Imagine a nation with excellent schools

Imagine that 25 years ago that nation's schools were below international averages in math and sciences

Imagine that nation had large differences between schools with affluent students versus those with poorer students

Imagine that nation now has almost no difference in performance between schools with affluent students and those with poorer students

Imagine in that nation teachers are so respected that the best students compete to become teachers, not just for two years, but for a career

Imagine that that nation's schools are now internationally respected

Imagine that our nation might actually be able to learn from what that nation has done

Stop imagining. I'm talking about Finland, as you can read in a piece in today's Boston Globe, by Pasi Sahlberg, titled Learning from Finland and subtitled How one of the world’s top educational performers turned around.

Sahlberg is now director general of the Center for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. Previously he served as a Washington-based World Bank education specialist. Having lived in the US, he is well-aware of the problems of the US educational system. He is also knowledgeable about international comparisons of schools, for example, the recent PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment) by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), in which yet again Finland was the top ranked nation (ignore the results from Shanghai, which are (a) not typical of China, and (b) where students spend several hours daily in intensive test preparation AFTER a full day of school). Finland was also highly ranked in a international study by McKinsey and Company.

Finland used to have serious problems in school performance, as Sahlberg acknowledges.
Today, as the most recent PISA study proves, Finland is one of the few nations that have accomplished both a high quality of learning and equity in learning at the same time. The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background. Finally, Finland should interest US educators because Finns have employed very distinct ideas and policies in reforming education, many the exact opposite of what’s being tried in the United States.

The Finns examined what other countries were doing, and as Sahlberg also writes
The secret of Finnish educational success is that in the 20th century Finns studied and emulated such advanced nations as Sweden, Germany, and the United States. Finns adopted some education policies from elsewhere but also avoided mistakes made by these leading education performers.

We'll talk about the mistakes Finland is avoiding shortly.

First, some argue that Finland is nowhere near as diverse as the US. Sahlberg acknowledges that is true, but also points out that it is becoming increasingly diverse in recent years, with the implication that the additional diversity is not affecting the performance of its schools. Further, as many have pointed out Finland has a far lower level of childhood poverty than does the US, well under 5%b as compared to ours at more than 20%. Yet in Finland differences between schools with substantial numbers of poor children - primarily in rural areas - now perform as well as those with more affluent students in the urban areas. Sahlberg refers to the results of the most recent PISA, where
The best school systems are the most equitable — students do well regardless of their socio-economic background.

There are some real differences in the approach that Finland took to achieve the results which now rank it so highly. For example,
Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. Teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do.

How do politicians and administrators determine how well schools are doing? They turn to
sample-based learning tests which place no pressure on schools, and by research targeted to understand better how schools work.
There is also a culture where parents think teachers who work closely with them "are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools."

And teachers are respected.
Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Stop there for a moment and consider how different our approach is here. We have a well-established pattern of denigrating public schools and teachers. We have notable voices - Bill Gates, for example - arguing that teachers getting advanced degrees is a waste of time and resources. We have a concerted effort to delegitimize public schools, with moves for vouchers, charter schools run by for profit organizations, hedge funds seeing how turning to charters can lead to profits for their investors, etc. Yet Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. Of course, we also don't trust the police in the US, which may indicate some real cultural differences that do not work to our advantage.

There is another important difference from what we have been seeing, because in Finland
School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.
Here we have the newly announced initiative of the George W. Bush institute to train 50,000 people with no prior educational work experience as principals running school, we have the effort5s of Eli Broad and others to take business executives and train them as superintendents running district. At a more basic level, we have a variety of programs, of which Teach for America is the most notable, giving young people 5 weeks of intensive training and then placing them in classrooms, with a commitment that is not required to be longer than 2 years. I might add to what Sahlberg writes that in Finland it takes about 2 years of training under decreasing levels of supervision and increasing assumption of responsibility before one is fully responsible for her own classroom.

Sahlberg offers some suggestion for what the US could learn from the Finns. He argues strongly against using choice and competition as drivers for educational improvement, noting
None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

He also notes that Finland provides teacher candidates with a government-paid university education - remember that most teacher candidates in this nation have to pay for their own education which can leave them with substantial debt before they begin to earn incomes. Finland provides more support when they move into their blassrooms and treats teaching as a respected profession. As he notes,
As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.
Please, note carefully the words teaching as a lifelong career. Two years as a means of enhancing one's resume for other purposes is not the same thing, and does not benefit either the students being taught or the nation as a whole, despite news coverage to the contrary.

Sahlberg is blunt - he tells us that "Americans should admit that there is much to learn" from the educational systems of nations like Finland behind whom the US now lags. He thinks it is possible, closing with these words:
With America’s “can do’’ mentality and superior knowledge base in educational improvement, you could shift course before it’s too late.

Let me add one other difference between Finland and the US that Sahlberg does not address. The teaching force in Finland is 100% unionized. Unionization is not in and of itself an obstacle to excellence in education. We should remind those who seek to use things like America lagging in comparisons like PISA not to use unions as an excuse, especially when states with unionized teaching and general work forces tend to outperform schools in right to work states.

The role of unions is different, to be sure. The culture is different, and not just in the respect given unions in Finland, including teachers unions.

Not only does Finland not have the high degree of childhood poverty we have in the US, they also have a far more substantial social safety net, starting with income security for families and medical care for all, two things sorely lacking in this nation.

Thus while I strongly advise we listen to what Salhberg has to offer us about how we can reform our schools, we should also bear in mind that we will not fix all the problems of learning until we are also willing to address the continuing inequities in this nation. Fixing the schools will be insufficient. I note that at a conference earlier this year Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute said that we would be better served taking the money that we could spend reducing the principal/teacher ratio to a reasonable level where you could evaluate teachers, and get much more bang for the buck by taking that money and building a health clinic in schools such as those in inner cities. Rothstein was addressing just one part of the impact that economic inequity has upon students that schools as they are currently constructed cannot address.

Still, I think we can learn from Finland, probably more so than we can from a China or a Korea, both of which are struggling to to change the direction of their schooling away from the test centric places they have been, ironically at the same time that we are going in the wrong direction.

I began by asking you to imagine a nation with excellent schools.

Now I make the same suggestion as does Sahlberg, that we seriously attempt to learn from what Finland has achieved in the past 25 years.

Imagine what we might be able to do with our schools.

Chinese do better on tests than Americans! Oh my God, what will we do?

Recently, we have been subjected to yet another round of fright about our education system because the Chinese have scored better than the U.S. on the PISA test. Arne Duncan tweeted “PISA results show that America needs to ... accelerate student learning to remain competitive." The New York Times ran its usual scare article. “The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.”

I even heard a man who should know better state that these tests were actually meaningful since they were problem solving tests. Nothing would convince me that the tests were meaningful in any way, but just for fun I took a look at some sample questions anyway. Here are four of them (chosen because they were shorter than the others.):

A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears,

tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.

Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.

The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with

the formula:

d=7.0× t−12

( ) for t ≥12

where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after

the ice has disappeared.

Question 27.1

Using the formula, calculate the diameter of the lichen, 16 years after the ice disappeared.

Show your calculation.

Question 48.1

For a rock concert a rectangular field of size 100 m by 50 m was reserved for the audience. The concert

was completely sold out and the field was full with all the fans standing.

Which one of the following is likely to be the best estimate of the total number of people attending

the concert?

