What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

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North Carolina’s Downward Public School Spiral

Deborah R. Gerhardt for “Citizen of the First Part of 2014″ for detailing in this Slate magazine essay the downward spiral of public education in North Carolina and also for acting to reverse it. She writes:

North Carolina’s intentional assault on public education is working. It is pushing our best teachers out. In 1997 the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay. The year before, Gov. Jim Hunt had run on a platform to invest in public education. After he was elected, he worked with the Republican House Speaker to focus on excellence in teaching and raised teacher salaries up to the national average in just four years. That bipartisan investment paid off. In the 1990s our public student test scores rose more than any other state’s. North Carolina became known as “the education state.” As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation.

Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us—“the education state”—sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay. North Carolina teachers earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And if you look at trends over the past decade, we rank dead last: After adjusting for inflation, North Carolina lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of 1 percent. A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800. Our school district lost a candidate to a district in Kentucky because its starting salary was close to $40,000. It takes North Carolina teachers more than 15 years to earn $40,000; in Virginia it may take only four. Gap store managers on average make about $56,000.

If you talk to a teacher in North Carolina, you will hear the bitter truth of how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Most teachers . . . work at least one extra job.  An elementary school teacher told me that his daughters do not have the chance to play soccer or cello like his students. He has no discretionary income left to spare.

How did this happen? Both political parties share responsibility. When the recession began, the Democrats in power froze teacher pay. After years of salary stagnation, in 2013, Republicans made the following changes: Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated. A new law created vouchers so that private academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left. While requiring schools to adopt the Common Core standards, the legislature slashed materials budgets. According to the National Education Association, we fell to 48th in per-pupil expenditures. State funds for books were cut by about 80 percent, to allocate only $14.26 a year per student. Because you can’t buy even one textbook on that budget, teachers are creating their own materials at night after a long day of work.

As if that weren’t enough, the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants even though the student population grew.  North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008. The result?  Teachers have more students, no current books, and fewer professionals trained to address special needs, and their planning hours are gone now that they must cover lunch and recess.

For public school teachers in North Carolina, the signals sent by this legislation are unambiguous: North Carolina does not value its teachers.

Free-market loving Americans argue that workers are motivated by pay, but by remaining ignorant of what it’s like to be a public school teacher, many convince themselves teachers are paid more than adequately. They argue that teachers only teach for nine months meaning $30,800 is more like $41,000. What they fail to realize is that to sustain their energy over the course of decades, hard working teachers need to decompress for awhile afterwards. Also, the best teachers use portions of their summers to refine their curriculum and craft.

Also, as their pay lags their peers in the rest of the country, teacher quality in North Carolina will steadily decline. This will give those whose default is to denigrate teachers even more fodder. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay teachers less. Get weaker candidates. Criticize them more.

Somehow people who think of “x” and “y” supply and demand curves as biblical, don’t think improving teacher pay matters.

It takes 15 years to make $40,000. That statistic is depressing enough to turn the most ascetic of talented college graduates from the profession. Every other state legislature in the country should be studying North Carolina as a lesson in what not to do to attract and retain excellent teachers and families that value public education.

Most institutions of higher education understand the importance of investing in faculty excellence*. Consequently, they’re intentional about it, thus sabbatical programs, teaching loads that are about one half of public school teachers, and financial support for professional development. In contrast, it’s nonsensical that public school teachers are supposed to help the U.S. retain it’s precarious lead in the global economy, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, for $30,800 a year.

* Granted, I’m part of a dying breed, a tenured professor, if I was an adjunct, piecing together a living by driving to two, three, or four different universities every week (thus the moniker “freeway flyers”), without benefits, my perspective would obviously be less generous.

Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

Follow the Leaders

Jordan Spieth, a 20 year-old, made $3,879,820 playing golf this year. Two mil more than Rory Mcilroy. Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick, recently gave an interview that anyone that wants to get a job, or wants to get better at their job, should read.

McCormick says: A job came open at a private club, Dallas Country Club, one of the best clubs in town. I started teaching a lot at Dallas C.C. I’d do 40 hours a week in the shop and another 15 to 25 hours a week teaching. It was a quick trial by fire on what works and what doesn’t work and do I like to do this? And I did. I got some good word of mouth and some good results. I was there three and a half years. Brook Hollow, a similar club a few miles down the road, was hiring an assistant-in the fall of 2003, I became a full-time teaching pro. When I turned 30, I wrote renowned teachers in golf and asked, “Would you mind if I came and watched you work?” I wrote Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter and Randy Smith and others. Over the course of six months, I traveled around the country and observed these great coaches and gained an appreciation of what makes them great.

The “secrets” to McCormick’s considerable success: 1) When starting out, he worked 55-65 hours a week; 2) He actively sought out better opportunities; 3) He sought out respected people with much more extensive experience and spent six months traveling around the country studying the “secrets” to their success.

