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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Expanding Minimalism’s Reach

If our government’s closed, why are politicians still appearing on my television? I guess once you get in the habit of working really hard for what’s in the best interest of the people, you just can’t stop.

On Fox News I learned the shutdown’s Obama’s fault. Their refrain is “the American people don’t wan’t ObamaCare.” Guess I don’t count. At times like this, all you can do is watch Saturday Night Live.

My vote for most interesting Affordable Care Act article of the recent past, “An Overlooked Obamacare Flaw: Too Many Choices“. The gist of it:

. .  .the typical family will be able to choose from 53 health plans, on average, with a few states, including Florida and Arizona, offering more than 100. “There’s no way people are going to be able to make optimal decisions, except by luck,” says Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore University and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. “If you have 40 or 50 insurance possibilities, there will be less uptake and people will make bad decisions.”

The seminal study of excessive choice was a 2000 paper recounting an experiment at a California grocery store in which two tasting tables were set up side-by-side: one offering samples of six jams, the other offering samples of 24. The “extensive” selection of jams attracted more shoppers than the “limited” selection. But only 3% of the extensive samplers made a purchase after tasting. Of those who sampled from the limited selection, 30% made a purchase.

“An extensive array of options can at first seem highly appealing to consumers,” the researchers concluded, “yet can reduce their subsequent motivation to purchase the product.” Too much choice, they found, can be “demotivating” and leave shoppers confused.

The same dynamic applies to decisions in which a lot more is at stake than deciding what to spread on your toast. After the government passed the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit in 2003, seniors suddenly could choose from dozens of plans that would help lower their prescription drug costs. But many found the offerings so confusing they didn’t sign up, while others mistakenly chose a plan that didn’t lower their costs nearly as much as it could have.

“Decision quality deteriorates as the number of plans increases,” one study reported.

Minimalists focus almost exclusively on decluttering tangible items that often overwhelm—clothes in closets, papers in file cabinets, everything in garages—while ignoring the less tangible, but equally cluttered areas of our lives.

We’re not just overwhelmed by our mindless consumerism and the trail of material possessions that results from it, we’re overwhelmed by a steady torrent of stimuli—whether it’s hundreds of insurance plans, emails, interpersonal interactions, television channels, or advertisements.

Advanced minimalism is the art of narrowing one’s focus and decluttering one’s mind by consciously setting limits. For example, I allow myself to read ten blogs at any given time. That means if you send me a link to your mind blowing blog, I’ll have to decide whether it deserves more of my limited attention than one of my current ten. In the same spirit, I recently deleted some television channels that were more popular with the birdies before they flew the coup.

Social science suggests that if consumers had ten insurance plans to choose among, they’d be much better off. Less is almost always more. This was, in large part, Steve Jobs’ genius—off-the-charts focus. Once he shrunk Apple’s product line, customers weren’t confused, sales caught fire, and the company quickly rebounded.

Another way to impose limits is to lean on others for help. Some of the most popular websites on-line help citizens and consumers narrow their choices to a more manageable level. For example, for bibliophiles, there’s FiveBooks. And for people who want to manage their time better and be more productive there’s Lifehacker. And for consumers overwhelmed by Amazon.com, there’s The Sweethome and The Wirecutter.

My aim is different than the people who write for Lifehacker. They want to help readers get more done. My question to them is, for what purposes? Set limits on stimuli that tend to overwhelm to think about larger life purposes. If we just let any and all email, media images, and the cacophony of modern life wash over us, we’ll live day-to-day without any sense of purpose.

Minimalism must be about more than cleaning out garages. Our goal should be to create silent spaces in our lives, and from them, purpose.

African-American PerspectiveS on Obama’s Trayvon Martin Comments

Once, while I was teaching at a Southern college, African-American student leaders attended a faculty meeting to explain some of their frustrations with us, including some faculty’s expectations that individual black students speak on behalf of African-Americans more generally. Ten years later, in the coffee obsessed upper left-hand corner of the country, a student of mine pressed a classmate to explain the black perspective on the topic at hand. I intervened and explained why “She doesn’t have to answer that.” After class she thanked me for the time out.

Following the release of Do the Right Thing, I remember watching an interviewer pressing Spike Lee to explain the meaning of contrasting MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes at the film’s conclusion. He sidestepped the question, saying that film is art, and therefore open to different interpretations. I could tell he resented the question, probably thinking most filmmakers wouldn’t have been asked it.

Three refreshingly different African-American opinion leaders’ reactions to Obama’s recent comments about Trayvon Martin serve as an excellent reminder that there’s more diversity within ethnic groups as there is between them. Seems like a simple point, but it’s often lost on people. Consider each.

1) Tavis Smiley, Sunday on Meet the Press, after previously tweeting, “Obama’s speech was weak as pre-sweetened Kool-Aid.”

