Sunday, August 20, 2017

On Forced Class Participation: Dear WhateverHerNameIs

Dear WHNI:

I read with interest your posting on the BAT blog. I teach high school students, but I both know and remember the issues you speak of.

You write very thoughtfully about the challenge of being a shy and quiet student in a classroom where participation is demanded of you, and let just say that it can really suck. Shy, quiet and introverted humans (the three groups overlap, but aren't necessarily identical) too often have to deal with folks who don't get it, who have never had those feelings, who think that these are traits to be "fixed" or "overcome." It is a big fat pain in the butt to deal with someone who thinks there is only one right way to share or express feelings and ideas. I have at various times in my life wondered how those outgoing, verbally expansive, participate-till-they-drop folks would like to be stuck in a class where students were expected to never participate, even when they wanted to. A hundred years ago, students like you were the star pupils-- quiet, respectful, never speaking up, always attentive and on task.

I appreciate you get how much teachers want-- and in some professional sense need-- to know what's going on in a student's head. But on this point you are absolutely correct:

Because you cannot change a person yourself. The second you start trying to is the second things go from normal to wrong, and the second my school day gets a little bit longer and a lot more unbearable. The class with the random participation clogs my thoughts and even when I’m happy, I’m anxious. Even after you called on me and my heart started pounding, I’m thinking about it. And it sucks.

Indeed. One of the very worst thing a teacher (or parent) can do is look at a young human and think "Boy, this would go really well if you could just be someone else. That's all I need-- just for you to fundamentally change how you go about being in the world." And while you say it's okay to have this kind of thought, as long as it's just a thought, I'm going to go one further-- it's not useful to even have that thought, because it's impossible to have that thought without having it color your action and behavior.

And it's big principle to grasp, because historically, we have screwed this one up over and over-- left-handed students, non-white students, students with various disabilities-- we have approached them both as an institution and as individuals with an attitude of, "First, we need you to change who you are." This is, in fact, one of my issues with modern charters-- far too many of them will only teach you if you are in the world the way they want you to be, and all others can just leave.

Our mission should be to find ways to teach students as the people they are. We teachers do have the job of figuring out what's going on in your studenty craniums, but it's a lazy cheat to say, "You have to show us that the one and only way we prefer." (One more reason using standardized tests to measure all of education is a crock.)

It's a never a wise teacher move to try to force students to do anything-- because we can't. When you were littler, we could trick you into thinking you didn't have a choice. Now you're old enough to know better. So I assume I can't "make" my students do anything-- but I can certainly try to nudge them in particular directions.

Having cheered you on for most of your piece, I will disagree with you on one point. You write

And I can almost guarantee that you have a handful of students (or peers, if you’re not a teacher) in your mind that match that same description. The kids who mind their business, take their notes, and leave. We don’t cause trouble. More often than not, we’re probably good students. 

I'd hope that students in my classroom set their sights a little higher than just coming in, doing the basic of what's expected, keeping their head down, and leaving. Students who are merely compliant, who just show up and do what they're told-- those are not my idea of good students. That's a low bar to clear. I hope you set a higher bar for yourself in the future.

That said, as teacher, it's my job to make it possible and at least a little more comfortable for my students to do that. I provide a lot of different avenues for "participating," and I do my best to maintain an atmosphere that is safe and non-threatening, where students can do their thing without having to feel anxious. I don't claim to be perfect, and I'm not sure I want to be-- the biggest enemy of growth is comfort. But if you were sitting in my classroom this fall, my hope is that you would be less anxious and able to challenge yourself without having to feel forced to act like someone you are not.

Finally, I will meet my students for this year in about ten days, and I want you to know that I'll be thinking about your words as I work with them in the months ahead. I hope your school year is great.

ICYMI: Almost There Edition (8/20)

School's beginning is getting close in my neck of the woods. But keep reading, and keep paying attention!

