Saturday, February 24, 2007

Notes from a teacher/coach/ facilitator on social action

A year ago, as the ‘methods’ person, I joined a team of doctoral students and faculty engaged in social action projects with high school students at a school that has social action as part of the curriculum. That semester, we read and analyzed the groups’ notes on success and failure, surprise and disillusionment. Drawn in by the reading, I decided to jump in and facilitate a group myself. Last semester 6 groups (comprising 8-10 high school students and one facilitator in each) met at the school every week, and my group examined truancy.

The students at the school were used to having ‘volunteer coaches’ come in and facilitate projects. However, the ‘coach’ role as I experienced it was a combination of facilitation, teaching, researching, and advising on a wide variety of issues and concerns besides the project itself. The more I interacted with students, the more I felt I needed to learn about what they were thinking and feeling and how they were interpreting their roles in these projects. Were they ‘doing school’ – only a different type of school? How sustained was their interest? Did that matter? How were we defining success? To what degree were we, volunteer coaches in the school, thinking about the ethical ramifications of student activism both in and out of school.

One point that became clearer to me at the end of the semester was that students were not naïve about structural causes of oppression, but they did seek to distance themselves from the links between their personal and societal problems partially because of the ways in which this knowledge might serve to ‘place’ and ‘name’ them. The power of their personal experiences was at times denied by students because such experiences have also served to ‘name’ and ‘place’ them within status hierarchies. Such links need to be drawn out carefully and with sensitivity so that they serve to empower while providing solidarity. By the end of the semester the group had certainly done something and there was a relationship that was growing between the students and myself, and yet, a lot was missing.

After the semester ended, I went to India, attended an Education conference and met with grassroots activists in the field of education. There I found renewed inspiration for the work that I am trying to do here in the United States. I met Bunker Roy, the founder of Barefoot Colleges in India. Barefoot College (after the Barefoot doctors of China) does not credential anybody. But the college serves as the ground for social action all over India. Participants learn and train to solve immediate problems in their communities – barefoot architects build eco-friendly houses, barefoot solar engineers solve the problem of electricity and so on. I asked Bunker Roy if I could visit and learn. His reply was characteristic of the philosophy of the Barefoot Colleges– “Come,” he said, and “unlearn.” I plan on doing that this year.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VII: In Youth Action, Power Precedes Engagement, Learning, and Understanding

[To read the entire series, go here.]

[To see our full presentation on our youth action project at AERA in messy MS Word Format on GoogleDocs go here.]

People don’t do anything unless they are motivated to action first. As Saul Alinsky stated,

If people feel they don’t have the power to change a bad situation, then they do not think about it. Why start figuring out how you are going to spend a million dollars if you do not have a million dollars, or are ever going to have a million dollars—unless you want to engage in fantasy? (p. 105)
Alinsky argued that it is only when people sense they have some power to make some changes in their world that “they begin to think and ask questions about how to make the changes.” “It is,” he noted, “the creation of the instrument or the circumstances of power that provides the reason and makes knowledge essential.”

This creates some real challenges when one tries to engage inner-city students in social action projects, as we are trying to do in a project in Milwaukee. You can run into a catch-22: they don’t want to do anything because they don’t think they can accomplish anything, and they don’t think they can accomplish anything because they haven’t done anything.

In Milwaukee, we are working with students who are required to partipate in a social action project in school. In contrast with most youth action efforts, then, these youth don’t necessarily arrive with any particular desire to act or with any sense of their own power.

We are beginning to learn that one of the answers to the catch-22 may be just to have students “do something” related to an issue they have expressed some interest in. If they are interested in the police, have them tour a police station, or have them visit a children’s court. Such visits allow them to ask questions and engage with people in power, it gives them some voice, however small. And this voice may become a small kernel of accomplishment that we may be able to hang some interest in action on.

This “just do it approach” is not one that we understood at the beginning of this year, but we are planning to make it a central aspect of our methodology next year.

At the same time, we have learned that we should start only with topics around which we can imagine students taking some coherent action. The point is not to force students to do what we want them to, but to give them a sense, from the beginning, that this topic is linked directly to action—even if they want to change what that action is.

For example, last year some groups expressed interest in antagonistic police relations with young people—something all of them had some experience in. These groups stumbled around for weeks, unable to find anything that seemed to engage them and that seemed realistically achievable. We spent a lot of time sitting in small rooms having dialogues that didn’t really go anywhere.

