Tag Archives: education

Education: A process rather than a product

My colleague David Perrin has published an op-ed in EdWeek where he points out the value of thinking of education as a process, rather than thinking of education as the creation of a product.

Process is what education fundamentally (and etymologically) is, an “educing” or drawing forth of intellectual potential through the cultivation of habits of mind. Habits of mind can be fostered in a variety of ways, such as writing, researching, using project-based learning and cooperative learning, connecting new learning to personal interests, generating multiple solutions to problems, playing devil’s advocate, finding joy in discovery, and recognizing the integral roles of metacognition, and even failure, in the learning process. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, as all of these processes, and many others, are vital to education. Yet few of them register well, if at all, on a standardized multiple-choice test.

The processes of teaching and learning can be messy and nebulous—if not impossible—to quantify. They are also unglamorous; they will never grab headlines the way that national sports championships, or even educational test results, do. As long as politicians and society insist on reducing “success” in education to the product of test scores, dedicated teachers, like Coach John Wooden, will have to block out the noise of “winning,” so that they can focus on the quiet yet vital processes of teaching and learning, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.


Links on education: Gates Foundation, tenure lawsuit, Ravitch on Common Core

1. The powerful influence of Gates Foundation on education policy.

2. One school shooting a week: a list.

3. Laptops in classrooms can interfere with learning.

4. In Vergara v. California lawsuit, a ruling that tenure may be discriminatory against students in the worst schools. More here. The judge’s decision may be based on a guesswork statistic. Such a move may not improve education, at least not as much as reducing segregation would.

5. Cheating as a form of learning.

6. A thorough criticism of Common Core by Diane Ravitch. Some highlights:

I was not aware of this: that the union of which I am a member took money from Gates Foundation (see #1 above) to promote Common Core:

Both the NEA and the AFT accepted millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote Common Core, and both have been steadfast supporters. The leaders began to complain about poor implementation only after they heard large numbers of complaints from their members about lack of resources, lack of professional development, lack of curriculum, etc.

“Value-Added Measurement” of teachers is not legitimate:

the American Statistical Association issued a report a few weeks ago warning that “value-added-measurement” (that is, judging teachers by the scores of their students) is fraught with error, inaccurate, and unstable.

Ravitch summarizes that “there is no evidence that national standards produces higher achievement, nor that they reduce achievement gaps. They certainly do not overcome the burdens of homelessness, hunger, lack of medical care, or overcrowded classrooms,” and she writes that she advised policymakers to test out the Common Core standards before issuing them nationally.

[I]t is far too soon to judge Common Core’s efficacy. But that is the fault of those who wrote it. In 2009, when I met at the Aspen Institute with the authors of the Common Core, I urged them to field test it so they would find out how it works in real classrooms. They didn’t. In 2010, I was invited to the White House to meet with Melody Barnes, the director of domestic policy; Rahm Emanual, the White House chief of staff; and Ricardo Rodriguez, the President’s education advisor, and they asked me what I thought of Common Core. I urged them to field test it. I suggested that they invite 3-5 states to give it a trial of three-five years. See how it works. See if it narrows the achievement gap or widens the achievement gap. They quickly dismissed the idea. They were in a hurry. They wanted Common Core to be rolled out as quickly as possible, without checking out how it works in real classrooms with real teachers and real children.

National standards maybe aren’t all that important internationally, at least not as much as poverty lowers U.S. scores:

Are our kids left behind by China, South Korea and Germany? Not really. Maybe not at all. It is true that we get mediocre scores on international tests, but we have been getting mediocre scores on international tests since the first such test was offered in 1964. We were never a world leader on the international tests. Most years, our scores were at the median or even in the bottom quartile. Yet in the intervening fifty years, we have far surpassed all those nations–economically, technologically, and on every other dimension– whose students got higher test scores. Basically, the test scores don’t predict anything about the future of the economy. Should we worry that Estonia might surpass us? The fact is that our international scores reflect the very high proportion of kids who live in poverty, whose scores are lowest. We are #1 among the rich nations of the world in child poverty; nearly one-quarter of our children live in poverty. Our kids who live in affluent communities do very well indeed on the international tests. If we reduced the proportion of children living in poverty, our international test scores would go up. But in the end, as I said, the international scores don’t predict anything other than an emphasis on test-taking in the schools or the general socio-economic well-being of the society. We would be far better off investing more money in providing direct services to children–small classes for struggling students, experienced teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and a full curriculum–rather than investing in more test preparation.

