Archive for April, 2007

Principle-based Practice

Apr 24 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,science

We get a newsletter every few months from our state Professional Teaching and Practices Commission (PTPC). Over the years I’ve mostly thrown them away with barely a glance, but the last two have been interesting because they’ve included lengthy excerpts from a book called The Ethical Teacher. The Spring 2007 newsletter arrived today, and I want to snag a little something from it to file away here in Borderland before I lose it in my classroom, a bottomless chasm for official communiqués on salmon-colored paper.

This installment is called Ethical Knowledge Defined:

Ethical knowledge is the awareness and recognition on the part of educators of their role as moral agents in their capacity as professionals. This awareness pertains to how they see core ethical principles – such as honesty, fairness/justice, kindness, and respect for others – as embedded in their day-to-day practices and as influencing their formal and informal interactions with students and others. Ethical knowledge enables educators to make the conceptual and practical links between what they know to be good more generally in life and the choices and actions they take in the classroom or elsewhere on behalf of students.
-Elizabeth Campbell

Campbell notes that some educators (I’d say, some people) have a heightened awareness of the moral significance of their moment to moment decision making. She proposes that this awareness be made more visible to the professional community so that it might become the foundation for a principal-based professionalism in teaching.

The PTPC is an ethical governing body which defines and enforces ethical standards, which most of us recognize as ideals for professional conduct. This quote from The Ethical Teacher caused me to think about “the conceptual and practical links” between what I know to be good in life and what I do on behalf of students, and I read it as a manifesto for teacher accountability to a higher moral authority than base measures of testing and AYP. It’s important to remember that ethical knowledge is not only applied by the teacher in practice, it is also communicated to students as a part of their character development.

Measuring teacher performance on the basis of achievement test scores alone ignores the fundamental moral considerations that are part and parcel of teaching young people. When I think about issues of political corruption and official incompetence in educational policy making, I see principle-based practice as a challenge to the emphasis on scientifically-based methods. The two standards aren’t necessarily antithetical to each other. But because ethics are not scientifically measurable, we have to acknowledge their importance in educational processes, and recognize that there are important dimensions to teaching practice that remain outside the scientific model of effectiveness.

However, when we look at these guys, explaining the Reading First mess, we see that maybe someone besides political cronies should be defining the terms for effective practice.

Read Mike Klonsky’s Small Talk, in which he points out that even as they are being investigated for marketing their own reading programs to schools, the experts are claiming that their programs are a success – the definition of conflict of interest.

It looks like the reform community needs a a heightened awareness of the moral significance of their moment to moment decision making.

6 responses so far

Taking Notes for Real Writing

Apr 19 2007 Published by under borderland,literacy,technology

The arrival of the laptop (Apple iBook) and the wireless network at our school this year has triggered some new thinking (for me, mostly) in my classroom. My students’ writing on the internet has run in waves, with one kid picking up an idea that pretty soon half a dozen are working on.

I showed them all how to use Wikipedia to find interesting subjects to write about. I want them to learn how to read and summarize articles, and this seemed like a good idea for those who were into it. We were doing OK until today, when several people decided to copy and paste long passages straight from the web. Seeing this, the computers were put away for a bit.

This is how I see teaching as an iterative process. We made an attempt at something, summarizing informational articles. It failed a couple of key tests. Now we have to talk, again, about plagiarism, summarizing, note-taking, research, and writing in their own voice, issues I’ve been bringing to them all year.

Today, though, we are all working off the same page, from the LCD projector. We’re slogging through an article on bowhead whales and indigenous whaling, as a social studies lesson, since Alaska Native cultures is in our curriculum. It’s a paper and pencil process with one computer, for now, making lists and semantic maps, jotting down key points of interest. They can go back and turn it (I hope) into something coherent, using the computer. For now, to begin with, we need to understand basic essay writing, using the web as source material. It’s hard, though, because the reading level is difficult to control, and it isn’t always easy to find articles at a suitable level of difficulty.

I imagine that a lot of useful educational content on the internet will eventually be written by kids using social software applications, like we are doing. But they have to be shown how to do that.

