Sunday, February 24, 2013

Education and the Poor

I'm curious to see if Obama's pre-school proposal has any legs.

Those of us of a certain age remember contentious policy discussions of the 70's and 80's. There was just as much difference of opinion then, but it seemed that for better or worse, things were decided, legislation passed, and we moved on. I think politics worked then in a way it doesn't now. Politics has become more of a pejorative term than it used to be, connoting a sense of sleaziness and a lack of principle, but I think that is a shortsighted view. Politics is really the art of doing what is possible. Successful politicians seem to me to be people who understand human nature for what it is and use their knowledge to get consensus on issues people would otherwise disagree about.

I'm halfway through House of Cards on Netflix, and, though he seems meant to be a villainous character so far, in a way I admire the character played by Kevin Spacey, Francis Underwood. It may not last until the end of the series, but so far he has shown an ability to quickly grasp what people need and deliver it to them, in the process binding them to his orbit and using them to accomplish his own ends. Ultimately, since he is a congressman, that means getting legislation passed.

Admittedly Underwood has no heartfelt allegiance to the complex education bill which so far has been much of the focus of the show. But maybe that is the reality of getting legislation passed. If we consider where strict allegiance to ideological principles has gotten us lately, the answer is nowhere. When compromise becomes a dirty word, adherence to principle becomes a recipe for inaction. In past years, when a president announced a visionary plan–going to the moon or establishing a Great Society–there was at least a fair chance he could get it passed. It certainly looks more grim now days.

Despite this pessimism, I would make the case that it is in all of our self interests to try to eliminate poverty as much as possible.

The Gordon Gekko school of thought would suggest that greed is good, and that if everyone merely looks out for their own self interest, we will all do better. The adoption of this point of view has caused American culture to become depressingly vicious in its lack of concern for those not in the top economic strata. Believers of this principle are convinced that poor people are responsible for their fate because of poor choices they have made. That's why Romney labeled them "takers." Labeled, they become objects, representing an otherness that allows people to be comfortable with not caring about what happens to them.

But while it is true that poor choices can reduce anyone's chances of success, that is not the same as saying that people deliberately choose poorly with full recognition of all the potential negative outcomes. Nor does it mean that in every case there were clear "good" and "bad" alternatives. It is part of the human experience that we don't always have clearly marked choices. Moreover, disadvantaged people are in circumstances where the negative alternatives outnumber, perhaps vastly outnumber, the positive ones.

Plus, relegating wide swaths of a population to the trash bin of history often has a way of backfiring. As the economically disadvantaged become either more numerous or more distanced from the advantaged, they clearly lose any incentive they may have had to play by society's rules. The potential for employing violence as a means of overcoming economic differences has been repeated throughout history, and certainly has not been unknown in fairly recent American experience. While the rich have the option to retreat behind gated communities, having to exercise that option restricts our freedoms, not broadens them.

Therefore, I would make the case that it is in all of our self interests to try to eliminate poverty as much as possible. The America that some fear is being destroyed was one where the opportunity to rise into the middle class was extended to more people than ever. Now, that opportunity is fading, and we are at risk of becoming more like second and third world countries as income inequality widens. Keeping the doors of opportunity open for as many as possible makes us all more prosperous. Paradoxically, many who fear the demise of what America used to be, often favor policies that add to the inequality, excluding the disadvantaged rather than bringing them in.

Education is critical in that effort, and if we care about leveling the playing field with education (and that is a debatable issue), then preschool can be a critical tool in that effort.

Hopefully, the better angels of our natures will rise and reassert themselves.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Early Childhood Education Deserves Our Support

President Obama’s State of the Union speech last week extolled the virtues of pre-school, and proposed making quality preschool available to every four-year-old in the country. Not a bad idea. 

Predictably, some were calling it a new entitlement, and opposed the proposal on the grounds that it would be unaffordable. What we can or cannot afford is a problematic issue, and I’m not going to pass judgment on that part of the issue. I would agree with the new entitlement claim to the degree that, since millions of parents are currently paying for preschool, transferring those payments to the government, whether local or federal, would certainly be a drastic change. At that point, perhaps we ought to call it school rather than preschool and stop to think deeply about where school rightfully begins and how much should be at public expense. Moreover, we need to consider how much value the public will gain from what would certainly be an entitlement for more affluent populations

What ought not to be seen as an entitlement, however, is early education as a strategy to improve under-performing schools in high poverty areas. Parents in these schools want their children to succeed, but, for a variety of reasons, often do not have the skills to accomplish that. School principals both want and need those students to succeed so that their schools can succeed as well. Let's get them together. 

