Sunday, September 30, 2007

Creating Schools We Can Trust

this is crossposted from dailykos - I think the content of what I wrote is relevant here, and I also want to encourage people to read the book. When I do review it I will probably also crosspost that review here as well. Peace.

This is really the litmus test for you, as president. Each and every time a policy decision comes before you, you must ask yourself: What impact will this particular policy have on the development of trustful relationships in every local community? Every single law or regulation that comes out of Washington helps or hurts such relationships; none is neutral.

Those words are from Deborah Meier, one of the most important thinkers and practitioners in education in recent decades (read her bio here). They appear in a book entitled Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do about the Real Crisis in Public Education edited by Carl Glickman. While I will soon be doing a review of the entire book, I wanted to focus on Debbie's section, which is entitled Creating Schools We Can Trust. Please keep reading.

I have often argued, here and elsewhere, that what happens with our schools in the canary in the coal mine of American society. I also advocate a view of schools in which their primary purpose is to prepare students to be full participants in an American society which is a representative liberal democracy (and here liberal is a technical political science term which has nothing to do with the political spectrum). I began with the quote from Meier that I did because while she is writing specifically about educational policy, her words are applicable to ALL governmental policy - and in the case of this administration, whether it is USA PATRIOT Act or NCLB, we have seen policies destructive of community, destructive of the maintenance of the kinds of trustful relationships important in real education and real community.

I mentioned that I will be reviewing the book. This is a new edition for the 2008 election. While I will write more when I do the formal review, which will first appear in a professional publication in the next week before I cross-post elsewhere (although what I post here is likely to be slightly modified with a link to the actual review), it is worth noting that the book contains pieces by teachers, educational scholars, students. There is a foreward by Bill Cosby, who has a doctorate in education from U of Massachusetts, and letters by such notables as Asa Hilliard, John Goodlad, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Lisa Delpit, James Popham, and Ted Sizer, among others. The 2004 edition was prophetic, warning about the impact of NCLB, with the writers warning that
unless the bill was drastically changed, we would see a further narrowing of curricula, students would e subject to more and more test-taking preparation for poorly conceived examinations, and that states and school districts would lower their passing levels and manipulate test score data and drop-out rates in an effort to scam the system. They foresaw that student engagement and interactive learning would be pushed aside and replaced by more didactic, "drill-and-kill" teaching. The letter writers also predicted that the mandated formulas the federal government would use for doling out rewards and sanctions to schools would be unworkable.
And it has come to pass. Tteachers have been left with a mess.
Those words by Carl Glickman help us understand that we need far more than merely tinkering around the edges as No Child Left Behind is reauthorized. I have written and will continue to write about this, but today, thanks to Deborah Meier, I want to focus on one part of what I believe is important if we are going to have schools we can trust, and that is the nature of relationship.

Parker Palmer, who wrote The Courage to Teach; Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, a book which greatly influenced my own teaching practice, argues that teaching is a series of overlapping relationships - between teacher and students, among students, all with the subject being studied. Perhaps that is why the first paragraph of the letter from Meier so grabbed my attention:
Every time you thin, "What can I do for education?," I hope you keep the following thought in mind" There is no way we can raise kids well in the company of adults we don't trust. At the heart of good schooling are relationships: relationships between trusted teachers and children, and between trusted teachers and families. No form of curriculum or teaching method can succeed where these do not hold up. No good ends can be bought at their expense. Where trust has never existed, we have never had good schools. Where it has eroded, we have lost ground. Where it endures is where the beswt education occurs.
And Meier warns us tthat
Rooted in distrust, the laws we hae now can only heop that distrust grow

Meier offers a list of 8 suggestions, which I will reproduce below. You may not agree with all of them, but there are the product of almost 4 decades as a thoughtful professional educator:

1. Get the Size Right: Small is Better.
2. Encourage Local Decision Making
3. Get Good Information
4. Provide Choice
5. Provide Resourcew for Improving Facilities and Supporting Professionalism
6. Provide Time
7. Use a Language of Respect
8. Close the Gaps

I want to focus briefly on the 7th, of using a language of respect. Let me briefly quote the beginning of Meier's remarks on that point:
Since kids cannot learn from teachers or schools that they neither trust nor respect, the way we publicly talk about teachers and schools matters. Disrespect comes in many forms, but it starts wiht our leadership. Our children learn by example: It's hard to be taught by people whom powerful people look down upon. Keep this in mind when you think about how little teachers are paid and what that pay differential says to kids. I hae seen too many parents act out the disrespect they read in their local newspapers and hear from their local and national politicians and then act surprised when their kids act up. Please, be careful how you speak of schools and teachers when you address the nation in press conferences and public speeches.

As a teacher I know that I must model what I expect from my students. If my words and my actions are in conflict, student will focus most on how I act. And I think it not unreasonable that those who desire to lead this nation demonstrate a recognition that their actions often speak far more loudly than their words. If they truly want to leave no children behind, then their approach to public education, to schools and teachers, should demonstrate a sense of respect rather than serving to undercut public trust in the institutions and people who are striving mightily to serve the needs of our children and our nation.

I am perhaps more fortunate than most teachers, something I readily recognize. I have the trust of my department, my school, even the system-wide administration, to exercise professional judgment in how best to serve my students. I rarely have problems with parents. Perhaps it is because I call all parents at the start of the year to touch base (although I must create the time to do so - it is on top of my other responsibilities, done on weekends and evenings). Perhaps it is because I provide ways parents can track what is going on in my class, with all assignments for the week up on a webpage. Perhaps it is because I am willing to converse - again usually on my time - via email or phone: my parents have my home and cell numbers. I trust that they will not abuse that access, and because trust is a two-way process they are perhaps somewhat more willing to trust me.

I can do these things because I am supported in a way many teachers are not. That provides the framework that allows me to build trusting relationships with most of my students. I have very rigorous standards, but if a student is really trying and yet still struggling, I will give her the benefit of the doubt and offer additional assistance. That enables me to reach many students who might otherwise be put off, or not be willing to try.

Let me be clear. I am far from perfect. There are students and parents with whom the relationships can be difficult, I make mistakes of judgment and of action. But I also accept responsibility, publicly apologizing when I am wrong. I thus model - for my students and their parents - that making a mistake is not the real problem, provided one is willing to accept responsibility and move to correct.

Our leaders should model what they wish us to achieve. That clearly applies to those of us in positions of responsibility within educational institutions. It also applies to our political leaders as well. And so I believe an appropriate conclusion to this posting will be to quote the final paragraph from Meier's letter to the next president:
ABOVE ALL ELSE, be the kind of person we brag about in school. As president, demonstrate the habits that you want us to value and engender in a good student. Our nation has had a long history of putting down "school smarts." We either need to change schools and what defines "school smarts" so that they match what we honor elsewhere, or we need to be sure that the leaders of our nation are in fact models of the kind of smarts we honor in schools. When you are elected, be sure the people making decisions about education on your behalf in Washington have recently spent time in schools and that their own children attend the schools about which they are making policy. Look for people you'd trust to take care of your kids.


