Outside experts, exhausted educators

Schools are deluged with consultants promising to explain Common Core standards, writes Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal, in Ed Week.

Greg, who now teaches in Australia, suggests schools should just say no to outside experts and professional development.

“I’d like to challenge any school to go “consultant free” and “PD free” for 4 years. Imagine that? Just focus on being consistent and positive, providing quality teaching and communication with the community. I’d bet that school would do better than all the rest.”

Educators are trying to learn too much and do too much, writes DeWitt.

In addition to implementing the changes that are being forced upon us . . . some of us are flipping our parent communication and faculty meetings, researching ways to improve our leadership practices, or diving into old data to see what we need to change about our instruction.

At the same time we are doing our own learning . . . we have to engage in trainings and professional development to learn about the changes that are being forced upon us.

It’s exhausting. Greg’s advice — a holiday from consultants and professional development — might enable schools to get more done with less stress, DeWitt concludes.

The bigotry of low (teacher) expectations

Common Core Standards didn’t invent effective teaching, writes Julie Greenberg in  The bigotry of low (teacher) expectations in the National Council on Teacher Quality’s blog. She objects to step 5 in Six Steps to Teacher Development, a joint production of the Gates Foundation and the American Federation of Teachers.

Districts are encouraged to “Align teacher development and evaluation to the Common Core Standards.”

..while most teachers are adept at classroom management skills, teachers have long been taught to fit a lot of material in a short period of time, not to ask high-level questions or to engage students in rigorous discussions.

Greenberg taught secondary math for 13 years without being advised to ask low-level questions and avoid rigorous discussion. Nobody helped her improve her questioning or discussion techniques. Perhaps the new standards will do so, she writes.

But I’m also worried that districts will fall into the same old professional development trap they’re in now, paying some pricey “Common Core” consultants to portray  the need for better questioning and discussion techniques to teachers as breaking news without any follow-through on real improved practice.

Greenberg provides a caricature of teachers attending the typical professional development session. It’s all too close to reality, she writes.
 

Professional development doesn’t pay off

Most professional development is a waste of time and money, writes Rick Hess. “Teachers are routinely subjected to fly-by consulting or enthusiastic workshops, without any sustained focus on particular problems or figuring how to use time, talent, and tools to solve them.”

The total cost — including salaries, substitutes, travel, etc. — could reach $8,000 to $12,000 annually per teacher, reports Knowledge Delivery Systems (KDS).

“Yet hardly any of this actually appears to make teachers better,” writes Hess, citing a 2007 review of the research by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of PD is the fact that even teachers themselves regard it with contempt. Eric Hirsch, director of special projects with The New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, observes, “When you ask teachers what conditions matter most in terms of their future career plans and student learning, professional development has come in last on every survey we’ve done.”

Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class, wryly grouses that professional development is provided in sessions with names like, “Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0.” She explains, “Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to [tell] teachers that rigor is important, suggest[ing] we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls.”

Training programs for administrators “emphasize culture, coaching, and consensus above all else,” writes Hess in his new book, Cage-Busting Leadership. “After all, if one is disinclined to rethink staffing or spending, replace employees, reward excellence, or root out mediocrity, hoping you can train staff to be better at their jobs is really all you’ve got left.”

Lemov: How teachers get better

Doug Lemov’s new book, Practice Perfect,gives teachers (and others) “42 rules for getting better at getting better.” In an Amazon interview, Lemov and co-authors Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi, call for practicing strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. It’s a myth that practice should stop when you achieve competence, they say.

What marks champions is their excellence at something—they may have weaknesses, but their strengths are honed and polished to the level of brilliance. The value of practice begins at mastery!

Practice has a reputation for being dull, but its “fun, exciting, and ideal for adults,” they believe.

“Educrats have long warned of the perils of rote and repetition,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee in an Education Gadfly review. ”But they’re wrong.”

Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, “based on thousands of hours spent observing outstanding teachers in action” argued that “great teaching requires the mastery of seemingly mundane but crucially important knowledge and skills,” Porter-Magee writes.

Practice Perfect‘s 42 rules “are simple, practical, and grounded in common sense, as well as respect for the practice and repetition that we need to help teachers (and students) achieve mastery.”

They also present a damning critique of the multi-billion dollar teacher professional-development industry. By shying away from skill repetition, most PD programs offer the equivalent of art-appreciation courses and then ask teachers to paint masterpieces.

Teachers need to hone their skills with one another — with coaching and feedback—before they try new skills in the classroom.

