Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Education Book Do You Want Obama to Read?

Picking up a meme from

What one book on education do you think Obama should read?

Kozol's Savage Inequalities is an easy out, but probably doesn't get at what I'd really like him to know that he doesn't already know.

Consider readability, clarity of the argument made, etc. He's not a scholar, he's a busy candidate (or, likely, president). Please explain why you arrived at this choice. Entries will be judged by the coherence of their justifications :).

I have to think about this myself.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Purpose of Small Schools

This is cross-posted from Bridging Differences with the explicit permission of Deborah Meier. That is a site worth monitoring. And I thought this might be of interest. - tk

Dear Diane,

A lot of questions. I’d love to know more about your answers, too. But part of the problem is that there are lots of different things called charters—even the charter laws differ dramatically in different states and the schools even more so. Not all are small, and many are no more, and sometimes maybe less, self-governing than the average regular public school. Vouchers are, of course, a straightforward proposal to get out of the public school business—except maybe for the left-overs.

The Edison schools (now moving into online learning) have been as large as any public school. In fact, most charter school students in Massachusetts attend large schools, although the average charter is modest in size. Many of the “chains” are even more “standardized” than KIPP. You sent me a piece, recently Diane, about IKEA schools—in of all places, Sweden!—whose leader boasts: "We do not mind being compared to McDonald's. If we're religious about anything, it's standardization. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well." A colleague and pro-KIPP’er friend acknowledged that their kids sometimes have difficulty in high schools that expect kids to be more independent, speak up, write well, and be intellectual explorers. He hoped they’d learn from this. But deciding to go into the high school business may just be postponing the bad news. (See Mike Rose’s brilliant "Lives On the Boundary" about just this subject.)

A side note on test scores: dramatic system-wide improvements in test scores, like New York state’s and D.C.'s, would have sent up a red flag in the days of psychometric standards when such results were a sign of poor tests or cheating. One of the odd qualities of the current mania for testing is that we have no standards for standardized tests.

But back to small schools. The purpose of smallness—that kids and faculty and families are better known to each other—is generally irrelevant in many of the new “small learning communities” and in most of the chains that profess smallness. Irrelevant, that is, for the purposes we had in mind. The reason for the large “dinner table” conversation that small schools (and smaller classes) allow for is precisely in order to make difficult decisions together, to weigh trade-offs, to look across age spans at unexpected side effects (or no effects at all, e.g. “successfully teaching fractions” starting at scratch year after year). Kids have always created their own form of smallness (cliques, gangs, groupings), so have adults! What we wanted was smallness on behalf of educational decision-making close to the ground.

Knowing kids better is not simply to help kids “feel good” (which is definitely a positive), but so that we can over time better understand their interests, styles, passions, “ways of thinking”—and our own. It matters only if we—school and family—are in control of how we can respond to what we learn. It’s a laboratory, in effect, for democracy. It’s not intended to turn teachers into social workers (although hopefully there are social workers that the kids can see) but into wiser intellectual leaders. Fewer and fewer kids take for granted any more that they live within something they can call “a community”—a living culture held together by common bonds as well as common norms for dealing with differences. Democracy is one kind of community, and a very complex kind. When our lives depend on democracy many of its citizens have only the faintest notion about how to think, much less operate, within it. Often enough, they abandon it at precisely such moments as a frill we cannot afford.

When we tease local school boards, or local decision-making in general, for stupidity, we are acknowledging that we have created a society in which very few people “think like” democrats, seeing the importance of connecting their knowledge to their arguments, taking the opinions of others into account, and on and on and on. Once every four years we deride “elitism” but in between we operate with elitist assumptions about the way “ordinary people” think. That’s the most telling indictment of our schools, not their scores on tests.

Yes, representative democracy is essential when the numbers prevent direct democracy, so we must learn equally how to operate within such a system. But each school needs to develop its own set of trade-offs between the two, which was a central argument of the NYC Network project. I think the Boston pilots come close to representing a helpful model that has captured the strengths of charters, but has remained true to our commitment to public’ness. I’m hoping the L.A. model follows in that path.

But, remember, what you and I have hoped for in public schooling has always been aspirational. As you have noted in your books, it has had a rocky and uneven history. Many were excluded. Nor have we ever depended on them as much as we do today given all the other publics kids were once exposed to in their growing years. Today, the young experience the adult world, if at all, through a variety of media, via pre-programmed, often solo games. They require very little negotiation amongst peers, and the ends are pure amusement—to induce the state of wanting “more, more”. (I’m sure there are some skills that are honed, some knowledge taken in—I’m an acknowledged novice at kids’ electronic games.)

