Monday, July 25, 2011

There’s a role for our college as WSU plans take off in Everett

(cross posted from my dean's blog)

I didn’t expect to spend the Thursday before the Independence Day holiday traveling to Western Washington. Especially not in a four-seater charter plane out of Pullman-Moscow International in the company of President Elson S. Floyd and Murrow College Dean Larry Pintak. But when the university president invites you to a meeting and offers you a ride …

When we landed at Paine Field, our plane was dwarfed by Boeing jets stacked up, awaiting insignia painting for many countries around the world. From there, we drove to three meetings with stakeholders in WSU’s initiative to operate the present University Center in Everett, starting in 2014.

We met in the lovely new convention center in Everett’s harbor area, joined by several other WSU deans and partner institution officials. Also present was WSU Spokane Chancellor Brian Pitcher, whose Riverpoint campus is seen as a model for what WSU’s effort in Everett could become.

WSU’s first order of business in Everett will be to establish mechanical and electrical engineering programs, modeled on what we already offer in Bremerton. The programs will involve a clinical faculty member, distance education via video, and summer study in Pullman. But the stakeholders in Everett — including the mayor, Chamber of Commerce representatives, and state legislators — also want programs in nursing, media arts and, importantly, education. At the meeting, I shared my eagerness for the College of Education to provide educational opportunities to local school administrators, and to teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Western Washington University has traditionally provided education course work in Everett, and I look forward to working with them.

President Floyd said it is premature to think of Everett as being the fifth WSU campus. For now, we are exploring the opportunity and learning how we can collaborate. An advisory board and planning committee are already at work.

I am proud that the College of Education is so well represented in the leadership of this initiative. Paul Pitre of our Vancouver faculty will oversee WSU’s developments at Everett in the coming year. Joan Kingrey, our academic director in Spokane, led the discussions at the Everett meeting. And President Floyd has his faculty appointment in our college.

Our plane took off from Paine Field just before 5 p.m. I rode shotgun. Heading east, we flew above a blanket of clouds over the Cascades, with Mount Rainier peeking above that, off the right wing. A half hour later, I could see in the distance lush green fields, and Kamiak and Steptoe buttes. It was thrilling to see Pullman edge closer as we sped home. It was a fun and inspiring day.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

War on Teachers?

Cross-posted from JDS Social Issues:

From my inbox almost two months ago:

So, where did this war on teachers, and other public employees come from? I certainly didn't see that coming.

A former colleague (a faculty member in a humanities department) was responding directly to word that Pennsylvania was cutting P-12 funding and slashing state support for public higher education. But her consciousness was framed by events in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

So I have been paying attention to the news in a new way. Is my colleague right? Is there a “war on teachers”? I think she may right that there is a “war” going on but I’m having a little more difficulty determining just what it is we are fighting about and fighting for. Are teachers the target? Or are teachers collateral damage in a larger struggle –because teachers (and their students) don’t fight back and because everybody feels entitled to an “expert” opinion about educational matters generally?

I hope to think more about this over the summer and invite any readers to join in with news items, anecdotes and analyses that help us all figure out where we want to stand in what is clearly a struggle for the social, economic, political and educational terrain within our own communities and our nation.

Here are a couple for starters:

· Randy Turner, commenting on the Huffington Post about new education legislation in Missouri, asks whether public school teachers are an “endangered species”? His question is motivated by regulatory proposals that seem to suggest that all teachers are lazy perverts.

· Paul Mucci, a fifth grade NBPTS certified teacher, asks

“since when did teachers become the bad guys?” Mucci is in Florida where education is rapidly being “reformed” on the backs of teachers: “elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System, raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing and reducing the number of "core" classes to name a few.”

He conveys his demoralization clearly:

“More important, gone is the respect teachers once had. The steady erosion of respect is palpable in parent conferences, in line at the grocery store and in politicians' statements in the media.

As one legislator said to me, ‘The public deserves accountability they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.’ In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?”

Mucci notes that it is ironic that the rhetoric is all about “good teachers” but in the process they are destroying any chance of respect [for teachers].

· Bill Haslam, Governor of my new home state of Tennessee apparently hasn’t met any Paul Mucci type teachers. Last week he rejected the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that “teacher morale is flagging,” despite passing measures that limit collective bargaining and proposing others that would end any licensure for educational professionals. (More on events in Tennessee in the days to come.)

As someone who spends a fair amount of time cultivating partnerships with public schools so that we can jointly (university/school) provide substantive and challenging but guided practical experience for teacher candidates, my sense is that teacher morale is fragile at best. Neither principals nor teachers – no matter how accomplished --generally feel free to take on novice teacher candidates. Even when they can identify the value of teaching collaboratively with a young person with energy and ideas, they are hesitant, even fearful, about jeopardizing their compensation and even their jobs (based largely on student test scores). Everybody is looking over both shoulders at once.

What do these snippets suggest?

Whether or not there is a war on teachers, teachers are feeling under siege. And the march of legislation that targets the teaching profession is undeniable. But the point of the legislation is harder to tease out. Limiting collective bargaining might be a cost-cutting measure. It might be an undercut-the-unions measure (my favorite theory with thanks to Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow). The undercut-the-unions theory is supported by proposals in Tennessee to get rid of teacher licensure all together. Put this together with the appointment of a new Commissioner of Education with a Teach for America and charter school background and it does appear that the war is not on “teachers” per se but on the public school “establishment” (whatever that is).

The point then is an utterly free market for education? (Odd that we would seek a free market for the development of human capital when we have no such truly free market for any other commodity – oil subsidies, farm subsidies, interstate highway systems anyone?)

But this is a kaleidoscopic phenomenon, I think, and this particular ideological interpretation is just today’s turn of the barrel. What does it look like to you? What will it look like tomorrow?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Scholarship winners, life's winners

(cross posted from my dean's blog)

Forty-seven percent. Within that statistic is news both wonderful and sobering.

Nearly half of all of the graduate students who received College of Education scholarships for 2011-12 are the first in their families to go to college. That’s the wonderful part. Those future educators are realizing the American dream of self-improvement. But the number also speaks to the need for financial support, which is especially acute for first-generation students and their families.

This spring, faculty and staff volunteers reviewed the scholarship applications. They weighed the students’ accomplishments and goals and stretched the contributions of our generous donors to award 96 scholarships totaling $171,150. The average per student was $1,782.

Amy Cox of our development team, who coordinates the scholarship selection effort, provided those statistics. Others that might interest you:

In all, 98 graduate students and 453 undergraduates applied for scholarship assistance.
Scholarships were awarded to 24 juniors, 31 seniors, and 41 master’s and doctoral degree candidates.
Twenty-eight percent of the scholarship winners are minority students. The largest groups represented were Hispanic/Latin America (seven) and Asian Pacific American (five).
Seventy percent of scholarship winners are women.
Seventy-six are enrolled in Pullman, six in Vancouver, eight in Tri-Cities.

More compelling than the numbers, of course, are the people they represent. Here are two examples:

Israel Martinez of Walla Walla starts our Master in Teaching program this summer.  Israel, the first in his family to get a college degree, wrote in his application: “It has taken a lot of hard work and dedication, such as working two part-time jobs while being a full-time student, working overtime in the orchards during the summers to save enough money to stay in school.”

Kelly Frio’s home town is Brush Prairie, Washington. That’s near Vancouver, where she is working on an undergraduate teaching degree. She has a perfect 4.0 grade point average. One of her goals, she wrote, is to instill an appreciation of the elderly in her own children and those she works with. “The wealth and skills and knowledge that our senior citizens possess is often not only unappreciated, but dismissed.”

My congratulations to all of our scholarship winners and my thanks to those who support our scholarships. We only wish we could do more, for more. If you would like to help, look here for information.

