Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's the substance & the stress (not the salary), stupid.

As some of you know, I am starting to look for, ahem, a job, including positions that would put me back in the classroom. The position of "unpaid writer" isn't exactly putting food on the table and I'm starting to feel antsy writing so much about education without actually doing much about education. Reading over and updating my teaching resume, I am reminded of former students, colleagues, schools, and yes, curriculum. I am reminded of how much I enjoy teaching, for teaching itself but also for the content I got to ponder. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and went to an elite college. I'm "the type" many education reformers talk of attracting to teaching and, initially, attracted I was, but given what teaching has become in many cases, I am somewhat reluctant to go back.

The first reason is the working conditions. While I agree teachers are underpaid and I appreciate Secretary Duncan's strident acknowledgement of this, I would do the work at the current salaries if the working conditions made the job more manageable: if I knew classes would be reasonably and appropriately sized; if I were given adequate time for planning, development, collaboration, and frankly, bathroom breaks; and if I knew the school where I might work would be fully staffed with content teachers, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker, enough administrators, etc. If I knew I could do an adequate job in a 40-hour week (obviously, it would be more some weeks and a bit less during others and yes, the work would always be on my mind), I might never have taken the break I did in the first place. I can't work the punishing hours because I have my own children to raise. And I'm in favor to the idea of changing compensation systems to reflect the different roles and demands of different teaching jobs. If there are teachers out there who have the space in their life and desire to take on more work and responsibilities than I can, I think they should be paid more. I would be happy to take on a lesser teaching position for less money than a harder working colleague if it meant I could be in the classroom again and still be the parent I want to be. Unfortunately, it became clear to me that I had to choose.

Second of all, I was attracted to teaching because it's intellectual, interesting, stimulating, creative, and socially useful. Well, at least it should be. As Diana Senechal put it in this comment:
The McKinsey researchers examined teacher recruitment and retention in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. They found many factors that make teaching an attractive profession in those countries: salary, job security, autonomy and trust, cultural respect, and more. Given their own findings, it’s odd that they or anyone would conclude that financial incentives should reign supreme. And there were things they should have investigated but didn’t–for instance, the intellectual and spiritual appeal of the profession.  
Look at the talented people in professions where the pay is decent but not stellar–the arts, humanities, teaching, scholarship, nonprofits, journalism, and more. What brings people to these professions? Not incompetence, but interest. The work has substance.  
But when the substance is driven out, when the work turns into busywork, people turn to professions that offer the combination of qualities that they seek.
Yes, the work has substance. Or it did. Or it should. Of course teaching is going to have some busy work--all jobs do. Sometimes I even look forward to the busy work as it gives me a break from the harder tasks of thinking, evaluating, planning. Of course, there are going to be some tasks I enjoy more than others. Reading up on the Bubonic Plague, planning how my students will learn about it for a world history class, and then assessing what the students have learned counts as enjoyable. Figuring out how to teach the standardized reading test to my world history students and doing a technocratic version of reading tea leaves, i.e., charting who got the "main idea" and "context clues" questions wrong on said standardized tests is not. And when the job starts to become mostly useless, fruitless busy work and mostly teaching vapid curriculum, that's when I'd rather work as a self-employed, unpaid writer and blogger or work at something less demanding that would still save time and energy for writing.

As Nancy Flanagan put it in her typically thoughtful way,
Good teaching is not about classroom rules, cute videos, raising test scores, cool field experiences or unions. It's about relationships, mastery, analysis, persistence, diagnosis and continuous reflection. It's complex, layered intellectual work. And it happens in hundreds of thousands of "regular" classrooms, every day.
Yes, it's complex, layered, challenging, and intellectual work with so many decisions to make at almost every turn. This is primarily why I want to do it. Okay, so the pay isn't great, but when you take away the substance of it, I no longer even enjoy the work and I don't want to do it. I'd rather do something mindless (wait tables, bar tend, or be someone's personal assistant) where I won't have to go against my principles.

As teacher James Boutin describes here (and again here), at some point in my teaching career, I began to feel like a bureaucrat:
During a visit I made to a private school in Denver last November, one of the teachers there confided in me that he moved out of public education because he didn't want to be a bureaucrat. The comment struck me. I'd never thought of myself as a bureaucrat before, but he's right - I am.
Yes, there's certainly more room for me to be more data-informed and consider the values of a technocratic approach. But if that's what I wanted to do, I'd go be a bureaucrat or a technocrat. If I wanted to teach test prep, I'd go work for Kaplan. That's not what I see as the primary role of a classroom teacher. As James further demonstrates in this must-read series, the data-driven dimension of teaching has gotten out of hand and has become a huge waste of time and resources for educators and students alike. Moreover, as I was engaged in it and was forced to make ill-advised curricular choices, I realized that such tasks weren't helping my students learn or improving my teaching, but were fueling political point-scoring and sustaining the education reform industry.

