Friday, December 21, 2012

Tis the Season

Joy to the world, because today is the winter solstice, ending the slow decline of the sun in its march to the south. Each day has become shorter since the peak in June, and this metaphorical death, followed by a rebirth, mirrors the cycle of life and death that is part of the miracle and mystery of our existence.

Human life, indeed all life, in the northern hemisphere is tied to this rhythm, though modern life has sheltered us a bit from many of its natural consequences. Is it any wonder, then, that Christianity, as it spread north to where the influence of the solstice is more strongly felt, subsumed the solstice festivals into its mythology? After all, the mystery and miracle of death and rebirth revealed by the sun’s yearly journey is the same as that at the heart of the story of Christ.

The story of Christ connects millions all over the world, and during the Christmas season we sing about peace on earth and goodwill to men, because both the narrative and the seasonal rhythm give us hope and spark our faith. You needn’t be a Christian to feel the power of his story because the idea of rebirth at the heart of the season gives us a primal sense of optimism and connectedness, as well as a link to something greater than we are.

Though the materialistic side of gift-giving can sometimes overwhelm our good sense, the spirit behind it still appeals to a deeper part of our natures. We give because, as the Magi sought Christ and brought him gifts, giving communicates a hope for the future embedded in the miracle at the heart of the season. We give because, as Good King Wenceslas braved the harsh winter to give alms to a peasant, giving to others nourishes our souls as we consider their needs above ours. We give because it feels good to give, and because it feels good to be given to. We bask in the warmth of human connections, delighting in the knowledge of loving and being loved, even if it is just a little bit and in the most mechanical and fleeting manner. At its heart, both giving and receiving at Christmas remind us that we belong to something larger than ourselves. 

In 1876, a young girl asked her father if there really was a Santa Claus. He suggested she send her question to the newspaper, because if she read it there, she would know it was true. “Yes, Virginia,” they replied to her letter, “there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy."

This wisdom is partly a reflection of the natural process created by the slight tilting of the earth's axis, which brings about the winter solstice, which, in turn, inspires human beings to have faith–whether it be in Santa Claus, or Stonehenge, or the birth of Jesus–and faith is what gives us reason to celebrate at this time of the year.

So make it a point to be of good cheer today. 'Tis the season to be jolly, because we have again survived the death of the sun, and along with it, we are reborn. It is an everyday sort of miracle that inspires us to feel a part of the mystery of life. It also reminds us we are not alone on this planet, but share its trials, tribulations, and joys with others, deriving strength and sustenance thereby. Joy to the world, because Santa Claus is coming to town.

Oh, and by the way, it won't hurt anything at all to celebrate again on December 25th.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Culture Wars, Redux

The New York times published an article on December 4 titled, “For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing.” According to reporter, Motoko Rich, though a quarter of America’s students are hispanic, “...nonwhite Latino children seldom see themselves in books written for young readers.”

Rich juxtaposes this lack of characters of color in what students read with data on substantially lower performance of Hispanic students compared to white students, the clear suggestion being that perhaps there is a cause and effect relationship. She also quotes the opinions of several professors of education to bolster her theme, who don't, however, even bother to cite data. Students have a, “different kind of connection,” says one professor. The subject matter, “might be puzzling,” says another. “They start thinking of their language or practices or familiar places and values as not belonging in school,” guesses a third. Their point seems to be that it is common sense that if students don’t see characters like themselves, then they won’t be able to relate.

To be clear, as a teacher of literature, I have long been a fan of widening the curriculum with materials outside of the traditional canon. My belief is that the old notion of exposing oneself to a specific list of great works was perhaps a reasonable endeavor in a bygone age when one’s culture was more narrowly circumscribed. It used to be a doable feat, but in an increasingly global culture, it is becoming all but impossible. Realistically, there’s too much really great literature out there to limit oneself to to one narrow cultural stream.

But I’ve never been convinced, nor does Rich’s article convince me, that a student’s sense of worth or ability to fully engage in literature is necessarily limited by the culture from which the book springs, nor the types of characters it contains.

It should go without saying that while some writers write to expose their readers to an unfamiliar side of a familiar scenario, many are attempting the exact opposite: bringing alive for their readers a totally unfamiliar world. Consider Treasure Island, or Moby Dick, or The Jungle Book. Writers are also very often specifically showing us how characters share the same fundamentally human values we do, though they might be, on the surface, assuredly not be like us at all. J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, created Hobbits as specifically not human, yet made them so recognizably English, with all the eccentricities and strengths of English culture, that it is impossible to miss the connection. A fairy tale, like “The Three Little Pigs,” teaches a lesson about how working hard and being smart is essential for survival, which is clearly not relevant to actual pigs.

Leaving the teaching of literature aside, however, a greater concern is that this article is an example of another of the cultural battles that have plagued schools for a number of years now. In an effort to raise “multi-cultural awareness,” educators have been required to attend staff development training that both sensitizes them to differences represented by the various cultures at play in their schools and classrooms, but more problematically pushes them to include direct instruction on different cultural practices and beliefs. I think the sensitivity training is a useful reminder to educators that students come to us from all sorts of different backgrounds, and that we need to explicitly take steps to make them feel comfortable in our classrooms and schools.

However, asking teachers make the cultures of their students a subject of instruction, no matter how well intentioned, misses a key point about the role of schools. Schools are not arbiters of cultural judgment, and should not be asked to decide which cultures we should "teach." The job of school is to prepare students to succeed in the culture they will live in, not the one they came from.

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I had friends of Japanese ancestry who had to go to the Japanese school after the regular school day was over. That seemed a cruel and unusual punishment to me back then, but as an adult I can understand that their parents wanted to preserve their language as well as their culture and values. During the regular day, however, the job of those students, as well as the rest of us, was to learn how to succeed in American society, not immerse ourselves in any of the cultures we came from.

Now some would argue that American culture, or some part of it, is changing or needs to be changed. That, however, is part of the job description for educators. Rather it is a discussion that American society as a whole will engage in and eventually come to consensus about. Then it will fall to educators to prepare students to succeed in the culture as we agree it is.

Certainly educators ought to possess the good sense to be sensitive to the various backgrounds of every student in our classrooms. We need to strive to understand what cultural imperatives either impede or assist students and work to use that understanding (like using books with characters of color) to help each student get where they need to get: succeeding in the American culture. 

But it is not our job to teach the culture of one group of our kids to another group, nor is it absolutely necessary to count the numbers of different kinds and colors of characters in the works they read. Kids are resilient and adaptable, and occasionally we will find it interesting and enlightening to do a lesson on an interesting aspect of a particular culture (especially when it helps to understand a story we are reading), or choose a specific work to read because the particulars of the setting or the characters will increase the engagement of our students. We should never lose sight, however, of our main task.

