Archive for May, 2009

There’s a place for us

May 29 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

The last day of school we had our annual talent show, and some of the acts were pretty good. It made me think again about how there are so many important things that kids can learn at school – about themselves and each other – that don’t come from books. One of my favorite moments came when the kindergarteners sang “My Girl” by the Temptations to 3 teachers who retired this year. The teachers sat in chairs set up directly in front of the kindergarteners, and the kids each handed them flowers, one at a time, until the teachers all had bouquets to hold. It was a great moment.

When they came back to sit in the audience, I told one of the retiring teachers – a woman I’ve worked with for over 20 years, and who worked with two of my own kids – that the performance was so moving it nearly choked me up. Five or six people who overheard my comment burst out laughing. It was OK; I knew it was funny.

This video of Mark Knopfler singing Romeo and Juliet had a similar effect on me.

(h/t TBogg)

4 responses so far

Retro reform idea – Merit Pay

May 28 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Now and then I like to post about writers who have contributed to our knowledge about progressive education. It would be nice to talk about new ideas, but if we’re going to discuss old ideas, we should at least know what’s already been said so we can stop repeating ourselves and either move the discussion forward or change the subject.

EdSec Duncan, for example, has a big pile of money he wants to use to “incent” and reward excellence “based on student achievement” because he believes that a quality education for every student is a civil right. That’s a nice idea, but we need to agree on some key details before we can expect to see much progress there. Prof. Daniel Willingham posted a video on You Tube, offering six reasons why merit pay will not work. Three reasons are about why test scores won’t give us valid information about teacher effectiveness, and the other three are about social factors that make some classes more challenging than others.

James Herndon covered this topic in his own special way 25 years ago in Notes From a Schoolteacher:

The idea that if you’re paid more you’ll work harder may apply to selling encyclopedias. If you’re a lion-tamer, you’re not going to work any harder just because you’ll be paid more. The job of a teacher is more like a lion-tamer, I think.
-Al Shanker, President

I’ve tried hard to find something to say, pro or con, about merit pay – something that has not already been said hundreds of times. Shanker’s remark, above, is one point of view. You must work hard, as a schoolteacher, simply in order to avoid being eaten alive. Subduing the lion’s natural appetite comes first – after that is assured, maybe you’ll be able to teach him a trick or two.

Merit pay has been around a long time in the corporate / industrial world, but even there no one seems satisfied with it. No research can be found which agrees that the salesman works harder or is more successful at his trade if he is given extra pay for “merit.”

It is, anyway, quite beside the point whether one works hard or not. Success is the point. But even there, sales managers report that no one is satisfied if the person who demonstrably sells the most of whatever product it is, is paid more. The other salesmen argue that they had bad territories, mix-ups in their deliveries, no cooperation from the front office, storms – otherwise they would have been right up there.

Teachers, like salesmen, all believe that they are among the very best at their job. You simply must believe that in order to continue teaching (and probably selling).

You begin to teach as a lion-tamer, to be sure and, if not eaten up, go on to ask other teachers what they do here and there, what “works” for them, and quite soon, by some curious amalgam, you develop a way to work in the classroom which suits you and which you think is best … best, considering the various and vast distances between what you must do, want to do, and can do.

You think it best, for you and the students, or for the students and you.

I certainly think that my “style” or “strategy” in the classroom is the best. That’s why I do it that way. I also know that my opinion is not shared by the other teachers at Spanish Main, each of whom, quite rightly, prefers his own.

The whole idea of merit pay, then, seems to founder at this point. If we all think that we are among the best, how are we to reward the best?

If we must decide who is the best, then who is to decide, and on what basis?

Herndon doesn’t say anything about test scores, presumably because nobody had the genius idea of using them to compare teachers. Instead, he tells us that the “plans suggest a committee” of roving teachers who would visit schools and rate them based on their observations. Herndon wonders about the inferences these people would draw if they paid him a surprise visit.

The visiting team, concluding that this teacher is not teaching at all, let alone well, is not dedicated, doesn’t give a damn, certainly deserves no merit pay (if he deserves to be paid at all!) – the team has just missed out on one of the best teachers in the world! They are unaware of it.

Too late, then, for my thoughtful discourse on what teaching is, how students learn, etc.!

Has something been left out in this discussion? I want to cover everything about this now; I never want to return to it.

Well, the basis is left out. The standard, criterion, measure, rule of thumb … anything, any way by which to tell the great teachers from the simply OK teachers. The standard, etc., by which to tell the wonderful teaching strategies from the mediocre ones.

Are the great teachers more entertaining? Have they better intellectual command of their subjects? Have they greater rapport with the students? Are they more efficient, provide more time on task? Are they more aware of their students’ ethnic backgrounds, social class, personal or family problems? All of the above? Well, some of the above?

