Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Awful Waste of "Senior Year"

Not, however, if you are at university.

The culture of the American high school is largely trickle-down from that of American universities' colleges, as seen in the ambiguity of the signifiers "freshman", "sophomore", "junior", and "senior", which in the United States can refer to either a year at university (the older usage) or in high school. The key linking event was the deliberations of the Committee of Ten in 1892, which was convened to establish coordinated curricula for American high schools, which were newly expanding from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, by which time the high school graduation rate had increased from under 10% to over 70% of the annual cohort. With university presidents such as Charles Elliot of Harvard in charge of this key committee, the only conception of the American high school was for college preparation; vocational training was never considered, since America usually had a labour shortage and young men (a woman's place was elsewhere) could pretty easily find work after finishing elementary school in the eighth grade, or joining the paid workforce even earlier.

But young people in their mid-teens are considerably less mature than those around 20, and while college students have been shown, in Making the Most of College and elsewhere, to be able to handle romantic relationships, sports, and work without their academic success being negatively affected, this is not true of younger teens, when these distractions, encouraged by the culture of the standard comprehensive high school, considerably detract from American students' academic performance, to the point where they have fallen significantly behind their foreign competitors by the end of high school.

Worst of all is the awful waste of senior year, when students, upon submitting their college applications, often drift from one mindless celebration (of what? future unemployment?) to the next, such as homecoming, the winter dance, senior ditch day, various dress-silly days, the prom, awards night, and graduation -- but what American young people are graduating to is increasingly unclear.

By contrast, I have been studying the culture of Terminale, the last year of secondary school in a French lycee. You won't find any of the above popular activities there; students must study for their baccalaureat, which, once passed, confers free admission to public universities in pursuit of three-year bachelor's degrees, with all expenses paid for by the state. The work is hard, with many practice tests, long hours, and regular studying; but the payoff is real, not some meaningless scroll, again imitating higher education, that prepares students for nothing but a letdown. And this serious use of the last year of secondary school is not particular to France; it is common throughout the developed world, where meaningful external examinations are prepared for at the end of secondary school, with significant consequences for the students, in comparison with America's current testing to grade the teachers. The malady "senioritis" is unheard of in any of these countries outside North America. Meanwhile, our seniors party away, as if they had something like a college diploma to celebrate; they don't, and even the latter is increasingly uncertain security in the face of global competition.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Switzerland Remains on Top of the Mountain

Last week, new data emerged from the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College, which, together with a report from McKinsey on youth unemployment around the world, led me to reconsider my previous evaluations of education systems around the world. While the TIMSS and PIRLS data proved valuable, as representing an approach to the assessment of mathematics, science, and reading complementary to PISA and with fresher results, the McKinsey report ultimately did not; but I was led to renew some previous desk research I had done on different systems' abilities to connect students with special needs to employment, and was able to find more systematic data than I had previously, which also represents an improvement in my overall evaluations. I connected these results with some more recent desk research I had separately done on top universities around the world, thus including in my assessment the abilities of different systems to serve students on the other end of the scholastic abilities spectrum, and in the end came out with what I believe to be my best assessment of different education systems to date, the results of which I will now reveal.

I remain committed to my previous judgement that Switzerland, in all its diversity, has the best education system in the world. While creditable in all five categories (attainment, achievement, serving the underprivileged, serving the most promising, and connecting to a modern economy), it is especially Switzerland's ability to serve students at the extremes of the spectrum of scholastic abilities that helps to push it beyond all its competitors. Then, in a second tier, I would place (in alphabetical order, so as not to claim extreme precision to what is inevitably a judgement about what matters most in education and how to measure these features) the systems of Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Singapore. The latter two have risen in my estimation because of Singapore's world-leading results in TIMSS and PIRLS and because both countries, along with Switzerland, are among the few where the disabled have a better than 50% chance of being employed, in contrast to a European Union average of 40% and a U.S. average of 39.9%.

The country with the best record of employing the disabled, Iceland, is nonetheless the one that has taken the most notable plunge in my estimate, since I could not find a single Icelandic university ranked in the top 500 in the world in either the Shanghai or the QS rankings. A gifted young Icelander may have little choice but to go abroad for higher education, particularly of an advanced kind; and no top class education system can have such a grievous deficiency. New Zealand declines in my estimation for a similar deficiency, although the University of Auckland is one I would gladly have a relationship with for my school; and Finland drops a bit (it is now joined in a wider third tier by England, France, Germany, Korea, the Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden, and the United States) because of some stagnation in its TIMSS and PIRLS scores, while its main competitors are improving, and because of its limited excellence in higher education compared with the peers of the University of Helsinki, a very strong institution, but Finland's only university ranked in the top 100 in the world.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Assessing 21st Century Competences

"In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

Thus Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opined to the gathered leaders of the Inter-American Development Bank earlier this month. I have been writing a series of posts stimulated by this speech, and wish to discuss this paragraph.

