I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, October 25, 2013

UPDATED: Reformy Cures, For the Right Price

It sure is a funny coincidence: the people who bray the loudest that our schools suck always seem to have the cure - for the right price:
Diane, these problems are of long standing (and you know this as a historian of education). Indeed, these weaknesses also exist in private and charter schools. Some of the most boring and fear-inducing teaching I have ever seen is in prep schools where only innate ability, student willingness to delay gratification and trust adults keeps it going. So, our problems cannot be caused solely by poverty and nasty manipulators of public schooling for personal gain or politics.
Indeed, in my view the only way to make sense of the long-established connection between student SES and school achievement scores is to conclude that most schools are not very effective. That explains much of the data in education, to my eye.
I love teaching, and I greatly admire teachers. I have spent the last 30+ years with them and in schools. Yet, we must face the truth, the “brutal facts,” as Collins termed it: many teachers are just not currently capable of engaging and deeply educating the kids in front of them, especially in the upper grades. Why can’t we admit this? I can admit it happily, because I think good teachers are tired of being brought down by weak teachers and policies that support them. And I’m in this for the kids, not the adults. Kids simply deserve better and no one lobbies primarily for their interests.[emphasis mine]
Now that Grant Wiggins here has convinced you that your school sucks, you can - surprise! - hire his consulting firm to come into your district and make it not suck! Perhaps you'd like to buy some of Grant's many books and/or curricular materials! How about an on-line course? Or perhaps combine work with play over the summer and stay in beautiful, historic Lambertville, NJ for one of Grant's workshops!

Of course, you can always buy one of the many textbooks Grant put out with the fine folks at Pearson Learning, the company that's probably making more money off of the testing and accountability scam than any other. But hey - like Grant, Pearson must be in this "for the kids," amiright? I mean, to imply otherwise is indulging in a "conspiracy theory"...

Can you tell I am getting damn sick and tired of the sanctimony of those who would beat down America's public schools and America's teaching corps with the lame argument that they don't have an ulterior motive, but "bad" teachers do?

In addition: given the crap teachers have to swallow daily from the non-teachers who now dominate education policy, the argument that "bad teaching" is the reason for "boring schools" is absurd:
Let’s look at student autonomy: I think that it is inarguable that 12th graders in almost every HS in America, public and private, have less intellectual and physical freedom in school than 4-year-old Montessori students. Secondary education in many places is more like a white-collar prison operating on a compliance mentality than a vital learning organization that plays to individual student passions and strengths, and the need to prepare kids for the freedom of college.
Here's the problem with this argument: it's hard for students to be free when their teachers aren't. Thanks to top-down, standards-infused, test-based curricula, teachers can't afford to let their students indulge in their "individual passions"; if they do, they'll likely be out of a job. The zeal to hold "bad teachers" accountable has deprofessionalized education: teachers are now parrots, expected to adhere to programs sold by Pearson or ETS or Harcourt or any number of an army of consultants - like Wiggins - who parachute into schools, present their little "revelations" as if they were written on stone tablets on top of Mt. Sinai, then leave, making way for the next "big thing."

Every one of these folks has a schtick about how America is falling behind the rest of the world. Every one of these folks will, on cue, give an impassioned screed about how we must change our schools. Every one of these folks will tell you that it's a new world, and the old paradigms just don't work any more.

And every one of these folks will gladly take your district's check to sell you their latest fix for all the "problems" in our schools. Strange how their cure always seems to match up their diagnosis of your disease, isn't it?

Get your 21st Century schooling right here, folks!

UPDATE: Wiggins replies:

To all my critics, some who either posted comments to my open letter to Diane Ravitch or tweeted them or blogged them: thanks for the discussion. Many of you made thoughtful points that can be summed up in this post:
Even though this blog is addressed to Diane Ravitch, I don’t think you are engaging in a discussion on the same issues she highlights. Much of what you say about teaching and curriculum is true. Teaching can and should be better. Teachers can and should do a better job of engaging students. Curriculum needs to be richer, deeper and more learner friendly. Your leadership in the area of curriculum design has been invaluable, although it has not had as full an impact as you desire. I believe that improvement has been seen over the last thirty years in teaching and curriculum, but we have certainly not done enough. I find more elementary classrooms than not to be engaging places where students are active and learning. Work is still to be done on the high school level.
All that being said, the corporate reform movement will destroy any gains that have been made and stunt any continued growth. The vast majority of charter schools are even less engaging and more draconian in their disciplinary policies than are public schools. The teachers are less well prepared and even more likely to rely on low level instruction. Voucher programs are stealing badly needed funds from the public schools. Money doesn’t always improve learning, but lack of money has a negative impact on learning. There can be no question that the corporate driven test mania will make schooling less engaging and the curriculum narrower if it is allowed to continue.
So, Grant, I would argue that we need to attack teaching and learning on all three fronts. All fronts that we can control if we choose. One front you articulate well here. The two other fronts, ending the corporate usurpation of public education and attacking poverty as a barrier to learning are well articulated by Diane Ravitch.
I am in complete agreement. My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference.
Alas, others of you resorted to the cheapest of ad hominem attacks that further poison the national discourse.
Strikingly, many of you missed my point.
Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control. Am I denying or tolerating poverty? Of course not. I decry the increased poverty and wealth inequality in this country. I vote democratic and give to liberal causes such as MoveOn and SPLC. I agree with Diane that there are nasty people and groups trying to subvert public education for their own ideologies and gain.
And so on. I case you hadn't guessed, that "cheap shot" is yours truly. I left this reply, but it's "awaiting moderation" as of now:
Let me get this straight, Grant:

You write a post excoriating "bad teaching" - mostly on the basis of your personal anecdotes, which you give great weight to through argument by authority.

You sanctimoniously question the motivations of those who take Diane's position by positioning yourself as morally superior: "And I’m in this for the kids, not the adults. Kids simply deserve better and no one lobbies primarily for their interests." Like we don't know who you're referring to here...

But somehow, I am the one taking the "cheap shot"? Because I point out you have a business interest in promoting the idea that American schools and American teachers stink?

Please. It's hardly a cheap shot to call out a cheap shot.

The American teacher has been taking it on the chin for a good long time now. Yes, there are good teachers and bad teachers, like there are good and bad plumbers and lawyers and education consultants. There is a roughly normal distribution in quality for just about every human endeavor (at least in the way we humans reify it). Yet, as far as I have ever seen, there is no evidence that the OVERALL quality of teaching in this country is so poor that it is even close to being a major cause of the socio-economic inequity that plagues us, nor any evidence that teaching quality can be improved by the imposition of reformy policies.

You urge Diane to choose her words more carefully. I'd suggest you turn that back on yourself. In case you hadn't noticed, Grant, we live in a world where the American teacher is getting beat down and beat down and beat down. Our compensation is being eroded, our workplace protections are being eviscerated, our work is devalued, we're being blamed for all sorts of problems we didn't create, and we are subjected to increasing interference from consultants and policy makers who are little more than educational tourists. 

Now you come along and pile on. Did you think folks like me, out there every day in the classroom trying our best against the inanities shoved down our throats, are simply going to bend over and meekly intone: "Please sir, may I have another?"

I have no problem with efforts to improve the overall quality of teaching; in fact, I welcome them. Like every decent teacher, I have no problem with accountability; in fact, I have no problem with the PROPER use of data to ensure that accountability. I have no issues with you or Pearson or any other vendor making reasonable amounts of money as vendors in our school system. Maybe you have something valuable to contribute - great. Go for it.

But please spare me and every other teacher the posturing and the self-righteousness. Please don't pretend your interests are less self-informed than anyone else's. It's embarrassing.

Thus endeth the rant.

UPDATE 2: OK, apparently not:
I take it you ignored all the data I presented. Look, it’s no fun being a teacher now. I know that. And if you know my work and read this blog you know I fight tirelessly on behalf of teachers. I spent 2 frustrating years working for NJDOE on standards clarification, for God’s sake. I have worked for decades to improve teacher work conditions related to planning. But I also have worked tirelessly on behalf of kids, so sometimes teachers get criticized. I am hardly one-sided. If you read all the tweets and comments in this entire blog, you are one of the few painting me in such an absurd way; most people seem to like my intellectual honesty (their word). So, your slash and burn approach to dealing with me may make you feel better but it won’t improve one kid’s life or help both of us improve our craft. Self-righteous? No. Just committed to the cause, like you. Read your words, in cold print, and ask yourself: is this how you wish to be remembered? I think not. PS: I’ll happily come to see you teach if you invite me.
To which I replied:
You write a post where you say: “…most schools are not very effective.” You position yourself as in it “for the kids” as a way to imply all those “bad” teachers at those “bad” schools are not. 
And yet I’m the one who’s “slashing and burning”? Come on – I didn’t come after you out of the blue, Grant. You deliberately chose your words to evoke a response. Well, now you’ve got it. When you go after the motivations of others, it’s more than fair game for you to get called on your own. 
I reread my words all the time. You know what I read? A frustrated teacher who came into this profession only to see it being casually denigrated by folks who throw out irrelevant “evidence” as proof that what he sees every day – committed colleagues giving their best for deserving children – is in truth “not very effective.” Yes I did read the data you presented, and I wasn’t impressed – starting with your blithe dismissal of the Abbott reforms: 
(FYI: It’s SFRA now, not Abbott) If I can find the time, I’ll address some of your other points in a later blog post. And I’ll even put away the snark. 
You’re hardly the first person to tut-tut at my tone. But I’m hardly the only teacher out there feeling this way (if my hit counter or Daine’s book sales are any indication). Perhaps you should take a moment to ask yourself why that is. Perhaps you should consider that writing “…most schools are not very effective” is a piece of “slash and burn” rhetoric that will likely trigger a strong response from folks like me who are tired of taking it over and over again.
As to visiting my classroom: it is my place of work, not a circus, and I am not some trained seal. I assiduously keep my blogging and policy work separate from my most important job (aside from being a father). Pass. 
That's all I'll say on Grant's blog. But I do think his "evidence" is worth exploring, if only because his arguments are the same ones I hear over and over again, and most of them are nonsense. Stand by...


