Sacrifice your family or flip a burger

Last week, when the New York State legislature debated and passed Governor Cuomo’s budget bill–which included details for a revised teacher evaluation system–Carmen Arroyo, 84th District Assembly Member, said something curious.

Those teachers that are responsible and are doing their job, those teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children they serve are going to be protected. Those that are not good, better get a job at McDonald’s.

I watched part of the video with hopes of seeing this quote in context–but alas, I did not have time to trudge through the six hours if it, nor did spot-checks offer any help.

So, keeping in mind that this was probably an off-the-cuff statement, I will take a look at its rhetoric.

There’s a misleading apposition, of course, of “teachers that are responsible and are doing their job” and “teachers that sacrifice their families and themselves for the children hey serve.” You can be responsible and do a good job without sacrificing your family or yourself. (Much depends here on the meaning of “sacrifice.”)

That leads to the next problem: a false opposition (is it false?) between honoring your family and yourself and serving the kids at school. To what degree are teachers expected to give up one good for the other? Arroyo implies that they are indeed expected to do so, but why, how, and to what extent, she does not say.

Finally, she implies that those who are not good at their jobs (or not willing to make the sacrifices) have few other prospects besides flipping burgers (or possibly working the cash register, if you can read the keys). I wonder what she means. Is her point that teachers are unqualified for anything else? Or that any serious profession requires sacrifice? I suspect it’s the latter and would respond that the sacrifices vary widely in degree and nature. If you work as an editor, for instance, you may have long hours and deadline pressure, but you are not typically responsible for the well-being of 150 children, nor are you typically on your toes and presenting at 8 a.m.

In short, Arroyo’s statement needs a lot of elucidation. Its logical lapses are nothing novel; one finds them in education discusion at large.

Note: I am currently away from the computer, so this commentary is briefer than it would otherwise be.

The luxury (or basic good) of return

Today I am traveling to Boston to attend an alumnae book discussion, led by my former English teachers, at my high school alma mater (a girls’ school; hence “alumnae”). I don’t always get to go, since it doesn’t always fall during break. I have gone four times so far and will go as many more times as I can.

Is it a luxury to return to one’s former school? When I taught at a middle school in Brooklyn, I started to think so. The school was facing co-location with a new high school; there were rumors that we would be gradually phased out. A few teachers, including myself, attended a Community Education Council meeting to voice our concerns. Each of us had two minutes to speak. When my turn came, I spoke of what it would be like for our current students if they had no school to revisit later on, no teachers to tell how they were doing. As I spoke, I realized how strange my words sounded; I saw a vague smile on the face of  the LIS (Local Instructional Superintendent) but heard no one pick up on the idea. They had other things on their minds: overcrowding, job security, etc.

At my current school–a selective public secondary school in Harlem–I have seen students graduate and come back to visit, both formally and informally. We had them come back to talk to current students about college; they have come back of their own accord to speak with teachers, see the school musical, or say hello.

Not everyone wants to return to a former school. Some would just as soon move on. Yet there’s something more than sentimentality that brings people back. There’s a wish to bring a new perspective to the old setting, or to support the school, or to see what has changed and what hasn’t. You find yourself reexamining what this particular education was and how it fits into a broader picture.

I see revisiting one’s school as more than a luxury; it strengthens bonds, allows for insights, and otherwise benefits both the school and its graduates. It builds institutional memory, which can strengthen curriculum, instruction, school traditions, and much more. That said, it isn’t always possible or practical. Some schools disappear; others have high staff turnover; still others have such tight security that visiting becomes prohibitive (so to speak).

A simple conclusion: Schools should allow for it when they can–and do their best to make it fruitful.


Common Core subtraction: informational video or ad?

A video about Common Core subtraction appeared on the Business Insider website today. Titled “Here’s the truth about Common Core’s weird subtraction method,” it credits Alex Kuzoian and Sara Silverstein as its producers but gives no other credits. There’s no mention of authors, editors, voiceover actors, or anyone else.

