Thursday, October 31, 2013

Missing Links

There are multiple missing connections in the world of school reform.

For instance, where's the research indicating the correlation between test scores and... well, anything at all.

CCSS is necessary because we need to raise test scores to be globally competitive, because the leading scorers in the world are places like Finland and Singapore, and we need to catch up with Finland and Singapore because they lead the world in.... what, exactly?

Is the argument supposed to be that we want to remain a top tier world power, and to do that we're going to have to bump Singapore out of the way? We must run scared because Singapore is nipping at our heels? Exactly what about Singapore and Finland make us want to copy their test scores other than their test scores?

And what about those test scores, anyway?

Where is the research that correlates test scores with anything? We've been doing the high stakes testing for a while now under NCLB. Surely there must be some research that shows that Pennsylvania students who scored well on the PSSA tests have grown up to have better-paying jobs, or achieve more successful careers, or marry more attractive people, or live happier lives, or be better citizens, or have better relationships, or take better pictures?

Where is anything in the world to show that the higher test scores we are chasing are indicative of anything except higher test scores?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Data Driven Drivel

To follow the current tempest over school reform, you would think that teachers are opposed to data. But isn't data good? And if we are going to collect data and use it to shape instruction, doesn't that make sense? If teachers don't like data-driven instruction, does that mean that they'd all rather design instruction based on oiuja boards and dowsing rods?

In fact, teachers aren't against data, and they find themselves in something of a rhetorical pickle, because on the one hand, we know that information and data are good, but on the other hand, our gut tells us that the data-driven fad is dehumanizing and bad for our students. But we have a hard time finding the right words. Let me take a shot at it.

The problem with the current data-collection fad is not that it collects too much data. It's that it doesn't collect enough.

Human beings are complicated and complex. All good teachers know that. It's why we collect data all the time. All. The. Time.

We go over a drill sheet on some simple skill. We call on students. We watch their responses. Did Johnny look puzzled or bored? Did Jane answer quickly, or do a lot of mulling? Did Ethel deliver and inspired insight or a lucky guess? Is Chris confused by the material or distracted by a fight with his best friend? Does Bob know how he got that answer, or did it come straight out his butt? We ask follow up questions, probe, watch carefully. We know there's a difference between a class that has a skill mastered and one that's just barely getting it, even if both classes get the same number of right answers.

We know all this because we collect literally thousands of data points, many of which boil down to verbal and non-verbal cues, and many of those we can interpret only because we've developed a relationship with the student. In the ten minutes it took to go over a simple worksheet, we have observed, gathered, sorted and collated thousands of data points.

These shiny new fancy data-collecting assessment whiz-bangs (available at a generous price from Pearson et al)-- how many data points do they collect?


A score. A simple right or wrong number. They have to. It's all they can handle. If it's a complicated matter, they still reduce it to a fill-in-the-bubble, right-or-wrong, one-data-point number.

This is why these things are de-humanizing. Because human beings are complex creatures who generate wild and vibrant webs of complicated information, a complex of behavior so varied and stunning that the very computers that are used to analyze it cannot even begin to imitate it.

The data-driven craze is like a doctor who wants to diagnose a patient. She has available every test, every diagnostic, every lab facility in the world. But instead, she just writes down the patient's height and weight and calls it a day. Or posts it on her data wall.

We need to stop saying that we are opposed to data-driven instruction, because we're not-- we've been doing it for as long as we've been in a classroom. What we need to start saying is that the so-called data-driving tools that we're being offered (or forced) to use are crap, producing a thin sliver of useless data, a mere drop compared to the vast waterfalls of data available from the beautiful, varied human beings who are our students.

To data-driving assessment providers, we have to say, "I'm sorry that you're only capable of measuring a minute fraction of what I need to do my job. But you have to stop saying that because X is the only thing you can measure, X is the only thing that matters."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flipping Up, Over, Off, Whereever

All good 21st-century teachers are familiar with the flipped classroom, in which students go home to study the basic material via instructional internet-delivered video clips and then come to school to do the practice, discussion, and otherwise wrestling with the material. In this model, the teacher can leave behind direct instruction for a lifetime of coaching guide-on-the-side help for the practicing students.

My first reaction to flipping is no reaction at all, because I'm an English teacher, and we've been doing this for decades-- literally as long as I've been teaching. "Your assignment," I would tell my students, "is to go become familiar with this material on your own time, and then we will discuss it and do various interactive activities with it in class." Only instead of video clips delivered by the internet, we delivered the material with these devices called "books."

