Saturday, December 30, 2006

How Much Reading Can We Expect Our Students to Do?

Here is a vexing topic, at least for this instructor of cultural foundations of education. What can you expect students to read in a typical semester? In a 500 (master’s level, but open to advanced undergraduates) course that I teach on higher education in film and fiction, I am assigning 6 novels with a total number of pages around 2200.

So, over 16 weeks we are talking about 140 pages per week. I have been advised both ways, that this is too much for some of our students, especially those who work, while some of my professorial colleagues say this is not too much. After all, we are talking about current literary fiction such as Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, not dense theoretical or philosophical texts.

Part of the problem is that students, even graduate students, generally do not do reading these days. This commonly known fact was not the case when I went to college, or at least not for me. But today, as Rebekah Nathan points out in her book My Freshman Year, students cut corners when they can, and if reading is not tested upon or part of one’s grade, very few do it.

So, I ask you dear readers, what is the appropriate amount of reading that we can expect of students at various levels? Are 150 pages of fiction per week too much even for graduate students (for comparison, for an undergraduate course in modern literature where I went to college the professor assigned Proust, Mann, Joyce, and other large texts, one per week)? Should we give students “reading quizzes” to assure that the reading is done?

One strategy regarding readings that a friend of mine suggests is this, and I quote him: “Talk about this problem frankly with them at the beginning of term, and say 'okay, you are graduate students in the philosophy of education. Here's an educational-philosophy issue par excellence. How do you get students to do all the readings assigned? I am sympathetic to the fact that many of you have full-time jobs *outside* Purdue. But, that said, this class is a serious responsibility that you have shouldered voluntarily for the time being. After all, I only have you for a VERY SHORT TIME. I may never get to educate you again after this term. So for these 16 short weeks, I am going to require that you really do ‘shuffle this course up to the top of the heap,' as it were, and make these readings a priority in your life while you're enrolled in it."

My friend goes on to talk of another strategy he uses: “What I do sometimes in my undergrad courses, if I suspect [know] that they are slacking, is to give a POP quiz, very early in the term, and let them crash & burn. I go so far as to collect the papers. I let them baste in their own juices for a few moments. Then I tear up the quizzes and say, ‘that was an educational moment all its own. You get a free pass THIS TIME. Next time, though, it *will* count. So be sure you do the reading.' Invariably on the next quiz they all get almost 100%."

Let me hear your reading expectations and strategies for getting students to do the readings.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curriculum and the different flavors of nominalism

As far as my philosophy-of-ed naivete is concerned, perhaps the best example of a contemporary equivalent of whole-cloth curriculum theorizing in the vein of progressivism, Summerhill, etc., is Marion Brady's Seamless Curriculum.  As someone who has taught at different levels but whose arguments don't explicitly come from any single intellectual root, Brady is iconoclastic and sometimes hard to read when he tries to squeeze his curriculum perspective into a shorter piece of writing. Disclosure: My difficulties may come less from Brady than from my own background, which is fairly far from curriculum theorizing. I'm aware of the conventional stuff (formal v. hidden v. taught v. tested v. ... curriculum) as well as the classic critical readings (e.g., Apple) and standard curriculum historiography (e.g., Kliebard).

My reading of Brady is that he's a nominalist: He places his view of the world in opposition to what he sees as a disciplinary slicing of the world, which looks remarkably like a modern version of realism (i.e., that there is a reality, and that the disciplines really do connect up with that underlying reality). He argues that reality is not that sliced up and, moreover, we can't teach children how to understand the world in that sliced-up way. Instead, he says, we should teach students in a way that matches up with the who-what-when-where-why questions (or the 5 Ws, for those familiar with journalism), which he says is more useful pedagogically. Maybe I'm mixing up my philosophies, but that seems very close to the nominalist position—that whatever reality may or may not exist, we tend to put categories and names on that reality in a very human way rather than a way that directly reflects reality.

But these days, there are many different varieties of nominalism. Just to name a few modern ones, there's pragmatism, where the categories are human and a good thing, too; there's deconstruction, where language serves as an inpenetrable barrier between categories and any reality; there's the radical science-studies field of Bruce Latour and others; there are the softier philosophers of science such as Ian Hacking, who simultaneously play with social constructionism and yet don't buy into Latour's and others' arguments; etc. And I suppose within each flavor, there are different attitudes one can take towards the nominalist position.  Should we be regretful nominalists, who see dangers in however we slice up our description of reality? Should we be enthusiastic nominalists, who see the human classifications as potentially heuristic? I know I'm taking huge liberties with these concepts (the real philosophers who contribute to this blog will probably slap me with dinner-plate fish over this), but there's a point here... I'd place Brady as a regretful nominalist, though he may well disagree.

There are two weaknesses in Brady's argument.  One is the inconsistency in his nominalist argument: Holism is as much of a construction as disciplinary silos. If the disciplines are an arbitrary division of reality, so are the 5 Ws. On what basis is the 5-Ws template a better one than academic disciplines? He asserts it's easier for children to use, but I'm not convinced.  It may be easier for children of journalists to use, but young children at around four generally use only one of the W questions (why), and to my calloused parent ears it's not clear when that question functions as an interrogatory and when it's performative/interactive. Brady's ideas may also ignore the capacity for children to understand abstract ideas and categories (see Rick Garlikov's essays on teaching math to young children for another iconoclastic and very different approach). On the other hand, there's a long history of such underestimates, including Piaget.

The second weakness is the regretful approach to towards nominalism, the implication that just because academic disciplines may be artificial, that means that they're suspect for teaching children. My guess is that if you've gone to read Brady's online essay, my classification seemed right or wrong instantly. Why? Because the realism-nominalism duality has a clear meaning to those who've had some philosophy. (Those who have the professional expertise to slap me with dinner-plate fish over my errors will note that I'm ignoring conceptualism.) So having had some philosophy helps put Marion Brady's ideas into a larger context. But academic philosophy is a discipline, and if Brady is right, it's part of the artificial division of the world by disciplines. But it's helpful for explaining his rejection of philosophy as one of the disciplines.

I'm much more of an enthusiastic nominalist than Brady is. The disciplines are not perfect, but they provide useful perspectives, and to throw them out just because they're often used poorly or reified in schools today is tossing the baby out with the bathwater. That doesn't mean that cross-disciplinary themes/approaches can't be used—far from it, as Central Park East Secondary School's Habits of Mind (five organizing questions) comprised one example of a successful unifying approach. But that approach seems inherently interdisciplinary rather than being rooted in holism.

Tom Green, in memoriam

Tom Green died yesterday morning. Among many other accomplishments (see Tom was the “factotum” of the original PHILOSED listserv, from about 1988 to about 1994 (correct me if I’m wrong with the dates). I will remember the intense discussions we had on PHILOSED in those days with extreme fondness. It was, for many of us, the community of scholars that we craved. PHILOSED was the first serious use of technology for building community in the philosophy of education community. In that sense, it was the honored ancestor of this blog.

Tom's guidance and moderation (in both senses of the word) were critical in the formation of ways of thinking of a whole generation of philosophers of education (and their mentors, I think). He could be irascible, irreverent, impetuous. But he was also brilliant, and kind, and generous.

Tom’s book, Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, (Syracuse University Press, 1980) was one of the most important books on education that I have ever read. The idea that the “expansion” of education to new audiences would likely cause a decrease in quality and/or valuation of the outcomes was revolutionary then, and still. His article, "The Formation of Conscience in an Age of Technology," American Journal of Education 94, no. 1 (1985): 1-32, was critical in the late-20th century turn from seeing morality as a special arena of life to understanding "conscience of craft" as the foundation of professional ethics for all.

By the way, PHILOSED continues to exist, with me as the titular "list owner," although it is not as critical a venue for discussion as it once was. For more information on the list or to join, see

A memorial service is tentatively planned for Jan. 4th in Syracuse.

Update (12/29/06: Arrangements are now complete for the memorial service for Professor Emeritus Thomas F. Green. The service will be held at Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church, 5299 Jamesville Road, Dewitt, NY at 2 p.m. on January 4, 2007.

Donations in lieu of lowers may be made to Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church or to the Syracuse University School of Education, 230 Huntington Hall, Syracuse, NY 13244-2340, Thomas F. Green Scholarship Fund.

