Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Education Books of 2015

Here is my year-end list of books that every well-informed educator and public education advocate should read. The list is not all-inclusive; it includes only books that came to my attention and it certainly reflects my personal tastes and biases.  I think, however, you will find these books important, informative and written with heart, passion, style, intelligence and commitment.

Please support these authors and the often small publishing houses who get these books made.

In Praise of American Educators: And How they Can Become Even Better, by Dr. Richard Dufour, Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Former teacher and principal, Rick DuFour, offers both a spirited defense of public school teachers against the slings and arrows of corporate education reformers and a prescription for the continuing improvement of the profession. DuFour's concept of the professional learning community was very influential in my own administrative work over the last 10 years. His faith in teachers and in teacher's ability to improve their own practice through a culture of collaboration seems to me to be a major contribution to the field of teaching and learning.

In his current book, DuFour takes on every criticism of the American public school teacher and shows conclusively through thoroughgoing documentation and evidence, that teachers are not the problem and that indeed the current generation of American educators is the best we have ever seen. After analyzing all the "schools are failing" rhetoric in detail, DuFour concludes that "a fair and balanced analysis of the evidence can only lead to the conclusion that American schools and the educators within them are not failing, and are, in fact, achieving some of the best result's in our nation's history."

DuDour then takes on every proposed reform measure for improving schools (charter, vouchers, test-based accountability, value added measures, merit pay and school closures) and shows how they will not lead to improved learning and how all are doing damage to student learning and the teaching profession. Real improvement is possible, according to DuFour, if we change the scope and frequency of testing, pay the college costs for high performing high school students who enter the teaching profession, establish career ladders with increasing responsibilities and compensation for teachers, establish clear guidelines for what teachers should know and be able to do, provide universal early childhood education, support career and technical education, and ensure that teachers are provided with time for collaboration.

It is through this concept of teacher collaboration and the development of a collaborative culture in schools that DuFour believes real and ongoing improvement can be made. The rest of the book lays out how teachers and their leaders can establish a collaborative structure that leads to improved student learning. In DuFour's collaborative professional learning communities, student learning improves through teachers learning from teachers, through viable curriculum developed and delivered by teachers and through assessment that informs and improves instructional practice.

Rick DuFour's vision of the American school is one that rejects quick education reformer fixes and focuses on the professional educators in the schools collaborating to improve student learning. It is a vision that I believe all of this "greatest generation of educators" can embrace.

Beware the Roadbuilders: Literature as Resistance, by P.L. Thomas. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Many of you may know P. L. Thomas from his own fine blog, the becoming radical, where Thomas holds forth in his own unique and winning way on issues of public education, pedagogy, literature and social justice. His book, Beware the Roadbuilders, is must reading for anyone interested in these same topics. You can find my full review of the book here. The "roadbuilders" of the title are the education reformers; those plutocrats, politicians and pundits who have seized on urban education as the "civil rights issue of our time." 

But this book is much more than an anti-reform polemic. This is a book for people who love literature and love finding the lessons in literature that help us understand our own lives and the world we live in. In Roadbuilders, Thomas leads us on one reader's journey into critical understanding. It is a journey informed by personal experience and shaped through the reading of great literature. I encourage you to join Thomas on his journey.

The Prize: Whose in Charge of America's Schools, by Dale Russakoff. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

The Prize is the great cautionary tale of all cautionary tales for education reformers. Russakoff, a long-time Washington Post reporter, tells the story of Facebook entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg's 100 million dollar gift to the public schools of Newark, NJ. This gift was so extraordinary that it was announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sharing the stage with Zuckerberg.

In the end this 100 million failed to make any appreciable differences in the lives of the students of the Newark Public Schools. The reason it did not is a story laced with hubris, arrogance and lack of understanding of the issues. Essentially each of the players wanted to use the money for his own political agenda, Zuckerberg to experiment with teacher merit pay, Christie to damage the teacher unions, and Booker to open more charter schools and advance his own political career. The leaders of the project failed because they ignored the people who would be most impacted by the money: the teachers, students and community members of Newark. This was a failure of top down reform. Reform driven by carpetbaggers from outside the city, including Christie's hand-picked superintendent of schools, Cami Anderson.

Russakoff does not make the same mistake as the reformers. She goes out and talks to teachers, students and parents in the community and it is their stories that make this book rise above the level of expose' to the level of great reporting and great sociological insight. If Zuckerberg, Christie and Booker had had a little of this insight, this tragic waste of resources might have been avoided.

Preparing the Nation's Teachers to Teach: A Manifesto in Defense of "Teacher Educators Like Me", by Curt Dudley-Maring. New York, NY: Garn Press.

Curt Dudley-Maring is one angry teacher educator. In this book, he takes on the reform minded National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) for defaming the work of teacher educators everywhere through their sloppy and politically driven research on teacher education programs. Dudley-Maring does not let his justifiable anger interfere with a well-reasoned argument, however. In this brief book he systematically deconstructs NCTQ's criticisms of teacher education, while exposing the market driven ideology that underlies their efforts to discredit schools of education.

Dudley-Maring was a hero of mine long before he wrote this book. He is a long-time advocate of "meaning-based reading instruction" and I first came to know his work in this context. Dudley-Maring sees a clear connection between NCTQ's ratings of teacher education and the reformer take on reading instruction in simplistic behaviorist terms where phonics instruction takes center stage to the exclusion of all the other complex factors that make up skillful reading. For my money his section on "A meaning-based perspective on reading" is well worth the price of the book.

The reader comes away from this book with an understanding that teaching and learning, and especially teaching and learning to read, is a much more complicated and sophisticated intellectual enterprise than NCTQ evaluators, driven by a behaviorist ideology, could ever know or imagine. The book is a rousing defense of teachers and those who educate teachers.

The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers, by Jennifer Serravallo. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

This one is for my readers who teach reading to children in grades K-8. Jen Serravallo, teacher, parent, consultant, has written what is simply the most useful, most comprehensive, best informed handbook for teaching reading imaginable. I wrote a full review of the book that you can read here. If you work with children and literacy you simply must have this book on your shelf. I gave it to my elementary teacher daughter for Christmas.