Professional derangement

Professional development is snake oil, writes Mary Morrison, a Los Angeles teacher, in American Renaissance. Useless in-school training cuts students’ instruction time, but the out-of-school training is even worse, she writes.

They always start with an hour or two of silly “getting-to-know-you” games. One began with a tug-of-war, and then proceeded to a “blind walk,” where one teacher led a blindfolded teacher around, supposedly to build trust. Next, we were matched with someone according to our favorite day of the week and according to the results of a personality test we had taken. We were supposed to cozy up to a “camp fire”—blankets thrown over half a dozen flashlights—and confide our innermost thoughts and feelings to each another. Often a school administrator lurks nearby, noting if anyone lacks enthusiasm for this silliness.

Workshops, training sessions, and professional development are mainly about how to teach the majority of LAUSD students, who are “of color:” non-English speakers who enter school two grade levels below whites and Asians of the same age. Asians are not white but are not exactly “of color” either, since they do well in school.

In these sessions we invariably learn that in order to teach students effectively we must foster “trust.” To do so we must have “compassion, sensitivity and understanding,” and acknowledge our students’ “cultural authenticity.” This is because they will not learn from teachers they see as “hostile to their reality.” Most of the people who run these sessions have never taught a class in their lives but believe me, the LAUSD is deadly serious about this stuff.

Teachers can’t discuss intelligence or racial differences in “behavior, focus or drive,” Morrison writes. If black or Hispanic students score below average, it must be due to “racism, oppression, cultural differences and textbooks.”  White or Asian students who don’t learn must be victims of “poor teaching methods, run-down school buildings, or lazy and uncaring teachers.” Above all, “students are never to blame if they misbehave, fail to study, or can’t understand the curriculum.”

The fads come and go and then come again with a new name.

Professional developments I have been subjected to include: Left-brain/Right-Brain Strategies, Self-Esteem, Relevance, Alternative or Authentic Assessments, Values Clarification, Critical Thinking Skills, Inventive Spelling and Writing, SLCS (small schools within schools), Rubrics, Metacognition, Tapping into Prior Knowledge, Differentiated Instruction, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Learning Centers, and Multi-Sensory Education. And there are many more.

A huge PD bureaucracy makes lots of money selling snake oil, Morrison writes.

Mindfulness or abdication of mind?

Leon Wieseltier’s critique of Google’s “emotional intelligence” curriculum (“The Tao Jones Index,” The New Republic, May 24) is worth reading and rereading. In a few words he nails what’s wrong with the concept of workplace “mindfulness” (as put forth by the Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan) and points to larger problems as well:

“Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment” is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics. The serenity that Meng teaches is a go-along, get-along quietism, an organizational submissiveness—a technique designed to strip the individual of any internal obstacle to the ungrumbling execution of his tasks. … Meng and his authorities—“happiness strategists,” “leadership scholars”–insist upon the “non-judgmental” character of the mindful ideal. This is one of the great American mistakes. Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge—but there is no circumstance or context in which the absence of judgment is not a judgment, specifically one of accommodation and acquiescence.”

In other words, mindfulness of this sort amounts to abdication of mind. Read the whole piece.

I see this play out in school curricula and policy: ”Instead of teaching people how to judge, we teach them not to judge.” We give judging a bad name, equating it with knee-jerk reaction. At its best, judgment is anything but knee-jerk. In fact, if we do not know how to exercise judgment well, we are all the more susceptible to impulsive reactions, both our own and other people’s.

I have attended PDs where everyone was supposed to create quick “art,” put it up on the wall, and then take a “gallery walk” around the room, writing ”nonjudgmental, observational” comments on Post-its and placing them upon the rushed piece in question. Nonjudgment of this sort should have its own circle or pouch in the Inferno. My guess is that Dante would have included it in Malebolge, the Eighth Circle, which has ten pouches for ordinary fraud.

Update: A number of commenters below seem to have taken Wieseltier’s article (and  my post) as an attack on mindfulness itself. As I see it, Wieseltier is criticizing a particular sort of workplace spiritual doctrine and its attendant jargon.

Are teachers ready for new standards?

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach Common Core Standards, advocates fear. “I predict the common-core standards will fail, unless we can do massive professional development for teachers,” Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor emeritus of mathematics at Berkeley, tells Ed Week.
In Springdale, Arkansas, kindergartners still read fairy tales, but now they also learn about those stories’ countries of origin.

Their teachers have scrambled to find nonfiction texts that introduce students to the scientific method. They’ve discarded some of their old teaching practices, like focusing on the calendar to build initial numeracy skills.