Throughout our history, immigrants have come to America because they believed there was more opportunity for them here. For much of our history, that opportunity has been strengthened by the free, public, education we offer as a leg up to success in the American culture. Little has changed, and our classrooms still contain many students whose families are recent immigrants, explicitly here to share the American dream. That they become American along the way, is in large part a result of what they learn in school, and it is precisely why America is often described as a melting pot.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cheating the American Dream

In my last post, I cited Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column about how high tech jobs that pay well were going unfilled due to American job hunters’ lack of skills. I was attempting to make the case that a return to the inclusion of vocational training in our high schools was  needed to boost our economy and improve the prospects of many Americans. Not two days after I posted, Adam Davidson, also reporting in the New York Times, wrote an article that cut the legs out from under my argument. Davidson wrote about employers lowballing wages for high skill workers. His piece included the demoralizing fact that shift managers at McDonald’s make more than workers with needed high tech skills.

According to Davidson, “Nearly six million factory jobs, almost a third of the entire manufacturing industry, have disappeared since 2000.” Much of that has been because of higher productivity due to increased computerization of manufacturing equipment. Of course Friedman and others have been making the case that though those jobs are likely gone forever, the computerized manufacturing tools still needed people to program them and guide their operation. That’s where the high tech skills come in.

All of that goes out the window if, in fact, manufacturers are successful at keeping the wages lower than those for non-skilled work. This seems, on the face of it, to be taking advantage of people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a position of low leverage. But just as much it seems like a self-defeating proposition for the manufacturers as well. After all, someone has to make enough money to purchase whatever it is that they are manufacturing. Even as tough a capitalist as Henry Ford realized that he benefitted when he paid his workers enough to buy one of his cars. Hopefully this is a temporary blip, and market forces will drive wages for high tech jobs up.

Regardless, it is long past time for American business to get past the greed is good mythology which Gordon Gekko sermonized about in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.  Stone surely never intended for Gekko’s greed to resonate in a positive way as it has seemed to in the last few years. While greed certainly motivates entrepreneurs to do the heavy lifting needed to make a business succeed, it has its limits.

One of those limits will be forcing itself on our attention if we don’t find a way to replace most of the jobs that have been lost in the Great Recession with ones that can support a middle class existence. The American dream has long been a promise that hard work will lead to success, and forcing so many people out of the middle class makes a mockery of that dream. More selfishly for employers, though, without higher pay, what is the incentive for students to work hard in school and get that next higher level of training? It is not hard to envision a downward spiral that weakens our economy and further erodes America’s competitiveness.

America led the way in constructing a nearly universal, free, public education that was critical in fostering the beliefs central to the American dream. If all we have to offer, however, is a choice between going to college or the dismal prospects afforded by low skilled jobs at fast food restaurants and big-box stores, we create a cutthroat competition that will benefit a select few and condemn the rest to a lifetime of meager hopes.

Hopefully, our better natures will rise to the top and remind us once again that paying workers a wage commensurate with the skills they have worked to attain will benefit the workers as well as improve the long term prospects of the company that hired them.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century, Part 5 

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation.  In Part 4, the topic was the need to breathe life back into Career Technical Education.

Despite the nearly 8% unemployment rate caused by the Great Recession, three million jobs are unfilled and going begging. Thomas Friedman, in his New York Times column today cited this anomaly and noted, “Every decent-paying job today takes more skill and more education, but too many Americans aren’t ready.”

Most of us know a recent college graduate who hasn’t been able to get a job yet, or an over 50 college graduate who lost a job and can’t get another. Why don’t they have the education they need to get these jobs? The disconnect is not that too many Americans are under-educated, it is that many bought the wrong kind of education. As I discussed in my last post, the mantra for the last several years has been college, college, college. Consequently, students have opted to pursue four year degrees in a market that was becoming saturated with holders of four year degrees.

Friedman’s column describes the difficulties of Wyoming Machine, a company that was a sub-contractor for another company with a contract to armor Humvees for the military. Unfortunately, Wyoming Machine’s owners couldn’t find welders with the skills needed for the work. According to owner Traci Tapani, “They could make beautiful welds, but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning, and brushing techniques.” Compounding the issue, was that the work involved high levels of technology and low volumes of production, requiring the workers to be able to constantly work with different drawings and technical specifications. She solved the problem by hiring her own trainer, but she still finds it difficult to locate suitable recruits. The way Tapani sees it, “If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.” Not enough job applicants have the background to be able to do this.

Part of the problem, of course, is that we need more sources for this kind of training at junior colleges and private trade schools. But the other part is that more students need to graduate from high school ready and willing to get this kind of education and pursue these careers. For that to happen, American high schools have to back off of the emphasis we have been placing on preparing students to pursue a four-year college degree, and get comfortable helping students realize that the traditional academic college experience might not be the best choice for them.

As I argued previously, high school educators have had to become very careful when introducing anything to do with careers into their curriculum. Talking about careers pretty easily begins to sound like vocational training to some people, which then smacks of how in the bad old days, schools shunted low performing students into vocational programs with low expectations. America’s future, educators have been led to believe, lay in more students going to college. Often the default response of high school educators has been to avoid saying career too loudly or even at all for fear of committing career suicide. As Friedman’s column emphasizes, the danger of this attitude is too few opportunities for students, and too few adults with the skills needed to find well-paid work.

Career Technical Education (CTE), a less threatening euphemism for what used to be called Vocational Education, has been subsisting at the margins for the last ten years or so, bravely soldiering on and trying to get anyone to listen while quietly creating a new generation of programs that prepare students for work while helping them learn high level academic skills. There are many excellent models in place all over the country. They just need more people to pay attention. 

One excellent example of CTE in action is the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis, California. CART is organized around four career clusters with several career-specific laboratories. The school is project based and works closely with local and regional business partners as well as post-secondary institutions to provide real-world connections for students. The CART facility was designed to look more like a business than a school, with high tech labs situated around a central courtyard and adjoining classrooms that look more like corporate conference rooms. Each lab is paired with an academic class, say English or social science, along with an academic teacher who partners with the lab teacher. Together they integrate the academic work and the lab work into the design of the project the students work on.

If you get a chance to visit CART or any of the CTE programs, you will likely learn that the key to CTE is context. As Friedman’s column points out, preparing students for a career doesn’t mean dumbing down the material. Students need to learn high levels of math, science, and communications skills to succeed in the real world. CTE, however, provides that instruction in the context of real world learning by matching it with instruction in the specific skills of a particular career. This gives meaning and purpose to what needs to be learned, making it much easier for students to engage with the material, and giving them a reason to learn it. Plus, it enables students to acquire valuable training that can lead to a well-paying job.

This can and should begin to happen in every high school, but the world is too complex to allow most students to finish their education there. Virtually all students need to prepare in high school for the most appropriate post-secondary education for them. 

Our job as educators is to stop pushing one choice over the others. Some students have career aspirations that should lead them to choose a program leading to a four year degree. Some of these will begin that degree quest by attending a two year institution and working through the academic side of the college’s program, perhaps earning an associate degree on the way. Other students’ career choices will also lead them to a JC, but focusing on the CTE side of the program. These students may also strive to earn an associate degree, but often earn an industry certification or participate in an apprenticeship program. Still others will choose to attend a private institution offering career specific education, and again likely earning industry certification of some kind.

