Smorgasbord: Advocacy, Accountability, and Singing Together

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This Tuesday I had the opportunity, thanks to a NY Educator Voice Policy Fellowship, to advocate for the desegregation of our schools in Albany. Many thanks to Assemblyman Michael Blake, Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator Jesse Hamilton, Senator Marty Golden, and Assemblywoman Yu-Line Niou and their staff for listening and for their time. And many thanks to America Achieves and the Educator Voice fellows who joined me in this advocacy: Arthur Everette, Ingrid Lafalaise, Darlene Cameron, Jodi Friedman, and John Heneghan. They were truly a great team. You can read more about them here.

On to our roundup of links and thinks on education and more:

de Blasio, supposed progressive champion, keeps hedging on school desegregation

“Could we create the perfect model for diversified schools across the school system? No,” de Blasio said. “Because you have whole districts in this city that are overwhelmingly of one demographic background. You would have to do a massive transfer of students and families in order to achieve it. It’s just not real.”

It blows my mind that someone who campaigned on progressivism and “a tale of two cities” can make blithe statements like this.

When we talk about desegregating schools, I don’t think any advocate is saying that every school should be some perfect mix representative of the entire city. That’s not geographically possible. What we are talking about is leveraging the many opportunities to promote diversity where they exist.

If our mayor can’t understand the nuance of that, which he and his chancellor have repeatedly demonstrated, then I have little hope that this mysterious “big vision plan” will do anything at a structural level to address the issue.

And by the way, mayor: no one expects you to wipe away 400 years of American history of discrimination and poor housing and schooling policy. But we do expect you to take leadership when you are in charge of one of the largest and most segregated school systems in our nation.

Mayor de Blasio: I can’t ‘wipe away 400 years of American history’ in diversifying schools, Chalkbeat NY

The relationship between property and segregation

Matthew Desmond has a powerful piece on the housing subsidies for the middle and upper class and it’s devastating effect on increasing inequality. This problem relates strongly to segregation in the northeast — starting with the GI Bill and extending to the selfish property value battles over public schools today.

How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality, NY Times

Meanwhile, white and wealthy districts are quietly splitting away to further segregate themselves

Behind the rhetoric of “local control,” what we see is more for some kids, and less for others. Guess who.

The Quiet Wave of School District Secessions, US News

School choice alone is not enough to diversify schools, nor provide quality options

If schools are going to become more diverse, than school choice must be coupled with admissions policies to cultivate diversity more intentionally. And all schools must be held to a higher standard to ensure quality.

The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools, NY Times

Emotional expressiveness is correlated with diversity

“In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another.”

Why Americans Smile So Much, The Atlantic

Insights from a researcher

On Head Start:

“The bottom-line question is whether Head Start helps kids in the long run, and the answer is yes.”

On accountability system design:

“I think that there is a lot of evidence, not just from our study but others, that we should be kind of small-c conservative in the design of these [accountability] systems. The more complicated you make it, the more incentives you create for strategic responses. I think really complicated systems and multiple targets and multiple ratings are kind of like technocratic exuberance. I think we really should scale back our ambitions with the accountability systems and focus on the most important challenges.”

On crime and social context:

“I think of school as the main social institution for kids at the age of peak criminality. When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising that the school context could have an important effect on crime.”

On school integration:

“I think [school integration is] about the non-academic outcomes: crime, civic participation, racial tolerance, all those things. If you look at the original justification for Brown v. Board of Education, it had nothing to do with achievement gaps.

It’s about, we want to bring society together, so that we can live together. Somewhere along the line, with the Coleman Report, we started to think about integration as a tool for closing achievement gaps. When actually to me, the first-order reason to integrate schools is so that we can all get along as a society and so that people can be more civically engaged and appreciate the perspectives of those who are different from them.”

Another way to say it is, we have other tools for closing achievement gaps. Like, we can do separate-but-equal if we want to — that’s what some of these no-excuses charter schools are: really good schools that are highly segregated. To me that’s an incomplete solution, because schools aren’t just factories for producing achievement — they’re social institutions, they’re democratic institutions.”

Word.

Harvard Researcher David Deming Takes the Long View on Head Start, Integration, the74

Let’s put our metrics on social relationships

“If relationships are a core component of opportunity, why not treat them as a 21st-century outcome unto themselves?

Alternatively, if our notion of an ideal graduate does not include a strong and diverse network, we’re likely to find ourselves routinely underinvesting in relationships.”

Really interesting point to consider here. As far as I know, absolutely no ESSA plans are considering social metrics for inclusion in accountability measures.

But I don’t know that accountability would be the right focus for these kinds of measures in any case, though I agree they should be measured. The author suggests utilizing name generator surveys, surveys of whether students know people in different professional fields, and relationship mapping between students and adults. This could be critical information for school staff to consider, alongside the kind of environmental survey information that is obtained from surveys like the NYC student/teacher/parent surveys and surveys like the Tripod survey or Panorama surveys.

