Rigour – All Hail the Orphan Child

The Globe and Mail has recently been addressing an old chestnut: the question of rigour in schools. A few recent articles and letters-to-the-editor appeared in the past week or so. The general tenor: schools aren’t what they should be, technology is a distraction, and we should refocus our efforts on a conservative approach to teaching and learning. The excerpted editorial on texting here sums it up:

De shud b HHIS – which may be translated as “They should be hanging their heads in shame.”

Such is the scolding that some parents and teachers may want to give children and teenagers after reading the state of their homework, because a new study by a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Calgary confirms what some fear: that text messaging has a negative impact on language skills.

Ever since text messaging took off – Canadians send 154 million texts a day – linguists have debated the impact it has on the English language. Some experts insist that texting encourages creativity and writing, that asking “wot r u doin 2nite” isn’t laziness, but rather another way in which English is naturally evolving, as it has done for centuries. Besides, young people know the difference between communicating to make plans for Friday night and writing a formal essay. In New Zealand, educators certainly thought so when in 2006 they approved the use of text speak in high-school exams.

But the naysayers now have some ammunition on their side.

In the Calgary study, a group of university students were asked about their reading habits. Those who read widely in traditional print media such as books and magazines were able to identify more words on a checklist than students who said they did not read as much, but sent and received texts a lot.

Some of the words on the list were real, and others were fictitious. The conclusion was that traditional reading material exposes people to variety and creativity in the language. It helps develop skills that allow the interpretation of new and original words. This is not found in colloquial text speak, which actually constrains the use of English and caused the students to reject many words on the checklist.

It is a triumph for the traditionalists.

To which a teen’s flippant answer might be “wateva DBEYR,” or, Don’t believe everything you read.

You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who argued against rigour. Indeed, all teachers think they’re pursuing rigour in their own ways. But there is little shared agreement on what constitutes a rigourous program. And therein lies the rub. What goals should we be pursuing in our classrooms?

The usual turn of events goes like this: various groups (teachers, administrators, consultants) and different members within them, all argue for different end results. We should teach through games to build critical thinking; we should return to the basics; we should spend more time on math; no – more time on community service; and rest of all the old refrains.

There is obviously much by way of merit in debate, but unless we ask what the purpose of schooling is there is little point in persisting; no possibility of progress exists. One thing is clear, though – until we get a better answer to it, we’ll likely continue to work against ourselves.

The article below, in the same edition of the paper as the editorial above, argues – again – for a more conservative approach to education. At the very least, the purpose of schooling is hinted at: students should be able readers, writers, and adept at the classical subjects. I don’t find myself disagreeing with all of it.

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He’s about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don’t want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh’s class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain’s broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she’s not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

Why School Choice Fails (?)

I’ve written before that the idea of school choice has a lot of merit, especially for those of us still under the spell of elegant philosophies behind Enlightenment economic thinkers.  I argued that across a whole system, applying principles of choice might be able to achieve change in ways more profound than well-meaning school leaders.  I did point out there is no evidence for the idea (some to the contrary, in fact), and it is quite unpopular in academic circles.A new salvo in the war emerged recently.  Natalie Hopkinson, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, created some controversy this winter when she declared, more or less, the US experiment with school choice and charter schools a failure.

She tells of a system where “neighbourhood schools are dying” because of school choice and charter schools.  The problem? Washington, D.C., like many cities in the US, in an effort to improve its school system, created choice-based incentives for schools to improve: “if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.”  Schools would be accountable to their stakeholders, and in so doing a “second education system” was created.

But a cycle emerges: local neighbourhood school, not doing so well, loses more and more students to the competition; eventually, stripped of resources, it is shut down and the kids move to a nearby public school that is not doing so well; soon, it is shut down, too.  Each wave of the cycle brings greater cynicism and disillusionment with the public system.  The second, shadow education system consumes resources that once went to local neighbourhood schools.

All of this leads to a few avenues: rich neighbourhoods have great schools with great programs; poor nieghbourhoods have poor schools with weak programs, and ultimately get shut down; the kinds in poor neighbourhoods have fewer and fewer options.  (Most Canadians are surprised to find out that one of the best options is to win a lottery to attend a better school out of your neighbourhood.)  Her son attended three elementary schools by the age of 11, and all of them were closed.  Living in an under-served, mostly black neighbourhood, means you probably won’t have a local school worth wanting to send your kid to.

She looks out at the broader US experiment with school choice and declares the future grim: “Like us, those places will face a stark decision: Do they want equitable investment in community education, or do they want to hand it over to private schools and charters? Let’s stop pretending we can fairly do both. As long as we do, some will keep winning, but many of us will lose.”

She does make a compelling point.  But given the obvious criticism supplied by some of her detractors, I think she has the wrong problem in mind, and the wrong solution.  Kevin Chavous, the chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, writes in response: “Ms. Hopkinson points to what she deems the fundamental unfairness of the lottery aspect of the charter school law. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system, but luck and chance have always determined where one attends school. If you are lucky enough to be born to reasonably well-off parents who can write checks to private schools or buy a house in an expensive suburb, opportunity is everywhere.
“If you aren’t so fortunate, your parents grit their teeth and send you to the neighborhood school, chosen for you based on nothing but your ZIP code. If access to high-performing schools has to come down to a number, better it be a lottery number than a ZIP code.”

