Why School Funding Matters

In reference to the recent post, “Numbers to Ponder“, a loyal reader, okay my older brother, wrote:

This is an absolutely mind-boggling situation to me. Given my complete lack of experience / knowledge regarding school levies I must ask “What suggestions can one with your experience / knowledge make in a scenario such as this one?” It appears to me that asking for a school levy in the Bethel School District would be a totally futile pursuit.

At the end of our the district tour, I asked the superintendent what polling was showing and whether he thought voters would approve the bond. I was surprised by his honest assessment that it was going to be very difficult. Seemingly resigned to a negative outcome, he referenced a neighboring district that passed their bond on the tenth try. I followed up by asking if there was a Plan B. There is not, which may mean the gap in educational opportunity will continue to widen in Western Washington State.

In the US, the fact that we fund public schools largely through property taxes means communities with larger, more expensive homes generate more funds for schools than those with smaller, less expensive ones. Property tax based funding makes a mockery of one of the things we most like to believe about ourselves, that there’s equal opportunity. How can there be equal opportunity if there’s not equal educational opportunity?

More specifically, how can we expect Bethel students to achieve at the same level as others in Washington State when they lose class time walking from distant portables to the main buildings to use bathrooms or change classes, and when they lose class time to floods and unsafe plumbing and electrical problems, and when they don’t have as many books to choose among or computers to use, and when their teachers come and go? Not to mention rodents and unsafe athletic facilities.

During the tour I was reminded of a poignant documentary from about 20 years ago about your home state, O-H-I-O. That Public Broadcasting System film detailed the extreme differences between the most wealthy and poor districts/schools in the state. I read some follow up articles about the backlash it caused and several new schools were built in response.

In fact, activist groups in several states have succeeded in legally challenging the school funding status quo. Many of those states now pool the bulk of their property tax revenues and then distribute them in a more uniform manner. If we truly value equal opportunity, that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s an incomplete step because privileged families will always supplement what their children’s schools have available so that their children maintain a relative advantage.

Among other ways, our daughters schools, like a lot of 0thers, did this by holding fund-raising auctions for parents. They provided dinner, had local businesses—often owned by the students’ families—volunteer gifts, and then auctioned them off. I recall a plain looking chocolate cake going for $500. And an auctioneer that asked, “Who’d like to give $100 to the library so that we can order more books?!” A majority of people’s hands shot up.

Or maybe I didn’t hear him correctly, maybe he said, “Who wants their children to remain a leg up in the race of life?”

Why So Many Teachers Quit

That’s the title of this LA Times Op-Ed. I purposely haven’t read it so that you can compare Rizga’s reasoning and mine.

Conventional wisdom is that teachers quit because of the modest compensation, but every teacher enters the profession knowing that.

I hypothesize a lot quit because they fail to master classroom management. Absent positive relationships, classroom life is a complete drag. Also, nothing is more stressful than never truly having students’ attention. And absent attention, respect is elusive. Absent mutual respect, joy is inconceivable. What do those who struggle most with classroom management have in common? They usually aren’t comfortable with their authority.

That’s not all. When some teachers conclude they can’t teach as creatively as they want due to over standardization, they leave.

Another variable is true for everyone at whatever their workplace and for everyone in life more generally, teachers want to be appreciated. Teaching is among the most challenging and selfless endeavors a person can undertake, but no teacher that I know is perfectly intrinsically motivated. New teachers can master classroom management and commit long hours to crafting the most creative lessons possible, but if no one—students, families, colleagues, administrators, the “public”—ever truly acknowledges their efforts and demonstrates a modicum of appreciation, their enthusiasm inevitably wanes.

I suspect a significant proportion of teachers quit because of some combination of these three things.

How to fix it? Empower those teachers in each school that are most skilled in the art of classroom management to mentor those just starting out. Refuse to teach to standardized tests. Continually repeat that teaching excellence takes many forms. Show and tell teachers that you appreciate their efforts.

Education Apocalypse—Junior Achievement for Kindergarteners

I’ve shortened a recent email message I received and summarized the response you should have to each paragraph in bold.

