Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer Camp

If it's July, there will be articles about summer camp. This summer, two in the New York Times have caught my eye. "When s'mores aren't enough" looks into the business side of camp and reports that traditional summer camps -- the kind where kids hang around in the woods engaged in fun activities, friendship, and marshmallow roasting -- are having a hard time staying competitive with camps that promise more bang for the buck by honing tennis, college readiness, and other skills that promise to bring a financial return someday. An article on parents' increasing use of private jets to transport their children to rustic camps touches on some of the same economic issues: the cost of camp, the lack of time. Rather Marie Antoinette playing farmer at Versailles, but camps that serve wealthy children have always been that, if less dramatically so when reached by car or train.

Although chartering a private plan to get a child to camp might seem more outrageous than dedicating a child's summer to useful activities like soccer and marine biology, the decline of s'mores worries me more than the rise of private jets, perhaps because absurd disparities in wealth is such a familiar story by now that it takes a bigger story (like impending default on US debt) to raise my ire. Why worry about the end of s'mores? Because more than they need tennis skills and college admissions, children need time to ramble around in the woods, negotiate friendships outside the scrutiny of adults, and daydream.

The other big summer camp story, of course, is the shootings in Norway. A far more horrible invasion of summer camp (and that he shot kids at summer camp is what makes it so especially horrible!) than the incursions of self-improvement on American childhood, but analogous all the same.

I could cite research supporting the importance of unstructured time and free play for children, but since it's summer, I'll leave readers to ponder at leisure the question of whether, and why, free time ought to be children's birthright and a blank sheet of paper we provide for them to color in as they please.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Zero Tolerance and the Failure to Educate

The older I get and the more exposure I have to schooling and educational policy in the United States, the more I wonder if we like children.

I was recently reminded of this when I saw yet another example of a very young child given an absurd penalty because of an over-literal interpretation of a “zero tolerance” policy in a local school ( The details of this case—first grade boy suspended because he pointed his finger as though it was a gun—are the sort that get people either laughing at the disconnect between the action and the severity of the response or outraged for the same reason. After all, a child’s finger, on even the most liberal interpretations of zero tolerance, is not a gun. But that response misses a deeper point: zero tolerance policies renege on the promise that schools are in the business of education for democratic life.

Mindless forms of “classroom management” have triumphed over efforts to help children become better people. And we know there are more positive and more effective – more educational – ways to respond to bad behavior in schools (see, for example Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas or Vivian Paley’s You Can’t Say, You Can’t Play). Perhaps it is because of the increasing focus on maximizing time on task in order to increase test scores, but I am not sure that is the reason: the policy of treating children like animals predates the regime of testing so often supposed to be its cause. Behavioral control has been the approach of “classroom management” for all of my professional life, and I started teaching high school in 1968.

One district where I was employed adopted Lee Canter’s “Assertive Discipline” program in the 1970’s; the catch-phrase of this program was “deal with the behavior, not the child.” I heard this from many teachers, always expressed with pride. The idea always puzzled me, however, because I has become a teacher because I wanted to deal with children, and in line with that commitment, I have always believed that a child’s behavior is a part of who the child is, and to treat those two things as separable is to fail to understand our role in democracy as much as it is to violate the integrity of the person the child is.

There are two reasons we should reject the emphasis on behavioral strategies for controlling behavior and “classroom management”: they are demeaning to both the children against whom they are used and to the teachers forced to use them, and they diminish the likelihood that our public schools will form democratic citizens. When they work, even when they are applied rationally, zero tolerance policies shape behavior by fear, not by consideration of what sort of people they should be, or what sort of choices they should make. Further, such policies send the message that the school and the adults in it do not think the child who breaks a rule counts for very much. They make clear to all children that the adults in the school consider the children to be disposable.

Zero tolerance policies explicitly state for all to see that we consider our rules more important than our children, and our children see this. Even the children who obey the rules understand where they stand in a regime of zero-tolerance. This will certainly increase the alienation children and young adults feel toward schools.

Children will sometimes behave badly. They will break rules, even really serious, important rules. Such events can be seen as opportunities to banish the miscreants, or as an opportunity to educate. Only the last honors our claim to be educators trying to prepare children to be citizens in a democratic society.

