Why is a National Curriculum So Outrageous?

By United States Department of Education (ED) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A thought today about the “backlash” against the Common Core. I was thinking about how those of us who generally support it are always gently reminding folks that no, it’s not a “national” curriculum, nor any curriculum whatsoever.

Another common refrain while engaged in such backpedaling, especially in conservative quarters, is to lament the involvement of the federal government in the standards, when they incentivized state engagement through Race to the Top funding. Why did those meddling Feds have to get involved in state education business whatsoever?

But there’s a strange void in this discussion in our nation–very few would openly suggest that it would be better if our federal government got more involved in the arena of public education. And no one would possibly suggest anything so unfeasible and impolitic as developing a national curriculum.

Yet when it comes to public health, is anyone really questioning the importance of federal involvement, oversight, and infrastructure in the protection of our nation’s citizens against outbreaks of disease?

When the CDC speaks and acts on issues, Americans take it seriously. Meanwhile, our secretary of education travels across the country in a bus like an itinerant musician, trying to drum up support for federal initiatives.

The very little power that our federal government wields in the realm of education is to channel funding down to states; that Obama’s administration utilized that limited funding stream to incentivize its priorities seems not so much intrusive, but rather innovative. What other mechanism do they have, other than bully pulpit speeches?

Why is the development of a national curriculum so unfeasible as to be unspeakable in our country? Would it really be such a horror to have guidance and direction from our federal government on topics of study that an appointed commission of educators could develop for use in our public institutions? The USDOE, then, would stand for the content of its curricula, and curricula could be publicly reexamined and determined on a recurring basis.

If there really were an outbreak of Ebola that struck more than a handful of American people, then fingers would unerringly point to our federal government. Why? Because the danger of our entire nation would be at stake, even if the fault originally might be attributable to local institutions. Yet we have thousands upon thousands of our nation’s children attending schools where they are denied access to knowledge and skills that would provide them with greater opportunity. Is that really a “local” or “state” matter? Because it seems to me much more critical than Ebola to the future well-being of the United States.

Ebola, Rubber Gloves, and Public Education

By MatChem121 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

More on the Ebola-Public Education front:

How can it be that after decades of unprecedented financial investments in healthcare in developing nations, and in particular on the African continent, health facilities are still missing the most basic supplies?

In answer to this question—and in light of the tragic irony that in Liberia, home to the “largest single natural rubber operation in the world,” health care providers don’t have enough rubber gloves—the author explores the problem of “temporal and spatial logics of global health.” This reference is to the singular focus and interventions that large international projects, such as the UN or Gates Foundation, bring to their efforts to combat health problems in developing nations.

For many, the focus on vertical interventions and technological fixes was, and continues to be, pragmatic: the promise is that with the appropriate tools and benchmarks, progress can be measured and the messy realities of international politics and local infrastructures circumvented for more effective results. … Spatially, the logic is one of parachuting specific interventions into selected places. It not only leaves out many places, but also many diseases and illnesses. It is a logic of patchworks, adjuncts and circumvention, or an ‘archipelago of care’ (Geissler, 2013; Rottenburg, 2009). [Bold added]

That’s the “spatial” aspect of the logic of global health, according to the author. In terms of “temporal,” she explains:

Interventions are not only patchy, but they are also time-limited. Today most come in the form of projects, a process that has been discussed as ‘projectification’ (Whyte et al., 2013). Under the label of evidence-based medicine, new intervention strategies and technologies are trialed, scaled-up and then all too often handed-over to Ministries of Health that lack the financial and operational means to sustain the interventions (note, most Ministries of Health do not lack the expertise!). [Bold added]

Hmm, let’s see. A focus on vertical interventions and technological fixes that are handed down to local organizations that lack the resources to sustain them. Sound familiar, edu folks?

Our analogy of schools as ecosystems has developed out of a critique of such “pragmatic” approaches. We argue for a more holistic account of schools, in which we recognize that in order to administer effective support and instruction in the midst of great complexity and uncertainty, we require a 360 view of how all components are greater than the sum of their parts and work fluidly together. Such a view necessitates systems thinking and a recognition of the fundamental importance of contexts and infrastructure.

