Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reformers Say Field Trips Are Good for Kids: Who Knew?

A recent article on the reformy blog, Education Next, reports on a study out of the Walton Foundation funded Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which found many positive learning outcomes from having students attend live professional theater productions. This report follows last year's groundbreaker from the same group that found positive learning outcomes associated with taking kids on field trips to museums. Both these studies fall into a school of educational research that I like to call a "Duh" Study; that is, a study that purports to discover something that veteran teachers have known, like, forever.

The stated goal of these studies according to the authors is "to  broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and in turn policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools." That sounds like a worthy goal. Of course, it has been the reformers who narrowed our view of what a successful school is in the first place, so I take their new found insight with a large pinch of salt. These researchers also worry that "as schools narrow their focus on improving performance on math and reading standardized tests, they have greater difficulty justifying taking students out of the classroom for experiences that are not related to improving those test scores." Gee, really? Is it possible that these reformy types are saying a  focus on standardized tests narrows the currriculum? Maybe they have been reading Diane Ravitch.

But perhaps I protest too much. Any study that will help justify putting money back in the budget for culturally enriching field trips is okey dokey with me. In the recent financial crisis field trips took a real hit. These trips were made vulnerable by the obsession with testing coming out of NCLB and the recession was a death knell for many schools when it came to the expense of a field trip. 

For the record the latest study took middle school children to see a live professional production of either The Christmas Carol or Hamlet. The researchers found that seeing a live production enhanced students understanding of character, plot and other factors related to knowledge of the play. Students who saw the live production also showed higher scores for tolerance of diverse points of view and in reading others' emotions. None of this is surprisising, of course. I can trace my lifelong love of the theater and particularly of Shakespeare to a 9th grade field trip to see a production of The Merchant of Venice. It was the first live professional performance I had ever seen and I will never forget it. I can still conjure the three caskets scene in my minds eye 50+ years later.

The earlier study took children on a field trip to an art museum. That study found that the experience improved student knowledge of and ability to think critically about art. Students also displayed stronger historical empathy, developed higher tolerance, and were more likely to visit such cultural institutions as art museums in the future. Again not surprising, but good news. Maybe Bill Gates can divert some millions from his pursuit of the perfect teacher evaluation design to fund kids going on field trips.

The rich educational and cultural possibilities of field trips were readily apparent to me as a very new, very young social studies teacher back in the 70s. I taught in a working class town in southeastern Pennsylvania where my students parents worked very hard every day to make ends meet. There was little time for cultural activities in these families' busy lives and these 12 and 13 year old children, an eclectic mix of white, Hispanic, African-American and newly-arrived Vietnamese, had limited cultural experiences. 

Every year for several years I took three bus loads of these kids to New York for a visit to the Natural History Museum, a tour of the city landmarks, and lunch in Chinatown. I have many stories from those trips, but my favorite involves a young man named Carlos who had his nose pressed to the window pane of the bus from the moment we left the school's driveway all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike. As the bus was making its way downtown to show the kids the Empire State Building, Carlos peered up at a large clock on a bank building and noticed that the clock said 11:05. ""Mr. Walsh, Carlos asked, "It's 11:05 here in New York, but my watch says 11:00. Are we in a different time zone?" I smiled, pleased that Carlos was at least remembering something from my geography lesson of a few weeks before and explained to him that the clock he saw must just be a little fast.

So yes, field trips matter and they matter a great deal. They create memorable moments of great impact on the lives of young people. They also create joy. Joy is in too short supply in schools these days and the reformy focus on standardized tests and accountability must take responsibility for killing much of that joy. It seems that some reformers at least are beginning to realize it. I suggest teachers use these studies in their requests for funds for educationally and culturally enriching field trips in the future.

What else can reforemrs learn that teachers have always known? The sky is the limit.

Next year I suggest the gang at the University of Arkanas investigate whether or not participation in the band at school enhances a student's appreciation of music, ability to work as a team member and self-esteem. I wonder what they would find. And I wonder if what they discover would lead to a reformy call to ensure that every school child had the opportunity to attend a school with a rich music program.

I can dream, can't I.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How "Well" Is Your Reading Instruction? A Review of Reading Wellness by Burkins and Yaris

In their new book, Reading Wellness (Stenhouse, 2014),  Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris want to help teachers keep their eyes on the true prize of reading proficiency: an enriched life. The authors, both former teachers who have become influential voices in the literacy field through their blog, Burkins and Yaris - Think Tank for the 21st Century Literacy, worry that the current mania surrounding standards and accountability will draw teacher's attention away from a broader vision of students as readers and people. They offer up a book of practical lessons and knowing advice to help teachers stray true to their literate selves and true to their students literacy needs in the strange new world that is education in the 21st century.

