Sunday, February 27, 2011

How Dumb Are We?

How dumb are we? I think that's getting to be my favorite question. It was my father's favorite question too.

I'm watching the events in Wisconsin (and here in Tennessee where the state legislature is working on bills to eliminate teacher licensure and to limit collective bargaining rights to wages only -- excluding benefits and working conditions from negotiation), and I'm thinking a lot about my father, a highly successful businessman who was the CEO of a medium sized corporation that distributed heavy construction equipment and who passed away in 1995. We could use him right about now.

Year after year, Dad negotiated with labor unions representing the men (just men at that time) who serviced and repaired the equipment that they sold and leased at distribution centers around the mid-Atlantic and northeast. Some years, times were tough, profits were slim and contract gains were hard-fought and hard-won. Other years, times were really tough, nobody was making any money and contract gains were non-existent. Give backs were not unheard of. But other years, everybody was making money. Folks were building -- houses, manufacturing plants, even skyscrapers. And people who are building need BIG backhoes and cranes. And in those years, the union negotiators had only to ask and a healthy dose of the riches flowed to the union workers too. Those years of plenty were a time to save because all involved knew that it probably wouldn't last.

I remember one such period of prosperity well, because my father punctuated that period with a story about his negotiations. In good times, he told me, the union guys didn't know what to ask for. They asked for 2 or 3% because that's what they always asked for, and he was more than a little miffed that they hadn't done their homework and didn't know what they should ask for to share fairly in the company's success. So on one occasion, in negotiations when the union reps were asking for too little, he tried every tactful hint he could to suggest that they might want to ask for more. Nobody budged. In fact, they misunderstood his comments, thinking that he was trying to offer less. Finally, he invited the chief negotiator to the men's room where he informed him in no uncertain terms that he was a horse's a.. and perhaps a few other things. He told him that he owed it to his members to know what was possible and to ask for it. Sometimes union reps ask for things that just aren't possible because they have a routine, a habit that may not be right for this economic (and political) moment. Reading that moment and asking for what is possible is a skill and a responsibility. And sometimes what is possible is a heck of a lot more that you are used to getting. And sometimes what is possible is less, much less.

My Dad recognized that you can't get blood out of a stone. A company without profits could go bankrupt under the weight of salary and benefits commitments. BUT when the tap is turned on, you darn well better have your mug poised to catch the flow of the riches. And as a company executive, you better share the wealth. If you don't, you will not be worthy of the responsibility of running the company. You will have failed to live up to what that's about: the long-term profitability that only comes from a workforce that is and feels valued.

Now Wisconsin is not a private company. Revenue rarely "flows" from government entities and it is unlikely that there will be truly flush years (in most venues) to counterbalance lean ones. And it certainly does seem like the Governor of Wisconsin has stopped the flow for teachers (and other selected public unions) by turning the faucet on for small businesses in the form of significant tax cuts. That's a shift in balance he is entitled to make. But he is not entitled to misrepresent the reality of the situation nor is he entitled to demonize good people as unworthy of such "exorbitant" salaries and benefits. There is nothing exorbitant about teachers salaries OR benefits. (I find it particularly galling when people who make well into 6 or 7 figures a year and who collect both generous pensions and stock options discuss the exorbitant salaries of folks who may not be much above the poverty level if they are supporting a few kids.) If the government doesn't have the money to pay them, then that's a different issue. What can we pay? And whose willing to do the job for that amount of money and benefits? That's what's scares me about all this. Who enters a teaching profession with lower salaries and diminished benefits? We don't know the answer to that question; I'm not sure I want to take a chance.

But maybe this is one of those times when the pain really does have to be spread around to all of us. The teachers in Wisconsin seem to recognize that and have made the wage and benefits concessions. They have done their homework and come prepared to share the pain of the parents of the kids they teach. And still the Governor feels the need to demonize them. Name it. That's what he's doing.

And of course, we are not truly spreading the pain all around. We are removing mild discomfort from the very rich by cutting their taxes significantly and we are addressing the wild uncertainty that surrounds the small business owner by cutting their taxes slightly and acting as if that will help -- when what they really need is a regular and reasonable flow of loans from banks who are back to making lots of money by not lending except to those who already have lots of money. (See reference to tax cuts for the rich above.)

How dumb are we?

