Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Good News For Underachievers (and the Well-Being of Students): Straight A’s Do NOT Translate to Success in Life

December 10, 2018 Comments off

In writing this post, I initially thought I would title it “This Just In: Grades Don’t Matter” because I thought that the lack of a correlation between high grades and “success” was as self evident as, say, the correlation between poverty and test scores. But I went with the title above because, as one who was labelled an “underachiever” because I failed to earn straight A’s in middle school I think it better reflects the reality of the mindset of public education when I attended school in the 50s and 60s, a mindset that persists today.

The post was prompted by an article in the Sunday NYTimes by Adam Grant titled “What Straight A Students Get Wrong”, and the “what” is that in the final analysis the grades you earned in high school and college do not matter once you get in the real world. In his op ed, Dr. Grant describes counseling a distraught college junior who had just received her first A-, a blot on her academic record that she was certain would doom her to some kind of second class citizenship in the future. Dr. Grant then revealed what underachiever like me have known for decades and used to comfort ourselves (or rebut our parents):

Getting straight A’s requires conformity.Having an influential career demands originality. In a study of students who graduated at the top of their class, the education researcher Karen Arnold found that although they usually had successful careers, they rarely reached the upper echelons. “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries,” Dr. Arnold explained. “They typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Dr. Grant then offers a long list of individualists who did poorly in school but made a name for themselves in their chosen areas of interest: Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He could have provided a much longer list, but those three clearly made the point.

He concludes his essay with advice for universities, employers, and students, suggesting to students that they recognize that “…underachieving in school can prepare you to overachieve in life” and that getting a B might be the best thing for them.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a high school student I never aspired to be valedictorian, perhaps because I did not (and still do not) have the temperament needed and did not (and still do not) see the point in it. As a parent I celebrated the first B my children brought home in high school because I knew that they would no longer be able to become valedictorian and would, therefore, be able to dedicate their time to other pursuits… ones that satisfied their curiosity and not the needs of the schools.

There is a place for evaluation in school. Students need to master fundamental math skills and need to be coached to become good communicators. And once students have these baseline skills in place— and certainly by the time they are in college– there is no need for assigning letter grades or numeric grades. Narrative descriptions of a student’s performance are far more beneficial to the student and compel the teacher to get to know each student in their class deeply.

Alas… binary pass-fail grades on fundamentals and narrative descriptions once a student has progressed to higher levels of education do not yield rankings, and without rankings there can be no “competition” and without that, well, what? I suppose some will posit that without competition our “economic system” will collapse. I prefer to believe that without competition the well-being of children will improve and our political system will improve. Evidently I am not alone in this belief. The renegades who did not conform in school and spent their time working on computers send their children to Waldorf Schools and Montessori programs where doing things and being human is valued more than getting good grades and conforming to a system that measures skills needed in the early 20th Century. Maybe it’s time to re-think grades altogether… in doing so we would necessarily be re-thinking school.

Dan Rather’s Paean to Public Education Reminded Me of My Visit to Robert E. Lee Elementary School

October 22, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday my daughter tagged me on Facebook to share an article she read on Dan Rather’s blog, News and Guts. In the post, titled “My Love of Public Schools, Mr. Rather describes his visit to the elementary school he visited in Houston, TX. In the post he wrote:

The neighborhood has changed greatly since my youth. It is much more ethnically diverse, much like the larger city around it and the United States itself. But as I walked the hallways and met the children, I found so much in common with when I went there. There were the committed teachers and an inspiring principal – Melba Heredia Johnson. There was the spirit of optimism and the strong sense of community from the students and their families, many of which, as in my time, is positioned at the lower rungs of the ladder of the American Dream.

Roughly fifteen years ago, before I came out of an early retirement to take an assignment as superintendent in NH, my wife and I took a cross country tour that included a visit to Tulsa, OK, where I attended the Robert E. Lee Elementary School. I arranged a visit to Lee School to observe their gifted and talented program, which was initially instituted when I attended there. In a post this summer I recounted how it came to pass that I am an alumni of the the Robert E. Lee gifted and talented program:

In 1957 I was in 4th grade at the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, having moved to that city when my father was transferred by DuPont. I recall being amazed that the math topics offered that year were identical to the math topics I covered a year earlier in Pennsylvania. I also recall one news event that fall that captured the imagination of the nation: the USSR’s launching of Sputnik. One of the immediate responses to the launch was passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958, an act that included millions of dollars for science education and an act that sought to identify the best and brightest students to help the US win the Space Race that was launched when Sputnik orbited the earth.

