Monday, July 28, 2014

I'm so DC that. . .

Glenn Sullivan, a recent graduate from Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. in New Orleans published an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled, "My school district hires too many white teachers":
In my school, as in many schools — especially in reform-oriented school districts — a lot of the good, black teachers have been replaced by younger white teachers. Before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, nearly 75 percent of the city’s public school teachers were black. That began to change after Katrina, when charter schools began to grow in number. The percentage of minority teachers across New Orleans public schools dropped from 60 percent to 54 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to data compiled by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives. This troubles me. Particularly upsetting to me was the departure of the music teacher, a veteran black educator who helped run the New Tech school choir and put together trips for students.

This sparked some conversations in the grassroots ed reform community about teacher diversity. In one instance, Rutgers student, aspiring teacher, and education activist Stephanie Rivera blogged about reactions to the New Orleans student's commentary on the Bad Ass Teachers' facebook page, which in many cases was dismissive of Mr.Sullivan's point of view. From Stephanie's post:
What I find frustrating about most of these comments is their complete dismissal of the greater issues reflected by this post. The comments that argue that “there aren’t enough teachers of color” are ignoring the boundaries that keep many people of color pursuing this career. Many had oppressive\racist\non-cultural relevant education experiences, so many are reluctant to enter an environment they grew up hating. Many ignore that college-access, especially for people of color, is limited. Thus, completely leaving out the opportunity to even pursue a teaching certificate. As long as students of color are given more barriers than their white counterparts to go into teaching, the longer teachers of color will be the minority.

Another irritating argument includes that “it doesn’t matter what color a teacher is, as long as the teacher is good, that’s all that matters.” That is completely missing the point of the importance and benefits of students of color having teachers who look like them (see: Study: Minority students do better under minority teachers, Why students need more Black and Latino teachers). Yes, all teachers regardless of race can be trained to be effective teachers of black students, but black teachers can “be more adept at motivating and engaging students of color.” Additionally, by having students of color see people who look like them in successful positions, it can help prove to them that they can hold such positions too. Also, comments such as “color doesn’t matter,” is possibly one of the most racist statements one could make. By saying, “I don’t see color,” or “color doesn’t matter,” is basically saying “I don’t see your experiences, your stories, your struggles. Those elements of your identity and life don’t matter to me.” Colorblindness is not justice, equality, or being a good teacher. Colorblindness is ignoring the very issues that your students need you to fight against.
Indeed. According to the Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowships for Aspiring Teachers of Color,
  • Nearly half of the nation’s students (44 percent) are students of color, but the latest data show that just one of every six teachers (16.7 percent) is a teacher of color."
  • Research also shows, overwhelmingly, that students of color perform better – academically, personally, and socially-when taught by teachers from their own ethnic groups." 
  • Current trends indicate that, by 2020, the percentage of teachers of color will fall to an all-time low of 5 percent of the total teacher force, while the percentage of students of color in the system will likely exceed 50 percent.
And, according to this Washington Post analysis, the student-teacher diversity gap is widening:
Students of color make up almost half of the public school population, but teachers of color make up just 18 percent of that population nationwide. And the disparity is even larger in 36 states. It’s largest in California where 73 percent of students are nonwhite while just 29 percent of teachers are nonwhite.
Teacher demographics can have an impact on students, CAP argues. Studies have shown that minority students fare better when taught by minority teachers and nonwhite educators may also find it easier to relate to students with whom they share a background.

First of all, I wish that white teachers would not take assertions such as "we need more teacher of color" so personally or as an attack on them. I am a white teacher who has mostly taught students of color. While I am certain that I can always do better as a teacher and in particular with students of color, such statements and conclusions are not directed personally at me or usually at other white teachers; they are addressed to public education as an institution. Second of all, the research shows that there are objectively disproportionately fewer teachers of color and that students of color do objectively do better with when taught by people who share their culture and background. Instead of focusing our energies on defending ourselves, we white teachers should a) see how we could help attract and retain more teachers of color to the profession and b) reflect on and act upon improving our own practice in order to counter racism and to be more culturally appropriate for all students

And this is one instance, as public education and edu-color activist Sabrina Joy Stevens has pointed out, where people of color run into the arms of reformers--when they experience racism or culturally irrelevant education in the public education system and when statements about those experiences aren't acknowledged or acted upon. I would expand on that to say that such educators are no better on matters of race than reformers like Michelle Rhee are. Reformers like Rhee may differ with most teachers on what shows and how to show what a great teacher is or what makes great teaching, but she sounds the same as defensive white teachers when she says, I don't care who you are or what your background is, all that matters is that the teacher is a great one.

