Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Opportuity and Single-Gender Schooling

I was struck this week by the following headline from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: "Westinghouse's Single-Gender Academies to Bolster Opportunity." I found myself wondering "What kind of opportunity?" Perhaps, in light of the traditional gender stereotypes that have been used by many advocates to support the call for single-gender education since President G.W. Bush endorsed it earlier this decade, this means the opportunity for boys to explore the world using their rambunctious natures without the distraction of pretty girls, and for girls to more actively assert themselves without being trumped by the pesky shouts of exuberant boys. Perhaps, as is the case with the proposed all-male, all-African-American proposed charter school in Madison, Wisconsin, this means the opportunity to overcome persistent educational struggles by targeting the needs and strengths of one particular population.

I read further into the article to discover that the single-gender schools are thought to provide the "opportunity to show promise." Is promise something that is squelched or overlooked in mixed-gender settings? Can one only show promise in light of or because of one's gender when the other gender is kept at bay? Can one's talents only shine through when the radiating glow of the other gender is shielded? With perhaps a few rare exceptions, I find these unlikely to be the case.

What about the opportunity to learn from and interact with children different from themselves? What about the opportunity to break down gender stereotypes of the opposite gender by seeing counterexamples firsthand? What about the opportunity to prepare for the real world where genders work side-by-side daily in most fields? What about the opportunity to learn about how persistent systems of sexism trickle all the way down to influence the inter-gender relationships of children? What about the opportunity to expand our understanding of gender as two discretely defined categories? Those seem like the types of educational opportunities I would like to see.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This Economic Chance-World in Which We Live

As news of Obama’s deal with the Republicans to extend tax breaks to the wealthy was breaking on Monday night, I was sitting on my sofa finishing William Dean Howells’s classic novel about American social class mores, A Hazard of New Fortunes. At the heart of the novel are a set of characters who, in today’s terms, would likely fall into all three major groups touched by Obama’s spineless compromise of a plan: an energy millionaire, middle class professionals striving to keep afloat in uncertain economic times, and an angry, unemployed war veteran. It is striking how much better Howells saw the hazards of the economic situation than Obama does.

At the climax of the book, New York transportation workers strike for fair pay and a series of violent events ensues, which end up transforming the outlook of rich and middle class alike. (I’m not giving away what happens, because if you haven’t read this book, you should get hold of it and start reading immediately – for reasons mentioned in recent posts here and because this book is both timely and much funnier than one might expect from a weighty, socially serious novel.) Basil March, the middle class editor of a New York literary journal, has throughout the novel disdained social activism and treated the miseries of the working poor as a matter for distant intellectual curiosity, a picturesque subject to be used as subject material in stories for middle class readers. This changes when two of his companions are caught up in the violence. To his wife, March declares, that yes, life is risky,

“But what I object to is this economic chance-world in which we live, and which we men seem to have created. It ought to be a law as inflexible in human affairs as the order of day and night in the physical world, that if a man will work he shall both rest and eat, and not be harassed with any question as to how his repose and his provision shall come. Nothing less ideal than this satisfies the reason. But in our state of things no one is secure of this. No one is sure of finding work; no one is sure of not losing it. I may have my work taken away from me at any moment by the caprice, the mood, the indigestion of a man who has not the qualification for knowing whether I do it well or ill. . . . and so we go on, pushing and pulling, climbing and crawling, thrusting aside and trampling underfoot; lying, cheating, stealing; and when we get to the end, covered with blood and dirt and sin and shame, and look back over the way we’ve come to a palace of our own, or the poor-house, which is about the only possession we can claim in common with our brother-men, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.”

Basil March’s words perfectly capture the reasons we should be outraged by Obama’s tax deal. It props up the poor for another 13 months with an extension of unemployment benefits. It props up the wealthy (not that they need much help) with tax breaks that worsen the national budget deficit. As Paul Krugman and other economists have pointed out, tax breaks to the wealthy are a completely ineffective way to stimulate the economy. It fails completely to prop up work, the middle class, and economic stability, which is what a tax plan should do. Obama himself is finally getting angry, accusing liberal democrats of overlooking the needs of working Americans, but Obama should get himself a copy of A Hazard of New Fortunes too. It might show him how ultimately laughable is the professional class’s insistence on decorum in the face of the pushing and pulling (not to mention the lying, cheating and stealing) in which the wealthy engage. Nothing short of work that leads to economic security can satisfy the reason, and there is no promise of that in this ridiculous tax plan.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or such was the conclusion that Adam Gopnik came to in a response to this novel published in the New Yorker 10 years ago (reprinted in the Modern Library edition of this novel). “A hundred years ago, the one thing that Howells – and Henry Adams and so many others – knew for sure was that a society with a tiny plutocratic class, a precarious middle class, and a large and immigration-fed proletariat simply could not go on”, Gopnik comments. “Now, at the turn of another century, we find it is the only thing that has gone on, in nearly perfect duplicate.”

How has this happened? “Hope”, answers Gopnik, a willingness to forget about recession and inequality and go on as if we all might turn out ok. (This before Obama ran on the platform of hope, no less.) As the US continues careening around with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer, and our future in doubt as our politicians squander one opportunity after another, I wonder whether Howells might turn out to be right after all.

The ethically serious in America have been predicting disastrous consequences to our moral shortsightedness for nearly 400 years, so perhaps we’ll go careening forwards out of this crisis too. About this, though Howells is surely right: when we look back, I don’t think the retrospect can be pleasing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Serve the Rich! A Comment on Ann Beattie

I'm a sucker for book lists. I was scanning the latest list from Slate, of the best books of 2010 and found Ann Beattie's New Yorker Stories listed.

Now I will admit that I am an Ann Beattie fan, and an avid reader of both The New Yorker and of the contemporary American short story more generally. (It helps sustain my appreciation that Ann's husband, Lincoln Perry, was my first painting teacher, in 1976).

So I was struck by this line:

Beattie's characters of the '70s are young people foundering in nostalgia and quiet loss, trying to figure out how to move forward in a world where every choice is open but no markers of adulthood seem fixed.

I think the situation is much worse today, especially after the recession. And I don't think things will get better anytime soon.

The young coming of age in the 2010s are finding that no markers of adulthood seem any more fixed than in 1970, and yet very few choices are open. In the 1970s you could still go to college and grad school, study something you loved, and eventually maybe find a job you loved, too. But those pathways were already shutting down.

Today a few who are bright, ambitious, and vicious enough can "move forward" working for and serving the rich -- in investment banking, gourmet food, high fashion, personal coaching or whatever. I recently read one of those US News items of "news you can use" about future careers (I have a twenty year old son in college) and the advice was "serve the rich - they're going to be the only ones left with any money."

Nostalgia has given way to postmodern irony or worse, cynicism, and quiet loss has in many cases been replaced by desperation.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A happy face on your report card? A sitcom wades into the Québec school reform debate

We're all familiar with the well-worn criticisms of progressive school reform. It's "soft", it's written in "eduspeak", and it's ineffective. But when this kind of criticism makes it into popular culture, you know that it's having a significant impact.

In the clip below (which is subtitled), two major components of the Québec comprehensive school reform are targeted: non-percentage based report cards and cross-curricular competencies. Cross-curricular competencies are simply skills that are acquired across a range of subjects (e.g. critical thinking, problem solving), but the term itself ("compétences transversales" in French) has been surprisingly controversial, as the clip reveals... 

