Tag Archives: schools

If You Care About Education Reform, You Must Read The Prize

No matter where you stand in the current education chaos, Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? is worth reading. It is outstanding writing based on outstanding reporting, and it is the best explanation I have seen of the complexities of public education in the United States.

My favorite quotation in the book is from Reverend William Howard, a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, who says, “I know that no abiding change in human communities is imposed.” (page 179 in the hardcover version) Reverend Howard touches on the biggest problem I see in the current education reform movement, which is the arrogance of so many reformers, and their lack of respect for the people, the communities, they are trying to transform. I think in many cases this arrogance and disrespect is inadvertent, even unconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

There are a lot of smart, capable people already in these neighborhoods and these schools, and nobody cares about their children more than they do. Coming into a community touting yourself as someone who knows what’s best for kids you’ve never met is inherently insulting. There is nothing wrong with offering to help, but you need to ask how you can help, not dictate some prefabricated solution. Not only is it rude, but it also won’t work. Would you trust a bunch of strangers who walked up to you one day and said they knew what was best for your kids? Might you resist handing your children over to them, even if some of their ideas sounded good?

Education is built on trust. This is something every good teacher knows, and this is why the disruption model doesn’t work as well in education as it does in other arenas. Teachers are not vendors, and learning is not a commodity. Disrupting the entrenched bureaucracies of the public education system may be a good idea, but disrupting the lives of children, especially those who have suffered too much disruption already, is not. This is the fundamental paradox of education reform, and Dale Russakoff illustrates it beautifully.

If you want to know more of the book’s details, you can read an excellent, detailed review by Alex Kotlowitz here.

It is a wonderful book. Buy it. Read it. Share it.

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New Orleans in the News Again

There has been renewed press in recent days about the New Orleans Recovery District. Andrea Gabor’s opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover” received a lot of attention and a ton of criticism, and so the same old debate continues. It is amazing anyone still thinks charter schools are some kind of panacea for public education, but it seems they do. (Some charter schools are great, of course, but many are terrible. The same could be said for regular public schools.)

The best comment I have seen on the topic is an editorial in The New Orleans Tribune, which I found via Larry Miller’s Blog. There is no way I could put it any better, so I encourage everyone to read it here.

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Thoughts on the Beginning of Another School Year

A new school year is beginning. For many students, here in Los Angeles, it begins today. I feel terrible for them, because very few of them will be receiving the education they deserve. I also feel terrible for us, as a society, because we will not receive the benefits of the contributions these children are capable of making when they grow up, and it is our own fault.

Education is a complex undertaking under any circumstances, and public education even more so. One concept people are just going to have to get over is the idea that education can ever be apolitical. When you teach, you are not just imparting knowledge or skills, but also values. The texts you use, the behavior you require, the elements you choose to emphasize all reflect a system of priorities which is unavoidably cultural and political. We have to stop thinking that we can teach students in some culturally and politically neutral fashion, and start figuring out what values most of us can agree to support.

I say most of us, because there will always be some people who disagree. For example, I think most people in the USA would agree that girls and boys should have equal opportunities to learn. There are Americans, however, who think girls should stay away from advanced math or competitive sports, or boys shouldn’t learn to cook or sew. We will never get full consensus, but we can come close.

One value I would suggest as a pillar of a better education system would be the idea that every person is of equal intrinsic worth. Everyone has talents and strengths and ways to contribute to the community, and those things should be nurtured. I don’t mean random praise or the removal of all competition. I mean every student should have access to ways to get better at the things they are good at, whether those things are mathematical, linguistic, musical, artistic, athletic, entrepreneurial or otherwise. EVERY student, not just the rich ones or the lucky ones. Every student should also have access to the help they need with the things they are not so good at. EVERY student, not just the rich ones or the ones with the most severe problems or the most persistent parents. It is not just those students who would benefit, but all of us, when they grow up to be productive, contributing members of society.

Will that cost more money than we currently spend on education? Maybe. Maybe not if we stop wasting so much of it on unnecessary bureaucracy and detrimental high stakes testing. Done right, it will definitely cost less than we currently spend on prisons. If you don’t see the connection, just google “school to prison pipeline”. In any case, if there is anything that is a worthwhile investment for a society, it is the education of its children. I think we need to take cost off the top of the list of priorities. The first question should be, how can we provide an excellent education for all our children, so that they can all contribute their best to our society as a whole. Cost can be question number two. I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s not the most important thing, or at least it shouldn’t be.

If we really value our children, ALL our children, as much as we say we do, if we really value the future of our society as much as we claim to, we should be much more serious about improving the quality of our education system, even if that means it will cost a bit more.

The next question, of course, is how do we measure quality of education. That is a discussion that definitely needs at least one blog post of its own. Maybe next time.

These were just a few thoughts that came to mind this morning. Thanks for taking the time to read them.

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Ossining, NY: A School District with the Freedom to Educate

This inspiring story by Jackie Mader in The Hechinger Report about the school district of Ossining, NY contains a lot of interesting information, but what struck me most was an innovative approach the district took to increase integration. They reorganized their four elementary schools so that each school, instead of serving a neighborhood, took one or two grades, and all the children cycled through all the schools together. It is not something that would be right for every community, not something that should be “scaled up”, although it might be something that would work in some other districts. It certainly worked for Ossining.