President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program and President Obama’s Race to the Top have drastically altered the starting point for discussions on accountability for success in America’s public schools. Holding teachers, principals, schools, and districts accountable for the performance of their students is no longer some pie in the sky dream, but a day to day reality across the country. Certainly there are varying degrees of success, but there is now very little argument about whether or not accountability is  going to happen or not. There are valid arguments being made about the amount of testing that should be taking place, and what the nature of the tests should be. There is also ongoing discussion about the standards for which students should be responsible. However, that they should demonstrate mastery, and that school staff should be held responsible for the achievement of that mastery, is no longer at issue.

This sea change in accountability has made school principals a cohort of highly motivated stake-holders uniquely positioned to leverage early childhood programs. 

Principals of schools in high poverty areas have a huge stake in the future success of the students who tend to show up at their schools woefully underprepared. Sadly, these principals are hampered by their lack of influence over the first five years of the lives of the children that show up at their doors for Kindergarten. Fewer than 48% of those students, according to Julia B. Issacs of the Brookings Institution, show up ready for school at age five. For children from moderate to high income families, that number is 75%. Issacs lists several factors for this difference: the mother has less than a high school diploma, the mother is not married or is a teenager, low birth weight, smoking during pregnancy, the mother is in less than ideal health or is depressed, there is little maternal supportiveness (often due to others of these factors), and lack of cognitive stimulation.

This last factor, is supported by research on vocabulary acquisition. Reporting in the Atlantic, David Shenk cited research dating back to the 1980’s, by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, in which they observed families from different socioeconomic groups and noted the differing tone and complexity of the words these families used with their children. They also reported a vast difference in the numbers of words spoken to the children, finding that children of professionals hear about 1500 more words per hour than children in poor families. Now this is the total number of words spoken, not the numbers of different words. The cumulative effect is nevertheless staggering, resulting in a gap of over 32 million words heard by age four.

What this research also suggests is that preschool at age four is too late to intervene for these children, because they are already behind by millions of words spoken to them, as well as by the difference in the kinds of words spoken.

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ devoted his Thursday column to this issue, speaking fairly glowingly (not his usual view) of President Obama’s pre-school proposal. He said something I thought was especially to the point: “Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills.”

This is the fact of life that principals of schools in poor neighborhoods face every day. I don’t believe that large numbers of poor parents lack interest in helping their children. They love their children as much as anyone else. They are, however, woefully underprepared for the task of giving their children an opportunity equal to that faced by children raised by more affluent parents, particularly when those parents are so much better educated. Poor parents are overwhelmed by hosts of factors that conspire to deny their children what every parent wants–a chance to have a better life than they’ve had.

Insuring that children from poor families have an opportunity to attend pre-school at age four is helpful, but it isn’t enough, nor is it nearly soon enough to help these children. 
If we want to spend money to help these students, we need to target it specifically at schools in struggling neighborhoods and begin reaching out to parents as early as birth to offer (not force) support in preparing children to enter Kindergarten five years on. Why not hire staff who are part teachers and part social workers to work both in the homes and in school centers to help teach the parents how to talk to their children more, read to them, help them learn how to behave in when they get to school? 

To insure that the money to fund these programs is used effectively, these outreach programs could be placed under the direction of the local principals, with the additional staff working as part of the school’s staff and having a goal of dramatically improving the school-readiness of future students. These principals would be uniquely positioned to be held accountable for the real-world success of these potential outreach programs, and the added staff would go a long way toward giving these principals and teachers a chance to be competitive in a world of increased school accountability. 

If we are serious about providing equal opportunity for all students, we need to get further ahead of the curve than age four, because by then it is too late.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Are Teachers Professionals?

This is a question that has vexed teachers for as long as there have been teachers. Personally, I like the historical description offered by Howard Gardiner in an opinion piece in the New York Times: "A cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner." Though this describes teachers, American culture doesn’t always give us the degree of “status” and “comfortable livelihood” that we deserve.

