Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’

David Brooks Should Heed His Admonishment for President Trump

June 2, 2017 Leave a comment

As is often the case, David Brooks writes a column in today’s NYTimes that I can find a 95% agreement with only to be maddened by the 5% discrepancy…  Titled “Donald Trump Poisons the World”, Brooks’ op ed piece describes his disgust with the perspective of Mr. Trump’s leadership team and Mr. Trump himself. He opens with two paragraphs that would be good leads for articles in Nation or Truthdig:

This week, two of Donald Trump’s top advisers, H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, wrote the following passage in The Wall Street Journal: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a cleareyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

That sentence is the epitome of the Trump project. It asserts that selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. It grows out of a worldview that life is a competitive struggle for gain. It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath.

He then goes on to take Mr. Trump to task for holding a “…core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance” and boldly asserts that “…this philosophy is based on an error about human beings and it leads to self-destructive behavior in all cases“. He then writes:

Of course people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power. But they are also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.

As a retired public school administrator I was heartened to read Mr. Brooks’ assessment of humanity! While acknowledging that “…people are driven by selfish motivations — for individual status, wealth and power” he also realizes they are “…also motivated by another set of drives — for solidarity, love and moral fulfillment — that are equally and sometimes more powerful.”

This refreshing perspective on humanity makes me wonder why folks like Mr. Brooks want to impose business principles on public education. Businesses, after all, are driven by the profit motive. The operate on the assumption that people seek “status, wealth and power” and assign no value to abstract ideals like “solidarity, love and moral fulfillment” that do not add to the bottom line. Indeed, when politicians who advocate business principles for public education “measure” how well schools are performing they don’t even try to determine how well teachers are doing in terms of developing “soft skills” in children, they only care about test scores… which serve as a convenient mathematical proxy for “profit”.

Here’s some news for conservatives like Mr. Brooks who want to “reform” the public schools by applying business principles: Those of us who work in the public education are not driven by the profit motive that is prized in business. We want to make the world a better place for the children we educate… a world that values clean air and water, peace, and cooperation. Those, alas, do not show up on the balance sheet of corporations.

As Mr. Brooks examines other public policy issues, I urge him to heed his admonishment for Mr. Trump and appreciate that not everything in humanity is driven by greed and profit.

Is School Only About Vocational Preparation?

May 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In an article in The 74, writer Jeff Murray rebuts a blog posted by Lakota Local School District English teacher Ian Avery on Ohio Governor Kasich’s ill conceived idea that teachers be required to spend time shadowing someone working in the private sector. At the root of Mr. Murray’s rebuttal is the notion that everything in high school prepared him for work:

Everything about my high school and college experiences helped me to become a successful employee. Math teachers gave me the skills to measure work areas and assist in computing price quotes. History professors helped me understand why a developer was converting this former manufacturing plant into apartments. Communications instruction helped me hone marketing pitches to boost business. And, yes, I used every ounce of wordcraft I had studied and obsessed over in Brit Lit and Sonnet Seminar to write newsletters, clarify job specs, and interact with customers. It wasn’t Fitzgerald, but it was clear and direct and helpful to business. They didn’t know they needed an English major until they got one.

After reading Ian Avery’s lament about the implicit requirement that school be about careers and not “…about art and beauty, words and meaning — an abstract pursuit in opposition to career tech or vocational education”, Mr. Murray contends this opposition

…appears to embody the disconnect between teachers and the working world that Kasich was trying to address. The externship proposal may not be wholly practical as pitched, but there’s nothing wrong with the motivating sentiment.

But here’s are some questions Mr. Murray needs to ask himself— or if possible— ask the teachers who taught the courses that he ultimately found so valuable:

  • Would they have benefitted from an externship?
  • Did they never work outside of the classroom?
  • Did they lack the skills needed to succeed in the private sector, or did they choose a career that is devoted to helping others?
  • Did they view teaching as “career preparation” or did they aspire to passing along the “, beauty, words and meaning” of their subject area?

