Majority vs. Minority Rule, B.S. vs. Passion

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

Let’s move on to Federalist #22, again by Alexander Hamilton. While I sometimes find Hamilton tedious, as I mentioned earlier, he can also display a ferocious command of logic, political acuity, historical example, and rhetoric. These passages serve as a demonstration of this. Here he discusses how the Constitution addresses majority vs. minority power of the states, as opposed the idea of equality amongst the states, which had been an operating principle of the Articles of Confederation. At that time, the approval of all nine states was required in order to approve a bill, treaty, or other legislation:

The right of equal suffrage among the States is another exceptionable part of the Confederation. Every idea of proportion and every rule of fair representation conspire to condemn a principle, which gives to Rhode Island an equal weight in the scale of power with Massachusetts, or Connecticut, or New York; and to Delaware an equal voice in the national deliberations with Pennsylvania, or Virginia, or North Carolina. Its operation contradicts the fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail. Sophistry may reply, that sovereigns are equal, and that a majority of the votes of the States will be a majority of confederated America. But this kind of logical legerdemain will never counteract the plain suggestions of justice and common-sense. . .

Great rhetoric there, while also demonstrating the frequent insertion of breathy commas–a grammatical oddity throughout the Papers and a reflection, no doubt, of the stylistic conventions of the time.

It may be objected to this, that not seven but nine States, or two thirds of the whole number, must consent to the most important resolutions; and it may be thence inferred that nine States would always comprehend a majority of the Union. But this does not obviate the impropriety of an equal vote between States of the most unequal dimensions and populousness; nor is the inference accurate in point of fact; for we can enumerate nine States which contain less than a majority of the people; and it is constitutionally possible that these nine may give the vote. Besides, there are matters of considerable moment determinable by a bare majority; and there are others, concerning which doubts have been entertained, which, if interpreted in favor of the sufficiency of a vote of seven States, would extend its operation to interests of the first magnitude. In addition to this, it is to be observed that there is a probability of an increase in the number of States, and no provision for a proportional augmentation of the ratio of votes.

But this is not all: what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. . .

Again, great use of rhetoric and logic. He furthermore demonstrates political acuity in acknowledging that the republic would not be static, and was likely to expand. The principle of a majority rule is so commonplace in governance dynamics that we now seem to take it for granted. “Majority rules”: a flippant phrase we throw off while electing which movie to see. Yet at this time, the young states, newly independent, were protective of their rights and demanded equality. As Hamilton notes, though this seems like a just principle, in reality, it provides obstruction to even routine governance processes.

Now these next few passages get interesting, when you read it through the lens of our current perspective. All we see our government doing now is obstruct, delay, and filibuster:

This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority. In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. . .

The mistake has proceeded from not attending with due care to the mischiefs that may be occasioned by obstructing the progress of government at certain critical seasons. When the concurrence of a large number is required by the Constitution to the doing of any national act, we are apt to rest satisfied that all is safe, because nothing improper will be likely TO BE DONE, but we forget how much good may be prevented, and how much ill may be produced, by the power of hindering the doing what may be necessary, and of keeping affairs in the same unfavorable posture in which they may happen to stand at particular periods. . .

What could better describe the overuse of filibuster we witness today, and the consistent impasse that arises now at what should be navigable issues of governance?

Evils of this description ought not to be regarded as imaginary. One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption. . .

No, Alexander, we most definitely now know them not to be imaginary. They have become our political reality. Does this suggest that we need to further reduce the minority party’s “negative upon the majority,” as Hamilton put it?

What’s interesting about that last line above is how we can spin the meaning of “foreign corruption.” Hamilton meant it in the literal sense, but today, we could read it in the sense of any entity operating outside of the government, such as corporations, lobbyist groups, and other special interests, which have an out-sized influence on the operations of our government.

In an article in The New Yorker, there’s a bit more on viewing this as a screed against the filibuster, as well as some interesting caution against viewing The Federalist Papers as “secular scripture.” To quote:

The Federalist Papers—so often quoted to rationalize governmental stasis and congressional gridlock—are almost always treated as secular scripture. They’re not. They’re newspaper op-ed pieces, written in haste to sell a particular set of compromises, some of which their authors had adamantly opposed and accepted only with the greatest reluctance.

This is interesting, and it may explain in part why I’ve found some of Hamilton’s contributions to the papers tedious: he really may be bullshitting when he sounds like he’s bullshitting. The passages above, however, reflect real passion, and this stood out as I read them.

Hamilton and Taxation

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with my review of The Federalist Papers, I’m going to move to a couple of short excerpts from #21 from Alexander Hamilton (did you know his political career was nearly capsized by a sex scandal?). I love this first line:

The wealth of nations depends upon an infinite variety of causes. Situation, soil, climate, the nature of the productions, the nature of the government, the genius of the citizens, the degree of information they possess, the state of commerce, of arts, of industry, these circumstances and many more, too complex, minute, or adventitious to admit of a particular specification, occasion differences hardly conceivable in the relative opulence and riches of different countries. The consequence clearly is that there can be no common measure of national wealth, and, of course, no general or stationary rule by which the ability of a state to pay taxes can be determined. . .

