Tag Archives: School Reform

Everyone is an Expert at Everything

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

There are so many good takedowns of Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece supporting the Common Core that I did not bother to read it for myself until yesterday. I was glad I did. It gave me a bit of masochistic pleasure, like when you pick at a scab or push on an aching tooth. Bruni the food critic demonstrates the same thick assumptions and caricatured impressions of public schooling shared by many Common Core advocates. One only need to read the myriad comments under the article heaping praise upon him for confirming their own uninformed biases about youth, education and parents to get a glimpse of the armchair education expert parade in action.

Bruni introduces the Common Core thusly:

“The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states.”

You can see Bruni contrasting the Common Core to some old, stuffy classroom where students practice mere “rote memorization”. Perhaps Bruni in his youth was forced to memorize state capitals or other such drudgery, so he assumes that most schools in most places today do the same thing. The only problem is, rote memorization is not the stuff of schooling today and has not been for some time. Teachers are being trained to “facilitate” discussion in groups and provide “inquiry-based” projects to their students. If he were to take a walk through any public school hallway in New York City, he would see bulletin boards filled with projects that required anything but rote memorization. We are no longer in the 1970s where students stood up at their desks to recite the state capitals or the elements of the periodic table while their spectacled female teacher sternly looks on brandishing a long wooden pointer. Education has not looked like this for some time.

Then there is the assertion that Common Core emphasizes “analytical thinking”. If one considers a mindless exercise in pulling ideas out of text in order to bubble in the correct answer on some exam “analytical thinking”, then Common Core does plenty of that. What it does not do is encourage kids to inquire, wonder, predict, question, investigate or understand the world around them. It does not link learning to life, past to present or education to citizenship. It is a ham-fisted impression of what some ivy-leaguers who never taught children consider “rigor”. But their version of rigor is not what most of them would recommend for their own children. This is a rigor designed for “those” children. “Those” children do not need actual joy in their learning. They need to stop the playtime and get back to basics. That is what Common Core is all about.

Bruni continues:

“Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?”

The answer, of course, is no. Since when did digging deep into a new topic entail “stress”? I got a degree in history because I love the subject. Never did I consider the papers, research or readings I had to do to learn my subject “stress”. Ever since college, I have been a voracious reader of history, philosophy, literature, economics, science and sundry other topics I never liked in school. Not once did I ever put the book down, wipe my brow and say to myself “wow, this is really stressful”. Learning is a joy. Gaining a deeper understanding of the world is empowering. Education should be about teachers who love learning imparting that joy to their students. How an educator does that is the art, the very essence, of teaching. It is an expression of this joy, and everyone expresses this joy differently. This is what makes teaching and learning an art.

Imagine walking into the classroom of a teacher who knows the activity they are mandated to teach by the Common Core will be “relatively mirthless”. How slow will the time go by? How much drudgery will be involved? The fact that Bruni and many others believe it is ok for learning to be stressful and mirthless speaks to the anti-intellectual mindset that pervades the United States. These are people who never really enjoyed learning. These are people who see education as something separate from the “real world”, as something that one must just “do” for the sake of doing it. What misery it would be if people like this ever became teachers. What misery it is for people like this to be making education policy for teachers and students.

Part of this is because Bruni seems to think the children of today are too “coddled”:

“AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that ‘while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,’ the students without it ‘tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.’ What an ordeal.”

Here is the oft-repeated bellyaching of old fogies against the idea of “self esteem”. Old people complaining about this perceived “self-esteem” craze is just the normal complaining all old people do, including even me from time to time, about how the youth of today are spoiled and somehow inferior to the best generation of youth to ever grace the planet, which is always somehow the generation of the person doing the complaining. “Back in my day, we didn’t get trophies for participating in soccer”. “Back in my day, we didn’t have internets and smart phones.” “Back in my day, my parents beat us with the switch and we were better for it.”

