Fighting against fundamentalism. . .

One of the most interesting assertions that Anthony Muhammad makes in his new book Transforming School Culture:  How to Overcome Staff Division is that there is an inherent battle taking place in schools between progressive faculty members—-who he calls Believers—-and Fundamentalists committed to protecting the kinds of old-school instructional practices that educators have embraced for decades.

According to Muhammad, Fundamentalists are the most dangerous group in any building because they are a politically savvy group who work formally and informally to keep their stranglehold on teaching and learning.  Constantly resisting change, Fundamentalists challenge new policies and practices at the emotional—-rather than rational—level.

Describing the Fundamentalists in the buildings that he’s observed, Muhammad writes:

They regularly engaged in debates, sometimes arguments, with staff members with opposing viewpoints.  During these debates, they centered their arguments about how a proposed policy change or change in practice affected them and other staff members on the emotional issues associated with the change—on comfort, convenience, and working conditions.

Do these folks sound familiar to you?  If not, let me offer the 4,834 teachers who’ve signed this petition against new grading practices in Ottawa as an example of Fundamentalism in action.

The practices in question—recently proposed by Ottawa’s provincial government—are really nothing remarkable.  Essentially, school leaders have made the case that responsibly evaluating student performance requires teachers to look at a sufficient number of completed assignments.  Missing work, the thinking goes, makes it impossible for teachers to “pass accurate judgment” on a child’s abilities.

The solution—-one that I’ve adopted in my own classroom to the consternation of dozens of peers—has been to require that teachers take student assignments at any point during a quarter.  It is simply not okay for teachers in Ottawa to give students zeros and to move on anymore.

And you know something:  The district leaders in Ottawa are right.

The time-honored teacher tradition of slamming students with zeros for missing work only serves to muddy the evaluation waters.  No one—-parents, teachers or kids—is able to form a clear picture of a child’s academic strengths and weaknesses when a grade book is littered with zeros.  While teaching students to be responsible is a worthwhile goal, that’s best done—in the words of Rick DuFour—by forcing them to act responsibly and to finish every task.

This is just the kind of policy, though, that gets a rise out of Fundamentalists—and in Ottawa, that rise was led by 34-year teaching veteran Caroline Orchard, a math teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School.  Orchard, frustrated by a policy that she says “pressures teachers to ensure students pass,” went directly to the newspapers with her online petition results in hand.

What’s interesting is that—-just as Muhammad predicted—-Orchard’s petition argues emotional issues connected to working conditions, comfort and convenience, sidestepping any real conversation about the potential impact of the provincial policy on student achievement.

Need proof?  Then check out this introductory text from the petition’s web page:

In the past teachers would go out of their way to make sure they evaluated students, but when given an opportunity to be re-evaluated, the student had to turn up. Now you can offer the student a chance to be re-evaluated, and if they don’t turn up they still cannot get a zero.

Assignments can be handed in at any time during the year. If the whole class is doing the same assignment, the teacher can receive the finished assignments any time between the due date and the end of the year. If the teacher marks the assignments as he/she gets them and returns them as they are marked, then anyone who has not handed in an assignment can, if they are so inclined, copy an assignment that has been marked and turn it in as their own work.

The only way around this is not returning the assignments until all of the students have submitted their work, but this delays essential feedback to the students. Teachers have to be able to indicate to students that a zero may given on missed evaluations and give penalty marks for work not done on time.

The truth of the matter is that there are a thousand ways to work around every one of the concerns listed in these paragraphs—the first of which should begin with a conversation in every building in Ottawa about what practical consequences for missing work might look like outside of giving zeros.  The proposed policy doesn’t say that children can’t be held accountable.  It simply says that accountability shouldn’t include zeros.

Orchard and her colleagues also fail to mention that the number of students forgetting to turn in work on a regular basis for weeks at a time is actually quite small in most schools.  Instead, they paint a picture of harried teachers buried under reams of missing work every time they assign a task and/or classrooms full of kid craving feedback that they just can’t get in a timely manner.

Those are emotional argument instead of rational ones.

So how can school leaders fight back against the emotional arguments of the Fundamentalists in their schools?  What can Believers who want to see students succeed do to push progressive practices forward?  How can we turn the obvious passion of Fundamentalists in more positive directions?

Those are the kinds of questions that we’ll be wrestling with together from May 13th through May 16th in a Voicethread conversation with Anthony Muhammad. (see details here)

Everyone’s invited, so plan on stopping by!  Maybe together we can find a way to deal with the frustrations of Fundamentalism.

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