McCormick elaborates: I sent (letters) out to the top 75 coaches in the country and I got 25 or 30 responses. Out of those 25 or 30 responses, I got 10 or 15 affirmatives that you can come watch, with stipulations. Some of them respectfully declined, which I totally understood. The most surprising was Butch (Harmon). He said, “Absolutely, come on down, spend a couple of days,” and I did. He was fantastic.

This week I observed an excellent Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, WA. After describing her teaching repertoire to the The Good Wife over dinner, she decided to carve out a day and drive 60 miles roundtrip to watch her teach. The Good Wife is already a very good Spanish teacher, but she wants to get better.

What do you want to get better at? Being a school principal, a nurse, a social worker, a swim coach, a fourth grade teacher, a pastor, a web designer? Make a list of more experienced and accomplished people in your field of choice, contact them, and carve out time to visit those willing to lift the curtain on their day-to-day work. 

Gordo Byrn is a cerebral triathlon coach whose writing I often like because it’s more philosophical than normal. I like how Byrn seeks out mentors for his personal life. For example, a relatively new father, Byrn has been intentional about sitting down with more experienced parents whose examples he greatly respects. He doesn’t observe them as intensively as McCormick did other coaches, but he asks them questions and listens carefully as they share parenting insights.

Byrn has carved out a great approach to life-long learning. Granted, it’s one that requires humility because it rests on the admission that other people have greater experience and are more skilled and insightful about what excellence entails. Byrn has taken the same approach to learning more about how to be a better husband; how to manage money better; how in the end, to be a better human being.

Follow McCormick’s and Byrn’s lead. Seek out mentors willing to share the secrets of their “success” whether in your public or private lives.

     

School Security That Works

Recently, a middle school teacher that I know returned from a faculty meeting about his Catholic school’s beefed up security. A police officer explained that when they respond to an incident they do so with “overwhelming force”. He assured the faculty that thanks to their proximity to downtown, they’d have “150 officers at the school within five minutes.” He also explained why visitors will have to pass through additional security checks and why they have to teach with their classroom doors closed.

Credit Columbine and Sandy Hook for the “schools as fortresses” movement. It parallels our post 9/11 airport experience. A rural Colorado school district is allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons. A USA Today reporter tells the story of Wisconsin teachers that were “being trained to urge kids to keep a can of soup in their desks to throw at a gunman who might enter their classroom.” I’m sure that won’t contribute to a further uptick in childhood anxiety disorders. Maybe we should start putting cans of soup in our carry-on baggage.

Few people are aware that despite the recent spate of tragic, high-profile shootings etched in the public’s mind, schools are safer than they’ve ever been. Some statistics:

• Since 1992, the rate of “victimization,” which includes violent crimes such as assault and rape as well as non-violent crimes such as robbery, purse snatching and pickpocketing, has plummeted, from 181.5 incidents per 1,000 students to 49.2 per 1,000 in 2011.

• Overall, the number of reported “non-fatal victimizations” has dropped by 71%, from 4.3 million in 1992 to 1.2 million in 2011.

• During the 2009-2010 school year, researchers found 1,396 homicides with victims ages 5 to 18. Of those, only 19 took place at school. During the 2010 calendar year, only three of the reported 1,456 youth suicides took place at school.

• Though rare, homicides, suicides and deaths involving intervention by police at school or on the way to or from school dropped 46%, from 57 in the 1992-1993 school year to 31 in the 2010-2011 school year. Over 19 years, researchers counted 863 deaths, or about 45 per year. (Federal data don’t yet include 2011-2012 or 2012-13, when 27 died in the Sandy Hook shooting, including gunman Adam Lanza.)

“Things are better,” a school safety experts concludes, “but they’re not fine.”

So what’s working? Researchers attribute the decline in school violence to a handful of measures:

•Heightened awareness of a school’s culture, including how safe students feel there and how well they get along with teachers and classmates.

•A renewed focus on bullying and mental health issues, with teachers trained to spot troubled kids and intervene before bullying incidents get out of hand.

•Simple security steps such as locking exterior school doors, requiring all visitors to check in at the front office and offering students easy, anonymous ways to report classmates’ threats.

After Sandy Hook, a national school safety leader said, “It’s a huge struggle trying to bring people’s focus back from emotion.” My friend’s faculty meeting is evidence of that. “The enduring lesson of Sandy Hook,” another school safety leader added, “may be the importance of having a well-conceived — and well-rehearsed — emergency response plan. Sandy Hook really reinforced that. By all accounts, the staff really responded well, and they really saved lives.”

Sandy Hook parents, like Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the 26 victims, are pushing to expand mental health and wellness services for troubled or isolated kids. Hockley says, “We’re much more focused on, ‘Let’s reach out to the kids who are inside the school and prevent the violence from ever happening in the first place.’”

Ten years ago, American film critic Roger Ebert offered another idea that would also help. Post Columbine, he was asked by a major news network if television and film violence were contributing factors to school violence. Ebert turned the tables on the unsuspecting reporter:

Events like this if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.

