(Source: Hansen, Exploring the Moral Art of Teaching)
The philosopher, Richard Rorty, draws a distinction between MORAL AND EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE. Rorty writes that MORAL PRIVILEGE is the right of every person to speak about and talk about his or her own life and outlook. The privilege comes along with being a person. Moral privilege, according to Rorty does not mean EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE—I should be respected as a person, but my claims are not automatically worthy of respect. Those claims must be talked about, examined, or tested, to be considered in a public way.
The moral/epistemic privilege distinction defined by Rorty is continually confused by media outlets and political operatives. The talking heads of our major news media outlets, along with local and national political representatives, assume EPISTEMIC PRIVILEGE when they are really exercising their MORAL right to speak about their own outlook on life. Not only do these commentators assume EPISTEMIC privilege, but they generously share the privilege with men and women on the street, consultants, former business and government officials, or whoever else has ready access to a studio.
Rarely will national or local media outlets critically examine the explanations of the “experts” tye invite on air. Instead, the public receives a steady diet of MORAL PRIVILEGE — how one individual is making sense out of a dramatic turn of events.
This phenomenon is particularly disturbing for practitioners in a field that is being analyzed by a media spokesman or governmental representative. Practitioners in whatever field has risen to the top of the media food chain are subjected to descriptions and explanations for their reality that bears little resemblance to what they experience on a daily basis. What is even more disturbing to practitioners is the solutions offered by an “expert” for the real or imagined problems in their field. These off the cuff “solutions” reflect little or no understanding of the complexities of the jobs they perform each day.
In the field of education, for example, media spokesman and politicians are pretty much in agreement that schools are miserable failures. The failings of our public schools is blamed on three primary causes: incompetent teachers; low academic standards; calcified school bureaucracies. What follows, then, from media pundits and political operatives are their moral solutions: eliminate tenure; raise academic standards; incentivize privatization. In practice these moral solutions have resulted in decades of policies attempting to quantify teacher performance (“valued-added teacher performance evaluations”), hold schools accountable for student performance (“no child left behind”); and allocating public monies for a variety of private school models (“charter schools”). Although there is a wealth of research critically examining the claims of school failure and their solutions, these sources of information have been largely ignored, and at times,even vilified as apologies for a broken system.
If the problems of education in America were examined critically or in an EPISTEMIC WAY, other issues would have to be placed on the table. To name a few: lack of resources; the growing diversity of our student population; the disparities in social capital offered to children; the general disrepair of school facilities; the wage structure for teachers; the changing face of the America family; the role technology is assuming in and out of schools; the changing nature of occupations. There are many more “trends” in our country which are having a deep impact on our ability to educate young people. These complex social, political, cultural and economic problems surrounding the schoolhouse doors of our country are rarely, if ever examined, by media outlets. Instead the moral right of media representatives and politicians to speak out on the problems of schooling will claim privilege over epistemic responses to purposeful strategies for improving the educational experiences of young people in our nation.
In the 1970’s a group of educators developed the “effective schools” model. The model identified six characteristics of schools that correlated with instructional programs that were improving or declining. One of the characteristics listed was “frequent monitoring of student progress,” or, in the vocabularies of that day: “what gets measured, gets done.”
At that time, the effective schools model interpreted the “monitoring of student progress,” as teaching models that employed a variety of feedback tools to assess student understanding. In the nineties, however, the “monitoring of student progress” morphed into “what gets tested, gets done.” The transformation of the feedback function from formative assessment to summative assessment was in direct response to business models claiming that private sector methods of continuous improvement and total quality management could be adapted to educational settings. Among those private sector tools, the use of data to drive quality services and products, redefined the “frequent monitoring of student progress,” into “data driven instructional programs.”
In today’s schools, entire office suites are populated by all manner of data management specialists, who, turn out mountains of data on every conceivable component of a school’s educational program. You cannot attend a conference of professional administrators without the bulk of the program being devoted to gathering data, recording data, tracking data, and analyzing data. The remaining program options offer administrators a variety of managerial tools—programs, templates, plans—to implement all the data flowing into main offices.
Putting aside the reality that in most central and main offices, most administrators neither have the time nor expertise to make sense out of all the data pouring in their in-boxes. Even if administrators had that time and the academic background to make sense of the data in their in-boxes, rarely, if ever, are administrators asking fundamental questions about what that data is measuring and the processes that generate the data.
What are we measuring?
The assumption made by school administrators and the public is that a number or set of numbers published in district handbooks, school report cards, or various media outlets, reflects the achievement of the educational goals written into school mission statements or achieves a national standard published by professional organizations.
