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The Art of Teaching (and the Automatons of “Education Reform”)

In light of the recent New York Times article about robo-teachers that Dora found, here’s a re-post of a related article I wrote in January. — sp:

I came across a Seattle magazine article from 2008 the other day called “Hot Button: Math Problems.” It said that Seattle Public Schools math teachers are being forced to exactly replicate what someone in Japan has deemed a “perfect lesson” right down to where they must stand in the classroom.

“The district is also trying to improve teaching methodology. [Seattle Public Schools’ K-12 math program manager Rosalind] Wise wants her math teachers to take advantage of all the new information about how to teach. For example, next year in every middle school, one math teacher will work with a “math coach” to develop a monthly “perfect math lesson,” in which everything, from the concept to where the teacher stands, is planned. Then this lesson will be taught in front of all the other math teachers in a “studio classroom,” so they can see it and copy it. This approach has been adopted from a Japanese model with the idea of standardizing instruction and giving teachers a precise and well-thought-out plan for teaching.” – Bob Geballe, Seattle Magazine

The fact that this lesson comes from Japan which recently unveiled the first fully automated robot teacher might make one wonder if teach-bots might well be the ideal of certain “education reformers” who seem to have such disdain for living and breathing teachers and, indeed, call them “human capital” instead of human beings. Robots aren’t likely to form unions, ask for fair working conditions and rights, will never need to take a leave of absence for illness or a sick child, and they can surely be programmed to stand wherever anyone wants them to all day long if need be!

Such authoritarian micromanaging of a professional individual is pretty bizarre.

It’s also laughable.

Sure, there is some pedagogical, experiential wisdom applicable to teaching, but so much of what goes into good teaching is not so readily measurable — and certainly not determined by where a teachers stands in the classroom.

Teaching demands a great deal of a person — heart, mind, theatrics, management skills, quick thinking, a love of children, a love of knowledge, structure to keep things in order and a degree of predictability, as well as flexibility when a changing situation merits it, creativity and the ability to provide guidance that does not stifle the creativity of a child.

Teaching is not a profession one enters if one wishes to be rich or lazy. Most public school teachers work long hours, buy supplies out of their own money and are not paid as well as people in other fields.

Yet there are some who are taking aim at our teachers right now. Ganging up on them, in fact, in the guise of “education reform.” Though they have no teaching experience themselves, these powerful or wealthy individuals and their allied organizations are telling teachers what to teach, how to teach, even where to stand in the classroom. They want to test students every chance they get and measure teachers’ worth by those standardized, computerized tests. They want to tie teachers’ pay to these test scores, regardless of whether the child is learning in ways that can’t be measured by tests, and punish teachers financially if children don’t test well, regardless of what else may factor into a child’s test scores.

I guarantee that this approach will stifle the very magic and soul of teaching.

And it will fail.

Here’s why: Teaching is an art – not a computer app. The so-called “reformers” apparently do not understand that simple yet profound fact. By art, I mean it is a mastery that comes from a deft weaving of multiple skills that cannot be summarized in bullet points or PowerPoints or measured by computerized tests.

How, for example, do you measure that “Aha!” moment when a child understands something for the first time? It will never show up in on an SAT or WASL – or the new MAP (trademarked) tests that all Seattle public schools kids are being forced to take, even in kindergarten. But those moments are the real measure of successful teaching.

Here in Seattle, a Washington DC-based enterprise that calls itself “the National Council on Teacher Quality” issued a “report” late last year allegedly assessing Seattle’s public schools’ 3,300 teachers. They were invited here quietly by the Alliance for Education, a local enterprise which claims to be a fundraiser for Seattle’s public schools, but clearly is involved in much more of the school district’s workings than benign gift-giving (as some local parents have figured out).

In fact, it is not clear why the Alliance invited this politically connected, privately funded operation to bring its services to our district. Surely the $14,000 price tag of this report is money that could have been better spent in the classrooms. A number of Seattle parents made this very point in the blogs and on the Seattle Times’ site.

Might this report have something to do with influencing the teachers’ contract that is up for renewal this year?

