Thursday, December 29, 2011

Of Moral Education

Today I read an interesting post that referred to an article in The New Yorker on a new Catholic school football powerhouse in New Jersey, and even as I've just typed those words, the phrase "Catholic school football powerhouse" looks oxymoronic. Jesus advised us, "Lay up your treasures in heaven; for where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also"; and where can the treasures be of these New Jersey Catholic school football players, but in a sports marketing office in Florida?

And this brings me to the topic of missing, or ineffective, moral education. It is missing in the United States; ethics classes do not appear on the transcripts nor in the course catalogues of our secondary schools, which is unusual for the OECD (and contrasts with my plans for One World Secondary School, where a course in Comparative Ethics is being planned). Its effectiveness is questionable in east Asia, where bullying is a problem, and in the Foundations classes that I have privately tutored students in for many years; and it appears to be failing altogether at Don Bosco Prep and similar prep school powerhouses in the United States (although I can't begin to confirm this without reading the New Yorker article that is carefully hidden behind a pay wall). And in general it is hard to be a parent of the technophiles Marc Bauerlein has appropriately termed The Dumbest Generation, growing up "in a generational cocoon" (10) of constant contact with peers similarly adrift in this strange new world that we all are, but no one is, creating. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bonuses for Sleeping Teachers

I've just read an interesting Huffington Post entry from a mathematics teacher in Los Angeles amenable to using student test scores as a factor in his professional appraisal. While his tone is commendably reasonable, both he and all others involved in this debate should beware the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between teaching inputs and student learning outputs, since other factors might be involved. Two immediate alternative explanations for high student scores immediately come to mind: the (typically Asian) use of tutors or cram schools and the 21st century solution of online tutoring, perhaps through recorded videos like those of the Khan Academy.

Here's a scenario that should give the simple-minded teacher-bonus-for-high-test-score aficianados nightmares, and the rest of us a laugh: two teachers, a retired-on-the-job old-time math teacher who never could teach and a frazzled incompetent rookie science teacher who has received a few days of training before being thrown in front of the toughest students anywhere, are both in hot water because they are about to be eliminated through the new performance appraisal system emphasizing student test scores, for which both are completely unprepared. But luckily into this new situation arrives an immigrant student whose ambitious parent immediately sees that neither of these teachers can teach, hires a tutor, sends her child off to an effective cram school, buys her son extra self-study books, and connects the boy with online tutoring help (perhaps by hacking into the brilliant online tutoring provision of Ontario, Canada); this boy immediately becomes a star student and, being charismatic, is able to turn his friends on to the same resources, and through another parent well capable of manipulating our philanthropic grant system, is able to secure like outside-of-class supports for all of the students in these two incompetent teachers' classes; and so while one teacher sleeps and the other is out of class in psychotherapy, student scores soar, and end-of-year test results determine that these are the most improved classes in the city. An enthusiastic superintendent, dependent upon her dashboards, scans the data and names our two unsuspecting teachers as teachers of the year (they barely beat out a jealous colleague who had helped his students cheat to gain their greatly improved test scores). The superintendent plans a surprise announcement of the awards and invites media cameras in for the presentation of the teacher-of-the-year awards to our two unsuspecting misfits, hoping to see spontaneous displays of highly effective teaching. She enters to find the old-timer asleep and, next door, the science teacher absent, with students studying to compensate for the missing instruction, led by the original star student.

The superintendent is embarrassed and puzzled, and so hires a young university researcher to determine which classroom practices correlate with these higher test scores. The conclusion: lack of teacher interference with student learning, prevented most effectively by absence from school and next best by in-class slumber, correlates most strongly with these students' improvement; and so "Stamp out teaching!" (our faculty was once led to chant "Stamp out literacy" by our school's literacy coordinator in the library of the old Locke High School) becomes the new, evidence-based mantra promoted in all of the schools under our enthusiastic, data-driven superintendent.

This farce might actually work as a movie, where as a comedy it might compensate for the tragedies currently being plotted in our schools.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Older the Students, the More School Choices are Needed

Today I've run across yet another disturbing report, this time on the PBS News Hour, on the costs our society incurs when students drop out of school. While the ultimate cause of declining prospects for dropouts is overpopulation in the Third World, our best response has to be to increase the number of schooling options available to secondary school students.

Opponents of school choice usually argue in favor of equity, and advocate making our existing local schools better, since opening up competing alternatives will likely leave some (most often those children unfortunately stuck with ignorant and careless parents, if the parents are still around at all) with the inferior, leftover options, since the better choices will likely already have been taken up by those families that are more educationally ambitious and better informed. I can imagine conceding that point, and recent evidence about the new school choice options in Indiana, which has the nation's most generous school voucher law, which I applaud, is showing that some of the private school beneficiaries there are taking advantage of their new opportunities to leave the neediest students behind in the traditional public schools, which become the repositories of all those kids who aren't getting chosen because they aren't the most attractive, from the private schools' points of view.

So how about this: leave our primary schools, through sixth grade, as local monopolies, as they do in Finland and Singapore, two often-praised school systems with very different approaches in other ways, thereby providing an equal opportunity to all children (and we have an enormous amount of work to do to raise the level of our many poorly performing schools so that all children will have an equal opportunity to get off to a good start in school); then allow chartered alternatives to become established from middle school onward, since it's obvious that not all students are succeeding in even our best model local primary schools and middle schools, and some can benefit from alternative provision, a point the defenders of traditional school districts will likely concede; and finally, in upper secondary, allow strictly college preparatory and strictly vocational schools to exist and receive taxpayer funding through vouchers, in addition to our traditional provision of comprehensive high schools? The establishment of a viable vocational sector is particularly important for us, since those countries that have a vocational sector that successfully competes for middle school graduates, meaning virtually all (mostly Germanic) European countries from Switzerland northward to Norway, have much lower youth unemployment rates than those in the English-speaking world whose educational systems traditionally treat work like four-letter word, to be avoided and delayed for as long as possible.

Let's stop begging students to stay in schools they hate, and instead provide them with some alternatives they may like a lot better.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Optimizing Testing

I have lately written a series of posts on a proposed American Baccalaureate Certificate that would grant public funding for three years of higher education, combined with automatic admission to our public universities. This would be earned by satisfactory performance on a series of assessments in the last two years of secondary school, with a natural focus on the end of the last year. There would be a lot of testing here, as there is in many countries with good secondary schools, especially in Europe; but how much testing is too much testing?

As always I stress comparative methods, and have lately been investigating systems' attitudes towards testing. At one extreme I find Shanghai High School,one of the oldest high schools in China's largest city, where pupils can count on 64 important assessments per year (eight per subject, or about one a month, in the eight subjects they study). At the other extreme I find, among public school systems, those of the Nordic countries, where pupils traditionally have not been tested, nor received any grades in any subjects, before the eighth grade; and, beyond them in terms of freedom from public examination accountability systems, private schools in southern Africa, Canada, the United States, and the champions, in my view, Swiss private schools for (rich) foreign boarders, whose family money may well obviate a need for either university or vocational education, and who therefore have the temptation to extensive play before possibly settling down to a sinecure within the family business (which may well be in ruling a non-democratic country).

