Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

One Way or Two-Way Traffic? The Policy to Practice Street

The past half-century has seen record-breaking attempts by policymakers to influence how teachers teach. Record-breaking in the sense that again and again (add one more “again” if you wish) federal and state policymakers and aggressive philanthropists have pushed higher curriculum standards in math, science, social studies, and reading decade after decade. With federal legislation of No Child Left Behind (2002-2015) and Every Student Succeeds Act (2015-) teaching has been influenced, even homogenized (following scripts, test prep, etc.) in those schools threatened by closure or restructuring.  Now with Common Core standards, the push to standardize math and language arts instruction in K-12 (e.g., close reading for first graders) repeats earlier efforts to reshape classroom lessons. If past efforts are any indicator, then these efforts to homogenize teaching lead paradoxically, to more, not less, variability in lessons. But this increased variation in teaching seldom alerts policymakers and donors in their offices and suites to reassess the policies  they adopt.

The take-aways from this post are first, policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons, and, second, teachers are policymakers.

Policies aimed at standardizing classroom practice increase variation in lessons

Consider math standards. An unusual research project in the early 1990s examined California’s major policy effort–a new math curriculum framework– to lift the low floor in both math content and instruction in 1,000 school districts. Policymakers wanted to rid the state of teaching math mechanically and instead have students grasp a deeper understanding of math concepts.  The ambitious policy gave detailed instructional guidance to teachers and new  textbooks and materials aligned to the framework to hundreds of thousands of California teachers. The policy aim was to improve the teaching of math in the state by standardizing new content and ways of teaching students concepts and algorithms through use of manipulatives and other materials.

David K. Cohen and Deborah Ball  led a team of researchers who observed math lessons and interviewed teachers. The research uncovered enormous variation among teachers in putting the math framework into everyday classroom practice.

Extensive variation after a policy demanding standardization? Cohen and Ball explain why his teams observed such different lessons within a policy that tried to homogenize math teaching.

Any teacher, in any system of schooling, interprets and enacts new instructional policies in light of his or her own experience, beliefs, and knowledge. Hence to argue that government policy is the only operating force is to portray teachers as utterly passive agents without agency. That is unsupported by our investigations. Even the most obedient and traditional teachers whom we observed not only saw and enacted higher level policies in their own way, but were aware and proud of their independent contributions.

Cohen described a fourth grade teacher’s lessons over an extended period of time. Entitled “A Revolution in One Teacher’s Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” the word, the case study limns a veteran teacher incorporating selected elements of the new policy into her traditional ways of teaching from the math content to the use of small groups and manipulatives. “Revolution” in the title is tinged with irony.

Thus, what Cohen and Ball underscore is the discretion, the autonomy that teachers have to adapt whatever new policy comes from the state or district office to the constraints within which they teach students.

The same pattern of policy aimed at standardizing practice in special education classrooms in the 1980s had teachers adapting lessons to the students they had, the contexts in which they were teaching thus producing much variation in lessons. Called “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers, social workers, police officers have an inherent discretion in dealing with clients, students, and citizens which they use daily leading to constant adapting of policy mandates. Professionals using discretion means they end up fitting the policy to the setting and the people.

Teachers are not passive recipients of policy but active participants in the policy-to-practice journey.

Teachers are policymakers

As gatekeepers to their classrooms, teachers are de facto policymakers. They decide what content to teach and what practices to use in teaching daily lessons. Yet top federal, state, and local decision-makers prize the policy formation and adoption stages as the be-all and end-all of getting teachers to change their classroom practices. The final stage of implementation is rhetorically important but top decision-makers too often move to the wings and do little to build teachers’ knowledge and skills to put new policies into practice. That is a serious mistake because teacher expertise and judgment are crucial ingredients to student learning. Building and cultivating both among teachers charged to put policies into practice is essential yet are either overlooked,  purposely ignored, or under-funded.