High schools should be designing curriculum that isn’t biased toward four year degree programs. Because educators have four year degrees doesn’t mean every student needs one as well. Rather we should be arming parents and students with the information they need to analyze the student’s skills and preferences along with data forecasting where job markets are trending. 

This is not just good for students, it’s good for America.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Re-Energizing Career and Technical Education

Part 4 of Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life. Part 3 questioned the wisdom of the current shift in American high school curriculum to a nearly complete focus on college preparation. 

When the high school where I work was built in 1991, it included four shop rooms. Only two of them are currently used, with eight scheduled classes for a student body of 2500 students. What changed in twenty years to make the forecasted need mostly disappear? As I discussed in my last post, for what seemed to be good reasons, educators became convinced that every student needed to go to college. So for the last several years, the graduation requirements have communicated to students and parents the need prepare to qualify upon graduation to meet the admission requirements of the University of California system. Shop classes would have had to be dramatically adapted to meet these standards, and so, with the exception of some specialized programs, have been largely eliminated. Essentially, we effectively doomed the chances that shop class would attract any but the least committed students. 

Unfortunately, even the President has weighed in on this issue, setting a goal that by 2020 America would once again have the highest proportion of graduates in the world. I guess this is a worthy goal, but it adds to the general sense that a college degree is the only respectable choice.

Clearly, vocational education needed a makeover to survive, so now it is known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Realizing that it would be crushed by the college prep juggernaut, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Vocational and Adult Education now defines the ideal CTE programs, as, "...rigorous, blended college preparatory and career oriented instruction." This  mean that if you can't teach it as college prep, you can't teach it. 

Look more closely at the man behind the curtain, though, and reality makes a costumed appearance. When educators say high school students should graduate prepared for college, that sounds like they mean prepared to pursue a bachelor's degree, but that's not really the case. Reading carefully, you discover a more cautious wording, something like "postsecondary education and training" is needed to secure a middle class paycheck. The result, at least in California, is that we seem to be asking students to meet the admission requirements of one of the most prestigious universities in the country, though we really only mean that they need to be ready to go to a junior college or a private vocational college. Unfortunately, this focus on college prep subtly but clearly communicates that graduating from college is the true ideal, and anything less is a fall back position.

It’s become so bad that, despite the fact nearly everyone thinks high school students should begin thinking about and preparing for a career, educators are so preoccupied with preparing students for college that we make only a token effort to have a comprehensive discussion with students about potential careers, career goals, and what they need to do to prepare for the career of their choice. Paradoxically, a better career is ostensibly the whole reason we are preparing them for college in the first place.

So, job one is to put "career" back into the high school vocabulary. We need to stop pretending that every student needs to make earning a bachelor's degree the only acceptable goal. 

But we also need to make sure that career doesn't take on the old connotations that used to attach to the term “vocational.” Career education has to avoid becoming a dumping ground for students like it often used to be, which means that educators must at all costs avoid the trap of taking responsibility for making the decisions about which students pursue which track. Our job is to arm students and parents with information: which courses prepare students for admission to a university and which don’t; what do particular careers pay, and what is the market for those jobs like; what skills are required for not only the career, but the education required to achieve that career; what are the student’s academic strengths. The task for the parents and the student is to decide what is best for the student. When school staff presume to make these life-altering choices, we are asking to be blamed if it doesn’t work out. Moreover, we are asking to be blamed for bias, whether those biases are perceived or real.

The other critical task for educators is to make sure that all courses are designed with the understanding that, while the various courses may prepare students for different post-secondary destinations, all students have to emerge from high school with the ability to think and solve problems creatively. The high paying jobs that are in demand now, require workers to do more than mindlessly process parts on an assembly line–those jobs have either fled the country, are being done by robots, or pay only a dead-end wage.

High schools need to prepare students with the math and logic needed to program those robots, or any computerized equipment that manufactures the customized, small-run, high-profit products that will be the mainstay of a successful American economy in the future. Medical technology is exploding, and technicians will be needed to maintain and operate these new machines, requiring perhaps an associate degree or an industry certification, but certainly requiring understanding of math and science concepts. As energy generation and transmission systems advance, technical jobs that don't yet exist will be created that will go to workers with the ability to master new skills that build on the foundations mastered in CTE courses in high school as well as post secondary settings.

And so on.

Perhaps CTE is a better term for what used to be called vocational, but by whatever name, it needs to be perceived as more than the college-prep step child it currently is. We would serve both the present and future needs of students more effectively if we would raise the status of CTE, and that starts with admitting that it is different than college prep–not better or less, just different.

The topic for the last post in this series will be: High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Do We Really Need More College Grads?

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century - Part 3

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else. Part 2 looked at how to improve accountability to move instruction back to what students need to succeed in life.

Some time in the past five or six years, American high schools began to be inundated with another flood of reform. This one was predicated on the belief that to succeed in life, every student had to go to college. To that end, we changed all of our curriculum to focus on college prep. Nearly every course had to be redesigned so that it would be accepted as a college preparation course. Graduation requirements were rewritten to become “more rigorous" and prepare students for college. Algebra got pushed earlier and earlier so that students would complete more math during high school and be ready for the rigors of college math. Anything remotely smelling of vocational preparation became a harder and harder sell, and suffered greatly reduced emphasis in the curriculum.

We meant well. After all, we had all heard the statistics about how high school graduates make about half of what workers with a bachelor’s degree make. Over a lifetime, the difference is $1.2 million of earnings for a high school graduate compared to $2.5 million for bachelor’s degree holders. It’s difficult to ignore that data.

What we ought to have been asking, of course, was why is that premium offered to college graduates? If you paid attention during your economics class, you know that the answer is supply and demand–college graduates have been scarce enough that they could demand and receive higher pay. Since the 60’s, the college attainment rate, the percent of adults who have a bachelor’s degree, has fluctuated around 30%. This would seem to indicate that the top 30% of jobs are available to holders of bachelor’s degrees, assuming that individuals make reasonably rational choices in pursuing a degree, and would not do so if the financial rewards weren’t generally commensurate with the investment of time and effort.

What happens, then, if we succeed and drastically increase the number of students who pursue and attain a bachelor’s degree? Is there going to be a corresponding growth in jobs that pay those higher wages? Perhaps, but more likely we will have discovered a disconnect between cause and effect in operation. Greater numbers of college graduates, in and of itself, does not necessarily increase the number of jobs available to those graduates.

Perhaps there is demand for more workers with college degrees, although the difficulty that recent college graduates have experienced does not bode well in that regard. As the recession recedes, undoubtedly the demand will increase some. The question is how much?

Everything I read suggests to me it is likely that, even if demand is increasing, there is a corresponding increase in competition for those higher paying jobs, not only in this country, but from college graduates all over the world. As far as I can see, even were we to drastically succeed in increasing the college attainment rate (which is not necessarily a foregone conclusion), it is likely that the competition would drastically decrease the financial earning power of those degrees. This is certainly an unintended outcome.

