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The Complexity of Becoming Well-Educated

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Dear Diane,

I knew Governor Hunt well during the early years of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. I enjoyed (and respected) his skill at heading (and herding) the motley group.

As one of its "founders," I look back at that whole enterprise with nostalgia. It was driven by three hopes (pushed by AFT and NEA leaders Al Shanker and Mary Futrell): first, to elevate the professional respect and voice of America's classroom teachers in determining classroom, school, and state policy (from schoolhouse to statehouse)—and thus also keeping more experienced teachers in the field; second, it hoped to demonstrate another way to make judgments about teachers and (I hoped) children (a combination of written and performance based work); and, finally, it offered the professional development community new ideas about the nature of teaching that could direct activities both in K-12 schools and in schools of education.

It was the product of a critical transitional period between the '70s and '90s, and while it "succeeded" in becoming a viable tool (my own daughter took it, passed it, and was impressed by its possibilities), it was rarely used for the first two purposes for which it was designed. I'm less knowledgeable about its impact on teacher education, but I saw little evidence that it stimulated better in-school professional discourse. Most of its failure lay in the fact that it was short-circuited by a new wave of standardized testing, and the narrowing of the definition of good teaching to standardized "bubble" tests. For the latter, little "innovation" was needed and teacher transience was perhaps a blessing.

It thus failed to create a new vision of what schools might look like, which was part of its original appeal. Teacher bashing and deprofessionalization overtook the NBPT's vision.

Could we get back to it? Would Hunt want to?

Yes, Diane, the gurus of finance, the "Ponzi" artists of our time, seem to have a hold on our imagination even at this time of Hope. The New Yorker piece by John Lanchester (Nov 10th) is an insight into the "futuristic" part of that mindset; but even in its saner legalistic and rational forms it looks at schools as, at best, a managerial a-human puzzle. It's almost a caricature of the mindset described by James Scott in "Seeing Like a State." The messages from Obama's camp are not clear enough for me to yet feel discouraged. George Packer's piece in the Nov 17th New Yorker is worth reading with his stirring ending—"The great American improvisation called democracy still bends along the curve of history." Possibly, but not if we don’t better utilize schools to this end.

Part of the mystery is in noting the difference between a good campaign (as run by Obama) and the building of a more democratic culture. The former indeed can be data-driven in its narrowest sense, corrected only by people's passions to hop on board. Campaigns are indeed the quintessence of a measurable product and are messed up by too many voices from below, back-seat drivers.

Becoming well-educated is more complex and cannot be driven by the same single-mindedness that a campaign can. It must, for one, last far longer than a campaign—a lifetime. But above all, since education for democracy requires a sea change in the culture of schooling, it requires the involvement of parents, lay citizens, teachers and, critically, students. There is no scientific proof that we can call on to measure the health of democratic culture. There are, once again, indicators—symptoms. But we all know that a totalitarian regime can fake the indicators (percentage voting, for example).

NYC's latest reporting of high school “grades” are indicative of how this can work. Virtually all high schools got an A or B this time around. (Note: Data is not collected on those schools that have only been in existence for 1-3 years, the newer small schools). I have seen no evidence that convinces me that there isn't a whole silent drop-out rate that goes “undetected”—especially as we hold kids over for more and more years before they get to high school. But even the external data we have (e.g. NAEP data) makes mincemeat of this one-year “miracle.”

Speaking of holdovers! Imagine, after years of arguing that holding kids over is a healthy step forward in grades 3-8, both NYC’s Joel Klein and Secretary of Ed Margaret Spelling define success in high school by only counting four-year graduates. Virtually all the experts I respect suggest that this step will lead to more push-outs, less outreach, and other creative forms of collecting data.

Are you working on your definition of how national standards would work—with or without Gates? Is your purpose to inform, educate, monitor, direct, or enforce?

Deborah


12 Comments

You want to 'build a more democratic culture' but what does that mean? Deciding something by vote and then forcing all to live by the decision is necessarily oppressive. It leaves no room for individual conscience, no respect for humanity.

Should I wait for the approval of the majority to be able to eat? Or to publish a novel? Or invent a cure for cancer? Or teach my children about the anti-governmentalism of the Spanish Scholastics?

In democracy there is no respect for freedom of speech, or freedom of anything, because freedom requires property rights a priori to democracy. I am sure you have heard of the saying 'Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch'.

Currently, voting is an act of theft leading to mass murder of innocent people in foreign lands. An educated person with a conscience should see democracy as an evil. I find it disgusting how the political class uses democracy as cover for their misdeeds and tyranny.

That the democratic myth is the civic religion taught in public schools means one thing: It is time to abolish public schooling.

