Monday, December 19, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

A free audio recording of the first chapter of my mystery novel, Cool for Cats (performed by me), is up on the Forgotten Classics podcast. Stop on by and check it out.

Many thanks to Julie Davis for posting and sharing it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Living in Truth

As a child of the 1970s, someone who became aware of the larger world during Vietnam and Watergate, I'm not the kind of person who has a lot of heroes. It's a character flaw of my generation that we assume clay feet instantly, and spend most of our time searching for them, to prove ourselves right. We expect to be disappointed, so we make damned sure we will be disappointed. And if we're foolish enough to let our guard down and start to believe in someone, well...we've got no one to blame but ourselves when they let us down, as they inevitably do. And we reinforce our walls of self-defense and say we won't get fooled again.

But there was one New Boss in my life who wasn't "same as the Old Boss," and that man was Vaclav Havel, who died today at the too-soon age of 75.

I like having a constitutional law professor as a president (most of the time), but I loved the idea of there being, somewhere in the world, a playwright who was president, since that was a profession I spent about 15 years of my young adult life pursuing. The playwright president was, to me, the next best thing to a philosopher king.  I admit it was a personal bias.

I knew Havel's work as an absurdist playwright, but in the late 1980s I became more aware of him as a political dissident and writer. And this is when I fell in love.

It was his essay, "The Power of the Powerless" that did me in. This was the essay in which he advanced the idea of "living in truth," refusing to agree to that which was repellent, refusing to say Yes when the state insists on your Yes, as the most powerful weapon against what he defined as "post-totalitarian" authoritarianism. To Havel, it was the people's decision to live in falsehood that kept Communism in power, not the tanks or secret police. It was the ability of the state to get people to show up to parades, wave flags, and hang propaganda signs in their storefronts that created a fiction of agreement that no one felt safe to challenge. But let one butcher say No--let one shopkeeper refuse to hang up the sign in his window, and the whole house of cards would begin to tremble.

Havel did not fight against the state by threatening it or leading an armed rebellion. He fought against it by demanding that it live by its own laws and adhere to its own constitution--a challenge the state proved utterly unwilling to meet. He lived in truth, and challenged the government to do the same. It couldn't do it. By exposing the puppet government in Prague as a complete fraud interested only in power and control, not in actual governance at any level, Havel and his co-signatories on "Charter 77" robbed it of legitimacy and made it difficult for ordinary Czechs and Slovaks to view it as anything other than a bully. He released the slaves in Plato's cave from their chains and let them see the actual sunlight.

When the Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist government in Prague without violence or bloodshed, and the people chanted "Havel to the Castle!" he became Czechoslovaki's president. He began his first New Year's address by reminding his countrymen what former presidents had said in similar circumstances. "For forty years on this day," he said, "you heard from my predecessors the same thing: how Czechoslovakia is flourishing, how happy we all are, how we trust our government. I assume you did not elect me to this office so that I, too, would lie to you."

Imagine an American politician having the balls to say anything that honest. I say imagine it, because the chances of ever hearing it are slim.

Havel was no saint, and he was the first to admit it. His writings from his tenure as president, and from the years after, are full of doubts, misgivings, and admissions of mistakes, both personal and political. He was a human being, not a Ken doll.  He wasn't tall, or blond, or strong. He was a rumpled little man with un-stylish moustache and un-filtered cigarette, who was more comfortable at CBGB than the White House. But he did his best to live by his principles and approach his work from a position of honesty and integrity, whatever the outcome--because, to him, doing what was right was more important than winning. When it became clear that Czechoslovakia would split into two nations, he stepped down, unwilling to preside over an action he felt was desperately wrong. I'm sure many people, in his country and abroad, viewed that as a sign of weakness. And I'm sure he knew exactly how those people felt. Evidently, he didn't give a shit what they thought. He did what he thought was right. And then he returned, to become the new Czech Republic's first president.

Again--imagine seeing that, ever, here at home.

So, yes, Vaclav Havel was a hero to me. Not because he was flawless, but because, flawed as he was, he tried his best. He showed the power--and threat--that can reside in one person's persistent and ruthless insistence on searching for and then speaking the truth. He showed how important a single person really can be--if that person is strong enough to say "No." And he showed that words really can be more powerful than weapons, when those words help people see the truth and give them the courage to stand up to defend it.

As far as I'm concerned, every high school civics class in the United States should include "The Power of the Powerless" as required reading. A population that understood and could quote passages from Havel might actually start to demand a better class of leaders than we're currently getting. They might be able, finally, to reject the rhetoric, the nonsense, the hate mongering, and the lies that pass for political discourse in this country. They might, finally, like Havel's brave little butcher, be able to refuse the empty flag-waving and say, "No."


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

Grant Wiggins has a thoughtful blog post up today about academic standards--the third in a series. In this post, he discusses the uselessness of the single grade, either the "A" of traditional grading or the "meets standard" of today's report cards. He proposes a different way of evaluating student work, which is multifaceted and, for a change, useful to students, parents, and teachers.  It is definitely worth a read.

What Wiggins does not discuss, however, is what his proposal would require, logistically. The sad fact is that teachers are already overworked and overwhelmed--especially English teachers who are trying to assign authentic writing work to their students. As budgets force more and more students into a single classroom, the ability of teachers to do evaluate student writing in a thoughtful way becomes more and more challenging (assuming the teachers are qualified and prepared to do such thoughtful evaluation, which is a whole other question).  Even online courses, which are supposed to promise an escape from the tyranny of the clock and the class schedule, are seeing student-teacher rations rise, and curriculum developers remove open-ended assignments and questions in favor of auto-scored, multiple-choice assessments, to make it possible for online teachers to "manage" more students.

I'm not saying Wiggins is wrong. He rarely is (I had issues with his anti-fiction tirade, but other than that, I'm a fan). But someone, somewhere, someday, is going to have to figure out how to reconcile the requirements of high-level instruction with the logistical and financial realities of how we do schooling in this country.

Ha ha!  I'm kidding, of course. They're not reconcilable. Which is the dirty little secret of American education. We know what works. We know what needs to be done. We know how to help all children learn and perform to high levels. We just have no intention of paying for it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Giveaway #2

I am giving away another copy of "Cool for Cats" on  The giveaway begins on Monday, November 14 and closes on Monday, November 28.  Stop by and sign up for a free book!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cool for Cats by Andrew Ordover

Cool for Cats

by Andrew Ordover

Giveaway ends November 28, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Monday, November 7, 2011

How Do You REALLY Feel?

From Chris Tessone at NRO Online:

The liberal arts were once about studying how to live, informed by literary, philosophical, and historical accounts of how others conducted their lives. Students took a coherent set of core courses and immersed themselves in the Western canon. The academics of today instead offer programs catering to teenage sloth and narcissism, giving kids and their helicopter parents whatever they want for a buck, regardless of quality or rigor, reluctant to miss out on the student-loan-driven bubble now inflating. Anything for the freedom to conduct trivial research, play activist on the side, and enjoy the waning prestige of tenure-track life.


I think maybe that's a wee bit extreme, but only a wee bit.

Take a look at the first comment one encounters below Tessone's piece (at least as of this writing), wherein someone says, "I fail to see how knowledge of Plato and Aristotle makes one significantly more employable than immersion in Foucault and Derrida."

Kind of misses the point, in that the liberal arts are supposed to teach us how to LIVE, not how to WORK...but it does touch on a flaw in Tesson's piece. Either college is a place to go to learn a trade, or it's not. It can certainly offer both kinds of educaton, for people entering with different needs or expectations. I was an English major. Then I got an MFA in theatre. I did not expect either degree to lead directly to a job. However--both degress gave me skills and knowledge that ended up making me employable...often in unexpected ways.

But college IS too damned expensive. No argument there.

And colleges DO indulge in a lot of quasi-academic nonsense. No argument there, either.

Fertile Ground?

There's a lot of talk these days about the "flipped classroom," the idea that we can use technology, specifically streaming video, to accomplish more of the "information download" of our curriculum at home, where students can learn at their own pace, their own way, re-reading or re-watching as often as they need to, without holding up the rest of the class, and then use more of our in-class time for truly interactive activities, such as working problems, doing experiments, or engaging in discussion and debate.

I love it. I think I would have thrived in that world.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions built into that vision, from the obvious (do all of our kids have computers or hand-held devices with good broadband access) to the slightly less obvious (is there any quality control ensuring that these brilliant videos are, in fact, brilliant--or at least accurate?), to the maybe-not-obvious-at-all-unless-you're-a-teacher (if they didn't care enough to do their reading, what makes us so sure they'll care enough to do their watching?).

