Monday, December 29, 2008

Our Unconscious Brain Makes The Best Decisions Possible

Fascinating study about the probabilistic operation of our unconscious.
Pouget's extensive earlier work . . . suggested the human brain is wired naturally to perform [statistical] calculations. . . .

"We've been developing and strengthening this hypothesis for years—how the brain represents probability distributions," says Pouget. "We knew the results of this kind of test fit perfectly with our ideas, but we had to devise a way to see the neurons in action. We wanted to see if, in fact, humans are really good decision makers after all, just not quite so good at doing it consciously. . . . It's weird, but people rarely make optimal decisions when they are told the percentages up front." . . .

Shadlen's team watched the activity of a pair of neurons that normally respond to the sight of things moving to the left or right. For instance, when the test consisted of a few dots moving to the right within the jumble of other random dots, the neuron coding for "rightward movement" would occasionally fire. As the test continued, the neuron would fire more and more frequently until it reached a certain threshold, triggering a flurry of activity in the brain and a response from the subject of "rightward."

Pouget says a probabilistic decision-making system like this has several advantages. The most important is that it allows us to reach a reasonable decision in a reasonable amount of time. If we had to wait until we're 99 percent sure before we make a decision, Pouget says, then we would waste time accumulating data unnecessarily. If we only required a 51 percent certainty, then we might reach a decision before enough data has been collected.

Educating Goldfish: Multiple Lines of Intelligence Evolution

From Scientific American:
As is the case with many traits—complex brains and sophisticated cognition have arisen multiple times in independent lineages of animals during the earth’s evolutionary history.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gándara and Contreras: Rescuing the American Dream

I just finished the new book, The Latino Education Crisis: The Consequences of Failed Social Policies, by Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras (HUP, out in January). Written in an accessible style but with copious footnotes and references for those so inclined, the book documents where we are now, and where we might go, in our education, and care of, the Latino population. Fast-growing and largely neglected, this population's characteristics are documented in the book with charts, tables, statistics, and heart-wrenching stories about dreams deferred and aborted. I was particularly struck by the portraits the authors make of a number of Latino and Latina youths who overcome barriers, and of those who do not.

In the last few pages of the book, Gándara and Contreras outline a policy agenda to address the need.
  • Better health care and access to social services
  • Subsidized preschool programs
  • Housing desegregation and stabilization initiatives
  • Target recruitment and better preparation for teachers
  • Immigration policy reform
  • Support for dual-language education
  • Dropout prevention and college-access programs that support the connection between school and home

The buzz on this book is palpable, and I expect it to be discussed and widely reviewed. I have tapped one of my colleagues to review it for Education and Culture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Revisiting the Moynihan Report

The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections after Four Decades

Douglas S. Massey and Robert J. Sampson

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 6-27. [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
James Q. Wilson

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 28-33. [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
William Julius Wilson

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 34-46. [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Harry J. Holzer

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 47-69. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Devah Pager and Diana Karafin

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 70-93. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Frank F. Furstenberg

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 94-110. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Sara McLanahan

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 111-131. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Linda M. Burton and M. Belinda Tucker

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 132-148. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Kathryn Edin, Laura Tach, and Ronald Mincy

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 149-177. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Andrew Cherlin, Bianca Frogner, David Ribar, and Robert Moffitt

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 178-201. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Frank D. Bean, Cynthia Feliciano, Jennifer Lee, and Jennifer Van Hook

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 202-220. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 221-242. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Lawrence D. Bobo and Camille Z. Charles

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 243-259. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Robert J. Sampson

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 260-280. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]
Ron Haskins

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 2009 621: 281-314. [Abstract] [PDF] [References] [Request Permission]

Academic Freedom "at Risk?"

An article in today’s Inside Higher Education, “Speech Restriction Draw Fire,” details a plan at Northeastern Illinois University to require protesters to submit copies of fliers and signs to administrators two weeks before they can be displayed on campus ( Back in September we learned that the University of Illinois has sent an email to all employees (including faculty) that forbade displaying bumper stickers or political buttons on campus unless they were non-partisan ( A few weeks later the University of Austin was forced to rescind an order that no posters be displayed in students’ dorm windows, including campaign posters, after both Obama and McCain supporters with the help of the ACLU challenged the rule. All of this comes on the heels of David Horowitz’s continuing Academic Bill of Rights campaign to protect students from “liberal” and “radical” professors who are attacking our students with their sinister ideas.

These are just a few recent examples of attempts to undermine the academic freedom that we have fought so hard for over the years. We could add the various tenure decisions that have been questioned, the professors who have been reprimanded or fired for having unpopular or controversial ideas, the famous UCLA Dirty Thirty list, and countless other examples of schools that have fallen prey to the right-wing plan to clean our schools of “subversive,” read divergent or counterhegemonic, ideas.

When did ideas become so dangerous? This has certainly always been the case to those in power. From our earliest days, the control of information stands at the forefront of the war to control what we see, hear and think. As a World Bank draft report (2003) argued, “unions, especially teachers union, are one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.” This is the new conventional wisdom – teachers and, of course, teachers unions, undermine the central tenants of neoliberalism by getting people to, gulp, think about the world order and its logic and fairness. The progenitors of official knowledge want to delimit the available voices in the public sphere and continuously attack the last bastion of free thought and serious inquiry.

Faculty have generally challenged this call for censorship, as well as the false call for objectivity and neutrality. The minor successes of David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, however, show the ways in which colleges and universities have increasingly embraced the idea that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from radical teachers and their attempts to proselytize students. The situation in k-12 public schools is of course more tenuous, as calls for neutrality and politics-free curriculum seem to increasingly be the rule. From NCLB, Adoption Plans and scripted curriculum to positivism’s stronghold on educational research, we move closer and closer to the notion that education and knowledge are purely instrumental – a means toward the end of training, profits and a compliant, complacent workforce.

