Saturday, November 2, 2013

Day of the Dead, National Novel Writing Month, and Krashen's bibliography

Today is the Day of the Dead, and I would be remiss if I didn't post this.  It's a beautiful little story that illustrates effectively the sense of exuberance of many Day of the Dead celebrations, a concept that some Americans struggle to understand. 

It's also National Novel Writing Month, which means I'm going to take a swing at writing one of my novels again.  I wrote 576 words yesterday, and so far this morning, I've written another 406.  Both of these are pretty far off of the 1200 daily average one needs to hit the target 50,000 by the end of the month, but I'll make it!  I'm pretty sure I know where the story goes next. 

Stephen Krashen just posted a bibliography to the moreTPRS listserv.  It is a collection of a whole lot of studies done in the last 50 years, comparing the effectiveness of implicit language learning versus explicit language learning.  I post it here mostly so I can find it again.  If I ever end up getting a doctorate in language acquisition, this is probably where my reading will begin.

SKrashen: Evidence that "implicit learning" (subconscious language acquisition) results in L1-like brain processing.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Gen Y Yuppies and happiness

A friend of mine put on Facebook an article called "Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy."  It's from Wait but Why, a blog I've never read before, so I don't really know what the author's (or authors') angle is.  As a representative of Generation Y (as defined by this guy--I always thought I was a GenXer) who is generally pretty pleased with myself, I thought I'd see what the buzz is.

Without stealing the guy's thunder, he makes the generalization that a person's happiness is the difference between how they expect their life to go and how it actually goes.  The lives of people of my age or younger have turned out to be much more difficult than we expected them to be.  He places responsibility for this on our unrealistic expectations, caused by a ridiculously successful period with the Baby Boomers.  Also, we all think we're special.

I make it a point not to read the comments of non-education-themed blog, but I suspect I wouldn't have to go far down before somebody blames public schools for the destructive "I'm special" idea that everybody 35 and younger supposedly has.  "Can you believe they give ribbons to everybody at track and field day?"  "Everybody has to be recognized, so nobody gets any attention."  And so on.  I suspect strongly that this straw man I've chosen to attack would like the alternative even less.  The alternative is schools (public and otherwise) choosing who is special and who isn't.  And, honestly, if there's one thing we've demonstrated beyond any doubt, it's that we're no good at predicting who's going to be successful.  It's true that not everyone is "special," as the author defines it.  It's equally true that anybody could be, and it's not my job to tell someone they're not.

So I'll keep making sure that every kid in my room gets caught doing well once every two weeks and preparing them as best I can for a world that doesn't care how clever their memes are.

PD The blog in question is hosted on, which strongly suggests that the author himself is a Gen Y Yuppie.  For what it's worth.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Wherein I try to write about everything, and it doesn't go so well

The beginning of the school year is off to a banging start.  I felt better prepared than I ever have.  As always, sequencing a curriculum is a marathon, but I feel like I've gotten a better start off the line than in previous years.  More interestingly, the path forward is pretty clear.  It's almost...too easy.  All it takes is a committment to do the work and the time to do it. 

Last year, I ran the after-school homework make-up program.  We're continuing that program this year, even though a number of important teachers on our crew are still dubious about its value in their own teaching.  The middle school teachers seem to be taking advantage of it, as are the language arts teachers.  We've made some changes this year to make the "mandatory" part of the assignment more mandatory.  If you don't come to an assigned ASAP, it's a day of in-school suspension, just like it would be if you skipped a detention.  That hasn't changed.  But this year, if you don't finish your work in the Tuesday session, you automatically go to the Thursday session.  If you don't finish your work in the Thursday session, you spend lunch and your non-core classes in the office on Friday.  We'll see how that goes. 

