Archive for November, 2013

Pensions Under Attack Redux

November 13, 2013 Comments off

Public education and public employees are among the last group of employees in our country who receive a defined benefit pension, a benefit that, like social security, is under assault. The notion that defined benefit pensions should be replaced with retirement plans of an individual’s “choice” was one of the concepts George Bush tried to sell in 2005 as part of his “mandate” following the election in 2004. It fell with a thud but lives on among those in the investment industry who would benefit greatly from an expansion of “individualized” retirement plans. One of Diane Ravitch’s posts this morning talks about the continuing assault on defined benefit pensions, citing AFT leader Randi Winegarten as one the staunchest opponents to their elimination.  Here’s what I wrote as a comment to the post:

This is the one “old fashioned” benefit that educators should hold onto for dear life! Those who think consumers are adept at making investment decisions are the same folks who think everyone should have a “choice” about buying health insurance and a “choice” about where to attend school (unless the choice involves children raised in poverty crossing the school district borders to an affluent community). As a Superintendent I first noticed this assault on defined benefit pensions by “budget hawks” shortly after the collapse of banks in 2008. This ngram reinforces my memory:
Here’s what’s maddening: the people who squawk the loudest about this issue are people who work in the investment business: the very individuals who stand to benefit most from a switch away from government operated pensions. Here’s a post I wrote on this issue when I started my blog:


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Parent Conference Content

November 13, 2013 Comments off

Today’s Room For Debate in the NYTimes features eight replies to the topic “Re-thinking Parent-Teacher Conferences” one of which, “A Goal Oriented Team Approach” looked the most promising since I am an advocate of teaming with parents to provide helpful feedback, particularly on those areas that are not readily measured by report cards. Unfortunately, the “goal oriented team approach” did not advocate a dialogue about the affective aspects of schooling or offer the “comprehensive overhaul” of the “outdated paradigm” of parent-teacher conferences. Instead it focused on interpreting data! This led me to make the following comment:

Talk about outdated paradigms… why should parents care how their child is doing as compared to age cohorts? The most important metrics are the hardest one to measure with pencil and paper and the most important ones for a teacher and parent to discuss: Is the child becoming a self-actualized learner? Is the child able to work harmoniously with his or her classmates? What can the parents do to help make this happen? What is the school doing to make this happen? We don’t need to emphasize “healthy competition”, we need to emphasize self-directed learning and the ability to work collaboratively with classmates. The last time I looked those are the  “college and career ready” skills that everyone wants our children to have at the end of their schooling.

The middle school in the district I led for seven years introduced the idea of having students lead the parent teacher conference as a means of increasing their self-awareness and self-actualization. I scanned the eight responses and found nothing about student-led conferences… disappointing because it wasn’t a new idea when we adopted it and our adoption was predicated on the notion that it helped students develop reflective skills that are otherwise absent from schooling.

Disruption Happening— Ready or Not

November 12, 2013 Comments off

Several years ago I read Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn and immediately and viscerally agreed with the direction Christensen and Horn saw technology leading education. As one who long advocated mastery learning, self-directed instruction, and the use of technology to support schooling Christensen and Horn’s message resonated. Unfortunately, some of the initial on-line learning start-ups flailed and failed and others seemingly placed profit in front of service. Worse yet, cost-cutting politicians advocated disruption as a way to topple the existing structure of schooling by undercutting the need for traditional classroom instruction and, with it, the unionized teachers whose benefits and pensions were the envy of many blue collar and middle class constituents. The result: the whole concept of technological disruption as a force for equalizing opportunities is being overlooked and “disruption” is being characterized with the same scorn as “reform”.

Last weekend’s NYTimes featured an article by Christensen and Horn that described technological disruption as an “Innovation Imperative” in post secondary education, analogizing the advent of MOOCs to the advent of steamships and the institutions staying with brick-and-mortar to the owners of the tall ships who failed to accept the inevitable changes on the horizon.

