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Being Afraid Is Unsuitable for Teaching and Learning

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Dear Diane,

Today (Thursday) I hope to appear at the New York state hearings on NYC’s school governance system. Last week I spent a few days in D.C. listening to my colleagues discuss dropout rates at a congressional briefing. It was organized by the Alliance for Excellence and the Forum for Education and Democracy. Common themes kept arising, along the lines of your last letter and mine.

By the way, I’m happy to learn that the mayor’s plan for NYC was misstated in The New York Times. Five to 7-year-olds will be summed up and compared on two, not one score. Also, one measure of democracy is not WHO one votes for. I imagine, as commenter Ed Jones notes, that McCain enthusiasts feel the same way about Obama enthusiasts. That’s precisely what’s tricky about democracy.

That’s my point! There is a huge missing discussion throughout our society about democracy, its current meaning, and about what it could be. But I don’t think it ever, in any of its lives, described the way education policy is made in New York City today. Yes, ultimately, the mayor is an elected position and thus can be held accountable. Except that….he isn’t up for reelection, the majority of voters do not have kids in public schools, and their information about schooling comes almost entirely from what the mayor’s office makes public to us. We’re talking about decisions that intimately impact upon each of the 1.2 million children, their teachers, principals, etc.. (Larger than the entire population of Alaska.) There is no independent lay body, and all the other intervening bodies are creatures of the mayor, or directly accountable only to him. Of course, it's actually much more labyrinthine—with all kinds of ever-shifting sub-bodies and tangled jurisdictions. But, believe me—everyone knows exactly who to be afraid of. That’s the plan—its precise beauty, its advocates would argue. What democracy, in contrast, is all about is finding mechanisms for making it harder for us all to be afraid of just one powerful ruler or ruling party. It’s the existence of multiple sources of power that makes us “unafraid”—that leaves space for other voices.

It just so happens that being afraid is particularly unsuitable for teaching/learning—above all the kind of teaching/learning we need for the future of democracy (and, in fact, for the auto and energy industries, too!).

Imagine if the governor or legislature in any of the other 49 states decided to wipe out all local school boards. Would there be an outcry? However we belittle local boards I suspect most people think there needs to be something in between their child’s classroom and the State.

It’s particularly dangerous, as you and I have noticed, Diane, when the mayor is effectively a bipartisan, rich (very), and extraordinarily powerful person, with almost no opposition. It means he can effectively get away with claiming that our schools are doing much better under him when the evidence suggests this is just hype.

I could go on and on. Of course you are right to be worried, Diane. You know better than most about the history of this issue in NYC.

The panel in D.C. was, in many ways, about the same topic. The three panelists—Linda Darling-Hammond, Pedro Noguera, and George Wood—made two devastating critiques about the way we are responding to the revelations about our high dropout rates, and how we’ve been fooled by bad data. First, Noguera said in his opening remarks that dropouts are a symptom, not the disease. If we focus our rewards and punishments on changing the data, we do more harm than good. Secondly, as Darling-Hammond and Wood noted, the latest “cure”—re-defining the graduation rate based only on those who finish in four years is an example of this danger. If these new regs are abided by, anyone who appears unlikely to graduate in four years will be more vulnerable to being pushed out. There are many reasons that kids fail to finish in four years, including crises at home that require their attention. The solutions clearly lie in providing sufficient flexibility so that they stay attached to school as closely as they can for as long as they can. Ideally, even after they get their diplomas. (Ditto re. “no excuses” suspension policies.)

George Wood described the many ways principals deceive themselves and the public about dropouts/push-outs in order to protect the school and themselves from harsh penalties. I could add more.

Engaging students in pursuit of their own education is possible, and it’s the real “cure”—not just for the crisis of school dropouts, but the larger one of societal dropouts. It requires knowing each other well and having the power to act on that knowledge in respectful ways.