All I know is that, like Diane Ravitch, I stand with the teachers of Wisconsin (and very soon I'm sure I'll need to stand with the teachers in Tennessee). The Wisconsin teachers are prepared for these negotiations. They are ready to share the pain. But this conversation needs to happen year in and year out because things change. Economies shift and grow (even though right now it seems way too slow). And when our economy grows again, I want those union reps at the table, with figures in hand that reflect what the community can and should pay the highly educated human beings with families to support who teach their children. The CEO (or Governor) who limits collective bargaining rights, who breaks unions, unseats his or her partners at the table. I suspect that's exactly what Governor Walker wants.* And that is the real problem here.

* For more on what the Governor is really up to, check out Rachel Maddow ( You may or may not agree with her analysis, but it's pretty powerful.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

No Dodges

I am always telling the pre-service teachers I teach that good teaching means not shying away from difficult, controversial, morally complex topics, particularly when those topics are interesting and important to one’s students. When my University of Wisconsin Whitewater students asked me to talk about the controversy in Madison, I was forced to take a taste of my own medicine.

My immediate reaction was to tell them that I am not allowed to discuss politics in the classroom. A memorandum from the chancellor reminding us of that came around as soon as the controversy started. Not so easily put off, one of my students said Ok, but Professor Shuffelton, you can teach us about what’s going on. You can educate us.

But I have no expertise on budgets or unions, I stammered. I only know what I’ve read in the newspapers. Well, one of them pointed out, you know more than we do.

I came to the next class a bit more prepared and asked them whether they wanted to spend classtime discussing the assigned reading or what was going on in Madison. Madison, they unanimously agreed. No more dodges.

We ended up having a very good conversation, which left me wondering about politics, education, a teacher’s authority, and the truth. The problem is this: if it is really true that a great deal of political rhetoric has to do with obfuscation and deliberate smokescreens (and perhaps that’s not true, but I suspect it is), surely educating students can include stripping away the layers of falsehood. If the teacher (e.g., me) suspects that one side is obfuscating more than the other, though, that can end up sounding like taking sides. In the Wisconsin budget debate, which isn’t really a budget debate at all it seems (since the unions have pretty much agreed to make all the concessions asked for), it’s hard to sound neutral.

So what is a teacher to do?

The answer I’ve always gone for is to let the students have their say – to keep the playing field neutral so that perspectives and information can battle it out in discussion. Procedural justice, rather than equal results. Even that response failed me this week, though, when a student said something to the effect of the government should just stay out of people’s lives. I bit my tongue and did not say “oh, like in Somalia?” I paused to see if anyone else was going to jump in and point out that we were at a public university, preparing to enter careers in public education. No such luck, so I ducked again and explained libertarianism as well as I could and was relieved when someone asked if Scott Walker’s budget was likely to lead to tuition raises, since that led to issues that outrage my students even more than me. Still, I left the classroom feeling that I’d maintained a little too much neutrality on the topic of government. If I let that student walk out without thinking about the public university at which she was learning, the public schools and highways that got her there, the public police department that kept her safe, the public . . . well, I could go on and on. I didn’t because about that I may not be able to speak without waxing political, but I still feel like I failed in letting everyone walk out of the classroom with that notion unchallenged.

If the class was difficult, it also reinforced my belief that when there are pressing ethical and/or political questions at hand, it is always worth discussing them. My students were bursting to speak. They spoke well. They shared the information they had, and more than usual they spoke with genuine authority, drawing on personal experiences with union jobs, with teachers, with their parents, with real life issues that concern them. In the last few minutes of class, one student asked if he could show a video. After we watched it, I think we all walked out of the room feeling in it together -- democracy and education.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Egypt, Bahrain . . . Wisconsin

If you only have time to look at one set of facts about the Wisconsin economy and the battle over union rights playing out around the Capitol in Madison, look at this one.

College-educated workers on the state payroll earn a median wage that is 9 percent less than their peers in the private sector. The educated elites, in other words, are hardly in it for the money. Workers without a bachelors degree, in contrast, earn a median wage in the public sector that is higher than their peers in the private sector. The net effect, as I read it, is that public sector work in Wisconsin keeps the educated engaged in work for the common good, and it serves the wellbeing of those workers who lack a college degree. The protests in Wisconsin have sometimes been portrayed in the media as the work of teachers, but this is not simply about teachers, or education, or even the rights of unionized workers. Without decent work for a decent wage, and without a political culture that resolves matters through conversation and negotiation – not the calling-out of police snipers and efforts to make money, not reason, the means of effecting policy – Wisconsin would look even more like Egypt and Bahrain than it does now.

