Sunday, January 24, 2010

An important book about educational equity and our national future

What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.

The words were penned by John Dewey for his 1900 work The School and Society. You will encounter them as a epigraph to the 9th and final chapter of an important new work on education. The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future is a comprehensive work by Linda Darling-Hammond that examines a wide range of materials that will help the reader understand the real issues in education in an America that is increasingly diverse in its student population. As James Banks notes in his introduction, we face a crisis, one which Darling-Hammond documents while telling us what will happen if we fail to act and the specific actions we can take to achieve educational equity and create "a more democratic and just society."

This is an extremely comprehensive book, as can be seen by the titles of the 9 chapters (each of which begins with two appropriate epigraphs like that with which the review began):

1. The Flat World, Educational Inequality, and America's Future
2. The Anatomy of Inequality: How the Opportunity Gap is Constructed
3. New Standards and Old Inequalities: How Testing Narrows and expands t5he Opportunity Gap
4. Inequality on Trial: Does Money Make a Difference?
5. A Tale of Three States: What Happens When States Invest Strategically (or Don't)
6. Steady Work: How Countries Build Successful Systems
7. Doing What Matters Most: Developing Competent Teaching
8. Organizing for Success: Form Inequality to Quality
9. Policy for Quality and Equality: Toward Genuine School Reform.

There are not many in America who could hope to address such a wide array of topics competently and tie them together into one thread. Darling-Hammond can, in part because she has studied all of them over a career that includes having taught in inner-city schools, received a doctorate (with distinction) in Urban Education (which is often the focus of our greatest concern about our schools and students); held endowed chairs at Teachers College, Columbia and Stanford; directed the Education and Human Resources Program of Rand Institute (where she also served as a senior social scientist); served as Co-Director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching at Teachers College; and served as Executive Director, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. She is the author of more than 300 publications, many of which are considered exceedingly important. She has worked with several important educational initiatives: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC); and The Forum for Education and Democracy (of which she is one of the Conveners). As she herself notes in the beginning of her acknowledgments,
This book has, in a manner of speaking, been a lifetime in the making . . .

Some might be put off by the title with its use of Thomas Friedman's image of the Flat World. That inevitably brings up concerns about the international comparisons of schools with which we are constantly bombarded. Yet Darling-Hammond, while she uses the comparisons, does so to make a very different set of points than those who use them to simply bash public schools and unionized teachers. She notes that our schools are still largely structured on the factory model established in the early 20th century, which uses a transmission-oriented curriculum as its primary means of instruction, with
accrual of knowledge to be evaluated with multiple-choice tests that could be scored exclusively by machine, without the involvement of teachers or the complications of asking students to produce and defend their own ideas.
She compares this with nations against whom we fair poorly in many measurements, which are redesigning their schools' curriculum, instruction, training of teachers, and assessment
to support the more complex knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century. Starting in the 1980s, for example, Finland dismantled the rigid tracking system that had allocated differential access to knowledge to its young people and eliminated the state-mandated testing system that was used for this purpose, replacing them with highly trained teachers and curriculum and assessments focused on problem solving, creativity, independent learning, and student reflection. These changes have propelled achievement to the top of the international rankings and closed what was once a large, intractable achievement gap.

No reasonable observer will deny that many of America's schools are in crisis. And our students are suffering as a result. Part of this is our general approach, which - as Darling-Hammond rightly notes - needs radical redesign. There is also a real question of equity. This show ups clearly when scores on international tests are disaggregated by "race" -
Indeed, White and Asian students in the United States score above the OECD average in each subject area, but African American and Hispanic students score so much lower that the national average plummets to the bottom tier of rankings.
One reason for this is obvious to anyone who pays attention:
International studies continue to confirm that the U. S. education system is also one of the most unequal in terms of inputs. In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest school districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the greatest resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities. This creates huge inequalities in educational outcomes that ultimately weaken the very fabric of the nation.
If we are concerned with equity, we also need to bear in mind what Banks notes in his preface, that from 1973 to 2004 the percentage of our public school students who were of color increased from 22% to 43 percent, and in states like California, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas they already exceed the number of White students.

When I read that, I could not help but also remark that California has, since Proposition 13, dismantled what was once the best public school system in the United States, Louisiana has been ground zero (in New Orleans since Katrina) for the experiment of gutting public schools and replacing them with charters, and Texas is the source of our failed educational policy known as No Child Left Behind. Issue of equity are certainly issues of class, but we cannot ignore that issues of color also play a significant role.

I have not yet, other than the opening epigraph, gotten beyond part of the first chapter - that is how rich, and thought-provoking, this book is. My review copy is heavily marked up with things I want to pursue in more depth. I cannot in one review explore them all.

Darling-Hammond not only analyzes what is wrong in the U.S., she also looks at examples of successes in individual states that have attempted reform. She also provides useful information about what nations to whom we seem to compare very unfavorably do differently to achieve their success. Thus she will provide examples of a state in trouble - California - as well as two states that have made major commitments to better use of their resources - North Carolina and Connecticut. She provides detailed analyses of three successful national approaches, those of Finland, Singapore, and South Korea. From her explorations of different settings, here and abroad, and also from her deep and extensive knowledge of relevant professional literature, Darling-Hammond offers a series of suggestions of what we can do differently, those things on which we should focus.

For example, in Chapter 8 she explores the kinds of changes necessary in a major redesign of our approach to education. On p. 239 she tells us about 820 schools studied in the National Longitudinal Study, which
found that schools that had restructured to personalize education and develop collaborative learning structures produced significantly higher achievement canes that were also more equitably distributed.
Darling-Hammond then gives a summary list of some of the practices:

.. Creating small units within schools
.. Keeping students together over multiple years
.. Forming teaching teams that share students and plan together
.. Ensuring common planning time for teachers
.. Involving staff in schoolwide problem solving
.. Involving parents in their children's education
.. Fostering cooperative learning

This is but one example of how, after analyzing the data and providing a clear understand of some aspect of the subject at hand, Darling-Hammond provides a useful summary of the key points.

As a teacher I would be remiss were I to end this review without examining what is key to success in educational reform, and that is the most important education resource - access to quality and professional teachers. It is a key with many dimensions, among which are selection of teachers, training, induction, support, retention, ongoing professional development, working conditions and the economics of teaching. Darling-Hammond explores all of these, both by examining how nations like Finland produce and retain a high-quality teaching staff, and what we do wrong.

Let's focus on the economics. We often hear about teacher salaries. As Darling-Hammond shows, there are other economic issues of greater importance. Most teachers in the United States pay for their own training, often incurring substantial debts that are difficult to retire on a teacher's salary. At the same time we have a very high turnover among our early career teachers. Bringing in those with less training and mentoring does little to solve the problem, because there is a strong correlation between leaving teaching quickly and lack of training. Without even considering the instructional impact of such turnover - which is quite severe - it is very expensive: it can cost well in excess of $20,000 to replace one teacher, and that is money that is not going to improving instruction.

Finland, as Darling-Hammond notes, takes a very different approach to providing and retaining teachers than does the US. It starts with recruitment:
Prospective teachers are competitively selected from the pool of college graduates - only 15% of those who apply are admitted - and receive a 3-year graduate-level teacher preparation program, entirely free of charge and with a living stipend.
They not only get extensive course work, but "at least a full year of clinical experience in a school associated with the university." They are provided time for regular collaboration with other teachers.

But salaries can make a difference as well. In Korea, to cite another high scoring nation, teachers' salaries
rank right behind those of Korean doctors and above those of engineers, and which yield purchasing power within the local economy nearly 250% higher than those of U. S. teachers.
The pay is higher because teachers are more highly respected, the work is more professional, and the country has made a more meaningful - and effective - commitment to education.

In the United States, up to 80% of teachers' time is spent in instruction, and we do almost all our planning and grading outside of the school day. That is not true in high-scoring nations such as those examined by Darling-Hammond. I teach in a typical American high school. We have 8 45-minute periods per day. The state requires 180 "instructional" days, which of course includes mandatory testing,assemblies, and administrative time. Sometimes days are shortened because of inclement weather or for other non-academic reasons. Let's presume the equivalent of 160 instructional days. At 6 hours per day, that is 960 instructional hours. That puts us in the middle of the 900-1,080 range common in the US. Korea currently requires 1,202 but is transitioning from a 6 day week to a 5-day week, and lowering to 963. That puts them at the top of high scoring nations: Japan and Finland have students in their seats for only a bit more than 700 hours. Yet many in the U.S. think the solution to our educational problems is more seat time, even as nations who are more successful have taken exactly the opposite approach. And by allowing more time for collaboration among teachers, and not shifting much of the teacher workload to uncompensated time outside the school day, they avoid burning out teachers the way we do in the US: many of the better teachers in my building work in excess of 60 hours a week when all time for planning, grading, and the like are included.