If you think of a school as an ecosystem, mapping the social networks of students and adults and seeking to expand and diversify those networks makes a whole lot of sense.

For HS Grads, 21st-Century Thinking, Skills (and Robots) Can’t Replace Importance of Human Networks, the74

The only way to ensure there’s no lead in school water is to install new pipes

While we’re at it, might as well update the infrastructure and install air filters.

Replacing fixtures will get rid of lead in schools’ drinking water: expert, NY Post

Cormac McCarthy writes a science article, and it’s brilliant

What does it have to do with education? Well, his topic is language, and if you teach, then you should know something about linguistics. And his points about the relationship between problem-solving, the unconscious, and language bears some interest to educators as well.

Plus, it’s Cormac McCarthy.

“The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.”

The Kekulé Problem, Nautilus

Have kids first attempt to write a new word before showing them the correct spelling

Maybe a little tiny piece of initial “discovery learning” ain’t always a bad thing–when it comes to spelling and reading new words?

“To put this into practice, Ouellette recommends that teachers let students attempt to write words before showing them the correct spelling. “Instead of giving them a word list and telling them to memorize it, before a student has ever seen the word, you’d encourage them to spell it,” he said. “It’s a spelling-first approach.”

Invented Spelling Leads to Better Reading, Study Says, Ed Week

IEPs are the inspiration for personalized learning, apparently

“Our public education system essentially piloted personalized learning when it adopted the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students with disabilities. Perhaps ironically, special education is one of the few areas where policy and practice recognizes that kids are unique and that the one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. With personalized learning, we can take that idea to scale.”

It’s interesting to premise your advocacy for personalized learning on IEPs. Here’s a question: have IEPs demonstrated a significant impact on outcomes for students with disabilities?

IEPs are important to ensure that a student is guaranteed services and that they are given education commensurate with all other children. But unfortunately, they don’t necessarily equate with an improvement in outcomes.

Time for a New Conversation in Education, HuffPost

Though actually, personalized learning originated in the 1960s

It’s precursor was called “Individually Prescribed Instruction.”

The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning, Larry Cuban

Multiage classrooms are an interesting idea, but they may present a problem for building knowledge

In order to effectively build and reinforce essential knowledge and skills, a curriculum must be carefully sequenced and aligned across classrooms and grades, as we’ve explored here before.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a school in the Bronx, is profiled in this Atlantic article on the potential of multi-age classrooms. But their approach necessitates a non-sequential curriculum:

Sumner says this fits with his school’s commitment to inquiry-based education, which teaches students certain key skills instead of facts that they can “regurgitate” on command.

“We’re leaving a lot of things out—we acknowledge that,” he says, explaining that their approach prioritizes depth over breadth. Students do not cover American history from the beginning to the present day, he says, but instead “learn to think like a historian and to understand the social, economic, and political drivers of any situation, so they know what the right questions are to ask about any period in history.”

Seems to me like this runs counter to everything we know about effective retention of information and learning. I’m not opposed to the idea of multi-age classrooms — I think it makes sense not to make curriculum dependent on a grade — but approaching curriculum like this is a disservice to students most in need of support.

Inside a Multiage Classroom, The Atlantic

A special education teacher on the importance of accountability

“The accountability part is really key. I started teaching with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and that was really the first time where we required states to report on their testing scores for students with severe disabilities … As a classroom teacher and someone who is advocating for inclusion, that gives me a leg to stand on when I go talk to administrators about why kids need to be in academic, grade-level classes, that we didn’t have before. I think focusing on designing assessments that align to standards, and that are also accessible to students with severe disabilities, is really important to show that there’s growth happening.”

Teacher of the Year Finalist Megan Gross on Embracing Students With Severe Disabilities, the74

Maybe public education needs to be run more like Central Park

Meaning more public-private partnerships

How Central Park Could Fix Public Education, The Atlantic

Maybe we need to sing together more, folks

“It dawned on me not long ago that people don’t gather to sing together much anymore. And it might help if we did. People do go to hear other people sing quite a lot these days. But it might help us all to move our muscles, get out of our heads, breathe the air, and sing together so that we might feel human again.”

TO MAINTAIN HARMONIOUS COMMUNITIES, HAUL OUT THE HYMNALS, SHOW TUNES, OR ANTHEMS, The Daily Yonder

Smorgasbord: Albany, Policy, and Diversity

I went up to Albany on Tuesday with other America Achieves NY Policy Fellows and we spoke with assembly members and senators and were welcomed and introduced by Assemblymember Patricia Fahy on the assembly floor. If you’ve been wondering whether educators should really be involved in policy, I can’t think of a clearer example of the “win-win” when educators point to a clear problem and a clear solution, and they obtain bipartisan support now being written into state regulations.