At the end of 5th grade, I was identified as one of the “best and brightest” students in Oklahoma and placed in a special program with several of my peers. I am certain my “excellence” in math classes helped in my identification as one of the “best and brightest”, an “excellence” that had more to do with Oklahoma’s lagging curriculum standards than my aptitude. I also am certain that my test scores helped as well, for I have always done well on the tests that stand as a proxy for “intelligence”.  For my 6th grade year in Oklahoma, our group was assigned what would come to be called “inter-disciplinary units” instead of traditional subject-matter classes, working on projects instead of worksheets. It was by far the best year I experienced in my entire K-12 schooling. The teachers and interns worked with us closely and provided individual tutoring and counseling and my classmates were all engaged and committed to learning. We were taunted by others in school on occasion, but once we got on the athletic fields at recess our status as “gifted and talented” students didn’t matter, only our ability to kick a soccer ball (incredibly we couldn’t play football at recess!) and pitch, catch, and hit a baseball.

When I went to visit the Lee School I was struck by the changes. First, and most strikingly obvious, was the attendance of children of color. The Lee School was all white when I attended, Oklahoma being resistant to integration in the late 1950s. Secondly, the school was brighter and more colorful than I recall: the halls were full of student art work and there seemed to be an energy present that was missing when I attended the school…. maybe because we were, as I recall, expected to remain quiet when we passed from class to class. Finally, I learned that the school had abandoned the elective “rotation” that we experienced when we went to art, library, Speech, science, and PE classes in the afternoons after spending the mornings on academics.

When I drove through the neighborhood where I grew up I experienced the phenomenon that most adults witness: everything seemed smaller than I remember. The house we lived in seemed tiny by today’s standards and the park down the street, that I recalled being big enough to play baseball in, was seemingly smaller… and the long blocks seemed shorter and the hills looked flatter… but the azaleas that were in bloom were far more dazzling than I recall.

And how is the Lee School doing today? Well, as of August it is no longer in existence! It has been renamed Council Oak Elementary School as Tulsa works to shed its legacy of racism. Somehow, that makes me especially happy. It shows that public education is striving to the fosters in Dan Rather’s words, a spirit of optimism and a strong sense of community in a school that is, like our nation as a whole, now ethnically diverse.

Brett Kavanaugh Would Not Have Been Hired as Superintendent in Hanover, NH

October 5, 2018 1 comment

Like most Americans, I am watching the Supreme Court nomination process unfold. Unlike many Americans, I have been subjected to close scrutiny in being hired as a public school superintendent. In hiring someone to lead their district, school boards need to vet the superintendent, with larger districts often delegating the task to a professional consultant and smaller districts using personal contacts to determine the fitness of candidates.

The last district I was hired for was School Administrative Unit #70, an interstate district that includes Hanover NH, Norwich VT, and the Dresden Interstate Compact that oversees the secondary schools serving the students in those two towns. To obtain that appointment, I was interviewed on multiple occasions by the board, behind closed doors by teams representing employees, parents, and members of the public, and finally in public in a venue that resembled a press conference. Finally, my history as an administrator was closely scrutinized in a fashion that went beyond the list of names of references. This was all done to ensure that the individual the board was selecting to lead their school district for three years was capable, qualified, and a good match for the communities.

As a candidate for the assignment and one who had frequently led searches for school principals, I was especially impressed with the vetting of references. One of the Board members on the search committee was a retired CIA administrator who was relentless in his review of my performance in my previous district. As is customary, he called the names of the five references I provided. But after he interviewed them, three of them called me to indicate that when he talked to them he was very friendly but also very probing, asking each of them who else they thought he should talk to and who he might talk to who might have something negative to share. I know that he made at least one phone call to someone NOT on the list and also know that he eventually contacted one adversary whose name came up repeatedly.

