Sunday, May 7, 2017

Should We Practice What We Teach?

A curious report emerged last month from the Aspen Institute, co-authored by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimental. Wiener is the head of Aspen Institute's Education and Society Program. He worked previously at the Education Trust, a group that has been part of the Core-promoting Gates-funded reform machine. Pimental was a founding partner at Student Achievement Partners and StudentsWork and (though you may have forgotten it because David Coleman never mentions any name but his own) a lead writer of the Common Core ELA standards.

So Wiener and Pimental come right out of the reformster swamp, and that means that this report will include some classic features, like endnotes filled with references to other "reports" from other thinky tank advocacy groups like RAND, Center for American Progress, and the Aspen Institute itself. This paper also lands in a more recent sub-genre of reformy articles and reports in which reformsters actually identify some real problems, but are hobbled by their inability or unwillingness to see their own role in creating the problem in the first place (e.g. the Arne Duncan declaration that schools have become too centered around the standardized test, and how did such a thing ever happen, anyway?) I point this out not to play "Gotcha" or cry "Hypocrite," but because it's hard to solve problems when you can't acknowledge the real cause of the problems in the first place.

Wiener and Pimental get some things right. For instance, the observation that a great deal of professional development for teachers is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories-- twinkies instead of steak. As Robert Pondiscio notes in his article about the report, we have somehow arrived at a point where it's considered a radical notion to suggest that teachers spend development time becoming experts on their curriculum and their content.

Good curriculum and content materials matter-- they matter a great deal. Wiener and Pimental, however, fetishize them a bit much, stopping just a gnat's hair short of calling for the old reformster dream of teacher-proof materials, or the system where you just have one or two Really Good Teachers that you send around to coach and direct all your mediocre ones.

But their exemplar systems are DC schools, New Orleans, and West Virginia, which immediately skews their results because, in New Orleans and DC (West Virginia's teacher-led initiative is a slightly different animal), the conversation is not about how to make schools excellent, but how to make them suck just a little bit less. There's a huge difference between "improving" a terrible system and "improving" one that is already chugging along well, and nothing in this paper really acknowledges that.

So rather than look at their exemplars, I'm going to skip straight to their recommendations.

1) Curriculum quality matters a lot. Which-- yes, the content matters. Hugely.

2) Content-specific inquiry cycles improve practice. In other words, it's more useful to talk about how best to teach the major themes of Great Gatsby as you're doing it than to have a general conversation about "better teaching."

3) Culture eats structure for lunch. Systems mean nothing. It's all about how values are practiced throughout the school. Wiener and Pimental make this sound complicated, but it's not. Most teachers will do what they think is right, regardless of what the system-of-the-week demands.

4) Teachers need time to improve instruction. Everybody knows this is obvious, and yet districts remain largely convinced that every moment a teacher isn't in front of students is district money wasted.

5) Content experts should facilitate professional development.

6) System leaders have vital roles and responsibilities, too.

These all seem like relatively obvious things, so one of the questions being begged here is, "Why aren't we already doing all these things?"

Pondiscio sees that question being skipped over as well, so he offers some answers.

For one, local control. The local power to set curriculum and select materials for teaching. "Witness the Sturm und Drang over Common Core, which isn’t a curriculum at all, but merely curriculum standards." Related to that for Pondiscio is the tendency to "valorize teacher independence to a fault." And I suppose that's not a new issue-- some folks have always believed that the secret to good schools is to hire some Superteachers and turn them loose. But teacher independence is not just a goal; it's also a reality. Teachers develop independence because we work alone, often with a mandate from our bosses along the lines of "Get in there and take care of business and don't bother me because I've already got my hands full." In many school buildings, the teacher who teaches best is the teacher who bothers the front office the least.

Pondiscio also raises another idea about which he and I have always disagreed. Pondiscio thinks that asking a teacher to develop curriculum is like asking fire fighters to bring their own hoses. I think it's part of our job, and part of what we should have been properly trained to do. The classroom teacher should be an expert on the content, an expert on the students in the room, and therefor the world' foremost expert on how to deliver that curriculum to those students. Pondiscio compares a teacher to an actor-- an actor can be great playing Hamlet even if he didn't write the play. But in my classroom, I'm not so much an actor as a director. I need to know the lines, the set, the themes, the capabilities of each actor, the material of the play itself.

But where we agree, and where Wiener and Pimental lodge their biggest, blindest spot, is on the matter of content.

Wiener and Pimental: Professional learning cannot live up to its potential unless it’s rooted in the content teachers teach in their classrooms.Similarly, the resulting professional learning won’t be excellent unless the underlying instructional materials are excellent.

Pondiscio: In less expert hands, the language of standards merely reinforces the content-agnostic, skills-driven vision of schooling drummed into teachers in ed school. “Determine central ideas or themes of a text?” Which text? Which books and works of literature should we use? Doesn’t it matter?

