Shining a Light on Cultural Blindspots through Teacher Education

I have tweeted a bit about this interesting and important research in teacher education by my doctoral student Elizabeth Self. It always generates a lot of queries and conversations. Liz has really developed and conducted the research, with me and others as a guide, so I have not felt right about explaining her work myself. Instead, I invited her to share the clinical simulation work she has developed to help our pre-service teachers become more culturally competent educators.

Every semester that I teach a social foundations class at Peabody, I end up telling the story about an incident I had at a charter school in Chicago where I was teaching. About how I made a dumb comment without thinking about the context – a White teacher of mostly Black and Brown students – and how, when a Black colleague tried to confront me with the racism inherent in what I’d said, I did everything wrong that White people do in these situations. I was defensive. I tone policed him when he sent an email later. I told friends that I hadn’t mean it “that way.” Then I cried. At some point, I finally got to the place where I could hear what he was trying to say. I can’t say specifically when I finally started to listen or what made me do so, but I can say without a doubt that this incident in large part led me to where I am today.

Now a doctoral candidate at Peabody, I focus on preparing pre-service teachers for culturally responsive teaching, particularly the interactional work. In my first few semesters as an instructor, I tried a variety of approaches to get my pre-service teachers feel the same way I did in the days and weeks that followed that incident with my coworker. When I would share my story or similar examples from case studies, they would gasp in astonishment or groan sympathetically, but at some level, they all thought, “I would never do that!” Nothing seemed to have the effect I was looking to get them to see their own blind spots. It was then that I read about Benjamin Dotger’s work at Syracuse University, using clinical simulations to prepare teachers and administrators for common problems of practice. I thought that with some adaptation, I could develop clinical simulations that served as potential critical incidents for my pre-service teachers.

Clinical simulation is an instructional tool in which pre-service teachers encounter an actor, playing the part of a student, parent, colleague, or administrator, in a way that mimics a real-life event. Participants receive a protocol ahead of time that gives them background on the encounter and provides them with some of the information they would likely have based on when in the school year the event is said to happen. They usually have a few days to a week to prepare. The actors also receive a protocol that they use to prepare so that all actors present the part in a standardized way. The simulation lasts between 15-30 minutes, depending on how it’s designed. Afterwards, participants may do a “raw” debrief right away, but they usually watch their video back before doing a group debrief with the instructor.

While Dotger’s published simulations focus on common problems of practice in secondary education, mine focus on the kinds of incidents that, as Gadamer (1960) wrote, cause someone to be “pulled up short.” To see his assumptions about a person or event go unmet. The simulations I ran this fall were examples of this – talking with a student about an outburst in class, only to learn there is a much more serious problem to deal with; conferencing with a parent about her student, who may have a reading disability, and facing unexpected communication issues; soliciting input from a veteran teacher about new students, and getting way more than what was asked for. In the end, the pre-service teachers who participated in these simulations overwhelmingly came away feeling “pulled up short.” They did not expect the encounter to unfold the way it did, often because they did not pay attention to the relevant information in the protocol that would have prepared them for what occurred. They also struggled (by design) in the simulations because they framed the situations in unproductive ways – as opportunities for telling, rather than asking; as situations in which they wanted to defend, rather then respond. The simulations did not do this on their own; I made careful decisions each cycle (more and less successfully) about how to shape the re-watching of their own videos and what to do during the group debrief. But by the end of the course, the teachers seemed to have become more open to learning about the why and how of culturally responsive teaching and were thinking more productively about how to interact with their future students.

My goals in these simulations are multifold. First and foremost, I want teachers to understand that their knowledge is always partial. Without knowing their students, and in ways deeper than a first-of-the-year interest inventory reveals, they will have difficulty reaching their students, especially those who have been historically marginalized in US society and underserved by our schools. Next, I want them to recognize their blind spots and realize that they will always have some, but must be ready to acknowledge them when someone points them out. Finally, I want to give my pre-service teachers an opportunity to fail in a setting that is supportive of them but also safe for their students. Often in teaching, we send pre-service teachers out to tutor in low-income communities as their first interaction with students. In my mind, this raises the potential harm for students who are already underserved and may reinforce stereotypes for pre-service teachers. Clinical simulations in no way replace the need for teachers to spend time in the communities where they teacher or to interact with real students, but I do hope that they help provide teachers with a better starting place for those interactions.

