Tag Archives: pd

What Do I Mean by Policy?

I asked one of my professors during my first or second year of grad school, How are education policies made?  I demanded an answer to a truly impossible question, and my professor’s answer was appropriate: It is a very complex process.

As a fifth grade teacher, I couldn’t fathom the enormous chasm that lived between the in-the-name-of-achievement intentions of various policies and the way they were lived out in actual classrooms.  As a brand-new teacher, I assumed these were official laws, coming down on high from some dictator-type person perched in his uncomfortable wooden chair (you know, the kind that swivels and is always featured in movies about teachers).  But when I became a literacy coach, and got a glimpse of what it’s like to be an administrator, I realized that decisions about policies–these supposed laws that govern the way schools and classrooms run–are made at many different levels and it’s a lot more confusing than you’d think.

That sounds a little obvious now that I’ve said it out loud, but if you think about it teacher education programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the history or process of educational policymaking decisions in this country.  It seems that policymakers would need and want teachers to know and understand the history and process of educational policymaking, so that they could be active participants in that process once they become teachers.  Aren’t teachers the experts on teaching after all?  Writing about this makes me think about polls that newspapers and new shows so often speak of.  I’ve never been asked a question for a poll for the Post or Daily News or any other publication or production of any kind in my twelve years as a New Yorker, and I don’t know many people who have.  How can these polls possibly claim to represent my view if I’ve never been asked?  Being a teacher kind of feels like this, only way worse, because they’re not just being narcissistic and complaining–they actually aren’t ever asked, not even a little.

I have to give credit to the administration at both elementary schools in the city where I’ve worked–they listened to their teachers, even if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) always act on what they heard.  Even if you’re lucky enough to work with a principal who has a heart of gold, their hands are often tied by bureaucratic red tape.  One time, I was urgently called into the office to help purchase books and other supplies with a large sum of money that the school would lose the following day if we didn’t use it up.  This made no sense to me.  How were we trying to force the purchase of a bunch of random materials for thousands of dollars when we actually–desperately–need new books?  soap in the girls’ bathrooms? pencils? a librarian?  But illogical things like this happened all the time, and policies were always at the root.

I remember thinking at the start of the school year, when are kids going to know who their teacher is?  There was so much jumbling and re-jumbling of students at the start of September that classrooms didn’t fall into a rhythm until well after Columbus Day.  How were we supposed to effectively employ the start-of-the-year rituals we’d learned in our teacher certification programs and new teacher professional development sessions when we didn’t even know who our students would be for the first month of school?  How were our students supposed to feel comfortable and ownership over their classroom when they might have to leave it the following day?  That supposed plateau that a teacher hits after the first few weeks of guiding students through daily routines when the classroom is running like a well-oiled machine remained a myth for many of us.

I also remember days upon days of additional students in my room in a space that already housed 32.  I remember looking up what the UFT contract said about splitting up classes, which is the process of distributing the students of a teacher who is absent among the remaining teachers’ classes.  According to the contract, this was only to happen in an emergency situation.  For my first three years of teaching, you could almost guarantee it would happen every Monday and Friday when absences were high, and there was one stretch of time when one of my colleagues was on extended sick leave and it happened for several weeks straight.  I couldn’t understand–where were the substitute teachers?  I inquired once and recall the answer having something to do with a sub pool draught and a thin budget. Like other things that didn’t seem to make sense, this was another “policy” that didn’t quite work and made my job very difficult.  And sadly, all it did was make the teachers resent each other when they were absent and got in the way of meaningful instruction.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t the students, the content, my colleagues, or students’ parents who made getting any teaching and learning done nearly impossible when I was a fifth grade teacher; it was the inconsistency in the school environment.  The ground beneath our feet always seemed to be shifting–as soon as the schedule was set, it changed; as soon as we mastered a new curriculum, it changed; as soon as we got used to the new learning standards, they changed; as soon as we’d painstakingly written our students’ names in bubble letters on construction paper (and added glitter as long as we knew we’d be getting four hours of sleep tonight instead of five), our roster would change; and the list goes on.