Governor Jim Hunt let Darryl Hunt (Darryl), a black man wrongly accused of murder, languish in prison after he was cleared of the rape charge portion by DNA testing. Darryl was finally freed years later by the governor that followed.

This sad episode should, at the very least, call Jim Hunt's character into question.

But even if Hunt was acting without malice, the injustice that his office visited on Darryl should serve as evidence for disqualifying government as a proper manager of human lives.

So let us sum-it-up and transfer this wisdom to the problem of education:

Not only is government bureaucracy unfit to improve education, let it be added that humans are unfit to improve education via government bureaucracy.

Deborah,

Amen to your latest post and last week's also. Its no suprise that NCLB has led to a bubble in state test scores. Its approach to accountability was inspired by the values, the hubris, and the methodolgy that gave us the financial bubble. Wall Street was so confident in its mathematical models and numbers that didn't have any relation to reality, and they were supervised by a presidential administration that believed that reality was "the old paradigm."

But you continually take these issues to a deeper level. What well-educated person would believe that we can avoid trade-offs? Unless you believe in Voo Doo Economics, all of life has trade-offs. But look at the methodology of NCLB supporters. They want to replicate the "best practices" of effective schools in order to turnaround troubled schools. Where in the literature of their "reforms" do you see an acknowledgement of a "downside" to their policies? Where do they acknowledge the possibility of trade-offs? They are like a football team that runs a two-minute offense for the entire game but doesn't count fumbles, turnovers, and other errors.

I'm taking advantage of the financial collapse to relearn about economic cycles, and I just finished today's Times cover story. I mean this metaphorically, because I don't have the expertise to do otherwise. But think of the Times account of the fall of CitiCorp and insert the words education and schools for the words C.D.O. and economics. "Chuck was totally new. ... he didn't know a C.D.O. from a grocery list." Or "risk models never accounted for the possibility of a national housing downturn." Or, "Anything based on human endeavor ... involves risk-taking ..."

As the economy declines, we will see more expressions of human frailty as students bring their suffering to schools. Its bad enough that in good economic times that "reformers" were not aware that their data-driven accountability would be pushing vulnerable kids out of school. If they keep it up, we'll find that "they ain't seen nothin yet." My fear is that the risk-taking "reformers" will remain oblivious to the human side of education, they may not even see anything then, as reality slams like a sledgehammer into poor students, families, and schools.

Call me stupid but I just can't see how data-driven accountability must lead to pushing students out of the system.

Is life black and white for you? Might there not be room for some gray in there?

i.e. Might testing not give a number to taxpayers and parents so they can compare on their own? Might testing numbers not give something to shoot for?

"Are you working on your definition of how national standards would work—with or without Gates? Is your purpose to inform, educate, monitor, direct, or enforce?"

Not sure who this is directed at or how it ties into the main part of the blog story.

I don't see why power houses like Meier and Ravitch can't get together to make standards for one subject - say Math. How hard would it be to just start with k-5?

If the answer is we have a family to raise, retirement to ensure then OK - good reasons.

If both of you are well of but can't agree on stuff then the problem is ego - obviously we (the little peeps) aren't worth setting aside ego.

If both of you don't think it is worthwhile - then there's the problem we'll never agree because no one is willing to step up.

Reason wants nothing to do with democracy. Alredy, Dickey, you can see that we're hardly all in agreement even on bare purposes. For me it goes without argument that we'd want to "pass on" an understanding (positive) of democracy.

Of course, "raising the bar" leads to more kids failing to get over it. Unless we know much better ways of getting over it--which actually kdid happen in high jumping.

But generally when you put all your eggs in one basket (math and reading test scores) the way to "jump higher" is to practice the tet more and more, therefore driving other things not tested aside.

Furthermore it's not easy to agree on the best path for all kids from age 4-10 (for example) in math or reading--if one has high aspirations. No more than it is to try to get more kids talkin well by age 2, why not 1 1/2, etc etc. In part the problem is agreement about what aspects of math are most important, then how best to teach what's most important, and what to do about all those "deviant" kids who learn it best faster, slower or differently.

By the way, today we have a "black and white" situation: that is, it's all standardized tests. Period. Even the guys who create these tests think it can't be done this way. We're asking for some balance!

But, on the whole, Dickey, I have to assume your e-mails are a way to let off steam. Given all the non-latent hostility in that last e-mail, why otherwise (I wonder) are you reading us?

We're both past retirement, past raising kids, and therefore maybe we're just not such power houses.

Deb

To Commentors above: (this may be a repeat, but the other got messed up!)

Of course, "raising the bar" usually leads to more kids failing to get over it. Unless we know much better ways of getting over it--which actually did happen in high jumping.

