Students Choose What to Learn: Freedom to Learn in the Science Classroom by Terrill L Nickerson

Guest Post: Terrill L. Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Terrill L. Nickerson commented on a recent blog post, Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn.

I contacted Terrill to ask permission to use his comments for a post on this blog, as well as a bio.  His bio is amazing, and his experiences shed light on how great teachers work.  This is a teacher who not only has degrees in science and education, but worked professionally in various fields of science.  His teaching experiences in Native American and migrant family communities supports the notion that good teaching is experiential and problem based.

Terrill explains that students in his classes thrived in an environment where they were given the freedom to learn and to choose what they wanted to learn.

As you read Terrell’s “letter” think of the ways your own experience as a teacher resonate with his.

I am sorry to come to your post so late. I am a high school science teacher with 26 years in the classroom. I am also a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Education working on my dissertation. Your humanistic approach sounds like an extension of John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education (this comment is not a judgement, just an observation).

Most of my teaching career has been involved with marginalized or underrepresented populations and cultures. I began teaching science prior to NCLB and Race to the Top. As such I started my career at a time that experienced a trend recognizing that the schools were failing to address the needs of the highest ability students. Teachers addressed large class sizes and mixed ability classes by teaching to the middle.

Teaching at a Native American School

Fortunately, I chose to begin my science teaching career by moving to a Native American reservation in central Arizona. Becoming immersed in another culture (literally, I was 90 miles from the nearest main stream population), I had to adapt an anthropological/humanistic approach to my teaching. It was imperative that I respect and honor the culture and inherent knowledge of my students, while still teaching main stream science. I am told that I was very successful in this capacity, so much so that I was recruited to teach at one of the best known and respected Native American schools in the U.S., the Santa Fe Indian School [SFIS], in Santa FE, NM. I spent the next 12 years teaching there.

All Students are Gifted

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website
Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Now to my point about your article. Because of the venue I found myself immersed, I was asked to coordinate the SFIS Gifted and Talented program. At the time that I took over the program, the school was operating under a unique paradigm about the definition of Gifted and Talented. My predecessor, had just completed her Master’s on the meaning of giftedness in the Keres Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.

According to her research, the Keres language lacked any words pertaining to the word “gifted”. In the Keres language cultures, “all students are gifted”, it’s just a matter of finding their personal area of strength, competence, or interest. This meant that some children are gifted drummers, some are gifted singers, some are leaders, some are artists, etc. That is to say, everybody had a natural talent or giftedness. Therefore, the gifted program sought to recognize as many students as possible, recognize their talents and include them in the program.

Of coarse, this philosophy did not sit well with the state and federal authorities, who saw it as a way to milk Special Education funding (Gifted and Talented) into the school. The policy at that time was that no more than 5% to 10% of a population should fall into the category of giftedness. We succeeded in identifying and servicing about 30% of our students (7-12) as having some form of giftedness. Needless to say, this created a case load of about 120 students for myself and my colleague to service. We were subject to all the paperwork and requirements that accompanying any Special Education program.

Democratic Curriculum

The way that I found to address this was to create a special program, generically called the Gifted and Talented seminar. The class was team taught by my colleague and myself. Given the ranges of talents, abilities, and interests represented, my colleague and I decided to design the class on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences philosophies (just coming into vogue then). Similar to your “Learn cloud Map”, my students democratically selected subjects they were interested in learning about, and then voted on which topic to pursue. My colleague and I then went out and gathered lessons, content and activities representing all of Gardner’s intelligences to form the curriculum. Everybody was given the opportunity to be an expert at some point in the unit. The “buy-in” was complete because they helped design the curriculum. It was very much like what you described in your article as “humanistic education”. Unfortunately, state and federal guidelines eventually forced SFIS to fall into line and alter their humanistic philosophy about Gifted programs.

I enjoyed your article and found a substantial amount for which I can relate. NCLB and Race to the Top has made my previous experience difficult to duplicate.

Terrill’s documents one way to give students the freedom to learn.  What are some ways that you have worked with students to “design the curriculum and in so doing the freedom to learn?

Do MOOCS Serve Schools or Corporations?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be following the historical trend of our infatuation with how technology can solve many of our problems in teaching and learning.  Since 2008, MOOCs have emerged not only as individual and free online courses (such as those offered at universities such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard, but have been packaged together as degree programs at Udacity, and at for-profit universities such as Ashford University, Capella University, Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.

There are a number of research issues including effectiveness, cost, and the nature of corporate/education partnerships.

These online courses and degree program didn’t drop out of the sky.  There is a long history here.

A Bit of History

Although the example in this article explores online courses and degrees at the college level, the content is relevant to K-12 burgeoning use of online courses, especially for middle and high schools.


In 1980, I purchased my first computer and modem, and later that day connected to a very primitive Internet (CompuServe, and BRS After Dark).  E-mail followed by using Bitnet, a university computer network founded in 1981.  By the late 1980s, I began using SOOHCs (Small Open Online Hybrid Courses) at Georgia State University utilizing e-mail and electronic bulletin boards for students to post and respond to comments and ideas of other students in the same course.  Many colleges and universities ventured into the application of these new technologies for teaching and learning.   Although the first virtual courses (online courses for middle and high schools) were developed at this time by the Concord Consortium, it was the creation of hybrid courses that blossomed during this early period in the 1990s.  These courses developed at the middle and high school levels, as well as at universities.

Teachers use several methods in creating a hybrid course.  Some include building WebPages and placing the course syllabus and its various elements on the web, or making use of a course management systems.  Course management systems have built-in tools that create an interactive online component such Blackboard, Nicenet or WebCT.

By building a Website or using a course management system, teachers used the resources of the web as an assistant in their approach to teaching.  This enabled them to carry out web-based teaching strategies in a seamless way.  The course website becomes a learning hub that organizes the work for teachers and students.  The course website included links to the course syllabus, an online bulletin board, and links to an assignment page, activities, and collaborative projects.

For teachers, however, the hybrid approach (SOOHCs) is a very practical alternative in which the teacher combines online and face-to-­face activities. Thousands of teachers are using this approach by creating their own interactive website which has aspects of the course syllabus, activities, projects and evaluation. Interactive websites can be easily created using free software to create your website. Blog software, such as WordPress, or Blogger, or wiki software such as Wikispaces are easy to use, and have features that enable you to create not only interactive, but powerful websites for your courses.  You can also use Google Docs or Soho Docs to manage your own files, and also make these available to your students and colleagues.

But probably more significant here is the fact that your students can be great agents and co-­collaborators in the development of websites, digital video of class projects, creators of Wikispaces, participants in Google Docs, generate Google Readers and Delicious links, perhaps for the benefit of younger students that they might indeed teach.  Follow this link for details about these Web 2.0 tools.

