Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Don't Look Behind the Curtain: The Education Reform Switcheroo

If you haven't yet read the New York Times article on what school choice has meant for the children of Detroit, please do. I could not read the piece without tears coming to my eyes and my blood coming to a boil. As I have said in previous posts and as many others have been saying for years, school choice will destroy public education. It has already done so in Detroit.

The Times piece lays bare the true motivation of corporate education reform: to try to get people to focus on schools as the problem, so that they won't look behind the curtain at the real problem facing the country - income inequity. As the historian and social theorist, Michael Katz, put it in the 2003 update to his great book, The Irony of Early Education Reform, "education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas - as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth." Education reform always fails because it is not meant to succeed; it is only meant to distract us from the real issue. 

I have been in education long enough to have been through several reform movements. In 1976, I was appointed to a Pennsylvania commission called Project 81. Project 81 was a five year plan aimed at strengthening high school graduation requirements in the state through "competency-based education.". The governor and legislature of Pennsylvania, had determined that schools were not being held accountable enough and that graduation requirements needed to be strengthened (sound familiar?). As a representative of my school district on the commission, I attended conferences, met with teachers from across the state, listened to the best minds on competency -based education and assessment, wrote reports and provided input to the commission. I was sincere, naive and hoping to make a difference. 

Millions of dollars were spent, hundreds of man hours were accrued, but by the end of 1979, Project 81 was not going anywhere. I asked a state official what had happened and this is what I was told, "Project 81 was always a political response to pressure from some people in the public and the government. There is a new governor in place now and the interests have moved elsewhere. Project 81 was never going to effect real change."

The Times had another story today that I connect to the Detroit story. although the connection may not be obvious. It is the story of Sunderland, England, a small depressed city in the northeast where 62% of the residents voted to leave the European Union, even though the EU has poured millions into the region and provided the economically depressed area with a car manufacturing plant to replace jobs lost when the shipping industry shut down. The people of Sunderland were convinced to vote for Brexit, against their own interest, because some political leaders distracted them with appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. 

And so it is with modern corporate reform efforts. They are designed to appeal to our desires for good schools, to our American faith in competition, and to our desire to wash our hands of the problems of the inner city. Most of all they are designed to distract us from the real issue of growing poverty and inequity, because these are problems that can only be resolved through income redistribution and that would cost the 1% money. Education reform is a genius move, because not only does it distract, but it provides the 1% with another market for making money. 

Look how that has worked out in Detroit.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Choice? Education Reformers Do Not Understand the Word

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. - Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

I have been thinking a lot about choice lately, especially after the news came out of Florida that children whose parents opted them out of the state standardized test will be forced to repeat third grade. That's right, children who have high grades, as well as good reading and writing and math ability, will repeat third grade simply because they did not take a standardized tests. This policy exposes the hypocrisy of the entire school reform movement. The movement champions choice for parents and children in the form of vouchers and charter schools, but not choice when it comes to taking the tests on which their whole house of cards is built. When faced with parents actually exercising choice the reformers inner-fascist comes out and we are told, "No! No! You must choose the choices that we choose for you, not the choices that you choose to choose." Peter Greene has a terrific take down of this kind of thinking here.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines choice as the "opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities." Education reformers want to give parents choice when they pick a school for their children, but by making that "choice" parents are apparently expected to forfeit any other choices they want to make. Once children are enrolled in a charter school, parent choice ends. Charters are run by boards that, unlike traditional public schools, are not elected and often not responsive to parent and student concerns. As I reported in an earlier post, the parent of the child who was berated by a Success Academy charter school teacher was told that she could not file a complaint with the NYC Board of Education because Success Academy is a "private entity." Her only recourse was to go to the Success Academy Board of Directors, an appointed group of hand picked Success Academy supporters.

There can be no real "choice" without a real "voice" in the education of your child. Parents choose charter schools seeking the best for their children (as a recent study shows what parents deem best is often determined by factors other than academics), but when they do so they may not realize that they are forfeiting their voice in their child's education. Children attending charter schools also forfeit their voice in their own education and are often subjected to a harsh, militaristic, "no-excuses" discipline regime based on shaming and harsh punishment for minor infractions. When parents make the choice of a charter school, they are also often making a choice to send their child across town and far out of their own neighborhood.