All week, my undergraduate pre-service teachers have been asking me what I think about the debate. I am not allowed to tell them, if that means favoring one side in a political dispute (a reasonable enough requirement), but I have been trying to find ways to help them understand what is going on. After all, as an educator of future teachers, one critical piece of my job is to introduce to students ethical, political and social issues that will affect them as professionals. So, we’ve been talking about labor history in Wisconsin, about income inequality, about the current arguments for and against teachers’ unions. All the while, I’m very cognizant that it would be easier and safer for me just to sidestep the issue and tell them to figure it out for themselves so that we can stick to pre-assigned coursework. If someone decides that even talking about the issues in a non-politicized, education-focused way is unacceptable, I’d be much better off with the organized support of my colleagues. Worker solidarity matters. Without it, there is no equality and the only voice speaking is money.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Charter School Run Graduate School of Education

I learned today that the state of New York has approved a new graduate school of education (The Relay School of Education) to be run by several charter school operators, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First. From what I gather from a New York Post report, see here, this school intends to prepare up to its first 200 middle school teachers this summer and plans to expand to 800 students within the next five years. This is a sizable and significant endeavor. The Relay School of Education will largely educate teachers currently teaching in charter schools, Teach for America, or the NYC Teaching Fellows Program and many graduates will be funneled back into NYC charter schools. One requirement for receiving a master's degree from the school will be demonstrated success of solidly improving student achievement in practicum K-12 classrooms.

I'm just not sure what to think of this new college and I invite others to share here their initial thoughts and questions. I find myself wondering:
**Emphasizing demonstrated student success is certainly a worthwhile goal, but how are the required learning gains to be measured?
**What happens when these energetic new teachers encounter the difficult and sometimes deflating fact that it is hard to consistently demonstrate success with all students in all classrooms? What happens when this is magnified by a degree on the line? (Don't get me wrong here, I think it is wise to expect graduates to be able to significantly improve student performance.)
**What about the unreliability of test data, which suggests that it may not always be a direct reflection of teacher performance? Can we trust that the teachers who earn their master's degree from such a program are really worthy and that those who do not meet the demonstration criteria have genuinely not proven their abilities?
**Is the Relay School limited in conveying the breadth and depth of the teaching field by being cut off from a typical university environment and resources?
**What happens if the Relay School overwhelming feeds its teachers back into charter schools, especially those operated by the same organizations? Does this create a worrisome feedback loop? Does it create a stronger income stream for these charter organizations?
**Would funneling the teachers back into charter schools prevent meeting the original goal of using charter schools to spur innovation amongst traditional public schools?
**Schools of Education certainly have room for improvement. Are charter organization run Schools of Education the best answer?

Friday, February 11, 2011

"It's gone too far!": A teachers' union launches a campaign against inclusion

While listening to the radio at home the other day, I was surprised to hear a radio ad from Montréal teacher's union that took a strong stance against inclusion. "The inclusion of students with learning difficulties has gone too far," the narrator intoned. I wanted to find out more, so I turned to the web.

It turns out that the radio ad was part of a broad campaign by the Fédération Autonome de l'Enseignement (FAE), a Francophone teachers' union with more than 26,000 members. In addition to the radio ads, the union also has produced several television ads, which are currently available on Youtube. On of the most striking commericals is below. A stressed-out looking science teacher stands at his desk and tells a story of runaway inclusion:

The translation of the ad is as follows:

In my class of 29 students, I have two hyperactive students, six who have learning difficulties, one with hearing problems, and one who fights with the others [image of fallen chair]. It doesn't make sense to teach in these conditions! We need more special education classes. The integration of students with learning difficulties has gone way too far. Mr. Charest [Premier of Québec], solutions exist. Let's take the time to listen to our teachers. The Fédération Autonome de l'Enseignment--for public schools with services that suit all students.

The FAE has also held a number of public demonstrations on the issue of inclusion--a union brochure includes the following arresting photo from a protest in Québec City:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Schools, Discipline, and Letting Kids Down

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 what seems to be a rather severe 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 at the same thing. After all, a child’s finger, on even the most liberal interpretations of zero tolerance, is not a gun. But that critique, I think, misses a deeper point: zero tolerance policies, even when not abused, 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 (for examples of pedagogy that takes the formation of democratic citizens seriously, see 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 trainable animals predates the regime of testing so often supposed to be its cause.

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 also send a message to all children that the adults in the school consider the children to be disposable—every child is a potential miscreant.

Children will at times behave badly. They will break rules, even really serious, important ones. Such events can be seen as opportunities to exclude, to punish, or to educate. Only the last honors our claim to be educators trying to prepare children to be citizens in a democratic society.

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 legal on school, college, and university campuses.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Way to take a shot, McCaskey East!