Chris Cerf Is Better Than You-- Just Ask Him

Jersey Jazzman, as usual, looks at New Jersey but sees conditions that teachers all across the country face

Facing Our Confederate Past

Is this the year we start to truly address some of the dark corners of US history? Here's some more thoughts about how.

How Can We Improve the Performance and Accountability of Pennsylvania Cyber Charters

I'm not sure I agree with every one of the recommendations, but this is a brutal, thorough, and well-sourced look at just how bad PA's cyber charters are. 

Headline Says Don't Protect Worst Teachers

Thomas Ultican responds to one more attack in one more media outlet/

The Heartbreak of Being a Teacher in Texas

But some media outlets run pieces like this one-- a tough look at the teaching life from a Texas educator.

Kennedy Learns From Middle Schoolers

Here's a novelty-- a legislator who works two or three days a year as a "substitute teacher" On the one hand, that's not very much. On the other hand, it's far more than the average legislator. And he has gleaned big insights from his "work," like "teaching is hard."

Pediatricians say Florida Hurt Children in order to Make Rich Richer

CNN takes a look at exactly how badly Florida's attempt to undercut Obamacare is hurting actual live children.

How Preschools Are Actually harming Your Children

Yahoo joins the list of media outlets that have figured out that academically oriented school for littles is a bad, damaging idea.

Dunce's App

Audrey Watters looks at how behaviorism has entered classrooms via silicon valley.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Public Eye

It is one of the oddest volunteer gigs I have ever taken on, but today, as I have for about eighteen years, I walked up to the park a half-block from my house, and served as a judge for our annual stone skipping competition. I am not kidding. Every once in a while some media outlet comes to watch-- here's a piece from Bill Geist of CBS Sunday Morning from several years ago:

You can find me somewhere in the background, wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt, because that's what I always wear for this event.

Today we had competitors from Philly, South Carolina, Canada, and other not-nearby spots. We have regulars who come, including the two guys included in the clip. Russ Byers is in the middle of a battle with esophageal cancer, and Kurt Steiner has since set a world record with 88 skips (there's video on youtube if you want to see it.

Some of the competitors and crowd today

I do it because it's fun, because it's super-conveniently located, and because it pouts me, a teacher, out in a public event. I did not, frankly, get asked because I'm a teacher, but because I'm a local newspaper columnist and sometimes folks invite me to get involved in things in hopes I'll write some nice words.

And you should know this about me-- I am hugely introverted. Being in anything like a public eye is supremely awkward for me (my wife shares this trait-- at our baby shower, we were fully prepared to curl up and disappear). I've made a certain amount of peace with it-- I love to play music and audiences tend to be involved-- but I'm never super comfortable seeking out an audience and saying, "Hey, pay attention to me."

But greater than that is my belief that teachers have got to get out there in the public eye. We cannot be seen only in school. We must be seen in our communities, preferably contributing to them in whatever ay suits our particular talents and opportunities.

We owe it to the communities that pay our wages. It matters when they see us out there spending that same money to support local businesses and community activities.

It strengthens our position as teachers. When our students see us a real people who live in the real world, and not some kind of wind-up maniquens who only exist within the school walls-- well, that increases the possibility that they will believe that what we say and do in the classroom has some connection to their lives. There is nothing like the shock and surprise of students who meet you in the grocery store (You eat food!!??) or out wearing regular non-work clothes (You wear jeans??!!), and it always changes the way they see us in the classroom.

It also earns us the traction to advocate for ourselves and our work. People have been saying terrible things about us for years. We can say, "That's not true," but it's never as effective as when the people who have met us, spent non-school time with us, seen us in the world, speak up to say, "I know her, and she's not like that."

Some of us are too shy or retiring to get our lights out from under those bushels. That is no longer good enough. We are the experts. We are the professionals. And we are the friends and neighbors in the community. We can't afford not to be vocal and visible about all that; there are too many people out there willing to say that we are just money-grubbing lazy grifters.