I hope I have given you some sense of the richness of this book. I realize this review is lengthy, but I have barely scratched the surface of what you can derive from reading it. This is a work I wish would be read and absorbed by all who are attempting to "reform" our schools, in the hope that the misguided and ultimately destructive choices they seem to be making can be avoided, that they can learn the current lessons from our failures and the successes of other nations.

Let me end as does Linda Darling-Hammond, with her final two paragraphs. These will encapsulate much of the value we could gain - economically and otherwise - from considering better ways of redesigning our educational system for the needs of the present and the future.

Now more than ever, high-quality education for all is a public good that is essential for the good of the public. Smart, equitable investments will, in the long run, save far more than they cost. The savings will include the more than $200 billion we now lose in wages, taxes, and social costs annually due to dropouts; the $50 billion we pay for lost wages and prison costs for incarceration tied to illiteracy and school failure; and the many tens of billions wasted each year on reforms that fail, fads that don't stick, unnecessary teacher turnover, avoidable special education placements, remedial education, grade retention, summer school, lost productivity, and jobs that move overseas.
As the fate of individuals and nations is increasingly interdependent, the quest for access to an equitable, empowering education for all people has become a critical issue for the American nation as a whole. As a country,we can and must enter a new era. No society can thrive in a technological, knowledge-based economy by depriving large segments of its population of learning. The path to our mutual well-being is built on educational opportunity. Central to our collective future is the recognition that our capacity to survive and thrive ultimately depends on ensuring to all of our people what should be an unquestionable entitlement - a rich and unalienable right to learn.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

How to Spark a Social Movement: Thinking Outside the Box

Some "blue sky" thinking about how we could move from where we are after Craig's uplifting review of Arnie Duncan's career. Crossposted from Open Left.

What Would a Movement Organization Look Like?

Let's imagine, as concretely and pragmatically as possible, what a movement-sparking organization would look like in America. Despite its limitations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee provides at least a starting place. SNCC had a central hub, but it looked across the South for locations where their cadre of organizers might be able to spark resistance. Like SNCC, then, our movement organization would have a central location, led by someone with a broad vision of possibilities for social change in America. Note, however, that most of what I describe could be mounted by a local organization as well.

I am assuming, as I did in Part I, that social movements are almost always sparked by local efforts. The success and vision of local efforts provide models for replication in other areas. When one local area makes the impossible possible--as King and SNCC did in Montgomery and Birmingham, or as the sit-in students did in North Carolina--leaders elsewhere begin to think differently. In a world of limited resources, a focus on the nation all at once seems unlikely to be effective. Another "March on Washington"? This wouldn't provide the kind of social disruption that Piven and Cloward argue is necessary to bring the system to the breaking point, to the point where some kind of change on the part of the establishment is unavoidable.

The paid staff of this organization would consist of a few--perhaps only one or two--creative and visionary organizers, an overall director, and perhaps one support staff person. These would be people with long experience in neighborhood organizing who have not become locked into the pre-set, narrow approaches of current organizing groups. They might include, for example, an experienced ACORN organizer who has become disillusioned and feels constricted by the standardized ACORN model. These people would be educators as much as actors, people with the capacity to inspire and connect deeply with individuals from many different walks of life. People like Ella Baker --likely less impressive, but also less ideological, less committed, for example, to enforcing their own vision of "real" democracy.

Sauron's All-Seeing Eye

The attention of central staff would sweep out across the nation, seeking out indications of cities where the beginnings of a movement might be sparked. When they found likely locations, they would do some initial investigation, seeing if there was enough support to provide a realistic toe-hold for a movement-sparking effort. Only cities where sufficient local organizational sponsorship and enough of a financial commitment to show that these organizations were willing to share in the risk (but not fully pay for it) would be on the final list.

Once one or more locations were chosen, this organization would begin to recruit widely for young volunteers (in their early 20s). It would ask for at least a year-long commitment and hope for two, offering only a small monthly stipend and room and board. Recruitment might include outreach to organizations like the Lutheran Volunteers . The recent national DART recruitment of new organizers also provides a useful model.

Staff would sift through applications looking for people who seem like they have the "fire in the belly" to work 14 hour days, packed four to a room in a communal apartment and the humility to listen instead of tell. Those with potential would be brought together at national training sessions and their numbers winnowed. Efforts would be made to balance middle-class and working-class youth, and of course diversity would be a key goal.

Then, for chosen city, a lead organizer and 10-15 volunteers (assuming some will drop out) would move into a large apartment together.

How to Start Organizing?

Teams of two or three students would each be given a particular low-income area to focus on. Instead of trying to recreate the wheel, these teams would each be based out of a community organizing group or church or other relevant organization in their area. At least part of their time would be spent serving the specific needs of that organization, although there would need to be clarity about exactly how much time they would be expected to give (this would create tensions, but that may be inevitable).

My own pastor, who co-chairs the jobs committee of our local congregational group, suggested an addition to this model: finding a young pastor--hopefully, in my opinion, from a charismatic tradition--to add to the mix. This person would recruit in the low-income pentecostal and holiness churches that, because of their focus on "faith not works," are left out of traditional progressive congregational organizing (which, for reasons I discuss here , focuses almost entirely on mainline middle-class churches). The goal of this pastor would be to find, if not pastors, at least congregation members willing to join the organization and spread the message among their members.

More generally, the job of volunteer organizers would be both simple and difficult. Their task would be to get to "know" that neighborhood better than the people who live there. They would go from door to door, barbershop to storefront church, speaking with people, developing relationships, sussing out local leaders. They would read old newspapers about the area and learn about the local elected officials and trace out local tensions and concerns.

They would seek to recruit people to join a local organization, and they would seek out local issues around which they could mobilize action and resistance. But they would not make the hard, quick sell of an ACORN organizer. (It would be helpful, here, to distinguish more carefully what I am doing from the ACORN model , but that must wait.) I could also imagine book clubs, video screenings and discussions, weekly dinners for talk and companionship, and more. Creative uses of new social technology would be part of this. In different ways organizers would seek to fan the flames of discontent at the same time as they fostered webs of interconnection. A core aspect of these efforts would include training in nonviolent action. And the volunteers would be given extensive freedom to experiment and make mistakes.

The aim would be to form long-term commitments, not short-term actions. The aim would be to foster local leadership and community.

Most importantly, the organizers would seek out those in the city who would be willing to put their lives on the line for their families and communities. While the volunteers would talk to many, they would aim to fine a cadre of, say, 50 individuals that could provide an example of a different way to assert their humanity in the face of a state that has lost any interest in their futures. Again, this is fundamentally different from the community organizing approach, which focuses on mobilizing large numbers and partly as a result is unable to engage in truly disruptive actions given the level of commitment they can generate in such groups.

The volunteers would also participate in weekly meetings with their peers to share experiences and ideas in addition to the natural sharing that would happen as a result of living together, planning meals, etc. And they would participate in reading groups to give them more depth in the ways people have thought about organizing, power, and social action.

In addition to walking the streets with the volunteers, the lead organizer would be meeting with established local leaders and leaders uncovered by the volunteers, seeking to map out possible movement issues and actions.

Sparking a Movement

Cadres should keep testing for disruptive protest possibilities. Watch for indications that people are ready for defiant challenges . . . . Adopt a stance that points toward political possibilities, that gives hope, and that encourages people to act on their grievances. . . .

Cadres should use mobilizing tactics to expand disruptive dissensus during times of turmoil. . . . Organizers should scour social contexts for unnotices opportunities for disruptive action. . . .

[And cadres] should lead. They should engage in "exemplary" actions (e.g., leading mass arrests) in order to exacerbate institutional disruptions.

--Piven and Cloward, 1993

At some point, the lead organizer, key local leaders, and the volunteers would decide it was time to take a risk. While they would have likely already engaged in more standard organizing efforts, they would move to more serious disruptive actions, drawing together the most committed members they had located. In contrast with the community organizing approach, these movement organizers may need to be willing to lead as well as facilitate. They will need to be at least willing to put their own bodies on the line and model the risk they want others to take. They must be ready to be arrested or teargassed or threatened.

