Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Teacher Emergency Kit: Reminders for a New School Year

I have always loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and my favorite book in the series is one that doesn't get a lot of attention: The Silver Chair. It is a classic quest story. Two children, Jill and Eustace, are called into the mountain country of Aslan, the great lion who rules Narnia from afar. Aslan gives Jill a quest. She and Eustace must travel through Narnia to the giant-filled wastelands of the north to find a missing prince.

Before he sends her on her quest, Aslan tell her, "I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs that you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there."  

My summer break as a teacher is like being on Aslan's mountain. The air is clearer and I get a better perspective, clearer thoughts about teaching when I look at it from a distance. Once I get down into the thick air and the overly busy, demanding stress of the school year, the truths that seemed so clear on the summer-break mountaintop become muddled. 

I am one week in to a new school year with my students, and because I am still thinking clearly, I've had a great week. But as the year progresses, my mind may become muddled, so I'm writing this Emergency Kit to remind myself of what seemed clear over the summer, but is so easy to forget in the midst of the school year: 

First, remember that teaching is about people. Not projects, not data, not scores, not curriculum maps, not textbooks, not tests. People. People you are attempting to influence for the better. Living, breathing human beings. Always remember that the real needs of people trump the needs of the system, the needs of the bureaucrats, the need for data, the need for following rules and being compliant. If the system puts its own needs before the needs of individual students, the system is wrong. If I put my own need to advance my career or keep my job ahead of doing what is right for kids, I am in the wrong. Here is what treating students like people means. It means I don't refer to them as test scores ("He's a level 2."). It means I find out something about who they are as people. It means I know that I have a girl who plays team football and a boy who writes poetry. It means that I want my students to understand the importance of what I'm teaching, enjoy what they're learning, and feel they are growing a bit every day, not to produce data, but to help them become better versions of themselves. It means that I acknowledge every day that being human is a far more mysterious, complex, multifaceted, and fascinating than we want to admit. And that's what I am dealing with. Every. Single. Day.

However, if teaching is about people, I must remember that teachers are people too, including me. I need to take care of myself, or I can't take care of my students. (It's that airplane oxygen-mask thing.) And I must acknowledge and honor my own calling to be a teacher. Yes, I am in teaching for me, too. Because it is my deep joy when I do it well, and because it meets the world's deep need. If I ever feel tempted to think that I should give in and become standardized because that's what the system wants, I should think about my students. If one of them felt the call to be a teacher, would I want them to have to someday stifle their gifts and hide their lights under bushels so the system will be happy with them? 

Remember that education is often about paradox. I said above that education is about people. But it is also about the subjects being taught. Parker Palmer's writing has made me think about the fact that putting students too much at the center of things can hurt the subject, while putting the subject too much at the center can make it disconnected from the students. We tend to think about education being about getting right answers, yet the best thinking comes out of ambiguity. Yet sometimes there is only one right answer. My subject is paradoxical. My students are paradoxical. I am paradoxical. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Remember that teaching and learning are about thinking. So many things work against thinking and questioning: curriculum maps, pacing guides, textbooks, rubrics, standards upon standards that set parameters and limits on thinking, mandates about how students should be allowed to read and what they should be allowed to write and how their success will be measured. I don't want learning to be about my students jumping through hoops--someone else's or my own. I don't want my students to jump through hoops, but to question the need for hoops. I have seen too many students walk up to me in class or raise their hands to ask, "Am I allowed to...?" They think school is about doing what you're told, not thinking for yourself.  

Remember that that teaching is transcendent, not reductionist. In a system that reduces students to test scores who will someday be "human capital," teachers to VAM scores, schools and districts to letter grades, everything that needs to be learned into lists of codified standards, and the act of teaching into a robotic, assign-and-assess algorithm, I need to remember that teaching has higher purposes, larger perspectives to offer. Neil Postman said, "Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods." I should be enlarging their questions, not simply answering them; growing their curiosity, not stifling it; encouraging their interests, enthusiasms, and passions, not training them to subvert them. 

Remember to teach on all cylinders. A good lesson teaching a standard. A great lesson goes beyond one standard. It teaches students something about life, something about learning itself, gets them to question, gets them to think, and helps them see things in a new way, if only for a moment. It's not as hard as it sounds. You just need to think in more than one dimension. 