Small schools are an attempt to re-create, intentionally, the best of the family dinner table, the town meeting, the public square, the legislative process, the team, and the academy of thinkers—with as much of the diversity of the larger community as we can corral all in one manageable place.

You asked many other questions; particularly about the reason so many hedge fund managers (etc.) want to start schools. Money and the pleasure of control is my short answer. The longer answer is that they really are “believers”. Note the rest of that piece, where IKEA’s spokesman broadens his McDonald’s analogy. What works for hotels and airlines, he says, is what’s best for schools.

But this is more than enough for starters.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Games and social foundations classes?

I've been pondering how to engage students in an asynchronous class this fall, and I'm going to take a turn trying a game (that I've audaciously named Strata because, well, it starts out with a straightforward stratification focus). I may well fall flat on my face, but there's a deeper question: what are the possibilities for using games or simulations in social foundations classes? My interest here is in generating discussion about the game (and the meta-gameplay I'll plan for partway through the semester), but there are other purposes that could be served by such activities. We create a simulated case for our multi-section undergrad social foundations class, and both my colleagues and I have run one- or two-class simulations.

But those are in my limited experience. If you've taught social foundations, have you used simulations or games, and in what structures?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Key Thinkers Lost to Education?

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education explores how key scholars from a range of fields have been essentially written out of their history:
How is it that Freud is not taught in psychology departments, Marx is not taught in economics, and Hegel is hardly taught in philosophy? Instead these masters of Western thought are taught in fields far from their own. Nowadays Freud is found in literature departments, Marx in film studies, and Hegel in German. But have they migrated, or have they been expelled? Perhaps the home fields of Freud, Marx, and Hegel have turned arid. Perhaps those disciplines have come to prize a scientistic ethos that drives away unruly thinkers. Or maybe they simply progress by sloughing off the past.
Can people think of examples of this in education? It's a more complicated issue, since education is an interdisciplinary "field," if it counts as a field at all in the same way as these others.

I would point to an entire group of educators that I'm calling the "personalists" from the 1920s and the 1960s with a vision of psychoanalytically and aesthetically based efforts to release the unique creativity of individuals in communal settings. Essentially the "romantics" of education, like Margaret Naumburg, Caroline Pratt, Paul Goodman, A.S. Neill, and the like. But they certainly aren't on the same level as a Hegel. (Philosophers have forgotten Hegel? Bizarre!)


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Small School Movement

I haven't posted in ages, but thought I would see if I could get a debate going on the merits of the small school movement. I recently visited a small school in Brooklyn that really impressed me. All of the seniors in a school that almost exclusively serves low-income Black and Latino/as applied to college and the majority were accepted (in some cases to great schools like Brandeis and UNC Chapel Hill). Most passed the New York Regeants tests in math and English and an increasing number in the harder science subjects. The teachers all appeared dedicated to the mission of ensuring that their students were well-disciplined, passed the regeants and went to college. They worked collectively to improve pedagogy and share information on individual students, including an impressive accountability system that tracked students throughout the year and culled those who needed additional help. The students all seemed to know each other and had a strong relationship with the teachers and principle. There was an air of comfort, structure and shared commitment to learning in a nurturing, caring environment. The school was originally a large, urban high school, but split into three schools that are isolated from one another.

I do know the critiques that have been levied against small schools, including 1) fewer class offerings 2) less diversity of students (and thus less interaction across cultures) and 3) a proclivity to be co-opted and thus to mirror negative trends in larger comprehensive high schools. But there appear to be huge benefits that cannot be easily overlooked: 1) small class size, which is generally shown to increase student achievement no matter what the right likes to saw 2) more attention to individual students and their differentiated needs 3) more opportunities for collaboration across the staff 4) the ability to build a small community that can work collectively toward common goals. It is the last two aspects that I saw first hand and that I believe could be extremely effective in closing the achievement gap and addressing the specific needs of minority and poor children who are failing in our large urban high schools at alarming rates. I really believe high expectations and a structured, caring environment can go a long way to compensate for the many disadvantages these children bring into schools. This is not to discount all of the other problems facing urban youth today, but to suggest an alternative that might be very effective at mitigating some of these disadvantages and offering these students the opportunity for academic success and a brighter future.