And while I know not everyone can live where she teaches, for reasons of money, family, and circumstances, I also know that I have met teachers who swear they would never, ever live where they might run into their students outside of school, and I this day and age, that attitude is indefensible. If you are unwilling to meet your students outside of school, you probably shouldn't be meting them inside school, either.  This is one of my objections to Teach for America style programs-- no community needs drive-by do-gooders who stick around barely long enough to learn a couple of street names.

I'm a small town guy, and that undoubtedly colors my perspective on this issue-- I know it's far more complex in large urban systems. But I don't believe that you can be the most effective teacher you're capable of being without being an active, visible part of your school's community. Even if it just means singing in a church choir or volunteering with a local organization or being sure to eat in a community restaurant at least once a week, or being part of the staff of a stone skipping competition.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Those Damn Five Year Old Anarchists

Someone brought this classroom poster to my attention today:

That's from a classroom for five year olds. A classroom. For five year olds.

There are so many problems here. Equating considerate, compliant and conforms is just bizarre, like saying that bananas and baseballs make for equally good meals because both start with "b." And bossing is somehow a lower level, as if bossy people can be expected to grow into compliant people (who then become democratic people)? And the idea of some five year old child coming home from school today to despondently tell her parents, "Today I was an anarchist." Because when you run down the hall, you're not just breaking a rule or letting your five-year-old feelings carry you away-- you are challenging the very order of the universe itself.

The source of this system is, as is often the case, a guy with a dream and a consulting firm. Marvin "Marv" Marshall has written some books and booked a bunch of speaking gigs, so you know he's an expert in the field of stress reduction. In particular he focuses on reducing stress by exercising authority without coercion. Note, that's still essentially an authoritarian approach. Just a smiley one.  He's been a college lecturer, operated a charity to spread his ideas, and taught school (though I can't find anything about where or how long). Along with various other degrees, he scored a Doctorate in Education from University of Southern California in 1968. He's been an author and presenter since 1992.

There is a Marvin Marshall Preschool and Children's Center in Carmichael, CA, presumably without any nests of anarchists in it (GreatSchools reports enrollment of 2 students, both white). There are youtube videos, including a long one that explains, among other things, that the method was developed "to meet the needs of today's diverse students" which certainly matches the impression is a system about "criminalizing" non-compliant behavior. In another he credits his system as a "take-off" on Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development and it is, in the sense that tofu is a take-off on meat.  And you can watch Marshall himself in action; I will warn you that he has a bit of a smarm issue (which is fine-- after all, I have a bit of a jerk issue).

In short, I'm not so sure how much we can trust the expertise behind this system. And Nancy Bailey does an excellent job of putting this in a larger context of school discipline.And while this system drew attention because it popped up in Pasco County, Florida, you should know that it's spread far and wide-- here's a slide show presentation about it from a school in California.

But the bottom line here is, do we want to teach five year olds that being an anarchist is a bad thing and being compliant is a good thing? What if we renamed Marshall's stages-- what if students were labeled "freedom fighters" or "soldiers of the patriarchy" or "weasely collaborator." Heck, we could assign students to one of the four houses of Hogwarts every day. Or we could come up with a schema based on chaos and order muppets. I rather like the image or a small child coming home to announce, "Hey, I'm still a Swedish Chef today!!" And if you like your Muppet universe a little more complex, then there's this chart:

Here's the thing to remember about discipline systems at school-- every one of them codifies somebody's value system, sets in rules and regulations judgments like "being compliant is good" or "a good student is one who questions authority." When a system codifies love of compliance (and can't distinguish between compliance and cooperation) and negative labeling of any sort of age-appropriate behavior (five year olds running! zounds!!), my eyebrows go up. Frankly, I'd much rather see a system that codifies fuzzy Muppets.

UPDATE: After the social media flap and Nancy Bailey's piece, the superintendent decided maybe they'd just better slow that anarchy train down a bit.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Chester Finn Is Right

Yup. I'm going to direct your attention to a piece from reformster Chester "Checker" Finn (Fordham Institute Emeritus) because I agree with huge chunks of it.

