Monday, September 28, 2009

Tuition Tax Credits

The right is always bleating about the need to have pilot programs that test their market-based approaches to educational reform. How’s this for a test?
The state's Private School Tuition Tax Credits program covers the cost of private education, often for children whose parents could afford to pay it themselves - while allowing affluent families to reduce the amount of income tax they pay into the state's general fund. . . . [read on]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I’m currently taking a doctoral level course on education and economics. At our first meeting, the professor (whose PhD is in Economics) noted that the past two decades have seen the increasing influence of economic theory on education policy, with a sharply rising curve in the 21st century. I asked him why he thought that was and he gave me a great (and honest) answer: Economists have better theories. Economic theories have been honed for decades, even centuries, and economists have vastly better and more convincing quantitative tools to measure outputs. Besides, he said, economists think they’re right and tend to be aggressive.            Teacher in a Strange Land, January 2007.

Last year, the nation’s most famous economist, Alan Greenspan, admitted that he may have been "partially" wrong in trusting banks to protect their shareholders. Those sharp quantitative tools and rock-solid economic theories crumbled in the face of rampant self-interest. And we've been paying the price in lost trust ever since.
Benjamin Barber, in an eloquent blog on Huffington Post, traces the economic collapse back to lack of trust:
Trust is a crucial form of social capital, a recognition of the common ground on which we stand as citizens. It is the glue that holds rival producers and consumers together and lets them do the business that would otherwise do them in. Whereas the whole point of the market is competition - selfishness and narcissism as self-conscious instruments of market calculation.
Although it was bad loans and greedy bankers and stupid hedge fund managers and ignorant investors who made the mess, it has been four decades of de-democratization that has done the real damage. A hemorrhaging of social capital that nobody noticed because government was supposed to be the problem and markets the solution.

Democracy's real product is trust. As the war on government became a war on democracy it drew down the well of social capital and eroded trust, causing citizens to lose faith in each other and their common power to govern themselves.

Social capital and trust. Can we apply these lessons to our public schools and the barely-breathing ideal of democratic equality in education before they completely implode, too? When people who have resources and power move their own children into sheltered schools—schools they trust—and then use their personal bully pulpit to demean and erode public education, the ultimate outcomes harm us all. It’s not just about my children. It’s about everyone’s children, because we’ll be living on this planet with all of these children for the rest of our lives. And eventually, they’ll be running the show.

One of my favorite books is Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement by Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider. Bryk and Schneider, in a series of case studies done in Chicago in 2002, provide convincing data showing significant increases in student achievement—measured by every economist’s favorite tool, standardized tests—when multi-directional trust is present. When teachers trust principals, when parents have confidence in teachers and administrators, when teachers feel free to take risks in improving their practice—student learning and school operations improve. It’s as simple as that.

Our national values are spread out before us for re-examination. Individual gain vs. public good? Free markets vs. effective regulation? Me and mine vs. you and yours.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Human Evolution and The Slow Development of Symbolic Thought

Fascinating FREE article at PLOS arguing that in human evolution symbolic thought evolved much later than the biological substrate that would have allowed it. I have no idea how generally accepted this is, but it's a fascinating idea with maybe some implications for human learning and theories of discourse.
Evidently, then, “becoming human” took place in two separate stages. First, the distinctive modern human morphology became established, very clearly in Africa, and probably shortly after 200 Ka. This event involved a radical departure from the primitive Homo body form. Only ca. 100 Ka later, again in Africa, and in a Middle Stone Age industrial context, did modern symbolic behaviors begin to be expressed, underwritten by a new capacity that had most plausibly been present but unexploited in the first anatomical H. sapiens. In evolutionary terms this disconnect was entirely routine, for every new behavior has to be permitted by a structure that already exists: Birds, for example, had feathers for millions of years before coopting them for flight, and tetrapods acquired their limbs in an aquatic context (52).

Symbolic reasoning appears to be qualitatively different from all other forms of cognition, including its own immediate precursor. Its neural substrate continues to be strenuously debated (53, 54); but, whatever it was, that structural innovation was most plausibly acquired as part and parcel of the radical biological reorganization that gave birth to H. sapiens as an anatomically distinctive entity. In which case (like those feathers and limbs) it remained unexploited, at least in the cognitive context, for a very substantial length of time, until its new use was “discovered” by its possessor. How this discovery was made remains a matter for conjecture, but a leading candidate for the necessarily cultural stimulus to symbolic processing of information is the invention of language (55). Language is perhaps the ultimate symbolic activity; and, in contrast to theory of mind, the other leading candidate for the role of releaser (56), it has the advantage of being a communal rather than an internalized attribute. The ability to use language depended, of course, on the presence of the vocal structures required to produce speech; but clearly these had already been exaptively acquired by the earliest anatomical H. sapiens.

