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Advice for the Next President

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Dear Diane,

I'm always astounded when summer is over. How did it get by me so fast? Of course, in the past few years I don't get plunged back into the three-ring circus of schooling so suddenly. But, oddly, I miss that plunge. Among other reasons because it meant I had no time for worrying about presidential elections, climate change, the gasoline crisis, poverty, torture, nuclear proliferation and, at the moment, about my current bout of Lyme disease.

I've gotten phone calls, as I'm sure you have, too, Diane, asking me what kind of advice I'd give the two presidential candidates. It's hard to do since, as you have sadly noted, when it comes to schooling I cannot take it for granted that my more natural allies and I agree. In fact, the only sure-fire difference, probably, is that Democrats are more friendly to spending money. And I am, too. But their commitment to what I mean by education that serves democracy cannot be taken for granted.

So I've tried to formulate my advice in under 300 words. Here's my first draft. I'd love to hear from you and our readers on this:

Advice for the President

We need schools for the poor that look and feel more like the schools the wealthiest send their kids to—but even more than that. That's the rock-bottom. Living up to this commitment means asking yourself, before you say, do, or enact any education policy, what the impact will be on:

1. …the relationships between the key actors—students, teachers, and families. Does it strengthen our reasons to trust each other? Will it provide more or less time to get to know each other and deal with each other respectfully? The more direct—versus indirect—the information we all have about our schools, the better. For starters, we might insist that all citizens, but surely all parents, have paid leave to get to know, observe, and help out in our schools.

2. … the opportunities young people have to keep company with respected, powerful, and wise adults, adults who are treated with professional respect and who are not always looking over their shoulders to see who's monitoring them. If teachers are to create the kind of mutually respectful classrooms we seek, we must end the bashing of teachers, their organizations, and public institutions in general.

3. …the waking lives of our children from birth to 18. Even if we increase the school day and year, nearly three-fourths of their experiences take place outside of school. The habits of work and mind that schools instill can carry over, but teachers and schools should not be expected to wash away the effects of health care, nutrition, housing, poverty, abuse, street crime, and the extraordinarily high percentage of our young living in jail. In all these categories we out-perform every single other industrialized nation, and by such a long shot. These issues impact more on some kids and some communities. We can never entirely make up for these differences through schooling, but schools with high percentages of children of poverty need far more resources than schools without such handicaps. For starters, they need working conditions common to elite schools and elite colleges—e.g. class sizes of 12-15 per class, instead of 30-40, and teachers who take advantage of the kind of freedom and status that the best schools provide.

These must be our litmus tests for public policy. If we are to better serve the economy and above all democracy, our schools must be closely connected to their publics. Only then can they be the backbone for creating smart communities of hope.

A work in progress. Diane, readers, help me out.

Deborah

15 Comments

Deborah, how good to have you back!

First, let me ease your worrying a bit. For those of us who have alas for one reason and another to have had the luxury to study these things in longer detail over the years, things may not be as worrisome as you think. Global climate change seems to be something of a political frenzy rather than a real physical effect, and indeed, we are much more likely to have to deal with an ice age in the near term than any effects of global warming. I guess an ice age is climate change, but not much we can do save pray the next one waits longer (its already long overdue).

As to kids, think back to Sen. Obama's Father's Day speech, where he for a moment sounded just a bit like Bill Cosby. People have managed to learn whilst in poverty for eons, and they continue to do so the world over. Yes, a 95th percentile teacher can be a blessing. Yes, the latest technology can open new worlds.

But lets face it: We're still talking about not mastering basic literacies for way, way too many students.

So, a President Obama can at least do one thing, and I would hope he does this win or lose. He can press parents as he did on Fathers day. He can say to them,

'Dad's...go home. If you can't stay there all the time, you can go occaisionally. If there's a lawn, you can mow it. If the neighborhood park needs cleaned up, you can help. [I say this having spent my labor day alone in the park doing just that]. If there are still drug dealers in your 'hood, run them out. Make friends with the police force. [We worked on that this weekend, too]. Tell the school you will cook for a picnic, read to some kids, plan a levy, build an athletic facility, run a fundraiser, beg businesses for money, and when you have done all of that, lobby your legislator who will by then know you well. [And these].

'And then, ...go to church. Go because praying is good for your mind, and because it might work. But go too and take the kids because its another opportunity to meet caring people who will look out for your little ones. Teach them values that will stand them in good stead, and sometimes help them with other needs.

