Tuesday, October 18, 2011

How Occupy Wall Street Is Like a Classroom

A speaker on the people's mic, arguing against occupation, at about 20 minutes to midnight
On Saturday night, I watched a miracle of classroom management such as I would never have imagined possible; it didn’t happen in a classroom, and there was no teacher.

Over the course of the evening, a crowd of three thousand or more had gathered in and around the dry fountain basin in Washington Square Park. Returning from the earlier march on Times Square, the attendees were agitated after a day of chanting and dancing, packed, often shoulder to shoulder, between police barricades. There were reports of scores of arrests and a couple of violent incidents. Word had spread of a possible illegal occupation of Washington Square that night. Meanwhile, a line of police officers stood at the entrances to the square, announcing to each arriving crowd that the park would close at midnight—i.e. “you’ve been warned.”

A little after 10 pm, a handful of facilitators from the Zuccotti park occupation stood up on the grate that covers the water jets at the center of the fountain basin and asked the mob to be seated. The general assembly had begun.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Teaching Values Across Cultural Difference

There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog lately, both in the posts and in the comments, about the teaching of values. Most of these discussions have dealt with, if not necessarily middle-class values, at least values taught by middle-class educators—and taught, for the most part, to working-class and poor children, with the idea that these children are short on good values. Today, I want to talk about a different scenario.

I recently happened upon this blog post by “Teacher MRW,” an African-American first-generation-college-graduate teaching in a predominantly white, upper-middle class private school. Inspired by the discussion of moral education generated by my post on the London Riots, MRW writes about the cultural dissonance between herself and her privileged, white students, particularly around conduct, manners, and responsibility. She opens with an anecdote about her attempts to make her students take their hats off when they enter the classroom—a wonderful bit of old-fashioned decorum that my Jesuit-educated 6th-grade history teacher enforced with an iron hand, to my baseball-cap-wearing classmates’ surprise and, at first, consternation, but ultimately half-frightened, half-amused respect. MRW’s demands that “gentlemen take their hats off in class,” as my history teacher used to put it, however, met with only bafflement and resistance, and she finally gave up on the hat battle.

In a lot of ways MRW’s predicament seems to mirror that in which many privileged, white college-graduates (myself included) find themselves, when they take teaching jobs in inner-city public schools. For MRW, however, the gradient of cultural privilege runs in the opposite direction, a fact that drastically alters the terms of the cultural exchange in ways that are frustrating to MRW and far from beneficial to her students. The particulars of the exchange also highlight some of the difficulties facing middle-class education and harken to some of the themes discussed in my last full-length post. (Yes, there are difficulties facing middle-class education; admitting that does not belittle the difficulties facing inner-city education.)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What makes a good principal? Don't ask Michael Winerip.

Last week, The Times published this ridiculous puff piece by Michael Winerip about the principal of NYC's PS 126. The Times has published some excellent education journalism in recent years, especially the long and nuanced pieces that Paul Tough writes for the magazine supplement, but Winerip's column is of a very different sort. Bad, partisan education reporting (and Winerip's article is subtly but definitely partisan) has very real negative consequences for the public debate. I wrote the Times the letter below, which, naturally, they declined to publish. I knew they would— its tone is far too strident— but I'm disappointed that they published this letter instead, which not only praises Winerip's column, but treats it as serious education journalism.

The "letter to the editor" is a fun form. The word-length constraint forces a nice directness and economy. Here's me on "The Secrets of a Good Principal," in 150 words:

Dear Editor,

I don’t know whether Jacqui Getz is a good principal. She may or may not be, but Mr. Winerip’s column sheds no light on the matter. From the column we learn that Getz works hard; that she espouses union-friendly opinions about teacher evaluation (but not that she acts on them); that she talks to students; and that she wears high-heels.

I’ve observed classes at PS 126 and happen to know that over the last few years, it ran a highly innovative literacy program that produced impressive results and inspired other schools. Is this program still in place? Is Ms. Getz supporting or revamping it? These are details that a responsible journalist might report on.

But this column is not journalism, and it leaves the public none the wiser. This kind of negligent reporting is damaging to the entire public debate about education, and The Times ought not to publish it.

Max Bean

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dana Goldstein on Obama, the Reformists, and the Teacher Quality Debate

I’m kinda late on this, but Dana Goldstein had a great post a couple weeks ago on Obama’s job-creation speech and what it signals about his education agenda. In the speech, the president called for $30 billion in federal spending to prevent teacher layoffs. Goldstein thinks that’s deceptively remarkable:
This may seem like an uncontroversial, conventional Democratic spending priority. Indeed, the 2009 stimulus and the Education Jobs Fund* also helped school districts avoid teacher layoffs.

But it's important to realize that on education, Obama has rarely sounded like a conventional Democrat. During his years in the Senate, his presidential campaign, and after he entered the White House, Obama framed his school reform agenda around the issue of teacher quality, not teacher job security. He has resisted seeing schools primarily as places of employment, and has focused instead on measuring student achievement and using the data to evaluate teachers.

