Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Twitter Book Club: John Holt (1972) Freedom and Beyond

Ch 1 Freedom and Beyond

I don't think that this can be overstated. In case something happens to TwitLonger I'll repost it in full:
"children are by nature smart, energetic, curious, eager to learn, and good at learning; that they do not need to be bribed and bullied to learn; that they learn best when they are happy, active, involved, and interested in what they are doing; that they learn least, or not at all, when they are bored, threatened, humiliated, frightened." Holt

Holt goes on in the last chapter of this book to identify the purposes he sees schools serving. Those are custodial, ranking and sorting, social engineering, and indoctrination. He also says that these purposes are at odds with each other and at odds with the educative purpose which gets lost to these other ends.

Ch 4 Some Tensions of Freedom

"most adults, seeing what look like the hopelessly chaotic efforts of children to put some order into their own affairs, never wait long enough to give them a chance to do it."

I have noticed this with my students this year. I have noticed that a lot of them come to me with a kind of learned helplessness, expecting me to tell them everything they are supposed to do and expecting me to give them all the "correct" answers. As a teacher I operate best running an open classroom where students engage in personally meaningful projects and I act as a kind of guide or resource to help them reach their own goals. However, when I try this in my classroom I notice one of two things happen: either I get a lot of students choosing to engage in off-task kinds of behaviors like video games or I get a lot of students raising their hands repeating, "I need help. I need help." It takes a long time for students to break through both of these behaviors. The second is easier to deal with. I've used strategies like telling them to make a guess or ask a neighbor before raising their hand. At first most of them seem astonished by this advice as if I were asking them to cheat. But, after not very long at all these students seem to find their way. The other group is a bit more difficult to deal with only because I know what it must look like to visitors in my classroom to see all these kids playing games. But, for some of them this is what they need and given enough wait time with these students all of them end up finding very interesting projects to get into. The key with both groups is to make accessible interesting tools and to let them see examples of the kinds of things they can do with them. And, it doesn't hurt in the least to take an interest in the games and other diversions these kids engage with. Often that can be a hook that can lead to some powerful learning for that student.

"Every time we try to manage the lives of young people, we give up the chance to see how they might manage their own lives, and to learn what we might have learned from their doing it."

"One way of defining a bureaucracy might be that it is an organization that has learned so much from the past that it can't learn anything from the present."

It is from bureaucracies that things like curriculum standards are born, the nature of which rests with preserving the past. Makes sense when viewed through this lens.

Ch 5 Authority

"Find instead something to do that you can throw yourself into. Let the students see you genuinely interested. Let them see your intelligence, imagination, and energy at work. Then and only then will you be exercising true adult authority."
I have bumped heads with other teachers and administrators about this issue in the past. As an art teacher I always felt that the best way for me to serve my students was to also be a practicing professional artist. This would give me the authority to teach from experience. But I also felt it was important for them to see me working as an artist. Every project I would give them I would also complete alongside them. In this students could learn from watching me work but in engaging in the same activity as them I was placed in a unique social role in the classroom. Students were free to ask questions and engage me in discussions regarding their own inquiries. This also fostered community building and strengthened bonds between teacher and student. Some of my coworkers felt that by spending class time to work on my own studio work I was ignoring my classroom duties. On the contrary, my studio work was my greatest teaching asset. When I was forced once to give it up I lost all authority in the classroom.

"What we really need are schools or learning resource centers that are not just for kids, but where adults come of their own free will to learn what they are interested in, and in which children are free to learn with and among them."

Ch 6 The Problem of Choice

"A student in a traditional school learns before long in a hundred different ways that the school is not on his side; that it is working, not for him, but for the community and the state; that it is not interested in him except as he serves its purposes; and that among all the reasons for which the adults in the school do things, his happiness, health, and growth are by far the least important."

I asked my students to write on the board every type of technology they could find in the room today. I did this for three different classes. Every time the first technologies to go up were computer or electronic technologies followed by mechanical technologies. In one class students came up with building materials like concrete and plastic and in another class the students actually identified the school itself as a technology. In all three cases it was not until I gave lots and lots of wait time before they made the leap to challenge their internal definition of technology and recognize those things like clocks, pencils, and desks as falling under its umbrella. I think these things have become so familiar that they were invisible.

I believe this is exactly why so many of my students this year had so much trouble getting settled into an open classroom.

"The problem is that because of pressure from anxious or angry adults in the community, or our own worries about what is important, we are afraid to let the students think, read, and write about what we know very well they are interested in."
I feel this pressure all the time. All the time.

"an oppressive high school in a low-income community may not be a very promising place for a teacher to work in to bring about educational change."

This is why we see things like the production gap and more conservative education practices used with poor kids. When I read this I got a bit emotional because this statement seems to validate a lot of what I have felt in my current teaching situation. The unjust thing is that it is exactly students in those low-income communities in most need of educational change.

Ch 8 Beyond Schooling

"I have come to feel that the deschooled society, a society in which learning is not separated from but joined to, part of the rest of life, is not a luxury for which we can wait hundreds of years, but something toward which we must move and work as quickly as possible."