The big difference is that this year, I probably won't be running the program.  We have an exchange student who speaks very little English--so little English, it was difficult to explain that I want to help her.  Because I only have so many hours in a day to do things that are not my job, I have to pick between the two.  Exchange students are supposed to come to our country with a certain level of English language competence.  I don't think this girl has anything close to that.  The school isn't responsible for giving it to her, but I know what it's like to be far from home with no idea what the people around me are saying--and she is in a MUCH worse state than I was when I went to Spain.  So I'll see how much English I can cram down her throat in 2 hours a week.  In that time, we'll do some English language training and as much homework tutoring as I can give her.  This is not going to end well, but nobody will be able to say I didn't try.  Of course, maybe that's what she's thinking, too.

The political climate for educators has not gotten any worse for teachers in the last four months, but then, it's hard to imagine how it could have.  The legislature made some silly choices last session that are just now starting to pay out--making mandatory the Pledge of Allegiance, for example--but they haven't done anything to make things worse.  They won't fund Common Core implementation, so the biggest reform in education since NCLB (and probably since a lot longer before that) will have to be paid for out of schools' general funds.  It's a good thing teachers are grossly overpaid, because schools won't be able to afford raises for a long time.  The state appointed a board to pick a singe state-wide teacher evaluation tool.  I like their short list--the usual suspects appear, Danielson, Marzano, a few others I don't remember right now--but I have no faith that the system will be implemented with fidelity.  Most especially, I don't trust that the evaluations will be used to improve teacher practice, and not to "hold bad teachers accountable" (read: fire people the administrators don't like).  (As a sidebar: I've also had conversations with other crew members about a teacher-driven model of evaluation and training, but in the current environment, too many of them feel like they would be training their competitors.)  Well, also most especially, I don't trust that the state will adequately fund the training and implementation procedures.  

How's TPRS going?  Pretty well, all things considered.  I'm now good enough to know I wish I were better at it--I feel like I could be moving things along a little bit faster, if I knew how to keep things interesting.  I'm now answering questions on the listserv, instead of just asking them (or, more frequently, anxiously reading the answers of people who ask the questions I'm not smart enough to).  For the first time, I'm going to have a regular homework assignment, because I'm confident enough in my in-class assignments to worry about what the students are doing when I can't see them.  I've internalized the standards enough that I can incorporate them into a lesson nearly on the fly, and if my paperwork isn't all in order, it's actually well on its way. 

The school's PBiS program seems like it's off to a good beginning.  We had all of our lesson plans written, and from my observations, they went off pretty well.  The proof is in the pudding, though.  Everybody knows what they're expected to do; now we'll encourage them to do it.  We have some pretty exciting possibilities for prizes.  Last year nothing jelled.  Here's hoping this year it goes better.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Best school comic strips

From the imcomparable Larry Ferlazzo.

More later.

Friday, June 7, 2013

School reform, school "reform," poverty, and teacher responsibility

First off, the inciting article: New data shows school reformers are full of it.  Its main thesis is that the school "reform" movement ignores student poverty in order to sell the myth that really good teachers can overcome any negative force in students' lives and bring them academic success. 

Next, my prior knowledge, beliefs, and bias about the subject:  There are two parts to the school reform movement, the good part and the bad part.  The good part focuses on effective teacher practice and student learning and does everything it can to promote them.  It recognizes that we can learn what works and what doesn't by watching it happen, but it recognizes that there are limits to this practice.  I call this school reform.

The bad part of school reform, I call school "reform."  The bad part believes that since teachers have an outsized impact on the academic success of students, when students don't achieve academic success, it is ipso facto the teachers' fault.  Or the schools'.  Or possibly the unions', or maybe the administrators' or the school boards' fault.  (Although, come to think of it, the volunteer, twice-a-month, no-expertise-necessary model of school boards receives relatively little attention in the "reform" movement.  It's taken for granted that school boards are best ignored and replaced by shareholders.)  The bad part argues that the problem with learning is institutes of learning, and they should be done away with at once. 