For wealthy Americans, choice has always been available. Affluent parents have the option of sending their children to a private school of their choosing – a school that offers the type of curriculum and academic and social environment the parents find desirable. Less affluent middle-class families often exercise their choice by where they choose to live. I was once on a lengthy flight out of Newark, New Jersey’s Liberty Airport, seated next to an Indian-American man who lived in northern New Jersey. We got into a conversation where I learned that he had two young children and I happened to mention the school district I worked in. The man said, “Oh yes, I know the district well, my wife and I are saving to move there because we have heard the schools are so good.”

This story is repeated over and over throughout the country daily and real estate agents are sure to include the quality of the schools in their sales pitch when the schools have a good reputation. Of course, a reputation for high quality schools means high housing costs and usually high property taxes. A large portion of the populace is effectively excluded from making the "choice" to attend these “high-achieving” schools by economic inequity.

Education reformers seek to emulate the choice enjoyed by the affluent and the upper middle class by offering the choice of the publicly funded, but privately run, charter school and the school voucher, which provides parents with money, again taken from public funds, to offset the cost of sending children to private institutions. If parents have such “choice’, the reformers’ story goes, public schools, charters and private schools will compete for public monies and all schools will improve performance.

While all of this may sound good and may appeal to American sense of freedom, civilized societies have long recognized that choice is not an absolute good. In America, we have the choice to smoke if we wish. I am old enough to remember entering the smoke-filled teachers’ lounge in Bristol Jr.-Sr. High School in the 1970’s. Smokers and non-smokers graded papers, planned lessons, held meetings and ate lunch in a haze of cigarette smoke that yellowed the fingers of the smokers and the formerly cream-colored walls of the cramped room.

Today, of course, we may still smoke if we wish, but we do not have the choice to smoke in the teachers’ lounge or anywhere on school property for that matter. We have come to recognize that one person’s choice to smoke may infringe on another person’s choice to breathe clean air.

In our society, then,  we are guided by the principle that choice is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with others’ reasonable choices. What if an inner-city parent’s choice is to send a child to a clean, safe, well-resourced, professionally staffed, neighborhood public school? By draining away the limited funds available for public education, charter schools and voucher schemes infringe on that parent’s choice. Public monies are rightly spent to make that good local school a reality. In public education, as with smoking, the government must choose to limit our choice in order to provide for, as the Constitution says, “the common good.” Public education is a common good that privatization in the form of charters and vouchers will destroy.

Choice is meaningless if it also seeks to silence parent and student voices. Choice, as the dictionary definition says, includes power. No voice = no power. If reformers wanted parents to have real choice, they would be working against the economic inequity that is limiting real choice, not offering the false choice of alternative schools or vouchers.

Parts of this post were adapted from my new book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, NY: Garn Press.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chris Christie Punches Poor School Children in the Face

Many readers will recall that last year Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said he wanted to punch the teacher's union in the face. You might also remember that as a lifelong teacher and former union leader I offered up my face for the punch. On Tuesday, Christie one upped himself by outlining a school spending plan that amounts to a punch in the face to every poor, urban student in the the state.

He proposes a flat rate of aid in the area of $6,599 for every student in New Jersey whether they live in leafy, affluent Montgomery Township or cash strapped, property tax poor Camden. This "every one gets the same money plan" would provide a windfall to wealthy districts, many of which would see a dramatic increase in state aid to schools (and a reduction in property taxes) and conversely a death sentence to urban districts who would see their budgets reduced by tens of millions of dollars.

New Jersey Spotlight reported that it was hard to tell whether Christie's plan was "bold or delusional", but in talking to reporters after the announcement, Christie revealed what the plan really is - cynical, political and divisive. Referring to the Senate Majority Leader and a chief Democratic antagonist, Christie said, "Every one of Loretta Weinberg's [school] districts will see an increase in aid." In other words, Christie is playing politics with children's lives and pitting wealthy suburban families concerned about their property taxes against poor urban families with no property in order to foment class warfare and garner Republican votes.

It is, of course, clear that impoverished urban areas need more money to provide a decent education to children hobbled by the impact of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health care, high crime rates and unemployment. Recognition of this is what made New Jersey a national leader in providing extra resources to urban schools through the Abbott decisions of three decades ago. Christie says that the urban schools are getting the extra money, but are under-performing. He should know since for the last six years many of those districts have been under his control and he has failed at every turn to make improvements. So, he has determined that they should not get the money. But as Tom Moran of the Star Ledger points out the truth is much more nuanced. Some urban districts are doing well and others do well when compared to urban districts in other states.