I'm still uncertain about why, exactly, cross-curricular competencies have received so much criticism. It's not as if the idea is particularly difficult to articulate or to understand, and goals like problem solving and critical thinking are uncontroversial. Percentage-based report cards, on the other hand, are part of people's established picture of how school is supposed to be, and so resistance here is less surprising.

Stretching through art

(This is cross-posted from Smart and Good.)

I am breathing slowly and deeply this morning, puzzled and saddened by something I heard yesterday on NPR. The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery pulled part of the art exhibition “Hide and Seek” on Thursday under pressure from, among others, the Catholic League. Removed from view was a 4 minute video exploring death by AIDS and depicting Jesus on the cross being eaten by large black ants. However, my concern here is not the piece, nor the protest nor even the pronouncement that the Smithsonian would remove David Wojnarowicz‘s representation of his lover’s death, “A Fire in My Belly.”

Others have had interesting things to say on both sides of this issue if you want to pursue it:



I am most distressed today as an American educator by the post-game comments of Bill Donovan, the President of the Catholic League. Donovan, reveling in his triumph, is now working to undercut any and all taxpayer supported arts in the United States. What would this do to educational possibility in our present cultural and economic position? What do we lose if we fail to support the images and ideas that stretch us?

Donovan’s case goes something like this. Because there is no taxpayer support for that which “working people” appreciate, specifically the World Wrestling Federation, then there should be no taxpayer support for any other kinds of arts and entertainment. Hmmmm.

[Sidenote here: The government of Abu Dhabi has initiated a revitalization of their economy by importing branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre – a decidedly different take on what impacts a people toward productivity.]

Now there’s a lot of art I don’t understand and a lot I don’t appreciate (including WWF), but even the stuff I don’t understand (sometimes especially that stuff) stretches me (including WWF). And that stretching is part of my ongoing education. Because WWF is widely supported by both people who work and people who don’t, it is available to me. I can be – and very occasionally am – stretched by it. But other arts not commercially viable are nonetheless valuable. Sometimes that which we most need to enhance our collective sensibilities, to expand our abilities to respond to each other with understanding and appreciation, is that which we avoid, resisting enhancement or expansion, because it is uncomfortable. We don’t want to be stretched.

WWF may be one way of exploring the human condition, but it is not the only way. The visual and performing arts have this exploration as their raison d’etre. Videos like “A Fire in my Belly “ are such an exploration, an invitation to feel, to think, to act with integrity in the world.

Now here’s the part that’s tricky. That which is shocking can either prompt or impede educational stretching. Shock is, by definition, experience marked by strong feelings. Such feelings can open us up to educational possibility, but they can also harden into fear (flight, fight and/or paralysis) before reason or reflection can connect those feelings to possibilities for new understanding or action. Mr. Donovan is afraid. Something has scared him. It’s not this particular video (a Christian who has pondered “The Passion of the Christ” has already dealt with images more shocking than these), but there is something that has prompted the members of the Catholic League to flee deeper understanding, to fight those who seek it for themselves, to freeze in the track of past experience rather than renewed possibility. As an educator, I have to name this as fear and resist it – and resist as well any effort to shrink the artistic world or narrow the aesthetic sensibility that is available to me.

Government-supported funding of the arts serves precisely this purpose: to keep in play just those representations and explorations of that human (American) experience that we do not necessarily seek out, that we don’t readily pay to support. It is never time to cut the budget for what educates all of us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Without a 'canon' what?

I have been enjoying a Facebook multilogue on the great books initiated by Dianne Allen. Dianne posted a book list from the BBC of 100 significant books; although most are squarely in the Western cannon, the BBC estimated that the average reader will have read no more than six of them. My magic number was 22, but as I looked at the list I was amazed, and somewhat chagrined, that I had not read many more.

Several of the participants in this conversation mentioned that of the few they had read, most were assigned in high school. The question I want to raise is this: Now that we have pretty well destroyed the idea of a 'canon' on the grounds of its Eurocentric, racist and sexist implications, how will we ever have any common touchstones. Phrases that once echoed in our heads from the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop will no longer provide these.

I am preparing to travel to Italy with my wife next year -- the standard (note that term) Rome Florence Venice tour. I am already reading about these cities and their cultural institutions, and am getting familiar with the locations of the main sights on the city maps. So for Florence I already can locate the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, etc.

But imagine a city with no canonical works of art or architecture, no "standard" sights, no reference points. A city where everything is as significant, potentially, as everything else. Would this make the experience of the city liberating and fascinating, or just confusing and ultimately boring?

Yes of course, the real pleasures of travel have little to do with "doing" the sights. They are about chance meetings in coffee houses, unexpected and unpredictable experiences, personal self-discoveries. But where do you find these? On the way to the Duomo, or Botanical Gardens, or Uffizi, that's where.

So it goes with reading. Serious writing does not stand in isolation. It is a response to what has gone before it, and a portent of what is to come. This situation in a living history is what makes writing "literature". We always tell our grad students that when they write a term paper or thesis they have to do a "review of the literature". They they are making a "contribution to the literature". That they are "joining a conversation.

Would it be fascinating, or liberating, to just say whatever you wanted in response to anything, or nothing? Of course not. That is why reading books is important, and why we need some touchstones in literature. And we need them not so that we can say that everyone "did" the Bible or Jane Austen or Dickens, but so that as people have their chance encounters and make their personal discoveries they have something to talk about, and a sharable vocabulary.

Or perhaps you do not see it this way, in which case, please join the conversaton!

PS. I stuck the picture of Emerson on this post because (1) I always like to include a picture and hear that having a picture makes a blog post more inviting, (2) I had this on my computer, and (3) I think Emerson is worth reading if you want to talk about social issues within an American context.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Reading books as "silver bullet"?

Len Waks reminded us earlier this week of the impact of reading books. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that we who inhabit academic settings might have a vested interest in promoting the writing and reading of books. But my intuition is that Len is right, and his post reminded me of the lengths I went to turn my daughter into a book reader.

Emily was a rising sophomore in high school the summer I decided that I couldn’t abandon her to a lifetime without the entertainment, the consolation and the provocation of books. It wasn’t that she couldn’t read. She read easily and well, comprehending and putting thoughts into words without difficulty. But she was not “a reader.”

So I played “Let’s Make a Deal.” I offered this 14 year old an article of clothing for every book she completed that summer. Her eyes lit up but did not light upon a book until I started to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to her one June night at bedtime. (Do I need to remind any of us that we all like to be read to, even when, especially when, we are “too old for that”?) I read about 10 pages to her each night for five nights in a row. One night I was not at home when she went to bed. She picked up the book without me, started reading and never looked back. When she completed the book, she earned a skirt. When she completed the second book that summer, she earned a top that went with it. When she completed the third book, she didn’t ask for any sartorial compensation. Today, ten years later, she is never without a book close at hand.

I sometimes wonder why she became a reader that summer after ten years of successful schooling had failed to lead her there. Was it the external reinforcement of a material reward? Perhaps, the companionship of mother and daughter reading and talking about the same book? Or did those two extrinsic elements keep her nose in the book long enough to feel the intrinsic pay-off of reading as a window into minds and worlds not our own?

More importantly, what was it about reading in and for school that did not encourage that habit? I’m not a believer in “silver bullets” when it comes to solving educational problems, but if I were, the one I could believe in would be turning all the Emilys of the world into readers of books.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Most Important Thing to do is Read Books

Mitch Joel, the inimitable guru of web marketing, writes an important post on 'the most important thing'. Two times on one day he ran into thought leaders who said, unequivicably, that the most important thing to do to move ahead in your life is to read books.

