Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.

 

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Three Thoughts About Education Today

  1. Combining two big current trends in education: student grades are subjective and counterproductive…and teachers should be increasingly evaluated by them.
  2. At some point, some panel of school “experts” must have sat down and decided that the solution to America’s education problems was obviously to give teachers more regulations and paperwork. Was there a time in the past with higher achievement and more paperwork? I don’t remember Socrates having to file regular evidence collections and data reports.
  3. No matter what educrat “experts” claim, there is no Grand Unification Theory of education. No matter what they try to saddle us with, it will always come down to each of us implementing what works in our own ways. I read professional development stuff and suspect that our leaders are dreaming of a future filled with TeacherBot 5000s.

More of Mill on Education

From the middle of chapter 2 of John Stuart Mill’s autobiography, my thoughts exactly:

And I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them.

What My School Does Right And Yours Does Wrong

Every school send kids to the dean for fighting or stealing or drinking.  Then those kids get detention or suspension or some other punishment.

And then they just keep on failing in class.

My school not only allows, but requires teachers to give detention  for missing work and low grades during an extended lunch period.  Each subject has a certain day of the week (English is on Tuesday) and we’re supposed to hold students who are failing and make them do their work.

That’s right, we stigmatize failure.  We hold students immediately responsible for their choices to slide by and not achieve.

Any student who fails to show up will get an after-school detention with the deans.  That’s right, our deans support our teachers and help them get results by making kids accountable.

Do they get the message and become more self-motivated?  Not always.  They’re teens.

But they know that success is important to us.  They know what our priorities and expectations are.  That’s more than can be said for most schools.

“But you work at an elite magnet school for the arts!  Sure, they’e not all geniuses, but they all did have to apply to get in and have to keep their grades up to stay in.  Most schools don’t have that luxury.”

That changes nothing.  Bottom line: students will not take academics seriously if we don’t.  If we want improvement in our schools, we absolutely must make academic success our top–our only–goal, and zero in on it with passion.

Notes on “Educating the Saints”: An Expansive Philosophy of Education

Below is the text of Hugh Nibley’s classic 1970 essay “Educating the Saints” (copied from this online source, with fair use in mind), including my notes on what we can learn from it, as teachers and students, about education.  I submit that, though Nibley was writing for and about Mormons, this is the best work of fundamental values in public education ever written, and should be required reading for anyone who would be a good teacher, in any capacity. 

I’ve put in bold the segments of Nibley’s text that seem particularly pertinent and powerful, followed by my 21 notes in brackets and italics.  My notes are meant to interpret the ideas in the essay into general classroom policies and strategies.  Looking back on these notes about a decade after I made them, when I was still a new teacher, I’m pleased to see that my work has largely been consistent with the ideas here, as I understand them. 

Nibley uses Brigham Young as his model for effective education techniques, and well he should: Young took thouands of poor, illiterate, disparate immigrants and made them the foundation of a society whose descendants are disproportionately well-educated.  Though one would benefit from simply perusing the bold and italicized sections, reading this whole essay would be valuable to anyone; reading it from my source will also allow you to enjoy Nibley’s 200 footnotes!

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What This Professor Professes

A few weeks ago, a former student groused about college tuition on Facebook, to which I cheekily replied with a favorite quote from Good Will Hunting: “You paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the exact same education you could have got for a buck fifty in late charges at the library.” 

Another commenter admitted that, but asked, “Who recognizes a library education?” 

That’s a revealing question.  It’s meant to say, obviously, that no potential employer will credit what you know based on your own reading alone.  What the world wants to see is degrees and credentials. *

But here’s where the commenter’s challenging query falls short: I’ve never said that the purpose of education is to get a good job. 

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My Speech To The School Board

This what I said to the Clark County School Board at last night’s public meeting:

My name is Jamie Huston and I am here to ask you to let me serve as the next superintendent of our school district.  I was raised here myself and have two children in school now, with a third starting next year.  Like all of you, I have a great interest in the success of  our school district. 

But to solve our problems in student achievement and budgeting, we need to return to common sense.

As superintendent, I will vastly scale back the elephant in the room of this budget crisis, the rampant bureaucracy in our school district.  I will champion teachers and administrators in more effectively handling discipline.  I will end all the insidious ways that low expectations have crept into out policies and have hurt student achievement.

