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30 October 2010


Last Sunday I didn’t post and then on Monday I was sure I couldn’t post. I wanted to write something positive and couldn’t. I’ve been discouraged about public education during the past week. There are a lot of reasons for my discouragement, but they all come down to the misdirection of education reform. The problem is complicated, and I don’t have many answers. I know some things from personal experience in an excellent public school system, others from research ironically conducted for a novel I wrote a few years ago—who knew that West Tennessee had 95% literacy in 1917?

For many years America had the finest system of public education in the world. Perhaps some will argue, but where in the world other than America was a free public education through grade 12 guaranteed to every child with the leisure to attend a few months a year? Literacy in America has been uncommonly high for the past 100 years, contrary to public perception. It’s true that many children dropped out (about 50% as recently as when I attended high school), but most learned to read and do math before leaving school. In fact, a hundred or even fifty years ago, public education was far more rigorous in much of America than it is today. And while I can’t speak about this from personal experience, my grandmother attended Portland public schools and graduated at 16 with the equivalent of a junior college education.

Oh, but I’m not supposed to call them “junior colleges” anymore. I am to call them community colleges. And I am not allowed to demand higher level thinking and advanced curriculum from all who are capable because in my classes are many students unwilling to learn and others who are not capable of learning. Even worse are those who have been taught they are incapable. It was different back in the day when if you didn't want to be in school, you weren't. My students are shocked when I explain that not only were boys suspended from school immediately and without recourse for such offenses as having their hair too long or wearing jeans to school, but girls were expelled for being pregnant. Any student could be expelled for being arrested or “falling behind in credits.” Yes, it's true. Earn a conviction in adult court for rape and you'd never see the inside of a public school classroom again. Fail classes and you were expelled and told to return to night school when you decided you wanted an education after all.

I am not, however suggesting a return to these imaginary good old days. They were not good old days for most children. Racism and sexism were the rule of the day. My high school aptitude test scores suggested whether I would be a good secretary, nurse, or teacher, not whether I could run my own business or become an architect, doctor, or lawyer. It was expected that I would marry and raise children, that racial and ethnic minorities would stick to “their own kind” and shut up about it. Further, kids who dropped out of high school in the fifties and sixties often found decent paying union jobs, and if they were incapable of doing those jobs, or unwanted due to gender, race, religion or national origin, that was fine, because the general populace didn’t care whether the disadvantaged were being educated or later employed on an equal playing field. No one was talking about "equal playing fields." People did what they could. 

They needed to support families. They had options through education. Southern African American families moved north for greater opportunities. Immigrants changed their names—or had their names changed for them—and disguised or lost their difference in a generation. People looked for opportunity and found it in public education, which recognized the value of knowledge for its own sake—to ensure an engaged and thoughtful population, which is necessary in any democracy. And again my argument sounds like a hankering after better days. It’s not.

Children were marginalized and ostracized for differences in culture, for language, for pregnancy or minor offenses, or for lack of ability. Schools did a good job for some kids, probably a better job than they do now for some, but times were different. It was a culturally-bound system concerned only with serving a narrowly-defined segment of the population. Even so, some of us worked the system and most children had a parent at home full time to ensure that homework was done and children were supervised and properly fed. All of this has changed: both parents work to support their family because they mostly have no choice; kids have no one at home to teach basic living skills such as home maintenance, balancing a budget, cooking, shopping, and child rearing; the unskilled and skilled union jobs are vanishing in a nation that has decided that the welfare of the wealthy deserve more protection than that of the common citizenry; the President attended private schools, sends his children to private schools, and has appointed a Secretary of Education with only a theoretical understanding of what a great public school system looks like.

And like most public high school teachers, I have in my classroom a mix of kids with a parent at home during the day and their own car and personal computer and color printer, kids with only one parent struggling to pay bills who have moved four times in the past six months, kids struggling to learn English and English at the same time, kids with severe handicaps and no hope of ever mastering any high school subject, and kids with anger problems because of past abuse, or substance abuse problems, or who need medical or dental care, or who are hungry most days, or who have been told they are stupid because they were not ready to learn what was expected of them at the time it was taught. They are poor, handicapped, abused, drug-addicted, and also spoiled, entitled, and insensitive to the needs of others. Here we are all together.

And frankly, that’s the good news. Here we are together seeking an understanding of America, of our nation and its purpose to contain and serve ALL people, not only the best and brightest, the strong and privileged, but also the weak and disadvantaged, the hard-pressed and those who need assistance. We all need a great, free, public education like the one I was fortunate enough to recieve. It will not come by improving test scores. It will not come as a result of teaching to those narrowly defined tests. But doing our best for every single child, teaching every child to think to the best of his or her ability and to understand his or her rights and responsibilities in our nation—that is a noble ambition.

[Stay tuned for how theory is ruining everything.]

A friend asked me just the other day: "Does anyone read your blog?"  THANK YOU to my subscribers!

