Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks for lives past and present

crossposted from Daily Kos

I was, perhaps appropriately, listening to a recording of the Brahms Requiem when I saw the email: Greg Kannerstein had passed away. Let me quote two paragraphs from Haverford College President Steve Emerson's ('74) email:
A mentor, student, teacher, colleague, coach and friend to thousands, Greg recently stepped down from his role as our Dean of the College after a 41-year career marked by boundless enthusiasm for Haverford. He had begun work on his new appointment as a Special Advisor to Institutional Advancement and Lecturer in General Programs when emerging health issues forced him to take a medical leave last month. His illness was diagnosed only weeks ago.

My heart aches at the thought of losing Greg. I believe it is fair to say that every Haverfordian who has passed through the College since 1968 has been touched by Greg’s spirit. Whether in his role as coach, teacher, Athletic Director, Dean of Admissions, or Dean of the College, Greg was always there for Haverford, and for everyone in the greater Haverford family.

And that got me thinking about the thanks I want to offer -

Greg and I did not overlap as students at Haverford - he was class of '63 and my original class was '67. But when I returned in the Fall of '71 he was already back as a fixture on the campus he loved, and where he would spend the rest of his life. Greg was a friend for almost 4 decades. Two others I did not know as well also passed recently, Gerald Bracey and Ted Sizer. I knew both through their writings, Jerry much better through electronic exchanges over more than a decade and the occasional phone conversation, and Ted through one long conversation several years ago in Providence when we were both there for a conference on education.

Bracey could be acerbic. He was a brilliant man, and did not tolerate fools and idiots when it came to matters of educational policy. He could totally devastate the kind of sloppy thinking that has unfortunately so shaped our educational policy in recent years. His writings over the year pointed me in the direction of research I needed to absorb. Our last exchange is when he arranged for me to get a copy of his final book, Education Hell: Rhetoric versus Reality, which may be the best single book on education policy I have read in several years. I did not get around to writing an online review before Jerry passed, but I was so impressed I bought a number of copies to give to Members of the House interested in education with my strong recommendation that they read it. As part of my thanks for his life and work, I promise I will review that book here before the end of the year.

Ted Sizer was one of the most generous spirits I have ever encountered. He was a consummate educator, usually of other educators. His book Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School laid out clearly one of the real crises in American education. That and his subsequent work led to some of the most meaningful reforms in American education: The Coalition of Essential Schools, which is largely based on his insights and work, and the Forum for Education and Democracy, of which he was a Convener, are illustrative of his positive influence.

I am thankful for men such as Greg, Jerry and Ted, who cared deeply for others, for education, and who served as mentors and inspirations for so many.

Which makes me realize how thankful I am for something else - the students with which I am blessed each and every day. The inspiration I received from Jerry and Ted would have far less meaning were I not able to live it, to pass it on to others. The model of service to others that Greg lived similarly is something I feel honor-bound to pass on by attempting myself to live it. And I am blessed because each day I enter my classroom I am presented with a multitude of opportunities through the lives of the young people before me.

I am thankful that they are willing to trust, to allow themselves to be challenged, push, provoked, and that they trust me not to abandon them, to encourage them, to comfort them when they struggle. That requires me to go outside of myself, and certainly makes me more humane, or if you prefer, allows me to begin to realize my own humanity.

There will be many other things for which I will offer thanks, today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year.

Greg's death reminded me of the importance of thanking him for sharing his life with so many of us, and that I need to say the same of Jerry and Ted.

There is an ancient Buddhist saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So perhaps it was for me when I got to know Greg - who was very much a teacher, not only as a coach, but in the classes he also occasionally taught, having himself seriously studied literature at the graduate level. And certainly reading and later knowing Jerry and Ted helped shape my own teaching.

Realistically, one only teaches with the cooperation of the student. So for me, when the student appears and is willing to travel down the road of mutual exploration and learning, that is when the teaching begins. Without the students I am not a teacher.

