A New Role for the U.S. Department of Education

serlioPresident Trump suggested during his campaign that he would get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. His nominee for secretary of education, Betsy Devos, calls for more “local control,” charters, and vouchers; in addition, she intends to end the Common Core initiative.

I have criticized Obama’s “Race to the Top” program and many aspects of the Common Core–but I see a different and more promising role for the Department of Education. Here are some things that it can do if it stays intact.

First, it can seek out, vet, and publish the best curricular materials from schools and colleges around the country–so that, for instance, someone teaching Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or someone introducing students to statistics, can easily access a curriculum map, texts, questions, problems, and more. The schools and teachers whose work was published would be duly acknowledged and honored.

Second, it can initiate nationwide discussions that cut through typical ideological divides. Regardless of where people stand on issues such as charters, unions, testing, and “grit,” they can come together to discuss, for instance, the teaching of algebra or medieval history. These discussions would kindle public interest and stimulate additional dialogues.

Third, it can do its usual work: conduct, analyze, and disseminate research; oversee and award grants; and support the implementation of federal education law. This work would be substantial and ongoing–but the curricular work and the nationwide discussions would illuminate and elevate the rest.

Why bother?  someone might ask. Why not leave it to local entities to figure out their own curricula? Surely there’s enough published online that they won’t have trouble gathering resources.

Well, a lot of the material currently online is junk. Also, a lot of good work never gets posted publicly online, as schools see no benefit in posting it. Many curricula exist just as rough drafts (at best), since people are too busy during the year to revise them. Also, a curriculum does not tell you much, unless you know the subject matter. Since schools have such different bases of knowledge, one school’s curriculum might not even make sense to others.

By honoring schools with outstanding curricula, the Department of Education could create an incentive for them to polish and develop their  work. In addition, it could help supplement and interpret such curricula. It could work with education schools to include some of the works and topics in their education courses. Some items in the curricula could become topics of nationwide conversation.

What do you mean by “outstanding”? someone else might ask. Your idea of “outstanding” might differ from other people’s.

Yes, but I see ways to cut through these shells of opinion. By “outstanding” I mean, in this context, intellectually sound and rich. An outstanding curriculum honors the subject matter, considers it from different angles, and helps students understand, interpret, and question it.

I have been in the room when a colleague taught memorable lessons on Hamlet. They stood out for their close attention to Shakespeare’s language, the subtle combination of exposition and open discussion, and the quality of questions. Such lessons, if published, would inspire others; before long, there would be not only a repository of excellent Hamlet materials, but a lively nationwide discussion of Hamlet itself.

Yet another person might comment: “The idea of nationwide discussion sounds great, of course, but is this really the government’s business?” To this I answer: Why should a federal department (especially a department of education) not initiate lively and vigorous public discussion? Doesn’t that enhance democracy itself? It would not be the sole locus of such discussion, but it would set an example.

In short, the U.S. Department of Education could help promote intellectual vitality in the schools and beyond. Some may say, “This will never happen.” Well, it probably won’t happen in the next four years, but that does not render it impossible for all time. With all the talk of educational innovation, why not try the most interesting of all: the public study and discussion of works and ideas?

Image credit: Frontispiece for Sebastiano Serlio’s Book of Antiquities.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

District Mandates Innovation in All Schools

New Fork, NY—Responding to the lack of innovation in some schools, and the multiple definitions of innovation in others, the New Fork Department of Education has ordered all schools to follow a streamlined, data-driven innovation rubric that spells out precisely what an innovative school and classroom should look like.

“It’s time for every school in this district to become innovative,” said schools chief Frank Lubie. “There is no excuse for doing the ‘same old, same old,’ or dibbly-dabbling in your own special thing. Innovation is research-driven, we know what it is, and it’s time for everyone to get on board with it.” Any school in the district that has not become innovative by 2015–2016 will lose fifty percent of its funding.

What does an innovative school look like? First, its bulletin boards must look innovative. “Every bulletin board must have a task, a Common Core State Standard, and a rubric, along with graded student work with a recent date,” said Lubie. “Not one of those items can be missing.” Just how is this innovative? “Research has shown that innovative schools have bulletin boards that conform to this standard,” he replied. “That’s why we call them innovative schools.”

Next, all classrooms must have a four-square chart on the wall. “It can serve various purposes,” said Literacy and Innovation Coach (LIC) Sally Onwys, “but it must be clearly visible, and it must be used.” One purpose was to show students how to write a paragraph. “In the middle, you’ve got your topic sentence,” she said, “but it’s in a diamond, so it’s still a four-square chart. Then you have an opening supportive sentence, two more supportive sentences with evidence—that’s the most innovative part, since no one used evidence in the past—and a summary sentence. Do that for four more paragraphs, and you’ve got an innovative essay in an innovative classroom, all thanks to the innovative chart.”

What if a student finds that a summary sentence is not needed, or that two supportive sentences do the trick? “That student will still have to follow instructions,” Onwys replied. “What’s good for one is good for all. To summarize: Even a student who sees no need for a summary sentence should write one, for the sake of our collective innovation rating.”

Speaking of collective innovation, all desks in an innovative classroom must be arranged in pods, until the neo-furniture arrives. “There should be no detectable front of the room,” said Onwys. “Students should have nowhere in particular to look except at each other. This will stimulate collaboration and group thinking.” In addition, all students would wear RFID tags so that they could be tracked at any time, for greater success. Additional monitoring might include discussion tracking (by computer programs that detect keywords), engagement measurement by means of skin conductance bracelets, and other items.