In a big high school (so big there are two large buildings located across campus from one another) in a not-very-big city that happens to be my hometown, something is happening that caught the attention of CNN … and then, of course, a host of on-air commentators and bloggers. As one headline put it, “Pennsylvania high school mentoring program resorts to segregation.” LancasterOnline says that Fox News’ Sean Hannity called the program “antiquated, offensive and completely irrational.” Darn, I missed it …

At McCaskey East High School (the newer of the two buildings I mentioned above), faculty and administration made a decision to implement a mentoring program for students of color in the face of a clear and continuing achievement gap between black and white students. After intensive instructional efforts and more than a decade of educational experiments failed to shrink the gap, these educators turned to affiliation and relationship as possible pathways to higher achievement.

The “segregation” is limited to junior class homerooms. For six minutes a day and twenty additional minutes every other week, African American teachers and students gather for a moment of . . . . Well, more on that in a minute.

Buried in the headlines is the fact that this experiment involves homerooms voluntarily divided by race, gender and linguistic diversity, with a homeroom teacher/mentor who is one of them. This is not an unusual experience for white students in most schools around the country, but it is often an unusual experience for students of color and language minorities in a country where the vast majority of teachers -- even in urban areas -- are white and do not speak a second language.

A couple things strike me immediately: first, this is an effort to make homeroom actually about mentoring and not just a place to stand for the pledge of allegiance or a place to sit for morning announcements. Debbie Meier and Central Park East High School (and lots of lesser known efforts around the country) taught us twenty years ago the power of an academic advisor who actually advises, who comes to know students as persons with aspirations too often hidden.

Second, this move comes after significant attention over time to the achievement gap that goes back to the days of Superintendent Vicki Phillips (now the Education Officer with the Gates Foundation) and has continued non-stop since then. A wide variety (maybe too wide, but that’s another post) of well-thought out instructional, curricular and structural efforts (including for example the creation of small learning communities around which the McCaskey East building was constructed) has not made a dent in the test score differences. Perhaps the problem is not only about heads but also about hearts, and about what we do and don’t do when are heads and hearts are not beating together. (None of this is in the news reports of course. I know this because, until this year, I was a resident of Lancaster, PA and a teacher educator who worked with School District of Lancaster staff.)

Third, this program is voluntary. Young men and women who identify as black can choose to be assigned to these homerooms. (It is not clear whether the ELL students are exercising a similar choice). Thus, the school is at least partly bypassing questions around race as a fluid category. In fact, my criticism might be that this option is not available for students who identify as brown or yellow or red – or gay. (Look at the next point to see why this might matter.)

Fourth, adolescents have affiliation needs. Duh! African American developmental psychologist Beverly Tatum, in an engaging book aptly titled, explains Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Of course, the white kids are all sitting together too, but nobody writes a book about that.) With respect to gender, feminist social scientists have made a strong case for the power of all-female environments in developing leadership and efficacy in young women and I don’t know a single guy who went to an all-male school who doesn’t think it was good for him academically. And Lyn Okagaki, Commissioner of Education Research at IES, has found that students’ ethnic identity is positively correlated with school achievement.

My guess is that the folks at McCaskey East wisely figured out that if these homogeneous groups had power for shaping kids’ self-understanding and identity, putting a similarly-identified adult into that group might create a pathway or pipeline for messages that cast academic achievement in a positive light. And remember, this is for homeroom. It is not about segregating kids for instructional purposes.

Now, I am not suggesting this isn’t dangerous. CNN trotted out NYU’s Pedro Noguera who acknowledged that these educators were “well-intentioned” but fretted that they might be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes by providing students with “support” in race-based groups (no mention of the gender factor or the idea that this homeroom plan applied to everyone). And frankly, the longer Pedro spoke, the more I realized he didn’t know the specifics of this case; he clearly thought that the purpose of this “segregation” was instructional support. But it’s not. It’s about growing into an identity of oneself as a thinker, as a learner, as an academic achiever. Now that can’t be done wholly outside of the process of instruction; initial success is the key to the grounded self-confidence that feeds more risk-taking and more growth and achievement. But there is good reason to think that this kind of relational intervention can help kids of color (as well as young men and young women) frame a place to stand as a person with a mind and a heart and a future.

Of course this is dangerous. Everything is. Education is tricky business with attendant risks at every turn. But as my basketball commentator sister, Mimi Griffin, is fond of saying, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. (She stole that from either Wayne Gretsky or Michael Jordan, depending on whom you believe.)

The folks at McCaskey East are taking a shot. If their shot goes astray, I trust them to figure that out and adjust the next shot. You should too.