I really enjoyed where Ravitch advocates teachers bringing their passions to the classroom and students experiencing joy in learning:

I see no advantage in “having a teacher in Alaska teach more or less the same thing as a teacher in Alabama.” What’s the point of that? If the teacher in Alabama is passionate about the work of Flannery O’Connor, let him or her teach it with passion. If the teacher in Alaska is fascinated with the arctic tundra, teach it. … A study by Tom Loveless of Brookings … point[s] out that the Common Core standards were likely to make little or no difference in achievement. After all, states with high standards have wide variations in achievement, as do states with low standards.

I see no value in the arbitrary division between literature and informational text prescribed in the Common Core. I know where the numbers come from. They were instructions to assessment developers of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (I served on its governing board for seven years). The ratios were not intended as instructions to teachers. This is balderdash. English teachers should teach what they know and love. If they love fiction, teach it. If they love nonfiction, teach it. Why should a committee with no classroom teachers on it in 2009 tell reading teachers how to apportion their reading time? I doubt that teachers of math and science will spend any time on fiction anyway.

[A] belief in using test scores to hold teachers accountable has no research to support it, nor is there any real-world evidence. Many districts have tried this for four or five years and there is no evidence–none–that it produces better teachers or better education. The ratings, as noted above, are arbitrary, and say more about classroom composition than about teacher quality. Nor is there any evidence that education gets better if teachers everywhere are using a common script. Doing well in school depends on family support, student motivation, community support, adequate resources, class sizes appropriate to the needs of the children, experienced teachers, wise leadership, and students who arrive in school healthy and well-fed.

Frankly, I don’t understand why [people would] oppose “joy” in the classroom. Why should school be so “hard” that it makes children cry? It is true that some assignments are hard; some books are hard to read; some math problems are hard to solve. We learn from doing things that are not necessarily joyful, but that engage us in work that stimulates us to think harder, try harder, persist. When we are done with hard work, yes, it is a joyful feeling. Maybe it is because I am a grandmother, but I want my grandchildren to approach their school work with earnestness and to sense the joy of accomplishment, the joy of learning. I want my grandchildren to love learning. I want them to read books even when they are not assigned. I want them to go to the Internet to find things out because they are curious.

Why teachers need tenure

The article in the 19 May New Yorker about the push for reform in the Newark, New Jersey, public schools — a push led by local politicians and outsider rich donors — contains a lot of anecdotes that fuel the arguments of those who would be skeptical of such highly hyped (this particular effort was first announced on the Sept. 24, 2010, “Oprah” show) endeavors.

This particular reform was led by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support and permission (as the state of New Jersey had official control over the Newark school district) from Governor Chris Christie. Through connections with Wall Street supporters, Booker also got the support of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, along with a promised donation of $100 million.

It was remarkable to read about how fluidly connections can be made among people at the upper echelons of government and business, particularly in contrast to the lack of helpful connections obtained by the teachers and students in these public schools. The article describes it thus:

At the start of Booker’s career, Ed Nicoll [Booker’s Yale Law School friend] had introduced him to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick, who became an admirer. Bodnick was an early investor in Facebook, and he married the sister of Sheryl Sandberg, who later became the company’s chief operating officer. In June, 2010, Bodnick tipped off Booker that Mark Zuckerberg was planning “something big” in education. Bodnick also told him that in July Sandberg and Zuckerberg would be attending a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Booker was scheduled to speak. Booker said Bodnick told him to be sure to seek out Sandberg, who would connect him to Zuckerberg.

And it’s not entirely novel for the Facebook founder to be interested in paying to advance a particular ideology of education reform, as wealthy people have been doing so for a while:

In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

When Zuckerberg started learning about public education, he was struck by the contrast between the cultures of public education and software start-ups:

Zuckerberg attracted young employees to Facebook with signing bonuses far exceeding the annual salary of experienced Newark teachers. The company’s workspace had Ping-Pong tables, coolers stocked with Naked juice, and red-lettered motivational signs: “STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING”; “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS”; “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?” In the Newark schools, nothing moved fast, and plenty of people were afraid. Like almost every public-school district, Newark paid teachers based on seniority and on how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither qualification guaranteed effectiveness. Teachers who changed students’ lives were paid on the same scale as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wanted to know.

On reading this quote, I realized Zuckerberg and the other leaders involved in this effort had no idea of what brings teachers into the classrooms and motivates them through the 30-plus years of their careers.

As a teacher myself, let me try to explain why I want to work in a system like that.

