Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A matter of trust

I had something of an epiphany yesterday regarding what's wrong with American public schools.

This light-bulb-moment occurred because of two unrelated incidents, one of them banal to the point of almost being funny, the other considerably more serious.

The first occurred because there is something wrong with the "heater" in my classroom.  I use the quotation marks because despite the fact that this is upstate New York and we've been having cooler weather for almost a month now, this machine has been pumping out continuously cold air into my room.  Yesterday morning it was quite chilly outside, and my room was almost at the seeing-your-own-breath stage.  So I took my digital thermometer, and first wandered around my classroom (getting an average temperature of around 61 F, warmest near the exit into the hallway); the air coming from the "heater" registered 58 F.

So I let the fellow who is the head of buildings, grounds, and maintenance know.  In short order I got back a curt note that my room was actually between 70 and 75 F, and the air coming out of the "heater" was at a comfortable 68.  "No, you're wrong," was the gist of the email.  "You're actually warm."

Or perhaps this is part of the new "Common Core" math, that 61 = 72 and 58 = 68.  I dunno.

Much more troubling was an exchange I had last week with an administrator regarding the implementation of "scripted modules," a new-and-improved way of micromanaging classroom teachers by giving them day-by-day lesson plans with pre-prepared problem sets and assignments, and scripts that are to be read to the students verbatim (some of them even tell the teacher what to answer if students ask particular questions).  Apparently, this administrator has gotten a good deal of flak over these modules, with complaints that they are rigid, lock teachers into going at a particular speed regardless of whether that speed is appropriate for their classes, and rob teachers of the creative parts of their job.  So the administrator sent a broadside email to the entire staff -- not only to the teachers affected, or the ones who had complained -- telling us that the modules were fine, that any frustration we felt was just that we were clinging to old ways of doing things and didn't like change, and that the new modular approach didn't take away any creativity from the act of teaching.

Well, I wasn't going to let that pass, so I answered as follows:
Dear _________,

I considered not responding to this, as the whole “module” thing has yet to affect me directly, but after some thought I decided that I could not let it go.

The whole idea of handing a professional educator a script is profoundly insulting.  The implication, despite your statement that it is not meant to replace the art of creative teaching, is that the policymakers and educational researchers know better how to instruct children than the people who have devoted their lives to the profession, who know the children in their classes personally and their curricula thoroughly.  This DOES take the creativity out of teaching, and that fact is not changed by your simply stating that it doesn’t.

More and more, we are being mandated to approach educating children by the factory model – everything done lockstep, everything converted to numbers and trends and statistics.  If it can be quantified, it exists; if it can’t, it doesn’t.  The mechanization of education robs it of its joy for teachers, and more importantly, for students.  All of the pretests and post-tests and standardized exams are simply providing a bunch of specious, meaningless numbers so that the policy wonks in Albany (and elsewhere) can pat themselves on the back and tell themselves that they’ve accomplished something.  I have yet to see any of these “value-added models” provide anything but percentage values whose error bars approach 100%.

And, on a personal note: you can consider this my official refusal to teach from a module, should one come down the line for any of the courses that I teach.  And the day that I am mandated, by you or by any other administrator, to read from a script in my classes will be my last day on the job.


I have yet to receive any response to this email.

Well, the whole thing has been weighing considerably on my mind in the last few days, and yesterday -- in between rubbing my hands together to restore blood flow to my fingers -- I realized that the two incidents really came from the same fundamental source.

A lack of trust.

No, we're told; what you're experiencing, what you're thinking, what you're feeling, isn't real.  Your perspective is skewed.  We know better than you do.  Despite the fact that you were hired for your professional expertise, and know how to run a classroom (and, presumably, read a thermometer), your viewpoint is invalid.

Here, let me tell you what reality is.

A study conducted cooperatively by Working Families and Unum Insurance Group of worker satisfaction and productivity found that trust was the single most important factor in both employee well-being and the performance of the organization as a whole.  Susanne Jacobs, consultant and lead researcher on the study, said:
Truly understanding how individuals are motivated at work provides not just the gateway to optimal performance, something sought by every organization, but also an environment where every person can flourish.

Trust and psychological well-being are the answer; the equation to reach that answer starts with individual and team resilience, plus the eight drivers of trust (belonging, recognition, significance, fairness, challenge, autonomy, security, and purpose), together with a workplace that is built to support every human being within it. We know the solution and we know the tools, so let’s put it into practice.
A 2011 study by D. Keith Denton of Missouri State University's Department of Management supports that view.  Trust, clarity, and openness are critical, Denton concluded, after evaluating productivity and worker satisfaction at a variety of different businesses.  Denton said:
Companies with high-trust levels give employees unvarnished information about company's performance and explain the rationale behind management decisions. They are also unafraid of sharing bad news and admitting mistakes.  Lack of good communication leads to distrust, dissatisfaction, cynicism and turnover.

