Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of

Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stumbling into Critical Exploration

I'm linking to an exciting short essay by a former peer Paul Larochelle, an English teacher at ACS International School outside of London, published this month in English Journal:

(downloadable PDF file)

In his essay, Paul describes an experience that I've referred to as "stumbling into critical exploration." He was teaching the translated text of Elie Wiesel's Night, and when a student who was reading a different translation pointed out a significant discrepancy in the meaning of one line, Paul launched a class investigation into the two translations, in the process uncovering meaningful and substantive lessons about language use, grammatical concepts, and ultimately the writing process.

As this teaching narrative builds paragraph after paragraph, it illustrates so many of the most important lessons from my graduate school courses. I encourage you all to take a look. Happy reading!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Importance of Grit

Here is a recent book review written by a fellow Exploration Summer Program alum. It also has a connection to my Harvard Professor Eleanor Duckworth. Happy reading!!

In Praise of Grit:
Review of the research of Angela Duckworth
and Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

It seems that some of the lofty verities, such as loyalty, restraint, discipline, industry, and even talents and gifts such as intelligence and strength, must now take a backseat when it comes to predicting a person's success in the world. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania says that her research indicates that when it comes to "making it" -- professionally and personally -- nothing predicts the future like the prosaic attribute known as "grit."

Duckworth defines grit as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals." Grit proves not to be tied to IQ. Instead, grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. Most interestingly, grit is a more accurate predictor of success than intelligence.

Duckworth says that "the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course."

As to the question "Can perseverance be taught?", Duckworth and others answer, "most definitely." The bookSwitch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath offers a revealing example. The authors describe an experiment that took place in a middle school. In this school, students struggling with math were placed into two groups: one was taught generic study skills, the other was instructed in a "growth mindset" way. "Growth mindset" teaches students that the brain is like a muscle, and that with regular exercise, intelligence, and capability, it will grow. Students in this group learned not to be discouraged by frustration and early failure, and to stay the course and keep "exercising."

The results of this experiment were, in the words of the educators at the school, "astonishing." The group given regular training in generic study skills started their seventh grade year with a C+ in math. With the study skills help, they slipped to a C, and finally to a C-. The group given the training about grit but no additional math or study skill training significantly outperformed their peers in the class. And not just the ones who were struggling. They became the top students in the class.

With her research, Duckworth may have reminded us of something we have always known but recently forgotten. Notions such as "grit," "gumption," "pluck," and the like seem old fashioned and corny, good for their time but now considered quaint with our advanced knowledge of how the brain works. We spend millions of dollars on tutors and SAT prep courses for our children, hoping to compensate for subject-specific deficits our students may or may not have. But perhaps the greatest gift we can give our children is encouraging them to stick with it, teaching them that the road to knowledge, success, and happiness is long and slow, and that setbacks and discouragement are a normal part of the process.

What Duckworth is saying is that grit is not only the most important attribute to bring to school (or work, or marriage), but that it is teachable. Part of the way in which we can teach grit is to allow students to be frustrated, and to encourage them to hang in there and show that struggle is just part of the process. One of the downsides to contemporary psychology is our tendency to pathologize struggling and difficulty, assign it a name, and maybe later, a medication.

No doubt some struggles need a diagnosis and medicine to help, but Duckworth's caution against "premature rescue" is important here. Grit has no place to grow and show its magic if we as parents, teachers, and coaches substitute the hard and rewarding path of grit for a series of gentler quick fixes that promise "results now." As we mentor and parent young people, maybe it is important that we show some grit and some perseverance with the real journey that leads to the things that matter.

Review by David Torcoletti
Head, Exploration Junior Program

Pull Quote

Monday, March 28, 2011

We must not accept mediocrity!

A dear friend and substitute in my school building recently shared with me a series of emails she exchanged with the School Performance Director. This dialogue stemmed from a meeting she initiated about the lack of challenge and rigor present in her daughter's "Gifted and Talented" English class, which all eighth graders in her building now take. I think you will find the exchange enlightening and frustrating simultaneously.