Before the invention of schools, teachers were certainly not considered professionals. They occupied a nether region that required them to be educated but placed them at the mercy of rich parents for their economic sustenance. Stephen Greenblatt, in his book on the Renaissance, Swerve, describes the vocational travails of the humanist at the center of his account about the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts as he agonizes over how to earn a living, describing the teaching option available, tutoring rich children, as "servitude." While the modern American school culture has certainly improved matters to the point where we don’t consider ourselves slaves, it hasn't yet offered us the respect afforded to other professional occupations. The exception might be college professors, but in many cases professors don't want to be considered teachers, preferring the more honored and respectable role of academician.

So why aren't we truly considered professionals by the public at large? Perhaps it is as simple as the belief that teaching is a job most non-teachers think anyone can do. They believe this, I think, because everyone has gone to school themselves and has been the beneficiary of talented, experienced, hard-working teachers who made it look easy–so naturally, they think it is easy, a point of view that is reflected in the common expression, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Unsurprisingly teaching consequently doesn't have much status in the public mind.

Yet those who have actually faced a classroom of students (especially of public school students) know that teaching is a challenging, difficult proposition that is only becoming more challenging and difficult as time goes on. Thankfully, enough brave souls, inspired by more subtle rewards such as public service and the satisfactions inherent in those magical moments when students finally learn a complex ideas, stick with it and devote their lives to teaching.

Unfortunately, many of the most talented don't last. Some simply move on to other career options, seeking either more status, more pay, or both. Many, however, leave the classroom for the same reasons, but stay in education. They become policy makers of one sort or another, going into administration, writing books and becoming education gurus, or taking positions at universities. This loss is crippling to our professional status, because these tend to be the voices of education, from whom the public usually hears on educational issues. Since it is usually not the voices of practicing classroom teachers that informs the public, is it any wonder that teachers have lower status? 

I’m convinced that establishing a career ladder in the classroom is one key to increasing the status of teachers. The other is changing the perception the public has of the organizations that teachers currently choose to represent them. 

Like it or not, most people consider unions to be tools for blue collar workers to fight for job rights. The fact that nearly every teacher in America belongs to a union may grant us some economic clout, but it damages our prestige with the public. When I began my career, the National Education Association was a professional organization, not a union. It lobbied on behalf of teachers, administrators, and education in general, and worked to improve our profession. Though it never had their clout, it was modeled after other professional organizations like the American Bar Associations and the American Medical Association. We need to find a way to get back to the public seeing teacher organizations as professional in nature. Like the ABA and AMA, which have been much more effective at increasing the pay of their members, we need to find a more effective path to increasing teacher pay, one that pushes the salary efforts onto a different plane.

A good start for career ladders and a great place for a professional organization to work on improving teacher prestige is to push for policies that reward teachers who stay in the classroom as they gain experience and become more professionally prepared. 

Currently, it is accepted practice virtually everywhere, to place first year teachers, fresh out of college with a year of student teaching, directly into classrooms. For nearly all of us–rookies to veterans–the door closes and we are left to fend for ourselves, practicing our craft in virtual isolation. Most of us learn: often by asking for help, occasionally when given the all too rare opportunity to observe a more experienced teacher. The fuss going on all over the country lately about evaluation policies and how to deal with ineffective teachers reflects the reality that, because teachers work largely in isolation, we find it difficult to have meaningful discussions about how best to improve classroom instruction. This system leaves far too much to chance in the professional improvement of teachers.

To make it worthwhile for accomplished teachers to remain in the classroom, we will have to abandon the long-standing tenet that all teachers with the same experience get paid the same. Using professional teaching standards, either current versions or ones that may be fashioned in the future, we need to establish gradations of "master" teachers who have demonstrated mastery of exacting models of excellence. Then we need to create new classroom models that give these masters expanded duties for designing and monitoring instruction, placing them at the head of teams of teachers with fewer qualifications. We need to pay these masters salaries that will keep them as practicing classroom professionals rather than seeking higher pay as administrators. We also need to develop processes where they become part of the decision making process, turning to them for answers about how best to help students learn.

I recently read about Gary Rubinstein, who teaches at the Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He is a Teach for America alumni who twenty-two years later is still practicing his craft, which makes him a model for me of the kinds of teachers we need to encourage with better professional organizations and a classroom career ladder. Of course he supplements his classroom work by writing a blog, has created the organization Teach for Us (which works to provide means for teachers to connect across America), and has written books, all of which points to the fact that teaching, as it is currently practiced, doesn’t recognize talented teachers well enough nor does it give enough outlet for them to extend their professional reach. But he is still grounded in a classroom, and that sets him apart. 

