Sunday, December 20, 2015

Schools Aren't Democracies

The thesis beyond this particular post has been brewing for a while, but this recent article by Deborah Meier on EdWeek was the impetus I needed to get to writing this (warm) holiday season.

First, my usual disclaimer: I don't like polarizing commentary, and do not aim to say that everything Deborah said was wrong. She makes some good points. Moreover, I'm not even sure she'd really disagree with what I'm saying here. Maybe she'll find this someday and chime in.

So, about schools and democracies. In short, they aren't. Somehow, over the past few years, parents, teachers, and even students have somehow been convinced that they have a particular ownership over schools and education process that is, simply, not based in reality. Yes, schools are funded by taxpayer dollars. Yes, buy-in from key stakeholders is important. But, no - parents do not, nor have they ever, had the right to say what happens in the classroom, be that curriculum, teacher grading, or even extra-classroom stuff like state assessments.

I first started thinking about this as I was reading stories of parents "opting out" of state tests because of their disagreement with the education policy behind it, often ostensibly citing "harmful effects" of testing on their kids. Disagreement with that notion aside, the larger issue here is who is in control of public education. Do parents have the right to some level of control or influence over public education? Do students? With district/state/federal policies, do teachers even have a right to a vote?

My simple thought on this is that there is no right to vote in public education, outside of voting for school board members. Parents & students do not have the right to influence curricular decisions or assessment programs, and teachers don't have an inherent right to determine state or federal policy.

What I do think is that it's certainly best practice to include each groups' perspective. Teachers have enormous amounts of experience & expertise to contribute to education policy, and - as the end consumers - we'd be foolish not to at least consider the perspectives of families. However, that's a far cry from those groups having an inherent right to influence or even control education policy.

The reason I'm bothering to take the time write about this is that I think at stake with this issue is the professionalism of education. When parents become convinced that they know more than teachers (and when students feel convinced that they know more than educators with decades of experience), we've arrived at the ultimate undermining of the teacher's professional status. This is not only arrogant, it's wrong, and not helpful to education. We should promote a system of education in which we actively affirm the ability of teachers to make professional decisions in their classroom.

The natural extension of that, though, (and this is where the anti-reformers and I start to disagree), is that we should value the professional decision-making of ALL educators - not just teachers. Educational statisticians and assessment specialists at the district and state level are professional educators. They have something to contribute. Not everything, but something. All of us educators have something to bring to the table, and none of us have everything. It really bothers me that teachers think they know everything about formal assessment, just as it bothers teachers to think those of us outside the classroom (e.g., school psychologists) know everything that a teacher does.

Let me take this opportunity to point out the irony & hypocrisy of the anti-reform, Ravitch camp here: They want everyone to respect the professionalism of teachers, but have a huge problem respecting education professionals outside the classroom that may work in central office or in the state DOE building. Somehow, they seem to perceive, only classroom teachers should be given any level of respect in terms of education.

Reigning myself in, here's what this boils down to: Education is NOT a democracy in which everyone gets an equal vote. It's a professional field in which each professional should be granted license to make his/her own professional decisions. Parents DO have a role in education, but it's different from that of a teacher. Students also, teachers the same.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The problem with the problem with reform (not a typo)

The (relatively) new trend in education is being against trends. Led by folks like Diane Ravitch, it's become quite popular to talk smack against anyone trying to do anything in education, with the exception of teachers who have been doing it for a while already. Charters? Bad. Accountability? Bad. Common Core? Awful.

Probably based in part on my love of New Orleans for other reasons, this article (by Jennifer Berkshire) - "'Reform' makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina" - caught my attention. It seemed at first that this article would follow in the footsteps of Ravitch and other anti-reformers, and my initial impression was on target.

First, a disclaimer - I don't disagree with a lot of what Berkshire says. I don't think charters, high-stakes accountability, and other reform strategies have been effective. The main difference I have with Berkshire, Ravitch, and others isn't on the specific issues, but how they've evaluated issues and the generalized conclusions they've come away with. Here are a few, in my own words:

  • Only people who live in a neighborhood can fix it.
  • Only demographically similar people can truly understand "their own" (e.g., only Black people can really understand Black people)
  • Anything that isn't supportive of teachers is wrong, just because.
  • Data is bad.
Yes, I'm paraphrasing, and Berkshire & Ravitch would likely disagree with these points as I've presented them. However, I don't think they're too far off.