So thanks, Arne Duncan, for saying teachers should be paid more and thanks for your attempts at debunking flawed research that states otherwise. For a next step, consider advocating against acceptance of the "new normal" that translates to terrible working conditions for teachers and principals and terrible learning conditions for students. And then consider how you're going to attract more serious college and graduate school students to the profession if the work you're asking them to do lacks substance and insults their intelligence and, eventually, expertise. Finally, consider that if the most educated among us don't want to do to the work because it's bankrupt of creativity, intellectual exercise, meaning, and substance, then the education our students are going to be getting will hardly be rich, meaningful, and relevant. Think about how many of our best and brightest would rather get paid poverty wages working as adjunct professors and journalists than teach in the classrooms your and your predecessors' policies are molding.

Perhaps this isn't the best post to put out there as I apply for teaching jobs, but then again, I'm not going to lie or pretend. I'm going to do my best to be a team player and to be open to the advantages of a more quantitatively- or data-based approach to teaching. But I'm not going to give up my principles or knowingly engage in educational malpractice. Frankly, I'd rather scrub floors.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Defense of Flipping the Classroom & the Lecture

There's been a lot lately about "flipping the classroom," a teaching method where students are to view a lecture at home --ostensibly on-line--of their teacher presenting key concepts while saving doing harder and trickier homework-type assignments for in class. This idea appeals to me and I've been somewhat surprised that so many other education peeps out there whom I follow don't seem as enamored. Not only are they disparaging of the idea, but they seem to think "lecture" is synonymous with torture.

Before I begin I want to offer two caveats. First, the access problem is no small one and if not satisfactorily solved, could easily be a deal breaker. Second, I am envisioning this for older students, not necessarily for younger ones. As I've written about before, considerations of grade, age, and subject are very important in any conversation about teaching and learning.

Now, I wouldn't flip the classroom all of the time (getting stuck in one practice or approach is never a good idea) or get rid of outside-of-class readings and I wouldn't say it's going to "transform education" (puh-lease), nor would I call it a silver bullet method (don't believe in silver bullets), but, again, access issues aside, what's not to like?

As a teacher, and this was partly because I generally taught students who didn't have a lot of support at home (though these same students would lack access to technology, as well), when I assigned more challenging reading, projects, papers, and essays, I had them do a lot of the work in class anyway because that's when they needed guidance the most. I saved easier reading assignments and exercises that involved practicing or analyzing what students had already learned for homework.

Other aspects of flipping the classroom that excite me: Teachers can record their lectures a few times until they get it just right and then maintain a video library, if you will, of these presentations. Teachers can share and exchange video clips with one another. Students can have access to the library of them and can view each presentation as many times as they need to. They can access the library anywhere, without having to lug a textbook with them, and unlike a textbook, it's a living source of information. The teacher can get feedback on it and alter it easily if necessary without having to send it back to the publisher; students can leave comments or questions beneath the video. For someone who can't even upload digital photos from camera to laptop without assistance, I sound pretty excited about this, don't I?

During discussions of "flipping the classroom" I have been disturbed (and this has long bothered me) by how many of my fellow educators, bloggers, and commentators use "lecture" as if it's a bad word, dismissing it as an instructional technique almost out of hand. Flipping the classroom is just another form of lecturing! Lecture?!? You can't lecture the children! Heaven forbid. Lecturing is baaaaad. Well, I disagree.

To me, the problem isn't giving lectures per se, but rather with how and when they're done. Lectures come in all shapes and sizes. Certainly, lectures can be monotonous and boring, but they can also be lively, creative, interactive. So, there are good lectures and bad lectures, and there are times, places, and audiences for lecturing. Some audiences and topics require shorter lectures and some longer. When you go to hear Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, or Jonathan Kozol speak, you're listening to a lecture. Listening to a news report? That's a lecture. TED talk? Lecture. Author reading? That, too, is a lecture.

