The Bell Curve

Education is a field that seems especially prone to ideological movements, trends and even fads. Sometimes these swings are substantive, and reflect well thought out pedagogical philosophies. Other times they are more political, with educational arguments mirroring the style and substance of familiar debates between conservative and progressive thinkers in other domains. Still other times, a fad is just a fad, and a particular idea, strategy or slogan seems to gain traction and take on a life of its own.

In recent years I have noticed that the phrase, “All children can learn,” has become a bullet point in just about every educational presentation I have attended. The phrase actually originates from an important academic debate that happened over forty years ago. In 1966 James Coleman, a leading education researcher at the time, wrote a report on the equality in the American educational system that concluded, among other things, that socioeconomic status was the main factor in determining student success in school, essentially saying that public education didn’t make a difference. Ronald Edmonds, the director of the Center for Urban Studies at Harvard at the time, responded with arguments and data to show that effective schools could help students learn and succeed regardless of their background and socio-economic status. His perspective was subsequently summed up with the reductive catch phrase, “All children can learn”.

Unfortunately, without its original context, the phrase has lost much of its meaning, and through overuse it has become more or less a platitude. In the context of the reform movement in the last few decades, it has been used as a way to indict educators for the persistence of the achievement gap, and as cover for the ridiculous performance targets of NCLB, in particular the notion that all children were expected to reach the target of “proficient” on standardized tests by 2014. In that context, “All children can learn,” has come to mean that all children have the same potential for academic success.

This is a particularly troublesome notion, especially for anyone who has actually been in a classroom of 20 or 30+ students at any given grade level. While I accept and embrace the notion that all children can and should make significant growth in their learning throughout the year, that is very different than saying that they all can or should hit the same performance goals over that same period of time.

Coming from a background in biology, I know that variability is a given in any group of organisms, and humans are no exception. Some of our variability is based in genetics, and some in environmental factors. How much of our intelligence is based in our genetics vs. our environment is not a settled question, but it is widely accepted that there is a wide range in human intelligences, for whatever the reason. As with the random outputs of any complex system, the distribution of human intelligence (however it is measured) tends to spread out along the bell curve, with the bulk of us somewhere in the center, and outliers spreading out to lower levels at both ends. Statistics for human height across the globe spread out in the same way.

My point is that people, and therefore children, are a diverse group of individuals with unique strengths and weaknesses. Setting an arbitrary goal for all kids in a given age group is harmful in many ways. For some kids, school is easy, and they pick up math and reading with little effort, regardless of their background or the skill of their teacher. For them, earning the “proficient” label may require little or no effort at all. For others, all the support in the world is not enough for them to keep up with grade level expectations, and they are set up to see themselves as failures time and time again, regardless of their effort. Spend an hour in just about any classroom and it is easy to observe these dynamics.

This is not to say that teachers should be taken off the hook for helping students to learn and grow academically. On the contrary, I am saying that we should be clear in stating that it is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to move all kids forward as much as possible, regardless of where they fall on that bell curve. Instead of trying to shift the lower end of the curve to the center, we should expect our teachers to move the whole curve over to higher levels of achievement. That means we need to be diligent in assessing our kids meaningfully, setting appropriately challenging goals for each student, and then differentiating the curriculum so that all students are doing work that is meaningful and appropriate to their starting point and their learning goals.

Like it or not, the bell curve is here to stay. It is not a philosophy or a fad, but a law of nature in any highly complex system. Some our students will be stronger than average in any particular area of the curriculum, and others will be weaker than average. Instead of arbitrarily assigning a goal that everyone is expected to meet, let’s work towards building an educational system where no student is set up for failure, and no student is let off the hook. By focusing on the growth of every individual instead of relying on an assembly line approach, we can make the phrase, “All children can learn,” mean something real again.

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Texas Visionaries

Hello all,

Though I am having trouble getting off “the treadmill” long enough to write a new post, I thought I’d pass along a pretty cool document that I found by way of Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier’s blog. Apparently, a group of superintendents in Texas got together to try and craft a more enlightened and relevant vision for education in the 21st century. I confess I haven’t read it in it’s entirety, but from the table of contents and a quick skim, it seems like a great launching off point for conversations about new directions in education.




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Drowning in the Shallows

In my first post, I used the words “appropriate, meaningful and relevant” to describe the education that we should (and often fail to) provide for our students. But what does that mean? It’s clear that teaching to the test isn’t the answer, but even if we were freed from the pressures of testing, there are other systemic problems in the nation’s current approach.