So I guess when I talk about policy, I’m referring to any decision that determines how things “should” go in a classroom/school/district.  And in my research, I’m concerned with making sure that the policymaking process starts considering what gets in the way–the stuff that policy decisions don’t often account for or anticipate, and that only teachers know.  I mean, who ever decided there should be 300 leveled books (or maybe it was 500…the year 2003 seems so long ago now) in each elementary school classroom library? They certainly didn’t consider how that was supposed to happen in schools that were underfunded, under-resourced, and under-staffed.  In my grad school text books, I recall images of jovial-looking teacher types talking and laughing while leveling books at a table in what looked like some sort of well-equipped teacher lounge.  The reality of getting my books leveled included weeks upon weeks of late nights looking up titles in a book one at a time (this was before Google being the oracle it is now), writing out different letters on color-coded stickers, covering each label with clear packing tape, and organizing the leveled books into appropriate baskets.  Students were kind and helped out, but where was my release time for this behemoth of a task?  Why did I have to spend so much of the time I needed to spend preparing lesson plans leveling books?  (And for those of you who don’t think teachers work hard enough, I came in early and stayed late for most of my five years in the classroom, and still never had enough time to reasonably meet all of the expectations placed on me.  The more I read about teachers’ daily lives, the more I realize my experience is hardly singular.)

Policy is big and expensive, and in my opinion, so out of left field sometimes.  I wonder how much news of failing schools, coupled with the growing national anti-teacher union/tenure sentiment, is actually a cloaked mark of the failure of polices like No Child Left Behind (which trickled down to create the 300-some-odd-leveled-books rule), rather than of the failure of students and teachers, which is the more popular theory.  Clearly, schools aren’t working as they should; and thankfully, we know a lot of what is wrong.  If we could just get policymakers and teachers at the same table regularly, talking, reflecting, and problem-solving together, we could make real change happen.  I know it’s not a silver bullet, but it would be a start.

“Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.”

This past Sunday’s New York Times published the first of a series of articles about “the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning”(p. 16) with the title “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.”  I have to say, I appreciate the NYT’s effort at turning the spotlight to education every now and then, thus encouraging the masses to pay attention to K-12 classroom learning; however, they don’t always get all sides of the story.

I’m often looking for articles and media presentations about teaching that take into account teachers’ input, and it should be noted that this article gives a nod (in the section “Teachers vs. Tech” on the last page of the article) to the impact of recent technological developments in education on teachers — particularly the financial constraints of new materials, resources, and training.  So often, discussions of education leave out the part of the narrative that honors that teachers are living, breathing human beings, too, who, despite the efforts of teacher education programs, don’t arrive at the classroom door with a fixed set of skills — especially at a time when skill-level requirements (particularly around computers) are changing and ratcheting up on a daily basis.  Teachers, just like students, need ongoing learning opportunities, too, and their input in this conversation is necessary but often absent.

There are a million threads to take up in response to this article, but I want to focus on just a few:

  • definition of what we’re referring to as “technology”
  • teacher as guide instead of lecturer
  • proof of value of technology in the classroom

Definition of what we’re referring to as “technology.”  So what do we mean by “technology”?  It is implied throughout this article that the “technology” being discussed is computer and internet technology.  But where does technology end and begin?  Wasn’t the invention of the wheel “technology”?  Isn’t using a xerox machine technology?  Do students have to be operating in virtual spaces for it to be considered “technology”? Are there actual, specific requirements for a classroom to be considered “technology-centric?”  How does this distinction help or hurt when it comes to developing best practices in the classroom?

Teacher As Guide Instead of Lecturer.  The article references Kyrene School District in Arizona, which has “invested roughly $33 million” for computers, interactive screens, and other virtual technologies, and states “the digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer.”  This line honestly floored me — each of my teacher education courses, whether I was a student or an instructor, centered around the Piagetian idea of constructivism, in which the teacher is a guide, not a lecturer.  Put simply by Dewey, constructivism means that “experience is education,” and that the act of doing is, in itself, a powerful form of learning.

For me, and the majority of my teaching colleagues, the notion of acting as a “guide” instead of  “lecturer” is not new, and focusing on this as some sort of new method for approaching the classroom via the lens of technology does a disservice to the last century of progressive educators’ work.  While I can only speak for myself, I find it angering to have this concept renewed again and again, as if for the first time, without focusing on what is really happening: a lack of equally accessible resources, a dearth of ongoing, effective training for teachers, and a system of policymaking that could not be further from the actual classroom.

I remember when the new citywide curriculum for K-6 was implemented (roughly 7 school years ago) in New York City, and as a fifth grade teacher I was expected to start teaching with a new curriculum that was unfamiliar to me (Everyday Math).  At that time, the rhetoric was that we needed classrooms to be “child-centered.”  Now we need classrooms to be “technology-centered”?  Will this simple shift in focus actually make a difference?  I am guessing that it won’t.

