Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Teacher Man

Since his death last week, the ed blogs have been posting a lot about Frank McCourt and his musings on teaching. This is the piece I love the most. My thanks goes to Norm.

Stop Hijacking the Education with Hijinks

by Frank McCourt, January 14th, 2008

At what point in American history did politicians hijack public education? They think nothing of barging into classrooms across the country, shunting teachers aside and reading to children who wonder who they are in the first place, wonder who is this person boring us to death with his prose drone?

We all remember former Vice President Dan Quayle’s foray into spelling when, campaigning for a second term, he told a class of elementary school kids that potato was spelled potatoe. We remember how President George W. Bush read a story about a goat to children in
Florida while the World Trade Center burned. Imagine a politician daring to enter the professional space of doctors, lawyers, engineers, dentists, interior decorators. Imagine.

The kids are primed well in advance, told this person coming here tomorrow is very, very important, that they better behave themselves and show respect to this very important person who will be reading to them, this person taking time out from a hectic schedule to show his/her interest in education.

But teachers are fair game. Here come the press people, the camera operators, the advance men or women and, hold it right there outside the classroom for the big smile and the apt comment on the state of the schools, the solon himself, today’s captivating reader, the one who will show the teacher how it’s done.

Politician enters room, acknowledges existence of teacher, limp handshake, faint smile, head nod.

Some teachers are flattered, of course. They’ll be right up there on TV tonight, and tomorrow the kids will rush in all excited after seeing themselves and their teacher on the news.

Oh, wow!

There’s Joey. There’s Sandra. Yeah, and there’s a glimpse of teacher being recognized by politician. (Teacher has the sickly smile of one aware she is being used. But don’t be like that, Teacher Lady. After all, you were singled out, checked out, background looked into, political affiliation determined before this politician was invited to invade your domain. You are going to be on TV, recognized, however briefly, before politician sits warily on three-legged stool to bore your kids to death with a story he never heard of before today.)

So, there’s the teacher, there’s the politician, there are the children. And we know where the power is. We know that whatever happens in the classroom, however effective the teacher, however accomplished or failing the kids are, it is the politician who controls the purse strings of education. We know when you sit on the pot of gold you can dictate what should be taught, how it should be taught, and who should teach it.

We are talking, of course, about the
United States of America. It may be different in other countries where there is respect for teachers, where, in the matter of teaching and learning, they are heeded.

What do we hear in public education about the pursuit of wisdom? Nothing. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have decided the way to improve the schools is through testing, testing, testing. Unless they test well we don’t like our children. We brag to neighbors and other parents that our Jonathan scored way up there on that No Child Left Behind test and if all the children scored way up there we’d get more money from
Washington. And what right-minded citizen wouldn’t want that? Politicians from different states and localities are over the moon when “their” kids score high on this test and that test.

Then there are the teachers. Oh, well. Those silly people in public schools went into the profession thinking they’d teach, you know, excite the kids. Forget the test, the quiz, the exam.

Politicians bark: Hold it right there, Teacher Lady. We don’t care what you do in the classroom as long as it can be measured and tested. We want results. Understand? Results. I mean, you’re not Socrates blathering away under a tree. If we’re doling out funds, we wanna know what you people are up to in the classroom.

So … back to the drawing board, teacher. Think results. Teach to the test because if you don’t, your representatives downtown, upstate and in D.C. will sit on the pot of gold ’til you come to your senses. Principals and bureaucrats in general will question your professionalism and you know what that means, teacher. To have your professionalism questioned by people who long ago fled the classroom is a serious matter. You might lose your good job, teacher. What would happen to the children?

Oh, the children. Don’t worry about them. Teachers will soon be replaced with robots capable of administering tests. Everything will be multiple choice and robots certainly know how to handle that. Curiosity will be discouraged and there will be no departure from the test-driven curriculum.

And you, teacher? What will you do with yourself?

Try politics. That way you can re-enter the classroom and, get this: you’ll be respected. You can read to the kids a story about a woman who wanted to be a teacher but was replaced by a robot because politicians wanted results and the politicians got their way because they know more about education than the teacher in the classroom, don’t they?

Frank McCourt (1930 - 2009) won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angela’s Ashes." "Teacher Man: A Memoir" is an account of his experiences as a New York City teacher.

PS: Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and all the others put together, don't come close to approaching McCourt's brilliance of mind and understanding of humanity.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Valuable Skills for the Rising Generation

We constantly hear the regurgitated propaganda about "The Educational Crisis,” and how public school teachers are the primary cause of the US in decline, and why the corporate model of operating school systems is superior to all others. Today I offer you one very worthy alternative approach (yes, there are other choices we could make).

The current ed-reform movement is like foot-binding: restrictive and deforming. Those who want it imposed on children – and on those who care for them everyday – are titillated by the resultant hobbling, pain and stench. The final effect of this method for rearing children will be to shrivel the spirit of their humanity, and to stunt their collective growth.

“Patriotic” is the word that clearly emerged in my mind when I first read the following, and I am not a regularly flag-waving type. I realized that teaching these values to our nation's children just might be able to slow our descent and bring better health to our nation.

