18% of teachers are minorities

Eighteen percent of public school teachers — and 42 percent of students —  are racial or ethnic minorities, reports Harper‘s Index.

Top teachers trump standards

Standards and tests won’t improve American public education, argues Sandra Stotsky, professor emerita at the University of Arkansas and an author of Massachusetts’ standards. Policymakers should focus on improving teacher quality and training and the K-12 curriculum, she writes.

The U.S. Department of Education (USED) and its narrow circle of Gates Foundation-funded or Gates Foundation-employed advisers . . . have spent their initial energies on first getting states to adopt the kind of standards they think low-achieving students can meet to be declared “college-ready” (i.e., generic, content-light skills in the English language arts); and then, on arguing with teacher unions about the percentage of students’ test scores for which teachers and administrators should be held accountable.

Only one characteristic of an effective teacher — subject-matter knowledge — is related to student achievement, according to the 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, writes Stotsky.  “The more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn.”

In high-achieving school systems, only the very best students can gain admittance to teacher training programs, she writes. Training is far more rigorous than in the U.S.

In Finland, prospective elementary teachers complete a three-year bachelor’s and a two-year master’s in education. Prospective secondary teachers usually complete a three-year degree and a two-year master’s in their subject, followed by a two-year master’s program in education. In both cases, the master’s focuses on educational research.

An academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to establish and teach an academically stronger curriculum, do better designed research, and make more soundly based educational policy.

Stotsky lists seven things states could do to improve teacher quality. It starts with restricting admission to teacher training to the top 10 to 15 percent of students.

Would the brightest students compete for a chance to teach? The career would be more prestigious if it was reserved for top students. But . . . I have my doubts.

NEA tells Duncan to resign

Arne Duncan should resign, said National Education Association delegates at the teachers’ union’s annual convention.

A tipping point for some members was Duncan’s statement last month in support of a California judge’s ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers. In harsh wording, the judge said such laws harm particularly low-income students by saddling them with bad teachers who are almost impossible to fire.

Even before that, teachers’ unions have clashed with the administration over other issues ranging from its support of charter schools to its push to use student test scores as part of evaluating teachers.

“I always try to stay out of local union politics,” responded Duncan. “I think most teachers do too.”

Group work does not equal collaboration

[This is my last guest post for this stint. Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for having me, and thanks to Rachel and Michael for your excellent co-blogging.]

Often we hear that in today’s workplace, there’s increased need for collaboration, since projects are typically complex and require the combined efforts of many. Education policymakers then turn to schools and say, “OK, kids need to learn to collaborate, so there should be more group work in the classroom.” (This argument came up in a comment on my recent NYT piece.)

The problem here is one of translation. Collaboration and group work are not necessarily the same. You can have strong collaboration with minimal group work, and vice versa.

Suppose you have submitted a piece to a journal. You wrote the piece alone–but later receive comments and edits from the editor. Even if you never speak with the editor (except by email), these edits will inform your revision. Thus, by the time your piece reaches its final version, some collaboration has taken place.

Or say you are co-teaching a unit on the Renaissance. Your own contribution to the unit (which focuses on literature) requires much independent thought and planning–but when you hear what the other teachers are contributing, you adjust some of your presentation and questions, in order to play off of theirs. The independent planning is essential, as is the planning with your colleagues.

Or consider a musical ensemble. If rehearsal time is to be spent well, the members must learn their parts on their own. Then, when they come together, they can shape the music. Sometimes they will spend rehearsal time going over a new piece–but they still have to take it home and work on it, unless it presents no difficulties (in which case they will still need to practice the instrument on their own). In addition, to play well in an ensemble, you need to be able to play your instrument in the first place–and that requires years of practice, most of it solitary.

Also, many research projects are collaborative–yet the various pieces may not come together for a long time. Individual contributors may be working on their own pieces for years, only occasionally consulting with the others. (This could be good or bad; it depends on the nature of the project.)

Even a lecture is collaborative in that it requires joining of efforts. An attentive, inquisitive audience can make the difference between an outstanding lecture and one that falls flat. Likewise, the lecturer must respond, even subtly, to those in the room and to the room itself.