I am in favor of good reform.  We should do our best in the areas where we have control.  I want to be the best teacher I can be to get as many stuents to learn as much about Spanish and as many other subjects as I can in the time I have with them.  I want higher-order thinking and critical analysis to be the rule, rather than something some students can accidentally do through no fault of the schools.  I want systems that support genuine student learning, and I want teachers to be active participants in their onw improvement.  I am against bad reform.  I oppose charter schools; they are for-profit institutions that take already-limited resources and divide them into two camps, which fight each other.  If charter schools are successful, the best-case scenario leaves community public schools as educators of alst resort, teaching students with learning disabilities or students in such bone-crushing poverty that they can't afford to do things like get themselves to school or bring their own lunch.  The worst case scenario involves a million students being taught by a hundred teachers with the aid of computers and macros and algorithms which don't actually do very much, while a thousand investors take $5000 per student to the bank.  I approve of teacher evaluations; it's how you know what skills a teacher needs to improve.  I do not approve of firing teachers who don't hack it--sorry, holding teachers accountable.  I approve of frequent formative assessments to measure learning progress.  I do not approve of massive standardized tests 3-5 times a year.  (Do you know how much the MEAP COSTS?) 

Next, what changes because of this article: for me, kind of nothing.  I'll still teach students in poverty.  I might be teaching more of them now.  I'll still to continue to do my best, and advocate for school systems that support teachers as the primary vehicle for student learning.  For the rest of the education world, I hope that a discussion of child poverty reduction methods becomes a serious plank in the education reform movement, although I'm not holding my breath. 

A random observation that doesn't really fit into the structure of the paper, and would probably have to be cut from later drafts:  The author's tone is aggressively opposed to school "reform," which is fine.  I think the author might be willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Interestingly, which part is the baby and whch part is the bathwater is less easy to distinguish than you might think. 

Now, some kind of conclusion:  The myth of school "reform," good teaching can overcome all problems, is based on a fact, even if it is a self-aggrandizing fact: teachers work miracles every day.  (Maybe not today.  Today is mostly just paperwork.)  From this premise, school "reformers" conclude that since it happens all the time, it must be something we can do EVERY time.  In a way, I'm flattered.  But I feel like the Goblin King in The Labyrinth .  (From the heckler: "You mean your leather pants are chafing and you're afraid your hair's going to get caught in a ceiling fan?  A-HAHAHAHA!")  I am exhausted from living up to your expectations.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Not with a bang but with a whimper

Stephen Krashen is one of the bigwigs in language acquisition theory, and one of the main reasons we have shifted from the grammar-focused, drill-and-kill methods of the past to a listen-and-understand model of language instruction.  He also has lots of interesting things to say on the subject of teaching as a professon and teachers; generally he is opposed to approximately everything that reformers want to have happen.

In this post he links to another post that predicts that by 2018, the teaching profession will be a very tightly-controlled, 1984-type dystopia.  Then Krashen suggests that the author is being too generous, that by 2018 there will be no more teachers.  I have very much been wondering if that isn't the ultimate goal of a lot of big-money reformers.  I'm not sure what to do with this, but I thought I should link to it.  I imagine I'm going to want to find this again.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bill Gates, $5bn, and a good idea gone horribly wrong

I'm feeling more reflective than I have in a while.  Maybe it's the approaching end of the school year.  There's less to look forward to, which is not to say there is less to do.  It was in the mindset of thinking back on the school year that my RSS feed told me about Bill Gates's 5 billion dollar plan to film teachers and use that to evaluate them.  I'm broadly in favor of filming teachers teaching.   The first several times I felt self-conscious, and I felt like I was changing my behavior away from my norm and towards what I though I was supposed to be doing, usually with disastrous results.  I can only imagine how the students felt about it.  After they got done mugging for the camera, maybe they just felt like I was spying on them, despite my reassurances that I wasn't recording them, I was recording me.  Whatever the case, I consistently get a good idea of what I'm doing after watching myself do it.  Some brave souls even open up their videos to student critique in class time.  I'm not there yet--I still feel like I know what good teaching looks like better than they do--but I see the value in it.

