Thursday, May 31, 2007

Conservative Pedagogy, Liberal Assessment

From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000 (applicable citations only):

con-ser-va-tive (adj.) - 1. Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change. 2. Traditional or restrained in style. 3. Moderate; cautious.

lib-er-al (adj.) - 1. a. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. 2. a. Tending to give freely; generous. 3. Not strict or literal; loose or approximate.

I regard myself as very liberal when it comes to pedagogy. I teach all sorts of things and use all sorts of materials that one might not expect to find in a typical high school English class, I'm not afraid to approach controversial topics, I eschew pre-fab dittos and create my own materials. I manage to do this and still give due deference to the literary canon, the ELA Performance Standards handed down by the state, and the English Regents Exam. Yet I am very conservative when it comes to grading and assessment. I only give A's for truly exceptional work, I hold students accountable for handing in work late and for inappropriate behavior, I don't forgive carelessness or laziness or indulge insignificant discomforts or inconveniences, and I never, ever respond to students' work with obsequious, unqualified praise.

Put simply, too many of today's educrats, at least among those whom I've encountered, essentially care about all the wrong things. As I mentioned in my first post, the schools have become far too conservative with the teachers and curricula, and far too liberal with students and assessment. The ubiquitous "self-esteem" movement is largely responsible for the latter, as discussed at length in previous posts; here I will be discussing the former and some of my experiences therewith, but I don't pretend to understand its source or cause.

When referring to pedagogy and curriculum, “conservative” for my purposes means strict, unwavering adherence to one particular philosophy of what and how to teach. It also indicates a reluctance to even consider, let alone embrace, alternative methods, controversial texts and topics, or the very idea that there may well be more than one way to reach academic and curricular goals. Many schools and school systems employ a hyper-conservative approach to curriculum and pedagogy, essentially dictating to teachers precisely what they must teach, and precisely how they must teach it. There is usually an implicit (or, in some cases, explicit) forbiddance of and intolerance for unconventional materials or unorthodox methods, and such an exclusionary mindset tends to be completely arbitrary; teachers who prefer alternative ideas are told simply, “That's not how we do it here.”

Where a school does adopt new ideas or alternative methods, it does so wholesale and merely creates a new unilateral and exclusive mandate for its teachers. Teachers in New York City are now compelled to employ the “workshop model” of instruction, exclusively, under threat of “U” ratings and disciplinary action, even if they had been effectively and successfully using other methods for years. This, of course, occurs now after city school administrators spent decades insisting that the only acceptable, “correct” method was the traditional Developmental Lesson Plan. I've had supervisors in city schools insist that no learning would ever take place if there was no “Aim:” on the chalkboard. Not even the instructional device itself; the actual word “A-I-M:” absolutely had to be there, or the students could not and would not learn. In my whole life of schooling, and in my travels and conversations with professionals in other cities and states, I have never seen this device used outside of New York City. I learned a great deal in school without ever seeing the word “Aim:” written prominently on the chalkboard. Other school systems seem to get along fine without it.

Having school-wide standards of operation and a specific set of content to cover (in content areas, that is, of which I must reiterate English is not) is fine. But how far do administrators need to go in controlling each teacher's classroom day-to-day, or even minute-by-minute? How much of a teacher's own personality, unique skills, and most importantly experience, can count toward the pedagogical choices he makes? Should schools be recommending certain teaching methods, or should they be unilaterally mandating and enforcing them? Should a curriculum consist of specific knowledge and skills goals, or should it be a uniform set of methods and daily lesson plans, an entire school year pre-scripted, where a teacher must and can only follow the script? Should teachers skilled and experienced in one method be forced to employ a different method, merely at the arbitrary whim of a new supervisor? Is there really only one single “correct” way to teach?

In a Long Island school where I taught, the chairwoman of the English department (a very strange and difficult individual) stressed “consistency,” as she put it, over everything else. Uniformity of method and philosophy throughout the department was her primary concern; how each individual teacher could best help the students learn, or what each individual teacher felt comfortable and confident in doing, was entirely irrelevant. There was no justification for this apart from “This is how we do it here.” I can only guess that the goal was to have every teacher in the department teach the exact same material the exact same way, with no variation whatsoever, so that it essentially would not matter which teacher a student had at any grade level, or if a student switched from one teacher's class to another in mid-year. In the latter case, I don’t know if such a rare and individualized occurrence is sufficient to justify such a high degree of uniformity, but I can think of no other justification.

