Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Facing the Trilemma of Classroom “Data Walls”

Over the past few years I have visited many classrooms. In elementary schools, I have seen pasted on a wall or cork board, “data walls” that look like these:

21efa15c6a81bcac8dd070eaa6377bd0.jpg

 

 

aHR0cDovL25tdXNkLWNhLnNjaG9vbGxvb3AuY29tL3VpbWcvaW1hZ2UvMTI2NDg2MjA0MDg0My8xMjIwNzEwMjU4MjgyLzEyNjcyODAyNzg4NTRfd25wNzAwLmpwZw==.jpg

Usually, students have numbers or aliases assigned to mask their identity. Of course, most students find out who is who.

Whether to use these “data walls” to spur individual students to improve their academic performance or have data displays for the entire class without individuals being noted or not have them at all in a classroom but use individual and class data only among teachers or school leadership teams has been debated in blogs, media, and journals for the past decade (see here, here, here, and here).

With the onset of the mantra “data driven instruction” largely stemming from the accountability features of the federal law, No Child Left Behind (2002), school boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers have heard time and again the importance of gathering, analyzing, and using test data school-wide to improve instruction and in classrooms for students to plan individual strategies. Let’s call that “retail” data.

“Wholesale” data are school-by-school and district numbers that are aggregated  and sent to administrators, teachers, and parents. Those data may (or may not) become a basis for policy changes.

The focus on test scores since the early 1980s–remember A Nation at Risk report–has given critics the argument that NCLB further narrowed both curriculum and instruction by holding teachers and schools accountable for results. Concerned about the shame attending students’ low performance on district and state tests, teachers glommed onto “retail” data as a tool for improving student test scores with one outcome being the building of “data walls.”

And here is the trilemma that teachers face. On the one hand, most teachers prize a holistic view of student performance (e.g., intellectual, social, psychological growth) and find that tests students are required to take seldom capture the content, skills, and behaviors that teachers seek for their students. They want their students to grow in more ways than answering accurately multiple choice questions.

Teachers also embrace their professional obligations so they must give those tests.

Teachers also desire professional autonomy but  are held accountable by school, district, and state officials for their students reaching proficiency and higher on the reading and math portions of tests they must give. Consequences of low student scores fall upon teachers and students (e.g., scores are used to evaluate school, teacher, and student performance; rewards and penalties accompany scores on tests). Teacher autonomy to go beyond the test, such as to teach cooperation, respecting others, and making judgments, is seriously diminished given the available time.

Thus, the clash of values that teachers hold dear: holistic development of children and youth, obligation to mind what school and district officials require to be done in classrooms, and professional autonomy to do what is best for student learning.

When faced with such trilemmas, there is no one best solution to such a common but sticky situation. Teachers do what other professionals in medicine, law, criminal justice system, social work, and therapy do: because three highly prized values come into conflict and there is no way to fulfill one without harming the others, teachers figure out good enough compromises that partially fulfill what they seek. They know that accepting trade-offs among these cherished values is inevitable–they construct compromises. Then they manage these jerry-built compromises. In short, they satisfice to satisfy.

For schools and teachers, “data walls” are satisfices. It is a compromise that satisfies the value of professional autonomy–teachers create and tailor the displays of data in their classrooms. “Data walls” meet the professional obligation of doing what the district and principal wants, i.e., focusing on improving students’ grasp of content and skills on the state test. Finally, “data walls” touch at least the intellectual growth of students. Surely, these trade-offs do not fully satisfy all teachers–many do not have “data walls”–but it is a compromise that helps explains the spread of these classroom practices.

There are, of course, other uses of “data walls” that side-step the personal trilemma that classroom teachers face. Such “data walls” could be used at the school level by principals and leadership teams that use test data to pinpoint what skills need to be re-taught at particular grades or seek changes in instructional strategies that teams of teachers within or across grades could manage (see here and here).

Which way to use”data walls” at a time when public officials and educational policymakers prize student and school test scores is hardly a cut-and-dried problem with an easy solution. If teachers and administrators probe at the underlying values embedded in using “data walls” they will see the conflicting values and search for a compromise with trade-offs that satisfice and satisfy tailored to their particular district and school. Not an easy task but essential for improvement at a highly-charged moment in time when far too much is not only expected but laid upon public schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

6 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Have the Common Core Standards Changed What Teachers Think and Do?

