Sunday, February 24, 2013
Seems to me that everyone has an answer to this question. Throughout my career, I’ve gone to block parties, family gatherings, and other social events where people all have an opinion on the topic. As soon as a stranger hears I’m in education, I hear their ideas. “Good teachers are born, not taught,” someone will opine. Or, “What we need in classrooms are people who are really dedicated,” another person will offer. Everyone has gone through some kind of formal school experience, and everyone forms an opinion on the topic. I suppose it must be like that for people who work at Boeing or Microsoft. Lots of us use their products, and we all have ideas on how to make them better. When I fly up and down the west coast, most often I fly on a Boeing 737. It’s one of the most cramped planes I’ve experienced. The seats are so close together that I can’t open my laptop, even when the seats sit upright. “Why can’t they just take the bulkhead space in a 737, distribute it evenly, and create more space for all of us,” I muse. There must be reasons why engineers create floor plans for planes in the way that they do, so I don’t imagine that my musings are going to influence the way that planes are built.
The difference in education is that there are some not-fully-informed opinions that actually matter. Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen increased pressures at all levels of how education gets conducted because of the opinions of people who use either their experience or the perceived experiences of others to make policies, legislation, or investments into education without fully understanding the implications of their actions. Well intentioned foundations have poured millions into shaping educational practice into a specific direction, while they ignore decades of research and experience that suggest other directions. Federal and state legislators pass laws which follow flawed assumptions with even more flawed assumptions that drive schools far away from what they should be doing to be effective. We have policy makers and enforcers at every level who understand little beyond the policies that they create and mandate. And I’m convinced that it’s because people who believe that they know (as consumers of the experience) how best to shape education. However, as is the case of my knowledge of jets, participating doesn’t equate to understanding how to build.
That problem extends throughout all facets of education, and it really extends into whom we think teachers should be. I’ve written more formally on the dangers of over-standardization of teacher preparation. But the problem goes deeper than that. Through popular media, we have a sense that teachers need to be some combination of kindly Mr. Chips and magically wise Dumbledore. Go online and search for best TV and movie teachers and you’ll find lists of them that offer an interest glimpse into our expectations. As you’ll discover, though, the “best” teachers in our popular mythology are rated on character traits and not skill. When skill gets explored, it’s a sense of magical quality that comes from the capacity to enthrall students. In our popular mass awareness, this endowed skill is a “gift” that some have and others don’t.
It would be impossible to argue that teachers shouldn’t be wise or kind, or possess any of the characteristics that comprise the popular notion of teaching. Teaching is hard work and it requires significant mental agility, constant creativity, a kindness of spirit, and wisdom to make decisions in every minute that can help or harm learners. But it’s much more than that. If you haven’t seen beyond your own experience or the popular sense of what teaching is, you won’t see what a teacher should be. When I see the extra space in the bulkhead of a 737, I see what seems to be an obvious need to redistribute that space. And when people who haven’t been trained in education see a classroom, they see external manifestations that can be incorrectly identified as magically gifted attributes. However, as anyone who has been in education for a few years can explain, what you’re actually seeing are learned and practiced skills that can be defined.
This distinction is important when looking at what teachers are supposed to be like. If I don’t know any better, I’ll most likely identify a good teacher as the person who is personable and charismatic and can present well. In contrast, if I understand that teaching is a learned and practiced set of skills, I’ll look for other, more critical factors. I’ll make certain that the teacher understands how to conduct activities like assessment of learning, classroom management, the sequencing of skills and knowledge, and the development of lessons that address a broad range of learners’ needs. I’ll look for evidence that the person wants to work in a profession where she/he will have to learn and grow and adapt every year. Our popular myths suggest that teaching requires extraordinary abilities. I actually agree with that perception. The difference is that my experiences as a teacher, my research, and my reading of others’ research all suggest to me that these extraordinary abilities are significantly formed through training and practice, just like any profession.