An interesting recent article from the New York Times, however, suggests that the power of professors to change their students’ minds is quite limited: The article cites three recent studies that find that professors have virtually no influence on the political ideas of their students. Parents, family and, to a lesser extent friends, are the major influence on politics ideas – particularly among the young. While schools once caused many students to rethink their ideas, this appears to be the case less and less (while many of my own student’s claim I awaken them to new ideas, and some do seem to really question their preconceived notions, few actually seem to change their general views on race, class, power, language, etc.) Why? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the stifling of real debate, the positivistic meme that has overtaken American scholarship and the popular idea that knowledge can even be neutral or apolitical.

Decades of challenges to this idea from history, anthropology, linguistics and political and social theory in general have appeared to go largely unheeded (at least outside the Ivory Tower). In my view, people tend to relate knowledge to their own experiences and the ideas that surround them throughout civil society. Schools are one of the few places where these questions are asked in a serious, critical manner (directive learning). And yet these spaces have been attacked so effectively in recent years that one wonders if the closing of the American mind is in fact inuring.

I believe our first responsibility as teachers, professors and educators at all levels is to open our student’s minds to the richness of knowledge and ideas. We must challenge our students to question not only conventional wisdom but their own deeply held beliefs – no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. This does not mean proselytizing them or making them think like us, it means giving them the tools to critically reflect on their own experiences and their relationship to the broader social, economic and political worlds in which they reside. If schools fail to provide this most basic aspect of learning, they do a disservice not only to students but society at large. As Dewey, Jefferson and Freire among countless others have argued, democracy depends on an educated, informed populace, with the freedom to explore divergent perspectives. I think we as professors should take this as a central charge and attack all efforts to undermine our freedom to explore knowledge in all its richness and diversity. This includes attacking the popular notion that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from it.

-- Richard Van Heertum

Caring and Power

The holidays sometimes intensify my wonder about how little the privileged care about those with less. I don't exempt myself, feeling somewhat poor this season when I am also incredibly privileged.

New research seems to indicate that people who have a sense of personal power have less compassion for those below them. As I've argued earlier, it is precisely this sense of personal, individual, power that is a key component of middle-class culture.
The fact that many cultures emphasize the concept of “noblesse oblige” (the idea that with great power and prestige come responsibilities) suggests that power may diminish a tendency to help others. . . .

[In this study,] individuals with a higher sense of power experienced less compassion and distress when confronted with another’s suffering, compared to low-power individuals. In addition . . . high power participants showed more autonomic emotion regulation, which buffered against their partner’s distress.

[P]owerful people were not motivated to establish a relationship with distressed individuals.
This makes me wonder whether a central aspect of middle-class education--the effort to build a sense of individual confidence and empowerment--may also help produce a reduced tendency to want to collaborate with the less powerful.

In other words, two of the central components of middle-class, professional progressivism may be in direct conflict with each other. The desire to actualize unique individuality may corrode efforts to encourage collaboration with other individuals across different power levels. This may intensify the tendency of middle-class professionals to want to work only with other similarly positioned middle-class professionals.

Ironically, visions of caring focusing on actualizing the individuality of others, a la Nel Noddings, are themselves fundamentally middle-class constructions, differing significantly, as Audrey Thompson among others has noted, from the "caring" of those with less privilege and power.

This may also relate to the disgust middle-class people often feel for members of the working class (h/t our own Jane VanGalen's Education and Class blog).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What Arne Duncan means for educational policy--the view from Chicago

President-elect Obama's choice of Arne (pronounced "arnie") Duncan for education secretary startled me a bit, because I expected Obama to name either an accomplished academic to the post (like Linda Darling-Hammond), or someone with broader experience in the trenches of education, that is, involving more than being a capital-fund-supported educational "reformer" or CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Duncan has never taught in a K-12 school--other than tutoring...attended the U of C Lab Schools and Harvard (and so has no experience being a student in a public school)...and lacks an advanced degree (even a master's degree) in education. Plus, while some credit Duncan with righting a sinking ship in Chicago during the last seven years, I think in fact any "improvement" in Chicago Public Schools has been primarily in terms of the public perception of the schools and some tinkering around the edges of accountability and choice.

So what are Duncan's qualifications to be education secretary?

1. Duncan is a consummate diplomat. Since the primary job of the education secretary is to "sell" federal programs to the public at large and other constituencies such as teachers unions, this is the primary reason he was chosen. He's well-spoken without coming across as aloof. He sounds like a regular guy, even though he's a Hyde Parker through and through, son of two well-respected University of Chicago academics. (I think perhaps Duncan's basketball career has given him a visceral connection to people who lack an academic bent: "I've been fortunate to go to some of the top schools in America...but I can tell you, without a doubt, that some of the best lessons I've learned in life are from playing basketball on Chicago's inner-city playgrounds. There's nothing like it", Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2001.) Like Obama, he has a huge natural smile that disarms his critics. I've heard Duncan speak in public a number of times, and while he advocates reforms (mostly along the very moderate lines of improved teacher training, replacing enormous failing high schools with small schools, more charter schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and using better data for decision-making), he NEVER says anything particularly upsetting or polarizing (in contrast, say, to Paul Vallas). Duncan is also not adverse to defending his boss (Richard Daley, for example), and he does so in a masterfully tactful manner that leaves even critics of that boss nodding their heads at Duncan's defense.

2. Duncan is smart. He listens. As mentioned above, he pays attention to data. Educationally-oriented academics (such as Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Initiative of the University of Chicago (and my former boss) love him. Duncan is persuadable. He doesn't think he knows it all, and is willing to let smart, dedicated professionals do their jobs within broad policy constraints. He's an excellent executive.