Thanks for these lives, the three recently passed, and the 180 currently on my roles who represent present and future, and the several hundred still in our building who have previously shared the experience of learning with me.

I am truly blessed.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Creating a Democratic Learning Community

is the focus of a new book by Sam Chaltain, National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy. Sam previously worked with the First Amendment Schools Project, an experience that helped shaped this book. He is also founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which is a community educators, students and citizens committed to First Amendment Freedoms, democratic schools, and the idea that students should be seen and heard (and of which I am a member).

American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community has a Foreword by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor - herself long committed to a revitalization of civic education - and is valuable both as something to read to provoke one’s thinking, and as a resource for further exploration of the topic, especially for anyone concerned about preparing our students to learn to be citizens of a democracy.

While I want to concentrate on what Chaltain himself has written, it is worth noting a brief part of the Foreword by O’Connor. She writes on pp. xvii-xviii:
Ensuring that young people acquire the skills democracy imposes on us will require a concerted effort in school districts, at statehouses, and by the federal government. The pending congressional reauthorization of NCLB and the inauguration of our forty-fourth president make this an ideal time for American Schools to arrive, and for us all to remember that the primary purpose of public schools in America has been to help produce citizens who have the knowledge, the skills, and the values needed to sustain our centuries-old experiment in liberty.
As Sam Chaltain makes clear in the pages that follow, we can’t expect our schools to become more democratic if our school leaders don’t understand how to create more equitable school environments. And we can’t expect our democracy to perform well if our students do not learn about basic concepts of government or receive meaningful opportunities to exercise their rights responsibly.
Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene [ool. Every generation has to learn it, and we all learn best by doing.

In his own introduction, Chaltain equates being an American with the word Freedom and then tells us on his very first page
In that one word we capture the historic, partly fulfilled promise of the United States. And we name an irresistible, universal human impulse - to be in control of our own destiny, to feel visible to others, and to have a say in determining the shape of the world around us.

Those three ideas - control of our destiny, being visible to others, and having a say - are key ideas that run throughout the book, and undergird Chaltain’s understanding of the purpose of education, and hence how it should be structured.

He acknowledges the need for different degrees of freedom and the need for structure, but reminds us of the need to be attuned to the different degrees of freedom so that
we create the types of schools that confer not just academic diplomas, but also “degrees” of individual freedom, of civic responsibility, and of shared respect for the power and uniqueness of each person’s voice.

The book begins with the aforementioned forward and Introduction, those two sections bracketing a brief list of acknowledgements. It also contians a Prologue with the title “Ways of Seeing (and of Being Seen): The Art of the Democratic Learning Community” in which Chaltain shares some of his own teaching experiences, both in China and in a large public New York City high sc hool. From these experiences he offers what is for him an essential lesson if our learning environments are to be democratic, that the students feel that they are visible. From my standpoint as a classroom teacher in his 1ifteenth year of public school teaching, I found myself nodding my head at his criticisms of a structure of school that dissuades the development of long-term teacher-student relationships, and his recognition that a result can be that teachers and other leaders wind up not trusting, not having “opportunites to recognize the true worth and potential of the fellow human beings we are supposed to serve” because “we manage each other as we would manage inanimate things.” (p.6). One other passage from that Prologue also struck me, on the following page, where he writes
...if there is only one thing I would want schoosl to guarantee, it would be to help all young people acquire the skills and self-confidence they need to be visibie in the world.

The rest of the book has two main divisions. The first is labeled THEORY and includes chapters with titles that can be condensed each to one or two words: Reflect, Connect, Create, Equip, and Let Come. Each of these is parenthetically expanded, for example:

Connect (or, make the connections that let you “see the whole board”)

Each of these chapters thoroughly albeit briefly explores the concept and how it applies to the school setting , is well documented from the literature and often from schools Chaltain has visited, and offers resources to further help one explore the concept.

