Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Review of Steven Singer's New Book: Gadfly on the Wall

In his new book, Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform, education blogger Steven Singer has collected some of the most informative and provocative essays from his popular blog, Gadfly on the Wall. Singer's voice is one of the most necessary in the entire education reform blogosphere, because Singer is a practicing teacher, whose writing is both passionate and informed. If he sometimes sounds indignant, that indignation is rooted in the wisdom that comes from being on the front lines of the debate as a practicing educator, as a parent, and as an advocate for children and public education.

While the topics he tackles are very serious indeed, his writing style carries the reader along on a wave of short declarative statements that pull no punches and take no prisoners. If you find your passion for the good fight against the corporate education reformers flagging, this book is sure to buck up your spirits and get you ready to carry on with the battle.

The book is divided into four sections. Three of the sections cover topics you would expect to find in a book like this: school choice, standardized testing, teaching in the age of the Common Core. Each of these sections provide thoughtful critiques from the perspective of a teacher, father and public school advocate. It is in the least expected section, however, which leads off the book, that Singer makes a singular contribution to the literature on education reform. The section is titled, Racism and Prejudice, and this section alone is not only worth the price of the book, but should be required reading for every current and prospective teacher in the country.

Singer, a white teacher teaching in a classroom full of mostly black students, takes a serious and knowing look at racism and its impact on his students, and by extension, all students of color, and our society as a whole. First of all, Singer owns up to his own racism and invites us to see our own racism and to reflect how this impacts our education system and our entire culture. Singer defines racism as "hate plus power." In other words, racism goes beyond prejudice, anyone of any race can be prejudiced, but racism requires the power that only whites have in our society, so racism in America is a problem that only whites can fix and they can only fix it, Singer suggests, by first admitting it.

And, Singer says, this is white America's problem to fix. With the power white's wield in our society, we must fix ourselves or the issue will never be fixed. So after recognition comes action. Singer suggests many ways teachers can work to fix the problem in a series of essays. The solutions he offers are as seemingly simple as respecting  African American naming practices, "White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names", to the complexities of classroom discussions about police brutality, "A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown," to the challenges of overcoming deeply ingrained attitudes about wealth and poverty, "Prejudice and Poverty - Why Americans Hate the Poor and Worship the Rich."

Ultimately, Singer is arguing that we must combat racism by "treating black folks fairly, equitably, and with an open heart." It is that open heart that we may find to be the greatest challenge, because as Singer skillfully shows in this section of the book, our history and our culture has not only closed our eyes to our inherent biases, but, as recent political events indicate, may have done great damage to our heart as well.

One man whose heart has escaped undamaged from being raised white in America is Steven Singer. In these pages he opens his heart to the reader, and for this reader at least, my heart is a bit more open and a bit richer for having read his words.

Singer, Steven. (2017). Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform. NY: Garn Press.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Least of Russ on Reading 2017

Welcome to the 4th annual list of The Least of Russ on Reading. Each year newspapers, magazines, and television shows use the end of the year as an opportunity to publish "Best of,,," lists. I choose to use this year-end recap to revisit a few of my posts over the past year that, for one reason or another, did not attract a lot of attention.

I have been writing this blog for almost five years now and I have yet to figure out what precisely makes one blog post go viral, while another is greeted with internet indifference. At any rate I think these few are worth another look. I hope you agree. Here they are: The Least of Russ on Reading for 2017.

Comprehending Non Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

When kids struggle to comprehend the non-fiction texts we give them, we need to ask ourselves, "What can I do to ensure they can read this successfully?"

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

As I sat pondering the impending inauguration of one Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, some songs and poems reminded me that "something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Building a Better Robot Teacher

What a surprise! Research shows that technology can't replace human beings as teachers. Here I talk about the proper role of technology in the classroom and the still critical role of the classroom teacher.

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need

One of my personal favorites of the year. While so many around us seem to think that anyone can teach, I argue here for the very specialized kind of knowledge that a teacher must have and how that knowledge is unique to those who choose teaching as a profession and not a sideline.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2017

As this blog enters its fifth year of existence it is a pleasure to continue a tradition begun in the first year - an offering of seasonal poetry as a gift to loyal readers of Russ on Reading. Over the years one of the real pleasures of sharing poems with you has been the opportunity to find new poems I had not read before and to revisit older poems I had read many times before. This year I offer something old (Winter Trees) something new ( Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing) and something old, but newly discovered (Speakin O' Christmas). In an increasingly fraught world poetry has always offered me solace and food for thought. I hope you find something here that brings a smile of recognition or a nod of remembrance to brighten your holiday season. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your holidays.