'And when church is out, sign up to help raise funds or build facilities there. Or to teach.

'And above all, place in your children's minds early and often the value of learning. And of Rugged Individualism. Don't teach them that the state must solve their problems, teach them to gather skills of value and teach them how to sell those skills. But teach them to succeed at each step.'

That's my advice to the candidate who happens to have dark skin. To whoever wins, your words, Deb, have wisdom. We can raise the regularity of health care--we continue to be the richest nation on earth, the bleating about the economy to the contrary. We can ease the worries about health for many. Yet lets also make that another issue.

And,...lets make health more affordable by bringing our minorities in to be doctors. And scientists.
We can do that by teaching them to read, to do math, to learn science, to research. To respect learning. To stay in school, tough as it may be. To do the homework, and if you're not getting enough, complain, or ask elsewhere. To demand excellence for yourself.

We can do that by telling Dad's, 'Dads, Go Home. If you can't..."

Deb:

The summers may pass ever faster for all of us, but I can tell you that I peeped in here several times to see if summer break was over. Glad to have you and Diane back.

I like your recommendations. I cannot remember an election where I looked for so much with regard to education and saw so little to hang my hat on. I would love to have someone in Washington who has a child with disabilities and is committed to being an advocate. But that doesn't add up to being a platform. And neither does signing the EEP pledge, although I don't know why both candidates haven't signed it.

I admire that Mr. Obama has managed to curry the favor of teachers without promising them the moon. And I agree--he belongs to the party more likely to put funding behind the good intentions. But I worry about that whole Cosby-esque thing. Not that those of us who are holding down the fort independently couldn't use a hand with grass cutting and garbage toting and chasing out drug dealers and praying. But its high time we start viewing this whole neighborhood/school/community/parent/student thing as more interactive and organic than we do. Yes--there are folks who beat the odds, and Obama is one (so was Clinton, as I recall). But we cannot punish the ones who don't based on that. We cannot assume that when a kid isn't making it there is one piece we can pick out as being the cause and tell them to get their act together.

I was reading recently in one of the OECD country reports, on Equity in Education in Finland. It used the phrase virtuous cycle to describe the social/school interaction that helped to make their students successful. As an example, when immigrant groups arrive--as they have, particularly in recent decades--there is a focus on meeting needs in a way that fosters integration, without loss of cultural identity. There are programs to assist with employment and to minimize discrimination. Schools provide education in the "mother tongue" as the language of instruction while teaching a national language as the second language (this is the pattern for all students, as they are bilingual). As a result groups tend not to form ghettos of high need students in areas with the least resources.

I like the idea of virtuous cycles. It speaks to providing for basic human needs with a recognition that when basic needs are met, citizens will be increasingly able to learn and to give back. Diane--I think you should try (if asked) to instill that concept in the political debate around education. I think that is what you are talking about.

A part of my advice for our new president is:
Fully fund special education services for students with disabilities; i.e., fully fund the IDEA.
Increase the quality and quantity of mental health services for all students and all families of students.
Increase the quality and quantity of wraparound services for all students.


Here's my top 2 recommendations:
1. Make it illegal to punish students for turning in work late.
This is the single biggest problem in education and society. One hundred years ago teachers were Good teachers if they hit their students. Today this similarly obsolete punishment is equally unacceptable.

2. Provide access to computers/Internet to all students.
Either in shared laptops or loaned laptops or buying the $100 OneLaptopPerChild computer.

Diane, Deborah,

It is good to be reading Bridging Differences again! Deborah, I am sorry to hear about the Lyme disease and hope you get better soon.

If I could give the candidates one piece of advice, I'd say: "Honor knowledge, experience, and wisdom in the schools."

The current "reformers" are hostile to experience. They tout the inexperienced leader as the cultural hero. The ideal teacher comes into a charter school, works without pause for several years, and then moves on.

I am teaching at a wonderful school with a great curriculum and all sorts of creative activity. Teachers are expected to learn from each other. The school sets up inter-visitations so that teachers can see each other in action. The school takes pride in its teachers, and the students respond. I feel happily like a beginner, and while I expect myself to improve every day, I also look forward to the slow changes over the long term.

The "reformers" have a different ideal. They place a premium on instant results. Offer a high salary with merit incentives; get rid of tenure and retirement benefits; work the new teachers to shreds and send them on their way after a few years; tell them that they will soon be "leaders."

