Spilling the Beans on “Personalized Learning”

Years ago, I met Larry Berger at a conference. I had been impressed with the digital tools his company called Wireless Generation had developed to assess student learning and increase teacher efficiency. We talked briefly at the time. My hunch is that he neither remembers the conversation or my name.

Since that time, his career soared and he is now CEO of Amplify, a technology company once owned by Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation but since sold to Amplify executives who now run it. The company creates and develops curricular and assessment software for schools.

Rick Hess, educational policy maven at the American Enterprise Institute had invited Berger to a conference on the meaning of “personalized learning.” Berger could not attend and he asked a colleague who did attend to read a “confession” that he had to make about his abiding interest in “personalized learning.” Hess included Berger letter to the conferees and it appears below.

Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.

Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.

Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.

If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.

I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms.

Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.

To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of K-8 mathematics, and much promising work on personalized learning has been done in these areas; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension, or writing, or for the more complex areas of mathematical reasoning, or for any area of science or social studies. We aren’t sure whether you should learn about proteins then genes then traits—or traits, then genes, then proteins.

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.

We also don’t have the library of learning objects for the kinds of difficulties that kids often encounter. Most of the available learning objects are in books that only work if you have read the previous page. And they aren’t indexed in ways that algorithms understand.

Finally, as if it were not enough of a problem that this is a system whose parts don’t exist, there’s a more fundamental breakdown: Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning opening up.

Berger’s confession about believing in “engineering” solutions such as “personalized learning” to school and classroom problems, of course, has a long history of policy elites in the 20th and 21st centuries seeing technical solutions to school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction flop. After the post-Sputnik education reforms introduced curricular reforms in math and the natural and social sciences, cheerleaders for that reform confessed that what they had hoped would occur didn’t materialize (see here). After No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, for example, one-time advocates for the law confessed that there was too much testing and too little flexibility in the law for districts and schools (see here).

“Buyer’s remorse” is an abiding tradition.

I have a few observations about contrition and public confessions over errors in thinking about “personalized learning.”.

First, those confessing their errors about solving school problems seldom looked at previous generations of reformers seeking major changes in schools.They were ahistorical. They thought that they knew better than other very smart people who had earlier sought to solve  problems in schooling

Second, the confessions seldom go beyond blaming their own flawed thinking (or others who failed to carry out their instructions) and coming to realize the obvious:  schooling is far more complex a human institution than they had ever considered.

Finally, few of these confessions take a step back to not only consider the complexity of schooling and its many moving parts but also the political, social, and economic structures that keep it in place (see Audrey Watters here). As I and many others have said often, schools are political institutions deeply entangled in American society, culture, and democracy. Keeping the macro and micro-perspectives in sight is a must for those seeking major changes in how teachers teach or how schools educate. Were that to occur the incidence of after-the-reform regret might decrease.

 

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Should I Tell on My Cheating Classmates? (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. He is the author of  “Cosmopolitanism” and “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” He writes for the New York Times as “The Ethicist.” Many of the letters that come to Appiah deal with moral dilemmas where choices have to be made that cannot fully satisfy one or both of the values in conflict. The following entry came from a student’s question and the dilemma the student faced. Appiah’s answer appeared February 6, 2018.

In middle school, I witnessed three friends cheating on a test when a teacher was not in the room. I reminded them that we were not supposed to collaborate or use a computer to look up answers. They told me to “lay off.”

I was tempted to report them because I value being honest and because we were graded on a curve. But I was also hesitant because they were all admitted into prestigious high schools, and I was afraid that my middle school would have to report the cheating to those high schools. I was also afraid that they would know I was the one who reported them and that there might be consequences for our friendship.

There is no official honor code at my school, so I did not promise to report cheaters. Should I have reported them? Name Withheld

 

According to various experts, cheating has gotten worse in recent decades — in part because of increased pressure for good grades and scores among college-bound students — and less stigmatized than it used to be. What you’ve described fits that pattern.

If you’re out of step with your friends, it’s because you’re clear that cheating is wrong. Stick with that thought. Being honest is a good thing in itself. Your friends may think you’re a sucker. They’re wrong. And there are pragmatic considerations in favor of honesty too: Dishonesty is hard to conceal in the long run, and in nearly every sphere of life, having a reputation for dishonesty is a curse. In most circumstances, as a pragmatic matter, honesty really is the best policy. But an honest person won’t be honest for this reason. I’m sure that’s true of you. It’s an ideal you value, not simply a calculation you make.