As for content, every innovative classroom must focus on informational texts. “We’ve got to catch up with the information age,” said Lubie. “Literature’s all very nice, and we’ll still teach it. But those kids have to be reading informational text every day.” To eliminate the cost of photocopying, and to provide texts at each student’s instructional level, schools would give each student an iPad with an interactive reading comprehension program. There would be no need to waste precious instructional time with class discussion; instead, teachers could circulate around the room and make sure students were on task. A typical check-in might sound like this:

Teacher: So, what strategy is Flubby teaching you today? [Flubby is an empathic animated tutor.]
Student: Today Flubby is teaching me the strategy of finding the main idea.
Teacher: Are you applying that strategy to an informational text?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: Let’s see.
Student (pointing to a highlighted sentence on the screen): Here’s the main idea.
Teacher: Great!

The teacher then makes a mark on a checklist and proceeds to the next student.

For Lubie, a strength of the innovative classroom is its lack of ambiguity. “We don’t have to worry about being misrated and misjudged,” he said, “because it’s obvious who’s innovative and who isn’t.” Nor is it necessarily time-consuming; the district has purchased five thousand Innovative Learning Packages that meet all of the specifications. A school need only set it up and use it. “If the district becomes entirely innovative, as we require,” he added proudly, “the time soon will come when it knows no other way.”

Why Must Everything Be an Innovation?

Today, on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess argues that “not all innovations are created equal.” To merit attention, an innovation must be “game-changing, sustainable, and replicable.” I question all of this, including the underlying premise that innovations are what we need in the first place.

Must an idea be an innovation in order to have value? Of course not. Many of the best ideas in education are old ones–or else subtle modifications of old ideas. In many cases the innovation, if it exists at all, is slight. That does not detract from its importance.

An example: last year I observed a physics class where students were given pictures and asked to identify the force or forces acting on the objects. As they worked on this, I saw them making some key mistakes. I pointed this out to the teacher, and he said, “Yes, that’s what they usually do.” He wasn’t worried. When they came back together as a class, he took took time to discuss their reasoning with them. It was clear, as the discussion progressed, that the students were “getting it”–precisely because they had made the error and now saw why it was an error. It was one of the most illuminating lessons I have watched. The teacher didn’t do anything revolutionary; rather, he followed some complementary principles (letting the students struggle on their own and then walking them carefully through the problems) and exercised good judgment when doing so.

One could turn this into a Big Innovation (along the lines of “discovery” learning): Teachers, stop teaching students the right answer. Let them make mistakes, and then reason through the problems with them. But that’s exactly the sort of idea that goes wrong when taken large. One has to  know when to let kids make these mistakes and when to set them on the right track. One have to give them some direction, or they will be all over the place, and it will be difficult to bring them together for a fruitful discussion. This lesson worked beautifully because there was a basis for it and because the teacher knew how to do it right. He didn’t teach every lesson in this manner.

Why must a good idea, innovative or not, be replicated on a large scale? That takes away the very spirit of innovation, which involves, at the very least, the use of one’s best judgment. Tell others to copy a model, and you’re telling them to shut off part of their thinking. It makes more sense to translate a model–that is, to carry some aspects of it into new situations–than to replicate it.

I remember a professional development training–or series of trainings–where we were put in groups and taught how to perform “jigsaw” activities (where each group’s work would form part of a whole). We were then told to go implement it in the classroom the very next week, and come back and talk about what we had done. I found this peculiar. Why must I implement a “jigsaw” activity, unless it makes sense to do so? Instead, I reported on a project that my students had just completed. It involved elements of the jigsaw but was not a jigsaw activity per se. The final result was a collection of mystery stories the students had written (a feat for these English language learners, and a delightful collection). I brought the booklet to the next training; the trainer asked, “But how did you use our strategies?” I tried to explain that I had used elements of them, but that was not enough. It wasn’t that she held a higher standard; the “jigsaw activity” we had learned in training resulted in a bunch of charts that we then put on the wall. The content wasn’t what mattered here. What mattered (to the trainers) was that we replicate the “strategies.”

Later, I found myself adapting the “jigsaw” idea for certain lessons–for instance, when conducting a mock session of Congress. It seemed much more fruitful to me to wait for the right opportunity–and to make adjustments to the model as needed–than to just go and implement it because someone told me to do so, without regard for lesson topic. I see this error often in professional development; the trainers expect teachers to go and do exactly what they say, when a less literal implementation would actually be more interesting.

A good idea need not be new or grand, nor need it be replicated exactly, in order to have value. Why, then, does our education rhetoric scream “new, new, new” and “big, big, big”? The reasons are many–and the results disappointing. Many reforms tout themselves as innovations that will revolutionize the classroom and change the face of teaching and learning. This is a setup; first of all, revolutions carry losses, often severe and unforeseen; second, when you tell others to copy your idea exactly, you’re robbing them of the freedom you yourself enjoyed when developing the idea.

Why not take a more modest tack? Why not value tradition along with innovation and see how the two combine? Why not recognize the thoughtful, small-scale reform that may inspire many others but cannot and need not be copied?

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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