Saturday, September 6, 2014

There are no magic bullets

This week my brilliant seniors led their own discussion on the epic tale of Beowulf.  It was their first Harkness and they performed phenomenally, as all students will when given the guidance and opportunity to follow their thinking around a text.

At one point both of the classes arrived at a similar conclusion--just one of many they circled around until they were able to summarize their thinking and talking.

They decided:  Humans seem to have a desire to either find or create some superhuman hero who will swoop in and clean up all our messes, while we watch with relief. This "other" will even save us from ourselves.

Here is how one student put it:  "We seem to have two types of heroes.  There are those who are our permanent heroes, like firemen, policemen, soldiers, and teachers who are with us all the time, helping us out of trouble along the way, but we don't really pay attention to them because they're always doing that work.  And then we have the less permanent heroes who come in and do this awesome act one time and then go away."

They went on to discuss how we tend to put sports heroes or celebrities on a pedestal, and that our adulation of these heroes actually de-humanizes and alienates them from the larger group.  (I told you they were brilliant.)

They decided that Beowulf was one of these better-than-real-life heroes who actually ended up alone, confronting the dragon by himself--with the exception of their favorite character Wiglaf--at the end of his life. (For some reason Robin Williams comes to mind.  A man who ultimately had to face his own dragon, isolated and alone, probably in part because we kept insisting he was larger than life.)

Our public education policy for the past decade has embraced this superhero mindset.

After a decade of "education reform" it should be painfully obvious that there is no simple lever or heroic treatment that will wipe away all issues inherent in teaching our diverse student population. NCLB has failed on many fronts and set us back over ten years.

It is a fiction created by lazy and simple minded leaders--or worse, by cunning, Orwellian opportunists who selfishly now wallow in profits based on a deception.

It has also been an easy sell for the public to  embrace.  Like the students said: there's something about us that really, really wants a hero who will make it all better.  These seventeen-year-olds seem to understand the folly in that kind of wishful thinking.

Four times this summer, on four separate reading and listening occasions, I encountered leading educators using this exact phrase: "There are no magic bullets."  In each instance the person--like Richard Allington in one amazing day-long review of research around reading--was refuting the idea that we could just buy a program, plug it in, and hope to lift all of our students out of the illiteracy that plagues their forward movement.

There is, however, a better more lasting answer to the question of how to improve our education system and that is to turn to the permanent heroes who have been doing the hard, repetitive, one-on-one, down and dirty, very unromantic work of helping students one at a time: our teachers.

As two of the educators encountered over the summer stated--there is no replacement in the teaching of reading and writing than actually doing a lot of reading and writing.  And each kid needs to be met at the level where learning those skills will happen.  And, no, those computer programs do not work (tried, tested, proven a waste of dollars).

Statistics show that both of these skill-based "interventions" have been dropping over the years with less time spent on both.  In 1999 the NAEP showed a narrowing of the achievement gap in reading comprehension among high school seniors, not because the bottom came up, but because the top readers declined.  We have not moved that number at all with any of the current magic bullets.  We are stalled.

Along with the "magic bullet" phrase, another theme has emerged in my professional work: a teacher and his or her training does make a difference.  Its clear in our building what happens when effective training doesn't occur as opposed to when it does.  And it is clear what effective is.  It has been studied.  One-shot outside consultant visits are ineffective.  "Effective professional development is intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice..." says the National Staff Development Council.

We have seen what happens when mandates and one-and-done PD scramble the messages of good instruction and the decisions made far from the classroom have to be implemented on the run. It creates a morass.  The one we are currently stuck in.

How we treat teachers -- through both compensation and ongoing, effective professional development--also makes a huge difference in advancing learning.  Because teachers who've gained real skill are choosing to leave when they can.  It is a story that is being repeated over and over.

That critical fifth year has played into many of those up-close and personal scenarios I've witnessed. Watching a novice teacher grow in confidence and ability, through the aid of veteran teachers who are short on both time and energy, generally takes well into at least the fourth year.

When a teacher leaves right as classroom skill is taking off--and the mentors can back off and begin focusing on other efforts--the process must begin again.  It is a long and very individual process and stresses those who are committed to fixing problems the old fashioned way--through hard work and persistence.

To watch a peer walk out the door, taking the training with them, is not just a disheartening, morale-deflator for those left behind, it is bad for teaching and learning.

And it is happening far too frequently.

The impetus for leaving teaching is generally a combination of the reality of the hard work coupled with a meager salary and little hope of real, substantive support-- in the form of opportunities to work with peers, time to shape curriculum, finding resources that will reach every student all day long. Couple that with a dearth of the softer components of a successful workplace that boosts the spirit of those who labor against difficult odds, and you create a "why bother?" mentality.

Time.  And money.  And respect.

There is no magic bullet.

The hope of public education lies in the development of human capital--permanent heroes who live in a grown up world.  One where superheroes don't really exist because the work is nuanced, not simplistic.  Continual learning from others in a community of learners is a necessary part of growing teachers.  Even my seniors understand that solving difficult problems isn't likely through the efforts of one superhuman.

We need to develop teachers. (Which means finding those who are good at developing teachers, paying them well to do that, and providing time to help both parties work on skill development.)

We need to pay teachers better.  Teachers are leaving because the pay SUCKS  to begin with, and doesn't get better over time.

We need to respect teachers by giving them control over their learning and their teaching.

And, yes, we can afford this.

Stop buying magic bullets and get some real work done: grow a cadre of permanent heroes.