Sunday, January 29, 2012

State of the [teacher's] Union

Obama addressed the nation on Tuesday night in his annual State of the Union remarks to both houses of Congress.  

Of course, when education is referenced in these speeches, (as it always is-without fail) I perk up and listen.  In general the remarks are hollow rah-rahs for the need for stronger schools. Often, the pablum is packaged in red, white, and blue and little of substance is offered.

So far, I have yet to hear a politician say anything but supportive statements about the need for a strong education system.  The devil is in the details. 

For those who may have missed it, here is the portion of the State of the Union address where Obama referenced our floundering goals in education:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.  Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies – just to make a difference. Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

His remarks are shorthand for those who follow education issues and reflect most of what has gone on in the past year.  Here's the translation.

First of all, layoffs are looming.  Most localities will run out of stimulus money this year and will have to increase classroom sizes as they lay off teachers.

Then he references the recent report published in the New York Times on how effective teachers improve a child's earning power.  This report has dubious goals and questionable conclusions about using Value Added Measures which rely on test scores to rate a teacher's effectiveness, so the remark about what "we know" is not exactly all that quantifiable.  It is clear though that effective teachers who are well supported can make a difference. A large part of a teacher's ability to be effective hinges on the system he/she labors within.  Clearly the current system under NCLB has done much to stagnate student achievement in the past decade.  And equal access to a strong educational foundation has widened rather than narrowed.  Teachers argue that their ability to remain effective has been stripped from them.

Obama's line about saving poor children through education is seen by some as a cop-out for the rest of the nation.  Laying the cure for poverty at the feet of the teaching force absolves the rest of us from making changes to a tax code that dooms whole swaths of our electorate to a lifelong struggle for economic stability. Student achievement will benefit when households are not under continual strain.

The "bashing" line comes from the media onslaught starting with Waiting for Superman last fall and continuing in the NBC Education Nation where teachers and their unions have been routinely vilified and sidelined so that billionaires and corporatists can gain credibility in their argument that the cure for public education is a weakened teacher's union and tighter, more frequent measures of teacher effectiveness--i.e. testing, testing, testing, to produce data, data, data. 

The last bit--"let's offer schools a deal" refers to Obama's language in his actual "blueprint" (why is everything a blueprint these days?).  The blueprint was released after the speech and contains the following language in reference to a plan for education:

Attract, prepare, support, and reward great teachers to help students learn: 
Teaching is a profession and should be treated like one. The latest research says a great teacher could increase the lifetime income of an entire classroom by hundreds of thousands of dollars. 
The President is fighting to protect our schools from being hurt by the recession by providing states and communities with funds to prevent teacher layoffs, and avoid increases to class sizes or decreases in the number of school days. 
The President is also asking for a new competitive program that will challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively reform the teaching profession by:
o Reforming colleges of education and making these schools more selective;o Creating new career ladders for teachers to become more effective, and ensuring that
earnings are tied more closely to performance;o Establishing more leadership roles and responsibilities for teachers in running
schools; improving professional development and time for collaboration among teachers; and providing greater individual and collective autonomy in the classroom in exchange for greater accountability;
o Creating evaluation systems based on multiple measures, rather than just test scores; o Re-shaping tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability. 

So this list looks like the devil's details.  Those who have read the report Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning will recognize some of the bullet points.  The teachers who wrote the report argue that teachers will assume accountability when we have more control over the training, the workplace, and the criteria for advancement.  In other words, ownership of a supportive system in tandem with accountability.

The door is not fully open for professionalizing teaching, but this looks like a window to crawl through.  

Nothing happens until discussion ensues.  Start talking.   Our representatives need to know which bullet points need to be pushed forward in this agenda to lift teachers to the role of professional.  Our children and the future will benefit.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Teaching is the absolute best way to learn something really, really well.  Especially if you teach a topic repeatedly to audiences of different sorts of learners.  This is why collaboration, think-pair-share, and any of those other gee-whiz strategies work so well. They move students into the role of teacher.  You can't explain something very well, and in varying ways, if you don't understand it.  Probably the chief challenge in teaching is to remember that your audience does not understand something as well as you do.  Teaching is the ultimate mind-matching exercise.

I managed to avoid teaching existentialism for years just by teaching in the lower grades.  But when the works of senior year pushed us into the realm of philosophy, I had to get a handle on this one--a philosophy that runs through most modern works and that initially appeared to me to be depressing: life has no meaning, do what you want.  Turns out there was so much more--and paradoxically--less.

My journey started with my colleagues: "Explain this philosophy to me in a way that helps me explain this to my students."  They complied.  We had a discussion over lunch.

As with any inquiry, once the question is asked the answers begin to appear everywhere (so says I - and Socrates) and I was on a collecting spree, always looking for works to flesh out my simplistic view of a modern dilemma:  What is the meaning and purpose of life?

My favorite was Jean Paul Sartre's defense.  Sartre's view is hopeful.  If life is purposeless then humans are free to determine their own purpose. But in defining ourselves as human, we must first define our purpose and then taking action becomes obvious since it will result from that stated purpose.  Those who face down their 'existential crisis' and come out on the other side become the opposite of Eliot's hollow men.

Next, on a snow day, I read Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  It's a little book that can be read in a sitting.  Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, reformed his psychiatric practice after the war to help depressives find their way out of their mental prison camps by defining their own purpose - and then taking action which conforms to the belief.

Simple, really.  Pick a reason.  Act accordingly.

Now on to the kids.

Existential movies abound in the popular culture and this provides access for youngsters who are yet to face the crisis most humans endure at one time or another.

Through the plot of a popular movie, most students can grasp the notion of feeling lost or rudderless and then finding something to live for. (In most movies, the characters choose to live for each other.  Christians call that charity-or the greatest of these: love).  In a list of movies (Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine, Garden State) the class can usually find one most have seen and then explore how the philosophy is expressed.  After "getting it" they can transfer their new understanding to more difficult works. (Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead)

And then there's this little gem from The Onion that lightens the mood after we've delved into some heavy material.

After spending all this time in my own search for a clearer understanding, I see the philosophy everywhere.

Apparently, that's the reason behind all these Mission Statement workshops. Too bad most of the time these are a hollow exercise rather the opportunity to wrestle with a collective view of the purpose of a public schooling system--or our particular school--or the ideal school.

And how about this?  If the purpose of a nation is to make money ("The business of America is business.") then what kind of actions would naturally stem from that as a purpose?

Discuss this amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Today is an unexpected snow day-- a hole in my professional life I will fill in speaking frankly about teaching.

But first, a story:

My daughter is a Veterinarian.  I am extremely proud of her accomplishments in this field because I know of the dedication and hard work she put in to achieve her dream of working with animals.  I know where the dream began: pony club.  She started riding horses after working on a girl scout badge at age 10.  She loved the horses so much that, even as a teen - those sloths who love to sleep in, especially on a weekend or snow day -- woke up early every Saturday-on her own- just for the privilege of mucking a stall.

Her passion for learning about horses and animals remained unabated through the storms of adolescence and young adulthood.  To my surprise, she worked methodically toward her DVM with little input from her parents other than the support of time and resources.  And now she works to maintain the health of the pets in her community.

What does this have to do with teaching?  Everything.

My daughter works with pets.  I work with children.  Other people's children.  Our preparation couldn't have been more different.

First, she had to have an undergraduate degree before entering formal training for her profession.

To get into Veterinary School she had to document 400 hours of volunteer work with animals.  A hundred of those hours had to be under the supervision of a licensed vet.  This, I assume, would weed out the applicants who want to work with animals because they think they are cute and lovable.  Some of her experiences involved unpleasant activities.  There was a trip to a rendering plant.  Collecting semen.  Sticking pigs.  Putting down a favorite pet.

