Presentation Day, Part II: Continued

The first two presentations yesterday — about standardization and evaluation — led, of course, to the last group and its beautifully titled presentation: State of the Unions. This is certainly one of the most controversial issues of all. I was struck here by what seemed to me to be a bias against unions. I don’t think this was intentional (it may well have been, though, as I mentioned yesterday, it was difficult to tell from the presentation), but more likely the result of what happens when we set something up as a pro/con dichotomy. I tried to illustrate the problematic nature of this approach by asking that straightforward question at the end: if research suggests that students in heavily unionized states achieve more than students do in non-unionized states, why isn’t that the end of the conversation? Yaou had no trouble immediately poking a hole in this argument — obviously lots of other factors contribute to student achievement — and I expect that many of you would have made the same point, but oversimplification seems to rule the day in the education policy discourse. My sense is that the conversation about tenure and teaching is so heavily skewed against tenure that it’s very difficult to actually evaluate the issue fairly, and really easy to fall into a false equivalence situation that only causes partisans on either side to harden their positions. To me, tenure is about job security and academic freedom; when teachers feel insecure and muzzled they cannot do their best work. I’m not arguing that all teachers should have a job for life simply because they got their first one, but what we call tenure does not guarantee this most public school teachers anyway; it merely promises them due process if they are fired. This should be the least we expect, especially given everything else we know about the state of public education today. We’re using student test scores to evaluate teachers without the assurance of knowing that there is a definitive link between the quality of the work a teacher does and the score his or her students get on a test; that fact alone should give us pause when we think about granting administrators (or politicians!) the right to fire teachers without notice or explanation. In this economy, losing your job — especially in middle age — can be a financial death sentence, if not an actual one. We ought to be mindful of that as we contemplate kicking people to the curb with or without explanation.

As Meredith, Melanie, and Kate pointed out, unions not only can protect individual teachers but they can also give them a voice in the loud and contentious debate on education reform. It is often noted that teachers haven’t been playing much of a role in determining the direction that reform efforts take; if we don’t detect a connection between the declining influence of unions and the muted voices of teachers in the conversation about things that affect them and their students directly, then we need to adjust our collective eyesight and hearing. It is true, as the group pointed out that unions have protected bad teachers in the past, as we might expect from any loosely comprised group (not all unions are the same) operating at such a scale. But scapegoating unions, to me, is only a step above scapegoating teachers. It might be fair in world where teachers made all the decisions about what happens in schools but since when has that been the case? Maybe, as Chris suggested in his group’s presentation, we’d all be better off if policymakers had more skin in the game. Or maybe we’d be better off if teachers did.

Then there’s the political truth that members of teachers unions tend to vote predictably for certain candidates, and that unions historically have supported one party over the other. Unions, like other organizations and special interest groups, have the ability to communicate with their members in ways that can be very persuasive. Remember what we read about the rise of the NEA in the Carter years? On some level the ongoing attack on unions — which is by no means confined only to unions of teachers — can be read as plain old fashioned hard core political hardball. As we have said over and over again this semester, politics often trump good sense when it comes to making policy, no matter how you define good sense. In other words, we’re not averse to doing things for political reasons even if those reasons make it harder for us to accomplish other goals.

Is this an argument for teachers’ unions? Not necessarily. I’m not part of a union but I have tenure — the kind that does come with better-than-average job protections, though I can still be fired for incompetence or any of a number of other reasons; where there’s a will, there’s a way — and I have it, I think, because permanent and semi-permanent faculty at colleges and universities are respected in ways that classroom teachers are not. I am also lucky to work at a place where there is an unusually high level of accord between faculty members and administrators, which is also not the case in many K-12 schools. It may well be the case that unions — which have historically existed to provide bargaining rights to workers and serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of the people who owned the capital unionized workers worked with and produced — are holding back the development of teaching as a genuine profession. After all, you don’t see many unionized doctors and lawyers. In some ways, identifying teaching with unionization implies the need to defend something rather than proactively fight for something else, as unions often have found themselves operating from a point of weakness against much wealthier and better-connected adversaries. That certainly seems to be the case with teachers unions. But how can teachers speak with a collective voice otherwise? What’s the alternative? How can we provide teachers with some level of job security, especially as evaluations of teaching become more capricious, and also protect their ability to challenge students academically and intellectually without fear of reprisal if unions disappear? That’s a question I’d love to see Kate, Meredith, and Melanie tackle in their project. It’s a tough one, but you three are more than capable of getting after it. Have at it!

So, all in all, I really enjoyed all of these presentations. We covered an impressive amount of ground and I think the foundation has been laid by each of you for a meaningful final project that will push these ideas even further. Well done, everyone, and thanks for your hard work.

Presentation Day, Part II (Part One…)

…and yesterday we had round two. Last time, of course, our focus was on charter schools and the educational models they employ; this time, we were able to focus on a set of issues that have proved particularly tricky for policymakers to deal with: evaluation, standardization, and unionization. I thought all three groups presented compelling evidence that could be used to make informed judgments about these issues.

