Selective Rigor: What to Do About It?

Dr. Bruce Torff

Dr. Audrey F. Murphy

Today’s bloggers are Bruce Torff and Audrey Figueroa Murphy. Their article, “Teachers’ Beliefs About Rigor of Curriculum for English Language Learners,” appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.


Educators have looked high and low for the causes of achievement gaps between the “haves” and “have nots” in our society, and for good reason:

These gaps are distressingly large and resistant to change.

Possible causes include in-school factors (e.g., rigor of curriculum, teacher experience and attendance, teacher preparation, class size, technology-assisted instruction, school safety) and various conditions outside of school (e.g., birth weight, lead poisoning, hunger and nutrition, reading to young children, television watching, parent availability, student mobility, parent participation).

No one seems to know the exact causes, but some combination of factors does the deed.

Could it be that one set of factors has been hiding in plain sight? Do educators’ well-intended beliefs about “what works” for different populations of learners play a role, if a largely unseen one? According to research, the answer may be yes.

It’s true, but unsurprising, that success in school has a lot to do with the level of rigor in the curriculum; students given challenging work achieve more. Educators know that lessons need to pitched to challenge but not overwhelm learners, as if to follow Dewey’s advice that teaching should begin a little over the head of the learner. Accordingly, educators’ judgments do much to establish how academically demanding the curriculum will be.

But research shows that teachers favor somewhat less rigorous curriculum for learners they perceive to be low in socio-economic status, SES. And our research published in this issue of The Educational Forum indicates that English language learners are among the student populations educators believe to be less able to handle the rigorous curriculum prescribed for their more English-proficient peers. The rich get richer, getting rigorous curriculum leading to high achievement, prompting more high-octane lessons. And the poor get poorer, with impoverished curriculum leading to lower achievement, yielding another round of undemanding lessons.

In several publications, we tie these beliefs to cultural norms about how learners tick and how teaching should proceed. Beliefs about learning and teaching in our culture, part of the culture’s commonsense “folk psychology,” prompt educators to reduce the rigor of curriculum for some populations, exacerbating achievement gaps. Because of our culture’s way of doing things, well-intended educators fan the flames of the blaze they seek to extinguish, by their efforts to give students the level of academic rigor they deem appropriate.

A question is raised: How can we counter this cause of achievement gaps?

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through February 28, 2019.

School Choice Is Like Choosing Where to Eat? Hardly!

Today’s blogger is Chris Gilbert, who is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. His article, “Creating Educational Destruction: A Critical Exploration of Central Neoliberal Concepts and Their Transformative Effects on Public Education,” appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

Since the election of President Trump in 2016, the phrase “school choice” has rapidly become commonplace in popular and political discourse. Through sheer repetition and careful messaging, supporters of school choice have worked to sterilize the phrase in order to make it appealing and ultimately normal.

For instance, during a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (2017) compared school choice to a selection of food trucks surrounding the Department of Education. “Now,” she remarked, “if you visit one of those food trucks instead of a restaurant, do you hate restaurants? Or are you trying to put grocery stores out of business? No. You are simply making the right choice for you based on your individual needs at that time.”

In other words, school choice is akin to choosing where to eat. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Despite this attempt, and others like it, to downplay the significance of school choice, abundant evidence suggests that it is anything but inconsequential. As I discuss in my article in The Educational Forum, a body of research has shown that school choice mechanisms such as charter schools and school vouchers have had a number of negative educational and social impacts (Carey, 2017; Ravitch, 2014; Strauss & Burris, 2017).

Additionally, I discuss the larger ideas that have produced school choice, primarily those concepts of competition and individualism. In the educational reality produced by these concepts, schools function as competitive entities, families compete for voucher money and limited spots in charter schools, and teachers work against one another to receive paltry raises.

When I worked as a high school English teacher in North Carolina, I experienced this reality firsthand. As I discuss in my article, in 2014 I joined a campaign to push back against policies that sought to inject competition into schools and pit teacher against teacher. Through a statewide effort, teachers and other activists fought to replace notions of competition and individualism with collaboration and collectivism.

