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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Why Corporate Education Reform Will Fail (Eventually)

In my post on Monday I explored the work of historian and social theorist, Michael Katz, especially his 1968 book The Irony of Early Education Reform, which so uncannily presaged the current education reform movement. One line I read from Katz’s updated introduction to the 2003 edition of that book is staying with me. Katz said that the book “‘highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails.”

History will tell us if the reforms touted by the corporate education reformers will take firm root in the country. Perhaps the reformers will be successful in getting their laundry list of reforms in place. After all they are very well financed and they have powerful political support on the federal and state government level. Bill Gates and other plutocrats are spending millions to have their way with public education. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has used his office and power of the purse to bribe states into his favored reforms. Governors in Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey have seized on the education reform mantras of “choice” and union bashing to extend the agenda in their states. The court in California has at least temporarily struck down tenure and highly publicized campaigns to do the same in New York and other states are well under way.

It may very well be that in some time in the future, we will see the installation of the Common Core nationwide, the reduction of teacher unions to toothless tigers, the extension of charter schools to the point where no urban district has a public school system, voucher programs proliferating and robbing school districts of funds, and teachers being reduced to “at will” employees at the mercy of evaluations based on student test scores.

This could well happen; we don’t know. There is one thing we do know, however. If every single reform cherished by the corporate education reformers is put in place, history tells us that it will not improve the educational outcomes for the vast majority of the 25% of American children living in poverty. In other words, even if the reformers get everything they want, they will fail in their stated goal because they are aiming their reforms at the wrong target and they are doing so because they do not want to deal with the real target – income inequity.

The corporate education reformers are engaged in that very American pastime of “Shoot, Aim, Ready.” So that while willfully ignoring the real and very much obvious need for economic reform they take down their shotgun and shoot at education; they shoot at teachers; they shoot at teacher unions; they shoot at “lazy” students; they shoot at poor parents. Meanwhile they rig the political agenda so that they continue to get richer as the poor continue to get poorer. Aiming your guns at education doesn’t cost the 1% money (any money they do spend is tax deductible anyway). Aiming at the real target – income redistribution – stands to cost them a great deal of money.

If the corporate education reformers do win their pyrrhic victory, there will come a day of reckoning when the public realizes that all of these reforms have failed because once again education has been used as a shield for the real problems facing the country. Unfortunately when that realization comes and the country turns to educators to help right the ship, they will find a decimated core of teachers stripped of their professionalism, unused to taking individual initiative, unable to exercise autonomy productively and left without the tools they need to provide for the education of the children.

It is clear that at some point in the future, the current approach to education reform will fail as it has failed every time throughout our history. It will fail because it is attacking the wrong target. The only question now is: “How much damage will the corporate education reformers do to public education before their failure is discovered by the nation as a whole?”

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Irony of 21st Century School Reform

On Friday, September 5, 2014, The New York Times carried the obituary of Michael Katz, the University of Pennsylvania professor, historian and social theorist probably best remembered today for his influential 1990 book, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. In that seminal book and other writings, Professor Katz was harshly critical of the Reagan and later Clinton administration take on the poor and programs aimed at poverty.

Both Reagan and Clinton held a narrow view of poverty, he said, that essentially blamed the poor for their own poverty because of their moral failings. Poverty, Katz posited, is better understood as the result of large historic and economic trends, such as war and peace and the shifting interest of capital that favored some people and disadvantaged others.

You may wonder why I would be writing about Professor Katz on this education blog. It turns out that Katz had written a much earlier book in 1968 called The Irony of Early School Reform. With such a provocative title, I knew I had to learn more. What I discovered is astonishing. Katz examined the public school reform movement of the 1820s to 1860s in Massachusetts. What he learned may well echo in the ears of those critical of education reform today.

To boil down the gist of Katz’ argument, I have enlisted the aid of some reviewers of his original text, Jack K. Campbell in The Teacher’s College Record and Laurence R. Veyzey and Peter Kenez in the Oxford Journals.

First of all, Campbell asks, “Who were these reformers?” The answer?  “Analysis of their class interests showed they were those who controlled legislatures and commercial enterprises. They crossed political lines. They were mostly laymen. (They recruited schoolmen in their machinations by inspiring them with a "messianic" complex. Teachers were to save the world. Professionalization of their ranks was to close out opposition.)” Laymen?  Control of Legislatures? Commercial enterprises?  Messianic Complex? Hmm.

What was the world view of these 19th century reformers? “These proponents blamed their social ills on urbanism, ineffective parents, immigrants, and the 'lower stratum' in general.”

What was the goal of these reformers?  “They promoted popular education as the means to achieving what they considered a well-ordered and integrated society. At the same time, they hoped to induce both prosperity and domestic tranquility.” And  Veyzey and Kenez add, “There is no doubt as to the paternalism of the educational leaders. They sought to convert workers' children to middle-class standards of manners and taste. They aimed, through manipulation of the curriculum and the environment, to internalize the norms that would reduce crime in the streets.”

How did they hope to accomplish their goals? Again from Campbell, “Through the ‘whip hand’ of school committees, they ruthlessly attacked the rival private academies as well as the decentralized system of public school control. They sought greater concentration of power, not, as is usually supposed, to facilitate financial and social equality, but to spread costs over a broader base and take initiative away from the local district.”

How did the reformers respond when it became evident through attendance records that the “common schools” were not for the “common man”? The reformers created the “reform school." “Under the guise of penal reform, they attempted to grade prisons as well as schools and used the courts to reach the hard-core juvenile miscreants. Professor Katz chose to call this development the real beginning of compulsory education. The implication, obviously, was that the lower classes were vicious, immoral, and needful of educational correction. But the appeal for public schools was always couched in terms of social mobility.”

Where did these reformers go wrong? Katz concludes that “by making education the single panacea of reform, the promoters oversimplified the problems of industrialization and even misdirected the needed impetus for reform.”

As we can see from the work of Michael Katz, the education reformers’ playbook has not changed much in two hundred years. Today’s reformers take the same paternalistic approach to education.

·         Just how far is KIPP Charter School “no excuses” discipline from the 19th century reform school? Certainly, charter school disciplinary practices can be seen in the same paternalistic light that Katz has shown on the 19th century reformers.

·         Reformy billionaire Bill Gates and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman have both recently blamed children and their parents for American students’ “lack of motivation.” Reformers think that if only people would do what reformers think is the right thing all would be well.

·         No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Mayoral control of school boards and the Common Core State (sic) Standards all fit nicely into the reform playbook for subverting democracy through centralized control.

·         Attacks on teachers, teacher unions, pensions, tenure and seniority can all be seen as one piece with the traditional reform goal of providing education on the cheap.

·         The modern reformer argument that it is education that is the problem, not poverty and other economic and social forces, echoes the 19th century oversimplification of the problems facing the newly industrialized world.

It is apparent that over 200 years education reformers have not learned very much. Blinded by a paternalistic view of the “other” and driven by profit motives and a desire to control costs and shape the world in their own image, they fail to see the bigger picture or recognize the complexity of the problems.

I will give Professor Michael Katz the final word. Writing a new introduction to his book in 2003 Katz said:

“Very simply, the extension and reform of education in the mid-nineteenth century were not a potpourri of democracy, rationalism and humanitarianism...we must face the painful fact that this country has never, on any large scale, known vital urban schools, ones which embrace and are embraced by the mass of the community, which formulate their goals in terms of the joy of the individual instead of the fear of social dynamite or the imperatives of economic growth.”  ‘Irony’ highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails (Rosenberg,Education Update,  2003).”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Keeping Your Balance in Literacy Instruction

By now veteran teachers are accustomed to the pendulum swing in literacy instruction that veers wildly from one new best practice to another, often recycling through a back to basics heavy emphasis on phonics and then swinging back to a more holistic comprehension strategies approach. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) the pendulum has seemingly swung in another direction with the emphasis on students doing “close readings” of more challenging text so that they may be “college and career ready”, whatever that means.

