Dispatches from the Learning Lab: Yup, Time Pressure Sucks

Continuing the series I began here and here, about snippets of new-feeling insight about the learning process coming from my new role on the student side of the desk…

This one is funny, because I knew it, I mean I knew it in my bones, from a decade working with students; but yet it’s totally different to learn it from the student side. I’m a little late to the blogosphere with this insight; I’ve been thinking about it since December, because it kind of freaked me out. Even though, like I keep saying, I already knew it.

Learning math under time pressure sucks. It sucks.

It sucks so much that I ACTUALLY STOPPED LIKING MATH for about 5 days in December.

I didn’t know this was possible, and I don’t think anyone who’s ever worked closely with me in a mathematical context (neither my students, colleagues, or teachers) will really believe it. But it’s true. It was utterly, completely unfun. There was too much of it and too little time. It was like stuffing a really delicious meal down your throat too quickly to chew, or running up the Grand Canyon so fast you puke. Beautiful ideas were everywhere around me and I was pushing them in, or pushing past them, so hard I couldn’t enjoy them; instead they turned my stomach, and I had the feeling that the ones I pushed past in a hurry were gone forever, and the ones I shoved in weren’t going to stay down.

I had some independent study projects to work on during winter break, and what was incredible was the way the day after my last final exam, math suddenly became delicious again. Engaging on my own time and on my own terms, that familiar sense of wonder was back instantly. All I had to do was not be required to understand any specific thing by any specific date, and I was a delighted, voracious learner again.

Now part of the significance of this story for me is just the personal challenge: most of the grad students I know are stressed out, and I entered grad school with the intention of not being like them in this respect. I was confident that, having handled adult responsibilities for a decade (including the motherf*cking classroom, thank you), I would be able to engage grad school without allowing it to stress me out too much. So the point of this part of the story is just, “okay Grad Program, I see you, I won’t take you for granted, you are capable of stressing me out if I let you.” And then regroup, figure out how to adjust my approach, and see how the new approach plays out in the spring semester.

But the part of the story I want to highlight is the opposite part, the policy implication. Look, I frickin love math. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this. I love it so much that most of my close friends sort of don’t feel that they understand me completely. So if piling on too much of it too quickly, with some big tests bearing down, gets me to dislike math, if only for 5 days, then the last decade of public education policy initiatives – i.e. more math, higher stakes – is nothing if not a recipe for EVERYONE TO HATE IT.

And, not learn it. Instead, disgorge it like a meal they didn’t know was delicious because it was shoved down their throat too fast.

In short. The idea of strict, ambitious, tested benchmarks in math to which all students are subject is crazy. It’s CRAZY. The more required math there is, and the stricter the timeline, the crazier. I mean, I already knew this ish was crazy, I’ve been saying this for years, but in light of my recent experience I’m beside myself. If you actually care about math, if you have ever had the profound pleasure of watching a child or an adult think for herself in a numerical, spatial or otherwise abstract or structural context, you know this but I have to say it: the test pressure is killing the thing you love. Its only function is to murder something beautiful.

If you teach, but especially if you are a school leader, and especially if you are involved in policy, I beg you: defend the space in which students can learn at their own pace. Fight for that space.

Take the Tests, Decisionmakers!

In case any of you missed this at f(t):

A school board member in Orange County, FL had the guts to sit for his state’s high-stakes test, the type of test a lot of decisionmakers are all in such a rush to have students’ futures and teachers’ livelihoods resting on.

Kate is asking her readers to call on NY Governor Cuomo to do the same thing.

This is effing brilliant. I say we take it up a notch. If you live in the US, pick an elected or appointed government official or purveyor of “education reform” who is rushing to rest more and more human futures on the results of a test, and call on them to take the test. I am not trying to be an organizer right now; I suppose it would be smart to make some strategic choices about whom to contact and via what medium (Kate: Cuomo / Twitter), but that’s not my style. I do have some nominations:

Arne Duncan
Bill Gates

Because these folks are operating at the national level, it’s not obvious which test to tell them to take. I want to say all of them, but maybe that’s just cuz I’m pissed off. Abnegating my role as organizer I’ll let you call it. Here’s one that’s easy:

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg

Take the NY Regents, mayor, and make the results public. I don’t care how you do, but I want you to know what you’re talking about when you make policy, and I want you to be willing to be scrutinized as you are insisting that students, teachers, and schools be.


Here’s what I love about this.

The last few years have felt to me like American schools are riding on top of a malfunctioning robot that is careening inexorably toward more and more insane school policy. The robot is being driven by an inflated sense of the importance and automatic legitimacy of numerical data. For a decade, a chorus of voices (many of people directly involved in the practice of education) have been crying out that this is madness,[1] but the robot has only sped up.