The notion of the content-absent free-floating skills is one of the most pernicious notions to take root in modern education. It has been pounded into us directly and indirectly in schools, and it is chapter and verse in too many education schools. And the responsibility for this notion belongs squarely at the feet of people like Wiener and Pimental. The Common Core Standards are set up squarely around the notion that skills exist independent of content, like surfing without water or breathing without air, and that notion has been built into Core-aligned materials and Core-linked Big Standardized Tests. It lives in new teaching notions, like the idea that one needn't teach full works any more-- just a few excerpts will be sufficient to teach the necessary skills. It lives in the many proposals enshrining the notion that a teacher is only as good as her students' test scores (and the way to raise tests scores is to focus on skills-- content is secondary). It lives in tools like Lexile scores, reading level analysis built on the idea that reading is just the act of decoding strings of words on the page, not interacting in a personal and meaningful way with what those words are actually saying.

And it lives in almost a decade of professional development that is required (in some states by regulation) to be about aligning to standards and prepping for tests and teaching skills in a vacuum.

Reformers did this. The Common Core acolytes, flush with hefty checks from Bill Gates, did this. If they noticed it was happening, well, that's swell. But if you shrug your shoulders and say, "Gee, no idea how this happened," then I have a hard time taking any of your solutions seriously.

And here are Wiener and Pimental still offering "increased student achievement" as proof that some technique works. But of course "increased student achievement" means nothing except higher test scores, and those BS Tests are still supposed to be content-free; in most states, teachers are forbidden to see what the content is, because that would ruin the test (but some test prep companies are stepping in to fill that gap). If the school system is to remained centered on BS Test scores, it will not be centered on teachers having curriculum and content expertise (or rather, the curriculum itself will have little to do with content).

The issues that Wiener and Pimental outline are the predictable result of the reforms that they personally championed, and their paper ultimately seems like a hope that those reforms can somehow lead to different results. I drove west and ended up in Montana; I would like to drive west and end up in Florida.

As usual, I'm running long, so my solution to these issues will be brief. Knowing me, I'll probably get back to it another day. I should lead by saying that I'm not exactly traditionally trained. My teacher required us to major in our content area-- become subject experts-- and then layered teacher training on top of that, with extensive support through student teaching and the first year in the classroom. So you won't necessarily find me defending some of the traditional teacher mill approaches. But here's how I would fix the above issues.

1) Get rid of the Big Standardized Common Core tests entirely. Kill them with fire.

2) Require teachers to get the training to be content experts in their field.

3) Require teachers to get the training to be pedagogical experts.

4) Design professional development around what teachers in the building want to maintain their expertise.

5) Make sure that your experts have what they need to do the job.

6) Then leave them alone to do the job.

I can make it shorter. Yes, we should practice what we teach. And that includes taking time to reflect and consider what we have done right and what we have done wrong. That way we won't be standing there looking at some mess and shrugging our shoulders, clueless about the mess we created. And that's probably good advice for everyone.


  1. In some districts, what you recommend is already happening and has been for some time. In mine (Chapel Hill/Carrboro in NC) we have a great deal of autonomy as teachers, largely because the district only hires experienced teachers to begin with. Of course, we're an affluent district that teachers fight to get jobs in, knowing that they'll have well-prepared students and excellent support from the district in terms of school budgets, professional respect, etc. Our ways of addressing many of the problems noted in this post shows just how this plays out when a district trusts its teachers' professionalism.
    First, we have a great deal of collaborative time for teachers in the various disciplines to work together on planning. In my science department, for instance, all the biology teachers have a common planning period every day (and two planning periods out of seven total for the school day) that let us work together to plan lessons and share ideas in ways that ensure that we are teaching far more effectively than any of us could on our own. This kind of collaborative effort extends upwards to the district level as well. When it was decided last year the we needed to update the biology curriculum (it had been ten years since the last one was written) the district science coordinator did so by calling all the biology teachers together and having us form curriculum groups to address various aspects of the process. This means that the new curriculum was written collectively by the district's biology teachers. We are, after all, experts in our field and in pedagogy (the vast majority of us have an M.Ed.) and know better than anyone else what our students need to learn in order to properly understand our subject. We were given paid professional development time to complete the project and never rushed or pushed in either time or content. It was a highly successful process and it showed that the district values us for more than just standing up in front of a classroom. Other curricula have been formed using a similar process.
    We do still have some vestiges of the old-style professional development, but those are largely being phased out in favor of teacher-created and driven classes to improve both pedagogical skills and content-area knowledge. Now, if we could only get rid of the state-mandated standardized tests...

    1. This is exactly the way it should be!

    2. And I wouldn't care if it were an affluent district or not.

    3. Affluence shouldn't count, but unfortunately it does. The reason we can do what we do in my district is largely because it's an affluent (and highly educated) place. The parents support us very strongly and that shows in how the district itself operates under the school board these same parents elect. The money these same parents pay in taxes funds the kind of development time that is required and that poorer districts have a hard time affording.
      In too many places where the reformsters have sway, the parents have either been snowed by reformster propaganda or they have no power at all, like in Philly or Chicago where there are no elected school boards and even the parents who might understand and appreciate what teachers do cannot have any influence on the district. In many of those districts, the revenues necessary to properly support them don't exist or have been undermined by right-wing or reformster policies, so that even if the will was there the means are not. Every district should run like ours, but too many can't or won't in our current climate.

