Wednesday, June 05, 2013

"All Thin Lips And Flinty Glares"

In a recent piece in New Republic by Nicholas Lemann on corporate education reform champion and snake oil salesperson Michelle Rhee, he quotes her writing about the teaching style she adopted after a rocky first year in the classroom:

"I wore my game face. No smiles, no joy; I was all thin lips and flinty glares." She describes making her students line up and walk into the classroom four times, until they had achieved a state of perfect order. "My mistake the first year was trying to be warm and friendly with the students, thinking that my kids needed love and compassion. What I knew going into my second year was that what my children needed and craved was rigid structure, certainty, and stability."

Wow. Let me tell you, if my daughter had been in her classroom she would have had me in her face. Not only is this kind of punitive, "tough love" approach not supported by any of the research, it is the opposite of what I've found in my experience as a teacher. Yes, children need "structure, certainty, and stability," but they need love and compassion even more. As is chronic self-aggrandizer Rhee's pattern, she has since had to walk back her exaggerated claims about the test score improvements she achieved using these teaching methods, and there is no mention of the emotional, social, and developmental damage that was certainly caused by what I consider to be the equivalent of bullying.

I suppose there has always been a strain of thought in America that all kids these days need is a little more strictness, and as Rhee demonstrates, if your goal is obedient kids, the kind who will "achieve a state of perfect order," then "(n)o smiles, no joy" is the way to go.

In response to yesterday's post, indeed in response to many of my posts, a reader or two will point out that I'm "blithely" or "naively" forgetting how lucky I am to be teaching a certain category of privileged child, ones who come from households that understand and support education. If I only taught a population of underprivileged kids, then I'd see the error of my ways. These kids, it's argued, live in neighborhoods in which it's too dangerous to play outside, in which parents are not home, and even if they were, they are perhaps illiterate themselves or otherwise unwilling or unable to support them. Maybe your typical middle class kid doesn't need the Michelle Rhee treatment, they assert, maybe they can thrive with Teacher Tom's progressive-hippie-dippy approach, but these kids need an iron fist.

Of course, people like Rhee and her corporate-style backers, including guys like Bill Gates and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, aren't talking about confining their drill and kill methods to the kids who "need" it, but rather trying to transform our educational system so that this kind of "rigid," "flinty" school experience is the norm for all of the kids. And this is why a middle class guy like me would have been in her face: no one treats my child like that.

But do underprivileged kids really need this? Is this really the only way they'll learn? There is some evidence that the approach creates marginal improvements on standardized test scores, it's true, but does it really improve their education? Does it really lead to better social, emotional, and economic prospects? Are these kids so different than middle class kids, so alien that we must essentially treat them like prisoners, a fate that is, after all, statistically far more likely for a child who grows up in poverty in the US?

My instincts tell me "no." My instincts tell me that all people thrive when treated like, well, people; that structure, certainty, and stability emerge from love and compassion much more readily and enduringly than from bullying. That's my theory, at least, one that's supported by decades of psychological and educational research, and my own experience. But you know what? I really don't know, because there is no actual data on what Michelle Rhee is advocating other than marginal, and temporary, improvements on standardized tests of dubious value.

As Lemann writes:

Rhee simply isn't interested in reasoning forward from evidence to conclusions: conclusions are where she starts, which means that her book cannot be trusted as an analysis of what is wrong with public schools, when and why it went wrong, and what might improve the situation. The only topics worth discussing for Rhee are abolishing teacher tenure, establishing charter schools, and imposing pay-for-performance regimes based on student test scores. We are asked to understand these measures as the only possible means of addressing a crisis in decline that is existentially threatening the United States as a nation and denying civil rights to poor black people.

Listen, I'm not insensitive to the challenges of parents and teachers and poverty. In fact, if there is one thing we could do to improve our schools it would be to tackle the challenges of poverty head-on. If a child lives in a neighborhood in which it's too dangerous to go outside and play, that's not something we can expect schools to address, and no amount of bossing kids around is going to improve their situation. It will only teach them that people who are in positions of authority have the right to tell you what to do. If a child lives in a household that does not include books or whose families don't have the time or ability to help them, then doesn't it make more sense to address those issues rather than turn our schools into practice prisons?

I will not admit, at least not based upon the testimony of chronic liars like Rhee, that because poverty makes educating some children more challenging, and that because she was able to bully 8-year-olds into walking in straight lines, we need to turn all of our public schools into the kind of drill and kill operations envisioned by the corporate reform movement.

When I write about the opposite vision for education, I'm not forgetting the poor children and I'm not denying the special challenges of poverty, a problem so huge and complicated that it's likely going to take a transformation of our entire society if we are going to solve it. What I won't do in the meantime, however, is back down from the ideals of a progressive, play-based education just because it is harder to attain for some than for others.

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Grace said...

Awesome. I love when you post this way, on occasion. Your deep and intentional work with children is inspiring, but these kinds of posts really illuminate the fact that you do this work fully connected to a vision for larger educational change. We ALL deserve to be treated as people.

Heather said...

Whew! Deep breath. Yes, yes & yes. You say so eloquently what I cannot. Love your blog. Thank you for your work.