The NCTQ’s claim that this “report” was done on behalf of the 46,000 kids of SPS is quite plainly false. No children asked NCTQ to turn its hypocritical inquisition lamp on their teachers.

They claimed that they are here to tell the district how to manage its “human capital’’ –i.e. its teachers. “Human capital”? That’s a very revealing statement about how operations like NCTQ view teachers.

NCTQ recently wrote a report for Colorado public schools with advice on how that state could qualify for federal “Race to the Top” funds. Unfortunately President Obama’s Education Secretary and hoops buddy, Arne Duncan, has a very mixed record from his tenure as “CEO” of Chicago’s public schools, but is pushing two main demands on states—charter schools and merit pay for teachers.

One of these demands is to allow privatization of our public schools via charters. Another is to force “merit pay.” What does that mean? Someone will decide that some teachers should be paid more than others most likely based on student test scores. Who is going to want to teach the struggling students, the students with dyslexia or A.D.D., the underprivileged kids, the ones whose abilities won’t register on a standardized computerized test? Who will want to or be able to teach children with their heart and soul if the only thing that will matter and keep their job is a test score? They will teach to the test and the magic will be gone.

Which brings me to the NCTQ “report.”

Of all the issues and concerns facing my kids in Seattle Public Schools, whether my kids’ teachers take a Monday or Friday off for sick leave is not one of them.

And yet, in its so-called “report,” NCTQ goes to great lengths to outline and graph which teachers in which schools took sick leave, and how, for some reason, sick leave is bad and, by the way, shouldn’t be allowed on Mondays or Fridays. I guess a Seattle Public Schools teacher who has a child who contracts Swine Flu on Monday or Friday, is out of luck.

The presumption underlying much of this “report” is that these professionals are a bunch of lazy, untrustworthy cheats who need to be badgered and punished.

Higher on the list of my — and many parents’– concerns are: Class size. My child is one of 29 this year. We have a superintendent who has cited some unnamed study that says class size don’t matter, all you need is a brilliant teacher.

First, show me the study. Actually, forget the study; any parent would rather have their child receive 1/20th of their teacher’s attention rather than 1/29th of it. It’s plain common sense and one of the chief reasons some families choose private schools over public – smaller class sizes and greater individual attention. (And perhaps the reason Seattle’s School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson chose to send her own child to the highest funded school in the system, which touts smaller class sizes.) It’s a no-brainer. In fact, I’ll counter with another study that shows that class sizes do matter: “Smaller is Better : First-hand Reports of Early Grade Class Size Reduction in New York City Public Schools” (Also see: Class Size Matters)

So why did Seattle’s school superintendent lay off over 165 teachers last year when enrollment is up 1,200? Why does Seattle have larger classes when voters voted for funds to create smaller class sizes?

Also on the list: Everyday Math – where to begin? It’s quite clear that schools and teachers are trying their best to work through and around this poor unclear textbook and its idiotic “spiraling” sequence. WASL math scores are down since the district adopted EDM, so why are we continuing on this path to failure? (Last year the district voted to adopt the controversial high school textbook in the same problematic series, Discovering Math, and is being taken to court for it.) And where are the resources to teach Singapore Math, which the district also voted to adopt but has neglected?

Why are our children being sent to learn in seismically unsafe buildings that the district has failed to maintain? Why don’t ALL schools in the district offer the same amount of enrichment? How can Seattle’s proposed new student assignment plan be equitable when not all the schools are equitable? Why does Seattle have one of the largest central administration budgets and staff in the entire state of Washington? (See SPS parent and analyst Meg Diaz’s report on the district’s budgetary shell-game: “Central Administration Efficiency in Seattle Public Schools”) How can we protect Seattle’s many strong schools and programs against the corrosive influences of privatization?

I’m very concerned to read in the Diaz Report that Seattle School District has one of the largest, overstaffed central administration offices in the state. A state audit last year found SPS 39% overstaffed. Why can’t we parents demand an instant cut there, and tell them to bring back our teachers?

Those are the sorts of educational concerns on my mind.