And it is not just students of color who should have more teachers of color. White students need more teachers of color, too. I'm going to go in a more personal direction now and I hope you'll stick with me. As I may have mentioned before, I grew up in DC in the 1970s and 1980s. I went to DC Public Schools for my entire PK-12 career. I was in the minority in all four DC public schools I went to and the majority of my teachers, principals, and counselors were black. I can't quantify the influence this has had me, and frankly, for a long time, it was just an experience I took for granted, as the natural state of things because I didn't know any different. But as the realizations of this influence have come to me in different pieces and in various stages and varying levels of intensity, I can qualify it.

My mother only recently told me the following story: My older sister and were young enough to be in elementary school and we were having a conversation with our parents about racial demographics in this US. It came up that the US was majority white and my sister and I asserted that it was majority black. My mother felt pleased that our experiences in DCPS had led us to such a conclusion, but as a civil rights lawyer, she also wanted to make sure we understood the reality, that the rest of the country was not, in fact, majority black even if our city and our schools were, so she made sure to correct our understanding.

When I got to college (and I went to "Diversity University") we had these frosh year workshops (there are no freshman at Wesleyan) where we explored topics of diversity, racism, sexism, gender, and homophobia. During one discussion in the spirit of openness the workshops encouraged, one white male student from rural New England said he had never been around or gone to school with so many students of color. That really surprised me, especially because Wesleyan didn't really seem to me to have so many students of color. I looked around and thought that, well, I have never gone to school with so many white people. I don't think I said anything at the time, but it was then that it started to dawn on me how unique my experience might have been. Toto, we ain't in DC anymore. For the most part I received a great education and I dearly love the friends I made there, but I experienced a certain amount of culture shock at Wesleyan and wonder sometimes if I would have been happier at a big state school.

This came up a few other times at Wesleyan--many of my classmates took a look at my blond hair and blue eyes and soccer cleats and assumed I was fresh out of a Massachusetts boarding school. This took me aback because my parents would never ever have sent me to a DC private school, let alone to a boarding school in New England, though in retrospect that's kind of what Wesleyan is, only for older teenagers and in Connecticut. I remember finally breaking out my high school yearbook to show one dubious hallmate from New York City that my school was not anything like a Massachusetts boarding school.

Again, I can't say anything concrete to speak to how my PK-12 schooling experience was good for me but I know I wouldn't trade it. And, I don't claim that the DCPS schools I went to existed in some racism-free bubble, that I am personally immune from contributing to racism or that I have no work to do. Just as being in a majority black setting in school influenced me, so must have the racist culture outside of school (see Shankar Vedantam on how the culture we grow up in influences our point of view).  I think given the racial composition of my neighborhood (mostly white) and given what I could pick up from the culture that surrounded me outside of school once I got older than I was during the afore-mentioned US demographics conversation, I well realized the role of racism in our country. But imagine what it was for a middle class white girl with educated parents to be the minority in her school and to go to schools where African-Americans were in most of the positions of authority. As I said, I have long taken this experience for granted, but now imagine how different (for the worse) I would be and how differently I would think and see the world without it.

DC, like New Orleans, has lost many black teachers (a post on this is in the works). The principal, counselor, and teacher corps in DCPS is markedly more white than it used to be even when factoring in that the white population of DC has increased.

And, while they are not in the minority, my own children are now in schools that are fairly diverse socioeconomically and racially (though not that diverse beyond back and white), I noticed right away when we moved here that the vast majority of their teachers and principals and people in leadership roles are white. This isn't to say that the teachers and administrators they have aren't good at what they do--they are fabulous, but it troubles me that there isn't more diversity. My husband and I can have frank conversations with our children about US history and racism and about racial dynamics in our own communities, but those conversations ultimately can't replace experiences.

I'm so DC that I know that the lack of teachers of color in my childrens' schools is a problem, but I am also so DC that this lack still surprises me and I get overwhelmed by where to start to try and change it, in what can sometimes feel like a foreign country.

But I have to start somewhere, right?

UPDATE 9/18: I'm not sure how I missed this but Melinda Anderson published a piece in Ebony in May 2014 succinctly chronicling the story of black teachers from the Brown v. Board era to now (in NYC, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia). Please read that here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Schooled by Schooled (& Silicon Valley)

I finally read The New Yorker article ("Schooled") about education reform in Newark, New Jersey. I think it was a fair piece but before I continue, a disclaimer: I assume that anything I say here could be legitimately challenged or discounted given what people who are on the ground know (there is a, hint, hint, comments section at the bottom).

