A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Reset

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Nashville business leaders have decided that the education conversation, for whatever reason, is in need of a RESET. To begin this “reset,” the Nashville Public Education Foundation has commissioned a group out of Boston, the Parthenon Group, to do a study of Nashville’s education system. In NPEF’s words, in order to have a real conversation it’s important that we are all looking at the same data. They’ve also lined up a slew of respected voices, from Vice-Chancellors at respected universities to local school board members and respected business leaders, to help facilitate the conversation. All of it sounds very noble, but with the main event just three weeks away, something funny has happened. People have started to take a look at the players.

One of the most baffling traits of the reform movement is how they apparently think they are the only ones with access to the internet. They often try to sell stuff like it’s completely original only to have it debunked by a basic Google search. That’s what happening here. A simple search reveals some disturbing information about the group that is doing the study that will produce the data that we all will be looking at when they release their Benchmark Study this month. Data that will come through their lens.

The Parthenon Group is a worldwide organization out of Boston that consults in a variety of fields, education being one of them. A perfunctory look at their website reveals an education team lacking education experience. Almost all have an MBA and what little education experience there is comes from time spent with… wait for it… Teach for America. Okay, that’s a little troubling, but not necessarily a deal breaker. Let’s take a look at the things they’ve been involved in.

Again, just perusing their website reveals a propensity to look at avenues for their clients to make money off public education systems. In fact they seem to be quite thrilled with being able to find shortcomings in the current system. I will give them credit – they are not just trying to exploit public education here in the United States, but worldwide, including Dubai and India as well. One of the U.S. success stories touted on their site is their work with the New York City school system and the attempts to improve dropout rates. There is even a Time magazine article trumpeting this success.

Readers of Diane Ravitch are probably a little more familiar with this story. You see, this was part of the Gates Foundation’s foray into education reform. They paid the Parthenon Group to conduct a study that revealed a cause of increased dropout rates was kids attending large high schools, and they concluded that if those large schools were broken into smaller schools then dropout rates would decrease. An estimated two billion dollars was dedicated to this directive, and guess what? It failed, in their opinion. Did the perpetrators stick around and help solve the new issues they created? Nope, they just scampered off to their next data-revealed crisis: teachers and the Common Core standards.

Let’s make no mistake about the goals of the Parthenon Group: to make money for its investors. Here’s a PowerPoint Parthenon_20Perspectives_Investing_20in_20Education presentation they gave to potential investors back in 2009. It lays out clear as day how the education sector is ripe for some money making. Are we to believe that these dyed-in-the-wool capitalists have suddenly had a change of heart? Suddenly they are all about the kids and not the Benjamins? Color me skeptical.

To see more local evidence of the Parthenon Group’s work, we don’t even have to get on the internet. We just need to talk to the folks in Knoxville. That’s Rob Taylor of Knoxville talking about the Parthenon Group in the video above. In Knoxville, the school board commissioned the Parthenon Group to study their system and share their recommendations for improvement. Those recommendations included increasing class size and eliminating around 300 positions that included guidance counselors, psychologists, and librarians. It also produced the stunning comment that not all students are the same; some are more profitable than others. Knoxville paid over a million dollars for this brilliant advice.

In case you don’t want to look to the eastern part of the state, we can also look to the west in Memphis. Where a school district already $142 million in the red paid roughly $350k a month for the Parthenon Group’s expertise. The recommendation in Memphis? Merit pay for teachers with no added compensation for higher levels of education. A plan that has been proven ineffective countless times and that Memphis rejected as well. Starting to notice a pattern? Momma Bears, a Tennessee parent group, certainly did. So did another parent group Tennessee Parents.

The Parthenon Group’s missteps are not relegated to just K-12 education though. Some of you may be familiar with the Corinthian Colleges scandal. The Santa Ana company, one of the world’s largest for-profit college businesses, allegedly targeted low-income Californians through “aggressive marketing campaigns” that inaccurately represented job placement rates and school programs. Who touts Corinthian Colleges as one of their success stories and strongly recommended them to their investors? Why, none other than the Parthenon Group. Still not noticing a pattern? The pattern seems to be one of presenting ill conceived plans to clients.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not saying the Parthenon Group is the wrong group for providing data to RESET a conversation (well, I guess I am), but at the very least there is enough here that surely warrants a little digging by the local paper. But nope, they are not interested. When Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge brought these concerns to their attention, The Tennessean responded by writing a piece that focused on her not having read the Parthenon Group’s report – a report that is not yet complete and can only be read by scheduling an appointment and going down to their offices and watching a PowerPoint presentation. Numerous other Tennessean staff members negatively engaged her on social media attempting to deflect any criticism of the Parthenon Group by making her appear incompetent for not having read the report.