Working with animals is decidedly unromantic.  Best to get that notion out of the way.

Her final year in Vet school was entirely clinical.  She worked in various parts of the state through rotations that took her onto farms and into animal hospitals, putting down large, expensive animals, rehabbing, treating, caring for large, expensive animals.  All under the watchful care of a top practitioner.

Oh, and there was a test.  Several, in fact.  A national test first and then one each for Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.  All required for a practicing license.  And then the real learning began: a daily practice where hundreds of informed decisions are made on the spot every day.  All augmented by continuing professional development for a field that is always learning.

Contrast that to teaching - where we work with actual human beings and shape their destiny.  On the Great Chain of Being, even children rise above the level of animals in their closeness to God.  But you would never know it in America.  Somehow we find it acceptable to relegate our children's development to chance.

Today, assuming the role of teacher can mean simply changing your mind on the way to someplace else.  We let recent undergrads become short-term teachers after only five weeks of training in Teach for America. The answer to the teacher problem has been to ask for less from the workforce, not more.

The plan du jour is to throw adults -- and now computer software -- at the wall and see what sticks.  Meanwhile, the wall is a group of young people in their developmental years.  We won't get those years back down the road.  In addition, any yahoo walking in off the street with an opinion is allowed to make sweeping changes.

Because we have all been taught at one time or another, we all assume we can teach.  Even teachers sometimes see their work as requiring little skill.

I could not disagree more.  Those who succeed have come to grips with the nature of teaching, and its often very unromantic realities.  (See veterinary corollaries above.  Real kids are not always cute and lovable.)

In creating the document Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, the commissioners outlined the skills and knowledge teachers need to be effective.  Every teacher candidate should be able to demonstrate (from p. 11-12):

KNOWLEDGE: We believe that for future success, all pre-service teachers need to learn at least the following:
uContent matter appropriate for teaching the subject area(s)

u Child, adolescent, and abnormal psychology

uEnglish language development and second language acquisition strategies
u Instructional methods, strategies, and practices
u Curriculum models and practices
uInstructional technology practices and information technology use
u Standards-based curriculum design
u Content-based reading and writing strategies
uInstructional adaptations to address students’ individual learning styles, readiness to learn, and level of independence
uInstructional accommodations for students’ special learning needs uImpact of socioeconomic background, ethnicity, race, gender, language skills, disability, and
other factors on teaching and learning
u Classroom management strategies
SKILLS: We believe all pre-service teachers must learn to do the following:
u Plan instruction
uGuide students through a variety of learning experiences
u Assess student progress
u Analyze student learning outcomes
uDiagnose special needs, prescribe learning strategies, develop remedial plans, and adjust instruction to suit special needs
u Reflect on practice
u Collaborate with colleagues
uIncorporate 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, into teacher practice
alongside effective teachers. A series of classroom experiences such as the following will allow candidates to apply the content and pedagogical knowledge and skills they acquire:
SCHOOL-BASED EXPERIENCES:  We believe that to be successful in today’s complex learn- ing environment, all pre-service teachers need to spend significant time in schools working

u Observing a variety of effective teachers uAssisting with small and large group instruction uPlanning and conducting small group and whole class instruction uTeaching a diverse range of students for an extended period of time u Conferencing with individual students uConferring with parents and other responsible adults u Collaborating with teams of teachers

Turns out it IS rocket science.

Ok.  I know.  I already hear you complaining, "That's costly."

But the top tier education countries underwrite the tuition and subsequently attract top candidates who succeed in a rewarding, high-status, lifelong careers.  These teacher-led professions are continually examining and improving themselves.  That vision is far less costly in the long run than our current practice of churning teachers.  And are you telling me the 'richest nation in the world' cannot afford to do what's right for kids?

Read and rally around the report.  We cannot wait for someone else to hand us what is clearly necessary.

It must be demanded.