Current evidence thus indicates that H. sapiens as we know it today had a dual origin: first as an anatomical entity, and only subsequently as a cognitive one. The clear signal of both the fossil and archaeological records is that both innovations occurred in Africa, from which the first fully modern humans expanded relatively recently to populate the rest of the world.

h/t four stone hearth (them there anthropologists are pretty damned organized online) at Afarensis via our old friend Neuroanthropology

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Fiction Reading Affects Empathy

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn't just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

h/t Neuroanthropology

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Think you can't trust the President?? At least trust the kids!

Cross-posted from Social Issues (the blog of the John Dewey Society Commission on Social Issues)

I was greeted early yesterday morning by a local newspaper article noting that some folks (specifically, "conservatives,"  but it's hard to know who that refers to) are angry that President Obama plans to give a speech at a public school urging young people to stay in school and take advantage of the education being offered them. Throughout the day yesterday -- and this morning -- I encountered this "developing story" ... on CNN, in The New York Times, and elsewhere.  

What are we to make of this?

The Obama folks clearly made one mistake in the run-up to the event.   They posted lesson plans that teachers could use in preparation for and after listening to the President's speech (offered live in one school but available for broadcast in any school).   One part of that included a question to be posed to the students:  "What can you do to help the President?"    In context, the question was clearly about supporting the good of the nation, but I can (if I really stretch Peter Elbow's "methodological belief") see why those who do not agree with the "President's ideology" would be concerned.  And it seems the President's folks were listening and focused on making this a non-partisan event. That question in the lesson plan was changed to ask how a student could achieve his or her educational goals.

I am struck by the concern with the "President's ideology," because the complaint incorporates the assumption that ONLY the President has an ideology, that the one complaining is speaking the non-biased truth.   Of course, the President has views on how to deal with the issues of our time, as do we all.    And we don't all agree with each other.   But it seems we have lost even the notion that we share one common goal:  a desire to educate children to be good Americans (even when we are not in agreement about what that means.)  Each of us -- especially the duly elected President of the country -- deserves that benefit of the doubt no matter how hard we fight in the arena of ideas and policies.

We have apparently moved into an era when even the clear election winner, a father of two young daughters, will not be trusted to speak to school children.  Have we so little confidence in our children's ability to listen critically and form and frame their own minds that we fear the influence of Barack Obama?   If that's so, then I fear no education is possible, certainly not the real education that requires openness to people who don't look and think like we do.  

Children who would become democratic citizens need to experience the play of democratic functioning.  I remember well my 6th grade Catholic school playground days during the Nixon/Kennedy elections.   My teachers and most of my classmates were Kennedy supporters (the result of religioius "ideology"? )   My parents -- and I -- were Nixon supporters (the result of my business executive father's socio-economic status?)  I and the few other Nixon supports held our ground when everybody else challenged us;   for the most part, we enjoyed it.  Whether or not we can trust our President in this case (and I obviously think we can),  I am quite certain we can trust our children.   Bring the President into every classroom;  it will do us good.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Two teachers on using test scores to evaluate teachers

One of the more controversial aspects of the Obama Education Department's approach has been its insistence upon using student test scores as a means of evaluating teachers for merit pay. This is in fact something Sec. Duncan has posed as a non-negotiable requirement for a state to be eligible for $4.5 billion in grants that are part of ARRA (stimulus). These funds, a part of the badly named Race to the Top (RtTP - as if the purpose of education is a race) have led Gov. Schwarzeneggar to try to change current law which that keeps test scores from being used to evaluate teachers.

I want to share an op ed in the Sacramento Bee by 2 teachers who are part of the Accomplished California Teachers Network. David Cohen, who teaches in upscale Palo Alto, is like me a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. Alex Kajitani is California's current Teacher of the Year, and teaches at an inner city middle school in San Diego. And they clearly make the case in their title: Test scores poor tool for teacher evaluation.