The latest issue of Reading Today (September/October) that arrived on my desktop yesterday is a case in point. The swinging of the pendulum is on full display as Tim Shanahan, emeritus professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, contributes an article entitled, Should We Teach Students at their Reading Levels? His answer is no. In the same issue a few pages farther back, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have an article entitled, Break through the Frustration: Balance vs. all-or-nothing thinking. As the title implies, they argue for a balanced approach that includes plenty of on level guided reading.

What is the poor classroom teacher to do? How does the teacher maintain her balance as the pendulum swings seemingly out of control? Let’s see if we can make some sense of all this for the practitioner in this CCSS age.

Tim Shanahan is a very persuasive literacy expert. He writes and speaks well. His arguments are often thoughtful and clear and he makes his ideas easy to implement through his step-by-step instructional style. He is also often wrong and politically motivated. Shanahan is a big booster of the CCSS approach to literacy instruction, including an emphasis on more complex texts and close reading. Before CCSS, Shanahan was a big booster of the Reading First initiative, the now largely discredited Bush era foray into improving reading performance. Shanahan now writes, in addition to his own blog, Shanahan on Literacy, for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Gates funded conservative think tank and leading champion of the Common Core.

In the Reading Today article, Shanahan argues that if we teach students at their instructional level they will never be college and career ready. As Shanahan puts it, “If low performing fourth graders are to be taught from second-grade books, when do they catch up?” Fair enough, but we might want to reverse that question and ask Shanahan, “If fourth graders reading at a second grade level are taught from sixth grade level books, how will they ever improve their reading and are they likely to be frustrated by the entire enterprise and give up?"

Shanahan argues that what we need to do is to provide students with “enough scaffolding to allow them to read harder books successfully.” In this brief article Shanahan does not go into great detail on what this scaffolding might look like, but he does offer a link to numerous research articles that discuss such scaffolding. Many of these articles focus on well-founded instructional practices like re-reading, introducing vocabulary before reading, and teacher modeling.

It is interesting that CCSS champion Shanahan is advocating lots of scaffolding prior to reading frustration level texts, while the CCSS chief architect, David Coleman, argues that students should approach difficult text with minimal scaffolding and focus on “the four corners of the text.” But that is, perhaps, an issue for another day.

In their article, Burkins and Yaris say that we must avoid the extremes, both of an instructional design based too heavily on guided on-level reading or one that tosses out leveled reading for reading texts on the frustration level. They call for balance and they have sound ideas for maintaining that balance. They argue that “our challenge is not to choose between instructional-level text and frustration-level text; rather, the challenge is to manage strategic use of each in varied instructional contexts.”

For Burkins and Yaris, students will continue to need small-group, instructional level guided reading where the student does most of the reading work. They will also need work on frustration level texts through read-aloud where the teacher does all of the print work, and the teacher and students work together on comprehending the work. Shared reading is important also. In shared reading the students and teacher work together to do the print and meaning work in texts that are a little above reading level for most students. Finally, Burkins and Yaris argue for independent reading, where students read books they have chosen due to their own interest and may run the gamut to below grade level through above grade level.

Whoop! There it is.

I recommend teachers jump off the swinging pendulum and do what makes clear sense here. No matter the dictates of the CCSS, no matter Shanahan’s love of the frustration level, in reading instruction balance is critical. Moving away from guided, instructional level reading now will only mean, as Burkins and Yaris suggest, moving back to guided reading when the impact report on the Common Core comes out in a few years.

Keep your balance teachers. Read-aloud daily; engage in shared reading daily; meet a guided reading group or three daily; and allow students independent reading time daily. When you have done all that, maybe you can squeeze in a little math.