Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Most education reformers are barking up the wrong tree.

Major elements of the current approach to education reform include redirecting more money to classrooms by cutting pensions and increasing employee contributions to healthcare, dis-empowering teachers unions, and focusing on hiring and firing policies. Human resources practices, budgeting, and union considerations are important factors in any education reform agenda, but they shouldn't be the crowning ones.

First of all, I support creating more portable retirement funds and health insurance, and separating them from employment. People shouldn't feel forced to stay in teaching (or in any job) just for the benefits. Likewise, people should keep benefits even if they lose (to no fault of their own) their jobs. That being said, the benefits that teachers receive are not lavish, especially when you consider their lower salaries, nor are such pensions and benefits responsible for our precarious fiscal state.

Furthermore, I have a hard time when some edu-pundits hammer pensions, but remain silent when it comes to the unheard of sums of money some reformers spend on expensive and unnecessary systems, on their own salaries, and on consultants and central office employees who don't work directly with children. Why only go after pensions and compensation when there are so many more damaging budgeting practices occurring in the name of reform? Such inconsistencies lead me to believe that those who yell about slashing teachers' benefits while approving truly wasteful spending are interested more in advancing their ideology than in smart fiscal policy.

As for reforming unions, to be honest when I taught in DCPS it didn't sit well with me that deductions were automatically taken out of my paycheck whether I joined the union or not (and I did join the union). I'm just not convinced that's a good system. I don't share Modern School blogger Michael Dunn's perspectives on all matters, but I do agree with some of his criticisms of unions, for example, that automatic dues deductions should be abolished and that unions should use their money to help workers and to advocate directly to management rather than use it to make contributions to political campaigns. And this is a place where perhaps more conservative edu-folks would agree; however, they should also then advocate for ending corporations' financial influence in political campaigns. Again, this is where inconsistency can betray ideological rather than practical motives.

Criticisms of unions aside, I find this path to school reform puzzling. First of all, the right of workers to organize is grounded in their First Amendment rights and hence a larger part of the American democratic system. Furthermore, I seriously doubt that disabling teachers unions will do much towards reforming education or towards improving teaching and learning, though it will certainly disable the Democratic Party. There are definitely teachers who get so involved with union politics, activities, and ideology that they neglect their jobs and their students--teachers who don't do their jobs shouldn't be allowed to keep them, but in my time teaching in public schools and being a public school parent, I have rarely encountered any educator who talked about much union activities or about their political views. I am very liberal and I have taught and lived in some very conservative places. I've worked alongside conservatives and I'm sure some very conservative people educate my children (I live in Eric Cantor's district), but their union membership and political views, conservative or liberal, almost never come up, nor should they have, and as far as how and what I teach or how my own children are educated, they don't really matter.

What does come up then? What should we be concerned with when talking about to how improve teaching and learning? Pedagogy and curriculum. How should I best engage and teach the students before me, and how should I advise my kids' teachers to best engage them? How can my co-workers and I help one another to best reach our shared students? More importantly, what should we teach our students? What as social studies and ESOL teachers do we want out students to know and be able to do? As a parent, what do I want my kids to know and be able to do? This is what good educators focus on and this is what any education reformer worth their salt should focus on. Same with teacher talent: where teachers went to college and their pedigree is much less important than what knowledge they have about pedagogy and about the content they teach--what they teach and how they practice. This is where evaluation needs to be much more rigorous and much more useful--as a means to improve teaching and learning, and not merely as an instrument to fire people.

If the existence of unions and fairly compensating teachers has not hurt the quality of teaching and learning, the high-stakes accountability and standardization movement has. It has severely limited what and how we teach and what and how students learn. I have not yet spoken to one parent or teacher in the liberal, moderate, and conservative communities where I've lived and taught who thought that high-stakes testing and standardization was improving teaching and learning, who wasn't concerned about its corrupting and harmful effects. I know many families in central Virginia who home school, not for religious reasons and not because they don't believe in public education, but because they abhor high-stakes testing and what it's doing to curriculum and pedagogy.

Meanwhile, leaders of education reform labs such as DCPS and NYCPS focus relentlessly on these relatively irrelevant criteria as well as on the pedigree of their practitioners, elite hiring (how about first focusing on making it a sane and stimulating place to work? On not driving good people out?) and draconian firing policies (accountability!), and student test scores. DC has had several years of education reform and they're just now (just now!) thinking about curriculum--and only in Language Arts for the moment. Meanwhile, DCPS is investing more in a expensive, large, and growing Office of Human Capital. What about investing more in quality instruction and rich and meaningful curriculum? There are eleven departments within the DCPS central administration and only one of them is focused on pedagogy and curriculum. What kind of an education system only focuses 9% of their efforts on pedagogy and curriculum, the heart of teaching and learning?