The second section is labeled PRACTICE and explores three schools Chaltain got to know from his days working with First Amendment Schools, a chapter each on Fairview Elemenatry in Modesto, CA; Nursery Road Elemnetary in Irmo, SC; and Mondanock Community Connections School in Swanzey, NH. We learn from the extended experiences of the three schools, which also gave Chaltain access to internal communications, contemporary news coverage, and a variety of other resources that enables the reader to go beyond Chaltain’s description and make her own evaluation of the experience of each school. For anyone contemplating making a commitment to making one’s own school more democratic, this represents an invaluable collection of experiences.

Finally, there is an Epilogue of about a half dozen pages. It has the title Ways of Seeing (Teec Nos Pos, Arizona) and is based on Chaltain’s visit to a schoo on the sprawling (almost 27,000 square miles) Navaho Reservation in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. My first encounter with the book was at a book party at the home of Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, with whom Chaltain has served as a co-author and who served as both boss and mentor for him. Chaltaiin chose to read from the Epilogue at the event, which after reading the entire book I can say was an appropriate choice. The brief pages present quite clearly the issues of democracy and freedom in our school settings, and will challenge most readers with the implications of what it means to be in a democratic learning community.

The material in the book covers only bit more than 150 pages. It is not a long read, but it is certainly worthwhile. There will be parts that you will want to ponder. Perhaps you will encounter passages that will make you want to argue - I found a few, and thus my copy is quite marked up with margin notes as I wrestle with the ideas. I have not yet fully explored even those of the resources that would be most applicable to be as a classroom teacher, one of more than 150 in a large suburban high schools. It is comforting to know that I can return to the book and explore ideas as occasion may warrant, even though I did choose read through the entire book in the two days after I purchased it at the book party, an event that included many people whose professional lives have connected with Chaltain’s, including a well-known Congressman and his spouse.

I’d like to offer a smattering of some the quotes that caught my attention as I read this work. (the page numbers are in parenthesis at the end of each blockquote).

Whether we teach, run a business, or make art, the work we do - if it is to be truly fulfilling - must connect in some way to a larger vision we find meaningful. (18)

Nothing undermines the creative and participative processes more than the naive belief that all a good vision needs is implementation and rollout. (18)

.. my daily goal is to model the behavior I want to see in others. (18)

Until implicit goals are recognized, any change or reform effort is essentially doomed to fail. Implicit goals are almost always a vivid reflection of the quality (or lack thereof) of relationships among the people who make up an organization. (44)

... for meaningful change to occur, the organization’s shared vision should not be seen as the property of any one person. (58)

The fact that so many schools struggle to change core behaviors or processes is particularly troubling when one considers that in essence, learning itself is change. But the greater truth is that people don’t resist change. They resist being changed. (70)

Having given you both a sense of the structure and a taste of the author’s thinking (and Chaltain has told me that the quotes I selected are a fair representation of his key ideas). let me explore a couple of points in a bit more depth.

Besides the descriptions of the three schools that Chaltain gives us in Part II, in Chapter Four (“Equip”) he presents us with a hypothetical 5-year case study of school taking on the process of change to a more democratic learning environment. This is one of the most useful sections of the book: Chaltain provides outside resources that can be used in such a process and shows how they might apply. As he tells us on p. 82,
Although the specific story of Roger Williams Middle school is fictional, all of its insights and challenges come from real schools that achieved real improvement in student learning using a similar approach to whole-school improvement.,
This section helps provide us with a framework to see how it all can piece together, and school leaders can begin to change the culture of their schools to something that is more reinforcing of the democracy that should be a principal part of the purpose of our public schools.