Remember that they are watching you. You are a model for what an educated person can be. Model wonder. Model enthusiasm. Model questioning, thinking, engagement, interest, fascination, and a willingness to entertain paradoxes. Even model how to be frustrated with something and then take action. Remember that many students don't come from settings where people talk about big ideas. Your class may be the only place where they ever have a real discussion about happiness, about success, about the way people use and abuse power, about themes, which run not just through books but through life. 

If you are having a bad day, remember that it will fade into the past eventually, and that it doesn't mean you are a bad teacher. It means you are still learning. You need to be a model of that, too. Remember that you should try to succeed with every student, but that you won't succeed with all of them. And that's okay, too. But also remember that for every former student you run into in theme parks, grocery stores, restaurants, or anywhere else who tells you how much your class met to them, there are probably ten others out there if you've been teaching any time and with any passion at all.

Remember to re-read this when you are having a bad day. It's easy to forget these things when a student has mouthed-off at you, an absurd edict has come from on high, and you had to break up a fight in the hall. 

Have fun.






Friday, August 14, 2015

Should Compliance Drive Education?

I posted the following status update on Facebook the other day that received, for me, a lot of comments and views. It simply read:

Two news stories today disturbed me. One was about Volusia County going to uniforms next year. The word Compliance kept coming up. The second story was about New York State (my home state) planning to use economic sanctions against schools that have too many students opt out of standardized tests, and they are talking to the feds about doing the same nationwide. Compliance again. When did we become all about compliance? 
"All learning that is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind." (Plato)

The response interested me on any number of levels. Most of the comments were specifically about the issue of school uniforms and their merits. People assumed I had a real problem with them, and there were pros and cons on both sides of the issue. The issue of testing and the Opt Out movement was less controversial. I think everyone who commented agreed that forcing tests onto schools and students was not a good thing.

But my post was only partially about uniforms and testing. My post was mainly about the use of the word compliance. Having it show up so often in reference to uniforms and testing, disturbed me because no one using the word seemed to question the importance of compliance.

Some of the people commenting focused in on the compliance issue. One pointed out that the Plato quote I put at the end of my post ("All learning that is acquired under compulsion has no hold upon the mind.") seems to imply that compulsory school attendance is a bad thing. Maybe it does. A colleague a talked to pointed out that without some level of compliance, we'd have chaos. Someone else noted that a focus on compliance is a bit Orwellian. I always think of the Borg, villains on Star Trek: The Next Generation saying, "You will comply."

I guess there is a need for compliance. But why people comply, and what they are compliant about, matters.

If we look at society, it seems obvious that there are some rules we should comply to, simply because they are so obviously important to the safety and well being of all of us. We should comply to the traffic rules like driving on the correct side of the road, because head-on collisions are bad. We should comply to laws that tell us not to go around robbing stores and killing people. Those things are bad. Seems simple. 

School has some of the same issues. Obviously wandering around campus pounding on people smaller than you is bad. Standing on your desk in class and screaming and throwing paper at the teacher is bad. We need you to comply. 

It is obvious that we need compliance about some issues. Those issues are the "what" of compliance. 

But what about the "why" of compliance? 

If you have ever taught, you know that there is a big difference between a class you have to force to behave and a class that just... behaves. If I have a class who is only behaving because I am watching them every second and threatening punishments if they misbehave, a class that will go all Lord of the Flies if I turn my back or leave them with a sub for the day, I may get compliance out of them if I use enough sticks and maybe some carrots, but it will never be a really great class, because everything is being forced. Education in this scenario is a terrible thing that is forced on you by adults who demand blind obedience. 

A really good class, on the other hand, is one the students understand why they are there--to learn--and they control their own actions because they, like the teacher, are trying to create a good environment for learning. I suppose you could say everyone is then being compliant to the ideal of learning being a good thing, but I would hope that learning is an obvious good.  

Even in society, someone isn't really a good citizen just because they are always compliant. If someone is compliant only because he is afraid he will get in trouble, the minute no one is looking he may try to get away with whatever he can. A good citizen goes beyond compliance, has a higher moral vision, and tries to create a better society. Martin Luther King, Jr. was non-compliant for a cause. So were the founding fathers. The United States was founded, quite frankly, on non-compliance. 

