A College Professor Teaches History in High School

Not a “man bites dog” media story for sure, but university professors who willingly choose to teach at a high school for a semester or a year, well, that does cause a few heads to turn. Previous posts I have published (see here for a math professor and here for an education professor) raise similar issues to what Edwin “Ted” Fenton, a history professor at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon  University) learned by teaching for a semester at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (PA) over six decades ago.

I have now been at Allderdice for five months, long enough to see sharp differences between high school and university teaching situations. From the very beginning the sharpest contrast has been in the physical environment and pace. Allderdice crowds into one building 3,200 students while [my university] has about 1,400 spread over 80 acres. The only room available at Allderdice for quiet study is a chemistry storeroom. At [my university] I share an office the size of the men teachers’ room at Allderdice, with one colleague.

Moreover, nothing is leisurely at Allderdice. Clerical chores, opening exercises, and hurried conferences with students and colleagues crowd the hour between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. The five-minute break between classes is far too short to reinvigorate a teacher. Lunch half-hour is a race upstairs in the midst of a throng of students, a contest for a place at the head of the line, a few minutes respite in a crowded cafeteria where masses of students sit within eyesight, and
another dash to open the classroom before chaos erupts in the hallway.

Since January, I have been teaching six classes a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in order to be free to teach and observe at other schools on Tuesday and Thursday while my three Allderdice colleagues take my classes. By seventh Period on these crowded days, I teach poorly,
my energy dissipated, and my nerves worn thin. How my colleagues stand a similar pace year after year I do not understand.

My schedule-and the schedule of regular high school teachers-gives me far too little time to see students individually. Sixth period is usually crowded with appointments so l can never talk to students over coffee, a happy pursuit which probably occupies far too much of my time at [the university]. Like many of my colleagues at Allderdice, I am unable to give students the individual attention they deserve, except by writing lengthy comments on their essay examinations
and other papers. When will citizens and school boards give teachers time to teach properly ?

If it were not for the excitement of the AP program, the constant stimulation from five colleagues who are teaching AP history in three high schools, and the sharp analytical minds of the 160 students I see one to three times a week, there would be very little intellectual stimulation in my high school job. Except during hectic lunch periods, there is no time to chat with colleagues from other departments.

Historians at [my university] will be surprised to learn that I miss department meetings where we frequently become involved in long discussions I find a half-hour to write and do research only late at night…. I miss conversation with colleagues who are carrying on similar research. High school, therefore, seems much less the free market place in ideas I had come to know at [my university], and opportunities for creative growth and development are not as great, except as one grows as a teacher.

Nor are teachers in high school accorded the considerations as professional people which we know in universities. They are required to be clerks, truant officers, and policemen. Books are chosen for them, and courses of study are usually  Planned by others, although, of course, every teacher has numerous opportunities to develop original methods of presentation if he wishes to do so.

Frequent interruptions disrupt one class after another. Fire drills, air raid alerts, messages from the office, telephone calls, students distributing bulletins, early dismissals-there seems no limit to the imaginations of people who disturb teachers. I can remember no occasion in the last five years when anyone has interrupted one of my classes at [the university]. Perhaps these conditions account largely for a significant difference in attitude which I find on the part of a larger percentage of my high school than of my college colleagues. Most of them admit to doing minimal work and to approaching teaching as a job rather than as a creative intellectual experience. I do not believe that pay differentials account for this attitude….

Far more important, it seems to me, is the fact that high school teachers are unable because of their heavy teaching loads and the burden of their other tasks to do an esthetically satisfying job, except at great personal sacrifice. Many become discouraged, particularly if they are of less than average capability. But despite many handicaps, my high school colleagues are far better at some jobs than college professors.

High school teachers pay far more attention to their students as developing human beings than we do in the universities. One teacher after another has been able to supply me with details about a student’s personal problems and family background which have been most helpful. The counselors, principal, and vice principal, at least at Allderdice, seem to know every child in the school personally and to help them over innumerable hurdles. In coilege, we are more likely to let a student sink or swim unless he is in really serious trouble. Finally, high school instructors teach current events with great skill, while we tend to ignore them in the classroom.

My students at Allderdice are more fun to teach than their counterparts at [university].  Of course, I have only very able history students at Allderdice while many of our mathematical wizards [in the university] have somewhat more limited verbal skills. Ability differences, however, are not the heart of the matter. The more significant difference is that most of my high school students are hungry for intellectual stimulation. They are anxious to examine historical issues in the light of evidence, and they respond eagerly when challenged with a knotty problem of historical interpretation. Moreover, they seem more willing to express personal opinions and to put their opinions to the test of evidence than many college students. The false sophistication which marks many college freshmen and sophomores seems entirely-and happily-absent.

