Public Education Matters for Democracy

I have struggled to find my place in my online communities as the political ground has so dramatically shifted in the past few months. The US Presidential election fostered a climate that counters so much of what I stand for as an educator and a citizen. My twitter feed has been taken over by politics as I watch so many institutions struggle to uphold our democracy, institutions designed to safeguard cherished ideals like free speech, the right to assemble, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am grateful to have spent the week between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the Inauguration with a group of like-minded scholars at a Spencer-sponsored conference at UCLA. We share a commitment to preparing asset- and equity-oriented educators, so it was a great moment to figure out what that might mean in the years ahead.


Left to right: Manka Varghese, Matt Diemer, me, Lauren Anderson, Mariana Souto-Manning, Dorinda Carter Andrews, Thomas Philip, Jamy Stillman


Clockwise from left: Gloria Ladson-Billings, Mariana Souto-Manning, Lauren Anderson, Elizabeth Self, Thomas Philip, Matt Diemer, me, Alfredo Artiles, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Jamy Stillman, Josephine Pham, Dorinda Carter Andrews

It was a productive week for clarifying my values and commitments. We even wrote an editorial together arguing against Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

I think I will need to return to these commitments a lot over the coming years. For this reason, I am going to go back to basics and sharing those commitments with you.

To be sure, I have no illusions that the prior administration upheld my educational values. Market-based reforms have been a centerpiece of educational policy for the past several administrations. President Bush’s landmark legislation No Child Left Behind certainly advanced this agenda, but President Obama’s Race to the Top put it on steroids. By tying teaching and learning to narrow metrics, discourses of desirable educational outcomes became less about children’s growth, their humanity, and their potential as future citizens. On the whole, national goals for children’s learning slid to the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I believe in education as a public good. We live in a time and place where the ethos of individualism prevails. In this logic, if my kids are okay, everything is fine. In contrast, if we see education as a public good, our concerns must extend beyond our own children into our communities, states, and country. Whether we realize it or not, we have a vested interest in the solid education of all our citizens. To take an example that begins with  individual needs, I want the nurse administering my chemo to know the difference between .5 L and .05 L when pulling the dose. Beyond that basic skill, I also want him to be an empathetic person who can talk my family and I through our fear. There are countless situations where our personal interests depend on others’ competence and humanity.

Market-based reforms emphasize competition between institutions. This corrodes the ideal of schools as places that should be serving children and communities, contributing to their development and well-being. In a market-based framework, there are winners and losers, successes and failures. Despite meritocratic ideas, these winners and losers are not determined by raw talent but rather the status and resources of children and their families. I recognize that education has always been an unevenly distributed resource, especially in the U.S. I felt I could do my work as an advocate, because there were enough shared commitments to democratic ideals of opportunity. I am not so sure at this moment.

I believe that meaningful learning engages the whole person. It is not just knowing but also becoming. In my work, I study what it means to teach in ways that allow children become mathematicians. I also study what it means for teachers to become humanistic educators who engage with children’s experiences, build learning communities, and respond thoughtfully to children’s ideas.

Some children, however, are given more opportunities to become themselves than others. This starts with issues of language and culture, with some children’s home language and culture fitting into the social patterns of school, providing an important resource for their success there. Aside from such cultural capital, parents actual capital allows them to navigate the system in radically different ways. I have noticed a pattern in middle class parents’ rationale for sending their children to private schools. Most of the time, they are working to preserve their child’s competence. A child’s anxiety increases untenably in a test-prep focused school. A child’s difficulties with memorization lead to failing grades in a narrow curriculum. A child’s artistic strengths are not given adequate play in the school day. A child is inadequately challenged by a constantly changing cast of temp-work teachers.

I believe that strong community schools can anchor families and bring neighborhoods together around common concerns. Community schools, at their best, provide gathering places. They allow neighborhoods to feel like neighborhoods, with children getting to know the people around them. When there is a shared concern, community schools provide a space for people to come together around that concern. Dissolving community schools feels like another part of the effort to weaken the collective impact of people with shared interests.

In short, I believe that public education is central to meeting the ideals of our democracy. I know that a lot of work needs to be done to have it meet these ideals, but if we gut it completely, we will only be further behind on meeting the potential and promise of America.

Supporting Instructional Growth in Mathematics (Project SIGMa)

Good news to share: another research grant has been funded by the National Science Foundation. Yay!

