Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Not Me, Coach!

Mary Rubel, petite, white-haired, and full of energy taught our 5th grade class with her contagious passion for learning new things.  I had just arrived at Henry Barnard Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma from the dusty classrooms of isolated schools in the oil patch of West Texas where my father was an engineer.  Scuffing to school through real autumn leaves (just like in the story books!) was a revelation.  Mary Rubel seemed straight out of fiction as well:  lively, smart, unfailingly cheerful and sure we could learn anything.   The next year we had Mrs. Benninghoff, tall, elegant, well-read, intellectual though we didn’t know to call it that.    Her love of poetry made the weekly assignment to memorize a poem seem more like initiation into word magic  than a dreaded chore.

Wilson Junior High was certainly nothing special to look at – none of Barnard's beautiful red brick or decorative tiles, but several of my teachers more than made up for the drab setting. Naomi Barnes made stories come alive and broadened our vocabulary without our really feeling we were mastering word lists.  (I do have a funny memory from that time of a friend who, for the assignment to use each new word in a sentence, wrote “I have a [insert vocabulary word] in my notebook” for all 20 of that lesson’s words!)  Mr. Beshara was an extraordinary math teacher – even for students who weren’t excited about math, and he went on to be a leader in math education.   

At Central High (scorned by the richer kids at the suburban high schools) Rex Teague led the choral music program as a welcoming and inclusive place (he even let me into choir – very egalitarian!) for all students of all races, academic tracks, and range of musical ability.  He preferred 100-voice choirs to the more select 20-voice choirs from the suburbs that his choirs would be competing against; to cut out 80 students interested in singing would to him be a loss, not a win. 

And Mary Ellen Bridges – our inimitable English teacher!  We called her “Be Specific Bridges” because her comments on our papers always pushed us to think more, dig into the text more, and explain our ideas more clearly. 

Each of these teachers was a gift to me, important to my learning and important as people to look up to then and to emulate as I became a teacher. I’m not sure any of them could be hired today.   The computerized check lists for teacher hiring are silent on the attributes that made these teachers so effective and so memorable.

And if they could get hired, I’m not sure they would be allowed to be those creative, student-centered intellectual teachers we admired – at least not in the Tulsa schools.

For reasons that hopefully someone will investigate, the Tulsa schools have bought into the de-skilled,factory-model of “teaching” as managed labor.   They're paying a management vendor CT3 that claims it can “improve teaching” with “real time coaching.”  A “coach” watches the teacher and in “real time” (should we say “unreal time”) tells the teacher what to do and when – through an ear piece the teacher wears while teaching!    Imagining Mr. Beshara get teaching pointers from an amateur with a microphone, or Miss Bridges being "coached" on ways to answer a student's question, or on how much time to take in discussing Antigone's agonizing dilemma is truly un-imaginable.  (Nor can I imagine that anyone who had read Antigone would take the job of talking into the ear of a literature teacher.)  

But here are the company’s claims:

Cutting-edge coaching that changes teacher practice through immediate, non-disruptive feedback and guidance from coaches during classroom instruction.

And here is a link to a teacher in another state who had to be“coached” from the “sidelines.”

How do we get the teachers we need? Not by screening applicants with checklists of generic behaviors, not with working conditions that script their teaching, and not with “coaches” who do not know the children, their families, the subject matter content, the teacher’s repertoire of curricular resources or instructional methods.  A coach who by having taken the job reveals tragic ignorance of the relational and creative dimensions of teaching that awaken in children the awareness that they are learners -- in the fullest sense of that experience.

I hope someone does an analysis of what the budget for this silly coaching system contract could have paid for that the teachers and children of the Tulsa schools actually need.  And I hope tax payers and voters figure out which school board members and which administrators thought this system would "work."  Maybe it's the people who approved the contract who need someone to whisper caution in their ears the next time a vendor full of ridiculous -- but expensive -- promises looks to solve a problem that only professional teachers, working with educated principals and engaged parents, can solve.  And that's what they'll need to do when this "coaching" thing gets sent back to the locker room.