As you also understand, people who cheat exploit the good faith of those who don’t, because cheating lets them represent themselves as better than they are, relative to noncheaters. (You mention that you’re being graded on a curve.) It’s a breach of their relationship with the teachers who trust them not to do these things, with the friends they disadvantage and with the parents they betray. And it’s bad for the offenders, because regular cheaters don’t do the work to understand the material being tested, depriving themselves of real learning and the opportunity for pedagogic correction.

People who cheat like this in middle school and who scoff at criticism of it are presumably going to go on cheating. And they may well get away with it. While certain forms of plagiarism are easier to detect than before (there are various online programs for this purpose), it appears that the rate of cheating is much higher than the rate of its detection. If your friends were exposed and learned that cheating is a serious matter, they might benefit in the long run. Certainly their peers, by learning from their example, could benefit.

Should you have blown the whistle, then? Maybe not. As you suggest, losing a place at a prestigious high school can be a big deal in our society, where educational opportunity is unfairly distributed. Adding to the current unfairness by cheating isn’t exactly helpful, of course, but that wouldn’t have occurred to your friends as they nursed their outrage at your tattling. And given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay. Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.

The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you. Whistle-blowers often suffer, sometimes more than those whose offenses they report. And the burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you. (I’m glad, as a result, that your school doesn’t expect you to report cheating. So-called honor codes mostly end up being ignored — thus increasing the general level of dishonesty rather than lowering it — while occasionally harming the honorable.) So I would not have recommended reporting these friends. Even if they did something wrong, your friendship, along with the probable costs to you, weighed against reporting them.

Some people, I realize, think that self-directed considerations don’t belong in the moral calculus. You can assess the consequence of your actions on others and on the world, in their view, but you’re not supposed to take your own concerns into account. They identify morality with the triumph over self-interest. This austerely demanding view is tempting but misguided. Morality should not be turned into something like the good china, which you take down from the high shelf only for special occasions. Ethics, in its classical sense, was about being a good person — and living a good life. (The first thing being part of the second.) It was meant for everyday use. The point is that you’re a participant in the situation you describe; your own prospects have to be considered, too.

And suppose that by turning in these cheaters, you became a pariah; would you have helped or hurt the social norm of honesty? Still, there may be things you can do. You might write to the head of your school board and say that cheating is happening and not being detected. (Consult your parents first, of course.) In an ideal world, students could be trusted to refrain from cheating because, like you, they value honesty. But we’re probably headed toward a world that’s simply less dependent on trust: no unsupervised tests, regular use of plagiarism checkers and statistical methods for detecting cheaters; stiff penalties for those who are caught. Given this reality, you might suggest some simple measures that could be taken. For starters, it’s not too much to ask that teachers stay in the room when an exam is being given.

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts about Technology Then and Now

Nearly two decades ago–1998-1999–my research on schools in Silicon Valley was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms.  Next month, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book about 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who integrated technology into their daily lessons will become available.

What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?

The similarities are easy to list.

*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.

The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.

*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.

For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops to schools and districts purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.

Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is now nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have been retired’ carts holding 25-30 devices are available in classrooms. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.

What about differences?

* Goals for using digital tools have changed.

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.

The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying jobs.

But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology is essential since  students with take state tests online. And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.

*Combined similarities and differences across time.

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The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.

These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and in using digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.

The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was seamlessly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that the students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.

But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research. These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.

 

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Have Definitions of “Success” and “Failure” in U.S. Public Schools Changed?

The answer is yes.

I begin with a history of how policy elites politically defined “success” in school reform between the late 19th century and mid-20th century. In those years, classrooms, schools, and districts that practiced “efficiency” in expanding access of students to public schooling, following scientifically designed procedures in creating appropriate curriculum for each level in age-graded schools, and using public funds parsimoniously and wisely were “successes” (see here and here)

Using scientific findings, ”educational engineers” (historians call them “administrative Progressives) in the early 20th century sought the best ways for students to learn, teachers to teach, administrators to manage, and school boards to govern. Policymakers asked: how much does it cost to teach Latin? Can teachers get fifth grade students to learn more by lesson worksheets done in class or homework? How can money be saved in heating the building during the winter? How can school boards divest party politics from making educational decisions? Researchers of the day answered such questions (see here and here)

These policymakers also wanted “social efficiency,” that is, graduates of age-graded schools were to be prepared to enter the workplace and act as responsible adults—public schools were to serve both the economy and society.