For this project, my research team and I will be working with Math for America in Los Angeles to design a video-based coaching method for their Master Teacher Fellow program.

sigma logo

This is what we pitched to the NSF:

This study addresses the need to develop processes for adequate and timely feedback to inform mathematics teachers’ instructional improvement goals. In this study, we propose using design-based implementation research to develop and investigate a process for documenting mathematics teachers’ instruction in a way that is close to classroom practice and contributes to teachers’ ongoing pedagogical sense making. The practical contribution will be a framework for formative feedback for mathematics teachers’ learning in and from practice. The intellectual contribution will be a theory of mathematics teachers’ learning, as they move from typical to more ambitious forms of teaching in the context of urban secondary schools. Both the practical and theoretical products can inform the design of professional development and boost other instructional improvement efforts.

In a recent Spencer study, my team and I investigated how teachers used standardized test data to inform their instruction. (That team was Mollie Appelgate, Jason Brasel, Brette Garner, Britnie Kane, and Jonee Wilson.)

Part of the theory of accountability policies like No Child Left Behind is that students fail to learn because teachers do not always know what they know. By providing teachers with better information, teachers can adjust instruction and reach more students. There are a few ways we saw that theory break down. First, the standardized test data did not always come back to teachers in a timely fashion. It doesn’t really help teachers adjust  instruction when the information arrives in September about students they taught last May. Second, the standardized test data took a lot of translation to apply to what teachers did in their classroom. Most of the time, teachers used data to identify frequently challenging topics and simply re-taught them. So students got basically the same instruction again, instead of instruction that had been modified to address central misunderstandings. We called this “more of the same,” which is not synonymous with better instruction. Finally, there were a lot of issues of alignment. Part of how schools and districts addressed the first problem on this list was by giving interim assessments –– basically mini versions of year end tests. Often, the instruments were designed in-house and thus not psychometrically validated, so they may have not always measured what they purported to measure. Other times, districts bought off-the-shelf interim assessments whose items had been developed in the traditional (and more expensive) manner. However, these tests seldom aligned to the curriculum. You can read the synopsis here.

Accountability theory’s central idea  ––  giving teachers feedback –– seemed important. We saw where that version broke down, so we wanted to figure out a way to give feedback that was closer to what happens in the classroom and doesn’t require so much translation to improve instruction. Data-informed action is a good idea, we just wanted to think about better kinds of data. We plan to use a dual video coaching system — yet to be developed — to help teachers make sharper interpretations of what is happening in their classrooms.

Why did we partner MfA LA? When I reviewed the literature on teachers’ professional learning, they seemed to be hitting all the marks of what we know to be effective professional development. They focus on content knowledge; organize their work around materials that can be used in the classroom; focus on specific instructional practices; they have a coherent and multifaceted professional development program; and they garner the support of teacher communities. Despite hitting all of these marks, the program knows it can do more to support teachers.

This is where I, as a researcher, get to make conjectures. I looked at the professional development literature and compared it to what we know about teacher learning. MfA may hit all the marks in the PD literature, but when we look at what we know about learning, we can start to see some gaps.

*Conjecture 1 Professional learning activities need to address teachers’ existing concepts about and practices for teaching.


Conjecture 2 Professional learning activities need to align with teachers’ personal goals for their learning.


Conjecture 3 Professional learning activities need to draw on knowledge of accomplished teaching.


*Conjecture 4 Professional learning activities need to respond to issues that come up in teachers’ ongoing instruction


*Conjecture 5 Professional learning activities need to provide adequate and timely feedback on teachers’ attempts to improve their instructional practice to support their ongoing efforts.


Conjecture 6 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with a community of like-minded colleagues to learn with and garner support from as they work through the challenges inevitable in transformative learning.


*Conjecture 7 Professional learning activities should provide teachers with rich images of their own classroom teaching.


The conjectures with * are the ones we will use to design our two camera coaching method.

