Implementing Eastern Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Mathematics in Urban High Schools

Note: This article was submitted to the Fulbright Taiwan Annual Research Journal. 

taiwan-1.jpg
Leading a presentation about Taiwanese education in Taipei

When Portuguese sailors first sailed past Taiwan during the 16th century, they nicknamed the island Formosa after its natural beauty. In most countries throughout the world, these natural landmarks are prominently featured on currency, alongside images of memorable leaders and famous monuments that celebrate key moments in the course of their history. In contrast, Taiwan’s legal tender promotes a notably different message: the importance of education. On the back of the Taiwanese $1,000 bill, for example, we find a group of children gathered around a globe. This phenomenon is not surprising, as Taiwanese citizens vehemently believe in the innate power of public education (Hsiao & Po-Hsuan, 2018). This rich culture and deep respect for learning dates back centuries to the time of Confucius, a period when most of Asia was under imperial rule and civil service exams were omnipotent:

“The first examinations were attributed to the Sui emperors (589-618 A.D.) in China. With its flexible writing system and extensive body of recorded knowledge, China was in a position much earlier than the West to develop written examinations. The examinations were built around candidates’ ability to memorize, comprehend, and interpret classical texts. Aspirants prepared for the examinations on their own in private schools run by scholars or through private tutorials. Some took examinations as early as age 15, while others continued their studies into their thirties. After passing a regional examination, successful applicants traveled to the capital city to take a 3-day examination, with answers evaluated by a special examining board appointed by the Emperor. Each time the examination was offered, a fixed number of aspirants were accepted into the imperial bureaucracy” (U.S. Congress, 1992).

This imperial system of examination (known in Mandarin as 科舉or kējǔ) was originally considered to be an equitable way for all students to have an opportunity to rise beyond their current caste. Kējǔ also helped those in power identify and recruit into government service individuals who were capable and virtuous rather than to fall back on members of the hereditary noble class (Zhao, 2014).  Seen by many to be fair, objective, and open, kējǔ eventually gave birth to the idea of meritocracy, a core value in many eastern countries (Zhao, 2014).

Centuries later, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Republic of China, continued to praise kējǔ as the bedrock of the world’s best education system. Dr. Young Zhao reminds us of an oft-told tale of Sun’s about the drawbacks of a society without standardized tests. Sun related the story of an election in the west between a doctor and a truck driver. Although the doctor had received more formal education than the driver, he lost the popular vote. This outcome, Sun would insist, was the consequence of popular election without examination (Zhao, 2014).

After overthrowing the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty, Sun Yat-sen set up a new government in Beijing known as the Republic of China. The founding document of the R.O.C. included an entire branch of government focused on examination; this five-power constitution continues in modern day Taiwan.

Taiwan - 1 (3)
Leading a math class in Kaohsiung

The Taiwanese system of education

While standardized testing is deeply engrained in Taiwanese culture, the country’s education system is unique for a multitude of other reasons. First of all, Taiwanese teachers are classified as white-collar professionals; they value the quality of their work and take pride in what they do (Huang, 2003). The reputation of teachers is second to none; teaching jobs are held in high esteem and the pride of place given to education in traditional Chinese culture enhances the social status of teachers (Hsieh et. al., 2009; Fenton, 2016).

Second, most Taiwanese educators believe in the concept of a growth mindset. Simply put: if a teacher believes that their students can do better, they will; if a teacher gives up on their students easily, then their students will give up, too.

Third, Taiwanese pre-service teachers are exceptionally well-qualified academically; most have excelled in school. Consequently, university education departments are quite selective, and only the best available candidates are accepted. This situation stands in marked contrast to that of the United States, where the lure of Wall Street and Silicon Valley often attracts the best and brightest (Kristof, 2011; Zakaria, 2012). In fact, the results of a 2010 study suggest that the majority of U.S. education majors come from the bottom third of their graduating class (Kihn, P., Miller, A., & Auguste, B., 2010).

After a number of school observations throughout Taiwan, it has also been noted that, though the typical teacher in that country is present at school for more than 10 hours each day, he or she rarely instructs for more than three to four hours. Data from the Taiwanese Ministry of Education (2017) confirms that the average teacher leads instruction for 560-720 hours per year. In contrast, the majority of high school teachers in the United States spend almost double that amount of time leading instruction over the course of a school year (Ministry of Education, 2017).  Consequently, Taiwanese teachers have significantly more time available each week to prepare lessons, mark classwork, and reflect on how best to improve children’s learning (Gove, 2012).They are also able to meet with colleagues in professional learning communities to plan classes and grade their students’ work collaboratively. Most importantly, they have an opportunity to reflect upon their pedagogy. This extensive reflection time enables teachers to act as action researchers, develop and evaluate new teaching methods, and keep tabs on one another’s performance (Gove, 2012; Liu, 2013).

Note, too, that the Taiwanese educational system includes more than government-run schools; it also encompasses a gigantic range of cram schools. However, it is virtually impossible to find stories in the mainstream media about east Asian education today that boldly confronts the existence of this parallel educational system (Turton, 2012). These cram schools (known in Mandarin as 補習班 or bǔxíbān) are akin to large tutoring centers that lecture students about mathematics, Chinese, and English.

The practice of late-night tutoring is particularly controversial in this part of the world. Although many schools in Taiwan are remarkably equitable, these night classes are one way in which parents with means use their resources to give an unfair advantage to their children, but often at an extraordinary financial and emotional cost (Williams, 2017). These bǔxíbāns are so pervasive in east Asia that neighboring South Korea passed a law in 2011 that enacted a strict 10:00 PM curfew to lessen the stress load on students (Seoul, 2011).

Taiwan - 1 (1)
Talking about Newark at a vocational school in Tainan

Education reform

Today, considerable controversy exists with regards to education reform throughout the world. In Taiwan, the fundamental purpose of public education has long been debated. This ongoing debate has led to a learning system that “over-emphasizes academic performance and neglects other dimensions of learning. But recently, the Taiwanese government adopted the use of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics. This new approach to teaching and learning focuseson the whole child” (Eisenhart, 2011).