Challenges to this political consensus occurred at the time from those academics and practitioners who saw the goals of schooling in “learning through doing” and developing the “whole child.” Reformers of this stripe (historians called them “pedagogical Progressives) sought to create classrooms and schools that gave students more choices, positioned teachers as guides rather than directors, created curricula that crossed disciplinary boundaries, and integrated family, community, and the larger world into classroom experiences. To these reformers, “success” and “failure” went far beyond “efficient” classrooms and schools. The definition of “successful” schooling that they constructed sought student well-being and intellectual, social, emotional, and physical growth. But their challenges to the dominant view lost in these years although their definitions, beliefs and practices have persisted in subsequent decades.

By the late-1960s, however, the half-century prevailing consensus over “efficiency” as the dominant way to determine “success” and “failure” had fallen apart.

In that decade, expanded federal legislation to improve public schooling for poor children and youth led to direct infusion of funds into states and districts to improve schools serving poor children and youth. Another generation of policy elites pursued made a 180-degree switch in defining “success” from one of “efficiency” to one of “effectiveness.” These reformers wanted student outcomes (e.g., raising student test scores, increasing high school graduation rates and lowering number of dropouts) to define “success.” From inputs to outputs, as economists would say, sum up the flip-flop history of defining “success” and “failure” in the 20th century.

Increased emphasis on students’ academic outcomes and public rankings of schools and districts spread through the 1970s until today when new technologies permit policymakers to use large caches of information to reach swift judgments of “success” and “failure.” Now parents with laptops and smart phones can directly access their children’s academic performance on a weekly basis and school’s performance on state tests.

The tsunami of public data on student outcomes and habitual policy debates over “failing” U.S. schools introduces the bell-shaped curve of distribution of “winners” and “losers” in the American lexicon of reforming schools. The bell-shaped curve illustrates how most students and teachers in age-graded schools and districts are in the middle not at either tail—“success” or “failure”– of a distribution.

In the U.S., a highly competitive, individualistic culture wins and losses are counted religiously with check-marks placed either in the “win” or “loss” columns. For example, in business transactions (e.g., rise and fall in stock prices, creating unicorn companies worth billions and start-ups that disappear, restaurants opening their doors and later shutting down) define “success” and “failure.” Similarly, in college and professional sports (e.g., which pitcher has best earned run average, and National Football League team standings)

But reality of everyday life is a tad more complex; not everything is a win or loss–there is an in-between: the middle range, the typical, the average.

The concept of being in the middle—“average”–has in the U.S. segued into “mediocrity,” a linguistic euphemism for inferior quality applied to student, teacher, and school performance. “Average” and “mediocre” have become common adjectives added to current political vocabulary in describing classrooms, schools, and districts neither “successful” nor “failed.”

Yes, changes have occurred in defining what “success’ and “failure” mean in past and present reformers’ vocabulary. Moreover, the concept of “mediocre” also has been added recently where none existed in the 20th century to describe “average.” Those changes mean that such concepts bend with time and are context-bound; they are not absolute.

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Managing Teacher Dilemmas: Algebra 2, the Gateway Course (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met for lunches discussing many issues in public schools.

Rare it is that a teacher describes intra-department politics on a crucial policy question about how much advanced math should students previously identified as low-achieving and potential failures have access to. Education Realist describes such a high school department wrestling with this departmental policy dilemma and what position this teacher takes.

This post appeared January 28, 2018.

I’ve been teaching a ton of algebra 2 the past three years.  I squawk periodically, and the admins give me variety for a semester or so, but then the classes come back. Back in 2016, I taught 5 classes, all of them full, over the two semester block courses, or about 160 kids. Last year, I had just one course of 30 kids. This year, I’ve already taught three and one coming up.  I also get a steady flow of trigonometry classes–not as many, but three or four every year.  I’ve requested more pre-calculus every year;  they’ll give me one every so often, like a bone to a cranky dog.

In my early years here, I taught far more pre-calculus. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, I taught five pre-calc courses. From fall 2015 to now, I’ve had three.

Why? Because Chuck got his way. Chuck came to our school determined to upgrade the math department. He wanted to make it possible to get a committed kid from algebra 1 freshman year to AP or regular calculus senior year. As I pointed out at the time, this goal is incompatible with helping more kids attain advanced math. You can increase standards or increase inclusion, but not both.