3. Duncan is a pragmatist. One thing about Barack Obama that strikes me--especially in terms of educational policy but perhaps more generally--is that he seeks pragmatic solutions to policy problems, while adhering generally to the consequentialist belief that the best policy is that policy that benefits the most people. ("Arne has always seen education as a civil rights issue." — Phyllis Lockett, CEO of the Renaissance Schools Fund, a non-profit that works with Chicago schools, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 16, 2008.) Duncan shares this pragmatism. Neither man, despite being Hyde Parkers, U of Cers (in some sense), and Democrats, is an idealogue. They will not pursue policies (such as the Bush program of "evidence-based" programs) that are merely screens for tactics in the culture wars.

4. Duncan is not only pragmatic, but he is also independent. He is not beholden to any political or entrenched interest. He's not "pro-union"; nor is he "anti-union." He's not for privatization of public schools, but he's not opposed to outsourcing when it improves results. He's also not opposed to closing underperforming schools. (When he first started doing this in Chicago, he raised a tremendous outcry of opposition from teachers, students, and community organizers. He learned from this experience and changed his tactics. Now, you hear almost no sustained opposition to this policy.) While he's surely a Democrat, and likely a liberal in his personal political views, he exudes a kind of beneficent concern for all stakeholders that will play very well in Washington policy circles.

5. He plays basketball....very well, and Obama likes to play with him.

6. His kids go to the same public school as my son does and daughter did. It's pretty much the best urban neighborhood school in the country. Will this continue? Hmmm......

So what are the implications?

1. NCLB will be drastically restructured to focus on supports for improvement rather than negative consequences for failure.

2. Opponents of charter schools have lost a huge battle. Their expansion will continue dramatically.

3. Urban school districts will receive special attention from Washington.

4. Washington will now begin to push a longer school day and longer school year, and the public will be gently pressured to force the unions to accept this without getting higher pay.

5. Funding for educational research will no longer be tied to ideological criteria such as "evidence-based" practices. Rather, research will be judged in terms of its likely benefit to generalized issues of educational practice.

6. The bowling alley in the White House will be replaced with a Basketball Court.

7. Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has been the quiet but effective and resolute Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools for the past 6 years, will become Chicago Schools Chief. Barbara (who was also my boss for about 3 months before she took her current position) is smart, friendly, tireless, effective, and has deep experience at all levels of the system. Expect Eason-Watkins to make news within the next few years, most likely by saying things that no white man could say in that position. She may shake things up a bit in Chicago (which would be quite welcome).

While I was startled that Obama made this pick, I think it was a good one. Duncan will do Obama's bidding without even having to be told what that is. He will be well-liked by pretty much everyone. And he will work to generally increase federal involvement where such involvement can make a difference, and will advocate strongly for "investment" in education in a way that will be convincing to most Americans.

(Direct quotes above are from,8599,1867011,00.html)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Our Kids are Scared

Some powerful posts on DailyKos yesterday about the impact of the economy on middle-class kids. 

For my 8th graders, some of my kids didn't get an 80% (mastery) on the Forms of Government test.  As per my usual routine, I gave up my lunch and offered a LUNCH BUNCH study time and test re-take opportunity.  One student arrived early sans lunch.  I was busy gathering up lab equipment off tables from my 7th grade science class, so I wasn't looking at my early student as I said, "Hey, go on and get your lunch.  You can eat while we do our Rapid Study Technique before the re-take."

I could feel the silence and non-movement of my student.  So, I turned and looked.  There were tears on the table beneath his bowed head.  I pulled up a chair and asked, "Family or friends."  Silence. That meant it was a  family issue. Probing gently, I got, "Mrs K., both my Mom and Dad got laid off and our house ... our house.  I was too worried to ask for a check for lunch money, and I'm too embarrassed to ask for the P&J lunch."  When he said "our house," it came out like a moan.

The second, a followup from our own teacherken: Many of my kids are scared, too

I blog because I teach

This was originally posted at Daily Kos. While strictly speaking it does not address policy, it explains in part my involvement with educational policy, and hence seems relevant here as well.

I was sitting in a Starbucks in Arlington, Virginia. Across the table from me was Tom Vilsack, the Governor of Iowa and a man who was considering running for President of the United States. What was he doing taking time out of his schedule to talk to me, a guy who taught high school in Maryland? Why was he listening to what I had to say, and asking followup questions?

It was because I blog. Tom Vilsack’s Internet guy had started reading what I wrote and included me in a conference call about education when the Governor was doing some outreach. After that, the governor and I kept in touch, discussing ideas about educational policy. Later Tom Vilsack appeared on a panel about education I organized for the first Yearly Kos convention of bloggers, in Las Vegas, in 2006. It’s the kind of relationship that could only have developed because of what happens online.

People often ask why I blog, especially about education. Let me begin to answer that by explaining how my blogging got started.

There is much wrong with American education. I knew this from my own schooling even before I decided to become a classroom teacher, but that experience intensified my belief that we need to rethink our schools. And before switching careers in my late 40s by getting an MAT, I had already begun to participate in discussions about education in online listservs and bulletin boards. Once in the classroom, I began studies toward a doctorate in educational policy because I wanted to have the “union card” to get my voice heard on policy matters. At about the same time I’d gotten to know Jay Mathews, the Washington Post’s writer on education, and at his behest wrote several pieces that appeared in papers in the D.C. metro area. When Jay suggested I turn some of my research into a piece for his paper, I said that I was thinking of submitting it as a journal article.

“Why do you want to send it to a peer-reviewed journal?” Jay said. “They take forever to publish anything, and who reads them? You have an ability to write about education in a way that ordinary people can understand. You can make things real for them. You can have just as much of an effect doing that as you would as a scholar.”

Those words changed everything for me.

Since I already served as a peer-reviewer for several publications, I realized that Jay was at least partly correct – the time lag was significant, and so was the limited nature of the audience. And while I may have the mind of a scholar, I really lack the appropriate temperament.

I began to rethink how I could contribute to the nation’s debate on educational policy. I wanted to reach the widest possible audience, parents and other teachers and members of the public as well as academics and policymakers, and I decided that scholarly discussion wasn’t going to enable me to do that. I knew I could keep publishing the occasional letter to the editor or op-ed piece. I knew that would open other doors. But would even that create a dialog with a broad, consistent audience?