Yesterday I defined at greater length a set of competences that agrees with the secretary's pithier enumeration. But America is transfixed by educational assessment at the present time, and a question arises: if these are the competences we want our students to acquire, how can we assess whether they are in fact developing them?

Clearly not with the 20th century tests that are currently in the headlines, necessary though those are. It's clear that some of these competences can be assessed at a fixed time in a public arena, but many can't, including all three the secretary speaks of above.

The one country that I know has made a first serious attempt down this road is France. In that country, students concluding middle school (at the end of what would be our ninth grade) take a national examination, the brevet, which confers a diploma, but does not affect the students' right to proceed further with their education. It is set at the age when, some generations ago, young French would typically conclude their education, and includes public assessments in language arts, mathematics, and social studies (history, geography, and civics). It is being modernized, with additional certifications of competence in a foreign language, computing, and art history, and is accompanied by "a common base of fundamental knowledge and skills" (le socle commun de connaissance et de competences) that all young French are to master. Interestingly, documented mastery of these fundamental competences, which are based on the earlier efforts I named two posts back, is now a requirement for students to gain this national diploma. This assessment requirement began in 2011, and presumably didn't go smoothly, since already it is being reformed and simplified; but this is a noble effort, one we should be following and preparing to contribute to; for "no student should have an education that is less than that provided by other states or other countries" (Stewart, A World-Class Education, 83). And I submit that age 15 is the right time for this assessment, since that, the end of common schooling, is when young French begin to diverge in their paths between general and vocational education, a feature also of the top education system, Switzerland's, which we would be wise to follow in this respect, as well.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Synthesizing 21st Century Competences Into a Profile

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, in Five Minds for the Future, defines (in the words of the book's jacket cover) "the cognitive abilities that will command a premium in the years ahead", and one of these is the synthesizing mind. I have such a proclivity, and have produced a synthesis of the various competences described in yesterday's post that we hope to help our future graduates to acquire, ones I wish our current high schools were producing but in general are not. Following that is a profile of what we want One World Learners to become, which synthesizes the work that Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel have done with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, as well as that of Professor Gardner in his book quoted above and of Harvard's Tony Wagner in his The Global Achievement Gap and Creating Innovators. Both of the following quotations are from the same internal document I mentioned yesterday.

"The competences of One World learners

"One World learners (OWLs) will prioritize learning to know and learning to do so as to facilitate the innovative, interactive use of tools such as information technology via communication in the English language, thus enabling our students to act autonomously, with a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, in their 21st century world, while also gaining the social and civic competences to live together in increasingly heterogeneous groups. Their competences will be demonstrated through superior achievements in the priority academic content areas of English, mathematics, science, and additional languages, as well as in the overarching competence of learning to learn, which will be vitally assisted by the students’ digital competence. Such highly competent individuals should go on to succeed in colleges and careers of their own choosing, and eventually finding good work will be a natural outcome of all that our students will have learned to do; and their competence in cultural awareness and expression should durably support their ability to live together successfully in heterogeneous groups while also supporting their most crucial final outcome, their having learned to be One World learners, with the attributes in the ideal profile that follows."

"One World Learners (OWLs) will become:
·            Disciplined enquirers who have begun mastering the critical thinking and problem-solving skills and the knowledge necessary to continue to learn within a discipline through enquiry and research. One World students will actively enjoy learning, and their love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
·          Balanced learners who understand the importance of intellectual, emotional, and physical balance to achieve a good life for themselves and others. In addition, they will study a broad, balanced curriculum, and will analyze, synthesize, and evaluate various ideas derived from the disciplines in a fair, balanced way.
·           Caring communicators who convey empathy, compassion, and respect for the needs and feelings of others. One World students will commit themselves to service, and will be able to clearly communicate, orally, in writing, and through modern media, their principled determination to make an ethical contribution to the lives of other people and to the planet as a whole.
·            Open-minded initiators who understand their own cultures and histories and are open to those of others. One World students will actively seek out other points of view and, like risk-taking entrepreneurs, will watch for and seize new opportunities, ideas, and strategies for improvement.
·            Reflective innovators who develop “right-brain” traits such as curiosity, imagination, and creativity to go with their “left-brain” skills in communication and traditional disciplinary learning. In addition, our students will learn to become reflective on their experience, understanding their own strengths and limitations as they strive towards wisdom.
·            Knowledgeable, collaborating leaders who explore great issues, ideas, and concepts, thereby acquiring in-depth knowledge across a broad range of disciplines. They will often acquire necessary information through digital, collaborative enquiry, thereby gaining the computing, ICT, and social skills to responsibly work in teams with networks of people who may come from vastly different cultures and also to use reasoning and persuasion to lead and to learn. 
·            Flexible adapters who are ready to change with a changing economy and a changing world. Because they will have become life-long learners, One World graduates will have the self-reliant career skills, productivity, and sense of accountability to deal with our planet’s increasingly complex problems in the 21st century."

