Archives for category: Teachers and Teaching

Elizabeth Green recently published a book called Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone). It has been widely and favorably reviewed. I have known Elizabeth for about ten years, when she was covering education for the now defunct New York Sun. I like her, and I consider her a friend. Elizabeth is cofounder of Gotham Schools, which is now called Chalkbeat. It is a publication that covers education issues in New York City, Tennessee, Indiana, and Colorado. Chalkbeat is funded by a large number of foundations and individuals, many of whom are prominent in today’s charter school movement (the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and some board members of the hedge-funders’ Democrats for Education Reform).

 

Since I know Elizabeth, I have decided to review the book as a letter to her. Somewhat unconventional, but let’s see how it works out.

 

 

Dear Elizabeth,

 

Thank you for sending me galleys of your book. I am sorry to be so late in reviewing it, but better late than never. There were things about the book that I liked very much, and other things that I found puzzling. I will be as honest with you as you would expect me to be.

 

To begin with, you are certainly a skilled journalist. I like the way you effortlessly weave the stories of individuals into larger themes and use those stories to make a larger point. The book is very well-written, and you manage to inject liveliness and high interest into pedagogical issues, which is no small feat.

 

You begin the book by strongly asserting that good teachers are made, not born, and that it is a fallacy to believe that some people are just “natural” teachers, while others will never learn no matter how hard they try. Your goal, clearly, is to persuade the reader that anyone, armed with the right training and preparation, can become a good teacher. You had me convinced until you got into the lives of the people you highlight as heroes—like Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Magdalene Lampert—who do seem to have been born to teach, not products of a specific pedagogical training program.

 

The book seemed to me to be two different books. The first book tells the story of the search for a research-based approach to teaching teachers, drawing on the work of John Dewey, Nathaniel Gage, and Lee Shulman. I thought I knew where you were going. I thought you would visit not only Japan but also Finland, to learn how thoughtfully their teachers are prepared to teach. I liked this book, I was sure it would end up with recommendations for higher standards for entry into teaching, for practice-based internships, for mentors for new teachers, and other ideas that would send new teachers into the classroom with both knowledge and experience, as well as support for them in their early years as teachers.

 

But suddenly the second book emerges, and the second book says that the problems of teaching are being solved in charter schools run by entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial sector, in your telling, is doing what the researchers, academicians, and university-based scholars hope to accomplish, and the entrepreneurs are doing it without the benefit of any study of education. This line of thought threw me for a loop, because the teachers in the entrepreneurial sector enter teaching with little or no preparation (i.e., low standards or no standards), just the assurance that they are really smart because they graduated from an Ivy League college or some other top university. Somehow this smacks of class bias. Most of them are in Teach for America, which means they start teaching with only five weeks of training. I got confused. There is no profession that can be entered into with only five weeks of training.

 

You also have many pages about the “no excuses” charter schools, which you treat with ambivalence. On the one hand, as we are assured by people you quote, the children they enroll—black, Hispanic, and poor—need the tough-love discipline, the rules that can never be broken, the fear of suspension or exclusion or stigma. This boot-camp discipline, they say, makes it possible for the children to learn. On the other hand, you quote graduates who speak of the demoralization of students, who know that the school intends to crush their spirit, and who “hated school.”

 

What often appears to be an admiring portrait of the “no excuses” charter schools is tempered by this statement about Academy of the Pacific Rim:

 

“The first year, Doug Lemov and Stacey Boyd had started out with a class of fifty-five or so seventh-graders. But by the time that class made it to senior year, only eleven students remained. And three of them had only joined later on, in ninth grade.” (p. 203) Elizabeth, you recognize the problems and contradictions, but you render no judgment other than to include facts like these. A graduating class that contains only 8 of the 55 students who started is hardly a portrait of a model school or a beacon for American education.

 

I may have missed it, but I didn’t see data on teacher attrition at either “no excuses” charter schools or charter schools in general. From other sources, we know that teacher attrition is high; the teachers are inexperienced, and (as you point out) the hours are exceptionally long, set with the assumption that teachers do not have families or personal lives. We know that TFA corps members are typically gone after three or four years. How, under these circumstances, can entrepreneurial charters—with their high teacher churn—be seen as laboratories where excellent teaching is being developed and is, in fact, already happening? If it is happening, why do as many as 50% of the teachers leave some of the most successful charters every year?

