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.

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