Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Reading Education In Year Five

I didn't take ed classes as an undergraduate. There's a plethora of folks round the blogs who would have you believe this fact saved my career, but the jury is still out. I didn't study teaching. I majored in psychology because it was my favorite subject in high school and I was way too far along with the credits before I realized it pretty much sucked as a discipline. I also majored in philosophy because it was the hardest thing around, and those readings presented the kind of intellectual challenge my overly idealistic brain assumed was the whole purpose of future schooling.

I didn't study education so I never read, formally, in the field. My Teach For America training was theoretically grounded, and solidly so, but was praxis-based, so I did not read. My credentialing experience required nothing more rigorous than the periodic group presentation of a jig-sawed chapter, so I didn't read there either. But I'm reading now, despite the predilection of my Masters course designers to opt for the oh-so-intellectually fascinating jigsaw. I'm not reading much because little is asked and even less is functionally required, but I'm doing it.

I read Meier and Darling-Hammond and Banks and Ladson-Billings and there's this refrain that teachers need more autonomy, that competency-based education is awful, that all forms of standardized assessment have ruined everything for everyone who is not a test-designer. Five years ago I would have ate this up and asked for more, pounded my mental chest and over-utilized phrases like canned curriculum and teacher in a box. Five years ago I think I did do this, was one of the loudest and most persistent member of the I-Hate-High-Point club. Five years later, after closing the reading gap, I'm not buying. I'm still looking, but I'm not ready to pull out the wallet.

Because you can't have it both ways. As teachers, you cannot simultaneously negotiate evaluation-proof work conditions on the one hand, and instructional autonomy on the other. If evaluations continue to focus on teacher actions -- objectives posted, adherence to 5-step lesson plan, etc. -- rather than student outcomes, if there continues to be no accepted tool to measure teacher effectiveness, if we reject the very notion that certain educators may be superior instructors because of what they do and not what the kids bring relative to their demographics, than you don't get autonomy. You can't.

Dig it: As a teacher I should get to teach whatever I want because I know best and no one is allowed to determine if what I taught or how I taught it was important, valid, or successful because I earned tenure in the name of academic freedom.

That's the argument our profession makes. It's weak sauce.

And it's unfortunate because teachers do need autonomy. Many state- and board-adopted curricula are damn near awful, poorly designed and poorly realized. Which is somewhat besides the point, because there is no program in existence that can meet the needs of all learners all of the time, no matter how faithfully implemented. It is more than naive and foolish to think otherwise. At the same time, it's probably equally naive to assume that if teachers were given carte blanche to do as thy will, student achievement would dramatically increase. It can't, not in the absence of true accountability and valid assessment.

As I read these endless teacher accounts of being subjected to controlled curriculum, I grow tired rather than invigored, and think shut up rather than right on. And I wonder how many teachers would trade their contractual safety for the accountability they seem to crave, and I wonder how much it would cost a district to negotiate that kind of agreement.


Anonymous Dan Meyer said...

So let's say I'm one of these teachers who seems to crave accountability. What "contractual safety" do you see that stance costing me? My perspective is blinkered, having never been tenured, but assuming I had been, what givebacks would these cravings force?

9:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my fourteen years of teaching middle school, I've never once followed the prescribed curriculum. Yes, I teach the standards; yes, my students have been successful; yes, I've had failures. But I've never fallen back on "tenure." I create every year as I go, reflecting on past successes and failures. If you hit the ground running every single day, tenure is never an issue. You have to believe that you can be fired at any moment. There's my accountability.

11:59 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Dan: We know teachers can be fired, but we also know that teachers cannot be fired because of low student performance. They can receive negative evaluations if it does not "look" right, but not if the kids do not learn. That's where I'm going with this. I don't know how you can say I should get to teach whatever and however I want if no one can evaluate or assess, in any meaningful job performance way, how effective you were in doing this.

Maybe this isn't a systematic thing; maybe those who really want the accountability step up and say, let me do what I want, look at my results, and tell me if I can keep doing it.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous ivory said...

TMAO - I think the key problem is that different people have different ideas about what makes a child "successful" which makes the whole assessment part very tricky. I know there are teachers that would not mind assessment, if it was done in a way they agreed with. It's easier to get a consensus with basic skills, but how do you decide what students need to know about history or science? I think the basic lack of agreement on what constitutes a good outcome is part of the problem.

2:49 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

I often hear the disagreement you speak of, Ivory. But it is not very often I hear it justified, explained, or supported in a meaningful or compelling way. There are history and science standards are there not? Are these standards invalid? Are local or standardized measures of assessment invalid?