Tom's obituary and a guest book for comments can be accessed at His obituary appeared on December 28th or the site can be searched by name.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A modest administrative reform proposal

We interrupt the silly competition to see who can get away with the most fraud in the 2006 Weblog Awards for best educationalisteseazamatazz blog (a tentative congrats to Michael Bérubé's loyal readership for having beaten out the readership of a defunct homeschool blog, an Ivy League gossip site, and all the others) to present a serious extension of the last 20 years' worth of education reforms and changes in educational leadership in major urban school districts. From the bulimia of decentralization-centralization to the hiring of politician-CEOs and admired-als, we have learned a great deal about the efforts to Get Serious with Teachers. From more than a generation of efforts to denigrate the effort of teachers, we know that we haven't helped education a darned bit.

We obviously need to redouble our efforts, or the efforts of teachers, whichever makes more political sense.

Therefore, because the darned nuisance of the fourth and eighth amendments to the Constitution prohibits the use of elongated leather motivational devices with public employees, we need to outsource and resource the personnel management system to Terminational Motivational Organizational Leaders (tm). Terminational Motivational Organizational Leaders (tm) are willing, able, and happy to provide the Ultimate Ultimatum. Teachers who ignore the legitimate requests of Terminational Motivational Organizational Leaders (tm) will find themselves deprived of gold stars, certificates, raises, bonuses for national certification, kudos, public recognition of their efforts, congratulatory e-mails and notes, a standing ovation at assemblies, favored consideration in transfer applications, tuition benefits, the benefit of the doubt, advancement opportunities, due process in administrative hearings, cafeteria benefits, a rational salary system, tenure, and biological processes.

The Terminational Motivational Organizational Leader (tm) in your district will personally handle the disposition of such recalcitrant cases and make sure that the school district's investment in personnel resources is used efficiently. With the Terminational Motivational Organizational Leader (tm) program, while the return on public-resource investment may not be of further use in the classroom in terms of instructional leadership, there will be a return on the investment in other ways. Such efficiencies may appear in the school lunch program, emergency lighting capacity, and continually renewed science classroom laboratory supplies.

All other leadership programs pale in comparison to its boldness. All performance-pay plans pale in comparison to its theory of action. The Terminational Motivational Organizational Leader (tm) program is the logical end point of the last generation of education reform. It may well be the last generation of education reform, in more than one way.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Community Organizing and Urban Education V: “Cutting an Issue” (Clarity and Passion)

[To read the entire series, go here.]

One of the most challenging tasks of a community organizing group is to come up with a specific issue to pursue. The world is full of what organizers call “problems,” aspects of the world we don’t like—e.g., world hunger, or educational achievement. Problems, however are too big and vague to grapple with in any coherent manner. In fact, just thinking about them can be disempowering.

So what organizers try to do is cut “issues” out of problems that can be concretely dealt with in a coherent and achievable manner. It turns out that this is an extremely difficult process, since many of the criteria for a good issue are usually in conflict with each other. Here I address two aspects of cutting an issue: “clarity” and “passion.”

Clarity in organizing is crucial. If one is going to bring a group of people who are not necessarily experts together around an issue, then that issue has to make sense without pages of explanation. MOVE, the community organizing group I participate in, worked to increase the number of SAGE schools in Milwaukee a few years ago. The SAGE program includes a number of different components, including reduced class sizes in lower elementary grades. So MOVE sold SAGE as a class size reduction program, instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of the details of how it worked.

Issues also have to have a “gut” sense of importance to the people you are trying to engage. And it is helpful to be able to tie specific stories and testimony to these issues. For example, arguing for more money for schools, in general, is not really a “gut” issue, although many people understand that, in an abstract sense, it is a problem. However, having forty kids in the same classroom, situations where parents have to quit work because a school doesn’t have a nurse to give insulin shots to their kids, stories about bathrooms covered in mold—these have a compelling emotional charge with them. If you can’t find a way to elicit this emotional charge, then you probably won’t be able to organize effectively around it, regardless of how important it may be to you. The right wing has really learned this lesson well.

Also, from an organizing standpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether you, as an organizer, care about a specific issue. What matters is that it is compelling for those you are trying to organize, that they have a “passion” for the issue.

An organizer I know once wanted to organize a housing complex in Milwaukee. The complex had a range of difficult problems, including drug dealers, plumbing and heat issues, and on and on. However, when she went around and talked to residents, what she found was that those issues weren’t the ones that were most compelling to them. What was? Cable television. They wanted to have cable access in their apartments. So that’s what this organizer brought them together around.

Another thing an issue needs to do is bring people together and provide an opportunity to grow the organization. This is actually related more to how you organize around an issue than to how you frame it, initially, but it’s difficult to separate these two aspects.

There are some problems that one can fix by drawing on a few experts. These aren’t good issues for organizing groups. From an organizing standpoint, you actually want an issue that will force the organization to do some collective work, to stretch and grow. In some cases, you may even force this work when it isn’t really even necessary.

The most famous example of an organizer creating the need for collective action out of whole cloth is when Saul Alinsky, the key conceptualizer of organizing’s general vision, went to a local city official in the 1930s and got him to agree to a change in policy. Then Alinsky got a large group of people together and they all marched down to the official’s office with signs, shouting their demand he change this policy. Somewhat bemused, I think, the official agreed. And then Alinsky trumpeted this victory to his group. “See,” he essentially said, “we do have power if we act collectively!”

Of course, lying to your constituents is not a good practice. But in the housing complex example the organizer did something similar. She knew that she could get cable TV for the residents pretty easily, but instead used this as an opportunity to engage them in the practice of organizing. They had meetings, planned actions, created materials, etc. And, not surprisingly, they convinced the landlord to give them cable TV.

Then the organizer turned to the group and said something like, “okay. What do you think about doing something about the drug dealing in this complex?” And they moved to a new issue.

The work of organizing, then, is an opportunity for educating leaders and other participants, it is an opportunity for identifying new leaders, it is an opportunity for expanding the number of people who see themselves as “members” of your organization, and the like. “Winning” in some ways is less important than the “power” that is built through the activity of struggling against oppression.

Sometimes you are “lucky” and a good issue just falls in your lap. A few years ago the school district decided that they would try to get students to go to their local “neighborhood” schools. As a part of this (and to save money) they wanted to eliminate parent’s right to bus their students to the schools of their choice in their bussing area. This created a great opportunity for MOVE to act collectively in resistance, since parents didn’t actually support this change. It even catalyzed the emergence of a new parent organization (even though this quickly dissolved).

In an odd kind of way, then, from an organizing standpoint it’s actually helpful when people in power do overtly nasty things. It’s much easier to respond to these than to more subtle, ongoing processes of oppression that are difficult to define or resist in any coherent way. So the example Dan has given of the state of Virginia eliminating foundations classes actually could be a “positive” rallying point for the field. But, of course, there is no institutional structure to rally people in any coherent way, so an opportunity for collective engagement and organizational power development is lost.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Liberal democracy, folk positivism, and test scores

This afternoon I had lunch with Stephen Turner, author of Liberal Democracy 3.0 (2003), which is about the relationship between expertise and liberal democracy. His take is a somewhat cynical but important one to consider, that we're inevitably moving towards (and have already shifted towards) a political system that liberally uses expertise as a way to displace political decisions out of political arenas. His book has been important to me as I try to revise the part of my book manuscript that focuses on the tension between technocracy and transparent political dialogue. Stephen told me it just wasn't going to happen, and while I disagree with his claim of inevitability, it's important to understand his argument.

There is a long tradition of debate over the nature of expertise and what we might call folk positivism (and philosophers call naive realism) attached to tests, the belief that a test score must mean something. The standard historiography of testing focuses on intelligence testing and points out the early 20th century confluence of scientific racism, the worshipping of numbers, and the creation of two new professions whose fates were intertwined (psychometrics and school administration). There are a number of arguments about what is putatively labeled governance by expertise, as Frank Fischer has argued for the last decade and a half, or a socially-driven statistics consciousness, as Theodore Porter has argued, and the early history of intelligence testing would fit in fairly well with either argument (and they overlap).

