Archive for October, 2009

This Machine Kills Fascists

Oct 30 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,politics

“A CRISIS is tearing through the American public education system like a tornado,” writes John Green, a member of the California Teachers Association State Council. “It threatens to uproot and overturn everything in its path.” He asks where the California Teachers Association is while teachers face budget cuts, high-stakes testing, the shredding of collective bargaining agreements, more and more charter schools, and pay-for-performance schemes. He sees his union cutting deals with politicians and paying lip service to effective collective action.

It’s a worsening problem. Pride and job satisfaction among teachers is going by the boards, and it’s being replaced with a grim resolve to make things OK for kids while we figure out how to work around the disintegration of social support systems from inside a bureaucracy with a chokehold on anything that looks like common sense.

I learned the other day that homelessness is on the rise in our community; the average homeless person, now, is a single mom with two elementary-aged kids. Alaska is ranked 10th in the US for homelessness.

But then today, while I was driving around listening to the radio, I learned about a movement called Housing First, which aims to put homeless people into long-term housing as quickly as possible rather than using the stop-gap method of providing temporary shelter and counseling, the current standard, despite its poor track record.

The combination of housing relocation services and home-based case management enables homeless families to break the cycle of homelessness. The methodology facilitates long-term stability and provides formerly homeless families who are considered at risk of another episode of homelessness with the support and skill building necessary to remain in permanent housing.

This is remarkably similar to the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, and results are encouraging, with up to 89.5% of participants remaining consistently housed after completing the program.

This makes me take a little hope from power of collective action. And so, Woody Guthrie comes to mind as he shows these fascists what a couple of hillbillies can do.

If you liked that, there’s a great little Woody Guthrie documentary (suitable for kids, even) that was put together by Melissa Mergner in 2006, when she was 14 years old.

More Guthrie goodness can be found in the Smithsonian Folkways Collection, available as a series of podcasts. The Guthrie podcast is Episode Number 8.

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Terra Nullius

Oct 27 2009 Published by under borderland,education,politics,science

It’s an old story:

If anything, the stories of corruption and incompetence serve to mask this deeper scandal: the rise of a predatory form of disaster capitalism that uses the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering. And on this front, the reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually locked in before the local population knows what hit them – Naomi Klein (2005).

The at-risk “local population,” I’m most familiar with would be teachers, school administrators, and school board members who believe that the school reform movement is aimed at improving education. It isn’t. It’s about dismantling government and creating a more favorable business climate.

Paul Rosenberg makes the connection between disaster capitalism and current education policy, pointing out that cash-strapped state and local governments are willing to jump through reform hoops, such as lifting restrictions on charter schools and pegging teacher evaluations to student test scores to qualify for federal money. This, despite a glaring lack of evidence that proposed policy changes will actually do any good.

The more I see and hear of it, the less it sounds like good is what the reformers have in mind. Take Arne Duncan, for example. Our Secretary of Ed is regularly critical of some aspect of the education system. Last week, it was teacher preparation programs in schools of education. I’m not going to defend them, since my undergrad training program was pathetic. But Jim Horn is right; when Duncan attacks teacher training programs, and in the next breath praises simple certification mills that churn out Teach For America temps on 2-year urban adventures, what should we conclude about his commitment to quality? Horn suggests that, instead, Duncan should be going after business schools for the chaos they’ve visited on our economy. Indeed.


I believe that education is the civil rights issue of our generation. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, about promoting civic knowledge and participation, the classroom is the place to start. Children today in our neediest schools are more likely to have the least qualified teachers. And that is why great teaching is about more than education"”it is a daily fight for social justice.

I don’t get it; this seems altogether backward. I say, “Education is about more than great teaching.” It’s also about informed policy implementation, professional development (which was his original point), and an economic climate favorable to families and child welfare. The opportunity, inequality, and civic knowledge he is so concerned about is mere rhetoric, coming from him, and it’s being dished out in a decidedly undemocratic manner. If he or any in the reformistocracy had a sincere interest in civil rights they’d be fighting to right a host of social wrongs on multiple fronts rather than leaning exclusively on teachers. The business class, though, is in its ascendancy, and it’s looking for new colonial conquests.

This realization was brought home for me the other day when I ran across a couple of essays by the agrarian writer, Wendell Berry. Berry has been writing for at least the last few decades about agricultural policy and the tension between agrarianism and industrialism. The news is not good. According to Berry, we had less than half the number of farmers in the United States in 2002, than we had in 1977. Realizing that the neoliberal reforms we see being promoted in education are already well-established in the food production network is not comforting, but it does bring the issues into sharper focus.