Hi Kay,

I thought you might be interested in this correspondence. This is what we're up against! This is allegedly one of the best and brightest counties in the country. The mediocrity is painful.

Thank goodness your career path is taking you to administration. We need an infusion of bright creative young people so desperately. Watch out China..LOL.

Email 1 to School Performance Director:

As you may be aware, we had a meeting on February 25th, at [my child's school] with their administration and [my child's teacher] from your office. My husband and I are not satisfied with the response we received there. I am assuming that you have access to our past correspondence with the school, but if you don't, I'll be happy to forward all to you.

Our biggest concern is the lack of rigor in the 8th grade English curriculum being offered at the school. While we understand that the 'advanced' curriculum has been rolled at at all middle schools, there seems to be room for interpretation on its' implementation. [My child's teacher] stated "the curriculum is an inch deep and a mile wide".  Each school decides how it will be allocated, if you will. We looked at the two middle schools that feed to [my child's high school] with [my child's school] and found that they offered their students 'GT' english, while [my child's school] did not. This clearly puts our children at a  disadvantage.  

When they all meet at [my child's high school] next year, they will once again be placed in English classes which are appropriate to their reading levels. Why is this not happening at [my child's school]? The other middle schools have different expectations and rigor for their honors students, as it should be. Why is it okay to differentiate students based on math levels, but not on reading levels? Since when have the rules of the game changed?

According to everything we have learned this year, and the information we were given at the meeting, the decision on the implementation of the curriculum is up to the individual schools administration and resource team. If promoting critical thinking  is the goal, then the students need to be in an environment that stimulates their curiosity and challenges them. That is one of the main reasons for differentiation based on levels.  What can we do to effect change in their policy?

I will not bother you with the specifics of how this policy has negatively impacted our daughter; but simply ask that the policy be reviewed and revised. If and when the time comes that all middle schools adopt the same policy, then so should [my child's school]. [My child's school] boasts high test scores, but at what cost?

Email 2 from School Performance Director:

Let me begin by apologizing to you for taking a day to answer your email. I have been working in the schools for the past two days and wanted to have the time to give you a complete answer. I do applaud you for wanting to ensure that your daughter receives rigorous instruction that promotes the use of critical  thinking skills. These skills will be essential for our children as they prepare themselves for their future.

I can assure you that the new English curriculum is designed to interweave those critical challenges that will best prepare students for their high school work and, most especially, for their AP classes.  Presenting critical challenges is the very best way to differentiate instruction. It offers the challenges to all and can be accomplished in different ways by every child. Each child can think, imagine, and creatively solve those.

It is my job to monitor the achievement of student performance throughout all of our schools in our quad cluster. When I examine the performance data, as well as the enrollment data in honors classes and AP classes, I disaggregate it by subgroups and by feeder schools. This occurs from the high school straight down through the middle schools to the elementary schools. If I see a discrepancy anywhere along that articulation, Dr Kimball and I both work with the identified school to increase student achievement. I can unequivocally state that the students from Lakelands Middle School are as well prepared as Ridgeview students and often outperform them. This new English curriculum will replace the other in all of our middle schools.

Because of your concerns, I will  visit Lakelands and discuss them with Ms. Higdon. Additionally, we will do a walk-through of the English classes. Please know that I appreciate your advocacy for your daughter and have no doubt that with that kind of support, she will take full advantage of the accelerated courses available to her at the high school. Thank you so much for sharing this with me.

Email 3 from Parents:

Thank you so much for your prompt and thorough response. With all do respect, your reply still does not address the assimilation of on grade level and honors students into the same classes. If they are all being offered the same curriculum, then so be it. The students still should be placed according to level; not intergrated with no regard  to level. This differentiation begins in elementary school. At [one elementary] school, for example, the more advanced readers are offered the 'William and Mary' reading program. This clearly demonstrates the counties position on providing academic rigor to those students who are ready to excel. My children were both in [this school]; one was offered the program, and one was not.(as it should be). 