Principal Elissa Smith (from upstate New York) and special education teacher Jennifer Chernis (from downstate) identified a significant problem in the field that policymakers were not aware of: certified teachers working as teacher assistants couldn’t maintain or advance their state teacher certification. Their solution? Just add the addendum they suggested to the regulations! This was such a clear fix and win for legislators and for educators that they swiftly earned support from both Republican and Democratic representatives and their proposed addendum is moving forward into law. This will benefit a significant number of teacher assistants across the entire state of NY.

This is what can happen when you empower and equip educators to bring policy solutions to problems in the field. If you’re a NY educator interested in being a part of this, you can apply here. Here’s the other viable policy problems and solutions proposed by fellows:

In other news:

There is clear evidence that integration works. NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/opinion/integration-works-can-it-survive-the-trump-era.html (Also review the evidence in my policy paper above.)

Yet the track record of Betsy Devos, the barely confirmed and heavily contested new Secretary of ED, does not bode well for efforts to increase diversity in schools. CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/05/opinions/devos-racism-public-school-opinion-wong

Furthermore, Devos’s inevitable focus on school choice will do little for rural schools—the very constituency that has swept Trump and his Republican cohort into office. USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/02/02/devos-rural-america-school-reform-column/97362016/

Diversity is increasing in rural areas, not only in cities. If California is any indicator, there will be negative bluster around this diversity, but an eventual swing back to acceptance. While there are clear difficulties around an increase in diversity in any community, there is also a clear opportunity for starting by increasing exposure to a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in our public schools. NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/upshot/strife-over-immigrants-can-california-foretell-nations-future.html

An important reminder that smart federal policy can have positive effects on education. The 74: https://www.the74million.org/article/marnie-kaplan-sometimes-government-is-the-solution-reauthorizing-head-start-10-years-later

And a reminder that education is important to long-term outcomes. “Educated people are generally healthier, have fewer comorbidities and live longer than people with less education.” BioRxiv: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/09/13/074815

Some high schools are breaking out of the traditional school setting. Ozy: http://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/how-high-schools-are-demolishing-the-classroom/74603#.WJhZMNKDhIc.twitter

Teenagers who vandalized a historic black schoolhouse were ordered by a judge to educate themselves by reading some real literature. If only they had already been reading these books in school. . . NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/us/black-school-racist-sexist-graffiti.html?smid=tw-share

One researcher claims that there is little validity to Bloom’s taxonomy, the ubiquitous source of ranking “higher-order” questions and tasks. “The only distinction that is supported by research is the distinction
between declarative/conceptual knowledge (which enables recall,
comprehension or understanding), and procedural knowledge (which enables
application or task performance).” I, for one, would be more than happy to see these waste-of-time ranking taxonomies go the way of the Dodo. Teachers’ time will be much better spent actually developing educational tasks and resources. https://eppicinc.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/sugrue_bloom_critique_perfxprs.pdf

And here’s fish singing “in the coastal waters off Port Headland in Western Australia.” New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2106331-fish-recorded-singing-dawn-chorus-on-reefs-just-like-birds/

 

 

Will Losing Friedrichs Result in Better Unions?

Facsimile of an IWW stickerette with artwork by Ralph Chaplin. March 1916

So, as you know, I’m pessimistic about the outlook of the pending Friedrich’s case (what probability would you assign to Friedrich winning the case? Vote here!) It’s not the outcome I want–but I’m afraid that it’s likely the outcome we will get. Meaning that teacher’s unions will lose a large source of funding and thus, power.

If you pay any attention to the history of US public education, or of labor in general, then you most likely have some understanding of why unions matter. Unfortunately, however, there are a newer generation of workers and teachers who may not see this.

Increasing disengagement presents a large problem for unions, especially as our economy and workforce undergoes increasingly volatile shifts. And let’s be honest–most unions haven’t demonstrated the greatest sense of urgency in trying to adapt to changing conditions. My local union, the UFT, for example, has more than half of its voting during elections come from retirees. And the union leadership seems to think that simply asking teachers to promote or comment on policies and proposals they’ve already created is somehow democratically elevating teacher voice.

Speaking personally, I rarely engage with my union because I’ve found other avenues to have my skills and voice applied in ways that can further my profession. But I at least understand the need for professional solidarity when it comes to collective bargaining for decent wages and working conditions. Without solidarity and collective bargaining, individual workers have little sway in gaining concessions from either governments (such as the mayor or superintendent) nor private interests. I am therefore supportive of my union, at the very least, for providing a necessary counterbalance to government and private financial interests.*

But maybe losing the Friedrichs case might prove to be the tough medicine that will force unions to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of our times, like Peter Cunningham suggests.

Or perhaps there may come a day of reckoning, when the future labor force has been Uberized completely, and all jobs made temporary and contracted-by-the-hour, that a few teachers will awaken to discover their previous rights have been sundered, that they are working (even more) inhumane hours, in inhumane conditions, with few protections. And they may then gather together to hold a discussion about how they might leverage their collective power to gain concessions from those who hold the cards. And they thus may relearn the meaning behind the word “solidarity.”

