Sunday, August 13, 2006

"Field-tested methods" a panacea for urban teachers?

In The Washington Post last Sunday (August 6, 2006), columnist Jay Mathews took ed schools to task for failing to teach the “practical, if unorthodox, teaching methods [that] have helped produce some of the largest achievement gains in the country.” Mathews – the author who first shone the spotlight on LA Calculus teacher Jaime Escalante – had several outstanding public and charter school educators in his focus: Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year, who makes regular visits to his students' homes in Southeast Washington; Rafe Esquith, the Disney national teacher of the year who developed a system for his low-income Los Angeles fifth-graders that pays them virtual dollars based on their work; and Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, award-winning creators of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) for low-income fifth- through eighth-graders, a program that requires students to call their teachers' cell phones after school if they have questions about homework.

Mathews reports that Kamras, Esquith, Levin and Feinberg say that their ed schools taught “only theory” leaving them to “develop their most powerful methods through trial and error or watching other teachers.” And he says that an informal survey of ed school faculty found few who do or want to teach these practical strategies. So Mathews asks why not? Why can’t university programs pass on more practical, field-tested ideas to help kids in our lowest performing neighborhoods? The assumption here is that knowing about discrete practical strategies (how many? which ones?) is the key to pedagogical success. Is that assumption accurate?

Mathews sounds a lot like Mike Petrilli, VP of the “education gadfly” Thomas Fordham Foundation who claims that we need to arm teacher candidates with the practical skills that will enable them to close the achievement gap. [TFF is an educational voice with roots in the DoE of the Reagan and Bush II administrations]. Petrilli and other Fordham folks are fans of KIPP too.

Here’s what Petrilli had to say about Mathews’ views in the most recent issue of The Education Gadfly:
But here's the real question: why do teacher candidates have to read the Washington Post Magazine to find these common sense ideas, instead of encountering them in ed school? . . . [in response to an unnamed ed school professor who suggests that unannounced visits to parents may imply some disrespect:] And, Mr. Ed School Professor, how exactly do you know that families don't want their child's teacher coming to their home to talk about their precious? Maybe the AERA should do a study. In the meantime, future teachers of America: we recommend skipping ed school and just reading Mathews.
[Petrilli is likely referring to the AERA publication Studying Teacher Education, lambasted in a Fordham Foundation publication by Kate Walsh, President of the National Council on Teacher Quality. NCTQ is a non-profit with Fordham principal Chester Finn on its Board.]

OK, I’ve established two things. One is that Mathews, Petrilli, Finn and Walsh are talking to each other about issues relating to the teaching profession – not necessarily a bad thing since they are all smart people. The second is that this crowd is not high on ed schools, sometimes resorting to glib sarcasm to make their disdain clear.

But sarcasm or no, maybe they are right. Maybe avoiding ed schools is the path to effective teaching (though I’m not sure that particular generalization meets the NCLB standard for “scientifically-based research” ). I don’t have the data at hand to argue that one right now, but I do want to ask some questions about the understanding of teaching – of teachers’ knowledge and teachers’ thinking into action – that drives their observations about practical, field-tested strategies.

Note that both Matthews and Petrilli suggest that educators have a moral responsibility to use methods that work. As No Child Left Behind puts it “a single-minded focus on results” is “nothing less than a renewed moral commitment to our children.” And while I might haggle with them a bit over what we mean by “a single-minded focus on results,” I agree that a teacher’s commitment to (and self-perceived responsibility for) students’ growth and development is probably the single most important disposition (to use NCATE’s terminology) needed to enable student learning.

Note too that both Mathews and Petrilli are talking about teachers in urban settings, in the settings where the task of educating children is often most challenging, most complex, and too often, least supported. And they are rightly spotlighting educators who have been successful in these challenging settings.

So why don’t I just applaud and be done with it?

Well, I think they are missing something important about teaching as a practice -- and that is quite simply that it is a practice in much the same way that law and medicine are practices. That is, the practitioner must take considered, responsive and responsible action in specifiable context and in light of accepted standards of practice. However, determining the responsible action involves more than copying the actions of others.

In lots of cases, it is fairly easy to determine what a fitting response is – and standards of practice suggest actions to take as first steps. A physician diagnoses a child with an ear infection and prescribes antibiotics. An attorney assesses the harm done as a result of a fender bender and attempts to negotiate a settlement. A teacher encounters a group of middle class students, provides a rubric for a writing task and assigns it for homework. But as any practitioner knows, there is sometimes more to the situation, and sometimes the original prescription doesn’t solve the problem. The child with the ear infection also has a congenital deformity not visible in physical examination. The accident victim develops a chronic condition because of an undiagnosed internal injury. Homework undone alerts the teacher to the possibility of learning disabilities or a lack of support at home. New responses are required; new considerations must be reviewed; other actions are taken. In every case, a practitioner must be aware of the possible, defensible actions taken by other practitioners in similar cases – in order to determine possible courses of action and to weigh the consequences of each before making a decision and taking action.

Urban classrooms typically offer teachers complicated cases, analogous to the kind of medical case that Dr. House solves on TV every Tuesday night (on Fox Network if you don’t already watch it). What appears to be one thing may turn out to be another. A reasonable response based on a considered review of the patient’s or student’s situation can actually turn out to exacerbate a condition or hide the real cause of difficulty. The challenges keep on coming. If we are intelligent, persistent and committed, we find the key to unlocking the student’s abilities – or, in House’s case, saving the patient’s life before the hour is up. (In the case of some urban students, the analogy with “saving a life” may not be overstated).