Friday, April 29, 2011

When Engagement is Not Enough

One of my goals as a dean of a school of education has been to expand the notion of what teacher preparation includes. To that end, I have been strongly pushing for the development of community engagement courses and academic programs in my own school and across the college. This is grounded in my ongoing academic research and in my belief that one cannot be a good teacher, administrator or staff in a PreK-12 school without realizing (on academic, experiential, and conceptual levels) that schools are deeply embedded within and an important part of their local communities. To that end, I have been working on series of pieces that expands on the notion of community engagement as much more than just service, service-learning, or experiential education. This is the first part of this series.
The community engagement movement – after a generation of activism and research and immense energy and effort – has reached an “engagement ceiling.” It is now time to plot the second wave.

This movement – composed of a loosely inter-related set of programs, practices, and philosophies such as service-learning, civic and community engagement, public scholarship, and community-based research – has become an assumed and expected part of the higher education landscape. More than half of all faculty, according to UCLA’s ongoing American College Teacher surveys, believe that instilling a commitment to community service is a very important or essential aspect of undergraduate education; NSSE data suggest that service-learning is one of very few “high impact practices” that deepen undergraduates’ learning; and the Carnegie Foundation recently released its third round of colleges and universities selected as worthy of the “community engagement” classification, whose membership now numbers over three hundred such institutions.

Yet even as the public face of community engagement becomes ever more embraced, there are troubling signs of its internal malaise. Key groups and scholars have begun to openly talk of a movement that has “stalled.” Strong research suggests that co-curricular engagement continues to be a more meaningful variable than singular curricular service-learning courses in fostering a range of key student outcomes. And the plethora of programs, centers, and practices that intermix community service, service-learning, and civic engagement contributes to frustratingly opaque notions of even basic definitions, categories, and hoped-for outcomes in the field.

The trouble is not that service-learning and its ilk have not been successful enough. The problem, I suggest, is that they have been too successful. Too successful, that is, at positioning themselves as a social movement for the transformation of higher education to reclaim and rediscover its civic purpose and meaningful engagement with, for, and in their local communities. But in so doing, in becoming a movement that attempted to reach everyone across the academy, the community engagement movement has become unmoored from some basic precepts. There is neither a core vision nor an overarching network able to guide or link the disparate centers, groups, scholarly communities, national organizations and activists all attempting to, ironically enough, foster an engaged campus and community. The gap between the rhetoric and reality of the “engaged campus” is ever increasing.

The reasons for this are complex, intertwined, and not easily changeable given the long-term economic retrenchment sweeping across the academy: the expanding demographics of “non-traditional” part-time commuting students; the outsourcing of labor to contingent and adjunct faculty; and the “wickedly” complex and contested problem of engaging with (much less solving) community issues enmeshed within multiple racial, political, economic, social, and historical realities. If the goal of the first generation of scholars and activists was to transform higher education, the real issue is who is transforming whom.

I am not suggesting that we wipe our hands, shut the classroom door, and walk away from the pressing societal problems that colleges and universities must indeed be a part of solving. Rather, we must reframe how we think about the engaged campus: namely, community engagement must become an intellectual movement. If the next generation of scholars, students, and community members are to have a chance in fostering a deep, sustained, and ultimately powerful campus and community collaborations, then we must embrace a second wave of criticality towards civic and community engagement in the academy.

By this I mean what other movements, such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies, have accomplished in the last thirty years. They have created, through majors and minors and interdisciplinary concentrations and research centers, a means to influence and impact the knowledge production and dissemination of their respective areas of study. They have succeeded in the impressive accomplishment that it is no longer possible to speak simply or “obviously” about what feminism or blackness “is,” either within their respective fields, across the academy, or, for that matter, in the larger world.

Interestingly enough, academic programs (such as majors and minors) focused on community engagement have indeed begun to spring up helter skelter across the academy. I helped organize a research institute this past summer for academics interested in developing or expanding such academic programs. We expected twenty or thirty people to show up. Instead, we had to stop registration at ninety, as scholars, administrators, and doctoral students poured in from across the country, as well as a few from Canada, Mexico, and even Ireland. We have now documented over sixty academic programs at varying stages of development across the United States and will be hosting another institute this summer to continue to deepen this dialogue and support such program development.

There are longstanding and deeply impressive programs, such as Providence College’s major in Public and Community Service Studies and UC-Santa Cruz’s department of Community Studies. There is the newly developed Civic Engagement minor at Mary Baldwin College, and the Department of Justice and Policy Studies at Guilford College. In each case, there are dedicated faculty members attached to each program, doing the deliberate, careful, and critical work that is necessary for any successful academic program: advising students, creating introductory courses, questioning the quality of the capstone experience, reaching out to colleagues across the institution and community members outside of it for perspective and feedback and collaboration, advocating for additional tenure-track lines, and questioning whether what they do is ultimately of value and relevance to its critical stakeholders.

This, then, is the face of the next generation of the scholarship of engagement. It is the critical work that cannot take for granted the practice and philosophy of community engagement. For community engagement is a complex and contested practice that claims to engage in “border crossing” and as such engages issues of power, race, and class. It is a practice that has real-world ethical, legal, and political implications as to what our undergraduates actually do out in the world. And it is a philosophy of practice that is seemingly at the heart of a liberal arts education. As such, what we do with, for, and in the community must be open to the same type of scrutiny as any other legitimate academic practice. It needs to be done in academic spaces that foster and strengthen the very qualities we are looking for in the community partnerships we espouse: deep, sustained, and impactful reflection, engagement, and action. That is an intellectual movement.

In the end, of course, this is not an either/or proposition. The academy must embrace both the community engagement and the critical academic spaces. To have engagement without the criticality is to succumb ultimately to a cheerleading mentality of a social movement with thin skin unable to withstand the critique of the academy. To have disciplined academic inquiry without a deep and sustained experiential community-based component is to succumb to an ineffectual model of “hallway activists” where theory and practice are disjoined and disjointed and where the thick skin of academic debate cannot feel or see the needs of the community all around it. But without the next stage, without the second wave of critique within academic spaces, the next generation of the engaged campus will be ever more imperiled.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Quite a Lot, Really . . ."

Been meaning to write something substantive, but then I found this as part of a review of a book on Wittgenstein and couldn't resist:
Then there is the question of the role of the endnotes in Klagge's study: some are simply references, some elucidations, and yet others mini-essays almost. They constitute some two-fifths of the book, which seems quite a lot really, as Monty Python put it with respect to the amount of rat in the tart.

Now that's what academic writing should aspire to. :)

From H-Net.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

No Child Left Behind: What Lies Ahead?

(Crossposted from my dean's blog)

In March, the Obama administration announced its plans to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The last time the act was reauthorized, in 2001, it was called No Child Left Behind and became the cornerstone of the Bush administration’s education efforts. NCLB brought with it an increased focus upon testing and accountability in schools.

What have we learned from the act during the past decade? What changes would improve it? In my own search for answers, I asked faculty members from various education specialties for their views, which I share here.

Professor David Slavit on accountability

Right now Secretary Duncan talks about NCLB as being too punitive and prescriptive because of its accountability measures. Why do we have accountability? Because we don’t trust people to do their jobs.

Surveys show that most people think their own children’s teachers are quite good, but that teachers in general are not. This says a great deal about the kind of negative messaging people receive in this country about teachers, and the political harm this has been doing to teachers for the past decades. The basis of any reauthorization needs to assume one thing: Teachers are professionals deserving of trust and respect. The many teachers whom I visit on a regular basis are some of the hardest working people I know. And certainly some of the most caring.

Associate Professor Judy Morrison on science education

Under the NCLB, science education has not received the same attention that reading and mathematics have, because the law did not require yearly science assessments.

Though not necessarily advocating for yearly assessments, science educators would like to see students taking more science courses and being exposed to the reality of science in their science courses. There also needs to be an ongoing conversation about which important scientific knowledge and skills our students should be exposed to so that they become scientifically literate citizens. We need to open their eyes to the development, meaning, value, and limitations of scientific knowledge. As students engage in more authentic science in their K-12 science courses, they will be exposed to the creativity and innovation that science involves, strengthening their passion and causing them to consider careers in science.

If higher standards and more assessments can produce more opportunities for students to receive quality science instruction, then these certainly should be a part of the ESEA revisions involving science education.