       Tomorrow I will conclude this series, based on Secretary Duncan's stimulating speech to the Inter-American Development Bank, with a description of France's interesting ongoing efforts to assure the acquisition of similar competences in its national assessment system.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Efforts to Define 21st Century Competences

This is my third post discussing the fine speech Secretary Duncan recently made to the Inter-American Development Bank. Among other stimulating portions in the speech, one finds this, just in front of his coda complimenting the bank's work in Haiti: "In fact, these [traits, discussed in my post of yesterday] are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

I agree, and much thoughtful work has gone into defining the competences needed by the students who are leaving our schools today. I summarized them in the notes to a document I have written to support the charter of One World Secondary School, "Learning for the 21st Century":

"International efforts to define the educational needs of the 21st century have been proceeding for nearly two decades now. As early as 1996, the UNESCO International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, chaired by former European Commission President Jacques Delors, proposed in Learning: The Treasure Within that, building on the four pillars that are the foundations of education – learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together,  and learning to be – all societies should aim to move towards a necessary Utopia in which none of the talents hidden like buried treasure in every person be left untapped. The next year, the OECD’s education ministers recombined the knowledge, skills, and values implicit in the Delors pillars into the concept of competencies, and the OECD has done much work to define and select the competencies “for a successful life and a well-functioning society”, and has used them in designing its PISA (Programme in International Student Assessment) assessments. It has concluded that three categories of competencies are key in the 21st century: acting autonomously, using tools interactively, and interacting in socially heterogeneous groups. The APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) economies have developed a 21st century competency framework encompassing APEC’s priority academic content areas: English and other languages, mathematics, science, information and communication technologies, and technical education. Finally, the European Union has legislatively defined eight key competences for lifelong learning: communication in the mother tongue, communication in foreign languages, mathematical competence and competences in science and technology, digital competence, learning to learn, social and civic competences, a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship, and cultural awareness and expression."

Tomorrow I will reveal how these have been synthesized in the profile of the One World learners our school hopes to produce. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Comprehensive High Schools Disserve Everyone Who Has a Choice

Continuing from where I left off in yesterday's post, Secretary Duncan here distinguishes between two general classes of skills, those required for employment and more general ones required of all citizens. Fair enough; but it does not therefore follow that all teenagers in a community need be housed on the same campus in order for these general skills to be developed in all our young people, just as they needn't all fit into a single high school to ensure that they learn English, mathematics, and other subjects. His belief calls for some common curricula (such as civics) to be studied by all students; but they do not all need to be gathered together on a single campus in order to learn those curricula. So he's right, what he is objecting to is a false choice; but it's a choice that none of us calling for modernized career and technical education schools are asking him, or anyone else, to make.

In the dual systems of Switzerland and European countries due north of it, students spend part of their time, after they have completed their compulsory general educations, in vocational schools where they further their basic skills in language arts, mathematics, and other subjects; but these general education subjects are taught with a special emphasis upon the application of their contents to the kinds of careers the students are hoping to pursue. Therefore a student who hopes to be a chef, for example, might study those aspects of chemistry and biology, for example, that might explain why certain flavour combinations are popular and that would keep the student's future customers safe and free of food-borne illnesses. Less relevant aspects of the sciences would be deemphasized or not taught. By contrast, in our comprehensive high schools of today, those aspects less relevant to these students are generally taught; they just are not learned by students whose brains have learned to tune out information that is of no relevance to them.

