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Creative Non-Compliance


Dear Diane,

Years ago—when I was teaching both 5-year-olds at PS 144 in Harlem and teachers at City College—adults said that, unlike me, they weren't allowed to do x and y. After ascertaining why they thought it was so important to do x or y, I'd ask: "and what will happen if you do?" There was always a pause.

So we'd have a class discussion about the consequences of not following orders (usually none).

I think this is an important exercise—for adults and kids. We can't always get our way; there can be consequences that follow. But there may still be good reasons to accept the possible consequences and tactfully (or do I mean tactically) do what you believe is right.

Our first responsibility is to have a strong basis for making decisions—knowledge about kids, the nation's system of schooling, mandated rules, curriculum, subject matter more broadly, pedagogy, and one's own risk-status. (Of course, often you have to act instinctively.) I advise: take fewer risks, for example, before you have tenure, or if your principal doesn't like you. Also, decide what's important and what's trivial.

When I left my kids with a baby-sitter I had the same dilemma in reverse. How many dictates should I lay down? My five rules. Rule one: Any good child-care giver had to be someone whom I trusted enough to make split-second judgments (there's virtually no other kind when dealing with kids). Rule two: Provide information about the kids, the household (where things were), and how I could be reached. Rule three: Provide as few no-no's as you can—we don't hit our kids ever, or if they want the light left on in their bedroom, that's okay. Rule four: Listen carefully to what the kids say after and what the sitter says about the same events. Finally, if there's no one whose judgment I sufficiently trusted, I stayed with the kids myself. These pretty much fit the way I looked at being a principal, too.

I began teaching ten years after my first child was born, and I brought the same mindset into my classroom, and later into my schools. Over the decades I had many different supervisors, and fortunately no one ever stopped me from going my own way even when I did it pretty openly. Was it all just good luck? Probably partially.

What happens if you're not so lucky? You learn to hide a bit more, say "sorry" rather (and rarely ask permission), build a strong record in other ways, and keep open to the possibility that you are wrong! That latter is not just wise strategy, but wise for getting to be smarter at one's craft.

But there are some things I could never have done; and fortunately was never "required" to. Certain forms of discipline, for example. Teaching (e.g. covering too much) in ways that left kids feeling dumber than when I started off. Comparing kids in ways that led to misleading conclusions about their place in the world. Those were my "bottom lines."

After I left Boston new rules came out that I'd have had a hard time following. During state testing sessions (which are un-timed and can last 2-3 hours a session) one is not allowed to pat a nervous 7-year-old kid on the back, offer a drink of water, or suggest a short break when clearly a kid has become too tense, and so on. All of those gestures are viewed as forms of cheating and could get me fired today. (I even had food brought into the testing room at Mission Hill in the early days!) I'm sad not to be in the schoolhouse anymore, but I'm glad not to be the adult responsible for carrying out such rules on little kids who trust me to use good sense. It's not good sense.

One late afternoon, as I was leaving my Grade 7-12 school in East Harlem, I noticed three boys playing basketball (unsupervised) in the gym. I reminded them that it was too dangerous to allow them to continue and that they'd have to leave the building. They were very courteous about leaving; but the last lad turned and asked me, "do you really think we'll be safer playing in the street?" I accepted the critique—I was thinking about my personal and "institutional" safety, not theirs. When we're going along with bad policies, at least we ought to be straight about it.

At some point the compromises we make lead us to lose our love for the work. I hope that all practitioners can catch themselves before they reach that point and reverse course: break more rules?, get them changed, or…….quit. But "creative compliance" "creative non-compliance" in the interest of good practice is, as my one-time bosses Tony Alvarado and Sy Fliegal reminded me, an option one should not shun. For hundreds of years teachers have known this. There may be reasons to change the culture from solo to collaborative work—but not to giving up our collective

So I still tell folks, push ahead as far as you can doing what you think is right, and when someone in authority says "stop"—stop and think about what comes next. Maybe try a different crack in the pavement? In short, I still give my colleagues the same advice I did 30 years ago at City College. It may, however, be harder than I think.