If one really spends time with young people, then one begins to see that not all youth have the same experience. Nor do youth have it “easier” than the rough and tumble youth of yesteryear who had to get their information from the library rather than Google. Try telling the youth who come home to an empty house everyday because their mother works 14 of every 24 hours that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a kiss on the cheek and a warm meal on the table waiting for you when you stepped through the door. Try telling the youth who have to walk home through crime-ridden streets everyday that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a car or a bus to shuttle you safely from door to door.

The fact of the matter is the youth of today do not have it any easier than we did growing up. This cult of “self-esteem” has been on the wane for quite some time now. Even when self-esteem was a big thing, youth still had to put up with a world that was in many ways crueler and more unfair than the world in which the old fogies complaining about self-esteem were raised. Try this on for size: childhood poverty has been on the rise for the past 35 years. Children of all colors in all areas have been losing ground, partially due to policies invented by out-of-touch elitists who thought their mommies were being coddled with government “handouts”.

In fact, Bruni’s major justification for the Common Core is that it is high time children stop being coddled. It is quite disturbing that we have reached an age in which thick, stereotypical impressions of what old farts think life is like for children can be used as a basis for major educational change. Bruni even defends Arne Duncan’s remarks about suburban white moms. However, suburban white students, not to mention wealthier white students, have not been losing ground at all. Their test scores and their academic achievement stack up quite well to students in other developed nations. Neither Bruni nor Duncan ever mention this very obvious fact.

One of the main problems is that Bruni, Duncan, David Coleman or Bill Gates have never been educators. One of the main problems is that every Tom, Dick and Harry who went to school believes they are qualified to make education policy. They are supported by other Toms, Dicks and Harries in the general public who also went to school. Bruni specifically is a food critic, yet he gets space in the so-called “paper of record” to wax stupidly about a subject he obviously knows nothing.

Does this mean that because I cook and eat food that I can be a food critic as well? Does this mean that I can be a critic of food critics?  How would Bruni respond if I supported a program to make food criticism more rigorous because these damned food critics get coddled all of the time when they go to restaurants? After all, all of the cooks and wait staff go out of their way to accommodate the high and mighty food critics when they enter a restaurant. Back in my day, the wait staff barely paid attention to me and the cooks left hairs in my soup. How will food ever get better in America if these critics keep getting a skewed version of what food is all about? Our cuisine is falling behind other nations. We must catch up to France!

And, come to think of it, I use computers every day, which makes me an expert in computer policy. Why does my version of Windows start running slow a week after I install it? Those lazy bums at Microsoft refuse to get off their duffs and do their jobs to protect my computer from viruses and adware. Microsoft should be split into smaller companies so designers can give individual attention to each computer. That way, the computers will never get a virus and Microsoft can compete with Apple in the 21st century. And to ensure these lazy designers do their jobs properly, I will fund merit pay schemes to reward the designers who can make the most bug-free operating systems. The ones who cannot can go dance for nickels on the subway for all I care.

See, it is easy to base opinions on thick assumptions and biases. Too bad these are the things on which education “reform” today is based.

New Year’s Resolutions for Education Reformers (2012)

We want 2012 to be the year where the United States finally builds a world-class school system. Great civilizations are built on great education. Here is a list of things we will do to ensure that happens.

– Standardized exams for each subject and each grade. No civilization has reached greatness without mastering the skill of bubbling in circles with a pencil. (No. 2 only!)

– Eliminate every subject that can’t be tested. This means art, music, physical education, woodshop and every other non-essential subject. After all, no advanced civilization has ever valued abstract thought, physical health or skilled labor.

– Close all public schools and make them charters. The free market just works better. And what market is freer than one that gives gobs of taxpayer money to large corporations to build schools that nobody in the community asked for on shoestring budgets so the CEOs of those private entities can pocket the difference? The private sector just makes sense, even in a government-funded institution.

– Technology! We envision a future where all jobs will be computer-based, so we need to prepare public school students for them now! They will need to spend their 13 years of school staring at computer screens in order to train them to have the proper Pavlovian reactions to the different alerts and notifications of these computers.

