Kids First

Former congressman from the SF Bay Area George Miller has teamed up with Students First to start the process of reimagining California’s education system. I attended today’s roundtable discussion, the first of several, and will post my thoughts after I’ve had a chance to digest them a bit. In the meantime, you can read the press release, as well as my initial (minimal) commentary, here.

Privacy in the classroom?

Via Instapundit, I am treated to the story of a student who was suspended for recording a teacher’s behavior in the classroom.

A Samuel Gaines Academy student was suspended this week after she says she was trying to defend a classmate.

Brianna Cooper, 11, says she took an audio recording in class of what she says depicted her teacher bullying a student.

Instead of receiving praise, Cooper says she was suspended for five days when the school said her video was illegal.

In legal terms… well, I’m not licensed to practice law in Florida, so I’ll leave this one up to the local police:

Law enforcement officers say recording someone without their knowledge can be legal so long as there is not an expectation of privacy.

So the questions to be asked here, it seems to me, are two:

First, does it matter at all whether the child’s recording was illegal or not? And second, if it does matter, is there an expectation of privacy in a classroom?

The first question seems fairly straightforward. In general, I think that most people would agree that behavior doesn’t need to be illegal to warrant suspension. Students get suspended all the time for doing things that are not in violation of any criminal (or even civil) statute. It’s not illegal, after all, to throw one’s book at the chalkboard in frustration, or to call one’s teacher a worthless sack of ignorance fit only for target practice. Yet these things will surely lead to suspension. So it doesn’t seem to me that it’s absolutely NECESSARY that the behavior be illegal in order for it to lead to a suspension. It may, however, be sufficient. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that a student who breaks the law at school is liable to be punished to some *lesser* extent by the school, through disciplinary procedures.

Now, the school appears to have stated that the reason for the suspension was that the behavior was illegal. But one could reasonably interpret that claim as arguing, essentially, “The student is being suspended for the behavior, and by the way this is entirely reasonable because the behavior in question is so bad that it’s illegal.”

Let’s give the school the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that the behavior is not, and need not be illegal at all. Can the school punish this student anyway?

I don’t think so. Even in the rights-impoverished climate that is the American public school, students have First Amendment rights. Is the exercise of those rights significantly curtailed by case law supporting the school’s ability to keep order and look after the student body’s welfare? Sure. But the rights still exist. I’m not a First Amendment lawyer of any stripe, but it strikes me that where the photographing or recording is being used for communicative purposes, or to gather information about what public officials are doing on public property, the First Amendment is squarely implicated. This certainly seems to be such a case.

That means, if I remember my Educational Con Law correctly, that in order to ban this behavior — even if it’s not illegal — that a school needs to show that there’s a reasonable concern that there will be a “substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities” — the Tinker standard. There are a few other exceptions, but I don’t think they are relevant here.

So now let’s give me the benefit of the doubt, and say that I’m right and that the school does need the behavior to be illegal in order for the suspension to be righteous. Then the question becomes one of whether there is an “expectation of privacy” in the classroom. There’s a reasonable, albeit somewhat politically motivated discussion, of the relevant statutes here, discussing the recording of Mitt Romney’s remarks in Florida in 2012. The gist seems to be, with respect to the Florida statute anyway, that there are a lot of factors that can go into establishing or destroying an expectation of privacy:

One Florida appellate court has held that it did not violate the Florida wiretap act for a subordinate law enforcement officer to record his supervisors’ statements in a disciplinary interview; the court held that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy because of the number of persons present (five, the subordinate and four senior officers), the location of the interview (in a sergeant’s office at a police station), and the nature of the interview (a disciplinary matter). Dept. of Agriculture & Consumer Servs. v. Edwards, 654 So. 2d 628, 632-33 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995); contrast Horning-Keating at 447 (legitimate expectation of privacy in communications between clients and attorney in attorney’s office).

Here, it’s a classroom. It’s a public building — one with restricted access for safety reasons, but a public building nonetheless. The teacher is a public employee carrying out her duties, in front of twenty or thirty other people who are sitting there watching.