I didn’t realize it at first, but the medium I was looking for was already in front of me. I’d always been active in politics, and when I was in New Hampshire in late 2003 volunteering for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, someone showed me a group blog on progressive politics called DailyKos. Anyone could write for it; the only criterion for reaching its burgeoning online community was that readers had to recommend what you wrote in order for your work to stay visible. I started to post blog entries — diaries, in the Daily Kos terminology — on Daily Kos, just as it was becoming the biggest and most widely read site on the progressive side of the blogosphere. Only part of what I wrote was related to teaching, schools, and education, but because everything I do comes back in the end to what happens in my classroom, a lot of passion and thought went into those posts.

My diaries began to get a response – for some reason my words connected with many of those who read them. Some of those people were educators. Others wrote from their own experience as students or as parents. I found my diaries often became an occasion for intensive discussions in the “comments” threads that flowed from each diary: my words were merely a convenient starting point for something in greater depth, far more intense. I might write about teachers who had had an impact upon me, and others would share their memories. From that starting point, folks would begin to discuss what kind of teacher made the biggest difference and why.

People began to ask what I thought about many different aspects of education, and as the planning began for the first Yearly Kos convention, I argued for least one panel on education: reauthorization of No Child Left Behind was scheduled for the Congress elected in 2006. Because by then I was considered the most prominent writer on education at Daily Kos, the conference planners asked me to organize a panel, and I did – with educational advocate and former businessman Jamie Vollmer and with Governor Tom Vilsack. Since then I’ve organized additional panels including on education at subsequent Yearly Kos gatherings and at the successor, the Netroots Nation meeting. These conventions now draw hundreds of participants and many of the nation’s most prominent progressive politicians. I have been invited to present at conferences, or to attend conferences and write about them. People ask me to write about books on education: authors and publishers believe that my writing may entice or persuade others to read what I recommend.

All of this is gratifying, as are the relationships I have been able to develop with politicians with responsibility for or concern about education. Remember, I started a doctoral program because I wanted to have a voice in educational policy. I felt too often the voice of those of us actually working with students was not part of the discussion when policy was being designed. Blogging about education has caused that to begin to change.

Consider an exchange I had at that meeting at Starbucks. I reminded Tom Vilsack about a recent meeting on education he and the other governors had had, each governor bringing with him a business leader who was concerned about education. Why, I asked, had each governor not brought a teacher or a principal or even a student? Why were the voices of those directly involved with schools and education not part of the discussion? Tom looked surprised, and acknowledged that he had never considered such a possibility.

So there are times when my blogging enables me to have an influence on the thinking of those in a position to make or change educational policy. That potentially improves the lives of all teachers and all students. Perhaps it is that I get an invitation to meet with Congressional staff to talk about education. Or, as happened recently, I get invited to a focus group to help set the next year’s direction for a major professional publication. Through my blogging and my connections in various online discussion groups I have been able to be a conduit between the educational community, including teachers as well as policy folks, and many people responsible for policy in Congress and elsewhere.

I have no pretensions that my blogging will ever become my primary source of income. I rarely get paid for what I write, although I enjoy the few such opportunities that come my way. I am satisfied, even gratified, with the ability to make a difference, perhaps in the thinking of others, even when we disagree. Even better, occasionally I experience that my words unlock something for some readers, thereby empowering them.

I blog in part because I am a blabbermouth. That is, I have ideas that I want to share. Some are mine, but many are those I have encountered from others, about which I want to converse. Blogging provides an opportunity to engage in discussion and learn from those who challenge me with their comments and questions, or offer points of view I might not have considered or ideas I had not encountered. The exchange enriches all of us, including the many who never comment, but who will occasionally come up to me at conferences and thank me, or who drop me a message via the email address I list with my blog posts.

The online dialog is not always so sanguine, however. One runs the risk of people “stalking” you across the blogosphere, seeking out your diaries and comments to attack you. And since I do not hide my identity and provide a real email in my profile, I often get off-blog communications. Most are heartfelt, some are not. Some expand my thinking. Others eventually oblige me to block their writers’ email addresses because I don’t need such grief in my inbox.

I write a lot about issues other than education. I am passionate about civil liberties. I majored in music in college. There are people in other fields whose life and work I admire. Regardless of subject, certain things are common to everything I write — above all, my passion for the topic and my desire to connect with others. For as hard as it is for some to believe, I am basically shy; blogging enables me to connect with a wider range of people, to form ways of being connected across distance and differences. And all of it shapes what I do in the classroom, which is always where my educational blogging starts.

I think of what I do as an extension of how I teach. On the first instructional day my students are asked “What is justice?” and regardless of the quality of the answers they give, I challenge them to think more deeply, to go further. I do this by raising further questions: if a student answers that justice is “to punish those that break the law,” I may ask if that means that Harriet Tubman should have been fined or imprisoned for all the slaves she helped escape from the South? My purpose is to help my students realize that true education is far more than merely learning a series of facts. I want them to be able to think more deeply, to ask what any fact or set of facts might mean. In the process of doing that they may offer me back a perspective I have not considered – that is a benefit I gain from the exchange. For them, they will begin to develop skills that will enable them to challenge themselves, their own ideas and thinking. And thus they will begin to able to educate themselves. The students may experience some discomfort – for many this is the first time they have encountered the Socratic method. I am willing to risk their discomfort in order to challenge them. If we are too comfortable, we are far less likely to take the risk of exploring new ideas, new ways of thinking and perceiving, ways which are a key component of intellectual – and moral – growth.