Christie's one-size-fits-all plan for taxation does not meet our most basic understandings of fairness and justice. In any just system a student with greater needs would receive greater resources. My former boss, and one of the finest education thinkers I have ever known, Earl Kim, would call it "Rawlsian fairness", after the great American political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls posited that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society." Just today, the Supreme Court upheld this principle in the University of Texas affirmative action case. 

Christie, apparently taking a page from his new political mentor, Donald Trump, is not interested in fairness, Rawlsian or otherwise. He has decided to foment a war between New Jersey's suburban rich and urban poor - and he is going to do it to the detriment of the hearts and minds of school children. This level of cynicism and political underhandedness is unworthy of anyone who calls himself a leader. Christie should be ashamed of himself. I hope the people of New Jersey, rich and poor, suburban and urban, reject this latest ploy to appeal to our baser instincts.

Perhaps the greatest of all presidents (and a Republican, lest we forget) Abraham Lincoln, famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Apparently, for Chris Christie, a house divided is just good politics.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Unqualified, Uncertified Teachers: Where is the Outrage?

To make sure your summer does not go untested, here is a multiple choice question for you boys and girls:

When faced with unprecedented teacher shortages, state education policy makers should do which of the following?

               a.  Raise salaries
               b.  Improve teacher working conditions
               c.  Give teachers more say in what is taught and how it is taught
               d.  Stop trying to remove teacher job protections
               e.  Allow anyone with a Bachelor's degree to teach

The Utah legislature has chosen "e." That's right, when faced with teacher shortages the state of Utah has decided to join Kansas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama in declaring that preparation for a teaching career doesn't matter. Education reformers like to say they are following a "business model" in their reform plans. I would like to see the business model of any successful company that says, "Let's forget trying to make the job more attractive to top candidates, we can just hire someone who is unqualified for the job."

The move to get unqualified people into the classroom gives the lie to the real goal of education reformers. On the one hand we hear that "the teacher is the the most important single in-school factor in student achievement." This is generally followed with breathless treatises on how teachers suck and how we need to improve teacher performance in the classroom, get rid of bad teachers and measure that performance with standardized tests. On the other hand we hear, "Well everybody has been to school, so everybody should be able teach. Let's pass legislation that makes it easier to get warm bodies in the classroom."

All of this "who needs qualified teachers" baloney, of course, began with Teach for America, an organization that started out with a laudable goal of filling hard to fill teaching positions with temp teachers and morphed into the employment recruiting arm of the the charter school industry. Placing unqualified temp teachers in front of children, especially poor children, has been a practice of the reform movement from the beginning.

What I would like to know is this: Where is the outrage from education reformers when states continually lower the bar for what it takes to be a teacher? If good teachers are so important, why is there no hue and cry about this most obvious lowering of standards? If education of the poor is the "civil rights issue of our time", why are reformers comfortable with having poor kids exposed to unqualified temp workers? Why isn't Campbell Brown tweeting about states allowing people off the street to teach?

The answer is, I believe, that the reform movement doesn't want highly qualified, creative, autonomous professionals in the classroom. True professionalism is too messy for reformers. Autonomous, independent thinkers may rebel against employing draconian discipline policies, teaching to the test, and inhuman work hours. They may even, God forbid, want to start a union. What reformers want are compliant worker drones who take orders well, work like slaves and don't question or complain. How else to explain the lack of concern for the lowering of teacher qualification standards?

How can we possibly be surprised that we have a growing teacher shortage in this country? For the past 15 years the profession has been stripped of its autonomy, told it is failing the children, vilified in public, deprived of its health and pension benefits and subjected to wrong headed evaluation schemes. What young person would look at all this and say, "Gee, I want to sign up for this low paying profession!"

As Peter Greene, over at the Curmudgucation blog, has said, "If you are having trouble filling a teaching position, make a better offer." Right now teachers are getting a bad offer and young prospective teachers are noticing. Schools of Education around the country are suffering large dips in enrollment. How do reformers respond? They seek to lower standards and let anyone who can draw breath into the profession. Can they not see the irony in that?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Jerome Bruner and the Power of Constructing Understanding

I read of the passing of the great education researcher and theorist, Jerome Bruner, in the New York Times on Thursday. No less a luminary than Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences fame, called Bruner, "the most important contributor to educational thinking since John Dewey." Before Bruner, educational psychology was dominated by Behaviorism, the theory, most prominently expounded by B.F. Skinner, that learning was a matter of stimulus and response. In the classroom this theory translated into lots of instruction focused on rote learning and external rewards (like grades). Bruner showed how this theory underestimated the human capacity for learning. He posited the cognitive theory of learning where learners "construct" meaning and understanding through a dynamic interaction with the texts, the instruction, and the environment.

