Instructional Rounds in Education (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Teitel)

Meet the newest metaphor. School systems should use rounds, like hospitals do, and then whatever the problem of practice that exists will be cured. I overstate things. . . but only by a little bit.

This quartet of authors has created an extremely organized system. And if – as is the case with most professional development plans – it is applied down to the last detail, it would probably help. Yet even the best organizational plans, when laid upon shifting sands, will crumble. The authors have their parachutes built in, ready to explain away as the participants’ responsibility, any flaws in their plan. They forget, and this is the major flaw of the book, that they are dealing with human beings. And this is not, to use some of their condescending language, because I want to protect my own style; it is just true. You can practice and pinpoint all you want, but my descriptions of what I see in the classroom are always going to be grounded in who I am and all of the biases and background bits that I bring to the table. It is not a business; it is not a science. It is human beings. Here’s the core of the book and also the core of the problem:

Rounds is based on the highly contentions and problematic assumption that for schools to improve systematically, they have to develop shared practices and a shared understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and leaerning. To characterize differences in practie as matters of taste or style, having little or no consequence for student learning, is to trivialize the importance of teachers’ practice and its cumulative effect on student learning.

They do love to think of themselves as controversial – here and throughout the book. They’re not; they’re just the flavor of the month. Data-Driven Decision Making by another name. This effort to reduce teaching to some kind of cause-and-effect that is easily identifiable and once identifiable then replicable is akin to chasing unicorns. But what such an effort does support is reducing teachers to part of the mechanics of education. If it was so easy to find these cause-and-effect relationships, don’t you think we would have done that by now? The authors assume that things in the classroom operate in some kind of vacuum, like if I just follow the algorithm, then all of the kids, the ones who ate breakfast and the ones who didn’t, the ones who were born into houses with lead poisoning and the ones born into houses with silver spoons, well, they will all learn. And if teaching can be reduced to an algorithm, then teachers can be replaced by computers.

The others move on from the paragraph quoted above to hysterical and hyperbolic examples to try to make their point. They refer to a plane about to make a landing and mock those who would want to deviate from the routine and accepted practices about how to land the plane. First, I want to ask, are those practices the same as they were 10 years ago? 20? But that would be to accept their analogy. That teaching is akin to landing a plane after a routine flight. The thing is, it’s not. Teaching is akin to having 25 different planes heading for some kind of crash, and that’s when we want teachers who are knowledgeable and trained and flexible and trusted enough to be like Chesley Sullenberger. Now do that 5 times a day. Every day.

You want systematic improvements? Start by leveling the playing field. School funding in Ohio, where I teach, has been declared unconstitutional 4 times. 4 times. And nothing has changed. Or start before that. Start with a country founded on two genocides, do nothing to offer any kind of reparations, develop policies that make those who are starting behind become cemented in those spots (at best) or fall further behind (at worst) and then say, if only we offered descriptive observations than judgmental ones, then all will be better.

Believe it or not, I am for systems. I am for coherency, consistency, collaboration. And I do see how the process of rounds could, if implemented well and narrowly focused, help address a very specific problem of practice in such a way that such an effort could be evaluated at an appropriate interval to see if it’s having the desired impact (and I wholeheartedly reject standardized test scores as the way to evaluate the success or failure of rounds). But this book, in the end, is a sales job, and one based on a kind of circular logic and plenty of false dichotomies. Dichotomies work with computers, not people. Certainly there are better and worse ways to do things, but that’s not the same as saying there are right and wrong ways – far from it.


Life in Schools (McLaren)

This is a mammoth book of ideas. At times, it got too jargon-heavy, and I had trouble following it. Mostly, though, I found it inspiring. It’s nothing short of a call for a revolution, not just in schools but in society. McLaren, persuasively I think, argues that we cannot separate schools from society and that focusing only on schools is to address a symptom, not a cause. The main cause, McLaren asserts, is capitalism. McLaren seeks a transformation to socialism, one that may very well begin in the classroom.

McLaren bravely includes a journal he published as a young teacher, Cries from the Corridor, to demonstrate how he was once quite prone to the instincts of generally well-meaning teachers. Still, I wondered about the format here. It might have been nice to have his annotations on his younger self in the margins of this section.

I think it’s a book teachers should have on their shelves. As for the jargon-heavy parts, just treat them like Russian names in a novel, and, well, you won’t be far wrong.

a YouTube clip of McLaren

Blindspot (Banaji and Greenwald)

Look, I’m no scientist, and I’m not a researcher, but these two make a credible case that we all have blindspots, often aren’t aware of them, act on them (even as babies), and even have them (also called “mindbugs” here) about ourselves. Thus far, there seem to be things we can do to combat them short-term, but nothing has, as of yet, proven durable.

