The role of unions in technological change

October 23, 2010 at 8:47 am 28 comments

Greg Wilson pointed me to the O’Reilly site this last week, which has a series of blogs on how the solutions to our educational problems lie in tablets, and what’s preventing us from reaching this educational nirvana are teachers’ unions.

The poster child for the digital classroom is tablet computing. Tablets are traditionally seen as replacements for textbooks, but they can go much further than that: They’re musical instruments, design tools, personal trainers and art canvases. Tablet prices have dropped dramatically as well. When you add up the cost of a year’s textbooks, a tablet is often cheaper.

Tablets connect all of the stakeholders in a child’s education: parents, teachers, tutors and counsellors. But most importantly, tablets are two-way. When a student uses a tablet, the tablet can collect data: What’s read carefully and what’s glossed over; how long a student spends on certain topics; what works best and worst; and so on. In other words, when you learn from a tablet, it learns from you.

This is where my research went off the rails. Because a tablet is the perfect collector, it allows us to analyze learning patterns, identify root causes and compare students. What if the conclusion it reaches is that your teacher is simply awful? That Freakonomics piece pointed out that only 13 percent of eighth grade math teachers in New York City get 80 percent of their students to proficiency by the end of the year. Data acquired through a tablet is likely to point toward a bad conclusion for some number of teachers.

There’s a group that protects teachers from that kind of scrutiny and accountability: the teachers’ unions. In the U.S., teachers’ unions are the single largest political contributors. Teachers have a unionization rate that’s much higher than that of other industries. They have consistently opposed using student performance to rank teachers, despite extensive research showing that student performance is the most significant indicator of teacher competence. They’ve lobbied legislators to refuse donations to charter schools. It takes years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismiss a bad teacher. As a result, despite a lack of teaching ability, 99 percent of teachers get satisfactory ratings from their administrators.

via Tablets, education, and unions – O’Reilly Radar.

It’s a series of foaming, not well-argued blog posts imbibed with faith that technology bestows silicon grace.  Tablets are the answer because…well, MIT OpenCourseware exists!  And Unions are the problem because…well, we can get three pundits to say so!  I haven’t seen such faith in the power of technology to change education since Edison said much the same things about motion pictures (re: Larry Cuban).

I was simply going to ignore the posts, until The New York Times came out with an article yesterday defending teacher’s unions!

A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued a written rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman,” and she has publicly debated the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Ms. Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts.

In the past year, for example, she has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable. She has acted out of a fear that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.

“She has shrewdly recognized that teachers’ unions need to be part of the reform,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.

via Despite Image, Union Leader Backs School Change.

The solution to any educational problem is complex — you’re trying to change a system.  I completely believe that tablets could bring a lot of benefits to classrooms.  I am also quite sure that it would be hard and expensive to bring tablets into the classroom in a large way, and it could easily go wrong (e.g., teachers not taught how to use them well, lousy software), and then it’s just a waste of money.  It may very well be that unions are inhibiting reform — but given my battles with faculty, public sector education administrators, and school board bureaucracy, I don’t see that unions have the trump card here.

The corner of education that I focus on is computing education.  (Not “computer education” 🙂  And in that small corner, I don’t think that we know how to make everything work right, even if we had a magic wand to waive and “fix” the system all at once.  Is the new AP class “Computer Science: Principles” going to get really good computer science into 10,000 high schools?  That’s not even a well-formed question, since there are at least five different takes on that course now.  We’ll have to see, and measure what’s happening, and change strategies and tactics to fix problems we discover as we go along.  I’m pretty sure that dumping more tablet computers on classrooms will not make computing education much better.

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So what is “computer education”? Middle ground: Telepresence Teachers

28 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Garth  |  October 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    And how long would a tablet live in the average student backpack? “I forgot my tablet at home” would be a bit more serious that “I forgot my book”. Teachers always have a spare book. No school because the wireless went down? Education tech gurus are always good for a chuckle.

    My wife teaches at a public school. This year she got a 0.5% raise negotiated by the union. With the cost of living increase and the increase in her insurance premiums her overall raise was a loss of about $6000 per year. Let’s hear it for the unions.