Contemporary educational reform in Taiwan commenced during the late 1980s when a team led by Dr. Fou-Lai Lin decided to investigate the teaching of mathematics; they reviewed the literature and relied on research methodology rather than solely their own experience. As a result, mathematics teacher education entered a new phase, one that combined practical experience with empirical research (Hsieh et. al., 2009).

In 1996, mathematics teachers throughout the country began to focus on the way in which students thought, thus shifting away from a teacher-centered approach and towards a student-oriented method of learning (Hsieh et. al., 2009). The following year, the Ministry of Education implemented a new national curriculum for junior high school students. Many of the changes involved in this initiative centered on students and the cultivation of their creativity, thinking, and reasoning abilities, as well as the links that existed between mathematics and life. The message was clear: an attitude toward active learning and the appreciation of mathematics was being put into place (Hsieh, 1997).

These reforms shifted the emphasis in mathematics education away from simply memorizing and plugging into formulas and towards developing problem-solving skills and process-monitoring. Problem solving, through which one learns methods for acquiring knowledge, had historically been largely neglected in Taiwan. Now, however, it is gaining attention alongside an emphasis on mathematics education for lifelong learning (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999).

The Taiwanese Ministry of Education is currently piloting a new high school math curriculum which will be rolled out nationwide during the 2019-2020 school year. One of the Ministry’s noted goals is the progressive implementation of a12-Year Basic Education program, incorporating the development of adaptive learning along with a completely non-exam-based secondary school admission process (Ministry of Education, 2017). Policy makers plan to adapt the Taiwanese curricula so as to encourage problem solving that is creative. (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999). The Ministry has also made it clear that teachers must pay closer attention to the process of learning as well as to the way in which children conceptualize content and ideas rather than simply focusing on arriving at the correct answer (Eisenhart, 2011).

These proposed education reforms seek to address the pitfalls found in current educational practice and to foster collaboration among students through project-based learning and standard-based grading. One teacher noted that these reforms will set future generations of Taiwanese students in a positive new direction and prepare them to face the adaptive challenges found in our increasingly globalized world. 

Taiwan - 1 (4)
Leading a Public Speaking class in Kaohsiung

Next steps

As the guiding vision of Taiwan’s new 12-year basic education program is further developed, the principles of “spontaneity, interaction, [and] the common good” that it promotes will be integrated increasingly with the educational ideas of John Dewey’s (1938), postmodernism, and complex thought (Morin, 1999; 1993). These structural shifts will encourage Taiwanese teachers to let students drive their own learning and to take ownership of their thinking with an aim to inspire rather than to control (Fan, 2016). After all, “if we continue to ignore the power of students’ own ideas and conceptions, we will only perpetuate the notion that mathematics and science (among other subjects in our school curricula) are irrelevant, uninteresting, and difficult to learn” (Sahlberg, 2018).

These progressive innovations are not unique to Taiwanese education. China, the United States’ leading economic competitor, is in the process of decentralizing its curriculum, diversifying its methods of assessment, and encouraging local autonomy and innovation. Singapore is also promoting a student-centered learning environment characterized by the principle of ‘Teach Less, Learn More’ (Sahlberg, 2015).

In other countries around Asia, leaders are ensuring that schools limit direct instruction and the mere recitation of facts and instead look for more innovative pedagogies that encourage students to design and produce authentic products (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2016). During many classroom observations throughout Taiwan, it is apparent that lesson structure also plays an important role both during class and while a teacher prepares for a class. This idea was featured prominently in Elizabeth Green’s critically-acclaimed book Building a Better Teacher:

“One striking example was the way teachers structured their lessons. American teachers rarely talked about lesson structure – the way class proceeds from a beginning to a middle to an end – and yet, watching each individual teacher at work, Stigler felt as though they’d all read the same recipe. ‘A cultural script,’ he called it… Some American teachers called their pattern ‘I, We, You.’ The Japanese teachers, meanwhile, turned ‘I, We, You’ inside out. You might call their version ‘You, Y’all, We.’ They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through. Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. Give the answer and the reason for the answer.Finally, a teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion – What did you learn from today’s problem, or what new questions do you have, if any?” (Green, 2015).

To capitalize more fully on the ideas and conceptual understanding of all students, many schools in Taiwan (and indeed throughout the world) are recognizing the importance of teaching students how to work collaboratively, to create viable arguments, and to critique the reasoning of others. In a number of Taiwanese math classes, students are encouraged to share their personal strategy on how to solve a complex problem. This is markedly different than some schools in the U.S, where students are often drilled in a few dozen scaffolded problems over the course of a lesson. In most Taiwanese high schools, students during a single math class might complete a few rigorous problems during each period, allowing students to be able to spend more time thinking deeply about a few hard problems and to reflect critically on their solution strategy.

When Taiwanese students are solving problems in class, the types of questions that their teachers ask them are also often noticeably different than those posed by American teachers:

“In comparisons of mathematics teaching in the United States and in high-achieving countries, U.S. mathematics instructions has been characterized as rarely asking students to think and reason with or about mathematical ideas. [American] teachers sometimes perceive student frustration of lack of immediate success as indicators that they have somehow failed their students. As a result, [American math teachers] jump in to ‘rescue’ students by breaking down the task and guiding students step by step through the difficulties. Although well intentioned, such ‘rescuing’ undermines the efforts of students, lowers the cognitive demand of the task, and deprives students of opportunities to engage fully in making sense of mathematics” (NCTM, 2014).

In contrast, some Taiwanese teachers are moving away from rigid algorithms toward more flexible and divergent thinking. Because Taiwanese students are encouraged to think divergently about algebra instead of rigidly following an algorithm, they were able to regroup certain terms and make the complex expression simpler. In many classroom observations, students were solving algebra problems using a multitude of different strategies, allowing them to think more concretely about algebra, thus increasing both their accuracy and efficiency in solving complex problems.

Another striking aspect of Taiwanese math pedagogy is the ability of teachers to include multiple modalities in their instruction. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has insisted that “effective mathematics teaching includes a strong focus on using varied mathematical representations” (NCTM, 2014). The results of multiple studies have demonstrated that students display greater mathematical understanding and enhanced problem-solving ability when they learn to represent, discuss, and make connections among mathematical ideas in multiple forms. (Fuson, Kalchman, and Bransford, 2005). Taiwanese teachers, in particular, focus their attention on providing different visual representations of abstract mathematical concepts thus helping students to advance their understanding of them. (Arcavi, 2003). 

