Yes, There Really Is Goodness In This World

We can all be forgiven for thinking the world has truly gone to Hell since we are constantly bombarded by news of murders and mass shootings and politicians wasting our tax dollars, etc.  The drumbeat is unending.

But then we learn about a restaurant in Brewton, AL with the unlikely name of Drexell & Honeybees’ where patrons can eat for free, or pay whatever they wish, and a smile comes to our face  Suddenly our day is a wee brighter and our faith in our fellow man is restored, at least for a little while.

The restaurant is the idea of Lisa Thomas-McMillan and her husband, Freddie.  Both are retired.  They opened the restaurant in March 2018.  Those who wish to pay for their meal simply drop some money in a box.

Several years ago Lisa worked in the dining hall at the local community college.  One day some senior citizens showed up who were hungry, but had little money.  That planted the seed that is now Drexell & Honeybee’s.

Do yourself a favor and click the link above to read more.

As for me, I will definitely seek out this establishment on some of my travels.

A Very Wise Educator Speaks The Truth

Editor’s note: Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA.  The grandson of Italian immigrants, his path to college professor took many twists and turns.  Along the way he taught in inner-city Los Angeles, taught everything from kindergarten to adult literacy courses.  He was especially attuned to the struggles of blue collar families and their children, no doubt because of his own background.

One of his many books, written in 1995, was Possible Lives: The Promise of Education in America.  He traveled thousands of miles visiting schools throughout the country.  Twenty years later, as “education reform” continued to sweep the U.S., he returned to many of these schools. 

Here are excerpts from his observations, the most striking of which is this sentence, Life inside a classroom is profoundly affected by the immediate life outside it.  This powerful statement should be on the wall of every Alabama educator, starting with the state superintendent.

To update Possible Lives, I spoke to each of these teachers again about 10 years after my visit and found that all of them shared a deep concern about the potential effect of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on the classrooms they had worked so hard to create. No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative are built on the assumption that our public schools are in crisis, and that the best way to improve them is by using standardized tests (up to now only in reading and math) to rate student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Learning is defined as a rise in a standardized test score and teaching as the set of activities that lead to that score, with the curriculum tightly linked to the tests. This system demonstrates a technocratic neatness, but it doesn’t measure what goes on in the classrooms I visited. A teacher can prep students for a standardized test, get a bump in scores, and yet not be providing a very good education.

Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Our understanding of teaching and learning, and of the intellectual and social development of children, becomes terribly narrow in the process.

No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have dramatically increased the influence of the federal government on public schools. Both programs require states to establish standardized testing programs, and federal funding often depends on the test results. If schools don’t meet certain performance criteria, they are subject to sanction and even closure. Race to the Top added a competitive grant program to the federal effort, requiring states to lift limits on charter schools and tie teacher evaluations to students’ test scores in order to be eligible for a significant one-time award of federal funds.

A core assumption underlying No Child Left Behind is that substandard academic achievement is the result of educators’ low expectations and lack of effort. The standardized tests mandated by the act, its framers contended, hold administrators and teachers accountable—there can be no excuses for a student’s poor performance.

The act’s assumptions also reveal a pretty simplified notion of what motivates a teacher: raise your expectations or you’ll be punished—what a friend of mine calls the caveman theory of motivation.

But the use of such tests and the high stakes attached to them also led to other results that any student of organizational behavior could have predicted. A number of education officials manipulated the system by lowering the cutoff test scores for proficiency, or withheld from testing students who would perform poorly, or occasionally fudged the results.

Studies of what went on in classrooms are equally troubling and predictable. The high-stakes tests led many administrators and teachers to increase math and reading test preparation and reduce time spent on science, history, and geography. The arts were, in some cases, drastically reduced or eliminated. Aspects of math and reading that didn’t directly relate to the tests were also eliminated, even though they could have led to broader understanding and appreciation of these subjects.

Not long ago, a teacher I’ll call Priscilla contacted me with a typical story. She has been teaching for 30 years in an elementary school in a low-income community north of Los Angeles. The school’s test scores were not adequate last year, so the principal, under immense pressure from the school district, mandated for all teachers a regimented curriculum focused on basic math and literacy skills. The principal directed the teachers not to change or augment this curriculum. So now Priscilla cannot draw on her cabinets full of materials collected over the years to enliven or individualize instruction. The time spent on the new curriculum has meant trims in science and social studies. Art and music have been cut entirely. “There is no joy here,” she told me, “only admonishment.”

