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The AP Paradox

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Jessica Lahey’s recent NYTimes article, “To AP or Not to AP, That is the Question” did a good job of outlining the dimensions of what I call the AP Paradox. For some students and teachers in some districts, teaching to the AP test is a constraint. In other districts where students are not typically college bound and funds are tight, introducing AP courses that enable a student to earn college credits is an incentive.

Having led districts that serve predominantly affluent and well educated parents and less affluent districts that had relatively few college graduates among the parent population, I have lived through both sides of the argument involving AP testing and ended up with the belief that the value of AP is situational.

In the two affluent districts I led, the reputation of their high schools was well established in college admissions offices and most of the students were applying to competitive colleges who generally do not award academic credit for AP classes. Moreover, in those districts the talent level for teachers was high because the upperclassmen required content that was typically college level. Many of these teachers believed that teaching-to-the-AP-test limited their flexibility and academic freedom and argued, as Lahey noted in her article, that students were free to take AP Tests even if they did not take an “AP Course”. In these districts I fully and whole heartedly supported the teachers’ argument even though some in the community expressed concerns about the loss of status because we didn’t offer explicit AP courses.

In the one largely blue collar district I led the AP “credential” was helpful for students. It helped those aspiring to competitive colleges because it provided a standard that admissions officers in those colleges could use to rate applicants even if they never heard of the high school. It helped first generation college students applying to community colleges or State colleges because it gave them an opportunity to earn college credits as an undergraduate. The AP credential was also helpful in our efforts to expand our programs at the high school level because voters understood that by offering AP Courses we were demonstrating a commitment to academic rigor and helping students prepare for college and the careers that required college degrees. In this district I wholeheartedly supported the Principals, central office staff, and Board in advocating for the introduction and subsequent expansion of AP courses.

And therein lies the AP Paradox. I personally believe that criterion referenced tests are superior to standardized achievement tests, which leads me to fully support the opportunity for students to take the AP tests. Yet I also believe that Boards and administrators should honor the professionalism of teachers; and because some districts (and ETS) believe that AP Tests should be linked to AP Courses and those AP Courses have prescribed curricula the teachers’ flexibility and freedom is diminished. Moreover, the notion that passing one standardized test administered in one sitting can replace a college course is unsettling. Criterion referenced tests can measure accumulation of knowledge but some form of observation or skill measurement is also required to provide assurance that a student has mastered the concepts included in a college course.

To AP or Not to AP? Here’s Lahey’s concluding paragraph, which takes the question out of the school or district level to the personal level… which in the end is where it belongs:

A.P. courses are, for the most part, rigorous, challenging and demanding, and can be a real boon to students motivated by intellectual curiosity and a love of learning. For students looking to please their parents or for those in pursuit of transcript padding and other false academic idols, A.P. courses can be an unpleasant and unhealthy slog. Therefore, in deciding whether or not an A.P. class is “worth it,” students and parents must figure their own motivations and values into the equation.  

Rotten Apples? Hardly!

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment

A few weeks ago Time magazine hit the news stands with this horrific cover:

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When the article came out progressive bloggers went ballistic and Facebook was full of links to send letters to the editors of Time to decry their cover, which stated (wrongly) that is was impossible to fire a teacher. Having written several posts on this topic, I clicked on the AFT’s link and sent a letter explaining the reality of the situation, namely that teachers have a probationary period that is typically three years and that some of the teachers who “opted out” of the profession were, in fact, counseled out. Because of this, the reality is that 98% of the teachers are doing well in their work even though this fact vexes politicians like Andrew Cuomo.

