Friday, December 30, 2011

My Year-End Post: No Matter the Reforms, No One Likes Tyranny

Education blogger/journalist Alexander Russo asked via twitter and then via his blog with Scholastic where all the smart, interesting pro-reform teacher and principal bloggers were. For now, he said the "reform critics" seemed to be dominating the conversation on-line.

Lots of people responded to this already including Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody (here and here), Shaun Johnson, Katie Osgood, Mike Klonsky, Teacher Ken, and Leonie Haimson. I'm not going to get into everything they said because I think at least some of the controversy generated by his post is due to clumsiness on his part, rather than any malice or an agenda (other than to chase down a prescribed narrative) and some misunderstanding on some of their parts. I also criticized him for using the pro- versus anti-reform labels, but I can see that sometimes using such dichotomous terms is just expedient and may not reflect a belief in them--it's important to get beyond semantics even if I personally am a stickler for them.

However, I did agree when many of the bloggers above pointed out that one reason Russo perceives that the "traditional" (a poor choice of words, for example) teacher voice winning on-line is because social media provide virtually the only forums where independent and grassroots voices get heard and can gain prominence. The neo-liberal reformers are dominating the mainstream media and have gobs and gobs of money with which to do so. This, of course, brings up a whole 'nother fascinating topic about power and the dynamic between social media, grassroots advocacy and organizing but that's for another post for another time. . .

So, I agree with that point. But mostly I think there aren't too many teacher bloggers out there independently (and for free) plugging for Students First, for example, because there aren't too many teachers who support the group of reforms that SF is pushing, either in principle or in their execution. But while most teachers and principals are pro-reform, just as Russo doesn't want to interact with an organization (haha--that guy is comically cranky), neither do independent and smart educators want to; and neither do they want to let organizations promoting superficial and short-sighted policies that often detrimentally affect their day-to-day work speak for them.

These organizations don't really represent educators or parents or students (no matter how they're named); they represent the education reform industry. That industry has a slate of reforms that it lobbies for. This, as education journalist Joy Resmovitz so astutely put it, is part of their "branding." Of course, since these reformers sincerely believe their agenda will improve education, it's probably of no consequence to them and presents no conflict of interest that the industry they've created would have the added bonus of benefiting them in the form of financial rewards and jobs.

But if you're an educator, you have to really buy into that brand to promote it. And then you have to go around marketing it, for free, to your co-workers who don't have much time to listen to sales pitches in the teachers lounge for Mark Kay or Pampered Chef-like products (teachers, you know what I'm talking about), let alone pitches for ed reform products. And no one wants to be a salesperson if they don't have to be. Furthermore, the ed reform products, I mean, solutions being proposed are not ones that come from ideas about education or teaching and learning, but rather from ideas about business and finance. If educators wanted to play Corporation or Free Markets, that's where they'd be working.

That all being said, there is a huge diversity of ideas, opinions, and approaches among educators. As I wrote about before, framing education reform as a debate between reformers and status quo defenders is reductive and contributes to misinformation. And if you actually pay attention to and listen to all of the edu-noise out there, you figure this out pretty quickly. There are lots and lots of educators who support some of the reforms, but not all of them. Even so, these people consider themselves professionals and still don't like being told what to do in their classroom by the likes of Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and Bill Gates. Lots of educators are in favor of a common curriculum (though they may have reservations about the Common Core in particular). Lots of educators are in favor of community-generated and innovative charter schools. I bet some are even in favor of vouchers. Lots of educators are in favor of a more educated and better trained teaching corps and in favor of making it harder to gain entry to the profession. Lots of educators are against strict seniority-based firings. Lots of educators want better and more useful teacher evaluations. Lots of educators think that standardized testing and data-informed instruction is useful. Lots of educators embrace technology and certain forms of virtual learning.* Lots of educators think that the teacher dismissal process should be streamlined (which is not the same thing is getting rid of due process). Lots of educators are in favor of mayoral control, or at least they were. (I would say that lots of educators support Race to the Top but it's pretty clear that only the truest of believers like Race to the Top.) And there are lots of parents and other education reform advocates and scholars who are on board with a lot of this stuff.

Journalist Natalie Hopkinson, like many, many DC parents initially backed Michelle Rhee's chancellorship, until she didn't. Teacher blogger James Boutin also initially went to DC to teach because he thought Rhee had the right idea, but after working in DCPS, he changed his mind (read here, here, here, and here). This principal did the same thing, leaving Maryland to become a principal at Hearst Elementary School in DC. He became so disillusioned he decided to sell cupcakes instead. Teacher Stephanie Black subscribes to KIPP's no excuses philosophy and teaches for DCPS. She's perfect for Russo's theory. Oh, except she quit because she didn't like how she was being forced to teach badly under the reformers (see here and here). Education writer Robert Pondiscio is no longer an NYCPS teacher, but he used to be. Guess what? He's not that into the agenda of these particular reformers even though he does support accountability and choice. Dan Brown has been very critical of Rhee-Klein-Gates reform, but he teaches at a charter school in DC, so it's probably safe to say he's pro-charter to a certain extent. Chad Sansing, a teacher at a charter school in Virginia, is very much in favor of choice, just not in the non-choice between schools that meet testing benchmarks and schools that are trying to meet testing benchmarks. Mark Anderson is very supportive of a common core curriculum (full disclosure: so I am, in theory) and probably some of the other reforms, but he's an independent thinker and a thoughtful teacher. VCU assistant professor of educational leadership Jon Becker is "bullish" on on-line education and was very critical of  a recent NEPC report on K-12 on-line education, but he's skeptical of many of the current reforms.* Christina Lordeman (speaking of whom, where is Christina? I haven't seen her around lately) is often very critical of Diane Ravitch and I imagine that she supports many of the reforms in theory, but from what I can tell she is a principled and thoughtful teacher who wants to be treated like a professional and she has also expressed some real criticisms of some of the current reforms. According to her book, even Diane Ravitch was in favor of mayoral control until fairly recently. I know of other long-time education reformers who favored mayoral control, that is until they experienced it. Even those educators who are "pro-reform" (to use Russo's label) figure out they like democracy once they are denied it. And this is just a sampling of some of the people whose ideas I enjoy listening to on a regular basis--imagine how many more there are.

Finally, I'll mention my father-in-law who has guest blogged here and who was fired via IMPACT for not tailoring his lessons to please the IMPACT gods and, basically, for having principles about his craft. He has taught AP and grade-level English for over ten years in DCPS and is known for his rigorous curriculum, preparing kids for college-level English, being interesting, and providing lots of feedback on student writing (see some parent feedback here). He was teaching in DCPS when I started there and I remember saying after not getting paid on time or properly for the second or third time that I could finally understand why some of my DCPS teachers burned out and stopped doing their jobs. Look how badly they were treated, look at how poorly the system is run, I pointed out. Joe shook his head before I could finish my thought. No, he told me, sorry, but there's no excuse for that. If you burn out, it's time to go.

Yet Joe is precisely the kind of teacher--principled, intellectual, and independent-minded--who's vulnerable to getting fired from these reformy systems, for doing their jobs as their experience and knowledge dictates them to. One of the things he was fired for was for covering the clock up in his classroom. He was losing the last ten minutes of class to kids peering at the clock and its presence was rushing and stressing everyone involved. This came to mind because Russo just blogged about how he thinks there's too many clocks in classrooms and that they're stressing people out. Joe agrees and because Joe stood by his reasonable, thoughtful decision to disobey the reformy principal's clock mandate, Joe was fired.

