Sunday, May 31, 2009

Nick Burbules on technology and education

Two short clips on YouTube of fellow EPB blogger Nick Burbules being interviewed in Argentina about technology and education.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A look at Chicago schools under Duncan

also posted elsewhere

Every now and then it is useful to step back from the hype and the spin and see what people on the ground have to say about important issues. In the case of education policy, we should not forget that George Bush gave us Rod Paige and the so-called Texas Miracle (which never was) as the argument for passing into law No Child Left Behind.

Obama has chosen his basketball buddy Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan is an exemplar of several things (1) mayoral control of the school system; (2) a non-educator put in charge of education. The track record of both is not particularly sanguine.

But rather than merely my saying so, perhaps you will take the words of someone on the ground in Chicago. Wade Tillett is a Chicago public school parent and teacher who also blogs about Chicago schools. The piece below appeared on his Bubble Over Network, the name of which comes from the ubiquitous use of bubble-in mass produced tests. I have Wade's permission to reproduce the entire piece, and I will add a few comments of my own at the end.

Flunk, retain, drop out

Written by Wade on May 27th, 2009

Soon scores from a small portion of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) will come back.
The booklet sent out with ISAT says “No person or organization shall make a decision about a student or educator on the basis of a single test.” (1)
Despite this, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) trusts this test to override our own teachers in deciding the future of our children.
For third, sixth and eighth graders, our promotion policy automatically flunks at least one in four children based on a thirty or forty question test. (2)
At the end of summer school, CPS is five times more likely to retain a child for the next year if they are African-American than if they are white. (3)
By retaining a student, CPS increases that child’s chance of dropping out by 29%. (4)
Chicago Public Schools spends $100 million dollars every year on this policy. (5)
Extensive research shows that it DOES NOT WORK. Repeating a grade does not help children succeed. (4)
Why do we continue to threaten eight-year-olds and tell third-graders they are failures? Why do we make students cry, throw-up, and finally quit?
Chicago Public Schools should use the $100 million it spends every year on holding back kids to instead provide what students really need: caring professionals with the time and resources to find out what works for each of them. Our children need advocates, not inflexible policies spit out of a machine.
CPS should stop using standardized test scores to override all other considerations in making student grade promotion decisions. I encourage anyone who agrees to sign the petition. And I encourage other parents to contact Parents United for Responsible Education if your child is forced to go to summer school.

1. 2009 ISBE ISAT Professional Testing Practices for Educators booklet

2. CPS policy sends any student below the 24th percentile to summer school.



5. $10,000 per student per year times approximately 10,000 students retained

Here's what is scary. Chicago is the model for what Duncan wants to do to American education. What has been done in Chicago since Richie Daley got mayoral control of the schools, first under Paul Vallas (who also imposed his "magic" on Philadelphia and New Orleans, but who is really interested in elective public office) and then under his one-time assistant Arne Duncan, has NOT addressed issues like the achievement gap that plagues poor, minority students. There is extensive evidence in the peer-reviewed literature of the negative consequences of retention, and that is without even considering the scope of retention system-wide in Chicago. The use of one-shot high-stakes multiple choice tests - which may or may not truly be standardized - to make the determination of who is retained is contrary to what the psychometricians responsible for the creation of the tests say is appropriate use of their tests.

The idea that anyone at below the 24th percentile is automatically required to attend summer school is also troublesome, unless there is an independent determination that at such a level the student is unable to function at the appropriate level for the next grade. It seems like an arbitrary cutoff without sufficient justification. Even if one presumes that the test is an accurate measurement of meaningful skills and knowledge, by that rationale we are assuming that just under 1/4 of all of our students are not succeeding sufficiently in regular school settings. If that is true, perhaps the answer is to address the deficiencies in the schooling received during the school year. Of course, the track record in Chicago has been instead to reconstitute troublesome schools, then not include their performance in the evaluation of the system on grounds that it is a "new school" so comparison with previous years' test scores is meaningless. Thus the Chicago Public Schools mask the lack of progress under many years of mayoral control.

That we are doing this to relatively young children, marking a significant portion as failures early in the school career is an abomination - the failure is not theirs, it is ours, all of us, for allowing this to occur.

I will not attempt to rationalize the disparate impact of these policies by race. Wade points that out clearly.

