Diverse by Design: Episode 3 (Never Teach Alone)

Powerful learning is a relational act; it never occurs alone.

Why, then, do we expect our teacher to hone their craft in isolation?

In episode 3 of the six-part series, Diverse by Design, we meet two of Crosstown High’s inaugural class of teachers, and learn why they believe that co-teaching is the only way to go. So be prepared: their perspective may change the way you think about the future of learning — and what it will require.

Diverse by Design: Episode 2 (Project Based Learning)

How active should learning be? How relevant? And what is required of adults if they are serious about expecting that kids will have a different experience — and a different feeling — in that thing we call ‘school’? 

In a new six-part series from 180 Studio, we witness one community’s efforts to answer those questions.

In the city of Memphis, in a formerly abandoned Sears warehouse, a new school, Crosstown High, is aspiring to model something that hasn’t been seen before — a version of school that looks nothing like the schools most of us attended or experienced, and an explicit commitment to weave together a community of young people who embody the full range of Memphis’s social, economic, and ethnic diversity.

This is Diverse by Design.

How can we ensure better teacher quality?

I’m a big fan of the New York Times’ Room for Debate series, in which a central question is asked of five different folks.

Today, the question was about how to ensure and improve teacher quality. And although they didn’t ask me, here’s what I would have said:

The problem — and the solution — has to do with the way teachers are currently trained and prepared for the classroom. Most teacher preparation programs, whether they’re public universities or private organizations, still act as though what matters most is subject expertise and behavioral management skills.  Those things do matter, of course, yet most of the new teachers I know have said they felt unprepared for the actual challenges of the classroom, and for understanding how to meet the myriad needs of her students. As a result, it’s typical to hear stories of young teachers spending late nights reading books or searching for resources online – a result of the sizable disconnect between our theories and their realities.

The amount of turnover most schools endure is also anathema to the establishment of a healthy, sustainable culture. Take the two schools I spent a year observing for my most recent book, Our School. Bancroft Elementary lost an average of 25% of its faculty every year, and Mundo Verde’s inaugural staff was almost entirely made up of first- or second-year teachers. More significantly, by the time Our School was released, only one of the four teachers I wrote about – Mundo Verde’s Berenice Pernalete – was still teaching at the same school. Rebecca Lebowitz is now in Boston, getting her PhD; Molly Howard is there now, too, helping set up the elementary school program for a charter school in the Expeditionary Learning network; and Rebecca Schmidt is now working at a non-profit in D.C. It’s encouraging that all four of these talented women still work in education – and it’s notable that the reason three of them left their previous posts was because each felt it had become impossible to do the job effectively and sustainably. And no wonder, when one considers that teachers today are being asked to customize their instruction for every individual child, and do so with minimal experience or relevant training. “If you are a student in an American classroom today,” writes Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, “the odds that you will be assigned to an inexperienced teacher are higher than they have ever been. In fact, right now there are more first-year teachers in American classrooms than teachers at any other experience level.”

The response to this “capacity gap” is not to stop hiring the young teachers or keep employing the old ones, but to start ensuring that all teachers can diagnose and meet the developmental needs of every child. And the good news is there are already valuable models we can look to as our guides.

Take America’s medical schools. As any M.D. knows, different schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs give short shrift to the two most important things a teacher needs to know: how children learn, and how they develop.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach. But there’s nothing preventing teacher-training programs from adapting the Medical School model – as Yale University’s James Comer has suggested – and establishing a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Developmental Sciences, which would give teachers a foundation in the cognitive, social, emotional, ethical, physical, and linguistic needs of children; and Learning Sciences, which would give teachers a solid foundation in understanding how people learn.

Meanwhile, to better support the millions of teachers who are already in classrooms across the country, we must craft evaluation programs that honor the art and science of teaching. One of the few things all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up, and they continue to act as though the intellectual growth of students (and a narrow definition of it at that) is the preeminent measure of an effective teacher.

We should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any evaluation system should be its capacity to help teachers improve the quality of their professional practice via shared, strategic inquiry into what is and isn’t working for children in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative reports, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And they should assess teachers by their effectiveness to support children across the entire developmental continuum.

