I have touched on this idea a couple of times before, but with the Board poised to vote on the contract with Teach for America I think it is time to bring it back.
I am not an advocate for the status-quo. I'm surprised that I even have to write that. Holy cow, if I haven't established myself as a critic of the education establishment, then I don't know what you have to do to qualify. Just the same, for clarity's sake, I will spell it out. It is clear to me that the current practices that dominate public K-12 education are serving the bulk our students poorly with dreadful consequences and, in the case of students from low-income homes, English language learners, minorities, boys, and students with disabilities, the service is even worse and the consequences are tragic. I'm not a fan.
That said, the education reform landscape does not look promising either. Most of the "solutions" presented by the Education Reform industry have little or no promise. The dominant solutions are not centered on students. The charter school movement is about school governance and ownership, not about student learning. There's a whole set of issues around the teacher contracts - hiring, firing, pay, training, evaluations and more - that also fails to speak to what happens for students in classrooms and ignores the real barriers to student achievement. It's not just in Washington State and Seattle that teacher evaluations, charter schools, and Teach for America are the focal points of Education Reform. None of them, however, offer any real promise. The Education Reform organizations might as well promote the idea that students come to school with their socks on inside out. In short, I am not a fan.
Seriously, take the arguments in favor of almost any Education Reform idea and replace the idea (charter schools, teacher evaluations, Teach for America, whatever) with the proposal that students come to school with their socks worn inside-out and see if it doesn't make exactly the same amount of sense. Go ahead and scoff at this radical education reform. People who oppose the socks idea are just mindlessly supporting the status quo. It may not be the whole solution - it may not close the academic achievement gap all by itself; it's just another tool in the toolbox. Data on the results is mixed and inconclusive, but some students did better with it and we owe all students that opportunity. Hey, the way we're doing it now isn't working very well, so it's not like we have anything to lose. See?
There are reforms that I believe will have real, positive impacts for students. I believe it because they have been shown to work. They have also proven that they can be duplicated and scaled up. They are not, however, easy or cheap. They challenge people's notions of the proper role of schools and they challenge people's notions of fairness. I have written about them on a number of occasions and will, no doubt, write about them again. They boil down to just taking action that is consistent with a couple basic perspectives. First, that every child is a unique human being with a unique set of challenges and abilities. Second, that the student's motivation is the key to the student's academic achievement.
If we organize our schools around the first principle we will not only individualize instruction, we will also individualize services. Schools will set and maintain high expectations for all students and will provide students with the support they need to meet those expectations. Whatever that support may be. It may be breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack. It may be a stable, supported space for doing homework. It may be counseling for students living with violence, substance abuse, mental illness, or just instability. It may be more time on task or additional help with their studies. It may be a quieter classroom. It may be a more kinetic lesson. It may be experiential learning. It may be a different set of lessons - either below or beyond grade level. The point is that seeing students as individuals and addressing their individual needs requires a change in what happens for the kids in the system, not just the adults. It requires the system to adapt to the kids rather than requiring the kids to adapt to the system.
This is the "No Excuses" mindset that Education Reformers cherish. They don't seem to recognize, however, that this mindset is only helpful if teachers have the resources to support it and the authority to use them. If a student can't focus on his or her lessons because the kid has a toothache or is hungry, then the real No Excuses response is to get the kid to a dentist or on the outside of a hot meal. For that to happen the teacher needs both access to a dentist (or a deli) and the authority to call it in. If you hold the teacher to the No Excuses standard without providing either the resource or the authority, then you are just setting them up to fail. I question the motives of anyone who would do that.
From this example it should be clear that this challenges the conventional notions of the role of the school. For one thing, some students are going to get a long list of services that other students don't get. That's going to appear unfair to some folks. There could be a class of 35 in one room and a class of 15 next door. Can people be cool with that? It's going to challenge our ideas of fairness when the school buys books for some children and not for others (who get books from their families). There would also be a lot of folks who would regard this as the ultimate expression of the nanny-state - if not communism. I would really like to hear these folks explain to me how an eight-year-old child is supposed to cope with multiple disadvantages and how this child is, in any way, to blame or responsible for his or her situation. Want to blame the family? I won't stop you. But explain to me why the child should suffer. When they try, they quickly reveal that they don't see the child as a person but as a possession of the parents. It's creepy.