This year, we started police relations groups linked to a planned action—that they would develop a curriculum to teach younger kids how to engage with the police. And we believe that it is in part because these students had a sense of a goal from the beginning that they began much more quickly to start actually doing something (distributing a survey, for example) than had the groups the year before.

Both of these techniques—getting youth “out there” to engage with the realities of the situations they want to affect, and defining some achievable goal from the first place—relate to Alinsky’s principle of power and learning. Only when youth have a concrete sense that they can affect some aspect of their community that they dislike is there much chance that they will begin to take ownership of a project that is otherwise just another school requirement.

It’s not rocket science. In retrospect, it seems obvious. But engaging youth in social action projects in school—however limited—is not something we usually do. And learning how to do this successfully will demand that a willingness to face up to our own ignorance.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A suggestion for content on AESA’s new website

A suggestion for content on AESA’s new website to support the teaching of social foundations courses.

This posting is prompted by my reading a very nice review, at the Education Review, of a recent reissue of Peter McLaren’s Life in Schools, which has become a social foundations textbook of sorts.

I have argued for a while that AESA should develop a resource site that compiles comments, reviews, synopses, and basic information (e.g., table of contents) of a wide range of textbooks for social foundations coursework (including sub-disciplines such as philosophy of education, history of education, etc.). The reasoning is twofold:

1) Almost half of all instructors who teach foundations-type introductory courses are not trained in the social foundations field (see Christine Shea and Carol Henry, "Who's Teaching the Social Foundations Courses?", Journal of Teacher Education, (1986), pp. 10-15. and
Christine Shea, Peter Sola and Alan Jones, "Examining the Crisis in the Social Foundations", Educational Foundations, 2, (1987); this data, by the way, is over 20 years old! Can’t anybody get a doctoral student to do a survey to update this information!?!).
2) More than 75% of all foundations-type introductory courses use standard textbooks (as opposed to individually-created readers) as the primary reading in their course (see my article, Butin, 2004, “The Foundations of Preparing Teachers: Are Education Schools Really ‘Intellectually Barren’ and Ideological?” in Teachers College Record and Butin, under review [send me an email if you want to see the data]).

There is thus an obvious and unmet need to provide good information for new instructors by which they can decide amongst a wide range of textbooks. Such a site would thus allow for comparisons, allow instructors to read about how others have used the texts, potentially provide sample syllabi from instructors who have used the texts, and reviews that help the instructor realize the limits and potential of particular texts. AESA could send out a call to all members asking for their suggestions for textbooks to include. A nice component of this is that any and all authors of foundations-type textbooks would of course (and legitimately) want to self-promote their own work and would most likely have a large amount of resource information that AESA could then post.

An obvious follow-up aspect of this, for a forthcoming post, is that AESA should then also create a resource site for instructors wanting to develop their own course reader…

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Soon All Government Agencies Will Be Subdivisions of the Department of Homeland Security

Critics Question Education Department’s Screening

[NYT] As a condition of his work for the federal government, Andrew A. Zucker was willing to be fingerprinted and provide an employment history. But then he was asked to let federal investigators examine his financial and medical records, and interview his doctors.

Dr. Zucker was not tracking terrorists or even emptying the trash at the Pentagon. He was studying how to best teach science to middle school students. He was stunned at the breadth of the request for information.

“To me, personally, it’s shocking,” said Dr. Zucker, who worked for a contractor doing research for the Education Department. He withdrew from the job.

For about a year, contractors say, the department has been requiring employees of the thousands of contractors it hires — many of them academic researchers like Dr. Zucker — to go through a level of security screening usually reserved for those working with very sensitive information.

Katherine McLane, a department spokeswoman, said the scrutiny was warranted because her agency had access to databases with financial data and other information, including names and social security numbers of students or of applicants to colleges or other programs. “We want to make sure that the people who handle and have access to this information are responsible, reliable and trustworthy,” Ms. McLane said.

The policy is prompting critics to question when a prudent background investigation becomes an invasion of privacy. . . .

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Snake in the NCLB Woodpile Exposed

I heard James Lytle speak on a panel discussing NCLB at Teachers College a year or so ago, before he retired as superintendent of Trenton Public Schools. When someone asked about how parents were responding to the growing list of failures that NCLB guarantees with its impossible performance targets, he noted that parents in Trenton have concerns other than what tests their children are being humiliated with: they are more worried about their children being shot on the way home from school. One may suppose they still are, just as their children are still expected to score the same on the State tests as children living in the leafy suburbs of Princeton.

