Monday, September 29, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
F (9/26): NO CLASS; Read for next week: (1) “What These Children Are Like,” Ralph Ellison; and (2) "An Appeal to Authority"; MEET WITH YOUR GROUP
M (9/29): Continue discussion of poverty and education, including discussion of readings from 9/26
W (10/1): Continue discussion of poverty and education, including discussion of readings from 9/26; APA documentation
Monday, September 22, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Self-Assessment: Students "Know" Better
Now compare the above with this Op-Ed from a member of the State Board of Education in SC:
PACT replacement could be better
And, FYI, an interesting change of viewpoints from a politician, this Op-Ed in The State.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama outlined his plan for education, including doubling funding for charter schools as well as supporting merit pay and increased accountability for teachers. "If we're going to make a real and lasting difference for our future, we have to be willing to move beyond the old arguments of left and right and take meaningful, practical steps to build an education system worthy of our children and our future," Obama said. USA TODAY/Associated Press (9/9) , Google/Associated Press (9/9) , Chicago Sun-Times (9/9)
Sunday, September 7, 2008
24/7 School Reform
By PAUL TOUGH
In an election season when Democrats find themselves unusually unified on everything from tax policy to foreign affairs, one issue still divides them: education. It is a surprising fault line, perhaps, given the party’s long dominance on the issue. Voters consistently say they trust the Democrats over the Republicans on education, by a wide margin. But the split in the party is real, deep and intense, and it shows no signs of healing any time soon.
On one side are the members of the two huge teachers’ unions and the many parents who support them. To them, the big problem in public education is No Child Left Behind, President Bush’s signature education law. Teachers have many complaints about the law: it encourages “teaching to the test” at the expense of art, music and other electives, they say; it blames teachers, especially those in inner-city schools, for the poor performance of disadvantaged children; and it demands better results without providing educators with the resources they need.
On the other side are the party’s self-defined “education reformers.” Members of this group — a loose coalition of mayors and superintendents, charter-school proponents and civil rights advocates — actually admire the accountability provisions in No Child Left Behind, although they often criticize the law’s implementation. They point instead to a bigger, more systemic crisis. These reformers describe the underperformance of the country’s schoolchildren, and especially of poor minorities, as a national crisis that demands a drastic overhaul of the way schools are run. In order to get better teachers into failing classrooms, they support performance bonuses, less protection for low-performing teachers, alternative certification programs to attract young, ambitious teachers and flexible contracts that could allow for longer school days and an extended school year. The unions see these proposals as attacks on their members’ job security — which, in many ways, they are.
As the fall campaign and a new school year begin, both the unionists and the reformers find themselves distracted by the same question: Which side is Barack Obama on? Each camp has tried to claim him as its own — and Obama, for his part, has done his best to make it easy for them. He reassures the unions by saying he will reform No Child Left Behind so teachers will no longer “be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests,” and he placates reformers by calling himself a “strong champion of charter schools.” The reformers point to his speech in July to the National Education Association, during which he was booed, briefly, for endorsing changes to teachers’ compensation structure. The unionists, in turn, emphasize his speech a week later to the American Federation of Teachers, during which he said, “I am tired of hearing you, the teachers who work so hard, blamed for our problems.” On blogs and at conferences, the two sides have continued to snipe at each other, all the while parsing Obama’s speeches and policy pronouncements, looking for new clues to his true positions.
It’s possible, though, that both camps are looking in the wrong place for answers. What is most interesting and novel about Obama’s education plans is how much they involve institutions other than schools.
The American social contract has always identified public schools as the one place where the state can and should play a role in the process of child-rearing. Outside the school’s walls (except in cases of serious abuse or neglect), society is seen to have neither a right nor a responsibility to intervene. But a new and growing movement of researchers and advocates has begun to argue that the longstanding and sharp conceptual divide between school and not-school is out of date. It ignores, they say, overwhelming evidence of the impact of family and community environments on children’s achievement. At the most basic level, it ignores the fact that poor children, on average, arrive in kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. There is evidence that schools can do a lot to erase that divide, but the reality is that most schools do not. If we truly want to counter the effects of poverty on the achievement of children, these advocates argue, we need to start a whole lot earlier and do a whole lot more.