Having said all that, I agree 100 percent with Valerie Strauss's evaluation of this system of evaluation.  It should be used strictly in a coaching environment, and not as an "evaluation."  The conversation should be, "This is how you get better," not "This is what you did wrong."  There are a number of problems with billionaire philanthropists paying for social changes in areas they know nothing about, but among the problems with this particular movement is one of timing.  Teacher improvement and teacher evaluations are not the same thing.  To use the lingo, we should be talking about formative assessments for teachers, and instead summative assessments are taking up all the oxygen.  Instead of talking about turning good teachers into really good teachers, we're talking about firing bad teachers, and making the metric for "bad teacher" eventually impossible to overcome.  Futher, while I agree that having strangers (presumably experts, but somehow I doubt it) watch our videos and provide us with feedback could provide an unbiased perspective, it also would remove all context from the lesson.  That context makes all the difference.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Morning musings

I have a sub this afternoon, so I should be writing my sub note.  Plus my cereal is getting soggy.  But we talked about the declining student count all over our county at our staff meeting last night, and I wanted to know more about it.  So without further ado:

Number of Public School Districts in Michigan, 1976-2012

In the '70s, Michigan had 579 Local Educational Authorities.  I'm not sure, but my guess is that that means school districts.  In the '80s, there seems to have been a mild push for consolidation, since by 1992, there were 559 school districts.  This number was fairly stable, and for the next 20 years, we have lost 10--in 2011-12, there were 549 school districts.

In 1993, the first public school academy / charter school opened in Michigan.  They have grown since then, often bumping up against state-mandated caps in their early years.  In 2011-12 there were 256, up nine from the previous year.  This growing effect means that the state of Michigan has increased the number of school authorities since the 90's to a total of 862 different local school authorities.  (Charter schools and public schools operate with different administrations.  For that matter, they play by different rules.)

Since the 1970's, Michigan has had a student population decrease of almost half a million students or 25%.  We used to have over 2 million kids, now we have a little over 1.5 million.  So to a certain extent the consolidation of public schools, while tragic for us in the teaching industry, is understandable and necessary. 

How this jives with increasing the number of school entities and spreading increasingly rare resources even more thinly truly escapes me.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Visuals for foreign language instruction

A cool little site with drawings of all kinds of scenes and dialogue bubbles, meant to be used in World Language classrooms.  I can see it having applications in other classes, as well. 

In my class, I'll use these as story starters, as follow-up activities, or as end-of-the-hour last-few-minutes exercises. 

H/T Free Technology for Teachers

Monday, March 25, 2013

News for some more processing

Washington Post: What Americans keep ignoring about the schools in Finland: They don't have any private schools.  Or any private colleges, for that matter.

The Answer Sheet: Instead of closing schools, how about this?  Try NOT closing schools. 

So just in case you haven't heard, Lansing has cut every teacher whose subject doesn't get covered by the MEAP.  That's not what the pink slip says, I assume, but come on.

Michigan Public Radio: Art, music, and gym teachers get the ax in Lansing

Community Music School, Michigan State University: Statement regarding proposed cuts to art, music and physical education in the Lansing School District.

Monday, March 18, 2013

School officials fail standardized test

It's always fun when this kind of thing happens.  It's doubly interesting that it was organized by the school's student union.  I always wonder why more schools don't have those. 

What was the last standardized test you took?  How did you do?  I think the last real one that I took was the teachers' licenture test, and as I recall, I smoked it.  I also took part of an AP Reading practice  test, and did...erm...less well. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Wherein I ramble about parents

So you've probably seen it by now: the CNN article that purports to say what teachers really want to tell parents.  A friend of mine posted it on some other social networking site and (somewhat foolishly) solicited opinions from her teacher friends.  (The "you" is my friend and the little girl is her less-than-1-year-old daughter.)

I responded.


I have an easy solution to this. I never talk to the parents, ever. For any reason. During parent teacher conferences, I set up a cardboard cutout of myself with a motion sensor; when a parent sits down, a speaker plays the pre-recorded phrase, "¡Hola, y bienvenido a nuestra escuela! ¿Qué tal tu estudiante? ¿Le gusta la escuela?" I'm told that parents say, "Well, thank you for your time," leave my table, and never come back.