If there is a high level of engagement, the leader can expect that members of the group will express their feelings, concerns, opinions and thoughts more openly.  Conversely, if trust is low, members are more likely to be evasive, competitive, devious, defensive or uncertain in their actions with one another.
Contrast that with the current atmosphere in public schools, where teachers are trusted so little that we are now being micromanaged on the moment-by-moment level -- told, in effect, what to say and how long a time we have in which to say it.  Students are subjected, over and over, to high-stakes examinations to make certain they are reaching some preset, externally-determined bar.  We are trusted so little that at the end of the year, we are not allowed to grade our own final exams for fear that we'll alter student papers to boost their scores and make ourselves look more effective.

The contention by the anti-public-school cadre has been, all along, that teachers aren't professionals, that (in Bill Gates' words) "the educational system is broken."  I think that's absolute rubbish.  The teachers I know, with very few exceptions, are competent, caring, and intelligent, know their subjects deeply, and understand how to communicate their knowledge to students.  In an ironic twist that seems lost on most of the people in charge, we are instituting a model for education that doesn't work and evaluating the old model on its failure -- in effect, breaking the system to show how broken it was.

My own tolerance for this nonsense is, quite frankly, nearing its limit.  I am honestly not sure I can do this job much longer.  I am still passionate about the subject I teach; I still enjoy my students, and the daily act of teaching them about science.  Watching the light bulbs go on, when kids suddenly comprehend an especially difficult concept that they have struggled to master, is still one of the most rewarding things I know of.

But it is honestly hard to go to work, on a daily basis, knowing that in the most fundamental way, I am not trusted to do competently the job I have been tasked with.  The optimist in me keeps hoping that the establishment will begin to listen to the people who are speaking out against the current trends -- most notably Diane Ravitch, whose lucid and articulate indictment of such legislation as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top leaves little room for argument.

But the pessimist in me has, at the moment, a far louder voice.  I fear that things will get a great deal worse before they get better.  And if they do, they will do so without my participation.  I always thought that I would be one of those teachers that would have to be pushed out of the door at age 70, still eager to meet the new crowd of kids in September; the last few days, I'm wondering how I can make it to Thanksgiving.


  1. If you haven't come across them already, you might want to check out Philip K Howard's books. _The Death of Common Sense_ and _The Lost Art of Drawing the Line_ come to mind. He does some interesting analysis on how and why we, as a country, have gotten to this low level of trust all around. The only downside of reading them is that you then begin to see the pattern everywhere.

  2. I'm always sorry to hear a good teacher say (s)he's thinking of calling it quits. Trust really is at the heart of the matter. What you wrote reminds me of John Holt's introduction to his book _How Children Learn_, in which he said, "all I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: trust children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted."

    Even before NCLB and RTTP, public schools, with their constant directives and their scopes and sequences and learner outcome expectations by grade/age, were places where kids would learn that they are not trusted to think about the "right" things at the "right" time and in the "right" way. The innate human desire to learn, the drive toward greater competency, is not recognized by the system. The learners' natural curiosity is not trusted, not by the school system, not by many teachers, not even by many of the children's own parents. (If parents did trust their children to learn, public schools would look very different, more like democratic schools/Open Classroom schools/Montessori schools.)

    Just as parents distrust their children, they themselves are not trusted to be able to guide and facilitate their children's learning. (For example: So if students aren't trusted and parents aren't trusted, why should teachers be trusted? Apparently, there is plenty of distrust to go around in our society!

    The current approach to public education really is pseudoscience. There is so much talk of "rigor" in public education. Rigor (being thorough and accurate) is very important in structuring and conducting scientific experiments. But rigor (being severe, strict, harsh, demanding, difficult, extreme) is not conducive to promoting learning for most people, most of the time. The powers-that-be are in a frankly insane drive to collect data that really is not informative and does not measure what it purports to measure namely, the children's learning and the teachers' effectiveness in teaching.

    Some families can opt out of the madness. Our family homeschools. Other families, like Commissioner King's, can afford to send their children to private schools. Everyone else is stuck with the current system, and unless and until a critical mass of parents rise up and say, "Enough already! This is madness!" I don't see that anything will change for the better. And parents aren't speaking out, because they don't trust their children to learn. They buy into the cultural myth that life is a competition and that the only way to win the competition is to do more, better, faster, sooner, than the next guy. It's really sad.

    Again, I am really sorry to hear that such a good teacher is so frustrated. I would hope that knowing how much you matter to your students would get you through, but then, I don't know, because I don't have to face that every day. I only have four students, and I have a lot more freedom to help them explore what they want to learn, in ways and at a pace that works well for each of them.

  3. Once again, Gordon, I believe you've NAILED it.
    I still have days when I feel sad about not being in the classroom, for I think I still have a lot to offer kids, but then I am relieved NOT to have to deal with BS like the stuff you are talking about. Add to that the belief by our administrators that I was teaching a subject that is unimportant- the bastard step child of the instrumental program. (Afterall, anyone can sing, right?) And here I am, figuring out what the next chapter of my teaching life will be. Should you decide to leave, I have no doubt that you will be okay...perhaps you could devote your life to your writing, art, or some other pursuit. You have the capacity to be successful in just about anything you do, in my opinion. The overwhelming sense I have now when I am leading and teaching is that I am once again appreciated (and trusted) for doing what I do, and doing it well. It's pretty great. So, as long as you keep at it, I wish you the strength, courage and fortitude to face each day. Focus on the good stuff- keep turning on those light bulbs!