On boot camps. I’m always intrigued with why boot-camp-style training “worked” for many of the English aristocracy. First of all, it was voluntary and exclusive (as are some of the current schools you describe). Second, it may not have been so good for all the students, and maybe it was bad for those “excluded”—most people. Maybe it’s only “useful” if it goes along with a sense of being the chosen elite, being toughened up for precisely the purpose of ruling others. This goes back to our failure to define “works” except by test scores—and then selectively.

If there were no other way, even toward these tawdry ends, I might buy it—uncomfortably. But there is another way. It, too, rests on feeling special, but in a more inclusive sense. (Read Mike Rose’s "Lives on the Boundary" on just this dilemma.)

Finally, I was astounded while in D.C. to witness an example of how lies/myths spread. A congressman noted in passing that 97 percent of all Chinese youngsters complete high school to very high standards. Even I sat on my hands, politely, though I doubt if 97 percent currently complete 5th grade to any standard. It will soon be on everyone’s lips along with claims that we don’t produce enough engineers.

Best,
Deb

P.S. It will take a few weeks or so to read the two books you recommended in your last post, but I’ve ordered them.


12 Comments

In the midst of this ongoing dialogue about the proper role of education in a democracy, may I recommend to the readers of this blog Richard Gibboney's article (A Manifesto) in this month's Kappan. Gibboney provides a well-reasoned and compelling critique of the ideologies that have governed public education in the U.S. since the 1980s. Debbie has a piece in the same issue that is also worth reading.

Thanks again for a great column. I would be interested in hearing the two of you discuss alternative ways to measure success (other than the current focus on data from state tests). It is disheartening to me to see such emphasis placed on testing/accountability but without a simultaneous discussion about whether the current standards and methods are creating the kinds of students/learners our democracy needs to thrive. I sit in conversations with policy makers who never (openly at least) question the validity or reliability of the current testing system. So, what accountability measures would you like to see put in place (assuming that there has to be some "standard" way of assessing school progress)?

JP,

Great points. Certainly there is an overreliance in our current system on very faillable measures (tests etc...).

It is not "accountability" that policy makers should be discussing but rather responsiblity.

That is: Who is responsible for ensuring that each and every child receives a great education?

There can be a "standard" way of assessing schools only if first we have someone draft a plan to improve, 2nd we have a plan to implement and 3rd we have a way of measuring whether the original idea worked or not. "Accountability" by itself without any feedback loop will fail to improve *anything*, let alone our schools.

So instead of "accountability" measures for the students, teachers, schools, standards, curricula, tests, etc... how about burdening/entrusting one body (district, state, feds, etc..) with the sole responsibility for ensuring a quality education for each and every child. Certainly, those school systems that dramatically outperform our schools do so by making somebody responsible for improvements (local or national have both worked).

Our current system that effectively spreads the authority (but not responsiblity) among many players (feds, states, district, schools, teachers, etc...) is failing our children. Policy makers talk too much about "local control" and not about improvement. Where is the *plan* to improve.

Relying on the assessments to enable reforms will only result in documenting failure. Our schools need much more than an assessment system that shows how poorly they are doing. They need a plan to improve.

It should be disheartening to sit in on those conversations with policy makers that never question the validity or reliability of the current testing system. Because this system is destined to fail at improving our children's education, no matter how sophisticated the measurement assessment devices become.

It will fail because *all* improvements (in any endeavor) first start with a plan, not the assessment.

JP,
Bureaucracies always seek to measure and thereby control. As a system this was created to manufacture cotton, widgets, and the products of organizations which are easily countable. Private corporations have the advantage that the success of their products can easily be measured in terms of items created at a measurable level of quality. Ultimate success is measured in terms of profits as counted in dollars.

Businessmen have been bringing this “model” of productivity to the schools for decades. The problem of course is that schools do not produce easily measurable products like private factories do. Still, our businesspeople seek to measure and control almost by reflex. Thus we have the current testing mania, as well as the decades of business-inspired reforms for the schools.

But of course schools are not producing a product like a factory, even though they are organized along bureaucratic principles. Rather they produce citizens, adults, and ultimately future society itself. Look at what is happening today: John McCain, a product of 1940s primary schooling is running for President! No other bureaucracy does such a complex task, nor produces a product with such a long “shelf-life.” No wonder that there is so little agreement about what actual “success” in schooling might be.