This last point is the focus of a blog post I just read, after following various links from a Twitter post this morning. For this author, the relevance is all--and the relevance is missing. As far as he's concerned, the problem is not the quality of the seeds we're planting, it's the fertility of the soil. You can have all the great videos you want, but if the kids don't want to watch them, you haven't accomplished anything.

I think this is actually a fascinating metaphor, if we unpack it a little. I just completed work on a survey that was sent out to readers of the books published by the Large Non-Profit Organization for which I work. The readers, all of whom are educators of one type or another, were asked (among other things) what their greatest challenges were, in terms of student achievement. It was an open-ended question, so they were free to write anything they wanted to. And they said a good many things. But the one issue that came up more often than any other in their responses was student motivation (or the lack thereof).

OK--so from this persepctive, the problem is the soil. The seeds are fine, but the soil is arid. We give them the good stuff, and they just don't care. This would be the more traditionalist view of education. We're trying to pass on our culture, our heritage, our history of learning, and Those Damned Kids with their videogames and their hip hop music and their tattoos and their [fill in the blank] just don't care. So....Not Our Problem.

But there are other people who take the opposite view, such as the writer of this blog post. "The curriculum in these classes is typically irrelevant to their lives," he says, "except for the need to earn grades good enough to placate their parents and impress college admissions officers." Clearly, for him, the problem is not the soil; it's the crappy old seeds we've been hoarding in our garden sheds for years, which nobody else wants. The soil is fertile, but not for these seeds. So....Totally Our Problem.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude can lead to some lousy educational practice, such as teaching down to the kids, only giving them stuff they already know, or already know about. Our whole culture, and much of our economy, is already designed to entertain and please children; I'm not sure our educational system has to follow suit, just because it's easier. And I've seen plenty of teachers do just that.

Education is not supposed to be the least-engaging sub-set of Entertainment. It's supposed to be the intellectual pathway that leads us out of childhood and into adulthood. There's a physical pathway that we can't help but walk, where, sooner or later, we're not kids anymore. There's a communal/spiritual pathway that most of us, in the West, have abandoned, where rituals and rites of passage mark us, in some inescapable way, as adults in our community. And there's an intellectual pathway, where we lean the things that adults need to know: the facts, the skills, the stories of our history; the myths and norms of our culture. We can learn these in apprenticeship to a craftsman, or by working next to our parents in the fields or in the home, or we can learn them in school. Every culture has a different set of Things That Must Be Learned in order for the next generation to take the reins successfully.

Now, I'm all for making things relevant to students. ALL FOR IT. But that means finding a way to bring them to us, not bowing down and surrending to them. Our job isn't to leave them in the nursery to play with the toys they're already used to. Our job is to make our world relevant --to make the case that the world beyond their noses is important, and that learning about it, and how to navigate successfully in it, is the most interesting project avaialble to them. And I think we're doing a lousy job of selling that idea.

Maybe we're not bothering to sell the idea at all. Maybe we're just droning on and on in our classrooms, assuming our curriculum is so vital and important that it will speak for itself, without our help. If so, it's not working.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because some of us actually don't believe in the product. Too many of us don't believe the adult world is really worth inheriting.  We're pissed off; we're disappointed and disenchanted. We mourn our own childhoods too much, and we can't ever escape what it is we had to leave behind. We watch the same teenage movies they watch, and listen to the same teenage music they listen to, and follow the same fashions that drive them to spend their money. It's the best game in town, and every year, as we age, we become less and less adept at playing it.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because the whole idea of history, or culture, or canon, or authority of any kind, has been cast in such disrepute over the last couple of generations that we don't feel we have the right to hold anything up as worthy of respect, study, or emulation. Everyone is corrupt, and everyone is a racist, and everyone is simply out for themselves, so for Christ's sake, don't listen to us. Follow your own hearts, and your own ethics, and be the generation that will truly revolutionize society and lead us back to the garden.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. I'm all for social justice. I'm all for empowering young people to respect their own vision and to fight for a better world. Truly. But doesn't that fight have to be grounded in knowledge of what has come before...and knowledge of why attempts to make things better have sometimes failed?  Don't we want them to know that the baton is being handed to them, and that their lives are just a single segment of the Great Race of human history?

With all of the problems and possibilities facing us--us as a nation and us as a world--with all of the promise and threat of the years ahead, how could education possibly be seen by students as irrelevant?

If you've spent your life in a dark room, the concept of light might seem foolish, or worthless, or unimportant. But you don't need someone to lecture you endlessly on the importance of seeing. And you don't need someone to leave you in the dark because the people in charge have decided that there's really not much to see. You need someone to turn on the lights.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Looking for Mysteries Where There Are None

There is plenty to wonder and dream and think about, where Shakespeare and his work are concerned, but whether or not the man called "Shakespeare" actually wrote the plays attributed to him seems to be the question of the hour, right now. Following in the glorious footsteps of Oliver Stone, who claimed to understand American History better than actual historians because he was...well, a famous guy in Hollywood, I guess, the eminent filmmaker, Roland Emmerich has decided to teach us all what generations of English and Theater professors have been too frightened or ignorant to reveal: that Shakespeare was a fraud, and that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, wrote all of his plays.

In his defense, Emmerich isn't exactly the first person to believe in this theory. Not hardly. Even Mark Twain had trouble believing that some actor from Stratford, who left little written record of his actual life, and seemed not to have owned a single book of his own, could have produced the plays and poems we treasure. But even if we find it incredible to believe, that doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a nice piece about all of this, this week, as does the NPR/PRI show, "Studio 360" (it's the William Shatner episode, in case you're reading this at a later date).

On "Studio 360," an Oxfordian (that's what the de-Vere-ites call themselves) explains why his boy is a better candidate as author than Bill from Stratford. I'd heard some of the common arguments before: only an aristocrat could have had the breadth of knowledge demonstrated in the plays; only someone who had traveled extensively could have gotten the geographical details so right, etc. But one of the new arguments I heard really made me crazy. According to this guy, de Vere must have written the plays because there are countless correspondences between the characters and plots of the plays and de Vere's life, and none between the plays and the life of Mr. Shakespeare.

Well, that assumes we believe that authors in the Elizabethan era wrote their lives into their work, which is not something I've ever heard argued before, or seen evidence of. What I have seen, though, is writers throughout history making fun of other people's lives--especially the lives of public figures. So what's more likely: that de Vere, who already had a theater company of his own, wrote his best and most personally resonant work anonymously and handed it over to a rival company? Or that a smartass, upstart, middle class theater manager and writer would entertain his audience by poking fun at a snooty, aristocratic competitor, including well-known scandals and stories from the competitor's life as fodder for his plays? 

Writers can be venal, petty, and vindictive, and often have no real power in the world with which to lash out at the people they believe have done them wrong. So they get revenge in their work, with their words. It's been happening forever. It happens still. Hip-hop pretty much depends on it for survival.

I think one of the reasons people have trouble reconciling Shakespeare's life with his work (aside from a deep and unpleasant elitism) is that they assume "writing" and "authorship" meant the same thing back then that they do today. We know that playwrights of that era collaborated with each other--sometimes formally, sometimes messily. Instead of the Romantic idea of artist-suffering-alone-in-the-garret, imagine instead a loud and boisterous tavern where a bunch of writers get drunk together and help each other hash out ideas. I have always believed that the reality of Shakespeare's artistic life was probably more like the old SCTV skit, "The Adventures of Shake 'n' Bake" than the purists want to believe, which is to say, chaotic, random, and full of the arbitrary happenstance of life. As I remember the skit (and I haven't seen it in over 20 years), we saw Shakespeare working in partnership with Sir Francis Bacon on Act V of Hamlet backstage, while Act II was being performed, and making on-the-fly changes to the play and the fate of the characters based on how the audience was reacting and how obnoxiously demanding his actors were being. (I think there was also something where he and Bacon were writing a play together while battling pirates. As I said, it's been a while.)

Life is chaotic, and in form and structure, it's a lot more like a comedy skit than a classical tragedy. Did Shakespeare really own no books? Or did he lose them, or give them away, or sell them? We don't know. Did Shakespeare really not go to school, just because there's no written record of it? Or is there simply no written record...or none that has survived? Just because we don't have evidence of something, 500+ years later, doesn't mean the something never happened.