Christensen and Horn offer Harvard Business School’s embrace of MOOCs as evidence of their inevitability, and notes that Georgia Tech, is staking its reputation on an on-line masters degree that will be offered at a sixth the price of its current degree. For those of us seeking an equal opportunity for all it is difficult to argue against bona fide masters degrees that are offered at 1/6 the cost of the traditional brick-and-mortar program. The authors provide a description of how a virtual program might provide the campus experience for future students without the campus costs:

The Minerva Project, a start-up headquartered in San Francisco that aims to provide an affordable liberal arts education, offers clues as to how this might unfold in higher education. Minerva anticipates that most of its students will be from outside the United States. To serve them, it will enlist operators to create mini-campuses around the globe where clusters of its students will live and socialize together in residence halls, as well as take online courses and work together on projects.

It is not difficult to see how this model could be used to help students in geographically remote communities gain access to higher level courses and engage in periodic small group dialogues with teachers within their school or travel periodically to a central campus for opportunities to interact with other students with similar interests.

But the closing paragraph of the article is the one that illustrates the greatest promise for virtual learning:

As concepts and skills are taught more effectively online, it’s unlikely that face-to-face interaction will cease to matter. Instead, students will be able to arrange for such experiences when it suits the job they need to get done. Given the reality that we all have different learning needs at different times, that’s a far more student-centered experience. It may not benefit some colleges but should create more options for all students.

Christensen and Horn’s articles focus primarily on post-secondary teaching and learning… but it is the student-centeredness of on-line learning that is its greatest draw for me… and I believe should be a draw for progressive and constructivist educators. When the common core is in place in all states and we (hopefully) replace summative assessments with formative assessments and replace age-based “grade” levels with learning sequences drawn from the common core we will be able to individualize learning in a way that was unattainable in the past. When that occurs, we will be able to reformat education completely and move in the direction of the kind of de-schooled society envisioned by Ivan Illich. We won’t get there, though, if we keep thinking of better ways to design sails.

Revising History or Writing History?

November 11, 2013 Comments off

An article in today’s NYTimes recounts the shifting perspective about the Presidency of John F. Kennedy on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his assassination. The article recounts the emerging consensus on Kennedy’s 1000 days in office:

On some aspects of his presidency, there has been little change. Textbooks offer positive views of the Peace Corps and the space program. And the failed invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs is labeled a “fiasco” again and again. But civil rights, Vietnam and the missile crisis all provoke changing views.

It then describes the changes away from the characterization of him as the leader of Camelot to someone who’s indecision and inexperience led to stalled legislative initiatives and the furtherance of our engagement in Viet Nam.

In reading this I reflected that when I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s we hardly studied the presidencies of McKinley and Taft and only gained a superficial knowledge of Teddy Roosevelt. The era, fifty years prior, was glossed over as our history teachers leaped from the Civil War to World War I, the Depression, and World War II. While I’ve learned a lot about that era, I confess to knowing next to nothing about the Reconstruction period after the civil war until 1900…. which would be analogous to today’s students knowing next to nothing about the 1920s to World War II.

In a comment I left I noted that revisionism of history was not even on anyone’s radar in the mainstream media in  the early 1960s and the first time I recall reading about it was in the late 1960s in college. At first blush worrying about history’s treatment of relatively contemporary presidents is immaterial, after all we have access to primary documents through Google. But in the final analysis, history does offer us a consensus view to help us get at least a general understanding of the temper of the times… I only hope that in 2030 people will look at the Reagan years and realize that trickle down economics, deregulation, and privatization were the wrong way for our country to go and that government isn’t the problem except when it is gridlocked…. and it would be better yet if that realization came sooner.

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Prekindergarten WILL Cost More

November 10, 2013 Comments off

Everyone loves the idea of universal prekindergarten, as Nick Kristoff’s column today on Oklahoma’s preschool initiative illustrates. He writes:

It’s promising that here in Oklahoma, early education isn’t seen as a Republican or Democratic initiative. It is simply considered an experiment that works. After all, why should we squander human capacity and perpetuate social problems as happens when we don’t reach these kids in time?