So, first, it's important (for me, at least) to understand the mindset of someone like Cory Booker (former mayor of Newark and current NJ senator) and in doing that, I will be linking to one other New Yorker article that has expanded my understanding of Booker et al's approach.

"Schooled" paints a fairly (in both senses of the word) damning picture of Cory Booker, one of someone of great ambition and desire for fame but who has forgotten to match that with engagement with public.

Now, Booker never switched "sides" on education reform, nor is he a Johnny-come-lately on the topic. His view has always been that public education as an institution has poorly served disadvantaged and marginalized people. He has also always been in favor of market-based solutions: vouchers, charters, privatization, etc, to remedy this. From "Schooled":
The school-reform movement, then dominated by conservative white Republicans, saw Booker as a valuable asset. In 2000, he was invited to speak at the Manhattan Institute, in New York. He was an electrifying speaker, depicting impoverished Newark residents as captives of nepotistic politicians, their children trapped in a “repugnant” school system. "I define public education not as a publicly guaranteed space and a publicly run, publicly funded building where our children are sent based on their Zip Code,” he said. “Public education is the use of public dollars to educate our children at the schools that are best equipped to do so—public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, Baptist schools, Jewish schools.”

Furthermore, Booker was in a big hurry. Big mistake.  It's not realistic to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish in just  three years and such haste makes, well, waste. (See my post about the ill-conceived pace of modern ed reform).
Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families’ fear and anger: “My mom—she would’ve been fit to be tied with some of what happened.” But he characterized the rancor as “a sort of nadir,” and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. “That’s pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.”
Booker acknowledged the missteps, but said that he had to move quickly. He and Christie could be out of office within three years. If a Democrat defeated Christie in 2013, he or she would have the backing of the teachers’ unions and might return the district to local control. “We want to do as much as possible right away,” Booker said. “Entrenched forces are very invested in resisting choices we’re making around a one-billion-dollar budget.” Participants in the meeting, who had worked for decades in Newark, were doubtful that reforms imposed over three years would be sustainable. 

Second mistake: Booker's plan was designed not of the people, by the people, for the people but of the philanthrocapitalists, by the consultants, and kind of, maybe for the people.
Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped “Confidential Draft,” titled “Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.” It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,” the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to “make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.” The plan called for an “infusion of philanthropic support” to recruit teachers and principals through national school-reform organizations; build sophisticated data and accountability systems; expand charters; and weaken tenure and seniority protections. Philanthropy, unlike government funding, required no public review of priorities or spending. Christie approved the plan, and Booker began pitching it to major donors. 
In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

