Posts Tagged ‘Education’

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

May 13, 2010

More Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (34)

The most toxic flaw in NCLB was its legislative command that all students in every school must be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. By that magical date, every single student must achieve proficiency, including students with special needs, students whose native language is not English, students who are homeless and lacking in any societal advantage, and student with every societal advantage but are not interested in their schoolwork

Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (102)

After 9-11, too many of us were just too damn scared to even entertain the notion that our nation was being run by a couple of incompetent poltroons. We are still paying for this in treasure and in lives. Oddly, the same people who would call Barack Obama a socialist for mandating PRIVATE insurance had little problem with a complete federal takeover of the educational system, which has historically been a state and local issue. (The federal government is barely a seven percent stakeholder in education)

Under ordinary circumstances, Republicans would have opposed the bill’s broad expansion of federal power over local schools, and Democrats would have opposed its heavy emphasis on testing. But after September 1, 2001, Congress wanted to demonstrate unity, and education legislation sailed through (94).

NCLB passed in the Senate 87-10 and 381-41 in the House despite the fact that “No one truly expects that all students will be proficient by the year 2014, although NCLBs most fervent supporters often claimed it was feasible” (103).

Today many critics of what they consider invasive federal involvement in the healthcare industry would sue the federal government in the name of the basically moribund (since the Civil War) Ninth and Tenth Amendments. But when George W. Bush was president, instead of standing up to a draconian law which demands the surreal goal of universal success, Republicans as well as Democrats overwhelmingly preferred to toe the line and “[m]ost states devised ways to pretend to meet the impossible goal”(16).

Ravitch does a masterful job of laying out how school administrators across the country were forced to engage in deceptive practices or risk losing their jobs in her chapter entitled, The Trouble with Accountability. She draws on the work of Daniel Koretz and Richard Rothstein and other sober-minded thinkers who are wise enough to eschew a harebrained law which delivered us unto a macabre world where students now “master test-taking methods, but not the subject itself” (159).

Sadly, the Magical Thinking which infects our nation continues to thrive in education. President Obama supports policies which have been proven ineffective and he has appointed a Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, whose record as superintendent of Chicago schools was dismal if not downright fraudulent:

In 2009, the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago released a study demonstrating that the city’s claims of dramatic test score gains were exaggerated….The Study concluded, however, that “these huge increases reflect changes in the tests and testing procedures—not real student improvement” (158).

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

May 4, 2010

Bill Gates

Some Thoughts on The Death and Life of the Great American School System

Our society is just beginning to recover from a long spell of Magical Thinking. Instead of confronting our problems and dealing with them, Americans spent the better part of a decade hoping that great men on horses would ride into to town bearing sanctified sidearms which fire magic bullets—instead we got George W. Bush in a flightsuit. But after 9/11, most of us we’re too scared to acknowledge or even see The Emperor’s Clothes. We just pretended that there were new, bold serious solutions that would preternaturally eliminate serious issues. Decisive Federal Action would fix public education just as it would defeat Islamo-facism and unfetter the Titans of Finance. Those were some heady times.

Today, our institutions are just beginning to recover from the febrile dreams which have infected (and continue to threaten the very existence of) our body politic. Sadly, no one is yet bowing in obeisance to the heroes who were banished from the Punditocracy for the crime of premature wisdom (i.e., Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield and Robert Sheer). Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the people who advocated these asinine and self-destructive policies over the last decade are still running this country and they’re not about to begin pointing fingers at one another.

That’s why Diane Ravitch should be praised for speaking up about her recent recovery from Hedda Payness Disease:

I too was captivated by these ideas. They promised to end bureaucracy, to ensure that poor children were not neglected, to empower poor parents, to enable poor children to escape failing schools, and to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white. Testing would shine a spotlight on low-performing schools and choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools. All of this seemed to make sense, but there was little empirical evidence, just promise and hope(3-4).

