Monday, July 20, 2009

The Most Crucial Standard of All, And Why Schools Aren't Built For It

Whatever national standards emerge from the current debates, simple facts are actually only a small part of what people need to know. We are rapidly developing into a world where anybody can have access to answers via cell phone and Internet, wirelessly, with the stroke of a touch-screen.

Thus, no matter how easy it is to bubble in fact-answers on a computerized answer sheet, our essential education standards for the 21st century have to reflect a different reality. Skill-sets are far more vital to our future prosperity than fact-sets, and the most essential of all skill-sets are the cognitive skills.

We need above all to be teaching our students to THINK CRITICALLY.

However, if there is one “single-worst” failing I’ve observed in the schools with which I’ve been associated over the years, it is that thinking—sharp-eyed, well-informed, critical thinking—is not given remotely enough attention in schools.

The reasons for this are mostly practical, ironically enough. As noted above, it’s easier to test fact-regurgitation than it is to test thinking processes or evaluate the quality of a student’s logic. But that’s only a small part of the problem.

Teaching a person to think causes lots of trouble in a contemporary school setting. For one thing, it requires time. It’s a messy process, requiring an adult to engage one-on-one or in small groups for fairly extended periods of time, doing a lot of free-form exploration. A teacher with 27 teenagers in one classroom can’t do it consistently. A teacher with 20 Kindergarteners is just as hard-put.

I remember being taught in a professional development series how to use a variety of “classroom structures” to engage students in cooperative learning. We were given the advice that, while students need “think time” to respond to prompts, the wise teacher will hold those snippets of “think time” down to 30 seconds to two minutes at the most. Sure, I thought ruefully. Anybody can think deep thoughts in 30 seconds to two minutes. Ri-i-i-ight.

Teaching a person to think also requires creativity, on the part of both the student and the teacher. I believe many teachers are innately creative, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are very self-actualized in this area. Most teachers were themselves poorly taught to be creative, and often seem afraid to let their students' creativity blossom fully.

Creativity itself is a messy, unpredictable process, even when handled well. It rarely fits comfortably into the narrow confines of a 40-minute class period, and often results in more noise and physical activity than many educators are comfortable tolerating.

But the most difficult part of teaching students to think is that once you’ve taught them how, and told them it's a good thing to do--they’ll tend to do it! This causes all kinds of problems for schools.

When a critical thinker bumps up against something that doesn’t seem to make sense, s/he questions it. Unfortunately, there are so many rules and procedures land-mining the typical school day that really don’t make any sense from the student’s point of view, it takes almost no time for critical thinkers to become questioners of authority.

You can see what a horrifying prospect that is. No efficiently run human-warehousing institution happily tolerates questioners of authority. Moreover, controlling imaginative, independent thinkers (not to mention staying at least one jump ahead of them and keeping them engaged) is much harder than controlling and knowing more than a group of compliant conformists who all think alike, and don’t think very hard.

If you buy into the “teacher must always know more than the student” fallacy, or if you are an ardent devotee of straight rows of desks and pin-drop silence in the classroom, then you very clearly don’t want imaginative, critical thinkers occupying those desks! I am here to tell you that contemporary US taxpayers, politicians, and educators all cherish the ideal of quiet, orderly schools, headed by highly-qualified teachers who can pour standardized wisdom into the supposedly-empty heads of their students, who will therefore score above proficient levels on their standardized tests. It is literally an official mandate.

And that's why I say our current schools aren't set up to teach and support the most vital skill needed by students who hope to thrive in the 21st century.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Include Top Experts--Teachers--in Setting Standards

I want to be clear on the subject of national standards for education. I think that it absolutely makes the best kind of sense to establish broad answers to the question, “What do people need to know, in order to compete in the global market?” If we as a nation do not answer that question, clearly and consistently “from sea to shining sea,” we will continue to decline into has-been status in the world.

But who will provide those answers? And how will they be framed?

In the US, it’s politics and money that dictate our approach, so we know we’re in for a rough ride. Already the debates have begun. I would like to add my voice to the chorus of people saying, “This time, don’t leave out the teachers!”

In June, Education Week published an article about leaders from the major math and reading professional education associations publicly voicing concerns that they are being shut out of the process in favor of the national testing companies (“Subject-Matter Groups Want Voice in Standards,” published June 15, 2009).

