Saturday, October 21, 2017

He's not childish - let’s not disparage our children by comparing them to the president

I spent nine years in junior high school.  I admit that I was a late bloomer, but not that late.  Seven of those years were teaching junior high school 30 years ago.  In other words, I’ve spent a fair amount of time being and then teaching those ages.  I’ve also seen who these children become, as some of my earliest students are now in their early 50s.  And based on those experiences, I believe that it’s insulting to children to compare the current president’s behavior to theirs.

Yes, pre-teens/teens can be petulant, petty, emotional, rash.  Yes, they can speak without the benefit of prior thought.  Yes, they can make up names for people and denigrate people without forethought for what that means for those people or to their own humanity.  They can lie incessantly and almost without knowing they are lying.  They can play one friend off of another to gain advantage over both.   And, yes, those are all traits of the current president. 

But children of that age are also incredibly inquisitive, deeply loyal, willing to work hard and commit, idealistic, and above else able to learn and evolve as humans – not characteristics that anyone would ascribe to the president.  They will “hate” one minute and “love” the next minute in their march toward adulthood.  But that’s part of the malleability of their growth.  As they cope with life changes, new-found responsibilities, and challenges, they adapt.  They become talented musicians and plumbers and scientists and bus drivers.  They become us, the adults of the society.  And that transformation isn’t something that somehow magically occurs at some age or stage.  It’s a slow process of maturation that begins in childhood and gets tempered with time and life. 

Contrast that to a fully formed adult who exhibits the destructive behaviors of a 13-year-old child.  When a child is petulant, rash, and hurtful toward others, we help the child modify those behaviors.  That way, the behaviors don’t hinder that child’s long-term emotional and social growth.  Eventually, most children learn the difference between ineffective and effective ways to engage the world.  So it’s unfair to compare a fully formed adult like the president to children because, as an adult, he had opportunities to change.  An adult who doesn’t change those behaviors reifies the behaviors into how he experiences the world and expresses himself in it.  That’s very different than what children do as they learn from mistakes and mature beyond ineffective and destructive mannerisms.

So let’s stop the unfair comparisons to our children.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Should we care…?

Should we care about educating students who have diagnosed disabilities? Should we care about providing equitable educational opportunities to poor children? Should we care about teacher and principal quality? How about immigrant or migrant children? Or homeless and foster youth? For the past 50 years, our nation has made a commitment to those children at the margins, and more, through legislation and regulations as a result of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has been reauthorized every five years. Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a lever and a place to stand.  For education, ESEA has been that lever and footing.  If you want to see what impact that has on Washington state schools, look here:



Please. Go to that site and look at what this act funds. It's a lot, isn’t it? We have evolved as a nation to continue to support the most vulnerable while making a commitment to education as a force for equity and opportunity. While the substance of legislation has changed (Bush II's version was No Child Left Behind and Obama's was the Every Student Succeeds Act), and politicians have disagreed with what actions are best, there has been one, critical credo that all legislatures and all presidents have supported for over 50 years: Public education must be maintained for all children. Until now.


Now that the Republican Party controls two branches of the federal government (and some argue, the third), they are letting loose with a barrage of initiatives to dismantle the nation’s march to a more equitable system of education.  The current Republican actions toward education range from the inane to the insane.  With the introduction of House Bill 610, Steve King (the Iowan legislator who shares that famous name, and whose writing would produce real horror stories), requests the complete removal of the 50-year commitment to all of the nation's children. This bill, in its first line, repeals the ESEA, thus eliminating all of what you read at the site above.  King’s bill, and King, actually, aren’t taken seriously by anyone but extremists, so it has little current chance of ever getting anywhere.  In contrast, the president’s proposed budget that eliminates many of the programs funded in ESEA seems mild.  But don’t confuse its intent because it isn’t as draconian as what someone like Steve King wants.