  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    If students (particularly middle-school students) got a tablet with all their textbooks downloaded onto it, it would be good thing, as they are currently expected to carry 30 lbs or more of books and papers. Since students aren’t supposed to markup borrowed textbooks anyway, the poor annotation capabilities of e-books are not a serious limitation for this application. Wireless is not needed for accessing texts, and a tablet in a proper case has a better chance of surviving if there aren’t 30 lbs of books in the backpack.

    I don’t understand the segue in the original quote from tablets to teachers’ unions: the two are only linked in the most tenuous ways. Was there a big chunk cut out, or did the original quote really have such an awkward juxtaposition?

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  October 24, 2010 at 5:14 pm

      Click the link in the article and find out.

    • 4. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 24, 2010 at 8:30 pm

      I think he’s gunning at the teachers’ unions because, looking at it as a technologist, the slow rate of technology adoption in public education can only be explained by a conspiracy, and unions are a favorite source of conspiracies for libertarian minded people.

      I say this as a Libertarian. His argument resonates with me. But I think he’s off the mark. I also think the people who look at the true complexity of the infrastructure involved are off the mark, although it’s a much more believable.

      The tablet argument is a distraction. At the core, he’s arguing that individually tailored education is what works, and that technology is a key enabler in making individually tailored education economically feasible.

      Our current public education system more-or-less assumes everyone in a given classroom is more-or-less the same. I’m not saying anyone really believes this. I’m saying it’s a core simplifying assumption that the system has been built around. Shifting to an individual centered approach would shake the system to its core. I think it would present all sorts of non-technology issues that would be very, very difficult to handle.

      Why? Because it would accentuate the differences between people. A substantial majority would benefit, but those most able to learn with minimal human guidance, and/or who receive significant educational support at home (and thus human guidance), would benefit the most.

      Ignoring politics, the increased diversity in the classroom would make teaching more of a challenge. Think about even basic things. How do you assign grades if every student is at a different place? Who’s doing better, the student who’s ahead on subject matter but just meeting threshold to advance, or the student who is conscientiously obtaining perfect scores but progressing slowly? I’m sure these questions can be answered, or the existing techniques replaced, but it takes time. And not only to teachers and administrators need to accept it, parents have to accept it, too.

      Now bring in the politics and widely differing, and often conflicting, objectives people hold for education. Watch the system revert back to its old ways.

      I strongly believe in individualized education. I strongly believe technology is a critical enabler. But we have a big system with lots of inertia that’s riddled with politics.

  • 5. Gary Litvin  |  October 24, 2010 at 12:36 am

    We might not know how to make everything work, but we have a pretty got idea what works reasonably well and should take care not to break it. I don’t know whether AP Computer Science Principles is going to get really good computer science into 10,000 schools, but I do know that the College Board’s discontinuing AP CS AB exams will take away pretty good computer science out of 500 schools and validate lower standards for first-year CS offerings in many colleges.

    • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  October 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm

      “Working reasonably well” has to include economics and demographics. The AP CS AB didn’t break even for the College Board, so they canned it. The system includes costs. As Ben says, the AB was almost entirely white/Asian male. The system includes a breadth of population. Sure, the College Board could have given it more time, and the trends on the AB were positive. But for some value of “working,” the AB was not.

      • 7. Gary Litvin  |  October 24, 2010 at 7:18 pm

        It is true, of course, that the College Board worries about the bottom line. At the same time, with some pressure from the industry and a small NSF grant and/or contribution from the industry, the AB exam could continue. If I am not mistaken, NSF gave $2 million to the College Board just to to “explore” AP Computer Science Principles (a.k.a. CS-0?).

        Ibelieve it is a dangerous idea that curricula in technical fields should take “desired” demographics into consideration. If you want to attract disinterested or underprepared minorities into a field, invest in making them more interested and better prepared.

        Gary Litvin

        • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  October 24, 2010 at 7:51 pm

          “Invest in making them more interested and better prepared.” I think that that’s exactly what “AP Computer Science: Principles” is trying to do.