In recommending that ed schools train teachers using “field-tested methods,” Mathews and Petrilli offer a simplistic solution to a complicated challenge. Yes, all teachers should know about the steps taken by Kamras, Esquith, Levin and Feinberg, not because they “invented” them and they are the only possible fitting action, but because they are “inventive,” that is, because they address the specific circumstances in which these gifted educators are working. The cases of Kamras, Esquith, Levin and Feinberg are analogous to “case law” or write-ups of specific cases in medical journals. Of course, I want to know about them. Maybe I will do exactly what they do. But if I do, it will not be because they did it, but because it’s the fitting response for my students.

Consider Kamras’ visits to his students’ homes. Parental support is critical to children’s school success. For my money, it may be the single most important factor (and a critical factor in explaining the success of charter schools and parochial schools when student achievement is marked). Are unannounced visits to students’ homes the only way to generate parental support when it seems lacking? I think not. One successful urban teacher accomplished the same thing by planning regular after school outings with small groups of her sixth graders (to a ball game and then a simple dinner at Denny’s, for example). These outings meant stopping by to drop the student off – a planned visit under circumstances that were non-threatening to and respectful of families. I don’t know Kamras’ families; I presume he did know them and knew what the appropriate action was. I do know that copying his “field-tested strategy” is not the only possibility. I also know that unannounced visits could be interpreted negatively by some families and a student might be “in trouble” with family members for inviting “the teacher” to visit. There is no substitute for teachers’ judgment, i.e. for their ability to determine and then take responsive, responsible action.

(By the way, these gentlemen did not invent these “methods” by their own admission; there are teachers in my local area who have acted in similar ways over the past twenty years. My students will not necessarily know Kamras and Esquith by name, but they do know about Butzer and Baylor and others who are equally effective. They know about them because we read about them in the local papers, because they see them in their early field experiences, or because they come to campus for “professional conferences.”)

Thus knowing about the inventions are no substitute for the ability to “invent”, that is, to respond to the needs of specific students in specific settings in light of state standards and to take responsibility for students’ learning. This kind of pedagogical responsibility must be built on the work that Kamras, et al. do, but not because we want other teachers to copy them unthinkingly. Rather, future teachers have to understand what motivated Kamras to visit students’ homes uninvited and how Kamras transforms a potentially difficult intrusion into a productive encounter.

And while Kamras’ penchant for home visits is noteworthy, it is not a teaching “method” at all. Were Kamras not also possessed of other forms of pedagogical understanding, homes visits would not have the considerable impact they seem to have for his students.
The “special knowledge of teachers” (what Lee Shulman used to call pedagogical content knowledge) is not a set of discrete strategies or activities. Excellent teachers know their subject matter in ways that enable them to build bridges between what students already know and have experienced with what society demands they understand, to anticipate all the ways students may go wrong in the path of learning, and to represent ideas richly – through metaphor, example, etc.

This means of course that effective teachers must not only know their subject matter but must also know their students well enough to build those bridges and invent those appealing and effective representations. “Method” is not a home visit or an economics game or singing facts to be memorized; method is the way teachers construct productive learning relations between themselves, their students and their subject matter.

The point is not whether teacher candidates should know about the strategies utilized by successful urban educators. Of course they should. The question is how they should encounter these exemplars and what should they do with that knowledge.

And this opens the door to a question I only have space to raise -- the question of who is responsible for what in identifying and developing successful educators. What is the role of the university? Mathews and Petrilli set up a false dichotomy that prevents constructive criticism of our system of teacher education: either the university fully prepares teachers or the university ought to be bypassed completely.

Consider the development of physicians. The development of medical doctors is a partnership of the profession at large, the medical school, the teaching hospital, and the Boards of the various specialties. Medical schools don’t fully prepare doctors. They cannot. They need teaching hospitals where internships and residencies enable doctors-in-training to learn through “trial and error and watching other [doctors].” Medical schools offer background knowledge and some guided practice in diagnosis and prescription. That’s roughly what ed schools do. But no, it’s not enough.

Perhaps the sarcastic attacks on ed schools ought to give way to sensible conversations about what the role of universities – not only ed schools, but also schools of arts and sciences -- ought to be in the overall development of teachers. Such a conversation would require us to ask who else would be the partners in teacher education? Teacher unions, school districts, state departments of education, the profession itself (perhaps, but not necessarily, through the National Board for Professional Teaching.) Where – if at all – would an accreditation agency such as NCATE fit into a framework where the ed school (or the “professional education unit”) collaborated with other important players in this process?

I don’t think that either Mathews or Petrilli believe that teaching is as simple as knowing a few successful strategies and implementing them thoughtlessly. But waving the banner for their favorite ideas while taking pot shots at ed schools may not be the way to educate teachers who are smart enough to realize that unorthodox approaches may be needed, who know for example, that one may need to break the rules of tact (to visit homes unannounced) or turn serious subject matter into a game that isn’t really a game at all or offer a spoonful of sugar to help some medicine go down. That requires the exercise of intelligence by teacher candidates who are responsible and courageous enough to do whatever needs to be done to be sure that students walk away knowledgeable and competent. How we accomplish that is the conversation we need to have.

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