I have discussed the most obvious reason throughout my posts. The fundamental structure of our current system of education was intentionally modeled after the assembly line, with the express intent of readying a generation of workers for actual assembly lines. The system was predicated on the assumption that each group of kids was essentially homogenous, and that you could present each group with the same curriculum and move them along the line, with a bell on the wall to signal the start and end times of the work periods. There were problems from this model from the beginning, most obvious among them that it did not take into the account the range of ability, interests and backgrounds of each group of students. However, it was efficient (i.e. cheap, since one teacher could “deliver” curriculum to many students), and at least its goals were relevant to the country’s economy at the time.

Since its inception, the factory model has seen countless revisions, tweaks, and reforms. But at its core, it remains a model based on the assumption of homogeneity, which is a major problem in an era where our classrooms are as heterogeneous as ever. Even worse, the most recent and sweeping so-called reforms have come in the form of the standards movement, which has had the effect of emphasizing the cookie cutter approach even more.

The basic idea doesn’t sound that bad. Schools should have standards, right? All schools, at least in a given state, should know what to teach and when to teach it. In this way, students will learn all they need to know, regardless of where they go to school. Groups of students entering middle schools from different elementary schools will all have the same base knowledge, and students transferring between schools will not have to repeat or miss out on important topics. There is definitely a good argument for some degree of uniformity and consistency throughout the system.

The standards movement did not stop at a simple scope and sequence of key themes and concepts, however. The state standards were created by committee, and as far as I can tell it was mostly a summative process. In other words, the great fear of the standards committees must have been that they might be criticized for leaving something out. I’m not as familiar with the standards of other states, but in California they take the form of exhaustive lists of specific and detailed skills and facts. For some subjects the standards make sense, and are more or less developmentally appropriate for the average student, in others they are quite inappropriate. But even if all the standards were perfectly aligned with the average developmental stage of each age group, it would be ridiculous to expect that they should represent the exact course of study for every individual student. There are sure to be students in every class who have already mastered most of them, and who deserve a more appropriate and challenging curriculum, and there are sure to be students whose background knowledge and core skills leave them unprepared to succeed with the “grade level” curriculum.

But there is an even more fundamental flaw in the standards. The very presumption that the goal of education is to transfer specific bits of information from textbooks into children’s minds represents the greatest failure of the standards movement, and its supporters. Back in the industrial revolution, it may have made sense to try to load students up with all the essential information that they would need to be moderately successful in their careers, and moderately enlightened as participants in their democracy. But the world has changed in profound ways since then, and the information revolution, along with globalization and the rapid acceleration of science and technology have made it simply impractical and foolhardy to focus on wrote memorization. There is simply too much information out there to cram into our brains, and it easier than ever to access it in real time, as it is needed.

What our students will really need when they graduate is a set of skills that aren’t even minimally reflected on our core state standards. Workers in the 21st century need to be able to research effectively, filtering and evaluating information with regards to credibility and possible bias of the sources. They need to be able to solve complex problems with innovative solutions, learning from their mistakes as they work. They need to know how to work as part of a team, collaborating, compromising and communicating effectively. In short, our goal needs to be graduating students who can think critically and work well with others, rather than students who know everything.

Obviously, there are still basic skills and concepts that need to be memorized, and information that students need to have at the ready as part of their preparation for higher order thinking. But the obsession with “mastery” of standards has pushed everything else to the side. The primary goal of most districts seems to be covering every standard, which means getting through every chapter of every book. Pacing guides are handed out at the beginning of the year, and teachers are evaluated on their “fidelity” to those pacing guides, even reprimanded for using any materials outside of the adopted programs. To give you an idea of what it would mean to cover every chapter in every book, here is the breakdown of state adopted, standards aligned textbooks in my classroom, not counting all the reference material in the back:

Math: 645 pages

Reading: 673 pages

Social Studies: 584 pages

Science: 458 pages

That’s 2,360 pages in total. Most districts are in session about 180 days a year, which means a teacher would need to plough through 13 pages a day if they were really going to cover everything, not accounting for curriculum based assessment, district assessments, field trips, assemblies, or heaven forbid, reading an actual novel from cover to cover. Though most districts do not actually set a goal of 100% coverage of each textbook, there is a sense in many (if not most) public schools of a relentless march through the curriculum, regardless of how well it fits with the actually needs of the students in the classroom, or whether they understood what came before. This focus on breadth of coverage, rather than depth of understanding is to me one of the most fundamental shortcomings of the standards movement, and I fear its consequences have been profound. Our kids drown in the shallows of excess information, even as many of them fail to grasp the most fundamental concepts.