So last week's rhetorical emphasis on saving teachers' jobs --unaccompanied by talk of "teacher quality"-- is actually something notable from Obama. It represents a messaging win for teachers' unions and for the more traditionally liberal wing of the Democratic coalition. Now the rhetoric is being echoed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a Midwest speaking tour.
Goldstein then takes a close look at the opposite wing of the reformist movement. Most reformers, she writes, are talking about who ought to be laid off, given that budget crunches are forcing layoffs, but
What's less acknowledged is that there is a quieter conversation among reformers about reducing the size of the teaching force regardless of whether or not such a move is necessitated by budget crises
Goldstein quotes former NYC schools chancellor and News Corp. executive Joel Klein outlining his alarming vision for the future of American schooling:
A very different system would be empowered by technology…a huge infusion of private capital aimed at creating an entirely new delivery system. Teachers would be much fewer, but paid much more…it would be data-driven, it would be customized, it would engage kids, it would differentiate the approaches we take, and it would value human capital in a much different way

Monday, September 19, 2011

Let Them Fail
The Deprivations of Growing Up Without Messing Up

Tape installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Willis for the New York Times.
There’s a fascinating article by Paul Tough in last week’s New York Times Magazine. The article follows the parallel and cooperative, but very distinct, character education initiatives at KIPP’s NYC flagship school KIPP Infinity, and at its Infinity’s North Bronx neighbor, Riverdale Country School. The pairing is an excellent one, because these schools fall on either side of the philosophical divide in contemporary education: KIPP is a No-Excuses charter school serving low-income students of color in the south Bronx. Riverdale is a high-end private k-12, with the looser, more Romantic, and more Progressive educational outlook that is common among New York City’s elite private schools.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this article, but perhaps the most interesting theme is the one that inspires article’s headline: “What if the secret to success is failure?” That phrase refers to a character strength that psychologists call grit. It’s the ability to overcome adversity, to bounce back from failure and frustration, to dust yourself off and keep going. It’s a quality on which both Riverdale and KIPP put a great deal of emphasis, because it appears to be a key ingredient of success in life. At the end of the article, Tough raises an interesting question: does the privilege of Riverdale’s students, and the reluctance of middle- and upper-class parents to allow their students to fall prevent them from developing grit?

It’s a great question, and it’s relevant far beyond the walls of Riverdale Country and KIPP Infinity. At play here are not only demographics, but an entire approach to child rearing favored by contemporary wealthy, educated parents, one in which children are not allowed to fail.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Scope of American Student Under-Achievement

A couple of my readers have been suggesting that the problem with American student achievement is actually only a problem with our poorest and lowest-performing students, whose weak scores are dragging down the averages. I don't think that’s the case, and I want to present some data on this question, because it’s an important one.

I’m looking at the 2009 international assessment scores (from the Programme for International Student Assessment, which are available online). Now, test-scores don’t tell you everything, of course, but when you need a blunt comparative instrument, they’re a good one. According to the data from these exams, high-performing US students are indeed more competitive with high-performing students from other countries than low-performing US students are with low-performing students from other countries, but there’s still plenty of room for concern.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Education Reform and Teacher Professionalism
(Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching, part 4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the professional status of teachers. The series is non-contiguous—i.e., I’ve written other, unrelated posts in between installments of the series—so I figure only my most faithful readers are up to date on the whole thing. For everyone else, feel free to catch up here:

Expertise in Education

In part 3 of this series, I wrote about the difficulty of establishing a consistent, identifiable expertise among teachers. The key word here is consistent: expert teachers do exist, they’re just rare. Now great doctors are rare too—and the same probably goes for excellent plumbers and electricians—but everyone who gets a license to practice medicine—or to be a master plumber or electrician—has a high baseline level of expertise. Most doctors have had over 10,000 hours of experience practicing medicine by the time they finish their residency, not to mention thousands more hours of academic coursework.

The baseline competency among teachers, on the other hand, is very low: first-year teachers generally have only a few hundred hours of classroom teaching experience and relevant coursework, often less; and as discussed previously, much of that coursework is of low rigor and uncertain value. That’s a big problem because teachers, like doctors, do a job that’s too important to screw up. (Click here for a more detailed discussion.) Without sufficient training and support, many of them burn out before ever attaining expertise, and many of those who remain learn slowly in the absence of guidance, mentorship, and any clear model of excellence.

We all know what expert teachers are like, though, because we’ve all had one or two in our lives. They have a way with kids—not only a capacity to charm or quiet them, but an ability make difficult concepts approachable, strange ideas interesting, narratives and facts unforgettable—and anyone who sees them interact with children recognizes it. That ability, like the dog whisperer’s, appears almost magical; like the doctor’s, it comes with a decisive, authoritative sense of what should be done in a given situation—how a disease should be treated, how a wayward child should be handled—and the lay-person—the non-teacher, the exasperated father, the worried mother—defers naturally, automatically to that authority. Just as the sick person is relieved to cede authority over their health and body to a competent doctor, the parent is relieved to cede authority over their child to a competent teacher. Authority, power, and autonomy are not things we resent giving to trusted experts; they’re things we want to give them—after all, we pay them to take them from us.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What Teachers Should Know Before they Start Teaching

Mark J. Perry posted an essay on Carpe Diem two days ago about grade inflation in university education departments (see the image to the right). Aside from offering me, as the holder of a BA in education history and policy, some personal embarrassment, the post gives strong evidence for the lack of rigor in teacher training that I discussed in my last post. These soft standards have a double effect: they lower the public perception of teachers, and they leave teachers worse prepared to transmit knowledge.