I have also been impressed by the relative intellectual sophistication of high school students. The 60 I know best at Ailderdice are remarkably well read and constantly make reference to leisure reading during class  discussions. They assimilate new ideas with great speed and often have remarkable insights into historical personalities. We are not tapping the potential abilities which lie dormant in many of our high school students. We cannot tap them fully, except in special instances where teachers have the privileges which we enjoy in the AP program, until society makes teaching a true profession offering opportunities to do an esthetically and intellectually satisfying job.

I shall be forever grateful to [my university], the Pittsburgh public schools, The Ford and Mellon Foundations, and my colleagues and the students at Allderdice for making this year possible. I shall never again teach as poorly as I did before this exciting experience in the public schools. I shall never again be as free with my criticisms of public school teachers and courses of study. Nor shall I ever again accept the argument that little can be done. Endless opportunities for improving course offerings and methods of teaching present themselves daily. I hope to continue to explore these opportunities with my new friends on high school faculties-that is if I survive until June 23!

Ted Fenton taught the first Advanced Placement history courses offered to Allderdice students in 1959-1960. He published this article in the Pennsylvania School Journal (May 1960). He  taught for one semester. Within a few years, he and other academics passionate about improving high school social studies launched a movement then called the “New Social Studies” following on the heels of the New Math, New Biology, New Physics, etc.

What struck me about the article published in 1960 is Fenton’s  comparisons of university and high school teaching loads, working conditions, and climate of learning that existed in both places then. More than a half-century later, what Fenton wrote describes accurately, in my opinion, what occurs in many high schools today.

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Cartoons on Technology Use at Home and School

For this month I have chosen a few cartoons that got me laughing about family, school uses of devices, and a favorite topic: writing. Enjoy!

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Kids and Screen Time (Part 2)

Part 1 revealed that most toddlers through teenagers watch multiple screens during the day and night. This time on devices, experts say, may have harmful effects on children and youth. More and more parents have become aware that staring at devices for long periods of time may lead to their sons and daughters displaying undesirable behaviors.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in their “Facts for Family” publication (2020) lists what children are exposed to on home screens:

  • Violence and risk-taking behaviors
  • Videos of stunts or challenges that may inspire unsafe behavior
  • Sexual content
  • Negative stereotypes
  • Substance use
  • Cyberbullies and predators
  • Advertising aimed at your child
  • Misleading or inaccurate information

Then these experts go further in listing what might occur to children and youth who do spend big chunks of their day staring at screens:

  • Sleep problems
  • Lower grades in school
  • Reading fewer books
  • Less time with family and friends
  • Not enough outdoor or physical activity
  • Weight problems
  • Mood problems
  • Poor self-image and body image issues
  • Fear of missing out
  • Less time learning other ways to relax and have fun

Will children develop these problems by spending so much time on devices at home? Based on the studies I have seen, I cannot say with a high degree of certainty that such issues will arise because with so many family and individual variables, a causal link between watching screens and children developing social, psychological, and emotional problems is tough to pin down. Nonetheless, parents across social class, ethnicity, and race do worry about effects of too much screen time.

What should parents do? The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published guidelines for parents to use when it comes to children at home and multiple devices available for them to use:

  • “Until 18 months of age limit screen use to video chatting along with an adult (for example, with a parent who is out of town).
  • Between 18 and 24 months screen time should be limited to watching educational programming with a caregiver.
  • For children 2-5, limit non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on the weekend days.
  • For ages 6 and older, encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.
  • Turn off all screens during family meals and outings.
  • Learn about and use parental controls.
  • Avoid using screens as pacifiers, babysitters, or to stop tantrums.
  • Turn off screens and remove them from bedrooms 30-60 minutes before bedtime.”

And what about schools? Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.

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Kids and Screen Time (Part 1)

Four years ago I wrote a post on the time U.S. children spend looking at screens. Phones, laptops, desktops, and television were included. I quoted CEOs and top leaders of Silicon Valley firms who wrestled with the problem of how much time to allow their children to watch screens. The answers to the question of, to what degree if at all, should kids be restricted were far from unanimous. These well-versed, adept men and women showed deep concern over their sons and daughters looking at devices many hours a day. Moreover, they avoided a laissez-faire approach.

