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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What's Worth Teaching

this is a cross-posting of a review of this book. The review original appeared at Education Review

Marion Brady is a retired educator. He has taught in K-12 and at the university level. He has written columns for Knight-Ridder Newspapers and guest-blogs for the Washington Post. He has authored textbooks. He wants to change American education far more radically than do those normally identified as “reformers.”

This new book is the culmination of many years of thought and work. In it, Brady focuses on what he believes is key to reforming our educational institutions, and that is the construction of our curricula. As he has done for many years, he reminds us that the current framework of school curricula into four main domains of Language, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies is a product of the Committee of Ten in 1892, of which he notes
The curriculum now in near-universal use in America’s classrooms was poor when it was adopted, and has become more dysfunctional with each passing year. About the only thing it has going for it is familiarity and the comforts of ritual. It’s accepted not because it’s good, but because, like most rituals, it’s unexamined. Its problems are myriad and serious. (p. 5)

In the opening chapter, from which those words are taken, Brady identifies six specific problems and then offers what he considers the biggest problem of all. The six are, in order of appearance, criticisms of the “traditional curriculum because it
1. has no Agreed-upon overarching aim
2. disregards the brain’s need for order and organization
3. fails to exploit the teaching potential of the real, everyday world
4. lacks criteria for determining what new knowledge to teach, and what old knowledge
to discard to make room for the new
5. ignores important fields of knowledge
6. fails to capitalize on human variability

For each of these Brady provides illustrations, before coming to what he considers the most serious issue he can identify:
One problem, however, stands above all the rest in seriousness - the familiar curriculum’s failure to model the fundamental nature of knowledge. In the real world, the world an education is supposed to help learners understand, everything relates to everything. It’s a systematically-integrated whole, the parts of which are mutually supportive. The curriculum should model that whole, should help learners discover or create a corresponding conceptual framework or structure of knowledge, and it doesn’t. Instead, it breaks reality into myriad small pieces and studies each piece in isolation, with hardly a hint either of how the individual pieces related to each other or how they fit together. (p. 11)

By now you should have a clear sense of Brady’s intention. He wants to present an entirely different way of thinking about and organizing instruction, by rethinking and redesigning how we do curriculum, for it is the curriculum that should determine what is taught and how we teach it.

Perhaps a key to understanding Brady’s approach to how we should organized curriculum can be found in one sentence at the beginning of Part Two, which is titled “A Solution.” On Page 15 we encounter the following:
We take our systems of organizing for granted, but it’s no exaggeration to say that systems of organization make civilization possible.

It is not that we do not have a system of organization currently. Brady acknowledges that we do, but argues that it is dysfunctional, based on the outline of learning established in the 1890s by the Committee of Ten that approaches knowledge in a fragmented fashion, and which does not match how we naturally organize material in our brains. One can best grasp Brady’s thrust from two paragraphs (separated by one omitted sentence represented by the ellipsis) found on page 19:
Systems are what learners must understand, and that understanding comes from learners themselves investigating many different systems, looking for general principles. This requires (1) noting significant parts of the system being studied, (2) identifying important relationships among those parts, (3) deciding what forces are making the systems operate, (4) noting the interactions between the system and its environment, and (5) tracking changes to the system over time. . . .

If learners apply these five general analytical categories, over and over, to systems of all sorts, the categories will give them a mental framework - a way of organizing what is learned. That framework will, of course, be enhanced by the addition of appropriate analytical sub-categories expanding the learner’s mental “filing system.”

