From the Archives – Notes Before A Move

It has been quiet over here on the blog. You haven’t missed anything – things are fine. I’ve been running on many cylinders and focusing on some big projects in the works.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of school and why we do what we do. I was reminded while looking through some old files that I had written a long-form article back in the summer of 2010 before moving overseas to teach for the first time. It was an attempt to make sense of the many lines of thought I had about the public school system in general after teaching in the Bronx for six years, and one year at the KIPP NYC College Prep high school. I was not blogging at the time, and did not have a good place to put this beyond emailing it out to some close friends.

I still think it represents my long held belief that we are at our best when we choose to talk and listen to one another. Demonizing one another does little to make progress.

We need a reliable and effective educational system. This fact is obvious to most people. Politicians know that making sound bites that state this fact is necessary to win elections. The difficult part comes when individuals attempt to define precisely what they mean by ‘reliable’ and ‘effective’.

When informing people that I am a teacher, responses are always delivered with a healthy mixture of three main themes: acknowledgment of the difficulty of the job, its importance, and a statement on how teachers are not valued in today’s society. What follows is also like clockwork: a sip of a drink, a statement about the “other hand” – at least teachers get summers off and can go home at three. Sometimes I explain other realities of the job (such as grading or the intricacies of lesson planning.) Other times I just nod and accept that most people lack an understanding of how much work is involved in good teaching (both inside and outside of the classroom) or in developing into a better teacher after each day’s set of experiences.

As has been said many times before, good teaching is both an art and a science. Teachers will then admit (often when out of hearing range of administrative judgment) that good teaching is an iterative process. There are good days and rough ones, engaging lessons and unintentionally boring activities, and even times when a potentially good lesson fizzles because it meets a particularly fickle developing mind too soon after lunch. While principles of psychology, child development, and principles of cognition can shed significant insight into what should work well in the classroom, teachers are expected to also use a great deal of intuition and experience to figure out what will work best to help students achieve their learning goals and meet standards. Students are, after all, people, not machines.

It is also fairly obvious that the concept of accountability in the educational system is here to stay. This is not in itself a bad idea – given that most people agree about the importance of education, distinguishing an effective educational system from a less effective one is necessary to iteratively reach a system that works well for its students. The devil is again in the details. Teachers, administrators, political leaders, professors, statisticians – they can all be as different in their approaches as there are students in the New York City educational system.

I will now admit one of my own mistakes as a teacher: I have punished an entire class of students for the actions of a few. It never gets me the results I want, and when I have thought about it afterward, it never makes sense. Many students do the right thing on a regular basis – why yield control of the class to the few that least are able to handle it? These individuals often need to be managed in a different way, time, or setting. When I do handle things in this individualized way, as difficult as it can be with a larger class, it always works out in a more positive way for both myself and the involved students.

The logic of a one-size-fits-all solution does not make sense in education. So why is it so common? Our community grapples with the difficulties of reconciling the practical side of accountability with the ultimate goal of educating youngsters to become informed and responsible citizens every day. And yet, we frequently see solutions or policies that attempt to reduce complexity to the singular innovation, classroom structure, or educational program that will fix all of the system’s problems.

Furthermore, many people in our field strive on a regular basis to paint a picture of other players as being woefully inadequate, incompetent or immoral, even though these may be a small fraction of the whole. Principals complain about veteran teachers that refuse to try new things and are difficult to fire because of union rules. Teachers that join the profession through alternative routes cry foul when some principals seem concerned only with pass percentages or when a veteran teacher does not take the time to grade nightly homework. A public school parent wonders why his son’s new science teacher, who cannot control a class, replaced one with more experience who was fired because he refused to write a whole new curriculum without being paid for the time. A community member might see charter schools as elitist and unfairly funded, but a student attending a charter might just as easily wonder why she could not get the personal attention she needed from her old neighborhood school.

The fact is that the entire spectrum of humanity, from crooks to tragic idealists, are present in our system. There is also a substantial population on the other side of the coin. There are parents that want to help their children with homework but do not know how. There are new teachers that are willing to work long hours to write lesson plans, but do not know that the secret of teaching addition of fractions could be revealed in a minute long conversation with a veteran. Furthermore, there are veteran teachers that have legitimate concerns about policy changes based on their past experience, but their voices are drowned out by others labeling them ‘naysayers’.

