Sunday, April 29, 2012

High Anxiety Schooling vs. Its Polar Opposite

Yesterday I attended a local viewing of two education documentaries - The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman and The Finland Phenomenon.  (Disclaimer: I provided the copy of The Inconvenient Truth.)

The differences in the films are stark.

The first film was created by teachers who currently are working in the New York Public Schools and fighting from a grassroots perspective against the Mayor-Bloomberg-run public schooling system.  The filmmakers do a decent job of connecting the dots between the private monied interests and school reform. The private charters co-opt public funds for private profits and the results (or lack of them) are unfairly judged.

The public schools are routinely held accountable while charters are given a sweet deal with none of the accountability public schools face.  For instance, charters are allowed to "co-locate" with public schools. That means they get the physical resources of public schools while literally pushing the public school children into the basement.  In addition, charters can remove students from their rolls, thus forcing them back on the public schools.  This has resulted in test scores that look great over time.  Charter scores rise as the student population decreases. Generally the high-poverty or disabled are forced out.

The tenor of the film is explosive.  There is documentation of public meetings where parents and students are screaming at public officials to take their concerns seriously and to promise an equitable education for all rather than turning citizens against each other in lotteries where a student's future is left to chance.  That is followed by lots of evidence that the charters are not what they appear to be and that many of the celebrated results come from cooking the books.

The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman is anxiety producing in the extreme.

After that we watched the film on Finland.

The mood and tone of this film is calm and inspiring -- as is the Finnish system of schooling.

Following the film every adult in attendance wanted to know: How do we get that in our country?

Here is what was learned from the Finnish school system:

  • In the 70's the country recognized that human capital was their chief resource, and they needed to ensure that all children were educated well.
  • The nation determined the purpose of schooling (see above) and dedicated resources toward that end.
  • They set a national curriculum which is simple but clear and allows localities to meet the standards in a locally-situated context.
  • Teacher preparation was studied and reformed.  Applicants must meet rigorous standards before entering the schools of ed.  All teachers have undergraduate degrees in their subject area and are at the top of their class before pursuing the two-year Masters program in teaching.  Now, after 25 years, there are routinely more applicants than can be accommodated in the programs.
  • Once in, the novices watch master teachers, meet in collaborative groups to debrief lessons, share their lessons prior to teaching them, tinker with them in collaborative groups following the lessons, are given time to collaborate and plan, and then work hard to make sure that lessons are focused on giving students adequate time to discover their learning through projects and other student-centered activities.
  • Once employed, these well-trained teachers are trusted to do their work.  There are no "accountability" systems.
  • Teachers spend a little over half the time in front of students than American teachers.  (600 hours versus our 1100).
  • Teachers stay in their careers throughout their lifetime.  The profession is honored and highly sought after.  Compensation, once the teacher has gone through a probationary period, is equivalent to other professions.
There were other surprises:
  • Students don't start formal schooling until the age of 7. (There is a one-year preschool, state sponsored.)
  • There is very little homework.
  • Students are in school fewer hours than American students. (But schools are for learning only and there are no distractions like sporting events and so forth.)
  • There is minimal emphasis on testing.  There is a graduation examination.  Any other testing is used to inform instruction.
  • All students are taught together - no tracking of ability.
  • Teachers expend lots of time on planning lessons which ensure that students feel calm - not stressed.
  • In high school (grades 10-12), students can choose between an academic or vocational track.  Both are equally valued and honored (and supported in the above manner).  Unlike the German schooling system there are no placement tests for this.  Students are not forced into either track.
  • If a student changes his or her mind mid-way through, the shift from vocational to academic or vice-versa is equally accommodated, with no stigma either way.
  • Students can opt to do some programs in two, three, or four years - their choice.  Again, no stigma to these choices.  (Students spoke about the programs and why some might choose one over another, and it was clear the students saw a logical rationale in why a child might make different choices.)
  • Finland spends less per child than we do.  (Please note above: teachers are paid well, but the stability of the teaching force results is spending less, not more.  We spend LOTS of money on recruiting and training and testing and testing and testing....only to do it all over again in just a few years...)
  • Facilities are equal in terms of equipment.  (They appeared bright and clean...and calm.)
  • Everything a student needs during the school day is provided.  That includes meals and snacks.
  • Class sizes are kept small.
Certainly all this touchy-feely stuff couldn't result in real learning?!  Where's the nose-to-the-grindstone effort needed for success?

Finland routinely beats out all other nations in performance by their students.  By comparison the US has been ranking around 17th when stacked up against other industrialized nations-- though individual school systems pulled out can routinely out-perform all nations -- and our ranking has been falling.

My colleagues sometimes argue that our high level of poverty is more of a deterrent to learning than teaching conditions and argue that Finland does not face the levels of poverty we have.  And with that I would agree.  Nearly 1 in 4 students in the US live in poverty and that level of stress is never conducive to learning.  Finland's poverty rate is around 4% (rather than our 22%).

But we have done nothing in the past ten years but compound the stress our students and teachers face.  And we have the lack of results to show for it.

If facilities were equal... If teachers were well-trained, trusted, and honored...  If class sizes were small...  If the emphasis were on learning rather than testing... If students felt that moving at a more individualized pace were acceptable...  If the choice between vocational vs. academic learning were encouraged...

If, if, if.  

Surely we would do better--poverty and all.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Down the Rabbit Hole

Thank goodness for the recent "Pineapple Story" on the New York State reading exam for eighth graders.

The story the students were asked to read and the multiple choice questions based on the story were so patently absurd* that they became the talk of the eighth grade and finally the talk of the city of New York itself.  (If you read the story, be sure to read the comments.  Many claim they would have to be under the influence of drugs in order to comprehend both the story and any logical choice in the questions.)