No, really, though. I read this article from time to time, and I know I have co-workers who feel this way about parents. Some of them are real pains. I don't know if I do, strictly speaking. I DO know that parents are the #2 reason I will never be a principal. (Having to catch kids chewing tobacco or having sex in the bathroom is #1.) Everbody wants what's best for their student, and everybody wants to work with their teachers. But riddle me this: your little girl is likely to be on the bright side of the comprehending-things spectrum. She will probably understand lots of things faster than her classmates, and that's okay. What will you do when a teacher paces her class to accommodate people who don't learn as fast? When she's not learning as much in her classes as you know she could be, because her classmates need more practice at a concept? When she has slack time because she finishes her in-class work faster than everybody else? When she uses that slack time to do things that get her into trouble? Working with teachers looks a lot harder all of a sudden.

Or worse--imagine a student who is NOT crazy intelligent, one who, in fact, has a hard time grasping the simplest mathematical concepts. Or one who doesn't understand how squiggly lines on a paper mean words. Or one who doesn't know that THIS face means "happy," and THAT face means "angry." Or one in whose family nobody has ever graduated high school ever, and they all turned out "just fine." In short, imagine the whole pile of students that school was always MEANT to serve, but hasn't historically been very good at it. Imagine you're the parent of one of THOSE children, and you want what's best for him, but no matter how hard he works and no matter what you do, he's falling further and further behind all the time. How do you work with a teacher now? 

I want my students' parents to trust me. I also want them to take an active interest in their students' education, to advocate what is really best (not just what is easiest) for their students, to understand the role education has in their students' lives and the transformative power of what an education can do for them. Honestly, what I expect for them is to be busy people with an agenda that only deals with their child, and for them to cover for that with the phrase, "I know you have 30 other kids to deal with, but...". I expect them to not understand why it's important for EVERY SINGLE KID, yes, including yours, to take a world language or to learn to multiply or why we "waste time" on skills and knowledge that they'll "never use in the real world." (Is there a more odious phrase to a teacher?) I expect them to associate me with the teacher they hated in high school, and to view my interactions with their student through the prism of their experiences with their own teachers. I expect that when I say, "Your student has a problem I'd like your help solving," they hear, "Your student is a problem I'd like to get rid of." So what I'd reallly want to tell parents is this: I'm on your children's side.

...You did ask.


The rest of the exchange is worth noting.  I'll try to get permission from the involved parties to re-post here.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Language acquisition research

For a long time, I did my level best to avoid speaking English in my Spanish classes.  I would use pictures, gestures, comparison charts, whatever, to avoid telling students what a given word or phrase meant.  The idea was for me to create "Aha!" moments*, situations in which it was easy and natural for students to engage, and for engaged students to accurately guess the meanings of words and phrases.  Somewhere around here I have an article that suggests that this is what language learning is--the transition from confusion to creating meaning.  Inherent in that idea is confusion: you have to start out not knowing what's going on, and use the tools available to you to create first a broad sense of a communication, then increasingly more accurate detail as you get a better base of the language and more skill at creating meaning.  I saw speaking in English the same way I see shouting at students as a classroom management technique: it does more harm than good, it's a failure of good practice that nevertheless happens because we are after all only human. 

When I went to the TPRS training (see an earlier post), I had a minor crisis of faith.  It was fairly public, and it wasn't pretty.  Everything I thought was essentially undermined--constant translation, followed by repetitions ad nauseam, was sort of the root of how to do it right.  There was no confusion, just a continuum of processing speed.  You start out as a slow processor: you have to look up at the translation, listen as the teacher enunciates every word very clearly, watch carefully as she points out every word she says, and in general try to pretend you're paying attention to the meaning.  If the story hook is good enough, you will.  As you go through, you have to look at the translations less and less, and your confusion between similar-sounding but very important words starts to clear up.