In The Idea of a Local Economy, Berry points out that, as concern for environmental degradation has been established as a policy issue, it has done so at the cost of being oversimplified. Much the same could be said about education:

We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of “raw materials,” and that we may safely possess those materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less local knowledge, and less skill. Our methodologies of land use have strayed from our old sympathetic attempts to imitate natural processes, and have come more and more to resemble the methodology of mining, even as mining itself has become more technologically powerful and more brutal.

And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as “environmental” problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them. This oversimplification is now either a matter of corporate behavior or of behavior under the influence of corporate behavior. This is sufficiently clear to many of us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual consumers, in the behavior of the corporations.

Berry offers a critique of “free market” capitalism and points out, among other things, that:

The “law of competition” does not imply that many competitors will compete indefinitely. The law of competition is a simple paradox: Competition destroys competition. The law of competition implies that many competitors, competing on the “free market” will ultimately and inevitably reduce the number of competitors to one. The law of competition, in short, is the law of war.

As an alternative, Berry proposes that we develop the idea of local economies based on two principles, neighborhood and subsistence. This seems like as reasonable a proposal for school policy as it does for agriculture. Meet local demands with local solutions. Local capacity to solve problems must be conserved, and not delegated to distant others.

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Owning the Change Process

Oct 19 2009 Published by under borderland,curriculum,education,literacy

Today was a professional development day, and as these things go, it wasn’t bad. One thing that helped, I suspect, is that the school district curriculum department piggy-backed onto the Alaska State Literacy Association 2009 conference, so we were able to take advantage of some fresh ideas that weren’t part of the local institutional orthodoxy.

The keynote was delivered by IRA president, Katherine Au. According to her philosophy statement on the IRA site, she believes that teacher expertise is more important than programs for sustaining student success. Her talk today addressed a school-level reform process she calls the Standards-Based Change Process, which exemplifies her philosophy of teacher agency. At first, it sounded not-very-interesting to me, except for a couple of important details. Au shared a quote from Michael Fullan, “Educational change is technically simple and socially complex.”

Fullan recommends identifying and spreading the practices of “positive deviant teachers” within and across schools. So I was interested.

Fullan: The effective schools research found that classroom-to-classroom differences in effectiveness within schools is greater than school-to-school variation. Professional learning communities internal to a school should reduce the variation across classrooms with more and more teachers gravitating toward the best practices.

Positive deviant teachers can be used within and across schools. They have to get outside their classrooms, though, both within their schools and to link to what’s going on in other schools–to learn from other teachers as well as contribute to them.

The change process Kathryn Au described does this in a systematic fashion, and is designed to take approximately 3 years to complete. It’s built on a stair-step curriculum development process designed and written at the school level by the teachers themselves, who meet regularly to frame their vision of the “excellent reader.” The staircase curriculum, with the “excellent reader” on the top step, stands in contrast to fragmented curricula in which there may be excellent teaching going on, but in which there is no practical continuity. To bridge the gaps, teachers need time to talk and a process for identifying their strengths and needs, as well as negotiating and organizing their shared expectations. With this process, teachers become creators, rather than receivers, of curriculum:

The process of putting together their own literacy curriculum guides gives teachers a deep understanding of instruction and assessment in their grade levels and departments. Teachers initiate communication across grades and departments as they work on their guides, because they recognize the need for consistency in content, instruction, and assessment.

Au’s road map for school change outlines a process that moves through seven levels, encompassed by four main stages: emerging, aspiring, progressing, and inspiring. At the emerging stage, teachers need to recognize the need and organize for change, forming professional learning communities. At the aspiring stage, they work on the building blocks, and pull together to define shared goals across grade levels and departments, deciding on the evidence they will use to mark student progress. They share the results with I Can statements. The final two stages, progressing and inspiring, are when the staircase curriculum is implemented, and students are engaged, making it transparent to students and families.

One of the real strengths of this process is that it effectively builds teachers’ professional capacity regardless of program choices or instructional methods. Au called it a “home-grown” curriculum.

On another grassroots organizational note, I ran into some teachers from my old graduate school Reading Endorsement cohort during the lunch break, and we discussed organizing to resist a trend we see school districts across the state following, including mine. School district administrations are adopting an expensive and highly reductive diagnostic tool called AimsWeb, which promises to pervert the spirit and goals of the RTI initiative, substituting simplicity for developing teachers’ skill sets, and threatening to reduce elementary reading instruction to mere word-calling. We discussed starting a conversation on a group blog. This could be fun if it actually got rolling.

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Oct 01 2009 Published by under borderland,commonplaces

K’naan is from Mogadishu, Somalia. His family moved to New York in 1991 to escape the Somali civil war, and then later, to Toronto, Ontario. His aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia’s most famous singers. His grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was a poet.

K’naan means “traveller” in the Somali language. I heard his song, Wavin’ Flag, today on Democracy Now, and I wanted to learn more about him. He did an interview with Amy Goodman back in August, in which he talked about his music and his country.