There is a lack of soul in such reforms. It will catch up with us; the so-called successes will show their cracks. But who in the schools will even know what went wrong?

Diana Senechal

Wonderful suggestions Deborah. Really. And don't forget your (Diane's?) previous suggestion on the need for something comparable to a 'Consumer Reports' for education. Boy is that needed!

Let me ask you a question. What do you think teachers would do if all of a sudden their students started doing exactly what the teachers wanted them to do? What if all of a sudden students started forming small-group and large-group learning circles and therein actively participating in peer learning and peer teaching, and consequently demonstrating their mastery of small-group and large-group dynamics, the gathering, processing, and presenting of information, the ability to critique said information, the effective planning and problem solving that accompanies this process, and the ability to build upon the results? What would American teachers do (and by extension, what would teachers in foreign countries do)? And what would be the possible consequences? First of all, would American teachers be capable of accepting the fact that students have changed? Or better still, would they even be able to perceive this change happening in the first place?
I used to believe that this was a null issue as my teaching experience had led me to believe that it was simply not in the nature of today’s computer- driven students to be at all studious. However, and based partly upon my reading of the book Next Year’s High School by LHS’s Alejandro Feliciano and the Aidama Team (2008), and some anecdotal observations I have on these and other students at LHS, I will admit to having serious reservations. Still, whether we like it or not, there is now evidence that our high school students are indeed doing exactly what we want them to do. There is evidence that suggests that today’s high school students have indeed evolved into a new student paradigm right under our very noses, and it appears that the instrument, the prime mover, of that evolution is digital communications technology.
This essay is an invitation to consider not only this question of an apparently changed student paradigm, but also its many possible consequences, for, reduced to its simplest form, the issue we are facing is how today’s technology enriched students both here and around the world are developing, applying, and disseminating knowledge and how they are using their academic and leadership skills to do so.
To help present the issue, consider for a moment the recent books written on the theme of “the dumbing of America”, each of which argues that the point-and-click culture of the internet is directly responsible for damaging our intelligence and our civic culture.