This is an interesting declaration that I will admit I don’t fully understand. His argument seems to be essentially that there are too many intangibles in determining the true wealth of a nation, which lesson he then turns and applies to the impracticability of imposing a just tax on states. This quick dismissal of any attempt to quantify national wealth seems suspect to me, which is why I think I don’t fully understand this. It may be possible that there are political obstacles to a state tax which Hamilton doesn’t want to address here. He then goes on to examine taxation more carefully:

Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. . .

I also found this interesting. This sounds like an awful lot like a description of the ideals of a free market–that imbalances will organically be corrected, without requiring the constricting oversight of regulation. I suppose this philosophical underpinning in capitalism is unsurprising–Hamilton did become the Secretary of the Treasury, after all. However, my understanding is that Hamilton’s running of said office resulted in more central planning than otherwise.

The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

The Federalist Papers: A Review and an Introduction

In December, I began reading The Federalist Papers. I read them because in the course of researching and designing a unit of curriculum for my 7th-8th grade students, on what I ended up calling “The Art of Persuasion,” I had traced the history of formal rhetoric and debate and its relation to governance, coming up from Athens, the Sophists, Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos; to the pamphleteers debating religious, moral, and political issues during the 1500s to 1800s, such as Voltaire, Swift, and Martin Luther; finally arriving at revolutionary America, with Thomas Paine’s influential Common Sense, and the debates leading to the ratification of the US constitution, with The Federalist Papers cited as seminal to that process. Understanding this arc of rhetoric and persuasion and how it relates to democracy enabled me to better appreciate our current forms of pamphleteering: blogs. It also made me want to read more of these seminal documents firsthand. The Federalist Papers seemed like a good place to start, given their place in our nation’s history.

I picked away at them from December through March, reading them on the bus to and from work on my ereader. I found Jay’s and Madison’s commentary to be the most insightful, perhaps due to the clarity of their thought and language. Hamilton, on the other hand, I often found unnecessarily wordy and tedious. This is unfortunate, because he is the one who wrote the majority of the papers! This isn’t to say that he doesn’t provide insight, but his dense language and tendency to be a bit scrappier than the others makes it difficult.

Their language in general is interesting–I noticed in particular the recurrent overuse of the word “impracticable,” for instance. There were many other words they use that we don’t use much today. (I recommend using Vocabulary.com to practice such words, by the way; many of the words on that site came up in these papers!) It’s interesting to consider just how dense and formal their language was, and that this was the sort of language commonly employed in public discourse. Sure makes literate Americans of today seem rather uneducated in comparison.

Overall, I found them amazingly relevant to the debates that we continue to have today in the US, and the political science behind their arguments enlightening. I think every American should read these papers in order to better understand the reasoning behind the constitution that operates our system of governance.

It was also refreshing to consider and witness that something that we take so much for granted had been something so incredibly divisive at the time. It made me better appreciate the benefits of our system and the foresight of the founding fathers, as well as to be positioned to make more informed critiques of their decisions and the Constitution, as I can better understand why they made some of those choices and the context they were made within. For many Americans today, the US Constitution is something either inviolate or taken for granted. This is why I feel like every American should read them–it allows us to understand the Constitution as part of a living history that we can continue to partake in through our dialogue and debates of today.

In light of this, I marked a number of passages that I found particularly interesting that I’d like to begin exploring in a series of short blog posts here. I won’t guarantee that I will work through all of them, as I have some other projects ongoing this summer, but I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, so I hope I can. Thanks for reading.

Curriculum

An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”

This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.

Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.

Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.

Curriculum and Equity

There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.

These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.

Hidden Curriculum

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.

I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.

We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.

While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.

I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.

Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.

Core Curriculum

Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?

Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).

Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”

Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.

But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.

Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?

I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.

Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.

I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).

When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.

At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.

And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.

Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.

The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.

We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?

Open Source Curriculum

Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?

That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students (http://gothamschools.org/2011/04/01/persistence-through-failure/). I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.

Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.

This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.

I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.

The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.

This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.

I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.

My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.

It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.

A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to www.ashankerinst.org/curriculum.html and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
  3. Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I meant to post this yesterday, in order to show my EDUSolidarity, but WordPress was having some issues and I couldn’t log on to finish it. Well, better late then never.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, when I first entered the field of education, I was skeptical of unions, but was coming to appreciate the protection from short-sighted policy and budgetary broadsides that a union affords. One of the benefits of the events in Wisconsin is that it has served as a clarifying point to many people like me who may have been on the fence or uncertain about their support for unions. It forced me to examine whether I really supported the collective bargaining rights of a union, as well as to consider more broadly whether I felt the field of education might even be better with the power of unions subverted. As I considered these issues, I realized that the tactic which Republicans and businessmen were calling for was not surprising, given the values of management and capitalists in general, but that it brought to the forefront a major issue with untrammeled access of private interests in public education. Education in our country is based on the ideals of a working democracy, and if we can’t handle the messy debates and political process that such democracy entails via a system of checks and balances, then we will be cutting out the legs from under the efforts of education reform, even as it might momentarily appear that we would be gaining greater efficiency.

Simply because our economy is suffering due to misguided policies that benefit the wealthy few does not mean that we should begin slicing away at the very foundations of our democracy. The Economist is heralding the demise of unions, and they sound so eminently reasonable, don’t they? Problem is, they’ve forgotten that they are discussing real human lives in their equations.