In any event, if the disagreement you mentioned is so paralyzing, I guess that underscores the unavailability of wide-spread autonomy.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Renee said...

I appreciated your latest post, and I'm very interested in the issue of professional accountability and evaluation. One reason I pursued NBC was to get a realistic critique of my teaching, something I could not get from either my administrators or test scores alone. We will only have real accountability when we act as a true profession: setting and enforcing standards upon ourselves and our peers.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Same for me, Renee. I did NBC back in 2001 as a means of getting some good feedback and for validation of my teaching practices. Although I passed, my teaching has gotten so much better since then! The experience of NBC truly made my head spin--I haven't thought the same about teaching since then.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Ivory said...

I think it is very difficult to get a group of teachers, especially from different disciplines, to sit down and agree on an assessment technique. Yes, there are standards, but still is a multiple choice test the best way to assess whether or not they have been met? I'm comfortable with that but I know people who are not. And selecting standards is very political. In science for example, what should students know about evolution?

You have the easier job in this case choosing goals for assessment - the kids can read at grade level or they can't. There is no argument about the value of that skill, nor does there appear to be disagreement about what it means to be at grade level. If we had this kind of straightforward unity of purpose within and across the disciplines, assessment would be much easier.

I teach allied health students so for me, the ultimate assessment of my efficacy is whether or not my students pass their board exams. My students have a 100% pass rate - so far, so good. But there are some students that frankly scare me - they are good at memorizing things and pass their tests but they're not very good at figuring things out and the half life of retention for them is all of about 7 days. I wish I could reward the students who are "learning deep" and flunk those who are just trash memorizing everything but not really learning it. The licensing exam alone doesn't discriminate between these two types.

11:48 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

I wish I could reward the students who are "learning deep" and flunk those who are just trash memorizing everything but not really learning it.

Instead of assessing the material once, assess it multiple times over a distributed period. The repetition of performance will force the students to master the material, i.e., retain it.

4:48 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Renee and Ivory, I think NBC is a step toward what we're talking about. I think it also has value in promoting the idea of a professional "class" of teachers, one focused one results, and rigorous praxis, and everything that goes with it. Only a step, though. More is needed.

Ivory, when I talk about progress and accountability, I don't necessarily mean solely on through the vehicle of large-scale standardized testing. What if every instructor met with their principal on week 3 and established the framework of what success entails, formally, and specific to their students, their level of academic readiness, and the extent of growth needed? What if those conversations were happening in a formal way, those talking about what success means, and how, and how sites will measure it? That's what I'm talking about, more than AYP-maintance, and also the idea of committing to student growth as the lens through which we look at this issue.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My response to accountability is "bring it on." I'd be happy to have an end-of-course test (I'm thinking of high school English here) and be left alone to prepare students to pass it. I actually think people like Linda Darling-Hammond would be okay with that too. The problem I have is when people outside my classroom want to tell me how to teach AND what should be assessed. Of course I'd like the tests to be somewhat more sophisticated than they are now, but I think that's possible.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

You're my kind of teacher. I write about such inconsistences all the time over at my own blog.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darren--Interesting, because I went and looked at your blog, and my politics couldn't be any further from yours if I tried. I'm even one of the people who think NCLB is right-wing plot to discredit public education (at least I think there's an element of that involved). Go figure.

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If civil engineers with no accountability and no willingness to support assessment worked the way teachers did, PEOPLE WOULD DIE when bridges fell down.

Whether those bridges would fall down due to bad engineering curricula or the engineers not following it, I couldn't say. Does it really matter? Both are utter and complete failures of the engineer to build a bridge.

No professional disciplines allow this crap about "is X the best method for assessment?" They agree on methods; best, better, whatever--they pick a set. They agree to them, peer review them, and if they aren't working, they revise them.

When teaching grows up, it will have respect.

9:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Civil engineers also work with fixed, standard, and relatively predictable circumstances (please save the obvious exceptions). As you most likely know, kids are not so fixed, not so easily pigeon-holed. So even with something like Marzano, it will not click for everyone in the way we think it should.

Also, not mentioned in the above posts is the vulnerability to outside influence education is constantly facing. So, while we have done a horrendous job of cleaning our own house for many years, it is hard to come up with a standard for a profession with not only 50 states meddling, but federal and local hands as well. That leaves us with many ideas from in and out of education about what should be assessed, what can be assessed, and how often.

We need improvement, but as long as education remains something everyone is an expert about, it will be hard to find a common ground for uncommon settings.

To deflect away from our own profession for a moment, would those in medicine be any more open to similar scrutiny currently being asked of educators? They have the standards up front, but after they are in their office, who keeps score and how public is that information? Seems to be as logical as many arguments about assessing teacher accountability.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous ivory said...

