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(Almost) Time for Our Summer Break

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Dear Deborah,

Time for our summer break. We'll be back again blogging and thinking out loud when school opens at the end of August. When I was in school, it always started after Labor Day, and I have never understood why schools open in August, especially when so many lack air-conditioning.

So, I leave you with absolutely nothing to think about. Rest, relax, read some good books. If you want to read some page-turners, pick up some novels by Harlan Coben. He is a terrific writer who really knows how to hook the reader. But don't start reading them at night, or you might be up all night!

Oh, one thing to think about: Edison Schools is not closing down. It will become EdisonLearning, will continue to operate schools, and will open cyber-charter schools in the near future. Edison is betting that bricks-and-mortar schools are a thing of the past, and that new technologies will offer new possibilities for mass education.

I am planning to read Daniel Koretz's book, "Measuring Up." I have a shelf full of other books about charter schools, accountability, and other topics of interest to me. I have started work on a new book about the current era of school reform, and I am very excited about it. In fact, I have already finished four chapters! This morning, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. knowing exactly how to rewrite the beginning of the chapter. Nothing quite as exciting as getting a new book started and knowing that it is heading in the right direction.

Have an enjoyable August. We'll be online again in a few weeks. Readers, don't forget us!

Diane

Editor's note: Deborah Meier's reply will appear this Thursday, July 31, and then Bridges Differences will take a brief summer publishing hiatus.

16 Comments

Diane, I hope you rest, not write, but I don't truly believe!!

When you do write, I beg you to remember the kids of the 1000-1700 failing schools. Your writings of late have tended to defend the status quo, and the reactionary, obstinate position of the heads of the NEA, etc. These organizations do not exist to serve children, as the Education Equality Project reminds us.

And I hope that you recall that teaching is hardly the first organization to suffer a quality crisis, and have to muddle to a solution. I was an early software engineering project manager when we started to look at metrics as a way out of the mire. Lines of code per day was one metric! Imagine--it was nearly as bad as being a newspaper columnist!

You wrote at common core of the tediousness of the tests, and I answered back that the test makers mearly echoed the values of much of academia. No shock there, though those values indeed have no place in the K12 classroom. They're there, of course, but they ought to be exorcised.

I'm just giddy that the tests have served up to the public the reality many of us have long known--that the educational establishment's values and measures are not equivalent to learning to write well and think clearly.

Since I've been doing Open History Project.org--and fighting the battle--for eight years; and Common Core is now nearly half a year old; its good to see them come to the party. We need voices pushing things forward.
Flogging the tests, however, is not the answer. Writing and writing about the problems is not the answer, either.

Funding solutions; bringing more creative people, giving them freedom and opportunity, ratcheting up their resources and standards--those will bring solutions.

I can help.

Ed,

You write: "Funding solutions; bringing more creative people, giving them freedom and opportunity, ratcheting up their resources and standards--those will bring solutions."

That sounds like an entrepreneurial model to me. It reminds me of when I was working in San Francisco in the dot-com era.

It was an exciting time for a bright young person new in town. You could get a job with no experience. Investors were pumping millions into new companies, and longstanding companies were growing, too. Twenty-somethings who started dot-com enterprises in their kitchens started going public, selling their companies, or moving their offices downtown. Everything seemed possible, as long as it had to do with the internet.

I was working for a publishing company that put out legal software. The software division was doing quite well, and our staff was upbeat and eager to learn. (Note: only a few saw this as a career.) But the story on other floors was not so great.

Every once in a while there would be a big layoff. People who had worked twenty-five years for the company were told to pack up their things and leave within an hour. I remember one man who had worked there for 25 years, who was let go, without benefits, a month before he was due to retire.

For a while, that only seemed to be happening to the people in the less lucrative "print" divisions. Then, after the dot-com bubble burst, it happened everywhere. Companies folded or halved their staff. Later in my San Francisco years, I was working for one of the top web software companies. One afternoon, after a celebration of a product release, when I saw a co-worker crying. She had been primarily responsible for the product, and had been praised for her efforts at the party. Then, immediately afterward, celebration, she was called into an office and told that her job was over. They gave her boxes for packing up. She had been there for a few years.

How does this relate to the Bloomberg/Klein reforms? I see a similar pattern of reckless investment: reforms pursued before their worth has been determined; schools opening and closing; new teachers coming and going; and an attitude that this is somehow good because it represents "change," and that those who question it represent the "status quo."