The second question we ought to have been asking about the college prep reform movement is whether or not every student is college material. Though we are loathe to admit it, not every student is temperamentally, emotionally, or conceptually suited for college. Deeply rooted in the American psyche is the notion that we can do whatever we put our minds to. So, instead of looking realistically at where students really were, we earnestly included in our core belief statements the banal triviality, “Every student can learn.” This is about like saying water is wet. Of course every student can learn. The issue isn’t whether they can learn or not, the issue is how quickly can any individual student learn something in comparison to other students.

You don’t have to spend very long in a classroom to be convinced that there are vast differences between the rates at which students learn. Not only that, but the ability to manipulate abstract concepts with a high degree of facility, which is a key to success in college, is also not distributed evenly throughout the population. It is a mystery to me how anyone can realistically look at the wide range of student performance in the average high school and believe that every student can, during four years of high school, become prepared to enter college.

What should have been our focus is how the world economy has changed our job market, so that high school graduates can no longer expect to go directly to earning a middle class wage without pursuing post-secondary education. The halcyon post World War II years when that was true are permanently gone, and we owe it to students to make sure they look beyond high school to the next next step in their education. The question, though, is does that post-secondary experience need to be the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree?

To me the answer is unequivocally, no. Yet, does it hurt anything to prepare students for college even if they will never attend? It does for two reasons.

First is that it undermines the teacher’s efforts to engage students. By pretending that every student is going to college, we are constantly answering the question about why they are learning this material with the reply that they need it for college. For the students who are firm in their conviction that they will attend college, this is important motivation. Most students, however, aren’t that firm. Some know good and well that there is no chance they will go to college, nor do they have any interest in doing so. Others have a vague idea they “should” go to college, but there is neither conviction nor a sense of reality about any plan to do so. For these non-committed, “You need it for college,” does not motivate them to engage in the hard work of learning the material. They need a better reason, one more embedded in a concrete reality that they can relate to their own future.

The second reason is of course that by focusing on college prep, we are missing opportunities to teach specific skills that these students really will need.

Career and technical education programs, which are the topic of my next post, address these needs.

Future posts will discuss:

  • Re-Energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Accountability Count

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century - Part 2

In the first installment of this series, I talked about how high schools have a two-track system: advanced courses for the top students, and a one-size-fits-all program for everyone else.

The public is currently screaming for increased accountability, so what measures do we utilize to hold our education systems accountable? The fact that the answer to that question is nearly always multiple choice tests is another testament to the true nature of our educational philosophy. There is no doubt that there are multiple choice tests that can, to a degree, measure higher levels of thinking, but these sorts of tests are reductionist in nature, and sacrifice subtlety of interpretation for ease of scoring. What’s worse, is that basing accountability on multiple choice tests encourages, perhaps even forces, a reductionist style of instruction that focuses on distinguishing between concrete possible answers rather than formulating solutions from disparate information.

This has come about because in response to the call for greater accountability, we have put the cart before the horse. The proper sequence would have been to determine what students needed to know and be able to do when they go out into the real world, then based on that information, to design assessments that appropriately measured the degree to which students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. Instead, we took the kinds of assessments commonly in use, then formulated standards that described what students needed to know in order to score well on those tests. 

Of course the thousands of educators who sat on those hundreds of committees and formulated standards will disagree with this description. I, however, find it impossible to look at the standards we’ve been saddled with and not be reminded of the old adage that if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In fairness, these committees probably did try to start from what students needed to know and be able to do. However, it was, and is, all too easy to let the tool we already have in the toolbox–the multiple choice test–confuse us into believing that what this kind of test measures, because it is what we are accustomed to measuring, is what students need to know and do. 

So, to get the cart back behind the horse, what do we want students to be able to know and do?

If we believe that what students need to succeed in life is the ability to recognize a correct solution from one of a limited number of options, then multiple choice instruction and accountability is the right system.

If on the other hand, if we believe that students will experience success in their future careers because they have the ability to process information from a variety of sources, recognize and connect patterns, predict future trends and applications, and communicate results in an appropriate format, then we ought to recognize that no matter what kind of improvement current accountability systems might produce, the results are illusory. In an increasingly complex world, it is more important than ever to teach student to think, then measure their thinking utilizing methods that ask them to make their thought process tangible via some kind of performance.

There are plenty of models, either in use now or used in the recent past, for how to do performance based assessment of many different types. For example, the California High School Exit Examination currently uses a writing sample as part of the requirement for graduation. Students write a response to a writing task from one of five types of writing. They are scored by teams of teachers using a process where groups of teachers meet, review a rubric, which specifically describes the performance of students at a number of levels. The teachers then go through a process using sample papers that all the scorers read, assign a score, then discuss why they assigned that score. The papers are then read by two teachers, with a third scorer weighing in if the first two scores are too far apart. This process, despite the subjectivity, produces remarkably consistent scores.

However, it is time consuming and more expensive than multiple choice assessment. 

It is a human tendency, I think, to be attracted to simple answers to complex problems. Those simple answers mislead us into thinking we have solved the problem, which is almost always not the case. 

Complex measures, like performance assessment, can be messy, but will produce much more nuanced results that tell us more about the real-world capabilities of students. We just have to be willing to pay for them.

Future posts will discuss:
  • Does Every Student Need College?
  • Re-energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Monday, October 22, 2012

One Size Fits All

Redefining American High Schools for the 21st Century Part 1

I began my teaching career in 1974 in the continuation school of a small, one high school district. There were two teachers and an aide. The routine was that students were assigned, based on what classes they had and had not yet passed, to a course. Each course had a set of packets that were to be completed sequentially. These packets were kept in file cabinets in the office between the two classrooms. Students went to the aide who got them the packet they needed. When they completed the packet, they turned it in to the aide to corrected it and gave them the next packet.

What was my contribution? Good question. I kept order and assisted students who were having problems. However, since on a really busy day we had maybe 14 or 15 students in both classrooms, this was not a taxing assignment. Plus, the students left at noon. I know there are teachers who are dedicated to the kinds of troubled kids who fall through the cracks and land in alternative education schools. Thank goodness they exist, and I hope they all work in better schools than the one I was in. As for me, the job was so boring I couldn’t wait to get out of there, although it took me three years to accomplish it.

Though negative in many ways, my experience in an alternative education program provided me with an unintended insight into American educational philosophy. Despite whatever grand rhetoric we attach to our curriculum descriptions, we are much too frequently willing to consign students to classrooms where instruction largely consists of fill-in-the-blank activity.

Why does this kind of system exist? Partly because we have difficulty truly allowing students to fail. When push comes to shove, schools will go out of their way to make it relatively easy for students who fail a class to get caught up and graduate with their age-group peers.

But mostly it is because we fundamentally believe that learning is modular and sequential, can be reduced to a check list, and can take place largely independent of a teacher. In other words, though we don’t like to admit it, school is mostly about busy work.