Significant questions arise, about which I have become increasingly curious: what is the optimal (not maximal or minimal) amount of testing pupils should experience? And what are we losing as we, like many other countries under the spell of OECD economists (these are the devisers of the PISA assessments comparing national educational achievement in ways that have politicians in almost all democratic countries antsy as they contemplate accounting to their electorates), move towards ever more testing? These are issues I expect to be exploring in the coming days, and about which (especially the issue of testing time optimization) I would love to discover useful research.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Achievement Standards of an American Baccalaureate Certificate

Three southern states -- Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- have recently decided to end their high school exit exam passing requirements, instead folding the test results into the grade for a required course. Thank God my family doesn't live there! Wasting a few hours on such innocuous trivia is bad enough; a whole semester!

Our end-of-secondary-school achievement standards remain laughable. While the English standards in the new Common Core initiative look respectable, they will probably be undermined by our usual cheap assessment methods, which fail to capture the ability to write, and our mathematics standards will remain inferior to those of competing nations, regardless of the mandate given by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And what about all the other subjects?

By contrast, my proposed American Baccalaureate Certificate would require satisfactory demonstration of learning in at least ten subjects, including English, mathematics (including at least some calculus), at least one science (biology, chemistry, or physics), a foreign language, history, geography, philosophy of knowledge, comparative ethics, physical education, and one or more electives, all taken in the last two years of secondary school. When the minimum standards in those subjects are published and established by externally written and verified assessments, we'll have a better understanding of what college-ready really means and what American students are capable of achieving!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why the University of California Should Recognize an American Baccalaureate Certificate

This is the third in a series of posts about my proposal for an American Baccalaureate Certificate. Today I'd like to place it in the contexts of a competing, proposed California Diploma and of an article in the Huffington Post that discusses Asian Americans having to deny their ethnicity in order to better their chances of admissions to highly selective universities.

Unlike the proposed California Diploma, which would further weaken our already weak certification procedures for high school graduates, the American Baccalaureate Certificate (Ameribac) would establish a world-class qualification with world-class quality assurance standards. This would solve a major problem for UC, with large numbers of newly arriving first year students underprepared for the rigors of a world-class public university and therefore requiring expensive remediation and extra years to earn their diplomas, with all the extra expenses and system clogs this causes. And a highly developed assessment system like that of the Ameribac would be color-blind and therefore would obviate the unedifying gamesmanship teenaged applicants feel forced to play so as to avoid being illegally racially discriminated against in the college admissions competitions.

If UC were to grant three years of free public university tuition to Ameribac holders, as it should, yet another advantage would be to speed the acquisition of bachelor's degrees, thus relieving overcrowding and speeding up the production of a more highly educated citizenry for our state, something we sorely need. The three-year bachelor's degree is something all but our elite private colleges will eventually have to move to, or they will see their ability to compete for students diminish in competition with, for example, Australian universities, which have already adjusted to this consequence of Europe's Bologna Process. And the California State University system, which is depended on, according to our Master Plan for Higher Education, to produce the bulk of California's bachelor's level education, should of course follow suit.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why We Should Support an American Baccalaureate Certificate

Yesterday I introduced my idea for an American Baccalaureate Certificate, and I promised to provide some details today, so here they are.

A European Baccalaureate (EB) Certificate, the base model for what I am proposing, is a really impressive document to behold. The first page lists the 25 countries -- from the Kingdom of Belgium through the Czech Republic, with all of the other EU countries listed in between -- that will confer free college education to the holders of this certificate. Then one turns the page and sees a Baccalaureate report, with a list of the 11 subjects the student will have been assessed in during the final year of secondary school along with an overall mark expressed as a percentage of the available points.

For the American equivalent, I am proposing that the subjects assessed include three at an advanced level (like the very impressive new Pre-U qualification from Cambridge International Examinations); three more subjects studied at standard level providing subject balance, as in the International Baccalaureate; and five more subjects (perhaps history, geography, philosophy of knowledge, physical education, and comparative ethics) which would be studied to only a minor extent by students during the last two years of secondary school, to ensure at least a minimum standard of achievement in a broad range of subjects, like the EB does.

I also propose that those earning such a world-class qualification be automatically entitled to three years of free college tuition in our public universities, or be able to use equivalent sums towards tuition in the private universities that would be wise enough to recruit students so optimally prepared to succeed in higher education.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An American Baccalaureate Certificate

Today Secretary Duncan has voiced support for current, limited efforts to contain higher education fees and student debt, while organizers aligned with Occupy Wall Street are proposing more fundamental changes without, however, saying anything about what students might do to justify the new claims upon taxpayer money that they are making (both sides' positions are referred to in this story). Both positions are inadequate, although, as has often been the case lately, that proposal arising from the streets is more appealing than almost anything that might possibly come from Washington, D.C. at this time of federal gridlock. But I have another idea.

As a social democrat, I like many of the domestic policies that have made western Europe inviting to so many new democracies and so many millions of immigrants, and a relevant European policy we could adapt and adopt would lead to an American Baccalaureate Certificate. The relevant background report on higher education funding comes from the Educational Policy Institute, and the qualification for public funding of three-year bachelor's degrees would resemble the European Baccalaureate.

Tomorrow I will outline what learning would be required to earn an American Baccalaureate Certificate, and what benefits this new qualification would earn.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Are Pupils Customers?

(I am now following the custom of much of the English-speaking world, though not the United States, and referring to pre-tertiary people attending schools as pupils, reserving students for those who study in higher education. But you never know, I may switch back.)

One of my favorite recent school experiments is the free school movement of Sweden, which is now being copied in the United Kingdom (though America's charter school movement is also an inspiration for these new educational institutions supported by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling in London). These schools of choice have been steadily flourishing in Sweden for nearly 20 years, and this is surprising since Sweden is well known to be a bastion of socialism rather than of free market liberalism.

That freedom reigns in Swedish free schools is well attested by the fact that these publicly funded institutions can be for-profit as well as non-profit, and their students don't have to be poor in order to be supported by government funding. This sounds like a dream-come-true for one who has spent countless hours in recent years trying to start a school that could receive public funding (in my case, a charter school).

But recent information contradicts the notion that the free schools are the summum bonum that will solve most of the problems in public education:
  • Sweden's scores on PISA have been dropping rather than rising, which points to lost competitiveness;
  • Social stratification is increasing as a result of the free schools, with schools in wealthier neighborhoods becoming obviously more desirable than those in poorer neighborhoods (this does not raise eyebrows in America -- we've grown used to such class inequalities -- but they are a new phenomenon in Sweden, and a troubling one);
  • Other effects of the increasing competition for pupils and the money that arrives with them include spending on competing offers of free computer tablets versus laptops, rampant grade inflation, and an explosion of new course offerings in dance, art, and other electives, with correspondingly less emphasis on stalwart subjects such as mathematics and the sciences.
It does not appear that the customer is always right when it comes to education, and those of us who have believed deeply in empowering pupils and their families just as customers are empowered may need to rethink our positions. I am reminded of Rev Dominic Milroy, who, in Head to Head (a compilation of advice from HMC, an association of leading independent schools in the United Kingdom and abroad), wrote, with reference to schools' philosophies, "The language of the market-place may suggest that parents be viewed increasingly as customers or as clients, but no good school will go down this road." Some schools have done so, and by doing so are likely losing their goodness.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On the Eight-Legged Essay

I have recently been tutoring some early high school pupils and have been struck by how the teachers near my home in central Orange County are now rigidly combining the Schaffer paragraph with the five-paragraph essay format to produce a highly stylized, artificial, and inhibiting approach to essay writing. This immediately calls to mind the most famous and influential essay format in history, the classical Chinese eight-legged essay that examination candidates learned to master during the last four centuries of the Chinese empire (the Ming and Ching dynasties).