As you can, there are a couple of fundamentally faulty ways of thinking that I think are fairly evident amongst anti-reformers:
  • A propensity to evaluate outcomes based relatively irrelevant inputs. 
    • Example: One of Berkshire's main concerns with the educational strategies/reforms used in Atlanta is that they weren't implemented by Black people, or people from New Orleans. I'm not saying that it's unimportant or irrelevant to have community input, but this is far different from thinking that the crux of the error with NOLA reforms has been the ethnic and regional backgrounds of the implementors. 
  • Over-generalization, over-reliance on anecdotal evidence, and an inability to distinguish between a failed concept/strategy and faulty implementation/specifics.
    • Example: Assuming accountability doesn't work because it didn't work in one particular instance. Make no mistake - I think most current teacher accountability systems aren't good. They over-rely on science that isn't there yet. But, that doesn't mean the entire concept is faulty - that accountability couldn't occur, that VAM will never work. It just hasn't yet
  • Personalization & emotionalization of issues.
    • Example: Reforms are bad because of who suggests them or implements them, not how well they were implemented or how well they worked. 
  • Misunderstanding of necessary vs. sufficient reform, and misunderstanding of how certain reforms are intended to perform with others.
    • Example: State tests and accountability systems were never intended or designed to be the sole agents of educational change. They may have been hallmark elements of certain pieces of legislation, but I've never heard a serious proponent of state tests exclaim that they, alone, should fix all educational problems. Anti-reformers, though, believe that if a reform effort (e.g., state tests) didn't fix education problems, they were ineffective. Not sure. Consider a cardiac patient who needs to take 2 medications to control blood pressure, but only takes one and suffers a heart attack. Did the first medication "fail to work?" No, it wasn't accompanied by the entire treatment regimen. Similarly, state tests were never designed to fly solo or fix everything by itself. Maybe Bush tried to sell it as so from time to time, but no one else really thought that. The failure or lack of inclusion of other, also necessary, strategies could have been just as much an issue.
  • Too much attack, too little suggestions of alternatives.
    • As Berkshire mentioned in her article, things weren't working before. No matter how you slice it, kids weren't learning. Schools weren't the only problem, but they were part of it. So, it's not really appropriate to merely suggest a rollback of reforms as a countermeasure. We won't get anywhere except where we've been.
So, what's my point: That Berkshire & Ravitch are right to look into reform movements and criticize them, and that they bring some important perspective. However, we need to be more specific, data-based, and objective when doing so. We need to understand exactly what is wrong with a reform before throwing the idea out completely, and we need to understand the difference between the person executing the reform and the reform itself.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The most important educational framework & youth development document of the decade

I realize this is a big statement, but I've been unknowingly waiting for this document's publication for a while - like a new Apple product you didn't know you wanted or needed until it was invented. Then, you did.

Drum roll please....

Article: Foundations for Young Adult Success

There is a great executive summary that's worth reading, and not too long, so I'll skip the play-by-play here, but here's the gist:

Theories on education, child development, and related fields are like opinions - everyone has more than one. There are a number of bad points about that, but one of the good points is that there are a lot of good ideas out there. The problem is that most good ideas, and theories, are presented in isolation, sometimes with the advocation that they are the educational theory.

Case-in-point: Behavioral psychology. While this is more of a field than a theory, the idea is the same: Behavioral psychologists are huge fans of trying to explain all human behavior by observable antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, with a few setting events sprinkled in. While a lot of behavior can be explained with a behavioral framework, many cannot. A while ago, folks started referring to cognitive behavioral psychology as a merge between behavioral psychology and other approaches to psychology that are, well, more cognitive. It was attempt to not discount thoughts that occurred, while still using the often helpful framework of behavioral psychology in assessment, intervention, & research.

Still, cognitive behavioral psychology is limited in scope because, while it allows for development processes or support systems like STEM or after-school programs to exist, it doesn't really actively integrate those concepts.

Enter the University of Chicago document linked above - far from comprehensive, and far from doing things like integrating cognitive behavioral psychology with STEM, it provides a broad-level framework for frontline youth workers, educators, and policymakers to approach youth development. It doesn't replace things like cognitive psychology, then - it helps connect things like cognitive psychology with mentoring, after-school programs, and state level policy. Nothing else has really done this.

To be clear, behavioral psychology never claimed to provided an operationalized framework for holistic youth development. It never attempted to advise broad-level youth or education policy. It was a field of research, then later applied field of assessment and intervention related to specific things like Positive Behavior Support. So, my comments here aren't in any way meant to demean or criticize the work that's been done before related to helping kids succeed. In fact, this document makes explicit use of such work. What I am saying is that this document helps put all of those fields and theories in perspective in a really useful, practice, operationalized way.

Specific Contributions to Youth Development

Beyond the authors' contributions to the integration of theory, research, and practice, this document, I believe, puts forward some good synthesis on research surrounding general youth development that is very useful for practitioners, from educators to youth workers to psychologists.

Specifically, the document creates very useful frameworks and language that integrates ideas such as agency, competencies, and & integrated identity that are quite useful for developing a broad-level understanding of how kids grow up. A lot of times, we get stuck in very narrow mindsets focused on specific activities, instruction, or interventions. We attempt to remediate social skills. We attempt to build rapport. We attempt to extinguish behavior. This document calls for us (broadly defined) to zoom out and see how these activities fit into the broader framework of youth development.

