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Listening to another of those radio shows about Charter Schools reinforced my belief that most people ask the wrong questions about education. Even the usually intelligent NH Pubic Radio host reflected the many biases and assumptions that undermine our ability to focus on the issues that matter for educating all children.

The fundamental question we should be asking is how do we create an educational system that best provides every child with the best opportunities to succeed in the 21st century, not who governs schools or what we call them.

The first widely held bias to address is the perception of elitism. When a caller stated that the parents who seek out charter schools are those who have stronger interest in education, the radio host inferred that he was referring to “middle and upper middle class” parents. This seems to reflect tremendous class bias. Virtually every parent wants a good education for their child. The well off already can seek out other options for their children—they can pay for private schools or move to well off districts. Charters give families without the economic resources the possibility to make choices to help their child get an education that works. I know at our school, it is exactly these low-income parents who find a way to make this opportunity for their child when the opportunity is free. (For example, we had a family with one parent in jail and the other who has a restraining order and they figured out how to get their kid enrolled when the one opportunity for their child (who was struggling in the district school) to be successful by finding another school that was publicly accessible).

Another often perpetuated myth is that public schools are open to all and represent the full range of economic class in the state. This conflates public schools with an individual public school. Of course, every public school has limits of whom can attend, simply defined by district boundaries. A child from East L.A can’t go to school in Beverly Hills. While I hear people question the selection bias of an individual charter on these shows, no one seems to raise the question of how many free and reduced students go to any particular public school in wealthy districts. It seems unfair to compare individual charters to all public schools from throughout the state. A much more reasonable question is how close these charters come to the demographics of the districts they serve.

This viewpoint about being “open to all” in traditional public schools implies that in fact public schools serve all equally well. In fact, the research is overwhelming that students from lower income and lower educated parents do exceedingly worse in our public schools than the more well off. So if you change the focus from how to fairly allow all into a single school to how do we educate children from all backgrounds well, you would be much more critical of the existing public schools and perhaps more open to learning how charters may change this long repeated tendency for the less well off to be least well served by public schools.

Inevitably the favorite comment against charters is, “why not just work to change existing public schools?” The reason for this is that this has been tried extensively for decades, at huge expense of money, time and energy, with almost no discernable positive effect.  Again, extensive research (see Sarason’s The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform for a review of this) demonstrates that almost no large scale school reform has ever had a significant positive impact on learning. Einstein’s definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Rather than focus on how charter schools might be critiqued, maybe it would be worth asking how existing schools expect to get any better results doing the same things over and over.

One final typical focus seems to be on costs and how charters “take money” from public schools that could be “helping all kids.” In fact, charters may well help save money for the district public schools. In addition to serving students for a cost usually at or below the existing school, as well as lowering significantly the rarely cited (but much more relevant) cost per graduate, charters can lessen the many hidden costs of comprehensive, “monopolistic” schools. By trying to serve everyone, traditional public schools spend loads on professional development on how to try the impossible task of succeeding with all learners, developing programs or special arrangements for all those who don’t fit the “one-size-fits-all” practices, and the draining time administrators, special educators, and counselors spend dealing with frustrated students and parents who feel the school is failing to work effectively with a child and have no other alternative publicly accessible so have to fight the system (often with huge legal expenses, in addition to requiring time and emotional energy) for better services for the child. If principals didn’t have to spend so much time trying to accommodate every student and parent complaint, maybe they could focus on their role as instructional leader as well as helping the school focus on a more well defined sense of purpose than trying to serve every possible community need. Charters and choice can be a relief valve for students or parents who are looking for something different for their child. Rather than costing the existing public schools, this can be a savings financially as well as a way to enhance support for public education by providing better educational options for every child.

It may help possibly to reframe terms. The debate may not be between public schools or private schools, which imply open versus selective (although individual public schools can be selective not only by district boundaries but by such criteria as magnet programs and conversely some private schools accept all who apply). What if the language was something like adult centered schools vs. student centered schools, inflexible schools vs. responsive schools, generic schools vs. focused schools, or bureaucratic schools vs. personal schools. All loaded terms perhaps, as are public and private. But these terms are ones worth exploring when looking at the differences between some existing public schools and other schools, public, charter, or private. These are the real issues in education when we ask the question how best to fairly provide every child with the chance for success in school.