Author Beisel argues this point for global health:

Health care infrastructures cannot be circumvented when one aims to improve health care sustainably.[1] Well-functioning infrastructures are flexible and adaptive, able to change gear and respond to shifting disease landscapes. Just like the harvesting of rubber and the production of gloves, they are rooted in history and configured in specific political economies. The predominant logic in global health is based on and has led to an impoverished understanding of health and wellbeing. We assume we know which diseases and ailments are relevant and crucial to address. Ebola teaches us that we are well advised not work from this bold assumption. A humble version of Socrates’ classic “I know that I know nothing” seems to be a better guide to navigating complex and rapidly shifting disease landscapes. The lack of gloves, personal protective equipment and skilled personnel in West Africa’s health facilities is not only a result of war or weak states, but also of the spatio-temporal logic of global health, and it presents us with an urgent call for change in global health approaches and logics. [Bold added]

As in global health, so in global economics, and so in education.

Ebola: Public education and politics don’t mix

By CDC Global (Ebola training) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I cleaned my desk for the first time in what may well have been months last night before toddling off to bed, and realized that this very simple physical act heralded a psychic straightening up as well–I feel like I just crawled out from under rock today.

Though this is my 6th year teaching, I still feel incredibly overwhelmed during these first few months. I’m the kind of person who likes to focus on one thing at a time and do it deeply and well, but there’s so many things to juggle all at once during this time that I can barely think straight and yes, lack even the capacity to sift through the piles of spam credit card mailings and other refuse of modern society accumulating on my desk at home. It’s one IEP after another, along with negotiating new ICT relationships and work loads, but I’m just starting to feel like I’m getting a handle on everything again and am able to start looking past the tip of my nose.

Finally. Sort of. Still have a pile of grading I’m supposed to get through tonight which I’ll probably end up postponing until my bus ride tomorrow morning. But anyway. I digress. You clicked on this because I wrote EBOLA in the title, right?

An interesting article I read while experiencing a bout of insomnia last night–“Ebola in the U.S.—Politics and Public Health Don’t Mix” by Judy Stone in Scientific America–outlines an interesting disparity between practitioner reality and policymaker agendas in the reaction to the outbreak of Ebola.

Interesting, because it could just as readily be applied to the realm of education. Don’t believe me? Read the following lines from the article below with the frame of education–rather than health care–in mind:

It’s fine to have policies for isolation and employee health. Administrators love that, and it looks great when JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation) comes around. The problem is that we need training, practice, and the ability to demonstrate our infection control skills. … Unsurprisingly, now US nurses are saying they are unprepared for caring for Ebola patients. …

We don’t need high tech to control Ebola. …

We don’t need posturing from politicians from the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls and conspiracy theorists. …

We need an infrastructure that considers all the players who need to work together. We need to be proactive, as New York has been, with using “fake” patients to test hospital readiness and practice drills to identify lapses in procedures.

We need a health care system that cares for all, even for those without insurance, without causing them to delay seeking care until they are seriously ill, perhaps infecting others in the process (e.g., tuberculosis, more commonly).

And we need to take the politics out of funding for public health and research.

So, too, in education. In the public, psychological “emergency rooms” of classrooms, we don’t need ideological posturing from politicians and conspiracy theorists about the Common Core. We need training, support, and in-classroom modeling and practice. We need infrastructure. We need equitable funding and resources. And so on.

A Knowledge Inseparable from Social Life

By Vinay ranjan saraswati (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In modern state societies, there is formal education: schools and after-hour classes, in which specially trained instructors teach children material set by school boards, as an activity separate from play. But education in small-scale societies is not a separate activity. Instead, children learn in the course of accompanying their parents and other adults, and of hearing stories told by adults and older children around the campfire. For instance, Nurit Bird-David wrote as follows about southern India’s Nayaka people: “At a time where in modern societies children begin schooling, say at age 6, Nayaka children independently go hunting small game, visiting and staying with other families, free from supervision by their own specific parents, though not necessarily from adults. . . . Teaching, additionally, is done in a very subtle way. No formal instruction and memorizing here, no classes, no exams, no cultural sites [schools] in which packets of knowledge, abstracted from their context, are transmitted from one person to another. Knowledge is inseparable from social life.

–Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?

How Marketers Exploit Addictiveness


As Cook notes in his book, the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year. On the other hand, people in the bottom three deciles don’t drink at all, and even the median consumption among those who do drink is just three beverages per week.

The shape of this usage curve isn’t exactly unique. The Pareto Law states that “the top 20 percent of buyers for most any consumer product account for fully 80 percent of sales,” according to Cook. The rule can be applied to everything from hair care products to X-Boxes.