Additionally, it does not strike me that the classroom is really a place of privacy: observers constantly come into classrooms to, well, you know… observe. Principals worth their salt regularly do walkarounds. Teachers themselves record their teaching when they are trying to get nationally certified, or sometimes for performance reviews. Certainly the students don’t have an expectation of privacy at a school that could easily be covered by CCTV cameras and teachers watching their every move. And from the student’s point of view, the classroom is not much different from the rest of the school. I don’t see why a teacher should have an expectation of privacy in a situation in which a student would not.

So my tentative conclusions are (1) that it probably does matter that the student’s behavior was illegal (assuming that the statute is Constitutionally sound), and (2) that there probably isn’t a reasonable expectation of privacy in a classroom. And frankly, I’ve long thought that I’d *want* cameras recording everything that happened in my classroom if I were a public school teacher, both for my own edification and my legal protection. I can see why parents would want to be able to see what is happening in their child’s classroom, to verify or dispel the child’s complaints about school and about teachers. I think it’s not crazy to believe that principals should be able to flip a switch in their office and see what’s happening in their school’s classrooms.

So even if there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public school classroom — and I am skeptical of that claim — there probably shouldn’t be.

Private schools, on the other hand… are a different beast. Let them set themselves up however they want, and if parents like the monitored school, they can choose it. If teachers want a monitored classroom, they can take the job at the monitored school. And if they don’t, they can pick a school with a more reverent approach to classroom privacy.

School choice or school chance?

I have long been interested in school choice as a concept–logistically, ethically, how it interacts with democratic principles. Yesterday, I posted about a study exploring the choices school leaders in New Orleans make in a competitive school choice model. Today, I am posting about an account of the school choice system in DC (the city where I was born and raised :) ) from a parent perspective. Education journalist and now assistant dean of Georgetown’s Master’s in Professional Studies Program in Journalism Amy Kovac-Ashley wrote a great post (h/t Guy Brandenberg) about her and her husband’s experiences navigating the lottery system in DC:

For months?–and, in my case, years–parents have been poring over school data, researching curricula, visiting school buildings to meet with principals, teachers and parents and asking questions of other parents on listservs, on the playground and at community meetings throughout the city. We all want to get our children into the “best” school that is the “right fit.” And it all comes down to putting together a list of 12 schools in ranked order in the hopes that our lottery number and/or other preferences will get our children into a school we actually want to send them to.

So I applied that experience to our quest for the “right” school for our 3-year-old son, which meant creating a master Google spreadsheet with every school we wanted to visit and all of the dates of the planned open houses and tours. My husband and I visited most of them together but also had to divide and conquer a bit when a work meeting or volunteer obligation prevented us from attending as a couple. All in all, we visited 18 schools from late November to late February. We put together our final list of 12 schools in the last few days before the March 2 deadline.

She goes on to address in ten succinct points her observations and insights, and she also asks hard, deep questions about the ethics, equity, and the upholding of democratic principles in the process and in the system generally.

This is precisely the kind of frank, honest, and nuanced thinking about education matters such as school choice that should get more attention but doesn’t. I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Ultimately, Kovac-Ashley describes the system in DC as one of “chance, not choice.” Parents in New Orleans (and Chicago) have echoed the sentiment .

 

The Brave New World Of Teaching

One of the teachers at my school recently sent the following post to members of our staff:

Whenever a college student asks me, a veteran high-school English educator, about the prospects of becoming a public-school teacher, I never think it’s enough to say that the role is shifting from “content expert” to “curriculum facilitator.” Instead, I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.

I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

“So if you want to be a teacher,” I tell the college student, “you better be a super-teacher.”

I’m not a Luddite, but neither do I see the imminent replacement of flesh-and-blood teachers.  Thomas Edison thought that the movie projector would revolutionize education because it would allow every student to have the best teachers in the world…does that sound at all like what we’re hearing about the internet?

I don’t think teachers are going away, and I don’t hold this position not from a romantic point of view but from a practical one.  Yes, humans are social animals and yes, it’s much easier to learn in an interactive environment than from a video screen (as someone earning a master’s degree online, I state that last point categorically).  Teachers will remain in large part because of those two points (and I would wager that the classroom of 50 years from now won’t look all that different from the way it looks today).  Do you really think Edison’s position will finally hold sway because of the internet?  A large proportion of the planet has access to Harvard, Yale, and MIT professors and lectures entirely free, and yet…

The other concern at the linked article was the pendulum swing from the teacher as “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.  That pendulum will always swing, there’s no reason to believe that the teacher will ever permanently become a mere facilitator of curriculum–again, my own experience reinforces that belief.