If we don’t know where we’re going, How do we know if we ever get there?

I saw my old college roommate in NYC and was struck again by how different schools are from most private sector organizations. My roommate builds big buildings and has about 20 people on his staff and reports to a boss who owns the whole company. There are relatively straightforward measures of success in this industry–sales of office space, meeting deadlines on construction projects, coming in under budget, etc. As such, it is pretty easy to keep everyone working for a common purpose–as he told me, everyone knows what their role is and what they are trying to achieve (and they can  be rewarded financially accordingly (0r punished and fired for not being in line with the organization’s program).

Contrast this with schools, where the traditional measures of success for teachers have historically been almost completely self defined (see Lortie, 1970 for a detailed explanation of this). On top of this, monetary compensation has nothing to do with performance, so the incentives for improved teaching quality or improved student results come down almost exclusively to personal motivation. While this may be enough inspiration for some, it assumes a level of altruism that I don’t think is that widely held.

Even if we believe many have this incredible self motivation to be better teachers, how would one even know if one was improving? And in a job where uncertainty about results is so prevalent and the link between inputs and outputs (between a teacher’s practice and impact on students) so tenuous, it is easy to see how a work culture can develop where the “rational” behavior is to not put a ton of energy into improving, where there is really no compelling reason to draw on colleagues for ideas, where you face challenges individually, where definitions of “professionalism” have more to do with meeting requirements, putting in hours, and doing required professional development substitute for the much more elusive effectiveness helping every child succeed in school.

Thus the language one often hears from teachers reflects a low sense of efficacy–“We’re working really hard” “Administrators have to give us more time for planning/meeting with colleagues/professional development, etc.” “You have to understand this student’s life outside school.” “I’m doing the best I can.” This is a language that reflects the lack of control teachers feel over results (and likewise, in most cases, over the conditions of their work). Again, this is not just a problem with teachers–it is problem inherent in the system where almost nothing about public schools is like any other organization in our society (or at least any in the private sector). Without a relatively clear, agreed upon sense of results, teachers can act as lone rangers, resistant to direction from administrators or even fellow teachers–in essence, one’s opinion of effective teaching can be as valid as any one else’s opinion. Critiques of a teacher raise the innate defensiveness so many of us hold, and efforts to change are all the more difficult to implement with so little levers to move teachers in a common direction.

It is not that I am a big capitalist or enamored with private enterprise (which hasn’t necessarily shined in glory over the past 5 years or so). But I do think there are certain truisms about human and organizational behavior that are impossible to ignore. Goodwill alone will not motivate all individuals, especially as the organization’s size increases. In the absence of channels of authority or clear measures of results, one of two scenarios is likely: one is a free lance workplace where everyone does their own thing (a picture of many schools in the pre-“standards” days) or a top-down autocracy trying (usually with much futility) to impose quality from above (notably ineffective over history).

The irony of this is that the one lever for pushing teachers to work together, to focus on common purposes, to force teachers to up their game is the pressure of test scores and AYP. Many, if not most, teachers rightly criticize the testing culture for narrowing the curriculum and limiting learning. But it is this more clear (albeit misplaced) measure of success that has given administrators some leverage for changed practices (unfortunately in pursuit of test scores rather than more worthy results relating to curiosity, problem solving, critical thinking, and application of knowledge).

Back to “the system,” if there are not any mechanisms where consumers (parents and kids) can express their preferences or needs related to education, then there needs to be all sorts of proxies to encourage and enforce quality. Unfortunately, this leads to imposition of standardized practices (often by policy makers who know little about education) and a uniformity that conflicts with the diversity of the children and families we serve. Granted, an open marketplace of choice schools has its problems too. But with the fundamental challenge facing of us of educating every child for success in the dynamic 21st century world, the layering of problems and supposed solutions in centrally controlled public schools as currently configured cannot come close to serving all our children.