A common educational goal written into mission statements and state standards, for example, is critical thinking. Among the numerous qualities embodied in this educational goal is the ability to “evaluate evidence, “to “reason from evidence,” and to “apply substantive concepts to solve open-ended problems.” Although most educators would shake their head in agreement with these qualities, few in the same community would agree on how these qualities are defined across subject matter fields, or, more importantly, the different meanings these qualities assume in the occupational world. The lack of agreed upon indicators of complex student learning—critical thinking—renders meaningless all the numbers buried in central office data sources.
The inability to agree upon definitions of what we are measuring in classrooms becomes more muddled when we examine the various methods we employ to gather data:
Method #1: Standardized Tests
Although standardized tests are inexpensive, convenient, and perceived as valid indicators of student learning, researchers have found moderate correlation between test scores and complex educational goals.
Method #2: Classroom Observations
Although detailed descriptions of classroom lessons would appear to be an accurate assessment of a classroom teaching model, researchers have been unable to determine what particular teaching techniques correlate with the educational goals listed in school mission statements. Added to the problem of cause and effect, researchers have found that what administrators observe in classrooms says more about an administrator’s favored teaching model and very little about the effectiveness of the pedagogy they are observing.
Method #3: Teacher Surveys
Although self-assessment of job performance—reflective thinking—is considered a worthy professional goal, researchers have found a slippage between teacher’s exposed ideas about teaching and learning and how they actually teach in classrooms.
Method #4: Testimonies
Although testimonies from teachers regarding the helpfulness of a particular policy or program maybe an effective public relations technique, researchers have found large gaps between changes teachers state they have made as a result of exposure to a new teaching model and what they are actually doing in classrooms.
Method #5: Valued Added Scores
Although the development of mathematical algorithms that profess to isolate an individual’s teacher’s contribution to student learning may appear to place a number on teacher effectiveness, researchers have found that VAM results are unstable over time, subject to bias and imprecision, and rely solely on results from standardized tests that were not designed for that purpose.
The problem with approximations
I could continue to list the managerial tools that school administrators are employing to measure student learning, to judge teacher performance, or to rank school quality. As the list above already explains, at best these measures of school performance are weak approximations of relationships between organizational and instructional configurations and student performance. At their worse, main offices design organizational structures and instructional regimes that will generate a particular number that the public believes measures educational quality—what gets measured gets done.
What then does it mean when a school is doing well?
Given the difficulties with finding a number that would accurately quantify the approximate relationships between an instructional regime and student learning, what, then, is a good school. The answer to that question will not be found in the search for another number, or algorithm, or survey, or tests. It will be found in how school administrators answer the questions posed below by Elliot Eisner.
I know exactly what school administrators are saying at this point: “Yes, these are certainly mission driven questions, but, how would I quantify the answers, and, realistically, how would I gather the data on these questions. Within the margins of institutional schooling, school administrators are correct in saying they lack the managerial tools to quantify or gather data on the answers to any of these questions.
Becoming an Educational Connoisseur
Although these questions are unanswerable using established managerial accountability tools, they are answerable administrators assume and develop the role of educational connoisseur. I will elaborate on this role in coming blog posts. Suffice it to say now, that educational connoisseurs develop a fine sense for the subtler forms of classroom instruction. An educational connoisseur, for example, would be able to detect patterns of teaching where students are able to “formulate their own purposes,” or “work in depth in domains related to their aptitudes,” or “participate in the assessment of their own work.”
As already noted, no institutional accountability tool exists to document these subtler forms of classroom instruction. What does exist, however, are venues and discourses where these forms of classroom instruction can be observed and discussed. While these observations and discussions may be unable to be placed in an employee’s file, they will, over time, define a school’s instructional worldview, and more importantly, will become the normative model of teaching.
WHAT IS A GOOD SCHOOL?
(Eisner, E. W. (January 01, 2001). FEATURES – What Does It Mean to Say a School Is Doing Well?. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 5, 367)
1. WHAT KINDS OF PROBLEMS AND ACTIVITIES DO STUDENTS ENGAGE IN?
2. WHAT IS THE INTELLECTUAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE IDEAS THAT THEY ENCOUNTER?
3. ARE STUDENTS INTRODUCED TO MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES?
4. WHAT CONNECTIONS ARE STUDENTS HELPED TO MAKE BETWEEN WHAT THEY STUDY IN CLASS AND THE WORLD OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL?
5. WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DO YOUNGSTERS HAVE TO BECOME LITERATE IN THE USE OF DIFFERENT REPRESENTATIONS FORMS (i.e. various symbol systems which give humans meaning)?
6. WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DO STUDENTS HAVE TO FORMULATE THEIR OWN PURPOSES AND TO DESIGN WAYS TO ACHIEVE THEM? 7. WHAT OPPORTUNITIES TO STUDENTS HAVE TO WORK COOPERATIVELY TO ADDRESS PROBLEMS THAT THEY BELIEVE TO BE IMPORTANT?
8. DO STUDENTS HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO SERVE THE COMMUNITY IN WAYS THAT ARE NOT LIMITED TO THEIR OWN PERSONAL INTERESTS?
9. TO WHAT EXTENT ARE STUDENTS GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO WORK IN DEPTH IN DOMAINS THAT RELATED TO THEIR APTITUDES?
10. DO STUDENTS PARTICIPATE IN THE ASSESSMENT OF THEIR OWN WORK?
11. DO WHAT EXTENT ARE STUDENTS GENUINELY ENGAGED IN WHAT THEY DO IN SCHOOL?
Several recent research studies have described a disturbing trend occurring in suburban school districts throughout the country. The trend involves the redrawing of attendance areas by school boards in order to maintain the financial and demographic status of certain schools in the district. The goal of these these redrawn attendance boundaries is to funnel students from upper socio-economic communities into one or two schools located in those same communities. The remaining schools is the district are responsible for educating students from lower socio-economic communities. The segregation of the district into certain schools serving predominantly white students and certain schools serving predominantly students of color is made worse when these same boards generously fund the programs in the favored schools, while at the same time, denying to the remaining schools in the district the funds for maintaining the same academic and extra-curricular programming. HOARDING is the term researchers use to describe this governance practice.
Rather than go into the technicalities of how HOARDING works, I thought I would provide an extensive quote by T. M. M. Cotton, which in my mind, best describes the concept of HOARDING. The quote is from her recent book titled Thick and other Essays. Dr. Cotton is a noted African-American sociologist who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University
I grew up knowing those whites. They mostly go to private school. When they don’t they make the public high school function like a private school. We call this opportunity hoarding, and it looks something like this: white parents use their economic privilege to purchase homes in communities that have benefited from generations of wealth privilege. When white families purchase in these neighborhoods they are also purchasing access to the local public school. That is because we assign students in the U.S. public school system, for the most part, by their home zip codes. Once enrolled in these schools by virtue of having the income to live in communities that are built on the stabilizing forces of generational wealth, these families generally prize “diversity.”
They are good people. They want all the children in their child’s school to thrive, but they want their child to thrive just a bit more than most. To help their child thrive, these parents use their proximity to local and civic leaders to lobby their personal preferences as politically expedient positions. They gently but insistently marshal resources like teacher time, curriculum access, and extracurricular participation for their children. They donate. They volunteer. They call. They email. They make this already well-funded public-school work like a private school for their child: individualized attention, personalized resources, and cumulative advantage. The opportunities these parents hoard become zero-sum for parents who cannot to the same. The families that can horde do, and the neighborhoods they live benefit.
Surveys of school administrators consistently place a high priority on the role of instructional leadership. On these same surveys, however, school administrators also admit that their managerial duties leave them with little time to perform the functions of instructional leadership: supervision of teachers, curriculum development, staff development, staffing, testing and evaluation, school improvement, technology, cultural diversity, exceptionality. This admission by school administrators is confirmed by daily desk calendars crowded with managing budgets, supervising building projects, completing governmental compliance forms, writing a community newsletter, ordering school supplies, adjusting bus schedules, conferring with attorneys on a new board policy, reviewing a grievance with a union representative, and solving the managerial crisis of the day.
Included in these desk calendars are what I term managerial Bents. A managerial Bent is an activity or set of activities that school administrators possess a personal interest in or aptitude for. Some enjoy the knowledge and skills associated with various sporting programs. Some are interested in the details of budgets and finance. Some have a love of the arts. Some are attracted to processes for writing policies. There is no end to the number and variety of Bents school administrators bring into their offices each day (see the charts below).
Bents satisfy the three longings of school administrators. First, they serve as a diversion from becoming involved in the messy world of classroom supervision. Discussing the purchase of a new tractor is far more gratifying than working with a poorly performing teacher.
Second, they allow administrators the satisfaction of skillfully performing a task well. Balancing a budget is far more gratifying than working with team of teachers on low test scores.
Lastly, career advancement in building and central office hierarchies is based on past performance on managerial functions, and, in particular, a candidate’s experience with a Bent they have listed on their resume. All schools have an issue that established managerial tools have been unable to resolve. The problem, however, does align well with the knowledge and skills that may have developed in pursuit of a particular Bent. A perspective candidate will pick up on this issue when asked specific questions about how they became interested in the Bent, what they know about the Bent, and how would that Bent will resolve the particular problem that, so far, routine managerial tools has been unable to resolve.