Brady argues that the most important systems to study and learn are those that involve people as the main components. He suggest phrasing the elements of this systems architecture as being based on Something and defined by Time, Where in Space, Actor(s), Action, and Cause and the to Integrate. If one examines those five key elements, it should be reminiscent of basic journalism, albeit in a different order than the traditional presentation. Brady clear acknowledges this:
As most readers will already have noted, the Model is just an elaborated version of what middle school newspaper staffs are told by their supervisors in their first meeting, that a proper news story include the relevant information about who, what, when, where, and why. (p. 27)

Only ultimately Brady’s model is a bit more complex, containing six elements. He chooses to phrase it as Time, Environment, Actors, Action, Shared Ideas, and Relationships, the last being part of how we apply what we learn from using the model to expand and deepen our understanding. Part II consists of an elaboration of this model, illustrated using several different examples from material students might learn in school, and amply supported by graphic representation. In a sense this is the heart of the book, as Brady tries to demonstrate how broadly applicable his model is. He explores how humans tends to explain, noting reliance upon either physical causes or human action, and our tendency to ignore the impact of anything we cannot fit into those two causes. He uses this as an illustration of shared ideas, a topic heavily explored in the section, which of course shapes our understanding of the world in which we live.

This extensive section, pp. 15-70, is followed by a briefer third part in which Brady explores The Model and the Traditional Curriculum. He begins by noting limitations of the traditional approach, and then offers a few comments about possible uses of the Model within the current structure of curriculum. Thus we will see its application in History, The Social Sciences, The Humanities, Language, The Natural Sciences, and Mathematics. He also addresses what he calls Special Classes, such as teaching non-native students.

After this exploration of the application of the Model within the various disciplines encountered in school, Brady devotes some time to discussing its limitations. Two often we are presented ways of thinking and organizing - and teaching - that are too rigid. Brady offers this caution:
Although new models of the real world liberate and expand thinking, they also eventually begin to have negative effects. What begins as a way of modeling reality in order to make it intellectually manageable tends to increasingly become the way of doing so. Instead of checking our models against reality to see how they should be changed to make them more accurate, we tend to accept only information that fits with or reinforces the one we’ve come to find comfortable and useful. The longer we use a particular model, the harder it becomes to change or discard it. (pp 87-88)

For Brady, these words not only serve as recognition that if applied his model may need to be adjusted over time as it is applied. It is also implicitly a criticism of our continuing to rely upon a model of thinking more than a century old he thinks serves us poorly. He does not want to make the same mistake in his approach, even as he strongly argues that his model is much more usable, relates to how we tend to organize naturally, and thus can improve our learning far beyond what is too often the learning of facts and concepts too much isolated and unconnected to the real world.

The third section covers 18 pages. The fourth and final section, Notes on Teaching, is only 16, from 89 to 104. In it Brady offers some broader thoughts about schools in general. He tells us that he began playing with these ideas more than four decades ago. He offers some anecdotes from his own experience. He strongly criticizes common aspects of what students encounter in schools. For example, under Roles he begins
One of the messages transmitted by the arrangement of the typical classroom is that the teacher is an expert on the subject at hand and her or his role is to distribute information. (p. 92)

Similarly, under TEXTBOOKS we read
To suggest that traditional textbooks are a major, perhaps the major obstacle to the achievement of educational excellence will seem to many to be nothing less than heresy. (p. 97)

Brady criticizes much of what we see in education as Theory T - that the purpose of instruction is the transfer of information from those designated as knowledgeable - teachers, creators of textbooks, curriculum and standards writers - to the captive audience of students. This implies a particular understanding of the purpose of school and how and what is to be learned. While Brady does not reference it, readers might see this as parallel to the banking model so heavily criticized by Paolo Freire.

Against this Brady offers what he calls Theory R, one of relationship. He argues that much of what we learned and remember
... we learned on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships - new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganized, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge. (p. 104)

I think it fair to say that what Brady is attempting to do with his model is to formalize how students learn naturally. He wants us to understand that the paradigm for how our schools and our learning is currently organized is outmoded - that is, if in fact it ever served a useful purpose. He believes strongly, as one involved with education for more than 6 decades, that we ill-serve our students and our society by remaining tied to a paradigm that does not support - and may hinder - real learning and understanding, that is contrary to how our minds work naturally.

Brady is explicitly critical of the current approaches to ‘reform’ that dominate our educational policy discussions. He things we need a radically different approach.

Like Brady was, I am a social studies teacher. Much of what he offers makes sense, based on my far shorter (16 years) tenure as a professional educator. I have seen bits and pieces of what he suggests in approaches such as History Alive! I have seen teachers do part of what he suggests. Where possible, I have implemented some similar approaches in my own pedagogy, which may be why when I first got to know Brady and his work almost a decade ago I found myself drawn to his approach.