I believe in Shakespeare, even if he didn't write every single word of every single play all by himself. I believe that the vision is singular, and is his. I believe the mind can be larger than the world, and can hold vastly more than what personal experience can fill it with. And I think a life like Shakespeare's challenges us to do more with our lives than perhaps we are doing. When a seemingly ordinary man can become a Shakespeare, or a Picasso, or an Einstein, then it forces us to ask what we are doing with the gifts we have been given.

Of course, if you don't like facing that kind of challenge, or looking at your face in the mirror and saying, "is this really the best I can do?" (and honestly, who likes asking such questions?), you can always let yourself off the hook by saying, "Only a nobleman could have been Shakespeare."

But that still leaves us with his work, whoever wrote it, and the work of Shakespeare will not let us off the hook. Ever. Whoever wrote the lines, Hamlet is still there, at the graveside, holding the dirty skull of a clown who used to entertain him as a child, and wondering, "Where be your jibes now?"

He will always be there, and the question will always be there, hanging in the air. And that is the mystery of life worth pursuing.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In Search of Hundred Acre Wood

When I was a kid--around 10 or 11, probably--I used to have a tree in our backyard that was my hiding place. It sat against our back fence, its trunk buried in hedges. It wasn't a very big tree, but it was easily climbable, and once you were up in its lower branches, you were invisible to the world. When I needed to get out from under Family and all the cares and woes of being 10, it's where I went. I could sit up in the tree and watch the world--or at least the three houses and yards near ours. Like Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window," I could forget my own troubles while eavesdropping on someone else's.

Yes, 10-year-olds have "troubles." They may be smaller than the ones I deal with today, but back then, they didn't seem that way.

In the summers, when my family decamped for the mountains, I found my escape in an old, white rowboat, which I could take out by myself on the lake we lived near. I could bring a book with me, row out to the middle of the lake, and then just drift--reading or dreaming, listening to the water lap against the sides of the boat.

Those doing-nothing times are some of my happiest memories, and I wonder, looking at my own children--one of whom is now 11--where they can find some alone time, to just be--to just sit with their own thoughts, comfortable in their own minds, unafraid of the silence.

It doesn't take us long to get frightened of the silence. When I ran away to Eastern Europe, to teach English and escape my life for a few months, the first few weeks were horrifying. The sun set at about 4:00 PM, and then I just sat there, in my little room, alone. No TV, no music, and no one to talk to. I would go outside, in the bitter, January cold, and do laps around the small town, just to see if anyone was up and about. But everyone there had a home, and a family (all the things I was running away from), and they were all comfortably hunkered down away from the darkness and the cold. So I went back to my room, and I tried to read. But even that was difficult, in the roaring silence around me--the silence I was so unused to.

It's a terrible thing not to be comfortable with yourself, alone in a room. God knows, that's not a new observation. Blase Pascal nailed it, hundreds of years ago: "All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone."

And it's still true.

I stumbled across this interesting article on "sacred time and space," and thought it was worth a think. My wife and I have been talking about some of these things--like finding a way to honor the idea of a "sabbath"--if not by the letter of the law, then at least in spirit. Watching my boys watch TV, and play video games, and work on their computers, I know I need to do something.

I can't make them go sit in a tree, but maybe if I can give them more open, quiet time, that still, small voice in their heads will tell them to go find one on their own.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fire up the Kindle!

My mystery novel,  Cool for Cats, is finally available for the Kindle.

$4.99 and it's yours!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Free Book!

Go to Goodreads to enter your name for a free book drawing!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cool for Cats by Andrew Ordover

Cool for Cats

by Andrew Ordover

Giveaway ends October 16, 2011.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Going Solo

Institutions and I don't seem to get along. I don't know why.

I don't think of myself as a troublemaker, or an agitator, or an anarchist, but somehow, time and again, I find myself alienated from whatever organization or structure I'm trying to be a part of--cast out or abandoned or just annoyed enough to go it alone.

It happened to me in high school, when my small cadre of friends and I got fed up with the direction our "Class Night" theatre production was going, and struck out on our own to rewrite the "Wizard of Oz" spoof into a just-barely-school-acceptable version of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." It happened to me in college, where for some reason I can't remember, I decided to write and produce and direct a play of my own, which was something One Didn't Do in that particular program (back then, anyway). And it's happened to me over and over.

I couldn't get my plays produced by theatre companies, so I joined up with (another) small cadre of friends to form our own company. When that inevitably fell apart, I produced on my own, for as long as I could stomach it (= 1 play).

Now, here I am in my late 40s, careening down the hill towards 50. Having given up on trying to please various theatrical gatekeepers, I've gone back to my first love and am writing fiction. And lo and behold...I can't get anyone to publish it. Once again, I am left to make things up on my own.

So...fine. Good. I should know better, by now. So here it is: Cool for Cats: A slightly quirky, slightly snarky, more-sentimental-than-it-thinks-it-is mystery novel, from me to you. It's a little bit Long Island, a little bit Atlanta, a little bit Jazz, a little bit old-fashioned-detective novel. I think you'll like the characters--I hope you do, anyway, because I'm working on the sequel.

Paperback is out now; Kindle version is on the way. Give it a try, won't you? And let me know what you think. After all, you won't have to contact my people or get through any gatekeepers to get a message through. It's just me.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sugar Candy Mountain

I believe in the promise of online education. I really do. I think it has the potential to radically transform the way we teach and learn, by knocking down the walls of time and space and challenging every assumption we have about how schooling must be done.


When Michael Horn talks about how online teaching can change the role of the teacher and liberate her from a wide range of administrivia, I have to take issue. It certainly can. It certainly could. But it many cases, it's not.

Yes, online curriculum takes over a lot of the burden of direct teaching. In theory, this should free up teachers to work one-on-one with students and do a lot more performance-type assessment. And I'm sure there are places where this is happening. But we need to be aware of what else is happening.

Administrators are looking to online learning to save them money, and that's not a bad thing. There are many places where using online learning can increase efficiency and even upgrade educational services being provided (think of what it can mean for students on home medical leave, compared to what they've traditionally received). But the combination of districts' desire to shave budgets and for-profit providers to show a profit leads many online school providers to load more and more kids on the backs of fewer and fewer teachers. In my own experience, I saw the provider I worked for change from having each part-time (10-15 per week) teacher manage 50 students to having them manage 60, and then 70, and then more.

Now, 70 students may not sound like all that many if you're shoving them into physical classrooms. Traditionally, at a high school level, that could be as few as two class sections, which a 15-hour hire could easily handle (well, not easily, but she could deliver a lecture and run for the hills). But in online education, those 70 kids could be taking a wide range of classes. You may have a handful in English 1, a larger handful in English 2, a bunch in English 3, a bunch in a whole array of electives, and so on. The idea of a "prep" doesn't exist in online education, which means even a part-time teacher may have to teach 10 different classes simultaneously. And if this is a part-time teacher, you can bet she's doing this work after coming home from a full day of teaching her "real" students all day in a physical building. So she comes home (exhausted), feeds her kids and puts them to bed, and then has 2-3 hours to attend to these virtual students...70 of them spread across multiple classes. What level of quality instruction is she going to be able to provide?

Oh, you say, but that's OK, because she's not really "teaching" the class. Wrongo, Mary Lou--she absolutely is. She may not have to prepare or deliver lectures, but she needs to work with students, grade papers, in some lead class discussions (synchronously or not), and so on.

With full-time hires, it's both easier and harder. Easier because the virtual kids are the one and only priority--they're not the "other" kids attended to after a full day of work. So it's easier to manage time and do what's needed. On the other hand, for-profit school providers are ramping up the load for full-time teachers to as many as 300 students.

Now, let's get real. If you're teaching 300 students simultaneously, even if you're not providing the direct instruction, how closely can you really work with them? How much authentic assessment are you going to be able to do. English teachers: what say you? How many essays can you correct, per week?

The providers understand this, so to protect their profit margin (and let's face it, they have to protect their margin or they're dead), they scale down the performance assessments, little by little, and rely more and more on auto-scored assessments. They won't remove the teacher-graded components (well, some will), but they will definitely make them fewer and further between, to give the teacher more time for that one-on-one service. With 300 kids. And God help them if they're not able to keep pace with the rest of their section, because keeping pace is sometimes pushed for more manically in online schools than in traditional schools, because the district is paying for each kid and damn sure wants to see that kid complete the course. If they can't complete the course with Provider X, they'll switch to Provider Y, so the incentive is not, exactly, to maintain high levels of rigor and demand performance from students.