*Can you imagine being an eighth grader who knows the importance of the tests to both your own future and your teachers'--and then being faced with this nonsensical story and its ridiculous questions?  If you think there isn't a moral question in all that's been foisted on our children, think again.

Finally, the conditions teachers have faced and the impossible game we have been asked to play--and its unsettling, bizarre landscape may be clear to the general public.

Let's hope.

Teachers have argued for ten years that the accountability game is rigged.  We can't see the tests in advance.  We can't discuss the tests afterwards.  We cannot give students feedback on the tests.  We cannot argue the validity of questions. (We can't see the tests, remember?)  We don't know who is evaluating our students.  We get scores too late to help anyone in terms of instruction.

Incidentally, we also don't think the testing mandates are reflective of either good instruction or good evaluation.

Gosh.  Even sports coaches get to scout out the competition before a game.

Suppose this were a football game and the opposing team said: "We're going to change the rules, but we won't tell you the new rules.  And we are going to bring our own referees, and you can't see their credentials.  And we will provide the score at the end of the game and there will be no discussion.  For all of this you will provide a LOT of money for the referees, the new rule books, and the upgraded, state of the art (online) playing field.  And if your team loses just ONCE we will declare the whole league a failure."   Add to that scenario that some of players on the team will arrive with only half the equipment, underfed, perhaps homeless....

You get the picture.  I think most sports fans would protest.  Sadly, most citizens do not pay even half as much attention to education policy as they do to big-league sporting events.

Meanwhile, there has been a huge media campaign to discredit teachers.

The narrative goes like this:

Teachers get a job for life.  They don't work very hard.  If they did, all the children would be successful.  They can't be trusted to evaluate children and their work.  Teachers are a drain on public monies.  They need to be watched ('cause they are sneaky cheaters who are gorging on public money).

And who is watching the hen house?  Large testing companies.

And who is scoring the tests?  Temporary workers.  (If I think about it, I get really angry about this.  With my master's degree, various publications, years devoted to improving instruction in writing, I am trumped by a $11/hour employee who may only have a high school degree......  I try not to think about it.)

And who is writing the tests?  Whoever they can find.

But let's be clear.  The rules are just a fog of distraction.  Improving schools was never the goal.

The real goal is to dismantle public education.

Getting teachers and policymakers to discuss the minutiae of testing rules, test questions, testing windows, extended days, salaries, training, while simultaneously expending time and energy in discrediting for-profit providers is a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Everybody is kept busy playing "whack a mole" while the gorilla saunters by in the background and walks off with everything.

There's a lot of money to be made off the taxpayer's, and those who wrote the rules to the game we've been playing always intended to win.  They were just playing a different game: privatize and then profit off the giant education pie that is just waiting to be divvied up between the hedge fund managers.

The plan is working.

But maybe these bizzaro, alternate-reality test questions will get the public's attention.

Go ahead.  Read the test questions.  Then welcome to my world.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Coming Police State

Years back, my daughters and I took a quick trip to New York to soak up urban life, shop, and visit a broadway show.  On the way north, we were pulled over by a Pennsylvania State Police officer.  It was just one of a series of interesting experiences I witnessed while traveling with two attractive, college co-eds.

It was an upsetting stop.  We were in traffic in the pouring rain on the two-lane, curvy Pennsylvania Turnpike.  The officer put on his lights while I was in the passing lane - doing the speed limit.  I'd seen the state car because it had been behind us for quite some time.  In fact, it had at first passed us and then dropped back and followed us.

To pull over, I had to negotiate crossing a lane and find a safe spot on a narrow shoulder up against a guardrail overlooking a precipitous drop in the Alleghenies.

It was kind of scary.

Next, the police officer comes to the window and explains that I did not use a turn signal when changing lanes and that this was a dangerous practice.  Really?  I asked.  More dangerous than pulling to the side of a narrow, teeming highway in the pouring rain?

He then changed the subject and began to chat-up my daughter (remarking, oddly, about a brightly colored bird on the shoulder) who was sitting in the passenger seat fuming.  It was clear the stop was intended as an opportunity to talk with the young women in the car.

I've thought about this incident all week in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to allow strip searches for even minor traffic violations.  I did talk back to the officer, politely I think, who was pleasant enough in spite of his lack of good sense.  There were no charges.  He wished us a good day.

I've thought of this all week because of the way the incident could have ended if this week's ruling had been the law of the land.  

I've thought of it all week because I have seen already how quickly a modern society can become a suppressive regime.  (Read the graphic novel Persepolis to find out what happened almost overnight to the women of Iran.)

The Supreme Court Justices' ruling was activist in the extreme since it is goes even further than standards set by the American Correctional Association, the U.S. Marshals, and ten states' existing laws against unnecessary strip-search.

I do not like what is happening in this country. 

A minority seems to be reigning in everyone's freedoms in the name of who-knows-what. And the rights of women and minorities seem to be at the top of the list.  Michigan has rescinded  majority-black municipalities' rights to democracy.  Arizona has banned books and courses of study.  Wisconsin has reduced women's health care rights.  And my own state of Virginia is forcing women to receive and pay for medically unnecessary ultrasounds when requesting their legally protected right to an abortion.

Sadly, there is more.  Too much to list here.  Probably the worst is the concerted effort of the Republican lead legislatures to disenfranchise as many voters as possible.   These recently passed laws do not reflect the wishes of the majority but have been churned by the well financed group ALEC.  I can only think that most of the citizenry--if they were aware--would be alarmed by the recent strip-search ruling.

This is scary.

Think about your daughters.