Readers often comment on my online teaching: that is, in my blogging and in the comments I post they see me as engaging them in thinking, in being willing to dialog. I am not by nature a “drive-by poster,” someone who puts up a post and then leaves it alone. Instead, I stay around to engage in online conversation. Perhaps because of that people will often read what I post as the starting point, an invitation to respond. The blog format allows multiple people to participate in the conversation, jumping in and out with their remarks as they deem appropriate.

People’s ability to respond immediately in the comment threads is a large part of a blog’s appeal, both for readers and writers. I experience the impact my words have, and blogging does indeed become a form of teaching, which is perhaps the most important reason why I do it at all. As in my classroom, my ultimate purpose is not to disseminate information, although occasionally that is key. Rather, it is to challenge thinking, to help others realize that they have the power to learn – and to teach and to persuade – without the blessing or control of designated authorities. I want to make people somewhat uncomfortable, in the hopes that that will move them from stasis to growth - I suppose in that you can see my affinity for Vygotsky as well as for Dewey. Sometimes that leads to challenges, and to people who reject what I offer, which is fine with me. In any case, what is in many ways the most interesting for me is to watch the conversations that start among the readers, without my direct involvement. They work toward the building of community, part of what brings people back to my postings and to those of other writers whom they come to know and appreciate.

That is why, I suspect, my writing has now built up a consistent audience. One builds that audience over time – primarily by the quality of the writing and of the ideas and of the conversations that result. Since I write largely on a blog focused on politics, I am never quite sure who will read and respond to my work on any given occasion when I write about education. Some of my readers will be other educators, many will be parents, some will be people interested for other reasons. The only assumption I can safely make is that the vast majority of my audience will not be professional educators. And thus my language must be clear, my terminology explained, my ideas organized in a way that allows others to follow my thinking. Because most of my audience does not consist of educators, my writing has a greater impact.

That is what makes blogging so empowering: you don’t have to have a readily identifiable name or externally certified expertise to develop an audience. People notice you, tell others, and then they in turn read and join the conversation. One’s blog name becomes something of a recognized brand, inducing people to glance at the beginning of whatever you write. Then? Whether readers persist through the piece, or ever click again, is a function of the quality of the writing and the thinking.

I have now been “blogging” for more than five years. In that time I have written several thousand posts, of which about twenty percent have been about education, teaching, school, and related subjects. The vast majority of my writing has appeared on Daily Kos, though as the blogosphere has evolved and the lines between traditional media and new media have continued to blur, I’ve gotten opportunities in much older venues that would never have been possible a few years ago. Even the New York Times has blogs now, and in the summer of 2008 I was asked to participate in its re-established Lesson Plans blog. The Times experience enabled me to converse about education with an additional community.

In the end, I have experienced blogging as a way of teaching and building communities with people I would never otherwise encounter. I have had the experience of immediate feedback from a variety of perspectives I might not have considered, which has expanded my knowledge and sharpened my own thinking. I have been part of a process that has helped change politics and policy, at least in part. The ability to quickly build virtual communities of like-minded people allows those otherwise not included in normal policy discussions to have their voices heard. After all, Tom Vilsack’s internet guy reached out to me precisely because I had an audience; I was part of a larger community. The ability of people to reach positions of influence based only on the quality of their work, and not by getting past the obstacles of self-perpetuating groups of gatekeepers, is incredibly empowering, and very small-d democratic.

Does blogging make a difference? By itself it could be destructive, a way of avoiding real engagement with the problems that confront us. But as I have increasingly found over the years, it can also mean connecting oneself to real debates in the real world, and drawing one into actions that goes beyond words.

In November 2008, after reading responses to Barack Obama’s election by famous op-ed writers and ordinary folks alike, I wrote a diary that was not specifically about education but that expressed as well as anything I have written why it is that I blog:

Words have the power to inspire. If we have learned nothing else from this campaign, it should be that. It is never "just words" any more than simple human kindness is an ordinary act. Like all acts, those of kindness are extraordinary. As all people are, at least potentially, themselves extraordinary, capable of incredible things. First one has to believe, to have vision.

That is why I am a teacher - to help my students have that belief in and vision about themselves.

It is also why I write - in the hope that my fumbled connections of words perhaps may in someone else unlock a power in them that will connect them with what a former president once dismissed as the vision thing.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

If It's Good Enough For You, Is It Good Enough For Me?

When President-Elect Obama announced he was sending his children to Sidewll, the media carried the story for its requisite two-days, then promptly moved on to more pressing economic matters.

As a former teacher, a university professor who teaches teachers, a vocal critic of standardized schooling, and a future parent (June 26th-ish), I paid more attention to this story than most.

I had a number of questions.

What type of schooling does the president and his wife want for his children? Is that type of schooling good for all children? Would it be good for mine?

When I visited Sidwell’s website, and I compared that school and its curriculum to the public schooling available to 89% of American children, I found a serious disconnect.

Sidwell is nothing like the schools my child will likely to attend, especially not their K-4 classrooms.
Lower School welcomes children into an enriching, warm, and supportive environment. Here they come to feel at home in the world of school and in the role of student. The faculty works to instill a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence in each child while also requiring that he or she recognize the needs of others. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal with a balance between freedom and discipline.
Standardized education renders the above untenable. The curriculum has been gutted. Teachers are leaving schools and citing testing as the reason. Many are in a panic about the future of their jobs.

I say this based on comments left on the online petition as well as my own research into K-4 schools in my neighborhood.

