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I get a real kick out the best-of lists that pop up at the end of the year. This year, of course there's an extra bit of puffery: the First Decade of the New Millennium has passed into ignominy, so what is the great cosmic takeaway for educators?
Really? While there are transformative events and legislation, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. Education policy thinkers tend to be Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That's the way we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Plan to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.
But-- no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but the Decade of No Child has now ended and--aside from Margaret Spellings--who wants to keep arguing about whether the results are marginally data-positive or proof that you can spend billions and not improve the worst troubles in any meaningful way?
I have been a teacher in four distinct decades, each with its own policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We've been "at a turning point" more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations. But what has really changed in classrooms? What's the net impact on actual practice?
My--admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific--impressions of Four Decades of American Education:
The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975--something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview. Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs--wasn't that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted--no content or instructional oversight and nothing resembling "professional development."
Heard "don't smile until Christmas" about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any "mentoring" I got. Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)--and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away. Was pink-slipped in Years Two, Three, Four and Six, and always called back--once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment--all tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.
Gave statewide tests--the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check--but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education--about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit--envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, autonomous profession. Most days, it was lots of fun.
The Eighties: Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further
pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated
by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two
buildings and--since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject in grades
7 and 8-- a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating,
Finished a masters degree--in Gifted Education, one of a couple dozen au courant cafeteria-style ed specialties (Career Ed, Distance Learning, Women's Issues). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations. None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did write its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s; teachers called these "the black notebooks." Problem: not enough staff or resources to teach all the good things in the curriculum.
release of "A Nation at Risk" interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical
excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing
momentum gained in the air traffic controllers' strike. Hoped it would blow
over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett's nostalgic morality lessons most
discouraging. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took
leadership roles in the union--since they were the only teacher leadership
The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. Goals 2000 goals are kind of inane--first in the world in math and science?--but there's the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and belief things can and should improve. Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools--what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents--tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools--pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush--auto industry will last forever! Got into an argument in the staff lunchroom defending teacher proficiency tests in Arkansas.
and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. Standards
everywhere. Benchmarks--and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Required
mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of
student work. Required professional learning (not blow-off in-service days). Further
upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist
tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to
drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus--fab new
instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite
possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting
immediately; others are intimidated.
Secretary of Education ever--Dick Riley--provides eight years of continuity of
purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds
just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification
identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership
roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve
problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money--and a growing number of
poor kids are still completely underserved.
The Naughts: A slow U-turn
in policy and conventional wisdom. We're not gradually improving, after all--in fact,
we're an international educational joke--and all public schools (not just
poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful--and the people who work and
believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated
salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must
Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it's exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building--genuine stinkers--look good under NCLB regs. We begin administering tests to third graders--and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids' writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now--the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it's formally named.
well-regarded suburban districts become defensive. Urban and rural districts,
shamed. Teacher preparation institutions--even the good ones-- scorned.
Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they
bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than
a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as
efficiently as we replace technologies.
Happy New Year, teacher readers. Look for the Teacher in a Strange Land to be truckin', come 2010.
Image: Hagerstern@Flickr Creative Commons
My friend and fellow Michigan teacher, Cossondra George, recently asked:
Teachers ought to serve as gatekeepers for admission into the profession--and until that happens, we can't lay claim to being fully professional. I'm all for raising the bar for entrance to teaching (using better tools than SAT or Praxis scores), and investing more time, resources and research on effective teacher development.
In the meantime, however, we have teachers who are not doing the job well enough. Some of them should be gone--tomorrow; others have plenty of untapped potential but are floundering. No point in repairing the rusty gate granting access to teach unless we pay attention to supporting teachers once they're in the field.
Struggling teachers come in two basic flavors: #1) teachers who haven't had sufficient experience or training to do the job well and #2) teachers who once had the disposition and tools to be good teachers, but have checked out due to cynicism, fatigue, bitterness and unforgiving working conditions.
