The art of discussion

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voltaire-quotes-fools-chainsBack in the early mid-80’s I went to a little school in Central Pennsylvania called Penn State. You might of heard of it. Then, like now, I loved nothing more then a healthy debate. My father used to say I would take the opposite position on anything just to argue. There is probably quite a bit of truth in that statement. At Penn State I found a wonderful debate partner.

Penn State Alumni are quite familiar with the Willard preacher. Gary has been berating people with his version of fire and brimstone for probably 30 years. There is no shortage of people turned off by the Willard preacher, but for me he was the perfect foil. If you engaged him, he would happily engage you all night long and many nights I would take advantage of this willingness.

I spent hours going point/counter point with him. The beautiful thing was he knew his stuff, so he made you learn your stuff and be able to defend it. Some folks may disagree, but with me his rebuttals rarely became personal. If they did, I would call him on it and he did the same to me. See it was all about the argument and the ideas contained within it. He made me think harder and research better and for that I will always consider him a major component  of my secondary education.

After college I gravitated to tending bar for a living. People used to tell me, there’s two things you never discuss at a bar, religion and politics. I broke that rule every shift I worked. It was not uncommon to come in for a happy hour and find one corner of the bar discussing the Old Testament while another debated the effects of minimum wage. The only rule was that you had to argue the argument not the person. What a novel concept huh?

That’s a concept we seem to have lost sight of. Anymore the counter argument always seems to be about the personality instead of the position. Take for example the Common Core argument. . Side A takes the position that it will take education deeper instead of wider. Side B counters with questions about it being developmentally inappropriate. Side A counters with the argument that anyone who doesn’t support Common Core is ill informed and paranoid. Side B comes back with, all Common Core supporters are trying to do is make money off of our kids and then things escalate.

Where does this leave us? We still don’t know if CC will indeed take instruction deeper. It is still not clear if it is developmentally inappropriate. Yet we hold on to our theories as if we’ve actually proven something and the best part is we don’t even have to do any more research because why would we stoop to arguing with nuts and crooks? We can safely hold on to our position without having to waste any more time on the subject. After all, we are all much to busy to really concern ourselves with nuances.

debate-picThe problem with not concerning ourselves with the nuances, involves a lack of self evaluation. Learning can’t take place without self evaluation. When we self evaluate effectively we compare the tenets that we’ve accepted, with the tenets being presented and either accept or discard one. Whatever the result we are left with a stronger conviction. Without this component we are just building a house based on sand.

That discarding of previous “facts” can be the most painful part of a debate but how else do you grow if you don’t slough off old skin and take on new skin. Loving the art of learning eases this pain because it doesn’t focus on the “being wrong” part, but rather the process itself. I’ve always loved this process and to be honest with you, if you can prove your arguments superior I’ll readily embrace your argument. Now remember though you have to prove your arguments to me not yourself.

I used to stress to my step-daughter the importance of having people in your life that held beliefs counter to your own. The best way to know if your beliefs are truly worthy of being held is to be forced to defend them against a counter argument. If you can’t effectively describe and defend these beliefs, perhaps they shouldn’t be your beliefs. That is the point of discussion, to arrive at beliefs that are based on a thorough vetting. Sadly, this has become a lost art.

It is an art I would encourage people to rediscover. Listen to people’s arguments. Think about them. If necessary counter their arguments. Listen to their counter. Attack the idea if necessary but not the author. Give them the benefit of considering that they may have spent as much time crafting their argument as you have crafting yours. It’s all so simple but so rarely practiced. That’s why we live in the cacophony that we now find ourselves in.

I always find it interesting to hear people say, “Why don’t we just all get along.” “If everyone would just compromise.” I disagree. I think we need to debate more, but let’s make it real discourse. Let’s listen to counter arguments, and if they truly are not stronger then yours, fight for your convictions like a mother would for her child, but if they are, modify. Its the only way we can truly arrive at best practice. Whether presented by a nut, a kook, a racist, a conspiracy theorist or any of the other slanders we like to throw around, a good concept is a good concept. It doesn’t care who voices it. By the same token, a bad idea can be countered by a strong idea, it doesn’t need to attack the presenter.

th9WFVUNYCThis is a concept I try to practice in my daily life. I’ve gone to lunch or interacted with just about any education reformer who will accept my invitation. There’s been very little common ground discovered but I can say all the experiences were enjoyable. I can also say that the discussions have lead to a deeper understanding of my beliefs. Hopefully some of them will continue to meet with me and some will bring arguments I haven’t considered. Because in the end, for me, its all about the conversation.

