Sunday, March 12, 2023

Asking Teachers To Do Fewer Things Better

At the Fordham Institute blog, Robert Pondiscio and Jessica Shurtz talk about the idea of improving student outcomes by asking teachers to do fewer things better. While we disagree on some points (I'll get to that in a minute), the basic idea is sound.

Anyone who has taught for more than a couple of years has had the experience-- administration announces that you will need to add one more thing to your plate. It may be a state mandate ("Our young people need help with modern widget issues, so let's require schools to include a widget lesson in their curriculum") or it may be a new program requirement ("We're adding the new Hooray For Sticks literacy program so you'll need to make room for daily lessons") or it may be the admin's newest resume bomb ("In my continuing quest to put 'change agent' on my resume, I have decided to add this cool thing to our curriculum") or it may be the result of some passing whim ("I just read an intriguing article about instructional weasel spit...") but the end result is that classroom teachers are regularly asked to add one more task to the list of tasks they already don't have enough time for.

The piece hits on themes that have been consistent through Pondiscio's work. The education system needs about 4 million teachers, which suggests that most of them are going to be ordinary mortals, and any approach to education premised on a plan to find a bunch of superteachers and put them in classrooms is not a very good plan. On this we agree. It has occasionally been the plan, like the occasional vogue for the Super Sardinemaster model, in which we put an awesome teacher in a classroom of a few hundred students and/or shoot her out to a few hundred students via the interwebs. Race to the Top included the notion that we could identify super teachers and move them around to where they were needed, an idea that ran aground on the question of how--how to identify super teachers, and how to move them around.

We all know that "some teachers are more effective than others," except that when we say that, it's really shorthand for "we all know that some teachers are more effective at some things with some students on some days, depending on who you ask." Which is probably why we haven't made much progress with finding ways to identify great teachers and figure out what makes them great.

Many folks think it's really easy to identify really good and really bad teachers, which may be true, but the vast majority of teachers are neither super-awesome or terribly terrible. Which brings us back to Pondiscio and Schurz's point, which is that the system needs to figure out how to get the best work out of those folks in the regular human middle.

I can think of several suggestions, including a good training system and less reliance on measures that don't actually measure anything useful (lookin' at you, EdTPA and Praxis). Pondiscio and Schurz center on cutting the teacher workload-- 

Let’s not ask what more teachers can do. Ask instead what are the things that only a teacher can do. Everything else should be a job for someone else.

True that. Of course, it would require hiring those people and paying them, which is where many districts start to balk. But it is true that education consistently pays out a lot of money to do grunt jobs. Did I need a Master's Degree to supervise all those study halls, or more to the point, did my district need to hire someone with a Master's Degree and at the top of the pay scale to supervise study halls? But these kinds of "duty periods" give districts the illusion that they are getting "free" labor as well as playing to the all-too-common assumption that if a teacher isn't in a roomful of students, she isn't really working and the district isn't really getting their money's worth. 

Pondiscio has long argued that teachers should be freed up of the need to plan lessons, and when he says. "While many educators argue, often strenuously, that their autonomy is sacrosanct, and for allowing teachers to build a curriculum around their students’ interests or customize their lessons to maximize their engagement..." he could be talking about me. 

As with so many educational issues, I think lesson planning falls on a continuum. On one end of the scale, we find "teacher proof" lessons in a box, scripted for delivery "with fidelity" by people who may have the title of "teacher," but are simply content delivery units. On the other end of the scale, we find teachers who just do whatever the heck they want to on any given day. 

The scripted version probably has more supporters out there, if for no other reason than some folks find the McDonaldization of education appealing. If we've got all the lessons in a box, then we can hire any schlubb (or maybe some AI algorithm) to read the script. Low costs, no unions--for some folks it would be paradise. On the other end of the scale, I'm not sure many people are fans of the Teacher Land Of Do As You Please other than the teacher herself (and I'll bet that her colleagues support that model less than anyone). 

