How we go about stitching the country back together

So how do you think we go about stitching the country back together?

Well, the most important thing that I’m focused on is how we create a common set of facts. That sounds kind of abstract. Another way of saying it is, how do we create a common story about where we are.

. . . It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what’s true and what’s not.

–President Barack Obama, in an interview with Rolling Stone the day after the election

It’s Time to Do Something About Diversity, NY

It’s well past due that New York made it clear that public education is about learning from and about our differences, so that we can better foster our shared knowledge and understanding. Increasing student access to a diversity of experiences, backgrounds, and people must be an explicit priority of our system of education if we are to continue to have a functioning democratic republic.

On election day, many New Yorkers experienced a jarring disjoint; the world we thought we knew transformed before our eyes. We have grown increasingly sheltered within our own immediate social media spheres, where it’s easier to disregard the arguments in different communities across our nation about the ongoing tensions that exist between equality and liberty, the power of the federal government vs. local communities, and between honoring our differences and backgrounds while developing and maintaining a shared set of values and understanding. These are essential arguments that thread back to the founding of our nation.

Similarly, in many of our public schools, students spend their days with others who are mostly just like them — they may look similar, speak the same language, or share the same values. And any who don’t adhere to these norms tend to be ostracized, whether due to appearance, belief, or behavior. Human beings, most especially children and adolescents, are highly attuned to differences. When I first began teaching, I was taken aback by how much attention my students paid to the state of my shoes!

And while there is much talk of a “culturally responsive” or “relevant” curriculum, the reality is that even a basic core curriculum is all too often lacking, not to mention access to adequate resources and opportunities and experiences beyond the school. Schools require coherent, well-structured, and thoughtfully sequenced content that will build students’ understanding of their wider society and world.

When students from segregated schools and communities graduate to an institution of higher education, or into a field of employment, they may suddenly feel a sense of disjoint between their social identity and the norms of the institution they’ve joined. They may discover that many others may not share their values nor experiences, and they must learn to assume a new manner of speaking, navigate a new culture, and demonstrate new behaviors. Many find their way into a niche where they can be accepted and supported in their transition into adulthood. Some young adults, however, find themselves stranded and unable to navigate across this divide. And the norms and practices of their society’s leaders and institutions will grow increasingly alien to them.

It is the fundamental mission of public education to support our student’s success in that transition into adulthood, to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that will enable them to question and clarify other’s perspectives who are different, while effectively communicating and refining their own. To empower them to partake in the great debates of our nation and expand those conversations to include themselves.

Yet if we are honest in our reckoning, New York state is patently failing in this mission. In 2014, a UCLA Civil Rights Project report stamped NY with the shameful status of host to the most segregated schools in our nation. And this year, EdBuild released a report on the most extremely segregating school boundaries across the nation. Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica made the list, making NY number 6 out of the 50 states with the most segregating districts.

Families and neighborhoods with the most wealth continue to have the greatest access to a high quality education and positive life outcomes. For children less fortunate than others, segregation manifests in less access to resources, quality teachers, and safe and clean learning spaces.

And for both populations, an increasing lack of shared understanding and communication leads to further disengagement from participation in the civic institutions that should serve us all.

Give teachers some privacy

By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (http://picol.org/) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (http://picol.org/), via Wikimedia Commons

“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.

…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”

–David Berreby, “Want People to Behave Better? Give Them More Privacy” on PsychologyToday

Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.

How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Integrated schools as a stabilizing force in times of chaos

A beautiful post on the benefits of integrated schools. Read the whole thing.

The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.

. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.

–Kelly Bare, “A Divided America Gave Us the Problem of a Donald Trump Presidency. Integration is the Solution.

Smörgåsbord: The Chaos Begins. The Work of Education Continues

What is there to say about the rude awakening that shook cosmopolitan, progressive minded Americans and the world?

Well, here’s a few positive spins on it:

  1. Trump is a chaos monkey that will assist us in building a better democracy by forcing us to re-establish the original balance of power our founders intended. (This would require the Republican party to pull up their Big Boy pants and actually govern.)
  2. The one thing that united Clinton and Trump campaigns was a commitment to investing in infrastructure — and it is the one thing Democrats are already reaching across the aisle to work on.

What does it mean for education politics and policy?

  1. Rick Hess: Who the heck knows?
  2. Chad Aldeman: NCLB will suddenly look really good to Democrats, on hindsight. And you can kiss any education related investment goodbye.
  3. Elizabeth Green: Education reformers will pivot their attention to long-neglected rural and rust-belt communities.
  4. Neerav Kingsland: Charter proponents need to recognize the populist appeal of local, traditional public schools and thus address fears that public schools will be harmed by charter expansion.
  5. Matt Barnum: If Trump actually wants to follow through on his anti-Common Core rhetoric, he’d paradoxically have to wield federal power.