Clinical Associate Professor Gay Selby on support for teachers, leaders

There is much about No Child Left Behind that I personally support—most important to me is that it requires schools to examine data, including student achievement data, high school graduation rates, and the qualifications of teachers as to teaching assignments. These areas of examination have “shined a light” on important areas that all too often prior to NCLB were not well examined.

I believe most teachers and principals today are intentional in their efforts to address the learning needs of all students and to improve high school graduation rates. Many teachers have changed how they work together and many innovative programs have emerged to provide the needed support to students. The role of principals also has changed from one of manager to leader—an instructional leader focused on assisting teachers with their classroom practice and student needs.

The downsides of NCLB are the heavy reliance on standardized tests data to determine how well a school is doing and the use of test results to punish teachers and principals as a means of motivating them. It is my hope that a reauthorized NCLB will focus on targeted support for teachers and principals.

The public and policy makers have every right to expect high performance from their schools and every right to hold teachers and principals accountable, but should be realistic about the challenges schools face and recognize that schools need authentic support in their efforts to improve. Only after such efforts should punitive measures be taken.

Assistant Professor Janet Frost on the intent of the law

I greet reauthorization of the act with mixed feelings. The intentions of actually meeting the educational needs of all children were noble, and the federal funding provided the opportunity for extensive professional development work my colleagues and I do that seems to be making a difference for teachers and students. However, the means of accountability and implementation of NCLB seemed misguided.

Most teachers and administrators with whom I have worked have felt that this legislation forced them to take steps that seemed educationally bizarre and the opposite of the legislation’s intent. They learned to focus their efforts on those students whose scores were just below passing, cutting back attention for lower or higher students. Schools reduced or eliminated time for science, social studies, the arts, and physical education — all areas of study that engage students who may be less interested or successful in mathematics or literacy learning. Teachers’ emotional energy became so focused on meeting Adequate Yearly Progress that they were less aware or considerate of their impact on students. I learned of students who couldn’t sleep the night before the high-stakes tests because their teachers had told them they were responsible for the school’s score and future. Some principals couldn’t be bothered with improving grade 11-12 students’ preparation for college success because yearly progress was focused on grade 10 scores.

Associate Professor Brian French on achievement testing

The attention given to achievement testing will not wane with reauthorization. It will only increase as common standards are applied to schools nationwide. First, there is the challenge of producing high quality assessments. The timeline and budget may not be sufficient to ensure proper development and implementation of tests.

Second, the magnitude of the common core project is almost overwhelming to the states and organizations charged with implementing the assessment system. For example, changing from paper-and-pencil tests to computer adaptive assessments sounds simple. However, having enough adequate working computers is a major barrier to implementation. Plus, there is a heavy bet being placed on technology for success for this system–technology that may not yet exist.

Third, achievement tests are designed for measuring individual student progress. However, the scores are put to many other uses (such as promotion, grades, teacher effectiveness, program accountability) with no assurance that they are valid measurements for those purposes.

Fourth, teachers will be asked, if not required, to make use of assessment scores to modify instruction, see and understand individual student mistakes, and convey student progress to parents. The challenge is to ensure they are prepared to do so.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Miracle schools, vouchers and all that educational flim-flam

is the title of this piece by Diane Ravitch. It appeared at the website of Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, as part of the "Ask This" which is subtitled "Questions the Press Should Ask." Oh if only reporters and writers on education were knowledgeable enough about education to ask questions such as those posed by Ravitch, perhaps we could cut through all the misleading and inaccurate information, the attempts to manipulate the public discourse on education to exclude the voices of those - including both Ravitch (a personal friend) and myself - who say that our supposed pattern of educational "reform" is like the emperor's new clothes - there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein once opined of Oakland.

You should read Ravitch's piece. To whet your appetite, let me offer Diane's first paragraph here, and then explore a bit more below the fold:
Be skeptical of miracle schools. Sometimes their dramatic gains disappear in a year or two or three. Most such claims rely on cheating or gaming the system or on intensive test prep that involves teaching children how to answer test questions. These same children, having learned to take tests, may actually be very poorly educated, even in the subjects where their scores were rising.

Please keep reading.

Diane offers some very tough questions to consider. Understand that as an educational historian and as someone very involved in policy questions, the questions she poses are derived from the record, from extensive reading/research into the information that is actually available. For example:
When a charter school reports miraculous results, be sure to ask about the attrition rate. Some highly successful charters push out low-performing kids and their enrollment falls over the years (and the departing students are not replaced). Recently Arne Duncan hailed a “miracle” school in Chicago—Urban Prep—where all the students who graduated were accepted into college. But 150 students started and only 107 graduated. The 107 graduates had much lower test scores than the average for Chicago public school students. The school did a good job of getting the students into college (perhaps that was a miracle) but they were not better educated than students in the regular public schools.

In another instance, one of the “amazing” schools singled out by the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman” admits 140 students, but only 34 graduated. That’s a 75 per cent attrition rate. Some miracle.

Or try the brief paragraph before what I just quoted:
Whenever a district has a dramatic increase in test scores, look for cheating, gaming the system, intensive investment in test prep. Testing is NOT instruction. It is meant to assess instruction, not to substitute for it.
Take this points one at a time

cheating - explore the recent USA Today examination of test results in DC public schools under Michelle Rhee

gaming - the so-called Texas miracle on their state tests, given in tenth grade, was accomplished by holding back lower performing kids in 9th grade. Some were held back several times until they dropped out, and if they said they MIGHT get a GED, they were listed at having transferred to an alternative educational program, not as dropouts. Or perhaps after having been held back one year they were skipped to 11th on the grounds they had made so much progress. In either case, they were not tested. All this was documented BEFORE No Child Left Behind was passed into law, and people in Congress cannot say they were unaware. Walt Haney of Lynch College of Education at Boston College wrote about it, as did others, and a number of us passed on the literature to key people in Congress. Yet somehow Rod Paige won a superintendent's award and got promoted to Secretary of Education, in part because of a claimed 90% graduation rate in Houston schools, when in reality only a bit over 40% of those entering 7th grade graduated with their cohorts.

intensive investment in test prep - these seems to be the pattern in a number of charter schools and some public schools claiming significant gains. But what evidence there is that the "gains" on tests are not maintained in subsequent grades, and students as they ascend the educational grades arrive less and less prepared to do the kind of work necessary to be successful even in a high school course of students, to say nothing of what is necessary in colleges, which is why post-secondary institutions have had to expand the number of places in remediation courses.

Ravitch remind us - at least those of us who have been paying attention - that improving pass rates on state tests may mean merely that states are manipulating their cut scores. It is possible to pass some state tests with less than half the questions answered correctly. Since all that are published are scaled scores, converted from raw scores, unless one can see the conversion formula, the scaled scores are subject to manipulation for all kinds of reasons, including the state (or school district for district wide tests) wanting to be able to show "success" or to avoid the politically unacceptable prospect of large numbers of students not being promoted or not graduating from high school.

Not all "studies" are peer-reviewed by independent scholars. Some are not even rigorous, as Ravitch points out about the claim by Carolyn Hoxby that students who spent 9 years in a NYC charter could close the achievement gap differential between, say, Harlem in inner city NY and Scarsdale, perhaps the wealthiest of the New York suburbs. As Ravitch writes:
The press gave that study huge attention and credibility, but no one noticed that there were very few students who had attended a charter in NYC for nine years or that Hoxby did not provide a number for the students who had closed the gap. It appears that her study was an extrapolation, and it was an extrapolation based on NYC and NY state’s inflated and unreliable test scores (see above). When NYC’s charter scores are reported, they range widely from very abysmal (a six per cent pass rate) to exceptional (100 per cent pass rate).