Testing, then analyzing test results and applying punitive sanctions has not yet proven successful within cities and state nor across the nation. While some advocates of the NCLB approach brag on "improved" scores at the elementary level in NAEP (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), such improvement is tenuous at best. The amount of improvement at the elementary level is less than in the previous cycle, that previous cycle having covered a period most of which occurred before NCLB. There is no improvement demonstrated at the upper grades. And even in the lower grades, the so-called achievement gap has not closed - minority children still lag behind as they did before - for this it is worth remembering that the ostensible purpose of NCLB was to close those gaps, to ensure that poor and minority children were not shortchanged on their education.

People in Chicago have been trying to warn the rest of us since before Obama became a candidate for president. Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) has done yeoman's work in documenting the real story behind the supposed success of the various initiatives in Chicago.

Wade Tillett's piece is but one of a series of alarums to which we should pay heed. As Arne Duncan continues on his listening tour around the nation, people should be prepared to challenge him on the real record in Chicago.

In the last presidency we learned how badly our nation's educational system could be damaged by propagating a failed model. I fear we confront a similar challenge right now.

Learn, and then speak out, for the future of our public schools.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Brown v Board of Education after 55 years

originally posted at Daily Kos

Fifty-five years ago today the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously issued Earl Warren's opinion in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, in which it stated unequivocally that
Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
And yet even after 55 years the promise of the Brown decision we still have not overcome what is effectively a system of educational apartheid.

Below the fold I am offering the text of a piece by Sam Chaltain, the National Director of The Forum for Education and Democracy. I am going to urge you to read carefully his words. I will offer a few additional comments of my own, but the primary purpose of this diary is to make Sam's statement more widely known.

Doesn’t Every Child Deserve a High Quality Education?
By Sam Chaltain

On May 17, America will mark the 55th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education. If Marshall were alive, however, he would urge us to stop celebrating 1954 and start accepting responsibility for our complicity in the creation of a “separate but equal” education apartheid system – with one method of instruction for the poor, and another for the privileged.

In theory, the Brown decision represents the most hopeful strains of the American narrative: working within a system of laws to extend the promise of freedom, more fairly and fully, to each succeeding generation. “In the field of public education,” the unanimous Court wrote, “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and the opportunity to learn “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The Chicago Defender proclaimed May 17, 1954 as “the beginning of the end of the dual society in American life and the system of segregation that supports it.” Marshall himself remembered feeling “so happy I was numb.”

In practice, integrated schools today are as much of a dream now as they were then, and the subject of segregation has all but disappeared from the national conversation about education reform. Worse still, many of the newest and most promising schools in our nation’s cities are actually increasing the racial stratification of young people and communities – not lessening it.

Providing ‘separate but equal’ facilities, it seems, has once again become an acceptable justification for allowing an inequitable schooling system to exist. In this system, some schools receive ample funding, while others scrape by. Some schools are filled with passionate, experienced educators, while others are flooded with passionate, inexperienced rookies. And while one child is being taught that the key to success is finding the right (multiple-choice) answer to other people’s questions, another is learning that success comes from finding his voice and discovering his rightful place in the world.

Which child is more likely to do well in life, and in a democratic society?

Ostensibly, this inequity was what the Court ended in 1954. But legal changes tend to outpace social changes, and so in 1973 the Court was again asked to intervene, this time when a group of poor Texas parents claimed that their state’s reliance on local taxes to determine per-pupil expenditures violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed.

The unfair distribution of resources, Justice Potter Stewart conceded, “has resulted in a system of public education that can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust. It does not follow, however, that this system violates the Constitution.”

Justice Lewis Powell agreed. “Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.” If it were, Powell conceded, “virtually every State will not pass muster.”

For Justice Marshall, a sitting member of the Court he had stood before two decades prior, that was precisely the point. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” he wrote, even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being.”

Marshall understood that without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn’t work. “Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights,” he explained. “Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

After so many years and so little real change, something new – perhaps even something drastic – needs to be done.

What if Powell and Stewart were wrong? What if we made the guarantee of a high-quality public education our nation’s 28th Constitutional Amendment? Is that the game-changer we need to make the promise of Brown a reality, 55 years later?

