Friday, November 12, 2010

Is there a "Virulent Left-Wing" Bias in Education?

[I've updated this post...fixed a few spelling and grammar mistakes...and added a coda. 11-14-10]
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. - Phyllis Schlafly
I’ve recently become interested [again] in the question of whether an allegedly liberal bias in educators and academics has had a large impact on American schools and…through them…on the beliefs of Americans at large.The question has come up most recently because of something my Dad wrote in a comment on a discussion I was having with a couple of my (professor) colleagues on Facebook.  We were talking about the ways in which Kant's philosophy of education (especially his optimism about progress through education) reflected a modern viewpoint, and that that viewpoint had faded with the rise of post-modernism. A colleague asked me if I blamed "po-mo," and I said that I didn't, but instead blamed the reaction to po-mo, and then another asked if Kant could be called "pre-po-mo," or if that was reducible to "mo."  

In any case, we were playing with some of the common tropes in academia. My Dad (with whom I've had a number of heated discussions about politics on Facebook and elsewhere), wrote:  
NOW I know what we conservatives are up against. Thanks guys for enlightening me.
One of my colleagues asked him what he meant by that, and he wrote:
It's not just Big Government, Pubic programs and Tax and Spend that makes the liberal tic. That's just the symptoms. It goes to a deep seeded need to make mankind better and socially equal and they feel that they know better than the public in general what's best for them.

It all boils down to an ideology. You guys will never see my arguments as having any worth to the discussions. I'm trying not to lower myself to name calling but you guys consider yourself to be the elite, the educated ones that knows best. You talk about what you've learned and read and have been lead to believe that there is no alternative to your philosophies in education and to life in general.

No, there is no sinister plot by the Liberal. You truly believe that what you know is the only way. On your side you have most of academics, Hollywood, the media and the Democrats. There's a new meaning, for me, about what a liberal education really is. With each generation of graduates, you're getting exactly what you want in our children. They will think the same as you do.
Now, there's a lot in my Dad's comment that serves as food for thought.  For example, I'm not sure why he believes that me and these particular colleagues think alike (I don't think we do think completely alike, although we are all education professors with a strong interest in furthering our own understanding of the history of ideas and culture in general, and we all know what "po-mo" refers to. Well, okay, I'll admit it, these two colleagues and I are all Democrats).  For another, I don't know why we're more guilty of believing that what we know is the "only way" than any, say, group of Sarah Palin fans (of which my Dad is one).  For a third, I don't really think that a deep-seated desire to make mankind better is the same as thinking we know better than the public in general what's good for them. (Although it's interesting to contemplate the obverse of this conservatives think they know better than the general public that has been allegedly brainwashed by liberals in the educational system? Maybe only when conservatives lose elections to liberals?!?...but I digress.) Those questions aren't what I'd like to address here.

Instead, I'm intrigued by this idea that we academics (educators, teachers) are somehow "getting what we want in our children" and that "what we want" is that they think "the same" as we do.  This is quite an interesting claim, to me.  It seems to imply not only that "we" all think alike and that "we" all have the same desire to produce graduates who think in the same way as "we" do, but it also suggests that we're pretty successful in getting our graduates to think like us.  And since we have "Hollywood, the media, and the Democrats" on our side, we don't even have to be especially effective at schooling the kids in the liberal ideology...we can rely on the culture at large to aid and abet our conspiracy.

Once you look around on the Internets, my Dad's notions here about a liberal conspiracy that includes the schools don't seem unusual.  In fact, it seems to be a pretty common belief.  Here are just a few examples I found in just a few minutes:

1. In an article about the political realities of climate change given the recent elections, it was stated that young people are more likely to believe in global warming than older people are.  The article included this paragraph:
Anthony Watts, a prominent climate skeptic who runs the popular and controversial site “Watts Up With That,” blamed the “liberal” education system for the lack of young climate skeptics. “I suppose such a group would be unlikely because our children are conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process to believe in the [man-made global warming] premise as factual and without question,” he said.
The article went on to address the fact that the older people are, the less likely they are to believe in man-made climate change or in the need for drastic governmental efforts to avoid a catastrophe.  It's interesting that one of the theories offered as to why people seem to change their minds about this as they get older is that they come to understand the economic costs of seriously addressing the issue, and are less willing to pay those costs.  They're also supposedly less alarmist...probably having survived more "the sky is falling" situations in their lives...being a bit jaded, perhaps.  But the fact that older people tend to understand the costs of addressing climate change doesn't--it seems to me--explain why they also don't think these efforts should be made...but I guess I underestimate the degree to which people vote their pocketbooks on things like this.

