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More Good Guys With Guns? More Surveillance? More Lockdown Drills? NO! None of the Above!

February 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Education Week featured an article by Bryan Warnick, professor of education at The Ohio State University, Benjamin A. Johnson, assistant professor at Utah Valley University, and Sam Rocha is an assistant professor of education at the University of British Columbia, that offered a rebuttal against those politicians and gun advocates who reflexively call for more security whenever a school shooting occurs. Using evidence to support their arguments against more good guys with guns, more surveillance cameras, and more drills, they also offered a powerful argument why such  “target-hardening” approaches to school shootings make matters worse:

Filling schools with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police officers, and gun-wielding teachers tells students that schools are scary, dangerous, and violent places—places where violence is expected to occur.

The “target hardening” approach also has the potential to change how teachers, students, and administrators see one another. How teachers understand the children and youth they teach has important educational consequences. Are students budding citizens or future workers? Are they plants to nourish or clay to mold?

Instead of inculcating fear into students, the three writers propose that we look at how our schools function and how effectively we engage students in academics and the life of the school. Instead of examining checklists on door locks and performing drills led by experts on school security, the authors suggest examining the ways schools isolate some students:

To what extent does the school—through things like athletics, homecoming royalties, or dances and so forth—encourage what some political scientists have called the “status tournament of adolescence” that lurks behind the stories of many school shootings?

As one reads about such shootings, one often senses a feeling of social anxiety and betrayal on the part of perpetrator. Americans hold high expectations for schools as places of friendship and romance, yet too often students find alienation, humiliation, and isolation. The frustration at these thwarted expectations at least sometimes seems to turn toward the school itself.

And the authors also believe schools should examine how they impose discipline and order and how that might affect the thinking of impressionable adolescents:

To what extent does the force and coercion employed by many schools contribute to a “might makes right” mentality and associated violence?

It is true that bullying is often a part of some of the stories of school shooters. Students who are bullied or who are bullies themselves will quite naturally think of schools as places appropriate for violence. There is also sometimes a rage, however, against the day-to-day imposition of school discipline and punishment. Since schools are experienced as places of force and control, for some students, they also come to be seen as appropriate places for violence.

To their credit, the writers do not offer glib solutions that will work for each and every school. Rather, they ask that schools engage in deep reflection… and ask that the public join with them in their introspection:

Our suggestion is simply that, instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.

It is time to think about school shootings not as a problem of security, but also as a problem of education.

After reading article after article calling for quick and easy and highly visible “solutions”, it was refreshing to read an analysis that called for schools to take a deep breath and engage in thoughtful reflection. I would encourage every school to look at the students they serve and see what steps they might take to ensure that every child attending is making the most of every minute they are attending… identifying the obstacles that the child faces… and advocate for a means of having those obstacles removed. In doing so, I doubt that any school will conclude that more surveillance cameras, more good guys with guns, and more lockdown drills are necessary.

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Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker Article on Prodigies Offers Key Distinction that Public Schools Miss

February 6, 2018 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Adam Gopnik’s January 29 New Yorker article titled “How to Raise a Prodigy” on line and “The Parenting Paradox” in print. It is well worth a read for anyone who wants an insight into parenting, the underlying forces in public education, and the underlying forces of our consumer-driven economy. Mr. Gopnik’s  article is in the book review section of the magazine because it focuses on three recent books on the general subject of raising children who are prodigies of one kind or another: Sara Zaske’s “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children” (Picador); “Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons of American Child Prodigies” (Knopf) by Ann Hulbert; and “Norwich: One Tiny Vermont Town’s Secret to Happiness and Excellence” (Simon & Schuster) by Karen Crouse***.

Mr. Gopnik’s essay provides a brief overview of each book and is interwoven with his own observations about child rearing and our parents’ and public schools’ efforts to identify and nurture prodigies of one form or another. His meta-observation is offered at the end of his critique of Ms. Zaske’s book that idealizes the German method of raising children:

And here we arrive at the real ghost that haunts these books, the one that sends us to Paris or Berlin for help: the sense that American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.

