Please Pass the Crazy Salad!

Yeats said,  “fine women eat / Crazy salad with their meat / Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” He was mistaken: “In the field of education / Crazy salad is the ration.” Teachers, their handlers, and their reporters can’t get enough of it, and they manage a creditable job of undoing the Horn of Plenty too, if it ever worked in education.

It doesn’t seem to be working now, to judge by a New York Times headline that “Middle-Class Pay Elusive for Teachers, Report Says.” I like that “elusive.” What the headline means is that many American teachers spend years near poverty, particularly in expensive cities, waiting for the salary scale to move them slowly into the lower reaches of the middle class. In return for this reward they hold a job so difficult to manage well that they can only smile knowingly when they read that Garret Keizer, an excellent teacher who returned to the profession after a fourteen-year hiatus[1], started having nightmares as Day One approached.

In response, some people, fresh from a crazy salad binge, are proposing that as an alternative, teachers be allowed to reach the top of the pay scale after six or nine years of being rated “highly effective”.  Teachers who want to sup at this mess  had better get out their long spoons. Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford reports that of teachers whose “Value”-“Added” ratings placed them at the top, only 20% maintained those ratings the following year. That kind of volatility makes an excellent rating nothing but a craps shoot. The odds of making the shot nine years in a row are not much better than the odds of rolling nine sevens in a row at the craps table.

Darling-Hammond notes VAMs are volatile enough that 40 – 55% of teachers rated at one level one year were rated at a “significantly different” level the following year. If VAMs actually measured anything, which they don’t, it would mean that teachers suffered from an intellectual-professional bipolar disorder: excellent one year and mediocre the next, which they aren’t. (Maybe VAM should stand for “Volatile Arbitrary ‘Measurement.'”)

Something doesn’t add up, and not just the salary. Why are people advocating compressed salary scales attached to volatile rating systems? I think something sly may be going on—like the tout at the carnival midway trying to get people to pitch balls at bottles that are impossible to knock down. All the teachers have to do is accept this new way of determining pay. Go ahead: try your luck!

[1] His book about this experience, Getting Schooled, is well worth reading, and I will be saying more about it in future postings.


Holiday Wishes

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have turned off their gadgets before they went to bed.

May they greet you when they encounter you.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they bless, not curse you.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May the sparks that light up their studies be sparks of interest, not Spark Notes.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them and see you as an ally.

May your classroom be a live one.

May you be the master, not the slave, of your classroom’s gadgets.

May your school’s and classroom’s routines serve not thwart your needs and your students’.

May your classroom’s main source of light be sunshine.

May its main source of sound be live voices.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless, and may you find no water balloons there.

May the only value-added in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educators not businessmen.

May they and all officials keep education from becoming preparation for standardized tests.

May they never think of education as a product.

May they share your dislike of baloney and pink slime, whether in the cafeteria, the classroom, or the office.

May they back you up not cut you down.

May your school’s mission be expressible in under ten words, all of them simple and direct.

May nothing in your building leak except hot air from pompous persons.

May all your school’s networks work.

May you possess or achieve the serenity to accept the human condition and the keenness to relish the good things you have; and may your administrators share this goal.


Teaching, Learning, and the Educational-Industrial Complex

Teachers have their defining moments too, and one such came to me this week—a week unusually rich in professional development opportunities (i.e., I had to go to two workshops). During the week I had been reflecting on the lessons presented in Monday’s workshop on how to teach in order to build students’ ‘skills’. The presenter’s argument, which echoes a view that underpins the Paideia Proposal of forty years ago, is that an over-emphasis on teaching knowledge is wasteful and fruitless. The timeless insights are the timeliest of all, and I found myself wishing that the presenter had recognized a couple of other Paideia insights too.

Of course it is important for a good teacher to encourage the self-regulated learning that our presenter advocated—or it should be. Of course all good teachers should encourage the development of skills that are universal, essential, persistent, and unchanging in nature: time management, listening, note taking, concentration, and group work or team work. But it is also important for the teacher to act directly as a mentor or coach, adapting instruction to the needs of particular students in particular subjects. There is no universal, essential, persistent and unchanging way to tell Student X productively that his essay is a bit heavy on its feet, or Student Y that hers is too flippant. Nor can this advice be imparted by software, or the faults it remedies be detected by software. It is a matter of what Professor Barzun called “perpetual discretion,” a virtue with no proxy value.