No work is entirely immune to the influences of ideology and politics. Furthermore, considerations of politics, economics, human resources, and management are important to any school or system. But if we truly want to improve education, we should do our best to check our ideology at the school house door. The craft of teaching and the quality of content we convey is where the real work of educating gets done. It's time we stopped wasting our precious resources and our students' time on petty and ideological matters, that we rolled up our sleeves and got down to educating.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Matt Yglesias Thinks Struggling Readers Shouldn't Learn Content

Matt Yglesias is wrong, again. And what he's wrong about is too concerning to ignore. In light of recently (slightly) higher NAEP history scores he says:
"As it happens, I agree with history advocates that we’re seeing the impact of the accountability law. What we’re seeing, in particular, is that trying to teach history to kids who can’t read is a fool’s errand. Focusing more clearly on making sure that kids aren’t falling behind in their core skills is helping the worst-off kids do better across the board even at history."
This is ridiculous. Yes, it helps kids to do better on a test if they can read it, but it doesn't actually help them learn the content on the test if they aren't being taught the content. The NAEP scores are nothing to celebrate--they're pretty bad actually. The goal should be not better test scores but more educated kids. Beyond some limited explicit instruction in reading skills, what struggling readers (and all readers) need is content, like social studies, like science. Core skills are mostly built on core knowledge, not the other way around

My own twin boys had different experiences learning to read. One son was reading by the time he turned five, learning to decode (or translate letters into sounds) easily. The other was nearly six and a half before he was reading at all fluently. That son had some intensive instruction from a reading specialist at his school which undeniably helped him get over the obstacle that decoding presented him. But the hard work that he was willing to put in was powered by being interested in the knowledge that he could find in books. He couldn’t read the words, but he learned the difference between a pterodactyl and a stegosaurus from books we read to him, from television programs, and from visits to museums. In his case, basic reading skills were as much a consequence of content knowledge, as they were a prerequisite.

Is Matt Ygelsias proposing that one of my sons should have missed out on science and social studies instruction (his favorite subjects--both of my sons hate learning about reading, but love reading) until he could decode properly? Sorry, son, you learn about dinosaurs because you can't decode. You can't learn about the Revolutionary War because you can't decode. That's absurd and it's educational malpractice. Teaching content is teaching reading.

When schools spend too much time on basic skills, to the point where they’re neglecting to teach high-interest content, they are wasting kids’ time and contributing to the achievement gap in cultural capital. The road to stronger skills and a college culture is paved with rich and meaningful content. When we let skills usurp content then we’re telling kids: Not only are you bad at reading, but you’re bad at everything else; because you’re not ready to read on grade level, you’re not ready to learn on grade level. When we make interesting content contingent on basic math and reading skills proficiency, we are dangling a carrot and watching as students’ appetites languish. If they’re not getting the content, the skills will never catch up. A student will never be successful at reading if they aren’t learning about what it is they’re reading about. 

Ygelsias writes intelligently on many topics; education is not one of them. For a much more thoughtful post that raises valid questions about teaching history and the recent NAEP scores, read what Michael Lopez has to say.

UPDATE: Lest someone come along and say I don't think kids need to learn to read or that they don't learn or build knowledge through reading books (or other texts such as periodicals), that is not at all what I am saying. I don't think that at all. Reading is vital.

Kids need to learn to decode and they should read as many books as possible. We can learn so much from reading books. The more we read, the more we know, the better readers we become.

What I'm saying is that learning to read is not an isolated process--learning to decode can be, but beyond that, there's no such thing as learning to comprehend or learning reading comprehension. Comprehension is built on knowledge. Knowledge is built through learning. Knowledge can be delivered via many different forms and it can especially be delivered via books. But we can not discount the significance of the background knowledge and the content knowledge that aids us in the process of reading and comprehending those books.

If I can quote Cedar from the comments below:

". . .  it is exhausting to read something where you don't know what the words mean. Yes, it is possible to sit there with a dictionary and look up one or two words per sentence, but for most of us, it is taxing and unpleasant. If kids have to keep reading and re-reading, they find reading unpleasant. As you pointed out, you got your knowledge from books. Part of the reason that you got that knowledge from books is because you didn't find books exhausting."