As policy gatekeepers, however, teachers are seldom included in the loop when new policies are formed and then adopted. Only when policymakers see the critical importance of the implementation stage do they bring teachers in—often too late because teacher ideas and perspectives have been excluded from the first stage of policy formation. It is the same error that high-tech entrepreneurs eager to improve schooling and teaching make when they create devices and software for teachers and students to use, get administrators’ approval to pilot the hardware and software without a nod to teachers ideas and the realities they face. After all, the real customers, the users, are teachers, not administrators. Like CEOs of tech companies, policymakers engage in beta testing with reforms in governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. And teachers then get blamed when policies flop.

The policy-to-practice path continues to be a one-way street. Yet evidence of variation in teacher lessons has been constant in the past and continues now showing again and again that teachers act as policymakers. That path should be a two-way thoroughfare.

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The Politics of Art in a San Francisco High School (Bari Weiss)

This op-ed column appeared in the New York Times June 28, 2019.

Bari Weiss (@bariweiss), a staff writer and editor for the Opinion section, is the author of the forthcoming “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”

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More than $8,000. That was the amount John Ashcroft’s Justice Department spent on blue curtains to cover up the busty Spirit of Justice statue and her bare-chested male equivalent, the Majesty of Law, in the department’s Great Hall in 2002. The Victorian move against the Art Deco sculptures spurred a thousand lampoons. “A blue burqa for justice,” my colleague Maureen Dowd memorably called it. In The Harvard Crimson, a young Pete Buttigieg wrote, “It seems odd that an infant is supposed to feed on them, and a grown man is expected at some point to behold them, but for a period in between we feel the need to see to it that no child ever sees a breast.”

 

I wonder, then, what Mr. Buttigieg, now on the presidential campaign trail, would make of the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.

By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.

Victor Arnautoff, the Russian immigrant who made the paintings in question, was perhaps the most important muralist in the Bay Area during the Depression. Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, he had the opportunity to make some enduring public artworks. Among them is “City Life” in Coit Tower, in which the artist painted himself standing in front of a newspaper rack conspicuously missing the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle and packed with publications like The Daily Worker.

Arnautoff, who had assisted Diego Rivera in Mexico, was a committed Communist. “‘Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me,” he said in 1935. “The artist is a critic of society.”

This is why his freshly banned work, “Life of Washington,” does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.

“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Robert W. Cherny writes in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.”

In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.

“This is a radical and critical work of art,” the school’s alumni association argued. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”

Such appeals to reason and history failed to sway the school board. On Tuesday, it dismissed the option to pull an Ashcroft and simply cover the murals, instead voting unanimously to paint them over.

One of the commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” Thus he wanted “the murals to be painted down.” Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, later told me that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

These and other explanations from the board’s members reflected the logic of the Reflection and Action Working Group, a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district. Arnautoff’s work, the group concluded in February, “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” The art does not reflect “social justice,” the group said, and it “is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.”

And yet many of the school’s actual students seemed to disagree. Of 49 freshmen asked to write about the murals, according to The Times, only four supported their removal. John M. Strain, an English teacher, told The Times’s Carol Pogash that his students “feel bad about offending people but they almost universally don’t think the answer is to erase it.”

Which makes one wonder who these bureaucrats actually seek to protect. Is it the students? Or could it also be their reputations, given that those in favor of preserving the murals are being smeared as racists?

“In my entire life, no one has ever, ever accused me of being a ‘white supremacist,’” Lope Yap Jr., a filmmaker and the vice president of the alumni association, told me. But if you buy into the expansive notion of “white supremacy” put forward by Alison Collins, one of the board commissioners, that is exactly what Mr. Yap, who is Filipino, is. “One of the earmarks of white supremacy culture is valuing (white) property over (Black & Brown) ppl,” Ms. Collins recently wrote on Twitter. “I think about this when I read comments from folks arguing to ‘protect’ the ‘Life of Washington’ murals.”

Mr. Sanchez, the board vice president, told me: “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input. For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

The implications of this logic are chilling. What happens when a student suggests that looking at photographs of the My Lai massacre in history class is too traumatic? Should newspapers avoid printing upsetting images that illuminate the crisis at the border, like the unforgettable one of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, facedown, drowned in the Rio Grande?

All are fair game for censorship in a worldview that insists that words and images are to be judged based on how “safe” they make people feel.

“If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when these people go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on,” said Robby Soave, the author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” He added: “That’s not on them. That’s on us.”