There are two flaws with the common description that wraps up test scores in a host of problems (such as the focus on intelligence tests). One is the implication that just because a social indicator is socially produced and maintains its legitimacy through social processes, it is therefore bankrupt. We can posit a not-quite-naive-realism argument something like this: "Sure, tests are flawed, and they embody a selective and arbitrary sampling of performance, but they're better than nothing even in the worst case and they're quite reasonable indicators if we accept that arbitrary can mean 'arrived at through a process of arbitration' rather than in the capriciousness sense." Hold your grumbling for a moment, because this is close to the arguments in favor of using test scores that you'll hear from politicians. The argument is a bit slippery, because there is an explicit side to it and then a nasty, twist-your-gut side to the argument. The explicit argument is a "this is better than nothing" statement, one that has a utilitarian perspective on information: we'd like perfect information, but we'll take imperfect over nothing. It falls close to casuistry in terms of a willingness to make decisions based on categorically-incomplete information. Arguing against this is essentially claiming, "Look, you don't know what you don't know." Try to win an argument with that claim in any context.

So if that's the easier side to deal with, what's the twist-your-gut, hidden argument? It's this: "Look, I'd like to sit down with you and talk in depth about what we should be expecting students to learn, but I'm a busy guy/gal, and I'm willing to displace the hard decisions into some forum that has the patina of neutral interest. There are these folks called test publishers and psychometricians who can produce a set of statistics, and we can then use those statistics to argue about what we should do with schools. But you're not going to get me to spend my time looking at DIFs and IRT charts and whatnot. I'd rather take the numbers and reports generated by experts and then decide what to do."

This argument matches the liberal-democratic purpose of expertise -- providing an interest-neutral forum for hashing things out without tearing the polity apart -- to the boundary-creating purpose of generating statistics, reports, etc--the claim that the public is welcome to talk about the meaning of what we produce outside the boundaries of our expertise, but the public has no right to invade the boundary within which the expertise works. Turner's argument is that we have crossed the line into an expertise-managed society not by the usurpation of democratic principles but by the workings of liberal democracy itself. In the same way that we defer some nasty decisions to courts with the imperfect but workable assumption that courts are neutral forums insulated from interests that can create "facts" we call decisions -- NOT that they're objective -- we're deferring important decisions about education with the assumption that tests are neutral opportunities to generate "facts" with which we can then make public policy decisions.

From Turner's perspective, we're already into this, and it's inevitable. We get test scores, and while we'll argue about which one is important, the genie is out of the bottle. We had a pleasant debate when I asked him to consider the Bowl Championship Series as a counterexample, since people who obsess about (or love) Division I-A football debate the BCS formula all the time. He countered that people accept ratings and just argue which ones are best, so the boundary shrinks a tiny bit to protect the machinery of rankings but allow debate over which ranking is best. I still think the BCS is a counter-example, because there are plenty who talk about a playoff system. I don't think I budged Turner on this. Part of my disagreement with Turner is with his assumption of inevitability and the philosopher's tendency to reduce the complexities of history and politics into archetypes and core arguments.

But a second argument I have with Turner is similar to the second flaw in the expertise critics'/historiographical argument, which is to conflate several different purposes of and influences upon expertise and test scores. I can think of at least six uses of test scores, and each also shapes the politics of test scores and the naive or not-so-naive realism with which they're treated.
  • Test as materialist tool I. This is the "NCLB is there to make money for McGraw-Hill, the Bush buddies" argument. Strength: it's appealing. Weakness: it oversimplifies the political roots of accountability, and there are too many counterexamples: there were no tests before George W. Bush was president, and in no state where he wasn't governor?
  • Test as materialist tool II. This is the "tests are culturally biased" argument, and it has a tautological truth in that tests will reflect something about the prevailing norms in society. Given the complex uses of tests, though, this is an incomplete explanation, and it can cut both ways. Right now, the NAACP in St. Petersburg, Florida, is suing the Pinellas County school system for providing an unequal education. Their evidence? Test scores.
  • Test as status tool. This is the argument tied into the professionalization of expertise around the turn of the 20th century, and if we froze time in 1930, you'd have a lot more persuasive evidence than now about the power of psychometrics as an occupation. Plenty of professional assessment experts warn about the fragility of tests as measures, and such professional skeptics are often ignored.
  • Test as administrative tool. This is the other argument tied into the professionalization of expertise, except this time from the standpoint of school administrators. Of course, there's the small irony that administrators built up the tools of testing to gain autonomy, and the successors of those tests have now become a tool for bashing administrators (and other educators).
  • Test as liberal-democratic political tool. This is the claim that Turner makes, that test scores (and other social instruments) thrive less because of technical considerations than because they serve as what a colleague calls seemingly-neutral numerical designations. Sir Humphrey from the British sitcom Yes, Prime Minister might put it something like this: "We solicit smart people, bring them to a nice resort, ply them with food, and ask them to produce some numbers for us or a way to produce numbers that they then tell us the meaning of. If we didn't do that, every government would fall within about a week from the failure of Parliament to understand what a standard error is, and for that matter, I don't want to be quizzed on it, either. It's much better to get experts to do all the dirty work, and then we can decide what to do about the results."
  • Test as an assertion of technical accuracy. It is this elision, from the not-quite-naive realism to naive realism, that drives many of us bonkers. But this implication helps grease the skids for the other uses of statistics, because it's not really necessary. Point out the errors of test scores, and the response will acknowledge the flawed and then return to their importance.
Each of these uses is contested, and it is not inevitable that we're stuck with test-score accountability. Nonetheless, I find Turner's arguments incredibly important, in part for helping me to see the different distinctions in test use.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Some Thought on the Big Picture Company

Take Ted Sizer’s idea of portfolios, throw in John Taylor Gatto’s notion of community as school, and mix with just a tad of Neill’s Summerhillian freedom. That’s a good opening recipe for the Big Picture Company.

I’m blogging on this because of Craig’s request for a little more information on this topic that I mentioned in a comment to Ken’s posting about re-envisioning the educational system. I must admit that I am very much an outsider to the Big Picture Company and have only followed it as an interested layperson who is always searching out paradigmatically alternative educational models.

What started as a single high school in Rhode Island a decade ago is now a network of 32 high schools around the country (not many in a country of 110,000 schools; but that’s not the point). Some of the distinguishing characteristics are: each school enrolls a maximum of 130 or so students; students work individually with teachers and family members to develop a personalized curriculum that includes a core set of courses; internships in the community are critical to making the curriculum real-world applicable; the schools take seriously their commitment to engaging and linking with the local community and family.

The Big Picture Company has received grants from such big players as the Gates Foundation, has been endorsed by the likes of Ted Sizer, and has received glowing press coverage from Education Week, ASCD, and others. There are no academic research studies of it that I am aware of, though a fair number of popular pieces have been written about it (which can be found here and here).

What I find genuinely striking about this movement is their deep commitment to and operationalization of the idea of “one student at a time” (as their own motto states). This is personal, genuine, and time-intensive learning. This is not about passing tests or seat time; it is showing how learning matters and is actually applicable to the student and to the student’s community. It is also striking that the schools predominantly serve urban, lower-class populations. At a time of public education’s fascination with the lock-step direct instruction curricular and pedagogical approach for such populations, The Big Picture Company is producing dynamic graduation and test score results without demeaning practices. Additionally, I find the central aspect of internships superb, as they offer a real-world linkage that all too often is an add-on and meaningless component of public schools. The by-now standard “volunteerism” required by most high schools is a pale and truly corrosive practice to genuine engagement.

I am trying to avoid waxing eloquent here, but this idea really breaks the mold of traditional educational models in a drastic way. Much like charter schools have forced traditional schooling to confront alternative operational models, the Big Picture Company (at least for me and the students I introduce it to) forces a rethinking of what we mean by “doing” school.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Rethinking American Education

The link I have provided associated with this posting is for a diary posted today at dailykos. I have been a visible poster there for a number of years, and last year organized a panel session for the first Yearlykos in Las Vegas with Jamie Vollmer and Governor Tom Vilsack, discussion the situation in American Education today. I have been tasked to organize another session this year, with the unenviable and impossible task of totally rethinking American education. After reading several posts here recently, I thought it not inappropriate to share what we have been doing, and that plural pronoun includes Sherman, who has been participating with me in these efforts.

I have below pasted in the entire contents of my post today to dailykos, links and all. If you are a registered member of dailykos feel free to comment over there is you want, although you can offer any suggestions you think might be of use directly to Sherman and me on this thread, or if you choose offline.

The original diary might be worth reading for the discussion in the comments, but what is below will still let you know what we are doing.

Hope people don't view this as too far from social foundations.