When it was time to wrap up the morning work, I told them that this was a skill for the information age, and for school, that they would need to develop since school was getting more “wired” all the time. I remembered Doug Johnson’s post from yesterday, Preparing for Educational Climate Change, in which he linked to this article about $100 laptops in Africa. It included a set of pictures, beginning here.

Near bedlam was the result. Wild enthusiasm.

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Researching Back

Apr 15 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,teacher research

At the AERA convention last week, Sarah Puglisi made the acquaintance of Paul Baker, who works in public relations at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Sarah suggested setting up a national teacher-researcher network, and Paul wrote about that on his blog. According to Paul, Sarah said that “Research organizations like the AERA could harness existing technology to establish a teacher-to-researcher network offering unprecedented information exchange, networking, and mentoring.”

My comment, summarized here: It’s not news that policy making in the US is being driven from outside the education community, which makes education research seem kind of (forgive the expression) “academic” to reporters, and teachers – to some extent. Research that isn’t relevant to the standards-based discourse which has come to dominate school staff meetings is of little interest to people with few options in practice.

I do see a great deal of value in a teacher-researcher network, however. I believe that a network of this nature could provide the political leverage to re-open lines of inquiry that are being closed off by the narrowed curricular focus resulting from high-stakes tests.

In an earlier comment, prompted by a link that Sarah provided to a post in which Paul speculated about an apparent research-to-practice disconnect I noted that whenever I read a research paper, I try to imagine how similar the situation being presented in the report is to my own – even if the question is one that I might have asked myself – because the way that I implement any research findings will be some variation of what I already know, and what my students are capable of understanding.

My graduate school cohort worked within a teacher-as-researcher model, similar to the one that Christopher Sessums described, and we learned from one another. This, to me, was one of the most empowering and thought provoking professional experiences I’ve ever had. Get a group of teachers together. Offer university credit. Encourage them to ask and answer their own questions. Discuss. Show them how to publish their findings. That’s what we did.

As I wrote these comments, I was reminded of a book by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies, in which she talked about the need for indigenous peoples to design their own research projects in order to achieve goals that are consistent with their own felt needs and cultural values. I see the situation with teachers and education research as quite similar.

Smith describes how research is used as an imperialist tool in colonial enterprises. She is a Maori intellectual from New Zealand, and though she is most particularly concerned with aboriginal self determination, her insights into the power of research to impose an interpretive frame from outside a community, which can then be used to manipulate policy, spoke clearly to a set of concerns that have been festering for me:

The greater danger, however, was in the creeping policies that intruded into every aspect of our lives, legitimated by research, informed more often by ideology….At a common sense level research was talked about both in terms of its absolute worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument. It told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs (Smith, p. 3).

Smith recommends “researching back,” in the sense of talking back. And this is where I see the teacher action research network as a political strategy. Standardized tests are used in an essentially colonial enterprise aimed at imposing narrow definitions of knowledge on school communities. They effectively disrupt efforts to attain non-cognitive educational outcomes which we might also find desirable. Even in classrooms where instructional decision making is constrained by limited curricular options, researching that set of conditions could provide data that might help to enlighten policy making. A network for teacher-researchers situates local inquiries within a context that has the potential for collective action.

I’m not sure about the role for an organization like AERA in a teacher-researcher network. Mentoring and information exchage are both worthwhile possibilities. It would help to generate visibility for teacher-research within the educational research community, at the very least. I also wonder about the incentives and limitations for the participation of academic researchers.

I do know, from a teacher’s point of view, there is little motivation to take on extra work. It might be hard to recruit teachers. We’ve had small groups of teachers try to set up teacher-research networks on a local level, but the energy required to sustain them is hard to maintain.

I also know that there is a lot that we can learn from one another, and many lines of inquiry remain to be explored. My larger concern is that if we do not begin to connect with each other about the practical issues we face in the classroom, “evidence-based” education policy might choke off the imagination required to ask questions that might lead us past the simplistic story being told with testing data.

Patrick Shannon tells of the need to develop poets “to help us rethink our lives and the structures we have and will create for them”:

The will to act, which for many has been diverted from public to private matters, must be redirected through individuals’ sociological imaginations – the recognition that their apparently private problems are really connected to public issues because that problem is shared by many.