The general aim with these actions would be to throw a (nonviolent) wrench into the status quo operation of oppressive organizations. The organization's leaders would keep a close eye on the wider response of less committed members of their organization and the wider public. They would seek to extend on efforts that successfully attracted outside participants. The goal would not be to simply get their own people to actions, but to change the tenor of life in the city, to wake some portion of the larger population up to new possibilities for social transformation.

And that's as far as I can go in terms of describing the organization.

But before I conclude, let me take a moment to say something more generally about the kinds of issues that are likely to spark a movement and the kind of work necessary to surface these issues.

Political Education: Need vs. Dignity and Justice as a Motivation for Action

You control our lives and so far you’ve treated us like slaves. You’re responsible for the health and welfare of our children but you’re not interested in how we live. . . . It’s time to treat us like human beings.

--Etta Horn, National Welfare Rights Organization , testimony before Congress, 1969

Belief in one’s dignity as a man or a woman is one of the strongest motivating factors; from it comes the refusal to be used or abused, the assertion that "I been pushed around too long, and I ain’t gonna be pushed around no more."

--Si Kahn, How People Get Power

Union organizers will tell you that strikes are much more likely to be sparked by an assault on workers' dignity than by cuts in pay. Rick Fantasia found, for example, that this kind of mistreatment is what produces the majority of wildcat strikes. Similarly, the nationwide struggle of the National Welfare Rights Organization in the 1970s was driven as much, if not more, by the the degrading treatment poor women experienced at welfare offices as by the needs of their families. In fact, when welfare shifted to standard cash awards, eliminating the humiliating discretion of social workers, mobilization fell even though this came at a time when cuts were made in the actual amounts poor women on welfare were getting.

People are not usually mobilized in large numbers for the long haul by abstractions of inequality, nor even around a sense of their own desperate need. People are mobilized by a sense of injustice, by a sense that they have been treated badly, that their core dignity has been tarnished by someone or some institution. They are also mobilized by a commitment to broader visions of justice, often arising out of religious convictions.

The jobs education issue, then, must become transformed from a question of need to a question of rights and injustice, to a refusal of the larger society to treat the unemployed like human beings. Perhaps most importantly, the jobless must be given opportunities to stop blaming themselves for their inability to find work.

Some of this learning would take place in the context of action. But it also seems to me that, as in the South during the civil rights movement, a movement-sparking effort would necessarily involve some level of ongoing political education. Hopelessness must become transformed into righteous anger for a movement to emerge. And this would be part of the task of the volunteers.

Of course, experienced adults don't want kids telling them what to think. Instead, in the tradition of Ella Baker and Myles Horton and Paulo Freire , the volunteers would need to create contexts in which people could discuss and read and watch and come to new understandings of themselves and the structure of the world around them.

(By the way, one of the limits of Baker and Horton's approach was their aversion to mass action and leader-driven organizing. Education cannot simply be in service of more education or individual action or small group engagement. Only a leader-based mass action led by a cadre of committed militants rooted in and driven by a vibrant grassroots constituency has much hope of sparking a social movement. And, in fact, there is extensive evidence that SNCC was hamstrung in many ways by its commitment to what I have argued elsewhere was Baker's essentially middle-class vision of collaboration and leaderless social action.)

Summing Up

I said at the start that I would try to envision a pragmatic approach to sparking a movement in this country. What I have written is meant as a contribution to a discussion, and I am not under the illusion that I have found "the answer" or even necessarily a particularly good answer.

However, I do believe the model I have described above has some pragmatic potential, at least as a discussion starter.

It would not, for example, require enormous amounts of funding. It would work just fine with only a couple of paid staff and a few "angel" donors. There simply isn't and likely will never be the kind of funding necessary to hire a large number of paid movement organizers.

In fact, the limits on paid staff might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. For a movement effort, you want organizers who are there because of the work, not the pay. And a paid staff creates a gulf between the organizers and the often (but not always) quite poor people they are trying to organize.

(Organizer positions, by the way, have generally been taken by the middle class. Ironically, those who get the "jobs" out of organizing the poor are usually not from poor backgrounds themselves. Perhaps we should not try to provide more than a small number of the most creative and effective organizers "real" jobs. The middle class is perfectly capable of getting good jobs elsewhere. If they want to organize in poor communities, maybe they need to "volunteer". See some initial thoughts about this tension here .)

By focusing on youth as organizers (although some older adults might also be volunteers), the model is less likely to get trapped in old ways of thinking about how organizing "should" be done. At the same time, the guidance of a lead organizer and other local organizers, can prevent them from going too far "off the rails."

This brings the challenge of turnover--but I'm willing to bet that enough of a core group would be willing to stay for two years to maintain continuity. And we are talking about sparking a movement, not building a long-term organization (although that would likely also be the result locally). If they can't pull it off in two years, they probably can't do it period. Maybe even a year is enough time to know.

Of course this raises important issues about how others will view the commitment of organizers, and about how to transition out in a productive manner that does not lead to the disollution of what the organizers have nurtured. I don't have a clear answer to this.

The model also brings with it the problem of "outsider" vs "insider" organizers and volunteers. Again, I'm don't really have a clear answer. Should the volunteers all be local? Should they all be from outside? I've framed my argument around "outsiders" but I'm actually inclined to argue for some combination.

In the end, however, the "who" is probably more important than the "where from." People who are willing to listen, who are willing to check their arrogance at the door and walk with humility can likely find acceptance over time. And in our disorganized, shifting poor urban communities, it is not clear to me how "insider" the insiders will likely be. Just because you grow up someplace doesn't mean you understand it. Even the insiders will need, in anthropological terms, to "make the familiar strange" if they are to revision what is possible in their cities and neighborhoods.

So that's my thought experiment.


Arne Duncan, One Year Later

In December of 2008, President-Elect Barack Obama nominated Arne Duncan, the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, as Secretary of Education. I wrote a blog post containing some predictions of what this nomination might mean for the educational policies of the Obama administration. You can find that post here:
Duncan "sailed" through his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate, and was confirmed on the day that Obama was inaugurated. That was one year ago, yesterday.

One year later, as the nation participates in an appraisal of Obama's first year, the education media are doing the same with regard to educational policies. Education Week, in particular, has a piece entitled "Duncan Carves Deep Mark on Policy in First Year," published in yesterday's print edition. The article focuses on Duncan's management style, his policy priorities, and the criticism he has received.

Reading the Education Week piece caused me to go back and review the reflections and predictions that I made in my post back in December of 2008.

Back then, I listed the following qualifications that may have led to Obama's selection of Duncan despite his lack of teaching experience or advanced degrees in education:

  • Duncan is a consummate diplomat.
  • Duncan is smart. He listens.
  • Duncan is a pragmatist.
  • Duncan is not only pragmatic, but he is also independent.
  • He plays basketball....
  • His kids go to the same public school as my son does and daughter did.
The last two "qualifications" were intended partly as tongue-in-cheek, and, of course, once Duncan moved to Washington DC the last qualification ceased to be true. However, I believe that the first year has borne out the first four of my qualifications, with perhaps the following qualifications:

  1. At the Chicago Public Schools, Arne's primary responsibility was generating a public perception (especially among the middle class) that CPS was working hard to improve some of the most abysmal schools in America. He succeeded in that task by creating "spin" of various kinds of data that emerged about the schools, by being "hands-on" in the sense that he was willing to go out to communities and schools and personally confront outspoken parents and other critics, and by his capacity to strike people as a "nice guy" even while pushing some ideas that are not universally popular, such as closing underperforming schools and increasing the role of corporate and private partners in the schools. To a large extent, these qualities have continued in his role as U.S. Secretary of Education, with one major difference: Duncan is no longer focusing on building up the image of a particular school system; rather, his public-relations challenge is convincing people outside of education that the Department of Education is serious about educational reform. The public at large is convinced that American schools (in general) are pretty bad, and they want Duncan's Department to do something about that, or at least appear to be doing something. Specifically, the public at large is distrustful of educational professionals (especially professors of teacher education and teachers unions, but also including teachers in general and school district officials especially). Duncan has managed to convince many corporate interests that the Department is, in fact, willing to undermine those allegedly entrenched educational professionals, and has managed to use the leverage of new funding to affect educational policies in a number of states, including Illinois. Teachers and (especially) professors of education I know are visibly nervous about the agenda that Duncan is pushing, but this doesn't seem to bother Duncan at all or, for that matter, Duncan's boss. (The impact of this on public support for Obama's policies by these traditionally liberal constituencies should not be underestimated.)

