Keeping it real — or at least non-fictional.

Jay Mathews has had two short articles about non-fiction books in schools.  The initial article is here, with a follow-up here.  The problem he is addressing is an (alleged but probably true) dearth in non-fiction in high school curricula.   I found this paragraph particularly interesting:

Educators say non-fiction is more difficult than fiction for students to comprehend. It requires more factual knowledge, beyond fiction’s simple truths of love, hate, passion and remorse. So we have a pathetic cycle. Students don’t know enough about the real world because they don’t read non-fiction and they can’t read non-fiction because they don’t know enough about the real world.

Mathews is being tongue-in-cheek, of course.  (True catch-22 situations are exceedingly rare.)   But there clearly is a reading problem in schools — I’m just not convinced that it’s a non-fiction problem.  It seems rather unlikely that one must read non-fiction to learn about the real world.  One can learn vast amounts about the “real world” by reading fiction.  Maybe not by reading Harry Potter or Twilight, where the emphasis is on character and the supernatural.  But The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, Vicomte de Bragelonne, and The Odyssey (just to pick four books from the shelf right in front of me) all tell their readers about different times, places, and cultures.  In fact, I’m not convinced that there really is a substantial difference between non-genre fiction and nonfiction — at least not in terms of giving readers the sort of broad understanding of the world necessary for further reading and exploration.  I don’t think it matters if you learned about short-wave radios from The History of Ham: How the Short-Wave Changed the World, or from Frank and Joe’s adventures in the Hardy Boys series.  What matters is that you learn about short-wave radios.

Still, non-fiction is a different type of reading experience, and if there was more of it in school, then there would be a greater variety of reading experiences.  That’s probably a good thing.

Finally, I don’t think that the dearth of non-fiction is a very recent phenomenon.  I have trouble remembering a single piece of non-fiction (textbooks excepting) that I was assigned to read in high school.  There were a few in junior high, but not a one in high school that stuck in memory.

21st century skills: no substance

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel’s book, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, is a disappointment, writes Jay Mathews on Class Struggle.

Were the 21st century skills people finally going to show us how this idea actually works in the classroom? Would they have data? Would there be lesson plans, and detailed testimony from students and parents and teachers? Were they going to prove wrong those of us who could see nothing in this movement (here is a previous column) but a lot of buzz words and jargon describing principles of teaching and learning that have been with us for many decades?


Mathews thinks the authors are “smart tech guys who just don’t know much about real schools with real kids who have difficulty learning how to read, write and do math.”

They can’t see the scuffed floors and trash-strewn playground of a public middle school in Oakland, but can use their laptops to write nice sentences about how the six emerging principles of the movement are “vision, coordination, official policy, leadership, learning technology and teacher learning.”

The real-world examples weren’t useful either, Mathews writes. One features a fifth-grade teacher with 21st century skills training, who has her students research a leader of their choice and explain how that person succeeded on a Web page available to “students around the world.”

. . . other than the web page. it did not seem any different from the group projects my classmates and I did in the middle of the 20th century, mounting our findings on big cardboard displays and showing them off at a special night for parents and classmates.

The book never mentions how to teach reading, he adds.

I share Jay’s qualms about the 21st century skills movement.

If you want specifics about what works in real life and what doesn’t, read my book, Our School, about a start-up charter school figuring out how to educate underachieving Mexican-American students.

Crazy, but it works

Crazy Like a Fox: One Principal’s Triumph in the Inner City is Ben Chavis’ book about how he turned a failing charter school into one of the highest scoring middle schools in the state, even though 81 percent of students come from low-income families.  Mark Hemingway writes on National Review Online:

It’s true that Chavis is a controversial figure — the book provides ample evidence of that. He’s profane, boasts of humiliating his students when they “act a fool,” and isn’t afraid to tell a teacher or a parent who he feels is out of line where to stick it. He’s beyond politically incorrect and talks about race with a frankness that would make Chris Rock blush.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post points to Chavis’ decision to keep American Indian Public Charter School students with the same teacher for all subjects and for all three years of middle school.