This is why class isn’t canceled when a teacher is absent. We believe that a substitute can be given a lesson plan which, for all intents and purposes, reproduces what the regular teacher would have done as if the two were simply replaceable parts in a machine. It is why parents take their students out of school with so little regard for what might be missed, then ask the teacher to give them makeup work as if what was done in class was of no importance.

Now of course this is a generalization, and like all generalizations it is true in differing degrees in different classrooms around the nation. However, I am pretty sure that if you are one of those thoughtful, imaginative, and creative teachers who finds this analysis offensive because you work so hard to create a relevant classroom, you either currently work in, or have worked in, a school where much of the instruction around you was essentially busy work. 

The dirty little secret of American high schools is that, while our top students have great experiences in charter schools, or magnet schools, or Advanced Placement classes, or International Baccalaureate classes, it is not only the students in alternative education programs who are consigned to fill-in-the-blanks instructional programs. 

Most students, what could euphemistically be called "regular" students, correctly perceive that they are simply marking time until graduation. They know that if they sit relatively quietly, turn in a reasonable number of assignments, and keep their noses clean, they will pass the class and end up after four years with a high school diploma. The unspoken “deal” that teachers and students make is that if the students promise to sit relatively quietly and not snore too loudly, the teacher won’t ask them to do much difficult work. It’s not really surprising that so many students feel like school is irrelevant to them, largely because it is. 

For the highly motivated and academically advanced students, high school is a necessary preparatory stage for advancement to a four year college. They see a real purpose and clearly understand the relationship between this step and the next.

Many more students, however, though they may have some vague sense they “should” go to college, are not nearly so clear about the connection and are usually not as convinced that they can succeed at college. They are also much less likely to have clear ideas about career goals. Since they aren’t strongly motivated by the idea of attending college, they see high school as less of a value-added proposition than the college bound do. 

Since the education establishment has come to the consensus that every student should be prepared to go to college, and has made vocational preparation such a taboo concept, large numbers of students find themselves stuck in a sort of temporary bubble where the realities of the impending “real” world seems seldom to intrude.

How do we fix this? We have to change our attitudes toward our high schools. The one-size-fits-all mentality that currently defines American high schools prevents them from making the kinds of changes that will re-engage students and prepare them for a challenging future. In my next few blogs, I will look at issues I believe will help us make the improvements we need:
  • Making Accountability Count
  • Does Every Student Need College?
  • Re-energizing Career and Technical Education
  • High Level Thinking Isn’t Just for College

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Storytelling Animal

As far back as I can remember, I have loved to lose myself in a story, to immerse myself so deeply in the world of the story that it seems as if I’m a participant in that world. Throughout my youth, reading was always one of my favorite ways to spend time, much to the chagrin of my two younger brothers. When they wanted to play baseball (or basketball, or football, or swim in the pool) and I wanted to read my book, they had to find a way to convince me to stop reading. They could never do that, though, so they put their heads together and devised a blunt, but effective plan. One would jump on me and knock the book away, then wrestle with me to keep me busy while the other took the book and hid it. At that point it was easiest for me to just give in and go play whatever they wanted to play.

Many of you, since you are reading this, are probably from the group that immediately relates, thinking to yourself, “I totally understand that.” As educators, especially as teachers of language arts, it is critically important to realize that we seem weird to substantial portions of the population. Those differing reactions, merely show that reading is not any different than throwing a baseball, playing the piano, or riding a skateboard. It’s simply a set of abilities that to some of us comes naturally, and to others is a challenging and difficult skill to master.

I am convinced that when reading doesn’t come naturally to to someone, if they have rarely or never gotten lost in the world of a story, the enthusiasms of those of us who love to read aren’t very compelling in motivating them to put more effort into reading. 

Consider chess for a moment. I have tried, without success to enjoy playing chess. I have never succeeded. I understand the rules, but I am handicapped by two limitations: I can’t see the board in terms of patterns, and I am unable to keep more than two future moves in my head at one time. Without those abilities, I’ve never been successful at chess and have never enjoyed it.

But reading is not like chess. I have lived my life successfully so far without mastering chess. Yet as an English teacher, I am tasked with the responsibility of getting students to read more maturely. Worse, I must endeavor to get them to read and analyze complex narratives and develop the ability to recognize not only the literal meaning on the surface of a story, but also the hazy figurative meanings lurking like sharks in the sub-currents below the surface. What’s worse, academic tradition has decreed that to be considered educated, one must have a passing familiarity with a canon of traditional literature, much of it written in an idiom that has long since passed and filled with references to other literature that the author assumes the reader is familiar with. Finally, there is no explicit connection between mastering this literature and succeeding in most careers. 

A slight digression: the last few decades have served to uncover a host of wonderful multi-cultural literary offerings that is only gaining more steam. The realization that great literature doesn’t all come from an island in the North Atlantic has tended to drive the final nails in the coffin of the established canon. Let’s let it go.

Despite the discouragement presented by all these headwinds, I am convinced that it is critically important for students to, if not master, at least develop a fair degree of skill with relatively complex narratives. 

Throughout human history we have been storytellers, because it turns out a narrative is one of the most effective means of learning how to behave appropriately. OnFiction, which bills itself as an online magazine on the psychology of fiction, puts it this way:  “Our explanation is that fiction is a set of simulations of goings on in the social world, so that people who spend time with fiction become more socially skilled just as people who spend time in a flight simulator become better pilots that those who do not.

It also turns out the fiction is more convincing than non-fiction. As English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, Jonathan Gottschall, points out, “Brains on fiction ‘catch’ the emotions enacted on the page or screen. When we watch Clint Eastwood get mad on film, our brains look angry too; when the scene is sad, our brains also look sad.” As has been commented on ad infinitum recently, positive portrayals of gay couples in many TV show and movies, such as Modern Family, have begun to shift public views of gay marriage.

The reason we have always been storytellers also seems to have something to do with the social skills that significantly enabled us to become the dominant species on earth. At Penn State, Joseph Carroll and others found that positive characters tend to be ones who reflect values that promote social interaction, where negative characters tend to project desires for dominance of wealth, power, and prestige. In other words, stories promote getting along with each other rather than fighting each other for advantage. 

Though stories originated in oral tradition, in music, and in art, technology has broadened the opportunities for story telling. Writing, though it probably originated as a practical means of keeping track of items grown or traded, was one of the first new story telling technologies. It’s origins go back beyond the reach of history. Using paper as the means to record a story was an innovation that followed the invention of writing. The use of woodblock printing techniques in China in the early 3rd century, followed by the printing press in the 15th century. 

Drama goes back at least to the 5th century BCE, and perhaps existed before that, in a less formal way, as an extension of oral storytelling around campfires. With the invention of the movie camera in the late 19th century, drama could be recorded, which then evolved into broadcast technologies, first radio and then television. Computers and the Internet have now enabled viewers to choose when they want to view a story, as well as providing the capability to read a story on a portable electronic device.
So stories exist in many forms, and it is important that though students may have some forms of stories that they prefer–comic books, say, or television–they need to become at least comfortable with other, socially significant forms. To put that another way, for the foreseeable future, reading as a means of interacting with a story is going to remain an important, though not the only, way to interact with a story.