It is important to note that the competitive and individualistic reality we struggled against did not manifest by chance. Rather, it resulted from neoliberalism, the dominant social, economic, and political ideology of our time. Neoliberals believe that the logic of the market should dominate all aspects of our lives, and they seek to create an educational system that mirrors the corporate world.

While neoliberalism is certainly not new, and its effects have been apparent in the educational realm for some time, neoliberal notions of competition and individualism now have an unprecedented level of political support and threaten to become the new normal. In the present moment, it may be more important than ever before to step forward and dissent. I hope this message serves as an invitation to do so.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through January 31, 2019.

 

References

Carey, K. (2017, February 23). Dismal voucher results surprise researchers as DeVos era begins. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/upshot/dismal-results-from-vouchers-surprise-researchers-as-devos-era-begins.html

DeVos, B. (2017, September 28). Prepared remarks by Secretary DeVos to JFK Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved from https://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/prepared-remarks-secretary-devos-jfk-jr-forum-harvard-kennedy-school

Ravitch, D. (2014). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Strauss, V., & Burris, C. (2017, July 26). NAACP sticks by its call for charter school moratorium, says they are ‘not a substitute’ for traditional public schools. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/07/26/naacp-report-charter-schools-not-a-substitute-for-traditional-public-schools-and-many-need-reform/?utm_term=.5f179b7ef7f7

Learning in the Sandbox: Early Childhood at its Best

When my son Michael was little, he attended Playhouse, a progressive cooperative preschool.

There he was the most engaged when he was able to create an activity on his own.

One spring day, Michael brought a small plastic white leopard to school. During outdoor playground time, he developed a game where over and over again he would bury the leopard and then find it and dig it up. On his third round of “bury and excavate,” the leopard seemed to disappear. Michael grew more and more frustrated, especially when it was announced that it was time to go back into the classroom.

Authentic learning is messy, and it may involve expanded time for play, investigation, and reflection.

Rather than dismiss his concern, the teachers sat down with Michael and tried to understand his feelings and come up with a potential solution. Instead of digging around randomly in the sandbox, they asked him to think about what an archaeologist might do in this case. They shared that archaeologists often excavate to find things and that perhaps they could use a grid method to make the process easier. They turned a very difficult situation into a teachable moment, and they helped Michael to redirect his focus away from being frustrated to concentrating on making a grid out of the sandbox. The process was tedious, but the reward was enormous. Michael appreciated that his concerns were taken seriously and that the teachers were listening to him. It didn’t hurt that he found the leopard, too!

In early childhood classrooms, learning looks different than it does in elementary schools. The teachers understand that child-centered curriculum and instruction require an atmosphere where adults and children need to know one another well and develop trust.

An emergent curriculum reflects the values of caring and social change, encourages children to think critically about the world in which they live, and talk back to it. Teachers strive to create a classroom community that is a safe space where students not only can show support for one another, but also question and disrupt the norms of society and imagine a community that accepts others. This is a space where all children and teachers are valued and can speak freely, listen actively, dream, invent, and imagine.

Teachers understand that no two children are alike and therefore are open to the idea that the ways they approach a problem will differ. When students’ curiosity becomes the driving force of the curriculum, then the role of the teacher becomes one of coach, who provides materials, asks provocative questions, and encourages children to make decisions about their own learning.

Authentic learning is messy, and it may involve expanded time for play, investigation, and reflection. Ultimately, in a child-centered classroom, anything and everything has the potential to be explored.

Although we are aware of the importance and value of constructivist early childhood classrooms for all children, as Gallo-Fox and Cuccuini-Harmon point out in their article “The Non-Tested Years: Policy’s Impact on Early Childhood Curriculum,” standards and accountability policies continue to create tensions between early childhood and elementary curriculum, imposing teacher-directive approaches that focus on academic and test preparation, and significantly impact the voice and role of early childhood educators.