I personally called Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales to discuss his article and asked him point blank if The Tennessean had a sponsorship role in Project RESET. He emphatically answered no, they are just producing a series of articles on the Nashville education system. Articles that all bear the Project RESET logo and have been a mixture of negative and calls to put aside petty politics. You know, politics that call for an equitable system for all kids. Today there was a positive article on Pre-K but it focused almost exclusively on Casa Azafran, and keep in mind Casa Azafran is a sponsor. Let me be clear, I am not questioning their work; by all accounts it’s exceptional. I just think there should be more transparency from The Tennessean. When I asked Jason if he thought that information surrounding the group conducting the study was relevant he answered with an equally emphatically no. The data from the study is important, he said, but not the conductors. Is this what investigative journalism has been reduced to?

I disagree with the position of the reporter, Jason Gonzales, and by proxy, The Tennessean. To RESET a conversation there has to be a level of trust between all parties and that requires transparency. In order for it to be a truly productive conversation, all parties need to feel there is no hidden agenda. That’s why you research the people with whom you are entering a discussion. What’s revealed shouldn’t necessarily prevent the discussion from taking place, but it certainly allows for the recognition of clues should an agenda start to be revealed. I don’t think asking our local news organization to do due diligence on the company that is providing the groundwork for the conversation is unreasonable. I am just a citizen, not a journalist, and was able to uncover the information presented here. Imagine what could be revealed by the trained eye of an investigative journalist. I understand the financial challenges news organizations face, but I can’t help but believe the readers want more information and less PR when it comes to the news.

Most citizens of Nashville trust The Tennessean. They believe the majority of things written there. They believe that the agenda set is a reflection of their own agenda, not one being driven by outside interests. They look for our local news media to connect the dots, not just write an article imbedded with random links and expect us to figure it all out.

Many moons ago, while pursuing a communications degree at Penn State, I got to cover the press conference for the search for the first journalist in space. The event was attended by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Geraldo Rivera, and such. I was fortunate to be allowed a question and asked, “The role of a journalist is to cover the news, not make it. By sending a journalist into space, are we not, in effect, subverting that role?”

Later in the day, the then Head of the Science and Technology Department came up to me and complimented me on the question. He said that he and his wife had spent the lunch hour discussing it and were unable to reach a conclusion. Tragic events with the Space program prevented the journalist- in-space initiative from proceeding, but I think the question I posed then is now more relevant than ever. I think it’s an internal discussion The Tennessean probably needs to have.

As far as the Project RESET event itself, I think as many Nashvillians as possible should attend. But they should do their research first. Then they should listen and evaluate who is saying what and is there agenda truly what’s best for Nashville. We do owe it to our children and our communities to pursue every avenue to improve a system that does remarkable work but is always in need of more solutions. I am not sure, based on the evidence readily available, made Nashville Public Education Foundation think the Parthenon Group was the right group to perform a study for this conversation and hopefully they’ll learn from it. The conversation on education is always saturated with calls for a system that holds people accountable.  In that sense we need to make sure that it’s a system that doesn’t just hold schools, teachers, and students accountable, but also politicians, consultants, and foundations. The Tennessean needs to play take an active part in that process and not just produce PR pieces for the influential.

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RESET?

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reset-button-bell-01Like many of you, I spend a great deal of time thinking about education. Once I started blogging, I was always thinking about things to write about and what I wanted to say. After 50-some posts, I still don’t have a system for deciding what I want to write about. Sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing, and then I sit at the keyboard and it turns to something else.

This post was going to be about the Tennessee Achievement School District and their intent to further invade Nashville. How that’s what happens when you get kicked out of one community and you have to go find another to annoy. Then I was going to write about Charter School Week which, coincidentally, is the same week as Teacher Appreciation Week. But there was one thing that just kept sticking in my head, and so this time, I’m going to go local and tell you about a new extravaganza coming to Nashville.

The name of this event is RESET (Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table). How long do you think they had to fiddle with words before they got a sentence to fit the acronym? A major driver of this initiative is the Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the business community is frustrated because too much of the conversation is being focused on the good of the child and the community when it should be focused on finding cheap labor that is adequately prepared for the uses of business.

