Education Opinion

Which Came First, the Practice or the Policy?

By Nancy Flanagan — April 12, 2013 3 min read
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Gary Rubinstein wrote a rather extraordinary piece this week where he describes, in some detail, teaching practice in the lone KIPP high school in New York City. There are lots and lots of blogs on What Teachers Do--but what makes Rubinstein’s piece so compelling is his deceptively casual but spot-on analysis of the teaching he observes.

A few examples: A teacher who can’t get a video clip to run as his pupils lose focus; a teacher who seems to be relying on charm and having students verbally repeat a little joke rather dig deeply into social studies content; a teacher who offers kids candy to complete their homework--and that was in a class that was supposed to be teaching “grit.” Yikes.

A particularly interesting example comes from a math class where the teacher asks a good, concept-driven question, then is unsure how long to let kids flounder--or how to move them from going nowhere to going in the right direction. The teacher ends up just giving students the answer--a familiar outcome to a common teaching dilemma.

Rubinstein then says something very important: We can’t expect Superbowl teaching all the time. A lot of teaching is going to be merely OK. And any capable teacher who’s been in the classroom awhile knows that some days magically flow and connect and other days feel like low-grade train wrecks, in spite of solid planning.

The problem comes when we elevate boring/average practice on a policy pedestal. Why do people assume that a TFA teacher in a KIPP school is offering something special? How many truly skillful veteran teachers are painted as substandard, because they’re working in traditional public schools?

It’s axiomatic that good teaching matters (and yeah, I know that other things matter more, but stay with me). So why don’t we focus, laser-like, on what good teaching explicitly looks like and what it yields (two different things) and how to get it--everywhere? Including traditional public schools?

On any given day, you can read hundreds of articles about Mrs. Johnson’s fourth graders Skyping with grade-fours in Scotland-- or Mr. Smith’s on-line data collection project on frogs. Exciting stuff, but we have no idea if kids have learned anything. Most of what we talk about as good practice misses that critical dissection of learning--it’s simply a description of the activities or the technologies involved. The most important practice-dissector is the teacher herself; what matters is her skill at analyzing what students have actually learned, and her ability to figure out what to do next, based on that analysis.

It sounds obvious, and simple. But it’s incredibly complex. Learning is always in the personal interaction. It’s about on-the-spot decision-making. It’s being specific about what you want your students to know and do--and then being willing to change course in an instant when your best-laid plans aren’t working out. Good teaching is not based on a template, a book, a behavior model in five easy steps. You can regiment your way to order, but there are plenty of compliant classrooms where nothing much is happening, intellectually.

In short, before you can create good policy around teaching, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. Lately, we seem to be bent on achieving uniformity and internationally competitive results.

The “product” in American schools used to be good citizens. Then good workers. Now, the product is test scores and being admitted to college. And we’re designing policy to achieve those goals.

Think about this: There is almost no education policy in America written to support the creation of genuinely excellent, innovative, place-based teaching practice. In America we seem to think that the right policy has to come first--and effective practice will follow. Worse, a lot of the policy that’s in place, from schoolwide directives through state and federal mandates, puts teachers’ core work on tethers--pacing charts, test prep, control over instructional materials, preferred teaching methods and techniques. Nationally developed standards, assessments and curriculum suck professional judgment right out of teaching.

We trust policy, but we don’t trust teachers.

In response to Gary Rubinstein’s piece, Bruce Baker shared some interesting data analyzing teaching in NYC charter schools. Charter school teachers in NYC are younger and less experienced--but are well-paid. They teach fewer students, in smaller classes--and those students bring fewer disabilities into the classroom. Their schools also have more resources.

Even with strong policy supports around teacher selection, class size, compensation and resources, we’re just getting so-so teaching. Why is that?

Practice first. Policy to follow.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.