I have taught The Sun Also Rises what seems like a gazillion times. Not once have I done it by telling a class to follow along as I directly walk them through the book word by word. Their job is to read it and become familiar with it on their own. Then we do activities and discussion related to it in class. So I've been flipped forever! Also, uphill, both ways.

Now, based on my experience with the flipped classroom, let me tell you how it works out in a live classroom with actual human students.

A percentage of students will do exactly what you ask them to, and when they arrive already knowledgeable about the material, you'll launch joyfully into deeper and fuller learning.

A percentage of students will try to grasp the material on their own, but they will struggle, even fail, and before you can dive into the deeper learning and practice stuff, you're going to have to provide direct instruction for those who just didn't get it.

A percentage of students believe that "read the text" and "watch the video" = "no homework tonight." They will not do what you asked them to, correctly determining that you won'[t be able to move on until they get the material, so you'll be forced to go ahead and provide them with direct instruction anyway just so you can get on with class. Their assessment of the situation is that they can blow off the home part of their flipped classroom and pick up what they need by asking questions, piggybacking on those who ask questions, or just kind of picking it up as they go.

Of course, you may say that all that happens in my classroom because I'm depending on boring old-tech books, just words on a page, and of course students will not be sparked to paroxysms of educational ecstasy by dumb old print media. Just wait, you will say-- when they are watching videos of a knowledgeable presenter instructing them, they will be far more engaged and active learners.

Uh-huh. So being instructed by a knowledgeable, engaging human being is the secret to engaged and learning students? Do tell.

Look. If I stand up in front of my classroom and present exactly the same instruction to every class, refusing to read the room and respond to feedback from their voices and faces, and if I don't allow questions as I go, or if I respond to all questions by just repeating exactly what I said a minute ago, I would be correctly labeled a lousy teacher. But now, if I make a video of myself that behaves exactly that way, and I put it on the internet-- now I'm a visionary!!

As with many reform ideas, there are some aspects of the flipped classroom that are useful. And as with many useful reform ideas, we know they are useful because we have already been using them in our classrooms. But the overall model-- I call BS. (And that's before we even get to the question of how much of Khan Academy's content, for instance, turns our to be wrong).

As always with any hot new idea, take what you can use and ignore the rest. It's one of the most basic rules of responding to reform ideas that show up at your classroom door-- never welcome in a piece of garbage just because it's stuck to the shoe of something useful.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why American public education is worth the fight

There's a danger in doing this kind of blog that one can get all wrapped up in anger and frustration and general irkedness, and I won't pretend for a minute that there aren't some real threats to the stability and future of American public education. But it's worth reminding myself from time to time why I care.

The US is a big gloriously polyglot mess of a country, stitched together out of pieces-parts from every other people on the planet. As such, we can only claim a handful of native art forms. Jazz, comics, maybe baseball. And true public education.

Only in America do we dump people from any and all backgrounds into the same building. Only in America do we let you pursue whatever dream of a future you can conjure up. Only in America have we put it down in law that one of your obligations as a citizen is to get an education.

We don't even make you vote, but we put the full force of law into making you learn to read and write.

We guarantee that every child, regardless of background and home life, will have at least one unrelated adult in his/her life who can provide good direction and model a healthy adult life. We guarantee that every child will have access to a place where every person is put in place to honor the needs of that child first and foremost-- not profits, productivity, or the good of the institution. As I tell my students every year, "You need to take advantage of this place. You will never again be surrounded by people whose only job is to look out for your best interests."

They say that home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. But in America, there's one other place like that-- a public school.

American public schools collect everything there is to love and hate about our culture. American public schools display everything that is beautiful and everything that is broken about us as a people. American public schools are everything that we have to say about hopes and fears and aspirations for our future.

Given all that, of course American public schools capture all that is random and chaotic about life (as well as the very American fear and distrust of random chaos). As teachers, we know that we will leave a mark on the future, but we rarely know how. The moment that you built and planned and put all your effort behind vanishes into your students' pasts like a brief breath of wind, even as you discover that a few simple words you spoke decades ago have become a treasured guidepost in someone's journey.

American public schools are Democracy in action-- messy, tumultuous, contentious, inefficient, joyous, sprawling, striving, triumphant, rising, advancing, spirited, exhausting, reborn again and again and again. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes.