There's another article in support of what TPRS does, and what I'm trying to do.  (The link is to a German website, but the article is in English.)  It feels a little heavy on the interpretation and a little light on supporting "clinical" trials, but it has enough to be a credible source.  It argues in favor of using a learner's first language to support learning a second language.  I find it faintly troubling that the author appeals to 2000 years of language teaching practice as a reason to ignore recent developments--what did the Romans know about language acquisition?  He does, however, take pains to point out that the learner needs to use the new language: "We do not learn any language by using another one."  

At any rate, another point of research in a growing body.

*Like "teachable moment," I hate this phrase.  I'm beginning to think that I just don't like the word "moment." 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

If students designed their own schools....

On the long list of things I want to know more about, we have the Independent Project.  Students designed their own questions and found ways of answering them.  They also wrote a white paper about it, which I would like to read, you know, soonish.

Their websiteTheir blog.

Hat tip The Answer Sheet

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

UPDATE: Stanford charter school study

Earlier I wrote about this CREDO report on the effectiveness of charter schools in Michigan, with the headline, "Charter Schools More Effective."  Today my MEA e-newsletter sent me this gem from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research, which links to a review of the study by somebody else.  (I believe this is why people refer to the self-sustaining nature of bureaucracy.)  That person, one Andrew Maul of U Colorado Boulder, writing for the Think Twice Project (not a project I'm familiar with), suggests that there is almost no difference in performance between charter school students and public education students.  The effect of charter schools was responsible for a performance improvement of .1%, considerably less than the effect of having a teacher that knows how to use compare-and-contrast charts effectively.

Caveat lector: I still have not read the original CREDO study, nor have I read the full Maul report.  I pass this along as a summary of news, not as a position.  However, clearly this new summary of other people's research matches more neatly with my biases than the summary of the original report.

Education in the State of the Union address

Essentially a re-posting from my FB page.  President Obama had a lot of ground to cover in his State of the Union address, and as I read the prepared transcript, it seemed like he did a fairly good job of touching all of the bases.  Education didn't play a major role, but it got about as high a word count as, for example, re-building the housing market, so that's okay, I guess.  I liked his shout-out to Germany's education program, although I'm not certain it works strictly the way he says it does.  It at least shows that our comparison shopping of other nations' education systems don't end with FINland!!1!Q1!  Although, in fairness, I kind of freak out about Finland, too.  The idea of graduating from high school with a technical degree of some kind is definitely an interesting one, worth exploring.  Our county already has a careers and technical education program in place; can we buff it up to the point where some kind of recognized certification comes out of it?

But the most interesting thing is early childhood education.  I have to get ready to work now, so I'll just say this: Leaders, get it done!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

I'm an exciting person who does exciting things

How I spent my Saturday morning:

Made coffee.  Drank coffee.
Reflected on classroom management difficulties I'm having in one class and how that class compares to other classes.
Reviewed previously-used sources for classroom management: First Days of School, CHAMPS, assorted resources accumulated through the years, like you do.
Tried to figure out how applied behavior theory fits into a teaching methodology as fluid as TPRS.
Figured out that some of these things relate to the same difficulties I have with standards mapping in general.  Spent 20 minutes on a standards-mapping tangent.
Wrote new classroom management system informed by research review.  We'll see how it goes.
Read up on Kindergarten Reading, a TPRS event.  Decided I won't have time to do anything about it until next year. 
Blogged about it.

EDITED: I almost forgot!  I read an article about tech integration.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On NCLB and the role of business in education

From The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss's often-informative blog in the Washington post, we learn that  business leaders are urging Congress to re-write NCLB.  I have a love-hate relationship with NCLB:  It was being passed at a time when I was deeply cynical about the way Washington was writing and passing legislation.  (Since then my cynicism has only deepened, which doesn't bode well for the NCLB rewrite.)  It also came as I was learning about what I now think of as the "old way" of teaching: grades based on points with an emphasis placed on completing homework assignments, class placement based on expected future education goals (although I didn't believe in rigorous tracking), special ed students in their own world.  I think NCLB went a long way to changing the systemic view of the way schools work.  It starts from the philosophy that all students can learn, including those with profound learning disablilities, students who come from nothing, and kids that the teachers really don't like, and from there it draws the conclusion that schools have the responsibility for teaching those students.  In the last 10 years, this has resulted in a major shift in the way school systems work, even as we break a lot of the systems that worked fairly well.

