Monday, December 26, 2011

Chapter 23: The Instructional Run-Around

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Instructional Run-Around

“Here is my first premise,” a group of about 45 teachers we was told by seminar moderator Grace Chiu, Ph.D. at a workshop on Dec. 8, 2011.  I quote from the slide that was projected at this moment on the screen at the front under the heading “My Theory of Action”:

The achievement gap will be eliminated only when the quality of instruction in the classroom improves.

This group of NYC public school teachers, me among them, were there for a full-day briefing on the “instructional round”.  Most of us public school teachers have gotten used by now to the idea that there will be a seismic change in the method of teacher evaluation.  No longer will a supervisor be trusted to make evaluations based on observations of full lessons and then further trusted to work with teachers to improve instruction.  Trust, it seems, is subjective and we are in an era of educational objectivity or so we’re told.  Instead of such subjective exercises, which are perfectly appropriate for the very subjective interaction between teacher and student, we are to be subjected to the objective observation not of an educator but of a generic supervisor who will simply observe interactions in the classroom as though he were watching hub cabs being attached to a wheel.
Teachers are to be evaluated now according to objective, non-judgmental methods.  We’re now being fed the oxymoronic, if not the simply moronic idea that 10-minute low-inference, non-judgmental walk-through’s” – currently dubbed the “instructional round” – will be the basis for the new method of evaluating instruction.  I call it the instruction run-around.  Teachers, students, and parents have been getting the instructional run-around now for more than 15 years when it was decided that testing and choice, according to Diane Ravitch, one of the innovators of those times, would, if not eliminate the achievement gap, at least improve education.
Perhaps this concept of the generic supervisor has something to do with the fact that in the new, Bloomberg reform schools, supervisors often know nothing about the content and methodology of the discipline they are observing.  Gone are the days when an assistant principal was responsible for the quality of instruction in his or her field of expertise.  In spite of or (more likely) because of the explosion of administrative overhead in the Bloomberg reform schools, individual departments are too small to be overseen by assistant principals who rose through their own departmental ranks.  Now former science teachers are overseeing history and English teachers; former English teachers are overseeing science and phys. Ed. teachers.  And so forth.  Now it is those graduates of the supervisor leadership academies who seek to spot dents in hub caps, whether they’ve taught any of those hub caps or not.  Hence, perhaps, the “instructional round.”  Or run-around.
Since nothing can be gleaned from a random, ten-minute glance at a class in which the observer does nothing more than jot down “objective” observations of the talk and behavior that happens to be going on at that moment and with view or hearing, the instructional round has come into vogue as the answer to the problem of ill-equipped supervisors having to improve instruction in disciplines with which they have little or no experience.  This is a true “problem of practice”, as these non-judgmental judgments are euphemistically called.
Yes, these “objective” observations, furthermore, are said to be both  “non-judgmental” and “low-inference”.  In other words, the observer simply notes what he/she sees/hears without putting down what he/she thinks.  The observer looks for nothing but merely brings the information back to the teacher for the teacher to draw his/her own high-inference, judgmental conclusions about those particular details that the supervising observer happened to record.
If this sounds like gobbledygook, that’s because it is but no more so than the premise we were supposed to ingest at the start of this workshop on the instructional run-around.  (No wonder they gave us such good food for breakfast and lunch.)  If we just knew how to teach, we were told in so many words, the problems in education would disappear.  The absurdity of such an assertion left most of us scratching our heads for the rest of the day.
Nowhere, for example, was it made clear just which achievement gap was in question.  Was it one or all of the gender achievement gaps, the age gaps, the various ethnic and racial gaps, the intelligence gap, the motivational gap, the socio-economic gap, the single-parent household gap, the geographical gap – how many have I left out?  Whichever, the solution was better instruction.  If we just taught better, girls wouldn’t excel in language skills at earlier ages; boys wouldn’t excel in math in later adolescence; Asians would fail at the same rate as other ethnic groups; there would be no difference in achievement from the Bronx to Scarsdale to Tulsa and Toledo.
We kept scratching our heads as Dr. Chiu’s second premise again under the heading “My Theory of Action” appeared on the screen:

The quality of instruction will improve at scale when school leaders know what powerful instruction looks like.

At least we were given some hope with this premise – the hope of seeing at some point during the workshop what “powerful instruction looks like”.  Maybe we were going to see some teachers better than us at work since under our tutelage that intractable achievement gap has persisted.  Maybe we were going to actually witness the achievement gap dissolving before our very eyes!  This, however, strangely enough, was not to be.  Instead of watching such performances, we were shown a series of flawed lessons with instructions to make low-inference, non-judgmental observations about what we saw as though we were doing the instructional run-around ourselves.  We then discussed the objective notes we made about these lessons, pointing out neither the flaws nor the successes but rather pointing out the inevitable inferences many of us were quite naturally making about both.
Finally near the end of the day, a willing participant asked the big question: rather than spend our time observing errors non-judgmentally, could we see some exemplars of this elusive “powerful instruction”?  This question was on the tips of most of our tongues and I was happy that a young woman finally voiced it.  The answer to this kept us scratching our heads.  There were, in fact, no such things.  Exemplars of the sort of powerful teaching we’re aiming for and which we need to see, according to premise #2, don’t exist and cannot exist, given among other obstacles the fact that the presence of a camera in a classroom by definition creates an artificial situation.
We were left, then with making the most of the less-than-powerful examples on hand through various west coast institutions, though we were on the urban east coast.  But imagine if we followed this model in our classrooms.  Imagine that we showed our students only what they shouldn’t do rather than what they should do.  Even an instructional run-around might yield a judgment in such a case.
Perhaps this was the reason that the first “norm” that was established by the group that day was that all teachers “have good intentions”.  No one objected to this in spite of the obviously spurious nature of the assertion because, I thought, only a false norm could support these false premises.
Finally we were presented with a third and final premise for the day, again under the banner “My Theory of Action”:

The quality of our leadership decisions depends on developing a deep and shared understanding of quality instruction.  It is a matter of expertiseThe better we see, the better we are able to lead.  [Dr. Chiu’s emphasis; bold type evidently a quote from Fink and Markholt, 2011.]

At least there is an admission in this final premise that there is a need for expertise, though it isn’t clear where that expertise ought to lie – in our subject area and methodology as logic might dictate; or in our awareness that our deficiencies are responsible the “achievement gap”; in the recognition that there is no way at present to know what “powerful instruction looks like”; or in our ability to share with our colleagues what we can’t know.
What’s laughable, of course, if it weren’t tragic for so many of the kids stuck in Bloomberg’s reform schools, was the transparency of this exercise.  It was a direct attack on teachers, an overt and not-very-subtle (though disguised in educrat-ese as well as doubletalk, euphemisms, New Speak, and just plain nonsense) attempt to blame teachers for the problems in education, an attempt to deflect attention from the true causes of the various achievement gaps, which are perfectly obvious to anyone who takes the time to look – differences in social status, cultural values, family life, inherent gender differences, individual intelligence and motivation to name a few.  These problems are much larger than education and much larger than classroom instruction no matter how feeble or powerful.
Of course it is a good idea to improve instruction and to make education more relevant and better suited for all students in all situations.  It is disingenuous, however, to use this obvious fact as a smoke screen for every problem in education from low graduation rates to the inability to improve student performance on standardized tests.  The only thing more misleading than a half-truth is a one-percent truth.  Thus, the instructional run-around.

             NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

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