This was written by Carol Corbett Burris, principal of South Side High School in New York. She was named the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.
By Carol Corbett Burris
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I keep this quote on my desk. No one knows who authored it — it is often misattributed to William Butler Yeats. Whoever created it was wise indeed for those whose vocation is educating students upon hearing it, recognize its truth.
I reflect on that quote often these days. I worry that the pail fillers are
determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.
However, educational research as well as the wisdom that comes from instructional practice, tell us that learning happens in the mind of the learner. There is an engagement, a lighting of the fire, which must occur for deep learning to happen. As a young and somewhat naïve teacher, I once argued with Madeline Hunter that if my teaching were perfect, all students would perfectly learn. She smiled and told me that I was wrong.
“Effective teaching increases the probability of learning, you cannot guarantee it,” she said.
She was, of course, correct. Hunter spent her life pouring through research to identify the teacher behaviors that increased the probability of learning. A psychologist by training, she opened a lab school at UCLA, became a certified teacher and practiced her findings by teaching elementary children in her school. She had a respect for the profession that blossomed from her own practice and from her scholarship. How horrified she would be by the thinking that reduces teaching to test-prep drill and professional practice to a numerical score.
At the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training. Designed to serve the needs of three charter school chains — KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools— RGSE has no university affiliation, yet awards masters degrees in New York State.
In order to enroll in their program, one must teach, uncertified, in an affiliated school. Traditional public school teachers need not apply. Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.
I invite readers to watch the Relay Graduate School of Education video entitled “Rigorous Classroom Discussion,” which you can find here. Go to the link and look for the title. In the video, the teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant. The questions concern the concept of a “character trait” but are low-level, often in a ‘fill in the blank’ format. The teacher cuts the student off as he attempts to answer the question. Students engage in the bizarre behavior of wiggling their fingers to send ‘energy’ to a young man, Omari, put on the spot by the teacher. Students’ fingers point to their temple and they wiggle hands in the air to send signals. Hands shoot up before the question is asked, and think time is never given to formulate thoughtful answers. When Omari confuses the word ‘ambition’ with ‘anxious’ (an error that is repeated by a classmate), you know that is how he is feeling at the moment. As the video closes with the command, “hands down, star position, continue reading” there is not the warmth of a teacher smile, nor the utterance of ‘please’. The original question is forgotten and you are left to wonder if anyone understands what a character trait is. The pail was filled with ‘something’ and the teacher moves on.
I do not fault the teacher in the video for her style. She is performing as taught by a system that, in my opinion, better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college. In schools taught by RGSE teachers, the Common Core State Standards will be, I fear, merely heavier rocks in the pail.
As I watched the video, I thought about the rich discussions, open-ended speculative questions, ample think time and supportive feeling tone that I find in the classrooms of the teachers at my school. I remember the same culture in the middle school where I taught. Both are diverse schools that serve students with little as well as students with much. Suburban parents would be horrified by the magic finger wiggling and drill techniques used in the video clip. How sad that charter school students are treated as if, were they were given one second to think, the teacher would lose control. How horrifying that student grades and punishments are put on public display. The dignity of the learner comes in second to his or her compliance.
This, however, is the inevitable outcome of a system that is insular and that never looks beyond the practice of charter school leaders. Teacher education programs should bring together a diverse group of teacher candidates — from both city and suburb, and from private, charter and public schools. These programs should facilitate an exchange of ideas that fuels reflection and inspires inquiry into one’s own practice. When, a teacher preparation program is instead designed with a singular, data-driven focus, the fire that comes from the discussion of ideas of education’s great thinkers are but embers in a pail. “I can study Vygotsky later,” said an Empower Charter School teacher in an article on Relay in The New York Times. We can only hope that for her students’ sake, there will still be room left in the pail when ‘later’ comes.
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