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.

Duncan’s Three-Pronged Attack on Education

One of the interesting things about recent educational policy is that the political battles over the direction of education do not fall along traditional political lines. In both the state of California (where I live), from Wilson (R) to Davis (D) to Schwarzenegger (R), and at the national level, from Bush, Sr. (R) to Clinton (D) to Bush, Jr. (R), to Obama (D), the move toward standardized curriculum and the high stakes use of standardized tests has been consistent, as has the message that our schools are deteriorating and destroying the national economy. (The Obama administration’s current position is particularly disheartening considering that he campaigned on a platform advocating the opposite).

In this essay, I will be addressing the three-pronged agenda of the present Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, that continues these policies and is based on these same assumptions. I will leave off for this essay addressing the two myths I mentioned above, that somehow the quality of our school directly effects our economy (no evidence exits for such a cause-effect link—in fact the cause-effect is probably reversed), nor the myth that our schools have gone downhill (Richard Rothstein’s book The Way We Were does a great job of myth busting on that score).

Duncan’s three-prong strategy consists of nationalizing educational standards (and the high stakes tests that go with them), implementing merit pay based on student achievement, and the increased use of charter schools. I will argue here that not only are none of these proven to be effective, but actually much evidence exists demonstrating their lack of effectiveness.

I will start with National Standards. Duncan has already started convening state governors to discuss these standards (leaving educational organizations out of the discussion). Having national standards assumes that there is a national consensus on the purposes, goals and means for effective education. Throughout the history of this nation, we have resisted such nationalization precisely because it was felt that such goals and means should be left up to local communities. Does such a consensus now exist? I say not. One little piece of evidence: Every semester for the past 5 years I have taught a class on learning theory. At the beginning of the course, which is during their first semester in the program (before they have been influenced by our beliefs and ideas), I have them do an exercise asking them to come up with their priorities for public education. I have them discuss these and try to come to a consensus. Then I have them compare their goals with what they see as the goals of the schools in which they observe. Not only do they disagree somewhat with each other, but I have found every time that there is very little overlap with their goals and the goals they observe in the public schools. It is possible that the students in this non-selective public university are somehow very different from the average citizen, but I somehow doubt it. In other polls of teachers, their views do not tend to vary dramatically from the general public.

Think of the debates you hear around you, talk to your friends, neighbors. Do you all agree on what should be taught in the schools and how it should be taught? In a pluralistic, multicultural, rapidly evolving society such ours, such a consensus seems unlikely. National Standards and standardized tests force such a consensus upon the public, and upon the education of every public school student. This does not seem to me to be the proper role for a democratic government to play in education. In human civilization, just as in nature, variety and differences are healthy and help create a more vibrant thriving sustainable society.

The expansion of charter schools is another of Duncan’s strategies. This is despite extensive research on charter schools that over and over have shown that such schools, as a strategy, have not shown themselves to be any more effective at raising achievement levels or closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students than traditional public schools. There is a fair amount of research that, as a whole, they are less likely to be serving the most needy students, especially students with special needs.

In some ways, the charter school strategy could seem to be in contradiction with the first strategy of standardization. One of the original purposes of charter schools was to allow schools to break away from the standardization of the traditional pubic school system (charter schools are public school, however, in that they receive public money, may not charge tuition, and are supposed to be non-selective in their enrollment). That charter schools could set their own goals and methods, based on the desires of the parents, students and teachers that made up that school was seen by many as their advantage. There are many such charter schools that are dear to my heart, and appear to be having tremendous success with their students.

The seeming contradiction is explained by what Duncan’s idea of support for charter schools is: Standardization. He wants to fund a few charter school chains that he sees as effective at raising test scores, and make such models standard. These are not charters that are created by local groups of parents, teachers or local communities and answerable to them. These are chains with their own pre-set agendas, methods and goals. It is really an attempt to give organizations that are outside of public control, control of public schools, on the assumption that “the public” is the problem with public schools. This is a dangerously anti-democratic belief system (reminds me of the anti-National health care debate where people are afraid of the “government” making health decisions, while not seeming to be afraid of corporate CEO’s making those same decisions for them).