Taiwan - 1 (2)
With high school students after a focus group in Taichung.

Conclusion

This article describes but a few of the pedagogies used by Taiwanese math teachers as they practice their craft. We still have a long distance to go as a global math community until we reach the point where math teachers everywhere have implemented research-informed best practices that can drastically improve their students’ ability to learn.  Perhaps the NCTM summarized best the shift taking place in the global landscape: “Students must rethink what it means to be a successful learner of mathematics, and teachers must rethink what it means to be an effective teacher of mathematics” (2014).

Learning about the culture of education as well as math instruction in Taiwan has been a transformative learning experience of a lifetime. While some of the culture that surrounds Taiwanese education is deeply ingrained within the history of this incredible country, there are many elements found in the pedagogy of Taiwanese math teachers that can be effectively incorporated into public schools throughout the United States. Now, it is up to all of us to implement these best practices and transform our education system once and for all.

After all, our students are counting on us.

Let us rise to the challenge.

 

Works Cited

Arcarvi, A. (2003). “The Role of Visual Representations in the Learning of Math” Educational Studies in Mathematics, 52, no. 3 pg. 215-241

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education.NY, New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

Eisenhart, C. (2011). Why do Taiwanese Children Excel at Math?. The Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/987689/Why_do_Taiwanese_Children_Excel_at_Math

Fan, H. C. (2016). Education in Taiwan: The Vision and Goals of the 12-Year Curriculum.Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/education-in-taiwan-the-vision-and-goals-of-the-12-year-curriculum/

Fenton, S. (2015). President Obama praises South Korea for paying teachers as much as doctors. The Independent. Retrieved March 08, 2018, from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/president-obama-praises-south-korea-for-paying-teachers-as-much-as-doctors-10398802.html

Friedman, T. (2012). Pass the Books. Hold the Oil. The NY Times Retrieved March 02, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/opinion/sunday/friedman-pass-the-books-hold-the-oil.html

Fuson, K., Kalchman, M., and Bransford, J. (2005). “Mathematical Understanding: an Introduction” in How Students Learn History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom., edited by Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Gove, M. (2012). Classroom Crush. The EconomistRetrieved March 07, 2018, from https://www.economist.com/node/21547854

Green, E. (2014). Why Do Americans Stink at Math? The NY Times. Retrieved February 14, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/magazine/why-do-americans-stink-at-math.html

Green, E. (2015). Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to teach it to everyone).New York ; London: Norton et Company.

Hoyles, C., Morgan, C., & Woodhouse, G. (1999). Rethinking the Mathematics Curriculum. doi:10.4324/9780203234730

Hsieh, F.-J. (1997). 國中數學新課程精神與特色. [The essence and features of new mathematics curriculum in junior high school]. Science Education Monthly, 197, 45-55.

Hsieh, F.-J., Lin, P.-J., Chao, G., & Wang, T.-Y. (2009).
Policy and Practice of Mathematics Teacher Education in Taiwan.

Hsiao S., & Po-Hsuan W. (2018). Mandatory Education for Five-year-olds is Popular. The Taipei Times. March 19, 2018 Print Edition: Volume 19, Number 27.

Huang, Y.-J. (2003). 臺灣地區新職業聲望與社經地位量表」之建構與評估:社會科學與教育社會學研究本土化. [The construction and assessment of the “new occupational prestige and social for Taiwan”: The indigenization of the social science and sociology of education research], Bulletin of Educational Research Vol.49(4). 1-31.

Kihn, P., Miller, A., & Auguste, B. (2010). Closing the Teaching Talent Gap. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved March 06, 2018, from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/closing-the-teaching-talent-gap

Kristof, N. (2011). Pay Teachers More. The NY Times Retrieved March 07, 2018, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/opinion/13kristof.html?_r=0

Liu, K. (2013). Critical reflection as a framework for transformative learning in teacher education. Educational Review, 67(2), 135-157. doi:10.1080/00131911.2013.839546

Ministry of Education (2017). Ministry of Education Objectives for 2018 (January-December)  released 7/19/2017. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education (2017). International Comparison of Educational Statistical Indicators. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.

Morin, E. (1993). 複合思想導論[Complex Thought](施植明,譯)。臺北市:時報文化。

Morin, E. (1999). The Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future. Helsinki, Finnish: UNESCO. Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. National Curriculum. Retrieved from http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/index.aspx

NCTM (2014). Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success For All. Reston, VA: NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sahlberg, P. (2018). FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Seoul, A. R. (2011). Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2094427,00.html

Turton, M. (2012). The View From Taiwan. Retrieved March 04, 2018, from http://michaelturton.blogspot.com/2012/03/friedman-on-taiwan.html

U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1992). Testing in American Schools: Asking the Right Questions, OTA-SET-519. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2016). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York, NY: Scribner.

Williams, C. (2017). Teaching English in East Asia: A Teachers Guide to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Learners. Singapore: Springer imprint is published by Springer Nature.

Zakaria, F. (2012). When Will We Learn. Retrieved March 07, 2018, from https://fareedzakaria.com/2011/11/28/when-will-we-learn/

Zhao, Y. (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The Shifting Landscape of Math Education in Taiwan

With a traditional culture that has generally emphasized standardized testing and the Confucian ‘sage on a stage’ model of instruction, there is a lot of controversy regarding Taiwanese education reform. In fact, “the fundamental purpose of education has long been debated in Taiwan. This ongoing debate has led to a learning system that over-emphasizes academic performance and neglects other dimensions of learning. But recently, the Taiwanese government adopted the use of a constructivist approach to teaching mathematics. This new approach to teaching and learning focuses on the whole child” (Eisenhart, 2011).