It is past time to give teachers like Rubinstein the prestige that goes with the recognition of being a professional, along with at least some of the status that other professionals in our culture receive. Let's make teacher associations truly professional organizations that work with policy makers to widen quality instruction as well as improving economic benefits for teachers. And let's identify the best among us and put them at the head of the class. Let's put them in charge of teacher teams, give them more input on policy decisions, more prestige, and more pay. Let's keep them in the classroom, like Gary Rubinstein, where they can make the biggest difference.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Saving the Middle Class

Public schools have played a significant role in increasing the opportunity for Americans to join the middle class. Of course this sense of opportunity has always been a goal to yet to be achieved, but free, public education (which many today seem to take for granted) has succeeded in giving hope to millions whose parents and grandparents never thought it possible to own a home and carve out their piece of the American dream.

We still have that dream, but it is becoming harder and harder to believe in it. This is not altogether the fault of the schools, though as a profession, we have certainly gotten in our own way a few times. While we certainly always have room for improvement, the capability of public schools to produce middle class citizens has been decisively crippled by the rising tide of income inequality and short term thinking by our business community.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman describes what he calls the “Great Inflection,” the extremely rapid technological change from, “connected to hyperconnected” that has been accelerating the past decade. The speed of change has reached a point where obsolescence influences not only technology, but the skills of workers. Friedman argues that the constant changes in technology and productivity require workers to view education not only as a lifelong endeavor, but also as a commitment to both curiosity and passion, requiring the ability to not just find a job, but often to invent one.

Friedman’s column is a provocative insight into the future of our middle class, and it encompasses an important view of what we, as a country, need to do to adapt successfully to this change.

It also portends a grim future for those who will inevitably find it difficult to adapt. This is a worrisome notion for schools, because as all public school teachers know, when it comes to students, you get what you get. Our classrooms are full of all kinds of students: highly motivated to hardly motivated at all; quick learners to hard workers who have to fight tooth and toenail for every bit of information learned; students whose parents give them every advantage for success to students whose parents barely get them to school every day. They are ours no matter what, and we often have to count it as success when we are able to get some of them from point A to point B, no matter where those two points might fall on the continuum.

My experience with real-live students suggests that the kind of intense pursuit for a spot in the economic system that Friedman describes is going to inevitably leave significant numbers of students in the economic wake of the uber-competitors who will succeed no matter what. This is an unpleasant reality, but one we ought to face explicitly rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

Competition, by its very nature, is going to reward some at the expense of others–that can’t be avoided. We do have a responsibility, however, not to leave the losers to fend for themselves in the gutter. As a civilized society, we ought to feel morally compelled to design a system that does its best to offer a chance for everyone to find work that provides a reasonable amount of fulfillment, both in terms of income and dignity. This means everyone, not just those who have the wherewithal to “invent” their own job.

This is a lofty goal, and is not just the provence of schools. It falls, rather, to the polis as a whole to be a part of the discussion as to how we can grow our economy in a way that offers meaningful work to everyone. It poses a particular question to our business community, because it sheds light on an issue they seem to have lost sight of: Where are the customers going to come from?

Technology is cool and demonstrably improves the bottom line, but the bottom line isn’t always all that matters. At some point, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and owners of small businesses have to realize that if they keep using technology to streamline their work force, and everyone else does too, they will eventually run out of customers. Someone has to be making enough money to buy the stuff all the businesses are selling. A too short term view of profitability, while alluring, doesn’t always capture the whole reality, because, though workers cost money, without them in their other role as customers, there is a whole lot less business. Even the fattest of the fat cats, the top echelon of the 1%, won't stay there long unless they can find paying customers. There isn't nearly as much money to be made in selling the necessities as there is in selling optional consumer goods. So, it is in everyone’s self-interest to keep as many people employed as possible. And not just employed, but optimally employed.