From the petition
33954. Lisa Lynn Meunier I educate pre-service teachers and have pulled my own children out of the public school system. We will continue to lose outstanding educators to NCLB. A gorilla can teach to the test from a basal reader. Get multi-million dollar publishing companies out of public education. 47401

33592. Brooke Ahrens I have left teaching in the public schools because the mess that has been created by this legislation. After teaching in a private school, I have concluded that I will not send my own children to public school, largely because of NCLB. It makes me sick. I was a product of the public school system. 95125

33465. Misty McCauley As an educator, I am very frightened by the way that education is actually failing our children.

33460. Charlotte Mullins As an educator for 35 years I feel we undoing all the good things that have been done for sp. ed. students for years. It takes years of hard work to get students to the point they have self-worth and confidence in themselves. NCLB only reinforces negativity. 87114

33225. Maribeth Crutchfield I retired from teaching because of NCLB. The lack of understanding the process of teaching and learning was forcing me to attempt to educate children in a way which, after 30 years of teaching, I knew was just wrong. 37209

33177. Letitia Smedley It is killing us! 37214

33158. Beverly Singleton I have personally seen teachers stop teaching science and Social Studies just so they can teach double sessions of math and reading because the school must pass in those subjects to make AYP. I don't feel that one student should be counted more than once depending on what subcategories they may fall within. While we should have high expectations for all students, we must realize that not all students are able to meet the same levels of learning. Have you ever watched a fifth grade student that is on a second grade level of learning due to a learning disability take a standardized test on a fifth grade level? Trust me it is very frustrating, not only for the student, but for educators as well. I would like to give the legislators a test on something such as rocket science or advanced medicine and see if they could make the grade. Or perhaps we could give them a test in a foreign language and expect them to pass. This is the same as expecting ESL or special ed students to pass a test that is far above them 89701

There are literally thousands of comments such as these on the petition. Many of them tell the same story: NCLB crushes creativity, innovation, and freedom. Self worth and self confidence are not concepts of fundamental importance in most public school classrooms.

I want to compare Sidwell's K-4 program with what's going on in K-4 clasrooms across the country. The same case could be made for middle and high school, and perhaps, if I have the passion and the time, I'll explore those later.

In the Lower School:
[Sidwell’s] program is geared to the mastery of basic language arts and mathematical skills and encourages individual creative expression. Teachers use a thematic approach to learning, which gives students an understanding of the relationship between disciplines. Scientific and artistic exploration as well as physical activity are important parts of the curriculum.
NCLB’s effects on K-8 public schools in my neighborhood. (We surveyed 1200 teachers and received nearly 500 responses. Note this was the entire population and not a sample.)

Language arts: replaced by “reading” and in classrooms using DIBELS "reading" has been replaced by frantic chanting

Mathematical skills: static

Creative expression: a thing of the past

Relationships between disciplines: ignored

Exploration: over

Recess and P.E.: disappearing

I want my child, and all the children my child will grow and develop with, to use language arts and mathematical skills creatively, exploring the relationships between themselves, their worlds, and our future.

What does the past tell us about solving today’s problems? How can we use math and science to create a better world? What if language arts meant exploring and understanding who we are and where we are going?

At Sidewell:
The computer is used to enhance the teaching of many subjects. Students often visit the wider community on field trips and for service projects.
If my child sat in one of the dozens of public schools surrounding my home, she/he would not be using computers creatively, if at all, and he/she would unfortunately not be visiting the wider community on field trips or for service projects.

I would love for my child to be able to use math, science, and the language arts to enhance life for the wider community. At the 2nd grade level, students may be reading stories with senior citizens in nursing homes, and at the high school level, students may be designing, constructing, and maintaining solar panels for rooftops.

Importantly, I want all children similarly engaged so they become adults who are similarly engaged. It makes no sense for a very small segment of the population to have a robust education if the other 90% receives mediocre educatin at best. How does that help a community or a nation or a planet for that matter?

In the Lower School:
All classes, with the exception of one third grade and one fourth grade, have team teachers. Individual class sizes range from one teacher for every ten students in the lower grades to one teacher for every 16 students in some fourth grade classes.
Team teaching does not go on in the schools I visit. In 3 years I have not seen team teaching occur in the 30 schools I have visited. As subjects are isolated to making testing efficient, opportunities for collaboration between disciplines do not occur. To be fair, I am not sure that very much team teaching went on before NCLB. I certainly don't recall it from my school experience.

In the Lower School
Third and fourth graders have from one-half to one hour of homework each school day. Progress evaluations for all Lower School students are in the form of parent-teacher conferences and checklists and narrative reports, which are sent to parents in October and June.
No standardized test scores. No grades...(How will the Obama's know their children aren't being left behind!!??)...Rather there are conferences, checklists, and narrative reports.

I do not want my child reduced to a number. I want her teacher to tell me how he is growing and developing. Where are his strengths and weaknesses? What does she love to do and do best? How can we help him with both?

This amazing curriculum goes on:
The language arts program emphasizes reading, writing, and speaking skills and the use of these skills to understand and appreciate many forms of literary expression. Students explore the origins and meanings of words, experiment with different kinds of creative writing, and undertake simple research projects.

The math curriculum focuses on the structure of the number system, problem solving, spatial relationships, and the applicability of math to students' daily lives.
Both computation skills and conceptual understanding are stressed. Students use manipulative and concrete materials to gather information, make comparisons, and draw conclusions as appropriate for their ages.

The social studies program provides opportunities for students to learn about both historical and contemporary times. Students focus on individuals, families, and communities; the environment and ecology; cities, states, and countries; cultural heritages; historical periods; and ancient civilizations. Both the uniqueness of individuals and the richness and diversity of cultures are emphasized.

The science program is experiential and small group based. Students from prekindergarten through fourth grade meet once a week in the lab to conduct experiments, explore, and investigate concepts in the environmental and physical sciences. Children build models, play games and gain understanding through "hands on" work.

Specific topics covered vary by grade level and are often tied to classroom work and themes in Social Studies and Math. Sidwell students dabble in chemistry, electronics, astronomy, biology, geology, human anatomy, simple machines and much more.
We are not talking about math in our students lives.

Social Studies is disappearing from our nation’s classrooms.

Science has been reduced to memorizing facts rather than used as a tool to investigate our world.

K-4 students are not meeting weekly to conduct experiments, explore or investigate concepts.

None of the K-4 students in my neighborhood are dabbling in chemistry, electronics, astronomy, biology, geology, human anatomy, or simple machines.