The secretary's third paragraph, in my excerpt, begins in a familiar vein: "Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams." Yes, but precisely which kind of employer is likely to have overrepresented access to the U.S. secretary of education, and which kind is he particularly likely to be listening to most attentively? I submit this is likely to be people like Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, who won the prime time attention of Brian Williams earlier this week; or the well connected CEOs of the Business Roundtable, who can arrange for private meetings with American presidents. These high status executives, who occasionally even win the presidential nominations of the Republican Party, are not representative of the average American "employers" Secretary Duncan speaks of in very general terms. And although these employers may wish for their employees to have the abilities the secretary mentions, where is the evidence that they are willing to pay for them in bulk? They typically want such abilities for the lowest possible price, or are under pressure from their boards to seek such labour purchases; and they are quite prepared to outsource outside of our country if they cannot find what they want here; so while we need to address such sentiments, they cannot be the only views driving our vision of the panoply of vocational education choices our young people need.  Also, what about our young citizens who may not be able to develop such a spectrum of abilities? What does he suggest we do with our most disadvantaged young people, like those with special needs who are currently emerging from our high schools in an extremely uncompetitive position, with limited likelihood of ever being able to function as independent adults and to earn the self esteem that independence brings?

With other aspects of education and society changing so rapidly, this is not the time to be conservative in our view of secondary school structures.

Tomorrow I will conclude by discussing the last paragraph of my excerpt from Secretary Duncan's speech, and will convey some of those interesting work that has been done on identifying the competences required for thriving in the 21st century along with a very interesting initiative of France to assess their acquisition.   

Friday, December 7, 2012

Opening Up a Discussion of Secretary Duncan's Remarks to the Inter-American Development Bank

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has recently delivered an interesting speech to the Inter-American Development Bank that deserves more discussion than it has generated. At the end of the speech, he invites the leaders present to discuss his presentation, and although I wasn't invited, I'm going to join in anyway.

For me the most interesting part of the speech is probably the section just before he begins closing with (well deserved) complimentary remarks on the rebuilding of Haiti's educational system. What follows is a much longer quotation than I usually excerpt, but the matter is vital:

"I talk a lot about the economic value and the personal freedom that a world-class education provides. But I absolutely reject the distinction between preparing students to be career-ready, with employability skills, and preparing students to be global, well-rounded citizens, with critical thinking skills.

"I believe that is a false choice. In fact, I belief there is a happy convergence between the career skills needed to succeed in a knowledge-based economy and the citizenship skills and global competencies needed to participate in modern democracy and civil society.

"Employers today want graduates who have the ability to adapt, innovate, synthesize data, and communicate effectively. They want employees who can both learn independently and work in teams. But many of those same traits—knowing how to ask good questions, working collaboratively with others to solve problems, and appreciating diversity—are also clearly invaluable for participation in civil society.

"In fact, these are global competencies that we should want for all our students. A student with a world-class education should be able to use their knowledge and skills to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize other's perspectives, and communicate their ideas effectively to diverse audiences."

This is thoughtful, praiseworthy prose, and although I think  the secretary continues to draw the wrong conclusion from his premises, they (and much else in the speech) certainly deserve a response from those of us who believe that current policy is requiring too many students to stay in school for too long, and is hurting those it intends to help. I will explain my reasoning beginning tomorrow.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Another Reason Teacher Appraisals Should Not Include Student Test Scores

In addition to the reasons I listed in June (and I think my argument about the backwash effects to be the most compelling), another has become apparent to me after reviewing the assessment procedures of the International and European baccalaureates, which I admire: not only will this proposal lead to constricted curricula, reduced learning, worse teaching, and less talented Americans; it will also reinforce limited assessment practices and therefore, again, reproduce more limited learning and learners.

The kind of assessment mainstream American education reformers commonly conceive of these days is a state standards test, which is generally a machine-friendly, human-unfriendly multiple choice instrument -- an externally conceived and scored, written (although it often requires no writing) exam. This is all obvious, but look at all this description leaves out (see what isn't there, which is never obvious):
  • relying heavily on such exams means that internal assessment, already in decline, will dwindle to nothing, making teaching less intellectually appealing than before and therefore less likely to satisfy the bright young people we would like to bring into teaching; 
  • it means that oral assessments, included in both the IB and EB as well as in European national systems but absent from general American practice prior to doctoral exams, will continue to be missing, so our speaking and listening standards will be even less taught to and therefore less learned than at present, and our students will remain relatively inarticulate prior to entering a collegiate and business world increasingly interested in persuasive oral communications, including PowerPoint presentations; 
  • it means written coursework will likely be less undertaken than at present, regardless of what the Common Core says, since the teachers will have little incentive, in a world of big student loads, big bonuses, and big bad consequences for bad test scores, to go through the time-consuming and painstaking work of teaching students to write well, regardless of the future consequences for their students (this is a good example of a way in which this reform is inconsistent with the principle of putting students first). 
All of my friends in the education reform world, and in particular President Obama, need to disabuse themselves from this proposal, which, if implemented, will harm American classrooms and children in so many ways.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What's Wrong With PBS's American Graduate Project

"Graduating to Nothing": that was my alternative title for this entry.