Having worked with parents of the best and brightest and observed the interactions of parents on playgrounds in Brooklyn where my daughters both live, I can attest to the accuracy of the “helicopter” metaphor. Mr. Gopnik offers the “cooperative spirit” that Ms. Crouse witnessed in Norwich, Vermont, as the antidote to helicopter parenting:

What we don’t get to see, in Crouse’s account, is the little town nearby, where, as must be the case, everyone coöperates and yet no one is a champion. (And there must also be, in Norwich, at least one Holden Caulfield type who thinks the whole Norwich thing is phony.) Looking at Norwich, we’re told that the non-competitive, non-pressuring approach is best because it gets us to the medal stand, or close. But what if it didn’t? If Norwich values matter, it’s because they’re good, not because they’re shortcuts to victory. The point of a non-competitive attitude can’t be that it makes us better able to compete; the value of an unpressured approach can’t be that it creates a more effective kind of pressure. In any case, one has the sense that what Crouse has found is not a “secret” but a well-known effect: unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions, whether they are in fifteenth-century Florence, in painting, or in San Pedro de Macorís, the “cradle of shortstops.” One good painter with an apprentice produces a Renaissance, just as one good coach with willing kids supplies the major leagues.

As noted below, I am familiar with Norwich and its surrounding communities and Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that there is “..a little town nearby where everyone cooperates and yet no one is a champion” could describe any number of nearby communities in Vermont… and the values Ms. Crouse ascribes to Norwich are good in and of themselves. Too, Mr. Gopnik’s insight that “unusual excellence emerges within tightly structured local traditions” captures the notion that who children associate with outside of school is more important than what they learn in school and underscores the importance of the values of the community where a child is raised.

Mr. Gopnik’s best insights come near the conclusion of his article where he describes the importance of mastery as opposed to achievement and the futility of trying to be a perfect parent:

What typically emerges from looking at kids, gifted and ordinary, is that, from the kids’ point of view, accomplishment, that is, the private sense of mastery, the hard thing suddenly made easy, counts for far more in their inner lives than does the achievement—the competition won, the reward secured. The mystery of mastery, felt in the child’s mind or muscles, is more compelling than the concreteness of achievement, the trophy pressed in her hands. What sustains us in any competition are the moments of interiority when the competition vanishes; what sustains us in any struggle are the moments when we forget the struggle…

Accomplishment, the feeling of absorption in the flow, of mastery for its own sake, of knowing how to do this thing, is what keeps all of us doing what we do, if we like what we do at all. The prizes are inevitably disappointing, even when we get them (as the life of Bob Dylan, prize-getter and grump extraordinaire, suggests).

What really helicopters over these books is what one might call the Causal Catastrophe: the belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is in the kinds of adults it produces. This appears, on the surface, so uncontroversial a position—what other standard would you use?—that to question it seems a little crazy. But, after all, chains of human causality are, if not infinite, very long; in every life, some bad consequence of your upbringing will eventually emerge. We disapprove of parental hovering not because it won’t pay off later—it might; it does!—but because it’s obnoxious now. Strenuously competitive parents may indeed produce high-achieving grownups, but it’s in the nature of things that high-achieving adults are likely to become frustrated and embittered old people, once the rug is pulled out from under their occupation. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then all chains are infinitely weak, since everybody ends up broken.

Mr. Gopnik’s advice should be heeded by parents and public educators. If Mr. Gopnik’s assessment that a “private sense of mastery” is more important than “the competition won, the reward secured“— then parents and schools should strive to gain an understanding of each child’s gifts and talents and cultivate them instead of forcing a child to compare his or her talents in academics to other children that are his or her same age. Moreover, parents and schools should strive to help each child develop the self-awareness that is implicit in cultivating a private sense of mastery. The best writers and artists do not live to get favorable reviews: they live to develop an essay or story that captures their ideas in print, to develop a piece of artwork or music score that captures a spirit they possess, or to transfer something internal into something to share with the world at large. I think in the end, prodigious athletes, musicians, writers, and individuals in the world of work do not compare themselves to any external standard: they possess an internal standard of excellence that drives them to do the best they can and an attitude that so long as they are doing the best they can they are indifferent to winning a competition or securing a reward. If schools want to develop happy and healthy prodigies— or happy and healthy citizens, they need to stop focussing on competition and rewards and begin helping students develop their private sense of mastery.

