Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Atul Gawande's recent article is relevant to education, too!

There is an excellent Atul Gawande piece in the New Yorker this week about improving medical practice.  There are two main ideas in the article, both of which apply beautifully to education:

1) consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas is more important than fancy new technology
2) to achieve consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas we should use one-to-one coaching--in Gawande's words, "people talking to people."

Every teacher and education wonk in the country should read Gawande's whole article, which is, like his other work (checklists! standardizing good practices!), clever, important, and very readable.

Consistent execution of simple, straightforward ideas
A lot of us teachers--me included--worry a lot about what the right curriculum is, think a lot about the big picture of lesson planning, argue about, say, whether kids should be assigned reading or should pick it themselves, and spend hours and hours on new technologies.  These are important things to worry about, and we should certainly be figuring out what matters for our students' learning, but what is probably much more important is our consistent and effective execution of what we already know matters.

Gawande's article begins by contrasting the immediate adoption of anaesthetic use during surgery with the many decades it took for antiseptic measures to take hold, even though the antiseptic measures were known to be hugely important and could have saved many, many lives.  One reason for the quicker adoption of anaesthetics is obvious: anaesthetic, unlike antiseptic measures, has very immediate and direct benefits that are obvious during surgery.  Surgery is painful and difficult without anaesthetics, and it's pretty easy with them.  Easy, but not necessarily effective.  To be effective, the surgery has to be antiseptic--the doctor has to wash his hands and instruments, has to wear freshly cleaned/sterilized clothing and mask, and has to soak up the blood and fluids with fresh gauze instead of the sea sponges that doctors used to use over and over, never sterilizing them. According to Gawande, these antispetic measures didn't catch on not only because they didn't have immediately observable benefits in combatting a visible and obvious problem, but because while anaesthesia made life a lot easier for doctors (imagine cutting into someone who's screaming and writhing in pain), the antiseptic measures actually made life considerably harder for them (Gawande describes early aseptic surgery as requiring surgeons "to work in a shower of carbolic acid").

This distinction between what is easy for the patient and what is easy for the doctor has its analogy in education.  Often, what is good for the student is not particularly easy for the teacher.  And often what comes naturally to the teacher is not what is best for the student.  It's hard for teachers to see this, and we need people to help us.  And even when we know what's important, we don't always manage to do it.  Again, we need people to help us. But what we need is not what we get.

One-to-one Coaching, not evaluation
If we know what teachers must do, but they (we!) don't always do it, how can we help them (us!) improve? In education, too often the only feedback teachers get is through an annual evaluation by a supervisor. These evaluations can be helpful, but we need much, much more.

I have a really great department chair.  She is thoughtful, hard-working, funny and wise, and she has gotten better and better at her job over the past eight years. I always learn a lot from my biannual evaluation.  But it is not nearly enough. I was evaluated this year, and Mary came to my class three times for a total of about an hour.  An hour every two years is just not enough observation. It's great, but it's not enough.

The other problem with our current scheme is that it combines coaching with evaluation. Having any observer in the room will probably change your teaching in some way, but having an observer who is going to be writing a report that goes into your personnel file and could theoretically be used to fire you is definitely going to change the teacher's practice--and the conversations afterward cannot possibly be as free and open with a supervisor as they might be with someone who was only a personal coach. The obvious answer is to have peer coaches who would not judge or evaluate, but only help.  This is essentially what Gawande describes in his article, and it is the obvious way forward for improving teaching--a much more humane and effective alternative to the methods pushed by ed reformers.

This is what teachers' unions should be working on. Instead of abolishing teacher tenure, peer coaching. Instead of a revamped evaluation system, peer coaching. Instead of VAM evaluations, peer coaching. Unions should be leading the way in designing non-punitive teacher-improvement programs.   Of course this is happening to some extent (for instance, one of the wise consultants Leafstrewn has had helping with its work on reading in the content areas is, I think, an expert in peer coaching), but we need much, much more of it. 

How it would work
A peer coaching system would take time. I've done some observing of other teachers, and I've been observed by my colleagues, and the problems have always been twofold: (1) the observations aren't targeted enough; (2) the observations and conversations haven't continued long enough for a comfortable working relationship to develop and for problems to surface, be discussed, and be worked out. Gawande's article addresses both of these problems.

