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.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Military Vouchers: Choice Comes to Our Defense

Inspired by Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her school choice agenda, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis has declared that we are doing away with our traditional army, navy and air force in favor of giving each and every American family a 10,000 dollar military voucher that they can use to shop for the military protection they need. "Look", said Mattis, "it is obvious that the American military has failed. International assessments show us to be lagging behind others in military preparedness. Russia is rubbing our nose in it all over the place and that little twit in North Korea is a real danger that we have no idea how to deal with. And, by the way, when was the last time we won a war? What we need is good old-fashioned American competition in the form of military choice."

According to Mattis, military choice vouchers will allow families to purchase the kind of armed military protection they want. Some people may choose to "home-defend", using the money to arm the wife and children and build bunkers and bomb shelters. Others may avail themselves of special charter military institutions who will compete for dollars and, therefore, provide the kind of quality protection people want.

Some of those charter military organizations are already in the organizing stage.

Second Amendment Military Charter - Members of the NRA and second amendment enthusiasts in general may be interested in this charter which is based on the good old-fashioned concept of a local militia. The group's motto is "An AK-47 in every closet, a missile launcher in every attic, and a tank in every garage."

Hessian Mercenary Military Charter - This charter is sure to attract those who like a little nostalgia with their defense plan. If you prefer muskets to nuclear weapons, this may be the charter for you. Comes with authentic Hessian Revolutionary War uniform with a "Battle of Trenton" insignia.

KIPP Military Academy - Modeled after the much admired KIPP Charter Schools, this defense protection charter group promises to help you turn your family into a compliant, fighting machine who will follow orders without thinking or questioning your decisions - a key to battlefield success.

Teddy Roosevelt San Juan Hill Rough Riders Charter - The focus of this charter is the quick mobility that is provided by a cavalry. For your 10,000 dollars you get a horse, a saddle and a Teddy Roosevelt paste-on mustache. Special "Bully" T-Shirt for the first 200 who sign up.

Donald Trump Nuclear Option Military Charter - As an introductory offer, this protection package comes with two red buttons, one for blowing up Mexico and one for ordering a Coke. Have fun with the kids by playing, Button, Button, Whose Got the Button?

Cyber Military Charter - The advantage of this new military charter is that you never have to leave your home or interact with another human being while protecting your family from any and all intrusions. Comes with a fully loaded military-style computer for remotely detonating land mines on your property and software to help you block the Russians from hacking your Facebook page.

Onward Christian Soldiers Military Charter - This charter will target families with a religious right orientation. The package includes a special video training package called "Identifying the Infidel" and provides unlimited military cover for those picketing planned parenthood clinics and schools that teach evolution.

Blackwater Military Charter - Keeping it all in the Trump family, Betsy DeVos' brother, Erik Prince, is re-purposing his Blackwater Worldwide Iraq mercenary operation for us here at home. Prince, whose company billed the US government 1 billion dollars for his company's services overseas, said, "Getting ever richer off public dollars is the best business plan I can possibly imagine." No word yet if sister Betsy is investing in this company.

When asked if he thought all people were prepared to make good choices when it came to their own defense, Mattis said, "What is really important is that all Americans have a choice, not that they make good choices. People who make poor choices will likely soon be eliminated anyway, so over time fewer and fewer poor choices will be made. We need to give choice a chance to play itself out."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

School Choice: An Ugly Idea

An ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal. - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Some Choices Are Just Ugly
The quote above comes from an essay in The New York Times titled Now is the Time to Talk about What We Are Actually Talking About. The quote resonates with me right now because my country seems to be awash in ugly ideas emanating from the centers of power in Washington and apparently resonating with many of my fellow Americans across the country. Here are just a few of these ugly ideas that I fear are beginning to turn a distinct shade of normal.
  • America should isolate itself from the rest of the world.
  • We must live in fear of people who do not look like us.
  • We must build literal and figurative walls to keep people out of the country.
  • We should return to harsher penalties for minor offenses and renew the war on drugs.
  • Climate change is a hoax and efforts to control it are bad for American business.
  • Health care is for those who can afford it.
I will let political pundits and journalists and policy analysts and others with more expertise than I weigh in on these issues. But there is one ugly idea that I do know something about and that I must challenge now because it becomes increasingly the color of normal. That idea is championed by the current resident of the White House, although he has likely given it very little thought, very dangerously championed by the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and most dangerously championed by the billionaires that more and more control all that happens in this country.

