Thursday, January 24, 2019

Classroom Practice Ideas For Reformsters

So while I was working on my last post, I came across this post by Robert Pondiscio that makes a good companion piece.

It's a post you might well miss; if you're a regular reader here, you may not check the Fordham Think-Tank Reform Advocacy Blog often. But Pondiscio and I really disagree about some things and really agree about some others, so I pay attention. I give Pondisc io credit for kicking off the 2018 year of reformy navel gazing with the observation that reformers had “overplayed our hand, overstated our expertise, and outspent our moral authority by a considerable margin.'

In this post, he's also responding to Mike Petrilli's new interest in evidence-based practices, and offered five suggestions designed to keep the "golden age of educational practice" from "blowing up on the launch pad." Let's look at the five pieces of advice:

1. Ask the right questions.

“What works?” is the wrong question. “The right question is ‘Under what conditions does this work?’” observes Dylan Wiliam.

That's an excellent start. My own suggestion is instead of politicians and thinks tank guys asking each other, "How can we make these damn teachers do the right stuff," turn to teachers and ask, "How can we help you do your jobs?"

2. Understand and accept trade-offs.

Quality research, says Pondiscio via Dan Willingham, "tells you what’s likely to happen if you pull a lever. It’s silent on whether it’s a good idea, or if the trade-offs are worth it."

Reformsters were surprised and baffled by the consequences of test-based accountability. Arne Duncan kept bemoaning the way test prep dominated many schools without ever understanding that his policies helped create the problem. One of the most critical question that people (especially journalist people) don't ask when some school announces miraculous test scores is "What did you sacrifice to get them." And don't get classroom teachers started on the endless directives to add One More Thing to their day, as if they have some vast bank of unused time they can tap into.

Teachers are operating at capacity; in some cases, beyond capacity. You cannot add anything without losing something. Yet more than once I've seen a principal get angry because, after receiving a new directive, a teacher asked, "So what do you want me to stop doing," as if that were some sort of impertinent sass and not a legitimate concern. And you don't have to get into deep or complex practices to see this issue in action. How many teachers have been told, "Between classes, be outside your door, monitoring the hall. Also, between classes, make sure you are monitoring your classroom."

This issue is a great example of something thinky tank guys and politicians easily ignore because they aren't in a classroom. But every single choice in a classroom comes with an opportunity cost, something that won't be happening because the teacher is doing Thing X instead. Any discussion of classroom practices must include a discussion of the costs-- all the costs.

3. Kill education myths.

This advice is rather broad. Pondiscio brings up learning styles and other pseudo-science. But myths are hard to stifle. Take "charter schools do a better job than public schools" or "vouchers and cyber schools will work"-- very hard to stifle. But I support stamping out edu-baloney, even though we might disagree about which myths qualify, exactly.

4. Learn the lessons cognitive science.

Here we hit an area where Pondiscio and I agree-- the "skills" movement labeled many things (e.g, critical thinking) as skills that can be taught, leaned and honed in a vacuum. That's just not so. From reading to creativity, content knowledge is what makes it possible. You can't think critically about something if you're ignorant of that something. Your reading skill rests on your content knowledge; you can't decode your way to understanding a word you've never heard of in a context you don't understand. Even creativity-- you can't discover creative new ways to look at something if you don't know anything about that something. You can phrase this in fancy language and say that cognitive skills are domain specific, but the idea stays the same.

5. Stop demanding bad practice through policy.

Really, stop demanding any practice through policy, because I don't care what it is-- for some teacher with some student on some day, the policy will be bad.

This was my raging frustration through the second half of my career-- the constant demands coming from state and federal government that I commit educational malpractice. The number of times that I had to look at a particular hill and decide whether I should fight on it, die on it, sneak around it, or just live to fight another day-- there was nothing more tiring about the work than those kinds of decisions, made on a daily basis, and all the worse because these decisions were forced on me by politicians and thinky tank hot shots and rich guys who wanted to dabble in education, but not by actual educators who had a clue about my work.

Common Core, test-centered accountability, test prep-- and at the high school level the damage being done isn't as severe as what's happening on the elementary level. I could not have been angrier if I had been a surgeon told by my bosses, "Stop using scalpels and operate with this rusty shovel instead."

Guys like Bill Gates, thinky tanks like Fordham, dabblers like David Coleman, politicians like--well, all of them-- if your ideas for good classroom practices are, in fact, good, then put them out there in the field. Let the marketplace of ideas get a look at them. If teachers like them, if they work, they will spread on their own. But mandating them is a bad idea because--

First, no practice is a good practice 100% of the time and

Second, as the last twenty years show, you guys mostly don't know what the hell you're talking about.  What possessed you to appoint yourselves the Grand High Poohbahs of education, I do not know, but just stop it. Stop operating on the assumption that you Know Things that actual teachers in the field do not, and so you must go ahead and force every teacher to do things your way. We haven't even begun to unpack all the damage you've already done, so just stop. You've been consistently wrong, and yet, like some energizer bunny that thinks it's a cordon bleu chef, you won't stop making a mess in the kitchen. Stop. If you want your say, sure, go ahead, this is America. Work with teachers. Try to be helpful. But stop trying to turn your every idea into a law, rule or regulation.

Let me just catch my breath here. 

I give four of Pondiscio's ideas a gold star for being useful going forward. And if reformy leaders want to shift gears from trying to break schools to trying to help teachers do the work-- well, I'm suspicious, but I'm always willing to listen. I appreciate what Pondiscio has written here; I just hope his colleagues listen to him.


  1. Regarding the lessons of cognitive science, every teacher absolutely must read, "Why Don't Students Like School?" by Daniel Willingham.

    Especially all who have fallen for constructivist/discovery learning and the wrong-headed principle of Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. These debunked and failed methodologies are making our profession look very bad.

  2. Nearly spit out my coffee at #5. The irony was so thick it needed a chainsaw!

  3. Also, if you're going to Ask The Right Question, it doesn't hurt to make sure you also are Asking The Right People.