With an increased focus on academics, this shift has also increased the number of children at risk for failure due to poverty, race, or disability because their classroom behaviors do not align with school expectations. Gallo-Fox and Cuccuini-Harmon provide an insightful window into the constraints of policy on early childhood instruction and also the possibility of supporting rich learning environments that foster the success of all young learners.


Dr. Monica Taylor

Today’s blogger is Monica Taylor, a Professor at Montclair State University, Academic Editor of The Educational Forum, and author of Playhouse: Optimistic Stories of Real Hope for Families With Little Children (Garn Press, 2017). She comments on the recently published article “The Non-Tested Years: Policy’s Impact on Early Childhood Curriculum,” which appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through December 31, 2018.

 

Are We Asking the Right Questions About Instructional Coaching?

David Knight, Ph.D.

Today’s blogger is David Knight, Associate Director of the Center for Education Research and Policy Studies and an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research focuses on economics of education and school finance. Follow David on Twitter @dsknight84. His co-authored article “Evaluation of Video-Based Instructional Coaching for Middle School Teachers: Evidence From a Multiple Baseline Study” appears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum.

Is instructional coaching effective? Educational administrators are asking that question as they make important decisions about how to invest limited school resources in ways that drive improvement.

Some recent research suggests we might be asking the wrong question. A long list of studies identified highly successful coaching models, yet two large-scale randomized experiments [study 1, study 2] found that coaching had no significant impact on student achievement. A more appropriate question, then, might be, Under what circumstances, in what contexts, and for whom is coaching effective?

One way to answer that question is through design-based research, in which researchers and practitioners work together in partnership to study not only what works, but why.

In a recent study published in the October 2018 issue of The Educational Forum, my co-authors and I describe an evaluation of a video-based instructional coaching model where coaches video record collaborating teachers’ instruction. Teachers and coaches then review the tapes independently and then come together to co-construct a goal related to student outcomes. Coaches help teachers identify practical strategies for reaching those goals and tracking progress along the way.

This coaching model represents the culmination of a 2-year design-based research project where we made small improvements to the model over time, based on input from those actually implementing the model. We worked closely with instructional coaches on implementing a new approach to coaching that emphasized the use of video and teacher-led goal setting. During the first semester of implementation, we collected data and interviewed teachers and coaches. We presented our findings to the coaches, who provided additional feedback about their experiences implementing the model. Through this process, we agreed on changes to the model, implemented the coaching model with a new set of teachers, and continued this cycle.

The end result of this process was a coaching model that values the input of teachers, foregrounds the role of teacher-led goal setting, provides coaches with a set of evidence-based teaching strategies that serve as tools for reaching goals, and relies on video to support both data collection and teacher reflection.

In our study, we found that the coaching model led to significant changes in instructional practice, which, in turn, led to increases in student engagement in the classroom.

This type of research, referred to as design-based research or improvement science, comes in part from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Center on Scaling Up Effective Schools, and others, with support from the Institute of Education Science’s new research-practice partnership grants.

More than ever, researchers and policymakers are beginning to recognize that knowing what works in education is necessary, but not sufficient for leading continuous improvement. Like many educational programs, policies, or reforms, whether instructional coaching is effective will depend on context and local practices. If we continue to focus only on what works, we may lose a valuable opportunity to understand more deeply what drives continuous improvement in schools.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through November 30, 2018.

 

Workplace Bullying in Schools: Teachers Speak Out

Today’s blogger is Amy Orange, an Assistant Professor at University of Houston–Clear Lake, whose recently published article Workplace Bullying in Schools: Teachers’ Perceptions of Why They Were Mistreatedappears in the latest issue of The Educational Forum. In that article, she shares her research on teachers who have suffered mistreatment.

As educators, we are familiar with student bullying in schools and various ways to address the problem.