It occurs to me periodically that I am an unlikely person to be doing this work. Surely, it would seem more reasonable for the person doing this to come from an insider perspective – someone who has personally suffered the effects of racism, ethnocentrism, ableism, or homophobia. For that reason, I make efforts as I develop each simulation to draw on cultural insiders to help make the simulation authentic to their lived experience. Furthermore, I see it as imperative that people of privilege work – thoughtfully and reflectively – to spare these insiders some of the burden they have carried for so long in providing this education to folks like me. It is my desire that by doing so, my own children – both White and Black – will encounter teachers a little more ready to teach them than I was.

First, Do No Harm

I have often wondered if teachers should have some form of a Hippocratic Oath, reminding themselves each day to first, do no harm.

Since the network of relationships in classrooms is so complex, it is often difficult to discern what we may do that causes children harm. Most of us have experienced the uncertainty of teaching, those dilemmas endemic to the classroom. Was it the right decision to stay firm on an assignment deadline for the child who always seems to misplace things, after giving several extensions? Or was there something more going on outside of the classroom that would alter that decision? Why did a student, who is usually amendable to playful teasing, suddenly storm out of the room today in the wake of such an interaction?

What I have arrived at is that there are levels of harm. The harm I describe in the previous examples can be recovered if teachers have relational competence — that is, the lines of communication are open with their students so that children can share and speak up if a teacher missteps.

What I am coming to realize is that mathematics teachers have a particular responsibility when it comes to doing no harm. Mathematics, for better or worse, is our culture’s stand-in subject for being smart. That is, if you are good at math, you must be smart. If you are not good at math, you are not truly smart.

I am not saying I believe that, but it is a popular message. I meet accomplished adults all the time who confess their insecurities stemming from their poor performance in mathematics classes.

Here is an incomplete list of common instructional practices that, in my view, do harm to students’ sense of competence:

1. Timed math tests

Our assessments communicate to students what we value. Jo Boaler recently wrote about the problems with these in terms of mathematical learning. Students who do well on these tend to see connections across the facts, while students who struggle tend not to. But if timed tests are the primary mode of assessment, then the students who struggle do not get many opportunities to develop those connections.

2. Not giving partial credit

Silly mistakes are par for the course in the course of demanding problem solving. Teachers who only use multiple choice tests or auto-grading do not get an opportunity to see students’ thinking. A wrong answer does not always indicate entirely wrong thinking. Students who are prone to getting the big idea and missing the details are regularly demoralized in mathematics classes.

Even worse, however, is …

3. Arbitrary grading that discounts sensemaking

Recently, a student I know had a construction quiz in a geometry class. The teacher marked her construction as “wrong” because she made her arcs below the line instead of above it, as the teacher had demonstrated. This teacher also counts answers as incorrect if the SAS Theorem is written as the SAS Postulate in proofs. Since different textbooks often name triangle congruence properties differently, this is an arbitrary distinction. This practice harms students by valuing imitation over sensemaking.

4. Moving the lesson along the path of “right answers”

Picture the following interaction:

Teacher:    “Can anyone tell me which is the vertical angle here?”

Layla:        “Angle C?”

Teacher:     “No. Robbie?”
Robbie:       “Angle D?”

Teacher: Yes. So now we know that Angle D also equals 38˚…

That type of interaction, called initiation-response-evaluation, is the most common format of mathematical talk in classrooms. Why is it potentially harmful? Let’s think about what Layla learned. She learned that she was wrong and, if she was listening, she learned that Angle D was the correct answer. However, she never got explicit instruction on why Angle C was incorrect. Over time, students like Layla often withdraw their participation from classroom discussions.

On the other hand, teachers who work with Layla’s incorrect answer –– or even better yet, value it as a good “non-example” to develop the class’s understanding of vertical angles –– increase student participation and mathematical confidence. And, they are doing more to grow everybody’s understanding.

What are other kinds of teaching practices that stand to “harm” students?

“What do you think and why?”

Today I got to virtually meet up with the amazing math teachers at the Park City Mathematics Institute. In addition to doing beautiful math problems, they have been involved in daily sessions called “Reflections on Practice.”


21st Century PD. I am beamed into the room. Photo: Suzanne Alejandre.

I knew that they had been talking a lot about the 5 Practices, so I decided to spend my time talking about how hard it was for most students to answer the question:

What do you think and why?

Persuading children to answer this question is a big obstacle to getting rich mathematical discourse off the ground in any classroom.

But think about it. That is a really tricky question to answer, both socially and intellectually.

I asked the teachers to spend some time thinking about why students might be reluctant to participate.

