Internet Roundup: Education, Part 6

I’ve been keeping myself informed on education policy for a few years now, and am beginning to get involved in local efforts to improve laws and programs. There’s a lot going on in Nashville in this arena; for some great commentary on our local education politics, follow TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild. Now that I’m no longer in survival mode with a brand-new baby, I am starting to go to meetings and get to know the people here in Nashville who are making a difference in our schools. I even spoke at a school board meeting last month!

I like to share some of the things I read and find noteworthy, but there’s been so much happening this year that it’s hard to tell what to link. This time rather than highlighting specific policies or changes, I picked some articles that address overarching themes in the debate.

“Education Does Not Cure Poverty–It Cures Ignorance” by Steven Singer 

So much of education policy is driven by the idea that if more people graduate high school and college with useful skills, they’ll be able to get good jobs, and the economy will improve. But improving your income is not the point of education. It’s a nice side effect. And counting on schools to improve our country’s economy lets a lot of people off the hook–the ones who are paying low wages, the ones who speculated irresponsibly and crashed the stock market. I love how Singer gets into big questions about what makes life worth living, and turns lawmakers’ conventional wisdom on its head.

“Stop Humiliating Teachers” by David Denby

It’s past time for the attacks on teachers to stop. The assumption behind so many education “reform” laws is that teachers are lazy idiots who do the bare minimum for their cushy benefits, who won’t do any real work unless they’re in fear for their jobs. This insult does more to hurt teacher morale and scare bright young people away from the profession than anything else, except perhaps the low pay, which is insulting in a different way. Denby puts the blame squarely where it belongs, on poverty.

“The Myth of the Superhero Teacher” by JP Fugler

If we depend on teachers to be superheroes in order to adequately educate our children, we’re going to be disappointed. First, there are not enough “rock star” teachers out there, and second, it’s a recipe for burnout. And as Fugler points out, it’s patronizing, substituting fawning praise for tangible rewards. I wish he had addressed the data-driven arguments I often hear about how giving students a “good” teacher three years in a row can reverse the achievement gap. That bogus research is based on formulas that predict the growth of corn. But I love how Fugler points to the movies that perpetuate this myth.  Teachers are just normal people trying to do an emotionally taxing, cognitively complex job, and we need support and resources and freedom from excessive, unfair scrutiny more than we need a pat on the back.


Internet Roundup: Education, part 5

Here’s another set of links to recent articles and blogs on education. The theme this time seems to be the way we treat teachers, and the ideas of accountability and respect.

The New York Times recently had an opinion feature on “What Makes a Good Teacher,” which was really a way to discuss teacher quality and how to improve it. Most of the debate gets bogged down in the question that I told Lamar Alexander was exactly the wrong one to ask: how do we get rid of bad teachers? The one voice in this conversation worth listening to was Mercedes Schneider, the only classroom teacher participating in the debate, who said teachers need respect, autonomy, small classes, planning time, and freedom from punitive evaluation systems based on student test scores. Schnieder has a great blog as well, which I’ve added to the blogroll.

This blog contrasts the idea of accountability with a teacher’s daily interactions with students. It should already be clear to everyone that teachers can’t be responsible for a majority of the factors that influence student learning, but this vivid illustration makes that clear.

Recently, there has been a little bit of talk about holding states and school districts accountable for inputs, in addition to, or hopefully instead of, holding teachers accountable for outcomes. This means that governments and local education authorities are responsible for providing teachers with adequate resources and making sure that children have health care, nutrition, and safe homes, as these are prerequisites to learning. If we’re going to focus on “accountability,” it’s only fair to apply it across the board, rather than to focus only on teachers, who have little influence compared to home environments. I hope that this idea gains momentum and that people start to see how unreasonable and unfair the current use of “accountability” rhetoric is to teachers.

Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild has a great essay that uses a common sense metaphor comparing teachers to parents. He does a great job pointing out the reformers’ fallacy that teachers’ and students’ interests are opposed. In reality, just as parents fight for their children’s best interests, teachers always have students’ best interests at heart, even when they advocate for policies that appear to primarily benefit themselves. Just as a mom who’s not getting any sleep can’t do her best for her kids, a teacher who’s paid so poorly she needs a second job can’t teach to the best of her ability. Children benefit when the adults in charge of them feel secure and supported. And when teachers aren’t constantly afraid of losing their jobs and have the resources they need to do their best work, they improve continuously and stay in the profession longer, so that students benefit from their growing expertise. It’s easy to imagine a virtuous cycle of healthy classroom relationships, where now we have a vicious cycle of tense, exhausting relationships destabilized by outside influences (high stakes testing and poverty). I’m glad Thomas is continuing to write and speak out about these things. His perspective as a parent makes him extra credible when he speaks in support of teachers, and I thank him for that.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 4

Since learning about and becoming involved with the Bad Ass Teachers Association, I’ve been directed to lots of great links and articles about education and the real problems in our schools. I wanted to share a few of the best ones and comment on why they’re right.

Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post has become my favorite education journalist, just as Diane Ravitch is my favorite education expert. Often she merely gives another writer a forum, as she does here, allowing an education leader from Finland to compare how our two societies treat teachers and how that relates to educational outcomes in the two countries. Pasi Sahlberg concludes that child poverty is a bigger problem in the US than bad teachers, discusses three fallacies on the topic of teacher effectiveness, and gives three policy recommendations. Here, Strauss devotes her column to a principal’s discussion of the Senate hearings on education (I wrote Senator Alexander about what I’d like to see happen in those hearings a couple weeks ago). The principal criticizes “the superstructure of education supervision” which I think is a perfect way to describe where we’ve gone wrong in our approach to education.

The Atlantic has had some good writing on education in the past month as well. Here, they review Anya Kamenetz’s new book on testing and the way it has distorted schools. I’ve liked Kamenetz since her first book on student loan debt, and now she’s writing with the perspective of a parent and the experience of NPR’s lead education blogger. Her book is on my long list of things I want to read.

My favorite of the Atlantic articles might be this one, about the all-important place of joy in the classroom. I love the vision of education painted here, of teaching students to appreciate and enjoy different experiences. The standardized test is about as far opposite this approach to education as as you can get. You can’t assess joy. Another thing that’s hard to assess? Wisdom. But that’s what I have always sought in my education; it’s what motivates me to continue to learn and read as an adult. That’s what I want for my students and my son. In high school English classes today, the current focus is supposed to be on skills over content–but the content is the stuff that makes the skills worth learning and using! It’s what makes the class more interesting than repetitive drills. If we want students to be “engaged” (another buzzword), we can’t abandon literature in favor of teaching students how to read technical manuals and textbooks for other subjects.

This smart essay made me realize I didn’t go far enough in my letter to Senator Alexander. I suggested that we should only have standardized tests if they are developmentally appropriate, transparently graded, and returned promptly with detailed results. Of course, I knew what I was asking was impossible, and that was the point. But Steven Singer points out the simplest and most radical solution to the problems created by standardized testing: chuck it all. Get rid of every bit of it. It’s pointless as a learning exercise, it’s abusive to children, it’s a waste of money, its purpose is merely to create data to justify its own existence. It’s harder to stand behind the continued use of standardized tests than to just stop putting anyone through this data-driven madness. Trust teachers to make their own assessments, and stop interfering. That’s the first step to improve the quality of education.

Internet Roundup: Motherhood, part 4

As usual, I’ve got lots to say about this mom gig, especially when I read things about moms on the internet that are either brilliant or terrible. Over the course of this year, I’ve accumulated lots of links to articles that hit a nerve with me when I read them (maybe months ago), and I can’t just forget about them, even though the news cycle has long since moved on. As I said before, I have to speak out in whatever small way I can, and not let my dearth of free time quiet me. So here are three of those articles and my comments.

This one qualifies as terrible. “A Letter from a Working Mother to a Stay-at-Home Mother, and vice versa” by Carolyn Ee is supremely well-intentioned. It’s about mothers appreciating each other and recognizing that we all work hard and make sacrifices, whether or not we work outside the home. However, the terms for that appreciation are retrograde and guilt-inducing. Jessica Grose at Slate did a great job explaining what’s wrong with the letters. Grose especially emphasizes that working or not isn’t really a choice for most women, and that when it is, it’s a choice that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. That’s an approach to the issue that I’ve read and appreciated before.