The president’s first budget portends the directions that he wants to take public education.  As expressed in what gets eliminated and newly funded, that direction shifts the balance between the wealthy and poorest.  The result will eliminate what has taken multiple generations of legislative action to create. Under the banner of “choice,” this budget eliminates successful efforts to support education for all.  The one common thread among all of these efforts is that they eliminate requirements for serving students who are poor, who need support, who may be homeless, or who attend schools that need better trained teachers.  Instead, we would let the marketplace resolve the issues of these people. 


I’m not anti-free-market.  When I need to buy a refrigerator, I appreciate the ability to shop around and to get a good deal – as much as that is possible with the consolidation of manufacturers which have absorbed the many brands that existed a few years back. Free markets assume that the self-interests of the company and my own self-interests will reach an accommodation that achieves both of our aims.  The company gets a profit, and I get a refrigerator with features I want at a price I can afford. 


That idea breaks down in thinking about social services, and modern societies have learned that lesson over the past 100 years as we’ve found that the interests of people, especially marginalized people, are often forgotten if the powerful are left unimpeded.  I’m old enough to recall Bobby Kennedy’s reaction to what he found in Appalachia when he visited the people there who’d been completely forgotten and of whom he wrote:


In nearly every place, especially rural communities, where we found a severe unwillingness to help the poor, we also found, and not always because of ethnic differences, a pocket of feudalism in America: a local power structure committed to perpetuating itself at all costs and unwilling to countenance the slightest improvement in the lives of the excluded, for fear they would gain the confidence and the wherewithal to overturn the status quo at the ballot box. Elected officials, judges, police officers and sheriffs, and local bankers and business people were always ready to use any tool necessary to quash dissidence whenever it appeared.


Sound familiar almost 50 years later?  A society that does not hold the powerful in check gets the kind of feudal totalitarianism that Kennedy described.  Through American history, when we forget those checks against the avarice of the wealthy and powerful, we’ve had to be reminded of what happens when we let the market decide about the social well-being of all people.  Does anyone remember why we developed anti-trust laws, or labor laws, or environmental laws?  It’s because we wanted to protect the powerless.  We began the experiment of democracy in this nation over 200 years ago with most of the people in the nation disenfranchised.  With time, we have reached toward the egalitarian promise of our founding. 


A market-driven system of social services means that the powerful will remain powerful and that the poor will remain poor.  Unlike my purchase of a refrigerator, there isn’t any choice for the poor when choosing a social service like education.  In this marketplace, the poor are told that the refrigerator choices are for people with money and they should be satisfied with a melting block of ice.  After all, this logic suggests, the people with resources earned what they have, and it’s only the fault of the poor that they didn’t earn more.


The idea that vouchers will even the playing field is an embarrassing joke on the working class and impoverished.  As the Washington Post noted, in 2013 school spending per student averaged almost $11,000 annually and the range was almost $20,000 at the top and $6,500 at the bottom.  As the information compiled by Great Schools notes, none of the voucher states and the District of Columbia come anywhere near providing funding that covers the amount paid per pupil in even the lowest cost state.  So it’s a cruel joke to say that anyone is evening the playing field because, in reality, vouchers are a subsidy for people who want to send their children to private schools.  It helps reduce their tuition costs.  This isn’t the marketplace.  It’s welfare for people who already have resources.


If you want to see where this downward spiral is headed, look at states Like Oklahoma that have been on this path for some time.  I know we’re in an age of disbelief of facts and a cynicism that pervades both our public and private discourses.  And I share some of the skepticism.  But without ESEA and the long march toward equitable participation that it encourages, the marketplace isn’t going to somehow magically change the dynamics of power and oppression that have drove us to create laws like ESEA.  So before we start dismantling a system that has evolved in order to be more inclusive and equitable, let’s take a pause and ask why we would change the trajectory of inclusion that has driven us to create the laws and regulations that have taken a half century to develop. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

To my teacher friends and others (thoughts as I near retirement):