Winter Trees
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold

Speakin’ O’ Christmas by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Breezes blowin’ middlin’ brisk,
Snow-flakes thro’ the air a-whisk,
Fallin’ kind o’ soft an’ light,
Not enough to make things white,
But jest sorter siftin’ down
So ’s to cover up the brown
Of the dark world’s rugged ways
’N’ make things look like holidays.
Not smoothed over, but jest specked,
Sorter strainin’ fur effect,
An’ not quite a-gittin’ through
What it started in to do.
Mercy sakes! it does seem queer
Christmas day is ’most nigh here.
Somehow it don’t seem to me
Christmas like it used to be,—
Christmas with its ice an’ snow,
Christmas of the long ago.
You could feel its stir an’ hum
Weeks an’ weeks before it come;
Somethin’ in the atmosphere
Told you when the day was near,
Did n’t need no almanacs;
That was one o’ Nature’s fac’s.
Every cottage decked out gay—
Cedar wreaths an’ holly spray—
An’ the stores, how they were drest,
Tinsel tell you could n’t rest;
Every winder fixed up pat,
Candy canes, an’ things like that;
Noah’s arks, an’ guns, an’ dolls,
An’ all kinds o’ fol-de-rols.
Then with frosty bells a-chime,
Slidin’ down the hills o’ time,
Right amidst the fun an’ din
Christmas come a-bustlin’ in,
Raised his cheery voice to call
Out a welcome to us all;
Hale and hearty, strong an’ bluff,
That was Christmas, sure enough.
Snow knee-deep an’ coastin’ fine,
Frozen mill-ponds all ashine,
Seemin’ jest to lay in wait,
Beggin’ you to come an’ skate.
An’ you’d git your gal an’ go
Stumpin’ cheerily thro’ the snow,
Feelin’ pleased an’ skeert an’ warm
’Cause she had a-holt yore arm.
Why, when Christmas come in, we
Spent the whole glad day in glee,
Havin’ fun an’ feastin’ high
An’ some courtin’ on the sly.
Burstin’ in some neighbor’s door
An’ then suddenly, before
He could give his voice a lift,
Yellin’ at him, “Christmas gift.”
Now sich things are never heard,
“Merry Christmas” is the word.
But it’s only change o’ name,
An’ means givin’ jest the same.
There’s too many new-styled ways
Now about the holidays.
I’d jest like once more to see
Christmas like it used to be!
Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing
by Toi Derricotte
My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us
unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.
Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even
then were old from scrubbing, whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens, painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside. 
But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.
From Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Ain't That a Shame

The great Fats Domino died this past week. The blog post takes its name from one of his greatest songs, a tune that has been running through my head since I read of his passing. Maybe that is why a recent article from Kappan caught my eye. The article by Joan F. Goodman, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, addresses the issue of shaming as a disciplinary strategy in schools, particularly charter schools. The article entitled, The Shame of Shaming, is behind a pay-wall,  but well worth the read if you can get access to it (Kappan, October 2017). I have voiced my own concern about charter school shaming practices in earlier posts here and here. The Kappan article adds to that thinking with some important, scholarly insights that cannot be ignored.

Shaming, defined by Goodman as "public censure of a student designed to induce humiliation", occurs with some regularity in most schools, of course, but Goodman wanted to look at school policies that directly condone and even encourage shaming as a disciplinary measure. In our country's 10 largest cities none explicitly endorses a policy that meets the definition of shaming above, but a number of shaming techniques are explicitly spelled out in the parent/student handbooks of charter management organizations (CMOs) in these cities. Goodman focused her study on nine CMOs representing more than 500 schools. The endorsed practices she found in 2/3rds of the handbooks for these schools included the following, which will be familiar to anyone who has been following the educational reform movement.
  • Public data walls in the classrooms or hallways, displaying information on student behavior, academic achievement, or disciplinary infractions;
  • Physical or simulated separation from the students' peer group via silent lunches or clothing changes (in my own experience I have seen kids forced to wear ugly yellow highlighter-colored shirts as a mark of their minor infraction like talking while in line); and
  • Public apologies (often in the form of a letter to be read aloud in front of the class).
These shaming practices are often meted out to students for very minor infractions, such as failure to turn in homework, failure to keep eyes on the teacher, talking in the lunch line, etc. Do these officially sanctioned shaming strategies work? Not according to the experts. Goodman summarizes the findings of researchers and concludes that 

Shame fails to inhibit future acts of wrongdoing and may even make matters worse. It is associated with defensively motivated anger, future substance use, risk taking, and externalization of blame.

In other words, shaming works directly against our desire as teachers to develop thoughtful, reflective, self-actualized learners who are willing to take the risks necessary for learning to take place. Shaming is an educational dead end. Imagine that this bankrupt and cruel strategy is being foisted most often upon our most vulnerable students, students of color in impoverished areas of our cities, and we must wonder about the motivations of these charter management organizations. This is nothing less than institutionalized child abuse, at best motivated by well-meaning, but clueless education reformers, or at worst, a racist response designed to foster a compliant, low-wage work force for the white and wealthy captains of American industry.

I call on all who champion charter schools, including Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to immediately disavow any form of policy driven shaming practices from any school that receives public funds in any form (that includes all charters and most parochial and private schools). And after all shaming practices are eliminated from policy, we can focus on the very needed work to ensure that shaming is never used as a disciplinary tactic against children as any part, official or unofficial, of an educational program. 

Schools are designed and run by adults. We should expect our public officials to behave like adults and not try to control children by abusing them through public shaming.

I am sure we all have our school-based shaming stories to share. When I was a sophomore in high school, I made the junior varsity basketball team and while I was probably the 12th player on a 12 man team, I was pleased and proud of the accomplishment. The team, of course, had a few rules, which included keeping your nose clean in class, getting respectable grades, and absolutely no smoking. These were reasonable rules and I managed to follow two of them. I was, however, a smoker and my close friends were smokers, so even though it was against the rules, I continued to smoke. I got caught. Some assistant coach saw me smoking at the local teen gathering place and reported me to the coach. 

Here is how my coach chose to inform me of my violation of team rules. The whole team was gathered in the locker room before the first game of the season, dressing for the game. We were laughing and clowning and generally trying not to show how nervous we surely all were. Coach came in for our pregame meeting. He began by saying that one of us had shown that he was not a team player by breaking the rules. He said, "Walsh you were seen smoking after school hours yesterday. Get dressed and get out. You are off the team." As my teammates listened to coach's pregame instructions, I stood there in that small room, putting on my street clothes, while everyone tried to avoid looking at me and I choked back tears.

Now, I broke the rules. I deserved to be punished. I deserved to be kicked off the team. What I didn't deserve was to be shamed in front of my teammates. Coach could have called me into his office before we all got dressed or he could have brought me down during school or even after school to tell me not to appear that evening, but coach decided to shame me, probably to "make an example" of me for the other players. Adults should not abuse 15 year-olds to make examples for others.