          • 9. Gary Litvin  |  October 24, 2010 at 8:09 pm

            Not if it comes in the wake of the cancelled AP CS AB, threatens to force out AP CS A, and encourages colleges to teach Scratch, admittedly a nice teaching tool, but originally intended for elementary and middle school kids.

          • 10. Gary Litvin  |  October 24, 2010 at 8:34 pm

            GL: If you want to attract disinterested or underprepared minorities into a field, invest in making them more interested and better prepared.

            Mark Guzdial: I think that that’s exactly what “AP Computer Science: Principles” is trying to do.

            Mark, if what you are saying is true, it is an admission of a sad reality: instead of pulling up underrepresented minorities to the previously established and acceptable level, we are lowering the bar for everybody.

            • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  October 24, 2010 at 9:08 pm

              Gary, entrance to undergraduate is not the finish line. It’s the starting line. You’re right that, without Level AB, we will have fewer students entering undergraduate without already learning content like dynamic data structures. The new AP CS:P is not going to correct that problem. However, I hope that you agree that undergraduate computer science takes students beyond Level AB data structures. Students in Level AB don’t tend to graduate with their Bachelors degrees knowing a lot more computer science than students who don’t have Level AB, e.g., students who have AP credit skip out of some classes or get credit, so they graduate early, or take more classes in something (not necessarily more CS). Thus, entering with AP credit, or not, doesn’t change the “bar” — if the goal is having more people graduate with undergraduate-level CS. The AP CS:P may get more people to the starting line. Yes, they won’t know as much entering their undergraduate years. That’s okay. It’s more important to get more kids in the game.

              The AP CS exams (both Level A and Level AB) have admirable track records of students going on for more CS — Trevor said that at last year’s faculty colloquium. AP Bio students, for example, are less likely to go on for more Bio. For relatively few students is the AP CS the last CS they’ll ever see. The AP CS is about getting students started, and we’re better off the more students who take it. The “sad reality” is that our high school infrastructure can’t currently support Level AB. I hope it will one day. The right goal for high school is to get more kids into CS at the undergraduate level — that’s the “bar” that matters.

  • 12. Ben Chun  |  October 24, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    My gut reaction is the same as Litvin. It’s also true that what was working reasonably well with the AB exam, and first-year CS offerings in general, was working much better with specific demographics versus others. If we want to tackle problems of that nature, you’re right to say it’s going to take a lot more than magic tablets or convenient scapegoats.

  • 13. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 24, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    “The AP CS:P may get more people to the starting line. Yes, they won’t know as much entering their undergraduate years. That’s okay. It’s more important to get more kids in the game.”

    My concern is that AP CS:P is not a college-level class. It is a high-school level class. I don’t like seeing college credit for high-school level math or science, and AP has resisted that so far (though many community colleges and state universities give college credit for high-school level work in both—the most common math class in college is “college algebra”, which is really high-school algebra).

    Do we really want to give college credit for CS:P? (Probably, since even first-rank universities are giving college credit for this level of class, though the courses generally don’t count towards the major in any computer-related field.)

  • 14. Alistair Croll  |  October 26, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    I figured I’d chime in here since you’re all speculating on what I meant. Hopefully you can bear with my foaming, not-well-argued responses. 😉

    First, let me be the first to admit that I know very little about the life of an urban public schoolteacher. I tried in the post (and ensuing comments) to respond in kind to many of the comments, and I was surprised at how polarizing the article was. The O’Reilly piece was a summary of the much longer, four-part post I wrote on Human 2.0 ( so if you’re curious about the full background (@gasstation), please feel free to look that over. While I talked to several teachers, and spent considerable time reading and learning about the problem, I don’t claim to know the answers, and I can only hope to learn from the discussion as I have so far.

    The tablets in the title of that piece were a bit of a red herring. I see tablet computing as a catalyst for the widespread move to a “digital classroom”, for the reasons I’ve explained — cheaper access to data, interactivity, and so on. @Garth, I agree that there are technical hurdles to cross; but somehow Haitian children keep their OLPC notebooks working (I’ve bought two for Haiti) and conditions there aren’t generally good for electronic devices.