During the same decade, and especially in the last few years before this fall, the language used by national political figures advocating for justice and progressive change has felt more and more tepid to me. The clearest instance of this is the way that Democrats and even some progressive advocacy groups have latched onto the phrase “middle class.” Y’all are giving up the fight, guys. If you feel you are not allowed to advocate for working people or (God forbid) poor people, that in order to be a legitimate public interest your cause has to be sanded down and shellacked with a patina of educated white-collarness, then the folks who are only looking out for the interests of rich people have already prevailed.

My mood in relation to this language was not unlike my mood when beholding current debates about education: the feeling that justice and sanity are speaking, but being ignored; and they cannot find the language that will make the powerful listen.

So, imagine my thrill when this fall a new language took over: the 99%. Whatever you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement, you have to give it credit for a complete reshaping of the vocabulary available to discuss economic inequality. It seemed like everywhere I went this fall, somebody was talking about either “the 99%” or “the 1%” or both. This is just what I was missing: a way of talking about economic justice that feels powerful and relevant. That interrupts the inexorable slide into tepid lameness that characterized the national discourse till now.


What I’m getting at here is that we need ideas to interrupt the inexorable careening of the malfunctioning education reform robot, and Kate may just have found one. In the words of Rick Roach, the Orange County school board member who took the Florida tests,

“I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the FCAT in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

You know I don’t love the word “accountable,” the way it is thrown around these days. But these are the folks who do love it. So if they love it so much, let’s make them accountable. What I really mean is this: the public defamation of public schools and teachers, and the concomitant policy initiatives, have been based on numerical data from tests whose contents are public, but this is the only public thing about them. Most critically, their development is opaque, the way the data is used is opaque, and the way that decisions get made about how the data is used is therefore not subject to legitimate public scrutiny, or even, in all probability, based on any real understanding of the tests. The decisionmakers don’t even know what taking the tests is like!

So, decisionmakers, take the tests! You are willing to force students to take them, to scrutinize the results, and to make important decisions about students, teachers, and schools on their basis. Finding out what you’re actually forcing on them, and opening yourself up to the same scrutiny, is the least you could do.

[1]One of these voices was the television show The Wire, which aired well before the latest and most intense phase of this insanity, but which in spite of this develops a beautifully articulated critique of numbers-driven accountability in municipal institutions. Schools are included, but the brunt of the criticism is aimed at the police department and the city government. However, the essential problem is the same in all cases: when you demand numbers from people who are supposed to be doing a job requiring creative problem-solving and perseverance, you divert their attention from their actual work to the problem of giving you what you’re asking for. If you’ve never seen the show, you can get the whole thing from Netflix. You won’t be sorry. If you think I shouldn’t be citing a fictional television show regarding public policy, let me quote Mathnet: the names are made up but the problems are real. Not convinced? Read this.

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.

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.

Two More Links I Gotta Share…

From the NYT, on value added – profiling a young, energetic and by all accounts highly successful teacher with a bad value added score.

I guess it was a matter of time before the media stopped acting 100% in love with value added scores; but what a relief.

I had a conversation with an old friend today who works in the federal government, in the department of labor. We were talking about various unhealthy, ineffective patterns and dynamics (and people, truth be told) in our respective professional worlds. Both of us are depressed by lack of effectiveness.

It is in the name of effectiveness, of course, that districts across the nation have been jumping headlong into the practice of rating teachers based on an opaque calculation with their students’ test scores, on tests that were already dubious measures of anything worthwhile, and then using these ratings to make decisions affecting teachers’ jobs. I don’t know the best policy environment to promote teacher effectiveness, but I know for certain it’s not this. If you want to find a perfect system for diverting all teachers’ attention away from their students’ learning and their own growth, look no further than value added ratings.

I don’t want to be preaching to the choir here (although I probably am), so to the proponents of value-added measures, let me say this:

I know what I’m saying sounds counterintuitive to you – why wouldn’t incentivizing having your students perform well on measures of their learning lead you to focus on their learning? I will put aside for the moment the extremely important question of whether state tests are a measure of students’ learning (let alone whether value-added methodology really measures teachers’ contribution to it), and respond with an even more fundamental question:

Think of the last time you did something complicated and nuanced, something rich and interesting enough to require some creativity and artfulness from you. Imagine now that you were REALLY ANXIOUS about the outcome while you planned and performed your work. Would this anxiety really help you do it better?

* * * * *

On a lighter note (well, sort of):

From Shawn Cornally, on teaching evolution:

So many people trying to tell us how to teach promote the just-say-it-better model of education. This doesn’t work. You can’t just talk at kids and say things ‘better’ than your teachers did. They need time to simmer. They need time to think. They need people to lay off and let them fucking think for a second.