There are several illustrative efforts underway. If you’re a policymaker, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County, Maryland, where a program called Peer Assistance Review, or PAR, uses senior teachers to mentor both newcomers and struggling veterans. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (nbpts.org), a teacher-run organization that uses a performance-based, multiple-measure, peer-reviewed process to identify and acknowledge the definitive standards of accomplished teaching and the process by which the profession can certify whether or not a teacher meets those standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than basic-skills test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start immediately.

In Trying to Reduce Class Sizes, Are We Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem?

Are smaller class sizes the key to breathing new life into today’s public schools, or a misguided effort to solve the problems of a dying era?

I am surprised to say I have come to believe it’s the latter.

First, let’s be clear: the arguments for reducing class size are well known, and have a well-established research base. As Leonie Haimson, the founding executive director of the New York-based Class Size Matters, has said: “There is robust research showing that smaller classes lead to fewer disciplinary disruptions as well as higher student achievement and engagement – in fact it is one of the few education reforms that has such robust research behind it and a multitude of proven benefits.” In one notable study from Tennessee, for example, which included 79 elementary schools and the random assignment of nearly 12,000 students, results showed that whereas all children in small classes did better on test scores, the gains for minorities were roughly twice that of white children, dramatically reducing the achievement gap.

Why is it that smaller class sizes lead to everything from higher test scores to lower disciplinary referrals? As Great Schools explains to prospective parents on its website, it’s “because there is a greater opportunity for individual interaction between student and teacher in a small class.” And as a similarly impressive set of research studies have shown, high-quality, high-trust relationships between adults and children are the foundation from which everything else in a healthy school must grow.

Another compelling argument for smaller class sizes comes from analyzing the current state of play in K-12 education. After all, it’s one thing to work in a school or system that prioritizes holistic child development and growth; it’s another to work towards that goal amidst a larger system in which child development is less valued than, say, higher test scores in reading and math. In the former, everything a teacher does or wants to do flows downstream, and is aided by the supportive currents of well-crafted policies. And in the latter, everything a teacher values most can only come from struggling against the current, and finding success through subversive practices.

In such a context, appealing for smaller class sizes is logical and important, and, in the short-term, it makes good sense.

If you take a longer view, however, there’s a subtle underlying assumption of both the research and the advocacy for smaller classes – and it’s one that unintentionally reinforces our fidelity to the Industrial-era model of schooling.

Think of it this way: if a teacher is at the front of the classroom, imparting a lesson to everyone, the only way he can do that in a more personal way is if there are less students in the room. And if a teacher is charged with corralling the individual attention and energy of a roomful of students, his efforts to impose discipline and order will only be aided by having less bodies to manage.

But what if we viewed school with a different set of guiding assumptions? What if, for example, the default mode of instruction didn’t depend on the transmission of knowledge via a single lesson? What if the philosophy of learning was that children should learn from one another as much or more than from any adult? And what if the model of discipline was not based on restricting a child’s movements, but on unleashing them?

In fact, these are the theoretical underpinnings of Maria Montessori, whose theories of child development have informed the creation of more than 22,000 schools around the world – and who, based on a set of assumptions about teaching and learning that diverged sharply from the Industrial-era transmission model, actually preferred larger class sizes, not smaller ones.

In her classic book The Absorbent Mind, Montessori, who was trained as a scientist and whose theories of learning were continually revised and revisited based on her direct observations of children, explained her rationale this way: “When the classes are fairly big, differences of character show themselves more clearly, and wider experience can be gained. With small classes this is less easy.”

The University of Virginia’s Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology who has studied the extent to which Montessori’s century-old theories have been affirmed by 21st-century research, unpacks Montessori’s preference for large class sizes a bit further. “She believed that when there are not enough other children in the classroom, there are not enough different kinds of work out for children to learn sufficiently from watching each other work, nor are there enough personalities with whom children can practice their social interaction skills.”

“In traditional settings” in which class sizes are reduced, Lillard explains, “when one person is teaching the whole class simultaneously, that person would have more attention to devote to each child, and fewer children would conceivably allow for better teaching.” By contrast, “when children are learning from materials and each other, having more varied possible tutors and tutees, a greater variety of people to collaborate with, and more different types of work out (inspiring one to do such work oneself) might be more beneficial.”

