The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman and other stories

I just recently learned of an organization in NYC called the Grassroots Education Movement, which last Thursday premiered a documentary film with the awesome title The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. They will apparently send you a copy for free; I just ordered mine.

Meanwhile, the city of New York continues to besiege its own public schools with budget cuts, looming layoffs, and a multi-year hiring freeze. (Having spent the year training 12 new teachers, let me not even get started on the hiring freeze.) Another thing that happened on Thursday was that East Side Community High School, a wonderful school on the Lower East Side where I used to teach and where the math teaching is strong enough that we placed four student teachers there this quarter, had its first fund-raiser. Like, big event, speakers, performances by students, pay to get in, as though it were a non-profit, carrying out its own civic mission and in need of private funding to do it, rather than a public school, charged with a civic mission by the state, which no longer sees fit to pay for it.

I missed both the documentary premiere and ESCHS’s fund-raiser because I was teaching the final class of a 3-session minicourse at Math for America on the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. Let me do a little reflecting on the execution:

At the end of the 2nd session, I gave participants about a half-hour to try to figure out something quite difficult. I attempted to scaffold this with some unobtrusive PCMI-style tricks in a previous problem set: sequences of problems with the same answer for a mathematically significant reason. It turned out not to be enough. There was high engagement the whole time, but no one seemed to be headed in my intended direction after that half-hour. On the other hand, that half-hour had made the group into a legit mathematical research community. What was afoot was a live process of trying things out, questioning, pressing on others’ logic, and generally behaving like research mathematicians. I was left with a dilemma. I had one session remaining. I wanted to protect that process, meaning I did not want to steal from them any of the deliciousness (or pain – also delicious) of the process they were in the middle of by offering them too much direction. But at the same time I felt I needed to guarantee that we would reach resolution. (Storytelling purposes.)

The solution I went with: I had them pick up in the final session where they left off, but I brought in a sequence of hints on little cut-up slips of paper. I tried to call them “idea-starters” as opposed to “hints” to emphasize that the game was you thinking on your own, and this is just to get you moving if you’re stuck, rather than I have a particular idea and I want you to figure out what it is, but I don’t think I was consistent with this, and I think they pretty much all called them “hints,” and I don’t think it really mattered. They were in an order from least-obtrusive to most-directive. None of them were very directive. Most importantly, I told the participants that if they wanted to get one, they needed to decide this as a table. (There were 6 tables with 3-4 folks each.)

How this went: a) it preserved the sense of mathematical community. I do not think there was much of a cost to participant ownership of what they found out. b) People were actually pretty hesitant to use the “idea-starters.” Most of them went untouched. This would probably be different with a different audience. (High schoolers instead of teachers?) c) The “idea-starters” worked great, but very slowly. I planned to spend 45 min letting them work in this arrangement, but after 45 min, most of the groups were still deep in the middle of something. After over an hour, I asked two groups to present what they had, however incomplete, for the sake of a change of pace and the opportunity for cross-pollination of ideas between the tables. I had actually meant to do a lot more of this but had forgot to mention it at the beginning. I let everybody work for another 10-15 min while these groups laid out their presentations. By the time they presented, I realized that there wasn’t enough time left for everyone to really get back to work afterward, but in any case their ideas had gotten more fully developed in that 10 min. so they actually had pretty much figured out everything I had wanted them to. I presented the final link in the logical chain, just to fill in the picture, in the last 5 minutes. It was pretty satisfying to me to watch the presentations, except that it happened so late in the session. This for two reasons. One was that I would have ideally liked to have time to encourage the participants to interrogate the presenters more, but there wasn’t time for that. The other was that I had intended to spend the last half-hour with the participants consolidating their understanding of the argument by applying it to a new situation in which they didn’t know the outcome and it would tell them; but we didn’t have time for that either. I really feel a loss about that.

If I were to repeat it I think I would interrupt much earlier to have people present partial work. The cross-pollination of ideas might or might not accelerate the figuring-out process. Either way I think the change of pace would have been good for concentration. Also, I could have put some of the questions I used as “idea-starters” into the Session 2 problem sets, trying to move some of the combustion I got in session 3 into session 2. But these would both be experiments as well. I hope I get a chance to try them.



(N is studying calculus. She has just completed an induction proof of the power rule for negative exponents based on the quotient rule.)

N: Induction feels like cheating.

Me: I know, right?? You only prove 2 things, and then you’ve proved an infinite number of things.

N: It’s not just that, it’s that you already assume you’re right. It’s like you’re borrowing against your own rightness.

Why We Need a Better Word than “Accountability”

Everybody needs to chill for a second with the word “accountability.” It is not doing schools any good.

