Select Highly Educated Teachers, Train Them Rigorously

People sometimes speak of Finland as this mythical place of educational bonhomie, student-centeredness, and teacher autonomy, but may not paint the full picture of how Finland arrived in such a warm and fuzzy place. Amanda Ripley deftly lays out how this happened in The Smartest Kids in the World:

“The Finns decided that the only way to get serious about education was to select highly educated teachers, the best and brightest of each generation, and train them rigorously. . . . 

With the new, higher standards and more rigorous teacher training in place, Finland’s top-down, No-Child-Left-Behind-style mandates became unnecessary. . . . So Finland began dismantling its most oppressive regulations, piece by piece, as if removing the scaffolding from a fine sculpture. . .

Now that teachers had been carefully chosen and trained, they were trusted to help develop a national core curriculum, to run their own classrooms, and to choose their own textbooks.”

In the US, can we find the political acumen and wherewithal to consider the long-game, and support the bold reforms necessary to establish a platform and fulcrum necessary to achieve greater autonomy as an end result, even when it may be initially painful and divisive?

How Long Does It Take to Shed the Skin of Society?

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“The first six months is like being in a washing machine – everything is painful. Body and mind. You can hear your friends and family in your head. It’s that onion again – peeling away that skin and hardening yourself. You are going through hell in that time. Everything is a challenge. Eventually, the noise stops. Suddenly, you are in harmony with nature. It’s all gone and then it’s not just another day of walking. That is what I am looking for. You live in the present and you are connected. You lose the sense of self. It’s a hard time, but the rewards once you reach that period of harmony, where you understand the immediate terrain around you, are wonderful.”

—Sarah Marquis in an interview with Andrew Mazibrada, “A State of Mind” on Sidetracked

Just need to highlight this: 6 months! And here you were, patting yourself on the back for a 2 day camping trip . . .

Initiatives I’m Excited About at My School This Year

There’s an unfortunate narrative that sometimes gets pushed in the ed reform community that charter schools are places of innovation and effective practice, while traditional district schools are maintainers of the status quo.

At my school, Jonas Bronck Academy, there’s a few initiatives that I’m excited to help support in this new school year that I think any school, whether charter, district, or private, might learn something from. Check out a short overview of those initiatives in this presentation:

If you’re interested in learning any more about any of these initiatives or would like to share resources, feel free to reach out to me!

The Mirage of a Mirage: On the New TNTP Report on PD

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Today I went down to DC* for TNTP’s release of their Mirage report on the (non)impact of professional development on teacher effectiveness. TNTP presented an overview of the findings, then journalist Amanda Ripley facilitated an interesting panel with USED’s John King, teacher Jennifer Corroy Parras, DC’s Kaya Henderson, and AIR researcher Dr. Michael Garet.

The big story is that teacher PD is 1) enormously expensive, yet 2) there’s no silver bullet. In other words, teaching is complex (glad ed reform world is beginning to acknowledge this), so we still are very far from knowing what improves teacher practice at scale, yet we’re investing a lot of time, energy, and money in it willy nilly.

There are a lot of aspects to explore, and the panel touched on a number of them. Ripley provided some nice framing of the systemic issues, such as that most PD (and US system of ed at large) is disjointed and incoherent, and that there is a general lack of clarity around what effective teaching looks like, accompanied by high expectations. She noted that this lack of clarity and high expectations for teachers parallels student experiences in our educational system, with both teachers and students leveling off in performance after an initial 5 years.

Both John King and Kaya Henderson pointed out that an oft missing link in PD is a focus on curriculum, a point on which I strongly concur. Curriculum provides the frame, the backbone, the structure that daily guides student and teacher experiences in the classroom. Without that structure and purpose, we are left with the incoherent gloop that Ripley first referred to.

TNTP’s report is incredibly insightful and useful–if enervating–material. I feel like it’s also important to define the kind of PD which the report mainly seems to abide by. I’ll admit that I haven’t yet dived too deep into the report, but from an initial scan of the survey questions and findings, I obtained the distinct impression that they mostly mean “PD” as in a specific dosage or frequency of a prescribed intervention that results in a change in an individual’s teacher practice within the classroom (and which should then ideally translate into improved student outcomes).

When I think of PD, I think of teachers sitting together around a table and collaborating to design common assessments, curriculum, resources, and examining student work and data. This was a component of TNTP’s teacher survey (noted as informal & formal collaboration, and peer time), but the report notes that an equal amount of such time was dedicated to this in both “improvers” and “non-improvers.” But I think there’s one key aspect of such collaborative time that we need to delineate, and which I believe could distinguish between those two populations: how teacher collaboration and planning time connects to a school-wide system.