And though the evils of non-compliance are often talked about--unruly kids in school, and criminals in society--the evils of compliance are less often referred to. When school is all about compliance, it becomes an exercise in hoop jumping for everyone involved. Students focus on grades instead of learning, on pleasing the teacher rather taking intellectual risks. I can't tell you how many times I've given students the opportunity to be creative, only to have them come up to me and ask, "Am I allowed to...?" It's creativity. Yes, it's allowed. You don't get curious, creative, self-motivated students through compliance.Is it really our ideal that students go through school hating learning, hating everything about the educational process, but doing it anyway just to be compliant? 

The culture of teaching has been shaped by compliance as well. Teachers are being told what to teach, how to teach it, when to teach it. I've heard teachers ask questions like, "Can I add things that aren't on the curriculum map?" or "What if I get an idea of my own? Can I use that with my students?" The ultimate in teacher compliance is now at work in classrooms using "No Nonsense Nurturing," where a pair of coaches sitting in the corner of the room on a headset coach the teacher by telling them exactly what to do and say as they teach. You don't get curious, creative, self-motivated teachers through compliance. 

In the end, I think there is a role for compliance, but I wonder about how large a role it should have, and where it should be placed. Make compliance the main thing we focus on in schools, or society, and you wind up killing the very things we should be promoting. 

We shouldn't start with compliance. We should demand compliance as a last resort, for students (or citizens) who just don't get it. And when we demand compliance, mere compliance shouldn't be our end goal. 

We should start, and hopefully end, with something more elusive, a little hard to sum up in a single word like compliance. We should emphasize the idea that education is good, that we are all here to learn, that we all collaborate to create a good class, a good school, a good society. We should emphasize enthusiasm and engagement. A room full of students who understands those ideas will be a joy to teach, and the learning that takes place will be different in every way. 

If you look at my status update, and read the discussion below it, it raises some questions. If my status had been a discussion question for a class, and people were required to comment as part of the class, would the discussion have been the same? What if they knew I had a certain point of view, didn't like being disagreed with, and was in charge of the participants' grades? Does compliance get the same result as engagement? Notice also, that it's the ambiguity that starts the discussion, gets people thinking. Do I have all the answers about compliance? No. Is there room to argue that compliance deserves more credit than I am giving it? Sure. And there is room to debate testing and school uniforms too. The point is, these are all issues we should be dragging into the classroom and debating to get students to think. Discussing compliance and the issues around it is much better teaching practice than simply demanding compliance. 

Has anything really great ever come into the world because someone was merely being... compliant? Discuss.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Why Conservatives Should Not Support Our Current Education Reform

There is only one area in all of U.S. politics where it appears there is bipartisan agreement and cooperation: education reform.

The problem is both sides have come down on the wrong side of the issue, in favor of the corporate education reform movement. The reform movement claims that it wants to improve American education. It thinks that the following actions will improve education:
  • Test all students every year to make sure they are making progress. 
  • Punish schools that don't make progress.
  • Evaluate teachers based on their students test scores and fire teachers whose scores don't improve.
  • Fire the "bottom 5% of teachers."
  • Take away tenure to make it easier to fire teachers; make teaching into a temporary job young people do before getting real jobs.
  • Standardize all curriculum to raise test scores. 
  • Give parents school choice in the form of vouchers and charter schools.
I tend toward political neutrality, especially in my classroom, where my goal is make students think well, not think like me. That being said, I have very conservative friends and family members, and I am aware of the linchpin ideas that define conservatism. Conservatives favor the following ideals: 
  • Smaller government and less federal intrusion into what should be local decisions. 
  • Taxpayer money should not be wasted.
  • Free market solutions are the best way to solve problems in society. 
  • Making things good for business makes things good for everyone, since businesses employ people and pump money into the economy.
  • In addition to those ideas, many conservatives also tend to feel a return to more traditional values and religious beliefs would benefit the country as well, and put us on a better path.
I am writing this post to challenge any of those core ideals, though many have. I am writing this post to show that education reform actually violates these ideals.

This may seem counter intuitive. Conservatives tend to be in favor of education reform because they think of public schools as "government schools." They tend to feel that we pour tax-payer money into the schools without getting a well-educated populace in return. Conservatives feel we should break up the "public school monopoly" to create a free market where parents get to chose what they want for their students, including religious education. 

But consider these ideas:

Education reform does not really mean smaller government: it has resulted in an unprecedented expansion of the power and influence of the Federal Department of Education. Education reform has resulted in the Federal government interfering with local decision-making, using top-down edicts to drive what happens in districts, in schools, and in individual classrooms. No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and the Common Core State Standards (which were heavily promoted, if not used as a bribe) were all examples of federal overreach. 