    Now, what I do know about is analytics. I spend a lot of time understanding how we can track and optimize things when we have enough information. And tablets (or the “digital classroom”, or the “school of one”, or whatever you want to call it) are amazing at collecting information on student behavior.

    You can slice that information in many ways: by student, by subject, by learning style, by time of day, and so on. You’ll likely get good insights from such analysis. In many cases, it could be used to defend a good teacher, rather than to pinpoint a bad one.

    I think it’s unfair to characterize my arguments as “tablets are the answer because…well, MIT OpenCourseware exists!” In fact, I went to great lengths to say that it’s not the presence of content — but the interactivity and analyze-ability of digital learning — that makes this a game changer to which unions have to adjust.

    Similarly, I don’t think unions are the problem because three pundits say so. I think that some unions have a history of trying to prevent the disclosure of student performance, and of making it very hard to identify and correct bad teaching. And those unions, when faced with a technology that shines the bright light of data on students, will resist it.

    @Erik: you’re spot on: “individually tailored education is what works”. I am arguing that individually tailored education can only be efficiently delivered through digital means; and that digital delivery means personal data collection; and that personal data collection means analytics and transparency.

    If you’re really interested in the subject, I suggest you look at the four posts in the original piece, and in particular, the last of them — which considers how complex the system is and how the role of educators needs to change as we move to digital learning.

    • 15. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2010 at 10:33 am

      Alistair, there are some things that we don’t do in the name of science. If we hooked kids up to feeding tubes and had them live their lives on treadmills, we’d improve our understanding of metabolic rates and could perhaps solve some problems of childhood obesity — but that would be cruel. Linguists talk about The Forbidden Experiment, raising a child without language to see how he thinks. We don’t risk our children’s education, health, or happiness just to measure them. “First, do no harm!”

      If we had evidence that education with tablets was better than the status quo, then getting analytics too would be wonderful. Adding tablets just to get analytics, when the tablet-based education could be worse is unethical. There are lots of places in the world where the status quo is probably worse than tablets. Not clear that’s true in the US. If MIT Open Courseware was terrific, then that would be one of your stronger arguments for “digital education.” The ITS folks got it right. First, they showed that they could teach markedly better with their tutors than traditional. Then, they started mining the analytics to tailor and make it even better. If your strongest argument is that “the interactivity and analyze-ability of digital learning…makes this a game changer to which unions have to adjust,” then I don’t think you have a convincing argument.

      I understand that you think that unions are getting in the way. The NYTimes suggests otherwise.

      I do agree that @Erik has it right — what we’re after is successful individually-tailored education. But if books are better than tablets for learning, then I’d rather stick with books rather than choose an inferior medium just to get the analytics and individual tailoring. I am personally very interested in making educational technology that is better than books. In the meantime, while books are better, I’d rather take advantage of the fact that there are lots of books out there, and choose to “tailor” by having a good parent, teacher, or librarian suggest the best books for a given child. It’s not worth giving our kids worse just to measure them.

  • 16. Peter Keane  |  October 27, 2010 at 1:56 am

    I was one of the commenters on the original post (I had lots of criticisms). I think there are numerous problems with the article, although at its core there is something useful which is the question: “can we, and if so, *how* can we use analytic tools to assess and aid students learning new concepts, techniques, etc.” The article makes a leap akin to a prediction that all the promises of AI are suddenly around the corner (obviously not so). I think unions and tablets are both basically beside the point (unions are a red herring and tablets are an as-yet unimportant implemenation detail).

    Teachers assess student all the time. My wife is a reading coach and she regularly assesses students hand-written assignments. If it is feasible to have students type those assignements into a web form, we might get good immediate feedback (as long as the assessment formula can be expressed algorithmically). It’s really a content-creation challenge (and a huge one) — how do we create the exercises, what sort of responses are we looking for, etc (what’s the algorithm). I think you could definitely do the multiple-choice test one better. The idea that we’ll get anything like accurate assessments based on arbitrary web-based content reading/scanning patterns strike me as unrealistic in the extreme.