Our emphasis in schools on the written form of narrative tends overlook other useful means of accessing narrative. We need to teach students how to unlock the values and ideals that underline the plots in narratives of all sorts, and we ought to be careful not to focus almost solely on what for many students is the least accessible form: books. The written narrative is still important and needs to be a significant portion of the curriculum, but it need not be the only format we use.

Some suggestions? First, recognize that not every student is going to be an English major in college. Some will, and AP Literature and AP Composition need to be in the schedule for them. Most students, however, need to learn to think critically using more accessible material. 

I like to begin with fairy tales. They are short, easy to read, and they contain narrative elements that form an effective basis for introducing literary concepts to even reluctant readers. I also find that there is a wealth of short videos available that offer the same opportunity to analyze narrative structure, technique, and purpose. Discuss popular movies and TV shows for the same reason.

If you want to expose your students to Shakespeare, great. But don’t waste hours of class time illuminating the text in a line-by-line explication. This is heresy, but start with watching the play rather than ending with viewing it. Rather than assessing students with a recall test, focus on significant themes. Ask students to do close reading of a segment of the play–it overloads their circuits to do the entire thing. For an example of a unit that uses this approach, go to Heroes and Villains on my web site.

Just like with Shakespeare, far too much class time is wasted on reading novels. As English teachers, we love novels, but we must face the fact it simply takes too long to slog through one in class. The only narrative element that can’t be taught using short stories is the idea of the great works that must be read. As I said above, whatever value that notion creates, is not worth the time it takes to teach a novel in class.

Finally, A better way to give students exposure to novels is to use one of the variations of Literature Circles as an independent reading activity which can be designed to have a much lower class-time profile. The version that I used, which I called Book Clubs, can be found on my web site.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Should We Blame Unions?

The opening of the movie, Won’t Back Down, which lays the blame for failing schools at the feet of teacher unions, has re-opened a wound to teachers’ sense of self respect. In some ways, it is a self-inflicted wound, because teachers have allowed their unions to focus more on adult issues than student issues.

While I wouldn’t argue for continuing unions as presently constituted, this blame is misplaced. Teachers deserve a place at the table when decisions about teaching are made, and currently, unions are the entity that usually provides that representation. But I have never been convinced that traditional labor unions, which are organizations built to address the needs of blue-collar workers, are the right fit for representing professional employees. Using the labor union model makes teachers seem less like professionals, and more like hourly employees.

This is why much of the anti-union rhetoric of late has had a ring of truth to it. Hourly employees collectivize and bargain to win benefits for employees. The adversarial relationship between management and workers in the private sector over the rights of the workers does not impinge on the rights of the widgets being made by those workers. In schools, however, benefits for teachers and benefits for students must be seen as interdependent.

That interdependence compels teachers to work  together with management to improve learning by students. This will often be accomplished by improving the working conditions for teachers, but just as often, those benefits need to be balanced by the needs of the students. These kinds of issues are not resolved by adversarial negotiations, but by professional relationships of mutual respect. Of course those relationships are difficult to build and maintain. But they begin with an organization that is designed from the ground up to reflect the professionalism of teachers.

Recently Howard Gardner, in a New York Times essay, defined professionals as, “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.” Teachers, administrators, parents, and the public at large, should be guided by this view of teachers as professionals. Teachers should be represented by an organization that works to shore up the status of teachers as critical decision-makers in the process of running schools.

So what should the unions do?

First and foremost is to quit calling themselves a union. When I began my career, the NEA was not a union. It was a professional organization for teachers that worked to improve education. We should go back to that. The organizations that now function as a union should change their focus away from bargaining for teachers’ benefits to the augmentation of teachers' professional standing in communities across America. Stand up for teachers, sure, but stand up for them by improving the perception of them as respected professionals promoting improved use of assessment data, increasing sophistication of instructional methodology, or tighter integration of career preparation into curricula, not as wage earners, whose only priority seems to be job rights, salary negotiations, or pension plans that threaten to bankrupt school districts.

Though it would be foolish to drop collective bargaining right away, because the system has been in place for too long to allow a rapid change, teachers need to evolve into another system that recognizes and defers to the collective intelligence and professionalism that we bring to the table for the discussion about what’s best for kids. The teacher organization, in whatever form it takes, needs to be a respected and listened to part of the discussion.

Of course teacher union leaders do make gestures at addressing the professional issues of teachers. However it clearly isn’t what they see as their main job, which is to fight management to maintain benefits for teachers. Though they are not necessarily perfect, teachers should consider as models the professional organizations that doctors and lawyers create to represent their interests .

What do the managers of school systems need to do?

School administrators, legislators, and politicians of all stripes need to recognize that teachers are not simply replaceable cogs in the mechanism. Take for example the recent fuss about evaluating teachers, which is mostly about establishing acceptable procedures for identifying and firing ineffective teachers. Even upon reaching agreement about accurate identification, firing every ineffective teacher would result in an even larger problem–replacing them with better teachers who don’t yet exist in numbers large enough to meet the need. A better solution is a system that accomplishes three things. First, make it possible to identify and remove the worst and most irredeemable teachers. Second, commit to working with teachers who are capable of improving and help them become more effective. Third, improve teacher education to recruit and more effectively prepare prospective teachers. The teaching profession has a great deal of expertise that can be brought to bear here. They ought to be part of the process.

School boards and taxpayers need to face up to the fact that incentives are needed in order to recruit and keep the best teachers. Salary and benefits are incredibly important for this. Administrators need to see teachers not as expendable and interchangeable, but as valuable and unique resources. Hiring the best teachers, and getting them to work at the most challenging schools, requires seeing the marketplace as competitive. To get the best talent, you may have to loosen the pocketbook a bit.

Some form of job security is a must. Tenure, perhaps modified to some degree, is unavoidable because, once again, teachers are not, and never can be, cogs in a machine. I want to reiterate here that as professionals, teachers make complex judgments and decisions about human beings. In business the customer is always right. But when you are dealing with what’s best for a child, sometimes that customer, the parent, may be unclear about what is right for that child. Teachers need to be at a bit of a remove from the day-to-day controversies surrounding curriculum and instruction decisions they make based on what they believe is right. This is not an absolute right, but there needs to be some buffer to insulate these decisions and give teachers room to use their professional judgment and do what’s best for their students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to be treated with the respect they deserve. This involves dialogue, not monologue. Teachers need to be partners in the discussion. Schools cannot achieve the best results if all of the talk is from the top down. Site based organization, in which principals serve as leaders not managers while sharing decision-making with teachers, has to be the key here. Those higher up in the chain of the organization must see their role as establishing what needs to be achieved and to clearly identify what goals are to be met. As you get closer to the classrooms, roles should switch to a focus on how to achieve those goals, with the freedom to think outside the box in figuring out the best way to help students learn what needs to be learned.