The video ends with the comment,

When New Math came along, it was supposed to help kids understand what they were doing. This is exactly what Common Core is trying to do now. New Math was mocked for being more concerned about kids’ understanding the steps than getting the right answer. And this is exactly what people are complaining about with Common Core. Change is scary, especially when it involves math.

So, not only is there no author, but there’s no real argument. Are we supposed to infer that people were wrong in their judgments of New Math and are likewise wrong about the Common Core? What about that last sentence? Is the idea that any criticisms can be attributed to Fear of Change?

That seems to be the implication, but it isn’t logical. The suggestion is that there’s a horde of fearful people who complain whenever kids are asked to think. That’s not what’s going on with the Common Core. There have been legitimate criticisms—from people who understand math—that the methods taught under the Common Core are inefficient and confusing.

So, this is an ad. Why not say so? Had you done so, O Business Insider, you’d have scored a few points for honesty.

An alternative to the parent-teacher stampede

The New York Times has an article about the rush and frenzy of parent-teacher conferences. At Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, the yellow tape in the lobby was cut at exactly 1 p.m.; parents made a dash for the stairs in order to reach their appointment locations. (Apparently they made appointments in advance but had to traverse considerable distances from one appointment to the next.) The conferences themselves were no more than five minutes long. Other schools enforced a limit of three minutes per conference.

Are these rushed official parent-teacher conferences needed? Or rather, are they what’s needed?

At the elementary school level, the conferences are often less hectic, because students might have the same classroom teacher for English, math, and even social studies. Except for the “cluster” teachers, most teachers have a small or moderate student load. In high school, each teacher may have 170 students or more. In a school with high parent involvement, it’s difficult to fit all conferences in, so the strict time limits (often enforced by student patrols) become the norm.

I propose a different system.

Consider that some parents come with specific questions and concerns, while others (often the majority) wish to greet the teachers, meet them for the first time, or exchange a few informal words in person.

One parent-teacher night per semester could take the form of a reception. Teachers would greet parents, give a short presentation with Q & A, and talk informally (without privacy).

Then there would be other established times over the course of the year (within or close to the edges of the school day) when parents could come in to speak with teachers one on one. These would be announced at the start of the school year so that everyone could plan.

Some might worry that the individual conferences would add to teachers’ already overloaded schedules. To the contrary: they could end up relieving teachers somewhat. Under the current system, parents and teachers must make any individual appointments at their mutual convenience; there are no prearranged slots for this. Sometimes the appointment takes place before 8 a.m., or between two classes, or during lunch. Sometimes the very scheduling takes more time than the appointment itself (lots of back-and-forth negotiation, cancellation, rescheduling, etc.). If there were a few prearranged appointment times, then parents and teachers would not have to worry about scheduling them; they’d just show up.

Of course, there would still be a need for some spontaneous and emergency meetings. But the non-emergency meetings (which are just as important) would have an allocated time. There would be room to discuss how to help students in need of greater challenge, or students with specific needs. Students could take part in and even initiate the conferences.

Also, such meetings wouldn’t necessarily revolve around report cards. Students, parents, and teachers could look over tests, essays, homework, projects, lessons, and more. They could discuss the concepts of the lessons as well as the students’ performance.

In short, you could meet students’ needs without the stampedes.

Revamping the college admissions process

Over at Room for Debate (The New York Times), various commentators have offered ways to improve and revitalize the college admissions process.

The problems? The application process is so convoluted and complex (even with the Common Application) that students spend hours, weeks, months on applications that might get a quick read at most. Also, application numbers have soared at selective institutions, leaving students uncertain and anxious over their chances. Mixed messages abound. The admissions results often seem illogical or arbitrary, and financial aid awards (or lack thereof) can amount to acceptances and rejections in themselves.

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, revives a suggestion he made a decade ago: Create a lottery system, where those students qualified for the college would be entered in a pool, and a given number would be chosen at random. This would eliminate the pretense that colleges select “the best.”

Alan T. Paynter, an assistant director of admissions and the coordinator of multicultural recruitment for Dickinson College, recommends that colleges give clearer information (not only in brochures but in conversations with applicants) about what they seek.

