The Real World Sounds Cool

Last Tuesday night. Church council swan song. Final meeting. The topic. How to pay for an $80,000 roof repair. A 5 year loan with slightly higher monthly payments or a 10 year with slightly lower ones.

A consensus builds around the 10 year. Then I recommend the five because I argue we need a sense of urgency to pay it off before another expensive, unplanned for problem surfaces. Given our aging building and our feeble finances, we can’t fend off overlapping fiscal crises.

I add that if our next administrator is “on it” like our exiting one, then the 10 year would be fine since there are no pre-payment penalties, but who knows whether he or she will be equally vigilant when it comes to monitoring our strapped budget.

That’s when I was introduced to the “real world”.

In unison, a few people said, “But ‘closely monitoring the church’s finances’ is on the new and improved job description.” In other words, don’t worry about it, it’s a done deal.

My internal thought was the same as my Millennial daughter’s recent text to me, Hahahahahaha. I wish!

A good friend of mine who sells hair care products for a living is always exasperated with me. I mean always. Tenure, sabbatical, self-actualization, all trigger words. His constant refrain is that I don’t live in the “real world”. The “real world” is one where you have to continually find more customers in order to make monthly and quarterly sales targets. Or get fired. In contrast, I just show up at my classroom and teach my ass off for whomever appears on my class list. I’ve always dug my unreal world, but in his mind, it’s a grossly inferior place. An aggravating anomaly.

I have to confess, in my unreal world, job descriptions haven’t mattered much. Few in the unreal world reference their job descriptions with any regularity and there’s always some sort of gap between what’s written and performance.

So the real world really intrigues me. It would be quite convenient to know everyones’ work performance matches their job descriptions. Much cleaner and more predictable than the messiness of my unreal world.

 

Stop Linking School Improvement, Economic Competitiveness, and National Greatness

This commentary of mine is currently appearing here.

Most efforts to improve schooling in the United States have limited impact because opinion leaders’ repeated appeals to global economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teachers or students.

Following World War II, the United States enjoyed steady economic growth, which led to unprecedented prosperity. People’s standard of living steadily improved, the U.S. economy became the world’s largest, and successive generations of parents assumed that their children would enjoy even more secure and comfortable lives.

More recently, the fastest growing countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil, have grown more quickly and made long-term investments in infrastructure to further reduce the economic gap with the world’s largest economies. Also, many Chinese and other Asian young people are attending U.S. and European universities while their governments invest in higher education at home at record levels. Meanwhile, the United States has been challenged by higher than normal unemployment, declining real wages, the bursting of the housing bubble, and runaway health care and higher education inflation. Now parents increasingly fear their children will not enjoy as secure or comfortable lives as they have. It’s impossible to overstate how much economic anxiety informs proposals to improve schools from opinion leaders such as Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.

Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama sing from one choir book with this chorus: “Our economic dominance is ebbing, our standard of living is threatened, and righting the ship depends upon improving our schools.” They’re also of one mind on what’s necessary to improve schools—a distinct emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

They implore students to work harder for the sake of the country. For example, consider Secretary Duncan’s October 2011 speech in Portland, Oregon, to the Oregon Business Association. Early on, he said, “I absolutely believe education is now the engine for long-term economic growth. But that is not a Democratic theory. In fact, the vast majority of governors from both parties subscribe to that view. And it’s a view shared by many business leaders as well.” “This summer,” he added, “I was at a White House meeting with President Obama and a number of leading CEOs. And the consensus about the link between education and economic growth was striking, even among corporate leaders who might disagree with the president on other issues.”

Or consider President Obama’s “Back to School” pep talk to Wakefield High School students in Arlington, Virginia, in September 2009:

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

A year later, in September 2010, the president gave another “Back to School” speech at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. The speech was also streamed to students nationwide:

The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life.  And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century.