I remember seeing a documentary years ago about how hospital administrators in the Soviet Union (who obviously knew nothing about how hospitals actually work) used to do surprise inspections in hospitals in which they would randomly swab the walls looking for evidence of bacteria. Consequently, the medical staff wasted a good deal of time scrubbing the walls with bleach. Funny thing about big bureaucracies, they tend to replicate such madness:

Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education (16).

In our age of Magical Thinking, even really smart guys (because we all know that the billionaires are the best among us) like to dream of a simple world with simple solutions. For example, Bill Gates was blissfully “unaware of the disadvantages” of promoting smaller highs schools as a one-size-fits-all panacea for American education:

It was never obvious why the Gates Foundation decided that schools size was the one critical reform most needed to improve American education. Both state and national tests showed that large numbers of students were starting high schools without having mastered basic skills…the root cause of poor achievement lie not in the high schools, but in the earlier grades (205).

After pissing away a couple of billion bucks, the Foundation wised up, but it wasn’t about to admit any mistakes:

In late 2008 the Gates Foundation announced that it was changing course. The $2 billion investment in new small high schools had not been especially successful (although it was careful not to come right out and say it was unsuccessful) (211).

by Richard W. Bray

A Lesson Plan on Parts of Speech

March 27, 2010

Lewis Carroll

(A brief comment on parts of speech)

Individual words are not parts of speech. Instead, words are forms which act as parts of speech. But you don’t have to take my word for it.

According to Otto Jespersen, from the book The Philosophy of Grammar (1924):

Take the form round: this is a substantive in “a round of a ladder,” “he took his daily round,” an adjective in “a round table,” a verb in “he failed to round the lamp-post,” an adverb in “come round to-morrow,” and a preposition in “he walked round the house.” While similarly may be a substantive (he stayed here for a while), a verb (to while away time), and a conjunction (while he was away)….On the other hand, we have a great many words which can belong to one word-class only; admiration, society, life can only be substantives, polite only an adjective, was, comprehend only verbs, at only a preposition. (61)

A Lesson on Parts of Speech


White board and markers or Smartboard with Microsoft Word

Academic Area – Parts of Speech
This is a unit designed to enable students to identify four major parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs.

Goals and Objectives:
Identify nouns, adjectives, and action verbs adverbs in context

Instructor will: Implement a variety of whole class small groups and paired activities in order to instantiate the concept of parts of speech.

Students will: Generate lists of the four parts of speech covered as a whole class activity and in small groups.

Lesson 1–Nouns

a) Teacher will ask if anyone can define the word “noun” (Answer: person, place, thing, or idea)
b) Write “noun test” on the board:
The noun test is simply putting an article or a personal pronoun in front of a word
Example: My ____________.
The ____________.
A ______________
c) Students will generate a list of nouns which I write on the board.
d) Students will “pair and share” to create a longer list of nouns.

Lesson 2–Adjectives

a) The teacher reviews nouns, using the “noun test” and ask students to give examples of nouns which he writes on the board, (Noun test: words that follow articles or possessive pronouns.)
b) Teacher will provide the definition of adjective, “a word that modifies a noun” Ask if anyone knows what modifies means. Explain how people sometimes modify their cars.
c) Using the list of nouns generated by the students, the teacher will have students give examples of words which would modify the meaning of these nouns.

d) Teacher will introduce the “adjective test”: My ____________house is ___________
or my __________________sister is _________. (it works with any noun)

e) Select five students to fill in the blank. For example, “My blue house is clean” Or, “My young sister is smart.”
f) Pair and Share: Give students five minutes to generate lists of adjectives individually and then share the lists with their seatmates.

Lesson 3–Verbs

a) Ask students to define both types of verbs (answer: state of being verbs and action verbs)

b) This lesson will focus on action verbs. Demonstrate the Verb Test:
Yesterday I _____________ed
Let’s ____________________
Tomorrow, I will ________________

c) Direct students to generate lists of action verbs in groups of four (at their tables)
d) Review lists with entire class.