No one knows.

Does anyone know whether students actually learn more from great teachers, if you could ever find out who were the great teachers?

No one knows that either. The sentence just above sounds insane (p. 85).

It would be so much more interesting to talk about that.

12 responses so far

80 days

May 23 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

Summer break kicked off yesterday; I’ve got about 80 days to work with, doing whatever needs doing. A few people have asked me what I’ve got planned, and my basic answer is, As little as possible. I do have some general objectives, though, to include: exercise, camping, fishing, gardening, reading – just being here.

-thinking about next year:
We had an inservice session last week with Jason Ohler, a media education specialist from Juneau who does digital storytelling projects. The timing on this was good, since I’m buying a Flip video for the classroom next year and I want to do some multimedia projects with my next class. I enjoyed Jason’s presentation a lot. His orientation is more toward the storytelling than the technology, but he has a lot to say about both. His basic message is to focus on expression first, and technology second. One of the things he talked about was how to create emotional interest in even a short project of just a couple of minutes.

Coincidentally, this morning I read an article, Media as a Weapon, about a group of New Orleans filmakers called 2-Cent Entertainment. Mentioned in the article was a short award-winning video called New Orleans for Sale that asks a really good question.

4 responses so far

Back and Forth and Back on Teacher Unions

May 22 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Before I fill in a missing piece from a wide-ranging discussion about teacher unions, we should review:

Diane Ravitch:

If getting rid of the unions was the solution to the problem of low performance, then why…. do the southern states "” where unions are weak or non-existent "” continue to perform worse than states with strong unions? And how can we explain the strong union presence in Massachusetts, which is the nation’s highest performing state on NAEP?

Mike Petrilli:

I"™ve concluded that no, Diane isn"™t right…. [W]hen it comes to union influence on the ground, at the district level, it"™s not at all clear that the "œstrong states" versus "œweak states" distinction makes any sense…. As Jay Greene told me, the unions"™ goal "œis to ensure as little policy variation across states as they can on their core issues.”

Jay Greene:

Many factors influence student achievement, so isolating the effect of teacher unions would require a rigorous social science research design that could identify the influence of unionization independent of other factors.

Rather than point to a state or district, which proves nothing, I would point people to a rigorous study [pdf] by Caroline Hoxby in a leading economics journal. The abstract states: "œI find that teachers"™ unions increase school inputs but reduce productivity sufficiently to have a negative overall effect on student performance.

Leo Casey:

Greene is up to his old "œcherry picking" tricks here, citing the one study which supports his position while ignoring the many which do not. There is a small body of scholarly literature on the subject, and Hoxby"™s essay is clearly the minority view; there are more noteworthy studies showing a positive relationship between teacher unionism and educational achievement.

Casey mentions a study by Lala Steelman, Brian Powell and Robert Carini, “Do Teacher Unions Hinder Educational Performance? which examines correlations between the presence of teacher unions and high SAT/ACT scores. Additionally, Casey cites F. Howard Nelson and Michael Rosen, “Are Teacher Unions Hurting American Education? [pdf], which makes a similar argument.

Casey also points to a couple of literature reviews on the topic, one of which comes from the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University, “School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence,” by Robert Carini [summary pdf], [full report pdf].

Jay Greene:

Caroline Hoxby"™s study, upon which I base my claims, employs a vastly superior research design…. But even if Leo insisted upon relying on the literature reviews he cites rather than the higher quality research, he would have to accept some results that aren"™t very flattering to teacher unions. Those lit reviews find that unionization raises the cost of education by about 8% to 15%. In addition, they find that unionization tends to hurt the academic achievement of high-achieving and low-achieving students while benefiting more typical students found in the middle of the ability distribution.

Greene likes Hoxby’s methodology because he believes that it separates causes from effects. But Greene ignores a criticism of Hoxby mentioned in the Carini paper:

Hoxby found that unionized districts had higher dropout rates than non-unionized districts from 1970 to 1990. Of the five studies examined in this section, Hoxby"™s may offer the strongest evidence, although like the others, it too can be challenged on methodological grounds. In particular, Hoxby reported that she analyzed 10,509 school districts, and asserted that her sample constituted 95% of all districts in the United States in 1990. Given that there were 15,552 school districts in 1990, Hoxby"™s research only covered 68% of the districts, not the 95% that she reported. It is not clear why nearly one in three districts were lost. More important, the missing districts were likely fiscally dependent districts, the bulk of which are located in strongly unionized Northeastern states. This is a potentially critical omission that may completely change her findings, particularly given the small gap in dropout rates that she found.