In the fall of 2015 the “W” Housing Authority will be launching a new Children’s Savings Account Program that will serve students who live in the “X” Community. We will launch the program with a cohort of entering kindergarteners who attend “Y” Elementary School, which is located in the middle of “Y”, and a cohort of 6th grade students who attend neighboring “Z” Middle School. —cool

By way of brief background, Children’s Savings Accounts (CSA’s) are long-term asset-building accounts for children. These accounts can be opened for children as early as birth, and are often used to pay for students’ education after high school. You can find examples of CSA programs in cities across the country and CSA program models vary from school-based initiatives to citywide efforts funded through public-private partnerships. —cool

When students enroll in the elementary school stage of the CSA WHA will open a savings account in their name. WHA will then make an initial $50 deposit into the account. WHA will then match up to $400 per year that families deposit into their student’s account through the 5th grade. —cool

When students reach 6th grade the savings match stops. Instead of matching family’s savings, WHA will give students an opportunity to earn incentive payments by reaching certain goals. These goals may include earning a certain grade point average, maintaining a certain attendance record and participating in extracurricular activities. As students meet these goals, WHA will deposit up to $700 per year in their savings account until they graduate from high school.—wish extrinsic rewards weren’t necessary, but I’ll roll with it

When a student enrolls in a postsecondary program they can then use the money in their CSA to help pay for tuition and other related costs of attendance.—cool if we’re talking vocational education too

I am reaching out to you because as part of the CSA, WHA will offer students and their families an opportunity to participate in financial education classes. We have identified the Junior Achievement curriculum for use with our students and the staff at “Y” Elementary School has decided to try and imbed the JA program across all of their kindergarten classrooms in the spring of 2016.—what the hell, did you say kindergarten?

Quick turn to the electronic dictionary reveals that Junior Achievement “works with local businesses and organizations to deliver experiential programs on the topics of financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurship to students in kindergarten through high school.

Anyone that wants kindergarteners learning about financial literacy, work readiness, and entrepreneurship should have their head and heart examined.

Is there a more convincing example that utilitarian purposes of schooling have trounced humanitarian ones? We’ve completely lost our minds. Heaven help us.

Sentence to Ponder

Governor Cuomo version:

In the light of such widespread skepticism about over-reliance on test results—and such widespread consensus about the detrimental effects engendered by teaching to the test—the governor’s doubling down on state test results to assess teachers’ effectiveness seems a questionable calculation.

Powerful Stories of Schooling

Movie recommendations for PressingPausers who are interested in education and enjoy independent and foreign films. And who are convinced that the pendulum has swung WAY too far towards standardized curriculum, testing, teaching methods, and schooling more generally. And who know outside-of-school factors greatly impact what teachers are able to accomplish. And who believe poetry, emotion, and the arts are at least as important as Big Data. And who like authentic and inspiring stories about the challenges and rewards of teaching.

1) The Class

2) Not One Less

3) Spellbound

Honorable mention: Hoop Dreams; School Colors; High School II; The Boys of Baraka; The American Dream at Groton; Country Boys; Young, Muslim, and French; Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening

The false promise of ed tech, part two. Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening.

It’s day two of my university’s four-day-long orientation for entering students. Two steps at a time I hurriedly climb the bleachers of our large auditorium to an empty seat in the very back. Six hundred students have gathered for their first academic experience, a faculty panel discussion of a common reading, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014). First, however, the Associate Provost gives a talk on academic behaviors important for college success; advising students to “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged . . . be open to constructive criticism.”

A long ways from the closest students, a moderator stands at a podium. The students in the back and I look up at a large audio-visual projection of two formally dressed professors sitting at a table across from the moderator. The conversation begins. Question one, “How did your respective disciplines—Psychology and English Literature—help you better understand the novel?” The professors intelligently deconstruct the text. The second question begins similarly, “Again, looking through your disciplinary lenses. . . .” More thoughtfully expressed insights follow. Despite the professors’ expert analysis, something is amiss. Within ten minutes, the students in front of me start to stir, smart phones materialize out of thin air, a few laptops open, two students exchange backrubs. As ten minutes turn to forty, nearly everyone tunes out.

Seymour Sarason offered an apt metaphor for education reform in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform (1993). It is, he explained, like an ocean storm. During an ocean storm, the surface is markedly changed as the result of 100 mile per knot winds, darkening skies, mountainous waves, and incessant lightening strikes. Yet as one descends to the ocean floor, the water chemistry, darkness, and animal life remain completely unchanged. Too often, the modern university classroom, or in this case auditorium, is the ocean floor. Despite the fact that most “always on” young adults text continuously throughout the day, whether they’re in their cars or our classrooms, classroom teaching remains largely unchanged—professors mostly talk and students pretend to listen.