Bruner's studies led to a more enlightened view of children as learners and teachers as facilitators of learning, the constructivist theory. It is this theory that has come to dominate teaching and learning ever since, although vestiges of Behaviorism remain, as can be seen in the periodic "back to basics" movements that education goes through and by the still pervasive use of spelling lists and vocabulary exercises.

In my own teaching, I think that Bruner has had the greatest impact on the use of writing as a mode of learning. Bruner argued that human beings learn in three ways - enactively, iconically, and symbolically. In other words by doing, by seeing and storing images, and through the use of language (symbols). Writing integrates all three of these ways of learning and so provides a powerful reinforcement for all learning. When we write we are enacting through the movement of the hand across paper or keyboard, we see the product and visualize the words in front of us, and we use the symbols of language (words) to craft our message. When we write, we integrate all the ways that we can learn.

In my classroom, writing to learn takes many forms. Here are three that I believe are rooted in Bruner's constructivist theory of learning.

Quick Writes

Quick writes are brief (2-3 minute) written responses to prompts from the teacher that may happen before, during or after an assigned reading or a lecture. Before reading (or lecture) the prompt seeks to have students activate background knowledge and make predictions. During reading (or lecture) the prompt asks the students to rethink their original predictions and add information that they have learned since the reading began. After reading (or lecture), the quick write asks for a brief summary of the student's understanding.

Suppose, for example, you were reading about what makes manatees a threatened species. Your three prompts might look like this:

  • Before reading - Today we will read about a threatened mammal called the manatee. What do you know about the manatee and why do you think it might be threatened?
  • During Reading - Now that we have read some of the passage on manatees, go back and read what you wrote and add any information you can about manatees and why they are threatened.
  • After reading- Briefly summarize the reasons that manatees are a threatened species.
Quick writes may be used in any combination - either before, during and after as above or just before and after, or just after as you determine what will be effective for a particular lesson.

Reader Response Journal

The reader response journal allows students to construct meaning based on what they have read or what has been read aloud to them. Students record their personal reactions, feelings, emotions, ideas, connections and reflections on what they have heard, read or experienced. The written response literally assists the student in constructing meaning from the text. Writing, and thinking about that writing, is the connective tissue between experience and understanding. Reader response leads children to deeper understanding of text, with teacher scaffolding of course.

The response journal is fairly easy to implement, but we should not assume that students will know how to respond to text automatically. The teacher should model the activity for the students by constructing responses in front of the them and then displaying these models in the room as anchor charts for helping the students with their own responses. Students should be guided to retell, respond and react to what they have read. Retelling what happened, responding with their feelings about what was read, and reacting to the events, characters and situations they encounter. You can read more on response journals here.

The I-Search

The I-Search, originally proposed by Ken Macrorie (1998), is a research paper that is focused on what a student is interested in and already very knowledgeable about. In writng an I-Search Paper the student focuses on four aspects of research:
  • What do I already know about the topic?
  • What do I want to learn about the topic?
  • How do I carry out my research?
  • What did I learn?
The I-Search is uniquely constructivist because it proceeds from deep student knowledge and interest, toward greater learning and understanding. It also observes many of the conventions of colleg level research work such as a literature search, a research question, a procedure and a discussion of findings. If you would like to implement the I-Search paper in your classrooms, you will find excellent step-by-step instructions from teacher Scott Filkins here. While Filkins lesson focuses on grades 8-12, I have used the I-Search successfully in grades 3-7 as well.

American education has lost one of its greatest thinkers. One way to honor his work and his memory is through providing students with instruction built on his profound insights into the way children learn.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Reading about "The Greatest", Muhammad Ali

For reasons I don't quite understand myself, I have been enormously moved by the passing this weekend of Muhammad Ali. I never saw Ali fight, although all of his bouts occurred during my teens and early adulthood when my sports fever was most fervent. I had given up on boxing as "sport" when Bennie "Kid" Paret was killed in the ring by a punch thrown by Emile Griffith on April 1, 1961 and swore I would never again be willing spectator to these gladiatorial combats. I, of course, saw news footage of Ali "floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee" against Sonny Liston in the 1960's and "rope-a-doping" with George Foreman in the 1970's and jousting in TV interviews with sweet, sincere, Joe Frazier, his greatest opponent, but I never actually watched an Ali fight.