Sure, at first hearing, it sounds like it would be nice to get a big signing bonus, free juice, and merit pay. But instead of taking the upside reward, I’d prefer to teach under a union contract that protects me against downside risk. Zuckerberg may see that as an attitude of fear, but his attitude that teaching is just like any other job is part of what I fear.

First, let me say that becoming a teacher is, for most of us, a career-long commitment. While some teachers become administrators, and many leave teaching altogether, those teachers who stay understand that there are no promotions (which promotions are a primary motivation for most corporate-type employees, I’ve been told). Teaching requires a different mindset from private-sector employment. Teachers expect to be doing the same job — in my case, spending every workday trying to supervise and teach over 100 teenagers — for 30-plus years. Not every adult would want to take on this job, but in all honesty, what is worthwhile about the job is seeing growth in the particular students — funny, creative, smart, shy, difficult, frustrating students. Also, while my job definition is the same every year, what I do in class is not: every year has new students to work with and new assignments to create and use, and every year I’m a different, hopefully better, teacher.

But this is also a job where successes are not always easy to see. Students continue to make mistakes in their essays that I know I’ve corrected for them earlier in the semester. Students who have disabilities and disadvantages may require more of my time and energy and still not accomplish things as well as students for whom schoolwork comes easily. Particular combinations of students in a class may work well together, while other groups have clashing personalities (and thus may accomplish less). And when school reformers want to measure my teaching performance by a test (of questionable validity) that is mostly meaningless to students themselves taking it, I don’t expect the resulting test scores to really be meaningful for my teaching, either.

And there is almost no way to truly measure one of those aspects of teaching that matter most: how a student responds emotionally and intellectually to a teacher. Does a student feel respected by the teacher? Does the student feel the teacher is “with it” and capable? Does a student feel interested in the classwork and motivated to try to learn?

These are just some of the multitude of issues that affect teaching and learning. So when ideas to fix education by introducing “sweeping changes” — such as charter schools and more high-stakes testing — come from politicians seeking promotion, we teachers tend to be skeptical. We’ll keep our union contracts that ask us to keep at the never-resolved struggle to teach without having to concern ourselves about whether we’ll get merit pay. We’ll keep our tenure protections that, not unlike civil-service protections, keep us front-line workers insulated from the whims of political leaders. We’ll still be in the classrooms when the politicians have moved on (as Newark Mayor Booker did, just three years after his announcement on “Oprah”) and when newly elected politicians, all too often ignorant of what actual teaching is actually like, have announced new and different reform measures.

Education is not a problem that will ever have a clear and simple solution. The problem/solution formulation may be a business paradigm (the “putting out fires” mindset), but it’s not the rhetoric of teaching and learning, endeavors in which every individual starts from his/her own unique perspective, and advances in his/her own way, and heads toward an outcome (of life-long learning) that may never be fully known. Learning has no end, no goal, ultimately, and is an ongoing, nebulous thing. Any attempt to define ideal or perfect teaching and learning is absurd.

So of course, there are schools and teachers that are not as good as others. (And half of all doctors graduated in the bottom of their med-school classes.) It’s a shame when any student must spend time every day with an inept or cruel teacher. But short of us all living in a perfect world, I don’t how to prevent that. We do what we can. We try to improve. And maybe students will learn the social skills of how to deal with teachers like this — as have we adults all had to learn to deal with people like this.

I see the public school system as an effort to help as many people as possible to become more educated. This attempt occurs within certain constraints — for example, we don’t have resources to tutor students, so we put them together in classes of 20 or more; we have school calendars and day-schedules to stick to; we have limited, sometimes severely limited, resources — and most of us in public education try to do as much as we can for students under these conditions.

Our public schools are for the children of the public and are operated by the representatives of the public. This sometimes puts schools in the position of reacting to the shifting demands of democratic voters and bureaucratic “visionaries.” As a teacher, I would not reject oversight, but I would hope that such oversight interrupt as little as possible the daily, never-ending challenge of helping each student partake more fully in the intellectual and cultural life.



A paradox of the Common Core’s hubristic creators

The Common Core — the recently devised set of K-12 English and math standards along which the curricula of many schools are being rewritten — has now drawn the ire of comedian Louis C.K., who complains (here and here) about the Common-Core-oriented homework his daughters have brought home.

As a high school teacher who’s skeptical of both the need for national standards and of the particular skills and tasks the Common Core demands of students (see also here, here, here, here, and here), I’m glad to see criticism of the Common Core draw attention.

