School as Community

While waxing romantic about families in my last blog, and meaning every single word, I’m also reminded that there’s good reasons behind my concern with using family-like metaphors to describe good schools or good colleagues.  The distinctions between them are too important to ignore.  One of the most dangerous being that our students already have families whose ties of loyalty usually come before their loyalty to their school and us.  That’s how it should be. And the same is probably true for the faculty, of course. We get in trouble when we forget this. But there’s an essential link between what we mean by community and family. It has something to do with trust.

Even within a good family, trust is not 100%. There are times…. and similarly, in the larger world, there are important reasons for families to educate their children in coping with situations that require distrust.  For some this wariness covers a broad terrain—and again, wisely so. The wisdom of life experience needs to be passed along to the young, and trust is sometimes the victim.

The necessary tension between trust and distrust is also at the heart of democracy. How  to put our own interests first while also not losing sight of our connection with “others_–including the entire species! We’re all dependent on each other in some ways for the health and welfare of the entire planet, our fellow citizens, our tribe, our particular blood- related family….and ourselves. How to wed narrow self-interest to the self-interest of the planet can’t be reduced to an algebraic equation.

Alas.

The balancing act that putting this all together under one roof involves is tricky, yields to no clear formulas or recipes and is in many ways a matter of trial and error.

That’s where democracy comes in. It allows for trial and error. It  is a trial and error undertaken by ordinary human beings, who have different self-interests! An impossible dream?  Perhaps, but working on it is worthwhile given the alternatives.

Some kind of mutual respect sustains it, enriches it and allows sufficient trust to grow over the centuries? How can one balance such trust with skepticism? What essential character traits makes this more than an idle dream and how do family and school negotiate this balancing act?? It’s a starting point to an education in democracy.

Actually, of course, it starts with the most simple one-on-one relationship of trust between infant and adult caregiver. It grows as the child works out the myriad relationships that effect her life. It includes trusting one’s own judgment—differentiating between levels of reality. This is turn requires settings where the child and later the adult, can keep experimenting, pulling back when necessary, reassigning risks, giving one’s all to a task or a relationship, or not. Making sense of the world starts at birth, and who and how much to trust others is part of this learning experience. It requires, perhaps those “habits of mind” which the Central Park East and Mission Hill schools rested on, plus… certain kinds of life experience. Life experience cannot be replaced by virtual realities or games of trust—but only by new experiences. What then happens when virtual reality replaces other life experience?

Yes, in the end we have to make a leap (of a sort) of faith and treat the “whole world” with some default position of trust — while also applying the habits of mind of skepticism and empathy that we tried to spell at in those Five Habits of Mind (and heart).

That is why I cherish the intimacy that a small school makes possible, the opportunity to be part of every decision made in some form or another as we train ourselves to be citizens of a far more anonymous world—one more like those huge anonymous high schools. At some point too big is too big whether it is several million or a mere few thousand. We can’t sit together and all be heard unless the numbers are far, far smaller. As an expert on nonprofit boards once wrote (I forget the name?),  if you want a Board that really has a role to make in policy than make the board  small—ideally under 20.

In our attempt to create a staff-run democracy we never quite made it, especially since we did not assume that only certified teachers constituted the “staff”, but we came close.  Our classroom sizes followed the same rule. More tricky, even in a small school, is the “school-as-a-whole” democracy where we fell back on representative formats, experimenting all the time with what was policy and what was not, what needed to remain in the hands of each individual and what belonged to the larger community. Our default rule being to leave as much power in the hands of those who must implement policy as feasible. Different circumstances dictated different answers in different schools— for example, how formally autonomous the school itself was, how much choice folks had about being members of the community and how expert the professional staff was.

I would like to use this blog to explore what I learned about democracy over the years of work in these schools and schools like them that may help us think about why small intimate non-virtual relationships are still at the heart of it and the ways I see them endangered. It is why I also hope that e-mail et al won’t replace our once every five years gathering of the clan.