One of my former colleagues wisely suggested that the way to be more effective in classrooms is to “be the child,” to try to understand what need the child is meeting my misbehavior and then to help the child meet that need in more positive ways. This is not at all to suggest that classrooms should be places of permissiveness or places where there are no rules that matter. It is to suggest that our job is to help children understand and internalize the norms of democratic life the rules are meant to enact, and that they best learn democracy by living it. However, when we replace citizen formation with zero tolerance policies we do not prepare them for democratic life, but for what some now refer to as the school-to-prison-pipeline (

I do not understand why so many educators think the proper response to children who are alienated from the school’s social contract (I am making a large assumption here, I know) is to exacerbate and formalize that alienation with the official proclamation that they really do not belong. I do not understand how a culture that valued its young could make zero tolerance a policy.

One final irony: this incident took place in Oklahoma where—I could not make this up—there is a serious on-going effort in the state legislature to make actual guns on school, college, and university campuses legal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Local deliberation on the federal role in public education

As a scholar interested in the meanings that public still might have for education and schools, I’ve been intrigued with the potential of deliberative forums to help develop individual understanding, dialogue across diversity, and shared decision-making. As a member of the League of Women Voters here in Oxford, Ohio, I have access to a good organizational structure for fostering political deliberations. Our local League will deliberate this fall on the prickly questions surrounding the proper role for the federal government in K-12 education.

The national League of Women Voters (LWV) this year announced a new national study on the role of the federal government in k-12 education. A local, state, or national League group can call for a study of any political or policy issue that is relevant to its members, and a study commits a League to undertaking a careful deliberative process that educates members and encourages them to come to consensus on the issue under study. While not every study ends in a consensus among members, the aim of these studies at the national level is to help national LWV advocate and lobby on behalf of policy positions that reflect the views of its membership. This Education Study is designed to help local League organizations give feedback to the national League so that it might take up a good position with regards to the upcoming re-authorization of No Child Left Behind and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

For those readers unfamiliar with U.S. schooling history and policy, the involvement of the federal government in public education is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before 1950 the federal government played almost no role at all in the administration, curriculum, funding, or assessment of public education. The launch of Sputnik compelled some national activity towards enriching science and math education to fuel the “space race.” Civil rights and equity movements led to the development of greater federal regulation, mandates, and funding for particular populations in the 1960s-1980s (for example, students who are poor or who have disabilities). And in the last decades, a push for a more national standards/assessment system has gained much ground, due in part to the U.S.’s waning eminence as an economic and educational super-power, and in part to help pressure schools to erase the pervasive achievement gaps between white and non-white populations (which, schools by themselves cannot possibly do). No Child Left Behind is obviously the prime example of this effort. At this point, education is still mainly the responsibility of state governments and federal money usually does not represent more than 10% or so of any district’s budget. It is politically unlikely that the federal government will play a larger role in funding schools in the future. Still, there is much discussion that our school systems are too entrenched in their parochial, localized history, and that our country’s educational achievements are bogged down by this decentralized structure, and in the “bureaucracy” of federal regulations in the realm of equity.

The U.S. League of Women Voters wants regular citizens to be more involved in these important debates. That’s why they are encouraging local Leagues like mine to host deliberations around these questions.

According to the national LWV, our local study should help our members take positions on two broad areas: common core standards and assessments, and federal funding for equity issues. With regards to common core standards, our League members will become educated on the history of decentralized schooling in the U.S., the recent movements towards national standards, and the degree to which common standards should become those which are federally mandated or incentivized, as well as monitored through a set of national assessment measures. With regards to equity, our League study participants will look at the history and forms of federal involvement for equity goals.

There are many ways to deliberate, and consensus among members may not always be the goal of a deliberation. But whatever the goal and format of deliberation, such programs help to both educate voters and begin discussions among diverse voters on complex issues that are often reductively treated in the media. And there are increasingly more organizations like LWV that can be conduits for deliberation activity in communities. I like LWV because it provides a non-partisan space for people to learn and think through political issues, and become involved for particular policies or stances.

Deliberation is important, but it is also important to remember that it is one among many kinds of political tools in a democracy. Deliberation isn’t activism, lobbying, or policy-making. There are many different kinds of political activities, and it is important to understand what each sort of activity does and does not accomplish. Deliberation can help citizens understand and take positions on complicated issues like the federal role in K-12 education. It cannot, however, substitute for advocacy and activism on behalf of positions. The strength of the deliberations in Oxford, Ohio will be funneled to the national League, who will hopefully articulate a strong and persuasive position as law-makers engage in the sausage-making working of revising NCLB/ESEA in the coming year.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Join our Conversation on a Declaration of Education Rights

I just put up a post on my journal’s blog that I thought readers of this blog might find interesting. In the post, Jim Strickland, the Regional Coordinator for the Western Region of John Goodlad’s National League of Democratic Schools, suggests that we are desperately in need of “a moral compass by which we can guide our practice, develop our programs and policies, and evaluate our results….a mutual commitment to values that will inspire us and keep us from drifting off course.” As Jim warns us, “In education, as in all areas of life, if we do not decide where we are going, someone will be happy to decide for us.”