If taxpayer money shouldn't be wasted, keep in mind that the privatization and charter school movements have wasted plenty of money by overpaying principals and other employees, or through outright fraud.  There are some good charters out there, but there have been many charters that simply close up shop in the middle of the year, take the money and run. 

Within the existing public schools there is the cost of standardized testing, which reportedly is as high as 1.7 billion a year--in taxpayer dollars. Systematic research of such testing and its off-shoots like VAM (Value Added Measure) show that tests measure only a narrow set of skills and thus narrow the curriculum when teachers are forced to "teach to the test." Success on one standardized test does not translate to successful real-world skills, or even to success on other tests, because students weren't taught real thinking, reading, writing, or math skills; they were taught how to take that one test. Of course the biggest problem with the tests is that they tell us what we already know: students who live in poverty don't perform as well. Standardized tests mainly benefit the testing companies and textbook companies who create test preparation materials--and those companies are often one and the same: Pearson, for instance. Testing may be good business for testing companies, but it makes for lousy education practice in schools. Should supporting testing corporations be our priority, or should not wasting tax payer money be our priority.

Lastly, the free-market theory of education states that if only parents could choose schools for their children, we would quickly see "bad" schools close when parents took their children elsewhere, and we would soon be living in an educational utopia. First, a true free-market would not be government- funded. It would be a free market where those who could afford an education could get one, and those who couldn't afford one--well, tough luck. That's why the public schools were invented: to level the playing field at least a bit. There are still millions of children whose families already pay for private school, and many private schools offer scholarships. There are many, many home-schooled children. Choice exists already. The question, then, is whether public schools should be allowed to exist at all as one of the choices, or if they should be replaced be a whole array of private and charter schools.

This is the most difficult conservative ideal to refute on conservatives' own terms. Here is my attempt, for what it's worth. Public schools are often criticized as being full of teachers who are only there for the money, for an easy paycheck. Money is seen as being a bad motivator. Yet no one seems to question the money-making motivation of testing companies, charter schools, or for-profit private schools. The question becomes, is money the best motivation for education? Granted, without a living wage or something close to it, people can't afford to be teachers, but the best teachers, and the best schools, are not motivated by money. They are motivated by their enthusiasm for students and for learning, and by their desire to make the world a better place. 

In the end, education reform that views children as nothing more than test scores and data points and schools as nothing more than test score and profit factories violates another key conservative value: the value of people as people. Standardized testing is bad science, especially when twisted into uses it was never intended for. But the whole testing-based education reform movement has dehumanized students and teachers alike. If conservatives really want to value human life, turning schools into inhuman test score factories is not the way to do it--even if it does help the free-market agenda. 

In terms of what education reform does to teachers, I'll tell you. It doesn't necessarily get rid of "bad" teachers, who often love being told exactly what to do so their jobs will be easier. Education reform demoralizes and depresses the very best teachers  (as I have written about here) and make them flee the classroom. Anti-teacher rhetoric disenfranchises a large part of the voting public. In my district, the school system in the biggest employer in the county.  Anti-teacher scapegoating is already creating a teacher shortage. 

If none of this makes conservatives reconsider their views on corporate education reform, I have one more fact that might give them pause.

Democratic politicians like corporate education reform, too. No, they love it. 






Monday, August 3, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Teacher

My family has been having some summer fun catching up on the Mission: Impossible movies and going to see the new one. After seeing the latest, Mission: Impossible, Rogue Nation, we were discussing the film, which we enjoyed, but also making fun of the series as a whole.

In nearly every movie, there is a mole in IMF, or a betrayal in IMF, or IMF has been shut down, or disavowed. Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise's character, is nearly always on the run from his own organization. He is blamed for its failures. His successes are never really appreciated, or at least only appreciated during the last five minutes of a given movie before it all goes downhill again in the next one. In nearly every movie, he not only has to do his job; he also has to work against his own organization's dysfunction to get it done. Why does he even keep working for the IMF? It's ludicrous!

But the way Cruise plays Ethan, apparently he just keeps on going, through near drownings, car chases, motorcycle chases, climbing around on the outside of skyscrapers, and even dying and being resuscitated not once but twice. He keeps on going through the attempted IMF shutdowns, through being a scapegoat, through being set up, through having to be on the run as a desperate fugitive. He keeps going because he... believes in the mission.