Interesting that you should bring up medicine because the new trend if for doctors to repeat their board exams every 10 years in order to keep their licenses. Teachers have no equivalent requirement.

Another thing unique to medicine; there are very strong unions but the licensing boards are able to pull the license of those who do not perform well - and they do. Doctors are prevented from unionizing and work (for the most part) as independent contractors in a free market system. Patients who are not satisfied can find a new doctor. It's rare to have this kind of choice in education.

As with engineering, there's good metrics on how successful doctors are - are people under this person's care responding to treatment? Are they dying unexpectedly? Assessment is very easy.

Doctors and other health care providers can also be sued for malpractice. Can you imagine what it would be like if teachers had to worry about malpractice suits?

Finally, healthcare has a "standard of care" for many diseases. This standard evolves with new technology but everyone is expected to follow standard practices and few argue with this requirement. More practically, insurance companies will refuse to pay for treatment if it does not conform to standard practice so most practitioners conform to the standard. I am not aware of any equivalent set of standard practices in education.

6:16 AM  
Anonymous Eric Hoefler said...

TMAO said:

What if every instructor met with their principal on week 3 and established the framework of what success entails, formally, and specific to their students, their level of academic readiness, and the extent of growth needed? What if those conversations were happening in a formal way, those talking about what success means, and how, and how sites will measure it?

This is much closer to the kind of accountability I would support: directly relevant, based on both national and local interests, and specific to the teacher's students and context. It also forces both the teacher and the administration to think deeply about what they're doing, why they're doing it, and how they will evaluate their success. Standards and multiple-choice tests do not, in practice, make this happen ... quite the opposite.

However, I'm not against national standards. We need an agreed-upon direction to serve as guiding vision (but not shackling prison). Nor am I against national forms of assessment provided the standards make sense in terms of the subject/discipline and the developmental level of the student and that the tests are appropriate and authentic measures of what's being taught.

At some point, though, the assessment that teachers (should) conduct daily in the classroom--in all sorts of formal, informal, and nuanced ways--must still count for something and should not be merely trumped out of relevance by national assessments. This requires a professional, trustworthy teaching force, though. Some are not convinced we have that right now, and I don't see signs that we're moving towards improving that situation in any helpful manner.

I do agree with anonymous' comment:

We need improvement, but as long as education remains something everyone is an expert about, it will be hard to find a common ground for uncommon settings.

Teachers must be the experts, but so far don't yet (en masse) seem to deserve the title. A rant about the lack of internal progress in the teaching profession is here.

Finally, as to the doctor/teacher analogy, my response to this faulty bit of thinking is here.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

What if every instructor met with their principal on week 3 and established the framework of what success entails, formally, and specific to their students, their level of academic readiness, and the extent of growth needed? What if those conversations were happening in a formal way, those talking about what success means, and how, and how sites will measure it?

Yes, yes. Education professionals meeting with other education professionals for a conversation/dialogue/whatever about goals, objectives, and the methods and means of attaining same? Absolutely. We have the beginnings of a similar mechanism here, though the timing never quite works out well--in the first month or two of school, we meet with our Program Coordinator to map out some ideas for the year, new projects, etc, then meet again right around now to check in about how things are going. We don't ever talk about how we'll know that progress has been made, though that is something I'd be all for. Still, it's a step, and it's much more natural and right to talk to an experienced administrator who knows the field, the discipline, and the specific population than some outsider.

Would I have the same conversation with my principal? Sure as hell would. We're a huge school, though, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to meet with all 285 of us in a week.

NBC is an interesting thing, too--as a Connecticut teacher, I've often wondered why different states have different standards for their educators (you get that a lot when you work in a state that doesn't have reciprocity agreements with other states). That seems like it'd be an easy fix for a pretty big problem, and maybe even would help with the whole standards debate (if teachers are certified/qualified for all states, that'd probably bring about some alignment in standards and practices).

12:08 PM  
Blogger Heather, Jenel, Jaime said...

As literacy grad students, we believe that the statement "there is no one program in existence that can meet the needs of all learners all of the time" holds to be true. This would be like saying "one size fits all." However, we need to strive to use a combination of programs to meet the needs of students and build on their strengths that they bring to school. Too many times this is where teachers fail to take the time needed.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous H. said...


Have you read Martin Haberman ("Star teachers of children in poverty") in your journey through the ed lit? If not, I'll gladly buy you a (second-hand) copy and get it mailed to your school if you promise to write an entry about your ideas about his ideas. What do you say?

9:42 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


It's a deal.

5:13 PM  
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