When the standardized test score is the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, other indicators of competence are discounted. One factor is seniority—which reformers believe, not without reason, overly constrains an administrator’s hiring decisions. Another is post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in education, a field many reformers hold in contempt. Several studies do report low correlation between experience (defined as years in the profession) and students’ test scores. Other studies find a similarly low correlation between students’ scores and teachers’ post-baccalaureate degrees and certifications. These studies lead to an absolute claim that neither experience nor schooling beyond the bachelor’s degree makes any difference.

What a remarkable assertion. Can you think of any other kind of work—from hair styling to neurosurgery—where we don’t value experience and training? If reformers had a better understanding of teaching, they might wonder whether something was amiss with the studies, which tend to deal in simple averages and define experience or training in crude ways. Experience, for example, is typically defined as years on the job, yet years in service, considered alone, don’t mean that much. A dictionary definition of experience—“activity that includes training, observation of practice, and personal participation and knowledge gained from this”—indicates the connection to competence. The teachers in Possible Lives had attended workshops and conferences, participated in professional networks, or taken classes. They experimented with their curricula and searched out ideas and materials to incorporate into their work. What people do with their time on the job becomes the foundation of expertise.

What if reform had begun with the assumption that at least some of the answers for improvement were in the public schools themselves, that significant unrealized capacity exists in the teaching force, that even poorly performing schools employ teachers who work to the point of exhaustion to benefit their students? Imagine, then, what could happen if the astronomical amount of money and human resources that went into the past decade’s vast machinery of high-stakes testing-—from test development to the logistics of testing at each school site—if all that money had gone into a high-quality, widely distributed program of professional development. I don’t mean the quick-hit, half-day events that teachers endure, but serious, extended engagement of the kind offered by the National Science Foundation and the National Writing Project, by university summer programs in literature or science or history, by teams of expert teachers themselves.

Imagine as well that school reform acknowledged poverty as a formidable barrier to academic success. All low-income schools would be staffed with a nurse and a social worker and have direct links to local health and social service agencies. If poor kids simply had eye exams and glasses, we’d see a rise in early reading proficiency. Extra tutoring would be provided, some of which could be done by volunteers and interns from nearby colleges. Schools would be funded to stay open late, providing academic and recreational activities for their students. They could become focal institutions in low-income communities, involving parents and working with existing community groups and agencies focused on educational and economic improvement.

What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong In The First Place?

Editor’s note:  Every time you turn around, another “education reform” is being pushed on us.  Here in Alabama they go by such names as A-F school report cards, the Alabama Accountability Act, charter schools and countless studies by high-priced consultants that will dissect our schools from A to Z and give us more answers than Carter has liver pills.  But from time to time, a rational person takes a hard look at “education reform.”  The article below by Bill Raden is one such example..  It is an excellent and thought-provoking read and tells us once again that it is impossible for teachers to solve all of society’s ills.

“It’s been just over 30 years since war was declared on America’s public schools. The opening salvo came with 1983’s A Nation at Risk, the Ronald Reagan-era Department of Education report that alleged that lax schools and ineffective teachers constituted a dire threat to national security.

Yet three decades later, and in spite the opening of a second front comprised of school vouchers, a 2.57-million student charter school network, and a classroom culture tied to test preparation, the nation’s education outcomes have barely budged, and rather than narrowing the education gap, the chasm between rich and poor appears only to be significantly widening.

But what if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place? That’s the conclusion being drawn by a growing number of researchers who, armed with a mountain of fresh evidence, argue that 30 years of test scores have not measured a decline in America’s public schools, but are rather a metric of the country’s child poverty—the worst among developed nations—and the broadening divide of income inequality.

However, Nation At Risk represented a fundamental misreading, claim the husband and wife research team of professors Gary Orfield and Patricia Gandara. The pair, who investigate education inequities for the University of California-Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, say this represents a tragic distraction from addressing the real roots of educational inequality


“The Reagan revolution basically said, ‘No, we don’t have to worry about any of those things,'” Orfield explained. “‘[It said] it’s all the schools’ fault, and inside the schools it’s the teachers’ fault and the teachers’ organizations. And if we just beat up on them, we can eliminate all the gaps and so forth. And if they don’t do it, we’ll just privatize everything. … And we don’t even have to measure that, because we know that’s true.'”

One area of agreement for both sides in this battle is that quality education remains crucial to both achieving economic security and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. More education typically leads to better jobs and more pay—a fact that has become increasingly critical due to the loss of middle class-manufacturing jobs to globalization—and it directly correlates to better-life outcomes for children. Added to that are the considerable social costs of educational deficits, including an incarceration rate of one in every 10 young male high school dropouts landing in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates.

How that plays out on the ground is the day-to-day reality of the frontline teachers who struggle to reach the state’s most disadvantaged and at-risk children.

For five years, education writer and blogger Ellie Herman was one of these instructors, putting in time as an 11th grade English teacher at Green Dot Public Schools’ Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School, in the heart of one the city’s lowest-performing neighborhoods.

“We were sort of enacting a lot of the prescriptions that are currently being given as remedies to close the achievement gap,” she said. “And after five years working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life on anything—I burned out. Partly from exhaustion, and partly from feeling [frustrated over], ‘Why are we not seeing more success here? What is really going on?’”

To find out, Herman spent an entire school year in the back of classrooms, observing high school teachers and filing reports on what she saw, both on her blog and for the online education site LA School Report. She ranged across the city’s socioeconomic spectrum, from the most elite of private schools in exclusive enclaves like Holmby Hills and Studio City, to affluent public schools in South Pasadena to those in extremely poor communities such as Watts and South Los Angeles.

She was infuriated by what she saw, characterizing the disparities as a form of apartheid.

“The most striking takeaway,” Herman recalled, “was that the students that need the least in this country, who are already coming in with every possible privilege and advantage, are getting the most resources. When you get to the students who need the most, students that are living in foster care, students who are living in extreme poverty, these students are being packed as many as 50 to a classroom in schools that don’t have enough books, in schools where the libraries have been closed  … there’s no after-school enrichment, there’s no art, there’s no one-on-one attention. All of the things that these students arguably need more, they’re not getting, or they’re getting way less of.”

That argument is mostly grounded in an understanding of the significance that early childhood and family environments play in predicting educational and life outcomes. A rash of data, including both a key longitudinal study conducted by University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, and findings from the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, argue that parenting and home enrichment matter as much as, if not more than, what happens in the K-12 classroom, especially in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality in the years before children start school.

“I guess the most important thing [the studies show] is that the education gaps don’t have to be there,” said Dr. Larry Schweinhart, an early education program researcher and an author of the HighScope study. “That they are at least partially controlled or influenced by public policy.”

Schweinhart, who advocates for quality childcare and universal preschool, says the preschool group he studied demonstrated dramatic decreases in crime and significant increases in all positive measures compared to a control group. That, he insists, not only makes early intervention programs a smart social investment but it makes blaming public schools similar to shortsighted attitudes he’s seen in criminology.


“They talk about different degrees of prevention,” he explained. “So there’s ‘primary prevention,’ ‘secondary prevention,’ and so forth. I remember once seeing that somebody had defined ‘primary prevention’ as what you do after the first crime is committed, which I considered to be preposterous. Certainly there must be a better name for something than to claim you can prevent the second crime, but you can’t prevent the first one.”

The repercussions of that kind of narrow logic are nowhere more keenly felt than at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s stately looking Angeles Mesa Elementary School, in South Los Angeles’ economically hard-pressed Hyde Park neighborhood. That’s where 10-year kindergarten teacher Erika Jones encounters the dramatic effects of early-childhood inequities on a daily basis.

“You can see a big difference between students who have gone to preschool and who have not,” Jones said.  Aggravating the situation, she adds, is that Angeles Mesa is surrounded by charter schools that tend to siphon higher achieving students and attract more motivated parents, who are drawn as much by safety concerns as academic excellence. That has created an additional inequality within an inequality, as Angeles Mesa is left with a disproportionate population of underachievers lacking in basic social and learning skills.

“It is definitely difficult to have a child come into kindergarten who’s never been read to,” Jones explained. “And it’s not that they haven’t been read to because their parents don’t want to—it’s just when you’re a single mom and you’re working four jobs, it doesn’t always work out that way.”

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”


Black Belt Teacher Corps Making A Difference

One of the great joys of life is watching something go from only an idea to actuality.  Which is the way I view the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of West Alabama.

This seed was planted in either late 2015 or early in 2016.  (Old minds have a habit of forgetting such details.)

The purpose was to “grow your own” teachers for West Alabama.  Like all rural locations, teacher recruitment is a challenge in this region.  Like a big challenge.  But could this challenge be met to some degree by incentivizing college students studying education to pursue their careers near where they grew up?.  It was an idea that had been working for a number of years in the Ozarks of Missouri with the “Ozark Teacher Corps”.  Why not in Alabama’s Black Belt?

