Yo Teach…! Or how to avoid teaching like Jason

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 10 2012

Education needs more useful debates

The current educational debate can be very frustrating. On the one hand, I find most ecstatic “reformers” ignorant of what it means to be a teacher, arrogant about power of their ideas, oblivious to the unintended consequences of their inherently limited proposals, and uninterested in the way their proposals get implemented, even though this is perhaps the most important factor in the success of a reform. On the other hand, I find that “anti-reformers” have just found a corner of the internet to bemoan all changes, throwing out conspiracy theories about a corporate takeover of education that are rooted in nothing more than ad hominem attacks (they are funded by some businesses, therefore their school/teachers/leaders are advancing long-term business interests). Rick Hess discusses why it is such a shame that the this group has drifted so far from the direction of compromise: They have essentially removed themselves from the conversation by offering no substantive alternatives, leaving mainly the former group to influence policy in an often wrong-headed way. There are now very few respected people influencing policy who are open to some kinds of smarter accountability and choice while also demanding more public money for critical needs (like nutrition, early childhood education, after school activities, etc.).

For example, Diane Ravitch was part of an onslaught of criticism of the MATCH ed school, listing it as just another corporate/charter school program that devalues the teaching profession, without pausing to think that MATCH offers one of THE BEST criticisms of TFA: They offer a one year training and residency program that get’s teachers ready to excel on day one, not after a year of struggling. These are the debates we should be having! But unfortunately nobody is engaging in these debates. The reformers are either working on crafting such programs or think that all disruption is generally good, and the “anti-reformers” think that almost any change is a hostile takeover of our schools. Ugh.

8 Responses

  1. meghank

    Open your eyes. Are you saying the testing companies are not doing everything in their power to make testing more prominent and widespread? Are you saying the testing companies do not have a lot of power?

    If they have a lot of power, and they are doing everything in their power to increase their profits, including lobbying politicians and getting their executives named to legislative consulting bodies like ALEC, these are facts, not conspiracy theories.

    I don’t know why Gates promotes the testing companies’ interests, but Gates, Pearson, the Common Core, and the concept of evaluating teachers using children’s test scores are inextricably tied together in many verifiable ways.

    If the reformers were less fanatical about their ideas, we would be able to engage with them in dialogue. As it is, it would be like talking to a mental patient or a religious fanatic. They don’t listen to opposing viewpoints. Case in point: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/08/the_gates_foundation_writes_ho.html

    Vicki Phillips did not respond to the most important criticism that Anthony Cody made, which is that students’ test scores do not accurately measure a teacher’s work over the course of a year. Instead she made the straw man argument that anti-reformers do not want “student learning” to factor into evaluations. No one is saying that we do not want student learning as a factor.

    The reformers deliberately twist a critic’s words to score PR points. They refuse to engage in true dialogue.

  2. Wess

    PREACH. I was following Diane Ravitch for as long as I could, but holy moley. I had two hundred posts waiting to be read before I could blink. And all of them … just a little too fiesty and doomsdayish for me.

    Honestly, though, I think the lack of real, good, productive debate in education is THE thing to change.

    • meghank

      Diane is probably feisty and doomsdayish because of the elementary schools.

      Have you been in an inner city elementary school lately? It is doomsday in there. They are exactly like prisons because of the excessive emphasis on tests.

      Maybe it’s not so bad in a high school, because they have always been focused on tests (?), but the environment in elementary schools is criminal. And they are closing libraries and spending the money on more extensive tests. What is not doomsday about that?

      • yoteach

        But isn’t the fact that you feel able to make SUCH a generalized statement about ALL elementary schools further evidence of how outlandish our discussions have become? I’ll concede to you that there are some schools that may seem too militaristic, but this is a far cry from prison-like. I’ve been in dozens of schools in Detroit, some charter, some public, all focused on increasing test results, and all of them are (imperfect) environments that try to grow students academically and personally in the way they think is most effective. Instead of throwing out generalized invectives that as an inner city teacher I honestly take offense to, show me a study that measures how classroom culture, confidence, or personal growth is affected by focus around data, testing, etc. If the current focus around data and testing is potentially detrimental, THAT would be a persuasive way to make your point, not claiming that “all inner city elementary schools are exactly like prisons.”

        • meghank

          I did not say “all.” Thank you for reminding me to be more precise with my language. All the inner city elementary schools that I have seen are exactly like prisons. Knowing the mandates of my district, I am certain that all of the inner-city elementary schools in my district are exactly like prisons.

          As someone who teaches in an inner-city elementary school, I know you can’t measure this environment in a study (nor would the principal or school district consent to an honest study).

          Sorry if my concern for childhoods being ruined by the lack of a true education causes me to speak with passion. And yes, I mean exactly that: Childhoods are being ruined by this excessive emphasis on tests. School libraries in my district are being closed and more testing is planned. The money for libraries is being spent on testing and a teacher evaluation system that emphasizes testing.

          I think children’s books are integral to a happy childhood. Therefore, childhoods are being ruined.

