Tinkering Toward Utopia?

David Tyack and Larry Cuban have created the notion that education reform is an iterative process directed toward some type of social utopia. By learning our history, looking for clues in that history that match up to current scenarios, we can make better choices in reforming our education system. Looking specifically at our urban schools, however, their deterioration and resegregation defies pattern.
Schools in urban centers started out separate, and as we became a more industrialized culture, whites began to flee the cities, leaving the factory workers and a dwindling tax base to their own devices. When the automobile came into more homes across the country, suburbanization sped up and the urban schools became poorer. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the US realized that she wasn't the most intellectually advanced nation in the world. Who looked the stupidest? Wasn't the white suburban kids. Lack of funds and fingers being pointed at the urban schools didn't make it more attractive to stay in the cities. They became somehow more dangerous. Does this sound like an iterative process aimed at some utopia? If so, whose utopia is that?

So, the question is: Is the urban utopia the same as the suburban utopia? If not, why do they have the same learning standards? If "The Academy" was in an inner city, how should their curriculum differ from their suburban counterparts? In the Cornel West interview, he said: "Louis Armstrong would have been on the other side of the achievement gap, I don't give a god damn. Give me Louis Armstrong."

Click the title above to witness a VERY POWERFUL look that speaks to these issues by a friend who thinks very deeply about education reform.

Some of the best recommended readings (from the sidebar):
-Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995)

Exclusive Cornel West Interview

On January 24, 2009, I had the honor of sitting down for a few minutes with Dr. Cornel West, one of the world's prominent African-American Studies scholars to discuss social change in schools in the era of NCLB and Barack Obama. Click on the title to see the interview and listen to his thoughts on the nature of success in school, where the next social movement will come from and why the achievement gap may not be as significant as we think. My deepest gratitude to David Usui and Devin Young of The Flux Productions as well as The Open Center, New York City for making this happen. Also, great thanks to Bradley Eide for the rights to the photograph.


If you have any topics that you would like to have introduced for discussion here, please add them here and they will appear. Thanks!

Essential Questions

This week, instead of a specific topic, I will provide some questions that I scripted after reading many of the articles from the sidebar. Many teachers provide their students with so-called "Essential Questions" that guide deeper thinking around the subject at hand. A good "Essential Question" should be a question that two or more people require three or more beers in order to get to the heart of the issue. So, if you are in search of a talking point or two for your date, or are just tired of watching "Arrested Development" reruns, I hope you will consider the following questions around school reform:

a) Can a white teacher in a Black/Latino school be as effective as a Black or Latino teacher?

b) Is there room in the school day for community organizing for social change in the age of NCLB?

c) Are the benefits of pushing the higher kids greater than the risk of inequality in a school?

d) What are the teacher’s responsibilities with respect to interaction between students regarding each other's skill level?

e) Is the promise of success for children at the expense of teacher liberty an effective way to recruit promising new teachers? In other words, are scripted curricula acceptable?

f) If education gets so good that people leave, should the education level be lowered to ensure parity in potentially drained communities?

g) Whose responsibility is it to ensure that brain-drains don’t become epidemic?

h) You are the leader of a new high-performing charter school. In the second year of operation, a group of 4 children are caught selling drugs at school. You know that if you kick them out, they will go back to their low-performing public school. The culture of your school may be strong enough to keep them, but you aren't sure. What would you do? Kick them out, or let them stay? Is that different than if you were the leader of a public school?

What is Taught, and What Are We Teaching?

Since the inception of Teach For America in the early 1990's, increasing numbers of primarily white, highly-motivated recent college graduates have been entering some of our country's most challenging schools. The students in these schools are primarily Hispanic or African-American and are reared in a culture starkly different from the cultures in which their more privileged teachers came from. Academic content aside, this lends itself to an unspoken cultural dialogue in which students and teachers must somehow find a common point at which they can be set to agree on one goal. The implicit message when a white, upper-middle class teacher is standing in front of a room of children whose families are functioning below the poverty line can be confusing, even insulting. What often emerges is: what your culture is doing isn't working; be more like me.