So, now we see that Booker was rather modeling the reforms using a Silicon Valley model. He was highly influenced by Silicon Valley ideology and ethics and not just by Zukerberg (who if you read the article I am about to cite actually ventured outside of the Silicon valley bubble). To get a real sense of the Silicon Valley approach, read this other New Yorker article by George Packer "Change the World"--it really explains that ideology and ethics and how they are fueled by a sense of righteousness via technology, as in creating apps = act of social justice. Here Packer compares Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to financiers. When I read this article, I remember thinking, Oh, this is where so many Booker-type reformers get their language of education reform and social justice via entrepreneurialism, of "innovation," and of "revolution." This is why they sound like Apple ads.
When financiers say that they’re doing God’s work by providing cheap credit, and oilmen claim to be patriots who are making the country energy-independent, no one takes them too seriously—it’s a given that their motivation is profit. But when technology entrepreneurs describe their lofty goals there’s no smirk or wink. “Many see their social responsibility fulfilled by their businesses, not by social or political action,” one young entrepreneur said of his colleagues. “It’s remarkably convenient that they can achieve all their goals just by doing their start-up.” He added, “They actually think that Facebook is going to be the panacea for many of the world’s problems. It isn’t cynicism—it’s arrogance and ignorance.”
Also, within that there is a disdain for politics, government, and inherently in that for democratic processes:
The technology industry, by sequestering itself from the community it inhabits, has transformed the Bay Area without being changed by it—in a sense, without getting its hands dirty. Throughout most of Silicon Valley’s history, its executives have displayed a libertarian instinct to stay as far from politics and government as possible. Reid Hoffman described the attitude this way: “Look what I can do as an individual myself—everyone else should be able to do that, too. I can make a multibillion-dollar company with a little bit of investment. Why can’t the whole world do that?” But the imperative to change the world has recently led some Silicon Valley leaders to imagine that the values and concepts behind their success can be uploaded to the public sphere.
From Zuckerberg's former roommate Joe Green:
“People in tech, when they talk about why they started their company, they tend to talk about changing the world,” Green said. “I think it’s actually genuine. On the other hand, people are just completely disconnected from politics. Partly because the operating principles of politics and the operating principles of tech are completely different.” Whereas politics is transactional and opaque, based on hierarchies and handshakes, Green argued, technology is empirical and often transparent, driven by data.
And, Marc Andreessen, a partner in the venture-capital firms, Andreessen Horowitz:
 Andreessen described to me the stages of the industry’s attitude toward political engagement. The first, prevailing in the seventies and eighties, was “Just leave us alone. Let us do our thing.” T. J. Rodgers, the founder of Cypress Semiconductor, said that anyone who got involved in politics was making a big mistake, warning, “If you talk to these people, they’ll just get in your ass.” The Valley’s libertarianism—which ignores the federal government’s crucial role in providing research money—is less doctrinal than instinctive. Andreessen said, “It’s very possible for somebody to show up here—a twenty-four-year-old engineer who’s completely state of the art in building companies and products—and have had absolutely no exposure at all to politics, social issues, history. When the government shows up, it’s bad news. They go, ‘Oh, my God, government is evil, I didn’t understand how bad it was. We must fight it.’ ”
You should read the whole thing, I can't do justice to it here (or quote the whole thing despite my efforts) except to say that it will you teach you a lot about where some strains of education reform are coming from, about the way many of these reformers think. They are applying Silicon Valley thinking and solutionism to problems of public democratic institutions. In some cases they are deeply influenced by it but in others they are just paying lip service, just parroting; they don't actually understand what they're saying, nor if you consider the implications of standardization, do they really practice what they preach. I agree with Packer here:
Technology can be an answer to incompetence and inefficiency. But it has little to say about larger issues of justice and fairness, unless you think that political problems are bugs that can be fixed by engineering rather than fundamental conflicts of interest and value. Evgeny Morozov, in his new book “To Save Everything, Click Here,” calls this belief “solutionism.” Morozov, who is twenty-nine and grew up in a mining town in Belarus, is the fiercest critic of technological optimism in America, tirelessly dismantling the language of its followers. “They want to be ‘open,’ they want to be ‘disruptive,’ they want to ‘innovate,’ ” Morozov told me. “The open agenda is, in many ways, the opposite of equality and justice. They think anything that helps you to bypass institutions is, by default, empowering or liberating. You might not be able to pay for health care or your insurance, but if you have an app on your phone that alerts you to the fact that you need to exercise more, or you aren’t eating healthily enough, they think they are solving the problem.”