There should be a corollary to the admonition, “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged,” such as “Faculty will resist talking at you. Instead they will capitalize on your energy for learning by developing personalized learning environments characterized by meaningful interaction.” The teaching disconnect so powerfully illustrated by the common reading panel discussion provides faculty the opportunity to model the other highlighted academic behavior, “Be open to criticism.”

Deborah Meier argues in The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling” (1995, p. xi). Likewise, Decker Walker contends inFundamentals of Curriculum, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them” (1990, p. 479). University faculty rarely apply these aphorisms because they think of themselves first and foremost as mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists who also happen to teach. Consequently, scant time is spent thinking about whether conventional teaching methods are working. Even less time is spent crafting alternative ones; as a result, a talking at students status quo prevails.

This lack of introspection means faculty rarely engage in thoughtful conversation about their teaching strengths, styles, and struggles. That’s why the common reading panel discussion was implemented nearly identically the previous two years. No one on the First Year Program Committee has dared to state the obvious—if the goal is to engage students, it’s not working.

There are several reasons why the common reading panel discussion is not engaging students, but to understand the most salient causes, it’s important to know that Fowler’s novel is a riveting and sometimes emotional story that prompts lots of thinking about human-animal relations. One reason the students tuned out the two distant faculty members sitting on the stage is that they both read their rehearsed responses to questions they had received a few months earlier. Their conscientious preparation and obvious insight was not enough to compensate for the impersonal space coupled with a complete lack of eye contact.

Most importantly though, the wording of the questions, and the highlighting of their academic disciplines, meant they spent almost all of their time deconstructing the text as English and Psychology scholars when the story begged a human response. The professors’ intelligence was evident, but not their humanity. That’s why so many students turned to social media. Parker Palmer, inThe Courage to Teach, illuminates why the reading panel went poorly by detailing a typology of teachers’ questions:

• The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question—what subjects shall we teach?

• When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

• Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question—for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

• But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question—who is the teacher? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I related to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? (1998, p. 4)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that educational technology is the key to engaging the “always on” generation. In contrast, I believe the best way forward is to pay more attention to the self that teaches. Based upon the wording of the questions, the First Year Committee thought of the faculty panelists exclusively as scholars. Students would have responded much more positively if the panelists had first talked more spontaneously and authentically about how the story affected them as human beings—vulnerability being a key factor in learning.

This seeming reticence to explore the self that teaches takes me back to a few years ago when I participated in a faculty seminar with colleagues from across our liberal arts campus. During the seminar I enjoyed getting to know Kai, a young English professor, whom I learned was a talented and accomplished poet. At the time, we were both teaching first year writing. Before the start of one of our meetings, I told Kai about a successful class activity that was based upon an essay I had published a few years earlier. Dumbfounded, he said, “You share your writing with your students?!” “Yes,” I replied, “usually a few times each semester.” The thought had never entered his mind. The more Kai and I embrace Parker’s idea of the self that teaches and reveal something of our humanity, the better our odds of truly connecting with our “always on” students.

Embracing the self that teaches in order to reveal one’s humanity is admittedly abstract advice. How might that concept inform a new and improved first academic experience for any university’s entering students? The answer lies in the second half of my university’s common reading experience—small, writing seminar–based discussion groups of sixteen students. My group was relieved when I noted, “That could’ve gone better.” Then I began our discussion by reminding them that people have markedly different feelings about animals. Next, I explained the evolution of my thinking about animals and how that impacted the way I read the novel. The students were interested in how fearful I was of dogs as a child and were amused by my foolhardy attempts to outrun a few. Then, I confessed that as a middle-aged adult I didn’t understand how a few of my close friends thought of their dogs almost as children until my family pressed me to get one of our own. “Now, after nine fun-filled years with our amazing labradoodle,” I said, “I completely understood their special bond.”

I used my story as a springboard for talking about the importance of being open-minded in college to different ways of thinking and being. I also asked them about their relationship with animals and whether they liked the book or not. Forgetting their phones, they engaged one another. We should eliminate the large group faculty panel discussion altogether, in favor of the smaller, more personal discussion groups. And if we can get the faculty small group leaders to reveal something of their humanity, we may engage the “always on” generation in ways that revitalize the university classroom.

References

Fowler, K. J. (2014). We are all completely beside ourselves: A Novel. New York: Plume.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1993). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, D. (1990). Fundamentals of curriculum. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.