Network Science

One of the areas of Internet research and development that emerged during period this was “network science,” or, pooled data analysis.  Network science brought meaning to the concept of  “community of learners,” and because of the Internet, these communities were global in scope.  It was this construct that created such high interest among teachers and students.  The idea of communicating with students thousands of miles away motivated students and created intense interest with the school.

Network science projects involves students in real problems, including the study of soil erosion, chemical and biological pollution of streams, acid rain, and ground-level ozone.  Often, these problems have societal implications, and students take action based on their research.  Network science follows a cycle of learning and classroom activities that make it a compelling approach to science teaching. Table 1 outlines the cycle of learning that was worked out to design network projects (Hassard, J. 2009, Science as Inquiry, Goodyear).

Table 1. Network Science/Pooled Data Analysis

Data Collection at Local Site Teachers introduce the network project; schedule of local observations is established
Data Sharing Observational data is submitted via web forms.
Data Analysis Teachers work with students to analyze local data, aswell as data available on the network science website. In most cases, the data on the project’s website can be downloaded and into Excel or similar programs to create graphs and charts to help students with their analyses.
Taking Action The last step is for students to take action on their analyses.  At one level, students can publish/share their findings and conclusions by posting them on a website that they design. At another level, students can take action locally by sharing their findings and conclusions with the community with a conference, a presentation, or a fair.

Web-Based Projects

From the mid-1980s, nearly a dozen web-based projects were developed and field-tested within traditional courses, grades 5 – 12 in many countries.  For examples, through the Global Thinking Project (GTP), teachers from the U.S. and Russia designed a series of projects that were carried out using the pedagogy of network science.  Some examples can be found here.  At TERC and the Concord Consortium, which established the field of network science, many projects were developed, but more importantly, as with the Global Thinking Project, the projects were investigated through a variety of research programs.


MOOCs are the rage, especially when you consider that these courses can reach thousands, if not millions of students.  For example, to give you an idea of the range of MOOCs that are available, here is a link to a list of Top Ten Sites for Free with Elite Universities, courses offered at Blackboard and Udacity.

For years, universities have outsourced many of their technology courses and programs.  But in recent years, universities, realizing the potential and reach of the Internet, began offering many of their courses online–free.

But universities and K-12 schools have delved head first into developing courses and programs online as a replacement for face-to-face courses.  At the college level, for-profit schools have not only developed courses, but now make available degree programs online.

According to the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), an advocacy group that raises questions about affordable higher education, and what voices should be included in changes being made to the design and structure of courses and programs at the university level.   As is the case in K-12 education, a corporate type of reform is taking place in higher education resulting in reduced funding, high costs for students, and a call for accountability and efficiency, which some claim reduces the quality of student learning experiences.  And, as many of you will agree, many of “technology reforms” are going forward with little or no research about the quality and effectiveness of online learning.

In a paper by the CFHE, entitled The Promises of Online Higher Education, the authors ferret out conclusions indicating that online courses will not cut costs for higher education, and in fact will probably be more expensive in the long run.  Although MOOCs are typically free, investors, according to the CFHE paper realize that a healthy profit could be realized if only a few of the thousands that take these course pay for them.  The authors of the report question the motivation for these “massive” courses.  They write:

According to venture capitalist John Doerr (one of the main backers of the MOOC provider, Coursera) if a sufficient number of people out of “millions of learners” pay for premium services MOOC providers could easily make a healthy profit.[10]  As this observation suggests, the corporate provider and investor  enthusiasm for the “massiveness” of MOOCs may not be so much about spreading knowledge as it is about getting a big enough set of potential consumers to generate profits.  Campaign for the Future of Education. (October 16, 2013). CFHE Working Papers. In The “Promises” of Online Higher Education: Reducing Costs. Retrieved October 18, 2013, from

There is another line of questioning that resonates with K-12 education reform, and that is to whom are these reforms (such as MOOCs and Charter Schools) directed.  According to the CFHE report, MOOCs are focused primarily on middle and lower-income students, and non-elite institutions.  And there is some evidence that a traditional higher education (face-to-face courses) is the “real deal,” and employers favor this.  Who has the advantage here?  The advantage is for those who attend traditional universities, and the “more privileged students who attend them.”

Online courses are also promoted as saving money.  This is a stance taken at not only university level education, but also at the k-12 level.  At the K-12 level, we need to be cautious about online course management companies that wedge themselves into states and school districts on the basis of political and financial premises, and not on a basis grounded in research.  Who is served by online learning courses?  When coupled with research, we can begin to answer such questions.

The money-saving argument according to some in higher education is “one of the worst reasons” to embrace online learning.  Designing, organizing, managing, and revising online courses and programs is an expensive venture.  If the courses are to be valuable learning experiences for students, then innovative online pedagogy must be developed and used in these courses.

As I mentioned earlier, the outsourcing of programs, courses, and other services has taken place for a long time.  But recently, partnerships have developed between universities and corporate entities such as Udacity and Coursera.  In the CFHE report, a partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology, AT&T and Udacity resulted in a contract to offer a Master’s degree program in Computer Science.  This program will be piloted during the Spring Semester, 2014, applicants have until October 27 to apply.  At this time 8 courses are in production.  The cost of the degree is $6,600.  For more details on this new program, follow this link.

According to the CFHE report, Udacity, AT&T and Georgia Tech will spend about $3.1 million for a projected 200 students during the first term at a cost of about $15,700 per student. (Note: This is a discrepancy based on the Udacity webiste that says the program will cost $6,600.  The Georgia Tech arrangement with Udacity, according to the CFHE report, is not outside the norm for MOOCs.  But it seems to me that this arrangement is not in the interests of faculty who develop the online courses in that they cannot make the courses available elsewhere, and they are the ones who are responsible for updating and revising the courses.

The partnership among GaTech, AT&T and Udacity hope to service 10,000 or more students, with 8 professors (new hires), and assistants that will work for Udacity to provide feedback to students.  How many assistants will it take to service 10,000 students?  Will the quality of this Masters Degree rival the face-to-face degree on the Georgia Tech campus?

At the K-12 level, especially for high schools where more online course development and curriculum development takes place, concern should be raised about the push for more online learning, especially when we hear politicians like Jeb Bush, who claim that parents should have the choice for their students, and that online education will be cheaper for school districts.  If you go to the Bush website, Foundation for Excellence, you will find that his organization uses the same language that appears in all of the Race to the Top (RT3) work plans that I’ve read, e.g. career readiness, digital learning, effective teachers and leaders, outcome based funding, school choice, and standards and accountability.