The authors frame the text around four basic tenets that guide their work with children and teachers and that they believe guide the work of all teachers. They call these tenets "intentions." These intentions are ideals that are universal and that predate the standards movement.
  • Intention 1: We intend toward alignment with our inner teacher - For Burkins and Yaris alignment with our inner teacher will serve as a check to an alignment that is only narrowly focused on standards. This means that we teach with our highest purpose for teaching in mind - a focus on lifelong learning. When we align with our inner teacher,we keep our eyes on what research says about moving children from dependence to independence as readers and learners.
  • Intention 2: We intend towards balance - This intention requires us to balance our attention to the demands of standards and accountability, that is the expectations of others, with our own intentions directed toward life-long learning. Balance requires a marriage of the goals of the inner teacher with the immediate considerations of accountability. A teacher may be required to use a certain curriculum or program, but the teacher must balance these requirements with the bigger picture goals of the inner teacher.
  • Intention 3: We intend toward sustainability - Because we live in a world of constant time constraints, we must prioritize lessons that teach ways of learning that can grow into other lessons. These high value lessons answer the question, "How does this lesson make students more "well" as readers?" In this context, I understand Burkins and Yaris to mean "well" as adept at the skill of reading, but also filled with the will to read.
  • Intention 4: We intend toward joy - If our reading lessons are to inspire lifelong learners they must energize the teacher and the students and fill the classroom with energy and inspiration. Joy is an indispensable ingredient in lifelong literacy.
Moving from this framework, Burkins and Yaris offer clearly laid out and field tested lessons to put their intentions into action. The lessons focus on helping students identify their passions and the books that may feed those passions; the rewards of really hard reading work; the interaction between print and meaning; an approach to close reading they call "mindfulness"; and building reading stamina.

The lessons are creative, thoughtful and would be sure to enhance any teachers repertoire of reading instruction practices. Each lesson is accompanied with a chart that sets out a long and short range purpose, standards alignment, time frame, materials and procedure. While these charts are very helpful, it is important to read the explanations that the authors offer because these explanations imbue the lessons with the spirit with which they need to be delivered.

The final chapter is entitled Joy - Reading More for the Love of It. As I work with teachers around the country, even in a conversation with some teachers in New Jersey yesterday, I hear a consistent fear for the loss of the joy of teaching and the joy of learning. Burkins and Yaris encourage us to reclaim joy. They remind us that reading wellness is more than just about numbers, true reading wellness is about the transformative power and sheer joy that can be provided by a good book. Lessons in this chapter focus on helping children see how reading makes them feel good. If this chapter on joy were the only chapter in the book, the book would still be well worth the price.

Ultimately, Burkins and Yaris, want to help literacy teachers to move beyond the expectations of others - close reading, identifying main ideas, and all the aspects of reading writ small - and to keep our eyes on READING writ large, that READING that enriches our lives and that we hope will enrich the lives of our students.

Buy the book. Try out the lessons. Infuse joy into your reading instruction. Doing so will take your teaching beyond standards and accountability to joy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hangin' at Public Education Nation

Yesterday 200 hundred or so Badass Teachers, bloggers, school administrators, college professors, parents and students gathered at the Brooklyn New School for the first ever Public Education Nation conference sponsored by the Network for Public Education. The theme of the event was "Changing the Conversation," an allusion to the need for supporters of public education to take back the narrative on schools and schooling from the corporate education reform industry.

The event was carried across the nation via the internet on Livestream and further supported by a dedicated group of tweeters who had the event trending #1 on Twitter for most of the day. Chairing the event was public education hero, former teacher and current Network for Public Education board member, Anthony Cody. Cody has been one of the leading voices in the pro-public education battle through his blog, Living in Dialogue.

Prior to the formal program, the Education Bloggers Network, under the leadership of Jonathan Pelto of the Wait, What? blog, met to plot out strategy for further expanding the impact of the many blogs devoted to reporting on and championing public education. Bloggers are having an impact it seems. One of our members, Francesco Portelos, was offered a settlement by his school district if he would only stop blogging. The corporate education reformers and Common Core supporters have felt more and more compelled to respond to the bloggers as our message gets out. As Diane Ravitch has reminded us, Ghandi said that once your enemies feel compelled to fight back you are on your way to winning.

Among the attendees at the bloggers meeting was Ruth Coniff, Executive Editor of The Progressive Magazine, which is teaming with the Education Bloggers Network on an online magazine project, Public School Shakedown. The bloggers group is looking to team with The Progressive to expand the reach of this project. The bloggers also seek to add higher education issues into the mix, especially now that teacher education institutions have become the target of corporate education reform.

The conference itself was divided into four panel discussions and an inspirational wrap up session presented by Diane Ravitch and Jitu Brown.

The first panel concerned the Common Core and was chaired by hero principal and dedicated Common Core warrior, Carol Corbett Burris. On this panel, Takiema Bunche Smith argued that the Common Core forced teachers to defend practices that they knew were developmentally inappropriate for young children. She was concerned, as we all should be, that not one early childhood educator was included in the development of the standards. College professor Alan Aja said we need to fight the false conclusion that education reform will fight poverty. The reformers goal is to disrupt our children's lives in order to ensure a conforming and compliant population of workers for the future. Burris wrapped up by saying that we need to get teachers at the center of the conversation on the Common Core, where they should have been in the first place.

The second panel featured Chicago teacher Xian Barrett discussing school closure with Newark, NJ public school student leader Tanaisa Brown and Fairfield University professor Yohuru Williams. Ms. Brown was both passionate and articulate in her criticism of the One Newark plan being forced on the students and parents of the Newark schools by the state appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson. She argued that action needed to be taken to the streets because that was the only way the students could get people to listen. Dr. Williams was inspirational in his plea to privilege people over profits. He warned the reformers like Anderson, "We are coming to take our schools back."