Yearlykos - the education panel - an update

It all began with an invitation in October:
One of the biggest successes we had with YK '06 was Jerome's "Energize
America" plan. Along with some other Kossacks, Jerome put together an
intelligent, well-thought-out, comprehensive plan to reform America's energy policy, and then got a probable Presidential Candidate (Bill Richardson), to sign on to it at the Convention. We would like to replicate Jerome's success on other subject matters for YK '07. How do you feel about putting together a paper and comprehensive plan to reform our education system, similar to Jerome's effort with energy, and presenting it at YK '07?
. I shortly thereafter posted a diary announcing the effort entitled YEARLYKOS 2007 - Educate America - what do you think? A group of us began some discussions offline, and our last communication with the community was in November, Educate America - Yearlykos 2007 - doing the impossible? At that time we solicited input and asked for additional help. Now it is time for an interim report.

First I can tell you we have an active group communicating through a Yahoo Group so that we can easily archive our communications and post files for all of us to examine. Our earliest participant posted his first diary in October of 2003, and we have several participants who will be joining dailykos because we wanted their expertise to help us. Our individual backgrounds cover classroom teaching from the pre-school through the post-graduate, and includes classroom teachers, university professors and researchers, principals, administrators, book authors, newspaper columnists, researchers, and so on. We have had some assistance from the members of the energy group and some ongoing guidance from one of the FPers. It is a good group, and when we get a bit further along we will introduce you to all the members.

We took the material from the two aforementioned diaries, and also from one diary I had written before the formal invitation came entitled I think we have lost our way. From this we came up with 11 key areas to address, as well as a catchall category into which we placed the remaining comments that did not otherwise fit into the 11 specified categories. These categories are
1. History

2. Where we are now (standardization, punishment, lack of innovation)

3. The goals of education (humanization, democracy, work, thousand flowers bloom)

4. Who is taught (customization and integration, the child and the community, nutrition, IDEA, IEP)

5. The teacher (professionalism, diversity, experimentation)

6. What is taught (the canon, inquiry, engagement, resiliency, the arts)

7. How we teach (experiment, replication, repetition, engagement)

8. What the interaction is like in classrooms/schools (the importance of failure)

9. How school systems are structured (increase fluidity, break down traditional barriers, open in the evenings for parents/community members, k-college funding)

10. How we define progress in education

11. How we talk about education in a democratic society (where is the line between school and not school?, can't different schools "talk" differently?)

Shortly after the first of the year we will begin with several diaries on the History of Education. This will be written by kossack SDorn, who is an educational historian and also editor of one of the principal professional journals on educational policy. We hope this will helop people understand how many of things often discussed about education have been discussed before. We also hope that this will enable our subsequent discussions to be based on some common background of knowledge.

We will then begin to roll out the topic diaries. Please note that the current structure outlined above is subject to change as we get further along in this process. Our happy few (and additional help is welcomed - if you are interested contact me offline at kber at earthlink dot net) is dividing up areas of responsibility. Each subject diary will be primarily written by one person, although there will be several helping with the draft and all of us will be offering input. I expect that we will establish a website at which we will post supporting documents and links so that the diaries do not become too long.

Like the energy folks, we will welcome feedback on what we post, will take that in and process it. This will be an iterative process, attempting to take advantage of the insights of the broader dailykos community.

That’s the snapshot of where we currently find ourselves. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. You will still see diaries on educational subjects independent of this effort, as you did recently from two of our key members, DeweyCounts and me.

We are still interested in additional suggestions. So that we avoid too much repetition, I have posted the organized list of comments at my own blog, because putting them in a diary here would make this totqlly unwieldy. I suggest you take a look to see the ideas your fellow kossacks have already shared. I apologize in advance for the poor layout of my blog. I assure you that if you scroll down you will eventually see the text for the diary whose title appears above all the blank space! (and if someone is so inclined to look at my dasher board and find the error I would be eternally grateful - but let’s do that offline as well).

Here’s the link for the previous comments,entitled Comments for the Yearlykos2007 education project.

That completes this update. We welcome your additional comments and suggestions. As noted, we are developing the process at the same time as we are developing the content. We promise to inform the dailykos community on a regular basis, and before we get too far into the new year you can expect to see material from us on a regular basis.

One last point - we have NOT settled on a name for our project. There is a bit of disagreement among the group. Since this is a group effort, we will try to hash that out so that we can have one phrase that will link all of our efforts together. For now you can consider this as either Educate America or Redesigning American Education, and I have included both as tags for this diary.

Folk positivism

(or So there, Michael Bérubé! and other pseudo- philosophical rants)

With Michael Bérubé's challenge to his fellow nominees in the 2006 Weblogs Award Best Educational Blog category (hey, see that icon in the left margin? go vote for us now!), I'm going to ponder one of the problems I'm considering in Accountability Frankenstein. To wit, how the heck can we create accountability systems rooted in distrust of school officials and teachers (and students!), while simultaneously crafting systems that have a fairly blind trust of tests. That trust in test instruments undermines one of the main arguments for accountability, transparency. This is not a claim that psychometricians are absorbed in secrecy—well, not generally, though I understand Bill Sanders still keeps his value-added algorithms secret as a proprietary secret and plenty of state departments of ed fail to publish the psychometric data on tests, lest someone like Greg Camilli and Sadako Vargas discover the fudging that frequently happens in state testing systems—but an argument about the limits of test scores to tell us what children can do. In contrast to most other areas of expertise, the core purposes of school accountability are transparency and equity. Yet the routine of testing makes such knowledge virtually impossible, creating one or more layers of abstraction between what children do and what state governments say children do. That conflict has its roots in the development of professional expertise in testing early in the twentieth century. The end result of a century of the standardized testing industry is in tension with transparency. It raises a serious question whether testing technocracies are consistent with the democratic demands of accountability.

Others have written about technocracy in education. Art Wise's 1979 book Legislated Learning has the dangers of technocracy as one of its main themes, and Harry Wolcott's Teachers and Technocrats (1977) proposes that education is a moiety system divided into teachers and technocrats, if one looks at the creation and disintegration of efforts to apply the planning-programming-budgeting system (PPBS). And others have looked at technocracy more broadly, from Walter Lippmann's proposals that society be run by a small group of activists enlightened by neutral expert analysis to John Dewey's response (that we need the experts educating and informing the population, which can then become a Great Community) to the modern debates among folks such as Steven Brint, Frank Fischer, and Stephen Turner. There is a small but substantive literature on the growth of professions and the role of expertise-linked occupations in setting and implementing social policy. Based on it and the history of the testing industry, one might be tempted to attribute the role of tests to the growth of psychometrics as an occupation. And if we stopped in 1930, that supposition might be true.

Yet there is something a little different about the worshipping of test scores; it is less the power and authority given to psychometricians than the social assumptions made about tests. As Haney, Madaus, and Lyons wrote in The Fractured Marketplace for Standardized Testing (1993), a variety of market and political pressures has led to the corrupt use of tests (e.g., one NYC principal who tried to decide on valedictorians via SAT scores), so much that trained assessment experts casually acknowledge that the uses of standardized tests commonly fall outside their validated purposes. Some trained in assessment are the harshest critics of much modern standardized test use (Bob Linn is probably the shining star in that constellation), and yet their voices are largely ignored. Why?

Martin, Overholt, and Urban's Accountability in American education: A critique (1976) provides an alternative explanation: it is not so much in the professionalization (which they didn't discuss) as the intellectual history of positivism that leads accountability advocates to believe that test scores are concrete and consequences will drive improved instruction in a behaviorist manner. In referring to Auguste Comte and 19th century positivist arguments, the authors assert that there is a direct line from Comtean positivism to the uses of testing in the 1970s and Leon Lessinger's 1970 arguments for accountability.

While I understand the appeal of this argument, and I've seen similar arguments in other contexts, I am less than convinced, for both theoretical and evidentiary reasons. Theoretically, it is perhaps a mild inconsistency for postmodernist critiques of positivism to assert a linear intellectual path for anything, let alone a genealogy of contemporary beliefs in the utility of statistics. I'm not saying that Martin, Overholt, and Urban were being all postmodernist 30 years ago, but since they're using post-Romantic continental philosophers, there is this guy named Nietzsche who talked about the problems with asserting linear intellectual legacies for anything. Second, it's hard to discern where Comtean positivism would be more influential than American pragmatists, who (Dewey among them) were confident that this new thing called science could be used to create beneficial social policies.