As far as I know, the county still places students in classes based on reading level; as determined by the MSA, and/or other standardized tests.  When did this change? Our concern is that the philosphy at [my daughter's school] is not in accordance with the rest of our consortium. How can this be?

Again, we appreciate your attention to this matter, and hope it can be resolved in a satisfactory way.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

How do we REALLY make classes more rigorous for our children??

With another budget crisis, class sizes are rising, numbers of teaching positions are dropping, and frustration among staff and parents is at an all-time high. With the ongoing push for accelerated, rigorous, gifted and talented (GT) instruction K-12, middle schools are also feeling the brunt of the beast. 

Every year, more and more students are pushed into advanced classes who are not ready or capable for the challenge -- at least yet. The result? Numerous classes, especially English and math courses, are filled with students with an enormous range of reading, skill, comprehension, and thinking abilities. 

Do not get me wrong. I am all for teachers differentiating their instruction to meet the needs of all learners. Totally. What I am not a fan of, though, is the consistent "watering down" of advanced grade-level curriculum and attempt to "teach to the middle." What results are high-achieving students who are not challenged, struggling students who feel even more frustrated, and teachers who ultimately feel depleted and unsuccessful. 

While I could go on and on, I thought you may be interested in some recent news in my county by a group of vocal parents finally expressing their concern over these classes:
As I mentioned at last night's Delegate Assembly, the Board Of Education has been receiving testimony of late in support of a campaign to eliminate the state-mandated identification of gifted and talented (GT) students.  The proponents of this campaign have stated their ultimate intent to eliminate any grouping of students by ability within [our county], which they describe as "tracking," in favor of placing all students in one-size-fits-all classes in which all students are expected to reach the same level of achievement.   

MCCPTA will be testifying next week to remind the Board of our stated positions, set forth in two recent resolutions, in favor of continued identification of GT students and continued recognition that a single level of instruction, no matter how rigorous, cannot meet the needs of the entire spectrum of students.  

The "No Labels" and "anti-tracking" campaign have been among the drivers behind the elimination of honors and GT instruction opportunities in favor of all students being placed in "advanced" classes in middle school and having their options for advanced instruction in high school limited to AP classes.  While many of us have mixed feelings about the necessity of labeling students as "GT" or "not GT," identificaiton of gifted students is mandated by state law.  Many of us also recognize that throwing out all academic grouping will harm students at ALL levels who need instruction tailored to their needs.  Numerous studies have shown that students at all ability levels benefit from flexible ability grouping that allows them to learn with peers and move between groups when ready. In addition, MCPS itself has issued a report saying that county teachers have not been able to "differentiate" effectively in our heterogeneous classrooms with our huge range of academic levels.  As class sizes go up in the current budget climate, it is even less likely that teachers will be able to simultaneously teach multiple levels of instruction in a single class period.  

Below is a petition from the Gifted and Talented Association of [our county], urging the county to continue to challenge EVERY child with appropriate levels of instruction, using flexible academic grouping, and to retain the state-mandated "GT" label. As parents, we know that [our county] does not "track" students based on the 2nd grade GT label--teachers and parents together choose the right level for each child in each subject area, sometimes choosing a high math level but on-level English, or vice versa, regardless of the "GT" label. 

Parents do now have the right, and will continue to have the right, to change their child's academic level in any subject, but only as long as we have academic levels to choose from! 

Here is the link to the petition:

Please pass it on to your local PTA eLists.  I will circulate MCCPTA's letter to the Board later today.  

Thank you,
__________________Chair, Gifted Child SubCommittee

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two Educational Theorists Duke it Out Over Testing!

There has been much recent debate on the short and long-term effects standardized testing has on our students. One such dialogue has been ongoing between renowned educational authors and theorists Debbie Meier and Diane Ravitch on the blog "Bridging Differences" at EdWeek Online:

Check it out below:

March 24, 2011

More Villainous Than Hypocrisy

Dear Diane,
It's summer in Argentina, and up here in Hillsdale, it has snowed again!!
On hypocrisy: I used to complain/explain to my left-wing friends that we should honor hypocrisy, because it's the only hope we have. It's precisely in the gap between our good intentions and our less worthy actions that we must negotiate the future.
I'm not sure it's hypocrisy that distorts the good sense of the new de-formers. What galls me most is that they have a very clearly different standard for themselves than for the rest of us. They know perfectly well that their advantages are advantages for their children and will fight to the death to preserve them. No matter how fast we line up after recess, there will be the same number at the end of the line. And the rich think they deserve to be at the front of the line.
If 1 percent of the people in the United States possess 90 percent of our wealth, the bottom 99 percent has very little capital with which to overcome the gap. And in the last 30-plus years they have lost out big time. But we have not all been equally inconvenienced.
When those who complain about public-employee pensions also worry about the cost to the public good of their own pensions—and the built-in life pensions that their own children get from the moment of birth—I'll listen more carefully to their economic theories. Do they think they should dispose of their wealth at their death so that their children's children won't be crippled by their "private" welfare system, protected from the insecurities that the rest of us try to avoid? No, they don't. They have achieved the unthinkable—the near abolition of the estate tax, which has been in existence for as long as I've been alive.
Do they note that research suggests that their children in particular don't need small class sizes? If so, why do they insist on schools for their children in which class sizes rarely go above 15?
If collective action—unions—seems un-American, why do the rich create institutions in which they, too, pool their wealth with their peers in order to lobby for their self-interests and bargain with their legislators for more favors?
We do them a favor to call it merely hypocrisy. It's more villainous.
That same Commonweal magazine that I praised a while back had a great story questioning the phrase "I've been blessed," and other such expressions for what is, at best, good luck. Being born in the United States to middle-class parents and in good health was surely not because of my pre-birth virtues. But the consequences, for me and my offspring, are enormous—far greater than justice can account for. Or God.
So here, Diane, are some words about what we might, without hypocrisy, fight FOR: (1) an agreement that we are influenced by the experiences, habits, and dispositions of our childhoods—including our schools;(2) that the dispositions—intellectual, social, and moral—that democracy rests upon require deliberate support and nourishment;(3) and that therefore our schools must first and foremost either provide support for such dispositions, or harm them.
Democracy rests on an agreement that disagreements are inevitable and healthy and that democracy is at its best a way to sort them out with the least harm to the weakest and least of its citizens. (I'm sure this has been said better.)
I've written elsewhere on the intellectual/cognitive "habits of mind" that I think are critical (See The Power of Their Ideas or In Schools We Trust). In turn, these rest on two dispositions: a healthy skepticism, informed and open to the possibility that "I" might even be wrong, and (2) informed empathy. Others have other formulas for such an education, which my recent visit to the Carolina Friends Schools reminded me.
Every single academic discipline can support such dispositions—or they can be neutral or can literally undermine them. We have choices to make. We won't all make the same ones, but being public requires us to justify our choices and acknowledge the trade-offs and may even limit some of those choices. Thus, we always confront dilemmas.
The structure of our current schools did not, does not, and will not be up to such a task, and was not intended to be. But it did not come to us from above and can be redesigned best from below. (For example, I'm inclined to think that between the ages of 12 and 15 we need something very different from "school" as we know it, and that a full liberal-arts education might well be best postponed until we are at least 30 years of age.)
And, until we greatly eliminate the gross inequalities between all of us in real life, we should not presume that schools can compensate for the differential impact of society on such dispositions. But it can do its best—which means that it can offer the "capital" needed to make sense of the world as it is, and recognize when we are being conned and stupefied—something we do not yet have any "objective" test for measuring. The best we can do is place our unwarranted trust in the school community, within the widest and least onerous boundaries. There is not a single "best" curriculum nor a single best way of governing democratically. Out of such diversity we will learn, although we may never find consensus on the details, nor need we. That's the task we took on at Central Park East/Central Park East Secondary School/Mission Hill; I regret that so few are able anymore to do what we did without paying a far greater price—if they're able to do so at all.
P.S. Finally: Yes, "commenter" Fallon, I consider democracy the best attempt to gain freedom for myself without expecting others to pay for it with their "non-freedom."