I am talking about the ugly idea that school choice and competition will lead to better schools. School choice ideology is born in racism, sustained by a concerted disinformation campaign, and designed to develop a work force of compliant worker drones, while further enriching the wealthy and undermining democratic control of the schools. School choice, better called school privatization, will destroy public education. That is its purpose. 

The racist roots of school choice are well documented. The original voucher programs were designed in the 1950s in the wake of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas to give southern white parents public monies to send their children to newly created all-white private schools. What may be less well understood is that charter schools continue, perhaps more subtly, the racist goals of the original voucher programs. Two of the most well-publicized and supposedly successful charter school progams, KIPP and New York City's Success Academies, were largely built by white people, who decided that what was best for their mostly brown-faced charges was to submit them to a harsh, military style system of discipline, built on compliance, blind obeisance to adults, and shaming and humiliation for minor infractions. These are charter schools built on the plantation model. 

In order to sell the idea of school choice, i.e., school privatization, choice champions had to first sell the false narrative of failing schools. Americans had a long tradition of valuing their public schools, in part because the schools were generally doing a good job and in part because all citizens had a voice in how they were run and how their tax money was spent. In order to change the narrative, privatizers pointed to international test scores, deteriorating schools in the inner-cities, and reports from economists that seemed to show that this could all be changed if we just fired the low performing teachers and rewarded the high performers. So in  many cities, local elected school boards were replaced by appointed boards, the public lost its voice, public coffers were raided to open charter schools, who promised but mostly failed to deliver, improvement, and the public schools further deteriorated for lack of funds (See Philadelphia and Detroit).

This narrative was based on some very real problems in public education, but it targeted schools, teachers, and teacher unions as the cause of the problem, when the real causes of the problem were clear to any thinking person - poverty, inequity, and segregation. We had and still have in this country, despite two decades of voucher and charter school schemes, a dual public school system: high functioning, first rate institutions for the affluent and unsafe, physically deteriorating, academically challenged school systems for the poor. This is not a teaching problem, it is a societal problem. Local schools reflect the local community. If the community is struggling with poverty, crime, and housing issues, the schools will struggle, too. School choice is an attempt by the wealthy to reform the school system on the cheap and distract all of us from the true problems in the society, which would require a much greater financial investment to fix - namely poverty and income inequity.

In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, urban public schools including those in large cities like New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, and smaller cities like Rochester and Trenton were among the best in the world. As a society, we have failed these school systems, largely through discriminatory housing policies, prejudice, neglect, and "white flight." Now the best schools in the country are mostly in the suburbs. More affluent families took their children and their tax dollars out of the cities as minorities moved in and essentially abandoned these once great urban schools. Now, suburban schools function on comparatively generous budgets, in first-rate facilities (the families will allow no less) while urban schools fight for scraps.

The scraps that these urban schools fight for are further undermined by the school choice movement, which takes money away from the public schools and places it into the hands of charter operators or parents in the form of vouchers, often without public input. So struggling public schools struggle even more, kids who cannot avail themselves of vouchers or charters for a variety of reasons get less and less service and school districts in Philadelphia and Detroit are on the verge of collapse.