Jeff Bryant of the Educational Opportunity Network asked the next panel to answer the question, "Are charter schools doing more harm than good?" Not surprisingly, this panel came down on the side of harm. Karran Harper Royal, an activist from New Orleans, captured the post-Katrina devastation of the New Orleans school system as offering students what amounted to chance, not choice. There is no real choice in New Orleans, certainly not if your choice would be a well-funded neighborhood public school. New Orleans she said, is no model for the country as it is being touted by the reformers.

Investigative journalist Wendy Lecker added that the lack of scrutiny of charter schools has led to outright fraud. She cited many examples from her own state of Connecticut. Charter schools do damage to equity in Connecticut by getting an unequal amount of funding and they do damage to children through the high attrition rates of both students and teachers. On the same panel, teacher and blogger Gary Rubinstein said that he has found through personal experience that KIPP charter schools, one of the most prominent charter models, provides a poor instructional model led by inexperienced teachers. Rubinstein expects the charter movement to fall of its own weight as it tries to expand.

The final panel, chaired by Network for Public Education Executive Director Robin Hiller, focused on some genuine success stories in authentic reform. Greg Anrig, Director of the Center for Inquiry in Teaching and Learning and author of the must read book, Beyond the Education Wars: Evidence that Collaboration Builds Effective Schools, discussed the enlightened teacher evaluation model in Cincinnati, Ohio. Anrig said that a top down model of teacher evaluation will fail. The Cincinnati model shows how evaluation can work in a spirit of teacher/administrator collaboration. New York City school principal Phyllis Tashlik discussed her school's model that was based on treating teachers as professionals and working with them to design a performance assessment that works. Brian Jones brought this panel to a close by arguing that "no excuses" educational reform was actually making excuses for poverty.

At the end of the day, Diane Ravitch took the stage to declare. "We are winning!" She said that she wants all of our public schools to be like the schools the rich send their children to. Schools unburdened by standardized tests and Common Core and "no excuses" discipline policies. Schools with small class sizes and teachers who are treated s professionals. Jitu Brown exhorted the crowd to go beyond activism to organizing. Only as a community can we change the conversation. And brought down the house when he said, "This is not intellectual discussion. This is a spiritual discussion. The privatizers crossed a line. We must kill the privatization movement."

And so on this Sunday morning may I say to that, "Amen."

Videos of all the events at the conference will be available on Please watch for them to be posted.

Bloggers Gary Rubinstein, Brian Cohen, Jonathan Pelto
 and yours truly at Public Education Nation

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

21st Century Union Busting Philly Style

At the turn of the last century, union busting often took the guise of a military action. Sometimes legalized thugs like those from the Pinkerton Agency were hired by companies to break some union members heads and end a labor action with violence. Other times federal troops or the National Guard were brought in to do the company's bidding.

In Philadelphia this week, the State Regulation Commission (SRC), which has run the schools in Philadelphia since 2001, is trying a tactic built for a new century - cancelling its contract with the teacher's union. This action apparently came with no warning. It has the full support of Broad Academy graduate and Schools Superintendent William Hite, Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter,  and Pennsylvania's anti-education Governor Corbett.

Make no mistake about it, this action is another in a long line of education reform efforts to blame the teachers for the problems of urban schools. This time instead of shouldering the blame for the poor achievement of urban school children, the teachers are being asked to take the blame for the poor fiscal management of the schools and the high cost of health care in the nation.

What is at issue here? The SRC has unilaterally cancelled the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) while negotiations were on-going. The action was taken so that the SRC can impose its plan for teachers contributing to their health care. Why has the SRC taken this action? Why , of course, for the kids. The district will save money and according to Hite, "put the money right back into the classroom." Governor Corbett said, the action "will effectively close the funding gap and provide the district with the ability to hire new teachers, counselors and nurses, and secure educational resources that will benefit the students of Philadelphia." He failed to mention that it has been his policies, including unilateral reductions in school funding, that have brought the Philadelphia schools to this point.

Corbett and his sycophantic Education Secretary, Carolyn Demaresque, attempted to make the action sound like it was about the teachers and their union accepting that most other public employees are now paying for part of their health care. This appeal may play well with the public, but it also plays fast and loose with the facts.  The health care plan that the SRC is putting into place, outside of any negotiated agreement, is in a very real way, a wage reduction for a group of teachers who are already poorly paid as compared to their suburban counterparts only a few miles away. Not to mention that these teachers work in what is often a very difficult and very stressful environment with children with many educational, social, emotional and physical needs.

A Philadelphia teacher making 55,000 dollars a year (hardly a luxurious wage) will see a reduction in salary of between one and three thousand dollars. The SRC says they are not reducing salaries, but this is disingenuous. The teacher's paycheck will be smaller. It doesn't really matter what column the deduction comes from.

The PFT will challenge the unilateral action of the SRC in court. It is not at all clear that the governing body has the power to void the contract. The best case scenario would be for the courts to rule this action illegal and get the parties back together for negotiations.

