Congressional Leadership on Education Will Agree with Philosophy and Policy of DeVos-Trump

Our democratic system was designed with checks and balances, but this year as Donald Trump’s presidential term begins, he and his secretary of education will likely be working with a very sympathetic Congress.  With our executive and legislative branches both dominated by conservative Republican majorities, there will be few checks and balances.

When President-elect Trump nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), the Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, indicated his strong support: “Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice. The Senate’s education committee will move swiftly in January to consider her nomination. Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As secretary, she will be able to implement the new law fixing No Child Left Behind just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities.”  Alexander has long been a supporter of states’ rights in public education; he led the development of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which curtails the role of the Secretary of Education to dictate policy to the states.

There is another area in which Betsy DeVos and Lamar Alexander agree. Alexander tried to make federal vouchers—the diversion of tax dollars for students to carry as tuition to private and parochial schools—part of the new Every Student Succeeds Act. He was unable to muster enough support in Congress to get federal vouchers inserted into the bill. We’ll have to watch what happens now that he and President-elect Trump and Trump’s nominee for secretary of education share, as a federal priority, the establishment of a school voucher program.

What about the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee? John Kline (R-Minnesota), the current chair, did not run for re-election in November. He is slated to be replaced by Virginia Foxx, a congresswoman from Banner Elk, North Carolina. Here is how Kimberly Hefling describes Foxx for POLITICO: “Virginia Foxx pulled herself up by her own bootstraps and wants every American child to be able to do the same. As the 73-year-old GOP lawmaker and former community college president is poised to assume the leadership of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, she plans to help deliver on that idea…. Foxx, who boasts she was ‘tea party before the tea party started,’ is blunt about her agenda…. She is a strong supporter of school choice as President-elect Donald Trump rolls out his $20 billion school choice plan emphasizing vouchers, and she expects to have an ally in Trump’s pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos.”

Hefling quotes Foxx: “I’m going to push to diminish the role of the federal government in everything it’s in that isn’t in the Constitution. That’s education, health care. All the things that the federal government does that it should not be doing. I’m happy to diminish its role.”  She continues: “I definitely don’t think the Department of Education has any business doing all the things that it’s doing. But I don’t think you do it overnight. I think you have to devolve it over time.”

One program Hefling describes Foxx as willing to target is the federal Title I civil rights program designed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The program, perpetually underfunded, has provided extra federal dollars for public schools that serve concentrations of children and/or a high number of children living in poverty  Heffling explains that Foxx blames Title I because, “we haven’t changed reading levels one bit. Not one bit. They are the same as they were when we started putting out that money in 1965. Something’s wrong with the system.”

Heffling adds that Foxx questions the Department of Education’s student loans to help poorer students with college tuition: “That’s not the function of the federal government.”  And she wants to eliminate provisions established during the Obama administration to regulate for-profit colleges.

Foxx would also like to reduce the role of the Department’s Office for Civil Rights, which is described by Andrew Ujifusa of Education Week:  “The office for civil rights provides enforcement for and implements regulations governing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination, and other federal laws.” Ujifusa explains that the role of the Office of Civil Rights has already been undermined by a severe funding shortage, dictated by Congressional budget cuts, at a time when complaints have quickly increased. “Federal funding for the department’s office for civil rights is $107 million in fiscal 2016, out of a total Education Department budget of $68.1 billion, or about .15 percent of the overall budget… One consequence is a growing backlog of unresolved civil rights complaints…. The number of cases pending for review for more than 180 days… grew from 315 at the end of fiscal 2009 to 1,311 at the end of fiscal 2015.

Ujifusa concludes: “Given these numbers, it will be interesting to see how the flow of complaints to the office for civil rights will change under a Trump administration, and how a Trump administration’s approach to these civil rights issues will impact caseloads, budgets, and other issues.”


Expert Documents Diminishing Commitment to School Funding Equity

By definition, justice must be systemic. In public education our society will be just when our laws distribute opportunity equally to all children whatever their school and wherever their school district.

In a blog post to mark the transition to a new year, Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker reflects on a primary injustice in our society’s provision of public education: “The bottom line is that providing for a high quality, equitably distributed system of public schooling in the United States requires equitable, adequate and stable and sustainable public financing. There’s no way around that. It’s a necessary underlying condition.”  Baker worries that we are in the midst of a “post-equity era in school finance.”