Unfortunately, our society likes to pay lip service to our soldiers, our teachers, our firemen, our policemen, etc. But if the issue is ever broached that we would have to raise taxes to pay for those essential services, everybody clams up. And they hide away in their protective ideologies and behind their pacifying Fox news blather and tantalizing talk show hate radio. I don’t care what the situation with the economy is. We should NEVER cut essential services such as education or social services in our budgets. Because those services are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, and when we cut those services, we cut into the lives of those members of our society who need them the most. We can talk about accountability, sure! I’m all for it. I’ve seen too many of those federal and state dollars go to waste sitting in a closet. We need to invest that money smarter and track the effects of contracted programs in districts. Definitely! But should we be laying off teachers, subverting the roles of unions, and eliminating some of the few incentives and protections that teachers have in a highly challenging role that produces a product (competent students and citizens) that is of utmost value?

We need unions to protect the interests not only of teachers, but of the children who are raised in poverty. When we cut services or diminish rights in the interest of efficiency or economic duress, we cut directly into those children’s lives. Unions serve to balance the power of government and private interests. That doesn’t mean unions are saints or that I agree with all their policies or organizational structure. It means that I believe unions are a necessary counterbalance to bring the interests of various stakeholders to the bargaining table.

EWA Conference: The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession

Every now and then, I get a chance to attend a conference or seminar on some issue in education. Some teachers I know hate attending conferences, but I see them not only as an opportunity to gain new knowledge and to network, but also a chance to retain my sense of sanity and perspective. The everyday life in the self-contained classroom is one of high stress, and as much as I love my students, sometimes I need a break. Conferences are a way for me to thus gain a “mental health” day, while developing professionally at the same time. Also, as a friend of mine who works in the software engineering world put it, conferences are a great chance to “geek out” with other people who work in the same field. How often do I get to talk shop with like-minded folks?

I attended a conference put on by the Education Writer’s Association (and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation) on the topic of improving the teaching profession. This event was primarily for journalists, but some teacher bloggers were also invited.

The chance to meet with other teachers is always an opportunity I cherish, whether simply within the confines of my school, within my district, or more broadly such as at this conference. When teachers get together and really start to talk about education, it helps to alleviate the sense of isolation that one often feels in a classroom. We don’t tend to agree on everything, but when it comes to the everyday reality of teaching, we find our common ground. Another area of consensus amongst teachers is that we all want to be included in the national conversation on education, whether within the political or policy realm. We want the world to know what teaching is really all about.

I also enjoyed meeting education journalists and speaking with them. I knew in the abstract that the world of news is undergoing a huge rupture in the industry due to the rise of digital information technology, but it wasn’t until I  heard some of their stories that I understood the impact this is really having on the lives of journalists. The writers I met were well-spoken, knowledgeable, and interesting individuals.

This conference was set up typically, in that there were sets of panelists who discussed issues related to the topics of schools of education, teacher recruitment, and professional development. As they held their discussions, I jotted down notes about things that struck me. I will share those notes below in the hope that they may be useful to other educators or writers on education.

The Strategic Management of Human Capital

(side note: this was a term that was apologetically depicted by the presenters themselves as a bit technically overwrought, though I don’t have any problem with the terminology myself. We’re talking management here.)

Speaker: Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Carnegie Corporation of NY (On a sidenote: did you know that the Carnegie Corporation was responsible for funding HeadStart and Sesame Street?)

Solutions (these are all my own, which I was thinking about as counterpoints to some of the traditional data and perspectives of education reform being presented. For a better summation of the data, check out EdBeat’s post)

  • The improvement of schools needs to occur most fundamentally from within. Empower teachers with voice, feedback, time to collaborate, and leadership opportunities outside of their classroom.
  • The notion of an effective teacher must be counterbalanced with an understanding of the context of effective teaching (i.e. support within the building, resources available, etc.)
  • We need to partner with teachers to implement true reform, not simply apply pressure from outside via regulations or mandates

Teaching Teachers: Education Schools and Alternative Pathways

Panelists: Hamilton Lankford, SUNY; Sharon Robinson, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Kate Walsh, National Council on Teacher Quality

Moderator: Linda Perlstein, EWA

Problems

  • Journalists can do a better job of identifying what kind of impact a school of education is having on their local districts
  • Schools of education are completely inconsistent in their standards, syllabi, and demands
  • Schools of education see their role not simply to provide short-term “practical” knowledge, but furthermore the longer-term concepts of “life-long learning”–this frankly seems to me like an academic retreat from the harder conversations around what kind of content would actually be deemed “practical”
  • There is tension between what schools want in teachers and what schools of education teach teachers
  • Teachers are demanding knowing more about assessment, technology, and classroom management, according to surveys of graduates
  • Regulation does not seem to have a beneficial impact on teacher education programs
  • Lack of selectivity of candidates is a big issue
  • But there is a large shortage of teachers, and thus the rigor and quality of teachers is diminished
  • Teaching is not seen as being a competitive field to be in, especially by minorities
  • There is a dearth of research linking preparation programs to effective practice
  • Kate Walsh made an interesting and impassioned comment about teaching being one of the only industries where we seem to downplay being smart as a desired quality in candidates

Solutions

  • Communication must be built between the local school districts that are fed the graduates of schools of education
  • Content schools of education teach needs to be standardized
  • A larger pool of high quality candidates must be developed, and then effective screening measures must be used
  • Concept of “teaching ordinary people to do extraordinary things” by Deborah Ball
  • 4 foci presented by Sharon Robinson:
  1. Enrich clinical performance
  2. Document candidate performance
  3. Develop feedback within the state between schools of ed and public schools
  4. Create a level playing field