17 October 2010

MADONNA & CHILD: a parable

Human beings have been telling stories as a means of instruction for as long as we’ve been human beings. This is a parable, a teaching story.

Sid was a selfish little boy. His parents loved him, cared and fed and educated him as best they knew how. They took him places and set a good example for lawful behavior. Their families, too, cared for Sid as a child and sent him birthday presents, presented him with models of happy marriages and good citizenship. Nevertheless, for whatever reasons, Sid was selfish, always considering his own needs before the needs of others.

By high school his girlfriend Mary, who loved passionately and stupidly in the way people do, realized that she would lose Sid’s interest if they didn’t have sex. He pushed and pressured and prodded and finally she decided she would have to give in or Sid would walk away, and this she could not bear. She gave in. The sex was fine and maybe she wasn’t sorry. Maybe she was. I can’t say. She was not stupid about sex and she did not want to be a teenaged mother and she did not pretend, not even to herself, that they got carried away and she couldn’t stop him. Mary was not a fool. She was stupid about love as most of us are, but she was not stupid about her future and the future of her children. Even if he wasn’t saying so, Sid was not able or willing to support a family. She made him use birth control. He didn’t like it, but that was the deal they made.

This was a fortunate thing, because like most high school romance, this one ended. Mary ended it. Sid had flares of temper. He didn’t do well in school or on the job. He could be violent. His life was a deadend, but more significant, Mary had finally noticed that Sid was a selfish brat, a child who would never care about her or anyone as much as he cared about his own immediate desires.

I should mention here that soon enough, sooner that she herself might have expected, Mary fell in love with another brat, and another and another, until finally she wised up all the way and found a man willing to take care of her needs as well as his own—a man who didn’t have anything to prove by pressuring someone he was supposed to love into doing anything she didn’t want to do. With him she began a family. 

In the mean time Sid had “issues” with his parents, teachers, employers, police. People trying to tell him what to do! While he often bullied others, he couldn’t tolerate being bullied, instructed, or even asked to complete his responsibilities. He moved in and out of his parents’ home and occasionally blew up at them and anyone else who happened to be around. Sometimes he threw things. Sometimes he only screamed and kicked his feet, and if that sounds a lot like a child, well, that’s what he remained.

Soon enough, like Mary, he began again. Sid found a new girlfriend, Mariah. Mariah knew how to get and keep a man. Get pregnant. She did. Both parents, that is Sid and Mariah, were delighted. They didn’t marry, because she was already married to the man who’d gotten her pregnant in high school. But that man was away serving his country. That baby was already abandoned to its grandparents. Now there was to be a new baby, but having responsibilities—like loving and caring for others, like parenting—doesn’t make anyone a better person. You have to want to be better, and Sid? Well, you remember, Sid is selfish. Always was, still is. Having a baby is a lot of work and trouble. Sid lost interest in Mariah. He'd never really loved her much only found the idea of making a baby hot. Now she irritated her. Pretty soon he was blowing up at the mother of his child more often than at anyone else. Soon another baby will be abandoned to grandparents and Mariah and Sid will both be heartbroken and upset and angry at one another.

You might say this serves them both right. Perhaps it does.

Does it serve the babies? Two children will grow up wondering why their parents didn’t love them enough to take care of them. Who does that serve? 

Here’s another story. A true one. Emily and Jeff are both smart and kind people. Both sensible and loving. They are in love. They come from honest, hard-working poor families who care for their children above all, but struggle to make ends meet.

Jeff wants to have sex. Maybe Emily does too. Both have mothers who love them and who were pregnant as teens. Both respect and love their mothers and care deeply for their families. They are not selfish and their goals are not so different, but their visions of the future are not the same. In high school Jeff sacrifices himself to help friends graduate and to work and earn enough to help out his mother and younger siblings. He is a kind and thoughtful young man. His image of his own future is more of what his own parents had. Emily sees something different. She sees a career.

Emily says no to sex. She says no and no and no. She loves him, but she will not bend. She will not be like her aunt and cousins who had babies in high school or even right after. She is going places. Jeff doesn’t leave Emily because she says no, he loves her and cares for her and he argues and demands. But he doesn't force her, because he is what the Jews call a mench, Yiddish for a "good person", a man. Both are sorry that when she leaves for college, Emily also leaves Jeff behind. There is sacrifice and heartache in this story, and loss and grief, but life always contains those things. We all know this. 

Years later, Jeff is still working hard. His siblings are through with school and two have gone on to college, but Jeff, smarter than any of them, is less fortunate. He’s the one who makes their futures possible by working for minimum and overtime, by staying home and being the good son. If you believe in heaven, believe he’s earned his place there.

Emily? Emily found her career and earns a good living. She’s helped her younger siblings too. She's bought her mother a house. She’s earned her place in heaven too.

Do these good people find romance? Marriage? Children and passion and families of their own? Do they find a way to remerge their separate paths and come back together? I don’t know the answer yet. I like to think so. I know this: They will love their children and care for them, sacrifice and represent good role models. At least Emily will be able to afford health care and housing for her children and offer them the promise of a decent future. 