Both teachers and administrators should be part of the conversation about accountability. Teachers will tend to gravitate toward fuzzier accountability models with less hard data. Administrators will tend to prefer the security of data, even when that doesn’t necessarily doesn’t prove what they think it proves. Dialogue between both groups is what will generate the best solutions.

You will notice that the list for teachers is shorter than that for leaders. That doesn’t mean their task is easier. Unions, with their willingness to be adversarial and confrontational, have proven their ability to increase the clout of teachers. And to be fair, before the unions, school leaders operated largely from a position of unquestioned power and authority. They held all the cards, and no one should be willing to go back to those days.

The school district where I worked most of my career decertified the union back in the 70’s. In it’s place was created a group called the Faculty Senate which has for years now functioned as a representative of the faculty, though not a legally constituted collective bargaining agent. The District releases a teacher to serve as the president of the organization and invites this teacher to be a part of many of the various committees at the District Office. The Senate plays a role in salary and benefit discussions, assists individual teachers in disputes with the administration, and serves as a two-way conduit of information between teachers and administration. Salaries and benefits have either met or exceeded those in other districts in the area because the school board is committed to hiring the best teachers and realizes compensation must be competitive for that to happen. It isn’t perfect, but it has mostly worked for us.

The biggest benefit, as our former superintendent used to say, was that we were the only district around where teachers and administrators could legally talk about doing what was best for kids. It’s not a bad idea.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

No Respect

  Teaching has been a hot discussion topic lately. The Chicago teacher’s strike was the latest issue to gin up the opinion mill, though teacher pensions, the Wisconsin recall election, cheating scandals, charter schools, presidential primaries and more have also contributed to lots of pontificating with very little of it by actual teachers.
     The discussion is good for the profession, in a general way, but for my money it’s time for everyone who isn’t a teacher to stop acting like they understand what’s best for our profession. The public pays the bills, and they are entitled to provide input on what our outcomes ought to be. Like doctors, lawyers and accountants, though, it’s our job to decide how to achieve those outcomes.
     Like Rodney Dangerfield, we teachers spend all of our careers, either consciously or subconsciously feeling we can’t get any respect. If you’ve ever taught, you know what I mean. Beginning teachers notice this phenomena pretty quickly in their careers. Often, when you interact with parents, they may be nice to you, and perhaps even actively supportive. But underneath it all is an undercurrent of condescension. It is reflected so tellingly in the insulting maxim that passes for truth among the general public: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.
     Most people can’t really conceive of what it would be like to be, say, a police officer, or a doctor, or a nuclear physicist, or most other careers, especially what are considered professional careers. What those people do every day when they go to work is a mystery to us because most of have never spent time in the work settings for those careers.
     But most people believe they understand teaching, because everyone has spent years in a classroom as a student. Apparently that convinces them they know what teachers do, and most of them believe in their heart of hearts that, if they wished, they could certainly do it better. For them, teachers are pleasant, good-hearted people who just don’t have the drive to make it in the real world. There is the suspicion that we are hiding some unspecified defect that keeps us from wanting to take on a challenging career, a real career in the real world.
     Oh, they tell us how important we are, how we make a difference in children’s lives, how we ought to be paid more, but it is only lip service. What they really think is that they were once students, and that experience informs their belief that it isn’t really that difficult to teach. Perhaps it requires a bit of patience and a willingness to put up with childish behavior, which they just don’t have the personality for, but all in all, it isn’t difficult to do. And teaching certainly doesn't pay enough.
     Add to that the fact that the kids go home at 3:00, we only teach somewhere around 180 days of the year, and can’t be fired, it’s a wonder we aren’t paying parents for the privilege of teaching their children.
     Yet, if it is such a great deal, why aren’t more people lining up to become teachers? Type “teacher shortage” into Google and discover that most states have shortages, some critical, in a variety of locations and in particular subjects. Add to that the number of baby boomer teachers approaching retirement, and the question to consider is why aren’t more college graduates choosing teaching as a career?
     If it is such an easy job, why are teacher retention rates problematic? According to Forbes, 46% of teachers leave the profession within five years, a turnover rate that costs $7.3 billion a year. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reports that teacher attrition has increased 50% in 15 years, rising to 16.8% and over 20% in some urban schools, where sometimes the “teacher dropout rate is actually higher than the student dropout rate.”
     If you have to ask why, you have obviously never had to get up in front of a group of 30 children and attempt to be in control and yet pleasant, knowledgeable yet understanding, entertaining but efficient, all the while making sure that every one of those  30 students is learning what they need to learn. It’s not for just a 20 or 30 minute PowerPoint presentation, it’s all day. Not only that, but this presentation is only one of several needed to be given today, with a brand new batch starting tomorrow, and the day after, and so on.
     Teaching is an emotionally draining experience. It’s like being on stage all day every day. You have to be on your game at every minute, on top of whether the students are on task or not, on top of the material you are presenting, on top of your students’ learning and emotional needs at every moment, on top of whether they are getting it or not, on top of whatever new or different material for which the district or the state determines you must now be accountable, on top of what this new principal has suddenly decided is the next big thing. I went home tired every day I spent in a classroom.
     And students, especially the older ones, are an unforgiving audience. One misstep and you have lost some of them, perhaps a significant number of them. One wrong word can ruin days or weeks of all the right words, and shatter the trust you’ve built up. The worst is when they don’t care–nothing destroys your confidence and ruins your day like indifference. You work so hard to give them the best you’ve got and plan something terrific, and boom, they could care less. It’s a hard blow.
     Of course the highs can make up for a lot of lows. When it goes right, when you see the light finally go on in a student’s eyes after you have rephrased an explanation again and again, when a student you've relentlessly encouraged can do something correctly for the first time, when they achieve so much more than they ever thought they could–that makes up for the bad days. Still, like any job worth doing, the sacrifices make the successes all the more rewarding.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that teaching is harder than brain surgery. I’ve never done brain surgery, but I’m guessing it’s hard too. But it ought not to be a contest. Like a lot of careers, teaching is challenging, rewarding, and difficult enough to make it worth doing.
     Recently I read an essay about ethics in The New York Times, and I liked Howard Gardner’s definition of professionalism. He said that professionals were historically, “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.” Like lawyers, doctors, and accountants, teachers “render complex judgements and decisions,” all day, every day, concerning what parents hold most dear, their children. Like those other professionals, we work at making those judgements in a “disinterested” and professional manner. Like them, the complexity of those decisions makes the job difficult. While the livelihood we earn is not as comfortable as theirs, it generally is enough to make us feel we are at least in view of the middle class.
     All we ask is a little more respect, maybe even a lot more respect.
     Remember, just because you were a student in a classroom, doesn’t make you enough of an expert to lead a class or grant you the chops to preach to teachers, trained and experienced professionals, about how we should do our jobs.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The College Lie

        The education system in the United States is contributing to a huge social and economic gap, and we are functionally pretending that this gap doesn’t exist by disingenuously claiming that we are preparing every student for college.

        The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 Demographic Characteristics for Occupied Housing Units estimates that 30.6% of the nation's householders have a bachelors degree or higher.

        The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has a new report out that indicates there are currently 29 million jobs available in the U.S. that pay middle class wages (defined as $35,000 a year or more) and don’t require a bachelors degree. That number amounts to 21% of all jobs

        So, 21% of the jobs available to non-degree holders promise a middle class wage, yet nearly 70% of Americans are competing for those jobs. If you do the math, as high school teachers look out on their classrooms, seven out of 10 students will not get a bachelors degree and only two of those seven will find a job giving them the opportunity to join the middle class. And that’s the average–it is undoubtedly far worse at some schools. What incentive do these students have to work hard and aspire to the American dream?

        While there are probably other sets of data that would help illuminate this issue, at the least these numbers should give us pause to reconsider the purported ideal of preparing all students for college. Hopefully someone out there is doing research on the degree to which our focus on preparing students for college is preventing investment in skilled technical jobs that don't require a bachelors degree.

        But first let's discuss why the college lie has always been a fantasy. I think there are two reasons,  neither of which schools can make go away.

        The first is that college, as originally conceived, was not an institution designed for everyone. The university was intended to be a place where social elites, who had no need to earn a living, could pursue knowledge for its own sake. It was learning purely for the sake of learning. In some ways, parts of the university system is still like that, filled with corners of esoteric research and discussion. 

        Over time, colleges have become much more aligned with preparing students for a particular career, and have become vast sorting institutions, where students are obliged to jump through a series of hoops to become blessed with the acknowledgement of the institution that they have successfully jumped through said hoops and have certified themselves to be thus qualified to pursue particular career options. 

        At the heart of the college enterprise is the sorting of students into two piles: qualified and not qualified. Inherent in that sorting is the value judgement that the qualified are in measurable ways superior to the non-qualified. At the end of the day, then, college is still a way to separate the elite from the not elite. While it has become more egalitarian in opening up the process to students from more divergent social and economic groups, it is still in the business of training the intellectually elite. At its heart, the college experience is designed to train students in the modes of thinking that academia favors.

        Part of the disconnect between what high schools believe they are doing and the real world is that American high schools have a mission that begins with the premise that every student can learn. This belief, often piously intoned with tears in eyes, is fundamental to public education’s ideal of taking every single kid and making him or her better. At its heart, though, saying that every student can learn is akin to saying water is wet. It is simply stating the obvious but blithely ignoring the real differences in the the speed and means by which different students learn, which has everything to do with what learning outcomes are functionally possible for a particular student.

        This, then, is the truth that every teacher knows but finds it difficult to admit out loud: not every student is suitable college material. 

        A great many students find it difficult to think in the abstract way that college demands. Their thinking is too rooted in the physical world to easily make the leap to thinking abstractly. As an English teacher, I battled this constantly as I tried to help students recognize the differences between literal and figurative speech. Algebra teachers struggle to help students learn how to use symbolic thinking to solve problems. Science and history instruction attempts to move students from the mere memorization of facts to the conceptualization of complex cause and effect relationships. In all these, significant numbers of students make little or no progress.

        In the old days the conventional wisdom said that these students weren’t “intelligent” enough for college. Now we know that there are lots of different intelligences, so that explanation isn’t sufficient. College, like other social and economic venues, utilizes and rewards specific kinds of intelligence. It isn’t that students who go to college are smarter, but the that their brains make connections between the specific kinds of information that college relies on more quickly and retains those connections more reliably. Those whose brains don’t work this way have a much more difficult time, and are thus unlikely to stick it out even if they make the attempt to begin with.

        Which brings me to the second reason why public schools are not realistically capable of insuring that every student become prepared for college.

        Every day, in high schools across the country,  teachers face substantial numbers of students who refuse to engage in the process. Many, maybe most, of these are the students who don't belong in college. The are mired in the day-to-day grind of trying to force their brains to operate in a way that doesn’t suit them, and they don’t see anything in it for them. They aren’t engaged because they intuitively know that it doesn’t suit them. Plus, what we are asking them to do makes no sense to them.

        Some of this group might be able to go to college and succeed if they can be convinced it will benefit them. Others, though, should never be encouraged to pursue an academic post high school education.

        As a profession, we are convinced that if we could find the magic bullet to stimulate their engagement, we could turn their lives around. I don't believe we can. While there have been success stories, I believe that if we look closely, we'll find that successful programs have found students who had the attributes needed to succeed in college and found ways to motivate those students to help them blossom. 

        Like every teacher, I have had plenty of students who simply take too many trials to learn the same material as faster students. Time, in its inevitability, does not pause for those students who take longer. They cannot catch up with the students who process academic information more quickly, and nothing can change the trajectory of that line on the chart.

        What, then, should high schools do?

        First and foremost is that we need to stop lying to ourselves. Every day teachers face their students and know it’s a lie that all of them are going to college. We know it is true for some of the students, but we can see in the others’ eyes that they absolutely don’t believe that college is a realistic goal for them. We do them no favors by indulging in this lie. If our goal is to help students succeed, then we need to be realistic in helping them develop the tools that have a realistic probability of assisting their real life pursuit of success. For many of them, those tools aren’t always going to be the same tools that get you to college.

        Second, we should never again get into the business of telling students which curriculum they should pursue. Our profession got a black eye because we did this in the past. The problem isn’t having multiple tracks, including non-college bound tracks. The problem is deciding for students which track they should be in. When we do that, we open ourselves for charges of bias, and human nature being what it is, that bias is probably unavoidable. Rather, we should assess students with an eye toward identifying the intelligences they have, then provide the student and the parents with the information about how and what the student learns best. We should be open and honest about what career options are available to students who choose particular tracks. Let them decide what they think is best, then provide feedback on how well the student is succeeding. That's a school choice that matters.

        Third, high schools have to adapt and position themselves as an institution that focuses on the transition  to a variety of post-secondary options for students. A high school diploma is no longer an ultimate goal, and hasn’t been for a long time. Transitional means that we have to work harder with a variety of post-secondary institutions to adapt our curriculum so that it prepares students for the particular rigors they will face in whatever type of learning they pursue. When we have a one size fits all perspective, which we have now with our belief that our mission is to prepare students for college, then many students will not get what they need for the next stage.

        Fourth, we have to be a voice in the conversation around helping all Americans find work that is meaningful, dignified, and helps more of us achieve reasonable financial security. This is not something that schools can do on their own, but it is something we can contribute to. High paying, non-skilled work is probably gone forever, but American education should be at the forefront of preparing all students to develop the technical skills they need to qualify for a high paying, skilled job. If we produce large numbers of students capable of thinking critically and possessing technical skills, we are likely to find that American business will find profitable ways to utilize their skills.

        Many of our students, who would find it difficult or impossible to succeed in college, can find more satisfying work by becoming technically skilled. We need to provide them that opportunity. The best part is that by becoming more relevant to more kinds of students, we will find our classrooms have become places where students are much more engaged in what we are trying to help them learn.