Watt's view that young people today have been "conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process" is the core of what I'm addressing here.  The implication, of course, is that this has gotten worse in recent years...thus explaining why young people today are more likely to believe a "liberal" point of view (their elders went to school before this bias took hold, perhaps?).

 2. In an opinion piece in the Washington Times in April of this year, Deborah Simmons wrote:
Academia [is] leading young minds in a direction that [will] come to affect every aspect of American tradition and policy. Pity the enemies of liberalism and our children because, well, here we are. Same-sex marriage laws are sweeping the states. So-called medical marijuana laws are, too. The public option almost made it into the health care reform bill, and union demands mean weak-kneed politicians and lawmakers are turning their backs on fiscal conservatism in favor of continuing failed one-size-fits-all education policies. That's the short list.
(Of course, this kind of talk (that our liberal education system is leading the American people to vote in certain ways is...well...only really salient after elections which result in the election of more liberal politicians.  So, after the 2008 elections, the liberal bias of schools seemed particular strong.  After the 2010 elections?  Not so much.)

Simmons goes on to talk about an interview she conducted with David Horowitz:
Mr. Horowitz talked about how "deliberate liberal bias" has ruined America's schools. Teachers unions, he said, are the root of the problem. "They don't want another voice in the room," Mr. Horowitz said. "The teacher unions and the Democratic Party have a monopoly on the public school systems. ... Teachers get paid for showing up. No one in the world gets paid for showing up." And, he continued, "the kids fail and there's no incentive to teach." "Teachers," Mr. Horowitz said, "are overpaid and underworked, and protected ... by the Democratic Party," and unionized teachers will "fight with their last breath."
Teacher bashing and complaining about the liberal bias in curriculum and content seem to go hand in hand.  This begins to explain why many on the right prefer to have schools run by corporations...through charters...most of which aren't unionized.  By reconfiguring schools so that teachers must teach instead of sitting around--the reasoning goes--the schools will be less likely to brainwash the kids...right?  (I'm not sure I get this...the teachers don't work they effectively brainwash the kids? If they worked harder...they would brainwash less? Clearly, there's a view here of what the "real work" of teachers ought to be.  More on this later.  But first, let's go on.)

3. (Okay, I admit, this next one is a low-hanging fruit.) Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote earlier this year on her Eagle Forum about the fight to revise the Texas state curriculum guidelines, titling her post "Texas Kicks Out Liberal Bias From Textbooks." The whole piece is really interesting to me, but I'll just include a few excerpts here:
For years, liberals have imposed their revisionist history on our nation's public school students, expunging important facts and historic figures while loading the textbooks with liberal propaganda, distortions and cliches. It's easy to get a quick lesson in the virulent leftwing bias by checking the index and noting how textbooks treat President Ronald Reagan and Senator Joseph McCarthy.... [The link doesn't exactly prove that textbooks treat Reagan badly...but does cite one book that gave the credit for ending the Cold War to Gorbachev and not book...clearly virulent.  And the alleged expert who was cited about this...a not-so-liberal professor at the University of Dayton who blogs about "the liars in the government-controlled media." The government controls the media?  But I thought it was the liberals who controlled the media...and that conservatives can't succeed in academia... But let's go on...]
In most states, the liberal education establishment enjoys total control over the state's board of education, department of education, and curriculum committees. Texas is different; the Texas State Board of Education is elected, and the people (even including parents!) have a voice. ...
(Parents actually have a lot of control over anyone who has spent any time at all in school board meetings know.  Principals, in fact, have as their primary job keeping the parents from getting so upset about things at school that they begin to call school board members...who control the principal's jobs. In fact, one could say that increased parental control over schools has had a considerably stifling effect on teachers in the past few decades. But that doesn't fit into the "liberal bias" storyline...and it's another story for another time.)