Richard Van Heertum
Visiting Assistant Professor of Education
CUNY/College of Staten Island

Friday, July 11, 2008


As a student of education policy, my foremost personal goal is to keep my teacher sensibility and credibility from permanently draining away. Reading research reports, with their inevitable earnest calls for still more research, authoritative policy claims and suggestions, one understands that the base of the research-policy-practice triangle is practice, the apex being the conjunction of research and policy. Practice is a kind of collection pan (or audition stage) for ideas generated by scholarly investigation and clever policy-making.

Teachers serve as both subjects and objects of reform, but—with the exception of classroom-based action research, a phrase that causes your average doctoral student’s lip to curl—seldom go out looking to gather data or propose policy on a wider scale. They wait for the next finding, prescription or mandate to come down the pike, then either wrap the new guidelines around their old practice or attempt to ignore scholarship and policy altogether.

Some see this as evidence of a regrettable autonomy still present—despite the best efforts of education publishers—in the act of teaching. Others (people who work in schools, mainly) see these habits as a defense mechanism. No matter how many studies are conducted, no matter how large the data sets and innovative the statistical modeling, no matter how muscular the policy lever—kids keep coming to school, and teachers have no choice but to keep their heads down and teach them, somehow.

There’s been a little dustup over another one of Jay Greene’s papers, just released by the Manhattan Institute: Building on the Basics: The Impact of High-Stakes Testing on Student Proficiency in Low- Stakes Subjects. Greene’s shabby scholarship was roundly criticized about six months ago, when he and colleague Catherine Shock counted course titles in university catalogues, and developed a math-to-multiculturalism ratio, proving that Ed schools and teachers didn’t give a rip about mathematics achievement. Greene took some heat for that, eventually re-characterizing the data as “an amusement.”

This time, Greene and co-authors Marcus Winters and Julie Trivitt investigate the question of whether narrowing curriculum to put greater emphasis on two tested subjects (math and reading) in Florida schools might have a negative impact on student achievement in other subjects. Their answer? No.

Eduwonkette and other bloggers have raised lots of questions about technical aspects of the study’s research design, and the fact that the report was embargoed, not subject to traditional peer review, before hitting cyberspace; these are the kinds of inquiries that won’t be satisfied until long after the titular core message (“building on the basics” is a good and justifiable thing) has become conventional wisdom. Sherman Dorn cranked out an engaging essay on “the reworking of intellectual credibility in the internet age (which) will involve judgments of status as well as intellectual merit.” And an “Anonymous Peer Review” poster on the Ed Week blog set up, point by point, technical issues of concern in the piece, including some that are obvious even to research lightweights. For example, the study uses two years of math and reading achievement data and one year of test scores in science. That’s right—one year. I’m no statistician—but isn’t it hard to do growth comparisons with only one set of numbers?

Some tidbits from the report:

We find that students attending schools designated as failing in the prior year made greater gains on the state’s science exam than they would have done if their school had not received the F sanction.

There are two important reasons that we might expect schools deemed to be failing to respond positively. Those that have received an F grade for the first time may be shamed into improving their performance. Those that have received at least one failing grade may decide to raise their performance because they fear attrition of their student body.

Though there is some disagreement about which aspect of the accountability policy was effective (the threat of vouchers or the shame of an F grade), each of these analyses found that the policy improved the math and reading proficiency of students in public schools designated as failing.

While the hard-core researchers duke it out, let me step aside here and think like a teacher. Greene and his colleagues, through the Manhattan Institute (“turning intellect into influence”) have released a study strongly suggesting several things, some of which will be appealing to Florida legislators:

· Don’t worry too much about schools cutting back on science or other academic subjects to meet math and literacy targets, because it doesn’t really matter, in the long run. Science scores are likely to go up, statistically, if math and reading scores go up—and that’s good enough for us.

· Schools can “decide” to raise their performance after being shamed and threatened.

· The policy of giving schools failing grades improves their reading and math proficiency. And now we have evidence that it improves all subjects, whether we spend time teaching them or not. Failure, therefore, is a great motivator.

· Sanctions work, and are much less expensive than investing in improved instruction, engaging curriculum or retaining effective teachers.