Baker writes: “I too often hear pundits spew the vacuous mantra – it doesn’t matter how much money  you have – it matters more how you spend it. But if you don’t have it you can’t spend it. And, if everyone around you has far more than you, their spending behavior may just price you out of the market for the goods and services you need to provide (quality teachers being critically important, and locally competitive wages being necessary to recruit and retain quality teachers).  How much money you have matters. How much money you have relative to others matters in the fluid, dynamic and very much relative world of school finance (and economics more broadly). Equitable and adequate funding matters.”

While the details of Baker’s fairness ratio—by which he evaluates the fairness over time of a number of state school finance systems—can get a little complicated for the general reader, the trends he traces between 1993 and 2012 in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Connecticut, Kansas, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois are crystal clear.  All of these funding systems have become less eqitable since the 2008 recession.

Baker concludes: “And yet we wonder why our lower income children’s educational outcomes continue to suffer? We pretend that if only our higher poverty districts would fire that bottom 5% of teachers who produce bad test scores (gains), they’d do better (because of course, they can hire a new crop of better teachers even if they can’t pay a competitive wage?). We pretend that expanding charter schooling, to siphon off the less needy among the needy into privately subsidized (soft money) schools (and diminished legal protections) that somehow we’ll achieve a desirable systemwide effect?”  “Meanwhile, the damage that’s been done to our public education systems by outright and at times belligerent neglect of state school finance systems has, in the past 3 years alone set us back in many cases 20 years.”

Local Activist Exposes How Ohio Charter Funding Undermines Traditional Public Schools

Susie Kaeser, a long-time public school supporter and activist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, just researched the way Ohio funds its public schools and siphons local as well as state funds away from public school districts to pay for children attending charter schools.  She has published her conclusions in a local community paper, The Heights Observer.

Her lucid explanation is shocking. It is amazing what we can choose not to see and what the press continues to avoid pointing out.

“Each year the legislature determines the funding level for charter students and those in traditional public schools. According to a 2013 Department of Education report, the funding level for every charter student was set at $5,732. By contrast, state funding for traditional public school students is specific to the school district they attend, based on the property wealth of each district. Because I live in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District, I thought I’d focus on its funding. According to CH-UH treasurer Scott Gainer, our per-pupil allocation in 2012–13 was $1,741, or just 30 percent of the amount promised to charter students.

“Not only do charter students receive more state funds than their public school peers, but the difference comes out of the per-pupil contributions for public school students. This is how it works. The state creates a pot of money for each school district that will pay for both charter and traditional students who reside in that district. While the state promised $5,732 to charter students living in Cleveland Heights, it only put $1,741 in the pot for each of those students. This is the same amount that is added to the pot for each of the 5,787 public school students who live in the district.

“When it is time to pay for charter students, the state subtracts the guaranteed amount—$5,732—for each student and sends it to their charter school. Public school kids get what is left. The $4,000 shortfall for each charter student comes out of what was put in the pot for the public school students. In 2012–13, about $2.5 million was sent to pay for 371 Heights charter school students, even though they only brought 30 percent of that money into the pot. In effect, traditional public school students subsidize 70 percent of the cost of charter school students.”

Kaeser also understands that traditional public schools are publicly owned, publicly operated, and publicly accountable, while in Ohio charter schools are poorly regulated.  “Charter schools—no matter their quality—operate without adequate safeguards to protect public funds and undermine authentic public schools by draining away resources and children.”

Mike Rose Sorts Out Debate about Quality of Teacher Education

This morning Valerie Strauss has published the second in a series of three articles by UCLA education professor and writer Mike Rose about college programs in teacher education.  I blogged on the first piece in the series here.

You might think a series of articles about the education of teachers sounds boring, but stop and think about the hot debate these days on this topic.  After all, Congress just re-inserted  the Teach for America exemption into the continuing resolution on the federal budget and the President signed it into law.  This is the provision that rates young people who have come through just five-weeks of summer training “highly qualified teachers.”  And there are proposals to stop all pay incentives for teachers to earn masters degrees in the subject they teach or for taking courses to improve their teaching practices.

Personally I think this series by Mike Rose is Valerie Strauss’s holiday gift to us all.  I urge you to read today’s article and also the one that preceded it.  Today Rose addresses this question: What’s right—and very wrong—with the teacher education debate?

