Making Curriculum Pop

Last week I wrote about Napoleon, a first year teacher at my school who is a NYC Teaching Fellow. Like Teach for America, this program places talented folks in high-need schools as classroom teachers after a month and a half of summer training. During the school year these teachers are given the opportunity to work toward their certification and/or master’s degree nights and weekends. Many of these alternative certification programs work on an underling assumption that “teaching happens.” The reality is that six weeks of summer school does not prepare one to teach in the most challenging and under-resourced schools in America.

Our high school is like many of urban schools; we have no library, no gym, 95% of our students live below the poverty line and a significant percentage of students are homeless. To support these challenges we have two social workers for our 400-student population. Working with great kids facing these extraordinary circumstances, you can see why a teacher would need to have a strong command of their craft by the time they enter these type of schools.

While we hear about all kinds of crises in the health care industry, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that a standout biology undergrad at Yale should graduate to a job as a chief neurosurgeon at an urban hospital. This is the same logic that informs many alternative certification programs. These programs are not looking to develop educators who will stay in the profession, but bright young folks who want to enhance their resume for medical or law school having served three years in an urban peace corps.

Obviously, these programs have successes, and I believe we see more of them at our school because of the elaborate support system we’ve put in place for new teachers. I do believe teachers like Napoleon can and will develop into great teachers when a professional learning community (PLC) surrounds their practice. Field-based/learn-by-doing models work extremely well in graduate schools of education that give teachers adequate support and planning time. Unfortunately, most of the fellows and TFA teachers I’ve met don’t have a lot of positive things to say about the supports they were given from their programs or the schools they were placed in.

In an early MC Pop broadcast e-mail I highlighted a New Yorker piece on teacher quality by Malcolm Gladwell’s (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and now Outliers). In true MC POP fashion, Gladwell compares finding and assessing quality teachers to the recruitment of college quarterbacks by NFL scouts. It is a provocative read that sums up some of the research in the field of teacher assessment. That being said, the disconnect between theory and practice becomes pretty clear when you get to - in my opinion - the article's shocking conclusion. Gladwell’s argument is brilliantly executed … in a vacuum. He does not take into account the demand for educators or acknowledge that there is a real teachable craft involved in good pedagogy whether you have 2 or 200 students in your class..

A friend of mine, Joe Rodgers, is not a teacher but he’s very interested in teacher quality and works tirelessly advocating for equitable Ed policies. He even sells t-shirts with provocative slogans like “Better NYC Schools = Fewer Upstate NY Prisons,” “Education 4 Liberation,” and “Total Equity Now: Because no child should have to wait for an excellent education” at Café Press. When I shared Gladwell’s article with Joe he responded in an e-mail:

I, too, take issue with Gladwell’s suggestion that we just let promising folks teach without any professional training up front and just weed out the bad apples as we go along. True, there is disagreement about how best to prepare teachers, but I’m not fond of gambling with kids’ futures, particularly those kids starting furthest behind.

Notably, our society is most willing to gamble with lives of just those children. The outcome of a football game may impact the career and financial prospects of the coaches, players, owners, and gamblers involved, but the consequences of a student being taught by a fumbling teacher learning by the sink-or-swim method are far more serious.

Joe’s eloquence and activism is why Joe will get my vote whenever he decides to run for president. I think we are all better served approaching the profession with Joe’s compassion and common sense. Teaching isn’t just a science. We can’t airlift curriculum into struggling schools and improve them overnight. We must respect teaching as a science and art. “Attention must be paid” to the fact that there are no secrets behind magic, just practice and craft.

Gladwell sure can write, but lets hope policy makers in DC don't confuse style for substance when they read his article. Working along the lines of other professions to clearly articulate shared models of effective teaching practices is essential to the creation of a more humanistic and intelligent students, teachers, and policy.

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I think Gladwell is fooling himself if he thinks we can prevent subpar teachers from entering the classroom. Some teachers have given outstanding interviews and have shown great promise as undergrads and student teachers. But they fail in the classroom. Much of this has to do with a lack of support from colleagues and the administration, an overload of students, job demands, working conditions, etc. The profession can develop great teachers. It is not realistic to think that 100% of teachers will be great upon entering the field. That contradicts every learning theory (particularly constructivist). With proper professional development, districts willing to send teachers to national conferences, quality in-service, professional collaborate environments (like through a PLC), and an environment that fosters reflective teaching practices, teachers can become great. Unfortunately, many of our districts fall short.

An example of misplaced priorities: A high-achieving district in my area is undergoing several million dollars in budget cuts due to the economic situation. They have vowed not to cut services to students. They have told the community that the student impact will be minimal. So, they have cut the budget in places like national conferences, field trips, tuition reimbursements for teachers, new supplies and professional development. What they don't understand is that areas like professional development probably influence the students more than any other area.

I agree with Gladwell in that many bad teachers enter the classroom. Our undergrad programs need to be fine-tuned and need to require that their pre-service teachers clock more classroom hours than they do. Our student teaching experience needs to mirror that of a full-time teacher's work load. And ongoing, reflective practices need to infiltrate the day-to-day environment in the schools.



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