Archive for October, 2012

Learning is Constant, Time is the Variable

October 31, 2012 1 comment

Over 20 years ago Ron Edmunds decried the fact that we had it backward in our public schools: we had time as a constant and learning as a variable. If a student didn’t master the material presented in the allocated time, they failed… time marched on and the information they didn’t grasp in the allotted time was never learned and the skills they didn’t get in the allotted time was never mastered. Over the years, more and more information was unlearned and more skills were not mastered and, of course, the gap between the “fast learners” and the “slow learners” widened.

Off the Clock, a recent article in Education Week echoes this assertions. calling time a false metric. The writer, Kyle Redford, a teacher in Marin Country Day School, recommends that ALL students be afforded the time they need to complete assignments or tests:

How did teachers ever come to rationalize cutting students off before they had ample time to express their understanding of a subject? How did we, as educators, allow a two-tier system to spring up that lets students with parent advocates, enlightened schools, or family means gain access to a basic educational accommodation that is denied students who have the same need but can’t get or afford a diagnosis?

I’m unaware of research that supports the idea that educators learn anything additional about students’ depth or breadth of knowledge by measuring how quickly they can recall answers or express what they have learned. There are many things that cause one student to finish an assessment faster than another, and it is not always influenced by mastery (with the exception of something like a math-facts quiz).

My comment to this suggested that time constraints on assignments are the tip of the iceberg: the biggest time constraint is the one that suggests students of a certain age should be expected to master a body of material within a fixed time frame we called a “grade level”.. . and THIS time frame is reinforced by the standardized testing we do year in and year out. The reason for this “grade level” paradigm is that it was efficient in the day and age when schools were designed to sort the fast learners from the slow learners— but that day is over and HAS been over for decades. If we expect ALL students to learn, we need to recall that Edmund’s aphorism was ALL children can learn given sufficient time and appropriate instruction…. unfortunately the qualifying phrases have been dropped from this in our mania to test children using the easiest and cheapest means possible.

Another Pro-Charter Angle: Green cards for $$$$

October 31, 2012 Comments off

My step-daughter who lives in Burke, VT, recently told me that the somewhat shopworn ski resort in their community was recently acquired by “investors from China” who intended to spend lots of money to upgrade the lifts, the condominiums, and build new houses in the region. They were rewarded for their investment with a green card… which seemed like a win-win situation for everyone: the economically challenged North East Kingdom of VT would get jobs, more tourism from Boston and Montreal, and the investors would get to relocate their families to our country.

A recent article in Reuters indicates that this opportunity is also available for foreigners who invest in charter schools.(Thanks to Diane Ravitch’s blog post for this link!). As the October 12 article by Stephanie Simon reports:

Under a federal program known as EB-5, wealthy foreigners can in effect buy U.S. immigration visas for themselves and their families by investing at least $500,000 in certain development projects. In the past two decades, much of the investment has gone into commercial real-estate projects, like luxury hotels, ski resorts and even gas stations.

Lately, however, enterprising brokers have seen a golden opportunity to match cash-starved charter schools with cash-flush foreigners in investment deals that benefit both.

“The demand is massive – massive – on the school side,” said Greg Wing, an investment advisor. “On the investor side, it’s massive, too.”

Two years ago, Wing set up a venture called the Education Fund of America specifically to connect international investors with charter schools. He is currently arranging EB-5 funding for 11 schools across North Carolina, Utah and Arizona and says he has four more deals in the works.

And that’s just the start, Wing says: “It’s going to be explosive.”

Explosive indeed! What school district in this day and age can raise $500,000 for facilities without creating a firestorm in its community… and what charter investor is willing to pony up $500,000 for a specialized facility that might not make it, especially since banks are reluctant to loan funds to a start-up like a charter school. According to the article, “…the government approved 3,000 petitions from foreigners seeking to participate in the program – nearly twice as many as were approved all last year” and many investors are eager to fund charter schools because they are viewed as recession proof and somewhat altruistic. Ali Faisal, a Pakistani investor put his money in charter schools because

…he felt he’d be serving society as well as helping himself. The schools he saw impressed him with their rigorous science curriculum and he said he hoped his investment would help nurture a new generation of American entrepreneurs.

“Investing in some type of hotel will not give me that inner satisfaction.””

Investors with altruistic motives like Mr. Faisal are somehow more acceptable than investors who want to make profit from charter schools…. and those coming into our country with Mr. Faisal’s perspective seem to be seeking entry here because they believe that  upward mobility is possible in our country and they realize that education is key to achieving that advancement.

At first blush it seems that this is no different than the investment in Burke Mountain Ski Resort: it will bring improved facilities to public education, create jobs, and benefit residents in districts where the $$$ is being invested. But the dilemma is this: charters are competing against public schools and public schools cannot raise $500,000 from foreigners to enhance their facilities or buy new technology or hire additional teachers… so the field is tilted in favor of the privatizers. If we want to be the kind of country Mr. Faisal believes we are, we need to invest in our PUBLIC schools and stop relying on external funding to save the day.