March 22, 2011

An Age of Hypocrisy

Dear Deborah,
In an earlier post, I questioned whether we live in an age of national insanity. I did so because it seems insane to think that we can improve our nation's schools by attacking teachers and the education profession and by turning public funds over to the private sector. After I reflected a bit more, I began to wonder if we actually live in an age of national stupidity, because our policymakers are pursuing policies that have no evidence to support them; this is what they think of as "innovation." When a policy fails again and again (like merit pay) and you push it through anyway, that's not "innovation," it's willful ignorance and stupidity.
In the wake of the events of the past few weeks, I have concluded that we also live in an age of hypocrisy. We see governors and legislatures claiming the mantle of "reform" as they slash school funding, increase class size, attack teachers' benefits, and hack away at the programs and services available to children. In Detroit, the Broad-trained emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, plans to close half the public schools and increase class sizes to 60, to address the deficit. He seems eager to convert as many public schools as possible into charter schools. Michael Winerip of The New York Times visited Detroit and reported that the charter schools in that city get no better results than the regular public schools. Corporate reformers are convinced that charter schools will somehow be cheaper, but I have observed that over time, charter operators complain loudly that they are not getting the same funding as the regular public schools. So, over time, they get no better results and bring about no savings. What will we gain by eviscerating the public sector?
In Florida, the "reform" legislation eliminates teacher tenure and bases 50 percent of teachers' evaluations on standardized test scores. The legislation also calls for merit pay for test-score gains and requires districts to develop tests in every subject that is taught, including art, band, choir, physical education, and on and on. Critics warned that the legislation was a multi-billion-dollar unfunded mandate, because the legislature is not providing funding for merit pay or for test development. I don't know whether this legislation is stupid or insane; I expect it is both. It certainly will not improve the quality of teaching and learning in Florida. I note that Michelle Rhee advised Gov. Rick Scott on his "reform" agenda. Shame on her.
In South Carolina, the legislature plans to cut $12 million from funding for physical education and guidance counselors, but managed to find $25 million to fund new charter schools. So, all the children in the state will be less fit so a handful of children can attend privately managed charters. Makes sense, no? Oh, yes, the legislature also found $10 million to pay for a golf tournament. I guess the money isn't all gone, but priorities have changed.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker pushed through his legislation to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public-sector unions, as part of his "education reform" agenda. The same legislation permits the governor to sell public utilities without competitive bidding. Being a true corporate reformer, Gov. Walker wants to lift the income cap on vouchers, so that everyone can attend non-public schools at public expense. He wants more charter schools. And he wants to cut the budget for public education by $900 million.
While right-wing governors impose cuts on the public schools and lay off thousands of teachers, the corporate reformers are strangely silent, perhaps because the dramatic reductions in education budgets are accompanied by cuts to corporate/business taxes. When states and cities face deficits, as they do, why is it okay to impose sacrifices on public schools, but not impose taxes on the richest members of our society? Forbes recently posted a list of the richest people in the world and noted that there are now more than 400 Americans who are billionaires. Bully for them, but why shouldn't they pay more in taxes? They can certainly afford it. Will Mark Zuckerberg move to a tax haven if he is asked to pay more in taxes? I don't think so.
The governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, is lowering taxes on businesses while increasing taxes on poor and working-class people. Snyder plans to cut business taxes by 86 percent, which will cost the state nearly $2 billion in revenues. He will make up the difference by raising personal income taxes and hiking the rates on the lowest earners (but not the richest!). If a town or school district faces a deficit because of the state's reckless tax cuts for business, then the governor will have the power to remove the elected government and replace it with an emergency financial manager, empowered to break any and all contracts and rule by decree. As E.D. Kain wrote inForbes online, why are there no protests from the Tea Party or Fox News about these big-government policies in Lansing that suspend democracy? There is a word for this kind of anti-democratic collaboration between business and government, but we haven't used it much since the 1940s: fascism.
Where are our nation's priorities? If you missed it, I hope you will read Paul Krugman's excellent column on "The Forgotten Millions" in The New York Times.
Some of the corporate reformers say that school budgets must be cut because "the money is all gone," or "we are broke." E.J. Dionne answered that claim in The Washington Post. Certainly, if we refuse to tax the people who have the most money, then we are broke.
It is simply astonishing that the richest nation in the world can't or won't provide a good education to all its children.
An age of insanity? No, these are rational people. An age of stupidity? No, these are people who could probably do quite well on an IQ test. An age of hypocrisy? Yes. An age of meanness? Yes. What do you think?

