Letter to teacher (also my student)

Dear Mary,

You mentioned a highly successful program in your school (brain-based ways to teach letter patterns and phonics). I believe you say it was successful because student reading scores went up. Is that right? Continue reading →

It’s all in the definition, what’s yours?

The headline about the George Zimmerman verdict read: “Jury instructions at center of verdict: Reasonable doubt, justifiable force definitions played part in decision.” (Asheville Citizen-Times, July 15, 2013, p. A4)

Later that day I opened the July 8/July 15 TIME cover story on happiness. The author wrote:

Part of the solution, however, may lie not in a product or a program but simply in a better understanding of the particular way Americans define happiness in the first place. (p. 27)

There you have it.  Every discussion related to the Zimmerman case depends on your definition of reasonable doubt and justifiable force. And every discussion related to happiness depends on your definition of happiness.  Of course they do, just like every discussion related to education depends on your definition of “educated.”

What’s yours?

“The scene was stunning.”

Here is the NC Spin description of a recent debate in the North Carolina legislature:

There’s something exciting happening in North Carolina: Young, liberal African-American politicians are breaking away from teachers’ unions to support school choice.

“If you are able to look at a poor parent in the face, and you know that they don’t have the same opportunities as someone that lives across town, and say, ‘Yes, ma’am, I know that that school isn’t working for your child, but you live in that zip code and you must stay there’ — if you’re prepared to call that Democratic or progressive ideals, I’d like to challenge you on that,” a North Carolina legislator said recently while speaking in favor of a school voucher bill.

The speaker continued, “I will stand up here and fight for my constituents to have equal access and equal opportunity to choose their schools.”

To say the scene was stunning would be an understatement.

A Democratic member of the North Carolina General Assembly had just stared down the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) — the education establishment and the core of the Democratic Party.

This scene was truly stunning; but not because an African-American legislator “stared down the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).” It was stunning because of the ignorance it represents:

  1. Some state legislatures equalize funding, so children living in property poor districts have close to the same educational opportunities as children living in property rich districts.
  2. North Carolina’s legislature does not (which he acknowledged) because of legislators like him.
  3. Yes — a Democratic, progressive ideal is that state legislatures should provide EEO within a system of public, taxpayer-funded, K-12 schools.

But the most stunning part of all is the statement, “I will stand up here and fight for my constituents to have equal access and equal opportunity to choose their schools.” A state legislator, whose job is to provide EEO for all NC children, will fight for his constituents to choose from among the unequal schools he provides. I love irony.

Are we “educated” or “schooled” in schools?

Here is a 3-question quiz.

1.    If a person with college degrees spills coffee in a public restroom, will he/she clean it up?

a. Yes      b.  No      c.  It depends on what was learned in school.

2.     If a person, who scores high on standardized tests, spills coffee in a public restroom, will he/she clean it up?

a. Yes      b.  No      c.  Not enough information.

3.   If an “educated” person spills coffee in a public restroom, will he/she clean it up?

a.   Yes      b.  No     c. It depends on how you define “educated.”

“C” is the correct answer for all three. Here’s why. Continue reading →

How to hire “educated” teachers

According to an elementary school principal in Cherry Hill, NJ:

For those coming out of college, getting a full-time position immediately is not going to happen. (Asheville Citizen-Times, 2/19/2013, p. 2)

This might be an exaggeration because a few new teachers are hired every year, but the point is important. A glut of teachers has been created by recent staff reductions.

From the perspective of school boards trying to hire the best teachers, this is an unprecedented opportunity to hire the most highly educated people. School boards that adopt the six-virtue definition of the educated person can advertise like this:

Teaching Vacancies

Independent School District is hiring elementary, middle and high schools teachers. We define the educated person as one whose intellect is understanding and imaginative, whose character is strong and courageous, and whose spirit is humble and generous.  Applicants should possess a bachelor’s degree in education and complete an application in which they describe how they model and teach those virtues.

If new hires modeled and taught the six virtues, school communities would see:

1. Test scores go up.

2. Bullying go down. (Each incident would be an opportunity to teach U, I, S, C, H & G.)

3. Second language learners welcomed into the school community.

4. Struggling students with more opportunities for success.

5. Parents feel welcome.

6. High morale — those who aren’t six-virtue teachers would leave, affording more opportunities to hire six-virtue ones.

7. Teacher & student leadership grow.

The list could go on and on. The six-virtue definition of the educated person is the key to hiring “educated” teachers.  Without it, school districts will miss this opportunity, and tomorrow’s teaching force will be just as uneducated as today’s.

All school boards have to do is believe in the six-virtue definition of the educated person. It costs nothing, which makes it the holy grail of school reform — improvement at no extra cost.

If you are a school board member who believes in a different definition of the educated person, please share it in a “comment.” Or nominate a virtue that is not a combination of these six. Or describe a knowledge or skill that can be learned without the six virtues.

Data-driven schools — Really?

Data-driven decision making is the latest silly idea in the education improvement cycle, which goes like this:

1. Education entrepreneurs, researchers and policy makers come up with a silly idea.

2. Teachers resist it.

3. Teachers are blamed for resisting change.

4. Education does not improve, so everything goes back to Step #1.

At this very moment, someone is saying teachers and schools should be data-driven.