    Just as an aside, Duncan's public relations efforts are managed by Peter Cunningham (no relation to this author), who also managed public relations when Duncan was at CPS.

  2. Duncan has proven his intelligence in numerous public appearances before different constituencies. Even when he went to Teachers College in New York to talk about the challenges faced by teacher education, he demonstrated a firm grasp of the history of education (while also generating considerable skepticism about his prescriptions). Also, at least according to the Education Week article mentioned above, he listens, at least to his staff, and to those interests (corporate, philanthropic) that support his policies. The primary group that Arne does NOT appear to be listening to (much) are educational professionals; indeed, Arne's seemingly bullheaded efforts to push his agenda seem to be designed (from a public relations standpoint. at least) precisely to send the message that the usually suspected entrenched interests aren't going to be listened to at all unless they change their tunes. What's more, Duncan's closest advisors are also not educational professionals. Overall, the Department has largely become focused on using its influence to undermine their power. This doesn't appeal to the education professionals, who now commonly speak, as my co-blogger Barbara Stengel put it in a recent comment here, of "the incredible disappoint[ment] that the Obama/Duncan regime have brought with them." But if it's only the education professionals who are disappointed with the administration's policies, maybe that's a good thing from Duncan's perspective.

  3. When I said that Duncan was a "pragmatist," what I meant was that he isn't especially ideological, and embraces ideas (such as corporate-run charter schools and teacher merit pay) that aren't necessarily embraced by liberals. Or, as the New York Times put it with regard to his confirmation hearing, "Mr. Duncan laid out a thoroughly pragmatic and non-ideological educational agenda, vowing to do “anything that works” to raise achievement in public schools." In that sense, Duncan is pragmatic not in the philosophical sense (of Pierce, James, and Dewey), but in the more common parlance of "hardheaded," or "guided by practical experience and observation rather than theory" ( Again, I think that's what the public at large wants, because the public largely distrusts educational theory, since theory is what allegedly leads to such "disruptive" and "despised" educational innovations as the Life Adjustment Curriculum and New Math.

  4. Duncan's independence, which I spoke of a year ago, is most concretely demonstrated by his outspokenness, especially when talking to education professionals. As the Education Week article put it:

    "He told delegates to the National Education Association’s annual convention in San Diego last summer that teachers should be evaluated and paid based in part on student performance and that teacher tenure needed to be changed.

    "In October, he went to the University of Virginia’s education school and delivered some harsh remarks on teacher colleges, describing them as the “Bermuda Triangle” of higher education.

    "His outspokenness shows no sign of slackening."

    Less clear is how independent Duncan is of the corporate and philanthropic interests that he seems to be catering to in his policies and tone. Some (also here and here and here and here) say Duncan is really a corporatist at heart, seeking to further push schools toward becoming the training grounds of workers (including the military) and consumers. Duncan himself denies the label, preferring instead to publicly embrace (as he put it in his speech to Teachers College) "America's need and a public school's obligation to teach all students, all students to their full potential" as the primary element of the "dream of equal educational opportunity."

All-in-all, i think I did pretty well on the qualifications (or, more neutrally, the "qualities") that Arne brought to the Secretary's job. However, I'm embarrassed to say that I flubbed up the most important of my predicted implications:

"1. NCLB will be drastically restructured to focus on supports for improvement rather than negative consequences for failure."

Um, .........what?!? I was flat out wrong on this. Duncan seems very much UN-interested in changing the basic structure of NCLB, and in fact has embraced the notion of standards (and, by implication, standardized tests....even national standardized tests) to a degree that has surprised me and disappointed many. Indeed, it seems right to say (with Henry Giroux) that

"While President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have focused on public education, they have done so by largely embracing the Bush administration's view of educational reform, which includes more testing, more empirically based accountability measures, more charter schools, more military academies, defining the purpose of education in largely economic terms, and punishing public schools that don't measure up to high-stakes testing measures."

This, while appearing to be supportive of innovation and democratic education, at least for the benefit of those who really don't know what the accountability regime does to low-income schools.

My next three predictions fared much better:

"2. Opponents of charter schools have lost a huge battle. Their expansion will continue dramatically.

"3. Urban school districts will receive special attention from Washington.

"4. Washington will now begin to push a longer school day and longer school year, and the public will be gently pressured to force the unions to accept this without getting higher pay."

I think the jury is still out on my fifth prediction:

"5. Funding for educational research will no longer be tied to ideological criteria such as "evidence-based" practices. Rather, research will be judged in terms of its likely benefit to generalized issues of educational practice."

I was quite pleased that John Easton, formerly head of the Chicago Consortium on School research, was appointed to lead the Institute of Education Sciences, because John knows quite well the dangers hidden in the supposedly "scientific" notions behind "evidence-based practice," especially the expectation that all effectiveness research will use randomized control trials. Indeed, John has indicated that he will allow a variety of research methods, but has emphasized that "methodological rigor" will continue to be a primary interest pushed by IES. (What that really means is less clear.) John's primary agenda seems to be to increase the capacity of local schools and districts to conduct their own research, and the emphasis of newly announced grant programs seems to be on ensuring that schools or school districts are the primary beneficiary of IES-funded projects, rather than simply adding to the base of knowledge.

My sixth somewhat facetious prediction was simply boneheaded (although Obama himself had claimed during the campaign that he would do this):

"6. The bowling alley in the White House will be replaced with a Basketball Court."

The thing is, there has been a basketball court on the grounds of the White House since 1991, and the bowling alley (which is in the White House basement under the North Portico) simply doesn't have the ceiling height necessary for basketball.

Finally, and sadly, I was completely wrong on my seventh prediction, that

"Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has been the quiet but effective and resolute Chief Education Officer of the Chicago Public Schools for the past 6 years, will become Chicago Schools Chief."

Instead, Mayor Daley picked another untested person from outside of the education profession, Ron Huberman, who's primary impact on CPS so far has been his strong support for year-round schooling, along with the announcement of deep cuts in staff at the central office, a move necessitated by a looming budget deficit. What this signaled to me is that Daley likes having non-educators as CEO of CPS (Vallas, then Duncan, now Huberman), if only because such leaders have greater appeal with the middle-class voters that Daley wishes to appease. (More on Huberman at another time.)

So, in summary, I think I was right about why Duncan was picked (and I think he's doing exactly what Obama wants him to do), but my success at predicting implications was not especially good, with three being pretty spot on, three being dead wrong, and one still unclear.


So enough about the accuracy of my predictions and on to more important matters. Should we be disappointed in what we've seen from the Obama administration with regard to education policy? I'd say that question is a complicated one, and it depends (as most policy questions do) on our perspective.

Are we happy with the important role that colleges and universities play in teacher education in the U.S.? If so, we are likely scared and angry about Duncan's efforts to support alternative certification routes, especially those that lack university partners.

Do we think that national standards will lead inevitably to national standardized tests that will further erode the capacity of teachers and local school districts to focus on educational outcomes that are not tested (or even testable)? If so, we ought to be outraged about Duncan's continuing support of the accountability structures of NCLB.

Are we skeptical (or completely derisive) of the claim that educational outcomes will improve only when teachers are evaluated (and paid?) according to the scores their students receive on standardized tests? Then we should be very disappointed in Duncan, and should be doing everything possible to undermine Obama and Duncan, to lessen their impact.

Certainly among my very liberal colleagues in higher education and K-12 schools, fear, anger, and disappointment are widespread. Among this group, this is not "change we can believe in." But this group is also caught in a huge bind: the only viable political alternative to Obama is the conservative wing of the Republican party, whose opposition to health care reform, stem-cell research, gay and lesbian rights, arts funding, and affirmative action programs are even scarier than their all-too-familiar call for vouchers so that public funds can go to religious schools. At least Obama is on the liberal (if politically pragmatic) side of the line on these issues.

So, what do we do? Until the American public understands the the purpose of public schools is primarily to support democracy (in the Deweyan sense of that word), national education policy will continue to be dominated by corporatist and conservative interests whose primary agenda is to remove "entrenched interests" (especially those in Washington) from control of schools. The agenda can be stated simply, in Ronald Reagan's terms:

"I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. … So, we’ll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control."

