Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

College President from Finance Has Solution to Drop Out Rate: “Drown the Bunnies”

February 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Bravo to The Mountain Echo, Mount St Mary College’s student newspaper, for publishing an account of their newly appointed college President’s plan to increase the college’s retention rate by pre-emptively culling out students likely to drop out before they counted as part of the statistical baseline. Applying logic that, from all accounts, works well in the private sector, newly appointed college President Simon Newman devised a plan to identify likely failures as soon as possible and counsel them out of school quickly. Here’s an overview of the plan Mr. Newman devised and the purpose for it:

By a certain time into the first semester, the federal government requires colleges to issue a report on the number of students enrolled. This number is the baseline used to calculate drop out rates. For Mt. St. Mary’s that date was September 25.

In an effort to lower that baseline figure by 20-25 students, Mr. Newman developed and administered a survey that all newly enrolled students would take. The students and teachers were told this survey was “…developed by a leadership team here at The Mount, and it is based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.” What the teachers weren’t told initially was that these survey results would be used to help identify students at risk of dropping out of college. In a subsequent email to President, the college Dean, after learning the true purpose of the survey posed this question:

“If this is not an anonymous survey, nor even a confidential personality test, but a highly intrusive, and misleadingly framed administrative tool, can we proceed without disclosing to our students’ what’s at stake?”

The Dean was not the only administrator who questioned the plan. There was strong opposition from most of the cabinet once they found out the true purpose of the test. One of the strongest opponents of this was Dr. Greg Murry, who headed a program for incoming freshman. Hurry was even more appalled when President Newman asked him to compile a list of freshmen whom professors in his program “…had determined were not likely to complete their freshman year successfully.”

This pushback led to a meeting with three of those officials and the President, a meeting that included this exchange and sequence of events:

According to Murry, during the course of the conversation, Newman said, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

Economics professor Dr. John Larrivee was also present and confirmed Murry’s account of the conversation with Newman.

Sources close to the president’s culling plan also confirm that the Mount Cares Committee was asked to provide names of freshmen to be dismissed.

Ultimately, the president’s plan was thwarted as no names were provided by the extended Oct. 2 deadline. “We simply ran out the clock,” Murry said.

A banker who came from an industry that heartlessly issued bogus mortgages to unsuspecting homeowners might not view students as “cuddly bunnies” and might be willing to “put a Glock to their heads” in order to get better numbers for US News and World Report, but fortunately for the students at Mt. St. Mary’s their administrative team defied the edict from the president.

This whole sequence of events is a good metaphor for the way charters cook their numbers… they intimidate and repeatedly suspend students who can’t “meet their standards” and build up their graduation rates by leaving a trail of “voluntary transfers” behind. Fortunately for our country, public school teachers still think of their students as cuddly bunnies.

h/t to Diane Ravitch and Peter Greene

Successful “No Excuses” Primary Students Flame Out in Middle School… WHY?

January 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Blogger/teacher Emily Kaplan wrote a thought provoking post earlier this month that Valerie Strauss reprinted in the Washington Post. A teacher who has worked in both public schools and a “no excuses” charter school, Ms. Kaplan describes the regimen “no excuses” charter students face and the success the students who remain in the schools achieve as measured by standardized tests. But when she tracked her “no excuses” students she found that their success was not sustained, which led her to do some soul searching:

Reflecting on my experiences teaching both at this school and at more traditional public schools, I find myself wondering if the methodology that enables young children to achieve so much so early actually hinders their long-term prospects. What if the struggles of graduates of “no excuses” schools reveal deficits that are not academic, but rather socio-emotional? What would happen if, instead of spending nine hours a day engaged in academic tasks determined by a teacher, children were to spend a large portion of their day developing “soft skills” that would enable them to overcome the hurdles they will encounter when they’re older? What if, like their suburban counterparts, they spent large portions of their day in rigorous, developmentally appropriate activities: learning to make friends, make art, and make believe, exploring and creating their interests and their identities?

That is, what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?

Clearly Ms. Kaplan is onto something…. and the questions could continue to the list found in the “about” section of this blog.

  • Why do we group students in grade levels based on their age?
  • Why do we group students within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
  • Why do we group students at all?
  • Why does school take place in a limited time frame?
  • Why do we believe there is “one best way” to educate ALL children?