Chaltain makes reference to the work of the great Chilean educator Paolo Freire, who as much as anyone is responsible for our understanding that education is not merely a question of peeling back the scalp of a student and pouring in the knowledge, what Freire referred to as the banking model of education. Chatian notes that Freire believed educators were “particularly burdened” by the idea of change, in large part because of what he saw as the fear of freedom. On p. 88 Chaltain notes
What unnerves us most about freedom is the same thing generations of scientists were unconsciously ignoring about the universe - its unpredictability and capacity for disorder. In the classroom, this fear of the unknown has misled many of us into thinking that the relationship between freedom and structure is an either/or proposition. As educators, we’re either providing good, structured instruction, or we’re refereeing spitball fights. But here’s a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian...
and he notes that Freire explores this issue, as does contemporary American scholar Linda Darling-Hammond (who is a Convener) of the Forum for Education and Democracy, for which Chaltain serves as National Director). Chaltain quotes her:
”The middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism,” she says, “is authoritative practice. Authoritative treamtent sets limits and consequences withing a context that fosters dialogue, explicit teaching about how to assume responsibility, and democratic decision-makings.”

Let’s consider for a moment that the creative tension described applies generally in American society. It was certainly a part of the 1960s, and again was part of the context of the past administration in a time of international conflict and fear of further attack. It should not be a surprise that it also occurs within the context of school as well.

The distinction between authoritative and authoritarian is crucial. An insistence upon order at all costs is crushing of the democratic spirit in our politics. It is even more so of any attempt to develop the skills to be a participating citizen of that democracy when it supersedes the kinds of explorations necessary for students to develop the skills expected of such a citizen. As a teacher I would argue that it is equally crushing of real learning, in which the student must at some point find a way of connecting the material with himself, of assuming responsibility to some degree for his own learning.

There are other ideas in the book well worth pondering. In a review of this length I can only hope to give you a sense, to whet your intellectual appetite and to invite you to explore further on your own. As I hope I have made clear, I found it a more than useful read, and expect to return to it with some regularity as I continue to reflect upon ideas that matter to me, which intersects with my own concerns about the shape of American education as it is now, and work to help reshape it to something I think would be more productive and effective for our students and for our society.

It is worth noting that Chaltain explores the use of systems thinking. In the chapter titled “CONNECT” there is a section titled SEEING THE WHOLE BOARD: SYSTEMS THINKING which begins with words from Peter Senge about how we are taught to break apart problems, “to fragment the world.” Chaltain immediately offers us this:
This reflex makes complex tasks seem more approachable. But the truth is we all pay a price for deluding ourselves into thinking that everything can be broken down into cause and effect, accurately measured, and sufficiently addressed. Indeed, in the same way a reassembled broken mirror cannot yield an accurate reflection, “we can no longer see the consequences of our actions.” Absent that capacity, “we lose our intrinsic sense of connection to a larger whole.” (pp 37-38 - the additional quoted material is also from Senge)
Chaltain warns us that the tendency cited by Senge can too often lead to seeking a solution to address symptoms rather than addressing the whole within the concept of system. One paragraph clearly illustrates the dangers of this:
In fact, NCLB is an archetypal system structure that arises whenever people treat symptoms of a problem and then become increasingly dependent upon their own “symptomatic solutions.” Rather than tackle the myriad issues that exacerbate the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students (an extremely worthy goal). what we’ve done instead is isolate one easily visible symptom of “school success” - in this case, student test scores and schoolwide annual yearly progress (AYP) reports - and then prescribe a a cure: an increased emphasis on testing and accountability. But just as we must resist the urge to solve new problems with old thinking, we must beware of the symptomatic solution. (42-43)

For those who, like Justice O’Connor, consider preparing our students to be participants in a democratic republic, there is little doubt that we need to rethink how we do our schooling. For those who have not yet reached that conclusion, perhaps if you would read and consider what Chaltain offers in this book, you will also begin to move in that direction. I certainly hope so.

Wherever you may be on that issue now, I can assure you that reading this volume will be time and effort well spent. You will have a better understanding of some key issues in education, and will experiience an effective way of addressing them.

I strongly recommend this book. But then, considering how much of the words of Chaltain I have already shared, my high opinion of the volume should be apparent. I hope that after you read it you will agree.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Feeling Technical?