But the consequences of the Pareto Law are different when it comes to industries like alcohol, tobacco, and now marijuana. If you consume 10+drinks per day, for instance, you almost certainly have a drinking problem. But the beverage industry is heavily dependent on you for their profits.

One consequence is that the heaviest drinkers are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic-beverage industry,” he writes. “If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent.” [bold added]

– Christopher Ingraham, “Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you.

This is a good reminder that it is the very nature of marketing and business to promote and exploit addictive behavior.

Much of the conversation around problems with social networking and smartphone technology concerns this exploitation. After all, if an app can keep you coming back repeatedly and often, then that app will better gain from your compulsive behavior.

Hence why many adults talk about “tech-free” vacations to try and go cold turkey from compulsive usage of Twitter or Facebook, or about utilizing “mindfulness” techniques to defragment their hyperconnected minds.

Our public schools need to strengthen the ability of our children to fight against the addictive and shallow pull of illusory and short-term compulsions. We must do this by equipping children with the knowledge and understanding of the world necessary to buffer them from forces that seek to exploit their ignorance.

This knowledge and understanding is best gained from reading. If you are going to be addicted to something, become addicted to reading.

Whenever I talk with students about my love for reading, I end up referencing Frederick Douglass, who deeply understood how the power of knowledge, derived from the written word, can provide opportunities never before imagined. And how this knowledge also brings pain, and loneliness.

It’s easier to allow ourselves to be exploited. Or to allow others to be exploited yet more. To allow our overriding concern to be our sneakers, or our latest love interest, or different angles of selfie shots.

How much harder to give oneself to a book, or any other pursuit of the mind, in which we are challenged to be something so much less, and so much more, than ourselves.

The Resiliency of a Snowflake

By Amada44 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just came across an interesting addition to the idea of redundancy in networks (via Slashdot via NewScientist) which suggests a three part hierarchical structure of partial loops can be the easiest to repair. The structure looks akin to a snowflake.

They found the best networks are made from partial loops around the units of the grid, with exactly one side of each loop missing. All of these partial loops link together, back to a central source. These have a low repair cost because if a link breaks, the repair simply involves adding back the missing side of a loop. What’s more, they are resistant to multiple breaks over time, as each repair preserves the network’s fundamental design.

These networks have three levels of hierarchy – major arms sprouting from a central hub that branch and then branch again, but no further. When drawn, they look remarkably like snowflakes, which have a similar branching structure.

We’ve explored the idea of redundancy in networks, as well as the concepts of loop networks and anastomosis. Such structures demonstrate greater resiliency in the face of chaos.

The now relatively mundane notion of distributed leadership via grade-level, departmental, and other teams throughout a school seems to align with the concept of a resilient network structure. The challenge for district leaders, however, seems to be how to connect those in-school structures to a wider external network that will support them without introducing more chaos.

In NYC, word is out that the non-local network structure which the NYCDOE under Klein instituted to “break up the fiefdoms of the districts” may be on its way out. So the big question here is whether Fariña can reintroduce localized power while avoiding the corruption and silos that plagued some districts.

Not an easy thing to achieve in a system as vast as NYC, but a looped network, snowflake-like structure may be worth bearing in mind.

The Luxury of Efficiency

By Crops for the Future (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, in which he examines traditional societies and compares them to modern state societies, and I came across a passage which lends an interesting perspective to a word Will brought up recently: efficiency.

Diamond describes a traditional form of planting that has greatly perplexed modern minds: field scattering. Why are these ignorant peasants and tribal peoples wasting their energy in planting and tilling and traveling between many small plots, rather than consolidating their yields? “To modern economic historians, that was “obviously” a bad idea.”

It turns out that it has a lot to do with managing complexity in the face of immediate needs.

“In any given year there are big differences between yields of different fields, but a peasant can’t predict which particular field is going to produce well in any particular year,” Diamond states of the Cuyo Cuyo farmer.

So in the face of the unknown, the peasant scatters his potential yield. This decreases his overall yield, and ensures he will rarely have a great abundance (which he wouldn’t be able to store for long anyway), but also ensures that he will rarely starve.

“If your time-averaged yield is marvelously high as a result of the combination of nine great years and one year of crop failure, you will still starve to death in that one year of crop failure before you can look back to congratulate yourself on your great time-averaged yield.”