The three people who have done the most to propel this nascent movement are James J. Heckman, Susan B. Neuman and Geoffrey Canada — though each of them comes at the problem from a different angle, and none of them would necessarily cite the other two as close allies. Heckman, an occasional informal Obama adviser, is an economist at the University of Chicago, and in a series of recent papers and books he has developed something of a unified theory of American poverty. More than ever before, Heckman argues, the problem of persistent poverty is at its root a problem of skills — what economists often call human capital. Poor children grow into poor adults because they are never able, either at home or at school, to acquire the abilities and resources they need to compete in a high-tech service-driven economy — and Heckman emphasizes that those necessary skills are both cognitive (the ability to read and compute) and noncognitive (the ability to stick to a schedule, to delay gratification and to shake off disappointments). The good news, Heckman says, is that specific interventions in the lives of poor children can diminish that skill gap — as long as those interventions begin early (ideally in infancy) and continue throughout childhood.
What kind of interventions? Well, that’s where the work of Susan Neuman becomes relevant. In 2001, Neuman, an education scholar at the University of Michigan, was recruited to a senior position in George W. Bush’s Department of Education, helping to oversee the development and then the implementation of No Child Left Behind. She quit in 2003, disillusioned with the law, and became convinced that its central goal — to raise disadvantaged children to a high level of achievement through schools alone — was simply impossible. Her work since then can be seen as something of a vast mea culpa for her time in Washington. After leaving government, Neuman spent several years crisscrossing the nation, examining and analyzing programs intended to improve the lives of disadvantaged children. Her search has culminated in a book, “Changing the Odds for Children at Risk,” to be published in November, in which she describes nine nonschool interventions. She includes the Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends trained nurses to visit and counsel poor mothers during and after their pregnancies; Early Head Start, a federal program, considerably more ambitious than Head Start itself, that offers low-income families parental support, medical care and day-care centers during the first three years of the lives of their children; Avance, a nine-month language-enrichment program for Spanish-speaking parents, mostly immigrants from Mexico, that operates in Texas and Los Angeles; and Bright Beginnings, a pre-K program in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina that enrolls 4-year-olds who score the lowest on a screening test of cognitive ability and manages to bring most of them up to grade level by the first day of kindergarten.
Neuman’s favorite programs share certain characteristics — they start early, focus on the families that need them the most and provide intensive support. Many of the interventions work with parents to make home environments more stimulating; others work directly with children to improve their language development (a critical factor in later school success). All of them, Neuman says, demonstrate impressive results. The problem right now is that the programs are isolated and scattered across the country, and they are usually directed at only a few years of a child’s life, which means that their positive effects tend to fade once the intervention ends.
This is where Geoffrey Canada comes in. He runs the first and so far the only organization in the country that pulls together under a single umbrella integrated social and educational services for thousands of children at once. Canada’s agency, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has a $58 million budget this year, drawn mostly from private donors; it currently serves 8,000 kids in a 97-block neighborhood of Harlem. (I’ve spent the last five years reporting on his organization’s work and its implications for the country.) Canada shares many of the views of the education reformers — he runs two intensive K-12 charter schools with extended hours and no union contract — but at the same time he offers what he calls a “conveyor belt” of social programs, beginning with Baby College, a nine-week parenting program that encourages parents to choose alternatives to corporal punishment and to read and talk more with their children. As students progress through an all-day prekindergarten and then through a charter school, they have continuous access to community supports like family counseling, after-school tutoring and a health clinic, all designed to mimic the often-invisible cocoon of support and nurturance that follows middle-class and upper-middle-class kids through their childhoods. The goal, in the end, is to produce children with the abilities and the character to survive adolescence in a high-poverty neighborhood, to make it to college and to graduate.
Though the conveyor belt is still being constructed in Harlem, early results are positive. Last year, the charter schools’ inaugural kindergarten class reached third grade and took their first New York state achievement tests: 68 percent of the students passed the reading test, which beat the New York City average and came within two percentage points of the state average, and 97 percent of them passed the math test, well above both the city and state average.
Obama has embraced, directly or indirectly, all three of these new thinkers. His campaign invited Heckman to critique its education policy, and Obama has proposed large-scale expansions of two of Neuman’s chosen interventions, the Nurse-Family Partnership and Early Head Start. Most ambitiously, Obama has pledged to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in 20 cities across the country. “The philosophy behind the project is simple,” Obama said in a speech last year announcing his plan. “If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can’t just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community. And we have to focus on what actually works.”