This Chinese format was established by a brilliant essayist in the 15th century, whose prize-winning essays became extravagantly admired, published, and copied in examination centres throughout the country; and candidates who mastered its intricate parallel structures, with precise numbers of sentences, clauses, and words designated for its eight numbered sections, won coveted positions in the imperial administration -- and some became examiners themselves, thus ensuring the reproduction of a mutually admiring, highly literate caste whose selection procedures stressed form over content, the result being that the form became steadily more artificial and irrelevant to the stresses facing China in the second half of the 19th century: administrators faced with the new challenges of Western industrialized aggressive imperialism had won their offices through writing essays that were officially forbidden to mention any events happening after the 3rd century B.C.E.!

If we want our rising generation to be equally artificial and incapable of comprehending the challenges facing America in the 21st century, we will continue to teach them rigid, constricting essay formats like that being currently promulgated. But hey, essays with approved numbers of paragraphs, sentences, quotations, and comments (we haven't gotten to precise word or letter counts yet, but who knows) are easy to grade, always an advantage conferred by substituting quantitative judgements into inherently qualitative contexts -- and the mutual convenience of overworked teachers and demanding superintendents always trumps the needs of students, both in 19th-century China and 21st-century America, regardless of any pretences to putting students first.

Friday, November 18, 2011

If You Hear the "College and Careers" Mantra, Expect a Blurred Vision

I've just been watching a new video posted on Facebook by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) about their Stepping Up To Algebra program and an accompanying summer school program to prepare incoming 9th graders for high school biology. The video is, I believe, indicative of the prevailing philosophy of SVEF and its sister organizations such as California STEM (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).  

These people have good hearts, and we should wish all educators well, but the mantra repeated at the end of the film as well as earlier, stressing getting "all our students ready for college and careers" (they stress "all"; I am also drawing attention to the "and"), is typical of the double vision, denial of reality, and lack of focus that is plaguing education in California and elsewhere. It is out of touch with reality: our existing institutions of higher education are overcrowded, with current students unable to get the classes they need and our tax base unable to support so much tertiary education; doubling our supply of college students is a hopeless, foolish notion. And its lack of focus is resulting in masses of students badly prepared for both college and careers.

One wonders if Muhammed Chaudrhy, President and CEO, has ever had the experience of working closely with a student, getting him to pass the high school exit exam after numerous failures, and then meeting that same student six months after graduation to find that he is unemployed and out of school. "What are you doing these days?" "Nothing" (as he has just gotten off a bus bringing in protesters for some sort of demonstration--that's what passes for work in much of America today). What a pitiful waste of energy! This young person could have been gaining valuable training for a career, but instead was forced to devote many hours to the intricacies of eliminating multiple choice options and learning really basic skills, perhaps in algebra that should have been learned in 7th (not 8th) grade, that will do him essentially no good at all in the new life that is just getting started, and started badly, in a state so disastrously led. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How to Choose a Middle School

Peg Tyre has recently published a highly useful book, The Good School. In it she cautions parents that there is no such thing as a perfect school, and even great schools may be hard to find; she argues that they should be happy to find a good school in their neighborhood, and shows how to find one and how to make it better once you've committed to it. Because school choices are steadily increasing, this book is timely.

Parents will inspect to see that the schools under consideration are safe, clean, and conveniently located, and that the pupils, teachers, and managers in them are happy. After these initial considerations, parents should be informed about the schools' curricula, to be assured that their children will not be left behind by the lack of ambition and rigor in the school leaders' educational vision. For example, if a school doesn't start algebra until 9th grade, those students are already finished, in the final outcomes they can expect, with regard to being competitive for selective universities: they won't study calculus in high school, whereas all pupils at One World Secondary School will study at least some calculus, some as early as the tenth grade.  Again, if they don't start learning a new second language before high school, they will not be ready,  for example, for Advanced Placement exams even by the end of 12th grade, much less be ready for content instruction in another subject through the medium of that second language, which is standard practice in European Schools and is also what we are planning for at One World Secondary.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Qualification for Higher Education

I've just finished reading a long debate about education in New Jersey (that of 8 September), and as is the case in many suburban communities in the United States, people appear generally happy about their local schools. I'm glad they're happy, but it would be nice if they had better reasons to be happy.

I'm also currently reading Kellogg on Marketing, and I want One World Secondary School to be as competitive as possible, so what could we offer that current schools don't?

In Europe there exists the concept of an educational qualification, and similar notions exist in east Asia as well. In brief, an educational qualification (the oldest in existence is Germany's Abitur--the baccalaureat of France is likewise over two centuries old) acts as both a letter of acceptance for the entire public higher education system of a country and a scholarship for a free university education, something that many American students can only dream of these days. I want the American Baccalaureate Certificate our school is proposing to be such a qualification for higher education in California and elsewhere, and am promoting the assurance of quality of the university-preparatory education that it represents. That is something that no American school can currently match, but it requires convincing people and changing minds, and that is what this blog is all about.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Educators Need to Research Admissions and Expulsions Policies

I have just read an interesting comment from one "LaborLawyer" on the fine educational blog Eduwonk. It was written in response to a summary of the findings of a recent national study on charter management organizations.

The comment focuses on inherent advantages unscrupulous charter schools abuse with regard to "skimming the cream" (as usual this metaphor regards students and their families as mindless inanimate objects waiting to get picked up) and credible expulsion threats. Also predictable is the comment's failure to recognize traditional public schools' inherent advantages with regard to capital facilities and operating budgets. But, coupled with an interesting PBS segment on the effects of Indiana's new voucher law, issues of admission, exclusion, and expulsion are once more rising into consciousness, whether in the contexts of public, chartered, or private schools.

As one still working on starting a school, and reluctantly admitting that we had better focus on opening our first school as an independent school still demonstrating the effectiveness and potential of the charter it will operate under, these issues are seen in a new light. And a first principle I would like to lay down in this regard is this one: our school's charter and practices should be entirely consistent with best regulatory practices worldwide in these matters, so as to encourage those policies and regulations to come into existence in jurisdictions all over the developed world.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On the Use of Technology in Education

Technology comes from the Greek techne, roughly "skill" or "craft", teachable knowledge, originally related to woodworking. It is associated with tools, the knowledge or skill of working with them. In Aristotle tools are considered the efficient cause of something, not its final cause; the hammer and saw that help to make a chair, but do not determine its purpose, which is for comfortable sitting.

The most extreme modern proponents of technology in education confuse these matters, however; they argue as if the purpose of education were to employ modern technology "since that is how the world is changing, and our children's educations have to be consistent with the world of the 21st century." Here the use of technology in education appears as an end rather than a means, and with the extremists, it takes up so much space as to appear the only end worth pursuing. But the hoped-for learning gains prove ever elusive; and investment in educational technology is surely one of the culprits behind the very large increases in educational spending in recent decades with no corresponding increase in student achievement. And the most damning piece of evidence against the educational use of technology came out of PISA, where it was reported that the presence of computers in a school had no effect on student learning, while the presence of computers in a student's home was strongly and negatively associated with student performance. So the purveyors of the technology-as-salvation-for-education pitch ought to be listened to with extreme skepticism.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Confucian Take on BBA in Newark

I have just read with interest Professor Pedro Noguera's "A broader and bolder approach uses education to break the cycle of poverty". Having spent seven years teaching in South Korea, and following that with teaching for seven years at Locke High School in Watts (seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine?), and having read Dr. Noguera's Unfinished Business, I comment from an unusual but informed perspective.

