kitchen table math, the sequel: palisadesk on guerilla instructivism

Sunday, August 2, 2009

palisadesk on guerilla instructivism

You talk about a long list of readiness characteristics in your district, but what about ed schools? You talk about a long list of readiness characteristics in your district, but what about ed schools?

In my area the 2 major ed schools focus on "big ideas" like diversity, social justice and being a change agent. They don't concern themselves with any practicalities, like how to teach anybody anything.

I surveyed the new teachers and the army of student teachers coming into our school over the last decade and they all report learning nothing about assessment, classroom management, cognitive or behavioral science, early reading/literacy, communicating with parents or indeed much of anything of a practical nature. They study Paulo Friere, Jonathan Kozol, Sylvia Ashton-Warner,* and so on. The content is nearly all theoretical and philosophical, nothing empirical, evidence-based or useful on the classroom level.

This is not all that unusual a situation. In many areas it is the district that teaches new teachers what to do and provides workshops and non-credit courses on balanced literacy, how to administer the Developmental Reading Assessment, do Writers Workshop and Guided Reading, and so on. The mandate for these practices comes not from the Ed schools but from the district level and from the department of education level higher up. I haven't seen any evidence that ed schools set the agenda; they seem to be responsive to what the education bureaucracy wants -- in many cases, ed school staff are bureaucrats as well, sometimes on assignment for a 2-5 year stint at an ed school, other times they hold double assignments. It's one big cabal running both the ed schools and senior management in the bureaucracy.


An even more cynical blogger might take away that by pushing these literacy skills down to parents' responsibilities, it leaves teachers free to give Writer's Workshop instead.

I find that many parents and private citizens do not know this, so I will point it out: teachers are not, in most jurisdictions, "free" to give or not give Writers Workshop, or Guided Reading, or whatever curriculum practice is the latest craze. Most districts are quite prescriptive and require teachers to comply with very specific guidelines -- what materials they may (and may not) use, what practices they MUST employ (Word Walls, Writers Workshop, Readers Workshop, Guided Reading, Shared Writing, and so on). They may be specifically forbidden to do other things (teach standard algorithms, teach systematic phonics, hold students accountable for spelling, meeting deadlines, completing assignments). Many districts have "literacy police" (even "numeracy police") who go around inspecting classrooms and monitoring compliance. Teachers have very little freedom in most districts to choose their own methods or materials. That has both positive and negative consequences.

The infatuation with most of the practices so often deplored here (and elsewhere) does not come from teaching staff but from higher up in the bureaucracy. Indeed, surveys have shown almost as great a disconnect between what teachers want and think effective vs. what administrators and bureaucrats want/believe as the Public Agenda study "Different Drummers" showed exists between ed school faculty and the public at large, including teachers. There is a great divide, but the power is largely on one side.

Being a successful "guerrilla instructivist" requires camouflage and using the opposition's terminology and jargon to describe things totally incongruent with the prevailing philosophy. One can generally assume ignorance of instructional matters, research and cognitive science on the part of school and district administration, so unless you wave red flags in front of them they will not notice the details of what you do as long as you appear assertively compliant.

What would we do without palisadesk (and redukudu & Paul B & Instructivist & Concerned ....)?

That is not a rhetorical question.

What these teachers do for children, families, and for their country goes far beyond guerilla instructivism. I was about to invoke the samizdat, but that's not quite right, is it? This is America; palisadesk has a right to speak her mind, although if she were to do so using her own name she would put her job at risk.

I've just asked Ed whether there is a historical precedent for this kind of 'inside reporting.' He says that during the Ancien Regime there were members of the court who, using a pseudonym, wrote about court intrigues and the like.

But that's all he could think of on the spur of the moment.

The writings of guerilla instructivists make me wonder whether the internet really is something new and different: whether the internet has a "democratizing" effect in realms that have been anything but democratic.

We will see.

11 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

palisadesk - do you have references for any of these surveys. I would dearly love to post.

(Come to think of it, I may have one or two of them myself -- )

Catherine Johnson said...

Also, here is my other question:

I haven't seen any evidence that ed schools set the agenda; they seem to be responsive to what the education bureaucracy wants -- in many cases, ed school staff are bureaucrats as well, sometimes on assignment for a 2-5 year stint at an ed school, other times they hold double assignments. It's one big cabal running both the ed schools and senior management in the bureaucracy.

Who is it we're dealing with here???

I take your point ---- but who are these people?

Where do they come from?

Catherine Johnson said...

Also: am I understanding you to be saying that the problem with ed schools isn't precisely that they're 'setting the agenda,' but that they are failing to teach anything useful?

(That makes sense to me - but I want to make sure I'm getting what you're saying -- )

From afar, what I (think) I see is some kind of....closed, self-referring 'vendor/consultant/conference' world that seems to determine what is IN and what is NOT IN.

Administrators & teaching-learning facilitators/instructional coaches/whatever seem to go from one conference to another, where they all see each other and indoctrinate and reinforce each other on the virtues of Writer Workshop/Guided Reading/Portfolio Assessment or whatever it is.