Some have told me that it’s tilting at windmills for a teacher to campaign for superintendent, but this is a chance to show our children that we have the courage and integrity to do what’s best.  We can select a new leader based on merit, not any other criteria.  If the American political ideal is a citizen legislator, then the educational ideal is a teacher-superintendent.

I have here for each of you a folder that better introduces me, including some of my ideas for fixing the budget and improving academic achievement [the folder included my resumé and my list of 21 ideas], and to show how serious I am about fixing the budget and serving our community, I’ll state publicly that I will perform my duties as superintendent for the same salary that I make as a teacher.  Thank you. 

 

It’s hard to say exactly how the speech was received.  Continue reading

Grade Day of Reckoning

Third quarter grades were due today, and as I finished entering them, I couldn’t help but notice the big picture for a lot of students.  Days like this are sobering and discouraging. 

Here are two screen shots from my computer, showing what we’re working with here. 

First, this is a transcript page for a girl in one of my classes.  As you can see, after three full semesters in high school, she has earned exactly two credits, including a half credit in the middle of a semester for something called “guidance.”  She also failed every class this quarter.  The large numbers indicate absences.  Notice also that she is listed as a tenth grader, even though she falls far short of being on track–our politicians recently decided to let every student be officially promoted by age with their friends, rather than measured by the credits they’ve earned.  Thanks, leaders!

Obviously, this kid is not going to graduate.  I don’t know why she even comes to school, why we haven’t guided her to another school option or made her more uncomfortable as she slacks her way toward failure, or what’s going on in her home that makes such rampant failure acceptable.  (Her father is an educated professional; her mother is a homemaker.) 

This second shot Continue reading

“Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius”

There’s a powerful new essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education about my least favorite of the many warm fuzzy trends that currently inform (and infect) American education: multiple intelligences.  I’ve ranted about this plenty of times: in every college class and inservice day, teachers are beaten with this idea and made to repeat it in order to get or keep their jobs; I just finished a series of classes this year where the curriculum was designed just to make teachers regurgitate praise for this bit of inspirational indoctrination.  I can’t overstate how pervasive this is. 

The idea: there is a wide variety of “intelligences” out there that influence our learning strengths and weaknesses, and teachers must approach students and classes at several levels to reach all of them.  That means creating lessons not just with verbal and mechanical components, but also physical, social-conversational, and even–I kid you not–nature appreciation. 

And as every good teacher has known from experience for years, it’s a complete pile of garbage. 

As the Chronicle essay points out, this philosophy serves our desire to cherish egalitarian equality–to assert that everyone has talent and value and has hidden but important things to offer the world.  Over my years of teaching, I’ve learned the opposite.  Continue reading

On Effective Education: Why Don’t Students Like School?

385371841I read this fantastic book review this week in the Wall Street Journal (courtesy of a link from Arts & Letters Daily–let’s give credit where credit’s due).  Daniel Willingham’s new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, gives the perspective of a cognitive scientist reviewing the research on the psychology of education.  Among his assertions (as reflected in the book review) are:

  • “When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration….The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more.”
  • On drilling: “research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics.”
  • “He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking.”
  • And my favorite part, on multiple intelligences: “No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn….At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.”

I added a comment to the WSJ article commending this book for deflating the vacuous trends of politically correct schooling today.  My professional development classes and meetings drive me bonkers.

 

This book isn’t in the local library system’s inventory yet; better put in an order.

 

Progress At West Prep

My first year teaching, during the 2000-2001 school year, was at West Middle School, which was arguably the worst school in Las Vegas.  Located in one of the oldest, poorest parts of the city, I remember one staff meeting we had that January, so the police department could brief us on the gang war going on in that neighborhood, which had taken the lives of several people within a mile of the school within the last few months, and which had plenty of ties to kids on campus. 

Not surprisingly, West had over a 90% teacher turnover rate each year, and I admit I was one of those who left as soon as I could, bound for greener pastures where I hoped my skills could be more appreciated, and more than a little out of fear and intimidation at what overwhelmed me as a profoundly hopeless situation.  I’ve always had mixed feelings about my cynicism, and have secretly hoped for something to prove me wrong. 

Now, a glimmer of hope comes.  A story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week chronicles the improvements made at West, especially a dramatic increase in passing the state’s proficiency test for this year’s juniors (West is expanding to become a K-12 school). 

Things that the article suggests contributed to the improvements are: