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.