This book is informed by the best current research in literacy education; it is comprehensive in addressing all aspects of literacy learning K-8, and it is practical, offering specific targeted lessons based on student needs. I can see the classroom teachers reaching for this book everyday while planning their literacy lessons or when looking for just the right instructional approach for a student who is struggling.

So there you have my list. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comment section. Right now I am reading a book that just arrived in the mail yesterday, A Teacher's Tale, by fellow blogger and defender of the profession John Thompson. It is an early favorite for next year's "Best of" list.

I look forward to still more rewarding reading in 2016. Happy New Reading Year!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Least of Russ on Reading 2015

This is my second annual year-end compilation of blog posts that attracted very little attention the first time around, but that I think are worthy of a second chance at life. It has been a year of extremes for this blog, with some posts attracting thousands upon thousands of readers and others, like the ones collected here, not so much. So while others in the media present their "Best of..." and "Worst of ... lists, I offer "The Least of Russ on Reading 2015." I hope you find something interesting or informative here that you might have missed the first time around.

From Complex Text to Considerate Text

The Common Core calls for children to read more complex text, I call for writers to write more "considerate" text to aid readers in comprehending text book writing.

Do Children Really Shift from Learning to Read to Reading to Learn?

A common fallacy is that the early grades are for learning to read and after 3rd grade kids shift to reading to learn. I argue that kids are reading to learn from the very beginning of reading instruction and if we don't understand this, we will not provide the instruction they need.

You've Got to Be Taught

Racism is not a natural human condition, but one that is taught. In this post I discuss how if racism is taught in the home, tolerance can be taught in the schools.

Getting the Schools All Children Deserve

If we believe that children's lives matter, than we must recognize that all children deserve to attend clean, safe, well-resourced and fully staffed schools.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2015

This is the third holiday season for Russ on Reading and the third opportunity to share some poetry for the holidays. This year, as with every year, I am convinced that the world would be a better place if the people of the world read and shared more poetry. I am also reminded that all cultures and all religious traditions have their poetry and that much of that poetry speaks to what is universal in all of us.

A huge thank you to all of my readers. Thank you for reading and sharing my work. I am pleased to be able to share the work of these great poets with you. Have a peaceful and joyous holiday.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows;--
The happy days unclouded to their close;

The sudden joys that out of darkness start
As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
White as the gleam of a receding sail,

White as a cloud that floats and fades in air,
White as the whitest lily on a stream,
These tender memories are;--a fairy tale
Of some enchanted land we know not where,
But lovely as a landscape in a dream.

The Boy at the Window
By Richard Wilbur

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear. 

Burning of the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds,
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems,
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn't,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn't do
circle after the blazing dies.

     from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Meaningful Work in the Literacy Classroom

In my last post I discussed the concept of meaningful work and how it is essential to the recruitment,
development and retention of teachers. In this post I would like to address how meaningful work is essential to student learning. As teachers we have every right to demand the autonomy, complexity and rewards that are necessary to making our work meaningful. At the same time, we have the professional obligation to provide meaningful work for our students, so that we may help activate student motivation to learn and the students may optimize their learning.

As Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in his 2009 book, Outliers, meaningful work is one major component of achieving success in life. It is meaningful work that drives people to master a complex craft, whether it be in the arts, as with The Beatles and the hours upon hours of practice they got in Hamburg, Germany strip clubs before they hit it big; or in the sciences, as with Bill Gates, who spent thousands and thousands of hours writing computer programs before he achieved success with Microsoft; or in sports, where Michael Jordan couldn’t even make his high school basketball team and yet through hard practice went on to become the greatest player of all time. To learn something well takes time and commitment (and yes, talent. But many talented people have not achieved greatness).

How do we get this type of commitment to hard work from our students? One possible answer is by providing them with meaningful work. The work that The Beatles, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan did was personally meaningful to them, so they were willing to make the commitment and put in the effort. What can teachers learn from this?

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Gladwell defined meaningful work this way:

Meaningful work is one of the most important things we can impart to children. Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out…

So meaningful work involves autonomy, complexity and direct relationship between effort and reward. It may seem a daunting task to provide every individual in our class with meaningful work as Gladwell defines it. But let’s take a close look at this through the discipline that I know best – literacy.

By definition, literacy is meaningful work. Whether we are reading or listening, writing or speaking, we are in the business of making meaning or communicating meaning. Too often, however, the way we teach these skills obscures the meaningfulness of the work. What would a meaningful approach to literacy instruction look like? A look at Gladwell’s three elements of meaningful work might be helpful.


In order to provide students with autonomy in reading and writing, we need to insure that students get a considerable element of choice in their reading and writing. In reading this means time is given over in class to independent reading. Students need to be encouraged to explore their passions through reading and teachers need to be knowledgeable about a broad range of reading choices and student interests to guide children toward reading they may be passionate about. As students read independently, teachers are available to assist students over bumpy patches, confer with students about their understanding of what they are reading and suggest other books on similar topics.

As a 9th grader in Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1961, I, along with everyone else in my English class, was assigned to read Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I am sure Silas Marner is a great book, but as a fourteen year-old mainly interested in baseball and girls, I hated that book. I could not make sense of it and eventually gave up reading it and tried to fake my way through the class and the subsequent test. The back of the edition of Silas Marner I was given, however, contained a short novel by John Steinbeck, The Pearl. Sitting in class one day trying to avoid being called upon, I stumbled across The Pearl, and started reading. I loved it. I was transported from my classroom to coastal Mexico and I was transfixed by the graceful sentences wrought by Mr. Steinbeck. I read it during class, on the bus on the way home from school, and finished it that night in bed. I quickly became a Steinbeck aficionado and by the end of high school had read virtually everything he had written (Steinbeck wrote a lot of short novels that I found great for book reports). My choice to read Steinbeck unleashed a previously untapped passion to read. If we are to develop life-long readers, we are going to have to provide students with some choice.