But theory isn't the real reason why I'm skeptical of this linealogy. Fundamentally, it requires considerable faith to believe that politicians and others who advocate high-stakes accountability are well-read in 19th century philosophy, know that much of behaviorist literature, or even can put forth anything more than bluster to argue the utility of test scores as a direct reflection of reality. What we see today is a folk version of positivism, the rough-hewn confidence that test scores must "mean something." Arguments about the construction of social problems don't really help us here, because this is the classic case of ideas diffusing in different directions without any Powers That Be giving them direction. In short, I'm not sure we have a way to wrap our heads around folk positivism. But I think we need to.

The Nano-Cultural Curriculum

Just like the human recalcitrants in the Matrix movie trilogy, multiculturalists have moved far underground in hopes of re-grouping someday when rule by the Illusion Machine finally runs down from a shortage of fresh, fleshy batteries willing to be sucked dry and discarded like so many husks. You have go get 2-3 pages deep, nowadays, into a Google News Search before finding anything going on in what was once celebrated at ground level as multicultural education. One of the few hits I could dig up was this conference at SUNY-Birkenstock (New Paltz), where they have a surviving degree program in multicultural education. Even here, we see the sucking tentacles of the metrics matrix in the title of the conference: “Opening Minds, Closing the Gap: Fostering Achievement and Equity for All.” Could there truly be anything sadder!

Today's real-world illusion farm is driven by a political machine stoked 25 years ago by the coalition of conservative elitists and blue-collar racists (Reagan Democrats). One of the chief educational accomplishments of those technocratic conservatives and social reactionaries over the past 25 years has been the elimination of equality and multiculturalism as principal concerns of K-12 education. The election of Reagan, in fact, signaled that the civil rights work in the schools was over. Furthermore, the gains made by minorities during the 60s would have to be paid back with the acceptance of a never-ending series of confidence-crushing exams that became central to the new accountability-driven schooling based on privilege by test score--thus privilege by income. The rich get richer, the poor get dumber.

By the time Bush Co. arrived in Washington with the Texas Miracle ready to go live uplink to everywhere 24/7, the think tanks, talk radio, and the corporate media had already marginalized anything multicultural as politically-correct groupthink that threatened national sovereignty. No Child Left Behind, with its threats, sanctions, and mandates, would then accomplish what no amount of bad-mouthing could complete--the casting out of multicultural, racial, and gender concerns into utter oblivion. What got tested got taught, and there was nothing on the McGraw-Hill or Harcourt tests that could be even vaguely associated with cultures, any cultures. The only culture to survive would be the one that can be bought.

The predictably-weak results on mandated standardized tests in poor communities would lead, then, to the jettisoning of any remnant of multicultural curriculums and the stripping down of content to the bare bones, followed by the implementation of direct instruction and straight-jacket behavioral mod techniques. This would, indeed, put black pride and the minority esteem back in their places at the back of the bus.

Recall America's doddering dopey granddad, Reagan, in 1983 (the year of A Nation at Risk) in his thinly-disguised repudiation of our recent civil and human rights gains:
The schools were charged by the federal courts with leading in the correcting of long-standing injustices in our society. Racial segregation. Sex discrimination. Lack of support for the handicapped. Perhaps there was just too much to do in too little time.
Yes, yes, those activist Courts that now, after a generation of conservative re-packing, are on the brink of re-writing the Brown decision, thus re-activating Apartheid in America. What is that tinny echo I hear being transmitted to all those warm, wired cocoons, No Child, what?

In the meantime, foundations profs like myself are running around trying to form a committee to save our corner of the human battery farm. Could the Second Coming be far behind? The One?!

An earlier version was posted to Schools Matter 10.12.06.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

CSFE and the Future of Foundations

I’ve been holding off responding to the numerous comments to my previous post about the future of foundations in Virginia. I was hoping that Steve Tozer (AESA President), Kathleen deMarrais (AESA Past President), (see the AESA officers) or Jamie Lewis (President, CSFE) would have posted something. I was CSFE vice-president for the last year (I resigned in October) and thus did not want to muddy the conflict-of-interest waters. But here goes.

The Council for Social Foundations of Education (CSFE) used to be the primary link between a host of social foundations-related organizations (e.g., AESA, John Dewey Society, etc.) and NCATE. That relationship was dissolved in 2004, ostensibly because the membership fee ($15,000) was too much. As Dottin et al. phrase it: “While money was the apparent reason for the recent break up between CSFE and NCATE, there continues to be an undercurrent of other concerns. Many within the social foundations of education community do not look with favor on national accreditation as a structure, or on NCATE as an adequate example of such a system.” They quote a memo by Steve Tozer (then-President of CSFE) that puts it clearly and succinctly: “I am coming to believe that NCATE is not the most cost-effective way to accomplish this [“to sustain and strengthen the role of the foundations in professional preparation and in undergraduate and graduate programs”].”

Ever since the formal dissolution, CSFE has attempted to reconstitute itself with a new vision and mission. They recently conducted a survey of the social foundations field (which gets at Mary Ann’s very good point about needing raw data about the field), but I don’t think there was a good return rate.

So to get to the heart of the issue: I think that CSFE or another organization like it needs to strongly take the lead in creating a coherent national umbrella organization that can speak on behalf of the foundations field. For the field is way too fragmented for any other single individual, organization, or institution to make a real difference. It should, in my perspective, (1) be a central clearinghouse for curricular and pedagogical information for graduate students and faculty (e.g., syllabi, textbook reviews); (2) be a central hub for job-related issues (e.g., central database of jobs, job advice, comments section, history of the foundations field); (3) build off its Standards to create checksheets, rubrics, and pamphlets that support the accreditation process and make visible the role and value of foundations within educator preparation (this may be the place where coming back to NCATE and TEAC makes sense; but maybe not); (4) Offer a visible voice within the educational field to show the relevance of foundations. Every time a national report or issue surfaces (school violence, accreditation, etc.), the same think tanks and policy groups put forward their take on the issue. I cannot state loudly enough that the foundations field has no voice. And if we are not seen or heard, we will of course disappear. I think Aaron is completely right that people just don’t see any use for what we do because we have not been good at explaining ourselves to others. And if we can’t do that, they certainly aren’t just going to take our word at it.

Every other major scholarly society has such an umbrella organization. And the ironic thing is that there are many, many avenues for this to be successful. Think of the numerous scholarly societies within education that would fit under this umbrella (sociology, history, critical theory, multicultural education, anthropology, philosophy, qualitative research, etc., etc., etc.). Think of how easily it would be to align foundations with progressive movements that are attempting to change the way schools are thought about (Gates Foundation, Center for American Progress, etc.). I cannot believe that we could not write a six-figure grant to support the creation of a small, full-time administrative staff to make this happen.

Wendy is completely right that this is going to continue to happen state by state. And all we can do for now is keep a tally.

Friday, December 08, 2006

More on NSTA and oil company sponsorship
[Laurie David] The scandal at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) just keeps getting worse.

Since the Washington Post published an op-ed I wrote asking if NSTA's puzzling decision to reject 50,000 free DVDs of Al Gore's global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth might - just might - have had anything to do with more than six million dollars the organization has accepted from ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips and the American Petroleum Institute, the muck keeps piling up. . .

New evidence flatly contradicts statements NSTA has made in defense of its suspect partnerships, and efforts appear to be underway to wipe out online evidence showing that what the oil industry got in exchange was the group's imprimatur on classroom videos, teaching guides, and other "educational" materials that play down threats like global warming. . .

And here's the icing on the cake: NSTA Executive Director Dr. Gerry Wheeler - a top figure in the world of science education, remember - confessed to at least one reporter this week that he hadn't actually bothered to see the acclaimed film before he turned it down. . .

NSTA's initial rejection e-mail included comments from a staffer worried that accepting the offer would "place unnecessary risk upon the capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters."

Now NSTA is arguing that distributing An Inconvenient Truth to teachers would violate their 2001 policy against endorsements. But that policy didn't stop them from shipping out 20,000 copies of a whopping 10-part video funded by ConocoPhillips in 2003.

In fact, Gerry Wheeler himself is listed as executive producer of the film series. . . Wheeler says this is OK because NSTA had editorial control of the project. If that's true, then maybe he can explain why the only scientist cited in the largely dismissive global warming section appearing in chapters six, nine and ten of the teaching guides is Dr. Robert Balling - a well known global warming skeptic who has acknowledged taking more than $400,000 from the fossil fuel industry (others say the figure is higher). . .

We also discovered that somebody somewhere is meticulously shredding the online evidence of NSTA's cozy corporate partnerships.

