It’s hard to be the ‘sage on the stage’

“Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience,” writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field.

On Thursday, she teaches writing fundamentals to disadvantaged 11-year-olds in an afterschool program. The kids are restless, hungry and easily distracted.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft . . . because it’s so much less exhausting?

“Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn,” Beals writes. Furthermore, “attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused.” Every year with a “guide” will make it harder for the next teacher to be a “sage.”

No choice for the wealthy

Actor Matt Damon, who opposes school choice for low-income students, has chosen to send his children to private school in Los Angeles, where he’s just moved, notes Andrew Rotherham in TIME, who calls the actor a “hypocrite.” The son of a teacher turned education professor, Damon has campaigned against education reform and in favor of public education. But he says there are no progressive public schools in Los Angeles, so “we don’t have a choice.”

Los Angeles has many charter schools and traditional public schools in demand by parents, responds Rotherham. Superintendent John Deasy offered to help Damon “tour a number of schools so he can have choices from our amazing portfolio of schools.”

 In addition to the traditional and charter schools in the LA system there are Mandarin immersion schools, magnets with different focuses, and even schools that focus on activism. If none of those schools turn out to work for the Damons that’s still a powerful argument for the ideas he works against publicly: Letting parents and teachers come together to create new public schools that meet the diverse needs of students. That’s precisely the idea behind public charter schools, an idea derided at the rallies where Damon is celebrated.

“Los Angeles now has a number of charter schools that are propelling first-in-family students into and through college,” writes Rotherham. That increases social mobility and reduces inequality. “If that’s not progressive enough, then what is?”

Wealthy parents can afford to live in an area with excellent public schools. That’s the most common choice for those who value public education.

Damon’s new movie, Elysium, is about a future dystopia were the uber-wealthy live in an edenic space station — with great medical care — while the 99.9 percent suffer on a polluted Earth.

Chartering for integration

While most high-performing charter schools serve disadvantaged minority students, there’s been a “noteworthy rise” in successful charters designed to serve racially and economically integrated student populations,” concludes a brief by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Three charters designed to draw a mix of students and three focused on low-income students are profiled in A Mission to Serve.

The Century Foundation, an advocate of economic integration, looks at seven diverse, high-performing charter schools in a second report.

Integration raises challenges, notes Education Week.

The “no excuses” philosophy popular in many charter schools, which focuses on discipline and more-traditional teaching practices, has garnered attention for some positive results with disadvantaged students, but “middle-class parents generally aren’t interested in that,” said (Fordham’s Mike) Petrilli.

On the other hand, several models of progressive education that place less emphasis on basic skills have not been consistently demonstrated to be effective for more-disadvantaged students, he said.

Meeting everyone’s needs in one school is very, very difficult to do.

Based on studies that compare charter lottery winners with students who applied but lost the lottery,“students in urban areas do significantly better in school if they attend a charter school, concludes Jay Greene in a research round-up. However, he notes, a national study for the U.S. Education Department found “significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools.

It’s easier to compete with  dysfunctional urban schools than with smooth-running suburban schools. But I also suspect the suburban charters are providing a progressive alternative for middle-class parents — and it doesn’t work as well, at least in producing high test scores.

Common Core doubts

Will the Common Core Create World-Class Learners?  Yong Zhao, a University of Oregon education professor, has doubts in an Ed Week interview with Anthony Cody.

“Judging from the accomplishment of NCLB and Race to the Top, I would say that five years from now, American education will still be said to be broken and obsolete. We will find out that the Common Core Standards, after billions of dollars, millions of hours of teacher time, and numerous PD sessions, alignment task forces, is not the cure to American’s education ill. Worse yet, we will likely have most of nation’s schools teaching to the common tests aligned with the Common Core. As a result, we will see a further narrowing of the curriculum and educational experiences. Whatever innovative teaching that has not been completely lost in the schools may finally be gone. And then we will have a nation of students, teachers, and schools who are compliant with the Common Core Standards, but we may not have much else left.”

Other than that, he’s a big fan.

Zhao is the author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.

Conservatives are pushing back against Common Core Standards, writes the Wall Street Journal. Some state legislators who felt rushed into adopting the standards are having second thoughts.

There are rumblings from all sides. The common standards and assessments represent the “antithesis of progressive values,” writes Jack Hassard on The Art of Teaching Science. “The idea of having a single set of standards and associated assessments appears to remove individuality, creativity and innovation from American classrooms.”

Liberals, send your kids to school

Homeschooling and unschooling is the wrong choice for liberals and progressives, writes Dana Goldstein in Slate. She’s responding to Astra Taylor’s unschooling memoirin N+1, which urges parents to “empty the schools,” freeing children from “irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells.”  Homeschooling is fundamentally illiberal, writes Goldstein.

It is rooted in distrust of the public sphere, in class privilege, and in the dated presumption that children hail from two-parent families, in which at least one parent can afford (and wants) to take significant time away from paid work in order to manage a process—education—that most parents entrust to the community at-large.

Liberal homeschoolers don’t want to let go of their children, Goldstein writes. She cites a Newsweek story on urban, educated, secular homeschoolers who’ve chosen do-it-yourself schooling. They believe “children are individuals, each deserving a uniquely curated upbringing,” writes Linda Perlstein. “That peer influence can be noxious. Many practice “attachment parenting,” which “involves round-the-clock physical contact with children and immediate responses to all their cues.”  One woman breast-fed her youngest till she was four.

OK, that sounds creepy. These kids are going to find the world very frustrating, if they ever get to live in it.

But Goldstein isn’t just trying to liberate overparented kids from Big Mommy. She argues that educated progressives should send their kids to racially and economically integrated public schools to pull up the achievement of their less-privileged classmates — and to learn to appreciate diversity.

If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.

I doubt that progressive parents want to use their own children to improve public schools, if they can afford alternatives. However, homeschooling always will be a minority choice. Few parents have the time, energy, motivation and ability to teach their children at home.

All Your Children Are Belong to Us, responds William Jacobsen.