So what are teachers supposed to be like? First, as you might infer from what you just read, they need to be skilled professionals. They need to walk into a classroom on the first day prepared to perform one of the hardest jobs I know (I think of it as air traffic controlling while piloting the plane). They need to begin their career with a set of skills that helps them know how to meet every student’s needs while ensuring that every student performs to high standards. Secondly, like a physician who cannot practice from the knowledge gained solely in medical school, teachers need to remain current in both their methods and content knowledge. Finally, teachers do need to be like kindly Mr. Chips and wise wizard Dumbledore. They need to care deeply for each student’s success and provide that student with the guidance and support that the student needs.
All of that suggest a preparation that is comprehensive in scope and depth. The idea that just having the right characteristics makes a good teacher is an anachronism that has its roots in a system of education where we just expected educators to be dispensers of knowledge and students as vessels of knowledge waiting to be filled. In truth, that dated idea was itself flawed since only a very few benefitted from that model. For most of America’s educational history, we were satisfied with a system that served a few “smart” people while others were relegated to something less than that – something that meant schooling really wasn’t for them. As we’ve started to live up to the promise of an egalitarian educational system, we need educators who can be more than just good communicators, or even kindly communicators. Their preparation must help them to engage the most diverse population in the nation’s history and to ensure that every student succeeds. A good teacher should look like the professionals I see in the schools I’m privileged to visit all the time: possessing strong management and instructional skills, willing to learn more constantly, caring about each learner, and having an outstanding grasp of the content they teach. If that sounds demanding, it is. But that’s why we have preparation programs to help new teachers become ready for this. And it’s why ongoing professional development is so important. A good teacher has to be a master of many things and the ones I see have done that by being well trained and constantly learning more.
Posted by Bob Hughes at 9:00 PM
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Recently, the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy asked some people from around the country to contribute to a discussion on the greying of the leadership in adult education. While CAAL's discussion is about the greying of the adult literacy leadership, it's a good discussion starter for all of education, as those of us in the baby boom who have held leadership roles are aging. Both my comments and those of others are online at:
Posted by Bob Hughes at 10:07 PM
Monday, January 14, 2013
Seems to me that it’s time to respond to the people who keep making the point that our public education system is failing. Quite simply, it’s not. From the time of A Nation at Risk in 1983 forward, we’ve seen a barrage of public comments about schools’ failures. That continued and erroneous assault on our public education system has created a picture that just isn’t true. Even more catastrophic than a false picture are the resulting public policies based on these false premises. We’ve passed new laws, set up entire systems or accountability, and mandated changes that are based on the perception of a failed school system. Are some schools failing? Without a doubt, some schools have failed to meet the needs of the students they serve. Has the system failed? There’s no empirical evidence to support that.
And, actually, the opposite is true. Our system of public education has succeeded at the tasks we’ve given it. In the 20th century, we asked schools to get more people to complete high school and to make certain that they could perform basic reading, writing, and computational tasks. The people who tell us schools are failing claim that didn’t happen. They suggest that schools have become progressively worse in recent decades. But when we look at the rate of adults 25 years and older who completed high school in 1970, we see that only 54% did so according to the Bureau of the Census. These days, nationally, the rate is around 88%, and in greater Seattle it’s closer to 93%. That’s a different story than often gets discussed. People sometimes look at on-time graduation rates (which hover between 60-70%) and assume that’s the end of the story. But if 88% of 25-year-olds have earned a high school diploma, there’s clearly more of the story to tell. If you believe the Census Bureau data, you have to accept this increase as a significant success.
So maybe, it is sometimes argued, the increased high school graduation rates are the result of relaxed standards. However, the data show that’s just not the case. Standardized scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same test given annually to fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students over the past 40+ years, show that basic skills and knowledge scores have remained the same or have slightly increased in some areas. The increased numbers of graduates have about the same skills that their predecessors did. As we disaggregate by socio-economic status and other factors like English language skills or learning disabilities, we do see that some groups have not done as well as the overall averages. And that’s where we need to look at improving education for those populations. But we cannot focus on those needs we have until we understand where they exist.