 

***In the spirit of full disclosure, I served as Superintendent of Schools in Norwich for seven years, so I have some understanding of the dynamics in that community which, in Mr. Gopnik’s words, “…continually sends athletes to the Olympics and other competitions in numbers ridiculously disproportionate to its size.” It is not quite as perfect as Ms. Crouse describes, but it IS a wonderful place to raise children… and Mr. Gopnik is correct in assuming that there is “at least one Holden Caulfield type” in that town.

 

A Homeschooler’s Analysis of Public Education is On Target… The Consequences, though, Might Not Be What He Expects

January 3, 2018 Leave a comment

Alternet managing editor Chris Sosa wrote a blog post today titled “I Was Homeschooled and I Believe in Public Schools- Here’s What Needs to Change About Them”. In the post, Mr. Sosa offers a concise history of public education in our country and recounts his personal experience as a homeschooler, contrasting his experiences with those of his age cohorts.

In Mr. Sosa’s narrative of public education, schools as we know them today emerged as a result of the nation’s desire to educate former slaves at the conclusion of the Civil War. But, as he concludes, the effort to standardized schooling had at least one unintended consequence: it dampened creative thinking:

Booker T. Washington, a former slave, established a movement to train black Americans as teachers that eventually led to the creation of numerous state universities. But in the 1890s, a standardization effort emerged that resulted in what we now know as the K-12 schooling system, including grade levels and accreditation. American education efforts in the late 1890s are nothing short of impressive in that they emerged from the rubble of a civil war. But almost 130 years later, we’re living with the same system.

Throughout the 1900s, efforts to standardize and further hone and improve this system continued. From desegregation to school lunches, the system evolved to meet the needs of a diverse and rapidly growing citizenry. But one element was lost amid this growth: a recognition that the system itself was designed to stabilize a rocky nation, not foster creativity or critical thought as culture rapidly evolved.

Mr. Sosa then describes the misguided efforts of NCLB, RTTT, and ESSA to “reform” public schooling in light of our nation’s failure to surpass other countries on international assessments. Drawing from a recent book by  journalist Greg Toppo, Mr. Sosa makes the case that the problem with schools today isn’t poor teaching, it’s the system itself:

Our public schools suffer from an authoritarianism problem. We need to start addressing it today. A true embracing of creativity, as opposed to obedience, requires a cultural change. The federal government won’t solve this by default. We need to vote for reformers who understand the problem, foster inquisitiveness in young people who cross our paths and join school boards ourselves in locations where schools are producing mathematically-challenged robot children.

Mr. Sosa sees that such a shift is plausible. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Sosa’s assessment of what’s wrong with public education… I don’t see evidence that those who are opting out are doing so for the reasons Mr. Sosa’s mother chose to do so. Indeed,recent NCES surveys indicate that 80% of homeschoolers are “concerned about the environment in schools”, 67% want to provide moral instruction, and 51% want to provide religious instruction. Only 39% opted out of public education to pursue a “non-traditional” approach. If public education reformed in the fashion Mr. Sosa and I desired, by compelling students to dig deeper into the basis for their beliefs, it would not surprise me to see more parents expressing “concern about the environment in schools” and seeking ways to provide moral and religious instruction.

Despite that misgiving, I would love to see public schools abandon the standardized testing regimen that reinforces the compliance and narrow gauge instruction Mr. Sosa’s mother and 39% of other homeschoolers wanted to avoid…. and I join him in his desire to see states and local school boards promoting policies that move us away from producing mathematically-challenged robot children and instead producing self-actualized learners who question everything.