A.2 000

B. 5 000

C. 20 000

D. 50 000

E. 100 000

Question 7.1

The temperature in the Grand Canyon ranges from below 0 oC to over 40 oC. Although it is a desert

area, cracks in the rocks sometimes contain water. How do these temperature changes and the water in

rock cracks help to speed up the breakdown of rocks?

A. Freezing water dissolves warm rocks.

B. Water cements rocks together.

C. Ice smoothes the surface of rocks.

D. Freezing water expands in the rock cracks.

Question 7.2

There are many fossils of marine animals, such as clams, fish and corals, in the Limestone A layer of the

Grand Canyon. What happened millions of years ago that explains why such fossils are found there?

A In ancient times, people brought seafood to the area from the ocean.

B Oceans were once much rougher and sea life washed inland on giant waves.

C An ocean covered this area at that time and then receded later.

D Some sea animals once lived on land before migrating to the sea.

Whether or not you know the answers to these questions I think it is important to think about what it means to be good or bad at such questions. As someone who studied mathematics and who considers himself a scientist, I can tell you that these questions are both simple and irrelevant to the average human being. One can lead a prosperous and fulfilling life without knowing the answer to any of them. Why then are test makers, newspapers, and Secretaries of Education, hysterical that the Chinese are better at them than their U.S counterparts?

One answer is that every nation needs scientists and that knowing the answer to these questions is on the critical path to becoming a scientist. I can assure you that that is simply false.

Whether or not a nation needs scientists, it surely doesn’t need very many of them. In any case, while scientists I know would know the answers to these questions, that has nothing to with the reason they have been successful as scientists. More relevant would be a personality test that sought to find out how creative you were or how receptive you were to new ideas or how willing you were to entertain odd hypotheses. Having been a professor who supervised PhD students from many different countries, I can assure you that Chinese students are very good at learning what the teacher said and telling it back to him. Of course they do well on tests if they come frnm a culture where that is valued. In the U.S., questioning the teacher is valued and most U.S. scientists have stories about how they fought with their teachers on one occasion or another. If we need scientists why not find out what characteristics successful scientists actually have? Memorizing answers is probably not one of them. You don’t win Nobel Prizes, something the U.S. is still quite good at, by memorizing answers.

But, of course, the problem with the U.S. education system is not in any way our lack of ability to produce scientists. We are very good at it actually.

Our problem is that a large proportion of the population can’t reason all that well. We don’t teach them to reason after all. What we do is teach them mathematics and science they will never need and then pronounce them to be failures and encourage them, one way or another, to drop out of school. Brilliant. We also to paraphrase President John Adams, don’t “teach them how to live or how to make a living.”

As usual, neither Arne Duncan nor the new media has a clue about the real issue in education. To paraphrase President Clinton “ It’s the curriculum, stupid.”

Bill Gates: Wrong Again; How should we rate teachers?

An article in the New York Times today says that Bill Gates is spending $355 million so that teachers will be rated in a coherent fashion. This rating, of course, has to do with how teachers improve their students test scores over time. This an obvious waste of money if you question the value of test scores, which of course, neither the New York Times, nor Bill Gates have even considered.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that it is important to rate teachers. Here I list Schank's criteria for rating teachers:

does the teacher inspire students?
does the teacher encourage curiosity?
does the teacher help students feel better about themselves?
does the teacher encourage the student to explore his or her
own interests?
does the teacher encourage the student to come up with his or
her own explanation for things they don't understand?
does the teacher set him or herself up as the ultimate
does the teacher encourage failure so that the student can learn
from his or her own mistakes?
does the teacher care about the students?

Really, how hard is it to recognize that these aspects of teaching are tremendously more important than test score improvement?

Tallulah starts our new Experiential on line MBA

We have been working for the last two years on building a learning by doing project-based on line MBA program with La Salle University's Business Engineering School in Barcelona. The program finally launched in October. Students are happy and excited and no one exemplifies this excitement more than Tallulah. She is the secretary to the President of La Salle BES. She decided she wanted to take an MBA this year and signed up for the traditional classroom-based one that La Salle still offers.

When her boss heard about this, he persuaded her to try our new on line experiential MBA instead. After one month of work she compared what she knew how to do with the people she knew in the regular classroom-based MBA. While they had been mostly listening to lectures, she had already been working on a complex case of a failing winery. She had been analyzing financial statements, preparing financial projections, and getting ready to propose solutions.

While our students learn how to do real world tasks, others sit in a classroom, hear about theories, and take tests.

The future is here.

Thoughts About Teaching in a Democracy

They are not mine, although I will give my assent to them. I encountered them when reading a book.

Allow me to share them so that you can ponder them, before I tell you the author, because the value of thought should be independent of what we know of the thinker, should it not?

Let me begin with this:

Teaching is powered by a common faith: When I look out at my students, I assume the full humanity of each. I see hopes and dreams, aspirations and needs, experiences and intentions that must somehow be accounted for and valued. I encounter citizens not consumers, unruly sparks of meaning, making energy, and not a mess of deficits. This is the evidence of things not seen, the starting point for teachers in our democratic society.

I assume the full humanity of each -- Jerome Bruner once said that every child is capable of some degree of mastery in every domain. It is our task as teachers to explore with that child in a fashion that does not foreclose dreams, that does not devalue the experiences and life-knowledge with which that student arrives in our classrooms.

Citizens not consumers -- also not merely workers in our economy. If we are a democracy our primary task, especially for social studies teachers like myself, is to prepare students to be participants in our society, which in political science terms is a liberal democracy, and which can remain as one only so long as We the people are prepared to exercise our responsibility for it.

Participatory democracy requires a high level of vigilance and action in its defense and in its enactment.

Note those first two words -- participatory democracy -- it is not a spectator sport, but rather requires our commitment. Our education should have as its most important purpose preparing our students for a life in such a participatory democracy. Without that even their economic futures -- and that of the nation -- may well be in doubt.

Educators, students, and citizens must now press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests that act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; and end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes; and an end of "savage inequalities' and the rapidly accumulating "educational debt," the resources due to communities historically segregated, underfunded, and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully qualified, and generously compensated teachers.

Note the key words, in groups.

All children and youth -- we should not be making distinctions based on economic status of the parents or the community

Full access to richly resourced classrooms -- again, lesser economic status should not further deprive some of the chance to experience and use the resources that can open doors and inflame imaginations

By caring, thoughtful, fully qualified, and generously compensated teachers -- Fully qualified does not mean learning on the job after only five weeks of training. Caring means the focus is the well-being of the students, not the future economic and professional status of the teachers. Generously compensated -- well, at least sufficiently compensated that one does not have to take a second job to pay one's bills, and can devote full attention to the meaningful task of teaching.

Do these words resonate with you? The teachers I have asked to consider them all responded positively, even when they did know the source.

They are from the third edition of To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher.

The author is now retired from his university post, after a long period of teaching students from the youngest to his graduate students.

His name is William Ayers.

Yes, that William Ayers.

Does that change your reaction to his thoughts? If so, shame on you.

Glenn Beck, George Soros, FOX News, Florida, and Education

The other day, after my regular softball game, I heard two of the people I play with discussing George Soros. This was astonishing to say the least, because the people I play softball with are very unlikely to have ever heard of George Soros. I live in Florida where discussions of political issues are simplistic to say the least. But there it was. The issue was how Soros was undermining the country. I found this weird. I thought this was guy who tried to do good with his money.

It all became clearer when I heard that Glenn Beck had made one of his weird rants, and then I realized that the guys I had overheard were simply parroting what Beck had said and, more importantly, believing it word for word.