They brainstormed a great list:

  • Sometimes students are not able to articulate their thoughts.
  • Students might fear the judgment of their classmates.
  • Students have incomplete thoughts.
  • They are not always sure whether a question is a “right or wrong” question or a “share your thinking” question.
  • There may be social norms that communicate that being smart is bad.
  • They can be in crisis in their outside lives, making the question besides the point.
  • They may not see sharing their thinking as a part of their role as students.
  • They may have a very individual, internal process that makes “sharing” difficult.
  • They may try to share their ideas but find that they are not listened to or valued.
  • Sometimes students would rather not risk trying and failing, so it is safer to just not try.
  • Language barriers can make it difficult to share.

I have seen all of these things as a teacher and an observer of mathematics classrooms. It is really hard to get kids to share their thinking.

I told the teachers about two concepts that I found to help teachers address these challenges and successfully establish rich classroom discourse with their students.

The first one is classroom norms. The second is addressing social status, which I have written about here and here.

I shared a list of norms that I have found to help encourage participation.


Then I talked a little bit about status problems and how they can get in the way of productive mathematical conversation. First I defined status…


Then I talked about how status problems play out in classroom conversations.


My goal was to help teachers think about the things they can actually do to support productive participation in mathematical discussions. I gave the teachers some more time to think about these ideas and brainstorm ways of developing norms that help alleviate status problems.

Another great list was generated. I am adding my commentary to the teachers’ ideas.

  • Frequently vary groupings so people can be exposed to other people. This is important. A lot of times teachers want let students choose groups, which can especially aggravate status problems around social desirability. Other times, teachers use a “high, mid, low” achievement scheme. Students quickly size that up and know where they stand in the pecking order, which reinforces academic status problems.
  • Use “round-robins”: everybody gets 1 minute to speak, whether or not you use all of it. This is not one that I have used, but the teacher who introduced this idea talked about how they let the clock roll for the full minute, even when students only spoke for 15 seconds. The quiet time was usually good thinking time for his students.
  • Randomly call on kids. The teacher who introduced this one explained that she had playing cards taped on students’ desk, with the number representing their group (“the kings”, “the 12s”) and the suit representing an individual student. She could then pull out a card from her deck and call on “the 2 of diamonds.” I asked her what she did when a student didn’t know. She told me that she would sometimes get others to help them or move on then come back to them later, even if only for a summary statement. I added that I think it is really important to have a clear understanding in the class that partial answers count (see the “right and wrong” answer problem above) to successfully use random calling on kids. Otherwise students might shut down and feel on the spot.
  • Making an initiative to make norms school-wide.This was an insight close to my heart. As the teacher who contributed this idea said, it will be much more powerful for students to get the same message about how to participate from more adults in the school.
  • Tension: having students value ideas without getting stuck on ideas. This referred to the way kids can get wedded to particular ideas, even when they are wrong. I talked about how important it was to emphasize the value of changing your mind when you are convinced, not based on who is arguing with you. This is the heart of productive mathematical conversations.
  • Tension: shifting from right/wrong to reasoning. Need to be transparent. The teacher who talked about this saw that emphasizing reasoning can be a game-changer for students who are good at seeing patterns and memorizing methods. They may know how to do things but have no idea why they do things: they suddenly go from “good at math” to “challenged.” I suggested addressing the concerns of these students from the perspective of advocacy: “I love your enthusiasm for math! I know what happens as you go up the curriculum, and you will really need to understand why things work, so I am giving you a chance to build those skills now.”
  • Normalizing conflict through “sentence starters.” Conflict and arguing are usually seen as bad things to students, yet we want to create situations that allow for mathematical disagreements. By using sentence frames  –– and even posting them on the classroom walls –– we can help students learn to civilly disagree. For example, “I disagree because ____” or “How do you know that _____?” This also helps students press each other for justification.
  •  “Everyone listening, everyone speaking, everyone responsible for understanding.”
    This was a norm that could really help encourage participation.
  • Role playing & discussion as a way of (re)establishing norms. This teacher pointed out that norms sometimes need to be talked about explicitly –– and they often need to be revisited over the course of a school year. I added that I notice that certain curriculum topics (e.g., fractions) can bring up status issues, requiring certain norms to be revisited.
  • Celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn. How is that for normalizing confusion? Normalizing mistakes as a way for everybody to think harder about a topic or idea. I asked for some specific language for this, and the teacher suggested something like, “Thank you for bringing that up. We will all understand this better by discussing this.” (Sorry! This is from memory!)
  • High social status kids as “summarizers,” give them math status. Sometimes students with high social status do not have high academic status. By giving them a mathematical role, we can marshal the fact that others listen to them and help build their understanding by giving them a particular role.
  • Valuing different ways of contributing. Another one close to my heart! There are many ways to be smart at mathematics, and by valuing different ways kids can contribute, we can increase participation.

