Reframing Teachers as Intellectuals

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When I was six years old, I proudly announced to my parents that I wanted to be a teacher. My father kindly responded, “That’s nice, dolly, but you need to be something that realizes your full potential.”  Though my enthusiasm for education never diminished, neither did Dad’s various iterations of the message above: yes, teaching is a noble profession, a respectable profession, a necessary profession…but not a profession for you, dolly. You can do better.

I love my Dad. He’s an amazing father, and one of the most creative and ethical people I know. But he is also a pragmatist. Like many immigrant men and women who experienced economic and social hardship, Dad wanted his children to attain higher levels of financial security and professional prestige than he had. And he was well aware that in the United States, a teaching career assured neither. Although we’ve certainly argued about it over the years, I don’t fault Dad for his preferences, given the extent to which the surrounding culture reflects and reinforces this attitude. Education, while a top priority in our home, was a means, not an end. Unless of course you were going to be a university professor –to be a scholar, an intellectual, was a worthy aspiration. A schoolteacher, however? Not so much.

This pervasive attitude, even when held by well-intentioned people, is damaging to our education system. It discourages potentially fantastic educators from entering the field, and diminishes respect for those who have committed their lives to teaching.  It also leads to a lot of mixed messages about teachers’ value in society.  On one hand, we pay a lot of lip service to the power of a single teacher to change lives – there’s a whole genre of films perpetuating this image. Politicians speak of teachers as the keepers of the awesome responsibility of educating future generations. On the other hand, we see policies that seek to reward and punish teachers by boiling down their work to students’ ability to answer questions rather than to solve problems. We see low standards of entry relative to other professions, and low compensation proportional to the intensity of time and effort involved in the job. We have alternative credentialing programs that minimize training periods, perpetuating the myth that teaching doesn’t require substantial preparation.

These conditions beg the question, “Why is there such a weak association between intellectual pursuit and the teaching profession in the first place?” The changing context of formal schooling in the U.S. offers some clues. The history of teaching includes the feminization of education and the related phenomenon of the low prestige associated with working with children. Teachers’ unions grew out of a need to assert an economic and political voice in a patriarchal system that disenfranchised them. While unions made important strides in terms of employee protections, teaching continues to be regulated by a combination of government officials, educators, and district leaders, many of whom lack a background in education.  Furthermore, we are still haunted by the Industrial Age relic of the factory model of education which frames teachers primarily as automatons engaged in a one-way flow of information from adult to child, a “banking” system of learning where knowledge is deposited in a passive recipient to be withdrawn in the future. Implicit in these dynamics is a belief that teachers are not competent enough to manage their own activities, nor astute enough to speak authoritatively about the multifaceted nature of their jobs. This leads to a reality in which teacher knowledge and experience is often marginalized when it comes to determining educational standards.

In a recent Op-ed on the topic of teacher education, Professor Mike Rose of UCLA explored our tendency to overlook the complex cognitive, social, emotional environments in which teachers operate, positing that “teaching done well is complex intellectual work” that involves both extensive multi-disciplinary knowledge as well as the capacity to apply that knowledge. His ensuing discussion of teacher education reform centralizes an appreciation for this complexity. I’d like to build on this train of thought and imagine how things might be different if we start from the premise that teaching is an intellectually demanding job. Here are a few overlapping and interrelated possibilities:

Aspiring educators and those who influence them would consider teaching a more viable option. Much has been written about how countries like Finland have highly selective processes for becoming a teacher, resulting in both a deeper respect for teachers as the “best and the brightest,” as well as a better distribution of qualified teachers across the school system. The influential cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget believed that teaching was not seen as equal in “the scale of intellectual values” to other professions because it is not seen as technically or creatively special. Consequently, the opinions of practitioners are less likely to be taken seriously when it comes to claims of expertise. In contrast, those who attain entrance to their profession through a rigorous process are more likely to be seen as capable of setting standards and determining best practices. It follows that if teachers had to undergo a more rigorous training process, their participation in reform efforts would hold more credibility. Teachers’ opinions would hold more persuasive power. Becoming and staying a teacher, therefore, would mean you have a real shot at being able to influence the direction of your field.