As Congress takes up the law’s reauthorization this year, it’s important to keep in mind the legislation’s time frame: Public schools and districts receiving federal funds must have all their students (less those with severely handicapping conditions) at proficient levels of performance in reading, mathematics, and science by 2014. The trick is that the performance standard increases every two years to ensure attainment of the required 100 percent proficiency. Thus, schools that have apparently been making progress are continually held to higher standards; those that have not been making adequate progress (even if they have shown improvement) have an even more difficult challenge; and those that have consistently met the standard may suddenly find their levels of performance no longer sufficient. As a result, the number of schools identified as needing intervention is likely to accelerate.

The emergent No Child Left Behind issue is the mandate that state departments of education intervene in schools (or districts) that have not made adequate progress for four or more years, and that the intervention follow the prescriptions in the federal legislation. These include the following (with the date they became applicable in parentheses):

    • Offer students public school choice (spring 2003).

    • Offer “supplemental educational services,” or after-school tutoring (2003-04).

    • Implement “corrective action” (2004-05).

    • Replace school staff members (2005-06).

    • Institute a new curriculum (2005-06).

    • Decrease school management authority (2005-06).

    • Extend the school year or day (2005-06).

    • Bring in outside experts (2005-06).

    • Restructure (2005-06).

If these actions do not produce the intended results, then the following additional prescriptions are available in 2007:

• Continue to offer choice and supplemental programs.

• Convert to charter schools.

• Make significant staff changes.

• Turn the school (or the district) over to a state agency or private firm.

There is no existing knowledge base in research or practice, however, that demonstrates whether universal proficiency is even possible. Nor is there accumulated research demonstrating that any of the sanctions mandated in the law, either singly or in combination, will lead to sustained improvement in student achievement or school performance. There are no explicit incentives offered—other than to avoid intervention, corrective action, reconstitution, or takeover. The presumption in the No Child Left Behind law is that the threat of sanctions will force schools and districts to implement research-tested best practices, yet the evidence on school change indicates that trust and willingness to risk are the precursors to sustained improvement.

The evidence to date for the efficacy of interventions already tried is limited. The choice sanction has been notably unsuccessful (fewer than 1 percent of eligible children participate), and the supplemental-services intervention has been the subject of heated controversy over who will provide the services and who will evaluate their effects. None of the other sanctions has yet been broadly enough implemented to yield a sufficient record for evaluation. But as the list of interventions indicates, spring 2007 is “showtime.” State departments of education and/or local school boards will have the authority and responsibility then to make drastic changes at schools that have not made progress.

. . . .

Thus the conundrum: How can schools and districts (and states, for that matter) be held to account for improvement that no one currently knows how to accomplish? Are the imminent sanctions really solutions? Shouldn’t the intervention timelines be postponed, modified, or extended until the knowledge base catches up with the policy?

Are the imminent sanctions really solutions?

The prospect of a rapid increase in the number of schools and districts in “corrective action” status and the inability of state departments of education to provide support and oversight are likely to open the door wide for private-sector management, choice, and consulting interventions. Leading-edge versions of this have already emerged in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and Cleveland, cities whose central offices are becoming management corporations for diverse sets of schools and services: charters, private and nonprofit corporately managed schools, special-needs student outplacements, tutoring services, packaged curricula, and voucher programs for private and parochial schools. An increasing number of urban districts are complying with No Child Left Behind mandates by outsourcing low-performing schools, then changing vendors in the instances when a school doesn’t make adequate progress. Yet none of the vendors has been able to demonstrate that it can intervene in low-performing schools, whether elementary or high schools, and consistently help those schools meet AYP-mandated levels of achievement. In effect, the districts move the walnut shells each time the Education Department can’t find the pea.

This spring, the growing number of schools and districts in corrective action will provide the prospect of expanded corporate entrée. Shareholders, CEOs, and state bureaucrats may prosper, but nothing would suggest that kids will be better served.

The right thing to do is to slow down the sanctions timetable until the reauthorization debate is completed, funding for necessary supports is in place, and a research base has been developed that undergirds the proposed interventions. Otherwise, we are conducting another grand experiment with those least able to control their fates.