Let's be clear about one thing: the fiscal and educational problems that the School District of Philadelphia face are not the fault of the teachers or their union. These problems are rooted in the racism that brought about the "white flight" from the city in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; the poverty that afflicts large numbers of Philadelphia school children; the failure of the legislature to come up with a  viable funding formula for the city's schools; the failed experiments with charter schools that have drained public education funds without any clear benefits; long periods of fiscal mismanagement of the schools; Corbett's budget cutting which impacted all schools in Pennsylvania, but urban schools especially; and the rampant rise in health care costs brought about by greed and bungled regulation.

The SRC, Governor Corbett, Mayor Nutter, and Superintendent Hite seek to blame the teachers and the unions for these problems, created by others and ineptly addressed by others. It is a bullying tactic. Fortunately, teachers know how to deal with bullies. You need to call their bluff.

All who care about public education must all hang with the teachers of Philadelphia or, as that famous Philadelphian, Ben Franklin said, we will surely hang separately.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VAMs: Stupid Economist’s Tricks

The formula to the left will allow you to calculate your Value Added Score. Please don't forget to show your work.

I am not an economist. I had one intro to economics course in college. Everything I have learned about economics since then has come from reading Paul Krugman in the New York Times. I consider it a good month economically if my checkbook balances and my 401k doesn't tank.

But I am thinking of economists today because I just read a review by Krugman of a new book called Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World, by Jeff Madrick. The book is a chronicle of all the wrong headed advice mainstream economists have been dishing out since before the debacle of 2008 and up until now. 

Here is a brief restatement of what the economists got wrong.
1.      Failed, despite all the warning signs, to predict the 2008 recession, and, in fact, argued that it could not happen.
2.      Failed to agree on a response to the recession once it did happen
3.      Opposed the stimulus package and raising the minimum wage as government interference in the free-market which would, according to these economists, right itself. How is that going?

How could economists get things so wrong? Well mainly, according to Madrick and Krugman, because of a slavish belief in the free market’s ability to manage itself, along with a faith based love of mathematical models that are elegant on paper, but have no connection to the realities of the real world.

Interestingly, while economists were not busy destroying the economy for all of us except the 1%, they have busied themselves with attempts to apply their cockamamie “models” to teacher evaluation schemes. The movement toward value-added measurements has been led by, you guessed it, economists. People such as Stanford’s Erik Hanushek, Harvard’s and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Thomas Kane, Harvard’s Raj Chetty and Columbia’s Jonah Rockoff.

Madrick apparently does not mention Value-Added Measures (VAMs) of teacher accountability as one of the “seven bad ideas”, but it is at the top of my list. Talk about a faith in an unrealistic mathematical model, VAMs take the cake. What really cheeses me off about this rat pack of economists is that many of them sit in tenured university positions, while they attempt to deprive teachers of their job protections with junk science.

If you have not already read Audrey Amrein Beardsley’s book, Rethinking Value-Added Models in Education Critical Perspectives on Tests and Assessment-Based Accountability, I recommend it to you. In it you will find a compendium of problems with VAMs. Another good resource is Linda Darling-Hammond's commentary here

In order for the “sophisticated statistical formula” of VAMs to work you need to make several assumptions. You must assume that
·         student learning is measured well by a given test.
·        student learning is influenced by the teacher alone.
·         students are randomly assigned to classes
·         student learning is independent from the growth of classmates and other aspects of the classroom context.

That’s a lot of assuming to do. Oh and by the way, none of these assumptions is well supported by current evidence.

Here are some other real world issues that are unaccounted for in VAMs.
·         School factors such as class sizes, curriculum materials, instructional time, availability of specialists and tutors, and resources for learning
·         Individual student needs and abilities, health, and attendance
·         Peer culture and achievement
·         Prior teachers and schooling, as well as other current teachers
·         Special needs of second language learners
·         Differential summer learning loss, which especially affects low-income children
·         The specific tests used, which emphasize some kinds of learning and not others and which rarely measure achievement that is well above or below grade level.

But the number one reason to reject VAMs as a measure of teacher accountability? They don’t provide any useful feedback to the teacher. Right now if you are a teacher with a low VAM score, your best advice would be to wait a year, because the scores are so volatile, you could get a high score next year. As a profession, we would be wise to stop chasing our VAM tail and move on to some real reforms in teacher evaluation that would provide formative feedback that could help us refine practice.

When it comes to economists I would like to propose a simpler model we could use to deny them their job protections. I take my model, not from economics, but from baseball: three strikes and you’re out.
·         Failed to predict the recession – Strike One
·         Failed to agree on how to fix it – Strike Two
·         Failed to support measures to ameliorate the impact – Strike Three
·         You’re Out, Mr. Economist! – No more tenure for you! Welcome to the “free market.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

Whither the Joy of Reading?

The act of coming to be a reader is infinitely complex. So complex that any attempt to talk about teaching reading is ultimately inadequate. This is certainly true of the recent article I wrote for the Washington Post Answer Sheet. The purpose of that piece was to take a close look at some research purporting the benefits of “frustration level reading” and to argue for the necessity of instruction for students on the instructional level. 

Some readers/commenters on this piece asked a good question: What about the joy of reading? Aren’t we likely to be more successful if we forget all this instructional mumbo-jumbo and focus on the joy?