Monday, October 17, 2016

THE TEACHERS WE NEED, Part 2                                
But we won’t find them this way

I admit to a strong bias on behalf of teachers. It was from teachers that I learned the harm standardized accountability wreaked on the content of their teaching, how and whether their students connected with the lessons, and how and whether they themselves stayed in teaching.  It is not an exaggeration to say that almost all my research findings, even those – maybe especially those – that contradicted my initial hypotheses, were informed by teachers, teachers who welcomed me into their classrooms, who took time to explain how policies constrained or supported their practice, who alerted me to questions I hadn’t known to ask.

So of course I have a special fondness for my students who after years of study and long hours of student teaching are now ready to step into their own classroom, meet their own students.  As I discussed in my previous blog post, I feel a great responsibility to match my recommendation to their exceptional commitment and depth of professional preparation.

That’s getting to be harder and harder to do!

This summer a former student asked me to serve as a reference as he applied for teaching positions in math.  A native speaker of Spanish who has taught in an under-funded, high-poverty school, studied in Central America, worked in state-level policy offices, and completed a master’s degree at one of our finest graduate schools of education, he was weighing options in two different cities that would enable him to continue his commitment to historically underserved youth, and in a subject area of critical importance to the children’s educational futures.

I had already written rec letters for him for graduate school and for numerous jobs and enrichment programs – all of them successful because of his many talents and accomplishments and the very visibility of his dedication.  The only challenge would be keeping this new letter concise.

The school district sent the link to “recommender.”  But nothing about the recommendation form asked me to recommend this strong candidate for teaching.  Nothing asked me to recommend him to teach math, to use his Spanish with the district’s dominant student population.

My students think we spend far too long studying the factory model school of the early 20th century; I assure them it is not a history lesson – this is current events! They are skeptical as I describe the de-skillng of teachers then and now.  Factory efficiency experts who brought their stop watches and task-analysis check lists to the industrial plant,  took those same “scientific” measurements into classrooms, timing the micro-components of lessons to reduce wasted “seat time,” and to determine which teachers and school subjects – and which children – were worth the investment of tax dollars.

The clipboards are now digital, but the check lists are no less divorced from course content, teachers’ expertise, children’s curiosity, or, in fact, the particular subject at hand.  “Generic” rules.

The factory model school lives in the questions I was asked about my extraordinary student.   As you can see, the questions depict the teacher not as a subject matter professional but as a low-level worker in need of close supervision.   I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read “How well would you say this person responds to supervision?”  I wanted to answer “thoughtfully, as a knowledgeable colleague and member of a faculty community.”  That was not one of my choices!  The 3 choices wanted to know “extremely well,” “adequately,” or “not well.”

The next questions came straight out of the factory model list of desirable worker skills:  “How would you rate this person’s attendance?”  “….dependability?”  “…..willingness to assume responsibilitiy?” And I’m not making this up:  “…ability to follow instructions?” The next two questions made no sense at all:  “quality of work” and “quantity of work.” Two small boxes left room for comments on “strong points” and “weak points.”  Even though the answer choices were meaningless and not always grammatically appropriate to the syntax of the question, I had to choose the most positive choice because I assumed the form would be computer scored.  

My first reaction was that this generic form had nothing to do with teaching and would have been more appropriate for hires in the district accounting office or food service.  Not really. I’d want to know more about people applying for those positions as well – more information and of a different kind: how does this person approach problems? What expertise does he or she bring to this position? 

This district’s form asks nothing about the applicant’s knowledge of children, children’s learning, curriculum development, instructional practice, assessment models, the workings of a school, the policy context of the school. Nothing about the knowledge base of the teacher in what Shulman termed “subject matter knowledge” and “pedagogical knowledge”.  Certainly no question asking if this teacher understood the importance of knowing the child’s family and culture to avoid teaching “subtractively,” or knowing how to create a caring environment in support of social and emotional development.

