Comparing teaching practices used in school to what works for babies and toddlers can help give some perspective.

Almost all babies learn to talk and walk. There are important exceptions, but they are rare.

We don’t test babies’ language production or stride length. We observe. We may worry, but the more children we have, the less we worry, and the more we enjoy watching the older siblings do a lot of the teaching and encouraging for us.

Our granddaughter is the third child in the family, and her two older brothers address many of her wants and needs without her having to articulate them in a comprehensible English. Our own third son didn’t start speaking until he was two, and I figure the granddaughter might well wait till she’s two before she finds it useful to say things that anybody other than her brothers can understand. I gather this is common for third children.

It would be bad, of course, if we graded her or put her parents on a Performance Improvement Plan, because she is “late” or “behind.” That’s what schools do, though. And the testing, grading and judgment probably make things worse, not better. Learning to walk and talk comes “naturally” most of the time.

There are interesting things to say about the “naturalness” of learning in our country’s public schools. One point, often attributed to Lisa Delpit and her great book Other People’s Children, is that what white teachers of children of color think is “natural” may be different from what those children actually do and experience. So some things that the teachers think will just be picked up in the course of living don’t get picked up, but instead need to be taught explicitly.

But “teaching explicitly” and “observing carefully” are very different from “testing” or “measuring,” as Delpit certainly agrees. Pointing to a cup and saying “cup” is teaching a small child the name of something explicitly. But when the child then makes some verbalization a long way off from what most of us recognize as “cup”, we don’t say “wrong.” We just repeat the explicit teaching: “cup.” Maybe we do that for a few months or even a year. And always, the child’s passive ability to understand our speech precedes their active ability to produce “correct” expressions for themselves.

The point is that the testing and measuring has little to do with teaching and learning and a lot to do with the political economy of “accountability”: how we promote some people to positions of economic and political power through explanations and rationalizations purportedly built on “data”, while we use “data-based” explanations and rationalizations to keep other people down.

Don’t be fooled. Good teachers invite students into a wide variety of complex experiences—including explicit teaching where it’s needed, interact with their students during those experiences in all kinds of ways, observe how students respond, adapt the experiences and interactions based on their observations, and proceed with this cycle again and again as part of their wonder at human individual and social growth.

How to justify and rationalize what good teachers do using data will be the subject for another day.

AuthorJay Gillen

Last week the Baltimore City Board of Education approved an unacceptable teacher evaluation process over the objections of the vast majority of the city’s public school teachers, who are represented by outstanding new, democratic union leadership.

At the core of the new policy is a demand from the school board that teachers should be open to formal observations without any prior notice from principals. At any time, on any day, a principal or assistant principal can walk into a teacher’s room, and a chunk of that teacher’s official evaluation for the school year can be determined by what the principal observes on that day.

The list of items that teachers are supposed to demonstrate for every lesson is longer than NASA’s protocols for moon launches. But that doesn’t matter to the school board. Every teacher, every lesson, every day, should have every item implemented, visible and documented on the chance that that will be the lesson their formal evaluation occurs unannounced.

Insanity, obviously.

The school board justified its policy by claiming that it was in the best interests of the students, as if teachers justify their positions based on their own interests and not the students’. Of course, this is just question begging. The whole question is what is in the best interests of the students, and merely claiming that your interests coincide with the students’, while your opponents’ interests diverge from the students’ is not an argument; it’s a disguise.

Disguising what? The school board seeks to disguise its unjustified feeling that too many teachers don’t care enough, don’t work hard enough or smart enough, don’t collaborate with administration, don’t know how to do their jobs. The board figures the good teachers are doing everything they need to do anyway, and it’s only the bad teachers who will have to change their ways in order to get decent evaluations.

But this is all counterfactual. Good teachers don’t follow all the rules, or even most of the rules. Good teachers are good precisely because they know how to teach well despite the rules. Teachers who really don’t care spend way too much time making sure they’re “in compliance” without actually responding to the needs of their students. The way you can tell these kinds of teachers apart is to simply ask the students. They want to learn, they try their little hearts out, and they do learn from good teachers and are frustrated by teachers who are just checking off boxes.

AuthorJay Gillen