Questions/Comments

  • Ariel Sacks, a teacher in Brooklyn, made the critical observation that the conversation should really not be about the recruitment of teachers, but rather about the retention of effective teachers – I couldn’t agree more
  • One of my thoughts during this conversation, when someone brought up the inevitable data about Finland, Singapore or South Korea: Why are we always so busy looking at international comparisons as opposed to the knowledge and experience that teachers within our own classrooms have to offer?
  • Mark Roberts, a teacher in Washington D.C. made the point that we don’t put someone in a courtroom and after a few years expect them to be an effective lawyer–we have extremely high standards that they have to meet prior to even entering into training. Why should it be any different for teachers?

Bringing in the Best: Recruiting and Hiring Practices

Panelists: Vicki Bernstein, NYC DOE; Dan Goldhaber, Center on Education Data & Research; Spencer Kympton, TFA

Moderator: Caroline Hendrie, EWA

Problems

  • Relative wages of teachers have decreased when you account for inflation
  • Research from the private sector suggests that compensation matters
  • There are no solid predictors of a recruit’s performance in the classroom

Solutions

  • Leverage technology to recruit–it is cheap and it can be targeted
  • Institutes require incentives to change
  • Creating a competitive, viable market for teaching could influence change in schools of education
  • Elevate the prestige of the teaching profession
  • Though there are not sure predictors, we can still weed out the “bad bets”
  • Hiring from the top 1/3rd means the top 1/3 in terms of results, not where you came from or prestige
  • Refine the recruitment process based on nuances, not “silver bullets”–Vicki Bernstein pointed out that because of the complexity of teaching, it is hard to use any artificial construct to judge a potential recruit
  • Spencer Kympton pointed out that one predictor TFA has found from its data is the level of a candidate’s achievement beyond academics–such as the ability to set and meet goals

Questions/Comments

  • Samuel Reed, an educator and consultant from Philly, inquired what kind of recruitment efforts were made to target minorities to enter the profession. TFA rep. Spencer Kympton responded that they seek to foster conversations with minority students upon entrance into college, not only when they are about to graduate, in order to build interest in teaching as a profession. He also stated that TFA obtains 40% of its recruitment pool from low-income backgrounds
  • Dan Brown, a teacher in Washington D.C., gave his personal story and used it to articulate how compensation and wages do matter. He also pointed out that accountability in education renders it an unattractive field to work in
  • David Ginsburg, an educator and consultant, pointed out that based on his personal experience, the survey instrument (Star Teacher Selection Interview) used in Haberman’s research is highly effective as a predictor of teacher performance. Dan Goldhaber responded that the survey still could only account for 10% predictor success. Vicki Bernstein may have indicated that she has used Haberman’s survey instrument as well.
  • Richard Whitmire (I think this was who said this, but I may be mistaken–please correct me if this is inaccurate information) stated that compensation should be restructured to provide incentives for teacher performance, such as by raising the bar for tenure and making it much more difficult to attain
  • Kenneth Bernstein, an educator and union rep from Washington D.C., responded to this comment with an opposing view in support of teacher pensions. He also pointed out how checklists used to gauge teacher effectiveness were superficial.

During lunch, Michele Cahill, vice president for national programs and director of urban education at Carniegie Corporation, presented some research and perspective on education reform.

  • Cahill stated that there IS a silver bullet when it comes to one area of education policy–the MDRC study on small schools of choice demonstrates that small schools of choice can improve graduation prospects for disadvantaged students
  • She pointed out that school conditions are of extreme importance, such as teaching what students need, getting an effective group of teachers together, scheduling time for teachers to collaborate together, etc
  • Routine cognitive jobs are changing or being replaced in many industries–this will inevitably occur in teaching as well
  • Technology is a potential avenue to give effective teachers greater loads of children

Questions/Comments

  • Stephen Lazar, a teacher and union rep in NYC, cautioned that scaling such use of technology in the field of education–such as in NYC’s Innovation Zone–too quickly could be detrimental
  • Cahill agreed, and said that we have to be smart about scalability and look at the sustainability of any reform, such as by paying especial attention to the concept of renewal, wherein networks collaborate and reflect on what is working well and what needs to be modified
  • Mark Roberts questioned the fads in the education industry, and asked how we can better increase teacher involvement
  • Cahill responded that one way of doing this is for teachers to look at data and collaborate in the form of inquiry teams
  • Talia Milgrom-Elcott made a comment about how we need to battle against monolithic thinking and ideologies as we seek to improve the teaching profession

Learning on the Job: Improving Professional Development

Panelists: Karen Hawley Miles, Education Resource Strategies; Ted Preston, Achievement Network; Judy Zimny, ASCD

Moderator: Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week

This was my favorite panel of the conference, as the kind of solutions all of the panelists presented corresponded with what I know is effective as an educator.