There is no reason to expect any knowledge of or attention to the complexities of teaching.  The heading is the name of the school district, but the copyright on the rec form is another one of those industrial vendors that are capturing our education dollars to the detriment of our educational purposes.  Here is the link:

I was right that the rec form is “read” and “analyzed” first by computer. But there is more: this company is complicit in “analytics,” in this case crunching data to predict a teachers' measurable impact on their students' learning.  

The fast-growing talent management software company offers unique solutions, data and analytics to help schools and districts predict best teacher candidates, acquire and develop them.

These people, this organization, these computer programs and statistical gymnastics have no business in the selection of teachers for our children’s classrooms. Their models in no way capture (or even mention) what is essential in teaching.  (As a result, of course, their predictive models are even more useless.)

It would be almost a relief to learn that this vendor – and others like them – are awarded contracts through shady deals with kick-backs to school board members or “consulting fees” to district bureaucrats who sign the big checks to these groups.  That kind of corruption can eventually be investigated, brought to light, and perhaps even prosecuted. 

But when these outsourced vendors become entrenched in the system, when the systems themselves voluntarily “de-skill” by outsourcing their most important decisions to “analytics” based on empty and misleading “data,” they are tougher to dislodge.  Teachers seeking jobs are not in a position to critique the on-line forms lest they be seen not having “the ability to follow directions.”  A recommender doesn’t dare risk challenging the recommendation system while our students or former students have active applications in process.    And it is unlikely that parents have any idea that a “teacher match” system chose the list to be considered or, worse, eliminated promising teachers whose gifts and imagination and dedication do not fit the indicators, do not work in ways that can be quantified.

Friday, October 14, 2016

One Exceptional Teacher, 500 Characters

A sacred – if daunting – responsibility for any professor is writing those letters of recommendation that send our students on their way to new ventures.  For my students applying for teaching positions, I try to paint a portrait, tell a story – include that detail that will make a hiring principal or department chair ask “where’s the file on that Rice student, you know the one who….”  created history lessons based on the artifacts she worked with in the slavery museum, or had his ecology students paint a “habitat” wall from sub-terranean and littoral margins to lofty tree canopy to help younger students visualize the interdependence of species, who wrote a short story featuring a hearing-impaired girl after finding so little fiction for adolescents features hearing-impaired kids as central characters, not just “best friend.”   That Rice teacher.

I’ve long ago given up on trying to “out adjective” the competition of superlatives, thus my tradition of writing a strong letter, the opening paragraph emphasizing the student’s solid grounding in his or her subject matter field, then describing our program of courses on theories of learning, education history and policy, pedagogy, curriculum development, and intensive field experiences in our city’s culturally rich and complex urban schools.  The second paragraph tells the story about this particular new teacher:  concrete detail of compelling papers written, inventive strategies developed for engaging reluctant learners, an especially creative and scholarly analytical paper. The letter concludes with my statement of why this young teacher is just right for your particular school, its programs, its relationship to its community, its students.  And of course for years that letter would be printed on Rice letterhead, good quality bond carrying the university’s seal, an endorsement both symbolic and literal:  we claim this student, this graduate, as ours.  Treat with respect.

Such a letter assumes school district officials want teachers who have a deep knowledge of their subject field.  It assumes a principal is actively seeking that math teacher experienced in designing lessons for kids who “hate math,” that English teacher who is attuned to kids’ reading interests and whose first question will be what the budget is for classroom collections of print and digital books.  It assumes someone reading the letter will want to know if this teacher knows multiple approaches to teaching and has a deep and broad repertoire of ways of assessing children’s learning.  Such a letter assumes someone thinks of teachers as intellectual resources, as role models of learning, as guides to students’ development.  

