Monthly Archives: February 2013

Disappointed in Teaching (III) – The Administrators – an HBR Classic

In 1977, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article by Abraham Zaleznik, under the title: “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?”  The article was republished in March 1992 and again in January 2004 as an HBR Classic.

The main idea of the article is that managers and leaders have two different types of personalities. “Managers tend to adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes toward goals. Managerial goals arise out of necessities rather than desires and, therefore, are deeply embedded in their organization’s history and culture.”

In contrast, “…leaders think about goals.  They are active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them… The influence a leader exerts in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and in establishing specific desires and objectives determines the direction a business takes. The net result of this influence changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary.” (Italics are mine).

In our day, probably the best example of such a leader – at least in the field of technology – was Steven Jobs. The iPad, iPhone and iPod were products that created a market, they were not a response to consumer desires as defined through surveys, focus groups and such.  Famously, Jobs is quoted as saying: “…customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.”

In my own experience, with one possible exception, all the administrators I have known were managers rather than leaders. This lack of leadership is yet another significant reason I am disappointed in teaching as a profession, and is an issue I want to examine in this post.

Zaleznik writes that “…managers act to limit choices” and this is indeed what I see happening in our educational system. Our school is a classic example.  About 18 months ago, during a staff development day, we were informed that we will all be “writing across the curriculum”. Now, this is a laudable goal, but what followed was a pure example of education management in action.

All the writing was to follow the Jane Schaffer model.  In this model there are topic sentences (TS), concrete details (CD) and commentaries (CM) – two per paragraph please – followed by a concluding sentence (CS).  Wikipedia quotes the Schaeffer paragraph requirements as :

  • It must not be written in the first person
  • Every paragraph must be five sentences long, however there can be more as long as the same ratio of two CM’s to every CD is kept
  • Each section (TS, CD, CM, CS) must be only one sentence in length
  • Each section should also avoid past tense and only be written in present tense

(Note all the “musts”)

We were all going to be trained in the Jane Schaeffer method, present it to our students and make them follow it in everything they wrote.

So, whether you were writing an essay in English, or a Biology report or something on a history topic, you were supposed to do it in the Jane Schaeffer model.  When I first heard about it, I had this image of an assembly line come to my mind. Why would we force on our students such a schematic, non-imaginative way of writing? It seems to me that there are two reasons for this.

Assembly line

First, administrators realized the low writing skills of our students and their general inability to write a decent paragraph. Therefore their thinking probably went: we will provide the students with a recipe – 4 or 5 easy steps – they will apply the recipe every time they write and, because everybody cooks by the chosen recipe, we will get a decent “meal”. Problem solved!

It is an interesting concept – you have (in general) low skilled workers, you train them to the job one way only and too bad for the creative innovators and the iconoclasts – the “yeast”.  We were told that the Jane Schaeffer method was a “distillation of good writing”. But is it? Is it the only one? Is it the best? Who made that decision? Does it lead to repetitive, boring writing?  Does it stifle creativity? Where is the critical thinking? Who cares! It is the majority that counts and since the level of writing of the majority is low, we will provide them with a template – more like a straightjacket really – and the heck with the other students – those with the creativity to perhaps become good writers. Truly, “…managers act to limit choices”.

I suspect that the second reason for enforcing a template, such as the Jane Schaffer model –perhaps the more important one – is that it looks good for management. Administrators can claim that “we are all in step, we march united, we have identified a problem, came up with a solution, and implemented it” – we deserve our jobs!  Indeed, during our recent accreditation process a great deal was made of the “school wide implementation of the Jane Schaeffer process”.  Indeed, during our recent accreditation visit, a great deal was made of the fact that we all follow the Jane Schaeffer model.

Whom are our managers responsible to? The principal is responsible to the superintendent and (especially in a small district such as ours) to the Board. The BoE is composed of elected officials – mostly local business people. None of them are trained in the field of education, or have been teachers. How much time, inclination and training do they have to delve into the Jane Schaeffer method? For that matter, what about the Superintendent? Board and Superintendent are happy that the problem was identified and their appointed managers (principal and APs) have devised a solution. Whether the solution is good or whether it may have unintended consequences – these people have neither the inclination nor the ability to evaluate.

The funny thing is that there is little attempt to monitor how the model is implemented “in the trenches”. The English department does it – mostly. Some teachers in other department do it, some don’t. Math is a laggard and some math teachers like me will never do it. But…it doesn’t seem to matter; on paper we are all doing it, we are all in step and … we have eliminated all other choices.

And wait…we have a template for teaching math also.




Disappointed in Teaching (II) – Doctors vs. Teachers

In its edition of February 2nd 2013, The Economist has a special report: “The Nordic countries.” The magazine praises a number of features of the “Nordic model”, among which is their educational system. With respect to Finland, “one of the world’s most successful educational systems (as measured by the PISA tests)”, the article says:

“…the Finns have also dispensed with many of the shibboleths of the educational left. At age 16 they rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams… Finland’s success depends neither on accountability (the right-wing panacea) nor on resources (the left-wing one) but on two things that are ignored in the wider educational debate: trust and stability. The government has found it possible to attract high-quality people into a relatively low-paid profession provided they are treated with respect. Teachers are free to design their own curriculums and develop their own tests.”

Indeed, in Finland, teachers are as respected as doctors are and as a result, teaching is a very competitive profession – it is difficult to become a teacher.  The Finnish model achieved what the medical profession achieved in the US. It is often forgotten that the medical profession in the US did not always enjoy the prestige it enjoyed in last century. After 1910, as a result of the Flexner report, medical education became significantly more rigorous, and as a consequence entry into medical schools much more selective. The byproducts of this process were prestige, respect and monetary rewards.