Now that I think about it, Schlafly's editorial is worth quoting at some length:

After a public outcry, the [Texas State Board of Education (SBOE)] responded with common-sense improvements. Thomas Edison, the world's greatest inventor, will be again included in the narrative of American History.[Huh? What's this got to do with liberals and conservatives?]
Schoolchildren will no longer be misled into believing that capitalism and the free market are dirty words and that America has an unjust economic system. Instead, they will learn how the free-enterprise system gave our nation and the world so much that is good for so many people.
Liberals don't like the concept of American Exceptionalism. The liberals want to teach what's wrong with America (masquerading under the code word "social justice" [on which, more below]) instead of what's right and successful. The SBOE voted to include describing how American Exceptionalism is based on values that are unique and different from those of other nations. [Don't all nations think they're "unique" and "different"?  What's exceptional about the American beliefs in their own exceptionalism?]
The SBOE specified that teaching about the Bill of Rights should include a reference to the right to keep and bear arms. Some school curricula pretend the Second Amendment doesn't exist. [From the linked source: "Let me say point blank that one of the objectives of this [federal] curriculum is to eliminate the Second Amendment." There's an interesting side story here about this so-called "federal curriculum," but again, for another time.]
Texas curriculum standards will henceforth accurately describe the U.S. government as a "constitutional republic" rather than as a democracy. [Yes, not a democracy, really. Something to get my preservice teachers to think more about!] The secularists tried to remove reference to the religious basis for the founding of America, but that was voted down. The Texas Board rejected the anti-Christian crowd's proposal to eliminate the use of B.C. and A.D. for historic dates, as in Before Christ and Anno Domini, and replace them with B.C.E., as in Before the Common Era, and C.E.
The deceptive claim that the United States was founded on a "separation of church and state" gets the ax, and rightfully so. In fact, most of the original thirteen colonies were founded as Christian communities with much overlap between church and state.
History textbooks that deal with Joseph McCarthy will now be required to explain "how the later release of the Venona papers confirmed suspicions of Communist infiltration in U.S. government." The Venona papers are authentic transcripts of some 3,000 messages between the Soviet Union and its secret agents in the United States.
And, finally:
It's no secret that the people who control public schools are at war with our nation's history, culture and achievements. Since taxpayers foot the bill, it is long overdue for a state board of education to correct many textbooks myths and lies about our magnificent national heritage and achievements.
(Whew! "At war with our nation's achievements"! Damn, those "people who control public schools" must be a virulent, biased, even nefarious bunch! Who are those people, again?) But let's go on:

4. Here's some excerpts from a blog produced by Intellectual Takeout (ITO), "a non-partisan, educational 501(c)(3) institution [whose] vision is to become a national leader in educating and mobilizing conservatives, libertarians, independents, and progressives [?!?] in order to play a pivotal role in expanding individual and economic freedoms while reducing the size and scope of government."

According to many studies [not cited; see below], bias in academia more often than not is liberal bias. Many professors and students admit to possessing liberal ideologies or Democratic voting tendencies. It is natural and right for liberal students and professors to freely express their liberal philosophies, but is it right for liberal professors to continually advance their ideas in the classroom while squelching all other opinions? No.
As many of the pieces in this section suggest, universities are the breeding grounds for a variety of ideas and thought processes. Students who attend American colleges and universities should be able to gain a well-rounded view of their country, its founding principles, and the ideas – from all points on the political spectrum – that continue to shape and mold its future. Unfortunately, today’s colleges have drifted away from these ideals and become bastions of liberal thought and activism.
I dug a little deeper into Intellectual Takeout, which organizes their "information similarly to most university course offerings," by topics. I was curious that one of the topics under "Education" was "Colleges of Education."  "Hmmm....I thought...this should be interesting..." And so it is.