It assumes someone in the teacher recruitment office reads.   As you can guess by now, I seem to keep making these na├»ve assumptions --- even after all these years!

Recommendation forms went digital quite a few years ago, with boxes to check, ratings to fill in on a three- or five-point scale, with a box for “additional comments” that permitted uploading an actual letter of recommendation. No good letterhead bond, but a chance to tell this teacher’s story, include that distinctive detail.

The “all my assumptions are wrong” shock came this past spring when a former student who had recently moved back to the States from abroad asked me to recommend her for teaching positions in another part of the state.  What an easy letter to write!  She had taught in Europe and in North Africa, had founded a tri-lingual school where she taught math and history.   Her experience as teacher, school leader, and tri-lingual curriculum developer would make her the dream candidate for any urban district in Texas. The letter essentially wrote itself.

I opened the link to the rec form of the school district she was applying to, then clicked through the quick-answer questions.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Then to upload the letter:  No!  A pop-up warning said the “comments” could be only 1000 characters.  I first read that as “1000 words” and knew I was way under that limit.  Then I realized “characters” and saw the added “including spaces.”  What?  I cut, counted words, cut again, re-counted.  The resulting  listing of basic facts did not hang together as a narrative – more like incomprehensible fragments:  French? School founder? Math? Arabic? Is this all one person?  The 999 "characters" did not represent this extraordinary teacher’s accomplishments nor the strength of my endorsement.

Surely the next district’s form would allow me to be more informative. Not so:  the usual irritating check list, then that “comments” box, which I approached with trepidation – could I upload my entire letter?  “Comments limited to 500 characters, including spaces.”   The message might as well have said, “This is all a formality, but you are free to add some sound bites if it will make you feel better.  No one will read them.”  

Our teachers get blamed for everything that’s wrong with education, with “kids these days,” with poor test scores and low school ratings.    And lots of people have an interest in amplifying that blame:  the charter chains eager to pounce on any weakness in the public’s schools, vendors of “teacher-proof” curriculum software, superintendents needing scapegoats for low scores or the slow pace of their latest “reform” efforts.   The politicians wanting to break teacher unions, the chief financial officers whose short-term accounting justifies replacing experienced teachers with new, cheaper ones who won’t stay long, school board members who think of teachers as “labor costs” rather than children’s guides to learning.

Image source:
But has anyone looked at the hiring process itself?  Are districts deliberately, or thoughtlessly, screening out strong teacher applicants or perhaps filling slots with teachers whose attributes fulfill a check list of minimum qualifications as though they were workers on the assembly line? 

Does the screening and hiring process itself discourage – or fail to encompass – the teacher who is educated across multiple disciplines, whose professional preparation built on what we know about the ways children learn, who knows and advocate for authentic assessments and close connections to the children’s families and communities?

Schools that hire on the basis of check lists of minimal credentials, with no curiosity about the candidate’s story, are unlikely to seek out and value that teacher who brings to her teaching a desire to know and connect with the stories of the children.

I hate being complicit in this system, in this systemic degrading of teachers, teaching and teacher recruitment.  But I haven’t yet found an effective way to resist or protest or circumvent this 500-character “border” wall.    The rec forms provide no address or person’s name or office for sending a recommendation letter by mail or electronic means. Nor would it be likely to be incorporated into the applicant’s file.    If you have a better idea for how we can advocate for teachers who are knowledgeable, deeply committed to children, even exceptional in their talents and their desire to grow as professionals and as assets to their schools, I invite your advice.  

And limits to the number of words, characters or “spaces” do not apply.

To see exactly what kinds of questions those “check lists” ask about people applying to teach in our children’s schools, see my next post!  (Bring a tissue – you may want to cry.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Guns, Kids and School, Part 8
“Campus Carry” and (Un)Intended Consequences?                     