The first group — Natasha, Jenna, and Olivia — took us on a walk through the briar patch of evaluation, with special attention placed on grading. This all seemed perfectly natural. There are, of course, lots of different ways to evaluate and assess what students have learned, as the presenters ably pointed out, and grades are simply one tool we can use to do that. I liked the sample narrative evaluation you provided, especially because it started with a brief review of the course description that included a bit of the fictional instructor’s philosophy for the course. I hear it all the time: education coursework is too “theoretical,” not “practical” enough, but I often think that dismissing philosophy as unimportant is what leads to a lot of the misunderstanding and miscommunication that exists between students and teachers. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know, as a student, if your teacher thinks students are not held to high enough standards? Or if your teacher thinks that students do not know how to be challenged? Or that students should be graded strictly on a bell curve to ensure the “mediocre” work is not rewarded? We make “practical” choices on the basis of philosophical commitments all the time. What we don’t always do is try to interrogate our own biases, assumptions, and philosophical commitments to understand how they affect the choices we make. Your evaluation example underscored that point.

I was also struck, as I thought about this presentation, by the idea that we tend to often dress up ideas as new and innovative when, really, they are just recycled versions of ideas already in use. This isn’t a criticism of the presentation, but of the short attention span of some school reformers and policymakers and their stubborn unwillingness to consider that the system we have in place might actually have some merit. In a sense it’s really true that there is nothing new under the sun. This narrative evaluation, wonderful as it is, still ends with a grade: in this case it’s “proficient” instead of “B” or “C” or whatever, and that’s an important step forward since it can be easier to find consensus on the meaning of a word like proficient than it might be to agree on the meaning of a letter. But, ultimately, the grade is still there. What the narrative does is add valuable evaluative context to the grade, context that is not always made available to students. The bottom line, to me, is that an open, honest feedback loop that goes from teacher to student, but also from student back to teacher (and probably, too, from student to student) leads to the most positive results. Being open and honest also tends to reduce the likelihood that competition might get in the way of learning as it can encourage conversation about the claims people make. Believe me: I’ve been on the receiving end of anonymous and biting student comments that I found discouraging and unfair, only to find myself unable to start a conversation with the student to address the concerns raised. That’s a frustrating situation to be in, and one I can imagine many students have been in as well. I know I was in that situation more then once as a student. Transparency, it seems to me, is at least part of the antidote, and the key to evaluating teaching and learning fairly.

These kinds of situations underscore the importance of accountability, if not our obsession with it. The presentation we heard from Chris, Shelby, and Katie focused on the encroaching use of standardized test data as a means of accountability. And let’s be clear about this: student scores on standardized tests are not being used to provide formative, growth-oriented information to students and teachers that might be used to propel student learning in new directions. They are being used to establish a floor for student “achievement,” and, increasingly, to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers and administrators. (You might also know that they have even been used to evaluate the lunch lady and the janitor in some schools too!) We’re rapidly headed to a place where not only are teachers held accountable for the performance of their students on standardized tests — tests that are not tailored to the individual needs of students or teachers — but are also, as the story at the link above notes, held accountable for the scores of students they didn’t even teach.

We do this, I think, because that social efficiency goal we have talked about all semester has supplanted the other two identified by Labaree — democratic equality and social mobility — as the pre-eminent one in our schools. We pay lip service to the other two, but efficiency rules supreme. Shelby, Chris, and Katie really brought this home by presenting a wealth of evidence that suggests that standardized tests rarely deliver on the promises their proponents make. But that’s only true if we discount efficiency as a primary goal of testing — because one thing tests are really good at doing is making indiscriminate judgments for us about who the good and bad students and teachers are and providing us with the “evidence” we need to dismiss them or move them around. Using this measuring stick, tests are quite successful at giving us what we seem to want. Chris’ argument that pollsters even go so far as to ask leading questions that poll respondents are poorly positioned to answer only illustrates this point further. What’s the point of asking people what they think of Common Core if ⅔ of them have never heard of it? And what if another 20% have received misinformation? Those questions probably answer themselves.

The conclusion drawn by the group was that we should distance ourselves from standardized test data and employ other and more varied approaches to assessment. The hard question to answer, of course, is how we do this efficiently. Teachers are simply not compensated enough to spend endless hours writing narrative assessments of student work (and even if they were could we expect such evaluations not to become pro forma over time?), and students are not well equipped to construct meaningful portfolios in a world where letter grades and test scores reign supreme. I’m not trying to pour cold water on these ideas, especially because I think the actual evidence supporting these policy recommendations is very solid; I’m simply encouraging the group members to address these concerns as definitively as possible in their final project.

I’ll continue this thread in a second post. This one’s running a little long…


Presentation Day, Part I

Last Thursday we enjoyed our first set of project presentations in class. I have to say that I was quite impressed — especially since Robert nailed his interpretation of me in the video for Revolution Charter. Very strong, indeed.