Taken together, Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and the president articulated what Maxine Greene has referred to as a utilitarian purpose of schooling. In this view, business principles are applied to schools, and economics trumps everything. Students are thought of much more as future workers and consumers than citizens. Schools primarily exist to prepare students for the workforce. Greene labels this a “self-regarding, education for having” orientation that emphasizes math and science coursework, competition, and job skills. In this now dominant paradigm, concepts like “self-actualization,” “service,” “citizenship,” and “democracy” are slighted, along with the arts, the humanities, social studies education, and foreign languages.

Teachers and students are told to work harder for the sake of our economic competitiveness and national greatness. Again, the president asks students, “What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama don’t understand what motivates public school teachers given that none of them has ever been one.

Teachers don’t commit to the profession the way some enlist in the military. Few educators are motivated by nationalism. Most elementary teachers love working with children and get great satisfaction from helping their students become literate. Most secondary teachers love some particular content and get great satisfaction from introducing their students to that content. The best ones also enjoy working with adolescents and helping them mature into competent and caring young men and women. Teachers don’t lack patriotism; their patriotism just doesn’t inform their day-do-day work with students.

If teachers find appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness uninspiring, it’s doubly true for students. Academic achievement isn’t a question of how much young people love their country; it is whether they have inspiring teachers, positive peer pressure, and, most important, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

The debilitating disconnect between opinion leaders’ rhetoric and what motivates teachers and students has at least two costs. First, when science, technology, engineering, and math are all that’s important, and qualitative aspects of learning and living are ignored, teachers, students, and families grow disenchanted with reform proposals. Teachers, students, and families want schools that acknowledge and honor the whole child and develop skills and personal attributes that may not have immediate and obvious economic benefits. They resent the opinion leaders’ myopic materialism and assumption that our nation’s gross national product is more important than children’s well-being.

Teachers and parents want schools to help students develop skills and sensibilities that will enable them to not just earn a living, but also live well. Teachers and parents instinctively know that if schools succeed in creating curious, caring, well-rounded, and resilient young people in the short term, the economy will be fine in the long term. Economic growth should be a positive by-product of a humane, child-centered school system, not the all-pervasive starting and ending point that Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama want us to believe.

Second, appeals to national economic competiveness and greatness will do little to inspire a new generation of culturally diverse, high-achieving undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. Half of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire in the next decade. Our greatest and most important educational challenge is to recruit and retain over one million culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates. Because teacher compensation is unlikely to improve much, the way the profession is presented to potential candidates is especially important. If people are encouraged to teach primarily for the sake of our nation’s economy, we will fail to inspire the number of new culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates we need to reinvent schooling in the 21st century.

Ultimately, as educators and citizens, we have a choice. We can passively defer to the combined voices of the opinion leaders who dominate the nation’s newspapers and airwaves, or we can resolve to challenge their narrow utilitarian assumptions about the purpose of schooling and instead frame teaching as a profoundly challenging, rewarding, and important form of community service.

Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden

Last week I presented a paper at a “Globalization, Diversity, & Education” conference near Portland. It’s a small conference attended by equal numbers of liberals and radicals. An ideological oasis for lefties. At times it felt like I was on the set of Portlandia.

People enjoy like-minded company because it’s self-affirming, but at conferences it makes for less-interesting sessions because there’s little to no tension. When everyone is of the same mind, no one is pressed to rethink or refine their ideas. Conflict is exasperating, but after awhile, blanket likemindedness can be equally vexing.

I’ve never been too fond of professional conferences mostly because networking is a weakness of mine. Also, too much of the content is theoretical and directed only at other academics resulting in an echo chamber far too removed from families’, teachers’, and students’ day-to-day lives. And too often it’s a game—participants are simply padding their vitas with an eye toward promotion. I couldn’t help but think how differently people would have to write their papers if they were forced to present them in pubs or community centers to a mix of citizens from different walks of life.