Online learning is relatively new to middle and high schools, and colleges and universities.  MOOCs are the latest form of online courses, and need to be studied to find out who takes these courses, how many students complete MOOCs, and how effective are MOOCs as teaching and learning platforms.  An article on Inside Higher Ed reviewed research the high MOOC dropout rate.  According to some reports, the dropout rate is as high as 90%, but that might be due to that anyone can register for free, look around, and for one reason or another not even pursue the course, let along complete it.

For example, I’ve registered for a MOOC at Udacity, Introduction to Computer Science.  There are 11 lessons in the course.  I am still on lesson 1.  Will I complete the course?  Maybe.  But the point is, I could be easily identified as a dropout.  Or perhaps, as reported in the Inside Higher Ed article, I could be either a lurker, drop-in, passive participant, or an active participant.

That said, online behavior is very different from in-class behavior, including attendance and course completion.  When we started working with online courses and projects, rates of participation varied.  For hybrid courses, the participation in online discussions was higher than in The Global Thinking Project.  Expecting schools from around the world to keep up with emails, electronic bulletin boards discussions, data uploading and analysis was more difficult.  Much of this had to do with access to technology that was seamless, and this didn’t happen until schools upgraded telecommunications, and provided enough computers for more student and teacher involvement.

Since the early 90s, when we began this work, the Internet has been transformed, but the Internet has also transformed the behavior of humans.  MOOCs are here, and many of them are high quality courses.  In addition to studying the quality of online courses, we need to find out what creates good experiences for students.

Do MOOCs and K-12 online learning courses serve students or corporations?  What do you think?

Teach Like Vladimir Vernadsky: Education as a Holistic & Dynamic System

I started going to the Soviet Union when it was the USSR in 1981, and for the next 20 years collaborated  with teachers and researchers, particularly Julie Weisberg, Phil Gang and Jennie Springer in the US, Sergey Tolstikov, Galina Manke, and Anatoly Zaklebny in Russia in a mutually designed and developed program, the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  The GTP is about how citizen diplomacy among American and Russian educators and psychologists emerged into a youth and teacher activism project.  During nearly 20 years of work, educators, primarily from Georgia, forged a hands-across the globe program with colleagues and students in Russia, and then partnered with teachers in other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, and Spain.

The citizen diplomacy activity that emerged between American and Russian students, and between students in other countries as mentioned above, integrates Vladimir Vernadsky’s (1926) conception of the Biosphere and environmental education, the humanistic psychology and philosophy of Rogers (1961), John Dewey’s conception of experiential learning (1938), and Track II Diplomacy (Montville and Davidson 1981).

In this post I want to write about Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), a Russian scientist, whose ideas really never made it into the west until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Biosphere, a book written by Vernadsky in 1926 was not published in English until 1998.  It’s available on Kindle here.  Vernadsky’s 150th birthday was celebrated in March 2013.

What does Vernadsky have to do with teaching?  That’s the question I’d like to explore in this post.  I am going to argue that the fundamental concepts underpinning Vernadsky’s view of the biosphere give the rationale for a holistic and dynamic conception of teaching and learning.

Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education
Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education

Anatoly Zaklebny, professor of ecological studies at the Russian Academy of Education introduced  us to Vernadsky’s work.  Anatoly is an ecological educator, author of ecological and environmental education teaching materials for Russian schools, and ecological teacher educator.  Anatoly understood and applied Vernadsky’s conception of the biosphere, and used the concept of Biosphere to design teaching materials for Russian ecological education.

Zaklebny was the chief scientist on the GTP, and participated in all aspects of the project.  We embraced Vernadsky’s holistic view of the Biosphere, which resists the mechanistic reductionist nature of Western science.  Vernadsky’s ideas were late in arriving in the west, and it was only in the 70s and 80s, that his ideas gained prominence in Western science.

Vernadsky’s Ideas

Lynn Margulis, biologist at the University of Massachusetts, and co-creator of the GAIA Hypothesis, in the introduction to the English translation of Vernadsky’s (1926) book The Biosphere, explained that Vernadsky was a great teacher.  According to Margulis, who discovered that interdependence and cooperation were the underlying themes in endosymbiosis theory (one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells), Vernadsky teaches that life has transformed the planet over eons.  She put it this way in her introduction to The Biosphere:

What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space.  Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all—through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere–connected in space.  We are tied through Vernadskian space to Darwinian time. (Forward, L. Margulis in V.I. Vernadsky, 1998, The Biosphere. New York: Copernicus.)

Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky's 150th year anniversary, 2013.
Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky’s 150th year anniversary, 2013.  Doodle posted by googlescribbles


Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years. To Vernadsky life makes geology. To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.” Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions, especially the idea of “biosphere” are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study. This is especially true for the curriculum.

To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a biogeochemical evolving system. And according to Jacques Grinvald, the ideas was not welcomed by mainstream science. Vernadsky’s idea is the biosphere should be conceived from a geochemical point of view, and the Earth as a “dynamic energy-matter organization, like a thermodynamic engine” (Grinvald, p. 26). Conceptually here is the biogeochemical Earth is powered by sun.

Here we see the initial stage of the “earth system” concept, and again, Vernadsky is ahead of the game. To many earth science teachers, this is beginning of the earth system education approach, an approach that is holistic science education (see Nir Orion’s article on holistic science). Holistic science education is still NOT mainstream. Most curriculum standards are still written splitting science into compartments that are based on traditional college science departments. But that’s another story. But in this discussion, the main point is that Vernadsky was trying to integrate the disparate fields of biology, chemical and geology in his synthesis of the biosphere, while at the same time these fields were going their separate ways.

For teachers, Vernadsky’s ideas provide empirical support for interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum development.

The current standards based system of education is just the opposite of the kind of thinking that Vernadsky’s mind set out to discover.  Our current curriculum (math, reading, science, you name it) splits everything into little components and thinks that students at different ages and stages should accumulate these bits of information, and of course be tested to see if they have retained the bits.  Not in Vernadsky’s scheme.
Vernadsky was always combining fields of science.  Biology, chemistry, geology became biogeochemistry. He also founded fields including geochemistry and radiogeology.  Vernadsky’s thinking is literacy in synthesis, building wholes, construction, integrating, structure, and  cooperation.

Application of Vernadsky’s Ideas to Teaching

If we accept the Vernadskian view, teaching ought to be holistic and dynamic.  The curriculum for our students ought to be constructed into wholes, not parts, and we need to use a dynamic view of knowledge, and one that brings the students in touch with the world around them.
If you consider the following ideas of Vernadsky, then one can begin to conceptualize curriculum and teaching as fundamentally a holistic process.  Take a look at these ideas (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):
  • Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  • Life makes geology—that is life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force, and to him nearly all geological features at the Earth’s surface are influenced by life.
  • The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.
As teachers, I believe that Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in learning from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary education. Vernadsky believed scientists (especially Earth scientists) should explore the relationship between the development of life on Earth and the formation of the biosphere. To him living phenomena are at the center of geological formations. Vernadsky encouraged scientists to consider a holistic mechanism that unifies biology and geology.
It seems to be that his ideas should encourage us to think differently about our work with students.  I don’t believe  that thinking holistically, or in wholes are clichés, but instead they are based on empirical studies not only in science, but other fields as well.