To frame the debate by assertions from one group on how much another group cares (or does not care) about children and their education is completely unproductive – all of us want the best for the children in our system. There are many innovative, talented, and passionate people that want to work hard in a system to help children make meaningful progress in developing skills for future success. To also claim, however, that moving forward is impossible because of a minority is just as illogical. There are ways to include everyone in the process and discuss how to lead students to develop good character traits and be prepared for their own academic goals.

The primary flaw in the current administrative efforts is in looking for the system that will work for everyone, rather than the people that will make the system work for all. Teachers are often told to differentiate instruction, which means to optimize classroom activities to help and support students of all skill levels to reach specific learning goals. All students are not the same, and neither the paths they follow to to reach their academic and character goals, nor the support they need along the way, will be the same. Why do we look for solutions that are not differentiated in this manner?

The energy crisis will not be solved by just solar power, or wind power, or biofuels. It will be solved by solar power and wind power and biofuels and conservation and the development of new technologies and the adaptation of some old ones. There is no silver bullet; there is, however, a combination of different energy sources that will together bring us a more stable climate, a more stable economy, and a more sustainable lifestyle for people around the world.

Along the same line of reasoning, just creating a system with more charter schools will not solve our problems if the human capital needed to run them is not developed concurrently. Changing the system to one that closes failing schools and replaces them with the same administrators and teachers and conditions that led to its downfall is not the answer. More testing is not the answer, but eliminating testing will not work either.
We need to better support neighborhood schools and the people that work within them and have a system that supports charter schools. We need a union that works to support and protect teachers that might agree with the goals of the administration, but not the methods they use to reach them. We need to study both effective charter schools and effective traditional schools for the successful elements they share. We need to innovate to find ways to emulate the positive aspects of both and invest in people to do the extra work necessary to adapt and run these systems in effective ways. We need to find ways to unite the experience of veterans with the energy of new teachers and alternative certification programs like Teach for America. We need not to spend late nights reinventing the wheel while veteran teachers are eager to be heard.

An earnest effort to invest in and support the people that make these systems work is the other crucial piece that is necessary for the system to improve. Systems that depend on human talent and ingenuity (as education does) cannot be duplicated by simply copying the structures produced by effective educators. One educator may make use of a word wall effectively to improve his or her students understanding, but simply insisting that every classroom have a word wall does not make every educator effective.

A podcast made earlier this year from This American Life, a production of WBEZ in Chicago, described an interesting collaboration between Toyota and GM called New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated, or NUMMI. Workers from GM traveled to Japan to tour the Toyota plants and explore the structures in place. Many of the workers that traveled were experienced machinists that had spent years doing the same thing over and over again in the plant, and were disillusioned by the mechanical nature of their job. The success of the Japanese system relied on the observations and ideas of individual workers along the assembly line working together and alerting each other when there was a problem. When the assembly line stopped because of a problem, a playful tone would play throughout the factory so that individual workers would know which station needed assistance. Floor managers would work to divert workers to assist the troubled station until the issue was resolved. The end result of this system was a higher productivity, higher quality product, and increased pride on the part of the workers constructing the cars. The American workers were energized by the visit and left Japan inspired and ready to apply the lessons learned to the factory floor back in the United States.
Initially, management was excited to call upon the new energy of the returning workers. These managers attempted to copy the exact structure of the plants in Japan, down to the alignment and arrangement of the individual machines on the shop floor. They opted not to invest the same energy and money in establishing the systems that supported the people in the assembly line. Penalties were instituted for halting the assembly line, and workers would snitch on each other to enhance their reputations with managers. In the end, the same problems experienced by American plants before the collaboration still occurred. What remained was an unhappy workforce, and a factory that looked just like the plant in Japan, but with none of the productivity.

Cookie cutter solutions appeal to the preference for simplicity built into the human mind. They are shortcuts, which are dangerous if used without understanding what is cut out for the sake of speed. Charter schools do a lot of good for the students that attend them, but that does not mean we need many more charter schools – there are both effective and ineffective ones. Research that shows that Teach for America corps members can help students make progress on a level comparable to teachers with more experience, but that does not mean we need more Teach for America corps members and fewer traditional teachers.

These represent individual pieces of the solution to the difficulty facing us in reforming the educational system to work better for its students. The key is to figure out how to make the most of all of the different talents and capabilities of all of the people in our system to do this. This is not about stating which group is the greatest obstacle to progress. The system will only improve if we figure out how best to inspire and support the people working within it. Each of us knows what is at stake.

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