 

What seems strangest about the book to me is its detachment from the real world of mandates and demands by federal and state authorities, punishments and rewards, school closings and political interference with teaching. Your account does not reflect the atmosphere of teacher-bashing, the hunt for “the bad teacher,” the demoralization that so many teachers express today. Nor does it dwell on the current obsession with test-based accountability that has made many teachers feel that they are disrespected and are not allowed to exercise any professional judgment. You set up a dichotomy between accountability and autonomy, but surely you know that the scales are heavily weighted by federal policy against any autonomy for teachers. A profession that lacks autonomy is not a profession.

 

Elizabeth, I hope you will not be offended by my candor. I found the book well-written and engaging. I was hoping that you would make a case for developing a stronger teaching profession, but that is not what the charter sector will produce; it relies on a constant turnover of low-wage teachers, and whatever they learn in the classroom will be lost when they move on to a different career. I appreciated your footnote at the bottom of p. 156, where you write that “Multiple studies of charter school performance have shown that the schools often perform just as poorly as the district-run schools they seek to outdo. And across the country, charter schools have been the victim of the same inefficiency and corruption challenges that plague neighborhood public schools.” That’s almost right. I don’t know of any public school superintendent or principal who has built a multi-million dollar mansion in Palm Beach like a certain charter entrepreneur in Pennsylvania or acquired a multi-million yacht like a certain charter entrepreneur in Florida. Absent regulation and oversight, there is even more corruption in the entrepreneurial charter sector than in the public schools.

 

In the end, I don’t think you demonstrate how to build a better teacher. You show that a lot of people are trying to do so. You show that there is a longing for a coherent system of standards, tests, and accountability, but behind that longing is the behaviorist belief that teachers should teach to the same standards, and students will do well on the tests. If that’s coherence, it’s pretty well played out. That’s what we have been trying to do since No Child Left Behind was passed, and after 13 years, it seems to be a dead end. I have no doubt that we need better teacher preparation at the university level (Finland requires five years of teacher education, and a master’s degree for every teacher). But even with a long period of preparation, I doubt that every teacher will adopt and implement the same methodology. What strikes me, as I reflect on your very provocative book, is the urgency of establishing professional norms that protect teachers against legislators, politicians, philanthropists, for-profit entrepreneurs, and non-educators who want to play school.

Mike Rose has written a thoughtful critique of “school reform” in The American Scholar. The title of the article is “School Reform Fails the Test.” The subtitle hits a bullseye: “How can our schools get better when we’ve made our teachers the problem and not the solution?”

Think about that question. If “teachers are the problem,” the problem will never be solved. It will not be solved by Teach for America, which accounts for less than 1% of all teachers. It will not be solved by putting former TFA into positions of leadership, as we can see by the disruptive and demoralizing experiences of John White in Louisiana and Kevin Huffman in Tennessee. No one, with the possible exceptions of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan, would point to these states as models for the nation. For five years now, since the introduction of Race to the Top and the release of “Waiting for Superman,” the “reformers” have been obsessed with the hunt for bad teachers. They have been persuaded by Eric Hanushek’s views that our economy will soar by trillions if we regularly fire the bottom 5-10% of teachers, bottom meaning those whose students don’t increase their test scores.

Here is a taste of Mike Rose’s long and pensive essay:

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.

School reform is hardly a new phenomenon, and the harshest criticism of schools tends to coincide with periods of social change or economic transformation. The early decades of the 20th century—a time of rapid industrialization and mass immigration from central and southern Europe—saw a blistering attack, reminiscent of our own time. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered another assault, with particular concern over math and science education. And during the 1980s, as postwar American global economic preeminence was being challenged, we saw a flurry of reports on the sorry state of education, the most notable of which, A Nation at Risk (1983), warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Public education, a vast, ambitious, loosely coupled system of schools, is one of our country’s defining institutions. It is also flawed, in some respects deeply so. Unequal funding, fractious school politics, bureaucratic inertia, uneven curricula, uninspired pedagogy, and the social ills that seep into the classroom all limit the potential of our schools. The critics are right to be worried. The problem is that the criticism, fueled as it is by broader cultural anxieties, is often sweeping and indiscriminate. Critics blame the schools for problems that have many causes. And some remedies themselves create difficulties. Policymakers and educators face a challenge: how to target the problems without diminishing the achievements in our schools or undermining their purpose. The current school reform movement fails this challenge.

