Canned Teaching

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Yet another unfortunate outgrowth of our nation’s obsession with standardized tests as the key metric for determining the quality of education in America is the emergence of teaching techniques focusing on—no surprise—standardization.  This article from The Daily Beast recounts one teacher’s experience with a company’s take on these methodologies, which have also been termed “scripted” classes.  The key is for every teacher to use the same lesson plans, assignments, and dialogue when interacting with students to teach a particular concept.  It’s hard to express how horrific this could be for public education should it catch on with school districts.  I believe I can state with some authority, however, that it will never be something teachers embrace.

The source of training illustrated in this article is the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, whose website (among many other things) suggests that key questions for schools to consider are the following:  “Does my district have a consistent classroom culture?” “Are we leveraging a common language that is proven effective?” Do we have a set of tools that teachers can use to build life-altering relationships with youth?” “Are our coaches delivering high-impact coaching with sustainable results? and “Have we reliably determined whether our coaching priorities match our district priorities?” (Emphasis added).  For those of you who think those objectives seem laudable, you need a translation on what they imply:  The goal here is for every teacher to teach the same material the same way, to the point where teachers are even speaking the same way (excuse me, “leveraging a common language”), using identical phrases and lessons plans.  This is all part of what the Center calls the No-Nonsense Nurturer Program, whose ultimate aim could also be described as “The Mindless-Automaton-Robotic-Way-to-Destroy-Any-Possible-Joy-in-Learning” pedagogic movement.

Keep in mind that the most important part of teaching/learning is the relationship between the student and the teacher.  There is nothing more fundamental, necessary, or vital going on in our public schools; and the sooner those outside of the classroom finally accept this, the more quickly all school systems will improve.  The most damaging outcome of the whole accountability movement, which began in April 1983 (my fourth year of teaching) with the now infamous A Nation at Risk report (which can be found in all its debilitating glory here), is the insistence that only objective data really matters when it comes to measuring educational achievement.  It wasn’t stated as directly as that back in 1983, but with each new governmental initiative, more and more weight has been granted to testing companies’ attempts to evaluate a lifetime of learning in third, sixth, eighth, and/or eleventh grade (initially, depending on the years in which states required measurements) with a single battery of tests.  Now, not a semester, much less a couple of school years, goes by where our kids are not subjected to these standardized assessments.

In the process, the importance of teacher/student interactions has ebbed more quickly than Dexys Midnight Runners’ popularity (whose single “Come on Eileen” was number one on April 23, 1983).  It doesn’t matter if students like going to school, feel enabled in their attempts at creativity and independence, or see their teachers as exemplary role models.  No, what matters, what makes a school worthy of tax dollars, what determines if teachers are doing their jobs adequately are tests designed by for-profit companies that cull student skills down to a single number and rank schools accordingly, using assessments “scientifically” designed without a single piece of advice or input from the teachers who work with the kids every day.

As you’ve probably sensed by now—I can’t sneak anything by you astute readers—I have absolutely no use for this garbage.  I do understand the motivation: We spend billions on our schools and keep hearing how horribly they’re doing.  I also understand the frustration: Every day there is another story about a teacher who has violated a school district’s trust, huge debts hanging over teacher pension systems, or a school district that has wasted millions of dollars (Newark is the latest in that category; the $100,000,000 Mark Zuckerberg rained down on this district was apparently burned through rapidly with no appreciable improvement in the lackluster education those students are getting).

In our consumer society, we have become accustomed to expecting immediate results from our investments.  When I spend $700 on a cell phone, it had better function correctly or I will immediately be kicking up a stink with whoever sold it to me.  But when I spend thousands every year (through my property taxes) on public schools, I have no guarantees that my daughters will end the year any smarter or better prepared for the future than if I’d kept them at home while they endlessly watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Chrisley Knows Best, and Bachelor in Paradise. (Sadly, my daughters love all of these.)  So it makes sense that we would all like for schools to operate like our favorite commercial stores—I’d probably pick Trader Joe’s or Costco as the best examples of places where it seems the employees like working there and I have a positive shopping experience 99% of the time.

But teachers aren’t selling anything, there are no money-back warranties on human interactions, and children cannot be mass produced to any specification we desire (Brave New World isn’t here…yet).  Things we can and should demand from public schools are clearly communicated expectations, an honest effort, subject matter knowledge, high standards, teaching skill, systems transparent enough so we can be sure the adults working with our kids have their best interests at heart, and above all else, students being given the opportunity to succeed at learning.  And survey after survey suggests parents are mostly satisfied with their children’s teachers.  Yet there is still this general dissatisfaction with public education overall that many pollsters and politicians have found and exploit constantly.

