Schools for citizenship

Can you pass the U.S. civics exam?  Ninety-seven percent of applicants for naturalization pass the exam, according to CitizenshipFirst, which is campaigning to “restore the civic mission of education.” Most native-born Americans can’t answer six of 10 questions correctly.

CitizenshipFirst’s mission:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that American democracy cannot endure without an educated citizenry; that all students deserve to become informed and proud participants in American self-government; and that every generation must prepare the next to understand, protect and perfect the institutions of American freedom. These truths motivated the establishment of America’s school system long ago, and they must be an urgent national priority today.

We send kids to school to become citizens, not just employees, writes Robert Pondiscio, who left Core Knowledge to run CitizenshipFirst.

Our earliest thinkers about education weren’t thinking about college and career readiness.  They understood well that democracy, historically speaking, was something of a long shot.  There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  A woman asked him what kind of government he and the other delegates had decided on.  “A republic, madam—if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.  As Franklin knew, republics have a nasty habit of falling apart.  Of being overwhelmed by factions.  Citizens who can be relied upon to understand and peacefully exercise their rights and responsibilities—to keep the republic—are indispensable to a democracy.

School should be the place where we learn to become Americans, Pondiscio writes.

CitizenshipFirst is building a network of schools committed to “preparing students for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship, and full participation in our democracy.”  It’s also launched the Only in America Project to send “public speakers into classrooms to tell vivid, personal stories of immigration, political freedom, entrepreneurial success, military service” and other stories. The Band of Brothers Program will pair high schools with U.S. military units.

Planting the seeds at Mission Hill

A Year at Mission Hill, a 10-part video series on a experimental Boston public school, is now complete, writes Sam Chaltain in (Extra)Ordinary People.

Mission Hill founder Deborah Meier believes “democracy rests on having respect for the judgment of ordinary people.”

We see a montage of children in various states of joy. We hear teachers sing the words of poet Kahlil Gibran at their school’s graduation ceremony (“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”). And we watch principal Ayla Gavins tell her staff she will refuse to administer new testing requirements under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program.

“The freedom of teachers to make decisions about their classrooms and their lives is essential, ” Meier says. “The whole point of an education is to help you learn how to exercise judgment – and you can’t do that if the expert adults in your school are not allowed to exercise theirs.”

Making classroom rules

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? asks Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land. According to the latest dogma,  good teachers get students to collectively write their own classroom rules.

It seems democratic and encourages “buy-in,” teachers believe, even if students are just as likely to break their own rules as ones set by teachers.

When Flanagan tried it in her own music classroom, students came up with a list of “don’ts” — as in don’t empty your spit valve on someone else’s chair — but “it never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.”

She offers ideas about creating classroom rules, such as:

 •You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

•No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog–your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

Don’t restate the obvious or load up on “don’ts,” she advises. But do give clear instructions when needed.  ”Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.”

 •Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership–kids want to be leaders, too– is a function of respect.

“Carrots and sticks” can be counter-productive, Flanagan writes. Students’ good behavior is its own reward: They get to attend a “civil, well-managed” school.

School board lessons

After five years as a school board member, Peter Meyer summarizes what he’s learned on Ed Next. Among the lessons:

. . .  there are no absolute victories and no deafening defeats in the land of education governance; just the constant hum of the bureaucracy trying to control the flow of information and—if you’re lucky—the shouts and murmurs of the “the people” complaining. Unfortunately, there is simply no alternative to eternal vigilance, but it must be vigilance in the interests of freedom and equal opportunity.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to leave “the people” out of it. They gum up the works, for one. They are lazy and apathetic for another. But what are the alternatives? I believe it was Churchill who also said, “Americans always get things right—after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”

“We have to get back to making democracy work again,” he concludes.

 

Teaching students to ask questions

What would education be like if students knew how to pose, prioritize, and use their own questions? Vastly better than it is now, argue Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011). If students learned how to formulate good questions, according to the authors, they’d be that much closer to becoming “independent thinkers and self-directed learners”  and practitioners of ”democratic deliberation.”

On the face of it, the idea sounds terrific. The ability to ask good questions can enhance both individual lives and common culture. Many people need special instruction in this skill; most of us have room for improvement. I am not convinced, though, that any of this requires the elaborate group processes that Rothstein and Santana describe.

The research started when the authors were working in a dropout prevention program. They heard from parents that they wouldn’t come to meetings at school because they “didn’t even know what to ask.” Rothstein and Santana began by giving them questions but then realized that this was only increasing their dependency—that they needed to know ”how to generate and use their own questions.” Over time, the authors developed a technique for teaching just that. They and others founded the Right Question Project, now known as the Right Question Institute, which teaches the technique to people around the country and abroad.

The book explains the Question Formulation Technique, which consists of six components: (a) a Question Focus; (b) a process for producing questions; (c) an exercise for working on closed and open-ended questions; (d) student selection of priority questions; (e) a plan for the next steps; and (f) a reflection activity. The authors provide numerous case studies to show how these components have played out.

Before starting the process, students are introduced to the four rules: “(1) Ask as many questions as you can; (2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any of the questions; (3) Write down every question exactly as it was stated; and (4) Change any statements into questions.” Students are supposed to reflect on these rules before proceeding. The authors explain:

The rules ask for a change in behavior, officially discouraging discussion in order to encourage the rapid production of questions. Students thus need to think about how they usually work individually and in groups. They name their usual practices and become aware of how they generally come up with ideas. They then must distinguish their present learning habits from what the rules require of them.

After receiving their Question Focus from the teacher, the students begin producing questions in groups. They are reminded to ask lots of questions and to refrain from judging, answering, or editing them. The teacher is not supposed to give examples of questions, even if the students are having difficulty.

From here, the students work on improving the questions. [Read more...]

Educating citizens, not just workers

Pressured to prepare students for the workforce, America’s colleges have forgotten their civic and democratic mission, argues a new report: Colleges must educate citizens, not just workers.

The education gospel and its heretics

Education is as close as the U.S. gets to a secular religion, writes Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  “In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace,” writes Brint, a UC-Riverside sociology professor.

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption (most of these paths now run through the community colleges). Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. No wonder President Obama and Bill Gates want the country to double its college graduation rate over the next 10 years.

Brint looks at books by education heretics: Education, edited by Feliciy Allen; What Is Education?, by Philip W. Jackson; Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality by John Marsh; and In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X.

Brint calls the leading heresy  “the new restrictionism.” It argues that open access to higher education has flooded colleges and universities with unprepared, unmotivated students who spend all their energy texting, tweeting and “facebooking,” rather than studying.  Colleges must dumb down the curriculum and offer easy A’s to keep tuition flowing.

Professor X, who teaches writing at a community college and an unselective four-year college, sees students going into debt in pursuit of a degree of dubious utility that they probably won’t complete.

We don’t like to admit that one student may be smarter, sharper, harder working, better prepared, more energetic, more painstaking — simply, a better student — than another … Our quest to provide universally level playing fields has made us reluctant to keep score.

“Romantic” heretics argue that schooling crushes the spirit. The “fools’ gold” heretics challenge the idea that education leads to social progress. “True educators” don’t care about changing society. They want to transform individuals.

Like Brint, I think the education gospel’s strongest challenge will come from heretics who say college should be reserved for academically competent, motivated students. Even the gospel’s crusaders, led by President Obama, are talking about a year of “postsecondary education” –  job training — for all, not a bachelor’s degree for all, though they want to push more people to an associate or bachelor’s degree as well.

Failure rates are sky-high at open-admissions colleges and universities. In New York City, taxpayers shell out $17,700 (including federal and state financial aid) for every community college dropout, according to a new report. And only 28 percent of students complete a degree in six years. The community colleges with the highest student success rates are technical colleges, which specialize in job training, usually at the certificate level.  The two-year, for-profit career colleges also have strong completion rates, despite recruiting high-risk students. Everyone can benefit from college — if we define job training as “college.”

Why we need government

Why do we need a government? Russ Roberts at Cafe Hayek looks at the answer provided for children in kindergarten through second grade by the U.S. Government Printing Office’s web site.

Why do we need a government? Imagine what your school would be like if no one was in charge. Each class would make its own rules. Who gets to use the gym if two classes want to use it at the same time? Who would clean the classrooms? Who decides if you learn about Mars or play kickball? Sounds confusing, right?

This is why schools have people who are in charge, such as the principal, administrators, teachers, and staff. Our nation has people who are in charge and they make up the government.

Despite the use of Ben Franklin on the site, the Printing Office seems a little weak on democratic government.

Roberts’ challenge: Remembering that the audience is five to seven years old, write a better explanation.

Bricks, clicks and civics

In a post on “hybrid schools” that combine “bricks and clicks,” Larry Cuban warns that efficiency isn’t the only goal: Schools are not “information factories.”

In some ways, the new hybrid schools are fulfilling progressive educators’ dream of student-centered learning, he writes. Digital lessons are “hand-crafted to fit students for part of or most of the day,” while teachers coach students on what they’ve learned or teach a few traditional lessons. There are fewer teachers and therefore lower costs.

But techno-enthusiasts’ view of public schools is too narrow, Cuban argues.

They equate access to information with becoming educated – more of one leads to more of the other.  These very smart people ignore other crucial and purposes public schools have served historically in a democracy. . . What can be as important as students acquiring information? Try socializing the young, developing engaged citizens, moral development, and, yes, even custodial care of the young.

Schools have never been solely information factories; they have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and  live full and worthwhile lives.

That criticism may apply to click-only education. While home-schooled children often participate in youth soccer, Little League, the church choir, art classes and other group activities, some parents may let their children grow up as loners.

However, it’s not likely that bricks-and-clicks students will go to the same building to learn but never socialize. Do students need to be grouped into classes to learn to be good citizens? Are they more likely to be independent thinkers if they’re taught in a group? What do traditional schools do to develop morals that a brick-and-click schools couldn’t or wouldn’t do?

San Jose’s Rocketship schools, charters with a hybrid model, are rated #5 and #15 in the state among schools with 70 percent or more low-income students. Students, predominantly from Mexican immigrant families, significantly exceed state performance goals. These children will be just as able to “live full and worthwhile lives” as traditionally educated children with weaker reading, writing and math skills.

China, Singapore are 'ugly models'

Americans should stop envying the education system in Singapore and China, argues Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosophy and law professor, in The New Republic. For any nation that aspires to remain a democracy, Singapore and China are ugly models, she argues.

Rote learning and teaching to the test are so common in Singapore and China that both nations are worried their graduates lack the “analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation,” Nussbaum writes.

In 2001, the Chinese Ministry of Education proposed a “New Curriculum” that is supposed to “[c]hange the overemphasis on … rote memorization and mechanical drill. Promote instead students’ active participation, their desire to investigate, and eagerness … to analyze and solve problems.”

Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”

The reforms haven’t been implemented: Teacher pay is  linked to test scores and teachers find it easier to “follow a formula.”

In both nations, there is no freedom to criticize the government or the political system.  Singapore’s citizenship education consists of analyzing why the government’s policy is correct, she writes.

Singapore and China aren’t producing the innovators their economies will need, Nussbaum argues. They suppress “imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.”

Nussbaum recommends South Korea and India for those looking for an Asian education model. I thought both put a lot of emphasis on tests.