These are Diane Ravitch’s thoughts for “skills that we should cultivate assiduously among the rising generation, on the belief that doing so will lead to happier lives and a better world."

The Partnership for 19th Century Skills

I for one have heard quite enough about the 21st century skills that are sweeping the nation. Now, for the first time, children will be taught to think critically (never heard a word about that in the 20th century, did you?), to work in groups (I remember getting a grade on that very skill when I was in third grade a century ago), to solve problems (a brand new idea in education), and so on. Let me suggest that it is time to be done with this unnecessary conflict about 21st century skills. Let us agree that we need all those forenamed skills, plus lots others, in addition to a deep understanding of history, literature, the arts, geography, civics, the sciences, and foreign languages.

But allow me also to propose a new entity that will advance a different set of skills and understandings that are just as important as what are now called 21st century skills. I propose a Partnership for 19th Century Skills. This partnership will advocate for such skills, values, and understandings as:

  • The love of learning
  • The pursuit of knowledge
  • The ability to think for oneself (individualism)
  • The ability to work alone (initiative)
  • The ability to stand alone against the crowd (courage)
  • The ability to work persistently at a difficult task until it is finished (industriousness) (self-discipline)
  • The ability to think through the consequences of one’s actions on others (respect for others)
  • The ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions on one’s well-being (self-respect)
  • The recognition of higher ends than self-interest (honor)
  • The ability to comport oneself appropriately in all situations (dignity)
  • The recognition that civilized society requires certain kinds of behavior by individuals and groups (good manners) (civility)
  • The ability to believe in principles larger than one’s own self-interest (idealism)
  • The willingness to ask questions when puzzled (curiosity)
  • The readiness to dream about other worlds, other ways of doing things (imagination)
  • The ability to believe that one can improve one’s life and the lives of others (optimism)
  • The ability to speak well and write grammatically, using standard English (communication)

What if we altered our focus and began to emphasize these things in our schools?

Thanks to SF Education Examiner Caroline Grannan for tipping me off about Ravitch’s post.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A History Lesson About the Sandia Report

Arriving to the party somewhat late, I just learned about the Sandia Report and what happened to it. If you don’t know the story, you need to find out. It helps to explain why we're in such a miserable mess now.

This is just a very brief overview. If you know more, please add it in a comment.

A 2007 article (“Education at Risk: Fallout from a Flawed Report”) lays out the history quite well. Here are some important excerpts:

"A Nation at Risk" (1983)

What the report claimed:

  • American students are never first and frequently last academically compared to students in other industrialized nations.
  • American student achievement declined dramatically after Russia launched Sputnik, and hit bottom in the early 1980s.
  • SAT scores fell markedly between 1960 and 1980.
  • Student achievement levels in science were declining steadily.
  • Business and the military were spending millions on remedial education for new hires and recruits.

The Sandia Report (1990)

What was actually happening:

  • Between 1975 and 1988, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, math proficiency among seventeen-year-olds improved slightly for whites, notably for minorities.
  • Between 1971 and 1988, reading skills among all student subgroups held steady or improved.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, in science, the number of seventeen-year-olds at or above basic competency levels stayed the same or improved slightly.
  • Between 1970 and 1988, the number of twenty-two-year-old Americans with bachelor degrees increased every year; the United States led all developed nations in 1988.

* * * * * * * *

What we now call school reform isn't the product of a gradual consensus emerging among educators about how kids learn; it's a political movement that grew out of one seed planted in 1983. I became aware of this fact some years ago, when I started writing about education issues and found that every reform initiative I read about -- standards, testing, whatever -- referred me back to a seminal text entitled "A Nation at Risk."

Naturally, I assumed this bible of school reform was a scientific research study full of charts and data that proved something. Yet when I finally looked it up, I found a thirty-page political document issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group convened by Ronald Reagan's secretary of education, Terrell Bell.

* * * * * * * *

The heart of the document is an indictment that lambastes America for letting schools slip into precipitous decline but praises the nation's good heart, great potential, and mighty past. No paraphrase can do justice to its tone, so here's a verbatim sample: "Our Nation is at risk . . . . The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people . . . . If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war . . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament . . . ."

* * * * * * * *

When the report was released in April 1983, it claimed that American students were plummeting academically, that schools suffered from uneven standards, and that teachers were not prepared. The report noted that our economy and national security would crumble if something weren't done.

* * * * * * * *

Once launched, the report, which warned of "a rising level of mediocrity," took off like wildfire. During the next month, the Washington Post alone ran some two dozen stories about it, and the buzz kept spreading. Although Reagan counselor (and, later, attorney general) Edwin Meese III urged him to reject the report because it undermined the president's basic education agenda -- to get government out of education -- White House advisers Jim Baker and Michael Deaver argued that "A Nation at Risk" provided good campaign fodder.

* * * * * * * *

What made "A Nation at Risk" so useful to Reagan? For one thing, its language echoed the get-tough rhetoric of the growing conservative movement. For another, its diagnosis lent color to the charge that, under liberals, American education had dissolved into a mush of self-esteem classes.

