All these questions, of course, are based on assumptions about “how schools work” and, sadly, they are questions which, for the most part, are never asked. That these were first published in a book released in 2003 and they are still relevant speaks volumes. Here are the answers to questions 6-10.
#6. If students took their final examinations one year later without their courses “in front” of the test, how would they do?
This was another question the late Grant Wiggins often asked in professional development workshops and, for anyone who is (or was) a teacher, the response is easily predicted. People nod, eyes roll, heads shake, and sheepish smiles unfold --- because everyone knows that, too often, teachers spend 179 days preparing students for a one-day Brain Dump in late May or June. Yet we persist. While the New York State Regents examinations may well establish some broad “standards,” do students actually remember much (if anything) they learned in their classes? What we are questioning here is one of the most basic flaws in our system: it is based on input and not focused on output (beyond a single, “Final” test grade!). This means that what becomes important in a classroom is that the teacher teaches, not necessarily that the students actually learn. And this gets us back to Herndon’s Explanatory Notes, that an institution “must devote all its energy to doing the exact opposite (of its stated purpose)” and “an institution must continue to exist.” (pp. 109-110, How to Survive)
#7. Why are external (state/national) tests necessary to create “high standards?”
There is now a “Testing Industry” in this country that strikes genuine fear into administrators and teachers (“Test results will be published /posted online in the local newspaper!”). This industry has steadily grown in the last half-century as cries rose for “Standards” and “Core Curriculum Goals.” The reason for this is one that we all know but, again, is never talked about. In most schools there are no standards to speak of. What do I mean by that? Quite simply, in any given school, in any given department , Teacher #1’s “A” may be quite "different" from Teacher #2’s “A.” Do teachers --- whether as a school faculty or as a Department Faculty --- ever sit down and develop a criteria, with clear indicators and exemplars, that creates, at the very least, a school “standard” in that department? Presently (and historically) the focus in secondary classrooms has been on covering content. The verb there (“covering”) is important. We’re not “revealing” or “exploring” or “engaging” with students, we are covering content --- which means the classroom has to be teacher-centered and content-oriented. When you bring in an external “standardized” test, teachers then begin to teach to the test and, once again, lose sight of far more important learning goals (as well as valuable time). A test score is not very reliable evidence of learning. It is valid (all the students took the same test at the same time under the same conditions), but it is not reliable (how do we know why Bobby chose answer “c” on question #4 or Loretta chose “b” on question #8?). So, the combination of a lack of Local Standards and a large-scale industrial Testing Industry perpetuates a system of teacher centered classrooms that focus on “covering content” and not on genuine student learning.
#8. Why don’t teachers know what their colleagues do (in their classrooms)?
Teaching can be a terribly lonely profession. At the secondary level, most teachers are essentially independent contractors. While there is a need and desire for “teacher autonomy,” there is too little conversation between teachers about professional practice. While there are always a certain number of “professional development” days set aside for the teaching staff each academic year, many teachers would tell you those days are seen as a “joke” or “useless.” (I am, of course, generalizing here --- I worked in several schools where excellent, regular professional development was built into weekly meetings of groups of teachers, if not the entire faculty --- but those were exceptions, not the rule) There are very few schools where teachers actually visit each other’s classrooms to observe a colleague’s practice (and then discuss it). A visit from an administrator (“evaluation!”) can strike fear into veteran teachers! Why? Because School Culture is seldom, if ever, focused on the notion of Group Learning --- neither for kids nor adults! The idea that “It’s my classroom. I’ll shut my door and do what I do and it’s nobody else’s business” is another deleterious “baked-in” characteristic of too many schools. If we (as teachers) take a look at other professions (law, medicine, architecture) we see professionals who consult with one another as a regular part of their practice. Once again, because of the history of school culture (a book unto itself), the “schedule,” and a paranoid fear of being “evaluated/judged,” teachers do not work collegially --- and the profession is worse for it. (A quick note about those early years at Blind Brook High School: because of the "no walls" design NO TEACHER could "hide out" in a classroom. We were on public display for everyone to see/hear --- and I believe it made us better teachers.)
#9. Why are novice teachers given the most difficult assignments/schedules?
All of these questions are naturally connected and this one directly speaks to the grouping/tracking of students and school cultures that do not foster collegiality. Simply put, many of our newest teachers are given the most difficult students to work with at the beginning of their career. This is certainly a factor in why 20% of teachers leave the profession within five years. “Seniority” is a factor here, of course, but the public’s inability to truly understand how complex and difficult it is to be a teacher contributes to this, too. Because of the pervasive sense that “anyone can teach” and the low status of the job ($$$), teaching : #1 – does not necessarily attract “the best and the brightest” candidates and #2 – drives out young practitioners because of a system that does not provide a “mediated entry” into the profession. There has been extremely slow “progress” in the development of assigning new teachers a Mentor --- a veteran teacher who regularly observes and consults with the new teacher --- but not enough is happening. That the profession needs great numbers of people creates even more complications (as well as the creation of programs like “Teach for America,” a stopgap band-aid that does not improve schools or help students). Bringing teachers into the profession in a thoughtful and educational fashion is what we truly need in school cultures.
#10. Why are there significant numbers of educators in schools who are almost never in classrooms?
A huge problem faced in schools has to do with the fact that most Districts are designed to replicate a business/corporate model. There is a Board of Directors (your School Board), a CEO (The District Superintendent), Senior Vice Presidents (Principals and Vice Principals), Managers and Directors (Counselors and Department Chairs) and then your Workers/Labor Force (classroom teachers). What most schools have is a significant number of adults who are almost never in classrooms with students. A major contributing factor to this top-heavy system is that the incentives in schools are upside down! If you are not a particularly good teacher, or if you do not like being in classrooms with kids (because you may not be a good teacher), you can make more money by becoming an administrator or guidance counselor. Not only do you get your own office, you seldom deal with more than one/two/three students at a time. You are also charged with observing and evaluating teachers! There are a barrel full of problems here. People who are not good teachers or who do not want to work with large groups of kids can not only get out of the classroom but can actually make more money if they do so! Now, I do not want to tar all administrators/counselors with the same brush. Some are genuine leaders (the title “Principal” comes from the 19th century designation “principal teacher”) and I’ve had the good fortune to work for a few of those. The system, though, too often overburdens administrators with too many balls to keep in the air (the School Board, Parents, Teachers, Students, Coaches, Music Directors, Counselors, the PTA, et al) and does not create a culture the engenders professionalism for any of the adults in the school. There are “redesigned” schools that have drastically reduced those “upper” layers of management and created places that are, indeed, Learning Communities where teachers not only have input but are present in significant numbers (and if you don’t believe smaller class size makes a difference, you have never been a classroom teacher!). But that’s another discussion for another time.
Pause and Reset
1984 to 1987