– Technology, Again! Once graduates speak proper computer, they can occupy one of the many high-tech jobs that we promise to provide in the future. Of course, the higher paying jobs will be taken by our own children who will still be educated in actual classrooms by actual teachers. But tech-savvy graduates will be ready to use computers to record what size soft drink or French fries were ordered. We need public schools to train students for tomorrow’s low-wage jobs.

– No more teachers! I am sick and tired of teachers with their tenure, pensions, salaries, benefits and vacations. By the end of 2012, every public school child will be taught by holograms. We can’t have workers around who think it is ok to join unions. It sets a bad example to all the future low-wage employees we hope to produce. Holograms are better role models. They have no salary, tenure or benefits and they work as long as we want them to without complaint. If only our future public school graduates would be more like holograms, the world would be a better place (for us).

– No more excuses! We can’t let people whine about poverty anymore. “Boohoo! My family lives in a homeless shelter.” Big deal. When I was a kid we only had TWO floors in our home, not including the basement, porch and swimming pool. I know what it is like to struggle, to be down to your last maid, to have to drive a Bens because the Rolls Royce was just a little too pricey. I had to fight through it to become the self-made billionaire you see today. All poor students have to do is not make excuses and all of their hunger, apathy, asthma and gang violence will go away.  Just think positive and be happy!

Hopefully, by the end of 2012, all of our students will be well underway to becoming the type of people that can stay within the bubble and properly communicate with computers. Instead of abstract thought, they will learn following orders and scripted responses. This will make them pliable workers, willing to toil long hours for no money without questioning it. In other words, we want them to be like computers. We want them to graduate from public schools already programmed so all we need to do when we hire them is install them in a low-wage job.

The U.S. History Regents and the REAL Goal of Education Reform

Zachary Taylor's nickname was "Old Rough and Ready"

Years ago I had a coworker who fancied himself a history buff. Not being a history teacher himself, he relished the thought of trying to stump me with a question. One of his favorites, which he asked me pretty much half the time, was “you do know what Zachary Taylor’s nickname was, don’t you?” I never answered the question, preferring to give him his moments to shine where he could puff out his chest and smugly inform me that it was “Old Rough and Ready”. I would nod my head in bland acknowledgment, allowing the conversation to end on a high note for him so I could get back to doing work. Like many self-professed history buffs, what he likes is not so much history as it is trivia. No understanding of history is required to know that Zachary Taylor’s nickname was “Old Rough and Ready”. My coworker would have done better to ask what role Taylor had in defeating Mexico or why he became president. These questions would require some ability to synthesize facts in order to give a sweep of history. It would be more in line with the historian’s craft.

Although the man is no longer my coworker, I am reminded of him every day by the fact that I have to prepare my students for Regents exams. For sure, I have spoken to many people associated with the crafting of the U.S. History Regents and they seem to be fairly competent and knowledgeable. The exams they produce, however, are the paper versions of my annoying coworker. They lie in wait brandishing overly specific questions, many of which they have asked before. A student’s entire worth as an amateur historian will be measured by whether or not they can answer tiny questions plucked from a vast historical universe. Maybe there is a student who knows everything about the Mexican War. They can even draw a map of Taylor’s and Santa Anna’s forces at the Battle of Buena Vista. But if they do not know that Zach Taylor was “Old Rough and Ready”, their knowledge of all early 1800s America is called into question. Essentially, our children are not expected to know much more than trivia when it comes to American history.