And then I realized that maybe the series wasn't so ludicrous after all.

As a public school teacher, I work for an organization that often betrays its own ideals. It often betrays mine, that's for sure. I work for an organization that numerous other organizations are working hard to shut down. I have to go undercover sometimes, or go rogue. If I were in this profession for the pay, the ease of the job, or any overall measure of job satisfaction, I would quit. But I keep going.

I believe in the mission.

As public school teachers, we may not be sneaking into secure facilities and engaging high speed chases and shootouts, but our mission is just as urgent as the IMF's, and the things we're up against are often nearly as sinister.

Public school teachers: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to invest in students using every bit of compassion, teaching skill, creativity, passion, and insight you have. You will be given students from all walks of life, at all skill levels, and with all kinds of social, emotional, family, economic, cognitive, motivational, and attitudinal difficulties.You will try to reach them all to the best of your ability. Your mission is not just to convey information or skills, but to make your subject come alive. Success will look different for every student, but you will know it when you see it. 

As if all these challenges were not enough, you will be faced with budget shortfalls that will force you to spend your own money on classroom supplies. You will have to resist mandates, programs, and ideas that you know will hurt your students. You will have to speak up on their behalf and battle the forces of standardization. You will be scapegoated, stereotyped, and called names. You will be forced to go rogue to do what's right for your students. You will be forced to have a higher, clearer vision of education than many administrators possess, a better vision than any politician has. 

Your mission is not to invest in high test scores, but to invest in students as people, to help them have hope and a future. 

All of that being said, is it any wonder that so many of our "agents" are choosing to leave the field? Betrayal and espionage make for suspenseful, entertaining spy movies. They don't make good education policy.

The public school system will self-destruct unless we do something to stop it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Who Do Teachers Work For?

If there are a lot of Dolores Umbridges in the educational world, people who do exactly what their bosses say in order to get ahead professionally, this raises the question: who or what, exactly, should educators be working for? 

I have many supervisors: 3 assistant principals and a principal, one of whom will be my evaluator each year. As a district employee I am also supervised by a district Language Arts office, district curriculum people above that office, an area superintendent, right up to our new superintendent. I am also supposed to follow edicts given by the state, which controls my certification. I suppose if I followed the money trail high enough, I am even under the auspices of the Federal Department of Education. 

As if this wasn't confusing enough, many of the edicts and suggestions I see filtering down contradict each other and change over time. 

Just Read! Florida tells me to promote reading for fun and pleasure. Florida state tests promote reading with skill and drill activities to "raise student achievement" on standardized tests that clog up our media center and make it impossible for many of our students to check out books for weeks on end. Just read indeed. We are told to help nurture creativity in our students while being told to stifle our own. We are told to use students' personal interests and life stories to engage them, but we are also told to follow standards written by a man who doesn't value students' stories and wants them to read without making personal connections and write about other people's writing. 

We're told to make students pass the FCAT writing, but the passing score keeps shifting, even though not a word of the rubric has changed. Then we're told that the FCAT writing was actually kind of useless and that what matters now is "writing to text" (writing about what you read).

If I were new to the profession and hadn't developed my own criteria for what's worth doing and what isn't, I would either quit or get terrible headaches each day from all the cognitive dissonance. 

Who should educators work for? 

Maybe we should work for our students. This is, of course, somewhat problematic, because we ask them to work for us. 

Some teachers say they don't teach subjects, they teach students. Obviously we should be there for our students. Who else are we really there for? But what exactly does it mean to teach students, not subjects? Some teachers I've talked to see it as their duty to teach students that the world is going to screw you over, and you better get used to it. On the other hand, I've seen teachers so anxious to put students at the center of the everything, education becomes all about the student--a kind of narcissistic exercise in self-discovery. 

So much of what we do in education, and what is done to education, is a desperate attempt to give us a clear focus. Put students first. Put what is measurable first. Put standards first. Put certain classroom practices first. Put following the edicts of this person or that committee first. 

But tests come and go. Standards come and go. Administrators and school boards come and go. In the end, students come and go. We like to think that whatever is happening now is the be all and end all. But whatever seems to be the Big Thing in education eventually fades. Or, worse, if it doesn't fade, it becomes so ensconced in its place of influence that it distorts everything around it. 

