Sunday, November 2, 2014

Complex Problems; Simple (and Harmful) Solutions

Public education seems mundane an issue enough. Schools, teachers, kids, learning, life-preparation, etcetera, etcetera.

International relations, astrophysics, calculus, or third-world economics all sound so much more complex and potentially interesting.

To listen to public opinion, this must be the way many people think. If Haley Sweetland Edwards' recent piece in TIME is to believed, David Welch is one glaring example. 

Since it came out, the article has unleashed a fury of backlash from educators across the country. Sadly, too much of the counter-narrative (i.e. the narrative resisting the corporate reform of public education) often comes across as vitriolic. It includes ad-hominem attacks and equally poorly reasoned, ignorant charges.

Both sides over-simplify the issues at hand.

One example of such over-simplification is evident in Edwards' piece here:
"It seemed crazy to Welch that teachers in California receive tenure–permanent employment status designed to protect them from unfair dismissal–after less than two years on the job and that principals are often required to lay off the least experienced teachers first, no matter which ones are the best. It seemed even crazier to him that in some districts it takes years and tens of thousands of dollars to fire a teacher who isn’t doing a good job. Welch remembers asking a big-city California superintendent to tell him the one thing he needed to improve the public-school system. The answer blew Welch away. The educator didn’t ask for more money or more iPads. 'He said, ‘Give me control over my workforce,'” Welch said. “It just made so much sense. I thought, Why isn’t anyone doing something about that? Why isn’t anyone fixing this?'"
To read the article (after this quote), one gets the impression that, armed with a single insight from one superintendent, Welch went on to finance a tremendously costly lawsuit aimed at stripping California teachers of due process rights. 

I should hope that Welch did more research before making that move. If you're going to use your tremendous personal means to influence democratic institutions in ways that only a small sliver of extraordinarily privileged people have access to, it might behoove you to spend a significant amount of time gathering information from as many different stakeholders as possible before doing so. I hope Edwards just left that part of the story out. 

In the part of the story that I hope Edwards left out, I wonder if anyone suggested to Welch that superintendents should not necessarily be trusted as the eternal protectors of students' well-being and development. I wonder if anyone pointed out to Welch that superintendents often have personal agendas. And I wonder if anyone talked at length to Welch about the standardized test movement in this country and how it often plays into those agendas.

The article portrays Welch as having made an elementary mistake. He assumed that public education can be understood and treated like private industry. It's a mistake made time and again by well-intentioned wealthy philanthropists, and most eloquently captured by The Blueberry Story

In my experience, there are a number of different types of superintendents: the teacher's superintendent, the administrator's superintendent, the people's superintendent, the state's superintendent, and the superintendent's superintendent. 

Just like in business, the people who move up the pecking order at district offices typically have career ambitions. Too often, those who climb the ladder to the position of superintendent aspire to continue up that ladder. Sometimes the goal is to take state or national directorship roles, or possibly go into highly-paid consulting work.

The more noxious elements of NCLB and Race to the Top have guaranteed that central to the strength of the rungs on the career ladder for superintendents is performance on standardized tests and other one-dimensional measures of student achievement. 

Administrators oriented in their work primarily by the career ladder naturally have an interest in giving a majority of their attention to the appearance of their schools according to these one-dimensional measures. 

Ironically, and particularly in low-income districts (where we are ostensibly most concerned with the quality of pubic education), this attention to looking good often inspires compliance-oriented work on behalf of teachers and principals. This, in turn, takes time away from dedication to thinking through the hard issues around achieving quality for their particular students. 

If Welch had called me, I would have coached him through his thinking a little further before mounting any lawsuit. I would have agreed that it makes sense to give district leaders control over their workforce when those leaders are incredibly intelligent, compassionate public servants deeply attuned to the needs of their particular communities. I would have suggested that his money might be more meaningfully spent dismantling the choke-hold standardized testing currently has on education politics. Maybe try sorting out the details of labor-management challenges later on.

The challenge of providing truly public, truly equitable education is tremendous. 