I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups (as well as many non-techie parents) who wrestle with the dilemma of valuing highly technology while seeing the negatives of their children spending excessive amounts of time on these devices.

But the fact of children looking at screens large chunks of the day (both at home and in school now) has worsened, not gotten better. I say “worsened” because more than 75% of children below the age of two and 64% of between 2 to 5 years-old exceeded the recommended guidelines, according to researchers at the University of Calgary, who analyzed over 60 studies looking at more than 89,000 children around the world.

Moreover, children ages 8-12 in the United States, on average, spend 4-6 hours a day watching screens, while teenage youth are on screens up to 9 hours daily. And these averages do not include the time they spend in school on cell phones and classroom devices. Surely, screens both entertain and teach. And these devices do keep children occupied. But, and this is an important “but,” excessive watching of screens may cause problems in kids. And parents worry.

In 2019, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcick told The Guardian that she while she wants her five children to develop ‘self-control methods,’ there are moments when she has to limit screen-time.

“I have times when I take away all my kids’ phones, especially if we’re on a family vacation, because I want people to interact with each other,” said Wojcick. “So, I take away their phones and say: ‘We’re all going to focus on being present today.'”

Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

In the next post, I quote the guidance that experts in the field of child development and technology give both parents and students.

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Big Error in Policymaker Thinking

As a result of inhabiting a different world than teachers, policymakers make a common but significant error. They confuse teacher quality with teaching quality.  That is, the personal traits of teachers—dedicated, caring, gregarious, intellectually curious—produce student learning rather than those personal traits interacting with how teachers teach, classroom and school settings, and who the students are.

All are important, of course, but policymakers historically have accentuated who the teachers are far more than the organizational and social context in which teachers teach daily. So if students score low on tests, then teachers’ personal traits, credentials, and attitudes come under close scrutiny, rather than the age-graded school, the regularities in daily practices that accompany this organization, neighborhood demography, workplace conditions, and resources that support teaching. The person overshadows the place.[i]

In attributing far more weight to individual teacher traits rather than seriously considering the situation in which teachers teach, policymakers (I include civic and business leaders) end up having a cramped view of teaching quality. Quality teaching is complex because an essential distinction is masked: the difference between “good” teaching and “successful” teaching. Both “good” and ” successful” teaching are necessary to reach the threshold of quality instruction and student learning. To lead us through the thicket of complexity, I lean on Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson’s analysis of quality teaching.[ii]

“Good” teaching is about the how and what of teaching. For example, the task of getting a child to understand the theory of evolution (or the Declaration of Independence or prime numbers) in a considerate and age-appropriate way consistent with best practices in the field is “good” teaching.

“Successful” teaching, however, is about what the child learns. For example, getting the same child to write three paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate understanding of the theory of evolution or the Declaration of Independence is “successful” teaching. Ditto for a student able to show that she knows prime numbers by completing Eratosthenes Sieve. “Good” and “successful” teaching, then, are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other.

Does that last sentence mean that “good” teaching may not automatically lead to “successful” teaching? Yes, one does not necessarily produce the other. How can that be?

Fenstermacher and Richardson point out that learning, like teaching, can also be distinguished between “good” and “successful.” The above examples of student proficiency on the theory of evolution, the Declaration of Independence, and prime numbers demonstrate “successful” learning. “Good” learning, however, requires other factors to be in place. “Good” learning occurs when the student is willing to learn and puts forth effort, the student’s family, peers, and community support learning, the student has the place, time, and resources to learn, and, finally, “good” teaching.

In short, “good” teaching is one of four necessary components to “good” learning. In making this mistake, policymakers unintentionally snooker the public by squishing together ”good” teaching and “successful” learning. In doing so, policymakers erase three critical factors that are equally important in getting students to learn: the student’s own effort, support of family and peers, and the opportunity to learn in school. “No excuses” reform-minded policymakers glide over these other factors critical to learning. Recent hoopla over paying teachers for their performance based on student test scores is an expression of this conflation of “good” teaching with “successful” learning and the ultimate deceiving of parents, voters, and students that “good” teaching naturally leads to “successful” learning.

Not only does this policymaker error about quality classroom instruction confuse the personal traits of the teacher with teaching, it also nurtures a heroic view of school improvement where superstars (e.g., Geoffrey Canada in “Waiting for Superman,” Jaime Escalante of “Stand and Deliver”, Erin Gruwell of “Freedom Writers”) labor day in and day out to get their students to ace AP Calculus tests and become accomplished writers and achieve in Harlem schools and Los Angeles’ barrio schools.

Neither doctors, lawyers, soldiers, nor nuclear physicists can depend upon superstars among them to get their important work done every day. Nor should all teachers have to be heroic. Policymakers attributing quality far more to individual traits in teachers than to the context in which they teach leads to squishing “good” teaching with “successful” learning doing even further collateral damage to the profession by setting up the expectation that only heroes need apply.

By stripping away from “good” learning essential factors of students’ motivation, the structures in which teachers teach, and the opportunities students have to learn–federal, state, and district policymakers inadvertently twist the links between teaching and learning into a simpleminded formula thereby mis-educating the public they serve while encouraging a generation of idealistic newcomers to become classroom heroes who end up deserting schools within a few years because they come to understand that “good” teaching does not lead automatically to “successful” learning.

Fenstermacher and Richardson help us parse “quality teaching” into distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching and learning while revealing clearly the error that policymakers have made and continue to do so.


[i] Mary Kennedy,”Attribution Error and the Quest for Teacher Quality,” Educational Researcher, 2010, 39(8), pp. 591-598.

[ii] Gary Fenstermacher and Virginia Richardson, “On Making Determinations of Quality in Teaching,” Teachers  College Record, 2005, 107, pp. 186-213.

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Thinking about Old Age and Crossword Puzzles

In the nearly 13 years of writing this blog on school reform and classroom practice, I have added different features such as a monthly set of cartoons about parents, schools, teachers, and students. I have also included from time to time, poems about teachers and teaching. Another feature will be writing personal posts that reflect on things I do, think about, read, and feel. This is the first.

For the past six years I have been doing crossword puzzles. I picked up the habit from a dear friend in Vancouver (CA) who sent me a covey of crossword books when I was recovering from a pinched nerve in my back. By the time I had fully recovered, I was hooked on crosswords. Since then I began doing the daily New York Times puzzles supplemented by crossword books to do during the days when the newspaper ones got too hard for me.

I quickly learned that the daily crossword on Monday was easy but as the week went on, each day got more and more difficult to complete. I have gotten only as far as Wednesdays now. On that midweek day I might be able to finish it after three or four tries. So when the daily crosswords get too hard, I shift to books of 100 or 200 “Easy” puzzles that I bought.

Turns out that I am a whiz at “easy” puzzles. Usually, I can fill out all the boxes and after checking the answers at the back of the book—no, I do not cheat while doing the crossword—I write on the top of the page whether I got it “perfect” or how many errors I made.

The time I spend in turning clues into letters that fit into the allotted squares (using a number 2 pencil with a large eraser) goes quickly. I get totally immersed, laughing at times when I figure out the puns that the crossword-maker salted into the clues. I am strong on history, geography, and literature but awfully weak on Hollywood and music figures enthralling younger generations. Easy crosswords also contain elementary Spanish, French, and German words that I mostly know. Nonetheless, even after getting most of an “easy” puzzle, I get frustrated by not being able to call up the seven-letter word that will fit the clue. When that feeling grabs me, I put the crossword down and turn to something else.

Puzzles take me anywhere from a half-hour to 45 minutes the first time around. Since I seldom finish the harder of the “easy” puzzles—it is inevitable that what puzzle makers call “easy” means parsing a range of simple answers (e.g.,  “pizza by the ______”) to hard ones for me (e.g.,‘ “Wake Up Little _______” 1957 hit for the Everly Brothers’).   

Have I picked up this habit because I worry about losing my memory and succumbing to some form of dementia? Probably. Slipping into dementia is my biggest fear. I am sure that somewhere I got the idea that crosswords will keep my brain active even though my body’s erosion over time is plain for me to see every morning when I awake.

So working on crosswords is one way of loosening the grip of that fear. But am I correct in thinking that doing crosswords helps me stay mentally alert? What does the research say? Studies of the elderly—I am 87, a widower, retired academic, and living alone—have produced a mixed bag of findings on whether crosswords keeps the frontal brain lobes exercised, thereby keeping dementia at bay.

Some studies, for example, found that doing crosswords delayed the onset of memory decline for two and half years in elderly subjects while other studies found little correlation between doing crosswords and cognitive decline.*

One recent morning after almost finishing the puzzle in the Times, I looked up brain research on crosswords and getting old and saw that the habit I had picked up over the past six years is pretty common. Doing crosswords cuts across age, race, gender, and social class. And surprise upon surprise, the average puzzler is a white, middle class, older male. Hey, that’s me.