Changing what teachers think and do has been the target of many reformers in the past century. Every generation of reformers, regardless of political ideology, have aimed their reform-smeared arrows at the classroom because they wanted students to remember important facts, think rigorously, heighten creativity and classroom collaboration, and, yes, increase academic achievement.

What reformers discovered then and now is that for any of these reforms to alter students’ behavior, attitudes and achievement, teachers had to first change their practices either incrementally or totally. If teachers’ classroom lessons hardly moved the needle of change, might as well forget influencing the “what” and “how’ of student learning.

So, have Common Core standards changed what teachers think and do?

Since 2010, nearly all states have adopted the Common Core standards or a modified version. Surely, those state policymakers and federal officials who championed these standards believed that adopting these reform-driven standards would lead eventually to improved academic performance for all students (see here, here, and here).

In the back-and-forth over the politics of these standards, it was easy for these policymakers to lose the critical, no, essential, connection between adopting a policy and implementing it. Any adopted policy aimed at changing students is put into practice by teachers. And the Common Core standards asked teachers to make major shifts in how they teach. So civic and business leaders and academic experts who pushed such reforms  forgot a simple fact:  teachers are the gatekeepers to the “what” and “how” of learning.  Mandating big changes in how teachers teach ain’t going to happen. Why?

images-1.jpg

Because virtually ignoring the very people who must put a policy into practice nearly guarantees partial implementation. Without involving teachers in the process, without spending time and money on insuring that teachers are in sync with the policy and have the knowledge and skills necessary to put it–and there’s never only one “it”–into practice, the hullabaloo and promises curdle into policymaker and practitioner complaints and disappointment.

common core & tchrs.jpg

Yet for the most part, even after initial struggles over getting the right materials and learning the ins-and-outs of the standards, most teachers across the country  have taken on the responsibility of putting these standards into their daily lessons. So how has the implementation gone?

A recent RAND study sought out responses over the past three years from a randomly selected panel of math and English language arts (ELA) teachers about the text and online materials they use and their daily classroom practices.*

Here is what the RAND report concluded:

Given that the Common Core and similar standards are being implemented in most states
across the United States, one might expect to see changes in teachers’ knowledge. However, we saw no clear changes in teachers’ knowledge about their mathematics standards when comparing teachers’ survey responses in 2016 and 2017….

For ELA, we found a decrease in teachers’ perceptions that “assigning complex texts that all students in a class are required to read” was aligned with their state standards, despite the fact that the use of complex texts is emphasized in most state standards.

Teachers’ use of published textbook materials changed very little over the period examined in this study. Thus, despite the fact that most published textbooks we asked about in our survey were not clearly aligned with the Common Core, teachers did not appear to be shifting toward more use of standards-aligned textbooks.

However, teachers’ use of online materials did change over the period of our surveys. Specifically, mathematics and ELA teachers reported using more standards-aligned,
content-specific online sources and less use of Google in 2017 than in 2015.

On one hand, these findings suggest that teachers are seeking online materials to help them address state standards within their content area. On the other hand, Teacherspayteachers.com—a lesson repository that is not vetted for quality or standards-alignment—saw a large uptick in use, and more than one-half of the ELA and mathematics teachers in our sample reported using the site “regularly” (once a week or more) for their instruction. In addition, increases in use of standards-aligned and content-specific
materials were not even; such increases were not as clearly present among teachers of the most vulnerable students (i.e., ELLs, students with IEPs and low-income students).

These findings suggest that teachers who serve our neediest students may not always be aware of or using online materials that support standards-aligned instruction….
We saw no changes in standards-aligned practices among all mathematics teachers, and we saw few changes when comparing responses among all ELA teachers. However, the changes we found suggest that some teachers may be engaging students in fewer standards-aligned practices now than in previous years. For mathematics, in particular,
teachers serving less-vulnerable students reported using significantly fewer standards-aligned practices in 2017 than in 2016, whereas we did not see these
significant decreases among those serving more vulnerable students.

That said, teachers’ self-reports about students’ engagement in various practices should be interpreted with caution, given what we know about the accuracy of teacher self-reports….