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Are Achievement Districts and Charters really the answer?

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thAnybody who knows me knows that I’ll pretty much talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. It doesn’t matter if you agree with me or not; I just like dialog and am fascinated at how people arrive at their positions. Therefore, when Superintendent Chris Barbic invited me to tour one of the charter schools that is part of the Achievement District, I said sure. I also asked Rep. Gloria Johnson and MNPS PAC chair Chelle Baldwin to join me. 

The Achievement District, if you’re not familiar, is the brainchild of the state of Tennessee where the state will take over the bottom 5% of schools in TN and over 5 years move them into the top 25%. It’s a very noble endeavor, and of course involves all kinds of bold, new ideas with engaged classroom rockstars guiding the children. The state can’t do this alone so some of the schools get turned over to charter schools. Which means more bold ideas and more superstars of the classroom.

As a disclaimer, I’m sure you’ve picked up on it by now, I’m not a fan of charters or the particular idea of an achievement district. Tennessee’s ASD is modeled after Louisiana’s Recovery School District. Someday, if you have a couple of weeks, we’ll discuss the failings of the RSD. Though I must admit that it has been very successful in generating lawsuits. One other thing I should point out is that achievement districts are now popping up all over the country, Kansas and Michigan being the latest. Chief benefit seems to be the ability to by pass locally elected school boards.

All that said, I was very interested in seeing this experiment with my own eyes. I prepared myself to be wowed. After all I’ve read the testimonials and watched the uplifting Hollywood movies about the transformational power of Charter schools. My biggest argument has always been they may be good for some children but were they good for all children? What about the populations they traditionally underserved? I’ve never argued against their quality. So I was sure that I would witness some transformative classroom performances.th-1

Upon entering the building I was immediately impressed with the curtesy and friendliness I was greeted with. I’ve heard political opponents mumble Chris’s name under their breath but I found him to be very open and engaging. Truth is, I like most of the people that I’ve met on the reform side. If we were just going to a BBQ I’d be quite happy to spend an afternoon with them. It’s only when they start talking diversity, best practices, failure of the public school system, teachers,… that I have to start taking exception.

To get a better understanding of the underlining principles and practices of the ASD and LEAD schools we sat down with Chris and LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds. They were very informative and, for the most part, quite transparent. Things got a little murky around test results and answering to locally elected officials, but, in their defense, talk to any schools administrator about test results and things get a little murky. I appreciated their candor and taking the time to help us understand better. To be honest though, some of their defenses and counter arguments sounded familiarly like my wife’s experiences in a traditional school.

Yes, children from a lower economic class move around more often. They do tend to start from a lower  baseline. There is no magic bullet. Getting them up to grade level in a reasonable time is extremely difficult. None of this should deter these folks though. They were…CHARTER SCHOOL operators. I’ve seen “Waiting for Superman.” All this was just filler until we saw the jaw dropping results, right? Maybe this wasn’t Hollywood. 

After about 40 minutes of talking, we decided to go see the rhetoric in action. We were allowed to observe actual classrooms. This is were I was hoping to see Michelle Pfeiffer. Alas, it was not to be. To be honest, what I observed was not at all what I expected.  What I saw was a typical middle school in action, not that different from any other middle school I’ve been in.

I watched teachers conduct classes in rooms filled with students of varying degrees of engagement. There were some good lessons but I didn’t hear anything transformational. Truthfully some of it was fairly pedestrian. It was obvious that all the adults in the school cared deeply for the children, but then again every school I’ve ever been in has been populated by adults who cared deeply about kids. Kind of goes with the territory. You don’t go into the restaurant business if you dont like food.