In the interest of full disclosure, our journal and its governing institute participate in the League so we were particularly interested in Jim’s reflections. In the post, Jim proposes a Declaration of Education Rights as a “common standard of achievement for the continuous growth and self-realization of all people in the context of democratic community.” In the context of the paucity of good ideas in today’s national dialogue on education, we think Jim’s proposal is a good starting point for a deeper, more meaningful discussion on the public purposes of education.

The post is long with thirteen articles and comments but we invite readers to join the conversation.

Journal of Educational Controversy Blog:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Value of College?

(Cross-posted from Smart and Good)

From an article in the NY Times two weeks ago (June 26, 2011, SR3) ....

If you have a college degree, you make more money no matter what job you end up in, even if that job does not seem to require a college education. College educated dishwashers make $34K compared to high school grads at $19K. College educated hairdressers make $32K versus those with high school diplomas at $19K. (Interestingly, that $19K figure came up a lot as the likely income level for someone who had a high school diploma).

In some fields (e.g., child care worker, dental hygienist), you made a lot more if you had a college degree. In other fields, you made a bit more (e.g. firefighter, social worker). But in some fields, you made about the same amount of money whether you had a college degree or not: cook, secretary, clergy, casino worker and electrician.

I've been wondering what that is about, especially since I am an educator and am surrounded by folks who believe that a college degree is the "ticket to ride."

We have to ask ourselves whether the learning college affords makes a difference or whether the degree functions the way a letter of introduction worked in the 18th century affirming one's goodness or whether the kind of person who goes to college is the kind of person that employers prefer no matter what the qualifications needed. Of course, maybe it's some combination of factors, the answer I'm inclined toward.

I went to college and I learned a lot -- about life, about other people, about myself, about ideas, but I also missed a lot in the college bubble. So when I came out, I had more and different stuff to learn. And I clearly wasn't qualified for any job. ... except maybe any job that required attention to people, to detail and to communication and to take responsibility for what caught my attention.

I'm trying to remember if I was that way when I went in to college and, despite the years, I think the answer is yes. But college was a gift: time to mature, to let the me I was taught to be all along settle in and settle down. And there's no question that a degree from Bucknell University carried with it a certain cachet (but not as much as a degree from Harvard or Stanford would :-). Is this a system that is fair? that maximizes the potential of each and every young person? I'm not so sure.

So here's my (somewhat im-) modest proposal for today given the current high cost of college:
1) make high schools places where kids are coached to pay attention and take responsibility,
2) offer all students a place to mature for a few years -- mandatory community or military service perhaps? -- and ensure that those places/placements offer some kind of useful skills training as well as increasing social responsibility,
3) recommit to the Emersonian view that we Americans (and all citizens of the world) are morally equal, morally entitled to develop our own unique potential so that our contribution to this world is not lost.
4) revitalize democracy as "associated living" (a la Dewey) and encourage public forums (discussion groups, book clubs, etc.) that are broadly educative.

It would be interesting to see how liberal arts learning and vocational training would sort itself out if all four elements mentioned above were in place.

KIPP and Career Building

The other day I read Rick Hess’ interview with KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg and inched closer to figuring out what bothers me about the TFA-pipeline-turned- “real reformer” crowd (as distinguished from the rest of us who have been working diligently for 30 or so years to ensure rich educations for all young people in this democratic society of ours).

I really do like the TFA educational entrepreneurs I know. I respect their intelligence, energy, entrepreneurship and commitment. I appreciate the way they grab hold of openings (like charter school laws) and turn those openings into educational edifices (institutional as well as bricks and mortar). They are opportunistic in apparently constructive ways, turning public money into personal accomplishments. I’m just not always sure that their commitment is educational. I think what is bothering me is that their commitment seems to be more about those personal accomplishments than about developing students’ greater selves. Kids who graduate and go on to four-year colleges feel like notches in someone’s belt. School founder/leaders who are barely out of college appoint themselves “CEO” of whatever they create. I realize that I am growing old and crotchety but is a 27 year old CEO a good thing? Isn’t it at least a little immodest?