Florida is a state with nearly 11,000 National Board Certified Teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality, commenting acerbically on the recent—generally positive—National Research Council report on National Board Certification, said this:

Teachers from advantaged schools and states with financial incentives were more likely to participate in the certification process. Board-certified teachers are more likely to remain in the field than other teachers, and are more likely to move to assignments in high-performing schools with lower rates of poverty.

When policy and research “decide” that perhaps a robust science program really isn’t a necessity in a failing school, where are the Board-certified teachers going to migrate? Where might an accomplished science teacher seek refuge from the trickle-down effects of policy and research, along the bottom of the triangle?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Do You Have an Opening for a Social Studies Teacher in Your School?

[NY Daily News] Students at a South Bronx middle school have pulled off a stunning boycott against standardized testing.

More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx - virtually the entire eighth grade - refused to take last Wednesday's three-hour practice exam for next month's statewide social studies test.

Instead, the students handed in blank exams.

Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

"We've had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year," Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. "They don't even count toward our grades. The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams."

According to the petition, they are sick and tired of the "constant, excessive and stressful testing" that causes them to "lose valuable instructional time with our teachers."

School administrators blamed the boycott on a 30-year-old probationary social studies teacher, Douglas Avella.

The afternoon of the protest, the principal ordered Avella out of the classroom, reassigned him to an empty room in the school and ordered him to have no further contact with students.

A few days later, in a reprimand letter, Lopez accused Avella of initiating the boycott and taking "actions [that] caused a riot at the school."

The students say their protest was entirely peaceful. In only one class, they say, was there some loud clapping after one exam proctor reacted angrily to their boycott.

This week, Lopez notified Avella in writing that he was to attend a meeting today for "your end of the year rating and my possible recommendation for the discontinuance of your probationary service."

"They're saying Mr. Avella made us do this," said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. "They don't think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests."

Two days after the boycott, the students say, the principal held a meeting with all the students to find out how their protest was organized.

Avella on Tuesday denied that he urged the students to boycott tests.

Yes, he holds liberal views and is critical of the school system's increased emphasis on standardized tests, Avella said, but the students decided to organize the protest after weeks of complaining about all the diagnostic tests the school was making them take.

"My students know they are welcome in my class to have open discussions," Avella said. "I teach them critical thinking."

"Some teachers implied our graduation ceremony would be in danger, that we didn't have the right to protest against the test," said Tia Rivera, 14. "Well, we did it."

Lopez did not return calls for comment.

"This guy was far over the line in a lot of the ways he was running his classroom," said Department of Education spokesman David Cantor. "He was pulled because he was inappropriate with the kids. He was giving them messages that were inappropriate."

Several students defended Avella. They say he had made social studies an exciting subject for them.

"Now they've taken away the teacher we love only a few weeks before our real state exam for social studies," Tatiana Nelson said. "How does that help us?"

Monday, July 07, 2008

Considering Social Justice and Project Based Learning

This is a slightly modified version of a "book review" I did at Daily Kos. IT is an essay largely about one book, and while it is LONG, I think it relevant to also post it here

Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way

Please bear with me. I have to explain. Partially as a result of my visibility ad Daily Kos, I often get asked to write about books, particularly on education. Sometimes they show up at home or at school without notice. Even if they are good books, often it is not relevant to write about them here.

Also, people who try to turn the material from doctoral dissertations into books often find it exceedingly hard going, as my dearly beloved has discovered over the past few years.

And personal narratives can also be frustrating, because regardless of the success portrayed in the book, one immediately wonders if that success is transferable beyond the individual personalities, the specific context in which it occurred.

I have recently finished a book that is a personal narrative, derived from a doctoral dissertation. And I am going to suggest that even for a general audience such as this, it is not only worthy my writing about it, but also encouraging you to read it. It is entitled Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom and was written by Brian Schultz.

One of the most important tasks facing this nation is how we educate our young people, particularly those who come from inner cities and rural poor districts. While aspects of our educational policy at least label the problem, such as No Child Left Behind, in reality our approach to many of these students tends not to respect what they bring with them to the classroom, the worlds in which they live, the skills which they already have developed. Instead we are too prone to take an approach of insisting on their learning certain academic skills in a decontextualized fashion, using materials that often have little relevance to their experience and their lives. And then we wonder why our attempts at improving their lot by education do not seem to accomplish the goals we have set out.