Contemporary education reform in Taiwan started during the late 1980’s, when a team led by Dr. Fou-Lai Lin “gradually began to investigate mathematics teaching through research and literature studies instead of only through their own experience. As a product of these occurrences, mathematics teacher education in Taiwan moved towards a new realm, combining practical experience with mathematics education research” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). In 1996, “in-service and pre-service math teachers throughout Taiwan began to deeply consider the way students think, shifting the view towards teaching from teacher-centered to student- oriented” (Hsieh et. al., 2009). The following year, the Ministry of Education implemented a new national curriculum for junior high school students. Many of these changes “centered on students; the links between mathematics and life; the cultivation of students’ creativity, thinking, as well as reasoning abilities; and on an active attitude towards learning mathematics and appreciating mathematics (Hsieh, 1997).” The intent of these reforms “means that in mathematics education the emphasis will shift to problem-solving and process-monitoring and away from memorizing and plugging into formulas. Problem solving through which one can learn the methods of acquiring knowledge is one aspect of mathematics education that has been more or less neglected in Taiwan, but is now gaining attention alongside the emphasis on mathematics education for lifelong learning” (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999).

IMG_9074.jpg
Liu Mong-chi presenting a session on how to design questions that test students’ core competence: “If the only metric we use to determine the effectiveness of our education system is PISA, we will not have an effective education system.”

In modern-day Taiwan, the Ministry of Education is currently piloting a new national curriculum that will be rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year. One of the Ministry’s noted goals is to “progressively implement the 12-Year Basic Education program, incorporating development of adaptive learning and completely non-exam-based secondary school admission” (Ministry of Education, 2017). Policy makers are are planning to adapt the Taiwanese curricula to encourage creative problem solving (Hoyles, Morgan, & Woodhouse, 1999). The Ministry has also put forward that “teachers are required to pay closer attention to the learning process and children’s conceptualization of content and ideas rather than focusing on simply attaining the correct answer” (Eisenhart, 2011). These proposed reforms look to address the pitfalls of  current educational practice and intends to inspire students to collaborate through project-based learning and standard-based grading. During one interview, a teacher noted how these changes will take the future generation of Taiwanese students onto a positive new path that will prepare them for the adaptive challenges of our increasingly globalized world.

As the vision of Taiwan’s new 12-year basic education program is developed, its ideas of “spontaneity, interaction, and common good” are synthesized with reference to the educational ideas of John Dewey (1938), postmodernism, and complex thought (Morin, 1999; 1993). These instructional shifts encourage Taiwanese teachers to let students drive their learning and take ownership of their thinking with an aim to inspire rather than to control (Fan, 2016). After all, “if we continue to ignore the power of students’ own ideas and conceptions, we will only perpetuate the notion that mathematics and science (among other subjects in our school curricula) are irrelevant, uninteresting, and difficult to learn” (Sahlberg, 2018).

These progressive changes are not unique to Taiwan, either: “China, the leading economic competitor of the United States, is decentralizing its curriculum, diversifying assessment, and encouraging local autonomy and innovation. Meanwhile… Singapore is promoting a creative environment characterized by ‘Teach Less, Learn More’” (Finnish Lessons 2.0). In other Asian countries, schools “are limiting direct instruction and mere recitation of facts and looking for more innovative pedagogies and encourage students to design and make things” (Wagner & Dintersmith, 2016). When observing classrooms throughout Taiwan, it is apparent that lesson structure plays an important role both during class and when a teacher is preparing for a lesson. This idea was featured prominently in Elizabeth Green’s critically-acclaimed book Building a Better Teacher:

“One striking example was the way teachers structured their lessons. American teachers rarely talked about lesson structure – the way class proceeds from a beginning to a middle to an end – and yet, watching each individual teacher at work, Stigler felt as though they’d all read the same recipe. ‘A cultural script,’ he called it… Some American teachers called their pattern ‘I, We, You.’ The Japanese teachers, meanwhile, turned ‘I, We, You’ inside out. You might call their version ‘You, Y’all, We.’ They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through. Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. Give the answer and the reason for the answer. Finally, a teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion – What did you learn from today’s problem, or what new questions do you have, if any?” (Green, 2015)

To fully capitalize on harnessing student’s own ideas and conceptions, many schools in Taiwan (and throughout the world) are recognizing the importance of teaching students how to work collaboratively, create viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. Student voice is featured prominently within many Taiwanese math classes, often for students to share their strategy on how to solve a complex problem. Unlike in the U.S., most Taiwanese high school math classes only complete a few rigorous problems during each period, as opposed to drilling a few dozen scaffolded problems over the trajectory of a lesson. This means that students spend more time thinking deeply about a few hard problems, which enables them to reflect critically about their solution strategy. When students are solving these problems, the types of questions that Taiwanese teachers ask their students are noticeably different than the types of questions often posed by American teachers:

“In comparisons of mathematics teaching in the United States and in high-achieving countries, U.S. mathematics instructions has been characterized as rarely asking students to think and reason with or about mathematical ideas. [American] teachers sometimes perceive student frustration of lack of immediate success as indicators that they have somehow failed their students. As a result, [American math teachers] jump in to ‘rescue’ students by breaking down the task and guiding students step by step through the difficulties. Although well intentioned, such ‘rescuing’ undermines the efforts of students, lowers the cognitive demand of the task, and deprives students of opportunities to engage fully in making sense of mathematics” (NCTM, 2014).

To this end, some Taiwanese teachers are moving away from rigid algebraic algorithms to flexible divergent thinking. For an algebraic example that highlights this phenomenon, consider the simplification of the following expression, which was recently given to an 8th grade class at a junior high school in Taiwan. How would most American students go about simplifying such an expression?

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 2.43.47 PM

Most American children would follow “PEMDAS” (the rigid algorithm commonly used for order of operations), and start by multiplying 6 times 14 times 21, and then dividing by 42 OR simplifying the 21 and the 42 to ½ first. Look instead what one Taiwanese 8th grader wrote on the board:

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 2.44.15 PM

Before jumping immediately into the problem, the student reflects for a second and sees that by re-grouping the six, she can attain 42, which allows for a more straight forward simplification. The student then had to only multiply 3 times 14 to get the correct answer.

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 2.44.24 PM

Another example was seen during a 9thgrade geometry class. After deriving the ‘interior angle’ formula of a polygon, a student worked a problem down to the following expression:

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 2.44.32 PM

Again, most American students would start by distributing the 180 to the parenthesis, or by simplifying 360 times five equals 1800. Instead, consider what one Taiwanese 9th grader wrote:

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 2.44.39 PM

Because Taiwanese students were encouraged to think divergently about the algebra at hand instead of rigidly following an algorithm, the students could regroup certain terms to make the complex expression simpler. In many classroom observations, different students were solving algebra using a multitude of different strategies, allowing them to think more concretely about the algebra and open up the world of mathematics.