Without background and content knowledge, reading books is exhausting for kids, and they won't do it or get better at it or learn as much as they would. But with enough background and content knowledge, reading becomes pleasurable and interesting and the more they'll do it.

Early Childhood Education: Vouchers or Universal Pre-K?

Erik Kain has an interesting post up about preschool where he talks about the importance (backed up by research) of early childhood education. Two problems he states: a) universal preschool is expensive and b) while programs like Head Start do great things, they tend to segregate poor kids. He suggests granting vouchers to low-income families for private preschool.

Normally, I am voucher-averse, but in the case of early childhood education, the idea is worth consideration. Where vouchers in K-12 can draw kids and funding away from an existing robust public system, not to mention fund the teaching of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia, there is only a very small public preschool "system" and very few middle- or high-income families send their kids to any kid of public preschool, and I wonder what percentage of low-income families do. On the other hand, as this HuffPo commentary questions about K-12 vouchers: How much would these vouchers actually be worth? Would they really cover the full cost of private preschool (which is often quite expensive itself)? Would there be enough spaces in private preschools to accommodate those who would normally enroll in public preschool programs like Head Start? Would it ultimately be more realistic, cost effective, and serve to better educate our youngest students to build a more robust public preschool system?

DC public schools just launched universal pre-K for three and four-year-olds. As far as I know, families can either enroll their kids in their neighborhood school's program or they can lottery in to other programs.

On the one hand, universal pre-K is quite expensive and I've heard the criticism in DC that with so many budget cuts, the city shouldn't be spending money on funding preschool for higher income families when other K-12 programs and students so direly need the funding.

On the other hand, I can surmise that if a program is universal, it's more likely to get a more economically diverse (meaning not just low-income folks) student body, which means less segregation of the poorest students. Studies have shown that less segregation benefits them. (That being considered, there's always segregation because of segregated neighborhoods--housing policy that aims to desegregate neighborhoods may be a much better way to skin that cat.) Also, I wonder if universal pre-K will hook more higher income DC residents to the public schools and keep them there, leading to a more robust system.

There is also the problem of quality. Will these universal pre-K programs be of high-quality and be developmentally appropriate for preschoolers? Or will they be doing way more academics than they should be?

It will be  interesting to see what happens in DC. I certainly hope someone has plans to study what happens to these students over time--it seems like a great opportunity.

UPDATE: Speaking of early childhood education, check out this great article in Ed Week about public pre-K - 3 initiatives.

Monday, June 13, 2011

International Baccalaureate: Friend or Foe?

Robo, one of my readers, had some questions about IB (International Baccalaureate) programs. Since this blog is about all things education, I thought it would make for a good post. From robo:
"My questions are basically the same as the issues in the TFA post: does IB detract/distract from the goal of providing a quality education for all students? Does IB draw an inordinate share of the resources from the 'mainstream' program? Finally, does it actually offer something better?
Obviously, we believe the last to be affirmative or we would not have enrolled both of our kids in this program. The only anti-IB material I've seen is from some obviously nutty fundamentalist/ conservative corners, but I'm sure your readers must have some knowledge on the topic."
I'll start with what I know, which isn't much since there weren't IB courses at my school--in fact, there were barely AP courses, I never taught IB or AP, and I have younger children. I've heard that IB courses are excellent--they're rigorous, multi-dimensional, and full of essential content. I've heard many educators and parents alike declare the approach and curricula to be superior to that of APs.

As for ethical considerations, from what I've heard that depends on how the program is implemented. In the county where I currently live, no school has a dedicated IB program; there are only IB courses. That means  there's no application process and that anyone can take an IB course, especially if recommended by a counselor or teacher. Also if one county high school has a program that another doesn't, the county will bus students who want to participate in that program to the school, so no matter which neighborhood a student lives in, they can take advantage of any program the county offers. Some other districts have magnet IB schools or programs (schools within schools) where it's an all or nothing thing. Usually the kids who get into the programs are the ones with parents most likely to be able to advocate to get them in or who advocate to bring a magnet program to their neighborhood school in the first place.

As for IB programs taking away from "mainstream" programs, I think that only happens if the school or district lets is happen. If IB courses include best teaching practices and offer great curricula, I don't see what good it does anyone to NOT offer them. A district would have to make sure, though, that IB is not offered at the expense of best practices and great curricula for students in other courses as well as make sure IB courses are accessible and encouraged for ALL students who are academically capable or prepared. (And yes, Michael Lopez, if you're out there, I know this gets us into the capable vs. prepared discussion. I need to learn more before deciding where I stand.)