His third agenda item is Merit Pay. This is based on the intuitive assumption that offering rewards for success will motivate teachers to work harder and more effectively. It is based on the assumption that the problem with schools (a commonly held belief) is lazy teachers. While some lazy teachers may exist, I know of no evidence to support this as a workable theory for the problem with schools as a whole. While the public seems to accept this theory for other schools, they do not believe it about the one’s where they send their children, the one’s where they can see the evidence of hard working caring teachers with their own eyes (see the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll in the September issue of Phi Delta Kappan on the public’s opinion about public schooling).

Bonuses do not work even in the private sector, as recent studies have shown. They may, in fact, be counterproductive. Such schemes are no more likely to be effective in education. One explanation for their lack of success is to look at research on motivation. When we offer extrinsic (external) rewards for activities that people are already motivated to do, we actually make them less motivated. Find me the teacher that did not go into education because they truly wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. There may be some, but they are the exception that proves the rule. External rewards tend to lead us to do only what we need to do to get the reward, and attempt to game the system to “look good.” It might work for the worst teachers, but it is likely to have the opposite effect on the rest of the teachers. Most teachers teach because they find teaching rewarding. They find being unsuccessful at it unrewarding. What they need is help in being more successful, not prizes for beating out their colleagues.

Merit pay is also likely to lead to teachers resenting the difficult and hard to reach students, as they will bring the test scores down, and lower the teacher’s pay. These are the students who need the most attention and care. In addition, it can lead to teachers working against each other in pursuit of limited resources, rather than collaborating and supporting each other. In general external rewards sends a message that teaching and learning are not worth doing well for their own reward, but only when bribes are offered (or the other side of the same coin—punishments threatened). Is that the message we want to send to teachers and students?

All three of the approaches promoted by the present administration continue to follow the same failed policies of the last several administrations. With all of the insistence of teachers using “evidence based” strategies in their classrooms, none of the policies promoted by Arne Duncan are evidence based, and in fact contrary to the most compelling evidence that we presently have. Interestingly, one policy they have not considered is equaling the resources between those with the most (who actually have always done quite well in national and international comparison), and those with the least. In fact, we are the only developed nation that funds in such an unequal fashion, where the most advantaged and privileged, get significantly more resources in their schools than the disadvantaged students (for an extensive expose of this read Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities).

What is the alternative? Providing strong support for good teaching and teachers. Providing adequate resources with which to teach. Trusting the people closest to the kids to make the important decisions about the best way to educate them, especially those who have the training and experience to do so, and who also know and care about those particular children, in close collaboration with their families. Yes, they need to be answerable, answerable not to standardized curriculum and tests, but answerable to the parents of the children and to the local community by demonstrating meaningful results. This is the meaning of true democracy, with a small “d”: Trusting people to govern themselves, including their schools. Are there risks in doing so? Of course. Will they always make the “right” decisions? Of course not. But, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst possible form of government until you consider the alternatives.

Play is the Work of Children

Two first graders come tearing down the hall and run into their teacher.
“Children, what was the head master just talking about today? Remember, no running in the halls.”
“But Mrs. James, we weren’t running, we’re horses.” At that, they galloped off into the yard.

This anecdote (much abbreviated and paraphrased here), comes from a talk by Michael Armstrong, author and former teaching principal, at this year’s North Dakota Study Group meeting of progressive educators. He used it to illustrate the essential aspect of playing with language. We learn language by playing with language. It is language that allows humans to be creative beings.

The title of this column is attributed to Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), the German philosopher, and coiner of the term kindergarten, which literally mean child’s garden. Over the last couple hundred years, other philosophers, psychologists and educators have come to the same conclusion. These range from theoretical giants such as Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey to modern practitioners and thinkers such as Benjamin Spock, Vivian Paley, Eleanor Duckworth, Deborah Meier, and Michael Armstrong, listing just the tip of the iceberg.

What these and many other educators and psychologists have discovered is that play is an, maybe the, essential manner in which humans learn. In fact not only humans, but many mammals learn the important skills they will need for adult survival though play, as anyone who has watched kittens or puppies knows.

Piaget, one of the first to empirically study how children use play to learn, demonstrated that children use play to discover how the world around them works, to develop their schema, and organize the structure of their thinking. It is through such play that children develop intellectually. Piaget demonstrated that while with didactic teaching we can get students to parrot back scientific or logical principles, such rote learning does little to really help individuals internalize and use such rules and theories. According to his research, only when we can play and experience these things for ourselves, test out theories of how the world works, can we make these ideas our own and apply the principles appropriately in real world situations.