If we could have schools that served the mind, body, and spirit (i'm open to debate on what all 3 of these mean) for all children, why not do it?

In fact, there are people in this country who believe we could have similar schools, schools that focus on the individual and the world he/she inhabits at no increased cost. You might be shocked to find out that 2 individuals under consideration for Secretary of Education, Linda-Darling Hammond and Doug Christensen, have worked to create schools where such teaching and learning can occur without outsourcing our classrooms to test companies or for-proffit schools.

Unfortunately, these two individuals don't have a media apparatus lobbying for them as do Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, individuals who want to increase NCLB's size and scope. At Newsweak, Pat Wingert argues that these two names and a host of other Washington Educational Insiders as innovators. The entire first paragraph is worth reading (but not quoting), as anyone familiar with think tanks and policy groups knows there is nothing innovative about any of these names. These are people who have been feeding Americans the same nonsense for nearly a decade.

Genuine innovation, risk taking, and outside of the box thinking will not come from "back to basics" schooling, it will come from supporting teachers and students as they make sense of a complex and changing reality. Yes they need English, math, science, and history to do so, but they also need the arts, social sciences, and engagement with their communities to become engaged doers rather than passive recepticals, the ultimate product of a standardized education.

Here is what I don't understand: Rhee and Klein oppose "Sidwell schooling" for American children, favoring a rigid, unflexible, standardized education for all...Does this mean that these two individuals disagree with how President-elect Obama schools his children? Conversely, if standardized schools are the be-all-end-all for raising intelligent, engaged adults, why is Obama ignoring Rhee and Klein and sending his children to a school such as Sidwell?

Is he off his rocker? Is Michelle?

As a teacher, a teacher teacher, and a future parent, I want my child to love what she does, who she does it with, and how she is doing it, not resent education in general. In our public schools today, thanks to NCLB and a regimented, rigid mindset that has been with us for decades, there is a great deal of resentment, from teachers to parents, to the most important participants: students.

Obama has the power to change this. Appoint Darling-Hammond or Christensen to Secretary of Education, replace NCLB with community created responsibility models, and properly fund our public schools.

I can't afford the commute from Huntsville to D.C. to send my children to Sidwell.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How should K-12 education resources be distributed in a democracy?

We thought our readers might want to see this Forum over at Stanford University:

Thinking Twice is a newspaper column that appears monthly in the Stanford Report. Each month Stanford scholars take a multi-disciplinary look at the same issue from their uniquely informed points of view.

FORUM QUESTION: How should K-12 education resources be distributed in a democracy?

Equality and Educational Policy, by Debra Satz

American schools are funded by a complex formula of national, state and local dollars and there are significant differences in the funding of the K-12 schools that students attend. If some schools are so ill equipped that children lack textbooks, trained teachers, and basic supplies, how can we say that these children have equal opportunities with their wealthier peers? How should K-12 education resources be distributed in a democracy?

This is a complex question because it involves difficult empirical issues [such as the efficacy of different resources] and disputed questions of values. While most Americans are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity, there are very different understandings of what it means.....[click here to read more]


Funding Special Education by Eamonn Callan

Public funding for special education in America has long been controversial. Many different questions are entangled in that controversy. My question is a particularly thorny one. Is it just for society to invest substantial resources in the education of those who can learn very little? The question has more than academic meaning for me.

When my son was three he was diagnosed with autism. We were told he was a “classic” case, which was a delicate way of saying his symptoms were severe. But we had hope. He performed very well on non-verbal cognitive tasks. The psychologist who tested him said his intelligence seemed to be at least average. He might grow up to be an adult who could take care of himself. Attending college was not out of the question....[click here to read more]

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Memory Recorded on DNA? The Ground Level of Learning

Interestingly enough, it may be that memory is stabilized by alterations in the DNA of particular neurons. This article argues that the DNA in neurons involved in a particular memory are altered through a process of "methylation," which basically means that a tiny CH2 molecule is "snapped" on to nucleotides of particular genes to get the neuron to "remember." (Sorry, I was a bio chem major undergrad for a long time.)

Monday, December 01, 2008

Florence Nightingale, Statistics, and Reform

I thought this article was fascinating, about how some of our key approaches to representing statistics were created by Florence Nightingale as part of her social reform effort.
As impressive as her statistics were, Nightingale worried that Queen Victoria’s eyes would glaze over as she scanned the tables. So Nightingale devised clever ways of presenting the information in charts. Statistics had been presented using graphics only a few times previously, and perhaps never to persuade people of the need for social change. In doing so, she ignored the express advice of her mentor, Farr. “You complain that your report would be dry,” he wrote to her. “The dryer [sic] the better. Statistics should be the dryest [sic] of all reading.”

The Next Nation At Risk Report

also posted at Daily Kos
The original A Nation At Risk came out in 1983. It began:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. . .(snip) . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.
The scary language continued. Note just the very next sentence:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

What you will read below is reproduced with permission. And I will explain about the author and the organization after you read.

The Latest Nation At Risk Report: The Education Roundtable to Tell Corporate America How to Stop Ruining America.

We feel compelled to report to the American people that the business and financial foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur— companies that extolled themselves as models of excellent practices have deceived the American people with sloppy, undisciplined, and greedy practices that are driving Americans out of their homes, threatening their retirements, and dashing their hopes of a financially secure future. Indeed, if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre corporate financial performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.

As it stands, our businesses have allowed this to happen, with greedy CEOs and upper management taking enormous benefits for themselves while preaching and dictating to our schools the need to adopt their “sound” business practices of unbridled free markets, privatization strategies, and the notion of competition as the force for change. Taxpayers are now providing an initial $700 billon bailout of some of these companies, whose CEO’s have been actively involved in dictating to policy-makers that America’s schools should model the management style of the private sector.