  • Differentiate PD for teachers
  • There must be strong leadership in a school – that leader must assemble a strong team and provide the vision and goals for the school
  • Teachers only get better in the contexts of their jobs, which leads to continuous improvement and professional growth
  • Time within the school day is needed for teacher teams to meet and collaborate
  • School leaders must establish common planning periods and–at first–force collaboration to happen
  • Clarity in communication is important from school leaders
  • Judy Zimny also advised that school administrators should reduce announcements made during the day, as well as put all their emphasis on teaching by reducing time spent on extras
  • High performing schools spend 3 times more time collaborating than low performing schools
  • The focus on evaluations of teachers needs to include collective accountability by focusing on teams rather than individual teachers
  • As schools struggle to improve, they must retain the perspective of where they are developmentally as a school, and therefore develop their organizational contexts at a realistic pace
  • Take the focus off of “superstar” teachers, and instead look for “synergistic” results–focus on school-wide goals that include all school staff
  • The whole organization of a school should be focused on learning, not individual goals
  • Professional Development is often cut due to funding spent on reducing class size
  • There must be people within the school who possess strong content knowledge

Questions/Comments

  • Jose Vilson, an educator in NYC, asked how we can development environments in schools that foster teacher leaders?
  • I asked the question of how we can measure things like the relationships and contexts within a school, given the current focus on accountability. Karen Hawley Miles responded that there is a survey instrument available that can measure the “trust” within a school. However, she noted that when tied to high stakes consequences, this data becomes skewed. I think she said that it was the”Fry” survey, but I can’t find anything when I try to Google this. If anyone know what survey she was talking about, please clue me in! I’ll try contacting her directly in the meantime and update here when I find out. UPDATE 2/23/11: I must have misheard “Schneider” as “Fry.” The survey is part of the book that I had already happened to link to under “trust” above! Guess I’ll be heading downtown to check it out in the library. If anyone is further interested in this topic, Deborah Meier also has a book on trust in schools.
  • Peter Meyer, a journalist and editor at Education Next, questioned how an effective curriculum–such as one based on ED Hirsch‘s research–can be provided to teachers
  • Stacey Snyder, project manager for Teacher Quality Partnership out in Iowa (one of the few to rep for rural schools at this conference), brought her concerns for rural schools to the table. In the face of dwindling community resources and declining enrollments, Stacy inquired about what innovations the panel saw coming in the arena of PD that could help to alleviate their sense of isolation and promote technology?

Resources/Links

Here are links to blogs or sites from educators that were in attendance at the conference:

Here’s links to the journalists’ sites that were in attendance:

Open Source as it Applies to Education: Part II

Two distinct but equally real organizational forms exist in parallel to each other. The dynamic relationship between hierarchies and networks over time determines both the nature of the transition and the endpoint. One form may defeat the other through competition. Both may coexist by settling into nearly separate niches where they are particularly advantaged. Most interesting will be the new forms of organization that emerge to manage the interface between them, and the process by which those boundary spanners influence the internal structure and function of the networks and the hierarchies that they link together.

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

One of the most intriguing chapters in Weber’s book on open source is the final chapter, in which he examines the potential of generalizing the open source model to other paradigms. I found his delineation between open sourcing as “networking” and traditional, propriety methods as “hierarchies” particularly useful, especially in my considerations of applying open source to collaborative curriculum design. This interfacing by innovative “boundary spanners” between hierarchies and networks is precisely what is at issue in the field of education and so desperately needed. Schools are operated primarily in an antiquated hierarchical model in nearly all structural forms. Nearly all decisions, from curriculum to school programs to scheduling are passed top down. Some decisions must be made in such a manner, and this is why hierarchies exist, but the decisions that are similar in all schools yet exist under different conditions necessitate distributed, localized, network based decisions. Curriculum should be developed by the teachers that implement it. The knowledge and learning that is obtained from students (because learning is not a two way street–the students are teaching adults what they need) must be incorporated into whatever decisions are made that will impact a classroom or school directly. That means connecting classrooms and teachers directly to policymakers. The leveling platform of technology can enable this to happen (I’m going to discuss this more in another post soon).

I don’t know if I subscribe to such a dire black and white portrayal of networks vs. hierarchies that Weber presents above, however. I think they can and will successfully coexist in the same manner that the structure of a leaf or a body is hierarchical in coexistence with networks, such as veins. I’m not sure if that’s the best analogy to make here, but I think it conveys what I mean. Perhaps more akin to the idea of holons portrayed by Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality?

The notion of open-sourcing as a strategic organizational decision can be seen as an efficiency choice around distributed innovation . . . The simple logic of open-sourcing would be a choice to pursue ad hoc distributed development of solutions for a problem that (1) exists within an organization, (2) is likely to exist elsewhere as well, and (3) is not the key source of competitive advantage or differentiation for the organization.

The reason this open source model applies to education is because education and knowledge should be considered a public good, a product of the commons. This is why it doesn’t make sense to develop curriculum within closed, proprietary means. Effective methods of teaching and learning content should not be copyrighted. As Weber effectively details in his book, the power in open source is that it turns the notion of property on its head, from that of exclusion to that of distribution. Knowledge and learning should be disseminated and shared as widely as possible, because everyone benefits from it.

Note that I am not suggesting that companies or individuals should not be able to profit from offering services to schools. They will continue to do so even when effective curriculum begins to be developed via open sourcing; it will simply be that the nature of their services will change, just as the music industry is (still) learning to shift the nature of its services to accommodate the digital information age.