Should we make teaching programs more selective and close smaller programs in state universities and local colleges.  Rose wisely notes, “I think we need to be cautious about conflating academic achievement with the ability to teach.  The two are intimately related, but not one and the same.”  He remembers the teachers he observed as the basis of his widely acclaimed book about teaching: “With a few exceptions, the teachers in Possible Lives came from modest middle-class to working-class backgrounds… A fair number went through local or regional teacher ed programs—the kinds of programs that have been targeted in teacher ed critiques.  Because of finances or family expections or cultural norms, some of the teachers I observed had few other options.”

And what about research like that of Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, research that showed that students taught by teachers trained at large research universities learned one-and-one-half more weeks of math every year than teachers trained in less-selective college programs.  Here Rose confronts a troubling misuse of such academic research when it is taken as a simple prescription for policy.

Rose writes, “Levine extrapolates from a single one-year study and projects out over 12 years… For the score differential found in one year to maintain itself over 12 years requires that all other factors in the lives of the children and their schools remain the same: that the students maintain the same level of motivation, don’t get sick, don’t experience family disruption. That teachers are equally immune from life’s perturbations, and when that is not the case, they are quickly replaced.  That the school-level leadership doesn’t change; that new policies aren’t enacted; that funding remains stable; that the community isn’t hit with economic hardship; and so on.  The 12-year extrapolation assumes an ‘other things being equal’ statistical model in a world where very little remains equal.  Such extrapolations make for dramatic statements, but they are not conceptually sound and should not be part of the logic of a policy recommendation that would have serious consequences for many regions of the country.”

There is much more in Rose’s excellent article.  Please read it and enjoy.

Is There Such a Thing at School As a High-Performing Seat?

This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss publishes a reflection on the ongoing financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia from the point of view of Anne Pomerantz, a linguist and lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pomerantz shares tragic details about closing schools, slashing staff, in increasing the size of classes in Philadelphia, all of which make it so much harder for teachers to know and support each child.  She describes how the very words we use shape our thinking about schooling.

Advocating for the use of the term, “schooling” rather than “school,” Pomerantz points to school reformers’ language that diminishes the humanity of our conversation about public education. We continually hear talk about “low-performing schools” as though the school building itself is somehow tainted—which makes us less worried about closing such schools, even though they may be supporting children in myriad ways we never name.

Pomerantz quotes Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, who rejects an even more reductive and de-humanizing way of talking about schooling: “When our discussions are framed around high-performing ‘seats,’ and expanding access to those ‘seats,’ we dehumanize the process and easily lose sight of the true meaning of ensuring Philadelphia’s students a safe, welcoming, and rigorous environment to learn.”

What Is Teaching All About and Why Does Experience Matter?

From our national testing law, No Child Left Behind, through programs like School Improvement Grants coming from Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, federal policy is designed these days to blame and scapegoat school teachers.  The assumption under today’s policies is that if we rate and rank teachers by students’ scores, they will work harder and smarter and do more with less to make up for the fact that across many states we are spending less on public education than we did five or six years ago.  And we are spending not nearly enough in the communities where children are segregated in poverty.

Our national obsession with blaming teachers is likely also wound up with the fact that we have all watched a lot of teachers work.  As we sat in their classrooms, it all looked pretty easy.  When one listens to Emanuel Ax play the piano, it is also easy to imagine being a concert pianist  because he makes it look pretty easy.  This morning in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss features a commentary from one of today’s best writers about teaching, Mike Rose, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and author of some of my favorite books on education, Lives on the BoundaryPossible Lives (stories of great teachers), Why School?, and Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

Rose shows us why being a teacher is not so easy.  This morning he assigns himself the task of defining teaching.  Is it a profession “like law or medicine, requiring a substantial amount of education before an individual can become a practitioner” or a craft that is learned principally on the job?  Rose concludes that it is both: “Teaching done well is complex intellectual work, and this is so in the primary grades as well as Advanced Placement physics. Teaching begins with knowledge: of subject matter, of instructional materials and technologies, of cognitive and social development.  But it’s not just that teachers know things.  Teaching is using knowledge to foster the growth of others.”  “Thus teaching is a deeply social and emotional activity.  You have to know your students and be able to read them quickly….”  “So teaching Hamlet or The Bluest Eye, the internal combustion engine, photosynthesis, or the League of Nations involves knowing these topics and bringing them into play in one of the more complex cognitive and social spaces in our culture.”  I urge you to read Rose’s engaging, thoughtful article and then think about some of the teachers you know who do this difficult work every day.