Sam Chaltain is the National Director of The Forum for Education & Democracy, a national education “action tank” committed to the public, democratic role of public education — the preparation of engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens.
(follow Sam on Twitter)

Let me start by noting again the words of Justice Powell, that Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution. And still today, more than a quarter century after that opinion in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, it is still true, as Powell wrote in 1972, that virtually every State will not pass muster.

Some states guarantee a free and appropriate public education in their state constitution, although such guarantees were often from a time when such education was only through the 8th grade.

We have come out of a two-term presidency where the focus on No Child Left Behind as the supposed means of addressing the inequity that is still pervasive in America's schools has had the unfortunate effect of narrowing the educational opportunities for many children of color. The recent scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show that while scores at the elementary level have risen somewhat (albeit less than in the previous periodic assessment covering a time when NCLB had only briefly been in effect), the gap between white and black had not closed and at the high school level there had been no significant change in performance. In short, we are still leaving many children behind. And in the meantime we are robbing them of access to the arts, which are not tested, and incredibly to history and civic education, which also are not part of the calculation of Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB, and hence get ignored inr restricted in favor of more time to raise scores on those tests whose results do get included.

I teach government. Thus the words of Thurgood Marshall in dissent are to me quite relevant: Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights. Our students need to understand those writes to be fully participating citizens helping shape their own future and the future of this nation. Marshall recognized this: Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.

But these ideas are not new now, nor were they when Marshall expressed them in 1972. Let me offer a selection from Warren's opinion in Brown that remains as relevant today as it was 55 years ago:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.

We must remember that despite the unanimity of the Brown decision there was strong resistance. I write these words from the Commonwealth of Virginia, which after the succeeding Brown 2 decision of 1955, which said that segregated school systems must be integrated with all deliberate speed chose a path of "massive resistance" repeatedly articulated in the editorial pages of a major newspaper, the Richmond News Leader, penned by the very articulate editor James Jackson Kilpatrick. We often forget that Topeka was only one of 5 districts involved in the Brown case. There were two parallel decisions, because one case came from our national capital which since it was note a state had to be decided on somewhat different legal grounds as it was in Bolling v Sharpe. The other states, besides Virginia, included South Carolina and Delaware. The Virginia situation is illustrative of how difficult it has been to achieve racial equity in public schools. The General Assembly had allowed the closing of public schools that were to be integrated, but this was ruled unconstitutional in 1959, whereupon the General Assembly repealed compulsory school attendance and left it to local option. That meant either integrated public schools or no public schools. Prince Edward County, which had been the subject of the Virginia case combined into Brown, chose to be the sole Virginia district that abandoned public education. From May 1, 1959 until in 1964 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unconstitutional governments making grants to private (segregated) schools, Prince Edward County had no public schools.

Too many do not know the history of that time. The decision 55 years ago today did not magically erase an era of racial discrimination in education. While it might no longer be de jure on racial grounds today, the inequity of schools serving primarily or exclusively minority populations is not so much better, despite the various federal and state efforts that have been made. The process of of addressing the failures of such schools has inextricably become a political football used by some to advance causes that have little to do with the meaningful education of children whose economic situations give them less access to educationally related activities outside of school, and whose in-school education has increasingly been narrowed to preparation for tests to "prove" we are offering an education, even if the unstated purposes on the part of many advocates are things like destroying the legitimacy of (and hence the support for) public education and destruction of teachers unions as a force both in educational policy and in politics.

Education is essential if we are to remain a liberal democracy. It is one of the few ways we can empower all of our citizens to something beyond a dependence on the whims of corporations whose sole purpose is maximizing their profits. Education should prepare people for a future that is more than merely for the workforce, but also for civil society, for the body politic, for the future of America.

We have come 55 years since the Brown decision was issued. We have not yet come close to fulfilling the promise contained in Warren's sweeping opinion. Despite the unanimity of the Court in 1954, we have never achieved a consensus on the purposes of public education, nor do we have a willingness to make the commitment necessary to achieve the promise of the right to a high quality public education.

Perhaps pursuing a federal Constitutional Amendment is the only way of refocusing our attention as a nation to what Brown was supposed to help us achieve. Certainly the public discussion that would ensue from exploring that option would benefit the nation, whether or not we ever ratify such a proposal.