In short, PBS's American Graduate project has the same shortcomings that plague America's thought leaders with respect to education: it's based on a 20th century, domestic view of the world, when we are actually living in a more globalized 21st century.

If you watch the advertising for American Graduate, you see the usual American emphasis (a legitimate one) in such public service broadcasts, which is on those being left behind by our compulsory comprehensive ("K-12", although too many of these students don't reach 12th grade, which is largely the point) public education system. We are informed that roughly one quarter of all students don't graduate from high school, which we are to infer is a terrible problem (it is, when it equates to being a "dropout", that is, one who self-excludes [I take the term from Bourdieu & Passeron, Reproduction, p. 42] from the taxpayer-supported education system we make available for free but which is being rejected even at that price); and we are also led to believe that the correct alternative goal is to graduate, to receive that diploma. But to graduate, in its etymology, means to "move on" to a next, higher level, or grade -- it's a beginning of something new, not a conclusion -- and it may fairly be asked, our high school graduates whom we celebrate with so much energy, with balloons and caps and gowns and rolled paper, are graduating to what? To college success? Data from the ACT and other organizations show that the average American student does graduate from high school and moves on to college, but because of poor secondary school preparation for higher education, has to undertake remediation and gain thereby a premature debt burden, falls behind in obtaining credits, grows discouraged, and drops out without a degree, but with over $25,000 in debt, typically owed to a cohort of higher social class (bankers, college marketers, guidance counsellors, and so on) than the student. What kind of inheritance is this?

But if instead this student the American Graduate is concerned about attempts to find work, good luck: a quick perusal of youth unemployment rates around the world shows that those developed countries that pursue a strategy of extending general education to as many students for as long as possible, as opposed to those that end general education after around nine years and then force students into a choice between college and vocational preparation, suffer much higher youth unemployment than the latter group. Compare, for example, youth unemployment in English-speaking nations (who are under considerable American influence) and similar formerly imperial nations of western Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, French-speaking Belgium) with those of central Europe that have long respected the mastery of trades and, by extension, for labour: I am thinking specifically of Switzerland, Austria, and Germany (the Netherlands and Norway are Germanic neighbours that also have low youth unemployment, and east Asian countries like Japan and Singapore are also on the right track). Where would that relatively low-achieving (in academics) student be better off, here or there? Here, if he (or she, although the problems are piling up faster for our young men than our young women) decides against more humiliation and debt via schooling, the only likely choices are between crime and unemployment; there he or she would have access to job training leading to a legally established qualification, employment with good social benefits, and self-respect.  

What kind of legacy are we leaving the underprivileged next American generation? And how long will it take our thought leaders to discover that their advice may well be leading to social disaster, exploding into our own version of the Arab Spring?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Good Book for a Big Problem

The New York Times today has come out with an important article on how technology is changing the way our students think, in some ways for the worse. In particular, teachers are complaining that today's students are increasingly unable to develop their ideas in writing, and given the emphases of increasingly influential educators like Doug Lemov (who wrote a piece on the value of repetition that was published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal), this problem may well grow worse.

An antidote to the problem of dull formulas being taught to our high school English students may be found in the excellent Writing and Learning in Cross-National Perspective, which I hope to establish in the center of our writing program at One World Secondary School. In this fine book, David Foster and David R. Russell, both English professors in Iowa, study how writing is taught to students making the transition from secondary to tertiary education in China, England, France, Germany, Kenya, and South Africa. Among these countries, most of whose assessment systems give substantially more emphasis to writing than ours does, they find that France stands out as the only one in which students learn techniques in upper secondary education that lead to success in higher education as well; in all of the others, students experience some shock when faced with the new expectations of the university. In particular, French students learn to write the dissertation, which is translated as "a persuasive essay related to a reading", which differs from the Anglophonic essay structure in some interesting and important ways. A key difference is found in the placement of the thesis statement: we typically teach our students to place this at the end of the introductory paragraph, to be defended in (too often three) body paragraphs preceding a (too often redundant) conclusion. By contrast, in a dissertation, the answer to the problem or question posed is only arrived at in the concluding paragraph, after a student has tried out a tentative thesis and considered its antithesis earlier in the essay. This structure has the virtue of making the development of the composition more stimulating for both writer and reader, since, instead of having discovered a facile answer to a facile question in the 2-5 minutes available for planning in our short timed essays (AP English generally allows for 40 minutes per essay, the ACT and SAT still less) and then proceeding to defend it in a mechanical way, the French student will have four hours available for a single essay (the German student still longer), half the score of which will be determined by the student's plan, and so the student has the opportunity to spend plenty of time considering the various ramifications of more highly intricate questions, and may end up with a conclusion quite different from the one tentatively proposed hours before.