But generally when you put all your eggs in one basket (math and reading test scores) the way to "jump higher" is to focus on the test more and more, therefore driving other things not tested aside.

Furthermore it's not easy to agree on the best path for all kids from age 4-10 (for example) in math or reading--if one has high aspirations. No more than it is to try to get more kids talking fluently by age 2, or, why not earlier, say 1 1/2, or even 1 etc etc. In part the problem is disagreement about what aspects of math are most important, then about how best to teach what's most important, and finally what to do about all those "deviant" kids who learn it best faster, slower or differently.

By the way, today we have a "black and white" situation: that is, it's all standardized tests. Period. Even the guys who create these tests think it can't be done this way. We're the ones asking for some balance==what you call "gray"!

But, on the whole, Dickey, I have to assume your e-mails are a way to let off steam. Given all the non-latent hostility in that last e-mail, why otherwise (I wonder) are you reading us?

We're both past retirement, past raising kids, and therefore maybe we're just not such power houses.

Deb

Reader "Reason" wants nothing to do with democracy. Alredy, Dickey, you can see that we're hardly all in agreement even on bare purposes. For me it goes without argument that we'd want to "pass on" an understanding (positive) of democracy.


p.s. My comments in letters are always in response to Diane and presume readers are more or less keeping up with both sides of the conversation. I was asking Diane to lay out how she might see national standards that weren't high stakes operating.

There's a mistaken assumption among many educators (including Dickey, it seems) that if we all just sat down and wrote curriculum together, we'd solve our problems. There's no lack of good curricula out there. There are deep disagreements about what a curriculum should be in the first place, and whether it should be "imposed."

It's like the assumption that if everyone got "politically involved," we'd have a better world. Of course, those who want such universal political involvement tend to see it on their own terms. Also, no degree of political involvement helps our world if we forget how to treat each other well.

It seems to me that Bridging Differences is not an "action blog," though actions do come up. It is not "solution-oriented" in the short term, though solutions are at times suggested. This, to me, is part of its strength and beauty. The dialogue between Deborah and Diane could point to deeper and more lasting solutions than are usually offered in education debates. Beyond that, it's a conversation, and conversations can take any number of directions. They are more playful than planning sessions and in many ways more interesting. They help us see past the traditional/progressive divide (or to understand it more clearly, as the case may be).

I had a related thought when attending a workshop on Singapore Math at the Core Knowledge conference. Singapore Math places heavy emphasis on mental arithmetic. Rote traditional stuff? Well, traditional it is. Rote, no. In mental arithmetic you consider a problem in many different ways. You learn that an arithmetic problem may have multiple correct approaches. Because you understand the underlying concepts, each solution makes sense.

When we get past the usual polemic, "traditional" and "progressive" approaches have a certain common ground. When we recognize this, the remaining differences are easier to understand. I admire this blog for going past the usual polemic, and for setting examples of thoughtfulness and courtesy.

P.S. I don't mean to plug Singapore Math here--I don't know enough about it. It reminds me of the mental arithmetic I learned in the Netherlands at age 10. Mental arithmetic is nothing new, but it was abandoned in the U.S. for a long time.

Diana,

You shouldn't hesitate to mention Singapore math because it is very relevant to our discussion. The careful development of foundational math ideas and skills by Singapore math in a child-friendly manner is outstanding and quite outside the typical understanding in US classrooms/curricula.

Curricula does matter in classroom instruction and should be a core subject in any ed reform discussion. (e.g. how are we going to improve curricula?)

The question of Singapore math is completely relevant to the national standards discussion as well.

At least one state (WA) has recommended rejection of Singapore math because it does not align with their standards. Does this mean that Singapore math is an inadequate program or does it mean that the standards are not written to enable quality learning?

Certainly, the sequence of topics and the number of topics covered (Singapore has less) is very different than seen in most US math curricula.

Considering that this type of math program is substantially superior to anything else currently available in the US, why are the standards being used to *reject* an essential tool that teachers could use to enable their students to learn math better?

If national standards would be a simple list of content topics to be covered in each grade (not that that would be easy to get agreement on either) then they might be of some use in improving classroom instruction.

But that is not how standards are viewed or written.

If Singapore math is so outstanding (and it is) at enabling students to learn, why is it not being embraced by the standards writers and not being implemented into our classrooms?

Erin,

My only hesitation was due to my ignorance. I like what I have seen of Singapore Math, but I have seen very little. I am not sure how it differs from European and Russian/Soviet math instruction over the past century at least. That doesn't detract from its merits at all; I simply wonder what makes it unique.

Diana Senechal

I think this would make a difference. There should be standards and certain guidlines to be followed. The curriculum should be understandable too.

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