The answer, then, to the question of whether Common Core standards have changed what teachers think and do is mixed. From these surveys math and ELA teachers do report a few changes but stability in classroom practices persist. While teacher surveys are surely helpful in suggesting what occurs when policies get implemented, they do not substitute for researchers directly observing classroom lessons, interviewing teachers before and after lessons, and analyzing student responses to teaching practices.

___________________________________

*RAND writers are clear in stating that the findings from their surveys are “reported” by teachers. No classroom observations were done. Teachers answered survey questions and indicated what they knew and did in putting the Common Core standards into practice. Are there gaps between what teachers report and what they actually do in their lessons? Yes–see here  and here. But keep in mind, that these gaps in reporting perceptions compared to on-site observations of practice are common. They also apply to doctors, lawyers, and other professionals reporting what they think and do

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach, school reform policies

Teaching As a Way of Seeing (Mike Rose)

Mike Rose (born 1944) is an American education scholar. He has studied literacy and the struggles of working-class America. Rose is currently a Research Professor of Social Research Methodology in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

He is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University (B.A.), the University of Southern California (M.S.), and the University of California, Los Angeles (M.A. and Ph.D. “

“The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.

Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.

A student in a Licensed Practical Nursing Program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a Registered Nurse’s degree, which she did.

“I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”

A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says, “by talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”

A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit….

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

A Witness to the Desegregation—and Resegregation—of America’s Schools (Kristina Rizga)

Kristina Rizga is a writer based in San Francisco. She is the author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph.

This article appeared May 1, 2018 in The Atlantic Online

 

 

lead_720_405.png

 

On Rebecca Palacios’s first day in front of a classroom, one of her white students picked up his chair and threw it toward her, declaring that he refused to be taught by a “Mexican teacher.” It was 1976, Palacios was 22 years old, and many of her first-grade students were at the school because of a recently launched busing program in Corpus Christi, Texas, that the courts had mandated in an effort to racially integrate campuses. Large numbers of white students were now traveling across town to her school—Lamar Elementary—which for generations had served mostly working-class Mexican American children.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Palacios learned about American discrimination against Latinos first-hand. Her father, a World War II veteran who worked for the public-park service in Texas, spoke frequently about the daily humiliations of being a Latino in America—of not being able to eat in certain restaurants or use certain water fountains. He would recount stories of teachers prohibiting him from speaking Spanish in school, sometimes hitting him when he spoke it with his friends.

The use of Spanish was still discouraged in Corpus Christi school buildings when Palacios became a student in the 1950s. Designed to funnel Latinos into vocational tracks such as factory jobs or secretarial work, these segregated schools didn’t offer academically ambitious students like Palacios the advanced classes they needed to attend college. But thanks to her high-school teachers—both white and Latino—who created the necessary coursework using their own resources, Palacios became the first person in her family to go to college.

Those teachers had a profound impact on Palacios’s life, and, in turn, on the thousands of students she taught in Corpus Christi. Over the three decades that followed that September day in 1976, Palacios would go on to became one of the most distinguished early-childhood educators in the country, renowned for promoting her students’ sense of agency, intellectual curiosity, and love of learning. The arc of her career captures some of the major shifts—desegregation, resegregation, and declines in public funding—that have shaped America’s schools over the past several decades.

Palacios’s first two years of teaching at Lamar Elementary were some of the toughest in her life, she recalled earlier this year, sitting in her office in downtown Corpus Christi. Palacios retired in 2010 and now works as a consultant for the district as a coach of teachers. Behind her, pictures of Palacios’s five children, her husband, and their grandchildren dotted a bookshelf.

The Corpus Christi busing program that began around the time Palacios started teaching was the byproduct of a ruling by a federal judge in 1970 that made the city the first in the United States to extend the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to Mexican American students. Prior to the 1970 ruling, Corpus Christi officials argued that Brown only applied to black-white segregation. It wasn’t until Jose Cisneros and 23 other fathers—all members of the United Steelworkers union—sued the district for isolating Latino students in inferior, underfunded schools that the courts recognized Mexican American students as a minority group with their own history of discrimination in education. In establishing that Latino children deserve the same protections as their black peers, the Cisneros v. Corpus Christi Independent School District ruling had far-reaching consequences for every school in the nation: It prompted additional rulings that eventually extended Brown’s protections to all historically marginalized students of color.