Now, Russo, do you get why smart teachers aren't on-line proselytizing for the likes of Stand for Children, Students First, and TFA? What educator wants to advocate for an education reform organization whose ideas include distrust for educators' professional judgement? Why would educators support education reform leaders who don't respect independent, critical thinking or listen to what the communities they serve say they want for themselves? Who wants to advocate for pressing themselves into a job not of social utility and intellectual stimulation, but of busy work and obedience? The premise that there is some group of educators just waiting for the likes of Leonie, Nancy, Anthony, John, and Ken to tone it down so that they can get busy undermining their own work is a false one. Educators and education advocates, including those just listed, are of very different minds when it comes to the fine details of teaching, learning, and reforming public education. But no one likes tyranny or plutocracy, except for tyrants and plutocrats of course.

(* = Updated content)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

When single-issue advocacy causes multiple-issue empowerment

Education journalist Joy Removits recently wrote this article on the education "reform" lobby. The article was not particularly remarkable, but I did discern a bit of pivoting on the part of some of the organizations, such as Students First, Stand for Children, and DFER (Democrats for Education Reform) Removits wrote about. In particular, they talked about being "single-issue" advocates and financially backing politicians only based on their advocacy of issues the reform lobby pushes. For example, Removits wrote,
Melton stressed that StudentsFirst is a single-issue group. "We support candidates that have positions on other issues we don't support," he said.
Now, I can see agreeing with someone on one issue even when you disagree with them on most others. I, for, example, agree with Ron Paul's position that the War on Terror and the War on Drugs have been disasters, and have resulted most detrimentally in a War on Civil Liberties and a War on Dissent. But would I go so far as to vote for Ron Paul? Would I back him financially if I worked for the ACLU? I'd really have to weigh the pros and cons overall of a potential Ron Paul presidency. For example, Paul is also opposed to most civil rights legislation, saying naively that racial discrimination is "ancient history."  Would ending the War on Drugs, aka The New Jim Crow, be better for our society and specifically for blacks, Latinos, and poor people than would keeping civil rights legislation in tact? Even then, the positions taken in his name make it clear that he should not be in any sort of position of political power. 

Even more recently,Whitney Tilson of DFER fame wrote something (h/t Alexander Russo) that pushed back on the idea of single-issue advocacy. I blogged about the limitations of his revelations in my last post. One of his basic points was that poor people aren't going to ally themselves with powerful people on school reform when the powerful are at the same time voting against other measures meant to help poor people such as housing, healthcare, and jobs. From Tilson (as he perceives poor people and/or people of color would respond):
Even if I put aside the jobs issue, and even if I believed that you were genuine in caring about the admittedly lousy schools in my community, I don’t like or trust you one bit because on every other issue, you are waging war against me and my people.  If you really gave a tinker’s damn about my community, you’d see that the issues go far beyond the schools: job training, unemployment benefits, healthcare, social services, immigration, voting rights, etc.  On EVERY one of these issues, everything you stand for is contrary to the interests of me and my people. 
As I said in my post, I think this is an astute observation. You're not going to get poor or working class people to go along with education reform if you're killing them on every other issue they care about. I would push Tilson's analysis a step further. I don't agree with many of the specific education reforms that he and those Removits wrote about do, but even if I did, I have no confidence that meaningful education reform can happen if those empowered to legislate those reforms are at the same time generally anti- certain groups of people, anti-science, and anti-intellectual.

Rick Scott, for example, wanted to drug test the urine of those who need some help from public assistance. We want to reform your schools but let us invade your privacy and question your integrity first. Or how about by supporting politicians who want to cut off health care for women, particularly for poor women? We want you to get a better education and go to college, but first we're gonna make sure your mom has no access to family planning or cancer prevention services. Also, what about being beholden to foundations funded by corporations who treat their employees and the communities they live in so ruthlessly? The wealth of the Walton family, for example, comes in part due to their ruthlessly efficient management and employee practices. We want to help your children with better education but first let us exploit you and help to sustain the awful conditions of poverty you live in. But when we look for philanthropy, we can't trust you, we'll give the money we made exploiting you to other rich people who say they want to help you. Finally, what about gay people? How can education be improved for everyone when some education reform-minded politicians don't accept gay peopleWe support better education and schools for all kids, but if you're a gay or transgender kid, you're an abomination. Will school will get better for the gay kids in that elected official's district? I don't think so.

How is education improved by supporting politicians who say climate change science is a hoax? Can positive science education reform come from people who think we should "teach the controversy," i.e. teach creationism side-by-side with evolution? What kind of social studies education are we going to get from decision makers who want to make up their own facts and de-emphasize teaching the influence of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson because he's not Christian enough for them? Some reformers think that Rick Perry's (the man who held a Christian-centric, fundamentalist prayer rally as a way to solve political problems) anti-intellectual ideas for higher education are "visionary."

When reformers see fit to hand over the reigns of a sacred, public, democratic institution to people who hate the government, how is that supposed to work out? How can these education "reformers" imagine that anti-intellectuals can have anything of substance to offer to the intellectual pursuit of education? Is getting your questionable education reforms passed really worth empowering people who don't value knowledge-based education, public or otherwise? At some point, being anti-science and anti-intellectual means you're anti-education. If you have disdain for the creation of knowledge, or for knowledge itself even, you can't really be trusted to oversee the reform of one of our society's principal mechanisms for generating and transferring knowledge.

The problem with a single-issue approach to education reform is that students don't lead single-issue lives. Democrats and neo-liberals who support decision-makers who would use their power to crush the Democratic party (through a war on unions of all stripes), who hate gay people, who deny climate change science, who support the disastrous Wars on Drugs and Terror, who don't even have the support of the saner members of their own party, who sell their states off to the highest bidders are acting irresponsibly and short-sightedly.

Do we really want to employ a pyromaniac to fix our fireplaces if it means giving him the opportunity soon thereafter to burn down our homes? When I do the calculus, I don't see children or students, public or knowledge-rich and meaningful education winning. I see homo-phobic, poverty-criminalizing, anti-intellectual, knowledge-agnostic, right-wing ideology winning and I have yet to understand why any self-described liberal or education reformer would support that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Just Because They're Poor Doesn't Make Them Saps

On Alexander Russo's This Week in Education blog, I read a really interesting e-mail written by Whitney Tilson who is a founder or president or something or other of DFER. You should read it and then read the comments.

The two main points he makes can be encapsulated in the following quotes:
But nor can we be oblivious to the negative impact on our kids when they lack the minimal resources needed to prepare them to come to school.
Yes! Glad to see this. And I agree with Tilson that no one should wait for poverty to be fixed before endeavoring to improve education.

You are exactly on target with the issue of poverty. We cannot have people vote against all of the things poor families need – jobs, housing for low and moderate income families, health care, food programs, etc. – but then say, "But I support vouchers or charter schools." To help the students who need the help the most we need both things: parent choice and programs aimed at getting people out of poverty.

I don't necessarily agree that choice and vouchers are the right reforms, but I think Tilson's analysis of ambivalence and distrust about certain political allegiances in light of rigth-wing platforms and politics beyond education is right on. I've thought the same thing myself.

There are, however, a few things that seem to be totally absent from Tilson's revelations:

1) What Robert Pondiscio said in the comments: education and education reform should be presented as a way to improve communities and not as a way to get away from them.*

2) The very real possibility that at least some of the reforms themselves are not palatable and not what at least some of the people in the communities Tilson talks about engaging want.

It's as if Tilson saying that poor people and people of color only reject the current reforms because they're top-down, brought by rich white people, and will cost them jobs. This reminds me some of what I took such issue with Richard Whitmire several months ago for saying about education reform in DC.

