Thursday, September 27, 2012

No Respect

  Teaching has been a hot discussion topic lately. The Chicago teacher’s strike was the latest issue to gin up the opinion mill, though teacher pensions, the Wisconsin recall election, cheating scandals, charter schools, presidential primaries and more have also contributed to lots of pontificating with very little of it by actual teachers.
     The discussion is good for the profession, in a general way, but for my money it’s time for everyone who isn’t a teacher to stop acting like they understand what’s best for our profession. The public pays the bills, and they are entitled to provide input on what our outcomes ought to be. Like doctors, lawyers and accountants, though, it’s our job to decide how to achieve those outcomes.
     Like Rodney Dangerfield, we teachers spend all of our careers, either consciously or subconsciously feeling we can’t get any respect. If you’ve ever taught, you know what I mean. Beginning teachers notice this phenomena pretty quickly in their careers. Often, when you interact with parents, they may be nice to you, and perhaps even actively supportive. But underneath it all is an undercurrent of condescension. It is reflected so tellingly in the insulting maxim that passes for truth among the general public: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.
     Most people can’t really conceive of what it would be like to be, say, a police officer, or a doctor, or a nuclear physicist, or most other careers, especially what are considered professional careers. What those people do every day when they go to work is a mystery to us because most of have never spent time in the work settings for those careers.
     But most people believe they understand teaching, because everyone has spent years in a classroom as a student. Apparently that convinces them they know what teachers do, and most of them believe in their heart of hearts that, if they wished, they could certainly do it better. For them, teachers are pleasant, good-hearted people who just don’t have the drive to make it in the real world. There is the suspicion that we are hiding some unspecified defect that keeps us from wanting to take on a challenging career, a real career in the real world.
     Oh, they tell us how important we are, how we make a difference in children’s lives, how we ought to be paid more, but it is only lip service. What they really think is that they were once students, and that experience informs their belief that it isn’t really that difficult to teach. Perhaps it requires a bit of patience and a willingness to put up with childish behavior, which they just don’t have the personality for, but all in all, it isn’t difficult to do. And teaching certainly doesn't pay enough.
     Add to that the fact that the kids go home at 3:00, we only teach somewhere around 180 days of the year, and can’t be fired, it’s a wonder we aren’t paying parents for the privilege of teaching their children.
     Yet, if it is such a great deal, why aren’t more people lining up to become teachers? Type “teacher shortage” into Google and discover that most states have shortages, some critical, in a variety of locations and in particular subjects. Add to that the number of baby boomer teachers approaching retirement, and the question to consider is why aren’t more college graduates choosing teaching as a career?
     If it is such an easy job, why are teacher retention rates problematic? According to Forbes, 46% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a turnover rate that costs $7.3 billion a year. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that teacher attrition has increased 50% in 15 years, rising to 16.8% and over 20% in some urban schools, where sometimes the “teacher dropout rate is actually higher than the student dropout rate.”
     If you have to ask why, you have obviously never had to get up in front of a group of 30 children and attempt to be in control and yet pleasant, knowledgeable yet understanding, entertaining but efficient, all the while making sure that every one of those  30 students is learning what they need to learn. It’s not for just a 20 or 30 minute PowerPoint presentation, it’s all day. Not only that, but this presentation is only one of several needed to be given today, with a brand new batch starting tomorrow, and the day after, and so on.
     Teaching is an emotionally draining experience. It’s like being on stage all day every day. You have to be on your game at every minute, on top of whether the students are on task or not, on top of the material you are presenting, on top of your students’ learning and emotional needs at every moment, on top of whether they are getting it or not, on top of whatever new or different material for which the district or the state determines you must now be accountable, on top of what this new principal has suddenly decided is the next big thing. I went home tired every day I spent in a classroom.
     And students, especially the older ones, are an unforgiving audience. One misstep and you have lost some of them, perhaps a significant number of them. One wrong word can ruin days or weeks of all the right words, and shatter the trust you’ve built up. The worst is when they don’t care–nothing destroys your confidence and ruins your day like indifference. You work so hard to give them the best you’ve got and plan something terrific, and boom, they could care less. It’s a hard blow.
     Of course the highs can make up for a lot of lows. When it goes right, when you see the light finally go on in a student’s eyes after you have rephrased an explanation again and again, when a student you've relentlessly encouraged can do something correctly for the first time, when they achieve so much more than they ever thought they could–that makes up for the bad days. Still, like any job worth doing, the sacrifices make the successes all the more rewarding.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that teaching is harder than brain surgery. I’ve never done brain surgery, but I’m guessing it’s hard too. But it ought not to be a contest. Like a lot of careers, teaching is challenging, rewarding, and difficult enough to make it worth doing.
     Recently I read an essay about ethics in The New York Times, and I liked Howard Gardner’s definition of professionalism. He said that professionals were historically, “a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner.” Like lawyers, doctors, and accountants, teachers “render complex judgements and decisions,” all day, every day, concerning what parents hold most dear, their children. Like those other professionals, we work at making those judgements in a “disinterested” and professional manner. Like them, the complexity of those decisions makes the job difficult. While the livelihood we earn is not as comfortable as theirs, it generally is enough to make us feel we are at least in view of the middle class.
     All we ask is a little more respect, maybe even a lot more respect.
     Remember, just because you were a student in a classroom, doesn’t make you enough of an expert to lead a class or grant you the chops to preach to teachers, trained and experienced professionals, about how we should do our jobs.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The College Lie

