Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

“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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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How Teachers Taught: Patterns of Instruction, 1890-2010

The last two posts (see here and here) on “direct instruction” and ways of measuring teacher talk vs. student talk got me thinking again about an obvious but often unasked question: how have teachers taught over the past century?

Policy debates over social-emotional curriculum, problem-based learning, and universal preschools seldom ask: how have teachers taught? What patterns of teaching have marked classrooms decade after decade? What kinds of change in teaching have occurred and which ones are best for students?

The main reason for this startling omission in policy debates is that few decision-makers can say with confidence how most teachers teach now or in the past.

I, and other researchers (see here and here), have tried to answer some of those questions over the past 30 years. Answers to these questions can inform current policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers as they consider well-intentioned but ill-informed policies that push certain kinds of teaching in order to improve student learning.

In How Teachers Taught (1984, 1993) and Hugging the Middle (2009), I collected 9,000 urban and rural classroom reports between 1890-2005 on common features of teaching. I examined how teachers organized classroom space, grouped students, and structured tasks for students after repeated progressive efforts to alter traditional teacher pedagogy occurred in the 20th century. I found the following classroom patterns.

Since the 1890s, the social organization of the classroom has become informal. In the early 20th century, dress-clad women and tie-wearing men facing rows of 50-plus bolted down desks controlled every move of students. They gave permission for students to leave their seat. They required students to stand when reciting from the textbook or answering a question. Teachers often scowled, reprimanded, and paddled students for misbehaving.

 

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

 

Over the decades, however, classroom organization and teacher behavior slowly changed. By 2010, few classrooms had rows of immovable desks. Classrooms were now filled with tables and movable desks, particularly in the early grades, so students faced one another. Jean-wearing teachers drinking coffee smiled often at their classes. Students went to a pencil sharpener or elsewhere in the room without asking for the teacher’s permission. The dread and repression of the late 19th century classroom marked often by the swish of a paddle and a teacher’s sneer slowly gave way, decade by decade, to classrooms where teachers were more informal in language and dress, and had a light touch in controlling unacceptable behavior.

 

Image result for photos of bolted down desks in 19th century classrooms

Image result for teachers working with small groups photos

 

Since the 1890s, most elementary and a lesser number of secondary teachers had blended student-centered and teacher-centered classroom practices into hybrids. As the social organization of the classroom becoming increasingly informal, most teachers mixed practices drawn from both progressive and traditional forms of teaching.

Grouping. Over time as class size fell from 60 to 30 or less, the student-centered practice of dividing the whole group into smaller ones so that the teacher could work with a few students at a time on reading while the rest worked by themselves slowly took hold among most elementary school teachers. Although variations in grouping occurred among high school teachers in academic subjects, small group work occurred much less frequently.

Classroom activities. A similar pattern occurred with assigning different tasks. “Learning centers,” where individual children would spend a half-hour or more reading a book, playing math games, or drawing and painting, slowly took hold in kindergarten and the primary grades spreading to the upper elementary grades. Learning centers, however, seldom appeared in secondary schools.

Related image

 

The use of student-projects that tie together reading, math, science, and art—think of a 4th grade class divided into groups or working individually on Native American life—became a standard part of elementary school teachers’ repertoire. In secondary schools, projects appeared in vocational subjects and periodically in science, English, and social studies classes.

Between the 1890s and early 2000s, then, teachers created hybrids of progressive and traditional forms of teaching. In elementary schools, particularly in primary classrooms, richer and diverse melds of the two traditions appeared with far fewer instances surfacing in high schools—allowing for some variation among academic subjects–teacher-centered pedagogy.

Even as classroom organization moved from formal to informal and hybrids of the two teaching traditions multiplied, teacher-centered pedagogy still dominated classroom life. As Philip Jackson noted in his study of suburban teachers, while teacher smiles replaced “scowls and frowns” and current “teachers may exercise their authority more casually than their predecessors,” still “the desire for informality was never sufficiently strong to interfere with institutional definitions of responsibility, authority, and tradition (p. 129).”

Image result for photos of Advanced Placement Classes

 

One only has to sit in the back of a kindergarten or Advanced Placement calculus class for ten minutes to see amid teacher smiles and many kindnesses to students which teaching tradition dominates. Teachers change students’ seats at will. They ask questions, interrupt students to make a point, tell the class to move from reading to math, and praise or admonish students. Controlling student behavior had shifted over the decades from scowls and slaps to indirect approaches that exploit the teacher’s personality and budding relationships with students but still underscore the fundamental fact of classroom life: teachers use their authority to secure obedience from students for teaching to occur. This is not a criticism. It is a fact of school life.