In other words, smaller class sizes help increase the likelihood of better relationships, but they do so via a theory of teaching that no longer serves our purposes. Montessori schools (and schools like them) also create ample space for relational bonds to develop, but they do so via a theory of teaching that is aligned with what we now know about how people learn.

What should we expect in either case? A deeper investment in non-cognitive skills like persistence, motivation, and self-esteem; fewer disciplinary referrals; higher graduation rates; and greater levels of engagement and well-being.

The difference is this: whereas both approaches will improve our capacity to do all of the above in the short-term, only one requires us to radically alter the long-held assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So let’s keep pushing for smaller class size – but let’s also start explicitly acknowledging its short-term value, and simultaneously demanding a wholesale revision of how we think about, evaluate, and define adult roles and responsibilities in our nation’s schools.

(This article also appeared in Huffington Post.)

OK, Obama Won. Now What?

It’s official. Barack Hussein Obama has been re-elected.

Now what?

When it comes to public education, let’s start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well-intentioned — and ultimately out of step with a truly transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go. Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the endgoal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge at the same time the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition — and accelerating the need for an essential set of lifeskills and habits.

The definition of leadership I offered in American Schools is the ability to balance a distant vision (“One day . . .”) and an up-close focus (“Every day . . .”). Great organizations, whether they’re schools or Fortune 100 companies, see, nurture, and respond to both mission and vision in everything they do. That’s the tension. That’s the art. And that’s the way to ensure that we’re not just solving the practical problems on our plate; we’re also working towards the aspirational goals that animate our efforts.

In Obama’s first term, we received a series of education policies that addressed the problems on our plate; and we were driven by a mission to perfect our ability to succeed in an Industrial-era system that no longer serves our interests.

What would a healthy tension between vision and mission look like in an ideal second term when it comes to public education? I’d suggest three things:

1. Vision (“One day, every teacher in America will be a special education teacher.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and teacher preparation program will work to deepen its capacity to prepare teachers for the 21st century classroom and its emphasis on greater personalization and customization.”)

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: every child has special needs, and every child deserves an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Here’s something else that’s equally obvious: we are responsible for creating the “short-bus” stigma around special education, and we can change it.

Finland is instructive here. By investing deeply in the capacity of its teachers to diagnose and address the individual needs of children, Finland helped ensure that, in effect, every kid ended up in Special Ed. This removed the stigma, so much so that by the time they reach 16, almost every child in Finland will have received some sort of additional learning support. We could do the same. President Obama can’t require traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs from overhauling what they do, but he can certainly put public pressure on them to do so. And individual schools and districts can certainly shape their own professional development calendars with an eye toward that long-term vision, and a step toward the short-term goal of equipping teachers to become more fluent in the full range of student needs.

2. Vision (“One day, every child will be equipped to use his or her mind well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and classroom will identify, and assess, the skills and habits it believes its graduates will need in order to use their minds well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”)

As I’ve said before, it’s time for teachers to stop defining themselves as passive victims of the policies of No Child Left Behind. It’s been a decade, and no one has stopped us from identifying — and then piloting — a better, more balanced way to assess student learning and growth.

Actually, that’s not true. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has been doing this for awhile now, and with great results. Individual schools like The Blue School in New York City or Mission Hill School in Boston have been doing it. And forward-thinking districts like Montgomery County in Maryland are exploring ways to do it more.

What are the rest of us waiting for?

The future of learning is one in which content knowledge stops being seen as the end, and starts being understood as the means by which we develop and master essential skills and habits — the real endgoal — that will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of work, life and global citizenship. This future will require us to do more than merely give lip service to the skills we value; it will demand that we find ways to concretely track and support each child’s path to mastery, while maintaining our awareness and appreciation for the nonlinearity of learning and of human development. And the good news is the art and science of teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. We can do this. In fact, many of us have already begun.

3. Vision (“One day, it will be universally agreed-upon that education in America is a public good, not a private commodity.”); Mission (“Every day, every policymaker and decision-maker will repeat this vow: whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children.”)

In America, we hold two definitions of freedom in creative tension: the first is the capitalistic definition, in which freedom means choice and consumption; the second is the democratic definition, in which freedom means conscience and compassion.

This will never change; our challenge will always be to manage the tension between the two in ways that serve both. But it’s foolish to unleash choice and consumption in American public education and expect that it will deepen our capacity to exercise conscience and compassion. We can either see education as a private commodity or as a public good. And we must choose.