But research findings, mixed as they are, hardly spur me to continue struggling with clues that sometimes drives me batty (e.g., in a recent Times crossword, the clue is “a buck or two” with a four letter word as the answer; yes, it is “deer”).

So be it. I get immersed in a puzzle. When I can’t finish one after awhile, I put the crossword aside and turn to writing a post for my blog or editing a manuscript or checking out tomato plants I recently potted in the yard. Or I read, do errands (I can still ride a bike), call family and friends. Can’t stop aging but I can enjoy the day.

And maybe I can return to that damn unfinished crossword puzzle.

______________________________

*Jagan Pillai, et. al., “Association of Crossword Participation with Memory Decline in Persons Who Develop Dementia,” Journal of International Neuropsychological Society, 2011, 17(6), pp. 1006-1013; Adrienne Raphel, “This Is Your Brain on Crosswords,” Scientific American, March 17, 2020.

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Concerned Parents and Lawmakers: Here’s What You’ll Really See in My Classroom(Jennifer Yoo Brannon)

Jennifer Yoo-Brannon (@JYooBrannon) is an an EdSurge Voices of Change Fellow and an instructional coach for the El Monte Union High School District in California. This appeared in Ed Surge, March 8, 2022.

Recently, lawmakers in Iowa penned a bill that, if passed, would have required cameras in every K-12 classroom in the state. These cameras would allow parents to livestream their children’s lessons throughout the school day. Meanwhile in Indiana, a bill would have required teachers to turn in a year’s worth of lesson plans in advance. Both failed to pass their respective state legislatures. But a flurry of other bills and laws restricting what educators can teach—or even say—about history, literature, race, sexuality and other topics are alive and well.

I’ve taught high school English for years. I also coach teachers and work with them to improve their instructional practices. It’s hard not to feel personally targeted by these efforts, and I question the motivations behind them, when they do far more to turn the classroom into a political battlefield than any teacher could. But I will assume sincerity when questioned about what is happening in my classroom. So if any lawmakers, parents or activist groups are curious, here’s what’s really going on.

Yes, I’m addressing topics outside of the curriculum.

Four years ago, my students came to class the day after a deadly mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. The day before, I called a colleague to discuss the next day’s lesson. We shared the same group of AP students and we agreed we should give them space to talk. As the bell rang, one student blurted out, “Miss, are we going to talk about what happened?”

My students were used to talking in class but that day, we passed around a giant purple minion doll as students shared their thoughts and feelings, raw and unrehearsed. Sixteen- and 17-year-old students hugged the stuffed creature to their chests as they talked about how this shooting felt different, how they suddenly felt it could happen to them at their school. Then, talk of the events of the Parkland shooting turned to the problems revealed by mass shootings in schools.

While they talked, I passed around large post-its and markers so they could organize their thinking. Over the next few days, we read and analyzed the arguments of activists and politicians who contributed to the national dialogue, including Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland survivor, a teenager, and a student, using her formidable rhetorical strategies to “call BS” on lawmakers. The class created problem-solution maps and proposed ideas. These lessons were not designed to foist my political agenda onto their young malleable minds, but rather to give them the opportunity to find their own voices and cultivate their rhetorical skills.

Yes, I’m deviating from my lesson plans.

As teachers, we teach students not subjects. I don’t teach English language development, I teach Maria, Alex, Yun Mei and Linh. Although my own professional growth as an educator has been shaped by educational research, brain science and cultural theorists, my only real guiding principle has been, “Teach the students in front of you.” By this, I mean I am continually letting go of my ideal sequence of learning activities and modifying and adjusting according to what my students show me.

In my early years, I recall painstakingly working through an excerpt from the Lois Lowry novel, “Number the Stars,” about a young girl’s struggle to help her Jewish friend escape Nazi-occupied Copenhagen during WWII. One student, Liling (a pseudonym), raised her hand and pointed to a word in the introductory paragraph, “What is this word?” She pointed to the word “holocaust.” I allowed her to translate the word online and then reversed the translation to see what it would say: “massacre.”

