Monday, May 23, 2011

Money, Education and Democratic Voice

I read two articles today that stood in such stark contrast that I had to share them.  Both describe their efforts as “grassroots.” The first was an article in the N.Y. Times entitled, “Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates,” by Sam Dillon (NY Times, May 20, 2011). The article talks about the staggering amount of money that is going into education by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the tax forms filed for 2009 alone, the Bill Gates's foundation spent $373 million on education efforts of which $78 million was dedicated to its new form of education advocacy. According to Allan C. Golston, the president of the foundation’s United States program, the foundation plans to spend $3.5 billion more in education, up to 15 percent of it on advocacy, over the next five or six years. Attached to the article are “Annotated Excerpts of the Gates Foundation 990 Form 2009,” a tax form required for nonprofits that runs for 263 pages and includes more than 3,000 items and 360 education grants.

The approach marks a new strategy for the foundation that previously used its philanthropy to creating small schools . The new strategy is described in the article as much more ambitious. It is an attempt to work more systemically by reforming the nation’s educational policies. To achieve this end, the foundation “is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.” But it is also “creating new advocacy groups.” Some of the examples the article reveals include:

The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations…..

Last year, Mr. Gates spent $2 million on a “social action” campaign focused on the film “Waiting for ‘Superman".....

There are the more traditional and publicly celebrated programmatic initiatives, like financing charter school operators and early-college high schools. Then there are the less well-known advocacy grants to civil rights groups like the Education Equality Project and Education Trust that try to influence policy, to research institutes that study the policies’ effectiveness, and to Education Week and public radio and television stations that cover education policies.…..

Its latest annual report…. highlights its role — often overlooked — in the development and promotion of the common core academic standards that some 45 states have adopted in recent months. ….The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which developed the standards, and Achieve Inc., a nonprofit organization coordinating the writing of tests aligned with the standards, have each received millions of dollars.....

In 2009, a Gates-financed group, the New Teacher Project, issued an influential report detailing how existing evaluation systems tended to give high ratings to nearly all teachers. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cited it repeatedly and wrote rules into the federal Race to the Top grant competition encouraging states to overhaul those systems. Then a string of Gates-backed nonprofit groups worked to promote legislation across the country: at least 20 states, including New York, are now designing new evaluation……

Two other Gates-financed groups, Educators for Excellence and Teach Plus, have helped amplify the voices of newer teachers as an alternative to the official views of the unions. Last summer, members of several such groups had a meeting at the foundation’s offices in Washington....
The Times article actually starts with a story of some out spoken local teachers who testified before the Indiana State Legislature and who had written policy briefs and op-ed pieces about layoffs based on seniority. Said one state legislator, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” Indeed, they may very well have been genuine, as the article points out, but ”they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” ….. a group that is later revealed in the article to have received awards totaling $4 million dollars.

And that brings us to the crux of the Times article. Writes reporter Sam Dillon:

Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.

Perhaps, the concern was best put by Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was quoted as saying: “It’s Orwellian in the sense that through this vast funding they start to control even how we tacitly think about the problems facing public education.”

The other article I read at the same time this week was sent out on a grassroots listserv called the Education Liberation Network. The group also has a website called the Education for Liberation Network. In the post, the author, Tara Mack, announces an event that is to take place in two months in Providence, RI, where hundreds of educators, activists and students will come together for a grassroots gathering called, “Free Minds, Free People.” The organizers want to make the event a catalyst for continued action rather than a solitary event.

They write on their listserv:

The Education for Liberation Network has an important contribution to make to that effort. One of the ways we aim to capitalize on that energy is to begin developing regional networks that will strengthen the connection between local work and national movement building. We want to bring the network closer to you.

They then make a plea for donations to carry out this work:

To start that work we need to have the resources in place before the conference. That's why we are coming to you now. Grassroots work takes grassroots investment. Today we are kicking off our One Great Reason campaign, a week-long drive …. that will help us keep the momentum of Free Minds, Free People going by moving straight from the conference into the development of our regional networks.

Each of us has a reason for being part of this community, a reason why this work matters to you. Each day this week a member of the Education for Liberation Network will share via this listserv his/her reason for being part of our community. If their stories resonate with you, I hope you will take moment to contribute to our efforts to strengthen and expand.
The amount that this grassroots network of educators is attempting to raise this week -- $1000.

With such disparities in money and access to media and seats of power, how does a society engage in a true democratic dialogue. How is a public being created for public education? Here are two very different efforts that lie at the heart of the contradictions in democratic power and voice.