Its great to see that someone on the national scene is promoting prekindergarten as a bipartisan issue that everyone can agree on… but one phrase in Kristoff’s article was misleading:

The aim is to break the cycle of poverty, which is about so much more than a lack of money.

By its very definition “poverty” is ALL about a “lack of money” and “poverty stricken schools” are those that lack resources to provide their students with the same opportunities as affluent schools…. and that lack of resources is what creates and reinforces the cycle of poverty. And, as I pointed out in a comment I made on his blog page, universal prekindergarten WILL require all taxpayers to dig a little deeper in their pockets to pay for public schooling. In a project I am working on in a rural district I’ve determined that it will cost in excess of $3,000,0000 to expand five small elementary schools to accommodate a day-long prekindergarten program and tens of thousands more each year to staff those new rooms. Kristoff is correct in his assertion that money alone cannot break the cycle of poverty: it will require a change in parenting and a change of thinking about public schools. But he misses the boat when he fails to emphasize the important role money will play in providing the equal educational opportunities needed to break the cycle of poverty.


SOME Disruption Necessary

November 9, 2013 Comments off

This morning’s post from Diane Ravitch included a link to an excellent review of her book written for Commonweal by Jackson Lears. I won’t print any extended extracts from the book review, but will share one sentence that I believe captures the essence of the review:

“Celebrating better schools as a panacea is a way of not mentioning unmentionable policies that might challenge existing power arrangements.”

But I did have two issues with the review: its unequivocal pushback against “disruption” and its skepticism about the possibility that technology might have a beneficial impact on schooling.

I have one problem with the pushback against “disruption” because I believe the system we have in place whereby students are grouped by age cohorts and “promoted” through “grade levels” works against the opportunities that now exist for students to progress at their own rates without feeling “left behind” or “getting ahead”. This change cannot be made without disrupting things…. and one of the major impediments to making changes to the structure of schools is this: by and large those in power were identified as “successes” by the system in place and they therefore believe “the system” is good.

My problem with technology is implicit in the critique against “disruption”. We now have the technological tools that could make it possible to individualize instruction in ways that were impossible in the past IF we change the way we use it.


More Thoughts on NAEP

November 9, 2013 Comments off

Diane Ravitch has had several posts on the NAEP results, and a post I opened this morning prompted me to write the following comment:

A couple of points to add:

First: those bloggers who looked closely at the NAEP results noted that the “improvements” did not occur at the low end of the curve. They were, therefore, the result of moving the middle a little higher– which makes it likely that “improvements in achievement” are really “improvements in test prep”… and the civil rights arguments for the testing regimen are bogus.

Second: That’s not a problem for the “reformers” who analogize schools to “products” and parents as “consumers” and “tests” to the data sheets on the sides of food products, available at the car dealers, available on line when you’re looking for real estate, and ultimately reduced to a “star system” when you read Rotten Tomatoes for movies or Zagat’s restaurant guides. In their minds the test results are the ultimate metric and higher NAEP scores are the “gold standard.” Alas those who use NAEP results to point out the weakness of standards in some states cannot argue that improvement on NAEP scores is meaningless. The message cannot be one test is better than another: the message has to be testing in and of itself is NOT a meaningful metric.

When I was Superintendent in large districts with many elementary schools I would occasionally field phone calls from parents who were moving into the area and wanted to know which elementary school was “the best”. They had invariably looked up the State report cards and were unable to divine the answer. I told them the only way they could determine which school was “the best” was to visit several of them and get a feel for the one that matched their child’s interests…. the same advice I gave to parents who were trying to figure out which college was best for their child. The collection of data points might help narrow the field of choices, but it is no substitute for being there…. We are wasting a lot of time designing metrics that can never substitute for the vibration one gets when visiting a school any more than we can get a metric for measuring who will like a particular variety of soup. We’re only developing these metrics because we want to market schools, not because we want to improve them.

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