The new common core standards definitely signal a step in the right direction, with more of an emphasis on process and less exhaustive mandates for specific content. But for us to truly reform our approach to education, all stakeholders need to make sure to make their priorities clear. Our students need to have an educational experience that emphasizes depth over breadth, problem solving over memorization, relevant work and social skills over test-taking strategies. Such an overhaul will not come easily, and it will not come all at once. The complexity of our challenge, and the entrenchment of the systems, institutions and ideas behind the current reform movement ensure that it will be a slow turnaround. In the meantime, we can mark our progress by the occasions when we see our students reengage with a truly relevant and engaging curriculum, expand their capacity to create, and learn how to solve problems as part a team. Creating these kinds of opportunities, though harder than ever, is our best hope to provide future generations with all they deserve, and all we have promised them.

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The Treadmill

Why am I awake right now?

It is 7:00 AM on Saturday morning. Yesterday was a 12-hour day at school, plus two hours of commuting for good measure. I got home a little before 10pm after being pulled over by the Sherriff for speeding. He took pity on me and let me off with a fix-it ticket for the outdated address on my license. After eating the reheated dinner my wife had prepared hours before, I fell asleep in front of the TV, leaving her to watch the second half of the movie by herself. She is used to watching movies this way by now. She managed to get me up to brush my teeth and get to bed around 1:00. Six hours later I woke up thinking about math curriculum. What is wrong with me?

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother has been teaching for almost as long as I can remember. When I told her about my first full-time teaching job, she sighed and said, “So you’re getting on the treadmill, huh?” Even then, I knew exactly what she meant. I was used to seeing her work late nights at home preparing curriculum, working weekends grading papers, and going into school over the summer to work on her classroom. She knew what I was getting myself into, and though I’m sure she was proud of my decision, there was also some worry in her voice.

Teaching is a monumental task. If we believe our own rhetoric, education is about nothing less than preparing our students for success in life, not to mention making sure that the next generation is prepared to take over the reigns of our democracy. The psychological burden of taking responsibility for the future health, welfare, and happiness of 20 or 30 children in particular (and the nation in general) is pretty staggering. Because most teachers really do think of their role in these terms, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to do everything we can to prepare our classes during the ten months of the year that we have them. Add to that the external pressures of site, district, county, state and federal mandates, and it’s not hard to understand why teachers end up working 11 and 12-hour days, coming in on Saturdays to plan, and still feeling like their short-changing their students, not to mention their families.

So, what keeps us so busy? Shouldn’t someone like me, whose been doing this for over fifteen years have it figured out by now? Why is it so much work? I know that a lot people outside the profession wonder about this, so I’ll do my best to break it down.

First of all, it’s important to understand that our whole system of education is based on the assumption that students more or less can be homogonously separated out by age. In other words, a fifth grader is a fifth grader is a fifth grader. It’s also important to understand that this fundamental underpinning of our educational approach is completely ridiculous. Every child is an individual, and in my experience the range of intellectual ability and prior knowledge in a class of fifth graders can range from two grade levels to upwards of seven grade levels. It is not unusual at all to have a fifth grader who reads at a first grade level next to one who reads at an eighth grade level, and of course, you’re going to see everything in between. Yet, at the beginning of the year they are all presented with the same textbooks, and often the teacher is presented with pacing guides to dictate the rate at which the teacher is supposed to move all students through the curriculum, while still “meeting the needs” of each child. Often, the official curriculum is appropriate for about a third of the class, and so many conscientious teachers feel the need to create or cobble together materials that will work with the kids who don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve. So instead of one curriculum, they end up teaching two or three parallel curricula at once. Planning this way takes a tremendous amount of time, and though teachers who’ve taught the same grade for several years will have more resources at the ready, each class is different and always seems to present new needs.

