Blue Print for Education Sent to Congress

The U.S. Department of Education has released and sent to Congress the document entitled A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  You can read the Education Week article that focuses on key points in the Reauthorization.

The 45 page Blueprint is organized into the following sections:
  • Priorities in a Blueprint for reform
  • College- and Career-Ready Students
  • Great Teachers and Great Leaders
  • Meeting the Needs of English Learners and Other Diverse Learners
  • A Complete Education
  • Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students
  • Fostering Innovation and Excellence
  • Additional Cross-Cutting Priorities

According to the report, the goal of American education is make sure that every student should graduate from high school ready for college and a career, regardless of income, race, ethnic or language background, or disability status.  The report also suggests that the government will develop a new generation of assessments aligned with standards, and these standards will be the “common core standards” developed by the National Governors Association and the Association of Chief State School Officers.  Teachers and administrators will be evaluated based on student growth (they mean academic achievement test results).

The model that is advocated in the Blueprint is what we might call the “corporate or tecnocratic” model of education.  The Blueprint is weak in areas of content and curriculum, and instead centers it actions on measuring and evaluating success (effective teachers, successful students), and assumes that by using the data driven model will improve teaching and learning.  In the corporate model, teachers are seen as “outside” the system in the sense that they should be evaluated as a means to reward or punish—a 19th Century behavioral psychology model.  And in this corporate model, 2 hour test scores of students academic achievement will be used as the “measure” of growth.

The report also excludes teachers as major decision makers in the education process in American schools.  Although the report supports the “elevation of the teaching profession,” upon a closer look, it will use measurement devices (such as student achievement test scores) to define what they believe is effective teaching.  Here is a paragraph from the report dealing with the teaching profession (I’ve highlighted key words for comparison).

We will elevate the teaching profession to focus on recognizing, encouraging, and rewarding excellence. We are calling on states and districts to develop and implement systems of teacher and principal evaluation and support, and to identify effective and highly effective teachers and principals on the basis of student growth and other factors. These systems will inform professional development and help teachers and principals improve student learning. In addition, a new program will support ambitious efforts to recruit, place, reward, retain, and promote effective teachers and principals and enhance the profession of teaching.

Here is a rewritten version of the above paragraph that in my opinion values teachers as professionals, and as in charge of the learning and teaching environment and quite capable of making decisions about curriculum and learning (key words in bold face).
We will elevate the teaching profession to focus on having educators at the local and regional level make the decisions about curriculum and standards based on their knowledge of their students and schools.  We are calling on the states and districts to develop and implement teacher enhancement and development centers that provide a continuous professional learning climate enabling teachers to be the decision makers, and final arbiter of effective teaching and learning.  By having these centers, teachers will work with other professionals, especially at the the college and university level on collaborative curriculum development and evaluation projects aimed at improving learning, especially in schools.  This approach should provide an a professional environment for future educators, and be at the core of teacher recruitment and retention.

Although this is only one paragraph from the report, it reflects the corporate-behavior model that underscores the Federal approach to education reform.

Dear Mr. President: Take the Risk, and Try and Humanize Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow, President Obama will send his education blue print to Congress, which, according to the New York Times article, “strikes a careful balance, retaining some key features of the Bush-era law, including its requirement for annual reading and math tests, while proposing far-reaching changes.”

The blue print is really no different than what was put into practice by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and is steeped in a corporate model of teaching and learning that uses test scores to drive the day-to-day work of teachers in schools.  The blue print is being sent to Congress less than a month after the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.   I am in the midst of reading her book, and I can tell you that the previous administration, nor the current one will appreciate her conclusions, that basically we have it all wrong when it comes to reforming education by means of the NCLB approach which offered no insights about improving curriculum and professional development of teachers, but assumed that the corporate model applied to schooling would result in improved scores on achievement tests, and that using a top-down, dictatorial management style would keep teachers in toe (and off guard), parents worrying if their kid would pass the next test, and students not sure of what to expect, other than the next test.  Ravitch at one time supported the corporate model, and the NCLB act, but has since been convinced that these have been a disaster for the American school, and that instead of a corporate model, what is needed is a communal model that advocates values that advocates humanistic values.

In May, 2009 I wrote a “letter” to the President, and I am republishing it here, to coincide with Monday’s presentation of the President’s blue print for education.  I have great admiration for President Obama, and I hope that he will pursue an educational agenda that challenges what has been the status quo for too many years.  Although I am not convinced that our Secretary of Education is flexible enough to see beyond the corporate model that he is pushing through his reform efforts, especially the Race to the Top Fund.