On the negative side, a less nuanced reading of NCLB led directly and inevitably to the "blame the teacher" and "test test test" mentalities that permeate the way the education world (and the rest of the world, for that matter) now behaves.  The fact that schools can do a better job of the way it organizes information and prioritizes spending has been taken to mean that teachers do a lousy job of teaching our children and teachers' unions are stealing all the money from our classrooms.  (In fairness, this is mostly believed by people who already believed that, many of whom make quite a good living believing that.) 

Back to today's reading, though, Strauss takes the buisness community's insistence of a rewrite of NCLB as evidence that it is broken beyond repair.  I have a different take on it.  I of course welcome the engagement of the business community into the conversation about education; the more stakeholders are involved, the richer the conversation will be, even if that doesn't end up doing anything for the final product.  I have two worries about this, though.  The first is that the business community almost always ends up having more impact on education priorities than educators.  Maybe that's just the nature of politics, but I'm not sure asking the CEO of Starbuck's what he wants to see in his prospective employees is the best way to determine education goals.  As Strauss puts it, "
"Critics of education reform note that educators don’t presume to know about business to tell business leaders how to reform their own institutions, but never mind."

The second, and the more important, is that I'm suspicious at best, and cynical at worst, about big business's motives.  When the business community talks about what it wants from schools, all I hear is, "We can't be bothered to train our employees in the skills we want, so we want schools to do it for us.  Also, don't tax us to pay for it."  Particularly troubling is this part from the Business Roundtable's 2013 Growth Agenda: "America also has a very real skills gap. More than 12 million U.S. workers are unemployed, yet businesses report close to 4 million open jobs.(23) Many of these jobs cannot be filled by previously displaced workers because of gaps in skills and training." 

I don't understand why companies can't grab 4 million of the best and brightest of the people they have right now, train them in the skills they need, promote them to the new positions, and then hire 4 million previously-unemployed people to fulfill the new, less-skilled openings.  There has to be somebody working in the mail room at Stryker Instruments who really really wants to be a mechanical engineer; send her to mechanical engineer's school.  Or better yet, develop an in-house, on-the-job training program that leads to some kind of recognized certification and also provides your employee with the skills you need her to have right now.)

The other aspect of this that bothers me is that, during the height of the recession (depth of the recession?), I read an article (citation needed) that said that qualified people were applying for all of these high-skill jobs; companies didn't want to pay high-skill wages to fill those positions, though.  So when they say they can't find people to fill those positions, they're being disingenuous: what they mean is they can't find people to fill those positions for a price they're willing to pay.  A greater number of people with engineering degrees will drive down the cost of expertise in engineering.  (That also explains business's motivation for immigration reform.  Engineering students from India are a whole lot less expensive than engineering students from the US, at least for the first couple of years, and after that, you can fire them and hire new ones.) 

None of this analysis of business's motives is intended to get me and my colleagues off the hook.  I share the business community's goal of a better-educated work force which is able to learn, unlearn, and re-learn a variety of skills and knowledge bases as high-tech fields develop.  I want creativity, clear thinking and effective communicating to be at the heart of our schools.  I want every student who comes out of an American public school to be prepared for anything he or she wants to do.  Business and I want the same things for our students.  I'm just not sure that we want it for the same reason.