This does not mean that new reforms should not be advocated and sought, or the current version of testing mania critiqued. Just tthat they need to be put in historical context. As Deborah points out, both Republicans and Democrats need to do this.

JP,
Bureaucracies always seek to measure and thereby control. As a system this was created to manufacture cotton, widgets, and the products of organizations which are easily countable. Private corporations have the advantage that the success of their products can easily be measured in terms of items created at a measurable level of quality. Ultimate success is measured in terms of profits as counted in dollars.

Businessmen have been bringing this “model” of productivity to the schools for decades. The problem of course is that schools do not produce easily measurable products like private factories do. Still, our businesspeople seek to measure and control almost by reflex. Thus we have the current testing mania, as well as the decades of business-inspired reforms for the schools.

But of course schools are not producing a product like a factory, even though they are organized along bureaucratic principles. Rather they produce citizens, adults, and ultimately future society itself. Look at what is happening today: John McCain, a product of 1940s primary schooling is running for President! No other bureaucracy does such a complex task, nor produces a product with such a long “shelf-life.” No wonder that there is so little agreement about what actual “success” in schooling might be.

This does not mean that new reforms should not be advocated and sought, or the current version of testing mania critiqued. Just tthat they need to be put in historical context. As Deborah points out, both Republicans and Democrats need to do this.

Deb, on mayoral control: 1st, I just watched Lean On Me, which seems to do a credible job of illustrating why you might want to make a mayor responsible for schooling in a major city.

Still, your point about local school boards is valid. Indeed, when did we go so wrong and abolish all the local school boards that once would have governed education in the five boroughs? Diane, how many were there?

In the larger scope, this centralization question seems to run on a sine curve. Our little towns in Ohio are even now turning over police protection to the sheriffs. Makes sense maybe for a town of 100, but for a town of 3000? The whole thing reminds me of Los Angeles County, where the sheriff came to be responsible for every last bit of policing, though the towns might have half a million residents.

Deb,

We are not producing enough engineers.

In the years from 1985 to 2005, the actual number (not percentage) of BS degrees granted at US universities *fell* by 15%, from 77,572 in 1985 down to 66,133 in 2005.

The last I looked the need for engineering skills has not diminished in our economy, so it is rather unlikely that this drop is do to the demand in the job marketplace.

In many of the technology companies, this extreme shortfall of engineering talent is being filled by foreign workers who actually received a great math education in their homeland. Thus you see Bill Gates' repeated calls to Congress to increase the number of visas allowed for high skilled workers.

While China may not have a 97% high school graduation rate, Singapore certainly does.

You have mentioned before that comparing Singapore to the US is mixing apples and oranges, of which I agree. But how about comparing NYC to Singapore?

If Singapore can reduce their high school drop out from ~25% in the 1980's to less than 3% now, while simultaneously improving instruction for all their chilren, why can't NYC?

I liked the part where you said "engaging students in the pursuit of their own education is posible- and it's the real cure." You also mentioned society's dropouts. A big part of those are parents who have dropped out and left too much for teachers to do. Society has to change it's values before education can really improve.

Erin:

I think that you may have something in suggesting that there is a lack of responsibility. In reading about Finland, where much of the decision-making is local, there appears to be a unifying commitment to the support and education of all students, within a context that accepts that this means that some will need more than others. There are a number of corollaries to this (a much higher tax rate than ours, greatly improved social services) that I don't see us in the U. S. as likely to be able to accept. Reading Judith's comment above reminds me that we cling to an individual and self-defined conception of responsibility that produces lots of cracks for children to fall between. To us, change generally means somebody else doing something differently.

But, I disagree that there is no plan. If nothing else, NCLB relies on plans. It sets goals and requires multiple entitities (states, districts, schools) to plan their part in getting there. Your school probably has one somewhere in a drawer. It likely has some goals, some mention of needs, some strategies and some measures. If your district is like mine, this exercise was completed by a committee, who may not even have worked together (ie: the curriculum people wrote together, the climate or discipline people wrote together, or the splits may have been by grade level or content area). Again, my experience in my district has been to pick among data that "looks good" this year, rather than identifying a baseline and committing to the implementation of strategies intended to make a change. There are strategies--describing things that were already going on, or somebody's idea of the year.

This is the approach to planning that occurs in a cynical system. I just this morning reviewed the clip of the middle school motivational speaker from Dallas (who clearly has been to church and borrowed techniques from some of the best). One of the questions he asked (after, "do you believe in me?") was, "do you believe in your colleagues?" It's an important question, because there have been schools that pulled it together to improve. But they didn't get there by tap dancing through the planning process simply because it was something that they were "required" to do. They used it as a tool for improvement--not as a way to prove that nothing works, or that they don't have the resources, or that these kids are already doing the best that can be expected.

I personally go back and forth on the question of centralized vs localized authority. On the one hand, our highly localized approach has resulted in great inequity. On the other hand, without the commitment of folks in the buildings, where the rubber meets the road, I don't know that there is any amount of centralized authority that cannot be subverted.

As a matter of practical reality, I would suggest a "think gobal, act local" approach. Work locally to clean out the cynics who opt for test prep rather than education (the kids WILL pass the tests if really educate them--why don't we believe this?), but keep an eye on the global issues as well. Maybe we will have to learn from Finland. It took an economic collapse and 20% unemployment rate to spur their focus on improved education. Maybe we will get there too.

Margo/Mom,

Compliance with NCLB in publishing a "plan" is not the same thing as a plan that has any hope of improving education.

Instead of thinking localized authority and centralized authority, we should be thinking responsiblity. That is what should local districts be responsible for and what should central/state offices be responsible for?

It is not the cynics that at fault here and even if we got rid of all of them, it would not change education by much.

The problem our schools face is that organizationally, each group (state, district, school, feds, etc...) claims some authority and yet there is *no one* that claims reponsiblity.

The distributed authority model that we are currently using has resulted in the continuation of the status quo.

To improve, one group has to take complete responsiblity. This could happen on a local, state or fed level. But this convoluted system that we currently have that everyone contributes their own "authority" without anyone taking responsiblity has resulted (and will continue to do so) in maintaining the status quo.

This is not a path towards improvement.

I think maybe we confuse "responsibility, "authority" and "control." They probably have overlapping meanings, but they are not the same.

It's worth reconsidering our devotion to a Constitution built around the distribution of all three! But responsibility needs to be most broadly distributed. More on this when I talk again by Geoff Canada and the schoo he started in Harlem!

How would she translate your ideas, Erin, when it comes to the authority that parents have?

Deb

Deb,

Our government system works as well as it does because responsiblity is clearly delineated and divided between the branches of goverment and there are appropriate checks and balances in the system. Not only that, we have a press tradition that scrutinizes every move that politicans do, the consequences of every law and the effects that laws have on people so we can have a national conversation on the pluses and minuses of any inititive. Education/schooling has no such structure and no comparable input from the pubic.

So who in education is reponsible for ensuring that children don't fall through the cracks? Who is reponsible for ensuring that the standards are obtainable, coherent and meet the needs of the student's education? Who is reponsible for making sure that the curricula used in classrooms fulfills the intent of the standards, allows for flexibility and yet ensures mastery for every child?

In our system, nobody. The current ed reforms talk excessively about accountability but what are schools/teachers supposed to be accountable to? Why aren't the district offices, the state offices, the feds, the standards developers, the test makers "accountable" as well?

The question we should be asking is: how do we set up a system with responsiblities clearly delineated with enough checks and balances so that the tests based upon rather faulty standards do not drive the entire process?

Improvements are never easy. For a school system to improve there needs to be tremendous coordination between curricula developers, standards makers, test makers, politicians and people setting long term educational goals along with district/school personnel and most importantly teachers.

Our system perpetuates the status quo because nothing within the school system (curricula developers, standards makers, test makers, teachers, etc...) has any support or organization imperative to improve.


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