Friday Assorted Links

1A. The new “Coolest City on the East Coast“.

1B. Some of the best television in history.

2. Better to buy or rent? The American Dream is a Financial Nightmare.

Spoiler.

“Housing has always had a terrible track record as an investment – from 1890 to 2012, the inflation-adjusted return (i.e. taking inflation out) on residential real estate was 0.17 percent. That means a house purchased for $5,000 in 1890 would be worth $6,150 in 2012.

Over the same time period the stock market returned an inflation-adjusted 6.27 percent. That means a $5,000 investment in the market would be worth over $8 million.”

3A. First-generation students are finding personal and professional fulfillment in the humanities and social sciences. The Unexpected Value of the Liberal Arts.

3B. A “Seismic Change” at Cal State.

4. A friend of mine, a former high school principal extraordinaire, says school leaders need at least five years to implement meaningful reforms. The D.C. public schools have not got the message. One in four D.C. public schools have had at least three principals since 2012.

5. About 50,000 people live in Olympia, WA and in Venice, Italy. Approximately 20,000,000 visit Venice annually. That’s approximately 55,000 people every day of the year. If that many people visited Olympia each year, I would do what young Venetians have already done. Leave.

6. Venezuela is collapsing.

7. Hypothetical. Say at some point in the future I’m out mowing the lawn and decide to take a “nature break” behind a big tree on our rural property. Will mountain goats later appear? One other thing, what kind of person whizzes where those mountain goats are licking in the lead picture?

Numbers to Ponder

3. Bethel School District schools I toured today.

500. Excess number of students at both comprehensive high schools.

0. Number of libraries and cafeterias at the alternative high school.

$273,700,000. Amount sought by the school district in a February 9, 2016 bond vote.

$148. Annual increase in property taxes for residents owning a $200,000 home in the district.

60%. “Yes” votes the district needs.

62%. U.S. citizens who can’t cover unexpected expenses.

7 out of 8. The number of district-area families that do not have any children attending district schools.

9%. The percentage of eligible district-area citizens who vote.

 

 

 

 

 

What Chester Finn’s Fordham Institute Gets Wrong about School Principals

Jacoba Urist in The Atlantic asks, “Should Principals Be Treated Like CEOs?”

Urist references a new report just released by Finn’s Fordham Institute. Chester Finn’s answer is “Yes, principals should be treated like CEOs.” As usual, he’s clueless. And offensive.

According to Finn’s Fordham Institute, inadequate salaries and limited power over key hiring decisions make the job an increasingly tougher sell. Consequently, good principals come and go. Their solution? “Stop viewing principals as ‘glorified teachers’ and more as “executives with expertise in instruction, operations, and finance.” “To that end,” Finn believes, “principals should earn considerably more than other school staff who have less responsibility.”  As in $100k more.

Hey Chester, the term “glorified teachers” is revealing. Now we know how you feel about the lifeblood of schools. Most teachers have at least as much expertise in instruction as their principals most of whom haven’t taught on a daily basis for decades.

And your suggested pay “bump” reveals how little you know about school culture, administrator-teacher relations, and faculty morale more generally. A typical teacher makes $50k, a principal, $120k*. Both work extremely hard and have lots of responsibility if you count shaping 30 children’s or 150 adolescents’s lives. The current pay gap often breeds animosity and contributes to adversarial relations. You’re proposing doubling the gap again, so that school CEO’s make four times more than teachers. The predictable result? Twice the current animosity.

In fairness, Finn deserves credit for acknowledging that an additional $100k by itself won’t solve the problem of attracting and retaining a new generation of excellent principals if they’re not given greater professional respect and autonomy. But Checker fails to connect the dots. Those are the exact same things teachers want and deserve.

Far more insightful than Finn is Todd Whitaker, professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University and author of the book What GreatPrincipals Do Differently. Whitaker says, “. . . most principals would rather have a full-time assistant than a hefty raise. It’s not necessarily even the hours. It’s the intensity. The truth is, if we gave principals an assistant or a lot more money, we probably end up giving them increased responsibilities and we’re right back where we started.”