To be fair, the Regents usually do not descend to the same level of minutiae as my coworker. But when the format calls for chopping up 500 years of American history into 50 multiple choice questions, obviously some things will get focused on more than others. Take this past June’s Regents. The period from the ratification of the Constitution (roughly 1788) through the Reconstruction era (roughly 1877) was covered in six questions (questions 11-16): 11) Louisiana Purchase, 12) John Marshall, 13) Manifest Destiny, 14) Dred Scott, 15) Radical Reconstruction, 16) literacy exams, poll taxes and grandfather clauses. The message of these multiple choice questions is that it does not really matter if you know about Washington’s Presidency, the XYZ Affair, Lewis and Clark, the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, Indian Removal, Nat Turner, John Quincy Adams or the creation of the Republican Party. The fact of the matter is that the Regents mostly asks important questions that every American should know. There is nothing wrong with asking about the Louisiana Purchase or John Marshall. The problem lies in the format. The test makers have to work within a framework that forces them to elevate certain topics over others. It is the only way they can get away with not asking a single direct question about the Civil War, the bloodiest event in American history. The grand, sweeping march of history is way too big for a series of isolated questions to contain.

In this we confront the danger of the education reformers. They love standardized exams. Exams are like the goose laying golden eggs of “data” for the reformers to use to give their vacuous ideas an air of scientific respectability. The grades on those exams will determine the fate of both the student and the teacher. That fate will involve a lot of school closings and a lot of money from those closed schools going into the pockets of wealthy charter school operators. As you can see, nowhere in this fate is our citizenry expected to have a true understanding of American history. They just need to be prepared for the dead end questions, many of them asked before, that are thrown at them arbitrarily. One of the original missions, if not the original mission, of public schooling was to help shape our kids to be solid citizens. If we have to give exams, why not give exams that require our kids to acquire, analyze and synthesize information so that they may have the critical thinking skills necessary to participate in American democracy? Why not have teachers create and grade those exams, since they should know better than anyone the themes and ideas to which their students were exposed? They can ask questions that require students to present a critical sweep of history.

We know full well why not. The reformers do not want our schools producing solid citizens. Solid citizens are informed, knowledgeable and expect certain basic things, like human dignity. The fabulous wealth these reformers accumulated in the business world depends upon an apathetic, uninformed citizenry. In short, the reformers want to educate poor children to accept poverty, while turning a blind eye to the obscene wealth of the reformers themselves. Instead of budding historians who would easily see how vast inequalities of wealth pervert democracy, they want a bunch of trivia freaks who can answer simple questions for prize money. Instead of professional teachers who know and love their craft, they want to boil teaching down to memorizing facts. The deskilling of the art of teaching that has taken place under the reformers is only their first step. Their goal is to get rid of teaching altogether. After all, if all kids need to do to graduate is spit back arbitrary facts, what better teacher than a computer? The student can run a computer program of random, disjointed facts from U.S. History played to catchy, repetitive music. After listening to it a few hundred times over the course of a semester, they will have memorized everything. In this way, learning will be no different than when kids listen to the radio and know all the lyrics to every song since the same songs are always being played. Test scores will go up, kids will think learning is cool, Bill Gates will be a triple gadzillionaire and the evil teacher unions will be no more.

It is time that people wake up and recognize that the reformers are genuine radicals who want to totally revolutionize what we are as a country. The rich and the powerful want to control the way every child is educated. They do this to keep themselves rich and powerful. The battle over our school system today will determine whether we can restore some semblance of democracy and goodness to our country, or whether the caste system that has taken hold here over the past three decades is here to stay.

What We Were Never Told about Teaching Kids for the 21st Century

Is this teaching for the 21st century? Is this teaching at all?

The first principal I worked under was genuinely a good man. He understood that the attention spans of kids at our school were damaged by years of watching television. In his mind, the only way to reach our children was to use technology in the service of education. You want to teach gravity? Show a clip of Wiley Coyote falling from a cliff. Since then, I have encountered many dedicated teachers who buy into similar ideas. When the vampire romance series “Twilight” was becoming popular with teenagers, I had expressed concern that the poor writing and shallow emotions would give them a false sense of literature. One of my colleagues, a very good English teacher, responded that he was happy they were reading anything at all. Educators young and old, myself included, recognize the impacts our ubiquitous pop culture has on kids. Yet, for some reason, I have never been as permissive when it comes to using it in the service of education. I decided to reflect upon why I am such a fuddy-duddy.