They’ve got a fancy website, with a fancy survey, that is going to produce a fancy report. I took the survey and noticed the hallway that it walked me down. I am pretty confident that the report will show how we all want good schools, with good teachers, and our kids to be college and career ready. We may differ a little on the definition, but that’s going to be our starting point to work together, and anybody who is not willing to compromise, well…. that’s just putting adult needs first. This may or may not be true, but I do have some concerns about this new project.

My first problem is with the large amount of reform-type folks who are rallying around this “reset.” You’ve got the head of KIPP Nashville and the head of Valor Collegiate Academy, two local charters, all touting the glories of collaboration. I’m pretty familiar with how collaboration with the charter crowd works. You allow us to do what we want, adopt our policies, and don’t ask too many questions, and we are all good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a charter school operator say, “Oh, we observed such-and-such in a public school and then thought, what a great idea. So we adopted it.” So their enthusiasm dampens mine.

Case in point: Randy Dowell of KIPP Nashville is quoted as saying, “I look forward to the day when Nashville takes on the larger issue of how to share lessons from great schools and apply them broadly so we can put more of Nashville’s students on the path to opportunity-filled lives. Every child and every parent – no matter where they live or what their resources are – deserves that. I’m hopeful that Project RESET will help bring that sort of focus to the discussion.” He is saying this at the same time he’s working with the state Achievement School District to take over one of our MNPS schools. If the state takes over a school and turns it over to KIPP, that school is no longer responsible to the community. It’s responsible to the state and the community of its creation. So which conversation are we resetting?

My next concern is the strong backing by the business community. These are the people who are always talking about how schools are failing to produce enough qualified workers to fuel a growing economy. Yet somehow the economy keeps growing and new businesses keep opening. About the only thing that remains stagnant is wages. Which you would think, based on the law of supply and demand, would be exploding. If there is a dearth of qualified workers, then companies must be willing to pay top dollar to retain them, right? Yeah, not so much it turns out. Wages continue to remain stagnant. Perhaps we can reset the conversation about a living wage as well.

The big thing, though, is the title of this project. According to the dictionary, reset means to set again. In other words, starting all over. Usually when I reset something it’s because it’s reached a stage where everything is so wrong that I have to start over. A couple weeks ago, my iPhone got so out of whack that I had to reset it back to factory settings. Am I to believe that MNPS is in the same position as my iPhone and the conversation needs to be completely reset?

We seem to be doing well enough that the President of the United States decided to come tout our high schools. Our pre-K expansion is worthy of a $33 million federal grant. Our graduation rates have risen 20 percentage points in 10 years, twice as fast as the state’s. We have, perhaps, due to being a refugee destination, the most diverse student population in the country. This presents several unique challenges and opportunities, certainly not a reset.

Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. We do have a majority of students failing to earn a score of 21 on the ACT (even though we force every junior in the state to take this college admissions exam), if that kind of thing is important to you. We do have schools that are in need of resources and more stability. If you take a close look at our lower achieving schools, you’ll see that they all share a high turnover rate in leadership roles. That needs to be addressed. But while we have kids and schools that are underperforming (based on test scores), we also have teachers, administrators, and students who are performing heroic feats every day. So forgive me if I don’t embrace a reset.

Here’s what I would embrace: an actual evidence-based conversation. One that is transparent on both sides. For example, LEAD Public Schools has been touting their upcoming graduation class having 100% college acceptance. A laudatory feat. However, how big was this class in 10th grade, and what happened to those who are no longer in this class? How are these kids going to pay for college, and are they potentially taking on debt that could have a future negative impact? What is LEAD’s actual spending per child compared to our community public schools?

In order to find answers to these questions, I have to file an open records request, and then I have to pay for copies of these records. When I get them, they are as opaque as if they’d been scratched on a napkin.  Looking at their budget, I can see they spend $12,401,257 on personnel, but what personnel? How much is spent on administration? Teachers? Teacher’s aides? School nurse? I don’t know, so once again I’m forced to file another open records request for a supposed public school. The same holds true if I try to obtain the actual number of students they serve. LEAD Public Schools touts themselves as a system of public schools, but they are clearly not-look at their funding, their selectivity of students, and their lack of transparency. Will that be part of the RESET.

