Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Competition is NOT a Silver Bullet for Schools

Conservative political pundits have been saying for decades that competition is what is needed to improve schools.  Part of this is based on the mistaken view that parents will always know which school is the best, that somehow they will know the methods and programs that work best for their kids and how well those methods and programs are working in a particular school.  The reality is that they probably have no idea WHAT methods or programs are being used in the school, let alone whether they are effective!  If they have an opinion on it, it is most likely based on what the school has told them rather than what the truth is.  This is true regardless of which school you refer to, district, charter, or private.

With the emphasis on competition that charter schools and the voucher movement have brought, combined with the personal ambitions of policy makers and the media's insatiable appetite for news, we see more and more spin on "new" ideas, programs, and educational schemes, all of which are attractive but untested.

Competition is based on pride.  It is not based on being good.  It is based on being better than certain others.  There is no satisfaction in being good, but only in being better than others being compared.  This leads to seeking for more things to entice parents with, to get them to bring their kids to that school.  Those things usually end up being warm-fuzzies that lack substance, because that is what is attractive or what sells.

Those warm-fuzzies could be anything from programs that claim to teach "higher-level thinking," to open classrooms, to more technology, or fancier gadgets or buildings.  Most of the time these things add much additional work to the teacher.  There are only so many things they can do in a day, so these additional things begin to take away from the ability to provide other more important things, like foundational skills that take work from both parent as well as teacher, physical exercise, subjects not tested, or money for what is more important.

I have listened in faculty meetings where the discussion was based around how to make the school more attractive, so parents won't go to another "new" charter school coming next year.  The suggestions were mostly things that for the teacher would be additional work, questionable as to its value, but the vogue thing at the time, like more iPods, etc.

This phenomenon undermines being good and turns efforts into becoming more attractive instead.  It ends up being a lot like having a garden and thinking that introducing competition from the "natural influx of competing plants" (weeds) will improve the garden.  Yes, some plants will "step up" to the competition and put out more growth, but their efforts go into competing for light and space instead of producing food.

Competition between students can be motivating when used properly.  I've used it a lot with things like knowledge bowl quiz competitions.  It can help businesses, though unbridled, or ruthless competition can also eliminate healthy competition establishing monopolies that cost more and provide less.  Competition between schools is proving to not be improving them.

The more we introduce "competition" between our schools, the more we push them into spending their time and energy in competing rather than producing, being attractive rather than building a solid foundation.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What is the problem?

There is one thing that people need to know about America's educational system, at least what it has been.  It was never a national issue until JFK used education to get himself elected.  He used the Sputnik incident to say that education needed reform.  Education had nothing to do with it.  The USSR had devoted all their resources to getting a satellite working for many reasons.  JFK said it was because our educational system was failing, and that HE would fix that.  It wasn't him who began the national takeover however it was LBJ, using the civil rights issues to interfere in education.

Our education system was actually the best in the world and every country was trying to imitate it.  Starting with LBJ politicians found that they could effectively use the issue to get themselves elected, Bush being one of most egregious.  Unfortunately, unlike Kennedy, he made good on his promise with NCLB, laying the foundation which became today's Common Core.

Thanks to all of these politicians calling for reform, most people now think our educational system is in shambles, a broken mess, which will result in our country's demise.  In reality if apples are truly compared to apples (meaning we cut out all the students the other country's don't test) we still beat virtually every country.  Not that there aren't problems, but most of those have come from all the messing that politicians, and courts, have done to it!

We don't have to totally throw out the system and start over.  We DON'T need Washington "experts" to take it over for us.  We need to return to what was one of the main things that made us great - the community owned school system.  Despite the fact that some were not as good as others, it still produced better educated students by far than any other system in the world, and was a major factor in making us great.

If Common Core is thrown out, it is not the end of the world!  Of course I believe we will be MUCH better off if we get rid of it and NCLB.  Of course to really do it right, we need to divide the big districts back to community-run organizations - removing federal and most state interference and begin to believe in government OF, BY, AND FOR the people again instead of doing it TO the people.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Romanticizing in Education

Romanticizing is such a huge problem in education today.  This is where we view things or people as we wish they were, instead of how they really are.  It’s kind of like lying to ourselves to make us feel good or sound good to others. It clouds our judgment of plans and actions.  It is like allowing our heart to overrule our brain!

