attitude toward new words (or memes if I'm going to be more pretentious), as if somehow the incantation was just a little off...and as Bullwinkle used to say "This time, for sure".

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Mike; I concur 100%. I would add that even if you ignore the broader issue of single-bullet miraculous program mentality, the "logic model" of this particular one seems to me on it's face like a pretty terrible idea: "So you mean you want to implement a revolving door of inexperienced kids out of elite schools to teach for 2 years and then leave exactly at the point where they could actually start to become decent teachers...? Great, that'll really fix things once and for all, why didn't we think of that before...?"

As an internship program for the undergrads I'm sure it's great, they certainly benefit from the life experience (and the "good person" check in their resume when they apply for the congressional aide job) and I guess they could even be of significant help to a school with experienced principal and teachers (or at least do little harm).

But like vouchers (and a number of other "miraculous" and I do have to say "american style") programs, how this is supposed to work as a systemic intervention to improve education (especially for poor kids in struggling schools) simply escapes me. You'd think such a weak theory of action would be scrutinized a lot more closely; I don't understand why it gets an "effective until proven otherwise..." treatment

ladymabelgrex@gmail.com said...

Hi Mike, This was a wonderful blog. I'd like to point out that when people buy something, they usually buy the best they can afford. The saying, "You get what you pay for" tends to be true. At least in California, people seem to believe in the miracle of free education. After WWII, California had the best education system in the country, and our parents came home from the war determained to give their children the best educations they could. California is now near the bottom in achievement, and we are absolutely unwilling to pay for a better system. Maybe we could rethink that.
Also, no one seems to be intersted in what actual teachers think. Teachers are educated professionals who usually decide to teach for good reasons, and like all good professionals should be encouraged to express their opinions and practice their professions with some freedom. They (we) are not servants. We are people who accept low pay and long hours to educate the children in our schools. I find it interesting that we not only are uninterested in the opinions of teachers from what I have seen, but give them riged scripts and curricula. Children reach developmental stages which are well known to educators, and I think we are trying,for instance, to teach abstract concepts before the students are able to grasp them. Thanks again, Dr. Rose.

Brian Rude said...

I am very much in agreement with the general point of your article, Mike. Miracles are not going to be a big part of improving education and an expectation of miracles, a "miracle mindset" we might say, will not serve anyone well.

Of most of the things you write about - Texas miracle, charters, vouchers, TFA, CEO management, small schools - all I know is what I read in the blogs. But you also talk of the math wars, and as a college math teacher I do know just a little about that. So I have a point or two to bring up. The "binary polemics" you speak of probably exists in the math wars, perhaps in abundance in some circles, but it seems to me it is not the primary characterization of them. The math wars, at least one side, is much more local and practical. The typical battle in the math wars begins when a school system adopts a math program and parent opposition arises. Parent opposition arises because of frustration with what their kids are getting. Kids get frustrated too. Parents are frustrated when they can't help their kids with their math because it doesn't seem to make sense. And parents are also frustrated because they become concerned about whether their kids are getting a good foundation in math, a foundation for college, and a foundation for life.

That's they way it happened for me, as a parent in the mid nineties. When my daughter entered the seventh grade I took a look at her math book, and I became concerned pretty quickly. We did not form a parent's group in that situation, but I presume I was not the only parent concerned. I was not a math teacher at that time. I had no clue that there were math wars brewing, or flaring. I just felt my daughter had a really weird math book, and I felt a little sorry for the teacher who had to try to use it. Over the next year and a half I put some ideas on paper, kind of hoping to generate some dialogue with the school. That never happened, but what I wrote is now available on my website, brianrude.com under the title “Chicago Math”

I'm all for toning down rhetoric when it gets out of hand, as it often does in politics. But it seems to me that is not the case with the math wars. It is not accurate to think of the math wars as a turf battle between competing factions in academia that is of no consequence to any one else. One may characterize the NCTM as that, perhaps, and the NCTM is certainly the main force on one side of the math wars. But the other side has little of that. The other side is a mass of mostly unorganized frustrated parents, aided by some academics, and, I presume, a fair number of frustrated teachers. The differences between the two sides in the math wars, in my humble opinion, are not exaggerated. A pitched battle is entirely appropriate. The stakes are high.