Chuck knows this, and so every semester, particularly the midterm when we finish a “year” and do the turnover to new courses, he starts noodging us for the lists. Kids are often scheduled in two consecutive math courses, so Chuck wants to make sure that the kids who get Ds or Fs in the first course are removed and rescheduled into a repeat. Every year he sends out an email to the algebra 2 teachers, nagging them to give him a list of kids who are failing so he can get them rescheduled. Every year, I ignore him, because I find this activity unseemly and cruel.

I take this task on far more personally and by age. Seniors are given a C if they work hard but can’t pass the tests. Juniors get a choice: retake the course if I think they have the ability to learn more, or take our stats course  (which is designed for very weak kids, lots of project courses). All sophomores get this conversation: you don’t quite grok this material, and you should take it again. Ideally, with me, but either way, take it again. I’ll give a passing grade so you’ll get the credits. But you’re going to  fail if you move forward, and retaking trig is a waste of time, while you will learn more if you retake algebra 2.

But this year, Chuck turned into a wily bastard and instead of asking me for the list, got it from the counselors. He then emailed a list to me and  Benny , the other two teachers covering non-honors Algebra 2:

Hi, can you tell me which of these students won’t pass, so I can email the counselors?  Here’s all the algebra 2 non-honors students who either have a D or F right now, or who got an NOF [Notification Of Failure] at the last notification:

Benny (teaching one class of 30):
list of 12 students

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

Ed (teaching three classes of 35, or 105 students):
15 students

(I don’t know why Chuck put his own students on the list, maybe to remind me that he was living by his own rules)

So a student in Benny or Chuck’s class had a 1 in 3 chance of failing algebra 2 with a D or F. In mine, their odds were 1 in 7. I was teaching three times as many kids but kept back half as many as they did combined.

Benny, Chuck, Steve, and Wing, the upper math teachers, complain constantly about the seniors they get stuck with, kids forced into a math class by the administrators, even though they hate math and don’t need the credits. The students sit in class every day and refuse to work. Their parents either support this choice or shrug in defeat. The kids have an F by the first quarter. They get bored and disruptive.  The kids waste an entire semester (our year) in their classes, sitting there doing nothing.

I find this akin to malpractice, and say so–well, I don’t say “That’s malpractice.” But I point out how odd it is that I never have this problem, despite being assigned many seniors with similar objections. Most end up like Wesley, learning more math than he ever dreamed.

I was reminded of this recently when going through my desk, cleaning out stuff for the new semester, and coming across Estefania’s note. I give an assessment test on the first day,  and discovered Estefania ignoring the test, writing on a slip of paper. I took the paper away from her, told her to give that test her best effort. I  was going to toss the note but then noticed it was a form of some sort, and opened it:

https://educationrealist.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/estefanialet.png?w=1216&h=286

Estefania came up after class. “I tried on the test, but I didn’t know a lot of it. Can I have my note back?”

I handed it to her. “I don’t think you should turn it in. I think you should take the class.”

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

“Math teachers always tell me that, like I’ll finally get math and be good at it. But I’m not any good and I’ve already failed twice.”

“You don’t understand. Come to class. Try. I will give you a passing grade. I don’t care if you fail every single test. I guarantee you will get a passing grade. And odds are really good you’ll also learn some math.” I held out my hand for the note. She hesitated, and then handed it back. And stayed. She did pretty well, too, well enough that she smiled whenever I reminded her about that note.

When I found the note in my drawer, I looked up some of her work on the finals.

Exponential functions:

https://educationrealist.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/estefaniaexp2.jpg?w=916&h=687

 

Estefaniaexp1

 

I forgot to take a picture, but she did quite well on the log questions, understanding that log base 2 of 16 is 4.

Here she is on quadratics, her best subject (she got an A, flat out, on her parabola graphing quiz.):

Estefaniaproj

She received a 60 on the first part of the final, putting her in the bottom third (most of my fails were between 42 and 60). I haven’t graded the second part,  although she clearly knew the quadratics. Girl learned some math, y’know?

Chuck and my four colleagues sometimes suspect that I dumb down my course. In fact, thanks to the epic teacher federalism agreement, my course is considerably harder and more cognitively complex than it was three years ago.

A month ago, Chuck trumpeted the results of his project. Six students entered at Algebra 1 or lower in their freshman year, and succeed in taking  AP Calculus their senior year. (One of them was Manuel.) Eight students entered at the same level took regular calculus. So fourteen students were not identified as honors students, took no honors classes, yet had made it to calculus by their senior year.