Ever want to see how far you’ve come as a teacher?  Wait a few years and then go back and look at your planning documents from your first year.  In my case “a few years” is almost 38, and I just spent a few moments looking through a lesson plan book from my first full year of teaching high school during the 1979-’80 school year.  My memory hasn’t been so faded at any point that I thought I was a good teacher in that first year.  I even use some stories from that first year to highlight how not to train and prepare teachers these days.  Almost from the start, I recognized my inadequacies and worked hard to gain the skills I missed prior to starting as classroom teacher.  Although I was as proficient as the more experienced teachers with whom I worked, I was wholly inadequate.  Looking at that document from so long ago highlights how far I’ve come in my skills, as well as my perceptions of learners, the relationships among learner, teacher and content, the ways to engage all learners, and a host of other issues.  My learning over the past 38 years has shaped not only my thinking about the craft and artistry of teaching, but my thinking about the world overall.  To be successful in the classroom means that you have to think expansively and see the potential of every learner’s success.  You have to believe alongside learners and sometimes have to believe in them when they don’t believe in themselves.  And you need a lot of skills to pull that off authentically while helping learners explore and gain the knowledge they need to build their lives.  It’s an incredible gift to spend part of your life doing that, and an incredible responsibility to do it well.  In my case, my growth as a teacher has helped me see the world as an intricately connected web where each of us has an opportunity to participate in each other’s lives.  What a wonderful profession this has been to allow me such a journey.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Are we in a post-racial world? In a word, NO! Make that, Hell No!

So my colleague and I were catching up after not seeing each other for a while.  She’s just accepted a new position as an administrator at the community college up the street from where I work.  I wanted to welcome her to the neighborhood and welcome her to her new job.  We arranged to meet at a Starbucks in between our two institutions.  We talked for maybe 30 or 40 minutes.  It’s the kind of innocuous catch-up talk that two college administrators do when we’re trying to figure out what we’ve been up to since we last talked.

My awareness of the incident, as I later explained it to the officer who took my statement, started with me realizing that my right hand was wet.  We were in a Starbucks and there was lots of liquid around.  My cortical brain told me that most likely someone spilled something.  But then, I heard someone behind me say something that sounded like, “fucking nigger bitch.”  My brain needed a new explanation.  I turned and realized that a young White man in his early 20s behind me, neatly dressed with short-cropped hair with a dark-colored backpack, was directing this statement to my colleague. As I turned further to face him, he said, “That’s right fucking nigger bitch” again.  He walked to the door and walked out.  The incident didn’t really register with me, even as he walked out.  What had happened?  I turned to my colleague and asked if she knew the young man.  She had never seen him.  He went outside and stood at the window yelling more comments that we could not hear and finally walked away down the street.  It was as he stood at the window that my brain started to make sense of things, as I realized that the liquid I initially felt on my hand was his spit.  He had spit at my colleague, as it turned out, twice.  This young man looked like a thousand other young college students I’ve seen over the years.  Clean cut, well dressed.  He was also visibly angry.  He did not present as mentally disturbed or under the influence of any substances.  He directed his anger at my colleague, having never met either of us.  He saw two African Americans sitting in a Starbucks and decided that it was okay to assault us. 

As my colleague noted as we waited to file a police report, we both know that we can’t dress ourselves out of the perception of who were are in the dominant society.  She and I, dressed in the kind of professional attire anyone would expect a college administrator to be wearing in the middle of a work day, are still targets for hate.  The young man didn’t see educated college administrators sitting at the table.  He saw two Black people and, in his twisted sense of the rules of life, our socio-economic status, educational accomplishments, or our age required no respect or deference.  In fact, he seemed only to see a woman of color whom he could brazenly assault in an open space with others watching.  It reminded me of my childhood growing up in the 1950’s and 1960s in an all-White community where my family endured these kinds of threats daily.  That was then, right?  We all seem to perceive that we’ve changed now.  After all, as that thinking goes, we’re in a post-racial world where what really matters is status and access to resources and power. 