Maybe I’m being a little jaded and guarded, but I’ve seen how this all plays out before. While we engage in conversation, the reform crowd continues dismantling public education. This upcoming extravaganza on May 30 is painted as a local event and not focused on national educational reform, but is that true? As leading reform advocate Neerav Kingsland points out, the reform movement has become more local. There was a time when all reform initiatives were led nationally by recognized leaders. Unfortunately for them, people caught on to the rhetoric and rejected it. So now reformers attack the system under guise of it being a local issue, when clearly it’s a coordinated national effort.

Jersey Jazzman, an education blogger from New Jersey, points out the rise of the “reasonable reformer.” He references EduShyster’s (Jennifer Berkshire, another education blogger) recent conversation with Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. Education Post was created so that we could supposedly have a better conversation about education. Sound familiar? Problem is that a better conversation seems to be putting aside opposition to policy that has been proven to be wrong and in some cases detrimental (i.e., unchecked charter growth, over testing, merit pay, etc.) It’s like trying to have a better conversation about democracy while abandoning the principle of one vote for each citizen.

In the reform world, what has happened with the decimation of public education in New Orleans and Washington, DC has been deemed a success. Denver is well on its way to the same end, so for the reformers, it’s time to expand. The problem is how to convert districts and get rid of public education fast enough without a natural disaster. Is RESET a potential method to speed that along? After all, Nashville has 13 new charter applications this year, to add to the 27 charters in Nashville we will already have. I don’t know, but I can’t say it’s not since we seem to be speeding along. I do know that a lot of money is being spent on Project RESET. Money that could really make a difference in our less fortunate schools. LEAD Public Schools has received a total of $1.3 million this year. I promise you my child’s school doesn’t receive even 5% of that. Can we reset that conversation?

I’m signed up to attend the big event at the end of the month, and I’ll let you know what it brings. I plan to listen but be vigilant. We’ll dialogue and see what the business community thinks a reset looks like. But don’t think for a moment if this turns out to be another one of those reform movement bait and switches that I won’t be ready. I fully expect to be painted as one of those negative types who are fueled by self-interest.

My wife is a teacher, so they’ll say I want to preserve the status quo to protect her job. Sure, that’s it, I’m afraid that my wife, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and a Master’s degree from Tennessee State, won’t be able to get another $40k-a-year job. That argument is insulting, yet even during Teacher Appreciation Week it’s repeated ad nauseam. Come to think of it, that might be a good place for a reset.

Despite it all – the frustration, the fear, and the disagreements – I still love our public schools, and I still believe in our system. I still believe that community public schools are a cornerstone of our democracy and need to be preserved, not closed, torn down, or replaced by temporary housing. One of the comments in the article about the upcoming Project RESET event compared public policy to a marriage. When your marriage doesn’t work, you don’t just dump it and start over with a new one. You begin with the parts that are working and try to replicate them in the parts that aren’t. In other words, you don’t reset – you reclaim.

 

What standards could and should mean.

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a1Coaching Little League baseball for 4-to-6-year-olds has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I confess that during the first month of games, I harbored a constant desire to get in my car and go home. The kids were all incredibly sweet, but on my team they were all closer to 4 than 6, and I’m not sure how many of them were even pre-disposed to play baseball. In the beginning, they would wear their gloves on their head, pick blades of grass, play in the dirt, wrestle with each other – anything but play baseball. One even told me, as he lay in the outfield, “I don’t even like baseball!” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.

To compound matters, the league we were in didn’t make allowances for 4-year-olds. The expectations were that teams, no matter what their experience level, would play the game of baseball by the rules of baseball. Three strikes and you were out. Players tuck in their shirts Bases are regulation distances away from each other, and players are expected to make the throws and catches to put runners out. It all seemed a little insane to me, and the first games were a demonstration of this insanity. We lost our first four games by an average score of 16 to 0. It was a little disheartening, and I was beginning to question whether this was even an appropriate activity for a 4-to-6-year-old.

Then something crazy happened. The kids got better. We scored our first run. Then we had a game that ended in a score of 2 to 2, easily one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. As thrilling as any Yankees/Red Sox game. This past weekend, we won our first game. It has been amazing to watch these children develop. It’s something that hasn’t just happened for one or two children either. The whole team is progressing, each child at his or her own pace. Some making greater growth than others, but all showing growth.