The notion of erasing art has an American pedigree. Arnautoff was intimately familiar with it, having been interrogated in 1956 by the House Un-American Activities Committee for drawing a caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon. But I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that more than 60 years later, progressives in charge of educating San Francisco’s children are merrily following this un-American playbook.

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Respect for Teaching: One Teacher’s Story

To be a teacher is honored in name, with awards, and fond memories of former students. Sometimes, however, those honors and memories are betrayed, albeit inadvertently, by bureaucratic rules that reveal disrespect for teaching. 

I describe here an incident that occurred to me nearly 50 years ago when I worked in the Washington, D.C. schools. I was a teacher who became an administrator and then chose to return to the classroom, Sure, five decades ago is ancient history so readers will have to judge whether the attitudes embedded in organizational procedures that I experienced are contemporary or merely a historical curiosity.

I wrote the following piece for a Washington, D.C. alternative newspaper in 1971.

 

I have taught off and on for nearly fifteen years. When not teaching, I have been an administrator…. I directed an experimental teaching project called the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching 1963-1967. [Afterwards] I taught half-time while writing a book. The following year, in the hope of working with others who shared my interest in [reform], I returned to administration as the Director of Staff Development in the Washington,  D.C. schools. That lasted two years since the budget and program [were] gutted … by the D.C. Council….  At that point [1970] I decided to return to the classroom rather than occupy a desk [downtown].

It was an uncommon decision I discovered. To understand why, you have to appreciate the nagging guilt that haunts administrators about leaving the classroom. Talk to most central office administrators … and you will inevitably hear how important it is ‘to stay in touch with kids. That’s where the action is. How I miss it.’  When I would ask why not return to the classroom, I would hear: ‘I would like to, but, you know, the money, and well, I like to make decisions, and well, I needed a change.’

Shortly after I was appointed director of staff development, I suggested at an [administrative] meeting that [their] perceptions … and sense of urgency might be considerably sharpened if [they] would teach one or two weeks and then return to [their] desks. The idea was beaten down. I began to see that administration was as much an escape from the … classroom as it was a search for status, authority, and dollars….

[Yet]  administrators deeply believe that the classroom is the backbone of education. Thus, when an administrator decides to teach, one would expect some encouragement from colleagues, perhaps a bit of support, and an easy transition. How naive I was. Disbelief, punishment, and shame dogged each step of my return to teaching….

When my colleagues found out [that I would be returning to the classroom], a wall of silence appeared. Except for some close associates, the response–-when people chose to talk to me–was disbelief. They seemed to suggest by smile, smirk, or wink that I must be waiting for a good offer….For the most part, I was ignored.

In hallways when passing someone, eyes turned away…. Within two months, a series of actions, unmalicious in intent, initiated and executed in a most efficient bureaucratic manner occurred that created within me a sense of shame and failure.

The first shock came [over] salary. To teach meant taking a one-third wage cut… The Board of Examiners* informed me that my four years of administrative experience meant nothing in dollars and cents. Of my ten years of prior teaching, only seven met the standards set by D.C….

Next … I received a notice that said I was “demoted without prejudice.” The phrase is semantically correct. I am now on a lower rung of the school ladder and being there was my choice. [But} demoted sounded like grade school, like being pushed back to a lower group because you are dumb and misbehaving. The phrase is from the language of failure.

Then the Board of Examiners informed me a week before [I returned to the classroom] that I could not receive a regular … contract because I had never taken a college course in teaching at the secondary school level. With well over a decade of classroom experience in three different cities, with five years experience in preparing teachers to work in [D.C.] schools, with a book and numerous articles on teacher education–I am told that unless I take a course on Teaching in the Secondary School within two years I will not be able to teach in D.C.

After a pay cut, a demotion, and then a threat, I felt like I had committed a crime. What had I done wrong?

The unintentional but very destructive way a school system punishes administrators and teachers from moving freely back and forth between classroom and central office reveals [that] the stated value is: teaching is cherished; the real value is that teaching is [tough work] and unimportant; anyone with sense will get the hell out of it and the quicker, the better….

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Civic and business leaders and politicians often praise teachers. Awards for excellence in teaching abound. Yet often overlooked is the disrespect for teaching that too often hides in organizational rules.