The first group is not necessarily easier to deal with. In some environments, "professional development" is seen as an administrative duty, and early-career teachers are threatened by the idea that their performance might be evaluated and found wanting. Their daily practice is marked by the overriding desire to keep a low profile. All teachers--from rank newbies to award-winning veterans--must consider themselves collaborative learners and practitioners. All of us are responsible for lending plans, tips, materials and support to new teachers.
One thing that can be done by accomplished veterans: asking newer teachers for their ideas, and approaching them as full colleagues, rather than those who need help. I work with many first- and second-year teachers who are pretty vocal about observed shortcomings in their assigned mentors. Most faculties adopt a kind of pecking order. Flattening that hierarchy--opening doors and sharing uncertainties--can help. Novice teachers ought to be considered for leadership roles, such as curriculum writing or the school improvement team, rather than dumping unwanted, time-sucking class advisories or club sponsor roles on them.
The second group of ineffective teachers is a different problem. I worked for decades in a strongly veteran culture, which equated years of service with accrued power and influence. I eventually discovered that many of the teachers I saw as jaded burn-outs were once enthusiastic and creative, but had had their mojo squashed by a culture of anger and perceived betrayal.
For a teacher trained in the 70s, teaching to a mandated and scripted reading program feels like being told that the best lessons in their tool bags are useless, and their judgment flawed. For a teacher who's spent 20 years in Detroit, bringing in used clothing and peanut butter sandwiches for neglected students, blaming teachers for the system's failures now is callous.
Some of those favorite lessons and teaching methods are useless junk. But--a significant group of teachers who retain the potential to be very effective in the classroom have found the only "leadership" role open to them is fighting back against systemic change through their unions. They need to have their professional experience validated and acknowledged; they're not going accept either praise or criticism from someone they don't respect, but they have not stopped caring about their students' learning.
So there is an opportunity to salvage good teaching--and valuable contextual experience-- by acknowledging that veteran teachers have something to contribute: been there, tried that, learned from it. We might start by asking dried-up veteran teachers "Why did you choose to be a teacher?" The ones who say "June, July and August" can be dismissed. But the ones who say "I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives" deserve to have their ideas heard, at least.
old friend inadvertently gave me the title for this blog when he let me know
that a true Michigan conservationist and sportsman-Rusty Gates--passed over to
the great fly fishing stream in the sky last week. Rusty Gates understood that in order to learn
to fish, you had to stand in the river for a time. And so it is with teaching.
Image: Neil Whiteside@Flickr Creative Commons
For several years running, my middle school hosted the Solo and Ensemble Festival for our southeastern Michigan region, always held on the first Saturday in December. That meant that thousands of middle school musicians, plus their parents, piano accompanists and indulgent grandmothers descended on my middle school for a day of nervous renditions of "Little Fugue."
are more than 40 middle schools in the region, so that also meant hanging with a
volunteer workforce of a few dozen orchestra and band teachers, pulling 12-hour
shifts on a Saturday. Every year, at least one of them would express surprise
at the wreath hanging on the counselor's door, the (ugly, scrawny) Christmas
tree in the office--and the marching lineups and drum assignments for the
annual Fantasy of Lights parade
posted in the band room.
do you get away with that?" I was often asked. At many schools in nearby
Oakland County, the student population is much more ethnically and spiritually diverse.
Many of my counterparts were doing winter concerts where the musical literature
was tightly scrutinized for religious imbalance and stealth piety. Ironically,
many of them were selecting literature based on mildly schizophrenic policies
that allowed them to play masterworks--such as For Unto Us a Child is Born--on the theory that they were
"educational," but forbade secular tunes like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas because--duh!--the word
"Christmas" was in the title.