Urist adds:

In other words,  one way to fix the leadership shortage may be not increased salary, but additional funding for assistant principals, school counselors, and other administrative support staff. Principals are like all people with high responsibility, according to Kate Rousmaniere, professor of educational leadership at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio and author of The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal. They work better in teams, where they can share the workload.

Urist honors the complexity of the topic by concluding with questions:

The task, then, is to strike the right balance. How much should we pay principals to attract new talent, and how much additional support do they need to meet the demands of the modern job? How do we make the role more appealing to promising candidates without pouring more money into retaining ineffective people already in place?

Given the ratio of administrators to teachers, even paying principals a lot more would be considerably less expensive for districts. However, doing so will result in unintended consequences, most of which will be negative.

* I call bullshit on the “in many districts some aspiring teachers take a pay cut on the way to the principal’s office” assertion. There may be an isolated case or two of that, the technical term being “outlier”, but the average teacher doubles his/her pay when they become administrators.

 

Give Poor Students Computers and Watch Nothing Happen

What happened when researchers gave computers to randomly selected California schoolkids whose families had no computer at home? In short, nothing.

Matthew Yglesias reports:

. . . kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

More Yglesias:

We know that kids from higher-income households do much better in school than poor kids. But that of course raises the question of why that is exactly or what one might do about it. . . If access to home computers was associated with improved school performance, that would be strong evidence that simply fighting poverty with money could be highly effective education policy. The null finding tends to suggest otherwise, that the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement in the instructional process that—unlike computers—can’t be purchased on the open market.

Forget the “may be”. That is how high-income families help their kids in school. We also know kindergartners begin school with serious differences in vocabulary based upon their parents’ socio-economic status. Some kids luck out with two parents, one who might stay at home with them. When they’re not napping, they’re talking. Less television, more talking, much more extensive vocabulary. Think of that above-average age 5 vocabulary as kindling in the fireplace of formal schooling.

“Direct parental involvement in the instructional process” takes many forms. When I went to my youngest daughter’s first field trip when she was five, at a local farm, there were 24 pipsqueaks and 36 parents. We had the kindergartners and animals outnumbered. High-income parents volunteer in their children’s primary schools, they regularly meet with their teachers, they read to their children at night, they (especially grandparents) buy them books by the bushel, they organize school fundraisers, they make sure their school is well supplied, they monitor homework, and they hire tutors, counselors, and related specialists when something is amiss. Most recipients of that type of care think, “I don’t want to let them down.” Think of that resolve as the matches in the fireplace of formal schooling.

Social capital is the network of already well educated people—both within and outside one’s family—who collectively create positive momentum in well-to-do families. Often, it’s subtle, nuanced, and indirect. College-related stories are told at dinner, a new job or promotion is discussed, older siblings succeed. Achievement is assumed. At other times, it’s anything but subtle and nuanced as when a family member or influential family friend asks acquaintances in high places to grant an interview, internship, or job.

Given this dilemma, conservatives argue that spending more money on low-income students is pointless. Progressives draw a different conclusion. We gladly accept the Right’s premise that equal opportunity is essential, but we point out what they conveniently ignore. We can’t have equal opportunity writ large if young people don’t enjoy equal educational opportunity.

And since schools don’t have the wherewithal to level the pre-natal to before school playing field, or balance parent school involvement, or equalize social capital, it’s imperative that school’s compensate for societal inequalities that are not the fault of low-income students. If free computers aren’t that answer, what is? Some possibilities: smaller classes, the best teachers (who usually teach the best students); summer remediation programs; community-based internships and mentors; and longer school days/years.

All of those together won’t close the academic achievement gap. At best, they’ll partially reduce it.

The Art of Science Teaching

Legions of teachers do amazing work with an incredible mix of young people every school day. Very few people are aware of just how amazing.

I’ve been hired by an independent middle school to help nine faculty strengthen their teaching, develop individual professional development plans, and map the school’s curriculum. Groovy stuff.

Last week I observed a former public high school science teacher who has a reputation for spending an inordinate amount of time in his classroom. A pro, who probably outworks every critic who think teachers have it easy, he spends his summers with other teacher leaders at a midwest university writing case studies and teaching other science educators how to teach them.