Readers, what do you know about IB? Do tell below.

UPDATE: Since composing this post, I found two relevant posts from other blogs that I regularly read. This one is from Joanne Jacobs, about tracking, and this one is from a school principal named Mel Riddle who blogs for "The Principal Difference."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Academic English Helps Kids Succeed Academically, But It Doesn't Make Them Better People

On my most recent post about "bourgeois norms" being explicitly taught in school, commenters MDS and Matt and I got into a conversation, among other things, about the confluence of school, language, pedagogy, and culture. I would really recommend reading through both of their comments as they each offer much to ponder. In the meantime, these lines from MDS started this particular conversation:
"Minority students need to be taught that they live in a racist society and they will need to navigate that racist society by developing a fluency in Standard English and other mainstream norms. They need to understand that they need to learn this NOT because their culture and language are inferior, but because they live in a racist society. This cannot happen if white or middle class teachers come to the classroom with the common sense or taken for granted notions that Yglesias describes. The students are surely receptive to the messages that this gives out. Instead of reaffirming the stereotypes of the dominant society, the classroom should be a place where students are given a different story about who they are"

I was young, middle class, elite-school educated, progressive, and white (and still am, though no longer so young:) when I began my teaching career, though by the time I started teaching in an inner-city public high school I was twenty-five and had a master's degree in education with certification in social studies and ESOL. I was green as hell, but at least in ed school I had studied educational history, linguistics, language acquisition, educational psychology, special education, teaching methods, social studies and ESOL pedagogy/curriculum, as well as examples of real-world challenges in education. I had also completed several internships and done a semester of student teaching.

Nevertheless, as I have pretty much only taught non-white, non-middle class students, once teaching I had to really consider how I would come across to students and what it was I wanted them to learn from me. On the one hand, I had been academically successful and it was hard to resist the temptation of teaching my students to achieve my success by emulating me. On the other hand, that seemed patronizing, as if I were saying: I am in the place I'm in because I have superior habits, values, and behaviors; yours are inferior. What I figured out pretty quickly was that the difference between me and many of my students was luck; I was academically successful mostly because I am one of the luckiest people on earth--I was born into privilege. Ultimately, rather than teach my students to be like me, I decided the best thing I could do for them was to earn their trust, make sure they felt comfortable in my classroom, and to teach them interesting (okay, sometimes boring), essential content and skills.

Part of doing the above meant seriously considering how I would approach the teaching and use of language, especially considering the dilemma that MDS described. And considerations of language in the classroom are important not just with poor, minority or immigrant students, but with teenagers in general. After floundering a bit, I figured out it would be counterproductive to the enrichment and development of students' language abilities to stifle or discount any student's native language or vernacular. I decided to explain to my students that there's an English that most Americans use in school and in the workplace. My job is to teach them to have facility with that academic or standard English without frowning upon the way they speak or telling them it's is wrong. In many cases their usage is creative and rich in its own right, in fact, and as far as I was concerned was fine in school for peer-to-peer or non-academic interactions with me, and in some creative writing assignments. 

I didn't instruct  my students to speak to me in academic English, but I did remind them when necessary that I wasn't their peer. I didn't correct them, but I didn't alter the way I talked either. On assignments, I didn't always explicitly require standard English, but I told them I assumed they would do their best to use it. Especially in social studies, though, I was interested in the ideas. If a student could explain to me that the Vietnam War was different from World War II because for the first time Americans had it broadcast to their living rooms and that this changed public opinion, I was thrilled. Someone might look at some of my students' in-class essay responses on such a topic and notice the non-standard English and ask how I could pass those students. I don't know. All I can say is that if they did what I required of them, came to class, worked hard, and I could tell from their responses on my assessments that they had learned the material, how could I not pass them? I would also proffer that if I had them constantly reading and writing as much as possible, that their fluency in standard English would have to improve from beginning to end of the course.

As a bit of an aside, but a relevant one, I approach cursing in much the same way: I tell students that cursing is not wrong but that there's an art to it. There is also a time and a place for cursing and it's not appropriate in school. A lot of cursing from students is a signal that we need to work on adding lots more (non-curse) words to their vocabulary. (Although more bland than jarring, I would also say this about using the words "good" and "nice" too much--they're too common and not specific enough.) On the rare occasion that students cursed at me or at one other, I calmly but firmly pointed out that cursing was not appropriate in my classroom and moved on. Cursing was not something I allowed but it's not something I made a deal out of, either. I think that's one reason I never had many problems with it.

