Student Achievement Opinion

Your Guide to Effective Teaching. In TIME Magazine.

By Nancy Flanagan — July 21, 2015 3 min read
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If you spend your pleasure reading time wading around in education policy and practice literature, and hours online cruising Ed Blog World, it’s easy to lose sight of what the rest of the country thinks about public schools, teachers and what constitutes a quality education.

A quick glance at the comments on any mainstream piece about education confirms this: lots of well-meaning people can’t understand what has happened to public education in the past dozen years, but that doesn’t stop them from speaking their minds. It’s very rare to read a thoughtful, nuanced back-and-forth about standardized test data, charter schools or teacher tenure.

What you get, often, is a list of Things People Say, about education: Kids today--so disrespectful! And their idiot parents are to blame. Especially in ___________ (city where commenter does not live). Everything has been dumbed down. Teachers are underworked / overpaid. Bring back the paddle! Or prayer. Or cursive writing.

Still. It’s important for educators to read widely, about common issues--with a kind of radar for books and articles written for general audiences that contain important nuggets of wisdom, related to schools and learning. Why? Because general audiences aren’t reading your favorite teacher blogs or books on the Common Core. Education takes place in the middle--between research-based expertise and unexamined habit.

The only way to break out of the echo chamber of Things Educators Say (and get persnickety over) is to get a fresh perspective, one that comes from outside School World. Sometimes, of course, this will drive you a little crazy.

For example, here’s a piece about the hip “science” of making rock-solid grand pronouncements about teacher quality, using Value-Added Methodology (VAM), from the blog that won notoriety for accurately predicting Obama victories.

Topic: why economists should be turning cartwheels over another paper that says VAM “‘accurately captures teachers’ impacts on students’ academic achievement.’ The implication being, school administrators can legitimately use value-added scores to hire, fire and otherwise evaluate teacher performance. “

Much of the piece is a detailed explanation of contentious issues in yet another statistical analysis. Stuff that makes economists excited, no doubt. But beyond the ken of your average parent or, yes, legislator, who absorb only the “legitimately use value-added scores to hire and fire” part.

Here’s what I don’t get. When did economists become the folks we turn to for social-political advice? When did we start trusting numbers generated by remote students taking tests more than our own observations? And what economist would base an evaluation of his own child’s all-important first grade teacher on test scores?

On the other hand, a fellow music teacher handed me a well-worn copy of TIME magazine last week. He claimed an article in the magazine changed everything about the way he taught. He just completed the best year of his career, he said, one where he stopped trying to control every aspect of student behavior and followed four simple rules outlined in the article, a brief pop-psychology feature piece:

Have you ever accomplished your best work because someone nagged you? I didn't think so. Here's what to do: Stop Bribing Make Them Feel Something Emphasize Progress Start A Cult -- (With A Story) Good thinking starts with strong feelings.

This feature also mentions that the ideas are backed by scientific research. It’s all about the science, it seems--a cheap way to make something feel legitimate.

I liked the TIME piece, however--a lot. It rang MY teacher chimes, and I wasn’t surprised that a young teacher who tried to build a strong, story-focused community of kids (“everybody’s welcome in the band room"--that’s a good refrain to start with), stressing positive emotion, collaboration and incremental progress, was finding great rewards with a group of teenaged musicians.

He was kind of sheepish--TIME magazine?--but remarked that none of his graduate class assignments offered short, accessible bits of advice on building a classroom community.

What kinds of summer reading are most helpful for teachers?

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.