It’s additionally telling that many of those most critical of schools and their lack of success with the economically disadvantaged in our cities rarely have any empathy for those same poor people when it comes to unemployment benefits, food stamps, early education, or any of the other social services designed to assist the poor, which also lead to better educational results.  They often attack those who lobby for increases in the minimum wage or a fairer tax system which would increase taxes on the wealthy.  No, none of that seems to have any impact on a child’s education—according to them—any problem with education is directly laid at the feet of teachers and their unions.  The solutions to all educational ills generally revolve around the elimination of tenure, voucher systems, and rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Yet any place which has pushed hard in those directions has seen little, if any, improvement in the education children receive.  And you can bet the mortgage that these new “standardized teaching” programs won’t make things better either.  What seems so difficult for people to appreciate is that teaching is an art, not a science, and that teachers have to adapt all they learn to make their individual classrooms work best for their particular, unique situation (which best positions the kids to get that crucial opportunity to learn).  It is folly to believe that a single teaching style, approach, or personality will be the best for your child from one year to the next, much less millions of students across the country for years and years.  Sure, your kid likes the funny, no-homework, and easy-grades teacher she has this year; but that doesn’t mean that the strict, humorless taskmaster she has next year won’t actually teach her more.  My daughter once had a teacher who scared the snot out of her, generally not the best situation, one would think.  Yet, that fear (coupled with her being miserable at lying) motivated her, without fail, to do the required twenty-minutes of nightly reading.  Before this scary teacher, my daughter had been a so-so reader, but after a year of always doing some extra, practice reading (solely for fear of being caught not completing her assignment; her motivation never evolved into something nobler), her reading improved dramatically.  That skill has enabled her to succeed in school more than just about any other single academic event in her educational career.  Will she list that tough teacher on her top-ten list?  Absolutely not, but she sure as hell learned from that teacher, something that wouldn’t have happened had all her teachers been forced to become clones of a single education company’s vision of what makes a great teacher.

That’s not to claim that students’ fearing their teachers should be the basis for educational reform—but it does illustrate the need for what I have termed “bio-teaching diversity,” the idea that by permitting teachers to evolve their own styles, better education will occur.  Keep in mind that this teacher’s standard of getting kids to read books of their own choosing was an excellent goal, and I’m certain that inspiring terror in students was NOT something he/she sought.  But the strict discipline this teacher insisted on—which was very different from any other teacher my daughter had had—exposed students to a new work situation, something we all need to learn to adapt to over the course of our careers, and got excellent results from my daughter.  When I speak about teachers being allowed to figure out the teaching styles which work the best for them and their situations, that’s what I mean.  Of course there will be some teachers with whom your kid’s particular personality doesn’t mesh all that wonderfully.  But in figuring out how to adapt to that “boss,” your son/daughter will have gained really important skills, much more significant than a bunch of papers with stars on them.  And always remember that the standards all teachers hold their students to should be regularly assessed by school districts, and teachers should be held accountable for working towards those goals.

Standardization certainly has its place in our world—I’m perfectly content with all Oreos I eat requiring exactly the same twist to unscrew and appreciate that every square of my Scott’s toilet paper is the same on each roll.  But schools are the last place where we should be trying for that kind of sameness.  We need to be alert to any and all trends which push our unique students into neat cubby-holes of bland.  Yes, that crabby old man up the street from you who seems to hate any and all displays of youthful exuberance might be pleased if our schools iron out all those creative, unconventional wrinkles our kids possess, but the losses this would bring to our civilization would be great.  Standardized teaching has no place in our schools, and here’s hoping this is a passing fad (like most of the “reform” movements of the past forty years).  We need to foster creativity our teachers, not rein it in.

Follow-up:  Last week, I wrote about the controversy between Newsweek magazine and my old school district, Hinsdale Township District 86.  One of the two high schools in the district, Hinsdale Central, had been left off Newsweek’s annual “Top 500 High Schools” list for the second year in a row.  That motivated Superintendent Bruce Law to complain publicly (in a letter published here  in The Patch) about what he termed, “Newsweek’s mistake.”  Turns out that the mistakes of that oversight can be laid completely at the feet of District 86.  Central was left off the list last year because nobody sent in the forms required to be included.  And this year’s slight was the result of somebody filling out the forms incorrectly:  When asked for the number of graduates who went on to college, Central provided the percentage instead of the actual number.  So rather than showing that 663 of 679 students went on to college, Central’s form had 99 out of 673, a pretty poor showing. (Law’s new letter explaining his first letter was incorrect can be found here.) The reality of course, is that 99% of Central’s graduates attended a college or university.  I’ll let you come to your own conclusions about what this says about those in charge in District 86 and complaining about outcomes without thoroughly checking your own culpability first.

My point was (and still can be found on my blog) that the whole “Top 500” list mentality is foolish, and that there are dozens of other important considerations on what makes a high school excellent that Newsweek didn’t consider.  Not to let Central off the hook for what are obviously dumb mistakes, but outcome also shows again how idiotic it is to take these rankings seriously—not only are the forms sent in by high schools simply accepted with no checking for accuracy, but Newsweek doesn’t have the slightest familiarity with the school districts being ranked.  Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge about Hinsdale Central High School, historically one of the premiere schools in Illinois, would have wondered about a statistic that said only 99 out of 673 students (15%) went on to college.  Again, you are better off ignoring these lists; much more fruitful would be checking out the e-book, Snowflake Schools, of which you can read excerpts here.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Ownership and Public Schools |

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