Around the same time that the Corpus Christi district started providing funding for its busing program, the federal government began sending money to schools serving children who’d grown up in poverty. Project Follow Through, which was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, funded intensive coaching of teachers, medical care for children, engagement of families in school governance, and parenting classes. These investments, which at their peak had a budget of $60 million, contributed the most to Palacios’s teaching successes as a bilingual early-childhood educator early on.

About half of Palacios’s first-graders at the time were white, and many of their parents weren’t happy about the new busing arrangement. But many supported the idea of integration and lobbied district officials to bring in new resources to the school, like art and science supplies, and advanced classes. Palacios recalled those years as an intense period of growth that pushed her to go beyond traditional teaching methods focused primarily on content delivery and memorization. She yearned to create engaging learning environments that challenged her students to ask questions, deliberate answers with their peers, and learn how to integrate diverse ways of thinking about the world.

In 1982, Palacios enrolled in the graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin to work toward her doctorate in education, which would, she reasoned, help her ground her innovations in the latest research, and give her more authority to bring those changes beyond the confines of her classroom. The following year, Eduardo Torres, who had left Lamar to become the principal at Zavala Elementary, asked Palacios to join his team as an early-childhood educator, where Palacios ended up working for 24 years, focusing her methods entirely on preschool-age children.

While at Zavala, Palacios developed an innovative curriculum—in collaboration with her colleagues—that the district adopted for all preschools from 2001 to 2010. Palacios’s two-week units were based around the theme of families: human, animal, plant, and insect “families.” With that change, for instance, rather than reading a book on farm animals, and then developing vocabulary by answering simple questions about the book, and memorizing key words and concepts, Palacios’s lessons now integrated multiple disciplines in every hour of instruction, including literacy, math, science, and social studies. As students investigated farm animals—often guided by their own questions about the topics—they could leverage and build on previous knowledge they learned while exploring other families.

Because integration of different disciplines helps children engage with new concepts through familiar themes and patterns, such approaches can make classrooms more inclusive and engaging for diverse children with varying skills and interests. A child who finds certain math tasks, like memorization and repetition, boring or too abstract, for example, forgets that she is engaging in those tasks by counting the wheels of the farm trucks or comparing the shapes of the buildings on a farm.

For Palacios, such approaches—which fall under the rubric of teaching “the whole child,” in education jargon—require well-trained educators, sustained funding for learning materials, such as building blocks or paint, and supportive administrators like Torres. “When my teaching partner and I would come to the office of Mr. Torres, asking for something to implement our latest innovation, he’d always say, ‘If it’s for the kids, we’re going to make it happen.’ Having that stance was a critical base for my ability to succeed and stay in teaching as long as I did.”

Just as Palacios reached a degree of success in her sixth year of teaching at Lamar, the Corpus Christi school district, the courts, and the Cisneros plaintiffs were sparring over the mechanics of busing. District officials were constantly changing bus routes and school assignments, which exacerbated the growing resistance to integration among many parents. By 1982, the plaintiffs agreed to end the court-mandated busing, settling for a district program that would allow students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods but wouldn’t cover the cost of transportation. The court also mandated increased funding to high-poverty schools like Zavala and Lamar as the means of fulfilling the 1970 ruling.

This marked the end of one of the 20th century’s most significant civil-rights battles. Corpus Christi schools soon resegregated. Today, 93 percent of students at Zavala Elementary are Latino, and 95 percent are poor. Roughly two-thirds of its students, meanwhile, are labeled as “at risk of dropping out” based on their achievement levels and disciplinary issues. Most of the extra local funding that came as a result of the Cisneros lawsuit also disappeared over time, compounded by the deep state cuts, which have reduced the overall pool of funding for all of Texas public schools.

Meanwhile, Palacios continued to refine her methods, developing “journals” to detect what her 4-year-olds—who typically can’t yet read or write fluently—learned every day. Students would respond to Palacios’s questions by drawing pictures and telling stories about them, using new concepts and words they’d learned. She also started coaching parents every six weeks, including by modeling lessons on how to teach reading at home, which she said became one of the most effective strategies she’d implemented in her career.