When you think about education, think about this. We have made people so stupid through our absurd system of memorizing nonsense and repeating it back on a multiple choice tests that we have set the stage for FOX News to simply say what it wants to say, and having millions of people believe it, because no one ever taught them how to construct or refute an argument.

We are creating a nation of people who can't think and who simply believe what they are told.

Yet we continue to obsess about test scores.

Tom Friedman; wrong again, this time about education

I guess it wasn't bad enough that Friedman promoted the Iraq War in his New York Times column and then had to admit he was wrong. He actually is supposed to know something about the Middle East.

Now he espousing the nonsense theme of the day, that the problem in education is the teachers. I guess he saw "Waiting for Superman" and wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won't need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

Change the curriculum to something relevant to modern life and you won't need to look for teachers. Teachers will rush to the opportunity to teach kids who actually want to be there.

Is there a "Virulent Left-Wing" Bias in Education?

[Cross-posted from Technopaideia]
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. - Phyllis Schlafly
I’ve recently become interested [again] in the question of whether an allegedly liberal bias in educators and academics has had a large impact on American schools and…through them…on the beliefs of Americans at large.The question has come up most recently because of something my Dad wrote in a comment on a discussion I was having with a couple of my (professor) colleagues on Facebook.  We were talking about the ways in which Kant's philosophy of education (especially his optimism about progress through education) reflected a modern viewpoint, and that that viewpoint had faded with the rise of post-modernism. A colleague asked me if I blamed "po-mo," and I said that I didn't, but instead blamed the reaction to po-mo, and then another asked if Kant could be called "pre-po-mo," or if that was reducible to "mo."  

In any case, we were playing with some of the common tropes in academia. My Dad (with whom I've had a number of heated discussions about politics on Facebook and elsewhere), wrote:  
NOW I know what we conservatives are up against. Thanks guys for enlightening me.
One of my colleagues asked him what he meant by that, and he wrote:
It's not just Big Government, Pubic programs and Tax and Spend that makes the liberal tic. That's just the symptoms. It goes to a deep seeded need to make mankind better and socially equal and they feel that they know better than the public in general what's best for them.

It all boils down to an ideology. You guys will never see my arguments as having any worth to the discussions. I'm trying not to lower myself to name calling but you guys consider yourself to be the elite, the educated ones that knows best. You talk about what you've learned and read and have been lead to believe that there is no alternative to your philosophies in education and to life in general.

No, there is no sinister plot by the Liberal. You truly believe that what you know is the only way. On your side you have most of academics, Hollywood, the media and the Democrats. There's a new meaning, for me, about what a liberal education really is. With each generation of graduates, you're getting exactly what you want in our children. They will think the same as you do.
Now, there's a lot in my Dad's comment that serves as food for thought.  For example, I'm not sure why he believes that me and these particular colleagues think alike (I don't think we do think completely alike, although we are all education professors with a strong interest in furthering our own understanding of the history of ideas and culture in general, and we all know what "po-mo" refers to. Well, okay, I'll admit it, these two colleagues and I are all Democrats).  For another, I don't know why we're more guilty of believing that what we know is the "only way" than any, say, group of Sarah Palin fans (of which my Dad is one).  For a third, I don't really think that a deep-seated desire to make mankind better is the same as thinking we know better than the public in general what's good for them. (Although it's interesting to contemplate the obverse of this conservatives think they know better than the general public that has been allegedly brainwashed by liberals in the educational system? Maybe only when conservatives lose elections to liberals?!?...but I digress.) Those questions aren't what I'd like to address here.

Instead, I'm intrigued by this idea that we academics (educators, teachers) are somehow "getting what we want in our children" and that "what we want" is that they think "the same" as we do.  This is quite an interesting claim, to me.  It seems to imply not only that "we" all think alike and that "we" all have the same desire to produce graduates who think in the same way as "we" do, but it also suggests that we're pretty successful in getting our graduates to think like us.  And since we have "Hollywood, the media, and the Democrats" on our side, we don't even have to be especially effective at schooling the kids in the liberal ideology...we can rely on the culture at large to aid and abet our conspiracy.

Once you look around on the Internets, my Dad's notions here about a liberal conspiracy that includes the schools don't seem unusual.  In fact, it seems to be a pretty common belief.  Here are just a few examples I found in just a few minutes:

1. In an article about the political realities of climate change given the recent elections, it was stated that young people are more likely to believe in global warming than older people are.  The article included this paragraph:
Anthony Watts, a prominent climate skeptic who runs the popular and controversial site “Watts Up With That,” blamed the “liberal” education system for the lack of young climate skeptics. “I suppose such a group would be unlikely because our children are conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process to believe in the [man-made global warming] premise as factual and without question,” he said.
The article went on to address the fact that the older people are, the less likely they are to believe in man-made climate change or in the need for drastic governmental efforts to avoid a catastrophe.  It's interesting that one of the theories offered as to why people seem to change their minds about this as they get older is that they come to understand the economic costs of seriously addressing the issue, and are less willing to pay those costs.  They're also supposedly less alarmist...probably having survived more "the sky is falling" situations in their lives...being a bit jaded, perhaps.  But the fact that older people tend to understand the costs of addressing climate change doesn't--it seems to me--explain why they also don't think these efforts should be made...but I guess I underestimate the degree to which people vote their pocketbooks on things like this.

Watt's view that young people today have been "conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process" is the core of what I'm addressing here.  The implication, of course, is that this has gotten worse in recent years...thus explaining why young people today are more likely to believe a "liberal" point of view (their elders went to school before this bias took hold, perhaps?).

 2. In an opinion piece in the Washington Times in April of this year, Deborah Simmons wrote:
Academia [is] leading young minds in a direction that [will] come to affect every aspect of American tradition and policy. Pity the enemies of liberalism and our children because, well, here we are. Same-sex marriage laws are sweeping the states. So-called medical marijuana laws are, too. The public option almost made it into the health care reform bill, and union demands mean weak-kneed politicians and lawmakers are turning their backs on fiscal conservatism in favor of continuing failed one-size-fits-all education policies. That's the short list.
(Of course, this kind of talk (that our liberal education system is leading the American people to vote in certain ways is...well...only really salient after elections which result in the election of more liberal politicians.  So, after the 2008 elections, the liberal bias of schools seemed particular strong.  After the 2010 elections?  Not so much.)

Simmons goes on to talk about an interview she conducted with David Horowitz:
Mr. Horowitz talked about how "deliberate liberal bias" has ruined America's schools. Teachers unions, he said, are the root of the problem. "They don't want another voice in the room," Mr. Horowitz said. "The teacher unions and the Democratic Party have a monopoly on the public school systems. ... Teachers get paid for showing up. No one in the world gets paid for showing up." And, he continued, "the kids fail and there's no incentive to teach." "Teachers," Mr. Horowitz said, "are overpaid and underworked, and protected ... by the Democratic Party," and unionized teachers will "fight with their last breath."
Teacher bashing and complaining about the liberal bias in curriculum and content seem to go hand in hand.  This begins to explain why many on the right prefer to have schools run by corporations...through charters...most of which aren't unionized.  By reconfiguring schools so that teachers must teach instead of sitting around--the reasoning goes--the schools will be less likely to brainwash the kids...right?  (I'm not sure I get this...the teachers don't work they effectively brainwash the kids? If they worked harder...they would brainwash less? Clearly, there's a view here of what the "real work" of teachers ought to be.  More on this later.  But first, let's go on.)