The Letter

So here is my letter (originally published May 2, 2009),  which I sent onto the President today.

We know you have a lot on your plate—a deep recession, two wars in the Middle East, health care reform, extreme partisanship, the fast spreading swine flu. Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–has yet to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many science teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.

Your beliefs and your experiences are are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming science education from a humanistic science tradition.

Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.

Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and theDepartment of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure. These are all positive initiatives, and I think they have received enormous support within the science teaching community.

The reform of science teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view of science to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm impies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward. I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.

In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.

From the cover of Barack Obama's book
From the cover of Barack Obama’s book

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I will propose here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school. In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching. Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle. The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state department’s of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind. There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the National Science Education Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.

I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:

In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).

Humanistic science education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional school science, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science. A humanistic science perspective tends to be context-based or science-technology-society based. Instead of a science concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic science teacher starts with contexts and applications of science. Science concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic science teaching trives in STS programs, environmental science projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations. These experiences shed light on science-related social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about science, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve science-related social issues. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themsleves as citizen-scientists, using social and scientific processes to solve real problems.

Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your able Education Secretary, Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.

I suggest that for meaninful reform in science teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related science education research; refom needs to be in the hands of professional teachers.

Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.

Resources: Grounding Humanistic Science in Research—Starting Places:

Using Fear to Attack Teachers and Hold Schools Hostage

This week’s Newsweek magazine included three lead articles entitled Why we can’t get rid of failing teachers?, Schoolyard Brawl, and Blackboard Jungle. The next day, Teacher Magazine featured an online discussion related to these articles entitled Is Firing Bad Teachers the Answer? The discussion on the Teacher Magazine website encouraged readers to share their opinions based on this brief introduction:

The cover story in the current issue of Newsweek proclaims that, in order to improve schools, “we must fire bad teachers.” The story points to research showing that teacher quality is the most important factor in student success, and then argues that, for a variety of reasons – union obstructionism foremost among them – the teaching profession on the whole has languished in recent years, particularly in low-income schools. It cites the recently planned mass firings at Central Falls High in Rhode Island as “a notable breakthrough” in coming to terms with this issue, adding that “if more truly bad teachers were let go,” the good ones would get more respect and a “boost in status that comes with higher standards.”
What’s your view? Is firing bad teachers the key to improving schools? Would it ultimately bolster the teaching profession? Why shouldn’t ineffective teachers be fired – or why aren’t they more often?
Many of the respondents agreed that the question was a loaded one. How do you define “bad teacher” or “good teacher,” and that indeed the articles in Newsweek and the question posed on the Teacher Magazine website dichotomized teachers, and trivialized the issue of improving education. One of the respondents, Mark Philips, focused in on some views that I will explore after his quote:
And through all of this there is a blaming of teachers and principals. Newsweek
has managed to epitomize this with a cover story highlighted by the phrase “we must fire bad teachers.” Apart from the amazingly ill informed editorial-like stories, highlighted by a truly stupid look at classroom management challenges that any halfway capable teacher trainer would pick apart in an instant, the cover and story add to the growing public attack on teachers. This was only exacerbated when Obama and Duncan supported the Rhode Island move. That support from the President is unconscionable.
If we know nothing else from research in social and clinical psychology, we know that attacking does not increase motivation, it increases defensiveness. Teacher organizations do need to take more responsibility for the quality of teaching, but this isn’t the way to get there. And an open war between teacher organizations, teachers, and policy makers will be a lose-lose with the biggest losers being the kids.
The President should call an educational summit meeting. It should include Ravitch, Darling-Hammond, other top educators, and teacher organization leaders. It may be too late to totally revise his announced policies but it is not too late to shape their implementation, providing greater flexibility.
Most importantly, the President should take the initiative in rebuilding bridges with teachers. He has the strength of character to not let pride stand in the way and this must be done.
What is this all about? In the article in Newsweek which prompted the discussion on Teacher Magazine, there is a giant circled letter F located just above the title of the article. The authors (Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert) were giving an F to the fact that schools don’t seem able to “fire bad teachers.” Ro them the “F” was a grade. They go on to provide statistics showing the very small percentage of teachers that are “fired.” Then they suggest that American education will never regain its lost crown until administrators and politicians “step up!” They then applaud the actions of administrators that resulted in the mass-firing of all teachers and administrators at Central Falls High School.
To me the “F” represents “fear” and in this context it is about exploitation and the use of fear to manipulate the American public that their schools are really bad, and that we are unable to compete in the global work place. They cite statistics from international tests which use the sports analogy of ranking the teams based on win-lost records, and of course in this case, they rank order nations based on the average score of student test results. In nearly all of these cases, the averages are compilations, in that students rarely take the entire test. Furthermore, most of the comparisons try and compare U.S. schools to small nations, most of which have a common school curriculum. In the U.S. there are more than 15,000 independent school districts using a variety of curriculum programs and standards.
Using false statistics, and claiming that the sky is falling, these writers, and indeed administrators and politicians are using what Leonard Pitts calls and wrote in an editorial entitled The politics of fear, unmasked and exploited. Although Pitts discusses how one of our political parties has in recent years used fear to motivate the American public, I am using his argument to suggest that fear is being used as a weapon to motivate the public. We see this in the Newsweek articles, the movement to establish a set of common standards designed by out-of-school experts, corporate leaders and politicians, and the NCLB Act, which uses student high-stakes achievement tests to hold parents, teachers and administrators hostage. The central concept that runs through these movements is to strike fear in the American public that their schools are inadequate, and that the sky is falling. If something isn’t done, and done fast, economic ruin will result.
In my own view, the attitude that appears to be emerging in which teachers are attacked in the press, politicians, and corporate leaders is a dangerous trend. The writers of the articles in Newsweek provided its readers with a one-sided argument, and made the simplistic assumption that by simply removing so called bad teachers would solve the problems facing American schools. I don’t know about you, but many of the schools that I’ve worked in for more than 35 years are facing the most serious economic challenges in decades. Districts in the Atlanta area are going to have to eliminate teaching positions, and close schools. The Kansas City school district will have to close half of its schools, and according to the superintendent “the district would be bankrupt in 18 months without the cuts.”