Vygotsky saw imaginative play as important beyond the logical-mathematical realm that Piaget focused on. Through his research, Vygotsky demonstrated that through play and imagination children try out new roles. They imitate, creatively, the roles they see of those who are older than them, the adults around them. They develop socially and culturally through this process. In all realms, through play children can go above their current level of being and development. Like an actor, play frees children to act in ways they may not yet be able to do outside of play. Play creates a safe place to task risks, try out new ideas, and take on new roles.

Benjamin Spock, the famous child psychologist of the 1960s, in reaction to rigid and controlling theories of child rearing that were popular at the time, advocated for the importance of play in children’s lives. He explained that children do not engage in play because it is easy, but precisely because it offers meaningful challenges. Human being like to be challenged and solve problems. Otherwise they get bored. It is through such challenges that children learn, learn at just the level that is appropriate to their particular level and skill, what Vygotsky would call, their Zone of Proximal Development.

Many other practicing educators have described the power of play in educational settings, such as long time elementary teacher and author, Vivian Paley, in her book A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (excerpt), Eleanor Duckworth (who worked with Piaget and Inhelder) in The Having of Wonderful Ideas, Michael Armstrong in Closely Observed Children and Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds in The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play, to name just a few. When you read these books, you see the joy and excitement that can fill classrooms when play takes a center stage. You see that rather than making school less “rigorous,” play actually makes them a more challenging and intellectually demanding place.

Deborah Meier has developed many schools based on the theory of play as central to learning. Meier’s small public schools of choice serve predominantly low-income minority students. Her work has documented how, when an entire school is designed with the importance of play as central, both in the literal sense of blocks and doll centers for young children, and the intellectual aspect of playing with ideas and theories for people of all ages (including the teachers and other adults) the levels of success for these students skyrockets.

As in the first anecdote, through playing with language, children not only have fun (though the importance of, and their right to, have fun should not be underestimated. Remember, this country was founded on the idea that we have the unalienable right of the pursuit of happiness), but they learn to frame their reality. The anecdote with which I started, in a charming way, illustrates how playing with language is a political tool—we use language to frame an issue. By defining themselves as horses, they find a way of framing reality where they are not breaking the rules—the rules apply to kids, not horses, and horses gallop, not run. These children are becoming powerful users of language, which we claim is a major purpose of education.

Play is a form of practice. But it is not rote practice. It is intellectual practice. Through play children are, in Piagetan terms, developing the schema of how the world works. Through play children have the freedom to discover how materials can be used, the limits and possibilities of those materials. Through play, in Vygotskian terms, children create a low-risk setting to move to the next level in their Zone of Proximal Development intellectually and socially. Through play comes discovery and invention. Through play comes power over language.

Despite all the evidence built up over several centuries, both theoretical and empirical, on the importance and power of play, it appears to be disappearing from the lives of children, especially their school lives, a place where they are compelled to spend 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.

This month, I observed one of my student teachers teach to a class of low-income Latino second graders. She did an hour and a half Reading First language arts lesson (a curriculum that is mandated in Program Improvement schools), following the lesson plan faithfully. The children responded dutifully and more or less competently to the assignments. Not once during that lesson were the children allowed to, much less expected to, use their imagination, to answer any question that did not have one right answer, nor did it allow them to explicitly use any experiences they might have had outside of school.

This experience is not the exception, but rather becoming the rule in schools serving low-income students. If you go into most public schools today, you will see that even in kindergarten (a term which is fast becoming an oxymoron), children spend most of their time sitting in seats filling in worksheets. When not doing worksheets they are engaged in other teacher directed activities. There is almost no time for children to choose their own activities or to freely explore materials. Where there is time to play, it is usually for those who finish their worksheets early, as a way to keep them busy.

Preschools, despite several recent large studies that show that children who attend developmentally oriented preschools outperform those in academically oriented preschools in later years (for more detail on this, read my March 2007 column), are more and more looking like the “traditional” first grades of my childhood—children spending their time doing teacher directed work sitting in chairs. Well-to-do parents are being convinced that only by engaging earlier and earlier in such “academic” work can their children win the race to get into the best schools later in life. Low-income parents are being told that only through such early preparation will their children have the skills that are required for entering kindergarten (when did we start expecting children to enter kindergarten with academic skills?).

