I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

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The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

Flipped Classrooms

A few weeks ago, I showed a 75 minute long documentary to my graduate students. That only left us 25 minutes to discuss it. Next year, I thought to myself, why not assign the viewing of the film before class and then use class time to explore it and a related case study in greater depth.

“Flipping” classrooms is a promising new educational phenomenon. Here is how a New York Times education blogger describes the flipped classroom:

Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Initial experiences and findings are positive.

My favorite education reform metaphor is an ocean storm. The water surface is dramatically changed by high winds. There’s also unusually dark skies, lightening, and extremely high surf. But the farther you go below the surface, the less significant the changes. Until, on the ocean floor, the animal life, water chemistry, the entire environment is unchanged. In education reform, the teacher-student relationship is the ocean floor. Schools change bell schedules, require uniforms, buy tablets for students, and implement site based management, but the teacher-student relationship remains the same as one hundred years ago.

Flipped classrooms and schools may mix up the ocean floor.

What Amanda Ripley and Her Amazon Reviewers Get Wrong

Ripley has written a book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way“. Thanks to my brother (shout out to Ohio, not California), I recently read an article by Ripley based upon her book. Given my frustration level while reading the article, I’m not sure I could get through her book. Her Amazon reviewers loved it though.

What does Ripley and what do her reviewers get wrong? That you can improve schooling in the U.S. by arguing that Finnish teachers are far, far superior to American ones. I assume Ripley wants to help improve American schooling. She’s right that teacher education programs in the United States are not nearly as selective nor rigorous as Finnish ones. But in the excerpt at least, she doesn’t even bother exploring the reasons why, let alone propose solutions to the problem.

Dear Ms. Ripley, there are lots of reasons why teacher education programs in the U.S. aren’t as selective and rigorous as in Education’s Holy Land ( let’s create some ed jargon baby, EHL). Maybe the most vexing one is best illustrated through a question.

Whose recent performance is most impressive, Peyton Manning’s or Dexter Filkins’? To which most people in the U.S. would ask, who does Filkins play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Filkins is an outstanding writer, who, when he’s not writing books, plays for The New Yorker. And he just published an amazing story on Qassem Suleimani. Who does Qassem Suleimani play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Two teams really. Iran and Shiites worldwide.

You haven’t heard of him because American culture is anti-intellectual. How can anyone expect teaching to be a deeply respected profession when we reserve our highest pedestals for athletes, actors, and other entertainers?

Ripley also illustrates how dangerous a little knowledge can be. She’s critical of how short teacher candidates’ apprenticeships are in the U.S. I am too. Just the other day I was cringing in my office as colleagues next door weighed the merits of eight-week long professional apprenticeships.

But the problem is even worse than Ripley lets on. Not only are they far too short, increasingly candidates spend a lot of their time co-teaching because of growing standardized test score anxiety. Given the momentum for tying teachers’ evaluations and compensation to students’ test scores, an increasing percentage of principals and teachers are reluctant to “hand over” their classrooms to teacher credential candidates. Ripley doesn’t bother peeling that onion at all. Literally and figuratively shortchanging future teachers’ professional preparation is just one of other unintended negative consequences of standardized test score mania. We’ve lost our minds.

Absent from Ripley’s article, we obviously have to improve teacher compensation to have any hope of raising the profession’s profile and making teacher preparation programs markedly more selective. Related to that, we have to improve the work conditions—meaning fewer or smaller classes; more time to develop curriculum, prepare for classes, and assess student work; and fewer authors, elected officials, and businesspeople ripping teachers for not being more Finnish.

Postscript—peel more of the onion by reading Anu Partanen’s December 2011 essay in the Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“.

What School Principals Get Wrong

Third in a series of overgeneralizations (installment one, two). So fun, I just can’t stop.

Principals get human nature wrong. Despite what you assumed as a child, teachers don’t retire to the coat closet in their classroom at the end of the day only to miraculously reappear the next morning. Teachers are human beings, meaning every one, to some degree, is insecure. In part, that’s why the best principals are impartial. Especially when it comes to public praise.

That’s why Centennial Elementary principal, Alice Drummer’s quote in this morning’s Olympian, made me cringe. Drummer, referring to Laura Currie, a Centennial teacher in her 45th year of teaching, said:

In my 38 years as an educator, I have worked with many teachers and can say without reservation that Laura Currie stands out as the best and most distinguished teacher kids could ever have.

Then, later that night at dinner, she announced to everyone at the table that her middle child had always been her favorite.

In fairness to Drummer, she communicated that in a “Teacher of the Year” letter she wrote on Currie’s behalf. Then again, Drummer willfully shared the letter with The Olympian.

Almost every teacher works hard in the hope that their students, their students’ parents, and their principal will think that they are the best teacher kids could ever have. Take that possibility away, the way Drummer’s public proclamation does, and a little bit of motivation may be lost.