The shaming did not make me a better basketball player. It did not make me a better rule follower. It did not even make me quit smoking. It did breed resentment, but fortunately for me I had a reasonably healthy ego and home support system and I got past it quickly. But I have never forgotten it. In the end, I hope it made me a more empathetic teacher and coach.

Shaming has no place in our schools, yet charter schools make shaming a part of school policy for poor, minority children. Fats had it right, Ain't That a Shame.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Richard Wilbur, Great American Poet: An Appreciation

I read in the New York Times this week of the death at 96 of the great American poet, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur was a former poet laureate of the United States, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and a National Book Award winner, who published numerous volumes of poetry, as well as children's books, translations of Moliere plays, and song lyrics. He teamed with Leonard Bernstein as the lyricist for the Broadway musical, Candide. Wilbur held a special place in my heart, not only because of his great poetry, but also because he was one of the very few great American poets that I actually got to meet and talk to.

In 1967, Wilbur was a visiting artist at the Spring Arts Festival at Bloomsburg State College (now University), where I was a sophomore history major and aspiring actor. As part of the Festival, and as a way to honor Wilbur, the Bloomsburg Players were putting on Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe, by Moliere. As a member of the cast, I was invited to a seminar that Wilbur gave on campus, just a dozen students sitting around a table and chatting about poetry and plays.

Wilbur was central casting for my youthful idea of "poet." He was in his forties then, quite handsome and urbane, wearing a turtle neck and patch sleeved sport coat, and smoking a pipe. His voice was deep, resonant, friendly and authoritative. I clearly remember that day that Wilbur discussed one of his poems, The Juggler.

The Juggler 
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball, ,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
In the dust again, if the table starts to drop
Through the daily dark again, and though the plate
Lies flat on the table top,
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world's weight. 
I remember, in particular, Wilbur telling us that he tried to get that last line "Who has won for once over the world's weight" to sound like a ball bouncing on a floor, less and less, until it finally stops still. The poem is typical of Wilbur's poetry: formal. witty, spiritual, but not preachy, and absolutely virtuosic in its command of form.
When I became a teacher, I discovered that Wilbur also wrote (and illustrated) books for children, including his series called, Opposites, which I would often use in class.
Some Opposites

What is the opposite of riot?
It is lots of people keeping quiet.

The opposite of doughnut? Wait
A minute while I meditate
This isn’t easy. Ah! I’ve found it.
It’s a cookie with a hole around it.

What is the opposite of two?
A lonely me, a lonely you.

The opposite of a cloud could be
A white reflection in the sea
Or a huge blueness in the air
Caused by the cloud’s not being there

The opposite of opposite?
That’s much too difficult. I quit.
In Wilbur's translation of Moliere's Tartuffe, I got to speak these lines.
Enough, by God! I am through with pious men!
Henceforth I'll hate the whole false brotherhood,
And persecute them worse than Satan could.
My character was a fool who had been duped by a false prophet. Not all were so taken in by the would be cleric's  piety. The young Damis says this:
Good God! Do you expect me to submit
To the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?
Must we forego all joys and satisfactions
Because that bigot censures all our actions?
Great fun and simply a joy to perform.
Richard Wilbur was a great poet who deserves to be celebrated, but most importantly read. If you were looking to buy just one volume of his work, I would recommend New and Collected Poems, one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning volumes.
I'll finish this piece with one more of my favorites.
The Boy at a Window
Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.                         

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunshine Patriots

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. - Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

In The American Crisis, Tom Paine was, of course, writing about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War some 250 years ago, but I have always thought that "summer soldier and sunshine patriot" line could be applied to many contemporary "patriots."   I am thinking, in part, of those Americans who stand for the national anthem at sporting events with their hat in one hand and a beer in the other and who think that that is an act of patriotism. 

I would have to think that our founding fathers would laugh. They understood that true acts of patriotism required commitment and risk. That real patriotism meant taking action, not standing idly by. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine have more in common with Colin Kaepernick than they do with Donald Trump. Yes, all of these men are flawed human beings, but four of these flawed creatures were and are fighting for America to live up to its own ideals and one is using the guise of patriotism to attack the true patriots and to appeal to the basest instincts of those who think patriotism means "my country right or wrong."

Let's get this straight. We do not dishonor the flag or the veterans who fought under it in all of our wars by taking a knee during a sporting event. We do the most to dishonor the flag when we allow the flag to stand as a symbol of discrimination and inequality. What did our veterans fight for, if not for "liberty and justice for all?" We do our flag and our veterans the greatest honor by continuing to fight for that great American ideal. If Donald Trump does not understand this, he is the "sunshine patriot" in chief.

One place that this controversy will surely appear soon is the public schools. Schools are the places where the playing of the National Anthem and other symbolic patriotic activities, like the Pledge of Allegiance, are daily occurrences. How do teachers respond? How do administrators respond when the inevitable happens and students start to take a knee? We've already seen how one school district in Louisiana is responding, by threatening students with disciplinary action if they choose to exercise their rights.

I have always thought that our job as teachers is to clearly set forth to children what the American ideals are, to inform them about the many ways we have lived up to those ideals and the many ways that we have failed to live up to those ideals and then show them the tools the Constitution and the laws of this country provide for us to try to protect those successes and correct those failures.

Early in my teaching career, I taught a high school freshman course in Civics and American Government. As a part of that course, we studied the Bill of Rights. The first amendment of that document says the following.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

After we read this, I asked the students that if the Bill of Rights says that "Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion", why were we required to say The Pledge of Allegiance, including the words "under God" every morning at the start of the school day?