Ms. Kaplan is witnessing the effects of our factory school paradigm that insists that all children of a certain age must have intellectual growth that is intellectual to every other child that age… a mental model that has no basis in reality. By purposefully lingering in childhood we might change more that the academic well being of children: we might get them to appreciate their experiences in the present moment.

Bank Street President, a Former True Believer in Test, Changes His Tune

January 15, 2016 Leave a comment

On Wednesday of this week the NYTimes ran an op ed essay by Shael Polakow-Suransky, currently the President of Bank Street School who formerly held the position of  chief accountability officer of the New York City Department of Education— the second highest ranking position in the NYC Education Department— under the Bloomberg administration.

I was astonished and pleased to see that Mr. Polakow-Suransky has been disabused of the notion that test scores should play a role in determining teacher effectiveness because in his earlier life as second in command in NYC he sung a different song. In an article profiling him in 2010, the Times wrote:

…if he has his way, there will be better tests, and more of them.

“Until we start seeing assessments that ask kids to write research papers, ask them to solve unfamiliar problems, ask them to defend their ideas, ask them to engage with both fiction and nonfiction texts; until those kinds of assessments are our state assessments, all we’re measuring are basic skills,” Mr. Polakow-Suransky said in an interview.

In his evolution from an idealist teacher to a data-mining administrator, Mr. Polakow-Suransky, 38, personified the seismic changes in education that were beginning to take shape just as he was drawing up his first lesson plans. He came of age as the school system was moving to replace large high schools with small ones, and making testing both a means and an end. He jumped aboard both movements, mentored along much of the way by an educator who, next month, will be working under him.

But Mr. Polakow-Suransky has changed his tune! Now he decries the NYS evaluation system because it “…relies on tests designed for one task (measuring student learning) and uses them for another (measuring each teacher’s impact). Good data is important but we have to use it for what it can actually tell us, not for what we wish it could tell us.

Now… if he can just persuade the Governor that his evaluation system is relying on flawed data he might fully atone for his advocacy. After all, Diane Ravitch once worked for Lamar Alexander and promoted many of the bad ideas promoted by the business wing of he Republican party before she saw the flaws in the ideas of “running schools like a business”. It is that concept that led to the testing regimen that strangles the creativity of teachers and makes schools more like factories. Maybe Mr. Polakow-Suransky can join her efforts to eliminate the reliance on the seemingly exact standardized test scores as the primary means of evaluating teachers.

NYTimes ALMOST Gets It…. But Still Thinks Deregulation is The Answer

January 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Today’s NYTimes has an article by David Kirp that is simultaneously heartening and maddening. It is heartening because it contrasts two school districts in NJ with similar demographics one of which has received massive amounts of publicity and external funding and gotten nowhere and one of which has received no publicity or external funding and managed to succeed.

The highly publicized district is Newark, which I’ve written about frequently in earlier posts. Politicians like Christie and Cory Booker have championed charter schools there as part of a State takeover, Teach For America has provided non-union staff members who were going to turnaround the classrooms, and edu-preneurs have invested millions to launch initiatives that would ultimately “see” the failing schools.

In the meantime, a neighboring district, Union City, which started at the same low level of performance as Newark in the late 1980s, slowly and methodically improved the performance of its schools with no fanfare, no state turnover, and no influx of external funding for “disruptive” initiatives. How did this happen? Here’s Kirp’s description:

In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged. Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method. So the district junked its old approach. Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English. The system started hiring more teachers who spoke Spanish or had E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) training.

The bilingual approach went beyond the classroom. Even though many parents speak only Spanish, meetings had been conducted and written information prepared only in English. In the new era, bilingualism quickly became the norm. Parents, made to feel welcome in the schools, were conscripted to help with their children’s homework and reinforce the schools’ high expectations for them.

