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Divining Rod, or Rod of Discipline

April 4, 2011

Today’s ACT Guest Blogger is Alice Mercer, an ACT member and blogger from Sacramento.  This post originally appeared at Reflections on Teaching.


photo: David B. Cohen

This post is about the larger lessons I took from ASCD. What do I mean by this? Looking at a lot of school reform, programs, schools, ideas, and changes are offered as either a promise, or a threat.  It’s this ugly mix of an appeal to avarice, and a fear of failure that I feel created the toxic mess that is the DCPS testing scandal. It wasn’t just that folks wanted to earn bonuses, they also feared being fired. This isn’t an original thought of my own, but was suggested to me by fellow Sacramento teacher, Lori Jablonski.  This approach will never lead to meaningful reform over the long term because you can’t do your best when you have a gun at your head.

Let me share some more examples from ASCD. At the Urban Education panel, the schools shared do some incredible work, and I love much of their pedagogy as it was presented there. But, when they are misused as an object lesson to the rest of us teaching in these schools, they become a weapon like a rod of discipline to beat us about the head, rather than a divining rod, leading us to more wisdom about our teaching. When you inject language like, “no excuses” and make excuses about why kids disappear off your rolls, and aren’t replaced, you make not just those of us  you are pointing at smaller, but yourselves as well because in the long run, the truth will out.

Now, let’s look at the approach of Jay Mathews, vs. the methods from Singapore and Finland, that Linda Darling-Hammond shared.   Both are sincerely and passionately concerned about improving the quality of teachers and teaching in the United States. Here is where they differ. As I’ve said before, the Finns (and Singapore) seek to make ALL teachers better to improve the overall cadre, and the quality of the average teacher. Reformers that Mr. Mathews likes (KIPP, TFA, Michelle Rhee) look for superstars, those who are above average, and seek to fire others not showing such talent. As Dr. Darling-Hammond notes, you cannot fire your way to Finland.  When you both seek to reward, but threaten dire consequences for failure, you produce fear, and a dissonance that lead to poor teaching, and poor choices. So as the scene goes in “Do the Right Thing”goes, what is going to win, LOVE or HATE? Because you can’t have both. I choose to bet on love, naturally!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynne Formigli permalink
    April 5, 2011 9:09 am

    I think you’ve found the key to summarizing the problems of reform. I heard an interesting perspective last weekend; the punitive reform strategies fit into the “father knows best” strict parenting model narrative. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, punish when the kid gets it wrong. The contrasting narrative is the nurturing parent model; guide and support, provide the necessary resources, give encouragement and reward success. The strict parent model resonates with much of the population because it matches our personal experiences

    • April 6, 2011 8:14 pm

      Yeah, but it’s also dad as the wife beater, when you look at how they treat teachers, no?


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