Posted 2/8/07 at Schools Matter

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Beyond K-12: “Education” that Falls Between the Cracks

Historians of education like Lawrence Cremin, along with other foundations scholars, have stressed for decades that a great deal of “education” happens outside standard k-12 classrooms. Education of many different kinds, especially for impoverished youth, takes place in a range of community-based settings outside families, including churches, youth groups, boys and girls clubs, child-care centers, foster-care placements, group homes, correctional institutions and more. Yet schools of education focus nearly all their attention on schools and on positions in schools that require professional licensure.

There are real opportunities in these non-traditional settings for schools of education to become involved. Two areas seem especially promising.
  • Youth Work: Youth workers engage with families and children in a range of different settings, including group homes, foster-care placements, community-based organizations, correctional institutions, and a range of other settings. While some of these workers pursue degrees in social work, in my experience few are prepared for the specific jobs they are required to do.

  • Child Care: Child care workers care for children in a wide range of settings. The national child care association has begun to require that these workers take courses for college credit and there is an increasing demand for college degrees. There is also a new national certification for child care administrators that requires 18 college credits.
Many people out are interested in or already working in these areas that would be attracted to a degree program that would focus on educational issues outside traditional k-12 classrooms. And these areas would benefit from people who had received academic preparation specifically to prepare them for these non-traditional education positions.

Our department is currently expanding our offerings in both of these areas. We are working with the Youth Work Certificate program offered out of our university’s School of Continuing Education, since their courses are cross-listed with our department. And our department has always offered classes in child care, although this focus has been much reduced in recent years. Because of new college credit requirements for child care workers, we will be offering a number of new courses in the next few years. Interestingly, the base enrollment is coming from the University’s child care center, since they need these courses to meet the new requirements. But this will provide a base for us to draw in new interested students from around the city.

I believe these offerings will attract an even wider group of students who work in a diverse range of community-service organizations like homeless shelters, women’s shelters, health centers, neighborhood organizations, and other areas. While we already have many students with jobs like these, by including these new specific focuses in our marketing, I believe we will attract even more.

As I have argued before, these “educational” arenas that tend to fall through the cracks of other schools and departments offer possibilities for foundations departments around the nation. In many cases, our departments offer a unique focus on the social and community contexts in which these workers operate, while encouraging students to critique the oppressive aspects of the institutions that many youth find themselves confined to.  

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Kipp Schools Revisited

I was just reading an interview today with Paul Tough ( the author of the New York Times article “What it takes to Make a Student” from the November 26, 2006 magazine (

The article has been almost universally hailed as a sensible reply to the problem of poverty and American schools. While I’m sure there is some success in the KIPP school approach, there are also serious problems with the article and I think the approach. Included below are a few items for consideration:

1) Much of the discussion in the article surrounds deficiencies in how the poor raise their children. For example, Tough argues that poor children hear less utterances per day than middle-class and rich kids, which relates to lower IQ and later school achievement. He also notes research that shows the nature of the interaction between children and parents can have effects on IQ and cognitive development. He stresses the point by indicating that parental patterns more than class determine children’s intellectual abilities.
These arguments clearly fall under the rubric of what Richard Valencia calls “cultural deficiency models.” Rather than seeing cultural difference as a potential positive source, divergence from middle-class norms are generally seen as innately inferior. The discussion ignores larger structural issues around racism, the longer hours that minority/poor parents work and barriers inside schools (like biased tests, tracking and overrepresentation of children of color in special education). Instead the article invokes the “blame the victim” discourse so popular in America.

2) Second, Tough essentially pushes the arguments for reform away from schools and toward parents and students. If students are forced to work harder and poor parents are “trained” to act like middle class parents, everything will be okay. This seems close to the John Ogbu approach of assimilation. But there are flaws in this argument as well – most obvious those outlined by Jonathan Kozel in his two major works. Essentially poor students receive less funding per student, have less qualified teachers (often with low expectations) and reside in overpopulated/under resourced schools (a point the author does briefly make, to be fair). It is unfortunate that so little credence is given to the argument that schools should adjust to the needs of a more diverse student body, by incorporating culturally-specific knowledge, attaching learning to the real world lives of students, capitalizing on the knowledge and skills they bring into the classroom, using collaborative and nurturing pedagogy with high expectations and ensuring that test instruments are not biased against the students. This is not to discount the argument he offers completely, but to wonder why poor/minority students should have to work so much harder than middle class white students to succeed in schools.

3) A third argument relates to the second.

Here is a quote from the interview . . .