My daughter in Brooklyn who shares my frustration at the bashing of public education sent me a link to this blog post from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who dedicated most of the space to a well researched letter to Time in response to their reprehensible cover. Written by Nancy F. Chewning, assistant principal of William Byrd High School in Roanoke, VA, the letter includes the following points, some of which I have not made in my earlier posts decrying the bashing of teachers:

  • Aspiring teachers are held in low esteem on campuses
  • Teachers make substantially less than others with an equal education
  • The OECD reports that “American teachers work far longer hours than their counterparts abroad.”
  • No other professions are held to a 100% standard- Only teachers!
  • And this gem: “According to a new study from the Journal of Patient Safety, 440,000 people per year die from preventable medical errors. In fact, this study found that medical errors were the third leading cause of death in the United States today.” Are we closing hospitals because of this? Are doctors losing tenure because of this?
  • The NEA [National Education Association] ranks 221st in terms of lobbying expenditures… WELL behind banks, military, and other professions— like doctors– who are not depicted as “Rotten Apples”

The letter describes the money teachers spend on their own supplies and to provide their students with food, school supplies, and clothing. It describes the time teachers spend advocating for their children outside of school. It describes the responsibilities teachers are asked to assume for the well-being of their children. And it describes the devastating impact poverty has on the children in Roanoke, VA, impact that is felt in every district that serves children who are raised in poverty across the country.

I wish some political leader in our country would stand up for public education and especially for the teachers who work tirelessly to help children raised in poverty…. but it’s easier to blame teachers than to blame poverty because “fixing” poverty requires the redistribution of wealth and (gasp) spending money on people in our country who are in need. Here’s hoping the silence about poverty ends as we consider who to elect for President in 2016.

Grass Roots Movement Needs to Start NOW

November 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Two posts yesterday and an experience I had in a yoga class prompted this post today.

One post, by Bill Boyarski from Truthdig titled “No One Is Paying Attention to the Real Battle For Power”, describes a heretofore overlooked and crucial election result: Republicans captured 32 State Houses and a majority of the State governing bodies in the US… and this does NOT include three prominent “reform” Democrats: Cuomo, Malloy, and Raimondo. In essence this means 35 governors and state governments will be dancing to ALEC’s music when legislative sessions open early next year. Given this political reality, it is hard to imagine that 2/3 of the states will be open to changing the current “reform model” even IF they choose to abandon the Common Core as the basis for the administration of standardized tests.

The second, from Diane Ravitch, described the latest activism undertaken by the Lower Hudson Study Council (LHSC).  Her post summarized the points the LHSC made in their meeting with the editorial board of the Journal News, a regional newspaper in suburban NYC, and closed with these sentences:

Since no part of Race to the Top was based on research, it is unlikely to produce good results. What it has produced is disruption, demoralization, outrage, and a vibrant anti-testing and anti-Common Core movement, led by parents.

On Monday evening I attended a yoga class in a local studio where one of the students was a first grade teacher with four years’ experience. She was lamenting to another class member who works in education that the test preparation begins in first grade and her little children. She indicated that the students are expected to complete  “really rigorous” assignments and that many of them are struggling as a result… but she was accepting this as “the way things are today” in education.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the “old guard” Superintendents and principals need to speak as one because the “new breed” of TFA and Broad grads are in accord with the thinking of the “reformers”…. and the veteran teachers need to join in because many of the teachers hired in the past decade, like my yoga classmate, only know teaching as a “test prep” activity and see that as “the way things are today” in education. Finally, all of us who oppose the test-and-punish “reform” methods need to make certain we elect school board members who are on the same page… because with 32 Republicans (and Mario Cuomo) in State Houses the pushback on “reform” will have to come from the bottom up.

TFA’s Capturing of the Public Imagination

November 6, 2014 Leave a comment

I just read Nick Kristoff’s post mortem on the election in today’s NYTimes, an essay that included the following paragraph:

I’m in the middle of a book tour now, visiting universities and hearing students speak about yearning to make a difference. But they are turning not to politics as their lever but to social enterprise, to nonprofits, to advocacy, to business. They see that Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America in her dorm room at Princeton University, has had more impact on the education system than any current senator, and many have given up on political paths to change.

Unfortunately I must agree that Wendy Kopp has changed education in the past decade more than any elected official… but I view that as a major problem because she is complicit in the privatization movement that has reinforced the opposition to “government schools” aka public education. As reported in a recent article by George Joseph in The Nation, TFA has eroded the teaching profession by replacing government funded career employees with privately funded short-term contract employees. TFA provides many privatized charter schools with well-educated and well-intentioned novice teachers who are focussed on raising test scores but has diminished the profession in doing so. And worst of all, from my perspective, TFA has accepted funds from foundations whose implicit mission is to erode the public’s trust in government.