Chavis says his kids, given all the turmoil in their lives, need the stable presence of one caring teacher. Whatever his method loses in content knowledge, because his teachers cannot be experts in all four subjects, is more than made up by the fact that the teacher knows those children very well. He or she can reach them in ways that teachers who have them just one period a day, for only one year, cannot, Chavis says.

Of course, it’s possible to set up such a system because the AIPCS principal can fire ineffective teachers quickly, easily and cheaply.

Thanks to commenter PM for the reminder to plug my book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

Not new, just 21st century

“Has the P21 movement succeeded?” asks National Journal. Many experts weigh in.

According to Ken Kay and Paige Johnson, P21 never claimed “21st century skills” were new. (Then why, I wonder, do P21 publications abound with phrases such as “21st century skills,” “21st century learning,” “21st century context,” “21st century tools,” and “21st century assessments”? If P21 is not claiming these skills are new, why the insistent repetition of the epithet?)

Such obfuscation does not fool everyone. Jay Mathews writes that “the marketing of the concept has not been entirely honest or wise.” He further points to P21’s insistence that we adopt this agenda immediately and in full; this he calls an “all-at-once syndrome, a common failing of reform movements.”

I see a connection between the “21st century” epithet and the insistence on immediate, all-at-once adoption of the platform. It is easier to market something when presenting it as novel, belonging to the moment, essential to our times.

Here are some brief quotes from NJO—but go read them in full.

Andrew Rotherham: “When one scratches below the surface of the debate you quickly find non-trivial debates about content, knowledge, pedagogy, and the nature of teaching itself.”

Diane Ravitch: “Our children are not deficient in skills or in computer literacy; they know better than their parents how to use computers to access information. Unfortunately what they lack is the knowledge with which to evaluate the information they so easily access.”

Phil Cuon: “Today’s young people enter our schools as “digital natives”—students who embrace technology and can do so much more with it than we would ever think possible. I am convinced that the physiology behind their learning is much different than what my learning was due to the tactile, audio, and visual media that young people are exposed to from birth.”

Paige Johnson: “If others truly believe that this work is not important or that the issue is not a significant one – I ask that they please direct me to evidence that proves all of our students are critical thinkers, able to solve complex issues, financially literate, understand and respect diversity, and manage themselves and others while working in team situations. Show me the statistics that prove that any student can step forward and be a future leader.”

Lynne Munson: “We and other critics of P21 agree, and have stated repeatedly, that the skills P21 promotes are important. What we take issue with is P21’s unserious treatment of subject matter content.”

Teachers on ed degree's value

Teachers discuss an education degree’s value (or lack thereof) on the NY Times’ Room for Debate blog. From Mark:

I am a 21-year veteran teacher who took a whole boatload of education courses in furtherance of my BA and MS degrees. They were utterly useless. The only thing that actually prepared me for teaching was student teaching. All of the other courses taught theory, but nothing practical.

Mark has mixed feelings on merit pay.

I am a very successful teacher, and parents and students alike have sought me out over my career. I make the same salary as another teacher who does nothing but shows movies in class all day. I spend my summers revising my work, creating new and interesting facets to the course. I make the same as the teacher who spends the summer not thinking one iota about the next school year.

Merit pay has some merit, it encourages certain behaviors and discourages others. What I am afraid of is that it will be used to reward the wrong people. If a teacher is mediocre, it is because they have been allowed to get away with it, their behavior empowered by administration. There is a great deal of cronyism in the business, and it skews the playing field.

A “frustrated early-childhood education teacher” calls for combining “pedagogy and a strong apprenticeship” program. What she doesn’t want is to sit through time-wasting professional development classes, such as a “five-hour session that culminated in making a caterpillar from an egg carton.”

Update: After qualifying for National Board certification, a veteran teacher was told he lacks enough credits for certification, reports WashPost columnist Jay Mathews. One phone call from Mathews got the bureaucrats to decide the teacher, who’s also a lawyer and Army vet, is qualified to teach.