I have been experimenting with adapting the dissertation into the learning of English, and will keep interested readers posted as to our progress.    

Friday, September 28, 2012

Won't Back Down

Last night I was invited up on the stage (along with three other educators and a moderator) after a screening in Irvine, where I live, of Won't Back Down, a new movie that opens today. The movie is billed as having been "inspired by actual events", some of which I have lived through, and I have been asked by several people, including a friend who conceived the Parent Trigger legislation that parallels, in some ways, the fictitious legislation that enables the two moms to take over the struggling elementary school in the film, what I thought of the movie; so I will here offer a brief review. Readers may be surprised to know that I worked for five years in the film industry before I went back, more permanently, to my other career, in education.

I am possibly the least objective person imaginable to comment on this film, having lived through or knowing friends who have directly experienced perhaps half of the events in this film. I do not resemble Viola Davis, who plays Nona Alberts, the teacher who, along with Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, circulates petitions getting a majority of parents and teachers to take over the management of Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh; in particular, I do not have children who are struggling students (mine have all been honor students), and sending kids to school in Irvine is altogether different from sending them to school in the Pittsburgh neighborhood depicted in the film, or in Watts, where I taught for seven years at Locke High School; but I have had experiences resembling those depicted in Won't Back Down, especially those of the retaliation Nona receives from management for her efforts on behalf of students and of her experience of damaged relationships with fellow faculty members during the uncomfortable interim periods of controversy prior to and despondency after the local school board's governance decision respecting the future of the school.

Instead, my motivation in dreaming up the idea of taking over, with my fellow teachers, the management of Locke High School was motivated by the distinct differences between, and the unequal opportunities in, the two neighborhoods I was living in in 2007. Irvine, where I would wake up and go to bed and spend my weekends and summers, has a park-like quality, peaceful and quiet, where I could watch my son play in the sandbox outside my bedroom window and swim in the (gated) pool just behind the sandbox or learn to read in the National Blue Ribbon-winning (fenceless) elementary school just behind the swimming pool; while Watts, which I would drive to in the morning and leave in the afternoon, has been accurately labelled by President Clinton, who had visited prison-fenced Locke hunkered down in Watts, as "a depressed urban community", a disgraceful eyesore long forgotten by Los Angeles's leadership, abandoned to the rule of the Crips and the Bloods and the Souflos.

In June 2007, after the Los Angeles Unified School District had fired our principal and thrown out our teachers' petitions for converting Locke into a charter school in partnership with Green Dot Public Schools, and after most of our campus's teachers had been intimidated and cowed into a worried silence, heads down, with fears for our future; after our cause had been largely written off, I didn't back down; I wrote an editorial, published in the Los Angeles Times on June 7, 2007, calling for the newly elected school board to give our petition a vote, just what Jamie calls for in Won't Back Down's climactic scene. The board agreed, to its credit, and the results of the subsequent takeover have been much documented elsewhere, although there is still more to tell about that story, with particular lessons for teacher-management relations, if anyone still cares. But the unique Locke effort, which likely will not be repeated because of the way the teachers were neglected after the LAUSD board's final vote on September 11, 2007, did lead, I believe, to the conception of the Parent Trigger; for California's charter school law allows for either half of the tenured faculty or half of a school's parents to circulate a petition to convert their school into a charter school (the fictitious"Fail-safe" law of Won't Back Down requires both); and with Green Dot leaders having exhausted the easier option of winning the support of half a school's teachers, they next began exploring the more exhausting option of winning the support of half a school's parents. And thus today's controversies regarding the proper role of parents with respect to their children's schools find their birth in a forlorn corner of Watts, where parent participation at school was once probably as oppressed as anywhere in America.

For me, watching this movie (I've seen it twice now) was like being jabbed with pins for two hours, or more likely an hour and a half, since the first half hour, while important to set up the subsequent school takeover effort, has little personal relevance to my life. But although Daniel Barnz, the film's director and one of its screenwriters, told me he had never heard of Locke High School, either the other writer has, or one or both of them imagined with great accuracy what it's like to be in the midst of a school takeover battle, particularly for teachers who would prefer to be simply teaching their students to the best of their abilities on a daily basis instead of being besieged by politics and controversy. The first time I saw it, my heart raced and pounded so hard that it lost its rhythm; and I worried that I might not survive last night's screening, sitting with my wife and son, whose welfare I have so badly damaged by getting involved with improving the outcomes for thousands of children whom they have never met and who might seem as foreign to them as the citizens of another country.

