Don’t ask if it’s “good” without adding “for whom?”

Once upon a time, a friend and I were talking about a math teacher our daughters shared. She said, “You know, his lessons weren’t so exciting, but at least he’s got the content knowledge, so the kids could work it out.”

I grew quiet, and an awkward pause ensued.
This had not been my daughter’s experience at all.

My friend’s daughter is the quintessential math kid, the kind you can provide with some math content, and she will eagerly work through it. She loves patterns and puzzles, sticks with new things until she gleans key insights, with or without a teacher. She is a bright and thoughtful kid, and any teacher would be glad to have her in class.

My kid? The social world is her main interest in school. Honestly, she is a fabulous little social scientist, drawing me sociograms of the lunch tables to explain the different friend groups, designing “crush scales” to help her friends quantify the extent of their infatuations, providing me with details of the social markers of popularity at her school. She finds school fascinating, but the school curriculum does not always engage her. Her academic interests depend largely on her relationship with a given teacher.

With the math teacher in question, she had a strong strike against her. She is a doodler, and this same math teacher was squarely anti-doodle.

mr math man

In a parent conference, he told me that he viewed her doodling as a lack of seriousness. I tried to push back and help him see her more clearly, to little avail. In the end, the same perceptiveness that led my kid to understand the subtle workings of her school’s social dynamics led her to the conclusion that this teacher did not think very highly of her as a potential learner in his class. Not surprisingly, her engagement reflected that.

The differences between my friend’s and my experiences with the same teacher has me thinking about how limited we are when we talk about the quality of education. Often our discourse focuses on whether things are “good” ––  whether it is teachers, classes, or schools –– as if it is an essential property of the thing.  In this case, my friend would probably say that this teacher was “good enough,” because that was true –– for her daughter. As you may surmise, I would say otherwise.

Our impoverished way of sorting the educational world into good/not good has consequences for the systems we have created. I would go so far as to say that it contributes to inequality. Many middle class parents are probably familiar with the conversations about “good schools.” Parents seldom actually go and visit the schools, but there are signifiers that stand in for goodness, many of which are problematic: test scores (which correlate to parent income and education), student populations that skew White/Asian/affluent. As the consensus grows about where “goodness” lies, in our crazy U.S. system, property values respond accordingly, reinforcing the demographic factors that underlie those assessments.

The thing is, I go to a lot of schools. I have been to schools that are deemed “good” by powerful parents and have found myself distressed at the socio-emotional climate or underwhelmed by the substance of the academics. I have been to schools that are deemed “bad” and have conversely been bowled over by the widespread care and wowed by thoughtful teaching and learning.

Our discourse around “goodness” in education cuts off the essential qualifier –– for whom? In doing so, it reinforces goodness as inextricable and erases important questions about whose learning is being supported.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t ask if it’s “good” without adding “for whom?”

  1. Interesting reflection. This has me wondering about what the goal should be, then, for me as a teacher. Ideally, my class should be “good” for all students. Is that even possible?

    I’ve often prided myself at being a great teacher for students who come into my class hating math and with a track record of low grades. Recently, though, I’ve worried that my focus on this population might mean that I’ve neglected to truly challenge students who are like your friend’s daughter.

    This past school year, I tried to make sure I was really providing meaningful, challenging work to everyone, including the students who were constantly hungry for more. I’d like to think that this did not come at the expense of the extra support and TLC that I usually give the most struggling students, but I’m not sure. I’m only one person, and my attention and focus and time are sadly limited resources.

    On a side note, what the hell was this teacher’s problem with doodles?? I love looking at my students’ doodles. It gives me massive insight into their personalities and who they are beyond just names on a gradesheet.

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    • I hope that this post doesn’t leave me sounding like a complete relativist. I think that the best teachers find ways to be responsive to the range of students in their classroom. Obviously there are limits to how we can stretch ourselves to find those places of “fit,” but I think that is the work. Just as you have identified a need to stretch more for kids like my friend’s daughter, we all have ways we can grow to be more responsive to the children we teach.

      (And I agree about doodles. However, this is not the first anti-doodle teacher she has met, and I suspect it won’t be her last.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A tangentially related question, as a math ed researcher who also listens to and respects teachers how do you work with/talk to your kids’ teachers when you know they aren’t doing what’s best for yours and other kids?

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    • I let them know that teaching is hard. I explain all the things a good teacher has to manage, so even being an okay teacher is hard. I try to help them appreciate what the teachers is doing well, even if it isn’t what my kid needs. Of course, there are teachers who cross the line, and then I will go in and advocate for my child. I do so in the hopes of helping them understand what is going on with compassion. (This too has met its limits.)

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  3. This reminds me of one of the principles (Focus on Variation in Performance) that Bryk et al. discuss in “Learning to Improve.” I agree that asking “for whom?” should be an essential qualifier for all conversations surrounding what’s working and what’s not in both math education and education writ large. I’ve seen first hand the inequity that will arise when the conversation focuses solely on average performance and fails to critically examine variation and it’s sources, let alone take seriously the task of ensuring that necessary supports are in place to minimize this variation so that everything is “good” for ALL students.

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