So I'm not saying Horn is wrong. I'm just saying we need to see clearly what's really going on.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Outsourcing Trivia

The alarmists are all atwitter about this idea of "outsourcing memory" to the Internet, as detailed in this report published in Science. We won't know anything anymore! We'll lose our ability to remember anything! We'll Google knowledge forever!

Well. Maybe we will. We have the ability to be profoundly stupid, after all. But call it a possible result, not a necessary one. It all depends on what you upload/outsource, and what you decide to teach, learn, and remember.

In the report, they discuss an experiment in which people were asked to type in 40 pieces of trivia. Some were told that the facts woule be saved; some were told they would be erased. Predictably, the ones who were told the former soon forgot the trivia. As would I.


In in oral society, you have to remember everything. Or, since you can't remember everything, you have to have people whose job it is to be the rememberers and reciters. In a literate society, you can find information in books...but you don't always have access to the books, so there are certain things you just have to know. The only thing that's changing now is that we have faster and easier access to information. But that doesn't mean we don't need to know anything.

The task for us, as educators, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yes, you can turn to Google for all kinds of information, but what are the things you just flat-out need to know, in order to be able to ask the right questions of Google? There are random facts and there are foundational facts. Random facts are perfect for Internet searches. Foundational facts create the context and the conceptual basis of fields of knowledge. Does a student need to memorize and recite back an entire textbook anymore? I see no reason for it. For the rest of his life, he'll have access to most of the allegedly-interesting facts contained within the book. But what are the facts that build the conceptual knowlege that a student will need, to understand biological systems, or how angles relate to each other, or how poetry uses imagery to touch emotions?

I need to understand what poetic language does, in order to lead a full and rich life. I do not need to remember the difference between a Petrarchan and a Shakespearean sonnet; I can look that up.

I need to understand what drives countries to colonize and conquer other countries, in order to make sense of the world around me and see new threats as they emerge. I do not need to remember exactly when Britain colonized the Indian sub-continent; I can look that up. But if I want to understand the sweep of history, I should know roughly when it happened, and how those events contributed to the larger time period.

I need to understand the concept of area, and what information I would need (and what process to undertake) in order to figure out how large a rug to buy. And while it would be nice to be able to do the multiplication in my head, perhaps I don't need to, anymore; there are calculators built into pretty much everything. BUT...I'd better know that multiplication is needed, and which numbers should be multiplied together.

People who don't want to have to grapple with the tough questions facing us love pretending that babies will always get thrown out, any time you say the bathwater needs changing. But it just isn't so. "Do nothing; change nothing" is not a viable response anymore. "Leave us alone and let us do what we've always done" won't work. The sky is not falling. :et's look the thing square in the face, see it for what it is, what it can be, and what it shouldn't be, and act accordingly.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Threat of Influence

Intrigued by a tweet, I clicked over to this article on "The Most Influential Educator in America." The list of nominees is not, in itself, controversial--although clearly, some people are confusing the word "influential" with "beneficial." Apparently, a person can't be influential if you think she's wrong.

What I found interesting was the dialogue below the article, in "comments." Someone disses Wendy Kopp because, the person says, she's created a business model that imagines teaching as a stepping stone to other careers. How dare she! So, again, apparently evil isn't influential.

But is it evil?

First of all, do we really think it's a bad thing to inject more people into the American bloodstream who actually know what it means to be a teacher in a classroom? What it takes? How HARD it is? Don't you think that breaking our version of the "thin blue line" would help the cause of teachers in policy arguments, both in Congress and in the news? Don't you think the old, "you get off work at 3:00 and have summers off, so shut up" argument would diminish if more peope, in more walks of life, really understood the world of the classroom teacher?

But that's a minor quibble. The more interesting point, I think, is that we seem to refuse to acknowledge that difficult choices must be made--that we can't eat our cake of publication and have it, too. Roads are diverging in the wood, and we, being one traveler, can't take them all.

Here's what I mean: We know that, by and large, we're recruiting teachers from the bottom quarter of college graduating classes. We know that many teachers leave the profession within the first five years of practice. I think we can assume that, by and large, the ones who leave are the ones who have other job options available. Maybe that means they're "smarter" or better educated--who knows? But a lot of people leave. We know that teacher effectiveness is a significant determining factor in student success (even though older studies seemed to suggest otherwise). And we know that professional development, as it's traditionally done, isn't really increasing teacher effectiveness. So what are we supposed to do?

A) We could increase teacher pay to attract better candidates into teaching as a life-long career. But there are a hundred reasons why that isn't happening and isn't likely to happen any time soon, except in isolated cases. See: unions, pensions, the larger economy, and people's bizarre contempt of teachers.
B) We could invest heavily in intensive, long-term, work-embedded professional development to increase the effectiveness of our current cadre of teachers. That would be lovely, but I don't see it happening anywhere, probably because schools are starved for money, the unions often balk at mandating things like PD, and no one can ever agree on what information or skills, exactly, lead to increased effectiveness. Not that we don't know--we all know--we just all know differently.
C) We could re-cast teaching in community-service terms more than in lifelong-job terms, to attract quality candidates who are willing to do the job for a little while before moving on to other careers. That's the TFA model.

Is there a choice D? I can't think of one. Either improve the people you've got, replace the people you've got with "better" people, or augment what you've got with "better" people on a temporary basis. I guess choice D would be "do nothing."

If you have a choice D in mind, let me know!

Anyway, the point is, things can't get better AND remain the same, unless you think things are as good as they could possibly be, right now. And nobody thinks that. And yet, we get angry at people who are trying to change things. We say, "just leave teachers alone," which is absurd. What we're doing right now may well be intrusive, over-regulatory, and ineffective, but that doesn't mean we should just walk away and let each individual teacher do whatever the hell she wants, in isolation from the rest of the school, like in the good old days.

First of all, the "good old days," if they were really all that good, had a completely different teacher corps than we do today. They had what amounted to a captive population of well-educated women, most of whom who couldn't find other jobs, except for nursing and secretarial work. Think about the women who are currently lawyers, investment bankers, doctors, and business executives--smart, driven, amazing women--and assume that if we were back in the early 1960s, a large subset of them would be classroom teachers. And then tell me nothing has changed.

So, again: change who's in the classroom, somehow, or deal with who you've got.

What about Finland and Singapore? Everyone is crowing, these days, about how they don't regulate their teachers to death, or mandate a curriculum, or test their students every ten seconds. All true. But in those countries, they can "leave the teachers alone" because they've invested HEAVILY in them before they reach the classroom. So they have a pretty good idea what they're going to do once they get there. In our country, on the other hand, a principal can't have any clue what his teachers may or may not know, think, or be able to do as educational practitioners. They've all come from different schools, different pre-service programs, maybe even different states, all with different requirements, training mandates, curricula, and philosophies. So good luck being an "instructional leader" in your school.

Change it, one way or another, or figure out how to deal with what you've got and get better results.

There are a lot of people out there who have tried to do the latter and have found it impossible. So they've tried to find ways to change the paradigm. Some of them are succeeding. Either the new models they create will be effective, in which case we can make them spread, or they'll prove ineffective, in which case we'll cross another idea off the list and try something else. But at least we'll have learned something. At least we'll have tried.

I call that influential.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Should we kill the liberal arts major?"


Unless you're talking about one particular liberal arts major who's done something horrible and deserving of death. In which case: Maybe. But if you're talking about the major in general, concpetual terms, then No.

This question is the basis for an article in Salon. It includes many, many face-slappable moments. Or, at the very least, moments where you want to hit your own head against a wall.

Here is a short list:

Is the recent college grad with the psychology major now working as a babysitter because she majored in psychology? Or is it, perhaps, becuase, as she says, she was a lousy student? Or is it, perhaps, because we're in a lousy economy with high unemployment?

Are young people majoring in the humanities unemployable because they can't "do anything with their major?" Meaning they should have majored in something more do-with-able? And if that's true, then what, exactly, is that more-do-with-able major?

The liberal arts are supposed to teach you how to read and write and speak and think. Last time I checked, those skills were all highly transferable into a number of jobs. You ought to be able to "do" a lot with those skills, even if your major was not narrowly defined as a jobs-training program. And there are PLENTY of people currently employed who do a lousy job of all of those things, so it seems to me we should be doing MORE on the liberal arts, not less.