Family Reunion

ATTENTION ONE AND ALL. Check out the trailer of the new film on Mission Hill: Good Morning Mission Hill. Check on where and when it’s being shown. And ask your local PBS station to show it if they are not already planning to.

Dear friends (and other readers),

deb in pool2

As I lolled lazily in the swimming pool (see above) in Bodega Bay –at our one every five-year family reunion) I thought mostly about my amazing and wonderful Larner family (descendants of my grandparents, Sara and Maylor Larner). I am lucky to have such interesting, kind, and engaged relatives. I also had time to think about absolutely nothing. Plus a little left over to think about “the world,” and my particular obsessions—public schooling and the democratic idea. How much does the sense of family that pervades my life and in my work in schools have a connection to my obsession about the future of both.

On my return home from California I joined a few friends at a local Hillsdale restaurant to celebrate the work of a colleague and friend—Nancy Mann—who has just retired from being the principal of Fannie Lou Hammer Freedom High School in the Bronx. She was a great CPESS humanities teacher and our union rep, and, along with Peter Steinberg, agreed to start a new CPESS-like school in the Bronx. She has just completed 20 (could it be?) years of inspiring leadership in that quite remarkable school. The occasion felt family-like.
-Deb

 

Testing scandal

Dear readers,

I have been silent since June fourth because my car, without my consent, left the road and crashed into a field—totaling it, but fortunately not me. I’m very lucky to have escaped with minor damage, but enough to “lay me low” for the past month plus. But, when I read Rachel Aviv’s marvelous article about cheating to boost scores in Atlanta (July 2lst New Yorker) I felt propelled to respond. It is time to return.

What a perceptive and clear account of an old wound. And done with a rare sympathy for the “villains”—teachers and administrators. Especially those far down the hierarchy. It is a subject about which I too have been unwisely silent for too long.

Aviv tracks math teacher Damany Lewis and his principal Christopher Waller and the life inside their middle school—starting in 2006 during Beverly Hall’s superintendency. She does not condone the many teachers who followed Lewis and Waller’s lead. But she describes the relentless, not quite inevitable path they each took to protect their students, the school and, of course, their own jobs too. They lost on all counts. But they are, I believe, only the tip of an iceberg that has been around for a very long time—and which the media has deliberately refused to take into account—and has in fact aided and abetted

I know personally.

In the 1970s—when I was the teacher-director of the newly formed Central Park East elementary school in East Harlem‑I faced a similar dilemma. Because we were an “alternative” school located in larger neighborhood school, our scores were not reported separately in any public way. Thus I could ignore test score data published annually in the New York Times, etc. But one year I noticed that our host school, like a few others in the District, had vastly improved their test scores, while ours remained at a reasonably low end along with a majority of the District’s schools. We had little respect for what the tests actually told us about children’s reading, but we knew their test results could matter later on for our older students and, furthermore, given our school’s “experimental” staus, good scores might matter. What to do?

In short, the pressure to game the scores or cheat outright, is not such a new phenomenon. We faced the same dilemma Lewis and Waller did—just 40 years earlier. As a school Board member in my home District, I witnessed the pressure put on superintendents, teachers and principals to raise scores. Each was given a target to reach—not too much or too little was the request. One school got into trouble for its too rapid ascent, but most for their insufficient improvement. Meanwhile in East Harlem the new superintendent was trying to make some fairly rapid changes, aimed particularly at the middle schools. He knew that test scores were one way his novel practices would be judged. I was his fan and supporter. I was not surprised that he was elated by the rising scores and not concerned about the believability of the miraculous improvements of a few schools.

I went to see him to raise some concerns. I told him that I had long been suspicious about reported test scores. I had made a point of studying those locations where scores rose unusually rapidly. I discovered, for example, that some could be accounted for by a change in the population served, but others were more puzzling. When asked, principals would point to a new reading series, for example, but since this series was in use in other schools whose scores had dropped it seemed an incomplete answer. I noted that there were such “miracle” score in our East Harlem district. No one in the testing industry, I argued, believed that credible. Did he? He acknowledged some doubts. I suggested he pursue a sampled retesting of some schools and see whether the changes held up. He said it would create a lot of unneeded anxiety and anger in schools selected and that he felt it unwise to do so at this time. But, I persisted.

