Coaching Letter #123

Hello, I hope you are well, and I hope you have power and internet. Last week was challenging, because Isaias was deceptive—it didn’t seem like a big storm, so I wasn’t really prepared to be without internet for several days. To be fair, I’m not sure what more I could have done to prepare for being without internet. Luckily, I didn’t have to go too far to get it—the local Starbucks, or the parking lot of the Community Center—but there is a limit to the amount of time you can spend in your car or on a bench with your laptop on your knees. I am, therefore, behind.

Almost all of my cognitive capacity has been taken up by the Acceleration Workshop—we had to delay a couple of days because of the storm, so the final session is tomorrow. The Center team on this Workshop has pulled out all the stops—drawing from a ton of different resources, weaving all the strands together to make sure they form a coherent whole, designing the right tasks for teams to work on to move them forward, putting together PowerPoint presentations, writing the scripts to go with the PowerPoints—plus team folders, web site, Zoom… It’s a ton of work, so this is a heartfelt shout-out to my colleagues for their extraordinary accomplishments.

The corollary benefit of the lack of internet has been enforced down time. So I have found myself thinking a lot about my experience with the ideas that go into the concept of Acceleration as a Strategy. The foundational idea is that in order to be successful, students have to be impelled to engage in challenging, grade level work—and there are other factors that have to be in place in order for that to happen, but let’s stick with that big idea. Let me tell you a story. It’s about my experience of getting students into grade-appropriate work and not falling for the Illusion of Success.

My first job after teaching was working to put in place Career Pathways in a vertical team in Austin, Texas, as part of a huge federal School-to-Work grant. The grant partnered the high school with Advanced Micro Devices, a big player in the Austin tech scene. The district team met with the AMD team regularly—that was a real education in itself—and the big focus was improving the achievement of the high school students in math. That was what I worked on. Wow, so many interesting things happened—I wasn’t in that job for very long, but it was really formative in terms of the impact it had on the way I thought and what I’ve been trying to do since then.

So anyway, at some point someone said to me, you know there’s this new guy at UT who’s worked on this kind of stuff before. Uri Treisman. You should call him. So I did. It was one of those situations where ignorance is a blessing, because if I had known who he was I would never have had the nerve to call. If you’re curious, here’s his bio, but what you really need to know is that he has been at the cutting edge of getting traditionally under-served students to be successful in higher level mathematics for decades, and has been much lauded for his work, including the award of a MacArthur Fellowship. So I called him, and he asked me to visit him at his office, and then I arranged a meeting at the high school with the principal—and he showed up with a team of people, and kept showing up for me when I needed him to, and gave a lot of guidance and support, and introduced me to my BFF Rose Asera, who is a force unto herself… Anyway, the whole thing collapsed when the high school got a new principal, but that’s another story.

The important part is that when Uri showed up that day, with his team including Rose, he spoke cogently and at length about what it would take to get more kids into calculus—and not just into the course, but successful in the course. It was mind-blowing, because it challenged the way that we did so many things—but again, the mind-blowing part was not what was being suggested, but the fact that it had never occurred to me to challenge the way we currently did them. And what is most pertinent to my theme of Acceleration and why it should be your Strategy—not just in response to the shutdown, but forever and always—was that we took students who had not been successful in math up to this point and we placed them in a course called Paced Algebra.

The theory of action behind Paced Algebra was that if we took students without a strong background in mathematics and gave them two years, instead of one, to master the material, then they would be more likely to be successful in the course. But Uri talked about the research that showed that if you took two kids with the same math achievement and placed one of them in a regular one-year Algebra course and the other in Paced Algebra, the mathematical achievement (which is not the same thing as the grade) of the student in regular Algebra would be higher than the student in Paced Algebra.

Once you start thinking about it, the reasons for this are obvious. The expectations of the students in Paced Algebra are lower, there is less homework, the class is often taught by a less experienced teacher, the assignments aren’t so challenging, there is less of what is known as “academic press.”

And here’s the kicker: because the students appear to be more successful in Paced Algebra, everyone thinks it’s a good idea. But it turns out that the success is an illusion, because what they are successful at is so much less demanding. Once you know to look for the Illusion of Success, you start seeing it lots of places. It is one of the Big Ideas that has shaped my professional life. It turns out that the appeal of the Illusion of Success is quite tenacious. Turning away from it and deciding not to rescue; to make constructive and planned use of failure; not to privilege relief over resilience; to scaffold and support; to build self-efficacy; to not be afraid of productive struggle—these require skilled and dedicated teachers, firm in their belief in their own self-efficacy.

Getting kids into grade-level work that may appear beyond them is a mission worth accepting. You may have to change a lot of minds along the way. You may have to build a lot of capacity to do the attendant work. But you have already survived a pandemic and several related crises—now you can do anything.

Let me know if I can do anything for you. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
860-576-9410
@IsobelTX
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2020-08-10T16:36:21+00:00