Right, so how do we know where students fall on that bell curve? Ah yes, assessment. This is one of the most critical parts of a teacher’s job, and also one of the most time consuming. There are reading assessments that need to be administered one at a time, writing assessments that generate reams of papers to be scored, pre-tests (now called formative assessments) and post-tests (summative), as well as right-in-the-middle-of-the-unit tests (also formative) for all core subjects. All of these assessments help the teacher figure out where the students are in the learning process, so that the teacher can then plan or adjust the curriculum (or parallel curricula) so that kids are not left hopelessly behind or hopelessly bored. These teacher-driven assessments happen throughout the year, and they are a huge time drain. It would be great if all the standardized tests and the district-driven practice tests that lead up to them could provide some of this information, but as I’ve described in other posts, they are so hopelessly misaligned with the needs of most students and so limited by the multiple-choice format that they are rarely useful for planning.

Then there is the social work of teaching. Any educational psychologist can tell you that a child cannot learn effectively unless their social and emotional needs are being met, and meeting those needs becomes our job as well. Poverty, divorce, violence, mental illness and general dysfunction at home are part of the reality for some of the students in almost every classroom. The social and emotional scars from that trauma manifest themselves in disruptive behaviors in the class, in the lunchroom and at recess, and it is our job to address those behaviors. Though we are not trained as counselors, we are thrust into that role every day. We spend prep periods and lunch periods talking through problems with students, and our afternoons on the phone or in meetings with parents, public health nurses, psychologists and actual social workers. We spend time trying to talk to parents who think we treat their child unfairly, and more time trying to track down parents who don’t want to talk at all.

Next we have professional development. At it’s best, this is a welcome breather to reflect on how we teach, and learn new ways to improve our practice. These days though, the trend in teacher training is essentially to tell teachers, “You are doing it wrong. You must all teach like this.” Often these trainers have less experience than the teachers they’re training, or they have decided that it’s easier and more lucrative to talk about teaching children than to actually do it. Now, I’m very fortunate to teach in a district where professional development looks very different, but I’ve heard enough stories from teachers across the country to know that in the current reform craze many teachers see professional development as a waste of their time at best, and as an insult to their professionalism and a threat to their job at worst. Either way, weekly or monthly meetings take time, as do the inevitable hoops that teachers are expected to jump through as a part of the latest district initiative. “Make sure your word walls are up by the 19th, your college wall by the 25th and your power standards by the 1st!” If the meetings take place on a school day, you have to prepare for a substitute, which any teacher will tell you is more work than teaching the class yourself. If it doesn’t happen during the school day, then you’re staying late after school or going in for a class on the weekend.

There’s more of course, like report cards, conferences, school events, fundraisers, etcetera, but you get the idea. We are busy people, trying to do right by our kids and keep the parents and district overseers happy, or at least off our backs. We are on the treadmill, trying to stay ahead of planning, assessing and jumping through the hoops that are put in front of us. We see each other in the halls, sigh or roll our eyes and make jokes about making it to the weekend, or at least to the end of the day. This is maybe the most ironic aspect of the whole situation. The people who are best qualified to really help us become better teachers, who are in the best position to do meaningful collaborative work, are the teachers right across the hall or around the corner. But none of us has enough time to sit down and discuss instructional materials or classroom management techniques, much less to look at how well our curriculum fits together from grade to grade. We barely have time to keep up with the recent events of one another’s lives. We are surrounded by peers, yet it feels like everyone shoulders their own load in isolation.

This overloaded professional life is a problem, not just for the teachers themselves, but for the country as a whole. New teachers are hard to recruit, and harder to hold onto, as they feel the weight even more than us veterans. Burnout is inevitable for many, as the job puts such a strain on personal and family relationships, and on mental health in general. There are no easy fixes to the problem, but I can think of a few ways that we could help our teachers to use their time and energy more efficiently, to feel appreciated for the work they do, and to maybe even have some time left over for a life outside of school.

First, we need to recognize the diversity in our students, and move beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to state and national standards, as well as commercial textbooks that align with those standards. Curriculum writers and credential programs should work together to develop pedagogical approaches that will allow teachers to go into their first year expecting a range of learners in their class, and having the tools to mold the curriculum to fit the needs of the group.

Next, we need to return to a culture of respect for professional educators, which starts with an admission that there may be more than one effective way to teach. The top-down reform efforts of the past few decades have demoralized and insulted our teachers long enough. A quick survey of educational practices around the globe shows how vastly different approaches can be effective. In fact, a quick survey of most schools can do the same. When I worked in independent schools, it was generally accepted that each teacher should teach in the manner in which they were most effective, even if the styles varied from class to class. We don’t all have to be Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. We need to be free to work in an environment where we are encouraged to build on our own personal strengths and develop an instructional approach that suits our unique personality and educational philosophy. By extension, methods of teacher evaluation have to move beyond checklists of teacher behaviors and focus more on how well the students are actually progressing in their understanding of the curriculum.