I agree with William C. Bagley, who wrote, "As in biological evolution, the chances that a variation will mean real improvement become smaller the more extreme is the change." Yes, there are times when substantial change is warranted. But all these new schools, aggressively marketed fads (such as "brain-based learning"), inexperienced teachers, and principals who have never taught? Such reckless "reform" invites disaster at worst, confusion at best. And for all its claims to reform, the EEP statement does not once mention curriculum.

Diana Senechal

Sorry for the errors. Part of the sixth paragraph should have read:

"One afternoon, after a celebration of a product release, I saw a co-worker crying. She had been primarily responsible for the product and was praised at the party for her efforts. Then, immediately afterward, she was called into an office and told that her job was over."

Diana, Yes, entrepreneurial, but I won't extend the analysis to Klein here--I was referring to assessment and quality control, two topics much on Diane's mind, and likely soon in her book writing.

Perhaps you have read What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy? Somewhere, there is a middle ground--software that is neither a rote feed, nor an infinitely open blog or such tool; software that helps with mastery of content, and observes that the student has done his learning work.

We could get to that point, and it needn't be done by throwing huge amounts of money in really big chunks.

But we need educators and edu-wonks to stop complaining about this early stage of the quality control journey, and start envisioning the road forward.

Diana, on EPP and curriculum,...

I think the statement does address curriculum and content. What it says is, let us move forward in the footsteps of other world class knowledge workers. Let us look at the relationships among the people in our systems, the rules by which they learn and grow and improve, and communicate and get rewarded, and see if we cannot take something from the way other highly respected, knowledge intensive, professionals work and relate in their fields.

When we do that, many other issues will be made easier.

Now, Klein and Sharpton are specifically tackling the problems which come with very large urban districts, with access to labor lawyers we'd never dream of here, and contracts that are unimaginable in many suburban districts, and a host of other problems.

Yet, as a knowledge engineering professional, looking across the scope of the content mastery problem, (and having spent more than my share of time trying to figure out how to eek some R&D funds from the grand national ed system), I find much in common with the civil rights proponents of EPP.

The system is not designed with the student in mind; not at the urban school level, not at the NEA, and not when I look for R&D openings or seed funds.

Ed,

Thank you for clarifying your points. When it comes to software, I have not yet read the book you mention, but have no trouble believing in the existence of "software that helps with mastery of content, and observes that the student has done his learning work."

It should not replace books, though. One of my main complaints about Klein et al. is that they have de-emphasized literature and grammar in their efforts to motivate students to read. This is counterintuitive to me; excellent literature is precisely what many students crave. And they enjoy grammar, too!

Not only do students enjoy these things, but they gain from them in all sorts of ways: they develop a keen sense of language and nuance, build a base of cultural knowledge, gain insight into their own lives, understand the influence of one work on another, appreciate literary urgency and play, set higher standards for their own writing, and much more. I see no reason why we couldn't combine a strong curriculum with projects, technology, and so forth. Why is there a perceived dichotomy between subject matter and innovation? EEP stops short of saying: let us offer an excellent curriculum. Why?

As for EEP, are we reading the same version? I don't see anything about learning from "world class knowledge workers," nor do I see anything that could be taken that way. The version I read is here:

http://www.educationequalityproject.org/principles/

And what is a "knowledge worker"?

Diana Senechal

One way to get a quick take on what a school values is to jot down everything you hear compliments on for ... say a two-week period. Don't make this complicated. Just create a running record with two columns, one for compliments you receive and one for compliments you overhear or give to others. Themes will emerge. I like to do this the first two full weeks of school that I have students. I ask my students to do it, too.
My thinking is this:
Positive reinforcement is very, very powerful. To what extent and how is it being used within a school? In my experience, the results are always an eye opener.
And thank you, Diana, for emphasizing the teaching of grammar and literature. In my opinion, by keeping our focus on quality curriculum, student engagement and student learning will follow. What I often see happening is the reverse: A focus on entertainment and hands-on learning, with hodge-podge and superficial curricular goals. Contrary to current ideology, I find my students tend to do well with challenging texts taught in whole groups. In my anecdotal experience, I find the more "differentiated" the curriculum, the more fragmented the instruction. Obviously, fragmented instruction is not conducive to content mastery.

Kim,

"I find my students tend to do well with challenging texts taught in whole groups. In my anecdotal experience, I find the more "differentiated" the curriculum, the more fragmented the instruction. Obviously, fragmented instruction is not conducive to content mastery."