  3. I think you and Rick Hess are overestimating the interest in compromise on the education reform side.

    (And on his part, how easy it is to “get dealt” into the conversation – very few vocal, influential voices are active classroom teachers, and there are many classroom teachers who have tried to ante in. As an aside, I think this has to do with policy makers’ general assumption that teachers aren’t that bright. I have had more than one influential policy maker say something to me along the lines of having thought I was “just” a teacher until hearing what university I attended/some academic honor I received/some publication or presentation I gave.)

    It is very hard to have a conversation about, say, teacher performance metrics when one side – and it’s not mine – is absolutely unwilling to accept that their preferred metrics aren’t just problematic but based on all available research wrong more than right. That’s pretty absolute, and it inspires absolutism in response.

    I’d also observe that neither side does a particularly good job addressing the elephant in the room. The race (and class) issues that go undiscussed are huge. That said, I find the education reform’s stance problematic. They have a tendency to silence any discussion of race in the classroom – be it talking about cultural competence, racial disparities in performance, sociolinguistic variance, etc. – by diagnosing racism in those with whom they are speaking. I don’t think it’s racist to discuss, say, what it means to be a white educator teaching children of color, or how conversational turn-taking differs among different ethnolinguistic groups. I’ve been told that doing so is “making excuses”, or “having low standards”. Trying to be aware of differences that impact instruction shouldn’t be so problematic for reformers. But their worldview tends towards unexamined colorblindness or deficit-oriented thinking. And it’s not really possible to have a debate with people who at the least suggest that talking about race means you are a racist.

    (I don’t think the other side is necessarily more able to have productive conversations about race and class; I do think that they admit that it matters. I can’t say the same about the education reformers.)

    And ALL of that said, when I look at American public discourse more broadly, I’m not convinced that bipartisanship and compromise are necessarily what makes for good policy. And I have to note that calls for debate tend to go with pleas for civility – and the side in power is always the one defining what it means to be civil.

    • yoteach

      I’ll agree with you that bipartisanship and compromise rarely lead to good policy ( oh hey NCLB), but are there other options? Your discussion of race is interesting, and I think perhaps reflective of the democratic pro-reform wing (TFA etc.), but probably not the conservatives. They are all to eager to discuss race in a way that can at times make me cringe. I was glancing through a Fordham Institute book on the New Paternalism, the central thesis of which is that the best innercity schools succeed because they go back to teaching values that are not otherwise instilled in these communities. I didn’t totally buy their argument or the very explicit socioeconomic correlations they drew (wealthy schools probably benefit from teaching values, as discussed by Paul Tough in a recent NYT magazine article), but you can at least credit them for being open to talking about something uncomfortable.

      I also agree that teachers are probably not respected as much as they ought to be by policymakers, though would point out that many who influence policymakers ARE teachers (or former teachers), just teachers who are usually more embracing of reform. Again, I think our fundamental disagreement is this: I think that current use of testing and merit pay is generally bad, but I strongly believe that improving standardized tests can be an asset for teachers, schools, and policymakers, and a shield for teachers who are spurring a lot of growth from attacks by biased administrators. For example, I used the NWEA MAP assessment in my classroom last year. It’s an online adaptive test that breaks down student scores in various sub-disciplines (e.g. my 1st graders had phonics, comprehension, phonemic awareness results, among many more). I thought that even though the test wasn’t perfect, it helped me so much in planning for my students various needs and even made me notice some deficits my students had that I was not previously aware of. We take it 3 times through the year so it can measure your students’ growth compared to the school, the nation, and evaluate your own strengths as a teacher. Personally, I think more tests like this could be really useful for everyone in education, and I wish that the “anti-reform” side of the debate was less absolute, pointing out the deficiencies of certain tests rather than the uselessness of the institution. I really think (some) policymakers or reform-inclined ed leaders would listen more if they got this kind of feedback.

      • Deficit thinking – which a lot of charter models assume, and I say this as someone who’s trained KIPP teachers – isn’t any better than colorblindness.

        In terms of your specific point on assessment, I’d note that the importance of phonemic awareness to reading isn’t clear, despite the conclusions of Bush’s reading council. I mention this because one of the problems with assessment tools like these is that they assume some level of agreement about what a skill is and what it means to have it. Those agreements aren’t as concrete as we might like them to be.

        Arguably, a better assessment is an authentic reading assessment, since ultimately the skill we want is that children can read. But these are time-consuming, take technical skill to administer, and incredibly easy to game.

        On a related note, I don’t think experienced teachers need to give as much formal assessment because our content knowledge is better and therefore we collect better observational data. I rarely if ever learn much from formal assessment data these days; I know what my students know already. Reformers find these data soft, no matter how many notes or actual reading assessments I bring with me that support my conclusions.

        More broadly, I am suspicious of the general ideology of education reformers and how it impacts their conclusions. They are generally in favor of applying free market models of choice and competition to public education; I don’t think these ideals map well. Nor do I believe that capitalist ideology is a good fit for democratic, equitable education.

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