First of all, yes, people want change, but if people like Tilson come in and don't listen to what community leaders say is needed in particular to reform schools (and not just to help bring housing, jobs, and healthcare) and do something entirely different. This line of Tilson's is very telling:
Many in our movement have figured this out and are taking important steps to, for example, engage poor/minority parents, bypassing conflicted and sometimes corrupt community “leaders”, but much more needs to be done. 
There's an assumption that "conflicted" community leaders must automatically be by-passed, that conflictedness, in other words skepticism, is not to be heeded.

Furthermore, what about the substance of the reforms (or lack of substance)? Is Tilson assuming that poor people and people of color don't know what good education is? What if at least some of them do know or have opinions about what good education is and don't have confidence that the policies that DFER et al promote have brought or will bring it? Have Tilson et al ever considered that at least some of their ideas might be bad ones? Don't they think it's time they did? Perhaps the unpopularity of Tilson's product is not just due to how the product is being sold and to who's doing the selling. Perhaps people aren't buying what Tilson et al are selling because they're selling a junky product. Perhaps people know better.

*UPDATE: I want to push back a little against what Robert says here in his comment 
Toward that end, it might help if reformers positioned their work as a way to improve the intellectual capital and economic prospects of the neighborhoods they served.
If reformers' "work" includes promoting (or as is often the case, forcing) knowledge-free content such as the likes of Balanced Literacy, Everyday Math, and little to no teaching of any other subject, I'm not confident much "intellectual capital" will be brought back to any neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In which I nitpick on the subject of the opportunity/ achievement gap, charters, and Rhee's legacy in DC

With the release of the NAEP TUDA stats, there's been a lot of conversation swirling around achievement gaps and the efficacy of neo-liberal education reforms in urban districts. In particular, there's been some talk about how to judge Michelle Rhee's legacy, especially in light of the fact that that DC has the largest achievement gap between black and white students and one of the highest between poor and non-poor of all the cities featured in the report. Education journalists such as Alexander Russo weighed in here and Dana Goldstein offered some mostly solid analysis here.

Some folks are saying that Rhee's policies caused the gap. I don't agree with this. While Rhee's policies are no good, let's be honest: there were large educational opportunity and achievement gaps ways before Rhee came to town. Furthermore, DC has always had relatively large income inequality (but, yes, paralleling the national trend, it's gotten worse). The main industries in DC (government, lobbying, non-profits, etc) are such that the demographics in DC are unique. While there are service industry workers there are almost no blue collar workers. The middle and upper-middle class population in DC is not typical--its members are largely much more highly educated and well-traveled. I could go on--this is a very complex topic, an entire book could be written about it. But Rhee didn't cause this. She may symbolize it (the 1% making policy for the 99%, etc), but her policies didn't cause it.

One thing, though, that's been claimed by many, and implied by both Alexander Russo and Dana Goldstein is that Rhee deserves "credit" for the fact that charter school enrollment went up in the years she was there. Giving her "credit" for this makes no sense. Charter schools in DC are run completely separately from DCPS. She talked a lot about choice and charter schools but she didn't actually do anything for the charter schools while she was there. There's a lot more to the relationship between the two or the lack thereof, especially given the complex genesis and history of charter schools in DC, than has been covered.

Furthermore, I don't see how that makes Rhee et al look good if charter school enrollment went up. Did DCPS enrollment go up? Did it go up uniformly throughout the city and not just in the neighborhoods where test scores tend to be higher, where principals are left alone, and where the schools got renovated? If yes, give her credit for that. But saying that she deserves credit for charter school enrollment going up is like saying that the CEO of Coke deserves credit for more people purchasing Pepsi (and hence drinking more cola in general) because they're dis-satisfied with Coke. If the competition model (which I don't subscribe to, by the way) is supposed to make systems and schools compete for students than how can it be said that Rhee was successful on her and her similarly-minded reformers' own terms if she drove families away from DCPS and into charters. If that's the measure, then as head of DCPS, Rhee failed. She competed for and lost students.

Some might then counter, well, who cares if DCPS lost students under Rhee as long as options or "choice" expanded? As long as public schools overall, including traditional and charters, gained students? Well, okay, but then why should someone like Rhee, who is ambivalent about the existence of public, democratic institutions such as traditional public schools, be running them? How is getting someone who doesn't care in particular about neighborhood schools to run them going to help them improve?

Also, for the record, Rhee did not "streamline" the bureaucracy as Goldstein suggests in her post. As I discussed here and here, the bureaucracy actually got bigger and costlier under Rhee and Henderson. But I guess that's part of the Common Wisdom about Very Serious People that Very Serious Education Pundits are too busy and underpaid to shake themselves of. Or perhaps it's part of some misguided attempt to "balance" coverage. If the information is not accurate, if the coverage is based on assumptions rather than on facts and evidence, however, then that's not "balance," it's misinformation.

Yes, Michelle Rhee did lots wrong and surely she did some things right. But education reform skeptics, fans, and journalists alike should find out what those things actually are first and then examine them in light of the NAEP scores and other data and outcomes. Sheesh.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Importance of Being Honest (in ed reform conversations)

I have a few follow-ups to offer and a few loose ends to tie up. Fortunately, for the sake of coherent (well, maybe) blogging, they all tie together.

1) As a follow-up to my recent post on parent engagement, parent accountability, and charter schools, I wanted to add that I think one way to solve the problem of charter schools keeping students out because their parents won't fulfill requirements of the school would be if charter schools worked under the umbrella of the district where they were located. What if we took the concept of "competition" between schools out and replaced it with "collaboration" among schools? If the charters and the traditional schools worked together to find the place school placement for kids? Either working with families or in the case of parents-in-absentia, teachers, counselors, and principals could recommend certain students to certain charter schools or there could be "education placement" counselors assigned to students who don't have parent advocates.

Of course, this would pose a bit of a funding problem but not if there was more sharing of resources (though not co-locations--as has been demonstrated in New York City, those are a bad idea). We would also have to minimize top-down mandates and bureaucratic red tape for ALL schools. Accountability schemes that are degrading to traditional/neighborhood schools are going to be just as degrading to charter schools that are evaluated by the same standards.

Another potential problem is that (initially, at least) the very reason for charter schools in DC, for example, is that DCPS was so terribly run--educators, social service providers, and parents wanted to free themselves of the DCPS administration. I was a bit put off recently when I read one tweeter arguing to another that, "Schools and teachers don't make kids drop out." While I believe we have much more a problem of systems rather than of individuals, and it's not always the case, poor schools and teachers do in some cases drive kids and families out. Some kids do have bad experiences in some schools and with some certain teachers and in certain systems. There was a real need for change and reform in some of those systems, let's not kid ourselves. Now, DCPS continues to be terribly run (only now its employees have Ivy League degrees and wear J.Crew, so people assume otherwise) but it's also more top-down than ever and ideological, to boot. I can't see those charter school people who are dedicated to rich and appropriate education wanting anything to do with that, either.

2) Which leads me to this. The DC Public Charter School Board recently employed a new ratings system to rate their schools, the idea being that the lowest-performing schools would be closed based on those ratings. Okay, so accountability for charter schools via a sort-of jury of their peers is a good thing. The problem as I see it is what they're being rated on. From The Examiner article:
Schools are ranked based on factors such as performance on state exams, attendance, re-enrollment rates, and attention to critical grades. In the elementary and middle schools, a school's year-to-year improvement accounts for the lion's share of the rating at 40 percent.
There is no consideration of curriculum, pedagogy, or instruction, or of what is actually being taught or what is actually happening in classrooms. People tell me this rating system is better and more comprehensive than what DCPS uses, but if it doesn't evaluate schools on the quality of education being offered, I don't see how it's valuable. Our schools will be what we hold them accountable for.*

3) Which leads me to this. The city-by-city report of NAEP scores is out and guess what: DC has the largest achievement gap between black and white students than any other urban center in the report. Michael Casserly said this to explain the gap:

The District’s racial gap is really an income divide, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the largest urban school systems.“You’ve got relatively more well-to-do whites in Upper Northwest quadrants, particularly Ward 3, which score higher than white students nationally and you’re comparing it with poor, African American students largely in Wards 7 and 8,” Casserly said. “There are extreme income disparities.”