I have an enormous problem communicating with the academic liberals--particularly the social scientists. I'm not talking about the sociologists who have creative, seminal minds like David Riesman or Robert Park. I'm talking about the ones who are just sort of electronic accessories to computers. They suffer from verbal diarrhea and mental constipation--I don't know any other way to describe it politely.
--Saul Alinsky, Quoted in Horwitt
Someone close to me is in a Ph.D. program that essentially drives their students into the ground with work (50-60 hours a week). The stats classes are actually a class and a half squeezed into one without any pretense of actual pedagogy. ("Here's another powerpoint, and another, and yes another. See how they relate? Good. Moving on . . . .) This is the usual approach of many in lower-level universities (like mine) that have to prove their mojo by making their students suffer.

Seems to me like this is likely to produce technicians, not scholars.

Another reason why social foundations are important: to defend the world against academics created in programs like this.

Talk amongst yourselves . . .

Saturday, November 14, 2009

An open letter to President Obama on schools, education and teaching

Dear Mr. President,

I am writing to you as a National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who voted for your as President even despite my concerns about your approach to educational policy. You were not my first choice, precisely because I, like many educators I know, were concerned both about your approach to some educational issues and some of the people advising you. Nevertheless, we all enthusiastically supported your candidacy, in many cases before you clinched the nomination.

I will not speak for anyone except myself. Others are also writing open letters, as you can see at this website.

My focus will be on this - that the educational policy being promulgated by your administration is being created both without meaningful input from teachers and in contradiction with what much of the available research has to inform us. Of greater importance, it misses the mark on what really matters - what is best for our children.

Let me start with teacher voices. Your Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was never an educator. Most of those closely advising him also were never teachers. While there is value to having the expertise of policy wonks and economists as well as those who understand administrative requirements, it is insufficient, because the success or failure of any endeavor to improve the education of our children will rest primarily with the classroom teachers, and if we do not include their perspectives, we will risk making policy decisions that are simply not capable of being implemented as designed, as any competent classroom teacher could tell you.

There are many teachers prepared to take on the additional responsibilities beyond their own classroom teaching. Many of us write on-line, participate in professional discussion groups, try to offer advice to politicians and school boards, yet far too often our voices are not part of the discussion because we are not at the table when policies are being decided. It is well and good to have a few resident teachers at the Department of Education, but it is insufficient if they are not included at all stages of policy development. Perhaps that is why a number of us are now resorting to writing open letters like this, and like those to which I have referred.

I realize that the current attempts at common standards are not being driven by your Department of Education, but since so many states are participating, what evolves from those efforts will function as de facto national standards. Yet in the two key panels there is only one former classroom teacher. There are multiple representatives of testing companies. Somehow looking at the makeup of those panels does not give me as a classroom great confidence in what they are producing. If your administration truly values the voices of teachers, I would hope that we would here - at least from your Secretary of Education if not directly from you - that such efforts should not proceed without more complete involvement from classroom teachers. It is not acceptable to pretend that it is happening without the acquiescence of the Department of Education, because if Secretary Duncan or you objected, it would be rather easy to so indicate.

Your education department seems hell-bent on insisting upon tying teacher pay to student scores on external tests, despite the inherent problems with such an approach. Let me list only a few.

1. Snapshot tests of student performance at or near the end of a course do not indicate what the student has learned, since there is no control for prior knowledge.

2.Most tests currently available do a poor job of assessing higher level thinking skills.

3. Those who argue for value-added assessment often want to measure from Spring to Spring, yet such measurement gives results confounded by the well-documented summer learning loss that hits more heavily in lower socioeconomic groups than in middle class and above, where often there are learning and enrichment opportunities during the summer. Your own educational proposals during the campaign recognized this - you proposed putting funding into offering summer programs to offset that learning loss.

4. While such assessments are available for most core-area subjects, they are not currently part of the instruction for courses such as music, art, physical education, etc. If we are concerned about education the whole child, as you have often said that you are, how can we take an approach to teacher compensation that devalues the work of teachers in these curricular areas, especially when they are often the people most responsible for some children persisting in school when they are struggling?