I appreciate and applaud the fact that the president did finally show up. But … he did not walk to the podium for an impromptu address to the nation. He was pushed to that podium. A week of protests outside the White House, pressure building on him inside the White House, pushed him to that podium.

2) Charles Ogletree, National Public Radio:

It was the most refreshing, startling and amazing comment I’ve ever heard him make in the 25 years I’ve known him on the issue of race; very poignant, very personal . . .

3) Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post:

The designation ‘first black (fill in the blank)’ always brings with it unfair burdens, and one of Obama’s. . . is that almost anything he says about race will be seen by some as favoring the interests of black Americans over white Americans.

At this point in his presidency, Obama could ignore this absurd reality and say whatever he wants. He must be sorely tempted. But the unfortunate fact is that if his aim is to promote dialogue about race, speaking his mind is demonstrably counterproductive.

Obama does more to change racial attitudes and challenge prejudices simply by performing his functions as head of state and commander in chief. A dozen speeches about the long struggle for racial equality and justice would not have the impact of one picture of the first family — the proud, African-American first family — walking across the White House lawn. No caption necessary.

Near the end of his comments, Obama encouraged people to think about whether they are “wringing as much bias out” of themselves as possible. Borrowing from King, he suggested asking, “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?”

One element of “content of character” thinking is acknowledging, if not embracing, intellectual diversity within ethnic groups.

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).

What Explains School Suspension Racial Disparities?

Jason L. Riley in the Saturday/Sunday Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration is waving around a new study showing that black school kids are “suspended, expelled, and arrested in school” at higher rates than white kids. According the report, which looked at 72,000 schools, black students comprise just 18% of those enrolled yet account for 46% of those suspended more than once and 39% of all expulsions.

In his embarrassingly misguided critique of the report Riley sees want he wants to see and makes an argument for tougher school discipline and greater access to public charter schools and private schools which “typically provide safer learning environments.”

He writes, “This is yet another argument for offering ghetto kids alternatives to traditional public schools, and it’s another reason why school choice is so popular among the poor. Riley’s use of the term “ghetto kids” is all you need to know about his qualifications for weighing in on this sensitive, complex topic.

Instead of using the report to advance his political agenda, imagine if Riley had instead asked questions about its meaning. Most importantly, what explains dramatic differences among which students are most often suspended from school? I don’t have an answer, but based upon three decades of work in culturally diverse schools and last week’s “The Teaching Profession Desperately Needs Some Linsanity” I offer four variables:

1) Subconsciously, mostly white, mostly middle class educators reward students for coming to class with their materials, raising their hands, being quiet, staying still in their seats, and submitting to their authority. Intelligence is equally evident among all ethnicities, but substantive cultural differences translate into different ways of behaving at home and therefore, in school. Instead of relatively homogeneous teachers and administrators adjusting their expectations to their increasingly diverse students, they expect their students to adjust to their white, middle class expectations. And it’s a lot easier for students raised in white, middle class families to demonstrate the aforementioned “teacher pleasing behaviors”. Simply put, teachers are less likely to discipline quiet and submissive students than louder, non-conforming ones.

2) Most white, middle class families see academic achievement as integral to long-term success in life; as a result, they usually monitor their children’s progress. Of course non-white, non-middle class families do too, but maybe not as high a percentage. For some non-white, non-middle class families schooling is neither positive or negative, for others it’s decidedly negative. For these families schools have been inhospital places that too often assume everyone defines success the same way—graduating college and making decent money. School administrators believe their discipline policies, procedures, and decision-making are rational, but what’s rational depends in part upon one’s cultural context. This article on a Bakersfield, California high school cross-country running program is an extremely poignant example of this. And this book, Unequal Childhoods, is another related, highly recommended read.

3) Despite rapidly changing demographics and accelerating global interdependence, most school curricula remains decidedly Eurocentric; consequently, non-white, non-middle class students are even less interested in traditional course content than students more generally. Course content is rarely, if ever, relevant to their life experience. The less interested students are, the more likely they are to act out.

4) Black students are sometimes oppositional not because they’re incapable of cooperating, but because they’re frustrated they can’t do what’s expected of them. Sometimes they start kindergarten already behind their peers, and then slip farther behind each year, ending up several grades in the hole. By middle school, absent individualized attention and coordinated remediation, they’re reading comprehension and numeracy skills make school a source of constant embarrassment and frustration.

Riley seemingly assumes the “ghetto kids” are out-of-reach bad seeds and that we should just cut our loses and create some charter schools for the “students who are trying to get an education”. I propose a different approach. Schools truly partnering with parents by asking them what they want for their children and then providing struggling students with extensive one-on-one tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school.

Do those two things and watch the black suspension rate steadily fall to somewhere around 18%.