The Week in Ed Science Links, Mostly

A Short Course in Thinking About Thinking

Danny Kahneman is a psychologist who is the co-creator of behavioral economics (with his late collaborator Amos Tversky), for which he won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Discussions with him inspired a 2-day "Master Class" given by Kahneman for a group of twenty leading American business/Internet/culture innovators—a microcosm of the recently dominant sector of American business—in Napa, California in July. They came to hear him lecture on his ideas and research in diverse fields such as human judgment, decision making and behavioral economics and well-being.

Mind Reading

Whether we know it or not, we're all street-corner psychics. Without the ability to divine others' thoughts and feelings, we couldn't handle the simplest social situations—or achieve true intimacy with others.

The Science Behind Personality

Why do some of us worry endlessly about our lives, while others sail through without a care?

More News from the Savannah

People seem to have “animal-monitoring modules” in their brains—which is bad news for road safety

Program Provides Blueprint For Recruiting Minorities To Science And Engineering

Strategies for recruiting under-represented minority students to science and engineering fields and supporting their successful completion of science degrees have been documented.

Music And Language Are Processed By The Same Brain Systems

Researchers have long debated whether or not language and music depend on common processes in the mind. Now, researchers have found evidence that the processing of music and language do indeed depend on some of the same brain systems.

Cockroaches Are Morons In The Morning, Geniuses In The Evening

In its ability to learn, the cockroach is a moron in the morning and a genius in the evening. Dramatic daily variations in the cockroach's learning ability are reported in a new study. The few studies that have been done with mammals suggest their ability to learn also varies with the time of day. For example, a recent experiment with humans found that people's ability to acquire new information is reduced when their biological clocks are disrupted, particularly at certain times of day.

Female Anxiety: Females More Likely To Believe Negative Past Events Predict Future

New research might help explain higher anxiety levels in women than in men. Women were found to be more likely to believe that negative past events would reoccur in the future. Two studies involving 3- to 6-year olds and adults examined emotions and behaviors in relation to past events. Using characters in stories, girls and women more frequently predicted that characters would be worried about harm from a person who was similar to past perpetrators.

'Deviancy Training' Among Friends May Lead To More Trouble

Friendships can be beneficial, but watch out when talk about deviant topics is the best way to get a laugh in an adolescent relationship, because such interaction may well lead to questionable behavior down the road, say University of Oregon researchers.

Aggression In Adolescents Is Influenced By Siblings

Sibling order and gender have effects on children's and adolescents' aggression. Having a brother or highly aggressive sibling of either gender was linked to greater increases in aggression over time. Older siblings with younger brothers had fairly stable aggression levels over time. In addition to age differences, the researchers considered parenting styles and family economics in their analysis. The research suggests that interventions related to aggression should include both siblings and parents.

Babies Raised In Bilingual Homes Learn New Words Differently Than Infants Learning One Language

Research on the learning process for acquiring two languages from birth found differences in how bilingual babies learned words compared to monolingual babies. The research suggests that bilingual babies follow a slightly different pattern when using detailed sound information to learn differences between words. Bilingual infants failed to notice a small change in the sound of an object's name until 20 months, while monolingual infants notices the change at 17 months.

Children Of Lesbian Couples Are Doing Well

A study of families in the Netherlands indicates that children raised by lesbian couples "do not differ in well being or child adjustment compared with their counterparts in heterosexual-parent families." Among the most interesting findings, lesbian biological mothers were significantly more satisfied with their partners as a co-parent than were heterosexual mothers.

When The Going Gets Tough, Maybe You Should Quit

Are there times when it is better to simply give up? It would seem that persistence would be tonic over the long haul; hanging tough should increase the odds that you’ll succeed, and personal success is closely linked to well-being. But what if the goal is extremely unlikely? When does an admirable trait like perseverance start to look more like beating your head against the wall? Psychologists studied two personality types to see how healthy and well adjusted they are. It turns out that those who persisted in the face of a great challenge were at higher risk for inflammation, which has been linked to diabetes and heart disease.

When Children Are Upset, Mothers And Fathers Make A Difference

When a young child experiences negative emotions -- anger, anxiety, or distress -- can his parents respond in a way that fosters the child's emotional development? A new study suggests that young children benefit when mothers and fathers differ in their reactions to their child's negative emotions.

Individuals With High Fear Of Crime Twice As Likely To Suffer From Depression

A new study has shown that people with a strong fear of crime are almost twice as likely to show symptoms of depression. The research also shows that fear of crime is associated with decreased physical functioning and lower quality of life.

Altruism Evolved From Maternal Behavior, Wasp Genetics Study Suggests

Researchers have used an innovative approach to reveal the molecular basis of altruistic behavior in wasps. Like honey bee workers, wasp workers give up their reproductive capabilities and focus entirely on nurturing their larval siblings, a practice that seems to defy the Darwinian prediction that a successful organism strives, above all else, to reproduce itself. Such behaviors are indicative of a eusocial society, in which some individuals lose, or sacrifice, their reproductive functions and instead work to benefit the larger group.

'Rusting' Also Describes How Methamphetamine Harms The Body

A pharmacology professor who left the lab bench to focus on science education has developed a tactic for keeping students hands in the air at the end of class. "What does get students' attention?" she and her co-authors asked in their new research article on fostering science literacy. "Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, of course."

Why Few People Are Devoid Of Racial Bias

Why are some individuals not prejudiced? New research investigates how some individuals are able to avoid prejudicial biases despite the pervasive human tendency to favor one's own group.

Music Training Linked To Enhanced Verbal Skills

Music training, with its pervasive effects on the nervous system's ability to process sight and sound, may be more important for enhancing verbal communication skills than learning phonics, according to a new study. Musicians use all of their senses to practice and perform a musical piece. They watch other musicians, read lips, and feel, hear and perform music, thus, engaging multi-sensory skills. As it turns out, the brain's alteration from the multi-sensory process of music training enhances the same communication skills needed for speaking and reading, the study concludes.

Autism Symptoms Can Improve Into Adulthood, Study Shows

Hallmarks of autism are characteristic behaviors -- repetitive motions, problems interacting with others, impaired communication abilities -- that occur in widely different combinations and degrees of severity among those who have the condition. A new study shows that symptoms can improve with age.

Joint Attention Study Has Implications For Understanding Autism

A hallmark of human nature is the ability to share information and to comprehend the thoughts and intentions of others. Scientists refer to this skill as 'joint attention.' Even though it is a vital skill, scientists know surprisingly little about its development.

Children Of Immigrants Form Ethnic Identity At Early Age

Children of first-generation immigrants develop their ethnic identity at an earlier age than previous research has shown, according to a new longitudinal study. Additionally, a child's positive sense of ethnic identity is associated with the desire to socialize with children of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Victims Of Child Maltreatment More Likely To Perpetrate Youth Violence, Intimate Partner Violence

Some people are caught in a cycle of violence, perhaps beginning with their own abuse as a child and continuing into perpetration or victimization as an adult. To interrupt this cycle, it is important to understand how childhood experiences are related to behavior later in life. Researchers are examining how forms of child maltreatment victimization and youth violence and young adult intimate partner violence perpetration or victimization are interrelated.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Left Behind

What IS Left Behind?