Teachers should consider becoming poet-scientists now. We need to expand the “research-based” discourse to include questions that teachers want answered. We need to deliberately rethink our practices, and consider options for creating new structures, such as action research, within which we can ask new questions. When opportunities for inquiry and innovation are closed, training and indoctrination will be all that remains.

update: See Sarah’s post about making poets – I saw it earlier and neglected to link to it. Text provided in the comments here. Thanks, Sarah

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Dunedin, New Zealand, University of Otago Press.

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Informing the Citizenry

Apr 13 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

On the politics of literacy education:

The International Reading Association hosted an international forum called Literacy: A Path Out of Extremism? in Washington DC. An international panel of literacy education scholars discussed “the global challenges posed by poverty, disease, health and environmental issues, and extremist beliefs that may lead to terrorism.” Among the participants were Dr. Samdani Fakir, Dr. Frank Dall, and Dr. Timothy Shanahan, current president of IRA.

Fakir spoke about his experience in Afghanistan, and said that:

Demobilizing and re-integrating the various militias in Afghanistan is an important first step, but literacy/education efforts must be sustained to make young people aware of extreme ideologies and how to think critically about their world and its future.

Dall spoke about the need to go beyond functional literacy because

…it is possible for marginal literacy to add to extremism by becoming another tool of exploitation"”to create a functionally literate, hence more economically productive workforce that can be manipulated for purposes of ideological control.

It seems that when we identify a regime as being extremist, a policy encouraging critical literacy is recommended to challenge the status quo. However in our own country, reading education policy is now driven by the National Reading Panel’s functionalist view of reading, to preserve the status quo by preparing students to compete in our modern economy.

Timothy Shanahan, who was also one of the NRP panelists, argued the case for both critical and functional literacy, calling critical literacy the pinnacle of a pyramid, the base of which is functional literacy.

The term ‘critical literacy’ does not appear anywhere in the full report of the National Reading Panel. In practice, basic competencies are stressed for the underprivileged, while affluent kids get to do the “higher level” thinking. Status quo.

In the US, where accountability is based on test scores, and evidence-based reading instruction is the rule, teachers are discouraged from embracing critical philosophical orientations that might challenge a social hierarchy in which the Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Powerless, our own form of capitalist extremism.

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Hauling our wealth to the surface

Apr 07 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics,science

A quick trip through my local used bookstore almost always turns up a gem or two. From Total Eclipse, in Teaching A Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard:

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Value-less, I might add-until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.

This passage captures a preoccupation I’ve lately indulged, thinking about the difficulties of translating education research into practice; about what it means to haul our wealth up to the surface in a form that students can use. How do we know if we’ve done that? Sifting through the rhetoric about scientifically based reading research, and knowing what works in general, or what should work in principle, or what worked in the past is very different from knowing what needs to be done in any given moment.

Starting with the abstractions of models and theories, or even clearly defined examples which are usually passed on through some form of training or reading experience, we’re challenged to make connections between the ideal and our own concrete reality. People who want the same things for kids might arrive at entirely different conclusions about the best way to make those things happen. And, of course, people don’t entirely agree on what they want for kids.

Annie Dillard’s call to wakefulness is a challenge for us to recognize and act on the opportunities we have to meet one another at more than a superficial level. When she says that “as adults we are all adept at waking up” I’m reminded of an email message I received several months ago from a blogging correspondent who told me about a teaching she was offered at a Zen retreat in Korea – “Very easy “get” enlightened! Very hard “stay” enlightened!” said the master.

We need to clarify what it is that we want for students, because if we don’t “stay enlightened” other people will take it upon themselves to tell us what we should want. People say that there’s more to teaching than what is tested. In fact, education standards include much more than what is tested. We should have a good idea of a wide range of possibilities for schooling if we want to avoid the trap of teaching to the test.

An article in Kappan by David Ferrero, “Does ‘Research Based’ Mean ‘Value Neutral’?” helped me come to terms with what’s often going on when people disagree about what should be happening in school. He says

The point here is that translating research into practice is not as straightforward as we often pretend. While the research can usually tell us something useful about how to teach — or how not to teach — it does so at a high level of abstraction. Furthermore, research tells us almost nothing about what to teach and why to teach it. This is because what and why aren’t empirical questions; they are normative ones….I’ve witnessed again and again the confusion and conflicts created when educators and school coaches confuse the empirical and the normative.

