Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Don't let a few bad apples ruin the whole bunch

Alternatively titled--Yes, we'll have no bad apples...if we just break the unions

How many more twists on fruit-related idioms and song titles can one blogger come up with???

Time magazine has, in its inimitable way, fanned the flames of the education culture war by joining the battle against teachers, or at least “bad” teachers.  With a pithily evocative cover about “rotten apples” and an analysis urging the breaking of the unions’ supposed vice grip protecting sub-par teachers, we are subject, once again, to the flaccid thinking that encourages the misguided politicization of teaching and learning.  

Let us be clear, there are some teachers who do not perform very effectively--as in any other profession.  But let us be equally clear that greater ease in firing bad teachers is no panacea.  Indeed, hope that such a narrow and specific administrative change will “fix” education dangerously simplifies the complex reality of what teaching, learning and schooling are.

Whereas teaching and learning are highly relational activities, education is a complicatedly bureaucratic activity--and growing more complicated and bureaucratic all the time.  Rules, regulations and reform programs of all types have caused decision making and monitoring authority over schools to migrate further up the organizational flow chart to the bureaucrats who work in state capitals (or in Washington, DC).  While good-intentioned, these organizational actors work with a limited number of educational standard operating procedures for what a school should do and be, protocols which have varying degree of relevance to the particularities and peculiarities of the broadly diverse schools under their bureaucratic care.

Creating something of a chicken and egg riddle, this increasing bureaucratization goes hand in hand with the drive to “measure” every educational outcome.  Indeed, this process has stimulated the generally accepted insistence that we identify and privilege only outcomes that can be numerated for easy and supposedly objective measurement.  All the while we assume that what we can numerate actually corresponds to “getting an education,” which is itself a richly nuanced process that varies from learner to learner.

But enough philosophizing.  A more fundamental and practical problem follows from the oversimplification indulged in the “fire bad teachers” approach.  The standardization of education has wrought the routinization of teaching, because curriculum designed to maximize test scores also minimizes the chance of variance among teachers.  

This sounds appealing, but when that curriculum comes in the form of pre-fabricated material and lessons, mandated by district central offices, teaching is routinized (not to mention learning) in such a way that we undermine our very desire to get high quality personnel into class rooms.  Engaging, thoughtful and challenging teachers tend, on average, to want to create--with curriculum, with supplementary material, with subtle changes to the assigned work, and so on.  They’re less inclined to want to work within narrow bureaucratic mandates about numerated goals that may or may not reflect anything worth learning.

Suffice to say, the kind of teacher I’d like my children to have is probably less likely to survive or thrive in an education environment bureaucratized in the way in which we are currently heading.  As one of my colleagues put it, “why bother doing anything unusual--or interesting?  It’ll just get vetoed by the bureaucrats.”  

Consider the metaphoric apple imagery of Time’s cover.  The routinization of teaching and learning, to make both fit within the bureaucratic requirements of education, risks leading us to a world of Red Delicious apples--a steady stream of bright plump fruit that are revealed, upon eating, to be a tasteless pulpy mass housed in a tough leather exterior.  Teaching and learning are activities as richly diverse--indeed, more diverse--than the breadth of apple varieties.  

But the education bureaucracy--the educracy?--making centralized administrative decisions about what schools should do and be will generate a preference for the attractive looking Red Delicious, and in the essentially human task of passing knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next we will have less time and attention for the Gala, the Granny Smith, the Fuji, the Honey Crisp, and so on.

Finally, if we do go down the road of firing all the “bad” teachers, it is imperative that we identify--ahead of time--what success and failure of the policy will look like.  Far too often, as in the Race to the Top School Improvement Grants, we endure philosophical claims about what will happen, and no amount of evidence to the contrary dissuades proponents of their self-assured, but empirically unfounded, confidence in their favorite programs.

Ultimately, we should check our confidence about any of this.  Teaching and learning are not only relational, they’re repetitive, a bit sloppy, and most of all, idiosyncratic to each learner.  Hoping there’s some sort of short cut through the hard work of them both is a fool’s errand.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Electronics and Brains

It's almost time for me to do my annual "Your Brain on Electronics" week with my 8th graders.  Part of that work includes a survey on which they answer questions about their electronics usage.  I like to give them the results of adult views of similar issues, so if you would be willing, I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

This is a seven-question survey (plus demographic information) that will take but a few minutes.  I will not know who you are, so I cannot share any individual responses with anybody.  Please answer, if you'd like.  I'll post results later.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Conference Week

It's that week again.  5 half-days, with student-led conferences in the afternoons.  This is one of those rituals we have to do each year.  Let me wax a little vexed....Students who are doing well, don't really need the conference, and students who are doing poorly won't change much from having one.