In writing, autonomy means providing children with choice in their topics, real purposes for writing and genuine audiences to receive the writing. Students often aren’t very good at identifying the topics they are passionate about and that is where the teacher comes in, helping children identify a passion, a concern, an area of expertise and helping them find their voice to communicate about these things. I think of the book Black Ants and Buddhists, by teacher Mary Cowhey, that shows how an entire classroom of children was activated to read, write and think critically about issues of social justice through a discussion of a troop of ants that invaded the classroom one day. Kids feel passionately about many things, rather than assigning writing topics, we would do better to help students find those topics of passion and guide them to write about them.

What about the skills you ask? What about grammar? What about spelling? What about vocabulary? I would argue that when kids are reading deeply and writing thoughtfully based on a level of autonomy in the classroom, we can teach any of the skills within that context, either through directly instructing through mini-lessons or through individual conferences.


Both reading and writing are, of course, complex processes. The trick here is applying Gladwell’s complexity principle to teaching and learning. Students are capable of complex work and complex thought, but this complexity must be mediated by a teacher. Where we want students to be working is in their “zone of proximal development”, that is, at a level of thinking that is just above where they can function easily and comfortably, but not so far above their level that they cannot make meaning of the material. Writing provides an ideal medium for this type of instruction, since when children are writing on their own chosen topics and are writing for their own chosen reasons, the work is uniquely individualized and children are working in their zone. Teachers can then work with students to move that zone forward through conferences where suggestions for extending, refining and reorganizing thought can be conducted.

Reading creates some different kinds of challenges when it comes to complexity. If a text is too complex for a particular reader, meaning will be lost and the reader may lose interest. On the other hand, if the child is particularly interested in a topic, she may struggle through a “too difficult” text through shear will. As the teacher our job is to advise students on reading choices, let them try reading things we may think are too difficult sometimes, and support their growing understanding of the texts, again through conferences or mini-lessons.

We will also want to provide the students with exposure to complex texts through read-alouds. Since most children have a listening comprehension about two years above their reading level and since the teacher can provide mediation of the text while reading aloud, high quality challenging books should be chosen for classroom read-alouds. By asking students to grapple with more complex texts in the safety of the read-aloud environment, we can help insure both growth in reading comprehension and an interest in reading more difficult text.

Relationship between effort and reward

In the business world, the relationship between effort and reward is pretty clear: You work hard and well and you make more money. In school this relationship is more complex. A few education reformers have actually tried paying students for attending school and working hard with disappointing (for them) results. When we think in terms of effort and reward for school students we might think of grades, and hard work should, I suppose, be rewarded with good grades, although you will find many who say that grades should be based solely on achievement and not include effort.

To me, money or grades are false rewards. I would prefer to de-emphasize the grade as the reward and focus the rewards on what all real readers and real writers want – an audience for their thoughts and ideas. A writer wants to know what a reader thinks of the work. A reader wants to share thoughts on the reading with others and hear what others think. So as teachers we must read our students’ writing and listen to our students talk about their reading and provide genuine feedback that acknowledges what the student has done well and constructively suggests what the student needs to focus on next. We need to reward our students with respect for their efforts by being a knowledgeable audience for their efforts. I don’t think any monetary rewards or stickers can ever replace a few moments of rapt attention from the teacher. Students respond to teachers who are good listeners. Reward your students with the gift of your attention.

If this all sounds to you like a recommendation for a reader’s/writer’s workshop approach to literacy instruction, you would be correct. The workshop structure provides the opportunity for independent reading, personal choice writing, targeted mini-lessons and teacher conferring that will make the hard work of learning to read and write well meaningful work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Teaching as Meaningful Work

In his terrific 2009 book on the complexity of success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell identifies “meaningful work” as one necessary component of a fully successful life. Gladwell defines meaningful work as work that provides a person with autonomy, complexity and rewards that equal the effort put forth. Gladwell identifies teaching (and medicine and entrepreneurship) as meaningful work.

I went into teaching because, even as wide-eyed, idealistic, eighteen year-old entering college, I had a sense that teaching was meaningful work. In my years as a human resources director for a school district, I encountered literally dozens of adults who were in the midst of a career change from the business world into teaching because they were looking for more meaningful work. I believe the vast majority of us who are teachers chose teaching as a career because we wanted meaningful work.

And yet today as I talk to teachers and prospective teachers, I hear a great deal of frustration. Many are leaving the profession by either retiring early or seeking jobs out of the field. Prospective teachers I work with at Rider University are wondering aloud if they have made a good career choice. As Education Week has reported, enrollment in schools of education at colleges around the country is plummeting.

What’s going on? Clearly, nearly two decades of education reform policies, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top and from the Common Core to the Common Core aligned standardized tests, have taken their toll. I believe there is a general sense that teaching is somehow less “meaningful” than it once was. A look at Gladwell’s components of meaningful work might help us understand why.


For teachers autonomy means the ability to make critical curricular and instructional decisions based on our content knowledge, our professional judgement and our unique knowledge of the students in front of us. Education reform has undermined this autonomy unnecessarily through a regime of imposed standards, standardized tests and unreliable accountability measures. Standards in and of themselves don’t undermine autonomy. Most teachers feel the need for some guidance in what to teach and when and appreciate reasonable learning targets. But when standards are developed and imposed without their input and then tied to standardized tests and when schools and teachers and students are labeled as failing based on the results of those tests, teachers rightly feel their autonomy is being undermined.

When I started teaching, I had plenty of autonomy. Too much, in fact. I pretty much closed the door behind me and taught what I wanted the way I wanted. I wrote the curriculum; I chose the textbooks and I designed the assessments. As long as the children were not disruptive, as long as I wasn’t sending kids to the office, as long as my blinds were straight at the end of the day, all was ok with the school administration.

This level of autonomy is not what teachers want. The job is too complex to be successfully navigated in isolation. What teachers want, and need, is a level of autonomy that respects their professional judgement and allows them to design instruction for the particular needs of their students. To the extent that education reform has undermined this, the profession is endangered and more and more teachers will leave and fewer and fewer will enter.


