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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Monday, March 30, 2015

School Reform Fails the Test: Part 2

Here's the second part of the essay I first posted on March 20, 2015.


If you pare down your concept of teaching far enough, you are left with sequences of behaviors and routines—with techniques. Technique becomes central to the reformers’ redefinition of teaching, and the focus on technique is at the heart of many of the alternative teacher credentialing programs that have emerged over the past decade. Effective techniques are an important part of the complex activity that is teaching, and good mentorship includes analyzing a teacher’s work and providing corrective feedback. Teachers of teachers have been doing this for a long time. What is new is the nearly exclusive focus on techniques, the increased role of digital technology to study them, and the attempt to define “effective” by seeking positive correlations between specific techniques and, you guessed it, students’ standardized test scores. What is also new is the magnitude of the effort, punched up considerably by a $45 million project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to measure effective teaching.

Because teaching involves a good deal of craft, I’m all for implementing useful techniques, from guidance on giving directions to ways to pose a math problem. But given the technocratic orientation of contemporary school reform, I worry that other aspects of teaching less easily observed and circumscribed—bearing, beliefs about learning, a sensibility about students’ lives—will get short shrift.

Techniques don’t work in isolation. The sequencing of questions, for example, is a crucial skill, but it depends on the teacher’s knowledge of the material being taught, children’s typical responses to this material, the kinds of misconceptions and errors they make, and the alternative explanations and illustrations that might help them. A teacher can’t ask meaningful questions for long without this kind of knowledge. In equal measure, the effectiveness of techniques, particularly for classroom management, is influenced by students’ sense of a teacher’s concern for them and understanding of them.

When I was visiting schools in Chicago, I spent time in Michelle Smith’s high school math classroom. One morning, she was calling her class to order and saw that a boy who plays the class clown was sitting way in the back. She called him by name, then said, “My young gentleman, I’d like you to sit up here where I can see you.” The student groaned, uncurled himself from his desk, and walked to the front, sauntering for the benefit of his peers. “C’mon darlin’,” Smith added, head tilted, hand on hip, “humor me.” She watched; he sat down. “Thank you, sir. I feel better.” With a mix of humor and direction, she had deftly changed the seating to ensure order in the room—an effective technique for classroom management.

Imagine, however, the unpleasant ways this situation could have played out: the student refusing to move, insulting or threatening her, or stirring up his comrades sitting nearby. But Smith’s action occurred in the context of a relationship with the class and with that boy, a legacy of her care and of the learning that goes on in her classroom. (“Miss Smith,” the boy later told me, “she’s teaching us how to do things we couldn’t do before.”) Smith knows local culture, understands the rituals of masculinity and the huge importance of allowing that student a little space to save face. She has developed a classroom persona that blends sass and seriousness, and she uses it strategically. Technique works in context and within the flow of other events.

If you conceive of teaching as a repertoire of instructional and behavior management techniques, then you won’t appreciate the kind of social knowledge Michelle Smith possesses. This pinched notion of teaching combined with a “no excuses” stance toward low achievement yields a troubling response to economic inequality: the belief that the right kind of education can overcome poverty. We have a long tradition in the United States of seeing education as, in Horace Mann’s words, the “great equalizer” of social class differences. As our social safety net has been increasingly compromised, we have put the school at the center of our dwindling welfare state. Even though half a century’s research has demonstrated that parental income level is the primary determiner of educational achievement, the reformers hold fast to the demand that schools can overcome the assaults of poverty. Charter school leader Doug Lemov, whose Teach Like a Champion has become a user’s manual among reformers, offers a good illustration. In his introduction, Lemov reflects on the charter school teachers he has observed:

These outstanding teachers routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.

Schooling becomes the one solution to poverty, the intervention that will work where others have failed.

About 15 pages later, however, Lemov offers a reminder of the ugly staying power of inequality. A former student of his, “the bright and passionate son of a single mother with limited English,” made the remarkable journey to Williams College. At college, though, the student’s problems with writing dogged him and were reflected in a professor’s unfavorable response to a paper he wrote on Zora Neale Hurston. Lemov tells this story to stress the importance of teaching students standard written English. But having worked in university programs that serve students like this one—and having been such a student myself—I find that this story represents the intractability of inequality: even after the best teaching Lemov and his colleagues could provide, this young man still needs assistance at further points along the way. The student will also need people who understand what he must be feeling: the crushing disappointment, the possible anger, and the deep blow to his confidence. Schools like Lemov’s might be able to narrow an achievement gap, improving the scores on district or state standardized tests, but not necessarily erase theachievement gap, which requires sustained help of many kinds, including programs that Lemov dismisses as “hand-wringing.”