Some of the Education Reform ideas, such as flipped classrooms or the use of technology to individualize skill-teaching and skill-building, support this principle. They appear promising to me and I have written in support of them. Other ideas start down the right road, but take a weird turn. Formative assessments, for example, can be helpful to focus instruction on students' individual needs. The MAP test was sold as a formative assessment to inform instruction and to facilitate differentiated instruction. It has proven to be the wrong tool for that job; it is just too time consuming to be administered frequently enough to actually guide instruction. Instead, it is being used for a totally different job, one that it was never designed to do: assess teacher performance. Most of the Education Reform ideas, however, don't even speak to this principle. Most, in fact, run directly counter to it. They label entire schools as "failing". Education Reform, built on corporate models designed to optimize productivity, is largely focused on groups of students, not individual students. Students get de-humanized into data points.
If we take the second idea, that student motivation is key, to heart, then we will see a significant change in the role of the teacher. I don't think there is anyone left who thinks that teachers provide value as dispensers of information. Information follows the rules of supply and demand just like everything else. Since it is in such overwhelmingly plentiful supply it is practically worthless. If you don't believe me, you can Google it.
Teachers do have valuable work to do, but it isn't in the field of dispensing information. On the academic side teachers are needed to help students fit that information into a context so it has meaning and usefulness. They need to be there to prompt students with those critical reasoning sorts of questions: "Does that make sense to you?", "Does that sound credible?", "How have you seen this in your own life? In the lives of those around you? In history? In literature?", "How does this appear in other contexts - natural, abstract, material, or theoretical?", "Why do you suppose it is like that?", "What does that imply?", "What do you think will happen next?", "What could change this?", "Should this change?". Teachers also need to ask "How then will you respond?" because just as knowledge without wisdom is worthless, wisdom without action is worthless as well. This is the shift in the teacher role from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side".
When we talk about the teacher as a coach, we need to pay close attention to the most important thing that coaches do: they motivate. A good coach is a lot like a good pitcher - they have more than one pitch, they pick the right pitches at the right time and in the right location for each batter (1-2 curve, low and off the plate), and they can deliver it. Each individual student responds to different sorts of motivation at different times. Some people only take on a task after someone tells them that they can't do it. That same message would make other people quit. Some people need to compete and do better than the other guy; others could care less what the next guy is doing. Some who won't be competitive for their own sake might work harder if they were part of a team in a competition. There are all manner of motivations. Napoleon said "Give me enough medals, and I’ll win any war" after seeing what some people will do for recognition. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes the motivating impacts of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The key here is that the teacher, as a professional who knows the student and has a personal relationship with the student, is in a position to practice this subtle art. A recent guest column in the Seattle Times bemoaning the low motivation of students demonstrates how this idea, the teacher as motivator, challenges the traditional understanding of the teacher's role.
Teachers also have an important role to play in the social and emotional development of children, teaching them how to interact with each other, with authority, and with our culture. This role cannot be left out. Schools have a laundry list of non-academic functions that range from Public Health to the assimilation of a community into the mainstream American culture.
Once again, if the system were organized around this principle I think our schools would be very different. But not so different that our current public school system couldn't contain it. Look at Queen Anne Elementary for a school that is using technology to teach skills and build skills on an individualized basis and using the class time collaboration, motivation, and critical thinking. Look at The NOVA Project for a school where students can find their motivation through autonomy. Look at Maple and Mercer as examples of schools that made the commitment to support students - as individuals - so they could meet a set of expectations that were kept high.
I am no defender of the status quo. I desperately want - and work for - reform in our public schools. But, no, I don't see any value in charter schools, or teacher evaluations based on student test scores, or common core standards or aligning the high school graduation requirements with the UW entrance requirements. Those only provide the illusion of reform. The Education Reform folks aren't supporting the type of reform that I want to see because it is expensive. They are actually looking for ways to cut the costs of public education. All of their efforts run along those lines. They are trying to increase "productivity". I look at a lot of modern "improvements" and I see that they make things faster, bigger and cheaper, but they don't make many things better. The reform I seek changes the system to meet the needs of the students instead of trying to change the students to meet the system or changing the system to create winners and losers among the adults.
What do you think?