Ravitch also reminds us of the wisdom of the words spoken by Hal Holbrook in "All the President's Men" - Follow the Money. In the case of education, we have the likes of Philip Anschutz, a billionaire who advocates for free market solutions (and for whom, I might mention, Michael Bennet worked before becoming Superintendent in Denver, and then a US Senator, and now apparently the successor in waiting to Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education). He was a funder of "Waiting for Superman" as was a man "previously CEO of a string of for-profit postsecondary institutions." Similarly, the so-called Democrats for Education Reform has a board full of Wall St. hedge fund managers and big real estate moguls. Ravitch suggests asking why they are so interested in charters, and how they are connected with other 'reform' groups such as" Education Reform Now, Stand for Children, the state CAN organizations (e.g., ConnCAN), and a host of other groups promoting privatization and de-professionalization?" She also reminds us, as she did in her book, about the influence of the 'billionaire boys' club" of foundations such as Gates, Broad and Walton.

No high performing nations, as Ravitch reminds us, are pursuing the kinds of approaches we are seeing advocated by such groups and foundations, and unfortunately by the Obama administration. She challenges the administration with a number of questions, on continuing Bush administration accountability problems, on school choice, on merit pay (which lacks any supportive research base in education or in industry, and has clearly been shown to have no effect on test scores, which of course are the measurement of choice of the so-called reformers). Given the President's recent remarks at Bell Multicultural High School in the District, in response to a question from a student, it is worth noting this question from Ravitch:
Why does the president publicly say he is against standardized testing at the same time that his administration is demanding more emphasis on standardized testing?

Read Ravitch. Perhaps pass on the article to the editors, editorialists, and reporters dealing with education at your publication of choice.

Ravitch concludes her piece with simple statement:
Principles for reporters: Be skeptical; don’t believe in miracles; follow the money.

Perhaps were these principles followed, we might actually be able to have a meaningful public discussion on how to address the real needs and issues confronting our schools and our students.

Perhaps were these principles followed, we might actually be able to have a meaningful public discussion on how to address the real needs and issues confronting our schools and our students.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Film Shows Other Side of Education Divide

(Crossposted from my dean's blog)

The documentary “Race to Nowhere,” the April 14 finale to our Rethinking Education film series, is very different than “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery.”

Those first two films deal with mostly low-income students in sub-standard public schools who are looking for a way out. Their goal is admission to successful charter schools. “Race to Nowhere” deals with the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum, where parents and students are frustrated with education for other reasons.

These families live in places where, by any measure, there are excellent public schools. Lafayette, California, where the “The Race to Nowhere” was mostly filmed, is an affluent East Bay suburb where the median family income is $150,000 and the average home price is $1.2M. The film’s director/producer drives a Lexus SUV. These students aim for elite selective colleges and universities. They work constantly at homework, squeezing it in with other activities deemed necessary to success. They are pressured to the point of illness or desperation by the high expectations of their parents and the community.

As an admissions officer for a selective college early in my career, I was aware of the kinds of pressures that students endured in order to be admitted to a selective institution. I also have worked for less selective institutions where many students get an excellent education and have never worried to the point of insomnia or anorexia about their life choices. I think the anxiety over college and career choices portrayed in this film may be lost on many families. As blogger Jay Mathews points out in the Washington Post, a bigger problem for students may be the low expectations of parents and schools.

The pressure that most college-bound families and students do feel is financial, especially if they want to attend state-supported institutions where programs are being cut and tuition raised. They may worry that they are being pushed aside in favor of out-of-state students who are willing to pay higher tuition. They may be faced with taking out large loans to complete their degrees.

“Race to Nowhere” might have a selective message, but I think it will inspire some important conversation about social pressure to succeed and what’s most important about life and school. I’ll be there to watch the film, and moderate a panel discussion afterward. If you’re in Pullman next Thursday, please join us for the free presentation at 6 p.m. in the Compton Union Building auditorium.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Education: two important proposals

Education is not listed among the enumerated powers of Article I Section 8 of the Constitution. Yet the national governments of the United States have maintained an interest in education going back to the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, which in the Land Ordinance of 1785 established that the 16th of the 36 square miles of the territory in the Northwest being surveyed under the authority of the Congress was reserved for the maintenance of free public schools.

The major current Federal involvement in K-12 education, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was part of LBJ's great society and was intended to provide "Financial Assistance To Local Educational Agencies For The Education Of Children Of Low-Income Families." This was a recognition that some districts lacked the tax base to provide an equitable education, and in other districts children of poverty were provided with lesser resources than those from more well-off circumstances. This especially affected minorities, especially blacks in inner cities and in some rural parts of the South, thus undercutting the promise made in Brown v Board.

This morning, two pieces of legislation intended to address some of the inequities of current federal educational funding will be introduced by Rep. Chaka Fattah, D- PA02. These are the Fiscal Fairness Act and the Student Bill of Rights Act, tomorrow both of which are designed to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).

Rep. Fattah is not currently on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is the authorizing committee for legislation affecting schools. He left that committee when he joined Appropriations, which as an "exclusive" committee (as is, for example, Ways and Means), requires that the Members serve on no other committees absent a waiver. Yet education has remained his primary interest throughout his Congressional service, now in its 9th term.

Recently one of our own, spedwybabs, was meeting with one of his staffers and when she heard about the Representative's initiatives, suggested connecting the office with me because of my interest in matters educational. As one of his staff noted during our exchanges,
Our country was predicated on the fundamental idea of equality, yet in every state in the country there continue to be poor children receiving less of everything we know they need to experience a quality education. Our ongoing attempts at closing the proverbial achievement gap through various policies and practices, while necessary and generally well intentioned, have not adequately addressed vast gaps in opportunity and funding. Left unaddressed, these gaps will continue the disparate academic outcomes we witness along racial, economic, language, and ability lines.

I cannot in one posting thoroughly explore all of the legislative language. The office was kind enough to send me the text being introduced, along with some background and explanatory material, from which I am heavily borrowing. Today I want to give some background on both initiatives and offer a few comments of my own. I hope in the near future to go into greater depth on the issues these legislative initiatives are intended to address.

The Student Bill of Rights (SBOR) is something the Congressman has been pursuing for several Congresses. The current iteration is based on the Opportunity to Learn framework of the Schott Foundation, and is supported by among other the National Education Association. As a key adviser to the Congressman wrote me, it
addresses the centuries-old injustice of dramatic inadequacy and inequity of resources between school districts. While we have made significant strides in recent years in measuring the difference in educational outcomes between schools and districts, there has not been nearly as much attention paid towards the resources that encourage, allow, or promote student learning. We do not fully know to what extent all children have a meaningful opportunity to learn.

SBOR defines opportunity to learn indicators as:
• Highly effective teachers
• Early childhood education
• College preparatory curricula; and
• Equitable instructional resources

The bill requires that States provide ideal or adequate (as defined by the State) access to each of these resources. The bill also requires States to comply with substantive Federal or State court orders regarding the adequacy or equity of the State’s public school system.

Similar to improvement plans required under existing law, SBOR requires States to provide a remediation plan to address any disparity or inadequacy in the opportunity to learn indicators available to the lowest and highest performing school districts.

Here let me offer some observations, or if you will, editorializing. Let's look at the first of the opportunity ot learn indicators listed above, "Highly effective teachers." The current 2001 iteration of the ESEA, commonly known as No Child Left Behind, has a provision that all children are supposed to be instructed by "highly qualified teachers." Recently the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that teachers from programs such as Teach for America, which provide minimal training before placing their candidates in the classroom (in TFA, only 5 weeks), did not meet the qualifications of the law, and the parents of such children had to be notified. TFA is heavily politically connected, and as a result Sen. Harkin (chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that previously was led by the late Ted Kennedy), inserted language into a Continuing Resolution to change the definition of "highly qualified" so that those from TFA were so considered and parents would not have to be notified. It is not clear to me how this benefits the students taught by those reclassified. In my mind, the change was more to benefit TFA and similar programs without regard for the impact of the effect upon the students.

This should be of concern. Let me quote from the legislative language of the bill a portion which quotes from the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan:
(9) According to the Secretary of Education, as stated in a letter (with enclosures) dated January 19, 2002, from the Secretary to States—

(A) racial and ethnic minorities continue to suffer from lack of access to educational re- sources, including ‘‘experienced and qualified teachers, adequate facilities, and instructional programs and support, including technology, as well as . . . the funding necessary to secure these resources’’; and
(B) these inadequacies are ‘‘particularly acute in high-poverty schools, including urban schools, where many students of color are isolated and where the effect of the resource gaps may be cumulative. In other words, students who need the most may often receive the least, and these students often are students of color’’.