What if we could learn from the examples of others that when we respect the students and trust them, within limits, when we take into account the issues of social justice - or rather, for many of our students, the social injustice with which they already are far too familiar - it becomes possible not only to develop the necessary academic skills but to see rapid development of the application of those skills in the lives of the students with whom we work?

Yes, that is a very prolix expression. But it is necessary for me to set the framework in which I wish to approach this book.

And it is also necessary to introduce you to We the People: Project Citizen (a program of the Center for Civic Education) about which I quote from the introduction at the website:
We the People: Project Citizen is a curricular program for middle, secondary, and post-secondary students, youth organizations, and adult groups that promotes competent and responsible participation in local and state government. The program helps participants learn how to monitor and influence public policy. In the process, they develop support for democratic values and principles, tolerance, and feelings of political efficacy.

Entire classes of students or members of youth or adult organizations work cooperatively to identify a public policy problem in their community. They then research the problem, evaluate alternative solutions, develop their own solution in the form of a public policy, and create a political action plan to enlist local or state authorities to adopt their proposed policy. Participants develop a portfolio of their work and present their project in a public hearing showcase before a panel of civic-minded community members.

This is project based learning, and can serve as a means of simultaneously developing skills such as organization, data analysis, computer skills, public speaking, cooperation, etc.

That introduction is necessary because it is the framework used by Brian Schultz in the experience he describes. It is his experience as a 5th grade teacher in Room 405 of the Richard E. Byrd Community Academy (pseudonymously named in the book as the William D. Carr Community Academy) in Chicago, adjacent to the notorious Cabrini-Green Housing project. To quote from Schultz's preface and acknowledgments:
The book is organized as a reconstruction of my thought processes and my interpretation of a year-long classroom experience with fifth graders from Chicago's Cabrini Green neighborhood. When the elementary students in Room 405 were challenged to name problems in their school and community, the unanimously focused on replacing their dilapidated school building. Rather than this being a simple activity, addressing this complicated issue became our curriculum for the remainder of the schoolyear. The narrative storytelling central to the book portrays the fifth graders' attempts at solving this complex problem through a curriculum that we developed together.

through a curriculum we developed together That is a key to what you will encounter when you read through the book. Schultz recognized that in order to engage his students in their own learning, he also needed to find ways to empower them, and thus the process of exploring how to address the situation in their schools required him to be less of an instructor and more of a coach, less didactic and more encouraging. That required surrendering some of the authority inherent within the classroom while still maintaining overall responsibility for what happened.

The book is published by Teachers College Press, which does not take lightly its responsibility as a major publisher of tomes on education. That should give you one sense of why I was willing to take the book seriously, which I began reading in an uncorrected advanced proof before I finally obtained a copy of the final product. Schultz, who now teaches at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and who won awards for his teaching both while at Chicago Public Schools and in his current position, was a doctoral student at University of Illinois Chicago Center while he did the teaching covered in the book. One of the members of his doctoral committee was William Ayers, and I feel it important to address this, even though Ayers was not Schultz' doctoral adviser. During the current political season the past of Ayers and his wife (Bernadine Dorhn) has become a matter of some interest because of their activities during the 1960s as part of the Weather Underground and because of a piece from Ayers published around the time of 9-11. For several decades now both have been serving the larger community as academics, Dorhn teaching juvenile justice as Northwestern and Ayers as one of the most important voices addressing the matter of social justice in our schools. Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago in particular has praised the work Ayers has done. If Ayers' backgound is a stumbling block for you, then you are likely to resist what Schultz can teach you in this book, because the book is permeated with the same kind of thinking about social justice and education that has been a major part of the work not only of Ayers, but of figures such as Paolo Freire and Jonathan Kozol. Its roots can clearly be traced back to the too often neglected work of John Dewey, and in its concern for democratic participation is clearly visible in the current work of people like George Wood and Deborah Meier today.

To fully appreciate what one's students can do, one must approach them with the attitude that there is no limit, to not close the door before they even have a chance. Sometimes this is hard. I want to quote a passage from well into the book. The setting is that a reporter from the Chicago Tribune had come and spent time with the students, listening to them. Schultz had brought copies of the published article in for them to read. Remember as you read the material I quote that this are 5th graders from an inner city school. Also, the reference to video is because Schultz had arranged cooperation with what is known as the Collaboratory, an initiative at Northwestern
that provides project consulting, training, technical advice, and Web-based resources and services to K-12 teachers and their students who are interested in using Internet technologies to advance education.