The vision of gender roles in these letters is really old-fashioned. The husband/father/partner figure is only even mentioned once, when he comes home and fails to relieve the stay-at-home mom because he had a hard day too. The mom doesn’t demand help, but simply dissolves into tears. There is no sign of a partner in the working mom letter, as if all working parents were single mothers. This really doesn’t give enough credit to involved dads who work hard to be equal partners and co-parents. The “second shift” is referenced, but as a fact of working-mom life, not as an injustice that needs to be rectified in our larger community and in individual families. One of the main reasons given for why working moms are admirable is basically because they are everywhere and we all need them to do their jobs. As if our economy’s dependence on the work of parents were remarkable at all, and as if the community’s reliance on them were necessary for us to permit them to leave their children in day care without calling it neglect.

These “letters” are a great example to me of the rhetorical dangers of using the second person to address an entire group of people. By saying, “all of you stay-at-home moms do a, b, and c,” or worse, “every one of you working moms feel x, y, and z,” the author alienates all members of that group who do not do or feel exactly those things. She implies, for example, that the working moms who don’t enjoy the time they spend at home with sick kids don’t love their kids or something, ignoring the fact that sometimes kids are their most insufferable when they’re not feeling well. I was offended by this line about working moms, because I have committed this sin, and plan to do it again, as often as possible:

I know that you often feel guilty about having any more time away from your children so you sacrifice your leisure time. I know you can’t bring yourself to take a “day off” for yourself when your children are at daycare.

So am I supposed to feel guilty for working half days over the summer while keeping my child in care full time? I thought the purpose of these “letters” was to alleviate mom guilt. Lines like that present a single acceptable version of motherhood, whether working for pay or not, and judge all who fail to conform to it. And that single version is an oppressive one; it’s total motherhood, and it’s exactly what’s making stay-at-home and working moms both feel so insecure that they end up judging each other to make themselves feel better. So Carolyn Ee has really just been feeding the fire she says she’s trying to put out.

Instead, this is the kind of discourse we should be having about stay-at-home moms and working moms. FaithM will be working less because she’s having her second child soon, and she puts that ‘choice’ in the context of the wage gap, family policy, and our cultural assumptions about families (mother = primary caregiver, and worker = breadwinner = man with wife and children at home). She points out that parenting is hard work that society doesn’t value the way it should because there is no dollar amount attached to it, and that to some extent, some versions of feminism have bought into that devaluation of domestic work. We need to talk about the larger context in which we make ‘choices’ about our families and careers, while also appreciating people who don’t get enough respect because of our screwed up ideas about work and family.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 2

Yesterday I introduced a handful of random articles about education that I thought were worth sharing. But today’s three are the best I’ve read in a long time. I feel like they really get to the core of the biggest problems in schools, and I only wish the people making big decisions about education, especially the ones who have never been in charge of a classroom, would take these ideas to heart.

This article is great because it reveals the unstated assumptions behind most of the rhetoric we read and hear about education, and shows why they’re wrong.  I love the description of test-prep-driven schooling as a “hamster wheel”:

“Five Bad Education Assumptions the Media Keep Recycling” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post

My favorite points are the ones attacking standardized testing, the international competition mentality, and the idea that students should be motivated to learn because it will get them a good job someday. This last myth, #4, is spurious for a couple reasons. First, learning should be intrinsically motivated. Second, the idea of eventual financial reward is only motivating if a student can look that far into their own future and reasonably believes they will get that reward. Very young students have no concept of adult careers, and don’t know how present effort is related to eventual success (and when they’re young is precisely when they begin to fall behind). But what’s most depressing to me is how cynical some students are about whether their hard work will ever pay off. They have never known anyone personally who succeeded in real life, so they figure there’s no point in trying too hard because they’ll be discriminated against, or be unable to afford college, or success will elude them in some other way that’s out of their control. When that’s the case, it’s totally rational and even smart for them to put in a bare minimum of effort. Sad but true.