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*The Board of Examiners no longer exists. Those functions have been assumed by the Office of Educator Licensure in the Office of the State Superintendent, District of Columbia.

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Why Teachers Need Their Freedom (Ashley Lamb-Sinclair)

This article appeared in The Atlantic September 10, 2017.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair “is a high-school instructional coach. She is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and the founder and CEO of Curio Learning.”

 

My co-teacher and I met in the parking lot before school and stared into my car trunk at the costumes and props we had gathered over the weekend. We were giddy with excitement and nervous because neither of us had tried anything like this before. We also taught in the kind of school where one wrong move in the classroom could lead to disastrous results because of our students’ intense behavioral and learning needs.

The co-teacher, Alice Gnau, had found a book called Teaching Content Outrageously by Stanley Pogrow, which explained how secondary classrooms can incorporate drama into any content to engage students in learning—incorporating the element of surprise, for example, or developing role-play or simulation experiences to teach content and standards. The book inspired us to change how we taught our seventh-grade language-arts students in a high-poverty school that struggled with test scores, especially reading and math.

The sense of urgency in the building was palpable, and the pressure on teachers to increase student achievement was often overwhelming. The district required us to teach a curriculum rigidly aligned with a 15-year-old reading textbook containing outdated articles about Ricky Martin, ice fishing, and cartography in an attempt to provide relevant, entry-level reading for students. I refused to teach from this text on the grounds that it was both condescending and uninteresting. But district personnel insisted that teachers use the textbook, citing evidence that it brought up test scores.

Alice and I decided to take the risk and apply Pogrow’s advice. The mandated curriculum, we decided, would never be enough to encourage our students to love reading and writing.

Which brings me back to the parking lot. Alice and I came up with a plan to integrate some of the ideas and strategies we had read about in Teaching Content Outrageously into a unit on Lord of the Flies. She would be the pilot and I was the flight attendant. We changed in the faculty restroom before school and hid around the corner by the lockers in the hallway as we watched students enter the teacher-less classroom.After a few minutes, we burst into the room with a library rolling cart full of pretend snacks and drinks. “Okay, ladies and gentlemen,” Alice shouted, “welcome aboard flight 2101 headed to sunny Paraguay. The weather looks great, so we should have you safe and sound to your final destination soon. Now buckle up for important safety information.” She sat down in the front of the room, pretending to pilot, while I instructed the students to sit up straight, to buckle up, and to please enjoy their flights.

Even our toughest kids lit up with excitement; when we prepared for “takeoff,” they went right along until the inevitable happened and we crashed onto a deserted island. As Alice and I popped out of our seats, we morphed from pilot and flight attendant back into teachers.

The remainder of class was a problem-solving simulation in which students worked together to determine how food would be attained and distributed, how medical attention would be administered, how they would find or build shelter, and who would lead—questions the kids debated among themselves as they left for their next class. By the time we finished the novel a few weeks later, our students were either crying or enraged (or both) at the death of (spoiler alert) Piggy. They had engaged intellectually and emotionally with the text and ensuing discussions from the moment we “boarded” that pretend flight to the book’s very last punctuation mark.

So began a year of teaching outrageously, a year that forever changed my practice as an educator. It also changed my students’ learning experience and, arguably, helped improve their test scores. The state accountability system changed in 2011, and although schools had prepared for a drop in scores (both the district and state reading scores did indeed take a hit), the seventh-grade class at our school saw a bump of nearly 5 percentage points in reading.

Teaching outrageously wasn’t just fun, it also gave Alice and I the power to create meaningful and exciting experiences for ourselves and our students—at least for that school year. The school was on the cusp of state takeover the following year, which was my last one there. Three of our four principals resigned or transferred, prompting a series of not-so-great interim principals; teachers felt unsupported, leading to many absent days and some resignations. General student chaos ensued due to a lack of consistency and support—for two weeks straight, someone pulled the fire alarm at least once a day, sometimes more. The best I could muster as a teacher most days—for my own sanity—was to slap on an audio recording of The Hunger Games, hand out a generic graphic organizer, and guide the students step by step through filling it out. I did not have the energy or support to teach outrageously, or even effectively. It may have been controlled, but I was not engaged, the students were not engaged, we were all stunted in our growth. Unsurprisingly, test scores plummeted, and the school closed its doors a year later, only two years after the best year of my career.