Obama has proposed that these replication projects, which he has labeled Promise Neighborhoods, be run as private/public partnerships, with the federal government providing half the funds and the rest being raised by local governments and private philanthropies and businesses. It would cost the federal government “a few billion dollars a year,” he acknowledged in his speech. “But we will find the money to do this, because we can’t afford not to.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will convince voters with this position, and whether, if elected, he will do the heavy lifting required to put such an ambitious national program in place. There are many potential obstacles. A lot of conservatives would oppose a new multibillion-dollar federal program as a Great Society-style giveaway to the poor. And many liberals are wary of any program that tries to change the behavior of inner-city parents; to them, teaching poor parents to behave more like middle-class parents can feel paternalistic. Union leaders will find it hard to support an effort that has nonunion charter schools at its heart. Education reformers often support Canada’s work, but his premise — that schools alone are not enough to make a difference in poor children’s lives — makes many of them anxious. And in contrast to the camps arrayed on either side of the school-reform debate, there is no natural constituency for the initiative: no union or interest group that stands to land new jobs or new contracts, no deep-pocketed philanthropy devoted to spreading the message.
The real challenge Obama faces is to convince voters that the underperformance of poor children is truly a national issue — that it should matter to anyone who isn’t poor. Heckman, especially, argues that we should address the problem not out of any mushy sense of moral obligation, but for hardheaded reasons of global competitiveness. At a moment when nations compete mostly through the skill level of their work force, he argues, we cannot afford to let that level decline.
Obama’s contention is that the traditional Democratic solution — more money for public schools — is no longer enough. In February, in an interview with the editorial board of The Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, he called for “a cultural change in education in inner-city communities and low-income communities across the country — not just inner-city, but also rural.” In many low-income communities, Obama said, “there’s this sense that education is somehow a passive activity, and you tip your head over and pour education in somebody’s ear. And that’s not how it works. So we’re going to have to work with parents.”
In the end, the kind of policies that Obama is proposing will require an even broader cultural change — not just in the way poor Americans think about education but also in the way middle-class Americans think about poverty. And that won’t be easy. No matter how persuasive the statistics Heckman is able to muster or how impressive the results that Canada is able to achieve, many Americans will continue to simply blame parents or teachers for the underperformance of poor kids. Obama’s challenge — if he decides to take it on — will be to convince voters that society as a whole has a crucial role to play in the lives of disadvantaged children, not just in the classroom but outside schools as well.
Paul Tough is an editor at the magazine. His book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America,” will be published next week.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
Read this excellent Op-Ed in The State from Leonard Pitts:
"Hypocrisy" as art in Romney-speak
This piece echoes a long-standing argument made by George Orwell about the abuse of language:
Politics and the English Language
And here are some videos of Kozol, FYI:
Kozol also undertook a hunger-strike recently; read his explanation here.
Friday, September 5, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
"If education is perceived not as a universal good but as a personal commodity, and nothing more, to be consumed for personal advantage only—if this is all it is—then it's very hard to argue with a parent who sincerely thinks she's being double-billed" (p. 145, pb edition).
Then, what is education? "[A] personal commodity"? Or "a universal good"?
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
June 30, 2008
Board certification's worth still uncertain
Teaching credential hasn't been shown to be cost-effective education investment
By Paul Thomas
Headlines and lead paragraphs heralding a new study on the effectiveness of National Board-certified teachers appear to vindicate South Carolina's financial and pedagogical commitment to the process.
The headline "National Board teachers found to be effective" draws the readers of Education Week to this: "Teachers who earn advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are more effective than teachers without that credential, but there's little evidence to show the program has transformed the field in the broader ways its founders envisioned, a long-awaited report released today by a national scientific panel finds."
Welcomed news for South Carolina, where we have committed large yearly stipends and resources to support teachers applying to the board certification process, right?
Not quite. The first problem related to this study is the careless reporting of the conclusions. Education Week discredits its own claims in the third paragraph: "In the new report, however, a 17-member panel of the National Research Council says it's still unclear whether the process itself leads to better-quality teaching, because too few studies have examined that issue."