Cohen and Kajitani note that while on the surface such linkage might seem obvious, such appearances are misleading. Addressing their remarks to Gov. Schwarzeneggar, whom they urge to go back to school on the subject, they write
experts in education, testing and even economics have argued that state tests are not designed for teacher evaluation and will not yield reliable results. You are taking in us in a direction that will harm our schools and our students.
They note that funding is temporary, but would lead to a permanent and destructive change to
California's thoughtful, research-based and consensus-driven state education policy
in the process of pursuing the funds.

Let me digress briefly to reinforce one point already made - that experts in education and testing disagree with such an approach. There are three principal professional organizations that deal with psychological measurement in schools, the American Educational Research Association, the National Council for Measurement in Education, and the American Psychological Association. In 1999 they jointly reissued The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. That document makes clear that tests developed to allow valid inferences for student performance usually cannot be used to draw valid inferences about either teachers or schools. And anyone who understands testing recognizes that most state tests at best measure what a student can give back at the time of testing, in no way controlling for any knowledge or skill developed prior to the current school year.

Returning to the op ed: let me share one very blunt paragraph:
The overemphasis on testing does not enhance educational quality, but instead will promote schooling that leaves too many of our children underprepared for higher education, unskilled at critical thinking and less engaged in their communities. Parents and business leaders consistently say they want us to develop in students the types of skills least valued in a test-driven educational atmosphere.
Neither teacher is afraid of evaluation. However, they believe that the only information the tests provide is how students perform on those tests. They are blunt in asserting that they do not believe the tests either fairly evaluate their students - from two very different environments - or provide an accurate indication of their teaching.

Let me quote the heart of the piece. This will be an extensive selection, but it is necessary to demonstrate what they are trying to communicate:
Like English teachers across California, Cohen works with a set of standards requiring instruction in a range of language arts skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Two of these four standards areas are entirely ignored by state tests that offer no listening or speaking components. The tests mostly measure writing skills by checking some basic proofreading skills, but usually, no actual writing.

The all-important reading assessments are similarly narrow and are further suspect because test-savvy students work backward from the questions and don't have to read the passages, and then rely on a variety of outside knowledge to eliminate obvious wrong answers; meanwhile, test-averse students often post scores masking their true abilities. How then can the practice of an English teacher be accurately measured with tests that hardly overlap with the teaching expected of us?

Kajitani, a math teacher, knows that before each test period it is time to pause the teaching of true problem-solving and conceptual reasoning to be sure that students have memorized the operations on which they will be tested and to refresh their test-taking skills. Effective teachers may know how to squeeze in both "teaching to the test" and teaching real, in-depth critical thinking, but this begs the question of where the teacher's time is best spent, for the true benefit of the children they are educating. We sacrifice better learning for better test scores.

All good teachers want to be able to properly assess how their students are doing, in order that we can adjust our instruction to meet their needs. And yet:
Respect for our students and respect for our teaching both demand evaluation based on a broad range of information and multiple measures of performance. Test-driven policies notoriously push in the opposite direction.

As members of the aforementioned Accomplished Teachers Network, Cohen and Kajatini
support efforts to create more effective evaluations, with greater focus on actual teaching practices, including robust and varied evidence such as student and teacher portfolios.

Here, since like David Cohen I am an NBCT, I note that the National Board process is focused on actual teaching practices, and requires the candidate for certification to reflect upon various aspects of her/his teaching practice in terms of how it assists the students. That is something far more valuable than merely prepping students for tests that do not even fairly assess either the knowledge and skill in the domain or ascertain how much the student has learned.

The authors conclude that
evaluating individual teachers based on test scores, in a reactionary effort to compete for Race to the Top grant money, is not the answer. It would be a travesty of education reform for the teachers and students of our state.
And yet as states and schools are desperate for money, education will be distorted in its pursuit, to the detriment of meaningful learning by our students.

This is as perverse as schools, in need of money, selling naming rights to stadiums, or allowing soft drink and junk food machines in the building - in the latter case the desire for money outweighs the medical and dental health implications of encouraging students to consume such products.

The pursuit of money from Race to the Top funds is similar - it is the consumption of non-nutritious educational practices. It is selling the soul of meaningful education. It is as damaging to the minds of our students as the junk food and soda are to their bodies and teeth.

Just my thoughts at the end of the second week with my students.


Lost Decade for Young Workers: The Job Situation for Our Graduating Students

Some of the report’s key findings include:

* 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
* Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
* Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside—22 percentage points fewer than in 1999—while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills.
* A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
* 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
* When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
* By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
* Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
* The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Full report here (pdf).