Thursday Reading List: Teachers Say Stuff About Teachers; Also, Rick Hess

Annie Murphy-Paul has some advice for teachers who say that they learn as much from their students as the students learn from them:

“From a sage on the stage to a guide on the side.” I hear this phrase often from teachers and administrators, spoken as a way of describing the shift from a “transmissionist” model of learning (instructor transmits knowledge to student) to a constructivist model of learning (instructor helps student construct her own knowledge). I understand the sentiment behind this phrase, but I’ve always disliked it, in part because it seems to (literally) sideline the teacher, make the teacher almost tangential to the process of learning. Even worse, from my point of view, is some teachers’ relinquishing of their own claim to expertise.

Murphy-Paul goes on to describe teaching approaches that embrace the expertise of the instructor, while accounting for the students' interests and proclivities. Sharif El-Mekki thinks one of those interests ought to be fighting injustice, which should create stronger linkages between students and teachers:

Education is the best lever for change that millions of people can take up and drive right now. Blacks have long been a part of the fight and advocacy for social justice issues. Right now, millions of students of color are trapped in failing schools. We need more Blacks to become directly involved in what can be considered, perhaps, the single most important lever: righting the myriad social justice ills we currently face. Health care, overflowing prison populations, low college attainment levels, and poor housing opportunities all plague our communities. A great education is a big part of the weapon against these overwhelming issues. We need Blacks to view schools as one of the best battlegrounds for short and long term victories against inequity. We need student-centered revolutionaries in our classrooms.

The idea of teaching for the sake of community betterment is powerful, and collective advancement does not have to come at the expense of individual growth. Having more Black teachers also will normalize the experience of multiculturalism in schools. Andre Perry points to current biases against specific elements of Black culture, which even manifest among other educators of color. That debate erupted when Steve Perry suggested on twitter that young Black men should cut off their dreadlocks, braids, and afros if they want to be successful. Andre Perry responded:

There’s nothing wrong with black children that ending racism can’t solve. In over the 60 years that the National Center for Education Statistics has been collecting data, belt-tightening, haircutting and gangbanging haven’t been remotely cited as causing the categorical educational disparities that currently exist. Prior achievement (low-achieving schools), income and wealth (poverty), along with neighborhood and numerous other factors that have roots in racism continue to plague our communities. Cutting black boys’ hair amounts to nothing powerful, but the animus toward Perry goes far beyond hair. Black folks have grown tired of Perry’s shtick of explaining underachievement by locating the problem within the students, their families and communities—classic cultural-deficit modeling.

Jose Vilson has similarly harsh words for Steve Perry. It's tenuous for me to say anything about this, being a white guy and everything, but I'll say two things. First, I've been an employer, and I have had exceptional employees with all kinds of hairstyles, including traditionally Black ones. Maybe we, especially white people, should stop judging people by their hair. Second, I know a lot of white folks who embrace Steve Perry when he says things like this, and subsequently use his perspective to justify their own biases. Stop doing that.

In other news, researchers at Mathematica looked at how school demographics affect families choosing schools:

According to one of the study’s key findings, parents generally place greater value on schools with a high percentage of students of the same race/ethnicity as their child—but only if their child would otherwise be in the smallest minority at school. If their child won’t be in the smallest minority, parents are less concerned about—and, in fact, supportive of—schools with a more diverse student body. For example, typical middle school parents in DC would be willing to send their child half a mile farther to attend a school that had 50 percent (rather than 40 percent) of students of the same race/ethnicity as their own child. But if the choice were between a pair of schools with 10 versus 20 percent of students of the child’s own race/ethnicity, parents would be willing to send the child over two miles farther to avoid being in the smaller minority.

I have some gut instincts about what this data says for policy, but I want to think about it more before opining. That said, I hope researchers spend more time looking at the gap between a) professed ideals, and b) actual behaviors, when it comes to choosing schools. It strikes me that behavioral economics research has a great deal to offer the conversation about voluntary integration, and that unearthing the extent to which folks express unreliable preferences and unconscious biases when choosing schools seems important to that endeavor.

Rick Hess thinks that the "education reform" sector is becoming too orthodox and is starting to resemble the institutes of higher education from which he escaped in the 1990s:

In ed schools, hardly anyone disagreed with the prevailing orthodoxy. Dissenters, whether students or faculty, were dismissed as troublemakers ... School reformers have borrowed this modus operandi, even as the issues and orthodoxies have changed. And they have taken to greeting dissent--when it comes to Race to the Top, the Common Core, or other favored initiatives—by accusing dissenters of being contrary or unserious about school improvement.

I couldn't agree more. The field has become obsessed with protecting the few policies it has blessed as the correct ones, and the failure to embrace, and wrestle with, major philosophical differences could prove to be a fatal weakness. He's still missing the point when it comes to the discussion of race, however, when he says that the current orthodoxy dictates "race, poverty, and privilege are the 'right' way to think about school improvement." I'm not really sure what that's supposed to mean, and he undermines his point about embracing philosophical differences when he expresses concern that a perspective that's not his own might be finding its way into the discussion.

Finally, to end on a happy note, for perhaps the first time in the city's history, a student with Down syndrome graduated with a full diploma from a DC high school:

[Madison] Essig, 19, has Down syndrome and attended Woodrow Wilson Senior High in Northwest Washington. She had already become an advocate for people with disabilities in her school’s hallways, and many of her friends have become involved in the nonprofit since getting to know her ... Essig graduated from high school Tuesday with more than 400 classmates, including her 17-year-old brother. She is believed to be among the first with Down syndrome to graduate from a D.C. high school with a standard diploma since D.C. Public Schools started keeping digital records in 1996, according to school system officials.

Congratulations, Madison!