Rarely, if ever, are their questions related to the Educational Bent, which at the beginning of the interview, the Superintendent as already proclaimed is world class.
The Erosion of Instructional Leadership
No doubt there exist in every school problematic issues that match the knowledge and skills of a particular Bent. Over time, however, the inclination to look at all administrative functions through the lens of a particular Bent will erode the role of instructional leadership. The erosion begins with resumes thick on developing a particular Bent and thin on a developing expertise in curriculum and instruction. Without a deep understanding of research driven teaching models and curriculum designs, school administrators lack the expertise required to educate, facilitate, and coach the theories and practices driving what the literature terms, ambitious teaching.
Further erosion occurs when main offices divert human and material resources from the classrooms to enhancing a personal Bent. The reassignment of resources to a particular interest of an administrator sends a subtle message to teachers that what they do classrooms is secondary to whatever Bent shows up in main office conference rooms.
What remains of the functions of instructional leadership completely pass away when building and district administrators disappear from teacher workplaces, only to reappear as fixtures in main and district offices, garages, board rooms, governmental offices, conference lodgings, and whatever spaces best house the pursuit of a particular Bent. Without the presence of building or district leadership, teachers see no urgency or commitment to learning and practicing new pedagogies.
Although the pursuit of Bents marginalizes the role of instructional leader, for the most part, they do no direct harm to an instructional program. There is one Bent, however, that is particularly toxic to any educational program. Administrators, whose sole goal is climbing up school administrative hierarchies, calculate which administrative functions will advance or will stall their administrative careers. As mentioned already, building and district offices tend to favor and reward administrators who demonstrate the competent performance of managerial functions. Climbers understand this managerial bias early on in their careers and skillfully navigate assigned administrative tasks in ways that allow them to devote their entire attention to efficiently executing favored managerial Bents.
The inattention to supervisory functions is rarely detected in main offices focused on the hard skills of management—budgeting, purchasing, inventorying, scheduling, negotiating, allocating, inspecting. Hard skills possess identifiable inputs that can be manipulated in ways that produce identifiable outputs. The soft skills of supervision—educating, facilitating, coaching—involve countless known and unknown human and organizational variables interacting in ways that produce unpredictable and often unexplainable outcomes.
Given the bias towards attending to managerial bents over educational functions, Climbers that reach leadership positions carry with them three behaviors that will marginalize any schools instructional program. First, whatever instructional initiative lands in a Climbers in-box, they will reduce the theories, concepts, and practices of the new curriculum design or teaching model to a managerial format—checklists, protocols, plans, projects—that will compromise the full understanding and application of new models of teaching and learning.
Secondly, Climbers will see in a new instructional initiative an opportunity to enhance their particular Bent. The goals, theories, and practices of a new instructional initiative will become the rationale for purchasing a new data processing program or constructing a media center, or employing an additional administrator, or developing a new managerial system.
Lastly, Climbers avoid the messiness and uncertainties of implementing a new instructional initiative by a policy of salutary neglect: program specifications will be loosely interpreted; program resources will be unevenly allocated; training will be sporadic and amateurish; program outcomes will go unreported or become muddled. Salutary neglect breeds a school culture of cynicism towards any form of organizational or instructional innovation.
The Public’s Bent on Bents
The pervasiveness and resilience of Bents in main offices is largely driven by a school communities’ attraction to the observable outcomes each Bent produces. The yearly open house event is always punctuated with the mention or tour of this year’s newest Bent-–a pool, a media center, a coach, an extracurricular activity, a source of revenue. There is no mention or tours of new approaches to teaching and learning. Not only are the outcomes of innovative instructional programs impossible to observe, but, the theories and practices supporting these programs involve terminologies and concepts that is well beyond the interest and educational backgrounds of open house attendees.
Bent Out of Shape
At this point in the blog, some readers may ask: “what is the big deal about administrators pursuing a particular interest of theirs, which maybe tangential to the instructional program, but, at the end of the day, enhance the schooling experience? The big deal lies with school organizations shaped around the pursuit of the goals and functions of a Bent rather that shaped around the educational mission of schooling.
Main offices that achieve the educational goals listed in their mission statements shape organizational structures and systems in ways that facilitate the learning, understanding, and practicing of new teaching models and curriculum designs. Main offices that pursue personal Bents shape organizational structures and systems in ways that value the forms over the substance of schooling.
