Happy European Invasion Day!

In the US we celebrated Columbus Day yesterday, but today is the traditional date.  Whenever we celebrate this holiday, I believe we ought to think back to what we were taught in school about the history of our country. I was taught that Columbus “discovered” America, despite the fact that in 1994 James Loewen was able to document fourteen earlier explorations, including several responsible for the presence of humans in the “New World” at the time Columbus arrived (See Chapter Two of his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me).
Textbooks today no longer claim “discovery”—yet they still do not talk much about the human toll of the European expansion into the New World.  It has been variously estimated that between 40 and 80% of the indigenous population died as a result of the ever-growing number of Europeans who brought their diseases, weapons, cultural concepts of property, and policies of forced assimilation.  But how much emphasis do we give in our schools to a New World Holocaust that cost tens of millions of lives?
Do we tell first graders that Columbus was welcomed, and even rescued from shipwreck, by the Taíno people—and that he then went home to get more ships and soldiers, so he could enslave them to work in gold mines?  Not usually!  But it’s what he did.
For the Americans who already lived here, the arrival of the Europeans was nothing short of a catastrophe.  Yet I’ve seen it defended as a source of salvation (via Christianity), as “Manifest Destiny,” or as an “inevitable” outcome that it’s really a waste of time to fret over, now.
I think we owe it to our students (descendants from both sides of that struggle) to fret a bit.  We should tell more truth, less myth.  Happy Columbus Day.

On Merit Pay for Teachers

I believe that excellence should be rewarded, and that teachers routinely go unrecognized and seriously under-rewarded in the monetary sense. 
But do the people who advocate merit pay as an “incentive” actually think that somehow teachers are “holding back”?  Do they imagine that we’ll “teach harder” if we are offered extra money?  If so, they have some really weird ideas about what motivates teachers!
There’s currently a popular mythology about “bad teachers” who need to be gotten rid of.  This is an ugly, distracting distortion.  It’s true some don’t live up to the calling, but the vast majority of us are here because we care, and we are doing the best job we know how to do. 
If you truly want to help educators teach children better, give us adequate funding across the board—with better salaries and professional development, and with quality materials and equipment.  Make sure our students have reliable access to good health care and nutritious food, and that they have safe places to live, in supportive communities where they all receive encouragement to learn (think “Harlem Children’s Zone”).
Sure, it’ll be nice for a few of my excellent colleagues to get more money because they teach well.  But don’t expect “merit pay” to make a discernable difference in outcomes, because it won’t.

The Artdog has a soft spot.

No, this is not my usual kind of education topic!  But I think we should all learn more about the problems of some of our homeless four-footed neighbors, and lend them a hand when they need it.  A well-run shelter is a community treasure.  If you know of one, please vote for them.  If you don’t, please consider supporting my favorite with your vote: Animal Haven in Merriam, KS.


The Most Crucial Standard of All, And Why Schools Aren’t Built For It

Whatever national standards emerge from the current debates, simple facts are actually only a small part of what people need to know. We are rapidly developing into a world where anybody can have access to answers via cell phone and Internet, wirelessly, with the stroke of a touch-screen.

Thus, no matter how easy it is to bubble in fact-answers on a computerized answer sheet, our essential education standards for the 21st century have to reflect a different reality. Skill-sets are far more vital to our future prosperity than fact-sets, and the most essential of all skill-sets are the cognitive skills.

We need above all to be teaching our students to THINK CRITICALLY.

However, if there is one “single-worst” failing I’ve observed in the schools with which I’ve been associated over the years, it is that thinking—sharp-eyed, well-informed, critical thinking—is not given remotely enough attention in schools.

The reasons for this are mostly practical, ironically enough. As noted above, it’s easier to test fact-regurgitation than it is to test thinking processes or evaluate the quality of a student’s logic. But that’s only a small part of the problem.

