Dear Michelle Rhee: (Cut the crap.)

Dear Michelle:

According to the Associated Press, you are starting a school reform organization:

On Monday, she’ll announce the group’s agenda, focusing on three areas: the teaching profession, empowering families with information and choices; and developing more accountability.

I am puzzled by a few things.

No — not that your goal is to raise 1 billion dollars. (You recently lost your job. So, of course, you want a job. And fame makes you different from us ordinary educators, who look for jobs in the 30 to 50 thousand range.)

And no — not that you will focus on accountability. (You always equated higher test scores with “student achievement” and the purpose of public education.)

1. I am puzzled that you are trying to reform and improve what you define in such a shallow way. Why so much investment and effort on such a shallow purpose (higher test scores)?

2. I am puzzled that you are now an educational philosopher, after years of being an educational administrator. You had neither the time, nor the experience to develop a deep philosophy of education. I know — I was once an educational administrator.

3. I am puzzled that you believe others should contribute to your shallow ideas.

But maybe you’re not a philosopher. Maybe you’re an entrepreneur. In that case, you might have the wrong enterprise. Improving/reforming public education simply requires Americans to be philosophical enough to define “educated” as modeling and teaching the six virtues.

That doesn’t cost a single dollar, but you want 1 billion? Explain that to me; or am I a fool to need explanation?

Are You Appalled, Yet?

The following passage from Kozol’s (1967, p. 2) Death at an early age: The destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston public schools describes an art teacher’s approach to teaching third graders. It is intended to illustrate how inappropriate she was for Stephen — a physically abused foster child who was not good at school; but who, according to Kozol, was “a fine artist:”

The Art Teacher’s most common technique for art instruction was to pass out mimeographed designs and then to have the pupils fill them in according to a dictated or suggested color plan. An alternate approach was to stick up on the wall or on the blackboard some of the drawings on a particular subject that had been done in the previous years by predominantly white classes. These drawings, neat and ordered and very uniform, would be the models for our children. The art lesson, in effect, would be to copy what had been done before, and the neatest and most accurate reproductions of the original drawings would be the ones that would win the highest approval from the teacher.

Appalling isn’t it — that an art class would focus on what is acceptable and unacceptable, instead of what is beautiful and ugly. Ugly classroom experiences are part of school life, but it is ironic when they occur in a third grade art class.

This passage can also be seen as a metaphor for how the education establishment treats the art of teaching. It starts with teacher education programs that focus on educational psychology and research findings about effective instruction in reading, math, science, history, etc. Aspiring teachers are taught how to write lesson plans, and how to teach disinterested students.

Classes that teach these skills get high marks from young teachers who say their best college courses taught them how to control students, how to write lesson plans, and how to teach (as if there is such a thing). They say this because educational administrators and policymakers require them to submit lesson plans that use research-based methods and specify which district and state objectives are being covered.

In other words, teachers are expected to (1) produce “neat and ordered and very uniform” lessons; (2) “copy what had been done before, and the neatest and most accurate reproductions of the original drawings would be the ones that would win the highest approval. . .” These expectations make sense, if teaching is an applied social science.

If teaching is an art, however, these expectations are just as appalling as those of the third grade art teacher. If teaching is an art, you can’t be appalled by her expectations and not be appalled at the education establishment’s treatment of teachers.

Are you appalled, yet?

Kozol, J. (1967). Death at an early age: The destruction of the hearts and minds of Negro children in the Boston public schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Effectiveness and Appreciation #2

Effectiveness and Appreciation, Part 2

The main job of teachers is to start the cycle of appreciation.  They begin by communicating appreciation for their subject matter, the art of teaching and their students.  They will know this has been adequately communicated, when students reciprocate with appreciation for their teachers and lessons.

This is not a new idea. Elliot Eisner has written about educational connoisseurship for a long time.

This idea is incomprehensible, though, to those who believe teaching is an applied social science. They can’t put “appreciation” first, until research provides evidence that it belongs there. That is how paradigms work — they make some ideas comprehensible and others incomprehensible.

Have social science paradigm promoters (researchers and professors) ever been teachers, themselves? If they were, did they apply theory to their practice?  What did that look like? Or did they create learning environments and activities that emerged from their unique teaching styles?  Did they imagine new ways to connect with students? If so, why do they ask teachers to pay attention to the ideas of researchers who have never been in their classrooms? Why do they have so little appreciation for the art of teaching?