“The hardest part about teaching before I retired was seeing the disintegration of support for public schools,” Palacios said over lunch at a local restaurant, during an all-day training session for preschool teachers she organized in collaboration with the district. “What I’ve seen over time, especially in the last 10 years, [is that] there are so many new, unfunded demands and programs. STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] initiatives, for example, require resources. You can’t talk about granite if the kids haven’t seen granite. You can’t talk about water pressure, water displacement, or buoyancy without water droppers, PVC pipes, or water tables that make up these experiences.”

When touring classrooms in the Corpus Christi district a few years ago as part of a teacher-training initiative, she observed that worksheets had replaced the paint, glitter, and building blocks that once dominated preschool learning spaces.

Despite the retreat from integration efforts and anti-poverty programs by the courts and the government, Palacios still views the legacy of the Cisneros case as crucial progress. “Schools resegregated, but the eyes were open: Separate is not equal.”

These days, as Palacios coaches dozens of teachers in Corpus Christi, she talks to them about the importance of leadership and advocacy, just as much as she talks about teaching practices. Palacios tells them how she created a pre-kindergarten professional association, which, at one point, convinced the school board not to cut the district’s paraprofessional positions. She also hosted a yearly open house in preschools for school-board members and administrators across the district to show them the promise of effective and engaging teaching through sustained funding.

“I know it takes a lot of energy to do all that, but if you’re going to complain about it, it’s never going to make a difference,” Palacios said at the end of a long day of coaching teachers. “You’ve got to be in there, be the advocate, and make the changes for the children.”

8 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Legacy of a Teacher (Peter Greene)

Few educators capture clearly and thoughtfully what it is like to teach for decades in a school in which they attended as students, retire from teaching, and consider the legacy of such a career. Peter Greene does precisely that and in elegant prose. I wish him well in the years to come.

Peter Greene writes the blog “Curmudgucation.” This post appeared May 25, 2018

I walked into this building as a seventh grader in 1969. I’ll walk out of it as a retiree in less than two weeks.

You get asked a lot of questions when you retire, many of which have the unintended consequence of poking you right in the feels. (I’m definitely not  crying at least once a day, but if I did, I would at least manage to do it when I’m not in front of anybody.) Some are pretty basic (what are you going to do with that filing cabinet) and some dig a little deeper, like the comments about my legacy. Some folks have even offered to watch after my legacy, to preserve it, and I just don’t have the heart to tell them that I have no legacy in this building.

I’m the longest-serving member of the current faculty, which means that I’ve seen a lot of people head out the door, and I know exactly what kind of mark they leave behind them.

Teachers are not billionaires or politicians. We don’t generally get to build giant structures and slap our own names on them in hopes that some day we will leave a mark behind us. We don’t generally get honored with statues and monuments, not even in a broad Tomb of the Unknown Teacher way, let alone as specific individuals. Nobody is out there carving his third grade teacher’s face into the side of a mountain.

A teacher in a school is like a post driven deep into the bed of a river. The current bends around her; maybe it cuts into the bank and certainly it carries river traffic along paths affected by that post. Even the bed of the river will be cut and shaped by the current as it bends around that post. People even start to navigate by the post, as if it’s a permanent part of the river.

But something happens when the post is one day removed.

Maybe folks are so impressed by the post that they put a special commemorative marker in place of the post. Maybe some big boulders rolled into place against the post and stay in place long after the post is gone, even when folks don’t remember how they ended up there.

But mostly there’s a momentary swirl of dirt, a quick rush of water and then, after a brief moment of time, the river bed is smooth again and the river flows as if there was never any post at all.

I don’t imagine I will leave much of legacy here, and what little there is will be worn away over time, and that’s okay. I do have a legacy, but to see it, you have to look downstream.

I figure that I’ve worked with, roughly, 5,000 students. Some of them are still carrying around bits of skill or knowledge that I passed on to them, or parts of their lives that grew out of something I passed on to them. They grew up to be living, breathing, growing, active men and women who worked at finding how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. Undoubtedly some of those students didn’t get much out of being in my class, and some have less-than-positive memories of me, but I have to believe that some got something out of their time in my room.

That’s my legacy. People who felt just a little better about reading, or just a little better about riding. Here and there some students who actually pursued writing or teaching as careers. Some students who built a foundation of confidence in an activity. Some I hear from now and then, some I talk to regularly, and some whose lives took them far from here, and I have no idea how their stories have unfolded.