I want to argue, however—and this follows pretty directly from the discussion of expertise in my last post—that upping rigor is not a sufficient solution to the problem of weak teacher preparation; indeed, low-rigor is more symptomatic of our teacher-training problems than causal. The more important question is, what exactly are we trying to teach teachers? We want to up the rigor, yes, but the rigor of what?

There are, generally speaking, two types of material in a teacher training program: subject-area content and pedagogical technique. I talked briefly about the issues surrounding pedagogical technique in my last post and at considerable length in my post on how to improve teacher training. Upping the rigor on the psychology and pedagogical theory courses that dominate traditional training programs will not make teachers more effective in the classroom; what we need is a different kind of pedagogical training entirely, one that occurs in actual grade schools, under the mentorship of master teachers.

What I want to talk about today are the issues surrounding subject-area knowledge. I touched a bit on this in my last post, but I want to go into more detail, because this is something I don’t hear anyone talking about. No matter how it’s done, more rigorous subject-area classes for secondary-school teachers are probably a good thing, but it’s worth thinking carefully about exactly what type of rigor we want. The word rigor gets tossed around a lot in education discussions, and I’m not the first to point out that it’s meaning has gotten a little vague: rigorous has become more or less synonymous with difficult. But there are a lot of ways to make classes harder.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 3): the Would-Be Profession

This is the third post in a series about the professional status of teachers. In my last post, I viewed the struggles of the teachers’ unions in the light of teachers’ ongoing and often frustrated struggle for legitimacy as a profession. In this post, I will talk about why that legitimacy has proven so elusive.

Teaching has never been on solid footing as a profession. A professional is a recognized expert, an authority within a particular field. Any field that attains professional status needs at least these three ingredients: specialized knowledge and skills; specialized training; and a system of formal certification, marking mastery of the skill set, completion of the training, and membership in the profession. Without these three ingredients, the professional’s expertise would have no recognizable validity; she would be indistinguishable from a snake-oil salesman. (There are other characteristics of professions that grow naturally out of these three, but these are the essential ingredients.)

Teaching has, for about a hundred years, possessed at least the semblance of all three elements—but only the semblance. There are tests required for teacher certification, but the tests are extremely easy; most well-educated non-teachers could pass them. There is training, but the curriculum and content vary wildly from one training program to another; so, though it may be specialized, it is not specialized in any particular way. The training is also brief, often undemanding, and of dubious practical value to teachers; and you don’t actually need to complete it to begin teaching. Teaching—or good teaching, at least—requires plenty of specialized skills and knowledge, but there’s not much agreement as to what those skills and knowledge are, and no one actually thinks that all or even most teachers possess them.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Morals We Want and the Morals We Have

The Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice
A comment on my last post brought up some questions that I want to address publicly. Discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments to the House of Lords on the need for better moral education in British schools, one of my readers had this to say:
The ‘civic excellence’ [the Archbishop] wants is a collective virtue, not just an individual one. To achieve it, the British would not only have to educate their poor in values, they would have to look seriously at the values of the society, including those that tolerate economic deprivation and isolation.
I agree with that assessment, and I think it raises an interesting issue that another commenter on this blog has been trying to raise in another thread and which I have been a little slow to hear: namely, the dissonance between the morals we want to teach to kids and the morals reflected by the society as a whole.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Moral Education, the London Riots, and the Entanglement of Economics and Schooling

 My series on the fraught status of the teaching profession is still unfinished, but I wanted to put up a quick post on another topic. The Guardian’s political blog reported  yesterday, on comments by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the role that schools should take in the long-term response to the riots (and, inevitably in such discussions, the role that schools have taken in permitting the riots to occur).

Williams, speaking in the House of Lords, said:

There is nothing to romanticise and there is nothing to condone in the behaviour that has spread across our streets. This is indeed criminality – criminality pure and simple."

For Williams, the cure for further outbreaks could only be found in the long-term and in the reorientation of schools towards teaching virtues rather than skills:

Over the last two decades, our educational philosophy at every level has been more and more dominated by an instrumentalist model; less and less concerned with a building of virtue, character and citizenship — 'civic excellence' as we might say. And a good educational system in a healthy society is one that builds character, that builds virtue.

Character involves… a deepened sense of empathy with others, a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.

Are we prepared to think not only about discipline in classrooms, but also about the content and ethos of our educational institutions — asking can we once again build a society which takes seriously the task of educating citizens, not consumers, not cogs in an economic system, but citizens.