Recently, developments seem to be headed in the direction of greater teacher inclusion. Education Week’s July 1 story, “Expert Panels Named in Common-Standards Push,” describes the addition of significant numbers of representatives from teachers’ subject-matter organizations to the panels developing drafts of proposed standards. This seems to me to be the only rational approach.

I know it’s currently fashionable to look down our noses at teachers, and question how “highly qualified” they are. But the fact is that I don’t know any teachers who got into this gig for the money, and have no interest in their students’ well-being. Much political hay is made about tenured teachers who have burned out, given up, and don’t care any more. That such teachers exist is unquestionable. But, like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” they mostly are the fixation of fevered ideologues’ ranting.

In my experience, no one thinks longer and harder about what students need to know, and how to teach it to them, than teachers do. Most of us care deeply, and constantly try to do better and better at our work. Our opinions are expert opinions, as opposed to the all-too-common ignorant bumbling of laypersons who may care, but who often have no clue what the craft and art of teaching is really like.

Any push to create national standards surely must involve the prominent participation of the nation’s best experts on the subject--Teachers!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Local Control of Schools

I have recently been reading The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. Its author, Matt Miller, says the recent “standards” emphasis is a positive move away from a piecemeal “local control” approach to school curriculum, which he sees as pretty much the root of all our problems with schools today. He points out that the lack of a coherent, nationwide policy on how schools are run has resulted in the educational equivalent of “jumping on our horse and riding off in all directions.” Every little school board is its own power center, for good or for ill, and that, plus tying school funding to local property taxes, results in spotty successes and rampant inequity in our nation’s schools.

I agree with many of his points. I live in the Kansas City metro area, where we have an elephant-in-the-living-room-sized example of just how crazy and dysfunctional local control can get. But I’ve got to say that I think in our consumer-oriented society, where individualism is prized so highly and everyone wants to have everything “their way,” local control is much more likely to morph than to die. Any successful national standards initiative is going to have to recognize and accommodate this.

The history of local school control is too long in this country, and the suspicions of national or central control are too firmly grounded, for anything else. Aside from the long tradition, in some ways local control of schools makes good sense: who knows better than the parents and teachers of the individual students in question, how to teach them?

I also am an advocate of what are called “democratic” schools—schools in which teachers and students seek out the ways that work best for them, and inform policy changes and rules of operation for their school in a kind of “ground-up” approach. That’s why I think that if they are to truly revolutionize U.S. education, national standards must set agreed-upon goals—but NOT force-feed specific approaches.

Specific approaches, rammed down our throats, are about all we’ve had so far, thanks to the “education-industrial complex” of test-makers, large textbook companies and other special interests busily spending millions to lobby Washington. The trouble-plagued “Reading First” program is a good example. A textbook company with connections within the Beltway foisted a questionable program on millions of young readers, at huge cost to taxpayers and school districts. The Department of Education vigorously pushed it for several years; now it has been discredited.

For most of the country’s educators, the whole “No Child Left Behind” effort has been an expensive, heavy-handed and questionably effective social experiment that I think is guaranteed to set up greater resistance to future national initiatives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

School Choice—Who’d ‘a’ Thought?

I’ve always been highly dubious about so-called “school choice” initiatives, because they usually take the form of a voucher system to use public money for private schools.

I always figured these had the not-very-secret agenda of glomming onto tax dollars, to publicly fund either white flight from racially integrated schools, or evangelical flight from the teaching of evolution and sex ed. I don’t hold with any of that.

But recently I stumbled on a different understanding of “school choice,” and “market forces,” as well. Teaching professionals tend to cringe when laypeople talk about “market forces” in education, because in many ways it’s an inappropriate approach. Neither term has been on my “favorites” list, but events beyond my control may be changing that.

For all my belief in free public education as the bedrock of American democracy, I also have been increasingly critical of the way the “education-industrial complex” runs schools, these days. I want to find alternative ways that seem more rational, nurturing, and effective than the way it's usually done.

My “aha” moment came when I realized that in the time I’ve been an adult we’ve seen:
  • the emergence of special education mandates
  • the homeschooling movement
  • the “small schools” movement
  • multiculturalism
  • magnet schools
  • a huge influx of English language learners into our schools
  • the rise of charter schools
  • a boom in computer-based “distance learning” that I predict is only warming up.