A good point, though there is a lot less to find agreement with in his views in this clip:

The debate over choice is far from the centre, though; the solution to all this is not to quibble over school choice, but to examine the sources of funding.  In the US the tradition has been to fund schools from local tax bases – the richer the neighbourood, the richer the schools – ad vice versa.  It was like this in Ontario, too, but (under a very conservative regime, even) the province decided to apply a provincial funding model where the school receives the same amount for each student, no matter how rich the local neighbourhood.  This kind of centralized funding is an easy way to provide for poor niehgbourhoods – and it isn’t incompatible with school choice.

To Succeed, Try Failing

A friend passed on this fascinating article on the importance of struggle in the personal growth.  Here’s a short excerpt from Paul Tough’s superb article from the New York Times.
Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Coaches for Teachers?

Atul Gawande, one of the New Yorker’s most celebrated writers, currently inhabits one of it’s most venerable spaces: the Annals of Medicine. I came across him a few years back in an article he wrote on the increasing industrialization of childbirth. Since then, I’ve devoured his insightful and sometimes contrarian pieces.

Recently, he wrote “Personal Best” – about his experiment using a coach to improve his surgery practice. In it, he makes comparisons between various pursuits – pro sports, singing, surgery, teaching – and wonders if they key to greatness isn’t necessarily talent or education but ongoing, conscious, coach-driven improvements.

Perhaps the reason I like it so much is that I delivered a similar line of thinking in an interview for a position I didn’t get. I made the same comparisons to musicians and medicine – it wasn’t clear to me at the time what the panel thought, but their actions indicated they didn’t share the theory. I still think the idea is correct – and it was lovely to see it in a more capable set of hands than mine.

Here are the highlights of Gawande’s thinking – as it applies to teaching, especially…

Our Current Conception of Learning a Profession
“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself.”

Whereas, in Sports…
“Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”

What about in Teaching?
“California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.”

In a school board where teachers coach other teachers…
“To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students.”

An Example of How Coaching Can Help Teachers
“Novice teachers often struggle with the basic behavioral issues. Hobson told me of one such teacher, whose students included a hugely disruptive boy. Hobson took her to observe the boy in another teacher’s classroom, where he behaved like a prince. Only then did the teacher see that her style was the problem. She let students speak—and shout, and interrupt—without raising their hands, and go to the bathroom without asking. Then she got angry when things got out of control.”

The Coaching of a Veteran teacher, Jennie Critzer
“Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.
“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.
She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.”

And How Did Critzer Feel?
‘I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”
She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.’

Details Matter
“Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”

This sort of thinking is exactly the kind of thing advocated by Doug Lemov, teaching and learning guru from the US profiled in the New York Times and elsewhere. In the clip below he highlights the “microtechniques” used by the expert teacher. The details matter; the results, impressive.

To Each According to His Needs, or Does the Victor get the Spoils?

In many, but not all, professions, pay is based on performance.  This is especially true in sales where salespeople who exceed their targets get rewarded with large bonuses.  In other fields, too, performance drives compensation: law, corporate management, and sports tend to stick out in our minds.These careers have the advantage of numbers on their side: relatively easy-to-comprehend factors can be assembled to understand the productivity of a salesperson, for example.  Lawyers have billable hours.  CEOs have targets assigned by the board.  Athletes have statistics.  To the degree that someone reaches these targets we can say he or she has done good work.  And then the compensation can increase.

Such a pay model assumes that we are motivated by compensation above most other factors.  And it assumes a certain degree of control over our work.  And for many people in many fields, it seems to work.  Do a great job, get lots of money; don’t do a great job, get less money.

Imagine applying the thinking to teachers.  Could we achieve the kinds of reforms demanded for generations (better schools) by simply changing the compensation arrangement?

Currently, most teachers across the western world earn a salary based on years in the profession, with a factor for level of education (Bachelor of Arts + Bachelor of Education + Years in Profession = Pay).  Which means that our pay isn’t directly tied to how well we do the job.  Teaching has resisted market measures like merit pay because of the highly unionized nature of the workforce.  But with more money than ever being spent on schooling, and (in some areas) mediocre results, the idea has been gaining momentum lately.

President Obama has repeatedly endorsed merit pay for teachers.  Laura Meckler, writing in The Wall Street Journal, quoted him as saying early in his presidency: “It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”  I imagine most North Americans would agree with this statement.

Some do disagree, though.  One of my teachers, Prof. Ben Levin, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, argues that merit pay will not achieve the kinds of results hopeful conservative policy-makers want it to.  He gives eight reasons:
1. Very few people anywhere in the labour force are paid on the basis of measured outcomes
2. No other profession is paid on the basis of measured client outcomes
3. Most teachers oppose such schemes
4. Pay based on student achievement is highly likely to lead to displacement of other important education purposes and goals
5. There is no consensus on what the measures of merit should be
6. The measurement of merit in teaching inevitably involves a degree of error
7. The details of merit pay schemes vary widely, yet these details have great impact on how such plans are received and their effects on teachers and schools
8. Merit pay schemes in education have a long record of failure
(For the complete essay, click here)

Ben was also in a debate last week with Peter Cowley of the Fraser Institute (a conservative think-tank in favour of merit pay and other market measures for education).  It aired on CBC’s Sunday Edition.  Click here to listen to the entire debate.

School Choice – Should Markets Know Better?

Robert Heilbroner, the distinguished economist, had in an early section of his classic primer on economics, The Making of Economic Society, a thought experiment where he asked readers to imagine the improbability of the power of the market. He points out that if we were to imagine setting up our own society, a command economy would seem far more useful than a market. A king ordering around his subjects and directing their efforts with care and precision would seem to be the best way to ensure everyone had enough food to eat and a house to live in and clothes to wear.

Letting a market, where no one explicitly directs the efforts of any individuals, provide for the needs of the community seems absurd. Imagine: no one tells anyone how much food to grow, or what kinds; how many houses to build; the clothes to make. And yet, this is exactly how our markets work. No one dictates production, and yet there is enough for all. (The distribution of goods is another matter, of course.) More than that, the products from a market system are better than if they had been directed by a king. The market, for all its ills, has been the most powerful mechanism for increased production of higher-quality, cost-effective goods.

If education is a good, then why not apply market principles to it? Why not allow the market to change schools for the better? We could banish the king and letting the consumers drive changes. Let consumers choose schools, and the market will build better schools.

Except that, in places where school choice has been used, the results are mixed and modest at best. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, points out that “The theory sounds great, but evidence confirming it has been hard to find. Julie Cullen and Brian Jacob, my good friends and co-authors, haven’t done school choice proponents any favors with their latest paper (the full version of which can be found here). Using kindergarten lottery outcomes that determine which kids get into the most sought-after schools, they are able to compare the outcomes of those who win the lottery versus those who lose. The students who win the lotteries go to “better” schools and have “better” peers, but they don’t have better outcomes.”

In a more recent article in National Affairs, Frederick M. Hess sums it up nicely: “It would seem, then, that school choice “works” in some respects and in some instances — but that choice alone could never work as well as many of its champions have expected, and promised. It is time for those who would like to transform America’s schools to let go of the dream that choice by itself is any kind of ‘solution.’”

Still, part of me does have a fondness for the market solution. Of course, not all goods are sensitive to market pressures – at least not in the right way. Medicine, for example, appears to work better for most with a partially-command approach. But I still wonder: if all parents could choose freely, even across class lines, wouldn’t schools adopt better practices? And where better practices were unclear, wouldn’t choice allow for greater clarity? Don’t markets sometimes show us what we don’t know?

Building a Better Teacher

How can teachers teach better?  Though the question is simple, the answer is elusive. Elizabeth Green tackles the topic in her superbly written, thoroughly researched, and thoughtful article in the New York Times Magazine from earlier this year.

Green’s piece reads as a who’s who of educational powerbrokers, prominent theorists, and rabble-rousers, touching on many of the common educational debates but weighing in on the central question: how do we build the best teachers?

Is teaching, like the guitar, something that can be learned through careful study and practice, or is it innate? Is quality teaching something that can be bought with better incentives? Should teacher education stress subject knowledge of teachers, or pedagogical savvy? (And another question raised by Green – but not fully dealt with – involves the most basic of questions in the debate: what criteria should we use in establishing which teachers are better than others?)

Doug Lemov serves as one of the central characters in the story. An educational consultant, founder of charter schools, former teacher and principal, he describes an experience common to many educational administrators:

As (Lemov) went from school to school… he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

He set out to discover why some teachers’ students succeeded and others’ did not – at least, not in the same measure. His observations were collected in an underground book called Lemov’s Taxonomy, only recently available for purchase, Teach Like a Champion – a book that, like Strunk’s Elements of Style, seeks to put into words something ethereal, mystical, but unmistakable when you see it. For Strunk, it was composition; for Lemov, it is teaching.

Lemov argues that by collecting mountains of data – some quantitative from standardized tests, some qualitative from classroom visits and videotaped lessons from ‘star’ teachers – we can determine a list of the best kinds of teaching methods. Most center around ‘getting and holding the floor.’ A skill that, argues Lemov and others, is nearly entirely absent from the curricula of teaching faculties – but one so central to successful teaching it will resonate with anyone who has ever stood in front of a class.

The article is, like many that have appeared in the NYT over the past few years and beyond, highly critical of teacher education – and the often pointless exercise that seems to be so many of our schools and classes. Many practicing teachers will feel slighted by it and probably more than a little angry. But there is little denying that it raises some commonsense questions – the dismay should not be in the asking, but in realizing we often lack consistent and cogent answers.