How We Discredit Teacher Knowledge

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I started this blog with the goal to engage in civil, intellectual discourse befitting the fact that I have “Dr.” in from on my name now. Some things, however, just make my blood boil to the point that the CapsLock may just have to come out. We have reached one of these moments with this article by Robert Pondiscio featured in EducationNext as well as some other sources. The gist of this article one of the many failings of our horribly inept teaching force is that mere teachers are creating or finding their own materials instead of relying on experts to provide expertly designed, expert instructional materials.

Here are some highlights:

“A new study from the RAND Corporation finds that nearly every teacher in America—99 percent of elementary teachers, 96 percent of secondary school teachers—draws upon ‘materials I developed and/or selected myself’ in teaching English language arts. And where do they find materials? The most common answer among elementary school teachers is Google (94 percent), followed by Pinterest (87 percent). The numbers are virtually the same for math. But don’t blame teachers. These data, for reasons both good and bad, reveal a dirty little secret about American education. In many districts and schools—maybe even most—the efficacy of the instructional materials put in front of children is an afterthought. For teachers, it makes an already hard job nearly impossible to do well. Expecting teachers to be expert pedagogues and instructional designers is one of the ways in which we push the job far beyond the abilities of mere mortals…Few teachers ever take coursework on instructional design and, therefore, have little knowledge of the role it plays in student learning,”

Actually, tens of thousands of teachers are expert pedagogues and instructional designers and many of us were taught those skills as part of our training as teachers. Criticizing teachers for seeking ideas online from other teachers is not like a doctor consulting Wikipedia, but a doctor consulting his colleagues and medical literature and then making an informed decision on a treatment plan. In no way does that indicate that quality is an after thought.

Teachers SHOULD BE experts in pedagogy and instructional design as THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT TEACHING IS. Instead of arguing that teachers don’t have the time and energy to focus on being experts on pedagogy and instructional design (aka, TEACHING), isn’t the more obvious answer that we should remove the other time-consuming burdens that prevent teachers from focusing on TEACHING? Teachers need to spend so much time focused on test prep and data analysis that we can’t be bothered to focus on things like TEACHING and furthermore we should not be focused on TEACHING because we are not EXPERTS ON IT. Seriously…? Does no one else see the insanity in this way of thinking that is so common within the education reform movement? Or the hint of sexism…you womenfolk stick to loving those little children and leave all that hard brain stuff to us (mostly male) experts.

“Experts” I will add, who also stand to benefit financially by the discrediting of teacher expertise.

There are still a few of us left who were trained as teachers before the education reform movement led to the dumbing down of teaching to simply following pacing guides, sitting kids in front of computers, or leading them through test prep drills. The move to high-stakes standardized tests and the war on teachers has changed the focus of teacher education and driven off so many quality teachers. I do understand part of Mr. Pondiscio’s point. I distinctly remember working with a new teacher who was in panic because she couldn’t find a test question bank for a particular topic. When I suggested writing her own test questions, she looked at me with the slight head tilt of a confused puppy. Yes, back in the day teachers used to write their own test questions and many of us were actually taught how to do it as part of our training. Teachers have been discredited in their own area of expertise to the level of learned helplessness of many young teachers.

So, to summarize, the education reform movement is now deeply concerned about the quality of our teaching force, after they have done everything they can to destroy the quality of that same teaching force.

However, the solution isn’t continuing to dumb down teaching by removing our responsibility for pedagogy and instructional design but by undoing the damage that education reform has done to the profession of teaching. In the oft-made comparisons of the US school system to other countries, it is important to remember that in those model educational systems, teachers are treated and trained as experts on things like pedagogy and instructional design and are respected and trusted. Instead, education reformers and profiteers in this country crusaded against teachers as the root of all problems with public schools (while conveniently making tons of money for those publishing companies that can now produce and provide all those “expert” curriculum materials).

The analogy provided by Mr. Pondiscio is of teachers who are waiters, and we are asking them wait a number of tables while also cooking the meal at the level of an expert chef. Comparing teachers to waiters is very telling as it implies we are and should be passive in the process of delivery. A better analogy is that of a sommelier, fishmonger, butcher, or cicerone; an expert who sorts and selects from various options, listens to the patron, assesses their needs and tastes, and finds the perfect fit for them. They can also create excellent product based on their expert knowledge (would you turn down a steak cooked by an expert butcher or a home brew made by a beer connoisseur?).

Here are some other points from the article that I must challenge:

“If we’re serious about raising the output of our K–12 system at large—not by a little, but a lot—here are some of the questions we should be asking: What exactly is the teacher’s job, and what is the best use of her limited time? Is it deciding what to teach, or how to teach it? Is the soul of the work instructional design or instructional delivery?” The answer is and also has been both since they are inseparable. What is the result when teachers expertly deliver bad curriculum? Where is the vital feedback loop to instructional design? Do we really believe that curriculum can be standardized to the point that there is one right answer for ALL students across this vast country? Do we want teachers that have so little knowledge of instructional design that they can’t spot bad design when they see it? Given the fact that policy makers are continuing to ignore valid teacher concerns about the Common Core standards and some of its supporting materials, I think the answers here are already clear.