Criticisms that someone’s approach is “too ideological” ignores the fact that all approaches, and all research designs, are laden with ideological commitments. Ferrero believes that if educators were more aware of the influences of their own values, and those of their colleagues and critics, and in “scientifically-based” research, we’d be able to diffuse a lot of tension and begin having a more productive discussion about the dimensions of the teacher’s craft. He offers a typological review of educational philosophies, which I summarize in order help recognize them in practice.

Briefly, they include traditional and progressive approaches, and another that does not neatly fit into either category.

Traditional approaches:

  • Classical liberal arts – embraces an ancient view of the educated person, reaching back to classical Greece, in which mastery of traditional academic disciplines is the mark of an educated person. Popular advocates include Jacques Barzun and Mortimer Adler.
  • Pragmatic traditionalism – in which education is seen as mastery of knowledge and skills that are considered important within a given society. From this point of view, cultural knowledge is seen as essential for competent social and intellectual participation in the community at large. Advocates include E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, and Chester Finn.
  • Moral traditionalism – going back to Plato, education should focus on the conservation of traditional ways of knowing and acting toward others. It emphasizes discipline and respect for authority. William Bennett is a contemporary advocate.

Progressive approaches:

  • Democratic/communitarian – embodying an anti-industrialist stance, including elements of romanticism and socialism, this approach stresses cooperation and egalitarianism. Within this model, curricula are grounded in the students’ physical and social environment, encouraging them to become problem solvers. John Dewey, Theodore Sizer, and Deborah Meier all are associated with this philosophical approach.
  • Romantic individualism – seeks to nurture the uniqueness of each child. Stressing creativity, spontaneity, and individualization, this vision rejects the idea of curriculum and rules. A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School is the best-known example.
  • Social reconstructionism – rooted in Marxism, and opposed to industrial capitalism, this vision stresses inquiring about dominant power structures, viewing schools as tools for social justice. It embraces an issues-based curricula that encourages students to engage in collective problem solving. Proponents include bell hooks, Michael Apple, and Paolo Freire.

Contemporary approach:

  • Human capital developmentalism – beginning with Horace Mann and the efficiency movement of the early 20th century, schooling is aligned with economic development and individual economic opportunity. It shares many features of pragmatic traditionalism, viewing what is taught in school as preparation for participation in the economy. This is the view that has brought us standards-based reform.

Looking through the list, we might recognize that no teacher is ideologically pure in practice – none I’ve ever met, anyway – since individual teachers embrace various elements of many of these visions for schooling. Once we begin to recognize our own biases and commitments, I think we can begin to sort through the talk about what schooling is, could be, and should be about. Until we do that, though, we run the risk of being batted around by the pendulum of reform as it inexorably swings in the political wind.

I put this little Philosophy of Education primer together because Ferrero’s article so nicely summarized the possibilities, and so ably identified the main problem teachers have in responding to what has become a cacophony of voices calling for standards-based reform. Before we can “haul our wealth up to the surface,” we have to know what to reach for.

Dillard, A. (1982). Teaching A Stone to Talk. New York: HarperCollins.
Ferrero, D.J. (2005). Does ‘Research Based’ Mean ‘Value Neutral’? Phi Delta Kappan. 86:6, 424.

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No Test Prep Program Left Behind

Apr 06 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

Stephen Downes and Wesley Fryer both took aim at a news article that appeared today, Study eyes effect of tech on classroom. Wesley talked about the need for good teaching before any technology, including paper and pencils, can make a big difference. And I agree. Stephen hailed the power of technology in and of itself to foster learning. I’m inclined to agree there, too, if we don’t narrowly predefine the learning objectives.

But there’s another dimension to this story that I think we need to look at. The first line of the AP article said,

WASHINGTON — Going high-tech doesn’t lead to higher math and reading scores, according to a federal study.