I’m far more worried that the state teachers’ retirement system is going to go broke before I retire than I am that the teaching profession itself will disappear.

cross-posted at rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com

Is the school choice model making winners at educating or winners at marketing?

Jacob Bell at Ed Week’s Inside School Research blog reported that Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor at University of Texas-Austin and research associate at Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, recently released findings of a study she did which examined the choices school leaders in New Orleans make in a competitive school choice model (bolded emphasis mine):

The study’s findings show that leaders of high-status schools—those which have high student achievement and are often viewed as competition by other schools—were more likely to respond to competition by developing niche programs, instituting operational changes like increased fundraising or expansion into pre-K education, and using more selective or exclusionary practices regarding enrollment.

Leaders of lower-status schools were under more pressure to compete, and employed a larger number of strategies to promote their schools. These strategies included improving academics, providing a wider range of extracurricular activities, gathering information, and increasing marketing.

The most important finding of the study, according to Jabbar, was that two-thirds of the leaders reported not implementing substantial academic or operational strategies aimed at improving their schools in order to increase their competitiveness.

Rather, 25 of the 30 schools promoted existing programs and assets through marketing ventures such as advertising or recruitment fairs. The study determined that changes such as marketing to and screening students were inefficient and unfair.

Yes, the changes such as marketing to and screening of students are unfair (and disturbing), that is, giving unfair advantages to some schools over others by excluding certain students, but that’s not the most troubling aspect of this. The most troubling aspect is that according to this study, competition seems to be spurring competition, not improvements in the enterprise of teaching and learning. I was under the impression that the school choice-based/school-system-as-a-marketplace model was meant to make it so that schools win at offering great education, with competition as a means to that end, and not that they would win, as in they sold their product to the most students because they focused their efforts on marketing.

Do we want schools that are great at educating or great at marketing?

Giving opinion its due

I have been thinking about Justin P. McBrayer’s New York Times op-ed, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” McBrayer notes that schools implicitly tout moral relativism by having students distinguish repeatedly between “fact” and “opinion.” According to McBrayer, this creates confusion: Not all truths are proven facts, and not all opinions are “mere” opinion. Unfortunately, when given “fact vs. opinion” exercises,  students learn to treat all value statements as opinion. For instance, the statement “killing for fun is wrong” would count as opinion, when, in McBrayer’s view, it should be treated as fact. Over time, after performing many such exercises, students conclude (without thinking the matter through) that there are no moral facts.

I would take McBrayer’s argument one step further (or maybe in a direction he didn’t intend). Opinion itself was not always viewed as a one-off statement of belief or prejudice. It involved reasoning, choice, and judgment about things that were not fully known or proven. The word derives from the Proto-Indo-European *op- (“to choose”) and later from the Latin opinari (“think, judge, suppose, opine”). The OED gives, as its first definition of “opinion,” “What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in in my opinion: according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion : a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.” John Milton’s elevates the concept of opinion in his speech Areopagitica: “Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”; a similar idea appears in Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love: “Opinyon is whyle a thyng is in non certayne, and hydde from mens very knowlegyng.” (Both quotes are included in the OED entry.)

Yet for all its former respectability, opinion has always run the risk of falling back on prejudice and superstition. This is particularly true of group opinion. John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of individual expression precisely because the alternative—unconsidered public opinion—holds so many dangers and so much power:

Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.

Ironically, to protect individual opinion, one must also release it, to some degree, from responsibility Mill does not say this outright, but it seems to follow from his argument:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.

If I can say whatever I want about any subject, if I am not bound to standards of research and reasoning, then my opinion is unfettered but also potentially trivial. On the other hand, if only the qualified elite may speak, then, as Mill notes, certain prevailing opinions go unquestioned while bright and necessary challenges are suppressed.

