I must admit to having mixed emotions when I saw a superb post from one of the handful of blogs that I follow. I liked it so much that it is my first “reblog.” Please be sure to follow Growing Exponentially. On one hand I was proud of a very good teacher delivering an outstanding lesson, engaging her students, and her obvious teaching success. I didn’t have to base that conclusion only on her description of the class – it also is obvious to any classroom teacher by looking at the student responses that were part of the story. It gives me hope every time I see an example like this where a teacher makes a real difference with our children. But at the same time, I was jealous and frustrated – she had the opportunity to accomplish something for our children’s education that most of us teaching in urban high schools can only dream about.
First, the positive view.
Heather Kohn is an honors algebra teacher who obviously “gets it.” This is the kind of teacher we hope would teach our own children, or be part of our math department. Her blog article should be required reading for every teacher in a suburban or rural school who has the chance to structure a lesson like this. The excellence was only partially in the “math” being presented. The real impact was all the ways she engaged the children, channeled their thinking without giving away the punch line, and emphasized “understanding” more than just “remembering steps and facts.” She describes a lesson that I truly wish I could have watched. I encourage every teacher to visit and follow her blog at “Growing Exponentially” (a great math teacher pun, BTW!). I’m looking forward to reading about many more of her successes, and seeing how the children in her class benefit every day.
Now the jealousy and frustration.
What Ms. Kohn has done so well is what every math teacher wants to do in a class. It’s also what parents expect (rightfully so) from all schools. Parents, whose view of education is based upon what they experienced in their school days just 20 years earlier, assume that a class like this is possible in every school, in every location, in every class. Yet, while possible in many advanced classes in suburban and rural schools ( 61% of high schools), conducting a class like this is a near impossibility in the 39% of high schools classified by the US Census as “Urban.” The system directly prevents teachers from even having a chance to attempt what Ms. Kohn achieved. It creates a set of mandates and conditions that directly counter the open, free-flowing, engaging teaching model Ms. Kohn used. So, in urban high schools, a class like Ms. Kohn’s can rarely be even attempted. And the 63% (based upon 760 surveys and reflected in hundreds of interviews when researching Lifting the Curtain) of urban high school parents who are still committed and supportive of their child’s education see the lack of such a class as a failure by the teacher. They cannot see the real issues that tie the hands of the urban teacher.
Why? Because the systemic failures in the education give us urban classes that are bear no resemblance to the awesome class every parent envisions. And the colossal irony, in this specific case, is that a half-dozen of the urban high schools I researched are within a 30 minute drive (well, unless it is “one of those days” for Boston traffic) from the school where Ms. Kohn teaches. My goal here is to make an essential point: In order to improve urban high school education, we must fix the eight systemic failures that prevent urban high school classes from having the same chance, with a teacher like Ms. Kohn, to match her educational achievement!
Consider the following comparison between the class environment that is typical in an urban high school, and one that is conducive to the engaging, project-oriented methodology Ms. Kohn described. The figures for the “standard” class are taken from my research for Lifting the Curtain, and from looking back at the past 10 years as a classroom math teacher in urban high schools. Some of the figures for the honors class are estimates (based upon the same research and experience.)
Please remember that an urban high school has a very large percentage of classes that meet this “standard” profile, and very few that match the “honors” profile. The question is “how are they different?” and “why does an urban standard class environment preclude many teaching initiatives?”
Level Standard Honors
Class size 28 16
Inclusion class? Yes No
Mandated co-teacher Yes No
Students requiring accommodations (IEP, 504, ESL…) 16 1
Minutes per hour allocated to accommodations 20* 3 ***
Minutes per hour allocated to administrative mandates 5 5 ***
Minutes per hour left for teaching mandated curriculum 33 52 ***
Available “project” teaching minutes per student ** 1.2 3.3
Percent of parents who do not care what grade as long as pass 37% Unknown
Percent of students who do not care what grade as long as pass 27% Unknown
* Potentially much higher for 16 students, here reduced to just 20 minutes for accommodations assuming experienced teacher/co-teacher efficiencies.
** An artificial, but useful, measure of one-on-one teaching potential for projects-based learning in a classroom. This is the amount of time a teacher could spend with each child in the class during a project if the teacher does not have to be at the board.
*** Reasonable assumptions based upon the research for urban schools.
The bottom line of the above comparison is that the reason for the “failure” of urban schools to have class results that match the expectations of parents and legislators is not the teacher, it’s the math – an hour has just 60 minutes, and conflicting and overlapping mandates by career DoE bureaucrats and school administrators add up to 115 minutes! (Source: detailed research cited in Lifting the Curtain.) The above chart is after the teacher decides what mandates, at his/her risk, to omit – usually choosing to omit parts of the mandated curriculum rather than shortchange accommodations. Every urban high school has a high percentage of standard classes with many students requiring accommodations which require the teacher (and co-teacher) to stop the lesson to help reinforce the topics. Actual teaching time is reduced to 33 minutes, on average, much less than the teaching time available to the “honors” class.
At the same time, a sizable portion of the “standard” students come from home environments where the student (27%) and parents (37%) do not care what grades the child receives as long as they pass, graduate, and move out. More than half of the urban standard students in a typical class have the horrible, motivations-sapping accommodation of “…can retake any failed test.” Nearly half of the standard students have the expectations-destroying accommodation of “…gets an ‘A’ for doing 50% of the expected class work.” Perhaps the hardest and most time-consuming task for any urban high school teacher is to try to overcome the low expectations and demotivation of that 27%.
So how do we change this? We need to make those changes so desperately needed to fix the real problems with urban high school education – the failures that career bureaucrats in DoE and school administrators are so good at hiding. We need to get to the place where if an urban high school was lucky enough to have a teacher like Ms. Kohn walk into a standard class, the whole class will come alive with learning.
And in the process, we might just discover that there are a whole lot of “Ms. Kohls” already in those urban high schools, waiting to be allowed to engage and succeed as she did.
And that is why I am driven, in the months left to me fighting stage IV cancer, to get the message of Lifting the Curtain out to legislators and parents. It is my number one non-family bucket list item. These children are the most precious thing on the planet, and we are failing them. I want people to see past the curtain of the school entryway to the eight systemic failures in urban high school education, and to the obvious and immediate solutions that can address them!
I want to unleash the legion of “Ms. Kohls” already out there in urban high schools, just waiting for the chance to teach again.