Fighting against Fundamentalism. . .

One of the most interesting assertions that Anthony Muhammad makes in his new book Transforming School Culture:  How to Overcome Staff Division is that there is an inherent battle taking place in schools between progressive faculty members—-who he calls Believers—-and Fundamentalists committed to protecting the kinds of old-school instructional practices that educators have embraced for decades.   

According to Muhammad, Fundamentalists are the most dangerous group in any building because they are a politically savvy group who work formally and informally to keep their stranglehold on teaching and learning.  Constantly resisting change, Fundamentalists challenge new policies and practices at the emotional—-rather than rational—level. 

Describing the Fundamentalists in the buildings that he's observed, Muhammad writes:

They regularly engaged in debates, sometimes arguments, with staff members with opposing viewpoints.  During these debates, they centered their arguments about how a proposed policy change or change in practice affected them and other staff members on the emotional issues associated with the change—on comfort, convenience, and working conditions. 

Do these folks sound familiar to you?  If not, let me offer the 4,834 teachers who've signed this petition against new grading practices in Ottawa as an example of Fundamentalism in action.

The practices in question—recently proposed by Ottawa's provincial government—are really nothing remarkable.  Essentially, school leaders have made the case that responsibly evaluating student performance requires teachers to look at a sufficient number of completed assignments.  Missing work, the thinking goes, makes it impossible for teachers to "pass accurate judgment" on a child's abilities. 

The solution—-one that I've adopted in my own classroom to the consternation of dozens of peers—has been to require that teachers take student assignments at any point during a quarter.  It is simply not okay for teachers in Ottawa to give students zeros and to move on anymore. 

And you know something:  The district leaders in Ottawa are right

The time-honored teacher tradition of slamming students with zeros for missing work only serves to muddy the evaluation waters.  No one—-parents, teachers or kids—is able to form a clear picture of a child's academic strengths and weaknesses when a grade book is littered with zeros.  While teaching students to be responsible is a worthwhile goal, that's best done—in the words of Rick DuFour—by forcing them to act responsibly and to finish every task.

This is just the kind of policy, though, that gets a rise out of Fundamentalists—and in Ottawa, that rise was led by 34-year teaching veteran Caroline Orchard, a math teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School.  Orchard, frustrated by a policy that she says "pressures teachers to ensure students pass," went directly to the newspapers with her online petition results in hand. 

What's interesting is that—-just as Muhammad predicted—-Orchard's petition argues emotional issues connected to working conditions, comfort and convenience, sidestepping any real conversation about the potential impact of the provincial policy on student achievement. 

Need proof?  Then check out this introductory text from the petition's web page:

In the past teachers would go out of their way to make sure they
evaluated students, but when given an opportunity to be re-evaluated,
the student had to turn up. Now you can offer the student a chance to
be re-evaluated, and if they don't turn up they still cannot get a

Assignments can be handed in at any time during the year. If the
whole class is doing the same assignment, the teacher can receive the
finished assignments any time between the due date and the end of the
year. If the teacher marks the assignments as he/she gets them and
returns them as they are marked, then anyone who has not handed in an
assignment can, if they are so inclined, copy an assignment that has
been marked and turn it in as their own work.

The only way around this
is not returning the assignments until all of the students have
submitted their work, but this delays essential feedback to the
students. Teachers have to be able to indicate to students that a zero
may given on missed evaluations and give penalty marks for work not
done on time.

The truth of the matter is that there are a thousand ways to work around every one of the concerns listed in these paragraphs—the first of which should begin with a conversation in every building in Ottawa about what practical consequences for missing work might look like outside of giving zeros.  The proposed policy doesn't say that children can't be held accountable.  It simply says that accountability shouldn't include zeros. 

Orchard and her colleagues also fail to mention that the number of students forgetting to turn in work on a regular basis for weeks at a time is actually quite small in most schools.  Instead, they paint a picture of harried teachers buried under reams of missing work every time they assign a task and/or classrooms full of kid craving feedback that they just can't get in a timely manner. 