Melissa (Mel) Katz is preparing to become an elementary school teacher at The College of New Jersey. She has her own blog, The Education Activist: From Student to Teacher, and this is how she describes herself: I have been involved in education seriously beginning in my senior year of high school and especially my freshman year in college. I am a student activist, always researching, speaking in Trenton and at local board meetings, and traveling the state of New Jersey to meet different people and attend different education related events. Education is my life, my passion, and I couldn’t imagine spending every day anywhere else but in a classroom.

 

Mel recently attended a school board meeting in her hometown of South Brunswick and listened to the superintendent defend PARCC testing. In this post, she takes apart his claims and refutes them. If PARCC is so great, she asks, why have the number of states participating in it dropped from 24 (plus D.C.) to half that number? The superintendent defends Pearson and insists that PARCC testing will not drive instruction. She responds with logic and clarity.

 

Is there something in the water in New Jersey that encourages smart young women who are preparing to be career teachers–like Mel Katz and Stephanie Rivera–to speak up fearlessly about their chosen profession?

 

 

Susan DuFresne has written a moving post about her precarious life as a teacher in the Age of “Rephorm.” Read it and believe. This profession is worth fighting for. The rephormers write mandates and regulations, use their money to impose their will, but they wouldn’t last five minutes in a classroom. Teachers must reclaim their classrooms, reclaim their profession. They will not destroy it; they will not destroy us. They will lose because what they do hurts children, hurts our society.

 

Susan writes:

 

What will happen to us as teachers, parents, students, and democracy as we continue to struggle in our mandated race to the top of corporate education reform?

 

Home for winter break from my work as a teacher, I find myself too exhausted the first several days to take care of anyone but myself. When we get on a plane they tell us to make sure we put on our oxygen masks first, then take care of our family. Self-care supersedes care of others. You cannot care for others when you yourself cannot breathe.

 

As a teacher, we have little time for self-care. More often than not these days – we are holding our breath – waiting for the next data point we need to collect and record. We are entering the “death zone” – the death zone because we are slowly dying for lack of the fresh air of creativity, joy, and love. The lust for data has consumed the space to breathe, the space to feel safe in a hospitable environment, the space to take care of ourselves – or the millions of voiceless children.

 

As teachers, we are being exploited by the corporate reformers who profit from their failing experiments – and our families are left with nothing but ghosts of who we once were…..

 

It is only December, and yet I feel like a porter carrying the immoral weight of reformy slick packages – a porter who has trekked to the top of Mt. EdReform not given the resources we need to survive. Much like the Sherpa, I feel like I don’t have what I need to make the mandated trek to the top of Mt. EdReform, and what is left of my profession is becoming a data service industry that only benefits the companies getting rich. As the summit nears it doesn’t resemble anyplace suitable for human beings. I have more second thoughts about continuing my profession and feel closer to succumbing to burn-out than ever before.

 

From the movie, Beyond the Edge:

 

Above 26,000 feet is what we call the death zone…the death zone because you are slowly dying.
Just as the mountain above 26,000 feet is uninhabitable – classrooms in public schools across the country have become uninhabitable for human beings – teachers and students alike.

 

The climbers of 1953 spoke of how much effort it takes for each step forward, how confused their oxygen-starved brains became. When struggling to take the oppressive steps of corporate reform, I too feel I need to take 15 breaths to cover just one step of one of their new initiatives. I haven’t caught up with completing the last initiative, when a new one is presented, we’re asked to implement the new initiative in yet another lesson to teach, we’re asked to be observed teaching the new initiative while under scrutiny of more data points to collect, and then it is time to go off to another meeting about what evidence we need to collect for our next data meeting, then have another meeting to plan our next data meeting.

 

With each step further into the world of corporate reform, I become more confused about why I chose this profession and I recognize that a small part of me is dying slowly – as is a small part of each child. Where we once had art, music, creativity, joy, love, learning through play, and autonomy – many of us now have endless testing and data collection, data entry, data analysis, and meetings upon meetings about data.

 

The corporate reformers have sucked the life out of teaching and learning. The real purpose of education is lost in a blizzard of data – numbers entered onto a rubric to become bits of data – trillions of 0’s and 1’s about each child are flying at high speed, tracked and collecting in data banks like so many feet of snow to be mined for corporate profits – icy cold they create systems of punishment as dangerous crevices – an abyss of corporate created failure – a place devoid of all humanity for children and teachers to try to traverse. We can feel the heaviness of fear and oppression — and the sense of impending death — as we deepen our voyage into this uninhabitable space.