Let me give some specific examples of what I mean to make this tangible:

  • A bi-weekly 8th grade-level team meeting working to horizontally (within the grade) align curriculum and assessments and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills
  • A weekly ELA department team meeting working to vertically align curriculum and assessments (and strategically build  and reinforce content knowledge and skills)
  • A PBIS system of agreed upon (developed both school-wide and via grade-level teams) infractions, consequences, and rewards
  • An established vision for utilizing advisory time to provide social-psychological interventions, accompanied by planning time to design these interventions, and time to analyze and assess their impact

You could go into both an effective and ineffective school and witness such use of collaborative time–but the key is how that teacher collaboration ties into a coherent, school-wide system.**

Admittedly, though, this all goes back to the great complexity not only of teaching, but of working in a school. There are so many variables behind what goes into anything remotely approximating either “PD” or “teacher practice” that it is difficult to define what we’re looking for, and even more difficult to do well consistently and to replicate and scale across different contexts.

I came back to NYC with three takeaways that best summarize my thoughts from the TNTP report . We would do well to consider the following in education reform:

  1. Coherency (in curriculum & assessment, first and foremost)
  2. Clarity (in expectations, feedback, and roles for teachers and students)
  3. Hard work (and more hard work)

*Thanks to Educators 4 Excellence for this opportunity

**I think this is what may have contributed to the differences between the charter and district schools in this study. The charter network was more effective in supporting their teachers effectiveness and growth over time. Charter schools often have much tighter and coherent school-wide structures and systems tied to assessment, curriculum, teacher practice, and observation.

How to Fight Poverty: Play the Long Game

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This post is a continuation from my last post on poverty. I made the case that poverty can be viewed as not simply a lack of money or resources, but as a lack of options, and that the development of better options for children and their families is a potential strategy for mediating against the toxic effects of poverty.

The development of more and better options certainly begins in each classroom, as RiShawn Biddle argued well in a recent post on Dropout Nation. Because the more that a child learns and gains knowledge, the more his brain is enriched with interconnections, helping to inoculate him against toxicity in his environment and ward off manipulation and illusions by others, and thus make better decisions.

And when it comes to teaching our children knowledge in a coherent and systematic manner, we’ve been failing pretty miserably on that front, in my opinion. It’s fuzzy math, or it’s Singapore math. It’s phonics or it’s whole language. It’s Common Core standards vs. don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-even-if-it’s-good-for-me. It’s political and ideological squabbling between adults, in other words, rather than a focus on systems design and iterative processes and products with students at the center.

But as I discussed before, we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can completely ameliorate the devastation of poverty in the classroom.

To scale and sustain the development of more and better options for a community ultimately requires playing the long game.

Structural changes in a society seem to mostly occur after long periods of chipping away, when suddenly some invisible threshold is reached, and there’s an avalanche, a titanic shift in mindsets, culture, and policy.

The short game is the game most politicians play. It’s the game most business folks play. It’s the game prison inmates play. It’s aggressive, it’s territorial. It’s also the game ideologues play. Hey kids, can anyone think of any ideologues in education?

It’s a necessary game, and it’s perhaps a glamorous one, but it’s not the only game in town, and it’s not the most important one.

Playing the long game means thinking at a systems level and across sectors. It means being willing to fight political or ideological battles when necessary, but also willing to develop and implement and sustain pragmatic policies and initiatives. It means being willing to work quietly in the shadows, because the long-term effectiveness of processes and policy outcomes are not something easily seen, nor something captivating to a public enraptured by the next new thing.

Playing the long game is akin to cultivating a tree.

A tree takes decades to mature. And like a child, the long-term outcome of a tree is heavily dependent on the initial conditions of it’s sowing. For a tree, the initial conditions are the soil and surrounding ecosystem. The wind, the light, the geographical placement. For a child, the initial conditions refers to his or her given family and surrounding environment.

For a tree to grow, it requires healthy, rich, nutritious soil, full with microbial life and enough water to get it started. It then benefits from layerings of mulch as it begins to develop.

A tree is an investment in a healthier future. A tree provides us shade, it cleans our air, provides a haven for birds, creates a buffer against noise and the wind, and even its simple presence, green, vibrant, and calm, can reduce violence and help to shore us up against the vicissitudes of life.

How can you tell the difference between a poor neighborhood and a wealthier neighborhood from outer space? It’s easy—you look for trees.

Something that simple, yet that powerful. But trees don’t magically appear and come to fruition. And while we can accelerate and aid the growing of a tree in unnatural conditions, we don’t yet have instant test tube trees we can transplant anywhere. Planting and growing trees takes a community effort. The MillionTrees NYC effort—one of many such efforts in an urban setting—for example, requires the sustained collaboration of government, private and public funds and outreach, and volunteers.

To nurture our children requires a similar sort of effort. It takes a willingness to work with people from different walks and roles, to build an interdependent network of care, to see beyond one’s own front yard. It takes a focus on what will matter in the future, not just right now right now right now.

And it takes a willingness to acknowledge and invest in enriching the initial conditions and circumstances in which a child is born. That’s pre-K, child care, pre-natal services, education and outreach by health providers. A willingness to acknowledge the toxic impact that infrastructural decay and lack of access to parks, diverse food sources, strong local schools within walking distance, and libraries can have on a community.

Providing options in the form of school choice is great—but it’s not much of a choice when it takes a child 2 hours to get there.

And it’s not the much of a choice when there’s a failing economy and few job opportunities in your community upon your graduation.

Let’s play the long game and invest in providing our children with opportunities and options within the communities they are raised within.