And even more significantly:

Further, Stone has argued that Hoxby"™s finding that unionism led to higher drop-out rates is not necessarily inconsistent with research documenting favorable union effects. The argument is that, with a focus on high school dropouts, Hoxby essentially limited the scope of her study to lower-achieving students. In any case, three other studies discussed previously have reported that unionism did not increase dropout rates.

Nowhere do I see delusional people harder at work than I do when I read the contorted ravings of education policy wonks discussing harebrained ideas for how to fix schools. Choose your swamp. Then wade around in it. This is the beauty of the internet. Greene reports about the achievement gap, which is attributed to the standardization of instructional settings that comes from unionization. But he ignores the obvious fact that this is precisely what the standards movement is all about, and which teachers recognize as exacerbating the problem.

The anti-union pro-corporate education reformers don’t have any actual solutions. Instead, they resort to changing the subject by criticizing unions for tying the hands of administrators. They don’t acknowledge the fact that administrators haven’t the slightest clue about how to stimulate academic progress for disadvantaged students without resorting to heavy-handed “motivational” approaches devoid of any educational merit.

Teacher unions haven’t been vocal enough in opposing these so-called reforms. But we can look to the teachers in Los Angeles for an example of teacher solidarity and activism. This is important because corporations are getting more militant and punitive in their efforts to prevent workers from unionizing. The “reformers” know that if the unions don’t slow them down, nobody will.

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My Evil Plan

May 15 2009 Published by under borderland

There are 3 days of school left, and they are all early-out days with afternoons set aside for administrative chores. My principal had a Title 1 evaluation meeting downtown today, and he asked the teachers if we had any classroom data (pre/post) he could take with him. I asked if he’d be interested in student reflection pieces, and he said that would be good.

Students were overwhelmingly positive about the reading/writing workshop, and website. These are some clips from the highlight reel.

This year I have learned to like other genres of books. Before I went into sixth grade I only liked manga and mystery. But when we had to read books that the rest of the class had, I began to like humorous books and history books.

This entire year I’ve read like twenty thick books and I found out that writing is fun, and I want to write books when I grow up. I’ve already started on one. It’s called Ten Days. It’s about a murderer that captures people and then ten days later they’re dead on the front porch. I’ve read stuff like that in books and now mine will be part of the collection. So in the future when I am older if you are still living, maybe if it is out you might look for it and see how much I like to write. Well, in the beginning of the year I hated reading but now I love reading and that got me into writing.

When I came to 6th grade I didn’t like to read that much. When I started reading I read mostly informational books. I read informational books until my friend told me about this funny fiction book he read, Curse of the Campfire Weenies. Somehow after I read that book I started to read a lot more fiction books.

Reading and writing this year was a fun experience for me. The subject I disliked the most was reading. It’s not that I’m a bad reader, because I’m not; it’s that sometimes I had trouble choosing what book to read. While with writing I always had something new to talk about, whether it was about school, home, sports, or anything else, I always had something to say.

I remember at the beginning of the year I hated to read but now I am more into it. Right now I’m reading a book called Avalon: Web of Magic. These books got me to the point where I love reading again. I’ve definitely learned from reading. On the other hand, writing is a different story. I have been writing since I was about 5. I want the stories I write to make people laugh, be amazed, be sad, and more. To me, writing is a way of expressing my feelings…. Reading and writing is a way for me to connect to the world.

In the beginning of the year I hated, just hated, just hated reading and writing. But now I love them…. Writing was hard for me at first because I did not spell well. But with help I am doing OK. I think of the writing as work after playing. I also think about a writer, for example Scott Westerfeld, and I am writing to tell him what I thought about the book. Reading was hard too because I did not know how to read. I was reading kid books and not my age books, but now I am reading my age books. Some books are hard for me still, but I try to work through the difficulties and soon I am off to another book. When I am interested in something I look up all I can and write what I know down.

At the beginning of the year I was hard headed about reading and didn’t like it at all! But now Mr. Noon has made me realize all books aren’t so bad. I have come to enjoy reading a bit more than I used to and it has opened a whole new gate for me. Now I like fiction books that are humorous. My writing at the beginning of the year was good. I loved to write and still do, but Mr. Noon, classmates, and others have helped me to improve and learn more about the concepts of writing. I have learned to use descriptions such as colors, words, and letting the reader visualize, not just read the words.

I didn’t really like reading at the beginning of the year, but now I will go to Barnes and Noble, get a 100-650 paged book and read it for hours non-stop. I really like action-adventure, fantasy adventure books, such as Dragon Rider, The Thief Lord, and The Hobbit. I’m glad Mr. Noon had The Hobbit. That book was awesome!… I don’t really feel the same about writing. Our class web site is cool, but I almost always have writer’s block on things we’re assigned, like writing about magazines we read, I always have to look back at it a lot. I think writing is a lot better than it has been in past years, though. -T

Based on what they had to say, I’m thinking about ways to build opportunities for small group book clubs and writing teams into the program next year, making sure they still have options for what they’ll read and write. Many may have done better, or had more fun, with some additional kinds of support. It was interesting to see how frequently they mentioned following up on recommendations from their friends. I want to encourage that.