One More Thing

Fritjof Capra, in his book The Science of Leonardo, argues that the true founder of Western science was Leonardo (1452-1519), not Galileo (1564-1642). However, it was the science of Galileo that influenced later scientists (Newton, 1643-1727) who stood on Galileo’s shoulders. Capra wonders what would have happened if these 16th – 18th century scientists had discovered Leonardo’s manuscripts, which were “gathering dust in ancient European libraries. You see, Capra shows that Leonardo’s view was a synthesis of art and science, and indeed science was alive, and indeed science was “whole.” Leonardo was ahead of his time in understanding life: he conceived life in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns or organization. Capra suggests that Leonardo, instead of being simply an analytic thinker, was actually a systemic thinker preceding the lineage established by scientists and philosophers including Wolfgang von Goethe, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Vernadsky.

What do you think are the applications of Vladimir Vernadsky’s ideas for teaching and learning?

Assault on Teacher Education

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) is leading the assault on teacher education in the U.S.

According to the President of this organization “Ed schools don’t give teachers the tools they need.”

NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh, has led the assault  claiming that teacher education has no real authority because it lacks specialized knowledge. She writes about teacher education, yet she lacks professional training in educational research and has no experience as a K-12 teacher or a university professor. Her writing is not peer-reviewed, nor subjected to kind of review and analysis that the writing is by educational researchers,  or others scholars in the fields of art, music, history, political science, computer science, mathematics. Scholarly peer review Most journals use scholarly peer review to judge professional work, such as in medicine or political science, and done by experts in the field of the scholar’s work.  Think tank “research” is typically not peer-reviewed, and it doesn’t matter whether the organization is on the left or the right of the political spectrum.  When reading reports that are non-peer reviewed, we should be cautious about the facts, principles, theories and conclusions drawn in these reports.

Leading the Assault on Teacher Education

Leading the assault on teacher education is NCTQ.

The NCTQ was created by the ultra conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 1999.  According to Anthony Cody, we gain insight into the NCTQ’s origin from this quote from Diane Ravitch which Cody included in his article, “NCTQ Prepares its Hit on Schools of Education.”  According to Ravitch, here is what the Fordham Foundation thought about teacher education:

We thought (schools of education) were too touchy-feely, too concerned about self-esteem and social justice and not concerned enough with basic skills and academics. In 1997, we had commissioned a Public Agenda study called “Different Drummers“; this study chided professors of education because they didn’t care much about discipline and safety and were more concerned with how children learn rather than what they learned. TBF established NCTQ as a new entity to promote alternative certification and to break the power of the hated ed schools.

Screen Shot 2012-04-05 at 9.10.20 AMThis is not the first time that I’ve written about the NCTQ.  About a year ago I wrote a review of a NCTQ study on what teacher education programs teach about K-12 assessment.  In my review, I concluded that the researchers of the NCTQ study are stuck in a 19th-century model of teaching, and simply want to hold accountable, teacher education institutions to the principles and practices that teacher education rocketed through years ago.

In this blog post, I am going to focus on an article that NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh published online at Educationnext entitled 21st-Century Teacher Education. The article includes one illustration of  a red “teacher tools” box with a very large lock with teachers standing near.  The teachers are unable to unlock the “tools of teaching” inside the box.

According to Walsh, Ed schools don’t give teachers the tools inside the box.  For a 21st-Century article about teacher education, don’t you think its odd to use a 17th – 18th century invention as a metaphor?

The article is full of opinion, and lacks any research basis for her views of teacher education.  Furthermore, the tone of the article unabashedly negative, and she seems to enjoy using violent and militaristic metaphors.

Yet at the same time, the article is important because it identifies the nature of the assault on teacher education.

The author of the article doesn’t hold back on her opinions of Ed schools. Here’s one comment that will knock you over. She quotes and agrees with a former employee of the National Institutes of Health, Reid Lyon, who would like to take the following action against Ed schools:

If there was any piece of legislation that I could pass it would be to blow up colleges of education.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, which is very close to several schools of education in Boston, this remark is simply outrageous.  (Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Boston, and attended graduate school at Boston University)

Cherry Picking

Her assault on teacher education, beyond the bombing metaphor, begins with a cherry picking exercise in which she chooses a few sentences from a major research study carried out in 2006 by the most prestigious education research organization in the world, the American Education Research Association (AERA).  The major research project was Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education, edited by Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Kenneth M. Zeichner.  Walsh claims that the research was written by 15 prominent deans and education professors, when in fact there were 25 authors and panel members, only one of whom was dean.  The authors are prominent researchers and practicing teacher educators.

Walsh assumes that thinking about right and wrong (directions, issues, methods, content) is the way researchers in this volume of research think.  They don’t.  But she does.  And this is a major dilemma in analyzing anything that Walsh and her think tank has to say.

She claims that the AERA report outs teacher education by publishing a report that will give “balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education.” But, as I said, all she has done is pull a sentence out of a report of more than 800 pages.  Here is the complete paragraph containing this sentence:

This volume represents a systematic effort to apply a common set of evaluative criteria to a range of important topics in teacher education. It is our intention to provide balanced, thorough, and unapologetically honest descriptions of the state of research on particular topics in teacher education as a field of study. For many of the topics we considered, this meant that we needed to identify and acknowledge the considerable inconsistencies and contradictions that characterize the field. Our reviews were designed not only to note this state of the field but also to explain why this is so and to evaluate both the strengths and the weaknesses of different questions and approaches as we simultaneously identified promising lines of inquiry.  (Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 230-235). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

Walsh has her own view of how teachers should be educated, and seems somewhat bothered by the depth of the research reported in the AERA study.  For the researcher, they’re interested in uncovering the nature of teacher education through inquiry, and then to use findings to document and encourage promising lines for further inquiry.  Walsh, beyond bombing schools of ed, has her own set of ideas that she thinks should be the substance of teacher education.

She claims that the volume demonstrates lack of credible research in teacher education. I don’t think she read the book.

For starters there are 12  chapters, and each chapter has between 100 – 200 citations, most of which are research studies published in peer-reviewed journals.  There is credible research in teacher education.  It might not be what Ms. Walsh wants to read.  For this book, all chapters “were vetted by scholars who brought independent expertise to the work and who had no stake in the panel or its report.”   Another words, it was peer-reviewed.  Walsh is not used to this kind of writing or research.  If she was, then her article as written on EducationNext wouldn’t have been published in any credible journal.