Secretary DeVos responds to all questions and concerns about the impact of choice, by saying all she wants is for parents to have a choice and all will be well. Her argument is absurd on the surface. What if choice schools discriminate? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if choice schools teach creationism? Well, as long as parents have choice...? What if most of the monies for school choice go to supplement tuition to private schools for the already affluent? Well as long as parents have choice...? But as I have said before, this country, and the entire civilized world, has long recognized that choice is not always a good thing. That is why we have public works. That is why we have a military. That is why we have local and state police forces. That is why we have national parks (at least for now).

We need to see the move to privatize public schools for what it really is. As my college professor, Dr. Benjamin Powell, would say, "Follow the money." DeVos, Trump and the rest of the 1% of the country see public education, and the tax dollars collected to sustain it, as one of the last frontiers for big profits and that money is just sitting there to be grabbed up. All they have to do is convince people that the public schools are failing and that the answer is choice and that money starts to flow towards them. And, oh by the way, we have seen in the charter industry over the last 20 years that once that cash starts flowing, so does the corruption, as lax oversight has led to repeated stories of pilfering and misappropriating public monies. 

To say that school choice is an ugly idea, does not mean that our public schools are not struggling. But the struggle of public schools is best seen, as has been shown over and over again, as a symptom of a societal breakdown, as the result of increasing economic and resource inequity and segregation. True reform of the schools, like all true reform, will require focused attention on all those things that place our society in crisis. School choice is nothing more than a dirty bandage on an open wound. It will do more harm than good. A more equitable society is our surest path to improved schools and improved outlooks for those educated in our public schools.

At its root, public education is a beautiful idea. It is the idea that all children have the right to the best possible education and that all Americans will contribute to make it happen. There have been many missteps along the way, but that beautiful idea, though tarnished, remains beautiful. It deserves our continued care and dedication.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On Teaching Well: Five Lessons from Long Experience

Today I turned 70 years old. I have no idea how this happened. I was going along, struggling to do the best I could and then suddenly I woke up and this old guy was staring back at me from the mirror. Turning 70, though, has its advantages. One of those advantages comes from accumulated experience. Another comes from the graying countenance that seems to make people pay attention to what that experience has taught you. I'll take it. It is flattering to have an audience of readers who think you still have something to say. Later today I will celebrate this milestone with family and friends, but this morning I wanted to celebrate with you, my esteemed readers. And so I share five lessons I have learned from a career in education spanning nearly 50 years.

Lesson 1: Teaching is about Relationships

At its most basic, teaching is about building individual relationships with children. If children trust you, they will be willing to follow you in your flights of instructional fantasy and if they follow you they will learn from you. As a young teacher I stumbled upon this insight. I was teaching in what was then called a junior high school, grades 7,8 and 9. I saw about 150 students a day. At first I found this task very daunting. I learned my student's names, but I did not think of them as people so much as classes, the 7-2s and the 9-4s. I found it hard to engage individually with students because I  was working so hard on managing my rather large classes.

At some point I realized that when a student was speaking to me, that student needed my full attention and I needed to give my full attention to understand what the student was saying. I learned to focus on one student at a time. To truly listen. To block out the rest of the class, to really engage with that individual student for a moment. I learned to literally "lean-in" to the student physically to engage in real listening. I discovered that kids don't often have adults listen to them and listening is key to developing a  relationship with a child. Listening builds trust.

Secondly, I learned the importance of showing up. Kids notice if you show up at their concerts, their sporting events, their plays. Attending these life events with your students sends a message of caring and allows you to see your students in a different environment. Many students are very different animals outside of the classroom and getting to know them in a different setting pays off big inside the classroom.

Lesson 2: Teaching is More Coaching than Telling

As a young teacher, I was also a baseball and basketball coach. As a coach, I spent a great deal of time creating real game-like situations for my players during practice. I found that during simulated games, the practice was most focused and most productive and that I could give the players feedback that they could apply immediately and in context. It took me a while to apply this concept in the classroom. I started out teaching history the way I was taught it, by standing in front of the class and telling kids stuff and then giving them tests to see if they had learned the stuff.