The BBA ("broader and bolder approach") may be the dream plan for the well-intentioned holders of cultural, financial, and social capital who are its main backers, for it fits their own ideals and uses the money this class holds to employ the expensive services this class offers, but it is unlikely to succeed as a national model, even if it succeeds locally, because it is a maximally expensive approach with little street credibility that may yet achieve little or nothing in terms of academic outcomes for its students. Of course, I would be happy to be wrong about this pessimistic forecast, but given the track record of previous attempts along these lines, I remain doubtful.

By contrast, Confucian polities like South Korea (statistically poorer than Africa 50 years ago), Shanghai (emerging from the dark persecution of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s), and Japan (recovering from utter devastation after World War II), being unable to access the generosities of BBA, were forced to look inward to develop their own resources, starting in the family home, and attack collectively the problems of urban regeneration. It is impossible to do this successfully with a closed attitude towards the outside world--the examples of North Korean juche ("self-determination"), Marcus Garvey in Haiti, and Locke High School in Watts prove the disadvantages of depending solely upon locally developed resources in building successful cultures ready to compete in the 21st century, and this realization affected my decision to reach outward, towards Green Dot Public Schools, to turn around Locke High School (although we intended a partnership, not a takeover). But charismatic efforts like that going on in Newark, even if successful, are unlikely to be sufficiently replicable to make much difference in helping the United States to better prepare its youth for the global competition they are increasingly exposed to; instead, we need better informed, and in particular internationally informed, models to adhere to.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Of GOD, Students, and Teachers

When I worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District and was mildly promoted within it, I ran across a term that exemplified that district's culture: I learned that, when some apparently nonsensical decision descended upon us mere mortals working at school sites, and we couldn't determine its rationale, we could be told, "It's for GOD," and were supposed to accept that. The inside information needed to interpret this was that "GOD" stood for "the Good Of the District".

Yesterday I learned, in an interesting conversation with a representative of the Irvine Unified School District, that my proposal for One World Secondary School around here would be unlikely to pass--not because there was anything wrong with the proposal; the reviewer thought its ideas were very good. The key point, behind the cover of "equity" (some concern that if they offered a very good program at one school and couldn't offer it at all schools to all students, they shouldn't offer it anywhere), was the financial good of our local district, which, like every district in California, has been operating on pitifully reduced funding. So the fact that the school idea is meritorious, and would obviously offer some missing competition and choice for families in Orange County, was considered irrelevant, if it wasn't for the Good Of the District.

I give up on trying to start a charter school, at least for now. Having local districts approve new schools is like having local McDonald's franchises approve new Burger Kings. This has been a clear flaw in the charter law in California, and likely in other states, and I have criticized it for years. Better might be the procedure in Sweden, which has a world-class similar system in its "free schools" (friskolor): would-be founders apply directly to the national education ministry (our state boards would be roughly equivalent), who are likely to be both more professional and less biased than the poor souls entombed in dying local districts' charter offices. Even if a school idea is great and obviously competitive (Jay Mathews kindly named ours one of the best new school ideas he came across in an informal national contest designed for our country to get serious about solving its educational problems), getting an innovative charter school authorized these days is virtually impossible unless it fits with the increasingly tightly defined criteria of districts that, bent on being seen as "high quality authorizers", are draining all of the hoped-for innovation from our education system. As happens all too often, it's the data that doesn't appear in the charter office directors' evaluations that can make all the difference to families stuck in poor communities without choice: schools that never get opened, including possibly great ones, are not items that figure into their performance reviews; only ones that do open, for better or worse, are so considered, and so the officials grow cautious.

But I still want "my school" (the former slogan of the California Charter Schools Association, which once used to back schools, rather than some "movement" as considered apart from its member schools--there's that institutional self-interest raising its ugly head again) for my son and all similarly minded families, so I think opening an independent school that will operate under the optimal charter, including its model budgetary and admissions conditions, that we have already committed to is the best idea, so that, if it works, we can still show our doubters, and especially the people in the communities we were denied the opportunity to serve, what they could have had, and perhaps still can have, if we ever open a second school.

And teachers, I read today that, using a revivification of the Stull Act, LAUSD wants to impose (rather than negotiate) its performance review system on you. Good luck to you; but based on my experience, and remembering how brief is the average tenure of an urban superintendent, it's hard to believe that this GOD's message is one you should obey.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Hermione School

Hermione is a character in the Harry Potter series. She is such an eager student that in The Prisoner of Azkaban, she pulls off the very clever trick of attending (at least) two sets of classes at the same time, with the assistance of some magic procured from Dumbledore, the school's headmaster.

The school systems of the world are multifarious, and feature a variety of virtues, some of them mutually inconsistent, but many potentially coordinable. Some of us would like to be able to help students like Hermione, by making as many of these attractive school features as possible available on a single campus. This summarizes what we have been trying to do at One World Secondary School.

The school has been in development for over four years now, originally as a kind of dream, almost fantastic school, but soon thereafter in total seriousness. It has evolved over that time, principally in response to my discovery of an ever increasing number of world class features. I have put together the best plan I can, and thank my friends for their assistance. But if the school is ever going to open to all classes of the general public, starting with a comprehensive seventh grade, now is the time for public officials in our school district and municipality to show their support; otherwise we may be just another addition to the ranks of independent schools serving those who can afford tuition, with the poorer families shut out ultimately by irresponsible charter office officials who insist on maintaining monopolistic control over the types of schools that can open in the communities they are entrusted to serve, and whose trust they have violated.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Our Achievement Gap Stems, in Part, From Our Fixation on the Achievement Gap

I just today read an excellent article in The Washington Post on Kosen, Japan's special polytechnical schools that accept students as early as 15, give them five years of vocationally oriented technical training during what would  be our high school and junior college years, and then watch them leave with an average of 20 job offers per new graduate; if they stay an extra two years and earn a diploma roughly equivalent to a master's degree, the ratio goes up to 30 job offers per graduate.

I also read today that the percentage of young Americans aged 20 to 24 who are employed has shrunk from 74 percent in 2000 to just 62 percent now, the lowest since the 1930s.

Our obsession with having our young people correctly fill in bubble sheets is severely underserving our youth. Some of them, like my own children, do pretty well on such tests, and generally still turn out all right; others, like the many I taught at Locke High School in Watts, have almost no good options available to them; and well-meaning educational leaders who moved to end (rather than modernize) their vocational programs because "each and every student is expected to go to college" have unwittingly promoted a disaster. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On the Perils of Those Assailed by the Carnegie Unit

Okay, so a measure of time is not some hairy green monster calculated to frighten children. But the Carnegie unit should frighten the American public, if the latter realized how it, though well intended and once possibly useful, is a prime player in condemning our secondary schools to second-class productivity.

Once upon a time, secondary schooling was rare; fewer than ten percent of an American cohort went to high school in 1900. But between then and 1950, high schools popped up all over the country, and attending and completing education through them became more and more normal. The Carnegie Foundation wanted to encourage high school graduation, as well as college attendance for promising pupils, and spent millions pursuing these ends; but newly expanding colleges found themselves troubled when trying to evaluate applications from students whose schools and districts used every variety of transcript summarizing the most heterogeneous high school programs. The Carnegie Foundation, trying to impose order, establish standards, and assist comparability amid this chaos, decided that a good strategy would be to mandate a set minimum of time for high school students to be in class with a teacher in order to receive credit for their labors, and they bought assent to their proposal by funding retirement benefits to teachers who would back the standard. Thus the American system of "credits" for seat time, unknown in other parts of the world, was born; the Carnegie unit was the foundation of our system of credits. (An interesting parallel is that the European Union, confronting diversity in its higher education systems similar to what Americans had in secondary schools a hundred years earlier, has recently resorted to the same solution through its European Credit Transfer System.)