Yet the so-called “education reformers” would have us all believe that the only issue that matters, the one cause for all that ails public schools is not chronic underfunding or district mismanagement, but teachers. They would have you believe they are the number one reason a child may be failing in school. (See “Gates Foundation gives $335M for teacher quality” by Donna Gordon Blankinship. Although Gates really ought to read the recent analysis by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives that found that merit pay doesn’t work, before he throws more money at this dubious “reform.” See: Study: Texas’ teacher merit pay program hasn’t boosted student performance, Dallas Morning News, Nov. 9, 2009)

In the process of fomenting their case, the reformers tend to humiliate and demonize teachers and try to rally parents to do the same. (I’ve witnessed ‘pro-reform’ local elected officials shamefully do this in Seattle). And their end goal is clear: they want to weaken the teacher’s union, exert more control over teachers, hire cheaper, younger teachers (Teach for America style), and then open privately run charters in our public school systems, diverting public funds into private hands. They may claim they want to “close the achievement” gap, but their solutions are not accomplishing that. A teacher’s union that advocates for fair pay, non-capricious treatment of teachers and job security is an obstacle to the education reformers’ agenda.

They reveal their bizarre corporatist – and dehumanizing – bias when they use terms like “human capital” to describe our children’s teachers. I guess we should expect no less from this group of reformers who also refer to our children as “customers.” (A closer look at their schemes would indicate that they actually think of our kids as “products.”)

The reformers claim to be focused on “closing the achievement gap.” But what causes the gap is far more complicated than what their “solutions” address.

Are any of these other factors being addressed by the likes of NCTQ?:

Socio-economics? Parental involvement? Inept or corrupt school district? Bad curriculum? Hunger? Poverty?

No, none of these matter, according to the “National Council on Teaching Quality” along with the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation and all the other “philanthropists” with an agenda.

“Education reform” as it is currently being defined should be filed alongside “Welfare Reform.” i.e. a punitive curtailing of rights and assistance to the most needy amongst us pursued by people in political power with an agenda disguised as an effort (by mostly privileged people of non-color) to help the underprivileged. It is a misleading term, to say the least.

“Education reform” as defined by Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and co, leads to excessive standardized computerized testing, uniformity of curriculum that quashes creativity, and a punitive approach to learning.

Seattle Public Schools’ motto under the current (Broad Foundation boardmember) superintendent: “Excellence for all. Everyone achieving. Everyone accountable. No excuses.”

Is it a coincidence that a particularly disciplinarian model of private charter schools, Mastery Charters shares this motto: “Excellence. No excuses.”

Who is making up excuses?

You can see where their expectations are. They expect our children and teachers to shirk their duties and make up excuses. Our teachers, one of the most hard-working and underpaid group of professionals in the country. Our children, who will live up to whatever expectations we give them if nurtured properly.

Something is terribly askew here.

The funny thing is, reformites like Gates and Broad et al (a number of whom have never attended nor sent their children to public schools) are so clearly clueless about what goes into teaching and what makes a good teacher. It is a collaborative, cooperative profession — not one that will produce good results if the focus is merely test scores and getting more money than the teacher in the next room.

I believe such “reforms” will ultimately fail because of this lack of intuitive knowledge of the teaching profession. But they may do some serious damage along the way. Which is why Washington State and Seattle should not capitulate to the demands of Race to the Top nor heed the questionable and purchased “analysis” of politically motivated operations like NCTQ.

–sue p.

3 comments on “The Art of Teaching (and the Automatons of “Education Reform”)

  1. seattleducation2010
    August 13, 2010

    Sandra,

    Thank goodness for Dr. Ravitch’s book.

    We gave one to each of our school board members and the Chief Education Officer in our school system.

    Dora

  2. sandra
    August 12, 2010

    Your article covers all the bases of concern about the latest school reform movement. I’m a Florida teacher who exited the public school system after 2 years in a Title One school. I was aghast at what was going on in the name of moving our children forward—testing, data collection, targetted instruction, what, when and how to teach it, micromanaging, meetings galore, academic reviews that mirrored an inquisition, etc. There must be a better way. Thankfully, I read Diane Ravitch’s latest book and realized that I wasn’t crazy, it WAS the system.

  3. eric muhs
    July 17, 2010

    Wow, you got this sooo right. Thanks for writing this.
    -SPS teacher

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