TBT: Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education

The grand experiment in online learning continues apace, although it is (somewhat thankfully) reaching its summer-bound conclusion.  Unlike many colleagues and teachers I’ve spoken with about the hasty transition, I have thoroughly enjoyed the distance learning experience, but I am thankful for the advent of summer.

Recording lectures can be a marathon effort, not unlike actual classroom teaching, requiring rapid shifting from one topic to the next.  I try to record “horizontally”—that is, I try to record multiple lectures for the same class or subject at once—rather than “vertically”—recording for each day’s classes—as “horizontal” recording allows my mind to stay fixed on a single track, but this week I’ve been a “vertical” recorder.  Yesterday I recorded a review lecture on Jefferson’s presidency (with a dash of Madison and the origins of the War of 1812), then a review lesson on Congress, then a Music lesson about the Phrygian mode.  I call myself a “Renaissance Man” in the post below; I might be right!

Of course, almost all of teaching is, as one colleague recently put it, “rebuilding a plane while it’s in mid-air.”  A beautiful, gleaming craft takes off confidently in August; by Labor Day, you’re buffing out the first spots and adjusting the navigational systems; by October, you’ve replaced the entire fuselage.  Christmas is a lonely island in the South Pacific where you refuel and make calculations for the next leg of the journey, which feels like flying over 6000 miles of ocean with no land in site.  From January to Spring Break the plane pretty much gets rebuilt entirely, until it’s no longer properly the plane you begin with.

By summer, you’re flying the glider the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and not the F-16 or B-52 or 747 you started with for the year.  Not only that, but your canvas wings are punctured and your tail-fin is missing.  You’re not even worried about saving the plane at this point—you’re just trying to land somewhere without killing yourself or anyone else.

But I digress.  It’s been, overall, a pleasant experience since day one, for reasons detailed elsewhere, and my Kitty Hawk glider is looking more like an F-16 at this point in the year than it usually does.

In casting about for this week’s edition of TBT, I stumbled upon this post from nearly a year ago, a look at Steve Sailer’s review of blogger (and former NYC science teacher) Spotted Toad‘s book 3 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, which I read shortly after writing this blog post.  The book is a short read, and quite good, as it details the challenges a young Toad faced in adapting to the chaos of an inner city Middle School Science classroom.

With my own summer vacation approaching, and the blog focusing more and more lately on education, I’m kicking around the idea of putting together an eBook with my own reflections on teaching, with some unorthodox proposals about what the field could look like in the future.  Spotted Toad’s work could be a source of inspiration.

Regardless, here is May 2019’s “Sailer and Spotted Toad on Education“:

Demographer Steve Sailer has a review on Taki’s Magazine of a new book from blogger Spotted Toad.  The book, 13 Ways of Going on a Field Trip: Stories about Teaching and Learning, is a narrative memoir detailing Toad’s decade teaching in public schools in the Bronx.

Sailer, a dedicated statistician in his own right, lauds Spotted Toad’s statistics-laden blog, but points out that his memoir eschews statistics in favor of narrative.  This focus on narrative, as Sailer points out, does not detract from the book’s insights about education, but makes them more viscerally real for the lay reader.

Based on Sailer’s summary of the book (which I plan to purchase and read soon), Spotted Toad’s teaching experience led him to insights similar to my own; that is, that administrators and school boards spend too much time chasing education fads and pushing a romantic narrative about teaching, rather than just getting out of the way and letting teachers… well, teach.

Toad was hired as part of the once-fashionable Teach for America program, which placed young, enthusiastic idealists into poor school districts, usually in tough inner city schools.  The theory was that bad or lazy teachers weren’t engaged enough, so schools needed an injection of Dead Poets’ Society-inspired young’uns who would bend heaven-and-earth to reach urban youths.

Sailer speculates about why Teach for America was so popular in the latter part of the last decade, and suggests that it’s because upper-middle class New York Times readers forwarded glowing articles about TFA to their out-of-work, overly-educated kids.

That somewhat comports with my own experience, as I briefly considered joining TFA upon finishing graduate school at the height of the Great Recession.  I think it’s even more accurate to say it was popular because it promised work during a time when few people could find it, and didn’t require lengthy additional years of education and training.

Sailer pooh-poohs the idea that TFA could create qualified teachers, and he’s not entirely wrong—the program was certainly overly optimistic about its own efficacy—but I think the apprenticeship model of “learning on the job” is one of the better ways to learn the craft.  Most education classes are a joke, and other than a few useful pedagogical insights, my impression is that many of them are indoctrination camps for the latest progressive educational fads.  I’d much rather have a “pure” young teacher learning the ropes with the assistance of battle-hardened veterans in the trenches than to have that teacher languish away in a series of Two-Minute Hates for another couple of years.

Indeed, that’s been my big complaint with the State of South Carolina’s alternative certification program.  We have a teacher shortage, but you want me to shell out cash and three years of my time to teach in a crummy public school?  No thanks.  How about adopt my proposal to grant automatic certification to any private school teacher with three years of teaching experience and a Master’s degree in a relevant field, or with five years and a Bachelor’s?  That would solve the problem more quickly, and would bring a number of qualified teachers into public schools quickly.

My premise is that credentials don’t make a good teacher; classroom experience does.  I’m generally anti-guildist, as I fancy myself a bit of a Renaissance Man.  Of course, that comes from my personal experiences professionally:  out of necessity, I’ve taught a slew of social studies courses, as well as music at different levels, for nearly a decade.  I would have benefited from some education classes to learn solid pedagogical methods in some areas (particularly music education), but I’ve picked up many of these methods through trial-and-error, and sheer force of will.  When you have to get twenty inexperienced middle school musicians to play a Christmas concert, you figure out how to make it work (and sound good).

Regardless, Spotted Toad’s experiences hit upon some common problems in education, particularly education policy.  Toad writes of the coming-and-going educational fads and programs, some supported by big-wigs like Bill Gates, that are championed, implemented hastily (and at great profit to the companies that market and develop these programs), and then abandoned in five years when some new, shiny trend emerges.

Take a moment to read Sailer’s review this morning, as it offers some interesting insights into the push-and-pull of education policy, and an interesting, if sad, retrospective on the bungled federal efforts in the Bush and Obama Administrations to address education in the United States.

That said, for all the doom-and-gloom surrounding discussion of education in America, Sailer ends on a positive note:

For example, as I’ve pointed out over the years, on the international PISA school tests, Asian-Americans do almost as well as Northeast Asian countries, white Americans outscore most white countries other than Finland and few other northern realms, Latino-Americans outperform all Latin American countries, and African-Americans beat the handful of black Caribbean countries that even try the test.

We Americans do spend a lot to achieve these educational results, but our outcomes by global standards are much less terrible than most Americans assume. (In particular, Indian states that have tried the PISA bomb it, scoring at sub-Saharan levels.)

At least we’re beating our peers in other countries—usually.

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