After two years or so of this practice, I realized I was giving great lectures, but the students weren't learning much, so I "flipped' my classroom back before that term was fashionable and before the computer was an apple in Steve Jobs eye. I figured out, with the help of some prescient professional development, that I could teach best if I could simulate the work of historians in the classroom. In other words if I could turn the learning over to the students and then guide them in their learning by giving them individual feedback. Thus was born, for me, a new way of teaching, where the classroom was a practice field of noisy student activity and I was the coach, redirecting, cajoling, interjecting and giving feedback. I learned that learners learn by doing and teachers teach by guiding that learning.

Lesson 3: Teaching Requires Pedagogical Content Knowledge

As teachers we need to know stuff. It is critical that teachers have deep content knowledge in order to plan lessons and respond fully to student questions. But as teachers we must go beyond knowing stuff, to knowing how to impart stuff. This ability to join content with pedagogy has been called pedagogical content knowledge. This pedagogical content knowledge is where the science of teaching comes in. The skilled teacher takes the stuff of the discipline, the curriculum, and figures out, through a deep understanding of the research on how children learn, how to bring that stuff to the students and the students to that stuff.

For me this is the most fascinating aspect of teaching and the reason that teaching is a constantly engaging and energizing activity. On the one hand, long years of research has told us what ought to work in pedagogy and on the other hand, every year, every class, every child presents new challenges and new needs to reconsider what we are doing, to return to the research, and to look for new insights. Pedagogical content knowledge grows through continued professional reading, continued experience, and through continued awareness that it is necessary. It is really the reason that our profession is a profession and the reason that not everyone with a lot of content knowledge can do it.

Lesson 4: Student Errors Are a Teacher's Best Friend

It was not until I was studying to become a reading specialist that I truly came to appreciate student errors for what they are - mirrors into the mind of the child. I gained this insight by studying the work of the psycholinguist, Ken Goodman. For Goodman, reading errors were not errors at all, but miscues. What a great word that is. When a baseball player makes an error, we often call it a miscue. In other words the player "misread" the situation, which led to a mistake.  In baseball we can find out what caused the miscue by rewinding the videotape. In teaching, we can look at the evidence that led to the miscue and try to discover what caused the error. Once we can dope out what caused the error, we will know how to help the student.

This insight is critical to teaching. Students do not make errors deliberately. Rather than be upset that students make errors, we should celebrate these errors as opportunities to understand the student's thinking and also to better understand where our teaching might have gone awry. My advice? Don't complain about student errors, celebrate them. Student errors are the thinking teacher's best friend.

Lesson 5: Reflecting on Your Teaching Keeps You Growing

In my years as a teaching supervisor, I was never much interested in collecting teacher lesson plans before the lesson was taught. I liked to collect the plans at the end of the week and I asked that the teachers include a reflection on the lessons that went well, the lessons that did not go well and what changes they would make based on what went well and what didn't. Constant reflection on practice is the hallmark of the professional. It is necessary for the continued improvement of practice. Teaching is an art and a science that is never fully mastered. I am a better teacher now than I was 50 years ago, but I am also a better teacher now than I was yesterday, because I continue to read and reflect.

I recommend that teachers maintain a journal of reflections on teaching and I recommend that every teacher take a few minutes at the end of the school day, after the last student has left the classroom and after the buses have pulled out of the driveway, to simply sit and write a reflection on the day. It is, I think, the best way to implement a continuous improvement plan. Writing is a powerful way to bring our thoughts and ideas together in a meaningful way and it helps to build a record of successes and failures that can guide us in our ongoing efforts.

Over the years I was involved in hiring hundreds of teachers. I often interviewed those teachers after watching them do a demonstration lesson. The two most important questions I would ask after a demonstration were, "How did it go?" and "What would you change, if you could do the lesson over?" I found that the answers to these two questions gave me great insight into the kind of teacher the candidate would become.

