Last time, we took a look at an article—in the American Enterprise Institute’s What to Do: Policy Recommendations for 2017 series, included in the K-12 Education section—where AEI researchers summarized three key approaches used in two charter schools sponsored by the University of Chicago. The first, “Provide an ambitious model of instruction,” led us to many digressions on how we determine what the model should look like: Since that area includes what’s in the curriculum, what methods are used to impart that curriculum, and to what standards students are held as evidence of meeting those goals, it’s a gnarly topic—and it’s pretty much everything that matters most about education. So naturally, the debate over how public schools can maintain excellence when that’s what they deliver, improve when it isn’t, and the ways we can tell the differences between the two has been anything but smooth or consensual.
Rather than review that contentious recent past (or rail against the present, given who is now leading our country on educational policy), we need to look at the second two “ambitious” principles good schools need to incorporate, according to the AEI. (I keep referencing this very conservative policy source because it’s relevant that two parties—the AEI and me—typically so far apart in our opinions on…well, almost everything else, can agree on these fundamental premises.) Those other two ambitions would be as follows: Schools should “organize teachers’ work to provide ambitious instruction, and (school systems need to) provide broad supports for ambitious instruction.”
Of course, we’re back to debatable abstractions, but there’s really no way to organize and support ambitious instruction without more time for teachers to interact with each other. There is much truth to the assertion in this article that as schools exist right now, teachers are left to their own devices too much. The AEI sees current practices as teacher-centric, that teachers develop into divas, one-of-a-kind artists who free-lance and expect to be able to do whatever they want since they know everything, almost as though teachers went into education solely to flaunt their individual skills, prima donnas who never have their egos checked. They also complain that teachers claim no one can question what they do since only teachers understand what is needed. (Did I mention that AEI and I often diverge in our views?) No, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but in the spirit of trying to find educational foundations on which all can agree, I’m overlooking their slight negativity toward my ex-colleagues. (I could never have been accused of arrogance during my 33 years in the classroom—truly, I didn’t consider myself to be half as wonderful as I actually was.) Instead, I would point out that the workloads and schedules of teachers don’t allow for enough time to interact in any significant way on curricular/methodological/evaluative standards. (That bit about nobody questioning their expertise will be addressed next time.)
Regardless of our disagreement over the evolution of teachers’ isolation in enacting crucial educational issues, we do agree that teachers need to work together to develop approaches to all those important pedagogical questions.
But they can’t be expected to generate methodologies, goals, or standards which are the same as any other school’s. In the first part of our analysis of these ambitions, we pointed out how any single set of standards applied uniformly to every school will not succeed. The needs, backgrounds, and abilities of American students simply won’t cooperate with such a limited view. For proof of that just look to the failure of the Common Core’s evaluative arm, the PARCC tests. which some 63% of the 42 states who are still using the Core’s standards have stopped administering. It’s especially easy to understand the folly of trying to administer any standards uniformly: For example, we all agree with the goal that high school graduates should have high levels of critical reading skills. But we’re likely to part company when it comes to how we measure progress toward that goal, what evaluation instrument we use to assess it, and the grading scale we use for different sets of students—and let’s not even get started in how we would define “critical reading skills!” Each school has to consider its students’ previous educational experiences, natural ability, family support, economic status, and national/state/local financial investment before tailoring the educational curriculum, winding up with different approaches to that overall objective, different ways to evaluate progress towards it, and different levels of achievement deemed as acceptable. It just isn’t realistic to demand the same results from wildly varying starting points. (This is the issue Senator Al Franken tried to get then-nominee, now Secretary of Education DeVos to discuss when he asked for her stance on the proficiency vs. growth debate. She had no clue what he was talking about, which is another significant problem we currently face.)
The only answer to this challenge, then, is to allow individual schools latitude in determining how to assess where students begin, where they finish, and which approaches work best to aid that growth. And if we expect harried teachers to do all this in a directed, coordinated way, we’ll have to get them the time to work together and provide them with the resources they need to get the job done.
We’ll talk about accountability, which has become a huge public relations issue (aka: buzzword, smokescreen, distraction) in the future, but the real problem with these two ambitions will be that they cost money. I worked in two school districts (Itasca Elementary #10 and Hinsdale High School #86) which did an excellent job in providing the resources I needed to do my job: supplies were abundant, technology was good if not cutting edge (I don’t believe you ever want state-of-the-art electronics since it means you’re paying double for something that still has major bugs in it, compared to the duller-but-significantly-more-reliable-and-cheaper versions down the road), and the facilities were well-maintained. (My chief complaint at my first school—which was having to compete with noise from O’Hare’s takeoffs and landings every few minutes on some days—got solved just a couple of years after I left with soundproofing and air-conditioning. My big complaint at my second school—stifling classrooms for many days each school year—got taken care of the first year after I retired with air-conditioning for the entire building. Clearly, I was the key obstacle to building improvements where I worked.)