Alvin E. Roth, the McCaw Professor of Economics at Stanford University, recommends establishing a system whereby students indicate their two top choices. (The American Economic Association established a similar system for the job market.) This would cut down on the number of applications and allow colleges to admit interested students.

Ron Unz, a software developer and publisher of The Unz Review, recommends ending tuition altogether at elite colleges. The free tuition would draw a more diverse applicant pool and allow the colleges to enroll those who qualify, not just those who can pay.

There are more ideas, and most of them strike me as good. Yet I doubt that any one of them would work in isolation. A lottery system could easily lead students to apply to still more colleges. Clear communication is great, but what if colleges are communicating similar messages, even with the new clarity? Roth’s idea could leave many students without a college, and Unz’s would still leave the elite colleges with far more applicants than they could thoroughly consider.

A combination of reforms could work well. Limit the number of colleges to which a student may apply. Have students indicate their top two choices. Give priority to subject-matter tests over SATs. Simplify the financial aid application (and give students earlier information about their financial aid eligibility). Cut excessive administrative costs and increase financial aid. In short, make the process more straightforward and economical. Take the awe and hype out of it. That way, students can apply to colleges with reasonable confidence, and colleges can devote more of their attention to those likely to attend. On the other hand, the streamlining required for such an approach could create problems of its own.


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.)


Foreign or bilingual language instruction?

A new law in Illinois is reportedly galvanizing foreign language instruction initiatives in the state. According to this law, students who master more than one language may be eligible for a “Seal of Biliteracy” on their diplomas.

Chicago Public Schools expects to announce its plan for language instruction next month. Other districts have begun instituting language programs; Glen Ellyn School District’s plan, which has yet to be reviewed, requires students to attain an “intermediate high” level by graduation. The general initiative, which began in California, has been spreading around the country.

The Chicago Tribune explains:

At the Illinois State Board of Education, Reyna Hernandez is the assistant superintendent for the Center for Language and Early Childhood Development. State officials, she said, realize that students aren’t building the language skills they need to thrive in an increasingly multilingual and multicultural world.

How can the world be “increasingly” multilingual and multicultural, unless new languages and cultures are being added at a rapid rate? (There are not, as far as I know.) What’s meant here, I think, is that countries, cities, neighborhoods are becoming more culturally diverse, and more languages are spoken in a given geographical region than before.

If that is what Hernandez and other state officials mean, then priority will likely go to languages spoken in the area (including English). To me this sounds more like a bilingual (or second-language) education initiative than a foreign language initiative. Last year, Joanne wrote about how her old high school was going bilingual; this may have been an early move in the initiative’s direction.

Foreign and bilingual language instruction have somewhat different purposes, content, and methods. When you study a “foreign” language, your purpose is to come to learn words, phrases, grammar, idiom, and literature of a language not in your midst or of your time–and not initially familiar to you. You may do so for a wide range of reasons: to enlarge your understanding, to study literature, to prepare for diplomatic work, to travel without depending on interpreters, etc.

When, in the context of bilingual or second-language instruction, you study a language that is widely spoken in your geographical area, your goals may be different. You may be striving for increased proficiency in a language you already speak. You may wish to communicate better with customers or associates. You may want the language for a job. You may also seek to do the “foreign language” things–things that bring in contact with distant times and places–but your main goal is to deal with everyday situations and people.

There’s lots of overlap, of course, since a language is a language, and study is study. One can learn Spanish in Malaga, Santiago, or San Francisco. Literature involves the everyday; Pablo Neruda’s Odes are all about ordinary (and extraordinary) objects, and everyday conversation has rhythm and beauty. A strictly practical language course can lead to literary study and vice versa.

In addition, foreign language study can benefit from local resources and expertise. For many languages, such as Russian, the opportunities for practice are much more extensive than they were 30 years ago.

Also, the concept of “foreignness” makes less sense now than it once did. Some find the concept itself objectionable, since (in their view) it involves treating the “foreign” language or culture as the “other”–as something alien and appropriable. I disagree–but that’s a topic for another time.