I received the following question from reader Kevin Magee, which is very important. We know that about half of all teachers leave teaching in their first five years; charter schools often have even higher turnover. If public schools had the same ability to discipline students as charter schools, there would be no demand for charter schools. On the other hand, charter schools are free to suspend students again and again until they leave or even expel them. If public schools did that, it would be illegal. What would happen to those students? What should happen to them? What would need to change in public schools to establish an atmosphere in which students were fully engaged? What should be done about students who are disruptive? What is our advice to Kevin (and me)?

 

 

Diane,

 

I have enjoyed reading your blog, articles, and books for years. I have learned so much.

 

What concerns me is that I never hear the discussion of why the conditions of teaching are so bad, beyond the unfair assessment of teachers through standardized tests. Why is there such a high turnover of teachers?

 

I had to retire from teaching at a Title One School because the behavior of the students prohibited me from teaching math and science. Not a word on this huge phenom in our Title 1 Schools. Keep the bad behavior in the classroom to manipulate the dropout rate, etc.

 

The leaders in education ignore this “white elephant”. Without a teacher’s assistant in many classes, it is impossible to actually teach. This is the ultimate, ugly endgame of povery: Not Education, but rather Classroom Management.

 

Why don’t leaders help create the conditions necessary for learning?

Howard Gardner and Jim Reese have a “modest proposal” for the Obamas when his term in office ends. They think the First Couple should teach in an urban public school (not a charter school), a school that accepts all children and operates under typical state and federal mandates and regulations.

This idea came to them when they read that the President told an interviewer:

” I understand, certainly sitting in this office, that probably the single most important thing I could do for poor black kids is to make sure that they’re getting a good K-through-12 education… I love teaching. I miss the classroom and engaging with students.”

What better place for him than an urban classroom? Assuming Mrs. Obama shares his passion, she too could serve as a teacher, helping the neediest children.

But, say the authors, there is much they need to learn.

“First, there’s the preparation for entering the classroom. The traditional teacher licensure pathway entails a number of courses as well as time in school learning the ropes from veteran educators. In the past two decades, however, “alternative” pathways have made it easier for professionals to make a transition to teaching on a faster track. Before entering the classroom the Obamas should learn about theories of child development, classroom management, and effective teaching and learning practices.

“Second, there’s the induction into the profession. While it would be quite intimidating for any classroom teacher or administrator to supervise the Obamas, it’s vital that the Obamas benefit from being mentored by outstanding veteran teachers. We should not expect anything less for any new teacher entering the profession!

And then there are the daily challenges, such as:

“*being held accountable for their students’ standardized test scores, no matter that those students might have pronounced learning challenges, still be in the process of learning English, or face serious problems outside school that affect their performance in school;

“*balancing what could very well be a rigid, uninteresting curriculum, mandated by the school board or other powers that be, against a desire to engage students and let their own passions drive the learning;

“*staying on top of major school-, county- or state-wide initiatives—often contradictory, and often changing on an annual basis—about which teachers have very little say;

“*or dealing with de-moralized colleagues who feel the changes in public education over the past 20 years have robbed them of the capacity to be creative, passionate or innovative in their practice.”

The alternative pathways into teaching like TFA and the few successful charter chains like KIPP–both endowed with many millions of federal dollars–affect the lives of a tiny percentage of children, they say. They do not affect the overall system that most children experience. The Presidential couple could make a significant contribution by calling attention to the real problems in typical schools.

Of all places, Forbes–widely read by business folk–has a terrific article about why it’s a dumb idea to make a campaign of firing teachers, as “reformers” have. The writer, Nick Morrison, is a regular contributor to Forbes. He quite rightly says that the real problem is keeping and supporting teachers, not firing them.

“While it may excite conservative commentators, this proposal is doomed to fail, not least because firing teachers requires finding replacements, and there is no guarantee they will be any better, if they exist at all.

“But there is another side to this debate, and that is the difficulty of keeping teachers in the classroom. Not just good teachers, but any teachers….

“Teacher retention is a problem familiar to school leaders across education systems. In the U.S. an estimated 40-50% of teachers leave within the first five years and the attrition rates of first year teachers have increased by about a third in the last two decades.

“A report by the House of Commons education committee found similar retention levels in England, while in Australia research suggests almost half of new teachers leave within five years.