Whole group instruction is perhaps the main problem in our schools today. It is teacher centered as opposed to student-centered. NOT GOOD. It sends the wrong message to the public, especially parents, that the civil service mentality of teachers can be condoned/rationalized because of inertia. After all, this is the way schools have been run for years and what was good for my parents and grandparents is good enough for my kids.

Oh contraire. Individualized or customized instruction makes the most sense for kids. Kids who pick up skills or concepts right away can move ahead at a faster pace. Kids who need more time to learn have it. No one is bored and no one is overwhelmed. They’re all progressing at their own rate. Of course this takes a great deal of organization on the part of the teacher but aren't teachers supposed to be there to meet the needs of the kids? Or is teaching an employment agency for adults and the kids' needs be damned?

I tend to lean toward the former. I individualized instruction for my students for 33 years and can tell you it works, and is much, much better than whole group instruction for all in the class.

Fragmented? That’s true only if the teacher is not invested in the process and is unorganized.

Which method is easier for the teacher? It's obviously whole group instruction. Which method works best for kids? That's a rhetorical.

Paul,

We have had this discussion before (and I realize you were addressing Kim), but let me recap from before: you seem to have worked out an excellent method of differentiated instruction. I commend you for that. Yet there is a loss involved. Students working at their own pace cannot discuss a text together, with guidance of the teacher, as they can in whole-class instruction.

Whole-class instruction is not for the lazy. It may be the best type of instruction for certain kinds of material. It is difficult for students to understand literary nuances on their own. With teacher-led discussion, they can find themselves understanding the text in new ways and puzzling over lingering questions.

Like anything, it can be abused. Differentiated instruction can be abused. And without good books and discussion, it can be stultifying. But at its best, it allows for close reading of challenging literature. It allows for lively debate. It allows students to take their ideas a step farther than they might have otherwise.

There is also much to be said for reading aloud, in class (teacher to class, and students to class). It gives students a chance to work towards fluency, and it helps their listening. Also, when you hear the literature out loud, you understand it in new ways.

Sometimes this can be combined with groupwork. Several times, when we were reading a play, such as Antigone or Romeo and Juliet, I'd have the class read a scene together. Then I would break them into groups to stage the scene, or I would have them act it out in their own words.

It is not an either-or proposition. Whole-class instruction does not have to exclude other methods. Nor should it be abandoned. It is not "the main problem in our schools today" or even close. One of the main problems is the craving for a culprit and a solution. We throw out good things just because they don't solve all problems. This makes no sense.

Diana Senechal

Paul,
Your points are well taken, and I commend you for your ability to successfully differentiate instruction.

Diana,

Sorry if I misled you on my model of individualized (not differentiated) instruction. My best guess is 70%-80% of the day was spent individualizing, the other 25% or so was in whole group. In the same breath, I would contend there's more to school than a whole group literary discussion about a teacher selected or curriculum mandated book or piece.

I would respectfully have to adhere to my original contention, though - whole group instruction is a MAJOR flaw in our profession. Interestingly enough, I’ve discovered most of the opposition to this pedagogy emanates from secondary teachers. Not sure why but many get extremely defensive attempting to rationalize the whole group methodology. Also know from experience that many secondary youngsters would benefit tremendously from individualized instruction. Many kids are quick enough to get through algebra I in two to three months while others might need a year and a half to two years to master what’s needed to progress to algebra II or geometry. The same can be said for any foreign language, chemistry, physics, history, and many English offerings (especially writing).

I am honestly not attempting to create any culprits for the problems in our schools today. I genuinely believe however that we need a major paradigm shift away from whole group instruction. Simply put; I do not believe it is the best delivery system for most kids in our schools today. I taught in a traditional class for one year. For many reasons stated in my previous entry it’s laced with problems.

How many kids get lost or overwhelmed early in their formal school experience (kindergarten or first grade) and sadly NEVER catch up or recover from this trauma? This is clearly one of the primary contributors to the achievement gap in our schools. If more of these kids were individually guided through their primary years they’d be more on task, more invested in their learning, and much less likely to give up or resort to acting up in class.

How many kids at the other end of the spectrum get bored waiting for the rest of the class to "get it" or "atch up" and eventually tune out, act up, or simply go through the motions doing only enough to get by?

Individualized/customized instruction is not THE answer, however I believe it is one solid alternative to what too many teachers employ today.


_______________________________________

Kim,

Thank you for the kudos.

Diana wrote, "Software...should not replace books, though." True enough. Yet you cannot replace what is not there.

The discussion here on individualized instruction shares much with the discussion of video games and learning. Start with Chapter one of the book: 36 Ways to Learn a Video Game. You have to LEARN a LOT to master a game. Its much more intense learning than in most classrooms. Not useful learning too often, but learning.