Still, from the various hints in news articles,  it seems that officials are using the phrase “foreign language instruction” to mean “bilingual programs.” Whatever one thinks of either, officials should state what they mean.


Note: this is my last guest post for Joanne Jacobs (for this particular stint). Thanks to Joanne for inviting me back to blog, and to Darren for being a terrific co-blogger.


Should schools raise funds for charities?

Deb Fisher, a therapist at P.S. 333 in Manhattan, has been put on 30-day suspension for raising money on Kickstarter along with a student who has cerebral palsy. Together, they were trying to fund a project intended to help children like himself. The issue, apparently, is that she sent fundraising emails while on the job, and is thus charged with “theft of services.”

Fisher is a relentless advocate for students, according to the New York Times:

During a brief period of unemployment for [the boy’s father], the family moved to a homeless shelter. Learning this by chance, Ms. Fisher began a relentless campaign to get them permanent housing in an accessible building. She helped set up swimming lessons for Aaron. Ms. Fisher, 55, is passionate and hard-driving; her phone calls and emails can be like buckshot. She and another therapist started “Master Arts” for children with disabilities, devising tools to help their painting efforts. She received a mayoral commendation.

In addition, according to the same article, the DOE’s investigation report failed to provide context. It did not mention, for instance, that the Kickstarter campaign was a schoolwide effort supported by the principal.

“We are all very excited to share our partnership with,” P.S. 333’s principal, Claire Lowenstein, wrote in an email on Jan. 11.

The goal was to raise $15,000. The school’s office regularly sent out updates like these: “7th Grader Aaron Philip is Almost 2/3 of the Way to His Goal”; “Aaron Philip is $1,621 Away From His Goal.”

In the end, he raised $16,231. The school celebrated at a town hall session.

During this time, one of Fisher’s co-workers had begun making charges against her. According to the investigators, the most serious charges were unsubstantiated, but they found Fisher guilty of fundraising for “her own charity.”

While I sympathize with Fisher’s intent and question the DOE’s response, I see how the school entered murky territory with this drive. The Chancellor’s Regulations (A-610)—not mentioned in the New York Times article—state:

Proceeds from school-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the school’s treasury; proceeds from parent-sponsored fund raising activities accrue to the parent association treasury. In either case, proceeds must be used to supplement or complement the educational, social and cultural programs of the school.

In addition, any fundraising during school hours must be approved in writing by the principal. In other words, if it’s happening during school hours and isn’t school-sponsored, it shouldn’t be happening.

So, the Kickstarter campaign, however well intended, had several problems. The money did not go to the school’s treasury; it was not for any educational, social and cultural programs of the school; and there’s no indication, at least in the article, that the principal gave official written approval of the campaign.

Moreover, fundraising for a particular student (even a particular student’s charity) is a conflict of interest (Regulation C-110); staff members are not supposed to enter business relationships with students.

I see the ethical basis for these regulations. They are there to help ensure fair use of funds and to protect students from financial relationships with school staff. Now, it’s likely that many students, parents, and teachers raise funds for charities (and may join together to do so), but there’s good reason not to do it at school.

All that said, it seems extreme to suspend Fisher. The principal, who applauded the campaign, should have answered for the situation, and the DOE should have made allowances for the good intent. Sadly, this looks like a case of “whatever it takes” gone awry. Here’s a therapist who goes all out for her students: once commended, now suspended.

On teacher scandals and boundaries

Every so often (that is, fairly often), a story erupts in the news about a teacher who had sex with students, sent inappropriate photos to students, gave alcohol to students, or did all of this and more. One recent case is Sean Shaynak, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High school. Although he has pleaded innocent, the evidence is plentiful and damning.

Such stories tend to come with momentary clamor followed by business as usual. The news evokes shock and disgust, but for that very reason it seems remote. Occasionally there’s some discussion, as in a New York Times article, of how technology and other factors may have facilitated the teacher’s activity. Or a talk show may interview a psychologist or other expert. There seems to be an impetus to take up the broader questions of boundaries, but it peters out fairly quickly.