We have reached a critical crossroads in our educational and national history. As NCLB’s reauthorization or expiration takes center stage in Washington, American citizens who care about the future of our public schools and our democracy must be heard. Our shared future is not an abstract political possibility but, rather, one that breathes in every son or daughter, every niece or nephew, every grandson or granddaughter, every neighbor’s child, and every one of our own students who enters the schoolhouse door.

While Secretary Spellings and legislators from both parties stubbornly proclaim that NCLB is working—despite of all the empirical evidence indicating otherwise—and as politicians boast that no child is being left behind, let us pause to consider what has been jettisoned. Let us take a moment to think about what has been left behind, what has been dumped, what has been pushed out the door because there is no longer space or time for it in the school day.

Now if your school still has some of these things, I say congratulations. At the same time, however, I say beware. Beware, because the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency that is the bedrock of NCLB makes it most likely that over the next seven years, your school will join the 30% of schools today where these crucial elements of school have already been left behind.

As American citizens deeply concerned about the health of our democratic republic, we are, of course, concerned and horrified that the social studies have been left behind. In Florida and other states, social studies teachers, afraid of losing their jobs, are lobbying for social studies to be tested, so that their work will survive.

The emphasis on math and reading tests has meant less geography, civics, and government, which leaves children ignorant of how public decisions are made or where their community fits into state, national, and global contexts—or even that there is a context beyond their street and TV screens. Children are left, in effect, stranded on lonely islands of ignorance, without the impetus or skills to have their voices heard in ways that make the world listen.

History, too, has been left behind, making it assured that this next generation will grow up more likely to be swayed by the mistakes and misdeeds of the past to which they remain clueless. What is a democratic republic and where did it come from? Sorry, that’s not on the test, either.

And economics? While children in wealthy communities, the ones without AYP worries yet, play stock market games and learn about hedge funds, the economic education of children in schools under the testing gun consists of collecting “Scholar Dollars” that they trade in for bags of Skittles, a pittance of pay for a meaningless labor whose significance remains a mystery to them.

Health and physical education have been left behind, too, leaving children out of shape and subject to diseases associated with obesity and inactivity. At the same time, children are left in the dark about the importance of healthy foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, the kinds of foods that are scarce in the small stores of poor neighborhoods. And left behind, too, is information about the hazards of a never-ending diet of Taco Bell and McDonalds—because that's not on the test, either.

Art and music have been left behind, leaving in their crossing wakes an imagination gap, a creativity gap, and expression gap, an aesthetic gap, a souls gap. We can add these gaps to the achievement gap that parallels a widening economic gap – despite years and years of increased testing and accountability in those schools where the economic gaps are at their deepest points.

Diversity of thought has been left behind. What remains in failing schools and the ones teetering on the testing bubble are collections of remote and desiccated facts that represent not even a single culture, but rather, an anti-culture that has essentially eradicated cultural values as a discussable issue.

Science has been left behind, too, and thus the primary tool for understanding how the modern world is organized. Where science survives, it is where it is tested, and the kind of science that remains is the kind that can be fit into a multiple-choice format, not the kind that exercises children’s ability to think, solve problems, conduct experiments, and make good decisions.

Literature has been left behind, and with it the love of reading and books and the curiosity that is spawned and kept alive by the life of the imagination. Stories are now substituted by the measured mouthing of nonsense syllables and the framing of comprehension responses that the children who utter them do not understand.

Recess has been left behind in a third of all American elementary schools, and as the percentage of failing schools increases, we may expect that number to rise. Play, itself, then becomes left behind, and along with it one of the most useful skills of all—to think as if, what if, as in what if life were somehow different than, or what if there were a choice beyond a, b, c, or d?

Nap time has been left behind in kindergarten and even in pre-K, as teachers focus on replacing dream time with skill practice time for a future of testing.

Field trips, holidays, and assemblies have been left behind unless they can be used for test preparation, or unless they come after the test, those short precious weeks when smiles may be seen to return to teachers’ lips and to students’ eyes.

The love of the teacher for her craft has been left behind in so many schools, replaced by the burdensome regimen of the pacing guide and the production schedule and the script. And time for teacher-led discussion, exploration, reflection? There is only time for teachers to learn their lines, trying to become good actors in a very bad play where the audience is compelled to participate. And time to weigh the results of the practice tests in order to get ready for the real tests.

Left behind, too, are teacher autonomy and professional discretion. Now whole hallways of fourth grade classes are on the same page of the same scripted lesson at the same moment that any supervisor should walk by, supervisors who are identically trained to look for the same manifestations of sameness, from bulletin boards to hand signals to the distance that children are trained to maintain from one another as they march to lunch, with their arms holding together their imaginary straightjackets.

Most troubling, however, of all that has been left behind is the teacher’s nurturing care, the teacher whose advocacy for and sensitivity to every child’s fragile humanity has been a trademark of what it means to be the teacher of children.

With the current laser focus on avoiding test failure, even as expectations become higher with each passing year, the child who cannot do more than a child can do now becomes viewed as the stumbling block to a success that is increasingly elusive.

Instead, then, of being viewed as the reasons we have schools to begin with, the needful child who is, indeed, behind, becomes the obstacle to a proficiency that becomes further and further out of reach. When this occurs, as it surely does every time teachers and principals fall prey to the pressure, children become the burden that must be reluctantly borne, obstacles to a success that their own disability, poverty, or language issues complicate— and that even the best teacher can never compensate for.

Students, then, come to be seen as complicit in creating the failure that, in fact, no one, teacher or student, can remedy, because there is a monstrous system that has made child failure and, thus, school failure inevitable, a monstrous system that has traded and treated this generation of children as a means to attain a political end—a political end that, in fact, threatens our future as a free people who are able to think, to solve problems, to care, to imagine, to understand, to have empathy, to participate, to grow, to live.

So as you listen to the growing debate this fall in Washington, please do not leave your political responsibility behind and your good sense with it. Go online tonight and order the Linda Perlstein book, Tested. . .. Read it and, as you do so, keep in mind that the horror that she so ably describes occurred in a school that is considered a success, a “lighthouse school.” Think, then, of what it must be like in the thirty percent of American schools that are now labeled failures.

Recently, a quote by Cal State professor, Art Costa showed up on one of internet discussion groups, a quote that is horribly relevant today: "What was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure. So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value."

Call and write and visit your school boards and your Congressional delegation. Remind them what you value and what you believe to be significant for now and for our future, and what you know that now and finally must to be left behind.

Jim Horn

A similar version of this commentary was delivered September 27 at Monmouth University. It will be posted on YouTube a few days hence.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fixing the Community Organizing Funding Disaster (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

To read the entire series, go here.

Community organizing groups spend an inordinate amount of time grubbing after money—often fairly small amounts of money when seen from the perspective of large foundations. And organizing groups often have to tweak what they do in order to fulfil the requirements of a funder. Even more problematically, many organizing groups are forced to get funding for purely service oriented activities in order to survive over the long term. While I think organizing groups need to think more carefully and complexly about how they might embrace more service work in order to reach out to more marginalized populations more effectively, the kind of service funding these groups usually receive is mostly a hodgepodge of what happens to be “hot” at any moment.