But how is this monstrous, you might ask? It forces our schools to offer a few subjects (English, mathematics, science, social studies, and to a lesser extent foreign languages) in roughly equal proportions in all four years of high school, in a dull, monotonous routine: "Period one I have algebra, period two science, period three English", and so on, an American student might say, regardless of the day of the week. By contrast, if you asked European or Asian students for their schedules, they would have to ask which day you were referring to, since it would change depending upon the day of the week; and particularly favored subjects, or those particularly necessary for a student's future, get more time than others, which appear in the schedule largely to ensure breadth, and at least a minimum attainment of some essentials in subjects which are likely undeserving of all the time necessary to earn a Carnegie unit (typically around 50 minutes five times a week for a school year): information technology is a good example of the latter.

Another problem is that our system grants credit for class attendance and teacher satisfaction (reflected in what we call "grades"), rather than for verifiable, public demonstrations of learning, such as external examinations.

Therefore a European or Asian student may well be studying ten or eleven subjects while our best are studying six; and their future mathematicians may be studying as many as 400 hours of mathematics, or fewer than 100, depending upon student desire and aptitude, in a year when our most and least enthusiastic, and everyone in between, will be studying (except at One World Secondary School) around 150, in all five or six subjects, unvaryingly, thanks to an innovation a bit over a hundred years old and a long way out of date.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A New Contract for Teachers

Bill and Melinda Gates yesterday had one of their editorials published in the Wall Street Journal. In it they call for a personnel system for teachers that would resemble those found in private industry, including that which was implemented at Microsoft. While raising the professional status of teachers is clearly an advisable goal, whether pursuing the business analogy in public education will prove productive can certainly be called into question. One reason is that private corporations do not have to evince the social consciences that public institutions are called on to have; they can cast off outdated equipment without complaint from many aside from environmentalists, and they cast off unsatisfactory employees with similar disregard, although the backlash against practices that regard human beings as disposable is clearly growing.

But wise educators of all persuasions know that any improvement in teachers' status is likely to require a new contract for teachers. What should the main features of such contracts be?

One main feature would surely be to define professional qualifications for the teachers. In this regard, recent moves to promote alternative certification, including especially those that only include a few weeks of summer training such as that offered by Teach For America (TFA), are clearly moves in the wrong direction. While I recruited and trained TFA teachers at Locke High School, and became and remain friends with several of them and admire them, that was in keeping with the exigencies originally envisioned for the programme, which was a stopgap for urban and rural schools desperate to recruit full-time teachers, even  from TFA, in preference to the succession of even shorter term substitutes then inhabiting many of our neediest classrooms. In short, it was a desperation move, and the graduates from such pitifully inadequate programmes should never replace fully licenced teachers, particularly under circumstances where thousands of the latter have been laid off due to reduced government resources.

A second main feature I advocate is pay for performance, rather than just for credentials plus seniority. While all teachers employed ought to be licenced professionals, it does not follow that they are all equally effective. Those that do the best job ought, in general, to be the best paid. While there are legitimate debates ongoing about how to decide who is doing the best job, the Gateses, who I should add do not call in their Journal editorial for reduced licencing standards, are correct in their desire to link better pay with better performance.

There are many more features to an ideal teachers' contract like that we have proposed at One World Secondary School, but let us hope that at least these, regarding the qualifications, performance, and compensation to be expected for professional teachers, will be remembered by those making tough decisions in the coming months.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How Congress Could Help All Children Get Ahead

Continuing this debate from where it left off yesterday, what we don't need is to remain fixated on the stale debate between the (mostly Democratic) backers of relatively recent initiatives that have produced some improvements but seem unlikely to help us reach President Obama's goal of a world-class education for all our children (enunciated at the MLK memorial opening ceremony last weekend) and those (mostly Republican) reactionaries who want to take us back to the states-rights policies of administrations in the 1990s and earlier, which identified a Nation At Risk but failed to do anything useful about it.

Instead, we should remember that ours is a federal (not a unitary national) system of government, look at what other successful federal systems of education are doing, and apply intelligent lessons to our own situation.

I have previously championed Norway's as perhaps the world's best educational system, but Norway's is a unitary national government ruling a country the size of one of our states. Instead I would direct Congress to look at the example of Australia, which has a federal system of government like ours and rules over a comparable extent of territory (though not of population).

The most important lesson we can learn from Australia's (limited) federal assistance to education, the lesson I'd most like Congress to copy, is its provision of federal funding for most of the 85-90% of the operating budget that privately managed schools, which in America would include chartered, free, and independent schools, receive from the government (Australian states kick in the rest of the government funding, while parents also contribute to private school tuition fees, the amount depending upon the families' socioeconomic status). This option has proved increasingly popular in Australia, where steadily more and more families (above one-third) choose private education for their children's secondary education, where the expected national educational attainment (that is, the number of years of schooling successfully completed) for today's generation of students leads the world, and where they host the fastest-rising, most serious competitor among tertiary education sectors to our dominance of the international universities market.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


This is a follow-up to my previous posts NCLB=NCGA, YCLB and on the world's best school systems.

Senator Harkin's draft for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which was renamed No Child Left Behind after Mr. Bush's comprehensive transformation of the legislation in 2001) has reawakened debate over federal policy with regard to our schools, and that is to the good. Alexander Russo has recently warned that reformers had better weigh in on this issue or be left to rue the consequences of staying on the sidelines, and so I thought I might address the matter.

No Child Left Behind did not prevent millions of children from being left behind, and reduced and demeaned our public education system. Since this legislation represents our best opportunity for establishing a world-class education system in our country, we should have honest, fruitful discussions about it, and get the final product right.

I want my child to get ahead, and I am confident other parents feel the same way, so I almost titled this post "NCLB --> YCGA", the latter meaning "Your Child Gets Ahead". But this is public policy, and cannot restrict itself to private motivations; it has to provide for all children, including those whose parents do not participate in their children's educations, and it has to recognize that we all have to care for the young generation, whether we are parents or not (for surely adults will tend to be differently motivated towards education depending upon whether they are parents of current students, future students, former students who have left school, or are not parents at all).

Therefore No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a failure, needs to be transformed into a plan most likely to help All Children Get Ahead (ACGA). And I'll present a few founding principles for such a plan tomorrow.

Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Freedom to Advance in One's Studies

Joe Nathan seems like a good guy. Yesterday I got into a kind of spontaneous debate with him on Alexander Russo's Facebook page. The topic was selection in (chartered and magnet) school admissions. I recommended to him a paper I read about a year ago that was published by two professors working with the Sutton Trust in the United Kingdom.

The Sutton Trust has an overall social and educational agenda similar to WestEd and myriad similar groups in the United States, so when it published a report advocating selective admissions in secondary schools, I was intrigued. Crucially, the report, "Choice and Selection in School Admissions", demonstrates that, contrary to Andreas Schleicher's preferred narrative coming out of the OECD, countries that practice selective admissions have a larger achievement gap, but also produce more total knowledge throughout their student populations, than do countries like ours that generally (our exceptions are mostly in our eminent private sector) maintain open, non-competitive admissions all the way through secondary school.