Once you’ve debunked and rejected those myths, the question remains, what is wrong with schools and what can be done to help the situation? This article does a good job of explaining why trying to reform schools by focusing primarily on teachers is misguided:

“Poverty Is What’s Crippling Public Education in the US–Not Bad Teachers” by Anthony Cody

I don’t think many people know that the statistic about four years of good teachers in a row closing the achievement gap is based on extrapolations, not on some experiment with lucky low-income children who had four great teachers. Researchers took measurements of student growth from one year of good teaching, and projected that out to see how many years it would take to close the gap, using equations based on predicting the growth of corn, because children’s learning is exactly as predictable and regular as the cultivation of a genetically engineered crop. Policy makers are focusing on teachers because of research like this, but they’re ignoring the biggest factor, poverty.

Poverty is one main focus of Diane Ravitch, who may be my new favorite education policy person. She has a new book out, called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. I’ve started reading the book, which is long and involved, with lots of graphs and charts and citations. I’ll review it here eventually, but no promises as to when. Ravitch has been giving great interviews to promote her book:

“Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works” by Sara Scribner for Salon

And what does work? She suggests better prenatal care, early childhood education, and health services in schools. My favorite of her common sense solutions:

The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong.

I guarantee you will never find an actual teacher who will disagree with that. And here’s more Ravitch, summing up all of our problems in education in about two sentences:

the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores.  That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.

Amen, Diane. This is the bottom line: our schools and our communities are reflections of each other. You can’t improve our schools without improving our communities at the same time. Any effort that focuses too narrowly on one or the other will fail. As long as our society has incredible income inequality, there will be incredible inequality in educational opportunity.

Sharing the Magic of Harry Potter

This is the kind of blog post that I hope I’ll be writing in a few years.

Why Harry Potter? Reflecting on the Magic as It Hooks My Child by Molly from First the Egg

I think this aspect of sharing literature with a kid is what has me most excited:

It’s the first bit of our culture that’s really his, too. Eric and I have been making Harry Potter references since before Noah started listening and talking. … He’s been looking forward to reading Harry Potter and joining that conversation. It’s not just us, either: if he’s carrying the book around or just mentions it, other adults can talk plot points and characters quite warmly. It’s like a ticket to actual conversations about shared reading experiences with other people.

In the spirit of sharing the books I love with my son, even though he’s much too young to ‘get it,’ I’m taking him to a Harry Potter party at my mom’s library tomorrow! A whole day of events are planned, beginning with a baby program. There will be owls and a costume contest. Here’s a video starring my sister as Hermione with a little more info:

The Red Book

The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan


Deborah Copaken Kogan recently published a startling essay on the sexism she encountered in marketing a memoir she wrote about being a war photographer. The book was called Shutterbabe, and I think that title says it all. If this novel hadn’t been on my reading list before I read that essay, I would have added it then.

The title, The Red Book, refers to a Harvard alumni publication in which former students brag about their accomplishments from the past five years. The novel has an interesting format, alternating between entries from the Red Book for each character, and then telling the story of their 20th reunion. The main characters are four women who were roommates in college and have kept in fairly regular contact. Addison is an old-money prep school legacy, an unsuccessful artist in a bad marriage raising her kids on her trust fund. Jane is a war reporter based in Paris with a young daughter. Mia is a frustrated actress married to a successful director/screenwriter with several kids. And Clover is a former hippie child turned ousted banking executive who’s trying to concieve.

This book reminded me a lot of Motherland, another novel I read recently about privileged women around age 40 with children and troubled marriages. Motherland focuses more on the comedy, while The Red Book is more dramatic or tragic, with funny moments. Of the two, I think I prefer The Red Book. Adultery is a major theme; the only couple in the book that doesn’t struggle with it is the one with the worst relationship of all. That’s kind of depressing. There’s a strong message that says carpe diem, encouraging the characters, and through them the readers, to hold on to the dreams and aspirations they had when they were young. Kogan’s sentences and dialog are sharp, perceptive and wise. The book was a pleasure to read.