Lesson 4–Adverbs

a) Review action verb definition from lesson three.
b) Explain that adverbs “modify” verbs. (Review the word modify from lesson two)
c) Write the “adverb test” on the board:

I ran __________________
Debbie ate _____________
Buffy talks ______________

(Teacher should sure to explain that adverbs do not always have to follow the verb directly and that they are not always “-ly” words. Also note how a part of speech depends upon context. For example, in the sentence “I ran home,” “home” is an adverb, although one would usually use it as a noun. Or, in the sentence “I ran fast,” fast is an adverb, but in the sentence “Hector is a fast runner” it would be an adjective. Also inform students that this is a working definition of adverbs because adverbs can also modify adjectives and other adverbs)

Evaluation (After also teaching prepositions, interjections, conjunctions, and onomatopoeia.)

1. Distribute copies of the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll to the entire class.
2. Have students take turns reading the poem aloud, one line at a time.
3. Play a version of the poem from Youtube or Librivox.
4. Group students and allow ten minutes for them to determine the parts of speech of the nonsense words.

“Twas Brillig (adj) and the slithy (adj) toves (noun)
Did gyre and gimble (verb) in the wabe (noun):

5. Review as a teacher-directed, whole-class activity.

by Richard W. Bray

Teacher Knows Best–Not

March 22, 2010

Teacher Knows Best–Not

Teachers should feel privileged that they have been entrusted to administer education to, and oversee the wellbeing of, other people’s children for a limited period of time. Nothing has ever moved me more than seeing parents reluctantly parting with their children before school, a cogent reminder of the love and aspirations people have for their children. This is why teaching is such a monumental task and an almost overwhelming charge to keep.

Teachers are part of the Social Persistence Team, along with pastors, social workers, community organizers, various types of volunteers, police officers and other first responders, and everyone who works in the criminal justice system and the healthcare industry. But teaching is not group therapy. And it isn’t social engineering, either. Teachers who enter the profession hoping to become microcosmic gods who will erase injustice from the planet and fix the world one child at a time are destined for disappointment.

Teachers often try to fix other people’s families, which is a horrible mistake. It’s crucial for teachers to realize that they were not hired to tell parents how to raise their children. It is a teacher’s primary responsibility to work with parents in order to come up with the best strategies for facilitating learning, not to berate or belittle parents. That’s why it is so important not too come off like “Teacher Knows Best,” particularly when the teacher comes from a different socioeconomic background than his students.

Here’s one small example of what I’m talking about: Like many people, I am appalled when I see parents bringing their small children to gory, R-rated movies. And it makes my job difficult when children want to talk about these movies in class. This can be particularly irksome when, during a discussion of a particular literary trope such as the use of flashbacks, several of my elementary school students remark that there is a really good flashback scene in the movie Killer Mutant Zombies from Outer Space. Because I don’t want to get a call from my principal asking me what in the world I’m teaching these kids, I say, “That’s not an appropriate movie to be talking about at school.” But then I hear a whole chorus of, “My mom lets me see those movies.” That’s when I quickly change the subject.

I knew a teacher who not only tells her students that she would “never” let her own children watch violent movies, but she goes on to inform them that she thinks it’s terrible that their parents aren’t as enlightened as she is. Of course, it’s okay for a teacher to tell her students what she would or would not allow her own kids to do. But condemning parents in front of their children is really not helping matters. If these kids go home and tell their parents that their teacher thinks they are raising their children improperly, it is unlikely that the parents will respond favorably. They certainly aren’t going to think, “The Great White Teacher believes we’re uncivilized. Oh, no. We better go buy some books on parenting.”

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on the Efficacy of DARE-Type Programs and a Funny Teacher Story

March 14, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Efficacy of DARE-Type Programs

My existential perspective would suggest that it is heroic to try to enlist support across our institutions to attempt to reduce violence and drug abuse whether or not school-based programs to mitigate the ills that effect our society are actually effective (a hotly debated topic). But all good-doers who attempt to discover the perfect pedagogy to fix whatever ails us would do well to remember that the instructional day is finite and teachers already have a lot on their plate (particularly in an age when knuckleheaded politicians would have us fire teachers and administrators based upon student test scores.) This all brings me to a discussion about DARE (Drug Awareness and Resistance Education) and it also gives me an opportunity to relate one of my favorite teacher stories.