What we saw, from my perspective, were really two sets of presentations interestingly arranged. One set came in the middle — these were the two charter school programs, “Stake Academy” and “Revolution Charter” — and were bookended by analyses of actual charter schools in existence already, the Vida School here in Gettysburg and the SEED School in Baltimore. First, let me say this: both of the invented charters had great names (“What’s at Stake for you?” is an outstanding tag line, and I also liked the idea of being so upfront about a school’s goals and aspirations by reflecting it in the name “Revolution Charter”), and both programs were creative and interesting. Given the right circumstances, these could very easily be translated into actual functioning schools. I’m eager to see how these plans lay out more formally in the projects that your groups actually turn in, especially with regard to some of the key innovations that each group put forward. Maggie and Victoria’s Stake Academy promised us a year-round calendar, personalized attention, and a focus on projects rather than tests. In fact, “one of the biggest problems in today’s public school system,” says the Stake Academy brochure, “is the focus on test scores.” That’s a sentiment I can agree with, albeit one that’s not easy to undermine. It’s easy to forget that the driving forces behind the use of standardized test scores can be equality and efficiency — one rationale for using standardized tests is that they can provide us with the information we need to ensure that “no child is left behind,” after all — even if that isn’t always how we use their results (or even if it becomes the only way we interpret and use results). It can certainly be the case, conversely, that a project-centered approach introduces an element of subjectivity to the evaluation process that gives some kids a built-advantage over others, especially if competition is not removed from the equation. The Stake Academy brochure promises implementation of the Common Core state standards so students can “be on par with their peers,” which at least suggests that competition is part of the school experience. This is something I’d like to see you two address in the final project.

On the other hand, the budding edu-preneurs (yes, I think that’s a real word these days) Cabel, Robert, and Jason behind Revolution Charter also promised a flexible academic program built around student interests and tastes. I like this plan a lot as well — it’s very creative and I saw nods in the direction of things that aren’t often explicitly addressed by school reformers (for instance, the slide referring to “what we’re looking for in teachers” provided some valuable, explicit, and revealing insight into what kind of school you actually want to create). I also liked the implicit link between leadership as a core value of the school on one hand and creativity on the other: the suggestion here seems to be that creativity is a key component of effective leadership, and I think there’s a compelling case to be made for that. One inadvertently funny point that I think your video made was that it helps — and it helps a lot — to have the support of a philanthropist when starting a school of any kind. That you drew your funding from the esteemed “Dave Powell Organization” (which itself was apparently built on lottery winnings) drives this point home in a humorous, if unintended, way. It’s true now that anybody with a lot of money to spend (even if it’s just lottery money) can start a school and attract attention to it, a fact that highlights our reduced commitment to education as a public good. What does that tell us about where we are in terms of creating an equitable, fair, and open system of education for people that will really prepare them to think creatively about the problems we face as a society? Put a little differently: at what point do we all have to pay the piper when he’s footing the bill, and how does that affect the way we think about educating our youth? It’s a good thing your charter is being bankrolled by such a magnanimous individual with so much knowledge of education — let’s just put it like that.

The other two presentations we saw on Thursday focused, of course, on real schools already in existence. The first of these, brought to us by Corinne, Yaou, and Jhanvi, gave us a glimpse of the politics of education as they are playing out right here in our community. I can’t say enough about how excited I am to see the full project for both of these. Both groups did an excellent job of laying out the purposes and goals of your respective projects, and the Vida group, in particular, framed the research very nicely. I do think some key information was left out, probably making it difficult for people in the room who don’t know much about Vida or its history in Gettysburg to follow along, but I was really impressed by the way this presentation focused on the contentious relationship that exists between Vida and the local school district. It was especially revealing to see that the school’s charter was initially rejected by the local school board on the grounds that Vida would not “provide a comprehensive learning experience” or serve as a “model for other public schools.” In the first place, parents seem to have voted with their feet: the school is growing rapidly, and putting a lot of pressure (financial and otherwise) on the district to keep it up. On the second point, the school district’s decision to try to implement a bilingual education program of its own belies the district’s claim that Vida would not provide a model for the local schools. Clearly, an attempt is being made to create a program that competes directly with Vida using the idea of multilingual education as a starting point (though of course the district would argue that its bilingual program is not the same as the dual immersion program being offered at Vida). I really wish this group had given itself more time to talk about the issue that it found laying at the core of the dispute between Vida and the Gettysburg Area School District: the tension between competition and innovation, and how they two do (and don’t) work together. Too often it seems the kids get caught in the middle as adults fight over the political problems engendered by trying to work together with people who have different motives and commitments. All the more reason we need social studies and the teaching of political skills to be an integral part of the school experience!

Finally, we had a presentation from Liz, Amada, and Andrea about the SEED School and its unique approach to urban education. Again, we were provided with some very insightful analysis that raised a number of interesting questions about this approach. In particular, I liked how the group alighted on SEED’s “public boarding school” routine, which does not extend to weekends, and on the emphasis on competition that is engendered by the school’s insistence that students be admitted by lottery after accounting for certain personal characteristics. This seems to me to do little more than add to the “mystique” of the school, and comes across as something designed to drum up “momentum for the brand,” especially in light of the claims made toward the end of the presentation that students at the SEED School don’t seem to be accomplishing the goals the school claims will be met. I was also drawn to Andrea’s discussion of the disconnect between the largely unstructured home lives experienced by the students recruited to SEED and the super-structured life of going to school there. I can imagine it being profoundly disorienting to attend school like this and to be constantly pulled between two worlds, neither of which most of these students probably chose to be part of. I was also taken aback by the photo of the school that was part of the PPT presentation, which showed a fence around it an a big red “NO TRESPASSING” sign on it. This presented a sharp contrast to the obsession with putting up college banners all over the place — college tends to be a place where students experience unfettered freedom for the first time, whether they are read for it or not, and the group rightly pointed out that maybe a highly structured pre-college environment isn’t the best preparation for the loose structure that generally comes with college.