In the book, there are nine research syntheses that are used to highlight the current state of field in teacher education.  The “Executive Summary” which draws from three general chapters and the nine research reviews, might be valuable section of the book for “researchers” at NCTQ.

Teachers Should Be Trained

Walsh appears really upset with the fact that teacher educators don’t see teacher education as training.  (Disclaimer: I am teacher educator, and practiced teacher education at Georgia State University, Florida State, the University of Vermont, and the University of Hawaii for about 35 years, and I didn’t train anyone during that period, not even a dog).  She also objects to the concept or word “learning”, and can’t understand why teacher educators distinguish it from knowing real facts.  This is quite understandable, because she lacks the knowledge about how humans learn, and somewhere along the line missed out on a new field of inquiry known as the “learning sciences.”  Most teacher educators that I know and read embody the leaning sciences in their approach to designing teacher education curriculum, and teacher education courses.  The learning sciences is an interdisciplinary field that endeavors to further our understanding of human learning.  It is at the forefront of what teacher educators do, and unfortunately, Walsh doesn’t seem able or willing to entertain that thought.

Reading further into Walsh’s article, we find her take on methods courses in teacher education.  To Walsh, a methods course ought to send or give to the student what methods should be used to teach subject matter. Students should come into a methods course and be trained.  When Walsh found out that some of the top researchers in the field suggest that teaching is way to complex to be simply “taught” in courses based on a bag of tricks.

Walsh advances the achievement and authoritarian mentality of American education, and seeks to impose this view on teacher education.  Her conception of teacher education is simple when she talks about methods courses, and she seems bent out of shape when she reads the research that the authors of the AERA research study report to us.

Teachers Should Not Be Trained

In an amazing chapter on the Research on Methods Courses and Field Experiences by Renee T. Clift and Patricia Brady, Walsh picks two sentences from their research, but reverses them in her article, and then doesn’t tell us the full context of the research.

Here is what is in the Walsh article about methods:

A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about methods of instruction and ends with a final exam. [They] are seen as complex sites in which instructors work simultaneously with prospective teachers on beliefs, teaching practices and creation of identities—their students’ and their own.”

If you go to the research chapter, here you will see how Walsh rearranged the authors thinking, and failed to give us the context:  Here is the full context and the two sentences highlighted:  (Note how she reversed the ideas.)

Across the four content areas, methods courses are seen as complex sites in which instructors work simultaneously with prospective teachers on beliefs, teaching practices, and creation of identities—their students’ and their own.A methods course is seldom defined as a class that transmits information about methods of instruction and ends with a final exam. Content-area researchers, often the course instructors, looked at multifaceted activities such as role adoption, personal relationships, and rationales for appropriating certain tools. Field experiences were increasingly connected to and embedded within methods courses and seen as extending coverage of concepts introduced in the methods courses. The field experiences provide prospective teachers opportunities to practice ideas or gain experience with concepts through small-group observations, tutoring, community experiences, and service learning in addition to observations and more traditional student teaching.
(Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 9825-9831). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.)

The first science methods course that I taught was a collaborative effort with my colleague Ashley Morgan, who became my mentor at Georgia State University.  After finishing my Ph.D. in science education and geology at Ohio State University in 1969, I started my career in Atlanta, and the course I taught with Ashley was centered in the classrooms of an urban elementary school in the city of Atlanta.  Any conception that I had that a methods course was a training exercise vanished after working with Ashley Morgan at GSU.  Students in our course had continual experiences with children and youth and practicing teachers who worked with them on planning, teaching and evaluation.  For the next thirty-five years I was involved in developing and directing alternative forms of science teacher education based on theories of humanistic psychology, constructivism, and experiential learning.  Walsh would certainly not endorse the work we did at GSU.

Ms. Walsh doesn’t realize it but professional teacher education research, just like professional medical education research, has moved from a focus on general or generic teaching behavior, to thinking and learning about the context of teaching.  In the chapter Walsh refers to in the AERA report (Research Methods Courses and Field Experiences), the researchers examined methods of research in the teaching of English, mathematics, science and social studies.  Their review informs us that teacher preparation, just like medical education, begins with the beliefs teacher candidates have about students, teaching and learning and helps students explore teaching (or medical practice) to the “instructional, interpersonal, social, and historical factors that come into play one begins teaching practice.” (Zeichner, Kenneth M. (2009-08-03). Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education (Kindle Locations 9839-9840). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

21st-Century Teacher Education is the title of Walsh’s article, unfortunately, her view of teacher education set not in the 21st-Century, but more like the 19th-Century.  Teacher education is not the naïve view of Walsh’s.

Finding Teacher Education in the Marketplace

According to the NCTQ, students who aspire to teach should consider themselves consumers of teacher education, and using the marketplace model, they would be drawn to “high quality” schools.  The NCTQ wants to impose an “objective” measure of program quality.  Indeed they have the NCTQ Teacher Prep Review coming out in June, and it purports to rate teacher education programs across the country.  This new “consumer report for teacher education” will use admission standards, course requirements, content covered, how well students are prepared for the Common Core State Standards, the nature of student teaching, instruction in classroom management and lesson planning, and teacher candidates are judged ready for the classroom (Walsh, 2013.)  The NCTQ will also single out institutions that follow or track their graduates effectiveness on the achievement of K-12 student.

If this report is anything like the “study” they did of what teacher preparation programs teach about K-12 assessment, then it will not be based on critical research on teacher education such as the work of Linda Darling-Hammond in her book, Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs.  This book was published in 2006, the same year that the AERA study was published.  I wonder why Walsh didn’t reference the Darling-Hammond book?

In Powerful Teacher Education, the authors identify teacher education programs that have a long track record of preparing teachers who teach a wide range of students, and do it successfully.  In seven programs that they focus on, they all have the following in common:

an approach that prepares teachers to practice in ways that we describe as both learning-centered (that is, supportive of focused, in-depth learning that results in powerful thinking and proficient performance on the part of students) and learner-centered (responsive to individual students’ experiences, interests, talents, needs, and cultural backgrounds). These programs go well beyond preparing teachers to manage a calm classroom and make their way through a standard curriculum by teaching to the middle of the class. They help teachers learn to reach students who experience a range of challenges and teach them for deep understanding. They also help teachers learn not only how to cope with the students they encounter but how to expand children’s aspirations as well as accomplishments, thereby enhancing educational opportunity and social justice.  (Linda Darling-Hammond. Powerful Teacher Education: Lessons from Exemplary Programs (pp. 7-8). Kindle Edition.)