 

My legacy– and every teacher’s legacy– is not here in this building. This building is just brick and mortar and rules and procedures and “traditions” that sometimes last less than a decade, all carried out by a constantly-changing cast of educators and students. Names and awards are created, but they carry on names even as the person whose name it is is forgotten. My legacy– and every teacher’s legacy– is out in the world, in those students who passed through this building, and it’s not for anyone to “preserve” because it has a life of its own– as it should.

If I can switch metaphors for a moment– as teachers, our job is to light a fire, to pass along a flame. Passing on a flame is a curious activity– the new flame is not a piece of the old one, but its own new thing, with its own new life, even as the old fire continues to burn. Spreading a flame multiplies it, but the new flame is not shaped or controlled by the old one.

If I walk back into this building ten years from now, I don’t imagine that I’ll find anything to indicate that I was ever here. But, “God help and forgive me, I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Teaching has always let me do that– but not here, not in this building. Not in this stiff structure of unliving steel and stone. Out there in the world, where the water carries us to the sea, new fires spring up to illuminate the world, and human beings full of life and breath roam and grow. If we’re going to have a legacy, that’s where it will be.

4 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

“Experience Rich, Theory Poor:” The Plight of Practitioners?

I heard the phrase “experience rich, theory poor” on a podcast interview between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Malcolm Gladwell. The phrase immediately triggered memories of my returning to graduate school in the early 1970s after being a high school history teacher and a school district administrator in the Washington,D.C. schools for 16 years.

That phrase captured my thoughts about the coursework I took the first year on organizational theory, the politics of education,and the history of education. I had gained enormous and varied experiences in teaching history to mostly black high school students in Cleveland (OH) and the District of Columbia. I knew chapter and verse of how classrooms operated, what happened in schools on a daily basis, and the strengths and weaknesses of admired and trusted colleagues. I had accumulated rich experiences in running a school-based teacher education program and then a district-wide staff development program. If my professors and peers asked me what I knew about schooling in big cities, I had stories and specific cases that I could easily draw from to illustrate point after point about the nature of teaching and administering in big city schools.

What became clear to me that first year of graduate school as I digested assigned readings, listened to professors lecture, and heard seminar discussions is that stories and pithy examples unembedded in theoretical frameworks left an experienced practitioner such as myself unable to go beyond the stories I would tell. I lacked the language of theory, conceptual frameworks, analysis, and generalizations. Without knowing theories that helped me make sense of my experiences, I drew conclusions, advanced generalizations, and made predictions about improving schools often saying: this is what works in these schools and districts because I was there and know from first-hand experience.

Such statements fell flat with my professors. In two years of coursework, I learned the importance of having conceptual frameworks to help me make sense of what I experienced. For me, then, connecting theories to my work as a teacher and administrator gave me a new vocabulary but also a deeper understanding of an institution in which I had worked for many years.  Those theories equipped me with different perspectives on not only how classrooms, schools, and districts worked but also their contexts and what I could do about the mistakes I had made and failures I had experienced. The theories I learned and then later used made graduate school and the Ph.D enormously worthwhile when I served as a superintendent for seven years.

But I was also wrong.

Yes, the phrase “experience rich and theory poor” applied to me in graduate school. But in the years during my superintendency and, subsequently as a university researcher for two decades I came to see that I, like the teachers and principals I worked with, had theories deeply embedded in what I did but could not articulate those causal concepts rooted in my beliefs, desires, and intentions. Sure, I lacked the language but I was rich in both experience and theory but just didn’t know it.

Parsing the theory buried in, say a teacher’s practice, can happen when actual classroom actions are looked at closely. Consider the common  teacher practice of giving re-takes of tests (see my recent post).

Here is what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle’s beliefs in how the “real” world works–you do this and that happens–leads him to tell students ” you don’t get a second chance” in taking a test because that is not how life is outside school walls. You do the best you can first time out.

I do not know where his theory of action about “real” life comes from, but it seems to be a mix of observations he accumulated growing up from which he learned lessons, parental teachings, reflections on real-life experiences, possible religious beliefs, and other factors. Delvalle’s practice of prohibiting re-taking tests, then, has buried within it a theory of action about how the world works. It is tacit theory embedded in the practice.