In light of my findings for classroom instruction between 1890-2010, the two teaching traditions, at opposite ends of a pedagogical continuum, seldom appeared in pure form in classrooms. In schools across the nation where great diversity in children, academic subjects, and teachers were common—even amid “wars” fought in newspapers over phonics and math—teachers created hybrids of subject matter lessons albeit more so among elementary than secondary school teachers. In short, teachers hugged the middle between student-centered and teacher-centered lessons.

Were current policies such as socio-emotional learning, direct instruction, Doug Lemov’s work on Teaching Like a Champion, and similar proposals to be put into practice in your school or district, would teaching continue to hug the middle or move more toward teacher-centered or student-centered lessons?

Or the bell-ringing question to answer: Would students be better or worse off?

No one knows.

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Teacher Talk, Student Talk: Historical Dilemma (Part 2)

Recently, a former teacher-turned entrepreneur and I had a long conversation about a digital tool he had created that measured how much teacher and student talk occurred in a class period. As an ex-high school teacher he often wanted to know how he was doing in class–he said he had never been observed by a principal or headmaster–and was often frustrated by the lack of knowledge of student thinking and learning. So he began figuring out what might be of use to teachers and he hit upon the amount of lesson time in which teachers and students talked.

Why that? Because in his teaching experience, too much teacher talk suffocated student responses. Student responses, he knew, were quick ways for the teacher to figure out the amount of learning going on in students’ heads. Analyzing  the amount of student talk became an ajar door into which he could access student thinking and understanding.

Like many other teachers (including myself), he had stumbled over a historic dilemma classroom teachers had faced for the past century: teacher talk was essential–after all, teachers, past and present, have been hired on the basis of their knowing content and skills and being able to manage a group of children and youth. A certain amount of teacher talk during a lesson the teacher had planned was inevitable. With a large body of evidence that “direct instruction” (lower case) produced gains in student achievement and its historic use in classrooms for generations, teacher talk dominated lessons.

Yet many teachers know in their heart-of-hearts that student talk is crucial and prized also. Students answering and asking questions, commenting on what the teacher said and dozens of other ways that students orally display their knowledge and skills is essential feedback to teachers on what they seek as evidence of student learning. Both values of teacher and student talk are prized. But there is only so much time in a lesson and choices have to be made as to the ratio of teacher- and student-talk. Thus, the dilemma.

Yet many issues need to be sorted out in distinguishing teacher-talk from student-talk.

The initial problem is that most teachers simply do not know how much they talk and how much their students talk. Do most teachers talk 80 percent of a lesson? 70? 60? 50? Historical studies put the ratios in the 65-35 range (see here and here). Individually, few teachers could tell you the ratio of teacher-to-student talk in the lesson they just taught.

The second problem is that there are many kinds of teacher-talk: controlling behavior (“That’s enough Jimmy”); getting activities started (“Count off 1 to 5 for small group work”); asking content questions (“Annie, what does x equal in this equation?”); discussion moves (“Can anyone add to Tiffany’s point?”)—readers get the picture of multiple forms of teacher-talk that would have to be parsed. Ditto for student talk. From asking to go to the bathroom to coaching a classmate on an assignment to entering a discussion–the list goes on for dimensions of student talk. Researchers call such analyses of teacher- and student-talk, “classroom discourse” (see here and here).

The third problem is that no one can say with much confidence what is the best ratio of teacher- to student-talk to have over a semester of teaching or for an individual lesson, given all of the factors involved such as the content of a lesson, age of students, teacher beliefs about how students learn, and other factors.

For those teachers (and teacher educators) who prize student talk and sense they talk too much in lessons, a set of interconnected assumptions drive their thinking. They believe that more student  participation leads to greater academic engagement and greater engagement produces gains in student achievement. This chain of beliefs seldom get aired publicly but rest comfortably within the minds of those educators who seek to raise the amount of student talk. This chain of assumptions are just that. There is little evidence that can buttress the claims buried within the assumptions, especially when it comes to student performance.

So with the help of a software engineer, the former teacher created a tool that recorded what was said in class and immediately converted the talk into color-coded horizontal bars showing when the teacher was talking and when students were talking. It even broke down student talk in response to teachers and talk among students working in small groups and independently. The software gave a big picture of who was doing the talking in a reading lesson by a 1st grade teacher or an Advanced Placement U.S. history teacher conducting a lecture-discussion. There was no sorting out of the content of the talk such as the kind of questions teachers asked or student responses to those questions. It was a macro-view of a lesson in real time that attached percentages to amounts of talk in a classroom.