I have great sympathy for that and he's right on about the demographic differences between say Cleveland and DC. I appreciate this nuanced and informed explanation. How refreshing! But isn't this what some ed reform skeptics have been saying all along and haven't they oft been shouted down by cries of, "Poverty is not destiny!" "Poverty is not an excuse!" Casserly represents many school reformer superintendents (such as Chancellor Henderson of DCPS). Is this an admittance that income inequality and poverty can make not an insignificant impact on standardized test scores and academic achievement?

4) Which leads me to this. In response to DC parent Natalie Hopkinson's School Choice op-ed, Fordham Institute's Michael Petrilli chalks up the dearth of choice in DC to gentrification; there used to be a lot more spots for out-of-boundary students in high-performing schools west of the park but now those are being occupied by more affluent (and often white) kids who live in boundary. He is not wrong about this. But he leaves two important things out:
A) There was and is preferential treatment for Ward 3 schools. The facilities funding has been greater for Ward 3 schools as has been the responsiveness to Ward 3 communities. One of my sources tells me it's hard to get folks from DCPS central administration to even attend meetings in schools east of the Park.
B) It's very hard to replicate for all kids in DC what charter schools in DC do when: i) By law, charter schools must be city-wide and can not give preference to neighborhood kids and ii) Some charter schools don't serve kids, for example, with special needs or don't serve kids, for example, whose parents don't sign contracts or agreements of commitment. And private schools that accept vouchers can't be forced to accept (and retain) students for the same reasons. It's not reasonable to expect that expanding charters and vouchers will help neighborhood kids when those schools don't necessarily have to (or mean to) serve neighborhood kids.

Of course, many systems were in need of reform. Of course not every school can serve the needs of all kids. A conversation about the values of charter schools and choice is one worth having. What are the pros and cons of different policies? Of different systemic models? How have they worked in in the past? In other districts? In other countries? What will do the most kids the greatest good? What are the implications of such policies on our democracy?

But there can be no conversation about these things if the participants aren't being honest about all of the factors, including mistakes and shortcomings. I'm all for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But dishonesty, inaccuracy, and hypocrisy are the enemies of them both.

*UPDATE I: Reading tweets from @teacherken and @samchaltain of Pasi Sahlberg's talk at the Finnish Embassy in DC last night, I was reminded that "responsibility" is a much better term than "accountability" in this context as in, we should "Prioritize collective responsibility not individual accountability."

Monday, December 5, 2011

School "Reform" in DC: Is the Problem Choice or What Compels Families to Choose?

After reading the New York times op-ed on school choice in DC, I asked some folks close to what's happening in education there for their thoughts. Mary Levy sent me what is written below and (with her permission), I decided to use it as a guest post. Mary Levy has analyzed DC Public School staffing, budget and expenditures, and monitored the progress of education reform for thirty years. She is a major source for fiscal, statistical and general information on DCPS for the media, government officials and non-profit, business and civic groups. She directed the Public Education Reform Project at the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs for 19 years, during which she played a major role in developing the District of Columbia’s school funding systems, wrote numerous reports on DCPS, and participated in every major reform planning initiative. Previously, in private practice with Rauh, Lichtman, Levy & Turner, she did civil litigation in civil rights, labor law, and school finance, including major litigations in New York  and Maryland.
I share Natalie Hopkinson’s frustration, as expressed in an op-ed in today's New York Times and have for a long time. Unfortunately, some of her facts are wrong (Has the New York Times now dispensed with fact checkers?) Furthermore, the larger problem in the District isn't choice per se, but why families feel compelled to exercise choice. 
To address some of the inaccuracies, what Congress has done is little compared to the work of DC's own elected officials. In 1995 Congress produced only the charter law and there was nothing about an option to transfer. The DC Council at the same time separately enacted a parallel law. Congress never did a choice policy for DC. Vouchers, which came later, were in fact, much to the chagrin of some of us, endorsed by our elected officials, including the Mayor, the Council Chair, and the President of the Board of Education. As for performance on tests, charter schools in DC on average have test scores somewhat higher than DCPS schools, though not by a lot. As to the closure of schools whose students struggle the most, the schools that then Chancellor Rhee closed on the whole actually had higher test scores than the schools to which their students were later sent; they were also more likely to have made Adequate Yearly Progress. And a reminder: Rhee was not appointed by Congress but by the popularly elected Mayor Fenty.
The argument about choice has been going on at least since I become involved in DCPS in the mid-1970s and probably before that. Many school activists from east of Rock Creek Park argued passionately against out-of-boundary placements, even when they were (allegedly) based on need. The assumption is that if the government forces people to stay in neighborhood schools, the parents will stay and make the schools be good. The result here has not been so felicitous--those with the means, or the moxie to get outside help, move to the suburbs or pay for low-cost independent or parochial schools. In fact, part of charter growth is from those schools, rather than from DCPS. I have watched over thirty years while determined parents tried to make their neighborhood schools better--and were mostly rebuffed or ignored. Even west of the Park, where my children attended DC Public Schools, we spent the majority of our efforts trying to neutralize the damage done by the DCPS administration. Still, we were more successful than those east of the Park. 
With the appointment of Michelle Rhee and the end of any avenue for meaningful parent involvement or influence, the situation is even worse. The schools west of the Park and some in gentrified Capitol Hill are favored, and DCPS administration is more authoritarian and unresponsive than ever to the rest. It is also elitist, and more uninformed, more unstable, more arbitrary, and less competent than before the mayoral takeover--a distinctly dubious achievement, since the situation was pretty bad before. That’s why so many people--both families and good staff--leave.
Now our elected officials and their appointees are threatening to close more neighborhood schools and bring in outside charter operators. Currently, charter schools in DC are city-wide by law and may not give preference to neighborhood children. Many current DC charter schools are local products, started by DCPS parents, teachers, principals, and social service providers who couldn’t take any more of DCPS. They’re going to be under threat too--because of the latest “reform” panacea, closing schools in order to bring in new operators and their programs with no little or no evidence of effectiveness, and new teachers and principals, many poorly prepared and foreign to communities here. I see the advent of charter school chains as trading a remote DCPS bureaucracy for a remote private bureaucracy located elsewhere in the country. 
In the old days there was a lot more out-of-boundary space in the schools west of the Park; in addition, though few people realized it, there was a lot of out-of-boundary placement within neighborhoods and wards. Now, due to demographic change and favorable treatment, there is not much out-of-boundary space in schools west of the Park, so we could get a test of the parents-can-make-their-neighborhood-schools-good proposition east of the Park. But only if the schools stay open and only if the parents stay. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching Quality Series Part V: Parental Engagement

It's generally true that the more that parents are involved in their children's education, the more academically successful their children will be and the more effective the teachers will (at least appear to) be. I largely agree with Thomas Friedman's take on this.

That being said, the seemingly growing "parent accountability" movement troubles me. Moreover, the strategies (which are in many cases de facto requirements) some charter schools are using to engage parents are in some cases are worth emulating but in others amount to punishing kids for the failures of their parents.

Before I continue, I must acknowledge that I have almost exclusively taught students with parents who weren't very involved in their education, despite my varied efforts, and so some of my thinking on this may be colored by a certain fatalism. The parents could have been less involved because I taught secondary school and parents often think of this as a time to step back. It could have been because the parents worked very long hours and simply didn't have the time be involved. It could have been because I taught mostly the children of immigrants, whose parents sometimes cede almost all education authority to schools and teachers, or whose parents want to be more involved but don't feel included in the school community. Also, in some cases, these parents expect their older children, especially the males, to be at least partial bread-winners, treating them more like adults. Alas, frankly, a handful of parents simply didn't seem to care.