Reagan's vision is compelling to most people, who love to believe that all parents are better suited to make educational decisions than all educational professionals, that "local control" of schools is always better than federal control (a position well-articulated by Diane Ravitch), and who dismiss the important role that corporations play in shaping parental expectations and beliefs. Education professionals are much less likely to put such faith in parents or to dismiss the pervasive influence of corporations. If we are brave enough to admit it, we will say that we've seen the incredible ignorance and gullibility of many parents, and we've seen the adverse effects on the nation's schools of the legacy of local control, and we've fought again and again to help citizens to understand the pernicious effects of corporatism on American education. But to do so would be to admit to the public that we are, in fact, "liberal" elites who believe that our superior education and awareness of research and time spent in schools gives us a greater capacity to make educational decisions than the average parent. But to do so would be, inevitably and perhaps deservedly, to reinforce the public's perception, articulated so well by William F. Buckley, that "
"I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." The public, you see, just doesn't trust well-educated people.

And Arne Duncan, allegedly the Secretary of Education, but more accurately called the Secretary of Public Perception of Education, understands that.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hustle and Flow--and Alfie Kohn

When reformers claim that education scholar Alfie Kohn doesn’t live in the real world, I usually mention the intense Japanese focus, in elementary school, on cohesive and cooperative groups. Since Japan is not only in the real world, but one of our chief national competitors, this is generally a conversation-stopper. It’s not that competition is an American thing, per se—witness countless World Cup uprisings—but that our teachers automatically assume that there’s no learning or conduct that can’t be enhanced by a contest or reward. It’s habitual— young educators come pre-programmed to embrace B. F. Skinner, modifying classroom behaviors through a little low-rent psychology.

In my first 15 years as a middle school band teacher, I used all the competitive schemes, including a chairs and challenges system familiar to anyone who’s played in a school instrumental group: Teacher publicly ranks kids by playing ability. Kids challenge each other in teacher-judged playoffs to move up and down the “chair” pecking order. First chair players are designated leaders, getting solos and more interesting parts. Kids at the bottom of the ladder don’t get much beyond the opportunity to go after their classmates. The theory is that all kids will practice more, and thus improve. The reality is that most challenges and chair-hopping occur at the top of the heap; the kids down below slog along listlessly. And then drop out. 

I wish I could say I ended the challenge system because my eyes were opened to its pedagogical inefficiency and questionable morality. Actually, I just got sick of having flute players crying in my office and drummers hiding their competitor's sticks to prevent last-minute cramming before a challenge. No chairs any more, I said. From now on, you’ll have assigned seats.  I sat kids in mixed-ability groups and rotated the melody and harmony parts. If there were solos, anyone could try out, and we voted. Our new goals were pursuing excellence and playing amazing music. 

Almost immediately, several things happened: My band program got larger, as fewer kids quit. The kids with weaker skills improved, sitting next to stronger players and playing more challenging parts. And, in turn, my bands got better, as performance quality was more even across the group—allowing us to choose increasingly difficult and rewarding music. Kids who might have been last chair under the old system didn’t realize they were the weakest link, and signed up for solo festival, building even more personal proficiency.

And, of course, I had some complaints, from parents of former first chairs. The complaints lasted  exactly as long as it took to flush the memory of chairs and challenges out of the system. And from then on—mixed seating was the norm.

That’s another thing I learned from Alfie Kohn. The principle under most competitions is: Cui bono—who benefits? Whose ox will be gored if we stop competing? And whose star might rise? When chairs disappeared from my classroom—when there was no longer a list on the wall rank-ordering my clarinet players for everyone to see—kids were free to concentrate on becoming a music-making community. 

It’s odd that these competitive routines are so entrenched in school music programs. The party line on the benefits of music education is all about creativity, artistic expression and teamwork. Most music teachers, whose own fortunes in music school rose and fell on the chair system, are well aware of how uncomfortable it is to be worried about the person above or below you hawking your mistakes. It’s easy to forget about the power and pleasure of music, lost in guarding your position. 

In all creative arts, the ideal is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”—that place where you stop thinking consciously about performance and are fully lost in the beauty and delight. Veteran jazz musicians depend on flow, a result of their deep knowledge and experience, to trigger inspiring improvisation. Flow doesn’t often happen when you’re 12 years old, but I have witnessed student musicians lose themselves in peak experiences, awestruck after a glorious final massed chord, or closing their eyes to put a little more feeling into a passage. Why would we want to distract them from something as important as that?

American public schools - still unequal (and racist) after all these years

this has been crossposted on several different blogs

In 1949, Black parents and children filed a law suit against the Board of Education in School District #22 in Clarendon County SC, noting the total inadequacy of facilities which were "unprotected from the elements . . .[with] no appropriate and necessary heating system, running water or adequate lights . . . and [with]an insufficient number of teachers and insufficent class spaces." The white schools were of course more modern and better equipped. That suit led to Briggs v Eliot, one of the cases eventually combined into the landmark Brown v Board of Education case that found schools segregated by race "inherently unequal" and thus unconstitutional even according to the perverse "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v Ferguson.

If it sounds like all I am doing is retelling ancient history, consider this: in 1999 the South Caroline Supreme Court remanded a case to trial "based on gross differences in resources in the same still-segregated Clarendoun County schools - now serving the grandchildren of the original plaintiffs - and the predominantly White and wealthier districts."

I am quoting from a new book on education for which I will shortly provide a complete review. But I decided this issue was so important I should address it separately. LET ME BE CLEAR: I am the one describing the results as racist, not the author of the book from which I draw the data.

The book is by Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University, one of the most respected scholars of American education, and someone who many in the educational circles in which I run very much wanted to see as Secretary of Education. She was an important adviser to the President while he was a candidate, but was strongly opposed by people such as the alumni of Teach for America because of the questions she has raised about the (lack of) long-term effectiveness of that program.

The title of the book is The Flat World and Education: How America's Committment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. It is well documented, exhaustive in its coverage of material. Darling-Hammond has herself appeared as an expert witness in a number of the more recent lawsuits on the question of equity in schools. Let me briefly continue with the material on South Carolina from which i was drawing, and which appears beginning on p. 112:
In 2005, when Abbeville v. State of South Carolina was heard, 88% of students in plaintiff districts were minority, 86% lived in poverty, and 75% of the schools were rated by the state as "unsatisfactory" or below on the state rating system." Graduation rates rangted between only 33 and 56% across the state.
The testimony was eerily similar to that heard in the same courthouse a half-century earlier, with plaintiffs describing crumbling and overcrowded facilities , lack of equipment, large numbers of uncertified teachers, and teacher turnover caused by salaries and benefits much lower than those in other districts.

The issue of inequity has if anything gotten even worse in recent years. One main purpose of federal involvement in education has been to try to provide funds to somewhat offset the inequality of schooling for students in high poverty areas. When the Reagan administration took office, the Federal government was providing 12% of the national spending on public K-12 education. Druing Reagan's first term, when Terrell Bell was Secretary of Education (and A Nation at Risk was published) that dropped to 9.6%. During the second term, when William Bennett ran the department, the percentage dropped to 6.2%.

Meanwhile the inequity of spending within the states had been increasing. And the problems were exacerbated by the Reagan administration's shifting the costs to states not only for education, but "for health care, employment training, housing supports, and other functions." (p. 105). Only in the late 1980s did we see the accumulation of data to allow "tracking of of disparities in instructional resources - teachers, support staff, curriculum, facilities, and professional development" that allowed researches to document the severity and increase of the inequities of inputs.

Understand this - on the conservative side of the educational divide there is an argument that inputs do not matter, that all that matters is results, hence the emphasis on test scores. Yet consider this:
In total, courts in 10 of the 31 states where suits were filed during the 1970s and early 1980s found their state's school finance system to be unconstitutional.
Consider both of those numbers, that 62% of the nation's states saw lawsuits on the constitutionality of how public schools were funded, on grounds often of violation of equal protection, and of those 1/3 - and of the total states 20% - were found to be correct: there was a constitutional violation. Yet, as Darling-Hammond notes, in most states there was little done to rectify the situation.