It seems obvious that we need to fundamentally change the funding model for community organizing. But how? Here I want to talk about what are called “permanent endowments.” Permanent endowments are large chunks of money that are placed permanently in a fund out of which only a portion of the interest is spent every year. Such endowments provide a guaranteed level of operating funding for those organizations that have them.

Who usually has endowments? Looking across the web, you find the usual suspects: universities, private schools, churches, and museums. But there are a range of other groups that can have foundations, including professional organizations, recreational and other natural areas. I found a ballet group, a music festival, home for pregnant teens, a counseling center, and more.

What brings all these groups together is a sense that their existence and functions are permanent.

This, of course, raises some difficult issues when one comes to organizing. How can one assume that one organizing group or method is going to be the most effective over time? How does one decide “which” organizing group to fund, and how does one prevent an endowment from actually destroying the kind of creativity, flexibility, and radical challenge that organizing may require in order to stay “healthy”.

To cite an old example, many have argued that the reason that Martin Luther King and other new organizing groups were able to emerge in the South during the civil rights movement was ironically because many Southern states had banned the NAACP. This seems to have opened up space for new thinking and new organizations, and removed the suppression of risky action that the NAACP seems to have been perpetuating to some extent. More contemporaneously, I think it is accurate to say that a certain level of uncritical dogmatism and self-congratulatory thinking among the neo-Alinsky organizing groups that currently dominate the organizing “scene” may be hurting the emergence of new approaches.

But one would not need to fund individual organizing groups in order to relieve them from some of the burdens of fundraising and the potentially destructive force of current “fads” and program mandates from distant funding organizations. Instead one could fund a local institution designed specificially to support organizing groups—old ones and new ones. By being based in a building that it owned, this group could provide basics like office space, copy machines, phones, technology and tech support. It could have a grants officer on staff to help organizations target their appeals and reduce the burden of fundraising. It could provide multi-year internships (with benefits) to allow individual organizing groups to bring community members in and train them in organizing. It could provide child care and meals and have a van and money to pay drivers to pick people up and get them to meetings. It could provide small reimbursements to participants to make it at least a “neutral” cost for them to go to a meeting. It could have a shared receptionist, and be open from early in the morning to late at night. It could have a board of directors drawn from a wide range of local progressive organizing groups and a carefully drawn mandate that ensured that it was able to “boot” dying organizations and bring in promising new ones. And it would have a constitution designed to ensure it remained true to a broad set of progressive commitments.

Such an endowed umbrella organization would ensure, just like with museums, universities, and beloved parks, that organizing is here to stay, especially in small cities like Milwaukee, where organizing has long been on “life support.” Through its board, it would force local organizing groups to work together to some extent, despite whatever disagreements they might have. If the building was big enough, it might allow the emergence of some more creative experimental relationships between organizing and service groups which I am increasingly convinced are crucial. In fact, simply because it would (I think of necessity) provide child care and meals and small reimbursements to participants, it would already be involved in a kind of “service” that would make participation as much a reality for people struggling on the margins as for professionals and other middle class folks like myself.

Where would the money come from? Well, of course, I don’t know. But if it had a building and an institutional name, it might be appealing to some funder that usually gives out program grants that do not leave any permanent legacy in the community. I could imagine some rich progressive person who would love to have their name permanently on a building or permanently on the name of an institution whose job was to stick a thumb in the eye of privileged oppressors permanently.

How much money would it require? Well, after glancing around the Internet, it seems like a round number like 4% is about what you can expect to spend every year from an endowment while still maintaining it over time given inflation. So let’s go with that as a rule of thumb (see this for those who are interested). And let’s assume you need, say, 2 million dollars for a building (including renovation) in a not necessarily high-priced part of town. So then if you have an operating budget of $250,000 (which isn’t a lot if you have a few employees), you need an endowment of around 6 or 7 million dollars. Or a total of 8-10 million dollars.

This may seem like a lot of money to most of you (or me) but there are plenty of folks out there in our increasingly income unequal society for whom this isn’t really that much.

Carnegie made his name forever by creating libraries across the United States (and beyond). What if some funder decided to stop trying to fund an endless series of cool sounding projects, and instead said, “I want to provide a permanent base for organizing in a collection of cities in America.”

[For those of you who think I've totally gone "off the rails" of education policy, here . . . . Well, look. If you are going to get interested in education organizing based in the community and not in schools then suddenly you've got to ask a whole new set of questions. We're used to talking about public schools which seem obviously to be a public, government funded function (regardless of how poorly they are funded). But now we're talking about an intervention in education that can't take government funding at all.]

Monday, September 24, 2007

NCLB and Ritual Performance

I recently moved our daughter to West Hollywood and her new post-college life. After wrestling 4 pieces of luggage, 3 of them overweight, and a cat, on and off an airplane and into our rental car, and then schlepping out to buy a car in 106 degree Montclair/Pomona, I needed a break.

I tooled west down Sunset in my rented Prius to have lunch with Peter McLaren. I hadn't met Peter, but he was the major professor of my new colleague, Nathalia Jaramillo, and she said he lived near where our daughter would be. I figured, yes, what a perfect break from the chores of moving!

The lunch was delightful, full of good conversation and delicious food. I found Peter warm, open, and a good listener. I have written on hospitality and can vouch for such in this encounter with a true compañero. He gifted me with some of his books (not all, thank goodness, or I would have had overweight bags going back too!), and we have exchanged emails since then.

Just a few days ago, he sent this link from DailyKos after I had informed him about the "Hoover in the Heartland" initiative at the University of Illinois and the leadership of our mutual friend, Nick Burbules, in that situation.

The author uses Peter's "ritual performance" trope as a lens to open up a conversation about contextual issues surrounding NCLB. With Peter's okay, I have posted it here for discussion.

Here is a snippet from the end of the DailyKos essay that captures what the author is trying to weave together:

Peter McLaren himself, along with Nathalia Jaramillo, has in their latest co-authored book offered a summary criticism of NCLB:

Our claim is that NCLB is a historical apparatus that serves to exert control over the largest and most vulnerable segments of the population in the interest of promoting capitalist consumption and the reproduction of the law of value and the value form of labor. (74)

This, it seems to me, is the summit at which criticism of NCLB, following the lines drawn out by McLaren himself in
Schooling as a Ritual Performance, should attain with effort. A "ritual performance" documentation of how NCLB operates on the ground level would be most useful to all who wish to understand how NCLB really works.

But, most effectively, such a study might (if written in a non-elitist, understandable prose) persuade the parents of public school students that the regime of high-stakes testing is not worth the easy convenience of test score reports for all the damage it does to schools and children.

The Week in Ed Science Links: Interesting, Useful, Odd

I read sciencedaily every day (I'm afraid) and there's often interesting stuff there that seems related to education in some way, however strange. So I though I'd save the ones that seemed possibly relevant to education, and put them up once a week. Enjoy (or avoid) as you please! [Please excuse the different formatting.]