Warren wrote in Brown that
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

Allowing clearly inferior educational opportunities, even if nominally not done specifically on racial grounds, nevertheless still has the same impact. Students are not idiots - they quickly realize that the inferiority of their facilities, in some cases teachers, and in many cases quality of instruction indicates that society does not truly care about them despite the rhetoric about leaving no child behind, of overcoming the disparity that is apparent when we look even at gross indicators like test scores. Their hearts and minds are still battered by the inequity a continuing part of the experience of far too many children of lesser economic circumstances. They may be children of color in inner cities. They may be whites in economically distressed rural communities. They are often children in schools on the reservations in which many Native Americans still grow up.

Regardless of race or location, when we do not offer them a high quality education, we betray the basic principles of our Constitutional system and give lie to the promise of the Brown decision.

Fifty-five years. We have come somewhat. We have not come far enough.


Friday, May 15, 2009

More Evidence: "People Who Get Screwed Have Screwed Up Kids"

We are developing a new narrative about poor kids and about kids whose parents have experienced trauma. (These are not the same groups, but the slippage is pretty easy in the way we think about them.) And this narrative says: Their problems are biological. It's inevitable.

Think how problematic this is:
Not only does poverty make you stupid, but if your mom had a rough life, you will likely be more hyperactive and have difficulty with social interaction.

Oh well. Screwed up parents have screwed up kids. Nothing we can do about it. . . .

We're only sure about rats, now. But it may not be long before we find it in kids. (As the authors note: "we should be prepared for analogous effects in humans.") In any case, the findings about rats will likely be plenty enough for many. (Poor kids. Rats. Hmm . . . Good comparison.)

This is reminiscent of the panic about "crack babies." Many teachers and others had many problems with the "crack babies" in their classrooms, etc. Except, of course, it turns out that there was no such thing as a "crack baby." They had real struggles with "crack babies," kids that really couldn't be helped. With the minor problem that they did not, in fact exist, except in the minds of those who believed in "crack babies."

All kinds of things are missing from the most recent findings about the impact of trauma on offspring.
1) Are the effects substantively significant as well as statistically significant. (In other words, not "are they real findings" but "are they real findings anyone should care about?")

2) Do the effects, if substantively significant, have a useful adaptive purpose? Do they actually bring benefits at the same time as they bring negatives? Are there strategies for helping kids find benefits of any differences that are substantive?

3) How many individuals have substantive effects that really matter? Is it a fairly small number of the individuals effected? If so, what are the dangers involved in applying this "label" to an entire "population"?

4) To the extent we agree that these biological tendencies cause issues in our world, what, specifically could buffer these effects?

5) To what extent are the kinds of social institutions we have (schools?) for low-income people magnify any potential negative impacts of these tendencies? (In other words, if middle-class kids are a little anxious does it matter? Do these tendencies only have substantive impact on kids who have to grow up in crappy environments? Is the real issue one of interaction, and not of biology alone?)

6) In crappy environments (e.g., many low-income schools) does the effect of the environment swamp any potential effects of these biological tendencies. In other words, even if there is a substantive effect, by the end of school would you notice much difference between kids who really were effected and those who weren't.

Interestingly enough, #6 would indicate that it is actually only in privileged kids that these effects really matter. Poor kids would end up just as anxious at the end, on average, no matter what. Only in kids in "good" environments would you be able to discern an impact in the long term.

By the time we actually get more information like this, it will be too late. The effect of this knowledge will have been felt: in the actions of teachers, social workers, and reverberating through our social institutions.

The impact of knowledge like this can be incredibly insidious.

From the article:
For the first time, a study of rats has shown that when a mother experiences some form of trauma even before her pregnancy begins, it will still influence her offspring's behavior.

And there are strong implications for humans, especially mothers who have experienced the effects of war, natural disasters or social upheaval.

"The findings show that trauma from a mother's past, which does not directly impact her pregnancy, will affect her offspring's emotional and social behavior. . . .

The researchers found that the offspring of stressed mothers exhibited less social contact, interacting infrequently with each other, compared with that of the control mothers' offspring. There were also important differences in behavior related to gender. The female rats showed more symptoms of anxiety, while the males exhibited less. And the rats whose mothers became pregnant immediately after being stressed were the most hyperactive, indicating that the time period in which adversity is experienced, relative to conception, is also important.