Beyond that, it seems to me that schools should be inviting places, places that are open to all — not just to a select few who had the good fortune to win the lottery. Charter school operators have been known to complain that they have to use lotteries to apportion limited seats but they often have financial resources most public schools could only dream of. The most revealing slide of all the ones we saw in this presentation was the one detailing the funding the SEED school has received from public sources. Again, the group hit the nail on the head by asking if this is a scalable model; if it isn’t, what’s the point of investing so much money in it? While we wrestle with that question, we seem to have an answer to another one that came up also in the Vida presentation and always seems to come up where charter schools are discussed: do charters divert money from public schools? Clearly SEED benefits from public largesse that can’t be spent at public schools if it’s being spent there. Likewise, we know that Vida is being opposed by the Gettysburg school district partly because Pennsylvania’s charter law places a heavy financial burden on local districts to support charter start-ups. The jury is still out, of course, on whether these two charters are capable of providing something to kids that they would otherwise not be able to receive in their local public schools.

And so that brings us full circle. At the end of these four presentations I found myself asking: how do the two proposed charters (Stake Academy and Revolution) compare to the actual charters we learned about (Vida and SEED)? What are the obstacles — financial, political, and otherwise — to creating effective charter schools, and how are those addressed by both the existing schools you studied and the ones invented by Victoria, Maggie, Jason, Robert, and Cabel? These are not easy questions to answer, but I hope you’ll all address them in your final projects. The course has been designed to provide you with the base of knowledge you need to answer them — here’s hoping that you feel well positioned to do that.

Are good teachers born or bred?

I wanted to quickly follow up on something we discussed yesterday, especially since my comments on it then seemed to have elicited some puzzled looks from many of you. The thing I’m referring to, of course, is the question of whether good teachers are made or whether there is a certain quality that good teachers teachers have that is simply waiting to manifest itself given the right opportunity. My argument, as you may recall, was that I have to believe, as a teacher educator, that we can shape anyone into a good teacher. It’s one of the things that drives my work as an educator of teachers and is also something, I think, that separates me philosophically from many people involved in teacher education.

This is not the same thing as saying that I believe we could take any person off the street and turn that person into an effective teacher overnight. Teaching is hard, complicated work, and to do it well requires not only a significant base of knowledge but also a kind of commitment (“grit,” if you will) that is altogether not common in the general population. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t help people find it within themselves. As I said yesterday, a lot of us show a tremendous about of grit and perseverance when we’re doing something we enjoy doing and when we know how to do it. That, unfortunately, doesn’t describe the everyday school experiences of most kids. It also increasingly does not describe the everyday work experiences of teachers. Nevertheless, I have to believe that it’s possible to ignite within just about anybody who’s interested in committing to it a genuine desire to be effective as a teacher.

Of course to do this we have to de-mystify teaching a  little bit and reveal the practices that make teachers effective. We often treat good teaching as something that not transferable and as something that’s simply born in some people — either you’ve got the gene to do it, or you don’t. When we say that good teachers are found, not made, we reinforce the idea that being a good teacher is like being a member of a really exclusive club — and that membership is determined not by how hard you work but by whether or not you were born with the right character traits or into the right situation to begin with. Surely Alina Bossbaly has an advantage with the students she teaches because of her own experiences as a child, but we can’t fall into the trap of believing that only people who have had those experiences can make good teachers for the kinds of students Alina teaches. Again, I think we have to believe that we can find ways of helping just about anyone who really wants to do it connect to students from a wide range of backgrounds.

To do that we have to do a better job of defining what it is that we want teachers to do. In some ways that process has to begin by acknowledging that this is work that anyone — anyone with the right balance of inquisitiveness, intellectual ability, dedication, and, okay, “grit” — can do if we show them how to. In this sense, teachers are always made; they are not simply born that way. Anyone who has ever become a teacher has had to change and evolve and even develop new sides of his or her personality in order to handle the challenges of teaching. There may be something within them that led them to teaching, but whatever that something is is probably there whether it gets channeled into teaching or not. As somebody else said yesterday: Alina would probably be good at whatever she chose to do with her life. What makes her especially well suited to teaching is her grasp of the unique challenges of the job and her ability to adapt her skill set to those challenges. If that can’t be taught then there’s no point in trying to educate people to become teachers in the first place.

The Smartest Kids in the World

Amanda Ripley’s book, which we discussed today, is, like the Owens book we read, both readable and frustrating. Let’s start with readable: I think I finished the whole thing in two long sittings, and in under 24 hours. That says something about Ripley’s style but it also probably says something about the powerful way she set up her discussion of how American public schools stack up to a few of their foreign counterparts. I found myself turning eight or ten pages at a time while barely blinking. The way she weaved the stories of the three students — Kim, Eric, and Tom — in and out of her larger discussion of the different ways we think about education in the world was both deft and appealing. And, of course, it didn’t hurt to flip from page to page wondering when I’d learn something new about Tom’s experiences in school here in Gettysburg or about Korean teenagers stabbing their mothers in the neck and eating ramen in the living room with their friends while the body decomposed in a saran-wrapped bedroom nearby.