Referring to the fight over education policy, Edwards notes: 

"It is fought not through ballot boxes or on the floors of hamstrung state legislatures but in closed-door meetings and at courthouses. And it will not be won incrementally, through painstaking compromise with multiple stakeholders, but through sweeping decisions–judicial and otherwise–made possible by the tactical application of vast personal fortunes."

It seems antithetical that much of the movement in public education policy is spurred by privileged individuals, many of whom advocate against the public part of public education. This is not only a problem because public problems should be solved publicly, but also because the individuals with the money clearly don't understand the breadth of the problems.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Developing A Spiritual Hazmat Suit

Two weeks ago, I attended the Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference at Mission High School in San Francisco.

In the morning, I participated in a session led by a woman who'd taught for some years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The title of the session was something like "Self Healing for Education Professionals."

Describing her time as a teacher in LAUSD, our facilitator told us about a time an internationally renowned African healer visited her school and mentioned to her that upon entering, he felt immediately that he'd stepped into a "energetically radioactive" environment.

If you've spent any time in public schools, particularly schools that serve large numbers of students who deal regularly with poverty, trauma, substance abuse, and institutional racism and discrimination; I think the notion of "energetically radioactive" might resonate with you. Particularly if, along with these factors, you also struggle with poor administration.

Our facilitator mentioned that, in order to work in these environments, it's important for educational professionals to develop what she referred to as a "spiritual hazmat" suit.

Toward the end of my tenure as a public school teacher in New York City, I began experiencing what doctors would later tell me were panic attacks.

One day in May of 2011, I was sitting alone in my apartment typing on my computer and, out of nowhere, I felt a streak of pain shoot through my forehead. A few seconds later, my heart rate shot through the roof as if a bear had jumped out of the closet. However, NOTHING had happened. I began doing deep breathing to calm down whatever in my body was happening, but it didn't seem to work, and I dealt with a tightened chest and high heart rate for the next few minutes.

The stress of working 10-12 hour days with an hour commute to and from work, combined with a lack of exercise and sleep, and relatively inadequate diet, had me showing up to work with bags under my eyes and tremendous irritability.

Students who experience trauma at home don't need to spend their days at school with teachers and counselors who don't have a strong hold on their own lives. It leaves us less compassionate, less capable, and less able to deal with the hard problems that show up at our schools on a daily basis.

I now think of my experience in NYC as the first step on my journey toward creating my own spiritual hazmat suit. I've strengthened it over time through the development of balance in my own life, meditation, proper diet, exercise, and (most importantly) regular sleep patterns.

When you begin teaching in high-needs schools straight out of college, you have this sense that if only you care enough, you'll change the world.

And you're half right.

The caring part is important. But you can't care with reckless abandon. If you do that, you'll send your sympathetic nervous system into overdrive and find yourself unable to meet your own basic needs. Forget about tending to the needs of the children who walk through your school's doors every day.

We call this burnout, and it is one reason we see such high turnover in public education professionals.

Do you want to last in public education? Here are my recommendations for developing your own spiritual hazmat suit. These things should not be negotiable.

- Sleep regularly, and enough to allow you to wake feeling energized.
- Have one off-day per week where you do not allow yourself to think about work or do anything related to it.
- Make time for play.
- Get over yourself. You cannot do it all, nor should you be expected to.
- Do a small number of things well rather than a large number of things poorly.
- Breathe deeply and meditate for 15 minutes a day.
- Take a nap mid-day.
- Take time to work out the food you're going to eat throughout the week with attention paid to meeting your dietary needs. Seventy-five percent of your diet should be fruits, grains, and vegetables.
-  Move. It can be any type of movement that works for your body, but we all desperately need to move.
- Speak with students and colleagues as positively as possible at all times. Never pass up an opportunity to complement someone.
- Work to ensure the environments you inhabit most often are welcoming and feel good (e.g. your classroom).
- Think deeply about your life's purpose and how the activities you participate in on a daily basis support that purpose.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Don't We Need Standards?