Teacher education programs have embodied learning sciences research I cited earlier in this post, and consequently the field of teacher preparation is very different than that envisioned by the NCTQ.  Darling-Hammond, recognizing that teachers are not born to teach, and pointing out how complex and difficult teaching is, suggests that teacher education institutions must prepare teachers for “responsive practice.”  Finding out what really goes on inside teacher education programs was what her research was about.

The study that will be forthcoming from the NCTQ will not reveal anything about the actual programs that they evaluate.  If they use the same methods that used in their prior study, the new one will be written without visits to the universities, interviews with faculty or students.

One More Thing

Ethical and honest research in education more times than not brings to the surface conflicts and issues, that people like Walsh like to grasp and use as a weakness in the life of educational research.  Walsh is stuck in the very old model that the purpose of teacher education is train teachers to teach the facts of science, or math, and that Ed schools should be training factories turning out teachers who follow the orders from above to teach nothing but the facts.

The NCTQ‘s assault on teacher education is a well-financed effort whose goal is control teacher preparation, and take it out of the hands of professional educators, and turn it over to statisticians and politicians who want to ignore the rich field of educational research, and the work being done at many universities with school districts in their localities.  The research book published by the AERA that Walsh uses to degrade teacher education actually promotes a vibrant and powerful profession of teacher education.  Instead of blowing up Ed schools, we should be supporting efforts to explore multiple models of preparing teachers for our schools.

What are your conceptions of teacher education in the 21st-Century?  If you’ve read the Walsh article, what do you think of her views of teacher education?




From Educators to Racketeers: How Education Reform Led to a National Testing Scandal

Thirty-five Atlanta Public School educators were accused by a grand jury of racketeering, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.

How could this happen in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS)?  The district is in a city that is home to The King Center, The Carter Center, Clark Atlanta University, Emory University, Georgia State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and many other institutions that embody academic, research and cultural and social change.   Each of these institutions collaborated with the Atlanta Public Schools, some more than others, in research projects, staff development programs, curriculum development, and other educational activities for decades.  Grants were received from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and many other funding agencies. The Georgia Department of Education has contributed to the APS by providing consultants to help teachers who work with struggling students in the lowest performing schools in Atlanta.  Some schools received funding from private foundations and corporations, as well as mentoring and training relationships with local universities, especially in science and technology.  (Disclaimer: I was professor of science education at Georgia State University from 1969 – 2002, and worked with teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools).

How could these educators end up being accused of racketeering?  It doesn’t make any sense.  Or does it?

The Parks Middle School Case

It might surprise you, but the Atlanta Public Schools did more than simply change answer sheets to improve student learning.  Did the students learn, in spite of some teachers’ and administrators’ behavior. They did because the teaching practices that were initiated, especially in reading and English/language arts, seem to hold as shown in CRCT test results the year AFTER the scandal.  I want to give some information that should be considered when we explore the nature of the charges brought against the APS.

In the Atlanta bubble test erasure investigation, Parks Middle School was center-stage in the investigation. According to the report, “cheating” occurred from 2005 – 2009. According to the report, the principal conspired with other administrators and some teachers to systematically changed answers on student bubble tests during these, and made an effort to keep this from the test coördinator.

But, during this period Parks was held up as a model of how to turn around an urban school. In fact a lengthy report in the form of a published paper (here) of Parks’ efforts and successes was included in the Governor’s Investigative report. Parks was involved in many creative curriculum efforts designed to help students make success.

I examined the data at CRCT website (Georgia Department of Education) for a three-year period, 2008 -2010. I wanted to find out how the scores changed (if at all) in 2010 in each subject area. As you can see in the areas of Reading and English/Language Arts Parks more than 90% of Park’s 8th graders met or exceeded the state target, even after the year when “cheating” was discovered. In the areas of math, science and social studies, we do see an appreciable decline in CRCT results in 2010.

At Parks Middle School, the increase in reading scores rose dramatically from 2004 from 35% to 74%, and then to 98.5 in 2009. According to the Governor’s investigative team, the scores in 2010 (the year in which we can be certain there was no cheating), students in the 8th grade at Parks still scored above 90%. The same is true for English/Language Arts.

Why Parks’ Students Scores Increased Dramatically. In a paper describing the Parks’ story of success, the dramatic gains in student test scores was attributed to effective leadership, data-driven planning and instruction, high expectations, strategic partners (corporate sponsors including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), increased student discipline, and more professional development. The Annie Casey Foundation, which invests in charter schools, vouchers and organizations such as Teach for America, was a major contributor to Parks Middle.  The Foundation produced a video podcast of Parks success in turning around the chronic failure for many years. There is evidence that these did indeed occur, although some might argue with the “effective leadership” attribute.  But this is just the surface of the partnerships that Parks’ principal, Christopher Waller spearheaded since his appointment as head of the school.  The efforts that were made from 2005 on at Parks Middle School were impressive, and no doubt contributed to the success that was revealed in the years ahead.  Yet, with this success the school suffered financially by losing significant funding totaling more than $800,000 per year.

These dramatic increases in student performance were lauded, locally and nationally, and Parks received many awards, and enormous financial support during this period. Superintendent Hall praised the work of the principal, Christopher Waller, and both were recognized for creating conditions that made learning successful for poor children. Specialists in reading, special education and other areas were hired to give staff development and instruction for students. Waller launched Project GRAD at Parks Middle School, a reform model that included professional development for teachers, on going support, coaching and re-training. Twenty-five Atlanta elementary, middle and high schools now take part in Project GRAD. Project GRAD is a national program, and is in place in more than ten cities around the country.

Georgia State Department InvolvementThe Georgia Department of Education was involved with Parks Middle through the NCLB “Needs Improvement” schools support. The state assigned Dr. Cheryl Hunley to serve with Parks and six other area schools. Working closely with the principal, she provided professional development, and worked very closely with the entire staff at Parks.

In addition to these two major sources of professional development, Parks was also part of the SRT 2 (School Reform Team 2), an initiative begun by Dr. Hall which was led by an executive director who oversaw several schools. Training, support, and help was localized with in the district through four SRTeams.  In 2012, the new superintendent initiated a cluster model organizing the schools in Atlanta into 10 clusters composed of dedicated elementary schools feeding into dedicated middle and ultimately dedicated high schools.

There is no doubt Parks was involved in innovative school improvement. And given, the data that is shown in the Figure 1, we can conclude that these efforts must have contributed to some of the gains shown in student CRCT test results, especially in Reading and English/Language Arts.