As I wrote in an earlier post, teachers would be unlikely to benefit from an externship, especially since there are unlikely to be enough externships to go around given the reality of the patterns of employment in Ohio. Moreover, most teachers had to work outside of education at some point in their lives. Indeed many work part time or over the summer to make ends meet. And most teachers could succeed in the marketplace but instead chose teaching out of a desire to help children succeed. Finally, most teachers know that their students want to pursue some kind of career when they graduate from high school… but they also know that during their time in school they should learn how to learn and gain a love of learning so that they can become like-long self-actualized learners as adults. I think even Mr. Murray would agree. Midway though his essay he wrote:

A great school, to me, is one in which every adult involved — the PTA, the cafeteria staff, the guidance counselors, everyone — shows up early and works to their fullest to teach young people (and to show them by example) how to reach their highest potential.

Mr. Murray’s ideal “great school” doesn’t do anything to help a child learn a vocation.

Union District in Oklahoma Exemplifies Network School Model

April 3, 2017 Leave a comment

David Kirp’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes, “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?” describes the success experienced in the Union Public Schools district in the eastern part of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Like most districts in Oklahoma, Union is woefully underfunded. But despite the shortage of money, it is doing an amazing job of educating its largely Latino and poverty stricken population. How? By accepting full responsibility for the well-being of the children who attend and by offering all the children in the school a challenging STEM curriculum…. But I believe the acceptance of responsibility for well being and the caring for each and every student that goes with it are the primary factor.

“Our motto is: ‘We are here for all the kids,’ ” Cathy Burden, who retired in 2013 after 19 years as superintendent, told me. That’s not just a feel-good slogan. “About a decade ago I called a special principals’ meeting — the schools were closed that day because of an ice storm — and ran down the list of student dropouts, name by name,” she said. “No one knew the story of any kid on that list. It was humiliating — we hadn’t done our job.” It was also a wake-up call. “Since then,” she adds, “we tell the students, ‘We’re going to be the parent who shows you how you can go to college.’ ”

Last summer, Kirt Hartzler, the current superintendent, tracked down 64 seniors who had been on track to graduate but dropped out. He persuaded almost all of them to complete their coursework. “Too many educators give up on kids,” he told me. “They think that if an 18-year-old doesn’t have a diploma, he’s got to figure things out for himself. I hate that mind-set.”

The school operates like an institution that is the parent who can show the way and a one-stop community service center:

The school district also realized, as Ms. Burden put it, that “focusing entirely on academics wasn’t enough, especially for poor kids.” Beginning in 2004, Union started revamping its schools into what are generally known as community schools. These schools open early, so parents can drop off their kids on their way to work, and stay open late and during summers. They offer students the cornucopia of activities — art, music, science, sports, tutoring — that middle-class families routinely provide. They operate as neighborhood hubs, providing families with access to a health care clinic in the school or nearby; connecting parents to job-training opportunities; delivering clothing, food, furniture and bikes; and enabling teenage mothers to graduate by offering day care for their infants.

This integration of social services is a universal key component to every high performing public school, as is are the extended hours for child care and/or extra-curricular activities. And while the services offered in the “neighborhood hub” model don’t add a dime to the school budget, they DO require the school to re-format itself, to adopt a new algorithm for success apart from preparing students for the next standardized testing cycle.

Mr. Kirp concludes his article with a paragraph consisting of two questions:

Will Ms. DeVos and her education department appreciate the value of investing in high-quality public education and spread the word about school systems like Union? Or will the choice-and-vouchers ideology upstage the evidence?

I trust he knows the answer… and I sense he shakes his head in dismay as he poses the questions.

Diane Ravitch’s Critique of American Psychological Association to Speak Up Misses the Point

March 30, 2017 1 comment

In a blog post yesterday, Diane Ravitch quoted from a comment left by testing expert Fred Smith whose comments echoed these questions:

Why isn’t the American Psychological Association speaking out about the misuse of standardized testing? Where are the professors who teach about testing? Why are they silent when children as young as 8 are subjected to hours of testing? Why are they silent when children in middle school are compelled to sit through tests that last longer than college admission tests? Why are they not defending their own standards for the appropriate use of tests? Is their silence a sign of complicity or indifference?