Of course, the joy of reading matters and it matters a great deal. As Mark Twain has said, “The [person] who can read and chooses not to, has no advantage over the [person] who cannot read.” So yes, the joy of reading, the sheer pleasure of a good book well read, matters. There are those who argue that the biggest literacy problem in this country is not people who cannot read, but people who do not. But while joy is necessary to building a reader, it is not sufficient.

At the risk, again, of oversimplifying this complex process, allow me to posit the three most necessary instructional aspects of making a reader. Each of these is necessary, but of itself, not sufficient.

1.    Developing in the reader the ability to smoothly and fluently process the visual, structural and semantic clues provided by the words of the text. (decoding)
2.    Developing in the reader the ability to comprehend that text on a literal, inferential and evaluative level. (comprehending)
3.    Developing in the reader a deep sense of the life-long joy that can be found through reading a wide variety of books for entertainment and information. (motivating)

While it is true that many children come to reading with minimal instruction in number 1 and 2, it is also true that many students struggle with one or the other or both. The skilled and informed teacher seeks to strike a balance in instruction that provides for what each child needs. As I am sure any student of motivation can understand, students who struggle with decoding and/or comprehending may find reading a struggle or embarrassment and, therefore, their motivation will suffer. Likewise, a student who has mastered the basics, but is forced through endless decoding worksheets may also be unmotivated.

The challenges for any teacher are great. How does the teacher develop a joy in reading for every student?

First, the teacher reads aloud to students every day. Through read aloud the whole world of literature is opened up to every student in the class, struggling reader and skilled reader, through the teacher’s skilled scaffolding of the text. Read aloud is a great leveler in a classroom. Every child can listen and enjoy a story or an informational text that may well be above “reading level” through the magic of the read aloud. In 45 years of teaching from kindergarten to graduate school, I have never encountered a student who did not enjoy being read to.

Second, the teacher provides guided choice of reading material. Students get joy out of reading books they are passionate about, so whether those books be on dinosaurs, baseball, horses, vampires, detectives, or life in the desert, students need to be allowed choice. The skilled teacher guides the choice by helping the students clarify what they are truly interested in and then helping them to find a variety of texts that they can be successful reading.

Thirdly, the teacher ensures that the student is successful. Motivation is rooted, in part, in success. If a child feels that s/he cannot be successful in reading, s/he may well shut down and not be open to the joy in books we seek to bring to them. Providing for success means providing instruction at a level where children can be successful and at the same time improve their reading ability. In other words, the teacher operates in what Vygotsky called “the zone of proximal development.” That is the space between what the student can do on his/her own and what the student can do with a teacher’s help.

As we ponder what I have outlined here as the components of joy in reading, we need to seriously consider where the Common Core and the emphasis on standardized tests is taking us. How do we balance a call for greater text complexity in our instruction with the need for developing joyful readers? How do we insure students are having success when we are being asked to provide them with instruction on the “frustration” level? If children learn that reading is about analyzing a text to be able to answer multiple choice questions do we risk killing the joy?

I suppose there is some joy involved in getting a good score on a standardized test of reading comprehension. For me, I would rather listen, with joy, to Charlotte’s Web read aloud. I bet most kids would too.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What History Should Kids Learn?

Hundreds of high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, walked out of class on Tuesday protesting what they saw as an attempt to censor what they were being taught in their AP U.S. History course (APUSH). The school board in Jefferson County has recently taken a turn for the conservative with the election of three new board members including Julie Williams who seeks to establish a board committee to revew curriculum to ensure that the APUSH curriculum "promote[s] citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and don't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."

The irony of this statement seems to be lost on Ms. Williams, seeing how the country she so admires was founded on civil disobedience (The Boston Tea Party, Declaration of Independence) by individuals that I believe most of us would consider patriots by any standard (The Founding Fathers). But before we get into all that, first a little, well, history.

Advanced Placement U.S History (APUSH) is one of those courses developed by the College Board (yes, the test people) to provide interested and able high school students with a college level course. Many colleges accept AP courses for college credit, so it can give kids a leg up on college work. All AP courses are undergoing revision, and the College Board announced the revisions to the APUSH framework last year. According to the College Board the revisions were based on the input of college professors and high school teachers who teach the subject. The chief thrust of the changes was to give the course "a more coherent structure based on the relationships among ideas." Responding to years of criticism that the APUSH framework focused on too much content with too litttle depth, the new framework is intended to provide teachers with "the flexibility across nine different periods of U.S. history to teach topics of their choice in depth."

From the time the new framework was announced, conservatives were incensed by what they saw as its "consistently negative view of American History." That last quote is from Larry Krieger, former history teacher and current cheer leader for the conservative right's attack on the new APUSH framework. In a Newsweek article, Krieger is variously described as "angry", aghast", and "horrified" at the new framework. What has him so worked up? Apparently the new framework fails to mention the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

Well, perhaps that is a bit hyperbolic. Krieger does say that high school APUSH should be less like a college course and award more plaudits to the founding fathers, captains of industry and other conservative heroes. The liberal bias, he said, will turn students against large companies, corporations and wealthy Americans.

Krieger further complains that the framework shortchanges American exceptionalism and casts American greatness as not all that great. He is particularly "dispirited" that the framework's discussion of World War II, rather than focusing on the "courage and valor of the American soldier", turns its eyes on such little nasties as the internment of Japanese Americans, debates about race and segregration in the armed services, and the dropping of the atom bomb.