I wish I could claim this insight as my own, but I owe a great debt to Parker J. Palmer for his insight and wisdom in his book The Courage To Teach. He says, on a page I have dog-eared and refer to often, that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." 

We should be working for the community of truth. That may sound esoteric and impractical, but I assure you it is not. 

Truth is a complicated, elusive, and slippery word. We all know it matters, perhaps more than anything. That is what makes it valuable. We all know it can be paradoxical, context-specific, and hard to pin down. That's what makes the educational enterprise so thrilling. 

Some might dismiss Palmer's definition of teaching as flowery or soft. It is anything but. In fact, what is lacking in so much of education reform and educational practice these days, is any real thinking about the truth.

To be part of a "community of truth" is to debate, to question, to grapple with ambiguity and paradox, to really think about things at a deep level. It's a very different thing than a "professional learning community," where we are often handed "best practices" and told to talk about how best to implement them. If our schools were communities of truth, we would be questioning our own practices as teachers, and even questioning whether a focus on "practices" and "strategies" is really wise. We would be questioning the fundamental nature of how education works and what it means to know our subject areas, and discussing how best to reach the students in front of us. 

If we all considered ourselves part of one vast "community of truth," it doesn't mean we would agree. The community of truth is not a place to always agree on the truth, but a place where we agree to keep searching for it, a place where ideas that seem untrue are brought to light and questioned. Truth looks different in different disciplines. The truth of a poem is different than the truth of a Geometry proof or a scientific experiment. 

We wouldn't limit our students to certain ways of looking for truth. We wouldn't tell them "stay in the four corners of the text" every time they read. We would give them different ways of thinking about what they read, and let them decide the best way to approach a given text. A community of truth creates flexible, not rigid, thinkers. 

If we worked for the community of truth, we would encourage teachers and students to question. We wouldn't accept everything that was handed down from above us on authority and follow orders blindly. The people influencing education wouldn't find it so easy to engage in propaganda, which I recently heard defined as communication designed to have just one outcome. How long have we been hearing that getting rid of bad teachers, testing more and more, and standardizing curriculum will make schools better? These ideas have no space in the community of truth, because all of them fall apart under scrutiny. 

Many of the edicts that filter down to the classroom arrive there because somebody bought something--a program, a piece of technology, a textbook--and feels the need to see it used. Much of what gets recommended in education is really pushed on teachers so that someone else can make money. When truth is our goal, we question profits as an educational goal.

So who should teachers work for? We should work for the community of truth. Doing so gives ourselves and our students something outside ourselves to focus on, something bigger than testing, bigger than standards, bigger than school itself. It gives us the highest aspirations possible, and at its best, protects us from the corruptions of lesser goals. We don't work for money, evaluation ratings, merit pay, promotions, or pats on the head. We work for the truth, no matter our subject, no matter our grade level, no matter where in the world we teach.

At my best, with no disrespect intended to any of my supervisors, I work to create a space where the community of truth may be practiced. It is what everyone in education should strive for. Anything less is an affront to the idea of education itself. 

I'm not doing Palmer's concept justice. If you haven't read it already, go buy The Courage To Teach and read it while there's still some summer left. If you've read it, re-read it. It makes me remember why I'm in the classroom in the first place. 



Thursday, July 2, 2015

Dolores Umbridge Syndrome

I've been an ardent Harry Potter fan for many years, and my children's reading lives  as far as chapter books began with me reading Harry aloud to them from the ages of 4 or 5 until they finally told me they could read on their own half way through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. A very sad day in my household, at least for Dad. 

My wife, however, was not entirely unhappy when I stopped reading aloud, at least as far as book 5 is concerned. When I read aloud, I read with character voices, and my Delores Umbridge voice gave her the willies. 

Delores Umbridge. Stephen King said of her that she was "the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter."   

I tend to mull over and ponder the books I love, and the Harry Potter books are no exception. As a cartoonist who has frequently parodied and satirized education reform, I can only sit back and envy the brilliance of the scene is which Umbridge begins her Defense Against the Dark Arts class by announcing "Wands away!" and telling her students that they will not be doing any practical magic, but will instead be using a Ministry of Magic standardized curriculum. At the time, teachers in my district were being asked to use the College Board's Springboard English/Language Arts curriculum with fidelity, and the scene resonated with me on many, many levels. 