The Durand, Mich., district is another early adopter. Gretchen Highfield, a 3rd grade teacher, has knit together core aspects of the standards—less rote learning, more vocabulary-building—to create an experience that continually builds pupils’ knowledge. A story on pigs becomes an opportunity, later in the day, to introduce the vocabulary word “corral,” which becomes an opportunity, still later in the day, for students to work on a math problem involving four corrals of five pigs.

Ed Week has more on the challenges of implementing the new standards.

In a USA Today story, American Federation of Teachers’ chief Randi Weingarten worries that teachers won’t get the training they need to teach the new standards well.

New standards require new ways to train teachers

Teachers aren’t prepared to teach the new Common Core Standards, writes Stephanie Hirsch of Leaning Forward in Ed Week.

Because the common core focuses on the application of knowledge in authentic situations, teachers will need to employ instructional strategies that integrate critical and creative thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, research and inquiry, and presentation and demonstration skills. They will need subject-area expertise well beyond basic content knowledge and pedagogy to create dynamic, engaging, high-level learning experiences for students. They will need greater data literacy as we shift from current accountability systems to more granular ways of assessing student learning. And, their leaders will need to champion professional learning in their buildings and back the teachers who coach and support each other.

The traditional “spray and pray” method of professional development doesn’t work, Hirsch writes. What would?

Why not let teachers teach teachers?, asks Nancy Flanagan of Teacher in a Strange Land. “Professional Development assumes that someone knows better than a teacher” what teachers need to know.

. . .  teachers aren’t considered true professionals–and policy is leading us further away from a professional work model. We’re still talking about “training” teachers, rather than drawing on their wisdom.

Finally–probably the most significant reason–professional development is an education market. What would happen if teacher development happened internally, entirely site-based and tailored to particular schools and populations? It would require demonstrated, deep teacher expertise in instruction and curricular issues. Which could shift the balance of power. And it would cost very little.

The GE Foundation is giving $18 million to Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit which is working with teachers to develop an online library of resources for teaching the new standards at achievethecore.org.

Movin’ and improvin’

Teacher-effectiveness data should be used to help teachers improve, not just to fire incompetents, argues Movin’ It and Improvin’ It! by Craig Jerald, an education policy consultant, on the the Center for American Progress site.

. . . districts are missing an opportunity to … help leverage their highest performers and help teachers with strong potential grow into solid contributors.

The  “movin’ it” strategy uses “selective recruitment, retention, and ‘deselection’ to attract and keep teachers with higher effectiveness while removing teachers with lower effectiveness.

In contrast, “improvin’ it” policies treat teachers’ effectiveness as a mutable trait that can be improved with time. When reformers talk about providing all teachers with useful feedback following classroom observations or using the results of evaluation to individualize professional development for teachers, they are referring to “improvin’ it” strategies. If enough teachers improved their effectiveness, then the accumulated gains would boost the average effectiveness in the workforce.

Smart districts will do both, Jerald argues.

Professional development rarely improves teaching effectiveness and student learning, research shows. “The nation’s school systems spend billions of dollars annually on wasteful and ineffective professional development,” Jerald writes. Yet some forms of training have shown “substantial improvements in teaching and learning” in the last two years.

Study: Teacher training rarely helps

Improving teachers’ effectiveness is the “paramount challenge” facing our schools, writes Robert Pianta in Teaching Children Well, a report for the Center for American Progress. But most professional development has little or no impact. Districts waste thousands of dollars per teach each year on one-day, one-time workshops that teach “awareness” rather than specific skills, Pianta writes. Trainers promote “models that have little basis in what is known about effective instruction, curriculum, or classroom interactions.”

The report looks at “new evidence-supported approaches to professional development that have promise for closing not only the evidence gap, but the achievement gap as well.”

MyTeachingPartner, or MTP . . . uses a standardized method of online, individualized coaching and a library of highly focused video clips showing effective teachers in action that are tightly coupled with a standardized metric for observing teacher practice in the classroom, called the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, or CLASS.

CLASS and MTP . . .  include models for observing teachers’ instruction in mathematics lessons that are useful in modeling feedback about instruction in the upper grades. There are now professional-development tools that show promise for improving instruction and children’s math skills in preschool.

In early literacy, there are now videos to provide teachers feedback with demonstrable gains for students’ skills as well as statewide models that connect individualized feedback, coursework, and assessment of students’ school-readiness skills in a program of teacher professional development.

In addition, John Tyler’s paper on Designing High-Quality Evaluation Systems for High School Teachers also was released.