Cross-posted on the Journal of Educational Controversy Blog

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Managing to Find Time to Read

I just read an interesting challenge on the popular Book Lady's Blog. The blog asked its readers how they manage to find time to read. Most replies started off saying how much they "sucked at" finding time to read. And these are book lovers!

I thought I would share my answer and invite readers of Social Issues to share theirs. After all, finding time to read is really an important social issue.

With so many books and so little time, all of us “suck at” reading as much as we may want. That said, here is how I manage my reading time:

1. I set up my reading on a wekly schedule, write my reading goals down in a special section of my weekly to-do list, and share and discuss the entire list with my wife in our weekly family goal and plans meeting – every Sunday at 4PM.

2. I read for an hour every nmight before going to bed.

3. I treat myself to book dates – usually on weekends after visiting library sales or garage sales to find great books.

4. I never watch TV. This is not because there is nothing ood on the tube. Its because there is almost always something good — think book TV.

5. I read on public transport. I used to do this every day on my commute to and from work. Now I’m retired, so this reading management tool is less useful to me.

6. I read on long drives when someone else is driving. We have a place in Florida, and the drive gives me plenty of reading time. When I am driving I listen to books on tape. Recently ‘read’ Madame Bovary that way and it was great.

7. I don’t have a TBR (to be read) pile, but I have a large set of ‘aspirational’ book shelves. Used books are very cheap and make wonderful wall decorations. My aspirational books help me define myself and my future goals.

8.I organize reading projects that support other life activities. For example, I draw in watercolor with a drawing group every Wednesday evening, and I read seriously about the history and techniques of watercolor.

9. I read the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books as soon as they arrive in the mail. I put this practice on my lifetime goal and to-do list more than thirty years ago.

10. I am a writer. Writing makes it very hard to find the time or mental energy to read. The great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget was once asked what he made of Jung’s theory of development. He said that he had never read Jung. “There are two kinds of psychologists,” he said, “those who read and those who write.” Also reading to support my writing research takes up a lot of my reading time. This is why it is very important for me to plan recreational reading and stick to my plan.

Please share your own tools for managing time to read. I'll make time to read your responses.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Rogue Shepherd

The recent arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on charges of sexually assaulting, forcibly confining and attempting to rape a hotel maid can be properly seen as a victory for the rule of law. While the American legal system asks us to presume innocence until guilt has been established in a court of law, the very fact that Strauss-Kahn is being held to answer these charges in a court of law is a welcome testimony to the principle that no one is above the law.

Removed from a plane bound for Paris moments before its take-off, and now most recently denied bail as a flight risk, Strauss-Kahn – often discussed as a potential future President of France – appears headed to a criminal trial in an American court. That his accuser, a hotel maid who has been reported in the media as a female of African descent, was taken seriously and properly treated by American law enforcement officials is also greatly cheering given the tremendous power disparities between her and the IMF head.

I will leave for late night TV hosts the low hanging fruit of commenting on how similar this incident is to the IMF’s typical interactions with Africa. Rather, I would suggest that we can use this incident to reflect on fundamental issues of equality and inequality.

While we can applaud the fair application of the law, we should not allow this to distract us from the basic social and economic structures that have created a society where some stay in lavish $3,000 a night hotel rooms and others are maids who might not make as much in a month of work. Were we to don John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, would we accept that a role of the dice could put us in the maid’s or in Strauss-Kahn’s position. Perhaps yes, as the interest-maximizing logic of Capital and “free markets” has convinced many of us that the greater good is served by allowing individuals to acquire resources beyond basic human needs. Perhaps yes, as the maid in question would appear to enjoy considerable legal protections against exploitation. Yet, what is particularly significant in this case is that we are not talking about a relation between a successful business person and a service worker – it is a relationship between a political leader and a citizen.

When teaching the Republic I make the claim to my students that Plato’s philosopher-kings are alive and well – and among us in figures such as Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve. (Appointed to office, not elected; chosen on the basis of their education, wisdom and prudence; able to see Ideal Forms such as “consumer confidence” where the rest of us merely grapple with the individual choice of whether or not to upgrade to a flat screen TV; and, charged with leading the flock through hard times.) By any yardstick, as an intergovernmental organization designed to oversee the global financial system, the IMF and its leaders seem to bear a clear responsibility to look after the public good. When those shepherds abuse the powers of their office for personal gain or pleasure, we want a system in place to check those abuses. Perhaps, however, this extends beyond the personal foibles of Strauss-Kahn and we should ask what systems have been put in place to compel us to understand and obey the orders of philosopher-king experts. What should our shepherds cost us?