It is not that money makes no difference. Despite conservative scholars like Eric Hanushek (now at Hoover Institute which is located at but not truly part of Stanford) arguing that the monetary inputs are irrelevant, Ronald Ferguson found something very different: that expenditures properly applied do make a difference.
He found that the single most important measurable cause of increased student learning was teacher experience, measured by teacher performance on a statewide certification exam measuring academic skills and teaching knowledge, along with teacher experience and masters degree. The effects were so strong, and the variations in teacher expertise so great, that after controlling for socioeconomic status, the large disparities in achievement between Blakc and White students were almost entirely accounted for by difference in the qualifications of the their teachers. . . Ferguson found that when regional cost differentials are accounted for, school district operating expenditures exert a significant positive effect on student achievement - an effect that operates primarily through the influence of funding levels on salaries that attract and retain more qualified teachers.
(pp. 106-7)

We are now in a time when we see a push to prepare all students to be "college ready" upon graduation from high school. What is interesting is that we have seen states - South Carolina to be sure, but surprisingly also New York - argue that the state is not required to provide a minimally adequate education: in the case in NY those defending against the law suit argued that the state standards only required an 8th grade education. Lest you think this is ancient history, it took place during the Pataki administration, which actually won on those grounds in the first appellate review, although eventually New York's highest court upheld the the victory at trial that determined there was inequity and ordered the state to change its funding formula to make sure all students receive "a meaningful high school education."

Unfortunately, our current Supreme Court does not accept the arguments of those who seek greater equity of inputs. In a case from Arizona, the Federal District Court and the 9th Circuit both found Arizona out of compliance with their obligation fo provide resources inder The Equal Education Opportunities Act of 1974 to address the educational needs of English language learners. The case started in 1992 in Nogales, and reached SCOTUS in 2009. The state presented the arguments of Hanushek and other conservatives to focus on outputs not inputs, arguments opposed by the 3o current and former presidents of the American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education, who argued that, especially with English language learners, that well-crafted considerations of inputs and outputs were mutually reinforcing. In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Alito, the Court remanded for a further examination of whether cricumstances had changed sufficiently to allow the state relief from the original court decision.

Now consider for a moment: 1992 filing and 2009 SCOTUS decision. The state has never complied with the original ruling. The current Superintendent of Public Instruction (disclosure - who was my high school classmate) continues to fight this battle rather than meet the needs of the English Language Learners - who of course are almost always Spanish speaking, and often as discriminated against a minority in parts of the American Southwest as Blacks still are parts of the American South. The impact of the Supreme Court decision will at a minimum further delay addressing the inequity - and violation of law - that caused the original lawsuit.

It is not that the situation has to remain like this. Darling-Hammond examines states that have taken a different approach than this kind of resistance to what is right. Massachusetts had some success, although recent economic problems and periods of Republican governors (Romney) have led to fall backs.l Connecticut has a strong record of meeting educational needs, although there are still some gaps in performance. New Jersey has made major strides. North Carolina, led by the two periods of two terms for Jim Hunt as Governor, very much lifted itself out of the poor educational performance in states of the Old Confederacy.

Simply put, the problem is that absent sufficient resources we cannot use our public schools to lift people up. Schools without resources have less qualified teachers, higher turnover of teachers, less (if any) equipment, out of date books and other instructional material, and often physical plants that give students the clear impression that their education does not matter.

Schools that serve economically distressed populations suffer worst of all, because having funding based on local property values creates even greater problems when property values drop due to loss of employment opportunities and the massive drop in property values caused by the greed and lack of regulation of mortgages in the last administration. States cannot step in to help localities, because most of them are required to balance their budgets.

And the composition of schools in such communities? They are almost always heavily minority, although there are some economically distressed rural communities and some in white ethnic parts of major rust-belt cities.

The issue is not new. Anyone who read Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, a book written in 1991, understands how deep-seated the problem has been.

We are now approaching 56 years since Brown was decided. We may not segregate our schools by law. We certainly do by economics. And in the process we perpetuate an inequality that is exceedingly racially discriminatory in its effects.

Darling-Hammond argues that we must have an appropriate commitment to educational equity if we are to meet the promise of this nation, perhaps even if we are to survive as a democracy.

As a teacher, I see that our current approach, with its emphasis on test scores at the expense of all else, only further exacerbates the inequality to which so many children of color are already subjected. To meet the "standards' of performances on tests of reading and math, students who lack access to music and art and similar things outside of the school context find them eliminated from their curriculum, while students in middle class schools where such things are readily available through family and community resources have them reinforced in their curriculum.

Something is wrong. Something is out of balance. And those being shortchanged are almost always children of color.

People still argue that spending money on their education is wasted because of their lack of background, or similar such nonsense. That is outright racism.

The inequity of opportunity created by the inequity of resources, whether or not its intention is racial discrimination, has the effect of perpetuating racial inequity. Those who are unwilling to confront are at a minimum quiet accomplices of the continuation of racial discrimination.

American public schools are still unequal, and thus racist in impact, after all these years, after more than half a century since our nation recognized that separate public schools were inherently unequal. It matters not that the separation now is by economic status rather than officially by race. It is still unequal, and insofar as it falls so disproportionally upon children of color, call it by the appropriate adjective - racist.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

if you care about schools, A Pedagogic Creed worth reading

originally posted at Daily Kos

I believe that all reforms which rest simply upon the enactment of law, or the threatening of certain penalties, or upon changes in mechanical or outward arrangements, are transitory and futile.
If the author of those words is correct in his belief, then the entire thrust of American educational policy of the past few decades, since the release of A Nation At Risk in the Reagan administration, is doomed to failure.

If the words sound like those of a contemporary critic of the sanctions No Child Left Behind or of the big stick approach of current Secretary Arne Duncan, then perhaps the author was more prescient than many realize. The words appeared in print on this day in 1897 in School Journal. The piece is titled My Pedagogic Creed and was written by the great American philosopher and Educator John Dewey.

You have the link to read the entire piece. If you are interested in school, students, and education, I suggest that you do. I will offer a few selections and my own observations.

There are five sections to the piece, which when published occupied pages 77-80 of Volume 54 of the publication.






I mentioned that Dewey was a philosopher as well as an educator. Here I think it worth noting that another Dewey, Melville, in his organization of knowledge in the Dewey Decimal System, classified psychology as a subset of philosophy. Anyone intimately involved with the educational process understands that effective pedagogy involves psychological proccesses. Thus it should not surprise you as you read the piece by John Dewey that he often turns towards how a child learns - a psychological process - to explain his pedagogical orientation.

We see this even in the first article, where Dewey - unlike too many educational "reformers" of more recent times, starts with first things: the purpose and nature of education. Perhaps I am unfair to many current "refrormers" but I see them as too focused on the utilitarian approach of economic benefit and the reduction of evaluation to performance on test scores as an external measure. Dewey was first and foremost committed to a democratic societ5y, and his pedagogy reflects that.

This is visible in his opening paragraph:
I believe that all education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race. This process begins unconsciously almost at birth, and is continually shaping the individual's powers, saturating his consciousness, forming his habits, training his ideas, and arousing his feelings and emotions. Through this unconscious education the individual gradually comes to share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together. He becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization. The most formal and technical education in the world cannot safely depart from this general process. It can only organize it; or differentiate it in some particular direction.
The idea of sharing in hte intellectual and moral resources is, to Dewey, a fundamental benefit of a democratic society.

And while the individual has responsibilities within a democratic society, these can best be fulfilled by the development of the child not in isolated learning but through the social situation of interaction with other people. Thus Dewey continues
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. Through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.
Education is thus both pyschological and social, with the former the basis. And for Dewey, it starts with where the child is:
The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without. It may, indeed, give certain external results but cannot truly be called educative. Without insight into the psychological structure and activities of the individual, the educative process will, therefore, be haphazard and arbitrary. If it chances to coincide with the child's activity it will get a leverage; if it does not, it will result in friction, or disintegration, or arrest of the child nature.

Let me make a brief excursus into my own experience as a teacher. I have tuaght from 7th through 12th grades. I have also taught adults in religious school and in the business world. Learning is always more complete, thorough and retained when it connects with the interests of the students, when there is a means of utilizing the new knowledge in immediate application. In a sense, this might lead some to believe that the most effective instruction would, therefore, be individual tutoring. But remember that Dewey also emphasizes the social context of education. Dewey acknowledges that it is possible to emphasize either the psychological or social apart from the other, but that the real value comes from recognizing the organic relationship between the two. He also undertands that the utility of education comes from its ability to be applied not merely in a contemporary context, which is why he seeks to empower the child. He writes
With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently. It is impossible to reach this sort of adjustment save as constant regard is had to the individual's own powers, tastes, and interests - say, that is, as education is continually converted into psychological terms. In sum, I believe that the individual who is to be educated is a social individual and that society is an organic union of individuals. If we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.