Occupy Optimism

Interesting visit to Occupy Providence during the Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum. I am struck by how much these young people are working to figure this out. And there is a fair bit to figure out, which to me, explains the portrayal of Occupy as lacking clarity (so far).
There are multiple learnings for the occupiers. First is simply learning to live with less (or close to nothing). No TV, no video games, no electricity….For a generation raised plugged in (and often zombified by computers, Wii, gameboys, and other corporate supplied distractions, this non material world is a new (and hopefully awareness raising) discovery.
Then there is creating a community living together in a confined (and possibly illegal) space. Meeting new people, figuring out systems, working out norms is challenging enough, Throw in homeless or drug addicts and others who drop in and there is a whole bigger challenge of safety and self policing that is far from easy.
There is a major education effort, as young folk try to figure out the issues—military spending, feminist history, the convoluted tax code, political power, advertising and marketing, labor relations, globalization, environmental degradation, and the whole economic system…Somehow, I don’t think most 20 somethings have spent the last decade studying these complicated issues. And with each Occupier having a somewhat different priority, aligning all these into a coherent picture will take time.
For me (and probably others of an older generation), it seems that it should be somewhat easy to set out a vision and demands for change. I have been thinking of this for 30+ years. At some point, there may be a place in this movement for us older folk, but for now, it seems this is a time for the younger generation to figure this out themselves for a while before inviting us older folk in.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is what to do to change what is clearly a failing system even if there was clear agreement on the issues and “demands.” Again, the route for change I think most older folk recommend is through electoral politics. While this may be the right course eventually, it is not all that promising based on past results. I imagine a lot of occupiers feel they worked the electoral game to elect Obama and that hasn’t had dramatic results. The political system seems rigged to benefit the 1% with the power and money. Maybe politics is the only route for change in a democratic society, but since this hasn’t looked like the most productive body in recent years, I think the occupy movement is right to look for other means for change. Unfortunately, what these other options might entail is not immediately apparent—Boycotts? Teach-ins? Protests? Some new format we cannot imagine yet?
I don’t think the occupy movement will die off when the weather cools. While the encampments might go away, the 99% are desperate for change. It’ll take a while for the younger generation to educate themselves on the injustices they have been led to ignore. But the cause of greater fairness encompasses a wide swath of the American population. As we learn together, I think we may find a path for change.

Time for Teachers

Has anyone done research on teacher effectiveness being correlated with the time a teacher spends on school related work? All other things being equal, I would think that a teacher who devotes more time to his or her work will be more effective than one who spends less time. Beyond all the other things time allows (such as more professional reading, connecting with colleagues, researching in one’s discipline, etc), there is one simple reason why time matters–good teaching involves good planning and lots of feedback to students on their work (i.e. grading). Planning and grading takes time and it takes time each and every day. Really good teachers, in my experience, spend a lot of time, almost every day, planning for classes and providing feedback on student work. And this planning work takes more time than anyone is “given” by administration in the school day.

In a system of schools where a hotly negotiated contract guides pay scales for all teachers and stipulates work expectations, there is little, if any, way to incentivize or reward individual teachers for quality of work or effort. Regardless of performance, regardless of time commitment (or any other factor except for years of service and academic degree), almost all public school teachers are guaranteed annual raises and that raise is the same for every teacher at the same “step.”

When Apple was developing the I-phone, Steve Jobs decided 6 weeks before launch that the screen had to be glass instead of the plastic they had been intending. This put huge pressure on engineers to find the right glass, modify production, etc. Apple designers worked overtime to make this happen, knowing they would be rewarded if the I-phone was a success with customers. Contrast this with public education, where  a teacher who makes such an extraordinary extra effort in planning learning experiences or working for students outside school hours mostly ends up feeling like a sucker watching colleagues go home at 3:00 and doing whatever non school related they please. (And often the teacher who does extraordinary work is ostracized by teaching colleagues for making them look bad.)

While I am not a bedrock capitalist who thinks people are only motivated by monetary rewards, you can’t take out almost every incentive and motivator used in organizations worldwide and expect that good will and self motivation will somehow inspire quality results from the millions of people who are teachers.