3. (Okay, I admit, this next one is a low-hanging fruit.) Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote earlier this year on her Eagle Forum about the fight to revise the Texas state curriculum guidelines, titling her post "Texas Kicks Out Liberal Bias From Textbooks." The whole piece is really interesting to me, but I'll just include a few excerpts here:
For years, liberals have imposed their revisionist history on our nation's public school students, expunging important facts and historic figures while loading the textbooks with liberal propaganda, distortions and cliches. It's easy to get a quick lesson in the virulent leftwing bias by checking the index and noting how textbooks treat President Ronald Reagan and Senator Joseph McCarthy.... [The link doesn't exactly prove that textbooks treat Reagan badly...but does cite one book that gave the credit for ending the Cold War to Gorbachev and not book...clearly virulent.  And the alleged expert who was cited about this...a not-so-liberal professor at the University of Dayton who blogs about "the liars in the government-controlled media." The government controls the media?  But I thought it was the liberals who controlled the media...and that conservatives can't succeed in academia... But let's go on...]
In most states, the liberal education establishment enjoys total control over the state's board of education, department of education, and curriculum committees. Texas is different; the Texas State Board of Education is elected, and the people (even including parents!) have a voice. ...
(Parents actually have a lot of control over anyone who has spent any time at all in school board meetings know.  Principals, in fact, have as their primary job keeping the parents from getting so upset about things at school that they begin to call school board members...who control the principal's jobs. In fact, one could say that increased parental control over schools has had a considerably stifling effect on teachers in the past few decades. But that doesn't fit into the "liberal bias" storyline...and it's another story for another time.)

Now that I think about it, Schlafly's editorial is worth quoting at some length:

After a public outcry, the [Texas State Board of Education (SBOE)] responded with common-sense improvements. Thomas Edison, the world's greatest inventor, will be again included in the narrative of American History.[Huh? What's this got to do with liberals and conservatives?]
Schoolchildren will no longer be misled into believing that capitalism and the free market are dirty words and that America has an unjust economic system. Instead, they will learn how the free-enterprise system gave our nation and the world so much that is good for so many people.
Liberals don't like the concept of American Exceptionalism. The liberals want to teach what's wrong with America (masquerading under the code word "social justice" [on which, more below]) instead of what's right and successful. The SBOE voted to include describing how American Exceptionalism is based on values that are unique and different from those of other nations. [Don't all nations think they're "unique" and "different"?  What's exceptional about the American beliefs in their own exceptionalism?]
The SBOE specified that teaching about the Bill of Rights should include a reference to the right to keep and bear arms. Some school curricula pretend the Second Amendment doesn't exist. [From the linked source: "Let me say point blank that one of the objectives of this [federal] curriculum is to eliminate the Second Amendment." There's an interesting side story here about this so-called "federal curriculum," but again, for another time.]
Texas curriculum standards will henceforth accurately describe the U.S. government as a "constitutional republic" rather than as a democracy. [Yes, not a democracy, really. Something to get my preservice teachers to think more about!] The secularists tried to remove reference to the religious basis for the founding of America, but that was voted down. The Texas Board rejected the anti-Christian crowd's proposal to eliminate the use of B.C. and A.D. for historic dates, as in Before Christ and Anno Domini, and replace them with B.C.E., as in Before the Common Era, and C.E.
The deceptive claim that the United States was founded on a "separation of church and state" gets the ax, and rightfully so. In fact, most of the original thirteen colonies were founded as Christian communities with much overlap between church and state.
History textbooks that deal with Joseph McCarthy will now be required to explain "how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of Communist infiltration in U.S. government." The Venona papers are authentic transcripts of some 3,000 messages between the Soviet Union and its secret agents in the United States.
And, finally:
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. Since taxpayers foot the bill, it is long overdue for a state board of education to correct many textbooks myths and lies about our magnificent national heritage and achievements.
(Whew! "At war with our nation's achievements"! Damn, those "people who control public schools" must be a virulent, biased, even nefarious bunch! Who are those people, again?) But let's go on:

4. Here's some excerpts from a blog produced by Intellectual Takeout (ITO), "a non-partisan, educational 501(c)(3) institution [whose] vision is to become a national leader in educating and mobilizing conservatives, libertarians, independents, and progressives [?!?] in order to play a pivotal role in expanding individual and economic freedoms while reducing the size and scope of government."

According to many studies [not cited; see below], bias in academia more often than not is liberal bias. Many professors and students admit to possessing liberal ideologies or Democratic voting tendencies. It is natural and right for liberal students and professors to freely express their liberal philosophies, but is it right for liberal professors to continually advance their ideas in the classroom while squelching all other opinions? No.
As many of the pieces in this section suggest, universities are the breeding grounds for a variety of ideas and thought processes. Students who attend American colleges and universities should be able to gain a well-rounded view of their country, its founding principles, and the ideas – from all points on the political spectrum – that continue to shape and mold its future. Unfortunately, today’s colleges have drifted away from these ideals and become bastions of liberal thought and activism.
I dug a little deeper into Intellectual Takeout, which organizes their "information similarly to most university course offerings," by topics. I was curious that one of the topics under "Education" was "Colleges of Education."  "Hmmm....I thought...this should be interesting..." And so it is.

There are two sub-topics under Colleges of Education. One is about teacher certification, and the other is called "Education and Social Justice." This phrase "social justice," which seems on its face to be a nonpartisan ideal (who is against justice in society?), appears again and again in writings that claim an alleged left-wing bias in schools. (It's also become one of my Dad's favorite phrases when describing the conspiracy toward a New World Order that me, Obama, and our liberal friends are working toward.) The article in Intellectual Takeout explains the phrase's significance:
As has been mentioned numerous times before, the American education system has undergone major changes in the past fifty years as the principles of teacher-directed education have gradually given way to student-centered learning philosophies. [The history of progressive education is certainly an interesting one...but this quick summary seems a bit...simplistic to me.  Anyway....] Although seemingly recent, the changes that have occurred in the classroom were actually initiated many years before in the classrooms of education schools. [ educational ideas certainly achieved a sort of critical the 1940s. So this makes a bit of sense.] The training that occurs in these education schools has a great influence on the social, cultural, and intellectual path that a nation will choose, and due to this fact, it is important to understand what exactly our nation’s education schools are instilling in the minds of our future teachers. The “latest and greatest” education philosophy that education schools are pushing is the central focus of this library section: social justice education.
This is truly interesting.  Now comes a bit of a doozy: 
Social justice education is also commonly referred to as “critical pedagogy.” [Oh boy!] Although its ambiguous titles suggest virtuous American ideals such as truth and justice, its core principles revolve around a pervasive Marxist ideology. Championed by men such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and William Ayers, critical pedagogy seeks to turn students into activists with an anti-capitalist mindset. Education schools are increasingly promoting this idea among their students by encouraging them to reject their “privileged” status, recognize their own racial biases, and focus on the “oppressed” facets of society. Today’s elementary and secondary classrooms are beginning to reflect these ideologies. As a result, American schools are slowly moving away from their old purpose of instilling academic skills and factual knowledge in children and toward a lopsided political indoctrination.
Wow! This is beginning to get a little personal.  I work in a college of education. One of my occasional duties is to teach courses in the  history and philosophy of American preservice teachers (those who are just getting their teaching credentials). The course that I most often teach in that area is called "Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education."  (Yes, it is!)  Here's the catalog description:

FND 510:  Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education (for M.A.T. students)
This course critically examines the social, cultural, political, and economic forces, and the philosophies of education that have influenced policy, laws, school structure, and practices throughout the history of American education. Issues addressed include ability and disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Students lay the foundation for the development of a personal philosophy of education and reflectively examine issues of education from legal and social justice perspectives. This course includes a field project requiring at least 15 hours of work outside of class. 3 semester hours
Notice the key phrase "critically examines..."  On the very face of it, this seems to confirm ITO's view.

