School & District Management Opinion

Let’s Talk More About Teaching

By Deborah Meier — January 28, 2014 6 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with CitizenshipFirst’s Robert Pondiscio.

Dear Robert,

Hurrah. Yes, we agree about immersing kids in a community that finds the world a fascinating place. As a graduate of Central Park East once said to Alice Seletsky* (his former 5th/6th grade teacher): “I had a decent job, but it wasn’t interesting, and I remembered how you said over and over to us how interesting the world was, so I’m going back to school hoping to get interested again.”

We started the secondary school for a similar reason. Graduates of our 6th grade complained that they managed to cope with junior high and high school, but they rarely found anything that truly intellectually interested them again. Maybe we could agree that high on our list of purposes for education should be preparation for living an interesting life!

But part of the reason for this sad history of curriculum is that we were pounded over the head with programs that promised to raise test scores—without teaching any content. Just teaching how to read, for example. (P.S. The analogy between food and reading isn’t the greatest. We eat no matter what, but not so for reading.) Nor was it teachers who invented all these programs and theories about “learning to think” rather than actually “thinking.” The new wave is teaching kids to read nonfiction without expecting, even allowing, them to delve into the background knowledge. Bringing out background knowledge is how we make sense of anything we encounter in the world. In reading nonfiction it is even more essential (and the background knowledge requires spending more than a few minutes of pre-reading exercises). My reading ability in astronomy is limited by my lack of knowledge of astronomy, not my lack of reading skill.

The skill/drill stuff wasn’t “invented” by teachers. But, of course, since they were insufficiently well-educated about the nature of learning and insufficiently self-confident in their own expertise they either fell for it or were coerced into it. It was primarily progressive educators who resisted.

The Workshop Center in Open Education at Teachers College (led by Lillian Weber) was alive and well when I came to New York City in the late 1960s, as a place where teachers explored subject matter and also (in the process of their own learning) figured out ways to teach aspects of it to kids. It focused on science and history. City College closed it about a decade ago.

Ted Sizer noticed this phenomenon in his study of secondary education in the United States (Horace’s Compromise). The difference between schools for the rich and poor was both how and what was taught. Rich kids were far more likely to be expected to delve deeply into material and have their own ideas.

That’s my critique of the current press for earlier schooling. It’s focused on isolated skills, too. Half a day—at least—is spent on reading skills. Even when books are read to kids, the focus is on specific skills rather than appreciation for the narrative story or the illustrations. Teachers are taught to stop and ask questions about phonics and content—over and over. It destroys the literary strengths and wonder of the story itself. Even nonfiction is focused on reading skills rather than subject matter. Ugh.

Science and history and social studies have been crowded out of early childhood—and elementary school—in the interest of raising test scores. For poor kids.

And part of the argument is that since “those kids” need to catch up, they can’t afford the kind of learning that good subject-matter immersion rests on, as though depriving them of a rich education helps them catch up. Teachers are told to directly teach science words, devoid of science, to expand their vocabularies.

Maybe we agree?

I started teaching (subbing actually) in the early ‘60s in Chicago elementary schools—largely in low-income and African-American communities. They were not OK. It’s our misunderstanding of the impact of poverty that partly led us astray. I believe they needed more—not less—of precisely the kind of schooling the rich could afford. The gap in how much money we spent on them, and the quality and quantity of materials, and the nature of the professional development between rich and poor schools was and remains enormous. It may be even greater today than it was in 1967, when I came to NYC.

The gap between per-pupil costs in private and suburban schools vs. low-income schools continues to grow. But equally sad was the way we taught. And test scores are precisely the wrong tool for changing this. Tests encourage more rote teaching, not more in-depth teaching.

Sadly, too, the best college education I know of—with small classes, seminars, etc. are the hardest for poor kids to get into. Imagine if City College did what Brandeis does—encourages students to invite faculty to lunch (in the faculty lunch room) by making such encounters free!

The students in the school I was part of developing learned about the whole wide world. We wanted to make them feel “at home,” anywhere. We used the city a lot—so that the museums got to know our kids and our kids thought these museums belonged to them. They do.

In the secondary school we sent kids into workplaces with interesting adults for a half-day a week to widen their network: That was foremost. We started visiting colleges in 7th grade—alongside introducing them to other locations in the (primarily) Northeast. We made sure every kid also took a course (sometimes just audited) at one of the public colleges in New York City. We hoped we made our work seem like fun, a fascinating way to spend one’s life—and a powerful occupation. And, no surprise, a disproportionate number of our Central Park East graduates are now teaching K-12.

That was precisely the point of the kind of graduation exams we developed—ones that valued what we valued: being able to present oneself and one’s work, and defend it, orally and in writing, before a real-life adult audience.

But none of that happens easily, and most of it rests upon a profound respect for the children, their families, and their communities; for their ability to cope with much that we have never had to cope with ourselves. And to appreciate the love they have for their children (which we can’t compete with). The relationship between families and schools has always—historically—been complicated by class differences, and by deciding who is to blame (teacher or mother). Even for the rich (although in reverse in terms of their social class). Breaking these barriers is essential, and more so if the children are the less economically advantaged (vs. more advantaged) than their teachers. And having a structure that enables one to get to know families and students better makes this feasible.

So I start with those two: small class sizes, smaller (surely under 1,000 students) schools, and a schedule that gives teachers time to collaborate with each other and with their students and their families. (I visited a public school in Brooklyn—New American Academy—that provides more than six hours a week for faculty to meet together in teams during the school day, plus one meeting a week after school. And the adult teaching load (K-5) is 22 to one, or less.

Of course, one can have a 5-to-1 ratio and still stand in front of a row of desks and lecture as though facing 3,005.

So, let’s talk more about teaching!


P.S. I think that—and especially given the present job market (fewer jobs)—young people will still go into teaching. But I think they’ll leave earlier. It’s no longer a “career” choice, but a “start-up” occupation.

P.S. 2. Read My Name is Alice: Collected essays by *Alice Seletsky. To find the book, go to lulu.com, click on “Bookstore,” and search for “Alice Seletsky.”

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