The access and status that both my colleague and I have obtained didn’t stop this incident.  While the society has created hate crime laws and has professed an expectation that this kind of behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, clearly for this young man those weren’t enough discouragements to overcome whatever misogynistic and racial hatred and ignorance fuel him.  And, on reflection a few hours after the incident, more than that young man’s actions were disturbing to me.  This was a very public act in a very small space.  Everyone at that café heard the incident and many saw it.  However, only one patron came up after the incident.  That woman apologized to us, saying that this should never happen to anyone, and she offered to be a witness.  Also, the manager came to assist us to clean ourselves and to help file the police report.  Everyone else at the café sat silently or went on with their business.  In a truly post-racial world, that would not be how things work.  In a post-racial world, that kind of violation would mobilize every person in that space to actively resist an assault on two people – an assault that only happened because of our race, and because of the gender of my colleague.  In a post-racial world, there’s no silence.  Even if you can’t directly act, you take a stand to support those who are assaulted, like the woman who volunteered to be a witness, or the manager who took action.  That personal action is the only way that we stop gender-based and racially motivated hate crimes.  And it’s the only way to ensure that people like this young man get the message that we as a society won’t accept any assault on any person.  My guess is that the next time, this young man will be more violent and his next incident will be more brash.  Unstopped, antisocial behavior like this escalates.  And he lives in a world right now where he felt safe taking these actions.  But when incidents like this stop, or people who witness these incidents involve themselves as actors against such acts, then maybe we’ll be moving toward a post-racial world.

Note Added 6/5/16:
Until this date, I encouraged people to post replies and I would moderate and allow those replies to appear here.  When Seattle NPR station KUOW re-posted this three days ago, I'm told they received 33,000 hits in the first day, and that drove a significant number of readers to this site.  And many of those readers sent replies -- more responses than I can keep up with.  So I've kept the replies that were online before the deluge of messages, and I have turned off the reply feature to this posting.  I apologize to people who have sent messages; however, it's impossible for me to moderate and post all of them.  I encourage those of you who've sent replies that weren't posted to engage in this discussion in other forums.  BH

Note Added 6/11/16
In the past week, KUOW interviewed my colleague, Yoshiko Harden, and me about this incident.  KUOW's Web editor also posted a follow up article where others tell their stories.  The interview and the posting of others' stories are at this link:  BH

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The measurement of success

Throughout my career, I’ve seen major changes in what “success” should be in education.  When I started as a high school English teacher, my colleagues and I were told that we needed to make certain that every child completed high school with the basic skills they needed.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the media of the day carried daily messages about children who graduated from high school while being “functionally illiterate.”  Newspaper story after TV news report after movie-of-the-week all denounced the failed system that allowed such a terrible wastes of children’s potential and of tax payers’ money.  Success became defined with not being that teacher who allowed children to be marked for life by not being able to read, write, and compute.  And if we could take things even further by teaching beyond basic skills, that was even better evidence that we were successful teachers.  The 70s and 80s push to “go back to the basics” (a popular phrase of the period) provided a clear definition of what success should look like:  Students should be able to read, write, and compute; teachers should be able to make certain that they do.  As with any simplistic reduction, however, the basics push and its more recent progeny, the hyper-focus on standards, takes half of a truth and weaves a whole plan around it.

The success of teachers has been interwoven with the success of our students since Socrates taught Plato.  In the ideal, our students engage with what we offer them and they expand and extend what we teach them.  Pragmatically, though, we often settle for what they can restate from our ideas.  In either case, the interchange of student, teacher, and idea form the foundation of what learning is.  And measuring that learning typically drives what we value, what gets emphasized, and what we see as both the success of the teacher and of the student.  If we see the extension and deeper exploration of ideas as what we value, we will measure our success by students’ capacity to do so and the evidence that they provide of having done so.  On the other hand, if we believe that learning is more about restatement, then we will measure students’ capacity to restate.  It is within these epistemological questions on the nature of knowledge and what we value that education has wrestled throughout my career.  And it’s within this tension that the definition of “success” has shifted.