In 1988, Lisa Delpit wrote a revolutionary article entitled: "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children." In the article, she examines the role of power in society and how it plays out in the classroom. She writes:

"To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."

This sentiment is so rife with assumptions that it may be indefensible; however, it does voice a commonly-held belief, namely that those in power are constantly aware of the power dynamic and will do what it takes in order to maintain their advantage. In other words, the achievement gap will never be closed.

She does go on to quote a parent who implicitly acknowledges that sentiment and has resigned herself to its conditions:

"My kids know how to be Black- you all teach them how to be successful in the White man's world."

So many emotional questions arise from here, but let's keep it to the context of "The Academy." Is it preferable to teach middle, or even upper-middle class values in a school in which many if not all students come from a lower-class background? Which values should be taught?

Some of the best recommended readings (from the sidebar):
-Cohen, D. (1990)
-Stigler, J. & Hiebert, J. (1999)
-Delpit, L. (1988)
-Hill, H. (2007)
-Committee on Science Education K-12 and Mathematical Sciences Education Board...(1999)

Who Writes the Curriculum?

On September 8, 2008, Maureen O'Hagan of The Seattle Times reported that: "In what many viewed as an inevitable end to a difficult four months of negotiations, Bellevue [Washington] teachers announced Monday night they would go on strike."

Teacher pay was a predictable component of the strike, but salary wasn't the only issue. According to O'Hagan:

"The two sides also disagree about curriculum. Bellevue, which is among the most highly regarded districts in the state, employs a curriculum that teachers complain does not allow for deviation. Dale Folkerts, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said there are 'prescripted lesson plans' and classrooms are "micromanaged" down to the minute."

If you were considering a career in teaching, would you apply for a position in a district that would have you teach lessons that were prepared in advance for you?

One component of No Child Left Behind is that each classroom should have a "highly qualified teacher," but there is an incredible amount of dialogue and research about what makes a highly qualified teacher. There is no conclusive evidence that a master's degree makes for a better teacher, or that years of experience translates into higher student achievement. The simple fact is that we have no way of knowing how well students in any class will perform in the upcoming year.

The response to this unpredictability in Bellevue was to implement a highly scripted curriculum, tailored to the tests that students would be taking in the spring in order to minimize chances of failure. In addition, if a child were to move schools during the year, chances would be very high that they would not have to adjust to what was being studied in his/her new school because all of the teachers would be on basically the same schedule of lessons. They felt that this would be beneficial for new teachers as well, freeing up their energies from writing a curriculum and lesson plans so that it could be directed toward classroom management.

But the matter is unsettled. At "The Academy," would teachers go by a scripted curriculum, or would they be free to write and implement their own standards-based curriculum and lesson plans?

Some of the best related readings (from the list on the sidebar):
-Au, W. (2007)
-Datnow, A. & Castellano, M. (2000)
-Kaufman, D. et al. (2002)
-Sleeter, C. (2002)
-Greene, M. (2005)

Is Charter School Design Preferable to Traditional School Design?

First championed by visionary union leader Albert Shanker (see picture) in the 1980's and then promoted by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charter schools came into the national spotlight in the late 1990's when the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools had proven that they could consistently outperform schools in their sending districts. As of 2008, 40 of 50 states have passed bills allowing charter schools to operate as special public schools.

What makes charter schools different from traditional public schools is that they largely operate free from union restrictions and are therefore able to try things that traditional schools can't. For example, many charter schools opt for an extended school day and school year, giving greater opportunity for student achievement. Charter schools tend to be smaller and because of their smaller size can focus more on fostering a strong sense of community and purpose.

Due to the success of the majority of charter schools, many states are raising the cap on how many charter schools may operate. However, this has lead to increased opposition. Because public schools are typically funded according to a system that accounts for the number of students at the school site, those opposed to charter schools argue that they are siphoning money away from the public schools in the area and depleting the system. In addition, the students who typically attend charter schools come from homes in which the pursuit of education is proactive enough to seek out alternatives. These students consequently tend to have a higher degree of support at home and are thus some of the more higher achieving students. So, naysayers argue that not only is the money leaving the schools to attend charters, but so are the best students.