Back to "Schooled," while Booker looks self-serving and out of touch, Cami Anderson is portrayed as being far from the devil incarnate she is painted by some of her critics. Certainly, most of her career she has surrounded herself with the top-down, market-based reformers. Plus, her take-no-constructive-criticism management style is a deal breaker, serving as a legitimate impediment to progress, especially if you look at actions of her recent tenure such as the One Newark plan and the dismissal of employees who publicly criticized her policies. But otherwise there are a number of passages that belie the existence of some balance, for example,
Christie appointed Anderson in May, 2011. It quickly emerged that she differed with her bosses about the role of charter schools in urban districts. She pointed out that, with rare exceptions, charters served a smaller proportion than the district schools of children who lived in extreme poverty, had learning disabilities, or struggled to speak English. Moreover, charter lotteries disproportionately attracted the “choosers”—parents with the time to navigate the process. Charters in Newark were expected to enroll forty per cent of the city’s children by 2016. That would leave the neediest sixty per cent in district schools. Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg expected Anderson to revive the district, yet as children and revenue were siphoned off she would have to close schools and dismiss teachers. Because of the state’s seniority rules, the most junior teachers would go first. Anderson called this “the lifeboat theory of education reform,” arguing that it could leave a majority of children to sink as if on the Titanic. “Your theories of change are on a collision course,” she told Cerf and Booker. As Anderson put it to me, “I told the Governor . . . I did not come here to phase the district out.”
Anderson acknowledged the successes of the top charter schools, but Newark faced the conundrum common to almost every urban school system: how to expand charters without destabilizing traditional public schools.
And it sounds as if Anderson started out okay:
One of her prime initiatives in her first two years was to close and consolidate the twelve lowest-performing kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools into eight “renew schools.” Each was assigned a principal who, borrowing from the charter model, would choose his or her own teaching staff. The schools also got math and literacy coaches and smart boards, along with the new curricula. Teachers worked an extended day and two extra weeks in the summer. Anderson intended to create “proof points” that would show how to turn around failing district schools. 
The eight consolidated schools opened in the fall of 2012, and most won strong support from parents. At the hundred-year-old Peshine Avenue School, in the South Ward, Chaleeta Barnes, the new principal, and Tameshone Lewis, the vice-principal, both had deep Newark roots, and parents, teachers, and children responded well to their insistence on higher standards. They replaced more than half the previous year’s teachers, and the new staff co√∂rdinated efforts to improve instruction and address individual students’ academic and discipline issues. 
Teachers worked closely with children who couldn’t keep up, and many of them saw improvement, but the effects of children’s traumas outside school posed bigger problems. The father of a student in Shakel Nelson’s fifth-grade math class had been murdered early in the school year. When Nelson sat beside his desk and encouraged him, he sometimes solved problems, but as she moved on he put his head down and dropped his pencil. A girl who was excelling early in the year stopped trying when her estranged, emotionally disturbed parents resumed contact and began fighting. 
The quality of teaching and the morale in most of the renew schools improved, but only Peshine made modest gains in both math and literacy on state tests. Six others declined in one subject or both, and the seventh remained unchanged in one and increased in one. This wasn’t surprising. It takes more than a year for reforms to take hold and show up in test scores. Across the district, in Anderson’s first two years, the percentage of students passing the state’s standardized tests declined in all but two of the tested grades. She questioned the validity of the tests, saying that they had become harder and the students needier, although she used them to determine which schools were failing and required overhaul. After her first year, she announced a ten-per-cent gain in the high-school graduation rate, but A.C.T. scores indicated that only two per cent of juniors were prepared for college. 
Anderson recognized that the schools needed more social and emotional support, but pointed out that Newark already spent more money per student than almost every other district in the country. She urged principals to shift their existing budgets accordingly. “There’s no pot of gold,” she said.
Also, she knew the trade-offs. One of my (and others) biggest critiques of the reformers is that they say they only are "for the kids" but they don't seem to connect in any meaningful way the kids' success to the success via decent working conditions and living wages of their parents. I've written about this before. It's hard to believe they are "for the kids" when their education reform industry feeds off of profits squeezed out of the kids' parents. Wal-Mart under-pays Mr. Smith (not to mention factory workers who work on the supply side). Walmart makes huge profits. Huge profits go into foundation and pay Jane TFA Edu-crat's salary. Anderson, however, seemed to understand the value to the public of a vigorous public sector:
Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”
It's incredible how much both Booker and Anderson have spent on consultants. This is also the case in other reformy systems such as DCPS. In fact, NCLB is sometimes referred to as No Consultant Left Behind.
During the next two years, more than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day. Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, observed, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”
Once Anderson was appointed, this reckless spending on consultants continued:
Anderson turned her immediate attention to the district’s schools. She gave principals more flexibility and introduced new curricula aligned to the Common Core standards. Using $1.8 million from the Foundation for Newark’s Future, she hired the nonprofit consulting group TNTP, in part to develop more rigorous evaluation systems. In her first year, the foundation gave her a four-million-dollar grant to hire consultants at her own discretion.
Anderson spent much of the fall working with data analysts from the Parthenon Group, an international consulting firm that received roughly three million dollars over two years from Newark philanthropy.

Also, what occurred in Newark seems to confirm that the reform plan involves orchestrating "failure" of the public schools. Particularly disturbing is the account of two Newark principals (charter and division) working together to decrease criminal activity on school grounds wherein the district principal had to ask the charter principal to place the call to police because he knew they would respond to her versus him. This is unconscionable:
Jackson had never got the police to respond adequately to his pleas for improved security. Gangs periodically held nighttime rites on school grounds, and Jackson reported them without result. One night, a month after spark settled into Carver, a security camera captured images of nine young men apparently mauling another.When Jackson and Belcher arrived the next morning, they found bloody handprints on the wall and blood on the walkway. His and Belcher’s calls to police and e-mails to the superintendent’s staff went unanswered. At Jackson’s request, Belcher e-mailed the Mayor, attaching three pictures of the bloody trail on “the steps our K-2 scholars use to enter the building.” Twenty minutes later, Booker responded: “Joanna, your email greatly concerned me. I have copied this email to the police director who will contact you as soon as possible. Cory.” The police director, Sam DeMaio, called, and the precinct captain and the anti-gang unit visited the school. Police presence was stepped up, and the gang moved on.

Shavar Jeffries, one of the recent Newark mayoral candidates, the one who lost, sums up the situation well:
Shavar Jeffries believes that the Newark backlash could have been avoided. Too often, he said, “education reform . . . comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in co√∂peration with people.” Some reformers have told him that unions and machine politicians will always dominate turnout in school-board elections and thus control the public schools. He disagrees: “This is a democracy. A majority of people support these ideas. You have to build coalitions and educate and advocate.” As he put it to me at the outset of the reform initiative, “This remains the United States. At some time, you have to persuade people.”