Some of it stems from what inspired me to become a teacher in the first place. I was inspired by Henry Adams’ famous sentiment about teachers affecting eternity. History’s greatest teachers like Buddha, Socrates or Jesus are long dead, yet their teachings continue to inspire. While I entertain no illusions about even having a thimble’s-worth of their influence, their simplicity has always been my ideal. These guys had no smart boards and had never sat through a lecture on differentiation, yet they were the most successful teachers of all time. Now, it might be pointed out that a sage with a motivated audience is much different than a public school teacher with a room of mostly unwilling teenagers. However, I do not take this to mean that our children do not respond to humanity and simplicity. Occupy Wall Street resonates with young people because it asks humane questions about an inhumane system. It forces us to confront the language of modernity (free markets, corporate influence, electoral politics, national security, etc.) with the language of simple humanity. On a grander scale, the religious revival that has taken place around the world (the Evangelicals in America’s Sunbelt, the Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, etc.) symbolizes humanity reaching for humanity amidst the encroachments of modernity. I see my role as a history teacher as a mission to connect children to a sense of humanity. Not only is it a time-tested pedagogy, it is an essential value children will need in order to navigate the modern world.

It is this mission that causes me to shy away from showing Looney Tunes or assigning bad books to my kids. While I acknowledge that modern culture is to the brain what sugar is to the teeth (namely, a corrosive force), I do not see how more corrosion is educationally sound. To me, a short attention span is a problem that needs to be solved, not a framework that needs to be reinforced. A nation of people with short attention spans is a nation ripe for propaganda. Corporate advertisers and political demagogues rely on short attention spans to hawk their wares, weather it is an essentially unnecessary consumer product or a destructive public policy. Aspiring to communicate knowledge to our children in the same ways that corporatists communicate their agendas only trivialize the learning process. It puts essential knowledge on the same frivolous plane as advertising, entertainment and mainstream news coverage. Teachers who want to go with the flow of modernity communicate to children that the wider world can only be accessed through sound bites, images and base emotions. We become marketers instead of teachers. The worth of an idea is measured in the impact it can make in less than 60 seconds. As a teacher, I see my role as one that should be as far removed from the methods of modernity as possible. If children get hours of mind-destroying imagery from popular culture, than I must demand of them that they pay attention for the 45 consecutive minutes they are in my classroom. I demand that those 45 minutes are treated as whole cloth and not something that can be broken into smaller chunks of images and activities.

My hope is that treating those 45 minutes like whole cloth demonstrates for students that knowledge itself is part of the whole cloth of humanity. That humanity is reinforced by the fact that no computer or television stands before them. One can learn from a teacher or a peer in a deep and lasting way. It is this experience, now more than ever, that is vital for our students to have. We have become too enthralled with the idea of pushing our children towards computers or smart boards in the name of preparing them for a modern world. Nobody seems to think that the modern world needs people with the ability to learn from human interaction or the desire to dive to the depths of new ideas. There is just the blind acceptance that schools need to pump out kids prepared to live in an increasingly complex society. There is no mention of how humanity has been reaching for something fuller, more familiar and simple than what modernity can offer us. The standardized testing forced onto the schools by both Bush and Obama is the centralized push to make schools places where children are severed from their own humanity. Standardized exams chop knowledge up into consumable sound bites. They will require computers to administer them. The reformers want to continue the degradation of the American attention span. It has been their stock-in-trade for decades. They are the same people responsible for the brain-rotting mass culture in which our children are ensconced, like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Every time a teacher stresses knowledge and humanity over modernity, they resist the reformers and their desire for a nation of vegetables.