The problem, now, is that we’ve seen success confused with measurement.  The push to find metrics and standards and assessments is so pervasive that it has become an end in itself.  Over the past 30 years, I’ve participated in local, statewide, and national discussions on measurement at the pre-K-12 levels, within community colleges, and at universities.  I’ve been privileged as a professor, researcher, and administrator to see those conversations first-hand and to see their impacts as the discussions have evolved over time.  Those experiences convince me that getting stuck in accountability measures is one of the biggest flaws of this movement.  We measure, we determine what to measure, and we determine what scores mean.  But after all that work, we really don’t have much agreement on the impacts of all that measuring.

I’m not suggesting that accountability measures don’t have a connection to action.  There are major consultants in pre-K-12 education who have made millions teaching educators how to connect testing data to classroom practice.  But the question that we rarely ask is whether these actions that often show good testing results are a complete and adequate measure of what we want schools to accomplish. 

And that’s what’s missing.  At the core of the question I’m posing is the central question of what schools and schooling are supposed to be.  Once we determine that, we can then identify how our students and our teachers are successful.  We haven’t yet defined what we want our schools to be.  Are our pre-K-12 schools and our post secondary systems professional training centers that prepare students for the workforce?  Are they places that prepare students for full democratic participation within the society?  Are they engines of acculturation to a set of adult behaviors?  Are they carriers of a common culture?  As our schools have evolved, especially in the last 60 years as we’ve tried to make them more accessible to more members of the society, that purpose has been muddied. 

That’s to be expected as we’ve worked at being more responsive and inclusive, and attempted to meet the democratic ideals we profess.  These changes have been critical to move us away from serving a narrow few and into serving the needs of all.  But the result is that we no longer have simple answers about what schooling is.  And with that muddying has come a clack of clarity on what it takes for schools to be successful.  If schools are to be professional training centers, then we’ll have an easy time identifying their success because we can readily measure how many students matriculate the system and go into the workforce.  We could also create work-related benchmarks along the way that measure job readiness and skills development.  We could test children as they complete levels of the pre-K-12 system and help them make choices about the next level of education.  But if schools are to be something else than training for work, we’ll have a much more challenging task. 

The U.S. has eschewed a narrowly defined purpose for its schools.  Instead, we have given schools the full range of more complex tasks that are identified in the prior paragraphs.  And while success gets measured by whichever of these purposes is ascendant, the pressures from all of these purposes drive policies and practices, making success hard to identify.  What I find interesting, though, is that the society never has a public discussion about this fundamental tension.  It is a longstanding topic among academics; however, that conversation never happens in the public realm where funding and policy get decided.  Instead, we generate policies and laws that drive educational practices.

My challenge to academics who study education, then, is to stop having discussions among ourselves solely.  I posit that if your voice doesn’t reach beyond the constricted communities of academics, then your work misses critical audiences who need to have the information you have.  I understand that we are rewarded through a tenure and promotion process that values the insular voices within our disciplines.  However, that insularity is inadequate for the needs we now face.  To the teachers, administrators and policy makers who form our public and private educational system, I urge you to begin a dialogue about the purposes of education.  A sustained discussion that brings the multiple stakeholders of our educational system together to discuss its purposes is long overdue.  Parents, students, and community members, you are the people who are most impacted by education.  You experience it, are educated by it, and often are asked to weigh in on it. Your responsibility is to demand this discussion about purpose, and you also have a responsibility to be informed.  If we are to own this system, we must all engage in the dialogue about education’s purpose through reasoned and well-informed information.  Then we can define and measure success.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What are teachers supposed to be like?

Seems to me that everyone has an answer to this question.  Throughout my career, I’ve gone to block parties, family gatherings, and other social events where people all have an opinion on the topic.  As soon as a stranger hears I’m in education, I hear their ideas.  “Good teachers are born, not taught,” someone will opine.  Or, “What we need in classrooms are people who are really dedicated,” another person will offer.  Everyone has gone through some kind of formal school experience, and everyone forms an opinion on the topic.  I suppose it must be like that for people who work at Boeing or Microsoft.  Lots of us use their products, and we all have ideas on how to make them better.  When I fly up and down the west coast, most often I fly on a Boeing 737.  It’s one of the most cramped planes I’ve experienced.  The seats are so close together that I can’t open my laptop, even when the seats sit upright.   “Why can’t they just take the bulkhead space in a 737, distribute it evenly, and create more space for all of us,” I muse.  There must be reasons why engineers create floor plans for planes in the way that they do, so I don’t imagine that my musings are going to influence the way that planes are built.