Cut the Crap

Yes, we have more data than ever before.  And yes, this is a good thing — if we understand the limitations of that data. But the phrase “data-driven decision making” signals the failure to understand those limitations. Education decisions are driven by judgment. Good decisions come from good judgments. Bad decisions come from bad judgments.

Researchers, test companies, and publishing houses promote the data-driven idea so they can sell data, data collecting and data analysis tools to schools. And educational administrators and policy makers are so unimaginative they fall for it, proving once again that poor decisions are driven by poor judgment, not poor data.

No matter how much data are collected and analyzed, schools improve when teachers and administrators use good judgment.  They can start by rejecting “data-driven decision making.”

Stating the obvious — again

The six virtues are sometimes criticized for stating the obvious. But educators state the obvious all the time.  Some even get paid to state the obvious to large audiences. Bill Daggett has been getting paid to state the obvious for more than 20 years.

According to him, students are more likely to respond positively to math problems that are relevant to their lives. He gave two examples:

Calculate percentages of advertising in a newspaper. Tour the school building and identify examples of parallel and perpendicular lines, planes and angles.

And district superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt said,

That’s a framework that’s interesting and relevant to students. It’s important to put their work into a context that they can understand.

Really?

Cut the Crap

Thirty-five years ago I “tricked” students into learning by assigning activities relevant to their lives. Does Daggett know why educators don’t “trick” students  more often with relevant lessons? It’s not because they disagree. It’s because they lack the imagination, courage, and humility to develop meaningful, relevant lessons within the constraints of a K-12 school.

It’s because today’s educators dutifully learned three vices in their own K-16 experiences:

A. As they sat still, kept their mouths shut, and didn’t ask too many questions; they learned intellectual incompetence.

B. They learned to fear truths like these: (1) Nineteenth century U.S. history is about the government stealing land from native tribes.  (2) States legislate unequal educational opportunity. (3) Our economic system would collapse if citizens stopped making unnecessary, unhealthy purchases.

C. And they learned to be proud — proud to be an American, Texan, Minnesotan, Floridian, etc.

Of course not all K-12 teachers demonstrate these vices, but these are norms among public school educators.

Instead of adopting the six-virtue definition of the educated person, public school policy makers hire people like Bill Daggett and district superintendent Everitt to state the obvious — “It’s important to put their work into a context that they can understand.”  Brilliant.

It’s a test score, not “achievement.”

Educators don’t believe in the six-virtue definition of the educated person. It’s not that they evaluated it and found it wanting; it’s that they believe an “educated” person is one who earns degrees by scoring high on tests. That’s what I call, “schooled.”

Professors of education know the importance of precise definitions. They know that studying a teaching method’s “effectiveness” starts with an operational definition of “effective.” The word has no meaning, until they give it one. That’s why definitions are important. Even social scientists start with the inductive thinking that asks, “What is the meaning of ‘effectiveness’ in this study?”

The most common way to define “effectiveness” is in terms of higher test scores. Researchers realize the shallowness of higher test scores, however, so they report their findings and rationales by saying things like, “The data show increases in student achievement (or performance, or success, or learning).

They don’t say, “Data show increases in student test scores,” because then we would ask:

  1. How much of an increase?
  2. How many more correct answers did students get?

And then we would find out that the answer to the second question is that 25 students averaged fewer than two more correct answers on a 50-item test. In other words, educators spent the whole year teaching students to get one or two more correct answers on the end-of-year, 50-question, multiple-choice test.

High standardized test scores determine a person’s level of “schooling.” More information is needed to know if the person is “educated.” I love irony.

Equal educational opportunity and capitalism are oil and water

“The Common Core: Educational Redeemer or Rainmaker?” (Teachers College Record (TCR), 2012) argues that common core advocates profit from its implementation. We should not be surprised. Just like other American institutions, public education is now driven by the buying and selling of goods and services. Some say this is good because capitalistic principles and practices are positive social forces.

But we need to ask how the ideal of equal educational opportunity (EEO) mixes with capitalism. Ten years ago, while teaching a graduate course at a for-profit, family-owned school in Nicaragua, I discovered they are oil and water. Continue reading →

Fifth graders reach out in difficult situation

Guest blog by  Joseph Warren, Fifth Grade Teacher

A few years ago, a student of mine (I’ll call him Brad) lost his father to suicide. This difficult situation was made worse by local coverage in the newspaper and television. For lack of a better way to describe Brad, I would say he was “different.”  He sometimes had difficulty relating to other students.

I was not sure how to deal with this situation in the classroom, but I knew I had to talk with the class about helping Brad, when he returned.  He was absent for about two weeks.  During that time, the class and I discussed what we could do to support Brad.

I was amazed by my students’ generosity.  Their ideas displayed maturity I had not expected from fifth graders. First, they made cards, which I delivered to Brad’s home. Then they decided they should give Brad space when he returned. They wanted him to have time to begin to feel “normal.” They wouldn’t shower Brad with attention or pity, but they would tell him they were sorry for his loss and they were glad he was back in class.

A small group of students approached me about giving Brad a gift, and we talked about what would be appropriate.  They said Brad was interested in martial arts, and he liked to read.  They decided to give him a book on that topic. I searched and found a book, and purchased it so it would be waiting for Brad, when he came back to school.

When Brad returned, students showed great generosity. They made more of an effort to include him in conversations and activities, but they were not pushy or intrusive.  For fifth graders, they showed great sensitivity. Their generosity made a difficult time easier for Brad.