The open source process is more likely to work effectively in tasks that have these characteristics:

  • Disaggregated contributions can be derived from knowledge that is accessible under clear, nondiscriminatory conditions, not proprietary or locked up.
  • The product is perceived as important and valuable to a critical mass of users.
  • The product benefits from widespread peer attention and review, and can improve through creative challenge and error correction . . .
  • There are strong positive network effects to use of the product.
  • An individual or a small group can take the lead and generate a substantive core that promises to evolve into something truly useful.
  • A voluntary community of iterated interaction can develop around the process of building the product.

All of these conditions exist for curriculum design in public education, in addition to other aspects of teacher collaboration, such as research (as I suggested in my last post on this subject) and policy.

Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part I

A system with high adaptive capacity exerts co...

Image via Wikipedia

In one of my recent posts, I pontificated in a rather abstract manner on the field of education, and advocated for the need for nurturing an increase in foundational systems of interconnectivity. I believe quite strongly in this concept, and I would like to begin exploring it in more practical and substantive terms in a series of blog posts, just as I once did on the issue of poverty (I, II, III, and IV). But first of all: what the hell do I even mean by foundational systems of interconnectivity?

What we’re really talking about here is the concept of a school as an ecosystem. You can’t disconnect or isolate any one component from the other without considering its relation to many other interrelated parts. For example, you can’t completely isolate a student in a classroom from the collective student body in that classroom, nor that classroom from the collective student body in the grade, nor school. You can’t completely isolate a student from their family, nor community, nor society. You can’t isolate a teacher from the professional collective of teachers and staff in the school, nor from the administration and its policies, nor from the state and federal funding and policies.

So in consideration of the school as an ecosystem, we must:

a) acknowledge interrelationships and connections when considering subgroups or individuals by:

  1. considering the school culture
  2. considering the community and culture of the student population that the school serves
  3. considering societal expectations and norms

If we can begin to analyse the components of what I outlined above, we then can begin exploring how we can better harmonize those considerations in order to best foster the conditions for a well-balanced school ecosystem.

In my next post on this topic, I will explore the concept of a school culture further.

Growing Healthy Food and Children

Now that I have a rare moment wherein time is somewhat suspended (the woman is sick and passed out and I’ve finished grad school work due tomorrow), and I’m imbibing some Dominican ambrosia and just relaxing and feeling reflective, I think I’d like to verbalize some thoughts on public education, as right now it’s surprisingly caught the drift of a lot of national attention, due in no small part to Waiting for Superman (which I pledged to go see but never did, because  . . . you guessed it, didn’t have the time (but that’s what Netflix is for, in any case (plus, I’m opposed to seeing movies in movie theaters any more))), as well as concurrent talking points like Race to the Top, Common Core State Standards, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black, reformed systems of teacher evaluation, bullying and deaths in school, etc.

The strange thing about education is just how damned political the whole undertaking is. The field of education is a messy conflux of policy and politics, with many stakeholders taking often quite adversarial positions even when they ostensibly have common goals. Education is a hugely dynamic and complex field, and it doesn’t really make sense to view it through the lens of only one stakeholder.

Therein, perhaps, lies the crux of the issue. No one can really quite agree on what public education is supposed to do, exactly. We certainly agree that we should be teaching our children, but often in actual application, it would appear that us adults (whether parents, teachers, administrators or policymakers) are quite confused about what is worth teaching and might need some further schooling ourselves. Often we end up simply capitalizing off of children, in the same manner that giant corporations capitalize off of war, and industries capitalize off of prisons.

An Analogy

Coinciding with the rise of public education was the rise of agribusiness. Both of these services to society, I would argue, were crucial and entirely necessary. The drive to efficiency and scalability of agribusiness has resulted in some unforeseen issues, however, such as rampant dependency on pesticides and herbicides, and the ravaging of topsoils. Awareness of these detrimental side-effects has grown, and the organic and whole foods movement has caught on at a mainstream level in order to address some of these imbalances, though the jury is still out on whether we’re even capable of rectifying them. At the very least, society is beginning to recognize that short-term gain is not always worth long-term detrimental effects, including impacts on global and personal health.

There are links between food growth and education that I think should be elucidated. When you grow food, you are not simply growing a product, you are sustaining soil life. The more vibrant and diverse that soil life is, the more abundant, sustainable, and healthy your final product is. In education, you are not simply building student dendrites and promoting academic development, you are cultivating a community. The more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant that community is, the better the academic and other outcomes will be for students. We don’t need research to tell us this.

The Big Idea

The big idea here is that post-modern farming and education, as in the permaculture approach, is all about fostering foundational systems of interconnectivity. When you are dealing with complex systems of life, you need to promote those interconnections at all cost, or else you will end up weakening those systems at an incalculably large cost to greater society.

It’s this idea that I think can promote a unified vision for where education needs to go today. It’s not just about technology or knowledge work or global competitiveness or what have you–it’s about societal health and a sustainable future for our nation. If we can’t cultivate self-sustaining communities that are vibrant, interconnected, and teeming with diversity, then we will be able to do little else than continue infusing unhealthy doses of industrial era, one-size-fits-all reforms into school systems, propped up on federal money and compliance based policies.

Making Things Happen

It’s been a while since I last posted, which is because I’ve been swamped. My life could be seen as kind of dismal, I suppose, except that I’m excited by what I’m doing right now, so all the hard work and no time to play is all right, for the time being at least. I’m starting to get a bit burnt out, which is not good, but there’s a few spots of days off this month which I think will allow me to squeeze through it.