When I was in ed school (to read some of my thoughts on ed schools, read this post and this comment I made on the same post), I learned that the lecture was one way to present information, or teaching methodology, but lecturing was definitely frowned upon. (As you can imagine, I especially loved being lectured on how it was bad to lecture.) When I was student teaching high school US Government, I did everything but lecture. Finally, as I was gathering feedback, which I did often (come to think of it, much more often than I did as a regular classroom teacher. Why was that? Adding that to my list of things to change when I go back to the classroom) the students were growing frustrated and unresponsive. So we stopped to talk about it. One student hesitated but then said, "Look, Ms. Levy, you're asking us to work together and put together presentations on topics we don't really know anything about. We need you to teach us about them first, to tell us about them. You're the teacher--you're supposed to know about these things." I looked around and saw the rest of the class nodding in agreement. So, for the rest of my time, I lectured more, not all of the time, but more often than I had been. On the day when my university adviser and supervisor came to observe me, I happened to have a lecture planned. In our debriefing, she asked me, and I knew this was coming, what I could have done differently besides, "you know, just standing up there and lecturing." I explained to her that I had been doing all of the other stuff but that the students had told me to lecture more. She raised her eyebrows and said, "Huh. Interesting." To her credit, she didn't evaluate me negatively on this (she actually was a fantastic teacher and adviser).

The following summer, when I started my first teaching job (and I wrote about this particular class before here) I taught tenth grade English. If I recall correctly, we spent about one quarter of the class explicitly on writing. On one piece I decided to have students do peer editing. This, I had been told, was a great thing to do, but it was a disaster. The students really got into it and tried their damndest but it wasn't working; they weren't properly editing one another's work. The straw that broke the camel's back was when as I was circulating, I overheard two students arguing heatedly about a rule of punctuation (awesome!) But they were both wrong (arrgghh!) Nobody was learning anything and worse, the students were reinforcing bad habits and giving one another terrible advice.

Since then, I've learned to assess what students already know or have been successfully taught before expecting them to "teach one another" or "learn cooperatively." For example, after teaching lessons on how to give constructive and diplomatic feedback, I have students give one another feedback on what they take away from or hear in another student's piece or suggest questions they think might be left unanswered. However, I avoid peer editing or advice that involves peers giving advice on how to write or explain rules of grammar when they don't know them themselves. That, ahem, is my job.

Which leads me to another problem I have with privileging group work or cooperative learning over direct instruction or lecturing. I've seen it as an excuse to be lazy and I've seen it done wrong. Here kids, you do this. You're responsible for your own learning now. Go forth and teach yourselves. I'll sit back and do nothing. Of course, students should certainly be responsible for their work and learning but they need some help and guidance along the way. Of course, instruction beyond direct presentation or lecturing has its place, but it's not an anti-dote to poor lecturing.

I will end this with some much more articulate and organized thoughts on the subject of group work from Diana Senechal. As usual, she says exactly what I'd like to say myself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Education Films Series V: American Teacher

There are two ways to look at American Teacher, the recently released documentary by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari:

1) If you don't know much about public education and school reform, then American Teacher is a well-made film which very poignantly and realistically portrays what it is to live the life of a teacher. Everyone agrees that teachers are under-paid and undervalued (well, almost everyone). After seeing this film, the public will be more aware of this.

2) If you are steeped in public education and school reform, then American Teacher is a well-made film which very poignantly and realistically portrays what it is to live the life of a teacher. Everyone agrees that teachers are under-paid and undervalued. However, it will drive you nuts that the film skips over the wild disagreements between various educators, education scholars, and education reformers on how to increase compensation for America's teachers. The film features the ideas of Linda Darling-Hammmond, Eric Hanushek, and Jason Kamras (of DCPS) as if they were all on the same page and as if the research on merit pay, VAM, and economic predictor models were uncontroversial in education reform debates.

While I still hope lots of people see it, I think it would have been better if the film makers had let the vignettes speak for themselves, alone, if they trusted the viewers to come away with their own thoughts about and reactions to education policy. The narratives and stories were so compelling and so complex, it was a shame to have them mixed in with such a confusing and shallow presentation of policy ideas.

If I am not making a clear case for what the film's flaws were, Dana Goldstein absolutely does in her review.

One personal upside to my watching American Teacher, poorly done aspects and all: Being so steeped in education and education reform topics, I was reminded to be much more skeptical of simplistic accounts from other policy topics of interest but about which I know considerably less than I do about education, even if it's coming from people and organizations I respect.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Will Flat NAEP Reading Scores Mean More Flat Reading Instruction?