I asked the other students if they had heard or read the word holocaust in their other classes here or in their schooling before coming to the United States. My Vietnamese, Central American, Mexican and Chinese students all had different answers. I knew that the histories of their home countries were no strangers to massacres but I suddenly realized that my understanding of the holocaust, my understanding of the story’s context, was grounded in the American education system and the choices of individuals in that system. We paused our reading. I abandoned the lesson plan and we began to build a collective understanding of these new vocabulary words, holocaust and genocide, and the meaning these words carry in stories, in histories around the world. We would eventually return to “Number the Stars,” but with a more robust understanding. The lesson plan would still be there.

Yes, I’m performing duties outside of my job description.

During distance learning, many parents observed their child’s online classes. Peering over shoulders, parents may have seen teachers sharing their screens, sharing slide presentations or talking to the class. But that’s not the same as placing a camera in a classroom. A camera might find me balancing on top of a desk peering at my overhead projector and wondering if that whirring sound is indicative of an imminent explosion. You might see me sanitizing tables, searching for extra charging cords for student devices, and collecting the daily detritus (Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags, scraps of paper and left-behind notebooks) from the floor and desks. You would also see me doing my best to mediate interpersonal conflict, offer advice about how best to communicate with other teachers, connect students to needed mental health services and find out as much as I can about my students.

What a camera in the classroom may not capture are the hours and hours teachers work to actually accomplish the tasks outlined in their job descriptions. The camera may not capture teachers participating in voluntary professional development opportunities to help them get better at what they do. The camera may not record teachers cheering on their students at basketball games, choir concerts and science fairs. There may be no video footage of teachers talking to counselors and other teachers about their shared students in an effort to better meet that student’s unique learning needs, and the camera may or may not capture the toll it takes on teachers to do this meaningful work.

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Mistakes among Doctors and Teachers

I had a conversation with a dear friend* a few years ago that has stayed with me. We had been talking about something I had written detailing my failures as a teacher with students I have had over the years. He had practiced Family Medicine for over a half-century in Pittsburgh and for years helped resident physicians in doing medical research and improving communication with their patients.  He pointed out to me how similar teachers experiencing failures with students is to physicians erring in diagnoses or treatments (or both) of their patients.

I was surprised at his making the comparison and then began to think about the many books I have read about medicine and the art and science of clinical practice. In my library at home, I had two books with well-thumbed pages authored by doctors who, in the  first dozen pages, detailed mistakes either they had made with patients or errors committed by other physicians on them or their families.

In one, Jerome Groopman, an oncologist, described what occurred with his 9-month old child after a series of doctor misdiagnoses that almost caused his son’s death. A surgeon, who was a friend of a friend, was called in at the last moment to fix an intestinal blockage and saved his son’s life.

In the other book, surgeon Atul Gawande described how he almost lost an Emergency Room patient who had crashed her car when he fumbled a tracheotomy only for the patient to be saved by another surgeon who successfully got the breathing tube inserted. Gawande also has a chapter on doctors’ errors. His point, documented by a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (1991) and subsequent reports  is that nearly all physicians err.

If nearly all doctors make mistakes, do they talk about them? Privately with people they trust, yes. In public, that is, with other doctors in academic hospitals, the answer is also yes. There is an institutional mechanism where hospital doctors meet weekly called Morbidity and Mortality Conferences (M & M for short) where, in Gawande’s words, doctors “gather behind closed doors to review the mistakes, untoward events, and deaths that occurred on their watch, determine responsibility, and figure out what to do differently (p. 58).” He describes an M & M (pp.58-64) at his hospital and concludes: “The M & M sees avoiding error as largely a matter of will–staying sufficiently informed and alert to anticipate the myriad ways that things can go wrong and then trying to head off each potential problem before it happens” (p. 62). Protected by law, physicians air their mistakes without fear of malpractice suits.

Nothing like that for teachers in U.S. schools. Sure, privately, teachers tell one another how they goofed with a student, misfired on a lesson, realized that they had provided the wrong information, or fumbled the teaching of a concept in a class. Of course,  there are scattered, well-crafted professional learning communities in elementary and secondary schools where teachers feel it is OK to admit they make mistakes and not fear retaliation. In the vast majority of schools, however, no analogous M & M conferences exist (at least as far as I know).

Of course, there are substantial differences between doctors and teachers. For physicians, the consequences of their mistakes might be life-threatening, even lethal. Not so, in most instances, for teachers. But also consider other differences:

*Doctors see patients one-on-one; teachers teach groups of 20 to 35 students four to five hours a day.

*Most U.S. doctors get paid on a fee-for-service basis; nearly all full-time public school teachers are salaried.