The nice thing about having a state church, I guess, is that there’s a voice for old fashioned ideas of morality and spiritual health in public debates. It says something about the state of a society, though, when the strongest public advocate for humanism is the church. I’m deeply sympathetic to Williams’s desire to view people in more than purely economic terms: citizenship is a far more worthy goal for education than consumerhood. Williams’s exclusive focus on character, however, ignores obvious economic factors that must play a major role in what’s going on in England right now. Viewed in the most cynical terms, his ideas of virtue and character appear to be tools for keeping the downtrodden from acting out: religion as the opiate of the masses.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 2): the Battle over Autonomy

[this is the second on a series of posts on the status of the teaching profession in American culture, the causes and implications of that status. Read part 1 here.]

Randi Weingarten, in 2010
A couple months ago, I read an article in The Times about a movement in a number of American schools and school districts to reduce homework loads, through policies that limit the amount of homework per night or designate certain holidays as homework-free. The most interesting thing in the article was only incidentally connected to homework:

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, views policies dictating how to do homework as “taking something that should be professional practice and making it into an assembly-line process.”

—i.e. don’t tell us how to do our job.

One might fairly reply: are we to have no say over what happens in our schools? If parents feel that homework loads have spiraled out of control, shall they have no recourse? After all, if our electrician starts putting dimmer-switches on every fixture in the house, we are perfectly entitled to tell her we don’t want dimmer-switches; and if our lawyer wants us to plead the fifth, we’re entitled to insist on taking the stand. Professional status is not a talisman against meddling, it’s simply a mark of expertise—or it’s supposed to be.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Psychoanalyzing the Politics of Teaching (part 1)

"Struggling for Legitimacy"
Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit

Two weeks ago, Andrew Rotherham posted a piece about teachers’ unions on Eduwonk. The inspiration for the piece was a Times story about a collaboration between GM and the United Auto Workers union on the development of a new, domestically-produced sub-compact car. Rotherham acknowledges that there are some examples of similar union-management collaboration in education, but he thinks that conditions in the public sector do not create the same incentives for collaboration:
I don’t want to imply that teachers’ union leaders are not committed to the success of public education.  But… the incentives around success are different because private firms can go out of business while public sector ones generally do not (especially public education, which is an essential service).
He’s right, of course—it’s clear from the Times article that the UAW’s involvement in the collaboration was driven by concerns about the future of American domestic automobile manufacturing, concerns that have no parallel in education—but I think Rotherham is looking for the wrong kind of explanation.

Whichever side you’re listening to, and whomever you blame for the problem, it’s hard to deny that relations between teachers’ unions and the state and local governments with whom they are in contract are uncommonly ugly these days. It’s worth asking why that’s happening; and it’s hard to argue with a conclusion as reasonable and open-ended as Rotherham’s:
...there are real differences between public sector and private sector unions and their various incentives and… we had better pay attention to them in our industry and think about how to navigate the various challenges public education faces with that in mind.
But whatever the complexities of public-sector incentives, I don’t think incentives are the heart of the problem. Economic incentives have never been primary motivators for teachers, and despite all the talk about merit-based pay and strategic firings, I suspect they never will. (I’m not arguing that financial interests don’t play a role in union decision-making; I’m just arguing that it’s a secondary role.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Low Stakes Testing

Dana Goldstein had an interesting post a couple weeks ago (I move at a slower pace than the rest of the world) in The Nation’s group blog. (I recommend reading it.) The post is about standardized testing for preschoolers:
With new evidence of standardized test score-inflation and straightforward adult cheating on K-12 tests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and across the country, you’d think it would be exactly the wrong time for the Obama administration to commit $500 million to developing additional state tests for a totally new population of children: pre-schoolers.
But Dana says she’s “cautiously enthusiastic” about the new focus on preschool testing, because
...the model the administration has in mind for pre-school assessment is low-stakes for individual teachers and students and measures not only academic performance but also children’s social, emotional, physical and artistic readiness for kindergarten.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"College for All" dissected (part 2)

This is the third in a series of posts critiquing the "college for all" rhetoric of the contemporary reform movement. If you're just tuning in, I recommend reading from the first post in the trilogy. If you're in a hurry, I encourage you at least to read last week's post.

Original artwork by Paris Mancini,
created for Dewey to Delpit
Uniform Expectations

The avoidance of the realities of student achievement constitutes a peculiar reworking of the concept of high expectations. Any real teacher who has genuinely high expectations for his students knows that what is exceptional and praise-worthy in one student is run of the mill for another; and what is exceptional and praise-worthy for the other will be unobtainable for the first. Thus, real teachers would never hold all students to identical standards. Yet, policymakers’ simultaneous adherence to the rhetoric of egalitarianism and that of high expectations has led to precisely these sorts of identical standards.