Now, in my mind, a lack of involvement doesn't necessarily translate to a lack of support. If nothing else, being supportive means doing an adequate job at home, as a parent and as such: sending your kids to school prepared to learn, adequately feeding and housing your children, making sure they have a quiet place to study, and encouraging them to read and study. For me, as a teacher, such support would be more than enough.

That all being said, just because parents aren't much involved or supportive, doesn't mean in any way that teachers and schools shouldn't work actively work to engage, involve, and get input from parents; they absolutely should. However, if such outreach fails, teachers must still keep in mind that their job is to educate their students, regardless of parent involvement. Students should not be punished because of their parents' lack on involvement. At the bare minimum, the parents should parent and the teacher and school should educate. And when the parent fails to parent adequately, well, schools are still responsible to educate those children students as best they can.

Which leads me to parent accountability. I've noticed among some of the blogs I follow, some support of the concept of parent accountability. Now, these links are pretty old (yes, it takes me a loooong time to get around to finishing many of my posts), which I hope means the idea is losing traction, but in case it doesn't. . .

Though he recently agreed with Friedman's softer take, this past summer, Ed Week blogger and former teacher Walt Gardner expressed a bit of a harder line on parent accountability, saying:
Yet there is a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon. According to The New York Times, legislators in some states have introduced bills holding parents responsible for their children's performance and behavior ("Whose Failing Grade Is It?", May 21). Whether these bills ever become law is another matter, but at least they signal a possible shift in the accountability movement.
An American Propsect blogger also threw her hands up, saying (albeit at the end of an otherwise very good post about evaluating teachers),
On a final note, I wonder if the day will ever come when we legislate or evaluate parenting as part of the performance of children. It may be an unfair intrusion of the state into the home, but it's rare to see improvement and advancement in children if it doesn't come from encouraging or demanding parents. This is the "x" in the education equation, and until we find a way to solve for it, no answer will ever truly be accurate.
This post on The Answer Sheet by is by Catherine Durkin Robinson who is the founder and president of a group called National Coalition for Accountable Parenting, which promotes parent accountability measures, including fines, jail time, mandated parenting classes, school-issued parent report cards, and financially rewarding "good" parents. Yikes. I'm not able to chose even one block from this piece as the whole thing is so chock full of terrible recommendations. I strongly suggest you read it for yourself. I'm telling you, the Tea Party couldn't make this stuff up.

Many states are considering fining parents for their children's truancy. In West Virginia, legislators proposed a bill that would revoke parents' driving licenses due to truancy and tardiness of their children. It's unclear to me how fining parents who are likely already struggling financially or taking away a means to get their children to school is supposed to help their children go to and succeed in school.

To me, these example of parent accountability via legislation is just spreading bad policy pain. I don't want to be held accountable for things that are beyond my control, but I also don't want parents and students to be held accountable for things beyond their control. The solution is not to transfer draconian and unreasonable demands from teachers onto parents (or even unto principals), to find new teams to play the blame game; the right thing to do is to do away with the concept altogether. As my father always told me growing up (and as I'm fond of declaring in these education reform conversations): Two wrongs don't make a right. We don't need a war on bad parents; we need a society and government that supports families, especially ones that are struggling. Also, do we really need to criminalize more things in our society? I really don't think so.

Some reformers, for example, Peter Meyer of Fordham, makes the case that good schools will make good parents. He posited in an earlier post that charters are superior to neighborhood schools because they better educate kids and they get better results. He said that KIPP, for example, creates motivated parents rather than merely attracting them because the type of education KIPP offers is a motivator. I tried to discuss the finer points of this with him (for one it's very hard to measure motivation) but didn't get very far.

Though people like Meyer do have a point that KIPP may well "motivate" parents simply by offering a solid education, this logic is ultimately faulty. I, as a neighborhood school classroom teacher, can promise and offer a rigorous and engaging curriculum, but I can't say that students can only remain in my class if their parents do their homework with them each night. That would be punishing my students for the behavior or actions of their parents. That's not fair to the students. Also, I just really couldn't do that.

I am responsible for communicating and being available to all parents, but if the parents don't do their part, I still have to treat that student the same as the one whose parent does meet me halfway. I need to promise my students best and most appropriate pedagogical practices and a rich and meaningful curriculum. If the parents get more on board because of that, so be it, but my duty is primarily to their children, not to them. Likewise, as a teacher I learned to assume nothing about my students' home life, to give only homework that they could do on their own. Any bigger projects that required supplies or computers or extra help we worked on in class. Otherwise, I would be rewarding students who had more resources and more available and educated parents and punishing those who didn't.

KIPP, HSA, and other charters can exclude kids because of their parent won't get involved. They can counsel them out if the kid hava behavior issues or special needs. I don't think KIPP denies this and this post isn't meant to explore any ethical dilemma inherent in that, only to say that it's not fair to compare performance of the two or claim that charters like KIPP are doing a better job with the same population. Such schools can openly exclude or expel or punish kids for their parents' lack of involvement, while traditional public schools can't. This is a form of parent accountability that ultimately holds students responsible.

We should work harder to engage and inform parents at our traditional public schools and to offer better education, and we shouldn't get rid of all charters--they're not without value. But if we really want to put the most vulnerable students first, we should focus our education reform efforts on strengthening the neighborhood schools that are responsible for educating them regardless of their parents' commitment to their education. We should strengthen our outreach to parents, or at least, not diminish it. And when parents can't for whatever reason be adequate parents, making their lives even more difficult via parent accountability schemes is not going to help and will ultimately, I fear, punish the children we're trying to help in the first place.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's the substance & the stress (not the salary), stupid.

As some of you know, I am starting to look for, ahem, a job, including positions that would put me back in the classroom. The position of "unpaid writer" isn't exactly putting food on the table and I'm starting to feel antsy writing so much about education without actually doing much about education. Reading over and updating my teaching resume, I am reminded of former students, colleagues, schools, and yes, curriculum. I am reminded of how much I enjoy teaching, for teaching itself but also for the content I got to ponder. I graduated at the top of my class in high school and went to an elite college. I'm "the type" many education reformers talk of attracting to teaching and, initially, attracted I was, but given what teaching has become in many cases, I am somewhat reluctant to go back.

The first reason is the working conditions. While I agree teachers are underpaid and I appreciate Secretary Duncan's strident acknowledgement of this, I would do the work at the current salaries if the working conditions made the job more manageable: if I knew classes would be reasonably and appropriately sized; if I were given adequate time for planning, development, collaboration, and frankly, bathroom breaks; and if I knew the school where I might work would be fully staffed with content teachers, a librarian, a nurse, a social worker, enough administrators, etc. If I knew I could do an adequate job in a 40-hour week (obviously, it would be more some weeks and a bit less during others and yes, the work would always be on my mind), I might never have taken the break I did in the first place. I can't work the punishing hours because I have my own children to raise. And I'm in favor to the idea of changing compensation systems to reflect the different roles and demands of different teaching jobs. If there are teachers out there who have the space in their life and desire to take on more work and responsibilities than I can, I think they should be paid more. I would be happy to take on a lesser teaching position for less money than a harder working colleague if it meant I could be in the classroom again and still be the parent I want to be. Unfortunately, it became clear to me that I had to choose.