All so far has been from Article One. Allow me to briefly offer some selections from the other sections, starting with What The School Is:
I believe that the school is primarily a social institution. Education being a social process, the school is simply that form of community life in which all those agencies are concentrated that will be most effective in bringing the child to share in the inherited resources of the race, and to use his own powers for social ends.

I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.

I believe that the school must represent present life - life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the play-ground.

I believe that education which does not occur through forms of life, forms that are worth living for their own sake, is always a poor substitute for the genuine reality and tends to cramp and to deaden.

I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life. It conceives the school as a place where certain information is to be given, where certain lessons are to be learned, or where certain habits are to be formed. The value of these is conceived as lying largely in the remote future; the child must do these things for the sake of something else he is to do; they are mere preparation. As a result they do not become a part of the life experience of the child and so are not truly educative.

And the final, provocative paragraph of the section:
I believe that all questions of the grading of the child and his promotion should be determined by reference to the same standard. Examinations are of use only so far as they test the child's fitness for social life and reveal the place in which he can be of most service and where he can receive the most help.

From A THE SUBJECT-MATTER OF EDUCATION, let me offer what may seem most controversial:
I believe that we violate the child's nature and render difficult the best ethical results, by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.

I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child's own social activities.
Note carefully these words: too abruptly. It is not that Dewey ultimately is opposed to discrete categories or division into subject matter. But the child's mind does not readily make such distinctions. Whereas the principles of each of the domains of human knowledge and endeavor can be learned by the doing of tasks and activities relevant to the immediate context of the child's life. Thus, to take a contemporary issue, it would be foolhardy to attempt to teach as a formal subject the principles of algebra to most 5-8 year olds, and yet the doing of activities that present the opportunity to apply algebraic thinking can lead to a more effective learning of the principles than would be accomplished by discrete and segregated instruction.

Dewey gives many examples of his understanding in this process, including his support of learning things like cooking and sewing, of how the science education of his day was deadly and one might argue very unscientific. Let me note that most children are natural scientists, and we could with proper instruction develop far more passion for and capability in science were we to be working with that natural tendency, even if it meant that their test scores on math reading did not progress as quickly. And yet consider that under NCLB we have ben testing reading and math beginning in the 3rd grade with such punitive sanctions possible that we have excluded the learning of science, of social studies and the like, to the severe detriment of how students perform in these other subjects further up the educational ladder.

In THE NATURE OF THE METHOD, Dewey writes that it
is ultimately reducible to the question of the order of development of the child's powers and interests. The law for presenting and treating material is the law implicit within the child's own nature.
From this he derives 4 principles, which are as follows (I am using Dewey's words, albeit somewhat truncated, which is why they are not in block quotes, but I use italics to indicate the words are not mine):

1. the active side precedes the passive in the development of the child nature; that expression comes before conscious impression; that the muscular development precedes the sensory; that movements come before conscious sensations; consciousness is essentially motor or impulsive; that conscious states tend to project themselves in action.

2. the image is the great instrument of instruction. What a child gets out of any subject presented to him is simply the images which he himself forms with regard to it... if nine-tenths of the energy at present directed towards making the child learn certain things, were spent in seeing to it that the child was forming proper images, the work of instruction would be indefinitely facilitated.

3. interests are the signs and symptoms of growing power... hey represent dawning capacities. Accordingly the constant and careful observation of interests is of the utmost importance for the educator.

4. the emotions are the reflex of actions... to endeavor to stimulate or arouse the emotions apart from their corresponding activities, is to introduce an unhealthy and morbid state of mind...

The final Article is titled THE SCHOOL AND SOCIAL PROGRESS. Dewey begins
I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform.
That is immediately followed by the quote with which I began.

In a sense, this is the section which might be most controversial. Dewey conceives of a balancing of the individual and the social, or as he puts it, the reconciliation of the individualistic and the institutional ideals. There is of course the question of how that reconciliation is affected, and of who shapes the institutional ideals. Certainly as far back as Plato thinkers have wrestled with how to use education to advance the goals of the larger society. Humanity has never reached a consensus on this, and I sincerely doubt that even within one nation such a consensus is truly achievable. One can note Dewy's belief:, that it is
the community's duty to education is, therefore, its paramount moral duty. By law and punishment, by social agitation and discussion, society can regulate and form itself in a more or less haphazard and chance way. But through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move.
But that implies a possible serious struggle over the definition of the very direction in which movement is desired.

Dewey concludes the piece with a series of short statements that might also be viewed as controversial. Consider for example his final three brief statements:
I believe, finally, that the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

I believe that in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.

Framing his beliefs in semi-religious terms will certainly raise red flags for many, if for no other reason than it creates the possibility of another dispute, over what the true Kingdom of God is, or of how one conceives of God's will, or similar issues.

But even the idea of "the formation of proper social life" or "the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth" are expressions with which many might wish to take issue. They might argue that such expressions could be utilized to maintain an inequitable and unfair social order. That is certainly possible, but only if those expressions were removed from the broader context in which Dewey presents them.

For some who consider themselves conservatives, Dewey is a bete noire, his name a red flag, his approach something to be rejected reflexively and unthinkingly. After all, he was involved with - gasp - development professional associations (aka "unions") for teachers, he had good things to say about aspects of the Soviet Union, and the "progressive" movement in education flowing from his ideas is easy to blame for all they find wrong with American schools.

I would disagree, and not merely because my own orientation as an educator is progressive. The Soviet Union gave us the work of Lev Vygotsky, which has been a huge contribution in understanding how children learn, and thus reshaping how we attempt to teach them. And I would argue that in many ways Dewey is conservative in the best sense of the word. He seeks to conserve the cultural heritage of humanity and society - might I remind the reader of the early appearance in his essay of phrases like "share in the intellectual and moral resources which humanity has succeeded in getting together" and "an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization"? Dewey seeks to broaden access to these. He may insist on starting with where the child is - he begins with the psychological because it is the best way of invoking the natural learning interest of the child and making meaningful the learning upon which he is embarking. But he also insists that there is always a social context. It is worth repeating what he offers as he insists on the organic relationship between the individual psychological and the social aspects of education:
f we eliminate the social factor from the child we are left only with an abstraction; if we eliminate the individual factor from society, we are left only with an inert and lifeless mass.

I wonder how much more productive our discussions about the direction of educational policy might be if the major participants had a better understanding of the history of education in this nation. I certainly think that awareness and UNDERSTANDING of the work of people like Dewey might well improve the process for anyone not coming to the table with predetermined goals that they are determined to impose, regardless of either their cost (monetary, financial, and social as well as pedagogical).

Today is the anniversary of this important statement by Dewey. I have no idea how many will read this posting. I felt it important to remind people of the words and ideas Dewey offered. How they respond is up to them.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Standards vs. Criteria....a distinction worth maintaining?

This is a comment on Ken's post about Alfie Kohn's article on national standards, and Barb's comment. This got to be too long to "fit" into the comments, so I decided to make it a post on its on.

I agree wholeheartedly with Ken's post (and Alfie's thoughts, mostly). And Barb's distinction between standards and standardization is useful, although in a practical sense, I'm not quite sure how national standards would NOT lead to national standardized tests, especially if "accountability" remains the mantra of federal "reform" efforts.

I'd like to introduce another distinction that I haven't seen mentioned in this debate, and that is the distinction between "criteria" and "standards." What's the difference?

The terms are confused by the concept of "criterion-referenced tests," which stipulate that students should be able to DO a particular thing (the "criterion") without regard to the population as a whole. In other words, "criterion-referenced tests" do not use "norms" to determine was is acceptable: they simply set a minimum acceptability based on some predetermined criterion. This makes some limited sense for tests such as those used for employment in certain jobs (able to type at 70 WPM, for example) that require certain specific performance levels for successful performance of the job. (The fact that some people may be great for that job without having that minimal performance level is treated as, well, an accident that can't be avoided if we are to have efficiencies of selection.) Thus, a "criterion" for acceptable performance becomes a "performance standard." This is made even more confusing by the way that percentile measures (i.e. "normed scores") are used as cut-off points for standardized tests, for example in Chicago where 3rd graders must achieve a normed score of 18th percentile (or whatever it is currently) in order to be passed out of third grade. Superficially, this assumes that a certain percentage of students will inevitably FAIL that performance standard (since they are determined by percentiles), but the fact that these percentile scores aren't REALLY determined by the population actually taking the test (but by a previously selected "normative sample) means this simplistic idea that a certain percentage must fail is, in fact, not true.