Teaching children has always been an intellectually complex activity. It takes time and effort and ongoing personal reflection and professional development to master the craft. I have been teaching for 47 years and I am still learning new strategies for reaching students. Gladwell says it takes, on average, about 10,000 hours of concerted practice to master really complex work. Research suggests it takes teachers at least 3-4 years under the best possible scenarios to master the craft. As with all intellectually complex activities, there are no naturals. Both talent and hard work are required.

Education reform seeks to deny this complexity and reduce teaching and learning to a simplistic construct based on tests and punishments. Teaching is defined as preparing children to perform on tests and to comply with rigid behavior demands (so they learn to be compliant employees). Children in KIPP and Success Academy schools are expected to keep their noses to the grindstone, their eyes on the teacher and their ideas to themselves, and teachers are expected to enforce these draconian policies.

As Henry Giroux has put it, the educational reformers are focused on the “commodification of knowledge.” Education is no longer a social right, but a vehicle to support the immediate needs of the economy. With such a view teachers are reduced to the level of technician, a delivery system for information and a conduit for data collection.

As award winning New York teacher Matthew Rozell asked on his blog, “Am I a teacher or a technician?” Safe to say that Mr. Rozell and thousands of other teachers did not go in to teaching to be a technician. Safe to say that a failure by politicians and reformers to recognize, embrace and cultivate the complexity of the human endeavor of teaching and learning will mean more teachers leaving the profession and fewer entering.

Direct connection between effort and reward

In the free market the reward for hard work is defined in monetary terms. Work hard and you’ll make lots of money. Education reformers seeking to define education in market terms, think that teachers should be rewarded similarly, so we hear about merit pay schemes to reward teachers for achieving higher student test scores. This is a gross misreading of teacher motivation. Sure every teacher would like to make a decent living wage, but beyond that teachers seek very different kinds of rewards. Rewards that for the most part cannot be commodified.

The teacher’s reward comes from seeing students grasp a new concept. From finding the key to helping a recalcitrant student become motivated to learn. From reading a student essay that is well-crafted and well-argued. From having a student rush up to you breathless to tell you about a good book she has been reading.  From having a student come back years later to say thanks for some kindness you showed that you cannot even remember.

In a test and punish world, these rewards become harder to find. If you have little voice in what and how you are teaching, you will not feel rewarded for student success. The relationship among teacher and student and content and attitude towards learning can be richly rewarding, but not when that relationship is reduced to a number on a test and to instruction based on those tests. Teaching is too nuanced to yield to a reductionist view of its value.

A successful teacher is a teacher who does hard and meaningful work every day. By making that work less autonomous, less complex and less personally rewarding, education reformers are driving good teachers away from the profession and guaranteeing that it will be harder to find committed young people to fill the teaching positions of the future.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Getting the Schools All Children Deserve

Monday's New York Times carried an opinion piece by Charles Blow on the Laquan McDonald murder in Chicago. McDonald, a 17 year-old African American, was shot down by a white police officer in a horrific incident captured on video by a police car's dash cam. The incident is, of course, another in the ongoing horror of police violence against young Black men. Blow's main point is that if we are to understand why these police killings keep happening, we have to accept that it is because our society tacitly approves or willingly tolerates them. The problem is systemic. If America wanted this to end, says Blow, it would end. He feels that the majority of Americans have turned their backs on this issue, refusing to take a strong moral stance.

The clear implication of what Blow is saying, for me, is that in the end in this country, Black lives really do not matter. I think Blow has an important point and I think it is a very short leap to apply this insight to public education.

In our inner cities, once beautiful public school buildings schools stand crumbling from age and disrepair as mute testimony to our systematic neglect . Children attend schools without nurses, librarians and guidance counselors. Teachers lay out their own money for basic instructional supplies, while many students are without textbooks and other tools of learning. Just walking to school can be a harrowing experience for young children navigating the mean streets of the inner city. Can we really say that this is not directly connected to the color of the faces of the vast majority of children who attend these schools?

Inner city children are forced to learn and their teachers are forced to teach in these conditions because our society, you and me, don't care enough to do something about it. So what if some inner city kid has to attend a crumbling school, my school district just built a state of the art high school and my taxes are high enough. So what if some inner city kids don't have the basic tools of learning, my school district is providing for all that my children need. So what if inner city schools don't have nurses or guidance counselors, I have made sure that my kids go to schools that have all these things.

If we truly cared about the school children of the inner city, wouldn't we do everything we could, spend the money necessary to insure they had access to the same quality education we all want for our own children?

But does money really matter that much in education? Is it the lack of funds that has led us to this point? Didn't New Jersey pour lots of money into so-called "Abbot Districts" without much improvement in outcomes? Well yes, money does matter and yes, increased spending did not yield much in the way of improved outcomes in many New Jersey districts. Rutgers University researcher, Bruce Baker has this to say about the impact of money on schooling:

     money matters, resources that cost money matter, and more equitable distribution of school funding can improve outcomes. Policymakers would be well-advised to rely on high-qualityresearch to guide the critical choices they make regarding school finance.

Clearly it is about money, but it is also about a consistent and reliable source of money over time, so that real changes can be made. In New Jersey a cycle of increased funding followed by funding cuts has undermined any progress that might have been made. It is also about spending the money wisely and where it may have the most impact and in the inner city that may mean spending money on health services and early childhood education and other services nt ordinarily associated with the schools.

What can I do about these things, you say? Plenty. Five years ago the President of the United States was opposed to gay marriage. Now gay marriage is the law of the land. Why? Because most people decided it was time. If most people decided that it was time for the police to stop the killing of Black children in the streets, these killings would end. A few hundred people closing down Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" won't do it, but hundreds of thousands of people armed with the truth, and the energy and the vote could stop it if they wanted to.

It is our elected representatives that have systematically denied urban schools the resources they need. A system based primarily on property taxes is sure to put urban schools at a disadvantage. If we wanted our representatives to actually spend the money to make our urban schools look like our suburban schools, they would do it. The truth is, we don't want it because it would cost money and would require effort. So as long as things are good for our own kids, we don't really care.