According to The Nation, TFA’s last three years of available tax filings indicate they spent nearly $3.5 million in advertising and promotion… and it is evident from Kristoff’s reporting that her money is getting TFA’s message across to college students, which is too bad because every student drawn to TFA is a student drawn away from the idea that government can work.

Neuro-mythology

October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this week the NYTimes Op-Talk section featured an article by Anna North titled “How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids”. The article described three brain myths that are prevalent among teachers and potentially damaging to students:

  1. We only us 10% of our brain
  2. Some learning disabilities are genetically linked to brain structure and cannot be remediated
  3. Students learn best when the teaching approach matches their learning style.

Drawing from the findings of Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education, North’s article dispels each of these myths and does so in a fashion that is not demeaning to teachers nor blames them for this. Instead, Howard-Jones makes the following points:

“Something we have to get across to educators is the fact that the brain is plastic and the fact that its function, structure and connectivity changes as a result of education.”

“There is something kind of ironic here,” he added, “that we place such an emphasis on science education, and yet the science of learning is very often not included in the training of teachers.” And as he notes in his article, accurate neuroscience information can be hard for teachers to get, because it often appears only in specialized journals.

To dispel neuromyths, Dr. Howard-Jones advocated a collaborative approach: “We need messages, ideas and concepts that are constructed together by neuroscientists and by educators.” And, he said, “we need a field that actually combines concepts from both of these areas in a meaningful way.”

I know that Dartmouth College is making an effort to bridge this gap between neuroscience findings and applications in education and have long believed that teacher education program content could be enhanced by placing a greater emphasis on emerging research in child psychology and neuroscience. But there is one obstacle that neither North nor Howard-Jones acknowledge: these myths have taken root because they are “agreeable fantasies”. The notion that we could all be geniuses if we only drew on more of our neural capacity… OR that it is impossible to teach a segment of the population whose brain scans show they have neural deficiencies… OR that matching teaching styles with learning styles will yield better outcomes… each of these could make it easier to accomplish the goal of getting all CAPABLE students to a higher level of learning and sorting out those who are INCAPABLE. One other obstacle in place now: removing the myth from the minds of teachers. A bad myth, like a bad habit, is hard to displace. Once a mental model takes root in the mind, even though are brains ARE plastic, once a neural passage is dug in, re-routing it requires conscious effort.

North’s article concludes with this paragraph:

A former teacher himself, Dr. Howard-Jones was clear on one point: “These myths are not because teachers are stupid.” Part of his goal in writing about neuromyths was to emphasize how important teachers are in the drive to dispel them. The ultimate message of his article, he said, was, “we’ve got a problem here, and it can only be solved by neuroscientists and educators talking to each other.”

Let the conversation begin!

Culture Labs: An Idealistic Disconnect

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.

In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.”  I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.

That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.

And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!

Dealing with Bad Behavior

October 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Over the past few days I read two interrelated articles about how our country handles misbehavior in schools and in our society in general.

“Juvenile Injustice”, a Slate article by Dana Goldstein describes the problem of youth incarceration in rural states by telling the story of Junior Smith, a West Virginia teen whose struggles with addiction and mental health issues resulted in him behaving badly out of school and ultimately being put in jail for an altercation in the high school he attended. Goldstein doesn’t hold back on her descriptions of Junior Smith’s behaviors: he smoked dope, took too many pills, robber a neighbors house, bullied a student to the point of suicide in a previous high school he attended, and admitted to swatting a classmates “…groin with an open-faced palm” in the altercation that ultimately led to his imprisonment.

What was particularly appalling about Junior Smith’s “crime”- an altercation in the classroom that was not even reported to the Principal in the school— was how it was reported to the police:

The scuffle hadn’t attracted the attention of the teacher, and Junior didn’t think much about it afterward. What he and his parents did not know was that the other boy had reported the incident to Chad Kennedy, a county police officer who worked full time at Philip Barbour High School and who was paid, in part, by a federal “juvenile accountability” grantintended to assure “individualized consequences” for juvenile offenders, including community service and mediation. But those were not the consequences for Junior.