Teacher training would change. A commitment to cultivating the teacher-as-intellectual would have profound implications for how schools of education operate. If we expect schools to produce critical, reflective thinkers, shouldn’t we expect teachers to embody and model critical habits of mind as instructional and community leaders? If we prioritized and valued teachers’ ability to think critically, pre-service teachers would engage more frequently with issues that compel individuals to unpack and question their assumptions about the dynamics of education and the purposes of schooling. Coursework in areas like research methods, comparative education, and education history would allow people to participate more fully in conversations about power and privilege and the politics of education (conversations typically reserved for “academics”). As a consequence, programs would better balance the need for experiential learning with the space to develop these skills and reflect on these deeper issues. This may involve lengthening the duration of training to better accommodate the development of practice that is informed by, rather than disconnected from, theoretical perspectives. To ensure that a lengthened training period does not discourage low-income candidates, universities and the government should invest significantly in subsidizing teacher education.

Research would better take into account the realities of the classroom. Though often drawn from the same population, the distance between educators and education researchers reflects an assumption that the former don’t possess the intellectual sophistication of latter. Teachers need to be positioned as scholars who are part of the academic body, rather than peripheral to it. While there is certainly research on a broad range of topics relevant to the school day, few studies are constructed with significant teacher input. Preparing teachers to participate fully in the process would increase the extent to which “on the ground” concerns are accounted for in rigorous academic research; their words would carry the formidable integrity of both experiential and theoretical expertise. Essentially, teachers would be seen to possess a solid foundation from which to critique and contribute to the educational body of knowledge.

These broad recommendations – higher standards for entry into the profession, increased engagement with intellectual discourse in education, a longer training period – are not new. My purpose here is to propose that the conversation should not focus on how to make teachers “better”, but on how to scaffold teaching as an intellectual profession that empowers and legitimizes teachers’ voices.

Of course, the prospect for teacher expertise to carry greater formative weight must be balanced by the need to honor the assets and input of the communities they serve. How to achieve this balance, however, is a whole other conversation…

What do you think? What other possibilities would a widespread shift such as the one described here engender in our school systems? At the same time, what kind of challenges could arise from it?

– Talia Stol

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Eliminating the Achievement Gap – An empty promise?

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“If you had to pull a single lever to eliminate the achievement gap, what would it be?” It was a hefty question posed to kick off a casual lunch-time discussion amongst a group of program directors leading the way in school reform. Even with their experience supporting new school leaders and actively shaping the national reform agenda in education, silence ensued. But it wasn’t the immensity of the question—or the many possible responses—that left me tongue-tied. Even if one was able to identify a single intervention for the sake of argument, how could a measure of its effectiveness possibly be reduced to changes in student test scores? When would we decide that any differences in student outcomes had been eliminated?

Recent players in the field of school reform adamantly demand doing away with “business as usual.” Incompetent systems of educational administration, union bureaucracy, and school leadership complacent in their approach to opportunity gaps are prime targets for removal. In their place, business administration models, talent from non-education backgrounds, and leaders willing to disrupt system norms should be instated to revolutionize an otherwise broken institution.

Another common phrase used in this forum, “moving the needle in education reform,” implies that each of these corrective strategies should be gauged against some standard of improvement immune to political sway, public sentiment, and the obstinate status quo. The effectiveness of any business venture is weighed against a bottom line. For innovative approaches to education reform, that bottom line is student achievement. But what do business leaders, and other pioneering reform advocates, really know about the measurement of student knowledge?

For certain, educational measurement is not an easy topic to navigate. In general, it aims to measure students’ abilities and knowledge attainment in content areas such as reading, mathematics, and science. Integral to this is the study of psychometrics, which is primarily focused on the construction and validation of measurement instruments like surveys and tests. Psychometricians look closely not only at the development of instruments and procedures for psychological measurement, but also at the development and refinement of theoretical approaches to measuring individual knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and personality traits.