The money problem is definitely tied to the way public education is funded: Here in Illinois, property taxes dominate, meaning wealthy areas have great schools, including facilities. Recent legislation has attempted to even out some of the disparities through larger state contributions to poorer districts, but we’re a long way from anything remotely resembling equity when it comes to public education funding. (And even the modest steps made in Illinois were partially offset by a tax break for those who choose to send their children to parochial schools and the elimination of the crucial requirement that students have physical education every day.) In other words, fair school financing is one of those huge issues that creates too-large an explanation/digression for my purposes here. Rest assured, I do have suggestions for better ways to fund public education (see my e-Book for much more on this), but we’ll have to put off getting into that one again, at least for now. It is an important key, absolutely.
But the time issue is more manageable since there are economical ways to address it that don’t require millions of dollars to be levied by a taxing body (local and/or state); they will, however, mean reassessing the traditional school day as well as how teachers interact.
More time for teachers to work together is clearly a trend in area schools: My daughter’s Downers Grove High School District #99 has begun late arrival days, for example; most Mondays this school year will begin at 9:20 A.M. Teachers will report at their usual 7:20, providing two hours each week for more collaboration. Other school districts in the area have also begun working more staff time into their schedules. Given how much teachers have to get done as it is, this time will have to be planned carefully to assure quality collaborative opportunities, lest busy teachers circumvent the program’s intent by using the time to do regular class work (grade papers, record scores, contact parents, fill out forms, and the like). Despite the potential pitfalls, this type of teachers-working-with-teachers space is exactly what the goal of more “organizing teachers for ambitious instruction” is all about.
Another positive sign is that more peer coaches are becoming available. Many school districts now regularly grant release time (typically one less teaching period) to free up classroom teachers to assist other teachers with tasks with which they might need help. From using technology to reading techniques to mentoring younger teachers, it is always easier to ask a colleague a question, not to mention your colleague’s expertise is based on actual teaching experience. You’d be surprised at how high a percentage of the scant time allowed for institutes during my thirty-three-year career was spent with outside experts who didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of my school and students; you’d be even more shocked that a significant percentage of those trying to instruct me didn’t even have any teaching experience or education background at all. Giving teachers assignments where they can help other teachers is a much better way to spend institute money that is currently used on outside experts, who provide mixed results (and that’s being kind).
Finally and most significantly, more teachers are being allowed to work together. Right now, this occurs mostly when special education teachers work in regular/average classrooms with the subject area teacher. The special ed teacher is primarily there to service the students in the class with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) who have had a learning or psychological issue documented. These students might otherwise be in special education classes. The unintended upside is that the more integrated the teachers become as they work together, the less any differences are perceived by everyone. It’s just two teachers in the same class teaching everyone. This can be beneficial for the non-IEP students in understanding that students with differences are just like them and don’t need segregation or being singled out for those differences; however, it can have an invigorating impact on the teachers as well. They come to understand each other’s subject matter, learn state regulations/mandates, and help each other to utilize methodology they might not otherwise know about.
That last benefit is a key to helping schools get the most out of their teachers. Most outside experts come into a school with “all” the answers: some program or approach they insist, if properly applied (which generally means a hefty investment in whatever they’re selling—usually consultation services, software, texts, workbooks, and/or courses), will dramatically improve any school…forever! That we’re having this discussion at all shows you just how well those promises turn out. But teachers—who spend their days doing the same things other teachers do AND who have the time to impart to others the special skills/insights they possess—are infinitely more helpful and useful to faculties. Not only do they know the technology, technique, or methodology better than others, but even more importantly for making that specialized skill beneficial, they understand what teachers in their buildings need and want. As was pointed out earlier, teachers are used to going solo in the classroom and can be reluctant to confess weakness or ignorance to others. But working with a colleague you’ve known for years makes it much easier to ask that awkward question and get an answer which might unleash some beneficial tactic for helping students.
Cooperative teams working together to improve worker productivity has been standard in most large corporations for quite some time now, but schools still tend to operate with dozens of independent entrepreneurs who don’t communicate with each other all that often. But even more radical (translated: expensive) solutions are possible: I’ve speculated about some in my eBook, and in another blog entry suggested a way for new teachers to be incorporated into a staff through a cooperative program where new teachers and veterans are assigned the same class for a year. Assuming the benefits of this idea are as bountiful as I believe they would be, the concept could be expanded to having all teachers work cooperatively with another to teach classes on a regular schedule. Coupled with the increased collaboration time we’ve already seen many school districts incorporating, we could see increasingly effective schools in no time.
And this cooperative teaching model wouldn’t be limited to teachers—every administrator should be required (although I would prefer the term “granted the privilege”) to teach at least one class every school year as well. As was shown in the schools the AEI found to be successful, not to mention the countries where school systems have been highly rated for years, when educators have the opportunity to work together, they will find answers to the specific challenges their unique schools face much more effectively than when teachers are left in their current isolation with only outside experts pretending to know what is best.
This ambitious agenda definitely places more control with individual schools and teachers rather than a centralized bureaucracy (like county, state, or federal governments), which inevitably leads to concerns about accountability. We’ll take on that issue next time.