Oh yeah, and it wouldn’t hurt to have fewer kids crammed into the classroom and fewer hours in front of them every day. Like most things in this country, the problem eventually boils down, at least in part, to money. Class sizes continue to rise, and the subjects that used to create prep time for teachers are getting squeezed out of the budget more and more each year. In independent schools I spent between three to four hours actually in front of the class each day, and my average class size was probably around 17. (I still managed to work through every lunch period and stay until 5:00 or 6:00 most days.) Now I teach closer to five hours a day, and I feel lucky to have classes in the mid-twenties. I know plenty of teachers (including kindergarten teachers) who routinely have 30+ kids in their class, without one minute of help from a teacher’s aide. More kids to teach means more assessments and other assignments to grade, more report cards, more conferences, more everything. Furthermore, you just can’t teach the same way when you have twice the number of students. Lessons that work great with 20 kids can be impossible to manage with 34, and prepping science experiments or any other hands-on activity can just take too much time and money when class sizes get out of hand.

We are a dedicated bunch, but I don’t think this country will be able to keep this going on indefinitely. With the hostility towards teachers that is being played out on the national stage, and the every day wear and tear of the job, it will be increasingly difficult to find talented teachers who are interested in entering the profession, much less willing and able to stick with it once they try it on for size. It’s time for us to recognize the complexity of the challenge our teachers face, and start listening to their expertise as much as we spout expertise to them. We need to allocate the resources necessary to ensure that our teachers can do their job without burning out prematurely, and give new teachers the tools and support they need to succeed without completely sacrificing their personal lives. Until then, those of us left on our feet will keep running to stand still for as long as we can.

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It’s summertime, and though I’ve taken the month off in terms of blog entries, my favorite educational reformer has not. Here is a great post by Diane Ravitch:

Reasons for Hope

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My class just finished their STAR testing this past week, and as I near the end of my first full year back in a public school classroom, I have a deeper understanding of the pressures that public school teachers and administrators have been facing. I am more likely now to sympathize with teachers who find themselves teaching to the test instead of tailoring instruction to the needs of their students. I can even feel some sympathy for those well-meaning but misguided administrators who have bought into the idea that they can make things better by “getting tough” with their teachers instead of supporting and inspiring them. I can forgive a lot of the wrong-headed and half-baked ideas that have grown out of the standards and testing movement, but every once in a while something comes up that is beyond the pale.  For this post I want to consider one such concept: the “strategic” student.

When I first heard the term I assumed that we were discussing students with a penchant for problem solving, but it turns out that the term “strategic” refers not to any strategy of the students, but rather to a strategy by the staff and administration to increase standardized test scores. You see, strategic students are those who are at the upper end of their scoring category on the standardized tests.  In other words, they are the students who just missed the next higher classification by a few points. The reasoning goes that if schools target their resources on their “strategic” students, then they will get the most bang for their buck in terms of test score improvement.

The practice of identifying and targeting these students has become fairly widespread from what I have heard. The idea makes perfect sense, as long as you are willing to abandon any presumption of equity or fairness to students. I remember being frustrated in my first public school job that I was pressured to focus primarily on the struggling children. In seemed unfair to the more advanced students in my class that my extra time should be focused on the kids who were below grade level, and that the curriculum should be limited by the lowest common denominator. At least in that situation you could argue that the most needy kids were getting the most support. With the “strategic” student model, extra support is doled out according to the totally arbitrary dividing lines between scoring categories. It doesn’t matter if you scored Far Below Basic, Below Basic, or Proficient. If you are at the top of your scoring group then you deserve extra support and attention, but if you are in the middle of your group then you are not yet worthy of the extra effort. Of course, we’ll never have to waste our time on the “Advanced” kids, as they have nothing left to offer us.

I suppose this is an inevitable outcome of placing test scores above all else. At some point, people began to accept the idea that a school’s main mission is not to meet the needs of its students, but to improve their test scores. To be more precise, I think many educators have unwittingly accepted the premise that these goals are one in the same. Unfortunately, the standardized tests that have become the focal point of the school year are so poorly designed and mismatched with the developmental readiness of our kids, that it is nearly impossible to meet the real academic needs of the students if our primary focus is improving their tests scores.