I’ve been keeping up with my ‘barefoot’ running regimen, and it’s helping me to keep more physically in tune, and also serves as precious decompression time. My feet have fully adapted, and it feels great! It took me all summer to get broken into it, but now it’s like butter.

I’ve realized that the school where I’ve been working, for all its many problems and dysfunctions, is actually the perfect place for me to hone my skills and grow as a professional. It’s a disorganized and often chaotic school, but everyone in the building means well and tries their best. Meaning that for all its dysfunctions, the place is ripe for change. All it takes is some applied pressure.

I’ve been talking on this blog for a long time about a holistic, whole systems design approach to change, and for the first time, I’m really getting to gain practical insight into that theory. I’m discovering that true power is about seeing opportunities in problems and seizing those opportunities to advocate for greater systemic change. Furthermore, true power is working in collaboration with different types of people and harnessing their skill sets as resources.

I may only be a second year teacher, but I have skill sets from my management experience that I’m beginning to draw more upon, now that I have had some space to grow into my current role. I’ve become the go-to-guy for attending workshops (simply because I’m willing to go to them, really), and as I’ve been going to all these different workshops (Common Core State Standards, Response to Intervention, Inquiry, Quality Review, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, just to name a few), I’ve been thinking of ways for how to synthesize and apply the information in the school.

I want to accomplish these goals this year:

1) Begin tackling the Common Core State Standards in our school

2) Begin coordinating school-wide systems of academic interventions

3) Advocate for a PBIS system for behavior

4) Advocate for a system of referral tracking (SWIS or OORS)

5) Build emotional literacy in the building (understand student acting out behaviors, not simply punish them)

6) Implement the Response to Intervention model

7) Make the process of inquiry and using data authentic

My first strategy was to create a team of special education teachers. It was something I had put on my agenda since last year, but with all the other things going on, especially with my growing awareness of the Response to Intervention model, it made sense to finally get it put into place first thing this year. In tandem with that team, I came up with a short vision proposal and presented it to the principal, which included utilizing the inquiry team and the special education team to begin implementing school-wide interventions to move the school into the Response to Intervention framework, in addition towards implementing the Common Core State Standards. She agreed, and the plan I put in place has begun picking up steam.

I feel good about what is happening, because there are many points that are currently converging in the building: 1) the Common Core State Standards, which are getting rolled out statewide this year, have been examined and discussed school-wide already in an authentic, collaborative way; 2) technology, which many teachers have been highly resistant towards using last year, is now being increasingly used, such as our Google website for inputting team meeting minutes; 3) grade level teams now have discussed and implemented a team protocol, which will help to structure and build accountability for team meetings; 4) the special education teachers are already beginning to be viewed as leaders and pioneers; 5) I have successfully advocated for an assessment for reading to be used in the building that more accurately targets foundational deficiencies, which many of our students–especially students with IEPs–lack, and I subsequently designed and implemented the headers to be used in a tracking spreadsheet that is being created for our school (I had a timeline of about a week to do all of that, from advocacy to spreadsheet!); and 6) I was able to include lexile measure correlations on the spreadsheet, which will position our school to be ready for the Common Core State Standards use of lexile measures.

And this convergence all happened practically within one week! There is a momentum in the building that is exciting to see. Obviously, I am taking some credit for it (why not, I get to celebrate myself sometimes, don’t I?), but the reality is that I simply took the first steps towards putting it together. The actual implementation only has been able to occur because there are great people in the building who want to see things get better just as much as I do and who have been willing to step up and put themselves on the line to make it happen.

It remains to be seen whether this momentum is sustainable, but it’s a great start. I’m chugging along through my graduate work and if all goes according to plan, I should only have two classes left in the Spring semester. Here’s to making things happen.

Accountability in Public Education

Last year, as I entered the world of urban public education, I was overwhelmed not only by the engulfing responsibilities of a pedagogue, but also by trying to wrap my head around the complex and convoluted inner workings of all the differing political factions involved, such as the networks of city, state, and national teacher’s unions, all staking their claims alongside the sprawling but somewhat business-minded bureaucracy of the NYC Department of Education. Not only that, but within my building itself it was often hard to discern exactly who had what affiliations, and there was always this sense of paranoia, with teachers sometimes oddly whispering to each other, pointing at the intercom on the wall.

I also recall a disturbing training session over the summer before I began teaching, when our teacher brought in a weird subversive with tenuous ties to the city union, who whispered to us about the terrible things that administrators might do to us, and who would stop in mid-sentence and look petrified whenever the door was opened, as if some lurking officiant from the DOE would walk in and taser him.

As someone coming from the ‘business sector’–if that’s what you can call having worked in the retail and hospitality industry–I was initially quite skeptical of teacher’s unions. After having spent a wee bit of time in the field now, I remain critical of them, but more appreciative of the work they are doing to protect teachers in a climate in which teachers are all too often blamed first for a failing public education system.

There are some horror stories out there about administrators who abuse their power and plow under perfectly decent teachers, and I can attest to the reality of this, because it happened to a friend of mine last year. It leads to the perfectly common sense realization that we can’t point the finger at failing teachers if we don’t go further and acknowledge the greater culpability and responsibility of their immediate supervisors.

In the business world, if employees fail to perform adequately, then the person that gets grilled is their direct supervisor. A good manager never blames her employees. She takes responsibility for ensuring high performance from those that she supervises. That’s her job.