My comment to this post was this:

The psychologists here are analogous to the economists in the lead up to the calamitous Wall Street crash and, as others have noted, the various researchers who give cover to Big Pharma…There are a few renegades who will speak out against the testing, but the corporate line is that testing and measurement are a good thing because it helps feed the paradigm that schools-are-a-business-whose-bottom-line-is-test-scores… And the best tests are those that can be done quickly and cheaply and yield a number that can be put onto a spread sheet and used to establish a rank order… As long as educators use tests in any way to sort and select, standardized tests will be with us.

In the end, we need to change the implicit paradigm of the factory school where students are batched by age cohorts and measured against their age peers and move to a completely individualized and personalized form of instruction where time is the variable and mastery is constant. Such a system would require no more personnel that we use today but would require everyone working the children to do so in a coordinated fashion. It CAN be done… but only if we shed our current framework of how to educate children effectively.

An Unsettling eSchool Article Describes What Happens When You Give A Kindergartener a Chromebook

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

I am an an advocate for using technology to individualize and personalize instruction, but I fond myself getting a know in my stomach as I read Laura Ascione’s eSchool article titled “If You Give a Kindergartener a Chromebook”. The article described the experience Jamie Morgan, a Kindergarten teacher in Wichita Falls TX, has using Chromebooks in her classroom of children, many of whom had special needs. This paragraph gave me my first knot:

Because her class from the previous year was high-achieving, no one expected this new class to achieve the same test scores. And although Morgan’s new class entered with “scary” test scores, by the end of the year, their test scores surpassed the high scores of her previous class. Much of that achievement is due to the Chromebooks, Morgan said.

My reaction to this paragraph: TEST SCORES to determine “achievement” for Kindergarten students??!!! Have we lost our collective minds?

As I read on I learned that the students in Ms. Morgans class spend hours on end in front of a computer mastering the use of various Google applications. I have five grandchildren whose ages range from 4 to 11 and I cannot imagine wanting the to spend classroom time on a computer. They enjoy engaging with each other, playing pretend games, writing “plays” to present to us, and engaging in physical activities. My children do everything possible to keep the children off screens.

After reading the article I was more convinced than ever that the last thing Kindergartners need is a course based on Chromebooks. Far better for them to use their open minds to learn another language or, better yet, learn how to ride bikes, hit a tennis ball or baseball, or enjoy walking in the woods.


Can a Mental Health App Replace Face-to-Face Therapy? No… BUT It IS Far Better than Nothing

March 11, 2017 Leave a comment

The Christiansen Institute offers thought provoking weekly articles on the potential for disruptive technology to help public education meet the demands placed on it. This week’s e-issue of their newsletter included an article by Thomas Arnett describing the potential for newly developed apps that rely on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to provide psychological and psychiatric support to schools. Mr. Arnett provides an overview on the use of these new apps as follows:

Untreated mental illness silently plagues a large portion of the United States population. Roughly one in five adults in America suffer from some form of mental illness in a given year, and approximately 60 percent of those cases go untreated. These statistics are similar for teenagers; and educators report that depression, anxiety, and social phobias among youth seem to be on the rise.

Fortunately, a new menu of online mental health resources start to address these unmet needs; and some pioneering options have efficacy results comparable to face-to-face therapy. Programs such as MoodGYMMyCompass, and Beating the Blues teach principles and techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people suffering from anxiety and depression. Other online solutions designed for teens, such as Bite Back and Base Education, teach students how to focus, reduce stress, handle difficult emotions, and improve social relationships.

Will online alternatives disrupt traditional face-to-face therapy in the not-too-distant future? To answer that question, consider how they measure up to the disruptive innovation litmus tests.

The “litmus test” poses six questions developed by Clayton Christiansen to determine if a new technology has the potential to be “disruptive”— that is if a new technology can result in a paradigmatic change in the way a business is operated or a service is provided:

1. Does it target nonconsumers or people who are over-served by an incumbent’s existing offering in a market? 

2. Is the offering not as good as an incumbent’s existing offering as judged by historical measures of performance? 

3. Is the innovation simpler to use, more convenient, or more affordable than the incumbent’s existing offering? 

4. Does the offering have a technology enabler that can carry its value proposition around simplicity, convenience, or affordability upmarket and allow it to improve?  

5. Is the technology paired with a business model innovation that allows it to be sustainable with its new value proposition? 