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The Wonder Years — “Goodbye” — A Tribute to Teachers

I became a professor at Western Carolina University (near Asheville, NC) in fall, 1989. My wife and two children stayed in Lodi, Wisconsin, to sell the house. During a phone call home, my wife said I should show my college class The Wonder Years episode she and the kids watched that week.  I silently scoffed, thinking, “Professors have more important things to do than show situation comedies.”

The next summer I overheard my children watching a Wonder Years re-run. Within seconds I realized it was the episode my wife thought I should show my students.  Once again, she was right.

The next morning I called the Asheville ABC affiliate to request a videotape of the program. The man told me I had to  request it from producer Ken Topolsky in California.  He gave me the telephone number.

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A Letter from Teachers and Principals

The following letter from reform-minded teachers and principals is adapted from chapter 6 of The Six Virtues of the Educated Person.

It was rejected by Phi Delta Kappan because, according to the editor, “It is not compelling.” Let me know what you think. Is this, or is this not, more interesting than what you read in PDK?

Dear School Board Members and State Legislators:

You have good intentions as you work to improve education. Because we work daily with students, we see both the good and the bad accomplished by your policies. We are sure you want to hear from us, if public education is going in the wrong direction.

That is the first purpose of this letter—to tell you we are going in the wrong direction. Our second purpose is to explain how we can go in the right direction.
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Virtue leads to knowledge and skill, but knowledge and skill don’t lead to virtue

Education has many purposes. Its most fundamental one is to make the world better. That is why all societies educate their young.

Today’s American policymakers seem to believe the world becomes better when young people acquire the knowledge and skills measured on standardized tests. Therefore public schools teach knowledge and skills. This is good, except when it occurs at the expense of teaching virtues, which is exactly what has happened since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.

Public school educators know we have taken what is peripheral (knowledge and skills) and put it at the center, forcing what is essential (virtue) to the periphery. They also know this is unfortunate because virtue leads to knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills don’t lead to virtue. Try it sometime — try to learn new knowledge or skills without a generous teacher and the virtues of understanding, imagination strong character, courage, and humility. Virtues are at the heart of becoming educated, so modeling and teaching them belongs at the center of the public school experience.

This is not an argument about the morality of various virtues. It is a philosophical and educational argument. Those who believe teaching virtue is akin to teaching morality need to explain the moral dimensions of understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility or generosity.

It is time we understand that these have always been, and always will be, the virtues of the educated person.

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The Main Premise of TSVOTEP

When reporters ask for a summary of TSVOTEP, I say, “It’s based on the premise that, until we define what it means to be educated, we won’t be able to improve education.”

Several have responded, “That makes sense.”

When I state the same premise to education administrators and professors, however, the reaction is a big yawn. As I explained in the earlier post about the book’s audience, members of these groups are not interested in discussing what it means to be educated.

Administrators are not interested because they are trapped in our current model of education. They are trapped in the sense that, when they accept supervisory positions, they implicitly agree that public schools and school districts should be governed politically, and organized in bureaucratic hierarchy (the second and fourth elements of our current model). Therefore, their job is to enforce local, state and federal policies, not to challenge them. We understand this agreement because administrators who challenge local, state or federal policies are not “team players.” They might even get fired. Continue reading →

Who is the audience for TSVOTEP?

When I discussed my book with members of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, their first question was, “Who is the audience?” I said the book is for professional educators, but it might also be a good read for parents and grandparents. They responded, “No – this book is too academic. Normal people are not interested in all the technical stuff about how education is governed. Besides, we can’t keep track of all the abbreviations.”

Some of the retirees said chapters 1 and 2 were too academic. They suggested that these be curtailed or eliminated. Another disagreed, saying, “You can’t take out the first two chapters. They are the foundation for the whole book.”

Others said there were too many citations. According to them lay readers are not interested in references to other education writers. Another disagreed. She said, “I like the citations. They showed how these ideas are tied with others. They give the book credibility.”

Who is the audience for a treatise on education that is philosophical? The last paragraph of the Introduction says the book’s ideas are important considerations for parents and grandparents, and for those associated with independent, parochial, or charter schools. This is a broad audience, but it is not the main audience. TSVOTEP describes the status and direction of public education because public educators are its main audience. A recent experience helped me see, however, that the audience is not all public educators.
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