But what if all moms and dads came to realize that when even one child is forced to attend a school that is in poor repair and poorly staffed and poorly equipped, it darkens the future for all our children? What if everyone acted on that realization by voting for representatives who would take their responsibility to all children seriously. What if we were all willing to close down not just the Magnificent Mile, but every local shopping mall and clog the hallways of school boards and legislatures until all children had a clean, safe, well-staffed school to attend. What if we did that? Do you think that we could end the scourge of educational discrimination then?

Another New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, recently ran his last column for the paper. In it he cited Paula McEvoy, the program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. McAvoy says, "The place where you learn matters." If you go to a broken down school society is telling you it doesn't care about your education. McEvoy has a message for the education reformers. Rather than spending money supporting charter schools, "Why not spend your money on infrastructure instead. How about setting a goal of putting every kid in a state- of-the-art school by 2025."

Now there is a good idea. Philanthropists can help us build worthy buildings for all students and then let the professionals provide the instruction. I could march for that.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Do We Really Need Gifted Education?

A new book by Chester Finn and Brandon Wright of the education reform loving Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, argues that we need to rededicate ourselves to gifted education if our country is to remain economically competitive and a producer of scientific/technological leaders. How do we know that we are not going to remain competitive? Why "alarming" international standardized tests scores, of course. But also, Finn and Wright fear, because the focus on Common Core and the aligned tests may lead to an overly homogenized, lowest common denominator curriculum and instruction.

I have said in an earlier post that education reformers don't seem to see the irony in their arguments, so I will just let this one stand for now. To their credit, Finn and Wright also say that opportunities for advanced achievement are very narrow for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and that this is a national problem.

Is the answer to any of these problems gifted education? My answer would be no. Philosophically, I am of the mind that all children are gifted in some way, but school is not a very good place to discover the gifts of every child. As Howard Gardner has shown us, children may have many intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic and musical.

Finn and Wright want to focus, however, on "academic giftedness" and I will take that as my starting point, too. Do we need special programs for the academically gifted? Again my answer would be no.

The problems with special programs for the gifted are many. First of all, because of the complexity of identifying "giftedness" most schools fall back on sorting children by standardized tests. This is a very narrow way to identify students of talent and often excludes children with nearly identical abilities. There can be no fair system of identifying gifted students.

Additionally, many gifted programs remove children from the regular classroom and are characterized primarily by giving the gifted students more work, not enriched opportunities. Removing children from the regular classroom inevitably means that the regular classroom loses some of its most able contributors. Finally, resources provided for gifted students are resources that should be available for every student. A look at the National Standards for Gifted Education put forward by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC),  shows a list of standards that any parent would want for her own child.

What we need for academically talented students is what we need for every student - good instruction that meets individual needs and that provides appropriate challenges.

How do we provide instruction that meets individual needs? In literacy this can be done through the workshop approach to reading and writing pioneered by Donald Graves, Donald Murray, and Nancy Atwell among others and popularized by Lucy Calkins and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The workshop approach allows the teacher to provide whole group, small group and individual instruction, while also allowing students a significant amount of choice in their reading and writing material.

When all students have the opportunity to pursue their own interests in reading and writing and when the teacher has the opportunity to provide guidance through various instructional grouping structures, all students get the instruction and the challenge they need. To be sure, this type of instruction is not easy. Teachers need professional development opportunities, sufficient planning time and reasonable class sizes. Ultimately, however, policy makers would be better off spending scarce dollars on these resources, rather than creating separate programs for the gifted.

A focus on instruction by gifted teachers will go farther in achieving  learning goals than sorting and separating academically able students.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

False Idols: Woodrow Wilson and Hero Worship

Woodrow Wilson as President
at Princeton University
Spurred by events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina, racially charged protests have broken out at college campuses across the United States, most notably at the University of Missouri, where the involvement of the entire football team surely contributed to the resignation of the school's president. This week the protests have come to dear old Princeton University.

The Princeton controversy revolves around perhaps the most favored of all of Princeton's favorite sons - Woodrow Wilson. Before Wilson became the 28th President of the United States, he was the president of Princeton University. He is credited with many good works at Princeton including raising educational standards, creating academic majors and introducing small-group classes. Princeton has recognized his contributions by naming the highly regarded Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs after him, naming a residential complex Wilson College and hanging a mural of him in the dining hall. To attend Princeton is to think Wilson, see Wilson and praise Wilson

Wilson's accomplishments as President of the US are well documented. In addition to leading the country during World War 1 and proposing the United Nations predecessor, The League of Nations, Wilson had an impressive record as a progressive Democrat who championed many of the causes of the working man including the progressive income tax and the Federal Trade Act that controlled unfair business practices. 

What is not so well documented, however, is that Wilson was also a virulent racist. It is his racism that is at issue on the Princeton campus, where students, under the umbrella of the Black Student League, have occupied the office of university president, Christopher Eisgruber, demanding, among other things, that the institution publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism, that Wilson's name be removed from the School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, and that the dining room mural of Wilson be removed. The students seem to be asking why they should be inundated with reminders of a person who considered them to be inferior beings.

It is important to note here that Wilson's racism was extreme even for 100 years ago. He made statements sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, actively blocked black students from attending Princeton, permitted the re-institution of segregation in federal agencies, fired black officials and replaced them with whites and generally considered blacks to be inferior. This quote sums up Wilson's attitude, "There are no government positions for Negroes in the South. A Negro’s place is in the corn field." 

Some people seem to regard this controversy as a tempest in a teapot; just another example of political correctness gone mad. Does it really matter that Wilson, a product of his times and his upbringing, was a racist? Are we just caving in to special interests if we change the names of buildings and schools? When does it stop. Do we rename John F. Kennedy Airport because naughty JFK slept around? I think it is more complicated than that. The image and name of Wilson is a symbol on the Princeton campus and symbols have power. If the Confederate flag were hanging in the Princeton dining hall, I am sure most could agree that it was offensive. For African American students especially, but for that matter any thoughtful student, I think the image of Wilson could be just as problematic.

