The first pillar identified by the stakeholders involved in the Vision 20/20 process is that education must provide all Illinois students with access to highly effective educators. To do this, public schools need the resources to recruit and retain effective teachers and to provide high quality, relevant professional development.
Not every person has the skills or abilities to be a teacher. This is true of any profession. Even those individuals who have the talent, and the interest, and the required college degree do not enter the profession as master teachers; they have to continuously learn and improve in their craft. As both the beneficiaries and the patrons of public education, we must acknowledge the importance of making teaching an attractive career option. Then, if we are successful in attracting highly talented individuals, we need to keep them in the profession and help them reach their full potential.
While these goals might seem obvious, consider the stakes. Virtually every child in our state is going to attend school from ages 5 to 18 (longer for those who attend pre-school). During that time, they will receive instruction facilitated by 40 to 50 different teachers. The opportunity to receive a quality education is a promise that we make to every student, a promise that cannot be kept if we are unable to recruit and retain effective teachers to challenge and support them. These teachers need to be experts in their content areas, but that alone is insufficient. They must have the interpersonal skills to develop positive relationships with hundreds of different students, training in instructional strategies known to be effective, creativity and intuitive awareness to recognize teachable moments, passion and a high sense of responsibility for student outcomes. They must have the patience to encourage struggling learners and the wit to challenge those for whom learning is easy, but above all, the resolve to ensure their students meet high standards for proficiency.
If you have any doubt about what it takes to effectively teach a new and challenging skill or concept to 20 students all of whom have different experiences, motivations, interests and aptitudes, visit your local public school, where the skills you learned in college are now being taught in high school, and those you learned in high school – in middle or elementary school. And click on the Vision 20/20 Executive Summary link at http://illinoisvision2020.org/ to learn more about the specific policy recommendations for ensuring all Illinois students have access to highly effective educators.
Education Reformers Should Look Back to Move Forward
Beginning with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, public education in the United States has been steadily attacked and diminished. In a 2008 article, Richard Rothstein points out the damage that has been done in its wake:
The diagnosis of the National Commission on Excellence in Education was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.
Long before the Gates Foundation or Advance Illinois - long before the charter school movement, No Child Left Behind, or Race to the Top – Horace Mann (1796 –1859) presented himself as America’s original education reformer. Mann proposed core principles that the country embraced: 1) that education should be universal (access for all children regardless of their means), 2) non-sectarian (not associated with a particular religion, faction or party), 3) free (financed through taxation rather than fees that some citizens could not afford), and 4) designed to foster not only academic goals, but social efficiency, civic virtue, and character. It is important to understand that before Horace Mann, education in the United States was none of these things.
Mann saw education as the means to social and economic advancement – a fundamental promise to every American:
other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men --the
balance wheel of the social machinery...It does better than to disarm the poor
of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor.
So while it is appropriate to demand that our schools and public institutions continually improve, we might consider evaluating the direction of education in our state and country through the lens of Mann’s founding principles, lest we spend another 30 years chasing “fixes” for problems that are misdiagnosed, misunderstood and, in many cases, politically motivated.
My granddaughter is 22 months old and already the dispositions of human nature are apparent. I have watched her at the dinner table refuse to be fed – to insist on eating only if she can hold the spoon and bowl. I have seen her fight being dressed, preferring instead to dress herself. Forget for a moment the yogurt that is dripping from the hair on her head- the same head that is poking through an armhole in the shirt she somehow pulled on over one arm. Everything in your being wants to fix her shirt, take the spoon and feed her, but something tells you to let her be: she could not be more content.
Zoe reminds me about some of the characteristics that distinguish highly effective teaching. The most effective teachers appreciate that learning is messy. It doesn’t always look polished or perfect. The students are not always sitting in rows and their products sometimes defy interpretation. In first grade I made a clay bowl for my parents that morphed into an ashtray; never mind that neither of them smoked.