Talk about “school choice!” When I was a kid the only alternatives were public or private—but whichever you chose, school was run just about the same, and if you didn't fit in, too bad.

But now, in very real ways, market forces are remaking schools with startling variety.

The thing is, I think we’re still a long way from what school will eventually look like. When all the experiments have shaken down and been evaluated over time, I think those who remember today will be amazed at what all changed.

For me, that’s a really exciting thought. I think we still have a lot of changing to do.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An NCLB by any other name . . . ?

I spent way too much time yesterday on the "Eduwonk" blog, reading through ideas offered for the "Name That Law" contest to suggest alternative names for the No Child Left Behind law.

Check it out for yourself at

I read through what were then about 620 or so different comments. Some struck me as pretty funny, but others made me stop and wonder about the contributor.

Some seemed to assume that all the problems with schools come from bad/lazy/uncaring/stupid teachers, which is a simplistic view that only occasionally is accurate, as far as I can tell.

Some appear to suffer from the illusion that schools are chronically preoccupied with artificially puffing up student self-esteem. This is something that I've never actually seen play a role in real school settings, but a certain brand of uninformed layman seems convinced it is the root of all evil in schools.

Other than those, the ones that bothered me most fell into three broad categories: those who wanted to blame the parents, those who thought "kids are just lazy and need their butts kicked," and those who baldly asserted that it's okay to leave "stupid" kids behind.

Granted, unfit parents do exist. But they are a really tiny minority of parents in any given school, and there aren't nearly enough of the real item to create a statistical ripple. No, in my experience the observers (including some teachers!) who place the blame on the parents are overlooking some important issues.

Usually, the parents who are blamed for not caring are those from lower socio-economic groups in overcrowded, poverty-strapped schools. They also often are persons of color, and may be immigrants. In my years of teaching in urban schools I've talked with many who are dealing with burdens you might never know about.

Sometimes they are working two or more jobs, and have little time to coach their children's homework efforts or go to parent-teacher conferences. Many times they did poorly in school themselves, and don't know how to help their kids be successful. That kind of experience among parents doesn't breed much trust in schools among them, either. There also may be an embarrassing language or other cultural barrier that make them feel cut off from the school and uncomfortable there.

Research shows schools with active outreach programs have less trouble with lack of parent/extended family involvement than schools where parents are just assumed to be negligent.

"kids are just lazy and need their butts kicked" group really needs to remember that an attitude of "the beatings will stop when morale improves" is rarely a successful approach. You can't berate someone into developing a love of learning. Those who think you can probably need therapy for their control issues.

Probably the attitude I find most abhorrent is the one that says it's okay to leave "stupid" kids behind. First of all, what is "stupid"? We have long since learned that "I.Q." numbers don't begin to describe human potential, and the complexity of the reality is impossible to quantify with just a simple number. Is it, then, okay to ignore a physical impairment such as myopia or astigmatism? How about dyslexia? Cerebral palsy? Tourette's Syndrome? Where do we draw the line? Should we take a page from the Nazis and kill or sterilize anyone with Down Syndrome? If that's the American ideal of good education, count me out!

What I think the "okay to leave the stupid behind" crowd really is saying, however, speaks to allocation of resources. To sum up what I think they actually mean, they seem to be saying it's okay to sacrifice the "stupid" to save the "smart."

They see gifted education, arts education, field trips, and similar programs being more and more neglected and less and less well funded, as focus shifts to those inconvenient populations of kids that chronically fall in the "not proficient" test score categories.

One of the things NCLB was supposed to do--and is definitely doing--was draw attention to just those kids. We always knew they weren't well served by their schools (otherwise they'd be doing better). Schools just didn't apparently have a good enough reason to care until their existence depended on it. How sad is that?

I don't think the "sacrifice the stupid" group is blaming the right source for the problem. Kids who are not prospering in school DO need our attention, and they do need better support. The overall problem lies in the fact that the way things are set up demands that there be "winners" and "losers."

Given the way the law was set up, for schools the choice is on the order of "shall we breathe, or shall we pick flowers?" Kids who are safely in the "proficient" category don't threaten their existence; kids whose test scores are too low do.

What we really need is support for schools--and by that I include funding, but don't mean just money alone! We shouldn't have to make the choice of which children to sacrifice (or intellectually starve). Schools should be empowered to teach them ALL as they need to be taught.