    Complex analytics that are going to allow you to really gauge all sorts of things about the user (and a child in the process of learning is a *hugely* complicated subject of study) would surely be a goldmine for advertisers of online merchants. I always say — look at those whose bottom-line drives them to perfect these ideas/challenges. That’s where you’ll find the leading edge. Indeed, we see folks like Amazon doing incredible things, as are other folks (Google, Bing, Pandora(?), others?). It’s not like your going to do a heck of a lot better than those folks. Why not take solid, proved, current-state-of-the-art techniques and see if can, in little ways, apply them to education. It won’t be magic and it won’t be transformational, but it might help a bit.

    • 17. Mark Guzdial  |  October 27, 2010 at 10:12 am

      Peter, this is already happening. The Intelligent Tutoring System folks are now collecting enough high-quality data that data mining techniques are being used to analyze the data. The KDD Cup this year was based on a student-data analytics challenge:

    • 18. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 27, 2010 at 9:38 pm

      What’s missing from your summary that was one of Alistair’s key points is that computer driven assessment of students could be used to assess teachers as well. Today this is done in a really crude way with big standardized tests. Individual assessments of students could provide a clearer picture. Unions may object to such a detailed peak into what individual teachers achieve. Or they may welcome moving beyond today’s crude methods. I don’t really know.

      But I think you’re right that it will be a long time before we have effective automated grading and feedback for more free form questions and assignments. There currently is no good substitute for a teacher reading an essay and critiquing it. I think we’ll get there eventually, but it will be a while.

      • 19. Peter Keane  |  October 30, 2010 at 1:04 am


        You (and Alistair) accept the deeply flawed assumption that the “problem” with public education is bad teachers. Again, it is with incredible hubris that number-crunchers speculate that they are going to come in and accurately assess whether an individual is a “good” or “bad” teacher. Those judgements are best left to peers, principles, teaching coaches, etc. The number of variables at play are far too great, and the nuances of individual sitiations are too complex and subtle. My wife is a teacher/reading specialist/teaching coach. Assessing teacher performance is a v. important part of her job and she brings 20 years of experience to bear on this task. You guys seem to think that schools had never thought of this or are not meeting this challenge head on. You say “Unions may object to such a detailed peak [sic] into what individual teachers achieve.” As if it is a forgone conclusion that accurate output measures are even possible! This is what teachers and unions are objecting to: we are being sold snake-oil by folks who claim to be doing “accurate” assessment. Secondly, assessment with the goal of improving outcomes would be welcome. Again, if my wife identifies problem with a teacher in some aspect of their performance — and there are *many* aspects of the teacher’s role to consider — she works with them to improve that aspect. The current hysteria seems to suggest a “do better or get canned” attitude. It’s just really, really insane. No other profession would stand for it.

        • 20. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 30, 2010 at 10:19 am

          I think you’re mis-reading my comments, and probably Alistair’s as well. Let me take a step back with an example from industry.

          Recently the sponsor of an R&D project I’m working dropped into one of our meetings, and the following exchange between him and our chief architect ensued (more or less):

          Sponsor: Have you verified that your design meets your requirements?
          Chief Architect: Of course it meets the requirements! Don’t you trust us? If you don’t trust us we might as well stop now.
          Sponsor: Of course I trust you. If I didn’t trust you I wouldn’t being funding you. I just want to see some evidence.

          I’ll call this a “trust but verify” attitude. It’s quite healthy.

          You seem to be asserting that we need to trust the teachers and administrators in our education system, because it’s complicated. I’ll point out that we continue to send millions of children and billions of taxpayer dollars through the system. The ultimate measure of trust is still there.

          But the only evidence we have says our educational system is failing miserably, and has been for a long time. At a system level that trust seems to be grossly misplaced.

          We need to see some evidence that the trust is not misplaced, that genuine progress is being made. The suggestions being made may or may not be a good idea. If the suggestions really are so objectionable, I would suggest coming up with alternate suggestions, rather than repeating the “trust us” mantra.

          You say:
          The current hysteria seems to suggest a “do better or get canned” attitude. It’s just really, really insane. No other profession would stand for it.