"Everyone knows that smoking harms the fetus and therefore a mother must not smoke during pregnancy," Leshem said. "The findings of the present study show that adversity from a mother's past, even well before her pregnancy, does affect her offspring, even when they are adult. We should be prepared for analogous effects in humans: For example, in children born to mothers who may have been exposed to war well before becoming pregnant."

Appendix: On Crack Babies
Throughout almost 20 years of research, none of us has identified a recognizable condition, syndrome or disorder that should be termed "crack baby." Some of our published research finds subtle effects of prenatal cocaine exposure in selected developmental domains, while other of our research publications do not. This is in contrast to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which has a narrow and specific set of criteria for diagnosis.

Daydreaming is Good for Thinking Big Thoughts

If you think letting your mind wander is unproductive then you may be in for a big surprise. A recent study at the University of British Columbia found that our brains are much more active when we daydream than previously thought. What is surprising is that the study also found that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – are actually more active than when we focus on routine tasks.

The findings suggested that daydreaming, which can take up to one third of our waking lives, is an important cognitive state in which we may be taking time out from the immediate tasks to sort out important problems.

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," says lead author, Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Dept. of Psychology. "But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks." . . .

"This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel," says Christoff. "Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis – when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant." The less subjects were aware that their mind was wandering, the more both networks were activated.

The study seems to confirm what many of us intuitively understand - if we "sit" on a complicated problem for a few days or hours and let the cogs of our brain churn away in the background, a solution often presents itself unexpectedly.

50% Poverty Rate for Black Children?

[Economic Policy Institute] President Lawrence Mishel [predicts] that, even using conservative forecasts for future job loss, the poverty rate for children could increase from an already high 18% -- where it stood in 2007 -- to more than 27% by next year.

Poverty among African American children, currently at a staggering 34.5%, could reach 50% before the employment picture starts to turn around.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Getting it wrong again, and again (and again)

So once again two "former governors from different political parties who remain passionate about the quality of education in America" (Chicago Tribune, Perspective, May 3, 2009) have weighed in with a grand proposal about how Arne Duncan should use his "$5 billion to transform education in America" to "improve student achievement and ultimately revolutionize our economy and workforce for the 21st century."

Neither Jeb Bush nor James B. Hunt Jr. have any background in the field of education, other than being governors. Neither has ever been a teacher, principal, superintendent (although it's possible Hunt had some personal knowledge of education, having majored in college in "agricultural education"--although he seems to have gone on and immediately got a masters studying how to raise tobacco better, oh, and within two years of college was also studying law--he only failed the bar exam the first time--and was, according to all of biographies I can find on the Web, "an early proponent of teaching standards," and married a teacher, although she quit her job as teacher to become full-time first-lady--can't blame her for that!). Yet because they are "passionate" about "the quality of education in America," and because they believe themselves (implicitly) to offer a balanced perspective (being, after all, "from different political parties"), they think they know how best to spend that money.

Let's hope that Arne doesn't take their advice lock, stock, and barrel.

One of their ideas is truly innovative and would be a very good idea: create a national, free, repository of world-class online educational opportunities where "students, parents, teachers, principals, and school administrators" (and former governors?!?) "could shop for a better education. Virtual courses open to everyone would tear down the chief barrier to student achievement--access to a quality education." Well, that certainly is ONE barrier to student achievement, and it could be reduced through such a national repository. The two former governors liken it to "an of courses and curricula." I don't really think that's the correct analogy, but there might be some worth in using an interface like Amazon's, including user ratings and reviews. I'd prefer an analogy like the American Memory project of the Library of Congress (which makes public domain and other archival materials available with a simple-to-use interface), of learning objects. (While learning objects might include "courses and curricula," we need to dramatically broaden our conception of what kind of content would provide the most useful "access to a quality education"--and "learning object" is a good, neutral, non-confining conception.) Add on a Web 2.0 type of access system (including the folksonomy of tags, ratings, personal profiles, sharing, etc. on the order of Diigo or De.lic.i.ous) and this is a wonderful, doable idea. Just make sure that you've got teachers involved, because teachers DO know some things that "former governors" do not, about motivation, the influence of culture and peer pressure, and the importance of appropriate scaffolds for each individual learner. Because "access to quality education" isn't just a matter of making it available on the In fact, "access" is, at best, half of the solution to making sure every student gets a quality education..."access" depends, in large measure, on the student having both the interest in the resources and the skills or guidance necessary to use it appropriately...two factors that aren't magically in place once something is available online!...a point that is obvious to anyone who has actually poked around on the Web and realized what is ALREADY available there, to those who know what they want and how to find it.