I argue that teacher selectivity is probably the single most important reason why teaching is not very respected in the US (“those who can do, those who can’t, teach”), why teaching is not a highly paid profession and why teachers are attacked and made to go through quasi market-driven “value-added” evaluations.

There is some evidence that in Finland, teachers come from the top third (or even top 10%) of the college graduation class, while in the US they come from the bottom half or even the bottom third of the graduating class. (Shanker Blog).  There are disputes as to how the “bottom” is measured – SAT, class standing, GPA – but the basic fact remains that teaching in the US does not attract the best and the brightest.

There are many possible reasons for this. The Flexner report mentioned above advocated that medical education be based on scientific principles, with all that it implies – rigor, testable hypothesis, reproducible results, etc. This is not the case in education. Educational science is close to being an oxymoron. Random trials of educational theories are rare in the literature. Fashionable theories rule education. Even when couched in science terms such as “brain based education”, when one digs only a little bit deeper, one realizes that there is no serious scientific, testable hypothesis and data to justify these theories.

What is more, education in the US has veered off from rigor in teaching in an effort towards achieving social equality. It would be anathema to most teachers to have a system that, as the Finnish system does and as many other systems in Europe and Asia also do, “rigorously divide children up between academic and vocational streams” as a results of exams and grades.

No, too many of our teachers (and parents and administrators) believe that everybody should go to college. This state of mind leads to teachers who give passing grades to students who do not deserve them and as a result to our high rate of remedial education.  When 30 – 40% of our students entering community colleges need remedial math or remedial English (or both), I would suggest that the blame can be apportioned equally between the students who do not study and the teachers who pass them.

I would argue that rigor begets rigor. A rigorous, selective program for those who desire to enter the teaching profession, would lead to rigor in teaching and to high school graduates who have earned and truly deserve their diplomas.

Disappointed in teaching (I)

It has been six months since I have added to this blog, and they have been six of my worst months in my teaching career. I am actively looking at retirement, mostly because I am so disgusted with teaching and the educational process. Granted that this view is one man’s opinion, and is informed by experience in an individual school and district, but from what I hear from other teachers, my experience might not be unique.

As background, I teach math at the only high school in our district. The demographics for our district are roughly 50% Hispanic, 40% White and 10% “other”. I have been teaching at the same high school for about ten years and previously I have been in engineering and business. I hold graduate degrees in engineering, with a minor in math. My high school education was partly in Europe and partly in New York.

From where I stand, I believe that all three legs of our educational establishment are failing: teachers, students/parents and administrators. In this first part, I want to address my disappointment with my fellow teachers. Again, the caveat is that I am only referring to what I experience with my own colleagues and perhaps I should not generalize to teachers in general. Furthermore, my remarks refer only to high school math teachers – I have a feeling that different skill sets may be more important in elementary and middle schools.

My disappointment with my colleagues has to do with their lack of love for math. This may sound strange, but I firmly believe that there is a significant difference between math teachers and teachers of math. The latter are primarily teachers, the former are more “math people” – they like math for its own sake, are excited by it, do it in their spare time, take additional instruction in it – sometimes self-instruction, and … love math.

My thesis is that you have to love your subject before you can be a good teacher. I also believe that the reverse is true – all the empathy, teaching techniques and patience can not make a good math teacher, without a DEEP understanding and love of the subject. Certainly, in my view, this applies to higher level courses – say anything higher than Algebra I.

What I see around me are teachers for whom teaching is a job. Not that they are “mailing it in” – no, they are conscientious, work on their lesson plans and deliver to the best of their abilities. However, they see their job just like that: here are the standards, here is my lesson plan, here is my lesson plan delivered, here is my assessment.

What I fail to see is the excitement about math – that there are connections between concepts, that there is beauty in the fact that some very basic rules are universally valid throughout all math, that there is glory in thinking and that it is worthwhile admiring the logical edifice that is math. It is like playing the notes of a Brandenburg Concerto, without realizing the beauty and consistency of the music, without putting your feelings about the music into the playing.

Why do we do rational functions today, exponential functions tomorrow and logs next week? I believe that students do not see any logic in this kind of teaching and, as a result, they see math as a series of recipes.  What if we were to emphasize the concept of functions as a model of the real world? What if we were to show a clip of bacteria growing without limit in a Petri dish, talk about cancer and then say, “But wait – we can model this mathematically, we have a tool that allows us to model and ‘play’ with this kind of growth! We can use math to understand what is happening and perhaps control it!” How far from a recipe!  How much can this convey to students the beauty, universality and simplicity of math! How novel (alas!) is the concept that my teacher is excited about math – s/he is not here teaching a lesson!

It is truly disappointing to feel this way and to see that you are the only one among all the other teachers in the department who makes a distinction between math teaching and teaching math.

In all fairness, I believe that at its deepest level this is a cultural phenomenon. American culture has never appreciated math for its own sake – we are empiricists. How often have you heard parents say: “I was never good at math either” or “Math was never my strongest subject”? My kids look at me  strangely and incredulously when I say that I love math. In Europe that is not generally true – math is respected, not hated.

So what would be some solutions? One potential solution is to have a requirement that every high school math teacher is qualified to teach calculus. In the state I teach, that is not true – you can take an exam that qualifies you to teach up to a certain level of math, but no higher. For example, you may be qualified to teach only up to and including Geometry. If the requirement was raised so that everybody must pass an exam that includes Calculus, we may end up with fewer teachers, but better ones.

I also believe that math education for teachers should mandatorily include a course in Applied Mathematics including concepts up to including simple differential educations. A little less pedagogy and more applied math, may also result in a better math teachers. We need to submerge our future teachers more deeply in mathematics – now we just dip them in. Again, the downside is that we may end up with fewer people going into math education, but think about the silver lining: scarcity brings higher pay!

Well, we can dream…