Perhaps Krieger is concerned that students will not develop a healthy respect for the wonders of the free market society because that free market society has been very, very good to Larry Krieger. Krieger has created a cottage industry of his own in "crash course" guides to AP tests, SAT tests and test preparation workshops. Is it possible that the new APUSH framework, with an emphasis on depth and critical thinking, may make Krieger's lucrative gaming the test, memorization approach to learning obsolete? (Full disclosure here: Larry Krieger and I worked together in the same school district for seven years. We were not close.)

It seems obvious to me that what really has made America great has been its ability to embrace many different viewpoints under one large tent. I see no advantage in trying to shield young people from the messiness that is U.S. history. In fact, that very messiness may well engage them.

I attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School. Each day at the school started with the morning announcements, which always included a "Franklin Fact", highlighting the accomplishments of the school's namesake. You know, things like, "Franklin invented bifocals" and "Franklin established the first fire department in the U.S." Always up for a challenge, my compatriot in mischief, Bruce Ingraham, and I went to the library to look up some "Franklin Fact" we could submit. We read widely on the subject and learned a lot. One thing we discovered, to our delight, was that Franklin had fathered an illigitimate child. We submitted this tidbit as a "Franklin Fact." It never made it onto the announcements, but we enjoyed just imagining the look on Principal Dick's (yes, that was his name) face when he read it.

As the recent  potrayals of Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on Ken Burn's PBS show makes clear, greatness is still greatness, warts and all. So I would say to Larry Krieger and the school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, we must remember that in American history one man's "captain of industry" is another man's "robber baron." Our kids are smart enough to evaluate the merits of the argument themselves when provided with balanced information. After all, these AP History students will be voting in the next year or two.

Meanwhile the student protesters in Colorado may be getting the finest object lesson in democracy they could ever get, simply by walking out of their classroom and standing up for what they believe in. Now that is an act of patriotism in the best American tradition.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Can We Talk?

I am channeling the late, great Joan Rivers today as I ponder the question that many education reformers have been asking: "Can we talk?"

Lately you can't open a link to a pro-education reform blog without finding another reformster pleading for a civil conversation on education. My colleague and fellow founding member of the Guys with Beards and Blogs Foundation, Peter Greene, of the Curmudgucation blog,  has analyzed the pleas of the Thomas Fordham Foundation's Andy Smarick here and those of Mike Petrilli, also from Fordham and Neil McClusky of Cato, here and here. Now jumping into the conversation in a post in Education Week,  is Patrick Riccards, aka Eduflak, who pleads for reformers and educators to work together for the good of the (wait for it) children. You can read his post here.

Riccards gets off to a good start with the title of his piece: It's time for reformers, educators to work together. I welcome what is implied in this title:  reformers are not educators. That's a good start. Even though this acknowledgement filled me with a warm glow, a sudden chill returned when the question popped into my head, "I have been here all along, where have you been?"

Then I recalled where the reformers have been. They have been out spreading the word that teachers are the problem, that tenure hurts children, that we need to close public schools and replace them with charter schools, that parents need choice. They have been out designing the Common Core State Standards without teacher input and working with the federal government to bribe the states into adopting them. They have been out cheer leading for the Vergara decision, promoting vouchers that undermine public school funding and when they got tired of blaming teachers for the problems of public education, started blaming the colleges of education.

But before I close my mind off completely, let me take a look at what Riccards suggests. Riccards deplores the acrimonious debate and suggests it works against progress. 

But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed.

Fine. What else?

Beginning with the Chicago teachers' strike in 2012, which largely turned on educator opposition to new teacher-evaluation processes, and continuing through current events, one thing is crystal clear: The negativity and false choices used by all sides simply won't get us to our intended destination.

Whoa! Hold on there, Kemosabe! The Chicago teacher's strike was the root of the negativity? Why not start this sentence with "Beginning with the reformer's false narrative of bad teachers'; or "Beginning with the federal government's attempt to force schools to rate teachers through flawed VAM models"? If you want to talk to me "for the children", then let's not be childish about where the acrimony began.

Riccards then launches into a more conciliatory tone suggesting that reformers tone down the anti-teacher celebration that resounded coming out of the Vergara decision and recognize that bashing teachers is counter-productive to the cause. 

And then we read this:

We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process.

Don't you love that phrase "lift up our most successful educators?" I hear strains of Josh Groban singing "You Raise Me Up" in my ears as I envision the reformers raising me to their shoulders. Is it just me or does this sound just a little condescending?  And, oh by the way, does lift up mean merit pay? Is that really where you want to start a conversation?

To his credit Riccards does recognize that without the support of the classroom teacher, no initiative will be successful.

Riccards appeals to his fellow reformsters to not oversell the value of charter schools. He acknowledges that they have not been the panacea that many paint them to be.

But then we get this:

Moreover, at best, charter schools are a strong value-add to the public school tapestry. The Holy Grail of school improvement simply cannot be based on a type of school that 95 percent of students don't attend, and likely will never have access to. Instead, we should focus on how to take the most promising practices from our charter schools and begin to implement them at traditional public schools.