I then provided a little history. The Pledge of Allegiance, originally drafted in 1893 and revised several times over the years until it was approved for recitation in the schools by Congress in 1942, did not include the words "under God." It was only in 1954, with the country in the grip of the communist witch hunt known as McCarthyism, that Congress decided to add these two words. The argument was that these words would distinguish the US from godless communism. Almost since the words were first added, various groups and individuals have challenged the constitutionality of having school children recite a pledge that included these words.

Should I have raised this issue with 14 year-olds. Many would likely say no, but if we are truly in the education business to provide an educated citizenry that can carry on the greatest democracy the world has ever known, it seems to me these citizens in training need experience in analyzing and questioning the actions of their government. Besides it does no good to lie or sugar coat history with these children, for those lies will turn to resentment once these young people inevitably discover the truth.

To recognize that the USA is not perfect is not unpatriotic. To want the country to do better by all of its people is not unpatriotic. In fact, to recognize it and to do something about, such as taking a knee at a nationally televised football game or taking a seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, or declaring your independence from a tyrannical king, is a very patriotic thing to do and in the grandest traditions of this country's true patriots.

I would like to see all school children learn this - the true nature of patriotism.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Knowledge, Belief, and the Professional Educator

I imagine that most of those who read this blog accept climate change and the human impact on climate change as settled science. We've seen the evidence; we've heard from the experts and we have reached an informed conclusion. This is a good thing and one that most Americans not in the White House or in denial for economic and political reasons also accept. It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving climate science; it is a matter of rigorous academic inquiry.

Now I would ask all teachers and teacher leaders to apply the same academic rigor to instructional practice. That is we must make our instructional decisions on what we know works - based on research.

Unfortunately as I have talked to teachers over the years about instructional practice, I have heard a lot of faith-based language.
  • "I don't believe in homework."
  • "I believe in phonics."
  • "I don't believe in teaching to the test."
  • "I believe in independent reading."
  • "I believe in using round robin and popcorn reading."
For about 2,000 years doctors "believed" that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Today, I would bet if you encountered a doctor who recommended blood-letting for your flu symptoms, you would run, not walk, out the office door screaming. Science, and mounting numbers of dead patients, caught up with blood-letting. So, as professionals, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards. We need to follow the science and stop talking about our beliefs and start talking about the scientific research behind our instructional decision making. 

Now I know applying the rules of scientific inquiry to education is more difficult and more elusive than the study of climate. Climate exists in the physical world, education in the human world. Working with the mind is messier than working with weather patterns. And yes, teaching is as much art as it is science. Still, decisions on instruction must be rooted in what we can show works. Unless we can show, through documentation of the research, that what we are doing does indeed work, we stand vulnerable to the charge of educational malpractice.

So, instead of saying, "I don't believe in giving homework", we need to make a statement like this. "Research has shown that homework has little or no impact on learning in the elementary grades, so I chose not to assign it to my third graders." This statement, by the way, is true. The most comprehensive research study on homework, conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University, found just that. You can read my fuller discussion about homework here. The reason we continue to see elementary school children burdened with homework is because teachers "believe" in it, not because it has any academic value.

Often times, however, the science gives us conflicting messages and makes sticking to the science and what we know difficult. For example, we know through numerous studies that the more time children spend reading the better they get at reading. Teachers aware of this will work to make sure to provide time for engaged, independent reading in the classroom. But what if you would also like to have the students read at home? Is this homework? Will it be effective? We might decide to work with parents to provide a family time for reading at home. Our statement then is not, "I believe that reading in the home is important", but rather, "The research indicates that when children have access to reading material in the home, when reading is valued by the adults in the home, and when time is set aside for reading, children will improve their overall reading ability." We would then need to work with parents to make "family literacy" not homework, but a natural part of what happens in the home.

Teachers, though, must be skilled and skeptical consumers of research. Sometimes what is presented to us as research is really propaganda. It is always a good idea to follow the money when presented with "research" demonstrating that a program is effective. Ask the questions, Who stands to benefit financially from this research? What is this research trying to sell? Was this research published in a peer reviewed journal? If someone is citing you research to support a reading program she is selling, be very, very skeptical.

Sometimes the "research" is driven by a political agenda. A prime example of this was the National Reading Panel (NRP) that came out with the Reading First initiative under the George W. Bush administration. The leaders of NRP, including the chair, Reid Lyon, had a bias toward a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction, so that unsurprisingly, the final NRP report argued for the primacy of phonics in early literacy instruction. Eight years later, follow-up research found that indeed, thanks to Reading First, kids were better at phonics. Unfortunately, the same kids were no better at understanding what they read, which after all is what reading is about.

The NRP fell into the trap of valuing one type of research, what they called empirical, over other types of research including, especially, correlational and ethnographic that would have given them a fuller picture of effective practice. Phonics instruction, and other bits and pieces approaches to literacy tend to lend themselves to empirical study, while other effective practices, like independent reading, are more readily studied through correlational studies or ethnographies. While empirical studies are generally the "gold standard" in research, they are not the only standard and much can be learned from other rigorous types of research.

All this can leave the poor classroom teacher frustrated and confused. What to do if our goal is to truly use well-researched instructional strategies in our teaching? For me the answer lies in two places. First, what does the preponderance of reliable research evidence show to be effective practice? Second, what do I observe in my classroom, over-time and through documentation, seems to be working?

So when I read the following in a respected publication, an article written by respected researchers that "the research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading" (Gambrell, et al, 2011), I am prone to include independent reading in my instructional practice. If  over-time in my classroom, the practice does not seem to be working, I need to take a close look at how I have implemented the practice, find out what successful programs are doing that I am not and make adjustments.

