Monday, April 15, 2013

The Hard Sell

Imagine two schools:

School #1 has an air-tight system of accountability for students and spends an enormous amount of time and energy ensuring that kids, on the most basic level, follow all teacher directions, complete their homework, and re-do this work when it does not meet the standard.

School #2 invests the same amount of time as School #1, but instead uses this time to develop teachers' ability to plan stronger lessons, manage their classrooms using teacher 'moves', look at and respond to data, and infuse character education into their lessons.

To which school would you rather send your kids?
At which school would you rather teach?

And yes, I will go ahead and acknowledge that this is a bit of a false choice, and that the "so what?" argument applies to both schools - if you plan a great lesson and nobody pays attention, so what? And if everybody pays attention but nothing worthwhile is planned, so what? I encourage you to put these misgivings aside and indulge me a bit here...

For a long time, I thought I would want to send my kids to School #2, and I was certain that School #2 was a better place to work. I had seen a lot of School #1s make the transition to School #2s, and had even participated in a transition a lot like it at KIPP Fresno. I assumed this to be the enlightened path - it only natural to want to go beyond compliance and really dive head-first into better teaching. Besides, I attended some pretty great schools as a kid, and they were all like School #2.

There were a few defining moments that helped change my mind:

1. In 2010, we started KIPP Impact without a well-defined discipline system, and realized within the first week that this would inevitably lead to much less learning, less safety in the building, and, in the end, nothing but frustration and resignation as we watched kids make decisions that were not in their own best interests or in the best interests of those around them.

2. Also in 2010, I began working with a lot of Teach For America corps members who, despite their drive and passion, essentially had no learning going on in their classrooms because they were told to simply plan great lessons. They had not been taught to manage their classrooms, and their kids were suffering as a result.

3. In 2011, my daughter Barbara started kindergarten. I was largely absent from her life during this year and could not read to her and, at the end of her kindergarten year, she was far behind where she could have been in her reading. When I visited the school, many kids, including Barbara, were off task, and very little effort was made to get them back on task.

4. At this point, I've seen time and again the effect of basing a discipline system exclusively on teacher-student relationships, and it appears to be a key point of vulnerability in the design of many schools. One year of high teacher turnover and the school is set back significantly.

So here's where I stand right now:

School #2 can work when the school is staffed by veteran teachers who truly know their craft and have been teaching effectively for 10+ years. Let me add a condition here: This school should have no more than one less-experienced teacher joining the faculty in any given year.

However, any time there are less-experienced teachers involved, I am putting my money on School #1. Because here's the thing: School #3 has an airtight discipline system and puts time and energy into planning great lessons and teaching character and responding to student data. And the only path to School #3 is to start with School #1 (a strong accountability system) and then reap the rewards of time not spent dealing with discipline or making up for class time lost because of misbehavior or inattention.

But WHY?

Premise #1: Let's begin with the premise that kids, much like adults, don't always act in their own long-term self-interest. Then let's remind ourselves that it is our job to act in students' best long-term interest, even when they don't.

Premise #2: Kids learn more by doing than they do by staring out the window, messing with the other kids around them, sleeping, or pretending to work. Yes, they would probably almost always learn more from hands-on activities than worksheets, provided they are actually doing those hands-on activities, and not simply building towers using fraction strips. But worksheets with teacher feedback and opportunities to learn from mistakes are better than window-staring, right?

Premise #3: Though we don't always make rational decisions in the long run, we are remarkably consistent at making rational decisions in the short term (see Freakonomics.)

So the key, then, is to provide short-term rationale that help students lean towards what is actually in their best interest in the long run. If you don't do your homework, you will have to stay in from recess tomorrow. Though it may be more fun to mess around in class than to do your work, you really don't want the teacher to call home about your choices. The social capital you stand to gain from talking back to your teacher is not worth staying after school all week. And making the positive version of all of these choices, as it turns out, helps you and all the kids around you in the long run...even if that's not why you're making these choices.

Underlying all of this is Mike Goldstein's idea of the "misbehavior tax" (which he refers to here), which undercuts learning more than just about anything else in the classroom. This is not behavior for behavior's sake; it's behavior for the sake of work for the sake of learning.

Added benefits of the hard sell

I've met a lot of teachers who want their classroom to be an egalitarian haven, where kids and teachers make every decision together, nobody has power over another, and positivity and kindness are the teacher's only tools to combat the negative effects of society. Ironically, these teachers' classrooms tend to be the places where kids are most cruel to each other, and where the teacher's own misgivings about being an authority figure have actually led to significantly less learning (and thus far less empowerment of students down the road.)

But the real world doesn't work like this. Even the children in your classroom who grow to become entrepreneurs will likely work for somebody else along the way and, even when they're independent, they'll still have to follow laws and pay taxes and, ideally, treat others with respect. Instead of teaching our kids to navigate a fantasy world in which nobody is in charge, let's teach them to deal with rules - even rules they may not like - and to work within those rules. (Note: This is not the same as 'the world is unfair, so let's be unfair', nor is it the same as 'you'll have homework in high school, so you need homework now'. This is more along the lines of, 'Show me a successful person, and I'll show you someone who grew up with rules.')

Where can this go wrong?

If the school has a poorly defined curriculum, then a strong accountability system is only as good as individual teachers' ability to create, find, or modify great lessons. To all you new school leaders out there: Pick a curriculum from the beginning and go with it - I recommend something well-defined that makes sense to you.

If individual teachers are in charge of every part of this, i.e. if there is no administrative support structure, teachers will have no time to plan lessons, grade papers and give feedback, or sleep. The leadership of the school needs to take on the majority of the burden here.

If the school focuses on an air-tight accountability system but does not have a strong structure for supporting teachers with lesson planning and teaching, this could easily turn into the "everybody's working, but on nothing" scenario. Nine hours a day of intensely focused handwriting practice is probably not going to help kids get ahead in the world.

If the school never helps kids evaluate the choices they're making, so that they can make connections on their own between short-term desires and long-term rewards, the kids could have an adverse reaction to a lack of structure down the road, much like kids whose parents forbid drinking alcohol then go to college and indulge in binge drinking. Note what happens when we extend this metaphor: In many classrooms, teachers are trying to fight binge drinking in college by letting ten-year-olds drink as much as they want.

No comments:

Post a Comment