Whatever our national approach to education, if it continues to exacerbate the inequality of opportunity for children of lesser means, who are disproportionally found among minority communities (especially Black, Hispanic and Native American), we will continue a pattern of disparity that Brown v Board at least in theory was supposed to address, as were many other court rulings and legislative initiatives. Absent equity we will be leaving children behind, no matter how nobly we may label some laws.

As to the Fiscal Fairness Act, allow me to quote the brief summary offered on the Congressman's Congressional web page:
The ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act – amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is up for reauthorization this year, and a takes giant step toward achieving the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in schools but has left unfulfilled the promise of equal opportunity in all our schools. The measure requires school districts to equalize the real dollars spent among all schools within its jurisdiction – with the imperative to raise the resources allotted to schools in the poorest neighborhoods to meet those in well-off schools – before receiving federal aid.
Let me add language from the summary sent out by the Congressman's office:
The original purpose of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)was to provides supplemental funding to districts and schools to cover some of the additional costs of educating low-income students. Inherent in the law was the recognition that, because of the realities of povert, these students would need resources in addition to those available to their peers. More than any other provision in that law, the comparability requirement seeks to ensure that federal funds are used to support existing, equitable State and local efforts, rather than to compensate for State and district inequities. Because of loopholes in the Statute, Departmental regulations, and a lack of meaningful enforcement, this provision has never truly lived up to its intended purpose. The ESEA Fiscal Fairness Act seeks to correct this historic oversight and to restore the original intent of the ESEA. The bill addresses problems with the current statute and its implementation, as well as updates the law to accommodate current school improvement strategies and the use of Title I funds.

If one reads through the legislative language of the two proposal, one cannot escape the realization that our ongoing approaches to educational reform are still failing too many of our young people, and thus our society as whole. Looking at the larger picture, which is often necessary to persuade legislators whose districts are not heavily affected by the issues these bills seek to address, or who philosophically or for economic reasons oppose spending federal funds for public education, we find arguments about the impact upon our economic interests as a nation and the high proportion of our young people who cannot meet the standards required for military service, thereby posing a potential threat to national security. I acknowledge these are important.

For me, perhaps because I am a classroom teacher, my focus is the individual students. We have students who transfer to the school in which I teach from elsewhere. Some arrive without having had the opportunities necessary to develop educationally. Some come from schools that are resource poor, from districts that lack resources or distribute them in an unfair manner that tends to disproportionally hurt those who already begin with lesser opportunity. I believe that a public school should provide every student the opportunities that mean s/he can develop fully as an individual. Circumstances of birth and geography should not be allowed to limit one's potential. In part that is why I continue to teach in a PUBLIC school, despite the difficulties (overcrowded classrooms, financial stresses on the system, some disciplinary issues) concomitant with such a setting (although our school is far better off than many with respect to these and similar issues).

I have no idea what chance Rep. Fattah has of getting his proposals enacted into law. With the Republicans controlling the House, and with some of the members of the relevant authorizing committee not particularly in favor of a major federal role in education, I am not sanguine about the changes of success in these initiatives. Still, I believe the Congressman is to be commended for raising the issues he does, because we need to consider the impact of what is currently happening to our young people, in large part because what we do in educational policy has the effect, intended or otherwise, of perpetuating and even exacerbating the lack of educational equity that has been such an unfortunate part of our heritage.

If nothing else, perhaps these issues can become a part of the conversation. In my mind they should be more significant than the latest round of test scores.

Unfortunately, there is a school of thought that thinks we should spend LESS on public education, that has no trouble with expanding class size - here I note that high scoring Finland committed to keeping class sizes significantly smaller than most American public schools, at a level round 20. One cannot help but wonder about that impact, even if Bill Gates argues that a highly skilled teacher with a larger class is better than two smaller classes one of which has a less skilled teacher. That may be true, but then should not the response be to provide more highly skilled teachers rather than overburdening those we already have? I am going to remember that when today I look out at my three Advanced Placement classes containing respectively 36, 38, and 38!

I intend to remain in contact with the Congressman's office. I may even have a dialog with him. I am committed to helping people understand the issues around education. These are interesting proposals, worthy of full discussion and exploration. I fear that in the current climate they might receive neither. Part of my writing about them is to try to raise their visibility.

Thanks for reading.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Finland Phenomenon - a film on schools

On Thursday night I saw the premiere of "The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System." This is the latest film by Robert Compton, who perhaps best known for "Two Million Minutes."

Let me simply list the key takeaways from the film:
1. Finland does not have high stakes tests
2. Finland worked to develop a national consensus about its public schools
3. Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools.
4. When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves.
5. Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation.
6. Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult.
7. Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day.
8. Finns start school later in life than we do
9. Finnish students do little homework.
10. There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools

The premiere was introduced by the Ambassador of Finland to the US, and followed by a panel discussion. I will provide some comments about the panel discussion, but I want to focus mainly on the takeaways.

The premiere was by invitation only, held in the auditorium of the National Press Club in Washington DC. After he was introduced by Bob Compton, the Ambassador offered a few remarks about the importance of education in Finland. We then saw the film, which was followed by a panel discussion led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. Then came the panel discussion, about which more anon.

Some commentary on the takeaways with which I began.

No high stakes tests - Finland does have one test for college admissions. It does not have high stakes tests for high school graduation. Teachers and schools are not evaluated on the basis of student scores on such tests. And yet when nations are compared on the basis of scores on international tests such as PISA and TIMSS, Finland has been consistently at the top. Keep that in mind. Also understand that absent such tests with high stakes, Finland is not taking instructional time way from meaningful learning in order to prepare students for such tests. That leads to a more efficient use of instructional time for real student learning. There are entrance exams for tertiary education, which are used for student selection. There are no exit exams from high school, and no use of student performance on external exams as part of the evaluation of teachers or schools.

National Consensus - The film points out that Finland is not rich in natural resou��rces, other than timber. They understood the need to develop creativity, to develop the minds of students to be creative people for the economy and the society. Much of what occurs in Finland is derived from this national commitment, which was developed over a number of years, and was very much the process of a bottom-up study rather than imposed from above legislatively or administratively. Here I might not that we do NOT have such a consensus. Insofar as there is a conventional wisdom right now in the US, it is that everyone is supposed to be college/career ready upon graduation from high school, which an increasing emphasis on STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I would also note that the Finns seem to understand the importance of educating the whole child, something that our current focus on STEM seems to ignore

Having made a commitment to its public schools, Finland has few private schools. This of course is not possible in the United States - we have private schools with a history older than the US as an independent nation. That Finland went this route indicates how different our cultures are. Still, it is worth noting because of the emphasis on a common educational approach across the entire nation. It is also worth noting that the Council of State must approve the opening of a new private school, and that school is provided funding on the same basis as the local public schools, cannot charge tuition, and must admit students non-selectively. This makes private schools far less attractive than many in our country, which are deliberately established as elite institutions.

When asked about accountability, Finns point out that they not only do not have tests, they do not have an inspectorate. They find that trusting people leads to them being accountable for themselves. - our emphasis on "accountability" for schools and those that work in them (although for some reason we do not seem willing to apply the same metric to those who almost destroyed our economic system) is often destructive real learning. When those of us who are professional educators try to point this out we have thrown back at us an accusation that we don't want to be accountable. We are accountable, first and foremost to the students before us, in ways that often cannot be measured by the poor quality tests upon which we have been relying. We are accountable to one another, since most of us recognize that we do not teach our students in isolation from the other adults responsible for their education, starting with their families, but including every adult within the school system.