A common lament amongst administrators sitting in district and building offices is the reluctance on the part of their teaching staff to adopt new instructional methodologies. While in future blogs I will discuss the human and institutional problems embedded within any announced change to organizational and instructional routines, there are five questions that are rarely asked in administrative offices, but, whose answers will determine the success or failure of new mandate, program, model of teaching, or organizational arrangement.
The questions listed in the chart below identifies the five critical elements of commitment: importance, clarity, purpose, understanding, and practicality. Each element assumes a position in what I term the house of cards of school reform initiatives—pulling one card out reform house collapses the entire structure. Teachers’ familiarity with a program matters little if they see little worth in the program. Teachers’ enthusiasm for a new teaching methodology matters little if they lack the appropriate background knowledge in the subject. Teachers’ frustration with a schoolwide problem matters little if the district lacks the resources to fully implement an agree upon solution to the problem.
ARE WE COMMITTED?
Do teachers believe that this is a worthwhile problem or strategy to pursue?
Are the adopted strategies composed of theories and practices that employ familiar vocabulary, concepts, and practices?
Do the adopted strategies align with and leverage our school’s instructional worldview?
Do teachers possess the prior background knowledge to understand and practice the new strategy?
Does the district/school possess the organizational resources—time, materials, space, and expertise—to train teachers and accommodate diverse instructional design features?
I know what practicing school administrators are saying at this point in the blog: “Based on this chart, there is no new program I could implement in my building.” For most schools in this nation, this honest response mirrors the physical, social, intellectual, and fiscal realities school administrators work with in the schools they lead. These realities also account for why most organizational and instructional innovations fail to significantly change how schools are organized and how teachers teach.
Before giving up on implementing a change initiative, let’s return to the chart above. The components listed in the chart above include all of the beliefs, values, aptitudes and resources necessary to fully implement a school change initiative. No school has all of these components in place when adopting a new program, mandate, teaching model, or organizational structure. At the same time, every school, possesses the ability and capacity to “work around or with” each element in ways that both address the spirit and reality of that element in action. What follows are four “work arounds” that mold the elements of implementation into the forms and functions of real-world schooling.
A caution to administrators reading the list below. No new program, or mandate, or instructional method should marginalize or abandon a change initiative that is already producing promised outcomes.
As already mentioned few schools possess the physical, social, intellectual, or fiscal elements for successfully implementing a school reform initiative. Most schools, however, have pieces of each element in place. These pieces are not robust enough to support a full-scale implementation of a reform proposal, but, may support a scaled down version of the proposed change initiative. A pilot program not only provides the opportunity to observe, analyze, and adjust the application of theories, ideas, and practices to the local circumstances of a school, but, overtime provide avenues for these theories, ideas, and practices to seep into established organizational and instructional routines.
There are two processes that are critical to the successful implementation of a school reform initiative: first, gathering the necessary resources; second, assembling those resources into operating systems. Schools often make the mistake of assembling systems before gathering adequate resources. The source of most school reform failures is rushing into the assembling of systems without adequate resources to support the moving parts of the system. If a main office finds itself checking off “no” on one or more of the components listed in the chart above, they then need to hit the pause button on the implementation process until they have shifted the “no” to a “yes.” To use the fine wine metaphor: “sell no program before its time.”
The two elements in the zone that are common stumbling blocks to the full implementation of a change initiative are “importance” and “teachability.” For a change initiative to gain traction in classrooms, teachers must view the initiative as worthwhile and must feel they possess adequate background knowledge to integrate new theories, concepts, and practices into daily teaching routines. To enlarge the zone of practicality in these two areas, main offices should design various learning venues that provide teachers with the opportunity to study, to observe, to discuss, and to practice new instructional models. The goal of these learning venues is developing a critical mass of teachers who believe in the importance and teachability of a new pedagogy. These learning venues should be divorced from the implementation process. They should be strictly designed to convince teachers of the worth and teachability of novel approaches to teaching and learning.
Whenever teachers take a leap of faith on a new instructional model they look for some guarantee that they will land safely. That safe landing spot is best occupied by a third party who has the temperament for holding teachers’ hands through a difficult personal experience of discarding comfortable instructional practices and adopting uncomfortable instructional practices.
The component not listed in the zone of practicality is the role school leaders play in program implementation. This omission exposes how most main offices view the implementation of a new change initiative: we announce it; you implement it. Assuming the role of passive observer of programs announced from auditorium stages fails to send the sense of urgency and commitment teachers need to feel when leaving darkened auditoriums. That sense of urgency and commitment can only be instilled when school leaders, particularly the Principal, becomes an active participant in the implementation process.