Gawande describes programs that are aimed at specific issues: teaching cholera patientsto treat   themselves with a simple rehydrating solution (a treatment that is actually more effective than the intravenous rehydration that, though the high-tech standard, is impracticable in many places); and teaching obstetric nurses to make sure to execute the couple of dozen practices most important for the health of the mother and child (washing hands, encouraging skin-to-skin contact, monitoring the baby's temperature, etc.), practices that if followed could save millions of lives each year. These programs are staffed by coaches who, though trained, are neither powerful nor very experienced, and the coaching is not compulsory (the nurses don't have to take the advice if they don't think it's helpful). The key is the personal relationship and trust that develops over time.

Gawande describes a young nurse who observes and coaches an older, more experienced obstetric nurse.  After many visits, the older nurse started to change her practice. Gawande asks the older nurse why she listened to the younger, less experienced one; in the beginning, the older nurse said, she didn't.

"The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing." From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.
    "Why," I asked.
     All the nurse ccould think to say was "She was nice."
     "She was nice?"
     "She smiled a lot."
     "That was it?"
     "It wasn't like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes," she said. "It was like talking to a friend."

We need to observe each other more, and not just for one or two times, but repeatedly over long periods, and like these nurses, we need to focus on the basics. I don't think teaching is quite as amenable as doctoring to standardization (for schools to use The Cheesecake Factory as a model, as Gawande wants hospitals to do, would be a mistake), but some questions are relevant for all English classrooms: what is the ratio of teacher talk to student talk? how much are the students reading? who is paying attention and who is not? where are the questions and ideas coming from? are our instructions clear? how much time are we spending/wasting on transitions and instructions? 

Teachers can certainly work on these basic issues on their own, and some of these questions are amenable to checklists or in-class assessments, but the same is true of the fundamentals of obstetric nursing. As Gawande's article shows, and as I know from long experience, just because we know what we should do doesn't mean that we actually do it. To learn to break our bad habits we need lots of sympathetic, non-judgmental help--and not just in the office around lesson-planning, but in the classroom, around execution. So when the current wave off top-down, authoritarian ed reform finally subsides, I hope we will see a boom in peer-to-peer coaching.

In any case, I recommend the whole Gawande article.

Why do we need MOOCs when we have books?

Over the past few years I've gotten interested in economics, and this summer I decided to finally go through an introductory econ textbook.  It's a good way to learn.  I go at my own pace, I can re-read the parts I don't understand, and I can do, or not do, as many of the problems at the end of each chapter as I think I will be helpful. Would taking an actual econ 101 course be better?  Maybe, but maybe not.

Learning economics in this way makes me wonder, of course, about school. I think about the high school courses I teach, and I think, as usual, that we should try to have a lot of our students' learning be done through independent reading. But I also think about online college courses--MOOCs, to use the appropriately silly acronym. And I wonder--what's the point of a MOOC, when we already have books?

Of course, you might ask, what's the point of lectures, when we already have books.  Lectures, as the name implies, started before there were printed books: the lecturer read his book/lecture notes, and the students copied down what he said, so that they could read and re-read it later, at their own pace.  After Gutenberg, lectures weren't as important, but they continued for various reasons (people like watching people, there could be personal contact with the lecturer at other times, etc.). But as many college students have noticed, lectures are not a very good way of teaching.  I skipped at least half of my lectures in college, and I did okay; I had the textbook.

So why MOOCs? And why now? 
If watching someone like Michael Sandel is so great, we could already, before the internet, watch him on videotape or film.  Why didn't community colleges in the seventies and eighties just show films, instead of hiring actual professors? Why are MOOCs happening now?

To answer that question would require going into a whole array of cultural shifts, but it's worth pointing out that places like Harvard and MIT are not, I don't think, going to outsource their teaching to virtual professors anytime soon. MOOCs, like so many other "disruptive" educational innovations, are a matter of providing a cheaper and shoddier product to the middle and lower classes, while providing ever more artisanal craftsmanship to the upper classes.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Moving to a free market in education could lead to much higher costs

In between dealing with personal business this summer I've been teaching myself economics and reading a bit in the socioloy of education, and a news story today connects to both.