"as we put more and more of our educational resources into schools, we have less and less left over for those institutions that are truly open and educative and in which more and more people might learn for themselves."

Ch 9 Schooling and Poverty

"To deny or even question the all-importance of growth is to attack Truth itself. Much safer these days to deny the existence or importance of God."

This is a difficult issue to address but I have come to see it as a central issue with our federal education policy. Everything is about progress, moving forward, achievement, etc. Holt says it is the one and only true world-wide religion. What about sustainability, joy, and contentment? Steve Jobs famously said, "stay hungry." This attitude worked very well for him in a world that worships progress. But with progress come costs. At what point do we find ourselves needing to step back and change our mindset from one of moving forward to one of stewardship of what we have?

Ch 10 Deschooling and the Poor

"schools and schooling, by their very nature, purposes, structure, and ways of working are, and are meant to be, an obstacle to poor kids, designed and built not to move them up in the world but to keep them at the bottom of it and to make them think it is their own fault."

"what schools demand of poor kids, as a condition of being given a chance to learn some skills that might get them into the middle class, is that they act as if they were already in it."

Just had a conversation at lunch today with a group of teachers talking about how they would like to mandate that the kids in our school always use proper English while in school. This was suggested all with good intention but I couldn't help thinking about this quote.

"school teaches above all the superiority of the schooled, and one of the very first and most important requirements for getting ahead in school and rising in the world is that the student accept this myth as true."

"It is only recently, at least on a large scale, that man has come to think that learning best takes place in an institution that doesn't produce anything but learning."

I tried to think on my drive home yesterday how a school might produce something other than learning, how it might make itself self-sufficient. I had a lot of trouble coming up with anything beyond the trivial. Corporate industry and cheap outsourced labor have made it nearly impossible to generate any real income from production of a good or service. The one thing schools do produce are consumers.

Ch 11 Reading Without Schooling

This goes for nearly every other type of learning as well.

I love that quote, lets repeat it in large print:

"True education doesn't quiet things down; it stirs them up. It awakens consciousness. It destroys myths."

Ch 12 Schools Against Themselves

"it seems to me foolish to put all our hopes for a truly educative society or enlightened way of rearing children into the basket of school reform."

"Universal compulsory schools are not and were never meant to be humane institutions, and most of their fundamental purposes, tasks, missions, are not humane."

"Proposals for merit pay are and will remain at best useless and at worst harmful as long as some administrative superior judges this merit, or as long as we try to measure it by such things as achievement test scores."

Yet I have never seen a proposal for merit pay that did not base its criteria on one of these two questionable categories.

"If we turn schools into a kind of cream separator, if we give to schools the business of finding and training a future elite, if in short we turn education into a race, with winners and losers, as in all races we are going to have many more losers than winners."

Which is exactly what Race to the Top does. Right?

"We cannot expect large numbers of children to trust us if they know, as before long most of them do, that an important part of our job is compiling records on them which will be used to judge them for much of the rest of their life."

I certainly have trouble trusting anyone with this power over me.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A few thoughts about goals and expectations.

Soft bigotry of low expectations. vs. Hard bigotry of setting expectations for others.

A false dichotomy is created by goals and expectations.

SMART goals are really dumb.

If I set a SMART goal that is attainable am I not being a soft bigot?

If I set a SMART goal that is not attainable am I setting myself and others up for failure?

If I set a SMART goal with overly high expectations are not many going to simply choose to fail?

If I set a SMART goal that is measurable and focus resources toward reaching that goal, have I enough resources left to devote to those goals that are not measurable?

What message do SMART goals send to kids about what we value?

Why do SMART goals only really impact the work we do with Title I kids?

If I set a goal to loose 100 lbs I probably will fail.

If I set a goal to exercise 20 minutes a day and eat smaller portions at dinner I might just loose 100 lbs.

Planning with the end in mind is foolish. It sets us up for failure.

Planning with the journey in mind gets us further and provides a richer experience.

I want to enjoy today and not always be looking toward a point in the future when I attain a goal.

What happens when I do attain that goal? Then what? Rainbows and lollipops? Will I then be happy?

Life is a journey, not a destination. Stop and smell the roses once in a while.

SMART goals are really DUMB.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Minnesota's NCLB Waiver Will Likely Encourage Schools To Push Students Out

The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently released a Q&A document about the new NCLB waiver the state got from the U.S. Department of Education. Reading through this document I have many many questions and many many concerns. Though the name of the new education law in Minnesota (and 9 other states as well) may sound nice the provisions leave me with some concerns. This policy is like the bystanders at the scene of an accident who think they are saving the life of someone in a crashed car by moving them out of it when in fact that movement might just be what snaps the victim's neck. I worry this policy will do this to education in our state.

Lets go through some of the statements from the Q& A that I find most bothersome or alarming:

"The Multiple Measurements Rating (MMR) that replaces Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as the primary measurement of school performance. The MMR looks at a proficiency, growth, achievement gap reduction and graduation rates."