I did get a pleasant reminder about the nature of children. The practice of “eye tracking” is something I’ve always found particularly abhorrent. Of course like many I was underestimating children and pictured it consisting of a classroom of children’s eyes locked on the instructor in zombie like fashion. I should have known better. Middle school children by nature never buy into anything that fully.

The reality is, the teacher calls for eye tracking and a few students instantly comply, a few sort of comply and some ignore. The teacher repeats her request and a few more comply. Those who initially ignored, bring about their eyes partially. The teacher once again repeats the request, and then moves on. Accepting the response she gets. Nothing Orwellian about it, but some good old fashion teenage rebellion and a lesson on remembering that children are more then just caricatures and sometimes subvert the best laid plans of adults.th-2

After observing the class rooms, I asked point blank, “Whats the difference?” I received a response involving greater intensity, better parent buy in, extra hours, increased teacher accessibility, but all that is rhetoric for the most part. Teacher’s in traditional schools are just as accessible. Lesson plans can be just as intense. Depending on the school and parents capabilities, you can find parents just as engaged.  Look at the incredible Dad’s group at Dan Mills.

It was also pointed out that school leadership was especially strong. Well, nobody has ever argued that strong leadership is not essential. Traditional schools with strong leadership do better then those with out. It’s interesting that so much focus has been placed on the effect of a quality teacher, while a disproportionate amount is focused on the leadership. Leadership is probably the single most important ingredient in creating the culture of a school.

My biggest take away from the whole experience was, why all the energy focused on a model that is already in existence? Instead of attempting to break down public education, why are charter school advocates not putting that energy, focus and experience into strengthening our traditional schools? Am I supposed to believe that no one would hire Chris Barbic, Chris Reynolds, Ravi Grupa or Todd Dickson as superintendents? I find that hard to believe.

Now they may have to spend some additional time climbing the ladder so to speak. They may have to put some extra time into “hands on in the school hallways” work before being elevated to these positions, but would that be a bad thing? These are extremely bright dedicated young men. When I think of the impact they could have if they were to use those gifts to strengthen our public institutions, it makes me sad to realize that they choose to work in systems that limit their scope.

Maybe I’m supposed to believe that traditional schools wouldn’t give them the avenues to practice their particular skill set. I don’t buy it. I can think of very few educators that wouldn’t relish the opportunity to apply their abilities to our most difficult schools. Again, if they went that route, they might not be courted by the mayors office or have their picture in the paper. They might not have the autonomy they now are afforded. However, they would be working to preserve a greater good.

When I think of the amount of resources and energy focused on creating a similar system outside an existing system, it infuriates me. Look at the state Race to the Top scope of work and see how much money KIPP has raised and received through state grants and you’ll be shocked. They are expected to raise 1 million dollars by June 1. Name me one other school in MNPS that would have that capability and then receive 600k from the state. There is even a plan currently being pitched in Nashville to give charter operators start up money if they go into South Nashville. Maybe our kids wouldn’t have been cold during the last cold snap if our local schools had that kind of resources. 

This is where I start to think about motivations and question why the need for charter schools? What is the real reason supporters are pushing so hard to create even more charter schools? What is the end game? If we keep adding charters and closing traditional schools, what our educational system of the future look like? We only have to look at New Orleans to get a glimpse of a system were the vast majority attend a charter school. A system where a parents has to go to the state level to get any redress because they have no locally elected official.

Perhaps we need to step back and evaluate the whole system, instead of focusing just on select schools. Perhaps we need to more closely examine why we educate our children? Is it for democratic or capitalistic purposes? Is there not room under the current system to foster more of the innovation that transpires daily? Instead of getting Race to the Top dollars to refurnish old Malls, why couldn’t we be useing that money to repair damage in our existing schools? Instead of picking sides and calling each other “Charter Zealots” and “Defenders of the Status Quo” couldn’t that energy be better focused on strengthening our public school system?

IMG_2100Let’s never underestimate the importance of that system. Advocates for education reform often like to say that it is all public education and that it should not matter what form a school takes, just that its a good school. That’s not necessarily true. While it’s may be true that individual schools can have a different look, what the system itself looks like is critical.