The other suggestions made by these "passionate" "former governors" (who, of course, are therefore the most qualified to know what can "improve student achievement"...just look at all the positive gains that former governors have produced in American students during the past 20 years when "former governors" have been so front-and-center in reform efforts!) make are kind of laughable, not only because we've heard them all before, but because they are proffered with such complete naivete about how familiar they have become. Schools should have "comprehensive data systems," so that we can use the "test scores" of a whole "class" to "tell us whether a teacher is effective" and "an entire state of test scores" to "tell whether a policy is working." "When empirical data replace emotion as the basis for developing policy, America will be able to transformt he quality of education into a world-class system of learning." GOLLY! What a new idea!!!! Get rid of that most human of characteristics--emotion--and that most human of activities--education--will suddenly become as efficient and effective as the "world class" automobile industries America has created using the mantra of Total Quality Management and Continuous Improvement!!

(Wait! Haven't these "empirical" systems of management been used in corporate America for decades!?!? Have they made our industries "world-class"? Has the evisceration of emotion from business resulted in the dramatic increases in quality that these "former governors" (passionate--mind you!) predict for the schools??!?)

(Yesterday, I was at a keynote address at the National-Louis University's Center for Practitioner Research Forum, given by Karen Gallas, whom I really liked. Karen, of course, got way, way, WAY, too caught up in emotion, when she talked about how the kindergarteners she was teaching on the Navaho reservation responded so directly to her efforts at forming close relationships with them, but only showed "bald-faced defiance" to her attempts to use authority...and about how these kids could only really be brought into a cooperative group when Karen came to her wit's end and began quietly singing "Little Rabbit Foo-Foo" to herself in the middle of a chaotic classroom. I don't recall hearing Karen talk about the relationship of this "out of the blue" inspiration to just sing with "empirical data" or even "comprehensive data systems." In fact, now that I think about it "passionately" (like these former governors...WAIT! they don't want passion...they want DATA), Karen was WAY too emotionally involved in her job, and with her students, to possibly be effective with them. Damn emotion....get it OUT of schools and classrooms!!! There's the ticket!!!)

But I digress from describing these, um, tired and worn out reform suggestions. In addition to more comprehensive data systems and more empirical data and (God willing!) less emotion, these passionate (um, emotional? No, of course not, these guys are totally, except of course they ignore the record of the, um, "success" of these reform suggestions...I guess maybe the demand for "empirical data" doesn't apply to "former governors" writing op-eds in national newspapers....)

But I digress again. The suggestions!!! "Making progress toward rigorous college-and career-ready standards and assessments". (WOW, there's a new idea). "Making improvements in teacher effectiveness" ( the improvements in the quality of American automobiles...yes? Let's model teacher education programs after corporate quality assurance programs! Yes!) Oh, and "providing intensive support and effective interventions for the lowest-performing schools." (Oooooh, yeah, there's the ticket! More requirements for direct instruction in those skills measured on the tests....more shutting down those schools that are dysfunctional...more reconstitution of schools requiring every staff member to re-apply so we can replace the veterans with wet-behind-the-ears recruits who will toe the line and parrot our "world class" curriculums and (by the way) let's make sure the principals of the reconstituted schools get the power to force at least a third of the recalcitrant STUDENTS out, too!). Oh, and creating a market for quality teachers by paying them more! (Hmmm.....I actually like that appeals to my sense of the importance of teaching, especially in difficult schools...but, um, is that really based on empirical data...or is that an emotional response to the visceral sense I have that good teachers are worth their weight in gold....oh, I GET IT...the demand for "empirical data" to replace "emotion" is only required in those cases where emotion somehow conflicts with the corporatization of schooling!!! Aha! Why don't the former governor's just SAY THAT?!?!