In short, I found that while I was most certainly responsible for teaching my students standard or academic English and for modeling its usage, it wasn't my job to make students elevate one form of English over another. Language and the way we use it, especially in less formal settings literally speaks for us; it's part of who we are. I felt that if I wanted students to learn academic and standard English, I needed to let them know first that I respected who they already were, that my instruction of and in standard English wasn't meant to replace any vernacular, but rather to build their language abilities and expand their expressive machinery. Use of standard or academic English is not a means towards any type of superiority; it's a tool, a means towards academic success and the broadening and deepening of language abilities. When students understand and trust that, they're much more likely to embrace learning it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Diversity University: University First, Diversity Second

I was "introduced" to Michael Lopez when he was guest blogging over at Joanne Jacob's place. Among others, he wrote a post in response to this piece in the New York Times about admissions policies at Amherst College (and at other elite colleges). (This is a bit off topic, but after you read the NYT piece, read these letters to the editor in response.) Since he mentioned he had gone to Wesleyan, I shared my posts in reference to admissions policies there (here's the first and the second one). We chatted a bit and one thing led to another and next thing you know I asked him to write a guest post in response to mine. Michael's blog is "Highered Intelligence." I will soon respond to his post, but in the meantime, here's Michael:

This post is an outgrowth of a comment I left on Rachel's "Diversity University, No Longer" post. It covers much of the same ground, but also includes a few important ideas that I had neglected before. I will assume that the reader of this post has read her post in its entirety; there's quite a bit there, and it's not all obvious, but I think it boils down in the end to this paragraph:
"No matter how diverse racially and geographically the student body seems to be, in order to be truly committed to diversity, equality, and social justice, Wesleyan must change their admissions policies and must get out of the US News and World Report ratings game. Otherwise, no matter how much they're marketing themselves as part of the meritocracy, Wesleyan is still the same elitist animal."

Let me start out by saying that it's pretty clear that there's an uneasy social compact about what constitutes "academic merit". It's some ill-defined composite of test scores, grades, writing ability, accomplishments, school activities, and various types of service projects. The unifying theme of these constituents is that they are all things that the student does, not things that the student is. Whenever a school wanders outside these factors, it is engaging in what I think can fairly be called "affirmative action," insofar as the admissions office is taking an affirmative step to increase the likelihood that a candidate will be admitted on some other basis.

Now many of these semi-agreed-upon factors are the sorts of things that are tracked by US News and World Report. If there wasn't some degree of widespread agreement, the magazine wouldn't use these figures, because they wouldn't matter to the audience. I thus take it that Rachel is explicitly calling for "affirmative action" on the basis of a student's inferior position in our "increasingly stratified American class system". (I use "inferior" here in its technical, not qualitative sense.)

I've got no objection to this, as such. But I do think that I've got a different view than Rachel does, and that it's informed by a different perspective that I have on our shared alma mater, Wesleyan. See, I was one of the "low income" students that supposedly contributed to whatever diversity Wesleyan had back in the early/mid 1990's. I was also part of their ostensible racial diversity, but I'm not going to talk about race in this post other than to say that I'm not going to talk about race.

Now, from a certain perspective, Wesleyan was a tremendously diverse place. My closest circle of friends included students of five different races from four different parts of the country. Inter alia, we had 1.5 Mexicans, a West Virginian, a black guy from Brooklyn, a Caribbean/African American fellow from the Bronx, two white guys from the South, some half-Asian kids, and two Jews for good measure. Some were rich, some poor, and a few were in between. You might be asking what this group actually had in common, as any group of friends must have SOMETHING in common to stay together. The answer is simple: we were smart and we played D&D.

But I said "from a certain perspective" Wesleyan was diverse. Diversity really is a matter of perspective. If you've lived your entire life in the New York City or Boston upper middle class, or lower upper class, Wesleyan probably seems like it's a cornucopia of human variegation, even though a plurality of the students are actually pretty much just like you. If, on the other hand, you're a poor kid from California, it seems a little less diverse. How is that possible? Well, for the person in the former situation, there's all these new people who are so very different running around. For the person in the latter position--for me, that is--pretty much the entire school seems like rich folks from the East Coast. (And all y'all seemed rich to me, even those who protested about how you were thoroughly "middle class," but that's the perspective thing coming up again.)

While I had no expectations about the make-up of the student body coming in my freshman year, I pretty quickly figured out that despite being "Diversity University," Wesleyan was nonetheless primarily a bastion of a certain type of exercised, cultivated social privilege, and that I was a bit of a guest, free to take advantage of the facilities and treated like any other member of the society, but it was definitely not "my world." This was brought into graphic relief when I would go home. My father and my paternal grandparents, may they rest in peace, used to actually refer to it as "Mike's finishing school".