“College for all” is the ultimate manifestation of this uniformity of expectations, but the effects trickle down into the lower grades, in the form of state—and soon, national—standards, for each grade and each subject. Let me be clear: there’s a strong argument to be made for a consistent national curriculum, but the requirement that all students, homeless and affluent alike, be proficient in precisely the same skills in each grade constitutes a dangerous obliviousness to individual variation; the result is that teachers in schools serving disadvantaged students are forced to race through large swaths of material, relying heavily on memorization and sacrificing both comprehension and retention (see my post on rote instruction and memorization in impoverished neighborhoods).

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"College for All" Dissected (part 1)

In Dr. Seuss's parable of social class exclusion, The Sneeches on the Beaches, a distant, furry relative of mine, Sylvester McMonkey McBean (they changed it at Ellis Island), arrives in town with a machine that magically affixes a high status indicator (a star on the belly) to low status sneeches. The long-term benefits of the procedure are questionable.
This is a continuation of a post I put up last week, on the “college for all” movement.

Because this is such a delicate issue, and because there are so many angles from which it must be examined before it can be fully understood, I want to come out and state my overall position here and now: ideally, every student not suffering from severe biological handicaps should receive the kind of rigorous academic training that would provide an avenue to college; but, even in ideal circumstances, not all students should actually attend college; moreover, the rigid, uniform format in which college prep is currently being implemented in many inner-city schools is absurd and counterproductive.

Distant Goals

The school described in my last post probably offers an extreme example of the disconnect between reality and student expectations that can be created by a hardline commitment to college for all. The narrow and insistent focus on college as the sole aim of grade-school education, however, inevitably creates a peculiar circumstance, in which all students are striving for a goal that, barring unprecedented pedagogical breakthroughs, many of them will not attain. High though our ideals may be, the realities of our schools and neighborhoods are not yet commensurate. To overcome the impact of poverty and segregation through sheer quality of schooling is a herculean undertaking, and we are naive if we expect it to be instantly accomplished, simply because we have willed it so.

In a paper for the 2002 Spencer Foundation Conference, economist Richard Rothstein wrote about the pervasiveness of unrealistic college expectations:

…as late as their senior year in high school, black adolescents expect to graduate from college and obtain graduate degrees at higher rates than whites. Many then drop out of college and may take less rewarding jobs than those for which nonacademic training programs could have prepared them. [1]

The No-Excuses movement is not as un-self-critical as its advocates in politics and the media make it appear, however. Among teachers and administrators in these schools, it is widely acknowledged that there is a significant gap between where most students are now and where they need to be to succeed in college, especially in terms of critical thinking and problem solving skills. Worried about irresponsible portrayals in the blogosphere and beyond, schools tend to stay off the record about these concerns, but they are a topic of widespread internal discussion. (Charter school leaders whom I spoke to about this post and who were sympathetic to some of my argument were reluctant to be quoted for fear of how critics might misrepresent their positions. As the public relations officer of one large charter network once told me, “We’re here to run schools, not to do public relations.”)

Many No-Excuses schools and networks are beginning to experiment with more progressive, hands-on, comprehension-oriented instructional techniques, and many more are seeking to significantly expand instruction outside the core areas of math and English, providing improved education in the arts, science, social studies, debate, etc. As instructional styles become more varied and student comprehension deepens, college attendance will hopefully become a more reasonable goal for many students—but the problems with the “college for all” movement, in its current incarnation, go deeper than mere feasibility.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations: the Uncertain Promise of College

Dana Goldstein has an excellent article on vocational education appearing in next week’s issue of The Nation. (You can read it online currently, and I recommend it). Before delving into some interesting modern incarnations of vocational ed, Ms. Goldstein discusses a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which found that only about 30% of new jobs in America, over the next seven years, would require a four-year college degree. The study serves as a jumping off point for a critical reexamining of the contemporary reformist rhetoric that every student in America can and should attend a four-year liberal arts college. Not surprisingly, challenging that rhetoric generated some vitriol in the online comments on The Nation’s website, but Ms. Goldstein is right to take on these questions; thorny though they may be, they are pressing ones.

"Long Odds"
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit.
Line Drawing: Paris Mancini. Color & Texture: Tavet Rubel
I’ve been concerned about the implications of “college for all” since my first experience working at an inner-city No-Excuses charter school. The school had a motto, which the students were made to memorize and chant often: “Work hard, go to college, change the world.” The first two items in that list formed the driving axiom of the school. What do you need to do? Work hard. Why? So you can go to college. College was presented as the ultimate motivation and reason behind everything we did at the school.

