Archive for December, 2012

The Mindfulness Paradox

December 17, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes op ed section featured an essay on mindfulness called The Power of Concentration by  Maria Konnokova, a Columbia doctoral student. The messages in Ms. Konnokova’s essay are:

  • concentration is an essential skill in today’s world where multi-tasking constantly divides our attention,
  • research shows that engaging in mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to concentrate
  • research shows that when one engages in mindfulness practice their brain is permanently altered… no matter what their age is.
  • mindfulness can be taught

So… if mindfulness can be taught… and it results in permanent and irreversible changes to one’s ability to concentrate… why are we not including it in the school curriculum?

Two reasons: we don’t have tests we can use to rank teachers an schools based on the ability of students to concentrate… and meditation and yoga— technique used to teach mindfulness— is religious training!

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The Literature vs. Information Debate

December 14, 2012 Comments off

Over the past several weeks, a debate has raged in the education blogosphere over the Common Core State Standard’s (CCSS) recommendation that 70% of reading in classrooms be devoted to “informational text” with the balance being devoted to “literature”. This is an anathema to many liberal-arts-major-bloggers who see this as a portent of the elimination of Shakespeare in favor of reading manuals and dry analytic texts.

I strongly disagree with political context surrounding the CCSS— namely the desire to quantify the “quality of schools and teachers” using analytics derived from on standardized tests based on a common set of goals and objectives. However, if testing is a “given”, and the improvement of public education is a national priority, then having a set of universal standards is a necessity. Having started my career as a public school superintendent in 1983, the year A Nation At Risk was published, I have engaged in variations of this debate throughout my career> I’ve noticed that the breakdown in consensus occurs when a panel attempts to specifically identify which books should be included in the national canon at a particular grade level and which topics should or should not be included in historical and scientific texts. The notion of dividing language arts reading into “informational text” and “literature” seems a more productive undertaking than trying to determine WHAT information to include or what books to read.

The question of whether the split between “literature” and “informational test” seems to be a  good way to divert attention from the overarching political context and also seems to be creating a host of false dichotomies. With all of this swirling in my mind, I was interested in Timothy Egan’s column this in this morning’s NYTimes. Titled “In Ignorance We Trust”, Egan is concerned with the state of history instruction in our schools:

…History, the formal teaching and telling of it, has never been more troubled. Two forces, one driven by bottom-line educators answering to corporate demands to phase out the liberal arts, the other coming from the circular firing squad of academics who loathe popular histories, have done much to marginalize our shared narratives.

He calls out FLA Governor Rick Scott’s “knuckle headed” idea of charging more for liberal arts courses because we have all the anthropologists we need, and writes about the sad stte of history texts many of which “… are boring, badly written and jargon-weighted with politically correct nonsense.” This is the comment I wrote in response to the article… which I hope might provoke a column about in the future.

You MIGHT have something to contribute to the ongoing debate among educators regarding the 70-30 rationing of “informational text” to “literature”. Liberal Arts majors are annoyed and there is a lot of rumormongering going on about “the elimination of Shakespeare” in favor of reading “dry non-fiction”… As you note in your essay, non-fiction isn’t necessarily a recounting of carefully screened factual information that is arguably propaganda… it can be stories told by real people who lived through experiences similar to those we are encountering today.

I DO think the “literature-versus-informational” text assumes that students will be forced to read textbooks in history and social studies to the exclusion of literature. It could, just as easily, compel teachers to work in an interdisciplinary fashion.

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The Limits of Teacher Evaluation

December 14, 2012 Comments off

Diane Ravitch wrote a blog post about a “parent” who wrote an op ed piece for one of the NYC tabloids. The “parent” who appears to be a shill for StudentsFirst, complained about the disparate experiences his twin daughters were experiencing in a NYC public school kindergarten and was urging the legislators to pass a bill that would mandate an improved evaluation system in the belief that such a law would result in more even performance. I wrote a comment to this post:

In NH the public gets to vote on teacher’s contracts and discuss their merits (and demerits) at public hearings in advance of the vote. Invariably someone would decry the lack of merit pay…. and just as invariably one of the professors at a local college would rise and share an anecdote about his two daughters’ experiences at our local high school, describing one daughter’s favorite teacher who clearly deserved merit pay and the other teacher’s least favorite teacher who, based on the account he shared, should have been dismissed before earning a continuing contract. The punch line: it was the same individual. Outstanding teacher’s don’t connect with every student and bad teachers are beloved by others…. oh…. and in our district, where all the students score in at least the 90th percentile on the State standardized test, NONE of our teachers achieved a high VAM score.

In 29 years as a Superintendent and 6 as a building level administrator I can attest to the fact that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor when it comes to assessing the quality of teachers… and the most sophisticated mathematical model in the world will not be able to objectively quantify teacher OR administrator quality.

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Singapore Softens

December 13, 2012 Comments off

An article in today’s NYTimes by Kristiano Ang describes the steps the Singaporean Minister of Education is taking to reform schools… by reducing stress. Singapore is a country that values education and competition, and their current system sounds like the one desired by our reformers. Schools are “graded” based on the performance of their students on examinations, the academic achievements of students are the subject of front page news stories and advertisements for products, and competition starts early.