Test Results. The results in Math, which did decrease in 2010, are disappointing. The scores in science and social studies show the greatest losses. But I remember several years ago that Dr. Hall was quoted as saying that there is no way that students will do well on the NAEP Science Test with out Reading and Math. She indirectly was saying that schools should emphasize reading and math to the exclusion of science, and perhaps social studies.

The data reported by the Investigative Team of the Governor’s Office, and the CRCT data for these three years does not answer all the questions. Teachers may have cheated in changing student scores, but students did learn and improve, and they need to be informed that all of their gain was not due to teacher’s changing their papers.

Parks Middle School Reading English Language Arts Math Science Social Studies
2008 93.5 94.4 81.5 49.2 79
2009 98.5 96.9 85.4 58.5 66.9
2010 94 89.4 70.2 35 28
Average 95.3 93.5 79.0 47.5 57.9
Figure 1. Percent of Students Who Met or Exceeded the CRCT State Mandated Standard by Subject, 2008 – 2010 at Parks Middle School. Note: 2009 was the year the Governor’s Office investigated excessive erasures in the APS. In 2010, there were few, if any, erasures on bubble tests.

How could these organizations be involved with Parks Middle School and not question or wonder about the success that their efforts were having at the school?  Did they believe that their efforts did make the difference?  Did they ever consider that other factors such as cheating?  Yet, as I’ve shown, there was more going on at Parks Middle School than cheating on student achievement tests.  If you read the article on Parks Middle School written by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that is included in the Governor’s Investigative Report on the Atlanta Public Schools, you will find details of the educational innovations that were put into place including after school programs for students, staff development for teachers, and partnerships with tens of organizations.  These probably played as much a part in increasing student’s ability to offer correct answers on the state achievement tests as did the erasures of student test sheets.

Preserving the Status Quo

I am going to argue that the cheating scandal, and the charges against 35 educators is because the country is mired in educational reform that has turned schools into testing factories. We can explain this mire if we look at two different political and social world-views, the conservative world-view (preserving things as they are), and the progressive world-view (forward-looking). Each world-view has played significant roles in American history, including public education.  Progressive and conservative approaches to education have competed with each other in America for more than a century. The conservative view has dominated American education, but we’ll also find that the progressive view has affected American education in powerful ways at different times during this period.

In this post I will try to show how the conservative world-view has negatively affected the way public schools determine curriculum, hold schools accountable for student learning, and the effectiveness of schools and teachers.  The theoretical basis for the conservative agenda for education will come to light here, and we will see that the authoritarian nature of the conservative view effectively perceives teachers as workers who prepare students to take achievement tests.  Because of the top-down nature of an authoritarian system, teachers have little opportunity to influence educational policy, and have not been instrumental in determining the goals and standards which they are responsible for carrying out in public schools.

We would agree that the teachers and administrators who were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury are not only innocent until they are found guilty in an American courtroom, but we will see that they were an unfortunate part of an authoritarian regime that has claimed schooling in America.

The erasure and cheating debacle that happened in Atlanta was not directly caused by high-stakes testing.  And, it was not limited to the Atlanta Public Schools.  Other school districts in Georgia, and in school districts around the country including Washington, D.C., and New York City have shown very high erasure rates on student achievement tests.    In the Atlanta case, the Atlanta Journal Constitution launched an investigation into testing irregularities that they “uncovered” in some Georgia schools.  These irregularities lead to a full-scale analysis of millions of pieces of data that was available because of the open records law.  The AJC reports lead Sonny Perdue, then Governor of Georgia to appoint a special investigative team to probe the allegations of test tampering in the APS.  The report of this investigation was hand delivered to Governor Nathan Deal by the three investigators, Michael J. Bowers, former Attorney General of Georgia, Robert E. Wilson (Attorney and former District Attorney, & Chief Public Defender), and Richard L. Hyde (Former Atlanta Police Officer, and Lead Investigator for the Attorney General’s Office).

The cheating scandal in Atlanta and other school districts around the country is a symptom related to something bigger than achievement tests.  The cheating calls into question the nature of contemporary schooling.  We have a systemic problem that relates to why we have put so much emphasis on achievement test results, when we know that in the larger scheme of things, test scores do not tell us very much about student learning and the effectiveness of schools.  The end-of-the-year achievement tests are summative (a point in time assessment of what students know), and do not necessarily relate to the student’s curriculum.  A better way to assess student learning is to rely on the evaluation tools that local schools and teachers use to help students learn.  Numerous research studies have shown that formative tests (tests that a part of instruction), student journals, portfolios, student work, student conferences, teacher questioning and probing give a clearer picture of student learning.  Teachers across the nation have put into practice this form of evaluation and assessment.  Unfortunately none of this data is used to “measure” student learning in public schools in America.  It is reduced to a single end-of-the-year test.  We are on the wrong path.


In order to understand how world-views can be used to look at education and the scandal that happened in Atlanta, and that is occurring in other school districts, I am going to reference the cognitive modeling and cognitive theory of metaphor by George Lakoff. Lakoff in his book Thinking Points:

formulated the nation-as-family metaphor as a precise mapping between the nation and the family: the homeland as home, the citizens as siblings, the government (or the head of government) as parent. The government’s duty is to citizens as a parent is to children: provide security (protect us); make laws (tell us what we can and cannot do); run the economy (make sure we have enough money and supplies); provide public schools (educate us).

World view refers to the culturally dependent, generally subconscious, fundamental organization of the mind,” according to William W. Cobern, who has done extensive research on world-view and how it impinges teaching. One’s world view predisposes one to feel, think and act in predictable way, according to Cobern. World-view inclines one to a particular way of thinking.

Conceptual Metaphor of Nation as Family

According to research by George Lakoff and the Rockbridge Institute, the moral world-view of either conservatives or progressives can be understood by using the conceptual metaphor of Nation as Family. Using this idea, ones political beliefs tend to be structured by how we think of family, and our early experiences in our own family which contribute to our beliefs. Thinking of a nation as a family is a familiar notion, as in phrases such as Mother Russia, Fatherland, sending sons and daughters off to war, the founding fathers, Big Brother (see Joe Brewer, Rockbridge Institute, discussion here).

In Brewer’s thinking, the conceptual metaphor of nation as family organizes our brains in this way: homeland is home, citizens are siblings, the government (or head) is parent, and so forth. The diagram below shows the organization of schooling according to a conservative world-view.  In the illustration that I have created, the authority or head of the family resides with the State Department of Education.  From the DOE, each school district is headed by a superintendent and team of school principles.  The teachers in each school serve the principal, who serves at the will of the superintendent.  It’s a top down organization, and that is a problem.

Conservative World-View

The world-view of conservatives can be explained using the conceptual metaphor for Nation as Family. Lakoff would say that a conservative family would be based on authority, and would be represented by the “Strict Father Family”. In the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by Rockbridge, the conservative family can be characterized as follows (from Brewer, Conservative Morality):

  • The Strict Father Family is the traditional family with a father and mother
  • The father is the head of the house
  • The mother is supportive and upholds the authority of the father
  • A hierarchy exists and is never to be questioned
  • Children are weak and lack self-control
  • Parents know what is best
  • Children learn right and wrong when punished by doing wrong
  • When children become self-discipline, respect authority, and learn right from wrong they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This list of characteristics helps us understand a conservative family’s world-view. As we look around us, and especially when we look at schooling today, we see the influence of the conservative world-view. Indeed, the fundamental values of the conservative world-view shape most aspects of public schools today.  The top-down conceptualization of schooling means that teachers are at the bottom of the organizational flow chart, and have little power in shaping policy, standards, and assessments.  Yet, they are ones whose jobs are dependent on policies that are not democratic.

In their book, entitled, Thinking Points by George Lakoff, and the Rockbridge Institute, the core conservative values are:

  • Authority: assumed to be morally good and used to exert legitimate control ( it is imperative that authority is never questioned)
  • Discipline: self-control learned through punishment when one does wrong (it is understood that failure of authority to punish for wrong doing is a moral failure)

The public schools in the U.S. reflect the core values of authority and discipline, and many of the laws and acts (especially the NCLB Act of 2001) was written by the authority of the government, and set in motion an image that suggests that students, teachers and administrators are siblings in the Family of Education, and are beholden to the Authority of Federal and State departments of education. It’s a top-down system, and conceptual metaphor of the “Strict Father Family” mirrors the way public schools are conceptualized.

At the top of the organizational chart for the Atlanta Public Schools was Dr. Beverly Hall, who retired in 2009, and was replaced by Dr. Erroll Davis, former chancellor of the University System of Georgia.  But the system of education in Atlanta is linked to and includes the Georgia Department of Education, which has the legal authority to decide the teaching and learning standards for all Georgia schools, and is responsible for measuring the year-to-year achievement of students on statewide assessments.  These assessments are used to decide the AYP or Adequate Yearly Progress of schools in the state.

Education through Conservative Lenses

Atlanta Test Erasure Scandal.  In the Atlanta test erasure scandal, nearly 200 teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and many of these teachers lost their jobs, were fired, or forced to resign.  Thirty-five, including the former superintendent were indicted by a Fulton County grand jury.  They face racketeering charges, false statements and writings, false swearing, theft by taking and influencing witnesses.

What happened in Atlanta? Why did so many teachers and administrators cheat when they knew that they were being monitored by the Georgia Department of Education? Does the conservative world-view shed light on the cheating scandal?

According to the Georgia Governor’s three-volume report, the Atlanta cheating scandal was caused by “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation that spread throughout the (Atlanta) district.”  That culture of fear was directly related to the pressure put on administrators, teachers, and students to make sure students scored high on the end-of-year tests at any costs.

In the years leading up to the time that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution crack investigative team released its report on the suspicious test erasures, the Georgia Department of Education assigned specialists to work closely with Atlanta administrators and teachers by providing staff development training, especially in schools that were identified by testing as “Needs Improvement.” Many of these schools saw their student’s test scores go up over several years. Did these scores go up because of cheating, or because of the professional support the schools received from the Georgia Department of Education?

According to the investigative report of the Governor of Georgia, bubble sheets were changed, perhaps as the Governor suggested, the culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation led to this scandal.

If we could find out who or what perpetuated the culture of fear, it might help us understand why wide-spread cheating took place. (Note: I do not use this case to single out the Atlanta School System; the evidence from various reports is that cheating has taken place in many other cities around the country; nor do I condone the cheating).

Accountability  In the conservative approach to teaching and learning, hierarchical rules were established to make the nation’s schools and districts conform to an imposed set of standards and authoritarian assessments. In the first installment of the NCLB Act of 2001, terms such as accountability for schools, adequate yearly progress and getting results were used to discuss the way schools would be evaluated.

Teachers would agree that they should be accountable for their work by creating learning environments where students are successful. However, accountability in its present form means that student test scores will be used as the measure of accountability. Using an arbitrary level of performance, yearly progress will be based on student scores, and these in turn will be used to reward or punish schools, as well as teachers and administrators. The “strict father family” model shines a light how standards and assessments are used to judge student learning, and teacher performance. Learning and performance will be adequate (good) or inadequate (bad or see as failure), and students, if they are inadequate, will be retained, or forced to take summer classes, and then tested again, and teachers will be evaluated using their student’s scores, and then appropriate rewards and punishments handed out.

Accountability in the conservative world-view derives from an authority, and what the authority determines is success. In general the authority of the state is able to “raise the bar” on students over time. It’s as if the authority is mad at students (because of scores on international tests?), and punishes them by making it more difficult to pass the tests. Is this the kind of accountability that professional educators would choose?

Culture of Fear?

Was it the former superintendent of Atlanta that created the culture of fear? Or did the culture of fear spread to the Atlanta School System from the Georgia Department of Education? Could the annual testing cycle and the stakes that are placed on student test scores create a culture of fear in a district?  Was the culture of fear created by a system of schooling based on the “Strict Father Family” conceptual metaphor in which a hierarchy exists that is never to be questioned?  Have we created a system of schooling that is so hierarchical that teachers, who work directly with students, are not viewed as decision makers, but simply as workers to carry out the instructions of those above them?  Are students capable of only learning information that they will be asked on multiple choice exams, or can they do problem solving and inquiry?  In the model of schooling that we have today, it is implied that when children become self-disciplined, respect authority, and learn right from wrong, they are strong enough to succeed in the world.

This is a very controlling and narrow view of students and teachers.

If we assume that the Department of Education is the authority in determining what students should learn in schools across the state, and the authority in determining how the student’s performance will be judged, then one way of looking at education in Georgia is from a conservative lens. In the conservative view, the state, acting as the authority figure, holds school districts, and schools accountable based on high-stakes achievement test scores of its students.

Rewards and punishments are handed out each year. Those schools that meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYI)–using attendance and test scores, are considered successful; those schools that do not meet AYI, are considered unsuccessful. If a school fails AYI for several years in a row they enter “corrective action,” which could lead to the take over of the school, or the firing of all the teachers.

What does this scandal tell us about the conservative world view?  Or what does the conservative world view tell us about what motivates professional educators to put themselves into a place that they have been charged with racketeering?

In the next post, I’ll look at schooling in America from the progressive world-view, and show that American values are progressive, and that education should be based on equality, human rights, social responsibility and inquiry.

What do you think about what happened in Atlanta?  Do you think that our system of schooling could have anything do with the wide-scale cheating that is occurring in American schools today?