The book is readable for a non-scientist, but not entirely engaging. I think I accepted the argument before it even began. I have blindspots, some of which I don’t recognize, many of which I act on (including in the classroom which is what I’d like to address), and I have them about myself. I am, I am sure, an “uncomfortable egalitarian.” That makes me who the intended audience is for this book. Do people disagree with their conclusions?

The authors suggest that there may soon come a device that will alert us of our blindspots before we make a decision just as cars now come with similar features to help us avoid accidents. That prospect makes me nervous.

Project Implicit – Take a test! Find your blindspots!

The Art of Critical Pedagogy (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell)

This is an extremely compelling book. The authors articulate a vision for the use of critical pedagogy in K-12 classrooms in such a way that it is intertwined with the teaching of the skills necessary for students to navigate the world they are simultaneously trying to change. After they present their rationale for critical pedagogy, they provide several good examples of how they’ve executed it. The authors are aware they are standing on the shoulders of others, educators and other sources for inspiration, and they pay them – particularly Freire – the proper tribute. In that way, this is a ‘gateway’ book because reading it will lead you to others. (I’ve already ordered the two books mentioned in the preface.) I appreciated their constant attention that the development of this approach needs to begin in teacher training, and I was thunderstruck with the accuracy of their claim that public education is not failing. It is, they argue, doing exactly what it was designed to do – create a permanent underclass. An invigorating and challenging read – one I’ll keep close at hand.

Duncan-Andrade’s TEDx talk

Duncan-Andrade founded and is currently Board Chair of this school

Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire (Esquith)

It is hard to know the truth of what led to the end of Esquith’s career. A brief Google search indicates that there are almost as many theories as there are websites. I admit, though, that my bias is that “something is rotten” here, and that it’s not Esquith. The book is good. His arrogance shows through often, and he is unsubtle when he criticizes his own administration. Neither of these things probably earned him many friends.

Still, he clearly sacrificed a great deal of time, money and energy to do the best work he could. Some of his reasoning is circular – ‘I think we should study this and therefore we should because I am the arbiter of such things’ – well, then, he’s far from alone.

There is a great deal here to support – that he has very high expectations, is clear. He mocks the errors of his younger teacher self. He realizes the reality of standardized tests and how, in the end, they are so very unimportant.

If he did what he stands accused of doing, then he deserves to end his career in disgrace and to lose his freedom. But if he didn’t, oh, if he didn’t. . .

an account of Esquith’s firing from Diane Ravitch’s blog

Hobart Shakespeareans

Hobart Shakespeareans – Trailer

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education (Robinson and Aronica)

At times, this book seemed more like an overview of a topic than an argument for any kind of revolution. And Robinson is perhaps a bit too fond of something I’ve noticed in many polished speakers – he reduces things to certain numbers and often uses alliteration (the 5 C’s, for example). Still, there’s much to be learned here, and I was always grateful when Robinson offered the names of other texts to pursue and / or schools / programs to investigate, so I could go into more depth if I wanted to.

It’s hard to imagine at this point who genuinely disagrees with what’s here. I think the two more important questions are how to generate the kind of political will necessary to “scale up” from some of the exemplars Robinson provides and how to manage the transition in the least disruptive way possible.

Ken Robinson’s TED talk

The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? (Russakoff)

I understand the instinct. The short-term window. The bipartisan creation story. The big money. I even understand the top-down approach. It takes time to engage constituents and, to be honest, constituents are often under-informed about the issues in play. Would a community conversation have helped alleviate the issue of siblings being assigned to separate schools? But would it have made for better teachers?

Still, the top-down, outsider-led, system-focused, charter school-fueld approach does not seem to have improved the situation as much as it has just changed them.  Russakoff’s narrative provides compelling insights into what’s succeeding and what’s not in the Newark schools, and begins to articulate how difficult this issue is in the country at large, even when forces like Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg align.

Russakoff introduces the idea of community schools, which hold tremendous appeal, but the 10,000 foot view shows the sources of some potential frustration. Priscilla Chan (Zuckerberg’s wife) is apparently creating a wonderful community school, but it’s one school, resting largely on the shoulders of one individual with remarkable access to funds. Ras Baraka, the mayor who followed Booker, is doing more to engage the community, but what’s happening to students while he is engaging the public?

This is a solidly written and important book.