We need to work out the details (that’s the research!) but  teacher’s instruction will be recorded with two cameras, one to capture their perspective on significant teaching moments and a second to capture an entire class session. The first self-archiving, point-of-view camera will be mounted on the teacher’s head. When the teacher decides that a moment of classroom discourse illustrates work toward her learning goal, she will press a button on a remote worn around her wrist that will archive video of that interaction, starting 30 seconds prior to her noticing the event. (As weird as it sounds, it has been used successfully by Elizabeth Dyer and Miriam Sherin!)  The act of archiving encodes the moment as significant and worthy of reflection. For example, if a teacher’s learning goal is to incorporate the CCSSM practice of justification into her classroom discourse, she will archive moments that she thinks illustrate her efforts to get students to justify their reasoning. Simultaneously, a second tablet-based camera would record the entire class session using Swivl®. Swivl® is a capture app installed in the tablet. It works with a robot tripod and tracks the teacher as she moves around the room, allowing for a teacher-centered recording of the whole class session. Extending the prior example, the tablet-based recording will allow project team members to review the class session to identify moments where the teacher might support students’ justifying their reasoning but did not do so. The second recording also captures the overall lesson, capturing some of the lesson tone and classroom dynamics that are a critical context for the archived interactions. Through a discussion and comparison of what the teachers capture and what the project team notices, teachers will receive feedback on their work toward their learning goals. We will design this coaching system to address the starred conjectures in the table

Anyway, I am super excited about this project. I am working with amazing graduate students: Grace Chen, Brette Garner, and Samantha Marshall. Plus, my partners at MfA LA: Darryl Yong and Pam Mason.

I will keep you posted!




Making Sense of Student Performance Data

Kim Marshall draws on his 44 years’ experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator and writer to compile the Marshall Memo, a weekly summary of 64 publications that have articles of interest to busy educators. He shared one of my recent articles, co-authored with doctoral students Britnie Kane and Jonee Wilson, in his latest memo and gave me permission to post her succinct and useful summary.

In this American Educational Research Journal article, Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson (Vanderbilt University) report on their study of how seventh-grade math teams in two urban schools worked with their students’ interim assessment data. The teachers’ district, under pressure to improve test scores, paid teams of teachers and instructional coaches to write interim assessments. These tests, given every six weeks, were designed to measure student achievement and hold teachers accountable. The district also provided time for teacher teams to use the data to inform their instruction. Horn, Kane, and Wilson observed and videotaped seventh-grade data meetings in the two schools, visited classrooms, looked at a range of artifacts, and interviewed and surveyed teachers and district officials. They were struck by how different the team dynamics were in the two schools, which they called Creekside Middle School and Park Falls Middle School. Here’s some of what they found:

  • Creekside’s seventh-grade team operated under what the authors call an instructional management logic, focused primarily on improving the test scores of “bubble” students. The principal, who had been in the building for a number of years, was intensely involved at every level, attending team meetings and pushing hard for improvement on AYP proficiency targets. The school had a full-time data manager who produced displays of interim assessment and state test results. These were displayed (with students’ names) in classrooms and elsewhere around the school. The principal also organized Saturday Math Camps for students who needed improvement. He visited classrooms frequently and had the school’s full-time math coach work with teachers whose students needed improvement. Interestingly, the math coach had a more sophisticated knowledge of math instruction than the principal, but the principal dominated team meetings.

In one data meeting, the principal asked teachers to look at interim assessment data to predict how their African-American students (the school’s biggest subgroup in need of AYP improvement) would do on the upcoming state test. The main focus was on these “bubble” students. “I have 18% passing, 27% bubble, 55% growth,” reported one teacher. The team was urged to motivate the targeted students, especially quiet, borderline kids, to personalize instruction, get marginal students to tutorials, and send them to Math Camp. The meeting spent almost no time looking at item results to diagnose ways in which teaching was effective or ineffective. The outcome: providing attention and resources to identified students. A critique: the team didn’t have at its fingertips the kind of item-by-item analysis of student responses necessary to have a discussion about improving math instruction, and the principal’s priority of improving the scores of the “bubble” students prevented a broader discussion of improving teaching for all seventh graders. “The prospective work of engaging students,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “predominantly addressed the problem of improving test scores without substantially re-thinking the work of teaching, thus providing teachers with learning opportunities about redirecting their attention – and very little about the instructional nature of that attention… The summative data scores simply represented whether students had passed: they did not point to troublesome topics… By excluding critical issues of mathematics learning, the majority of the conversation avoided some of the potentially richest sources of supporting African-American bubble kids – and all students… Finally, there was little attention to the underlying reasons that African-American students might be lagging in achievement scores or what it might mean for the mostly white teachers to build motivating rapport, marking this as a colorblind conversation.”