          Other professions most certainly stand for such an attitude. Most high performers I know find failures to follow through with such an attitude to be immensely frustrating and ultimately highly destructive to the overall performance of an organization.

          • 21. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 30, 2010 at 11:19 am

            While I think that there is common agreement (among teachers as well as policy wonks) that the US education system is not working as well as it should, I don’t think that there is agreement on what the system should be doing, nor where the failures are coming from.

            This lack of clarity, both with what we want to accomplish and why the current system doesn’t accomplish it, makes debugging the system very difficult. Everyone is doing what our beginning programming students do when they debug: making random changes in the hope that they will magically cause the problem to go away.

            The standards movement is a (somewhat feeble) attempt to define what we want the system to do, in a measurable way. There is pretty wide agreement among teachers that the government standards do a poor job of specifying what we want schools to accomplish, as they focus on the most measurable, rather than the most important aspects of education.

            The anti-union movement is just that, anti-union, with arguments created simply to attack unions without any need to base the argument on sound data. Treating the difficulty with education as a labor-management issue does not get at any of the real problems of education, but it plays well politically for both pro-labor and anti-labor politicians. It also requires no thought from politicians about the real problems, and so is doubly attractive.

          • 22. Peter Keane  |  October 30, 2010 at 1:11 pm


            Read “gasstationwithoutpumps: reply. I agree wholeheartedly with him. A few points: I’d like to see data that our “education system is failing miserably” — it’s a canard that is endlessly repeated and is simply not true. Our society is failing our children (esp. in lower socio-economic classes), but to blame schools for that is simply poor (lazy) analysis. As I’ve said before (in reply to Alistair’s article) — go spend some time in public schools. Go to “rich” and “poor” schools, and see what goes on there. See the challenges, successes, and failures. You will see with much greater clarity how poorly directed the current “conversation” is.

            Secondly, that thought that you can draw up a set of “requirements” that, when “met” indicates success is quite questionable. Good system development requires tight iteration loops, and requirements generally evolve as the specifics of a particular project are better understood by all involved. Often, even the definition of “success” changes.” I’m not suggesting we don’t need measures of success, I’m saying it’s a v. hard problem and should be treated with nuance and sophistication. Likewise, what makes a good software developer? I’ve managed enough to have a good sense of that, and I can assure it is a very, very difficult to judge their effectiveness without a deep knowledge of and extensive experience in development oneself. The current craze for teacher assessment is akin to someone with very little knowledge of programming coming in and judging programmers based on the lines of code they produce. As I said, the profession would never stand for it.

            “Trust but verify” is fine — treat the challenge with the sophistication it requires. The ideas presented in Alistairs article smell of hubris. simple-mindedness, paternalism, disrespect, and techno-utopianism.

  • 23. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 30, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    You’re points about programmers are well taken, and I’ll point out that people are constantly struggling to come up with better ways to measure programmers, or at least qualitatively judge them. Many programmers are obsessed with it!

    Of course on a wide scale the results aren’t too good, but I think there are numerous pockets of success. The problem is it’s hard, both to come up with good measures and then even more work to actually make the measurements. Some companies care enough to do this, most don’t.

    So where in public view are informed discussions about measuring teacher performance taking place? Do you have any links? It seems research on measuring students is relatively easy to find. Perhaps the research on measuring teachers is just a little more obscure but there none-the-less?

  • 24. Peter Keane  |  October 30, 2010 at 3:08 pm


    Thanks for asking. I’m going to see if I can talk my wife into writing something up. It’s an important part of what she does, and you are right — we outside the profession don’t really have a very good sense of it.

    For now, she’s given me a short list of folks — researchers and practitioners that have written extensively about teaching practices (esp. in reading, since that is my wife’s area). Her role is both to coach teachers in these best practices and also assess the teachers in how well they apply best practices. Not included here are works about basic classroom management, which is also a hugely important part of effectivie teaching (and which figures largely in her assessments).