After dozens of my peers and I left the school, the state audit team conducted a diagnostic assessment of the school through surveys, observations, data collection and analysis, and stakeholder interviews. Among the final report’s conclusions: Staff struggled to build a cohesive school team due to high teacher turnover, and most teachers “delivered traditional lessons with limited opportunities for students to think critically, participate in group discussions, or collaborate with their peers.” These shortcomings joined the myriad factors that led to such a drastic change in teacher motivation and student achievement.

A body of research illustrates the self-evident reality that students’ interest in what they’re learning is critical to their achievement. And student engagement, according to various studies, is often a direct result of teacher engagement. When Alice and I decided to teach outrageously, our attitudes about our work improved, which data suggests improved our students’ attitudes.

Teaching outrageously, it seems, also put us at a decreased risk for burnout because it allowed us to take control of our craft. One of the biggest reasons teachers quit, contributing to the increasing teacher shortage in the U.S., is a lack of autonomy in the classroom; indeed, overall teacher perception of autonomy in instruction has decreased since 2003. The upshot? As a lack of autonomy helps push more and more teachers out of the profession, children are often left with a steady stream of young, inexperienced educators who lack strong ties to the school.

Teacher engagement and autonomy aren’t a cure-all, of course—some teachers are simply ineffective in their jobs and need additional support to improve their craft. Some ought to leave the profession altogether. Given that teacher effectiveness—the degree to which they hold high expectations for students, successfully manage their classrooms, design lessons that lead to mastery, and so on—is the single best indicator of student success, it makes sense that schools would exercise caution when determining how much control teachers have over the classroom; letting an ill-equipped teacher do what she pleases isn’t smart policy. But does a top-down trickle of scripts and mandates detached from students’ day-to-day lives really improve a teacher’s effectiveness? It could have the reverse effect, forcing educators who might otherwise gain a real knack for teaching over time to rely on others to make decisions for them and become stunted in their ability to improve.

Teacher autonomy is not necessarily incompatible with administrative support. When I was a student teacher, I’d often go to my mentor, Renee Boss, with off-the-wall ideas for the classroom. I wanted to have an “I Love the ‘80s” theme day when I was supposed to be teaching students about the Baroque period. I wanted to show the introduction of the film Desperado because it was a good example of storytelling even though it was violent and riddled with the F-word. And at one point, I wanted to teach debate by organizing a game of kickball outside. Renee listened to these ideas with patience and curiosity. She asked me pointed questions about my reasons, my plans for implementation, and my backup plans for when these ideas inevitably flopped. Each time, I found myself sitting across a table from Renee, breaking down and discussing what worked, what didn’t, and how to get better. She let me take risks. Occasionally, she would talk me out of something (Desperado was a no-no), but usually she found a way to help me turn my crazy ideas into effective lessons that improved my students’ learning and outcomes. My career might have been very different had Renee handed me a binder or a dusty textbook and told me to follow it from beginning to end.

Recently, I guided some educators in a brainstorming session on creating more exciting, student-centered lessons. I asked them to consider the possibility that the full lecture they planned to give, the chapter they hoped to cover, or the worksheet they printed from a cookie-cutter curriculum is as precarious a teaching tool as is, say, a kickball game. If kickball fails at teaching kids about debate, they lose a day in the same way they would have lost a day if they went through the motions of a lesson that bored them and their students. The lecture might feel safer, but safety doesn’t achieve anything if kids leave without learning anything new. Maybe the kids don’t leave kickball learning anything new either, but the approach has an advantage over any hackneyed teaching tool: As an outrageous teaching idea, it gave the teacher an opportunity to create something new, to develop as a professional who thinks about and experiments with pedagogy, and to reflect thoughtfully upon her work. It also allowed her to build trust with students, who desperately want to feel hopeful and engaged at school.

I finally did teach debate kickball effectively after six years of trying to get it right. And I dare anyone to face off with my former students in an argument now.

