Archive for June, 2008


Jun 20 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics,social class

My sixth-graders this year showed me something about how the “staus quo” is maintained.

A counseling intern working in the building did a weekly series of lessons on goal setting with my students. The kids occasionally responded to little surveys she gave them on various topics, and they discussed their answer choices. Coincidentally, toward the end of the year, the university hosted an I’m Going to College field trip for hundreds of upper elementary-level kids from around the district. The intern wanted to prepare the kids for this field trip, and she directed them to an online service that asked them questions about their interests, which presumably would suggest the sorts of career choices they might enjoy.

I figured it was a sign of critical thinking when several students reacted, “This is wrong!” as they read the results of the survey. “I don’t want to be a news reporter,” or “What’s this mean? It says I should go into Transportation.”

There was a lot of clicking on links to see exactly what kinds of work fell into these categories.

The I’m Going to College Day was entertaining. We arrived with a dozen other buses from district schools. Each class was herded around campus by 2 very nice guides who took us to see the library, some lecture halls, the registrar’s office, an empty dorm room, and the cafeteria where they all got an as-much-as-you-can-eat free lunch. That was a hit, even though it was hectic. Miss Alaska was there, too, autographing stuff the kids handed her. She was a big hit!

We attended some classes, too. The kids listened to professors from the engineering department tell about what engineers do, and they saw some cool demonstrations. We learned, among other things, that you can stand on a paper cup without crushing it if you fill it with sand. They also dissected cows’ hearts in a biology lab. A few were grossed out, but they were all pretty cool with it, and they did a good job. By the end of the day, most of them were convinced that college was a good place to go.

As a follow-up to the careers lesson, the counselor had the kids take another survey. This time they answered questions about the kinds of places they might like to live, and the various lifestyle choices they might make. Based on this, an income level necessary to support these choices was indicated. Going back to their career choices from the previous week, they checked which of them would provide them with the money they’d need to satisfy their lifestyle requirements.

Lots of talk broke out when they saw, for example, that the “transportation” worker didn’t earn the $89,000 dollar salary their middle class urban-dwelling plans required. So, what did they do? They revised their career choices, of course. They started looking for jobs that would help them meet their projected needs.

This was funny, since there were a lot of improbable matches. To hell with the interest survey! you could almost hear them thinking. One kid who truly hated to read or write decided he was going to be a federal judge. Perfect! This was easy. Who’d want to work at WalMart or Home Depot when you could be up there on the bench with the robes and the wooden mallet making important decisions?

When the lesson was over, and the intern turned the class back over to me, I decided to bring things back a notch closer to reality. As long as they were all thinking about careers and money, I figured, and as long as that seemed to be the main thing to consider when mapping your future, it seemed like a good time to do some quick math.

I asked if anyone knew what the minimum wage was. It’s around 6 bucks an hour, right? Well, imagine you got a good job earning maybe 10 bucks an hour (round numbers). Full time work is 40 hours a week. (This was news to some.) How much would that be? OK, take your 400 bucks and multiply that times 50, because you’ll need a couple weeks of vacation. The math whizzes call out, That’s 20,000 dollars a year. And then I say, Don’t forget to pay your taxes, so you need to cut that back by about 15 percent. Huh? Yeah, so that means you can count on paying what? Again, the math whizzes have their hands up and they call out, That’s $3,000 in taxes! OK, I say, How much do you take home? They figure that the “good” job, above minimum wage, would net them $17,000 a year, and this is a long way from their judge and heart surgeon pay.

I tell them that a lot of people have to work more than one job these days to get by. “My parents do that,” one kid says. “Mine, too,” says another. “Same here,” someone else says.

And this is another way that expectations are set. Schools are a piece of it, certainly. But what happens when everyone goes home? Corporate accountability is way out of style.

The status quo is the thing nobody wants to own. It’s the leaky faucet that someone else needs to fix.

In an achievement-oriented climate,

The emphasis is less on community and equity, and rather more on individual advancement and the need to satisfy investors and influential consumers. Education has come to resemble a private, rather than public, good.

And “equity” is a word for rationalizing the idea that if you want something, by God, you better damn well do what it takes to get it.

I was happy, weeks later, to overhear this kid tell one of his friends, “I’m gonna be a judge.” I do hope he goes for it. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

The future has almost nothing to do with reality anymore.

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The Devil is in the Details

Jun 10 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics,social class

By coincidence, I finished reading Sizer’s The Red Pencil at the same time this new “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education” statement was released.