I do not share warm-hearted stories. If you asked my students if I am warm and nurturing, they would laugh. But I believe in public education. I believe in it as an expression of our national character, and I believe there is nothing so awesome as varied young persons side by side finding their way to a greater understanding of themselves and each other, finding ways to be in the world, to be human, to be themselves.

Nothing else compares. Nothing.  American public school will never be a neatly manicured hyper-orderly efficiently unified system because America will never be that kind of country. That's okay. It's not a bug; it's a feature. The fight will never be over, but American public education will always be worth fighting for.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Do I Do?

As teachers talk about the current State of Education in This Country, the talk invariably turns to the question-- what can I do? After all, we've got large corporations, both political parties, and the leaders of both major unions lined up against us. That combination of powers practically insures that we will get no major media attention, and in fact we regularly see the media dutifully passing on the standard school reform lines. So what can we do?

Now, I'm not an activist. Never have been. I'm not completely alien to battles; I was a union local president during a contentious contract negotiation and subsequent strike. But I have some ideas about what does and does not work, about what helps us and what doesn't going forward.

Appeals to reason. When I started out in the biz, I thought the best way to negotiate a contract was to figure out the most reasonable contract and explain it to people. Then they would say, "Well, yes. That totally sounds right. We'll do that." By the time I was a union president, I knew better. But I remember the union members who remained certain that the board was only refusing to budge because they just didn't understand that our position made good sense and theirs didn't. Even members who had less faith in the board thought that if we just laid it all out for the public, they would rise up in support of us.

Those things did not happen. A classroom warps our understanding of the world, because in a classroom you win the day by being right. A classroom is the only place that works. Nobody wins in politics just by being right. Even if you ARE right, you still have to use that as some kind of leverage to muster the political power you want to have.

Collective Action. Everybody's favorite, I know, and very effective at certain times, but there are certain pitfalls.

If your collective is putting a lot of energy into making sure that everyone is On The Same Page, you're close to the line. When you are vigorously pursuing and purging people who are not following the exact proper party orthodoxy, you are over the line. When you are investing too much energy into your brand-- cool logos, t-shirts, constantly making sure that the brand is attached to every action you do-- you are close to the line. When you are composing paeans to how awesome your leaders are, you're way over the line.

If, in short, you've started to value your collective group over the actual goals of your group, you are not being particularly effective.

The most effective collective action is action that's not collective at all. When Hans rallies a crowd and talks them into storming the castle, inside the castle they're just saying, "Oh, it's that crazy Hans stirring people up again." No matter how large the crowd is, they think they've got a problem with one guy. But when every single person in the village, out of their own personal anger and irritation, grabs a pitchfork and heads toward the castle, inside the castle they're saying, "Oh, damn, we're in trouble now."

It's natural to want to join with like-minded people, and that kind of group is hugely effective at collecting and sharing information, including which window would be best to throw bricks at. But don't think you must line all those people up in neat rows and make them act exactly the same.

Individual speech. Crowds gather one at a time. Congressmen get sacks of mail one letter at a time.Individual action matters.

We live in the golden age of individual communication. You can tweet officials, e-mail them, post on their facebook page, respond directly to the articles they write. When someone writes a piece of puffy propaganda about CCSS and the comment section fills up with arguments against their point, that sends a message to the writer, the publisher, and every reader who sees the article.

Speak your truth. Call it as you see it. Become part of the conversation. Don't just shut up and go away.

Don't wait for Superman. By all means, cultivate allies in politics and the media, but don't imagine that "as soon as we recruit X for our cause, everything will change." It won't. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will be fought by inches, not by miles. Any time you imagine that getting X on our side will make a huge difference, you are kidding yourself. And remember-- politicians are politicians. Don't expect them to be anything else.

Advocate locally. Marriage equality became inevitable the more people personally knew a gay or lesbian human being. The issue had a face for more and more Americans, and it stopped being about some abstract principle and about your friends Chris and Pat.

Most Americans think their own schools are swell. Work with that. Be the face of teaching for your school's constituents.

This next part is hard to hear. I've worked with lots of folks who swore that they would never live in the district where they taught, that once out of school they didn't want to see a student or a student's family ever. WE CANNOT LIVE LIKE THAT ANY MORE. We must be visible in our communities. We must be the face of education.

As the face of education, we have to stop publicly counting down to retirement, bitching about those darn kids, crowing TGIF, and generally acting as if our job's are a chore. If you actually think teaching is a chore, do me a favor-- get the hell out and go do something else.