This new piece-- "Betsy DeVos is wrong about accountability for schools of choice"-- does not come out of nowhere. Earlier this summer Finn came out swinging hard for accountability more deliberate and defined than a simple, childlike faith in a parent-wielded invisible hand. But now he's doubling down and explaining why-- and damned if we don't agree on much of this.

He starts by noting that DeVos, in her recent interview with the AP, once again indicated that parent choice is pretty much all we need to hold schools accountable in a choice/voucher system. Also, authorizers matter, and here Finn notices a bit of an issue:

When it comes to charter schools, the Secretary acknowledged that authorizers play a role alongside parents, though she picked the dubious case of Michigan, her home state, to illustrate the point. The Wolverine State certainly has some top-notch authorizers, and they have indeed closed down some failing charter schools, yet the overall track record of Michigan charters is too spotty—at least in the eyes of those who value academic achievement and fiscal probity—to warrant citing it as a stellar example of quality control via authorizing.

Indeed. Consider Bay Mills Community College, a tiny upper peninsula Michigan college that gets the lion's share of its funding by authorizing charter schools hundreds of miles away in Detroit. "Spotty" is a kind term for the charter record in DeVos's home state.

Then he notes this about parents as the first line of defense:

Parents as first line of defense, sure, although she appears to trust the schools themselves to equip the parents with the information they need to make competent decisions. There’s no sign of any sort of impartial data source.

Indeed. What we've seen is that charters are far more interested in marketing than informing, that they are no more committed to getting fair, full, impartial information to their customers than any other company with a product to sell.

And the second line of defense? DeVos doesn't mention any such line at all. Again, this is not a surprise-- everyone who knew told us that DeVos had been strongly anti-accountability as a choice activist.

That's not okay with Finn, who rattles off many of the accountability measures that the Fordham has touted over the years. They're all Big Standardized Test based and therefor junk as far as accountability goes, but I'm going to step past that for today. What's most important, and what I agree hardest with, and what I have often said is wrong with parent-centered choice-- well, Finn lays right into that. He notes that several studies have suggested that voucher systems get lousy or at least not-good academic results.Then:

Sobering, yes, and if we were single-mindedly dedicated—as perhaps Secretary DeVos is—to expanding and extending access to such programs, we might back off from results-linked accountability. In the long run, however, it’s better for choice, for kids, for taxpayers, and for the country’s economic vitality and social mobility that we continue to insist: No school, public or private, is a good school unless its students are learning what they should. And where public policy and public funding are concerned, what kids should learn is a matter of public interest and so are the results that their schools are—or aren’t—producing. It would be wonderful if the parent marketplace were a sure-fire mechanism for gauging and producing those results. Sadly, it simply isn’t. Which is to say, again sadly, Secretary DeVos has this one wrong.

Yeah, we're still going to disagree about what students "should" learn and how we'll know they're learning it. But we are in agreement that public education is not simply a service provided to parents, as if there are no other stakeholders. In fact, taxpayers and society as a whole have a huge stake in good schools. My take-- DeVos and other free market purists want to get all those other stakeholders out of the room so that private schools can pitch as they like to individual parents without some nosy gummint poking its head in to say, "Actually, this school kind of sucks" and queering the whole sales pitch.

But hey-- these are contentious times lately, so I'm just going to enjoy this harmonious moment with someone with whom I generally disagree a great deal.

Oh-- and before someone pipes up with, "But you public ed defenders hate accountability," let me just say for the sixty gazillionth time, no, we don't. That's a story that reformsters tell themselves to explain why we've been so resistant to so many terrible accountability ideas. We are actually big fans of accountability; what we are not fans of are crappy measures based on imaginary data and fried baloney equations and counter-factual assumptions and just generally crap no more valid than bouncing a seven-sided die off the warts on the back of a one-legged horny toad under a full moon. Come up with something real, and we'll be fans.

Happy Curmudgabirthday

Today marks the four-year anniversary of the first post on this blog. I wish I could say it shows early signs of promise, but it took a while to hit any kind of stride here. It also took the help of readers to root out a million typos as well as reconsidering some bold design choices (when this blog premiered, it was white font on black background).