The strength of our middle class depends on the strength of our public schools and because of restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements between teacher unions and schools, there is very little room for reform at the school level. This, therefore, leads to the question: should "The Academy" be a charter school, largely free of union-based restrictions, or should it be a traditional public school with a strong leader that could potentially be made more effective from the inside?

Some of the best related readings (from the sidebar):
-Public Agenda Online (2006)
-Lake, R. (2007)
- Also, see the forthcoming book: Merseth, K. Purpose, People, and Planning: Inside Five High Performing Urban Charter Schools.

The Next Generation of Teachers (Part 1)

There are various ways to become a teacher in most states these days. Many school districts offer alternative certification programs for those who cannot participate in traditional university certification. This has resulted in access to classrooms for a larger number of people. For instance, professionals who feel a deeper calling to teach yet had previously lacked the time and/or resources to enter a traditional certification program can now take night classes and engage in a short stint of substitute teaching in order to prepare themselves for their career as a teacher. But who are these people and what is to say that they will make a good teacher?
Chapter 2 of Susan Moore-Johnson's book "Finders and Keepers" (2004) details research done by Heather G. Peske on the careers of 50 new teachers in Massachusetts. The results of the research read:

Two academic years after this study began, eleven of the fifty teachers had left public education altogether. There were eleven participants who had changed schools. Eight of them moved voluntarily; three moved involuntarily due to budget cuts or termination. Of the fifty teachers in the study, twenty-eight were still teaching in their original schools after the second year of the study (2000-2001).

If we assume that this is a representative sample, this leaves us with a 56% retention rate (those that stayed in the same school, who we assume enjoy and may be good at teaching). This, to me, indicates that we are not doing enough to: (a) recruit; and (b) retain top-quality teachers.
If you were the leader of a school that is free of any restrictions, what would you do to address this issue? How would you find/recruit/retain the best possible teachers for your school?

Some of the best related readings (from the sidebar):
-Feiman-Nemser (2001)
-Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (1999)
-Berry, B., Montgomery, D., Curtis, R., Hernandez, M., Wurtzel, J. & Snyder, J. (2008)
-Recruiting and Retaining High-Quality Teachers in Rural Areas David H. Monk
-MetLife, Inc. (2006)

What is the Purpose of Schooling?

It is most appropriate to begin the blog with this question so that we can begin to frame the issues.
My response is that the purpose of schooling is to teach people about people, but I have heard more detailed responses directed at specific skills/ideologies to be learned. Dr. Lorraine Monroe, founder of the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem said plainly that "the purpose of the school is to train the brain." What do you think the purpose of schooling is?

Some of the best recommended readings (from the sidebar):
-Anyon, J. (1981)
-Anyon, J. (2005)
-Graham, P. (1984)
-Murnane, R. & Levy, F. (1996)
-Garcia, V. & Colleagues. (2006)
-Merseth, K., Schorr, L. & Elmore, R. (1999)
-Sarason, S. (1996)
-Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills.

What is the Academy?

The Academy is an attempt to address ALL concerns about public schooling, find the best solutions, and incorporate them into a blueprint for an actual school. I will offer perspectives on some of the best literature on the subject of education reform (compiled by Harvard University Professor Kay Merseth), and welcome all solicitations. The challenging piece of each response is to find a way to incorporate the ideas into a practical frame so that it may form part of the structure of the school. Think with practice in mind.

I will also publish questions without literature references in order to have some unbiased dialogue.

Perspectives on each issue vary widely and because they relate to how we were educated, are intimately personal. With that in mind, please keep comments to the issue and be purposeful.

With collaboration and a wide array of new perspectives, we can work to reshape public education. I hope that you will be inspired by the ideas here to run for your local school board, superintendent, become a school principal, found a school, or even better, become a teacher. Thanks for participating.