As I watched Mr. Kavanaugh’s performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee I could not help but think that had I treated questioners who were inquiring about my background in the same fashion as he did I would have not been appointed as Superintendent anywhere. Moreover, based on what I’ve heard and read so far, it seems that the FBI’s “investigation” of Mr. Kavanaugh was proscribed to the point where the agency was not allowed to ask the questions Board members asked of my references and was not allowed to pursue every lead they were given. I just read a list of those NOT interviewed by the FBI and it does not give me confidence in the depth of their analysis. Had the retired CIA administrator who made calls to my references been able to study Mr. Kavanaugh’s background I’d feel far more confident in the findings.

There is one more difference between my experience and Mr. Kavanaugh’s: I was applying to secure a three year contract that would be only be renewed if I passed muster at the end of that time. Mr. Kavanaugh is applying for a lifetime contract. I am disappointed in what I’ve heard thus far about the vetting process done by the FBI and VERY disappointed at the character I observed during Mr. Kavanaugh’s “interview”. If the school board made a bad choice based on their hiring process they could have non-renewed me after three years. If Congress makes a bad choice, our nation could be saddled with a questionable Supreme Court justice for his lifetime…. and the decisions he will be rendering will have an impact on public education for decades.

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Back to the Future in NYC Where Police Will “Wander the Halls”

September 8, 2018 Comments off

This week was the first week of school for children in NYC, and, as reported by Eliza Shapiro in the NYTimes, children in many schools in the Bronx experienced a new approach to school safety:

School districts across the country have added new layers of security to their buildings, and the federal government has signaled a willingness to arm teachers in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre. But on the first day of school, New York tacked in a different direction.

Starting this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Wednesday, the city would begin a pilot program at a group of Bronx schools to turn school safety agents into the equivalent of beat cops. The city was asking 63 of the agents who work in 30 high schools to walk the hallways in search of wandering students, meet with principals to discuss brewing conflicts between children, and wish every child a good morning before first period.

That will be a new job for many of the agents who currently spend their entire days at a school’s front desk,sometimes curtly asking for identification from visitors. And it will require parents, and especially students, to look at their safety agents in a new light. To highlight their new role, the agents, who work for the Police Department and are not armed, will be known as school coordination agents.

As I read the article about the “new” program, I had a flashback to 1970-72 when I worked as a math teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia. Because of gang violence in the neighborhood (that in some instances spilled into the school), Shaw Junior High School had its own policeman, Officer Black, and a cadre of Non-Teaching Assistants, or NTAs, who effectively teamed with Officer Black and the Vice Principals in the school to maintain order in the school while the teachers were in the classroom. Officer Black not only worked in the school, but he also was assigned to the beat outside the school during the daylight hours, which meant students and parents had an out-of-school connection with him. I also recall that the students in the school knew most of the NTAs, who tended to be drawn from the neighborhoods or at least from similar city neighborhoods. I also recall that some of the NTAs and, in some cases Officer Black, spent time engaged in informal conversations with some of the biggest troublemakers in the school, conversations that some teachers felt undercut their ability to maintain order. As an idealistic neophyte teacher— and now as an idealistic progressive— I saw the conversations as a way for the “enforcers” to build relationships that would afford them a means of preventing violence in the school and MAYBE connect the trouble-makers to some people in the community who might be a positive influence on them.

When I read about the role of the “school coordination agents” I saw them fulfilling the same role in a more formal fashion. Instead of relying on the kinds of informal networks  and relationships Officer Black and the NTAs cultivated, NYC intends the “school coordination agents” to link troubled and struggling students with existing agencies:

During a recent training session at the Police Department’s hangar-like facility in Flushing, Queens, …agents with years of experience said they often did not know how to bring issues they observe in their schools to the right person.

Two Education Department officials at the front of a brightly lit classroom ticked off the alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources for parents, principals and teachers. The several dozen agents were encouraged to attend meetings and build relationships with groups they didn’t know existed.

“We were like, ‘We don’t even know what the hell you’re talking about,’” Maximino Acosta, an agent with 14 years of experience in Bronx schools, said of the session.