Noah W. Sobe
Loyola University Chicago

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fighting to defend progressive school reform in Québec

Over the course of the past decade or so, the school system in Québec has undergone a complete overhaul from K-11. This large-scale school reform, which is referred to as the "Québec Education Program" (QEP) in English, has had a transformative effect on the school system. There is a lot in this reform that Dewey scholars (as well as other educators of a progressive bent) will probably like.  Critical thinking is emphasized as a "cross-curricular competency", and all students are required to participate in an innovative new program called "Ethics and Religious Culture" that I have described in previous posts. In science education, which is a particular interest of mine, the new curriculum emphasizes STS (science-technology-society) questions and takes an inquiry-based  approach to science learning. In general, the program has a progressive, child-centered bent.

Given its immense scope and its progressive slant, it is not surprising that the reform has received a lot of criticism. A Québec teachers' union has conducted several massive campaigns against the reform, and the reform has received extensive criticisms from editorialists, academics, and politicians (and even sitcoms). These critiques have aroused some public sympathy; as is the case elsewhere in North America, traditional conceptions of schooling are strong in Québec.

In response to this opposition to the reform, a group of education professors from across Québec has recently released a document called Manifeste pour une école compétente (Manifesto for Competent Schools). This title sounds rather strange in English--the explanation for it is that one of the main criticisms of the reform is that it (allegedly) emphasizes "compétences" (competencies) at the expense of "connaissances" (facts/knowledge). The point of the manifesto is to reply to some of the key criticisms of the reform and to defend the reform from piecemeal modifications that are weakening it.

The release of the manifesto on April 13th was accompanied by a PR blitz. Newspaper editorials were written in advance and were printed by the major Francophone newspapers. The manifesto was also accompanied by a website and a series of Youtube videos. This effort was quite successful--over 1000 people have signed the manifesto online (visit here to add your signature) and the book version of the manifesto has made it on to the Le Devoir non-fiction bestseller list.

Education professors, particularly in the United States, have a lot to learn from this effort. Led by a core group of senior professors in the Université du Québec system, and including signatories from every university in Québec, the manifesto was a thoughtful, well organized effort to influence policy. Although it remains to be seen what effect the manifesto will have, this is the kind of campaigning that education scholars need to do more often. Unless education academics work to communicate with the public about why progressive education is worthy of support, progressive reforms are unlikely to be enacted or to remain in place.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Can a School be Outsourced?

The blog Mobiledia reported on May 6th 2011 on the announcement by the National Trust of the UK that they would be operating a real-world farm along the lines of the popular on-line game Farmville. The Trust's announcement has since been greeted with a flurry of commentary. I'll get to that in a moment, but first, a few words about the farm itself.

The National Trust has invited 10,000 participants to pony up roughly $50 each to participate in running the farm, the 2,500 acre Wimpole Estate. Decisions about crops and procedures will then be 'crowdsourced' to these 10,000 virtual 'farmers' and decisions will be made via the 'wisdom of crowds'. To assist the farmers, the National Trust will supply information through blogs and Youtube videos about various agricultural and commercial matters of relevance.

The project piggy-backs on the enomous popularity of the Farmville game.

But crowdsourcing management decisions is not entirely new. In the blog CMI, Adi Gaskell, in reporting on the announcement, noted that a similar experiment called "My Football Club" had taken place a few years ago; 32,000 fans ponied up a similar fee to participate in managing a pro football team. Unfortunately the excitement wore off quickly and participation fell rapidly to about 3,000. When the operators put the question of retaining crowdsourcing or returning the team to professional management to the surviving participants, only 132 even bothered to vote.

What then is the likely fate of the Real-world Farmville?

According to James Surowiecki, author of the book on The Wisdom of Crowds, a crowdsourcing project requires four conditions in order to be successful:

1. Diversity of opinions: participants must be drawn from diverse populations;

2. Independence: participants' decisions are not deetermined by other participants;

3. Decentralization: people can draw on specialized knowledge and local information not available to others; and

4. Aggregation: there must exist a reliable mechanism for converting the many private judgments into a collective decision.

Gaskell asks us to consider the crowdsourced farm in terms of these criteria, pointing out that even if the initial participation is diverse, the decline in popularity is likely to make the eventual crowd much less so (as it is now built from die-hards). Because the trust will supply all of the information about the farm to participants (who are also free to visit the farm in person but in most cases will not) the participants will not be independent, and will not be able to draw on their differentiated local knowledge. Something akin to groupthink is thus cooked into the operating procedure, defeating the wisdom of the crowd.