But I’ve learned something in my academic career, especially as I read more and more about education: very often light, readable writing about educational issues conceals too much of the complexity of education as a social activity, especially when it purports to provide solutions to the problems we face. Of course Ripley goes out of her way to say that she is pointedly not offering solutions to educational problems — “I’m just a reporter” she protests in the first appendix, right before offering up some solutions–but she clearly takes a position or two throughout the book. One is that she has very limited respect for American schools and teachers. I think the only genuine compliment I can remember Ripley lobbing at American teachers came from one of the students she interviewed for the book: that kid noted that American teachers actually get to know you, unlike teachers he had had back in Germany. I would agree that we do not do enough to attract students with the highest grades into teaching, but I do think that we attract a tremendous number of dedicated, conscientious, and thoughtful people into the profession and that’s a minor miracle considering how American teachers have been treated historically. It’s unrealistic to think that simply raising cut scores on the Praxis test will improve teaching; it’s also unrealistic to expect teacher education programs, many of which provide the universities with which they are associated a much-needed revenue stream, to turn away paying customers. If we want to get serious about reforming teacher education in a way that’s consistent with the approach taken in Finland, we’re going to have to start by considering how public colleges and universities pay their bills.

But there’s something else that bothers me about Ripley’s entire thesis: it’s based, for all intents and purposes, on the results of a single test. That test, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), evaluates the reading, science, and math skills of 15-year-old kids in about 75 countries. But just how many 15-year-olds are we talking about? The administrators of PISA will tell you that the number doesn’t matter — the sample does. So long as the sample of students taking the test is representative of the larger population of each country, we can be relatively certain that the reported results can be generalized to the entire population of a country. So even though we’re only talking about the scores of roughly 500,000 test-takers out of an estimated 1.85 billion school-aged kids worldwide, PISA’s proponents would have us believe that the samples they draw from are representative ones. Never mind that countries like Iceland barely have enough students in them to meet the minimum sampling requirements (5,000 students) set by the OECD, which administers the test, while some 75 million kids attend American schools; that’s a sampling problem in and of itself. Add the fact that this is also a complex test that requires fairly subjective human scoring. Think back to the Farley piece we read, and about how subjectivity clouds the results of “standardized” tests. Was anyone surprised that Ripley took it, scored her own exam, and found that she only missed one question after scoring it herself?

But there’s another point to be made here. Throughout the book, Ripley repeats the popular claim that American teachers and students like to blame our educational problems on poverty — and that we shouldn’t. Over and over, Ripley argues that poverty is no excuse because poor kids in other countries still fare better than poor kids do here. But she’s missing a crucial point: while child poverty is a substantial impediment to school success, and is, quite frankly, our national shame, it’s inequality that ultimately promises to undermine any efforts we might undertake to follow Finland’s lead. Sure, there are poor people all over the world — but you’d be hard-pressed to find a country with a larger gap between its richest citizens and its poorest ones, especially in a country as large as ours is. I’ll let Martin Conroy and Richard Rothstein of the Ecoonomic Policy Institute do the talking:

Because social class inequality is greater in the United States than in any of the countries with which we can reasonably be compared, the relative performance of U.S. adolescents is better than it appears when countries’ national average performance is conventionally compared.

In other words, they conclude that if we accounted for social inequality the U.S. would fare much better on tests like PISA. Poor kids attending more equal schools elsewhere are essentially having a personal characteristic cancelled out by a social one. Put yet another way, if two poor kids show up to school — one in Pennsylvania and the other in Finland — and the Finnish kid receives breakfast while the American kid goes hungry, the personal characteristic of being impoverished is at least somewhat ameliorated for the Finnish kid. We have resources; we just don’t choose to distribute them in ways that will reduce the effects of child poverty, let alone the condition of poverty. Poverty might not be an excuse for “poor student performance” if we took serious steps to ensure that we mitigated its effects when kids showed up to school in the morning. Instead, we send kids into “radically unequal” schools, as historian David Labaree has said, and then expect schools to solve the problem of poverty on shoestring budgets of their own. At any rate, if we accounted for inequality we wouldn’t be at the top of the OECD’s rankings, according to Conroy and Rothstein, but our adjusted scores would rank us 6th in the world in reading and 13th in math. Hardly reason, I think many would conclude, to dismantle our public education system wholesale and sell it to the highest bidder. Read the rest of the report for yourself.

So what do we make of this? For one thing, every claim made by Ripley in her book — almost literally every single one, at least where education is concerned — is based on the results of one test. Finland has the smartest kids in the world, Korea’s are pretty smart too, and we rank somewhere behind even Poland. She’s got a lot to say here worth thinking about — we would be smart to give teachers greater autonomy and better pay, and a real evaluation system; it does make sense to improve the quality of our teacher workforce and to make school more meaningful so kids don’t spend their lives sleepwalking through their teenage years — but let’s start by comparing apples to apples. And let’s also ask some tough questions. Who benefits when schools are constantly under siege? To whom is power transferred, and from whom is it taken, when we compare American schools unfavorably to schools in other countries? This is where your semester-long immersion in the politics of education should come in handy.