  • The Park Falls seventh-grade team, working in the same district with the same interim assessments and the same pressure to raise test scores, used what the authors call an instructional improvement logic. The school had a brand-new principal, who was rarely in classrooms and team meetings, and an unhelpful math coach who had conflicts with the principal. This meant that teachers were largely on their own when it came to interpreting the interim assessments. In one data meeting, teachers took a diagnostic approach to the test data, using a number of steps that were strikingly different from those at Creekside:
  • Teachers reviewed a spreadsheet of results from the latest interim assessment and identified items that many students missed.
  • One teacher took the test himself to understand what the test was asking of students mathematically.
  • In the meeting, teachers had three things in front of them: the actual test, a data display of students’ correct and incorrect responses, and the marked-up test the teacher had taken.
  • Teachers looked at the low-scoring items one at a time, examined students’ wrong answers, and tried to figure out what students might have been thinking and why they went for certain distractors.
  • The team moved briskly through 18 test items, discussing possible reasons students

missed each one – confusing notation, skipping lengthy questions, mixing up similar-sounding words, etc.

  • Teachers were quite critical of the quality of several test items – rightly so, say Horn, Kane, and Wilson – but this may have distracted them from the practical task of figuring out how to improve their students’ test-taking skills.

The outcome of the meeting: re-teaching topics with attention to sources of confusion. A critique: the team didn’t slow down and spend quality time on a few test items, followed by a more thoughtful discussion about successful and unsuccessful teaching approaches. “The tacit assumption,” conclude Horn, Kane, and Wilson, “seemed to be that understanding student thinking would support more-effective instruction… The Park Falls teachers’ conversation centered squarely on student thinking, with their analysis of frequently missed items and interpretations of student errors. This activity mobilized teachers to modify their instruction in response to identified confusion… Unlike the conversation at Creekside, then, this discussion uncovered many details of students’ mathematical thinking, from their limited grasp of certain topics to miscues resulting from the test’s format to misalignments with instruction.” However, the Park Falls teachers ran out of time and didn’t focus on next instruction steps. After a discussion about students’ confusion about the word “dimension,” for example, one teacher said, “Maybe we should hit that word.” [Creekside and Park Falls meetings each had their strong points, and an ideal team data-analysis process would combine elements from both: the principal providing overall leadership and direction but deferring to expert guidance from a math coach; facilitation to focus the team on a more-thorough analysis of a few items; and follow-up classroom observations and ongoing discussions of effective and less-effective instructional practices. In addition, it would be helpful to have higher-quality interim assessments and longer meetings to allow for fuller discussion. K.M.] “Making Sense of Student Performance Data: Data Use Logics and Mathematics Teachers’ Learning Opportunities” by Ilana Seidel Horn, Britnie Delinger Kane, and Jonee Wilson in American Educational Research Journal, April 2015 (Vol. 52, #2, p. 208-242

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.

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.

What are “teaching disasters” and how do we talk about them?

My #AERA14 session was on professional language in teaching. Stanford graduate student Jamie O’Keeffe organized a panel with Pam Grossman, Deborah Ball and me. Judith Warren Little provided the commentary.

Why focus on professional language? Many agree that professional language in teaching is underspecified, opening the field to a host of difficulties, especially inefficiency and confusion in communicating about pedagogical issues and the inability to delineate for those both inside and outside the profession what the professional knowledge of teaching is. Researchers worry that, as a consequence of this under-specificity, teachers’ conversations often become what Deborah Ball and David Cohen once described as “an exchange of buzzwords and slogans more than specific descriptions and analyses with concrete referents.”

So Jamie challenged us to engage in issues about what it would take to professionalize language about teaching.

The discussion engaged many interesting issues. My research involves spending hours and hours of video watching practicing teachers talk together about their work. I study how teachers identify and make progress on what they perceive to be problems in their work. It helps me get a better handle on teacher thinking, the differences between teachers of different levels of accomplishment, and how these conversations contribute to classroom instruction.

