Homeless Advocate Extraordinaire

There are 21,000 homeless students in Washington State and 1.3m nationwide.

Whenever I come across an article on homelessness, like a few days ago on the front page of the Huffington Post, I look for a reference to an inspiring high school friend of mine, Joel Roberts, who oversees the largest homeless organization in Los Angeles. The Huff Post article was titled, “Top Ten Advocates for the Homeless.” He has to be in there I thought to myself. Nah, oh wait, he wrote the piece. Cool.

When Joel was one, he was abandoned on a Hong Kong Street. Picked up by an American missionary, he was raised by a loving family in Long Beach, CA. We met early in high school and grew close through our participation in a church youth group.

At fifteen or sixteen, Joel was doing design work for an architectual firm. Driving around Long Beach in his nicer than normal car, he’d casually point to a tall building and matter of factly say, “I drew that.” He was always more interested in volunteering in Tijuana orphanages than architecture though. I helped him move into his Cal Poly San Louis Obispo dorm where he intended on studying architecture. Early in his SLO career he lost interest in architecture and committed instead to becoming a pastor.

After completing a Masters in Divinity, he became a successful pastor at a large mostly Asian American Church in Los Angeles. I think it was during this period that I introduced him to a woman who became his wife. The marriage, a dismal failure from the get-go, ended in divorce. Fortunately, he’s never held that against me. After a few years he left his church ministry to do what he’d always felt was his life purpose, help end homelessness.

Very proud to call him a friend. More than anyone I know, he’s living out the Beatitudes.

The Causes of Burnout

Teachers, nurses, and social workers start out with wonderful idealism and enthusiasm for making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Why do too many of them lose enthusiasm for their work over time? Why, in worst case scenarios, do some even grow to dislike their work? Why aren’t work environments more encouraging, humane places where employee’s idealism and energy is encouraged, nourished, harnessed, and sustained?

People succumb to burnout as a result of some combination of these variables:

1) They are poorly prepared for challenging work settings. For example, teachers who are unable to manage large groups of students experience tremendous stress day in and day out. Stress that translates into fatigue, which contributes to negativity, which unattended to, leads to burnout.

2) Pragmatic work problems predominate so larger philosophical questions of purpose go unasked. Absent meaningful discussions of mission and purpose, people gradually lose touch with their work’s importance. This leads to a “going through the motions”, and eventually, burnout.

3) In negative work environments, a tipping point occurs when a critical mass of employees succumb to deficit models of thinking. For example, deficit-minded teachers often complain, “These students will never achieve, their families don’t value education, their community is dysfunctional.” Cynicism trumps hopefulness. Co-worker’s negativity rubs off and some teachers begin eating lunch alone. Inevitably, idealism and energy wane.

4) Adversarial relations with superiors and ill-conceived top-down directives cripple many people’s sense of efficacy. Once they conclude, “I have limited control over my school, hospital department, or casework,” their idealism and enthusiasm plummet.

Point two relates to this blog’s updated purpose which reads as follows:

This blog is about slowing down and being more reflective. Pressing Pause is devoted to substantive discussion about education and contemporary life. It’s for people who find meaning in essential questions, ambiguity, conceptual thinking, and nuanced discussions. A virtual college seminar or digital retreat based upon open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree.

I have a hunch that lots of people are desperate to rekindle their idealism and enthusiasm not just for their work, but life more generally. My hope for this blog in 2011 is that I can connect with more of those people and that together we can rekindle our idealism and find greater enthusiasm for making a positive difference in our own and other people’s lives.

Seniority-based Teacher Layoffs

Thanks T for this article, “UW study questions seniority-based teacher layoffs“.

Should school districts facing serious budget shortfalls lay teachers off based on relative seniority? Tough one.

Rather than riff on the costs and benefits of seniority-based teacher layoffs, I want to highlight two underlying issues that education policy makers are ignoring.

First, what does it say about the state of teacher professional development and the profession more generally that many of the youngest teachers are the most effective? Learning to teach well is a challenging and complex process, the same is true I suspect for learning to be an excellent pastor, lawyer, accountant, or legislator. When we choose a surgeon for a complicated procedure we want to know how many times she’s performed it.

At what age do teachers do their best work? I suspect it’s about four to five years in which often means late twenties. This is an indictment on the poor quality of most teacher professional development and the profession. For most teachers there tends to be a dramatic, challenging, and rewarding learning curve over the first four to five years; followed by a plateauing; and then sometimes, a fatigue-based tailing off.