At one time, this person criticized and sanctioned me for teaching my students the difference between verb types, with which I noticed they were having difficulty in their writing, because it was “not on the curriculum.” She insisted that it was more important to teach specific grammatical concepts that were “on the list” for that quarter, out of context and for their own sake, exclusive of all others, rather than those which the students actually seemed to be struggling with and needed to learn. That research study after research study has shown traditional out-of-context grammar instruction to be wholly ineffective at improving student literacy, and I had been trained in graduate school to teach grammar in context, mattered not at all. Neither did the fact that the students' writing improved almost immediately once they recognized the different verb types and learned how to use them.

In a city school where I taught after that, a small performing-arts high school which was new at the time, the administration was attempting to develop a curriculum integrating Social Studies and English, which they called "Humanities," although in reality it was nothing of the kind. It amounted to nothing more than forcing the English teachers to teach Social Studies content and follow the Social Studies curriculum, exclusive of any other materials or concerns. Part of this process involved a directive to select literature titles based on the time periods, places and cultures being covered contemporaneously in Social Studies, but the approach was ultra-conservative, exclusionary, and entirely at the discretion of the principal who was a former Social Studies teacher and curriculum coordinator (and a deeply sick, evil person), and a third-year Social Studies teacher who basically ran the school because she was sleeping with its founder. Neither of these individuals knew much, if anything, about literature or English Language Arts. Their first response to any title suggested by an English teacher was always to reject it, to assume that it did not "relate" to Social Studies, to look for and find a reason not to allow it.

Any English teacher who proposed such a title, or a more inclusive approach to the process, was suspected and accused of trying to undermine the "Humanities" paradigm. To teach, or even mention, any book, poem, story, film, etc. which the principal did not feel was directly, explicitly and obviously related to the contemporaneous Social Studies content was considered "resistance" and would, in the principal's words, “not be tolerated.” Most notably, no one ever explained why it was so vitally important to eliminate English altogether and teach an extended Social Studies course in its place. Neither was anyone concerned that the approach stood in defiance of the English Language Arts Standards and Regents Exam. All these years later, I still can't figure out why anyone would think this was a good idea.

Most New Yorkers have heard the stories by now about “micro-management” in city schools. Teachers have been written up and given “U” ratings for having the wrong number of staples attaching student work to bulletin boards, for not having chairs or carpets arranged in the prescribed spatial pattern, for using white chalk instead of multi-colored chalk, or whatever other technical “infractions” having nothing to do with actual teaching that their supervisors can find to criticize. Is any of this really necessary? Is this what matters? Is this what educational administrators should really care about?

It reveals another example of the sort of schizophrenic absurdity that pervades the school system. Teachers are constantly being told that all students are unique and learn in different ways, by the same people who insist that we all must teach the same material using the same methodology. Obviously, no teacher's methods, philosophy or personality is going to be ideal for every student. Different people have different ideas of what a “good teacher” is. Some students respond to challenge, others to coddling. Teachers are human beings, just like students, but as we celebrate and bend over backwards to accommodate the uniqueness and individuality of kids, our own uniqueness doesn't seem to matter, and in many places is actually devalued, discouraged, or even punished.

What effect does this have on students? From what I've observed, it fosters intellectual bigotry. It creates astonishingly literal-minded young people, who believe that anything new or unorthodox is wrong, that there is no value in inquiry, that there can only be a right or wrong answer to any and every question, that there can't possibly be more to anything than meets the eye.

What possible good can come from telling a teacher, as I was essentially told by these supervisors, "You are forbidden to teach the materials you like; you are forbidden to use the methods that work for you; you are forbidden to do what you do best." ... ?


Anonymous said...

All very true, sir. This why we need charter schools, vouchers, merit-based pay, tenure extension and an eradication of teachers unions. All these forces, and incompetent, overpaid, lazy, bitter teachers, work together to destroy public education.

Jay Braiman said...

I don't really see a connection between anything I've written and the need for any of these things. In fact, the perception that teachers are "incompetent, overpaid, lazy [and] bitter" actually drives a lot of the wrong-headed thinking I've been discussing; e.g., people don't trust teachers' judgment or expertise in evaluating student work and so substitute their own and/or dismiss it as "subjective."

The other items you mentioned are political, not educational, issues and are outside the scope of this blog. I really don't think they do or would have any effect on the educational philosophy and counter-intuitive policies I've described. Vouchers and merit pay would not by themselves change the fact that the schools' primary goal is preserving the children's self-esteem. Charter schools can do that just as well as any other, sometimes even more so.

I've heard these ideas before as the cure-all for all our educational ills. I just don't think that sweeping political change is the answer. The problem, as I see it, is much more fundamental than that. We have come, in my view, to grievously misunderstand and mischaracterize the fundamental role of students and teachers in an educational setting. A redefinition of the political climate will not change that.