By the time I reached book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, however, something began to bother me about Delores Umbridge. In book 5 she was officious,  and capable of both torture and banning Harry from Quidditch for life, but I thought she still thought of herself as being on the "good side." By book 7, though, she is working at the Ministry of Magic, which is now under the control of Voldemort and the Death Eaters. Has she changed sides? Is she unaware of who she is working for? What gives?

It was my son who pointed out the explanation: Delores Umbridge is a career opportunist. She doesn't really stand for anything except her own power and her own promotion. She will work for whoever is in charge and do her best to make sure she rises in the ranks. If the Ministry of Magic is in charge and they want her to turn Hogwarts into a totalitarian state, she'll do that. If torturing a student with a magic pen will promote her ends, she'll do that. If suppressing the truth will make her look good, she'll do that, too. If oppressing non-pure-blood wizards is what the new leadership wants, she'll do that. If using a dead wizard's magical eye as a surveillance device will further her power to intimidate, she'll do that. If working for a dark wizard will get her promoted to Undersecretary, she'll do that. 

The Harry Potter books are about many things, and one of the things they are about is standing for something, no matter the cost. Harry and his various friends and mentors and even an arch enemy take risks to stand on the side of right. They break rules. They resist. They speak out. They go underground and work against the forces of evil in hiding. Many of the characters die standing up for what is right. 

Delores Umbridge, on the other hand, stands for nothing but her own ambition, self-promotion, and power. 

Which leads me to the other way in which her character reflects real life. There are many Delores Umbridges in our school systems right now. They don't care who is in charge, or what they are asked to do, they will do what is best for their careers, not what is best for students.

Want them to help institute the education reforms that are killing our schools? They'll do that. Want them to reinforce the use of standardized curriculum? They'll do that. Want them to push the idea that teaching to the test is really teaching? They'll do that. Want them to make teachers stand in the data room and discuss students as if they were data points? They'll do that. Want them to comply to anything the state says? They'll do that. Want them to never question, never think, never take risks to do what's right for students? They'll do that. Want them to make students put their real reading away so they can practice their multiple choice skills on clickers? They'll do that. Wands away! 

Some of the Delores Umbridges are teachers, some are administrators. Some work at the district level. Some work at the state and national level. Many delude themselves into thinking their really doing what they do "for the students." Some never even reflect on why they do what they do. Some of them know exactly what they're doing. 

Some of us are resisting though. We question. We go out on a limb to do what's right for students. We want to teach real magic, not the ministry-approved non-practical curriculum. We are branded bad teachers, trouble-makers, the reason we need (or had) to get rid of tenure. We break the rules. We speak out. We stand for what is right. 


These days the "good employees" are the Delores Umbridges of the world. 

The rest of us... well, we're Dumbledore's Army. 

Welcome to the D.A. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Education Reform: The End and the Means

Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you think the education reformers' goals are good ones. Let's just pretend, for the moment, that closing down the public schools and replacing them with for-profit, privately run, government funded entities, is a good idea. 

Even if the end is right, does it justify the means? 

Because here's what the reformers did not do: they did not announce their intentions openly from the start. Their stated aim was improve the public schools. 

But if the reformers' real goals involve ultimately removing public schools as the primary mode of education in the United States and replacing it with a completely different, privatized model, they sure didn't say so. They didn't announce their plans from the get-go because they knew people would not react well. Surveys show that most parents are happy with their local public schools. They don't see the need to replace them. Indeed, most parents don't see that big a need for "school choice." 

So here is what the reformers did: they created the myth that public schools everywhere are failing, churning out either dropouts or stupid graduates. They created the public perception that public school teachers are (in no particular order) a combination of lazy, stupid, and incompetent. They pushed for "accountability" that would root out the bad teachers, and claimed that rooting out bad teachers would solve all our educational problems. 

This accountability involved standardized testing, the rating of schools  and teachers based on test scores,  and the possibility of closing "failing" schools and handing them over to private vendors. It also involved, from the start, voucher programs to let students at failing schools go to private schools. This move was predicated on the idea that private schools are always better, even if they aren't subject to the same standardized tests and accountability measures as public schools. No Child Left Behind made this agenda national. Race to the Top made it worse. 

I think many reformers really thought, and still think, they are helping public schools by forcing them to participate in their own destruction and create their own competitionBut certainly not all of them. 

For many of them, the goal has always been to destroy public education. And their supposed attempts to improve the schools were a brilliant and ironic way of destroying them in full view of the public, with public approval. 