There may even be times when well-researched practices that have shown to be effective with other students prove to be ineffective with the students I am working with. When this happens, and when I have done all I can to be sure I am employing the practice as effectively as possible, I may have to drop a practice as not effective with this particular group of students (or possibly with this particular teacher).

The point is, finally, that as a professional educator, I must make decisions based on the preponderance of the science and in line with the evidence I see before me and keep reading and keep adjusting and keep employing my best professional judgement. That is the essence of being a professional. And that is something we can all believe in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Teacher Tech Ambassadors: Engaged Professionals or Corporate Shills?

About 15 years ago, in my position as a curriculum director for a suburban school district, I worked with teachers, administrators and the Board of Education to introduce a new spelling program. The program was well researched and, we determined, would yield better results. The program would also require considerable rethinking and planning by all of our elementary teachers. One teacher, let's call her Lois, took the bull by the horns, and because she was a highly organized person who wanted to have this new program under control, she spent numerous hours laying out a year-long plan for using the new program. Lois shared it with me and I agreed it was excellent work.

"This is outstanding work, Lois", I said. "This will be helpful to all the teachers in the school district."

"Hold on there, Buster," she replied. "I did this work, and it was a lot of work, and I am not sharing it with anyone."

I was flabbergasted. The teaching profession has a long history of collegial sharing. For many years I had organized and/or participated in "teacher shares" where good ideas were spread around. As  a reading specialist, I always felt it was my obligation to share any knowledge I had or materials I developed for the good of all. The idea, I thought then, and I think now, was that no matter what we came up with, it was not about personal gain, it was about what would help children. The amount of teacher sharing that happens on social media sites like Pinterest would seem to indicate that this sharing is still a well-established expectation of the profession.

This blog is a way for me to continue that ideal. All teachers are free to use, or discard, my ideas free of charge and free of advertising. However, as I read in Sunday's New York Times, the monetization of public school teachers is reaching new heights with the incursion of Silicon Valley tech companies. Let's call them "Big Tech" since their business plan seems to be closely modeled on 'Big Pharma."

The article is titled, Silicon Valley Courts Brand Name Teachers, Raising Ethics IssuesThe reporter, Natasha Singer, tells the story of Kayla Drezel, a tech savvy third grade teacher, who has turned her classroom into a laboratory for educational technology and herself into a shill for various tech companies. She has negotiated a special contract giving her ten days off during the school year so that she can give speeches, attend tech company trainings and do workshops for teachers. She has an agreement with a clothing store to provide her with clothing in exchange for publicity for the store. As Ms. Drezel herself says, "It's like two full-time jobs."

I am sure it is. I also wonder what impact "two full-time jobs" has on Ms. Drezel's actual job  teaching third graders. But by all accounts, Ms. Drezel is a first-rate teachers, whose students love her and whose supervisors feel she has brought tech products and expertise to the school that they could not have possibly have afforded without her involvement and agreements with these tech companies.

What could be bad, eh?

Well, plenty. Public school teachers are public employees, not free agents. As such they are on very shaky ethical ground when they act as "ambassadors" for tech companies. Another word for ambassador would be consultant and as consultants for a private company they may come into conflict with their obligation to their employer, the school board. These positions certainly put the teacher in an ethical bind. Are teachers the servants of the parents and children or of the Big Tech companies? As former Attorney General of Maine, James E. Tierney, put it "Any time you are paying a public employee to promote a product in a public classroom without transparency, then that's problematic."

And then, of course, their is the issue of the continued privatization of the public schools. Why, do you suppose Big Tech is so willing to provide perks and pay to teachers who do product placement and promotion for them in the schools? Is it possible that they are taking advantage of the fact that schools are chronically under-resourced and are happy to accept the apparent largesse of Big Tech to get the technology their budgets won't allow. And how big a jump is it from there to renaming good old Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary as Big Tech Elementary.

It is understandable that teachers and administrators want the best for their children. Letting the Big Tech wolf in the door is not the way to go about this. One question that no one seems to be asking Ms. Drezel and other tech "ambassadors" is this: While you tech ambassadors are raking in profits from your tech work for various tech companies, what are you paying your students for serving as educational technology lab rats?
Here is what I think Ms. Drezel and others like her should do. Investigate a technology that will benefit her students. To begin with this is problematic since technological innovations have shown little impact on learning, but let's give her the benefit of the doubt. Write a grant that allows her to bring the technological innovation into her classroom. The grant would be exclusively for materials and equipment and training, not for personal income. Conduct an action research project to show the effectiveness or lack thereof of the technological intervention. Write a report and share with the administration and school board. If the technology is shown to be effective, seek funding through the regular budgetary process and then share with colleagues and assist them in using the tech in the classroom.

That is how professional teachers go about things. They investigate, they learn, they try out, and they share. The gains are personal, professional, systemic and intrinsic, not monetary.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Building a Better (Robot) Teacher

An article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times this week caught my eye. It was entitled, The Secret of a Good Robot Teacher. The article begins with the question, Why is educational technology such a disappointment? You can read the article if you like, but, spoiler alert, I can tell you the answer the authors provide in one sentence: technology has failed because it cannot replicate what a teacher does.

Now I am the last person on earth to pooh pooh good research and the authors of this article have apparently done some solid research on the topic of educational technology. But I believe that any thinking human being could have come to the same conclusion as these researchers at least 50 years ago. In fact, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov did come to that conclusion in a short story called, The Fun They Had, written in 1951. In the story, Asimov imagines a time in the future when children are taught at home via a computer screen "teacher" that is calibrated to provide lessons based on the individual child's aptitudes. The kids hate it and long for the time when kids went to school together, were instructed by a real human, and read something called "books."