Suppose things had gone a different way. Both Jeff and Emily meant well. Both did what they saw as right. They loved one another. Neither was selfish or angry or mean in any way. Oh maybe Jeff was angry sometimes when Emily said no. But both believed in a future, only in different ones. Suppose Emily saw it Jeff's way. Suppose she said yes. Suppose she chose the here-and-now over tomorrow. Suppose romance had won out and Emily became pregnant? Suppose she’d stayed close to home in order to stay close to Jeff? Suppose they married for the sake of their families. Both would have worked poorly paid jobs, life would be hard, as hard as it had been for their own parents, but they’d have been together. Their babies would have known they were loved and no one would have behaved badly. How would that be? A new generation of honest, intelligent, hard-working, loving people. Poor people. 

Their good children would fall in love in high school and Jeff and Emily's story would start all over again. A true story. 

The painting above is Madonna and Child by Filippo Lippi. It is one of his more tender paintings. 

08 October 2010


The faculty at my school has committed to reading a professional article each week and then taking time at our faculty meeting to briefly discuss it. A couple of weeks ago the article was an abstract but rigorous criticism of the direction school reform is going. That triggered my response to Waiting for Superman. Last week I shared a video essay about motivation. I don’t usually put a lot of stock in business models applied to education, but Daniel Pink’s research supporting intrinsic motivation makes sense to me.

Part of the reason I’m convinced is that I was already a believer. Usefulness, autonomy, mastery—that’s what I promote in my classroom. I've watched other successful teachers use those carrots too. But these are not the focus of attention in our schools as a whole. For years I have observed all other motivators drop by the wayside. Education will make you more knowledgeable, capable, interesting. It creates more engaged persons, a better citizenry, a wiser and more thoughtful population. I don’t hear educators and administrators and counselors say that to kids much anymore. Tests scores. Future earnings. They are told and told and told that they will earn more money… some day.  

So we’re all agreed that kids will earn more money in the future if they succeed in school.

Plenty of kids in my district should listen to that message. I live and teach in a high-poverty school district. For most of my students, an education is the only hope they have of not scrambling along on minimum wage for the rest of their lives. But they don’t hear that. Tests scores? That the school’s problem, not theirs. The future? What future? A profession is not a realistic future for them—that is, they cannot imagine that sort of future except as a fantasy in the manner of wanting to be an astronaut back when they were nine.

Most kids do not understand or believe in our vision of working hard in school to achieve for the future. They look at their families and their community and the prospect of “some day” having a good paying job is about as real to them as Glee or some other television show about an imaginary middle America that they don’t live in.

Their future doesn’t motivate them to learn. They don’t believe in their future. They don’t believe in us. Telling them that doing well in school will earn them more money “some day” is like telling them they need to learn something in class “because I said so.” How’s that working for you?

We’ve been trying to convince an entire generation of kids that the only purpose of education is to earn good grades and someday make a lot of money.

There’s another problem with education purely as a monetary exercise.

Is money really our sole purpose in teaching kids? Don’t we want them to become “lifelong learners” and to appreciate education for its own sake. Don’t we want them to go through life as thinkers instead of money-grubbing fools? Or at least all these thing as well as money-grubbing?

Seriously. If it was working, if my kids all buckled right down to work and achieved at their optimal potential because we’re telling them it will earn them more money in the future, I guess I couldn’t complain too much. But that doesn’t happen.

Instead, we fail our students when we fail to share with them what really matters and might really work. Education makes us capable, wise, and independent. It opens doors, provides choices, and allows intelligent participation in everything from voting to making family decisions about where to live and whether to purchase a new carpet for the living room. It allows us to do things and to continue to be interesting and interested people. Have a look at that motivation video and see what we know about what motivates thinking and creativity in the business world. A hint: It isn’t money.

This week the Education Week article we’re reading reports how the “growing consensus of research points to chronic absence—defined by the national policy group Attendance Counts as missing 10 percent of school or more—as one of the strongest and most often overlooked indicators of a student’s risk of becoming disengaged, failing courses, and eventually dropping out of school.” Some schools are successfully monitoring the individual attendance of students and seeing lower drop out rates. But there's a problem with this article, which soon seems to be saying that the trick—the magic bullet—is to get kids into their classroom seats each day. It’s clear by the end of the report that someone is again mistaking the symptom for the disease. Absenteeism isn’t so much a cause as a result.

Absenteeism is a symptom of a massive problem. Kids miss school because they and their families place no value on education, because the classes are boring, because hoping for the future is meaningless while fighting for the here-and-now, and because they have no faith that it matters to anyone whether they attend school or not. So will chasing down students who chronically miss school make any difference? Sure, it will! If parents don’t care enough to get their kids to class every day, if kids themselves don’t see the point, one person tracking them down can make a world of difference because they care. Not in the future, right now. Ultimately, that’s the difference: you matter, your education matters, every day you attend school matters. Right now. Today.

Yes indeed. 
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