Are these dilemmas that face folks in all life's vocations, Diane?




I completely concur that our obligation to children is to “first do no harm.” Certainly, when we look at our current school system and see so many children failing or feeling poorly about their performance, it feels that we are not following that maxim.

But we are also obligated to teach children the necessary knowledge and skills that will enable them some level of success in our world. Without some level of basic skills, adult life can be excessively traumatic and difficult.

Even though many other school systems also struggle with poverty, the education that they provide to their students (poor and wealthy alike) is substantially better than what we see in the US.

So, how can we learn from more successful school systems about how our children can both develop a more positive experience about school and learn the necessary skills and knowledge that will serve them well in adulthood?

Erin Johnson


Amen. But teaching kids the knowledge they need as adults goes beyond the academic kind. In fact, it goes first and foremost. Making sense of who we are and how we live--which all humans are constantly seeking to make sense of--is a decent place to start.

But, Eric, what leads you to believe that poor kids do so much better in most of the world? Are you thinking of China? Russia? Egypt? Ghana? France?



Like Deborah, I would like to know to which school systems you refer. And if there are systems doing a better job than ours with an equally diverse population (in terms of physical and cognitive ability, ethnicity and culture, and socio-economic status, to name a few of the diversity of diversities to which the U.S. is home), and with the same set of constraints (various forms of governance, inequitable funding, etc.) what is it about the education they provide that is better?

Do tell.

Considering how pervasive the data is about the performance of the US relative to other countries, I am surprised that you ask. Certainly an adequate answer to your question would take more space than a blog should have. But as you ask...

First, the US spends the most per pupil, has the highest wages for teachers and the lowest teacher to student ratio of any country. So while I would not argue that our country has an ideal situation, the teachers are certainly better supported than in all other countries.

As much as we complain about it, our demographics and socioeconomic discrepancy are not that dissimilar to many other countries. When comparing the US on the percentage of 15 year olds that did not speak the test language or were foreign born, the US is exactly average (9% for US vs 10% international average). Other measures of wealth per household place the US at the top in the world. And yet our children’s educational attainment hardly reflects the monetary commitment we give our school system.

For overall accomplishment, the Netherlands stands out in both math and reading. The Netherlands has a diverse population and socioeconomic disparities that are not unlike that seen in the US. And yet the Netherlands outscored the US on the PIRLS and the TIMSS. Notable features of the Netherland schools are:
1. Annual exams to determine progression to the next grade and periodic national exams
2. School choice
3. School autonomy (local control on hiring practices)

For math, science and a reduction in high school dropouts, Singapore is a remarkable study in school improvement. In 1980, Singapore’s school drop out was 30% (not unlike the current US rate). By 2000, Singapore had reduced this to less than 3%. The Ministry of Education attributed this remarkable shift to a national curriculum, external exams coupled with ability based streaming with less able students encountering the same material but at a slower pace.

Also, Singapore completely revamped their mathematics curricula in the 1980’s as their students at that time performed poorly on international comparisons. The Ministry of Education developed a completely novel math syllabus; better focused on problem solving, conceptual learning and attitudes toward school. The implementation of this new mathematics took them from 16th out of the 26 countries in the 1980’s (Second International Mathematics Study) to first in the world in the 1990’s (TIMSS).

What can we learn from these countries (and many others)? It is entirely possible to dramatically improve our children’s education. Key elements seem to be: quality national standards/curricula and external exams.

Multiple analyses of external exams (national or otherwise) have shown two primary benefits:
1. Clarification to teachers, parents and students about what needs to be learned to be successful
2. A more positive relationship between student and teacher: wherein students see the teacher as an advocate for learning not as a judge.
External exams result in (on average) a full 1-year benefit at 8th grade.

We should do what Americans have always done, seen the best in the world and make it better.

Erin Johnson

Dear Deborah,

What do you suggest when a school's culture is so divisive because the principal has created a have and have not atmosphere? This is both in terms of pedagogue treated differently because of ethnicity and students who are in a program in the building that says they are "special" and wear different uniforms from the rest of the student body.