What isn’t publicly discussed as much is workplace bullying in schools. Yet workplace bullying in educational settings is more prevalent than in other environments (Fahie & Devine, 2014), with the exception of nursing (Berry, Gillespie, Fisher, & Gormley, 2016).

When I looked at the reasons why teachers felt bullied by their administrators, few patterns emerged that showed a single clear factor that led to teachers being targeted. Some felt it was because of their age and others felt that their own behaviors, such as being outspoken or questioning their principals, may have led to the mistreatment.

Others felt that their administrators were jealous of them, either personally or professionally. Some teachers perceived that it was simply about power and that their administrators needed to exert power over them for unknown reasons. Ultimately, most of them will never know why an administrator targeted them, but the perceptions they shared with me are their realities (see my piece in this issue of The Educational Forum).

Interestingly, when discussing my research with colleagues or at conferences, I’ve had some ask whether the teachers who felt bullied were “bad” teachers, as if that somehow excuses the administrators’ behaviors.

Others have asked how I know whether the teachers I spoke with were really bullied without talking to administrators too, as if the teachers’ perceptions of what happened to them were not valid without the administrators’ discussing their perspectives. If people feel bullied, it is real to them and they will react accordingly; it has consequences for their performance at work, their desire to stay in the profession, and their mental health.

Even if it is a misunderstanding or misperception, it should be dealt with so that both the teacher and administrator reach an agreement about how to positively work together and treat each other with professional courtesy.

Prior research found a connection between low autonomy and the likelihood of being bullied in the workplace (Baillien, De Cuyper, & De Witte, 2011; Bowling & Beere, 2006). Therefore, one potential approach to managing this crisis is to increase the amount of autonomy teachers have in the workplace; hopefully this could contribute to decreases in workplace bullying in schools. Another approach may be to change the culture of the workplace. Changing workplace cultures that condone bullying, rather than refusing to deal with the problem, is not easy; but everyone deserves to work in an environment that is not harmful.

There are no simple solutions to this problem. One of the major issues with addressing workplace bullying is that we can’t create policies to make people treat others decently—kindness can’t be legislated. But we need to hold adults in schools to the same standards we do students and create the expectation of treating people with respect.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the current issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through October 31, 2018.

But It’s Only a Theory! A Case for Great Science Teaching in Elementary School

Today’s blogger is Lauren Madden, an Associate Professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at The College of New Jersey, whose recently published article Teaching Science Is a Sacred Art” appears in the special issue of The Educational Forum on educator activism in politically polarized times. In that article, she argues for enhancing elementary science and offers tools to help teachers in this process.

So often, when the public or political sphere engages in debate about scientific ideas, “it’s only a theory!” becomes a popular refrain from those denying the existence of evolution, the pattern of climate change, or the efficacy of vaccines.

Once the term theory is mentioned, somehow an enormous body of visual, mathematical, and practical evidence gets equated to a guess as to which Kardashian sibling might be pregnant.

As a result, the public begins to question the expertise of actual scientific experts, and science becomes politicized.

Well, so what is a theory? In science, a theory “is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing” (Ghose, 2013). Some theories that are not [yet] controversial include cell theory, or the idea that all living things are made of cells, and the theory of heliocentrism, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun. These are not simply guesses—they are critical ideas that explain the way in which our world works. Knowing what theories are, along with other aspects of the nature of science, is essential for unpacking political debates about science and necessary for building a scientifically literate citizenry. And this process must start with the youngest students at the elementary years.

Then where do we start? In a recent essay in a special issue of The Education Forum dedicated to educational activism, I outlined a broader argument for enhancing elementary science teaching and offered tools to aid teachers in this process (Madden, 2018). One such tool is Lederman’s (2014) guest editorial in Science and Children, which provides straightforward suggestions for elementary teachers to help their students better understand what science is (and isn’t).

Teachers do not need to be experts on everything, but they do need to know what makes science science and how to help students learn to be good consumers of scientific information.