That is sufficient context. Now read what Schultz writes on pp 79-80:
When the first student found the article on the front page of the second section, he shouted, "Found it! March 23, 2004, 'Pupils welcome All to See Their Dreary Reality.' Go to section B at the top to read 'bout us!" I watched each child find the article and begin reading. Some read silently, while others stumbled over some words as they read aloud line by line. There was definite excitement as they went through the sentence looking to get the meaning fo the article as they searched for their own quotes.
I remember enthusiastically watching these fifth graders enjoying reading. Individually each student took the initiative to get through the entire article, each had a stake in what it said. They all wanted to read what that guy wrote about them and see their efforts headlined in the newspaper.
Tavon and his video documentary team had arranged for Karen Percak from the Collaboratory, along with a videographer, to be present for the interview of activist Therese Quinn later in the morning. It was a bonus to get footage of the first deconstruction of an article about them in newspaper.
As we went through the text, we were able to talk about personification, albeit in a manner unconventional when compared to a traditional language arts curriculum. The article contained a real-life example of the literary device" Cresswell Academy of the Arts, a recently built $15 million facility that sits in mocking splendor just across a ball field from Carr." Definitions had to be found for the great new vocabulary found in the article. The key to reading and making sense of the article was that these students - students who were labeled as incapable, not meeting standards, at risk, and struggling - were readily able to make sense of what they read. They were able to decipher the meanings from context, just by looking around the room as Zorn did the previous day. They may have stumbled over some words, but they understood, made sense of, and connected with the text. They consulted the dictionary when a word surpassed their vocabularies because they truly wanted to know the meaning. The text was alive; it was about them.
Most of the students were engaged in the reading lesson, and my initial reservations about having the videographer present and not wanting to be caught on tape being a bad teacher subsided. Classroom management, luckily, was not difficult because the students were genuinely interested in the material and remained focused.

Let me note several things from this passage. These were students who were labeled as incapable, not meeting standards, at risk, and struggling. They they truly wanted to know the meaning because the text was alive because it was about them. And as a result, there were no classroom management problems.

I don't want to give away the story. Some may know it, particularly those in Chicago, or who have been involved with Project Citizen. You may have encountered them through the writings of Ralph Nader. It is an interesting story to follow, and it has a rhythm of its own. You can, if you choose, explore much of what was accomplished that year, with all the artifacts from the students, by visiting the website they built (with some assistance) to document their experience. It is called simply the Room 405 website.

I realize this is not a traditional book review. Such a review would do justice neither to the book nor to the story it has to tell us. For that you will need to read the book. What I hope I can do is demonstrate some key ideas for you. I have already illustrated the connection supposedly limited students were able to make with higher level text (the Chicago Tribune is not regular reading for most elementary school students) and have hopefully demonstrated that project-based learning such as Project Citizen can be an effective way of students learning important skills because they are applying those skills in a context of value to them.

People are often shocked by examples such as this. There is a paragraph on p. 105 where Schultz directly addresses this:
People were shocked the fifth-graders from the inner city were willing and able to do something good for themselves by taking on a project with such dedication. Some of these reactions were belittling and offensive, but it was an opportunity to change their viewpoints by spreading awareness of the smart young citizens' capability, regardless of their neighborhood.

This book is more than just a recounting of a very interesting year in the classroom. Schultz also provides the reader an important chapter on Justice-Oriented teaching. This is a chapter that is going to challenge the thinking of many. I want to quote the first and third paragraphs of the chapter, as they appear on pages 126 and 127 respectively, and then digress with some commentary of my own.

Should teachers have agendas? Whose agenda should it be? When teachers challenge the dominant culture of measurement, standards, and curriculum mandated by federal, state, and local government as well as school boards to enhance student learning, they may be alienated or pejoratively labeled "maverick" or even "radical." Where can teachers seeking to engage their classrooms in democratic practice get support? Should they be able to follow their visions, even if they are in conflict with current school reform efforts? How teachers are viewed in their respective schools and communities raises questions about the idea of whether a teacher should be an activist, someone who takes direct action to achieve a social or political goal, or advocate, one who speaks or writes in support or defense of a group or cause.