 Scene 1:  Lecture hall in a public university in Texas
            White student enters, takes his seat and opens his backpack to take out his laptop.
When he reaches into the side pocket, he has to push a handgun aside to find the charger for his computer.
            The white girl on his left sees the gun and breathes a sigh of relief:  “I feel so much safer now…”
The African American girl on his right catches a glimpse of the gun and quietly scoots her chair a few inches farther away.  She doesn’t say much in class and tries not to be noticed.

Scene 2:   Crowded parking lot on the campus of a public university in Texas
African American student eases his car in to a narrow slot as students compete for scarce places in the rush to get to class.  As he lifts his backpack out of the car, a broken zipper leaves open to view his iPad and his handgun.
“911—black guy with gun.  I can’t tell what he’s going to do with it. This parking lot is crowded! He’s armed – he’s walking this way! Please – hurry!”

Welcome to “Campus Carry,” brought to you by the misguided Texas legislature and the gun lobby they report to.   White guy with gun a guardian of the peace? A patriot? A “real Texan”? Black kid with gun a danger to others? Black guy with a gun a "perceived threat"?

The law permitting guns on all public universities and colleges in Texas took effect on the anniversary of the saddest day in the history of higher education in Texas:  August 1, 2016, the 50th anniversary of the “Tower Shooting,” the day an army veteran stepped out on the tower of the University of Texas at Austin and shot at anyone walking within his line of sight, killing 13 and wounding 30 others.  The cynical timing of the campus carry law was noted at UT and around the nation as another example of Texas craziness.

But this law is beyond crazy.  “Campus carry” is timed to intersect with two racially charged developments:  the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of affirmation action in university admissions in the Fisher case and the alarming increase in claims of the “stand your ground” defense used to justify violence – including shooting to kill – if the shooter perceives his or her victim to be a threat.

Let’s think about this convergence:  Just when the US Supreme Court has ruled definitively in support of increased racial and cultural diversity in ourpublic universities and their admissions policiesour nation is plagued with shootings of unarmed African American boys and men.  And as we saw in the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Treyvon Martin, his “I felt threatened, he seemed dangerous” defense succeeded in acquitting him of murder.  That Zimmerman defied instructions to stay in his vehicle and not follow or confront the boy in the hoodie – and thus choose to stay out of harm’s way – was not enough to override his claim of feeling endangered.

Campus carry + greater racial and ethnic  student diversity + “perceived threat” = Peril.  And a special peril for non-white students. 

Which leads me to a larger question:  Is this just about satisfying the gun industry and its lobbyists? Is this an aggressive action to get out ahead of any attempts at gun control?  Or is “campus carry” an instrument of social control, an assault on the learning spaces we have created for our youth?

We have already seen the resignation of a highly celebrated dean from the UT-Austin school of architecture – a dean who said he would never have considered an offer from another university if it had not been for campus carry: “I felt that I was going to be responsible for managing a law I didn’t believe in.”  Professors report that recruiting faculty to a campus with guns is becoming more difficult. And I imagine that African American and Latino parents may be re-thinking their child’s aspirations to attend the state’s flagship universities – despite reputations for high academic quality and relatively affordable tuition – if their college years will always be clouded with the possibility that someone – a campus police officer, a fellow student, a visitor walking through campus – might “perceive” that the cell phone, the paperback, the bag of Skittles their child is carrying is a gun.  

Such perceptions are heightened by fear – fear that permission to have a gun on campus means that that person you see walking toward you or getting out of his car or heatedly debating a point in class or in a late night dorm room might be dangerous.  Maybe you’d better shoot first just to be sure.

If the professors and deans and people who staff the college offices leave to find jobs in gun-free work places, if the parents of minority students re-think taking advantage of Fisher and encourage their children to apply where guns won’t be an issue – has the gun lobby had a double victory?   Acceptance of guns on campus made commonplace, and critics who could potentially organize to oppose and reverse this legislation gone? 