    Regie Routman ( esp. “Reading Essentials” and “Teaching Essentials”

    Stephanie Harvey ( esp. “Strategies that Work”

    Timothy Rasinski ( esp. work on fluency and Readers Theater

    John Seidlitz ( esp. student engagement strategies

    Fountas & Pinnell ( esp. “Guiding Readers and Wrtiers”

    Richard Allington ( esp. “what Really Matters for Struggling Readers”

    Isabel Beck (

    I’m no expert myself, but from hearing her, these folks seem to be the “Steve McConnell, Brian Kernighan, Kent Beck, Ward Cunningham, Robert Martin, etc.” of the teaching profession. Just like we’d expect someone judging/assessing a programmer’s work to be familiar with those authors, these educators and researchers are the folks someone judging teachers ought to be familiar with.

    Ah — just came across this (again):
    It’s perhaps the most insightful piece I have read on why our current approach to “improving” public schools is doomed.

  • 25. Peter Keane  |  October 30, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    Hi Erik-

    Not sure why wordpress is not accepting my comment :(. I’ve put a copy here meanwhile:

    • 26. Erik Engbrecht  |  October 30, 2010 at 7:59 pm

      Thanks. I have a follow up question.

      It sounds like assessment is really dependent on expert judgement based on direct interaction. Honestly, that doesn’t really surprise me.

      How do you make that scale?

      Decisions about education seem to be increasingly centralized in higher-and-higher authorities. The advantage of objective data is that it can be aggregated. Used properly it can become more powerful at larger scales. Subjective assessment tends to be the reverse. It can be very effective at a localized level, but aggregating it up from a “command and control” perspective is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

  • 27. Peter Keane  |  October 30, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Good question. The education reformers that I read and really respect recognize the importance of more localized assessment — it is one of the reason they say that involving the community, not just school or govt officials, is crtitically important.

    I’d also say that as in most things, recognizing the “problem” is the first step in the battle. The idea that teacher assessment doesn’t scale is a really important fact-on-the-ground (I’d like to know *any* profession which requres a comparable amout of creativitiy for which assessment *does* scale!). With that as a given, a more fruitful discussion can begin. It’s really a matter of degree, though. I personally would not abolish all the sorts of testing we do now — I think the approach may have merit if used as one of many measures that are considered. From my wife’s perspective, she sees the “drill-and-kill” teach-to-the-test approach suffocating schools (esp. the schools in poorer district) and tying the hands of truly effective & creative teachers. But she admits that the attention it brings to education and the light it shines on the challenges therein is a good thing in many ways.

    I’d also say that teachers are often the most exacting judges of other teachers. A third-grade teacher who gets a classroom of kids that had a poor second-grade teacher is going to have a much tougher time (and the reverse is true as well — teachers really know when the class had a great teacher the previous year). But what do you do with “under-performers”? That’s my wife’s job and it is a crucial one for building a good school — “mentor” teachers, good reading & math specialists (who play the role of teaching “coach”), good professional development programs, etc. Frankly, it’s just not that different from how you build a good software development team. I suspect, though, that there is a wider set of skills that comes into play in teaching as opposed to software development, i.e. the “profile” of a good teacher is probably harder to arrive at than the “profile” of a good software developer.

    How does one build a good software team? That’s a hard task and one of the things I love about this profession is that we think/write/talk about it quite a lot. I’d love to see that in the teaching profession, but we are not anywhere near the point that the profession is respected enough that such conversations can flourish. A much, much meatier conversation needs to take place. It’s why talk of “union-busting tablets” strike me as a ludicrous waste of time & energy. I’d add that while we don’t spend *all* of our time talking about assessing programmers and “weeding out the lemons,” neither should we spend all of our time talking about that in education (again — it is a matter of degree). Where is the Marco & Lister (Peopleware) in the education realm? That’s exactly where the conversation should begin (i.e., “this is the environment w/in which good teaching happens…”). Then we can start building out from there to figure out what it takes to build the public education system we’d all like to see.

  • 28. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  October 30, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    “Decisions about education seem to be increasingly centralized in higher-and-higher authorities.” This may, in fact, be the problem. There is no evidence of economy of scale in education, but people insist on applying factory-management techniques to it.


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October 2010

CS Teaching Tips

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