So no, there aren't all that many job openings for "poet." But a decent career counselor at a college should be able to steer an English major into almost any job he wants. Virtually every employer out there is despearately seeking people who can process information and communicate clearly.

Of course, if you insist on defining the liberal arts super-narrowly, then yes, perhaps they are "useless." If you think the actual educational content of being an English major is limited to knowing and being able to share facts about particular pieces of old literature, then your skills may not be very transferable. If you think the actual purpose of learning history is limited to knowing and sharing facts about particular times and places, without any transferability of themes and concepts to our own world, then yes, you're not much use to anyone outside of academia. But who ever said those things were the points of those fields of study?

Well, maybe some lousy professors did. I'll grant you that. We have far too many people teaching their subject from deep within the chamber of expertise, where things only matter for their own, pure, Platonic essence-y sake. We don't do a good job of connecting the benefits of being a well-rounded and thoughtful person, and the skills acquired through deep reading, writing, and discussion, with the outside world of work. So shame on us.

But if the problem is too-narrowly-focused teachers and courses, then come on, guys--let's fix that bathwater of focus; don't toss out the baby of, you know, our entire history and body of knowlege.

Also, just by the way, if we really are going to start talkong about college as nothing more than a jobs-training program, then good luck trying to suck $100,000+ out of families for the privilege of attending.

Training may make you an employee, but education makes you a person.

Monday, May 16, 2011

One Way or Another

The never-ending tug-of-war over education reform continues, with the Common Core side digging in its heels to avoid getting pulled into the mud pit by newly energized small-government types. It's the usual policital arguments over regulation-vs-trust-the-professionals and activist-federal-government-vs-state-sovereignty. And as with all the other areas of life over which these dichotomies have imposed itself, the arguers treat their position as Simply Right--correct because it's God's way. And when both sides of the battle claim that God is on their side, you can bet the result will be blooshed.

So let's put aside whether God and George Washington would have approved of government regulation of education. It's not helpful. Let's first ask: What is actually going on in education? Why does it need help? Do we even bother to diagnose our problems anymore before prescribing a cure? Republicans think a tax cut is the right response to both a surplus and a recession. Democrats think government programs are the right response to personal and infrastructure problems. It's like a doctor prescribing a drug just because he likes the drug, with no thought to whether it's an appropriate cure to the disease. "You know what I love? I love that Lipitor stuff. Works like a charm. I use it for everything."

Why do some people believe we need Common Core standards, and then maybe assessments, and then maybe curriculum? Because no one knows what the hell anyone is teaching in the classroom. From room to room, you may find absolute chaos within a single course. Forget about from school to school, district to district, or state to state. Even if the teachers are all using the same textbooks, what they teach diverges.

So why is that? Before we impose new standards, let's pause and remember that the old standards didn't actually solve this problem. Why is there so little agreement over what should be taught within a single course?

Is it that there's a huge spectrum of content-knowledge within our teacher corps, and teachers tend to teach what they know best? If so, then imposing new standards won't change anything...unless that change leads to a change in the way teachers are trained and prepared.

Ah, but we have wildly divergent training and preparation demands from state to state. Some states demand a Masters degree; some don't. Some states demand a degree in the subject area; some are ok with an Education degree. Some require a test; some don't.

Is the problem that there's a huge spectrum of excellence and achievement within our teacher corps, with many of the best and brightest in the field leaving the profession within five years? We hear that said very often. Is it that the corps is simply not capable?

That argument, it seems to me, lies at the heart of the tug of war. Countries like Finland and Singapore do not regulate their teachers or their curriculum. HOWEVER, they make damned sure that the best possible people are placed into those roles, going so far as to subsidize the education of their best young people, if those young people choose to become teachers. Then they pay them well, make nice buildings for them to work in, and provide an ample social infrastructure for parents, to help them send healthy and well-prepared children into the schools.

And then, having done all those things, they leave them the hell alone. Because they trust them to be self-monitoring professionals.

We do none of those things. We allow our neediest schools to be pits of despair, with bars on the windows and food on the floor. We demean and insult our teachers. We subsidize them not at all, encoruage them not at all, and pay them poorly. We allow the bottom quarter of our college classes to enter the profession, because everyone else has "better" options. We have an economic system (and personal levels of material greed) that demand all parents work, full time, and refuse to raise taxes to provide supervision and enrichment to children outside of the home.

So why do we feel the need to regulate every aspect of the teacher's life? Simple. It's because we don't trust them.

Personally, I don't trust oil executives and investment bankers to do their jobs properly without regulation. They have not earned my trust. But we have to look at the nature of that loss of trust to figure out what, exactly, needs regulation. Same here. If teachers don't know the subject they're teaching--teach them better. If they're not as competent as they should be--support and train them better. If we're not attracting the right people into the job in the first place--make the job more attractive and competitive.

But that's hard, isn't it? Much easier to write regulations.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Laws for Thee But Not for Me

I’ve been renting a room here in the DC area while looking for a larger place for the family, who will join me this summer. The woman from whom I’m renting has been unemployed and out of luck for a long time, and cannot pay her own rent without filling up all of the beds in the apartment. So she rents out my little room, and she rents out the master bedroom, and she sleeps on the sofa. It’s not an ideal arrangement for me, God knows, but it allows me to rent month-to-month without living someplace truly horrifying.

Right now, my roommate/landlady is sleeping in the master bedroom, because once again, one of her tenants has walked out on her. I’ve seen it happen twice; apparently, it’s happened six or seven times. They come in—kids, mostly, but not exclusively—needing a place but not being able to put up a month’s rent as security along with a month’s rent to start. So she allows them to pay half a month in security. She lets them move in without signing a lease, because it takes her a while to get her act together. They stay three weeks, four weeks, long enough to accrue some debt. And when she starts asking for them to pay, and she finally gets a lease put together, they disappear. They string things along as far as they can, then they get in a screaming match with her, telling her she’s a bitch for daring to ask them for money. Then they bolt.

So it’s hard to get too upset, or to take it too personally, when I face intense scrutiny in my own home search. Fair credit equals poor credit these days, and my situation over the past eight months has left me with only fair credit. Property managers are looking for any excuse to say No to me when I file an application, and they can always find an excuse, because there are a lot of people out there looking to rent. Whatever I might say about myself, whatever pleas I might make, whatever assurances I offer or recommendations I gather…none of it matters. There is no trust.
It’s Passover this week. I remember staging a play, back in college, which featured a musical re-enactment of the Exodus which culminated with the giving of the 10 Commandments. The chair of the theatre department was watching a rehearsal with me one day, and he guffawed (in a very jowly, middle-aged, Irish Catholic kind of way) about how only a Jew would stage a scene where a bunch of people sing “Freedom! Freedom!” while being handed a set of laws.

Among the political so-called conservatives, it’s been fashionable for at least a generation to talk—or scream—about how government is the enemy. We hate regulation. We hate laws. Government is intrusive. Just leave us alone. They act as though Congress passes laws for their own amusement, or creates regulations out of a love of bureaucracy. They see no connection between their actions—our actions—and the actions of the people placed in positions of authority. In this, they are no different than school children who don’t do their work and then ask their teacher, “Why’d you give me an F?” And they’re no more mature.

Law doesn’t just happen. It happens in reaction to behavior. Regulations are not birthed with a business. They are created in reaction to a business’ lack of ethical behavior.

It’s Passover this week. We celebrate the escape from oppressive slavery and begin a countdown that will take us, eventually, to a celebration of the Giving of the Law. Ten laws: ten commandments. Have you taken a look at them, lately? You should. And you should ponder this question: if we—all of us—could live by those laws—just those laws, but really live by them—how many others would we need? Not many, I think.
But can we live by them? Do we live by them? There are only 10 commandments, but the Torah actually contains over 600 laws, rules, and regulations that help define, explain, and enforce those original 10. So I guess our inability to live by the 10 became evident pretty quickly.

We need laws and regulations to protect us from each other, and that’s the plan and ugly truth of it. And we need protection from each other because we will not behave. The industries that beg to have regulations rolled back? They do terrible things, almost instantly.

Why will we not behave? Because we no longer—most of us—live in abject fear, cowering in the shadows. We are not afraid of retribution from the gods. We are not afraid of the secret police knocking down our door. We are not afraid of what will happen when the local priest hears about our behavior. We are free.

Free from what? All of the above. Free to do what? Whatever we please.

