Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hammers and Nails

There was an old anecdote in my family about my uncle's lack of skills when it came to repairs.  He seemed to have only one tool: a hammer.  This was clearly the wrong tool when it came to delicate repairs around the house, like fixing pieces of antique furniture.  But apparently he pulled it out on numerous occasions, to the horror of those witnessing the repair work.

Sometimes I feel like that is all we are offered when it comes to problem-solving in America.

In school reform, bringing down the hammer has meant browbeating teachers and systems into producing better test scores and -- theoretically--students who have learned more (though research shows we have been running in place for about a decade).  The recent report on teacher morale shows how ineffective it has been to use the hammer of teacher evaluation based on test scores and public humiliation to bring about change in our schooling system.

I doubt that the real objective for these measures is an improvement in instruction.  Efforts to 'hold teachers accountable' appear to be aimed more at destroying public schooling than fixing it.  If that is the objective, the hammer has been doing a pretty good job of smashing things up.

If anyone is seriously entertaining the goal of improving our system of schooling through these various hammers, all evidence leads to the contrary.

It ain't workin'.

There are other places it feels like leaders wield a hammer where a screwdriver, a chisel, or a dental pick might be more appropriate.

In an online discussion with journalism colleagues about building relationships, the subject of food in the classroom came up.  Teachers weighed in on when, where, why or why not food might appear in the classroom.

The response was interesting.  Schools all over the country have strict rules: No food under any circumstances--or else. Teachers shared what punishments are handed down when the rule is broken.  Personally, I keep some packaged food in my room and have, on occasion, fed a student who seems wildly distracted by his or her hunger.  Interestingly, when an obviously hungry student gets some food nobody clambers for "their share."  Usually the student is grateful and then gets back to work.  But none of that judgement can be carried out under a strict no exceptions ruling.

Others commented on how their administration has responded to the obesity crisis: by punishment.  Rules apparently exist against classroom parties, no sodas anywhere, anytime.  In short, the response has been to broadly punish rather than educate.

The conversation moved on to discuss how other cultures bring food education into the school day by setting aside time to enjoy a well-prepared meal over a mealtime conversation.  France values its food culture so much that mid-day meals includes extensive preparation and instruction on behavior at meals.  The Ontario school system made a concerted effort to re-educate the food production staff--and then consequently the students--on the pleasure and enjoyment of healthy, delicious choices.

Apparently, that won't be a choice for most of Amerca's students.

The hammer comes down in other areas too.  When new reforms are introduced, teachers are "held-accountable" to system-wide professional development by providing a paper trail to prove they are implementing new strategies.  Once the hammer of accountability is removed, teachers often return to their usual habits and the classroom initiative is lost.

The National Writing Project turns that model on its head by inviting teachers to investigate a success in the classroom (rather than a failure) and use inquiry methods to determine why and how it worked so the teacher can reproduce the results in multiple situations.  Most teachers claim to be transformed by the process.  They own their new knowledge and often go on to explore more self-directed learning experiences from their own classrooms.  Helping kids identify successes has similar energizing results.

The hammer is obvious when students interrupt instruction through poor behavior.  Usually the student is removed (as it should be), but often are sent to be punished rather than counseled.  The raft of rules in most schools often have the effect of removing responsibility from the student. (I've been told "There's no rule in the handbook on that" when a student is clearly not behaving in appropriate manner.  Do we really need more than one rule?  "Treat others the way you would want to be treated."  Everything else is just a variation on that. )  Oddly, rewards often have the same effect on a student's (and teacher's) sense of responsibility.

The top-down structure of our school systems have long been hammers looking for nails, but that mind-set also extends into the current American philosophy of criminal justice and political reality.

We can't really punish everyone, can we?

I'm ready for another tool.


  1. Mary,
    You make wonderul points regarding how education reform seems to be "administered" in this country.

    What generally has happened from the AFT and the NEA and their state and local affiliates are statements that react to the proposals being put forth by politicians and school administrators. What has been lacking are proactive statements about what teachers really want visavis teaching and learning conditions.

    The AFT, with less governance structures than the NEA, has been a little quicker to the starting line regarding defining and supporting innovation that addresses teaching and learning (teacher effectiveness being one of the subtopics).
    The policy change that was adopted at the NEA RA last year helped to free NEA to become more involved in proactively defining the reform effort, but, by in large, that change in thinking has yet to trickle down to the state and local affiliates.

    To shape the direction of education reform, teachers and their representative organizations need to do a few things differently:
    -state what we want rather than what we don't want. (For instance, I see Peer Assistance and Review programs as more effective alternatives to determining effective teaching practice than what currently exists or what is being proposed.)
    -become more involved or organized in our communities so that when we speak we are speaking with a community voice and one that is not "teacher-centric."
    - develop a clear and succinct message regarding public education. Message trumps fact every time.

    Thank you sharing your thoughts as you walk to school...

  2. Anonymous--I agree that the NEA is too slow to act. The Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching was an effort to get out in front of the reform movement rather than standing in a defensive posture. The report is an effort to state the change needed from a classroom teacher perspective
    I challenge the NEA leadership to get more nimble here:
    Thanks for reading