Now that's not to say I wasn't prepared to do the work--I was just as prepared or even more prepared than many of my classmates. (At least in this respect, I was a typical college student: it was motivation that caused me all my problems.) And while I don't want to go into boring detail, my application was what could probably best be called "inconstant." I had some very strong indicators (test scores and recs) and some very weak ones (GPA and certain curricular choices I made in high school). In short, it wasn't obvious that I was a shining candidate for admission.

I am thus exceedingly grateful to Wesleyan for taking a risk on me, and not least because it was the only school that accepted me. (And not the lowest ranked, either. My bona fides really were inconstant.) I know I was a risk--they could have just as easily taken one of their 4.2/1490 community service Manhattan-based demigods, the ones that they reject every year. That would have been a safer bet for them. They saw something they liked in my application, though, and off I went.

So I don't feel quite the same sense of outrage if the university decides to take fewer risks, if, as I heard some members of Rachel's class once remark, Wesleyan in the late 90's became "L.L. Bean-i-fied." If there are a few less borderline cases, a few less rolls of the admissions dice from an administration concerned with their national reputation, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. From my vantage, extending their assistance and considerable financial generosity was something that they didn't have to do in the first place.

Frankly, I didn't go to Wesleyan to experience diversity. I didn't go to meet poor and rich students, Jewish and Episcopal students, or brown, black and yellow students. I went to meet really smart, engaging students who would push me, and with whom I could form an intellectual community. I don't know how many of you actually remember high school, but in many cases (not all, but many) it was a place where ideas and originality went to die. I wanted something different from Wesleyan, in fact, I recall writing in my hurried, last-minute application, the following sentence in response to the prompt, "How do you want to be remembered by your college community: "If college is anything like high school, I don't want to be remembered at all because I'd rather not have been there." I paraphrase only slightly and claim the pass of years as an excuse. Please don't think I hated high school completely--the good teachers I had were excellent, and thankfully, I had them often; the classes I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. But the classes I didn't enjoy were the worst sort of soul-crushing tedium, and the environment as a whole could fairly be called anti-intellectual.

I sometimes think that the "diversity" of a student body, in terms of race or money or accents or whatever, is the sort of luxury that you have to be middle- or upper-class to care about in the first place. And not being part of that club, I didn't care about diversity. In fact, what attracted me was the homogeneity of the student body: they were all wicked smart! My purpose was to get a first-class education, and a better future for myself. (To be fair, I didn't realize that "better future" included an extremely painful, emotionally taxing four-year crash-course on middle-class mores, but there it is.) And I believe that the prospect of a better future and a first rate education has to be the first and primary mission of the university.

That's not to say that a certain amount of risk-taking in admissions isn't a good thing. I'm a fan. As I've said elsewhere, I support SES-based affirmative action, up to a point. And I think that most of Rachel's suggestions--outreach, summer programs, etc.--are well-taken and, funds permitting, would be capital ideas. "Rolling the dice" on a student means taking a gamble, but the gamble I want Wesleyan taking is the gamble that the student they are admitting really are the sort of wicked smart, well-prepared student who will help grow the discourse of learning.

So I'm wary of pushing the thumb too hard against the scale. Rachel talks about students who are "capable" of doing the work (her emphasis). Based on the rest of her essay, she seems to be indicating that there's a certain amount of potential that should be recognized in college admissions; that a student might be good raw material, but just not quite as developed. And that's probably a good idea, to some extent. Nevertheless, as I wrote recently at Joanne Jacob's blog in response to the argument that a lower SAT score from the Bronx was "as impressive" as a higher score from a richer area:
"That, too, is a lovely sentiment. And it’s probably true if the 'merit' that you’re trying to measure is some sort of absolute potential. But the counterargument is a strong one, and runs thusly: college is a bit late to be relying on your potential. College, particularly college at any of the schools on the list above, is going to draw upon your actual preparation as a foundation for more advanced studies. If you don’t have that foundation, you’re going to fall behind because for all your magnificent potential, you just don’t read as well, or just don’t add as well, as the more prepared students with the higher test scores."
And if as admissions officers you degrade the average abilities of your student body too much, you'll also start to change the discourse of learning that goes on in your school. You'll start chipping away at the very reason that kids--especially the kids from the lower classes you ostensibly crave--want to be in your school in the first place, assuming it's not merely rank careerism.