Instead of grading schools based on examination scores, the Ministry of Education will strive to have “every school… be a good school in delivering a student-centric, values-driven education.” And some of the legislators even want to go further, introducing bills to

…to scrap the primary school graduation exam, which basically determines a student’s academic path through high school.

Not all parents are happy about this, particularly those who came through this system successfully and whose children are competing well against their classmates. Why is this change being advocated?

Heng Swee Keat, Singapore’s Harvard-educated education minister, addressed the issue on Facebook. “The change is not to address stress per se or to move away from merit,” he wrote. “It is not possible, nor desirable, to eliminate stress completely. Nor should we be shy about achievements.”

Singapore and Finland typically score near the top on international examinations. Singapore’s high scores demonstrate that an examination centered and highly disciplined education system can excel on standardized achievement tests. Finland’s equally high scores indicate that less schooling and more individualization can accomplish the same results.

We should look at where Singapore is headed and embrace that direction: we should strive to have “every school… be a good school in delivering a student-centric, values-driven education.”  That’s what Finland is doing… and it seems to be working.



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Talent and Opportunity

December 13, 2012 Comments off

Nick Kristof’s column in today’s NYTimes, “It’s a Smart, Smart, Smart World” describes the “Flynn Effect”, which asserts that the world’s population is getting more intelligent based on their IQ test results. My first thought when I read this was that the IQ test is not necessarily the best metric for measuring intelligence, a caveat that Kristof introduces later in the essay:

While I.Q. measures something to do with mental acuity, it’s a rubbery and imperfect metric. It’s heavily shaped by environment — potential is diminished when children suffer from parasites or lead in air pollution.

This link to the environment in and of itself would raise the average by increasing the IQs in nations where clean water and basic health care has been introduced over the past decades. But Flynn sees something else at work:

Flynn argues that I.Q. is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews….

…Flynn argues that modern TV shows and other entertainment can be cognitively demanding, and video games like those of the Grand Theft Auto series probably require more thought than solitaire.

In order to continue this trend, desperately poor and undeveloped countries not only need to prevent “parasites” and regulations that eliminate environmental hazards like leaded gasoline, they need secular education programs that expand the thinking of children. And what of OUR country? Kristof recommends that we stop cutting school funding when

“…about 7,000 high school students drop out every day, and there are long waits to get into early-childhood-enrichment programs like Head Start. Literacy programs can help break cycles of poverty and unleash America’s potential — and a single F-35 fightercould pay for more than four years of the Reading Is Fundamental program in the entire United States.

Kristof concludes with this paragraph:

As we make hard budget choices, let’s remember that the essential fact of the world is that talent is universal and opportunity is not. I hope we’re finally smart enough to try to remedy that.


Homework and Equity

December 11, 2012 Comments off

This week’s New Yorker includes “Today’s Assignment”, an essay by Louis Menand on the French Prime Minister François Hollande’s recent recommendation that homework be abolished as part of a national school reform movement designed to improve his country’s performance on international examinations. Why eliminate homework?

His reason for exercising his powers in this area is to address an inequity. He thinks that homework gives children whose parents are able to help them with it—more educated and affluent parents, presumably—an advantage over children whose parents are not. The President wants to give everyone an equal chance.

As a socialist leader, Hollande benchmarked against the highest performing nation in the West, Finland, another socialist country.

The country with the most successful educational system, according to the Economist study, is Finland. Students there are assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short. It is estimated that Italian children spend a total of three more years in school than Finns do (and Italy ranked twenty-fourth).

Oh… and as noted in earlier blog posts Finland doesn’t give any across the board standardized tests to its students. Menand writes that .” Finnish schools are doing what Finns want them to do, which is to bring everyone up to the same level and instill a commitment to equality.”

Menand’s penultimate paragraph provides an accurate description of what our country expects from its schools, with emphases added:

What do Americans want? Not to be like Finland is a safe guess. Americans have an egalitarian approach to inequality: they want everyone to have an equal chance to become better-off than everyone else. By and large, for most people school is the mechanism for achieving this. Still, Hollande has a point. The dirty little secret of education reform is that one of the greatest predictors of academic success is household income. Even the standardized tests used for college admissions, like the S.A.T.s, are essentially proxies for income: students from better-off backgrounds get higher scores. The educational system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity and social readjustment, but in some ways it operates as a perpetuator of the status quo.

Our educational system IS a perpetuator of the status quo… because those who were successful in schools are the ones who make decisions about how schools should operate and they see no reason to change the “rules”… because the rules in place identified them as winners. That is another “dirty little secret”….

College Accountability

December 11, 2012 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes op ed page featured an article by Kevin Carey titled “Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?” The article argued that the current method of defining successful course completion, “the credit hour”, is an anachronism that should be replaced with something based on “meaningful academic standards”… and while Carey doesn’t say it in so many words, I’ve got to believe that once these “meaningful academic standards” are in place they will be measured using— what else— a “meaningful standardized test”.

In one of the closing paragraphs, Carey offers a different answer. He suggests the market will take care of the issue:

Perhaps students themselves will decide what constitutes quality, as they choose among the so-called “massive online open courses” being offered free by brand-name universities including Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford. I suspect those courses that will be most valued will be those where students actually learn.

I believe and hope that MOOCs will sort this out, because that would mean that mastery assessments would take the place of standardized assessments… and mastery assessments will mean that learning is the constant and time is the variable.