Drawn to it, but not completely convinced. Given my druthers, I would completely redesign our entire public education system. I simply do not see that happening. Like Brady, I am highly critical of much of the thrust of our current efforts at “reform.” Yet absent a broader reform of our society on many levels, the best we seem able to do is to try to ameliorate the worst effects of that ‘reform.”

Nevertheless, I think this book is quite useful. It may not be possible to totally restructure our schools and our curriculum, but even within the current structure it is possible for schools, individual departments, individual teachers, to take what Brady offers and make major modifications to how they organize learning, to how they teach. In fact, many of our best teachers already do this. It is one of the stressors of being an educator that we are bound by rules and structures imposed from above and outside by people who do not fully understand either learning or teaching, we must seem to be abiding by them, yet our real fealty is to our students and to our discipline. I think it is possible for individual teachers to implement much of what Brady offers.

Would it be possible to totally redesign public education along the lines of his model? In theory, yes, although I do not see it happening. Perhaps we will see some private schools, or some charter schools, as well as the occasionally very brave individual school attempt to follow what Brady suggests. The problem is this - so long as those in public schools are going to be measured by the kinds of tests and measure we currently use - something that will not be changed that much by the efforts of the two multi-state consortia now underway - the validity of Brady’s approach will not be fairly assessed. Those who try it run the risk of being found “wanting” by how we currently assess learning, even if in the long run students participating in such an approach will be far better educated in the best sense of that word.

I said I was not convinced. I am not convinced it is possible to do as it needs to be done.

I am convinced that there is much wisdom and insight in what Brady has presented.

Those thinking about how to make what happens in our schools connect more effectively with our students will find this book useful for expanding their thinking, even if they decide they cannot fully implement all Brady suggests.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Influence of Teachers

Teachers can never declare "Missions Accomplished," because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and girls (and men and women) who come into their lives . . . . the teacher's job is to help students build a self, to create the entity that will be constant company for life. That's why the best teachers listen to students and draw out their thinking, but don't try to solve every problem. That's why the best teachers empathize and care deeply about students as individuals, but never lower standards or expectations.

The words above appear on p. 21 of a new book by John Merrow, who is probably best known as the correspondent on education for The PBS News Hour. The full title of the book is The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership. Merrow comes to this book with more than four decades of commitment to and interest in education: when he could not serve in the Peace Corp for physical reasons, he spent two years teaching high school, later taught at a traditional black college in Virginia while teaching evenings in the local penitentiary. Along the way he obtained a doctorate in education from Harvard and has served on the board of Teachers College Columbia, He has covered education for PBS and NPR since 1974.

As a teacher and as one involved in education I found the book well worth the time spent reading and pondering it. I invite you to explore it with me further.

Merrow, who is devoting all proceed of this book to Learning Matters, the production company he heads which actually published the book. Learning Matters was founded in 1995, and is an independent, non-profit, 501(c)(3) production company focused on education.

The book begins with a brief preface titled "Fighting the Last War," which is followed by the preface. The bulk of the book is in two main sections. The first, Follow the Teacher, has 8 chapters including such subjects as evaluation, pay, training, retention, recruitment, and tenure. The second, Follow the Leader, has six chapters focusing on issues beyond the scope of individual teachers, such as Charter Schools, school safety, the revolving door of school and system leadership, and turnaround specialists. This examination is important because how a teacher functions is often a product of forces beyond her control, such as the context in which she teaches.

Merrow ends with a brief conclusion, about which I will offer more later, but which I will note now was for me the heart of the book.

Teaching is, and should be, a reflective process. In that sense this book is the product of a teacher's mind, even if Merrow has not himself for many years been a classroom teacher. He, and the members of his production team, have spent countless hours in schools and in classrooms, observing, filming, talking with adults but also talking with children.

