I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff Bliss the last couple of days. Bliss is the high school student in Duncanville, Texas, who famously stood up in his classroom to demand that his teacher do more than hand out “freaking packets” and actually teach the class. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s definitely worth watching.
I’ve taught students just like Jeff Bliss. While I watched him passionately demanding more from his high school experience than an endless series of reading packets and worksheets, I immediately thought of a handful of students, who unconcerned about perception, stood up for their right to receive an authentic education.
PACKETS AND PERCEPTION
What Jeff Bliss experienced in Texas is not far from the norm. In his excellent book Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement, Michael Schmoker writes:
What do we see in the vast majority of classrooms? We find startling amounts of busy work, with no connection to important standards or a common curriculum. The system we place our teachers in, with its isolation and lack of constructive feedback or supervision, ensures that most of what we see is at odds with good practice. In most cases, neither teachers nor students can articulate what they are supposed to be learning that day. They can describe only the activity or assignment, which is often chosen because it keeps kids occupied. Irrelevant worksheets and activities often predominate. Catching students learning the most vital reading and writing standards is heartbreakingly rare.
Despite this description of our schools, we do little to differentiate our assessment of the teachers who work in the classrooms. This, despite the evidence that an effective instructor is the single most important variable in determining student adult success:
Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material…. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher.
The teacher who engages students and pushes them to think critically is likely to be evaluated just as positively as the teacher handing out “freakin” packets. Even worse, the latter teacher likely believes she is as, if not more, effective, than the former.
According to the 2009 Widget Effect: Our National Failure to Acknowledge and Act on Differences in Teacher Effectiveness, districts routinely evaluate all of their teachers as having the same level of effectiveness in the classroom after using fitful, inconsistent evaluation tools that identify almost every teacher as effective.
And teachers internalize those reviews. According to the same report, an astonishing 90% of teachers surveyed in six districts rated their instructional performance as an 8-10 on a ten point scale. Not one rated herself below a five.
This Lake Woebegone inspired assessment of teacher effectiveness destroys incentive for improvement in the classroom, and it makes sense that teachers are hesitant to change their practice, because no matter how ineffective they are, they’re virtually assured a positive evaluation. What incentive does a teacher who both believes she is doing an effective job and who is told by her supervisor that she is doing an effective job have to improve or change?
All of this, course, has become fuel for conservatives who want to destroy public schools. They seize on incidents like this as evidence that unions are destroying our schools, with no evidence to support these claims.
Unfortunately, as I have often wondered, how is it that conservatives ask so many good questions about education while getting every answer wrong?
Calls to privatize education or transfer public funds to private charter schools and independent schools are morally bankrupt schemes designed to benefit the elite while leaving our most needy students behind in newly-impoverished schools.
Calls to end tenure don’t change the underlying problem of schools: our failure to evaluate and assess instructional quality. Eliminating tenure protections will threaten effective, late-career teachers who cost districts more money than new teachers, but won’t change evaluation systems or classroom practice.
Criticism of their solutions aside, conservatives and other critics of American education aren’t wrong to be demanding more. Our failure to respond will only make the public discontent about our schools more powerful, and the imposition of ineffective, punitive policies more likely. We’re seeing it all over the country and Republicans in the past two legislative sessions have tried to seriously weaken our schools. This threat is only going to grow, unless schools, teachers, and administrators start making serious reform their top priority.
Teachers who practice this kind of passive “education” and districts who permit it are their own worst enemies when it comes to public perception about public schools. We can no longer tolerate a system that doesn’t demand excellence in individual classrooms, measure results from individual teachers, and improve those teachers who simply aren’t meeting expectations. We even need to be willing to acknowledge that teaching isn’t the career for everyone–because our students deserve the best quality instruction every day.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Fixing our schools is going to demand the kind of leadership that makes teachers uncomfortable and compels them to improve their practice. Having teachers sit through workshops and meetings about school improvement won’t change classroom practice as long as classrooms are autonomous islands in which any teaching activity is tolerated. Teachers need strong, clear leadership about heightened expectations for student engagement and achievement–and they need to know that failure to improve practice will not be tolerated.
When administrators “go along” instead of leading, they perpetuate mediocrity. Subtle institutional forces urge them to accommodate or wink at inferior practice, while implying to their communities that instruction is effective or “good enough.” We can only imagine the psychic toll this takes on many of them.
Good enough cannot be enough. Keeping students occupied, but not engaged, cannot ever be enough. Shaking our heads but remaining silent about ineffective classroom practice is not enough.
Reflective practice, driven by research-based and tested instructional techniques and evaluated by critical administrators is the key to fixing what ails American schools. Just as teachers should never tolerate sub-standard work from their students, administrators must stop accepting substandard practice in the classrooms they oversee.
The system isn’t broken and the situation isn’t hopeless, but we need to start work now. Every year we delay implementation of effective classroom strategies across the board potentially wastes 7% of the time a student gets in K-12 education. That’s got to be more than unacceptable to us; it needs to be a clarion call for action.
It’s time for what Roland Barth calls “recognition of and moral outrage at ineffective practices.” That outrage shouldn’t just come from outside the school walls, but from within, as Mr. Bliss pointed out in his classroom speech:
“You want kids to come to class? You want them to get excited? You gotta come in here, you gotta make ’em excited, to change him and make him better, you gotta touch his freakin’ heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell him.”
Amen, Jeff. Amen.