Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Parent Jiggernaut Follow-Up: Opting out vs. Opting In

This is a follow-up to my post from earlier today:

Some people have asked me why we don't opt our kids out of testing such as this movement encourages people to do. That is definitely under consideration. My reluctance with that is two-fold:

1) I see value in the disruptive route--there are many ways to effect change. I am grateful to have been made aware of my rights as a parent and I see value in publicizing those rights. All power to unitedoptout. But I am not a disruptor. I'm a persuader (though apparently not a very successful one if measured by actions taken after reading this blog). I'd much rather try to reason with people first, citing evidence, and then try to work something out collaboratively without being disruptive, especially if children are involved.

2) Even if I did opt my kids out of the official standardized tests (in my state of Virginia they are the SOLs), that would not change everything that leads up to the tests or everything that the tests drive. In fact, if there really were only four testing days (in 3rd grade there are four SOL tests) with four tests at the end of the school year, I would not care so much. I might not care at all. It's everything else that bothers me. I don't want to opt out of the tests themselves as much as I want to opt my children out of excessive test prep, practice and benchmark tests (which mirror the official tests), as well as out of a test-narrowed curriculum. I want to opt in to rich and meaningful curriculum, to more hands-on learning, to more inter-disciplinary studies, to field trips, to more recess, to more art, to more music, to more theater, to more PE, to more history, to more civics, to more science, to more "life" skills, to a better education.

If I am going to my children's school or even school district office to tell them as a parent that I want a richer and more meaningful curriculum, a more joyful and interesting school experience for my children, one that capitalizes on children's curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and their response is We agree but we have no control over that then that's a problem. That's a big problem. And I don't see this being solved at the root by parent trigger-type laws or by the current federal and state education policies that dictate the very practices I find wanting. If the school or districts are structured such that power is not theirs to relinquish in the first place, with no flexibility to grant educators, then how can I as a parent, without there being any real change in policy or power hierarchies, locate any real power to make or advocate for change in how and what my children are learning?

Parent Jiggernaut

As a parent who used to be in the classroom, I sometimes struggle with which perspective to think from: from that of a parent or from that of a teacher. Becoming a parent made me a much better and more understanding teacher. Conversely, strategies I used in teaching and things I learned there about human nature and interacting with children have proven invaluable to me as a parent. Interacting with other people's children, of course, is not the same thing as interacting with my own. My own children can tick me off in ways my students never could; I can have a hard time getting to that calm, clinical space with my own kids, even as I know I'd make fewer mistakes if I could get there.

So sometimes I feel conflicted when it comes to advocacy and opinions. Watching my own children develop has taught me a lot about how people learn and has challenged some of my old (teacher's) thinking. On the one hand, I have much less tolerance, for example, for constructivist approaches and for the teaching of reading strategies and skills. On the other hand, I appreciate that constructivists envision schools as meaningful, joyful, and relevant places. It breaks my heart whenever my children are driven to tears, overwhelmed by the tedium and stress they sometimes feel at school, which is in contrast to the how they joyfully think and engage in learning outside of school. I understand that reading strategies are emphasized out of a desire to equip students with the tools to be successful learners. My children enjoy their reading block even if it's unclear how much they are actually learning from it when there is not much curricular coherence to it.

So, to get to the point of this post, especially as the topic has been popular in edu-news lately, I have been thinking a lot about parent trigger laws and actions. Also, my own daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and the topic of school quality and parent activism has come up on the playground at her preschool, especially since many of her classmates also will be starting kindergarten, though unlike her, many don't have older siblings who have already been through it.

The situation in Desert Trails in Southern California, especially struck me. Some parents organized to pull a parent trigger on their neighborhood school because they felt their kids weren't learning what they were supposed to, though it sounds as if the parents were really trying to work with the district. I'm not going to get into the process there or discuss the ins and outs of what may or may not have happened there. What really struck me was what the parents wanted, why they were organizing a a parent trigger: They want smaller classes, more art, music, and other subjects beyond reading and math. The parents refer to these as "reforms" but most educators would call them essentials; most public schools and educators want these things as well.  It seems, to me at least, that it is the state that isn't providing what they want. Surely, there are other problems and I don't blame these parents for being upset. I'd be upset. But it sounds like they want the school to provide what the state doesn't have the will or means to provide.