Much of the material in this book has appeared previously, and has been reworked to provide a more coherent overall approach. Teachers often recycle and rework material from one lesson into another: for one thing, we do not have enough time to create every lesson anew, for another, we are learning what works and what needs to be modified, and finally, what we should do should reflect our learning from our students. In that sense, what Merrow is doing in this book is functioning as a teacher, with his tv audience and his readers being the students in his classroom. Thus even though some of the material is not new, it is reexamined and represented in light of the overall goal of the slim but effective volume.

In the preface, Fighting the Last War, Merrow presents three historical purposes of school: providing access to knowledge, socialization, and custodial care. He argues that much of the first two now occurs outside of or independently of what goes on in schools, and if custodial care is all that remains - and if technology is not made available equitably to all, we will continue to see students walk away from schools, leading to an annual drop-out rate of more than a million. He argues that many of the battles on education policy is that adults are fighting old wars and ignoring the real needs of the young people in their care. The two paragraphs that end this preface are important, because they help the reader understand how Merrow has, over time, come to view his role as an education correspondent, so allow me to quote them completely from page 8:
Our young people should be learning how to deal with the flood of information that surrounds them. They need guidance separating wheat from chaff. They need help formulating questions, and they need to develop the habit of seeking answers, not regurgitating them. They should be going to schools where they are expected and encouraged to discover, build, and cooperate.
Instead, most of them endure what I call "regurgitation education" and are stuck in institutions that expect them to memorize the periodic table, the names of 50 state capitals and the major rivers of the United States.

There are two additional points I think are necessary to understanding Merrow. First, he tries to let people speak for themselves. Whether he agrees or disagrees, he offers extensive observations of and words from the people we encounter. Usually he will allow diverse points of view to dialog with one another. That does not mean he does not offer an opinion. He does, often forcefully. But he allows the reader to process the materially independently before offering his own thoughts. That strikes me as the approach of an effective and caring teacher who does not attempt to impose upon his students his own opinion, but also does not pretend to be without a point of view. That allows the freedom for continued conversation and disagreement.

The second is simply this, in words printed in bold on a page by themselves, before the book begins:

Dedicated to outstanding teachers everywhere

As Merrow notes at the end of the introduction, the material on "Follow the Teacher" is "generally optimistic in tone and content." That is because he wants to trust the dedication of those committed to the teaching profession. Thus one perhaps should view the book in that light - the reflection of someone who wants to help those dedicated to the learning of our young people, who offers the observations of a lifetime of covering education, of trying to help those outside of the school context understand the issues that confront those working to further the learning of our young people, be they teachers, administrators, or policy makers.

Merrow tries to be as sympathetic as possible to those about whom he writes, but is not afraid to criticize them when he thinks they are wrong. Thus even though he thinks highly of the commitment of someone like Paul Vallas, who has run school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, when that gentleman tries to justify why some of the charters in New Orleans are able to cherry pick students and avoid the harder to educate, Merrow writes bluntly, and includes the words of a parent advocate who is opposed to what Vallas is doing:
Vallas is splitting hairs here, because a parent is entitled by law to enroll a child at the school of his or her choice and the school is then obligated to provide the necessary services. Is that blatant discrimination? Parent advocate Karran Harper Royal doesn't mince words: "That's discrimination. You can dress it up however you'd like, but it's really discrimination." (p. 129)

Some who are in what they have claimed is the reform camp will be unhappy with criticisms like this. Similarly, those opposed to many of the reforms will find Merrow's positive words about people like Vallas - and Michelle Rhee, another person he extensively covered - more than irritating. Yet they should read more carefully than merely reacting to Rhee's name. Merrow offers the criticisms of others, such as the union president in DC, George Parker, who pointed out that if you find half your staff deficient perhaps you have a responsibility to offer assistance to overcome that deficiency. Merrow also notes that principals with ineffective teachers already had an effective procedure to remove them before Rhee took over the schools, had they only followed it.

