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 MOST STRIKING TAKEAWAY, 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.”

“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.

“I GUESS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING [THE STUDIES SHOW] IS THAT THE EDUCATION GAPS DON’T HAVE TO BE THERE. THAT THEY ARE AT LEAST PARTIALLY CONTROLLED OR INFLUENCED BY PUBLIC POLICY.”

“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.’”

 

Craig Pouncey Named as President of Coastal Alabama Community College

Here is the news release from the Alabama Community College system announcing Pouncey’s appointment today:

MONTGOMERY – At the Alabama Community College System board of trustees meeting on Wednesday, Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker announced the selection of Dr. Craig Pouncey as president of Coastal Alabama Community College. Pouncey’s appointment was unanimously approved by the board of trustees.

A career educator and administrator, Pouncey has more than 38 years of classroom and leadership experience in Alabama at the state and local levels. Pouncey currently serves as the Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, a position he’s held since 2014. In this role, Pouncey is credited with the expansion of both dual enrollment and career technical programs in the area’s 13 high schools, ensuring that pathways for students lead to high-demand skills. Last year, Pouncey was named Superintendent of the Year by the School Superintendents of Alabama.

“I’m confident that the appointment of Dr. Pouncey as president of Coastal Alabama will be an important milestone in the history of Coastal Alabama Community College,” Baker said. “Craig’s nearly four decades of wide-ranging experience in both the classroom and in administration will be an incredible asset to the students, faculty, staff, and administration at the college. Whether you’re an Eagle, Sun Chief, or Warhawk, I’m confident the Coastal Alabama family will see a bright future ahead with President Pouncey at the helm.”

Prior to Pouncey’s service with Jefferson County Schools, he spent nearly 10 years with Alabama’s State Department of Education. At the State Department, Pouncey served as Chief of Staff, Deputy State Superintendent and Assistant State Superintendent of Administrative and Financial Services and Director of Administration and Finance. In his native Crenshaw County, Pouncey served as Superintendent of Crenshaw County Schools in addition to his service as a sixth grade teacher and later Assistant Principal at Highland Home School. Pouncey began his career as a fourth grade teacher at Harrison Elementary School in Montgomery.

“My life’s work has been dedicated to ensuring Alabama students have the education and training they need to be successful and this new role is simply an extension of that mission,” Pouncey said. “I’ve had the opportunity to lead many teams across the state throughout my career, but, I am most excited about working with the team at Coastal to meet the needs of our more than 10,000 students. I look forward to hitting the ground running and meeting with the students, faculty, staff and administration at each of our eight campuses to continue the important work of promoting economic growth and enhancing the quality of life in each of the communities we serve.”

Pouncey’s tenure at Coastal will begin on October 1.

Fruitdale Wins Third Straight Football Game

We recently wrote about tiny Fruitdale high school in Washington County and about how the school and the community are virtually one and the same–and is true in many rural locations.

We talked about the challenge facing brand new head football coach Johnny Carpenter as he took over a program that won only one game in the last two seasons.

So the fact that the Fruitdale Pirates are now 3-0 on the season comes as a surprise–a pleasant one for those who cheer for the 1A school.

The first win was a 53-0 blowout of A. L. Johnson, the second was a more competitive win of 35-31 versus Elberta. and last Friday night they beat McIntosh, another Washington County school, 30-6.  This Friday, Sept. 13, is homecoming and the opponent is Marengo County high, which has a record of 1-2.

Obviously, three games don’t make a season.  Still, you can’t help but be happy for the success so far of the Pirates and Coach Carpenter.  There are lots of smiles in Fruitdale these days, and for sure, I will be checking high school football scores each Friday night for the rest of the season.

Time To Apply For Rural Grants

One of the fun things I do is serve on the board of the national Rural Schools Collaborative.  Our mission is to work with rural schools across the country on different programs.  This group has been especially helpful in getting the Black Belt Teacher Corps at the University of  West Alabama off the ground.

We have a small grant program each year.  We have awarded 16 grants in Alabama for place-based projects, ranging from local history projects to archeological digs to school gardens.

It’s now time for educators to apply for a new grant cycle.

Dream a little. Empower your students. Build community, and inform the rural teaching profession.  This year RSC will select nine Grants in Place Fellows, who will work with their respective students on place-based, action research projects. Grants in Place is a cooperative venture with our Regional Hub partners, and one Fellow will be selected to represent each of our nine Hubs.