Teaching a person to think causes lots of trouble in a contemporary school setting. For one thing, it requires time. It’s a messy process, requiring an adult to engage one-on-one or in small groups for fairly extended periods of time, doing a lot of free-form exploration. A teacher with 27 teenagers in one classroom can’t do it consistently. A teacher with 20 Kindergarteners is just as hard-put.

I remember being taught in a professional development series how to use a variety of “classroom structures” to engage students in cooperative learning. We were given the advice that, while students need “think time” to respond to prompts, the wise teacher will hold those snippets of “think time” down to 30 seconds to two minutes at the most. Sure, I thought ruefully. Anybody can think deep thoughts in 30 seconds to two minutes. Ri-i-i-ight.

Teaching a person to think also requires creativity, on the part of both the student and the teacher. I believe many teachers are innately creative, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are very self-actualized in this area. Most teachers were themselves poorly taught to be creative, and often seem afraid to let their students’ creativity blossom fully.

Creativity itself is a messy, unpredictable process, even when handled well. It rarely fits comfortably into the narrow confines of a 40-minute class period, and often results in more noise and physical activity than many educators are comfortable tolerating.

But the most difficult part of teaching students to think is that once you’ve taught them how, and told them it’s a good thing to do–they’ll tend to do it! This causes all kinds of problems for schools.

When a critical thinker bumps up against something that doesn’t seem to make sense, s/he questions it. Unfortunately, there are so many rules and procedures land-mining the typical school day that really don’t make any sense from the student’s point of view, it takes almost no time for critical thinkers to become questioners of authority.

You can see what a horrifying prospect that is. No efficiently run human-warehousing institution happily tolerates questioners of authority. Moreover, controlling imaginative, independent thinkers (not to mention staying at least one jump ahead of them and keeping them engaged) is much harder than controlling and knowing more than a group of compliant conformists who all think alike, and don’t think very hard.

If you buy into the “teacher must always know more than the student” fallacy, or if you are an ardent devotee of straight rows of desks and pin-drop silence in the classroom, then you very clearly don’t want imaginative, critical thinkers occupying those desks! I am here to tell you that contemporary US taxpayers, politicians, and educators all cherish the ideal of quiet, orderly schools, headed by highly-qualified teachers who can pour standardized wisdom into the supposedly-empty heads of their students, who will therefore score above proficient levels on their standardized tests. It is literally an official mandate.

And that’s why I say our current schools aren’t set up to teach and support the most vital skill needed by students who hope to thrive in the 21st century.

Include Top Experts–Teachers–in Setting Standards

I want to be clear on the subject of national standards for education. I think that it absolutely makes the best kind of sense to establish broad answers to the question, “What do people need to know, in order to compete in the global market?” If we as a nation do not answer that question, clearly and consistently “from sea to shining sea,” we will continue to decline into has-been status in the world.

But who will provide those answers? And how will they be framed?

In the US, it’s politics and money that dictate our approach, so we know we’re in for a rough ride. Already the debates have begun. I would like to add my voice to the chorus of people saying, “This time, don’t leave out the teachers!”

In June, Education Week published an article about leaders from the major math and reading professional education associations publicly voicing concerns that they are being shut out of the process in favor of the national testing companies (“Subject-Matter Groups Want Voice in Standards,” published June 15, 2009).

Recently, developments seem to be headed in the direction of greater teacher inclusion. Education Week’s July 1 story, “Expert Panels Named in Common-Standards Push,” describes the addition of significant numbers of representatives from teachers’ subject-matter organizations to the panels developing drafts of proposed standards. This seems to me to be the only rational approach.

I know it’s currently fashionable to look down our noses at teachers, and question how “highly qualified” they are. But the fact is that I don’t know any teachers who got into this gig for the money, and have no interest in their students’ well-being. Much political hay is made about tenured teachers who have burned out, given up, and don’t care any more. That such teachers exist is unquestionable. But, like Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen,” they mostly are the fixation of fevered ideologues’ ranting.