Similarly, good teachers will acknowledge that they are responsible for all of their students’ learning. If one of their students fails to learn, it is not because the student is incapable of learning, it is because the teacher failed to deliver it to them correctly.

If multiple teachers are failing to reach many of their students, then their administrators must therefore be held accountable. It is the responsibility of administrators to create and implement school-wide systems and policies that support their teachers’ development–and thus, that of their students. In an era of accountability, it should be the administrators that are held to the flame first, not the teachers. (And there are indeed systems out there that administrators can easily draw from, such as PBIS, Response to Intervention, SWIS or OORS referral tracking, and assessments that can explicitly notify the building of needed intervention).

It’s easy to blame teachers, because it makes it seem like all we have to do is get some better trained teachers in there and then the problem will be solved. But you could have some of the best teachers in the world in some of your classrooms, but if there is no school-wide system of communication and support, then inevitably many will continue to fail. Flowers need tending. Workers need nurturing. Teachers need administrators who are able and willing to put in the hard work necessary to create an environment of professionalism, hard work, respect, and collaboration.

This is not to say that teachers couldn’t be trained better. They could. The hard, practical reality of teaching is not often acknowledged in the removed academic programs of undergraduate and graduate schools. In an ideal world, teachers in training would work directly in the field alongside an experienced teacher, gaining experience and knowledge through working with real students as they receive feedback and guidance. This is why the TFA and Teaching Fellows programs are somewhat successful–except that you’re just thrown in there without that experienced teacher alongside you to guide you.

I think there are a lot of terrible teachers out there. I know, because I had a lot of them. And I’ve worked with some of them. And I think that if we had an education system where administrators were truly accountable, then we could remove those protective barriers around teachers and say, “off with their heads!” But in the system we currently have, with its muddied waters of political back rubbing and schmoozing, you can’t trust all administrators to make the best decisions.

By all means, teachers must be held accountable. (And believe me, a teacher worth their salt already feels the burden of accountability from those populations that they answer directly to: their students.) But that accountability must run all the way to the top. Until it does in a manifest and transparent manner, we need teacher’s unions to protect their rights and interests from public officials seeking to divert blame to easier targets. A good school is a good system, not just a collection of good teachers. A good school fosters excellent teachers, just like a good company fosters high performing employees.

Thoughts on ‘The Shame of the Nation’

The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in AmericaThe Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I don’t agree necessarily with some of Kozol’s perspectives on education, such as his obvious horror of standardized testing and other accountability measures, I do think that his ultimate unveiling of the United States educational system as one based on apartheid as devastatingly accurate. Any educational reform, whether a Race For The Top or a No Child Left Behind—anything, essentially, short of equitable integration—will continually fail to bridge the “achievement gap.” There will be only those children already poised to succeed academically by the nature of their parent or community resources, and those children largely destined to fail academically by the nature of their family or community poverty. And it must be clarified explicitly that those children destined (statistically speaking) for academic failure are predominately black or Latino. There is a prevalent perspective based on fundamental racism in our country—all the more insidious because it is rarely voiced outright—that black or brown or just simply poor people will never really amount to anything because they just aren’t smart enough. And should thus be kept out of schools with gifted white children destined for true achievement. This racist perspective is not only insidious due to its covert nature, but furthermore because it is an often subconscious distillation of policies, lifestyles, and the nature of our current economy. The form in which it is considered does not appear immediately racist when it does come into public discussion. In this form, it arrives as something unfortunate, something so deeply ingrained that it cannot even be challenged. As an example, think of the middle class white parent who wants to get their child into a “good” school. They may move in order to be within the zone that will most likely get their child placed there. They may buy their child special instruction in order to meet the testing and interview requirements for the school. They may borrow money or dip into savings in order to pay the large tuition. And the school we may be discussing might only be pre-school. This competitiveness, in which parents positioned with resources may most easily navigate and triumph, seems at first sight to be based somewhat fairly on our democratic and capitalistic notion of merit. There does not seem to be any overt racism there. Who would deny a caring and savvy parent their right in garnering the best possible opportunities for their children? But upon further examination, it becomes evident that the only children who get into these “good” schools come from families or communities with resources. Meaning, in effect, the white children of the middle or upper class. As Kozol painstakingly reveals, the reality of this results in an educational system more deeply segregated than in the years immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Ed supreme court decision. And all of the reforms that have been enacted since that time address only achievement, not equity nor integration. The failure of such educational reforms can be examined, as Kozol does somewhat here, historically, or simply by looking at some recent news. New York has come under criticism due to the revelation that its standardized test scores have been inflated over the last few years. Scores from this last year were then accordingly scaled down, revealing that barely half of NY city students are considered even “proficient” in math (already a pretty low standard to achieve), and well less than half are capable of reading at grade level. This sobering news may for a moment make some would-be reformers want to throw up their hands. It also reinforces the quiet racism that lurks at the back of people’s minds, such that they think “Why should we even bother trying to raise the achievement of these children? Why waste the money?” But the problem is not the reform movement per se. There are achievements that have been made in instructional delivery and research-based assessment that I don’t think should be played down. The effort to improve achievement in the face of entrenched poverty and ingrained racism and ghettoized city policy has been noble. But nothing–as Kozol so despairingly portrays in his book–will vastly improve until children of all races and classes are given equal opportunities to learn in the same schools.

View all my reviews >>