Medication For ADHD May Help Students Succeed At School

n an 18-year-study on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Mayo Clinic researchers found that treatment with prescription stimulants is associated with improved long-term academic success of children with ADHD. The Mayo Clinic results are the first population-based data to show stimulant drug therapy helps improve long-term school outcomes.

Eye Movement Can Affect Problem-solving, Cognition

Directing the eye movements of test subjects allowed researchers to affect the participants' ability to solve a problem, demonstrating that eye movement is not just a function of cognition but can actually affect our cognitive processes

You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks -- With The Right Diet

Nutritional supplements have successfully been used to improve the memory, ability to learn and cognitive function of old dogs -- and might be able to do the same thing with humans. These supplements (acetyl-l-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid) are continuing to be studied in work with humans, and scientists believe they may provide a new approach to the neurodegeneration and cognitive decline common with aging.

Insight Into The Struggles Of Children With Language Impairments

For the first time, a new study has looked into how language impairments affect a child's ability to understand and retell a script-based story. For this study, the examiner read a script-based story (about two children who go to a restaurant with their mother) to 44 eight-year-old children with and without language impairments. The children with language impairments faired very poorly when trying to recall story details.

Teaching Adolescents About Condoms

Teaching adolescents to use condoms when abstinence fails is a reasonable strategy for preventing HIV, according to a new article. This finding might appear common sense, but the best way to teach HIV prevention to young people has in fact has been controversial. The "abstinence-only" approach, favored in recent years by US government-sponsored programs, reflects the notion that teaching adolescents anything about safer sex (including condom use) might encourage risky activity. However, recent studies have found that abstinence-only programs have failed to reduce HIV risk.

Teen Girls Report Abusive Boyfriends Try To Get Them Pregnant

Seven years ago, Elizabeth Miller was a volunteer physician in a community-based clinic in Boston, Mass., which offered confidential services to teens. She is still haunted by the memory of a 15-year old girl who asked her for a pregnancy test. It was negative, but two weeks later the girl was treated for a severe head injury in a nearby emergency room. The girl's boyfriend had pushed her down a flight of stairs.

The Science Of Collective Decision-making

Why do some juries take weeks to reach a verdict, while others take just hours? How do judges pick the perfect beauty queen from a sea of very similar candidates? We have all wondered exactly why we did not win a certain award. Now, new psychological research explains how groups come to a collective decision.

How The Brain Handles Surprise, Good And Bad

Whether it's a mugger or a friend who jumps out of the bushes, you're still surprised. But your response -- to flee or to hug -- must be very different. Now, researchers have begun to distinguish the circuitry in the brain's emotion center that processes surprise from the circuitry that processes the aversive or reward "valence" of a stimulus.

New Understanding Of Basic Units Of Memory

A molecular "recycling plant" permits nerve cells in the brain to carry out two seemingly contradictory functions -- changeable enough to record new experiences, yet permanent enough to maintain these memories over time.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A very good Education Plan from John Edwards

(this is being posted at a variety of sites, including dailykos, raisingkaine, and the education policy blog)

While is Iowa this week Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards unveiled an extensive and fairly comprehensive approach to the educational issues facing America’s schools. It is entitled Restoring the Promise of America's Schools. It is by far the best overall approach to education I have seen in the last few presidential cycles. While I have some concerns, which I will address, I want to begin by acknowledging how good it is.

I strongly urge people to go to the link above and read the plan and accompanying materials in their entirety. I cannot hope to fully explore every dimension and implication. My intent is to focus on some things that caught the attention of one person who is a high school teacher, who reads seriously about educational policy issues, and who attempts in his online and other writings to help non-experts understand how policy proposals play out in the real world of schools and classrooms, teachers and parents and students.

Far too many politicians have been limiting their comments on education within the framework of No Child Left Behind, as if that were the only possible paradigm through which we can talk about education through high school. Edwards goes well beyond that, even as he acknowledges the necessity to make what improvements are immediately possible in the short term. Of greater importance, he frames his discussion on three basic principles, and ties most of his proposals to those principles, which are
* Every child should be prepared to succeed when they show up in the classroom.
* Every classroom should be led by an excellent teacher.
* Every teacher should work in an outstanding school.
Having such organizing principles is a positive, and in general the plan follows the outline of the three key principles - there are few occasions where an issue is not easily classifiable, and thus it may appear not quite where one might expect to encounter it. Since the overall plan is only a few pages long in its website version, this is not a major issue - one can quickly determine that an issue is addressed, either by the overall structure or the use of different size and colored headings and the bolding and bulleting of key points. For example, under the first key heading of “Preparing Every Child to Succeed” we find in just the first subarea, “Offer Universal “Great Promise” Preschool to Four-Year-Olds” the following subtropics (bulleted and bolded in the original:
- teach academic skills
- Start in needy communities
- Be led by excellent teachers
- Involve parents and their families
- Be voluntary and universally affordable

It is thus fairly easy for the reader to follow the flow of the ideas without becoming buried in either jargon or overwhelmed by extraneous detail.

One key issue outside the frame of No Child Left Behind is the failure of the Federal government to fulfill its original commitment in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the primary law for special education. This legislatively creates a set of federal civil rights in education, and recognizing the cost the Federal commitment was supposed to be 40% of the average additional costs. The highest the federal commitment has ever been was 19% in FY2005, and in FY2007 it has slipped to 17%. In 2005 that meant my own state of Virginia had to absorb about $350 million in additional expenses that should have been federally funded, either by raising local taxes, transferring funds from other educational programs, or both. I note from the Edwards plan the following, under the heading of “Meet the Promise of Special Education”:
More than thirty years ago, Congress committed to fund 40 percent of the excess cost of educating children with disabilities, but it provides less than half that amount. George Bush has proposed a $300 million cut. Edwards opposes the Bush cuts and supports getting on a path toward meeting the federal promise.

Edwards recognizes that
Half of the achievement gap between children from poor families and their more fortunate peers exists before they start school. Quality preschools compensate for the learning opportunities some children miss at home, reducing remedial education, welfare, and crime.
His plan proposes that all lead teachers in such pre-school programs have a 4-year degree, and receive appropriate compensation. The Federal commitment should begin with low-income neighborhoods, and should also include
- parental involvement
- be voluntary
- be universally affordable.
He combines this with a commitment to things like child care services and family support services. And as part of his “Smart Start” program I note especially the idea of making it
easier for young children to get screening for health problems related to hearing, speech, vision, dental, and learning disabilities.
Here I offer a caution, but one I assume will be addressed in other parts of the overall agenda that is part of Edwards’ vision - identification of such problems is insufficient if there is no ability to address them, due to lack of providers or an inability to pay. I know Edwards has a commitment on these issues, and it would be nice to see in the education plan a mention of the connection: education does not occur in a vacuum, and addressing the health and learning disability issues as early as possible is a key to greater long-term success in school for these children.