Yesterday morning, I went to see Jeffrey Gitomer (best-selling author) speak. Gitomer is pretty clear about what it takes to be successful. After spending some time with him, it's obvious that the real secret (for him) is in the reading. Gitomer reads a ton. He not only collects the books that inspire him, but he devours them and surrounds himself with them. He loves words. He's constantly learning and educating himself, and - from there - the ideas for his writing (whether it's a book, article, presentation or tweet) flow from an overflowing brain of ideas and inspiration.

Then, it happened again.

After Gitomer's presentation, I went for lunch with Julien Smith (co-author with Chris Brogan of Trust Agents)who told me about Charlie Munger (one of Warren Buffet's peers) and his passion for reading. Munger loves reading. Munger believes that the most successful people he knows are those individuals who are constantly reading... like in a non-stop kind of way.

Most of us really give up on reading after university.

I've been thinking a lot about reading lately (and how much I love it)... Tweets, status updates and Blog posts that tell you how to generate more Blog readers don't count much . . . The majority of newspaper and magazine articles are probably right on the edge of valuable reading, but the guts of reading that will truly make you smart and successful comes from the high brow stuff. The books, periodicals and longer thought/research pieces.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It takes a corporate executive ...

To run a school system?? Have you been following the Michael Bloomberg/Cathleen Black/David Steiner saga in New York City? Bloomberg wants a long-time media exec with no public educational experience and no apparent interest to “manage” (read slash costs) in the city schools. State educational commissioner David Steiner initially refused to grant Black an exemption from required credentialing – with apparent good reason – and Bloomberg, to his surprise, couldn’t garner enough political support to pressure Steiner. So the accommodation is a “chief pedagogical officer” to support (challenge?) Black’s lack of understanding.

See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/27/nyregion/27black.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a2.

Dave Waddington’s previous (and damning) post about a leading corporate university’s failure to provide value for dollars spent suggests that a corporate approach to education can be (and often is) more expensive and less effective than present efforts. The jury is out on Cathleen Black, with or without her pedagogical sidekick. (One hopes that she would have been smart enough to make this appointment on her own – but who knows?) I, for one, hope that she succeeds wildly. But success must be determined by looking at both sides of this complicated cost/benefit equation. Potential educational benefits to the kids and families of New York can cut the costs to the city far beyond the dollars the taxpayers actually spend on schools. But that requires a long-range view that corporate executives can rarely sustain.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

America's Subprime University: 9% Graduation Rate at University of Phoenix

A new report from the Education Trust has just been released that analyzes the growth of for-profit universities.

Some highlights:

-- University of Phoenix (all campuses) graduation rate: 9%
-- University of Phoenix (Online) graduation rate: 5%
-- University of Phoenix (Cleveland) graduation rate: 4%
-- University of Phoenix (all campuses) % revenue from federal financial aid: 90%
-- Pell grant aid to U of P in 2009-2010: more than $1 billion
-- Median student debt upon graduation at for-profit universities: $31,190
-- Median student debt upon graduation at public universities: $7,960

The facts speak for themselves. The University of Phoenix preys upon the most vulnerable students and leaves them with a hefty bill.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

If You Want to be a Princess, First You Need an Education

I can’t say I’ve thoroughly combed through the media commentary on Prince William’s announcement that he will marry Kate Middleton, but I did read a little of it this morning after this statement in a New York Times article caught my attention:

“Should Miss Middleton become Queen Catherine, she will be the first queen in British history to have a college degree, or indeed, to have any college education at all.”

Some commentators have lamented the fact that future Princess Kate has done little with that college education except procure a husband, but I think that overlooks a more important point.

For the past few weeks, my undergraduate classes have been reading about gender and sharing their thoughts on gender roles, marriage and family, media influences and girls’ education. In a comparison of contemporary and 19th century arguments about single sex education, one student commented that at least nowadays women’s main reason for attending college isn’t to find a husband. Agreed, but when I asked them whether as college women they feel pressure to find a boyfriend, or at the very least to procure male attention, stories started to pour out about friendly teasing at family gatherings and being left out of social events as friends paired off. The story that floored me, though was one young woman’s account of deciding in seventh grade to save her money for higher education, a commitment she stuck to when she recently faced the choice of getting married and starting a family or staying in college and continuing on to the graduate degree she wants to complete.

Two traditions are at issue here. One is education versus marriage, the notion that education (and the career, as e.g. abbess, teacher, social worker, college president, that education can lead to) exists as a respectable alternative to family life, giving women a path to success that runs parallel to the marriage track. Second is education as a means to marriage. A third, far more lovely and quintessentially modern, possibility, is that education is neither the autobahn to marriage nor the functional frontage road running next to it but, rather, a road to adulthood on which women can maintain an autonomy that serves them, and their relationships, well. Education not only provides careers and husbands; it provides the ability to make sense of it all and to keep afloat no matter what follows (divorce, job loss, dissatisfaction, media hullabaloo, whatever life brings).

A few years ago, in a New Yorker review of biographies of Diana Spencer, John Lanchester commented on her “outlandish lack of education” and how poorly it served her in later life. “In retrospect, it’s clear,” he notes, “Diana would have been better off with a mug of cocoa and an art history book than with jetting around Europe with Dodi Al Fayed.”

Yesterday in class, my students discussed media images of women and the out-of-school education those provide. We talked about how much more the media is a part of our lives than ever before and why girls and women hold themselves to the standards of beauty sold to them by television, magazines, the internet, music, film and ads at every turn. And we talked about how to raise girls possessed of self-respect, dignity, insight and resistance to manipulation. At times, the prospects looked hopeless. The education that teachers and parents can offer our girls and boys seems a frail opponent to the forces of popular culture. But the notion of a college educated British princess makes me hopeful. Parents and teachers everywhere can now say this to all those little girls begging for tiaras: If you want to be a princess, first you have to get a higher education.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Glenn Beck takes on John Dewey

Given his high level of animosity toward American Progressivism, it was, perhaps, inevitable that Glenn Beck would eventually have something to say about John Dewey. In his latest book, Arguing with Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government, he dedicates a whole chapter to education. A healthy portion of this chapter is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to progressive education, which Beck hates.

Beck’s opening comments about progressive education leave no doubt about where he is going with the narrative:
Education is about learning. Learning, like weight loss, is sometimes hard. You have to stay committed and push yourself day after day to see results. Don’t ever say this in front of a progressive (don’t worry, none of them are reading this book), but some people are better learners than others.
The problem with progressive education, in other words, is that it is too sentimental and soft-hearted. School should be a competitive institution that should act as a mechanism to figure out who can survive in the tough business of learning.

Beck then offers a couple of Dewey quotes to illustrate the alleged wooly-headed softness of the progressive educators:
Existing life is so complex that the child cannot be brought into contact with it without either confusion or distraction; he is either overwhelmed by a multiplicity of activities which are going on, so that he loses his own power of orderly reaction, or he is so stimulated by these various activities that his powers are permanently called into play and he becomes either unduly specialized or else disintegrated.
I believe that the teacher’s place and work in school is to be interpreted from this same basis. The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.
Both these quotes are taken from My Pedagogic Creed (1897), which is a useful summary of Dewey’s early views. The Creed is not, however, a statement of Dewey’s considered views on education—it’s a quick one-off piece that simply lists a number of beliefs (“I believe X, I believe Y, I believe Z”) without any further explanation.