For teachers looking for tools specific to science topics that have become controversial, KDP offers some excellent ideas. For example, the UNESCO guidelines for teaching about climate change can be found at KDP’s climate education resource center.

Teachers are sometimes seen as change agents, but at a simpler level than that, teachers are knowledge agents. Elementary teachers hold the key to helping future generations understand the scientific process and navigate a highly politicized world. And perhaps in the future, we can look forward to eye rolls at the misuse of terms like “theory.”

What strategies do you use to help students unpack politicized nonscientific information?

Leave your ideas in the comments, and let’s work together to build a scientifically knowledgeable populace.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through September 30, 2018.

 

References

Ghouse, T. (2013). “Just a theory”: 7 misused science words. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/just-a-theory-7-misused-science-words

Lederman, N. (2014). Nature of science and its fundamental importance to the vision of the Next Generation Science Standards. Science and Children, 52(1), 8–10. doi:10.2505/4/sc14_052_01_8

Madden, L. (2018) Teaching science is a sacred act. The Educational Forum, 82(3), 303–308, doi:10.1080/00131725.2018.1458360

Fighting back from the Global South: Education reform, teacher’s rights, and social media resistance in Mexico

Today’s blogger is David Ramírez Plascencia, a professor and researcher at the University of Guadalajara–SUV, whose recently published article “Education Reform, Teacher Resistance, and Social Media Activism in Mexico, 2013–2016” appears in the special issue of The Educational Forum on educator activism in politically polarized times. In that article, he relates how Mexican teachers use information technologies to engage in the fight against new regulations that affect their labor rights.

In recent decades, education systems in developed and poor countries have been impacted by neoliberalism tendencies that emphasis cost-benefit factors to the detriment of social access and equity. Public education in Mexico has not been an exception. In 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered the establishment of an educational reform. Teachers unions claimed the reform’s lack of legitimacy because they were never consulted; and since 2013, there have been several offline and online protests.

In general terms, most of the dissatisfaction concerning this reform centers on the fact that it tends to blame teachers for Mexico’s low-quality levels of education and standing among countries internationally. In addition, the amendment fails to offer appropriate instruments to improve education quality and applies a standard evaluation system that puts teachers under the microscope without consideration of important economic, administrative, infrastructural, and cultural differences among local education systems.

In this work, I focus not only on describing social media activism in education, both pro- and anti-reform, but I also consider how these virtual spaces have strengthened as an alternative media for teachers to fight back against governmental policies.

Meme example. An indigenous lady with a kerchief and the phrase in Spanish “We all are Oaxaca.” This slogan supports teachers’ actions in that state. This visual element is used frequently online to protest Mexico’s education reform.

My article stands mainly on two concepts. The first is “digital discourse,” which encompasses all sequences of interconnected ideas that span across digital media—audio, video, or even “meme” (see illustration). All these media consolidate to create dissidence with which to combat government actions. In other words, they are “weapons of the weak,” which is the second concept, referring to a particular form of resistance in which the oppressed use alternative and hidden strategies, aside from military hostility, to confront authority (J. C. Scott, 1987). What is remarkable in this context is how Mexican teachers use a dissident strategy of diverse multimedia elements as weapons against the educational reform.

In the end, the purpose of my contribution to this issue of The Educational Forum is to emphasize how cases like the teachers unions’ use of social media to support protests in Mexico provide substantial examples that might be replicated. This kind of media encourages movements and communities to have a voice to advocate for their demands, in spite of the government-controlled traditional media like the press or television. However, what is important to recall is that in order to improve education in Mexico, it is important to promote social assets like equality and justice, not only inside the government, and to modernize teachers’ unions as well, to open elections to a clear and democratic process, and to set strong transparent policies regarding usage of members’ dues. We must remember that providing quality education is a challenging task that can be addressed only with the collaborative efforts of all.

I hope you enjoy reading about this issue!

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share an essay from the special issue of The Educational Forum with the education community. Access the article at Taylor and Francis Online, free through July 31, 2018.