Saturday, February 27, 2016

What Do They Know?

Anthony Cody has a great piece at his blog, Living in Dialogue (which should be on your must-read list) that puts the push for Competency based Education in the context of the reformster movement. In particular, this--

There are two unwritten assumptions that are constant from the beginning of NCLB and carry through to this new version. Teachers are not trusted to make judgments about what students learn, how they learn it, or how learning is assessed. Assessment is defined as the external monitoring of the work inside the classroom. The second assumption is that data and technology must be instrumental in whatever process is devised. The main innovation here is the more thorough and intrusive penetration of the classroom via computers capable of monitoring learning.

One question that naturally follows-- why, exactly, are teachers not to be trusted? Reformsters tend to fall into two camps.

One camp includes groups like DFER and Students Matter and some leaders of Teach for America, when they didn't think anyone was listening, who believe that the teacher biz is a giant, corrupt racket that the Big Teacher Unions keep in place in order to enrich themselves For an example, just flash back to Chris Christie's "punch in the face" comments.

But I believe the far larger camp is the one that thinks teachers can't be trusted because we Just Don't Know.

Turnarounds, takeovers, classroom scripts, tight national standards, externally created testing regimens, alternative educator training programs, charter schools-- these are all versions of folks shouldering teachers aside and saying, "All right, you've screwed things up enough. It's time to let somebody take charge who knows what they're doing."

In fact, one of the other unwritten premises of reformsterism has been that reformsters know the secrets of how to make education work. Just sweep aside incompetent and corrupt teachers, clear away the Education Establishment, and they will work educational miracles. Because, dammit, they Know Things.

Well, we've been doing this reformy dance for over a decade now. What do they know?

The whole point of, say, having a state take over a school district is that somewhere in the state capital is someone (or someone who knows someone) who really knows how to run the school properly.

The whole point of having charters is to give people who really Know Things the chance to take charge of a school and make educational magic.

The whole point of having tightly managed standards and instruction is that somewhere at a corporate office is somebody who really Knows Things about how to teach the material and can actually package that magic.

So where are all the successes? Where are all the programs spreading like wildfire as word spreads that this state or that charter or some educorporation has the Secret of Awesome Education?

And if all these people know the secret of teaching that has either escaped or been hidden by teachers, how is it that after over a decade, we still haven't heard about it or seen its transformative power in actual schools with actual students.

Seriously. What do they know? How much longer do we have to stumble searching for snipe under bush after bush while the emperor, wearing his new hunting clothes, keeps hollering, "No-- wait-- there it is! Over there!" If they actually Know Things, it's way past time for them to put up or shut up, to show their hand or cash in their chips, and at the very least, stop announcing as New Knowledge things that actual teachers already knew ("Hey, we've discovered that teaching poor kids can be difficult!"). It's way past time for reformsters to prove they have an answer to the question.

What do they know?


  1. Two points.
    1) We've been under the lash of reformsters since the institution of full-time, widespread, compulsory public education in the mid-nineteenth century. We instituted our current system so that we could Keep Up With The Joneses, who were, at that time, Germans, and who, ironically enough, kept their Classical style of education, instead of the Progressive style adopted by the US. Thank you Horace Mann.
    2) In order to determine The Secret of Awesome Education, we'd first have to agree on what Awesome Education is. Since we can't agree on the purpose of an education, we keep getting bound up in this wishy-washy awfulness. Personally, I'm a convert to Classical Education--see also:

  2. The wait for super-teachers or super-standards or super-curricula or super-tests will be a very long wait indeed.

    The fact of the matter is that the culture of the community controls/constrains the schools. To expect the opposite is foolish. For the reform side to promise the opposite is just plain old snake-oil.

  3. They are afraid that teachers will treat children with humanity. Their expectation is that children must be treated exactly the same-that teachers must hold students accountable to exacting standards without regard to who those children are as people.

    This is an excerpt from the RAND evaluation of a 2012 Gates-Fund CBE pilot done in part in Philadelphia.

    "We asked two of the language arts teachers in Philadelphia, for instance, whether they had used proficiency rubrics before they began using Educurious units, and both said yes. One of these teachers also reported taking students’ skill levels into account when assigning grades within the Educurious materials. This teacher was concerned that struggling students may have to exert intense and sustained effort to close gaps with their higher-achieving peers. The teacher believed that assessments of student performance should account for that effort and for students’ baseline skills.....

    Adams 50 was different in that much of the evaluation involved crediting students’ demonstrations of proficiency based on successful completion of worksheets and online problem sets. These demonstrations of mastery were then validated by Scantron tests that students completed quarterly. In other words, competency-based education in Adams 50 relied more heavily than in the other sites on standardized and machine-scored assessments as evidence that students had met the standards. This approach relied less on subjective evaluations of students’ proficiency levels, and may therefore have yielded better adherence to shared standards of proficiency." page 44 of the RAND report