Consider Naomi S. Baron’s Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (2008). In her book she persuasively argues that the proliferation of electronic communication has impaired our students’ ability to write formal prose. (Perhaps you remember that the same was said about comic books, the television, and rock-and-roll….)
She further argues that this proliferation, “…discourages direct communication, leading to isolation, self-absorption, and damaging relationships”. And this may be true IF she is talking about a “generation gap”. But I don’t see any evidence of any of this happening amongst today’s students or within their peer groups. If anything, the above mentioned relationships are building: there is evidence of the existence of positively motivated sub-peer groups whose knowledge and leadership is extending outwards from their core to encompass by factors of ten or more the peer groups of like-minded students.
Nicholas Carr’s, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, (2008) argues that daily use of the internet is, “…rewiring our kids’ brains for skimming rather than for the sustained concentration that is required for reading books, listening to lectures, and writing long essays.” Still, I wonder if this is relevant in the world of the 21st century, and beyond?
Or consider Mark Bauerlein’s, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008) which argues that, “…young Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge….” Curiously, Bauerlein makes this assertion while further embracing the notion that “life-long learning” is the essence of education in the post-industrial/modernist age.
Maybe Bauerlein is correct. But how accurate can he be when concluding that, “Our students are dumb and ignorant and in possession of such high levels of self-esteem as to make them impervious or hostile to criticism…”? Has he considered the fact that our technology enriched youth may be ignoring us because WE, their elders, simply make no sense?
Again, consider Susan Jacoby’s, The Age of American Unreason (2008) in which she supports the previous views saying, “Digital technology has damaged our ability to focus and think deeply.” Jacoby’s vision of our future is of a nation, “…that is unprepared for the global challenges we face.” Again, what she is saying may be true. But what if it’s not? And what are the consequences if all these authors and spokespersons are wrong?
If you look long and hard you can find a different set of five books written this year that together provide an effective counter argument to the one above, one of which is MIT Professor Eric Klopfer’s book Augmented Learning (2008). But what should really peak your interest is the book recently written by-and-for a group of students at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Indeed, this year marks the first time since Robert Frost was himself a Lancer that a Lawrence High School student has taken it upon himself to write and publish a book. That book is entitled Next Year’s High School: Insights From Six High School Students.
The purpose of their book is, “…to help today’s high school teachers and administrators understand the students’ point of view: that in today’s world , and especially in today’s high schools, students need to be provided with a whole new learning environment.”
Not only are these students speaking out against the “Appropriate Use” policies and similar controls placed upon them by their less technologically astute elders, but even more importantly they are faulting traditional education as being ineffective. Well aware of the demands of the new world they will be living in, these students state emphatically, “We need more personalized and specialized instruction from our teachers, we need a more flexible curriculum, and we need more tools and toys to learn with.” Pardon my rhetoric, but are these the students Baron, Carr, et al are talking about?
Furthermore, the LHS students dare to tell the obvious truth that, “Today’s students know more about technology at the age of 15 than the average adult knows at 50.” And if the question is one of responsibility, preparedness and maturity, then consider this: “As we grow more familiar with what we are doing (via the use of banned access and otherwise available technologies) we have the powerful and natural motivation to expand our learning activities. All that taken together leads us to a better understanding of the ‘problems’ we are working on.” (Emphasis added).
A careful reading of Aidama’s Next Year’s High School reveals for the first time that a separate and distinct educational environment is present in Lawrence High School; a student-based, learning--and teaching--environment that is characterized by independent research, independent study, and the closed loop, private sharing of both the products and processes of said activities amongst sharply defined but ever widening groups of students. And if this is happening at Lawrence High School, then it’s happening everywhere. Have you seen it? Did you look?
Consider this: Unlike the traditional student model with which we are most familiar i.e. the student who individually takes his or her directions, instructions and information from the classroom teacher and proceeds to support this learning with outside information, we now have anecdotal evidence which suggests that today’s high school students are doing the opposite: today’s student probes and learns and then shares amongst his or her ever-widening circle of peers, both the products of the probing and the techniques of the probing! By so doing they are transforming the traditional educational process into a new and different self-satisfying pedagogy that positively defines and reinforces the learning group all to the exclusion of their tradition-based teachers. And they are excluding their teachers not because they want to, but because, with rare exceptions, we, their teachers, simply cannot keep up with them. And the students know it. When they come to us for reinforcement, they find us wanting.
Recall if you will some moment in the recent past when one of your students came to show you something he or she has done that simply “wowed you”-- something so far from your ken that you simply couldn’t appreciate it, nor comment upon it even if you could. Nor did you, or could you, provide counsel as to possible applications, research, academic reinforcements, or directions the student should take. And you may also recall that the student then walked away dejected because you could not add anything (value added) to his or her discovery; you provided nothing with which he or she could build upon. That’s why the student walked away. He or she realized that they were wasting their time with you.
Perhaps upon reflection you will recall not only that this has been happening, but that it seems to have been happening at an increasing rate. And that’s all the more reason why we need to carefully examine this issue. I believe that as teachers and educators the prudent thing to do is to carefully consider the question of the existence of the new student paradigm and the consequences of such a paradigm.
I am suggesting that a learning evolution has happened, an evolution whose roots extend backward and downward into the fertile soil that first gave us the computer and is now cultivating the digital communications era. I am suggesting that the student authors of Next Year’s High School have dared to “leak” to us the truth about this evolution, telling us for the first time that this evolution manifests a positively motivated, dynamic, student leadership paradigm directed inward towards themselves and their peers; a “knowing how and showing how” student leadership ethic that is a consequence of the way individual students are now using digital communications technology to fathom the world about them and share their self-centered learning with other students. Further, I am suggesting that an unfortunate consequence of the controls we are imposing on our students’ access to digital environments and the subsequent code of secrecy that our students must impose upon themselves when they have to intentionally violate those controls in order to support their individualized, self motivated learning, only serves to exclude us teachers from actively participating in this evolutionary process. And finally, I am suggesting that the same fertile soil which nurtured digital communications is now nurturing a revolution in lesson planning and delivery, a revolution that is imminent.

Al,

Where can we read "Next Year’s High School?"

GB

Colleagues,

A little more sleuthing revealed that the book Next Year’s High School can be purchased here...

http://www.wellingtonhousepublishing.com/page20.html

Unfortunately, they require PayPal and I refuse to purchase from any vendor that only accepts PayPal.

It also seems that you can send $10 directly to the author Alejandro Feliciano-- so I may try that. (I found this info on a Google cache of the LHS Web server--which appears to be down.)