So, just by way of bringing this back to Rachel's post, I'm not so sure about more radical steps like lifting the four-year cap that Wesleyan has; I think that's a good thing: a firm floor to ability. If you don't have the ability to graduate in four years, given the lax graduation requirements and how ridiculously easy it is to get classes at Wes, then I can't imagine that you have any business attending a school like that. There's stretching the standards and then there's simply abandoning them.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Bourgeois, Smourgeois

Matt Ygelsias responded to my post critiquing this post. ED Kain also posted a very thoughtful response to my post.

First, I think that my and Yglesias's disagreement may be based at least in part on language, that is, lack of a shared interpretation of the terms we're using. He said "modes of behavior" and "conduct." I said "values." Then he said "norms." I see modes of behavior and conduct as growing from the values one holds as well as occurring in response to conditions. I see a norm as a standard of behavior. I acknowledge that Yglesias and others may have a different understanding of these terms and that it would be helpful if we arrived at a uniform understanding of them.

Otherwise, I don't see these lines as being subject to to much interpretation:
"Look. Children are children. They’re kids. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re irresponsible, they’re impulsive. They need to be taught. They learn from their parents and their peers and their peers’ parents. And if they’re parents have low levels of education and labor force success and so do all their friends’ parents and all their parents’ friends well then of course they’ll benefit from certain kinds of explicit instruction that middle class children don’t need."

No one is here is saying that kids don't need to be taught; rather, we are disagreeing about what they need to be taught. He is advocating for "bourgeois modes of behavior" (or conduct or norms), and I think we should focus on content and curriculum.

Furthermore, his chain of logic seems to be: Kids in general are irresponsible and impulsive. Middle class people are responsible and patient and teach their kids how to be the same. Poor people are not responsible and patient and that's why they have low levels of education and lack of "labor force success." Since poor parents don't teach their kids such norms or patterns of behavior, non-poor kids can teach poor kids this instead and in their absence, schools such as KIPP or others that adopt the No Excuses model can teach them this.

When he says "certain kinds of explicit instruction" I hear "work ethic" and "valuing education." His implication is that certain kinds of "explicit instruction" help make up for this lack of values. Certainly, at least some poor kids have parents who aren't educated, don't have steady jobs, lack a work ethic, and don't value education. However at least some middle class and rich people with children also aren't particularly educated, don't have steady jobs, lack a work ethic, and don't value education.

I am middle class. Yes, I was born into a family with bourgeois modes of behavior, but  mostly I was born into the conditions of privilege that allowed me the luxury of becoming educated. I am white, I lived in a safe neighborhood, had great healthcare, ate nutritious meals regularly, experienced no childhood traumas, had two professionally employed parents with advanced degrees whose jobs enabled them to be involved in my education and to impart their cultural capital to me.

(At this point, we also need to stop for a minute and clarify what we mean by "value education." Education for education's sake? Education to be a well-rounded person? An informed citizen? Education towards getting a job? Furthermore, what does it mean to be an educated American? Being educated enough to get a job? Being educated enough to have an intellectual life? A little of both?  I believe there is some core knowledge and basic skills that we as Americans should all have. Beyond that, being "educated" can take many different forms.)

Undoubtedly, kids learn norms and behaviors in school from one another--that's part of going to school. The value attached to these norms and behaviors all depends on, well, what each individual values. That being acknowledged, it's not my job as a public school teacher to teach social values beyond, say, teaching students how to get along, and how to peacefully resolve disputes that might arise in my classroom. Rather, it's my job to provide an education. Now, I do need to teach the values or habits of a good student, for example, completing assignments in a timely and comprehensive manner, reading as much and as often as possible, participating respectfully in class discussions, listening to teachers and classmates, coming to class on time, not plagiarizing or cheating, and I have no doubt that KIPP teaches their kids to have the habits of good students. But ultimately, to get students to practice these habits, I need to show them the value of what I'm teaching and that I value their time and effort.

I am not going to tell my teenage students that it would be wrong for them to have a baby at the age of sixteen; that's none of my business. Again, it's my job to educate my teenage students and not to express judgement of their values or culture. I did have some colleagues who made it a point not to acknowledge their students' babies or to fawn over them at all, but I always made sure to congratulate them and support them once the decision was made. Okay, you're a mother now and yes, being a mother is special. Now, how can I help you succeed academically while you're a parent? Likewise, as a civics teacher, it's not my job to teach which political party to join. Rather, it's my job to teach my students about how our political system works and about the duties of citizens in a democratic society.