What's more, the National College of Education's conceptual framework includes the following:

NCE Faculty and candidates use scholarly habits of mind and methods of inquiry in order to affect P-12 student learning by:
  • Envisioning, articulating, and modeling democratic and progressive education
  • ... 
  • ...
  • Advocating for democratic values, equity, access and resources to assure educational success for all
I think this is what we faculty members in the National College of Education at National-Louis University mean by "social justice."  Social justice, to me, and to my colleagues, means working for a society that is democratic...where every child has access to a quality education.  This means paying attention to the social, political, and economic conditions that affect the quality of schools and that impact the experience that children have in school. It involves attention to what has come to be known as "culturally-relevant" pedagogy...which suggests that teachers must be sensitive to the values, traditions, and perspectives of the families that children come from, and the effects that prior experiences have on their experiences in school. (Click here for more on this approach.)

The thing is, none of this suggests that what we want is to create teachers well-versed in what has been called "critical pedagogy." Rather, our goal is helping new teachers to understand the broader social forces that pertain to their work in classrooms with particular children, so that they can be more effective teachers. (Although, we must admit, colleges of education aren't necessarily doing a great job with this; see here for one take on how poor they are.) We faculty members also want our teacher-graduates to be true professionals who use their understanding of history, sociology, and cultural psychology to further the profession and increase the effectiveness of schools and of the American educational system in general.  We most definitely don't believe that teachers should just teach academic skills and factual knowledge...we expect them to know and care about the larger context of schooling and about the daily lives of their students, now and in the future. Thinking critically about education means knowing that education requires more than just getting the kids to be effective in computation and decoding and memorization...and, more importantly, it means more than just teaching lower-income kids to follow orders and upper-income kids to be creative and problem-solve. (Which is what tends to happen in schools; see Anyon, 1980)

Certainly some of us do talk about critical pedagogy in some contexts. Personally, I don't think you can teach a course in the history and philosophy of education without some attention to thinkers who are considered left-wing. Some of us even assign readings, in some contexts, from Freire, Giroux, and Ayers (and...gasp!...even John Dewey!).  But we also assign readings from John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, James Conant, and Diane Ravitch, the books of which do not appear on the list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" (Dewey's Democracy and Education does, though.) John Locke's Two Treatises of Government even appears on the Ultimate List of Conservative Must-Read Books. He's no "critical pedagogue," as anyone who has compared his Some Thoughts Concerning Education to Rousseau's Emile (for example) can attest.  Actually, I think most teachers of the history and philosophy of education in colleges of education are pretty balanced, overall, because...

...well, because in many of our courses (especially those in the Foundations of Education), we're trying to get our students to think. That's right:  to think.

"But what does "to think" mean?" you ask. "What does having prospective teachers read left-wing ideologues like Freire or Dewey or Rousseau have to do with teaching them to think? Even presenting these thinkers as if they are worth reading is introducing a bias right there, is it not?"

Hmmmm....soooo...let's see: having them read Locke or Jefferson isn't introducing bias?  Or..are you's okay to introduce certain kinds of bias? Or are these thinkers not biased? Some of the other readings I assign my students are clearly biased toward the right: articles by people like William Bennett and Chester Finn, who are known Republicans...and such documents as "A Nation At Risk," a report issued while Reagan was president.)  The goal is to help students to understand the wide range of perspectives on educational topics...not to indoctrinate them to think a particular way!

But as I'm writing this, I'm having an internal conversation that is flowing more rapidly than I'm able to write.  I'm thinking about what I consider to be the purposes of education, of what it means to be educated...of what it means to be a thinker.

And yes, in my conception of an educated person is....a willingness to read the works of people across the political spectrum, and a willingness to think about the variety of perspectives that exist, and a willingness to accept that each of these perspectives offers something important philosophically, historically, and educationally...and that the only way a reader can understand a reading is to understand that any reading reflects the values, experiences, social positions, and...yes...biases of its author.  This is what is meant by critical thinking: gaining the capacity to critique without merely understand without compare and contrast and contextualize while coming gradually to one's own short, to think for oneself.
Critical thinking, in its broadest sense has been described as "purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do." (source)

"But wait! Then you do have a bias," you're thinking.  "Your bias is that multiple perspectives need to be encountered, understood, digested, and then synthesized in the forming of one's own viewpoint.  Your bias is that education is about teaching each person to think for him or herself...rather than to merely accept the values and perspectives of a particular group (their parents, their peers, their community, the government, those in business, multinational corporations). In other words, you are trying to indoctrinate teachers into the view that getting their students to think for themselves is a worthy goal!"

Um, yes: guilty as charged.

"So you would rather have a young person form their own political beliefs than just vote the way their parents want them to?"  Yes.

"So you believe that all young people should be exposed to a variety of values, beliefs, and perspectives in school, and that they should be taught to evaluate these different perspectives critically rather than unquestioningly"? Yes.

"So you believe that there's no right or wrong...that everything is relative...that capitalism is not always great...that Communists shouldn't be ruthlessly investigated and "outed"...that students should understand why the Constitution prohibited the establishment of religion...that they should understand that the Constitution isn't perfect...that it allowed slavery to continue...and didn't let women or poor people vote.?" Well...maybe.

"So you admit a virulent left-wing bias?!?" Um...if by that you mean a set of values about what education consists of and how best to move young people towards a broader understanding of their world, ...then yes, I do.

"And you admit that your colleagues have the same beliefs about these things that you do?" Well, for the most part, yes...we pride ourselves in our commitments to democratic values, as shown in our Conceptual Framework.

"Okay, then: case closed."


What is Liberal Education?

Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. (American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2010)
As the above demonstrates, I believe that there is a "liberal" bias in education...if by "liberal" we understand it in the same way that the word is used in the phrase "liberal education."  Those of us who work in colleges of education do, for the most part, believe that teaching young people to think for themselves...indeed, to think critically about at least as important as getting them to do their times tables quickly.

The thing is, there are people in America who don't believe that it is a good thing for young people to learn, in schools, to think for themselves, especially when it comes to thinking about issues with political aspects.  Fundamentalists, for example, don't want their children to learn, in school, about evolution, or about ongoing intellectual strife about the historical authenticity of the Bible, or about how to use a condom to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases.  Fiscal conservatives don't want people developing their capacities to critique "trickle-down" economics, or their understanding of the ways that multinational corporations use the intricacies of American and international law to avoid responsibility for the larger environmental or health effects of their products. Racists don't want their children coming home from school and questioning the stereotypes that they hold about race; male chauvinists don't want their daughters to question their oppressive ideas and behaviors; meat eaters or farmers don't want their kids spouting data related to corporate farming or the true costs of eating meat.  All of these groups want and expect their kids' public school to avoid getting into anything that might conflict with their "family values."

On the other hand, liberals also don't want their kids coming home and singing the praises of Reagan's foreign policy, or defending Joseph McCarthy, or using the Bible to justify discrimination against gays, or spouting anti-Muslim rhetoric related to 911.  I mentioned above that principals want, primarily, to avoid upsetting parents to the point that complaints find their way to members of the school board.  This is why principals, in general, want their teachers to avoid controversial topics.  This is, in part, why the standardized testing regime finds such favor among school leaders:  teachers who are concentrating on preparing their students to do well on multiple choice tests are unlikely to get parents upset about what's being foisted on their kids by their teachers.