6. Are existing providers motivated to ignore the new innovation and not threatened at the outset? 

In assessing the potential for these CBT apps Mr. Arnett acknowledges that the apps fall short on the second question posed in the “litmus test”. They clearly and unarguably fall short when compared to face-to-face therapy:

Online alternatives to therapy fall short on many fronts when compared to visits with professional psychologists. Current online software cannot read and interpret patient’s verbal and nonverbal cues to diagnose mental illnesses with professional accuracy, nor can it identify patients’ needs, preferences, and life circumstances to develop custom-tailored advice. Software also cannot form relationships with patients to motivate them and hold them accountable.

But even with that clear and unequivocal deficiency, the on-line apps are clearly superior to nothing, which is what troubled teens are getting now. Moreover, with some degree of hybridization is might be possible to use apps to help the limited number of trained school personnel address mental health issues. Mr. Arnett concludes with this:

Although professional psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors may scoff at the limitations and risks of online mental health support, online options will not threaten professionals’ livelihood any time soon. Online options may be effective for helping people with moderate and untreated anxiety, depression, and addiction, but they have a long way to go before they can match high-quality professional treatment for more debilitating conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

If online mental health solutions have the potential to disrupt the traditional model of mental health care, the unfolding of this disruption cannot come soon enough for K–12 education. School psychologists, nurses, and social workers are in short supply, and many students do not receive needed mental health treatment. Meanwhile, many teachers find themselves shouldering students’ mental health needs on their own. Unfortunately, when mental illnesses go untreated, students pay the price in lower academic achievement and overall well being.

As my colleagues Julia Freeland Fisher and Michael Horn have written, schools that aim to address student achievement challenges need to integrate across factors beyond academics that affect students’ ability to learn. Mental health is definitely one such factor, and convenient, low-cost, disruptive alternatives to traditional mental health care may prove critical for unlocking schools’ capacity to bring high-quality mental health care under their roofs.

I read Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn’s book, roughly ten years ago and was and still am convinced that their book was full of ideas with great potential for public education. They used the transistor radio as a metaphor to describe how technology might enhance education. Like the transistor radio, technology could deliver instruction (or in this case therapy) in a rapid, low fidelity but inexpensive fashion to a wider audience. The teachers’ (or in this case therapists’) role would change from being the deliverer of low fidelity content to being the “refiner” of the content: they could offer periodic assessments of whether the student was mastering the content— or in this case whether the content was having the intended impact on the student’s well being. 

Skeptics abound when it comes to using technology in education, a skepticism driven, in part, by the fear that on-line education will ultimately replace teachers (or in this case therapists) completely. But teachers— like the therapists– should not feel threatened by technology, for just as “Online options may be effective for helping people with moderate and untreated anxiety, depression, and addiction” the online options for instruction can only be effective for helping students who are self-actualized and motivated learners. Just as on-line apps for mental health will never be able to “match high-quality professional treatment for more debilitating conditions such as severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia”, on-line instruction will never be able to motivate a student to learn and never be able to fully understand the unique needs of each student. That is where the art of teaching comes into play… an art that is being lost as we increasingly teach-to-tests at the expense of addressing each student’s potential.

“Poor Elijah” aka Peter Berger Longs for a Yesteryear that is Not Coming Back

February 28, 2017 Leave a comment

“Poor Elijah”, the pseudonym for Weathersfield (VT) English teacher Peter Berger, is a frequent contributor to our local newspaper who also publishes op ed pieces that appear elsewhere in New England. His most recently published article, Legitimate Concerns About Our Public Schools, which appeared in the New Haven Register, like many of his pieces, expresses a yearning for the kind of public education that once existed in our nation. Mr. Berger’s narrative describes a time when each town had its own school populated by children eager to learn who lived in a community where parents supported the schools financially and supported the teachers by insisting that homework be completed before the children could listen to their favorite radio show. In this column, as in many of his columns, Mr. Berger rails against the “reformers” who have a “disdain for teaching content, knowledge, and facts” and instead champion “critical thinking.” Like E.D. Hirsch and many other critics of public schools who believe that there is an irreducible set of common facts that all students must learn through direct instruction, Mr. Berger believes that critical thinking cannot be taught because “…you can’t think without something to think about.” What Mr. Berger and Mr. Hirsch don’t acknowledge, though, it that identifying a common set of irreducible facts is increasingly difficult in this day and age as Bill Gates and the advocates for the Common Core learned the hard way.