Most school policy on Christmas music--and performance of other traditional and ethnic holiday compositions--falls somewhere between muddled and nonexistent; a fair number of directives get added when someone complains at a school board meeting. And a large segment of school personnel and the general population profoundly misunderstand the elasticity, purpose and intent of the First Amendment. It's not about boldly defying the separation of church and state (although some people want to fight that specious battle endlessly). Charles Haynes, First Amendment scholar, expresses this beautifully in a must-read article:
Amendment solution is stunningly simple: Schools should plan holiday programs
that are educational in purpose and balanced in content. Nothing in the First
Amendment prohibits public schools from educating students about music,
religious and secular, as part of a comprehensive music program that exposes
students to a variety of traditions and cultures.
also notes that one Merry Hyatt of California is now collecting signatures to
put a referendum on the November 2010 ballot requiring all public schools in California to include Christmas music
in classroom activities, every December. Haynes thinks that even if the
referendum passed (and I get a little queasy thinking about the mileage Bill O'
Reilly could get out of that one), it would be overturned on constitutional
this need to be a fight? We're a diverse country. Teaching children to
appreciate the range and beauty of cultural traditions is something we ought to
be endorsing in every public school, no matter which holidays a majority of
students celebrate. Most people who hail each other in this season, whether
they say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas"--or any
other greeting--are not proclaiming religious fervor. They're trying to be
friendly and social. Good cheer in dark times.
is not and never has never been a "War on Christmas." Everyone in
America gets Christmas, for weeks, whether they want it or not. The First
Amendment lets us sort this out, school by school, keeping educational integrity
uppermost. School leaders can serve as models of inclusive and respectful
citizenship--a more admirable goal than majority domination.
For those who insist that all middle school bands play Christmas music, I propose a mandatory winter holiday parade. A few years marching in sleet ought to make any "War on Christmas" zealot think twice.
I generally keep the fact that I used to be a cheerleader to myself. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, as cheerleading in the 1960s was mostly about little pleated skirts and personality. I am of the generation of women who prefer to be known for their intellect and professional accomplishments rather than their pom-poms.
Cheerleading, however, has evolved, as a concept--it's become more athletic and competitive, involving a range of gymnastic skills and strength. It's less about popularity and more about coordination and discipline, at least theoretically--with Texas as possible exception to the rule, of course.
was surprised to see Frank Deford, on NPR, equivocate on the subject of whether
cheerleading is a true sport. I thought that battle had been won decades ago,
when high schools and colleges began implementing Title IX, and all female
sports (and wannabe sports) took a major upward leap in proficiency and
aggressive athleticism. Deford's point was a good one, though: Colleges that
declare cheerleading a sport can then justify eliminating other female
sports--and spending more on expensive male-only programs, like football.
While discussions on gender equity in sports will likely go on forever, there's no denying that cheerleading has developed into a team activity requiring significant physical ability--a sport.
am always amused by the passion with which people--OK, men--will squabble about
whether a particular activity is a "sport" or not. I fail to see how 22
outsized, fully padded bruisers in $200 helmets, moving a pigskin bladder two
feet while knocking each other down (and sometimes out) is undeniably a sport --but
things like archery, hunting, synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are
A lot of the arguing has to do with money--who will pay to see what--and the necessity of winners and losers, which means that dog racing is a sport, but marching bands are entertainment, even though every band member on the field is engaged in a complex, physically strenuous activity requiring stamina, precision, coordination, memory, the ability to read music and skin thick enough that tuba jokes bounce right off.
I once had an acrimonious dispute with the Athletic Director in my high school over whether band members should be eligible for varsity letters. The block H, he explained, was reserved for true athletes (as were the varsity jackets with the leather sleeves). He suggested that the band get nylon windbreakers to show their spirit--and eventually admitted that he was worried that the football team might not be proud to don varsity jackets if bassoonists could wear them, too. He found no irony in the fact that the 100 members of the marching band spent two months trailing the football team around for the purpose of playing the fight song with frozen fingers every time Biff kicked a field goal.
In K-12 World, any competitive activity that involves skills, strength or teamwork ought to qualify as a sport. Why not? American schools spend much more on sports than schools in other countries. If we insist that sports engage kids whose strengths are kinesthetic rather than academic--and believe that sports build confidence, teamwork and discipline--then we ought to offer as many "sports" as we possibly can, so their benefits are broadly available.
It took about five years, but the music department eventually won the campaign to wear the same varsity letter as the football team. Our block H had a small pair of eighth notes to distinguish it from the others: letters with golf balls, the winged feet and-- eventually-- the little mortarboards of the Quiz Bowl kids. I'd call that S-U-C-C-E-S-S.