I think one of the problems in schools is that we tend to whitewash our heroes, not allowing any breath of imperfection to sully a reputation lest these heroes seem somehow less heroic. I remember a book from a few years back entitled Lies My Teacher Told Me. The book chronicled the misinformation we often perpetuate in our schools in order to make our history less damning. These things can be as innocuous as George Washington chopping down a cherry tree or as injurious as the myth of American exceptionalism perpetrated in many textbooks. The truth is we should not need our heroes to be perfect and we should not perpetuate myths of their perfection. The question is ultimately not whether a school or building should be named after Woodrow Wilson, but why his documented racism has been kept so far under wraps that this legacy was not a part of the conversation.

I think the protesting students have a point. Certainly, the institution needs to publicly acknowledge Wilson's racism as apart of a more complex and thoughtful examination of the man. Renaming schools and buildings may not be viable or even desirable, but I don't think anyone should have to eat in a dining hall under the picture of someone who worked to make sure they were never admitted to the university. 

In 1958 in my hometown of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the local school board decided to name the new high school under construction after the great scientist and "father of the atomic bomb", J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer was an eminent scholar, and as a leader of the Manhatten Project, a World War II hero. Oppenheimer seemed like a great guy to name a school after. However, anti-communist fervor was still rampant in the country, and when it was discovered that Oppenheimer had lost his security clearance with the government as part of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, a hue and cry came up from the community and Oppenheimer's name was removed from the school. What name was chosen in its place? Woodrow Wilson High School. 

So a great scientist who was falsely suspected of being a commie was replaced by a documented racist and the people of Levittown were okay with that. Perhaps those folks could plead ignorance in 1958, but it is education's mission to eradicate ignorance. The protesters in Princeton have, if nothing else, awakened the country to the dark side of one of its heroes. Ultimately, that is a good thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Should Reading Be Taught in Kindergarten?

In a rather snarky post in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog last week, literacy expert and professor emeritus from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Tim Shanahan, mocked a recent article in The Atlantic, by Tim Walker, entitled "The Joyful Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.The Atlantic article reports on the play oriented kindergarten practices of Finland.

In response Shanahan says essentially, "We're not Finland!" Personally, I am glad to hear this in a blog from the conservative Fordham Institute, since our failure to match Finland's (and other places like Singapore, Japan and Lichtenstein) performance on international tests like PISA has been a chief driver behind the education reform movement.

The United States is different from Finland, of course. Finnish children are much less likely to be poor and are much more likely to be raised in a household with two college graduates. Finnish kindergartners also learn to read in a language that is far easier to decode than English.. But five-year-olds in Finland are not developmentally that much different from five-year-olds in the US. Five-year-olds around the world learn best through structured play. As Mr. Rogers said long ago, "Play is really the work of childhood."

Shanahan says he has read the research and that to argue that literacy should not be taught in kindergarten is a claim you can make "only if you don't know the research." Well, others have read the research too, and not everyone would agree that formal instruction in literacy in kindergarten is a good or necessary thing. Many researchers, including Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Defending the Early Years, argue that "no research documents long term gains from learning to read in kindergarten."

What is a poor teacher to make of this? How is a parent supposed to know what is appropriate for kindergarten? As usual, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

An unfortunate by-product of the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core State Standards has been to make kindergarten instruction look more like first grade, and not a very joyful first grade at that. The Common Core standards' call for kindergartners to read "emergent texts with fluency" and "identify long and short vowels with common spellings" and "use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes" leads inevitably to more teacher directed instruction and developmentally inappropriate worksheet completion activities for kindergartners.

To his credit, Shanahan says he does not support worksheet driven instruction in kindergarten, but he must have some serious blinkers on if he believes that the Common Core call for more rigor has not already led to more worksheet driven, teacher-centered, developmentally inappropriate instruction in kindergarten across the country. One person's rigor is another person's worksheet. And research would support the idea that children don't need to be reading by the end of kindergarten, they just need to have the knowledge and understandings in place to help them be successful in learning to read.

On the other hand, it is part of the work of children in kindergarten and, therefore, part of the responsibility of kindergarten teachers to make sure that every child is ready to become a successful reader. Most of this work can be accomplished through structured play. Here is the literacy knowledge that rising first graders should take with them from kindergarten.

  • A rich oral language both spoken and receptive
  • A love of books
  • An awareness that books can entertain and inform
  • A working knowledge of the alphabet
  • Concepts about print like how to hold a book, how to turn pages and that print carries the meaning
  • The ability to hear and generate rhymes
  • The ability to hear and segment sounds in words (phonemic awareness)
  • The ability to match sounds to letters (phonics)
  • A store of about 25 sight words (the, it, and, I, me)
  • The ability to retell a story that has been read aloud
These literacy abilities can be acquired through the following instructional designs:
  • Structured play activities where students interact orally and in writing
  • Daily read alouds
  • Shared reading
  • Interactive or shared writing
  • Direct teacher instruction (kept brief and focused)
  • Word and language games and activities
  • Targeted small group instruction
  • One-on-one instruction as needed
  • Independent reading
  • Independent writing
Of course, no successful kindergarten program can be one-size-fits-all. The younger the children, the more critical it is that a program meet individual needs. When it comes to kindergarten literacy some children will enter already reading, some will have some letter knowledge and still others will not yet know their letters. Instruction must meet the needs of all these students. Readers should get instruction that strengthens their precocious reading ability and letter name learners must receive instruction that helps them learn their letters, but none of this means that play is not central to the kindergarten experience.  For a good guide book on developmentally appropriate kindergarten instruction, I recommend Kindergarten Literacy, by Anne McGill-Franzen.

In the end, kindergarten can be a joyful experience full of rich literacy learning opportunities. Should a child be expected to be reading by the end of kindergarten? My answer would be no. Should every child leave kindegarten positioned to become a successful reader through subsequent instruction in first grade and beyond? Absolutely.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

PARCC Test Results in NJ: Child Abuse on the Grand Scale

Well, the PARCC test results are out in New Jersey and to no one's surprise, the scores were low. Certainly the State Department of Education was not surprised, since they know that similar forms of the test had similar results in states like New York where an earlier version of the test was taken and where a scant 30% of students were judged to be meeting or exceeding standards. And so it is in New Jersey, where in no grade level did more than half of the students pass the test.