Another exemplar aspect of Taiwanese math pedagogy is how teachers prominently feature multiple modalities in their pedagogy, as well. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has put forward that “effective mathematics teaching includes a strong focus on using varied mathematical representations” (NCTM, 2014). In fact, multiple studies have found that “when students learn to represent, discuss, and make connections among mathematical ideas in multiple forms, they demonstrate deeper mathematical understanding and enhanced problem-solving abilities” (Fuson, Kalchman, and Bransford, 2005). Taiwanese teachers in particular focus heavily on different visual representations of abstract mathematics, which help students “advance their understanding of mathematical concepts and procedures” (Arcavi, 2003).

Creating arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, on the other hand, is a pedagogical shift that Taiwanese teachers are struggling to implement. In one classroom observation, a teacher in Kinmen repeatedly told students that, “we cannot work independently anymore; we need to work with others and learn to cooperate more.” Although this teacher had strong messaging, they struggled to give students concrete strategies to help facilitate meaningful groupwork.

During another school visit, several educators in Kaohsiung have asked how teachers in the United States facilitate rigorous discussions and Socratic seminars with their students. In Newark, the Office of Mathematics argues that “mathematical discourse should be well-planned, intentional, and embedded in whole-class and small-group settings.” Classroom discussion is one of the most important levers in student success: when educators “decrease the teacher talk and increase the student talk by providing them with learning intentions and success criteria, and a deeper understanding of how to have a discussion with the class” (DeWitt, 2017). In fact, “students who learn to articulate and justify their own mathematical ideas, reason through their own and others’ mathematical explanations, and provide a rationale for their answers develop a deep understanding that is critical to their future success in mathematics and related field” (Michaels, O’Connor, and Resnick, 2007). These shifts are most profound when teachers view themselves as a facilitator of knowledge instead of a giver of knowledge, a shift that will be enduring for many teachers (NCTM, 2014). In a country with a strong culture that has many roots in Confucianism, this instructional shift will inevitably take time to fully implement.

While these are just some of the pedagogies that Taiwanese math teachers use throughout their practice, we still have a far way to go as a global math community until every school has implemented research-informed best practices that will help students learn better. Perhaps NCTM summated this global shifting landscape most succinctly: in math classes in 2018, “students must rethink what it means to be a successful learner of mathematics, and teachers must rethink what it means to be an effective teacher of mathematics” (2014). Let us now resolve to work relentlessly to achieve this end and share the innate beauty of mathematics with everyone.

 

Works Cited

Arcarvi, A. (2003) “The Role of Visual Representations in the Learning of Math” Educational Studies in Mathematics, 52, no. 3 pg. 215-241

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education.NY, New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

DeWitt, P. (2017). 3 ‘Simple’ Ideas Every Educator Should Work on in 2017. Retrieved from http://wps.greenwichcsd.org/superintendent/2017/01/06/3-simple-ideas-every-educator-should-work-on-in-2017/

Eisenhart, C. (2011). Why do Taiwanese Children Excel at Math?. The Phi Delta Kappan. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/987689/Why_do_Taiwanese_Children_Excel_at_Math

Fan, H. C. (2016). Education in Taiwan: The Vision and Goals of the 12-Year Curriculum.Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/education-in-taiwan-the-vision-and-goals-of-the-12-year-curriculum/

Fuson, K., Kalchman, M., and Bransford, J. (2005) “Mathematical Understanding: an Introduction” in How Students Learn History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom., edited by Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Green, E. (2015). Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and how to teach it to everyone).New York ; London: Norton et Company.

Hoyles, C., Morgan, C., & Woodhouse, G. (1999). Rethinking the Mathematics Curriculum. doi:10.4324/9780203234730

Hsieh, F.-J. (1997). 國中數學新課程精神與特色. [The essence and features of new mathematics curriculum in junior high school]. Science Education Monthly, 197, 45-55.

Hsieh, F.-J., Lin, P.-J., Chao, G., & Wang, T.-Y. (2009).
Policy and Practice of Mathematics Teacher Education in Taiwan.

Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., & Resnick, L. (2007). Deliberative Discourse Idealized and Realized: Accountable Talk in the Classroom and in Civic Life. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27(4), 283-297. doi:10.1007/s11217-007-9071-1

Ministry of Education (2017). Ministry of Education Objectives for 2018 (January-December)  released 7/19/2017. Taipei, Taiwan: Ministry of Education.

Morin, E. (1999). The Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future. Helsinki, Finnish: UNESCO. Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. (n.d.). National Curriculum. Retrieved from http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/index.aspx

Morin, E. (1993). 複合思想導論[Complex Thought](施植明,譯)。臺北市:時報文化。

NCTM (2014) Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success For All. Reston, VA: NCTM, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Sahlberg, P. (2018). FinnishED Leadership: Four big, inexpensive ideas to transform education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2016). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York, NY: Scribner.

Why Taiwan? (Part 1: An Educational Perspective)

I was born to be a teacher. For as far back as I can remember, I have always loved school and valued education as one of life’s most valued treasures. While I have always had a passion for education, teaching has lit a fire in me; I truly feel alive when leading instruction in front of a classroom. Though I love what I do, I take my role as an educator seriously, as I fundamentally believe that we are teaching the future leaders of our world. As it has been said, we are currently preparing students for jobs that do not yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve a wide variety of complex problems.

During the 21st century, our international community will need to respond to these critical global issues, including food security, public health (and the so-called “death gap”), and world peace. To solve these obstacles, we will need a new generation of creative leaders: people who appreciate diversity, can think ethically, strategically, and divergently, and refuse to be satisfied with the status quo.

To create these transformational leaders, we arguably need an education revolution in this country. The achievement data is clear: a significant opportunity gap exists between middle- and upper-class students and those living in poverty. As our schools slowly become re-segregated, many of our most vulnerable communities are being left behind (Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield 2003; Orfield, Kucsera, and Siegel-Hawley 2012). Although we have made some progress over the years, I must ask: how can we live in the richest country in the world and continue to allow the opportunity gap to be so wide?