To be clear--both models are bad. A canned lesson created by someone who has never even met the students and is delivered by someone who makes no attempt to meet the students where they are is bad teaching. A teacher who just kind of follows her muse wherever it may lead on the taxpayers' dime is irresponsible. 

The answer lies somewhere in the middle (and probably not exactly in the same place for every school). It is both useful and helpful to provide the teacher with something, some guidance, some pathway, some sort of direction about what is expected of them in planning their lessons and laying out the road ahead. Simply dumping a teacher into a classroom and saying, "There you go-- good luck teaching them whatever" is not how you set people up for success. This is how many districts end up with a textbook-dictated curriculum--teachers resort to just opening the book and start heading through it, page by page.

And Pondiscio and Schurz are correct to hint that more autonomy equals more work on things other than analyzing student work, providing feedback and other important work that may vary by grade level and subject matter (as a high school English teacher, I spent so many hours rereading the novels I taught as well as reading about them; my wife the elementary teacher has no such issue, but the sheer volume of lesson planning she has to do boggles my mind). 

Somewhere in the midst of this continuum is the sweet spot, and I think the sweet spot is this. If you are doing your job, then when you use created materials and pre-developed lesson plans, you still go through the process of fitting that to your particular class, adapting it to student interests and needs. If during the adaptation process you conclude that it would be less work to just design your own damn lesson, then you have sailed past the sweet spot. Good teaching materials make it easier to do your job. 

There's a whole other conversation to be had about lesson planning as a paperwork exercise that exists to "prove" to the office that you're doing your job or to add to some district analysis of which standards the district is covering or to feed some admin's dream that if he has all your lesson plans on file he can replace you easily. Generally, lesson plans that are for the use of someone other than the actual teacher are a waste of teacher time.

And there's also a shift in all of this that occurs over time. Throughout my career, my year to year goal was to add one or two more balls to my juggling act while building a bigger and bigger foundation on which to build everything else. You get better at this stuff, the longer you keep at it, and you have to build less and less from scratch (however, if you just pull out last year's materials and walk through it without question or revision, you're no better than the teacher reading from the canned script). 

You learn how to reduce your own extraneous workload. Still. The last few years of my career, I carried a lot of frustration because administration was adding extra workload faster than I could trim. The pandemic and its various side effects amped that up big time. That amping includes both the additional responsibilities tossed on teachers ("Why don't you go ahead and teach all your classes live and on line?") and in the loss of time to get stuff done. I talked to former colleagues who lost their clerical work period to cover someone else's absences every single day for a year. This year, I have lost track of how many specials (art, music, phys ed) my children have lost because the teacher was pulled to cover an absence. 

If you want to piss off an administrator, in one of those Here's Your New Responsibility meetings, raise your hand and ask, "What would you like me to stop doing so I have time to do this?" The question needs to be answered, but it never is. 

In his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, Dylan Wiliam observes that when teachers are asked to identify something that they will stop doing or do less of to create time and space for them to explore improvements to their teaching, they fail miserably. “They go through the list of their current tasks and duties and conclude that there is nothing they can stop doing or do less of because everything that they are doing contributes to student learning,” he writes. “In my experience, it is hardly ever the case that teachers are doing things that are unproductive. This is why leadership in education is so challenging. The essence of effective leadership is stopping people from doing good things to give them time to do even better things.”

Yes, that. It's yet another issue where the answers can't be scaled because they are very specific and very local. But every administrator in the country ought to be working on it. 

1 comment:

  1. To DO List:
    Streamline/simplify graded course requirements.
    Streamline/simplify grading system.
    Distill course content.
    Create templates for completing lesson plans,
    assignment grading, and all required busy work.
    (Less is way more)

    To STOP/LIMIT List:
    Grading everything numerically.
    Phone calls home
    Reading (most) emails
    Personal progress updates to parents
    Feedback comments (that few students read)
    Test prep
    Writing lengthy/wordy replies/explanations/rationales regarding anything that is perfunctory or simply doesn't pertain to improving instruction. You'll be shocked how little superfluous writing you need to do.
    (Less is way more)