And now we've been advised to develop instructional "platoons" in elementary school, the better to lock and load, pinpointing our achievement targets with more precision. We can become an elite teaching force, a well-oiled instructional machine, mowing down mathematical skills like Sherman marching to the sea, and all that.
In 2005, I was teaching music in a K-4 building. I ate lunch with the three fourth grade teachers, all of whom were smart and hip. I was consistently impressed with their ongoing conversations about How to Make Things Better for Fourth Graders. They shared everything--lesson planning, materials, moments of instructional illumination, things kids said in class. In the fall, they started dividing up the lesson creation process, with each teacher going deeper into one of three subjects in the fourth grade curriculum--math, science and social studies. They all taught reading at the same time, using the assigned building-wide program, but they were experimenting with flexibly sharing their students for mini-lessons around particular skills and topics.
were about 85 kids in the 4th grade, and their rooms were side by side. By the
end of September, the teachers knew all the 4th graders--and were convinced
that they could do a better job of instruction if they specialized in teaching one
subject, and ran the 4th grade reading program collaboratively, as well. They
drew up an elaborate plan--they called it "switching"--detailing
They didn't make it past the first 15 minutes with the principal, who emphatically said that parents preferred a single teacher for their young children--a teacher who would be responsive to a particular child's unique needs. It would also take valuable instructional time for the kids to move to a new class; when the teachers explained that the kids would sit tight, and that it would take approximately 30 seconds for teachers to move next door, the principal got huffy.
She said there was research showing that elementary students achieved more when they stayed with the same teacher all day. At the time, the K-8 movement (a reactionary response to the maligned "middle school concept") was taking root in urban districts, keeping kids together all day. And finally, she shot the plan dead by telling them that she was the decision-maker, and she was convinced that their plan was nothing more than a sneaky way to make their lives easier and reduce their personal workload.
They had a second meeting with the principal, and this time the union representative came, but no dice. Further--the principal had now noticed that the teachers were occasionally switching kids for reading and put the kibosh on that as well. One teacher, 28 kids, no switching--and that was that. Because I got to hear lots of lunchtime exasperation about this situation, I did a quick scan of research and found one or two old studies that supported the principal's position, and a couple that supported the teachers' position. What all the research does say is that the quality of teaching matters a great deal--and that teachers' relationships with students are all-important. No surprises. But no research slam dunk for either side of the issue.
course, that was just switching, not platooning, which suddenly seems to be all the rage.
There is now a widely accepted theory that elementary teachers' lack of
mathematical knowledge is the cause of our failure to rout and crush the
international competition on math battles--I mean tests. It's worth pointing
out that the research on this is mixed, too--but we're already on the march, strategically
selecting a few good teachers to lead the charge.
In the end, it's just another example of our national faith in tools and levers--rather than people--to solve problems. The fourth grade teachers in my school were willing to lead and invested in the outcomes of their simple plan. That should count for more than snappy language.
wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me their fondest wish was that
their child be happy. As in: "I'm not worried about Jason's grades--I just
want him to have friends and be happy." Or: "I'm not going to insist that Mandy practice her flute. If it doesn't
make her happy, she can just quit."
I sometimes wonder about the pursuit of happiness as iconic American goal. I'm quite sure that Jefferson had something more noble and laudable in mind than deciding whether he should jot down a bit of transformative political philosophy--or perhaps take a nap, whichever seemed more fulfilling at the moment.
It's a good week for thinking about what makes us happy--and how we, the village, can raise our collective children to pursue the kind of happiness that matters, while simultaneously being aware of and grateful for their many blessings.
TIME magazine this week, Nancy Gibbs muses on the confounding information that
Americans scored higher on the ongoing Gallup "well-being index" this
summer than they did last summer. Although happiness plummeted in the months
after the economic meltdown, our national sense of well-being began to increase
in the spring, and has remained relatively high since, even though the news--pretty
much all the news--has been downright awful.