In truth, "A Nation at Risk" could have been read as almost any sort of document. Basically, it just called for "More!" -- more science, more math, more art, more humanities, more social studies, more school days, more hours, more homework, more basics, more higher-order thinking, more lower-order thinking, more creativity, more everything.

The document had, however, been commissioned by the Reagan White House, so conservative Republicans controlled its interpretation and uses. What they zeroed in on was the notion of failing schools as a national-security crisis.

* * * * * * * *

By the end of the decade, Republicans had erased whatever advantage Democrats once enjoyed on education and other classic "women's issues." As Peter Schrag later noted in The Nation, Reagan-era conservatives, "with the help of business leaders like IBM chairman Lou Gerstner, managed to convert a whole range of liberally oriented children's issues . . . into a debate focused almost exclusively on education and tougher-standards school reform."

* * * * * * * *

From the start, however, some doubts must have risen about the crisis rhetoric, because in 1990, Admiral James Watkins, the secretary of energy (yes, energy), commissioned the Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico to document the decline with some actual data. [“Perspectives on Education in America”, aka The Sandia Report, ]

Systems scientists there produced a study consisting almost entirely of charts, tables, and graphs, plus brief analyses of what the numbers signified, which amounted to a major "Oops!" As their puzzled preface put it, "To our surprise, on nearly every measure, we found steady or slightly improving trends."

One section, for example, analyzed SAT scores between the late 1970s and 1990, a period when those scores slipped markedly. ("A Nation at Risk" spotlighted the decline of scores from 1963 to 1980 as dead-bang evidence of failing schools.) The Sandia report, however, broke the scores down by various subgroups, and something astonishing emerged. Nearly every subgroup -- ethnic minorities, rich kids, poor kids, middle class kids, top students, average students, low-ranked students -- held steady or improved during those years. Yet overall scores dropped. How could that be?

Simple -- statisticians call it Simpson's paradox: The average can change in one direction while all the subgroups change in the opposite direction if proportions among the subgroups are changing. Early in the period studied, only top students took the test. But during those twenty years, the pool of test takers expanded to include many lower-ranked students. Because the proportion of top students to all students was shrinking, the scores inevitably dropped. That decline signified not failure but rather progress toward what had been a national goal: extending educational opportunities to a broader range of the population.

By then, however, catastrophically failing schools had become a political necessity. George H.W. Bush campaigned to replace Reagan as president on a promise to confront the crisis. He had just called an education summit to tackle it, so there simply had to be a crisis.

The government never released the Sandia report. It went into peer review and there died a quiet death. Hardly anyone else knew it even existed until, in 1993, the Journal of Educational Research, read by only a small group of specialists, printed the report. [Read more about burying the Sandia Report here.]

* * * * * * * *

In 1989, Bush convened his education summit at the University of Virginia. Astonishingly, no teachers, professional educators, cognitive scientists, or learning experts were invited. The group that met to shape the future of American education consisted entirely of state governors. Education was too important, it seemed, to leave to educators.

School reform, as formulated by the summit, moved so forcefully onto the nation's political agenda that, in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton had to promise to outtough Bush on education. As president, Clinton steered through Congress a bill called Goals 2000 that largely co-opted the policies that came out of the 1989 Bush summit.

After the 2000 election, George W. Bush dubbed himself America's "educator in chief," and until terrorism hijacked the national agenda, he was staking his presidency on a school-reform package known as the No Child Left Behind Act, a bill that -- as every teacher knows -- dominates the course of public education in America today.

* * * * * * * *

Testing provides another revealing example. Teachers have always used myriad formal and informal tools to see whether kids are learning what is being taught. No one is against assessment. But testing in the context of today's school reform is not about finding out what kids know; it's about who gets the test results.

Only on-site teachers can really make a broad ongoing assessment that gets at a range of achievements and takes the individual into account. By contrast, uniform standardized testing whose outcomes can be expressed as simple numbers allows someone far away to compare whole schools without ever seeing or speaking to an actual student. It facilitates the bureaucratization of education and enables politicians, not educators, to control schools more effectively.

* * * * * * * *

Don't be shocked if NCLB ends up channeling American education into that third current, even though it seems like part of the mainstream get-tough approach. Educational researcher Gerald Bracey, author of Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered, writes in Stanford magazine that "NCLB aims to shrink the public sector, transfer large sums of public money to the private sector, weaken or destroy two Democratic power bases -- the teachers' unions -- and provide vouchers to let students attend private schools at public expense."

Why? Because NCLB is set up to label most American public schools as failures in the next six or seven years. Once a school flunks, this legislation sets parents free to send their children to a school deemed successful. But herds of students moving from failed schools to (fewer) successful ones are likely to sink the latter. And then what? Then, says NCLB, the state takes over.

And there's the rub. Can "the state" -- that is, bureaucrats -- run schools better than professional educators? What if they fail, too? What's plan C?

NCLB does not specify plan C. Apparently, that decision will be made when the time comes. But with some $500 billion per year -- the sum total of all our K-12 education spending in this country -- at stake, and with politicians' hands on all the levers, you can be pretty certain the decision will not be made by those whose field of expertise is learning. It will be made by those whose field of expertise is power.