So, as opinion becomes liberated, it also degrades—to where it becomes near-synonymous with “something that can’t be taken seriously.” As McBrayer points out, the Common Core includes the standard “Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” How did “opinion” become separate from “reasoned judgment”? The standard seems to imply that opinion does not involve judgment or reasoning; that is both peculiar and telling. One can have the best of both worlds: freedom of opinion combined with recognition that opinion can be well or poorly formed.

From what I have seen of the Common Core in word and practice, it treats opinion and argument as separate. Something that can’t be supported with “evidence” is regarded as mere opinion; something that can has a more elevated status. But facts are not always definitive and must be selected out of many; moreover, there are good arguments that don’t have “evidence” behind them. As a result, there is little room (and no good word) for inquiring into matters of uncertainty—matters that cannot be proven one way or another but that require more than a snap judgment.

To return to McBrayer’s example, killing for fun is wrong—few would dispute that—but why? Why did he not say “killing of any kind, for any reason, is wrong”? Perhaps he was leaving room for the possibility that killing may sometimes be necessary and thus not altogether wrong. In that case, how is “killing for fun” different? Let’s assume he is referring to the killing of humans; if it is true that human life has dignity (which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t define here), then human life should not be taken lightly. Kill if you must (though some would argue that there is never such necessity), but don’t kill gratuitously, whatever you do. Thus, “killing for fun is wrong” follows—or at least can follow—from the axiom that human life has dignity. I have not given any “evidence” that killing for fun is wrong, but I have identified a possible axiom behind the statement.

Opinion does not have to be trivial; it runs the gamut between folly and wisdom. Instead of dismissing opinion, schools should teach students to form theirs as well as they can.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

(I am delighted to be guest-blogging along with Rachel, Michael, and Darren. I probably won’t post anything else this week but will be back on April 4.)

 

Mixed Messages and Mixed-Sex Bathrooms

What with all the brouhaha lately about so-called “rape culture” on American university campuses, as well as the increasingly watered-down definitions of rape and assault, one wonders why a university would want to make it easier for men to have access to women’s bathrooms:

NBC Charlotte learned Tuesday night, due to an anonymous tip, that the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus now allows transgender students, faculty and staff to use the restroom of their choice…

UNCC posted an update on it’s website, reading, “The current policy states that any student, faculty or staff member may use the restroom that corresponds to the individual’s gender identity.”

cross-posted at rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com

Sayonara

I’m off to Japan to look at cherry blossoms.

As your vacation from me, enjoy the bloggery of Diana Senechal (On Education and Other Things), Michael E. Lopez, Darren Miller (Right on the Left Coast) and Rachel Levy (All Things Education).

Hollywood can save our families — but won’t


MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has increased searches for contraceptives and reduced teen births by 5.7 percent, a study concludes. 

Hollywood could “save our families” by changing story lines to promote stable, two-parent families, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. But don’t hold your breath.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent.

Extended families can help, but single parents have fewer relatives to call on, especially if the mother was raised by a single  mother, she notes. Government can’t make up for a missing parent. “Even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home,” writes McArdle.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent — between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn’t actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.

If Hollywood “believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do,” she concludes.

Open access, but not open exit

Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida has won this year’s Aspen Prize for community college excellence for a 62 percent graduation and transfer rate, far higher than the 40 percent national average.

Sixty-three percent of transfers complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, the Aspen committee noted. That’s higher than the completion average — 59 percent — for students who start at four-year colleges and universities.

“We’re an open-access college, not open-exit,” the college’s president, Jackson N. Sasser, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

SFC works closely with the nearby University of Florida to help students transfer and earn a UF degree. In addition, the college offers some four-year degrees in vocational fields, such as information technology.

Students are encouraged to choose a program of study as early as possible.

An online program similar to the travel-booking site Expedia helps them map out classes that meet their degree requirements and are available during the times they can attend class. Instead of a travel itinerary, the program spits out a list of suggested class schedules. A student clicks on one, and a hold is placed for a spot in all of those classes. If he picks a class outside his degree plan, it shows up in red, meaning it’s OK to sign up, but it may not count toward the degree.

Florida high school graduates aren’t required to take remedial courses. SFC offers support to help less-prepared students pass college-level courses.