This spring has been filled with a debate about whether or not standardized testing in public schools should be continued or cancelled. And right now there seems to be a widespread obsession with measuring students’ “learning loss” in this disrupted COVID-19 year. A lot of this anxiety about whether the COVID-19 generation will ever be able to catch up has less to do with the students themselves, however, and more to do with the fact that many people don’t really know what teachers do. Some people think of teachers essentially as babysitters; others imagine teachers merely lecturing all day in front of classrooms of students taking notes or dozing as they sit in rows of desks. Lots of people seem to imagine that teachers won’t know what to do with their students unless they see the scores on the federally required standardized tests in English language arts and math.
Back in the winter, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published a letter from 74 national public education advocacy organizations and ten thousand individuals to the recently nominated education secretary, Miguel Cardona. In the letter asking Cardona to cancel standardized testing in this year of COVID-19 school closures and disruption, the writers concluded: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”
Last week, as part of a series of columns this spring on how teachers can support students once back in school, Valerie Strauss published a wonderful piece by Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento.
As he reflects upon the students who spent much of the current school year online or on hybrid in-person/online schedules, Ferlazzo supports research showing that remedial classes—which go back and start with the basics one step at a time—are a bad plan. Ferlazzo agrees with researchers who have demonstrated that “accelerated” learning is a good idea, but he advises school districts not to spend a lot of money at the publishing houses and online companies promoting their expensive “accelerated learning” products:
“‘Accelerated Learning’ appears to be the buzzword of the day in education. It’s what all schools are supposed to be doing to help students recover from another buzzword—‘learning loss.’… I suspect that a fair number of people are going to try to make a lot of money off of ‘accelerated learning’ products and professional development over the next year and more. And, though I agree that accelerated learning is what is called for right now (and always!), I also don’t think it’s anything new, don’t think it’s anything magical, and don’t think it’s anything that districts need to spend a lot of money to learn about. It is, in fact, what good teachers of English Language Learners have been doing for years. Good ELL teaching is good teaching for everybody!”
Of course, Ferlazzo is not writing about some of what teachers do in classes for non-speakers and non-readers of English. He isn’t writing about pattern practice drills or conversation “dialogues” that reinforce the rudiments of English syntax and help students learn the nuances of conversation. These parts of English language classes are more like mind-numbing remedial education.
Instead, Ferlazzo writes about something more complicated and more subtle: “ELL teachers know that whatever kind of schooling their students received or did not receive in their home countries, they nevertheless bring a wealth of experience and knowledge into the classroom. This knowledge includes social emotional learning skills like resilience, and understandings that can be connected to academic content. (They might not know specifically about Mardi Gras, but they will know about cultural celebrations; they may not know about the American Civil War, but they will know about conflicts in their home country/region; they may not know about the specific details of climate change, but they may know that one of the reasons their families were forced to leave their country might have been due to more recent drought conditions.) During the pandemic… all of our students have acquired an enormous amount of other knowledge and skills.”
Ferlazzo suggests that good teachers know “how to look at their students through the lens of assets and not deficits.”
He suggests that good teachers will build their students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and explore. They will make “students feel they have some control over what they are being taught and how they are learning. Providing choice is an easy way for teachers to incorporate this quality” including well designed writing assignments and homework options. Good teachers build confidence instead of threatening students about falling behind: “Research says that no matter how much we say that people learn a lot from failure, most do not….” Good teachers make their classrooms into settings for relatedness, “where students feel like the work they are being asked to do is bringing them into relationship with people they like and respect” including the teacher and other students through group work. Finally, good teachers know how to make the subject matter of the class relevant to students’ lives, to their personal interests, and to what’s happening in the world.
Good teachers activate and provide prior knowledge. “Prior knowledge is not just what students bring to our classrooms. It is also knowledge that we strategically provide so they can access even newer content that we will be teaching… (W)e are better learners of something new if we can connect it to something we already know.”
Ferlazzo adds that good teachers make students comfortable emotionally by emphasizing supportive relationships, and organizing classes according to predictable routines. Good teachers use all sorts of “formative assessments”—“low stakes tools” that show the teacher what students can do and where they need help. Good teachers provide study organizers—charts and graphic organizers, note-taking strategies, writing frames and other techniques to help them be independent learners. And finally, Ferlazzo advocates the use of some adaptive online instruction tools, though in this case, he is very clear: “Tech has its place in education, and it also has to be kept in its place… Really, if we were going to be able to ‘technify’ ourselves to academic excellence, wouldn’t that have happened in many places over the past 15 months?”
I am struck with the similarity of Ferlazzo’s definition of great “accelerated” learning as students return to school post-pandemic with education professor and writer Mike Rose’s basic definition of good teaching. Rose’s book, the 1995, Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (with a new edition in 2006), is the story of a four year trip he took across the United States to observe excellent teaching. Possible Lives came right before our nation fell into the trap of No Child Left Behind and the era of corporate, test based school accountability. It is the very best book I know about great teaching.
Nearly 20 years after the publcation of Possible Lives, in an extraordinary 2014 article pushing back against the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top era’s school reform, Rose summarizes what he has learned about teaching over a career of observing great teachers: “Some of the teachers I visited were new, and some had taught for decades. Some organized their classrooms with desks in rows, and others turned their rooms into hives of activity. Some were real performers, and some were serious and proper. For all the variation, however, the classrooms shared certain qualities. These qualities emerged before our era’s heavy reform agenda, yet most parents, and most reformers, would want them for their children. The classrooms were safe. They provided physical safety…. but there was also safety from insult and diminishment…. Intimately related to safety is respect…. Talking about safety and respect leads to a consideration of authority…. A teacher’s authority came not just with age or with the role, but from multiple sources—knowing the subject, appreciating students’ backgrounds, and providing a safe and respectful space. And even in traditionally run classrooms, authority was distributed…. These classrooms, then, were places of expectation and responsibility…. Overall the students I talked to, from primary-grade children to graduating seniors, had the sense that their teachers had their best interests at heart and their classrooms were good places to be.”
Mike Rose, a scholar who has studied good teaching over a long career, and Larry Ferlazzo, an experienced and thoughtful high school teacher, warn us not to underestimate what good teachers know how to do.