Futurizing Education

I’ve written before about the importance of “getting sober about what schools can do. Schools are places where students learn to do important things they otherwise would not be able to do. Students learn to read and write; to paint; to play sports; to become numerate; to debate; to form argument, use evidence, and join important academic conversations.  Schools do all these things and more.  We should be collectively proud; despite all their failings, the outcomes of schooling rival any other important social enterprise.

Yet, the the current narrative goes something like this: schools are trapped in the 20th century and need to embrace the future.  They need disrupting.  Throw out the old playbook.  Let the streets run red with the blood of the sacred cows of schooling.

Doubt me?  How much effort has been expended on coding in schools?  

http://www.edutopia.org/topic/coding-classroom
A recent screenshot of articles on coding from a leading online teaching publication.

Granting the differences in aesthetics, and the discussion of “growth mindsets,” what are the fundamental differences between the coding craze of the 21st century and this from the 20th?

Disruption Thus Far: What Have The Results Been?

Hard to say, but let’s look at one aspect of futurizing education that we were told would revolutionize schooling: online learning, especially through large-scale, sometimes free MOOCs.  The results have been awful: students performed less well in MOOCs than in traditional classrooms.  And MOOCs seem to be especially hard on students who struggle with traditional classrooms. As I’ve written before, one of the largest studies found that roughly five percent of students completed such online courses.

Of course, schools can and should explore ways to improve practice.  We should, as Atul Gawande says of medicine, we should look for ‘positive deviants – teachers and schools that achieve more than the average – to learn what works and scale it up.  But surely that is where progress is to be made: keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, and slowly ensuring a greater quality of education for all.  

And let’s remember the negative connotations of the word “disrupt,” as well as the commercial interests involved in that project of “throwing into disorder” a schooling system that has better reliability than the industry trying to remodel it.

(Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031434-0006 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Shame and Blame

It is a tired axiom that teachers get blamed for things that aren’t always their fault. And while that matter deserves exploration on its own, for today let’s leave it at a judicious reprinting of two worthy commentators.

The first is, William Johnson, a special education teacher from Brooklyn, NY, who writes in the New York times:

As you might imagine, my job can be extremely difficult. Beyond the challenges posed by my students, budget cuts and changes to special-education policy have increased my workload drastically even over just the past 18 months. While my class sizes have grown, support staff members have been laid off. Students with increasingly severe disabilities are being pushed into more mainstream classrooms like mine, where they receive less individual attention and struggle to adapt to a curriculum driven by state-designed high-stakes tests.

On top of all that, I’m a bad teacher. That’s not my opinion; it’s how I’m labeled by the city’s Education Department. Last June, my principal at the time rated my teaching “unsatisfactory,” checking off a few boxes on an evaluation sheet that placed my career in limbo. That same year, my school received an “A” rating. I was a bad teacher at a good school. It was pretty humiliating.

Like most teachers, I’m good some days, bad others. The same goes for my students. Last May, my assistant principal at the time observed me teaching in our school’s “self-contained” classroom. A self-contained room is a separate classroom for students with extremely severe learning disabilities. In that room, I taught a writing class for students ages 14 to 17, whose reading levels ranged from third through seventh grades.

When the assistant principal walked in, one of these students, a freshman girl classified with an emotional disturbance, began cursing. When the assistant principal ignored her, she started cursing at me. Then she began lobbing pencils across the room. Was this because I was a bad teacher? I don’t know.

I know that after she began throwing things, I sent her to the dean’s office. I know that a few days later, I received notice that my lesson had been rated unsatisfactory because, among other things, I had sent this student to the dean instead of following our school’s “guided discipline” procedure.

I was confused. Earlier last year, this same assistant principal observed me and instructed me to prioritize improving my “assertive voice” in the classroom. But about a month later, my principal observed me and told me to focus entirely on lesson planning, since she had no concerns about my classroom management. A few weeks earlier, she had written on my behalf for a citywide award for “classroom excellence.” Was I really a bad teacher?

In my three years with the city schools, I’ve seen a teacher with 10 years of experience become convinced, after just a few observations, that he was a terrible teacher. A few months later, he quit teaching altogether. I collaborated with another teacher who sought psychiatric care for insomnia after a particularly intense round of observations. I myself transferred to a new school after being rated “unsatisfactory.”

Behind all of this is the reality that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job.

In fact, I don’t just want to get better; like most teachers I know, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I have to be. Dozens and dozens of teenagers scrutinize my language, clothing and posture all day long, all week long. If I’m off my game, the students tell me. They comment on my taste in neckties, my facial hair, the quality of my lessons. All of us teachers are evaluated all day long, already. It’s one of the most exhausting aspects of our job.

Teaching was a high-pressure job long before No Child Left Behind and the current debates about teacher evaluation. These debates seem to rest on the assumption that, left to our own devices, we teachers would be happy to coast through the school year, let our skills atrophy and collect our pensions.

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

Worst of all, the more intense the pressure gets, the worse we teach. When I had administrators breathing down my neck, the students became a secondary concern. I simply did whatever my assistant principal asked me to do, even when I thought his ideas were crazy. In all honesty, my teaching probably became close to incoherent. One week, my assistant principal wanted me to focus on arranging the students’ desks to fit with class activities, so I moved the desks around every day, just to show that I was a good soldier. I was scared of losing my job, and my students suffered for it.

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

The other voice is Bill Gates, responding to a recent decision in New York State, also writing in the Times:

LAST week, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that teachers’ individual performance assessments could be made public. I have no opinion on the ruling as a matter of law, but as a harbinger of education policy in the United States, it is a big mistake.

I am a strong proponent of measuring teachers’ effectiveness, and my foundation works with many schools to help make sure that such evaluations improve the overall quality of teaching. But publicly ranking teachers by name will not help them get better at their jobs or improve student learning. On the contrary, it will make it a lot harder to implement teacher evaluation systems that work.

In most public schools today, teachers are simply rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory,” and evaluations consist of having the principal observe a class for a few minutes a couple of times each year. Because we are just beginning to understand what makes a teacher effective, the vast majority of teachers are rated “satisfactory.” Few get specific feedback or training to help them improve.

Many districts and states are trying to move toward better personnel systems for evaluation and improvement. Unfortunately, some education advocates in New York, Los Angeles and other cities are claiming that a good personnel system can be based on ranking teachers according to their “value-added rating” — a measurement of their impact on students’ test scores — and publicizing the names and rankings online and in the media. But shaming poorly performing teachers doesn’t fix the problem because it doesn’t give them specific feedback.

Value-added ratings are one important piece of a complete personnel system. But student test scores alone aren’t a sensitive enough measure to gauge effective teaching, nor are they diagnostic enough to identify areas of improvement. Teaching is multifaceted, complex work. A reliable evaluation system must incorporate other measures of effectiveness, like students’ feedback about their teachers and classroom observations by highly trained peer evaluators and principals.

Putting sophisticated personnel systems in place is going to take a serious commitment. Those who believe we can do it on the cheap — by doing things like making individual teachers’ performance reports public — are underestimating the level of resources needed to spur real improvement.

At Microsoft, we created a rigorous personnel system, but we would never have thought about using employee evaluations to embarrass people, much less publish them in a newspaper. A good personnel system encourages employees and managers to work together to set clear, achievable goals. Annual reviews are a diagnostic tool to help employees reflect on their performance, get honest feedback and create a plan for improvement. Many other businesses and public sector employers embrace this approach, and that’s where the focus should be in education: school leaders and teachers working together to get better.

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.