The Teacher Evaluation Maelstrom

The power brokers? Bill and Melinda. Who knew that when we were buying Microsoft Office (for the Mac of course) every three to five years we were ceding mad educational influence to the Lake Washington power couple. Given their Foundation’s less than impressive record on education reform, their reasonable, respectful, and constructive thoughts on how to improve teacher evaluation surprised me.

This article, “Nearly Half of All States Link Teacher Evaluations to Tests” provides a national snapshot. A few excerpts:

At least 23 states and the District of Columbia now evaluate public-school teachers in part by student standardized tests, while 14 allow districts to use this data to dismiss ineffective teachers, according to the report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group.

Last year, President Obama’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top initiative awarded grants to states that adopted policy changes such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores. This year, Republican governors in Idaho, Indiana, Nevada and Michigan ushered in overhauls to teacher rating, compensation, bargaining rights and tenure.

Critics, including some teachers unions, say many of the changes are aimed at firing teachers and usurping union power. They say the new evaluations use flawed standardized tests that measure a narrow window of student learning.

In Florida, tenure was eliminated. In Colorado, teachers now must get three positive ratings to earn tenure and can lose it after two bad ones. Several states, including Indiana and Michigan, did away with “last in, first out” union rules that resulted in districts laying off effective new teachers instead of ineffective tenured ones. Indiana and Tennessee passed merit-pay laws that base teacher pay primarily on classroom performance.

California illustrates how important elections are. The new governor and Superintendent of Public Instruction have chosen not to “Race to the Top”, as a result teacher evaluation looks quite different there.

Interesting that no one cared about teacher evaluation policy until a few years ago when we pulled up in the global economic race with a hamstring tear. Nevermind that corporate boards were failing to meet their fiduciary responsibilities; we were fighting two wars; and our government was bailing out major banks and car companies left and right, and looking the other way while investment bankers bought and sold home mortgages that people never should have taken out. Make no mistake about it, the only reason politicians and business leaders care about teacher evaluation is mounting economic anxiety. That utilitarianism breds cynicism among teachers who resent being scapegoated for our country’s economic ills.

Obama, Arne, and a bunch of Republican and Democratic governors believe that improved teacher accountability will solve nearly all of our economic problems. Bad teachers will vanish. Students will learn the four holy subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math. The ice caps will stop melting and we’ll start kicking ass again in the global economy.

At this stage I’m giving the Gates a “B-” for their teaching eval work because, like everyone else, they’re slighting the more important half of the teaching improvement equation—how to attract more socially conscious, culturally diverse, hardworking academic all-stars to one of the more challenging and rewarding forms of community service there is.

Wake Me October 1, 2012

I follow national and international news closely, but I’ve run smack dab into a Presidential politics news wall. The coverage is way too extensive and speculative.

Constantly changing state and national polls, accusations back and forth, bizarre public appearances, both sides pandering for votes while our serious challenges intensify, soundbites left and right, an army of analysts dissecting every detail, even the debates lack substance.

I’m more cognizant than before of the opportunity cost of following the thirteen month long circus—hours of time down the drain. Life is short, I’m going to tune it out to the best of my abilities and focus instead on my “To Do” list:

1. Decide whether or not to refer to Ron Artest as Metta World Peace.

2. Clean the gutters.

3. Determine whether the Beibs fathered a baby or not.

4. Get the lawnmower serviced.

5. Clean the sink pipes in the Ron (master) bathroom.

6. Teach Marley to ride on the back of the new scoot.

7. Devise a plan to get on this list.

8. Run, swim, and cycle long distances.

9. Distract the offspring, then give away the bulk of their childhood possessions.

10. Take a nap.

Getting Bin Laden

When’s the last time you talked U.S. foreign policy? The merits of the Afghanistan mission? Our increasing use of drones to kill from the sky? Famine in the Horn of Africa? Syria?

Most people are preoccupied with making ends meet and related challenges in their daily lives. When afforded a little free-time, they discuss the stock market sell-off, the return of the NFL, Justin Timberlake’s newest movie, and maybe the debt ceiling limit.

Has there ever been a time when U.S. citizens have paid less attention to things foreign? Props to you for getting this far in a “foreign policy” post.

Getting Bin Laden is the title of a New Yorker essay by Nicholas Schmidle.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but think my hawkish, conservative friends who have zero respect for Obama, would probably finish it with a modicum of begrudging respect for him. In contrast, for me, it was somewhat disillusioning. It’s increasingly obvious he’s cut from very similar cloth as the Republican and Democratic Presidents before him.

He’s authorized eight times more drone missions than Bush. Apparently, he pursued Bin Laden with greater zeal than Bush. When asked, he told the military brass responsible for planning the Bin Laden mission that it was okay if they had to kill some civilians in the process.

The first person killed during the 38-minute long mission was Bin Laden’s courier who, in the months prior, unwittingly led the U.S. military to the compound. The second person was his wife, standing near him, unarmed. It’s unclear to me, from the description in the essay, why she was shot.