Hmmm, clearly, I've let my emotions run away from me. Back to the, what data? There's no data in this piece. There's just a string of cliches about the (clearly need for data here) ways that schools will (WILL, we say!) be improved by applying corporatist management strategies to schools.

Then there's the call for the national online learning object repository and Web 2.0-like user-created-folksonomy access system (using my language for it). The former governors write "let's stop tinkering around the edges of reforms and really revolutionize the way we deliver knowledge to students." (You know, the way that FedEx and UPS have "really revolutionized the way we deliver" parcels to people. I think we need bar codes on the students', really, that will help!) (No "tinkering around the edges...MORE DATA SYSTEMS!!!)...."Learning is no longer local, yet we still operate in a system ruled by traditonal course work and antiquated textbooks."

Hmmmm..... "learning is no longer local"? What? Where's the data for that claim, gentlemen? Methinks you might be confusing two things: (1) the globalization of the kinds of things we want our kids to learn, and (2) the locus of ALL learning, which is in the hearts and minds of individual students (Sorry, no hearts...can't have that emotion) the MINDS of individual students.

Huh? Wait. We're trying to get that "individual" part out of there, aren't we??!? Education should assume (ASSUME!) that "learning is no longer local." And, of course, that means getting rid of "traditional course work and antiquated textbooks". Well, yeah, that would be good. And replace it all with a NATIONAL ONLINE CAMPUS OF VIRTUAL SCHOOLS! Yes!!! All of them stripped, if possible, of anything emotional or local. After all, this isn't about individual people! It's about transforming America's educational system!!!

Damn. I'm just overwhelmed with how much sense this makes. Kids not learning?!?! They clearly need more standards and more tests. And get rid of those veteran teachers using those traditional methods. We need those Navajo kindergarteners to get online, and get learning. Put them in Blackboard! (Or, better,!) Then they'll learn!!!

Just to make sure you understand how "passionate" they are, these former governors end their provocative perspective piece with a reminder that "The world has entered into an education arms race. The winners will be the countries that prepare their students will the knowledge and skills to scucess in the increasingly cometitive global marketplace. Science, math, engineering...these fields of study are the breeding ground of innovation and the fountainhead of prosperity."

O.M.G. We're back in 1957. Sputnik has launched, and our nation better be gear up for an "education arms race." Gotta get those scientists educated. Gotta be steely-eyed about this. No emotion. Facts!

Culture? Motivation? Interest? Relationships? Critical thinking?!??!

None of that is important.

We're at war, and we must act. Passionately. Doing the same things we've been trying to do for years. But working harder.

And without emotion, please.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Poverty and Brain Development, or, I Worry: If Poor People are Stupid, Why Bother?

I've been meaning to say something about all the research coming out on the effect of poverty on brain development. The basic argument, backed up by empirical data, is that poverty actually degrades brain capacity in a range of ways.

Which, of course, opens up questions about what "counts" as "degraded." (It reminds me, for example, of all the arguments that African Americans couldn't possibly take care of themselves after the Civil War because they'd been slaves.)

I think this is an incredibly important issue, and is likely to affect how poor children are received in schools for a long time. And so the studies that make these broad statements about brain damage are incredibly dangerous. The impact of this research on teachers could easily be as damaging as the supposed (only mental?) degradation of poor people.

My point is not that we should censor scientific knowledge, somehow. But the more dangerous the statement, the more careful we need to be about making it, and about how we make it. (For example, Larry Summers was rightly criticized, especially as the president of Harvard, when he made what he later called a "provocative hypothesis" about the possibility that women have innate limitations in the areas of science and math.)

Michelle Chen notes (from a comment on one of the posts listed below):
Reactionary forces relish this kind of science for two reasons: sometimes it encourages the “naturalization” of certain social inequalities. And in the realm of politics, scientific theories applied to social injustices can be glibly flipped to imply group inferiority and , at the same time, to feign respect for individuality. Patterns of underachievement become individual failure on a massive scale, and structural arguments are reduced to reverse discrimination and self-pity.
As a field, especially as social foundations folks, we need to keep a close eye on this stuff.

Key links:
Poverty and the Brain: Becoming Critical. This is a follow up to:
Poverty Poisons the Brain
. These posts have links to most of the key papers and discussions.