CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.

hould We Practice What We Teach?

A curious report emerged last month from the Aspen Institute, co-authored by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimental. Wiener is the head of Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program. He worked previously at the Education Trust, a group that has been part of the Core-promoting Gates-funded reform machine. Pimental was a founding partner at Student Achievement Partners and StudentsWork and (though you may have forgotten it because David Coleman never mentions any name but his own) a lead writer of the Common Core ELA standards.

So Wiener and Pimental come right out of the reformster swamp, and that means that this report will include some classic features, like endnotes filled with references to other “reports” from other thinky tank advocacy groups like RAND, Center for American Progress, and the Aspen Institute itself. This paper also lands in a more recent sub-genre of reformy articles and reports in which reformsters actually identify some real problems, but are hobbled by their inability or unwillingness to see their own role in creating the problem in the first place (e.g. the Arne Duncan declaration that schools have become too centered around the standardized test, and how did such a thing ever happen, anyway?) I point this out not to play “Gotcha” or cry “Hypocrite,” but because it’s hard to solve problems when you can’t acknowledge the real cause of the problems in the first place.

Wiener and Pimental get some things right. For instance, the observation that a great deal of professional development for teachers is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories– twinkies instead of steak. As Robert Pondiscio notes in his article about the report, we have somehow arrived at a point where it’s considered a radical notion to suggest that teachers spend development time becoming experts on their curriculum and their content.

Good curriculum and content materials matter– they matter a great deal. Wiener and Pimental, however, fetishize them a bit much, stopping just a gnat’s hair short of calling for the old reformster dream of teacher-proof materials, or the system where you just have one or two Really Good Teachers that you send around to coach and direct all your mediocre ones.

But their exemplar systems are DC schools, New Orleans, and West Virginia, which immediately skews their results because, in New Orleans and DC (West Virginia’s teacher-led initiative is a slightly different animal), the conversation is not about how to make schools excellent, but how to make them suck just a little bit less. There’s a huge difference between “improving” a terrible system and “improving” one that is already chugging along well, and nothing in this paper really acknowledges that.

So rather than look at their exemplars, I’m going to skip straight to their recommendations.

1) Curriculum quality matters a lot. Which– yes, the content matters. Hugely.

2) Content-specific inquiry cycles improve practice. In other words, it’s more useful to talk about how best to teach the major themes of Great Gatsby as you’re doing it than to have a general conversation about “better teaching.”

3) Culture eats structure for lunch. Systems mean nothing. It’s all about how values are practiced throughout the school. Wiener and Pimental make this sound complicated, but it’s not. Most teachers will do what they think is right, regardless of what the system-of-the-week demands.

4) Teachers need time to improve instruction. Everybody knows this is obvious, and yet districts remain largely convinced that every moment a teacher isn’t in front of students is district money wasted.

5) Content experts should facilitate professional development.

6) System leaders have vital roles and responsibilities, too.

These all seem like relatively obvious things, so one of the questions being begged here is, “Why aren’t we already doing all these things?”

Pondiscio sees that question being skipped over as well, so he offers some answers.

For one, local control. The local power to set curriculum and select materials for teaching. “Witness the Sturm und Drang over Common Core, which isn’t a curriculum at all, but merely curriculum standards.” Related to that for Pondiscio is the tendency to “valorize teacher independence to a fault.” And I suppose that’s not a new issue– some folks have always believed that the secret to good schools is to hire some Superteachers and turn them loose. But teacher independence is not just a goal; it’s also a reality. Teachers develop independence because we work alone, often with a mandate from our bosses along the lines of “Get in there and take care of business and don’t bother me because I’ve already got my hands full.” In many school buildings, the teacher who teaches best is the teacher who bothers the front office the least.