Put baldly but briefly, our country faces a choice: we can have a narrow achievement gap among a generation of generally ignorant young people, or we can raise a generation of happy young people, much more fully and fulfillingly employed as well as more knowledgeable overall, who, not worried about being "left behind" in a single "race" to a single "top", have given up being measured by a single standard, that of the highly educated ruling class whose self-love impels them towards the mass reproduction of their own self-image.

Friday, October 14, 2011

On Charter School Admissions

I just read an interesting article in the LA Weekly about preferences for "founding parents" in schools chartered by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The article recounts parents who "found" schools several years after they have opened, which was in some cases before these "founders" had ever heard of the schools in question.

According to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which is what I use on a daily basis for defining standard English, to found means to "establish", which could be construed by the underhanded in an equally ambiguous way, or "to plan and begin the building of (a settlement)". In this latter, common sense, schools can't be founded again and again, year after year, by new groups of people.

But this raises the larger, more interesting question of how admissions to charter schools ought to be handled. UNICEF's Convention on the Rights of the Child offers a first principle: such rights "are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, regardless of race, colour, gender, language, religion, opinions, origins, wealth, birth status or ability and therefore apply to every human being everywhere." Offering certain families preferential "founding" status as described in the article discriminates on the basis of wealth, and therefore violates the rights of children and should be forbidden.

But a deep irony is that, because of the obstructionism, dishonesty, and incompetence of charter offices like that of L.A. Unified, some schools with high ideals may be tempted to become private, and therefore need to charge tuition and engage in this very same discrimination they have tried so valiantly to avoid, in order to prove themselves and eventually establish the bargaining position necessary to achieve their original visions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Of the Visit of the Secretary of Education

I went to Secretary Duncan's town hall in Pico Rivera last night. Politician after politician (the local superintendent, local congressional representatives, and so on) rose and gave one meaningless speech after another, each person claiming a spot at the podium as an attempt to advance her (coincidentally, they were mostly female) career while pretending to advance the public interest by proferring words and proposals that showed how clearly they just don't understand how badly out of touch with young people's needs they actually are. Eventually Secretary Duncan spoke, gave a brief version of an educational stump speech with some data estimates thrown in to support the American Jobs Act, which was going down to defeat as he spoke, then left after listening to a series of speeches masquerading as questions and having his picture taken while receiving some polite, meaningless gift from the host (he didn't bother to open it, nor did anyone ask him to); his assistants remained to answer the long series of speakers at the two microphones in the school's gym, but no one was really listening to anyone else, nor was there much reason why they should, the content was so pointless. The Secretary had a fund-raiser (I tried to find the link to this story, but it has expired, the world has moved on) to attend on the West Side with people who do matter after his 45 minutes with people in southeast Los Angeles who don't; and thus plutocracy masquerades as democracy, as Wall Street is occupied in its several dens around the country, as our capitalist press (whose links don't expire so readily) is reporting.

Monday, October 10, 2011

21st Century Schools

APEC, the awkwardly named Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, has established among its educational priorities developing "21st century competencies and skills". Disregarding the near redundancy in that term, the international group has done a good job in defining what those abilities are, building on the basis laid down by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. So we have a reasonably good idea of what these (learning and innovation, career and life, digital literacy) skills look like; what about the schools that will develop them?

My expertise is in secondary education, so I will confine myself to that level, rather than primary school, here (if you want to see 21st century universities and polytechnics, we already have those in abundance in America; it's the K-12 system that most needs attention). But a 21st century secondary school should build upon a firm foundation laid down during primary school, and might be considered an extension of it, like the middle school portion of a Nordic comprehensive school providing nine years of high quality basic education for everyone. But that middle school would be better transformed into a side-by-side pair of modern single sex middle schools, where boys and girls inhabit their own sections of a common campus and learn the same curricula under separated, optimally pedagogically adapted conditions, an ideal perhaps best executed in east Asia (I taught such students in South Korea). But these middle schools should connect in turn to a three-year coeducational upper secondary school, one providing a high quality general academic education preparing its students for university in the manner of a French-German lycee (Gymnasium) preparing its students for a qualification entitling them to a university education at public expense: let's call it an American baccalaureate certificate, or an international Matura. And such a publicly funded, privately managed school (each of these two factors as independent variables being associated with higher student achievement) might ideally conclude in a magnet school resembling a United World College.

Such a secondary school, operating under a federal charter on a state-of-the-art campus (part of the definition of "state-of-the-art" including the fact that it could be built and operated on ordinary, rather than extraordinary, capital funding levels for contemporary public school campuses), would be optimally designed as a flagship to make America's schools truly competitive and able to "win the future" in the present-day world. Its description also describes what I am trying to create now.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Steve Jobs, Arne Duncan, and a Vision for 21st Century Secondary Schools

Steve Jobs died this week, as did Al Davis. As a diehard Raiders fan, I should have been more affected by the latter's death than the former's; I've never bought an Apple product, for example, but I did watch every Raiders game for many years (and I watched today's exciting one). But reading obituaries and viewing retrospectives of their work has forced me to focus on a man with a passion for deeply meaningful work, rather than on one obsessed with what is in the long run a distraction.

Various aspects of the Steve Jobs story are intriguing; for example, I was one of many who reposted his Stanford commencement speech. But watching a Charlie Rose interview with three of his friends and competitors, I was struck by how his was a story of "Build it, and they will come" (from the great baseball film Field of Dreams). Jobs and Apple created demand for products people never realized they needed until they saw them and tried them.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (neither a football nor a baseball player, but a basketball one) will be visiting Southern California this week, and I will go to see him on Tuesday evening. I've been contemplating the question, "What advice would I give him, if I had the chance, based on my seven-year teaching career in Korea and my experience with converting Locke High School into a chartered school, about how to make American education really competitive for the 21st century?" And I think I may have found an answer in our ruminations on Steve Jobs: "Build it, and they will come."

What we need is a vision for what world-class schools for the 21st century would really look like, and then we need to build and test a replicable model school to see if it will really work in practice as we envision it; and if so, we need to replicate such truly competitive schools across this land of ours.

So in my next post, I will try to describe what a school that might truly help us win the future might look like.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On Parents and School Governance

In recent blog posts, Diane Ravitch wrote to Deborah Meier in opposition to the Parent Trigger legislation and movement in California and other states, to which the Parent Revolution responded very tartly. I will forgo the opportunity to engage in any mudslinging and, in the spirit in which this blog was founded (see my first post or three for my opinions about how to manage education controversies), simply address the root issue these spirited education controversialists have joined: what should the proper role for public school parents be with respect to the governance of their children's schools?

The existence of choice and school quality come immediately to mind in approaching this issue. If I don't like the food or service in my local coffee shop, I can go to another; there is no public issue. Similarly, if we might imagine a large district featuring many different kinds of schools, one where all parents had complete freedom to enrol their children wherever they wished, or one with similar diversity of options where all parents were rich or possessed vouchers, this again would be unlikely to be a public issue. Or if schools were a local monopoly but all of them were of high quality (right now I'm waiting for my son to come home from his public elementary school; every school in Irvine is a 10 on a scale of 1-10, according to the Great Schools website, so my wife and I have never considered sending him or his older brother to any other than the school right next to our home), this would again remain likely uncontroversial (in spite of this, I am considering offering our school design to the public here in Irvine, something I have not yet previously attempted). But what should one do when one's children are locked into a local school that is terrible, where there are no alternatives due to local poverty eliminating any conceivable market for private education, and where the local board refuses to countenance any possibility of a charter school opening in the neighborhood or any other vigorous reform of a situation they find tolerable?

