Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review: Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools

Curwin, Richard L. Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2010.

Curwin kicks off his advice book for urban teachers with a story about a king looking for a teacher for the prince. After testing all of the teachers in the land, the king selects the three finalists. One has the best content knowledge; another has the strongest classroom management and discipline. You have probably already guessed that it is the third teacher, who is not the strongest in either category but rather combines great skills with the philosophy that it is a teacher’s role to serve her/his pupil and society at large who wins the job.

While many of Curwins ideas and strategies would work in any school, his focus is on low-achieving, unmotivated urban youth. He is not arguing that urban youth are themselves low-achieving or unmotivated, nor does he argue that there are no low-achieving or unmotivated youth in the suburbs and the country. Instead, he recognizes that there are some students who live in conditions exasperated by urban poverty and violent neighborhoods. He recognizes that many students living in urban poverty have lost hope that their lives can be better that they are; that their lives can be better than the lives their parents live; or that education may be a way to pave a road to a brighter future.

The summary conclusions of Curwins book is that teachers are charged with helping our students learn and find a love of learning. To do this, he makes five recommendations:

First, curriculum should be tailored to meet each child’s individual needs. Teachers should use diagnostic evaluations to assess a child’s knowledge and skills given a topic and guide that child toward increased knowledge and stronger skills. Here, Curwin challenges current-trend thinking that says that curriculum should be more closely articulated, so that teachers in a similar discipline are teaching nearly the same material on a given day, enabling those teachers to later collaborate on student results. Curwin’s counter argument is not to challenge the data that is driving this current trend, but rather to trouble that data with the question, “Maybe it does work, but at what costs?” Curwin wants teachers, administrators, parents and law makers to wonder, “Is getting high test scores worth it, if learning is forgotten or if children learn to hate learning?”

Second, expectations should be high, but attainable for every student. Expectations that are too high lead to frustration and failure for struggling students. They learn to hate the subject and many decide to misbehave as a result. Curwin imagines a child thinking, “If I am so bad as being good or smart, then at least I can be really good at being bad.” Conversely, expectations that are too low lead to boredom.

Third, evaluations should diagnostic in nature. Little is accomplished, Curwin posits, in using summative evaluations to rank children, rewarding the best and punishing the worst. In fact, he argues, it runs contrary to motivation. Those students who need little motivation get lots of encouragement from the rewards, and those who need motivation rebel against the punishments.
Forth, everything a school does should be gear toward getting kids to want to learn. Contained within this concept are Curwin’s theories about discipline and classroom/school management. If the point of school is for children to learn, then it makes little sense to remove a child from a learning environment if the child is misbehaving. Instead, Curwin advises teachers to refer children to the principal only as a last resort. Curwin offers numerous tips and ideas about how to redirect misbehavior and offers perhaps his most interesting idea, the Altruism Consequence. Consequences are not punishments, Curwin states. Rather, they are the natural outcome of actions. When we hurt someone, the consequence is doing something nice for that person or for the class/school. Curwin believe that giving difficult youth opportunities to be good and help others will, in turn, heal the hurt and lead to higher levels of motivation for school.

Fifth, students need freedom and flexibility to explore their strengths and needs. In traditional schooling, adults decide on how children will spend their time, and how they will compete against one another for rewards and grades. Here, Curwin argues that some learning is better than no learning. There is little to be lost when a teacher lowers the bar for a child who has been stubbornly refusing to jump at all. Curwin believes that schools are currently over-emphasizing achievement, which ranks and kills motivation for low-achieving students. Instead, he thinks that teachers, principals and schools should emphasize effort, because achievement is the outcome of effort and, Curwin surmises, effort is the only factor that we can really control.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A new idea for Teacher Training

I believe studies that say that the most important, controllable factor in a child’s education is being in the classroom of a highly motivated, well-trained teacher. I believe that current education reforms aimed at achieving this are misguided and heading for disastrous, unintended consequences.

Current educational reform efforts are overly focused on the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece comparing finding talented teachers to finding talented NFL players from the hundreds of college teams. In a nutshell, Gladwell posits that there is no reliable way to pre-determine who will and will not be talented before seeing players/teachers in action for a year or two. Gladwell’s proposal is to end teacher job security, and place hundreds of teachers in classrooms each year, keeping the ones who seem to be successful.

I see two major flaws in his proposal.

First, unlike NFL players, teachers do not sign a lucrative enough contract to bridge them from an unsuccessful tryout to their next career, nor are teachers paid nearly enough to attract the most talented applicants available. Instead, we count on an inner spark, or emotional desire to teach to attract young talent.

Second, the training that teachers receive is far too removed from their actual day-to-day practice when they enter their careers. College prospects are at least playing very-nearly the same game and their professional counterparts. Gladwell’s analogy is perhaps closer to scouting college baseball teams looking for NFL prospects.

Compensating teachers at a rate closer to what other professionals can expect is perhaps a solution to the talent-attraction problem. If teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area could expect the same $60,000 to $70,000 starting salary as their business-professional counterparts and could look forward to $100,000 to $120,000 top earning potential, then our profession might attract some of the top talent that is currently more attracted to business.

Training emerging teaching in a longer, more intensive way would go a long way to approximating teacher training to similar professions.

I propose that teaching interns be placed with cooperating/master teachers for a three-year experience. The first year would be intensive training in pedagogy and classroom management that the teaching candidate could see modeled in their mater teacher’s classroom. The second year would be a paid internship where the master teacher and candidate shared responsibilities for a group of students. The candidate could plan units of study and individual lessons with the help of their master teacher. The candidate could also receive on-going training in educational psychology and sociology. Finally, in the third year, candidates would begin a one or two year residency, being paid lower wages, but completely in control of their classrooms and intensively evaluated by the school administration, their master teacher, and their peers. After passing a Bar-exam-like experience, then the newly tenured teacher would receive a large bump in salary – the big pay-off to warrant this now-more difficult journey into the profession.

In one way, Gladwell would get his way. Master teachers, school administrations, local communities, and the candidate her/himself would have ample opportunities to decide that this profession was not a good fit. Newly tenured teachers would be far better trained and prepared for the real job of teaching children. At the same time, the profession of teaching would finally be compensated like comparable professions. Best of all, students would have better-trained teachers who were far more likely to stay in the classroom far beyond the typical 5-year mark that presently sees 50% of our young professionals wash-out.