        The education system in the United States is contributing to a huge social and economic gap, and we are functionally pretending that this gap doesn’t exist by disingenuously claiming that we are preparing every student for college.

        The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Demographic Characteristics for Occupied Housing Units estimates that 30.6% of the nation's householders have a bachelors degree or higher.

        The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has a new report out that indicates there are currently 29 million jobs available in the U.S. that pay middle class wages (defined as $35,000 a year or more) and don’t require a bachelors degree. That number amounts to 21% of all jobs

        So, 21% of the jobs available to non-degree holders promise a middle class wage, yet nearly 70% of Americans are competing for those jobs. If you do the math, as high school teachers look out on their classrooms, seven out of 10 students will not get a bachelors degree and only two of those seven will find a job giving them the opportunity to join the middle class. And that’s the average–it is undoubtedly far worse at some schools. What incentive do these students have to work hard and aspire to the American dream?

        While there are probably other sets of data that would help illuminate this issue, at the least these numbers should give us pause to reconsider the purported ideal of preparing all students for college. Hopefully someone out there is doing research on the degree to which our focus on preparing students for college is preventing investment in skilled technical jobs that don't require a bachelors degree.

        But first let's discuss why the college lie has always been a fantasy. I think there are two reasons,  neither of which schools can make go away.

        The first is that college, as originally conceived, was not an institution designed for everyone. The university was intended to be a place where social elites, who had no need to earn a living, could pursue knowledge for its own sake. It was learning purely for the sake of learning. In some ways, parts of the university system is still like that, filled with corners of esoteric research and discussion. 

        Over time, colleges have become much more aligned with preparing students for a particular career, and have become vast sorting institutions, where students are obliged to jump through a series of hoops to become blessed with the acknowledgement of the institution that they have successfully jumped through said hoops and have certified themselves to be thus qualified to pursue particular career options. 

        At the heart of the college enterprise is the sorting of students into two piles: qualified and not qualified. Inherent in that sorting is the value judgement that the qualified are in measurable ways superior to the non-qualified. At the end of the day, then, college is still a way to separate the elite from the not elite. While it has become more egalitarian in opening up the process to students from more divergent social and economic groups, it is still in the business of training the intellectually elite. At its heart, the college experience is designed to train students in the modes of thinking that academia favors.

        Part of the disconnect between what high schools believe they are doing and the real world is that American high schools have a mission that begins with the premise that every student can learn. This belief, often piously intoned with tears in eyes, is fundamental to public education’s ideal of taking every single kid and making him or her better. At its heart, though, saying that every student can learn is akin to saying water is wet. It is simply stating the obvious but blithely ignoring the real differences in the the speed and means by which different students learn, which has everything to do with what learning outcomes are functionally possible for a particular student.

        This, then, is the truth that every teacher knows but finds it difficult to admit out loud: not every student is suitable college material. 