The class I observed was sublime. The unit is “Osmosis and Diffusion.” The case, based on true events, was titled “Agony & Ecstasy”. It revolved around three college friends who took their fourth friend to the emergency room after she started foaming at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably the morning after a party. The students assumed the role of the medical intern who had to figure out what was wrong with the sick woman. They thought of important questions to ask the friends, first by themselves, then with a partner, and then as a group. Had their friend been behaving oddly before the party? What was her prior medical history? Did she use alcohol or drugs at the party?

Eventually, the students learned they used Ecstasy at the party the previous night. After a short explanation of brain cells during which the teacher used his fingers, hands, and arms to illustrate how neuro transmitters work, the students logged onto Mouse Party, a University of Utah website designed for middle and high school students to learn about how drugs affect the brain. Using information found on Mouse Party the students filled out a data table on how Ecstasy works and listed what else they needed to know in order to figure out why the young woman was so sick.

Next the class will examine her blood work and learn about why salt/water imbalances lead to tissue and brain swelling. In the end, they’ll learn the young woman drank a tremendous amount of water to blunt the drug’s impact and suffered from hyponatremia.

This brief description of the class doesn’t begin to capture the teacher’s skill. He brilliantly tapped the students’ prior knowledge without getting bogged down on too many tangents, he grouped the students so that they’d work well together, he continually checked in on how each group was doing, and he modeled continuous learning by saying things like “I don’t know” and “You know what I’m curious about”. And he used technology so effortlessly that you may not have even thought about it had you been observing.

Best of all, he really wants my help in getting even better. And there’s always ways to improve. Every class, every day. Among a couple of other ideas, I suggested he “sell” the case better by putting one or more of the students names in it and by explaining that it’s an emergency situation so they have to work especially hard to solve it within two class periods. The only limit to enlivening it, I said, was his creativity. His eyes widened and he started talking excitedly about working with the theater teacher and incorporating props.

I had to wait to conference with him because Claire’s lizard had died the night before. He listened patiently, and repeated, “I’m so sorry.” He and Claire discussed the bad things that happen in lizards’ stomachs when they eat sand. He told her he was going to bring a lizard to the classroom so that her friend and her could have a positive experience. “What kind?” she asked. “A gecko lizard,” he explained.

She left without thanking him, but that didn’t ruffle his feathers. He’s used to it.

And God said, “Thou Shalt Get Good Grades”

College bound secondary students do a fantastic job of internalizing parents’, teachers’, and college counselors’ expectations that they earn “A’s” on everything, do well on their college entrance exams, and participate in endless extracurricular activities. Wired to seek their parents’ approval, they acquiesce to a college admission committee full court press.

Parents of college bounders pay little attention to whether their children are curious, interested in ideas, and acting ethically in school. Given good grade mania, it’s unsurprising that most college bounders cut serious corners as a recent New York Times headline detailed in an article titled, “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception.” A more accurate headline would have read “Studies Find More Students Cheating, Especially High Achievers.”

Parents of college bounders let their economic anxiety get the best of them and their children. They worry about whether their children will get into a good college, earn a degree, and find and keep a job that pays a livable wage and provides health benefits. Parent pleasing, achievement oriented students learn that school is a competition for good grades. Making sure one gets mostly “A’s” justifies all sorts of shortcuts including copying other’s work; befriending teachers as insurance in case of borderline grades; cheating on exams; and getting their parents to do their work.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

A more humane alternative is to talk about academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives. We need to challenge and encourage young people to imagine themselves as doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, engineers, plumbers, business owners, and field biologists. People for whom considerable knowledge; communication, technical, and interpersonal skills; and character matter far more than one’s grade point average.

Forget being an “A” student. Instead, pay close attention and work really hard in school today so that five, ten, fifteen years from now you’re the best doc, teacher, nurse, social worker, engineer, plumber, business owner, or field biologist as possible. And thereby touch more people’s lives in more substantive ways.

Academic transcripts communicate little if anything about whether students are developing increasing self-understanding and an emerging sense of purpose, nor do they reveal what skills students are developing. And I’ve never seen an academic transcript that communicated whether or not students are fulfilling their potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives.

Fight the power of good grade mania by framing academic achievement in terms of fulfilling one’s potential to make a positive difference in others’ lives and agitate for much more revealing academic transcripts.

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.