Sue Peterson said...

I do think that including play based education in PREschool for all students and continuing that into their elementary education on at least some level would change education dramatically for the better. Some of what does not get discussed in these conversations is the loss of early intervention in these children's lives means they are constantly STRUGGLING in the classroom and we all know that frustration --> anger --> lashout. I believe this is much of the problem. I watch my daughter learn so much NATURALLY, without any real discipline being required and am fascinated. But, so many of these children just don't have access to those beneficial and rewarding experiences early on. No research to back this up, but I am a strong proponent of making preschool education accessible and focused on making education FUN for the students. Which you do a wonderful job of where you are.

Anonymous said...

I have worked for 20+ years with kids from challenging backgrounds and kids with social and emotional challenges...and the approaches you promote are what my teams have found ESSENTIAL for this population of kids. IMHO the new trends in drill and kill only increase the marginalization of our most needy kids. Can't wait for the pendulum to swing back again...

Anonymous said...

I recently observed in a classroom full of kids who are living in poverty, whose parents struggle with substance abuse and mental health issues, and who have experienced trauma and instability for many of their early years. The classroom is certainly structured and the teachers are absolutely consistent, but they are loving and compassionate and focus on supporting the children in gaining the social and emotional skills they need to be successful. They have an emergent, child-focused, play-based classroom. It might be harder work in their setting, but I'm stopping by to confirm that it works just as well in that setting with those kids as it does in "Teacher Tom's progressive hippie-dippie" co-op classroom of privileged children!

Scott said...

Tom, you've hit at the spot where I live now. As you know, I've jumped headlong into teaching in a public school. And my school has many lower socioeconomic families with little educational support at home (due to time or whatever). I keep getting the push for firmer routines and procedures. While I do need to create some better processes for next year, I always want to see the kids as people themselves - and not simply behaviors to be managed. Thanks for the reminders you gave me today...and I'm determined to find the right balance between structure and compassion.

Anna McCurdy said...

Teacher Tom,
I do teach in a school where many of my students do come from homes with limited incomes and different experiences. I have always believed that all kids need to have connections with their teachers and my little ones do need to know how to play . Play is much more than just keeping them entertained- it is about helping them develop the skills to solve social problems on the playground, turn taking, sharing and developing curiosity about the world around them. My kids know that they are important to us ( my teaching assistants and myself) and those relationships have them come back to visit our classroom regularly over the time that they are members of their school community. We all need to know that we are cared about, that we have talents and that we can be successful learners. Sometimes our school is the safest place for a child. Children don't live in vaccuums and while I can't change their life circumstances, I can help them develop into confident learners who are engaged in the learning. My kids know that they are valued and important and they are more likely to listen and follow the rules when they feel that they are in a place where people care about them.
Regards from Alberta Canada,

Anonymous said...

So well put. I am a teacher in a very low-income school with students who are challenged on many levels. I send my children to a hippy-dippy constructivist school that emphasizes discovery and creativity. I get a lot of flack for this from colleagues who think like Rhee. I agree that ALL children would benefit from love, compassion and unstructured play. The problem is it is SO HARD to provide that and make up for a lifetime of unmet needs in 6.5 hours a day, 175 days a year. There is so much pressure on schools and teachers now to prove we are not lowering our standards and letting these children fail. It can make us all forget why we do this at times. I just keep hoping this phase will pass soon and we can wake up from this bad dream.

Kelly said...

If a child is to learn to respect others, it must experience being respected.
If a child is to learn how to participate in a democratic society, it must experience having a voice and being listened to.
Serious educators use methods based on how children learn, not methods based on what makes the teachers work easier.
Children living in challenging situations need MORE respect, MORE democracy, MORE play-based learning to compensate for what their parents aren't able to give them.
Bullies need to be restrained, and shown the error of their ways. Teachers that bully need to fired.

Anonymous said...

I teach in a community that America has given up on. However I choose to not give up on kids that are considered a lost cause. But, being nice, modeling positive actions, and kindness is something they rarely see. Also you still have control with what you teach and how you teach it. I think this article shows, like Ms. Rhee, most administrators have no clue and should not be in the people business. A profession that is to create nice, intelligent, and critically thinking Americans. Stress and strictness just shuts down the best parts of a child's brain. I hope people stop listening to people like Rhee before they kill all public education which DeToqueville said America needs for a participating middle class and strong Democracy.

Anonymous said...

Having taught both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, i have concluded that there's a reason why we need flexible, patient and open to new ideas teachers and administrators. Either end of the spectrum from the worst of our urban public schools to the "order" and "march in line" authoritarian of Rhee - you're going to get a few but you're going to miss most. Neither are right, neither should be followed. My inner city class needed more order than my suburban AP class but not adult bullying and military precision for the love of pete. Where is common sense? how do you teach that?

Anonymous said...

I've worked with privileged kids and kids in poverty, and I firmly believe that they ALL need my love and compassion. Every child I've ever worked with responded best when I showed them respect and expected their respect in return. The early years are the foundation for future learning and if we want our children to be compassionate, feeling individuals, we need to show them how to be that way by our example.

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