It makes no sense to start with the test and work backwards. We are supposed to start with the students, determine what they need and then develop the best program to move each of them (yes, even the advanced ones) ahead throughout the school year. I have no problem with an assessment at the end of the year to give us more information about how far each student has come, but the STAR test I administered over the last two weeks bears very little resemblance to such an assessment. Using it as the primary motivator for any educational decision, especially one that is as patently unfair at the targeting of “strategic” students, reveals how much we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by the chess game of testing and accountability, and how far we have drifted from our core values and common sense.

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Fear Is the Mind-Killer

In my teaching credential program my favorite course was educational psychology. While many of my peers were eager to get to the methods courses and start learning the specifics of how and what to teach, I was fascinated by my first exposure to the theory behind learning. One of our assigned readings was a book called Making Connections by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine, which summarized key findings in brain research at the time and argued that they should be applied to improve instruction and curriculum design. Unlike proponents of the current fad in “research-based” methods, the authors of the book mined the findings of brain research to draw out fundamental principles to inform (rather than preempt) the decisions educators make to improve their curriculum and instruction.

The primary message of the book is that humans are relational thinkers. In other words, we learn by making connections between related experiences and pieces of information. This is one of the fundamental concepts behind integrated thematic curriculum, where lessons are organized by theme rather than subject. Instead of doing random word problems about percentages in math class and then learning about the ethnic makeup of the 13 colonies in social studies, students might use demographic data about the 13 colonies to calculate the percentages of different ethnic groups. The lines between classes are blurred, but the Caines argue that more profound learning happens, as students are able to relate all their lessons to one another and consequently have a deeper understanding and better recall of each.

My other big takeaway message from this book was that higher level thinking ability suffers dramatically when an individual undergoes the physiological responses triggered by fear and helplessness. The book goes into more detail than I will share here about the chemical cascade that is triggered by these emotions, and explains how much of our brain shuts down as the “flight or fight” functions take over. As my professor put it, we revert to our “reptilian brain” and are able to focus on little more than survival.

As much as I’d like to advance the cause of integrated curriculum, this post is really about fear and helplessness. Though the Caines had students in mind, my focus is on the climate of fear that has permeated the ranks of our country’s teachers, as top-down “accountability” measures have become the championed model for school reform.  As I meet more teachers and read their comments on past posts, I am struck by how often fear dominates the conversation.

We are afraid that…

…an administrator might catch us teaching outside of the prescribed curriculum.

…we will fall behind our pacing guides.

….we will keep up with our pacing guides and our students won’t have time to master the material.

…we will lose our job if our students’ test scores don’t improve.

…we will miss out on a pay raise if our students’ test scores don’t improve.

…our school will be shut down if our students’ test scores don’t improve.

At many schools these fears underlie a fundamental tension between the administration and the teaching staff. The get tough approach embodied by Washington D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee has inspired a generation of administrators who see noncompliant teachers as the main obstacle to better student performance. Of course, many (hopefully most) principals don’t feel the kind of outright hostility towards teachers that Rhee has shown, but it has become commonplace for administrators to see their role as the enforcer of district and state mandates, rather than as a coordinator and facilitator between teachers, students and families.

The real problem is not simply the climate of fear and antagonism that unavoidably accompanies the “Big Brother” approach to school leadership, but rather the underlying notion that there is one right way to teach all children, and that someone at the district office, the state capital, or the publishing house has already figured it out. Pacing guides, state standards and high stakes testing all operate on the fundamentally laughable idea that education can be distilled to a one size fits all model. This leaves teachers to try and project the impression that they are following “the program” while covertly making the gritty decisions about how to best help each student move forward.

The incredible complexity behind teaching and learning requires more from our educational leaders than mandates. The most effective administrators are the ones who are helping their teachers deal with unique challenges in their classrooms, not pretending that they don’t exist. Furthermore, teachers who live in fear of their principal are going to be less capable of real problem solving, as their “reptilian brains” become preoccupied with surviving the school year with their jobs in tact. As brain research (and common sense) tells us, fear paralyzes, and nobody does their best work when they feel helpless.

If reading educational psychology texts doesn’t do it for you, there is always science fiction. The following is the Litany of Fear, from Frank Herbert’s Dune books. It’s a religious incantation used by an elite religious sect, and I think it sums up the problem and the solution nicely. Try repeating it to yourself the next time your principal comes in for a classroom visit with their clipboard and checklist.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

(Well, you and the 3.3 million other teachers in your corner)

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