In reading the article it was evident that there were two big differences between NYC in 2017 and Philadelphia in the 1970s. First, there was no “...alphabet soup of acronyms that represents the city’s various resources”. Schools had to rely on their own resources, and in the 1970s they were woefully understaffed in terms of psychologists and services for children with emotional and mental health issues. Indeed, 94-142 had not been passed at the Federal level which meant that children waited months to be screened for services and schools were not mandated to provide them. Secondly, the NTAs were school district employees and Officer Black clearly took his orders for his work in the school from the administrators. At a time when Frank Rizzo led the force this was a blessing for the students. But even with a more progressive chief of police in NYC, the fact that the “school coordination agents” are agents of law enforcement poses a problem:

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she does not believe neighborhood policing in schools is the solution she has been waiting for. While Ms. Lieberman praised the school safety division for its focus on driving down unnecessary suspensions, she said there were still “pathetically low” numbers of guidance counselors and social workers in schools.

“What would have been welcome news as we open a school year would have been an announcement that the Department of Education has identified and hired educators to be walking the hallways,” Ms. Lieberman said.

It will be helpful to see how the introduction of “school coordination agents” works in the high schools. My belief is that money spent on linking students with pre-existing services will yield far more positive results than using law enforcement tactics. Based on my experience as a teacher and school disciplinarian “troublemakers” are almost always troubled in some way, and dealing with their troubles is far more effective than punishing them because of their troubles.

Can Ultimate Frisbee Save the World? I Doubt It… Can Self-Regulated Play Do It? Possibly

August 22, 2018 Comments off

Jennifer Moylan’s op ed article in today’s NYTimes is titled “Can Ultimate Frisbee Change the World?”Her answer, like mine, is pessimistic. But one paragraph in the essay does reveal where self-regulated games like Ultimate Frisbee MIGHT make a difference. She writes:

Ultimate — which is kind of a combination of football, basketball and soccer — has a unique twist: There’s no referee. The sport is wholly self-regulated by its players, and competitors from opposing teams are called upon, when there’s a dispute upon the field, to come to an agreement among themselves before play can resume.

This paragraph brought to mind a section of Neil Postman’s 1982 book The Disappearance of Childhood, dealing with the then emerging trend of adults interposing themselves into children’s athletics. He posited that one of the great values of sandlot baseball and football and playground basketball was that the participants had to set and enforce the rules. Some of the rules were easy to enforce and necessitated by the venue. For example, a ball hit into the neighbor’s yard might be a ground rule double, or the hedgerow on the side of the yard was out-of-bounds, or an inbounds pass might be thrown one-step away from a chainlink fence. But the interpretation of many rules require some kind of mutual understanding that is best achieved through reasoned dialogue. Did the tag precede the runner arriving at the base? Was it offensive or defensive pass interference? Was it a blocking foul or a charge? Having grown up playing pick-up sports of all kinds, we mostly resolved these disputes without coming to blows or causing deep seated resentments.

Fast forward two decades to the time when Mr. Postman wrote his book, to a time when Little League Baseball metastasized into Pop Warner Football, Lightning Soccer, and AAU basketball and pick-up games disappeared. And when pick-up games disappeared, childhood disappeared with it and the collateral damage was the loss of self-regulation. Children who played sports from the late 1960s onward have increasingly played under the supervision of adults in highly structured and organized leagues that feature uniforms, landscaped fields, and adult arbiters of the rules.

I believe it is important to allow children to squabble among themselves and figure out how to navigate a healthy compromise. When the inevitable squabbling that happens in sports is always resolved by an outside authority figure, it is not surprising that the “fans” on one side or the other believe the arbiter is ruling in favor of their opponent.

In the short run ultimate frisbee is unlikely to bring peace to places like the Middle East. But if children are allowed to play sports like ultimate frisbee without the “benefit” of adult arbiters, it just might be possible for future adults to figure out how to reach harmonious agreements on contentious issues.

Mindfulness and the News: Some Insights into My Sources and My Perspective

August 11, 2018 1 comment

I begin every day I am at home by opening my computer and reading various blogs and news feeds. I get four newspapers each day: the NYTimes, the Boston Globe; and, two local newspapers. I get five feeds on public education: Google alerts; ASCD; Politico; Clay Christensen’s blog; and Diane Ravitch’s blog. I get several general interest and political feeds, some daily and some weekly: Quartz; Truthdig; Common Dreams; JSTOR; Naked Capitalism; and Medium. And I spend a few minutes reading Facebook, checking on my favorite sports teams on ESPN, checking the weather, and reading various articles sent to me by my siblings and children.