In other words, to use testing to determine the effectiveness of a policy, practice or reform relies upon careful, complex work in understanding what, exactly, is measured by tests and surveys and how differences in individuals’ cognitive states can be accurately and reliably assessed. It must then be understood what resulting data patterns mean in their interpretation. Can we definitively pinpoint a cause-and-effect relationship between changes in district-level human resource policies and student test scores, for example? Between a school’s technology infrastructure and student performance in state-level language exams?

The intensive thought and work invested in standardized student testing has resulted in some of the most reliable indicators of acquired student knowledge. To make use of a recent example, in the identification of reliable measures of student achievement, the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project recently indicated the Balanced Assessment in Mathematics (BAM) as a strong complement to state examinations in grades K-12 math. With tests like BAM, which present a collection of cognitively challenging, higher-order thinking questions tied to curricular practices, which are shown to measure student knowledge consistently across different student groups, and which reflect recent changes in methodological approaches to math, it is not difficult to see why measures of student achievement have become such highly regarded metrics. It is imperative to recognize, however, that we, as advocates of education improvement also assign value to these metrics—oftentimes beyond the scope of whatever information they are capable of conveying. In the case of BAM, despite its strength as an independent assessment, final findings from the MET project suggested that multiple measures (that is, a combination of classroom observations, student surveys, and measures of student achievement) produce more consistent ratings of teacher effectiveness than student achievement measures alone.

Instead, the conversation around school reform seems caught in the habit of invoking the consequential language of “accountability,” where it is the responsibility of singular data points to “drive decision-making.” Student test scores have become high stakes currency in the allocation of public funding, in attracting philanthropic investment, and in substantiating changes in school, district, state, and national policies.

Cloaked in buzz phrases, such as “moving the needle” or “eliminating the achievement gap,” the inherent complexity of educational measurement is obscured. Suddenly, an organization finds itself trying to measure the effectiveness of every school-level program against test scores, even if improving a district’s transportation system is only indirectly related to student learning activities. Individual program managers also know this challenge well–I’ve watched many, on several occasions, wrestling to interpret year-to-year fluctuations in state-level exam scores in the attempt to evaluate the merits of a particular school or intervention. In these ways, charged promises of results, data, and student achievement have become dangerous determinants of policy lacking any knowledge of the history, limitations, and past mistakes of educational measurement. This is especially disturbing when blanket statements of “improved student outcomes” are guaranteed by powerful players.

Surely not everyone is expected to become an expert in psychometrics. However, there needs to be some basic skill development in understanding measurement issues amongst education policy reformers. This could be achieved by the conscientious recruitment of key team members who are experts in measurement. In addition to interpreting test results and defining the appropriate boundaries of their application, such a person would contribute valuable insight into the technical aspects of measurement, its intricacies, and the practical and theoretical implications of the use of measurement techniques in schools.

The incorporation of such knowledge might well temper the guarantees of some reformers, and might well lead to more modest claims. But the claims and promises made would be realistically grounded in what can be reasonably measured. Declarations of programmatic success and the identification of needs areas might instead be derived from more than simplistic interpretations of student test scores.

If we are going to continue elevating the importance of measurement; if we are going to continue referring to student test scores as the barometer of educational success; if school reform is intent on “moving the needle,” then we have the responsibility of knowing what comprises the dial.

– Jennifer Ho

Teacher Quits…

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Here’s a new post from an anonymous Maryland teacher explaining why she is quitting and what is wrong with our education system. It was reprinted in the Washington Post, as part of Valerie Strauss’ inquiry into “what makes teaching the hardest job?”  It’s a well written story, strikes a number of big, important chords, and the concluding thought is dynamite:

Clifford Stroll has already addressed our country’s educational misgivings in a single sentence: “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.” It is time that we fall on our sword. In our rabid pursuit of data and blame, we have sacrificed wisdom and abandoned its fruits. We cannot broaden our students’ horizons by placing them and their teachers into narrow boxes, unless we then plan to bury them.

