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.