Because Ripley is a journalist — and one with a book to sell, at that — it’s perfectly understandable that she would choose a pithy and attention-grabbing title for her book. But instead of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, she might have been on firmer ground calling it The Kids in the World Who Scored Best on a Test Taken By 0.000025% of the World’s Children and What We Can Do to be More Like Them if We Want To. That doesn’t answer the question of why we would want to be — maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t — but at least it would start a more honest conversation about how our system compares to the educational systems in other countries, and what, if anything, we might want to do about it. And it certainly doesn’t answer the question of what it would take to ensure that every kid in America, regardless of his or her socioeconomic background, had a decent shot at a good education after arriving at school in the morning. We’re going to have a much more difficult conversation about social responsibility and distribution of public resources before we can do that. We’re going to have to decide if we want to put our money where our mouth is.

Sleeping In

Larry Cuban, with whom many of you are intimately familiar after having reviewed his book Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice, also blogs regularly–and very well–on various issues in education and education reform. Some of you alluded to this in your book reviews, so I know you’ve been keeping up with his work. If you haven’t been, now’s a good time to start!

This morning I read a recent post of his about high school start times. My experience in high school would have fit well in the Owens book, as a counterpoint in the chapter “Not High School as You Remember It.” I graduated from high school in Virginia way back in 1992–before almost all of you were born. This, of course, was also before the standards movement came into full bloom (I was in high school when President Bush called the “Education Summit” in Charlottesville, my hometown, in 1989, an event that reverberated for at least a decade as it helped establish both Bush’s and President Clinton’s education policy preferences), and well before “No Child Left Behind.” I guess it was an alright school–AP courses were just starting to be offered (I took AP English, Chemistry, and Government, but we did not offer Advanced Placement courses in history and I wanted nothing to do with courses offered in math), we had a band and school orchestra, our football team never won anything, and we had our choice of several foreign languages to study–Spanish and French, of course, but also Russian, German, and maybe some I’ve forgotten. Most classrooms had no windows in them, which we all found odd, and the school had its share of architectural quirks. Two especially nice features were a pair of indoor/outdoor courtyards, one of which was actually reserved for student smokers. Imagine that: a student smoking courtyard in a high school! We also had a wall in the parking lot that students were encouraged to paint messages on. These ranged from the pedestrian (edgy drug-referenced quotes of Pink Floyd songs) to the political (these were the days of Exxon oil spills and Gulf Wars; we also, of course, had occasional unflattering references to school administrators designed to test the limits of free speech that quickly came down) to your everyday expressions of teenage lovelorn angst, highlighted by references to Shakespeare, C + C Music Factory, or Color Me Badd, depending on one’s taste. I remember one guy used to blast the Eagles song “Take it to the Limit” from his car stereo every afternoon in the parking lot. Yeah, it was high school.

We also had a daily schedule that would make today’s high school students jealous. It was a schedule that demonstrated a surprising amount of trust of students. Those courtyards, for example, could be visited at least twice during the day, and also at lunch: we had both morning and afternoon breaks of about 15 minutes (if I remember correctly) to do whatever we wanted to do. Lunch lasted almost an hour, and seniors were actually permitted to leave campus during lunch. The liberal nature of the schedule allowed students like me to take classes across town at the University of Virginia. As a senior I took both an English course called “American Gothic” and a history course on the Reformation at UVA in addition to anchoring the school’s morning news program, putting on plays in our black box theatre (not to be confused with the black box of classroom practice…), and attempting to continue a fledgling baseball career. 

I’m making it sound better than it was (high school is, well, high school after all), but maybe the most thoughtful thing our school did for us as students in those days was to give us the gift of time. When I first began teaching high school in 2000, we kept a much different schedule: school started at 7:10 sharp and ended at 2:10. In between we squeezed a six-period day with staggered lunch schedules that allowed students and faculty about 24 minutes to wolf down their victuals, including transportation time to and from the cafeteria. Back at my high school in Virginia, school started at 9:20. It didn’t end until around 4, but that two-hour shift in the schedule made all the difference. The late start made an “Early Morning” period possible; many of us took health and phys ed at that time to free up room in our schedule later in the day. And it still started a full hour after school typically starts today! Not only that, but for many of us it started with physical activity. (I’ll never forget Coach Elder admonishing us that “You can’t run if you don’t breathe!” and making us watch workout videos first thing in the morning.)

But that was Early Morning. Most of us didn’t start school until 9:20, and I have to think we were better off because of it. Today, my old high school starts first period at 8:20 am, but, to the credit of its school board, several proposals are being considered to start later–possibly as late as 9:45. Note, if you follow the link above, what may ultimately derail these efforts: it’s going to cost a lot more money, apparently, to ensure that buses run efficiently. This is, as Cuban also points out, were efficiency often trumps research findings and what would seem to most teenagers and their parents to be common sense. But as Cuban also points out, it might not take much for “activists” to use the politics of education to their advantage, especially when armed with evidence. The key is understanding how the politics work. Are earlier start times a panacea? Will they raise student achievement and close the achievement gap on their own? Of course not. But every effort we can make to ensure that students arrive at school alert and reasonably well rested would seem to be an effort worth making.