The effort to inculcate in students the bourgeois value of college-attendance was everywhere visible. Each classroom was named after and decorated with the colors and emblems of a different college, and the students in a given homeroom were addressed collectively by the name of the corresponding college. “Wisconsin, I need your eyes on me,” a teacher might say to a class of eighth graders. Teachers went out of their way to refer to their own college experience whenever possible in classroom discussions, and hallway bulletin-boards were often decorated with photographs of faculty alma-maters and accompanying testimonials. Whenever possible, school trips included a visit to a college campus. Students were never referred to as students; they were called “scholars.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Time-Traveling Fashion Reviewer
Observations of an Unusual Sixth-Grade Writing Class

Listening to Each Other
Original artwork created for Dewey to Delpit, by Paris Mancini
This is the first in a series of posts that I intend to write on an innovative literacy program that I've been observing for the past six months at a public school in Chinatown. (Read previous observation-based posts on Dewey to Delpit)

At 2:15pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the students in Amy Piller’s sixth grade humanities class gather on the rug at the front of the room. Some take seats on low, wooden benches, most kneel or sit cross-legged on the floor. A girl with wavy brown hair takes her station at the document camera—the digital version of an overhead projector—and begins to read from the hand-written manuscript projected on the pull-down screen in front of the board. “A Review of European Fashion in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s,” she announces. The writing is her own and the subject just what the title promises, but the approach is novel: the writer has placed herself in an imaginary 17th century English clothing boutique, in which the opulently-dressed proprietor comments on our narrator’s “poor looking, filthy” 20th century clothes, before stuffing her into an elaborate outfit so heavy she can barely walk. (“The women must have to have muscle to carry this elephant on them every day”). She departs the boutique happy with her new finery but worried about her wallet. It cost “a lot of euros,” she concludes. “I figured I didn’t have enough for dinner.”

Quirky and playful as the story may be, like all writing done in Ms. Piller’s class it’s based on detailed research. According to the writer, she used five sources on 17th century English apparel, and the background work is visible in her elaborate descriptions of dresses, wigs, veils, jewelry, and embroidery.

When she has finished reading, the class thanks her in unison for sharing, and it is then that, from a pedagogical standpoint, the really interesting part begins. A cup of popsicle sticks, each bearing the name of a student in the class, is handed to the writer, who moves from her position at the document camera to a seat amongst her peers. She picks a popsicle stick at random and calls out the name written on it. A blond girl in a white t-shirt has been selected, and she pipes up without hesitation: “I really like your piece,” she begins—but she thinks the writer needs to check the thesaurus for some synonyms for embroidery, because that word is overused. She also wants more description of setting—she doesn’t feel like she’s getting a sense of the context.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Integrated Education and No-Excuses Charter Schools

Desegregation, the great education reform cause of the mid-20th century, never really happened, and not many people even talk about it nowadays, so I was pleasantly surprised last week when Dana Goldstein, a blogger for the Washington Post cited my page on No-Excuses education in an article about race and class integration in charter schools. The writer’s concern was the increasing popularity of the No-Excuses model, whose lengthened school days and rigid behavioral codes she worried would prove distasteful to middle-class and affluent parents, leaving only poor, inner-city kids to populate these rapidly proliferating schools. That is the tip of a very craggy iceberg: dissimilarities in how we educate children from different backgrounds have widened over the past two decades, and unlike in previous eras, the dissimilarities are stated and intentional.[1]

Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit.
Matt Yglesias, writing for thinkprogress.org, responded to Ms. Goldstein's article with a version of the standard argument behind many of these dissimilarities: “…kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior.… Poor kids in a high-poverty school can… receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the ‘No Excuses’ model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context” (emphasis original.) That explanation resembles the one given by many No-Excuses schools for their strict behavioral codes: Middle-class students, the argument goes, learn school behaviors at home, and arrive in kindergarten already knowing how to sit still, listen to instructions, wait their turn, etc. Students from impoverished homes need to be explicitly taught these behaviors once they get to school.

The Times Printed my Letter

A little over a year ago, I started this blog in order to post a response to a New York Times article. (I'm not even linking to that post, because it's not very good; if you want to read some classic Dewey to Delpit, try this or this.) That same day, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, on the same topic as my post, but they never published itin retrospect, it probably wasn't worth publishing. A couple days ago, I wrote another letter and they did publish it. I'm one for two. You can read it, if you like. It's the third one down.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Better Way to Train Teachers

I want to talk about teacher training. This is a big issue, and what with the sudden discovery that teachers are the single most important factor (besides the students themselves) determining a school’s effectiveness (shocking, really), there’s a good deal of hullabaloo about it—but compared the knotty problems I usually address in this blog, this one looks pretty straightforward to me.

Discussions of how to improve teacher training tend to center around what we teach teachers. The pedagogical theories on which we train our teachers, critics argue, are wrong headed. Structural problems within graduate departments of education are blamed for the production of invalid theories of learning and the promulgation of ineffective teaching practices. For once I’ll take a stand: I don’t think that’s true. The problem has more to do with how we teach teachers than with what we teach them.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

New York State Math Exams Baffle Teachers and Students
Facing the Tradeoff Between Breadth and Depth

Ambushed by the Exam
original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit
Last week, New York City public school students sat for the state math exams. The scores won’t be announced until the summer, but there is reason to expect a dip. State exams are not typically available for public viewing until a month or two after the exam is administered, but the board of ed took special precautions this year to ensure that every copy of the test-booklets were returned to their offices and that no information about the exam leaked. What I hear from teachers who administered the exam, however, is that the 5th and 8th grade tests were completely unprecedented, both in their content and in their difficulty.