5. Such tests in no way inform and improve instruction. They provide no feedback to current instruction. Even benchmarking along the way too often degenerates into repetition of the material most likely to be tested (often because it is easiest to measure) at the expense of deeper understanding).

6. The overemphasis on such tests informs students that all that matters is their performance on same. Some will shut down once the tests are done, others who do not do well on such assessments but who actually have the underlying skills and knowledge will feel devalued. In either case, neither set of students is well served by such results, and it should be the students who matter most.

It is interesting that neither you nor Secretary Duncan went to a public high school. Both of you attended prestigious private schools. Your wife attended an outstanding public school, but one that functioned as a magnet and could screen the students it accepted. Your children have gone to the same Lab School founded by John Dewey that Secretary Duncan attended, and now attend Sidwell Friends. As a Quaker myself, I am quite familiar with Sidwell, the former headmaster Earl Harrison having been a friend. I wonder how you can be insisting on a set of mandates for public school that is totally antithetical to the kind of education you have sought for your daughters. Are not all children entitled to the quality of education your daughters are receiving? If so, how does what you propose with respect to teaching truly give other children anything close to that?

I know Secretary Duncan has chosen to have his children attend public schools in Arlington VA, where I also live, and in whose schools I have also taught. Our community has made a major commitment to public education, spending well over $20,000 for each student. This has enabled the school system to keep class sizes small, to retain good teachers by offering good salary, benefits and working conditions. You saw the difference this could make when you visited Wakefield High School. Yet most public school systems spend far less per student than Arlington, have much larger class sizes, do not have the stability of teaching staff that is important for a successful school, and do not devote the resources to staff development. And even with all that, Arlington still has to spend time and resources responding to mandated state tests whose quality is not spectacular, and whose scaled scores do not really inform about the quality of teaching and learning.

You often use the rhetoric of international educational comparisons. As a teacher and former doctoral student in educational policy, this bothers me. The conclusions you and many draw from those comparisons are flawed and often based on misunderstanding the nature of what the data represents. This has been demonstrated by the work of the late Gerald Bracey, that of Iris Rotberg, and by many other analyses. We are comparing unlike populations, unlike schooling situations, and do not test comparably. Some people will attempt to compare us unfavorably to Finland, yet that nation has almost no language learners, and the role of administrators is to support teachers, something very different than the approach in much of American public education.

As a citizen old enough to remember earlier scares about the condition of American schools, going back to the 1950's and reoccurring with regularity, I am concerned that you seem to accept the flawed rhetoric offered by those whose intent is to devalue and delegitimize America's public schools, for political and personal reasons. Thus I have a real problem with your education department insisting upon major expansion of charter schools when the research on those charters that exist is at best mixed - in general, when all factors are controlled, they perform no better than the public schools from which they draw students, and too often they are used as a means of breaking union protections for teachers.

All of this preface.

There is a basic question which I do not hear being addressed. What is the purpose of our having public schools? For me, it is to educate the whole person, to prepare our students to learn how to learn, to participate as citizens in a liberal democracy, to develop as persons, to be able to develop the skills that matter to them.

There are skills that employers will need, that we hope our children will develop. Might I suggest that being able to select the least worst from four or five choices on a multiple choice test is not high on the priorities of most employers? Are not things like the ability to work cooperatively, to learn to overcome differences, to persist, to come up with new approaches that might involve thinking outside the box, are all of greater value to almost every employer who wants anything other than a drone? Should not our schools reflect that in how they are structured, in how we teach?

Most of my students are 10th graders. Some are taking College level government in the sophomore years. Each year they have arrived in my classroom with less and less background, a direct outcome of the strictures of No Child Left Behind, which emphasized testing on reading and math, which because those scores were used to evaluate schools increasingly meant a narrowing of their educational experience. Many are frustrated with school, and have not learned how to develop ideas in speaking or in writing - these are not tested, therefore they are not valued. Tying teacher compensation mainly to test scores will only serve to exacerbate this problem.