The work I drew from was done in collaboration with my graduate student, Britnie Kane. Here are a few premises derived from our research:

  • Words in themselves are not inherently meaningful. Terms develop meaning in use in particular contexts. What one teacher means by “scaffolding” may not align at all with another teacher’s meaning. Meanings are dependent on larger perspectives and stances on the work.
  • Terms in teaching overlap with a number of everyday terms, leaving them open to common sense (rather than technical) meanings. “Think” is the 12th most frequently used verb in the language. We also say things like “learn” or “understand” all the time in everyday life.
  • Teaching contexts matter in meaning construction. David Cohen once described teaching as “the deliberate cultivation of learning in others.” We add “in particular teaching situations.” The details of teaching situations — who are the students, what is the context, who is the teacher, what resources and constraints are available –– matter enormously in what is possible and interact deeply with any notion of expertise. Our current vocabulary for teaching situations is clearly inadequate (e.g., “an urban school”).
  • Concepts in teaching evolve as teachers develop language and link them to particular teaching experiences. That means as teachers encounter new situations, their understanding of big teaching ideas changes too. For instance, the idea of status is never fully understood because status issues play out differently in different classrooms and schools.

In one study Britnie and I worked on, we compared the talk of teachers working in institutionally similar environments working toward similar mathematics instruction. The different groups were, on the whole, at different levels of accomplishment in this teaching practice. One important finding was that there was no significant difference in the number of technical terms used by teachers at different levels of instructional accomplishment. But there talk differed in other ways. Notably, there was a marked difference in the extent to which the most accomplished group focused on students and their thinking. They also consistently linked any talk of instruction or mathematics back to students.

So back to our AERA panel. What does this mean for the development of professional language for teaching? It is no doubt a challenge to try to coordinate meaning across one of the largest professions out there.

One idea really stood out to me in the course of the conversation.

Professions often develop the most precise vocabulary to avert potential disasters.

Think of pilots landing a plane. Think of doctors resuscitating a patient. There is a lot of extremely precise language to guide action in these events. So what is a disaster in teaching?

Listening to teachers talk, I often hear them debrief on the unexpected turns that lessons take. The post-mortem analysis reveals a lot about what they think are the critical aspects of keeping the classroom functioning, so I spend a lot of time listening to those parts of the conversation.

Deborah had a different take on teaching disasters. She told a story from her summer teaching, which she does with upper elementary students and makes public for observers. She talked about some wiggly boys who managed to stay engaged in her classroom. A principal who was observing said that he was sure that those boys would not have had the same opportunities to learn in his school because they would have been sent out of the classroom.

I agree that it is an educational disaster to have children left out of the classroom because they are being children. But since my work places primacy on how teachers are talking and thinking, I know that for many of them, those boys’ wiggliness would be the source of a potential disaster.

In looking at teachers’ workplace talk, I see a lot of language develop around these potential disasters. Students who “act out” or are “disruptive,” “unmotivated” or “unfocused.” These students interfere with the smooth and successful execution of the lesson, so teachers talk a lot about them, sometimes in ways that are not constructive.

The question I have been pondering in the wake of that discussion is how do we align teachers’ perspectives on what is and isn’t a disaster to the larger picture of access and equity? More fairly, how do we support teachers in effectively engaging all students when there is increased pressure to stay up with pacing guides in preparation for ever-more-consequential standardized tests?
It is an educational disaster if what feels like averting a crash at the classroom creates true disasters in our society.

What do we get with the “highly qualified teacher” clause of NCLB?

The conception of teacher competence animating NCLB can be traced to the landmark 1966 Coleman Report. As a part of America’s War on Poverty, Coleman, a sociologist, examined educational opportunity in the US, finding that school funding did not impact educational outcomes as much as teacher quality did. Part of what Coleman identified is what has come to be known as the maldistribution of qualified teachers. In the United States, poor children and children from historically underrepresented groups are disproportionately assigned to the weakest teachers –– a situation that persists to this day. International comparisons reveal that the United States stands out in this maldistribution problem: our country’s disparities in students’ access to qualified teachers is among the largest in the world.

Coleman’s formulation has had a continuous impact on notions of teacher quality. Numerous subsequent studies have verified positive associations between student achievement and teachers’ academic qualifications. This relationship has been confirmed through correlations between student outcomes with teachers’ scores on various standardized exams; and level of teachers’ content knowledge, usually proxied through course-taking counts; and years of teaching experience.

NCLB is animated by this legacy. The law sought to address the maldistribution problem by legislating a definition of teacher quality by mandating highly qualified teachers in every classroom. True to the Coleman logic, highly qualified teachers, according to NCLB, are those with full certification, a college degree, and demonstrated content knowledge in the subject being taught.