The idea is that students will think about goals, grades, future trajectories, etc.  Sounds good, and, in theory, it is good.  But reality isn't as good as theory.  Students who take it seriously do so because they take everything (or, at least most of the right things) seriously.  And the students who don't take it seriously don't take nearly enough of the right things seriously.  Adding this conference to that roster of activities isn't going to do much about that....But it is going to allow us to say we've done what we needed to do to help those students succeed.  It's another piece of evidence to add to the pile that says we've provided opportunities for a student to get an education.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An Inference Exercise

I've used this one to good effect.

The following piece of straightforward text invites rather complex forms of inferential reading and thinking.  

He put down $20.00 at the window.  The woman behind the window gave $4.00.  The person next to him gave him $8.00, but he gave it back to her.  So, when they went inside, she bought him a large -----.

The last word is important!  It gives some vital information.

A lot of students guess MOVIES without even hearing "popcorn."  When I say "cotton candy" they say CARNIVAL or what we call around here THE PUYALLUP (our regional fair).  Since it is "popcorn," we agree they're at the MOVIES.

We also sort out who these people are (probably on a date), how old they likely are (young--teens, young adults, as older adults more likely used credit cards), and where they are--in the timeline of their relationship (earlier, as they're still figuring out payment).

Though, being  inferences, we can't be certain these conclusions are correct, which we discover by way of...

...another practice.

Timmy hung his head dejectedly after the loud thwack as Billy trotted around the bases.  What just happened?

I ask "Who thinks it's some sort of sporting event?"  They all do, so I say "You're right...it's this:"

We discuss that it is possible that a fun-run around the two military bases could take place, and Timmy could whack his head on a pole while Billy keeps trotting along.  But it's much more likely that Billy just hit a home run off Timmy.  Thus dejected Timmy and trotting Billy.

After this, everybody is ready to think about how they make inferences ALL the time, and understand that inferences are

--More than educated guesses, they
--Reasonable conclusions based on what you're reading, combined with what you already know, to determine the most likely possibility.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pacific Lutheran University Talk

Talked about The Normal Accident Theory of Education to several PLU Ed. School students this afternoon.  I'm always happy to talk about that!

Monday, October 6, 2014

As the Lincoln High Turns

The saga goes on.  The staffers who "blew the whistle" say they're being retaliated against.  Indeed, a lawsuit's a pretty serious response.  The district says the three violated privacy laws laid out in FERPA--the federal law protecting student rights.

And they may have...I don't know.  But I do know it sure appears that the district is emphasizing that and minimizing the issue of whether the Lincoln administrators were, in fact, steering underperforming students out of Lincoln (so that Lincoln's graduation rate and test passing rate would improve).

It looks, in fact, like the district wants to silence people who could make trouble.

Yes, Virginia, Common Core Arithmetic is Insane

Check the great "letter to Jack" about half way down.  Takeaway point...All Common Core and no common sense makes Jack a dull boy.

Book Talk Tomorrow

Tuesday, Ocotober 7, 3:45 PM
Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma

Andrew Milton
Will discuss his book
The Normal Accident Theory of Education
Why Reform and Regulation Won’t Make Schools Better

List Price: $24.95 + tax

Special Price at the Talk:  $22, tax included

“Andrew K. Milton presents a provocative analysis of the reasons that the accountability movement is doomed to failure, despite the unprecedented fanfare associated with its implementation.”— Walt Gardner, writer of Reality Check blog for Education Week

“This eighth-grade English teacher from Washington state explains why centrally mandated reforms on teachers, students and schools, imposed by federal and state governments, create unintended failures in complex public school systems. Reversing this trend, by giving teachers, parents and schools more flexibility and more local control, is the better way to improve schools. As Mr. Milton wisely says: ‘The degree to which a school can learn, then, will affect the quality and character of that school. More personal involvement, more collaboration, more trust---a better school will result. No amount of state or federal programs, regulations or mandates will ever replace or transcend that.”— Liv Finne, director for education, Washington Policy Center

“Finally; a book about educational reform that exposes the institutional realities inhibiting past and present efforts at reform, told through the clear eye of an insider. Even more importantly, the author provides the best prescriptions for going forward. A must read for any parent, teacher, administrator and policy maker who wants to achieve reform and not just talk reform.”
Michael Jankanish, National Board Certified Teacher, Tacoma, WA

This book argues that as regulation of schools moves further up the bureaucratic hierarchy (first to state departments of education then to the national department of education) the legal and institutional requirements get more intensive but less concretely useful in class rooms. This bureaucratization serves to ‘tighten’ the organizational environment, thereby increasing the risk of normal accidents. The increasing governmental management, in other words, makes it more likely that schools will ‘fail’ to meet their goals.