Finland does not have incredibly thick collections of national standards. They have small collections of broadly defined standards, and allow local implementation. - By contrast, our direction in the US has been to cram more and more in, even though it is not possible to meaningfully test all of the mandated content. As a result, in many subjects our approach to education is coverage of material but with superficial understanding. Assessments such as PISA which require a deeper understanding and application of material demonstrate that the emphasis we have been making is not improving real learning, even if the scores on our various state tests may have been going up. Local implementation allows for greater flexibility in meeting the students where they are, rather than being forced to move at an artificial speed to ensure coverage of material that will be assessed by external tests. We use tests to drive instruction to the detriment of real learning, no matter how good the performance on those tests might be.

Qualifying to become a teacher is difficult. We have institutions in the US that take all comers. In Finland, as those paying attention already know, one has to have demonstrated superior academic performance at a post-secondary level in order to be eligible for teacher training. That is the greatest barrier. Then the training is far more extensive, with all teachers expected to earn the equivalent of a masters degree.

Teachers are well trained, well supported, and given time to reflect about what they are doing, including during the school day. - The training and support are part of the preparation and qualification. New teachers do not simply walk into a classroom with responsibility for a full load of teaching. They are inducted gradually, with greater support, more opportunity to learn from experienced teachers. Of equal importance, even after they are experienced, they are expected to cooperate, collaborate, and most of all reflect, and they are given time within the school day. I know as a teacher how valuable it is to have to think about what just happened in a class. That is rare. There are times when I have had 4 classes back to back, covering 3 different preparations. I have 5 minutes between classes, some of which time I have to use for administrative tasks in order to maximize the amount of time available for instruction and learning.

Finns start school later in life than we do. - in Finland schools start at age 7. In the US, 1st grade is normally age 6, but we have near universal Kindergarten at 5, and an increasing emphasis upon preschool even earlier. In someways what we are doing in these earlier programs is contrary to our best understanding of human growth and development, especially as we push elements of academic learning to ever earlier ages. We now obsess on having children reading "on grade level" in third grade, even though many of our young people are not developmentally ready for what we throw at them, and as a result get turned off to reading, a skill that is essential for much of what we later demand of them. I wonder if our approach is not more to provide mass child care to allow parents to earn greater incomes at the same time as providing business and industry with a larger work force that enables them to depress wages. But then, that is my cynical side showing. On this I think we keep children in school for too long - in terms of number of years, even in terms of number of hours. And then we ask even more of them. Which leads to the next immediate takeaway:

Finnish students do little homework. - at the high school level, it might be an average of 30 minutes a night. We insist on so much more, to the point where some of our students are in theory supposedly doing 4-6 hours of homework. Of course they don't do it all, and what they do they often rush through. I want to come back to this point, and not just because I pay attention to what Alfie Kohn offers, and he has been critical of our insistence upon homework for many years.

Finally, There is meaningful technical education in Finnish Schools - that is, it involves real world task with real world people. The Finns do not have our obsession with trying to prepare everyone to be college ready - or as we now phrase it, college or career ready - upon graduation from high school. Too much of our technical education is becoming focused on STEM, and does not recognize the real world skills that can enable one to earn a good living with other skills. I have written about this in the past, which is perhaps why this part of the film caught my attention.

What also caught my attention was seeing students work in groups to solve real world problems. It was finding out that they have much more freedom in choosing the projects they do to demonstrate competence. I will also return to this point.

Homework - Let me focus on my Advanced Placement class. It is supposed to be a college level class in American Government and politics. It meets 45 minutes a day for the entire year. While we have in theory 180 instructional days, the AP test is in early May, which cuts the time for instruction before that to around 150, although it is less with mandated testing, assemblies, shortened periods due to weather or administrative functions. If it met for 45 minutes for 5 periods a week, that would be 225 minutes. A college class that meets 3 times a week does so for 150 minutes. We are already devoting more instructional time than students would have in college. Of course, in college I would expect students to do 2 hours of work for each hour of class. That would be a total of 450 minutes between instruction and independent work. To equal that, students would be doing 45 minutes a night for my class outside of school, right? Except consider this: in college a full load of classes is usually 4, occasionally only 3. In our school students take 7 courses, occasionally 8. A similar commitment of outside time is simply not possible.

Of course, related to this is our increasing emphasis on AP courses. We have students who as high school juniors are taking 6 such courses. That is 1.5 times the class load of a college student, when they are not yet in college. That concerns me. It concerns me that they do not have time to reflect about what they are learning.

In the film we discover that older high school students in Finland often take only 3 or 4 courses at a time. That seems so much more sensible. We could do that with course that met for two periods for half a year, except what we do with AP makes that impossible - if you do it in 1st semester, the students are not in the course at the time of the AP exam, and if you do it in 2nd semester, the amount of time before the AP exam - or for non-AP courses any external state exams - means you have less instructional time than you would in first semester.

Let me turn briefly to the panel discussion. It was led by led by Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard U, who is the narrator of and featured in the film. It included Annmarie Neal, Chief Talent Officer from Cisco Systems; Gene Wilhoit, Executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; John Wilson, Executive Director of the National Education Association; and Tom Friedman, author and columnist for the New York Times. I am going to ignore most of what Friedman said, other than to note that he seemed to want to prove that he was cleverer than anyone else and that he could coin the most memorable phrases. I got little of value from his remarks. Wilhoit and Wilson spoke at times bluntly, both representing the point of view of the organizations they direct. There was actually a fair amount of agreement.

It was the remarks of MS Neal that caught my attention. She was very impressed by what she saw of students staying 26 hours in a school working together on a common project within broad outlines to come up with a real world solution. She related that to how Cisco puts groups of people together to brainstorm future business endeavors. And she related it to one of her real passions, which is Montessori education - she is a mom as well as a high-ranking business executive. In the Montessori approach one key emphasis is on the interest of the student. The role of the teacher is far less "sage on the stage" than it is of facilitator and to some degree of co-learner with the students. The kinds of people she is seeking for Cisco are far better prepared by that kind of approach that by the kinds of instruction far too common in our schools.

Further, even though she works for a technology company, and needs engineers, she values the learning how to think that is a product of a liberal arts education. She expressed some concern that our focus on STEM is too narrow.

I had a chance to chat with MS Neal briefly afterward, and she repeated those points. Remember her title - "Chief Talent Officer." She goes all over the world seeking out the best people for one of the more productive high tech companies in the US. I told her that her approach reminded me of something I had encountered when I worked in a data processing placement company many years ago. The old Philadelphia Railroad did not want mathematicians to train as computer programmers, it wanted musicians. I also noted that the 2nd best orchestra in the Boston area has traditionally not been found at Harvard or the New England Conservatory, but at MIT.

There are things we can learn from Finland, as the film makes clear. It is not that we can simply transfer their approach to the US. If nothing else, we by now should have learned that taking a model out of its context and imposing it in a different situation often leads to failure, as many of our attempts at whole school reform demonstrated in the past couple of decades.

What we can learn is that the direction we are going with our national policy on education is diametrically opposed to what Finland did to totally reform their educational system over a period of several decades. The Finns began in the 1970s. Our current round of reforms can arguably be dated to A Nation at Risk in 1983. While the Finns have made major improvements in their public education, we have perhaps not even tread water for too many of our students.

We do have some superb public schools. We also have inequitable distribution of resources, and not just within schools. We lack a consistency of approach on how we are going to address our problems. We attempt to do much of what we do from the top down, whereas much of what happened successfully in Finland was because of a deliberate decision to do as much as possible from the bottom up.

There are other things I could note. All students in primary and secondary schools get free meals. Students grow up learning Swedish and English as well as Finnish. There is health care in the schools. Oh yes, Finland's teaching force is 100% unionized. Administrators function in support of teachers, not in opposition.

Some of this I knew before seeing the film. Not all of it is addressed in the film, nor was it addressed in the panel discussion.

Can we learn from Finland? I believe we can. Too often Americans seem to want to ignore what we can take from other nations. Yet there is much we have already taken from other nations in education. After all, the original concept of kindergarten was German, as the name itself demonstrates (too bad that it is decreasingly a garden and much more of a regimen). We have in some places learned what Maria Montessori developed. It might be helpful for those wanting to understand what is possible in educating young children to also examine Reggio Emelia - I note that when I have asked some major politicians who are often considered committed to education what they know about the last, I have yet to find anyone who has any knowledge beyond perhaps having heard the name. Of course, the same is unfortunately true of most in the media who write about education and schools. Few politicians or education journalists are familiar either with Simpson's paradox or Campbell's Law, both of which are basic to truly understand much of the data upon which we are now basing major policy decisions.