Hm-m-m-m. Instead of implementing privatized charter schools, launching top-down initiatives, and blaming teachers and parents it seems that Union City worked with teachers and worked to engage parents. This would appear to be the take away from this comparison… but Mr. Kirp came away with a different conclusion: deregulation and charters are still the best way to go. That led me to leave this comment:

Mr. Kirp seems intent on reinforcing the notion that deregulation is the cure-all for Newark without explaining how. He first states that  “…the charters have nearly a third more dollars to spend on each student, $12,650 versus $9,604, which buys additional teachers, tutors and social workers”, which he attributes to the fact that the charters were “freed from the district’s bureaucracy”…. but he fails to explain HOW this saved $3000+ per student. Later he emphasizes Mr. Cerf’s conviction that charter schools are working “…because they have substantially more discretion” but doesn’t provide any data to substantiate this claim. Mr. Kirp’s reporting reinforces the neoliberal notion that deregulation, not money, is the cure. If deregulation is the cure, why did Union City succeed? Did they eliminate regulations? Did they eliminate “bureaucracy”? It doesn’t sound like it to me. Instituting the kinds of initiatives Mr. Kirp describes in Union City required sound leadership, focussed (i.e. “regulated”) programs, and, yes, “bureaucrats” to make sure that the best teachers were hired, trained, retained, and given a voice in the improvement effort. The notion that deregulation  is needed more that money is the kind of eyewash that leads to the neo-liberal fantasy that “disruptive” management techniques can turn around “failing schools”. Stable leadership, parent engagement, good teaching and money will turn around a school more effectively than deregulation and disruption. 

At some juncture columnists will acknowledge that students attending schools serving children raised in poverty need as much spending per pupil as schools in the affluent suburbs… that sustained leadership that engages teachers is superior to top-down leadership, and that parent engagement is the key to any improvements. Unfortunately, those approaches cost money, take time, and are difficult and we continue to seek fast, cheap and easy solutions.

The Perversion of Pre-School: Reformers’ Testing Favors “Rigorous Instruction” Over Play

December 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Two recent articles describe the dismal state of pre-school education in our country, and lead me to wonder whether the expansion of today’s programming is a good idea.

The New Pre-School Education is Crushing Kids“, Erika Christakis’ article in the January-February Atlantic, describes the dispiriting atmosphere of today’s version of preschool where the regurgitation of facts is taken as evidence of academic preparedness. Early in the article she describes what the ideal pre-school program would look like:

According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

Christakis then describes in devastating detail how far short of that standard we are currently falling…. and suggests that test-driven”accountability” is the reason why:

The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning….

The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.

But Christakis emphasizes throughout her article, artful teaching, teaching that engages the young child’s mind in a Socratic form and encourages the child to explore on their own is far more worthwhile than accumulating names and labels. Interaction between the child and the teacher and among the children themselves is far more important than completing seat work:

Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.

A few weeks ago Valerie Strauss published a speech given by Deborah Meier award recipient Nancy Carlson-Paige, a professor emerita at Emerson College and author of “Taking Back Childhood.” In her speech, Carlson-Paige laments the fact that she finds it necessary to defend play as part of pre-school:

Where education policies that do not reflect what we know about how young children learn could be mandated and followed. We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Play is the primary engine of human growth; it’s universal – as much as walking and talking. Play is the way children build ideas and how they make sense of their experience and feel safe. Just look at all the math concepts at work in the intricate buildings of kindergartners. Or watch a 4-year-old put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event.

But play is disappearing from classrooms. Even though we know play is learning for young kids, we are seeing it shoved aside to make room for academic instruction and “rigor.”

And why is play being shoved aside? You guessed it test-based “accountability”:


 …Instead of active, hands-on learning, children now sit in chairs for far too much time getting drilled on letters and numbers. Stress levels are up among young kids. Parents and teachers tell me: children worry that they don’t know the right answers; they have nightmares, they pull out their eyelashes, they cry because they don’t want to go to school. Some people call this child abuse and I can’t disagree.

I could not have foreseen in my wildest dreams that we would be up against pressure to test and assess young kids throughout the year often in great excess — often administering multiple tests to children in kindergarten and even pre-K. Now, when young children start school, they often spend their first days not getting to know their classroom and making friends. They spend their first days getting tested.

In our obsession with competition based on test scores we are denying our youngest children the chance to ask questions, to explore the world around them, to have fun without being judged. Maybe some states will come to their senses now that ESSA is giving them latitude in assessments and let four year-olds “…put on a cape and pretend to be a superhero after witnessing some scary event.” They will learn more from that than they will learn from finishing a worksheet a teacher prepared for them or completing an assessment on a screen.