Not by mere coincidence, Theodore Sizer is among the dozens of signatories to the statement. Reading his book, and then the proposals advanced in the new policy statement, I have a hard time untangling my thinking about each from the other. So what I have to offer here is the result of an accidental paired reading.

To begin with, Sizer’s ideas in The Red Pencil are probably bolder, broader, and more challenging to the status quo than what the Bold Approachers have to offer. But the Bold Approach group didn’t begin with Sizer. The genesis of this group was the 2006 reauthorization deadline for US DOE’s No Child Left Behind Law:

Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, convened a task force to consider the broader context of the law in the nation’s approach to education and youth development policy. Helen Ladd, a Duke University economist; Pedro Noguera, a noted education policy expert and New York University professor; and Tom Payzant, former Boston schools superintendent and U.S. assistant secretary of education, agreed to serve as co-chairs.

The task force…proceeded to draft a statement to articulate the theme that the nation’s education and youth development policy has erred by attempting to rely on school improvement alone to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children. Rather, school improvement, to be fully effective, must be complemented by a broader definition of schooling and by improvements in the social and economic circumstances of disadvantaged youth.

The “broader definition” of schooling they propose includes smaller class sizes, attracting and developing high-quality teachers, expanded pre-school opportunities, in-school health care services, longer school days, summer and after-school programs, and school-to-work programs with the aim of “weakening the link between socioeconomic background and achievement.”

In principle, I agree with all of these ideas, and with the more general idea that the link between socioeconomic status and achievement is not something that schools alone can remedy. But I also don’t see how this set of proposals is really broad enough, or bold enough, to accomplish the stated goal. They’re all still rooted in school-based reforms, and they don’t directly confront the larger social structures that contribute to the social class differences to begin with. In a sense, they contradict themselves by giving schools more responsibility for providing social services that could and should be broadly available.

Every one of these ideas has a huge price tag attached to it, and they don’t offer any immediate satisfaction to the everyday problems people deal with outside of school. A lot of the special needs kids have suffered various forms of domestic trauma, and they present unique challenges to teachers – which is different than assuming they arrive with a simple deficit of skills. What if, instead of expanding in-school health care, for example, we had universal health care? Everyone would benefit – not just kids in school – and perhaps some of the pressure on parents to work multiple jobs would be lifted. Maybe, then, we’d have fewer special needs kids in school. The Broader Approach does mention improving health insurance options for low-income families, but why not advocate for something that would benefit more people?

In his book, Sizer discussed the role that vouchers might play in a reformed educational environment. He distinguished his vision for them from the one that neoconservatives embrace.

I was disheartened by the willingness of these supposedly conservative, and thus likely “small government” advocates, to encourage political authorities far from the classrooms to decide what will be taught…To leave the resolution of that dispute to people far from those directly affected strikes me as excessive centralization in a democracy.

Sizer’s vision is of a community-based approach to education in which a wide variety of schools would present a range of true options to families. In a locked-down standardized system, those options can never be explored, and true choices, except the choice to segregate kids according to race or social class – through mechanisms of “choice” – will never be available. In an environment in which innovation is encouraged, merit pay for teachers would not be necessary. In an environment in which true choices are allowed to flourish, motivation for students would not stand as a major challenge.

Sizer explored three “silences” that need to be broken in discussions about education reform. The first was the silence about structures that limit opportunities for students, as exemplified in our belief that education is confined to buildings. He also examined the need for order, which we see in support for the standards movement, curriculum development, and testing which places the teacher in the role of “deliverer’ of content and turns time into an educational commodity. Certainly, order is necessary on a local level. But at what point does its imposition on a system interfere with the operation of the various parts?

The most interesting of the three silences, for me, was Sizer’s analysis of the nature of authority. There may be other ways to think about this, but I found it useful for understanding the forms of social glue that hold the system together. He sees authority as coming from the exercise of institutional power, the development of scholarly inquiry and getting to know students individually, and the exhibition of character “…where ‘authority’ represents the power of one to influence others on the basis of their confidence in his or her judgment.” Importantly, he sees authority as a negotiated process of treaty-making with interested parties working toward a state of balanced authority and shared responsibility. It’s helpful, especially if we want to encourage democratic participation, to think about authority more broadly than simply as a set of rules and consequences.

“Democracy,” Sizer said, “is not about mindless obedience. Democracy depends on informed, imaginative, engaged, independent people who know when to act and when to show restraint.”

I believe the statement is a good point of departure from the current policy mire. But we’ll ultimately need to move beyond that. Sizer’s book maps some of the possibilities.

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