Thank you to the teachers of PCMI for the great conversation! Please add anything that I forgot to the comments section, and stay in touch!

The Vergara Decision and the Shock of Inequality

“The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

— Judge Rolf M. Treu, Vergara v. California, June 16, 2014

Are there ineffective teachers in California classrooms? Undoubtedly.

Do students living in poverty find themselves disproportionately faced with ineffective teaching? Absolutely.

Is this a good justification for weakening unions and limiting due process in the termination of teachers? Not at all.

Let me explain.

When we look at inequality from the comfort of privilege, it does indeed “shock the conscience” –– especially the first time you really look at just how unequal our educational system has become.

Like Judge Treu, I am outraged at what Richard Ingersoll first identified as the “maldistribution of teachers.” This refers to the way the most qualified teachers disproportionately work with the highest achieving and most affluent students –– even within the same school.

In fact, international comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparity in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.

Shocks the conscience, doesn’t it?

The diagnosis of teacher tenure as the root of this problem will not produce a cure. It’s the educational equivalent of putting leeches on the patient to let out “bad blood.”  It may make some intuitive sense based on our everyday educational discourse of “grit” and “innovation” –– but it also means you don’t actually understand the underlying causes of the problem.

What Ingersoll and other scholars have pointed to, time and again, are the organizational and working conditions that make it hard to staff high poverty schools –– so much so that there is a literature about “hard-to-staff schools.”

How hard-to-staff? As documented by Lora Bartlett in her book Migrant Teachers, between 2000-2010, US schools could not find enough teachers domestically to fill open positions, bringing in over 90,000 overseas trained teachers. They teach predominantly in urban schools with the highest poverty student populations in America.

With all the focus on Teach for America, Bartlett reports that “more overseas trained teachers have been sought to teach in America in the last ten years than there have been Teach for America teachers in the entire history of that program.”

The truth is that the problems facing our schools in the highest poverty communities exist so far off the experiential map of middle-class Americans that just seeing some of their challenges would provide a “shock of conscience.” Given that shock, the way is paved to point fingers at whatever bogeyman can be conjured.

In the Vergara case, the billionaire backers pointed to teachers unions and their role in giving teachers due process before termination.

Ironically, if research shows that poor working conditions are really the root cause of the maldistribution problem, reducing the negotiating power of unions is exactly the wrong solution.



Why We Need Strong Teacher Communities

I am glad that there have been a spate of headlines about the limitations of value-added modeling for assessing teachers. Ranking teachers primarily on the basis of student test scores not only goes against intuitive sense, but it is also junk science, as numerous professional organizations have said repeatedly. (Here is AERA’s statement. Here is ASA’s.)

There is a robust educational research finding, however, that seems to stay out of the headlines: the importance of good colleagues for teachers — and students.

This particular finding, which has been around for decades now, has a hard time capturing the public imagination because we are a society that thinks we do not have a society. We are a society that imagines individual characteristics like grit and dynamism and determination can overcome anything. We make movies about teacher heroes going against the grain, making us complacent about real inequities in our schools. The message seems to be, “Well, if we only had more determined teachers, these problems wouldn’t exist.”

Yet all the research on schools and departments that defy the statistical odds of their student demographics find the same thing time and again: it is not the individual teachers in themselves that make the difference. It is teacher teams working together to raise expectations, coordinate systems, and support students over the years that make a difference.

Think about it. Inequality is an institutional problem. Why do we imagine a lone individual can change these systemic forces?

Especially when we have so much evidence that strong teacher teams can.

In high schools, Valerie Lee and her colleagues looked at the situations that support equitable achievement. To find such achievement, they looked for schools in which students’ demographic background variables (among them race and socioeconomic status) were not strongly predictive of their eventual level of attainment. Schools that have achieved equitable outcomes share identifiable traits: they have a rigorous common curriculum and a strong organizational push for students to enroll in challenging courses. In mathematics departments, Rochelle Gutiérrez found that teachers who take collective responsibility for their students’ success contribute substantially to this organizational push.

Similar findings have been published in top journals by David Strahan, Karen Seashore Louis, Tony Bryk, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert. In my own work, I have seen how teachers’ collective responsibility supports students’ long-term positive engagement in the mathematics curriculum.

Teachers who work together can coordinate expectations across the grades, increasing expectations for student responsibility as they mature. Teamwork can give the teachers a place to hold the sometimes-abstract ideas of professional development up against the complex realities of their classrooms. For instance, in one school I worked with, the teachers were implementing a new curriculum and had received training in using it. When one unit required particular cultural knowledge that many of their students did not share, the teachers figured out an appropriate adaptation to bring their students up to speed on a topic the textbook took for granted.