If the validity of test scores were never going to be questioned it put all schools in an awkward position. Should they do “whatever necessary” to raise their scores too? Should I? I told him that reporters often called me to inquire about test results and that I felt I was misleading them by not mentioning my suspicions.

In fact, my suspicions had been reaffirmed in a District where I worked before CPE was founded. A teacher had told me, in a panic, that she had cheated (by using the test as a practice test beforehand) and was afraid a student might expose her. In fact, the next year I overheard her bragging to a colleague about her spectacular test scores. No one confronted her or questioned her amazing teaching.

Thus I told an inquiring reporter that the scores might not be entirely what they seemed to be. A few days later the superintendent was waiting for me after recess, with the Daily News in his hand. He asked only if the quotation by me was accurate and left satisfied.

The tests themselves are incredibly misleading and biased against kids the further they are from the “mainstream” in home-language, culture, family wealth and education, etc. I had documented this in a study I conducted while teaching in Central Harlem. The study was published by City College—with recorded interviews with students about the reasons for their answers. But it took a while before I realized that, as the tests carried increasingly greater stakes, we were all affected by these not so subtle pressures to raise scores one way or another. It was not only changes in the curriculum and pedagogy, which I regretted, but also in the rampant increase (I was sure) of cheating. As long as neither the System nor the Media, now forewarned, took test score miracles at face value the pressure on everyone to cheat would only get worse. (Wouldn’t there be more cheating if we thought there was no auditing of returns?)

It is absurd and there’s even a sociological “law” about this phenomenon of cheating and gaming screos: “as the data carries increasingly higher stakes, the data becomes increasingly less trustworthy.” The new “reform-by-testing” movement has utterly ignored this “law” and builds its recipe for reform on continually raising the stakes. That this leads many students and teachers to cheat in one way or another is hardly surprising. In fact, the teachers who most care about their kids and the school, and who know the tests are a poor discriminator, are (like Lewis in Atlanta) lured into viewing the situation as a no-win. They are often driven by a desire to protect children from being abused by an inappropriate measure of their success, a good school from being closed, and their own work denigrated. Teachers resort to turning their classrooms into test prep centers to everything up to erasing a few answers here and there.

My sympathies go out to all. I even feel sad for Beverly Hall whom I had very slightly known and liked. I certainly sympathized with my superintendent for not wanting to pursue the matter further. Thus I felt as Aviv did in her New Yorker piece—sympathetic to the cheaters.

Meanwhile the real villains have never ben called to account. I mean everyone who has encouraged the use of such data inappropriately as well as the media for making it so easy for so many of us to become corrupted in the process.

Thanks Rachel Aviv; your story meant a lot to me. It brought back a moral burden that has bothered me for all the years since.

Teacher Tenure

nicholasmeier:

My son’s latest blog on the teacher tenure issue

Originally posted on Nicholas Meier:

There was a recent lower court ruling against so-called “Teacher Tenure” here in California. I am really not sure about the extent of the ruling, but the general verdict was that “tenure” was unfair to providing an equal education for all students as called for by the State Constitution.

I believe the reading was faulty for a broad range of reasons. First of all, teachers in California do not actually have tenure, at least not in the sense that professors get tenure.

When a professor has tenure they can be fired only for some gross negligence or breaking of the law. Poor teaching, doing a shoddy job, or poor research cannot lead to loss of position. under most university tenure rules. Of course, it takes much longer (typically 7 years) and a much more difficult process for professors to get that protection.

americas-corporate-headquarters-comic

As a for k-12 teachers in California, my…

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The Arts

Dear friends and readers,

Too much happening and so I forget to keep up with this! I’m hoping some are also reading Bridging Differences (see inset)—although we’ll be off the air for most of June, July and August.

Was struck by commentary about Michelle Obama’s endorsement of art education. Of course, all help is welcome in an important cause.