Over the past six years, I have had the absolute privilege of serving the students and families of the Newark Public Schools. During this time, I have learned so much about the unique challenges facing urban communities and the incredible resolve of Newarkers fighting for a better tomorrow. Between the city’s inspirational residents, delectable cuisine, and exceptional transportation options, Newark has genuinely become one of my favorite places in the world. As it has been said, Newark, like ancient Rome, is “a living reminder of a glorious past, a predictor of a possible future, and a lesson in the persistence of the individual and of the human spirit.”

header-union-building
Newark, affectionately known as the “Brick City,” at dusk.

While I have a deep admiration for the “Brick City” and the people that live there, I have also witnessed first-hand the educational inequality that has plagued our country for decades. I have previously written about the unacceptable transportation issues within our district bureaucracy, but busing logistics is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Baltimore City Public Schools made national headlines when the press learned that some of their schools had broken heating systems and children needed to wear their jackets to  class. Year after year, I have watched students fight an uphill battle within a system that, arguably, was not designed with their success in mind. If I have learned nothing else over the course of the last six years, it is that we have a long way to go until every young person has the opportunity to attend a great public school.

To re-think education in the United States, we need to look critically at a number of issues both within and outside our current system. While we still have a great deal to learn from ideas, research, and innovation carried out from universities, think-tanks, and scholars in the states, there are also many creative developments underway in schools throughout the world. Over the course of the past decade, Finland’s unique educational philosophy has become a worldwide sensation. Although Finland has plenty of progressive schools, efforts to replicate their instruction model has had its fair share of challenges, and students living in Asia perform better in higher-level mathematics, especially in Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. U.S educators and policy makers alike have only recently begun looking towards the far east in search of best practices beyond the primary school level. Though several white papers, policy positions, and research projects have tried to expand this effort to high school mathematics instruction, little success has been realized.

Taiwan leads the world in mathematical performance among all students in their country. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, colloquially known as the PISA, are clear: for the most recent year in which data is available, Taiwan was ranked as the 4th best country in the world for mathematical performance. The United States finished 36th.  The OECD (who organize the PISA) also uses a so-called “snapshot of equity in education” to determine how equitable the education system is in any given country. In this category, the U.S. currently ranks 25th, while Taiwan ranks 4th. It is worth noting that the Republic of China’s success in education stretches beyond the area of mathematics, as Taiwan currently ranks 8th internationally in reading comprehension and 13th in science, too.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 9.56.53 AM.png

Using another standardized metric, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), eighth graders in Taiwan ranked 2nd internationally in science and 3rd in mathematics. Taiwanese students also achieved outstanding results in the International Mathematics and Science Olympiad. The Ministry of Education also has a plethora of current initiatives that are aimed at increasing creativity through art and music programs. If you put any faith in these standardized metrics (which, to be fair, are inherently controversial), it is clear that Taiwan is doing something special when it comes to educating its youth.

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 9.57.51 AM.png

During my time abroad, I will have the opportunity to observe hundreds of educators teaching at dozens of schools, learn more about their pedagogical approach, and work to apply as much of it as possible to my work with under-resourced students back home. Although a few ideas in this area have emerged from Japan and Singapore, the approach taken in Taiwan has received little public exposure despite the tremendous success on international benchmarks. This Fulbright project looks to change this paradigm once and for all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Stock photo of Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan.

As we look forward towards an ever-changing global economy, we as educators need to do a better collective job preparing our students for the complex world in which they will live and work. Commenting on the results of the 2015 PISA, the report’s authors noted that, “while changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.” Perhaps I am hopelessly optimistic, but I do believe success is possible.

I have worked hard the last six years to ensure that all of the students whom I taught received a great education, but I must confess that I have learned far more from my students over the years than I have ever taught them. While I am truly excited for the year of personal and professional growth that lies ahead, I also want to ensure that my time abroad actually makes a difference for our most vulnerable students. I hope that my studies in Taiwan can be part of the revolution that is committed to giving all students the chance to attain a truly excellent education.

 

This post is the first in a two-part series that attempts to answer the question, “Why Taiwan?” The second essay, focused on a “cultural perspective,” will be posted next week.

 

2017: A Year in Review

It has been a few years since I had the opportunity to write a year in review. Between graduate school, teaching, and trying to maintain some semblance of a personal life, the last few years have been busier than I would care to admit. As usual, this year has been filled with ups and downs, and a plethora of memories that I will cherish for some time to come.

During the 2016-2017 school year, I taught two sections of Geometry and one section of Algebra II. Although I had taught Geometry dozens of times in the past, I never taught Algebra II for an entire year. Further complicating matters was the fact that there were 35 students enrolled in my Algebra II class! My students, many of whom I taught previously, worked relentlessly the entire year, and I was so proud of them when we found out that more students in that class passed the rigorous PARCC exam than the New Jersey state average!

One of the personal reflections that I made on “Wednesday Morning” after the 2016 presidential election was that I needed to make community service a larger priority in my life. As such, I resolved to start teaching at a local prison after school on Thursdays and volunteer my time as the Academic Coordinator for Hockey in New Jersey. Hockey in New Jersey is a local non-profit that inspires low-income youth to develop life skills, succeed academically, and create positive relationships through the sport of hockey. After months of planning, we launched our Brick City Scholars Academy in February at the Prudential Center. In addition to pairing students with mentors and providing college visit trips, our academic initiative focuses on college preparedness, character development, and standardized test preparation. It was definitely a lot of work, but it was time well spent.

In March, I had the pleasure of attending the Agile Mind Professional Services Advisor Academy, which was one of the best professional development experiences I have ever attended. In addition to being surrounded by some of the most innovative math educators our country has to offer, we were also presented with the latest research from the world-renown Charles A. Dana Center. After leaving the University of Texas at Austin, I flew directly to Philadelphia, where I was a chaperone at the Willie O’Ree Skills Weekend. Willie O’Ree, who was the first black player in the National Paulsen Pic - 1 (4)Hockey League, holds a skills weekend for student-athletes throughout the country participating in the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative. Hosted by the Snyder Hockey Foundation, the weekend-long event helps student-athletes with tremendous potential develop critical leadership skills. As Matthew Atehortua pointed out to the NHL, “it was just a surreal experience how someone who was the first [black] hockey player is still around and can share his experience with the youths and the aspiring African-American athletes.”  It really was a special weekend for all!