Edwards does address a number of deficiencies in No Child Left Behind, and one of his key points appears under the category of excellent teachers. He rightly notes that NCLB requires that a school failing to make AYP for 3 years has to set aside up to 20% of Title I funds for :supplemental educational services” with no formal requirement for the quality of the providers. Edwards insists that any tutors under this provision be “highly qualified teachers” as is required under the law for in-class teachers. While I think this is an improvement, it still maintains the idea of Adequate Yearly Progress towards the unmeetable goal of 100% proficiency in 2014. If there is a clear deficiency in the material it is the unwillingness to confront this issue directly.

We see this further in the material grouped under “Overhaul No Child Left Behind.” Good points under this heading include broadening the methods of measurement to include
assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations, and projects and experiments
and allow states to use additional measures of academic performance, including using the growth of individual students and allowing states greater flexibility in how they respond to schools that are underperforming. These ideas are consistent with his overall approach to schools and teaching, but leave a number of areas of concern, which I think I must point out:

1) If growth is measured June to June the results are often distorted by non-school effects. The professional literature is clear that students from lower economic classes, often minority, lose knowledge during the summer while students economically better off often increase learning through enrichment opportunities. Measuring Fall to Spring usually shows more equitably the learning actually occurring in the schools. To date I have not seen any proposal for using growth models that specifically addresses this. At a time when the funding for the testing for accountability is still not even at the authorized level, I worry that a growth model Spring to Spring will wrongly give a picture that schools serving students in poor communities are doing worse than they actually are. Here I note that the recent Feingold-Leahy proposal is that punitive sanctions currently in place with once a year testing be suspended until that portion of the original proposal is fully funded, which has not yet happened.

2) There is no discussion of how such alternative measures would be funded. The work done by the Forum on Educational Accountability strongly suggests that performance assessment, when imbedded in instruction, can be done in a fashion that is no more expensive than the approach currently being widely used to respond to NCLB. It would be nice to see an explicit recognition of the costs of some of the proposals made by Edwards, with an explanation of how he plans to pay for his ideas.

Edwards explicitly recognizes that the needs of rural schools are often quite different. Thus we find in his allowing “Broader measures of school success” that he offers a plan that would “give more flexibility to small rural schools.” In his proposal to have all high schools have access to challenging Advanced Placement courses he notes “even those in small, isolated, and high-poverty areas” should be included in such an approach. He also has a separate section on “More Resources for Poor and Rural Schools” where he notes that
Four out of five urban school districts studied nationally spend more on low-poverty schools than on high-poverty schools. Rural schools enroll 40 percent of American children – including most children in Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina – but receive only 22 percent of federal education funding.
Edwards not only promises to increase Title I funding with the additional moneys directed towards low-income schools, but also commits to using technology and distance-learning to assist more rural areas that are in danger of being left behind.

Edwards bases a lot of his proposals on things he has seen work in North Carolina, which given it is his home state is understandable. He does however cite a number of examples from other states, such as smaller classes in Tennessee and universal pre-K in Georgia and Oklahoma, but it would have been nice to see a similar broad look at the secondary level. For example, Nebraska has a successful approach to using school based assessments. Wyoming and Rhode Island have experience with using school based measurement as a basis for meeting statewide graduation requirements. As good as the proposals Edwards offers may be, I cannot help but wonder how much better they might have been had there been some more consideration of successful models from other states included.

It is clear that unlike some who attempt to mold educational policy, Edwards has listened to the voices of teachers. Thus we find clear ideas about mentorship, about providing a transition into teaching in the first year, about paying highly skilled teachers for taking on the challenge of teaching in high-poverty schools (an idea that he might consider extending to teaching in more rural schools as well). He argues for allowing time for more teacher collaboration and joint planning, a key part of improving working conditions. And he directly addresses an issue that is key - making it easier for teachers to move from one state to another both by encouraging reciprocity of credentialing and by trying to find a way to make pension plans compatible (although the latter is certainly going to be a more difficult task). At one point I maintained separate credentials in Maryland, DC and Virginia, and I have taught in the the last as well as in my current district in Maryland. As one holding my state’s highest credential (Advanced Professional Certificate II) as well as being National Board certified, I have reasonable portability of my credentials, but the money from my one year in Virginia is not directly transferable to my Maryland pension (although I could withdraw it and deposit it in a 403B plan without paying taxes). I have some personal understanding of the importance of an issue like this to many teachers who perhaps need to relocate because of family concerns, but who face unnecessary stumbling blocks in being certified in the state to which they wish to move.

There are issues in the plan about which I have some additional concerns. Edwards offers a proposal to reduce class sizes. While he argues that poor and African-American children gain the most, and promises to direct resources especially to reducing class sizes in lower grades for children below grade level, there is an implication that any reduction of class size is a positive. I’m not sure that the research supports that. Some studies have found that until there is a significant reduction, say to 17 or less, the gains in learning are prohibitive in expense, assuming that (a) there are sufficient high quality teachers (not currently the situation) and (b) that there are sufficient classrooms to increase the number of classes (often not the case in overcrowded urban schools). I acknowledge that Edwards is committed to increasing the availability of highly qualified teachers through a variety of methods, not all of of which have I addressed here. I do think we need to acknowledge that we have an issue about classrooms that must also be considered.

On some issue I find myself quibbling around the margins. Edwards wants to pay teams of experienced teachers to go into struggling schools for a year to help turn them around. I like the idea in principle, but my sense is that such “helicoptering in” for one year will ultimately not succeed. Here I note that even Teach for America wants a commitment of their young people for more than one year. I would think we should try to get commitments of at least two if not three years, in order to be able to establish a positive school culture that will survive the departure of those brought in - and I hope that at least some after several years might be encouraged to stay longer?

I have raised some cautions and concerns. I feel it my responsibility to do so. But do not let that mislead. I think the plan presented by Edwards represents something remarkable. It is of a piece with many of his other ideas about America, upon which I lack the competence and confidence to comment in the same detail as I can on education. It has an overall vision, a commitment to goals that are almost radical in there simplicity - revisit those three main principles again. It contains elements to address current needs - second chance high schools, leveraging the knowledge and skill of our best teachers to where they are most needed, directing federal resources to those schools and students most in need of extra assistance - at the same time as it attempts to lay down a foundation that will prevent the conditions requiring such interventions from going one without respite: here the focus on early childhood, on parent-school partnerships, on screening for vision and hearing and learning disabilities (assuming the resources to address the needs thereby identified) - all of this demonstrates a vision and a commitment that is heartening. John Edwards is committed to PUBLIC EDUCATION at a time when many in this nation are prepared to walk away. While I wish he would be explicit on things like the impossibility of 100% proficiency by 2014, he shows a clear understanding of what has been happening. We read in the plan
Children need to master both basic skills in reading, writing and math and advanced thinking skills like creativity, analytic thinking and using technology. We cannot tolerate the benign neglect of our schools. No Child Left Behind has lost its way by imposing cheap standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum at the expense of science, history, and the arts and mandating unproven cookie-cutter reforms on schools. As a result, it has lost the support of teachers, principals, and parents, whose support is needed for any reform to succeed.
That puts it fairly succinctly, and makes clear that under an Edwards administration we would see an attempt at a very different Federal role in pre K-12 public education than has been the case during the Bush administration.

Education is of critical importance to John Edwards, both because of his personal experience, that of his family (all four of his children attend(ed) public schools) and his vision for the nation.