In South Carolina, we must look carefully at the report because we committed to board certification without any evidence that the investment actually addresses educational needs in the state.
The National Research Council report offers these tentative implications:
• While the report claims higher standardized test scores for students taught by board-certified teachers, when compared to non-board-certified, it also admits that this study in no way can be viewed as generalizable since the data come from only two states and one city, and draw on just reading and math scores for third- and fifth-graders.
• Most important is this key statement from the report itself: "There are no studies that collected baseline data about teachers before going through the process, making it impossible to attribute any findings to the process itself." This study suggests some very narrow correlations about board certification and test scores, but it does not show that board certification causes anything—at all. It is possible that students would have scored higher in the board-certified teachers' classrooms before those teachers became board-certified—or for a number of other reasons the study never addresses.
• Also key for us in South Carolina is that the report reveals absolutely no conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of board certification. This report does not clarify if the money invested in board certification produces student achievement equal to or greater than the money spent. Now, we are left wondering if the significant financial cost to South Carolina is producing what we need.
• Board-certified teachers are more likely to change schools or positions than non-board certified teachers, and those moves tend to be to schools that already include higher student achievement and lower poverty. Board certification contributes to teacher flight from the schools that need high-quality teachers and to schools that are already successful and include students experiencing fewer life challenges.
• Teachers from affluent schools tend to apply for board certification at higher rates than teachers from high-poverty schools.
• While African-American teachers apply at the same rates as whites, African-American teachers are underrepresented in those who complete certification.
With our commitment to board certification, South Carolina made a leap of faith when we should have been making evidence-based decisions.
Let's not make a mistake again by jumping to distorted conclusions, as the media appear to be doing, about this single study from the National Research Council.
Issues of poverty, equity and funding are plaguing our teaching work force and our schools. This report does not show board certification as an appropriate solution to those problems. In fact, the report suggests that board certification could be working against our overcoming these difficult obstacles.
Do teachers in South Carolina who pursue professional growth deserve our support? Of course.
The key question we must ask: Is board certification the appropriate mechanism for better compensating teachers and raising student achievement? The answer appears to be we have no clear evidence to say yes, but now have some signs that the answer may be no.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Are Advanced Placement Courses Diminishing Liberal Arts Education?
At this time of year, thousands of academically accomplished students enter selective higher education institutions like mine, beginning their arduous journey toward bachelor’s degrees and beyond. They have stellar grade point averages, high SAT scores, and impressive records of community service. The vast majority also have completed Advanced Placement courses in high school, providing them with college credit and ostensibly preparing them for the rigorous academic work they will face as undergraduates.
Yet, my 40 years of undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences, currently at the University of California, Los Angeles, persuade me that Advanced Placement preparation is overrated and may, ironically, diminish rather than advance the deeper objectives of a liberal arts education.
This may be a minority, even heretical, view among my faculty colleagues. Most assume that students’ AP experiences provide a modest advantage in their courses, through superior subject-matter knowledge and higher personal motivation. My experiences contradict these assumptions, however.
Most of my UCLA courses make use of art, film, literature, and other forms of cultural expression and explore their linkages to major features of history, politics, and society. They cover content that high school students presumably would encounter in such AP courses as art history, U.S. government and politics, English literature, European history, world history, U.S. history, and others. Over the years, though, I have found a disconcerting lack of historical knowledge among my undergraduate students, an observation I hear regularly in conversations with colleagues.
Routinely, I pause in my classes when I discern that a majority of students have never heard of the major historical events, movements, or persons I offer for analysis. Then I must quickly supply them with the relevant information, so that we can move on to deeper educational objectives. This is not especially troubling; my job as a teacher is to provide basic material, including the facts I think my students should already know. But recently during these classroom exchanges, I have started asking how many of the students took AP courses and examinations in high school. Their numbers are staggering.
In conversations with students, moreover, I have found that most approached their AP courses as merely another tedious hurdle to be overcome in gaining admission to selective colleges and universities. Students’ candid remarks over many years have only reinforced my conclusion that AP participation, for many, is primarily an exercise in memorization and exam passing—the antithesis of genuine liberal learning.