In addition, the team allowed the teachers to coordinate their instruction, pacing lessons together and developing shared language and representations for key mathematical concepts. This allowed teachers to easily tutor one another’s students after school or in support classes, since everyone knew what kinds of conversations and presentations were going on in the classrooms. The collaboration directly contributed to the teachers’ mathematical learning as well. When teachers did not fully understand a concept, or could not anticipate the ways in which a topic would be hard for students, they turned to one another for brief tutorials or ideas to bring into their own classrooms.
Besides all of the ways in which the collaboration supported the goal of increased student achievement, the teachers consistently reported the unexpected benefit of the emotional support they garnered from the team approach. As one teacher reported, “When there’s a problem, when there are issues with a kid, there’s a group to talk about it, to say, ‘Hey, there are issues here. What do you suggest? What do you think? What’s a good way to go?’ And so you have this whole giant support system.”

If the preponderance of evidence points to the importance of collaboration in achieving equity, why is this not a commonplace feature of teachers’ work?

Teachers who want to meet and collaborate with their colleagues often do so at great personal expense. Frequently, they end up donating hours before and after school or sacrificing their scant preparation time. Even in places where teamwork becomes an explicit part of their work, it is seldom adequately offset by any reductions in other time-intensive job duties or it gets taken over by administrative demands.

I would love policy makers to shift their imagination from threats and sanctions against either individual teachers or entire schools to think about how to make productive collaboration a meaningful part of teachers’ work.

Grabbing the Mic at #EWA14

My esteemed university hosted the Education Writers Association conference this year.

(You can check the hashtag #ewa14 on twitter — it turns out journalists are mad live tweeters!)


The guy talking is José Vilson. He was keeping it real.

Unfortunately, since I wasn’t asked to actually speak, all I could do is tweet and then blog about it later. So this is my socially acceptable version of grabbing the mic.

Here are some points about education and research that I would like to share with the members of EWA.

Learning is a complex phenomenon, and the best teaching will need to address learning at every grain size.

Is learning about changes in our neural networks? Is learning about reorganizing our schematic understandings of the world? Is learning about becoming a certain kind of person in the world?

The answer to all of these questions is: YES.

These descriptions of learning are rooted in different disciplinary perspectives –– neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, respectively. This is the state of the field of learning sciences: we do not yet have unified narratives of learning (although people are trying) because  each framework powerfully leverages certain kinds of issues.

Discussions about schooling usually tacitly focus on the cognitive psychology framework. However, any discussion of learning can be enriched by at least considering what other versions of learning might offer in the way of explanation. Imagine if discussions of the so-called achievement gap didn’t simply focus on students’ deficits but talked about the neurological consequences of PTSD or the identity conflicts students might experience buying into school as an institution.

Unequal schooling may be a fact of our American life, but it could be mitigated with greater political will.

According a 2011 report from the Organization for Economic Development, student socioeconomic status accounts for 17 percent of the variation in student performance in U.S. reading, mathematics, and science instruction. In higher-performing countries, such as Canada and Japan, socioeconomic status accounts for only 9 percent of the variation in student performance. That is almost twice the variance due to SES.

With our culture of individualism, we are in love with the idea of the hero-teacher saving students. This narrative has been critiqued by sociologists as reinforcing white, middle-class fantasies of urban communities.

However, racism and inequality are structural problems. One individual cannot change –– or even mitigate –– structure. Research repeatedly shows the the potential for teams of educators to work in ways that minimize such stratification by supporting all students’ academic advancement (Burris, Heubert & Levin, 2006; Gutiérrez, 1996; Lee, Smith & Croninger, 1997).

Not all parents are middle class parents.

During the panel I attended on the Common Core, a number of speakers talked about parents’ role in children’s schooling. Yet I kept thinking (and tweeting) that not all parents are middle class parents. Sociologists studying inequality have found that different parenting styles have consequences for children’s “fit” in institutions. Sociologist Annette Lareau named a prevalent middle class parenting style concerted cultivation, referring to an orientation toward children’s individual needs, arranging out-of-school time with formally organized activities, and running interference with children’s institutional relationships.

This seemed to be the taken-for-granted parent in the panel’s discussion. Having taught in highly diverse, working class schools in Northern California, I can attest to the fact that concerted cultivation does not describe the parenting style I encountered as a teacher. But that did not mean that parents did not care. They themselves had different resources, different social positions, and different access to schooling, whether they were constrained by language, multiple jobs, or simply deference to institutional authority.