Now consider Lisa Westman’s practice of permitting re-tests for students. A veteran of 15 years in classrooms, Westman sees the same world that Delvalle sees but interprets it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues that students should be able to re-take tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

In Westman’s practice of students’ re-taking tests, lies her theory of action. Like Delvalle, I do not know the beliefs and values nor the experiences she had with her family, growing up, and teaching but it is clear that she sees “real” life differently than Delvalle. For her, preparing students for life means that they will make mistakes; failures will occur. Students equipped with knowledge, skills, and values will figure out what to do and how to do something better. Thus,  buried within the practice  is the tacit theory that students can correct mistakes and experience both success and failure in subsequent tasks by re-taking tests.

These teachers are both rich in experience and theory—-more tacit than explicit—-but theory no less. Dredging up the implicit theory buried in practical decisions teachers and administrators make is surely hard work but revealing to those practitioners who dig away.

 

5 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Letting Students Re-Take Tests: A Classroom Dilemma Over Goals for Schools*

Why do U.S. voters, with and without children, tax themselves to provide public schools and compel children and youth to attend for a decade or more?

Although reasons have changed over time, Americans  consistently wanted schools to prepare students for the demands of being a participating citizen in the community, entering the workplace with skills and knowledge, and exhibiting the character traits that family and neighbors value highly. Sure, there are other goals that have risen and fallen in ranking but these three sum up public aspirations over the past two centuries of schooling. Preparation for the workplace–and its proxy doing well on standardized tests here and abroad–has dominated public debate as the highest priority for schooling (this week is the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk report).

What is often overlooked in debates over goals is that it is the classroom teacher who has the job of translating abstract goals into daily lessons. And that journey from desired goals to adopted policies to classroom practice too often goes unnoticed. Especially when teachers have to wrestle with those goals and policies in setting classroom rules for their students.

Consider the simple decision of whether a teacher should permit (or not) students to re-take a test if the student does poorly. Actually, it ain’t simple. It is a dilemma.

One horn of that dilemma is that teachers prize the value of students taking the test seriously and preparing for it because deadlines and tests are common in the adult world. Schools and teachers are expected to prepare students for the “real” world.

The other horn of the dilemma is that teachers prize mastery of content and skills and caring. Teachers know that students vary in their ability to grasp knowledge and perform skills. They also know that time is the variable and re-taking quizzes and tests–call it “formative assessment”–gives students opportunities to demonstrate mastery. Then there is the value of compassion for students who are not yet adults. They need more time to master the content and skills and should not be penalized for a low test score. Thus re-taking the test recognizes that everyone can have a bad day or freeze on an exam. Sympathy for a child or teenager when a teacher remembers what it is like to be young expresses caring and respect, yet even another value embedded in teacher decisions aimed at student learning.

These prized values come into play in this classroom dilemma over the question a teacher asks of herself: Should I permit students who have low or failing grades on a test re-take the same or a similar test to raise their grades? It is a dilemma that goes straight back to which goals of schooling are most important in this particular classroom decision.

Consider what middle school teacher Baptiste Delvalle does with his students:

Here’s how I explain it to my students. If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance. I prefer that they get a bad grade and learn to give it their best shot on the first try, rather than to hear years from now that they’re still struggling.

Delvalle is persuasive in casting a classroom test as an object lesson in succeeding as an adult where second chances in life are rare. It is an argument for being responsible for your actions the first time, not later.

Lisa Westman, a veteran of 15 years in classrooms, sees it differently.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Westman argues for permitting re-taking tests as a way for students to achieve mastery of content and skills since most formal written, oral, or real-life tests in life can be re-taken until they are passed.

Lurking in the background of this back-and-forth on the worth of students being permitted to re-take tests are the workplace conditions inherent to the age-graded school that heavily influence teacher decision-making such as having 25-35 students in a class, covering so much content and skills every week, and scanning homework assignments daily–what some writers call “the grammar of schooling.” Making time to create different tests for those students and squeezing in students before, during, and after school to re-take tests spends scarce teacher time to plan lessons, listen to students, and actually teach.

While neither teacher makes distinctions between quizzes and tests that show students what they still need to master–“formative assessments” and final exams that make a difference in a grade student receives on a report card–“summative assessments,” they express the conflicting values embedded in translating lofty goals for schooling into classroom lessons.

__________________________

I thank Joanne Jacobs for a post on this subject that got me to think and write about this issue.

 

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach