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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

All Students Aren’t Equal

John Fogerty's well known song, "Centerfield" is a piece that captures the essence of the American dream. It is an ode to both baseball and spring, and it speaks to the confidence and hope that undergirds the spirit animating American aspirations. In the spring, the sap begins running and, whether it is baseball that fires a person's dreams or some other showcase that gives participants an opportunity to display the greatness that lurks just below their everyday persona, the refrain, "Put me in coach, I can be centerfield," captures a fundamental American ideal expressed by Thomas Jefferson at our founding: "All men are created equal."

Leaving aside the fact that Jefferson's notion of all men is different from modern views, he did succeed in expressing a belief that most Americans either explicitly or implicitly believe–that anyone willing to work diligently enough can aspire to achieve the heights of any endeavor. It isn't exactly true, of course, but the dream is so compelling, that very few are willing to give up believing in it.

This fundamental perspective causes us believe in some myths. The Beatles were just a bunch of regular guys who weren't that talented, but were in the right place at the right time. This belief persists even though, despite the passage of 50 years, the Lennon/McCartney song book remains very valuable and highly regarded. Michael Jordan, despite his clearly apparent and remarkable physical ability, is held up as an example to youngsters because he was cut from the freshman basketball team, the suggestion being that it was his refusal to give up basketball that allowed him to succeed and not his talent. Of course these myths are often supported by the achievers themselves, because talent is invisible to our self perception. We have never known any state of being other than the one we have always had, so it seems effortless for us to do that which we have always been able to do.

Jefferson’s legacy is a culture that does not truly believe in the efficacy of talent; the belief that hard work alone explains differences in achievement is fundamental to our sense of what makes America unique. Thus, even as some of you are reading this, you are working up a righteous anger at the idea that there are those who are born more talented than their peers. Your gut tells you this can't be true because you believe in the American ideal that everyone is equal to begin with. It is good old American work-ethic, perseverance, and positive attitude that allows some to rise to the top, not innate ability. For, if talent explains success, then it would mean that some of us are better than others of us. That just seems un-American.

The New York Times is stirring up some controversy on this front with an article about gifted programs. “Gifted, Talented and Separated,” by Al Baker, profiles Public School 163 in Manhattan, where the gifted classes are mostly white and the general and special education classes are mostly non-white. The demographics in the whole school are similar to the neighborhood and the New York school system, but in the two different kinds of classrooms, the education provided is not the same. In the gifted classes, students are pushed harder, asked to “...Think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party.” The title of the article, of course, echoes the “separate but equal” doctrine that justified segregated schools of an earlier day, suggesting that the evils of racial bias have not gone completely away.

It seems to me, however, that two different issues are being lumped together in this article. One involves the process by which students are selected to be a part of the program, which the makeup of the two different programs at PS 163 suggests is not unbiased. Mr. Baker paraphrases James H. Borland, a professor of education at Teachers College, who suggests, “...That one of two things must be true: either black and Hispanic children are less likely to be gifted, or there is something wrong with the way the city selects children for those programs.” This is the issue that involves racial or socio-economic bias.

The other issue is not about what we normally think of as bias, but about the bias of talent. It is reflected in a quote from one of the parents of a student in a gifted class. She describes it as an “elitist” program, but she doesn’t mean it in a disparaging way: “They don’t advertise it the way it should be advertised, but I’m glad I was savvy enough to navigate the system and give my children what they need.”

Her use of the term “elitist” causes a lot of alarm bells to go off in many peoples’ minds because it suggests wealthy parents exercising an unfair advantage. To a degree this is part of the first issue of how students are selected. With an effective selection process, though, parents should find it difficult, or hopefully even impossible, to achieve an undeserved advantage.

The use of the word “elitist,” and the discomfort it causes, also reflects our cultural angst with the idea that some students may be “smarter” than others. No parent likes to face the possibility that their son or daughter is not as bright as others in the class, and conceptions of American equality predispose us to believe that differential, inborn abilities don’t exist. 

Every teacher is astutely aware, however, of the reality that all students don’t process information and learn with the same facility. We see it every day in our classes. Yet we have been told over the last 20 years or so that segregating students by achievement levels is evil, and that students with different learning rates benefit from being in the same classroom. Thus individualized instruction arose as the approved means of dealing with these differences. 

Despite what some have come to believe, you can’t multiply time by simply moving a kidney shaped table into the room and calling up small groups to work with the teacher. The result is not truly individual instruction, but relatively less supervised seat work. Paradoxically, individual instruction doesn’t really involve more teacher attention to each student, because you can’t multiply time. Teacher/student interactions are inherently limited by the teacher/student ratio.

All of this, of course, begs the question of why, given this predisposition to lump students together in multi-level classrooms, gifted classes exist at all. The answer, of course, goes back to the selection process and the influence that parents of gifted students have.

We can’t begin to approach this issue pragmatically, however, unless we accept that student abilities are not equal. Our goal should be to provide the support that each student needs to learn as quickly and comprehensively as their abilities allow them. Just as we have to accept that learning rates, and their resulting outcomes, will be different, we have to accept the need to create flexible learning environments which are truly adapted to student needs. In such environments, the instructional methods are likely to vary, and be based on instruction that is targeted to their needs, much as gifted kids get. At least part of the time, those environments are, likely to be filled with other students who learn like they do. If it is good for gifted students, it is should be good enough for all students.

Come the spring, our inner selves may still dream that we can be a center fielder, but practical considerations of our physical limitations tend to force us into being more realistic about how those limitations will limit the achievement of our fantasies. It would be to our children’s advantage if we could recognize those same sorts of differences in their rates of learning and design differential instruction environments that fit those rates rather than believing that one type is best for all (except, of course, if you are deemed gifted.)