The density of our laws does not depend on the political party we vote into office. It depends entirely on how we, as a society, define “free to do what?” The more constraints we place upon our own freedom, as individuals within a culture, the fewer constraints must be placed on us from without. We can constrain ourselves out of fear of heavenly punishment, or we can constrain ourselves because of a social contract and an ethic of working together and helping each other. We can make up all kinds of systems and structures to teach our children to hold back, to limit themselves, to constrain themselves, for a greater good. That’s what civilization is all about.

So the cop is in the head or the cop is on the beat. The cop is not absent; that’s anarchy, and as attractive as anarchy may sound to college students, it never lasts. Never. People can’t stomach it for long. The cop will return. He always does. If you haven’t internalized him, expect him at your door. Control yourself or you will be controlled, eventually. Because while we love our own freedom, yours scares the hell out of us.

As long as our culture holds Absolute Appetite to be its greatest good, and teaches its children to Want and to Take without limit or consideration, we will have a net of laws and regulations thrown over us. Because, like I said, we trust ourselves but not our neighbors. We’re not completely insane; we know, deep down, where Absolute Appetite will lead us. And even if we didn’t care about that, we know that there are finite resources, and that all people cannot have all things. So unless we want to live in Hobbes’ jungle, where the strong take and the weak hide, we need laws.
Laws for other people, of course. For them. Not for us. We’re fine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday Morning Rumblings

A colleague at work put his wife and children on a plane this morning; they’re off to see family for a week. People at the office joke with him about enjoying the bachelor life while they’re away. He stands by my desk and tells me this, slumping a little. “You know,” he says, “I got married for a reason.”

Five years ago, when The Wife left me behind in New York to pack boxes and get the house sold, moving herself and the boys to Arizona to get our new life started, I heard the same thing from my friends. “Now you get to do whatever you want!” they said. But what I wanted was to have my wife and boys with me.

Now I’m doing the same thing again. This time, I’m the one who went out ahead, leaving them behind to get the house sold. But once again, it’s me, alone, without my family. And all I want is to have them here with me.

Why is the assumption that women have families because they want to, but men have families because they have to? If that’s true of most men (and I dispute that), it’s certainly not true of all men.

I have been away from them for four months now, with two very brief trips home to see them. For now, until they arrive here, I live in a small, rented room with few distractions or comforts. The nights are long, made longer by lack of sleep. At work, I find I have to change my computer’s screensaver, because I can’t take seeing pictures of my children roll by anymore.

When I was a young(er) father, toting my older son around Brooklyn in his baby backpack, I felt shut out of the mom-community all around me (and it was ALL around me). Perhaps that has changed in the past 10 years, and there are more work-from-home dads out there. But in 2000 and 2001, I was alone, and I was viewed with suspicion. It was a shame, because I enjoyed wandering around with Thing 1 on my back, and we had a lot of fun together. But no one wanted to talk to us. The Yuppie mothers were a pack. The Jamaican nannies were a pack. So I knocked around, alone. If there was a “guys don’t care” mentality or stereotype, it wasn’t coming only from the guys.

I’ve always resented the “dumb guy” stereotype—on TV, in movies, and in life. I do not know a single male, of any age, who is incapable of finding something in the kitchen or making himself something (something) to eat. Even my father, who went into of my mother’s long illness incapable of cleaning the house or cooking anything beyond a steak, learned how to take care of himself. He hadn’t actually been incapable—he had just never been asked to play that role or learn those skills.

At work, we are reading manuscripts and planning videos on the crisis of boys in our schools. Sometimes it’s African American boys, sometimes it’s Latino boys, sometimes it’s just boys in general. The underlying assumption, as always: boys are insane. Boys are pure physical beings. Boys cannot be expected to “do” school, which is somehow feminine in structure. There is only one way to be in the world, as a boy, and it’s pure Tom Sawyer.

I’m so tired of the arguments, programs, and proselytizing in our culture that comes from these reductive views of people. There is one way to be Black; there is one way to be a boy; there is one way to be a Democrat or a Republican. Every thing means one thing. Is it just that the world has become too complex for us to manage, so we have to reduce everything in it to simple equations? Did we allow more complexity when the world around us seemed simpler? Maybe that’s why our education system is in so much trouble; the culture around us keeps telling us that there’s nothing we have to learn; everything is clearly just want we think it is.

But it’s a lie. Every thing deserves some measure of awe. Every person is a mystery. Assume nothing.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bad Faith

Jay Matthews has a good article on the dangers of national mandates in education and how short-sighted and overly prescriptive they can be. But I think it misses an underlying point--a prime cause, if you will. How can we stop penduluming back and forth between "teachers are idiots--tell them what to do" and "teachers are saints--leave them alone"? Both arguments are foolish and uninformed, and nothing is ever brought to bear to examine the arguments. So the partisans for each side repeat their mantras and we continue to swing back and forth.

State and federal mandates didn't erupt like Athena, fully clothed, from the mind of some bureaucrat or politician. We once had a culture of leaving teachers alone to do their thing. Now we don't. Why? I think we can trace the dissatisfaction back to the 1970s. I think it began there--softly, quietly, and only in some places--and began to grow. And there are two things that were happening in that decade that, I think, contributed to this change.

The first is desegregation. God knows, middle class whites did all they could to avoid it, from picketting in the South to fleeing to suburban enclaves in the North. But by and large, over time, the population of public schools became more and more heterogeneous. That, along with the move to mainstream students with disabilities, made our classrooms more diverse in every possible way. And, therefore, more difficult to manage effectively. This is something we talk about on occasion, but often without clear connections to NCLB or the standards movement.

At the same time, the women's liberation movement was giving women more professional options that being a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary. With the glass ceiling lifted, if not shattered, Ivy League and other high-performing women could pursue careers in medicine, law, and business, who otherwise might have had to opt for teaching. As they fled the teaching profession, we did nothing to change that profession in order to attact talent. We did not rasie teacher pay, change the working environment, or offer any new incentives. We continued to act as though we had a captive population coming into the profession, when we no longer did. And so we started to attact lower-perfoming young people, who didn't have those higher professional options available to them. This is something we rarely talk about.

Look at the what this combination of factors has wrought: without changing the structure of how we do schooling, we've thrown a wide and wild diversity of students into the mix--different needs, different backgrounds, different cultures, but the same 45-minute class period. And we've done nothing to attract the best and the brightest to come teach them. We get them, sometimes, out of a sense of mission, but we don't do a great job of holding on to them. If fact, the latest attempt to recruit high-performing college gradutates, Teach for American, doesn't even pretend that these kids will stay in the profession for more than two years.

If we've moved into a world of micromanagement, is it because the managers are insane and oppressive, or is it because there is an absolute lack of faith and trust that the people being managed know what they're doing? I'd say it's the latter. Our educrats aren't evil; they just have zero faith in the people they manage.

The sad thing here is that you can't move from bad faith to good faith through oppressive mandates. You can't move people from low competence to high competence by telling what to do, every minute of the day. So what should we be doing?

How about if we started treating teaching like a profession, instead of hired labor? I know we talk about it, but what if we actually did it? By which I mean: create state or national teaching standards and align the university programs with them. Instead of mandating what every student should so, create industry-wide standards, expectations, and protocols for professional behavior, with real training, support, professional onboarding, and long-term mentoring, so that you have the best chance of placing a qualified teacher in front of a classroom...and the best chance of having agreement across the profession as to what "qualified" means. Prepare a teacher the way you prepare a doctor, and I think we'd safely be able to do away with the micromanagement.

But we don't have agreement as to what qualified means. And we don't have agreeement as to what good teaching means. We don't have agreement within our own profession about much of anything...except that we should be left alone.

Monday, April 4, 2011

What's a Bad Teacher?

First off, a question: does anyone really think that old, intractable problems can be solved by the stakeholders re-stating the same positions they've been stating for at least a generation? What if they state them more angrilly? I don't think so either. So how about, when we hear old, stale, useless positions being stated for the umpteenth time, we just dismiss them immediately and say "Next!"

"We need to fire the bad teachers."

"We need to leave teachers alone and let them do their jobs"

The problem is, really, both statements are true, but neither is sufficient unto itself.

We should leave teachers alone to do their jobs...but only if we have reasonable assurance that they know what their job is--the same kind of assurance we demand from doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. You meet some quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profression, and we'll leave you alone. Problem: There are no quality criteria agreed upon by your entire profession.