Health Care and Education: competition in excluding people
There are a lot of similarities between health care and education. One significant similarity is that some people are much more difficult and expensive than other people to educate or keep healthy, so there are huge economic incentives to simply not serve those people. In health care, what this means is that private health insurance companies have often been essentially competing with each other, not to get customers by providing better service, but to not get the customers who are unhealthy--exactly those who most need it.  The same is true in education.  The children who most need a high quality school are exactly the children that schools in a market system would be doing their damnedest to exclude, and that many if not most charter schools are excluding (Bruce Baker, at schoolfinance101, just wrote a piece about this phenomenon in some of Newark's most highly touted charters, which are dropping young black men from their grade cohorts at amazing rates--up to 75%). 

The economic truth of this dynamic--that there are huge costs and inefficiencies in a market system that allows competition in excluding people from your services--can be seen really clearly in health care. The dynamic is clearer in health care than in education, because in health care the US has for many years had a "market-based" health insurance system.  As compared to other developed countries, all of which have some form of government-imposed universal health care, the US spends close to twice as much on health care, with worse results. This is an amazing argument for socialized medicine, and by extension for socialized education. 

Universal = Inexpensive
The same dynamic can be seen in the remarkable news, reported in today's Times, that health insurance premiums in New York are, now that Obamacare has required everyone to get health insurance, going down by at least 50%.  New York State used to have a system in which health insurers were required to take anyone, but not everyone was required to buy health insurance.  This is in some ways analogous to a school "choice" system in which not everyone has to go to the local public schools.  What happens is that the most able students get siphoned away by charters, private schools and other districts, and the core local schools are left with the most expensive and difficult cases.

The Ed Reformers want to move from a more efficient, more socialized system, to a less efficient, more expensive "market" system.  What will happen is the reverse of what is happening under Obamacare.  We will go from having, like every other developed country in the world, an education system that offers reasonable and safe schooling for all, to having an education system that is as dysfunctional as the US health care system has been: not only completely excluding 15% of the population, but costing more for everybody else.

Horace Mann knew this a long time ago Here's what the wise Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne's brother-in-law, said over a hundred and fifty years ago, when he was the Secretary of the Board of Education in the great state of which Leafstrewn is just a muddy puddle: 

"Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor... Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men,--the balance wheel of the social machinery."

Horace Mann's words raise a number of questions about the purposes and effects of education. I'll write about these questions a bit over the next few weeks.

Monday, July 1, 2013

What might the new NAEP scores mean?

The "Nation's Report Card," otherwise known as the report on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP (I always thought it rhymed with "Jeep," but it may rhyme with "tape"), has just come out.  The NAEP is widely considered a good test, and since the NAEP is not high-stakes, there is little reason for schools or students to cheat, or for schools to attempt to teach directly to it.  I remember Mike Dukakis telling an auditorium full of Leafstrewn students that NCLB was unnecessary because we already had the NAEP.

The NAEP is a good test, and because it is such a good test, and because reading and math abilities change so extraordinarily slowly, there aren't the kinds of variations in the NAEP that there are in, say, the MCAS.  MCAS scores have gone up dramatically over the past fifteen years, while the NAEP scores are always more or less the same.  Therefore, the release of the NAEP scores is a little like a Rorschach  test.

Optimists who favor ed reform will point to little fluctuations and say, See, NAEP scores have risen over the past four years!  People who are against ed reform will say, Look, 17-year olds reading scores are below where they were in the nineties! Nerds will rightly point out that the demographics of the students taking the test have changed significantly over the years, and that breaking out subgroups can be interesting (for instance, black kids' scores have improved much more than those of white kids).  Contrarians might say, the scores haven't changed much, so school doesn't matter.

I'd like to point out an interesting feature of the new report and suggest a possible explanation for it.  I'm not sure I'm right, but my explanation goes along with some of what I have said in the past about the difference between short-term thinking and long-term thinking.

NAEP scores rise for 9 and 13 year-olds
The new "Nation's Report Card" has a very clear lede, and here it is:

Both 9- and 13-year-olds scored higher in reading and mathematics in 2012 than students their age in the early 1970s . Scores were 8 to 25 points higher in 2012 than in the first assessment year. Seventeen-year-olds, however, did not show similar gains. Average reading and mathematics scores in 2012 for 17-year-olds were not significantly different from scores in the first assessment year.