I teach government. I had hoped that your administration would work to restore a proper balance between the branches of government. I compliment you on your willingness to let Congress fulfill its role in the development of an approach to health care. But I do not see that in education: Secretary Duncan is using his control over the funds currently available to make major changes in educational policy that the Congress had not been given a chance to examine. And because the Congress has been cut out, we have not had the opportunity for those with concerns about the approach to properly express those concerns before the country is steered perhaps irrevocably in the direction of policies that may be counterproductive to the best interests of our students.

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. To obtain that designation, I underwent a rigorous process, only one small part of which was being tested on my content-area knowledge, and that testing contained NO multiple choice items, only essays. Most of the assessment was of portfolio items: videotaping my teaching, offering artifacts such as communication with parents, samples of student writing, and professional development and participation. For each item submitted, I was required to reflect, with the primary concern being how this particular item benefited the learning of my students. The only people evaluating what I submitted were themselves current classroom teachers.

Many states and school systems offer an ongoing additional stipend for those of us with National Board Certification. In my case, I receive an additional $7,000 a year, which as a teacher is a substantial amount. I mention the amount not to brag, but to set a context: these states and school systems value that certification, which is awarded by teachers to other teachers, with no multiple choice testing, by the evaluation of portfolio materials, the focus of which is always the best interest of the students as perceived by teachers.

Why is not something like that part of the approach of your Education Department? Why instead do we see arguments about tying teacher compensation to (largely multiple choice) student test scores, to increasing the number of charter schools? Why are the arguments that are made economic, the interests of employers, and not the best interests of the students? How might this be different were the voices of teachers more prominent in the designing and implementation of educational policy?

Your daughters are very lucky in the school they attend. I know teachers at Sidwell. I know how committed to their students they are - were they not, they would not still be at Sidwell. Perhaps you can ask the teachers of your daughters how they would like to be subject to the mandates your Education Department and Secretary Duncan are promoting. I would be very surprised if they were in agreement with such an approach.

This is the statement of one public school teacher. While I know the words I offer will resonate with others like me, I do not claim to speak for anyone except myself. I supported your candidacy. I support your presidency. You are doing much good, and have a great deal on which you must focus.

But if you can, please step back and consider what I - and so many other teachers - are saying to you. Please reconsider how your administration is proceeding with reshaping educational policy before it is too late, before you commit the nation to a course that will not benefit our children the way it should.

Wishing you the best, and hoping that you are successful in meeting the many challenges before you.


Kenneth J. Bernstein

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Racism and Education Reform

A question for all you foundations experts.

On another blog we were having a discussion about the relationship between racism/classism and the belief that education reform is the key to social and economic change for the poor. I wondered whether a focus on education reform is a PC way for liberals to sublimate their racist/classist assumptions, consciously or not. And I wondered whether this association helps explain the incredible unresponsiveness of liberals to basic facts about education reform (like the fact that evaluating academic achievement in poor schools with standardized tests is deadly).

Are education reform in its current form and the "education gospel" more generally, representative of a kind of new "white person's burden" and imperialism?

In a sense, focusing on education as the "solution" to anything at least partly entails "blaming the victim." If education is the solution, then there must be something about someone that is inadequate and needs to be "fixed." A focus on education inherently implies that the "problem" is with those who are being educated (and can't seem to learn).

Who has talked about this?

Some relevant data from the discussion:
But the General Social Survey asks about 4 different explanations for why blacks are less successful economically. . . . [T]hose who give all internal explanations (blaming blacks for their lack of success) tend to blame lack of education less than 1/3 of the time: 28.1% to 71.9%. But those who give all external explanations (blaming discrimination, not blaming "lack of will") blame lack of education 3/4ths of the time: 75.0% to 25.0%.
--Paul Rosenberg (scroll down)