(Gene Glass helpfully addressed this blurring of the distinction between criteria and standards in his 1977 occasional paper "Standards and Criteria," available here:, although his primary purpose was to argue that ALL criteria used to determine "passing" scores on a test are arbitrary, rather than the point I wish to make here.)

The distinction I wish to make is between criteria vs. standards as a way of evaluating the quality of a piece of academic work. Elliot Eisner refers to John Dewey's Art as Experience in describing this distinction in his 1995 Phi Delta Kappan article "Standards for American Schools: Help or Hindrance?" (vol 76, no 10; excerpted here and available here). Eisner wrote:

"Standards fix expectations; criteria are guidelines that enable one to search more efficiently for the qualities that might matter in any individual work...To say that by the end of a course students will be able to write a convincing essay on the competing interests of environmentalists and industrialists that marshalls good arguments supported by relevant facts is to identify criteria that can be used to appraise the essay; it is not to provide a standard for measuring it."

The problem with standards (especially as instantiated in standardized tests...which, I've suggested, they inevitably are) is that they lead to "arbitrary" (cp. Glass) numerical determinations of what constitutes acceptable vs. unacceptable work. Such standards, while useful, cannot possibly be applied in such a simple way to complex academic works such as the essay described by Eisner or any other product that wraps multiple skills together. Eisner continues:

"The qualities that define inventive works of any kind are qualities that by definition have both unique and useful features. The particular form those features take and what it is that makes them useful are not necessarily predictable, but sensitive critics--and sensitive teachers--are able to discover such properties in the work." Einser goes on to discuss the variability of human development, and the obvious lack of fit between "cut-offs" for minimal performance on standardized tests and the huge range of competencies visible in any classroom full of children.

While I don't have the time or space here to explore this distinction in greater detail (I refer you to Eisner's excellent article for more), I wanted to say it on the table as one way to gain some perspective on the issue of "standards" and "standardization" and their effects on teachers and schools.

Education: Debunking the Case for National Standards - Alfie Kohn

originally posted at Daily Kos

Alfie Kohn is one of the most cogent critics of much of what goes on in education. He is well known for his belief that eliminating homework and grades will lead to more and better learning. You can explore many of his ideas at his website.

He has a piece coming out in Education Week, of which he has a slightly expanded version at the website, which you can read in its entirety here. Consider this paragraph from the middle of the piece:
Are all kids entitled to a great education? Of course. But that doesn’t mean all kids should get the same education. High standards don’t require common standards. Uniformity is not the same thing as excellence – or equity. (In fact, one-size-fits-all demands may offer the illusion of fairness, setting back the cause of genuine equity.) To acknowledge these simple truths is to watch the rationale for national standards – or uniform state standards -- collapse into a heap of intellectual rubble.

First let me clarify something. What Kohn is addressing is NOT the US Department of Education mandating a national standard. Rather is an effort being pushed by a number of organizations, starting with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, to come up with COMMON standards across all states. This is known as The Common Core State Standards Initiative. A number of people have noted that those most involved in drafting these "standards" do NOT included practicing or recent classroom teachers, have far too many people from testing companies, and are being drafted with little consideration to some basic understanding of the nature of teaching and learning, to wit - that not all students learn all subjects at the same rate.

Kohn offers a number of arguments against the move to national standards. To begin with, if one looks at international comparisons such as Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), one finds, as Kohn notes
On eighth-grade math and science tests, eight of the 10 top-scoring countries had centralized education systems, but so did nine of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in math and eight of the 10 lowest-scoring countries in science.
That should clearly demonstrate that it is not the existence of national standards that leads to being highly ranked on TIMSS - and here let me note I do not think that TIMSS really provides all that much useful information, and our standing on that and other tests should not be the subject of all the hand-wringing that ensues, but I will explore that further at another time.

Let me offer a few selections from Kohn's pointed prose to give you a sense of the piece, which I strongly encourage you to read in its entirety. I will offer a few comments of my own with each selection, which are not necessarily in the order they appear in Kohn's piece.

a key premise of national standards, as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin observed, is that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools.”
As a classroom teacher, it seems to me that the lack of input from teachers who collectively deal with the students is one reason the curricular decisions that are made are so often unconnected with students' lives, and which results far too often in bored students who retain little of what they feel is simply being shoved down their throats.

these core standards will inevitably be accompanied by a national standardized test. When asked, during an on-line chat last September, whether that was true, Dane Linn of the National Governors’ Association (a key player in this initiative) didn’t deny it. “Standards alone,” he replied, “will not drive teaching and learning” – meaning, of course, the specific type of teaching and learning that the authorities require.
So of course there will be the imperative of tests to drive the process. That may not be what is being pushed now, but many of those supporting the current standardization effort have made it clear their desire to have some tool to compare schools across states, across the country. If you think current state tests are high stakes . . . .

If you read the FAQ page on the common core standards website, don’t bother looking for words like “exploration,” “intrinsic motivation,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “democracy.” Instead, the very first sentence contains the phrase “success in the global economy,” followed immediately by “America’s competitive edge.”

If these bright new digitally enhanced national standards are more economic than educational in their inspiration, more about winning than learning, devoted more to serving the interests of business than to meeting the needs of kids, then we’ve merely painted a 21st-century façade on a hoary, dreary model of school as employee training. Anyone who recoils from that vision should be doing everything possible to resist a proposal for national standards that embodies it.
Which of course brings me back to what I often raise as the key yet unaddressed question, one to which we lack agreement: what is the purpose of education, of our having public schools? The push that we are seeing from the economic argument insists upon more math and science, even though the vast majority of jobs now being created do NOT require that much of either. Certainly, we want people to have basic skills in language and mathematics. Our recent approaches, even when they raise test scores, are not demonstrating that we are developing those skills. Even as we ratchet up "standards" (as if raising the high jump bar another 6 inches will therefore mean more students will jumpt over it) we are finding both increasing rates of students dropping out and increasing numbers of those heading off to higher education requiring remedial courses.

Even more, this is supposed to be a democratic republic. One might note that No Child Left Behind started with math and reading, never included writing as an important skill to be tested, was supposed to add science, but the scores were not to count for Adequate Yearly Progress - AYP is the stick used to beat up on schools and systems. What's missing? History, civics, the knowledge basic to being a citizen, and not just a cog in an economic system.

Even more, if this ia a democratic republic, should not the process of setting any standards include broad participation of those affected? Instead, as Kohn rightly notes,
a relatively small group of experts will be designing standards, test questions, and curricula for the rest of us based on their personal assumptions about what it means to be well educated.
Kohn later adds this:
to get everyone to apply the same standards, you need top-down control. What happens, then, to educators who disagree with some of the mandates, or with the premise that teaching should be broken into separate disciplines, or with the whole idea of national standards? What are the implications of accepting a system characterized by what Deborah Meier called “centralized power over ideas”?

I recognize I am going beyond fair use, but in this case that is allowed if I included the following verbiage:

Copyright © 2010 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author's name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page.

Kohn's conclusion is pretty much to the point:
Yes, we want excellent teaching and learning for all -- although our emphasis should be less on student achievement (read: test scores) than on students’ achievements. Offered a list of standards, we should scrutinize each one but also ask who came up with them and for what purpose. Is there room for discussion and disagreement -- and not just by experts -- regarding what, and how, we’re teaching and how authentic our criteria are for judging success? Or is this a matter of “obey or else,” with tests to enforce compliance?

The standards movement, sad to say, morphed long ago into a push for standardization. The last thing we need is more of the same.

Eve if you do not agree with Kohn, I think the points he raises deserve to be addressed. I find that in this rush to Common Standards there are questions not being asked, there are - yet again in the making of educational policy - voices that are not being heard. That is one reason for my bringing this to your attention.

There is another. Public education should be the concern of all of us. We pay taxes for our public schools, and the vast majority of our students attend public schools, something like more than 9 in 10. Between the Common Core Standards approach and what is being pushed by Arne Duncan with his Race to the Top funding, American public education is being totally reshaped without the changes being vetted by parents, teachers, students, or the American public as a whole. It is being driven by economic concerns, some of which (testing and textbook companies for example) stand to profit handsomely. I can remember a candidate for President saying of the debate on health care that the insurance companies should have a seat at the table, but not all the seats. What is happening to education policy is that there is no debate, the decisions are being made by a relatively small group, and there are no seats, no table, for the vast majority of those who will be affected.

Do you think that is right? I don't. So I wrote this.