And it is vitally important to do something else that our presenter almost entirely overlooked. At one point in his presentation he said that students must “use reflection to find out … the gaps in their understanding,” like telling them to lift themselves up on a teeter-totter. Another way to put it would be, echoing a former Cabinet secretary, to encourage them to learn the things they don’t know they don’t know.

For both these deficiencies only one agent can supply what is needed, and that is a real live teacher. The reason is that only a real live teacher can provide what Amherst College calls “close colloquy” and what Scott Newstok calls “close learning”. Many people, including our presenter, are convinced that cognitive and affective “skills” belong to two “domains,” when cognition and affect are actually—to use this word in an old-fashioned sense—a condominium of intellect in which the things we know must be “proved upon our pulses.” Real live teachers are at home in this condominium.

Leading students to fill in the gaps in their understanding by subjecting them to Socratic questioning; setting up live possibilities for feelings to engage intellect; giving skilled advice—all these powers are available to the real live teacher, and are not generally available to machines or electronic networks.

During the week’s second professional development opportunity I got to see three real live teachers discuss (with video clips) how they do these things in “flipped classrooms”. Their thesis was that, handled right, “flipping” allows teachers to cut away from live delivery of didactic instruction in order to make more room for coaching (skill) and questioning (understanding). Two of them showed how they handle this job at a school on Hong Kong Island that is famous for the quality of the education its students receive. The third showed her (and her assistants’) work in a very large class at a primary school on the Chinese mainland. The audience was deeply impressed.

We were not nearly so impressed by the speech of a locally well-known professor of education. I became suspicious before he even started when I saw the first slide in his PowerPoint show: one of those “evolution drawings” showing an evolutionary parade of an amphibian, a knuckle-dragging ape, a cave man, and a modern man. This one continued the parade with a man reading a book, a man using a computer, and five or six red dots in a network on a stylized map superimposed on a jet plane.

The speech delivered on the weak promise of the “evolution drawing”. His mission was to show that flipping was nothing but a stalking horse for online education, and proprietary online education at that. His model was an actual profit-making online “university” that he said would deliver an education as good as the best in the US for a sixth of the price—a kind of Amherst On Line, if you will. I will not hold my breath waiting for Amherst to be left high and dry.

For the problem, as readers of these postings will know, is that that “vision” is rubbish. And, hallelujah, one of the other presenters said so. During her remarks on flipping she politely but directly and firmly rebuked the professor and explained why real live teachers are needed and electronics for profit will not work. The defining moment I spoke of earlier was this one: when I saw on stage the clash of two opposing visions of where education may go—one of them powerful and effective, and the other corrupt and ineffective.

More teachers must do as our colleague did, and identify bad teaching and bad educational leadership for the threats they are. Who knows that the larger public and reporters on education won’t start listening? The alternative will be an electronic landscape of miserable Mudvilles where education has struck out.


Omnium Gatherum

Entries from the Didact’s Dictionary, compiled from past postings:

branding irony: a description or name chosen for its public relations value; the opposite of what is actually the case with the thing named, as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Value Added Learning

Baby Einstein®: The name of a series of MOOCs for babies by the Walt Disney Company, a corporation with a profitable line of products that simulate education. Disney is in the vanguard of such companies, having admitted that its product does not work as advertised.

balonist (bə-lōn΄-ist) n.: one who offers or requires baloney. Not to be confused with a balloonist, whose hot air is confined to his balloon. Cf. “Baloney Bingo”. Richard van de Lagemaat offers a workshop in “Baloney Detection across the Curriculum,” but not at schools of education or departments of education (qq. v.).

brand n.: 1. a proprietary mark burned into the hides of animals to identify their herds and to distinguish them from members of other herds. 2. a proprietary name given to a product to distinguish it artificially from other products. v.  (non-standard): to use the services of a balonist, often called a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), to promote falsehood. Sometimes applied to schools’ efforts to position (q.v.) themselves.