Hawks will say what they almost always say, heat of the battle, collateral damage.

If our drones and daily Abbottobad-like attacks are making us safer in the short-term, what about the medium and long-term?

The GalPal has a marine biologist friend whose master’s fieldwork took place on an island off the coast of Mexico. Her team’s goal was to rid the island of non-native animal life. The first specie, rats. Apparently the challenge is getting every last rat because rats have a built-in reproductive instinct that kicks in when being culled. The more you kill, the more the survivors speed up their reproducing.

What types of lives do children who watch their parents killed by the U.S. military end up living? China is close to developing drones. What are we going to do when that technology spreads to other countries, some that we’ll likely meet on the battlefield?

Counter the prevailing isolationist mentalilty and read The Looming Tower. Iman al Zawahiri was an Egyptian revolutionary intent on overthrowing what was in his eyes the too secular Mubarak government. Imprisoned in a crack down, he was tortured mercilessly for a few years; consequently, he left prison deeply radicalized. Watching your parents get killed must be torture.

When it comes to military might, where is the point of diminishing returns? Was Ghandi right, eventually, does an eye for an eye make the whole world blind?

We’re All Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Lew

When I was a pipsqueak, switching sports with the seasons, my guys were Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and later, Magic “Earvin” Johnson.

Now my favorite superstars are Dave Gordon, Lance Matheson, and Dan Mathis.

It’s kinda hard to believe Kareem is 64 now. It seems like yesterday I was in college, squatting in front of our fuzzy t.v. in a Palms apartment, as Mark Eaton watched helplessly as Kareem’s “most points in NBA history” setting baseline skyhook hit nothing but net.

Kareem has always been cerebral, aloof, and apparently, not too personable.

Last week, he said he felt slighted by the Lakers since they hadn’t built a statue for him yet out in front of LA’s Staples Center. That complaint could convince me to never erect a statue, but after digging a little bit into the context, I realized Kareem, just like all of us at times, feels unappreciated.

If Kareem felt appreciated by the Lakers, I doubt he’d sweat the statue. The Lakers in essence have said it’s tough to appreciate Kareem, given his aloof, prickly personality. He’s made his own bed.

Some of my co-workers don’t feel fully appreciated by others at work. Some of my friends don’t feel fully appreciated by their partners. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t feel fully appreciated by Barack Obama. Maria Shriver feels unappreciated. I don’t like that I feel unappreciated at times.

I wish I was more self sufficient when it comes to feeling appreciated.

But the truth of the matter is I’d like a statue too. A couple of ‘em. One for three decades of conscientious teaching. Another for three months of extra cooking and cleaning while the galpal fights plantar fasciitis. And another for Friday’s lawn work.

Maturity is one’s ability to show appreciation for others without worrying about it being returned in equal measure. The challenge is to switch from “Woe am I, so unappreciated” to “I resolve to out-appreciate you.”

Ever deepening selflessness, characterized by ever increasing appreciation for others, is a key ingredient of a life well lived.

Websters—2011

As these new entries in the 2011 Webster’s dictionary illustrate, the English language continues to evolve. Remember, to truly learn new words it’s important to integrate them into your speech as much as possible.

• dinorossi—to repeatedly come up just short of one’s objective. Also rossied or d-rossied. I hit the jump hard and caught major air but rossied the landing.

• notredame—of or pertaining to a once great individual or group that is loathe to accept its obvious decline. Also notredamed; notredamenation. Like Ancient Romans, 21st century citizens of the United States were caught off guard by their collective notredamenation.

• christopherhitchens—the incessant turning of events and topics into unmitigated negatives. Also c-hitched. I enjoyed Lester Brown’s newest book until he returned to form and c-hitched half way through.

• obamathon—something doomed, over time, by unrealistic expectations. Also female-obamamama; conservative-obamanation. It became clear early in the season that Jake Locker’s Heisman Trophy campaign was an obamathon to the voters.

• tigerwoods—to forego one’s family and reputation for extramarital sex. Also tdub; tdubbed; tdubbing. The South Carolina Governor said, “The hell with it, where’s my hiking boots and map of the Appalachian Trail? I’m tdubbing it.”

• claybennett—1) to say one thing and do another; 2) to steal. Also cbennett; cbenn; cbenned; claybennetted. 1) Whenever I call her, it’s someone else, think she cbenned me? 2) I didn’t have my wallet and was really hungry, so I claybennetted some powder donuts.

• nancypelosi—to fake smile even when deeply angered. Also nancypelosied. Despite the auditor’s obnoxiousness, I nancypelosied my way through the IRS interview.

• hailegebreselassie—to dominate opponents at different times and in different contexts, also gebb; gebbed; hgebb; hgebbed. Again, Ron gebbed Dave and Lance throughout the 2010 cycling season.