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What Works vs. Whatever Works

Teaching Practices-Teaching Effective

While traveling to and from meetings during the past few weeks, I noticed the news seemed to be all about sports: the start of the baseball season, the NCAA basketball tournament and the Kentucky Derby. I am not a sports enthusiast (I do confess to be a ready participant, and my interest in professional sports peaks at the time of playoffs) but could not help but find myself thinking about how our society monitors and acknowledges remarkable achievement, exceptional performance, what it means to be (and do) "the best," and how these same values carry over into other aspects of our lives. The connection to educational practice? Read on.

Racing Toward Learning

When I attended the recent Council for Exceptional Children Conference in Louisville, Ky., the city was purring with excitement in preparation for the 2007 Kentucky Derby. People were talking about their favorite horses and were prepared to attribute a "best outcome" to all sorts of factors -- some having to do with the skill of the jockey, others with the dedication of the trainer, and still others with things like the horses' diet. Every step of the regimen to prepare for this race had been subject to scrutiny by investors, consultants and the public, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about what was most important and what would account for success or disappointment. The pressure to perform, however, was clearly directed at the jockey, whose intuition and ability to remain intensely focused on strategy while at the same time making quick decisions, adjusting behaviors, managing the moment and still keeping an eye on the big picture would likely make or break his chances of success. In the end, though, the winner was determined by one overriding force -- chance.

While this approach to decision-making might work for placing a bet in a horse race, it falls way short of being a responsible way of ensuring student success. So how do we, in the education community, prepare to help students (and help ourselves!) maximize our chances for success?


  • Do we believe in ourselves and the ability of our students to achieve "best outcomes," and to what do we attribute the chances of this happening?
  • Are we paying attention to the details that are important and to everything that seems to factor into our chances of success, and how are these impressions and data points being prioritized and scrutinized?
  • To whom are we accountable as we make systemic and instructional decisions and what effect does pressure from outside the classroom have on our decision making?
  • Who are our "jockeys" (our decision makers, our teachers), how trustworthy are they, and what can we do to ensure that they are really "in the saddle" when it comes to making best practice decisions?
  • Are we getting (as we should!) a robust return on our investment, in terms of both time and energy devoted to improving student outcomes and on the business side of the education enterprise?


A Slam Dunk for Students

Catching up on some pleasure reading on the trip back from the CEC conference, I read an article in the New Yorker magazine that made mention of the NCAA basketball tournament, referencing a book called "Bracketology: The Final Four of Everything" (Bloomsbury). It spoke about the way these types of tournaments work, and how players compete against one another, narrowing down the field from 32 to 16 to 8 and so forth until a winner finally emerges. This elimination process relies on value judgments being made along the way, and finally, allows for the determination of who or what is "best."

Flying 29,000 feet above the closest school building, I couldn't help but think that some schools might, unfortunately, be applying this "knockout practice" to educational practice. A number of questions came to mind:


  • How are we ensuring that our nation's classrooms do not resemble this "knockout" practice and embrace rather than eliminate (or marginalize) students who can't compete with peers who are moving farther along the success brackets toward "winning" status?
  • What happens to the skilled athlete (aka student) who gets knocked out of the competitive ranks (very often prematurely) and is, for procedural reasons, denied a chance to regain their status and demonstrate their ability to succeed?
  • How (and with what speed) do we respond to the student who has "fallen from the ranks" and what instructional and behavioral supports do we offer to enable them to regain their competitive edge?
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