As a general rule, whenever I hear the term "value-add" I run for the hills. This is business world speak for "it works when you turn it on" and is generally used to sell you something you don't want. The first time I heard the term, in fact, was on  a used car lot. I suggest that if reformers want to have serious talk about teaching and children they drop the term. There is no "value add" with children; their value is immutable.

As to taking the "most promising practices from charter schools",what would that be? Draconian discipline policies? Unaccredited teachers? Huge teacher turnover? Eliminating English Language Learners, special education students and miscreants? Outrageous suspension figures? Inhuman workloads? No thanks.

Riccards has four concrete suggestions.

1. Open lines of communication - By this Riccards apparently means that when you want to do something nasty to teachers make sure you let the head of the union know before you do it.
2. Look for areas to partner - Because, you know, we are all in it for the kids. When will reformers realize they did not invent doing things for the kids. What do they think we were doing before they were born?
3. Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences - Uh, no. The union is the teachers. The teachers are the union. This is the good old business practice of divide and conquer.
4, Establish a practitioner advisory board - Riccards says that reformers need to realize that there are not a lot of educators working in the reform area (a happy admission) and so reformers should form an advisory board of actual teachers to advise them. Good idea. Of course, alternatively they could just get the hell out of the way and let the practitioners practice.

So to answer the question I started off with for Mr. Riccards and the other reformers who wish to start a dialogue: Can we talk? Not now, but let me know when you are ready to listen.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The False Promise of School Choice

Governor Chris Christie was in Camden, New Jersey this week to praise the opening of some new charter schools that he is championing. A great believer in school choice, Christie said that parents should have “more choice, not less.”

I would like to take the Governor at his word on this. If I were a Camden parent and I had real “choice”, I would choose to send my child to a wealthy private school like the one Joe Kennedy, Sr. sent two of his sons to, Choate Rosemary Hall. I think all of us might do the same.

Choate, of course, is one of the go to private schools for the privileged in America. Located in Wallingford, Connecticut, its leafy sprawling 458 acre campus is home to “one of the leading schools in America.” Its alumni roll reads like a Who’s Who of American politics, industry, arts and letters, and sports. Graduates include John F. Kennedy, Edward Albee, John Dos Passos, Glenn Close, Michael Douglas, nuclear physicist Katherine Way, Senator Bob Kasten and literally hundreds more prominent folks. They also have one of the top ice hockey programs for boys and girls in all of New England.

Not surprisingly, students at Choate appear to graduate “college and career ready.” Many of them furthering their education at places like Harvard and Yale.

OK, Ok, I know we can’t send all of our Camden students to Choate. After all it costs about 52,000 dollars a year to educate a boarding student there. So, if we can’t send all of our Camden kids to Choate, maybe we can provide them with a Choate-like curriculum right in South Jersey.

What does the Choate curriculum look like? Here are a few highlights.

·          There are more than 300 courses in the curriculum
·         Coursework includes community service and global studies
·         A two-year intensive Science Research Program includes mentored laboratory work during the summer at universities in the United States and abroad. 
·         The Capstone Program allows sixth form (senior) students to explore an area of the curriculum in depth. Working under a faculty adviser, students take at least five courses that focus on a curricular theme, culminating in a substantial final project.
·         The performing and visual arts are supported by the resources of the Paul Mellon Arts Center.
·         Among extracurricular arts clubs are six a cappella groups; step danceslam poetry, hip hop, and rap groups; improv, musical theater, and instrumental ensembles of all sizes; photography and film-making clubs; and supporting publications for the arts, fashion, and culture.
·         The Arts Concentration Program provides students with individually tailored instruction and class scheduling.
·         The Senior Project Program provides on- or off-campus internships in academic research, visual art, and the performing arts.
·         Other specialized programs include American Studies, creative writing, economics, Future Business Leaders, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and debate.
·         The Environmental Immersion Program allows students to study environmental issues in the Kohler Environmental Center  "the first teaching, research and residential environmental center in U.S. secondary education."
·         Choate students may compete in more than 30 varsity sports including crew, water polo and squash.

Sounds pretty good doesn’t it. Who wouldn’t want to have this type of choice for their children? I was struck by the lack of a mention of the Common Core State Standards in the curriculum. And while Choate students do take lots of AP courses and the corresponding tests, I could find no evidence of yearly standardized tests meant to determine adequate yearly progress.

So, what kind of choice does Governor Christie want to offer to Camden’s children? A choice to send their children to a publicly funded, privately run charter school managed by Mastery Charter. What will parents get for making this choice? A bare bones curriculum focused on achieving higher test scores on standardized measures. A curriculum taught by many neophyte, uncertified teachers who are likely to leave in a year or two for greener pastures, and a discipline regime based on rigid adherence to a “no excuses” philosophy and shaming.

They will also get no voice in the policies of this school, since their Boards are not elected entities and are often populated with people outside the community. Can we really sell the idea that parents are getting real choice when we deny them the voice that comes with the ballot box?

Politicians love to utter the word “choice” because it sounds so American. We all want to have choice. Unfortunately, these politicians do not want to offer poor, urban children any real choice. First, they underfund and undermine urban public schools and then offer “choice” in the form of privately run charters.

