Who will watch the watchers, who will guard the guards?

Nearly all professions have some sort of performance review.  I am told that, in some industries, they can come very frequently: sometimes at the conclusion of each project.  Online survey applications like SurveyMonkey allow frequent (and sometimes meaningful) feedback from our superiors and our clients alike.  And in an enlightened world, those critiques are understood with a reasonable outlook: while there might be room for improvement, feedback shouldn’t be a noose to hang you.

In teaching, though, there is remarkably little oversight.  In most public boards, once you’ve cleared the probation period, you can more or less be guaranteed a job.  You are subject to periodic teaching appraisals, but if you get less than satisfactory the union will grieve it.  You can imagine how few teachers receive less than satisfactory appraisals.

Teachers can be quite defensive about their practice.  Even the act of stepping into another teacher’s classroom can be perceived as an affront – “who are you to snoop?”  Why are we like this – why so defensive?

I think this can be explained with a few things in mind.  First, teachers receive less affirmation from adult peers than any profession I can think of – you could go a year or two without anyone saying “Good job.”  So when people come snooping by, our first reaction can be out of fear.  And second, because the craft is so damn mysterious.  As a nurse, you are expected to follow protocol; as a doctor, even more so.  Most professions are quite mechanical, if I can be forgiven for the term.  If I walk into an emergency room complaining of chest pains, the staff will do the same thing no matter which western hospital I’m in.  Can the same be said of teaching?  And if not, if teaching is less mechanical and standardized than some would have it, what should I be doing at any given moment?

The New York Times recently profiled a technique that would possibly allow for more objective teacher evaluations (though it seems unlikely).  As Sam Dillon reports:

Bill Gates, who in recent years has turned his attention and considerable fortune to improving American education, is investing $335 million through his foundation to overhaul the personnel departments of several big school systems. A big chunk of that money is financing research by dozens of social scientists and thousands of teachers to develop a better system for evaluating classroom instruction. The effort will have enormous consequences for the movement to hold schools and educators more accountable for student achievement.”

I suggest something bold: teachers and all school administrators should be evaluated once per year by those above them and below (by whatever means, technological or conventional, we can agree on).  In addition to the usual power relationships, teachers should be evaluated by students, and principals by teachers.  Not maybe with the intention to fire, but possibly – and even if not, the exercise provides a tremendous amount of insight into our practice.  My school has every student complete a course evaluation in every single section of the senior school – more than 150 in total – in December so teachers can improve their practice.  Student-generated data isn’t everything, but it is a key component of how we understand the successes and failures of our methods.  (It should be noted that I teach in a private school – we are all on one-year contracts.  While it is not for everyone, I am certain such an arrangement improves the quality of teaching.)

When we compare teaching with other public goods, however, it does strike me how teachers might not get a fair shake.  I have never been able to provide meaningful feedback to my doctor (who, as most doctors in Canada, runs a partly-entrepreneurial practice: if you don’t like it, find another doctor), or a nurse in a hospital, or really any other public provider.  (There are exception, I suppose, for certain kinds of civil servants, those especially close to elected officials hoping to return to office).  And while we might gripe about nurses or doctors, we wouldn’t dream of instituting a meaningful, 360-degree evaluation scheme for them.

Scrutiny for all.  At worst, we suffer a little more job anxiety.  At best, we improve a whole range of performances.  Sure, criticism stings: but even in a world where we received frequent and honest criticism, we wouldn’t all get fired.  But we might, if we can get over ourselves, improve.

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?

Ken Robinson – Part I

Everyone loves Ken Robinson. Sorry – Sir Ken Robinson. Here’s another clip where he takes on the educational establishment, avec his usual panache and stand-up-comedy prowess:

As with most ‘visionaries,’ especially those who make small fortunes speaking to a popular audience, he makes a lot of sweeping statements, straw-man arguments, and logical sleights-of-hand. Entertaining, certainly hopeful, but frequently illogical. Part of the trouble with educational discussions is that collections of ideas like this reach the level of religious truth and those who look askance at what is sometimes obviously silly (98% of young children are ‘geniuses’ and school ruins them) run the risk of seeming hostile towards children themselves. If you’re suspicious of whimsy, you might be a (harmful) old crank.

Against School?

While we expect that students will rail against the injustice of being forced inside schools for the better part of their childhoods, it might come as a surprise to hear that many adults, too, would prefer children mature outside the walls of an institution.

The Globe and Mail, as newspapers are wont to do around the Labour Day weekend, published a spate of education articles, including one that resurrected the idea of ‘unschooling’ – the modern variation of the old progressivist turn towards homeschooling. “The idea puts a lot of faith in children, their innate interest in learning and in their intelligence. It also restores faith in parents, returning some control over their children’s growth that they handed to educators and politicians more than a century ago.”

The underlying notion is simple, and beguiling: students fail to learn because of school, not in spite of it. And according to the Globe, the movement is growing. The unschooled home isn’t a classroom, it is altogether less structured: “Unschoolers maintain that a child’s learning should be curiosity-driven rather than dictated by teachers and textbooks, and that forcing kids to adhere to curricula quashes their natural inclination to explore and ask questions.” And according to one proponent, “An unschooling family mostly just looks like a family living life … hanging out on the weekend.”

It was when I was in teachers’ college that I first came across a thoughtful piece in Harper’s by John Taylor Gatto. It is eloquent, and quite powerful in its own way. He begins, as so many do, with his experience:

“I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.”

Having established his credibility and appealed to some nice populist themes, he moves onto his main thesis:

“Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous, and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated…. We don’t need Karl Marx’s conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Reading Plato’s Crito, one is struck by just how Socrates, perhaps the model anti-establishment teacher, argues for a high degree of social conformity – submitting to execution rather than defy laws he knows to be unjust.)

So, modern schooling is a kind of Great Confinement, advanced by the ruling classes to at once allow their offspring to flourish while oppressing those of the working classes into a life of drudgery. His conclusion? “The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.” Well said.

Except that he has the naïve notion that all youngsters would be acclaimed geniuses, were it not for formal schooling. What other mechanism exists for improving the lives of those without means than a functional public school system?

I would argue the opposite: that the working class most benefits from formal schooling. The child raised by a single-mother has more to gain from the Confinement than the middle- and upper-class students. Through public education, poorer children are exposed to a world that would otherwise not be possible. (Not to mention literacy – not all children are like Lincoln, able to discover reading with little more than a Bible.) If anything, I maintain that public schooling, if it does suppress genius at least does so by redirecting the effort towards a broader range of students.

But his first point stands: school can be boring. Surely, though, public education is not by necessity stultifying. Even in large high schools teachers persist against the old difficulty of inspiring students and imbuing within them a set of skills, dispositions and talents – included among them, as anyone who has stepped into a classroom in the past generation, a whole host of post-modern skepticisms. As any given teacher will tell you after a long week, “I wish it were as easy to break their spirits!”

Could it be that formal schooling isn’t the problem – that, perhaps, we just need to teach with a firmer dedication to the task? And could we add to the list of remarkable minds Einstein, Hawking, and perhaps even Gatto himself – minds who did emerge from a formal system of schooling, and who were no worse for wear. I suspect that Gatto himself would agree with this, if it weren’t for the banality of it; after all, as Gatto himself likes to point out, he was New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1991.

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.