Giuseppe said...

I sound like a broken record, but reading those comments of Grant Wiggins (they could be the comments of Rhee, Gates, the Waltons, Broad, Bezos, Dell, etc. ad nauseam) just reaffirms that we are living in an age in which war has been declared on public school teachers and the real public schools. Public school teachers are vilified, defamed, demonized and demeaned on a daily basis. It's hideous beyond belief. Do these clowns have any concept of what a teacher has to deal with in beleaguered inner city schools?

Giuseppe said...

Here's a snippet of a letter by a teacher, Paul Karrer, posted on Diane Ravitch's blog: "“I have four special education kids in my class. The pull of gangs is all-powerful here. A few years ago, a former student’s mother was gunned down in a gangland slaying in nearby Salinas. The same child’s grandmother was shot in the face in another gang incident.

“I boil over and fester when I hear any mention of “failing schools.” I teach in a desperate community of abject poverty. Poverty is the failure, not the bricks of my building nor the many noble and heroic teachers who have chosen to work in my school. Making teachers accountable for testing results with the abominable life conditions here is a disconnect so large the country is lucky teachers are not engaged in open rebellion. And the money lost to testing, test preparation, test result trainings, test motivation and test-improvement- consultant-magic-dances is repugnant." People like Grant Wiggins should just shut up and leave the teaching to the teachers.

Mad Dan Eccles said...

My school paid I don't know how much for UBD staff development, and I spent (wasted) dozens of hours re-writing curricula in UBD form. Now most of the staff can barely recall what UBD stands for. See, we're paying La Danielson now . . . ah make that "for now."

Bank that money, Charlotte. After you, who?

Hey, check out Grant's view of fiction in the classroom.


hazbin110 said...

Cheap shot. People either like what I provide or they don't. They vote with their feet and pocketbook.I am held accountable every day for my work. (Imagine if your kids posted this kind of stuff every day?) I hope your post makes you feel smug. It won't do a thing to improve schools in NJ.

Mad Dan Eccles said...

Hazbin, what's cheap about the post? Address the claims.
1. School districts devote time and cash to educational fads or rehashed ideas.
2. Previous fads go down the memory hole.
3. "Wheel re-inventing" wastes time and money that could be better spent--on anything!
4. Educational consultants(messiahs?)are well-paid for their ephemeral wisdom.
5. The link suggests problems with Mr. Wiggins' ethos: do his ideas about fiction and gender diminish his authority?

RI.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

lbarrios said...

Hazbin and Mad Dan - my school district and I as writer had same experience 9 years ago that yours did Dan. The money and time wasted on UBD could have been far more effective engaging and mentoring teachers or paying their NBPTS application fees. Anytime someone puts their "copyright" on a product they glued rhinestones to and claim to have created but really belongs to those who have practiced it as part of established effective education pedagogy, I walk back in my classroom. CCSS is just another attempt to capitalize on a market share and Wiggins is doing his thing to be part of it. What's interesting though is that while he appears to be supporting CCSS, he is obviously is not, cannot be if he is true to his own design, which CCSS could never be.

Mrs. King's music students said...

As a music teacher, have you ever noticed how textbook companies always hire Kodaly educators to demonstrate their watered down materials? As if it's the book and not the Kodaly training that sparkles. However, once you go south of Princeton no one else BUT textbook companies get that the value is in the teacher not in the textbook. In fact, I think the blue collarization of education runs rampant where fine arts are blocked out by the state...you know...for OUR own good and only rich kids will get the good stuff. I guess top notch teachers can use our college degrees and fancy certs to hawk for Pearson.