My bet is that given a real choice, parents of children in Camden and all cities would choose to have a fully funded, well-staffed, well-maintained local neighborhood public school that offers a rich and varied curriculum focused on the interests and passions of every child and where parents could voice their “choice” every couple of years by using that good old American vehicle of choice, the vote.

The wealthy and powerful of this country have demonstrated what kind of education is appropriate for their children by choosing to send those children to schools like Choate, which offer a rich curriculum in an idyllic trusting and nurturing environment. Why do they fail to offer a similar kind of choice to other people’s children?

Friday, September 12, 2014

What Do We Want from Public Schools?

Ok students, let’s start today with a quick multiple choice question.

Which of the following represents the best reason for having a highly functioning system of public schools?
a)    economic stability
b)    social stability
c)    political stability
d)    joy of the individual

Yes I know. I hated these “best reason” questions when I was taking standardized tests, too. It always seemed to me that these questions were asking you to guess what was in the test makers head. Nonetheless, your answer to this question will go a long way to determining what kind of schools you champion.

If your answer to the question is a) economic stability, you are part of a long tradition in American education that sees education for its utilitarian value. One early proponent of the economic stability argument was Booker T. Washington, who argued that the best way for newly freed African Americans to find their place in an American society that they had been brought to in chains was to learn a trade. Later on, public school districts throughout the country built vocational schools where high school students learned practical skills to ensure employment. In this day and age, when a high school diploma seems inadequate for earning a living wage, those who focus on economic stability are likely to champion educational standards that promise to get students “college and career ready.” If your concern is maintaining the economic status quo, you may choose economic stability as the goal of public schooling.

If your answer is b) social stability, you also have history on your side. As Michael Katz has shown in his book The Irony of Early Education Reform, a driving motive behind the reform movement in public education in the 19th century was to convert the children of factory workers and recent immigrants into “middle-class standards of behavior and tastes.” Public education was seen as a way to “control the rabble”, if you will. It was a way for the “haves” to control the “have-nots.” Many charter schools have apparently bought into this philosophy. Schools, such as those run by the KIPP chain and those patterned closely after KIPP, focus on compliance and test scores. Students are subject to rigid, military-style discipline regimens and blatant shaming in order to force compliance. So if you are a champion of charter schools, your bias may be toward social stability as the best reason for good public schools.

Beginning with my first day of school, I learned that in America we lived in a democracy and that the preservation of that democracy was dependent on an educated populace. In school I recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang the National Anthem, and took courses entitled American History, Civics, and Problems of Democracy. So surely answer c) political stability is an appealing answer. One of my education heroes, John Dewey, in his book Democracy and Education, said that the aim of education in a democratic society was the creation of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. A beautiful sentiment, but a messy one. As a child of the 60s, I know just how messy this can be. During that period I exercised my rights as a free (and admittedly immature) individual to take to the streets in protest for civil rights, freedom of speech on my college campus and against the Vietnam War. It was (sort of) political democracy, but it wasn’t very stable.

What the corporate education reformer wants from political stability, I believe, is something very different from what Dewey wanted or what I was protesting about. As E. Wayne Ross has pointed out in his introduction to Volume II of Defending Public Schools, the real political status quo in the country today is neoliberalism. As Ross puts it, neoliberalism represents

            “policies and processes that permit a relative handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, and is characterized by social and economic policy that is shaped in the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, and government deregulation are some important principles of neoliberalism."

Understood in this light, the education reformer looking to preserve the political stability of neoliberalism, might argue for the positive impact of competition on public schools. They might champion school choice in the form of for profit charters, parent vouchers, and parent trigger legislation. They might seek to weaken unions and subject teachers to a “business model” based on a perversion of Darwinian survival of the fittest, with the fittest being judged by student scores on standardized tests.

I borrowed the term “joy of the individual” from the aforementioned Michael Katz, who says throughout its history, individual joy has never been the focus of public schools. So what might we think of those who choose d) joy of the individual as the best reason for having public schools. Are these only the raging looney-fringe idealists? What might schools look like if the individual student were at the center of our thinking?

A school focused on the joy of the individual would start, I think, with an emphasis on engagement, rather than compliance. Engaged students need the  guidance and direction and background knowledge a skilled professional can provide, and they need some routines established so they can get out of their own way and learn, but they do not need the harsh discipline practices seen in so many of those reform charter schools.

Engaging individual students will require a broad and rich curriculum including plenty of time for the arts in all of its forms and for physical education and recess. A school focused on the joy of the individual will also be required to provide lots of choice. Choice in what books to read. Choice to pursue topics of personal interest and choice in how learning is demonstrated.

But choice is not sufficient for this focus on the joy of the individual. Since the individual must also live and work in a society, this rich curriculum would also include the study of the vast array of cultures in that society, readings of the great works of many different cultures and opportunities to talk and meet with people from many different cultures.

This kind of education cannot be done on the cheap. It cannot be done if we focus on “college and career ready”, instead of life ready. It cannot be done in an atmosphere of rigid compliance. It cannot be done in an atmosphere where educators live in fear of their jobs. It can only be done through a real commitment to our children, every one of them.

This focus on individual growth in public education may seem to be pie-in-the-sky, but think for a moment: If you were about to send your child off to school for the first time, what would be your dream education for that child? I think your dream would come pretty close to answer d above, joy and personal fulfillment.