This MMR rating system is still very short of being comprehensive as it only measures schools according to criteria that fall in line with the "All growth is good/Progress" frame of thought. There is nothing in this formula that measures the quality of life within the school walls, how happy students are, how schools impact student self-esteem, or even how well they prepare them for the "real world." What about measuring student retention rates as well as graduation rates? What about measuring attendance rates? What about student and parent satisfaction ratings? No. This MMR still places faith in the almighty bubble and assumes that multiple choice assessment tests measure what we think they do and that they are an equitable tool for measurement.

"Nothing in the assessments themselves will change under the waiver. Nor will the requirements for students to take the assessments change."

Then why did we pursue the waiver? What in blazes does it do for our state? This will do nothing to slow the decline and decay of things people actually value in the schools (the arts, school sports, student projects, community service, etc.). In fact, as we shall see later, it will likely make these things worse for those attending the poorest schools, especially in large districts.

"Nothing in the waiver changes the state's rigorous academic standards in any way. The statewide standards remain in place. What has changed is the way we measure schools' ability to help students meet those standards."
These standards are based on a wholly ill-conceived notion in the first place that all students should learn certain things at certain times in exactly the same way. The standards are far less about student learning than they are about restricting what is officially recognized as student learning. But, we are far from a point where we are going to see an end in sight to the standards movement so I never expected an NCLB waiver to shrug off all the excess baggage we have accumulated over the years since A Nation at Risk.

"Using the Minnesota Growth Model, each student is given a growth score based on how their assessment score compares to their predicted assessment score. Predicted scores are generated by looking at the statewide averages for each score from year-to-year."
So, according to MDE the equitable way to measure student growth is with a norm-referenced test? This sounds GREAT for those schools serving predominately poor minority students with cultural differences test makers rarely consider when drafting their questions. Not to mention the fact that most child development psychologists will tell you that children tend to make learning gains in spurts. Did anyone consult any experts on learning when this policy was drafted?

"As with the previous NCLB system, all schools, regardless of Title I status, will be measured for accountability. Every school will continue to receive an AYP determination, and every school will now get an MMR as well. However, the new school designations (Reward, Celebration, Focus, Priority and Continuous Improvement) will only apply to Title I schools."
So, just like NCLB, the only schools this really affects are those serving poor students. And, to add insult to injury we are going to implement, only for the poor schools, a ranking system that will either punish schools by putting them on an altogether separate list aside from the AYP list (which isn't going away despite the waiver) or punish them with "Rewards" (see Alfie Kohn). Again, this all hinges upon a faith-based assumption that the tests used to make these determinations actually measure what MDE and DOE think they measure. They don't. NCLB has been a kind of witch hunt but this waiver will only throw fuel on those torch flames and give the public more pitch forks to go after teachers and schools.

"The MMR and new accountability designations are directed exclusively at schools. However, districts will continue to receive annual AYP determinations."
Here is one of two major problems I have with this waiver. For small districts with only one school for each grade level this won't be a problem but for urban and suburban districts this undoubtedly punishes the students in the poorest schools for an inequity created by the district their schools are in. By relieving districts of responsibility for their lowest-performing schools and placing all accountability on those schools the students who for one reason or another are stuck in those schools are the ones who will be punished. In those large districts teachers with more seniority will likely transfer out of those schools to places where the MMR and AYP police are not going to be riding their coat tails leaving these schools mostly staffed with young, inexperienced teachers (a group with high turnover rate that now has been encouraged by organizations like Teach for America that has now established a presence in these districts). Essentially what this policy will do is ensure that the poorest students in our urban schools will not have access to highly-qualified experienced teachers.

"There will no longer be any mandatory set-asides for staff development."
This doesn't sound very much like the NCLB waiver has actual school improvement in mind. Why on Earth, if you are concerned with school improvement for our most needy schools, would you eliminate teacher professional development requirements? Makes no sense.

The other major problem I have with this waiver, and why I think this is bad for students, is that under the new MMR the only students who's scores matter are the ones who have attended the school for one full year. This means that schools have an incentive to pass along students who are under-performing, who are not making the kinds of gains that would improve the school's MMR. When I taught at an alternative school I saw this trend all the time with some of our most at-risk students. They would bounce from school to school (some just to avoid truancy officers but others who were pushed out) and never see the consistency needed to establish meaningful relationships with staff or make a committed connection with their studies. We are going to create incentives for schools to do more of this and not just with "at-risk" students, now all students who are not "progressing" fast enough will be at risk of being pushed out. Minnesota might be able to increase their MMR scores but only by fudging the numbers.

I have seen this strategy done before. Back then they called it the Texas Miracle and then Governor George W. Bush used it to claim on the campaign trail that he was going to become the Education President.

Twitter Book Club: Mike Rose (2009) Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us

Twitter Book Club: Kevin Kelly (2010) What Technology Wants

Larry Cuban (2001) Oversold & Underused: Computers in the Classroom