We will see. In the meantime, if my state, NY, the birthplace of collective bargaining and Al Shanker, becomes a “right-to-work” state, I will choose to continue to give my “agency fees” to my union.

 

*It seems to me like both unions and government have increasingly ceded power to private interests. But to be clear, I’m not anti-privatization. I believe in public-private partnerships.

How Would You Revise the Common Core Standards?

Chalkboard

NY State will conduct a formal review of the Common Core State Standards. I welcome the opportunity for a review. In my opinion, the more people talk about what should be taught in classrooms, the better.

Too often, we discuss education as an abstraction, polarizing around political issues largely irrelevant to kids and teachers at the ground level. What most impacts us on a daily basis is what is taught, and how. So while I would prefer we discussed the curriculum and content itself, talking about standards is at least a step closer to the heart of the matter.

As you may know, I’m a proponent of the Common Core Standards. I’ve advocated for them publicly, and I work with the standards in my daily practice.*

I advocate for the standards because I believe strongly in the need for shared, rigorous, and coherent standards. But that doesn’t mean I believe the standards, as written, are perfect.

If I Could Revise the Standards

Here’s what I would suggest as major points for revision of the ELA standards:

  • Provide more explicit guidance within the literary standards for the study of poetry. (See Sandra Stotsky’s Curriculum Framework for a good model.)
  • Overhaul the writing standards to include literary analysis as a genre of writing.  Merge argumentative and informative/explanatory writing, as the distinction between those two is unclear and it’s of questionable value to distinguish them. Consider broadening the scope of narrative writing to that of creative writing, to include poetry.
  • Clarify the meaning of the idea that literacy extends across all content areas, while reducing the stress on the oft misunderstood recommended percentages between informational and literary text. It should be less about pushing informational texts into ELA, and more about pushing the teaching literacy across science, social studies, and other content areas.

Others have also been saying that the Kindergarten standards need much revision. This is an area I’m less knowledgeable about, but I assume there’s some tweaking that should be done there, as well.

What aspects of the Common Core standards would you revise?

*I work (or have worked) with the standards in some of the following ways:

  1. my daily work as a special education ELA teacher, using them to develop and align my school’s curriculum and assessments, as well as to develop IEP goals (I began analyzing them more closely to break down the relevant knowledge, skills, and products for grades 6-8 to guide this work)
  2. my work with NYCDOE as a Common Core Fellow to assess teacher team submitted performance assessment tasks
  3. my work with LearnZillion to develop online videos, lessons, and resources aligned to the Common Core

VAM and School Ecosystems

Wiring diagram for “Wilson’s Central Pattern Generator” By Thomas.haslwanter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
An excellent essay published in March’s Educational Researcher (1) by Susan Moore Johnson (2) brings the lens of complex systems to bear on the controversial issue of VAM.

Johnson takes to task the hasty moves of policymakers to bring VAM to the forefront of teacher evaluation. She focuses specifically on the problematic assertion by proponents that VAM is an effective measure to isolate and measure individual teachers. Johnson brings what she terms an “organizational perspective” to the issue—in other words, she considers how VAM might play out from the perspective of a school as an ecosystem, rather than as a set of individual, isolated teachers.

Johnson’s perspective is unique in that she explicitly acknowledges the impact of social networks on teacher and student performance. She refers to a 1988 James Coleman analysis, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” which suggests that:

. . . whatever human capital schools acquire through hiring can subsequently be developed by interactions among teachers, principals, and others within the organization through activities within subunits such as grade-level or subject-based teams of teachers, faculty committees, professional development, coaching, evaluation, and informal interactions. In the process, the school organization becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and in this way, the social capital that transforms human capital through collegial activities in schools increases the school’s overall instructional capacity and, arguably, its success.

It probably goes without saying that the recognition of a school organization as “greater than the sum of its parts” is something we’re pretty adamant about here on Schools & Ecosystems.

Johnson asserts that the traditional structure of a school as an “egg crate,” in which teachers are isolated from one another, is a problematic model:

Compartmentalized school structures limit the potential development of individual teachers, who lack direct access to their colleagues’ expertise. However, social capital theory would suggest that if provided systematic opportunities to engage with their peers outside their classroom, the human capital of individuals—in this case, their instructional effectiveness—could be shared and augmented. Given this line of argument, the more robust the teachers’ instructional repertoire and the more opportunities they have to exchange and integrate promising ideas and techniques into their own teaching, the more likely it will be that all students—not only those assigned to the more effective teachers—will experience the benefits of expert teaching. This analysis suggests that teachers are not inherently effective or ineffective but that their development may be stunted when they work alone, without the benefit of ongoing collegial influence.

I’ve personally worked as a teacher in two very different kinds of school environments: one in which I was mostly isolated from my peers (due to divisive internal politics and management), to one in which I meet daily with colleagues to discuss student work and instructional practices. And I can attest to the significant impact that a collaborative and positive organizational environment has had upon my professional development.