How is group work in the classroom different from what I have mentioned above? Too often, the group is expected to do most of the work together, in company (and surrounded by many other groups). There’s little room for independent work and thought. The scope of the project is typically limited; it may amount to nothing more than a Venn diagram. In fact, group work, when overused, can diminish collaboration by limiting what students do and learn.

Now, some people favor group work because it exposes students to social situations they will encounter later. Even this argument misses the boat. Good social interaction requires a degree of solitude. If you are constantly forced to negotiate with others–over ideas and problems–then you do not get a chance to bring anything of your own to the table. Imagine lawyers negotiating before they had researched their cases. The one with even a slight edge on the research would have the advantage. To negotiate over ideas (and information), you need to have them in the first place.

Sometimes group work in the classroom can result in something substantial. Often it does not–especially when the group work is there for group work’s sake. Yes, it’s important  for students to learn collaboration, but group work is not necessarily the way.

Addendum: In April I took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service’s flagship program The Forum, along with authors Eleanor Catton and Yiyun Li. At one point we discuss the overemphasis on group work in schools. The entire discussion is interesting–and can be heard online until July 28.

Does Facebook need ethics education?

There has been outrage over Facebook’s psychological experiment on 700,000 unwitting users. In order to test its ability to manipulate users’ posts, Facebook used an algorithm that altered the emotional content of their news feeds. (In half of the cases, it omitted content associated with negative emotions; in the other half, positive emotions.)

According to an abstract, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” The findings were published in the March 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and reported in numerous places, including the Wall Street Journal article that informed this post).

Now, these findings aren’t surprising–who wants to be all cheery when your “friends” are down in the dumps?–but they left many people angry. An experiment of this kind isn’t just a misuse of data; it deliberately provokes people to post things they might not otherwise have posted, in a “space” (i.e., the news feed) that many consider their own, since it includes only what they want to include. (Yes, they’re mistaken in considering it their own, but Facebook does a lot to feed that illusion.)

Did Facebook have the right to conduct this experiment in the first place? Kate Crawford, visiting professor at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, says no. Moreover, she holds that ethics should be part of the education of data scientists. (For a more detailed exposition of this view, see danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679.)

What would “ethics education” look like in this context? Would it focus on the issues at hand, or would it examine ethics more broadly, with readings  and analysis of ethical problems? Would it take the form of a professional development course, or would it start in high school or earlier?

It is possible that the Facebook controversy (and others like it) will lead to a greater emphasis on ethics in education. That could be promising if handled well. One pitfall of ethics education is that it may be reduced to specific issues and even mistaught. That is, those studying the “Ethics of Big Data” may never consider ethics outside of Big Data, or ancient ethical problems that relate to their own, or even the distinction between ethics and morality (which has been articulated in different ways but is worth considering in any case).

So ethics education, if taken up by “big data” and other nebulous entities, will need to go beyond a crash course or PD. Study ethics, but study it well. How do you do that? Read seminal texts, raise questions boldly, stay aware of your errors and fallacies, and put your principles and reasoning into practice. That’s just a start.

The unfairness of education

Today (or, rather, within the next half-hour) I am going to take up the idea that education is at least somewhat unfair at the core. In the many discussions I have heard about “education for all,” those who say “education is never for all” end up playing the role of lone heretics. So my purpose here will be to take examine this claim and follow it where it might lead.

Let us define fairness as the principle of giving to each according to his or her deserts. Let us also assume that each student deserves a good education as much as the next. (Each of these assumptions could be contested, but let’s leave them for now.) Thus, fairness in education would consist of offering each student a good education.

Already, there is a complication: education is not only an offering; the student must also participate in it. More about that shortly.

Consider this basic truth (forgetting for the moment about qualifications): Any given lesson, no matter what it contains and how it’s taught, will be more helpful, appropriate, interesting, or accessible (physically or intellectually) for some than for others.

You can mitigate this unfairness by “differentiating” instruction or by dividing students into homogeneous groupings. Each of these solutions brings its own drawbacks, its own kind of unfairness. Differentiating can fragment instruction; tracking can result in limited opportunities for those in the lower tracks.

As a student, you can mitigate the situation by altering your own situation. For instance, if your class isn’t challenging enough, you can seek out additional challenge. If it’s too difficult, you can seek assistance.