When we've done this visibly and often, our community members will start to trust us. When they trust us, we can talk to them about school reform and they'll listen without thinking we're just trying to save our cushy jobs.

Call it as you see it. Be professional, but be honest. Stop pointing out major policy flaws in private and smiling and nodding in public.

Let things break. Teachers are good team players, and we worry about our students. We know what needs to be done. And that means we are excellent institutional enablers.

Principal Bonehead institutes a new policy that create major classroom problems for Mrs. Weednozzle, so Mrs. W just puts in some extra hours, develops some new program materials, and "fixes" Principal Bonehead's mistake. Then she gets sad and grumpy that he doesn't see the problem and take steps to fix it, leaving her with all this extra work.

Here's the thing. He doesn't see a problem, because he has no problem. She fixed it. She made it HER problem. The fact that she's sad about it? Not his problem.

Lots of school reform is going to fail. Let it. Don't fix it for them. Let it crash and burn and let a crowd gather to say, "What an ugly mess! Who did this?" And then be honest.

Support your team. If you care about education and public schools, you are now part of an underground fighting a guerilla war. One of the things members of the education underground have to do is support each other. You know who your allies are, both nationally and locally. Support them. Help them.

It can be a demoralizing fight, and we can get weary. Worse yet, we can get negative and reach the point that we don't stand for anything-- just against a bunch of stuff. Supporting people who are doing positive things is a way to remind myself what I stand for, help a fellow struggler stay on his/her feet, and keep myself from becoming a mas of toxic negativity. Because toxic negativity-- ain't nobody got time for that.

Be a champion in your own room. Save who you can. Stand up for your kids. Use your best judgment. Fight for them. Let them go out into the world to tell stories about their own teacher who did such a good job and fought so hard for them.

Cut corners, break rules, do what you can get away with. Don't let some reformer stooge substitute their judgment for yours. Be sand in the gears of the machine.

Be smart. Don't sacrifice your career. Don't make your stand on a hill you can't defend. But don't be afraid to take a stand. They tell us to work like private industry. Well, you know what people do all the time in private industry-- work around their boss and disobey him when in their best professional judgment he is wrong. Do that. You're a teacher-- not a clerk. Be a teacher.

It's hard to be really civilly disobedient when you need a job, so we all have to draw the line where we feel we safely can. Some of us work for sympathetic bosses; some of us do not. Some of us are being asked to do outrageous educational malpractice; some of us are just being asked to do dumb, annoying little things. Some of us have clout and protection; some of us are just hoping to get tenure.

But if we each pick up a pitchfork or a torch just a pointy spork, and start walking toward the castle, we're likely to find ourselves part of a crowd that can't be ignored. The forces of school reform are never going to go away, but if we act and stay vocal, we can at least be one more force in the educational kingdom that has to be reckoned with.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How To Be That Guy

One of the more annoying in-service experiences is to sit in a room full of people smiling and nodding who afterwards step into the hall and begin to tear apart how much they disagreed with the Stupid Content of the presentation they just sat through, smiling and nodding. You could ask why they do this, but I already know the answer-- they don't want to be That Guy.

You know. That Guy. The guy who always asks questions, who always acts borderline rude to presenters, and who keeps prolonging the agony of the session when everyone just wants to get on their way to lunch. The guy whose very voice can set dozens of eyes a-rolling.

Well, in this day and age, we need more of That Guy.

Now, we don't need to confuse him with That Other Guy. That Other Guy is just kind of an asshole. I've been both That Guy and That Other Guy, so I can help you hit the mark. Here are what to do, or not, to be That Guy.

Most importantly, keep in mind that you are usually dealing with a delivery person, not the creator of the Stupid Content you're being subjected to. If you want to Fight The Man, I salute you. But you need to recognize that The Man is not there. All you've got is some lower-level flunky for the state DoE.

This is important to remember because this guy will never, ever break down in front of you and cry, "Yes, I see now that objective-based-project-guided-cooperative-learning-module teaching will never work. I hereby abolish it!" Even if he admits that his content is crap, all he can do is shrug as if to say, "Hey, I have kids to feed, too."

So your goal is not to break him or turn him. Your job is to appear in his report to his boss.

A win for you is when he goes back to the main office next Friday and tells his boss, "I've spent the whole week tramping around this region, and there isn't anybody out there who is buying what we're selling."