And so, the trend in the my view...isn't toward student-centered teaching or critical pedagogy (or even social justice). The trend has been, especially since A Nation at Risk in 1983, but probably longer (back to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which included not only more federal funding for math and science education but also a requirement that students benefiting from the loans it provided sign an affidavit disclaiming belief in the overthrow of the U.S. government). A Nation at Risk solidified the view that the primary purpose of American schools was to increase American economic competitiveness, and that the best way to do that was to increase academic expectations and standardized testing (so-called "accountability").  One way to look at this trend is to see it as a backlash to the so-called "liberal" bias of teachers, who, it is believed, not only waste their time indoctrinating students into their left-wing views, but also fail to develop their students basic skills. The view seems to be that "critical thinking" and "academic excellence" are somehow at odds, and that liberal teachers can't be trusted to strike (pun intended) the proper balance.

So I think the whole question of whether schools and colleges have a "virulent left-wing bias" is clouded by another issue, which is whether schools and colleges should be trying to get their students to learn to think for themselves about larger social and political issues. As an avowed liberal, I am quite willing to accept that I have a "bias" towards students learning to think critically rather than just accepting the values or political views of their parents or communities. I believe that a democratic society (oh, sorry, a "constitutional republic") requires citizens with a capacity to think for themselves, and that schools in such a society have an obligation to develop that capacity...along with an ability to interpret data...conduct independent research...understand multiple between the lines...and suspend judgment. These outcomes don't seem to me to reflect a "left wing" bias...but if they result in our students being less likely to accept dogma (from left OR right), then I'm happy.

As for the "left wing"'s a somewhat different charge.  The suggestion is that because so many teachers are allegedly left of center (as many as 87% according to one study!), that they are "squelching" other points of view and unduly influencing their students.  This is the charge that my Dad intended to make, and that most of the articles I quote above also make.  This is the charge that Rush Limbaugh makes when he claims that "The public school system is a liberal project that is designed to create as many little liberals as possible." This is why Phyllis Schlafly calls it a "virulent" left-wing reflect the notion that teachers are trying to make as many "mini-me liberals" as they can. And us college of education faculty members?  Not only producing mini-me liberals in our own students (eventual teachers)...but in the k-12 students they eventually teach.  (It's like a Ponzi scheme...only more satisfying!)

Personally, I don't think that's what most liberal college professors and school teachers want. I don't think most of us want graduates who think the same as we do.  As I've argued, we want graduates who do think for themselves, and to the extent that this undermines dogma, we're happy.  But "mini-me's"?  No.  That's no only petty and's against what we're explicitly trying to do. 

And yet, the charge remains.  When conservatives lose elections or feel that no one is listening to their point of view (as my Dad clearly felt in that Facebook discussion)...the charge is renewed. When conservatives win or they're talking among themselves, the charge is renewed and they pat themselves on the back for finding a way around the liberal teachers...and (allegedly) liberal media...and (allegedly) liberal government. Aren't those Tea Partiers smart?

Of course, I haven't even begun to touch on another related issue, whether education, in general, opens the mind...and people with open minds tend to be more liberal than those with closed minds.  But that's a blog post for another day.  Right now, I need to go back to finding ways to indoctrinate my students, in support of the Marxist-Fascist-Liberal New World Order.

And yes, that last sentence was meant facetiously.  Have a good day!

How to build a culture of illiteracy

I was visiting my 5 year old grandson this week and he showed me the two books he had been assigned to read by his kindergarten teacher. Milo reads fairly well for a five year old, but this had nothing to do with his two months of kindergarten. I was surprised to see that they are teaching kindergarten kids to read. I guess the obsession with test scores has made New York City push the kids harder and faster. I would rather see him be doing other things in school but there is no harm in teaching him to read. Or so I thought, until I had him read these two books to me.

The first was about a nonsensical creature called a jiggeridoo. All the sentences were of the sort "jiggeridoos like to play." Each page had a picture and a sentence like that. I was bored and so was he. What happened to the idea that reading should be fun and even remotely educational. What was he learning from reading this nonsense?

The second book made me long for the first one.

The second was about a character named Eddy, who like to eat things based on their shape apparently. So Milo was busy sounding out words like square or triangle because pizza is triangular in shape. This book was both boring and annoying. It obviously was trying to teach shapes which is a dull, and rather unimportant task, and was doing so through a ridiculous book.

From this Milo is learning that books are boring and tedious. He will survive this because his parents are literate and will be his real teachers. But I started worrying about kids who have parents who don't encourage reading at home. The message the school is sending is that reading is a useless experience teaching nothing worth knowing. No wonder illiteracy is such an issue these days.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about test scores and start worrying about whether kids like to read. Just a thought.

Student Grades, Test Scores, and Rankings

originally posted at Huffington Post

Some want to tie teacher evaluation to student performance on external tests. They may advocate a value-added methodology, which in theory should allow us to rank teachers by how much their students improve. While there are methodological issues about whether we can truly isolate what the teachers have actually contributed to the student performance, I found myself asking, if the way some propose to evaluate teachers is by how much the students improve, why are we not similarly evaluating students? Why do we insist upon artificial levels of performance, determined by percentage scores and weights, as if in converting things to a 100 point number scale, we therefore communicate something meaningful about that student -- s/he performed at an A level, or got a 93 percent overall. Is that really meaningful? Who has done more, the student who begins at a very low performance and then achieves at what we would classify as a C level, or the student who begins with a high A and stays there?

Here, I think of a class many moons ago. There were 27 students in a "Talented and Gifted" class, all 9th graders. 23 finished with final grades of A. Consider several students from that class whose names have been changed to protect their identity.

Natalie was early on getting 94s on my tests and written assignments when no one else was over a 90. I pulled her aside and told her that if she did not improve what she was doing, she would be wasting both my time and hers. She raised one eyebrow, then dedicated herself to her work. Her final overall average would have been around 98 -- and I am not considered an easy grader (an issue to which I will return).

Natalie finished her high school career as our salutatorian, never having a quarter grade other than A. She took 13 Advanced Placement Courses, which gave additional points for the difficulty of the course. She scored 5 (the top possible score) on all 13 AP exams.

Her high school record was "perfect." She was not valedictorian because someone else completed 14 Advanced Placement courses, and thus had a marginally higher Grade Point Average because of the additional weighted grade.

Both students were outstanding. Why do we have to distinguish between them?

We have since had twins finish first and second twice. We ranked one over the other. What is gained thereby?

That long-ago class had some incredibly gifted kids. The one whose performance I most admire was one of the four NOT finishing with an A. John was somewhat outmatched. He was not especially verbal, and his writing was atrocious. His first quarter grade was a D -- an "average" in the 60s. His final grade was a B. But for the second-half of the year, he had done A work, averaging over 90 percent for quarters three and four. His record of D-C-A-A averaged out to a final B.

That is not a fair reflection of what he had accomplished. For half-the-year, he performed at an A level, often higher than students whose final grades were A, but because of his early struggles, the grade on his transcript was that final B, and his overall GPA was affected accordingly. Did we punish him because he took on a more challenging course, and even though he rose to the expectations of the course, saw his grade affected by his early struggles. Does that send a message not to take on courses that might stretch one because of the impact upon grades?