Many people have argued about the efficacy and appropriateness of programs like DARE because there is little evidence that it changes student behavior. But seeking quantifiable changes in societal behavior is asking a lot of any curriculum. And even if DARE did cause, say, one out of a hundred kids to say no to drugs, or if it were to decrease in any way the harmful effects of substance abuse in our society, how could we possibly measure such success in light of so many other confounding variables?

Like all human behavior, substance abuse involves a multiplicity of causal relationships which are difficult to gauge, and some things are easier to measure than others. Let’s look at efforts to reduce traffic fatalities, for example. It is obvious that enacting mandatory seatbelt laws and reducing speed limits will result in demonstrably fewer traffic fatalities. But how do we measure the effects of educational programs which operate on the margins of these statistics, such as traffic school and public service announcements? Just because it would be difficult for a statistician to isolate the slender portion of a decline in traffic fatalities attributable to such efforts, we would be foolish to abandon such efforts. That’s how I feel about DARE. What harm could it do? (There are those who argue that DARE actually teaches kids how to be more effective drugs users, but I find this claim dubious. There was, however, one time when Officer S____ did a lesson on the dangers of Whiteout, which was certainly news to me. I immediately put all my Whiteout away.)

Funny Teacher Story

Say what you want about DARE, it supplied me with one of my best teacher stories. One of the first things that Officer S____ always tells the kids is that it’s okay to relate stories about people they know, but they should not use real names.

So if officer S____ is talking about, say, methamphetamines, it is not appropriate for a student to say, “My uncle has a meth lab out in San Bernardino.”

Instead, the student should say, “Someone I know has a crank factory in his garage.”

So one day when Officer S____ was describing the perils of drunk driving, a student (we’ll call him David) rose his hand.

“My dad drives when he’s drunk all the time.” said David.

Officer S____ quickly cut him off. “You mean, someone you know drinks and drives on occasion”

David responded in a very condescending tone, “Well yeah, I know him. He’s my dad!”

by Richard W. Bray

New Yorker Magazine Buries the Lede in Puff Piece on Education Secretary Duncan

January 31, 2010

Arne Duncan

New Yorker Buries the Lede in Puff Piece on Secretary Duncan

I’m glad that Carlo Rotella decided to do some actual reporting in his treacly ode to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in the February 1st edition of the New Yorker Magazine. Unfortunately, it’s buried at the end of the article. After four puffy pages wherein we learn that Duncan is a marvelous human being who loves basketball, the author finally begins to do his job as a reporter, and the results aren’t very comforting. You see, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence that the programs Duncan is spending billions of taxpayer dollars on actually work. I’ll let the quotations speak for themselves:

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies (who describes herself as “basically in favor of Duncan’s policies”) gives this rousing endorsement of the upshot of Duncan‘s policies as head of the Chicago schools: “I don’t think there’s any real evidence that people are made worse off, and there’s limited evidence that that they’re making things better.”

Kenneth Saltman, professor of education at DePaul University, calls Duncan a “hatchet man for (Mayor) Daley” and a “militant privatizer who label(ed) schools in black communities as failures to justify opening new charters that could skim off the highest-achieving students, thereby widening the gap between winners and losers.”

Erik Hanishek of the Stanford Institution “is one of the most outspoken senior academics in the market forces camp. But even he describes the reforms that Duncan has pursued as ‘the best guesses for how to go forward’”

According to Rotella, Diane Ravitch of New York University believes that Duncan’s so-called “market forces party can offer nothing better than a vague idea that their reforms should work, rather than evidence that they actually do.” “You shouldn’t set the agenda if you’re not sure the agenda works,” argues Ravitch.

Steven Rivkin, an economist at Amherst, “worries that Duncan may be pushing too hard for policies which haven’t proven effective.”

by Richard W. Bray