Newsletter #78     SST in the snow

In the course of turning asynchronicity (a.k.a. unpredictability) into a high art, one of the things I have assiduously avoided in these newsletters is giving any hint of when to expect the next one. Last week I made an exception, though. I knew I would be spending Friday and Saturday at Port Ludlow, helping make all sorts of key decisions about the immediate future and prospective development of the SST Project which I would want to rush back and tell you all about. And then this white stuff came out of the sky. So much for predictability. Enough of us made it for an excellent conversation, and the SST is alive and kicking and deserves description, but decisions? No way -- not with two of the four major constituencies completely unrepresented.

All right, description, then. Or, for a start, de-coding: SST de-acronyms into Strengthening and Sustaining Teachers. It describes itself as "an initiative to develop cohesive teacher development systems from pre-service education through induction through the first five years of professional development." It has several sponsors, including the Bank Street College of Education in New York and the Institute for Educational Inquiry here in Seattle. Also the Teacher Union Reform Network, which definitely wins the blue ribbon in the acronym category. Seattle is one of several sites involved, two of the others being Albuquerque, New Mexico and Santa Cruz, California. And if I try to say more about the general organization I will be on extremely thin ice, so instead I will progress to the background scene.

Over the past couple of decades the country in general and Washington in specific have been developing a problem which relatively recently and relatively abruptly has reached proportions such that no one can maintain a conviction that it is going to clear itself up: there aren't enough teachers. Not only is the current supply stretched in the extreme simply to cover the classrooms, but departures through retirement are outstripping arrivals. Furthermore, the stretching involved is causing alarming numbers of experienced, good teachers to burn out well ahead of retirement age and take up other professions (especially tempting given that other professions, while they may be less satisfying for someone who loves to teach, are likely to pay a lot better.) In mathematics and science the situation is particularly acute. Add onto this the ongoing attempts to adapt the system to encompass new visions of what kids can learn and how they best can learn it and the stakes reach dizzying heights. The only thing absolutely clear is that no single all-encompassing solution exists. Putting that in a more positive light: the solution must necessarily consist of a multitude of pieces, and any one of those pieces is therefore needed and valuable.

The Seattle branch of SST has taken on one piece, and is attempting to address it thoroughly, carefully, and in a way that will last. We will be focusing, at least at the start, entirely on mathematics and science in the middle schools, and we will be looking for ways to make good use of one of the bits of encouraging news in the midst of the disheartening flood: an increasing number of people who have already had a successful career elsewhere are wanting to join the teaching force. These are people with a lot to offer, and we need them. So what we need to offer them is enough preparation and support so that their valuable contribution doesn't get buried under the complications of entering the world of teaching. Now all we have to figure out is how to do that. One thing absolutely clear -- and in fact our planning grant from the Gates Foundation is set up to require it -- is that anything that is to be structurally, academically and educationally solid must be not merely agreed to, but produced by, four pertinent constituencies: the Seattle School District, the Teachers' Union, the College of Education and the Mathematics and Science Departments from the College of Arts and Sciences. Not an easy collection to assemble, which is why, much as I love snow, I could have used some other timing for it. Both the Union representatives and those from the Seattle School District got themselves snowed in, which put a several week skid under the decision process.

On the other hand, most of the University of Washington component did manage to slog its way over to the peninsula, and our time there was decidedly not a waste. Between the differences in our mandates and the time constraints that crunch us all, we have remarkably little opportunity to find out what people even halfway across campus are doing or planning or wishing for. So we spent a lot of time finding out just that. I arrived a bit late, owing to the necessity of sorting out what our one day of winter had done to a planned project in my probability class. Apparently a lot of what I missed came from the Education front, because I found three sheets of flip-chart paper posted on the wall, all filled with acronyms familiar to me from my work with them, and was promptly introduced as one of those people from a discipline that doesn't talk in letters (I waited a while before bringing up CCML and ECML.) About the time I got there the discussion shifted from the general education scene to the structure of the Teacher Education Programs, which clarified a number of points for me. Then Stamatis Vokos described the work of the Physics Education Group, again clearing up for me a number of points about how different pieces I'm familiar with fit together. A nice feature was that having had our agenda blown to smithereens we could afford to take the time for details like "Wait a minute: tell me again how you guys manage the course numbering situation?!?" We learned, in fact, a whole bunch of things (for instance that a paleontologist is a sitting duck for a really impressive array of bad puns.) It took us until the middle of Saturday morning to get all the way around the table, and we finished, appropriately, I felt, with someone whose knowledge of the university's science education scene goes all the way back to one of our first major visionaries. Jim Minstrel, now retired from a long career of teaching in Mercer Island High School and involved in various other educational projects, studied with Arnold Arons, and had some wonderful tales to tell of working with him. I shall retain two of his pieces of advice. One was administered after watching Jim borrow a student's pencil and take over the writing of a solution so as to "guide" her back on track: "Young man, learn to teach with your hands in your pockets." The other, applicable to almost any tutorial situation and rather a lot of others as well: "You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion!"

We finished with a bit of time on what we want SST to accomplish. Many important points, but it seemed to me to be taking on a certain iridescence which wasn't doing much for my attention span. Others responded to this in a highly practical way: "Hey, we've reached the stuff about which we can do nothing without our partners, and it's lunch time and the sun is shining." Points admirably taken. We adjourned. --

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