“Do you want your child’s teacher to have the time to analyze student work and develop a keen eye for diagnosing mistakes and misunderstandings? Do you want her to give your child rich and meaningful feedback on assignments and homework?” And isn’t a teacher better able to do all this when they have a rich understanding of pedagogy and instructional design? How exactly does a teacher without knowledge of pedagogy and instructional design successfully differentiate instruction? Shouldn’t we focus more on eliminating the time-wasters for teachers that are much less relevant to the actual work of teaching such as mountains of pointless paperwork, poorly designed PD, and hours of diagnostic assessments and data analysis that tells us exactly what we already knew about our students from our own observations and assessments but provide no solutions to the student’s needs?

“What children learn in school varies wildly from state to state, within districts, and even within grades in the same school.” If our instruction is truly student-driven then it should vary. There are millions of sound ways to teach any one skill or concept. Yes, there are a number of fundamentals that all students need to be taught and there should be a certain amount of coherence, continuity, and sequence to student learning but beyond that, why on earth would we WANT instructional design to be standardized? Why would we want teachers who don’t know how to modify instructional design and pedagogy to meet the unique and individual needs of their students? Oh, that’s right, because then we can’t hold those teachers “accountable” through standardized measures, and of course that is more important than actual student learning (as is the money that goes to those testing companies).

“A 2012 Brookings study by Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos demonstrated that the ‘effect size’ of choosing a better second-grade math curriculum was larger than replacing a fiftieth-percentile teacher with a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher.” Translation—one curriculum was better aligned to the standardized test used to judge the effectiveness of the teacher, or one curriculum was better suited to the needs and learning context of individual groups of students. It tells us little else. In fact, digging down into the actual study that was quoted in the Brookings study that was quoted by Mr. Pondiscio, it is clear that the researchers were not able to control for many variables of the delivering of the curriculum.

“Accountability” leads to standardization.

Standardization limits the teacher’s ability make learning student-centered.

Teaching that is less student-driven leads to further marginalization of disadvantaged students who further lose agency, empowerment, and ownership in their own learning.

We have (or at least we did have before the damage inflicted by the current war on teachers) a vast reserve of expert knowledge of pedagogy, curriculum, and instructional design in our nations teachers that could be one of the best solutions to real improvement in our public schools. This well of expertise has been dismissed based on an obsession with the narrowest and most invalid measures of student success as well as the questionable motives of those who stand to profit from selling such “expert” knowledge.

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “How We Discredit Teacher Knowledge

  1. Spot on! I have been saying this for years. It baffles me that actual teachers are so rarely consulted and asked our opinions on what might actually work to reform education.

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  2. A little conspiracy theorist – “money is the root of all evil” isn’t really a claim that had an objective basis, merely a philosophical one. People are allowed to make money for good services (isn’t that exactly what teachers do), but I definitely appreciate that it’s unfortunate the way the profession is hamstrung and then criticized for how they behave post-hamstring. We do need a higher level of support for instructors, both culturally and politically. But dismissing any kind of assessment is denying the empirical realities of cognitive learning science. The scientific method is nothing to be feared, and would create better and more consistent methods of creating and applying active learning environments. Standardization? No. But shared best practices rooted in objective information, yes.

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    • I am not sure how to respond to this since I see no connection between what I wrote and your response. No one is calling for an unscientific approach. No one is dismissing all forms of assessment. Teacher can and do all these process as well or better than outside experts and that should be the primary focus of our work.

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      • Sorry, I should have clarified, I mean that you said comments like this a few different times: “(While conveniently making tons of money for those publishing companies that can now produce and provide all those “expert” curriculum materials).” These several comments seem to paint publishing companies as the root of all problems in higher ed, which seems inaccurate.

        Also, regarding accountability: “Yes, there are a number of fundamentals that all students need to be taught and there should be a certain amount of coherence, continuity, and sequence to student learning but beyond that, why on earth would we WANT instructional design to be standardized? Why would we want teachers who don’t know how to modify instructional design and pedagogy to meet the unique and individual needs of their students? Oh, that’s right, because then we can’t hold those teachers “accountable” through standardized measures, and of course that is more important than actual student learning (as is the money that goes to those testing companies).”

        This quote again mentions other companies being the problem, and while I do agree that standardization can be a bad thing, your part here seems to imply that creating standardization is wrong, in itself. Being able to track the ability to improve outcomes is quite important to helping students, in general. We need to be able to re-create the success, and test for lack of success.

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      • Still confused since this piece was not about high ed. It would be naive to think that profiteering has nothing to with the current movement in K-12 for prepackaged curriculum and assessments. Since we do not teach standardized students, standardization is indeed undesirable. It prevents a truly child centered and child directed approach. Testing only gives information about an incredibly narrow picture of student growth. Most assessment systems being push as part of these “expert” curriculum materials provides very little formative information to help teachers understand the hows and whys of student learning. Assessment and testing are not the same thing.

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      • I wouldn’t say that profiteering has no impact on education, but to it seems like a convenient way to place blame on a group that came into being providing a necessary service (if the service wasn’t necessary, then how would they have made money)? I’m just saying that the blame for the current state of things is more than just people who want to make money.

        Also, these “expert” curriculum materials you abhor are typically created by instructors.

        You are absolutely correct, assessment and testing are not the same thing. If we can combine that process, it would be a much more effective way to track learning progress and cross-reference it with outcomes like graduation rates. I was just pointing out that if we aren’t assessing ever, then how do we know what we are accomplishing?

        Student-centered teaching is ideal, I concur, and testing provides a brief snapshot about a students knowledge on a limited piece of information. It is inherently flawed, but we need some method of assessment.

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