There is also evidence that children have less opportunities and experiences engaging in imaginative play outside of school. Homework expectations are rising. Children, especially those of the middle and upper classes, spend more time than ever before in organized structured activities, such as sports, ballet lessons, or music lessons. While these activities are undoubtedly good for children’s development in many ways, they do not engage children in imaginative play. During the unstructured time they do have, children are spending more and more of it in front of electronic media, either television or computers. Neither television nor computer games stretch children to actively use their own imagination. At best they allow children to enter the imaginative worlds of the creators of these shows and games.

To those reading this column who are classroom teachers, I urge you to think about your own teaching. What are you doing in your classroom that allows children to use their imagination? Where can they express their own voice? What percentage of the day? Where are the spaces within the scripted curriculum that you may be mandated to use, where you can allow creativity and student voice?

To all of you, I ask, if you agree with the above critique, what are you doing to change the current system under No Child Left Behind that is driving out much of the space for imaginative work in schools? Preparing students to do well in high stakes standardized testing is often the reason teachers are told they may not allow creative lessons. The only national organization that is actively working to oppose the misuse of such tests for high stakes decisions is FairTest, working on a shoestring budget against the multimillion dollar budgets of the test publishers. At a minimum you can let your elected representative know.

One organization that is currently specifically working on saving the space for play in children’s lives is the Alliance for Childhood. Their site provides articles and links for more information and resources about play in children’s lives.

If you want to read some wonderful books on how to do such curriculum, you could start with any of the following books, some of which were mentioned above:

• Vivian Paley, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play
• Eleanor Duckworth, The Having of Wonderful Ideas
• Michael Armstrong, Closely Observed Children
• Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds, The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play

A useful teaching video is:
• Play, a Vygotskian Approach, by Elena Bodrova; Deborah Leong; John Davidson; Frances Davidson (Davidson Films).

For more scholarly academic work on the theory and evidence you might start with:
• Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1996). Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach to early childhood education: Merrill.
• Vygotsky, L. S., & Cole, M. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.

Same Sex Marriage

Marriage has both a religious and a secular purpose. The California Court’s decision to allow same sex marriages would affect the secular aspect, not the religious aspect. Yet, almost every argument I have heard against same sex marriages has been based on religious grounds. This is despite the fact that our Constitution has a clear injunction against promoting particular religious beliefs (colloquially known as the separation of church and state). During the campaign, those who favor denying same sex marriage talk of that this is going beyond tolerance and forcing them to recognize such marriages. They are correct there. This is the same argument racist Southerners used in opposing civil right laws of the 1960s when they were forced to recognize African-Americans as full citizens, with the same rights as everyone else. On the other hand, there is nothing in the legal recognition of such marriages that would force their church to recognize or perform such marriages. Allowing the State to recognize same sex marriages maintains the separation of church and state. Disallowing it does not.

Does the State have an interest in allowing such marriages, beyond the argument of civil right and fairness? It does. For instance, often gay couples raise children together. Without the right to marry, if the “official” parent dies, the “unofficial” parent has no legal right to continue to raise the child. This means that a child in such circumstances often not only goes through the trauma of losing the parent who dies, but also being taken away from the person best in a position to offer support, and a normal continuation of their life. This further traumatizes such children. Another purpose is for care of the sick and elderly. With no legal status, it is difficult for gay and lesbian partners to help in the care of their sick or elderly partners, which can put the burden on the State.

Our Declaration of Independence states, “All men are created equal.” It took us over 150 years to extend that to include women and almost 200 years to include African-Americans in the promise, if not the reality, of that equality. Now when the California Supreme court has said that such an idea should also apply to the Gay and Lesbian members of our society, others want to continue to deny such equality. They argue that a majority should have the right to tell a minority how to live their lives. This is a mistaken belief that democracy is majority rule. That type of majority rule can also be known as tyranny of the majority. A Constitutional democracy protects the rights of the minority against the persecution by the majority. It is on exactly those grounds that our State Supreme Court ruled.

Do we want to follow the example of countries like Iran which impose one set of religious beliefs on all citizens, or do we want to live up to the promise of our Constitution that we are all created equal, deserve equal rights, and no group should be able to impose their religious beliefs on others?