If I interpret Professor Ravitch's column correctly, she would recommend parents politically agitate for reform within the system, through the public political process (i.e. school board elections), and not try other measures such as the Parent Trigger which she thinks should be illegal. Her column mentions other measures--"If a school is dysfunctional, those who are in charge of the district are obliged to find out why and to do whatever they can to fix the problems. If the principal is incompetent, he or she should be removed. If there are teachers who are incompetent, they should be removed. If the school is doing poorly because it lacks necessary resources, the district is obliged to do whatever it can to improve the school." But these suggestions are irrelevant to people in a position like we were in in Watts in 2007, since they had either already been tried (five principals in six years) or were impossible (iron-clad teachers' contract, deteriorating district finances), so we are left with our original question: What are the parents whose children are stuck in such awful schools to do?

We should assume they can't move and don't have any choices because of a local district monopoly and zoning policies. What are they to do? Let's also eliminate advocating illegal actions like the recently popular trend of lying to get one's children into a better (usually wealthier) school district or zone; advocating law breaking is bad public policy in any other than a temporary, desperate situation. Then what?

Regardless of disparaging aspersions  being cast on its originators' intentions ("whose true purpose is to undermine public education"), the Parent Trigger law (officially known as "The Parent Empowerment Act" in California, where it originated) was written, passed by a majority of legislators in two chambers, and signed by a governor from a party different from that of its authors certainly not with the intention of undermining public education, but of advancing equity. It specifically benefits those parents who are the least privileged, the most powerless in our country, whose children all too often suffer the most from our (I'm talking about us, we adults, not someone else) failure to establish educational equity. I certainly do not suppose Professor Ravitch is opposed to equity.

She contends that this leads to the parents involved acting like owners, which is improper, since such schools are community property and public goods belonging to all taxpayers, including the childless or those with grown-up children. If the changes ensuing from the Parent Trigger were permanent or resulted in a change of ultimate governance over the school and its property, this argument could be sustained; but the changes are not permanent (in the case of McKinley Elementary or Locke High School, the charters only last for five years and must be renewed), and ultimate governance and ownership of the public property involved remains with the school district, not the entering management; so what is involved is actually at best a radical change of management rather than ownership, and the argument is rendered invalid.

I believe parents should be involved in the governance of their schools, and not just through advisory councils like those supported (one would hope with sincerity) by the American Federation of Teachers; and therefore under the By-Laws of the school I am proposing, a position on our school's board has been reserved for an elected parent representative (along with a teacher representative, and a student representative, on our eight-person board). This is farther in the direction of parent empowerment than many educators, and some parents, are prepared to go; but I believe in representative democracy, and this policy is consistent with those of the European Schooling Helsinki, agreed to by a government whose educational administration both Professor Ravitch and I much admire, and is a best practice in other international schools around the world. We have so much to learn from the other 95% of humanity that do not live in the United States, if only we would stop squabbling and learn.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On Charter School Quality

I just read an editorial in New Jersey's Star-Ledger extolling Governor Christie's charter school authorization policy. In particular, the editorial refers to a new, "more rigorous review process, based on the best practices of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, the gold standard in this field."

I have looked at these in the past, and am about to review them, since it appears they have been updated; but I retain a certain initial skepticism towards such. I am not saying that every charter school that applies deserves public funding; even in Sweden, whose charter (they call them friskolor, "free schools") school laws I admire, about half of all applications are rejected. But "rigor" and "quality" in charter school authorizing, while sounding unobjectionable, can be dangerous temptations, since behind this mindset is the assumption that the authorizers will know quality when they see it; and if that were the case, then the authorizing districts should already have a record of recognizing talent when selecting the principals of district-run schools and of successfully choosing and promulgating their own innovative plans; and if that were the case, the public wouldn't be clamoring for the opportunity to start charter schools in the first place, at least in large cities with dysfunctional education systems, like Los Angeles.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to Not Make a Difference for Poor Children

Today I will reprise a theme derived from my former career as a teacher of English rhetoric.

I have read that Aristotle invented logic because he tired of hearing invalid arguments made in the public assemblies in Athens.

I have in mind a fairly obscure blogger whom I am not going to name because he doesn't deserve more attention than that he's currently not getting. I have no reason to draw attention to ideas that are deservedly being ignored; instead, I want to draw attention to a style of argumentation that needs to be expunged from the public discourse to the greatest extent possible under our present conditions of open communications under what still resemble democratic governing institutions.

The blogger I am thinking of has been accused of actually stalking and harassing some of my friends in a way bordering on the illegal, but I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and therefore will assume that his objections to some of the political strategies and ends of the educational reform movement are sincere. I will only concentrate on style here, not substance or personal motivation. Therefore I will quote from a specimen of the vicious rhetoric employed, only changing proper names so as to spare his victims from further embarrassment; then, resurrecting my English teacher editorial skills, I will rewrite the paragraph in a manner I think ethical and possibly persuasive; and then I will close with a brief comment.  

There's a lot of ugliness to choose from in the latest blog post published, but I suppose I might as well start with the beginning, to illustrate how relentlessly assaulted the reader of such diatribes is made to feel right from the beginning. (Again, I am changing names so as to protect the victims of this train of insults from further injury, and so as to leave the investigation of any truths behind the claims being made for some other venue.)

"The scoundrels, scandal-mongers, and assorted criminals at the so-called Solidarity Insurrection have been very active lately. Meeting with other astroturf groups on a statewide privatization bus tour. Hosting meetings with their ideological counterparts of the extreme right-wing Midwestern Institute. Lying to Father Smith. Covering up the fact that their Executive Director, that foppish millionaire from Mount John Paul — Joe Houston, was illegally lobbying the New York City Board of Education. They've even taken to smearing actual grass-roots parent organizations like Guardians Throughout the United States in high profile venues like ABC's Miseducation Nation.

With all the poverty pimping and privatization pushing they've been up to, I wondered if" and so on. 

There is much to analyze in these eight lines (which turned brown when I copied them into my blogger program, and I left them such, as reminiscent of the material they amount to), but I will only highlight the writer's diction, in particular his dependence upon personal insult and his choice of predictably harsh, ugly, but also mechanical, stereotyped, imaginationless verbs. The focus is immediately placed on the human beings, whom the writer hardly knows, of the organization he opposes, rather than on their ideas or policy positions: we are told they are "scoundrels, scandal-mongers, and assorted criminals", all without evidence or even identifying the scandals they are selling or the crimes they are committing, unless trying to improve the lives of underprivileged children be one. If this were printed in a traditional publication, the publisher might be indicted for libel, but in the shadowy world of the blogosphere, cowards can use their avatars to publish all manner of defamation. Similarly, he starts off the description of the organization's activities with "meeting" and " hosting", but these apparently don't sound bad enough, so he moves on to "lying", "covering up", "illegally lobbying" and "smearing", before descending into the cheap, mechanical alliteration, probably borrowed, his only attempt at a stylistic flourish, of "poverty pimping and privatization pushing". There is no evidence presented in the text to support any of these accusations of nefarious activities--the writer depends instead on links to his own previous, similar, evidenceless, unread mud-fests on his own blog (there is precious little independent support for any of these accusations)--and the main question that arises is, Why wouldn't a sane reader with better ways to spend time not flee this site in horror?

