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Epistemic Closure and School Reform

November 28, 2012 Comments off

The Naked Capitalism blog cross posted “Revenge of the Reality Based Community” an article from The American Conservative written by Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican operative who became frustrated with his party’s refusal to accept facts. Midway through the article, after describing his awakening to the fact that the economics of the Bush II administration were not based on reality, Bartlett shared his views with Ron Suskind who was writing an article for the NYTimes. After the article was published, Bartlett described the fallout:

The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.

Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

This sequence of events occurred in 2004, a few weeks before the re-election of George W. Bush and shortly after it was becoming evident to the general public that the whole rationale for our misadventure in Iraq was bogus…. and this “awakening” mirrors the one Diane Ravitch experienced when it dawned on her that the testing associated with NCLB was not reality based…

When objective, rigorous intellectuals who reach conclusions based on objective reality begin applying their thoughts to education the whole reform movement should come tumbling down… unless the education reform establishment suffers from epistemic closure.

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Arne Duncan for Secretary of State?

November 28, 2012 Comments off

I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when I read the last sentence of the first paragraph of Thom Friedman’s column titled “My Secretary of State”. It read:

….my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.

As I read on I was a bit flattered but mostly incredulous as I read through the Friedman’s analysis. I was flattered because Friedman recognized the balancing act school superintendents face:

A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”

Having worked in a large county district, small rural districts, and three other “in between” districts, I can attest to the fact that the balancing act and the scrutiny of every decision is similar in all settings. The difference is that in the larger districts there is more media coverage and less opportunity for personal contact with “parents”, “teachers”, and “students”. A superintendent in a district serving 17,000 students has limited contact with individual teachers, parents, and students and instead deals with proxies: the union leadership, the county PTA leadership, and the student representative. In smaller districts the Superintendent actually gets to know teachers the same way teachers know their students, gets to know parents beyond those who serve in PTO leadership positions, and gets to see students in the classrooms and attend events and activities featuring students. Arne Duncan had one advantage over most superintendents: he was appointed by and accountable to one individual and NOT a Board… which would change the dynamics of the “balancing act” substantially.

Mr. Friedman’s analogy of negotiations between school boards and unions with negotiations between nations was also flattering. While negotiations between unions and boards are sometimes contentious, the ultimate stakes are inconsequential compared to negotiations at the international level. The last time I looked, Randi Weingarten doesn’t have nuclear weapons… though an early Woody Allen movie did suggest that the world ended when Al Shanker got his hands on some.

I was also flattered to read the heart of Friedman’s premise for the Secretary of Education taking over as Secretary of State:

The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power.

But in the next sentence and in a later paragraph, I became incredulous:

To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him….

…as our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to “Races to the Top,” which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars. That race is the future of foreign aid.

Arne Duncan may be an astute politician, but he is NOT “…one of the world’s leading authorities on education”! And, as I’ve written on several occasions in this blog, his reliance on junk science like VAM to measure school and student performance is misguided at best and supportive of the emerging privatization movement at worse…. and linking “Race to the Top” and ‘reform” in the same sentence is maddening. Race to the Top reinforces everything that is wrong with the way our schools are structured. All of this led to my comment, which may or may not be published:

Arne Duncan’s so-called reforms have not improved schools one bit… even using the nonsensical metrics he has imposed through Race To The Top. If we are really interested in reforming our schools we need use technology to abandon the age-based grade cohorts and standardized test metrics that define the factory school and develop personalized education plans that match instruction to each student’s abilities, learning styles, and interests. Knowing what we know today about child development and having a wide array of freeware available on the web it is frustrating to see our Secretary of Education reinforcing the factory model of schooling developed in the 1920s. Arne Duncan is not reforming education, he’s engineering the model in place. Sal Khan and the developers of MOOCs, on the other hand, are making the kinds of disruptive change that will ultimately redefine schooling. See the Network Schools blog at waynegersen.com for more.

DO think Friedman is right that Race-to-the-Top style grants are the way to transform schools, but I do NOT think the incentives embedded in Race to the Top do anything to promote transformation… they perpetuate the factory model and emphasize teaching-to-the-test over creative problem solving and sorting and selecting students over educating each student to the fullest.

A Promising Parent Engagement Model

November 27, 2012 Comments off

Edutopia, the George Lucas Foundation’s education enterprise that supports the use of technology to ensure that students graduate with 21st Century skills, featured an article by Anne O’Brian in its November 26 on-line newsletter entitled “The Power of Academic Parent Teacher Teams. These teams take two forms:  a classroom team, which consists of all the parents and the classroom teacher; and the parent teacher team which consist of the parent(s), the teacher, and the student. The classroom team convenes three meetings per year and the content of those meetings focusses on ways the parents can support the school’s efforts at home. The parent-teacher team convenes once each year. Here’s a brief description of how those meetings work:

At these meetings, they review performance data, create an action plan for continuous improvement, discuss how to support student learning at home, and develop stronger relationships. Additional individual conferences are scheduled as needed.

According to According to Maria Paredes, the administrator who developed and copyrighted this process:

…one of the greatest challenges implementing this (or any model of family engagement) is some educators’ mindset about families. As she says, “We often doubt families’ capacity to help their children, and we often have mistaken perceptions of their ability to commit to higher expectations and standards for learning,” particularly for the families of disadvantaged and minority children.

Having worked in schools and led districts where many parents are disengaged, it is easy to forget that there are many parents who want  to be engaged in improving their child’s educational opportunities but don’t know how to do so. For many teachers, most of whom were raised in families where education was valued and good parenting came naturally, it is difficult to appreciate that parenting is a learned behavior.  When they encounter discipline problems– especially in middle and high schools, in most cases they find themselves dealing with parents are not engaged. It is not too hard for these teachers to conclude that the majority of parents are equally disengaged, creating the vicious cycle that Paredes describes.

The key: intervene early and follow through. When schools fail to do any outreach, the parents quickly conclude that “the teachers have given up on our kids”… whereas if intervention occurs for the parents of ALL students it can be infectious and lead to the opposite message.

Finally, any steps taken toward personalization will necessarily include this kind of outreach to parents: teachers and counselors will need parental support for whatever plan an individual student develops and parent engagement at all levels will help schools find external learning opportunities.