None of these adjustments takes away the basic unfairness of the setup. This unfairness has a hidden good: although not all students receive the same thing from a lesson, it remains an offering; in other words, there is something to be received from it. In addition, quality and “reach” are not always at odds with each other; a course can begin by reaching only a few students and end by reaching the majority, simply because of the influence of the instruction.

So I will posit that the unfairness of education should not be eradicated across the board; to the contrary, educators should consider which aspects of the unfairness to preserve, and which to discard or mitigate.

Let us take the controversy over the “specialized” high schools (that is, elite public high schools such as Stuyvesant) in New York City. There is currently great pressure on these schools to increase their racial and ethnic diversity. This brings up a dilemma.

On the one hand, there’s good reason for them to retain their admissions standards. The entrance exam does test math and reading proficiency and mental stamina–prerequisites for the academic work that the schools require. Granted, any single test is an imperfect measure, for a variety of reasons–but once you get into “multiple measures,” you risk lowering the standards for admission. On the other hand, there are plenty of highly intelligent, competent, and focused African American and Hispanic students. It’s worth asking what could be done to admit more of them to the specialized schools.

(For instance, Brooklyn Latin had a practice–and maybe still does–of working with students who just barely fell short of the cut on the test. Another option would be to adopt a double measure: the test and a piece of academic work, for instance.)

In other words, there are several kinds of unfairness at work here. Some kinds are essential to the nature of the specialized schools; other kinds could be eradicated.

In short, certain kinds of unfairness in education are inevitable, even good, while other kinds are not. Making education completely fair will destroy its essence; complacency with all unfairness will make it brittle and cruel. One must sort out the different kinds of unfairness and decide which ones should stay and which should go.

Do teachers have it rough?

So I was reading an article this morning about how U.S. Teachers have it so much worse than most of the rest of the world. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of a survey:

Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

The article is interesting, as far as it goes — though one might quibble with the jump that gets made from “teachers think they have harder jobs” (which is what the survey actually measures) to “teachers have harder jobs.” I’m certainly open to the idea that at least public school teachers have a raw deal in this country in terms of their working conditions and the sort of bureaucratic structures in which they are forced to operate.

There were two things in this article in particular that caught my eye. The first was an almost casual reference to something rare and wonderful.

Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.

The emphasis is mine. What sort of wonderful world would we live in where we depended on the teachers themselves to design the curriculum (or curricula)? But isn’t that exactly what everyone seems hell-bent on killing these days?

A seocnd thing that jumped out at me was this statistic:

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.

That seems like an awful lot. Unless *all* the disadvantaged kids are smashed into schools with insanely high student:teacher ratios (not an entirely implausible notion), that means that there are a LOT of disadvantaged students to go around. I can’t do the math without knowing the student:teacher ratio data, but just intuitively it would seem that you’d need somewhere between 40 and 50% of students to be disadvantaged.

I suspect this has something to do with response bias. But when I tried to go into the survey itself and see the data (here) I was unable to either export a working data file or to find the United States’ results on the webpage. It seems much more trouble than it’s worth for a blog post.

If anyone has more success, please leave notice in the comments!

Getting More Aggressive with Relational Aggression

I thought this article about what’s termed “relational aggression,” “Little Children and Already Acting Mean” in the Wall Street Journal, would be about how preschool and younger elementary school students had gotten meaner, so I was pleasantly surprised to read:

Relational aggression is a relatively new term in psychology, devised to distinguish it from physical aggression. There is no research showing that relational aggression is increasing or manifesting itself earlier, experts say. An increasing awareness of it, however, may be what’s fueling educators’ perception that it is starting earlier and becoming more common.

I highly recommend reading the article in its entirely–it’s well-done and comes at the topic from many angles. As a parent of elementary-school aged children and as someone who taught preschool-aged children for a few years, I have many thoughts on the matter.

First of all, I love having a specific and fitting term for this. I wish I had had it a long time ago. And, while I don’t think children or girls in particular have gotten any meaner, I am glad to see more focus on relational aggression in early childhood education circles. Certainly, laying the foundation for fine and gross motor skills, for literacy, for independence, for academics or subject matter, for self-care is vital but socialization is a major part of all of the above, though, really, none of those groups of skills and knowledge exist in isolation.