    4. Yes, I meant that as long as the resources are there, I don't care if the students are well-prepared because of being affluent. Certainly the problem is that education isn't enough of a priority to be well-enough resourced. And even if the resources are there, they aren't always used to promote teacher initiative, autonomy, and collaboration.

  2. <<< Reformers did this. The Common Core acolytes, flush with hefty checks from Bill Gates, did this. If they noticed it was happening, well, that's swell. But if you shrug your shoulders and say, "Gee, no idea how this happened," then I have a hard time taking any of your solutions seriously.

    If one counts John Dewey as a reformer, then we agree. The victory of skills over content was one there. Lots of folks -- not just "reformsters" have been running up the score ever since.

  3. I think the CC ELA standards have always reflected the author's lack of faith in the efficacy of standards as they were required to write them to steer clear of the imperative to not dictate "curriculum" and probably more importantly to provide vertically scalable scores.

    The whole RttT project was *entirely* based on the premise of producing valid vertically scalable scores. Otherwise, you can't really claim to be doing VAM rigorously, etc. (I mean, even have it be theoretically straightforwardly valid).

    I think CC ELA started, really, from the premise that it would be based around doing the same set of tasks with increasingly difficult texts (measured by Lexile in particular). In this scenario, Pimentel, Coleman, and from an outside perspective, Pondiscio, all heroically fought the data geeks to get some content in there, and promote content in their advocacy.

    1. One question. Have you ever been a teacher?

  4. I'm trying to make sure I understand this. As a science teacher, I like the emphasis that the NGSS brings on skills and processes. NGSS are aligned with common core. I believe in content also but really I want my students to be able to look at data and make a mental model or figure out the pattern. I want them to be able to read a highly academic text and make sense of it. I don't really care that they walk away remembering all the minutiae of Chemistry. I can't imagine this is justhe for science. What I really want is that people who aren't teachers to stay away from professional development.

    1. People who aren't teachers should certainly stay away. I don't know if maybe some disciplines, like science, should be heavier on the skills and processes, but I think content helps you figure out the patterns too. I always think there are fundamental principles that should be taught in each discipline. I guess I always think that the important thing is that both content and skills should be concept-driven.

    2. My argument would be that students can't learn any of these skills or habits out of context. Their most positive memories (and cognitive associations) will come from "doing the science" -- actively digging into real-life situations, questions, and experiments . . . and personally experiencing how to make a mental model or figure out the pattern from the data. (Preaching it or doing worksheets on "the scientific method" will never be adequate.) And then when the next inquiry comes along, you help your students reflect on what and how they made sense of things the previous time. That's how this all becomes meaningful.

  5. The modern era (post Nation at Risk) anti-content movement can be traced back to constructivism learning theory and the discovery approach. That’s when being a sage-on-the-stage got you an undeserved bad name, and being a guide-on-the-side somehow became the recommended best practice. Facilitating instead of teaching was another idea that sounded good on paper but just never worked with real kids at scale. Project based learning and the hands-on learning myth are still a big piece of the thinking skills-over-knowledge philosophy of teaching.

    However, there is an 800 lb. gorilla riding an elephant around the 21st century skills v content debate room: test-and-punish reform. Why would anyone have expected anything but a skills-based approach when the only two subjects that have really mattered over the past 16 years, math and ELA, are essentially skills based subjects? Forcing ELA teachers to replace poetry and literature with informational science and history passages was a fool’s errand. Why would anyone expect a content-based approach when the content based disciplines were placed far back on the unlit back burners? With science and history and geography and government all got relegated to the trash heap of “un-tested” subjects no one should be surprised why kids can’t find the Pacific Ocean on an unmarked map.

    With the recent emergence of the NGSS, science remains on the back burner but at least the flame has been turned on. Recognizing any subject beyond math and ELA should be a plus, especially the most content rich of the disciplines. However, buyer beware – the writers of the next Generation Science standards have pushed the Common Core, process-over-content approach, while ignoring cognitive learning theory and everything we know about brain development (and damage). Next-Gen science standards emphasizing scientific thinking and process skills now take precedent over the explicit teaching of scientific facts, ideas, laws, theories and principles. Trying to think scientifically without sufficient background knowledge will prove very frustrating for all but the most privileged and advantaged children. NGSS didn’t stop there; they decided to also include a bastardized form of “engineering” to satisfy the STEM fad. Glad we didn’t rely on this unproven approach back in the late 60s when we decided to put a man on the moon.

    1. One third of American ADULTS cannot find the Pacific Ocean on an unmarked map.

      Illiteracy in history and geography is, unfortunately, not a new thing, as the Orange Creep shows. It's just gotten worse since the BS Tests.

    2. We really must stop allowing each other to get away with this all-or-nothing thinking. Of course content is essential -- but so are process skills. Why must you choose between being the "sage on the stage" or the "guide on the side?" Can't intelligent adult professionals figure out how to do the best of both? Come on, folks.