Second of all, I was attracted to teaching because it's intellectual, interesting, stimulating, creative, and socially useful. Well, at least it should be. As Diana Senechal put it in this comment:
The McKinsey researchers examined teacher recruitment and retention in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea. They found many factors that make teaching an attractive profession in those countries: salary, job security, autonomy and trust, cultural respect, and more. Given their own findings, it’s odd that they or anyone would conclude that financial incentives should reign supreme. And there were things they should have investigated but didn’t–for instance, the intellectual and spiritual appeal of the profession.  
Look at the talented people in professions where the pay is decent but not stellar–the arts, humanities, teaching, scholarship, nonprofits, journalism, and more. What brings people to these professions? Not incompetence, but interest. The work has substance.  
But when the substance is driven out, when the work turns into busywork, people turn to professions that offer the combination of qualities that they seek.
Yes, the work has substance. Or it did. Or it should. Of course teaching is going to have some busy work--all jobs do. Sometimes I even look forward to the busy work as it gives me a break from the harder tasks of thinking, evaluating, planning. Of course, there are going to be some tasks I enjoy more than others. Reading up on the Bubonic Plague, planning how my students will learn about it for a world history class, and then assessing what the students have learned counts as enjoyable. Figuring out how to teach the standardized reading test to my world history students and doing a technocratic version of reading tea leaves, i.e., charting who got the "main idea" and "context clues" questions wrong on said standardized tests is not. And when the job starts to become mostly useless, fruitless busy work and mostly teaching vapid curriculum, that's when I'd rather work as a self-employed, unpaid writer and blogger or work at something less demanding that would still save time and energy for writing.

As Nancy Flanagan put it in her typically thoughtful way,
Good teaching is not about classroom rules, cute videos, raising test scores, cool field experiences or unions. It's about relationships, mastery, analysis, persistence, diagnosis and continuous reflection. It's complex, layered intellectual work. And it happens in hundreds of thousands of "regular" classrooms, every day.
Yes, it's complex, layered, challenging, and intellectual work with so many decisions to make at almost every turn. This is primarily why I want to do it. Okay, so the pay isn't great, but when you take away the substance of it, I no longer even enjoy the work and I don't want to do it. I'd rather do something mindless (wait tables, bar tend, or be someone's personal assistant) where I won't have to go against my principles.

As teacher James Boutin describes here (and again here), at some point in my teaching career, I began to feel like a bureaucrat:
During a visit I made to a private school in Denver last November, one of the teachers there confided in me that he moved out of public education because he didn't want to be a bureaucrat. The comment struck me. I'd never thought of myself as a bureaucrat before, but he's right - I am.
Yes, there's certainly more room for me to be more data-informed and consider the values of a technocratic approach. But if that's what I wanted to do, I'd go be a bureaucrat or a technocrat. If I wanted to teach test prep, I'd go work for Kaplan. That's not what I see as the primary role of a classroom teacher. As James further demonstrates in this must-read series, the data-driven dimension of teaching has gotten out of hand and has become a huge waste of time and resources for educators and students alike. Moreover, as I was engaged in it and was forced to make ill-advised curricular choices, I realized that such tasks weren't helping my students learn or improving my teaching, but were fueling political point-scoring and sustaining the education reform industry.

So thanks, Arne Duncan, for saying teachers should be paid more and thanks for your attempts at debunking flawed research that states otherwise. For a next step, consider advocating against acceptance of the "new normal" that translates to terrible working conditions for teachers and principals and terrible learning conditions for students. And then consider how you're going to attract more serious college and graduate school students to the profession if the work you're asking them to do lacks substance and insults their intelligence and, eventually, expertise. Finally, consider that if the most educated among us don't want to do to the work because it's bankrupt of creativity, intellectual exercise, meaning, and substance, then the education our students are going to be getting will hardly be rich, meaningful, and relevant. Think about how many of our best and brightest would rather get paid poverty wages working as adjunct professors and journalists than teach in the classrooms your and your predecessors' policies are molding.

Perhaps this isn't the best post to put out there as I apply for teaching jobs, but then again, I'm not going to lie or pretend. I'm going to do my best to be a team player and to be open to the advantages of a more quantitatively- or data-based approach to teaching. But I'm not going to give up my principles or knowingly engage in educational malpractice. Frankly, I'd rather scrub floors.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Defense of Flipping the Classroom & the Lecture

There's been a lot lately about "flipping the classroom," a teaching method where students are to view a lecture at home --ostensibly on-line--of their teacher presenting key concepts while saving doing harder and trickier homework-type assignments for in class. This idea appeals to me and I've been somewhat surprised that so many other education peeps out there whom I follow don't seem as enamored. Not only are they disparaging of the idea, but they seem to think "lecture" is synonymous with torture.

Before I begin I want to offer two caveats. First, the access problem is no small one and if not satisfactorily solved, could easily be a deal breaker. Second, I am envisioning this for older students, not necessarily for younger ones. As I've written about before, considerations of grade, age, and subject are very important in any conversation about teaching and learning.

Now, I wouldn't flip the classroom all of the time (getting stuck in one practice or approach is never a good idea) or get rid of outside-of-class readings and I wouldn't say it's going to "transform education" (puh-lease), nor would I call it a silver bullet method (don't believe in silver bullets), but, again, access issues aside, what's not to like?

As a teacher, and this was partly because I generally taught students who didn't have a lot of support at home (though these same students would lack access to technology, as well), when I assigned more challenging reading, projects, papers, and essays, I had them do a lot of the work in class anyway because that's when they needed guidance the most. I saved easier reading assignments and exercises that involved practicing or analyzing what students had already learned for homework.

Other aspects of flipping the classroom that excite me: Teachers can record their lectures a few times until they get it just right and then maintain a video library, if you will, of these presentations. Teachers can share and exchange video clips with one another. Students can have access to the library of them and can view each presentation as many times as they need to. They can access the library anywhere, without having to lug a textbook with them, and unlike a textbook, it's a living source of information. The teacher can get feedback on it and alter it easily if necessary without having to send it back to the publisher; students can leave comments or questions beneath the video. For someone who can't even upload digital photos from camera to laptop without assistance, I sound pretty excited about this, don't I?

During discussions of "flipping the classroom" I have been disturbed (and this has long bothered me) by how many of my fellow educators, bloggers, and commentators use "lecture" as if it's a bad word, dismissing it as an instructional technique almost out of hand. Flipping the classroom is just another form of lecturing! Lecture?!? You can't lecture the children! Heaven forbid. Lecturing is baaaaad. Well, I disagree.

To me, the problem isn't giving lectures per se, but rather with how and when they're done. Lectures come in all shapes and sizes. Certainly, lectures can be monotonous and boring, but they can also be lively, creative, interactive. So, there are good lectures and bad lectures, and there are times, places, and audiences for lecturing. Some audiences and topics require shorter lectures and some longer. When you go to hear Alfie Kohn, Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, or Jonathan Kozol speak, you're listening to a lecture. Listening to a news report? That's a lecture. TED talk? Lecture. Author reading? That, too, is a lecture.

When I was in ed school (to read some of my thoughts on ed schools, read this post and this comment I made on the same post), I learned that the lecture was one way to present information, or teaching methodology, but lecturing was definitely frowned upon. (As you can imagine, I especially loved being lectured on how it was bad to lecture.) When I was student teaching high school US Government, I did everything but lecture. Finally, as I was gathering feedback, which I did often (come to think of it, much more often than I did as a regular classroom teacher. Why was that? Adding that to my list of things to change when I go back to the classroom) the students were growing frustrated and unresponsive. So we stopped to talk about it. One student hesitated but then said, "Look, Ms. Levy, you're asking us to work together and put together presentations on topics we don't really know anything about. We need you to teach us about them first, to tell us about them. You're the teacher--you're supposed to know about these things." I looked around and saw the rest of the class nodding in agreement. So, for the rest of my time, I lectured more, not all of the time, but more often than I had been. On the day when my university adviser and supervisor came to observe me, I happened to have a lecture planned. In our debriefing, she asked me, and I knew this was coming, what I could have done differently besides, "you know, just standing up there and lecturing." I explained to her that I had been doing all of the other stuff but that the students had told me to lecture more. She raised her eyebrows and said, "Huh. Interesting." To her credit, she didn't evaluate me negatively on this (she actually was a fantastic teacher and adviser).

