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Bruno: A Math Professor's Year Teaching High School

image from www.clipartguide.comDarryl Yong is a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College. In 2009 he used his sabbatical  to teach math at a low-achieving, high-need high school. Now he has written a piece about his experiences that appears in the new issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

It's highly readable and both more insightful and more authentic than most attempts to present the "public school experience." (Disclosure: Darryl is also a colleague of my wife.)

Many of the anecdotes resonate with my own experience in public schools and I think Darryl is exactly right in many of his diagnoses of what ails us. I'll put the rest of my thoughts below the fold, including my proposal that one problem in particular ties many of these lessons together.

In the time since the end of the 2009-2010 school year Darryl has drawn four big-picture "lessons" from his time in the K-12 world:
  1. Schools are complex systems involving people, culture, and policies.
  2. Student self-concept is the best explanatory variable for student success.
  3. Teaching is a far less respected profession than it should be.
  4. It's not the written curriculum that matters, it's the assessed curriculum.

Most readers of this site probably would not argue with any of those points, but the article elaborates on each point clearly and compellingly and so is worth reading in its entirety. 

Explicitly mentioned only once (as an aside) is fact that "researchers haven't yet conclusively figured out what makes a teacher more effective", but I think this gets at a problem that underlies many of Darryl's most frustrating experiences: there is not a clear consensus in K-12 education about what good teaching looks like.

For example, I think Darryl is correct to emphasize the importance of "minute, detailed, careful scaffolding" to help weaker students be successful, but that view is not universally shared by teachers. Had more of a consensus existed, it's unlikely that his administrators would have tried - and failed - to implement "project-based learning" school-wide. Those sorts of less-guided approaches are likely to be especially difficult to implement with low-achieving students, and therefore more likely to be scrapped after a year or two.

It's frustrating to "change from one fad to another every few years", but a lack of clear consensus about good teaching leaves a lot of room for fads to make their way into schools. Weak collective professional teaching standards also probably make it harder to provide meaningful professional development, a problem Darryl returns to more than once.

I realize that there are a variety of reasons that administrators may be unable or unwilling to provide direct, concrete professional development after observations or during faculty meetings. However, it can only make that task more difficult that teachers themselves do not even always agree that there are objectively better and worse ways to teach. I do not envy an administrator trying to speak with authority on the subject of good teaching. Indeed, are any such authorities recognized by a strong majority of teachers?

I think Darryl is right that the problems facing K-12 public education are subtle and numerous; his four lessons should be learned by reformers from every camp. I also think, though, that we shouldn't underestimate the extent to which one very fundamental problem can underlie many other disparate-seeming problems. A lack of practical consensus about what good teaching looks like may be one such fundamental problem. - PB (@MrPABruno


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Darryl is exactly right in many of his diagnoses of what ails us.

This is one of the fine articles you can locate in the net explanation all in feature about the topic.

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