Johnson would phrase my experience as an example of “how social capital augments human capital.” She points to the influence of context and peer learning as a factor in professional development:

. . . changing the context in which teachers work could have important benefits for students throughout the school, whereas changing individual teachers without changing the context might not (Lohr, 2012). Given that possibility, it is worth learning more about the components of a teacher’s workplace that promote greater satisfaction and more interdependent work.

. . . both theory and empirical evidence suggest that students and their schools stand to benefit when teachers work closely and collaboratively with colleagues.

Johnson also explores the “unintended consequences” of relying on VAM to evaluate individual teachers, a warning that we’ve echoed here in response to Gov. Cuomo’s misguided push for greater weight on student test scores, and which also echoes similar issues that Dana Goldstein has pointed to in her historical exploration of teacher evaluation.

 

She concludes that “that expanding the use of VAMS in teacher evaluations (even if it represents no more than 30% of the teacher’s total score) might compromise the school’s potential for improvement.”

Johnson therefore suggests that “reformers should lead the way with efforts to improve the school throughout as an organization that supports effective teaching and rich learning.”  She suggests including teachers in the hiring and professional development process in their schools, as well as in recognizing and sharing instructional practices from teacher leaders, such as Peer Assisted Review (PAR) programs.

This is the kind of thinking that I wish we heard more of in education reform circles—not hasty, breathless championing of the latest panacea, but instead reflective approaches that consider schools as whole organizations, complex adaptive systems ripe with social interactions and relationships.

1 Educational Researcher, Vol. 44 No. 2, pp. 117–126 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X15573351 © 2015 AERA. http://er.aera.net

2 I was alerted to Susan Moore Johnson’s essay by a link to a Marshall Memo from an April 9th USDOE Teacher’s Edition newsletter.

The Deficit of Wisdom On the Common Core

Counterclaim

I’ve publicly made the case for Common Core standards on a number of forums (The Core Knowledge Blog, Chalkbeat, VIVA Teachers, & Impatient Optimists). I view the standards as an opportunity to align better practices and stronger content, though how the standards ultimately play out is dependent on how we elect to interpret and implement them. Unfortunately, most leaders are opting to play political theater, and too many teachers and parents use the standards as a proxy for problematic state policies or district decision-making.

I’ve since ceased writing about the standards, mainly because I’m too darn busy planning curriculum and developing IEPs (using the Common Core standards as a guide)—but furthermore because the constant barrage of feigned outrage at the standards has caused me to tune out.

But this morning while on the way to work, I read this piece, “The Wisdom Deficit” by Michael Godsey on The Atlantic that seriously got to me, to the point that I feel compelled to write a rebuttal. Here’s why this piece upsets me:

  • It’s written by an experienced ELA teacher who has his heart in the right place: he cares deeply about engaging his students in the wisdom gleaned through the study of classic literature.
  • It points to real problems in how the Common Core are being misinterpreted at the ground level.

After framing the “so-called ‘College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards’ in a dismissively perfunctory manner, rather than analyzing the standards themselves further for evidence of the problems he outlines, he instead points to an “adjunct faculty member in Secondary Education at San Francisco State University” as an appointed spokesperson for the Common Core:

Kate Kinsella, an influential author who consults school districts across the country and is considered “a guiding force on the National Advisory Board for the Consortium on Reading Excellence,” recently told me to “ditch literature” since “literary fiction is not critical to college success.” Kinsella continued, “What’s represented by the standards is the need to analyze texts rather than respond to literature.

As a teacher working within this regimented environment, my classroom objectives have had to shift.

Wait a second. I’ve never heard of Kinsella. She may be influential in California, perhaps, though even that’s questionable given the size and political dynamics of my mother state.  Her “advice” is ill founded, nor supported by a closer examination of the standards themselves. I’ve addressed this before in my post on The Core Knowledge Blog in 2013:

Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).

They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).

Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.

Another thing that really gets me, though: what in the world does Kinsella have to do with “this regimented environment” that Godsey refers to, and why in the world has his “classroom objectives … had to shift”? There’s something seriously wrong in Cali if this kind of misunderstanding is translating into such perceptions of edicts from on high.

Godsey then goes on to suggest that this shift is tantamount to a loss of values (“I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values”), and that as a result, he no longer is able to teach wisdom:

When I recently shared a poem that included the phrase, “Let there be light,” hardly any of my students, who are high-school juniors, could identify the allusion. As a staunch believer in the separation of church and state, I don’t feel comfortable delving into the Bible’s wisdom.

Here’s the irony: the Common Core actually makes it fairly clear that students will require knowledge of the Bible in order to determine allusions made to it. Here’s Reading Literature Standard 9, Grade 9-10:

“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).” 

Arguably, therefore, Godsey is not heeding the advice of the standards because he is not “comfortable” teaching his students to understand that allusion.