March 17, 2011

Something to Fight For

Dear Diane,
It has been reported that 56 percent of black Chicagoans (over the age of 16) are not employed, 21 percent are officially unemployed, and a third live in poverty. These figures are double and triple those for whites. So says my friendDon Rose (based on data from Megan Cottrel of The Chicago Reporter in a piece titled "Second City or Dead Last"). But more and more members of the lower-middle-class white community are moving in this direction, too. In fact, it's even affecting—less dramatically—the solid middle class (like my own children and grandchildren). Isn't it time to look beyond schools to blame our plight?
But it's considered "soft racism" to mention these factors as relevant to the test-score gap, the graduation-rate gaps, etc. We are expected to believe that young people growing up in such intensely poor communities will not be damaged by it unless we have "low school expectations"—plus lazy, overpaid, unionized teachers!
But then there are the tax cuts for millionaires, not to mention all the "minor" tax advantages we provide the rich ("estate planning" techniques that poor children's families can't take advantage of, tax breaks for off-shore operations, and on and on). This is money that gets poured into improving the lot of the families of the super-rich, providing their kids with smaller class sizes without sacrificing higher-paid teachers or any of the other trade-offs (cutting music, cutting art) we suggest for public education.
Yes, poverty can sometimes be overcome with hard work and high expectations—plus luck. So why am I so grateful that my own children do not face the harshest choices?
Of course we know that this whole rhetoric of "try harder" is an excuse for us to make sure it doesn't cut into our comfortable lives. Consciously? Unconsciously? It's too obvious to think the connection is missed by the best-educated in the land. I may lose a few friends by saying it, but it's hurting me too much not to do so.
Democracy simply will not, even in its present rather shallow form, survive such disparities, and the absurd mindset of those who excuse it, ignore it, or feel sure it cannot ever happen to them and theirs must be changed.
When I suggested, last week, that the winners are not safe either, I was partially thinking of the environment we share. I was also thinking of public parks, streets, and on and on, unless we literally intend to build two separate worlds for the haves and growing numbers of have-nots. Aren't we, to some extent, in this together?
But what infuriates me equally is that the money we DO spend on education is not spent to protect democracy for rich or poor. It's built on a huge hoax that we've bought into because tackling the reality is fraught with risks. What I admired about John Dewey was not so much his pedagogical ideas as his willingness to confront the class nature of education.
Schools as we know them were never designed to level the playing field—but at their best to raise the floor for all. Public schooling wasn't until recently even designed to include people of color or most women and poor people beyond grammar school. In 1900, only a small percentage of people graduated from high school and maybe 2 percent went on to college—and most of those weren't considered by colleges to truly be "ready." I was born at the moment in history when a majority of young people entered high school for the first time; and, it wasn't until after World War II that a majority graduated. I'm preaching to the expert! Sorry, Diane.
We now have 12 years plus many all-day kindergartens to do what schools once had a few years to do. The labor movement, among others, spent 100 years pushing not only for fairer wages, but a fairer and longer system of schooling. But the movement didn't get far before it was overcome by the modern state of our other union—the United States of America.
In all these years we have never seriously confronted society with the question of "why?" Do we really want schools to undo our class divisions? Do we want them to produce adults who are members of a shared and commonly cherished adult world—with inequities that we could all imagine living with? With adults who more or less equally appreciate and utilize democracy for their own self-interests, have more or less equal access to the media, to political influence, with fair and equal protection of the law?
I'd like, Diane, given the obvious reality of the above (it's said harshly, but isn't it the simple truth?), to suggest we shift the discussion. Maybe it's time to think together about what schooling could be if we truly saw it as the bedrock of democracy—if we imagined we cared enough for the future of democracy to put everything we have into using schools toward such an end. We need something to fight FOR, not just against. The billionaires' reforms take us backward, so what would forward look like?
Let's take seriously that democracy rests on a people with more or less equal access to the power of the mind and the power to be heard. The events in Egypt and Wisconsin give me the courage to imagine there might be a brighter future ... someday ... on behalf of such an agenda. How does a truly good education fit into such a dream?
I have some ideas I'd like to throw out for criticism next week. Now I'm off to North Carolina, and then to Ann Arbor, Mich., to visit two good schools—one private (a Friends school) and one public.