If I could offer one overall sense of what I derived from seeing the film, it was this - education in Finland is much more conducive to producing the citizenry necessary for the sustaining of a democratic government than what we are currently doing in the United States.

That does not mean we should copy the Finns. In many ways we cannot. it is not merely that they have less than 6 million people, have far less poverty or economic disparity than we do. There are major cultural differences that can require differences in approach.

But surely we can learn from them.

Surely we can learn the importance of giving students the opportunity to explore their own interests.

Perhaps we can learn from them that excellence in education can be achieved without mandating sameness from the top down, with no need for a punitive approach based on a test-based accountability system.

We should learn from them the importance of properly selecting and preparing teachers. Yet for all our verbiage on the importance of teachers, somehow the policies we implement seem to work contrary to that stated goal.

Is what Finland has accomplished really all that surprising? It shouldn't be. That the word "surprising" is part of the title of the film speaks more to what is wrong in our approach to education than it does to what is outstanding in Finland.

Thursday night I saw the film, I talked with some people from the panel both before and after seeing it. I talked with the producer both before and after viewing it.

I pondered until Saturday morning, when i began drafting this piece, to which i returned several times, finally finishing it in mid-evening.

Were I to see the film again, I might have different takeaways.

I offer this as a starting point, to let you know about it, and about my experience on Thursday.

If you are interested in education and have a chance to see the film, I suggest you do. I found it worth the time spent viewing it.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An incredibly important piece on teaching and education

Sometimes one encounters something that needs no commentary from me - it is complete in itself. I want to share something like that about teaching and education.

People who follow the blog Valerie Strauss runs at the Washington Post, the Answer Sheet, experienced that. Valerie often cross-posts things written elsewhere. Occasionally she posts something written directly for her. This morning she posted a piece by Linda Darling-Hammond, who is Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University and was Founding Director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Linda - who is a friend - now directs the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

When I read it I asked for - and received - Linda's permission to crosspost it here and at some other sites to give it more visibility. Let me offer just a few words of introduction, then let Linda's words speak without further commentary from me.

Linda Darling-Hammond is one of the most important figures researching and writing about education. I ahve written about her work before, most notably this review of her book The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future

Linda Darling-Hammond was a close adviser on education to then Senator Obama during his presidential campaign. Many of my compatriots had hoped she would be named Secretary of Education. But she had published some research which made people associated with Teach for America unhappy, and there was organized pushback against her. I suspect that some from my perspective on educational issues would be far happier to have seen her at the Department rather than Arne Duncan.

So be it. Darling-Hammond remains an important voice on issue of education. The piece you are about to read should speak for itself.

Please read it carefully.

And I thank you in advance for doing so, and ask that you also make sure it gets widely distributed.


The first ever International Summit on Teaching, convened last week in New York City, showed perhaps more clearly than ever that the United States has been pursuing an approach to teaching almost diametrically opposed to that pursued by the highest-achieving nations.

In a statement rarely heard these days in the United States, the Finnish Minister of Education launched the first session of last week’s with the words: “We are very proud of our teachers.” Her statement was so appreciative of teachers’ knowledge, skills, and commitment that one of the U.S. participants later confessed that he thought she was the teacher union president, who, it turned out, was sitting beside her agreeing with her account of their jointly-constructed profession.

There were many “firsts” in this remarkable Summit. It was the first time the United States invited other nations to our shores to learn from them about how to improve schools, taking a first step beyond the parochialism that has held us back while others have surged ahead educationally.

It was the first time that government officials and union leaders from 16 nations met together in candid conversations that found substantial consensus about how to create a well-prepared and accountable teaching profession.
And it was, perhaps, the first time that the growing de-professionalization of teaching in America was recognized as out of step with the strategies pursued by the world’s educational leaders.

Evidence presented at the Summit showed that, with dwindling supports, most teachers in the U.S must go into debt in order to prepare for an occupation that pays them, on average, 60% of the salaries earned by other college graduates. Those who work in poor districts will not only earn less than their colleagues in wealthy schools, but they will pay for many of their students’ books and supplies themselve

And with states’ willingness to lower standards rather than raise salaries for the teachers of the poor, a growing number of recruits enter with little prior training, trying to learn on-the-job with the uneven mentoring provided by cash-strapped districts. It is no wonder that a third of U.S. beginners leave within the first five years, and those with the least training leave at more than twice the rate of those who are well-prepared.

Those who stay are likely to work in egg-crate classrooms with few opportunities to collaborate with one another. In many districts, they will have little more than “drive-by” workshops for professional development , and – if they can find good learning opportunities, they will pay for most of it out of their own pockets. Meanwhile, some policymakers argue that we should eliminate requirements for teacher training, stop paying teachers for gaining more education, let anyone enter teaching, and fire those later who fail to raise student test scores. And efforts like those in Wisconsin to eliminate collective bargaining create the prospect that salaries and working conditions will sink even lower, making teaching an unattractive career for anyone with other professional options.

The contrasts to the American attitude toward teachers and teaching could not have been more stark. Officials from countries like Finland and Singapore described how they have built a high-performing teaching profession by enabling all of their teachers to enter high-quality preparation programs, generally at the masters’ degree level, where they receive a salary while they prepare. There they learn research-based teaching strategies and train with experts in model schools attached to their universities. They enter a well-paid profession – in Singapore earning as much as beginning doctors -- where they are supported by mentor teachers and have 15 or more hours a week to work and learn together – engaging in shared planning, action research, lesson study, and observations in each other’s classrooms. And they work in schools that are equitably funded and well-resourced with the latest technology and materials.

In Singapore, based on their talents and interests, many teachers are encouraged to pursue career ladders to become master teachers, curriculum specialists, and principals, expanding their opportunities and their earnings with still more training paid for by the government. Teacher union members in these countries talked about how they work closely with their governments to further enrich teachers’ and school leaders’ learning opportunities and to strengthen their skills.

In these Summit discussions, there was no teacher-bashing, no discussion of removing collective bargaining rights, no proposals for reducing preparation for teaching, no discussion of closing schools or firing bad teachers, and no proposals for ranking teachers based on their students’ test scores. The Singaporean Minister explicitly noted that his country’s well-developed teacher evaluation system does not “digitally rank or calibrate teachers,” and focuses instead on how well teachers develop the whole child and contribute to each others’ efforts and to the welfare of the whole school.
Perhaps most stunning was the detailed statement of the Chinese Minister of Education who described how – in the poor states which lag behind the star provinces of Hong Kong and Shanghai – billions of yuen are being spent on a fast-paced plan to improve millions of teachers’ preparation and professional development, salaries, working conditions and living conditions (including building special teachers’ housing) The initial efforts to improve teachers’ knowledge and skills and stem attrition are being rapidly scaled up as their success is proved.

How poignant for Americans to listen to this account while nearly every successful program developed to support teachers’ learning in the United States is proposed for termination by the Administration or the Congress: Among these, the TEACH Grants that subsidize preparation for those who will teach in high-need schools; the Teacher Quality Partnership grants that support innovative pre-service programs in high-need communities; the National Writing Project and the Striving Readers programs that have supported professional development for the teaching of reading and writing all across the country, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which certifies accomplished teachers and provides what teachers have long called some of the most powerful professional development they ever experience in their careers.

These small programs total less than $1 billion dollars annually, the cost of half a week in Afghanistan. They are not nearly enough to constitute a national policy; yet they are among the few supports America now provides to improve the quality of teaching.
Clearly, another first is called for if we are ever to regain our educational standing in the world: A first step toward finally taking teaching seriously in America. Will our leaders be willing to take that step? Or will we devolve into a third class power because we have neglected our most important resource for creating a first-class system of education?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I am a proud union member


I stand with my unionized sisters and brothers, especially in Wisconsin, but everywhere where teachers and unions are under attack.