So, if we grant parents more choice or power to turn their schools into charters, for example, is the charter going to provide what they want? Will parents be more engaged or involved? My sense is that perhaps in the short run they will be, but I'm not sure about the long run. I tend to agree with Diane Ravitch and other detractors that public schools or public spaces do not belong only to the group of people currently using them; they belong to the community, including future community members. Furthermore, once the school is turned over to private or unaccountable hands and is detached from any democratic process, the parents will have even less say. Parents Across America explained this in their statement in opposition to parent trigger-type solutions, saying that they won't ultimately result in meaningful parent engagement or voice (also relevant is their position on real parent empowerment). It does seem like parents get hooked in and then used to make a change that ultimately leaves them with little role in the new or parent-trigger-changed school. But that's ultimately what parents should be after: more of a role and more of a voice.

In my own (older) children's school, we are navigating excessive and unhealthy high-stakes testing. I am not opposed to testing but to developmentally inappropriate and high-stakes testing. It is corrupting what and how my children learn and what and how they are taught. I want my children to learn more science, social studies, the arts, PE, foreign languages, and practical skills. If I organize a group of parents to take over the school, will this change? I don't see how, not as long as the current policies stay in place. This is where we as parents need to go to central administrations, school boards, elected officials, legislators, and other decision makers. It is their policies and legislation that are eroding the quality of education my children receive; it is not the teachers or their principals. So, here I am in a tricky position. I support the school and teachers (my children have yet to have a "bad" teacher) in my community but I feel I must contest the bad practices they are forced to implement.

In my own conversations with other parents, I often hear them talk about school ratings. At the same time, they bemoan the state of the curriculum--the lack of art, music, science, social studies, unstructured play. I try, diplomatically, to remind them that school ratings (such as those in Great Schools) tend to be based on test scores. If we as parents use or value those ratings to judge schools, then that is what our schools are going to aspire to. If we rate or value a school based on the curriculum they offer (such as more art and music) and their pedagogy or instructional practices, then that is what they will aspire to (and that's what I'd argue we want them to aspire to). It's not that I don't look at the test scores because I do, but it's a matter of the context I consider them in and the judgments I make based on them.

It seems like what we need is more democracy, not less; to build sustainable, long-term parent engagement. Even though I am a relatively well-informed parent, sometimes even I don't know what parent engagement looks like or should look like. I started parenting simply thinking of all the things my struggling students were missing and built from there. Everything I knew would have helped my students do better academically and learn more, I made sure to do as a parent. That often seems to me like the greatest gift I can give my children, their teachers, and their peers. But then being involved in their schooling is another step, but how much involvement is appropriate? When help or feedback is requested from school, I do my best to answer the call. I express my displeasure at all of the high-stakes testing, I state clearly that I won't be doing any test prep at home and then I support as much as I can in a positive way what I'd like to see more of in schools. I am trying to help the art teacher get an award in the form of a big grant so that she'll bring back resources to classroom teachers. I participate and volunteer in book swaps. My husband taught an after school chess club. When surveys are sent out, I complete them. I offer to serve on long-term planning committees. I volunteer in classrooms. Are we doing too much? Too little?

While I recognize the expertise of my children's teachers and having been a teacher and given the current climate, I acknowledge the limitations and stresses they are under, I try to subvert the high-stakes testing, test prep, and narrowing of the curriculum in a positive way. But there's only so far this goes because for now none of that changes the continued unhealthy emphasis on standardized testing. It doesn't change the amount of data collection that takes place via developmentally inappropriate and misery-inducing standardized tests. It doesn't change the current realities that my children are learning in and that their teachers are teaching in. That's why I have real sympathy for people like me who choose to home school (and there are a lot where I live). I cheered Dana Goldstein's defense of public schooling versus home schooling, but I also know that it's an easy thing to defend when you don't have a child who melts down at home in tears and anger and questions of Why?!?! every time there's a benchmark, practice, or high-stakes test. (And my children do quite well on them!) Sometimes I want to give them what I see my homeschooling neighbors giving their children. What's so frustrating is that there's no good reason why public schools can't offer many of those same things.

So far, my children are high achievers and performers. Besides contributing positively, perhaps I can lead by example. If my own kids, who are are among the youngest in their class, come to school ready to learn, excel academically, and rarely miss questions on these tests; if I'm not doing test prep and I am making sure my kids have a knowledge-rich home life and I'm opposed to high stakes testing, maybe I'm on to something. If policy makers, legislators, and education reformers really wanted to empower parents, at the very least they'd they'd stop simply trying make it easier to hand over to schools to outside parties who can only pretend they know better. At the very most, they'd start listening to and acting upon what it is exactly that parents and communities envision for their children's education.