So, for instructors who have not the 50 percentile plus teaching ability, perhaps we could aid them more by giving them more tools which use great game techniqes and/or mimic a master teacher.

What is a Knowledge Worker? and whats it got to do with EEP? (Asks Diana).

One answer: I don't know! Is my friend who worked on the shop floor at Timken Steel, and now gets paid $5000 a week to convey his knowledge to the production workers in India a knowledge worker? In general, when I use the term, I mean to connote a vision of work more like an engineer, and less like a stamp press operator. In general, though, accountants, designers, programmers, medical technologists, lawyers, etc.

You can't imagine any of these walking a picket line; and teachers demean themselves, their profession, and their precious charges when they so do.

Neither can you imagine these people with the ridiculous contracts found in so many districts, nor the voluminous arbitration rulings, contract memoranda, and clarifying addenda.

In the EEP Statement, Principles 5-9 address this. Not in my words--I'm trying to find the common words that will inspire teachers to change. Yet I, coming from the highest engineering levels, and Rev. Al, coming from the streets of Harlem, have somehow found this amazing piece of common ground.

Its really exciting, actually!

Paul,

Thank you for your clarification. I have not yet taught elementary school (except for a summer stint long ago), but am about to begin this fall. I am eager to begin, and curious to see how it differs from middle school. I have high regard for the school's (Core Knowledge) curriculum and look forward to putting it into daily practice. I will learn a great deal, and will keep your ideas in mind.

I agree with you and Ed about the benefits of individualized instruction for many children and situations. What percentage of the class time should be devoted to whole-class instruction, and what percentage to group or individualized instruction? That would depend a lot on the subject, topic, and context. I also believe a solid curriculum from the early grades could narrow the wide range of levels later on, so that whole-class instruction would be more satisfying for all students.

There's another benefit to whole-class instruction: the option of speaking or listening. As a student, I found that quite rich. I would go through periods of talking very little; I was entirely focused on listening to the others. At other times, I would be filled with things to say. Having the choice at the time (and an interesting work to discuss) helped me make similar choices later. (Lately I am quite given to "talking," I admit--but I listen intently as well.)

Ed,

I enjoy your willingness to engage in dialogue, even as I disagree with you on some points. And kudos to you for your "I don't know!" answer.

About unions, I agree and disagree. I support the teacher's union, for a number of reasons, and have come to this position over many years, after seeing what non-unionized workplaces could do. Yet I have ongoing questions and concerns about the union, and do not always agree with its emphases. But I believe it is possible to be a questioning member.

A strike may be a moot point for now; I don't see one coming soon. But yes, I would have serious ethical qualms about striking as a teacher, as would many union members. I would have to be convinced that it would benefit the students more than not striking would. Also, I dislike slogans intensely and have always dreaded the prospect of walking the picket line wearing one. I don't consider it a trivial matter, and have a lot of reading and thinking to do on the subject.

But back to the earlier point: Is it possible to accept and support an initiative, curriculum, or organization with active mind and conscience? I believe it is not only possible but essential. There's a mistaken assumption that if you accept something, you can't question, interpret, or add to it; or that if you reject an aspect of something or question it slightly, you don't support it. This leads to the problem of polarized thought and false dichotomies. Down with false dichotomies! That's my slogan.

Isn't it interesting how, when someone acknowledges part of your point, you can also see part of his or hers? Humane disagreement can still be staunch, passionate, even raging once in a while. One still wishes to persuade, to "win." But there is an acknowledgement that the truth is not all found in one place.

Kim, I meant to thank you for your earlier comments. And thanks to all of you for a very interesting discussion.

Diana Senechal

Ed,

One more point: you bring up "ridiculous contracts." The DOE has awarded quite a few contracts to rather dubious vendors of educational services--of its own accord, without bidding or public discussion (and at times without public announcement).

The EEP agenda, if implemented, will not rid us of ridiculous contracts. I suspect there will be many more.

Diana Senechal

Diana, I didn't know we were disagreeing!! You seem to be more on my content side than almost anyone blogging/commenting!

As to contracts, put aside for the moment the hurt to the children a system where hiring and firing decisions are completely removed from the administrator's hands (Milwaukee PS). Or the staff of 500 people on Michele Rhee's payroll responsible not to the teachers or the children, or to the Superintendent, but just there...

It would benefit teachers themselves, their pocketbooks and work conditions, if they moved to a knowledge worker labor model.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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