Ultimately, "explicit instruction" in values or norms doesn't get you very far (ask people who teach ethics classes to MBA's). Just like you can't really teach kids to be good readers by teaching reading strategies, you can't teach kids to value education by telling them to value education. In order to get kids to to be stronger readers, you have to teach them about the content they're going to read about and then have them read developmentally appropriate texts about the content. Similarly, in order to get kids to value education, you have to show them how much you love knowledge, that it's interesting and that it's essential, and then you have to educate them. This should be true no matter who is being taught.

If rich content and practical skills are being taught while students are wearing uniforms or while students are instructed to walk silently in the halls, as long as such an environment isn't excessively rigid, what do I care? Structure is necessary to get kids ready to listen, support in the form of wrap-around services and some intensive academic instruction in deficient areas will help ensure they stay in a place to listen, but if you want them to really engage, you have teach them interesting and vital content. With a narrower, test-based curriculum and excessive teaching of skills such as reading strategies in charter and traditional, poor and middle class schools alike (though granted the lower the test scores, generally the more draconian and narrow the approach), no one is getting the content knowledge they like or the practical skills they need.

Today's commentators on everything are invariably experts on nothing. Yglesisas' writing on education  (I can't speak to his expertise on other matters) show he's is no different. He may be smart but he has a very superficial knowledge of how education works. When Yglesias, or anyone else like him, gestures vaguely at ideas about education reform, I'd probably do better to ignore them and respect that they're only doing their job. But I can't agree that this is how to have a serious conversation about education, nor can I pretend that it's a way to accurately inform the public of the issues in education and of their complexity. Seriously.

Friday, June 3, 2011

No Excuses for Matt Yglesias

I am at work on a longer piece about poverty, pedagogy and curriculum. In the meantime, I came across this relevant tutorial from Matt Ygelsias (via an approving E.D. Kain) on how schools help poor kids overcome poverty:
". . . It all goes back to the basic issue of why poor kids do better in less segregated schools in the first place. Basically, kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior. Bourgeois kids generally pick them up from their parents. Poor kids can pick them up from their peers, but only if they go to a school with a relatively low concentration of poverty. Poor kids in a high-poverty school can also receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the 'No Excuses' model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context. We should think of these kind of schools as stopgaps, workable solutions to the difficult problem of running a school in an environment of concentrated poverty. For a whole variety of reasons we should be trying to break those concentrations up and reduce the overall level of poverty. But given that concentrated poverty isn’t going to vanish next week, we should also be applauding people who are finding ways to make it work."

Yikes. Is anyone else troubled by this? Does anyone else think this sounds an awful lot like David Brooks at his worst? I read the above as: All these poor kids have to do is "pick up" "bourgeois modes of behavior" by attending school with middle to upper class kids, you know, since poor kids don't pick up acceptable modes of behavior from their parents. Oh, but that's not really possible right now, so we'll just have to "make it work" by putting poor kids in "No Excuses" schools where they will "receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct" until we can break up poverty. Then these kids with their newly acquired "bourgeois modes of behavior" can move on to bourgeois adulthood and work at think tanks and write uninformed nonsense.

I advise Yglesias to read this incredible piece by an actual teacher (and likely a bourgeois one, at that) who taught in a 'No Excuses' charter school. The test scores may have been higher there, but the kids weren't enjoying school and their teacher knew she wasn't offering them a quality or appropriate education. 

Poor kids and their parents don't need to be schooled in the way of bourgeois values; they need jobs, healthcare, housing, and, yes, a rich and meaningful education. If KIPP offers that kind of education, then uniforms or not, kudos to them, but if KIPP doesn't offer this, then they need to re-think their approach. All kids, even poor kids, should learn in an orderly but not rigid, developmentally appropriate, content-rich environment that fosters exploration, critical thinking, and creativity. All kids are worthy of the best practices and great curricula--that's not bourgeois, that's good education.

UPDATE I: As this post gets a bit more traffic, I want to make sure I'm crystal clear on a  few things:
1) I think structure, stability, routines, and fair rules are good for all kids. It's rigidity, a narrow curriculum, and high-stakes standardized testing I'm opposed to.
2) I support my kids being taught to walk quietly in the halls, to be polite and respectful, and to be quiet and listen when their teacher or a classmate is talking. As long as my kids are relatively happy and enjoying learning, I accept and support that some teachers will be more strict than others.
3) I am not a constructivist.

UPDATE II: ICYMI, I have posted a new post on this topic. By all means, head over and take issue with what I've said there.