To vastly oversimplify the debate over child poverty, it strikes me there are two camps. People in the first camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the economic situation of poor families, their children will wind up being better educated. People in the second camp are more excited by the idea that if we improve the education of poor children, we will improve their economic situation. I’m in the second camp.

I agree that poor students should not wait for economic, social and political reform to strive toward educational success. But the problem overlooked in the argument is entrenched racism that doesn’t want students of color to succeed. And a necessary question rarely asked is where the good jobs will be if they do succeed? As Derek Bell has argued, there is a silent covenant between elites and working class whites that seeks to maintain their racial advantage. This manifests itself in many ways, but one obvious one of late are the efforts to eliminate affirmative action of any kind in post-secondary admissions decisions. We are already seeing the results of this push, with the Ivy League increasingly populated with upper middle-class and rich students (according to a recent NY Times article) and the UC System severly underrepresenting Latino/a and particularly black students (my own school, UCLA, only had ~ 92 African American students in last year’s freshman class). Extensive research has shown that minority children in California are offered less AP classes (central to acceptance to the UC because of GPA inflation), receive poor counseling on college and are in many cases encouraged to drop out of school. I believe more substantive change is necessary if we are to change the opportunities available to poor and minority students.

Some of the onus must be placed on these students, given the realistic constraints and barriers that otherwise stand in their way. But a comprehensive approach requires that schools embrace difference and diversity, have high expectations for all students, work to equalize resources and eliminate the mechanisms that track these students for failure.

Richard Van Heertum
Doctoral Candidate in Education
University of California Los Angeles

Friday, February 02, 2007

Liveblogging from a philosophy-of-education conference

This afternoon I'm in the plenary session of the Southeast Philosophy of Education Society meeting, at a comparative session, Philosophy of Education: Global Perspectives.

Sikharini Majumdar (University of Alabama) discussed Tagore's Ideals of World Education. Rabindranath Tagore was the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1913, describing the ties between Tagore's life and education. Majumdar argues that while Tagore is best known as a poet (and the person who tagged Mohandes Gandhi with the "Mahatma" label), he also had significant influences in education, including the university he founded.

SoYoung Kang (Ohio University) discussed The Influence of Korean Tradition and Culture in Haerim Montessori School, based on her observations at a Montessori school she visited in Korea in the last year. After a standard explanation of Maria Montessori's idea of freedom within a certain structure, Kang explained the interface with Confucianism and the submission of individuals to the group and the preference of harmony over equality. Apart from the expected adaptations of Montessori to Confucianism, there are a few surprises, such as the amount of singing Korean Montessori teachers engage in, as well as teachers' touching students (on the shoulder or back, I gather) and parent-education lectures.

Chad Lykins (Vanderbilt University) presented on a paper with a much longer title: Who Should Sit on the Evaluation Committees of the Research Assessment Exercise? Rethinking the Relationship between Knowledge, Research, and Profitability in the U.K. Motivated by (or at least referring to) the Spellings Commission argument that prospective students need more information about higher education, Lykins discusses Thatcher-era higher-ed policies. Well, being a philosopher, he starts with Plato's bifurcation of abstract vs. applied knowledge (i.e., Plato's anti-sophism) and argues that pre-80s British policies gave advantage to non-applied research in line with Plato's dualism. According to Lykins, Thatcher-era reforms collapsed higher-ed distinctions and gave considerable incentives for polytechnics (or former polytechnics) to go for research funding for applied programs.

The first concurrent sessions this morning required a choice... sex or Dewey:

Sexuality and Education

Sexual Desire, Pleasure and Females: Hip Hop as the New Sex Education (Jennifer Esposito & Bettina Love, Georgia State University)

Democracy and Sexuality Education: Toward the Most Enclusive Ethical Order (Chad Lykins, Vanderbilt University)

Sex Education Curricula and the Governance of Youths’ Sexualities (Leslee Grey, Georgia State University)

Perspectives in Dewey Studies

Education and Democracy Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of the Pedagogy and Politics of John Dewey and Paulo Freire (Ken McGrew, University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Television and Knowing: A Deweyan Critique of the Epistemology of Television (Dennis Attick, Georgia State University)

It's Lost in Translation: A Critique of John Dewey's Theory of Experience (Haroldo A. Fontaine, Florida State University)

I'll admit I went to the sex session... but Lykins mentioned Dewey!

I presented on the problems of expertise and testing, and several participants gave me some useful ways of thinking about our society's trust in testing.