I’m not really sure why Beck (or his co-author) picked the first quote. Although it contains some questionable 19th century psychology, it is actually relatively uncontroversial. Everyone knows that “real life” is complex and that children are not immediately prepared to appreciate all of its complexity. Little Johnny isn’t interested in what, say, actuaries do or in understanding the nuances of bureaucratic procedure.

The second quote is a more promising choice, at least from the perspective of Beck’s argument. The point of this second statement is to emphasize Dewey’s rejection of the traditional approach to education. Quoted in isolation, it makes Dewey appear to be a partisan of a hands-off variety of progressive education. Yet although Deweyan education might have been relatively freewheeling according to the standards that prevailed in the 19th century, the Dewey School was still a carefully structured educational environment. Katherine Mayhew and Anna Camp Edwards’ account of life at the Dewey School makes this clear--Dewey wanted children to be active inquirers rather than passive recipients of knowledge, but the learning situations were carefully planned.

This is not the conclusion that Beck draws, however. He remarks:
In other words, teachers aren’t there to tell a child if he or she is “right or wrong” (especially not in red ink), they’re there to help the child through a touchy-feely period of self-awareness and discovery.
Beck wants to establish Dewey as the apostle of “touchy-feely” progressive education, but this is a hopeless mission. As I’ve pointed out in a recent article in Studies in Philosophy and Education, Dewey was actually opposed to sentimental approaches to education. He felt that these approaches posed significant dangers to children’s development and hindered the growth of their habits of inquiry.

So much for Dewey’s appearance in Beck’s book. As we know, however, books are not really Glenn Beck’s métier—he is more of a TV and radio kind of guy. Has Beck been saying anything about Dewey on TV? On the July 12th edition of the Glenn Beck program, which featured Larry Schweikart (author of 48 Liberal Lies) and Burton Folsom (The Myth of the Robber Barons) as guests, someone posed the following question:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, my question was in the Progressive Movement and its original roots. How did public education play a role in that with our founders such as John Dewey who are big advocates of public education?
It is hard to tell exactly what the question is, at least from the transcript, but that did not stop Beck and his guests from commenting on it.

The initial response is telling:
SCHWEIKART: Well, you know, that's a great question.

BECK: Good question.
Clearly, Beck and his guests have absolutely no idea how to answer the question. Still, the wheels creak into motion eventually:
SCHWEIKART: The answer goes to the essence of reform, I keep coming — of progressivism, I keep coming back to this, is reform. It's all about reforming to what? To perfection. The idea whether they're children, whether they're corporations, whether they're city governments, you can if you just keep reforming them long enough, you will finally get to perfection. It's a view that denies human sin. I hate to go there. But that is the point, it denies human sin.
We’ve gone completely off the rails here, at least as far as Dewey is concerned. Deweyan education is non-teleological—there is no specific endpoint in mind. But Beck picks up this strand of thought and runs with it:
BECK: I mean, it is really the collective salvation. If you look at it, it really is the whole misunderstanding of humans can be perfect, if you just have administrator administrate all the time and keep them in a box. Humans can be perfect, which is a lie and that there is collective salvation that we will all be saved together, right?


BECK: So it is really kind of, the roots of it —

SCHWEIKART: The roots, yes.

BECK: — are extraordinarily spiritual, evil, really. Right? Yes.
It’s really hard to tell what exactly is going on in these statements, conceptually speaking. The line of reasoning seems to be that Deweyan progressivism involves a toxic, perfectionist ideal. Now, one could see how this could be a problem, if it were true, but there is no evidence to suggest that it is.

The comments about evil are interesting because they move us from a potentially rational conversation about the dangers of utopianism into the realm of paranoia. Remarks like this probably the constitute the heart of Beck’s appeal to the radical fringe—he is a truth-teller, a man who is unafraid to reveal the dark heart of progressivism, of which others are either too cowed or misled to speak. Folsom, the quieter of the two guests, seems puzzled by these odd comments and returns to the facts about John Dewey that he knows:
FOLSOM: Well, and John Dewey was a progressive. That was a good question. Dewey was a progressive, supported the progressives.
Evidently, the understandings that Beck and his guests about Dewey are a blend of misinformation and fear. They know that John Dewey is someone that they shouldn’t like, but they don’t have a clear idea of exactly why they shouldn’t like him.

Since the few facts that Beck possessed about Dewey in his book seem to have eluded him when it came time to respond to this audience member’s question, perhaps some good old drill and practice might help him be better prepared for the next time a Dewey question comes his way.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Big Slam Dunk for the University of Phoenix

An angry owner, bitter Clevelanders, jubilant Floridians, and even Jesse Jackson! No matter which way you slice it, there's been a lot of hullaballoo about Lebron James' recent decision (announced in an hour long ESPN special) to move to the Miami Heat. In many respects, the coverage has been exhaustive. Yet, in the midst of the media circus, there is one aspect of James' announcement that hasn't received much attention: the fact that the lead sponsor of the ESPN special was the University of Phoenix.

University of Phoenix logos were prominent throughout the broadcast, and the company was mentioned several times. Brand Freak reports the story as follows:

The eight brands in the broadcast got nearly $3 million worth of exposure, according to media research firm Joyce Julius & Associates. (We can safely assume that's a whole lot more than they paid.) Top of the list was the University of Phoenix, with its banners, on-screen graphics and logos appearing for a total of two minutes and 22 seconds, and earning 11 verbal references, for more than $1 million in value.

Notably, James also made a personal appearance with Phoenix officials. The corporation agreed to donate $500,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and provided five full tuition scholarships to the University of Phoenix. Here's the video of the love-in:

Lebron James and the University of Phoenix clearly viewed this partnership as a win-win situation, and it is easy to see why. Lebron gets to appear as though he cares about education, while Phoenix manages to burnish its brand image by appearing to be charitable. Furthermore, the donation of scholarships makes Phoenix look more like a traditional university--one can now win a scholarship to University of Phoenix, just as one might win one to NYU. The aura of legitimacy, of course, is precisely what this for-profit corporation craves.

The University of Phoenix now enrolls an incredible 443,000 students, up from 362,000 in 2008. Notably, it is also the #1 recipient of federal student aid, having consumed an extraordinary $938,591,658 in federal student aid in 2009. Other for-profit universities (DeVry, ITT) are also well-represented on the list of top student aid recipients:

The full list of aid recipients is here--you'll note that University of Phoenix hoovers up an incredible 4% of all federal student aid.

The growth of this for-profit institution highlights the key question: do students get a solid education at the University of Phoenix? It's difficult to say. Certainly, a recent whistleblower lawsuit about a cash for enrollments scheme raises some serious doubts about practices at the institution. I think there's a strong argument to be made that a lot of Phoenix students would be better served at public institutions like state universities and community colleges. Yet the fact remains that somehow, Phoenix is managing to persuade a significant number of students to pay for its offerings. This is a trend that should worry those of us who work at more traditional institutions.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Arizona Bill and the Politicizing of Education: A Response to NY Times Commentator Stanley Fish

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog)

The meaning of Arizona HB 2281 that we posted is perhaps best understood by analyzing it within the political and social context that motivated its passage. In the May 17th issue of the New York Times, commentator Stanley Fish chooses instead to examine the conflict within two philosophical paradigms. Fish’s concern is not with the motivation behind HB 2281 but rather with arguments around its justification or lack of justification. His argument leaves open many questions.