Gibbs suggests that Americans have adjusted their expectations, and that's a healthy thing:
is the all-American anesthetic, at some point Expectation Inflation was bound
to take its toll. I'm struck by how many people tell pollsters that the
voluntary downshifting and downsizing of the past year have come as a kind of
relief. Maybe we've lowered our standards. But we already knew that money can
buy only comfort, not contentment; happiness correlates much more closely with
our causes and connections than with our net worth.
does this square with current education oratory and thinking, wherein "low
expectations" are now equated with soft bigotry? It's clear that our
generational train of progress-through-education--the laborer's son becomes a
merchant, the merchant's son a professional, with each subsequent generation achieving
more--is creaking to an end. We are outstripping our natural resources and have
tilted our economy into crippling debt. The gap between rich and poor is
growing; I'm guessing the people who expressed relief about downshifting were
moving from the top tier into the middle.
We can expect all we want, but the reality is that we seem to be heading into a period where the Real Housewives of Atlanta might become appalling symbols of tacky excess, rather than an amusing glimpse into the style and habits of people lucky enough to pursue their personal pleasures. Are we re-defining happiness as much more than recognition, entertainment and stuff?
Speaking of expectations, how can we blithely critique teachers for not using "high expectations" as a handy tool to leverage student learning, when we're ambivalent about providing those same kids with adequate health care? Don't we want all children to reach for more than credentials and possessions--should we expect them to become productive in ways other than generating wealth?
we need to re-examine our current goal focus on college degrees, and how many
more dollars they're likely to yield over a lifetime of work, and start looking at non-material
aspirations and rewards, for our own children and for the nation. Here are the three
core outcomes I want for my own children, as a result of their formal and
course, I want my children to be free from hunger and fear (and the fact that I
take such basic needs for granted probably speaks to the privileges I enjoy as
an American citizen). Continuous happiness, however, seems like a pretty
lightweight and empty goal. Gratitude is
a better place to begin.
Thanks for reading Teacher in a Strange Land. Happy Thanksgiving.
Image: TheABU@ Flicker Creative Commons
favorite professor at Michigan State (known locally as "Moo U") was
fond of telling his grad students that researchers should just explain what
they found in their studies, and resist the urge to add specific policy
implications. Good research should stand on its own, he said--and determining
What It All Means was the reader's job.
Cynic that I am, I would add that readers should draw their own conclusions without input from research funders, as well--whose strategic fingerprints often turn up in the policy implications section of glossy, graphics-laden reports.
Public Agenda's fascinating new report, Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today, divides teachers into three loose groups--the disheartened (40%), the contented (37%) and the idealists (23%). Discussing the report with a group of teachers in New York this week, one teacher noted that she is frequently idealistic, disheartened and contented in the space of a single day--but we generally agreed that the data and characterizations squared with our prima facie impressions about our teacher colleagues. Some are passionate believers in using education to change the world, some have settled into situations where they have support and resources, and feel confident that they're efficacious. And some, unfortunately, see little to be optimistic about--poor working conditions, poor leadership, and poor results.
struck me in the Education Week article about Teaching for a Living was the summary of policy implications:
Are the Idealists the best prospects for high-needs schools and for reinvigorating the profession, and what do school leaders need to do to retain them in the field? Given the Idealists’ passion for improving their students’ lives, how can administrators ensure that they have the skills and support to fulfill that goal? More than a third of Idealists voiced a desire to move eventually into other jobs in education. How does the field respond to those aspirations? The Disheartened pose a different challenge. Some may be ill-fitted to the job and ready to move on, but how should the field encourage and support their transition? Others may be good teachers trapped in dysfunctional schools and, in the right environment, might change their views and become Idealists.
Which group is missing in this analysis?
would we want to convert disheartened teachers into firebrands, especially since
idealistic teachers in the survey were overwhelmingly young and frequently
admitted that they weren't interested in teaching as a long-term career? The
thing about idealists is that they burn out--or they become pragmatic,
understanding that changing the world happens slowly, but is worth the effort.
giving the satisfied and confident teachers a bovine label--contented--was
Public Agenda has a reputation for solid, non-ideological research and thoughtful analysis. Here's the teaser for the report, on their own web page:
Two out of
five of America’s 4 million K-12 teachers appear disheartened and disappointed
about their jobs, while others express a variety of reasons for contentment
with teaching and their current school environments, new research by Public
Agenda and Learning Point Associates shows.