Objectivity is not always achieved by seeking both sides of an issue, since the empirical grounds for each side may not be equally weighted. Objectivity almost always involves interrogating your own social position.

Talking to folks at EWA, there is a lot of professional pride in the journalistic commitment to objectivity. People praised stories that showed both sides of an issue. But if “both sides” are ignoring critical, structural aspects of schooling and education, then an important component of the story has been missed. I think that this has been missed on “both sides” of the Common Core “debate”, as I explained here.

Thanks for listening. Feel free to comment if you have questions.

Reconciling Dual Consciousness in Teaching

In one of the first chapters of José Luis Vilson’s new memoir, This is Not a Test, we see him proctor a district-mandated math test for his middle school students in Morningside Heights. We are offered a peek inside Vilson’s head, as he struggles between his teacher self, Mr. Vilson, and his authentic self, José.

“I don’t want to take this test!”
José thinks, Good me neither.
Mr. Vilson says, “I understand, but don’t you want to do well?”

Vilson’s narration of the scene is comitragic, as he grapples to keep his footing as a school authority in the face of his students’ barrage of reasonable objections.

One way to read Vilson’s memoir is as a journey toward authenticity in the classroom, as he finds ways to reconcile the inevitable tensions that arise from this dual consciousness represented by José and Mr. Vilson. The current NCLB testing regime, with its requirements to rank and sort his students, places the greatest split between these two selves. Vilson is clear what his cause is: it’s not anti-testing as much as it is pro-children. He sees firsthand the injustices and pressures that the current accountability system places on them. But his objections are full of nuance and detail, making them worth listening to.

As a teacher, his connection with his students cuts deep. As a Dominican American, Vilson speaks fluent Spanish and has dark brown skin. His vignettes from the classroom portray the salience of both his Latino and Black identities in his teaching.

Unlike many memoirs, the scenes in the book extend beyond the classroom. We learn, for instance, that Vilson was raised in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attending both public and Catholic schools. His own experiences in school do more than fill in biographical detail. They provide a deeper understanding of his own conflicted relationship with the institution of schooling. We hear of the many ways his educational experiences lifted him, especially the wonderful Father Jack at Nativity School, who served as a mentor even after Vilson graduated. We also learn of his encounters with racism, particularly in the predominantly white Xavier High School, where he faced a teacher who refused to see his competence, not just on written assignments but in verbal exchanges in the classroom.

Vilson’s story takes a unique place in the genre of teacher memoirs. In part, this is a unique moment in our educational history, with NCLB bringing unprecedented testing and monitoring to our schools. As Vilson himself recognizes, urban schools like his have felt the press of the accountability system more keenly than the “high performing” suburban schools. Since test scores strongly correlate to parents’ income and level of education, there is no surprise in this state of affairs. Yet it has led to a situation where communities with the least power on the federal landscape have felt the greatest impact of the policy. Vilson’s first-person account of the NCLB era, from the vantage point of an urban school teacher, provides important documentation of this policy’s footprint.

In addition, Vilson’s memoir stands apart from other urban teacher stories. With his commitment to his students’ humanity, his writing brought to mind classic memoirs like Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children and Vivian Paley’s White Teacher. Like Vilson’s work, these books delve into the teacher narrators’ personal growth as they develop their practice in face of a system that can be dehumanizing to children. However, the depth to which Vilson interleaves his own autobiography of schooling sets it apart from the memoirs of these white teachers. Unlike Kohl and Paley, Vilson’s identity work as a teacher was not about recognizing the salience of race in education but rather managing his own alignment with institutions that too often ignore it.

In the final section of the book, Vilson finds his teacher voice, one that seems to mitigate the tensions between José and Mr. Vilson. Nowhere is that more beautifully represented than in the poem that gives the book its name, This is Not a Test. He reads it at the Save Our Schools March, an anti-testing rally in Washington, D.C. With its hiphop rhythms and intelligent word play, Vilson advocates for his students and speaks out against the barrage of testing, in a sense bringing the reasonable objections of his students to a national stage. The reconciliation of consciousness, then, comes from activism and advocacy on behalf of students and teachers.

I don’t want to spoil the moment beyond that, but I was moved to find the YouTube video of the rally so I could truly hear these words in Vilson’s voice. Here it is, if you are interested:

In the end, Vilson’s book makes an important contribution in several ways. At a time where only 7 percent of the US’s 3.3 million teachers identify as Black and 8 percent as Latino, we need a better understanding of teachers of colors’ experiences in our educational system. Vilson’s generous recounting of his own experiences provided me insights as a teacher educator about the different kind of identity work teachers of color might engage in.