What relation does this election have to knowledge or the lack thereof?

  1. Rick Kahlenberg: Civics and democratic values need to be explicitly taught. (But Andrew Rotherham and Doug Lemov are angry about the anti-choice aspect of his piece)
  2. Problems with our democracy are due to lack of knowledge. For that, we can blame schools.
  3. George Thomas: In our shift to populism, we’ve lost the educative purpose of a representative democracy as envisioned by Madison.
  4. “Trump was not elected on a platform of decency, fairness, moderation, compromise, and the rule of law; he was elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment.”
  5. An additional bonus of a knowledge-rich curriculum is that it can help kids do better on tests.
  6. Some are blaming Facebook and social media for the segregation of our attention from those who could challenge our “crony beliefs”.
  7. Three reasons to teach a knowledge-rich curriculum: cognitive, socio-cultural, and economic.

Smorgasbord: It’s Really Fall, Folks

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This weekly roundup will be a true mishmash. But hey, consider it your seasonal style stew. And by the way, be a voter this Tuesday. If you care about education, check out the one candidate who has voiced any views about education policy in this election.

The latest diversity report shows NYC schools have made some progress, but still have a long way to go to make increasing school diversity systemic.

Public advocate Letitia James and CSA President Ernest Logan have proposed a great idea for doing just that: the NYCDOE should appoint a Chief Diversity Officer and actually commit to it.

A Brooklyn teenager interviews other teens around NYC about segregation:
… since integration doesn’t seem to be happening, more than anything I just wish me and my friends could go to a school without the burden of worrying about what we don’t have.
Imagine that.

Our group affiliations color our perceptions. Even the sensory ones.

Which makes sense, considering that our perceptions could be considered controlled hallucinations, anyway, in which our brain updates its working hypotheses via sensory signals.

And our working hypotheses trend towards negative stereotypes. Which will surprise exactly no one who has ever listened to gossip.

Here’s some further support for the idea that the human brain operates best when it is balanced between the hinterlands of chaos and order — just like schools.

The New Yorker visits Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens, for a mock election that the teachers worry might be teaching the wrong lessons to kids who have no previous elections to compare it to.

Researchers at Stanford realize that kids don’t know anything and Google ain’t helping:

At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

Robert Pondiscio argues that charter proponents need to shift their pitches away from social justice in the inner city towards the promotion of programs appealing to middle school parents.

Richard Whitmire argues that districts and charters need to partner more and create a win-win for both sides.

Individuals who exhibit greater self-control are able to do so because they can appraise when and where a specific self-control strategy should be used. Sadly, it is this very ability to ascertain what is contextually-appropriate that those who struggle with self-control may lack.

Giving ex-cons psychiatric drugs reduces reoffending rates. Which is great–except this study comes from Sweden, where they most likely have the healthcare coverage that would actually provide that medication. Good luck getting this going in the US.

An often overlooked intervention that can improve students’ academic performance is fitness training.

 

Doug Lemov on the importance of utilizing read alouds to bring the sophisticated vocabulary and knowledge locked up in complex texts to our kids.

 

A student with disabilities challenges the lazy thinking of adults:

Sometimes it seems like people think that I have consciously chosen to have a brain that is physically different from others. Nope — I do not have a designer brain!

When it takes me longer to finish a test or when I need to get up and pace, believe me that’s not what I would have designed. Would you? A lot of the time I feel like I am on trial — that I have to prove that I need help. That’s how it is with hidden disabilities, which by the way, 70 percent of all disabilities are.

and

What if classes were as long (or short) as they needed to be instead of a fixed amount of time? What if instead of taking tests, the students created them? That would be so much more interesting and useful.

As in national parks, so in schools: we need to reduce noise and glaring light.

Good Advice

Here are three takeaways from a recent workshop for about 40 New York City teachers representing a range public, charter and private schools. 

1) Know your history. Racism dates back many centuries, to when European writers and explorers first classified people by physical characteristics. It’s affected our social and political institutions, from slavery to segregation. Vasquez advised teachers to use this history and to add materials when necessary, “to have students see themselves in the curriculum and also see other folks in the curriculum as well.” He calls this a “racial equity lens.”

2) Know yourself. About 85 percent of New York City public school students are children of color; 60 percent of their teachers are white. One white teacher at the workshop, who didn’t want to be identified, said he tries to play to his strengths. “I think that white children should see me as a model as how to listen to other people, and how to acknowledge when I make mistakes,” he explained. With his students of color, he added, “I want to prove myself worthy of their trust.”

3) Know your students. Create classrooms where all kids feel safe. Children pick up clues from the world around them, and have their own biases.  Vasquez said teachers – and kids – may feel uncomfortable talking about race but that’s part of the work. They must keep talking.