I am the lead union representative for more than 100 teachers in my school.

Today, all across the country, teachers are blogging their support for our unionized sisters and brothers in Wisconsin, and you can follow some of the results of that at EDUSolidarity

Today I want to tell you why I am proud to be a union member as well as a teacher.

I teach my students one period a day. We have 9, since some students take a zero period at 7:15 in the morning to squeeze in an extra course. Most of my students are sophomores, with at least 6 courses besides mine. I am only one of those responsible for helping them learn.

For me teaching is a collaborative effort. It includes not only those of us formally designated as educators, but all of the support staff as well.

Why are teachers unionized? Why do we insist on seniority being a major part of decision making about who stays and who goes?

Let's go back. Why are any workers unionized? Because without cooperation, without the support of a union, an individual worker is at a huge disadvantage in negotiating with an employer - that applies to working conditions, to compensation, to benefits. As an individual, one is negotiating from a position of weakness. As part of a larger group, there is more leverage, and thus less capriciousness and even maliciousness in how those in positions of authority can deal with one who lacks the protection of a union.

Nowadays we hear all kinds of statements about how seniority is keeping bad teachers and forcing good teachers out. Baloney. As a union rep I have helped move out bad teachers, teachers who were not good for the students. I ensured it was done fairly, that they had due process. That protects me and all the other teachers.

How do we determine an "effective" teacher anyhow? If we make it all about test scores we will cheat the students of a real education.

That's not the real issue. That is the rhetorical cover to replace more experienced teachers with noobies, largely over money. That's right. Over money.

Put all the pieces together.

We have Bill Gates saying that teachers don't really improve after their 3rd year. He says that additional degrees don't benefit the students by improving the teaching. Oh, and he wants to stop paying for years of service.

My base pay is twice that of a beginning teacher. Absent protections of seniority, how hard would it be for an administrator pushed financially to find an occasion to find me, and other more experienced teachers, less than effective so that s/he could replace me with two bodies, thereby saving money on the budget.

The workman of any kind is worthy of his hire. Some apparently don't believe that. They opposed raising the minimum wage, which is still far below what one needs to live. They want to pay less than minimum for teen-aged part-time workers.

If the mentality is only about saving upfront costs, then we may be penny wise and very pound foolish. In engineering, whether a nuclear reactor near Sendai or levees near New Orleans, failure to put enough resources in up front can lead to catastrophic failure.

The unwillingness to pay for the experience and quality of senior teachers leads to a constant turnover of younger, inexperienced teachers who are still trying to learn how to teach. While there may not be a catastrophe of the magnitude of Katrina, the loss of learning opportunities for our students is often irrecoverable.

I want to quote a dear friend, with her permission. Renee Moore is one of the most distinguished educators in the US. She is a former Mississippi State Teacher of the Year. She has sat on the boards of a number of key organizations, including the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is a superb writer and speaker about education. She recently included the following words in an email a number of us received:
The seniority system was put in place in an attempt to end capricious, retaliatory firings and various shades of nepotism. Given the current status of our evaluation system, if administrators are going to use "keeping the most effective teachers" as justification for who goes and who stays, teachers and parents should unite to demand they be very transparent.

capricious - what did the principal have for lunch, or who from the Central office yelled at him today

retaliatory - Speak up, point out that this latest educational emperor is naked, and one might well be dismissed. Or if not dismissed, experience a retaliatory transfer, as happened to an outspoken teacher in DC who criticized the wrong-doings of one of Michelle Rhee's hand-picked principals. Even Jay Mathews, in general a supporter of Rhee, criticized her on this.

nepotism - too many people forget when school boards would hire people who were related to them by blood or political affiliation even if they were unqualified. Absent protections, qualified people would be forced out for the nephews and the political contributors.

Due Process - and transparency - things that unions can demand on behalf of their members, that individual teachers cannot.

On Thursday I have been invited to the premier of a film. It is titled “The Finland Phenomenon: Inside the World’s Most Surprising School System” and the viewing will be introduced by the Ambassador of Finland. 25 Years ago Finland did not do well on international comparisons. Now their schools are acknowledged as among the very best in the world. They take time to train their teachers, insisting on the equivalent of a masters degree. Oh, and their teaching corps is 100% unionized.

The current highest scoring state is Massachusetts. As my friend Diane Ravitch points out, it also has a unionized teaching corps.

Some want to take away collective bargaining rights completely. Others want to limit the rights severely, excluding working conditions and issue of assignments. These steps would deprofessionalize teaching, and then allow opponents to further demean those who teach, and justify further slashing their compensation and benefits.

My periods are 45 minutes each. For some of my students, that 3/4 of an hour is more time than they spend with their parents each day. Do you want that 45 minutes to be with a trained, caring adult, who is not constantly fretting over how to pay basic bills? Do you want the teacher able to concentrate on the task of teaching our young people, or do you want to force her to take a second job in order to make ends meet?

Teaching should be an honorable profession. For all the rhetoric that some offer about great teachers and the importance of teachers, their actions with respect to policy provide those paying attention a very different picture. They claim it is important to hold teachers "accountable" in many cases for things they do not fully control, but scream bloody murder at accountability for the criminal offenses of the financial sector that have helped create the financial crises that are being used as justification for attacking the unions and the benefits and the compensation of public employees, including teachers. They rant about bad teachers having tenure but say nothing about promoting generals who violate international and US law in their treatment of those detained under their custody. They want to examine everything about teachers to try to find an excuse to bash them further, to delegitimize them, but God forbid there be an honest investigation of the wrongdoings and dishonesties that involved us in conflicts abroad that by the time they are done will, according to Nobel winning economist Joe Stiglitz, cost this nation at least 2 TRILLION - maybe even 3 TRILLION - dollars.

We shift wealth to the already wealthy, who then balk at paying for public services, perhaps because they have become so wealthy and powerful they have the ability to purchase whatever they need - including the occasional judges, senators, congressmen and governors. And more. But teachers are greedy because we want to keep the pensions to which we agreed as a form of deferred compensation, for our willingness to be paid less than people with comparable educational background.

I am a teacher. I am by choice. I came to it late, but it is what I should do.

I am willing to make some sacrifices. We do not have children of our own, in part because I could not commit myself to teaching as I do with the attention I give my students, were I to have the responsibilities of a caring parent. I make less than I did when I worked with computers, and my hours are far longer.

Yet now some would want you to believe that my experience is not worth more compensation, that I should not be paid for the additional professional education I obtained AT MY OWN EXPENSE, and would be happy to see me replaced by two brand new teachers, in some cases with only 5 weeks of training and who are not committed to stay beyond two years, a period at the end of which they MIGHT be becoming good teachers.

I have worked in Maryland, which is unionized in its schools, and in Virginia, which as a right to work state BANS collective bargaining by public employees, although Arlington, where I live and for one year taught, sort of gets around that. Which might be why they maintain a strong teaching force, without that much turnover. Which increases my real estate taxes because the good schools are something that draws families, along with our closeness to DC and the superb access to public transportation. My taxes go up because the value of my home goes up. The schools are a large part of that.

What is happening in Wisconsin and other states, if it goes unchecked, will destroy much of value in this country. It will start with schools, already a target. It will affect other public service employees. It will bleed into the private sector as well, depressing wages for everyone, and exacerbating the increasing economic inequity in this nation.

I am a union rep because I understand this, because I can speak - and write - to it.

I am a union rep because my fellow teachers trust me to keep them informed, to make sure their interests are represented fairly, both within the building and within the very large (over 130,000 students) school district.

I stand with my sisters and brothers in Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Florida, in Michigan, in all the places they are under attack.

Today many of us are speaking out. We are writing. We are wearing red.

Today we express our solidarity.

It is not YET too late to take back our country, to save our public institutions, and thereby save the middle class.

Not YET. But time is running out.

Stand with us.

Make a difference.

And remember, if you could read this, thank a teacher.

Solidarity! The only true form of Peace.

PS to read more posts on this theme, please go to EDUSolidarity