Hard lessons for our teachers
School systems flock to learn from and adopt the ideas of educational "gurus" intent on retooling outdated curricula.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published January 16, 2007
On a stage adorned with video screens as big as billboards, Willard R. Daggett moves back and forth with a preacher's zeal, a dose of humor and a sling full of zingers.
"I guarantee you I will make everybody at some time in the next hour and 10 minutes angry with me," he warns about 3,000 educators packed into a Kissimmee ballroom.
English teachers, he says, are "academic elitists" who have helped dumb down curricula. Math teachers, he says, have a "horrendously poor track record" of introducing concepts in ways that make sense to kids.
Tough assessments like those have helped make Daggett a rock star among education "gurus," a small club that has grown in stature since government accountability programs began pressing school systems to run harder.
But gurus do much more than give speeches. Their ideas significantly influence how public schools are run, what gets taught to children and how teachers teach it.
Their books become required reading in many districts. Their buzzwords end up on classroom walls and in school publications, like the choice brochures being circulated in Pinellas this month.
Daggett's catchphrase, calling for more "rigor and relevance" in classrooms, was first scrawled on a coffee shop napkin as he brainstormed with a fellow guru in the early 1990s.
The phrase caught fire as the accountability movement mushroomed over the past few years. Today, it is written into Florida law.
Examples of the gurus' influence abound:
- Thousands of teachers in the Tampa Bay area have been trained on the ideas of Ruby Payne, a national consultant whose book, Framework for Understanding Poverty, has become a bible of sorts for anyone who teaches poor children.
- When Pinellas officials dramatically altered their elementary school curriculum in 2004, picking up the pace of instruction and focusing students on "essential" concepts, they did so largely based on the thinking of another guru, Robert J. Marzano.
- Schools everywhere now have "professional learning communities," an idea advanced by Richard DuFour, a guru who promotes collaboration in schools over the old model where individual teachers dealt with their classes in isolation.
- Hillsborough has used gurus to help its teachers in failing urban schools. In Pinellas, their influence is most apparent in high schools.
- After half of the district's 16 high schools earned D grades from the state in 2004, Pinellas officials enlisted Daggett and his New York-based International Center for Leadership in Education to hold workshops and perform "needs assessments" at nine high schools.
The work is significantly changing how Pinellas high schools organize themselves and treat their students.
Last year, Pinellas schools spent about $330,000 on education consultants, a fraction of the $844-million operating budget. About $111,000 was paid to Daggett's center.
Officials say they are careful to guard against gurus whose ideas don't have staying power or who add clutter to the mission.
"I think what gets us in trouble a lot of times is the way we spend money," said Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox. "(Some educators think) 'I've just got to buy the next new thing,' whether it's a person with an idea or whether it's a software application or something else."
Said Mike Grego, an assistant superintendent in Hillsborough: "You have to caution yourself to not bounce the district in 15 different directions."
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More than 180 Pinellas educators were among the throng of 8,000 at Daggett's four-day Model Schools Conference last June in Kissimmee, with the district paying $1,100 per person. Of the hundreds of districts that participated, Pinellas sent the largest contingent.
Daggett, who spoke at several sessions, was his usual provocative self. Teachers who resist all change should be driven from the profession, he said. Educators who eschew new technology "are pretending to prepare the kids for a world (they) don't even live in."
And why, he asked, do more than a million American high school students take French when China will have such a major impact on their world?
Because "we got French teachers," he answered dryly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, forgive me," Daggett told his audience. "Your schools have become museums and we've become curators."
His message is that schools, especially high schools, move at a snail's pace compared to the world outside and that educators need to work smarter, faster and with more insight about the kids who sit in their classes. He talks at length about "mega trends" that will transform the world in just a few years - technology, the rise of India and China, the lengthening life spans of baby boomers.
Only half exaggerating, he jokes about educators who refuse to change their laminated lesson plans from 1970.
Unlike other gurus, Daggett does not recommend a prescription, instead urging educators to look around the nation for what works at "high-performing" schools.
A sampling: guidance counselors who move with students from middle to high school, and PTA meetings held in small groups at parents' convenience.
In late July, a month after the Kissimmee conference, Daggett came to Tampa with a similar message. Hillsborough schools paid him about $9,000 to give a 40-minute speech to about 17,000 teachers at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"I would describe him more as a maverick who tells us exactly how it is, tells us things we don't want to hear but we need to hear," said Colleen Conklin, a Flagler County School Board member. "We don't like change ... and some of the things he talks about require drastic change."
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By now, about eight years into the era of strict accountability, most teachers have gotten the message that change is afoot. Gurus often are called in to reinforce that idea, provide inspiration and offer "strategies" to improve student performance.
They translate the mountains of dense research generated each year on what does and doesn't work in schools, then package it for educators. They also bring an outsider's perspective and the freedom to say things that might ruffle feathers.
"Sometimes it takes those educational experts to push the political envelope," said Grego, the Hillsborough assistant superindendent.
Last summer's session at the Times Forum was the district's effort to "open the minds of teachers to the potential change that is constant in our business," Grego said.
"When you're working in isolation, you're not helping anybody."
Wilcox, the Pinellas superintendent, said he sees consultants as "provocateurs" who make educators think about their craft.
"I see them as the kind of people who come in and they poke you a little bit gently," he said. "And sometimes they poke you pretty hard."
Most parents never hear about the education consultants that shape their children's schools. Here is some information about a few of them:
Willard R. Daggett
Background: Former teacher, professor, school administrator, top official with the New York State Education Department.
Known for: Urging more "rigor and relevance" in school curricula.
Quote: "The world outside of schools is changing four to five times faster than the rate inside of schools."
Background: Worked in Illinois as a teacher, principal and superintendent for 34 years.
Known for: Advocating "professional learning communities" in each school.
Quote: "Faculties must stop making excuses for failing to collaborate."
Robert J. Marzano
Background: English teacher turned educational researcher; 40 years in education.
Known for: Translating research into practical ideas for schools.
Quote: "If we follow the guidance offered from 35 years of research, we can enter an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education."
Ruby K. Payne
Background: An educator since 1972; teacher, principal, consultant and administrator.
Known for: Her first book, Framework for Understanding Poverty, offers insights to middle-class teachers about low-income students.
Quote: "I never want to hear again that poor children can't learn."