Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The great pedagogical end run

For at least the past thirty years, the education reform movement has been a strange alliance of advocates for very different agendas coming from all points of what we over-simplistically call the political spectrum along with a small but non-trivial number of operators looking for a share of the astonishing amounts of money that education initiatives have put into play.

Most of the people who support the reform movement have no hidden agenda. They simply want to improve education and have become convinced that the tenets of the movement are the best way of achieving those aims. Their influence, however, does not match their numbers. If you look reform initiatives in depth you'll find a disproportionate number can be traced back to three groups, often working in concert.

(We're not talking about a grand conspiracy here. The agendas of these three are hidden only in the sense that they use aggressive PR techniques to associate themselves with popular causes and divert attention from their much less popular positions and goals. By this standard, most businesses, all successful politicians and quite a few charities would fall in this category. The ed reform case just happens to be more worrisome because the stakes are so high.)

We've done endless posts on the operators (just do a search on 'looting') and perhaps even more on people using reform to promote privatization and reduce the influence of unions (Michelle Rhee is probably the definitive example). Both these groups, often combining forces, have spent an extraordinary amount of money on PR and lobbying, generally to great effect, but it is a third group, the pedagogical reformers, though less well-funded than the first two, that in many ways wields the greatest influence.

Pedagogical reformers sincerely believe they have found a better way to teach and to teach teachers. They are sure that, given a chance, their methods would revolutionize education. Under normal circumstances, pushing these changes though the school system would be difficult for at least a couple of reasons;

First, because, pedagogically, the system has a reactionary bias, made worse by the fact that the most effective teachers, the ones you would want in your corner, are also the ones who are most reluctant to trade their methods in for something new and unproven;

And, second, because many of these new methods can come across to outsiders as either over-hyped or, to be hammer-blunt, flaky as your grandmother's best biscuits.

Consider the following example from Valerie Strauss (previously discussed here):
The unit — “A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address“ — is designed for students to do a “close reading” of the address “with text-dependent questions” — but without historical context. Teachers are given a detailed 29-page script of how to teach the unit, with the following explanation:

The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading — that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

The Gettysburg Address unit can be found on the Web site of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization founded by three people described as “lead authors of the Common Core State Standards.” They are David Coleman,  now president of the College Board who worked on the English Language Arts standards; Jason Zimba, who worked on the math standards; and Susan Pimental, who worked on the ELA standards. The organization’s Linked In biography also describes the three as the “lead writers of the Common Core State Standards.”
Make a quick note of the name David Coleman. We'll be coming back to him and to his background (management consulting) in future posts.

There are also plenty of examples of mathematics instruction that would strike most people and, in some cases, most math people, as strange. This is a marked change from the "new math" of the Sixties which was famous for bewildering parents helping kids with their homework but which generally covered familiar ground for mathematicians (especially set theory).

Check out veteran math teacher Gary Rubinstein's reaction to his daughter's kindergarten workbook. I think most people would find his concerns valid. If I have time, I'd add a few more of my own.

Along similar lines, check out this principal's reaction to her daughter's elementary school homework (with additional comments here).

I've been digging into the background of these lessons, trying to reverse engineer the processes and assumptions behind them. The search leads to some strange places (including, I kid you not, deconstructionist critical theory) that I'll be spelling out later, along with my problems with these approaches but that's not actually that pertinent for this post.

For the purposes of this discussion, it's not the weirdness or even the quality of the ideas that concerns me. It is entirely possible that, given fair chance, many if not most of these ideas might turn out to be significant improvements over what we do now.

It's the part about the fair chance that worries me. The pedagogical reformers have been extremely aggressive in using the reform movement to get around the normal process that proposed methods are supposed to go through. Those vetting processes may be overly difficult but they are still there for a reason. Under the current setup, certain pedagogical methods are winning not because they are better supported by research or because they have a better track record or because they make more sense to people, but because the people promoting them have the right connections and because they've been skillful at navigating the culture of the reform movement.

One of the primary strengths of the movement has been its ability to present a united front. Once a position makes it into the movement tenets, it can count on close to universal support. This is especially true when it comes to curricula, at least in part because the topic can get fairly technical and most members have not actually gone any deeper than the uplifting rhetoric of raising standards and teaching critical thinking. The result has been to give those who do care about about curricula a free hand.

Unfortunately, caring and having the right connections does not necessarily translate to having the best ideas.

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