But, like others, I’m disturbed by her rationale: it raises test scores.

I used to point out that the purpose of a good arts education is art. And perhaps the best reason to learn to read et al is that it may expand one’s appreciation of the arts. Art is and has been at the heart of what distinguishes human beings from all other species! It’s our greatest triumph. And along with language probably one of our oldest accomplishments.

Story-telling is one of these great arts that distinguish humanity. It’s well to remember that Homer was, in our current sense of the word, an illiterate. “Just” a great story-teller. In our eagerness to get children to read early we’ve forgotten this important form of art. We no longer encourage parents to tell their children stories, or encourage teachers to do the same, much less encourage children to do so! It’s hard to find a civilization, culture or ethnic group that hasn’t achieved art of universal appeal.

Don’t, don’t let them turn art into a test-prep subject.

Smart Machines

Dear Readers

Here’s a troubling book title: Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, written by Simon Head. In a way his argument is hardly new. Most science fiction was based on this fear. But in the last fifty years we have been bombarded with the opposite message: the 2lst century needs better minds, smarter workers, etc. I’ve been a skeptic, but reading the review by Richard Skidelsky in the NY Review of Books (April 3, 2014) brought me up sharply against these conflicting visions of the future.

I have always contended that we would always have been better off if we had used our minds better—and that it was well within our human potential. 2lst century minds were needed in the 18th and 19th century. Maybe we would not have had WW I!. if we had so-called 2lst century skills. Perhaps because I was more focused on democracy than the workplace I have been less enamored with the idea that these are newly needed skills. I figured that a more democratic workplace would also need more thoughtful workers whose experiences were better used in making worldly decisions.

Head and Skidelsky note that 70-80% of the employees in modern economies are in the service sector. But that does not mean, as we thoughtlessly assumed, that such “white collar” work requires more mental acuity than the old “blue collar.” Head “analyzes the methods used by Walmart and Amazon to squeeze ever more production out of their workers”—white or blue—“through pervasive control of the human conveyor belt. Speed-up and all—since the faster the speed the lower the per unit cost.” Head describes “Computer Business Systems”—who “have colonized much of the service sector” to “manage the affairs of giant global corporations and micromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” We have for long assumed that if you had to work with your hands, you needed fewer brains. We seem to be entering an age whether neither is required?

For example, collaboration is all the buzzword these days.. But “as machines get better and better at mimicking the intelligence integral to personal service” less and less thinking goes into this collaboration. Of course, we all know that at times these computerized human beings don’t work at all, when the voice at the other end of the phone is not programmed to answer our irregular question. But it still saves money, and even a smart human might not have all the answers, and “smartness” comes at a fiscal cost.

Head bemoans the loss of the kind of “academics,” who were “paid to think” rather than paid “to produce useful papers to meet Key Performance Indicators.”

But for the wealthy—who own these new tools—service is still personal. They don’t call the ordinary scripted bank clerks to ask questions, but have their private advisers and lackeys. They don’t send their kids to scripted schools, but to schools where their future peers join them in genuine “critical” thinking tasks. How can we old-fashioned school reformers honestly urge all our students to have “high” expectations (re money and status) if the future only holds promise to a few at the top? And what makes me believe I can convince them that even those few slots are not already reserved for the children and children’s children of those already at the top? Perhaps we should be teaching resistance, not collaboration?

Head points to some of the ways German industry is governed as an example of better ways. I ponder the lessons his book raises, and wonder. Maybe we can pay enough to everyone so that everyone works fewer hours and weeks and years. Thus producing a citizenry that has the leisure and incentive to attend to creating a smarter democracy with wiser views about the public use of space and resources—citizens paid for the leisure needed to think about and act on behalf of the future of our planet.

This solves the problem

Thanks to Diane Ravitch for forwarding this important news to us:

“This month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state legislators passed a law, intended to take effect by the next school year, setting a 2 percent limit on the amount of classroom time that could be spent on test preparation, or about three and a half days in a school year. Charter schools, some of which are known for an almost religious devotion to test preparation, are not obligated to comply, officials said.”