But now I am focused on improving outcomes for them, and especially the outcome for him, since I do not want him to follow in his brother's fortunes, his brother who became a National Merit finalist only to be possibly California's only National Merit finalist to be turned down by my two alma maters, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, who preferred students who had avoided taking the rigorous AP English class I was offering at Locke but who were also of a more preferred ethnicity. I have contacted four separate school districts in California, trying to get some version of One World Secondary School accepted as a charter school, and have been frustrated by many of the dirty tactics portrayed in the film; but I still won't back down, and will open the school as an independent school if our current educational leadership can't see past the unsuccessful, narrow visions and stale debates that continue to leave millions of American students behind -- unless Ryan, my son, runs out of time, a fear the parents in the film have for their children, while I try to open our school and put our lives back together.

I think Won't Back Down very well acted, particularly by the three actresses (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter) who have been previously nominated for Academy Awards. I think this Walden Media production does a better job than its predecessor, Waiting for Superman, in making the case for traditional school union backers, although I think none of the characters making the case for the traditional position comes alive with the same zest and conviction as the fictional school's reformers. I have noticed that the filmmakers have been taken aback by the controversy surrounding the school's politics: I think they primarily want to start a conversation around these important public issues, and may have been unprepared for the virulent stridency with which these matters are already being debated. But if this film gets people into theaters and then gets them talking with their neighbors about how we can improve education in this country for all our children, not just those trapped in obvious ghetto hell holes but also those boxed in by the invisible walls of a too narrow, out-of-date educational culture in for-now still comfortable suburbs, it will have succeeded in a mission less glamorous but more lasting than the glitzy world of Hollywood.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Teachers Arraigned Before the Accountability Gods

An utterly tiresome nostrum being circulated by education pundits, particularly those in the current mainstream reform camp, emphasizes the need for accountability. We might well ask, accountability for what, of whom, and to whom?

The putative virtues of accountability have been rehearsed so often, by minds that appear to be set on autopilot, that I will reprise them only briefly here. We are reminded, again and again, as if the repetition made the claims true, that virtually every business and profession entails accountability; that taxpayers advance funds for the education of our children, and have a right to see some results; that accountability is a normal part of adult responsibility; and so on. All true; I have no objections to any of these claims.

But why is it that everyone suddenly feels it necessary to sit in the Judgment Seat, as if their main contribution to children's educations, for which we should be eternally thankful, consisted in setting up accountability systems, banging on the table, and demanding results? Great, you want high test scores . . . so do we, and so have we, for many years. But what exactly is the contribution you accountability hawks are making, or have made, that gives you the right to bang the table and make demands? Is it that you cut a bunch of clever deals for yourselves, made buddies of the right people at the right cocktail parties and in the right backroom offices, snookered the voters with enough unfulfilled promises often enough to advance in your political careers and then sneaked away, on to another inside job, before the voters ever had the chance to catch up with you? Just who are you people, and what have you ever done for students who really needed help? Oh, perhaps you attended fundraisers, shook your heads in synchrony with other supposedly knowing one-percenters -- those you had met in the Ivy League colleges your fathers paid for, and that you now feel guilty about, realizing that your careers were made by the unequal access to resources that you now decry -- about those terrible, failing public schools; perhaps you even did some charity work, devoting one or two Saturdays to playground construction or some other unpaid manual labour at a school in a tough neighbourhood, and then felt good about yourselves as you drove back to your own far more comfortable neighbourhoods. Perhaps you even taught for two years, or even a little more, and then gathered your wisdom and set yourself up in some advocacy job, so that your main contributions to children's educations then consisted in "standing up for the poor", and telling everyone else what to do, without actually having the courage to stick around long enough to try implementing your own advice yourselves.

What gives you the right to sit in the Judgment Seat and try teachers?

And why are you so hyper-confident that your teacher appraisal formulas are just what our educational systems need, among the numerous other proposals, some of them based on the actual research that you don't have time to read, for school improvement that you could be supporting? And why are you threatening teachers' livelihoods, their careers, on the basis of statistical arguments that are in dispute, including by the expert who formerly ran statistical evaluation for the Educational Testing Service that writes our nation's most important tests?

Are you familiar with the sin of hubris, as you direct this ongoing tragedy?