“Why are they leaving? The obvious answer might be low pay and student behaviour, but studies in all three countries suggest this is not the case. Instead, the main culprits are lack of support and workload issues.

“The latter is tied into growing levels of accountability in public education. While taxpayers quite rightly want to see that they are getting value for money from schools, this has translated into an increasingly heavy burden on teachers in terms of paperwork.”

It’s good to see common sense in a mainstream publication.

Valerie Strauss here analyzes the sharp drop in Teach for America recruits. The numbers of new corps members are down by as much as 25%.

Why? Teachers’ morale has declined precipitously from 2008-2012 (will Arne Duncan be held accountable?) and the teaching profession has lost its allure. Strauss points out that TFA may be a causal factor in the loss of respect for the profession, since it claims that brand néw college graduates are better than veteran teachers. By doing so, TFA has encouraged the belief that 5 weeks of training is good enough. This destroys the profession as such. Veteran teachers have been replaced by TFA kids. This can contribute to instability and demoralization.

Lee Barrios is a retired Nationally Board Certified Teacher in Louisiana.

Open letter to BESE –

Occasionally, albeit rarely, I receive confirmation that I am not only NOT crazy but that I am correct. Because I always base my actions on evidence and am always open to correction, it doesn’t really surprise me and I sleep well at night.

This BESE, on the other hand, ( 8 of you to be exact) have proven that you have personal agendas and are determined to support the lies of Supt. White and his well known cadre of business and political promoters. You are all very intelligent individuals and have ample opportunity to seek out and understand the truth. I give you no benefit of the doubt.

As I have said repeatedly, you are complicit as proven by your actions. However it is never too late to redeem a modicum of respect and honor by standing up and admitting you have been duped. It appears that now is an appropriate time to do that.

You all and John White have created chaos, pain, suffering, loss of excellent teachers, embarrassment for our state, and REAL damage to the education and lives of our children. You must understand that there can be NO test this spring and that the whole high stakes testing accountability must be overhauled and transformed from a purely punitive weapon to some kind of constructive process. Get rid of all the TFA junkies in LDE and replace them with education experts so that can be accomplished! Begin with Supt. White!

Lee P. Barrios, M.Ed., NBCT
Secondary English, Journalism, Gifted
178 Abita Oaks Loop
Abita Springs, Louisiana 70420
http://www.geauxteacher.net

“If a child struggles to clear the high bar at five feet, she will not become a “world class” jumper because someone raised the bar to six feet and yelled “jump higher,” or if her “poor” performance is used to punish her coach.” – – CommonSense

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/The-Myth-of-Average-Todd-Rose-a

“I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.”—— Albert Einstein

Peter Smagorinsky, a professor at the University of Georgia, has decided to write articles about great teachers instead of just railing against bad ideas. This article features first-grade teacher Bynikini Frazier of the Savannah-Chatham Public Schools.

 

She has wanted to be a teacher since she was a little girl.

 

She meets a profile often seen among people who go into teaching: Her mother and grandmother were teachers, and, as she has said, “It’s in my blood. I was one of those kids who played school with my dolls and my bears. I gave them homework and detention. . . . I remember as a student here at Hodge in fifth grade deciding I wanted to be a teacher, and from then on strived to become that.”

 

Little did those dolls and bears know how lucky they were to be this precocious woman’s first students, homework, detentions, and all.

 

Like so many people who become teachers, Bynikini was an outstanding student throughout her education: Valedictorian of the Savannah Arts Academy’s Class of 2005, summa cum laude University of Georgia graduate in seven semesters, and earner of a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Armstrong State University.

 

She has won many honors, but her greatest joy comes from inspiring a love of learning in her students with hands-on activities, like the beehive that she installed in her classroom:

 

A love of learning is often fueled by passionate engagement, and Bynikini infuses her class with fun, high expectations for academics and conduct, singing and creative thinking. A dancer, she brings such active forms of learning as creative dance into the classroom, just one of many ways she keeps her students on their toes.

 

As reported in articles written about the 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year competition (which post-dates the award year), for which she was a finalist, “her passion for teaching isn’t something that can be easily conjured up — it is a blessing and a calling that has an indelible impact on some of the neediest students.”

 

Her principal, Yvette Wells, summarized her qualities well: “Bynikini’s personality, style and energy set her apart. She is the teacher that parents request for their children because she is willing to do whatever it takes to reach every child no matter what their level, or who they are or where they come from.”

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