President Trump Disdain for State Visits Signals America’s Disdain for Others

December 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Ever since our country became an international power, we have made an effort to present ourselves as generous and welcoming. After World War II we did this by providing millions of dollars to nations whose cities were decimated by wars, by sharing any surplus food we had with nations whose citizens experienced starvation, and by being full and active participants in the creation of the United Nations. Over the past several years, an America First mentality has emerged: one that does not want to spend money overseas unless it is on armaments; one that does not want to share our bounty with countries that are less fortunate; and one that does not want to seek harmony in the United Nations unless we are looking for “allies” to join us in punishing one of our enemies. This mean spirited attitude is manifested in the election of Donald Trump who, in turn, is reinforcing that mean spirited attitude in the way he conducts business.

Associated press writer Darlene Superville described one element of Mr. Trump’s mean spiritedness in a recent article that reported on the fact that he is the first president in almost a century to skip hosting a state dinner in his first year of office. This is not an oversight on his part. As Ms. Superville notes:

Trump spoke dismissively of state dinners as a candidate, when he panned President Barack Obama’s decision to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping with a 2015 state visit. Such visits are an important diplomatic tool that includes a showy arrival ceremony and an elaborate dinner at the White House.

“I would not be throwing (Xi) a dinner,” Trump said at the time. “I would get him a McDonald’s hamburger and say we’ve got to get down to work.”

But, as Ms. Superville notes, when our President visits other nations he expects red carpet treatment, and the leaders are happy to flatter him:

Knowing Trump enjoys flattery, Xi pulled out all the stops to impress him on that November stop in Beijing.

The visit opened with an arrival ceremony considered lavish even by Chinese standards, with Trump and his wife, Melania greeted at the airport by Chinese and American dignitaries standing at attention, a band playing military music and scores of flag-waving children chanting “welcome.”

Trump was then whisked away for a private tour of the Forbidden City that included dinner. The meal was a first for a visiting foreign leader at Beijing’s historic imperial palace since the founding of modern China. Trump also raved about an outdoor opera performance.

The following morning brought another welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People featuring a military parade that Trump said was “magnificent.” He said “the world was watching” and claimed to have received telephone calls about it from around the world. “Nothing you can see is so beautiful,” Trump said.

Xi also honored Trump at a state banquet that included video highlights from the Chinese leader’s visit to Florida, along with clips from Trump’s trip and the screening of a video of Trump’s granddaughter, Arabella, singing in Chinese.

That is a marked contrast to Xi’s visit to our nation. He was treated to a luxurious lunch at the President’s residence in Florida, but not given the respectful treatment that comes with a state visit, which Ms. Superville describes as follows:

The White House portion of the visit begins with an elaborate arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, including the pomp of a military honor guard, a troop review and leader statements. The leaders meet privately in the Oval Office before they hold a joint news conference in the East Room or the Rose Garden. The evening ends with the foreign leader as the guest of honor at a lavish state dinner attended by hundreds, including members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, political donors and others.

The visiting leader also has lunch at the State Department, and sometimes will address a joint meeting of Congress.

Such visits are reserved for when the U.S. wants to put on its “best face” for a particular leader and ally, said Peter Selfridge, who served as a liaison between the White House and visiting foreign dignitaries as U.S. chief of protocol from 2014 to January 2017.

“It’s a really important arrow in a president’s quiver when it comes to the diplomatic nicety side of his work,” Selfridge said.

But our current President sees no need to “put on its “best face” for anyone… and as a retired school leader I find this lack of statesmanship deplorable. It sends a message to our citizens– and children– that we are superior to everyone else on the globe and “the others” in this world should treat us with respect even if we treat them with disdain.

This is the third example in the past three days of President’s Trump disrespect for others. His snubbing of Nobel Prize winners and snubbing of Kennedy Center winners are examples of his disdain for science and the arts and his decision to deny visiting heads of state with the treatment his predecessors offered is an example of his disdain for their nations. For better or worse our children look to the President to set a tone for the nation. The anti-intellectual and xenophobic attitudes we are witnessing in the White House are not the examples we need to thrive in the interdependent world we live in today.