Leonardo DaVinci said that “the only real learning comes through experimentation.” Effective teachers understand the importance of explanation and demonstration, but sooner rather than later, they move their students into authentic experiences in which they work collaboratively or individually toward an outcome. The best do this at least as often as they lecture or demonstrate because they appreciate that until their students are “doing” something they are not learning.
Highly effective teachers are “patient facilitators:” patient in their willingness to let learning be sloppy before it becomes polished, and facilitative rather than directive in their role. Too often as adults our enthusiasm lacks the restraint to let learning be messy. Because of our own pride and our concern about what others will think of us, or our own need to be in control, we do for our children and students what they should be attempting to do themselves. This is human nature as well, but as adults we must acknowledge that when we do too much we work against their basic need to be autonomous.
At different times in my career I have heard colleagues complain about the apathy of their students. I have heard them say, “they want to be spoon fed!” I often say to myself as I walk away, “if it’s true, it’s only because we taught them to be that way.”
I used to work construction with my father, and later with a construction company. This was back when we drove nails with a hammer. When I was really little, to make sure I could hit the nail, I would hold the hammer with two hands, choking up. This ensured solid contact, but it took me forever to drive one nail, and I would be panting and sweating like a pig.
As I got older, I learned how to use leverage to be more efficient. I held the hammer at the end, with just two or three fingers actually on the handle. I used a long, languid swing. When I got stronger, I used the same long stroke, but I changed to a longer and heavier hammer. As long as I hit the head squarely, I could drive a 16 penny nail in two to three whacks. I could do this literally for hours without becoming overly fatigued.
Anyone who has ever hit a golf ball on the sweet spot, shot a basketball from long range, or thrown a baseball with velocity, understands that relaxation, technique, and leverage – properly coordinated - generate power. They also appreciate that proper coordination of these variables is more efficient. Have you ever watched professional athletes and marveled at how they “make it look easy?” That’s because they are expending much less energy than you or I would find necessary to execute the same maneuver.
When we find ourselves exhausted at work, or in our daily lives, it might be worth considering whether we are working efficiently. In education, it might mean evaluating the essential purpose of a given lesson, simplifying, or scaffolding activities so that students themselves are engaged in authentic problem-solving. It might mean establishing routines or classroom expectations early in the year so that students have ownership of their learning.
As I reflect on the times in my life when I have done something particularly well, whether it was my best lesson, most productive meeting, my best game coaching or playing, or my lowest round golfing, they all shared the characteristic of seeming “effortless.” This does not mean that no work was required, but rather, that through reflection and preparation, relaxation and good technique, the actual act of execution that given day was “easy.”
Much of the tension in our country’s politics stems from our preferences for individualism or collectivism. Some Americans, for example, view ownership and possession of a gun as a fundamental human right –the right of the individual to carry a weapon and to protect himself from another armed person who may not respect his individual, human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They point to the Constitution’s “right to bear arms.” Others view the prevalence of guns in our culture as contributing to violence, increasing the frequency of impulsive and deadly decisions, accidental deaths, and delusional acts of the mentally ill. They seek laws, or collective restrictions, on who can purchase guns, or prohibiting their concealment or possession in specific public places.
John Wooden, the late and legendary basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins, frequently told a story about Bill Walton, his 7’0” All-American center, when he was returning to school before his junior season. Over the summer months, Walton had allowed his hair to grow long. He also had a beard.
The year before, UCLA had won the National Championship, and Walton had received the Sullivan Award as the country’s best player. The first day was media day, and when Walton arrived, Coach Wooden reminded him about the team rules regarding length of hair and no facial hair. Walton, in a response typical of of the time, explained calmly and thoughtfully his view of human rights – that he had an individual, human right to wear his hair how he wanted it, and to shave his beard if he felt like it.
Wooden responded with civility and respect, “Bill. I understand what you are saying, and I agree. You do have that right, and I have the right to decide who plays. And the team is going to miss you if you don’t have your hair cut and beard shaved in 15 minutes.” Walton started to defend his perspective, and Wooden responded, “Now 14”. Walton raced out of the building to the barber, shaved his face with a razor and a cup of water while his hair was being cut, and returned as fast as he could. No more was said.