New Jersey Commissioner of Education, David Hespe, says that "There is still much work to be done in ensuring all of our students are fully prepared for the 21st century demands of college and career." Of course that is the official line of all reform minded politicians from President Obama, to US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to Bill Gates to everybody else who seeks to discredit parents, students, teachers, their unions and public education in general. Low test scores are a major component of the reformers drive for privatizing education through charter schools, vouchers, national standards, over-testing of children and the elimination teacher job protections.

But this test tells us nothing about our children's preparedness for college and career. In fact, the only thing these test results tell us is that the test is deeply and irretrievably flawed. Any competent teacher will tell you that if more than 50% of the students in a class fail a test that there is something wrong with the test. I recently gave a test in my college freshman class. While 95% of the students passed the test, one section of the test caused many students trouble. When I returned the test to the students at the next class, I asked them what gave them trouble with that section of the test that I had thought would be fairly easy. Together we determined that some of the students, who had only taken one other test from me, were confused by the format of the question and had not studied for what the test was asking of them. I noted this and determined to make changes in future tests to insure students knew the expectations and had a better chance at being successful.

Like many other PARCC observers, I predicted the PARRC scores would be low long before anyone took the test. This did not take rocket science. All I did was look at the reading passages for the English/language arts part of the exam and note that they were, for the most part, about 2 grade levels above what should be expected for a student at that grade. I also looked at the readability of the word problems in math and found similar concerns. I also examined the questions asked of students and the match between the passages and the students. You can read those analyses here, here, here and here. Our children were set up to fail this test, so that education reformers can continue to argue for the dismantling of public education. In New Jersey, all anyone needs to do is look at what is happening in Newark and Camden to see that private companies are taking over public education. The PARCC test is simply one more stake to the heart for public schooling.

All New Jersey parents and teachers want every child to be a high achiever and there is nothing wrong with having high expectations for children. But when education bureaucrats seek to advance their own agendas by setting a testing bar above what a child should be expected to do, that does not lead to high achievement, it leads to frustration and feelings of failure. 

Here is what Commisioner Hespe should have said about the PARCC test. "Any test where more than 50% of children fall below expectations is obviously a flawed test. We at the State Department need to go back to the drawing board and find out what we did wrong and see if we can correct it for the future. Governor Christie and I would like to apologize to the parents and children of New Jersey for putting them through this fruitless exercise and we promise to do better by talking to parents, students and teachers about ways to design a test that is both more fair and more useful for informing instruction going forward."

I am not holding my breath for this statement. Until such enlightenment comes out of the state department, however, I recommend all New Jersey parents simply refuse to let their children take the test. Opt Out when testing time rolls around again. 

Setting kids up for failure constitutes child abuse.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teacher Autonomy, Accountability and Baseball

I don’t think that the primary problem in American education is the lack of teacher quality, or that part of the solution would be to find the best and the brightest to become teachers. The quality of an education system can exceed the quality of its teachers if teaching is seen as a team sport, not as an individual race.
Pasi Sahlberg, Visiting Professor of Practice in Education, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University

Pasi Sahlberg is the former director general of the Finnish Ministry of Education, heading a public education program that has long been held up as a model because of high scores on PISA international tests of literacy and mathematics. In my view, Sahlberg is onto something that American corporate education reformers are ignoring at the peril of all school children. Quality education is not a matter of common standards, school choice, hero teachers, principal autonomy or teacher evaluation based on test scores. Quality education is a combination of informed, enlightened and engaged leadership, teacher quality, teacher teamwork, teacher autonomy and teacher accountability based on the quality of instruction, the quality of interactions with other teachers and the ability to reflect and grow as a professional.

I am a huge baseball fan. For me the game of baseball is a metaphor for life. Sahlberg says that education needs to be seen as a team sport. The best baseball teams are made up of individuals of talent who work together for the common good. Sure, many teams have a superstar player or two, but interestingly, superstar players do not guarantee success of the team. Many of the greatest players of all time never played in the World Series – Ernie Banks, Nolan Ryan, Ken Griffey, Jr., Rod Carew. This year 10 teams made the playoffs. One of those teams is the Houston Astros. In baseball, the .300 batting average (3 hits in every 10 times at bat) is the mark of a good hitter. Here are the batting averages of the 9 everyday players on the field this year for the Astros: .211, .199, .313, .279, .224, .243, .236, .276, .246. Clearly, something other than great hitting got the Astros to the playoffs.

Great pitching can overcome poor offense in baseball. Do the Astros have great pitching? Not so much. An average number of runs given up per game (ERA) by starting pitchers in the American League where the Astros play is about 3.75. Here are the ERAs of the pitchers who started at least 10 games for the Astros this season: 2.48, 3.89, 3.22, 3.90, 4.36, 4.17. The overall starting pitching performance is average at best. How did the Astros make the playoffs, beat the Yankees in the Wild Card game and move to the divisional playoffs? As a team, the Astros are better than the sum of their individual parts. So can it be with a school.

In order for a school to work well, teachers and administrators need to be working together toward the common goal of the best possible learning environment for every child. For this to happen, Sahlberg suggests, teachers need autonomy. This is not the autonomy of closing the classroom door and teaching whatever you want in whatever way you want. This is an autonomy built on teamwork, professionalism and trust. Professionals are people who are empowered through their knowledge to make decisions, but true professionals do not make decisions in a vacuum, they seek help, they share good ideas, they look for solutions to new problems.

Recently, a friend suffered a re-occurrence of cancer and she went to her local doctor, a very well regarded oncologist. In order to design a plan of treatment, this very experienced doctor called a colleague in a nearby urban hospital to talk through the best possible treatment plan. So must it be with teachers. A school as a whole must be even stronger than its best teachers. It can be so if all teachers are working together and if they have the time and autonomy to make it happen. Teachers in Finland, and many other countries, teach fewer hours than US teachers and spend more time consulting with their colleagues. Rather than teaching to a prescribed set of standards toward scoring well on a standardized test, Finnish teachers are guided by a loose framework around which they find the best way to teach the children in front of them.