It's time to back off, stop pushing educators into corners, and reconsider so that together we can move forward in a direction offering more hope.    

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Of Federalism in Education

The three best educational systems I know of -- those of Australia, Canada, and Switzerland -- are all federal in nature, the last two (which I think are the best of all) especially so. And please don't think that I derived this result as one I had been seeking in advance for ideological reasons -- in other words, that I decided in advance that I liked federalism, and went seeking after the fact for justifications and ratings that coincided with my ideological preferences. Quite the reverse happened; I decided on criteria by which I would rank educational systems, then saw how those systems ranked related to the various criteria, then published a summary of my findings, and only afterwards noticed that the top finishers all had federal systems.

These findings are salient in this political season, this being the weekend between our two national party conventions and with Margaret Spellings and others being interviewed on the sidelines by media like Education Week. I reflect on what Mr. Bush's administration attempted to do with respect to education, and on what President Obama's administration is currently doing, and detect some bad moves, mostly due to a morally justifiable desire to make a difference in the lives of our nation's underachieving poor, who lack the equal opportunities they should be entitled to according to our founding national ideology. But while I think these two administrations' educational efforts morally justified, I think they have been tactically ill-advised, and that they are stimulating a backlash that could set back the federal Department of Education for decades.

It may well be the case that, with regard to primary and secondary education, most matters are best addressed at more local levels, and that federal educational leaders should revise their visions of their jobs and their policy priorities accordingly. The problem may essentially be one of talent, and where a society's stock of human capital is most likely to allocate itself in large vs. small countries. In most international comparisons of education (for example, Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai and Vivien Stewart's A World-Class Education), the most admired systems are those of small nations like Finland and Singapore, which would be best likened in our nation to a (sovereign) state and city school district, respectively. These countries do not have ambitions or visions of global dominance, as ours has; and therefore, while a lot of top government talent in the United States aims for positions in the state and defense departments, where they can vitally influence the affairs of the world, talented young Finns and Singaporeans, not having these outlets, will have a likelier attraction to a field like education, and will try to better the lives of their fellow citizens and future generations through this career. This of course is attractive to American educational commentators, who may long for a society that would make heroes out of educators, rather than consigning us to the also-ran obscurity in which many of us toil. But it is unrealistic to expect the United States of America to start acting as if we were Finland or Singapore.

Perhaps we should let our federal government take a more modest role towards directing educational destinies, and allow leadership to emerge at less exalted levels, which is where we already have educational institutions established for such purposes. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Common Core Math Standards Have Failed Already

To be more precise, that title should read, "The Common Core Math Standards Developers" have failed, and this will cause difficulties for all who have committed to them and who may be unable to escape those commitments. For example, in my home state of California, the new mission statement printed in "A Blueprint for Great Schools" begins, "California will provide a world-class education for all students, from early childhood to adulthood." But it can't do so if it follows the Common Core, because under the latter, students will not begin algebra until ninth grade, and therefore won't learn any calculus in high school. Even under the "compacted" sequence the core documents discuss in Appendix A to their presentation, advanced students will be "encouraged" (147) to take Calculus, which continues to be deemed a "college" course, in their senior year. Contrast this with the mathematics career of my younger son, who, as his older brother did, will start algebra next year, in seventh grade, and therefore will be on track to repeat his older brother's success in Calculus in the eleventh grade, and thus will be able to have proved he can do advanced mathematics by the time his college applications are read.

This makes it sound like my children are geniuses, but they aren't; they are merely doing what every child entering middle school in Korea is scheduled to do, and they are getting the nearest American equivalent to the mathematics education they would have received in Korea if they had stayed there. And Korea isn't unique; children in China (including Hong Kong), Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore generally follow a similar path, and will remain ahead of American children even after this expensive national experiment in mathematics reform is completed.

This means that this much ballyhooed change isn't much of a change at all -- that calculus is still considered "college" mathematics in the United States, even though it's high school mathematics across east Asia -- and this is a signal that the mathematics establishment in America (I'm thinking first and foremost of our for-profit publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill, and also of that non-profit special interest group run like a for-profit, the College Board) were able to infiltrate themselves into the core of the reform process so as to generate results that will mean both gigantic potential contracts (there is enough change here, especially because of the computerized test delivery model, to require a new generation of products) and minimal content revisions to their existing inventory. This is a sweet deal for them, and won't disturb the private school market either, because if American families want a world-class education for their children, they will have to continue to look to private schools to deliver it, especially in California, where state officials appear to have tied their buoy to a sinking cruise ship.