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Saturday, October 9, 2010

York Comprehensive Teacher Has It Right!

York Comprehensive High School AP English Teacher Kay McSpadden (and Rock Hill District Three Parent) usually has an article in the Saturday Charlotte Observer. She has a post in the October 9 paper which you should read. You can find the article by clicking here .  I've also copied it below:

Nakedness of education fads

By Kay McSpadden
Guest Columnist
The emperor has no clothes, and neither do educators who rely on fads not based on research. FILE PHOTO

I haven't seen "Waiting for Superman," the documentary which tracks five American students as they try to win slots in charter schools to escape their impoverished public schools, but the title is suggestive - only a cartoon superhero can save education.
I wouldn't mind a superhero. Education blogger Anthony Cody suggested this week that teachers are always expected to be saints - working for low pay, putting in many unpaid hours, taking it on the chin when students don't achieve as fast or as far as we like - and when they aren't, they are labeled sinners. A superhero would make the need for saints obsolete.
Rather than feeling like I'm living in a cartoon, however, teaching these days feels more like a fairy tale.
"Cinderella" comes to mind for obvious reasons - but the story that jumps out at me lately is "The Emperor's New Clothes."
Fads come and go
You remember the story. Two weavers con an emperor out of money by promising to make clothes for him that are invisible to anyone unworthy or unintelligent. The emperor himself can't see them but pretends to - as do his loyal advisers. Only when the emperor parades before the townspeople and a child blurts out the truth does the emperor suspect he's been hoodwinked.
Like the emperor, educators are always looking for clothes - tools, strategies, glitzier ways of instructing and assessing students.
And like the emperor, we fall for fads that promise the impossible.
Stay in education long enough and you see those fads rise and fall as research catches up to the hype and disproves them.
Recently the idea that students have specific learning types has come under serious scrutiny by researchers who examined all of the data and concluded that "very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education ... We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice."
Published as "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" in "Psychological Science in the Public Interest," the article notes that publishers and consultants have much to lose if the skepticism about the research becomes public.
How to get labeled 'obstructionist'
Related to the idea of learning styles is another fad that is coming under increasing fire.
Mike Schmoke, education writer and consultant, wrote in Education Week about the lack of evidence supporting "differentiated instruction" - the idea that teachers can assess the specific learning styles of each student and craft their lessons to match.
"I had seen this innovation in action," Schmoke writes. "In every case, it seemed to complicate teachers' work, requiring them to procure and assemble multiple sets of materials ... We now have evidence that the investment in DI, despite the hype and priority it received, was never fully warranted. It is on no list, short or long, of the most effective educational actions or interventions. Several recent reviews of research by prominent scholars in the field demonstrate that the concept has been running largely on enthusiasm and a certain superficial logic ... In fact, the very notion that DI puts so much stock in - that every student has a distinct learning style or 'modality' and must be taught accordingly - has been roundly debunked...."
Yet anyone who shouts out "The emperor has no clothes" is called unworthy or unintelligent - as critics of some of the new school reform fads can testify.
Question anything now - from the heavy-handed tactics of D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee to the administration's metric for divvying up funds with Race to the Top - and get labeled "anti-kid" or "obstructionist."
Back to basics, please
The real clothes that education needs are what Schmoke calls "old friends" - a rich curriculum, reading and writing for hundreds of hours across the disciplines, and multiple checks for learning.
Nothing fancy, nothing you need Superman to do - or saints, for that matter. Good teachers do this all the time - and most students are learning.
But you wouldn't know it if you listen to all the recent press.
Even the usually indifferent New Yorker weighed in recently with an article asking why the news media are so negative about education these days. High poverty schools aside, most American children are getting a good education - as evidenced by their ability to go on to college, work, or the military with success.
No one's perfect - I've said it before and I'll say it again, that on any given day I am both the worst and the best teacher in my school, depending on the moment you walk into my class.
I'm not Superman, and I'm not a saint, but I go to work every day determined to help my students learn to read and write and think more clearly.
That's the reality - and it's no fairy tale to me.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of "Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching." Write her at

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