I’ve tagged these recent posts under “self-awareness”, for I fear that we are losing the ability to put our nation in the proper perspective in the 21st century… and I fear that in doing so we are diminishing the greatness our President aspires to.

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President Trump’s Ignoring of Arts: Another Signal of Anti-Intellectualism Run Amok

December 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Yesterday I wrote a post lamenting President Trump’s failure to celebrate the Nobel prize winners, vowing it as a signal to reinforce his antipathy toward science in particular and his intent to appeal to the anti-intellectualism in out country. No sooner had I written the post than I read an op ed article by playwright Sarah Ruhl in yesterday’s NYTimes reporting that Mr. Trump was not going to attend the Kennedy Center’s annual tribute to artists selected for Medals of Honor. Why?

The president’s team claimed that he did not attend so that the artists could celebrate in peace rather than having a political distraction. But the president votes, as we all do, with his feet.

As Ms. Ruhl notes, this is a peculiar line of reasoning given that many of the recipients have not seen eye-to-eye with the Presidents who typically attend the event and offer comments on the honorees. Mr. Ruhl offered two examples of magnanimity that came from GOP Presidents who awarded medals to recipients who opposed their political positions– Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In both cases, the GOP Presidents used the opportunity to note the unifying power of the arts. In reporting on Mr. Reagan’s participation at the event, Ms. Ruhl wrote:

…in 1984, before putting medals on Arthur Miller and Lena Horne among other luminaries, he reflected on the way Americans had developed “a culture that was as fertile as this new land” and had continued to innovate in arts and entertainment.

“And today our nation has crowned her greatness with grace, and we gather this evening to honor five artists who have helped her to do so,” he said.

And Mr. Bush was equally magnanimous in giving the award to Barbra Streisand, who persistently criticized his politics. After reading the

After Mr. Bush read her biography, he added,“She’s also been known to speak her mind.” The audience laughed, then applauded. Ms. Streisand later wrote: “President Bush gave me his signature wink and mouthed, ‘We showed ’em.’ I guess in some small way, he and I proved that we could agree to disagree, and, for that weekend, art transcended politics.” The wink and the joke were actually profound — they signaled a functional democracy. 

Ms. Ruhl was saddened to think that Mr. Trump was passing up this ritual celebration of the arts, but saw it, as I do, as further evidence of his anti-intellectualism and an ominous sign for our democracy:

In dictatorships, the artists are often the first to go. Or maybe they are the third to go, after the press and the intellectuals. The refusal of the president to celebrate them is a chilling and clear departure from American values.

It is not only “..a chilling and clear departure from American values“, it is “..a chilling and clear departure from human values“, from the values that enable us to find common ground when we disagree with each other, the values that enable us to live in harmony instead of living in conflict.

In his refusal to honor Nobel scientists Mr. Trump signaled his antipathy toward those seeking the truth in the physical world. In his refusal to honor Kennedy Center artists he signaled his antipathy toward those seeking eternal truths. I hope that his views on the arts and sciences are not adopted by our nation, for if they are, America will no longer be the nation that is a beacon of free thought.

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Shameful Shunning of Nobel Prize Winners: Evidence of Anti-Intellectualism in an Evidence Free World

December 26, 2017 Leave a comment

I read with deep dismay a recent NYTimes article by Sarah Bowen and Mark Nance, associate professors of sociology and political science, respectively, at North Carolina State University. Both are visiting researchers at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and both had the opportunity to attend the Nobel Prize Award ceremony this year, a ceremony where eight of the 12 individual laureates were American. But Ms. Bowen and Mr. Nance were distressed to learn that President Trump was turning his back on this opportunity to display patriotism and support for the educational opportunities in our country. They write:

As Americans, this was an especially good year to attend. An impressive eight of the 12 individual laureates were American. Watching the ceremony, it was easy to feel patriotic. The laureates on stage represented decades of persistent, innovative work. They showed the intellectual power of the United States’ educational system and the transformative research it produces. We thought about the thousands of students who had passed through their labs, classes and office hours. While the awards are given to only a select few, we know well that each laureate represents an entire intellectual community.