What is Fish’s argument? On the one side, Fish portrays the ethnic studies program at the Tucson Unified School District as an example of attempts to politicize education by indoctrinating students into certain beliefs about social justice that will lead to actions consistent with that political agenda. He writes:

The Social Justice Education Project means what its title says: students are to be brought to see what the prevailing orthodoxy labors to occlude so that they can join the effort to topple it. To this end the Department of Mexican American Studies (I quote again from its Web site) pledges to "work toward the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student" and "promote and advocate for social and educational transformation."

While students may act on beliefs they are exposed to, Fish objects to teaching that sets out to agitate rather than educate. Fearing indoctrination, Fish sees the Tucson program as a “Trojan horse of a political agenda” and one that ”the people of Arizona should indeed be concerned.” Let’s disentangle a few points first. Is Fish intending to include in his charge that the ethnic studies program is violating the new Arizona bill. If one looks at the website http://www.tusd1.org/contents/depart/mexicanam/model.asp , nothing that is mentioned seems to violate the details of the law that stipulates that curriculum should not: "promote the overthrow of the United States government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." And, of course, this is the argument that the school district is making. Perhaps, Fish isn’t accusing the district of this. His argument is more subtle, and as a result, more in need of critical examination.

On the other side, Fish sees HB 2281 attempts to ban certain ethnic courses in the public school as a similar attempt to politicize education. Rather than removing politics from schools, House Bill 2281 mandates an opposing political ideology of individual rights. Fish writes:

The idea of treating people as individuals is certainly central to the project of Enlightenment liberalism, and functions powerfully in much of the nation’s jurisprudence. But it is an idea, not a commandment handed down from on high, and as such it deserves to be studied, not worshipped. The authors of House Bill 2281 don’t want students to learn about the ethic of treating people equally; they want them to believe in it (as you might believe in the resurrection), and therefore to believe, as they do, that those who interrogate it and show how it has sometimes been invoked in the service of nefarious purposes must be banished from public education.

Fish is right in seeing the state’s solution to what it sees as politicizing education by politicizing it to serve its own agenda as wrongheaded. In his attempt to avoid both the school district and the state legislature's attempts to politicize education, Fish proposes that we should return to an objective, neutral concept of education as a pursuit of knowledge where all sides are presented in a fair-minded way. Fish’s concept raises a number of questions that need to be further examined because his critique of an approach that apparently is serving an underserved population well will have consequences.

What does it mean to politicize education? What would constitute a neutral, objective approach to education? In one sense, public education is a political endeavor in the broadest sense of the word. It serves to reproduce in the young the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to function effectively in the political life of the nation. But perhaps Fish has in mind a more narrow sense of politicizing, one which narrows the choices available consistent with a particular ideological stance. Indeed, this more narrow sense is contradictory to the larger understanding of the political philosophy of a liberal democratic society. Although this larger political philosophy rules out the narrowing of the curriculum to reflect only a particular partisan view, it isn’t clear that a neutral presentation of both sides of an issue will necessarily provide the kind of critical awareness that Fish values. If students come with certain assumptions that are often embedded in the conventional thinking of their time, would a neutral presentation of sides largely leave the dominant assumptions unexamined in any meaningful way? And would students really care about the implications of their thinking?

This is the thinking that not only underlies Paulo Freire’s thought that Fish criticizes, but it also underlies the approach that goes back to Socrates. For in any philosophical dialogue, Socrates always starts with where his opponents are and simply challenges them with questions until they come to see the problems in their own ways of thinking and realize that what they thought they knew they never really knew at all. Creating cognitive dissonance was part of the educational journey. Indeed, an education that reveals and uncovers the injustices embedded in the dominant forms of thinking that have been internalized in the minds of the students leads to a truer, more objective understanding of the reality that Fish so values. That such an education becomes transformative and may lead to action follows not from the attempt to indoctrinate or agitate that Fish claims, but rather from the journey that the student has embarked upon. Of course, any particular incident of teaching can involve a betrayal of the intent here, but it shouldn’t lead us to the kind of generalizations that Fish makes.

Stanley Fish, "Arizona: The Gift That Keeps On Giving," New York Times, May 17, 2010


Afterwords: Stanley Fish disagrees with some of my characterization of his position. You can see his comment at the end of the original post on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crunch that celery! Quebec teachers union uses unorthodox tactics in work-to-rule campaign

A splinter Francophone teachers union, the Federation Autonome de l'Enseignement (FAE), has been in the headlines around here lately due to an ongoing contract dispute with the Quebec government. However, the union has made the news today for another reason: a controversial handout on pressure tactics that was leaked to Jean-Luc Mongrain, a populist TV host who is famous for his tirades (here's a good one about a man who was fined for feeding a squirrel).

The handout is pretty interesting. It begins with a directive in caps--"IT IS VERY IMPORTANT NOT TO MAKE PHOTOCOPIES OF THESE STRATEGIES OR TO OTHERWISE CIRCULATE THEM." This is followed by 30 specific ideas for teachers to disrupt meetings with school administrators. Each strategy has its own name.

A few of the more interesting/extreme ones:

1. Operation "The administration is blinding me."--All personnel wear sunglasses during the meeting.

4. Operation "I'm burning calories."--All personnel should munch loudly on celery throughout the meeting. Eating celery burns more calories than you're taking in. Crackers, carrots, or other noisy foods can also work.

10. Operation "We speak good French here."--This is a matter of continually correcting the administration's usage of French--whenever they make an error, you say, "What you want to say instead is..."

19. Operation "Gilles Latourette."--During the meeting, you take turns making random gestures like raising your hand, shaking your head, rocking in your chair, etc. You can also add some words to your gestures by saying random things.

22. Operation "I do the wave."--In turns, during the meeting, move your chair back and forth, cough, raise your hand, etc. Regardless of the method, it's a matter of enacting a magnificent human wave which will submerge your administrators. Do this wave many times throughout the meeting.

Mongrain's reaction to the list is here. As you'll see, he re-enacts several of the strategies for his viewers. His line is basically that these strategies are unworthy of the teaching profession. It should be noted, however, that Mongrain is not exactly what one would call a fountain of innovative educational commentary.

Personally, I have to admit that I find the idea of doing the wave during a meeting kind of fun.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Social media disaster? A Québec teacher is suspended for a controversial YouTube video

Michaël Pratte, a Québec Grade 9 "univers social" (social studies) teacher, was recently handed a controversial 20 day suspension for his participation in a student film.

The Journal de Montréal reports the story (in French) as follows:

The troubles of this 7th year teacher began when he agreed to participate in a student film in which he agreed to pretend to lose his temper, to the point of being about to hit a student. The students' idea was to parody other similar clips which have been circulating on the internet, unbeknownst to the teachers who are the unwitting stars.
The student film was posted to YouTube, where school board officials later discovered it.
Note that Pratte never actually hits the student in the film--the film stops before the climactic moment.

Pratte's students, who had already apologized to the administration for making the film, were extremely upset by this decision. A group of current and former students have created a Facebook group to support their teacher, which now has more than 1500 members. There's an abundance of student testimonials (in French) on the site in support of Pratte, like this one:

A high school teacher that is capable of making us love his subject gives us an interest that will last throughout our entire lives. The impact of a good teacher, especially at the high school level, is incalculable.

