Wednesday, January 22, 2014

This I believe (right now)

What follows is an interview with myself.

Q: This idea of interviewing yourself - it seems pretty vain. You probably think this interview's about you, don't you, don't you?

A: Good one. [High five] Let's get to the questions, shall we?

Q: OK, but one more meta-question first: Do you have any reservations about putting all of your thoughts and beliefs out there?

A: Yes. I've been wrong before, and there's a part of me that doesn't like being publicly wrong. There's a part of me that is scared I'm really ignorant in some area and will let that ignorance shine here. There's a part of me that is worried I will say something stupid that will make other people feel demeaned, and their lives and mine will be worse as a result. But I'd like to follow Rule #10 from a piece by Daniel José Older and remind myself that "the fact [I] will mess it up is not a reason not to do it."

Q: Got it. Next question: In what way do you admire Diane Ravitch*?

A: Whoa! That's pretty specific for an opening question, but I'll bite. Diane Ravitch has very publicly changed her mind about some pretty important issues, which is a difficult thing to do. She pioneered a lot of work that led to increased school choice and test-based accountability, then several years later stated that she now disagreed with most of the work that she had done. In order to come to this conclusion, she must have spent a lot of time examining the impact of her ideas and listening to people who disagreed with her...and when I say listening, I mean the kind of listening we don't see a lot of right now in education. There are lot of people trying to convince the world they're right, arguing their 'side',and working to break down the opposition with logic, charts, historical data, international comparisons, ad hominem attacks - basically anything that will advance their agenda and help them win a small battle in the long war to win over the public. 

Q: But Diane Ravitch has said some really terrible things lately, such as blaming school shootings on high-stakes testing and charter schools, and basically shouting her privilege through hyperbolic comparisons between slavery/child abuse and having students take tests for four days/other things that are not slavery or child abuse.

A: Exactly. I should mention that the way Ravitch currently engages in debate (or doesn't) is actually much more like the norm mentioned above, and much less like the open process that led her to change her mind. That's a shame - it's offensive, it weakens her argument, and it is demeaning towards those who have experienced (and currently experience) any form of slavery or actual child abuse. So I want to be clear that I'll limit my desire to emulate her to the realm of publicly changing one's mind and hope that she stops her ludicrous assault on reason and conscience.

Q: You mentioned wanting to be OK with changing your mind. Why don't you tell us what you currently believe, so it can become more apparent if you later change your mind...

A: Great; at the risk of changing my mind about any of this (which I'd be fine with; I trust myself to make reasonable decisions as I go about life, and that I'll definitely listen to more people, experience more things, read a lot, and continue to try to get better at my job, and that all of these put together will definitely cause me to change my mind on some of what's below), here's what I currently believe about education. I'm not going to name all my assumptions; you can probably tell what they are based on the below - or feel free to ask me and I'll happily share. 

Most education debates themselves aren't really worthwhile at this point because nobody seems to be listening. When people try to sound as if they've been listening, they often say things like, "we actually believe most of the same things," which only ends up being another tactic to try to convince the other side of the debate that my side was right all along. Even the concept of "different sides" is a strange one - it's as if one side really wants what's best for kids and the other wants, I don't know, fabulous wealth for themselves? No; every reasonable person in these debates wants what is best for kids; they just have different ideas about what this entails, or what aspects of kids' lives matter most, or how to get there, or - ok; there is a lot of room for disagreement. With that said...

Most people in education actually believe most of the same things. Preparing for a low-rigor test is a horrible way for kids to have to spend their time. Asking teachers to put any test first, rather than letting the test results be a byproduct of learning, leads to less learning (and, incidentally, poor test results.) Kids are super important. Teachers should be treated well and schools should be well-funded. Everybody should have access to great schools. Nobody in this debate is going to pop up and say, "well, actually, I'm not sure all kids should have access to great schools..." because nobody that I can think of believes that, and even if they did, they probably wouldn't say it out loud anyway. What some people do say is that poverty is such a monster that any work that schools do is just a drop in the bucket, going on to argue that a much more sizeable portion of our efforts should go toward eliminating poverty. I agree, though as a teacher and teacher coach - outside of voting and advocacy work - I'm not sure how this belief translates to how I should better do my job. I've also seen plenty of teachers who underestimate their kids' intellects based on out-of-school factors, so I'm generally wary of mixing the "how can we help this kid learn as much as possible?" conversation with the "this kid has gotten a really raw deal" conversation

Q: Wait, back up a bit. So no tests then?