While teacher’s unions are not the sole problem in public education, the teacher contracts common to most districts promotes mediocrity. Again, simple math can show some of the problem: Let’s say the contract stipulates the school day as being from 7:30-3:00 with the contact hours with students being 300 minutes/day. That is 5 hours with kids out of 7.5 hours at work. Take out 1/2 hour for lunch, 1/2 hour of passing periods and class set-up time, and that leave 90 minutes for planning and grading if there were absolutely nothing else a teacher needed to do (such as meetings, work with individual kids, going to the bathroom, coffee break, duties, etc.). Likewise, the contract will stipulate number of days a teacher is expected to work, usually a handful above the number of school days.

To be effective, I would think most teachers have to work beyond the contract. But what incentive exists to do this “extra” work? And what pressures exist for teachers not to “give away” their services by working beyond contracted time? How do we reward teachers for quality work? How can schools be free from any of the normal incentives that encourage commitment in so many other organizations?

One Size Fits All Schools: Part 1

Your school may be mediocre if…

It serves all students in a geographic area. To me, this is a fundamental failing of schools that leads to the founding lie upon which all other lies (and excuses) in the education system evolve. The idea behind putting all kids in the same school (beyond financial efficiency), of course, is the vaunted ideal of “democracy” and equal opportunity. But equality is not equity, and giving all kids the same education will benefit some much more than others (and ample research shows the ones who often have the worst teachers and learning environments are lower track, lower SES, more academically challenged, children of color).

This issue is even more subtle and personal than the gross inequities documented in books such as Goodlad’s Savage Inequalities. Ask any teacher anywhere if they can serve all kids in a classroom equally well and they will surely say no. Every teacher will tell you that there are certain kids (and types of kids) with whom they are really effective and others with whom they are much less effective.

Yet, especially in bucolic looking smaller elementary schools such as the one my kids attended and where I am a school board member, there may be only one class per grade with one teacher. Invariably, some kids will get a better education in this classroom than others, yet all are forced by our public education governance model to attend this single school with this single teacher. Thus begins the big series of accommodations and expenses and justifications to try to serve each child (as required by law) in a school system organized in way that is designed to not distinguish among individual children. A recipe for mediocrity that hamstrings teachers, principals, parents, and children.

The repercussions of this reality are truly far reaching and debilitating: For example, the school promises to educate all children in the district. Parent A worries about if the school can serve her child well, but has no other option (unless she is wealthy and can pay for a private school). Parent A sends the child to the school, maybe even meeting with educators at the school first to discuss the child’s unique learning needs. The school officials, BY LAW, must assure her they certainly can serve these needs (even if they have no real concrete basis for asserting this, especially given they have never served this particular child). Child A starts school and it isn’t working: Child comes home crying, doesn’t like the teacher, says she hates school. Well, there is no other teacher for this grade, so meetings ensue with parent, child, teacher, counselor, principal….The non negotiable is that this child is going to be in this class. Maybe some accommodations are made, maybe new resources or programs brought in. Maybe it is just that this teacher’s style doesn’t fit for this individual child. Maybe this teacher is burnt out and not really into teaching any of the children. Regardless, there is no way this class of kids will have any other teacher for this year of school. So Parent A (and maybe other parents too) appeal to the Principal, the Superintendent, the School Board. These school officials must spout the party line (even if they know the truth is this teacher is ineffective with lots of kids (or just that this teacher, like all teachers, cannot serve every child equally well)—Your (mandated) school can serve every child because the law says we have to serve every child.

The Principal sees this child come to school more and more dejected daily, but has no ability to alter what is the root of the problem—the relationship of this student and this teacher. So the Principal can throw more accommodations at the situation, provide counseling for the kid, etc. (at ever greater costs of time and energy and money). But let’s say none of this works (because the problem is still the kid and teacher together). The parent complains more—the principal gets defensive. The problem, from the school perspective, becomes the child and family. They never supported the school in the first place, the child has special needs, the family is difficult—it is not “our” fault in the school.