Of those fourteen students, I’d taught ten of them twice in their progression through algebra two, trigonometry, and pre-calcululus. Two others I taught once. Of the fourteen, only two had never been in my classroom.

The  road to Chuck’s dream runs directly through Ed.

Now you know why I get all those algebra 2 students. Because our administrators want to sign up for Chuck’s dream, but they don’t want a bloodbath. No one says so directly. They don’t have to. My schedule says it all.

In prior years, I was teaching more precalculus for a similar reason, as far too many students who’d made it that far were wasting their last year of high school math. But when Chuck unrolled his initiative, my principal realized that algebra 2 was going to be the new choke point. Well, not so much realized it as heard it straight from Chuck’s mouth, as in “More kids will fail algebra 2 because it’s going to be a much harder course if we’re going to  achieve this goal.” Rather than tell Chuck no–because it is indeed a worthy goal–our principal threads the needle between achievement and equity by adopting Chuck’s goals but assigning me the lion’s share of students in a critical gateway–or gatekeeping–course.

If I want to teach more pre-calculus, I need more colleagues with my methods and priorities teaching upper-level math. I spent three years mentoring Bart to share the teaching load, an objective I made clear to both Bart and the principal. Bart liked that idea. The principal did, too. But Bart wanted to teach physics, too, and we have a new science initiative, and now Bart teaches freshman physics. I am still pissed about that, but hell, we drink beer together so I can’t kill him.

In the meantime, our department chair is retiring. So I need to request input into the hiring decision for his replacement.

Yet I pause just for a moment to celebrate the Estefanias in my world, and remind everyone again that as teachers, we owe our first loyalty to the students, not the subjects.

As Joe said in All That Jazz when Victoria wanted to quit:

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Or take this question, which I first asked four years ago::

If you teach at-risk, low-skilled kids and don’t struggle with this question, you aren’t really teaching them.

*******************************************************************************

My standard disclaimer: all my colleagues are good teachers who want the best for the kids. I disagree with their philosophy. They disagree with mine. No criticism intended, other than, you know, they still kill the bulls to worship Mithras while I’m Zoroastrian. (Also, all names are pseudonyms.)

The great Ben Orlin recently mused on this, giving birth to my take. Robert Pondiscio argues that education reform’s “underperformance” lies in their assumption that policy, not practice, is the key to drive “enduring improvement”. I don’t know that reformers will get anywhere until they realize that the facts on the ground say we’re teaching kids at capacity and that “enduring improvement” is likely a chimera. (

Previously, I’ve described my outrage at college policies that abandon remediation, conferring college-readiness on people who can’t manage middle school math. Anyone want to know how I [thread] that needle with what I’m writing here? It’s an interesting question. I’ll get to it later.

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Managing, Not Solving, Teacher Dilemmas (Part 1)

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

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An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices again.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra 2 or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches, in hanging in when subject matter just seems to be too hard to grasp. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time–they are both sandpaper and a pillow. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ head and heart.

The next post examines a math teacher wrestling with this dilemma of roles as it affects the future of students and the role the teacher plays in the department. Such dilemmas seldom gain the attention they deserve inside or outside school.

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What Roles School Practitioners Have to Perform Daily

I just read a report that argued for superintendents to exert their political skills to build coalitions of support in order to achieve the goals they have set for their years as school chief. I wondered to myself after reading the report how much the authors grasped the core activities that  teachers, principals, and superintendents, working in their classrooms, offices, and suites do every day, in their own ways. Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to–yes, “have to”–perform three different roles in their different venues: instructional, managerial, and political.

For superintendents who have been teachers and principals, and four out of five have, These roles and actions are baked into the DNA of teaching, principaling, and, yes, superintending. So those former teachers and principals who become district office staff before getting picked to be a school chief already have acted politically in their earlier roles. They may not have called what they did “political,” but they know how to build coalitions and forge relationships to get things done. It is in their bones.

Here are the roles that teachers, principals, and superintendents must perform to initially survive and then thrive.

Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.

Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of  being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.

Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget, hire staff, and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals  CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.

Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.

So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.

And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or  helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.

Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.

So the report  surprised me for its lack of basic understanding of the three roles baked into the DNA of being practitioners in classrooms, school offices, and district suites. Anyone becoming a superintendent knows from prior experience as a teacher and principal–although he or she may not use the word “political”–the importance of forging coalitions inside and outside the school to gain support to achieve desired goals.

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