NSTA now says it is no longer partners with the American Petroleum Institute, asserting that the project ended five years ago. Yet it looks as if the curriculum was alive and well until reporters started asking about it these past few weeks.

As of November 26 - the day the Post article appeared - both NSTA and API were promoting the course materials they produced together on their web sites. Immediately after the article appeared, however, we noticed that references to the joint "Science of Energy" program were quickly disappearing from the web.

The 'Science of Energy' website itself is now gone altogether, and API has rewritten language touting their relationship with the science educators. But we captured some telling links before they started vanishing. . .[read on]

KIPP As New Age Psychological Sterilization

A version of this piece was posted to Schools Matter 08.12.06: I've seen several commentaries on the Tough advertisement for KIPP in New York Times Magazine a week ago Sunday, but the following comments sent to EDDRA by Howard Berlak get very close, it seems to me, to the heart of the matter regarding KIPP:
I visited a local KIPP school about a year and a half ago after the SF Chronicle published a puff piece announcing KIPP as the answer to failing schools and the race gap --essentially the same story told in the recent NY Times article. When I was there children who followed all the rules were given points that could be exchanged for goodies at the school store. Those who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled "miscreant." Miscreants sat apart from the others at all times including lunch, were denied recess and participation in all other school projects and events. They could return to the regular population only after earning sufficent points. The school was orderly and quiet, teachers were working hard and were energetic. The arts and drama teacher was excellent and all classrooms were well provisioned. Several teachers confided that it was impossible to devote the time expected by KIPP and still have a family life. Though they were generally positive about their work , three teachers I spoke to said that could keep it up only for a few years.

I've spent many years in schools. This one felt like a humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked-down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments by well-meaning people. Maybe a case can be made for such places, but I cannot imagine anyone (including the Times reporter) sending their kids there unless they have no other acceptable options. What is most disturbing is the apparent universal belief by KIPP staff and partisans that standardized tests scores are the singular and most important measure of a truly good education. The Times reporter appears to buy into this.

John Derbyshire in the New English Review has this take:

The Knowledge is Power Program is a network of intensive . . . schools for inner-city kids started up in 1994 by two idealistic young teachers, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston. There are now 52 of these schools nationwide.

. . . .

. . . even supposing you could establish a free market in public-school teachers, how could the worst schools—inner-city schools serving black neighborhoods—ever outbid leafy, affluent suburbs for those “best teachers”? And how many “best teachers” are there, anyway? As the Thernstroms point out, a lot of these prescriptions for school reform assume an unlimited supply of “saints and masochists”—teachers like those in the KIPPS schools, who, Mr. Tough tells us, work 15 to 16 hours a day. I am sure there are some people who enter the teaching profession with the desire to crunch their way daily across the crack-vial-littered streets of crime-wrecked inner-city neighborhoods in order to put in 15-hour working days, but I doubt there are many such.

Both of these commentaries offer important insights for appreciating the KIPP lovefest now breaking out across America among conservatives and liberals, alike. What is missing, however, in these comments and in the minds of most Americans, liberal or conservative, is the acknowledgement and the understanding that, even if you could get the best teachers into these mean street schools for any length of time, that would still not be enough to close the achievement gap. Until the sociological and economic realities of poor people are acknowledged and changed, there will be no closing of the achievement gap, which is, in fact, a healthcare gap, opportunity gap, income gap, housing gap, and finally, an education gap.

So what is Tough's favorite pick for a solution? A shortcut, of course--and a shortcut that focuses on the ideology of liberal wishful thinking as a remedy for symptoms of the large problems we have refused to acknowledge, much less solve. Tough's (and the New York Times's) kind of progressive idealism is nothing new, to be sure. It is the same patronizing do-gooderism that bound together both scientific and religious progressives, as well as conservatives and liberals, a hundred years ago in embracing eugenics as the way to engineer a society dominated by healthy, prosperous, and moral white Christan elites.

To be fair, most liberals of that earlier era were more supportive of the positive eugenics than they were of the more hard-nosed negative variety that social conservatives advocated. Positive eugenics focused on the need to breed, if you will, large numbers of white, patriotic, middle-class Christians in order that their numbers dominate the gene pools of the country. On the other hand, negative eugenics, which came to dominate the politics and policy of the movement in the early 20th Century, focused on controlling or eliminating the polluted "germ plasm" from the population by "scientific" social sorting via primitive IQ tests, by the passage of mandatory sterilization laws, and by segregating "defective" populations. In short, the race concerns among the elite could not be addressed simply by producing more citizens with their likenesses; the continuing waves of immigrants and the move by minorites to urban centers required solutions that positive eugenics could not offer.

Now a hundred years later, we are on the brink of falling prey to another pseudo-scientific solution driven by fear, self-imposed blindness, and unacknowledged racism. The present day methods are less dramatic, perhaps, than our eugenicist forefathers, but they are no less dangerous to the future of a democracy. Because we are presently unwilling or even blind to the need to actually end poverty, some, under the guise of happiness training, would change the way that poor kids think about their lives in poverty: let's, in fact, mess with their minds so that they start to parrot and act out the verbal and behavioral patterns of more confident, bright-eyed middle class children who have every reason to expect that they will have happy and successful lives.

Peter Campbell recently had this in a post at his blog that asks a central question regarding the KIPPsters that cannot be ignored:

Michel Foucault's chapter on discipline in Discipline and Punish keeps coming to mind, "the body as object and target of power" and the notion of "docile bodies" that are "subjected, used, transformed, and improved."

These docile bodies in KIPP schools are uniformly brown and black. No white body is subjected to this same kind of disciplined transformation. Indeed, the school motto is "Be nice, work hard." What white, suburban, middle-class parents would want this to be the goal of their child's education?

This does not stop many of the solutions-by-eliminating-symptoms thinkers, both conservative and liberal, from embracing a kind of New Age eugenics that ignores the need to change sociological realities of poor children in favor of working feverishly to change their individual psychologies.

Enter Martin Seligman and the power of positive non-thinking, er, psychology. Seligman is at the hub of an effort that links up the human capitalists of the John Templeton Foundation with the psychological capitalists and the academic drips from the
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi days of Flow, to form a potentially-lethal interdisciplinary matrix aimed at psychological engineering. This movement, in fact, provides the theoretical underpinning for KIPP, as Tough acknowledges in his piece:

Toll and Levin are influenced by the writings of a psychology professor from the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman, the author of a series of books about positive psychology. Seligman, one of the first modern psychologists to study happiness, promotes a technique he calls learned optimism, and Toll and Levin consider it an essential part of the attitude they are trying to instill in their students. Last year, a graduate student of Seligman’s named Angela Duckworth published with Seligman a research paper that demonstrated a guiding principle of these charter schools: in many situations, attitude is just as important as ability.

Less crude, perhaps, than the biological and social engineering of the early 1900s, this new movement has all the potential to represent the contemporay new age equivalent of the eugenics movement applied to schooling. Make no mistake about it: attitude adjustment, or psychological sterilization, is the more important pedagogical goal at KIPP and at the other chain-gang scripted schools in poor neighborhoods. Work hard, be nice, indeed. In the hands of liberal idealists of the KIPP cult, the psychological capital movement stands to become a pernicious indoctrination strategy to alter the thoughts and behaviors of poor children to mimic middle class white children, while leaving them in communities where they serve as targets for gangs as they skip merrily all the way home, where they might or might not find there is something for dinner.

Just as the earlier eugenics movement had its positive and negative advocates, so does this current dystopic incarnation of futuristic mind management. There is the positive human capital group led by psychometric psychologists like Camilla Benbow at Vanderbilt. These folks are interested in accentuating the positive, if you will--by identifying talented and gifted children who can be identified early (with tests) and then provided the enriched learning experiences that their peculiar talents merit. As Benbow reminds us, children with IQs of 200 require different educational treatments than children with IQs of 140. Never mind the rest, who are involved, anyway, in learning to work hard, be nice.

Then, on the negative side, there is Seligman and his disciples, Toll and Levin, whose enthusiasm for the new positive psychology could easily be mistaken for preemptive interventions for imminent psychological abnormalities. Abnormal psychology was, after all, the focus of Seligman's work before he decided to shift to the sunny side of life, if you will.