National Board Teacher Certification was intended to address this problem by rewarding the very best teachers with added responsibilities and challenges like mentoring new teachers, teaching methods in local schools of education, and creating exemplary curriculum for others. It’s been partially successful at best. School districts are incredibly conservative and consequently loathe to rewrite National Board teachers’ contracts.

Second, and this may surprise, but with a few important caveats, I’m more open than union leaders to efforts to compare and contrast teachers’ relative effectiveness. A recent front-page article in the New York Times about the Gates Foundation’s efforts to evaluate teachers influenced my thinking. I liked that the system doesn’t rest exclusively on students’ standardized test scores, but on video-tapes, student surveys of their teachers’ class environments, and other variables. Also important, it doesn’t appear to pit teachers against one another. Not perfect, but much better than traditional merit-based teacher evaluation pay plans.

But what Gates and other policy makers aren’t thinking nearly enough about is whether or not their video-tape/value-added-based teacher evaluation proposal is going to convince more outstanding undergraduates to commit to K-12 teaching careers.

Historically, teachers have understood the profession’s primary trade-off—less money, more job security; however, the story of the recent past is one of steadily increasing teacher accountability and decreasing job security. Meanwhile, compensation remains unchanged. Granted these are tough economic times. Numerous states have to make serious budget cuts. Still the fact remains, few of the best undergrads even consider teaching as a career. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t expect the Gates Foundation’s current work to change that.

Especially strong undergrads who are considering teaching are less concerned about rigorous teacher evaluation systems than they are their modest salaries. And that’s the problem, the Gates Foundation offers no ideas on how to improve all teachers’ compensation.

Contemporary Challenges to Writing Well

Follow up to the previous post, “Writing Hard”.

When working on their drafts, I ask my writing students to continually self-assess whether they’ve been sufficiently introspective and whether they have interesting ideas to communicate.

Sufficient introspection is tough for an increasing number of students who are unable to unplug for any time of real consequence. For some of my students, not texting for an hour and forty-five minutes is excruciating. I wonder, how introspective can one be when alternating between texting, talking, listening to music, facebooking, tweeting, watching youtubes most recent viral videos, or streaming films?

A second challenge is sufficient exposure to complex and challenging content. This challenge takes two forms—the quality of curriculum materials in school and the personal choices made outside of school.

With respect to the later, young people watch a lot more television and movies than they do read. That’s not inevitably negative, depending on the relative quality of their preferred television programming and movies.

Extrapolating from my students and my daughters and their friends, today adolescents tend to watch television and films that fail the complex and challenging test.

Again I wonder, if they’re unable to unplug and they’re switching between Gossip Girls, Camp Rock, and Legally Blonde (my frame of reference is admittedly female) what can we expect from them in terms of interesting ideas?

Postscript: I’m not immune from these challenges, particularly unplugging. I am too easily distracted. That partially explains why it took me so long to FINALLY finish Franzen’s Freedom. Whew, masterful. Worth noting, he said he worked on it in an office without an internet connection. Currently I’m reading The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. And last night the family and labradude gathered for this excellent film. Fifteen was NOT happy it was subtitled, but she dug deep and read for the whole 2 hours. She’s still not quite forgiven the Galpal and I for subjecting her to this excellent film five years ago.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

Write Hard

In high school one of my best friends on the golf team nicknamed me “Birdie”. Despite that moniker, Mike Miles, another teammate, always kicked my ass. That was okay though because he starred in college, turned pro, and played a few years on Tour before settling into a head pro job at a swanky country club. Over the last few years he’s qualified for and played in a few majors.

I remember Mike telling me how he got started. His dad and then first instructor told him to swing hard. That was it. For a long time. Before turning technical, they allowed him to develop a natural swing and feel for the game.

Contrast that with Alberto Salazar, the great American marathoner from the 70’s and 80’s who is coaching one of America’s most promising marathoners. As detailed here, Salazar is completely breaking down and rebuilding his pupil’s stride.

Honing a golf swing, learning to run long distances as fast as anyone in the world, learning to write well. Art and feel versus science and technique.

Public school teachers in Western Washington, and I suspect across the entire fruited plain, are taking Salazar-like scientific approaches to teaching writing. They seemingly worship at the altar of the five paragraph essay. Thesis, three supporting ideas, three supporting details per idea, restating of thesis.