Rural classroom teachers are eligible to apply if they teach in a rural public school district.  Rural teachers from across the nation are eligible to apply for our National Signature Project Award, which is co-sponsored by the National Rural Education Association. If you have a question regarding your eligibility please email info@ruralschoolscollaborative.org .

Applications for this year’s Grants in Place program must be received by Tuesday, October 15th. We plan on announcing the Fellows by early November. Applicants should propose a project that will be completed by the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

Grants in Place Fellows will each receive a grant of up to $2,000 to support the place-based project, a professional development presentation, and an honorarium. Of this amount $1,000 will be earmarked for the actual place-based project. Learn more about this new program.

Here is the complete Grants in Place Fellows Program description.

The application deadline is October 15, 2019. Apply here!

A Voice From Finland

For the last two decades, the world  has beaten a path to Finland’s door to examine what many consider the world’s best system of public education.

William Doyle is a former Fulbright Scholar who was on the staff of the University of Eastern Finland a couple of years ago.  His seven-year- old son attended a Finnish public school.  Here are Doyle’s observations about what he observed and what his son experienced:

“What is Finland’s secret? A whole-child-centered, research-and-evidence based school system, run by highly professionalized teachers. These are global education best practices, not cultural quirks applicable only to Finland.

The striking lessons of Finland’s long-term success with education reform can help inspire and be adapted by any school system in the world. They involve concepts much admired by education reformers in the United States — standards, rigor, competition, choice, assessments and standardization — but defined correctly and applied at the correct points in the system.

Here are a few:

Maximize system-wide standards by putting professional educators in charge of education. They are the ultimate experts on childhood education, not bureaucrats, politicians or technology vendors.

Apply rigor and competition at the front end of the system, where they have the strongest impact. Have your best, most passionate young people compete to become teachers. Train them rigorously at the highest levels of professionalism and give them maximum respect, authority and autonomy in the classroom. Build a culture of system-wide teacher and school collaboration.

Standardize funding for students based on their needs, and provide equitable access to educational resources.

Provide choice to parents by enabling them to choose between high-quality, well-resourced, safe, transparent and locally governed area public schools.

Don’t waste time and money on mass standardized testing of children. Instead, test students correctly on a daily basis, with assessments and observations designed by their own classroom teachers and used for diagnostic purposes to improve learning. Realize that much of what matters most in education – including “21st and 22nd Century skills” like a child’s curiosity, perseverance through trials and failure, kindness and compassion, critical and abstract thinking, sense of leadership and teamwork, expressiveness, social skills and creativity – should be evaluated by classroom teachers, and can never be measured by standardized data collection.

Get real about classroom technology. A recent major study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that most classroom technology has had little or no academic benefit. “In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools,” said  OECD official Andreas Schleicher. “We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.” Spend money on childhood classroom technology extremely carefully, and don’t automatically throw out tools that work for unproven ones. Remember that screens deliver only a simulation of individualized instruction. Highly qualified teachers deliver the real thing.

Give children what they need to learn best, including reasonable class sizes, individualized attention from highly qualified teachers, a rich curriculum, regular breaks and physical activity, proper sleep and nutrition, reasonable workloads and downtime, warmth and encouragement, a screen-free “digital oasis” when appropriate, and social support services when necessary.

Let children be children. Let the children play. That’s how they learn.

Some skeptics dismiss Finland’s schools as being the product of its demographics, but they ignore the fact that its population size and poverty rate are similar to over two-thirds of American states, and in the United States, education is largely run at the state level.

Finland’s schools are the product of a unique culture. But so are the public schools of Canada, Singapore, Shanghai, Denmark, South Korea, Australia and Japan, as are the private schools attended by the world’s political and business elites. To automatically dismiss critical insights from any nation or school is a mistake. We can all learn from each other.

I have a suggestion for anyone who wants to improve children’s education. Start by coming to Finland.

As Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg says, “If you come to Finland, you’ll see how great American schools could be.”

If you look closely and open your mind, you may see the school of tomorrow today.”

While all of his points are excellent, the one that really catches my attention is

Maximize system-wide standards  by putting professional educators in charge  of education.  They are the ultimate experts on childhood education, not bureaucrats, politicians or technology vendors.

Unfortunately, this is the one admonition we most consistently ignore in Alabama.  Instead, we have too many decisions being made by politicians who know no more about education than they do about open heart surgery.  And we have too many people who are supposed to “represent” education without the backbone to challenge them.

The result?  Just what we have today.