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.