In other words, the most significant result coming out of this year's data is that over the past forty years, scores of nine and thirteen-year olds have gone up somewhat, but scores of seventeen-year olds are not significantly different than they were forty years ago.

One way to interpret this is to say, Well, we sure are doing a better job in the elementary schools; but high schools just aren't getting better.

This view--that elementary schools are improving but high schools are not--doesn't seem totally unreasonable, but there's an interesting problem with it that I have not seen anyone point out. The problem is that this result doesn't fit well with the standard theories of education, which would expect increased achievement by K-8 students to lead directly to increased achievement by 17-year-olds. The standard theories of education--that is, the views of people like Tim Shanahan, the ed reformers, and so on--see learning as essentially a step-by-step process of learning skills. According to this view, it is important to teach reading early, and to focus heavily on skills.  But if you have this view, then the higher scores of 9 and 13 year-olds would predict higher scores of 17-year-olds, and so the lower scores of 17-year-olds would seem to imply, not only that high schools were not getting any better, but that they were actually getting significantly worse.  For you would expect that if you took two 13-year-olds and put them through the same secondary education, the one who was a better reader as a 13-year-old would end up a better reader at 17. For a much better reader at 13 to end up the same as his less-skilled peer at 17 would seem to imply a much worse secondary education.

Have US high schools gotten worse over the past 40 years?
The NAEP scores are, if you follow the standard model, evidence that high schools have actually gotten worse over the past forty years.  This is certainly possible. It's also possible that there are demographic issues involved (changes in dropout rates could affect the scores of 17-year-olds).  But there is another possibility: it could be that the short-term thinking that has been increasingly prevalent over the past few decades has actually led to short-term success, but to a kind of short-term success that has not supported long-term improvement.

I can see two ways this could work.  One is a direct cost: the short-term teaching could be actively bad in the long run.  For instance, it might turn kids off to learning or reading.  If you drill kids for tests, the drilling might improve their scores but make them less creative thinkers.  Two, there might be an opportunity cost: by teaching skills or teaching to the test, you might do less of the kinds of things that prepare kids for learning later on.  For instance, you might read aloud to the kids less, or you might cut down on recess, or you might reduce the time allotted for free, creative play.  Any of these could be imagined to result in lower reading scores a decade later.

Evidence that this kind of short-term/long-term trade-off might be possible can be found in the studies on Waldorf schools that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Waldorf schools do not do any explicit teaching of reading skills until the second grade, and their reading scores are, not surprisingly, markedly below those of other schools in the early grades:

The Waldorf schools do, however, catch up.  I'd love to see data on where those students are at the age of 17.  It seems very possible that by the age of 17 the Waldorf kids, who while everyone else was drilling on phonics instead did a lot of listening to stories, singing songs, reciting poems, and observing nature, might be way ahead.  And that may be the same dynamic we see in the NAEP scores.

If our goals are long-term, why are we all thinking short-term?
As I have repeatedly argued, getting better at reading is a very long-term process, and yet far too much of our thinking as teachers, like far too much of the discourse about education, focuses on the short term.  Most discussion of lesson-planning, for instance, seems based on teaching students a discrete skill that they have never attempted before.  John Hattie, in the introduction to his magnum opus, Visible Learning, offers my favorite example of this short-term thinking: Hattie describes in loving detail the excitement of an initial lesson in rappelling down a building, and then says that this is "the heart of the model of successful teaching and learning."  This is absurd, since reading is neither dangerous nor novel to most of our students, and Hattie would find that teaching rappelling to people who'd already been rappelling for ten years would be very, very different. But Hattie's absurdity is just an extreme version of the kind of thinking we all do.  We are after all called "teachers," and just as it is natural to think to ourselves, "So, what particular skill am I going to teach today?", it is also natural to want to measure students' improvement over the relatively short time periods of a unit, a semester, or a year.  So, under MCAS and NCLB, we now give students high-stakes tests every year, and we are moving to a system by which teachers are evaluated by the results of these short-term assessments.

I doubt this is wise, but in the end it may not do too much harm. The remarkable stability of the NAEP scores is a healthy reminder that changes in educational regimes in the US have not made much difference to test scores. On the other hand, the NAEP may also mean that short-term thinking is ineffective: it may lead to short-term successes, but those short-term successes do not necessarily lead to longer-term success.