He later states that “there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature.” Yes, there is. Yet though the Common Core only explicitly references Shakespeare and Ovid in the standards themselves, the standards have made a push for “authentic” and “complex” texts, a dramatic shift from what had been generally prevalent in schools driven by a “test prep” or “leveled book” mentality, in which bland passages were provided to students based on their independent reading levels.

The Common Core standards are not to blame for our nation’s problem with classic literature. Can you imagine if the standards had in any way attempted to dictate what type of texts students needed to read? Yeah. And even as carefully crafted as the standards have been to be politically neutral, they have become so volatile that they are said to threaten Jeb Bush’s candidancy for president (which I think is preposterous—if he sticks to his guns he can reach independents and center-left liberals willing to cross over, but whatever).

Godsey then delivers what I consider the most disturbing part of his piece:

I remember when, 10 years ago, my students spent an hour sharing their favorite lines from Father Zossima’s sermon in The Brothers Karamozov and how and why it affected their own lives. One student was visibly moved by the idea that suffering for a loved one might be a blessing available only in a life on Earth, not in heaven. A few different students called it “their favorite class ever.” This morning, my student-teacher—a college student I’m training to be a classroom educator—used a hip-hop poem as a primary text and started the class by saying, “Today we’re going to practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” in reference to the anchor standards that the students had on their desks. If this sounds a little dry, I’m partly to blame—for a month, he’s been watching me ask the students to explicitly reflect on their progress in each of these technical areas. In any case, with habits like these, he’s sure to land a permanent job in the fall.

Who decided to ask students to “practice Reading Standards 1, 2, and particularly 4” and provided the “anchor standards that the students had on their desks”? Big brother?

At least Godsey acknowledges some of his culpability (“I’m partly to blame”), but he attempts to redirect it towards blame of some obscure “culture” that he just can’t seem to resist paying heed to.

Being transparent with our students about goals and how they are getting evaluated is fundamental, yet asking them to parrot anchor standards strikes me as a colossal waste of instructional time. It’s up to us—the educators—to interpret and apply the standards in our classrooms in a manner that aligns with our knowledge and expertise and with the intent of the standards themselves.

The Common Core are not responsible for poor instructional decisions nor for poor educational consultants nor for poor administrators. The Common Core are an opportunity for educators to fight for better curriculum for all of our children. Let’s stop blaming the standards, and start using them to better teach the values and wisdom and literature so fundamental to our commonweal.

Why Democracy Solves Social Problems Better Than Markets or Hierarchies

The other day I discovered a fascinating essay entitled Cognitive Democracy on the Three-Toed Sloth, thanks to a link on Twitter from The Browser*. Co-written by Henry Farrell and Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (love that name!), it’s a thought provoking examination of the “macro-institutions” of markets, hierarchies, and democracies. As I read through it over Memorial Day weekend, it struck some nerves in me that resonated with related thoughts I’ve pursued here on Schools as Ecosystems and elsewere as I’ve begun branching out in my philosophy regarding education reform.

One thing I’ve struggled with as I mature in my ed reform perspectives hinges on a basic question: what sort of governance structures and decision-making processes are most conducive to the creation of positive and supportive school environments?

I am much enamoured with the need for transparency and “open source” development processes, especially in curriculum development, as I’ve articulated on GothamSchools. I have also written on Education Gadfly about the need for more dialogue and collaboration across all levels of those involved in public education. Central to these ideas is not only the necessity for dialogue, but more fundamentally for a diversity of perspectives to be included within that dialogue, which Will and I have argued for on this blog.

Henry and Cosma hit on some of these points. Ultimately, they argue for the supremacy of democracy over markets and hierarchies as a macro-institution for tackling complex social problems. It’s truly an interesting argument, and well worth spending the length of time it will take you to comb through it. In fact, once you’ve read it, I’d recommend heading over to Crooked Timber, where it is cross-posted, in order to check out some of the thoughtful commentary and dialogue that is ongoing there. Henry Farrell takes the time to consider and respond to the feedback.

But let me highlight a few of the passages in the beginning that outlines their perspective that resonated with me:

What are broad macro-institutions such as politics, markets and hierarchies good for? Different theorists have given very different answers to this question. The dominant tradition in political theory tends to evaluate them in terms of justice — whether institutions use procedures, or give results, that can be seen as just according to some reasonable normative criterion. Others, perhaps more cynically, have focused on their potential contribution to stability — whether they produce an acceptable level of social order, which minimizes violence and provides some modicum of predictability. In this essay, we analyze these institutions according to a different criterion. We start with a pragmatist question – whether these institutions are useful in helping us to solve difficult social problems

Some of the problems that we face in politics are simple ones (not in the sense that solutions are easy, but in the sense that they are simple to analyze). However, the most vexing problems are usually ones without any very obvious solutions. How do we change legal rules and social norms in order to mitigate the problems of global warming? How do we regulate financial markets so as to minimize the risk of new crises emerging, and limit the harm of those that happen? How do we best encourage the spread of human rights internationally? 

