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The Best From “Interviews Of The Month”

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As regular readers know, in September I began a new series called “Interview of the Month.” In it, I interview people in the field of education. The main criteria is that I want to learn more about them, and I think they have something to offer to me and to readers of this blog.

I thought it might be useful to readers and to me to revisit these interviews and pick-out what I think is the best part of each interview.

Here are my picks of The Best From “Interviews Of The Month”:

KELLY YOUNG

I started off this series with Kelly, who I consider a key mentor.  I’d be surprised if there is  anybody else in the country who knows more about effective instructional strategies than Kelly. Kelly is the founder of Pebble Creek Labs, which provides curriculum and professional development to urban high schools (including ours)  across the United States in Language Arts and Social Studies.  Kelly has been a teacher, principal, and district Superintendent (and a lot else along the way!).

Kelly shared what he thought the three most important skills/strategies for a teacher to have in their repertoire in order to help students learn:

1. Literacy strategies to help students engage with text and make meaning.  There are a lot of them. 2. Strategies to help students talk with one another about their learning.  They like school more, and learn more, when they have to dialogue, purposefully, about their learning.  It is also a vital skill for work and life.  3.  The Inductive Model.   This strategy is so rich, so full, can go so many places.

He went on the explain each in a little more detail:

1) Students HAVE to learn how to make sense of text.  There is no getting around that, as a high school student, college student, worker or adult.  But students have been woefully unprepared, especially with expository text, which is 90% of their reading in high school, college and workplace.  So we MUST learn techniques that teach and help students think while they read. Our curriculum provides strategies, that with modeling and lots of practice, make a big difference for students.

2) Learning groups, and later work groups, talk to one another.  They problem solve, they read, discuss, argue, interact.  Schools where teachers talk and gab and blab some more aren’t doing students any favors, especially with students of limited engagement and lackluster skills.  Students need daily practice with working in teams, with reading text and writing to prompts and talking to one another about their work, their ideas, their problem solving.  We simply don’t have enough classrooms where dialogue is student to student around text, ideas, student work.

3) The Inductive Model is a learning/teaching strategy that is as powerful as they get, and few teachers know about it. It’s a natural higher-order learning strategy, and if students used it daily they wouldn’t just like learning more, AND learn their content better, they’d actually become smarter.   I cannot say enough about its power.

You can read the full interview with Kelly here.

CLAUS von ZASTROW

I was lucky enough to interview Claus von Zastrow, the director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 leading education associations. He writes the influential Public School Insights blog, which I highlight regularly here.

I asked Claus to comment on the tendency many have of looking at school reform through the lens of “either/or” — it’s either the merit pay/standardized tests/charter school etc. way or one that has all the elements of what are often considered a “progressive” vision for schools:

I think people like to go whole hog on the newest reform ideas, and they tend to dismiss earlier reform ideas as passé or ineffective. That tendency creates either/or thinking, because people begin to harden into ideological camps.

He shared several examples, including:

The highly-publicized battle between those who advocate for a “schools plus” approach to improving student performance and those who argue that schools alone can get the job done. You would think it would be uncontroversial to argue that factors both within and beyond schools affect student performance—and that we should address both. But somehow the media framed this argument as a debate between those who believe schools are powerless to effect change and those who say schools alone can effect change. What a preposterous debate! And yet national commentators like David Brooks, commentators who should know better, fueled the phony debate with simplistic op eds.

Why does this happen? Many organizations have focused more attention on PR than research into what works. Brass knuckles PR types have made sure that national media outlets like the Times or Newsweek play up the battles between opposing factions rather than actually weighing evidence or learning more about the nuances of education policy. Nuances can make for uninteresting copy, but they sure matter when it comes time to make things better for kids

You can read the full interview with Claus here.

ALEXANDER RUSSO

Alexander Russo is a longtime education journalist and writer of the popular blog This Week In Education (and several others).

Alexander didn’t mince any words (he generally does not) in his critiques:

I think that most think tanks are glorified PR outfits for their funders, and that many many education advocates are sadly ineffective. I think innovation is highly over-rated compared to implementation. (I’m currently in favor of a moratorium on innovation while we implement some of the things we already know how to do. Maybe with a little less distraction we’d actually get down to business and get some things done.)

Later in the interview, he shared some thoughts on the potential education legacy of the Obama administration:

I’d love to be wrong about this, but Arne Duncan could well end up exposed as the Obama administration’s version of Rod Paige – a generally nice guy who’s in way over his head in Washington as he may have been in Chicago. And I worry that the Obama administration will be too focused on innovation and political needle-threading that it won’t get anything meaningful or transformative done on the education front.

You can read the full interview with Alexander here.

DAVID B. COHEN

David B. Cohen is one of the key people behind The Accomplished California Teachers and co-author of a recent Op Ed piece titled Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation.

I asked David how he would respond to those who criticize teacher unions for supposedly blocking changes that would benefit students:

Randy Ward, the current superintendent of San Diego County Schools, was in a roundtable discussion with John Merrow on PBS about a year-and-a-half ago, and given a chance to criticize unions, Ward made a wonderful comment that I’m paraphrasing here: “I always tell school boards, ‘you signed the contract, too.’” In other words, we shouldn’t expect unions not to stick to contracts, so if in the process of following a contract, the union is doing something the district doesn’t like, well, there’s an item for negotiation next time around. If districts expect concessions in one area, I’d expect them to come to the table offering concessions in some other area. And if unions were the root of our problems, you’d expect “right to work” states that lack collective bargaining to have significantly better results to offer, but they don’t. They also struggle with teacher quality issues and various reform efforts.

You can read the full interview with David here.

JOHN NORTON

John Norton is the director of The Teacher Leaders Network. I was invited to join TLN this year, and it’s helped me become both a better teacher and better thinker on education issues. I knew of John earlier through his generous sharing of resources through Middleweb, one of the “granddaddies” of ways to share education resources on the web.

I asked John how he would characterize any differences between the concerns and questions raised by teachers with whom he’d worked between ten or twenty years ago and now:

Well, that’s a dunk-shot question! Let’s all say it together: No. Child. Left. Behind. Not the idea of it – not the dream of making school better for all kids that led many well-meaning progressive reformers to fall for it. But the reality of it. I’ve always felt that the well-meaning group of folks who supported NCLB (there’s a less well-meaning group too, as we know) fell for a bait-and-switch. The bait was “we need to help these kids get an education and get out of poverty.” The switch was that instead of placing the blame for their condition where it belongs – on our entire society and our culture of haves and have-nots – somebody switched the villain in the story to the American public school teacher.

He went on to say:

Of course I realize that NCLB has impacted teachers across the board, not just in our highest needs schools, but that’s how it started and teachers in those schools still bear the greatest brunt of the top-down sanctions and general professional humiliation. The teachers I hang out with every day at the Teacher Leaders Network are truly top-notch educators. They set the highest standards for themselves and their profession. They’re not in the business of protecting “weak teachers,” they just understand that the real problems in our public schools are not going to be addressed by an “off with their heads” strategy.

These are teachers who are eager to get policymakers to listen and learn about the genuine core problems – and some expert solutions. But it’s a hard go. It’s much easier to grab the public’s attention these days with a cartoon villain — and her/his counterpart, the heroic teacher who is defying the status-quo simpleton teachers who have somehow taken over our schools en masse when the public wasn’t looking. That’s meant to be sarcasm, in case anyone is thinking of sending me a blistering email or tweet.

You can read the full interview with John here.

Look for more interesting interviews in 2010!

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

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