Many students sheepishly admit that they forgot the AP material soon after the exam, a process they often repeat as undergraduates. Such comments suggest that their AP efforts were a response primarily to pressure from parents, peers, and institutions seeking high college-admission statistics.
The ironic result is to reduce or even eliminate the quest for authentic learning. By focusing almost exclusively on test-taking skills and examination results, too many students lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing in the first place. A subtle and insidious mind-set develops in which “results” trump the actual educational process. Such a perspective can, of course, lead to major, though limited, postsecondary “success.” But while students graduate with high honors, they come away with little feel for authentic learning and few critical-thinking skills. Résumé padding substitutes for durable knowledge and lifelong intellectual curiosity.Intrigued by this phenomenon, I have sought further discussions with UCLA students who had substantial AP experience in high school. What I’ve found has amplified my misgivings. At least in the humanities and social sciences, students report that their AP work consisted primarily of factual information. Often neglected were the subtleties and ambiguities of historical and artistic inquiry.
Yet there are more serious historical and cultural deficiencies among my students with extensive AP credit. For example, in my courses examining historical events from the perspective of people who challenge the existing social order, I see particular evidence of a vast lack of knowledge about the events and people associated with labor, civil rights, feminist, anti-war, gay and lesbian, environmental, and other resistance movements. Similarly, in art-related courses in which I highlight work by members of marginalized communities such as African-Americans, Latinos, women, and others, there is also little evidence of background knowledge.
In short, almost every person or movement I present seems to be entirely new to my students, a large percentage of whom have had substantial AP coursework in the humanities and social studies. I can only conclude that, like most high school courses in history, art, and social studies, AP efforts reflect a conventional bias that neglects large populations and discourages more-comprehensive treatment of dissenting political and cultural forces.
And then there is the matter of swapping high school credits for college experiences. Those who have substantial unit credit from Advanced Placement courses and examinations also run the risk of shortchanging themselves in opportunities for liberal education at the postsecondary level. Typically, undergraduates need approximately 120 semester units, or 180 quarter units, for graduation. If they begin college with 25 or 30 units gained through AP coursework, they reduce their opportunities for wider intellectual exploration. The effect is to substitute high school classes for college-level classes, even though the latter often provide greater intellectual breadth and depth.
With less time on college campuses, fewer students will select courses on global warming, African-American art, women’s literature, biomedical ethics, and hundreds of other subjects that might encourage them to explore new knowledge in intellectually exciting directions.
Perhaps the most provocative argument against AP courses, though, is that, with rare exceptions, the teachers teaching them are not qualified or knowledgeable enough to offer college-level instruction. The inescapable reality is that high school teachers are not at the forefront of research and intellectual discovery. Indeed, their very workloads often preclude them from even keeping up with major developments in most academic fields. The best among them do perform exceptional work in transmitting knowledge, however. Improvement at that level should therefore be the primary high school objective, rather than entering domains beyond the genuine competence of existing teaching personnel.
Finally, critics of Advanced Placement have observed that affluent school districts hold major advantages in offering such opportunities. This is a compelling view. Schools in lower-income communities, especially those with substantial ethnic- and racial-minority populations, clearly deserve higher funding and superior opportunities for their students. But simply adding more AP courses to their curricula scarcely addresses the structural inequalities and injustices. Replicating a dubious system of AP credit arrangements fundamentally misses the point.
It is unrealistic to advocate the abolition of Advanced Placement courses in high schools. AP opportunities will flourish as long as powerful institutional forces combine with the increasingly frantic efforts of privileged parents to secure high-status college and university slots for their children. Students themselves, caught up in the admissions frenzy, also demand mechanisms to set themselves apart from their peers. Accordingly, college and university admissions officials should exert more critical leadership, perhaps even declining to grant college credit or even preferential treatment to applicants with AP courses on their high school transcripts.
Above all, college and university faculty members concerned with serious liberal learning should reassert their authority as educators. They should avoid complicity in institutional schemes that process undergraduates as rapidly as possible, neglecting the basic principles of active and sustained higher education.
The challenges of the 21st century demand an educated populace with intellectual breadth and depth and the ability for critical thought and active public citizenship. Transitory mastery of Advanced Placement examinations falls tragically short of these compelling public needs.
Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a member of UCLA’s department of communication studies.
Vol. 28, Issue 02, Pages 26-27