You speak of “fierce battles in which each side reduces the other’s argument – often to the point of caricature – and then assails it.” Yes, that does happen in the math wars. And I agree that it’s a poor tactic. If you find that in my writing, please let me know. But at the moment I want to talk about a reduction to caricature that I have found appalling all my life in education in general, though perhaps particularly in math. Every new educational fad that comes out includes the argument that we used to “teach by rote memorization”. Perhaps sophisticated players avoid that exact term, but they do not avoid the idea. They insist that only the new fad requires students to use their brains, or be active learners, or get satisfaction from their efforts. But I see no reason to give that claim any credence at all. “Drill and kill” is a favorite slogan by adherents to the NCTM side in the math wars.

Maybe all this is a minor point in the big picture you are talking about, but it seems important to me.

Brian Rude said...

And here is another point from your article, not about the math wars this time, but about educational fads in general. You say, “What happens when the miracle fades, . . . . . . For some who are ideologically inclined there is despair, . . . . . and retreat to the dismissal of public education . . . . . . .” Well, yes, I see some of that retreat. But that “despair” part strikes me as much less important than the opposite, the total lack of despair. In place of despair adherents of every new fad seem to have a total amnesia. They do not despair that the wonderful idea, so shiny and new so recently, came to mediocre results. It is gone, forgotten. On to the slightly different idea that is currently so shiny and new. I wish they would despair.

Remember Goals 2000? Remember January 2000, a couple of weeks of relief that our computers still worked, followed by prolonged despondence that the goals of Goals 2000 seemed as elusive as ever? No, that’s not the way I remember it either. Nobody bothered to despair.

Any “demonizing either/or polemics” is too much, so I’m with you there. But to me a much bigger problem is the unreality of our educational ideas. I have long argued that the study of education, pedagogy if you will, must start with a close look at what actually is, not what should be. Education is not good at that, does recognize any need. If I may I will mention two articles on my website, brianrude.com that develop this idea. They are “The Lack Of Description In The Study Of Education“, and “A Personal Indictment Of Ed School.”

Chris Lehmann said...

Mike -- Thank you.

TSmith said...

The main point seems to be the complexity of working with humans as students. Programs are really not meant for people- more thinking and caring, and using our expertise in apprenticeship fashion. We can alllearn inthe presence of each other - teaching does not necessarily mean that something becomes learned.

Larry the Webmaster said...

Mike, my experience as a school administrator and teacher is that Teach for America teachers do currently have a place in our most difficult to staff schools. I am in total agreement that experienced and well prepared teachers would be best for our most underachieving students. Unfortunately, the reality in most of our underperforming urban schools is that we cannot always get enough of the best teachers to work in the classroom with our students. My experiences led me to see both long term substitutes and Teach for America teachers side by side. Neither group has been trained in pedagogy before they start. TFA teachers were much more enthusiastic and highly motivated to work with our students. TFA teachers were much more content confident in most cases. I don't want to put substitute teachers, as a group, down because I have observed many fine substitute teachers. However, in our most difficult to staff schools, I felt that our students were better off having hard working, caring, and dedicated TFA staff, than day to day teachers who might come and work for one week and leave, followed by another person for one month then leave. I always let the young teachers who were strong know that our kids were better off having them for a short time, than not at all in the given educational situation. Look at this as a practical and different point of view.

Catherine Prendergast said...

Bravo

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about your post for a while now and I was interested in the responses. I appreciate your ability to talk about how we can make our public discourse more complex. I couldn't agree with you more. I often find myself in the midst of public discussions about math education, much like what another reader of your blog commented upon. I see things less starkly than Brian does and am very frustrated by how the conversations are polarized and how each "side" does often paint a caricature of the other "side." Many things need to improve in how we teach math and when I contribute to public discussions, what really frustrates me is when those who are advocating for some kind of return to basic skill development take any point that I try to make and undermine my ability to think thoughtfully about the subject. For example, if I say that teachers need more education, the response is that I am saying that because it benefits me -- I can get grants for professional development. This is but one of many, many examples. What I wish we could do is more seriously debate and consider how we to create teacher education programs that benefit teachers and children. There's a lot to argue about there seriously.

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Karin Chenoweth said...

You are wise to caution against magic fixes. There are no magic fixes. There is just the hard fact that helping children to become educated citizens is a complex task with a lot of flying parts. We need lots of people able and willing to take that task on and to think deeply about what it requires, because our nation's fate rests, in large part, in our ability to succeed.

Thanks for always keeping us focused on the main point, Mike.