Several months ago, one of the boys told me that he was starting to like reading. Ah, you’ve fallen for my evil plan, I told him. He smiled. Getting them to enjoy reading was my main goal this year, and I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

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Rewriting David Brooks

May 08 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics,social class

The fight against poverty produces political posturing and fatuous claims about “Harlem miracles.” You go visit any low-income public school, job-training program, or community youth center, and you meet committed, caring, idealistic people, hard at work. Then you look at the results from low-grade standardized tests that have been forced on school communities by politicians intent on blaming and shaming teachers and students, and you find that public concerns are being exploited by corporate interests for private gain.

Instead of relying on advocacy research supporting charter schools from the likes of the Education Innovation Laboratory CEO, Roland Fryer, and funded by the Broad Foundation, we should examine the questionable claims that charter schools produce achievement results superior to public schools. One such study, “Is There a ‘Consensus’ on School Choice and Achievement?” which appeared in a recent issue of the Education Policy Journal [abstract] refutes claims that choice-based programs are more effective than regular public schools.

The claims by advocates of a consensus on this question are quite revealing because they represent new modes of research production and dissemination in education research and policy making. These strategies, which tend to skirt traditional processes designed to determine research quality, are particularly noteworthy for their effectiveness in attracting positive media attention and shaping the policy debate.

The authors look at how research on school choice is conducted and promoted, and comment on what they call the “political economy of educational research and policy making,” examining in particular, claims that choice programs serve to boost student achievement for students who use vouchers to attend private schools.

This is a powerful critique of education policy think tank research which is echoed by New York Times columnists who like to frame education experts as “the establishment,” advocating for economic reforms along with education reforms. The so-called “education reformers,” on the other hand, are recognized for their claims that school-based approaches, alone, will produce big (test score) results. Accordingly we should note that education journalists often confuse who belongs to “the establishment,” and who favors real social change.

These journalists have become “no excuses” journalists who shill for organizations like KIPP, [pdf] and Green Dot, and promote entrepeneureal corporate efforts to profit from publicly funded social services. They celebrate superficial efforts to mold student behavior such as teaching students to look at the person who is talking, and teaching them how to shake hands, assuming that cultural deficits and professional intransigence are to blame for disappointing student learning outcomes. The basic theory is that mainstream journalists have certain working models in their heads; who is a real education expert, the benefits of free-market capitalism, and corporate innocence in economic inequality.

Many teachers and parents who actually work with students don’t have these internalized models. They understand that, while a “disciplined, orderly and demanding” school environment can promote middle-class values, these efforts, alone, will not sustain long-term changes for underprivileged students. Education reform must be accompanied by low-cost health care, decent housing, public and domestic safety, employment opportunities, job security, and affordable higher education.

Basically, the no excuses journalists distract us from talking about what really needs to be done by serving as mouthpieces for people with financial and political agendas. They don’t tell us about the funding sources for the advocacy research reports they promote because they know that it undercuts their credibility. They also abuse the traditional role of investigative journalists who speak truth to power by challenging their official sources with difficult questions. Instead, they successfully focus public attention on test scores to the exclusion of real-world measures of disadvantage, generating propaganda suggesting that education without economic justice can create social mobility.

…Because David Brooks believes in miracles.

6 responses so far

What Did You Learn in School Today?

May 02 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education,politics

The Nation ran an article about Pete Seeger, written by Studs Terkel in 2005, honoring Pete on his 86th birthday. This video of him singing Tom Paxton’s, “What Did You Learn in School Today?” accompanied the article.

Studs Terkel:
For sixty-five years, he has held forth continuously through periods known more for their bleakness than for their hope: the cold war, the witchhunt, the civil rights and civil liberties battles. Pete has been in all of them. Wherever he was asked, when the need was the greatest, he, like Kilroy, was there.

Pete Seeger, in an interview with Amy Goodman:

I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It"™s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we"™re trying to fill up sand.

A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, "œAh, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it"™s leaking out as fast as you"™re putting it in." But we"™re saying, "œWe"™re getting more people with teaspoons all the time." And we think, "œOne of these years, you"™ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction." And people will say, "œGee, how did it happen so suddenly?" Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we"™ve gotta keep putting it in, because if we don"™t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again. Who knows?


Who knows where some good little thing that you"™ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.


You can listen to – or buy – dozens of Pete Seeger’s songs by following links to his albums in the sidebar of an article about him in Smithsonian Folkways Magazine.

Pete Seeger is 90 today. Happy Birthday, Pete!

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