But I have to take issue with this teacher’s two main gripes.  She is fed up with

  1. Being forced to pass students or give A’s regardless of a lack of learning or effort.
  2. “The constant demand to prove our worth to the domination of oppressive teacher evaluation methods”

To the first point, she tells of frustrating pressures to inflate grades, and of how she eventually gave in to the pressures:

After years of being harangued, I gave Bs to D-quality work, but that is never good enough. All I can do is field the various phone calls, meetings, and e-mails, to let myself be abused, slandered, spit at because that is my career, taking the fall for our country’s mistakes and skewed priorities. So if you want your child to get an education, then I’m afraid that as a teacher, I can’t help you, but feel free to stop by if you want a sticker and a C.

To the second point, she seems to yearn for the days when teachers were left alone to make their own decisions:

Decisions about classrooms should be made in classrooms. Teachers are the most qualified individuals to determine what is needed for their own students. Each classroom is different. It has a different chemistry, different dynamic, different demographic, and the teacher is the one who keeps the balance. He or she knows each student, knows what they need, and they should be the ones making the decisions about how to best reach them. Sure, using different resources and strategies among schools may make data sharing more difficult, but haven’t we gone far enough with data? Each child is not a number or a data point. They can only be compared to the developmental capabilities set forth by medicine, not education, and to their own previous progress.

Education cannot be objectively measured. It never could, and our problems began when we came to that realization and instead of embracing it, decided to force it into a quantifiable box that is much too small and too much the wrong shape. 

Her complaints bring to mind a number of responses, but I’ll save the most important for last.

First, she admits to repeatedly giving in to the pressure, and handing out grades that were un-earned, so perhaps it’s for the best that she has left teaching.  I don’t mean to cast stones at her; she has chosen to quit and to blow the whistle on a system she found herself unable to buck.  Yet, to me, a more fitting martyr for the ills of our education system is this Colorado principal, who was fired for refusing to give in to a school policy of stamping the hands of students who had no money to pay for their school lunch.  If you are given orders that are truly wrong, quitting is a reasonable, perhaps even an admirable, response.  Not following those orders is a better one.

Second, she craves a world of strict standards for measuring student performance, but appears opposed to the idea of measuring teacher performance.  A small corner she’s painted herself into, but also one that strikes me as just wrong.  Here’s a recent post from a Kentucky principal that talks about why those about-to-be-bygone days when teachers were all rated “satisfactory” were not quite so ideal:

“Good job!” “Nice lesson!” “Students look like they are having fun!” …we have all been evaluated multiple times in our careers as educators and, sadly, the majority of the feedback we have received has been similar to these examples. As teachers, we know the importance of feedback in the success of our students; however, we have not been given much of that feedback to improve our success as professionals. 

In my nine years of teaching, I was much more frustrated by the lack of any meaningful feedback than I was oppressed by the domination of teacher evaluation.  Of course, that was only my personal experience.

And that brings me to my final, most important point.  Regardless of whether our personal experiences line up closer to the anonymous Maryland teacher or to the Kentucky principal, they are only our own unique experiences.  We cannot, or at least we should not, extrapolate from our own experiences to make sweeping generalizations about the problems that afflict the entire education system.  If we want to know if grade inflation is a widespread problem (and this study suggests that it is), we have to examine a reasonable amount of data.

This Maryland teacher dismisses the idea of learning from data, and offers in its place her own personal narrative.  I love a good story more than almost anything else, but, even without resorting to any statistical methodology, can we all agree that making generalizations requires a few more cases?  Data analysis aggregates dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of stories together in order to determine a general trend.  Mistakes in data analysis are made all the time.  But the idea that we can trust one story, but cannot trust data, is one that will leave our education policy decisions forever stuck in the days of P.T. Barnum and snake oil salesmen, convinced by the best story rather than the best evidence.