Saturday, February 09, 2008

It sounds like a miracle

an out of context response to Tom Hoffman:
"We -- meaning many US K-12 educational bloggers -- tend to do a lousy job of differentiating between various schemes and strategies for school or educational reform. We just sort of wave our hands a vague morass of undifferentiated correct-sounding happy talk. Rarely do we try to determine which of these things have more or less value than any other. In that sense, we haven't even started a conversation
- Compare and Contrast"
out of context because I'm ignorant about UbD, superficial about Bloom and Miguel writes far too much for me to keep up

But I wanted to say something about school reform and how it is framed

People have been talking about radical school reform for a hundred years (Dewey, Holt, Illich, Papert etc.) but it never happens in a way that scales significantly

Now we have a new radical school reform movement (web2.0) with bloggers becoming frustrated that it's not scaling and whinging about it - why don't other teachers follow my example and do what I do?

Well, this is because the cutting edge doesn't scale because it is the cutting edge. If it did scale then it wouldn't be the cutting edge. Often people are more advanced than others and they don't realise that because it just seems obvious to them because they "get it". At any rate, many teachers shut the door and teach and don't talk or think about epistemology at recess, lunch or after school as they sit in their "teachers cupboard" (a teacher once told me that when she was in Primary school she thought that after school teachers didn't go home but sat in their teachers cupboard)

eg. my favourite, Papert's constructionism, didn't scale not because it didn't work but because it demanded far too much from the average teacher

The only things that scale in education are those that follow the KISS principle

I've recently discovered Teach for America and would like to find out more about it because it does seem to be scaling, making a real difference in quality and is simple enough to qualify for the KISS principle

I've ordered this book to learn more:
One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way by Wendy Kopp

This scheme claims to be succeeding in mobilising large numbers of high quality teacher learners, in cutting bureaucratic red tape (5 week teacher training course), targeting the disadvantaged and appealing to the powerful sentiment of "making a difference"

In the context of a hundred years of failed radical school reform, this sounds like a miracle
"What I have learned in building Teach For America and from our corps members and alumni suggests that it will take three things to raise achievement levels in low-income schools.

First, it will take committing ourselves to the vision that one day, all children in our nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education...

Second, we must recognize that accomplishing our mission will take more of just about everything - including more time and, ultimately, more resources...There's an understandable discomfort with the idea that it will take more money to make schools in low-income areas work. We've all seen and read about too many examples of wasted resources in schools. In some cases merely reallocating the resources already spent in low-income areas can make a difference. And I learned through my experience with Teach for America that money isn't everything, that tough financial situations force high-quality, innovative thinking. But I've also learned that although resources are not the solution to everything, they are necessary to carry out the big plans...

The third aspect of realizing our vision is the recognition that it will take a long-term, institution-building approach...when people think about what makes great organizations work, they see it's not a unique strategy. It's that the organizations have built the systems to achieve results, respond to change, and continually improve...Building effective school systems will not be easy. It will take superior leadership and a lot of hard work. It will require a critical look at all the forces - from how school boards govern to how states regulate - that could prevent school district leadership from taking any an institution-building approach. The good news is that there's no mystery about what it will take. The solutions are within our reach.
- Wendy Kopp, from this amazon reader review"
The Teach for Australia plan, based partly on Teach for America maybe our best shot to improve education

8 comments:

Sylvia said...

Bill,
You might want to check this out: http://www.districtadministration.com/pulse/commentpost.aspx?news=no&postid=48632

Bill Kerr said...

hi sylvia,

Had a quick read of that article and a couple of others it linked to

The Inside Scoop on Teach for America
Great Expectations (Slate)
Funders Heart TFA - But Not For What TFA Corps Members Actually Do

I don't claim a deep understanding of TFA but would say that none of those critical articles amount to much

Those who have done a years teacher training course know that much of it is a waste of time. It was when I did it and my more articulate student teachers confirm that nothing has changed. Typical comment" "I've learnt more in a 6 weeks teaching round than a year at Uni"

As I see it the real blockage here is "the educational bureaucracy" (university gatekeepers, union gatekeepers) getting their collective noses out of joint

I like the idea of a scheme whereby highly successful students are given a crash course in teaching and then go out to disadvantaged schools.

btw the Australian proposal for remote aboriginal communities is that teaching associates (TFA equivalents) be paired with more experienced teaching fellows - Teach for Australia - sounds like a better model to me. This paper presents compelling arguments that only something like this will help relieve the crisis situation (beyond crisis really) we have in remote indigenous schools.

Tekkie said...

I've heard good things about TFA. I did a blog post where this program was mentioned a few times. I quoted sections of a panel discussion sponsored by the Aspen Institute last year on U.S. competitiveness. I focused in on the discussion about education.

Sylvia said...

Hi Bill,
I'm not sure that the problems of teacher education validate TFA. TFA costs a lot of money to create a few teachers who "stick". Many of these teachers get assigned to schools where teacher turnover is already a problem. So how does creating more teachers with a guaranteed high turnover rate help this?

I think Tom Hoffman's reply to you in his blog says everything I would say.
http://www.tuttlesvc.org/2008/02/responding-to-bill.html

Tekkie said...

To the doubting commentors, I will say that I am sceptical of your confidence in professional teacher training. A few years ago I read an account of a professional (can't remember in which field, may have been engineering) who wanted to become a teacher. Unfortunately I didn't save this. It would've come in handy for this moment.