I am a tough grader. Whatever my students can do when they arrive in my class, I expect them to be able to do far more at the end of the year. I wonder if those who had me might have felt disadvantaged because other teachers of such classes were not so rigorous in their demands? Might some attempt to "equalize" different levels of rigor by insisting upon absolutely uniformity in grading? Would that really solve the problem of adequately communicating what a student has accomplished?

I think back to that class. It challenged me as much as any I have taught in my 16 years in a public school classroom. I was prepared to let one student take over the class after two weeks. She is now, after several years of employment, a first-year student at one of the most prestigious professional schools in the nation. I know she will do well, not because of her grades, but because of her willingness to take on challenges, and the experience of rising to meet whatever confronts her. Lisa is one of my favorites, not because of her superb academic record, but because of how much she grew -- and how much she challenged me -- during the year I was her teacher. Similarly, Natalie and John both grew. He grew most of all because he started with less-developed skills.

His grade does not fairly represent what he accomplished. Natalie, being ranked second in her class, is at least on the surface, somewhat unfair. Even Lisa's superb academic performance does not indicate how much she grew as a student and person in her years at our high school. I was delighted to write her recommendations for her college applications because I could thereby explain some of that. I wonder why we cannot have similar narratives for all our students as a part of their record, for each course.

If our tests are supposed to measure what a student really knows and can do, why are they heavily multiple choice? Why are they timed, thereby giving an advantage to those who can think quickly, even if no better than those who want to reflect? Do the results accurately reflect what a student can do in the real world?

Why do we insist upon comparing students to one another? Should not our challenge be to have each student rise as high as s/he can, to perform as well as s/he can?

Why do we not simply have two grades -- needs improvement and meets the requirements? Why should students not be allowed to learn from their mistakes and gain credit for self-correction?

I wrestle with these issues. Our school keeps score. We rank. Do my students suffer because my standards are high?

There are many things we should rethink about our public schools. Should issues like those I raise be part of the discussion? How much does how we assess, grade, and rank our students do them a disservice?

Natalie, Lisa, and John. I can still remember them as individual students, not merely as the grades they achieved. Cannot we rethink what we are doing so that we will truly know what our students have learned and can do, and be able to describe them accurately as more than scores on tests or cumulative GPAs? Is not each child entitled to something more than that?

I hope so.

Who gets to design the curriculum that would replace the one from 1892 that we now use?

I was giving a talk that mentioned how the curriculum in the schools is outdated and irrelevant and needs to be thrown out. Of course, I got the usual questions. People defend their favorite courses but are willing to trash the ones they didn't like or do well in. And then there is my favorite question: "who will decide what the new curriculum will be?"

There are two serious problems with that question. First, why must there be one curriculum? Second, why should anyone but the students decide what they should learn?

Of course I know that these problems are rarely mentioned. We just assume that there should be exactly one course of study in high school and that students should be told what they have to learn. These assumptions are so strongly held that any suggestion by me that school needs a re-design causes people to assume that I want to dictate what the curriculum should be. I don't. What I do want to do is to design as many curricula as possible to allow as much choice as possible. Someone I know told me that his daughter was bored in school and that what she really wanted to learn about was set design. And why shouldn't there be a "set design" curriculum for those who want that?

Since curricula can now be delivered on line, as can teaching, the old excuse -- not enough demand - goes away.

Of course there is another objection too. Such a curriculum wouldn't include the important stuff. Really? What is the important stuff? I am sure that one actually has to know a great about "the important stuff" whatever that is in order to "set design" or anything else that is part of the real world. The place to teach the important stuff is within a context of interest to the student where it would actually be used.

We need to start understanding that our unspoken assumptions about education are wrong. Every high school drop out knows they are wrong.

This teacher reacts to seeing "Waiting for Superman"

crossposted from Daily Kos for which it was first written

Friday schools across Maryland were closed, so I went to the first show at Noon.

On the way home I thought long and hard about what I would say.

No matter how I parse it, my reaction has two key points.

1. Davis Guggenheim feels guilty about not sending his kids to public schools, and the result is a film which basically trashes public schools, public school teachers, teachers unions, while unjustly glorifying Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, charters, Kipp, and union busting.

2. The film is intellectually dishonest, so much so it is laughable.

I will explain my reactions.

Guggenheim admits his sense of guilt. He talks about his admiration for teachers. He reminds us of his 1999 film "First Year" about dedicated teachers. He shows us video of driving past four public schools to take his child to a PRIVATE school (note, NOT a charter school). But we never are given any specifics. We are not even told if any of those is the public school his child would have attended. He uses his skill with films to have us infer that none of the four does a decent job of instructing kids, and that his child would have to attend one of them. But we are given NO data to support such an inference.

The film focuses on children trying to get into charter schools via lotteries. Yet at the end, in the text after all the emotion has been wrung out of the viewing audience, Guggenheim is at least honest enough to tell us that lotteries are not the answer. If they are not, why not show us schools that are? Why is not a single successful public school shown? Might that undermine the propaganda that is being put out to manipulate the viewer in a particular direction? Might that make the viewer less likely to text in support of the agenda that Guggenheim puts forth?

I said the film is intellectually dishonest. I will not go through all the examples I could cite: I do come to this "review" late, and many others have dissected the various problems with the film.

Let me cite several. Jay Mathews advocates for KIPP on the basis of the raise in the percentiles on reading scores. Yet that ignores a chunk of data. First, those being tested do not include all those who entered KIPP schools - at least a portion of KIPP schools have an unfortunate tendency to "counsel out" students who would not score well. Second, it is not yet clear that the gains in test scores that are reported persist further up the educational ladder when the students leave KIPP. Finally, the independent study (by Mathematica) that Kipp likes to cite says only 10% of KIPP schools perform better than the public schools from which they draw. That is actually a worse percentage than charter schools as a whole, as was seen in the CREDO study, where 17% of charter schools performed better but 37% performed worse.

From Canada we constantly heard that the system was broken, and on the whole we were intended to draw the conclusion that public schools are not working. Yet even Eric Hanushek is quoted in the film as saying something quite different: that if we could replace the worst performing 5 to 10 % of teachers, our schools would be performing at the same level as Finland, the highest scoring nation in the world. Finland, however, has a far lower rate of children in poverty than does the US, and that difference accounts for much of the difference in performance. But Finland also has a 100% unionized teaching force, which seems relevant to mention if Finland is supposed to be the standard by which we judge our performance, especially when we are constantly bombarded with "facts" about how unions are the problem.

Consider - we are given comparative statistics for lifting of licenses for doctors and lawyers versus only 1 in 2,500 Illinois teachers losing their teaching certificates. But that totally ignores the large number of teachers who leave before they get tenure, many of whom are low performers. Why go to the expense of legally lifting a certificate when the person is no longer teaching? We lose almost half of teachers in the first 5 years. If only 1/2 of those are substandard teachers, then the rate of substandard teachers leaving is higher than the 5-10% Hanushek says is necessary to replace, and not only 1 in 2,500. And by the way, Hanushek never gives any evidence that the replacements would be any better.

That raises another interesting point. By his own admission in the film, Geoffrey Canada was NOT even a satisfactory teacher his first two years. He said he didn't begin to hit his stride until his 3rd year. Elsewhere, but not in the film, Michelle Rhee has acknowledged that she was a horrible teacher her first year and half. She came out of Teach for America. Both of these people, offered as models for what we should be doing about education, demonstrate something very well known - that as a nation we do a poor job of preparing our teachers and inducting them - bringing them into the classroom. Finland does so over several years with decreasing amounts of supervision and increasing levels of individual responsibility for the new teachers. Finland offers a model which works. Teach for America, by the words of Rhee and Canada, is not what we should depend upon. And if we were to summarily fire 5-10% of teachers only to replace them with additional novices, there is no evidence this will improve student performance.