That in turn means that in the meeting you must be reasonable, fair, and hard-nosed. The fact that the presenter is advocating (or even requiring) a bunch of educational malpractice can't send you off the deep end, because as soon as you start frothing and barking you become easily dismissible. Instead of reporting back, "I think we have a problem," he gets to say, "I met one guy with a problem."

Likewise, do not fall into the trap of performing for your like-minded buddies. Activist groups often fall into this peculiarly useless habit of hollering something obnoxious and then turning to each other and yelling, "Boy, we really told him!" High fives all around, while the supposed target shakes his head and goes his way, unchanged, uninformed, unimpressed. Preaching to the choir is worse than ineffective, because it lulls the choir members into thinking they've really accomplished something and now it's Miller time.

So here are the tools in your arsenal.

Body language. Suppress your well-trained instincts to be polite and attentive. If he just said something objectionable, frown, scowl, shake your head. You know how this works. You know how you feel when your classroom is filled with students who are visibly disengaged and resistant.

Interrupt, if the format allows it, with questions of substance. Don't just object; responding to an objection is easy and, more to the point, is entirely his choice of options. A question begs a response, and it can help you nail down what may be a nagging feeling that you don't like what you're hearing, but you can't put your finger on it yet.

Also, the worst of what we're hit with includes a variety of assumptions that are generally just slid through quietly without comment. Not coincidentally, it's these assumptions that are often the most objectionable part. So drill down to these with "Why" questions. Why do it that way? Why are we using that metric?

Questions of substance also include requests to back things up. We have heard a million times how teachers helped write the Common Core, and we have said back a zillion times that it's not true. You know what I would have done if I were shilling for the Core and teachers had helped write it-- I would have gotten some or all of those teachers to pen articles such as "How I Spent My Summer Vacation Writing the Common Core with My BFF David Coleman" and I would include a sidebar entitled "Here Are the Specific Parts I Wrote." Has anybody seen those articles? Send me a link. I'll wait.

Okay, kidding. I won't wait because I don't have that kind of time (technically called "forever") to wait. But my point is, ask questions like "So who exactly were the teachers who worked on this?" or "Which research exactly did you use to figure this program out?"

Questions of substance also include requests for clarification or detail. The trick is not to phrase them as challenges, a la "How the hell could that possibly work?" Instead, just ask for more detail. "How exactly would that assignment play out from start to finish?"

Here's how to gauge whether you are asking a question as That Guy or That Other Guy. That Guy questions wouldn't bother somebody who knew what they were talking about one little bit. In fact, for someone who had actual answers for any of his stuff would welcome these questions, because such questions would only strengthen his case. When there really is a wizard behind the curtain, he doesn't care whether you pay attention to him or not.

But if he doesn't have answers, that's your cue to be just as relentless as Toto. Keep asking. Keep pressing.

Other quick tips.

Yield ground where appropriate. Don't get so hung up on being oppositional that you end up arguing that water is not wet just because the presenter said it is. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

If you can, talk to the presenter afterwards. On more than one occasion, I have had presenters from the state, after the meeting was over, admit that their stuff was crap, and more. This is where I learn the most, and this is often where, if I haven't been That Other Guy in the meeting, real dialogue can take place.

Have a thick skin. Some of these people will push back, hard. Sometimes they're just angry. Sometimes they are just trying to get YOU to be angry and say something stupid so that you can be easily dismissed as That Other Guy. Hold your ground, and keep your cool.

Observe the three-time rule. This is actually an informal rule on a message board I've spent time on: if I've made the exact same point three times and the conversation isn't going anywhere, it's time for me to shut up.

Final note for this not-deliberately-long post.

The teacher population is generally observed to be about 85% blandly pleasant Good Team Players and 15% fire-breathing activist rage-monsters (most of them, for some reason, teaching middle school). Both have their place and their uses, but there is a need these days for a third group: teachers who are firmly, deliberately, unashamedly advocates for our profession and our professional values and judgment. And there is a need for us to take that stance 24/7, and that includes when someone is standing before us and telling us things that we know aren't so. Many of these people now have power, and they expect us 85% of us to be pushovers and the rest to be beatable. We need to show them that we are firm, steady, no-longer-silent force for education and children, and that means that sometimes, we have to be That Guy.

With Top-down Universal Standards, You Get This...