While some might not consider this essential work for teachers, Vasquez likened it to a core subject.

–Beth Fertig, “Teachers Get Schooled On Talking Race” on WNYC

Research: A School is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

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“When aspects of the school context—for example, a principal who is an ineffective instructional leader, a school that lacks a consistent disciplinary code—are partly, or largely to blame for poor performance, efforts to measure and strengthen individual teacher effectiveness are unlikely to be adequate remedies in themselves”

—Gillian Kiley, “School environment key to retaining teachers, promoting student achievement, study finds” on Phys.org

Check out the study linked to above, which uses NYC school survey data. Certainly confirms everything this blog is premised upon.

Smorgasbord: Sundries, Inclusion, and Democracy

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Sundry Items from the World Wide Web

Here’s a handy infographic of the 74 ways characters die in Shakespeare’s plays.

Clinical psychiatrist Daniel Siegel argues that our minds are best understood as a combination of bottom-up sensory experiences and top-down schematic models.

If you want to enhance your brain, stop wasting your time with “brain training” apps and pick up a new musical instrument, instead. And exercise.

In Los Olivos, California, parents pay $49,000 a year for their kids to chop their own wood and grow their own food. Seems like a worthy trade-off, to me. Especially given the growing amount of research substantiating the positive effects of the outdoors on learning.

Speaking of the outdoors, if you have a view of the ocean, you probably have lower levels of psychological distress. Supposedly this applies across income or neighborhood quality, but let’s be real: most neighborhoods with an ocean view usually have a few other competitive advantages.

We all know being born well-off (financially speaking) comes with benefits. But here’s some depressing results from a new report: “even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong.” So much for meritocracy.

Speaking of meritocracy, boys read less than girls and even when they do read, they comprehend less. Which is a problem since even tech startups are trumpeting the value of reading.

And what separates champions from “almost champions” is how they respond to adversity. They put in the practice and training, and most critically, they compare themselves against past versions of themselves, rather than external comparisons against others. Implications for supporting our students in self-monitoring their progress here.

Because hey, even a ball of dough can learn to learn, with the right amount of electric shocks.

Sorry to inform you, frenetic button pushers: pushing those crosswalk and elevator close buttons are just placebo placating your sense of control.

In his new book, Messy, economist Tim Harford argues that allowing a bit of disorder and chaos into our lives can make us happier and more productive. One way, he suggests, is to force ourselves to interact with others who are different than us. (And here’s a past post on how allowing a little bit of chaos in a school can also be a good thing.)

Equity and Inclusion: Can we overcome our history?

While some may see this as merely a symbolic gesture, I think it’s a pretty big deal that a “president of America’s largest police management organization” issued a formal apology for police mistreatment of communities of color.

Knowing our history, as Politico’s Eliza Shapiro reports, is important as new battles about school zones and desegregation play out. Here’s a quote demonstrating why:

Recent meetings on the proposed rezoning have turned hostile: Lincoln Towers residents have wept and pleaded with the city not to go ahead with the rezoning, arguing that it would divide their community. Parents have shouted down Department of Education officials at meetings, accusing them of lying and intentionally concealing details about the plans. One person referred to PS 191 as a “cesspool.”

The principal of PS 191, Lauren Keville, has attended some of the public meetings, urging PS 199 parents — to apparently little effect — to visit her school before forming their judgment. PS 191 parents have been largely absent from the debate.

After the Council proposed its own plan and made explicit pleas for a more integrated district at a recent meeting, scores of parents spoke out against the plan. When one member of the council claimed he’d been “blindsided” by the plan, dozens of parents gave him a standing ovation. The PS 199 parents who support the integration plan — a constant but muted minority presence at public meetings — have been largely drowned out. (Bold added)

The parent group that is calling for integration, however, is making it’s views loud and clear.

A new report highlights what schools successful at increasing diversity are doing. Keys to increasing diversity: promote the school to diverse communities and make it welcoming to all, and change admission policies.

Democracy: Should complex decisions be made by the people, or their elected representatives?

Populist democracy is on the rise. Yet our founders envisioned the US as a representative democracy. George Thomas argues that we have lost sight of the educative function of political leadership, and that we are increasingly placing complex policy decisions in the hands of voters who may lack an understanding of the need for compromise that effective and experienced political leaders possess. Repercussions are to be found in Republican kowtowing to Trump and Tea Party supporters, Democrat kowtowing to Sanders supporters, across the pond in the Brexit referendum, and California’s ever increasing ballot measures. Some argue that voting should only be left to those who have the requisite knowledge. And there’s some evidence to back this up: education levels have a correlation to who you vote for. Just take a guess.

And the 538 explores some of these issues from another angle: a science experiment in Key West open to public vote.