While physical aggression has been expected to be addressed right away, relational aggression seemed somehow to be considered largely beyond the educator’s scope; the de-facto approach in many early childhood education settings has seemed to be: let the kids sort it out. I can certainly understand why addressing physical aggression would be paramount, though if you’re talking pre-schoolers, they need to be instructed in this matter not just told it’s wrong “no!” or “stop!”  When my boys were in preschool, I worked for a year for a private non-profit social service agency in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a “push-in” teacher in area Head Start classrooms, teaching a curriculum called Al’s Pals. This curriculum informed my teaching while part of that program, of course, but the approach also influenced my parenting and future teaching as a lead preschool classroom teacher: It’s okay to have strong feelings but it’s not okay to hurt or damage because of them. What can you do instead when you are having those feelings? If there’s a problem that needs solving, hurting won’t solve it. Let’s identify the problem and see if we can come up with a solution. It’s part of teaching younger children to manage strong feelings and to curb the instinct or reflex to lash out physically. It’s normal to have such instincts and feelings–we all do–what matters is how we handle them.

From the article:

Generally thought of as a middle-school phenomenon, relational aggression is less explored among young children. Experts say it often goes under the radar because it is harder to detect than physical aggression. The behavior is similar to verbal aggression but revolves around threatening the removal of a friendship. Examples include coercing other children not to play with someone else or threatening not to invite them to your birthday party if they don’t do what you want them to do.

A few years after Charlottesville, my daughter went to a wonderful little Montessori-based preschool in our current hometown of Ashland, Virginia. It was a co-op and so parents worked one to two times per month assisting the teacher, so it gave me some further experience at the preschool level and  it also allowed me to see first-hand what was happening in my daughter’s classroom. My daughter is very social and positive and plays with pretty much everyone–she is not a cliquey or one-friend-at-a-time kind of person(which is not to say that she or my other children are angels, mind you) but she still experienced exclusion. While my daughter’s overall preschool experience was great, relational aggression did for the most part “go under the radar.” The reluctance to address or even acknowledge relational aggression was disappointing. As with physical aggression, my attitude was to assume the best of her classmates but to assume that they needed to be taught. I found, however, that the approach in this area of the teacher and other parents was to emphasize that “we’re all friends at school”–which is a great thing to emphasize–but otherwise to let the kids work it out.

Certainly navigating exclusion, teasing, and painful social situations is part of growing up and I  have had many conversations with my daughter and sons about this. I tell them:

  •  to assume the best of their friends and classmates and to understand that everyone has their hard days.
  • just because something hurts their feelings doesn’t mean it’s a slight. For example, it may hurt their feelings that Friend A has chosen Friend B as a partner instead of them, but it doesn’t mean such a choice is personal rebuke.
  • they can’t control others’ behavior, they can only control their own behavior and how they respond to others’ behavior.
  • if someone is saying or doing something that feels hurtful, assume the person doesn’t realize that and explain to them that what they are doing or saying hurts your feelings.
  • if explaining your feelings doesn’t work, to seek out playmates and friends who do treat them kindly, find someone to play with who is being kind and who is acting like a good friend. That doesn’t mean that that child who is being unkind isn’t their friend, but it means that at that point, they aren’t acting like a good friend.

My daughter’s preschool experience definitely influenced how I approached relational aggression after. When I became a preschool teacher, I decided to acknowledge and address acts of unkindness and relational aggression, as part of the socialization curriculum. While some children have the tools already, many don’t and not providing them with them is a dis-service.  I do admit that I have a much more hands-on approach both as a parent and as a teacher, perhaps too hands-on, but I feel that it’s better to be safe than sorry and I’ve learned it’s easier to ease off after a while than to ease on. While dealing with painful social situations is part of the learning process, I didn’t want any child or parent to feel that their child was left to sink or swim, that they were just left on their own with the problem. I wanted the children I taught, and their parents, to feel like they were safe and secure. My goal was was to start off with heavy guidance and to gradually ease off and observe as the children attempted to work things out, only intervening when they were having trouble making progress and making sure to praise when a problem was successfully solved. But first, I wanted to instruct them, to give them the tools.