Wake me when you’re done.

Recently, Fifteen finally asked me for some feedback on an essay. In our back and forths, she sometimes said, “But I can’t do that there because I have to state my second supporting idea.” In other words Dad, there’s a template, lines I have to color within. Write by number.

Fifteen goes to an excellent public school and has a well respected honors English teacher. Why does someone with so much literary smarts and sophistication teach writing so mechanically? Why doesn’t she go Mike Miles on her students and say in essence “write hard”. Put differently, let’s not worry about literary devices and discrete techniques until you develop an affinity for the process and a feel for the language.

Three possibilities: 1) Large numbers of essays have to be graded, the five paragraph essay outline expedites that. 2) She’s simply going along to get along by teaching to the test. Standardized exam-based writing samples are expected to be hyper-organized more than they are idiosyncratic, interesting, or insightful. And 3) She’s too busy to step back and truly reflect on alternative approaches. She’s a victim of English/Language Arts groupthink.

Here are the questions I ask my students to continually kick around throughout my semester-long writing seminar:

• Have I been sufficiently introspective?  Do I have interesting ideas to communicate in the first place (meaning original ones)? [overarching aim: developing your voice as a person/writer]

• Do I provide sufficient details to clearly illustrate or explain my ideas (versus writing in vague generalities)?

• Do I organize my ideas within distinct paragraphs, limiting each paragraph to one main idea?

• Do I logically piece my paragraphs together so that the sum is greater than the parts (is there a logical order to the paragraphs and do I incorporate transitional sentences and phrases)?

• Do I communicate my ideas as succinctly as possible by continually working to eliminate unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs?

• Do I draw my readers in with an enticing title and engaging opening paragraph?

• Do mechanical errors distract my readers to the point that they have to read my work a few times to fully grasp it?

I’m afraid K-12 English/Language Arts teachers are wining the battle of teaching students to replicate the five paragraph outline in their essays, but are losing the war of teaching them to be analytical and thoughtful enough to communicate interesting ideas in engaging ways.

In their short essays, secondary students routinely pass a “hyper-organized point of diminishing returns”. They have a thesis, three supporting points, three details for each supporting point, and a conclusion, but fail to draw their readers in, fail to communicate anything very insightful, and worst of all, come to see writing as a teacher and test company pleasing game.

What will it take to get K-12 teachers to teach writing to young authors as if its more art than science?

Chinese Test Score Hysteria

China’s ascendancy is inevitable because they’re willing to work for much less than American workers and American consumers are deeply dependent upon inexpensive “made in China” consumer goods. Thus the unprecedented trade imbalance, and as the recent G-20 meetings made evident, our relative loss of leverage.

My self-image isn’t tied to an accident of birth, living in a country long thought to be the world’s economic superpower. The next few years and decades are going to be tough for Americans whose self-image is somehow tied to being the world’s economic superpower. Asia, and China in particular, will continue to gain leverage and we’ll lose it.

Despite many reasons for this gradual reorientation of global economic and political power, the next few years and decades are going to be doubly tough for teachers because they’ll be blamed for it. U.S. citizens are deeply anxious about their waning hegemony and precarious standards of living. That collective anxiety will be projected onto public school teachers.

For educators, a New York Times article titled “Top Test Scores From Shangahi Stun Educators” by Sam Dillon last week doesn’t help matters. Some excerpts:

With China’s debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.

The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education, helping America win the space race.

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” Mr. Obama said. With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

Tom Friedman recently wrote a scathing expose detailing why he thinks the U.S. is falling behind China. Friedman is a fairly predictable critic of U.S. education, but this time, to his credit, he said the primary problem is a broken political system and a parochial, lazy citizenry.

Duncan, Obama, and Friedman not only see improving education as an international competition and zero-sum game, but their rhetoric suggests you and I have to see it that way too. But the genius of our political system is we get to decide for ourselves.

I’m increasingly convinced that Duncan is the one in need of a wake-up. Few educators find jockeying for global economic supremacy inspiring. Like me, they tend to be humanitarians who don’t begrudge the Chinese the marked educational and economic progress they’re making. The Shanghai test scores are only a Sputnik moment if we decide to compete in a zero-sum game with the Chinese (and Singaporeans, Koreans, Finns, etc.).

