Friday, December 21, 2018

The 13th Clown and Best Classroom Practices

Many leading voices of the ed reformist movement have started calling for an emphasis shift from policy to practice. That makes a certain amount of sense; the last two decades provide plenty of evidence that policy can interfere with practice far better than aid it, and ultimately students are educated by classroom practices, not by policy.
But when discussion among edupolicy wonks turns to the use of best practices in the classroom, one complaint inevitably surfaces: "Why aren't more teachers using the proven work of Dr. Wisewhacker on teaching [insert topic here]?" Why is the path from great idea-hood to widespread classroom practice so hard to navigate?
People who ask these questions are rarely actual classroom teachers, nor do they understand just how many people come at classroom teachers with great ideas to market. Yearly, weekly, daily, someone knocks on the classroom door to say, "I've got something for you here that is going to be awesome. You really need this." Sometimes they are ushered to the door by the teacher's boss, or the boss's boss, or the state, or even the feds. Every single one of them claims to be evidence based and research proven. Most of them are lying a little bit; some are lying a lot. Evidence can be a company-run focus group survey of ten people. Research can be a study conducted with a dozen college sophomores. There is enough bad education research in the world to build a model of Kilimanjaro on top of the Grand Canyon, and that's before we even get to all the research that wants to pretend that higher test scores are the same thing as better education (that research is also junk, unless you think the whole point of education is to a high score on a single big standardized test).
Good research that produces solid practices has a 13th clown problem. You may recall the old political observation: if 12 clowns are in a ring slapping each other with herring and falling on banana peels, you can jump into the ring and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience, you'll just be the 13th clown.
So how do we filter out and rescue the good stuff?
If the principal walks into a teacher's room and says, "Hey, I've got 143 program and textbook proposals on my desk. Could you go ahead and thoroughly check each one out so we can decide what to get. You know, in your copious free time, " coffee cups will be flying.
Government, at various levels, has tried to take on the job, but that has two major problems. First, the review of practices is invariably done by some non-teacher bureaucrat who can answer questions like "Is this aligned to the standards" but not questions like "Will this actually work in my math class?" Second, the companies that produce materials don't like bureaucrats stepping in to contradict their marketing copy.

And any attempt to get the pipeline flowing smoothly has to address one other issue--cost. Most teachers are too familiar with the experience of gazing longingly at a set of books, a piece of software, or a technique that depends on some pricey gadget, and knowing that there is no hope that they will ever be allowed to buy it.
So is there a working pipeline into classrooms? Sure. The most effective PR for any classroom practice is a trusted teacher saying, "I've done this, and it totally worked." Publishers and other manufacturers of teacher stuff know this; that's one reason that sales forces are filled with former teachers. There is no better source of teacher-trusted research than a classroom. Every classroom is a research lab, and every teacher is gathering data every day--not just columns and numbers but things like how many of which students look lost and which are fully engaged and learning. How does this technique affect the energy in the room? How much confusion persists afterwards? How does it play with the top students? The not-so-top students? Teachers test out techniques every day under authentic field conditions, with actual live students, then tweak and edit those techniques on the fly for maximum effectiveness.
Teachers are the front line experts. Anybody interested in education practices needs to connect with the actual practitioners. Skip the clowns. Go visit the big show.


  1. YUP. It doesn't help that these articles are often touting programs (like phonics-only instruction) that fit in with a very narrow agenda. I trust certain companies to a certain extent (mostly companies like Heinemann and Stenhouse that publish for teachers), but I still vet their materials HEAVILY, buying only what seems useful, taking only what works from them.

    The last thing I'm going to trust is some program pushed down at me from a higher level, because those people have shown themselves time and time again that they are completely unworthy of my trust, from the EdWeek articles that contradict each other while claiming absolute correctness (while insulting teachers who seem to be ignorant buffoons in their minds) to the principal who tells us to use a program that's "research-backed" only to find that the research was ONLY done by the company that sells it for the amount of money it would take to hire a whole extra person in the building.

  2. It is a mistake to generalize when it comes to identifying problems and offering solutions in education. "Best practices" for who? The millions of very successful students? The 800 pound gorilla who is riding the elephant around the reform room is the fact that all of their noise has been directed at an entire system that actually works - until you factor in poverty and economic hopelessness.

    Now are best practices going to magically help a kid who misses 30 days a year? how about a child with food insecurity? or the kid who can't sleep because the crack party is too loud? and what about that teenager with early signs of mental illness? the kid who never met his father and who's boyfriend regularly beats his mother? the cognitively impaired child suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome? the kid who's parents encourage him to drop out like they did?

    Pedagogy is not the problem.

  3. The 13th clown we've already seen. Remember a few years ago when a teacher was forced to wear a bluetooth earpiece and say what a team of 'experts' in the back of the room told her to say? Reformers (truth-in-advertising, highly paid consultants) have already tried to dictate practice. All that happened was a situation so ridiculous that students mimicked the words the marionette teacher had to say.