Then, after telling us in the second paragraph that "Teaching is not an ideologically neutral practice" and "it is imperative that the teacher be political, especially in the current state of affairs, in which one-size-fits-all testing is prescribed as the only way to improve education" we read the key third paragraph:
Teachers teaching for social justice maintain a curricular stance rooted in and relevant to the lives of students. With a focus on critical, multicultural, antiracist, and antioppressive perspectives, teachers focus on meaningful hands-on, experiential, and participatory activities that seek to help students (and themselves) to critically think about social, political, and economic problems. Teachers and students learn alongside one another in culturally sensitive and culturally relevant spaces. Academic rigor is paramount because curriculum delivered within a social justice context has a tendency to move beyond the school structure

This is a very different approach than that we see in most schools in this country, which may make it seem alien to you. But before you dismiss it, recognize this: it was by using this approach that Schultz was able to reach a group of inner city 5th graders that most would have thought should be given extensive remedial work in order to "improve" their skills in order so that they could perhaps "pass" the high stakes tests which we impose so broadly, and incorrectly.

I want momentarily to digress to another book I am reading now. By Daniel Koretz of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, it is entitled Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. I want to quote three relatively brief passages that I think are relevant to bear in mind as you consider what Schultz has to offer. The first is a quote Koretz repeats from a friend who at the time ran a large testing program, and who got impatient when he tried to explain the subtleties and limitations of testing to a woman who wanted to know what was the best school in which to place her child, and who kept returning to test scores. Finally he told her
"If all you want is high average test scores, tell your realtor that you want to buy into the highest-income neighborhood you can manage. That will buy you the highest average score you can afford"

The second quote is when Koretz is describing the limitations listed in the manual for the widely used Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which
advises school administrators explicitly to treat test scores as specialized information that is a supplement to, not a replacement for, other information about students' performance. And for the same reason, it warns that is inappropriate to use a score from a single test, without additional information, to assign students to special education, to hold students back, to screen students for first-time enrollment, to evaluate the effectiveness of an entire educational system, or to identify the "best" teachers or schools.
Please note, Koretz is saying this in a book that attempts to explain to those of us who are not psychometricians both the benefits and the limitations of testing - he is NOT anti-test per se. Isn't it interesting how many things against which the makers of ITBS warn are precisely what we are doing with our current misuse - or should I say, abuse - of testing?

And finally, and very relevant, we need to remember why we have schools, and it should not be merely to prepare them to test well:
We don't put students in school simply to do well while they are there. We put them in school because we think it benefits both them and society as a whole - to make them mores successful in advanced study, more successful in the world of work, and better citizens, and to enable them to manifest their own potential and lead fuller lives.

better citizens, and to enable them to manifest their own potential and lead fuller lives The first is clearly one key goal of Project Citizen, and both of these are key parts of the approach of teaching for social justice, of taking into account the lives of the students as Schultz has done and as he and many others advocate.

Schultz's students were eventually invited to present their project the next year at the national conference of the Center for Civic Education. The students gave a presentation, and then, instead of simply waiting for questions, one student, Malik, took a different approach. Remember, this is an inner city sixth grader speaking to a national conference of adults. The moderator had explained that before taking questions, the students had some to ask. The audience cheered and clapped, and Malik interrupted to say "It is fine and good that y'all think we did good work, 'cause I agree, we did. Thank you. But how ya gonna help us?" As the audience grew silent, Malik continued as follows:
You know it costs a lot of money to get a new school, and kids can't go to schools like our bootleg, old one. I am not saying we want your money now, but when leave out of here, I bet there are schools just like Carr in y'all cities. What are you going to do to make a difference for them kids and them schools? You can't just think we did good, clap a lot - which I like, by the way - and then not do something in your communities. Think about it.

Schultz offers a commentary immediately after recounting this episode, and I hope he will not mind my also quoting that paragraph in its entirety:
Malik's exemplary series of questions were a perfect manifestation of what we as a class had striven to create the entire previous school year - a problem-posing curriculum that centered around questions that were most important to the students and their lives. Well aware that there were going to be many questions from the audience, Malik also understood that he could think critically for himself. Malik's story illustrates the emergent themes that came out of Carr's room 405 and the many possibilities for the future of the students and their curriculum.

I don't want to spoil the book by telling you more of the details. The students Schultz taught learned how to learn, by learning how to pose questions. They learned because that is also how he taught them. And I will give an example of how he uses that technique to teach, or should I say, challenge us (really, is there a difference?):
Could a skill-rich curriculum adhere to democratic principles and progressive educational ideals and vice versa? Isn't one purpose of education to provide students with the opportunity to explore with what they already have: curiosity, intelligence, and the drive not only to achieve but also to make a difference in their own lives? Teachers should embrace the moral obligation to provide them with the skills necessary to matriculate, while also allowing them to explore their world and become conscious, active citizens in the process.

