kitchen table math, the sequel: On Gerbils

Saturday, October 24, 2009

On Gerbils

My school, a K-8 facility has a mission statement (which I'll paraphrase) that says "All children will be taught in their zone of proximal development". This is a noble sentiment which I fully support and aspire to. Unfortunately, my 7th grade math student's abilities range from 3rd through 11th grade based upon the NWEA Measures of Performance (a highly regarded national evaluation). This enormous dispersion is not new. On the contrary, it is chronic and well aged, like a fine New England Cheddar, and it makes a mockery of our mission statement.

Over the summer, my middle school peers and our administration worked on various schemes to address this conflict in light of reduced resources (teachers) and state/district mandates for a failing school under NCLB regs. It is simply not rational to think that you can teach in a zone of proximal development (ZPD) in a classroom with a nine year spread in capabilities.

The consensus that we reached was to take the middle school model we were working under and blow it up. We proposed to place all middle schoolers (6-8) regardless of age, grade level, or hat size, into cohorts whose memberships were determined by academic readiness and to allow for periodic assessments that would allow kids to migrate as their performance dictated. To the extent that we had the resources to support a number of such 'ZPD pods' we would create as many cohorts as possible and each teacher would take on a range of such groups in shortened, focused, classes.

This proposal was not accepted for a variety of reasons. Some of them had to do with scheduling challenges and some had to do with the MCAS (Massachusetts state testing) mandated NCLB assessments. Bottom line is that only one reason is a legitimate show stopper at the upper reaches of our district. There is a huge fear that if we teach kids in their ZPD, say a 4th grade capable student gets 4th grade curriculum, then they won't do well on their grade level MCAS assessment.

GAAAAAACK! Of course they won't but neither will they do well on the very same assessment if they are forced to spend a year sitting through a 7th grade curriculum that is being delivered 15,000 feet over their poor heads. Worse, if we insist (as is interminably true) in the perversity of a mission statement that is wholly at odds with our delivery system, those very same 4th grade capable students become rancorous sores in the classroom, denying the kind of environment that breeds success for those few students who may be lucky enough to have a repertoire that is in synch with the delivery.

A quarter of the way into the year, we have learned that way too many kids are failing (surprise) to meet the minimal requirements for their grade level standards. In an 'emergency' meeting, we were informed that it was our duty (as teachers) to work together to solve this problem in an innovative, collaborative way. After much discussion it was agreed to come up with a plan to - drum roll inserted here - break up the middle school into 'ZPD cohorts', come up with a schedule, etc.

I'm just a gerbil on a wheel. No! No! Wait. I'm on the wheel and I'm singing "I Am the Walrus". Did you know that John Lennon wrote that song while on an acid trip? He supposedly received a letter from a teacher who was having his students analyze Beatles lyrics. He was amused at this and resolved to write an incomprehensible lyric based on "Through The Looking Glass".

If he was a teacher he wouldn't have needed acid or Lewis Carroll.


Allison said...

Of course, the reason you come back to this answer is because

It is the only possibility of fixing what's wrong.

So, the gerbil may be on the wheel, or it may be that when something can't go on forever, it does finally stop. Perhaps there is a chance that someone will stop rejecting this idea because no other exists? I know, I know, how naive of me, but it seems possible that the smallest amount of daylight is falling on new eyes, and they are beginning to see there's no other way out for them, so they are just going to have to do it.

Anonymous said...

Is there no sense from those "above" that if students were working at grade level in their "zpd" groups that they may have more time to work through the curriculum and move onward and upward? BTW please tell them that I know several contractors who would love to build them a home with a cracked foundation and incomplete framing so they can show everyone they have a house.

Anonymous said...

It's true that the scales seem to be slipping from the eyes, at least locally. A year ago this discussion would only have been in private, between math teachers, and now our administration is involved and outwardly supportive. Glacial progress is better than none.

The problem is that there is zero dialogue between people in the classrooms (who know what's going on) and the people who wield the power to make these decisions. Our union based culture stifles effective communication. Instead of making your case 2 or three levels above your pay grade, it is made in a series of hurried, impromptu meetings no more than one level at a time.

The passion and innovation doesn't cut through the haze. Funny, now that I think about it, when I was a practicing engineer all innovation bubbled up from the front line. In public ed, what passes for innovation comes top down. For the last six years the innovation drip is longer block time, bigger class size, more content scope and less subjects.

Every shred of evidence says this innovation is not working to change things. The construction analogy is apt. It reminds me of when I was a kid building tree houses. If you wanted a stronger house you pounded in more nails (the only innovation on your plate). Inevitably,the excess nails serve only to weaken the structure.

SteveH said...

"Every shred of evidence says this innovation is not working to change things."

As an engineer, you must see that there are teachers and administrators who can't possibly understand what you understand. Innovation, by definition, is stifled. Outside of small improvements to the system, what else could be possible?

Anonymous said...

It's funny, really. At times I feel like I'm a tumor. I'm in my third school now and every place I go I talk about this very subject and I push the system to creatively destroy itself. At first teachers look at me like I have two heads because they're beat down and don't push for change. But over time they come to see the sense of it. In this school the admin has even come around.