Before his death in 2010, both Wooden and Walton would share this story with fondness and a wry smile, their mutual love and respect evident. But at that moment in 1974, when John Wooden told Bill Walton that he had a choice – to respect the collective mores of the program or to exercise his individual rights concerning his personal appearance – there was undoubtedly a tension. Wooden’s response respected Walton’s autonomy, even honored it. In the end, Walton didexercise his free will and his individual, human right to choose. He chose to abide by the collective rules of the UCLA basketball program, rather than live by his individual standards of appearance.
Click on the link below to view a video of Walton and Wooden discussing the incident.
Accountability for All
As our country and our state struggle to emerge from a global recession, it is natural to become cynical about the future. Parents and educators must work together to empower our young people in a manner that builds their senses of personal responsibility, competence and community.
Accountability has become an over-used buzz word in education in recent years. Too often this term is used inappropriately, by one person or group to assign blame to another person or group. No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2001) was developed out of the notion that public education in the United States is failing many children in our country. Yet the legislation is written as if a simple mandate is all that isnecessary to improve outcomes. It holds public schools responsible for ensuring that 100% of all students meet standards in math and reading by 2014.
Personal responsibility is a fundamental virtue in a democracy like ours, but the goals of NCLB will never be met unless the focus is changed to “accountability for all.” In spite of our important and ongoing efforts to improve curriculum, instruction and assessment throughout the country, two facts will always remain incontrovertible:
1. It is not possible to teach someone who is an unwilling participant in his/her education
2. It is not possible to stop the education of someone who is determined to get it
As adults, we empower our children and prepare them for a positive future when we focus collectively on the attitudes and values that they will need to be successful in school. And this requires so much more of us than simply talking about it.
Parents are warned about the harmful effects of comparing one of their children to another. Yet we find ourselves today in an era of hyper-accountability, where every outcome is measured and then compared to an outcome for another person or group.
Margaret Wheatley suggests that measurement often has precisely the same effect on an organization as the parent who openly compares one child’s effort, ability, or talent to another’s. Instead of motivating the one child with the example of the other, the act of comparison can generate resentment in the one, and embarrassment in the other. An incessant focus on numbers is almost always counter-productive, as Wheatley explains:
Assumedly, most managers want reliable, high quality work. They want commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, and quality. They want people to pay attention to those things that contribute to performance.
If you agree that these are the general attributes and behaviors you're seeking, we'd like to ask whether, in your experience, you have been able to find measures that sustainthese strong and important behaviors over time. Or if you haven't succeeded at finding them yet, are you still hopeful that you will find the right measures? Do you still believe in the power of measures to elicit these performance qualities?
Wheatley goes on to say that these behaviors are “never produced by measurement . . .” She describes them as “performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope.”
Yet Wheatley acknowledges that “. . .measurement is critical. It can provide something that is essential to sustenance and growth: feedback. All life thrives on feedback and dies without it.” Adam Smith recognized the extent to which measurement and comparison are natural human tendencies:
Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them.
So measurement itself is not the issue; it’s how we misuse it, or how we react to it, that are typically the source of the problems. We need leaders who understand that numbers are not “sacred,” but rather a means for gathering feedback. And when our leaders present us with measurements, we need to approach that data with a sense of intrigue rather than sensitivity. We need to evaluate the quality of the feedback and use it to foster the commitment, focus, teamwork, learning and quality that are known to contribute to high performance.
Many of our public institutions today are under attack. Our roads and bridges are deteriorating. The branches of our federal government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial –seem more interested in self-promotion than in solving problems. Our own state has two former governors in prison, and the current leaders from both parties have failed to cooperate to take even modest steps to improve the state’s fiscal condition. The website designed to deliver affordable healthcare options to millions of Americans is not working. And America’s public school system is under attack for not adequately preparing our students to compete for the middle and upper class jobs of the future.