And if you listen to the leaders of the “common standards” movement, American schools will cause economic failure unless drastic action is taken, and that drastic action is the adoption and implementation of common standards.

One of the blogs that I read is Bridging Differences, a give and take between Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier provide a forum for educators to explore education in a democratic society, and take issue with many of the trends that are dominating education today, such as NCLB. Diane Ravitch published earlier this month a new book entitled The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In her book she emphasizes the following ideas—-ideas quite different than those reported in Newsweek Magazine.
Ravitch includes these ideas for improving America’s schools:
  • leave decisions about schools to educators, not politicians or businessmen
  • devise a truly national curriculum that sets out what children in every grade should be learning
  • expect charter schools to educate the kids who need help the most, not to compete with public schools
  • pay teachers a fair wage for their work, not “merit pay” based on deeply flawed and unreliable test scores
  • encourage family involvement in education from an early age

March 11 Chile Earthquakes

Several earthquakes occurred in Chile today (March 11), and according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quakes were “aftershocks” associated with the 8.8 Chile earthquake of February 27.  According to the USGS analysis, the earthquakes occurred in the region of aftershocks of the major earthquake.  Here is the USGS early analysis of today’s earthquakes:

The Chile earthquakes of March 11, 2010, 14:39 UTC and 14:55 UTC, occurred in the region of the plate boundary between the Nazca and South America plates, in the aftershock region of the great Chile earthquake of February 27, 2010. The March 11 earthquakes almost certainly occurred as the result of the change of regional stress caused by the February 27 earthquake. Preliminary analyses of their locations and seismic-wave radiation patterns, however, imply that the March 11 shocks occurred as the result of normal faulting within the subducting Nazca plate or the overriding South America plate, unlike the February 27 earthquake, which occurred as thrust faulting on the interface between the two plates. At present, the focal depths of the shocks are not known with sufficient precision to confidently determine within which of the Nazca or South America plate the earthquakes occurred.

Here is a map from the USGS showing the location of today’s main aftershock, which was located SW of Santiago, the capital of Chile.

