‘I can fix it’: What Jeff Spicoli and too many ed-reformers have in common

Oh, Spicoli. Thanks for never letting your certainty down, especially for something so small as actually having a clue. It has brightened many days.

Now I wish I could find the same quality as endearing in so many ed reformers.

In particular, I mean the reformers who are dead-certain that education’s main issue is teacher quality, and that all the education enterprise needs is to produce more high-quality teaching qua teaching. To these reformers, instructional improvement boils pretty much down to the following:

  1. Defining good teaching (evaluation frameworks, rubrics, and observation systems)
  2. Acquiring/developing good teaching (recruitment strategies, instructional coaching & professional development strategies, ‘disruptively innovative’ teaching enhancements)
  3. Cleaning out results-data- and evaluation-confirmed bad teaching (labor strategies, human capital policies — clearing lazy-bum teachers out of schools’ rubber roomsmaking it so principals can stop doing lemon dances, etc.)

Notice that none of the above three points emphasize improving schools’/districts’ available curriculum tools. While one may argue that evaluation and observation frameworks indirectly address curriculum improvement by including at least some curricular elements, I’d encourage you to look them over (see here to download the Charlotte Danielson framework, for example; also here to download TNTP’s Core Teaching Rubric; other samples in operation can be accessed quickly through your own internet search) and make your own judgment. In my experience (and I’ve worked considerably with teacher observation/evaluation), I’ve never found much that allows observers/evaluators to genuinely plumb curricular quality or rigor. Rather, the majority focus of such frameworks is nearly always on how things are taught, not what is taught in each observed lesson. (And, flatly, the appearance of curricular criteria in such rubrics is largely immaterial anyway: many teachers in the U.S. are simply using the tools provided for them or required of them by their schools/districts. If these schools/districts believe their curricula are properly aligned and rigorous, the rubric question is more a matter of, ‘Are they using the aligned curriculum or not?’ and thus defers a real evaluation of the provided/required curriculum’s effectiveness.)

In all, it’s rather like Spicoli in the above clip: confident in the mechanic’s importance to the task, but clueless about why some tools might be better than others for completing the task. Where Spicoli’s funny, though, reformers, well… Billions of dollars and untold amounts of hours and energy are spent carrying out the three points laid out above, after all, and none of them have much concern for comprehensively improving the curricular tools teachers are using.

(NOTE: For an instructive peek at this common reformer viewpoint, see what Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of DC Public Schools, once said to curriculum-reform champion Robert Pondiscio. It doesn’t matter whether her chuckle came from a misunderstanding of curriculum’s actual value or pure issue-prioritization: either way, her reaction at the time indicated that curriculum was the least of her concerns. Probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, when other teacher-quality-bent groups like TNTP — founded by Rhee, incidentally — are so confounded when the medicines they keep prescribing don’t have much positive effect. Considering the common Teach For America origins of so many such reformers, I’m guessing TFA’s six-week induction program doesn’t contain much on either how crucial curriculum actually is to effective instruction or how one can suss good curriculum from bad.)

This all has been on my mind a lot of late, spurred by last month’s publication of ‘The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform’ (a report by the Center for American Progress’s Ulrich Boser, Matt Chingos, and Chelsea Straus — here, also, is the landing page). Though I didn’t comment on the report much outside of Twitter after its release, I appreciated it very much. Healthy chunks of my Education Is Upside-Down‘s chapters 4, 5, 10, and 11, after all, are spent on the need for improved — and, preferably, more nationally uniform — curriculum. But when I saw this piece last week on the American Institutes for Research’s InformED blog, which begins with a line we should all be getting a little tired of by now (‘Bad news we’ve heard before just came around again: large investments in evaluation systems and professional development for teachers have not improved individual teachers’ performance…’), something kind of snapped. The word ‘curriculum’ is not once mentioned in the piece, for instance; just more, in the wake of results we’re not getting from our costly evaluation systems, about how to ‘re-boot’ teacher evaluation, how to better team teachers to learn from one another, and so on. All valuable issues, I thought, but whither curriculum? Will we ever recognize its importance in this venture, or will we keep returning to getting the three reform points right without even looking in curriculum’s direction? When, for goodness’s sake, will we talk about Spicoli’s dad’s TV-repair tools for our auto-repair needs?!

So yeah, I was pretty hyped up over it all. I recognize that the U.S. is very touchy on the idea of comprehensive curriculum reform and has been forever (in a tweet referencing a curriculum piece by Lisa Hansel back in April, Deans For Impact’s Ben Riley even called curriculum reform ‘the third-rail of edu-policy‘ — click the link, read the Hansel). Still, it’s about damned time this missing piece gets filled in. We’ve improved (if, fairly, not perfected) our ‘schematic diagrams/blueprints’ with the CCSS. We’ve improved (if, fairly, not perfected) our ‘inspection systems’ with teacher evaluations and test-enabled data collection. To keep sending our ‘auto mechanic’/teaching professional in with ‘TV repair tools’/inadequate curriculum makes less and less sense all the time.

To close, a bit of bright news. Check out Joel Klein, former NYC Schools Chancellor (and author of the valuable Lessons of Hope), back in April 2014. Formerly a reformer of the type I described to open this post, here he is on something he came around on considerably after his up-close time in education:

Q: If somebody had been able to give you a piece of advice at the beginning of your chancellorship…that you wished you had heard, what would you have liked to have been told, or briefed on, or made to understand?

A: I guess what I would’ve liked to understand…is the curriculum thing really matters.

-Joel Klein, interviewed by CUNY’s David Steiner, April 2014. (Paraphrased from interview, ~43:00 mark. See full interview transcript & video here.)

So to all you hopeful ed-reformers about to jump into leading a new district (Minneapolis Public’s new supe-to-be, I’m looking at you), into ‘Evaluation 2.0’ work, into re-writes of your state’s new post-CCSS standards (if you’re in one of those states), into whatever: Please, don’t be Spicoli. Rather, take a cue from Joel Klein’s post-education-term realizations about curriculum and consider starting there. Ignore all those who may discount curriculum’s importance, and get reading people like Dan Willingham, Lisa Hansel, Robert Pondiscio, Barry Garelick, et al, to perhaps form some first steps. It’s way past time to get curriculum reform meaningfully and actionably into the education-improvement conversation.


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