I think if you're in the private sector it's impossible to get a sense of what working in a unionized monopoly is like. There is no culture of innovation in the practitioners (teachers). I'm not saying that each in their own way doesn't try to innovate, they do. The problem is that it's in their own domain, the confines of the four walls of their own classroom. If there is a structural impediment outside those walls folks don't feel empowered to push on it.

Real change won't happen until the whole damn thing is blown up because so much of the problem is inherently structural, starting with; the outdated concept that you have to do everything in a classroom to begin with, that kids have to be grouped according to hat size, testing in the quality after you've built the product, etc.

I think most people would be surprised at the number of teachers who are not in love with what's happening. Unsurprisingly, gerbils, each in their own cage, don't feel comfortable taking on the rearrangement of cages. Their food pellets are seriously at risk when they get off the wheel.

Katharine Beals said...

"Their food pellets are seriously at risk when they get off the wheel."

I've never quite understood this. It's notoriously difficult to fire teachers, and yet we keep hearing from teachers who are afraid to speak up for fear of being fired. Is it perception vs. reality?

palisadesk said...

Is it perception vs. reality

No, it is just 2 different things. It is a time-consuming process to fire a teacher for poor performance (it happens much more often than the public thinks, however, because the teacher is given the option to resign before being fired -- most do this).

However, in my district at least, it is pretty much open-and-shut to fire teachers for demonstrated insubordination or failure to perform required duties. There is also a clause that permits the district to fire teachers for "disloyalty" which is loosely defined. I am not sure this latter would stand up in court, but I do not want to be the test case.

Firing for insubordination or refusing to perform required duties (including curriculum demands, such as running records, teaching guided reading, etc.) does not require the same level of process as firing for incompetence. If you refuse to do what the job (and the law) require you to do, you have very few grounds for appeal. The union will ensure that due process is followed, but does not support teachers in blatant disobedience of the rules.

Anonymous said...

In my district it is common practice to issue pink slips (by omission) at the end of the school year to lots of folks. We get letters of "Intent to Renew" (your contract). If you don't get one, bye, bye.

It is also true that in the last 5 years we have shrunk teachers in every single year. You don't get a letter saying, in effect, you're fired. You just disappear.

When I started six years ago my class size was typically <18 and I had a support person in the room at all times (Title I). I also had a SPED teacher in the room at about 50% of the time and an ELL specialist at about 50%.

Now my typical class size is 24 with zero support, zero SPED, zero ELL. I'm not even sure this situation is legal but it is what it is. We've closed 2 middle schools and our population is increasing. Last year one of my peers had a class of 41.

Even as a certified math teacher (which I am) it's not an environment where you buck the system. You may not get fired but there are lots of other ways to make you stay in line. For me, they're out of weapons. I'm old, respected, and don't give a rip about getting renewed all that much. If you're young and new you can't do what I do without repercussions.

In a way, this shrinkage might actually work in favor of the reformers because the district administration is out of gunpowder. They are truly cut to the bone and this is not a district that teachers clamor to get into. Maybe that's why my heresy is getting an audience.

Anonymous said...

I think that perception is driven by the stories that leak out of highly visible/notorious districts like NYC.

There, you have a powerful union that can raise havoc with firings.

My union is notoriously weak. We've worked for three of the last six years without a contract and nobody says boo about it. I'm not a member and I still have to pay dues. That's the extent of their power. It's a power over its members and even its non-members but it's not a power that can strong arm anything else.

Katharine Beals said...

palisadesk, thanks for your clarification on grounds for firing; it explains a lot (and is yet another cause for despair).

PaulB, thanks for your clarification on the varying strength of teacher's unions. Is your district able to issue pink slips for reasons other than degree of seniority? I'd also love to know more details about the "weapons" they use keep teachers in line.

Anonymous said...

On Pink Slips:

Seniority is supposed to drive such things but it is all subject to specialized 'requirements and needs of the superintendent'. They can 'define' your job away at the flick of a pen.

On Weapons:

If you have support it can be moved to others.

You can have coaches, consultants, department heads in your face all the time.

You can have your class size increased.

You can have your student mix reallocated.

You can be placed on an 'improvement' plan that dramatically increases your work load.

You can be made 'mobile', ycccch.

You can get last dibs on choice furniture, room assignment, extra duties.

You can find your support for student behavioral issues vaporizing.

You can find 'requirements' enforced on you that are overlooked for others.

Generally, in our resource constrained system it behooves one to stay as high up in the pecking order as possible. You don't get any favors if you're the low chicken.

SteveH said...

In our town, pink slips are often sent out to a number of (lowest seniority) teachers each year. One reason is that the budget is not finalized and the union requires a certain number of months notice.

We also have less students than before. The number of classes is reduced, but it's all seniority-based. This causes seniority-based bumping. If a teacher's class gets eliminated, then he/she can bump out any lower seniority teacher out of his/her class. The latest case was a chain reaction bumping of 4 teachers a few years ago. Parents were really pissed off. Our state commissioner of education is now trying to stop this practice.

You would think that good teachers would much prefer to deal with the vagaries of supply and demand; unless they have seniority, that is. Maybe that's why most revolutionaries are young.