But one of the most insightful criticisms of the Common Core that I’ve heard came from my high school creative writing student Robert M. in class last week. I’m not sure why Robert and the other seniors were talking about the C.C. as class began, but they were, and Robert made this argument:

The people who made these standards — they were educated without the Common Core curricula. So if these old curricula were so inadequate, doesn’t that suggest that these Common-Core creators were themselves educated inadequately, perhaps so inadequately that they should not be making new standards themselves? And conversely, if the Core creators were educated well-enough to be qualified to make new standards, doesn’t that suggest that the Core standards aren’t necessary?

At the very least, the Common Core standards are untried, are an educational experiment that doesn’t do anything to address the issue that seems most-important to helping more students have educational success. (See also this.)

And of course, not all teaching methods that have been tried over the last few decades (the time during which today’s educational leaders were themselves educated) have been shown to be effective.

But Robert’s argument points out the massive hubris involved in a small group of people trying to remake the schooling of an (almost) entire nation according to the Common Core’s narrow conception of what it means to be educated.

And Robert noticed this paradox in the Common Core even though he himself has not been educated by these standards.

The Common Core as a religion

Time for a metaphor: I’m wondering if the Common Core education standards are the foundational text of a new religion.

(Regarding the relevance of metaphor within the Common Core, here’s “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.2d: Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary, and techniques such as metaphor, simile, and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic,” and if any topic needs its complexity managed, it’s the Common Core. And of course, I should mention here that, in using a metaphor, I’m also acknowledging that the things compared are both alike and not-alike.)

After reading this article about how the Common Core allows for “extra support” for learning-disabled children but still requires all students at a grade level to read the same literature passages (no matter what the students’ assessed reading levels are), I started thinking about how the Common Core prescribes that humans do certain things, no so differently from how the Bible prescribes certain activities.

Now, the imperative “you shall not murder” is a lot catchier, not to mention more obviously important, than the command to “CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8 Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses),” but then the former was written by those inspired by God, and the latter is written by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers.

But just as the Bible says “you shall have no other gods before me” and this helps the faithful get into Heaven, we teachers likewise shall not have any standards other than those of the Common Core — “With students, parents and teachers all on the same page and working together for shared goals” — and by doing so, “we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from school prepared to succeed in college and in a modern workforce.” The educational afterlife of college and workforce success thus achieved, there shall be ushered in (in the “forty-five states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity [that] have adopted the Common Core State Standards”) a new era of prosperity and global hegemony unlike that ever seen before upon this earth. (Woe be unto those five states that have “yet” to adopt the Common Core as their path to such success.)

My facetious tone toward the Common Core is intended, but I mean no disrespect to adherents to the Bible. But the metaphor I’m proposing here is that the Common Core is a statement of values as surely as is any religious belief system. And like any statement of values, there’s a utopian vision at the end. If only the values are followed, success shall be “ensure[d].”

And of course, these value systems call for measures that exceed realistic expectations (as in the case of learning-disabled students mentioned above, but also for most students — the standards for high-school students ask them to do things that I don’t recall being asked to do until well into college). Any set of standards that did not promise universal salvation would not be something that a mob could get enthusiastically behind. Saying “it would be nice if everyone could ‘use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution)‘” does not rhetorically inspire the confidence that “the Common Core State Standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education” [emphasis mine] does .

The Common Core is a set of values of what’s best for students to learn, and of course, there’s nothing logically necessary about values. All values choices are arbitrary. Certainly some values are more efficient or effective than others, but values are values. What is used to justify the Common Core’s set of values? Apparently, the same justification used for mob rule and banning books  —  popularity and community standards: “Teachers, parents and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the Common Core State Standards.” (It’s easy to skip over the introduction to the standards, but that’s where these projects justify themselves, and this justification is pretty slippery, no? Who were these generically identified teachers, parents, and community leaders? How much “weight” was granted to these affected parties’ concerns, anyway? We don’t know; what we do know is that the credited “authors” are themselves identified only as “National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers,” a title intimidatingly long enough to stymie any but the most dedicated researchers. Is this committee of “officers” all that different, in process and ambition, from this decision-making process? Any such process of deciding what has value is a nebulous process — but once these values are specified in the specific, esoteric terms in which the Common Core standards are written, any uncertainty has been washed away, and these standards seem to be the only things that have value.)