There are more people than I can safely name to thank for supporting the blog (which is rapidly approaching the five million reads mark). I have taken a great deal of inspiration from other writers, and I owe all my readership to the people who found it worthwhile to pass on what they read here. Diane Ravitch, the Badass Teachers, Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Jennifer Berkshire, Jose Luis Vilson and a whole bunch of early followers who (probably knowingly) nudged me forward on this path. It helped me turn this from a place where I just vent spleen to a place where I could. hopefully, help clarify some issues and make some more sense of the ongoing public education debate. It has also been my great privilege to pass along other voices that deserve to be heard, just as others passed me along.

The most frequent question I get is "How do you write so much?" I still don't have a good answer beyond "low standards." It also turns out to be like the answer to "Twins! How do you do it?" You just do, because you have to. There's a lot that needs to be said. I'm going to keep trying to say as much of it as I can.

I'm grateful for this opportunity, and humbled that  folks are still reading. Thank you-- and keep standing up for public education.

Waiting for my book deal.

Netflix, Disney and Choice

Netflix subscribers may have already heard the news-- Disney is going to pull their content from the online media empire, and start a streaming subscription service of their own.

Take one last look, honey, before we blow this popsicle stand

This is nothing new, but just a further trend that has been steadily developing ever since online streaming library business showed promise. If you want to watch HBO stuff, you need an Amazon Prime subscription. Other stuff is available only through Hulu, and some networks have their own proprietary set-up (Bravo, for instance, figures they should be able to get their upscale viewers to pay big for classics like Top Chef).

My question is this-- does the proliferation of different streaming services represent an increase or decrease in choice?

If one streaming service has most of the available content accessible through one interface and paid for through one subscription, that would seem to be a choice ideal. Everything I want available under one roof for the single efficient price. But increasingly, it looks like folks will need to subscribe to multiple services (so much for saving money by ditching cable) and then hop back and forth between several locations to get what they need. Greater cost, less actual choice under any single roof.

This is the choice solution proposed by voucher and charter fans.

The mission of a public school was to put all the choices under one roof. It's particularly efficient because as students shift their focus (Chris wanted be a trombone-playing astronaut, but is now leaning more toward a dentist who writes mystery novels) they can do so without withdrawing from one school and enrolling in another.

Since her confirmation hearing, DeVos has talked about how public schools are swell and all, but one might not be "a good fit" for a student. That construction, favored by many choicers, is never very clear. Not a good fit how, exactly. In some cases, "not a good fit" seems to mean "filled with too many poor/black/brown children," but I want to believe that's a minority opinion. But if we're talking about academics-- well, that makes no sense. A public school is not a single one-size-only suit. It is an institution built of educational tofu. A variety of teachers serve a variety of students in a variety of ways. A variety of programs and approaches are all there, readily accessible, in one building. If your school is too hidebound to do that, you don't need a different school-- you need to replace your administration..

But even if that is the case, how is choice better? Charters are focused on a particular mission or a particular target student. They are by nature and design more narrow and restrictive. In a choice system, Chris must enroll at Astronaut STEM High (which may not even have a music program) and when Chris's focus shifts, Chris must drop out and enroll at Dentist Academy (which may not have any kind of writing program at all). Meanwhile, the whole system is more expensive; at a minimum taxpayers are paying more to replace the money charters drain from a public system, but overall it's simple math-- operating 10 schools costs more than operating 1 school.

So exercising choice is more restrictively difficult, and the whole system is more expensive. How is this choice? How is this a good idea?

Of course, Disney isn't selling their Netflexit as a way to give consumers more choice. It's a way for Disney to make more money. Choice can be highly profitable-- if you control the access and supply of your particular choice and don't just give it away willy-nilly to the public. I mean, if we really wanted to enhance video choice, we'd somehow put everything on some single site for some single price. And if we really wanted to expand academic choices for students, we'd put those choices under the same public roof without trying to profit from them,