For its part, the Commission Scolaire des Trois-Lacs (Three Lakes School Board) commented that Pratte bore "a responsibility" for the affair. Collette Frappier, a school board spokesperson, remarked, "Perhaps if the video was accompanied by a message of non-violence, we wouldn't have gotten to this point."

The interesting thing about this case is that Pratte doesn't seem to have done anything that was particularly harmful to student learning. He is clearly well-liked by many of his students, who enjoyed making the film. Certainly, one can understand why the school board would prefer that the film not be on YouTube. On the other hand, a formal suspension seems a high price to pay for a relatively small mistake by an apparently dedicated and popular teacher.

Clearly, there is clearly a question here of teacher freedom of expression. If Pratte was operating within the bounds of the "univers social" curriculum by making this film with the students, does he deserve to be censured for how this student activity turned out? In a 2002 court decision, Richard Morin, a PEI teacher, was found to have had his freedom of expression violated when the school administration prevented him from showing a film that was critical of Christian fundamentalism.

In addition, this story raises the issue of how schools are going to deal with new media technologies. Obviously, technologies like Facebook and YouTube bring with them the potential for PR disasters, but young people are avid users of these tools and will continue to upload interesting and sometimes controversial content.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Original Articles on John Dewey Sought

We are seeking original articles on John Dewey for our upcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on "The Education our Children Deserve." The issue will include some of the most significant progressive writers of our time and we would like to include an historical piece on Dewey. The controversy posed for that issue is:

"The politicizing of education at the national level has centered on issues of standards, accountability, global competitiveness, national economic growth, low student achievement on worldwide norms, and federally mandated uniformity. There has been little discussion of the public purposes of our schools or what kind of education is necessary for an individual’s development and search for a meaningful life. There is a paucity of ideas being discussed at the national level around topics such as: how school practices can be aligned with democratic principles of equity and justice; how school practices can promote the flourishing of individual development as well as academic achievement; what skills and understandings are needed for citizens to play a transformative role in their society. Without conversation at this deeper level about the fundamental purposes of education, we cannot develop a comprehensive vision of the kinds of schools our children deserve. We invite authors to contribute their conceptions of the kind of education our children deserve and/or the kinds of schools that serve the needs of individuals and of a democratic society."


Charter School Campaign Report: Wall Street Journal tells "A Tale of Two Students"

The Wall Street Journal has published a very touching article -- one might call it the perfect propaganda piece -- in its campaign for school privatization.

The story depicts two similar kids -- two Latino "baddies" -- who were already going off in the wrong direction in middle school. Ivan, the young man, then goes to a charter school and at 18 is attending a flagship university and aiming to be the first Latino Governor of Oklahioma. His former running buddy Laura, a spunky Latina who went to the public High School instead, is now going nowhere.

It's a good conversation starter, and could be valuable in an Introduction to Education course to begin a discussion about charter schools.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Race to the Top: Is the AFT Losing the Race?

Steven Brill, in a comprehensive article in the New York Times, details the impact that Race to the Top is having on education legislation at the state level.

As states compete for portions of the $4.3 billion dollar Race fund, legislatures are passing new laws eliminating or reducing teacher tenure and mandating inclusion of test score results on teacher compensation, in order to conform with the demands of the Race.

Gradually, the national AFT and the local unions are loosening their long-held demands regarding both issues. If the states have not achieved the Race goals, they must submit memoranda of understanding (MOUs) in their Race proposals regarding agreements to achieve them. At this point some of the states claim to achieve these goals, but the MOUs include clauses such as "as consistent with state laws" that in effect nullify them. Nonetheless, the pressure on the unions is severe.

Brill appears to me to be a cheerleader for the Reformers, a tightly organized group of political and business elites. So the article must be read with some caution.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Federal Support to Save Teacher Jobs

Steve Benen over at the Political Animal has an interesting post about federal funding to prevent teacher lay offs.

Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), with the "enthusiastic support" of the Obama administration, are leading the effort in Congress to send 23 Billion to the states to avert the lay offs of 300,000 teachers. Meanwhile Republican John Boehner labels the proposed legislation a "bailout" of puiblic education.

The comments in the post are fascinating and appear to include all shades of opinion about public education.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Colo. District Boots Traditional Salary Schedule

An article in the current Ed Week features the new merit pay system in Harrison District 2, in Colorado Springs.

The Superintendent Mike Miles has instituted a pay system for teachers based on a large number of "spot" observations and student achievement test scores.

Teachers who score high on the new merit pay system like the system. Many who score at a lower level are leaving the district voluntarily. Miles, however, says that his goal is not retention of teachers but rapid improvement of teaching.

Harrison 2 is not unioinized, and Miles grants that the kind of system would take a very long time to set in place in a district with collective bargaining. A former military man, Miles consults with selected teachers but makes decisions unilaterally.

In Britain The Tories and Lib Dems Fight it out over Education

In the negotiations over forming a new government the Tories and Lib Dems are struggling to find commong ground on educational policy.

According to the BBC, the Tories' platform sponsors a "free school" plank in which families and groups can start schools and claim government spending. The Liberals claim that this would destroy educational standards.

The Lib Dems have also called for a "premium" in the state supplement for schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, funded by increased educatonal spending. The Tories have not committed themselves on any additional spending and have on the whole favored spending cuts and lower taxes.

This is another battle in the war over the state's role in maintaining "society", or buiilding any common basis of experience and loyalty among its diverse citizens.

Americans might want to keep an eye on these negotiations, as developments in the UK often offer insight about possibilities here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Death of Schools and Society

Dick Morris, a self-serving commentater who has managed to advise both the Clinton and Bush White Houses, is now pushing an apocalyptic vision for public education. The states, he claims in a new book, will shift strongly to the GOP in 2010 and will assert their 10th amendment constitutional rights. Their Attorneys General will take action against all Federal encroachments on State powers in domains left to the states under the reserved powers clause.

As a federalist I also think this is long overdue. Connecticut, my adoptive state, contemplated a 10th amendment suit against NCLB. California has been struggling to assert some control over its natural environment and has been blocked by weak federal environmental protection laws that pre-empt state legislation.

Morris's claim is that once the states successfully get out from under federal educational policy initiatives they will open the spigots on charter schools, vouchers, and homeschools, and will completely tear down the public school system.

This movement to replace the public schools with charter schools is already a trend, as witnessed in New Orleans. If this spreads it will be on a regional basis; some states will lead and others will be very reluctant to follow.

Marc Lilla has a fascinating article in this week's NYRB on the Tea Party and the New Jacobins. He says that the current political climate is the outcome of two successful revolutions: the 1960s revolution of individual self-expression and the 1980s Reagan revolution of privatisation. Combined, these two shifts have left individuals to act as they choose and to free themselves from large institutions, now discredited as corrupt and ineffective, to do all manner of things for themselves that they don't have a clue how to do -- including, educate their children and care for their own health.

I am not as dismissive as Lilla about the capacities of ordinary people, and I am not nearly as enamoured by the institutions whose collapse he fears. maybe I am just an unconscious product of this double revolution myself.

But Lilla has a very important point: once these institutions are de-composed, then given the double revolution it will be difficult to put them -- or successor institutions that we will badly need --back into place.

A few charter schools and homeschools is one thing; a nation state without the means to create society is quite another.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Philanthrocapitalism comes to Cuba: More fun curriculum ideas from the World Bank

I’ve already written one post criticizing Urgent: Evoke—an online “alternate reality game” (read web-based curriculum) funded by the World Bank that is saturated with the ideology of social entrepreneurship. Lately, though, the Evoke team has been posting some interesting new updates to their site, so I think another post is warranted.