These problems are pressing — yet they are difficult to think about systematically, let alone solve. They all share two important features. First, they are all social problems. That is, they are problems which involve the interaction of large numbers of human beings, with different interests, desires, needs and perspectives. Second, as a result, they are complex problems, in the sense that scholars of complexity understand the term. To borrow Scott Page’s (2011, p. 25) definition, they involve “diverse entities that interact in a network or contact structure.” They are a result of behavior that is difficult to predict, so that consequences to changing behavior are extremely hard to map out in advance. Finding solutions is difficult, and even when we find one, it is hard to know whether it is good in comparison to other possible solutions, let alone the best. [Bold added]

Here are some direct parallels to the issues with schools that Will and I have been outlining on this blog. We have argued that schools, as Dewey stated, are primarily social institutions, and as such, they are highly complex, dynamic and dense with relationships and interdependencies.

We argue that macro-institutions will best be able to tackle these problems if they have two features. First, they should foster a high degree of direct communication between individuals with diverse viewpoints. This kind of intellectual diversity is crucial to identifying good solutions to complex problems. Second, we argue that they should provide relative equality among affected actors in decision-making processes, so as to prevent socially or politically powerful groups from blocking socially beneficial changes to the detriment of their own particular interests.

On the micro-level of school systems and schools themselves, these two features continue to bear saliency. Our schools and school systems are fundamentally hierarchies, linked up in a chain of command from the principal all the way up to the state governor and the federal government. Yet as many observers and advocates have been pressing on, these hierarchical structures often fail our students most in need, and the working conditions for teachers can be dehumanizing. The solution? For many new education reform advocates, markets seem to be the holy grail. But there are dangers in markets in solving complex social problems, as Henry and Cosma point out here:

On the one hand, free market participation provides individuals with some ability (presuming equal market access, etc.) to break away from abusive relationships. On the other, markets provide greater voice and choice to those with more money; if money talks in politics, it shouts across the agora. Nor are these effects limited to the marketplace. The market facilitates and fosters asymmetries of wealth which in turn may be directly or indirectly translated into asymmetries of political influence (Lindblom). Untrammeled markets are associated with gross income inequalities, which in turn infects politics with a variety of pathologies. This suggests that markets fail in the broader task of exposing individuals’ differing perspectives to each to each other. Furthermore, markets are at best indifferent levelers of unequal power relations.

Their advice?

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies. Notably, we do not make heroic claims about people’s ability to deliberate in some context that is free from faction and self-interest. Instead, even under realistic accounts of how people argue, democratic argument will have cognitive benefits, and indeed can transform private vices (confirmation bias) into public virtues (the preservation of cognitive diversity)6. Democratic structures – such as political parties – that are often deplored turn out to have important cognitive advantages.

In a sense, they are advancing an argument that the way much of public education currently stands in the media is in fact an advantage. We have a significant and growing amount of debate that is generated around education and education reform. As I’ve discussed before with Sara Mead, education reform should be messy. Democracy is a messy process. It would be so much cleaner, so much more efficient, if we had well-lubricated systems calibrated to deliver agreed upon knowledge and learning. But it’s important to keep the perspective on the bigger picture and acknowledge that we all benefit from deliberation and exposure to drastically different points of view.

However, anyone who works in a school or within the broader school system knows that at some point beyond deliberation, decisions must be made and acted upon, and that this process is far from democratic in application. A commentator, Jed Harris, points this out in a well-articulated comment on Crooked Timber:

Your argument doesn’t argue for democracy in any normal use of the word, but for social formations that don’t use power relations or exchange as primary constitutive elements.
Happily there are such formations and you give examples. Sometimes democracy (in the normal sense of the term) facilitates them, sometimes it is a captive of power relations and/or exchange relations and facilitates those much more.

Henry responds to Jed with this comment:

More generally – and this is a substantial weakness of our argument at the moment – we are all about democracy as a process of discovery, but have very little to say about it as a process of decision making. This needs to be beefed up, and will (probably not in this piece itself, but in its offspring).

So the key takeaway for me was that democracy is fundamental as a macro-institutional process of discovery and communication, but in terms of decision making and ground level implementation, other governance structures may be necessary. For example, in open source models of governance, benevolent dictatorships and meritocracies tend to be the typical form of ultimate decision making. One of the important facets of open source, however, is that if disagreements within the community are large enough, the original source code can be forked and developed in whichever way the new community members so choose.

What application do these insights hold for public education? I think this topic bears substantial relevance to the concept of unions, collective bargaining and the importance of bringing diverse perspectives to the table. I think it furthermore points to the utilization of technology to connect teachers directly to policymakers and include their voice and perspectives in the dialogue.

* [I’m the type who generally scavenges anything he can for free, but The Browser is one of the few online services I’m considering investing in a membership in — though I’m holding off until summer, as I already waste too much time trying to keep up with online media as it is.]