bumfalo, n. [from British bumf, short for bum-fodder: useless administrative paperwork]: a factual monster endemic to educationist ecologies. Its usual habitat is administrative offices and five-star hotels, but never classrooms. Its chief prey is teachers, whom it attacks by force-feeding them data and paperwork until they perish from explosion or inanition (e.g., sightings are attested of bumfalos requiring teachers to spend twelve hours on a single lesson plan and then rejecting it). It sometimes paralyzes its prey before killing it by displaying PowerPoint presentations and pie charts[1]. Like the parrot and mockingbird it has a variety of calls: “robust”, “alignment”, and “hard data” among others are attested. The US government is in the process of granting it ‘protected species’ status even though the government has not yet declared the teacher an ‘endangered species’.

cutting edge n. [used with “on the”] or adj. [with hyphen] Applied to an educational movement, technology or technique whose uselessness, waste, or harm has not yet been proven by experience in classrooms. Examples from the past: open classrooms, new math, whole language, and mobile computer labs. Example from the present: value-added metrics.

Edspeak n. The skein of bad language tangled around the field of education, sometimes praised by its users as “professional.” Its characteristic vices are vagueness, feigned objectivity, love of cliché, baloney, regressive sentimentality, euphemism, faddism, and scientism—sometimes all in one sentence.

education for the 22nd Century: Baloney of the future.

Education, Department of n. The name of a fiction.

education, school of n. 1. any of a number of imaginary institutions that impart sound principles and practices of teaching to their students with a minimum of baloney. 2. any of a number of real institutions that do not.

era (n): 1. a brief period of time. a. in education, the time between the introduction of a great new reform like value-added learning and the point when it is cast off as unworkable. 2. (obsolete) any long period of time seen in light of a unifying factor

essay [Fr. essai, try] n. [archaic] A composition in which the author tries to present or discuss a point with economy, skill, intelligence, rhetorical art, and respect for the reader.  Some schools have replaced it with the I-search paper and FAQs (qq.v.).

eternity (n.): in a school’s faculty room, the period before everything works as well and looks as nice as it does in the administrative offices.

failure (n): [obsolete in education] a key to success. ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control … you get … through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.’—Dominic Randolph, Headmaster, Riverdale Country School, New York. ‘Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential’—J. K. Rowling in her commencement address at Harvard.

FAQs n. A composition in which all the reader’s needs are anticipated except those that are ignored.

Gloucester, Duke of n. A British aristocrat who described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to its author as “another damned, thick, square book.” His type was to have been made obsolete by the ideals of his contemporary Thomas Jefferson and by public institutions of learning like the University of Virginia, which he (Jefferson, not Gloucester) founded.

I-search paper n. [a nonce word that has outlasted the nonce] A kind of non-fictional composition that makes a virtue of absorption in one’s own world, just what high-school students need.

index n. [archaic] The search engine of a book.

mission n.: a statement, not necessarily accurate or intelligible, by a school of its reason for existing, usually to impart vaguely described super powers to its graduates. Example: “Our graduates will demonstrate appropriate critical thinking behaviors in a global context for a variety of self-actualizing purposes in keeping with the aims of personal fulfillment and good world citizenship.” Often considered important in branding and positioning (qq.v.).

multitasking n. [non-standard] claiming to divide the attention into an undiminished quotient, as 3 ÷ 3 = 3.

peer editing n. a kind of editorial homeopathy.

position: n. (used with “assume the”): a stance often adopted by a teacher in the ordinary course of work. v. (non-standard) to practice verbal shape-shifting in order to make one’s product more attractive in a market.

profit (n): a tangible or intangible gain. non-profit education: teaching for the benefit of students. for-profit education: the simulation of teaching for the benefit of investors.

standard (stănd΄-ərd) n.: 1. something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality. 2. (Edspeak) a claim made by a balonist of what the graduate of a school or university will be able to do, but what the graduate will not actually be able to do.

[1] “The only thing worse than a pie chart is more than one pie chart.”—Edward R. Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.