Here’s hoping Hockley and Ebert-like common sense prevails over concealed guns and soup cans.

On The Challenges of Groupwork

I doubt anyone is terribly interested in what goes on behind the scenes at my workplace. I share this abbreviated story in the hope that you’ll apply it to your own life. The basic question is this: how does a medium or large sized group of people—a school faculty, a church council, a local government, a non-profit organization, any work team really—reinvent their work?

My colleagues and I are redesigning our university’s undergraduate teacher education program again. Instead of annual incremental tweaks to individual courses, we wait until dissatisfaction builds to a breaking point. Then, instead of identifying and building upon existing strengths, we commit to a complete overhaul. We repeat the process every five to seven years.

The problem is whole scale curriculum redesign is very difficult to pull off. I’ve lived through multiple attempts at two institutions. This time, despite different people in leadership, we’re following a nearly identical path as all our previous efforts. In our last meeting I felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.

We never improve the process because no one makes the time to carefully consider alternatives. That’s the point of this exercise in self-efficacy.

The basic challenge is to improve the preparation of our teacher candidates by: 1) eliminating curricular redundancies; 2) filling in curricular gaps; 3) reversing “credit creep” by reducing the total number of semester hours needed to complete the program; and 4) updating the curriculum to address changes in K-12 education, changes like the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Things always start positively with creative and invigorating whole group discussion about “essential elements” or “themes” that everyone wants included in the new and improved program. Then we add in additional content determined by professional standards and (jargon alert) a new high stakes performance based student teacher assessment (otherwise known as a student teaching test). Next, advocates for specific curricular interests—technology integration, special education, reading instruction, etc.—remind everyone of just how important all of that content is. Then we try to pinpoint what will be taught when. That’s when enthusiasm wanes and things inevitably bog down.

We struggle at this work for many reasons. Two in particular. First, we’re much, much better at adding content than we are removing it. And second, it’s nearly impossible to do the careful type of deep thinking, tentative and creative sketching, and initial draft writing that program redesign requires in large group meetings.

We would make more progress in less time if we did three things:

• First, take whatever time is necessary to reach a consensus that it’s impossible to include everything our candidates might need to succeed in their first few years of teaching. Come up with a written statement to that effect and communicate it to the students at different points throughout the program. Our inability to embrace our limits is like a misaligned brake rubbing against a bicycle rim, no matter how hard we pedal, we tire before making ample forward progress.

• Second, delegate the drafting of a new program outline to one or a few people. This means trusting they have the students’ and all of the faculty’s best interests at heart. Ask that person or those people to talk with individual faculty members about what they like most about the existing program and what they’re most intent on changing. Count their curriculum redesign work both as service to the department and as scholarship of teaching.

• Third, use large group meetings primarily to receive suggestions on how to improve the most recent program outline draft, and in the end, to reach consensus on a final draft.

What College Writing Students Get Wrong

Recently, I did a mid-semester check of how things are going in the first year writing seminars. I asked my students to complete the following phrases: I like. . . . I’ve learned. . . . I wish. . . . Things seemed to be going well, so it was nice that most of their feedback was positive.

About one-fifth of them said something to the effect of “I wish it was clearer what you want”. My syllabus is detailed, and I think, quite clear. The writing prompts too. And I teach what my colleagues and I hope to see in student writing. But sometimes I also say, “There’s more than one way to do well on this paper.” And this annoys some of them who want me to cut to the chase and tell them the one way to be successful. You’ve heard of “paint by numbers”, some students want to “write by numbers”.

The students most disappointed with what they earned on their first two papers are the ones most prone to say,”Just tell me what you want so I can give it to you.” The irony is, by thinking that it’s far less likely they’ll succeed on future papers. Why? Because excellent student writers embrace complexity and delve into the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity inherent in most every topic.

I wish every high school teacher in the country taught writing by plastering this equation all over their rooms and schools—subtleties+nuances+ambiguity=complexity. The more complex one’s ideas, the more imperative it is that they communicate them clearly. So the challenge for writers is two-fold—1) to embrace subtleties, nuances, and ambiguity to the point that interesting insights bubble up, and 2) to clearly communicate those complex insights in writing.

The first of those challenges requires repeated close readings of other writers who embrace complexity. Discussing ideas with others equally or slightly more adept at critical thinking helps immensely too. The second challenge requires learning how to illustrate complex insights with specific examples.

Every first year college student struggles with both of these intellectual challenges to widely varying degrees. Some get it very early in the semester, others struggle with both until the semester’s very end. Those who struggle the most think the second challenge is most important and they’re convinced they’d turn their “C’s” into “B’s” if their professors would just describe the required formulas more explicitly.

In actuality though, the first challenge is most important. Until students learn to embrace complexity and communicate complex insights clearly, there’s not an explicit writing formula in the world that will help them engage, inform, or move readers.