Proof of Value of Technology in the Classroom.  The article states the claim that “educators would like to see major trials years in length that clearly demonstrate technology’s effect. But such trials are extraordinarily difficult to conduct when classes and schools can be so different, and technology is changing so quickly.”  Sure, yes.  We would all love to see trials of things that “work” in education, period, but one sure-fire thing that a century of education research has helped us conclude is that nothing works for everyone.  I am not advocating the willy-nilly implementation of programs in classrooms (if you’re a public school teacher, you know this happens already.)  As an educational researcher, I unconditionally agree that more research must be conducted; however, one need not conduct a years-long, longitudinal study to make the basic claim that technology (of the computer/internet variety at the very least) is increasingly becoming a necessary pedagogical component.  You can’t get a library at the local library, get an MTA card, or communicate with a cell phone today if you don’t have a basic understanding of technology.

As I said, there is a lot more to say, and I’m having a hard time cutting this post short as a result, but…  I hope this is the start of a really important conversation that every educator can be a part of right now: how can/will the technology revolution transform education?  Will it transform education?  Or, will the same trends continue, in which a new silver bullet is proposed (in this case, “technology”), tons of money is invested, and empirical data shows little or no change?  At what point are we going to stop beating around the bush and figure out that 1) any new device — whether curricular, pedagogical, technological, or any combination of the above in nature — will require additional, sufficient teacher training; 2) clear channels for teacher input/expertise need to be forged; and 3) the internet isn’t going anywhere and kids need to interact with it in their learning environments — and not just in the name of improving American test scores.

Pednology, or Maybe Techagogy

Yesterday’s post marked the start of me trying to work out, in writing, some of the questions I have about pedagogy and technology.  I’ve been spending more time with my computer than any other object in my life for at least the last ten years, and there are (many) things that have developed or changed over time that I’ve often discovered by mistake, and I wonder how other teachers have handled it.  Educators aren’t generally trained in new technologies unless we seek out the training on our own or it’s for some profit-driven company that will benefit when the school buys 500 of whatever’s being offered (at least that’s been my experience).  And yet we are required to stay up-to-date in the name of pedagogy, a requirement that is understandable and at times, impossible.  For example, how are teachers expected to use SmartBoards if they are taught a crash course in an afternoon PD session when they’re already exhausted, have about 8 million other things to do to prepare for tomorrow, there will likely be no follow up, and they don’t have regular access to the SmartBoard itself?

This is one of the things I’m talking about when I mention “the gap between policy and practice” in my work.

But I’m talking about less-technologically-advanced things than SmartBoards, too.  If you haven’t ever had a Facebook account as a teacher, you’re missing a huge understanding of how young people communicate; if you do have an account, you have to be careful about what you post (and gets posted) on your wall.  And what about learning less big-concept things like the fact that you don’t have to type “www” anymore when you enter a URL?  Or what about fair-use and copyright laws?  I admit that the first time I taught an online course (back in 2004!?), I simply scanned in and uploaded portions of texts that I wanted to use.  I had a hunch that that wasn’t exactly what I was supposed to do, but as a part-time instructor at a university that had little means to train a rookie teacher who’d been hired as a teacher educator (a problem in its own right, but one that initiated my career as a teacher educator), I did what I could with the technology available to me at the time.

So what of these changes — both subtle and far-reaching — that are happening at mach speed on a daily basis now? When and how are teachers trained, if they don’t take the initiative on their own?  Some people might argue that everyone, no matter the industry, has to figure out how to use new technologies, but my counterargument to that is that education is different.

On the day I received my acceptance letter to the New York City Teaching Fellows — a little more than ten years ago — one of my best friends said, “teaching is the most important job.”  Granted, he’s a professor now so might be biased, but that statement really impacted me — education is a requirement in this country, and thus something we all universally experience in some form; it is also something our society values a great deal, despite the fact that a degree does not guarantee being able to find a job.  Teachers need to be taught, too, and we’re starting to figure out ways to do that at the post-secondary level, but what about K-12?  Where are the in-depth, across-the-board trainings for teachers that don’t 1) take time away from everything else they have to do, 2) are free of charge, and 3) address, in a zone-of-proximal-development type of way, the pednology, or maybe techagogy, needs of teachers?  Pedagogy and technology are no longer disparate concepts, and K-12 educators who don’t feel completely comfortable with what’s happening need the supports to catch up, too.