Those are emotional argument instead of rational ones.

So how can school leaders fight back against the emotional arguments of the Fundamentalists in their schools?  What can Believers who want to see students succeed do to push progressive practices forward?  How can we turn the obvious passion of Fundamentalists in more positive directions?

Those are the kinds of questions that we'll be wrestling with together from May 13th through May 16th in a Voicethread conversation with Anthony Muhammad. (see details here

Everyone's invited, so plan on stopping by!  Maybe together we can find a way to deal with the frustrations of Fundamentalism.   


9 thoughts on “Fighting against Fundamentalism. . .

  1. Adele

    Question — what if actually having the homework done on time is needed for the class? For example, if students don’t keep up with a reading assignment, they aren’t going to be able to participate in the discussion the next day. What if the work is practice?
    This past year at my high school, we started something new with the freshmen — homework/practice work is worth very little, and students can retake a test if they wish. Although it isn’t working in everyone’s classes, I had a lot fewer failing students at the end of the semester in January than I have seen in my 9 previous years at this school. Unfortunately, a lot of kids took their failures in other classes as a signal to give up in ALL their classes this semester. 🙁
    I do wonder about the issue of copying. When I’m grading a bunch of projects that were turned in on time, I can tell if I’ve see something that sounds exactly like another project. If it’s something turned in weeks later, however, I have no idea if it’s actually the student’s work or not. Make them come in and complete the work in your presence? How do I get them to do that — we don’t have recess at the high school.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Paige wrote:
    I’m sorry but how far would I get if I just ignored my employers assignments? The idea is rather absurd.
    This line of thinking is always interesting to me, Paige, simply because I do a ton of work beyond schools and due dates are almost ALWAYS flexible.
    I mean, there are certain projects and tasks that have rigid due dates—in-person presentations take place on a scheduled date, for example—-but most due dates for most other tasks can be rescheduled if needed.
    In fact, one of the things that always surprises me in my work beyond schools is just how lax due dates really are! One of the first places that I worked asked me to set my own due date and then asked me for the “drop dead” date.
    When I asked what the difference was, they explained that the due date was a target worth shooting for in an ideal world, but the drop dead date was the absolute latest point that the work could be turned in.
    Their rationale was simple: You’ve got to plan your work and have predetermined end points, but things happen and flexibility is necessary.
    Now, if I missed due date after due date after due date, I suppose my employers would have gotten fed up with my poor performance and canned me.
    But how many of our students miss due date after due date after due date?
    My guess: A handful.
    And my frustration: Hard core teachers do little to help these students improve their work behaviors. We give zeros convinced that it is a consequence that will change behavior, yet behavior never changes and we do nothing to address this personal weakness.
    Who’s acting unprofessionally there?

  3. Paige

    I would consider myself a “believer”. I am continually trying to find new and better ways to teach, evaluate, assess, etc. I am always looking for ways to improve what happens inside & outside my classroom.
    With all of that said, I find it a very silly idea to allow students to turn in work whenever they feel like it, and not give zeros for missing assignments. I teach 17 & 18 year olds and, yes, I am sitting looking at a gradebook full of zeros because they simply choose not to turn assignments in.
    I’m sorry but how far would I get if I just ignored my employers assignments? The idea is rather absurd.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Cary,
    I don’t think your ideas are all that unusual! I’ve wrestled with the disconnect between what I should do for student learning versus what I should do to protect myself or what is worth the salary that I’m paid—-and when you think about Ottawa’s grading policy on a purely philosophical level, it’s definitely frightening.
    Just imagining all of my 87 students turning in work whenever they want—and me trying to keep up with that work—is a nightmare. But thinking about Ottawa’s grading policy rationally makes things much more managable. After all, there are probably only 5 or 6 kids on my team who regularly struggle to turn work in—-and finding solutions for those five or six kids should be easy.
    I can take recess away and have the kids stay with me until their work is turned in. My school’s guidance staff can meet with those kids each morning to see whether their work is done and can follow up if it isn’t. Our prinicpals can create remediation periods/electives for these students.
    My struggle remains always reminding myself that new policies are generally designed to help a small handful of kids. When I think rationally—-instead of emotionally—-everything seems a little more doable.
    Any of this make sense?