He performed some of his songs in Democracy Now’s Firehouse Studio, which I’ve embedded here, just because.

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An Ecology of Adolescent Literacy

Oct 01 2009 Published by under borderland,curriculum,literacy

This post is tangential to a series of posts that Tom Hoffman has done recently, in which he eviscerates the new Common Core(porate) English Language Arts Standards. I don’t see category links on his blog, so maybe the best place to look for them all at this point is in the monthly archive. He summarized his objections today with 10 Reasons you should care about the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s Draft English Language Arts Standards. Tom’s close reading of the proposed standards leads him to conclude that these standards are an effort to narrow the field of English Language Arts to a set of “cross disciplinary literacy skills,” and may ultimately be used to hold content area teachers, as well as English teachers, accountable for their students’ test score performances.

These standards have been written mainly by a small cadre of test-publishing company reps and ivory tower, think tank, academic types, one of whom defended the validity of the process from an accusation by David Marshak, published in a letter to, that the standards authors were nothing more than “bureaucrats and paper-pushers [who] wouldn"™t know how to engage a child if their ample salaries depended on it.” In their defense, William McCallum, Distinguished Professor and Head Department of Mathematics, The University of Arizona, responded that “One member of the group is a former high school teacher, and many have been involved with teachers and schools,” as evidence the standards authors included representation from the field. Adding injury to insult, the supposed “benchmarking” of the standards to those of other high-achieving countries does not hold up to careful scrutiny, as Tom demonstrates, comparing the new standards with the exemplars cited in the document’s bibliography.

I haven’t had a lot of time to conduct investigations lately, but I did take a few minutes the other day to look at the bibliography of this standards document, since that is usually the first thing I look at in a research paper. Bibliographies reveal a lot about the philosophical orientation of a research document. I was pretty shocked when I saw that the Common Core(porate) people listed only SIX articles in their “Disciplinary Research” section. What is this – eighth grade? I wondered.

People took the standards-writing business pretty seriously back when this all started, despite claims from critics that we were “dumbing down” the disciplines. Professional teaching organizations and state departments of education all got involved. People argued for and against inclusion of various disciplinary topics and subtopics as they tried to decide what might constitute a “basic” education. I remember reading that, here in Alaska, ‘irony’ drew a lot of heat from English teachers, which is kind of funny now, looking back.

Standards are built on a set of values, spelled out in detail. They aren’t handed down by God, or carved in stone. And even if they were, there’s no guarantee that people would be any better off on their account, as events over the course of the last few thousand years have repeatedly demonstrated.

One of the problems that is constantly dredged up in these discussions is that too many kids are dropping out of school. It may be too great a stretch of the imagination for some people to recognize, but a set of standards that demands rigid adherence will inevitably produce failures. That is part of their function. If everything was all good and fine to begin with, there’d be no call for the standards to make things right. What the standards say is Shape Up, Or Else. And there are plenty of people willing to say, “Or else, what?”

…And then God created Standardized Tests.

But about the Common Core(porate) English Language Arts bibliography, the other interesting thing, besides its pathetic philosophical and theoretical thinness, is that it focuses on adolescent literacy. I guess the beginning reading teachers were sufficiently messed with by the National Reading Panel and Reading First, so now it’s someone else’s turn. I was intrigued by the inclusion of Elizabeth Moje’s article, Reinventing adolescent literacy for new tmes: A commentary on perennial and millennial issues in adolescent literacy. Moje makes an argument in favor of an “ecology of adolescent literacy” in which “The focus on adolescents takes the study of literacy beyond the constraints associated with secondary reading and content reading to a broad generative view.” I traced the phrase, “ecology of literacy,” to David Barton’s book, Literacy, in which Barton lays out an integrated view of literacy in which the social, the psychological, and the historical are all considered vital and inseparable.

Elizabeth Moje’s article is well worth a look. The irony of finding it in this wretched standards document is an added bonus. She and her co-authors write, “Critical consumers situate recommendations, determining where they are coming from and where they would like us to go. Critical consumers continually question claims, analyzing, comparing, and evaluating what is said.” They ask us to think about who says a practice is best, and what is the philosophical orientation of the author; what is the basis for a claim, and how its effectiveness is determined. They also recommend, among other things, that we think about who a practice benefits, when a practice is appropriate, and whether educators are treated as professional decision makers or assembly line workers.

Seeing this bit of blue sky at the end of the dreary Standards statemtent reminds me that there is still plenty of irony out there, and I’d argue in favor of its inclusion in any set of English Language Arts standards if I was ever asked for input. We’ll want kids to recognize irony when they see it to help them stay sane through the duration of this [email protected] storm.

Updated: Minor wording change there at the end, along with a quick text search of the new core(porate) standards doc, as well as the Alaska Standards fourth edition, for irony. It does not appear to have been intentionally included in either document. Too bad – we do need it.

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