A funny example here in Irvington.

Shelley Harwayne lives here in town and has been helping the school set up Writing Workshop & Guided Reading.

I know this because the district newsletter keeps touting Ms. Harwayne & her help. One year Ms. Harwayne was the "keynote speaker" for back-to-school day. (I had no idea we have keynote speakers for teachers coming back to work in the fall until I read it in the newsletter).

Later on the newsletter reported that "nationally known author" Shelley Harwayne (I think those were the words), was busy helping the K-3 school with its reading & writing instruction.

That was funny because a number of authors who actually are nationally known live in this tiny village of 6500 people: Bob Massie, Eugene Linden, Sylvia Nasar, Peter Sis. There are others as well.

But to the administration, Shelley Harwayne is the celebrity.

A few months ago a local paper wrote a profile of me. (It was great!) At a board meeting a few weeks later the superintendent congratulated me on the profile & said something like, "I had no idea you were so well known."

(Something like that.)

Allison said...

Another similar question is:

If the ed schools aren't setting the agenda, and the smallish districts aren't setting the agenda (because they just take notes from the state level) and the vendors are just following the money, how is it that everyone is following someone else and yet someone is creating Guided Reading/Portfolio Assessment/Writer Workshop out of nothing?

There's not one school district or state dept of ed that's going to say "We're doing something untried and untested!"

All of them are going to say "we're doing what these other folks are doing, because they've already adopted it!"

So how is it possible that they all jumped on a circular bandwagon, yet in this bandwagon, we've got rubrics and portfolio assessment out of nowhere? Who is initiating these ideas?

Catherine Johnson said...

So how is it possible that they all jumped on a circular bandwagon, yet in this bandwagon, we've got rubrics and portfolio assessment out of nowhere? Who is initiating these ideas?

That's what I want to know.

Who 'decides' that Fountas & Pinnell is IT and everything-else-under-the-sun is NOT it?

Catherine Johnson said...

And if this is somehow a 'group' decision, how does that group decision happen?

What people and what structures influence it?

Allison said...

PalisadesK, in your comment about "theory", you said
"The content is nearly all theoretical and philosophical, nothing empirical, evidence-based or useful on the classroom level."

But this is where words in edspeak don't mean what words mean in the rest of the world. In science, to say content is theoretical is to say
"here is the THEORY OF HOW X WORKS: A....B....C..."

Theories are BY DEFINITION EVIDENCE BASED.

Because a theory is an idea that exists in order to EXPLAIN THE CURRENT EVIDENCE.

So when normal scientists or social scientists hear that ed school is "theoretical"--we don't see the problem with that. Sure, we can see the problem with not having clasroom management teaching, but we at least assume that the theoretical stuff being taught is the theory of instruction, the theory of reading instruction, the theory of writing instruction. I mean, either there is or isn't a theory of reading instruction, and if there is, well, of course ed schools are teaching it, because that's what schools do--teach theories. A class in reading instruction theory MAKES SENSE to a scientist like me: you explain the theory--this is how we think children's minds work; this is what they need; this is how it fits together; this is where it breaks down.

But somehow, what edspeak "theoretical" means has nothing to do with evidence, and doesn't try to explain how anything works either.

Catherine Johnson said...

So when normal scientists or social scientists hear that ed school is "theoretical"--we don't see the problem with that.

oh, boy

coming from a Ph.D. in FILM STUDIES, I know what 'theory' means in the palisadesk sense of the word

except in the case of film studies you have to add the qualifier: dense, endlessly long, impossible-to-understand texts on semiotics (or whatever it is these days)

I speak as a person who read AND OBSESSED OVER every single word of Umberto Eco's Theory of Semiotics.

palisadesk said...

So how is it possible that they all jumped on a circular bandwagon, yet in this bandwagon, we've got rubrics and portfolio assessment out of nowhere? Who is initiating these ideas?

Stanovich's explanation of meme theory and its relevance to the educational scene was illuminatig to me. It's in his essay, "Putting Children First by Putting Science First."

It does tend to be a closed circle, and all these things spread rapidly like a virus in a sealed building. The insularity of the education world keeps it protected from contagion from without.

Marilyn J. Adams' article on how the "Three Cueing Systems" developed out of nowhere is probably a good illustration of how these things work -- through workshops, presentations, word of mouth, nepotism -- not through evidence, peer review or field trials.

And if this is somehow a 'group' decision, how does that group decision happen?

What people and what structures influence it?


The best explanation of how this inter-connected group of interested parties works is Cathy Watkins' analysis (I'm sure I've recommended her book before). I may have loaned it to someone, I don't see it in its usual spot but will have a look and see if I can find a pithy quote.

Catherine Johnson said...

Is that her book about Project Follow-Through??

I need to read that.

I have it.

I saw someone today (was it the DI list?) saying that it's the workshop circuit that is making these decisions.

That's the hive mind: VENDORS!!!!!!

Catherine Johnson said...

I just finished reading Flesch's sequel to Why Johnny Can't Read; he has a fantastic section on parental involvement and phonics I've got to get posted.