A: I didn't say that. This is where I probably disagree most with some of my readers. I do think a strong, challenging, yearly test aligned to standards is a good way to keep tabs on which kids are falling through the cracks and to highlight which educational practices are leading to the best outcomes for kids. So yes, I support well-developed standardized tests. With enough data, it can tell us where some of the bright spots are (in terms of teachers) and can show which students need more support. I don't expect these tests to be perfect, and I wouldn't treat them as if they were, but at some point we should be concerned with which students are learning more or less than other students and what we can do to improve this, and that relying on millions of teachers' individual notes or anecdotes to determine this is even more flawed and much less efficient. I do think we tend to freak out too much over single-year test scores and should always look at a minimum of two years of data before making any real judgments, but ignoring the data altogether seems like a waste of potentially good information regarding what to do next.

Q: What is the biggest shift in mindset you've had in the past year or so?

A: Curriculum matters a lot. I believe there should be a strong curriculum, based on something like the Core Knowledge sequence (wait-don't leave!) There should be some leeway to account for differences - I mean, there's something really important about knowing one's own history, but everybody knowing everyone else's history isn't something we could really fit into a k-12 curriculum with any real depth. I like the Common Core standards in math - for their focus and coherence, and also for their explicit standards for mathematical practice - but I worry that these practice standards will continue to be treated as second-class standards. I love the ELA standards and hope we can continue to push for reading meaningful texts and basing our analysis on the texts themselves, not on the "choose an interesting assertion, state it convincingly, and have it validated" methods I used throughout high school English classes.

Q: Anything else? Maybe something controversial, to keep your readers on their toes?

A: Here's one: Developing great teachers should be the primary goal of a great school. 

Q: Shouldn't the goal of schools be to help students? 

A: Yes, but focusing on developing teachers seems to lead to more student learning than focusing exclusively (or even primarily) on students - what do you think happens when teachers become stronger? They can more effectively help students. Plus, they're happier (or at least I am; the times I've been learning and growing are the times I've been happiest.) A school that puts student learning first - which I'd guess is what most schools try to do - is using most of its resources (time, money, strongest teachers) to provide extra help to some number of students. In a school that puts teacher development first, resources go to developing teachers, who are then able to better reach a much greater number of students. 

Q: That sounds simplistic, and intentionally provocative.

A: Good catch. That's because I'm being simplistic, and trying to highlight a mindset of mine that has changed over the past couple years (and that is still evolving.) There's a lot more to it than putting more money in the PD budget and less in the tutoring budget, because...

Teacher development is really hard. Teachers lead busy lives and have a lot to do. Besides, helping a teacher to improve takes a lot of effort and skill. Sometimes I think I've done this somewhat effectively, and other times I know I haven't. At Achievement First, I think the teacher development we do is in the "decent" to "good" range - not in the "painfully bad" to "bad" range, which is where I hear most district- and school-based PD is elsewhere, but also not yet in the "great" to "outstanding" range, where teachers all develop really quickly and continue to grow through strong professional development opportunities. I do feel lucky to work at a place where we do this somewhat well, and where I get a lot of help and development; I just don't think we're knocking it out of the park quite yet. For what it's worth, Edward Brooke in Boston and the Success Academies in New York seem to be doing this better than anyone else at the moment. Uncommon Schools also seem to have a bit of a head-start here, though at this point I think we do largely what they do (just maybe not quite as well yet.) I have a pretty limited worldview here, and I'm sure that there are other public or private schools that are also doing great work in this area. If you know of any, let me know in the comments.

I should also mention that a lot of great teacher development is currently happening outside of schools. The Math Twitter Blogosphere (MTBos for short) is filled with great teachers sharing ideas and talking about curriculum and pedagogy. It's where I've learned the most about problem-based learning (which I think is the way forward in math instruction) but, beyond that, where I have learned the most about many of the broader societal issues I've mentioned here.