Nowhere in the article does it say anything about learning. This story is all about technology and test scores related to NCLB. There’s a more detailed story in the Washington Post, Software’s Benefits On Tests In Doubt: Study Says Tools Don’t Raise Scores, which gives a little more information about this research. There we get to see a defense of the software programs, not from a software industry spokesman as you might expect, but from a representative of the Dept. of Education:

“We are concerned that the technology that we have today isn’t being utilized as effectively as it can be to raise student achievement,” said Katherine McLane, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

To me, this is blatant promotion of these commercial products by the US DOE, every bit as outrageous as government officials favoring certain reading programs for Reading First grant money. Also note that

Industry officials played down the study and attributed most of the problems to poor training and execution of the programs in classrooms.

Blaming teachers for failed policies and poor program design is sport in the US these days. Everyone gets a shot, even the builders of mediocre e-learning products. And the news media do their part as publicity agents for this propaganda. The government funded this study, and when the results didn’t serve the industry’s need, they jumped to their own conclusions about teacher training, poor execution…it doesn’t matter. They don’t care. Who needs research?

This is such a farce.

It couldn’t be that the product is bogus. It couldn’t be that it does exactly the same thing as the paper and pencil worksheets that every teacher has in their file cabinet for a tiny fraction of the cost of the technology “solution.”

It could be that the whole thing is a massive scheme that begins with developing standards and tests, which in turn create a market for a range of products that schools wouldn’t otherwise want.

It seems like every education news story in the US is about NCLB nowadays. Read Teacherken’s post on the subject for a more detailed political analysis, and a bit of history on the study itself. Read through some of the 300+ comments.

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You know you’re getting old when…

Apr 04 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

You have this conversation at lunch:

9-year old: Guess what, Mr. Noon? My grandpa’s dad was in World War II.

Teacher: Well, my dad was in WWII also.

9-year old: Hey! What was his name?

Teacher: His name was Noon.

9-year old: Oh! I think my grandpa might know him!

(grandpa’s dad??)

…and it isn’t very funny.

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Corporate Giants

Apr 03 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch have again touched on the issue of privatizing public schools in NYC, aka Mayor Bloomberg’s demolition derby. Ravitch wonders where the charter school movement is heading:

We keep alluding to the “Tough Choices or Tough Times” report….In my view, the most radical proposal of that commission was that every public school should be operated by an “independent contractor.” Maybe they meant groups of teachers, but I rather think they meant the big chains of charter school operators that have been growing by leaps and bounds.

Meier responded that a voting public can grow weary of reacting to alarms about “crises” and “emergencies,” and lose the will to resist, relinquishing control to “corporate giants.”

I’m paying attention to the privatization discussion after reading an interview with Jeremy Scahill, in which he reported the activities of a private US security force “doing business” in Iraq:

…what these companies do is they give the Bush administration extraordinary political cover. Their deaths don"™t get counted, their injuries don"™t get counted, their crimes don"™t get reported, they don"™t get investigated, they don"™t get prosecuted….the Bush administration has given them almost total free-for-all environment where there"™s no accountability, there"™s no oversight, there"™s no effective laws governing their presence there.

Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince says that private security forces are “more efficient than the military” and that “Blackwater understands the value to the government of one-stop shopping.” Scahill tells a story of corporate greed and official silence over the deaths of four civilian contractors in Fallujah.

Scahill notes that heavy reliance on mercenary forces supplants the need to marshall domestic support for this foreign policy debacle, allowing the president freedom to pursue this unpopular foreign adventure. More at The Nation, on NPR’s Fresh Air, and Democracy Now.

I’d heard about the private security forces, but I didn’t know the extent to which they were deployed, or the license they were given.

This may be an unwarranted leap, but I wonder whether the same dangers to democratic processes apply to privatizing public education. Like many people, I’ve assumed that NCLB reforms were (mistakenly) intended to improve educational outcomes. But test scores and accountability appear to be only a small part of a larger plan. The Educator Roundtable recently posted this quote about educational entrepreneurship:

“There are steps that would make K-12 schooling more attractive to for-profit investment, triggering a significant infusion of money to support research, development and creative problem-solving. For one, imposing clear standards for judging educational effectiveness would reassure investors that ventures will be less subject to political brickbats and better positioned to succeed if demonstrably effective. A more performance-based environment enables investors to assess risk in a more informed, rational manner (Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, Possibilities, edited by Fredreck M Hess, p 252).

Aren’t ‘political brickbats’ what we like to think of as the democratic process? Hang onto your brickbats.

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