At first I was annoyed with Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Blog for criticizing people for things they hadn't yet said. Speaking of the NAEP, he predicted, "People on all 'sides' will interpret the results favorably no matter how they turn out." But, he was right.

The results in my state of Virginia, were reported in The Richmond Times-Dispatch as follows
Virginia's fourth- and eighth-graders perform better in reading and mathematics than their peers nationwide, but less than two-fifths have a solid grasp of reading and less than half have a solid grasp of math. . . . In math, 40 percent of Virginia eighth-graders achieved proficient scores in 2011, up from 36 percent in 2009, according to the report. Forty-six percent of fourth-graders performed at the proficient level, compared to 43 percent in 2009.
According to VA DOE spokesman Charles Pyle, in short, Virginia students did relatively well nationally, but there's much room for improvement, especially in reading:
A lack of significant improvement in Virginia's eighth-grade NAEP reading scores over the last couple testing cycles as well as on state achievement tests has informed state efforts to pursue more rigorous standards in the subject, Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. The new reading standards will take effect in 2012-13.
Oh dear. "More rigorous standards in reading"? Aren't they already "rigorous" enough? Let me enter the fray and tell you why I think reading scores are unimpressive in Virginia and flat nationally: Because in the (albeit, well-intentioned) mania to make American kids better readers, we're spending overwhelming amounts of time teaching reading as a subject, as a skill, at the expense of teaching knowledge of other subjects such as science, social studies, foreign language, art, music, PE, theater, etc.

Yes, my children spend more time on math than on other subjects, but that doesn't bother me nearly as much. Now, I don't know much about teaching math but from what I can tell from the elementary math curriculum used in the Virginia county where my kids attend school and from what I can tell from the work they bring home, yes, they are learning different strategies to solve math problems, but they are also learning math facts.

There is such a thing as math strategies. There is such a thing as mastering the mechanics of reading, which is essentially decoding and there is such a thing as reading strategies, but they aren't nearly as useful or applicable as math strategies and needn't be taught nearly to the extent that they are. There is such a thing as math facts. But there is no such thing as reading facts; there's just facts, background knowledge, and vocabulary, the more of which one knows, the better of a reader that one will be.

On a series of posts on Eduwonk between Eric Hanushek and Diane Ravitch about Hanushek's tiresome silver bullet solution of firing the bottom 5-10% of teachers based on standardized test scores (yes, teachers who don't do their jobs or who do them poorly should be removed, but I have no confidence that Hanushek's handwaving gimmickry will achieve that), superb edu-thinker Diana Senechal commented that:
We talk so much about achievement but do not adequately address the question “achievement of what?” This explains, in part, why “literacy” scores are much more stubborn and difficult to raise than math scores. There is no such subject as literacy, and we are spinning our wheels trying to teach it. There is literature, grammar, rhetoric, composition. Teach those things, and you will see some gains. (Math curricula are far from perfect in this country–but at least, in comparison with literacy curricula, they have some sort of substance and sequence.)
Exactly. Beyond teaching decoding and some limited reading strategies, if we want our children to be stronger readers, we need to teach them content (which yes, includes language arts as just outlined by Diana).

While Jeff Bryant did well to point out that NAEP shouldn't be looked at as a report card per se and "Nation At Risk" co-author James Harvey highlighted some short comings of NAEP as an assessment, I still fear the influence of these NAEP results over instruction and curriculum decisions. I worry that with NAEP reading scores being "flat," that educators and reformers will take an even more draconian and ill-informed approach, and call for beefing up reading standards and spending even more time on teaching reading and even less on everything else. For example, in a recent essay in Education Week unrelated to the NAEP release of NAEP results, Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of District 202 in Evanston, Illinois, called for just that:
Reading is the gateway to all learning. Literacy must be addressed in every classroom, every day—reading strategies must be an integral part of history class and math class and of physical and technical education. At ETHS, teachers receive training to help them implement literacy-learning strategies in everything from history and math to physical education.
Certainly, all public school teachers in America should be prepared to work with and help struggling readers, but do we really need kids in PE, math, and history to learn reading strategies? What will that serve other than teaching our kids to know less about PE, math, and history (and every other subject) than they already do. Yes, reading is a tool to learn content--indeed, it's a "gateway to learning"--but learning content is the gateway to becoming a stronger reader and more educated in general.

Matthew Di Carlo's prediction was right on. Let's hope for the education of our children that mine isn't.