Did You Hear the Education News?

This week I was concerned by two news reports. The first concerns the new New York State standardized tests. Our children are taking the tests as I write this. But several people think the tests are different but not much better than the dysfunctional tests of the last few years and may be taking up an illegal amount of school time. See the press release from the NYS Allies for Public Education.

 

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia seems not to get it. She says that opting out of the tests is not an answer. She says tests “help educators plan for the coming school year and develop individual learning for students. The tests are the only objective measures we have to compare student progress between schools and districts.” But, I question this. Standardized tests have been shown to sometimes be anything but objective. And claiming that it’s common for teachers to use them to plan classes is also questionable.

 

Test taking is its own sort of skill. In fact, some students have told me they like and do well on tests. That’s great. It means that as you proceed through the educational system, you will hopefully find success. Some forms of testing can be helpful when combined with a variety of assessment approaches. But whether doing well on standardized tests means you have more than a decontextualized knowledge of facts, or that you can apply the facts to solve problems or think critically, or do well on a job or real world situation, is another matter.

 

Opting out of tests is both a way to keep your children free from the testing mania and also is a way to make a political and social statement. So contrary to what Commissioner Elia states, I think it is a positive move to take.

 

Secondly, The Alliance for Quality Education in New York says that the “recently enacted New York State budget allows Resorts World Casino to withdraw $40 million annually from a fund that is supposed to be set aside to fund public schools.” Please read their whole press release. This is outrageous.

 

So, is the state of education in New York or the rest of the US improving? Certainly, more and more people are becoming aware of the problems with standardized testing and evaluating teachers based on those tests. Wonderful alternative methods of teaching are gaining traction (such as SEL, inquiry and project based learning, mindfulness instruction). But freeing public education from attacks by corporate or other interests, and establishing a more equitable, compassionate, proficient and engaging educational system has not shown much progress.

 

And: NY Assembly members Amy Paulin and Todd Kaminsky have proposed legislation to address some of these ills. Please read more about the proposed legislation.

The Interview

 

Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.

 

Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas

 

In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.

 

Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?

 

I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.

 

And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?

 

Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)

 

I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?

 

 

*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.

There Are Alternatives

I realized recently that there is a great irony in my blogs. For most of my adult life, I opposed what I thought was happening in public schools. Now, I am defending them.

 

In the early 1970s, after teaching for a year in a “normal” or traditional public school context, I taught in a private “free school” until it closed, largely because there wasn’t enough money to keep it going. In 1985, I started working in an alternative public school, which was then called the Alternative Community School. (The name was changed to The Lehman Alternative Community School or LACS after the original principal and founder, Dr. Dave Lehman, retired.) What is meant by a “free” or an alternative school is not always agreed upon or clear. Today, ‘alternative’ is often used to refer to schools for high needs or “underachieving” students. However, it has an older definition, influenced by the progressive movement of the late 19th, early 20th century, as providing something meaningfully different from the predominant model of a public school. I can think of five characteristics of this difference which many of these schools share.

 

First, alternative schools are small. The free school I worked in had 20-30 students. LACS had 185 students when I started teaching there; by the time I retired, it had grown to 310 students, largely due to school district pressures. Traditional public schools are larger, at their worst factory-like institutions where students face great pressure to conform and can easily feel lost. The high school I attended, although at the time was considered a fairly good school (especially for the white middle-class students), had over 6000 students. The alternative is a community of learning, where everyone in the school knows, by face and hopefully by name, everyone else. Teachers and students get to know each other comparatively well, which fosters empathy and support.

 

Secondly, following A. S. Neill, Alfie Kohn, John Holt and others, alternative schools focus more on intrinsic and not extrinsic motivation. People have a natural drive to learn, as learning is necessary for survival. So, alternative schools aim to develop in students this personal and natural motivation. Traditional schools often track students and use grades to rank student learning. By ranking and comparing students they create competition which motivates through fear and hope of reward while undermining or hiding away intrinsic motivation. LACS and other alternative schools do not track students and some replace grades with detailed, narrative evaluations which give students deeper and more personal feedback on their learning. They motivate by documenting growth—and demonstrating that what students do is seen and heard by teachers.

 

Intrinsic motivation is developed by incorporating student interests, concerns, identity, and ways of learning in both the content and methodology of instruction. So, thirdly, the curriculum is tied more to real life concerns and the student’s own authentic and personal questions. I think the label “free schools” was inspired by the “freedom schools” of the 1960s.  As far as I understand it, freedom schools arose as part of the civil rights and voting rights movements. For example, in Mississippi, during the summer of 1964, schools for citizenship were created. In order to change the socio-political system and awaken “the conscience of the nation,” students needed to learn how to think and communicate well. Alternative schools, inspired by this struggle, aim to create a curriculum that has real meaning for students, that teaches critical thinking and talks about issues like justice, rights and power.

 

Fourthly, alternative schools are democratic. Decision making is not limited to administrators but shared with the entire school community. In this way students learn how to speak their minds. They learn that what they do day by day, even outside the formal classroom, is part of the curriculum.

 

There’s a fifth characteristic that is not always stated. Education is not just about preparing for the future and getting and holding a job. It is about learning how to live and learn right now. It is about empathy, compassion and relating not only to others but to our world. There are depths to the human heart and mind that can neither be measured nor ignored and education must be about those depths.