We also need to understand that we have shifted the mission of schools and schooling in the 21st century. The basic skills and high school diploma of the past aren’t sufficient for the educational needs of an information society. We need to acknowledge that our economic and societal needs require more than reading, writing, and arithmetic from the people our schools produce. Dr. David Prince, of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges conducted an analysis of the requirements for an adult to be economically independent. His found that there is a “tipping point” that determines the level of education needed for economic independence. That point comes when they attend at least one year of post-secondary education and attain a certificate to go along with that. Once people reach that tipping point, they earn the wage levels required for sufficiency. The Northwest’s fishing, logging, and farming jobs of 40 years ago gave way to new occupations that demand more education and a different kind of education. While, in the past century, we asked schools just to get people graduated, in this century, we’re asking schools to prepare them to transition into opportunities that get them to the tipping point and beyond.
To operate in this new role, it is imperative that we move beyond the ineffective rhetoric that decries systemic school failure. Start by looking at the data. That’s why I’m including links to the sources I’m citing. We need to move away from politicized rhetoric and begin with fact finding based on reliable sources of data. What are we doing well and what do we need to improve? Whom are we serving well and whom do we need to serve better? Instead of accepting any argument about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of schools, start by knowing what the ample research and school data tell us. Then let’s move beyond rhetoric into creating the solutions for those areas where schools are struggling. Let’s advocate for the resources for those areas and let’s work diligently toward solutions in those areas. Let’s stop looking at reforming a system and, instead, let’s start looking at evolving it from its incredible history of success into the future successes we need.
Posted by Bob Hughes at 11:11 AM
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Last Friday I met with a staff member who is a former middle school teacher. Before we began, she informed me of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. She was crying. When you’re a teacher, every child is your child and every educational professional is part of a larger community who understands that connection. Losing those children and those colleagues, even though we’ve not met them, is more than a news story. The loss of these children and these colleagues brings us all to tears. These are our children and these are our colleagues, and this is our loss. Every educator grieves with the community of Newtown, Connecticut.
Other people are talking and writing about the issues of violence and our children. They will write about the 1,187 children under 18 whom the FBI statistics tell us were violently killed in 2011. Or they’ll tell us that 565 of those children were killed by firearms. The discussions have already started about the confluence of mental illness and firearms, and of the need for families to have more support around family members with mental illness. These discussions will go forward and, as the President suggested, they must lead to action.
However, this also seems a time for us to examine how we perceive schools and educators and children. Over the past 30 years, we seem to have developed a general perception that educators have failed and that schools have failed, despite all the evidence that we have that this isn’t the case. Our popular media sometimes portrays a few educators as saints and, more often, as manipulating, bumbling caricatures who only take the job for the easy work it offers. That’s in contrast to the educators I know. The educators I know are dedicated folks who care deeply about children and work hard to help children create their futures. Educators weep when a child is harmed because we see what children can become. Despite what I know from working alongside, observing, and training educators, some pressure groups have decided that what they perceive to be problems in education come from educators. These detractors are wrong in both their perception of failure and their perception of educators.
The educators at Sandy Hook Elementary who died were killed as they protected children. That makes them heroes. I believe that these extraordinary people were actually ordinary educators who reacted to a moment that required the bravery that came when the children they cared for were threatened. It’s the same level of care that got them up that morning to go to work and perform among the most important valuable roles that we ask of adults. They didn’t expect to become martyred heroes that morning when they went to work – they just expected that they’d have the privilege of educating, of seeing children becoming their futures in small increments. That’s what educators do, and experiencing that privilege is what makes us care so deeply about children.
Educators aren’t saints – like every other person, we stumble in trying to live up to our ideals. But educators are an amazing profession of people who spend our lives in dedication to others and in hope for the future. It is this focus on hope that really defines us. Unlike any other profession that I know, it is hope that frames education. We see more of what is possible than what only is. When hope is taken away for children, we cry; but we look forward to the next moment and the next hope. An unimaginable tragedy like the murder of 20 children and six colleagues doesn’t distinguish our hope. It gives us more resolve to serve children better.
So maybe we can stop with the negative perceptions and mischaracterizations of who and what educators are. And maybe we can start a new conversation that looks to our educators as the keepers of hope whom they are. Maybe while we discuss firearms, mental illness, and public safety, we can also talk about the strengths of our educational workforce and the amazing miracles they perform daily. We must honor the heroes who gave their lives in a moment of threat. And we must also honor all of the educators who give their lives daily.
Posted by Bob Hughes at 5:08 PM