March 15, 2011

Lessons From Wisconsin

Dear Deborah,

Last week, I wrote from Madison, where I spoke about the historical context for the current corporate reform movement. When I agreed to speak at the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, I had no idea that I would arrive as the issues in that state reached a boiling point. Gov. Scott Walker said the state was broke; he made financial demands on the public-sector unions, and they capitulated to all of them. All that remained was his insistence on stripping public-sector unions of most of their collective-bargaining rights. 

When I was there, the "
Wisconsin 14" were still in hiding, and there were rumors that Gov. Walker might be willing to compromise. But I read in the Madison newspaper that Walker was well-known for his opposition to any compromise, and I didn't see why anyone expected that he might drop his plans to destroy his political opponents.

We now know that he had no intention of compromising, that he wanted to lure at least one Democratic state senator back so he could push his "budget repair" bill through. And we know now that he took the financial issues out of the bill, making it possible for the Republicans in the Senate to pass the legislation without a quorum, eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers.

He expects that over time, most public workers will stop paying dues, especially now that they have to pay more for their healthcare and pension benefits. And thus will he cripple, perhaps permanently, a perennial political opponent. 

If Gov. Walker succeeds, there will be no organized voice to oppose his "reform" plans. He can raise the income cap on vouchers, letting everyone leave the public schools if they choose. He can create hundreds of charter schools, opening the riches of that sector to any willing corporation. He can cut the education budget, increase class sizes (Arne Duncan and Bill Gates say that's a creative idea), oust teachers whose students don't get higher test scores. 

Gov. Scott Walker may indeed be the face of corporate reform. Unimpeded, he can bring to fruition the worst of all their ideas. He joins the march of Republican governors (and a few mayors as well) who think that school reform begins with crushing the teachers' unions, eliminating tenure, due process, and seniority, and firing 5 to 10 percent of teachers every year. 

I'm a great believer in historical accuracy, a habit I find hard to shake, and the value of reading original sources. So here is one I would like to mention to Gov. Walker and his fans: The 
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted by the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948. To be sure, the document is aspirational; it represents our highest ideals for human rights and dignity, not the realities of 1948 or 2011. It was drafted by a commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Article 23, Section 4 says: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests." The United States signed it. Eight nations opposed it, some in the Communist bloc, but also South Africa, which objected to its commitment to racial equality; and Saudi Arabia, which objected to its affirmation of religious freedom. 

Add Gov. Walker to that list of eight. And the governors of Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho, Ohio, and several others. They are fighting a movement that enabled millions of working-class Americans to enter the middle class. They are opposed to a basic human right.


March 10, 2011

What Are the Winners Thinking?

