The Most Popular Posts of 2011

Dear Readers,

I enjoyed sharing a lot of what I learned in 2011 with you. Here were the most popular posts from the year:

1) School Principal Shortage

2) Is On-line Learning a Good or Bad Thing?

3) The Public School Budget Crisis and the Dilemma of Professional Development

4) 2011 RAMROP—Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Piece

5) The Life Changing iPhone 4S

6) Young, Devout, Maligned

7) Home Schooling is Hip. . . and Selfish

I appreciate your reading, subscribing, and forwarding posts to others. A special thanks to those who took the time to comment during the year. Recent new subscribers, a kind comment from a former student, a thoughtful email from my mom, and support from a friend at a holiday party have me ready to roll in the new year. Seemingly small gestures add up.

I’ll continue trying to provide meaningful content. I could use your help in two ways—by jumping in the water sometime this year and agreeing or disagreeing with me about something and by sending questions and/or links of things you’d like me to write about.

In appreciation,

Ron

The Parent-Teacher Resolution

In many neighborhoods, the time of the year is fast approaching when parents completely freak over their children’s teacher assignments. Particularly Elementary Parent. At our local elementary school, parents, mostly moms, with cell phones ablaze, stampede toward the class lists taped to the front doors. It’s understandable because a good teacher can make a significant positive difference in one year just as a weak one can prove detrimental.

An educational truism—the quality of every teaching faculty at every school in todo el mundo is always uneven. Word that explicitly enough? Every faculty is a mix of really outstanding, good, and weak teachers. The best schools have more of the former and fewer of the later. And yes, I’m either experienced or arrogant (or both) enough to subdivide the teachers at your school after one site visit without (gasp) access to the students’ standardized test scores.

The inevitable unevenness creates a challenge for administrators who have to deal with parents who naturally want the very best teachers for their children. Consequently, they usually tell parents they can’t pick their children’s teachers. Those who get assigned their least favorite choice complain that the other parents manipulated the outcome by volunteering more, bribing or befriending the principal in some way, or both.

Before rushing the school door this year, take a deep breath and consider a couple of things. First, teachers’ reputations, typically based upon a flawed version of telephone tag, are often inaccurate. Consequently, the teacher who you’ve “heard” is a weak disciplinarian, may turn out to connect with your child in ways the “outstanding disciplinarian” never would have. Similarly, that rare male second grade teacher that everyone praises for being in total control may be so in control that students’ creativity is completely squelched. Often a disappointing assignment turns out more positively than expected.

Second, research suggests what we know intuitively, students are resilient. Case in point. I had lots of weak teachers and now I’m a famous blogger. Research indicates that students assigned to weak teachers two or three years in a row, not one, are at greater risk of falling behind their peers.

At this point Conscientious Parent is thinking, what the hell, I don’t care about the research. When it comes to my child’s future, why should I ever settle for a weak teacher? Because of the law of averages. When you roll the dice six times between Kindergarden and fifth grade, odds are you’re going to end up with teachers in all three categories.

At this point, I’d understand if you’re thinking, “Hey, you’re in teacher education. Why don’t you fix it so that every teacher is, like the Lake Wobegon children, above average.” Sadly, and long story short, I have concluded there are intractable problems in teacher education that are unlikely to be fixed in my lifetime.

While working to making the profession more desirable and to improve teacher education, parents should all make the following resolution: I am my child’s first most important teacher. Or in the case of a two-adult home: We are our child’s first most important teachers.

Set your cell phone down, slowly step back from the class list on the school door, and repeat: I am my child’s first most important teacher.

Too few parents fully grasp that. Simply put, they delegate too damn much.

This is what the homeschoolers don’t seem to understand. Students are in school 22% of the time they’re awake throughout the calendar year. You are in charge of the other 78%. Do teachers (and everyone in society) a favor and take the lead. To what degree do you partner with your children’s teachers? Do you make sure they get enough sleep, nutritious food, exercise? Do you limit their screen time? Do you know what they do on-line? Do you model a literate life? For instance, do you read or watch television more? Do you teach them fractions while baking in the kitchen, teach them about world geography while discussing current events at the dinner table, teach them how to apply math through word problems in the car? Are you a stable, committed, affectionate presence who models conflict resolution through peaceful problem solving?

Maybe that’s too many questions of too challenging a nature. Maybe your work is too tiring or you just have “too much on your plate”. Maybe you’d rather just keeping crossing your fingers that you win the teacher lottery.

The Private School Myth

Consider this excerpt from a Jonathan Mahler NYT article about Tiger’s return to golf:

On six separate occasions, he (Jay Williamson, 43) has finished the season without a strong-enough record to keep his eligibility for the PGA Tour and been forced to earn it back at the tour’s grueling 108-hole qualifying tournament, known as Q-School. Williamson has never won a PGA Tour event. Nevertheless, thanks to golf’s soaring purses during the Woods era, he has managed to earn more than $5.5 million during his 15-year career. “I certainly don’t live like a king,” he said, “but I do have three kids in private school, and that’s probably a direct result of Tiger.”

Williamson’s quote is symbolic of the American public’s belief that private schools are inherently superior to public ones. As an undergrad, I worked part-time for two years in a public elementary, taught for four years in public high schools in Los Angeles, one year at a private high school in Ethiopia, and attended both public and private universities. As a teacher educator, I visit schools all the time, mostly public ones. If I’m an expert about anything, it’s secondary education. My daughters have spent 30% of their schooling in privates and 70% in publics.

It’s easy to understand why people subscribe to the private school myth, we’re conditioned to believe “you get what you pay for”. But truth be told, that’s not always true and private schools are not inherently superior to public ones. There are good, bad, and mediocre public and private schools. Good publics are better than mediocre privates. Based on my experience, you’ll find a larger proportion of  truly outstanding teachers in publics. There are  lots of solid private school teachers too, but they have the wind at their back in the form of smaller classes and often required, built-in parent/family involvement.

In fifth grade (middle schools in Olympia, WA are 6th-8th grade), daughter one made her first independent decision of consequence when she decided she wanted to attend a local private independent school for the “academically talented”. Me, “But all your friends are going to Wash.” Her, “I’ll make new ones.”

There were a few minor and one major benefit of her private experience. Among the minor benefits, she was given more writing assignments than her public peers and received more detailed feedback on her compositions. The school also did a nice job using small group projects that engaged the students. The major benefit was her five or six closest female friends all cared equally as much about doing well in school. As a result, there was serious positive academic momentum. They spent a lot of time in the evening completing projects over the phone at the exact time a lot of middle school girls are dumbing themselves down in the hope of appearing more attractive.

The downside of her experience, and many private school students’ experiences, was the homogenous nature of the student body. Everyone was high achieving, most students were upper middle class and white or Asian-American. As adults we know that our success and happiness depend as much or more from our people smarts than our book smarts. When will my daughter and her friends learn to interact thoughtfully with young people different than themselves? Isn’t interpersonal intelligence part and parcel of being well educated?

This brings to mind a related myth, that public schools are inherently more diverse than private. While probably true in the aggregate, with tracking, or homogenous ability grouping, we end up with schools-within-schools. In other words, there are multiple Olympia High Schools, one that my daughter and her friends attend that consists largely of Advanced Placement courses and another for everyone else. Some public high schools have three or more schools-within-schools.

The public-private school water is far muddier than most people realize.