We parents must resolve to make them.

To read my follow-up post to this one, see here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Textbook Dependence

There's been lots of talk lately on textbooks (or maybe not so lately--I've been avoiding writing). First, Beverlee Jobrack's Tyranny of the Textbook: An Insider Exposes How Educational Materials Undermine Reforms was published. Next, the edu-world was all aflutter over Apple's entrance into the textbooks market. Finally, veteran textbook author and publisher Annie Keeghan offered some not-so-pretty insights into the aging, hulking industry textbooks have become.

I haven't gotten a chance to read Jobrack's work, but luckily Education Week curriculum journalist Erik Robelen and by the Fordham Institute's curriculum expert Kathleen Porter-Magee did.

I agree with Jobrack's premise as stated by Robelen that in discussions of education reform:
improving the curriculum—what actually gets taught in classrooms—is all too often left off the table. And the author, who provides an insider perspective on the world of developing and selecting curricular materials, contends that this neglect is a key obstacle to increased student learning.
Now I can't refute Jobrack's contentions, but I can speak to my opinion on textbooks, which is that they may well be inaccurate and I can only imagine that they are just slapping new labels on old content. (And this is why textbooks on i-pads will not be "revolutionary.") I also can mostly speak as a social studies teacher. When I taught strict ESOL, I didn't use one textbook in particular but various books and resources depending on what I was teaching. That was true of social studies, too, but I did lean on the textbooks more. But I think the problem with textbooks is two-fold:

1) Especially in subjects such as social studies, textbooks are over-emphasized. Sure, textbooks are useful. Especially when I teach social studies, I use them as reference books and encyclopedias. I like to have two or three sets of textbooks in the class--to check different sources but also so that students of varying reading levels can access the content. Otherwise, I have students read historical fiction and non-textbook non-fiction books, and I use articles and readings that I come across on relevant topics--from the newspaper, from periodicals. What I like about using these is that they usually reflect in some way current scholarship in certain matters, and they are what I want my students eventually to be able to read and make sense of outside of school, independently. Part of what I'm teaching students is that yes, there are facts in social studies and history, but there is also how you put together the facts, interpret them, and which facts are accepted and which are controversial and why. This leads me to the problem that. . .

2) teachers, especially at the secondary level, don't often know enough about the subjects they teach to know if the textbook is wrong or to come up with readings beyond it. When you know very little about a subject you will be teaching, if for example if you are assigned at the last minute to teach World History (as I have been), when you know much more about US History, there's going to be a lot to learn in a brief amount of time and the textbook will get leaned on more and questioned less. I won't be able to fact-check an entire textbook and nor should I have to--that's the publisher's job. And, unfortunately, these days it seems like textbooks need even more scrutiny.

Porter-Magee is right on when she says you can't just have a great curriculum and expect teachers who don't know what they're doing to implement it well. Pedagogy matters; quality of instruction matters. Nor should we just make "teacher-proof" curriculum. Where I might disagree or question Porter-Magee is when she talks about emphasizing data-driven instruction:
And so any discussion about classroom-level implementation of curriculum should include a discussion of using formal and informal assessment to track student mastery of essential content and skills, and of using the data from those assessments to really drive short- and long-term planning and instruction. This kind of data-driven instruction is essential in ensuring not only that teachers have covered essential content, but that students have actually learned it.
Implementation and assessment are vital but before they even get to the classroom (and continuing as they're there), teachers, especially at the secondary level, should be much better educated (and yes I think they should also be better trained) in the subjects they teach. Teachers should rely less on textbooks and more on other books, texts, and other sources of information. Teachers should be able to spot and to point out inacccuracies. They should help students notice diverging viewpoints or conflicting information in different sources and they should facilitate discussions about these different perspectives--their genesis and how to evaluate them. Far from making textbooks and curricula teacher-proof, teachers should be able to make sense of and judgments about the curriculum and texts they're teaching and to teach their students to do the same.

To attract people that knowledgeable and educated, we have to at least provide much better working conditions, greater professional autonomy, and better pay, but I guess I already covered that in another post.