Solidarity and Teaching

No, this isn’t about unions (at least directly), but teachers supporting each other’s teaching. Carrie Leana describes the role of “social capital” plays in student outcomes, in particular third grade math* (boldface mine):

So we asked the teachers whom they talked to when they had questions or needed advice. Did they go to other teachers, to the school principal, or to the coaches hired by the district specifically to help them to be better math teachers? And how much did they trust the source of the advice they received? What we found is that in most instances teachers seek advice from one another. Teachers were almost twice as likely to turn to their peers as to the experts designated by the school district, and four times more likely to seek advice from one another than from the principal. As one New York City teacher explained, “It’s dangerous to express vulnerability to experts or administrators because they will take your professional status away” and replace it with scripted textbooks.

Most striking, students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers. In other words, teacher social capital was a significant predictor of student achievement gains above and beyond teacher experience or ability in the classroom. And the effects of teacher social capital on student performance were powerful. If a teacher’s social capital was just one standard deviation higher than the average, her students’ math scores increased by 5.7 percent.

One New York City teacher described how social capital works in her school: “Teaching is not an isolated activity. If it’s going to be done well, it has to be done collaboratively over time. Each of us sets our own priorities in terms of student outcomes. For example, one teacher might emphasize students knowing all the facts and operational skills. Another might think that what’s most important is to develop a love of learning in students. Still another teacher might want to develop students to be better critical thinkers and problem solvers, and they’re not as concerned about students memorizing the facts. A good teacher needs to help students develop all of those things, but it’s easy to get stuck in your own ideology if you are working alone. With collaboration, you are exposed to other teachers’ priorities and are better able to incorporate them to broaden your own approach in the classroom.”

While Leana refers to this phenomenon as “social capital”, there’s another word for it: solidarity. These days, solidarity in the U.S. is only politically correct when translated into Polish. But that’s what these teachers are doing: supporting each other. For those keeping score, a union is only the formal, political manifestation of this phenomenon.

When we reduce workers to replaceable widgets, they are not only dehumanized (which is bad in and of itself), but they are less effective workers, since they have less resources to solve problems. This concept doesn’t really exist within the neo-liberal consensus, except perhaps as those ludicrous ‘team-building exercises’, and so, it has no place in education ‘reform.’

Of course, once workers realize they can solve some problems, they might get uppity and try to solve some other problems like working conditions–which in the case of children are learning conditions too.

And we can’t have that, now can we?

*This, however, is disturbing:

In addition to these more objective indicators, we surveyed more than 1,200 kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in one New York City subdistrict and asked them to report how competent they felt teaching particular aspects of math. We found that many elementary school teachers reported that they did not like to teach math and did not feel particularly competent at it. Teachers in the early grades were particularly uncomfortable, but even in fifth grade, three in 10 teachers expressed little confidence in their preparation for teaching basic math concepts like ratios and fractions. As explained by one New York City math coach: “Elementary school teachers are math-phobes. They are scared of teaching math because they don’t feel like they’re very good at it themselves.”

We should not be accepting students into college who can’t handle fifth grade math. Period. Definitely, they shouldn’t be allowed to graduate. We’re not talking about some of the squirrelly parts of algebra (never mind trigonometry or calculus). This is a fundamental failure of higher education to enforce any kind of standards.

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4 Responses to Solidarity and Teaching

  1. mrtoads
    mrtoads says:

    There’s a lot of “should”s that get ignored. This is where we end up, after raising a couple generations of people who fear math and science, prefer the comforting certainty of belief to the unsteady footing of knowledge, and won’t find things out for themselves. In a better world, basic logic, ecology and statistics would be required-pass subjects in high school. At this point, I’d even settle for college. I don’t see things getting any better any time soon, either. This is the roots of the Morlocks and the Eloi.

  2. becca says:

    Alternatively, taking the question literally, there’s a good chance up to 7/10 teachers are over-confident. Understanding math is NOT adequate preparation for teaching math. Fractions and decimals are a real make or break point for students, and there are real cognitive leaps that you have to guide many (most?) students through.

  3. joemac53 says:

    In my school we yapped about how to teach math all the time. We all had different strengths. We liked and trusted one another. We shared stuff. You would find several different person’s handwriting on worksheets, mostly given to the new teachers. I was a teacher, then the boss for a few years, then back to teacher. I loved teaching, and I loved my students and colleagues. I had a great job.
    We also had a teacher council where a teacher who was having problems with a class or a particular student could come and get advice (and usually an action plan). What went on in these meetings was never shared outside the group. Teachers who were helped often volunteered to help others. No administrators were involved.
    We did not feel the need to reinvent the wheel every few years.
    35 years went by quickly!

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