The LHS page for the book also cites an article from Edutopia that, curiously, made me less hopeful that the book will provide any novel insights. That article is here...

http://www.edutopia.org/ikid-digital-learner-technology-2008

GB


Combine Deb's advice to the next president with Diane's advice on accountability, and we'd have a great platform.

In fact, given the statements by Obama's advisors in Eduwonk and Paul Tough's excellent article in today's NYT Magazine, it sounds like such a synthesis might be identical with Obama's thoughts.

Yes We Can!

Check out our common sense reforms for the next President at http://commonsensereforms.blogspot.com/

Small classes; safe and uncrowded schools; a rich curriculum with lots of arts, and parental involvement. As Debbie Meier says, more like the schools that the elite send their own children.

This would be Education Equality indeed.

I agree with some of the points in the Common Sense proposal, but am confused about its professed contrast with "Broader, Bolder." As I understand it, Broader, Bolder is not intended as a comprehensive proposal--it is meant to supplement and strengthen the work that schools do.

I do not take Broader, Bolder to mean that we should focus on supplementary services and programs as opposed to curriculum. I take it to mean that such services and programs should exist and thrive.

Yes, this would cost a lot of money. But consider how much the school systems already pay outside companies for test prep and other questionable services. With excellent curriculum, and reduced need for test prep, we could spend that money on programs that enriched the students' lives and education.

I agree with you, Diana. I signed both--maybe carelessly?--because I figured one was addressed to what the larger society was responsible for doing so that schools could be more effective, and the latest one addressed to and from school people about how they can better address the hand they've been dealt. I'm sick of the "no excuses" argument--it's a recipe for disaster, and a swinging door of teachers in and out. Should doctors who serve low-income communities expect to make up for the lower birthrates and higher death-rates? No. But they should also feel badly whenever a patient dies, and do their best to see that their work save as many lives as possible. Otherwise no one would go into clinical work, or serve in low-income neighborhoods--in medicine or health care. No one would try to do medicine in Darfur or rural India, vs Park Avenue.


Deb


AI @ Lawrence's comment, though long, is brilliant.

Anyone who has incorporated the Internet into their daily life can quickly find the best resources in the world, for any topic, online. Just like the best Tetris player someone knows is no longer their mom or 'that guy down the hall', the best and most fun explanation of a concept no longer comes from their teachers.

The Internet has significantly raised the bar on what students (and parents) see as "high-quality". For whatever reason, teachers aren't using the Internet enough to realize that the bar has moved at all.

It's not about dictating that teachers find ways to use computers in Math class. That's stupid. That's how people who don't understand what's going on try to solve the problem.

It's about interacting with the best ideas and people in the world on a daily basis and having an internal desire to bring yourself up to that standard.

Your students are doing exactly that, are you?

From: [email protected]
Subject: Re: Bridging Differences
Date: September 10, 2008 6:53:41 PM EDT
To: [email protected]

Diane Ravitch makes a worthwhile observation in noting the two perspectives that seem to face the Democratic Party in presenting a coherent position on school reform. The Bolder manifesto includes what could be called "hard" liberals and "soft" liberals, with the majority of the "soft" kind. That is, sympathy for the perspectives of "progressive education" are represented by a wide array of education mavens. The core idea is that successful schooling -- basic achievement skills, love of learning, expanded perspectives. work-related skills, etc. -- requires more than school improvements. The achievement gap is connected to much more than school and teachers and curriculum rewrites. The gaps between score levels correlates closely with income, wealth. home resources, etc. This broad picture characterizes all mass education systems. Simple Education 101, still the way ii is (except maybe for Sweden -- to be looked up).
So, the soft liberal Bolder approach emphasizes early childhood intervention and socialization, health issues (something like universal coverage) and school health clinics. And so on. The hard liberal take on this is summed up in the phrase "'no more excuses," directed at teachers and other education professionals who raise the broader considerations. Emphasis on testing basic skills, backed by sanctions if scores don't go up and the achievement gap isn't eliminated I gather the date by which this will be achieved is 2014. (The hard liberal' previous dreams of Goals 2000 is down the memory hole.)
The Democrats have a problem being serious and long term (and utopian?) about being Bolder and Broader or being tough, emphasizing testing and punitive accountability demands that have never worked but focus blame and don't cost much (evidently the McCain position. Remember Bush was tight with progressive George Miller when he and our almost forgotten president were claiming NCLB as their great bipartisan achievement and Miller got his Bush nickname "Big George".

ayg

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