I think Joyce Carol Oates comes closest to identifying why Ali holds so much fascination for me in these few days after his death. In a New York Times editorial on Monday, June 6, Oates says that unlike past boxing greats like Joe Louis and Archie Moore, Ali refused to play the role prescribed for black men, even black sports stars in this country, that of being "a credit to their race" through modesty and public restraint. Ali would not play the game. He said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want." He celebrated his blackness; declared himself beautiful; followed up winning the heavyweight championship of the world by declaring himself a Muslim and follower of Elijah Muhammad and then refused induction into the army because "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Ali's stance on the war and the draft brought about predictable payback from the white powers that be. He was stripped of his title, arrested, fined, forced to give up his passport and denied the right to make a living by boxing for 3 and a-half of his prime fighting years. America reveres its sport heroes, like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, who gave up parts of their careers to fight in our wars, but it could not tolerate a black sports hero who refused to serve on religious grounds.

Muhammad Ali transcended his violent sport to become one of the true game changers of the 20th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a necessary hero of the Civil Rights Movement, but so was Muhammad Ali. Ali showed the world that black people could proudly embrace their blackness, fully and unashamedly, and in doing so he helped the entire country redefine race relations.  It is still a bumpy road we travel in this country on race, but Muhammad Ali is a great and truly American hero because he redefined the game for all of us and forced us to hold up a mirror to our prejudices.

In his later years, Ali was justly celebrated for his accomplishments in and out of the ring and as a humanitarian and ambassador of good will. Sadly the Muhammad Ali of the last quarter century was but a shell of the physical specimen of his youth. His chosen profession brought him to the biggest stages of the world, but left him frail and damaged. One thing all those punches could not dim, however, was the ever present twinkle in his eyes. A twinkle that said, "I'm in here and I'm watching you. Remember me, because I am The Greatest."

One way of honoring the memory of Ali is to make sure that young people get to read and learn about him. To that end, here is an annotated list of good reading about a great man.

For Older Readers

King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero, by David Remnick

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Remnick looks at the five formative years of Ali's life, from the time when Cassius Clay won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, to his conversion to Islam and name change, and to his second bout with Sonny Liston after which he proclaimed himself "The Greatest." A great read by one of America's finest journalists.

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times, by Thomas Hauser

The definitive biography of Ali, the book won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award. Hauser interviews more than two hundred of Ali's family members, friends, opponents and enemies to pain the portrait of the consummate showman.

The Greatest: My Own Story, by Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham

Ali in his own words, explaining the decisions he made in his career and including a 10 page conversation with his great rival, Joe Frazier.

The Fight, by Norman Mailer

The greatest boxing writer of all time takes on Ali and Foreman and the story of the "Rumble in the Jungle" bout in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. Great portraits of both fighters and an exiting retelling of the fight itself.

For Middle Readers

The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, by Walter Dean Myers

The great young adult writer Walter Dean Myers offers readers in their early teens a comprehensive view of Ali the boxer and the man. Contains a particularly strong evocation of the toll boxing takes on the body and mind of the athlete as well as the often shady business practices of the sport.

Muhammad Ali: I Am the Greatest, by John Micklos, Jr.

This book is a part of the American Rebels series and focuses on Ali as the conscientious objector refusing induction into the army during the Vietnam War. Ali is portrayed as a passionate man who spoke with conviction about what he believed in and who was willing to suffer the consequences of his controversial positions.

For Younger Readers

The Champ, by Tonya Bolden, illustrated by J. Gregory Christie

The Champ touches on the highlights of the champ's career in and out of the ring. The free-verse format and lively language make it an enjoyable read aloud.

Muhammed Ali: Champion of the World, by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Francois Roca

Writing in Booklist, John Green says this biography captures "not only Ali's career and life story, but also his significance." Great oil painting illustrations add to the allure of this book.

For more on books and movies about Ali try this article in Express Sports, by Shahid Judge

I also recommend this newspaper portrait of Ali by veteran journalist, Jerry Izenberg: Muhammad Ali: Why they Called Him The Greatest and Why I Called Him My Friend.

Please add your own favorites in the comments section.