This video has been making the rounds in the last twenty-four hours. It's Rob Saxton, Oregon Deputy Superintendent laying down some law. We won't tolerate "independent contractors." Teachers will follow the program, or else. He will be a good natured SOB, which appears to mean ruling with an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Thing is, he's not wrong, exactly. If you are going to impose a top-down program across a large organization, nothing short of totalitarian rule will work.

If Ray Kroc tells his franchise managers across the country, "Yeah, just have your cooks whip up those hamburgers the way they like them," McDonald never becomes successful. If the shadowy faces behind Sub-Way tell their stores to just go ahead and slap sandwiches together with their own individual flair, they don't end up running the fastest-growing food outlet in the universe.

So people who are thinking that Saxton (who is, as near as I can tell, absolutely a lifelong career educator with real classroom experience) should loosen up and be more reasonable, or should be fired and replaced with a more reasonable guy-- these folks are missing the point. If Oregon's plan is to institute a standardized uniform approach to education, Saxton is exactly the guy for the job.

People who think that CCSS and reform-driven standardization that gets us all "on the same page" are swell and that if just make sure the bosses are nice guys and not big meanies like Saxton or Arne Duncan-- these people are not thinking this through. For those plans to work, nothing less than a tyrant will work. If we let teachers just modify the plan to suit their own strengths and students and preferences and professional judgment, the plan will fail. You have to stamp out the independent contractors.

You cannot have nationwide standardized education reform without this kind of leadership. You cannot have one without the other.

So if you think a national curriculum with a carefully coordinated program that keeps all teachers on the same page, get used to this guy, because he is the face of leadership in that world.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why van Roekel Should Go.

I've written before about how NEA President Dennis van Roekel has sold us out, but the passage of time does not make me feel any better about that betrayal.

Much of the worst of it is captured in his now-repeated admonition that anybody who opposes the CCSS needs to say what they would rather do instead. This is dead wrong for several reasons.

First, it implicitly accepts the oft-repeated canard that American public schools are in the midst of some kind of crisis, that they've never been worse, that US education is circling the toilet and OMGs! we must do something something SOMETHINNNNGGGGG now!!

Well, that's just not true. We know it's not true in every way from our own anecdotal experience right up through responsible examination of the almighty data. We know that the collective teaching staff of public education is not perfect, but are on the whole doing a fine job.

And you know who should be the first to say that? The president of the NEA. You know what the president of the NEA should NOT say? "Yes, our schools, staffed by millions of the teachers that I represent, are in such a mess that we absolutely must pursue some remedy immediately!"

Second, the "well, if not CCSS, then what" line is wrong because it puts the burden of proof on the anti-CCSS crowd, which is exactly backwards. You want to me to change what I do, how I work, what I'm guided by in my professional life? Then the burden is on YOU to explain why your proposal makes sense.

This is extra true when the program you're proposing is a proprietary copyrighted income generator for a private firm. Because, on top of everything else, we should remember that the CCSS are not some public trust. The standards are copyrighted and owned by a private corporation [this is a correction from an earlier version].We are talking about awarding the contract for national curriculum development (no-no-no-- don't even start with the technically-correct-but-practically-bullshit assertion that CCSS is not a national curriculum) to a private corporation, without bid or discussion.

This is tantamount to suggesting, "Hey, we are going to have to convert the US to a monarchy. If you don't agree, you'll just have to prove there's something else we should do instead."

This is a student telling me, "Hey, I don't like my grade, so you're just going to have to change it to an A. If you don't like it, you need to tell me what grade you'd rather give me."

Here's a wild and crazy idea, DVR-- if you think I should be excited about CCSS, then try convincing me with actual reasons instead of telling me I have to do it unless I can come up with a good alternative.

"Well, if not CCSS, then what?" is not an invitation to dialogue. It's not even an opening to try to seduce us to the dark side. It is a barely polite invitation to shut up and do as we're told.

I expect, at a bare minimum, the president of my union to treat me like a fellow professional. I do not expect to be dismissed with the same disdain and condescension employed by other "reform" artists.

DVR is also wrong when he asserts that the CCSS are swell, we just have to get a grip on the whole testing thing. It's not that parts of the CCSS are not swell. Some are. I like to refer to those parts as "Things Good Teachers Already Do" (and wouldn't it have been great if my union president had made the same observation). Some parts are extremely not swell. And it is true that we have to get a grip on the testing thing. A grip, a stranglehold,  a stake through its heart-- something.

But being in favor of the CCSS and opposed to testing is like being in favor of knives but opposed to cutting things. And my union's national president should understand that as well as anyone.

