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The Worst of 'Best Practices'

Note: Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class, is guest posting this week. Roxanna is a National Board Certified high school teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

District, county, and state education offices are fond of sharing "best practices" through professional development. The idea is to spread the word about strategies that work in some schools so other teachers can use these strategies and get the same great results. There are times when it works this way. Unfortunately, things can get complicated when the same people who pick and distribute best practices are also responsible for checking whether they are being done correctly, and when none of those people are current teachers. Here's an example of how the sharing of best practices sometimes works once supervising offices get involved.

Phase one: A school seems to be successful in educating students in a given subject or demographic sub-group. Let's call this School A.

Phase two: A team of people who want to know what made School A successful descends upon the school. They sit in the classrooms. They ask questions. Then the team comes back with a report that says something like, "Teachers at School A are successful because they ask students to make their own test using fill-in-the-blank test questions. This is a research-based report."

Phase three: The information from the report is filtered through a series of people sitting in a quiet, student-less office. Materials are created. Packets are made.

Phase four: Packets with newly created materials are distributed at "best practices" training sessions throughout the district, county, or state. Teachers are advised that the district, county, or state "people" will be looking for evidence of implementation next time they come to observe. In the fill-in-the-blank question card example, evidence of implementation is to be demonstrated by displaying laminated copies of the question cards on classroom walls, although the questions are written in 10-point font that is too small to read from any student desk.

Phase five: Teachers at another school--let's call it School B--attempt to implement the research-based best practice. Here is an example of how that works using the fill-in-the-blank question cards:

Phase 5.1: Teachers in School B distribute cards, which are aligned with current state benchmarks and contain fill-in-the-blank questions such as "How does _____ in paragraph ______ relate to ______ in paragraph _____." Teachers explain to students that they will be using these cards to write their own test questions based on the material. Students in School B rewrite the questions without filling in any of the blanks.
Phase 5.2: A few teachers from School B re-teach the question card activity, explaining that students need to actually fill in the blanks of the question with information from the book. Students rewrite the questions, this time filling in blanks with meaningless information that does not show understanding of the questions or book.
Phase 5.3: One teacher from School B spends multiple hours of personal time creating supplementary materials to make the question cards more understandable. The teacher shares these supplementary materials with other teachers at School B, who are all having similar problems with the cards.
Phase 5.4: Teachers from School B re-teach the question cards again. Student work is still incoherent. The teachers realize that time spent explaining the question cards has taken away from time spent explaining the material that the questions are supposed to review.
Phase 5.5: Teachers from School B put the task cards and supplemental materials away until next year, not knowing that the district will reshuffle all benchmarks at the end of the year and create new fill-in-the-blank question cards, which will make all teacher-created supplemental materials useless.

Phase six: The district, county, or state office of education redeploys the special ops "best practices" checkup team to School B. They note that some of the teachers in School B have taken the laminated question cards off their walls. In the report that follows, this "lack of implementation of best practices" is used to explain why School B is less successful than School A.

Phase seven: The teacher from School B runs into a teacher from School A at happy hour and asks for advice on using fill-in-the-blank question cards. The teacher from School A says, "I don't use fill-in-the-blank question cards. I just used them one day because the district was watching us, but then I stopped because the kids didn't get it."

Phase 7.1: Teacher A is required to buy Teacher B a drink.
Phase 7.2: While at happy hour, both Teacher A and Teacher B share classroom strategies that actually work.

The most effective professional development I ever attended was a summer program known as the Zelda Glazer Writing Institute (recently renamed the UM-MDCPS Glazer-Lorton Writing Institute). All of the instructors at the Institute are long-time teachers. They share what works for them, and attendees are encouraged to take away the ideas that will work in their own classrooms. No one strategy is advertised (or enforced) as a guaranteed fix, but it is the kind of genuine, comprehensive, non-insulting professional development that actually improves instruction. There is always a waiting list for the Zelda Glazer Writing Institute, even though it is unpaid, and two weeks long, and held during the summer.

If supervisors are serious about spreading the news on best practices--and they should be--there are two factors to take into consideration. First, even the best of "best practices" won't work in every classroom. Requiring "evidence of implementation" of any given strategy is more likely to force a dog-and-pony show for observers than it is to improve teaching. It's the professional development version of "teaching to the test." Second, the best professional development runs with, not against, the ways teachers spread ideas naturally.

Or, perhaps, districts could just send teachers to happy hour and let them share best practices over a few drinks. I volunteer to be part of the research.

--Roxanna Elden

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