Outrage over the strictness of "No Excuses" schools is misplaced. Let me start by saying that I've been to a lot of schools that I wouldn't send my kids to. Some of these were "No Excuses" charters and others were (non-charter) district and private schools. My gut reaction was worst in schools where I saw kids treating each other (and teachers) poorly. In some cases (though not many), teachers were treating kids poorly. Mostly, though, teachers were letting kids do whatever they wanted, and kids weren't choosing to be really kind to each other...nor were they choosing to spend their de facto free time learning a lot. So to everybody who writes with outrage that  they would never send their kids to a school where kids are expected to follow directions, I wonder what they would tell the parents of kids who do choose to send their kids to a strict school. They're wrong? They shouldn't want what they want? They're being duped? This all seems really patronizing. Is it that hard to accept that some parents (like myself) actually want a school with consequences for not doing your work? I think my kids are fantastic, and I think the kids at our school are fantastic, and I also think that kids don't always make the best decisions for themselves. For what it's worth, I don't always make the best decisions for myself, either, and usually the natural consequences of my bad decisions remind me that they were, in fact, bad decisions. I'm not OK relying on natural consequences for kids that are several years away. 

Q: It sounds like you're blaming kids for the things that happen to them. This smacks of the worst possible form of respectability politics.

A: Good point. I think there's a place to both acknowledge that current realities work against many of our kids and still help every kid become his/her best self. See this post by a KIPP teacher and fellow graduate of the esteemed Rice University linguistics department for a much better explanation than I could ever give.We walk a fine line between, on one side, putting responsibility on children of color for the structural elements working against them and, on the other side, failing to teach any personal responsibility for fear of reinforcing existing power structures.

Q: But couldn't that be done in another way? Say, talking with kids about the choices they're making instead of simply assigning consequences?

A: What, you think we don't talk to kids, or listen to them? Where are you getting your information?

Q: OK, maybe there's some conversation, too, but Alfie Kohn says that consequences...

A: I'm going to stop you there. At this point, if Alfie Kohn actually believes what he writes (which I doubt), he believes that there should never be consequences for anything in school, many students (presumably children of color) have "no first language", teachers should figure out what to teach after students have arrived for class on the first day, and every individual teacher in America should have absolute freedom regarding what to teach.

Q: Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

A: No, thank you.

Q: Alright, thank you again.

A: No; I will not be out-thanked. Thank you and good-bye.

*Can we admire people for traits out of context? Admire the founding fathers despite their hypocrisy, Ender's Game without acknowledging its author's bigotry, or Comedy Central - despite the latter's inability to produce a new episode of Workaholics or Drunk History for some time now?

I hope we can, because if we can't, every time we look to somebody as a positive example, there is somebody ready to show us how they were wrong about something else, or how they were actually not great to all people. We don't want to take this too far and endorse a person's entire world-view while sweeping horrible character deficiencies under the rug (but Forrest was such a strong leader!) but I hope there's some middle ground where we can still learn from people other than Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Dom Basile, Rigoberta Menchu, and Jesus. 


  1. Happy New Year! I'm happy to see you writing again! I still love hearing about whats on your mind, and I always learn something new which I love. Often these things I learn are immediately applicable in my life, which I love even more. Thank you for letting us have a piece of your mind, even if you change it later.

    Rob, I have a selfish question to ask you, so please don't feel too obligated to answer it: what are your thoughts about after school tutoring programs? How can they be most beneficial for students, and how do/should teachers feel about their kids looking to others for extra learning help?

    Happy Spring Semester!

  2. Happy New Year to you, Alex! Good to hear from you; I hope life is treating you well.

    First of all, after-school programs (tutoring included) are a lot like during-school programs: They vary wildly in structure, flavor, and - most importantly - effectiveness. I've seen some great programs, and some pretty mediocre ones. In terms of how teachers 'should' feel, I don't know...I've always been really happy to have another person helping a student of mine out, provided they're doing a decent job and not under-cutting what I'm trying to teach the kid by a) talking bad about me or how I'm teaching (e.g. "oh, he taught you THAT way? That's really confusing; I don't know why he would teach it like THAT...let me show you a better way.") or b) teaching some sort of 'trick' to skip over conceptual understanding. Point b can happen a lot in math, which is why, as a tutor, I think it's your duty to always err on the side of conceptual understanding (same for the primary teacher, by the way.)