That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of charter schools or choice; in fact, I’d say it’s undeniable that almost every great school I’ve visited has become great in part because it had greater freedom to chart its own path. But it does mean any investments in school choice need to be proactively made in light of the original vision of charter schools, and that we stop pretending that schools with smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, and richer learning options are only appealing or viable for the families of the wealthy or the well-located. Simply put, a great learning environmentis challenging, relevant, engaging, supportive, and experiential — no matter who the kids are, and no matter where the community is located.

If I were in charge, those would be my marching orders.

What do you think?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

How to Balance the Art & Science of Teaching

Recently, I gave a TED talk outlining why I think we’re in the midst of the most exciting and difficult time to be a teacher in American history. These sorts of talks are always imperfect (and timed) efforts to inject new ideas into the stratosphere, but I received lots of nice comments and feedback, including some observations that only a mom – my mom, actually – would share (“Your posture was very relaxed, and you never even said ‘um’!”).

It was another thing my mother said that struck me, though. “Do you feel sure that your audience knows what to do with all you’ve said?” she wrote.

Great point, and I’m not sure. So here, as simply as I can say it, are three specific things – some big, some small – we need to do to help teachers get better at helping children learn and grow.

1. Follow the Med School Model – As any M.D. knows, different medical schools have different strengths and weaknesses. But one thing every medical school shares is the belief that a strong medical training is built on a dual foundation of two courses: anatomy and physiology.

In education, no similar consensus exists. Worse still, most programs – whether they’re traditional schools of education or alternative certification programs – give short shrift to one of the most important things a teacher needs to know: child and adolescent development.

Think about that for a second. Our country’s teacher training programs, by and large, pay little attention to how well prospective teachers understand the emotional and developmental needs of the children they propose to teach.

So let’s start there by urging all teacher-training programs to adapt the Med School model and establish a similar two-course foundation for all prospective educators: Learning Sciences and Developmental Sciences.

I realize that won’t happen anytime soon (if at all). But the good news is we don’t need to wait; we can just start establishing online and/or in-person courses anywhere and everywhere, for anyone that’s interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of this new knowledge base. These courses would provide recommended reading, a forum for people to communicate with some guided facilitation, and a space for learners to self-organize with each other based on their areas of interest. And while it would be great if some accrediting body offered participants credit toward a degree or certification, we don’t need to wait for that to happen, either. What matters is identifying what we need to learn to be more effective at what we do, and then learning it. Period.

2. Study the Brain – In the same way educators need a solid foundation in how people develop, we should be equally aware of how people learn. That’s why schools and districts should incentivize any efforts on the part of their teachers to better understand the brain – regardless of whether it’s a book club or an accredited course. And once again, we can start right away in any community, alone or in groups. There are scores of recently written books that translate the latest insights in neuroscience for a lay audience. So we don’t need to wait for the schools of education to catch up. But we do need to do our homework and make sure we’re creating classroom environments that are highly tuned to our students’ strengths and weaknesses and how they see the world.

3. Craft Evaluation Programs That Honor Art & Science – One thing all sides seem to agree on is that teacher evaluation systems are in need of an extreme makeover; for too long, they’ve been little more than pro forma stamps of approval, and they’ve done little to nothing to help teachers get better.

In too many places, however, efforts are already underway to craft systems that disregard the art of teaching in favor of the (misunderstood) science of measurement. These sorts of systems are more about pushing people out than lifting them up. That’s why we should blow them all up and start over.

A prerequisite of any new evaluation system should be its effort to help teachers improve the quality of their practice via shared inquiry into what is and isn’t working in their classrooms. These new systems shouldn’t be afraid of quantitative measures, just as they shouldn’t devalue qualitative measures. And we should be sure to pay attention to the illustrative efforts already underway. If you’re a policymaker, for example, take a close look at what they’re doing in Montgomery County. And if you’re a teacher, consider getting certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

It will always be true, in teaching and in the natural world, that not everything can be measured, just as it’s true that there are ways to measure aspects of teaching and learning that go a lot deeper than test scores. The challenge is to find the balance between the elusive but evergreen art of teaching, and the emerging but illustrative science of the brain.

We can do both. And we can start today.