After returning home from Philadelphia, I was back off to Texas (this time in San Antonio) for the 2017 NCTM Annual Conference & Exposition. I really have come to love these conferences, as attendees learn about new pedagogical approaches and have time to reflect about their teaching practice. I then flew straight from Texas to Mexico for Spring Break, where I explored several Mayan ruins (including the famed Chichén Itzá), scuba-dove in an underground cenote, and even took a Mexican cooking class. April was one of the busiest months of the school year for sure, but what really made the month so special was when I found out that I had officially been awarded a Fulbright grant to study education in Taiwan!

Paulsen Pic - 1 (5)
Exploring the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá

Later on during the Spring, I officially graduated from Columbia, which ended up becoming one of the most memorable days of my life. I was finally able to see Hamilton, too, which somehow exceeded my crazy-high expectations and is the best Broadway play that I have ever seen. As May turned into June, I knew that the time with my beloved seniors at East Side was slowly coming to a close. I was particularly close with this group of seniors, including four specific students that I have been privileged to share so many great memories with. Graduation was a day filled with mixed emotions, as we officially bid farewell to the Class of 2016.

Paulsen Pic - 1 (2)
At graduation with Lucas, Natalie, Diana, and Vitor

During the summer, I started consulting as an Advisor through Agile Mind. Through this opportunity, I had the responsibility of leading professional development sessions and coaching teachers at dozens of schools throughout Philadelphia and New York City. Having the opportunity to work with teachers at so many different schools further pushed my thinking in ways previously thought unimaginable, and gave me great experience for my new role as an instructional coach at East Side in the fall. I also attended two incredible weddings this summer: It was surreal watching Eric Vander Voort, one of my best friends in the world, get married, and I also had a blast hanging with my #TCSPA friends at Kristen’s wedding, too. The summer ended with traveling to D.C. for my Fulbright Orientation run by the State Department, which you can read more about here.

As the new school year started in September, I was excited to commence my new role as an instruction coach for the math department. In addition to coaching teachers, I also taught one Algebra I class, which I have grown very close with over the course of the last four months. In the fall, I chaperoned my last two college visit trips with the East Side High School Student Council, where we visited Diana, Jeury, and Wilian at TCNJ and Vitor at Swarthmore College, and visited Columbia with our Brick City Scholars. As I alluded to in a previous post, it really is special having the honor of being shown around college campuses by former students.

By the time November came around, the first marking period was already over. During the so-called “no-school November” week, a bunch of my co-workers and I had the opportunity to visit Cuba, a country that has always been high on my bucket list. Cuba was, without question, the most interesting place that I have ever visited. Contrary to popular belief, I have never felt so safe and so welcomed in a foreign country, and could not believe how many Cubans came up to us on the street and just wanted to talk with Americans. Several people offered us friendly recommendations, and the entire country could not have been more welcoming. After watching literally every documentary about Cuba on Netflix, it was also surreal being able to explore paces like the Hotel Nacional (where infamous gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky set up the famous meeting to discuss business plans and policies with crime families across the United States) and the Plaza de la Revolución (where Fidel Castro gave many of his speeches and Pope Francis held his mass in Havana last year). Perhaps most interesting was the Museo de la Revolución, the former Presidential Palace, where Castro’s cabinet worked and where the government has remnants of American planes on display like trophies. Oh, and did I mention that we got to see the granma, too? What an incredible trip!

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 10.48.11 AM.png

Toward the end of the month, I had the chance to attend the NCTM INNOV8 Conference in Las Vegas. In additional to an informational conference that pushed my thinking about increasing access and equity for all students, we also watched two incredible magic shows (Chris Angel and David Copperfield) and ate dinner in the dark (which one of the most unique dinners I have ever had in my life). We also paused and reflected about the terrible tragedy that happened in Vegas only a few weeks earlier.

Before I knew it, we were in December. Our Brick City Scholars were able to squeeze in one more college visit trip to Princeton, and we were able to attend the Harvard/Princeton hockey game, too, which was a lot of fun. I was able to get my mentor Seán Sammon to come down to East Side to visit and talk to our new future medical leaders club. I also went to a bunch of hockey games before shipping off to Asia, and I was happy that I was able to watch my mentee score his first high school goal on both J.V. and Varsity after transitioning from goalie. Towards the end of the month, I started to get a little anxious about the unknowns of the next couple of months. As of this writing, my plane ticket has still not been booked, but I am looking to leave early next week and return home in early August. Whereas I know that this Fulbright experience will be a transformational opportunity for me, I will surely miss the incredible students at East Side High School that I have come to love over the course of the past six years.

It is hard to believe how much things have changed this year, but I can only imagine what 2018 has in store for me. I have read over and over and been told by dozens of people how transformative a Fulbright can be, but rarely is that personal growth sensed on a daily basis. Perhaps Bill Watterson said it best: “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing seems to change. But pretty soon, everything is different.” Here’s to a life-changing 2018!

06817329b95e621e9b317ef261038fcb

When Ed Reform Goes Too Far

As all of my friends and co-workers would attest, I am extremely passionate about the field of education. I fundamentally believe that our students and thus our schools are essential to the future of our great nation. I also believe that every student can be pushed onto a track towards future success; Stanford Professor Dr. Jo Boaler pointed out during a recent conference in Boston that 95% of our current students have the mental and physical capacity to attend a post-secondary institution if they are taught in the right way. It promptly follows that we must make our schools better if we are serious about the lofty goal of putting every student on the road to college and career readiness.
Over the course of the last five years, I have read almost every book I could get my hands on that examines various theories about so-called education reform. I have considered a wide range of diverse opinions, ranging from Diane Ravitch to Michelle Rhee to Joel Klein. More recently, I have become immersed in the work of Elizabeth Green and more specifically the notion that we need to move away from the vicious ‘accountability vs. autonomy’ arguments that permeate the discussions surrounding education reform today.
One may be wondering where all of this incredible passion comes from. Over three years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime as one of the 17% of applicants accepted into Teach For America’s 2012 corps, and was subsequently placed at East Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. Although there have been many emotionally draining and stressful occurrences over the course of the past three years, my experience working in Newark has shown me the potential our astonishing students really have. I think of my many students who are first generation immigrants, excelling at school while struggling to learn a language and grow accustomed to a new culture that is so very different from the one in which they have grown up. I think of students like Melissa, a junior who is poised to become the first person in her family to attend college, and has led the Robotics team to the first ever district finals. And then I think of students like Austin, a senior that has become like a little brother to me, who, through unimaginable stress and tremendous adversity, has persevered and risen to the top of his class, being named Salutatorian while being elected President of the Student Council and serving as captain of the varsity soccer team. Austin has also won some of the most competitive scholarships (including the prestigious Coca-Cola Scholarship and the NHL’s Thurgood Marshall Scholarship) while being offered admittance into some of the most elite universities our country has to offer (including Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell). And they have all done well in part because of the opportunities they have had while attending East Side High School.