For achievers, it's not the money

High-achieving, low-income students aren’t kept from college over money, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. He’s responding to one part of Columbia Professor Andrew Delbanco’s NY Review of Books article, Universities in Trouble.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships.

Money is a barrier for average students with low incomes:  A 2002 federal study “estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.” But “qualified” was defined as a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT.

We’re losing the “potentially successful,” Mathews writes. Most low-income students don’t develop the academic skills and work habits they need to excel. They’re out of the game long before 12th grade.

Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don’t believe such kids can learn very much and who don’t try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

If you know “any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money,” send their names and contact info to [email protected] Mathews promises to help.

Mathews is correct for students who are citizens and legal residents.  If they’re truly high achievers, they will get college scholarships.  For undocumented immigrants, who aren’t eligible for public aid, it’s much tougher. Some private colleges will offer aid; many will not fund “international” students.

I recently interviewed graduating seniors at Downtown College Prep, the San Jose charter school that’s the subject of my book, Our School (available in hardcover or paperback).  The undocumented students are starting at community colleges, which they can afford, and planning to transfer to a four-year university with a private scholarship raised by DCP. (Eventually, they will legalize their status through a relative’s sponsorship or marriage.)  Without the promise of a scholarship, even the high achievers would find college an impossible dream.

'Suited for teaching' after all

Michele Kerr, who comments here as “Cal,” has earned a master’s degree from Stanford’s Teacher Education Program (STEP), despite threats to declare her “unsuited” for teaching.  FIRE has the links.

. . . Stanford tried to revoke Kerr’s admission after she voiced disagreement with “progressive” views held by STEP administrators, but FIRE intervened and resolved the issue. Kerr also was blogging about her thoughts and experiences as a future certified teacher. Stanford School of Education administrators demanded the password to her private blog and threatened to expel her for her opinions and teaching philosophy.

Kerr was told that her problems had nothing to do with her views, that other students found her domineering and intimidating. In an e-mail, she told classmates that “you are all fantastic, passionate, committed people who I think will make outstanding teachers.” But:

. . . if you are sitting in class privately seething because you feel that I or anyone else is derailing a conversation that you wish to go in a different direction, then you should reconsider your own priorities and values as a novice educator.  SPEAK UP.

Fight for the education you want. And if you don’t feel you should have to, if you’d rather complain to the powers-that-be in the hopes that the power will take care of an interpersonal problem, then how on earth are you planning on going out in the far more ruthless world of public education and effect any change worth mentioning?

She was told the e-mail was “intimidating” in itself.

WashPost columnist Jay Mathews, often a target of Kerr’s caustic comments, wonders why academics can’t tolerate independent thinkers.

Though the education school has no blogging policy, Kerr was reprimanded for her blog, which mentioned Stanford but not the high school where she was student teaching.  She “took down the blog temporarily, renamed it, eliminated all references to Stanford, and gave it password protection so that only she and a few friends could read it,” Mathews writes. That didn’t help.

After filing a complaint, Kerr got a new supervisor with whom she got along very well. She completed the program and was hired by a high school in the area to teach algebra, geometry and humanities.

Can schools make a difference for poor kids?

Teacher Dwayne Betts, guest-posting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic blog, asks: Can schools make a difference for children in poor neighborhoods?

Two months into my first real job teaching poetry at a middle school in Southeast D.C. the English teacher whose class I took over once a week got hit in the eye while breaking up a fight. Two weeks later, after the student who’d struck her hadn’t been expelled, she decided not to return. This was a seventh grade English class, first quarter of the school year. . . . The school never hired another teacher. I watched a rotating cycle of substitutes come in and hand out worksheets to students that ran the gamut from on grade level to barely reading.

Disorder pushes good teachers away from troubled schools, Betts writes.  Most good young teachers in D.C. public schools leave for charter schools or private schools, “even when it means working more hours and longer school years.”

Betts is inspired by James Forman Jr.’s  No Ordinary Success in Boston Review, which compares two reform models: Geoffrey Canada’s Promise Academy builds on an attempt to transform a high-poverty community, while KIPP middle schools work to educate low-income, minority children who can handle a structured, high-expectations model.