The transition to the national Common Core Standards is not slated to begin until 2014, so educators I’ve spoken to are struggling to understand why this year's 5th grade exam abandoned topics like decimals and percents that have traditionally been the meat and potatoes of that exam, and focused instead on difficult pattern and area problems, some of which lie outside the stated 5th grade curriculum altogether.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Attaining Intangible States
A Personal Narrative and a Lesson in Applied Philosophy

A Teacher Pursuing Intangible States
original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit
Last post, I wrote about a powerful, impersonal kind of certainty that, under the best circumstances, a teacher feels about the instructions she gives. The incident of the classroom interloper, which I chose to illustrate that certainty, is an especially clear example, but in the course of my two months teaching precalc, there have been countless subtler instances in which this sense of the inevitability of my injunctions has come to my aid. It is the first time in my teaching career (now in its fifth year) that I have felt this kind of sureness, and of course, it’s thrilling.

When I taught at an inner-city No-Excuses charter school two years ago, I had the opposite experience. I was deeply insecure and hesitating. I expected my instructions to meet resistance, and they almost always did; and when that resistance was forceful, as it often was, my very dignity and pride were threatened.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Brief Tale of the Classroom Interloper
Ruminations on Authority, Confidence, and Intangibility

The Fates: the ultimate authority figures
(This is the second in a series of posts based on my experiences teaching a pre-calc class at a private school. See my last post for a more complete introduction.)

The other day, a girl who’s not in my class accompanied one of my students into the room at the start of the period. The two were sharing a fit of Thursday afternoon giggles and entered full of unexplained hilarity. Now, the culture of the school where I teach permits a certain amount of deviation from proscribed routines, and it’s not so unusual for a student to follow her friend into a classroom simply for the fun of it—and, I suspect, to see what it’s like in there. The purpose of such excursions is surely benign, but I find the loosening of structures to be a slippery slope, and I try to make sure classes start on time and start focused. In short, I wanted the interloper gone, and I knew she soon would be.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Autonomy, Respect, and Obedience
Observations from my own Teaching Practice

So, I was having a hell of a time finding an image for this post, when I ran into this weird little drawing in the google image results for "teacher." As my friend Erica points out, and as I don't know how I missed, it's clearly a drawing—or a schematic almost—of Jesus and the apostles. What interested me about it initially were the yellow lines over the "teacher" which seemed to indicate an authority that went beyond discipline and obedience towards something moral. The authority indicated, I now see, is a divine one, but, for a secular Jew & pantheist like myself, the distinction is minor. The vision is of teacher as purveyor not merely of knowledge but of wisdom and moral direction. Moral authority comes less from what one knows of morals than of how one's students view one.
Evidently, I am not efficient enough to simultaneously keep up with my new teaching schedule and post regularly to this blog, so instead of my usual essays, I’m going to start posting brief thoughts and observations arising out of my own teaching practice. These will come primarily from the pre-calculus class that I began teaching two months ago.

The class is held at a high-end private day-school, whose philosophy is Romantic—that is, permissive, individualist, and committed to teacher autonomy, student choice, and learning as the pursuit of truth and beauty. Sixteen students are enrolled in my class, which I think may be the perfect number for the instructional methods I’m using. The course content is loosely defined and oversight is minimal, so that within the (unfortunately brief) confines of my 45-minute block, I have a lot of freedom to teach what and how I like. Because my other weekly commitments are small, I have more time and energy than any full-time teacher could ever hope for to devote to planning and preparing my curriculum and to assessing student work. In short, I have the ideal conditions for rigorous, thoughtful pedagogical innovation, and the result is that I am teaching by far the best class I’ve ever taught.

If my reflections on the class appear at times big-headed, let me explain that I have been, in my estimation, the worst teacher in an entire school—incompetent, weak, and ineffectual—and if I am doing even a halfway decent job now, it is only because I have learned a little from my mistakes. I am still painfully aware of my shortcomings as a teacher, but the conditions of my pre-calc class—not only those factors listed above, but the cultural similarity between myself and my students, the maturity and intelligence of the students, etc.—show my teaching in the best possible light.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How to Make it Stick:
The Psychology of Learning and Memory

Apologies to my readers for the long delay. I recently started teaching a pre-calculus class at a private school in Brooklyn, through which I’m putting into practice many of the pedagogical theories and methods that I’ve observed and studied over the last few years; the process is exciting, but the extra planning required to implement so many new ideas takes up most of the time that I previously devoted to this blog. Further retarding my posting schedule, the post that I’ve been working on intermittently for the past few weeks defies my best efforts to tie it down to finitude and linearity. In the interim, I wanted to post a couple links & a “brief” discussion.*

The Research

My friend Sam Gershman, who studies the neuroscience of memory was thoughtful enough to pass on to me a bunch of cognitive-psych research (see links below) on the conditions that facilitate long-term learning retention. The broad principle around which this research coheres is a theory, strongly supported by experimental data, about the relationship between long- and short-term memory: learning conditions that facilitate short-term recall hamper long-term storage, and vice versa.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On Vividness of Language and Experience