But this year, the American Nobel laureates were shunned by President Trump. Breaking with recent tradition, he refused to invite them to the White House. This is difficult to understand. If you’re interested in building up and blaring out American greatness, why not show off what’s already great about the country? In this scenario, the laureates are like the proverbial canaries in a coal mine. The contrast between their warm celebration in Stockholm and their cold reception back home is a harbinger of the United States’ future irrelevance.

It’s clear to me why Mr. Trump decided to shun the American Nobel laureates. To have them come to the White House he’d have to acknowledge the “…intellectual power of the United States’ educational system and the transformative research it produces” and in doing so reject the longstanding narrative of “failing American schools” that so-called reformers use as the basis for privatization. To have them come to the White House he’d have to acknowledge the America doesn’t need HIM to make the nation great, it needs to build on the intellectual greatness of its colleges and universities. And Ms. Brown and Mr. Nance point out another problem Mr. Trump would face if he invited the Nobel Laureates:

Finally, two of the eight American laureates this year are immigrants. In fact, since 2000, 39 percent of prizes awarded in physics, chemistry or medicine have gone to immigrants The Trump administration’s hostility to immigrants and refugees is well documented. It deports children brought to the United States by their parents, children who have never known another home. It hammered away at the ill-considered travel ban until it squeaked — for the moment — past judicial review. It even tried to block a girls’ robotics team from Afghanistan from entering the United States for a competition. 

In short, Mr. Trump’s decision to shun the Nobel laureates, to deny them an opportunity to receive as much praise in America as they received internationally, exemplifies the anti-intellectual bent of his entire administration. And that anti-intellectualism is NOT the way to greatness. It will fulfill the prophesy of a Nation at Risk. It will ensure that our students are left behind internationally and our nation will become second rate. Instead of excoriating public schools and our excellent post-secondary schools our leaders should be bolstering them and pointing out to its citizenry that they ARE the best in the world.

Sandy Hook’s Fruits: More Good Guys With Guns… But Certified Good Guys With Guns

December 11, 2017 Leave a comment

AP reporter Michael Melia writes:

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting five years ago, districts have moved to bolster security, especially at elementary schools, which traditionally have not had police assigned to them like many high schools and middle schools. Many have hired retired officers, firefighters and other responsible adults — an approach that’s less expensive and potentially less intrusive than assigning sworn police, but one that also has raised questions about the consistency of training and standards.

It is sad but not surprising that the ultimate reaction to the shootings that took place five years ago at Sandy Hook is more security guards. And also sad BUT surprising that parents and community members are fearful that any hiring and privatization of these guard services needs to be tightly regulated. Surprising because those same groups are silent about the ongoing deregulation and privatization of every other individual hired by the schools. In the case of school districts, it seems that taxpayers will do anything they can to lower costs, especially if the unions push back against it. That effort has led to the widespread hiring of non-certified and inexperienced teachers (i.e. TFA “graduates”) and the use of computer technology to increase class size and thereby diminish the need for teachers. But when it comes to protecting children at the door of the schoolhouse, the lack of certification standards raises questions:

The rise in the number of districts turning to private security has led to calls elsewhere to impose standards for school guards, particularly in cases where school boards allow for them to be armed.

In New Jersey, a law passed last year establishes a special class of law enforcement officers providing school security. The measure was sought by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police to encourage minimum training standards, according to the associat ion’s president, North Plainfield Police Chief William Parenti. Chiefs, he said, noticed fewer police officers were being assigned to schools because of budget cuts and districts were replacing them with private security, including armed guards.

In an ideal world, we would not dream of allowing armed guards is schools… and civic leaders like Chief Parenti would be as outspoken about the replacement of experienced, certified teachers with untrained recruits and robots. But such an ideal world would require an openness to higher taxes, to focussing on the care and nurturance of children instead of their safety, and value compassion as much as it values protection.