Educators have to let the Secretary of Education, the President, and the opinion leader know that there are alternative starting points. For example, what can educators in different countries learn from one another and how might we capitalize on what each national educational system does best to solve challenging global economic, environmental, social, and political issues?

Educators aren’t parochial or lazy. They’re quite willing to think globally, just not exactly the way those in the bully pulpit might prefer.


Weekend Notes—December 18, 2010

Miscellaneous notes unrelated to the blog’s laser focus on questioning education conventional wisdom.

• Saw a great documentary on Yao Ming five years ago. He’s very personable and likable. Since seeing that film I’ve followed him. It’s disappointing to learn he’s out for the season and that he’s probably played his last NBA game. China’s Bill Walton sans the scruffy beard, unrivaled college education, and Grateful Dead vibe.

• The GalPal turned 50 recently. Sometimes a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Fifteen’s gift tells you everything you need to know about what it’s like to live with a teenager.

• For me at least, swimming is very different from running and cycling in that I have to think about my form all the time. I get lazy and revert to muscle memory which means my elbows aren’t high enough, I cross over a bit, my stroke gets too short, and I don’t complete my stroke underwater. The challenge is trying to change these flaws simultaneously. The obvious answer is to work on one at a time, but sometimes when I try to add an additional correction in, the previous fix unravels. And the harder the set and the deeper in a workout, the worse my form. I’d probably be better off just doing slow drills for a month. Whatever I do, I swim nearly identical splits. Today’s 100’s were 1:25’s with toys (paddles/buoy).

• Just when I thought Lance was over the 2009 Black Hills Triathlon, he wants me to commit to racing the Boise Half Ironperson with him. He’s dastardly. It has a noon start. I’d begin the run around 3:3op in Boise in mid-June. I was born in Boise and I love symmetry. Maybe, like a Pacific Northwest salmon, I should return to and die in Boise? I’d rather do this race.

• The more minimalist in orientation I become, the less I like traditional Christmas gift giving. I know I should focus on the spirit of the giving and be more appreciative, it just seems most gifts don’t fill any real need and unnecessarily contribute to clutter. If you’re still wondering what to get me, massage gift certificates are $47 at the Briggs YMCA.

• It’s nice having Eighteen home from college. She had a great first trimester. Proud of her and just hoping and praying I can hang with her in the pool Monday.

• In the shocker of the week, I created a twitter account (@PressingPause) and as of today, I have one follower. Look out Linkedin and Facebook.

Thanks for reading. Have a nice weekend.

Teacher Appreciation

Classrooms are organic entities. Each class session contributes in some small way to negative or positive momentum.

This fall my first year writing seminar titled “Teaching’s Challenges and Rewards” began positively and then got better and better. It was a great group of young adults who got to know one another during orientation. From the beginning they decided to give my more student-centered course design and informality the benefit of the doubt.

I lead discussions one and two, and then they paired up and took turns co-leading discussions three through ten. The first pair did a great job preparing their guide, facilitating the discussion, and setting the bar high. Afterwards, I detailed exactly what they had done so well thus nudging the bar even higher. And during that first discussion I purposely sat on the floor, out of sight of most of them, to ensure it would truly be their discussion.

Did their writing improve? For the most part yes as they’re in the process of detailing in their final papers.

One of the students was a Portland hipster who was committed to becoming a nurse. I liked her a lot. Mid-semester she confided in us that she spent a lot of her senior year in high school hiking in and around Portland. She was personable, a thinker, and always had nice insights.

A few weeks ago, after class, she asked if she could talk to me. Turns out she was troubled because the course content had gotten under skin. Now she explained, “I think I want to teach secondary science more than I want to become a nurse.” I told her she had time to learn more about both and that it was a win-win situation, she’d be a great nurse or teacher, both important, selfless professions. Complicating her future was rewarding.

The students’ final papers are trickling into my inbox. Several have added notes like this most recent one, “Thank you for teaching such a wonderful class in my first semester at college! I really enjoyed my time, and I look forward to the next three and a half years I get to spend at this university. This was a very interesting intro class and you were a very good professor to have! I appreciate all of your hard work!”

That’s not meant to be self-congratulatory. I share it knowing I can’t take much credit for the course’s success. It was a great course mostly because they always came prepared, they interacted thoughtfully with one another, and they worked hard on all of their papers. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot I could have done if they came unprepared, refused to engage one another, and threw their papers together at the last minute. If this sample of young people is any indication, I’m happy to report the world is not going to hell in a handbasket.