Of course, autonomy requires trust and trust in teachers is both deserved and earned. It is deserved because teachers are professionals who have dedicated themselves to the study of the child, the study of teaching methods and the study of content. And trust is earned when teachers hold themselves accountable. Not accountable to some fool’s gold of a standardized tests, but accountable for providing the best possible instruction to each and every child entrusted to their care.  This means keeping up on the research. It means constantly improving your own teaching ability through reflection on what is working and what isn’t. It means being a productive and contributing and collaborative member of an instructional team that is working together to meet children’s needs. It means being able to demonstrate every student’s progress through authentic artifacts like tests, quizzes, classroom projects and writing samples.

Autonomy is inextricably tied to accountability. If, as teachers, we desire autonomy we must embrace accountability, as long as it is an accountability that respects our professionalism. The school administrator must trust that teachers will work together to design the best possible instruction. Parents must trust that the teacher is providing the best possible instruction for the child. Policy makers must trust that teachers are professionals doing their jobs as well as they can. The Common Core, the proliferation of standardized tests, the teacher accountability movement built on those standardized tests are all indications of a lack of trust. As teachers we have every right to demand that trust, but we also have the heavy responsibility of being deserving of that trust.

The Houston Astros trust each other. They trust each other to do their best, not only on the field, but in preparing to go on the field. They trust their fellow players to make the correct plays, throw to the right base, break up the double play, run the bases intelligently. When each Astro walks into the batter’s box, he is an autonomous actor with a bat in his hand, but he is also a teammate working toward the greater good of winning the World Series. As teachers we play in the World Series every day. Our job is that important. We deserve professional respect, we need the professional collaboration of our colleagues and we must earn the trust of the children and adults we work with by being the best professional team players we can be.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

New Teachers are Educated, Not Trained

It was gratifying the other morning to pick up the New York Times and see this headline on the Opinion Page: "Teachers Aren't Dumb." Gee thanks. The author of the piece, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at The University of Virginia, says that Arne Duncan is wrong about prospective teachers scraping the bottom of the barrel of students admitted to colleges. When you look at the students who actually complete a teaching degree, their scores tend to fall around the average of other students completing degrees in other fields. Willingham says that college education school graduates are "smart enough" to do the job. I agree.

Willingham says quite a few smart things. For example he acknowledges that it takes more than intelligence to be a good teacher. And he recognizes that it is plain foolishness to try to assess the quality of a teacher preparation program on the basis of standardized test scores of the school children taught by their graduates. He also says, and I agree, that prospective teachers do not get enough course work in reading and math pedagogy.

Unfortunately when he tries to posit some solutions to the problems he sees in teacher education (I refuse to use the word "training"), Willingham says a lot of dumb things. He says that there are two things we should do to improve teacher preparation programs:

  1. Test students at the end of their schooling to see if they know what they need to know.
  2. Generate a list of what research says a teacher ought to know and use this list to decide if a teacher is well "trained" and should be certified to teach and whether the college's education program should be accredited.
So, even though we know that teaching is a complex human activity that requires more than "smarts" and rote knowledge, Willingham says we can assess a young graduate's preparedness with a test that rewards smarts and rote knowledge. Then we will generate a list of what teachers should know and use that list to determine their suitability to teach and the quality of the education program they attended. I would like to see that list. I bet that if Willingham and some of his colleagues started writing that list today, they might finish by the next millennium.

When will we begin to acknowledge that complex human processes cannot be boiled down to lists and measured by tests? This work of evaluating, certifying and accrediting is too messy to be easily measured. It takes time, money, dedication and human judgment. It can't be boiled down to numbers.

In my experience teacher education programs are actually quite sound, but too often they are removed from the context of the classroom. Most new teachers will tell you that they learn more about teaching in their student teaching experience and in their first couple of years of teaching than they did in the preparation courses. This is not because the courses are not good, but because they lack context. Prospective teachers need to be able to weigh what they are learning against the backdrop of real kids and real classrooms in order to make their learning concrete and to help them focus on what matters. Quality teacher education programs get students into the classroom quickly.

If we want high quality teacher education programs, here is what we need to do.

  • Provide all prospective teachers with a firm grounding in a liberal arts education: English, history, science, psychology, philosophy, arts and physical education
  • Provide a course of study that combines  the theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy with the practical application of the theory.
  • For elementary teachers provide multiple courses in reading and mathematics pedagogy.
  • For secondary school teachers provide courses in disciplines they will be teaching that combine content knowledge with pedagogical knowledge. One of the stranger aspects of teacher education is that students take college level courses in math or history that they will never teach. Certainly these higher level courses should be a part of their curriculum, but so should in depth looks at basic mathematics and history courses.
  • Get students into regular school classrooms beginning in the sophomore year, fist as observers and later to plan and teach occasional lessons.
  • Provide a student teaching experience where prospective teachers get regular feedback on their performance and suggestions for improvement.
  • Carefully select the teachers who will work with the student teachers to insure that all student teachers have good models to pattern themselves after.
  • Develop habits of mind that encourage reflective practice. Expect prospective teachers to be able to assess their own performance and develop plans for improvement.
  • Assess performance by observing practice based on a set of shared understandings of good teaching.

There is no inexpensive or quick way to educate a teacher and there is no test that can measure the tangible and intangible skills that are required of the successful teacher. Teaching is a human enterprise and like all human enterprises, it requires real human beings to interact in good faith and make judgments. These judgments will be subjective, they will be messy, they will be imprecise, but they will tell us much more about who is moving forward to be a good teacher than any tests and lists ever will.

If learning to teach was like training a dog, perhaps we could design a test and create a list that would demonstrate that the teacher was properly trained. But learning to teach requires a very complex process of educating and our systems for measuring the success of that educational process must be just as complex as the educating itself.