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Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time math teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. This post appeared April 30, 2019

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD [English Language Development]class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko [a colleague and coordinator of English Language Learners program or ELL] mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here….”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE [physical education], photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path….

Food for thought.

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Basic Dilemma Teachers, Principals, Superintendents Face: Supervising Others While Seeking Approval

 

 

In the second week of my superintendency in the mid-1970s–I came from outside the district and had no entourage–the head of the principals group (there were 35 schools in the district), met me in the stairwell of the Administration building and we chatted a few moments about the weather and the beginning of the school year. He leaned toward me and whispered whether I would like to join a Friday night poker game with a small group of veteran principals. He added that my predecessor and key district office administrators had played weekly for years. I paused and said: “Let me think about it.”

After dinner when the kids had gone upstairs to do their homework, I told my wife about the invitation and we discussed it thoroughly. My wife pointed out that the invitation was a very important gesture on the part of veteran administrators who had been clearly unenthusiastic when the School Board appointed me. I was an outsider and first-time superintendent who had worked across the river in the largely black D.C. schools for nearly a decade as a high school teacher and district administrator. She pointed out that it was a splendid opportunity for me to satisfy a strong personal need that we had discussed prior to taking the post. That is, I wanted to secure the respect and approval–and eventually trust–of those I am expected to lead and who report to me. We had talked about the tension between seeking approval of subordinates who I depended upon while at the same time being in a position where I would have to judge their performance annually. She and I chewed on that dilemma for a long time.

Then she reminded me that Friday nights were supposed to be set aside for the family’s Sabbath meal. In offering me the job, I had asked the Board to keep Fridays clear of any meetings or assignments. They had agreed. So after further discussion, my wife and I decided that I would the forego Friday night poker games. I called the head of the principals’ group, thanked him for the invitation and told him I would not be able to join the group.

In the seven years that I served the district, 30 of those 35 principals retired, transferred to other posts, left the district, or I fired. I never regretted that decision about the Friday night poker group.

The tension I felt, however, between wanting the approval (affection and respect as well) of those I supervised while, at the same time, being responsible for judging their performance is not peculiar to the superintendency. New principals and teachers also feel those tensions.

Consider the principal of an elementary school overseeing 30 teachers. That principal is the instructional leader, manager, and politician for not only those teachers but also 20 other staff members, 500 students, and 800 parents. District administrators expect the principal to raise test scores, insure that students are ready for middle school, etc. Our principal knows that she is utterly dependent upon the teachers to achieve those numbers and other goals that she and the staff have set for themselves beyond test scores.

At a time when Facebook and “friending” are ubiquitous, if the new principal does not know herself very well and seeks the staff’s personal approval, even affection, then the principal may lean over backwards to satisfy teacher requests even when those requests challenge her judgments about what should be done for students. In such situations, evaluating teacher classroom and school performance becomes doubly hard. Were she to succumb to that need for teacher approval, ultimately neither affection or respect for her work would emerge.

Similarly, new teachers who yearn for the approval and trust of their students, especially with the availability of Facebook for older students, wrestle with this dilemma. Teachers, like principals, and superintendents are totally dependent upon those they supervise–that is, their students–for their effectiveness as professionals. For novice teachers, particularly recent college graduates, age differences appear small in high schools and friendships beckon.

And that is where it gets sticky even for teachers of young children when it comes to getting to know each student’s personal strengths and limitations, their family backgrounds, and dreams for the future. Forging classroom relationship as a basis for learning neither erases boundaries nor distinctions between adults and students. Smudging the fundamental distinction between being the teacher and being a student insofar as authority, knowledge, skills, and professional responsibilities has earned many young teachers hard knocks when grades had to be assigned and went into permanent records.

Knowing one’s self well enough to sort out personal needs for approval and friendship from professional responsibilities as a teacher, principal, and superintendent is an essential lesson that novices and veterans have to learn (and re-learn) but goes unmentioned and untaught. Yet leadership in classrooms, schools, and districts depend upon learning that lesson well.

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Did the IPET Initiative Fail? (Part 3)

Did the Gates-funded initiative to alter how teachers get evaluated in three school districts and four charter networks between 2009-2016, fail?