Cutthroat Capitalism, Cuddly Capitalism, and Charter Schools

October 31, 2012 Comments off

Eduardo Porter’s column in today’s business section of the NYTimes invites readers to choose the form of capitalism they want to have in the future… and suggests that we are where we are today because of choices WE made in the past.

In his column he cites a monograph by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James Robinson of Harvard and Thierry Verdier of the Paris School of Economics that contrasts the United States’ “cutthroat capitalism” with the “cuddly capitalism” of Scandinavia. Here’s a quote from the abstract of that monograph:

We show that, under plausible assumptions, the world equilibrium is asymmetric: some countries will opt for a type of “cutthroat” capitalism that generates greater inequality and more innovation and will become the technology leaders, while others will free-ride on the cutthroat incentives of the leaders and choose a more cuddly form of capitalism. Paradoxically, those with cuddly reward structures, though poorer, may have higher welfare than cutthroat capitalists; but in the world equilibrium, it is not a best response for the cutthroat capitalists to switch to a more cuddly form of capitalism. We also show that domestic constraints from social democratic parties or unions may be beneficial for a country because they prevent cutthroat capitalism domestically, instead inducing other countries to play this role.

As any political junkie can see, the highlighted phrases all sound like talking points from the Republican side of the aisle and the business community… while the underscored sections reflect the progressive point of view… which is to say not necessarily the view put forth by the democratic party.

It struck me in reading this article that the charter school business represents the cutthroat side of capitalism. Market based charter schools set in motion the “… relentless dynamics (that send) unheard-of profits toward the prosperous few while threatening the jobs and eroding the wages of the rest” (see earlier posts on the wages paid to CEOs of charter schools and low wages paid to teachers) and does nothing to address the high social costs we have incurred as a result of the cutthroat capitalism that dominates our overall economy.

Charter schools and technology could be combined to address the social ills outlined in Porter’s article, but only if the government had incentives on collaboration among agencies and provided funding for those agencies that could break the cycle of dependency. Unfortunately no one is advocating ANY form of cuddly, cooperative capitalism… only the competitive, cutthroat capitalism that our businesses assume is the ONLY way to move forward.

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Mother’s Love in the First Three Years

October 30, 2012 Comments off

The pictures of brain scans in this article from the Medical Daily are worth more than a thousand words: they show how a mother’s neglect during the first 2-3 years of a child’s life can stunt the growth of the child’s brain. If we know this is true, and if we also know:

….the child with the smaller brain… will be more likely to become addicted to drugs, be involved in violent crimes, be unemployed and dependent on government benefits in the future.

Furthermore, the child with the shrunken brain is significantly more likely to develop mental and other serious health-related problems.

And if we also know:

Researchers said the process of childhood neglect is a vicious cycle because the parents of neglected children were also neglected by their parents and do not have fully developed brain.

However, past research has shown that the cycle can be broken if there is early intervention and families are supported.

Why aren’t we doing SOMETHING to intervene? The answer is that intervention is initially costly, potentially cast as “government interference”, and fraught with ethical questions.

But NOT intervening is clearly costly— compensatory education programs, Special Education, drug interventions, and incarceration and/or medical treatment for mental illness are all costly.

And NOT intervening doesn’t limit “government intervention”. Placing a child on an IEP is arguably “government intervention”… and the last time I looked prisons were overseen by the government (though they, too, are being privatized— another sad story). Whenever someone runs afoul of the law, the government will intervene. Isn’t it better to intervene EARLY that to wait for a predictable adverse consequence?

And NOT intervening poses ethical dilemmas as well. If one witnesses a mother striking a child inappropriately at a store is there an ethical responsibility to do something? If a doctor is aware that a child is being neglected, do they have an ethical responsibility to do something? Now the tough question: if we neglect the way children are being reared knowing that many appear at their first day of school lacking the emotional nurturance required to learn effectively, doesn’t THAT pose an ethical dilemma as well?

We know that early neglect and abuse results in serious cognitive, emotional, and mental problems in the future. Shouldn’t we do SOMETHING?



Charter Corruption

October 30, 2012 Comments off

Diane Ravitch is relentless in her reporting of corruption in charter schools… and while the posts seem redundant they illustrate a reality that many pro-private sector apologists gloss over: if you are motivated by money you will often do whatever it takes to make that money…. and if you are motivated by greed, you will feel free to steal so long as it is within the law. As noted in earlier posts, many political conservatives have eyed public education as a potential cash cow for decades, recognizing the potential to turn a large profit by opening on-line schools in a de-regulated market. (See this link for one example)