If we keep squeezing out all the well-paying jobs, opportunities to join, or even remain, in the middle class will become dearer and dearer, lowering the perceived value of acquiring an education. As this becomes true, the problem for schools, of course, will involve getting students engaged in the work of learning. If all we do is reward the achievers, the ones who struggle will find it increasingly difficult to believe that the system holds any rewards for them. Most students are fairly realistic about where they fall in the hierarchy of school achievement. Unfortunately, if they sense that there is no meaningful place for them in that hierarchy–in other words they see no future for themselves–their willingness to engage in learning becomes increasingly harder to come by, and it isn’t hard to blame them, actually. This means that the divide between the haves and have nots, which has been dramatically widening in the past two decades, will widen further and further.

Schools certainly have a role to play in ameliorating this dynamic, but at best we can be junior partners, ones who take direction rather than define it. Rather, we need to be part of a larger conversation about what matters most to America. Does the American vision have room only for the elite, the “winners” that Friedman describes, or is there room for everyone? There are plenty of ways to answer that question, many of which are likely to cause massive disagreements. America, though, has always been innovative, so perhaps it is time to channel some of that innovation into systems that provide both profit and employment, innovation with empathy, and most importantly, opportunity for all.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Miracle of the Kidney Shaped Table

With very little fanfare, a game-changing technology has quietly taken root in many American classrooms. The kidney-shaped table, as humble as it may seem, has become a key innovation, used by teachers to manage their classrooms because of it’s astounding ability to multiply time.

When Hermione Granger saved the day in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by pulling out her Time-Turner, enabling her and Harry to go back in time, everyone probably just assumed it was another example of that silly wizarding fantasy stuff those movies were full of, because of  course you can’t manipulate time.

But the kidney-shaped table gives teachers a sort of Time-Turner that allows them to create extra time in their classrooms. By simply dividing students up into groups and rotating the groups up to the kidney-shaped table for work that is customized to their current academic levels, the teacher can actually multiply her efforts and solve that pesky but persistent problem of never having enough time to help each student.

OK, I realize this has begun to sound ridiculous, because of course you can’t actually multiply time. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one has too exactly attempted to sell the idea of using kidney-shaped tables as a means of multiplying time. It has, however, been over-hyped as a simple solution to a complex problem. Perhaps one might make the case that overselling the innovative capabilities of the kidney-shaped table is a harmless promotional trick for a strategy that might in fact have some value. On the other hand, I would make the case that this simplistic answer to the complex issues of meeting the individual needs of students causes us to believe we’ve solved a problem when all we’ve done is put lipstick on a pig.

I’m even willing to concede that using kidney-shaped tables could be a part of the solution to how we effectively meet individual student’s needs. As a strategy, though, it has a major fault: it doesn’t actually increase the amount of attention that a teacher can focus on an individual student when you take into consideration all of the students a teacher is normally responsible for at any one time. In fact, I think it is fair to say that it doesn’t improve the teacher’s ability to individualize instruction, but rather what it does is decrease the teacher’s ability to supervise student seat work. It isn’t that difficult to institute a reign of terror in your classroom and insure that the students working at their desks don’t make any noise while you are working with the group at the kidney-shaped table. What is considerably more difficult–I am reluctant to use the word impossible because it is so absolute–is to insure that the students working at their seats use their time productively. No matter how you slice it and dice, it is impossible to add time without adding actual time, so simply introducing a new means of grouping doesn’t increase either individual attention from the teacher or time on task.

We have come to the point of hoping that a simple piece of furniture and a strategy for grouping students will have a more profound effect than it can possibly have because we have locked ourselves into beliefs that prevent us from thinking creatively enough to truly have the sort of impact we would like to have. We have for decades, been chained to the age-graded, heterogeneously grouped classroom, and have become unable to think outside the box that puts us in.

Those of us who deal with students who don’t fit, the round pegs in the square holes, have felt the frustration. School systems, as presently constituted, rather quickly run out of options for students who are struggling, and are forced to place students in settings where we know they will not get the kind of support they will likely need and in which they will be extremely unlikely to rise to their full potential. We have schools that are designed for the system, not the kids.

Why can’t some teachers teach small groups of students who need more attention while others teach much larger groups with students who can benefit from large group instruction? Why on earth do we begin teachers with the full responsibility for a classroom of students instead of working under a master teacher to perform entry level tasks?  In fact, why can’t we have a graduated pay system, with teachers hired at differing levels of development and working at different levels of responsibility?

Unless taxpayers are willing to pay a lot more taxes, we are going to have to get comfortable with ideas like these and many more like them if we ever expect to truly meet the needs of students instead of expecting them to adapt to the needs of the school system.