As a contribution to the teacher memoir genre, it is a wholly original work. Vilson is as likely to cite educational research as he is hip hop lyrics. He is both deadly serious and incredibly funny. Overall it is an engaging and worthwhile read for anyone interested in race, educational equality, and the impact of NCLB policy.

The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Edu World

Recently, my twitter world has been on fire in response to comedian Louis C.K.’s anti-Common Core rant.

It started with this tweet:

A lot has been said already — check out Audrey Watters’ storify on the subject for one example.

I agree that, as a parent, C.K. is a stakeholder in public education and therefore should have a voice. But I would like to attempt to push back a bit to put the Common Core Standards in a little bit of context in the hopes that C.K. and other middle class parents can sharpen their advocacy.

As I have said previously, we need to distinguish among the standards, their implementation, and the accountability system they have been stuck into. Otherwise, we will repeat our American tendency to simply throw out babies with the bathwater.

In the spirit of nuance, I have two responses to Louis C.K.’s tweet and those who endorse it:

(1) The Common Core is not the same as No Child Left Behind. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been implemented hastily and without any modification of the NCLB accountability system in many places. This has resulted in middle-class public schools feeling the heat that has been around for some time in schools in lower-income communities, as teachers worry about evaluations that are based on assessments and standards that are unfamiliar, and perhaps in their hurried, underfinanced implementation, unreasonable.

The kind of overkill test prep has been going on for a long time in schools who don’t rate well under the NCLB regime. These schools are put on probationary status, as they have to demonstrate making “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Researchers (including myself) have reported that test prep has taken over other more humanistic educational goals like so much kudzu. I predicted that if rapid implementation led to this form of schooling for the middle class, there would be a larger outcry.

(2) The goal of standards is to provide more equal learning opportunities.

Do you remember Williams vs. California? Students from high poverty communities sued the state because state agencies failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers.

This is a serious problem. I had the opportunity to visit schools across the country in the mid-1990s. To deform Gertrude Stein, algebra wasn’t algebra wasn’t algebra. The content of courses could too easily be predicted by the community’s SES. Even the best students in high poverty schools were not given the same level of content as mediocre students in wealthy schools.
Standards are not a perfect solution, but they are a tool to set a bar that is public and transparent for teachers, students, and communities. They say, “This is what algebra needs to include. Students, you have a right to learn this. Educators, you need to work out how to get students there.”

Of course, this last part of the mandate is where we find the rub. Educators are expected to know how to successfully work with the standards NOW — often with minimal support and training, and certainly with very little time.

As I have listened to some of the push back on the actual content of the CCSS, the most troubling to me is along the lines of “our kids can’t do that.”

Let me just say right out: I am quite certain that almost all of them can. How many Bob Moseses and Megan Bangs do we need showing us the unrecognized competence in kids of color or kids in poverty? Something needs to be done to bring high quality content to all students. Standards should not be the only tool, but they could be one of several that would include full funding of education and improving teachers’ working conditions to attract and retain our best people.
I  know firsthand that figuring out new ways of teaching to engage that different kinds of mathematical competence are hard and take huge investments on the part of schools.

The question remains: what are we going to let prevail? The status quo in which the kids whose parents have the ears of the world can have a quality education while others remain on the margins? Education is a key to a democratic society. The standards may not be perfect but they can be one tool of rectifying our history of unequal education.

How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?

I was pleased with the responses to my last post. A number of teachers reached out via twitter and comments, asking how they might build math- and kid-positive cultures in their own schools.

I can’t offer any large scale studies of the answer to this question, even though I am currently engaged in a research project that is trying to work with districts on similar issues. But I can share some of the experiences I had working with teachers in the Pacific Northwest toward this goal.

Gather invested colleagues around a common problem.

I always say, I have yet to meet a teacher who goes into the profession for the glamor or the money. Almost everybody who becomes a teacher wants to help kids. Find the folks whose heart is still in that. Find the ones who are willing and able to invest the time in their professional growth and look for a problem to work on.

That is what we did in the partnership project that went on for 6 years with some urban high schools. We started teachers at a school we called Septima Clark High. To get started on our work together, we used a process called “The 5 Whys” to try to get at the root of a problem that was bothering them. Their burning question was: why are so many kids failing 9th grade math?

First we brainstormed the answers to this question. I listened and recorded the brainstorm non-judgmentally and without conversation. This went on for over an hour, and we only got to a second level of “whys.” The result came to be known among us as “The Wall” because, as I wrote all the reasons on giant post it notes, they filled an entire wall. Seeing all the answers to this question was rather overwhelming.