Anonymous said...

Fairly put.

More importantly, political correctedness dictates the "personality" the teacher must exhibit in the classroom. So if you want to stop patting kids on the back, we need to revamp the curriculum and get back to basics. I'm sure you'll agree there, but an issue is that underwhelming teachers will be more likely to relish following the status quo as they lack the brainpower to plan sagaciously for students---therefore, they will bow to the PC plans, leaving students thirsty for the quality education I'm sure you give them.

See the connection?

Jay Braiman said...

By "political correctedness [sic]" I assume you mean hyper-sensitivity, of which PC is a part (it's not "politically correct," for example, to give a marginally-competent essay an A just to avoid hurting the child's feelings). But I'm not sure I can agree that teachers "bow" to that because they are weak or incompetent. They "bow" to it because their supervisors force them to, because they fear reprisals from administration and especially from parents, and they are more willing and able than I am to adjust their thinking and approach to the environment they're in.

Principals and supervisors will always, if they can, work to get rid of teachers who are intelligent, experienced and dedicated but who don't "play ball." It's easy to label a difference in approach and philosophy as "incompetence," especially if you're one of those people who thinks there's only one proper way to teach. I've been on the receiving end of a psychotic, delusional principal drunk with power. People like this drive good teachers away because they don't want intelligent, confident, independent-minded people; they want lapdogs who will fall into line, who they can control.

I'm not sure what "revamp the curriculum and get back to basics" means, and I hear that a great deal as well. I don't think the content or design of the curriculum is necessarily the problem; I do think, though, that curriculum should be dynamic rather than static. (See: Applebee, Curriculum as Conversation) I think the "basics" we need to get back to are the ideas that students need to do their work and be held accountable for not doing it; that we need to have consistent, objective standards and assessments; that we should recognize actual excellence, and give rewards and praise only where they are justly earned.

Anonymous said...

I agree, and I agree especially with the second paragraph and especially here:

"People like this drive good teachers away because they don't want intelligent, confident, independent-minded people; they want lapdogs who will fall into line, who they can control."

But that goes to my point:

Who are these lap dogs?

They're the very average, non ambitious 2.7 GPA students from state colleges who cannot find a job elsewhere, so they teach---and since they are more than happy to have a 36 week per year job that pays as well as most other state jobs, they become lap dogs, so as to keep their jobs...until they get tenure.

The intelligent, passionate teachers no longer go into teaching as they used to. And the ones who do, like you, leave---and good for you for doing so, and going to a job where your talents will be recognized & rewarded, Mr. B.

Jay Braiman said...

Well, I am fortunate to be teaching in a school now where the administration "gets it," and I am deeply appreciative of the principal here and particularly of my now-former A.P. (who recently moved on to greener pastures). The first high school where I taught, from 1997-2001, was similar. It reminds me that perhaps all hope is not lost.

Anonymous said...

Well, good--that is rare.

I'm guessing you then understand where I am coming from with those views.

Have a good weekend.

MBressi said...

It should be noted that 40 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. As Diane Ravitch puts it in regard to this fact, "It's not as if there is a failure to weed out ineffective teachers." That is to say, a good many of them who can't cut it are eliminated by their own doing, so to speak. And a number more (I don't remember the exact figure) are indeed terminated every year by unsatisfactory ratings. Most of those that remain are hardworking and committed. It is time to stop blaming teachers and the curriculum. Let's have a look at students who are (zombie-like)more enthralled by their cell phones and ipods than by the epics of Homer, shall we. And let's not say, well, then teachers fail to motivate students. I'm sorry, but when the role models of success are Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and that other one that ended up in jail or rehab again, and when society fails to properly revere educators and learning, then teachers can't be entirely faulted for students' lack of interest in school. The teacher's challenge in this cult-of- celebrity and gadget-craving society of ours is enormous. Let's give the teacher a little more credit for even taking on this challenge.

Jay Braiman said...

Well said. The popular caricature of the public school teacher has unfortunately become that of the lazy, bitter, "overpaid," incompetent, teachers-lounge gossip-monger, (as described in the initial reply by anonymous), who only cares about his/her union protections, entitlements and "perks" at the expense of the schools and the students. Teachers seem to rank just slightly behind the workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles in terms of public respect for their authority and expertise.

One will always have to contend with the non-teachers and others who insist that a "good" teacher can get any child to learn, the way a "good salesman can sell snow to an eskimo." Even if that's true, one problem as I've pointed out repeatedly is that the methods and techniques that actually make learning occur tend to "hurt the kids' feelings," and we can't have that either.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: You can't get kids to learn and safeguard their fragile self-esteem at the same time. One MUST cancel out the other.