*Evidenced-based practice of medicine in diagnosing and caring for patients is more fully developed and used by doctors than the science of teaching accessed by teachers.

While these differences are substantial in challenging comparisons, there are basic commonalities that bind teachers to physicians. First, both are helping professions that seek human improvement. Second, like practitioners in other sciences and crafts, both make mistakes. These commonalities make comparisons credible even with differences between the occupations.

Helping professions.

From teachers to psychotherapists to doctors to social workers to nurses, these professionals use their expertise to transform minds, develop skills, deepen insights, cope with feelings and mend bodily ills. In doing so, these helping professions share similar predicaments.

*Expertise is never enough. For surgeons, cutting out a tumor from the colon will not rid the body of cancer; successive treatments of chemotherapy are necessary and even then, the cancer may return.

Some high school teachers of science with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics believe that lessons should be inquiry driven and filled with hands-on experiences while other colleagues, also with advanced degrees, differ. They argue that naïve and uninformed students must absorb the basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics through rigorous study before they do any “real world” work in class.

In one case, there is insufficient know-how to rid the body of different cancers and, in the other instance, highly knowledgeable teachers split over how students can best learn science. As important as expertise is to professionals dedicated to helping people, it falls short—and here is another shared predicament–not only for the reasons stated above but also because professionals seeking human improvement need their clients, patients, and students to engage in the actual work of learning and becoming knowledgeable, healthier people.

*Helping professionals are dependent upon their clients’ cooperation. Physician autonomy, anchored in expertise and clinical experience, to make decisions unencumbered by internal or external bureaucracies is both treasured and defended by the medical profession. Yet physicians depend upon patients for successful diagnoses and treatments. If expertise is never enough in the helping professions, patients not only constrain physician autonomy but also influence their effectiveness.

While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications–the physician is stuck. Autonomy to make decisions for the welfare of the patient and ultimate health is irrelevant when patients cannot or do not enter into the process of healing.

For K-12 teachers who face captive audiences among whom are some students unwilling to participate in lessons or who defy the teacher’s authority or are uncommitted to learning what the teacher is teaching, then teachers have to figure out what to do in the face of students’ passivity or active resistance.

Failure and error occur in both medical and teaching practices.
Both doctors and teachers, from time to time, err in what they do with patients and students.
Patients can bring malpractice suits to get damages for errors. But that occurs sometimes years
after the mistake. What hospital-based physicians do have, however, is an institutionalized way
of learning (Mortality and Morbidity conferences) from their mistakes so that they do not occur
again. So far, among teachers there are no public ways of admitting mistakes and learning from
them (privately, amid trusted colleagues, such admissions occur). For teachers, admitting error
publicly can lead directly to job loss).

So while doctors, nurses, and other medical staff have M & M conferences to correct mistakes, most teachers lack such collaborative and public ways of correcting mistakes (one exception might be in special education where various staff come together weekly or monthly to go over individual students’ progress).

Books and articles have been written often about how learning from failure can lead to success. Admitting error without fear of punishment is the essential condition for such learning to occur. There is no sin in being wrong or making mistakes, but in the practice of schooling children and youth today, one would never know that.

_______________________

* Dr. Joel Merenstein and I have been close friends since boyhood in Pittsburgh (PA). He passed away in 2019.

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Should Students Re-Take Tests? Common Dilemma for Teachers

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 (next year is the 40th 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 (or not) permit 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 blogger Joanne Jacobs for a post on this subject that got me to think and write about this issue.

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Urban Superintendents Come and Go

New York City Chancellor of public schools, Richard Carranza, served three years and exited the post in 2021. He had been Houston Independent School District’s top leader for 18 months before being hired by the Mayor of New York City.

Former businessman Austin Beutner became Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2018. He resigned after serving for three years.

Boston superintendent Brenda Casellius will leave the top school post in June 2022 after only three years. She had been Minnesota state superintendent for eight years prior to coming to Boston.

High turnover among big city superintendents is a common article in newspapers, magazines, and mentioned in social media. You can count on resignations and firings as surely as you can count on Covid-19 variants being around for the next few years. And, of course, the higher rate of turnover, some argue, is attributable to the pandemic.

Yet long tenure of superintendents between 7-10 years is linked to school chiefs seeing recommended reforms approved by their school boards. Rapid turnover among district leaders, however, is a recipe for instability.