In the times article the authors cite a six-year study that examined different cybertechnology programs across thousands of students in hundreds of schools and found little evidence that it improved academic performance. The authors believe that the problem is that we just have not built a good enough robot yet, one that is responsive to the social cues so necessary in learning, and that we need to spend our time (and presumably money) on building robots that are socially responsive. In fact, they built one. A "robot that looked like a cute plush creature" with an animated face that allowed for expressions and eye movements. The researchers found that kids learned better from the expressive robot than they did from a "flat" one.

I wish the world of cybertechnology good luck in building a robot that is more successful in helping children learn, but I would suggest that this is not the best way to use scarce resources. We already have technology in place to provide the needed social interaction, feedback and authority necessary for learning. We call it the classroom teacher. The really important use of this kind of research should be, I believe, to help us understand more about how children learn and help teachers learn to more effectively use technology as an aid in student learning.

Technology is a tool. Like paper and pencil, technology offers the teacher one more tool to enhance student learning - a learning that will never be unmoored from social interaction with adults and other children. We need to work to refine the tool, not to make it more like a human being, but to make it more useful to actual human beings.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Confederate Statues: A History Lesson

President Donald Trump displays his ignorance of American history in his recent tweets about statues celebrating the Confederacy. It will be the responsibility of teachers, returning to school soon, to ensure that the President's ignorance does not gain traction and spread. Here is what he said through his favorite communication medium, Twitter:

I will agree with the President that you can't change history, but you can learn from it. What should school children learn from the controversy over Confederate statues? The first lesson to be learned, I believe, is that these statues were not intended as art or as a commemoration of Confederate "heroes", but as tools of intimidation and propaganda. The statues were built, largely during two periods 1890 - 1930 and the 1960s. The first period coincided with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the second period was during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The message was clear during both these periods. The statues were built to glorify white supremacy and to stand as a constant reminder to African Americans that they were not welcome to equality in the South even if the South had lost the Civil War. As the artist Austin Pendleton put it in a New York Times article,

These are not works of art; they're propaganda. To equate them with how a work of art exists in the world is a false equation. They're instruments of a political agenda and it would be real folly to suggest that there is any kind of ambiguity.

Like all monuments, these statues say more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of an exclusionary definition of America.

The "culture" that Mr. Trump sees being "ripped apart" is not "our" culture, but the culture of a defeated ideology, an ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that says one race has the right to subjugate another, an ideology that says one race is somehow a lesser race than another, an ideology that says that one race can abuse another with impunity. This is not a culture we need to be celebrating.

But is a legacy we need to remember, because the horror of this legacy must stand as a cautionary tale for all Americans in the future. We can remember that history by placing these statues in historical context. About 10 years ago I had a chance to visit Budapest, Hungary. Hungary, you will remember, was under the control of the Soviet Union from the end of WWII until 1990. The Soviets put down a revolution in Hungary in 1956, brutally and bloodily. 

The Soviets constructed dozens of statues celebrating Communism in the occupied city of Budapest. After the Soviets were kicked out, the city fathers wanted the statuary symbols of their subjugation out of the city, but they did not want to "destroy" history. They wanted future generations to remember what had happened to them, so they moved the statues out of town to a place called Memento Park, where they could be viewed altogether in a context that made the history of Soviet repression clear. 

We could do the same with the Confederate statues. They belong in a park or museum where they can be given the proper context. Where future generations can learn about a shameful part of our history and where they cannot stand as continuing symbols of subjugation and hate. 

As teachers the monument controversy offers a teachable moment that goes to the heart of the American ideal. Are we a country of inclusion or a country of exclusion? Are we a country with an open mind, unafraid to confront our shameful past in the hopes that it leads to a better future? Are we a country that truly aspires to the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Or are we a country with a narrow mind, consumed by fear, hate, and base self-interest?

Yes, Mr. President, we can learn from this history. I hope you will. I hope our school students will. I hope we all will.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

High Expectations? Yes, But...

About the time that the No Child Left Behind legislation went into effect in 2002, then President George W. Bush famously decried the "soft-bigotry of low expectations" that was holding too many students back. President Bush had a point, if teachers and educational leaders did not expect high achievement from their students then low achievement would be the inevitable result. Bush's decree led to a spate of calls for teachers to have "high expectations" of their students. And as so often happens in education, this call was misunderstood and misapplied to the detriment of learners.

Telling new teachers, or veteran teachers for that matter, that they need to have high expectations for their learners is dangerously vague and unhelpful. The advice that teachers need is that we should set high, but achievable, goals for each of our students and that these high, but achievable, goals will be different for each of our students. As with all educational bromides, the real answers are much more subtle and more difficult to implement than just having "high expectations."

In 1954 the British track star Roger Bannister ran the first ever 4 minute mile. There can be no question that Bannister had high expectations for himself to achieve this goal. He had to train hard, get excellent coaching, and then drive himself to the brink of collapse to achieve his goal. In the 63 years since Bannister broke the four minute mile the record time has been lowered to 3:43.13 by the Moroccan track star, Hicham El Guerrouj. That is, with all the advances in training and equipment, just short of 17 seconds has been shaved off this record. Now, I suppose runners who have followed Bannister over all those years could have set a goal of running the first 3 minute mile. That would certainly be a high expectation. But the quest would have certainly ended in frustration and failure, because human beings have so far proven incapable of running that fast. So instead, runners set themselves the high, but achievable, goal of shaving hundredths of seconds off the existing record.

Back in my high school days, football players were expected to run a six minute mile. This was definitely a high expectation for me that demanded a full summer of training before ever walking onto the football field. Six minutes was a high, but (barely) achievable goal for me and most of my fellow football players, but a four minute mile would be out of the question and would have led to me giving up on football.

