Summary: Amid the relative merits of “direct instruction” and “inquiry” approaches to curriculum, a narrative emerges that suggests teacher empowerment may be the more important variable.
In the ongoing assault on school dysfunction, debate rages between those who advocate “direct instruction” — drill in the basic skills of reading and math, and which has some proven success in raising test scores — and partisans of “inquiry” based approaches that purport to teach greater understanding of concepts and hence promote longer term problem solving.
A recent story in the Seattle Times that features success in low income classrooms at Gildo Rey Elementary School in Auburn, Washington, plants the discussion in a context in which teacher initiative has been a critical component. Thus, the outcome there to date says as much about the importance of institutional culture in a school as it does about the respective merits of one pedagogical approach or another.
For the record, it seems clear to me if kids don’t have the basic skills they’re lost, and are not going to have the future opportunity to hone their problem solving. This is not to dismiss the importance of inquiry at all, but merely says we all walk before we can run.
The Times in its commentary rightly applauds the importance of teacher involvement in the school’s evolution, and correctly trumpets the obvious conclusion that poor kids can learn, and that troubled schools do turn around, the nation’s composite test doldrums notwithstanding.
As a hardened veteran of school wars, high school version (my thinking warped by many years in top down school bureaucracies!), a full understanding of the teacher role at Gildo Rey should go a few steps further.
In the excessively top down environment of the current game, in which the feds tell the states who tell the districts who tell the individual principals who tell the individual teachers what to do, well-meaning and even talented teachers can get the motivational sap squeezed out of their identity as a practicing professional with the primary responsibility for those students before them.
There is all the world of difference between a hard working teacher who does what others tell him to do and an equally hard working teacher who seeks better ways of teaching and who continually evolves in the wake of what works for his students and what doesn’t. The latter is one trusted to lead, even expected to lead, and so rises to the occasion to the full extent of her native ability. The former stays well inside the frontier, and is a mainstay of the status quo. I privately wonder how many of the 46% of teachers who leave within five years do so out of creative frustration.
To me, this distinction is the essence of the Gildo Rey story.
While acknowledging there are difficulties extrapolating from a story on line or in the newspaper, the turnaround at Gildo Rey started with the entrance of an experienced principal, Robin Logan, who appears to have understood that schools are communities, and people must talk with one another within them. She insisted that teachers work together, number one, and, number two, that they follow the data wherever it led. Whatever works, figure out together how to follow it.
Now that is a culture change, and was probably not instituted in a democratic fashion, even if the intent was in that direction. If I read correctly, there were bruised egos and Ms. Logan was not universally acclaimed. As one teacher put the spin, “it’s just better to succumb” to her will. The role of strong leadership from a principal (not perfect leadership) in school reform is clear in the research.
However, once the system with its expectations was in place, and dissidents moved on, Logan was a wise enough administrator to let her horses run, and particularly those with the bit most strongly in their teeth. At the risk of stretching the metaphor too far, teachers too often are penned up bureaucratically and their creativity poorly engaged. (Not a good way to train a thoroughbred?)
By the Times story, much of the successful shift in math instruction and the rise in math scores was teacher created, led and spread, and guided by test data. Within limits, testing is a necessary evil, expensive in time, but without which the road ahead is defined too much by guesswork.
The story is not a perfect one. One of the teachers who led the changes in the math approach under the collegial umbrella is now out of the classroom in a district position designed apparently to spread the gospel. Depending upon the twist given to his powers by the district administration, there is irony if what he has to offer, developed in a collegial atmosphere, was now to be mandated (too often a schools pattern). I don’t know that is the case, but it would be better if his portfolio was to foster the same give and take and the search for individual school solution in which he apparently thrived.
My other lament is that this talented teacher is out of the classroom. Somehow, some way, the profession of teacher has to be infused with enough social wealth and institutional power, and probably enough remuneration, to warrant its being the work of a lifetime, rather than a stepping stone for ambitious and talented sorts.