A local newspaper and the RAND corporation’s independent evaluation reached similar conclusions when it came to achieving the goals of improving low-income minority students’ test scores. Both concluded that the project did not meet that goal. New policies of identifying effective teachers and having those teachers work with low-income minority students also failed to yield the promised outcomes of the donor initiative. The dominant criterion used to judge “success” and “failure in U.S. public schools for the past generation has been effectiveness, that is, were the goals of the project achieved? Yes or no. Up or down. A binary answer. Using this criterion, the initiative failed.

Yet–frequent readers of this blog know that a “yet” or “but” soon arrives–there is evidence of a mixed verdict on the “success” and “failure” of IPET. Consider the following points:

*With Gates prior funding of research on measures of teaching effectiveness, support of the Obama administration, and school districts and charter networks eager to take the money and put these ideas into practice, the process part of IPET policymaking was clearly a political “success.” IPET mobilized federal, state, and local officials to consider the project and then adopt it with accompanying funding. A donor’s huge grant to school districts and charter networks converged with federal policies. That’s no easy task and it happened.

*And the IPET program was a political success. It is clear that the federally-funded Race to the Top’s inclusion of teachers being evaluated through test scores and the Gates grant for IPET persuaded many states to pass legislation, prod local districts, and provide resources for school systems to alter their traditional ways of evaluating teachers. Over 40 states, varying as they do in their evaluation requirements, still put these programs on the radar screens of local districts and these districts, over time, have worked out varied ways of enacting different forms of teacher evaluation. A fair person could conclude that such fallout from the initiative makes IPET a precarious “success” teetering on the edge of “failure. Since data continue to come in from states and districts on what is occurring in schools, what may be down the road insofar as teacher evaluation remains unclear.

*Another political success occurred during and after the IPET initiative. Grasping multiple threads that make up policy making, influential and richly funded political coalitions came together to support government intervention to get teacher accountability for student outcomes. States and districts chose to adopt and implement particular policies. And repercussions vibrated within school districts where teachers and principals were expected to implement these policies while outside schools parents and community organizations sought and acquired private resources to press teachers to be held responsible for student performance. All of these are political actions occurring in the wake of adopting teacher evaluation policies relying on student test scores. These political facts cannot be avoided or side-stepped because they do not neatly fit into the binary conclusion policy analysts and elites would prefer to use of “success” or “failure”.

Yes, at the end of the project, student outcomes fell short of what donors and districts wanted. Yes, few low-income minority students got to be taught by those teachers rated effective. These results do matter when they appeared. However, were another independent evaluator to enter the schools participating in IPET in 2021, five years after the project ended, would the results be the same. Probably yes, but possibly no.

Some reforms require more time as policies permeate organizations. Think of the Gates funded Small Schools Project (2000-2009) that the donors stopped  because academic achievement and graduation rates failed to improve yet after the money went away, later evaluators found that high school graduation rates had actually increased over time in those schools that were part of the small schools initiative.

So it may be for IPET. The strong push to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes persisted in state laws. Moreover, many districts scrambled to gain teacher support of using test scores by having multiple measures including principal observation and peer evaluation (see here and here)

In considering the political repercussions of IPET and state-driven teacher-accountability reforms, the picture is not one of unvarnished “failure” but a mixed one. depending on which criteria are used to make judgments, partial “successes” salted with visible “failures” doesn’t fit neatly into an absolute judgment of “success” or “failure.”

What is far better, as Allan McConnell suggests, is a spectrum that runs from: “program success, resilient success, conflicted success, precarious success.” Program “failure,” insofar as degree of implementation of program objectives, how much of desired outcomes were achieved, distribution of benefits to target group, and presence or absence of opposition to program becomes again a mixed picture. In short, policy and program outcomes are cluttered. Making judgments is untidy rather than neat when it comes to policy being put into practice and the rippling political consequences of implementing programs. IPET is an example of that untidiness in making judgments about “success” and “failure.”

The final post of this series looks at the role of donors in a democracy when they plow huge amounts of cash into such  initiatives and shape national reforms. For the U.S. system provides tax subsidies to philanthropists through allowing them tax-exempt status and there are no ways now to hold foundations accountable for their actions.

 

 

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