Support the Call for Open Educational Resources

By Jonathasmello, Hamish_Darby [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that curriculum, materials, textbooks, and other resources that are utilized in delivering a public education should be made available publicly under a GPL style (“open source”) license.

So I was excited to see that K-12 OER Collaborative is making a request for proposals for development of Creative Commons 4.0 licensed curriculum aligned to the Common Core. Check it out and support this effort. The major textbook publishing companies have dominated the field with sundry weak materials for far too long.

Guilds and Diversity in Schools & Ecosystems

By Nhobgood Nick Hobgood (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

I did a small interview a while back that I’d randomly discovered was posted when I did a search for schools and ecosystems. The interviewer had been especially interested in an idea I’d brought up a while back, based on an idea from Permaculture: guilds.

To review, a guild can be explained as “a group of animals and plants that co-evolve in a mutually beneficial (or “symbiotic“) manner. Such examples of guilds can be found in nature, but also can be developed intentionally by humans. A traditional example is the Three Sisters, squash, maize, and beans, cultivated successfully in Mesoamerica for thousands of years.”

In the interview, I give an example of how this could apply to a school:

“I think this applies to schools, because we magnify differences too much,” Anderson said. That fact keeps students from learning about the real communities they will live and work in, where people have authentic differences from one another.

“Traditionally, we are looking [sic] at special education as excluding, but it is also denying,” Anderson said. “We should be trying to seek to include these students in average classes.”

“It’s not about being stupid or not being able to do things,” he said. “Kids have a good understanding of these things: That we all have strengths and weaknesses.”

Human beings, of course, don’t fall into such easily definable categories as squash, maize, and beans, but when you have students on the spectrum of autism, students with a language processing delay, and so on . . . well, you have students that act and learn just a tad bit differently. But like I said, I think we magnify these differences overmuch. At the end of the day, some of us are good at some things, and others not so good, but we all get better by working together with one another.

The Real Big News: Incremental Progress

… we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from big technology breakthroughs, from new gadgets and communications technologies, most of them created by the private sector. But the positive trends in our social health are coming from a more complex network of forces: from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, the shared wisdom of life experiences passed along through generations and the positive effects of rising affluence. The emphasis on private sector progress is no accident; it is the specific outcome of the way public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape.

The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. A multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, and it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that the product is now “new and improved.” But no one takes out a prime-time ad campaign to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution that we have seen over the past few decades, even thought that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.

That blind spot is compounded by the deeper lack of interest in stories of incremental progress. Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement.

–Steven Johnson, “We’re living the dream; we just don’t realize it” on CNN Opinion

What We Talk About When We Talk About School

I have an article in Jacobin this week about the impact of jargon on our understanding of public education. One of the key points Mark and I have made in this blog since the very beginning is that schools are physical environments. When we use jargon, or any language that is unnecessarily technical or unclear, to discuss schools, we make that physical environment seem like an abstraction. As I argue in the article:

“Beyond confusing and misleading the public, jargon obscures the fact that when we talk about schools, we’re talking about places where children live and grow for seven to nine hours a day, ten months out of the year. If they’re poor, these children spend their days in overcrowded classrooms that are poorly lit and poorly ventilated.

My first two years teaching in the public schools, I worked at a high school where students spent their entire school day, five days a week, without ever leaving the building. These teenagers received a single thirty-minute break each day for lunch and recess combined. Their recess consisted of milling about the school cafeteria after eating. Jargon reduces these pent-up children to abstractions and effaces the brutality of this type of captivity.”

The more direct and clear our language is, the less it will obscure the physical reality of school environments.

Humiliation, Race, and the Law

Marilyn Rhames, an accomplished educator and blogger on EdWeek, whom I have had the honor of meeting at a Bellwether Better Blogging Conference, has a post up detailing the humiliating experience of getting handcuffed and taken in a squad car to the police station for the heinous and criminal act of . . . wait for it . . . .allowing her driver’s license to expire. And Marilyn, by the way, had been on her way that morning to attend a board meeting of Teachers Who Pray, a group she is the founder of.

Marilyn, in case you haven’t guessed already by such treatment, bears the skin color commonly referred to as “black.”

The ridiculousness and callousness of the situation is captured by the following description from Rhames:

So there I was—the mother of three on her way to a meeting to discuss the success of our recent third annual Teachers Who Pray conference and strategize about how to spiritually support teachers in 2015—in handcuffs and being pushed into the back of a squad car for having a driver’s license that was 22 days expired.

She goes on to say:

Just because I am a teacher I am not better than anybody else. Just because I hold two masters degrees doesn’t mean I am not above the law. But on Saturday, I felt that I was a victim of the law. I felt I was beneath the filthy foot of law, which was pressing against my neck and putting my face in the mud.

And finally, Rhames considers the actions of the black female cop who arrested her and informed her that this was “just following procedure” and “no big deal”:

She could have used discretion, like the cops in the suburbs. But discretion is not for citizens who look like me—educated or non-educated. Discretion mostly applies to people with white privilege, which I am guaranteed never to have.