So it’s not surprising to find that out of state billionaires are donating millions of dollars to support an initiative to expand charter schools in Georgia… or that a multi-millionaire who operates a charter school in Chester PA (and is the largest individual donor to the Governor) is claiming that the financial records for that school are not a public record while he builds a  20,000 square foot mansion in FLA to go with his 30,000 square foot mansion in PA… or that the individuals who are making the largest contributions to pro-for-profit-charter schools are also touting investments in charter schools… or that the Wall Street Journal touts for-profit charters as the next big thing while billionaires make sure it IS the next big thing by investing as much as $630,000 in a local school board election in Colorado…. or that a “miracle charter” school in LA turned out to be a cheating charter school

I try not to be a paranoid alarmist… and Diane Ravitch is hardly a socialist left-wing radical… but I am old enough to recall Woodward and Bernstein’s mantra: follow the money. And the money that is flowing into Board elections from the private sector is not being invested based on the idealistic notion of providing an equal opportunity for all children to experience success in school… it is being invested to expand the opportunity for making a profit in operating schools. If standardized tests are the metric for school success, it is relatively easy to maintain the level of performance in a school that operates at less than half the cost… especially if those pesky regulations are eliminated… you know, the regulations that require students to attend classes with other children or participate in PE, Art, and Music….

As noted in an earlier post, both Presidential candidates and most Governors, Democrats and Republicans alike, seem OK with the privatization movement. After all, it saves money for them and doesn’t alter the student performance as measured by test scores— so where’s the problem? The problem is that we have equated school success with standardized test scores and refused to acknowledge the effects of poverty on children and, in doing so, we have limited the scope of schooling and limited the opportunities for economic advancement.

The Drip-Drip-Drip of Erosion in Trust

October 29, 2012 Comments off

I was appalled to read this excerpt from an interview with Ann Romney (AR) in Good Housekeeping magazine that was brought to my attention by Diane Ravitch’s post this morning:

GH: Can you tell me, what campaign issue is closest to your heart?

AR: I’ve been a First Lady of the State. I have seen what happens to people’s lives if they don’t get a proper education. And we know the answers to that. The charter schools have provided the answers. The teachers’ unions are preventing those things from happening, from bringing real change to our educational system. We need to throw out the system.

To paraphrase some of the questions posed by Diane Ravitch:

“WE know the answers to that”???? Who is “we”???….

And what makes it a “given” that the teacher’s union is preventing a “proper education” to take place???

And where is the evidence that “charter schools have provided the answers”???

This article reinforces the idea that public schools are NOT providing “a proper” education and that the whole reason they are failing is because of bad teaching. This idea works for politicians because it allows them to avoid tackling the REAL problem with public education which is the effects of poverty on children. As noted repeatedly in this blog and those of many other educators, our well funded schools that serve children who are NOT raised in poverty do as well as any schools on earth. We CLAIM that we want to provide an equal opportunity for all children but our actions show otherwise.

This article keeps up the “schools are failing” drumbeat… the drip… drip… drip you hear is the erosion of trust in its public schools.

Lovingkindness or High Test Scores?

October 29, 2012 Comments off

Today’s NYTimes featured an article in the Opinionator section titled “Teaching Lessons”. The article was written by a classroom teacher who described her experiences with professional development in somewhat cynical and dismissive fashion EXCEPT for a recent experience she had learning about and using the Responsive Classroom. The approaches advocated in the Responsive Classroom are not new and are not unproven. I recall reading about this approach over two decades ago in a Phi Delta Kappa article and seeking it in action in schools where I served in New York State and New Hampshire. Here’s a brief description of the program:

The Responsive Classroom approach centers on several ostensibly mundane classroom practices. Each morning students form a circle, greet one another, share bits of news, engage in a brief, fun activity and review the day’s agenda. The idea is to build trust, ensure a little fun (which adolescents crave) and confront small problems before they become big. Students might welcome one another with salutations from a foreign language. An activity might involve tossing several balls around a circle in rapid succession. Students share weekend plans or explore topics like bullying before lessons begin.

If this sounds obvious or intuitive, it is, but so is being loving and kind. That doesn’t make it easier to achieve. Part of what makes the approach effective is that each routine is highly structured, and so replicable, but allows for student input and choice.

My comment on the article expresses my disillusionment with the current state of professional development, which too often focuses on increasing test scores and neglects important but tough-to-measure things like character:

It is unfortunate that worthwhile programs like the responsive classroom need to tie themselves to standardized tests. As long as we hold schools accountable based on test scores, most professional development funds will go toward “improving test scores” and not toward things like the responsive classroom. It is difficult for many politicians, school boards and administrators to buy into the notion that teaching abstract and hard-to-measure skills like “cooperation, assertiveness and empathy” will yield high test scores and, after all, high test scores ARE the ultimate measure of success. I daresay that any “failing school” seeking additional funds for the Responsive Classroom as a means of increasing test scores would have that request denied.

In reading the comment section, it was noteworthy that the schools where this seemed to be embraced were private schools where test results were NOT important. I’d rather see my child in a school where school where lovingkindness was emphasized more than tests…

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