Through this process, I’ve gotten a little insight into how standards can and should function. I admit that I’ve always been a little skeptical of how expectations can affect educational outcomes, perhaps because they’ve always been presented to me as a zero sum game. The Common Core State Standards were developed so that all children could be measured by a common stick across the country. To my eyes as a parent, these were meant to dictate at what level a child should be performing, with little accounting for any kind of outside variables. The results from the testing of these standards would allow us to rank children, teachers, and schools.

For example, teachers are to have high expectations of a child, and if that child does not meet those standards, then they, their teachers, and their whole school are labeled failures. There is no room for taking into consideration any kind of individual or unique challenges. Everybody is expected to reach proficiency at the same pace. Furthermore, just expecting a child to succeed is supposed to be enough and what is presently preventing mastery is not symptomatic of poverty or development, but merely low expectations.

What my Little League team has demonstrated is something different. There is an expectation that everyone will attempt to perform to a certain standard, but if a child should fall short, we attempt to coach and correct in a manner that recognizes the challenges of each child. The child who is just turned 4 is not expected to show the same ability as a child who is nearly 6. Some of the children are obviously more athletically inclined than others, but that doesn’t mean all aren’t capable of growth. That growth is what is important, and it does not look the same in all children. As coaches, we try to celebrate that growth in whatever form it takes and no matter how miniscule it may appear.

An educator friend of mine explained standards to me this way. When you go to a doctor, he has a list of guidelines that you should adhere to in order to be considered healthy. The doctor, however, doesn’t just recite those and send you on your way with a proclamation of healthy or unhealthy. He takes those guidelines and compares them with your lifestyle, family history, past medical history, and any other factors he can glean from you. Sometimes you may not be exactly healthy, but you are getting as close as you possibly can to adhering to those guidelines and so he recognizes that and offers praise. That’s what teachers do with children, expectations, and standards. They treat the child as a doctor would a patient and get them as close to those standards as possible. Sometimes that means a 100 percent and sometimes it might be a little less.

We have a kid on the team who can’t hold on to the bat. Every time he swings, he lets go and the bat gets flung. It’s a dangerous action and one that needs correction. The umpire has warned that if he continues to do this, he’ll be considered out. Yesterday, he struck out three times, but managed to hold on to the bat each time. We celebrated that accomplishment each time as if he’d gotten a hit. Overall, he failed to meet the expectation of getting a hit, but what he accomplished made the attainment of the expectation a possibility in the future. In my eyes, that’s trending towards healthy.

I’ve also seen firsthand the role outside variables play on a kid’s performance. Two weeks ago, we had a game that started on a Tuesday night at 6:45. The kids had already had a full day, and the last thing they were focused on was baseball. The game itself was an unmitigated disaster, but should in no way be considered reflective of these kids’ abilities. The kids were tired and that need took precedent over applying themselves to baseball. Despite what education reformers might argue, tired kids, whether mentally or physically, do not make focused learners. I’ve learned the same holds true for hungry kids and kids who have to go potty. Meet those pressing needs and suddenly, you’ve got better ball players on your hands. Crazy, I know, but I suspect the same holds true for students.

Yesterday, my own son’s mother was participating in a half marathon. So we were up at 5:00 a.m. to see her off and then cheer her on for the next two hours. When my son’s baseball game time arrived at noon, to say he was spent was an understatement. He’d had enough, and baseball was the last thing on his mind. It took a little cajoling, but he played. It was not his best game, but afterwards we celebrated his efforts. I praised him for the plays he made. In my eyes, though, the most important thing I did was recognize his challenges and praise him for overcoming those to take the field. I didn’t offer him excuses, but recognized the difficulties and his ability to face them.

It is my observation that in the never-ending argument about the role of poverty in education, it’s always presented as an either/or argument. Either the student overcomes the challenges, or the challenges are used as excuses. Either the teacher and the school overcome the challenges, or else they dismiss the challenges as excuses. I wonder how often we acknowledge the fact that just showing up to get in the game is worthy of a celebration on its own for a kid who has many difficulties at home. Instead, the expectation is that the child will show up and hit the mark every day, completely ignoring what might have happened outside the classroom, or else the term failure be evoked.

The majority of the kids on my Little League team will not master the skills to play baseball at the expected level this year.  I believe they will continue to progress towards that standard though. More importantly, I think they will develop an appreciation for the complexities of the game of baseball. They will learn that you can fail at a task a multitude of times before mastering it. That’s not called being a failure, but rather, being a student. Hopefully, they will learn the joy that comes with growth when a task that once seemed impossible becomes rote. I hope that they will begin to understand that not everybody is capable of performing at the same level, but we are all capable of doing our best. And sometimes our best may not be good enough, and that’s all right, too, as long as we truly worked as hard as we could.