The teachers in Possible Lives worked with significant numbers of low-income children, and every one of those teachers tried in some way to address their hardship. They might have drawn in social service agencies, or participated in church-based or civic organizations or political campaigns aimed at helping the poor. Sometimes they tried to find resources for parents, or tutored and counseled their students individually, or spent their own money and donated food, clothing, and other goods. They taught diligently, sometimes brilliantly, fought back despair, didn’t let up. “The problems are big ones,” a young Calexico teacher told me, “but they’re not going to stop me from teaching.” You cannot be in teaching—or medicine or counseling or the ministry—without slamming up against failure. These teachers did not rush to find excuses for their failures, but they knew the trauma poverty brings and did their work with that awareness. To deny the effects of poverty blinds you to the reality of your students’ lives, lives you need to understand as fully as you can to intervene and enlist others inside and beyond the school. I deeply believe in the power of teaching, but to make teaching the magic bullet against inequality or to pit it against other social and economic interventions leads to insular and self-defeating education policy.


As is the case with public school teachers today, many of the teachers I wrote about grew up in families with modest incomes. Some came from the same region or background as their students. A small number went to major universities, but most graduated from smaller state universities or local colleges with teacher education programs. Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children.

The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety, which in some neighborhoods is a real consideration. But there was also safety from insult and diminishment: “They don’t make fun of you if you mess up,” said a middle school student in Chicago. And there was safety to take intellectual risks. The teacher was “coaxing our thinking along,” as one of the students reading Faulkner put it.

Intimately related to safety is respect, a word I heard frequently during my travels. It meant many things: politeness, fair treatment, and beyond individual civility, a respect for the language and culture of the local population. Surveying images of Mexican-American history on the walls of a Los Angeles classroom, a student exclaimed, “This room is something positive. As you walk around, you say ‘Hey, we’re somebody!’ ” Respect also has a cognitive dimension. As a New York principal put it, “It’s not just about being polite—even the curriculum has to be challenging enough that it’s respectful.”

Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority. I witnessed a range of classroom management styles, and though some teachers involved students in determining the rules of conduct and gave them significant responsibility to provide the class its direction, others came with curriculum and codes of conduct fairly well in place. But two things were always evident. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed. Students contributed to the flow of events, shaped the direction of discussion, became authorities on the work they were doing.

These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility. As a Los Angeles middle school teacher observed, “Children can tell right off those people who believe in them and those who patronize them.” Young people had to work hard, think things through, come to terms with each other—and there were times when such effort took them to their limits. To be sure, some students weren’t engaged, and everyone, students and teachers, had bad days. But overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be. The huge, burning question is how to create more classrooms like these.


What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high-stakes testing-—from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site—if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project, by university summer programs in literature or science or history, by teams of expert teachers themselves.

In such programs, teachers read, write, and think together. They learn new material, hear from others who have successfully integrated it into their classrooms, and try it out themselves. Some participating teachers become local experts, providing further training for their schools and districts. Electronic media would facilitate participation, connecting people from remote areas and helping everyone to check in regularly when trying new things. These programs already exist but could be expanded significantly if policymakers had a different orientation to reform, one that honored teaching and the teaching profession. Distributed professional development would substitute a human development model of school reform for the current test-based technocratic one. And because such professional development would enhance what teachers teach and how they teach and assess it, there would be a more direct effect on the classroom.

Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies. If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided, some of which could be done by volunteers and interns from nearby colleges. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement. Such schools already exist, and an Obama administration initiative called Promise Neighborhoods awards grants to local programs and agencies that provide health and social services. But the provision of services is conceived as an add-on rather than an organic part of school reform itself, and the services are awarded by competition to only a percentage of the neighborhoods and schools that need them.

My proposals do not address all that ails our schools, and what they cost might be better spent on other ideas that are in the air. But they do move us away from the current model of reform and closer to the immediate needs of teachers and students. The proposals assume that our schools have talent to be tapped, and that the physical and social burdens of the poor are a drag on achievement.

As with the current reform programs, these proposals would draw on government and philanthropic funding and on large, sometimes distant, organizations such as the National Science Foundation. But the interventions would be adapted to the needs of particular schools and communities by local teachers and social service providers. The writing of narratives or a study of water-borne organisms would play out differently in New York City versus the Mississippi Delta.

Surveying the many unsuccessful and hugely expensive attempts at school reform in our past, historians Tyack and Cuban observed the same mistakes being repeated over and over again: top-down remedies, grandiose claims about the latest technology, disdain for teachers. To improve our schools, we need to be informed by knowledge gained from many days in the neighborhoods surrounding them and from many, many days inside the schoolhouse itself, learning from children’s experience and the full sweep of a teacher’s work. This is what contemporary school reform has failed to do.

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1 comment:

  1. Once again, you hit the nail on the head. Now I am engaged in a doctoral Educational Leadership program (postsecondary), and I am the sole faculty member amongst my cohort of 12, many of whom hold leadership positions (deans, etc.) I am the only voice that speaks for the importance of that relationship that faculty forge with students in the classroom. Whether we discuss "performance based funding," SB 1456, student affairs, "cultural capital" or any of the myriad of topics that engage my colleagues, I am fundamentally convinced that students will succeed only when they recognize that they are respected and that faculty make an effort to understand where students come from. You can mandate many things, but you cannot mandate what matters most.