Karen G. Cohen

Dear Erin,

It's more complex. Example: The latest International Study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that US teachers actually teach MORE hours than the average for the countries surveyed. For elementary school it came to 1,080 hours in the US to an average of 803 elsewhere. Our salaries were lower, not higher--12th out of 29. Luxembourg teachers earned twice our average. We came in 10th out of 29 in class sizes, and would look a lot worse if we focused on urban centers. We ranked high - 87% - re percentage of population age 25-34 who completed high school.

It's important also to remember that the USA is far larger than almost all of those who look better. Singapore is hardly a fitting comparison. And we have a long history of ethnic and cultural diversity. And a higher percentage of students in poverty than many higher-scoring systems.

Not to mention my doubts about the data--which is no more likely to be truly comparative or accurate than the stuff we get from Klein and Bloomberg in NY, or the DOE in D.C.

Still, like you, I am very dissatisfied, and always have been, with what happens to kids in our schools. But I'm more cautious about how best to learn from others. And what worries me most is that it's our only opportunity for young people to learn the art and craft of democracy--which was once easier to learn about from local life.

A lot to think about.



Changes in education are complex, certainly; but absolutely doable.

As you know, Singapore would probability be better compared to a city such as NYC, but none the less, we certainly can learn from their experience. (Imagine if NYC did what Singapore has done instead of the mess that Joel Klein et al., has fostered on the NYC schools!) Singapore has a broader diversity of people than NYC with 4 major ethnic groups and poverty is something that they struggle with as well. And of course almost all students are taught in a second language (English). And yet, their focus on inclusion and learning has empowered those students that in the past would have dropped out of school and propelled their learning in math and science to the highest in the world.

As you have been very concerned with the experience of disadvantaged students, one of the most remarkable international comparisons that we should be looking at is France. France has been saddled with exceptionally high unemployment and a large immigrant population very disconnected from traditional French society. And yet France has had great success in reducing the learning gap between disadvantaged and well-supported students by providing well structured pre-schools.

Unlike our Head Start programs, the French preschools have defined learning goals and the results are lasting; to the extent that at 5th grade the difference in scoring between disadvantaged and advantaged children is only 10%.

I would hesitate to say that we could ever emulate (nor want to) any one particular school system. But when we look across the spectrum of schooling systems, there are broader trends that define more successful and less successful school systems. We should be incorporating that precious knowledge into our educational experience. Those broader trends are: defined curricula and external evaluations.

If we, Americans, truly wish to improve our children’s learning and engagement with teachers/schooling, why are we not embracing the lessons that can be learned from the day-to-day struggles of schools around the world?

Erin Johnson

Any one teacher absolutely has to have the authority and autonomy to make responsible educational decisions for her charges. But we also have to keep in mind that some other teacher is going to inherit those kids the following year--those kids and kids from perhaps a dozen other classrooms. The more that teachers take it upon themselves to decide what to teach and what not to teach, the more chaos they may be creating for the teachers who will have to pick up where they left off. Obviously, we don't want teachers marching in lockstep, following scripts. But we do need to create some reasonable balance between the needs of the individual teacher--to be able to act based on on-the-ground realities--and the needs of the school and district--to have a coherent vertical progression of content and skills.

Curricular "coherence" is one of those concepts that may look different to a student and the teacher, much less the experts who design it. What is coherenhce to one is chaos to another. Making sense of the world around us, as well as seeing alternate possibilities from the past and potential future are what human's always seek to do--seem "hard wired" to in factr. Our job is to make this task easier and more provocative--both at the same time.

At schools like Mission Hill and CPE the staff met a lot to examine the impact of each classroom's work on the school's impact on our students as a whole. Absolutely, you are right on about that. We must be responsible for our collective work. The power of the school--vs an individual great teacher here and there--lies precisely in the wisdom of the community. Of course, it takes both more time for teacher-talk and study than we now build into the professional life of teachers. And more opportunities to exchange ideas with those outside our community. It also helps if the school is small enough and the staff stable enough to conduct such "conversation" over time, building depth gradually. I figure a community of about 20 adults makes a good "class size" for such long term conversation.


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