  4. You are so articulate, and have so well corralled the problem, its consequences, and, unfortunately, its result. I know you are a marvelous teacher with a passion for your job who enriches the lives of students and education in general, but I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that I watch what is going on in the schools and am relieved that I am not there (and am amazed at those who are, and can endure, and maintain both quality and sanity). As an optimist, I too keep watching for the pendulum to start its downward swing.
    I hope you can keep up the good fight, as it is worthy and needs to be fought, but there is a welcoming world out here, too.
    Sigh. Teaching is a profession I loved.
    (BTW, good luck with that 'heater'. I am reminded of some book where the custodian sat down in the furnace room all day and sent notes to people about how their problems didn't exist. He was a legendary presence: many people hadn't even ever seen him. This does re-raise the question of whether life resembles literature, or v.v.)

  5. Hang in there, Gordon. Hang in there until they run you out. And keep talking.

  6. BRAVO Gordon! I am very proud to be your colleague. I salute your willingness to speak your mind and I hope you will inspire others to do likewise. I believe we can turn this tide if we all have the courage of our convictions the way you have shown here. Thank you.

  7. I am in complete agreement. Fortunately, we don't have the scripted lessons, but I have no doubt in my mind that the day we do get them may be just around the corner. I started counting the years to retirement last year. I just need to hang in there for eight more years.

    Sometimes, that seems eons away.

  8. Have you read Michael Polanyi's Personal Knowledge? He criticizes the "scientization" of knowledge---blind belief in quantitative measurement and explicit logic coupled with the complete rejection of any sort of human intuition. I've always though it applies very well to the K12 educational world.

  9. You already know this stuff (being the smarty-pants guy you are), but it doesn't hurt to read it anyhow:

    1. You are not your job. I take a great deal of pride in my job as well, but you are more than the sum of your profession. If your job is giving you grief, look to your other puruits to give you respite, enjoyment.

    2. Live for today. Working 10+ hours a day and eating ramen to save for retirement will be a travesty if you never live to see it. Don't look into the future for your windfalls. You can have fullfilment today without changing anything other than your perception.

    3. You could have the most awesome profession you can think of, but if you work with a bunch of D-bags, it won't matter. You'll still hate your job. From what I gather, apart from the email chains and focus group meetings, once the bell rings and the classroom door closes, it's still just you and your students.

    4. You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Don't find that out the hard way!

    5. You're the optimist. I tend to be cynical. If you turn cynical, who am I supposed to leech positivity from?!?!

  10. Dear Gordon,
    May I share this post online on twitter? This is powerful and so true across the state and country right now. I am lucky to have and district and admin that I feel supported but the reality is that many schools across the country are faced with this reality. Thanks for sharing and I could not agree more with you.

    Thank You,
    Melissa Seideman (DiCola)

    Former teacher in Tburg NY, Gettysburg PA, White Plains NY and finally found a perm. teaching home in Cold Spring NY

    1. Absolutely, Melissa. Please feel free to share this anywhere you like.



  11. I am not a teacher, but understand and agree with the problem you've articulated. However to veer from your main point on trust a bit: Diane Ravitch is NOT forgiven for her role in creating No Child Left Behind. And, while she has a lot of ideas for today that seem reasonable, I still disagree with what I see as her commerce-driven point of view of education. I just cannot stand her being lauded any further.

    I hope you have the strength to keep taking a stand. I hope you have a strong union behind you.

  12. Abra makes a great point. With all of the union-bashing going on they get omitted from many-a-discussion, nowadays. If you have a decent sized union and you can get them to care about your plight, they can be advocates where none would have existed. Unions have agendas. MY union has an agenda... but they are helpful... and in the case of my union, they pretty-much accomplish their purpose. I am not familiar with the sway that teacher's unions have with regard to education policy. They are probably relegated to employment and benefits, yes?

  13. It's hit Facebook. A friend of mine shared it. Keep up the good fight. Workers everywhere will be able to understand what you articulated. I told my friend I backed out of the conversation feeling I was in a familiar crowd.

  14. A lack of trust is a major reason I'm leaving my job with our school district the end of this year. The district administration decided to play nasty politics and the teachers and students are the ones paying the price. I'm saddened to see it's not just my area, either. It really hurts when I'm sitting in class in my Master's program for Instructional Design and I see all the bright possibilities for education but I know none of them will ever see the light of day in a public classroom.

  15. They should've known a science teacher was qualified to use a thermometer. It's not like you taught English or something. :-)

  16. Thanks to my sister-in-law, Carolyn Lange, for sharing this. I find deep truth in so much of what you write, Gordon. Will comment on just one idea, of many that resonate with me. You write, in summary of the un-useful "factory- model of education that seems to be in vogue today, "If it can be quantified, it exists; if it can’t, it doesn’t." Just want to note the good company you're in, as you protest such a notion. Albert Einstein maintained that, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Amen to that.

    1. Thanks, Madlyn -- and the quote from Einstein does indeed say it all.