People like Cami Anderson, even if full of hubris, may start out with a balanced perspective and with a plan to improve public institutions from within and in partnership with the public. But while, indeed, leadership style was a problem in Newark, I mostly see it as a problem of plutocracy and of the continued disenfranchisement of disadvantages and marginalized communities in the name of education reform.

There is no incentive or obligation to be accountable to the people on the receiving end of current education policies. People like Cami Anderson don't seem to feel that they are answerable to the public. Rather, they are accountable to politicians and to "investors." On top of that, there's the influence of government-is-the-problem libertarians and enablers from Silicon Valley, replete with intolerance of democratic processes.

This is much like the problems I see with the Common Core in that even if the standards are good, they will falter if filtered through our rigid, skill-based testing accountability structure. People like Cami Anderson, dictatorial style aside, who might be knowledgeable and passionate about education and about educating children who have been ill-served by public institutions, will also falter when their leadership is filtered through the plutocratic blob that seems to have railroaded our democracy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Time for some 21st century honesty

I am mostly writing this just to have a record of where I stand on so-called 21st century skills. Now, I am not an ed tech or tech expert at all, and though it's a topic I try to read a lot about, I haven't written a lot about it.

For the most part, I don't really believe there is such a thing as "21st century skills." Nor do I believe there are really 20th century skills or 16th century skills or 1st century skills. I don't think how humans learn fundamentally changes; what changes are the tools we use. Searching for information is the same skill now that it was pre-internet; we just use different tools to find it.

What was said in this WaPo article about ed tech pretty much sums up my stance:
"There is hardly any research that will show clearly that any of these machines will improve academic achievement," said Larry Cuban, education professor emeritus at Stanford University. "But the value of novelty, that's highly prized in American society, period. And one way schools can say they are 'innovative' is to pick up the latest device."
After using an interactive whiteboard for a year, William Ferriter, a sixth-grade teacher in North Carolina, came to a similar conclusion, deciding the whiteboard was little more than "a badge saying 'We're a 21st-century school.' " He spent weeks trying to devise collaborative lessons that he knows engage students. The best one, he said, brought kids to the whiteboard, where they used their fingers to sort words describing metamorphic rocks, as a video played to the side. 
"It just allows you to create digitized versions of old lessons," he said. "My kids were bored with it after about three weeks."

Now to play devils advocate to myself: there are skills that that one might use more in one century than another and there are tools that might require a slightly different skill set. Take, for example, driving a motor vehicle. People didn't know how to drive motor vehicles before they existed. However, people did drive horses and chariots and carriages and bicycles and while there are some new skills to learn for driving a motor vehicle, there were skills that carried over from one mode of driving to another.

Ed tech historian and writer Audrey Watters, for example, further confirms my skepticism about the novelty (and efficacy) of ed tech solutions as ed reform solutions,
It’s become quite commonplace to hear our current education system decried for its being a “factory model.” New technologies, particularly technologies that offer “personalization,” are positioned as the future, the way to “modernize” schools by letting students move at their own pace through the curriculum. And yet these are precisely the arguments that technicians have been making for teaching machines for almost a century. “The Coming Industrial Revolution in Education” predicted Sidney Pressey in 1932.
So, when I read breathless articles like this which in short say, stick children living in poverty in front of computers with an internet connection and they'll teach themselves, I am skeptical. When people declare past systems and ways of learning obsolete, I am skeptical. Certainly, some tools, and some skills, are obsolete but have our brains really changed that much?

Also, while I am progressive/liberal in most ways, I think that many people termed "progressive educators" very much underestimate the role background and prior knowledge play in learning. When it comes to the internet-as-classroom meme, one actually needs to be able to tell good information from bad and good sources from bad. And that is highly dependent on background knowledge, which one sometimes has to um, gulp, memorize before one can apply the knowledge and unlock the creative process. Some things just need to be memorized.

Next, technology doesn't equal learning. Just because you put computers in front of students doesn't mean they'll learn anything. I say this as someone who is currently advocating for more technology in my children's schools. Students from our school division are going to college and are unfamiliar with the systems used there. Students in some vocational programs that involve computers are being taught on a theoretical basis because the computers and software available to learn on are obsolete. I get the need for adequately updated technology but I get it as those are tools students need to know how to use; I don't get it as the end-all-be-all of what they are going to learn.