        A great many students find it difficult to think in the abstract way that college demands. Their thinking is too rooted in the physical world to easily make the leap to thinking abstractly. As an English teacher, I battled this constantly as I tried to help students recognize the differences between literal and figurative speech. Algebra teachers struggle to help students learn how to use symbolic thinking to solve problems. Science and history instruction attempts to move students from the mere memorization of facts to the conceptualization of complex cause and effect relationships. In all these, significant numbers of students make little or no progress.

        In the old days the conventional wisdom said that these students weren’t “intelligent” enough for college. Now we know that there are lots of different intelligences, so that explanation isn’t sufficient. College, like other social and economic venues, utilizes and rewards specific kinds of intelligence. It isn’t that students who go to college are smarter, but the that their brains make connections between the specific kinds of information that college relies on more quickly and retains those connections more reliably. Those whose brains don’t work this way have a much more difficult time, and are thus unlikely to stick it out even if they make the attempt to begin with.

        Which brings me to the second reason why public schools are not realistically capable of insuring that every student become prepared for college.

        Every day, in high schools across the country,  teachers face substantial numbers of students who refuse to engage in the process. Many, maybe most, of these are the students who don't belong in college. The are mired in the day-to-day grind of trying to force their brains to operate in a way that doesn’t suit them, and they don’t see anything in it for them. They aren’t engaged because they intuitively know that it doesn’t suit them. Plus, what we are asking them to do makes no sense to them.

        Some of this group might be able to go to college and succeed if they can be convinced it will benefit them. Others, though, should never be encouraged to pursue an academic post high school education.

        As a profession, we are convinced that if we could find the magic bullet to stimulate their engagement, we could turn their lives around. I don't believe we can. While there have been success stories, I believe that if we look closely, we'll find that successful programs have found students who had the attributes needed to succeed in college and found ways to motivate those students to help them blossom. 

        Like every teacher, I have had plenty of students who simply take too many trials to learn the same material as faster students. Time, in its inevitability, does not pause for those students who take longer. They cannot catch up with the students who process academic information more quickly, and nothing can change the trajectory of that line on the chart.

        What, then, should high schools do?

        First and foremost is that we need to stop lying to ourselves. Every day teachers face their students and know it’s a lie that all of them are going to college. We know it is true for some of the students, but we can see in the others’ eyes that they absolutely don’t believe that college is a realistic goal for them. We do them no favors by indulging in this lie. If our goal is to help students succeed, then we need to be realistic in helping them develop the tools that have a realistic probability of assisting their real life pursuit of success. For many of them, those tools aren’t always going to be the same tools that get you to college.

        Second, we should never again get into the business of telling students which curriculum they should pursue. Our profession got a black eye because we did this in the past. The problem isn’t having multiple tracks, including non-college bound tracks. The problem is deciding for students which track they should be in. When we do that, we open ourselves for charges of bias, and human nature being what it is, that bias is probably unavoidable. Rather, we should assess students with an eye toward identifying the intelligences they have, then provide the student and the parents with the information about how and what the student learns best. We should be open and honest about what career options are available to students who choose particular tracks. Let them decide what they think is best, then provide feedback on how well the student is succeeding. That's a school choice that matters.

        Third, high schools have to adapt and position themselves as an institution that focuses on the transition  to a variety of post-secondary options for students. A high school diploma is no longer an ultimate goal, and hasn’t been for a long time. Transitional means that we have to work harder with a variety of post-secondary institutions to adapt our curriculum so that it prepares students for the particular rigors they will face in whatever type of learning they pursue. When we have a one size fits all perspective, which we have now with our belief that our mission is to prepare students for college, then many students will not get what they need for the next stage.

        Fourth, we have to be a voice in the conversation around helping all Americans find work that is meaningful, dignified, and helps more of us achieve reasonable financial security. This is not something that schools can do on their own, but it is something we can contribute to. High paying, non-skilled work is probably gone forever, but American education should be at the forefront of preparing all students to develop the technical skills they need to qualify for a high paying, skilled job. If we produce large numbers of students capable of thinking critically and possessing technical skills, we are likely to find that American business will find profitable ways to utilize their skills.

        Many of our students, who would find it difficult or impossible to succeed in college, can find more satisfying work by becoming technically skilled. We need to provide them that opportunity. The best part is that by becoming more relevant to more kinds of students, we will find our classrooms have become places where students are much more engaged in what we are trying to help them learn.