One of those elementary schools is now the Park Early Childhood Center, which has not only Kindergarten and PreK, but something called the “First Steps Program”, described on their website as “a family outreach program that… may provide assistance with anything that helps family stability, from health screenings and parent workshops to family enrichment, intergenerational activities,” and more.

This is a school district that is responsive to its community, always striving to improve, and addressing needs as they arise. They are able to do that because, as the principal of Ossining High School, Joshua Mandel, is quoted in the article as saying, “We have a supportive community. They give the high school the opportunity to experiment and try different things.” This flexibility is exactly what is necessary to provide for the needs of all students.

This approach is the exact opposite of what is now being promoted by people who call themselves education reformers. I believe most (but not all) of them do have good intentions, but they are fundamentally wrong. Everything they propose reduces the ability of individual teachers, schools and districts to adapt to the different and changing needs of their students. As more and more standardization is required, whether it be in terms of tests, curricula or school structures and practices, less and less room exists for creativity and true innovation. The changes Ossining made would not be right for every community, but they were right for that community, and that is the point.

As Joshua Mandel also said, “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix everything. We’re willing to try different things and to try to instill in our students that we will never give up on them.” These are essential characteristics of a good teacher, school or district, that commitment combined with that experimental attitude, and all good educators know this. It is only possible to exhibit these characteristics, however, in an environment that allows for it.

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Teachers Want to Teach

Teachers love to teach. That may sound obvious, but it is an important fact that the public debate seems to be ignoring. There is nothing better, for a teacher, than seeing a child’s face brighten in comprehension. There are few things more exciting for teachers than a classroom full of engaged students, learning something new.

If you start with a small group of students, all of whom have parents who value education highly, have the time, resources and skills to care for their children’s needs, and respect teachers, then you get to spend almost all your classroom time actually teaching. If you also have access to top-of-the-line materials, the latest technologies, interesting field trips and enrichment activities, you are in teacher heaven.

That situation is of course imaginary. If you have access only to outdated textbooks and computers that, when they work at all, are too old to run current software, even if you could get it, that is frustrating, but you do the best you can. If administrative edicts that bring new meaning to words like “byzantine”,“paradoxical” and just plain “idiotic” make you pull your hair out trying to comply, that is even more frustrating, but you do the best you can. If some of your students are in obvious need of medical or psychological attention, but neither their parents nor the overburdened social services system is meeting that need, then your attempts to make up for that take time and energy from teaching them or any of your other students. That is heartbreaking, but you do the best you can. If, on top of all of that, you are required to take hours away from the little time you have left to fill out endless paperwork, prepare students to take poorly designed tests, and address ludicrous criticisms made by people who have no idea what you do, it is hard not to throw up your hands and quit.

There are stories of teachers who have overcome even the worst circumstances and had brilliant results. This is cited as proof by people who clearly never learned logical thinking, much less critical thinking, that anyone can overcome these terrible circumstances. Even the star schools that seem to be succeeding have a high teacher turnover rate. The question that, incredibly, no one seems to be asking, is why do we continue to put our students and teachers in such terrible circumstances? An education system that requires the the Seal Team Six of educators in order to bring students to a basic level of proficiency is an embarrassment. No one wants to improve the situation more than teachers do.

I spent most of my elementary years in public schools, but I graduated from an expensive, private high school. I remember noticing that every single student in my class, no matter how untalented, unmotivated, or on drugs, graduated and went on to college, at least community college. Our teachers were good, but I highly doubt they were the deciding factor in this phenomenon.

Of course teachers can do better. That is what they most want to do. Perhaps there are some teachers who never cared about kids and just wanted some benefits and a pension, but I don’t know any. I know some who became so burned out by the frustration and the heartbreak that they now occasionally talk like people who have those motives. I know many more who continue to spend nearly every waking hour trying to find better ways to reach more kids more completely. I don’t know a single teacher who works from 9-3 and takes summers off. That is a fallacy. Are lawyers working only when they are in the courtroom? Are surgeons working only when they are in the operating room?

The idea that standardized tests will provide useful information for teachers is asinine. Teachers already give tests, and the good ones know how their students are doing even without tests, because they see their progress every day. They also know which students do well on tests and which ones get nervous. The tests may provide information that is useful to school districts or states, but they don’t tell good teachers anything they don’t already know. These attempts to second guess everything a teacher does are a terrible idea. If you make a job so devoid of decision-making that a monkey could do it, then only a monkey will do it. Anyone with any options will go somewhere else.

Of course bad teachers should be fired, and so should bad principals, and bad superintendents, and bad anything else, but has no one heard of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Good teachers should be respected and encouraged, and protected from things like bad principals and bad superintendents, and even misinformed and overreacting parents, although informed, concerned parents are a teacher’s greatest allies. As for merit pay, that is useful only in forms that don’t pit teachers against each other. Teachers must collaborate, and anything that incentivizes keeping their best practices to themselves is bad for everyone.

It is frustrating and heartbreaking work, but teachers love to teach, and sometimes, when they manage to get clear of the paperwork and bureaucracy and politics for a moment, they get the chance. When teachers protest the new requirements that are endlessly foisted upon them by people who neither understand nor respect what they do, it is not because they want to teach less. It is because they want to teach more. Wouldn’t we all benefit if we let them?

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