Now let's return to the assumption (hard to believe at this point, but I've looked around at other things he's written, and some of his positions are actually ones I agree with) that this individual means well, even if his political indoctrination has led him into adopting some of the most unpopular and democratically ineffective tactics ever devised. Let's assume that he really wants to help poor children have a chance at getting an education equal to that of wealthier people, and believes that a unified, traditional public school system is the best way to achieve this. He could simply say so, without all of the personal invective that gets in the way of this message. He could reasonably comment on current affairs like public school choice, charter schools, or parental empowerment, supporting some initiatives and opposing others, without depicting his opponents as the minions of evil forces from whom the world needs to be saved.

With this in mind, I'll attempt a rewrite. 

"The organizers at the so-called Solidarity Insurrection have been very active lately. Meeting with other supposed grassroots groups on a statewide bus tour promoting the division of our public school system, hosting meetings with the conservative Midwestern Institute, prevaricating in Father Smith, and covering up the fact that their Executive Director, that millionaire from Mount John Paul, Joe Houston, was reprimanded for lobbying the New York City Board of Education, they've even taken to questioning the funding of  actual grass-roots parent organizations like Guardians Throughout the United States in high profile venues like ABC's Education Nation.

With all the privatization promotion they've been up to, I wondered if  and so on. This paragraph is still hostile to Solidarity Insurrection, but by my reducing or removing the extremes in the rhetoric, the writer sounds possibly credible, and readers may continue to the end of the piece. 

In my experience of public education controversy, I have come to believe that people on all sides of the debates show up to voice opinions in their free time because they care about the futures of the next generation; and even when people advocate policies I sincerely think are short-sighted or likely to prove ineffective, I do not forget this, and do not allow my own soul to descend to the depths where I become some fighting spirit determined to pull others down into the muck I inhabit. All education bloggers should take this same vow. 

Or some can continue as they are, and watch their blogs sink into the depths, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of Oversimplification and Education

I just finished reading a piece in The Economist, "Flipping the Classroom". It begins by detailing the laudable work of Sal Khan in Silicon Valley, which is leading to great classroom success in teaching mathematics to children in the 5th-7th grades among local schools in and around Mountain View and Los Altos. The Khan Academy also has great potential for supplementing middle school science instruction, at least. But then the article morphs into a discussion of teacher appraisal systems, and tries to connect Khan Academy results to the latter.

This tendency to seize on a success in a limited span of the academic spectrum with a limited section of the total student population and to then apply the principles discovered to every subject and all students is typical of people from fields outside education when they venture (as they so frequently do) to publish their opinions on how to solve the problems inside American education (I haven't noted this tendency elsewhere). These opinions are almost always, in a word, simpleminded. The Economist is actually quite a sophisticated publication; but to pretend that Khan Academy-style dashboards can properly measure the success of all teachers in all subjects is simple-minded in the extreme. Exhaustively running through all the objections that might legitimately be raised to such a proceeding would pointlessly tire me out; but I will mention just a few.

The central question here is, How should a teacher's professional performance be appraised? I will quote from One World Secondary School's contract for teachers to provide a model for what I support: 

The criteria for assessing this are knowledge and understanding of curricula; planning, teaching, and class management; assessment, recording, reporting, and accountability for student achievement; pastoral and co-curricular support for and involvement with students; and other professional responsibilities, including approach towards professional development as well as interaction and cooperation skills.

Of these five categories of criteria, only one has to do with student performance on assessable work, whether formative or summative, and that is the second ("assessment, recording, reporting, and accountability for student achievement"), and only a portion of this is attributable to what the students do; the vast majority of these assessment criteria are determined by what the teacher does, that is, by the one being assessed (and promoted or fired, in The Economist's vision), not by someone else. Deepening one's understanding of the curricula one teaches, planning for and managing classes, and supporting students outside of class time are also very important professional responsibilities for a school like One World Secondary, and for nearly any other secondary school as well; and yet note the qualification, for I do not believe, in spite of my support for this particular set of appraisal criteria, that it is necessarily the right answer for every school in existence; and therefore our approach to teacher appraisal, and to commenting on educational issues in general, is not so simpleminded.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lawyering For America

I have been reading with some horror accounts of the Los Angeles Times's decision to publish value-added scores for individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (my one-time employer), and in particular the story of the suicide of one of the teachers named in the paper with the implication that he was a bad teacher. It's easy to feel, under these circumstances, that the editors of the Times have blood on their hands.

Accountability is a concept that has spread from the business world into education across the English-speaking world for the last two decades, and has become allied to another characteristic of the English-speaking peoples, the tradition of a free press, to produce a marked emphasis on reporting school results. Recently, this has shifted, due to some suspect reasoning that I have questioned in a separate post, from reporting on accountable public schools to reporting on accountable public school educators (especially teachers and principals).

Some make the lazy argument that there is no other profession in which practitioners are not held accountable for their results; but in other professions such accountable results discussions mostly take place in private offices between employees and their immediate supervisors, not in the public press. Such reporting is bad public policy and a disservice to the public. Among other effects, one can well anticipate that it will drive some young people who might be considering teaching as a career into other occupations, and so drive up the cost of education to the public by reducing the supply of teachers. By contrast, I believe that Scotland has an admirable system of educational accountability, which highlights the public posting of inspection reports along with the results on upper secondary examinations that have real consequences for the students, instead of our system foolishly designed with no real incentives to prevent students from making funny face designs on their multiple choice Scantron forms, which used to happen at Locke High School when I first started teaching there (who would do that on an SAT that they had paid for?).

But I have a proposal for those who take extreme positions regarding reporting the results of accountable professionals: let's impose what's being forced on teachers on some other professionals. Failing hospitals don't just produce substandard scores, they kill people, as was believed to be the case in the community surrounding the King-Drew Medical Center in Watts when I was working nearby at Locke High. Perhaps it's not enough that this hospital was shuttered, and only allowed to reopen under different management some years later (a hospital turnaround); why don't we go after its doctors by name, and publicly name in a large-circulation newspaper doctors whose patient mortality rate exceeds the norm anticipated? We can come up with associated terms corresponding to value-added metrics for these bad doctors; perhaps the mortality-added measure of Doctor Murderer? Wouldn't that have a salutary effect upon the medical community? 

Or how about lawyers? They can kill too, instead of just producing disappointing results on nearly meaningless tests; culpable negligence on the part of a defence lawyer, for example, can lead to innocent human beings being put to death in countries practicing capital punishment. So they too might have their mortality-added measures calculated; or perhaps other metrics for allowing criminals to escape conviction (this would let us calculate, and publicly report, a prosecutor's crime-added metric), or for false incarceration, or contribution to general injustice.

Of course, if we publicly humiliated other professionals in this way, we would probably hurt education, since we can anticipate that the supply of young people willing to subject themselves to this form of shaming would be diminshed, and a decrease in supply would drive up the cost of a doctor's or lawyer's labours in a free market economy; and a major reason why American schools are so thinly staffed, in terms of student-teacher ratios, is because American teachers are relatively expensive compared to their peers overseas, but still feel underpaid since their salaries are so low compared to the sky-high costs of American professionals in other careers like law and medicine.

But I can think of another solution for that, as well: let's introduce new, alternative certification programmes for law and medicine, programmes that would increase the supply of the practitioners, and thus drive down the wages, of these professions by taking recent college grads, giving them six weeks of supervised summer training in hospitals and law firms, and then unleashing these ambitious young people on the public.

One name comes immediately to mind: anyone want to sign up for Lawyering For America?

The doctors' equivalent forces me to think a bit longer . . . what do you think of Meds For America?