A recent developer of professionalism says to my staff, "We all know we need to be teaching standards. If we're not, the kids just aren't going to learn."

Holy cow. What a comment! Without standards, children can't learn.

Woe to those miserable educators since time immemorial who tried teaching anyone anything without standards. Glory to contemporary American schooling.

In my fourth year of teaching, I worked at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus (CHEC) in Washington, DC. I had just moved to DC and was impressed with how organized the administration seemed to be around supporting instruction in the school. The administrator over the social studies department mentioned on a number of occasions that CHEC was was committed to "standards-based instruction." He talked at length about the perils of planning your instructional activities before thinking through your standards.

At the time, I remember wondering: So if we do 'standards-based instruction,' what's the alternative? Presumably, you would only have to voice your commitment to such a practice if some sort of other practice existed. I'm pretty sure I asked him what the alternative was once, and his response was something along the lines of "crappy teaching." And there I had it. Wondering over.

In January, I wrote a post on why I think standards are murdering school. In today's post, I'd like to further deconstruct the notion of standards as essential to teaching and learning.

For decades, plenty of educators have eloquently voiced their resistance to the notion of standardizing education. They tend to have more liberal/hippie attitudes toward teaching and learning, and have often been quickly dismissed by more conservative thinkers and administrators toward the top of the educational career ladder who like standards for what they can offer in terms of data and assessment.

In his extraordinarily popular TED talk, Sugata Mitra notes that the origin of our current school model dates back to the Age of Empire, approximately 200-300 years ago. (You can find a more detailed history of the primary school in Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Empire, which I talked about in this podcast.) Mitra says that the most incredible computer was actually not a computer as we think of computers. It was, in fact, the European bureaucratic machine. The output was society, and the inputs were civil servants - people who had been trained in school to read, write, and think the same way in order to participate in the creation and maintenance of society, or in the case of the British, empire.

Hobsbawm refers to the period between 1870-1914 as the Age of the Primary School. This was not coincidentally also a period of time when Europe's newly emerging nations were competing for citizen allegiance. You see, back then, the notion of countries and nations was still a relatively new idea. Convincing the average citizen to pledge their allegiance to some government and flag by the name Germany or Italy (both countries only came into existence as we know them today in the 1800s) was still a work in progress for the European political elite. The primary school turned out to be a pretty effective tool for unifying diverse peoples with different languages and dialects under national banners. This was largely done with language instruction (languages that had only recently been, or were in the process of being, standardized).

It turns out that when your goal is to create a society of people who think and act alike in service of some larger purpose, standards can be pretty useful.

BUT here's the rub: humans are incredible organisms. As a species, we've thrived for millennia without standards or classroom agendas. There will forever be an infinite vastness of skills and knowledge for humans to learn. Seen in this way, learning is really just an expression of our attempt to interact with our environment. We never really achieve total understanding or mastery of anything. We merely strive to exist and to adapt.

Now - I understand that, in that last paragraph, I've perhaps gone far to the left of any of the administrators who may work 'downtown,' or the education policy wonks in DC. But I have to defend this perspective on learning because I feel it is a far more humane way to view what should be happening in schools.

Our 21st-century world is an outrageously complex place and time. It would be naive to disregard the idea of standards-based instruction entirely. There are some very important uses for standards. However, the notion that students will not learn except from standards-based instruction seems to me a tremendously unhealthy way to understand the human brain.

Believing that students cannot learn without standards is extreme pedagogical arrogance. Students learn all the time, and mostly the learning that is meaningful to them is not in alignment with the teacher's goals. Learning is natural, and it comes easily given the right context.

As Dewey pointed out, the purpose of school in the modern world is primarily to help students develop literacy (see more on literacy here), which requires at least some formal instruction for most students to find success. Literacy and numeracy can be helped along tremendously by educators who have clear goals in mind for their students. But the most wonderful parts of learning are mostly accomplished by the individual and align with his or her unique strengths.

For these reasons, I will always see my job primarily as a facilitator of student development than as a deliverer of standards.