The point is that what constitutes high expectations depends on the individual and also on what can reasonably be achieved given our human limitations. I think it is ill advised to tell teachers to have high expectations of their students. If the teacher aims too high, students will become frustrated, lose confidence in themselves as learners and question the ability of their teacher to assist their learning.

How does a teacher craft high, but achievable, expectations for students? Here are a few keys.

  • Follow the Goldilocks principle. Work to find the amount of challenge that is "just right" for that individual student. This means working with the child in what Vygotsky called the "zone of proximal development", that area slightly above where the student can function independently, but well below where the student becomes frustrated. 
  • Provide high levels of support. Provide consistent specific feedback, provide additional and varied instruction, build positive relationships, teach students explicitly how to get help.
  • Give students opportunities to contribute. Make sure all students have an opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions regularly. Vary who gets called upon in class.
  • Show confidence in your students. Let students know that you believe they are competent learners who can learn and thrive in your classroom. Start off with goals that are a little easier to accomplish to build confidence and stamina for more difficult work.
  • Listen closely to students. Conferring with students individually about there learning provides the teacher with the information she needs to help the student to the next level of learning.
  • Praise student efforts and achievements often. Make sure the praise is both genuine and specific. I wrote about the role of praise in this post 
As teachers we must go into each interaction believing the students can learn and believing that we can help them learn, but simply having high expectations is not adequate. A high expectation for one student is another student's insurmountable barrier. As professionals, providing for the needs of all students is the high expectation we must hold for ourselves. It is a constant challenge that cannot be boiled down to a simplistic cliche like "have high expectations."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

In Praise of Praise as a Teaching Tool

Yesterday, my wife Cindy Mershon and I took our 3 1/2 year-old granddaughter, Schuyler,on a trip to the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. We took the light rail train to get there. Schuyler is fascinated by trains and was particularly fascinated by the fold-down seats in the train that she could push down to sit in and then watch snap up when she got out of the seat. Schuyler was sitting in a regular seat as we sat in the station and she asked if she could move to a fold down seat. I said, "Yes", but tried to make it clear to her that for reasons of her own safety she could only get in or out of a seat when the train was not moving. When the train started moving, Schuyler told me that she could not get out of the seat. She understood. As soon as the train rolled to a halt at the next station, however, Schuyler hopped out of the seat to watch it snap back into place.

I said, "Schuyler, I like the way you waited until the train came to a stop before you left your seat. You are being safe. Good job." I was trying to practice what I had learned as a teacher many years before. In order for praise to be effective it must describe the desired behavior, be specific, and be positive. I repeated this for each of the many stops the train made over the next hour. Full disclosure here, Schuyler was imperfect in her application of the rule, so once or twice my feedback was corrective, not praising.

At any rate, it is an important reminder to all of us that praise is a powerful tool for teachers, if used genuinely and appropriately. By genuinely, I mean that the behavior being praised must be genuinely praiseworthy (kids can easily spot false praise) and by appropriately I mean it must reinforce the desired behavior by placing that behavior in a specific context, what psychologists call behavior specific praise (BSP).

In literacy instruction, behavior specific praise can help reinforce desired reading behavior. When a reader stumbles on a word and then figures it out, or successfully identifies a word by working through it, or self-corrects, we can use praise to help make sure these desirable behaviors continue.

Tommy, I like the way you reread the passage and then said the first letter of the new word to help you figure it out. Good job.

Nice work, Mary. You noticed that the word didn't look like "house", so you went back and corrected it by making it look right.

Jimmy, you did something good readers do. You realized that "house" didn't make sense in that sentence so you made it make sense by changing the word to "horse."

In reading comprehension, too, praise can be used to both reinforce desired behaviors and also extend thinking. Suppose you were reading Katherine Paterson's A Bridge to Terabithia with the students.

Lisa, I like the way you were able to identify Terabithia as a fantasy land for Leslie and Jess by using your background knowledge of other fantasies like The Chronicles of Narnia. Yet, A Bridge to Terabithia is a very different kind of book from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. How would you say these books differ? 

Eric, you have correctly identified the "love letter" that Jess and Leslie wrote to Janice Avery as an act of revenge against a bully. Nice work. Good readers make inferences by combining their own knowledge with information from the reading. Do you think Jess and Leslie were right to do this? Were they acting like bullies themselves? What evidence do you find in the story to support your answer?

Used properly praise is a powerful tool for the teacher. There is no reason to withhold genuine praise from students. Indeed, psychiatrists tell us that praise should outweigh correction by a ratio of 4:1. You may want to track your own praise giving behaviors in reading instruction situations. With struggling readers it can be tempting to get this praise/correction ratio out of whack. I advise teachers working with strugglers or with students who misbehave to try to "Catch the child doing something right!" Well structured and genuine praise may be a better route to changed behavior than correction. As that sage of children's literature, Mary Poppins, might say, "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down."

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Third Annual National Give-A-Kid-A-Book Day

July 6, 2017 marks the 3rd annual National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day. This day of book giving was initiated on this blog in 2015 as a way to get books into children's hands during the summer, a time when many young readers suffer "summer loss" because they fail to exercise their reading muscles over the summer break. While many educators talk about children's motivation to read, research has shown that the key variable in whether children choose to read or not is access to books. As McGill-Franzen and Allington put it,

Ensuring that books are available to any child at any time of the year will be a good first step in enhancing the reading achievement of low-income students and an absolutely necessary step in closing the reading achievement gap.