Here are a couple of quotes from Seligman that put more light on his brave new world that resembles an unending happiness therapy session, where we all may become, regardless of our hunger pangs, capable of exercising mindless optimism over matters of fact that we are unwilling to change:

But perhaps we are blinded to the survival value of positive emotions precisely because they are so important. Like the fish who is unaware of the water in which it swims, we take for granted a certain amount of hope, love, enjoyment, and trust because these are the very conditions that allow us to go on living. They are the fundamental conditions of existence, and if they are present, any amount of objective obstacles can be faced with equanimity, and even joy. . . .

We predict that positive psychology in this new century will come to understand and build those factors that allow individuals, communities, and societies to flourish. Such a science will not need to start afresh. It requires for the most part just a redirecting of scientific energy. In the fifty years since psychology and psychiatry became healing disciplines, they developed a highly transferable science of mental illness. They developed a usable taxonomy as well as reliable and valid ways of measuring such fuzzy concepts as schizophrenia, anger, and depression. They developed sophisticated methods-both experimental and longitudinal-for understanding the causal pathways that lead to such undesirable outcomes. And most importantly they developed pharmacological and psychological interventions which have moved many of the mental disorders from "untreatable" to "highly treatable" and in a couple of cases, "curable." These same methods, and in many cases the same laboratories and the next generation of scientists, with a slight shift of emphasis and funding, will be used to measure, understand, and build those characteristics that make life most worth living.

During the early enthusiasm for the new "science" of eugenics in the previous century, luminaries like Alexander Graham Bell and philanthropies such as the Carnegie Foundation gave their support to those wicked perversions of science. No one at the time could have known that just a few years later, a madman would inspire a nation to implement a killing machine based on that "science" that would end in the deaths of six million individuals.

In this century, we have history to remind us of the capacities of our darker natures. It is worth recalling, I believe, what John Dewey noted way back in 1897, even though his truth then was no less neglected than it is today:
I believe that this educational process has two sides - one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Interdisciplinarity and disciplinary standards for tenure

The Modern Language Association's Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion report is out, along with an op-ed column by Michael Bérubé, Scott Jaschik's Inside Higher Ed article on reaction to the report, Chronicle of Higher Ed reportage (free!), and a response by University Diarist Margaret Soltan. Roughly speaking, the MLA report says, "Hey, you departments who are still demanding a monograph publication for tenure and still training grad students for that life? Get with the program. Requiring that new scholars publish monographs (and refusing to recognize other writing formats) at a time when university press language and literature book lists are shrinking is inappropriate and even unscholarly."

Two aspects of the report are intriguing to me. One is the 19th recommendation, opening a discussion of the format of a dissertation. Page 68 of the report opens with a challenge to the disseratation as a draft monograph:

[T]his is the moment to ask whether the needs of the profession—and of graduate students in the fields represented by the MLA—are best served by the current idea of the dissertation as a book-in-progress.

The report cites David Damrosch's proposal of a disseration as a set of linked articles in We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University (1995). A few years later, Nell Duke and Sarah Beck's argument that Education Should Consider Alternative Formats for the Dissertation (1999, JSTOR), and the University of Washington had a go at Re-envisioning the Ph.D. Interestingly, Duke and Beck don't refer to Damrosch's work, but in any case I haven't seen any great groundswell for alternative formats in my institution or others I know. There's a reason why education schools will probably be the last to experiment with new dissertation formats: status dynamics on any U.S. campus. As many observers from Geraldine Joncich Clifford and James Guthrie to David Labaree have noted, ed schools are pushed around because of the status envy for other colleges and the denigration of education research by liberal-arts disciplines. That, and the colonization of education research by psychology, is why the vast majority of education dissertations follow the psychologist's five-section format (expanded into five chapters). Fortunately, the MLA recognizes the status hierarchy among fields and among institutions and explicitly calls for the reputational leaders to, well, lead the way:

If departments of English and other modern languages were to encourage new structures for the dissertations required of their doctoral candidates, then deans and provosts would support such a change, in our view, because experts in the field had determined the validity and the value of such a change. Indeed, if the institutions perceived as the most prestigious thought anew about the various ways and forms in which advanced graduate students in the humanities demonstrate that they are able to conduct sustained original scholarly inquiry, these universities would open the door to a long overdue reconsideration of the dissertation across the spectrum of graduate education programs in the United States. (pp. 68-69)


It is equally clear that the institutions perceived as the most prestigious in our fields will need to initiate such an effort if there is eventually to be a reconceptualization of the culminating piece of scholarship for the
doctoral degree. (p. 70)

I hope English and other modern language departments will lead the way, so those of us in other, lower-status disciplines (stop laughing, Bérubé! English departments are treated as cash cows, but they still command greater respect as disciplinary units than education) will be able to branch out.

That leads into the second aspect of this report: the hidden interdisciplinarity of the call for a change in graduate education. Not that English departments are staying stuck in a certain notion of what literature is, but the study's discussion of graduate education strongly suggests that maybe we shouldn't stay stuck in silos. That's part of what the discussions reflects, because you start to see that monographs aren't the only coin of the realm if you recognize that "most academic disciplines, from sociology to linguistics to anthropology to philosophy, do not require books for tenure; yet tenure committees in those disciplines somehow remain capable of distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship" (Bérubé's IHE column). That's useful in an intellectual sense, and in many ways education schools with foundations faculty embody interdisciplinarity...

... until you get to the point where folks in other discipline are judging your work at the tenure and promotion point. The majority of my colleagues are psychologists, where articles are the coin of the realm. And others in education can be, shall we say, a little parochial in assumptions about "producing articles." I know of one junior faculty member in social foundations who was advised by a measurement faculty member to do lots of little articles. For those of us who can work on books and want to write longer pieces in longer projects, that's the dangerous counterexample to the stereotypical ivy-covered English professor who doesn't recognize that it's hard to get a monograph on Wordsworth published by a university press these days. The truth is that parochialism works both ways. (Among other things, for those who are from the article-focused realms, publishers generally refuse to print books where large chunks were previously published.)

That doesn't mean that I shirk from interdisciplinarity. Far from it: one of my association homes (the Social Science History Association) is inherently interdisciplinary, and as David Labaree put it in an online discussion of the history of education as an interdisciplinary field a few weeks ago,

For people with strong interdisciplinary interests, ... disciplinary department can be a risky location. In a history or sociology and political science department, you can face the test of disciplinary correctness, with people saying that your work is not really history or whatever. Experiments with interdisciplinarity are chronic in U.S. higher education, and so is the failure of these programs. They tend to fade and the organization of work regresses to the disciplinary mean.

The one stunning exception to this rule is professional schools. These are inherently interdisciplinary structures, in which scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives train their attention on a particular institutional arena defined by the school’s dominant professional identity. The stability of the focus creates continuity in interdisciplinary work. So the short answer to Chris’s question is that if you’re committed to being interdisciplinary, seek out work in a professional school, where that work is valued and rewarded.

The position of social foundations faculty in colleges of education is ... how do I avoid the jargon? ... liminal. We're subject to being dissed simultaneously by our colleagues in disciplinary departments and by our colleagues in colleges of education, but for different reasons. On the other hand, working in the interdisciplinary interstices gives us some freedom to experiment. Social foundations doctoral students are probably the least likely to have "conventional" five-chapter dissertations as article-in-progress, so maybe we'll be the first to also veer away from dissertation as monograph-in-progress.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Community Organizing and Urban Education IV: Lawyers, Activists, and Moblizers Are Not Organizers

[To read the entire series, go here.]

To understand what coherent, systematic community organizing is, it’s helpful to discuss what it is not. When people talk about social action, they often mix together a range of approaches that are actually somewhat distinct. I discuss three different approaches, here. Of course, one could distinguish more types, or fewer. But these three—legal action, activism, and mobilizing—are often referred to by organizers.

Legal Action
Lawyers are often quite important to those engaged in social action. Lawyers can get you out of jail, and they can help you overcome bureaucratic hurdles, among many other services. The problem comes when a social action strategy is designed primarily around a lawsuit.

My own state, Wisconsin, provides a good example. For a number of years, a major lawsuit was working its way through the courts in an effort to force the state to provide more equal funding to impoverished schools. During this time, statewide organizing around education, as I understand it, largely subsided. By the time we essentially lost the lawsuit at the state supreme court, little infrastructure had been created to fight on a political level for education. We had to start over largely from scratch. Lawsuits, then, can actually have a detrimental effect on organizing.

The pro-choice movement has been struggling for a long time with this issue. Few pro-choice people wish Roe vs. Wade hadn’t been decided in their favor. At different times, however, leaders have worried that winning Roe may actually have short-circuited the development of a strong political infrastructure for fighting for abortion rights while energizing the anti-abortion movement.

