Friday, August 8, 2014

TNTP Bravely Drowning In Irony

A recent HuffPost piece by TNTP's Rachel Evans is a fine example of the kind of bad argument being put forth in the world of ed these days. This is how Core supporters often work-- a construction of misdirection about how to use techniques we already know to combat problems we don't have.

Evans opens with a picture of the poor, tired first year teachers of her Arizona Teaching Fellows seminar. Arizona Teaching Fellows program is one more end run around teacher certification and training (they awesomely promise "you will be trained like a pro athlete") operating on the assumption that learning education theory is for suckers.

While traditional teacher preparation programs stress educational theory, TNTP Academy is designed to transform you into a great teacher through practical, classroom-centered coursework, with a sharp focus on core skills.

It's an interesting stance philosophically, given the Common Corey insistence that students focus on more than simple "how." As Evans herself writes later in the same piece, "Students are no longer expected to merely “do math”—they have to be able to explain the concepts behind the math." This principle apparently does not apply to teachers themselves.

Anyway, as Evans and her seminar were watching a video of a teacher teaching, she performed a brief trick of mindreading.

I knew in the back of their minds, these new teachers were all thinking, “I’m never going to be able to pull off that in my classroom.”

So, nobody was thinking "I wonder how much longer till lunch" or "This is a bunch of baloney," two responses that fake researchers have shown are among the most common in PD sessions.

But no-- Evans, her colleagues, and her charges are concerned about how first year teachers (with no previous significant educational training) can be set up for success with the Common Core and its super-rigorry standards. Evans would like to share some techniques that are totally working.

Invest new teachers in a common vision of excellence.

Doesn't that sound awesome? Far better than "standardize teacher expectations," which sounds more Borgian. Only it turns out that it's a piece of cake, because "luckily, new teachers are easily invested in the Common Core standards because they match their intuitive vision for strong teaching." So, see? New teachers intuitively want to teach the Core! It's like magic!

Of course, it raises a question. If all new teachers intuitively want to teach the Core, why didn't all the current old teachers want to teach the Core when they were new teachers? If new teachers intuitively want to do these things, why aren't we all already doing these things?

"No one signs up to be a teacher because they are passionate about passing out worksheets." And here we go with the straw teachers. The implication is that old teachers (who somehow lost their intuitive teacher chops) are all about the worksheets.

New English teachers imagine their students reading and writing about great literature. Math teachers dream of watching small groups of students use calculators and protractors to solve complex, real-world engineering problems. That’s the Common Core standards in action.

Well, no. No it isn't. It's teachers in action. English teachers do not need the Core to either have or implement reading and writing about literature. And the math example is even worse, because there are plenty of folks in the field who think math is not just for engineering.

Make the process linear, even if the product isn’t.

Teachers new to the standards need a recipe of sorts—a series of steps to transform a blank planning template into the type of quality instruction they see in the exemplar videos. In my ELA seminar, we start with an anchor text (To Kill a Mockingbird, for example) and brainstorm a list of supporting texts that could aid students in better understanding the key concepts of the novel. Then we analyze the standards and determine which ones are well-suited to be taught in this unit. From there, we go back to the texts and ask, “What must students know or be able to do in order to deeply understand what they are reading?” Those answers guide how we create text-based questions and tasks because, ultimately, the goal of the Common Core ELA standards is to empower students to better understand their world by understanding rich, complex texts. 

You know what? This is so bad, I'm going to finish this post, and then I'm going to come back and write a separate post just about this paragraph. Then I'll link it and you go wade through that if you're game.

Plan great units together.

"Gone are the days when a single objective could be taught and assessed in one class period."  Well, yes. Also gone are the days when teachers had to worry about having enough starched collars to make it through the week, as are the days when women had to quit when they got married. Way to stay on top of those developments.

Evans actually references the three-day lesson on MLK's letter, and then offers the groundbreaking advice that if teachers know where they want to end up with a unit, they can work backwards to figure out their day-to-day planning. Good thinking, TNTP. You know who else knows about that technique? Everybody who studied in an actual teacher prep program in college.

Keep classroom culture front and center. 

Even the most immaculately planned lessons will fail if students are disengaged or feel unsafe taking academic risks. The “what” of the Common Core standards matters little without the “how” of skilled instruction. That’s why we still spend most of our summer helping our Fellows internalize basic skills, like giving clear directions and addressing student behaviors. 

Don't be thrown by the odd choice of "immaculately" (because, when planning lessons, I'm most concerned that the lessons be really clean). Instead be amazed that TNTP spends most of a summer learning the how of skilled instruction. Most of a whole summer.

Again, we arrive at a huge irony. Remember, in the Common Core, we're now going to spend three days on MLK's letter because to really learn, you need to spend lots of time. In the old days we might have covered it in just one period, but with Common Core, we now understand that more time and depth are required to really truly learn. However, in the old days, people who wanted to be teachers went to college for four whole years and took entire semester courses in teaching techniques. But nowadays we understand that a few weeks of training in the summer are sufficient to master teaching skills.

Some questions remain

No! Really? Because I thought that covered it all! But here are some of the questions. I'll save some time and answer them

How do you effectively remediate struggling students while still exposing them to grade-level content? (By first asking why grade-level content is more important than real remediation) 

What if the curricula mandated by a district is not Common Core-aligned? (Use your new teacher intuition? Thank your lucky stars?)

 How can teachers adapt pre-existing resources to meet the needs of their school and students? (Use professional judgment as you should all the freakin' time. If you are using ANY resources uncritically, you don't belong in a classroom)

 Like the Common Core itself, these questions are complex and a little daunting. (Wrong again. The Common Core isn't particularly complex. It's just a half-baked slapped-together bunch of amateur hour bad standards.)

In many ways, I find TNTP one of the more frustrating of the reformster programs, because there could be some real value in helping grown adults with life experience and interest work their way into a classroom. But cockamamie advice and instruction like this is not the way.


  1. Unfortunately, those recipes become standardized ways of teaching Common Core these days. It sounds like an oxymoron, but that's education; unfortunately. I'm seeing it put into effect already around me.

  2. Are these TNTP/CC instructors actual classroom teachers? I'm wondering.