Welcome back

Spring break is over, and for those of you who spent the week in warmer climes let me be the first to welcome you back to snowy Gettysburg. Old man winter sure is enjoying himself this year.

Nevertheless, it’s time to get down to business. Tomorrow we’ll talk about your course projects and will start the ball rolling in that direction. I read this article recently about “genius hours” in schools and it made me think of two things: [1] imagine how much different school would be if we trusted students and teachers to use their time in school like this; and [2] this will be a nice way of introducing how I would like to see you complete your projects. Have a look:

Your SAT scores will come back to haunt you!

This link was shared with me by Jhanvi; thanks, Jhanvi!

In a nutshell: it’s a buyer’s market out there for labor, people. So apparently employers are looking at things like standardized test scores to choose from among similarly qualified candidates. (My favorite line: “SAT scores might not even be that good of a barometer for predicting someone’s job performance.” No kidding!) Of course you all now know, thanks to Todd Farley, who makes and scores those standardized tests. Just a gentle reminder.

Feel free to vent in the comments section, or to just silently sob while you study over the weekend.

The soft bigotry of low expectations

Yesterday I hit you with the story of my son’s odyssey through school in the era of No Child Left Behind. As you know now, it’s been an interesting one, and one that in many ways illustrates that the warnings offered by Elmore, Kohn, and others about test-driven schooling were awfully accurate. Note here that the piece we read by Elmore appeared in 1997, and the chapter we read from Kohn’s book was published in 1999–eons ago in the world of education policy, especially since NCLB did not become law until 2002. To call them prescient seems like an understatement.

I also left you with a question: is No Child Left Behind more trouble than it’s worth? It’s a surprisingly tough question to answer. At this point you know a good bit about the backstory associated with NCLB. The law is, as you know, the product of a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which first became law amid the flurry of legislation promoted by Lyndon Johnson as part of his “Great Society” initiative in the mid-1960s. The original intent of ESEA was to situate schools as key players in the fight against poverty, and to funnel massive amounts of federal funding through them in pursuit of this goal. The expansion of federal funding for public education was so unprecedented that it raised constitutional questions as well as the usual political and ideological ones. This was big government at both its best and worst. To supporters, ESEA represented a thoughtful and forward-thinking attempt to remedy the effects of institutionalized discrimination and poverty by using the full force of the federal government and the power of its purse to attack those problems. To detractors (most of whom, as you know, did not appear until some years later), ESEA came to represent government overreach into an area that had traditionally been reserved to the states, local governments, and, of course, to locally-controlled school boards. Those who questioned the increasing federal influence on school policy had little trouble calling it unconstitutional, anti-democratic, and even tyrannical in spite of the law’s good intentions.

NCLB is, in many ways, a part of this tradition. George W. Bush made a lot of claims about the law, but one of the most widely repeated was that it would address the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that had plagued schooling for many kids, especially African American and Hispanic kids of whom, in Bush’s estimation, little was asked and, as a result, little was received in the way of academic achievement. The assumption behind this statement, to Bush’s critics, was that low academic achievement was partially the fault of schools (and probably teachers), but also partly the fault of students themselves. Bush was attempting to explain that holding students to higher expectations would inevitably lead to better results. Instead of simply distributing money according to a formula that accounted for the socioeconomic circumstances of students, as Title I of ESEA had done for forty years, Bush proposed distributing it only to schools that were raising expectations for all students and demonstrating “Adequate Yearly Progress” toward the seemingly modest goal of ensuring that every student could be declared proficient in reading and math. He also seemed to believe fervently that doing this was in line with the original spirit of ESEA. Bush seems to genuinely have believed that school could eradicate some of the effects of poverty and, moreover, that competition among schools would inevitably give teachers and students the incentive they needed to shape up or ship out.

I have my problems with this way of thinking, not the least of which is that it’s obviously flawed–we’re twelve years into the experiment known as NCLB and very little of what was promised has actually been delivered. If raising expectations and tying funding and targeted sanctions to schools’ efforts to achieve them was, in fact, the key to raising student achievement, you’d think we’d be a lot closer to the proficiency goals outlined in the law. And I think we all know that income inequality and child poverty are problems that not only show no sign of abating but may be worse than they have ever been in the history of this country. At the same time, that phrase–“the soft bigotry of low expectations”–carries an unsettling weight with me. It’s hard not to look back at Jackson’s experiences in school and wonder how much of a role his quiet personality (not to mention a healthy does of disinterest in boring academic work) played in making his test scores seem more revealing than they actually were. I came to realize that my argument to the school personnel I talked to was a lot like the argument George Bush made: it’s very difficult to prove that you’re capable of doing more when you’re always asked to do less. Yesterday Christine asked, toward the end of class, what students can do to get themselves out of situations like these. My answer even depressed me a little: without an adult advocate–a parent, a teacher, a counselor; maybe even without more than one of these, which Jackson eventually had–it’s hard to see how a kid who is not expected to do well can possibly demonstrate greater ability. The weight of expectations is often too great to overcome, and when principals start talking about “data,” it’s really hard to muster an argument that will be taken seriously. Especially if you’re a middle schooler.