What are the broader questions? I delineate sharply* between teachers (like Shaynak) who are in the profession for the wrong reasons—who seek their advantage or satisfaction over the students’ good—and teachers who do seek the students’ good but nonetheless need to define their boundaries more clearly.

I will discuss this second group. Such teachers receive two kinds of messages that can lead to blurred boundaries: (a) that they should be there for the students as much as possible; and (b) that they should try to relate to the kids on the kids’ own level, or, as some say, “meet them where they are.” (I will not take up technology here; that’s a topic in itself.)

Teachers receiving these messages (and taking them seriously) find themselves in ambiguous situations; students, for their part, don’t always know what is appropriate and what isn’t. My comments here here apply primarily to high school and earlier. College and graduate school have similar issues, but they present themselves on somewhat different terms. [Read more…]

What does this framework mean?

cfgraphicslider1NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña has announced a new system for evaluating schools. Instead of grades and rankings, there will be a “school quality snapshot” and a “school quality guide.” These “tools” will be based on a new “capacity framework” (see image to the left).

At first glance, the framework is unremarkable and unobjectionable. Who can deny the value of “trust,” “effective school leadership,” and, at the very center, “student achievement”? Certainly terms such as “rigorous instruction” and “collaborative teachers” need definition—but doesn’t everything?

Yet the more I gaze at this framework, the more I wonder what it means.

First, I see that the terms have already been interpreted (in counter-intuitive ways) in the NYC DOE’s description.

From the NYC Department of Education website:

At the center of the Framework is student achievement. The core goal of education is to help students get to the next level and succeed. Surrounding that core are the three elements of student support: instructional guidance, teacher empowerment, and student-centered learning. Beyond the classroom, the supports needed are effective school leadership and strong parent-community collaboration. The element that ties all of these supports together is trust. Building trust across the system and within a school—between administrators, educators, students, and families—is the foundation of the Capacity Framework.

I am puzzled by the second ring. What matches with what? Is “instructional guidance” in the description supposed to be the same as “rigorous instruction” in the chart? Is “teacher empowerment” supposed to be the same as “collaborative teaching”? Is “student-centered learning” the same as a “supportive environment”? If that is the intent, then these equations (and relations) must be explained and defended, and there must also be room to question them.

First, how is “rigorous instruction” in the graph related to “instructional guidance” in the description? What is instructional guidance, and who is being guided by whom? How does the guidance promote rigor? What is rigor, for that matter?

Second, is a “collaborative” teacher necessarily an “empowered” one? A truly “empowered” teacher may exercise the option of working alone at times (or even for long stretches of time). (Of course, good collaboration involves solitary work, but I see no acknowledgment of this here.)

Finally, one does not have to be “student-centered” (in the usual senses of the word) to be “supportive.” You can have a highly supportive environment combined with something more like “subject-centered instruction.” (I object to the term “student-centered” in general; it is often used to disparage certain kinds of teaching and curriculum offhand.)

Enough about the discrepancies. What about the graph itself?

Student achievement is at the core, as it should be, but achievement of what? The graph does not mention subject matter or curriculum. (Nor does the explanatory paragraph.)

Now, student achievement (of worthy things, we presume) clearly needs supports. Some of these supports include instruction, environment, and something pertaining to collaboration and solitude. I am not so sure that leadership should be located outside of that ring, but no matter. The chart is supposed to be visually appealing.

But how can “trust” be the outer ring? The description says that it is the “foundation”—but you can’t generate trust out of nowhere, or demand it as a precondition. It is hard earned; it comes out of the other things: achievement, instruction, leadership, environment, and so forth. Granted, the description says that “building trust,” not trust itself, is the foundation, but how can the foundation be something that you build as you go along?

Maybe it is silly to quibble with a chart. But I can already imagine the speeches: “We have to begin with trust. Trust is the foundation of our enterprise.” Of course, from the outset there has to be willingness to trust, but that is different from trust itself.

I do not disparage this framework. It contains good things. Alas, it needs clearer language and ideas.