The Wall

The next step in the process was to look at this vast list and identify the things we could actually do something about. I underlined these. A small fraction of the reasons were actionable, but they gave us a way in to make a plan and set goals.

We sorted the actionable reasons into categories. From this, the teachers arrived at two conclusions:

  • that their curriculum wasn’t engaging all students, and
  • they needed to update their teaching practices.

The process was vital to teachers’ sense of ownership over our subsequent work.

Work together on a productive framing of that problem, linked back to math teaching and learning.

It’s one thing to identify a problem, like a high failure rate in 9th grade math. It’s altogether another thing to come up with a productive framing of that problem. Problem framings are how we define the parameters of something.

All too commonly, it is easy to point fingers and play the blame game: prior teachers did not do their job; the promotion policies that pass kids along; a lack of academic role models in kids’ lives. These reasons made the teachers’ brainstormed list. But none of them supported anything actionable on the part of the teachers. On the other hand, things like “kids aren’t engaged in the mathematics” did provide inroads for the teachers. By pressing teachers on what they can do, the framing that came out of this observation was that classroom activities and structures needed to encourage more participation. That was something teachers could work on.

Get support to have the time and space to meet to work on that problem regularly.

The hardest part about this process is that there is no way around how time-intensive it is. We all know teachers’ days are already overly full, despite the myth of teaching as an “easy, kid-friendly schedule.” Time diary studies of teachers’ work show that they work long hours, fitting a lot in on schooldays, weekends, and summers.

This is where administrative support can help. If there is already professional development time designated for your school, see if you can repurpose it for your goals. Even one hour after school weekly can make a difference. The best situation is to have common planning time with your collaborators, but this is a tricky and even expensive investment for schools.

Set short term and long term goals for your work, and find resources.

Too often, educational reform is treated like an appliance that can be brought anywhere and work the same way every time. We expect schools and teachers to “try” something, as if it’s just a matter of flipping a switch and saying yea or nay.

Education, however, is a human endeavor. The specifics of any setting and situation matter a lot for what works and how to get it working. Change takes time, especially ones that press on teachers to examine their core assumptions about teaching, learning, and mathematics.

One of my former doctoral students, Nicole Bannister, studied the Septima Clark teachers for her dissertation. She writes about their learning process and how they found ways to see and support their struggling students in their classrooms.

Celebrate the small victories, because there will always be setbacks and challenges.

School was originally designed on the factory model. Knowledge was thought of as a product that teachers could give to students efficiently on a set schedule. We now know that learning does not work that way — deeper understandings that support retention and fluency with mathematics cannot simply be delivered.

Re-culturing teaching –– reimagining the relations among students, mathematics, and teachers, as well as the activities that happen in the classroom –– to support more effective learning  is challenging work. Fundamentally, it involves working against the institutional grain of schooling, so there will be setbacks and challenges. For this reason, the small triumphs cannot go unnoticed: the student who makes sense of an idea for the first time, the one who participates after a long period of silence, the eagerness students have for a certain problem or project. All of these moments matter and need to be shared with the team. Otherwise, a team risks discouragement and burnout.

Share your work to help build critical mass.

Even before any results came in, the Clark teachers worked hard to communicate what they were doing with colleagues and parents. They held a meeting in the school library one evening to explain their understanding of the failure rate problem and the work they were invested in addressing it. Having the community support mattered. Even skeptical parents were heard saying, “If the teachers are this excited about what they are doing, I won’t stand in their way.”

Eventually, the kind of results administrators care about came in too. In the 2004-05 school year, before the team’s work began, less than half of the students who entered ninth grade at or below grade level were promoted to 10th-grade math. The following academic year, 83%
of those students were promoted.


This was not about dummying down content. In fact, the mathematical depth of classroom activities increased, as did student participation.

During the next state testing cycle, the student gains at the school caught the attention of the district. As the above chart shows, we saw higher achievement among Black* students and low income students, two groups that were of concern in the school and district. Soon, other schools wanted to learn about their work. Clark became a place that administrators visited, as did other teams of teachers.

*   *   *

The ongoing challenge for departments that reculture is how to sustain that work over time. In the last post, I told you about Railside, a place where I studied and taught. They managed to sustain their work for over two decades before policy pressures undid significant aspects of their work. Maybe if we can get critical mass at a national level, we can convince more people that organizing teaching so kids can learn is a worthwhile investment.



* I use the term “Black” because some students were African and some were African American, but they generally referred to themselves as black.