This kind of teaching is inherently risky. Believe me, even approaching it can raise all kinds of anxiety among parents, administrators, other teachers. And the teacher has to be very careful NOT to impose her own values or politics over those of the students. The real value in taking something of a Socratic approach is this, and again I quote Schultz: "Teachers can best understand the needs of their students by asking them questions and allowing the children, in turn, to pose questions back." Questions, not mere lectures of fact. There is a time and a place for lecture, for practice and drill, but it is far less necessary than its current prevalence in our schools would warrant. And unfortunately, too often that increasingly that is the school experience of many students in inner city schools, precisely the ones we say we do not want to leave behind.

I commend you for having read this far, those of you who persisted. I hope I have at least raised your curiosity about what this book from Schultz has to offer you, to offer us all, as we consider how to make the educational experience we offer our children truly productive, a productivity that surely can be demonstrated by means like the project based learning experience of the students in Room 405.

Read the book, then ponder it.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Thoughts from a journal editor

Crossposted from Social Issues

As editor of Education and Culture, the journal of the Dewey Society, I write a brief note with each issue, usually offering a few ideas of my own while briefly discussing the articles. I went back recently and reread the notes from the first two issues I edited, 20(2) and 21(1), from about 3 years ago.

In the first I discuss what I see as my hopes for a journal sponsored by the John Dewey Society:

When I wrote the JDS board about taking over the journal, I gave a rationale that read, in part, that [My] interests are broadly Deweyan. Though I have read and studied Dewey’s work, I see the journal as more Deweyan in spirit, rather than just in letter. I would be interested in seeking out scholars who are examining not only Dewey himself, but his influence upon his contemporaries, and his enduring legacy. I would like to invite contributions on current work on Dewey’s influence. I am also keenly interested in exploring how the new technologies may be used in the journal. I would insist on electronic submission and reviewing procedures to expedite the process of production. I would also like to explore online components of the journal . . . I hope we are on the right path to realizing some of these characteristics, and I welcome any comments from readers on the journal’s direction and how this new editorial team may best serve the Society.

In the second note, I continue this discussion of what this journal is and might be. The impetus for this reflection was an email exchange with a former editor of Educational Theory:

Last year, I engaged in a series of spirited emails with Ralph Page about my new position as editor. Ralph recently retired after many years from the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana/ Champaign, and edited Educational Theory, one of the best-known journals in the areas of social foundations of education and educational policy, from 1983–1991. I had heard about Ralph from many people, especially my former colleague Christine Shea, before I had the pleasure to meet him, and came to realize the effect he has had upon not only the fields of what we at Purdue call “cultural foundations,” but more especially, through his work with countless authors and reviewers, a continuing narrative about what it means to be a journal editor. Ralph enjoined me to think of a journal as more than a place where the “best” articles get published, and the field, in my case, Dewey studies, is defined. Ralph thinks a journal can be, as he so generously put it, “a site of interchange among actual authors and actual audiences.” I thought about that and agreed that many people may not think of journals as sites for exploration, for the education of the authors, but more simply as gate keeping devices for the disciplines involved, and as finished products of scholarship. Ralph reminded me of the primacy of keeping the audience in mind when considering how to put together an issue. He told me that he asked himself the question: Will this audience be better off if they have a chance to read this article? That intrigued me, and I thought along with Ralph about what “better off” means in this context. We decided that “better off” may mean that an article raises neglected topics or a marginalized point of view, and thus enlarges the field of discourse. Or, more directly and personally, the audience may be better off by hearing a crucial statement by an up and coming junior scholar on the cusp of tenure. “Better off” for Ralph did not mean merely some notion of “excellence” or “cutting edge,” determined by a supposedly unbiased and distinguished review panel. These issues are not excluded, but a host of other issues, some idiosyncratic to the editor, his or her board, the journal at that particular time, may be considered.

I try to keep these thoughts in mind as we move forward with the journal and continue to think about its place in the lives of scholars and practitioners. We are moving forward with a special issue commemorating the150th anniversary of the birth of John Dewey in 2009, and looking at where Dewey studies, as well as practice, may take us today.