The difference in education is that there are some not-fully-informed opinions that actually matter.  Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen increased pressures at all levels of how education gets conducted because of the opinions of people who use either their experience or the perceived experiences of others to make policies, legislation, or investments into education without fully understanding the implications of their actions.  Well intentioned foundations have poured millions into shaping educational practice into a specific direction, while they ignore decades of research and experience that suggest other directions.  Federal and state legislators pass laws which follow flawed assumptions with even more flawed assumptions that drive schools far away from what they should be doing to be effective.  We have policy makers and enforcers at every level who understand little beyond the policies that they create and mandate.  And I’m convinced that it’s because people who believe that they know (as consumers of the experience) how best to shape education.  However, as is the case of my knowledge of jets, participating doesn’t equate to understanding how to build.

That problem extends throughout all facets of education, and it really extends into whom we think teachers should be.  I’ve written more formally on the dangers of over-standardization of teacher preparation.  But the problem goes deeper than that.  Through popular media, we have a sense that teachers need to be some combination of kindly Mr. Chips and magically wise Dumbledore.  Go online and search for best TV and movie teachers and you’ll find lists of them that offer an interest glimpse into our expectations.  As you’ll discover, though, the “best” teachers in our popular mythology are rated on character traits and not skill.  When skill gets explored, it’s a sense of magical quality that comes from the capacity to enthrall students.  In our popular mass awareness, this endowed skill is a “gift” that some have and others don’t.

It would be impossible to argue that teachers shouldn’t be wise or kind, or possess any of the characteristics that comprise the popular notion of teaching.  Teaching is hard work and it requires significant mental agility, constant creativity, a kindness of spirit, and wisdom to make decisions in every minute that can help or harm learners.  But it’s much more than that.  If you haven’t seen beyond your own experience or the popular sense of what teaching is, you won’t see what a teacher should be.  When I see the extra space in the bulkhead of a 737, I see what seems to be an obvious need to redistribute that space.  And when people who haven’t been trained in education see a classroom, they see external manifestations that can be incorrectly identified as magically gifted attributes.  However, as anyone who has been in education for a few years can explain, what you’re actually seeing are learned and practiced skills that can be defined.

This distinction is important when looking at what teachers are supposed to be like.  If I don’t know any better, I’ll most likely identify a good teacher as the person who is personable and charismatic and can present well.  In contrast, if I understand that teaching is a learned and practiced set of skills, I’ll look for other, more critical factors.  I’ll make certain that the teacher understands how to conduct activities like assessment of learning, classroom management, the sequencing of skills and knowledge, and the development of lessons that address a broad range of learners’ needs.  I’ll look for evidence that the person wants to work in a profession where she/he will have to learn and grow and adapt every year.  Our popular myths suggest that teaching requires extraordinary abilities.  I actually agree with that perception.  The difference is that my experiences as a teacher, my research, and my reading of others’ research all suggest to me that these extraordinary abilities are significantly formed through training and practice, just like any profession.

So what are teachers supposed to be like?  First, as you might infer from what you just read, they need to be skilled professionals.  They need to walk into a classroom on the first day prepared to perform one of the hardest jobs I know (I think of it as air traffic controlling while piloting the plane).  They need to begin their career with a set of skills that helps them know how to meet every student’s needs while ensuring that every student performs to high standards.  Secondly, like a physician who cannot practice from the knowledge gained solely in medical school, teachers need to remain current in both their methods and content knowledge.  Finally, teachers do need to be like kindly Mr. Chips and wise wizard Dumbledore.  They need to care deeply for each student’s success and provide that student with the guidance and support that the student needs. 