The highlight of the conference was the film “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” by Carol Black. Black created the Emmy award winning television series The Wonder Years with her husband Neal Marlens. TWY is one of my fav series of all time. After TWY, and the birth of her children, Black withdrew from Hollywood, got involved in the alternative education movement, and researched cross-cultural perspectives on education which lead to the making of the film. Black attended my paper presentation and helped in the discussion of it. I also talked to her right before the film screened. A lot of her thinking about alternative education resonants with me. Someone I wish I could get to know better.

Here’s the film summary from the DVD cover:

Schooling the World takes a challenging, sometimes funny, ultimately deeply disturbing look at the effects of modern education on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures. If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. government knew this in the 19th century when it forced Native American children into government boarding schools. Today, volunteers build schools in traditional societies around the world, convinced that school is the only way to a ‘better’ life for indigenous children. But is this true? What really happens when we replace a traditional culture’s way of learning and understanding the world with our own?

It’s as well made and provocative an educational documentary as you’re going to see. Many viewers will resist the message and leave upset. After watching the film, one person did ask Black why she drew such a sharp dichotomy between the “negatives of western education and consumer culture” and the “positives of non-western cultures and people”. Black acknowledged the dichotomy and said it was intentional because no one ever questions the premise that western education is a positive force for all of the world’s children. It was a thoughtful explanation for the film’s one-sidedness. I couldn’t help but think of how when I’m arguing with my Better Half, frustration clouds my thinking and I take more extreme stands than I normally would.

I could write a few week’s worth of posts on the film’s content. One thought. Few in the audience probably thought to use the film as a mirror for evaluating their teaching. Every educator enters the classroom with biases, privileging some cultural practices, disregarding others. Put differently, every educator sometimes slights the significance of their students’ backgrounds. While watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How do my preservice teachers and how do I impose our worldview on students?”

Another thought in the form of a premise. Even if we could close every boarding school in traditional societies around the world, indigenous cultures would still face the same challenges imposed on them by western education as a result of global media including television, music, film, and advertising. I’ve written in the past about the societal curriculum‘s effect on students. Sam Wineburg and friends have shown that modern film is the single most influential resource in shaping high schoolers historical understanding. Here’s their paper titled, “Forest Gump and the Future of Teaching the Past.

Beginning in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was blown away by how pervasive western popular culture was in my travels through East Africa and China. In African markets, endless posters of the three Mikes—Jackson, Tyson, Jordan. Hiking up a steep trail to the Great Wall, I was subjected to Lionel Ritchie whose music was being piped in through cheap speakers tied to tree branches.  Immediately after a Chinese teacher talked teaching with some colleagues and me as required, she turned far more animated and excitedly asked if we had seen the Bridges of Madison County. My favorite Michael Jordan poster in China, like all English in China, had a wonderful typo. Under his picture it said, “Michael Jordan, MBA.” Tru dat.

So given global satellites, coaxial cables, the internet, and smart phones, the central question, “How can we avoid imposing our worldview on the world’s last sustainable indigenous cultures?” is even more challenging than the film suggests. Maybe Black’s film will inspire someone else to make a companion one on the global media. And maybe people much smarter than me will figure out how to manage globalization so that indigenous cultures aren’t completely overwhelmed to the detriment of us all.

S.O.B.

2010 state of the blog.

I’ve studied reader statistics, top posts of all time, and taken a critical look at the blog. I’ve also studied successful blogs and identified certain commonalities.

My conclusion is I’ve failed. Yes, readership continues steadily upwards, but at too slow a pace. Participation is limited to some friends and family. I appreciate their comments, but after three years, it’s not nearly enough of a dialogue.

Why? Two reasons I think, my ambivalence towards social networking and my lack of focus. The lack of focus seems especially significant. Simply put, widely read blogs have a much clearer focus. They are “go to” blogs on one topic whether aging, triathlon, or baking. As you know if you’re a regular reader, my listed categories don’t really do justice to just how eclectic my interests tend to be.

Seven of the top ten most read posts of all time are education related. Bummer because professionally I feel like I did at mile 21 of the Seattle Marathon, running completely on fumes. The good news is I (think) I have a sabbatical coming up which will no doubt prove regenerative. On top of the fatigue, my normal healthy skepticism about the state of the national educational discussion has evolved into serious cynicism.