Compare that to Education Week's opener for a similar report published in February--the "MetLife Survey of the American Teacher: Past, Present and Future:"
Teachers’ views on their profession have become markedly more positive over the past quarter century, at least partially validating the widespread school-improvement efforts of the period, concludes a retrospective survey report released this week by MetLife Inc.
Sixty-two percent of American teachers said they were "very satisfied" with their job in the MetLife survey, taken in 2008. When you add up Public Agenda's idealistic teachers and contented teachers, you come up with 60%--about the same number, actually. The difference? Policy suggestions for what to do about teachers who are dissatisfied. Maybe we should be providing them with the resources and support that they say they need, turning their discouragement into realism.
Contented cows give better milk, after all.
Image: dali, Flickr Creative Commons
Let’s get biases and politics out of the way first. I am a big fan of the charter school concept—defined as the rich idea that when it comes to schooling, one size does not fit all, and big monolithic districts do not and cannot serve diverse children as well as site-directed, purpose-driven, innovative schools. If I lived in Detroit, I would choose a magnet school or charter school for my children—and even though I live in a district with fine public schools, one of my children attended a public school and the other attended a private school. Ideologically, I’m with Dewey on this one: I want the best possible education for all children, the kind of carefully chosen options my own children had.
more thing: I think that positioning charter schools as the opposite of public
schools, rather than a necessary supplement to public education, has poisoned
the discourse. And—it goes both ways. It’s not just public schools and public
school teachers being skeptical (or downright nasty) in their remarks about
charter schools. Public school academies—charters—seem
to be bent on repeating the worst sound bites about public schools, whether
they’re strictly true or not, thereby displaying the aphorism that your mother
repeated when you were seven years old: you don’t make yourself look better by
tearing someone else down.
I have a number of friends now working in the charter school movement in Detroit, a city where a handful of good charter schools have begun to flourish and bear fruit. Last week, they invited me to attend a showing of “The Providence Effect,” a full-length film depicting a school success story: Providence St. Mel, a K-12 Catholic school on Chicago’s tough west side.
Providence St. Mel has accrued considerable recognition after parents adamantly refused to close it on diocese recommendation, 30 years ago: President Reagan visited, around the time the “Nation at Risk” report was being crafted, and Oprah Winfrey has taken a personal interest (and contributed more than a million dollars). Providence’s outcomes—an average ACT score of 23, and 100% college admission for graduates—resemble those of well-heeled suburban public schools. Now, there is an attempt to replicate the “Providence effect:” a charter school in Englewood, led by Providence graduates and veteran teachers, and based on programs and principles at the original PSM.
The screening was part of a two-day professional conference for charter school proponents and teachers, and featured a panel discussion with Big Names in the Michigan charter school movement, a State Board of Education member, various business-leadership types, and the principal of the new Providence charter school. The room was set up for hundreds of people, but I’m sure the attendance numbers (perhaps 60 people) were disappointing to the organizers. As I was parking on the rooftop of Cobo Hall, charter school teachers wearing conference badges were flooding out of the building, recognizable as teachers by their youth, their post-collegiate dress and tote bags—plus their “let’s go get a beer” demeanor.
Impressions from the film and the panel discussion:
If you believe U.S. News and World
Report, two of the top twenty Schools of Education are right here in Michigan,
including the long-running #1 in Elementary and Secondary teacher preparation,
Michigan State University, and the #4 public university in the country, the
University of Michigan. There is also a strong network of regional teacher
preparation programs. There is no shortage of smart, highly qualified and skilled teachers
here in Michigan.
Michigan is a teacher-exporting state. About three-quarters of our best and brightest would-be teachers go to work in other states (when they can get jobs). Of those who remain in Michigan, a significant segment gets jobs in newly formed charter schools—because there are no jobs in public schools. The best new teachers in Michigan? They’re the folks who went streaming out the door to grab a beer with their teaching colleagues as I was parking my car.
When it comes to evaluating charter schools, the key question is always: Compared to what? Charter schools in Detroit have many potential resources that public schools do not, beginning with positive public assumptions and PR.