God forbid that our schools become more like these kinds of businesses! Our business and financial communities have, in effect, been committing rash, thoughtless acts of unilateral financial disarmament, dragging our citizens and their children into economic insecurity while having many of these same citizens pay the bill. By making their terminology, practices and transactions incomprehensible to the lay audience, these business leaders enjoyed a decade-long end run around the public and our alleged watchdog agencies. The hubris of high rollers on the top floors of America’s giant companies permitting unfettered profit-taking at the expense of others has no limit. To be blunt, the business community has become an industry at risk of implosion.

To help our colleagues in the business community, we educators hereby recommend a new guiding and monitoring organization for business and financial institutions. The Education Roundtable will gather a team of the country’s top educators, whose charge will be to set business standards, goals, and accountability structures for all corporations and financial institutions. To promote a greater culture of accountability, the Roundtable will also require each entity to publish a report card every year, based on a series of standardized assessments.

Our final word, perhaps better characterized as a plea, is that all segments of our population will give close attention to the implementation of our recommendations. Our present plight did not appear overnight, and the responsibility for our current situation is widespread. Reform of our corporate and financial system will take time and unwavering commitment. For no one can doubt that the United States is under challenge from many quarters.


There will be some angry readers out there who will bristle as I have lifted some of the exact wording of the Nation at Risk Report of 1983 and changed the word “schools” and “public education” to “business and financial institutions.” And yes, I have taken plenty of liberties to extend and add sentences to define all business and financial leaders and stock market manipulators as untrustworthy, immoral, dangerous people who have let our country down; crushing the day to day lives and long term hopes of the large majority of Americans who can not afford to lose their jobs, their homes, and their savings. And my business friends -- if there still are a few left -- will bristle at the idea that educators and lay people, with no experiences in business or finance, should be taking charge of what they need to do. If so, the point has been made and hopefully, sincerely taken before further policy making.

The above appeared as The Latest Nation at Risk Report, a blog post at The Forum for Education and Democracy, an organization about which I have written before. The author, Carl Glickman (click on his name for his bio), is one of the conveners of the Forum, and a notable figure in education circles. You will note other important names among that group, including Linda Darling-Hammond, currently cochairing the policy review of the Department of Education on behalf of the Obama transition effort.

And yes, to those of us fighting the battles about the future of education, this piece is something that raises our spirits.

Let me repeat part of Glickman's epilogue with some added emphasis of my own:
And yes, I have taken plenty of liberties to extend and add sentences to define all business and financial leaders and stock market manipulators as untrustworthy, immoral, dangerous people who have let our country down; crushing the day to day lives and long term hopes of the large majority of Americans who can not afford to lose their jobs, their homes, and their savings. And my business friends -- if there still are a few left -- will bristle at the idea that educators and lay people, with no experiences in business or finance, should be taking charge of what they need to do. If so, the point has been made and hopefully, sincerely taken before further policy making.

At some point, the voices of professional and committed educators need to become prominent, if not dominant, in the discussions about our national educational policy, as well as at lower levels. To date we have largely been excluded from the discussion.

In that context, let me repeat part of the first face to face conversation I had with then Governor Tom Vilsack. I noted that the Governors had just had a conference on education and each governor had brought a business leader. Tom acknowledged that was true. I asked why each governor had not instead brought a teacher, a principal or even a student? He was genuinely surprised at the idea.

And yet, unless you view our students in the demeaning manner of considering them as products and/or raw materials, and thus the teachers and schools merely as mechanical means of rendering or re-forming that material into a desired end, might it not make sense to include the voices of those who will be expected to implement whatever policy politicians and businessmen seek to impose? Perhaps we educators might be able to save you a lot of time and money, as well as the learning of our students, by explaining to you the reality of education. As Jamie Vollmer, keynote speaker for the education panel at the first Yearlykos so right concludes in his famous Blueberry story,
I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. For the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

That change will include VALUING our public schools, not seeking to defund them through vouchers and charters. It will include educating the whole child, not merely preparing compliant workers for ever decreasing wages without union protections against employers who don't give a damn for either workers or the communities in which they operate, only the maximum profit that can be made under the least amount of regulation and taxation. It will value civic education as highly as math and science, because absent civic responsibility, science and technology can be destructive and dehumanizing.

I am a proud educator. I am a teacher. My subject happens to be Social Studies. What I teach is students. They are neither my raw materials nor my finished product, not even my my customers. They are my fellow human beings for whom I have a greater responsibility than do most businessmen. I am responsible for their minds, their spirits, to a large degree for their futures. I must empower them to be able to learn on their own, to be able to think critically, to express themselves clearly.

Perhaps if businessmen would tend to the realities of their own sphere, our economy might not be so much of a mess.

As for "A Nation At Risk"??? It was the first of a series of jeremiads against public schools, blaming them for the reflected ills of the larger society. And each cycle we have seen changes imposed, and then a few years later we are told yet again how horrible our schools are. Chew on that repetitive cycle if you will. . .

Educators have not been running school policy - politicians and businessmen have. And what is their record? How about on the economy, for starters? Except since we are educators and not businessmen we are not supposed to criticize? Even when you bankrupt your corporations and then desperately beg for the taxpayers (the rest of us who are NOT businessmen) to bail you out?

And government? Hell, you the politicians charge me with teaching about government - and my kids do quite well on the external tests you impose on them, probably better than you might do - and then you do not abide by the rules and procedures of the government you want me to teach to them. Remember things like the rule of law, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights???

Perhaps Glickman's piece did not have for you the same force it did for me, although if you are now or were in the 1980s an educator, it surely will strike at least the occasional internal chord.

If it does not, follow the link with which I started. Or better, go directly to the passage Glickman is modifying, part of which I have already quoted. You can read that here

And whether like me you find yourself with at least a sardonic smile if not bitter laughter, please consider this: we have a new administration, but that is not a guarantee that the corporatization of American education will cease. Stay vigilant. Speak out.

But for now, I hope Carl Glickman's words offered at least a little humor with which to start your work week.