Friday, September 21, 2012

How Parents Can Improve Teaching

            Thomas Friedman wrote in his August 7, 2012 opinion piece, Average Is Over, Part II that, “There is no good job today that does not require more and better education to get it, hold it or advance in it.” He then laments that American K-12 schools are failing to keep up with other industrialized countries, as shown in the results of the Program for International Student Assessment, which currently measure student achievement in reading, math, and science skills in 70 countries.
            I agree with Mr. Friedman that informing parents about how schools are performing can be a valuable tool in making them better partners with their schools, though it’s not the most important contribution parents can make. 
            The current conventional wisdom advises that to improve schools, hold school personnel accountable for student achievement. This seems logical, and came about because research on test data overwhelmingly shows that teachers and principals make the biggest difference in test achievement. Keep in mind that the research is showing a correlation between teacher practices and achievement, not a cause and effect relationship. And of course the research assumes that the assessments are measuring important skills and learnings, which shouldn’t be taken for granted. 
            Principals and teachers become the primary recipients of attention in poor-performing schools, which makes some sense as they are the ones who are working directly with the students. Problematically, laying all of the culpability for poor achievement on the school staff tends to relieve the student from being accountable for their own learning. 
            The verb, “teach” is key to why this over-reliance on holding staff solely responsible for improvement can’t bring the best results. Learning is the result of a partnership between the learner and the teacher. Anyone tried to teach someone something knows you can’t “teach” anyone anything they don’t want to learn, and more importantly, aren’t willing to work to learn. 
            The deep satisfaction which results from the effort of learning is a fundamental human experience. This so because learning requires self-discipline, often hard work, which in turn requires that one sacrifice an immediate gratification, like watching TV or playing games on the computer, to practice in the near term in order that one may achieve a future, greater good, such as being able to play a difficult piece on the piano. That success, by the way, that bone-deep sense of accomplishment, is the true source of self-respect.
            While good teachers can often work wonders at motivating students to sacrifice leisure and work hard to learn and achieve, it is a constant challenge. However, the best, and first, teachers of self-discipline are parents. 
            The most important way, then that parents can improve the schools their children attend is to instill a strong work ethic in their kids. School staff are important, and should be held accountable for the learning that goes on in their classrooms. But the most important teacher that any child has is the one at home. 
            For parents, this is a hard job. We live in a society that has been telling us that our job is to make our kids happy. Unfortunately, when you are teaching your kids to be self-disciplined, you are going to make them unhappy some times. Sadly, responsibility and accountability are virtues with less social approval than happiness and feeling good about oneself. My wife, who teaches second grade, had a parent conference about a boy whose acting out and manipulative behavior were causing significant problems in her class. After hearing all of the issues, the mother’s plaintive response was, “Can’t we all just love him?” The answer, of course, is that the teacher’s job is not primarily to love his or her students, it’s to teach them. Love often can come into it, but it’s not first. Of course it’s easier for a teacher to have the emotional distance that allows for creating a disciplined environment where learning can occur. But sometimes a parent has to realize that love is best expressed in “no” not “yes.”
            Many education critics are nostalgic for the “old days,” and call for a return to the curriculum and methods of those times. Unfortunately, the old days weren’t better in every respect. Current teachers are better trained and more knowledgeable about learning and curriculum. What’s missing from those “old days” is the sense of order that was a result of a stronger social sense of responsibility and accountability. 
            But even in the “old days,” there were disaffected, disengaged students. Stricter social conventions likely inhibited their impulse to act out, and many of those students opted to drop out when given the first opportunity. But it was easier to teach in those days because students overall were more likely to do what they were told and to work hard.
            So how can we truly make schools better? We each have our part to play. Though they have plenty of room to improve, realistically we can’t expect teachers to be miracle workers. They have a limited amount of time to cover what needs to be learned. At the same time, we as parents need to do our job and send students who are self-disciplined and ready to learn. 
            There are lots of students succeeding in American schools today. I can tell you from experience, that they are, by and large, the ones who’s parents sent them to school with self-discipline and a desire to learn. If we can figure out ways to help more parents achieve that, then the work educators are doing to improve teaching practices will be greatly leveraged in preparing students with the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive in a complicated and competitive world.