Somewhere in all my wanderings I ran into Gary Funk who ran the Ozark Community Foundation at the time and played a major role in the Missouri project.  I filed this fact away in the back of my mind.

Then Jan Miller became dean of the college of education at UWA.  Full of energy, she faces each day looking for opportunity.  So I ran my idea by her.  She was all ears.  Next Gary Funk made a pilgrimage to UWA.  (He is now executive director of the national Rural Schools Collaborative.)  This got the ball rolling.

All we needed was funding.

Call it fate, or just good luck, but we found some money.  Tommy Bice announced his retirement as state superintendent of education in early 2016.  Shortly after this I was looking at the proposed Education Trust Fund budget and noticed a line item for a project Bice planned.  However, since he was leaving I called Rep. Bill Poole who chairs the House Education Ways & Means committee and asked about this particular line item and told him about the Black Belt Teacher Corps idea and said we could use some of that money.

Poole is one of the genuinely good guys in the legislature.  In addition, he grew up in Marengo County, in the heart of the Black Belt.  He signed off on this project, as did his senate counterpart Arthur Orr of Decatur, along with Senator Bobby Singleton of Hale County.  Without them, the teacher corps would have died on the vine.

The first cohort of BBTC teachers were employed for the 2018-19 school year.  Today there are 15 of them in eight school systems.  Five more will graduate in December.

UWA students in the program receive $5,000 scholarships for their junior and senior years.  They commit to working at least three years in a Black Belt school.  In addition to normal education training, BBTC fellows also receive additional training concerning project-based learning and how to be community leaders.

Susan Hester runs the program.  An educator with 33 years of classroom experience, she is part-time motivator, instructional leader and a shoulder to lean on.  “Any first-year teacher has moments when they need encouragement and someone to instill confidence,” says Hester.  “This is all part of my job.”

In addition, UWA is now working with the Pickens County school system to offer a Teacher Cadet program.  This is a collaborative effort between the system’s career tech center and UWA that offers dual credit for students interested in becoming educators.  Hester is hopeful other Black Belt systems will soon do the same thing.

We save the world one life at a time.  Thanks to the support of key legislators and the willingness of staff at UWA, that is what the Black Belt Teacher Corps is doing.

Did Soner Tarim Really Help Grade Woodland Prep Charter Application?

We’ve all heard someone say something and immediately did a double take.  And we say to ourselves, did I just hear what I think I heard?

This was certainly my reaction the first time I heard what Soner Tarim, the Woodland Prep “education consultant,” said when questioned back in June by a member of the Texas state school board.  Tarim was trying to get approval to build four new charter schools in Austin.

Board member Aicha Davis of Dallas wanted to know why the Woodland Prep application for Washington County was turned down by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers before being approved by the Alabama charter school commission.  She first asked Tarim who prepared the application.  He quickly told her that he did.

Then it got interesting when she followed up by asking why NACSA said the application should be denied.  In so many words, Tarim told her that NACSA didn’t know how to grade a charter application.  (This is quite an accusation considering that a source with NACSA told me they have reviewed 500 applications in the last 10 years.  They were also the only reviewing agency Alabama had ever used until Tarim came along.  So according to him, apparently Alabama should never have hired NASCA.)

He then followed up this statement by saying that Alabama didn’t know how to grade an application either until he told them how to do it.  That’s when my jaw dropped.

So a guy from Texas who is trying to make money in Alabama tells the charter commission what they should do?

(Check for yourself, you can see the video here.  Go to the 35:50 minute mark to hear the exchange I refer to.)

If Tarim told the truth, this is more than unbelievable.  It is conduct way outside the bounds on the part of the charter commission.  Did you ever have a teacher or professor who let you grade your own test?  What would have happened to such a teacher if the principal found out what they were doing?  There would have been hell to pay for starters.  And a good chance someone would have lost their job.

Or maybe Tarim was not telling the truth.  After all, one of the reasons he did not get his four charters in Austin approved was that board members caught him constantly trying to make up his own facts.  As we posted here, board member Georgina Perez told me in a telephone interview that Tarim loves to use “alternative facts.”

Whatever the case may be, it is just another example of what a mess the Woodland Prep effort to put a charter in  Washington County really is.  Either the charter commission is dealing with someone who can not be trusted, or they are so negligent in their own duties that they can not be trusted.

It’s a classic case of how NOT to conduct business.