Ted Talk: Formula for Success

January 11th for TedxABQ:

Me:  “I teach third to fifth grade, so if you don’t mind doing a knock knock joke with me, it would make me feel more at home:  “Knock knock”…


“Knock- knock”… “Orange”…

“Knock- knock”… “Banana”… “Banana, you glad that I didn’t say orange?”.

If you know that joke, you know that it is traditionally told differently, but at the age I teach, there aren’t many traditions. Over the course of the year it gets closer and closer until someone puts the banana before the orange to end with, the traditional punch line: “orange you glad I didn’t say banana?”

So first of all I would like to say thanks, because I’m a public educator, and you are the public, and you all help pay for my work, and I really enjoy it.  So thanks.  I get to be part of the renewal of a miracle.  And actually it is.  Even that joke, which is an incredible marker for the development of humor.

As Einstein said, you get to a point where you have to think that either nothing is a miracle, or everything is.   Speaking of Einstein. 

One of these formulas is his work, and represents, roughly, our current understanding of the relationship of matter and energy, and is the underpinning for much of what we currently know about the entire universe.

The larger formula is how student growth is estimated, the result of which affects how schools are graded, and may soon be how teachers are also graded and paid.

A group of scientists and mathematicians reviewed the formula in an op-ed piece for the Albuquerque Journal this past August.  They said the formula had too many incompatible variables, and was too complex for the purpose intended.

I am going to argue that the formula is too simplistic, and there are too few variables.

Have you heard that the National Transportation Safety Board is recommending a complete ban of cell phone usage-  just December 13, the board said that “hands free” is not enough.  It’s not just the hands that need to be on the wheel, its that the mind that needs to be on the road.

Let’s think of the curriculum as the road. Then think about all the potential “driver distractions” out there for children:  divorce, hunger, or homelessness, or abuse,  or neglect, or a death in the family – if talking on the phone while driving is enough to distract an adult driver from driving down a marked path, one they probably have been down before, imagine for a child who is learning something totally new, – imagine how preoccupied by those things children are.  There will need to be a variable for each one of those, if we are going use a formula.  Teachers spend time validating these experiences with children, and help them to work through those problems.

All of these variables are in my classroom every year, I expect so in most public school classrooms.  The trouble with ignoring these variables in the formula is that it will translate to ignoring those difficulties in the classroom.  I wish it weren’t true, but we’ve seen it acted out.

In a time when science is in critical condition, but reading test scores needed to go up, many schools turned science into reading about science, and called it the same.

In a time when childhood obesity ranks as the number 1 health concern by the CDC,  recesses in many elementary schools shrunk or disappeared to raise test scores.  So if we don’t pack some more variables in that formula, if teachers’ jobs become formula dependent, then things will change, for the students.  This kind of formula does not nourish the baby.

“Its nourishment, not measurement, that makes a child grow”. My principal said that. We’ve replaced a lot of nourishment with a lot of measurement, in the past 10 or 12 years.  We have mistaken high standards to mean “highly standardized”, and accountability for accountancy.  These things are not the same, and our national confusion about those terms is working against us.

The truth is, we have no control over our students, or their lives, and the attempt to do so is disrespectful of that miracle which is their lives.  We can consequence them.  We can ignore their problems.  But education -the word itself means “to draw out”.  And that is what we want to do, draw out the miracle inside to mingle with the miracle on the outside.  And for some children, that drawing out may mean the drawing out of some venom in their lives.

“You just can’t come from Amy Lauer’s class and not be a good person.”  – I heard a parent say that – which I think is the best compliment of a teacher I’ve ever heard.   There is more to be taught and learned than can be tested, and we ought to at least allow for that.

These formulas work in a vacuum, and can calculate the inanimate, but what we want are good people, powerful and responsive to the needs of a changing world.

Formulas are part of accountancy, but distract us from our true accountability.

This track will cost us more time, money,  and will eventually drive us all bonkers. Remember the joke?

Orange you glad I didn’t say bananas?


Filed under Accountability and Standards, Education

4 responses to “Ted Talk: Formula for Success

  1. Pingback: The Formula For Success Part Two | Tomorrow Trees

  2. pmyersjack

    Oh I wish I had been there to honor you, listen, and share with you! So proud of you! I didn’t know this talk was happening! Darn! So proud of you. Please – in the future – share with us these really cool things!!!

  3. pmyersjack

    thank you for being so honest. and real.

  4. Susan

    Jeff, I couldn’t agree with you more!!! I also love what that parent said of Amy Lauer- it’s so true!

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