The following summer, when I started my first teaching job (and I wrote about this particular class before here) I taught tenth grade English. If I recall correctly, we spent about one quarter of the class explicitly on writing. On one piece I decided to have students do peer editing. This, I had been told, was a great thing to do, but it was a disaster. The students really got into it and tried their damndest but it wasn't working; they weren't properly editing one another's work. The straw that broke the camel's back was when as I was circulating, I overheard two students arguing heatedly about a rule of punctuation (awesome!) But they were both wrong (arrgghh!) Nobody was learning anything and worse, the students were reinforcing bad habits and giving one another terrible advice.

Since then, I've learned to assess what students already know or have been successfully taught before expecting them to "teach one another" or "learn cooperatively." For example, after teaching lessons on how to give constructive and diplomatic feedback, I have students give one another feedback on what they take away from or hear in another student's piece or suggest questions they think might be left unanswered. However, I avoid peer editing or advice that involves peers giving advice on how to write or explain rules of grammar when they don't know them themselves. That, ahem, is my job.

Which leads me to another problem I have with privileging group work or cooperative learning over direct instruction or lecturing. I've seen it as an excuse to be lazy and I've seen it done wrong. Here kids, you do this. You're responsible for your own learning now. Go forth and teach yourselves. I'll sit back and do nothing. Of course, students should certainly be responsible for their work and learning but they need some help and guidance along the way. Of course, instruction beyond direct presentation or lecturing has its place, but it's not an anti-dote to poor lecturing.

I will end this with some much more articulate and organized thoughts on the subject of group work from Diana Senechal. As usual, she says exactly what I'd like to say myself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Education Films Series V: American Teacher

There are two ways to look at American Teacher, the recently released documentary by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari:

1) If you don't know much about public education and school reform, then American Teacher is a well-made film which very poignantly and realistically portrays what it is to live the life of a teacher. Everyone agrees that teachers are under-paid and undervalued (well, almost everyone). After seeing this film, the public will be more aware of this.

2) If you are steeped in public education and school reform, then American Teacher is a well-made film which very poignantly and realistically portrays what it is to live the life of a teacher. Everyone agrees that teachers are under-paid and undervalued. However, it will drive you nuts that the film skips over the wild disagreements between various educators, education scholars, and education reformers on how to increase compensation for America's teachers. The film features the ideas of Linda Darling-Hammmond, Eric Hanushek, and Jason Kamras (of DCPS) as if they were all on the same page and as if the research on merit pay, VAM, and economic predictor models were uncontroversial in education reform debates.

While I still hope lots of people see it, I think it would have been better if the film makers had let the vignettes speak for themselves, alone, if they trusted the viewers to come away with their own thoughts about and reactions to education policy. The narratives and stories were so compelling and so complex, it was a shame to have them mixed in with such a confusing and shallow presentation of policy ideas.

If I am not making a clear case for what the film's flaws were, Dana Goldstein absolutely does in her review.

One personal upside to my watching American Teacher, poorly done aspects and all: Being so steeped in education and education reform topics, I was reminded to be much more skeptical of simplistic accounts from other policy topics of interest but about which I know considerably less than I do about education, even if it's coming from people and organizations I respect.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Will Flat NAEP Reading Scores Mean More Flat Reading Instruction?

At first I was annoyed with Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Blog for criticizing people for things they hadn't yet said. Speaking of the NAEP, he predicted, "People on all 'sides' will interpret the results favorably no matter how they turn out." But, he was right.

The results in my state of Virginia, were reported in The Richmond Times-Dispatch as follows
Virginia's fourth- and eighth-graders perform better in reading and mathematics than their peers nationwide, but less than two-fifths have a solid grasp of reading and less than half have a solid grasp of math. . . . In math, 40 percent of Virginia eighth-graders achieved proficient scores in 2011, up from 36 percent in 2009, according to the report. Forty-six percent of fourth-graders performed at the proficient level, compared to 43 percent in 2009.
According to VA DOE spokesman Charles Pyle, in short, Virginia students did relatively well nationally, but there's much room for improvement, especially in reading:
A lack of significant improvement in Virginia's eighth-grade NAEP reading scores over the last couple testing cycles as well as on state achievement tests has informed state efforts to pursue more rigorous standards in the subject, Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. The new reading standards will take effect in 2012-13.
Oh dear. "More rigorous standards in reading"? Aren't they already "rigorous" enough? Let me enter the fray and tell you why I think reading scores are unimpressive in Virginia and flat nationally: Because in the (albeit, well-intentioned) mania to make American kids better readers, we're spending overwhelming amounts of time teaching reading as a subject, as a skill, at the expense of teaching knowledge of other subjects such as science, social studies, foreign language, art, music, PE, theater, etc.

Yes, my children spend more time on math than on other subjects, but that doesn't bother me nearly as much. Now, I don't know much about teaching math but from what I can tell from the elementary math curriculum used in the Virginia county where my kids attend school and from what I can tell from the work they bring home, yes, they are learning different strategies to solve math problems, but they are also learning math facts.

There is such a thing as math strategies. There is such a thing as mastering the mechanics of reading, which is essentially decoding and there is such a thing as reading strategies, but they aren't nearly as useful or applicable as math strategies and needn't be taught nearly to the extent that they are. There is such a thing as math facts. But there is no such thing as reading facts; there's just facts, background knowledge, and vocabulary, the more of which one knows, the better of a reader that one will be.

On a series of posts on Eduwonk between Eric Hanushek and Diane Ravitch about Hanushek's tiresome silver bullet solution of firing the bottom 5-10% of teachers based on standardized test scores (yes, teachers who don't do their jobs or who do them poorly should be removed, but I have no confidence that Hanushek's handwaving gimmickry will achieve that), superb edu-thinker Diana Senechal commented that:
We talk so much about achievement but do not adequately address the question “achievement of what?” This explains, in part, why “literacy” scores are much more stubborn and difficult to raise than math scores. There is no such subject as literacy, and we are spinning our wheels trying to teach it. There is literature, grammar, rhetoric, composition. Teach those things, and you will see some gains. (Math curricula are far from perfect in this country–but at least, in comparison with literacy curricula, they have some sort of substance and sequence.)
Exactly. Beyond teaching decoding and some limited reading strategies, if we want our children to be stronger readers, we need to teach them content (which yes, includes language arts as just outlined by Diana).

While Jeff Bryant did well to point out that NAEP shouldn't be looked at as a report card per se and "Nation At Risk" co-author James Harvey highlighted some short comings of NAEP as an assessment, I still fear the influence of these NAEP results over instruction and curriculum decisions. I worry that with NAEP reading scores being "flat," that educators and reformers will take an even more draconian and ill-informed approach, and call for beefing up reading standards and spending even more time on teaching reading and even less on everything else. For example, in a recent essay in Education Week unrelated to the NAEP release of NAEP results, Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of District 202 in Evanston, Illinois, called for just that:
Reading is the gateway to all learning. Literacy must be addressed in every classroom, every day—reading strategies must be an integral part of history class and math class and of physical and technical education. At ETHS, teachers receive training to help them implement literacy-learning strategies in everything from history and math to physical education.
Certainly, all public school teachers in America should be prepared to work with and help struggling readers, but do we really need kids in PE, math, and history to learn reading strategies? What will that serve other than teaching our kids to know less about PE, math, and history (and every other subject) than they already do. Yes, reading is a tool to learn content--indeed, it's a "gateway to learning"--but learning content is the gateway to becoming a stronger reader and more educated in general.