Thus begins the shift of ideals—from heartfelt belief in every child to the recognition that we can’t really serve all children (at least the way the school’s are organized) and that is kind of dispiriting so we set protect our psyche and say we tried every thing we could, there are just some kids and families who don’t value all we are doing, look how well we are doing with most kids. We start citing statistics (only 15% of our state’s kids don’t graduate!, 72% are proficient…) as if we were talking about batting averages or the chance of rain and not REAL INDIVIDUAL CHILDREN!!!

Anyone else ever have this experience in a school? Any time you as a teacher/administrator felt maybe a student might be better served in a different setting (but could do nothing to make this happen)? How much time, energy, and money can we spend to try to make the kid fit the school rather than make the school be a better fit for individual kids?

Entering the Blog World: The Crazy Educational System

I enter the blog world. It’s only been about umpteen years I have thought of doing this and still wonder if anyone reads this stuff, but if nothing else, it gets these ideas out of my head and cataloged in the “cloud” to rain down later if I ever get back to this.

The big idea I keep coming back to is the paradox of why our schools are so mediocre and how remarkable it is they do as well as they do despite being part of what is probably (to rephrase David Tyack’s immortal title) the one worst system. 30+ % non graduation rates, lousy test scores, repressive school climate, loads of kids “hurt” by school….this really is untenable. At the same time, it is praise worthy that even 50% of kids, from wildly diverse backgrounds, many with huge struggles from poverty, hunger, trauma, etc, do pretty good learning with an ever expanding curriculum (I know it was that much easier to teach all of US history back when I started 30 years ago before we had to add the Reagan years, Clinton’s impeachment, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., let alone shoving in AIDS education, 21st century skills, financial literacy, etc).

The paradox, or the problem, is that almost anything good that happens in schools is in spite of the system, not with support of the system. As one superstar educator who is a principal just wrote me, I feel like I am a boxer fighting with two hands tied behind my back. In almost every regard, the various structures, traditions, and organization of our public schools work against quality and lead to, at best, mediocrity.

Before I get slaughtered by the stories of all those great public school graduates who have won Nobel Prizes and such, maybe I should frame what I mean by mediocrity. There are certainly individual students who thrive in our public schools. And there are even some individual schools where I imagine a fair number of kids thrive. But overall, our schools tend to work for a small percentage of kids (and in fact, I would argue the organization of our schools reinforces this tendency to benefit a few at the expense of the many). So for me, the ultimate question has always been how do we create a system of schools (and maybe simply a system of learning) where every child can find success? By this standard, I tend to think our public schools are pretty mediocre.

Documenting how schools are mediocre (or “failing,” to use the more alarmist Nation at Risk terminology) seems like overtilled (and overly depressing and distracting) terrain. Once we get caught up in arguments over the minutia of statistics and test sampling methods and controlling for family background or cultural differences, we will never get at how to improve the system. I hope it is ok to leave these debates to those trying to score political points and accept that our results with kids are not great and could be better. The question I hope to explore is why our schools function as they do and how this might change to achieve real improvements in learning for all kids.

There is also no shortage of critiques of our public schools and pointing out the reasons for shortcomings. The targets for blame vary from NCLB, testing, teacher’s unions, educational bureaucrats, lazy teachers, uninvolved parents, lame educational administrators, test makers, textbook adoption policies, funding …

To me, this points out the real problem is none of these and all of these. If almost every part of the system has problems, then maybe it is the system that is the problem. The system has given us NCLB and testing and unions and textbooks and uninvolved parents. These are not the causes but the symptoms of a dysfunctional system—a system that is typified by no one having responsibility for results but everyone having authority to prevent change. It is a classic scarecrow scenario where every part of the system can point to some other part as the problem—teachers blame parents, parents blame the principal, the principal blames the superintendent, the superintendent blames the state bureaucrats, the state officials blame the feds, the feds blame the legislators, the legislators blame teachers….Kind of feels like all these parts of the system aren’t exactly working together for the good of kids, eh?

So my first task is to look at all the parts of the system that are as much symptoms as causes, but ultimately (where I hope my perspective adds something constructive to our understanding of schooling), I want to consider these parts as a whole, avoiding the futile whack a mole version of school change and recognize why those pesky moles keep popping up, despite the heroic and noble efforts of teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

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