Each week, the Urgent: Evoke site features a new comic in which the Evoke team, a group of social entrepreneurship superheroes, solve world problems through the power of philanthrocapitalism. These comics are supposed to teach African students about important social entrepreneurship concepts.

In a recent episode, the superhero team is visiting Cuba. In the alternate Urgent: Evoke future, communism has fallen and Castro is dead. The economic system is in chaos, but this merely highights exciting opportunities for our team of eager social entrepreneurship superheroes:
Actually, despite the claim above, it would seem that money is the key ingredient for social entrepreneurship. However, according to our superheroes, another important ingredient is, apparently, belief in the future of Cuba. And who holds the future of Cuba dearer to their heart than the Cuban exile community?According to Evoke, the Cuban exiles represent the promise of the future. Unjustly dispossessed, just like the white farmers in Zimbabwe, they will carry Cuba forward to a bright future:
As the comic closes, the Evoke team takes time out to reflect on their triumph in
transforming Cuba:
The Cuban exiles are back in charge and all’s well in the new Cuba, but it’s still important to put a “Havana Peso” in the musicians’ cap. After all, as good philanthrocapitalists, we need to use our wealth to support the hardworking folks that are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s nothing like “a nudge in the right direction” to get people moving!

So much for the latest iteration of this World Bank curriculum. In my previous post, I wrote a longer analysis of the problematic ideology behind it. Also, if this curriculum intrigues you, you should also check out the parody of Urgent: Evoke, which you can find at Urgent: Invoke. Instead of using the original panels, the Invoke team rewrite the comics to reflect what they see as the World Bank’s actual agenda.

Friday, May 7, 2010

One Book, One World

Nancy Pearl, the book commentator on NPR, has a great claim to the title America's Librarian. Her "Booklust" radio columns are classics, and have been collected in two wonderful volumes. I discovered so many books in these classic book lists that I now read in Nancy Pearl's shadow.

A while ago Pearl conceived the brilliant idea of encouraging cities, through their public libraries, to choose a single book for all citizens to read. The concept, Pearl argued, was a tool to get all citizens, regardless of their differences, regularly to share at least one significant experience in common.

One Book One City has spread like wildfire.

Enter Jeff Howe, a contributing editor of Wired Magazine and author of Crowdsourcing, one of the great books of 2009. In Crowdsourcing Howe argues, in passing, that we are all now surrounded by very cheap, hyper-powerful, mobile, easy to learn and easy to use tools that put all of the world's knowledge in everyone's hands, robbing the schoolmaster of the power to distribute and control it. IMHO Crowdsourcing is one of the most important books for contemporary educators.

Howe argues in a post from April 23 2010 on his blog, also called Crowdsourcing, that because geography is no longer in the age of the Internet as salient a feature of group formation as is affinity, Pearl's One Book, One City concept is dated. With Global tools like Twitter the contemporary concept would be One Book One World.

With that grandiose vision, Howe has started a global book club, called One Book One Tweet, or #1b1t (note the Twitter hashtag). Yesterday's blog post spells out the rules for the discussion group on Twitter.

I am of the 'think globally act locally' school, and am hardly convinced that a global Twitter book club makes sense. Further, I think Pearl's project contributes to local community life in just the right way; it gives us something to talk about with our neighbors: our barbers, tree doctors and the folks we run into at the book store or cafe. Twitter keeps us home in front of the computer cut off from these folks.

I am, however, a pluralist and an optimist and I wish Howe's project well.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

" Bridging Differences" is Must Reading

Everyone reading this blog will gain insight by following the current dialogue between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier about Obama's Race to the Top initiative in their joint blog Bridging Differences.

The current discussion is about the "phony consensus" behind race to the Top, and the process by which the RTT money was alloactaed -- the end run around Congress.

I admit that I am not a huge Diane Ravitch fan, but I am learning much from this exchange.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Schools that Make a Difference: A Look at the League of Democratic Schools

(Cross-posted from the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog)

Several years ago, the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University partnered with a local school, the Whatcom Day Academy, to be part of the League of Democratic Schools started by John Goodlad. Our partner school is now featured on the website of the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal at Woodring, the institute that also houses the Journal of Educational Controversy. While the journal provides a format for a national and international exchange of ideas on important and controversial issues in education, our partnership allows us to put some of these ideas in practice and share them with others across the globe.

Recently, at a regional meeting of the League in Bend, Oregon, I was able to experience another school in the League, the Westside Village Magnet School. It is a wonderful example of a democratic progressive school and provides a model of what our schools can achieve. The first thing you notice when you first arrive at the school is the sense of activity all around you. The children are everywhere, and there is a sense of joy that permeates the building. Without the usual bells and teacher talk, the children just seem to know where they should be, something that they have internalized though the culture that the school has created.

A young boy walks up to me and introduces himself as Paul and shakes my hand as he welcomes me to the school. There is a sign in the library of the rights and responsibilities of the students, but it isn’t just the usual mission statements that one finds in schools. It is internalized in the students. We had arrived around noon and students were walking all around cleaning the school. We learned later that the multi-age school is broken into families that represent every level. For ten minutes each day, each family has an assigned set of chores that each student is responsible for. Other times groups are organized around interests.


We arrived too late to see the morning community meetings, but we were told that each day starts with different community meetings that are conducted by the children. Each age group has a chance to conduct the meeting and the students raise the issues that concern them.

There is also a peer mediation council made up of students where conflicts can be worked out. On this particular day, a video crew of volunteers from the community was videotaping the mediation process to show to other schools in the community who had requested more information about it. The children would role play a conflict (they played out an incident in the girl’s restroom today) and then take the conflict to the peer mediation council. The student mediators learn to use active listening, search for feelings as well as facts, paraphrase responses, and ask clarifying questions. The mediators then frame the situation, write up the issues and begin to discuss solutions. All discuss win/win solutions and continue to brainstorm until the conflicting students find a solution that they can both agree on. Both the role playing conflict and the mediation process were videotaped to show other schools how it works.

The school is organized around themes. The theme this year was on global issues. Each hub of multi-age student groups – broken into k-1, 2-3, 4-6, 7-8 or something like this – approach the themes at their own developmental level and in an interdisciplinary way. I visited a room where children were making masks. The criteria for the technical making of masks was posted on the wall along with two other sets of criteria – a Research Mask Criteria and a Mask Museum Display Card Criteria.

The artwork was easily connected with their research projects (the school is very inquiry-based) and the following criteria was used to guide the students with the creation of their masks on two dimensions other than just the technical criteria.

Research Mask Criteria:

1. Create a mask that represents the culture, living beings or environment impacted or affected by the issue.
2. Focus on a critical component /issue/solution from your research.
3. Personify your mask.
4. Exaggerate at least one feature.
5. Create Balance and unity.
6. Sketch your design first.
7. Follow Deb’s mask-making technique.
8. Adorn mask to enhance the message.

The third criteria that was posted on the wall dealt with a museum display of their work. Notice that many of their state standards that as a public school the school has to incorporate in its curriculum are easily integrated into this interdisciplinary approach.

Mask Museum Display Card Criteria:

1. Create a museum display card
2. Use a thought-provoking quote to inspire
3. Write a complete paragraph using a topic sentence that explains specific information from your research to support your opinions and conclusions.
4. Capture the reader’s interest.
5. Use descriptive language that includes adjectives, vivid verbs and adverbs.
6. Include a title.
7. Follow the writing process.