If Marilyn were white, would she have been treated differently? And if your answer to that is “no,” or “depends,” then consider, if she were not an inhabitant of an area of poverty, but rather a resident in an area of wealth and status, would she have been treated differently?

Was it necessary to arrest her and humiliate her to enforce the law in this case? Wouldn’t simply writing a ticket have served the same purpose? Or, really, just a stern talking-to and directive to renew her license immediately?

Once, long ago, when I was a teenager in San Diego, the cops caught me breaking the law. They looked at my license. “I know someone who lives on this street,” one of the cops said to me. We chatted pleasantly about which house his friend’s was. He handed me back my license, and I got a verbal reprimand. That’s it.

That, my friends, is privilege. The privilege of skin, the socio-economic status of one’s neighborhood, and all the trappings such may bring.

Politics: Language and Priorities

By Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States (vote for better tape Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats took a drubbing at election time, as they are wont to do when voters are apathetic (and barriers to voting are erected). That’s my analysis of the results of yesterday’s elections.

We’ve been examining language over our last two posts, first in ecology and education, then on business, and now just a quick point about the use of language in our discourse on politics. Let’s examine a small tidbit from today’s NY Times:

The uneven character of the economic recovery added to a sense of anxiety, leaving voters in a punishing mood, particularly for Democrats in Southern states and the Mountain West,where political polarization deepened. [Bold added]

Here we see evidence of a common tactic in discussions of politics (HW assignment: scan the other articles from other news sources on the election and round-up other examples) — the personification of a mass of people as one entity. Can we truly state, with statistical accuracy and scientific verification, that voters, en masse, have been possessed by vengeance? Seems to me like such analysis and rhetoric is highly suspect, given the variety of contextual and individual decisions that voters may have made when choosing their positions on any given ballot.

NY Ballot Proposal 3: Technology, or Natural Light?

While we’re on the topic of the elections, I wanted to make an unrelated point about Ballot Proposal #3 in New York, which passed along with the other two measures on the ballot. For non-New Yorkers, this proposal

… authorizes the sale of state bonds of up to two billion dollars ($2,000,000,000) to provide access to classroom technology and high-speed internet connectivity to equalize opportunities for children to learn, to add classroom space to expand high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, to replace classroom trailers with permanent instructional space, and to install high-tech smart security features in schools.

I’m all for “replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space.” But this proposal’s general intent completely misses the mark. What should be a higher priority: retrofitting and building school infrastructure to incorporate more natural light, fresher air, and more greenery? Or installing more Smartboards and broadband access in schools?

Putting a Smartboard and wi-fi in a decrepit classroom will do little to benefit children. Children need healthy school environments first; Smartboards and broadband can come later. Let’s hope that we can redirect this misguided proposal towards this better purpose.

Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.

Jargon & Ecosystems

Lately, Mark and I have been very interested in the language people use when they talk about school. It’s an obvious, but important point: how we talk about schools affects how we understand them. The same is true for ecosystems.

The NY Times ran an interesting piece earlier this month about a Queens ecosystem in transition. The article describes plans to transform an abandoned railway into a massive park that would run from Rego Park to Ozone Park. As the article notes, the proposed park “would be accessible to 322,000 city residents”, providing these people with a new space to explore, play, or simply relax among trees and green grass.

The plan sounds like a no-brainer in a city that’s devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to constructing park lands, bike lanes, and other outdoor public spaces in wealthier sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn over the last decade. Strangely, however, Mayor De Blasio’s office responded to the plans with something other than enthusiasm. In fact, the response from the Mayor’s office was almost incomprehensible. As the Times reported:

The plan has been shown to officials from the city’s parks and transportation departments, as well as City Hall. But the response so far is noncommittal. “We look forward to continuing conversations with stakeholders about the future of this asset,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio’s office, said on Monday.

Just to reiterate, the plan in question is to transform an abandoned railway into a park so that hundreds of thousands of people can have green, outdoor space in which to frolic. That point seems worth reiterating because Norvell’s robotic statement uses the kind of business jargon– complete with reference to “stakeholders” and “assets”– designed specifically to obscure the physical realities that we’re discussing.

To those of us in education, this type of jargon is both familiar and destructive. When we talk about schools and ecosystems, we’re talking about physical spaces inhabited by living beings. We are talking about complex, specific realities. When we talk about “assets,” we reduce these ecosystems to pieces of property whose fate will be decided by “stakeholders”, a term taken from the worlds of gambling and finance to reduce human beings in need of green space to contestants in a game controlled by whoever’s got the money to run the table.

I hope that the city supports this– and any– plan to give city residents access to more green space where such space is readily available. More than that, though, I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Designed Autonomy and Social Interactions

Common facilities may not always be a good; where relationships are strained, forced contact could worsen things. This student demographic are actively seeking connections with their new peers, and in this context, individuals are better off in an interdependent and even inconvenient setup, than in a self-sufficient but atomised one. What impresses itself on me is the evidence of a general rule: the more we control and plan our encounters, the less space there is for the chance interaction, as true of our accelerating cities as it is for the environments in which we work, sleep, or study.

How sharing a toilet helps students make more friends

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.