Charter World is an interesting place, with different beliefs, incentives and catch phrases than Public School World. It would be a shame to lose the opportunity to do something truly different with charter schools, relying instead on rhetorical flourishes and empty myths.
My estimable teacher-blogger colleague, Ms. Bluebird, is sputtering about the parent-accessible online grading system in her district. She bemoans the fact that parents aren't tracking their children's assignments and grades, even though it's now become totally convenient to (as the kiddies say) creep on their progeny. Evidently, this is an issue of deep concern to lots of teachers, as Ms. B's first 13 commenters enthusiastically jump on the "parents just don't care" bandwagon.
Bluebird totally rocks--but on this issue, I disagree. When it comes to online
gradebooks, I believe what's happening here is a misguided faith in the magic of
technology to solve problems (even things we didn't realize were problems beforehand).
If parents weren't allowed to peek into teachers' gradebooks twenty years ago, what
makes us think they're interested now? And furthermore--is it even a good idea
to nurture grade-stalking in parents?
Points to consider:
I find my district's online grading program so inflexible as to be nearly useless. I collected lots of valid assessment data on my students that could not be represented in the gradebook program (the program routinely converted a memorized D-flat major scale into 60%). I never checked on my son's grades, either, although it would have been extremely easy to do so--and, trust me, I am a caring parent, with a deep commitment to his education. I got his report card, and I went to parent-teacher conferences. And that--really--was enough.
Image: Snelly23 @ Flickr Creative Commons
At the last high school graduation I attended as faculty member, I sat on the stage, robed and hooded, with the rest of the teachers who served as honor guard for the class. Normally, commencement was held in the football stadium, but a downpour forced us into the auditorium where all graduates and attendees were up close and personal, not to mention damp and uncomfortable.
From my vantage point, I could reach out and touch graduates as they crossed the stage--and see right up the gowns of the young men sitting, splay-legged, in the front row. In spite of the class advisors' admonitions--and, probably, their mothers'--many of the boys were wearing shorts and flip-flops and didn't appear to be duly impressed with the ceremonial aspects of the occasion. I was surprised at how many of them were bearded, or sporting cool-dude facial hair; physically, these were full-grown men.
started thinking about my district's four-option school entry program: students
could enter school via "developmental" kindergarten and/or regular
kindergarten, and those who "needed a little more time" could do a
year in junior first grade, before moving on to regular first grade. Parents tailored
two- or three-year combination plans to get their kids to second grade, and the
large majority of those taking three years were boys. Because of the desire to
give their sons a leg up, back then, many of the young men sitting in front of
me were a hormonal nineteen years old. They'd been driving for four years, and
could easily have been carrying an M-16 in Iraq. In an earlier century, they
would have struck out on their own long before, as farmers, wayfarers or
Today, of course, the conventional wisdom is that their economic goose is cooked unless they seek further education. This week's cover story in Newsweek--"Why College Should Take Only Three Years" (by Lamar Alexander), and a follow-up roundtable with higher ed luminaries discussing "What is College For, Anyway?" don't manage to make an airtight case for the three-year plan. But both pieces shed light on the big questions that we ought be asking about a college education:
No consensus reached. In fact, the various experts did not agree on the primary purpose of pursuing a college degree--is it building workplace skills, developing an educated citizenry in a democracy, or simply the credential needed to the lock the bearer into a higher socioeconomic stratum?
an image from Robert Zemsky, education reformer and professor at the University
of Pennsylvania: College is like a supermarket where we let students freely
choose courses. When they get to the cash register, we tell them they don't
have the right things in their shopping carts, so they must continue shopping,
for five or more less-than-fruitful years. Might it be an intellectually
productive thing, this academic mucking about? Or is it a nationally
embarrassing inefficiency, a waste of time and money?
I'm not sure. At some point, young people need to grow up, spend time working, traveling, living independently, making their own choices. Going to college or trade school should be motivated by a desire to learn something, however, be it plumbing or Shakespearean sonnets. And--you can't put off adulthood and real life forever.
Image: Uhuru1701, Flickr Creative Commons