Maybe, as one friend suggests, DVR hasn't sold out. He's simply trying to take a stance that he thinks will work best in the face of an oncoming juggernaught that can't be stopped or slowed down. I understand the realities of political realities. I don't expect my union chiefs to sing me songs of unicorns pooping rainbows and free ice cream every Sunday. But I do expect them to stand up for me and my follow teachers, and if they haven't got the nerve to stand up in the toughest storm when we need them most, then what good are they.

And at this point, if DVR were to announce he'd had a come-to-Jesus moment and changed his tune, I'm not sure I'd trust him.

If Dennis van Roekel is simply trying to be politically expedient, he should go. If Dennis van Roekel doesn't understand any of this, he should go. And if he understands it, but he chooses to act otherwise, he should go. You can see what the common thread is here.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Endgame: Changing the Profession

The teaching profession is changing, and it's not a good thing.

You can see it in the products being turned out by colleges and universities. They are being taught the new normal, and the worst part is that many of them don't see anything significantly scary or anti-educational about it. So here's what the new teacher is supposed to look like:

The new teacher is a facilitator. The new teacher is the last link in a program delivery system. The new teacher's job is to unpack the curriculum materials that somebody (state, district, feds) bought from some reputable corporate source (Pearson et al). Once she has unpacked the program, she's to deliver it as scripted, on schedule.

The new teacher is better than old teachers. For one thing, he doesn't keep saying, "This not what I signed up for," because product-- I mean, curriculum implementation is exactly what he signed up for. If the new teacher does get unhappy with being an animatronic tool, that's okay, because he's easy to replace. In fact, turnover is desirable, because if he sticks around too long, he might want a raise or something.

The new teacher thinks scripts are great. The new teacher loves being able to open the book and know exactly what she's supposed to be doing today. Make up her own materials and tests!? Why would she even DO that-- it would put her students out of touch with the curriculum plan that our wise leaders have put in place.The new teacher agrees that every student should be in lockstep, all across the nation. If both the students and teachers can be made to operate like identical interchangeable cogs, says the new teacher, won't that just make the whole machine run smoother, more efficiently? It's a good thing.

The new teacher dutifully collects "data" and works hard to prep for The Test, because the new teacher knows that next to delivering the program, getting good numbers on the test is his most important job. And the new teacher knows that if the test scores are low, it must be because he failed to do an effective job of delivering the program. Either that or the students who did poorly are learning disabled and need to be referred for testing and treatment (or, if it's a charter, just plain old expulsion).

The creation of the new teacher coincides with the rise of the educational leader. When we had old teachers, they provided their own educational leadership, both in their classrooms and in their schools. But the new teacher will just be delivering programs, so we need completely separate people to be educational leaders. New teachers can't be educational leaders (not until they leave their classrooms) because their very job description is all about following instructions.

The new teacher will be as interchangeable as a burger flipper at McDonalds, as replaceable as a telephone customer service rep, as independent as a North Korean army private, and as cheap to hire as all three. The new teacher will be compliant-- certainly no union-joiner. And if he does become non-compliant, he can be easily replaced (because the new teacher operates without tenure or any laws about first in-last out).

The most frightening thing here is that we are all hearing repeated reports that the new teachers have started to arrive. They are in our schools, telling us how awesome the Common Core is and how it will fix the terrible troubles with education and how they are grateful that there's a script to follow for their class. They like the fact that they don't really have to do a thing after they walk out the door at 3:30. And they want the old teachers to stop being so cranky about things that aren't even a teacher's job.

Some of them are here, but it's not too late to become vigilant. Keep watching the skies.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reformspeak: Giving teachers "credit."

I can't believe it's still necessary to point this out at this stage of the game, but based on some recent conversations, I'm guessing it bears repeating. So here we go.

When a reformer tells you that "teachers are the most important factor in student success," they are not trying to compliment us. They are not honoring us or acknowledging our importance as professionals. They are not being nice.

They are establishing that everything that happens in a classroom is the teacher's fault. They are saying that if a teacher is dropped on a desert island with nothing but a slate, two hundred starving students, and a piece of chalk, a Real Teacher would still turn all two hundred students into Rhoades Scholars. And if that doesn't happen? Well, it's not because of the island or the starving or the limited resources or the cockeyed student-teacher ration-- it's because the teacher failed. Apparently our Mr. Chips of the South Seas is not a Highly Effective Teacher.