Let me also note what I consider the most disturbing image in the film. It is used as a set-up to bash teachers. We see a teacher peeling back skulls and pouring knowledge into the heads of students. Later, as the words we hear are bashing unions and union rules, we again see the teacher pouring, only this time she - and it is a she - is pouring her "knowledge" onto the floor, somehow missing the open minds of the students.

This is a horrible model of education. It may work for drill and kill to raise test scores. It does not result in meaningful long-term learning or the development of an ability to continue learning independently. It may not be intellectually dishonest, but it is a distorted understanding of teaching and learning.

What is intellectually dishonest is what the film says about tenure. The film somewhat misrepresents the development of tenure in post-secondary institutions. It is totally wrong when it describes tenure for public school teachers as a life-time guarantee of a job. All tenure does is require due process according to contract rules mutually agreed to by unions and school boards. Note the two parts to this: due process, and mutually agreed to. The portion of the film with Jason Kamrad is used to imply that it is almost impossible to dismiss a tenured teacher. In fact it is not, rubber rooms not withstanding, if administrators follow the rules and document. This is no more difficult that convicting criminal wrongdoers in the justice system when the police and the prosecution follow the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Petty dictators and inexperienced leaders might not like following the rules. Michelle Rhee dismissed a batch of teachers ostensibly because the city could not afford them, but replaced some with people from Teach for America. When she got caught she talked about a handful who rightfully should have been dismissed (although that could easily have been done under proper procedures) while implying that all of the dismissed teachers had similar problems. That was not honest.

Her track record also is not as rosy as the film portrays, although on this I would refrain from accusing that portion of intellectual dishonesty, because the inconsistency of score performance became publicly apparent only after the film was in editing. Still, questions had been raised about the performance at the time Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee were touting the scores as proof that their approach was working.

Perhaps the most intellectually dishonest portion of the film is the presentation of Geoffrey Canada. Let me be clear: I believe Canada is absolutely correct in providing what are known as wrap-around services, including medical and tutoring and family support. What the film implies is that Canada is obtaining better results applying the same or similar resources, and somehow if others would take his approach, which includes his insistence on no union and the ability to fire any teacher, all would be well.

Let's try the reality. As it happens, on this the New York Times has a recent piece that is quite appropriate, about which many have now commented. Titled Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems, the piece appeared on October 12. In it we learn that the schools in Harlem Children's Village have per pupil expenditures of $16,000 in the classroom and thousands more outside the classroom. The average class size in the Promise Academy High school is about 15, with two licensed teachers per class. Stop right there, and think about the image of most urban schools: how often do you see as few as 20 students per class? How rarely are there two adults to deal with what is often 30 or more students?

Despite that, Canada's track record is spotty. In the film we hear about the commitment he makes to the parents, which in the Times piece is framed as "We start with children from birth and stay with them until they graduate." Perhaps we should read about the first cohort of Promise Academy I, which opened in 2004:
The school, which opened in 2004 in a gleaming new building on 125th Street, should have had a senior class by now, but the batch of students that started then, as sixth graders, was dismissed by the board en masse before reaching the ninth grade after it judged the students’ performance too weak to found a high school on. Mr. Canada called the dismissal “a tragedy.”

Somehow dismissing an entire cohort does not bespeak a model that I would want to emulate. Nor does it demonstrate that Mr. Canada is the sparkling example the movie would have you believe. Allow me to quote what Walt Gardner posted about Promise Academy I in this blog at Education Week:
Even now, most of its seventh graders are still behind. Only 15 percent passed the state's English test. Their failure to perform resulted in the firing of several teachers and the reassignment of others. Although 38 percent of children in third through sixth grade passed the English test under the state's new guidelines, their performance placed them in the lower half of charter schools in the city and below the city's overall passing rate of 42 percent.

As a piece of propaganda pushing a flawed vision of education, "Waiting for Superman" is brilliant - it manipulates emotions, it takes facts out of context, it misrepresents much of the data it uses and is less than accurate in its portrayal of key figures, most especially in its portrayal of Canada.

I have not yet cited the biggest example of its intellectual dishonesty. That would be what is NOT in the film. There is not a single example of a successful traditional public school, whether in troubled neighborhoods - and they do exist - or in places like suburbs where many of our schools perform at levels as high as in any place in the world. Instead it allows Canada to paint with a broad brush, saying "the system is broken" and implying that ALL of American education is failing.

It is not. Even by the flawed measure of test scores, the current administration wants to target 5% of American schools. Not all schools are dropout factories.

Too many are. They are for the reasons they have often been - they teach other people;'s children, the children of the poor, those of color, those who do not speak English at home.

It does not have to be this way.

The film is wrong when it wants you to believe this is a new phenomenon. There was no idyllic time in inner city schools, certainly not in the 1970s, which is again an impression the films wants to give you. After all, it was because children of the poor were being systematically deprived of the right to an education that Lyndon Johnson pushed for and signed the first version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the mid 1960s. That had not magically changed things within the next five to ten years.

At the end of the film the text that appears on the screen says we know what to do, then offers the usual bromides of so-called reformers of more accountability, more assessment, higher standards, and the like. This has been the pattern at least since the Reagan administration. If this were the correct path, why a quarter century after A Nation At Risk are we hearing the same things, only more so?

Let's be clear. Raising the bar of 'standards' will do nothing to improve the educational performance of a child not achieving the current, apparently too-low standards. It may in fact merely increase the number of drop-outs.

If Geoffrey Canada can, with foundation money, provide all those wonderful trips for his students, plus teacher-student ratios in the classroom of better than 1-8, perhaps we might consider what we need to do to provide for the students in our regular public schools, who are often at a classroom ratio of better than 30-1, who do not have foundation and hedge-funds paying for their field trips. Canada has a spanking new building, modern, fully equipped. Many of our young people are in buildings more than half a century old, with leaking roofs, with no doors on bathroom stalls, sometimes with no toilet paper unless they bring it themselves. Just the difference in externals like this delivers a powerful message about which kids we really care about, and they know it.

If you knew nothing about American education except what you gleaned from watching "Waiting for Superman," you would have a totally distorted understanding both of the status of American public education and of what really makes a difference for young people. That inevitably distorts the public discourse on this important national issue. Of course, the intent of propaganda is to drive discussion in a pre-decided direction, whether or not that direction is either necessary or justified by the real facts on the ground.

The film is intellectually dishonest. Most of those who know about education, especially those who know the reality of what has worked and can be scaled up, have increasingly been speaking out and writing against the glorification of the film, and the vision it pushes, and those it attempts to lionize.

And Davis Guggenheim? He admits his sense of guilt. On that he is at least partially honest. What he has done in this film should not, however, allow him to feel as if he has expiated his sense of guilt, for this film has done real damage to the public discourse over education, and made it harder to get to the kinds of real reform necessary so that none of our children are left in failing schools. I long for such a day that all experience fully the right, the opportunity to learn. That will not happen by busting unions, propagating charters, all the while we ignore the increasing economic disparity, and the unfortunate reappearance of racism. Couple this with the attitude of some of an unwillingness to pay for public services for which they do not personally benefit and you will see an increase in the number of students who are not well served by our public schools - we will damage many that are currently working.

As bad as it may be now, things like "Waiting for Superman" merely make it harder to move towards the changes we truly need. I fear that will be its legacy, and that would truly be tragic.