East Side is the largest high school within the governance of the Newark Public Schools. It is one of the few Newark high schools with high demand as enrollment has skyrocketed over the course of the past three years due to more families wanting to enroll their children at East Side High School. As a designated Title 1 School, 81.9% of our students are considered economically disadvantaged, 15% of students are classified with special needs, and 18.3% are English Language Learners (Source: The New Jersey Department of Education state report card for East Side High School). While our school has had and will continue to face many difficult and sensitive challenges in the road ahead, one thing that no one can argue is which direction East Side is headed. As many “Data-Driven” educational leaders would say, let us look at the data. Star-Ledger Reporter Naomi Nix has recently put forward that, “the share of students considered proficient in language arts increased from 67 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 79 percent during the 2013-2014 school year, while the number of students considered proficient in math has increased from 63 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 75 percent during the 2013-2014 school year.”

It sure seems as though there are many great things going on at East Side High School. I am not sure anyone would consider East Side a great school – yet – but we are definitely in the process of becoming one. Any reasonably coherent person would see the overwhelming positive trajectory that East Side High School is on.

Which is exactly why our entire building – teachers, administrators, and students alike – were shocked to discover that the Newark Public Schools has designated East Side High School as a turnaround school for the 2015-2016 school year.
Huh?
When pressed with any possible rationale as to why a state-appointed administration would aim to turnaround one of the brightest beacons of hope in the Newark Public Schools, they responded with saying that the incoming 8th graders are achieving at a significantly lower rate than last year’s cohort, and it is those students that truly need to be “turned around.” I am not sure I follow this argument; if this is true, why not turn around the K-8 schools first? For me personally, I already get to school by 7:00 am and leave at around 5:00 pm everyday. If these reforms are to go through, I would lose about 90 minutes of daily lesson prep time (40 minutes from a shortened prep and 50 minutes from the extended school day) in addition to gaining a 6th class. Until what time does the Newark Public Schools want me to work? Do they want me to put in 12-hour days on a consistent basis? I need at least two hours to plan a highly effective lesson that is culturally relevant and engaging for our students. This is in addition to all of the extremely important extracurricular activities, extra help, and empowering conversations that I have with students on a daily basis. I am worried that I will burn out even earlier next year, and that I will not be as mentally ready to give it my all during class day-in and day-out.

This past Saturday, in protest of this decision, our school community held an inspirational #WeAreEastSide rally to showcase some of the great things that are going on at East Side High and to highlight everything that would be lost if these changes go through. As our fearless principal Dr. Mario Santos has said, “East Side has been on a road to greatness and the results have shown it! The key ingredient of any great school is great teachers, and my focus and my goal is not to lose any great teachers. The term turnaround…can affect that. Obviously, I don’t want to lose any great teachers.” As our vice principal (and TFA alumna) Meg Murray said during the rally, “East Side IS a turnaround; we are a great school and constantly getting better!”
At the #WeAreEastSide rally
I worry that some of our educational leaders have lost touch with reality, and that we are starting to lose focus of the bigger picture. I resonate strongly with Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece in the NY Times, which put forward the notion that improving our schools is essential, but at what cost? While working in an inner-city school for the past three years, I agree with him that we must “support education reform. Yet the brawls have left everyone battered and bloodied, from reformers to teachers unions.”
Our principal Dr. Santos speaking at the #WeAreEastSide rally
To my peers and fellow educators: let us keep showing the world what Newark and East Side High School is capable of doing. Let us keep pushing ourselves to improve our craft and become the very best teachers that we can be. And let us keep up with the biggest responsibility we have – to pass down knowledge onto the next generation of leaders while preparing them for the dynamic and globally connected world that is the 21st century.
And to the Newark Public Schools: as a Teach For America alum, I want to be on your team. I want to believe in what you stand for, but it has become increasingly difficult to support a vision that completely decimates our public schools. I share in your resolve to make the Newark Public Schools a great school district, but I promise you that “turning around” East Side High School would do nothing more than de-stabilize the most stable comprehensive public high school that Newark has to offer. If the turnaround designation stays, many of our best teachers will choose to leave the district in large droves. The fallacy with many of these reforms is that the best teachers – “The Irreplaceables,” as they are often called – will have opportunities in other districts, and that only the worst teachers will be stuck in the Newark Public Schools. At the Partner’s for Excellence reception the district held earlier in the year, district leaders declared how we as a district must do everything we possibly can to retain our highly effective teachers, yet the actions of the district seemingly advocate for the exact opposite. I worry that if these reforms go through and there is a mass teacher exodus as expected, it will take at least a decade to restore the school to anything faintly resembling East Side as we know it today. I urge the district to reconsider this turnaround designation, and instead give our instructional leaders worthwhile professional development that will truly improve our pedagogy. I lobby for new teacher coaches so that my colleagues and I can continue to grow as educators, which will help our students far more than simply extending the school day by an hour.  And please allow for an open and honest dialogue with the people that have the biggest impact on student achievement and the ones who are fighting on the front lines every single day – your teachers.
To close, I must ask: Are we creating conditions in our urban schools such that our best teachers leave and our worst teachers stay? Does urban education go too far when it does more to drive away the irreplaceable teachers to other districts or professions than to keep them in the classroom? And when will we learn that education reform must be done WITH schools and communities and not TO them?
As for me, I still have tremendous hope for our future. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or a hopeless romantic, but I am a teacher because I fundamentally believe that education has the power to change the world. I know that our schools can do better and that many things in the K-12 system need to change. But is there a point when education reform goes too far?