Our education system is a pillar of our democratic society. It is overseen by locally elected officials who are charged with ensuring that it produces graduates who are not just employable, but capable stewards of the world we’ve created. A separate system that answers to board members or state officials while by-passing locally elected officials does not uphold that pillar. 

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Try again

IMG_0429When my daughter was about 18 months old we were at the playground. She’s been a child challenging her boundaries since birth, so she was climbing and running everywhere. I was sitting and watching and truthfully checking my twitter feed on the phone. As she attempted to go up a ladder she fell. It was a hard fall and obviously painful.

I went to her and picked her up in my arms as she bawled. Doing my best to soothe her as she cried, I tried explaining to her that when pushing yourself sometimes you’ll have falls. Then without really thinking about it, I said, “You know you’re going to have to get up and try again.” She continued to cry with no acknowledgement of what I’d said, but two minutes later she shook off my arms, marched silently back over to the ladder and proceeded to climb it.

To say I was proud is putting it mildly. I was over the moon. My child had some grit. You couldn’t keep her down. She fell, she got right back up and did it again. A Weber family mantra was born. “I’m going to try it again Daddy. Because thats what we do. Thats what you always say.” Her brother, 14 months younger, was quickly indoctrinated as well.

I must admit I was pretty proud of myself. My kids understood that you couldn’t let failure keep you down, They were getting back on the proverbial horse and marching forward. This parenting thing was easy I would tell myself. Just ingrain these truism’s early and then sit back and watch them march to success. But then I learned a lesson.

As they got older they started creating more complex challenges. Predictably they would fail at some of theses challenges and predictably I would hear, “I’m going to try it again Daddy, Because thats what we do. Thats what you always say.” My words would come back to me and I would cringe. Obviously some of these tasks didn’t need to be attempted again, but how do you explain that to little minds that aren’t developed enough to make that differentiation?

509The lesson I learned is that children aren’t just vessels you fill with information. They bring their own interpretations to the table. Every lesson has a flip side. There is no clear good message and no clear bad message. Education like life itself is made up of a lot a grays and we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about these grays.

Read just about any education article and you’ll find children painted as these one dimensional creatures starving and open for knowledge every day. They don’t have time for anything but the learning of reading and math. Anybody who’s been around children knows that this is just not true. While generally inquisitive, its not always about the things we’d like them to be about. Nor is it always at the level we would demand. Sometimes its all about the cute boy in 1st period or who wins in a fight between Thor and Hulk. Somedays its about nothing.

Think about it though, are you always at 100% job? What about those moments you sneak a peek on the internet at the Oscar dresses when you should be finishing up a presentation. Maybe you spent an hour today, when you should have been working, filling out your fantasy football squad. Lets not forget those days when you tell the boss your feeling under the weather and then slip off to an afternoon movie. Obviously we as adults are not 100% rigorous, why should we expect children to be any different?

Still we send a message that the secret to better education is more rigor. More drill time. More testing. Less time for the unimportant stuff like art, music or play. Then when children embrace this out of necessity we clap ourselves on the back and say what great educators we are. We are making kids college and career ready. But do we ever consider the flip side.

By increasing this rigor and discipline and getting kids to buy into it, what are we sacrificing? Are we producing adults that understand their role in a democratic society? Are we producing creative adults that understand that sometimes the best ideas come when you’re just goofing off? Are we producing adults that understand that learning isn’t a competition but as essential to life as breathing? Will future generations know when to put rigor aside and concentrate on family? I wonder.

summer 2010 peter's arrival 046When my daughter was born, I held her in my arms and swore that their would be no princesses in her life. They send the wrong message and my daughter was going to grow up understanding that she could be whomever she wanted and that princesses just reinforced old stereotypes. Well despite my best intentions, my daughter fell in love with princesses and I came to the realization that by fighting against the princesses I was also limiting who she could become. So I capitulated.

Recently I found a Princess book of math problems. Even though it was meant for older children I got it. Well the Princess’s instantly drew her attention. It wasn’t long till we were spending time after dinner working math problems. She was hooked. One night on the way home a little voice in the back asked, “Daddy, when we get home, can we do math.” I smiled and said, “Yes my dear, we can do math.”