At the beginning of the webpage from which I am obtaining the information about the Edwards plan, there are two paragraphs from a press release about the speech he gave in Iowa on the plan that are worth reproducing in their entirety:
"Education is an issue that's very personal for me," said Edwards. "I grew up in a small, rural town and my parents didn't have a lot of money. But I was lucky to have public school teachers who taught me to believe that somebody from a little town in North Carolina could do just about anything if he worked hard and played by the rules."

"Every child deserves to have the same chances I had," Edwards continued. "But today, millions of young people don't get these opportunities. More than a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have two school systems, separate and unequal. George Bush's No Child Left Behind law is not working, and Washington is simply not doing its part to invest in early childhood education, teachers, or support for struggling schools."

At this point I am neutral in the presidential contest. As a Virginian, my focus between now and November 6 will remain the contest for Democrats to gain control of our General Assembly. People I know and respect in Virginia are about equally split in their support for the top three Democratic candidates. I am a professional educator, and for me education is as important as any other issue with the possible exception of protecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am not, in writing this piece, endorsing a candidate. But I can say without hesitation that I view this plan as a remarkable document, a very good start at laying out the guidelines for making serious and positive changes that will sustain and improve public education in this country. I have never met the candidate, although I was fortunate enough to be able to speak about education with his closest adviser, his wife, whom I found well informed and willing to listen. I think the proposals in this plan are a wonderful starting point for a serious discussion on education beyond merely talking about how we keep NCLB from destroying public education. I will be interested in what other professionals in education have to say about this in the various sites in which I will post and/or distribute this piece.

Again, I have my points of contention, but they are more than outweighed by the overall excellence of what Edwards has put forth. I hope this in an indication that serious discussion about education will continue to play a major role in the forthcoming federal election cycle.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Coopted by Foundations? (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[To read the entire series, go here.]
Foundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford have a corrosive influence on a democratic society; they represent relatively unregulated and unaccountable concentrations of power and wealth which buy talent, promote causes, and, in effect, establish an agenda of what merits society's attention.

--Arnove, cited in Barker, "Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?"
Community organizing groups often pride themselves by their refusal of any government money. The general agreement among organizers on this issue rests on very good reasons, grounded on a long history of co-optation of organizing by governmental institutions seeking to eliminate grassroots resistance. During the 1960s, for example, there was a small window of time within which the government actually tried to fund grassroots collective action. This quickly pissed off the powers that be (especially the local powers that be that were most affected by empowered citizens) and the funding was quickly cut or shifted into more service oriented work. (Fisher's Let the People Decide gives a nice overview of this history). Today, nearly all "community groups" funded by government sources focus almost exclusively on "service" projects. "Community organizing" in organizations like these looks little or nothing like the kind of power focused collective action and institution-building I've been discussing in this series. And in part because these organizations are mostly "professionalized" at the higher levels, they are generally run by people who have little connection to the communities they are located in.

This is especially true for schools, of course. With few exceptions, the only "community" people in inner city schools are support personnel and aides in extremely marginalized positions.

While this refusal of government funding is informed by long experience, it has meant that most local organizing groups depend on foundation funding for their existence. Yes, organizing groups, especially those based in coalitions of organizations like the congregational groups I am most familiar with, try to generate funding out of their members. But without significant foundation funding, as I understand it, most would limp along at best.

This brings us to Michael Barker's just published pair of essays, "Do Capitalists Fund Revolutions?" (see Part One and Part Two). Barker's intent is mostly to focus on the ways in which foundation funding prevents radical social change designed to transform capitalism. I'm not exactly opposed to such a transformation if it could be made pragmatically effective and workable, but I'm not holding my breath. However, his articles draw together a range of interesting writings about the ways foundations often try to soften and de-radicalize the efforts to community organizing and other social action groups.

To extend somewhat on Barker's argument, as I have argued elsewhere in this series, "progressive" activism is grounded in the emergence of what was essentially a middle-class professional movement at the turn of the 20th Century. Stromquist's book on social class and the progressive movement, Reinventing "The People", focuses extensively on how foundations funding social change were integrally part of this middle-class "progressivism." And the middle-class progressives (who were, it must be remembered, an alternative to the communists and the union movements) were focused on the idea that social change could occur through the kind of measured dialogue that they, themselves, were used to.

Even for those of us that aren't necessarily pushing for socialist revolution (not that Barker, for example, is this simplistic--he's clearly not) this gives an indication that there may be something fundamentally anti-power and anti-confrontation about the most important foundations of our time (which, in large part, were the most important foundations then as well).

I wonder if one of the key issues about foundations is their tendency on the left to fund "projects" instead of long-term institutional structure, like the foundations on the right are more likely to do. Barker cites Guilloud and Cordery who note that "funders determine funding trends and non-profits develop programs to bend to these requests rather than assess real needs and realistic goals."

What if foundations on the left instead were more willing to endow local organizing institutions so that they had the independence to do what they thought needed to be done? This, it seems to me, could fundamentally alter the way community organizing groups operate. Instead of constantly grubbing for money and changing their "'product' to bend to" foundation "requests", there might be opportunities for more independent action.

What might such local endowed organizations look like? Along with a friend of mine, I've begun to imagine something like the old settlement house movement:
  • where multiple organizations could be housed, rent free;
  • where transportation and reimbursement and child-care could be provided to poorer citizens who might then be able to actively participate;
  • where a fundraising expert could be permanently sited to identify funds and help relieve organizers from spending so much time finding where there next buck would come from;
  • where service providers might also be sited so they could work to support citizens on the margins, again, so that they might actually be able to participate effectively in social action (this aversion to service is another key problem for organizing groups, even though, again, they have good reasons for it);
  • that might support interns from the local community on a rotating basis to bring local "expertise" into the building along with "professional" organizers.
Of course, this raises as many questions as it answers. But if someone gave an endowment of, say, 6 million dollars to a collaboration between multiple organizing groups in Milwaukee, only a portion of the interest of which could be spent every year, I wonder how it might change the depressingly limited status of social action and resistance in this community.

Thinking of education, specifically, it might allow the emergence of a permanent grassroots organization with the power to hold the school district accountable over the long term, instead of the kind of momentary and often not sustained engagements that have historically taken place.

(A good example of why this is a problem is the SAGE class-size reduction program that MOVE fought to bring to Milwaukee Public Schools. I have heard that a number of schools are starting to refuse this money because it isn't enough to actually make the program happen and the requirements that come with it saddles them with costs that they then can't really pay. We should be on this. We aren't. In part this is because we're caught up in other complex issues. Our group simply doesn't have the institutional resources to keep good track of what is going on in the moving target that is always the reality of an inner city school district.)

What do other people think?

NCATE, Diversity, and Dispositions

The Journal of Educational Controversy has just published a timely set of essays on the issue of dispositions. Most of the articles are, obviously, either directly or tangentially related to NCATE’s removal of social justice as a term in the glossary. I have an article in the issue that looks at the marginalization of foundations in regards to these issues. There are some excellent articles in the issue, including an historical perspective from Jennifer de Forest and a scathing critique from Bonnie and Dale Johnson. After reading the essays I wish there would have been an opportunity to create some kind of dialogue among authors before the publication since so many of the debates and discussions overlap and cross-reference and respond to each other. But perhaps that can still happen either in formal rejoinders to the journal or through this blog.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Buying Off the Fighters (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

[To read the entire series, go here.]