Funny thing is, I realize these hopes are no different than what I hope my children are receiving from their school. Currently kids are being tested ad nauseam, but are the results accurately measuring the child as a student? Are they showing to what degree the child embraces the beauty of learning? Are they instilling the realization that sometimes you may fall short, but if you are in the game there is always the potential to get a hit? Are they opening the child’s mind to all the beauty and mystery that the world has to offer, or are they closing their minds to anything that is not measurable? These are the standards and expectations that I want my children held to, and I seem to get the best measure of those by talking to my children’s teachers. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my son’s baseball experience is that standards are important, but only if applied as an expectation and not a value judgment.

Standards should be set and applied by  parents, teachers, administrators and even communities and just like I don’t require a standardized test to evaluate my players skill level, I think the aforementioned can tell you how close their children are to reaching the standards without relying on a singular high stakes test as well.  Some may argue that the kids on my team are stuck on a failing baseball team. Maybe, if you just measure by wins and losses. But should Little League baseball, or for that matter, life itself, only be measured by wins and losses?

 

Is there really a point to it all?

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eliot“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — T.S. Eliot

That quote by Eliot has been resonating lately with me. I find myself reading about and looking at all this focus on rigor, high quality seats, and test performance, and asking myself, what does it really mean? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge proponent for education, but I find myself questioning our focus. Ten years after a child leaves school, does it really matter if they scored a 20 or a 21 on the ACT, or if they are in the top 20% versus the top 5% of their class? If all that rigor does somehow translate into financial success, are our children equipped to really experience all that life has to offer? Does getting into Harvard make you any better at navigating the challenges life throws at you than say, going to Tennessee State would? If a child’s developmental years are all spent chasing some high-performance metric, how will they live when things settle into the mundane day-to-day rhythms that life always brings, or is this the generation that will break those rhythms and do nothing but exceptional things 24/7?

Perhaps that’s what it will be. Maybe the next generation will do nothing but create exceptional businesses and tackle exceptional challenges. They will read only exceptional books and listen only to exceptional music. I certainly hope not because they’d miss out on the joy of dancing around the living room to “Shake It Off” with your five-year-old or chuckling at an old episode of “Benny Hill.” It’s just that I look at this constant drum of high achievement, and I can’t see a translation to real life. I can’t help but think that we are squeezing children for their data points while leaving them ill-equipped for life. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that we are setting unrealistic expectations and setting children up for failure. We are, in essence, producing a whole generation of former high school quarterbacks incapable of reproducing the glory days of their youth and thus failing to find joy in their present adult life. The truth is, that while we all seek excellence, the majority of us will live average lives and there should be pleasure in that. This average life has served me well.

Yesterday I was engaged in a conversation with a fellow parent about a proposed switch in high school math curriculum. They threw out the fact that their child was excelling at the current math curriculum, maintaing a 100 in AP Calculus. My first thought was, of course they are, and then it suddenly dawned on me, we only have two kinds of students in our system: those who are excelling and those the system is failing. If there are others, we certainly don’t talk about them. When was the last time you had a conversation with another parent about their child who was getting B’s and high C’s, playing in the band, not first chair but certainly enjoying it, and nobody was wringing their hands? When was the last time you heard a conversation about an average kid with average friends having an average school career, but who was happy and well-adjusted? I’m betting that if some well-meaning adult overheard that conversation, they’d quickly try to move that child into one of the two categories.

After all, with a little extra effort that child could become a highly-achieving data point. If they would just buckle down and realize how important all this was, one more adult could sleep easier at night knowing they made a difference. Or perhaps, if the narrative was needed, we could point to the lack of engagement the school was creating for the child. It could be pointed out that with more rigor, that child could grasp their full potential. This would demonstrate the failing of the public schools and the need for more charters. Would anybody consider for a moment that the child might be engaged in a well-rounded childhood, collecting experiences inside and outside of school that would produce a future well-adjusted adult?