  5. Cary

    Hi Bill,
    I haven’t read Muhammad’s work, so I cannot comment on it directly, but in response to your post, I’m not exactly where I fit. In some ways, I’m definitely a believer. I think that evaluation of students should be done based upon proficiency/mastery, etc. and that even in upper grades should probably look more like a K-1 report card with a list of goals and how the student is performing. This is much more informative than a letter grade.
    However, if you are going to give “homework” (not projects, just nightly practice), than looking at the teachers’ lives is important and not just about “comfort.” To suggest that teachers have nothing better to do with their time than grade homework from 4-5 weeks or possibly even 3-4 months previous is not being fair to their concerns either. I’m not sure how much you get paid, but as passionate as I am about education, I don’t get paid enough to want to grade homework from November. I do need some personal time.
    Additionally, one issue not covered in your argument is how good is your feedback to the students if they don’t get it until the end of the quarter?
    So I think I’m a Believer about some things, but the homework issue is bigger than what has been presented here, in my opinion.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Clix,
    You and I march to the beat of the same drummer, then! I’m rarely against change efforts that are well detailed and supported by research. It’s only the change details that no one bothers (or is able) to explain that I’m stodgy about.
    Muhammad would describe us as Level 1 Fundamentalists—-people who just need more information before they’re willing to commit to a change effort. For school leaders, this is a simple fix: Know your stuff!
    I wonder if this is harder than it sounds, because there have been several examples in my career of situations where leaders were unable to carefully explain why our school was doing what we were doing!

  7. Clix

    Hi Bill! I do find it interesting that you say that the requirement is for teachers to accept late work at any time during the quarter, while the website text mentions late work accepted at any time during the entire year.
    I see myself as fairly resistant to change in practice, but open to new ideas and possibilities and discussion about them. And if that discussion shows that change will make things better, then I’m all for it. But too often I’m given limited information and just expected to march along. I don’t like that very much.

  8. Bill Ferriter

    I definitely agree with you, Renee, that demonizing resisters in buildings is never a real good idea. That’s a point that resonates in the work of Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker, too.
    And Muhammad does a good job in Transforming School Culture of detailing the different types of/reasons for resistance in school. As I read it, I could see myself in so many of the situations. I’ve certainly been a righteous resister in the past.
    I think that my beef with schools is we use the righteous resister label as an excuse all too often. There are people who simply block things because they want to block them. They’re not progressive and don’t plan to be so. They don’t make decisions in the best interests of kids and they get away with it time and time again.
    I guess my question for Anthony is how do you tell the difference between a Fundamentalist who can be a productive member of your staff and a barrier who needs to be removed?

  9. Renee Moore

    I think we have to be careful about demonizing the group Muhammad identifies as “Fundamentalists.” In my reading of his text, I think he is careful to note that people who fall in this group are not necessarily evil or wrong for opposing change. Some proposed changes need to be resisted; or, sometimes it’s the way the new approach is being implemented that’s problematic. Some veteran teachers become “fundamentalists” for very good reasons (usually some bad past experiences with “change”). Fundamentalists may be just as passionate about student learning and achievement as Believers; they simply believe that what they are already doing works in their classroom and that everyone else is just not doing it right. Sometimes, Believers, on the other hand, can be sincere, energetic, and wrong. How can we build bridges that lead to genuine and constructive dialogue about pedagogy with students at the heart? This is a discussion worth having; I’m looking forward to it.

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