Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Experience, Expertise, Ed Reform and Existential Dread

Kathleen Porter-Magee offered up an interesting piece at Fordham's Flypaper blog last week, but before we even get into the article itself, let's look at the quote she used to open it, because I would like that quote on a t-shirt, or large poster:

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” 
—Werner Heisenberg

Hmm. Does this seem like an insight that could have been applied to the world of education reform over the past few decades of policies imposed by non-teacher policy mavens who ignored the advice and insight and expertise of teachers (and then, years later, announced the very problems teachers had warned them about in tones usually reserved for the discovery of fire)? 

Is that where this article is going? Is this going to be a reformy acknowledgement that, "Yeah, we should have involved teachers and listened to what they had to say about education before we started trying to remake the whole institution?" Spoiler alert-- no.

So what is it about?

Porter-Magee starts out with a tale of starting out teaching science at a parochial school, where she was given a room and a closet full of books and told, "Have at it." This, she observes, was probably not the best way to get her started in the classroom. 

Porter-Magee, we should note, is a fellow at the ever-reformy Fordham, and the superintendent of the Partnership for Inner City Education, a sort of charter-style management organization that runs some Catholic schools in New York City. (At least one former employee is not a fan, but that's a small sample). She has also worked for the Archdiocese of DC, the College Board, and Achievement First.

She refers us to Tom Nichols's new book, The Death of Expertise, from which she pulls this quote:

[W]e cannot function without acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and trusting the expertise of others. We sometimes resist this conclusion because it undermines our sense of independence and autonomy. We want to believe we are capable of making all kinds of decisions, and we chafe at the person who corrects us or tells us we’re wrong.

So here's where we're going. In Porter-Magee's model, "proven" curriculum is the expertise, and teachers are the ones who need to learn trust. Some more quotes from her article:

We valorize teacher “freedom” and “creativity” over things like proven curricula, which are too frequently perceived as a constraint on teacher autonomy.

In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.

So, teachers should suck it up and defer to curriculum that is research based and proven effective.

On the one hand, she absolutely has a point. Having good materials is half of the battle in a classroom, and it gives me an absolute pain in the gut to see some teacher do a quick google search and download their materials from God-knows-where. I have also had the experience of teaching with a bad textbook, and it is far easier to just park such a text in the closet and build all your materials yourself.

On the other hand, there are some real issues with her point.

First, who decides and selects the "effective" materials. She seems to be suggesting that such selections be made by someone other than the classroom teacher, perhaps based on some hard and fast criteria. But "effective" these days too often means "research links it to higher test scores" and that's a problem because A) test scores are a lousy measure of effective education and B) test scores only exist for reading and math.

She's distressed at a RAND study that shows teachers getting materials from Google and Pinterest. But both, as well as the various teacher-to-teacher sites, are excellent places to find materials that are tested, proven and endorsed by other teachers who use them. Porter-Magee stops just sort of saying so, but she seems to be from the camp that believes that teachers lack the expertise to make curriculum and materials choices. I can't dismiss that out of hand-- it has become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as more ed schools concentrate on training proto-teachers to align to the standards and teach to the test. But for the most part, I believe she's wrong. I am the number one expert on teaching my subject in my classroom. Nobody else knows the content, the students, and my own strengths and weaknesses, as well as how all those things intersect and interplay-- nobody knows that better than I do. Does that mean I ignore other experts and fail to consult other sources of expertise? Of course not-- that's part of how I got to be an expert in the first place.

Freeing me up from curriculum decisions-- don't do me any favors. Like every other teacher on the planet, I will rewrite whatever curriculum you hand me on the fly in the classroom every day as my professional expertise sees fit. The ongoing attempts to teacher-proof classrooms, to create a seamless system in which it doesn't really matter which teacher you get-- these do far more harm than good.  Framing them as concern trolling ("We just want to save you from having to do all this hard work") do not make them any more helpful.

Porter-Magee says, "We owe it to our teachers to give them the tools they need to succeed" and I don't disagree. But among those tools we will find teacher autonomy and the freedom to use our expert judgment in our classrooms. Porter-Magee has here once again repeated the classic reformer mistake, even as she seemed to understand it-- she has assumed that the experts on education are to be found somewhere other than standing in a classroom. 

We are educational experts. Not the only ones, not infallible ones. But any system that ignores our level of expertise is making a mistake that experts should know enough to avoid.


  1. “In education we have been conditioned to believe that mandating curriculum is akin to micromanaging an artist. That’s not only wrong, it’s dangerous.”

    This quote proves that Kathleen Porter-Magee hasn’t a clue.

    Requiring, “What to teach (curriculum)” has absolutely nothing to do with micro-managing a teacher’s job. Most teachers welcome the scope and sequence for the course they are teaching. It acts as a framework or guide to the depth, breadth, and ordering of topics. No teacher in their right mind would consider curriculum a form of micro-management. However, we are not usually provided with a formal curriculum document, instead the table of contents of the textbook and/or the EOY assessment, typically become the de-facto curriculum. Curriculum mapping has become a way to provide transparency for parents and taxpayers, but for new teachers who make use of maps, these guides are an aid – not a way to micro-manage the classroom. Teachers have been told “what to teach” since forever. Science, social studies, math, or music teachers, need a scope and sequence around which to develop their program and lessons.

    Having an administrator specify or script “how we teach (pedagogy)” is where any veteran teacher will cry, “Micro-management!” The “micro-management” craze was spawned in the era of Common Core testing, teacher “accountability” rubrics (Marzano/Danielson), and USDOE Race to the Top contest and NCLB waiver programs. Requiring teachers to post learning objectives, maintain data walls, and ring every bell in an evaluation rubric all fall under the umbrella of micro-management. None of the above has a thing to do with the scope and sequence of a math, science, social studies, or ELA curriculum.
    Idiots like Porter-Magee fail to grasp the importance of the overall, K to 12 public school experience. Instead they craft crappy policy that conflates the well-educated, professional view of academia with the real world of the classroom where personalities, relationships, rapport, and group dynamics rule the roost – not standards or curriculum. Ask any kid why he likes (or dislikes) a particular class and they will never say that it was an unappealing scope and sequence or a shallow curriculum. It’s the teaching/teacher, stupid. Problem is, the education policy wonks don’t even know that the key to the kingdom - teaching styles and personalities - is beyond their control.

  2. "I will rewrite whatever curriculum you hand me on the fly in the classroom every day as my professional expertise sees fit."

    I'd love to see what they would do given a roomful of kids and a scripted curriculum. When I worked for Kaplan, I read a script, and nobody learned anything. Now that I am a real teacher (one that *does* love to learn from experts of my choosing), I absolutely change everything on the fly regularly, especially when I'm trying to follow a more scripted curriculum (even a great one created by experts like TCRWP). Because the closer I get to the script (ANY script), the more the kids tune out and/or rebel.

  3. Another aspect of this is the economic constraints of curriculum writing, particularly in the lower grades. In our district we are assigned the Pearson "Reading Street" program which comes with a grand total of 36 trade books for the year. The curriculum cannot tell us to read, say, "Where the Wild Things Are" because Pearson didn't spring for the rights to that particular book. So all of the lit-informed curriculum for the year comes out of the 36 books (one book per week, I should add), a few of which are wonderful, many of which are OK and some of which are dreadful.
    I am always searching my personal classroom library for texts that teach both literacy concepts and, far more importantly in kindergarten, social skills and greater understanding of the world.
    So in terms of literacy, it would take supplying a classroom with a significant magnitude of more books (at a significantly increased cost) before anyone could credibly claim that an outside designed curriculum is superior to what elementary teachers do in the classroom on a daily basis.