There is a very simple reason. It totally collapses two distinct concepts. As it is deployed (by schools, bureaucratic structures in charge of schools, politicans, education reformers, etc.), it simultaneously means

1) Making what you’re doing public, i.e. investing others in what you’re doing

on the one hand; and

2) Judging you with an eye to making decisions about you

on the other.


Public stake vs. high-stakes judgement

At a school where I used to teach, I had a colleague who taught a self-contained special education class. This was well before the recent accountability fervor, and my colleague was frustrated by the lack of accountability to which he was subject. He read in it a lack of concern for the education of his kids on the part of the administration. “If I felt like it I could breakdance in class all year and nobody would say anything to me.” It bugged him.

Really what he was frustrated by was the lack of public stake in what he was doing. What he wanted was to feel that the administration of the school was invested in his students and their learning in his class. He wanted his teaching to be part of a conversation and a striving bigger than himself.

I believe that the desire for this is what makes all the recent talk about increasing the accountability of schools compelling to well-meaning people. We want the education of our children to be treated as a matter of public interest. We want society as a whole to care about it. We don’t like the idea that it’s going on behind closed doors and nobody is checking up on what’s happening.

The problem is that the only name for “public stake in the job you’re doing” that anybody seems to know right now is “accountability.” And “accountability” is equally well a name for “let me judge what you’re doing so I can give you high 5 if it’s awesome and kick your *ss if it’s not.”

I hope you see what this adds up to. Really I hope a lot of people who probably aren’t reading this will see what it adds up to. Because your classroom practice being the subject of a public stake – the energy, thought, discussion, problem-solving, and passion behind what you do spreading through and beyond you to your whole community – this is gonna help your kids. In fact even the knowledge that your work is gonna be visible to lots of folks who care about it is an inspiration. But your practice being the subject of high-stakes judgement – the energy, thought, etc. that would have been squarely on the educational problems you’re working on now diverted to your stress, your fear, and the work-intensive processes of making sure your *ss is covered and trying to hide the areas where you think you don’t look good – this is not gonna help your kids. You are filled with a desire to reach a state of “success” for the sake of survival, but not for the sake of inspiration, and in any case your stress works against your thinking clearly through the problem of how you will get there.

My answer: we need to express a public stake in education in ways that don’t look like high-stakes judgement. There are already existing models: serious mentoring and coaching programs; critical friends groups (observation-based, video-based, student work-based…); Japanese lesson study; and more. There are still more to be found. But the central point is this: we need to be in this together, working together, looking at what each other are doing, not afraid to be critical, not afraid to expose ourselves to the thoughts and analyses of others. This should be the norm and the expectation in the profession. But this DOES NOT mean we need to judge and be judged.

To make all this concrete. Have a look at this journalistic account of a meeting between teacher and evaluator in DC. Here’s what kills me about this. The evaluator thinks this is so great because the evaluation rubric provides a uniform language for talking about instruction and improving it systematically. He thinks he is here to help teachers grow. Meanwhile, the teacher he is evaluating walks away from the meeting feeling judged, misunderstood and demoralized.

Bethel gave him the final score, which was low. If the trend continued, Harris realized, he could lose his job.

“It’s just — I don’t feel that I’m putting in ‘minimally effective’ effort at all,” he said.

For Bethel, this was most excruciating part of the job. He began shutting off his computer.

“This does not measure your effort,” he said, packing his bag. “But I do see your effort, Mr. Harris.”

“So — what is this measuring?” Harris asked.

“It’s measuring the effectiveness of that effort,” Bethel said. “This is not a reflection of your passion for education, your love for students. Not at all.”

Which for Harris was precisely the problem and for Bethel was part of a difficult, painful solution.

As he left, Bethel offered to help Harris with lesson planning, a gesture that would not count on Bethel’s own evaluation. Harris leaned back in the little chair. He pursed his lips.

“I don’t think you’re being personally unfair, it’s just — ” he paused. “I’m going to look over it again. I know where I could improve. So. Yeah. It was nice talking to you.”

The bit that landed hardest for me was when the evaluator offered to help the teacher with lesson planning. In the context of just having given a bad evaluation, this gesture plays as maybe above and beyond the call of duty (as the journalist stressed) but also as condescending, and more importantly half-*ssed and hollow: if you really wanted to help me, you would listen to my explanation of my choices, and you sure as f*ck wouldn’t jeopardize my job. Is Harris going to change his practice because of this evaluation? Probably not in a positive direction, in my view – he’s being told to do something but not given the tools to take it on for real. Maybe he’ll stick more closely to his lesson plan next time; but he’ll be doing it out of fear, and with resentment. If you want a formula for removing passion from his practice, this is it.

Now just for a second imagine how this conversation would have gone if the evaluator were a coach instead, there to help, not judge. To express the community’s stake in the job at hand without fear or threat. Just imagine.