Columbine and the Criminalization of Costumes

November 6, 2015 Leave a comment

the NYTimes reported on the arrest and felony charges leveled against two students charged with making terroristic threats based on a wisecrack they made in a Halloween Parade on the town common in Litchfield, CT. Writers Lisa Fodero and Benjamin Mueller reported on the incident that triggered the response as follows:

The State Police said the boys made “threats of bodily harm to other students,” and the Litchfield Public Schools superintendent said they went out for Halloween on Saturday night dressed in trench coats and sunglasses…

Mr. Moraghan (the young men’s lawyer) offered the first detailed account on Thursday of how an ill-advised costume turned into criminal charges.

He said that on Saturday night, the boys went to a Halloween party on the town green that draws students from several schools who want to trick-or-treat and hang out with friends. He acknowledged they were dressed in distasteful costumes but said they did not have “any object that can be used or perceived as a weapon.”

A group walked up to them, according to Mr. Moraghan’s account, and after commenting that they looked like the Columbine High Schoolkillers, someone added, “I bet you’re going to shoot up the school.”

Mr. Moraghan said, “There was a sarcastic response to that, and that was basically the end of it.” He said one girl told her parents, who then called the police. Investigators, in turn, searched the students’ cellphones and their homes, he said…

The State Police confirmed the home search, but declined to answer questions about what they found. Mr. Moraghan said, “Nothing was found in either boy’s home that could in any way give credence to what they claim the boys were going to do.”

Prosecutors declined to answer questions about the case because the defendants were juveniles.

The Litchfield Public Schools superintendent, Lynn K. McMullin, said in an email on Wednesday that “there was no credible threat and students were never in physical danger.” She did not respond to a message left for her on Thursday.

The boys did not face any weapons charges.

Because we live and thrive on fear, an ill advised choice of Halloween costumes combined with a typical teen-age wisecrack ends up with a national news story and police threatening to lock up two students for an offense that the school is evidently willing to overlook.

In retrospect, Columbine was public education’s 9-11 and the reaction to spend money providing more surveillance cameras, more door locks, more entry guards armed and otherwise was public education’s Iraq. The problem at Columbine was not one of too little security or too few cameras in the hallway. The problem was the ready access to weapons combined with two outcast students’ disaffection with school that was either ignored and untreated or overlooked because there were no resources to re-connect the disaffected students to school. If we spent our resources on staffing schools with caring teachers and provided them with the resources to do their jobs we might have created a climate of caring. Instead, we’ve created a climate of fear.

Solution to Boys’ Schooling Problems: Replace Age-Based Grade Levels

October 23, 2015 Leave a comment

This site’s mission is to open and change minds about public education… and one of my repeated calls for change is the abandonment of the age-based grade cohorts in favor of a highly individualized and self-directed form of schooling. An article by Clair Cain Miller in today’s Upshot section of the NYTimes reinforced the need for this change. Ms. Miller’s article describes the massive evidence indicating that boys raised in poverty do more poorly than girls in the same circumstances. There are a host of reasons given, but the primary one was this:

New research from social scientists offers one explanation: Boys are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. Any disadvantage, like growing up in poverty, in a bad neighborhood or without a father, takes more of a toll on boys than on their sisters. That realization could be a starting point for educators, parents and policy makers who are trying to figure out how to help boys — particularly those from black, Latino and immigrant families.

The article goes on to describe how early intervention and support would help.. but this article, like virtually ALL articles on public education, assumes the notion of grouping children by age cohorts and defining “success” by comparing students to others the same age is somehow natural and inviolable. The way we organize schools is based on an “efficiency” model devised early in the last century when we envisioned schools as factories. One of the reasons boys see themselves as “disadvantaged” is that they mature at a slower rate than girls and when they are compared to girls in a school setting where orderliness and compliance are highly valued they are branded as “failing”. This sets in motion a vicious cycle that ultimately leads to the misbehavior, low test scores, and disaffection for schools described in the article. Instead of figuring out how to force young boys into an outdated organizational model for schooling, why not change the model itself? With today’s technology individualization and personalization is possible. We should use technology to tailor and pace instruction and make the teaching of social skills explicit part of schooling instead of penalizing those who cannot conform to the rules required to impose the factory model on all children.