All of that suggest a preparation that is comprehensive in scope and depth.  The idea that just having the right characteristics makes a good teacher is an anachronism that has its roots in a system of education where we just expected educators to be dispensers of knowledge and students as vessels of knowledge waiting to be filled.  In truth, that dated idea was itself flawed since only a very few benefitted from that model.  For most of America’s educational history, we were satisfied with a system that served a few “smart” people while others were relegated to something less than that – something that meant schooling really wasn’t for them.  As we’ve started to live up to the promise of an egalitarian educational system, we need educators who can be more than just good communicators, or even kindly communicators.  Their preparation must help them to engage the most diverse population in the nation’s history and to ensure that every student succeeds.  A good teacher should look like the professionals I see in the schools I’m privileged to visit all the time:  possessing strong management and instructional skills, willing to learn more constantly, caring about each learner, and having an outstanding grasp of the content they teach.  If that sounds demanding, it is.  But that’s why we have preparation programs to help new teachers become ready for this.  And it’s why ongoing professional development is so important.  A good teacher has to be a master of many things and the ones I see have done that by being well trained and constantly learning more.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What do we do with a greying profession?

Recently, the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy asked some people from around the country to contribute to a discussion on the greying of the leadership in adult education.  While CAAL's discussion is about the greying of the adult literacy leadership, it's a good discussion starter for all of education, as those of us in the baby boom who have held leadership roles are aging.  Both my comments and those of others are online at:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Has our public school system failed?

Seems to me that it’s time to respond to the people who keep making the point that our public education system is failing.  Quite simply, it’s not.  From the time of A Nation at Risk in 1983 forward, we’ve seen a barrage of public comments about schools’ failures.  That continued and erroneous assault on our public education system has created a picture that just isn’t true.  Even more catastrophic than a false picture are the resulting public policies based on these false premises.  We’ve passed new laws, set up entire systems or accountability, and mandated changes that are based on the perception of a failed school system.  Are some schools failing?  Without a doubt, some schools have failed to meet the needs of the students they serve.  Has the system failed?  There’s no empirical evidence to support that. 

And, actually, the opposite is true.  Our system of public education has succeeded at the tasks we’ve given it.  In the 20th century, we asked schools to get more people to complete high school and to make certain that they could perform basic reading, writing, and computational tasks.  The people who tell us schools are failing claim that didn’t happen.  They suggest that schools have become progressively worse in recent decades.  But when we look at the rate of adults 25 years and older who completed high school in 1970, we see that only 54% did so according to the Bureau of the Census.  These days, nationally, the rate is around 88%, and in greater Seattle it’s closer to 93%.  That’s a different story than often gets discussed.  People sometimes look at on-time graduation rates (which hover between 60-70%) and assume that’s the end of the story.  But if 88% of 25-year-olds have earned a high school diploma, there’s clearly more of the story to tell.  If you believe the Census Bureau data, you have to accept this increase as a significant success.   

So maybe, it is sometimes argued, the increased high school graduation rates are the result of relaxed standards.  However, the data show that’s just not the case.  Standardized scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the same test given annually to fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade students over the past 40+ years, show that basic skills and knowledge scores have remained the same or have slightly increased in some areas.  The increased numbers of graduates have about the same skills that their predecessors did.  As we disaggregate by socio-economic status and other factors like English language skills or learning disabilities, we do see that some groups have not done as well as the overall averages.  And that’s where we need to look at improving education for those populations.  But we cannot focus on those needs we have until we understand where they exist.     

We also need to understand that we have shifted the mission of schools and schooling in the 21st century.  The basic skills and high school diploma of the past aren’t sufficient for the educational needs of an information society.  We need to acknowledge that our economic and societal needs require more than reading, writing, and arithmetic from the people our schools produce.  Dr. David Prince, of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges conducted an analysis of the requirements for an adult to be economically independent.  His found that there is a “tipping point” that determines the level of education needed for economic independence.  That point comes when they attend at least one year of post-secondary education and attain a certificate to go along with that.  Once people reach that tipping point, they earn the wage levels required for sufficiency.  The Northwest’s fishing, logging, and farming jobs of 40 years ago gave way to new occupations that demand more education and a different kind of education.  While, in the past century, we asked schools just to get people graduated, in this century, we’re asking schools to prepare them to transition into opportunities that get them to the tipping point and beyond.   