We wish all children were just little learning machines, and all we have to do is set up the right situation, and they will just whiz through learning on their own!  It denies the fact that along with the angelic side that all children come with, there is also a demon side that must be tamed before success can come.

We frequently choose to view children “with rose colored glasses,” because we don’t want to go to the work of actually teaching them discipline, following through with them, and planning.  So we do wonderful sounding, though not very educational, “projects,” which have a great deal of busy-work to them without giving the practice students need.

We do group assignments, which we make successful by putting someone into the group who will get it done even if no one else works at it, allowing us to give credit to all, including those who did little.  We justify this by saying that this is the way “businesses” operate, when in fact businesses don’t really.  They have to have individual accountability, or they can’t justify keeping the employee on the payroll.

We use subjective assessments, so we can make sure everyone passes, regardless of effort or learning taking place.  We label these assessments as “authentic,” so they sound more valid than they really are.

We call practice “drill and kill,” because it isn’t fun.  We call teacher directed learning “lecturing,” so that gets us off the hook of really doing our job, and then justify our lack of real teaching by saying that teachers should be “a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage.”  While the romantics deny that this is the result of the philosophy, the students end up not gaining the skill necessary to be proficient.

These ideas have been replicated, with new labels over and over for a hundred years - ever since John Dewey gained credit for their origin.  They continue to be largely refuted, yet never die, because they sound so wonderful, so much like we wish children and learning were like – as one continuous round of fun and exciting explorations.

Unfortunately the results of these philosophies are students who can’t or won’t.  They promote in students an aura of awe that starts with, “I wish I was good at…” math, piano, writing, or whatever the subject is, while believing they never will be.

These ideas keep being resurrected when new teacher trainers, wanting to promote themselves or their products, assign the blame for the lack of proficiency, caused by this romantic belief, on the very things that would have provided proficiency!  These are direct instruction, practice, and building facts in students first and cementing them with deep understanding as the students gain sufficient facts to put together into understanding, rather than just trying to “deeply think” from the start.  This philosophy was manifest early on in Professor Harold Hill’s “Think System” in The Music Man!

The educational romantic wants the end (deep understanding) without the beginning and all the work in the middle.  He wants the roof without the foundation.  Human beings do not generally gain understanding by starting with the theory behind it.  They have to gain possession of the facts pertaining to it first.

As the person gains more facts, they can begin to put them together to learn the why behind them.  Some facts are more important than others in this process, despite romantics saying that it doesn’t really matter which facts they learn.  That is where the idea of “standards” came from, the desire to make sure the most important facts were taught.

Romantics, or constructivists using the philosophical name, reacting to the back-to-basics movement, conceded the need for some facts, but responded that it doesn’t really matter which facts, just have them learn some facts, and that would be good enough.

Standards were then called for, in order to make certain facts recognized as more important.  Constructivists, who were in positions of leadership that would create those standards, responded by changing the standards, which were at first measurable, into nebulous “understandings,” which were not measurable.

Because the new “standards” were subjective in nature, constructivists could then claim success with their methods, even when proficiency had not been obtained.  This continued the erosion of trust in educators, even though most teachers in the trenches adapted these ideas mostly into methods that worked, instead of what the constructivist theorists promoted.

Those who attempted to fight constructivists legislatively came up with the idea to make curriculum proven by student test scores, calling it “Standards-Based,” not realizing that constructivist had already turned standards into nebulous understandings.  By using the power of government to try to force standards, they naively gave constructivists the power to force teachers to adopt their philosophy by using tests, which they constructed to show the methods used, to ferret out teachers who would not adopt their methods.  This manifested itself in Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

With the adoption of CCSS, which are not amendable by teachers or parents, and using the tests to reveal teachers using the “closed-door veto,” constructivist have finally gotten the way to enforce their philosophy on all teachers nation-wide!  They want every state to adopt them, so that there will be no way to compare whether they accomplish their goal.