Then I suggest you follow up by reading a short commentary by Helen Ladd, Edgar T. Thompson Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.  Appreciating the complex work Rose describes, Ladd worries about the diminishing number of experienced teachers in classrooms across the United States: “In the late 1980s, most of the nation’s teachers had considerable experience—only 17 percent had taught for five or fewer years.  By 2008, however, about 28 percent had less than five years of experience.  The proportions of novices in the classroom are particularly high in schools in underprivileged areas.  Some observers applaud the rapid ‘greening’ of the teaching force because they think that experienced teachers are not needed.  But this view is short-sighted…” “Wonderful as it it is for bright, college graduates to bring new energy and skills to the classroom,” writes Ladd, “schools pay a high price for too much teacher turnover.”

Federal Register Notice Spells Out Arne Duncan’s Priorities

Have you, by chance, found yourself wondering if it can really be true that the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is actively supporting school privatization through the expansion of charter schools?  Maybe it isn’t true, you thought.

To help you sort out the role that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is playing in privatization of public education, I’ll share the little blurb that caught my eye in the December 3, 2013 e-news blast on public education from Politico:

TODAY’S FEDERAL REGISTER: PRIORITIES FOR CHARTER SCHOOL GRANTS: The Education Department is pondering whether grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter school projects should be weighted based on whether they improve efficiency through economies of scale, improve accountability, recruit and serve students with disabilities and English-language learners more effectively and combine technology-based instruction with classroom teaching. There are other proposed definitions relating to graduation rate and student achievement. Weigh in during the next 30 days.

Yup.  Right there in the Federal Register it says the Department of Education is making grants to nonprofit organizations that run charter schools.  And then Politico provides a kind of laundry list of possible priorities for the granting: make charters more efficient? more accountable? more inclusive of English language learners and children with disabilities? more technology-based?  Much as the Federal Register is not my favorite periodical for casual reading, I followed the link to try to untangle how the Department of Education plans to spend our tax money and what are the issues on which we all have a chance to weigh in during the next 30 days.

The Department’s notice in the Federal Register makes it very clear that the Department of Education actively supports the expansion of charter schools.  Charter Schools Program (CSP) Grants, says the notice, are designed “to increase national understanding of the charter school model by… providing financial assistance for the planning, program design, and initial implementation of charter schools; evaluating the effects of charter schools… expanding the number of high-quality charter schools available to students across the Nation; and encouraging the States to provide support to charter schools for facilities financing….”  Because the program being described in yesterday’s Federal Register notice is for CSP National Leadership Activities, the blurb describes this particular initiative: “The purpose of the CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities is to support efforts by eligible entities to improve the quality of charter schools by providing technical assistance and other types of support on issues of national significance and scope.”

Yesterday’s Federal Register notice is not a request for proposals, but is instead to announce proposed “priorities, requirements, and definitions” that will apply when the Department of Education actually launches the competition.  “The Department most recently conducted competitions for CSP(Charter School Program) Grants for National Leadership Activities in FYs 2006 and 2010.  In those competitions, we invited applications for projects designed to improve stakeholder capacity to support high-quality charter schools but did not require or give competitive preference to particular types of projects… To ensure that projects funded with CSP Grants for National Leadership Activities in future years address key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale, the Department proposes the priorities in this notice.”  They are:

Improving Efficiency through Economies of Scale: “Compared to charter schools, traditional public schools tend to have higher student enrollment, which may result in lower average costs per student…” says the notice.  Grant applicants are asked to join in consortia to design “projects of national significance and scope that promote shared systems for acquiring goods or services to achieve efficiencies….”

Improving Accountability: “While there are many high-performing charter schools across the nation, charter school performance varies significantly and too many persistently low-performing charter schools are not held accountable for their results.”  Grant seekers would be expected to create “projects of national significance and scope to improve authorized public chartering agencies’ capacity to conduct rigorous application reviews, monitor and oversee charter schools… close underperforming schools, replicate and expand high-performing schools, maintain a portfolio of high-quality charter schools, and evaluate and communicate the performance of that portfolio…”

Serving Students with Disabilities: “As public schools, it is essential that charter schools provide equitable access and appropriate educational services to all students, regardless of disability, as set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)…”  Grant seekers would propose “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for students with disabilities…”

Serving English Learners: “From 2001 to 2010 the number of students identified as English Learners increased significantly, growing from approximately 3,700,000 to 4,660,275 nationwide…” “This proposed priority is for projects of national significance and scope that are designed to increase access to charter schools for English Learners….”

Personalized Technology-Enabled Learning: “Learning models that blend traditional, classroom-based teaching and learning with virtual, online, or digital delivery of personalized instructional content offer the potential to transform public education….”  Grant applicants would be proposing “projects of national significance and scope that are designed to improve achievement and attainment outcomes for high-need students through the development and implementation in charter schools  of technology-enabled instructional models….”

As I read all this, of course, my first thought is about what I am not being asked to comment on.  Is investing tax money in charter schools that are privately operated a good idea?  Is the Department’s assumption correct that such schools are more innovative than traditional public schools?  Despite this program’s goal of creating “projects of national significance and scope,” haven’t the larger “national” Charter Management Organizations been unable to demonstrate that they are on the whole better than traditional public schools?

And what might be my response to the five priorities, beginning with the first priority: creating economies of scale? One question comes to mind: instead of creating huge consortia of privatized charter schools, wouldn’t we be better able to realize such economies by returning our focus to improving traditional public schools in which economies of scale are a natural part of the system?  Why create a whole other infrastructure when we have a relatively workable system already?

My experience here in Cleveland makes me wonder about the political feasibility of the second priority—granting money to encourage states and non-profits to regulate charters.  Charters are usually created and operated in state law, and despite that our Cleveland mayor created  just the sort of regulatory capacity the Department is proposing in this priority—a Transformation Alliance to oversee charters and to close those that are failing our children or stealing the state’s money—when it came time for the Ohio legislature to embed the Cleveland mayor’s regulatory plan into law, legislators in the pocket of William Lager (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) and David Brennan (White Hat Management Company) ensured that the the statute they passed lacked the teeth that would have enabled the Transformation Alliance to close the bad schools.

The third and fourth priorities are deeply troubling because they suggest that the Department of Education has somehow drifted from its important role as a protector of children’s civil rights.  The federal role in education has historically been to expand opportunity and access to education for children in groups who have been under-served.  Title I has provided federal dollars for schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty.  IDEA guarantees and funds services for children with disabilities.  Other regulations and funding streams support the education of immigrant and migrant children and children learning English.  That the Department of Education is proposing to make grants to develop programs to encourage charters to begin serving these children seems bizarre, when the same Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights whose function is to enforce that all publicly funded schools will provide appropriate services for these children as their right.  Why is the Department offering grant money to encourage provision of the services that the same Department is legally responsible for ensuring that these schools have already been providing?

This is not a new issue.  In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Recovery School District in New Orleans, because the mass charterization of the schools after Hurricane Katrina left students with disabilities poorly served.  According to SPLC:  “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), requires that New Orleans public school students with disabilities receive equal access to educational services and are not unlawfully barred from the classroom. This law applies to both charter schools and publicly operated schools. The law specifically requires that students with disabilities are identified so that they can receive needed services — including an individualized education plan and services to ensure that children with disabilities can transition productively into adulthood. These students have a federal right to receive counseling, social work and other related services that are necessary to ensure that these youth obtain an education…  Despite this federal law, some students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools have been completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them and punished with suspensions in record numbers. Still, other students’ disabilities are being completely overlooked due to a failure to identify them.”

The fifth priority seeks to promote controversial on-line learning.  We know that the virtual, e-charters—K-12 being the largest and most notorious—have the worst academic record of  any kind of school and that they are known to suck millions of dollars out of state public school budgets.  And the idea of blended learning—larger classes, fewer teachers, and more computers—is being questioned as a pedagogical theory, while it is known to cut costs for personnel.

What we can confirm by reading yesterday’s Federal Register is that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is squarely behind charters.  It is also fully engaged in the practice of competitive grant funding.  I3 money—money for the Office of Innovation and Improvement—is proposed in the President’s 2014 budget at $150 million.  I would personally prefer to see this money put into the long-underfunded, Title I Formula program to improve the public schools in the poorest communities where families struggle and state school funding lags across virtually all the states.  These are the communities now subject to punitive sanctions like school closures.

Common Core Debate Is Really Just Another Chapter of Test-and-Punish

The debate about the Common Core Standards and the Common Core tests is not really about whether our public school curriculum ought to be more uniform and perhaps more challenging from place to place. That would be a debate worth having.  But really instead the Common Core is the latest chapter in a long story being circulated by our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and others who share his philosophy that teachers and students alike can best be motivated by behaviorist rewards and punishments—competition, pressure and fear.

The driver here is testing—competition for high scores and punishments for low scores—along with the collection of data.  (It is essential to remember that data-driven school reform has arrived at just the moment we have the computer-driven capacity to collect and process data, and this school reform philosophy is being promoted in many cases by the same business entrepreneurs who developed the computers.)  We are told that if we threaten school districts and schools and teachers where students are struggling, everybody will work harder and our children will do better in a world dominated by global competitiveness.  Standards-and-accountability school reform has become so embedded into our national consciousness that it’s hard to remember there might be another way.

If you are looking for an up-to-date review of the issues about the Common Core, read this article by Carol Burris (posted over the weekend on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog).  Burris is an award winning elementary school principal who understands child development and respects the teachers in her school as they try to cope with the pressures of our educational culture dominated by punitive testing imposed from above.

But this morning I want to examine the implications of an educational philosophy based on accountability, testing, and fear.  Two weeks ago, by a lucky chance, I spent a morning visiting three classes at our local public high school.  I describe the work of the teachers whose classes I visited here.  All three teachers demonstrated not only exceptional mastery of their academic content, but also deep commitment to the formation of their students, intellectually, linguistically, socially, ethically, and personally.  These teachers enjoy working with adolescents, engage their students in thinking critically, and create a culture of mutual respect.  My blog post about that high school visit has been read widely here in our community, followed by some comments I’ve heard at the grocery store: “Those teachers are at our high school?”  “I had no idea we had classes like that at Heights!” “Were you scared when you were there?”

All three teachers shared with me their worries about all the testing they believe is undermining their work.  They want desperately to find a way to oppose the time taken by testing and preparing for testing, but they know that in a system designed around competition and punishment, it is difficult for those trapped inside the system to protest.  In our state that keeps cutting funding we have to keep our scores high just to pass our levies.  And in a district with 63 percent of students qualifying for free lunch, and significant mobility into the district from poorer districts, we have lots of catch up to accomplish just to keep scores moving upwards.  In a system dominated by fear, teachers must work doubly hard to keep their classes flexible, nurturing and enjoyable.

Ten years ago, Parker Palmer, who has written extensively about teaching as a vocation, described the same dilemma the teachers at our local high school shared with me last week.  Palmer’s forward to Stories of the Courage to Teach (p. xviii) urges us all to visit a school, watch what teachers do, and listen to what they say:

“If you are not a teacher and are skeptical about their plight or their dedication, I have a suggestion to make: visit a public school near you and shadow a couple of teachers…. Almost certainly you will witness for yourself the challenges teachers face, their lack of resources, and the deep demoralization they feel about serving as scapegoats for our nation’s ills… Caught in an anguishing bind between the good work they do and public misperceptions that surround them, hundreds of thousands of teachers somehow keep the faith and keep going…. Every day in classrooms across the land, good people are working hard, with competency and compassion, at reweaving the tattered fabric of society on which we all depend.”

In the decade since Palmer wrote these words, our society has only intensified our blaming of school teachers. As I read about the debate around the Common Core—and the Race to the Top, School Improvement Grant, and Innovation Grant competitions, I have begun to create a discipline for myself.  I force myself to think about how each of these conversations is being shaped by an educational philosophy of behaviorist rewards and punishments and a process of measuring, and competition.  Then I try to think about what it would be like if we just trusted and supported the teachers who have chosen to help our society raise our children.  I would prefer to reinvest all the money now being spent on developing and administering tests in peer-driven staff development programs where teachers like the ones I observed could share their techniques with their colleagues.

Wow: I Got the Chance to Visit our Community’s High School Yesterday

Yesterday through a lucky coincidence I spent the morning visiting Cleveland Heights High School.  Ours is an inner-ring Cleveland suburb whose high school serves close to 2,000 students.  I jumped at the opportunity, because it is difficult these days to visit classes at a school.  Security is an issue and, as we know, ideological attacks on public schools and their teachers tend to make everybody feel very protective.

Here was my chance, however, and at 8:00 AM, I presented myself and my photo ID at the security desk.  The guard cheerfully cajoled the hundreds of students who entered when I did to show their IDs, please. This was a nostalgic morning for me.  Heights was my children’s high school, and I know its halls with the polished red tile floors so well I could walk them in my sleep even though my youngest graduated twelve years ago. Yesterday I was privileged to observe three full classes: Advanced Placement (AP) world literature, non-AP American history, and a social studies elective in political philosophy.

Heights is a majority-African American high school; 63 percent of the students in our district’s public schools qualify for free lunch.  The three classes I visited were filled with eleventh and twelfth graders.  I will share the number of students in each class and the racial breakdown of the classes because it is important to observe how well a school is doing institutionally with racial integration.

In first period, AP world literature, (22 students in the class: 13 African American, 9 white), the teacher quietly made an exception for the student coming straight from his job by permitting him to eat his breakfast during class.  She then presented a rather formal PowerPoint about dominant theories of literary criticism–Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Reader Response, Deconstructionist, and New Criticism.  AP curriculum is prescribed by the national end-of-year test, and I presume schools of literary theory are a major  AP topic this year.  After introducing each category, the teacher invited her students, in what became a spirited discussion, to think about books and plays they had read or studied that would lend themselves to the particular critical approaches. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for example, might be good choices for the post-colonialist approach.  The students numbered off and formed groups that will each adopt one of the critical approaches and work for the rest of the school year using that approach, and, I presume, in group presentations to the class demonstrate all the different approaches.  Toward the end of class, this teacher told the students she had finished writing recommendations for their college applications, and very quickly in the last five minutes of class asked them to tell their peers where they were applying and what they hoped to study.  I was struck, as students quickly named their career hopes, by the positive comments of other students.  When a young man said he’d like to be a nurse or nurse practitioner, a young woman across the room declared: “You’d be the best nurse. You are so kind.” By now, mid-November, the teacher knows the students, and I picked up on a number of short personal conversations and much joking and careful support,  The teacher listened carefully when students tried to frame their comments on why specific literary works might lend themselves to different critical approaches; then she asked questions that might help students think through what they were struggling to articulate.  The class remained lively throughout, and the teacher remembered to wish one girl, who had arrived quite late, a happy birthday.

In American history (22 students: 15 African American, 5 white, 2 Asian) the teacher, a powerful story-teller, engaged the students with a PowerPoint and his own recounting of the Spanish American War.  Attentive to his students’ academic skills, he frequently interrupted himself to remind them about what ought to be in their notes.  What seemed most to interest his students was this teacher’s focus on the role of historians and the press in determining how history is made and remembered.  Students engaged with him in spirited conversation about the role of African American troops recruited to fight the Spanish American War, why African Americans in the Jim Crow South likely joined the army, and the way the press ignored their role.  The teacher also engaged the students by asking them to think about the parallels between this war that established the United States’ empire and the more recent war in Iraq, which they remember personally.  Even shy students felt safe enough to venture to draw connections they had not previously considered and to respond to each other.  Near the end of class time, the teacher gave a quiz (to be collected and graded):  “Write down on a half sheet of paper six probing questions about the Spanish American War.  You don’t have to answer the questions. Just write down six good questions.”  Then the stars from a previous day’s round of what must be a long-running class game stood up to be peppered with the students’ questions.  They were stumped, sat down, and others stood up.  The bell rang.  The teacher commended the students on the quality of their questions, collected the quizzes, and reminded them that tomorrow their essays on the Spanish American War are due.