I do not agree with all that Merrow writes. For example, he credits Rhee with changing the frame about how teachers are paid, writing on p. 132 "Largely because of her, it's no longer possible to argue convincingly that teachers, whether effective or not, should be paid based on their years on the job and graduate credits earned. Largely because of her, it's impossible not to recognize the absurdity of the current system." And yet, there were efforts well before Rhee's tenure in DC to reexamine the structure of teacher compensation, but that discussion is not yet fully defined. This is an ongoing discussion, one not yet fully defined. It might more accurate to say compensating teachers SOLELY on degrees and experience is no longer acceptable, both continuing education and experience may well be part of how teacher compensation is redefined. That is an ongoing discussion, one not as narrowly constricted as the words I just quoted might suggest.

As I look through my markings and marginal notes, I find places I agree and places I disagree. The book often made me stop and think, and I would suggest that is a major part of Merrow's intent. In the section on teaching I found far more that I agreed with. For example, Merrow is blunt that it is time to stop fighting the reading wars, that students do not need more drills in decoding. In an examination of the coverage he did of Teach for America teachers, he notes criticisms by others about the emphasis on control before noting simply (p. 34) "Control was not an issue, ever. It never is when kids are engaged." He admires the dedication and idealism of TFA teachers, but responds to his own question of what's not to like with these words:
Well, to be honest, sometimes their teaching is not to like. After all, they are first-year teachers who have had just five or six weeks of summer training and a short orientation in their assigned cities. They make all sorts of rookie mistakes. Occasionally I recognized in them that smug attitude I once exhibited towards veterans. (p. 34)

Regardless of how one reacts as one reads through the bulk of the book, I urge continuing to the end, to the conclusions. In four and half pages Merrow really brings it all together. This is the real reflection, and it is where he challenges much of our discussion about education. Since this is a book on teaching, one paragraph on the first page (177) of the Conclusion is worth noting, since it frames the rest of his discussion:
That's the dilemma, and the ongoing battle: Are mediocre teachers the heart of education's problems? Or is it the job itself, with its low pay and even lower prestige? Those two very different analyses of education's problems are competing for domination, and whoever gets to define the problem is likely to control education policy for many years.
So far, the so-called 'reformers" have dominated the discussion, because they have dominated the framing, and the media has largely gone along with them. As a teacher and a writer, I often find myself frustrated in attempting to get a differing point of view even considered.

Merrow examines many of the key points of the reform agenda in his conclusion and offers important cautions, such and the unlikelihood of Teach for America teachers to remain in the classroom after their minimum 2-year commitment. He recognizes that we need to redefine what a "better job" would like for teachers. That may include changing the current structure of union contracts. He wants to give principals more authority over their staff, but frames it differently than do many "reformers:"
Teaching will be a better job when principals have the authority over hiring their staff but are savvy about bringing trusted veteran teachers into the process
Similarly, he wants to recognize the importance of teachers in evaluating how students are doing:
It will be a better job when teacher evaluations of students count at least as much as the score on a one-time standardized test.

Both of the above are from the penultimate page of the Conclusion.

The final two paragraphs, from p. 181, make clear how much Merrow values teachers, and how his coverage of education has helped frame his analysis.

Let me take these paragraphs one at a time. The penultimate will sound familiar, since you will encounter words I have already quoted from earlier in the book:
Teaching will be a better job when we recognize that the world has changed, and the job of a teacher is to help young people learn to ask good questions, not regurgitate answers. With the flood of information around them, young people need help separating wheat from chaff. And it's no longer the teacher's job to tell them the difference, but to give them the skills to inquire, to dig deeper.
Here I have to note that if our primary way of assessing student learning is by multiple choice standardized tests often of dubious quality (which is why the Obama administration is putting $350 million into two consortia trying to create better tests) our instruction is going to be driven away from the kinds of inquiry about which Merrow writes, because it will not be valued by the tests used to measure "learning" and to evaluate teachers and schools. That is one reason why we cannot eliminate other forms of assessment, including teacher created tests and performance tasks.

In order to truly focus on students, we do need to focus on teachers. And here Merrow's final paragraph is quite apt:
When teaching becomes the better job. as described above, the brain drain will no longer be a problem - and we will likely discover that many teachers now in the classroom have been better people themselves all along.

Teachers operate within a context they do not control. Absent the appropriate context and support, we often do not truly know how good those teachers are, or can be.