This week my children and grandchildren are gathering for a family celebration. My wife, Cindy, and I now have five grandchildren, so we will be keeping the bookstores busy as we load up the grandkids with the latest picture books, poetry volumes, and young adult novels. I invite you to join us. Find a kid. Give that kid a book. It will make you feel good about yourself and you just might be doing your part in building a life-long reader.

National Give-a-Kid-a-Book Day is dedicated to the many hard-working people and organizations who have gone to extraordinary efforts to make sure that all children have access to books. Toward that end each year on this day, we recognize these folks by placing them on the NGKBD Honor Roll. Past inductee's include Luis Soriano, Lisa Willever, Philadelphia's Words on Wheels, Dolly Parton, Leland B. Jacobs, and Margaret Craig McNamara.

This year's inductees on the Honor Roll are as follows.

M. Jerry Weiss - Dr. Weiss, Distinguished Service Professor of Communications Emeritus from Jersey City State University, is one of the country's foremost authorities on literature for children and adolescents. Beyond that, Jerry is a constant force in making sure that children have access to great writing by great authors by insisting on classroom libraries filled with books for children to read. As a teacher educator, Jerry inspires his students to be readers, to read-aloud to children and to make sure children get books in their hands. His university has dedicated the M. Jerry Weiss Center as a place on campus for students, parents and children to come and browse and borrow the latest in great children's books.

Joan Kramer - Joan Kramer was a librarian, a passionate advocate for public education, a blogger and a dear friend of this blog. Joan was tireless in her advocacy for libraries, librarians, and the rights of children to have access to books. She fought a long battle against the forces of the Los Angeles County School District in their efforts to cut down student access to libraries, librarians and library aides. Joan recently lost her long courageous battle against cancer and she will be greatly missed.

Children's Book Project San Francisco - The Children's Book Project is celebrating 25 years of collecting and giving away books to the children of San Francisco who need them. Founded by the visionary Vicki Pollack, the Children's Book Project, continues to fulfill its mission of bringing literacy opportunities to children who might not otherwise have access to books. Get involved with this fine cause - you can donate books to the cause by clicking here.

Won't you celebrate with me. Give a kid a book. Include a lollipop or cookie if you want. Send the message - Reading is Sweet!

If you know of people who should be in the Give a Kid a Book Hall of Fame, please send along the names and I will consider their induction for next year.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

School Choice Opponents and the Status Quo

I was pleased when my recent post, School Choice: An Ugly Idea, attracted a Twitter response from choice advocate, Peter Cunningham. Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under Arne Duncan. Education Post, supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, was started 3 years ago to encourage a "better conversation" about education. With that list of pro-choice contributors, readers can infer what that better conversation was all about.

Cunningham's job is basically to use all the resources at his well-funded disposal to "swarm" back at anti-choice bloggers like Diane Ravitch, Peter Greene, and, apparently, little old me, to sell the corporate education reform line.

In his critique of my post, Cunningham raised arguments that I hear over and over from reformers and choice advocates and that I would like to address.

Those of us who continue to point out that poverty is the real issue in education are accused of using poverty as an excuse to do nothing. Right up front let me say I am against the status quo and I have spent a lifetime in education trying to improve teacher instruction and educational opportunities for the struggling readers and writers I have worked with. To point out the obvious, that poverty is the number one cause of educational inequity, does not make me a champion for the status quo. It simply means that I will not fall prey to the false promise of super-teachers, standardized test driven accountability, merit pay, charter schools, and vouchers, all of which are futile efforts to put a thumb in the overflowing dyke that is systematic discrimination, segregation, income inequity, and, yes, poverty.

Public schools, are, after all, reflections of their communities. If the communities are in crisis, the schools will be in crisis. You can't end the crisis by trying to fix the schools, you must take a whole community approach, and as the community improves, so, inevitably, will the schools. If corporate education reformers really wanted to help improve education, they would stop these charter school and voucher wars and spend their considerable resources on whole community improvement efforts. One way they could do this is to pay their taxes (rather than dodge them through spurious education donations) and support the intelligent use of their tax money for legislation leading to better jobs, better pay, better health care and better child care for communities under stress. Once these things begin to happen, good schools will follow.

I am very sympathetic to parents looking for good options for their children, when the local public school does not seem to be providing that good option. And it is a hollow argument to counsel patience to a parent of a 5 year-old entering school in September. Children only get one go-around at this. If a parent sees that a charter school appears to offer a safer environment, and surveys indicate that is the bottom line for most inner-city parents, safety, not educational quality, I cannot argue with them. In my book, A Parent's Guide to Public Education in the 21st Century, I put it this way:

I would argue that every local neighborhood school can and should be able to provide this kind of education for every child. I would also argue that parents should fight to make sure that their neighborhood school gets the resources to make it the kind of school all families want to send their child to. But when that school is not provided locally, it is reasonable to expect a parent to investigate charter schools.

When I say investigate charter schools, I mean exactly that. In the book I offer a list of questions parents should ask as they look into charter schools. Among those are questions about the number of certified teaching staff, the rate of teacher and administrator turnover, discipline policies in the schools, and services for special needs children in the school. Parents may often find that they are trading much of what they desire in an education for their child for the appearance of a safer environment.

I am very pleased to read that Cunningham opposes vouchers. To his credit he has written about this in Education Post. In the article Cunningham rightly points to the many issues related to vouchers, not the least of which is that they do not lead to educational improvement, but that they do very much drain monies from public schools that desperately need it. Now I would like to hear is a unified voice from the corporate education reformers who support Cunningham and his publications with millions of dollars rising up in opposition to the Trump/DeVos school choice agenda. Let's all work together to get the horror show of vouchers off the table and then go back to the good fight over whether charter schools do more good than harm. I am in the harm camp, but that is a conversation that should continue. The voucher argument should be dead. I invite responsible reformers into the fight to kill it.