Map showing aftershocks associated with Feb. 27 8.8 earthquake, as well as historical earthquakes, and the depth of earthquakes

Advantages & Disadvantages of Plate Tectonics Theory & the Theory of Gravity

It might not make sense to some to discuss the advantages & disadvantages of the scientific theories of plate tectonics & gravity, but politicians in Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, and South Dakota might consider it an important pedagogical strategy. Here is how legislators in Kentucky put it in an Act relating to science education and intellectual freedom

  • Teachers, principals, and other school administrators are encouraged to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied.
  • After a teacher has taught the content related to scientific theories contained in textbooks and instructional materials included on the approved lists required under KRS 156.433 and 156.435, a teacher may use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, including but not limited to the study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
  • This section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

You’ll notice the Act did not include the theories of plate tectonics or gravity, but did expect teachers, after they have taught evolution, global warming, or human cloning, to stop, and have a little discussion of the pro’s and con’s, the advantages and disadvantages of these theories.

The Theory of Plate Tectonics Describes & Predicts Large Scale Motions of the Earth's Crust

Further if you examine the “act” or “bills” from different states, they use the same language, and couch their demands in encouraging teachers to teach critical thinking. But in reality it is simply another way for the same group that tried to insist that “intelligent design” is science, and should be taught along with evolution. The case against intelligent design was decided in the Dover, PA case ruled on by Judge John Jones in December 2005. In the verdict, the Judge ruled that ID is not science, therefore is out of science class to preserve separation of church and state, among other things. Now, proponents of teaching advantages and disadvantages of a science theory are trying to come in the back door by insisting that “both” sides of a theory be discussed.

The problem is that scientific ideas do not necessarily have two sides. Yet you would believe by watching the media that all things have two sides. With the use of split screen technology, the media presents to the public a “balanced” treatment of the issue. In his recent book on climate change, Stephen H. Schneider, the tactic of “balanced treatment” actually becomes the tactic of “persistent distortion.” He puts it this way:

One of the key reasons for distortion in the media reports on climate change is perceived need for “balance” in journalism (substitute science teaching for journalism, and you have the logic behind these efforts to discuss pro’s and con’s of a theory). In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is appropriate for journalists to report both sides of an issue. Got the democratic view? Better get the Republican.

In science, the situation is radically different. There are rarely just two polar-opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, which are often accompanied by a history of scientific assessment of the relative-credibility of each possibility.

Schneider addresses the issue and problem with the pro/con approach to a scientific idea, especially one like climate change (or evolution or human cloning). And in his statement he is showing us how this approach to exploring scientific ideas leaves us with nothing more than two sides squaring off against each other:

Being stereotyped as the “pro” advocate (advantages of—name your theory) versus the “con” advocate as far as action on climate change is concerned is not a quick ticket to a healthy scientific reputation as an objective interpreter of the science—particularly for a controversial science like climate change, which rarely one-sided. In actuality, it encourages personal attacks and distortions. This all part of the problem I call, somewhat whimsically, “mediarology.”

Scientific theories are abstract and conceptual, and to this end they are never right or wrong. Instead, they are supported or challenged by observations in the real world. The American Association for the Advancement of Science advances our understanding of scientific theories when they say:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment. Such fact-supported theories are not “guesses” but reliable accounts of the real world. The theory of biological evolution is more than “just a theory.” It is as factual an explanation of the universe as the atomic theory of matter or the germ theory of disease. Our understanding of gravity is still a work in progress. But the phenomenon of gravity, like evolution, is an accepted fact.

In a climate of polarization and partisanship, the school science curriculum could become the playing field of the same group that advocated equal time for creation science, and the inclusion of intelligent design in science teaching. As Leslie Kaufman suggests in a New York Times article, “Darwin foes add warming to target.” In the article Kaufman points out that:

Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools.

To be true to the suggestion of exploring the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories, what would be the pro- and con- sides of the following scientific theories?

  • Astronomy: Big Bang Theory
  • Biology: Cell theory — Evolution — Germ theory
  • Chemistry: Atomic theory — Kinetic theory of gases
  • Climatology: Theory of Global Climate Change (due to anthropogenic activity)
  • Engineering: Circuit theory — Control theory — Signal theory — Systems theory
  • Geology: Plate tectonics
  • Physics: Acoustic theory — Antenna theory — BCS theory — Landau theory — M-theory — Perturbation theory — Theory of relativity — Quantum field theory — Scattering theory — String theory
  • Planetary science: Giant impact theory
When politicians enter the arena of education and curriculum, and especially fields such as science, the are on a slippery slope. If, however, they simply want the facts (on climate change or global warming) taught in science class, they might go here.