After the classroom fight, Kennedy launched an investigation of the conflict. He prepared a report for a judge, who on Feb. 27 signed an order for Junior’s arrest. That afternoon, Junior walked out of school in handcuffs.

 

Goldstein didn’t pursue the question of why this became a law enforcement issue instead of a school discipline issue, but from my reading the criminalization of misconduct is one of the consequences when police officers are assigned to school without having to work under the leadership of  the administration.

Goldstein DID emphasize that it was Smith’s addiction and depression that was the root cause of his behavior and further emphasized that had he resided in another state he would have likely received treatment for his illnesses instead of time in prison. While the injustices visited on Junior Smith are hard to read about, it WAS heartening to read that in most states the rate of juvenile incarceration is on the decline. States are assigning fewer and fewer students to prison… but…

The second article I read on this topic in The New Inquiry, “Carceral Educations”  by Sabrina Alli posits that this diminishment in incarceration may be the result of public education’s widespread use of discipline systems used in penal institutions and the increased number of youth who are under the direct supervision of probationary officers. Alli asserts that school discipline systems establish “…(r)espect for authority and deference to police dominate (as the) the educational goals of this violent educational system that measures success through standardized testing and student interactions with an omnipresent security apparatus.”  Alli later offers this particularly bleak description of urban public school environments to drive her point home:

Schools serve as one of the essential institutions of surveillance intended to criminalize children in economically disenfranchised communities. They can be miserable places for young students, who are gratuitously yelled at by teachers for not getting to the classroom rug fast enough for reading instruction, or for not “tracking” (a term that means follow with your eyes) their teachers when spoken to. Hallways are unnaturally silent and filled with ­military-style straight lines of small children forced to keep their arms rigid against their sides. Rather than academic discipline, obsession over students’ conduct forms the dominant attitude that controls these learning environments, which are often staffed with inexperienced teachers. Students’ home issues and the stereotypes of poverty supply the fictions by which teachers can excuse ourselves for our classroom failures. Even restorative-­justice models of discipline, adopted in some public schools as a more humane alternative to school suspensions and student arrests, signal a system fixated on behavior and control versus learning and exploration. The language of “harm” and restoring justice should not be necessary over infractions that occur in school.

Earlier in the article Alli describes her experiences working in the field of “re-entry”. Here’s the opening paragraph detailing what “re-entry” is and what its goals are:

Re-entry’s primary goal is to induct people back into the workforce once they are released from prison or are mired in the bureaucracy of one of the state’s “community supervision” programs, which include jails, probation, parole, or ATIs (alternatives to incarceration). In practical terms, re-entry provides “services,” broadly construed, to economically disenfranchised people who are targeted by the police and as a result are under some form of surveillance by the carceral network.

The next several paragraphs describe “re-entry” as she witnessed it, and concludes with this:

In order to “reform” and teach participants to become men, the program where I taught had a strict code of conduct with arbitrary rules that begin to disappear the higher up you climb up the income ladder. We regulated behavior on the principle described by Foucault and practiced by Bratton: “The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offenses is to punish the most minor offenses very severely.” If a participant came 15 minutes late to class or to a worksite, they were sent home without a paycheck. Instead of fulfilling the primary function of teacher, which is to educate, or case manager, which is to help connect people to social services, we became what Foucault called “technicians of behavior: engineers of conduct, orthopedists of individuality. [Our] task was to produce bodies that were both docile and capable.” We were training students to become capable employees, emphasizing “skills” such as lowering your cell phone ring in public or avoiding certain tattoos. We were training them to become employable by teaching them to follow the orders they would be subjected to as “low-skill” and low-wage workers.

So whether you are incarcerated within four walls or placed in an ATI program the expectations are the same: docility and following directions are preferable to questioning and creativity. Is this what we want from our students? Will this help us become economically competitive? Can we change the way we treat students in schools to reflect what we REALLY want from them once they are out?