Pondiscio also raises another idea about which he and I have always disagreed. Pondiscio thinks that asking a teacher to develop curriculum is like asking fire fighters to bring their own hoses. I think it’s part of our job, and part of what we should have been properly trained to do. The classroom teacher should be an expert on the content, an expert on the students in the room, and therefor the world’ foremost expert on how to deliver that curriculum to those students. Pondiscio compares a teacher to an actor– an actor can be great playing Hamlet even if he didn’t write the play. But in my classroom, I’m not so much an actor as a director. I need to know the lines, the set, the themes, the capabilities of each actor, the material of the play itself.

But where we agree, and where Wiener and Pimental lodge their biggest, blindest spot, is on the matter of content.

Wiener and Pimental: Professional learning cannot live up to its potential unless it’s rooted in the content teachers teach in their classrooms.Similarly, the resulting professional learning won’t be excellent unless the underlying instructional materials are excellent.

Pondiscio: In less expert hands, the language of standards merely reinforces the content-agnostic, skills-driven vision of schooling drummed into teachers in ed school. “Determine central ideas or themes of a text?” Which text? Which books and works of literature should we use? Doesn’t it matter?

The notion of the content-absent free-floating skills is one of the most pernicious notions to take root in modern education. It has been pounded into us directly and indirectly in schools, and it is chapter and verse in too many education schools. And the responsibility for this notion belongs squarely at the feet of people like Wiener and Pimental. The Common Core Standards are set up squarely around the notion that skills exist independent of content, like surfing without water or breathing without air, and that notion has been built into Core-aligned materials and Core-linked Big Standardized Tests. It lives in new teaching notions, like the idea that one needn’t teach full works any more– just a few excerpts will be sufficient to teach the necessary skills. It lives in the many proposals enshrining the notion that a teacher is only as good as her students’ test scores (and the way to raise tests scores is to focus on skills– content is secondary). It lives in tools like Lexile scores, reading level analysis built on the idea that reading is just the act of decoding strings of words on the page, not interacting in a personal and meaningful way with what those words are actually saying.

And it lives in almost a decade of professional development that is required (in some states by regulation) to be about aligning to standards and prepping for tests and teaching skills in a vacuum.

Reformers did this. The Common Core acolytes, flush with hefty checks from Bill Gates, did this. If they noticed it was happening, well, that’s swell. But if you shrug your shoulders and say, “Gee, no idea how this happened,” then I have a hard time taking any of your solutions seriously.

And here are Wiener and Pimental still offering “increased student achievement” as proof that some technique works. But of course “increased student achievement” means nothing except higher test scores, and those BS Tests are still supposed to be content-free; in most states, teachers are forbidden to see what the content is, because that would ruin the test (but some test prep companies are stepping in to fill that gap). If the school system is to remained centered on BS Test scores, it will not be centered on teachers having curriculum and content expertise (or rather, the curriculum itself will have little to do with content).

The issues that Wiener and Pimental outline are the predictable result of the reforms that they personally championed, and their paper ultimately seems like a hope that those reforms can somehow lead to different results. I drove west and ended up in Montana; I would like to drive west and end up in Florida.

As usual, I’m running long, so my solution to these issues will be brief. Knowing me, I’ll probably get back to it another day. I should lead by saying that I’m not exactly traditionally trained. My teacher required us to major in our content area– become subject experts– and then layered teacher training on top of that, with extensive support through student teaching and the first year in the classroom. So you won’t necessarily find me defending some of the traditional teacher mill approaches. But here’s how I would fix the above issues.

1) Get rid of the Big Standardized Common Core tests entirely. Kill them with fire.

2) Require teachers to get the training to be content experts in their field.

3) Require teachers to get the training to be pedagogical experts.

4) Design professional development around what teachers in the building want to maintain their expertise.

5) Make sure that your experts have what they need to do the job.

6) Then leave them alone to do the job.

I can make it shorter. Yes, we should practice what we teach. And that includes taking time to reflect and consider what we have done right and what we have done wrong. That way we won’t be standing there looking at some mess and shrugging our shoulders, clueless about the mess we created. And that’s probably good advice for everyone.


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