Teacher and public education activist Sabrina Stevens reported back from SXSWedu in March 2013 and really hit the nail on the head when describing her apprehension in the face of the intersection of the the ed tech personalized learning "revolution," meaningful learning, and the premise of public education:
To me, that’s personalized learning—when a person sees and recognizes in another person (or in him- or herself) what’s needed to keep learning and growing. Personalized learning occurs when a teacher and a learner know and respect each other enough to interact in meaningful ways, and when a learner begins to know herself well enough to know the next step she should take to master a new skill, or the next step on her path to becoming who she wants to be. 
That’s why I couldn’t help feeling a bit disturbed at SXSWedu last week, hearing tech vendors and venture capitalists use the term “personalized learning” as though it was 1) new (what, exactly, do these people think has been going on in human brains for millennia??) and 2) a ground-breaking thing that could only be enabled through their proprietary technology.
Language-check: what many of these people are selling as “personalized” learning is actually digitized standardized learning. Creating tools and products that offer digital ways to deliver drill-and-kill instruction is not revolutionary. Attaching that to a large bank of flawed, standardized data merely automates and speeds the process of selecting those drill-and-kill activities and marketing more of them to teachers, students and parents. But making it easier to do more of a problematic thing does not make that thing less problematic.

What’s more, one of the few explicit justifications I heard for all of this, after questioning how, exactly, this was different than anything teachers and schools had done in the past (a past many educators are trying to run from, in favor of more participatory and empowering alternatives), was that it helped teachers manage growing class sizes, and helped everyone more easily manage the abundance of data we now have. In other words, the primary value of these tools is to help us adapt to teacher unemployment, student overcrowding, and student over-testing.
What’s more, we should avoid succumbing to the hype surrounding these products without fully considering the implications of investing our money into them—especially if that investment comes at the expense of investing in the people and professional development that true personalized learning requires. Tech is revolutionary (in a positive way) when it empowers us to do even better what we already do well. But if we’re using tech to compensate for fewer people, we’re not replacing anything—we’re losing something. 
True personalized learning comes from people knowing each other; man-made interventions can facilitate, but not fully replace, the cognitive or emotional value of meaningful in-person interaction.
Most recently, NYC teacher Jose Vilson attended the annual ISTE conference in Atlanta. Here he sums up a quintessential tension between teaching and ed tech:
It got me thinking, as I always do, whether educators have made any real progress when it comes to thinking about pedagogy in the 21st century. Is it really the tool that’s the driver or the teacher? If, for a second, districts think that a product ought to be the focus of the pedagogy, then we again concede that a teacher’s expertise is only second to the dazzle and pizzazz of an attractive thing when it comes to student learning. 
If, on the other hand, we put these tools in the hands of expert educators with supportive school systems, then that might make the shift more real. Any tool that we put in a classroom ought to center around actual student learning, and not the tool. I often find that many so-called 21st century schools spend far more time on training students and teachers on how to use the technology than trying to integrate the tool into a well-planned school system.
Indeed, ed tech for the sake of ed tech does not make for solid pedagogy.

So, if you find yourself going on about the centrality of 21st century skills, the pressing need for innovation, obsolete "factory model" schools, the wonder of digital personalization, etc., etc., just know that while I may agree with you on other topics, no offense but, I don't share your ed tech-induced exuberance. In fact, I may even be rolling my eyes at it.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Mama's got a brand new facebook page

Hey all,

Want to keep up with me and what I'm writing and reading and thinking about on facebook? You're in luck! I now have a facebook page, also called "All Things Education."

I'd be honored if you'd go like it and invited your friends to do the same.

Thanks so much.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Not your mother's PE class

My sons are headed to middle school next year. They are disappointed (as am I) that there won't be recess, however, they are excited that they will have PE for a 90-minute block every other day. A few days prior to the end of their fifth grade year, I had been discussing this with a few other parents and some of their older kids in our school district. They told me that my sons' enthusiasm may later be curbed, especially in high school, telling me that the PE class sizes were large, with forty to fifty students, and that it seemed at times like an anything goes kind of environment. Furthermore, they were playing antiquated and obscure games that no one had ever heard of or played before. It could be that those are games just for PE class because they help to highlight or develop a certain skills set rather than because the game is relevant, but in any case, it seems like it's time to re-invent the PE class.