One of my rules was “Use kind and soft voices” (the soft voices did not apply to outside :), meaning you could disagree or dissent but you had to do so respectfully. I don’t think that children should be made to feel they can’t disagree or dissent or speak up when something seems wrong; they just need to do so respectfully (this has been my approach with my middle and high schoolers, too)– I see respectful disagreement as a sign of engagement and critical thinking. I also stole the “we’re all friends at school” mantra, telling children they were welcome to play alone if they wanted to but they couldn’t exclude others while playing in a group. Because the preschool was Montessori-inspired, there were rules inside about which materials could be worked with alone and which with a friend, but issues could still arise.

We focused on empathy, asking, how would you feel if someone said that to you? as the article states,

Mark Barnett, a developmental psychologist at Kansas State University, says affective empathy, or vicariously experiencing the emotions of someone else, is what needs to be encouraged to reduce relational-aggressive behavior. If a child does something negative to someone, the parent should say, “Imagine how it would feel if someone did that to you?” Dr. Barnett also recommends parents and teachers talk about feelings of characters during story time. They also need to model empathetic behavior.

I also worked with the aggrieved, using much of the language and points as I do (see above) with my own children. But I also tried to let the aggressor know that relational aggression was bad for them, too, and might have negative consequences for them down the road. As related in the article, often the children would lash out and go straight to, as the article mentions, you’re not my friend anymore! Are you really not their friend, I would ask? Do you really mean that? I don’t believe that you do. Let’s address the problem that is making you feel upset. I would also address un-kindness in general: What kind of a friend do you want to be? I’d ask. When you speak unkindly, it might give people the impression that you’re not a nice person and maybe someone will decide they don’t want to play with you or be your friend. When you’re kind to others, it makes them feel good about being around you, and it also makes you feel good about yourself. Again, I tried to always make clear that disagreeing or pointing out that something bothered them didn’t make it unkind.

If you’re still here, thanks for sticking with me through this long post. I have spent a lot of time during my parenting and teaching career grappling with all of this and while I have discussed it, I hadn’t as of yet put the thoughts down in writing and it was so nice to read an affirming article. And, it’s not just children who can learn from this; there are adults, too, including me, who can always use help with socialization.

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

In the July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times), there’s a forum on Balanced Literacy, with contributions from E  D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

Unpacking epiphany

What “big ideas” do people discuss at ideas festivals? At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival (which runs through tomorrow), some people are discussing how to measure imagination and creativity. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, director of the Imagination Institute, we are  failing to identify creative students; some get labeled as learning disabled.

Before continuing, I must admit to two things: serious doubt that “big ideas” ultimately carry the day (I generally favor medium-sized ideas, though I consider the quality of an idea more important than its size), and occasional fascination with some of them. Overall, I favor pursuing these ideas but not jumping to conclusions about their applications and implications.

For instance, this passage (from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) struck me as interesting, though not revelatory, since it meshes with my own experience:

Meanwhile, Mark Beeman wants to unpack epiphany. One thing Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has found is that, before a sudden insight, people show increased activity in several parts of the brain including an area known as the anterior cingulate cortex. Also, before an insight, people tend to be focused on something other than the problem they’re trying to solve, like playing with their kids or taking a shower.

But I would be wary of a pedagogical approach that involved steering students onto another topic in order to produce an insight about the topic left behind. “Ok, everyone, stop what you’re doing and draw a tree!”

Identifying creative students is a worthy goal, but creativity comes in many forms, and I doubt one test, or even a “battery” of tests, could detect them all. The Chronicle article notes the limitations of current creativity tests:

The tools that we now have to measure creativity are fairly crude. A researcher might ask someone to list alternate uses for a bowl and then count the number of ideas he or she comes up with. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t get at the deep creativity necessary to become a brilliant physicist or a mind-blowing sculptor. Something else is going on there, and it’s worth figuring out what it is.

Amen. Too often I have seen creativity equated with brainstorming, and they are not the same.

One possibility–not mentioned in the article–is that “deep creativity” has something to do with deep involvement in a particular subject or medium. That is, you aren’t “creative” in a vacuum; it’s your relation to the subject that draws your creativity out. Also, there’s a doggedness that goes with creativity. It isn’t a static trait.

Thus, even if we had better creativity tests, there’s still a good chance that people would get mislabeled. It’s one thing to show some traits that are generally associated with creativity; it’s another to do something with them.

There’s much more to say on this subject–but since I’m traveling today, I’ll leave it at that.