To operate in this new role, it is imperative that we move beyond the ineffective rhetoric that decries systemic school failure.  Start by looking at the data.  That’s why I’m including links to the sources I’m citing.  We need to move away from politicized rhetoric and begin with fact finding based on reliable sources of data.  What are we doing well and what do we need to improve?  Whom are we serving well and whom do we need to serve better?  Instead of accepting any argument about the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of schools, start by knowing what the ample research and school data tell us.  Then let’s move beyond rhetoric into creating the solutions for those areas where schools are struggling.  Let’s advocate for the resources for those areas and let’s work diligently toward solutions in those areas.  Let’s stop looking at reforming a system and, instead, let’s start looking at evolving it from its incredible history of success into the future successes we need.   

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Thoughts on our Recent National Tragedy

Last Friday I met with a staff member who is a former middle school teacher.  Before we began, she informed me of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  She was crying. When you’re a teacher, every child is your child and every educational professional is part of a larger community who understands that connection.  Losing those children and those colleagues, even though we’ve not met them, is more than a news story.  The loss of these children and these colleagues brings us all to tears.  These are our children and these are our colleagues, and this is our loss.  Every educator grieves with the community of Newtown, Connecticut. 

Other people are talking and writing about the issues of violence and our children.  They will write about the 1,187 children under 18 whom the FBI statistics tell us were violently killed in 2011.  Or they’ll tell us that 565 of those children were killed by firearms.  The discussions have already started about the confluence of mental illness and firearms, and of the need for families to have more support around family members with mental illness.  These discussions will go forward and, as the President suggested, they must lead to action.

However, this also seems a time for us to examine how we perceive schools and educators and children.  Over the past 30 years, we seem to have developed a general perception that educators have failed and that schools have failed, despite all the evidence that we have that this isn’t the case.  Our popular media sometimes portrays a few educators as saints and, more often, as manipulating, bumbling caricatures who only take the job for the easy work it offers.  That’s in contrast to the educators I know.  The educators I know are dedicated folks who care deeply about children and work hard to help children create their futures.  Educators weep when a child is harmed because we see what children can become.  Despite what I know from working alongside, observing, and training educators, some pressure groups have decided that what they perceive to be problems in education come from educators.  These detractors are wrong in both their perception of failure and their perception of educators.

The educators at Sandy Hook Elementary who died were killed as they protected children.  That makes them heroes.  I believe that these extraordinary people were actually ordinary educators who reacted to a moment that required the bravery that came when the children they cared for were threatened.  It’s the same level of care that got them up that morning to go to work and perform among the most important valuable roles that we ask of adults.  They didn’t expect to become martyred heroes that morning when they went to work – they just expected that they’d have the privilege of educating, of seeing children becoming their futures in small increments.  That’s what educators do, and experiencing that privilege is what makes us care so deeply about children.

Educators aren’t saints – like every other person, we stumble in trying to live up to our ideals.  But educators are an amazing profession of people who spend our lives in dedication to others and in hope for the future.  It is this focus on hope that really defines us.  Unlike any other profession that I know, it is hope that frames education.  We see more of what is possible than what only is.  When hope is taken away for children, we cry; but we look forward to the next moment and the next hope.  An unimaginable tragedy like the murder of 20 children and six colleagues doesn’t distinguish our hope.  It gives us more resolve to serve children better. 

So maybe we can stop with the negative perceptions and mischaracterizations of who and what educators are.  And maybe we can start a new conversation that looks to our educators as the keepers of hope whom they are.  Maybe while we discuss firearms, mental illness, and public safety, we can also talk about the strengths of our educational workforce and the amazing miracles they perform daily.  We must honor the heroes who gave their lives in a moment of threat.  And we must also honor all of the educators who give their lives daily.