Best Practices

The term “best practices” has become popular over the last decade. For me the term is problematic in a number of ways. First, it leaves off the essential question: “best” for what? Despite statewide standards and the current move toward national standards, we do not all agree on the aims and purposes of public education. Far from it, as I have discovered every time I teach a new group of teacher candidates.

The other problematic assumption is that there is a best method for whatever our purpose is. While there are practices that are generally more effective then others, human beings and the teacher/students relationship, not to mention all the other contextual variables, are so complex that no one practice is likely to always be the best, if even effective at all.

Let us consider an analogy. Let us say I want to find the “best” shoe size, so I can provide all my students with the right shoes. I do a controlled study, and find that when I give size 10 shoes, more students have shoes that fit them than any other size. Now I can mandate that everyone be given size 10 shoes. But men’s and women’s feet are different you complain. Okay, I may need to do some differentiation. Women get a women’s size 8 1/2. How about ethnic groups? Mexican Americans tend to be smaller. Okay, Mexican-Americans men get a size 9…..

We can all see the utter absurdity of this. But this is what we are doing to our school children, especially to the most needy and disadvantaged school children. I spend a lot of time in a lot of different schools as a researcher and as a supervisor of student teachers. In schools that are considered “Program Improvement” under No Child Left Behind, I see teachers mandated to give lessons where every child is on the same page at the same time doing the same exercises, often not just in the one classroom, but in every class at that grade level. There is a pacing guide to keep up with. The students must move on, whether they got it or not (and do it whether they already know it or not). A few “differentiated” students may be allowed to get special help (by missing out on some other activity, or after school). Extensive data is kept on how the students are doing, with unit tests every few weeks that are diagnosed, often through sophisticated computer programs, Students’ scores get displayed in staff lounges (part of the data driven philosophy). Yet the teacher really cannot make much use of the data, since no matter what it says, they must keep to the pacing guide. This is seen as “equity” under NCLB. All children are afforded the same curriculum, the same instruction. After all, this curriculum has been designated as “research based,” since it uses strategies that the Reading Panel found to be most effective. We must have equally high expectations for all! Most of you probably think I am exaggerating. I assure you I am not. If you think so, find a school that has been designated as a “Reading First” school, and serves predominantly low income students. Maybe it is different in your state, but here in California, what I described above, I have seen over and over again.

The problem is that educational experts are being asked the wrong question: Which is the best method? Such a question was asked of the recent federal National Reading Panel—to come up with the best method for teaching reading. Textbook publishers created the materials that are used by “Reading First” schools, supposedly based on the recommendations of this Reading Panel. However, such one-size-fits-all thinking is equally absurd for teaching as it is for shoe size. Instead we need to be asking, what is the best way to support classrooms and teachers where each child will be best supported to learn in the most effective way? No two children are the same, and even the same child may need something different from day to day.

The best schools, schools that succeed with large percentages of students, are ones where teachers work together collaboratively getting to know the students. In these school they devise curriculum that allows all students to find ways into it, no matter what their learning differences styles and abilities are. These schools honor these differences, while expecting, cajoling, pushing, all students to do their best.

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