Monday, October 29, 2012

Are We Asking Too Much From Our Teachers?

Though the Chicago Teachers’ Strike is well behind us, the issues that led to it continue to exist in many ways and in many parts of the country.  While every community and every teaching staff is different, there are certainly some common threads.  It would be to our advantage to reflect for a moment on the situation in Chicago.  Like teachers everywhere, Chicago’s were looking at more cuts, larger classes, frozen salaries and ever-increasing scrutiny.  In fact, they often felt blamed for the dismal state of the schools and the city itself.  But how fair is it to blame teachers?  Ronald Ferguson, a researcher specializing in the achievement gap from Harvard, suggests that teachers only account for about 13% of performance gaps.  What we have today is a combination of issues ranging from the economy and outdated school systems, to cultural problems and inadequately prepared and supported teachers.  No single entity is to blame; we are all to blame.  I think this article captures the issues well…

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers

Every educator, whether public or private, has to wrestle from time to time with educational practices and policies with which they disagree.  Most of the time we are flexible and accommodate differences, particularly where we feel our jobs or standing might be threatened.  In this day and age of standardized testing, evaluation by non-educators, shrinking budgets, overcrowding and a multitude of other issues, I suspect it is getting harder and harder for educators to just go along to get along.  More and more are speaking out.

To start this school year, Wantagh, New York Principal Don Sternberg sent a welcome letter to his school’s families that addressed many issues facing his school, students and teachers (  So far as I can tell he is still employed, so I would say the school district and community is to be applauded. 

You should read the entire letter, but it can best be summed up by this statement:
 “One significant issue as we move into this new school year is that we will, at times, find it difficult if not impossible to teach authentic application of concepts and skills with an eye towards relevancy. What we will be teaching students is to be effective test takers; a skill that does not necessarily translate into critical thinking – a skill set that is necessary at the college level and beyond. This will inevitably conflict with authentic educational practice – true teaching.”

Isn’t this the struggle we so often face? – How do we do what we are being asked to and protect the integrity of a real education?  To what degree do the tests measure what we believe is important? 

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Have you had your own problems with homework?  Have you experienced what it can do to your family’s evening?  Have you wondered how useful it is?  Does it have more value than kids’ playtime?  I have had my own struggles with homework as a teacher and a parent.  I can get into that at another time, but for now consider that there’s conversation in France about banning homework all together.  We can dispute from an American perspective the need for federal government to do such a thing, but for now just consider the concept – NO homework!  Here’s a couple brief comments on it:

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Now that's a school!

I recently stumbled across this video about some schools in Singapore.  Mind-blowing really.  I have seen many schools with a few of these innovations, but none with so many, nor with such thought.  Consider the degree of community involvement and participation in such schools.  Consider the broad, well-rounded thought process that went into these schools - physical environment, kinesthetic design, green design, the arts, the whole-child.  No doubt it is expensive, but I am sure the community made the necessary investments and are seeing results and returns.  If we really put our minds to it and thought outside the box, what could our schools look like?  What changes would we make?  Would we even have schools as we know them?  If we designed with the whole-child in mind, what would we get?  How would k-3 look different from 4-6, 7-9, 10-12?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Powerful But Sad

The Huffington Post shared an essay I found compelling, honest, and hard-hitting.  ( ). 
Many of us enter the profession of teaching for all the right reasons.  After a few years we discover that grading, attendance-taking, meetings covering information best fit for an email, and all sorts of housekeeping activities keep us from doing what we love most.  How many times have we heard colleagues say, “If only I had the time to just teach!”  And what does that “teaching” look like when we have the chance?  Very often it means responding to kids’ ideas and getting into deep, thoughtful conversations about them – and that is not in the curriculum, nor on the test.  So we sacrifice the teachable moment, the opportunity to embark on authentic learning, and pursue further content coverage.  Eventually the pressures and demands wear on us and too many great teachers leave the classroom.  

Edgerton’s article offers up a thoughtful definition of a professional:
A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.”

Are teachers professional by this definition?  Prestige?  Autonomy?  In my experience I must admit that these two characteristics are possible.  I have had them.  Not every teacher has prestige or autonomy, but we can find schools and communities where this exists.  Complex decisions in conditions of uncertainty?  That is teaching – daily, hourly.  Live comfortably?  I find the keys are salary relative to cost of living, willingness to work long, long hours September through June and the possibility of a highly paid partner.   Of course that last point shows that teachers, for the most part don’t quite measure up on this metric.  Ultimately, I contend teachers are professionals in some places and not in others, sometimes only miles apart.  

The concern then is what to do if you have your two or three college degrees, a wide range of communication skills, a strong work ethic, a desire to make a difference in the world, a need to provide for your family and a hope for great working conditions, autonomy, professionalism, and efficacy.  Can you stay in teaching?  Can we change schools so that such people want to become and remain teachers?

Edgerton has an interesting idea:
“You have teachers teaching in a school. And that's really about the only thing that goes on. One of those teachers is selected as an instructional leader, by peers. These leaders continue to teach at least one class. Then you start dividing up responsibilities usually handled by administration. Who orders books? A classroom teacher. Who writes the curriculum? A classroom teacher. Who handles discipline? A classroom teacher.

No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendents, more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.”

What an idea!  Do any of you know of such an attempt?  Where are the schools that have the least administrative overhead and greatest teacher responsibility?  Are there cultures that do it this way?  Korea?  Finland?  Singapore? Private school or charter schools?