Thus, “through long experience, and without using statistics or mathematical analyses, Goland’s Andean peasants had figured out how to scatter their land just enough to buffer them against the risk of starvation from unpredictable local variation in food yields.”

I wonder what lessons there may be in this for schools.

In the face of stark accountability (“starvation”) and potential closure, a school may strategically “scatter” its efforts to meet its immediate needs, rather than “efficiently” investing in more coherent and systematic measures that will, over time, accrue in more lasting impacts and yields.

After all, when you are facing starvation, your primary concern is not to starve. But when you already have a buffer of wealth, you can take greater risks.

We often talk about how much money America spends on education in comparison to other countries, with little to show for it. Yet school funding is often on a perpetual cycle where schools are encouraged to scatter their money willy-nilly on immediate needs, rather than take bigger risks and strategically invest in longer-term investments.

I’ll stop there, as I’m probably pushing the analogy too far. But it’s interesting to consider how the concept of “efficiency” can be considered as a product of luxury.

Systematically Hobbling Schools Serving Disadvantaged Kids

“As Andreas Schleicher, who runs the OECD’s international education assessments, told the New York Times, “the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students. The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”

Money isn’t everything, obviously. But how can we pretend it doesn’t count? Money buys the most experienced teachers, less-crowded classrooms, high-quality teaching materials, and after-school programs.

Yet we seem to be doing everything except getting more money to the schools that most need it.

We’re requiring all schools meet high standards, requiring students to take more and more tests, and judging teachers by their students’ test scores.

But until we recognize we’re systematically hobbling schools serving disadvantaged kids, we’re unlikely to make much headway.”

–Robert Reich, “Back to School, and Widening Inequality” on robertreich.org

This is Not a Real Review


I’ve been slowly reading Jose Vilson’s This is Not a Test* since the end of summer, and though I want to give his book a more thorough and thoughtful analysis and review, I’m going to have to be content with giving briefer and shallower thoughts for the moment, as I’ve been scattered due to the inevitable press of the beginning of the school year workload.

Vilson takes a wholly unique approach to presenting his perspectives on education–he starts from the inside and works his way out, matching the simultaneously strong and introspective voice he’s developed in his writing online. For me, the most compelling aspects of his narrative consists in his personal journey from student to teacher to leader. It’s inspiring to see a fellow NYC district school teacher transforming into the kind of leader that people from very different walks in life and with very different values can listen to and respect. He elevates my profession.

Vilson’s unique independent and consistent online presence and advocacy has tread a pathway for other educators to follow. When he writes about the importance of educators of color teaching children of color, I am deeply appreciative that he is standing up to not only say it, but to live it.

I get the sense that Vilson can do pretty much whatever he sets his mind to. Here’s to hoping that he not only writes another book, but helps to bring about systemic changes that will bring greater diversity and leadership into education.

* The slowness has been due not to any fault on Mr. Vilson’s part, but rather my own, as I made the mistake of purchasing his book in the Kindle format—and I have a Nook. I thought I would be able to convert the Kindle MOBI format into the EPUB format, but Amazon has it’s so-called “ecosystem” (walled garden would be more apt) locked down pretty tight. So I’ve been forced to use Kindle’s app to read the book, and I dislike extended reading on a backlit screen. Moral of the story: I will not be buying Kindle books again any time soon. Sorry, Amazon, but your scheme for world domination will not include me. Except for all non-book items. You’ve got me there.

School Contexts and IEPs

By Codyshafer 2011 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Viewing a school as an ecosystem entails acknowledging its unique context. When it comes to providing special education services for students with disabilities, we tend to act as if schools are akin to controlled clinical settings where scientific interventions can be applied with fidelity. We pretend, in other words, that the capacity and context of a school is relatively unimportant in relation to the needs of a student as outlined by psychological testing.

Yet the reality of a school is messy and complex—just like the reality of a child’s individual and unique mind—and very far from clinical. What this entails is that schools have to find ways to flexibly problem solve in order to more effectively and systematically meet the needs of its students both within and without the classroom.

In my most recent post on Chalkbeat NY, I make the case that a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must have a connection to the reality of what a school can and will be able to provide, just as what a school provides must connect to the reality of what that student actually needs.

In other words, in order for a student’s plan to have a tangible impact, it must be part of a process of continuous improvement that can be consistently delivered. In the absence of any such connection to the capacity of the school’s teachers and service providers, that student is much less likely to have any support, and the IEP will remain mere words on paper.