    I think these programs work best when:
    1. The student to teacher ratio is either 1:1 or 2:1,
    2. Tutors get a lot of input about what kids already know, and what they need to know, from either the primary teacher or the students themselves,
    3. Tutors see themselves - and are seen - as teachers. They should have the authority to ask kids to work hard and expect them to do it. Tutors should also, like good teachers, continually strive to improve their craft.
    4. Tutors are clear about how kids learn (i.e. by thinking vs. lots of listening, through lots of practice with feedback, by explaining their thinking and defending their decisions, and so on) - it's worth mentioning here that another thing I strongly believe at the moment is that all teachers need a mental model of how kids learn to avoid simply 'going through the motions' in teaching.
    5. Tutors consistently see the same students, allowing them to build relationships and - more importantly - credibility with kids. Otherwise you're just not going to get as much out of the finite time you have together.
    6. Like teachers, tutors should go into their sessions with a plan. "Um, let's see your homework" generally has something like a 10% chance of getting at the most critical underlying issues, and has a 50% chance of turning into a joint let's-finish-this-homework session, focused on completion rather than learning.

    Does this resonate? At this point, I'm sure you've tutored a lot more than I have! What would you add? Where have you found the most success as a tutor?

  3. Rob, thanks for answering! I'm happy to say that I (and the company I work for) share all 6 of those beliefs, and all of those points resonate a lot, especially 4 and 5. The trust that comes from personal and long-term relationships makes teaching (and learning) so much easier and so much more rewarding and fun.

    Having lesson plans and a sense of curriculum (6) also makes for much easier tutoring sessions though I do believe that one of the benefits to 1:1 or 1:2 ratios is that I can tailor sessions and topics (in style, depth, and length) to individuals. Sometimes that means more practice and sometimes it means an entire hour of concepts and examples, but it definitely depends on the students.

    I feel like my greatest successes rest on relationships. The best (of my) teaching has taken place when students are receptive and this happens mostly after there is a good amount of trust and history.

    One thing I would add is that tutors are there to not just increase ability but also to increase confidence. There is a (half) joke at our center during tutoring for the semester finals: finals tutoring is not really about teaching students anything more, it is about making them feel like they've learned what they have to know. Its a joke - we work hard during finals to prepare our kids (our entire center just worked 3 13 hour days over MLK weekend on top of extended hours the week before and after) - but I think its a valuable reminder. All students preform better when they are feeling confident and capable and frequently the students who come to our center are more in need of a confidence boost than an additional lecture. Tutors should provide both.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to reading more! On the topic of confidence, how do you balance stretching student's comfort levels and making sure they don't shut down or tune out because it gets 'too hard'?

    1. There's no easy answer here, but I think at least a part of the trick is to constantly remind kids that you believe they're capable of more than they might think they're capable of. I'd spend a lot of time pointing out to kid every time they exceeded their previous expectations for themselves, and spend a lot of our initial time together helping you exceed these expectations in small ways. That way, we could build up a bank of "wins" that could help you to tackle harder tasks down the road without automatically believing them impossible.

  4. Hi Rob – Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I so enjoy your thoughtful posts.

    Your comments about the impact of teacher development resonated with me, and I think that it might extend to most fields, but particularly in the caregiving professions. An example from my field is that of infant mental health. It is not about doing therapy with babies, but providing therapeutic support and targeted education to parents to help them rear healthy children. It just extends up the ladder – when I am also receiving education or consultation relevant to my current work, my work improves (and yes, I am happier), and my clients benefit. Supporting the supporter, it seems to me, can only result in better outcomes.

    Keep writing. I love reading what you are thinking. I wonder what you think about the impact of class size. Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting chapter in David and Goliath about “ideal class size” for those of us who don’t spend all of our time thinking about such things.

    Love, Aunt Lila

    1. Hey Aunt Lila!

      Class size depends a lot on the task, so what seems to make the most sense is a flexible structure. I would set the cap at 22 people for all classes (as Florida state law currently dictates) or at 45 for a math class (which is not out of the question for some under-resourced districts), but the best arrangements I've seen have about 30 kids and, for at least part of the time, two or more teachers. That way, when we want a rich, lively discussion, we can engage all 30, but when we want to help a handful with skills the others already have, one teacher can take this group. I think of our music classes in Jacksonville, which were sometimes great with 22 and sometimes required the whole band of 88 to be present.

      I'd also highlight that the most effective class sizes are usually two and one students per teacher but, barring a total restructuring of our federal and state budgets, that's probably not going to become ubiquitous anytime soon.