There will always be a need for a few romantics in the world to give spice and flavor.  However a plate of spaghetti would not taste good, if it were mostly spice and no noodles.  So too if constructivists/romantics control all of what and how our children are taught nation-wide, via CCSS or some other scheme, the result will not be healthy or desirable for our country’s future.  We will not be able to discern what is good and what is not.  We will not be able to judge it accurately.

In order to have the balancing effect that competition can bring, we must have variety of curriculum and methods between, not only states, but also districts.  We need to have local districts creating their own standards and comparing them against other districts in order to be able to discard what romantically may sound delicious, but in practice does not nourish.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Bullying policies and legislation

All of us have experienced "bullying" or manipulation by threats.  None of us like being bullied, because it is with threats that we are pushed into doing something we do not want to do.  These threats can be for physical harm, social intimidation, blackmail, or ridicule.

Since we all have experienced the negative feelings associated with it, we all want to jump on the bandwagon when someone proposes outlawing it - as if there was a policy or law that when passed would just do away with it or, for those who want revenge, punish the perpetrator.  Few people will admit to having tried to manipulate someone else by a threat, though we have all done it.  We only see ourselves as the victims of "bad" people, who need to be manipulated, by threats of punishment or intimidation, into not bullying!

Do you see where this is going?!  Now most people will, at this point, say, "Well, you have to bully the bully to stop him/her from bullying."  The trouble is, it doesn't really work, though it can hide it.  What it usually does is make someone, who is intent on manipulating someone else, more sophisticated in their bullying.  In fact many if not most bullying laws and policies end up being used by bullies to further bully their victims!

Here is one example from the Expect Respect Program.  (Most problems with policies like this come when they are adopted as a "program," a nice little package that policymakers can just drop into place and say their work is done.)

Expect Respect has two major concepts, or golden rules:
Rule 1: If someone is feeling disrespected, they have the right to ask the person to stop what they are doing.
Rule 2: If someone asks you to stop, you have to stop what you were doing - even if you don’t think you were doing anything wrong.

It sounds great!  If they bully you, and you tell them to stop, they HAVE to stop...or you'll tell someone.  Do we really think that someone intent on bullying is just going to stop, because we say that?  The trouble comes where it says "- even if you don't think you were doing anything wrong."  This can then be used by a bully. (I hate using that term to describe one of God's children, because we have all done it.  It makes it seem as though someone was a demon in human form that can never change.)

The training that the school is then required to do (one MORE thing to do - as if they weren't already dealing with it), provides a response that can then be used by the "bully" to stop someone from doing right when the "bully" doesn't like it.  For example, one student tries to stop another from butting into a line.  The student in the wrong can then say, "Stop, you're bullying me!  Now you have to stop bothering me, or I will get you in trouble."  While we might say, "Go ahead and you'll be the one in trouble!"  But a little kid doesn't always think of that, and many times will be intimidated by the threat so they let the bully butt into line.

Many other examples can be given of a timid person in the right being bullied into allowing bad behavior by someone using the "program" designed to stop it.  This has been done over and over with anti-discrimination programs and legislation at the adult level.  Innocent people get discriminated against by the very legislation that was supposed to eliminate it.

Bullying is not stopped by "programs."  It is a process that people have to go through to learn respect for other people.  Policies, legislation, and programs can't do that.  You can't "make" a person be good.  They have to be taught correct principles by precept and example and then choose the better way, which they will usually do when taught by someone who has learned that principle themselves.  You can enforce punishments for specific harm, but bullying and discrimination laws give tools, rather than shackles, to the perpetrators.

Unfortunately we live in a world where we all are still trying to master the principle of love for neighbor.  Sometimes teachers and parents themselves both slip into bullying, and other times they become the victims.  It takes judgment at the personal level.  Just as "Zero Tolerance" policies and laws frequently punish people far beyond what is right and become very inflexible, bullying policies end up doing the same.

My suggestion is this: DON'T pass anti-bullying policies and legislation.  They don't solve the problem.  Local teachers and parents are doing their best to stop it already!  Those seeking to "look like" they are solving the problem from their elevated position like to propose these measures.  But they only make things more difficult for victims and those who seek to really solve the problem - teachers in the trenches and parents.