I also share it to highlight how much easier it is to teach adults. It’s rare for elementary, middle, and high school students to write or tell their teachers how much they appreciate them. That’s why K-12 teachers deserve much, much more of the public’s respect. Instead of scapegoating them for a litany of social and economic problems over which they have little to no control, we should compensate for their students’ who too often take them for granted by acknowledging the importance of their work, tangibly honoring it, and making sure they know they’re appreciated.

Failing at Education Reform

There are three keys.

1st) Spend lots of money and time coming up with goals so lofty that they aren’t really achievable and so vague that they can’t be meaningfully assessed. As a safety measure, make sure the goals are irrelevant to the teacher-student relationship so that if they’re accidentally accomplished, they won’t have much of an impact on student learning.

2nd) Prepare lots of PowerPoint presentations and write reports filled with JAA (jargon and acronyms) to mask nebulous thinking and create an insider “we’re in the know and you’re not” feel to things. If successful, few people will understand well enough to ask questions so no real rationale for proposed changes will be necessary.

3rd) Most importantly of all, exclude teachers as much as humanly possible. Always think top-down. Teachers aren’t that smart and they just get in the way with their insights into classroom life and such. This is easy to do, just don’t communicate much about scheduled meetings, and as a back up, schedule them during the school day. Be consistent in sending the message, “This work is too important to include you.” Remember, you attended school for 12-13 years, you’re an expert. Teachers need you to tell them what to do. They’re depending upon you.

That’s all there really is to it.

Washington State’s 2010 Education Reform Plan provides an especially fine example of these principles at work.

1st) Four goals:

1) Enter kindergarten prepared for success in school and life.

2) Compete in mathematics and science nationally and internationally.

3) Attain high academic standards regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or gender.

4) Graduate able to succeed in college, training, and careers.

All in all, lofty, vague, dancing around the teacher-student relationship. Exemplary application of the goal-setting principles.

2nd) See the PowerPoint and report links above. If you’re not a teacher, read them. If you’re a teacher, you should be grading or preparing for tomorrow.

3rd) Note in the report the PowerPoint slide titled “Process for Soliciting Feedback”, bullet point two, “Engage stakeholder groups”. This is the reformers finest moment. This slide is worth a thousand words.

Granted, there’s never a perfect example. Turns out there are a couple of classroom teachers on the Professional Educator Standards Board, and I’m not sure, but there may be a few more lurking within other groups. But Washington State deserves major credit for articulating goals and planning how to meet them with teachers almost entirely excluded.

Grade Fog

New and improved.

Props to Tyre for clearly posing the question. “Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized, and hard-working? Or should grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?”

The buzzword is “standards-based grading”.

The better question is whether grades should represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material or whether more subjective variables such as their attitude, citizenship, and effort should also be taken into consideration.

It’s hard to disagree with the standards-based graders assertion that assessment must rest primarily on mastery of course material. I want master pilots, plumbers, surgeons, and bridge builders. The question though is how far down that road to travel. For example, inevitably some students can demonstrate mastery of course material without attending class at all so why not eliminate compulsory attendance laws?

Related to that, why require athletes to attend practice, or musicians and actors to attend rehearsals if they are gamers who inevitably rise to the occasion once the race begins or curtain goes up? In actuality, the advocates are arguing for “standards-based grading lite”.

Also, everyone of us knows a litany of really smart people who never fulfill their personal or work-life potential because their flawed interpersonal skills and/or anemic work ethic.

Returning to my extracurricular references. Obviously athletes on a swim relay team, musicians in an orchestra, and actors in a drama troupe have to work together to achieve success. Just as it’s preposterous to think about a basketball player showing up at a game and trying to run a complicated offense or an actor showing up on opening night and having the necessary timing down, most students are going to take jobs that require them to be team members.

The standard grade-basers are arguing that as long as the student has the necessary knowledge in her head, she’s good to go. But is she?

Let’s start with the necessary knowledge, but not end there. I’m down with factoring in everything in Tyre’s opening list except “compliance” which is antithetical to independent, critical thinking upon which a meaningful education is built.

School-based teacher teams should identify important dispositions and interpersonal skills and then assess them in and outside of classrooms. Self-assessment should play an integral role. No doubt narrative will prove more useful than traditional letter grades.