Also, I somehow doubt that lawmakers will hear my voice as clearly as they will hear the voices of the CEO's of the Business Roundtable.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Stanford: MI charter schools more effective

Just a quick note to promise more analysis later.  I am against charter schools for a wide variety of reasons.  One of them was, until this afternoon, that all evidence indicated that charter schools are less effective than public schools.  This afternoon, I saw a report released today by Stanford University (download page here; click on Michigan).  The conclusion they draw is that Michigan charter schools produce better educational outcomes in students than comparable public schools.  I clearly have my doubts, but it seems likely that the researchers at Stanford would have taken these into account.  More from me after I actually read the report.  I mostly didn't want to feel like I'd neglected information I find inconvenient.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Their teachers' financial stability IS good for students

Michelle Rhee used to be the chancellor (whatever that means) of the Washington, DC school district.  She got a lot of traction, at least politically, on the notion that teachers were the problem with her failing school district.  (I don't remember the numbers, but I remember believing that the district was underserving its students.)  She pushed through a lot of education "reforms" and took the teachers' union out at the knee in a blow it never recovered from.  She fired large numbers of teachers at a time and then bragged about it publicly.  The film "Waiting for 'Superman'" looks at the reasoning and positive consequences of some of those reforms.  (Full disclosure: I never saw it and, if at all possible, I never will.  I feel able to critique it because I have a pretty thorough understanding of the issues of charter schools vs. public schools and the sort of lottery entry system depicted in the film.)  Now Rhee heads a non-profit organization called Students First.  It purports to work towards reforming public schools so that they work well for all students.  This is, of course, a laudable goal, one I share and one towards which I work passionately every day I get out of bed. 

For Rhee and Students First, teachers are always the problem.  The solution is always that if only teachers would care more, work harder, ignore their own lives, selflessly give, separate themselves from their unions and their negotiatied contracts, divorce their spouses and abandon their own children in favor of their students, then schools would just work. 

Clearly there is a disconnect there.  There are 3.3 million public school teachers in the US (NCSE), and it's just possible that some of them don't feel like they joined a monastic order.  We feel a calling to the profession, sure, but does that automatically mean we give up any right to self-consideration?  When faced with a choice between our students and EVERYTHING ELSE--ourselves, our families, our not-school-releated interests--do we have to choose our students every time, lest we become bad teachers?

This isn't a straw-man argument.  This is the essence of blame-the-teachers education reform.  When money goes to teachers, the argument runs, it isn't being spent "in the classroom."  It's partially for this reason that Michigan has a law that prevents local millages from being spent on teacher salaries and benefits.   (I think that's actually a pretty smart law.)  The thinking seems to be that we coddle our teachers too much and so they fail our students.  The solution is to put teachers in an atmosphere where fear of losing your job is the norm, where competition is more important than collaboration, where you can't trust your administrator to be your ally because your administrator's primary job is to look for a reason to fire you (and incidentally, replace you with somebody cheaper), where any mentoring has the potential for turning in to training your replacement. 

This is all in the context of an article in the Center for Economic Policy and Research (h/t Eschaton Blog) that suggests that Rhee's non-profit organization rates schools and states on whether or not their teachers have a defined-benefits plan--a public pension--or a defined contribution plan--a 401(k) style plan.  The more securely-funded the pension, the worse the grade.  For all the difference it makes to the report card, a state can be giving the same amount of money to the 401(k) as to the pension.  The question seema not to be, "How much on retirement are schools and states spending?", but rather, "Do states put enough market risk on teachers?" As the author notes, it is difficult to see how this has any impact on teachers at all.

I wish I could find it right now.  But there's a fairly extensive meta-study out there that indicates that if you want creative people to come up with creative solutions to hard problems, the way to do that is to instill stability into the lives of your work force.  You don't have to pay them exorbitant amounts, you just have to take care of them.  Rhee's report card and its misplaced emphasis on how schools compensate their teacher is another example of how, when it comes to teachers, our society is doing everything it can to reverse that dynamic.  Frankly, it justifies the mistrust a lot of people in the education community have for the benignly named "Students First," and the good chancellor.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

First post of the new year: Nothing to do with school

This post has nothing to do with school, education, pedagogy, teachers, students, legislation, or administration.  I just love this piece of writing.  I'm sticking it here so I can find it later, and in the hopes that my readers enjoy it, too.

Babylon 5, Doctor Who, and World War II