Coincidentally, a few days later, I came across this article about the next generation of physical education classes :
The program at the Prince William County school is part of a national effort to mobilize a generation that has been labeled the most sedentary in the nation’s history. It represents a major shift in physical education to reverse the trend of inertia, with gym teachers working harder to make sure that their classes don’t appeal just to the most athletic students while the rest of the kids in school-issued shorts are left sitting on the sidelines. 
“The country depends on us to do something different than what we have been doing,” said Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE). “We cared too much about who is the best, who can do the most push-ups, and not nearly enough about what it means to be healthy and physically active for a lifetime.”
“The New PE,” as it’s often called, is a nicer PE. 
Out are dodgeball and other sports that use kids as targets, contests that reward students who are the strongest, and exercise doled out (or withheld) as a form of punishment: Still talking? Four more laps!
In are personal fitness plans, target heart-rate zones, and sports that play to different strengths and introduce students to activities that they can pursue across a lifetime. “Physically literate” and “lifelong movers” are buzzwords of the New PE.
The new approach seems to involve making personal progress, meaning being measured against yourself and then building from there:
The Presidential Physical Fitness Test, a mainstay of gym classes for decades, was officially retired last school year, based on the recommendation of a childhood obesity task force convened by the president. The contest rewarded students and schools if they scored in the 85th percentile or higher in such categories as curl-ups, push-ups and the mile-long endurance run. 
The new president-sponsored test, the Fitnessgram, evaluates students according to their personal progress and research-based targets of optimal healthy fitness levels for each age and gender. Many school districts in the Washington area years ago switched to the new test, which was originally designed in 1982. The categories are similar, though there is a trend away from the mile run.
This New Hampshire parent and school board member does not approve: 
Some people are wary of the changes in physical education, worrying that the cultural shift could soften the nation’s children. 
“It’s becoming too politically correct,” said Dennis Senibaldi, a school board member in Windham, N.H., who advocated against a policy in his district to ban dodgeball last year. 
“We want to teach kids you don’t always get first place, you don’t always get a trophy. . . .My son didn’t make the seventh-grade soccer team. Should we get rid of the soccer program because not everyone made it?”
We love dodgeball in my family and my husband and I are anti trophies for all (How about patches? You can iron or sew them onto a jersey and they don't take up space and collect dust) and we all play soccer. But a PE class is not the soccer program or team. PE class is required; soccer program is not. That's a different deal. 

The approach of "new PE" described in this article seems like a much better one to me than the approach of old PE. There is a place for instruction in some competitive games and the like--the PE curriculum should be comprehensive after all, but what are the goals, really? To teach about physical education and sports and to teach kids to physically active or at least how to be. In that way, I like the individual goal setting. I think that would serve a greater number of students much better.

And, the "old" PE doesn't really serve the athletic kids well, either. Students who play basketball, for example, have to sit through intro lessons while students who aren't so athletic might be overwhelmed by those who are. As my sons have gotten older and are coming into their own as athletes, they have started to feel that PE is not as fun, that it's even boring sometimes. They'd get a lot more out of the course if they could explore physical fitness in general and different ways to achieve it, building from where they already are. For example, I know from watching them get tired while playing soccer that they could use some work on conditioning.

One challenge, though, for old and new PE alike is that PE, like recess, foreign language, practical/life skills, and the arts, often gets shoved aside, deemed unessential. From the article:
The efforts come as physical education programs struggle for time and resources, overshadowed by growing academic demands. In a 2007 survey of school administrators, 44 percent reported cutting time from physical education and recess, as well as other subjects, to increase reading and math instruction following the passage of the No Child Left Behind law.
Or, students can go to what's called "PE" but spend the time practicing standardized test math questions and reading passages but with PE content. That hasn't happened (yet) in my kids' schools but my sons have a hard time reconciling the instruction of their PE teachers to students to play outside and exercise more while they only get thirty minutes of recess/outdoor play a day at school.

Perhaps the new PE can help to mitigate testing creep and help US kids to be healthier and more physically fit.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Getting More Aggressive with Relational Aggression

My fourth (and final--so much for my play to post there once per day) post at Joanne Jacobs' blog riffed off of an article in the Wall Street Journal about "relational aggression" in early childhood education settings. I spent a few days writing the post because I had so much to say after having spent much of the last ten years parenting and teaching younger children. Unfortunately, I didn't quite do the topic justice--although the post was long, I didn't feel I was able to portray adequately the layers of complexity and nuance that goes into guiding young children in navigating relational aggression. But I did my best:
First of all, I love having a specific and fitting term for this. I wish I had had it a long time ago. And, while I don’t think children or girls in particular have gotten any meaner, I am glad to see more focus on relational aggression in early childhood education circles. Certainly, laying the foundation for fine and gross motor skills, for literacy, for independence, for academics or subject matter, for self-care is vital but socialization is a major part of all of the above, though, really, none of those groups of skills and knowledge exist in isolation.
I hope you'll read the whole thing.