This is hugely important because some activities, instruction, and interventions simply can't happen without others in place. For example, teaching social skills has limited utility if kids don't want to use them (i.e., if they don't see those skills as relevant and connected to their integrated identities), particularly as they grow older. Teaching STEM skills doesn't so much matter if kids can't learn to apply specific STEM skills within the context of broader competencies, then activate those competencies in generalized contexts beyond the initial STEM environment. Again, this document helps us locate our specific services we provide, as youth workers, with the larger context of what kids actually need to make use of those services.

So, if you're a youth workers (again, broadly defined - from camp counselor to child psychologist) - this report is a must read.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Should We Allow 3rd Graders To Make Educational Policy?

Note: This article has been cross-published on
First, let me state unequivocally that I care what students think about education. We should ask them frequently, and incorporate that feedback. Diane Ravitch, in a recent blog post, seemed to advocate though that we should allow students to actively make decisions about intricate elements of educational practice and policy independently.
More specifically, she praised a 3rd grader for, independently, opting out of state testing. She trusted his professional opinion about which elements of education to take part in. It's not hard to see where I'm going with this.
Ravitch supporters have supported her historically by claiming that she using hyperbole to drive home messages. My critiques of her less-than-professional use of hyperbole aside, it's hard to make a case that this falls into that category. She's straight out suggesting that if a 3rd grader doesn't like something, he shouldn't have to do it.
So, start rolling your eyes - here's where I state the obvious. Sammy is allowed to opt out of state tests, what about guided reading groups? Science lab? School discipline practices? Special education? Physical Education?
Clearly, again stating the obvious here, a 3rd grader doesn't have the skills, experience, or cognitive maturity to understand the complexity of state tests. Say what you will, stand on whichever side of the line you prefer, but it isn't simple enough for a 3rd grader to understand thoroughly.
Again, returning to my first point - I thoroughly believe in listening to students, even when it comes to things like state tests. But, under no circumstances should a a 3rd grader be given the power to make big-time educational decisions he can't possibly understand.
The better question here is why Diane Ravitch could possibly think this is a good idea? Truthfully, I don't think she probably does. She's a smart woman - I'm sure she sees the logic in what I'm saying here. My best guess is that this makes for good press, and what is clear is that she'll stop at nothing to get her message out and gain readers - after all, she recently blogged about her success with gaining 21 million page views.. This is fine, but not if you start publishing nonsense to get a reaction.
The problem, not just with this blog post, is that people will eventually catch on to your methods and stop taking you seriously. Most of her followers seems to die-hard pro-teacher-at-any-cost supporters who refuse to acknowledge a single valid point that is not their own. They refuse to acknowledge complexity or nuance of arguments, perspectives, or educational policy. Anything suggested by the Gates foundation must be wrong, anything ever accomplished by a non-non-profit or school must have a secret agenda.
I'll end by saying what I've said plenty of times before - I'm probably more on Diane's side of the argument more than I'm not. She has some good things to say, but doesn't generally find a good way of saying them. I continue to hope she finds a more mature position from which to advocate for our shared positions, because I believe kids would benefit more if she did.
Until then....

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Teachers: Give even more of your time for free! Here's why :)

Hey Teachers! Give me a few minutes to make a case for you giving even more of your free time this summer at a summer camp. Shortcut to the end point: By volunteering and giving more of your time, I think you'll actually get more time in the form of mental sanity during the school year. In other words, sanity isn't just the sum total of the number of minutes you've spent with kids, but your perspective on the time you spend.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Merit Pay

I usually find myself on the other side of the fence from Diane Ravitch, if for no other reason than her approach to topics. However, I have to say we're on the same page with this particular issue - merit pay. I recently blogged about this topic in more detail, and would love your response and thoughts!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Should testing change the world?

A Decade of Testing -- But Nothing's Changed

There seems to be some confusion here about the role of testing, which I've comment on before. Sure, the idea of accountability overall is to improve education, but the concept of assessment by itself, even if part of the overall accountability package, isn't designed to produce change. It's designed to assess it.

It seems that folks like Jersey Jazzman and Diane Ravitch have found critique with standardized testing because it hasn't changed the world. But, should it? Should we expect standardized testing, by itself, to effect change within the educational system? Even if we did, we can attribute the lack of results strictly to the failure of testing or accountability?

My answer is no. The rationale is simple - necessary vs. sufficient. It could be that testing and accountability are necessary to produce change (or not), but that they aren't sufficient. My sense, for example, is that the Department of Education never expected accountability and testing, by themselves, to change education. My guess is that they expected other things, like Reading First & teacher training program improvements, to help out as well.

So, if change didn't happen, we can't look at one variable and say that it didn't work. We can say that the combination of all things happening wasn't sufficient to produce change, but not that any singular variable failed.