I remember he said he enrolled in an education program at a university in Florida. The dean of the education school called him in. He thought he was in trouble for something. It turned out the dean wanted to talk him out of taking their education program. He basically said "A man of your caliber is going to be bored with this stuff. You'd be better off doing something else with your time." I forget how things turned out, but he didn't lose his desire to become a teacher. Maybe he went to a different school.

I'm no expert on this. Maybe education schools really help out with understanding the education system. From the other accounts I've read I think there's a lot of variability in how well they educate teachers on how to impart knowledge to students. As with any academic discipline there's a tendency to get trapped in the ivory tower of theory, rather than the reality of how people learn. If there's one thing that people who come straight from industry can know with no further assistance, it is how to learn. Many of them are also subject experts. They have to be to do their job in their career, and they are motivated to become experts due to incentives in the industry.

I read the article Sylvia referred to, and I am also not sure what the point is. It sounds like if the TFA teachers are lost about anything it is how the school system works. There was also the complaint about teachers and parents "speaking a different language". There's no specifics about what that means. It's just a suspicion, but I got the impression that the reason there was this disconnect is the parents knew the school system and its measuring systems better than the teacher did. But what's the point of teaching? Isn't the main job to impart knowledge to students? Or are they merely service providers?

I have heard about how teachers' jobs in the U.S. have become increasingly burdened with activities that have nothing to do with teaching, or supporting students' learning. Personally I would like to see this change. This is my naive POV, but teachers need to get back to the task of teaching as their primary role. It sounds like TFA is highlighting this disconnect between the ideal and the reality, but I'm not convinced it's TFA's fault.

Bill Kerr said...

I've left a couple of comments on Tom Hoffman's blog, responding to bill

sylvia:
"Many of these teachers get assigned to schools where teacher turnover is already a problem. So how does creating more teachers with a guaranteed high turnover rate help this?"

Well, if the central problem of education is the quality of teaching (reasonable hypothesis) then any scheme that gets high quality graduates into disadvantaged schools ought to be supported. My supposition here is that those who succeed in education may have a deeper understanding of the subject domain - identified as a central problem in education - some primary teachers can't do grade 5 maths

Disadvantaged schools and teaching in general has a problem with high turnover anyway - "as many as 30% of teachers move out of teaching in the first five years" (quoted in Outcomes Based Education and the death of knowledge paper)

So, TFA may be part of the solution

Sylvia said...

Bill: "Well, if the central problem of education is the quality of teaching (reasonable hypothesis) then any scheme that gets high quality graduates into disadvantaged schools ought to be supported."

I'd agree this is a reasonable hypothesis. However, TFA does not necessarily meet that goal. They may be enthusiastic and well-meaning, but that doesn't mean they are automatically high quality.

The fact that the current system has problems creating high-quality teachers doesn't mean that ANY alternative is a superior choice.

I'm not arguing that the current system is perfect, or even very good. But to me, TFA perpetuates a myth that teaching is magic and can't be learned (or taught). It diminishes the profession of teaching as something not worthy of effort and study. That makes me MORE concerned about the future of education.

I agree the conditions you cite are extraordinary. I agree that there are crisis situations where an enthusiastic warm body is indeed better than nothing. That still does not make TFA a miracle - it's just a bandaid on a gushing wound.

These TFA teachers are just canon fodder to be chewed up and spit out by the same system that caused the crisis in the first place. Hardly a "solution" to celebrate.

Bill Kerr said...

Sylvia:
"TFA does not necessarily meet that goal (the goal of quality teaching). They may be enthusiastic and well-meaning, but that doesn't mean they are automatically high quality.

The fact that the current system has problems creating high-quality teachers doesn't mean that ANY alternative is a superior choice.

I'm not arguing that the current system is perfect, or even very good. But to me, TFA perpetuates a myth that teaching is magic and can't be learned (or taught). It diminishes the profession of teaching as something not worthy of effort and study."

Well most people I talk to are quite dismissive of university based teacher training courses - and none are enthusiastic. Good teachers are self taught, self read or taught by the example of their peers.

The DA paper you referred me to initially had a link to a Slate article by Lincoln Caplan, which mentions a study by Mathematica Policy Research which found in favour of TFAmerica. The Teach for Australia paper spells this out in more detail:

[quote]
"The most rigorous study to date, conducted in 2004 by Mathematica Policy Research,found that TFA teachers had a positive impact on math achievement of students as compared to students of all other teachers (who may or may not have a traditional certification background). TFA-taught students achieved the effect of roughly an additional month of math instruction over the course of a year. In reading, TFA teachers delivered similar gains as other teachers. However, TFA teachers had more substantial gains when compared to other novice teachers. In other words, Teach For America teachers were “an appealing pool
of candidates…there is little risk that hiring TFA teaches will reduce achievement.” The study also notes the need for “programs or policies that can attract good teachers to schools in the most disadvantaged communities” and states “our findings show that TFA is one such
program.”"
[\quote]

Sylvia:
"These TFA teachers are just canon fodder to be chewed up and spit out by the same system that caused the crisis in the first place. Hardly a "solution" to celebrate."

Maybe rethink this last para. The "system" is not monolithic and the forces that will end up changing it grow up and learn how to struggle inside of it. A major point of Noel Pearson's polemic is to put a stop to the politics of victim-hood.