The legal battle over school funding in California may provide a contrasting example. Oakes and Rogers show, for example, how the Williams case in California activated a range of social action efforts across the state in an effort to get the state to respond positively to the lawsuit. This two-pronged approach—legal and political—is what you would ideally want to happen since, as any community organizer will tell you, winning a single battle is not winning a war. (Kozol discusses a number of states where such lawsuits have been won, and where little or nothing has changed.)

But I’m willing to bet that California is a somewhat unique case. California seems, from what I have read, to have many organized social action groups. In a more average state the social action infrastructure is likely to be much thinner. What I described happening in Wisconsin may be more likely in states like these.

Activists like to “do things.” They get up in the morning and they go down to a main street and hold up some signs against the war. Or they march around in a picket line in front of a school. (Activists love rallies and picket lines.) Activists feel very good about how they are “fighting the power.” But in the absence of a coherent strategy, a coherent target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilizing large numbers, they usually don’t accomplish much. People in power love activists, because they burn off energy for social action without really threatening anyone.

Of course, I am exaggerating a bit, here (as usual). But I’m not exaggerating as much as I wish I was.

Mobilizers often accomplish something. They get pissed off about a particular issue or event, they get a lot of people out who are hopping mad, and they get some change made (for the better or for the worse). Like activists, they feel pretty good about what they have accomplished. But then they go home and go back to watching TV or reading obscure theory or whatever. They’ve accomplished what they wanted to and now they’re done.

The problem with mobilizing is that, as I noted above, winning a single battle is often quite meaningless unless you are in the fight for the long term. Once they go home, the people they were struggling against are free to do whatever they were doing before. In fact, mobilizers can actually make things worse without necessarily meaning to, or they can be used by those who are more sophisticated about what is really going on.

A good example happened in Milwaukee when our county executive pushed through a horrible pension payout rule that was going to cost the county and obscene amount of money. People got up in arms. They banded together to “throw out the bums” (the executive and the county supervisors who had voted for the change), and they were successful in recalling quite a few. The problem was that on many issues the county executive and the supervisors were quite progressive. And very little thought was given to who, exactly, would replace them. What happened is that an extremely conservative executive as well as some conservative supervisors were elected in a majority democratic county. And the groups that “threw out the bums” pretty much dissolved as far as I can tell. So no long-term structure was created through which an independent group of organized citizens might prevent a disaster like this from happening again in the future. All of this energy was, again, burned off and the potential of this anger was lost.

Another example came when the Milwaukee school board was moving towards a “neighborhood schools” plan that would have eliminated parents’ rights to bus their children to the school they preferred. A lot of “mobilizing” happened: parents banded together and a seemingly vibrant parent group emerged. Along with MOVE (the organizing group I work with) they fought the bussing plan. But the parent organization seemed to start dissolving even before the conflict was over. Only MOVE was left to try to hold the district accountable for any agreements it had made.

The take-home message here is pretty basic. Just because you are “doing something” doesn’t mean you are doing something useful. And even if you “accomplish” something, if you don’t maintain the capacity to continue the battle, you may end up losing everything you have gained, or even making things worse.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

No More Foundations Courses in Virginia?

The Virginia Department of Education is currently considering removing foundations of education coursework from teacher education requirements. This has been a while in the policy pipeline (I have been corresponding with colleagues in Virginia about this for over a year), and it appears poised for passage. The strange thing is that the VA Board of education gives no rationale for this change.

So here is my problem. How are teacher education programs going to meet Virginia’s own regulations (which, as far as I can tell, are accurate as of this summer) that state that programs must provide:
“A sequence of courses and experiences in which candidates acquire and learn to
apply knowledge about the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual
development of children and youth; develop a thorough understanding of the
complex nature of language acquisition and reading; and understand the
historical, philosophical, and sociological foundations of public education,
including school laws, school culture, and contemporary issues;”

If you read further down (to Standard 7), the regulations further state that programs must have indicators such as:
“1. Use of instructional teaching methods that reflect an understanding of
different models and approaches to learning and student achievement;
Teaching that encourages candidates to reflect, think critically and solve
3. Teaching that reflects knowledge and understanding of cultural
diversity and exceptionalities; and
4. Instruction that is continuously
evaluated and the results used to improve teaching and learning within the

Sure, many education courses touch upon these issues, but foundations is the only place where future teachers, principals, and district administrators will ever have the opportunity to carefully and thoroughly grapple with issues of ethics, diversity, and the role of schools in society. There are lots of complex aspects to this issue (the “value added” of licensure, alternative certification pathways, etc.), but I want to focus on two main points.

First, the elimination of a course such as foundations will not be easily reversed in these times of “value added” obsession. Foundations has immense value, but almost all of it is “latent.” Teachers and administrators come to realize the value of foundations long after they leave education schools. The first years are deeply devoted to simply making it through and doing well for the students. It is only later that we start to ask “why?” and “how?” and “when will it change?” The short-term value-added gain of lessening curricular requirements destroys the long-term value-added gain of having thoughtful and culturally competent educators in our schools.

Second, the removal of foundations puts teacher education in exactly the opposite direction of other fields. Medical education has recently realized that doctors need more than codified answers; they need to actually know how to deal with people and how to think about the ethical implications of what they do and say. Put otherwise, foundations courses are the only “opportunity to change” that future educators will ever have. They will still get the “opportunity to learn” content matter; and they will still get the “opportunity to practice” through field experiences and practicum. But removing foundations is akin to stating that teachers don’t need to understand the role of schools in society; that teachers don’t need to become aware of and engaged with cultural diversity; that teachers don’t need to understand that education is a massive organizational bureaucracy. Thirty percent of new teachers drop out in the first three years because of the shell-shock that education is not about “teaching one student at a time.” 80% of principals believe that cultural competence is a critical skill for teachers to have. Look at the curricula of Teach for America, or Connecticut’s BEST program. They all focus on such issues because they work.

So what can you do?

1) Send your comments to the VA Department of Education:
Comments: mail, fax, or e-mail until December 15, 2006, to Dr. JoAnne Y. Carver,
director of teacher education, or e-mail to:; or
Mrs. Patty S. Pitts, director of licensure, or e-mail to: Mailing address: Virginia Department
of Education, P.O. Box 2120, Richmond, VA 23218; Fax: 804/786-6759.

2) Sign an online petition today:

3) Register to speak at the last open Board meeting on December 7 in Hampton, VA.

4) Tell AESA (the national umbrella organization for the social foundations field) that they need to do a better job of supporting state-by-state and national policy concerning educational foundations.

Finally, if you know that this is happening in other states, please let me know. There is no centralized location where foundations scholars can keep track of such issues. Perhaps we can do this here for now.

Finally, the fine print: This is the verbiage in the present proposed legislation:

8 VAC 20-542-80. Professional studies requirements for early/primary education, elementary education, and middle education; and
8 VAC 20-542-120. Professional studies requirements for prek-12 endorsements, special education, secondary grades 6-12 endorsements, and adult education.
• Removed coursework on Foundations of Education;

Kurt Stemhagen (at Virginia Commonwealth University) sent me the timeline below to track how this proposal got the stage it is at:

History of Committee Work Related to SFE Elimination Proposal
Meeting Date
Summary of Pertinent Actions
Key Language
Sept. 14, 2004
Decision to begin to think about possible changes to teacher licensure
“An additional task force will be convened to make proposed recommendations…”
Nov. 15, 2004
Discussion of potential revisions generated a list of possible actions (no mention of SFE)
“The committee was asked to consider a rationale for discontinuing the requirement for individuals who pass the MLA to take Praxis II.”
Jan. 24, 2005
A bulleted list of possible revisions was presented to the full ABTEL committee (no mention of SFE)

Mar. 21, 2005
The sub-committee continued to hone its list (no mention of SFE)

May 11, 2005
A motion was presented to recommend to the Board of Education a series of revisions, including revision #8 (eliminate SFE is a part of this revision)
“Revise professional studies (Reduce Curriculum and Instruction to 3 semester hours; delete Foundations of Education; and add 3 semester hours in Instructional Design Based on Assessment Data and 3 semester hours in Classroom Management).”
Sept. 12, 2005
Announcement that the proposed regulation changes are working their way through the system
“The regulations have not yet been released for public comment; however, the regulations continue to proceed through the procedures of the Administrative Process Act.”