In my experience, no one thinks longer and harder about what students need to know, and how to teach it to them, than teachers do. Most of us care deeply, and constantly try to do better and better at our work. Our opinions are expert opinions, as opposed to the all-too-common ignorant bumbling of laypersons who may care, but who often have no clue what the craft and art of teaching is really like.

Any push to create national standards surely must involve the prominent participation of the nation’s best experts on the subject–Teachers!

Local Control of Schools

I have recently been reading The Tyranny of Dead Ideas. Its author, Matt Miller, says the recent “standards” emphasis is a positive move away from a piecemeal “local control” approach to school curriculum, which he sees as pretty much the root of all our problems with schools today. He points out that the lack of a coherent, nationwide policy on how schools are run has resulted in the educational equivalent of “jumping on our horse and riding off in all directions.” Every little school board is its own power center, for good or for ill, and that, plus tying school funding to local property taxes, results in spotty successes and rampant inequity in our nation’s schools.

I agree with many of his points. I live in the Kansas City metro area, where we have an elephant-in-the-living-room-sized example of just how crazy and dysfunctional local control can get. But I’ve got to say that I think in our consumer-oriented society, where individualism is prized so highly and everyone wants to have everything “their way,” local control is much more likely to morph than to die. Any successful national standards initiative is going to have to recognize and accommodate this.

The history of local school control is too long in this country, and the suspicions of national or central control are too firmly grounded, for anything else. Aside from the long tradition, in some ways local control of schools makes good sense: who knows better than the parents and teachers of the individual students in question, how to teach them?

I also am an advocate of what are called “democratic” schools—schools in which teachers and students seek out the ways that work best for them, and inform policy changes and rules of operation for their school in a kind of “ground-up” approach. That’s why I think that if they are to truly revolutionize U.S. education, national standards must set agreed-upon goals—but NOT force-feed specific approaches.

Specific approaches, rammed down our throats, are about all we’ve had so far, thanks to the “education-industrial complex” of test-makers, large textbook companies and other special interests busily spending millions to lobby Washington. The trouble-plagued “Reading First” program is a good example. A textbook company with connections within the Beltway foisted a questionable program on millions of young readers, at huge cost to taxpayers and school districts. The Department of Education vigorously pushed it for several years; now it has been discredited.

For most of the country’s educators, the whole “No Child Left Behind” effort has been an expensive, heavy-handed and questionably effective social experiment that I think is guaranteed to set up greater resistance to future national initiatives.

School Choice—Who’d ‘a’ Thought?

I’ve always been highly dubious about so-called “school choice” initiatives, because they usually take the form of a voucher system to use public money for private schools.

I always figured these had the not-very-secret agenda of glomming onto tax dollars, to publicly fund either white flight from racially integrated schools, or evangelical flight from the teaching of evolution and sex ed. I don’t hold with any of that.

But recently I stumbled on a different understanding of “school choice,” and “market forces,” as well. Teaching professionals tend to cringe when laypeople talk about “market forces” in education, because in many ways it’s an inappropriate approach. Neither term has been on my “favorites” list, but events beyond my control may be changing that.

For all my belief in free public education as the bedrock of American democracy, I also have been increasingly critical of the way the “education-industrial complex” runs schools, these days. I want to find alternative ways that seem more rational, nurturing, and effective than the way it’s usually done.

My “aha” moment came when I realized that in the time I’ve been an adult we’ve seen:

  • the emergence of special education mandates
  • the homeschooling movement
  • the “small schools” movement
  • multiculturalism
  • magnet schools
  • a huge influx of English language learners into our schools
  • the rise of charter schools
  • a boom in computer-based “distance learning” that I predict is only warming up.

Talk about “school choice!” When I was a kid the only alternatives were public or private—but whichever you chose, school was run just about the same, and if you didn’t fit in, too bad.

But now, in very real ways, market forces are remaking schools with startling variety.

The thing is, I think we’re still a long way from what school will eventually look like. When all the experiments have shaken down and been evaluated over time, I think those who remember today will be amazed at what all changed.

For me, that’s a really exciting thought. I think we still have a lot of changing to do.