Then again education is what I know the most about. And when I skim the top rated education blogs, I have a sense that even in my depleted state I can make distinctive contributions within that part of the blogosphere.

So I’m going to try to write my way out of my professional funk by focusing much more closely on teaching and learning. I still intend on casting a pretty wide net, focusing on education writ large and not just formal schooling. And I’ll still provide the occasional fitness update.

Not sure yet, but contemplating a title change.

The metamorphis will take place over the remainder of the month. You’ll notice some changes starting with Monday’s post on a 11/27/10 NY Times article by Peg Tyre titled “A’s for Good Behavior“. Have your reading done ahead of time and please join me then.

Hope you stick around and make commenting a 2011 resolution.

Carrots Not Sticks

Business true believers assume workers are motivated exclusively by economic incentives. Consequently, they advocate paying teachers based upon how their students do on standardized test scores. But the rub of course is that the total “salary compensation pie” doesn’t increase, so instead of three teachers making 40k, one will make 30, one 40, and one 50.

I’ve already described the problems with this approach here and here.

An alternative is to get foundations and wealthy philanthropists to contribute to “teacher bonus endowments” in every district in the country. These endowments could enable school community committees to identify and award exceptional educators. Bonuses could be 1k, 10k, or as in this story from today’s LA Times, 25k.

The Ultimate Power Hobby

Who knew? Apparently, college teaching is the ultimate power hobby for deep pocketed bankers, attorneys, and business executives.

Make me laugh. Cohen isn’t teaching, he’s presenting. Big difference.

I present sometimes. Fly in, fly out. Lecture hit and run. When you have one at bat, it’s relatively easy to hit a double or triple. Cohen takes the train from New York City to Philly and a club car back home four-five hours later. Half a day a week. Nothing wrong with presenting, just don’t conflate it with teaching which is far more challenging.

Presenting is to hook up as teaching is to marriage.

Mike, my ace colleague, conferenced one-on-one with about half of his writing seminar students in his office one day earlier this week. I couldn’t help but overhear the specific, caring, insightful feedback he provided each person. He listened as each explained “what they meant” and he skillfully lightened things based upon the hearty laughing emanating from his open office. Taught his ass off.

I taught all last Sunday (sorry God, help me not procrastinate). Read twelve first year students papers, made numerous comments on each and then followed up with concluding paragraphs in which I explained each person’s clearest strengths and most important next steps.

When Mike and I work together each year to figure out how best to tweak our teacher education courses based upon Washington State’s continually shifting standards, we’re teaching. When we revise our courses based upon student evaluations, we’re teaching. When we serve on university committees, we’re taking responsibility for faculty governance, and contributing to the institution’s greater good. When we advise students, and administer programs, and write accreditation reports, we’re in essence teaching. We continually swap teaching stories and ideas about how to strengthen our craft.

If you were to visit our classrooms you’d witness just one of many different teaching activities that we engage in day in and day out, semester after semester, year after year, decade after decade.

Sorry Counselor if I can’t welcome you into the community of teachers who work tirelessly, selflessly, and up close with students on their behalf. But by all means, enjoy your presenting gig.

No Sense of Urgency

Friday, June 10th, 11:30a.m. Sitting up high in the stands in the Olympia High gymnasium. Awards assembly. Surrounded by fellow parents of seniors. Make contact with fourteen on the other side of the gym and hold my iPad up and taunt her with it which she and her friends find entertaining. This early adopting stuff is kinda fun, but it would be awfully embarrassing if an administrator confiscated it.

But I digress. 11:50a.m. and we’ve gone from 165 students with a 3.5 gpa to 80 with something higher to the top 20 gpaers.

Nineteen young women.

Why aren’t parents, educators, ordinary citizens of all types more concerned with the growing gender gap in academic achievement?

Where’s the urgency?