Now, I do some good work, and if you drop me barehanded in front of a bunch of students, I will do a decent job. It's nice to have books and tech and paper and other resources, and it's easier if I don't have enough students in the room to fill a Econovan Clown Car. But I can't work miracles. I am at the bottom of the mountain that is my students' lives, and every rainstorm, all the water and debris and dust that it stirs up, that all comes downhill to me.

My co-operating teacher back in Cleveland Heights used to tell me that there are two rules for teaching. Rule #1 is that some students won't learn. Rule #2 is that there's nothing you can do to change rule #1.

That may overstate the case. But sometimes students will fail or fall short despite my best efforts, and I would have to be an egotistical idiot to believe that I am the most important and influential factor in their lives. I would have to be unconscious to have missed the news that study after study shows that the biggest predictor of school success is economic status.

So the next time somebody tries to "compliment" you by saying you're the biggest factor in a students' life, just say, "I'm trying be as large as I can, but I'm only human. I'll give my students all I can, but sometimes it's not enough. I'm just like a doctor. I'll try really hard, but I can't save every single patient."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Off Script

Yesterday, I did one of my stock shticks for class. It's a routine about why we study grammar, and after thirty-some years of doing it, I have it honed to a fine science. It works for me, hits all the marks I want it to hit, and also adds something to the atmosphere and tone of the class. I know from years of results that it helps me do my job and helps set my students up for success.

And yet, in all the years I've had student teachers, I have never had an urge to write the shtick out as a script and tell my student teacher to read it to the class.

First of all, I couldn't. I have done the shtick probably around 150 times. I have never done it exactly the same way twice. On any given day, my tone, pace, detail choice, emphasis, and delivery will vary to match the mood and composition of the class. For this class it might come out a little sillier. For that class, a little more grittily detailed. I am responsive to my audience, because that's the point of a performance.

Abbot and Costello did "Who's on First?" a gazillion times. It was always a little bit different. The greatest jazz musicians played the same standards over and over, and yet never the exact same way twice. Even Glenn Miller, a bandleader who was notoriously exact and demanding, always reserved the right to vary the number of getting-quieter repeats at the end of "In the Mood." Grateful Dead fans have vast collections of different performances of the same songs, because they're not exactly alike.

Even films, immutable and locked in one performance forever, are records of moments of improvisation and invention. The script didn't tell Han Solo to reply, "I know."

The "reform" notion that teachers are just deliverers of content and that teaching will be improved if we can just give them a script and make them stick to it is one of the dumbest ideas to come out of the reform movement. It is an attempt to reduce teachers to robots. And it assumes that the audience doesn't matter at all, that the teacher should not respond or react to them, but simply barrel on while they take it in. Scripting imagines the classroom as a Disneyland ride in which the animatronic figures are not only on the banks of the Small World river, but riding in the boat as well.

I have met so-called teachers who love the script, love that they can just open the book, follow the directions, and not have to engage their brains. I do not respect these "teachers." Not only are they not teaching, but they are setting a terrible example for the students. Is that what we want from our students-- follow the directions, don't deviate, don't think or express unauthorized thoughts?

And I have limited love for Khan Academy and its ilk. I see a value in easily-accessed demonstrations of technical points. But if I stood in front of my class every period and presented exactly the same lesson while ignoring the class's reaction (do they look engaged? excited? confused? bored? lost?), and if every time a student asked me to clarify something, I just repeated the exact same explanation over and over again, nobody would call me a visionary. They would call me a crappy teacher, and they'd be right.

Scripts do not produce excellence. I can sing from the same sheet music that Frank Sinatra used, but I will not equal his performance. I can read lines from the same script that Johnny Depp used in Pirates of the Caribbean, but nobody will think I'm Captain Jack Sparrow. I can buy a Jackson Pollock paint-by-numbers kit, but nobody will want to hang my product in a museum.

Teaching is a relationship between students and teachers. In most respects it is completely unlike any other human relationship, but it shares one important characteristic. In any relationship, both people have to show up. They have to be present. You cannot engage someone else if you are disengaged yourself, and you cannot yourself be engaged if you are simply parroting the words that somebody else has given you to say.

I recognize that one some educational issues there is room for smart, well-intentioned people to have honest differences of opinion. I do not recognize that on this issue. If you like scripting, if you welcome scripting, if you don't want to enter a classroom without a script, you have no business being in the teaching profession.