The question is, again, does the end justify the means? 

Here is what the "means," have done to schools. 

For the past decade or more students have been subjected to schools that are really test preparation factories. In elementary school, history, science, recess, and the arts have been nudged out of schools to make way for test prep in reading, math, and sometimes writing. Instruction has become limited to teaching students to answer test-questions, which has warped the actual content being taught. I have written frequently about the effect test-prep has had and continues to have on writing instruction. And more and more time is being devoted not just to test-prep, but to testing itself. I recently wrote in this space about the weeks of time our school was forced to devote to cycling our students through computer tests in writing, reading, and math, and the disruption it caused campus-wide for not days but weeks

The very things that would help our students succeed are the things being taken away. 

Free play has been researched and found to improve creative thinking, self control, and the ability to learn new things. So we take away recess to improve test scores. 

Background knowledge is one of the chief things students need to read well, so what do we do? We take away elementary science and history, the very places where students get the background knowledge to read well later. With the introduction of the Common Core Standards, we are told not to use background knowledge at all, but to focus on the text alone, in what some authors have called Zombie New Criticism. I once sat through a Common Core workshop where we spent over an hour attempting to interpret The Gettysburg Address without using any of our knowledge about The Civil War, the battle itself, or Lincoln. It was not edifying. 

This testing culture leads, ironically, to a lack of real thinking about instruction. It leads teachers and students alike to not really think about their subjects in a deep and meaningful way, but to be compliant, to assume the rubrics and curriculum maps and textbooks and test prep materials will tell them all they need to know. It leads to a culture like the one I illustrated here, where the human mind is like a bucket, and knowledge is dumped out onto a test and forgotten. 



The testing culture has not only hurt instruction and learning, it has turned students into data points. At one point my wife, also a teacher, advocated for a brilliant, straight-A English student who was leaving our middle school to go to the high school. She wrote well and read well and thought well, but didn't test well. When my wife tried to get her into honors English at the high school, she was informed that the student's test scores were too low for that placement, and that as a school, they were "beholden to the state" to make placements based on test scores. I have heard teachers refer to students by their test scores. "He's a 5." "She's a 2." "I don't want those 1's in my class." 

The education reformers attempts to improve teaching and teachers have brought teacher morale to an all-time low. Career teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Teachers are being evaluated by ever-fluctuating test scores, being rated 'basic" or "unsatisfactory" on an arbitrary rubric, being micromanaged and told exactly what and how to teach instead of being encouraged, or even allowed, to be creative. Teachers are having health problems, depression, and stress. I have been there. 

Some would argue that teacher stress is an adult concern, and that we need to think about the students first. But the way we treat teachers is the way we treat students. Who do you want in front of your class-- a passionate, intelligent, creative, responsive teacher, or a teacher whose passion, intelligence, creativity and responsiveness have been turned off in favor of every teacher following the same workbook program or script? We have not only disenfranchised teachers, we have redefined teaching in negative and destructive ways. Enrollments in education colleges are down. Young people have heard: teaching is an awful job choice now. 

A teacher's role is more than just "curriculum dispensing" or being a "Quantifiable Learning Gains Facilitator." A teacher should be a role model for passionate engagement in a subject or subjects, a role model for life-long learning and reading, a role model for creativity on the job. When we take away a teachers passion and creativity, we take away what makes them a teacher. And we have been systematically killing off passion and creativity in our teachers. 

Education reformers' approaches have not improved education, and have in fact, come close to ruining our public schools. But the end justifies the  means, right? Once we have our glorious free-market educational utopia, it will all be worth it, right? 

Only if you think propaganda and subterfuge are legitimate ways to enact change. Jeb Bush, who instituted the education reforms in Florida that have made schools into test factories, had the gall to write a editorial piece about the virtues of virtual schools for the Orlando Sentinel a few years back, suggesting that virtual schools were a good way to escape those awful, test-driven public schools. He designed those public schools to be test-driven--he forced them to be test-driven. But then he claimed that being test driven makes public schools awful, so we should fund private alternatives. 

Even if you think free-market schools are the solution, do you really think lying to the public about your real goals and undermining public schools while pretending to help them are above-board methods for achieving your goals?  Do you really think that the ruined educations of a generation of students, the ruined careers of hundreds of thousands of devoted teachers, and the factorization of thousands of schools is just a little collateral damage? 

I don't.