 

So, why have I changed my attitude toward public schools?

 

To begin with, I was upset when I discovered that what I was hearing in the news about the state of public education was often inaccurate or lacking context. Public schools, instead of failing their students, are mostly doing the best job possible considering the economic and other realities they are facing.

 

Also, a democracy requires an educated citizenry. Privately owned schools, because of agendas other than the simple education of their students, cannot do this. Only a public system has a chance at creating a situation where all children have even a relatively equal chance to learn and succeed. It’s very debatable right now that we have either a functioning democracy or an educated citizenry—but without public schools, the situation would only get worse.

 

My last school was and is a public school. And it is only one of many. There are schools and coalitions such as the Coalition For Essential Schools spread through several areas of the nation providing an alternative.  They should be supported against “reforms” that could destroy them. Contrary to what “reformers” are saying about the state of education in the U. S., these schools are doing for children what schools should do for children. Despite frequent cuts in staffing over the years, these schools continue to show the enormous possibilities inherent in a public school. They are giving students what they need to grow up, develop their minds and hearts, and discover their gifts. As one LACS student put it: “The school took me in. I went from a situation where I was led by the hand– or tied by a rope to other students—to one where I could decide where to go and what to do.” By needing to make meaningful choices, he learned the responsibilities of choice. Stimulating classes gave him “enough to think about for the rest of my life.” He learned how to learn (and think and communicate) because the school became the context for his life, not something removed from his life. Learning was not just academics. It was about the reality of living.

 

It is schools such as these that not only should be defended but modeled.

 

*The mural of Rosa Parks was painted by LACS students.

Do We Want Corporations To Decide Who Should Teach Our Children?

 

The latest attack on America’s public schools is, like other attempts, hidden as a new “reform” idea. A few other well known examples of this reform movement include replacing:

*public schools with privately managed, publicly funded charter schools,

*teacher generated lesson plans with standardized teaching modules,

*localized methods for holding teachers accountable with statewide systems utilizing standardized test scores.

In general, creating the atmosphere of a crisis in public education and then selling the solution. The target this time are college education programs. The proposal: create a new licensing procedure for teachers. And, although the states would officially grant the license, who would actually determine who gets that license?  Pearson, originally an educational publishing company and now “the world’s largest education company,” which owns several publishing companies, digital learning products, assessment services, etc.. The federal government is also pushing for new standards for education programs.

 

Pearson worked with Stanford University to create a performance assessment, along with a calibrated scoring system, of a student teacher’s work in a classroom. Stanford is officially “the exclusive owner” of the assessment. This exam is being advertised as a national assessment, to standardize teacher certification. They would score two ten minute videotaped classes taught by a student teacher. This would be combined with a 40 page take home exam which includes lesson plans and other teaching strategies. (40 pages? Really?) I generally favor performance assessments over multiple-choice and other forms of standardized testing. So, what is my objection?

 

I object to the expense and the very idea of using a private company to assess learning instead of the classroom teachers. The assessment of two or three short segments cannot replace a series of observations over a few months by a professor of education. This new teacher assessment implies that university professors are not competent or trustworthy enough to evaluate their own students. It also tells the student teacher that they, too, will not be trusted. Power and responsibility is to be transferred up a hierarchy, and to whom? A corporation, with profit as its agenda.

 

Instead of thinking about more standardized assessments, we need to ask: What produces good teachers? Good teachers produce good teachers. We learn best from those who can inspire us and model what we need to learn. Great knowledge can be inspirational but is not enough. A love of teaching is needed, combined with compassion, empathy, and emotional awareness. Students need to feel valued and heard.  A good teacher learns about the home and community of their students and creates lessons informed by that empathy and understanding. And teachers need to learn how to apply that same care to their own mental and emotional well-being. Indeed, without such caring and understanding, it is difficult to give it to others. If we develop compassion in teachers, they will find a way to best meet the educational and other needs of students and will feel uplifted by it. If we just teach teachers how to meet the standards, they will struggle to just meet the standards.

 

My personal suggestions also include creating education schools (as well as public schools) which:

  1. Value teachers and their judgment.
  2. Give teachers creative freedom. What is most exciting about teaching, besides learning from and helping young people, is the creativity required to do the job well. A good lesson can be a piece of art. Following a script from a corporate produced teaching module does not promote creativity.
  3. Make decisions democratically. Give student teachers a voice in their education program so they can later know how to give students a voice– and take part themselves in making decisions in their school placements.
  4. Support the collegiality of teachers. They should be learning communities. Teachers are primarily learners and need to be provided time to plan with and give support to colleagues.
  5. Provide teachers with the opportunity to teach what they love so they love what they teach. In the same manner, teachers should be taught methods to discover and bring into the curriculum the deep questions, relevant to the subject matter of the course, which interest or occupy student’s minds.  In this way, the relevance of education to “real life” is made clear.
  6. Teach methods of self-reflection, based on mindfulness, and applied to thinking critically, acting responsibly, and learning in general.
  7. Teach  communication skills.
  8. Of course, teach a variety of methods of teaching, for a diversity of learners, content and levels of skill.

 

What would you recommend that schools of education teach?