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Making Teachers Guides to the World

Robert Pondiscio of CitizenshipFirst writes again to Deborah Meier.

Dear Deborah,

Your latest post made me grin. "Bringing out background knowledge is how we make sense of anything we encounter in the world," you wrote. "My reading ability in astronomy is limited by my lack of knowledge of astronomy, not my lack of reading skill."   

Differences. Bridged!

Forgive my good-natured teasing.  But your acknowledgement of the common sense, easily observable argument E.D. Hirsch Jr. has put forward for decades means a lot to me. Much of my career in education has been aimed at advocating for the classroom conditions that proceed from this obvious point you, I, and Hirsch agree on: The more you know about a subject, the easier it is to comprehend what you read about it. Clearly, Step One is, as you put it, "immersing kids in a community that finds the world a fascinating place."  But not everyone wants to take that step.  Too many people still insist that the most fascinating place is inside of a child's head.  That sells our kids short and limits their horizons. 

I came to teaching late in life.  I was nearly 40 when I started at PS 277 in the South Bronx.  I had barely set foot in an elementary school since I'd been a student in one.  But almost immediately, I noticed something odd. My classroom was overrun with people—administrators, coaches, consultants, and others—who wanted to tell me how to teach.  But not one of them had anything to say to me about what to teach.  The question almost seemed absurd.  "Why, Mr. Pondiscio, you are the best judge of what your children need." 

It's silly if you think about it. Rebecca doesn't need to know about undersea exploration or what we see when we peer through a microscope, but Ronnie does? Juan needs to learn about dinosaurs, while Maria needs to learn how plants make food?  State standards were unhelpful since they typically focus on the reading "skills" children were to demonstrate (making inferences, finding the main idea, etc.), but are silent on what children should know.  High-stakes testing makes the lack of specificity even worse. What good does it do to acknowledge that background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension, but give teachers no guidance whatsoever on the knowledge kids will need on the test?  It turns reading tests into a crapshoot for students and teachers alike.  If there's a test passage on dinosaurs, Ronnie is going to look like a strong reader.  And I will be told I have failed Rebecca, Maria, and Juan.  I am not a test-basher, per se, but it's impossible not to see how testing and skills-driven literacy practices have combined to create a perfect storm for students and teachers alike. 

I simply never understood a management system that was maddeningly silent on what I was to teach, deeply concerned with how I taught it, yet judged my performance on neither. In what other line of work do you leave what product to build up to the employee, but concern yourself exclusively with the process of how he produces it? This is how I became a curriculum zealot. Give me the keys to the classroom, hand me the curriculum, and get out of the way. If I fail to deliver the curriculum effectively, fire me.  If I know what I'm responsible to teach, then by all means, hold me accountable for teaching it.  How to teach, not what, is a function of my professional expertise and judgment. 

In short, I'm deeply sympathetic to those teachers who feel under siege. That said, I'm a little less eager than you to pin all the blame on outside actors.  There is plenty of muddled thinking emerging from within our profession.  I object less to the principle of accountability than a sloppy, ill-defined, or unfair accountability system that encourages bad practice. 

Here's a specific example.  Not long ago, my friend Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, pointed out an interesting bit of data that strikes at the heart of our concern with "teacher quality."  Fourth grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the last 20 years have been flat while math scores have shown a steady increase.  "A 4th grader at the 50th percentile in 1990 would score at about the 25th percentile compared to the kids taking the test in 2009. That's an enormous improvement," noted Dan and his UVA colleague David Grismer, writing in the New York Daily News.

"This raises an uncomfortable question for teacher quality advocates: If teachers are so vitally important, why have 4th grade math scores dramatically improved, but reading scores have flatlined, given that —at least at the elementary level—the same teachers are responsible for each?"

The answer is obvious.  Math standards, curriculum, and assessments tend to be quite closely aligned.  There's far less mystery about "what to teach" in 4th grade math than "what to read" in 4th grade reading. A 4th grade teacher will spend six weeks on fractions knowing fractions will be on the state test.  The same teacher can immerse her students in Charlotte's Web, A Bridge to Terabithia, and Bud, Not Buddy, and other wonderful books, but the reading test will have passages about Japanese tea ceremonies or the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team.  This is, to put it charitably, Kafkaesque. 

David Coleman, the often unfairly maligned architect of the Common Core State Standards, had a lovely turn of phrase not long ago describing the standards' purpose as "restoring elementary teachers to their rightful place as guides to the world."  You and I have agreed—hurrah, indeed!—this is what we should expect of teachers.  How do we create the conditions that enable them to do exactly that?

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio

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