The Carding of Wool

The Trying of Fat
A reader—alright, let’s be honest here: my dad—left a comment on this blog regarding Dewey’s language in the passage that I excerpted last week. His point seems to me so interesting and so consonant with Dewey’s own beliefs, that I want to address a brief post to the subject. The comment itself is excellently written, and I reproduce it here in full:
What strikes me first in the Dewey passage is the vividness and specificity of his language. The "carding" of wool, the "trying" of fat, a whole world of natural processes and self-sufficiency for which we no longer have even the words. The passage helps explain, among many other things, the richness of Shakespeare's imagery. He lived the life Dewey is describing in which human beings actually made the things they used and understood, therefore, in a way we cannot, the material world around them and the properties of the objects in it, the weight of the cloth, sharpness of the tool, the density of this wood and the flexibility of that one. They saw and knew (knew and saw) the world they lived in, and their language for describing it was abundant, particular and precise.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dewey Speaks

On closer inspection, my thoughts about math concepts proved too inchoate to form the basis of the taxonomy promised repeatedly in my last few posts. It is, I suppose, the nature of a serial journal of this kind that one cannot always deliver on one’s promises without sacrificing intellectual integrity. Thus, the “cliff-hanger” at the end of my last post proves nothing more than a tease, and the hungry reader, after a long delay, is served an entirely unexpected dish: a bit of Dewey, fresh from the freezer. What follows is an excerpt from The School and Society, 1900.

Those of us who are here today need go back only one, two, or at most three generations, to find a time when the household was practically the center in which were carried on or about which were clustered, all the typical forms of the industrial occupation. The clothing worn was for the most part not only made in the house, but the members of the household were usually familiar with the sheering of the sheep, the carding and spinning of the wool, and the plying of the loom. Instead of pressing a button and flooding the house with electric light, the whole process of getting illumination was followed in its toilsome length, from the killing

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Sweet Spot:
Balancing Conceptual and Procedural Instruction in Grade-School Mathematics

The purely procedural approach to long division.
I stole these colorful illustrations from this website.

A few years ago, I was working in a charter school where the sixth-grade math teacher was having a hard time teaching long division. (I myself, let it be noted, was having a hard time teaching anything at all.) I sat in on some classes, and it was easy to spot the problem. The teacher had reduced the process of long division to a series of five steps: divide, multiply, subtract, bring down, repeat, with a mnemonic, which I forget, to help remember them. This must have seemed like an easy-to-follow script when they were planning the lesson, but it’s deceptively complicated: you have to know which numbers to divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down and what to do with all those quotients, products, and differences once you get them. (See Appendix A, for an idea of just how complex this gets.) The students didn’t understand why they were doing any of these steps, so they found all that information extremely difficult to keep track of. Long division, taught this way, became a dull and intricate labyrinth, riddled with small procedural booby-traps to derail the unsuspecting scholar. Yet, pure procedural methods like this one seem to be prevalent in contemporary instruction—try Googling “long division” and see what comes up.

More recently, my girlfriend asked me to teach her long division, a skill she’d never gotten her brain around back in elementary school. Eager to show her that mathematics is logical and comprehensible, not arbitrary and byzantine, I dove into a thorough explanation of the inner-workings of the long-division algorithm, complete with diagrams and concrete examples. After ten minutes, she was frustrated

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Concepts vs. Procedures – the Great Math Debate

In last week's post—read it before you read this one—I presented evidence of deep math concept deficits in four 5th graders in inner-city Brooklyn. Math is America's weakest subject, according to the results of international exams,[1] and it's traditionally the most feared and hated among students. There's a lot of debate as to why that is, and as with so many other issues, that debate tends to polarize around two camps. For years, I have found myself torn between those camps, but I believe the evidence that I presented last week offers a glimpse of an elusive middle-ground and a more nuanced approach to math education.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Confusion Beneath Confusion:
Brief Glimpses of Number and Quantity

For the past few months, I’ve been spending a couple hours each week teaching remedial math to four fifth-graders in inner-city Brooklyn. My assignment: help my students to develop a conceptual grasp of numbers and elementary mathematics.

Over the course of my first week or two with my charges, I gauged my students’ knowledge and understanding—or so I thought. In fact, I had discerned only the superficial: their addition tables were shaky, but they could perform two-digit column-addition; they could carry but were prone to mistakes; three of them could borrow, but again with errors; they could name the place values of two- and in some cases three-digit numbers; they could quickly add multiples of ten in their heads.

It took me several weeks to realize what should have been obvious: that that was a procedural assessment, not a conceptual one. Beneath those weak basic skills were fundamental gaps in my students’ understanding of number and quantity.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Finland (Part 2)

Last week, I posted an article about the demographic causes of Finland’s preeminence on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) exams. My purpose in that post was to show that a simple comparison between countries is impossible—but this is not to say that we can learn nothing from international comparisons. We can learn a lot, but only through careful and detailed examination of the data. I’ve spent much of the past two weeks sifting through that data, and I’ve come up with some interesting leads.