There are two types of faculty cultures—one where professional success is a zero-sum game and one where everyone’s professional success is sincerely celebrated. Most are zero-sum, meaning if you’re flourishing in your classroom—the kids love you, parents extol your virtues all over town, and the principal says you’re the best and most distinguished teacher of all time forever and ever amen—I’m inclined to feel worse about mine. It doesn’t matter if it’s unflattering, it just is. Call it the “chopped liver” syndrome.

The most enlightened principals know most every teacher wants to be “the best and most distinguished” teacher possible and so they are mindful of how they parcel out praise and tend to highlight faculty team accomplishments.

More importantly, it’s high time teachers recognize “Teacher of the Year” awards as the scam that they unfortunately are. Here’s how the scam works. Instead of reinventing the profession more generally, by which I mostly mean improving compensation, throw some crumbs of recognition to a few teachers. I’m still waiting for a “Teacher of the Year” to reject their award on the premise that it’s a poor substitute for strengthening the profession.

Easy for me to write since I’ve never won a teaching award*. If I do some day, here’s how I’ll start my acceptance speech.

Thanks, but no thanks. I refuse to be a token. Until our work is a respected profession with much improved compensation, I’d rather not be singled out for the hard and excellent work most of my colleagues do day in and day out (exits the stage to either stunned silence or appreciative applause).

There’s one exception to my teacher award cynicism. Anyone with 45 years in the classroom deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award so you go Mrs. Currie.

* In actuality, I did win the World’s Greatest Educator award once in 1999 when I taught a social studies lesson in my daughter’s second grade Centennial Elementary classroom. It was a slide show discussion based upon a trip I took to China. I asked her how she thought it went. “Dad,” she said, “it was perfect.”

If You Think Education Reform is Difficult in the United States

Get a load of Mexico. Paragraph to ponder:

Supporters of the education overhaul say it is the only way for the Mexican state to recover control of the education system, which they say has been virtually taken over by the teachers unions. The unions hand out teaching positions, often disregarding competence, and these positions are then often inherited or even sold to the highest bidder. The unions have defended the practice of transferring positions as legal.

Here’s better news from The Atlantic. Mexico is Getting Better, and Fewer Mexicans Want to Leave.

And today’s Mexican culture update. Two Pop Stars Try to Revive Mexico’s Good Old Days, in Song at Least.

And a great vid from Julieta Venegas, Me Voy. No comprende, pero me gusto.

Reinventing Teaching, Reinventing School

Olympia High School’s spring orchestra concert. A young woman sits down at a large, beautiful harp. Her sound is transcendent. I’m transported to a sun-filled Thirteenth Century Renaissance faire. I also think about dying and how her music would ease the transition.

Next, the Chamber orchestra takes the stage. They practice together four days a week, before the sun or their classmates rise. They sit in a semi-circle with a wood stool front and center. A double bass player enters, sits on the stool, and adjusts his music stand as his compatriots tune their instruments. He follows suit. Eventually, he turns to the left, looks over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the first violinist. Next, he turns to the right, looks over his other shoulder and makes eye contact with the first cellist. It’s time.

Their excellence moved the audience, but a more subtle aspect of their performance was overlooked, their utter and complete independence. They have an outstanding orchestra teacher, but his work was done in class during January and February; as a result, he sat backstage out of the limelight. The education reformer in me wanted to freeze that image of the teacher backstage listening to his students playing on the stage, stand up, and bellow, “That’s what Decker Walker meant when he wrote, ‘The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them!’”

In schools today, “something is done to students” ninety-five percent of the time. Adults make all the important decisions with little to no student participation. Student governments have next to no impact on meaningful day-to-day school life or climate. Adults out-think and out-talk students to such a degree that interrupting student talk and thought is accepted as normal. So much so that students know they can out wait their teachers, that in short order their teachers will fill any empty spaces with their words and thoughts.

Athletics, or coaching more specifically, could provide a more hopeful, student-centered model for improved teaching and learning, one where students take on ever increasing responsibility for both their school environment and learning, except for the fact that most coaches overcoach, greatly limiting their athletes’ participation in decision-making, calling timeouts the second something goes awry, and yanking players after their first mistakes. There are exceptions, but the fact that they are exceptions illustrates the problem.

Maybe the best model is the music program’s artistic cousin, drama. When the curtain rises on a play, there’s no calling timeouts. The student-actors work especially long hours to prepare because they know they’re going to be on their own. For better or worse. Just like when they graduate and the curtain rises on their adult lives.

Empowering students to help make meaningful school decisions and become more independent learners doesn’t mean teachers will spend their days playing Scrabble on their smartphones. While backstage, the orchestra teacher was listening intently to his students, taking notes, preparing to critique their performance in class in eleven hours.