The young, enthusiastic entrepreneur did not want my endorsement–I told him that I do not endorse products–but he did want to have a conversation about the relationship between teacher and student talk, what problems still needed to be solved–see above–and the linked assumptions that undergird past and present research into the value of increasing student talk and the biases associated with that value.

Our conversation ended after I sketched out the dilemma inherent to parsing teacher- and student talk. As we shook hands and parted, I wished this former teacher well in his work.

 

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Student Learning and Arming Teachers

U.S. children spend 15,000 hours in school between kindergarten and high school graduation. They sit, rove, study, jump around, and talk while teachers–legally responsible for their health and safety–perform so many roles that even parents lose count. Teachers in these classrooms, as Philip Jackson in his classic Life in Classrooms observed, are combinations of “traffic cop, judge, supply sergeant, and timekeeper” as lessons unfold but even more so before, during, and after the school day, social worker, therapist, proxy parent, moral exemplar–I could go on but readers get the picture. Oops! Forgot that teachers also are responsible for teaching academic content and skills to young children and youth.

Now with the cascade of national protests over school shootings after the Parkland high school (FLA), the additional role of armed bodyguard–add that to the list–has been proposed by the President of the United States and elected representatives who seek solutions in focusing on individuals (i.e., teachers) rather than institutions (i.e., U.S. Congress and states legislating tighter controls on access to weapons).

The folly of such a “solution” and its easy-to-predict consequences have been pointed out by many others (see here, here, here, and here). What I want to concentrate on in this post is, first, how varied and complex the roles are that teachers perform during those 15,000 hours children spend in school, and second, that militarizing schools shifts the problem from governmental action on guns to arming teachers.

Teaching is complex work that requires both improvisation and inner discipline. Also needed are street smarts and social radar to sense what is happening at any given moment of interactions with students and give appropriate responses. Teachers make instantaneous decisions, some routine and some idiosyncratic tailored to the situation and particular individuals. Assuming a six-hour school day, teachers make anywhere from two to three a minute (in their heads as to what to do next or out loud with a direction to an individual or the entire class). And that is not counting teacher decisions made in planning the lesson being taught. The teacher, then, performs the role of expert decision-maker. Add that to the list

In distinguishing between planning lessons and actual classroom teaching–what academics call “interactive” teaching– researchers found that teacher-made routines governed the total number and frequency of decisions. However, these routines for managing groups of 25-35 while teaching content and skills—taking attendance, going over homework, doing seat-work, asking questions –were unpredictably interrupted by the unexpected (e.g., upset students, PA announcements, student questions, technology breakdowns). thus, spontaneous, unplanned decisions had to be made. Both the expected and unexpected piled up teacher decisions in each lesson over the course of a day. Keep in mind that elementary school teachers cover multiple subjects (e.g., reading, math, science, social studies) during the school day while secondary school teachers have anywhere from 3 or more preparations for their 4-6 classes a day.

*Researchers Hilda Borko and Richard Shavelson summarized studies that reported .7 decisions per minute during interactive teaching.

*Researcher Philip Jackson (p. 149) said that elementary teachers have 200 to 300 exchanges with students every hour (between 1200-1500 a day), most of which are unplanned and unpredictable calling for teacher decisions, if not judgments.

In short, teaching because it is a “opportunistic”–neither teacher nor students can say with confidence what exactly will happen next–requires “spontaneity and immediacy” (Jackson, p. 166, 152).

Effective teachers, then, like top jazz musicians and basketball point guards improvise–decide on the spot–as they deal with both the routine and unexpected in the art of teaching.

After the killings in the Florida high school three weeks ago, one of the “solutions” highly preferred by many top elected officials is to arm a few teachers in each building to stop anyone seeking to shoot-up a school. The insanity of the proposal is anchored in taking one of the roles teachers must perform (protect health and safety of students) to the maximum thereby undercutting all of the other roles teachers play in the complex interaction called “teaching a lesson.” After all, the very basis for learning–intended and collateral–is the relationship between the teacher and student. Inserting a gun into that relationship inevitably alters the learning process adding fear in the room where a locked drawer or cabinet houses a gun.

Such a proposal reveals alarmingly two fundamental truths: first, the simple-minded view that top elected officials have about the nature of teaching, learning, and schooling. Second, the clever shifting of the problem belonging to schools and not to the social and political structures that validate a gun culture and violence in the nation preventing even reasonable controls on who can buy guns and where.

Arming teachers is another unfortunate but common move to “educationalize” a national problem–killing children and youth in schools–and direct attention away from political decisions that have to be made to control buying of guns and keeping schools safe.

Image result for cartoons against arming teachers

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

This post appeared January 28, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

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

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

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

Exponential functions:

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

 

Estefaniaexp1

 

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

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

Estefaniaproj

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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