We will not improve our schools and how we educate our students without an APPROPRIATE focus on the quality of our teachers. Note that bolded word.

This book helps provide that larger context. Remember the subtitle: "Reflections on Teaching and Leadership." The Leadership provided teachers can make a huge difference in how effective teachers are. Merrow recognizes that. He also recognizes that we cannot deal with what happens in the classroom in isolation from things like teacher turnover, the training and support given teachers, and many issues not within the control of teachers, individually or collectively. At least, largely not in the current climate.

I look forward to Merrow's continued coverage of education. I hope he will expand his coverage to include examples of teacher leadership, such as the increasing numbers of teacher led schools which address some of the issues he thinks necessary to make teaching a better job.

In the mean time, this book is useful, well worth the time to read. I think it lives up to those words at the very beginning, so let me remind you of them as I conclude. This book is Dedicated to outstanding teachers everywhere.


Friday, March 04, 2011

Free speech, flabby thinking and multiculturalism

Cross-posted from Smart and Good:

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the odious Westboro Baptist Church members may disturb military funerals in the name of free speech and folks in Orange County are screaming indignities, obscenities and blasphemies at Muslim American citizens as they enter a fundraiser for a women’s center. (Thanks to Salon for this video.) I have always considered myself a near-radical free speecher (believing that open discourse, even if testy, is better than hidden resentment –- and anyway “Sticks and stones …”) , but maybe I’m just not. Or maybe there are once unthinkable lines that have now been crossed.

Either way, I am rendered speechless. I have no idea what to say about this issue, these actions.

But I am not speechless about a claim made by Ed Royce, one of the (Republican) local politicians who spoke at the Orange County rally before the protest. In fact, I share his worry though not his view of the cause and implications of it.

Royce said that kids in American schools are being taught that “every idea is right, that no one should criticize any other position no matter how odious” and this, I fear, has a ring of truth to it. It is a stance I encounter among the highly intelligent, accomplished and caring undergraduate students at my prestigious university; it is a stance that l too often hear articulated by the teachers with whom I work; it is a stance I see in evidence among students in the local public schools I visit.

Royce blames it on “multiculturalism.” I think he and we have conflated flabby thinking and multiculturalism (or at least Royce and others have), making the oh-too-common error of confusing correlation with causality. Yes, we have multiculturalism (a good thing in that it simply is a human reality and also good in that it provides the difference that is the prompt for new thinking). And yes, there is flabby thinking. Flabby thinking is a failure to interrogate (freely but with respect) any other position until (so that) the community (of knowers and actors) can move toward an assessment of which claims are defensible (and therefore warranted) and which are not. There may be more than one position that we can live with, but this does not mean that “anything goes.”

Mr. Royce’s brand of flabby thinking can be detected in his automatic dichotomizing (my way or the highway, right or wrong, Christian or Muslim).

Educators should be about rooting out flabby thinking of all kinds. And, it seems, rooting out flabby thinking might also be the route to clarifying the value of multiculturalism. And maybe too, the demise of flabby thinking might replace the fear that underlay screaming at funerals and fundraisers with the kind of thoughtful confidence that makes dialogue possible and fruitful.

The Job Mismatch Myth

The Obama administration has continued the fantasy of education as a solution to economic problems. Yet more evidence of this in a recent report refuting the idea that we need a whole slew of people trained in science and math and etc. Most of the actual jobs that are available are in the lowest paying and lowest skilled areas of the economy.

From the Real World Economics Review Blog:
About 3.5 million of the jobs lost in the downturn were in high-wage industries, but fewer than 200,000 of the jobs created in the last year were in those same industries. Over half of the jobs created since the economy bottomed out were in the lowest-paying industries. . . .

“[T]he job opportunities currently available to workers have deteriorated compared to what was available before the recession.” The NELP data flatly contradict the idea that the economy is currently facing a structural “mismatch” where workers don’t have the skills that employers are demanding. The recession-related job losses were concentrated in high-wage industries and the new jobs have been in low-wage industries, leaving millions of workers from middle- and high-wage industries high and dry.
See also an earlier post about why education does not create jobs.