So how do urban superintendents stay around long enough to see their school board approve a reform platform that morphs into actual programs helping the city’s students, teachers, administrators, and parents?

Based upon my familiarity with the job and research I have done on urban superintendents, here is my answer to the question.

If I had to choose an urban superintendent between the highly touted Michelle Rhee in Washington,D.C.(2007-2010) and the experienced John Deasy in Los Angeles Unfied School District (2011-2014), I would choose neither. Instead, I would pick Christopher Steinhauser, the long-tenured Long Beach (CA) superintendent who served between 2002-2019.

Why? Because Rhee and Deasy were sprinters in a job that requires marathoners like Steinhauser. Both Rhee and Deasy knew that teachers were the linchpin to achieve any degree of success yet both ended up alienating the very people they depended upon. Steinhauser and his predecessor, Carl Cohn, who had served a decade earlier built close ties with their teachers over two decades.

Why are there so few long distance runners among urban superintendents? Answer: Sprinters want 180 degree change fast; in doing so, they rarely gain respect and confidence of teachers; marathoners work with teachers steadily from day one in their suite of offices.

Boston’s former superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, Carl Cohn of the Long Beach, Calif., school district, and Laura Schwalm of California’s Garden Grove Unified School District served a decade or longer. To be sure, these long-serving chiefs were beset with problems that went unsolved and criticism that stung but all of them remained quietly and steadily popular with their school board bosses and teachers. Teachers, by and large, were supportive of their school chiefs’ efforts even when local teacher unions disagreed with parts of each one’s reform agenda. These superintendents sought incremental changes moving carefully, slowly, and politically toward their goals, walking hand-in-hand with teachers and their unions.

Sprinter superintendents, however, embrace a reform agenda that assumed what existed in each of their districts when they became school chiefs was awful and had to be dumped. They refused to be identified with the status quo. Out with the old, in with the new. And fast. “New” and “fast” meant swift change, especially with teachers and administrators. On the Richter scale of reform, such deep changes translated to major earthquakes of 7.0 and above. Incremental changes registered as tremors.

So Rhee, appointed by D.C.’s elected mayor, Adrian Fenty, fired both teachers and principals within the early months of her brief tenure in D.C. She pushed through new salary arrangements where experienced and effective teachers would increase their salaries dramatically but would have to give up tenure in exchange. As a former Teach for America alumna, she relied upon recruiting from that pool of new teachers and elevated other alumni to administrative posts. Her statements about teachers and administrators who had been in the D.C.  schools prior to her arrival were tinged with disrespect for their work in schools, particularly if those practitioners expressed how difficult it was to work with students from poor families with limited academic skills. Rhee was one of many new leaders that trumpeted the slogan of “no excuses” for low student performance. Schools could reverse low achievement. She designed a new system of evaluating teachers that included multiple observations of teachers by principals and “master educators” with one segment of the evaluation dependent upon how the teacher’s students did on district standardized tests. All of these actions occurred within the first two years of Rhee’s administration. To say that the hard-working, feisty Chancellor alienated the majority of teachers in D.C. would be accurate from one simple fact: Mayor Adrian Fenty who appointed Rhee in 2007 ran for re-election in 2010 and lost. Many D.C. teachers worked for his opponent. Later on, Rhee admitted her mistake in not gaining the respect and confidence of teachers. She resigned shortly afterwards.

John Deasy’s short three years in Los Angeles Unified School District differed from Michelle Rhee’s experience in that the school board that appointed him, including a former LAUSD teacher, changed into one that became increasingly hostile to him. Even the Los Angeles Times which supported his superintendency right up to the moment he resigned gave Deasy a parting editorial that sung his praises for his accomplishments in getting rid of ineffective teachers and raising student attendance and graduation rates but also pointed out his errors in alienating teachers (he testified in a law suit against teacher due process and seniority rights) and presided over the massive iPad purchase that ended in a debacle.

Rhee and Deasy sought reforms, no holds barred and as swiftly as possible. Payzant, Cohn, and Schwalm knew (as did Steinhauser) that designing and persisting with incremental changes that barely toggled the Richter scale of reform was the path to take as an urban school chief. Marathoners worked slowly and patiently with teachers knowing that success with students is not a hundred yard dash.

Sprinters gain media attention fast. They revel in the reach of their dreams and the speed of putting them into practice, mistakenly thinking that adopted polices soon convert into classroom change. That is not the case. Marathoners see the big picture and fill in the dots gradually over years.

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