“Poor Elijah” also longs for the kind of schooling that existed “before 1970″…  before schools were asked “…to assume responsibilities that once belonged to other social agencies and home.”  Mr. Berger contends that a consequence of assuming these new responsibilities is a willingness for more and more parents to give the responsibility for raising children to the schools, which further diminishes the emphasis on academics. He writes:

At the same time that classrooms have become less focused on academics, they’ve also become more disrupted and even violent. Time is lost. Focus is lost. Learning is lost. Parents rightly are concerned about the threat to classroom order and their children’s safety. Sadly, the crusade against what reformers brand “school-to-prison pipeline” discipline, the inclusion of profoundly disturbed children in regular classrooms, and a return to the permissiveness that characterized schools in the 1970s have rendered too many classrooms hostile learning environments where behavior expectations are set by the most disruptive child in the room. This is just one of the lessons of the 1970s that schools have chosen to ignore.

The highlighted language is Mr. Berger’s biggest issue: he wishes that teachers did not have to deal with what he characterizes as “…profoundly disturbed children” whose behavior presumably sets the norm for the classroom. But this just in: federal laws require public schools to provide a free appropriate education for ALL students, even profoundly disturbed children… and that education must be provided in the least restrictive environment. Mr. Berger and his colleagues who wish schools could go back to the pre-1970 era need to adjust to this “new” reality or advocate a return to the days when these children were excluded from school or a future era where everyone needs to pay a premium to exclude them from public schools and presumably public life forever.

Mr. Berger also inveighs against the trend to individualize learning. He is clearly in the “stand and deliver” school of teaching, whereby the teacher crafts a well conceived lesson and presents it to the class who, in turn, take notes and are later tested on the information presented, presumably incorporating essay questions that give the students an opportunity to show that they can think using the information the teacher presented. This method, though, assumes that all children in the class are equally capable of absorbing the information, an assumption that is problematic unless the students are homogeneously grouped. In Mr. Berger’s idealized classroom, students are all equally capable, all eager to learn, and all parents are in full support of schools. Unfortunately, and it is unfortunate, that is not the world we live in today or the world teachers are expected to work in. Schools are expected to meet each student’s individual needs… and that reality unsettles Mr. Berger.

Parents have also been gulled by promises of individual attention that schools can’t actually deliver. These assurances sometimes have been well-intentioned, but in many cases they’ve been crafted to elicit parental support. Despite ballyhooed mechanisms such as “personal learning plans” for every student, there’s a limit in a classroom with 20 students as to how personalized and “individualized” any student’s program can be. Parents nonetheless understandably expect to hold schools accountable for these assurances. The difficulty is I’m a public school classroom teacher, not a private tutor. That makes a difference, especially when you’re the guy who’s expected to keep someone else’s impossible promise.

I’m not sure where or when teachers were NOT expected to keep “someone else’s impossible promise”. Teachers and public school have long been expected to provide equal opportunities for all children, have been asked to overcome societal obstacles like racial segregation, have been expected to overcome external obstacles like poverty in the child’s home, and have been expected to deliver day-in-and-day-out no matter what is happening in their personal lives. But Mr. Berger seems to believe that there is some positive external force that can make things right at the school level without asking teachers to make things right at their own level. His closing paragraphs are telling in this regard:

The problems at school aren’t all at school. Many reside at home. But until and unless schools address their particular failings, until schools acknowledge where they’ve gone wrong and continue to go wrong, parents’ demands for alternatives to public education will persist and grow.

I don’t believe that choice and alternatives to public schools can solve our nation’s education problems.

But I also don’t believe that schools can afford to ignore why parents increasingly want to choose something else.

IF parents want to choose something else because they don’t like their children being educated with profoundly disturbed children or children whose parents have different values or different religious beliefs, schools must ignore the reason those parents want something else and, I believe, the public should insist that they pay for that “something else” themselves. And if teachers want to work in an environment that is free of profoundly disturbed children or with children who are less engaged than they would like, then they should feel free to seek employment in a non-public school that is not supported by taxpayers.