Analyses of education are too often developed for public consumption in a fast-moving political world. This book examines some of the deeper organizational reasons why things don’t work so well in school, as well as a look at some of things that do work. Most importantly, the book will explain how the social and cultural expectations of what schools can do may create unrealistic hopes. We, as a society, and schools, as institutions, embrace these unreasonably high hopes at our collective peril.

Andrew K. Milton has spent his entire professional life working in schools and universities. He has taught 8th grade English in Steilacoom, WA for 7 years, and he has taught university-level political science, at several institutions, for 15 years.

List Price: $24.95 + tax

Special Price at the Talk:  $22, tax included

Friday, October 3, 2014

It just keeps getting worse

The Tacoma school district seems to have an unfortunate knack for generating negative attention.  It's Lincoln High...again.

The district is going to investigate the claims that the administration was trying to offload underperforming students in order to juice Lincoln's graduation rates.  At the same time, the district is suing the staff that made the claims about this less-than-best practice.

How many ways does this make Tacoma look, well, bad?

If this practice actually is going on, how in the world would it come to light in any convincing way without some evidence, which would presumably have to be revealed?  Frankly, if this practice was going on, and nobody revealed it, Lincoln would have been heralded for its great improvement in graduation rates, all the while achieving this by inappropriate conduct.  And, yes, there are all manner of bureaucratic and social incentives to motivate the district leadership to quietly accept (or willfully ignore) the conduct.

Aren't those staff something like whistleblowers?  Doesn't suing them put a chill in anybody else who might try to expose bad practice in the district?  And doesn't that hurt morale?  "Put up with bad practice...if you say anything, we'll punish you."

My father, who spent most of his career advancing and managing the image of the California Highway Patrol as a member of its public relations unit, always said, it matters less what IS than what people PERCEIVE to be.  I perceive the leadership of the Tacoma schools to be vindictive.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A good--high level, complex--unit of work

We're in the midst of the annual "Witch Hunts" week, which I do to support my social studies neighbor doing Salem.  Here's the question that we're working with all week:

What is a witch hunt?  When we speak of witch hunts today, do we mean the kind of events that occurred in Salem, MA in 1692?  Drawing on several of the cases we have examined, define what a witch hunt is, and explain some of the main or important reasons you think they occur.  Be sure to illustrate your points with examples.  

We do some introductory work (reading) about what happened in Salem, then move onto a brief overview of McCarthyism (quick reading, some video watching).  Then we come up with a definition of what a witch hunt is, which allows us to discern that when people say someone is being witch hunted today, they're usually saying it to deflect blame off themselves and make their antagonist look wicked and dim-witted.

You can find most of the material here.  We also watched some short clips on anti-communism and McCarthy.  Here, here and here.  Then we figure out (by some degree of inferential reasoning) what we think a witch hunt is.  Here are what some students have come up with:

An investigatoin carried out supposedly to uncover subversive activities but actually used to harass and undermine those with differing views.

The searching out and deliberate harassment of those (as political opponents) with unpopular views.

A rigorous campaign to expose and discredit people considered to hold irregular views on the pretext of safeguarding public welfare.

We added to these that witch hunts usually involve bad process, bad evidence and bad logic applied in pursuit of the explanation for some inexplicable event.

Then we Google News search "witch hunt" to get current cases.  Students get very good at being able to separate blame deflection from real cases of possible targeting of people.

Along the way, we use some very specific organization charts to collect the material:

Witch Hunting



Unexplained Event

Target of Blame

Person Blaming

Witch Hunt?

KWLC—Witch Hunts

What do I Know?
What do I Want to Know?


What Did I Learn?
Comparable Cases?




Case Nameà



Who is
“witch hunt”?


Who is “hunted”?

Why claim “w.h.”?
Explain the inexplicable

At the end of the week, they find it relatively easy to write this essay that most found somewhat daunting at the beginning.

In doing this, we cover almost all of the CCSS writing standards.

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year!