Many of the children had been studying the artwork of the Oregon artist, Betty LaDuke. The school places great emphasis on the arts and the creative process. As I wandered around the room watching the children draw and paint, I couldn’t resist asking them some questions. They very competently described their use of colors and patterns that they found in LaDuke’s paintings. The task was to create a painting that incorporated Betty LaDuke’s painting criteria. The assignment asked them to capture the essence of their research topic. They were also asked to share the people the topic mostly impacts, show how a change we might make would make a difference for our earth, capture the essence of the culture, include a theme, include a focal point, use vibrant, strong colors and repeated patterns, line and color (all reminiscent of LaDuke’s paintings), include people in the painting, and use Betty LaDuke’s folk art style. They were later to title it and mount it.

Drawings and paintings were all over the school and classroom walls -- most with a cultural and social theme. In fact, the social consciousness that the students exhibited was seamlessly intertwined with the academics and extracurricular activities.

We had arrived on a Friday which was a day for exploration. There were any number of classes going on from baking bread, repairing bikes, making mosaics, working in and exploring the garden and the streams, creating ceramics, engaging in drama, videotaping, and the Rise up for Nicaragua –sewing quilt. Again the social component was connected with the academic explorations in which the children were engaged. When a child read on the internet about “The Great American Bake Sale” to end childhood hunger in America, she brought the idea to her community meeting. As a result, one of the exploration activities was to learn to bake bread. The school has a huge oven in the garden where some thirty loaves could be made at one time. (It was tasty) The loaves were then donated to the poor and homeless in the community. The school also has its own greenhouse where the children are raising vegetables to give to the poor.





One of the parents was working at the oven in the garden and I had a chance to chat with her. Of course, I asked why she sent her child to this school. At first, she mentioned the focus on individuality, creativity and community and then thought about the freedom from so much trivia she had seen in the two earlier schools that her child had attended – the obsession with gum chewing, wearing tank shirts, etc. Then after a few moments, she said, I guess it really comes down to the fact that this school respects children.

That mutual respect perhaps characterizes the school the best. There was so much more that I witnessed that I might share in a later blog posting. The school has a video on YouTube where you can see more. You can find it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNS3GlHvVYM

Of course, the question that many of you probably want to ask is the question about children’s achievement and test scores in this kind of environment. Well, the school is high achieving. It reminds me of something that John Dewey always said – that one does not necessarily hit the goal by directly aiming at it. Once of the sad consequences of the current reform and its obsession with a standardized test score is the elimination of everything that makes learning and life worthwhile – the arts, music, dance, drama, physical development, etc. It is one of those unintended consequences of the policies we construct. But as Dewey always reminded us, when our curriculum is embedded in meaningful activities, when it has a function other than achieving a test score, children not only ironically achieve but also learn to love to learn. After all, as Dewey would say, education is life not just a preparation for life.

The next issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy will focus on the theme, “The Education and Schools our Children Deserve,” and we will be featuring articles, ideas, and video from other League schools. Susan Donnelly, the head of the Whatcom Day Academy, the school we partner with in the League, will co-edit the issue. Our hope is to provide a vision of what our schools can be.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Building a Better Teacher: Get out your Manual

I recently read a New York Times magazine article called “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green. It was informative in its way, but the piece as a whole really left a lot to be desired. It was technicist and very narrow in its approach to thinking about what teaching is, who students are, and how one learns teaching as a craft. That Green is a Spencer Fellow in education made this fact all the more depressing.

The article provides a very good look at the current concerns over inadequate supplies of highly-qualified, effective teachers. Green examines various efforts to understand and document the work of such teachers, and to explain these efforts to NYT readers. She documents the work of people such as Doug Lemov, a former teacher, principal and charter-school founder who has developed a personal mission: to develop a deep knowledge of excellent teaching and to pass that knowledge along to those in the teaching profession. Lemov’s Taxonomy is what came out of this mission, and a book about it will come out soon called Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. Green also documents the work emerging out of places like Michigan State University and other places who have focused hard on high quality research and teaching about the work of teaching.

The work to better understand the work of excellent teachers is noble. For those who care about issues of equity and democracy – as many readers of this blog do – there is little more paramount than the work of teaching teachers. No other variable matters more in helping kids from poor and racially-isolated neighborhoods to experience academic success. And there is an awful lot we do not know or understand about how to develop, coach and assess excellent teaching.

But Green’s article confuses teaching technique with the larger philosophical, moral, political, and pedagogical work of educating young people. Green does a disservice to not only the craft of teaching and learning how to teach in schools, but in the process also advances the agenda of those bashing schools of education and teacher education program. She seems eager to buy into Art Levine’s 2006 assessment of teacher education as a scattered and ineffective course of study. Certainly there are a lot of bad teacher education programs out there, and each program needs to be judged and held accountable for its own flaws and problems. But Green’s criticisms are much more general lobs at schools of education as a whole, and thus do not see any of the differences in quality among programs and schools. Even Green’s characterization of the course of study for most teachers in university teacher education programs doesn’t even seem accurate:
Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.
Three points strike me about this excerpt. One, this description leaves out the role of the liberal arts curriculum. At my institution and others, the liberal arts is seen as playing an important role in teaching critical thinking, communication, and inquiry, all essential skills for great teaching. The second problem with Green’s account here is that it over-states the foundations element and the role it plays today. At my university (a public, selective state institution enrolling around 14,000 undergraduates), out of an approximately 128 credit hour teacher education degree, the foundations requirement takes up exactly three of those credit hours, constituting about 2% of the total learning (if credits could be equated to learning, which they can’t). And the third problem with this excerpt is that it’s confused. If 88 percent of education faculty school professors have taught in schools, isn’t the accusation that they are “out of touch” with real schools a bit hard to claim?

[I am among that horrifying 12 percent of professors in education schools who have never taught in elementary or secondary schools. Honestly, what can I be thinking? How can I know anything about teaching by studying it, researching it, practicing it, and committing my professional life to learning and teaching others about it? Not much, is the implication here.]

Green also gives a brief historical look at how normal schools became schools of education at modern universities:
In the 20th century, as normal schools were brought under the umbrella of the modern university, other imperatives took over. Measured against the glamorous fields of history, economics and psychology, classroom technique began to look downright mundane. Many education professors adopted the tools of social science and took on schools as their subject. Others flew the banner of progressivism or its contemporary cousin constructivism: a theory of learning that emphasizes the importance of students’ taking ownership of their own work above all else.
Green is right that schools of education have long suffered status problems, and have responded in various ways that were not always in the bests interest of schools or children. One wonders, however, what might be the problem with using social science to better understand how schools work or function as social systems. One also wonders where Green learned about progressivism. Not even progressivism’s worst enemies would sum it up in the dismissive way that she does here.

Technique is important, but it is always the means to an end. What “end” does any teaching technique serve, and is that end a laudable goal? If teachers cannot answer this larger question, then they are merely following a manual. Teachers must know how to teach – I know of no one in my school of education who argues otherwise – but one should not confuse the techniques of teaching with the craft of teaching. Craft is part art, part science; it is a moral endeavor that cannot be simplistically reduced to a list of techniques for people to follow after they’ve learned the content of math, history, or English literature. I doubt that Green, a Spencer fellow, understands teaching in this simplistic way. Unfortunately, her article leaves exactly that impression.