It’s my theory, and remember I’m just a regular guy full of crap on a regular basis, that education these days is being used in a similar fashion as religion has been used in the past. My non-rigorous liberal arts education introduced me to Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” My interpretation of that quote is that the vast uncertainty that is life is so overwhelming that man needs to create something in order to be able to cope with it and give it some structure. I have a co-manager at work that every time she sees my disorganized desk it literally puts bugs under her skin, and she can’t help but try to subtly move a few things to give it some order. That’s indicative of people and the world as a whole. Life is such chaos, and when confronted with it, we feel an overwhelming compulsion to try and create order.

There are countless studies available that show the world has become more secular. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of unpredictability. We still seek order over chaos. It appears to me that we are now grasping at education to serve as a means to control that chaos. By creating a common measurement and aspiring all to fit into its structure, we attempt to make things a little more predictable. If we can get our kids to study hard enough, score high enough on tests on subjects we deem important, get into schools that we consider excellent, that somehow they will live a life free of uncertainty and challenge. Look at the term we throw around regularly, career ready. That conveys an image of being wholly prepared to face life with no need for additional learning. We should try to instill wisdom by demonstrating how education is a tool to be used in navigating the uncertainty of life instead of a weapon capable of conquering it.

As a parent I can easily see how appealing the conquering concept is. I often find myself looking at my children and reflecting on the challenges life has dealt me. High test scores offered no protection against addiction which led to unemployment and almost derailed me for life. I think about my health issues and the challenges they provide. Even though in my head I know that as people, my children will face many of the same challenges and some unique ones, instead of praying that they have the strength and tools to overcome these challenges, I pray they won’t have to face them. In our heads we recognize the need to provide children the tools to handle life’s challenges, but our heart often overrules and defaults to protect. The problem is, this leads to acceptance of a false premise. We also run the risk of creating adults who are intellectually incurious. They have been fed the myth that they’ve learned everything they need to succeed, and thus permission is implied to become static.

Going to an Ivy League school does not offer protection from cancer. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is not a shield against addiction. Being in the the top 10% does not guarantee that you won’t be hit by a car. All the knowledge we are imparting is certainly valuable, but only if we provide the tools to translate it into wisdom. A child’s formative years should be spent showing them the richness of life and the opportunities it offers. If an impoverished child scores a 21 on the ACT, enters a top school, and makes the Dean’s list, will the doors to life magically fly open and they suddenly walk through them to a better life? I don’t know. Consider the life of Robert Peace. Robert did everything we tell our children is important. He was from the projects of Newark and escaped to go to Yale, where he excelled. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and his life was tragically cut short. Despite it all, in the end he was just another murdered drug dealer. I understand that this is anecdotal evidence but should certainly be used as a tale of caution. We need to do more than just teach our children academic rigor. Learning to read and add at an accelerated level is just not enough.

One exciting benefit to being a member of the Education Bloggers Network is that it plugs you into a collection of people who are weighing similar thoughts and hypotheses. Recently a comment was made about the need to redefine success. I’ve thought a lot about that over the weekend, and I have to agree. I certainly want my children to, as the Army says, be all they can be. But I want that to come with a balance. I want them to know that the pursuit of a goal is admirable unless it disengages them from living life. Laying on the front yard and contemplating a leaf for a couple hours is just as worthy an activity as spending hours preparing to be competitive in the global economy. Sometimes it is all right to just read and let the author’s words wash over you instead of focusing on the author’s intent and focus, enjoying the magical ability some authors have in bringing words together and transporting us to another world. We need to nurture the concept that it is alright to engage in an activity, be it athletic, artistic or vocational,  just for the simple pleasure it brings, without concern for mastery or outcome.

If we produce adults who drive the global economy yet fail to see the magic in life, is that successful? If we push children to develop skills so they can leave their communities behind, what happens to those communities, and is that considered successful? Shouldn’t our definition of success include the ability to navigate both the unpredictability and the mundanity that life offers? If we treat education as a competition, are we not also instilling the belief that life at its root is a competition? Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” We need to keep that in mind in our relentless pursuit to make all kids career and college ready.

A popular refrain with education reformers is that “it should be all about the kids.” I’d add the caveat that we never forget that the kids of today are the adults of tomorrow. Are the data points of today going to translate into the success stories of tomorrow, and what will those success stories look like? As John Dewey once stated, “Education is not preparation for life. It is life itself.” We must never lose sight of that. We must not only fill children’s minds with the measurable but also teach them the value of the unmeasurable. We must instill that life is a journey, and you can only quit learning when you reach the final destination. As Hemingway said, “Everyman’s life ends the same way, it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

 

Are we heading toward an even more segregated society through our schools?