However, the legal definition of highly qualified has left much open to debate. For instance, in the description of highly qualified teachers, the word “student” only appears once, and then only as a moderating adjective.

In other words, the relational work of teaching is completely ignored.  Social, emotional, and cultural knowledge does not come through the policy text, nor does the specialized content knowledge teachers require to effectively represent and cultivate students’ understanding –– what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge. In light of these omissions, the definition of highly qualified teachers may not reach deeply enough into the kinds of knowledge and qualities teachers need to best serve students living in poverty, thus potentially undermining part of the law’s intent.

Research on teachers of historically underserved students emphasizes that effective teachers engage particular forms of knowledge as well as the moral and political qualities, emphasizing cultural knowledge and a commitment for social justice and change, as well as pointing to organizational structures and collegial practices that support more equitable outcomes. Furthermore, the law’s emphasis on teachers and not teaching conflates teacher qualifications with quality teaching, which are not interchangeable. Organizational supports, colleagues and other resources contribute to what is possible instructionally, aside from an individual’s training.

In the end, the highly qualified teacher clause sets a minimum standard, but given the pragmatic demands of legislation, it falls short of more professionalizing notions of teacher quality. There is a huge difference between competence in rote instruction and what has been termed “ambitious instruction”  ––  teaching that strives to include as many children as possible in rich forms of content.

There is not an obvious mapping between the qualifications outlined in NCLB and ambitious instruction. Although the research on teacher quality following the Coleman report related teacher characteristics to student outcomes, ambitious teaching aims for a higher bar. Even under the best versions of traditional instruction, not enough children learned in ways that would support them in developing robust understandings of content. In one study investigating links between “highly qualified” teachers and more effective instruction, neither certification nor formal education within a subject predicted the use of ambitious methods; however, the combination of subject training and subject-specific pedagogical training did.

A Cascade of Errors in Interim “Summative” Assessments

I have been working on a paper investigating teachers interpreting student performance data. The data come from their district’s interim summative assessments, tests given every 6-8 weeks to help them predict how students will perform on the high stakes end of year tests. These interim assessments have taken a very important place in these schools, who are under the threat of AYP sanctions.

The teachers are all working so hard to do right by their kids, but there is a cascade of errors in the whole system.

First, the assessments were internally constructed. Although they match the state standards and have been thoughtfully designed, they have not been psychometrically validated. That means that when they are used to measure, say, a student’s understanding of addition of fractions, it has not been determined over repeated revision that this is what is actually being tested.

Second, the proficiency cut points are arbitrary, yet NCLB has everybody worried about percentage of students above proficiency. This is a national problem, as was so eloquently laid out in Andrew Ho’s 2008 article in Educational Researcher.

In the end, we are sacrificing validity for precision. We think these data reports tell us with great accuracy about who is learning what and to what degree. But there is reason to believe that this cascade of errors is just another sorting and labeling mechanism interfering with real teaching and learning.

My Opinion on Common Core State Standards in Mathematics

I have had the luxury of taking time to form my opinion on the new Common Core Standards.

There are three issues to consider, all of which get discussed when we talk about them.

1. The content of the standards themselves.

2. The nature of the assessments used to hold schools accountable for them.

3. The implementation of them, from curricular support, professional development and accountability processes.

My take on Issue 1 is that they are a strong first draft. The practice standards are the boldest and most important innovation, since they press on higher order thinking. Nonetheless they have some flaws. For instance, a teacher friend told me one grade asks that students learn to make box-and-whiskers plots while the subsequent grade asks for students to compare them to look at differences in measures of central tendency. Well, making those plots without looking comparatively is a silly exercise since the whole point is that they make measures of central tendency and spread visible. Goofs like this could be tweaked in field testing, but the authors did not have that chance.

2. I had some hope that the ‘second generation’ assessments developed for CCSS-M would be a step up from a lot of what we have seen. The release items I have seen so far have not carried out that promise.

3. The biggest problem, in my mind, is the rush of implementation and the lack of resources to make this ambitious goal feasible. Perhaps the most fatal aspect of implementation is that CCSS-M is getting put into the very flawed infrastructure of NCLB/RTTT. On the ground, it ends up feeling like a turning of the screws in the already problematic accountability pressures schools and teachers are facing.