Is “campus carry” meant not just to permit some kids to bring guns to our campuses and to normalize a culture of weapons in public spaces, but to create a subtle transformation in who feels at home in our public universities, who feels free to speak, and who feels safe?  Will “campus carry” cause the exit of those who question and, in the process, create a comfortable venue for those who – out of real or imagined fears or a profit motive or political expediency – won’t be satisfied until guns are everywhere in America?

What could possibly be the intent behind the votes for “campus carry”?  What are the intended outcomes? And which of the consequences might have been unintended?  How does “campus carry” compute with the growing cultural and ethnic diversity in our colleges?  Much has been made of the perils of mixing of guns and alcohol, guns and partying, guns and sexual violence, guns and the still-forming “executive functions” of the young adult brain, guns and depression, guns and social conflicts when guns go to college.

There is also the peril of silencing lively discussion, intellectual inquiry, free debate, and challenging ideas – not just because someone in the room might have a gun, but because “campus carry” has kept some of the most lively minds, inquiring intellects, provocative questioners from teaching at – or enrolling in – a college where the same legislature that cut the academic budgets increased the presence of guns.

Friday, October 7, 2016


Ah, the good old days when “campus carry” evoked quaint images of the awkward boy shyly asking the cool girl, the cute girl with the sweet face, if he can carry her books to class.  (Cue the sock hop tunes of the 1950’s!)

Now the women on campus carry not only their own books but – if they so choose – a loaded weapon:  a gun.

In the “what were they thinking” department (more like “why weren’t they thinking?”), the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill 1, the so-called “Campus Carry” law, authorizing “a license holder to carry a concealed handgun on or about the license holder’s person while the license holder is on the campus of an institution of higher education or private or independent institution of higher education in this state.”

(The only sentence of sanity is the one that follows:  “Open carrying of handguns is still prohibited at these locations.”)

The law authorizes universities, through their presidents, to designate campus locations where guns will not be permitted, laboratories, for example, but they may not opt their university out of “campus carry.”   Private universities may opt out, but only after an elaborate process of decision making informed by the opinions of faculty, administration, students, trustees and staff.

Guns on campus in the hands of anyone but trained law enforcement officers is a dumb idea:  so dumb it belies the very educational purpose of the university.  All the major private and independent universities in the state declined to allow guns on campus.  The universities and colleges our taxes pay for had no such sensible choice.

“Campus carry” has been opposed by

  • university administrators as an unwanted responsibility, as dangerous, and as expensive to implement (the legislature did not fund implementation), including arranging for storage, signage, informational materials and information sessions, training of staff and faculty in the parameters of the law and their authority regarding guns in instructional spaces)
  • university police for the expense of implementing and their responsibility in face of added dangers to campus safety
  • parents, all too aware of the potentially volatile mix of guns and alcohol, guns and partying, guns and youthful carelessness
  • women students, already at risk for sexual assault and the unlikelihood that sexual violence will be prosecuted,
  • faculty as a threat to the free and open flow of ideas OR who value their role as teachers, as mentors, as nurturers of ideas and inspirers of risk and exploration. 
  • A dean!  My hero is the dean of architecture at UT, who resigned just before the law took effect, explaining to his colleagues and the university administration:  "I felt that I was going to be responsible for managing a law I didn't believe in."

I have the privilege of teaching at a private university that is gun-free.  It was gun-free before the law.  The many committees and convenings required to let the state know we’re staying gun free showed just how unified the faculty, students, staff, administration and trustees are in keeping it that way.   But being “inside the hedges” as we say at Rice, gives us more responsibility – not less – to oppose this law and speak up on behalf of our colleagues at state universities, community colleges, and medical schools who may not feel as free to speak up.

We may find it difficult as teachers to teach our legislature much when the gun lobby is so powerful and the legislators apparently so insecure.   But if we value our colleges and universities as places for the free flow of ideas and for encouraging our students to take the risks inherent in learning, then we have no choice but to try.