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There is something that I’ve been turning around in my head. I want to throw it out there and let you maybe turn it around in your head. Let me be perfectly clear here, this post doesn’t include any acquisitions and it may not even contain any facts. Its just thoughts that have been rolling around in my and I’d like to bring them out for you to consider.

We’ll start off with a bunch of under performing schools. Schools say that are in the lower 5% of all schools. Everybody knows something has to be done. The state is supposed to do what the local municipalities can not, so its the perfect opportunity to encourage the state to take action. The state in turn creates a special school district, you can call it the Recovery district but Achievement district sounds much better. This achievement district doesn’t want to depend on the same folks that have been “failing”, they call in the Charter Schools.

Now Charter Schools know you can’t do the same old same old and expect to get different results. They implement stricter disciplinary codes. Teachers implement eye tracking policies. Kids stand in line going from room to room. Parents sign contracts that they will adhere to certain guidelines and meet certain obligations. Longer school days are instituted and increased pressure on teachers. Its also known that nothing good happens unless people know about it. The PR machine is engaged.

Let’s now add another wrinkle to the process. People argue all the time about the role of poverty in education, but I think its safe to say that these lower performing schools are made up of lower income and minority students. Charter school advocates have gone on record as saying Charter Schools shouldn’t be responsible for creating diverse populations. They are after all just reflections of society. So, I think it probably a safe assumption that the demographics of these schools stay primarily minority and lower income students.

There are some very good educators involved in the Charter school movement and some excellent PR people. That means that some of these students will thrive and the schools will be portrayed as successes. Those that don’t, well they can always be advised that they would probably be better served in another school. After all, every school is not for every kid and by not encouraging a child to pursue other opportunities better suited for them would be detrimental to the child.

Meanwhile, the parents at the schools in the higher income primarily white districts are scratching their heads. Why do their children have to go to either private school or crappy public schools when all this special focus is being placed on lower income and minority students. That doesn’t sound fair at all.Their children deserve the same amount of attention as the at risk kids.

Luckily there are some charter schools that are willing to take these students. Now since creating a diverse population is not the obligation of  charter schools, most of these schools are made up of white and upper income students. It’s not their fault that our neighborhoods are already segregated. Schools should be able to draw from their neighborhood.

However, higher income parents as a rule don’t go in for all that rigid discipline. No eye tracking for their offspring and if you expect them to sign a contract, well they may sign it but odds are, they are already involved enough with their child. Their children have different needs. They need to be challenged and develop problem solving skills, not develop discipline and learn to close read so they can better follow instructions.

The public schools that are left behind become more and more devoted to special education and English learners. The rest of the population further splinters off into other segregated avenues. The charters on both sides of the gap keep an eye open to recruit any children that might fit their prescribed demographic. The teachers are either forced out or gravitate to one or the other of the charter groups, further limiting the traditional schools.

So the questions I have are how does this scenario differ from our situation pre-Brown vs the Board of Education? Another question would be the implications for our society as a whole. It seems we are creating two trajectories. One group will go on to become the workers utilizing the discipline and ability to follow orders to better serve the creative management types who have the ability to think outside of the box.

Another question I have would be is this a intentional widening of the opportunity gap or is it a by product of thinking solely as education being about the child? Should we not recognize the important role that education plays in the foundation of our society? Are there more important things then being college and career ready? What obligations do we have to be good stewards of both our children and our democratic institutions?

Again this is just me thinking aloud and applying the things I hear people say. It could be that if we take care of the child they will take care of the society. It could be that some have decided that if you rig the game you can control the winners. It could be either, neither or a combination of both.

I do know that the supporters of segregation never accepted the rulings of Brown vs Board of Education. I do know that they initially attempted to create separate “splinter” districts to circumvent the courts ruling until that too was deemed illegal. (Wright v. Council of the City of Emporia; United States v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education) I do know that Virginia closed its public schools in the aftermath of the ruling. White students went to private academies while black students didn’t return to schools until 1963. 

Truth is our society has become more segregated over the years. Therefore our schools themselves have become more segregated. Segregation hasn’t just grown by color of skin but also by wealth. There is more income disparity now then at any time in our history.  I don’t believe that this is something we should just accept. Perhaps now is the time to be more diligent instead of more laissez faire. After all, are schools not  but a microcosm of our society? Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. That’s the question we have to ask ourselves.