Conventional wisdom aside, teaching isn’t someone standing at a podium talking endlessly to rows of passive students. That’s “presenting”. Reinventing school requires reinventing teaching, reinventing teaching requires elevating the careful and thoughtful assessment of student work to new heights. Teachers must talk less and observe and listen more as students demonstrate what they know and can do. And then the teacher’s job is to help students figure out how to sound even better, solve even more difficult problems, and write even more lucidly.

If Only Schools Were More Like Businesses

Every once in awhile, it’s important to inflict pain on yourself. Builds character. Run a marathon. Fast for a day. Do your taxes. Watch a Wayne LaPierre press conference. Or most painful of all, listen to politicians and business people talk about what we need to do to reform education in the United States.

Their message—breakdown the government monopoly on schools by infusing them with business principles. Most importantly, competition. Between teachers, schools, and districts. Highest standardized test scores win. Their unquestioned premise is that the business community has its shit together. The pro-business propaganda is so steady we start to believe it.

Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Lots of schools would close every year. But I guess we could just tell the affected families that “creative destruction” is just a natural, even healthy part of the business cycle. They’ll understand. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And teachers would start relating to students the way my local bankers and insurance agents routinely do, from behind websites, and sometimes via the telephone. Last week I received birthday cards from my bank and my insurance agent. I recycled both cards without opening them. No one at my bank or insurance agency would know me if I walked into their offices. We have no personal relationship, only an economic one. The best teachers know their students individually, and something about their families, their interests, their hopes for the future. But maybe all that effort to connect with students is misguided. Maybe teachers should be more like my banker and insurance agent. Just design some websites where students can get assignments and submit their work and mail out computer generated birthday cards once a year. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

And every school would ace every state assessment whatever the form. Because that’s the way my car dealership works. When I take my car in, I’m told they have to get perfect scores on the evaluation they mail to me afterwards. Heaven for bid if they get any “9’s”. It seems like gaming the system to me, but I guess it’s just an advanced form of assessment thinking, everyone getting perfect scores all the time. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

Most importantly, the best thing about business people is they’re always accountable for their performance. Regular performance reviews ensure it. That’s what teachers need most of all, more business-like accountability! Or maybe not. Here’s Nassim Taleb blowing that fallacy apart:

Those who have the upside are not necessarily those who incur the downside. For example, bankers and corporate managers get bonuses for “performance,” but not reverse bonuses for negative performance, and they have an incentive to bury risks in the tails of the distribution – in other words, to delay blowups.

Read the history of Wall Street from 2007-2008 for sordid example after example. Five years later, in the U.S., there’s a sure-fire way for business people to avoid accountability. Climb the corporate ladder as high as possible. Yeah, if only schools were more like businesses.

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The Limits of Obama’s Liberalism

Post Inaugural Address, Slate Magazine trumpeted, “A Liberal Love Letter”. The tease read, “Obama’s partisan speech was a pledge to gays, women, immigrants, and the working class.

So forget all that January 2009 naivete about bipartisanship. The plan is to put the activist government pedal to the metal for the next 16-18 months.

Except when it comes to teachers and education. Obama’s education policy is nearly indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s whose reform proposals were nearly indistinguishable from Bill Clinton’s, whose policies were nearly indistinguishable from George Bush Sr’s. Pre-Senior, the education policy pendulum swang about every ten years between traditional schooling practices and progressive reforms. About twenty years ago the pendulum got seriously stuck. Wedged in wet cement that then dried when Bill Clinton adopted Senior’s narrow, uninspiring, national education goals.

Granted, President Obama jammed a lot into his inaugural address and inaugural addresses are more about vision and guiding principles than specific policies. Given that, here’s what President Obama should do before (#1) and during (#s 2-5) his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 12th, to extend his “liberal love letter” to education.

1). Thank Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his service and appoint someone with real life K-12 teaching experience. A woman with credibility. Someone less inclined to use international test scores to criticize teachers. Someone less likely to mindlessly preach the math/science “economic engine” gospel.

2) Repeat this weekly. “We must learn to think about students as future citizens first, not consumers or employees.” And also, “We’ve erred in thinking about schools like businesses and only emphasizing math and science education. For the sake of our democracy, we must pay much more attention to the arts, the humanities, and social studies education.”

3) Empower teacher leaders—not Governors or other politicians, business people, or education bureaucrats—to design rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Acknowledge that the curriculum grew frighteningly narrow over the last twenty years in part because education bureaucrats have insisted on tying together students’ standardized test scores, teachers’ evaluations, and teachers’ compensation.

4) Acknowledge that appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teacher or students. Stop asking teachers and students to work harder for the sake of the country. Remind everyone that academic achievement results when students have inspiring teachers; positive peer pressure; and most importantly, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

And since I’m in “pie in the sky” territory. . .

5.) Start a “MaD” program or “Mothball a Drone” and use the Defense Department savings to A) fund scholarships for especially capable, culturally diverse, college students pursuing teaching certificates and B) to boost teacher compensation more generally.

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I hereby swear to continue the education policies of George W. Bush (whereever he might be).