The Repressed Teacher

Teachers are the most regulated professionals in the United States. In the classroom, on the train, at the supermarket and on facebook, a teacher’s every action will be judged in the light of their profession. Much of it is necessary, since we are entrusted with other peoples’ children and paid by their tax dollars. But too much of it is downright ridiculous. Now a teacher in Chicago is under investigation for showing clips of the Daily Show in his class. A few weeks ago, a teacher in New Jersey was fired for posting that she felt like she was teaching “future criminals” on her facebook wall. In a 21st culture which entails a deluge of sex, violence, drugs and crime via our media outlets, teacher standards of morality are stuck in 17th century Salem. Teachers are held to standards that most other people refuse to countenance for themselves. I remember one day the super of my old apartment building yelled at me for knocking down a “Wet Paint” sign that I did not knock down at all. In return, I very snidely told him off, which caused him to mutter under his breath “some f***ing role model you are!”. This was a man with two young daughters who obviously never thought of his own duty as a role model. This is the type of everyday judgment and double-standard that drains on the personal life of a teacher. Our human and vulnerable moments are either judged by hypocrites or used as grounds for termination by petty and vindictive administrators. This type of sanctimonious repression is only killing our education system.

All teachers, high school teachers especially, deal in a world of ideas. In fact, I believe that the public school classroom is the single most important forum of ideas in the United States. For many of our kids, it is the only place they can get exposed to substantial intellectual discussions. It is one of the few places left that can offer a refuge from the vultures in corporate media out to destroy their attention spans and imaginations. A child’s encounter with the world of ideas should be free for them to take risks and encourage their greed to know more. Unfortunately, it is impossible for teachers to do this. We are in the most repressed profession on earth. All of our topics must be safe, non-controversial and insipid. Our methods must not embarrass or make students feel bad in any way. While no teacher should make it a point to be controversial or demeaning, knowledge itself sometimes gets at topics of controversy. Discussing something as American as racism is a potential pipe bomb, yet it is vital to an understanding of America. Children certainly will not get an honest race discussion from our media and it is just as unlikely that they will hunt down intelligent discussions of it online. The schools are the only places where they might potentially have a real discussion about race. But teachers are so scared of the fallout that they tend to stick with the saccharine clichés of “tolerance” and “diversity”. The list goes on. Not only racism but poverty, sexism, homophobia, religion and a slew of entirely relevant issues are either ignored or made totally vacuous by us overly regulated teachers. Something as open, free, elegant and glorious as unadulterated knowledge is maimed when it is entrusted to an institution as myopic, hypocritical and reactionary as our public school system.

We are the only professionals who get bossed around by non-professionals. Mayor Bloomberg, the education researchers and the wealthy charter school leeches have not educated one class of students between them, yet they foist their half-baked schemes for reform on us. All of them justify their schemes in the name of the “children”. Want to sound like the good guy? Tell them you are doing this for the “children”. Mayor Bloomberg apparently puts “children first….. always”. The education researchers fall over themselves to prove that their lame methods are better for the children. The wealthy charter school liars claim they provide quality education to underprivileged children. But “children” are their least concern. Bloomberg has not bothered to improve the neighborhoods from which these children come, being more concerned with taxing cigarettes and painting bicycle lanes in gutters. The education researchers do not concern themselves with what type of impact constantly changing their methods might have on the kids who have to suffer through those constant changes. The wealthy corporatists who build charter schools because they care so much for underprivileged children do not actually provide any jobs or services in the communities that keep those children underprivileged. The proof is in the pudding. If any of these people cared about “children”, we would not have the highest rate of childhood poverty in the world. The collective money and brain power of these smart, wealthy people could have saved these children they care so much about decades ago.

No, it is not children they care about, it is schooling. All of them, every single one, get lots of money and power if they have a slice of our public schooling system. That is what everything comes down to. They only use the name of the “children” because they know the general public eats that up. They have to repress teachers because we are the ones who do the schooling. If we feel empowered like actual professionals, their “reforms” go nowhere and they do not get the money and influence they seek. It is a power play and it has never been anything more than a power play.

I have been teaching for 12 years, knowing that I will always be paid less than peers with my same level of education. 12 years, despite the fact that I have no more job security thanks to Bloomberg’s reforms. 12 years of working every minute of the school year, writing lessons, doing research, making units, grading papers, improving my craft. 12 years of being judged and spied on by hypocrites.

And not once did I ever say I do it for the “children”