Gaskell concludes that the Trust is unlikely to produce a profitable and effective farm through crowdsourcing. (Let us grant that the Trust will succeed, and already has, in bringing a lot of attention to itself by grabbing some of the attention paid to Farmville the game).

The question remains: could a school be crowdsourced to its local community? Could state educational policy be crowdsourced to citizens. Please share your own ideas about whether this would be an interesting, a wise, a democratic or an effective way to run public education 'by the people'.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Arne Duncan Shows his Appreciation for Teachers

It’s rare than an open letter of appreciation is received with the sensation of pouring salt in open wounds, but that seems to be what happened this week as Arne Duncan attempted to mark National Teacher Appreciation Day with a letter of thanks to America’s teachers. Duncan tried to herald teaching as an honorable and autonomous profession, listed things he claimed to have learned from listening to teachers, and closed by suggesting that continued progress could be made in education reform by him working together with teachers. On the face of it, this seems to be the type of letter that would be welcomed by teachers, especially as many increasingly feel the sting of public attacks related to collective bargaining negotiations and new job (in)security measures. But—wow—do the teachers’ comments on this letter suggest a different reaction! Teachers find his letter to not only be hollow and disingenuous, but hurtful and infuriating. I encourage you to read for yourself the important criticisms they make of Duncan’s letter, many of which relate to feeling that their voices are not being heard, particularly by Duncan and the Department of Education.

So, what’s to be done? Rather than “Ask Arne,” as the US Department of Education website invites me to do, I thought I would “Urge Arne” instead. I wrote to Mr. Duncan, urging him, as the teachers responding to his letter did, to practice what he preached. I urged him to demonstrate his genuine respect for teachers and true desire to listen to their ideas by taking the time to publicly respond to the teachers’ comments on the Education Week website. This would show, in small part, that he really does care about what teachers have to say and that he sees them as professionals whose contributions are worthy of his time and attention—a type of professional accountability that goes up the chain and not just down it. Engaging in such a public exchange would be a way to show teachers that their voices do matter, especially during the week that we celebrate our teachers. Such an act would be a more genuine display of appreciation for our teachers than his open letter, written at a distance from real teachers, could be. Instead of pouring salt in wounds, it might make one small step toward healing them.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden's Justice, and Ours

“Justice has been done,” President Obama declared, as he announced that US forces in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, it has, but as Americans wave flags and chant “USA”, blast the bagpipes, and sing the Star Spangled Banner, let’s not forget that this is retributive justice, volatile stuff. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The same kind of justice that inspires young men to rise up and smash airplanes into skyscrapers in retribution for perceived insults to their honor.

In the news reports I’ve read so far, the only explicit mention of honor is in a quote from bin Laden. Speaking to Americans via ABC news in the late 1990s, he said “This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands, or their honor”. Pretty good advice, actually, if you disregard the anti-Semitic diatribe that precedes it, and the advice that we hold our government to account for our real interests is not far from what progressive liberals like Paul Krugman are asking for. The mention of honor, though, takes us out of post-Enlightenment liberal politics into terrain much older, and murkier, and problematic.

President Obama, in his announcement to the nation, made no direct mention of honor. He spoke of family (the empty chairs around the dinner table), of pluralism (let this not divide our country), of professionalism (“work” came up over and over as he spoke of the military), of human dignity. These are comfortable modern ideals, in distinct contrast to the ideals that motivated the Greeks to sack Troy, motivated the Romans to sack Europe, the Crusaders to sack Constantinople, and so forth, right up to us and Al Qaeda. Eventually, Obama tied bin Laden’s death to the story of American Exceptionalism (we can do anything we set out to do), and tied that story to “liberty and justice for all”. Wise rhetorical choices, since these are ideals that – if they really did motivate all of us, at the voting booth as well as when we listen to lofty speeches – might lead to a different sort of justice. The sort of justice that recognizes the plight of the weak, that contests privilege and greed, that demands equal treatment under the law, that demands honesty and professionalism of politicians and bankers, that supports peace.

The justice done to bin Laden is not that sort of justice.

I’m not saying that bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed, or that retributive justice is inappropriate in this circumstance. Rather, that we should keep our kinds of justice straight. The honor of the United States has been restored, and Americans are relieved. But when you restore your own honor at someone else’s expense (which is inevitably how, once your honor has been slighted, you have to restore it – that’s how avenging one’s honor works), the framework remains “might makes right”, which is also the logic that supports street gangs, honor killings of girls and women, and international terrorism. Retribution doesn’t relieve us from danger. Only redefining what’s truly honorable – from the death of our enemies to a different kind of justice – will do that.