When we identify an institution as public, we mean that it is operated through the consent of the people, through elected representation and funded through taxation, usually with the goal of providing a public service. When we identify an institution as private, we mean that is operated through the consent of an owner or shareholders and funded through private capital, with the goal of turning a profit. Because both public and private organizations are operated by human beings, they are both capable of great deeds, and likewise, prone to mistakes and malfeasance.
We should remind ourselves that much of the criticism of our public institutions is malicious and strategic: malicious in that it is offered by persons or groups who are more interested in finding (or causing) failure than in solving problems, and strategic in that the criticism is often designed to defeat an opposing point of view rather than to uncover a truth. Some of the criticism, on the other hand, has merit. When this is the case, it is important to confront the brutal facts and to find the courage to be honest with ourselves.
The Constitution of the United States provides the framework of a democratic government – a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Consequently, when we find ourselves disgusted with government, the place to start is by looking at ourselves. Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, put it this way:
What institution of government could tend so much to promote the happiness of mankind as the general prevalence of wisdom and virtue? All government is but an imperfect remedy for the deficiency of these. .. . The fatal effects of bad government arise from nothing, but that it does not sufficiently guard against the mischiefs which human wickedness gives occasion to.
When we are critical of our government or things public, it is important that our intentions be constructive rather than destructive. We should remind ourselves that any institution designed to ensure order and justice for all Americans is destined to be imperfect. We should also consider where we would be without our public institutions.
I learned a lot from coaching basketball. After about my 10thseason of coaching, I was forced to face a troubling truth: my teams always started the season strong, only to have a poor second half, and a first round loss in the state series.
My first reactions were to work harder, and to expect more from my players. I pushed myself, and I pushed them. They almost always complied. But the problem wasn’t my effort, or theirs.
It was when I went to a college basketball clinic that I first understood the problem. Basketball is a fast and fluid game. It requires continuous movement, thinking, and communication. Players have to learn how to see the game and make decisions. The coach’s role is to teach them in a way that engages their minds. They must learn to see and react to other players’ movements, to anticipate the next movement of a teammate or opponent.
All of this has to be accomplished in practice because a coach simply cannot impose his will on a game. Each practice has to be designed to improve players’ abilities to see, think, communicate, and move intelligently. Drills are designed to build from simple to complex, from applying a skill in isolation to applying it in full-scale competition. Restrictions are applied to encourage seeing and thinking: restrictions like not allowing anyone to dribble, or requiring the possession to end with a lay-up.
I learned something else as a result of that season: my players enjoyed practices and sustained their motivation when the season became a competition with ourselves to see how well we could play the game - how thoughtfully and efficiently.
Interestingly, our seasons reversed from the previous trend. We tended to start slow and look kind of sloppy at the beginning of the season, but always played our best basketball as the season progressed - all because we were genuinely engaged, and really learning.
Like most other states, Illinois has implemented legislation to reform education. These new laws affect the way that teachers and administrators are evaluated.
Illinois law now requires that teachers and administrators be evaluated on their 1) professional practice, and 2) student growth. The new instruments change the focus of evaluation from the practitioner to the participants. For example, an administrator evaluating a teacher would have previously scripted the lesson from beginning to end, focusing on the teacher’s words and actions. Now, the evaluator is trained to focus on the engagement of the students: both the level and type of engagement. Similarly, the superintendent evaluating a principal is expected to observe the engagement of the teachers in his/her building – whether they are actively participating in efforts to solve problems, and the steps they take to make changes when evidence suggests that a student or students are not learning.
The new system builds on this “participant-focus” by adding student growth as a component of the evaluation. Just as two sports teams with different coaches and different philosophies can both be successful, effective teachers may not teach in the same way. The new evaluation system respects the freedom of the teacher to make informed choices and to play to his/her strengths, but insists that the quality of his/her teaching be judged on the extent to which students are learning.
Using measures of student growth as tools, the new system should help teachers and administrators improve on their professional practice. For those who embrace this change, the new system offers a real opportunity to improve learning, not because everything in education needs to be reformed, but because the focus is right.