Finally, there is no magic formula to what makes for a great teacher and there are many paths that may lead to becoming a great teacher, but there are no paths that do not begin with a deep and abiding respect for children.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Building a Better Pre-School: Finding the Right Balance

Two studies on building a better pre-school caught my eye this week. On the front page of the Wednesday, May 31, 2017 New York Times, education reporter Dana Goldstein details the findings of a group of researchers out of the University of California, Berkeley looking at the role of academics in pre-school, while Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Penn State have just released a brief focused on the importance of social and emotional learning in pre-school. I would like to look at both studies to see what conclusions we can reach when working to create the best possible pre-school environment for children.

The Berkeley study is sure to kick up a lot of fuss, first because it appeared on the front page of the New York Times, but also because it flies in the face of what many parents and teachers see as the optimal pre-school environment. The title of the piece doesn't help, Free Play or Flash Cards? New Study Nods to More Rigorous Preschools. Reading the article and the research report shows that the researchers' report is much more nuanced than a flash cards vs. play dynamic. What the researchers found is that children in academically oriented pre-school classrooms, which included activities focusing on oral language, pre-literacy, and math concepts, made academic gains that advantaged them as they entered kindergarten and throughout the kindergarten year. At the same time, and just as importantly, the authors found that this academic orientation did not have a negative impact on the social, emotional growth of the children.

The Robert Wood Johnson/Penn State brief concludes that to "promote school readiness, preschools need to focus strategically on social-emotional development." A focus on social emotional development pays off in greater readiness for kindergarten and with a wide array of positive adult outcomes from better interpersonal relationships to productive employment to civic engagement. The brief says that schools should be encouraged to use "evidence-based" programs combined with integration into academic enrichment programs and professional development for teachers in implementing the programs.

So what is the educator to do with these two seemingly competing orientations? I have argued in the past that as Mister Rogers said, "Play is the work of children." I cannot imagine any pre-school program where carefully structured "learning play" is not a large part of the school day. If you read the New York Times article, you will note that brief academic instruction periods were punctuated by longer periods of play where children were free to explore and where teachers could roam around, interacting with children and reinforcing lessons that were learned. The key, as it usually is, is balance and the fear, as it usually is, is that policy makers will read the headlines and not the more nuanced research and apply a mistaken concept of rigor on pre-school curriculum, on teachers, and most unfortunately on children.

What is really needed is to build a bulwark against the incursion of inappropriately academically oriented pre-school, while recognizing that an element of academic orientation is part of the job. How do we build that bulwark? As usual when it comes to protecting children from the uninformed incursions of policy makers, we must rely on the classroom teacher. I strongly recommend reading Dana Goldstein's companion piece to her front page report. I found it, almost by accident, on page 2 of the paper on May 31. In this piece, How to Build the Best Pre-Schools, Goldstein offers a glimpse at how she went about her reporting, how she visited pre-school classrooms, and what she saw in the classrooms there. Goldstein visited an "academically" oriented pre-school program and a "play" oriented pre-school, and while the classrooms offered some stark cosmetic differences, what was most telling was how much the teachers had in common. How both those teachers combined play with academic instruction. In both classrooms she found caring teachers and stimulating environments. She concludes:

Indeed, as publicly funded pre-K expands, the division may be not between academics and play, but between programs with well-trained and well-paid teachers and those without. 

I could not agree more. In order to ensure that our pre-schools are finding the right balance between academics and play, we need to be sure that we are employing the best teachers available and we need to make sure that these teachers are getting the finest, best informed professional development possible. No program, no research, no policy can come close to matching what the well-informed, well-prepared teacher can provide for children in the classroom.We cannot do pre-school on the cheap just because the children are small. We cannot run pre-school, as is often the case now, with poorly trained, poorly compensated para-professionals. The answer, ultimately, is not in the false dichotomy between academics and play, but in the will of our policy makers to make sure that every child has access to teachers who are prepared to do the job well and who are compensated appropriately for it.