Political Philosophy at Heights High is what the school calls a social studies elective.  The particular section I observed is a seminar really (14 students: 5 African American, 9 white); according to the teacher these students are a mix of juniors and seniors.  The students were in the midst of reading Voltaire’s Candide, the topic of the day’s discussion.  After he reviewed the class ground rules for respectful conversation, the teacher presented to the class a list of fifteen questions for discussion.  He asked the students collectively to decide which questions they thought were so obvious they could cross them off without discussion (usually the more literal questions… “What is the significance of the ‘six kings’?”), and then led the conversation for the rest of the hour by inviting the students to choose a question they would like to discuss.  Each time a student requested to discuss a question, he or she explained why discussion of that particular question seemed important or would help him or her better understand the book. The classroom was arranged in four rows, two on each side, which positioned the students facing each other for conversation.  One young woman became so engaged she hoisted herself up onto the radiator behind her for a better view of the students across the room.  The teacher seemed to keep a running list of those who were posing questions and speaking up.  He made a careful effort to engage all the students, often passing over a loquacious young woman to make a space for the quieter students.  The conversation ranged from the role of two characters, Pangloss and Martin, as foils and philosophers to the question of what Voltaire is satirizing in the term “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-boobology.”  The teacher  wondered aloud whether the students understand Martin’s religion, and when nobody responded, he asked them if anyone had looked-up Manichaeism.  A very tall, introspective young man, who had usually spoken in perfectly framed paragraphs, risked replying that he thought he had read that Manicheism is a very old religion, but he didn’t fully understand it.  The teacher commended his familiarity with the subject and then carefully explained its meaning.  This student then opined that it seemed Manichaeism must have become archaic by the time of Voltaire.  Finally the teacher wondered about Voltaire’s attitude toward religion itself, and the students felt safe enough to raise their questions.  No one had been able to work this out very well, and all felt comfortable admitting that.  What followed was considerable conversation about whether Voltaire is criticizing religion or hypocrisy.  At the end of the hour, the teacher challenged them to think about that question as they finished the book and invited them to speculate how the book might end.  I came home realizing that, after 47 years, I ought to re-read Candide and admiring the intellectual safety of this classroom where fourteen earnest teenagers were encountering such a book for the first time.

Tacked to the wall of each classroom was a poster about the Common Core standards that Ohio is trying out now and adopting formally next fall.  I thought about those posters and I also reflected on the national conversation about the quality of school teachers and the econometric Value Added Measures being incorporated into their evaluations.  These trends seem so disconnected from what I experienced yesterday.  All three teachers are well qualified professionals; all three were conducting their classes according to their own high academic standards; all three were engaging students respectfully and insisting that students engage each other intellectually and respectfully. What impressed me about the pedagogy itself was, in each case,  inventive engagement of students and depth of academic content.  For me the most important thing to look at in any school is what is known as the hidden curriculum—what all the students at a school learn but nobody explicitly names or teaches as subject matter.  What I was so delighted to observe yesterday in our community’s high school is a hidden curriculum of mutual respect—respect for learning and respect for others—teachers and students.

Ohio Blogger Contrasts College Teacher Credentialing with TFA

Plunderbund, Eric Vessels’ Columbus, Ohio blog, tracks political corruption. Vessels named his blog after a word he discovered on a word-of-the-day calendar.  According to Vessels, “plunderbund – [U.S. colloq.] A corrupt alliance of political, commercial, and financial interests engaged in exploiting the public.”  Vessels is among Ohio’s best known on-line muckrakers.

His chosen current topic is the arrival of Teach for America in Ohio.  In How Ohio’s Teaching Standards Are Lowered By Teach For America, Vessels compares and contrasts the credentialing process for candidates seeking teaching certificates in BA and graduate level programs at Ohio’s colleges and universities to the five-week summer program that readies Teach for America recruits to step into the classroom in September.

According to Vessels, an Ohio law passed quietly in 2011 “requires the Ohio Department of Education to grant a 4-year Resident Educator License (new teacher license) to Teach for America, Inc. participants.”

Here is Vessels’ description from the Ohio State University of requirements for its M.Ed. teachers: “M.Ed. students are placed for field experiences (observation, participation, internship) in schools in fall and spring semesters for increasingly richer experiences. These placements collectively provide 700 clock hours in the schools spread over 150 days (of the typical 180-day school calendar). The placements are in schools in Franklin County with each student experiencing urban and suburban school classrooms.”

Requirements for four-year undergraduate certification programs include “a minimum of twelve weeks of full-time student teaching and a minimum of one-hundred clock hours of field experiences prior to student teaching.”  “While Teach For America, Inc. only requires 50 hours of cooperative teaching during a summer school program, Ohio state law requires that prospective teachers complete a minimum of 460 hours of field experience, including 12 weeks of student teaching, with typically 6 of those weeks being full days of independent instruction, under the supervision of a university professor(s).”

Vessels wonders why the less-prepared Teach for America candidates are serving in Ohio’s urban areas, the poorest school districts where the need for quality teachers is greatest.  Here Vessels explains that the Cleveland Municipal School District is paying Teach for America an additional $9,000 finders fee for each candidate TFA brings to Cleveland with a five-week training credential.