Matthew Di Carlo's prediction was right on. Let's hope for the education of our children that mine isn't.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Remake the university? How about we understand its purpose first.

Today's piece is a guest post by Michael Lopez. Michael is a few of my favorite things: an attorney-philosopher-graduate student-educator. He previously guest posted here on our shared alma mater and he also guest posts at Joanne Jacob's blog, Linking and Thinking on Education. His own blog is Highered Intelligence.

"But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution." -CK Chesterton.

Preliminarily, I'd like to thank Rachel for inviting me to guest-blog here once more. I've immense respect for her education writing and am honored to be a part of it. She's asked me to write a "response" to this article  in The New Republic about Rick Perry's "higher education vision." The author of the piece is Kevin Carey, the policy director of Education Sector, a DC think tank. And he apparently thinks that Rick Perry has great ideas for the university. So let's do two things up front (besides reading the article): let's identify Perry's ideas, and identify why Carey thinks they're so great.

The article itself provides a link to Perry's "7 Solutions". Carey also provides this brief summary of the relevant steps:
Taken together, the seven solutions are remarkably student-friendly. Four of them focus on improving the quality of university teaching by developing new methods of evaluating teaching performance, tying tenure to success in the classroom, separating the teaching and research functions within university budgets, and using teaching budgets to reward professors who excel at helping students learn. The fifth solution would give prospective students choosing colleges more information about things like class size, graduation rates, and earnings in the job market after graduation. The sixth would make state higher education subsidies more student-focused, and the seventh would shift university accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes.
So what's so wonderful about these efforts on Carey's account? Well, the long and the short of it is that both Carey and Perry share a vision of the role of the university in our society, a vision that has quite a grip on our collective consciousness these days. That vision has a few assumptions behind it: (1) that the role of the university is primarily economic; (2) that the university is part of the "social assembly line" that our elementary and high schools have become in which institutions produce citizens something in the way a screw machine turns out screws; and, (3) that college benefits (or should benefit) everyone who attends, and, specifically, does so through advancing their career prospects.

We can see these assumptions at play throughout Carey's article. For example:
A landmark study of college student learning published earlier this year by the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa of NYU and the University of Virginia found that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students, and persistent or growing [race- and income-based] inequalities over time.” Fixing this problem ought to be a bipartisan concern.
That Carey assumes that these findings "should" be a universal concern convinces me that he doesn't even entertain two notions: (1) that university might not actually have as its mission teaching everyone equally; and, (2) that the university may not be a suitable a tool for eliminating at least some race- and income-based inequalities. These aren't implausible views, in my estimation, and they deserve at least consideration.

The balance of the article is really more about progressivism than it is about Rick Perry. (Although one might have guessed this by looking at the last sentence of the first paragraph, the traditional location of the "thesis statement."--Carey's doesn't mention Perry at all, despite the title and the picture.) His conclusion is, essentially, that progressives should be seriously committed to their goals of equality-through-social-engineering, that they should treat the university as a tool to accomplish those goals, and that they shouldn't allow party-line loyalty to interfere with their vision. Carey is, in other words, calling for a more consistent progressive idealism that pursues goals over political positioning:
Making college more accessible and affordable is, of course, the foundation of progressive higher education policy. Yet Democrats in Texas have almost uniformly denounced Perry’s plans.
Running through much of this discussion is a common theme: that students aren't getting everything they should from college, that some professors are not great teachers, and that the university is failing in its primary mission to educate the population and prepare them for the workforce. And there's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that universities are, indeed, failing to prepare students for the workforce. Carey and I agree about that. 

Where we disagree is that I question whether universities should be in the workforce-preparation business in the first place. That might seem like a bit of heresy these days, when the phrase "get a college degree" is almost ubiquitously followed with the words "in order to get a good job." But the fact of the matter is that while certain portions of the university are geared towards employment preparation--schools of engineering, education, law, medicine, and the like--the undergraduate curriculum is typically a curriculum in the liberal arts. That is, it is a preparation not for employment, but for life as a free, educated member of the civic body. The university has always had this split, since its inception: there was the arts curriculum on the one hand, and then there was advanced study in Theology, Medicine, or Law on the other.

The study of the liberal arts-- the preparation to live a civic life--is primarily about maturity, reflectiveness, and grounding in culture and philosophy. It's about the development of reason and the contextualization of experience, all so that one's "wider view" of the world might be brought to bear in the course of one's life. Public universities were established in order to make this sort of personal development more available to the populace, on the theory that an informed citizenry is a better citizenry, not necessarily a wealthier citizenry. (Please note that I am referring only to the more common programs at colleges of Arts and Sciences; there is a difference between the purposes of liberal arts programs on the one hand, and technical colleges such as Texas A&M on the other.)

Now perhaps this is something that we should hope for everyone, and maybe college should be more accessible, and cheaper. But if so, it's not because college is simply the last step in preparation for the workforce. The benefit of college (in the sense I'm talking about) isn't economic and the outcome of a college education should not be judged in terms of either economic outcome or economic parity.

This vision of the university does not see the professor as a content-delivery system. That is the role of the teacher in high school, which really is an institution developed and geared towards the distribution of foundational skills for use in one's economic life. Indeed, the K-12 system was developed after the university system, and can credibly be seen as a way to fill a foundational-skills void that the university system was never designed to address. A college professor is not a high school teacher; a professor is there because he or she ostensibly has a subject-matter expertise that makes him or her a resource for those who would like to learn about those things. The burden of learning, however, is on the student; the college student should be one who can teach him or herself, and who can use the professor as a resource in their own educational development.

The high school, by contrast, is an institution for imparting foundational skills that enable students to pursue their own goals and interests. If we see education as the project of providing students with the ability to lead good, flourishing lives, we can see high school as providing the student with the means, the capacities for action, while the liberal arts curriculum helps refine the student's goals.

Yet somewhere along the line--I suspect it was in the 60's--someone decided that college should become the new high school, that a college degree should be the natural continuation and culmination of the basic-skills acquisition that the K-12 system was designed to impart. Progressives like Kevin Carey see college as a way to level the playing field, to achieve their dream of economic egalitarianism. But I think it's the wrong tool for the job, and by leaving it to colleges to pick up the slack left off by a failing high school system that has substantially abandoned any attempt at hard and fast academic standards, we're asking colleges to deliver something that they are not originally equipped to deliver.

It's hardly a surprise that colleges fail at tasks for which they are, by design, incredibly ill-suited. That failure may be a problem, but by proposing seven-point reforms like those advocated by Perry, we're not "fixing" the university, but rather reshaping it into something else.

Now maybe that's really for the best. So far, I've been merely descriptive, offering an alternative vision of the university. It happens that, historically speaking, my vision is much more accurate than Perry's or Carey's. But that doesn't mean it's the best vision for our future. Nevertheless, I think that it's important that we understand what we are doing, and that we avoid the fallacy of Chesterton's Fence, that is, the reform or changing of institutions without regard to the purposes for which they were initially constructed. (Megan McArdle discusses that fallacy here. Please, especially read the block quote from CK Chesterton.) We have universities that provide a liberal arts curriculum for a reason--presumably because the society which attends to such things is a better society. If we "reform" the university, we do so at the risk of losing the benefit of that original purpose. To overstate the case somewhat, by transforming that which gives us a vision of the good life into that which gives us financial success, we risk pursuing money at the expense of our national soul.

I hope readers will excuse me if I'm not quite as eager as Perry and Carey to sprint down that road.