We should fire bad teachers, just like we should fire bad anyone--after, of course, we have taken appropriate steps to help, guide, support, and remediate. When everything else fails, you should be able to fire incompetent employees. Problem: if we can't agree on what competence means, how can we have a fair evalution, remediation, and dismissal process?

If we can't agree on what a good teacher is, how can we decide what a bad teacher is? We don't want the decisions to be arbitrary or personal or vindictive, so...what do we have?

Should we allow teachers to evaluate each other as peers? Well, to do that, they'd have to be able to observe each other's work, and we are radically against allowing teachers to do anything during their day except stand in front of students.

Should we judge teachers by the grades they give their students? That's asking for trouble.

Should we judge teachers by the standardized test scores of their students? That's reductive and limiting.

Should we judge teachers by the growth that their students show during the time they spend wiht those teachers? Growth of what? Growth by what measure? And are all growths equivalent? If Teacher X inherits children who are 4 years behind in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" during the school year denotes competence on her part? If Teacher Z is teaching gifted and talented students who are already 4 years ahead in their skills and knowledge, how much "growth" should one expect during the school year?

So don't tell me that a superintendent is courageous just because she "went after bad teachers." And don't tell me she's a monster, either. In fact, don't talk about her at all. The teaching profession has to clean house before it can point fingers. If it wants its members to be "left alone," then the profession has to publish the criteria against which its members should be measured--and maybe even design the preferred evaluation tool. Lawyers created the bar exam. Doctors created the medical boards. Why do teachers continue to allow others to define them...and then cry out about being victimized when others do just that?

I know we have a pathological fear of centralization in this country--which is pretty damned funny, considering how conformist and homogonized our culture has become. But saying, in essence, "what I do is not judge-able by anyone except me" is an absurd position to take. It invites abuse. And it's getting plenty of it.

There are districts trying hard to figure out teacher evaluation. They should be commended for the effort, even when we disagree with the outcome. But if we want teaching to be a profession, then evaluation has to be done in a professional model, not a corporate model. The person signing the paycheck creates the evaluation tool in business. The practitioners themselves create the evaluation tool in professions.

And teaching is....which?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life-Long Learners

The phrase “life-long learner” has been kicking around for quite some time in Ed World, but we’re finally in a position to be able to do something about it. The question is whether we’re going to bother.

You can certainly be a life-long learner without any help. You always could be. You could go to the library; you could go to the Learning Annex; you could go live in the woods with a copy of “Walden” and your own thoughts. Now, with wireless hot-spots and smart phones, you can carry libraries and Learning Annexes in your pocket, and you can go live in the woods while listening to an audio book of “Walden.” Maybe it’s not the same thing. Feel free to take sides.

Meanwhile, our schools remain essentially unchanged after over a hundred years. Where once they mirrored the structure of the kind of industrial work they expected most students to graduate into, they now mirror pretty much nothing except each other. Success in school prepares you to be successful in school. Once you get a job, however, you’re starting from scratch. You won’t work like you worked in school; you won’t even use your knowledge and skills the way you used them in school. Where once you were told that taking shortcuts to a solution was “cheating,” now you’ll be treated like a fool for doing things the hard way. You might even get fired for wasting time. Where once you were told not to look at another student’s paper, now you’ll be given a poor review for failing to cooperate with your co-workers. On and on.

Are you encouraged and empowered to become a life-long learner? Are you given the tools to be an independent, critical thinker, someone intensely and insatiably curious about the world? Or are you, rather, trained by school to be a life-long jumper-through-hoops, a trained circus animal who knows what must be done to get the biscuit and the pat on the head?

What if we really believed in this life-long learning thing? What if we took it as our starting point and built—from scratch—towards that end? What if we said that the goal of the American educational system was to encourage and support life-long learning, from childhood to old age? After all, we’re told all the time that the New Economy demands flexibility, agility, constant retraining, etc. The jobs of the future haven’t even been invented yet. All that. So if it's true, why do we abandon people right when they’re ready to take their first adult job, and then tell them if they want any further education, they’re going to have to pay through the nose for it? Why would we want to discourage people from adapting themselves to a changing world and its new opportunities, throughout their lives? Why would you want to tell people that what they have learned up till 18, or up till 22, will have to suffice for a lifetime?

And that has to mean more than "Google it." Even if the Internet promises almost limitless access to information and opinions (and yes, Baly, we do still have a lot of work to do on broadband access and affordability for all), we still need physical school buildings and real teachers. We need schools as places where people can come together and find Wise Guides to help them analyze, discuss, and understand the information they're downloading, and test out the validity of the opinions they've been swallowing, undigested. We need schools as places where people can learn and practice skills that require (or just benefit from) in-person interaction. Perhaps we don’t need grade-level classrooms. Perhaps we don’t need subject-specific classrooms. But we will always need a place. A village green of the mind. An intellectual commons. We still need a place where Socrates can accost us and make us think about what we’re thinking about, to make sure we’re thinking clearly.

And there’s no reason why this should have to be a place for children only. If we're thinking from scratch, let's throw out old assumptions and figure out what we need and want? Why can’t school be a place for all of us, whenever we need it? If I’m 35 and I want to learn Spanish, why do I have to do it by myself, somewhere? Why can’t I go to school during my lunch hour and take it? If I’m 42 and I’m in a job where I need to write more than I’ve written in years, why can’t I go where the writing experts are and get help? My job is increasingly flexible—I can work from home, or at a Starbucks, or at night. I’m available to my boss 24/7 these days, and the line between home and work is increasingly dissolving. So if I can find time during the weekend to work, why can’t I find time during the work week to learn?

Imagine a school where adults interacted with children of all ages—as fellow students. Imagine a school where teenagers actually got to know the adults in their community for a change—and learned from something other than TV shows how adults behave and think. Imagine school as a conversation across the generations about the world and its myriad wonders and problems. Imagine a community where people stopped thinking that just because their children had graduated from high school, they no longer had to support the school system with their tax money—imagine a community where adults were happy to support the schools, because they used the schools. Imagine teachers who truly felt as though they were empowering all the people in their community to grow, and change, and prosper--that they performed a vital function for their entire community. What a job that would be!

The system gives us what the system was built to give us. It will continue to give us what it was built to give us, no matter how much tinkering we do around the edges. We can’t change the system in any meaningful way until we know what we want the system to give us. In every other aspect of our 21st century lives, we're dreaming new dreams and building wonderful machines to make those dreams come true. Why not here?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fear of a Common Curriculum

Another review of the current landscape of confusion and fear. Why must it be so?

Having a common curriculum will not make us automatons. It will not make your sweet little red state children into socialists, or your sweet little blue state children into right-wing ideologues.

Knowing the same things is not the same thing as thinking the same things.

Having a common background is no guarantee of having a common perspective. Look at your own family and you'll know how true that is.

Perhaps the problem here is that we, as educators, have done such a poor job of teaching critical thinking skills. Our job is not to tell children what to think; it's to teach children how to think. They should be able to disagree with me about the wisdom of the American Civil War. They should not be able to disagree with me about the fact of it.

But I've known far too many teachers--high school teachers and university professors--who felt it was their job to indoctrinate their students--to teach them their own, personal perspective on a topic as though that perspective were gospel truth. And it is probably a widespread experience with such teachers that has made parents gun-shy about a common curriculum.

A common curriculum should also not have to be antithetical to differentiated instruction, personalized learning, and school models like the School of One. In fact, I'd argue that a common curriculum may be the only way to keep such models from blowing apart into completely atomized environments where no one can have a conversation with anyone else. Have common goals and targets, but don't mandate how a student has to get there. Don't mandate how much time a student needs to get there. Don't even mandate where a student has to sit while he gets there. Let the journey be differentiated by the goal be common.

All of which brings us back to an earlier discussion on teacher quality. What kind of person do we need in tomorrow's classroom? We need someone who knows her subject so deeply and broadly--and who knows classroom instructional strategies so deeply and broadly--that she can bring different students along different pathways at different paces, to a common goal. That is not the teacher of yesterday, who simply had to stay one chapter ahead in the textbook, and assign the ten questions at the end of the chapter for homework. We need someone who knows how to challenge students, question students, engage students in dialogue and debate about a subject--to make them think about what they're learning, rather than simply take in information. We need someone who is not afraid of different points of view, but who knows when a point of view is supported by facts and when it's just opinion. We need someone who understands new media literacy, and can help students assess whether something they have found online is legitimate or not. We need teachers who understand how to challenge their students and how to allow their students to challenge them.