After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black — and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.

--New York Times, September 17, 2007

An interesting article in today’s New York Times reports on an effort in Tuscaloosa to resegregate their public schools. As is regularly the case in America, today, this resegregation is being framed as an effort to create “neighborhood” schools. The same thing has been happening here in Milwaukee, for example. Of course, it just happens that “neighborhoods” in American cities are extremely segregated. So “neighborhood schools” are really a code-phrase for resegregation.

I don’t have any more information about this case than is provided in the Times article. But the article seems (probably unintentionally) to tell a fairly classic story about the catch-22s involved in empowering individuals instead of entire communities.

The article notes that black parents have been “battling the rezoning for weeks.” However, one of the key tools concerned parents are using is the provision in the NCLB law that allows students to transfer out of poor performing schools. As the article notes:

Parents looking for recourse turned to the No Child Left Behind law. Its testing requirements have enabled parents to distinguish good schools from bad. And other provisions give students stuck in troubled schools the right to transfer. In a protest at an elementary school after school opened last month, about 60 black relatives and supporters of rezoned children repeatedly cited the law. Much of the raucous meeting was broadcast live by a black-run radio station.

While “some black parents wrote to the Alabama superintendent of education” to argue “that the rezoning violated the federal law,” the superintendent noted “that Tuscaloosa was offering students who were moved to low-performing schools the right to transfer into better schools. That, he said, had kept it within the law.” Let’s assume that the superintendent is accurate in his understanding of the law for the moment (commenters are free to correct me).

In essence, what the whites in charge of Tuscaloosa schools may have done is turn some public schools into “open” schools for white children and inso “magnet” schools for children of color—especially poor children of color who, as usual, seem to have been especially targeted for exclusion. (In Milwaukee school leaders were more explicit about their intentions, seeking to create “neighborhood” specialty schools in white areas that students outside the neighborhood had to apply to get into.) As Kozol, among many others has noted, magnet schools are generally created in poor districts to keep middle-class professionals, often white, parents from leaving the district or sending their kids to private schools. By creating bureaucratic hurdles for admission, regardless of whether there are any real academic or other evidentiary requirements for admission, they keep parents with less savvy and social capital out.

In the Tuscaloosa case, even if the district simply allows every student whose parent jumps the hurdles they place in their way back in, the plan is likely to accomplish the resegregation (that they, of course, deny seeking) in the first place. In general, the students transferring back will be those with parents with the self-assurance to engage with the system and demand a transfer, parents likely to be less-poor than their neighbors, and more likely to be able to effectively support their children’s education. From a social class standpoint, in general these are probably not the families that white parents, administrators, and politicians most wanted to get out of their schools in the first place. Regardless of their skin color, or how contentious these parents may be, likely “they” are probably more like “us” than those “other” blacks and latinos.

In any case, the number of returning students is certain to be much smaller than the number excluded in the first place. The district reports in the article that they have “only” moved 880 students. Even if this is the truth, which I doubt (in my experience, there are many ways to play with these numbers), only 170 students apparently have requested transfers back in. So, at “worst,” only about 20% of those they wanted to get rid of are coming back. And in the future these numbers will probably fall as the controversy inevitably dies down. (I think NCLB also allows schools to refuse transfer if they are “full”, further ensuring that “too many” students can’t come back).

Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, those requesting transfers are likely to be students with the “squeaky wheel” parents. This is important because if you exclude a large number of poor students of color from particular schools and then let back in those students whose parents have the gumption to fight, you are essentially “buying off” those who are most likely to lead rebellion against the resegregation plan. This approach may allow you to resegregate while eliminating from the opposition those with the most leadership capacity, while probably also splitting the opposing black community along class lines.

While some parents with transferred kids will probably still fight against the problem of resegregation more generally, this approach may successfully prevent the emergence of the critical mass of strong leaders necessary to fight the plan over the long term.

Assuming the article is giving the correct impression about what is going on in Tuscaloosa, it would be interesting to see if what I am surmising actually takes place. It’s important to stress that I am not saying that we should necessarily eliminate escape hatches like this. Choices like these are often tragic. I’m only noting the potential consequences that they may produce.

Do some of the few apparently positive provisions of NCLB, actually end up making it easier for them to segregate the schools than if these provisions didn’t exist in the first place?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Task for Foundations: Cognitive Dissonance for Conservatives

A recent study in Nature (see this summary in Slate) found that those with "a more conservative orientation is related to greater persistence in a habitual response pattern, despite signals that this response pattern should change." In other words, even when faced with dissonant or contradictory data, people who identified as conservative were more likely to stick with their original idea rather than respond to new data and give more accurate responses.

It seems to me that this highlights the importance of foundations as a place where students learn, through their engagement with a range of theories and historical information, to think in a more critical fashion. If the nature study is right, then it is true that foundations classes will be more difficult for conservative students to tolerate than more progressive ones. Of course, this is no surprise to any of us, but it is interesting to have this kind of "scientific" confirmation.

It also indicates, however, that particular kinds of engagements in foundations are most important for initiating students into critical thought. To the extent that we teach "theories" in foundations classes as if they have some independent reality, we may tend to shut down critical thought. It's only when we teach students to bring theories into critical contact with the complexities of real situations, where theories inevitably break down, that we are teaching the kind of thinking necessary for a "scientific" world-view.

It's not "foundations" in general, not the "content" of foundations that is important, here. Instead, again unsurprisingly, it's how this content is taught that is important. I'd be inclined to argue that this kind of teaching is more likely to happen in foundations classes, but this is certainly not assured.

In other words, yes, there may be something inherently "liberal" or "progressive" about critical foundations classes (and the like), as conservative critics are inclined to claim. But this is often the case only because "conservative" thinking is, to some extent, inherently anti-empirical. The problem comes when foundations becomes "liberal" in an anti-empirical way, itself. Which can sometimes happen. (E.g., John Dewey against George Counts.) The conflict, here, may be as much between systemic and empiricist thinking as it is between defined political stances.

Interestingly, this is not just a "conservative/liberal" issue. Other research has shown that people raised in "western" cultures have much more difficulty than those in "eastern" cultures in holding two dissonant ideas about the world at the same time. To some extent, then, being "liberal" also means being less "western" in some ways.

(Some have attacked the Enlightenment as the source of this tendency to shy away from contradiction. However, as Peter Gay's magisterial overview of Enlightement thought shows in detail, the enlightenment was more focused on empiricism than simple rationalism. In fact, it is accurate to think of the Enlightenment as a response against the reality-evacuated world of scholasticism that preceded it, as a reaction against systems that proported to tell clean stories about the world that had removed themselves from empirical reality.)

So that's what's running through my head this morning

Update: Here's a critique of the conclusions of the Nature study. It was sure to make conservatives grumpy.