As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
Anthony Cody is a teacher and coach for novice teachers in Oakland, California. He writes the blog, Living In Dialogue, which is hosted at Teacher Magazine and Education Week. He is also a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. He graciously agreed to be interviewed this month.
You’ve become a rather high-profile “critiquer” of many of the ideas and practices supported by many who call themselves “school reformers.” Are there some particular moments in your life that led you down this path?
I came of age in Berkeley in the 1970s, and attended a progressive alternative school within Berkeley High. I saw public education as something that had the ability to expand or suppress thinking among young people. I was lucky to have some teachers who encouraged me to think for myself. When I attended UC Berkeley, I was involved in the student movement there in the 1980s, and helped organize for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, and to defend affirmative action programs. I saw that a quality education was missing for many people, so I got my teaching credential and went to work teaching science in an Oakland middle school.
My purpose has always been to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students, and I have actively engaged with my school and district to help provide such opportunities. My focus has mainly been around building collaborative communities of teachers, to take responsibility for our professional growth in order to create a rich and powerful experience for our students. So I have always seen myself as a “change agent” in the schools.
I think the key turning point in my relationship to those who call themselves “school reformers” was the advent of No Child Left Behind. All of a sudden, the responsibility for educational inequity was shifted to teachers and schools. With a wave of a rhetorical wand, “the soft bigotry of low expectations” was the culprit, and the solution, therefore, was for us to “raise our expectations.” As an Oakland teacher, I experienced firsthand several waves of systemic reform based on this assumption. We went through “Efficacy Training,” and then “Standards in Practice,” from the Education Trust. Though these efforts were well meant, they did not address the fundamental reasons many of our students were behind academically.
But my experiences at my own school showed me what COULD work. I achieved National Board certification myself, and worked to help colleagues in the District do the same. I worked with my peers at my school to engage in action research and Lesson Study, and we greatly reduced turnover and built a solid partnership between the math and science departments. We shared assessments, and looked at student work to understand how our lessons were actually building student understanding. I helped lead a District-wide initiative to create a solid middle school science curriculum, and we have seen science achievement in the District improve dramatically over the past decade.
But I saw NCLB greatly undermine the successes we were achieving. Our school made significant gains every year, but due to our many subgroups, we never managed to get each group to rise simultaneously. One year we “failed” because we had a large influx of English language learners, so our Hispanic subgroup dropped a bit. The next year, our Asians, who were performing at a high level, stayed at the same level. Not good enough – we failed again. It became clear that the rules of NCLB were designed to make us fail. This was demoralizing to students and staff alike. I saw the rhetoric of reform being used to destroy hope.
So on the one hand, I had evidence of what did not work, and on the other, I had my own experiences showing me the sort of collaborative effort that does work. I have a firm foundation in the classroom, and in my own experience as a teacher, and a leader of school change, and that gives me the basis on which I stand. I remain committed to a vision of equity for all students, and it is outrageous to me that those who are now attacking the teaching profession, calling for larger class sizes, pay for test scores, an end to due process for teachers, are doing so by donning the self-righteous mantle of defenders of the downtrodden. The policies they promote have worked against the interests of our students, and will continue to do so.
What would you say are the three most damaging ideas/practices that are being pushed in education today, and why do think they’re so damaging to students?
I would say the most corrosive idea is that test scores are an adequate reflection of student learning, and making these scores more and more consequential for teachers and students will lead to an increase in learning. Our students are suffering because they are being told a series of lies. These tests are NOT a reflection of the most valuable forms of learning.
The notion that we prepare for the future by learning a prescribed course of knowledge goes back to Confucius, and is derived from an authoritarian world view. It is very strange that some of the same “reformers” who speak of preparing our students for the 21st century are satisfied with early 20th century models of assessment. Our curriculum has been greatly narrowed – and is increasingly determined by that which will be tested. This leads otherwise good teachers to make arbitrary curricular decisions, and to teach in a manner that turns students into passive repeaters of received wisdom, rather than critical generators of their own knowledge.
Once test scores are seen as an adequate proxy for learning, then we see several further errors that result.
Test scores are used to define teacher “effectiveness.” This is then used to “prove” that experience doesn’t matter much – so we can do away with seniority and hire cheaper, inexperienced interns, master’s degrees don’t matter much, and class size doesn’t matter much. We are going to see a wave of “reforms” built on these assumptions, which will result in a dramatically different profile for the teaching profession. I believe experience matters a great deal, and directly impacts our students. The wisdom a teacher gains over a decade of dealing with a myriad of students, in their infinite variety, is invaluable. Experienced teachers are reservoirs of curriculum and instructional strategies that work, and have been proven over the years. If “reformers” succeed in transforming our profession into one primarily populated by novices, we will lose some qualities and capacities that are far more valuable than next year’s test scores.
On the other hand, what would you say are the three best ideas being discussed in education today, and why do you think they’re so beneficial to students?
It is a strange time, because I think we have an educational world that is almost divided in half. Even as some have bought into the “reform” narrative, the rest of us are more aware than ever of the sort of things that really do work.
First of all, there is abundant research emerging about the human brain and the importance of its development, especially in the early years. This points us towards crucial improvements that must be made in early childhood nutrition and education. So much of the patterns that we encounter as teachers are laid down in those first few years, and we, as a nation, can make a huge difference in outcomes when we begin to attend to this.
Second, I am firmly committed to a vision of our schools as learning communities, and I think many leaders are aware of this. These communities are unfortunately vulnerable, because the federal and state “accountability” systems are forcing every effort to be focused on improving test scores. But our best work is done when we gather to look honestly at what our students are learning, and what they are struggling with. Our best schools emerge when students are given active roles as leaders as well, and can help guide their own learning. There are schools where teachers are seizing the reins and working together to make this happen.
You’ve written a lot about what you think the role of teachers could be in working for systemic change in education. Can you share some of those ideas and specific actions?
I think the role of teachers is related to the circumstances in which we find ourselves – and those circumstances are rapidly changing. I think much of our standing is under direct and systematic attack, and for that reason it is very important that we build solidarity as a profession. I think we need to defend our unions from the unfair attacks that they are under, and build their capacity to respond creatively to the challenges we face.
I think we need to build strong connections with our students, because their futures are being foreclosed upon. Even as they are told that college is the key to their future, our colleges are being priced out of their reach. Even as they are told that we care about them, they are being jammed into crowded classrooms, taught by poorly trained interns who teach for a few years and leave. The students may be the ones that show us the way, as they have in the past – and we need to be prepared to listen and work with them to help reshape our schools in the interest of their future. We need to be prepared to rethink our schools, just as we ought to rethink the way society is set up. All this test preparation is built around honoring received wisdom. Our students don’t need that. They need to question what is happening – in their schools, in their neighborhoods, and in the economy as a whole.
I think our schools need to be places capable of solving real problems in the real world. That is why I am excited about work I have been doing around Project Based Learning. I think we need to engage our students in tackling issues in their own environment, and challenge them to investigate, to use the academic tools of science, history and math to uncover the source of these problems, and come up with solutions.
You’re retiring from the Oakland School District at the end of this school year. What are your plans?
Although I am leaving Oakland, I do not expect to retire. I will continue to write about education, and am also working on organizing the Save Our Schools march in Washington, DC, which will occur July 30th. In July I will be moving to Mendocino County, about 140 miles north of San Francisco. I spent much of last summer working on a cabin near where I will be living, and I plan to host retreats there for teachers, to give them a chance to recharge their creative energies by connecting with nature, and with one another. I also will be doing some professional development work with teachers.