I don't think we're going to get these people in the classroom if we continue to insult, harass, and demean current and potential teachers. I don't think we're going to get these people in the classroom if we continue to draw from the bottom third or quarter of college classes.

You get what you pay for--that's all I'm saying.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Life Need Not be Lived Entirely in Prose

I was invited, this past weekend, to a gathering of folks working in and around the federal government who meet once a month to share good food and read poetry to each other. It was one of the nicest evenings I've spent in a long time.

The group has been meeting every month, in one form or another, for close to 40 years. They work in various branches of government--some more tangentially than others. Several of them work for Department of Defense. By day you might mistake them for policy wonks or academics focused on military history. And yet, once a month, they bring potluck food to someone's apartment or house, open up well-loved and dog-eared volumes of poetry, and read to each other.

It's not an intellectual exercise. They don't come to analyze the poems or deconstruct them. They come to appreciate them. They come for the sheer, sensual, visceral pleasure of hearing good poems read aloud. Occasionally, on the night I attended, there was some commentary, as when someone noticed an accidental motif appearing across several poems. But more often, there were just oohs and aahs and mmms of appreciation.

We allow ourselves to think, far too often, that only certain kinds of people are supposed to enjoy certain kinds of things. We accept stereotypes about ourselves and others in art that we would never put up with in other aspects of life. Black kids in the inner city aren't supposed to like, or even understand, classical music. New Yorkers aren't supposed to enjoy country music. Farmers aren't supposed to read the classics. Factory workers aren't supposed to go to the theatre. Poetry...well, poetry apprently is for no one, anymore, except academics and magazine editors.

But it isn't so. It just isn't so. The lives we lead are infintitely more complex and genre-shattering than we give ourselves credit for...or see portrayed in our media. Our ability to appreciate and enjoy does not come predetermined or color-coded for convenience. And the more we adventure and explore beyond the obvious and the comfortable in art, the more we are nourished.

As my friend said--the one who invited me to the gathering, "Every so often, I just need to remind myself that life doesn't have to be lived entirely in prose."

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why So Much Anger?

I've seen some tweets and blog posts and articles recently wondering where all this Anger At Teachers is coming from. I think Checker Finn is on to something: I don't think it's about summer vacations, or getting off work at 3PM, or any of that surface stuff. I think it's the perception that teachers are not held accountable in any of the ways the rest of us are. It's not that teachers don't have a stressful job--God knows, they do. And most civilians have very little understanding of those stresses (or sympathy). It's that teachers don't have many of the same stresses the rest of us have, in our jobs. And perhaps this is why there is so little understanding (or sympathy). We're held accountable for performance in myriad ways; they generally are not. So we're angry. Our work is watched, monitored, supervised, often micromanaged; theirs is not--they close the door and do as they please (or so we think). So we're angry. We're paid according to someone's valuation of our worth, and we live and die by that valuation; they get paid based on how long they've survived. That probably makes people angrier than anything else, along wiuth this one: they can't be fired for lousy performance, and we can.

I think these last two might be the crux of the issue. When people from outside look inside at the teaching world, they don't see the stresses and challenges (their perception of teachers remains the kid point of view, or perhaps a parent's point of view), but they definitely see--or hear about--the work rules. They hear that teachers have a job for life, and they resent that. They hear that teachers balk about any serious evaluation tool, and they resent that (because they're evaluated constantly). They may hear, if they're close to the issue, that many teachers resist evaluation because they feel their job is simply un-evaluate-able--that they alone, among working adults, cannot be measured, judged, supervised, or evaluated IN ANY MEANINGFUL WAY. It's not that we have poor tools at the moment; it's that the job is...well...magic. Don't ask. You woulnd't understand. Just leave us alone.

That irks people. And it makes them want to lash out and strike back with a bit of vindictiveness. It engenders an "oh yeah?" kind of attitude that makes people want not just SOME evalutaion, but perhaps OVER-evaluation. Stick it to them. Teach them a lesson.

Sure, it's childish. We're childish. Especially when we think someone is being arrogant or holier-than-thou. And all we need is to think it. It doesn't have to be true.

Teachers hurt their cause by thinking--or allowing others to say--that their job is so radically different from the way all other adults work that it cannot be treated like a job in any way. They just do. Teachers hurt their cause by not admitting that things like NCLB didn't erupt out of the brain of George Bush like Athena, with no mother. They played a role. School administrators played a role. Decades of unaccountability plus poor peformance drove people to want someting explicit and mandated. Was it badly constructed? Sure. Was it utterly unjustified and un-precipitated? No.

We're an aggressive, competitive, and results-driven culture, and it's hard to exempt people from that. If our students were leading the international polls in academic achievement, I doubt people would be carping about summer vacations or getting off work at 3:00 (even though we all know most teachers work deep into the night and across the summer). If things were going well, it wouldn't be an issue. But the combination of bad news and what people perceive to be an arrogant refusal to be held accountable for ANY of that news creates resentment. And resentment doesn't open the door for discussion.

And we need a LOT of discussion. Should teachers be held accountable for what they do in school? Yes. How? We don't really know how, yet. Should teachers be held accountable for their students' performance? Yes. One hundred percent? No. Well, what percentage, then? We don't know. Should parents be held accountable ? Yes. How? We don't know, and many of us will be offended if you raise the issue.

There are probably a hundred things like this that we need to discuss--openly, honestly, without hostility or defensiveness. But as in every other aspect of our public life, we can't have those discussions. All we can do is yell.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What is a Teacher For?

I don't remember a single fact that any teacher taught me. Not one. And I've had a lot of teachers over the years.

But I remember those teachers--many of them--and I remember quite a lot that they taught me. I remember ideas. I remember distinct ways of thinking about the world and unique ways of perceiving the world. Sometimes I learned how a person in a particular field saw the world--a scientiest, a poet (not a mathemetician--I only got a glimpse of that later in life, such was the poverty of my math education). But sometimes I also learned a unique individual saw the world; what I learned from some teachers was a different way of being in the world.

I think it's important, in the midst of the current battles over education reform and union-bashing, to remember what a teacher is needed for. As technology becomes more and more "disruptive" of old educational structures, and as school budgets get slashed right and left to protect the tax cuts of the wealthy (oops, did I say that out loud?), people are advocating all kinds of horrific scenarios: classrooms of 60 or more students; all students learning online all of the time--anything to save a buck or shame a teacher.

But what is a teacher for? If we don't stop and think about what makes the role of the teacher essential, aren't we liable to "reform" ourselves right out of what we need? And aren't we liable to miss opportunities to reform things correctly and helpfully?

I think it's becoming pretty widely accepted now, eleven years into the 21st century, that having a live teacher is not a necessary condition for taking in factual information. Facts can be pulled out of the air by anyone with broadband access, and the reform we need here is better and faster broadband access. The world of facts--the world of pure information--is at our fingertips.

You may or may not need a live teacher to learn skills. That will depend on a lot of things: age, for one; and the kind of skill being learned. My 10-year old son learned how to create stop-motion animated films 100% via YouTube. But I don't think he could have learned how to read that way...though I'm sure someone out there is working hard on a platform that will try to do just that, very soon.

To me, a teacher is a guide--someone who has walked the trail I'm on and knows the way. They can't walk it for me, but they can help me get through the obstacles. They can point out the trail blazings when I lose my way. They can point out when a new skill or a new piece of information (how to read a map; how to find water) might help me move forward. They might challenge me and encourage me to appreciate what I see and hear in new ways. And by their manner in the woods--by the way they live their expertise--they model for me a successful way of being in the world.

Our parents are teachers, but they don't take us all the way through the woods. Coaches, scout masters, rabbis--we have many teachers along the way, each with a different area of expertise, each able to guide us through a different part of the woods. But our schoolteachers are vital here, as well--especially as we move out of that "learning to read" phase and into "reading to learn." Teenagers need as many reliable guides as they can get, to help them navigate their way into adulthood.

And if this is so--If my definition makes sense--then a school reform that places 60 or 70 kids in a classroom so that one teacher can lecture them is a bad school reform. Because it defines the teacher by her least important role, today--that of an information provider--and makes impossible her most important role--that of a guide and mentor. You do not learn how to be a thoughtful and curious adult by watching someone talk at you in a lecture hall. Maybe when you're in college or grad school you can, somewhat. But not when you're 15. You're needier when you're 15. You need someone close--someone who talks to you, and listens to you, and knows you.

Which is the baby, and which is the bathwater? Shouldn't we make sure we know, before we start trashing the whole house?