Of course there is one simple way Jackson could have solved all his problems: he could have just gotten better scores on his standardized tests. For the record, since moving to an “academic” language arts class this year, Jackson has improved over two grade levels in reading. Statistically that’s very hard to believe. The best explanation is that it’s probably true that he really was a better reader than he showed all along. But still. Being in that other class may not have done much for him academically (the jury is still out on that), but it did do a lot for his confidence. Sometimes that’s all it takes to do better than you’ve ever done before. Does that mean that converting all classes to “academic” classes is the solution here? Most teachers, for a variety of reasons, will tell you it’s not. But it does beg the question: what role are tests, and the concomitant emphasis we place on remediating what’s wrong rather than improving what’s right, playing in limiting the motivation kids have for being in school? And what effect does that have on student success in school? In Jackson’s case the result could well have been devastating. He was in a remedial reading class in 5th grade; by 7th grade, he was within two points in one class of being on the honor roll after a half year of what we were told were the most challenging classes offered at the school. You do the math.

So back to the question that started this post: is NCLB more trouble than it’s worth? On Thursday we’ll spend some time thinking about the good that the law has accomplished and about how its better intentions might be converted into policy that can actually improve education and educational outcomes. I hope being able to put a face to these issues–especially a big smiling face like Jackson’s–will help us keep in mind that the impact of policy is felt in ways that policymakers sometimes never intended.

Political philosophy and ed reform

Today in class we began our descent into the politics of education in the early years of the Reagan presidency–right up to, and including, the drafting of the A Nation at Risk (ANAR) report that is often cited as both the source of our current state of angst regarding our education system and the seed of so much education reform. You’re forgiven if you left class today scratching your head and wondering “what did we just talk about?” There are two reasons you may have felt that way.

First: you have incomplete information. As I said in class, we’re working backward from ANAR to try to piece together the roots of school reform, not simply choosing a single starting point and moving forward chronologically from there. This is a risk on my part, but we’re doing it for a couple of reasons. One is that events do unfold in chronological ways–that’s a basic temporal fact of life that we might as well embrace because, hey, time is a convenient way to organize things–but to the people experiencing them things are not organized nearly so neatly. We have a lot of information to digest, for example, about how Terrel Bell and Ed Meese tangled over the future of the Department of Education but neither Bell nor Meese were privy to most of it when it happened. Davies (author of the chapter we read for today) has done a great job of making the story of the Reagan administration’s influence on education policy make sense but I want you to feel a little disoriented about it because the reality is that life is messier than that. There’s an important lesson in here about not settling for easy judgments and taking care to explore different ideas and possibilities before settling on an interpretation of what’s going on.  When we start discussing what’s going on in schools now, my bet is that you’ll be a lot more circumspect in your analysis of whether reforms being proposed and implemented will accomplish the goals they are meant to accomplish. We are also working backward because not knowing how the story begins makes it harder (and, I hope, more fun!) to predict how it will end. You can’t rely as much on absorbing a narrative if it’s disjointed. You have to think a little harder about how the pieces fit together.

The second reason you may have felt a little confused today is that we started by talking about political philosophies in a very abstract way. When we talk about what it means to be “free,” and what role political philosophers think social institutions and government should play in social relationships, and how human nature is defined by conservatives, classical liberals, proponents of social democracy, neoliberals, neoconservatives, and others of different political persuasions–it’s easy for the ideas to start to blend together. But it’s important to think about these things because social institutions like schools are built on complex foundations that are supported by philosophical beliefs and ideological commitments that can help us understand how they were meant to work.

On the policy side, this class should be pretty straightforward: what are the actual solutions proposed and enacted by political actors (fancy terminology for government officials and others who make policy), and what are their impacts? On the politics side, things are a little messier. When we start thinking about where policy solutions come from we have to think about not only the actions taken by people trying to solve social problems but also about the assumptions and biases they bring to their proposed solutions. Is there a coherent philosophy supporting their ideological beliefs–in other words, is there a comprehensive set of ideas about things like knowledge, truth, beauty, and the meaning of life supporting the ideas being implemented? Or are reflexive ideological commitments taking precedence over more thoughtful and reflective thinking about how those ideas fit together to help us create a better society? When philosophy comes first, ideological commitments make sense because they are grounded in a view of the world that carefully considers what is and what’s possible before proceeding to the development of ideas about how the world ought to work. When ideology trumps philosophy we should wonder if somebody else was left to do the heavy lifting of developing a philosophical basis for ideological commitments being made. We should wonder, in other words, if people leaning on ideology are simply taking someone else’s philosophy for granted–one they may or may not really understand–instead of doing the hard work of figuring out what they actually believe on their own.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more to say about this. If you were a little uncomfortable in class today, and wondering if this was ever going to make sense, I hope this helps. But we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty of time left to keep making sense of it all.