Windmills in San Diego

Tilting at Windmills is Richard Lee Colvin’s account of Alan Bersin’s struggle to remake San Diego schools from 1998 to 2005.

“San Diego became notorious for the fierce resistance of its teachers union, abetted by school board members, to any and all efforts at change,” writes Nathan Glazer in an Education Next review.

Like Joel Klein in New York City, Bersin left a law career to become a big-city superintendent. He persuaded Tony Alvarado, the former New York City schools chancellor, to become his director of instruction.

Alvarado clashed with the union over literacy coaches. He wanted coaches trained in method he’d found effective. The union wanted peer coaches to help teachers use whatever method they preferred.

Alvarado believed principals should observe classes. The union wanted advanced warning of a principal’s visit.

Teachers denounced Bersin as a “dictator.” While a 3-2 school board majority backed him, one board member called him a “gauleiter” when he proposed letting charter organizers run the worst-performing schools. (Glazer notes, she inaccurately said gauleiters were “Jews who worked for the Nazis [to shepherd] their own people into the trains” to the concentration camps.

Bersin persisted for six years, in time gaining the support of some teachers and principals. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found the improvement in reading “so definitive that San Diego’s efforts are well worth a look by other school districts in California and the nation.” Achievement gaps were narrowed significantly. But this was for elementary schools: similar efforts in high schools did not show the same results.

“If this is what it takes to make modest improvements in achievement levels and reduce achievement gaps, how often can we expect it to happen?” asks Glazer, a professor emeritus of education and sociology at Harvard.

Change without reform

After all the education reforms, what’s really changed in classrooms? Not a whole lot, writes Larry Cuban in his new book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change Without Reform in American Education.

Cuban looks at a 1:1 laptop program in a Bay Area high school in 1998-99 and 2008-10,   writes Mark Bauerlein in an Education Next review.  The project started with generous federal and state grants and funding from Silicon Valley donors, Cuban writes. Teachers were enthusiastic. But problems soon emerged.

The principal who’d spearheaded the idea left just as it was getting started; the school went through four principals from 1998 to 2010. Faculty turnover was high too and some teachers made little use of technology. Those who did rarely changed their teaching.

The school’s test scores fell, pressuring teachers to focus on test prep.

“Connections between student achievement and teacher and student use of laptops are, at best, indirect and, at worst, nonexistent,” Cuban concludes.

It’s not just a problem with digital learning, Cuban writes. Changes in governance, school size, curriculum, and organization “have had few effects on classroom practices and, consequently, students’ academic outcomes,” he concludes.

Encouraging teachers to collaborate and easing test-based accountability might change inside-the-box teaching for the better, Cuban suggests. But he makes no claim to have the answers, Bauerlein writes.

Core reading will be a lot harder

Teachers will assign more complex, challenging reading – if they follow Common Core standards, concludes a Fordham analysis of what students are reading now.

Currently, many teachers try to assign books that match their students’ reading skills, especially at the elementary level. Common Core calls for assigning grade-level reading and giving students extra help to understand it.

In trying to improve reading comprehension, schools made a tragic mistake: they took time away from knowledge-building courses such as science and history to clear the decks for more time on reading skills and strategies. And the impact, particularly on our most disadvantaged students whose content and vocabulary gap is so great, has been devastating.

Teachers are assigning “relevant” and “easily digested books” in hopes of getting students to read, according to Common Core in the Schools.

. . . classic literature has, in many classrooms, been replaced by popular teen novels (often made into movies) such as The Hunger Games and Twilight. Indeed, the former, according to Renaissance Learning . . . became the most widely read book in grades 9-12 following its theatrical release in 2012. Yet it is pegged at a fifth-grade reading level.

The most-assigned books are Because of Winn-DixieAnne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and To Kill a Mockingbird, the Fordham survey finds.  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail also is assigned frequently.

“Across all grade levels…there was a tendency to err on the side of lower-level books,” says Fordham’s Kathleen Porter-Magee.

In fourth and fifth grade, students should read texts with a lexile range of 740 to 1100, according to Common Core. Four of the top 10 books are below that level, including Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Middle-schoolers should be reading texts in the 950 to 1185 range, according to Common Core. Seven of the 10 most popular books for this age group aren’t challenging enough. (Is John Steinbeck’s The Pearl really an elementary book?)

Ninth- and tenth-graders should be reading texts with a lexile range of 1050 to 1335, the new standards say.  Five of the 10 most popular books don’t meet that level of difficulty. (I guess To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn often are read in earlier grades. I took a “look inside” The Book Thief, which allegedly has a lexile rank too low for fourth graders. It’s not Dick, Jane and Sally.)

Fifty-one percent of teachers surveyed — all in states that have adopted Common Core standards – said they’d made little or no change to their teaching as a result of the new standards.

The 5-Minute Teacher

Teacher Mark Barnes’ new book,The 5-Minute Teacher, offers “quick, thought-provoking lessons that send students clamoring to find meaning on their own.”

Barnes introduced the Results Only Learning Environment in his earlier book, Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom.

When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  ”astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

Don’t follow your passion

Don’t Follow Your Passion, advises Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams. Try things and get passionate about what works. He’s got a new book out, How To Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

What’s your state’s book?

Here’s the Most Famous Book Set In Every State, according to Business Insider.
Most Famous Books Set In Every State_Larger

There’s plenty to argue about. Stephanie Myer’s Twilight is the most famous book set in Washington state? A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks is the North Carolina book, beating out Look Homeward Angel. I guess it depends on the definition of “famous.”

I grew up in Illinois (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) and live in California (John Steinbeck’s not-very-famous East of Eden).

Of course, a few are right on, such as Willa Cather’s My Antonia (one of my mother’s favorites) for Nebraska.

Get scared

It’s time for scary stories. Halloween Classics is on sale this month at Graphic Classics. It includes adaptations of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Mark Twain’s A Curious Dream, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot No. 249, plus an adaptation of the screenplay of the silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Edgar Allan Poe stories, including The Pit and the Pendulum, also is available. The P and the P scared the heck out of me when I was a kid. Nightmares for years.

Fight the trophy-industrial complex

Losing is good for kids, writes Ashley Merryman in a New York Times commentary. Nonstop praise is demoralizing.

Children praised for their talents “collapse at the first experience of difficulty, according to Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor.

In other research, children were asked to draw pictures. Those who heard praise of their artistic talent were “twice as fixated on mistakes they’d made in their pictures.”

Yet the “Trophy-Industrial Complex” is now a $3 billion industry in the U.S. and Canada, she writes. Youth soccer groups spend up to 12 percent of their budget on trophies.

By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up.

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

College students who’ve grown up receiving awards for “participation” think they can succeed by just showing up, says Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me. That doesn’t work well in college and is even less effective in the workplace.

Parents’ job is help children cope with frustration and defeat, not pretend they’re winners when they’re not, writes Merryman. She and Po Bronson are the authors of  Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and NurtureShock.

In other words, you have to win a little, lose a little . . .

The forgotten history of testing

bookPen-and-paper exams were created to reform schools, writes William J. Reese in Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History.

Today’s reform critics believe standardized testing “forces a dull, routinized and stifling learning culture,” notes Education Gadfly. However, the old system was characterized by “public exhibitions” of “well-rehearsed oratories and parades.”

Reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) fought to replace exhibitions with written tests. In 1845, the first written test produced abysmal scores. Howe was voted out of office. The testing wars continue.