Let’s Get Tangled Up In Meaningful Reform

Sara Mead was a good sport and responded thoughtfully to my last blog post on how education reform should be messy.

Mark Anderson has some interesting thoughts here about the role of teacher voice in sustainable education reform. One of Mark’s comments is that people need to get more engaged in “messy issues” of education reform. And I don’t disagree with that; messy issues are messy in part because they have a lot of important stuff tangled up int hem. But you can’t engage a tangled, messy issue all at once, whether it’s at a policy level, at a school or classroom level, or something as personal and mundane as cleaning your house. You have to break it down into targets that you can change and leverage little victories on some of those targets into eventual bigger ones.
Mark’s also surely correct that ed reformers shouldn’t think we can “somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.” But I’d challenge both the extent to which education reformers actually think that or some of the implications Mark draws from it. Policy types need to have real humility about what policy can and cannot do. To my mind, a big part of what policy reform needs to do is NOT try itself to change the culture inside of schools, but to eliminate obstacles and put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders to do the real hard work Mark is talking about here (with accountability–and I mean that broadly, not in the specific terms it often takes in the current debate–as the natural and enabling counterpart to that). [Bold added]

I think there’s plenty I can agree with here (especially on the need for real humility–from all involved), but the devil is in the details. For example, when Mead states that you have to break up the messy issues into targets, the question that really matters here is “what targets?” The targets that policymakers have been mostly pursuing are not the targets that I believe will “put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders” to do the real work of education reform. On the contrary, as Will and I have been saying, these targets have in fact traditionally been a hindrance to our work as educators. And a large part of the reason for that disconnect is that teachers have not been directly involved in the process of policymaking.

So there’s an obvious bridge that needs to be built here, and fortunately there seems to be a growing recognition that teacher voice needs to be meaningfully integrated into higher level decision-making processes. But progress along that front is slow, and meanwhile, educators and students are suffocating in the strictures of ill-considered, disassociated policies.

Will and I are forwarding the perspective of schools as ecosystems because we believe this model provides a focus on the targets that will have the greatest impact: the contexts and the content that schools create and deliver. But policymakers have been focusing on targets that will have little meaningful impact beyond political shell games, targets such as the accountability that Mead refers to above. Accountability is the natural offspring of professional environments and cultures, not the precursor. Instead of focusing on the hiring and firing of teachers, we should focus on curriculum. We should focus on scheduled and paid planning time. Focus on the pre-service and in-service training and support that principals and teachers receive. Focus on whether there is enough access to healthy spaces for students to play in and designated time for such. Focus on what students are being fed. Focus on the support and training parents have to raise their children. These are the things that will raise student achievement and enable equity.

Over the months that come, Will and I plan to demonstrate that our model is relevant and meaningful to both policymakers and educators. We hope that we can help policymakers and other stakeholders to see that it is the messy targets that are hardest to touch from a distance that are the most meaningful to pursue — and that the best way to pursue them is from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Education Reform Should Be Messy

Over on EdWeek, Sara Mead posted a thoughtful piece reflecting on a quote from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and how it may apply to education reform. She writes that we need to focus on targets we know we can shift.

The United States has a shamefully high child poverty rate, and poverty and associated ills certainly impact children’s educational outcomes and make educators’ jobs harder. But once we start to focus on poverty it’s easy to get tangled up in a web of interconnected and deeply challenging issues that are very hard to address–including some we don’t fully understand or know how to address, and others where political and fiscal realities put bold action out of reach. So people who want to improve outcomes for low-income American kids today need to heed Alinsky’s advice and pick targets where we have the power to start.

Public schools, their policies, and effectiveness are a more promising target than the family, deep rooted neighborhood dysfunction, or “poverty” writ large. [Bold added]

From a tactical standpoint, Mead’s point makes sense. But I also think this perspective highlights a fundamental issue with education reform at the moment. It’s this idea that we can somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.

We require a fundamental shift in our philosophy and approach to public education reform from the mentality of a “black box,” hands-off, top down approach that manipulates short-term external mechanisms to that of a problem-solving, sustainable perspective grounded in the grit of everyday classroom practice. Teacher voice must be directly involved in the process of policy-making, curriculum design, resource allocations, and other systemic facets that tie directly into the reality of everyday classroom experience.

What I do agree with is that schools possess the capability to provide equity for the disadvantaged, and that there is great potential to improve the quality of our public schools. So in light of that, I would advise all those who are passionate about public education to get your hands dirty in the soil that lies at the root of education. Learn from TFA’s NY Executive Jeff Li, who recently stepped down from his position to return to the classroom. Step foot into the classrooms, step foot into the schools, step foot into the communities that are struggling with poverty.

Instead of picking neat and easy targets, we should get tangled up in the “web of interconnected and deeply challenging issues that are very hard to address.”

Working inside schools and communities is the real work of education reform.