It’s not just that I disagree with the values; any values I would substitute for the Common Core’s would be equally arbitrary. The problem is when these arbitrary Common Core standards are asserted as being non-arbitrary, as being applicable to all students, as being valid standards against which to judge students, teachers, and schools. I’m concerned that the Common Core standards are simply unrealistic, and that these unattainable standards will then be used to declare teachers to be failing, as judged by these forthcoming debacles of tests, and then “failing” educators will be forced to make more arbitrary changes.

I can accept that the Common Core does exist as a statement of values, a set of beliefs, just as I can acknowledge that there are many different religious beliefs in the world. But I don’t personally believe in most of these religions, and I don’t believe in the Common Core as a salvation (or even as a good idea, really).

Links: Free college for all, crap jobs, math, etc.

1. What college would cost taxpayers if it were free for students. I’m starting to think lately that maybe no one should expect to profit from teaching people or healing people.

2. School of Rock actors, plus 10 years.

3. One explanation for middle-class decline: Even crap jobs paid better 50 years ago.

4. “Would math exist without us?,” continued.

5. How some people follow the Bible literally, but selectively.

6. “Surprising benefits” of smog: A parody and/or a display of rhetorical exercise?

7. SNL’s “I wish it was Christmas today” (aka “Christmas time is here”).

8. “A Comprehensive History of the ‘Cups’ Phenomenon.”

9. Sesame Street clips of the ’70s.

10. Scraps by Emily Dickinson.

11. “The Poem as ‘Thing‘”

12. From Brain Pickings: A list of the best psychology and philosophy books of ’13.

13. Andrew Sullivan says Fox News is anti-Christian.

Links: Teacher movies, teaching philosophy, etc.

1. This post about teacher movies makes a valuable point about education and how we talk about it in general terms but this makes little rhetorical sense, since education (maybe more than almost any broad aspect of our lives) is irreducibly a matter of what particular individuals learn, how individuals come to understand the world of ideas and facts but only through the framework of their own perspectives:

It would be a huge step forward if we could conceive of the people in our education system—students, teachers, families, administrators—as human rather than cartoonish media representations or, perhaps worse, mere data points. Policies not only have human consequences but they are also implemented by humans—invariably flawed, often self-seeking, sometimes incompetent humans.   It’s humans all the way down.  The language we use should reflect this and not carelessly cede ground to abstractions like “African-American males” or “the lowest-third percentile” or even “teachers unions.”  This is an acknowledgment that idealized categories, run amok, can in fact short-circuit the hard work of ensuring each individual student, in their individual family context, neighborhood, and cultural background, receives a high-quality education.

And the fact that while education is a system, learning is a particular, even private, matter, is the reason that any new educational system that attempts to treat students as indistinguishable, like Common Core (in which “common” is used to mean that every student learns the same things, in the same ways), is doomed to irrelevance.

2. Isaac Asimov’s 1964 predictions for the year 2014.

3. New Year’s traditions as religious/magical.

4. A compelling text by Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Myth of Western Civilization.”

5. Dan Savage’s review of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book. (Via The Dish).

6. Jason Silva and awe.

7. The Scottish tradition of Hogmanay.

8. Miguel de Unamuno on consciousness.

9. An article suggesting reading on tablets is different from reading on paper, vis-a-vis getting engaged in narrative.

10. The New York Times editorializes about Finnish education. Interesting link here to Finland’s curriculum, including philosophy education:

Philosophical thinking deals with reality as a whole, its diverse perception and human activity in it. The special nature of philosophy lies in its way of structuring problems conceptually, rationally and through discussion. Upper secondary school studies in philosophy will support students’ individual development and promote the general learning and thinking skills that they will need in a changing and complex society. The theoretical themes studied in philosophy are necessary to form an understanding of cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
The practical significance of philosophy is based on the fact that students will learn to structure questions about values, norms and meanings in conceptual terms. Studies in philosophy will help them to perceive the significance that different types of skills and knowledge hold for individuals and society. To counterbalance the specialised skills and knowledge, studies in philosophy will also teach students to grasp broader conceptual systems and relationships. It will help them to see the ways in which the conceptions of reality, values and norms held in different branches of science and schools of thought may form consistent systems or contradict each other. Philosophy will develop judgement.
Philosophy instruction will promote development of creative and independent thinking. Philosophy will provide students with plenty of scope to form their own personal views. As they delve deeper into basic philosophical questions — to which there are no simple solutions — they will learn to formulate and justify their own views and, at the same time, to respect other reasoned views. Group deliberations on complicated questions will develop students’ ability
to trust their own individual opportunities to resolve even the most difficult problems. Studies in philosophy will support students’ growth into active, responsible and tolerant citizens.