Dear Diane,
It's a winter wonderland here—with ice glistening on all the branches. Except that some of those branches are now no longer connected to trees, and our lawn is filled with limbs. After our electricity went out, we finally trooped off to my daughter's house for the night. It's still not on as we approach another night.
So I haven't been thinking about what to write. I feel our case is so obvious and irrefutable, and well-documented that the only people who disagree with us won't be persuaded by anything we say. Leonie Haimson's Class Size Matters website has continuing, non-stop ammunition for your case and mine, Diane.
So I turned to my friend Linda Nathan's blog, which tells all about the life of her school (Boston Arts Academy in Boston). This very innovative school—based on habits of mind and graduation by real exhibitions of knowledge and skill—is a reminder of why "ordinary" public schools can, with the full support of a union, do remarkable things. We have such examples all over the country, if we can make sure they don't disappear under the pressure to fall in line with the latest reform ("deform") ideas. Next time folks ask, "but what else can we do?"—tell them to write me, and I'll send them places they can visit.
Linda is an example of someone who has been at this longstanding struggle to change the norms of schooling for a very long time. She, with Larry Myatt, founded the Fenway High School 25 years ago, which also has had a remarkable history of success. In short, it's not unions that stop us. And I think both Linda and I would say that having a union school made our life easier, not harder. The Boston union, like New York UFT, has for the most part seen our kind of work as enhancing teacher power over the critical decisions that affect young people's lives. My default position: decisions should be made as close to the action as possible.
How did this current nonsense happen—all this "children first" talk, as though adults are a danger to the young? Or the default position of viewing teachers as bad, unless otherwise proven. Of course, I was sometimes furious at the teachers my kids had. But I find infuriating teachers in the private sector, too. It's not easy to know who is a good doctor either. I "fired" two in my lifetime. One doctor told me I had just had a massive heart attack, and I should go check in at the nearby (10 blocks away) emergency room. Fortunately I ran into a friend who hailed a taxi and got me there. (It turned out I didn't have a heart attack.) The other prescribed a medication that caused spectacular pain because someone forgot to check the rate at which it ought to be administered. Still, both these doctors are loved by friends of mine who dismiss my experience as an aberration. Maybe so.
When I started Mission Hill I hired two teachers who had been fired by a local private school, and I never regretted it. I hired a third who had been fired (yes, it can be done) from a local public school. In addition, I've had very direct personal evidence about how easy it is to "get rid" of teachers—if the superintendent and/or principal want to badly enough. In fact, it's too easy. And the impact on school morale—for parents, kids, and teachers—is often ignored because those fired are often great teachers.
I read a news article the other day that highlighted four or five young teachers who might lose their jobs if "last in, first out" layoff policies aren't toppled. I was sad, but imagine what the stories might read like if we were looking at four or five senior teachers (say in their 50s). All over America folks with or without college degrees are losing their jobs in their 50s because they cost too much and are soon likely to be able to retire with pensions! Try finding a new job when you're 50.
I fear we're back, public-policy-wise, to the year I was born, 1931, when most of what we know as the American dream was still to come. We talk a lot about "the good old days," but we forget that it took sweat and tears to win the battles that created that large middle class. And that even at its best we have had greater poverty than any of our European competitors.
Read Paul Krugman's piece in Monday's New York Times about why even if we had 100 percent college graduation rates, it wouldn't help the jobs picture. When we panic people and miseducate them they fall for false solutions. The solution to our economic woes lies in restoring our determination to recreate a healthy economy that works for most of the people most of the time; one that cries "shame" when the reckless rich play games with the hard-earned money of their fellow Americans and expect the victims to clean up after them while they get away scot-free. The only one we really went after was Bernard Madoff—maybe because he fleeced the rich? (He also fleeced a lot of do-good causes I care about.)
My husband just called, the lights have gone on at home. As I say that, I am reminded of 1945, when we all celebrated the lights going on all over the world! One of our readers thinks I have false nostalgia about that period. Probably true. I was 14 and it seemed that a new day had dawned. I believed in the myth of progress—and knew it would just get better and better. I wish my grandchildren could feel that way today, even if it's mythic. We could use some of that enthusiasm to take on the future. So I take heart that all over the world the "bosses" are worrying about their restless subjects. It may be that we shall lose most of these battles, but it assures me that the lights have not gone out.
But it also makes me wonder what the "winners" are thinking. They may have insured their children's futures, but in the long run we all live on the same planet.