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Pushing Back on Eight Outmoded Beliefs

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Pushing Back on Outmoded Beliefs” by Kim Marshall in Leaderboard: Michigan Association of School Boards, Spring 2019, published simultaneously online by Teaching Channel,
In this article in Leaderboard: Michigan Association of School Boards, Kim Marshall suggests updates to erroneous beliefs that persist among some educators and stakeholders:
• Intelligence and talent are fixed at birth. The “innate ability paradigm” about proficiency at math, art, or dancing pops up all the time – for example, “She’s just not a science person.” The best antidote is Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, which suggests replacing a fixed mindset with a growth mindset: that although we are born with certain levels of intellectual, athletic, and artistic ability, we can upgrade them through a combination of hard work, strategy, and coaching. Shifting to a growth mindset has a remarkable impact on learning and the ability to deal with challenging situations.
• Poverty is destiny. “There’s no question that growing up poor has an impact on children,” says Marshall, “and intergenerational poverty is especially damaging.” What’s tragic is when schools make things worse by teaching in ways that handicap students who enter with disadvantages – for example, calling only on students who raise their hands or giving homework that requires an Internet connection. But some schools are turning this dynamic around and closing gaps; Education Trust’s website showcases a number of these beat-the-odds schools and what they are doing:
• Great teachers are born, not made. “Yes, a few teachers have extraordinary talent from day one,” says Marshall, “but the vast majority grow and develop over time, supported by colleagues, master teachers, professional development, curriculum materials, school leaders, and a burgeoning knowledge base about what works in classrooms.” Even the legendary Jaime Escalante, whose inner-city California students aced the AP Calculus exam, depended on seven years of hard work with feeder-grade colleagues and the support of a strong principal.
• Principals are first and foremost managers. H.S.P.S. (hyperactive superficial principal syndrome) is the fate of all too many school leaders as discipline referrals, cafeteria duty, buses, meetings, and e-mail devour their time. But some principals have figured out how to get into classrooms, orchestrate productive teacher teamwork, and create a culture of purpose, collaboration, and trust. “Superintendents and heads of school play a crucial role,” says Marshall, “ensuring that principals have enough staff, buffering them from unnecessary meetings and demands, and coaching them on the core elements of their jobs.”
• Teacher evaluation makes no difference. There’s widespread cynicism about the compliance-driven traditional model, which rarely improves teaching and consumes huge amounts of administrators’ time. The good news is that a growing number of schools have moved to a better approach: short, frequent, unannounced classroom visits, each followed by a face-to-face discussion focusing on one “leverage point,” then a short narrative summary, with the year’s interactions captured in a detailed rubric analysis with teacher input.
This approach has at least twelve benefits: administrators know what’s really going on in classrooms; they can intervene early when there are problems; they get daily insights on students’ learning; they develop greater empathy for what teachers are dealing with; they provide ongoing coaching, and are themselves coached by teachers; they motivate colleagues to reflect on their practice and bring their A game every day; they compare lesson execution with curriculum unit plans and assessment of student work; they cross-pollinate effective ideas from classroom to classroom; they walk the talk, demonstrating genuine interest in teaching and learning; they provide accurate and insightful evaluations; they keep and attract quality staff; and they build trust and credibility with teachers, parents, and other stakeholders.
• Student feedback can’t be taken seriously. It’s common for college professors to get survey feedback from their students, but can elementary and secondary teachers learn anything from their students? Actually, yes: studies have shown that in anonymous questionnaires, K-12 students paint a more-accurate picture of classroom performance than principals’ evaluations and test scores. “Student perceptions have great potential in providing insights on what’s working (and what isn’t) in classrooms,” says Marshall, “– professional development from frontline customers.” But this will happen only if surveys are implemented thoughtfully and focus on coaching teaching practice versus high-stakes evaluation.
• Tests don’t enhance learning. Fierce attacks on standardized testing may be blinding us to the benefits of assessments closer to the classroom, says Marshall. Effective teachers check for understanding and fix learning problems in real time; leverage peer instruction after tests; shift students from fixed to growth mindset about difficulties and failures; and use test data to compare notes with colleagues and improve instruction.
• Teachers can’t be held accountable for student learning. This would seem to be the conclusion from the debacle of using test scores to evaluate teachers. “It turns out that scientific-looking value-added formulae are inaccurate and unreliable at the individual teacher level,” says Marshall, “leading to 15 lawsuits from teachers who were done wrong by the data.” And accountability for “student learning objectives” in non-tested subjects has been undermined by widespread gaming.
But there are ways to make student learning part of teacher-administrator conversations without these problems: (a) during classroom visits, looking over students’ shoulders and quietly asking them what they’re learning; (b) chatting with teachers afterward about exit tickets and student work; (c) administrators dropping in on teacher team meetings as they plan assessments and discuss student work; (d) looking at student survey data with teachers; and (e) teacher teams presenting before-and-after assessment results at the end of the school year to document their collective value-add to student learning.

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