As I read the blogs, I identify one or two articles that trigger a blog post. If the blog post is drawn wholly from the article, I will use a reblog feature if it is available and add a comment. If the article stimulates a reflective essay (as the one that I am using for this very post), I will take the time to write a 300-1200 word post. I rationalize that this reading is necessary to give me an in-depth grasp of the world as it impacts public education policy, the primary topic of this blog, and to help me have as realistic a perspective as possible on how the events taking place and decisions being made reflect and/or change my world view, which is an implicit sub-topic of this blog.

One feed I get periodically was not listed above. As a Buddhist practitioner I get Lion’s Roar, “an independent non-profit foundation whose mission is to communicate Buddhist wisdom and practices in order to benefit people’s lives and our society, and to support the development of Buddhism in the modern world.” An article in the week-end edition of this publication by Sister True Dedication, a monastic who practices in the Plum Village tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, describes how the Buddhist practice has influenced my reading habits of late. Titled, “What Do You Put in Your Mind?“, Sister True Dedication’s essay describes how our consumption of the news affects our minds in the same way as our consumption of food affects our health.  She writes:

I heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak with a fierce and solemn voice as he declared in a talk, “When we watch television and movies we consume, when we browse the internet we consume, when we listen to music or a conversation, we consume.” I remember his soft words booming through the loudspeakers: “And what we consume every day may be highly toxic. It may contain violence, craving, fear, anger, and despair.”

I was shocked. Suddenly websites, radio shows, movies, music—and even conversations with close friends—struck me as strangely substantive and not so ephemeral after all. Maybe I wasn’t as free from them as I thought.

The sidebar quote that summarized the article is this:

Our mind is made of what we feed it, so we need to know how to nourish and protect it.

Since beginning Buddhist practice over a decade ago, I’ve come to appreciate how my reading habits affect my disposition and way of viewing the world. Of late I find myself repelled by articles that are full of ad hominem invective, that take sides in a fashion that demeans and decries “the other side”, and speculate on future events based on gossip, “inside information”, and gleaning of information that supports one school of thought over another. Those articles do not nourish my mind, clarify my thoughts, or add to my well-being.

I am drawn, instead, to articles that describe recent findings in science, analyses that look at events through a historic lens, and articles that offer new insights on emerging trends. And whenever I read articles, I try to use what I am reading to examine my own mental formations— the screens I use to filter the “news” I am “consuming”. This, in turn, helps me perceive how the “news” affects my disposition and understanding of “reality”. I also find that “consuming” in this fashion leads me to ask the question Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we ask ourselves repeatedly: “ARE YOU SURE?

If you want to get a perspective on the Buddhist view of media consumption, I recommend that you read Sister True Dedication’s essay. As a former BBC reporter, her insights are not limited to those gained from sitting on a cushion or reading sutras: they are grounded in what passes for the “real world” of journalism.

Quartz Staffers Underscore the Lessons Learned in Summer Employment

August 4, 2018 Comments off

I’ve long believed, to paraphrase Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Part-Time Work“. And because of this, I am saddened to read that the percentage of teenagers working part-time jobs has declined over the past several years, from as high as 58% in the mid 1970s to 51% in the early 2000s to 35% today. The chart below depicts the decline.Like me, Sarah Todd, one of the writers at Quartz lament this development as well… and to illustrate the personal impact of part-time employment on the lives of her colleagues, she invited them to share the lessons they learned from part-time summer work.

As one who ran my own “business” mowing lawns in West Chester PA and working on an assembly line in a small factory in that town owned by a friend’s father, I appreciated the opportunity to appreciate the benefits of self-employment and the camaraderie of working on a team. I especially appreciated the opportunity to earn enough to pay for my freshman year in college and have enough money left over to but record albums and guitar strings and equipment… and enough time to play in the couch softball league and haunt the outdoor basketball courts.

I don’t earn money for my current “part time work”, I still I enjoy the meditative quality and sense of accomplishment I get when I mow the grass on my home and the camaraderie that results from serving on volunteer non-profit boards. And here’s an imponderable: Would I mow my own lawn and volunteer to serve on committees if I hadn’t experienced the joys of part-time work.


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