Promise Academy faced serious academic and behavior problems with its first middle-school students, who’d come from district-run public schools. Yet test scores went up significantly, even for the most troubled students, Forman writes.

In a visit to KIPP, he found seventh-grade boys discussing Raisin in the Sun, listening to each other politely and citing passages in the text to support their points.

But KIPP is able to hire excellent teachers, Forman writes. There aren’t enough to go around.

. . . many mediocre teachers and administrators do not have the capacity to improve to anywhere near the standard required to achieve KIPP-like results. As much as it thrills us to read about extraordinary people succeeding with poor children, I want to see how ordinary people can do the same.

Forman recommends Paul Tough’s Whatever It Takes on Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Jay Mathews’ Work Hard. Be Nice. on KIPP and Charles Payne’s So Much Reform, So Little Change on the “persistence of failure in urban schools,” despite positive models.

In response to the ongoing “fix communities” versus “fix schools” debate, those doing the work in the trenches increasingly are settling on a single answer: do both.

“Canada started out running social programs, but when he peeked inside Harlem classrooms, he quickly realized he could never transform the neighborhood without fixing the schools,” Forman writes.  KIPP is now offering preschool, afterschool and summer school programs in some cities, plus “individual tutoring, social workers for kids in distress, and, at some campuses, classes for parents. It is also actively involved in community partnerships that address families’ medical and other needs.”

It seems to me that fixing poverty is a lot harder and more expensive than creating effective schools that protect teachers (and students) from violent kids.

Via Class Struggle.

Messing with success

Baltimore’s highest scoring middle school, KIPP Ujima Village, will have to cut its hours and drop Saturday classes to meet union demands for time-and-a-half pay for teachers, reports Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. With a nine-hour school day and Saturday classes, the all-black school has been the best in the city three years running; reading and math scores beat the state average in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Brad Nornhold, 31, a math teacher at Ujima Village, told Mathews the union never contacted the teachers before making the pay demand.

“This is a school of choice for teachers, too. I knew what I was getting into.” Ujima Village teachers were already the highest-paid in Baltimore for their experience level, and the union’s demands seem to overlook the appeal of what Nornhold called “the freedom to teach the way I want to teach.” The union ignores the lure of a school that supports teachers and structures their day so they can raise student achievement to levels rarely seen in their city. “To teach in a school that works, that’s nice,” Nornhold said.

A union leader responds. “Effective teachers can get the same results in a seven-hour-and-five-minute day.”

KIPP has been paying teachers an extra 18 percent to work longer hours. The Baltimore union said that wasn’t enough. In New York City, Mathews points out, the American Federation of Teachers contract with Green Dot accepts 14 percent more for a longer school day and year.

AP as academic shock treatment

‘Tis better to have tried an AP class and failed the exam than never to have tried at all, argues Jay Mathews. His Challenge Index includes schools with high AP test participation rates but very low passing rates. So he’s added a “Catching Up list for high schools that use AP as shock treatment for impoverished students who have been in the academic doldrums.”

On this new list are 29 schools with AP test participation rates high enough to qualify for the Newsweek list but with test passing rates under 10 percent.

. . . (Administrators) have tried raising achievement slowly with remedial education. It didn’t work, in part because the teachers and students had no worthy goal to shoot for. So they have made the AP test their benchmark, and in preparing for it hope to give low- performing students the strenuous academic exercise they need for college. Few pass the three-hour AP exams, so few get college credit. So what? They aren’t in college yet. This way they have a chance to accustom themselves to the foot-high reading assignments and torturous exams they will encounter in college.

A new Texas study shows graduates “who got a failing grade of 2 on the 5-point AP test — did significantly better in college than did similarly low- performing, low-income students who did not take AP,” Mathews writes.

Pushing low performers into AP classes may work at a small, catch-up school where teachers are prepared for the challenge. At a large school with a wide range of performance levels, it puts enormous pressure on AP teachers to teach both prepared and unprepared students.