There are two sub-topics under Colleges of Education. One is about teacher certification, and the other is called "Education and Social Justice." This phrase "social justice," which seems on its face to be a nonpartisan ideal (who is against justice in society?), appears again and again in writings that claim an alleged left-wing bias in schools. (It's also become one of my Dad's favorite phrases when describing the conspiracy toward a New World Order that me, Obama, and our liberal friends are working toward.) The article in Intellectual Takeout explains the phrase's significance:
As has been mentioned numerous times before, the American education system has undergone major changes in the past fifty years as the principles of teacher-directed education have gradually given way to student-centered learning philosophies. [The history of progressive education is certainly an interesting one...but this quick summary seems a bit...simplistic to me.  Anyway....] Although seemingly recent, the changes that have occurred in the classroom were actually initiated many years before in the classrooms of education schools. [ educational ideas certainly achieved a sort of critical the 1940s. So this makes a bit of sense.] The training that occurs in these education schools has a great influence on the social, cultural, and intellectual path that a nation will choose, and due to this fact, it is important to understand what exactly our nation’s education schools are instilling in the minds of our future teachers. The “latest and greatest” education philosophy that education schools are pushing is the central focus of this library section: social justice education.
This is truly interesting.  Now comes a bit of a doozy: 
Social justice education is also commonly referred to as “critical pedagogy.” [Oh boy!] Although its ambiguous titles suggest virtuous American ideals such as truth and justice, its core principles revolve around a pervasive Marxist ideology. Championed by men such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and William Ayers, critical pedagogy seeks to turn students into activists with an anti-capitalist mindset. Education schools are increasingly promoting this idea among their students by encouraging them to reject their “privileged” status, recognize their own racial biases, and focus on the “oppressed” facets of society. Today’s elementary and secondary classrooms are beginning to reflect these ideologies. As a result, American schools are slowly moving away from their old purpose of instilling academic skills and factual knowledge in children and toward a lopsided political indoctrination.
Wow! This is beginning to get a little personal.  I work in a college of education. One of my occasional duties is to teach courses in the  history and philosophy of American preservice teachers (those who are just getting their teaching credentials). The course that I most often teach in that area is called "Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education."  (Yes, it is!)  Here's the catalog description:

FND 510:  Social Justice Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of American Education (for M.A.T. students)
This course critically examines the social, cultural, political, and economic forces, and the philosophies of education that have influenced policy, laws, school structure, and practices throughout the history of American education. Issues addressed include ability and disability, race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Students lay the foundation for the development of a personal philosophy of education and reflectively examine issues of education from legal and social justice perspectives. This course includes a field project requiring at least 15 hours of work outside of class. 3 semester hours
Notice the key phrase "critically examines..."  On the very face of it, this seems to confirm ITO's view.

What's more, the National College of Education's conceptual framework includes the following:

NCE Faculty and candidates use scholarly habits of mind and methods of inquiry in order to affect P-12 student learning by:
  • Envisioning, articulating, and modeling democratic and progressive education
  • ... 
  • ...
  • Advocating for democratic values, equity, access and resources to assure educational success for all
I think this is what we faculty members in the National College of Education at National-Louis University mean by "social justice."  Social justice, to me, and to my colleagues, means working for a society that is democratic...where every child has access to a quality education.  This means paying attention to the social, political, and economic conditions that affect the quality of schools and that impact the experience that children have in school. It involves attention to what has come to be known as "culturally-relevant" pedagogy...which suggests that teachers must be sensitive to the values, traditions, and perspectives of the families that children come from, and the effects that prior experiences have on their experiences in school. (Click here for more on this approach.)

The thing is, none of this suggests that what we want is to create teachers well-versed in what has been called "critical pedagogy." Rather, our goal is helping new teachers to understand the broader social forces that pertain to their work in classrooms with particular children, so that they can be more effective teachers. (Although, we must admit, colleges of education aren't necessarily doing a great job with this; see here for one take on how poor they are.) We faculty members also want our teacher-graduates to be true professionals who use their understanding of history, sociology, and cultural psychology to further the profession and increase the effectiveness of schools and of the American educational system in general.  We most definitely don't believe that teachers should just teach academic skills and factual knowledge...we expect them to know and care about the larger context of schooling and about the daily lives of their students, now and in the future. Thinking critically about education means knowing that education requires more than just getting the kids to be effective in computation and decoding and memorization...and, more importantly, it means more than just teaching lower-income kids to follow orders and upper-income kids to be creative and problem-solve. (Which is what tends to happen in schools; see Anyon, 1980)

Certainly some of us do talk about critical pedagogy in some contexts. Personally, I don't think you can teach a course in the history and philosophy of education without some attention to thinkers who are considered left-wing. Some of us even assign readings, in some contexts, from Freire, Giroux, and Ayers (and...gasp!...even John Dewey!).  But we also assign readings from John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, James Conant, and Diane Ravitch, the books of which do not appear on the list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" (Dewey's Democracy and Education does, though.) John Locke's Two Treatises of Government even appears on the Ultimate List of Conservative Must-Read Books. He's no "critical pedagogue," as anyone who has compared his Some Thoughts Concerning Education to Rousseau's Emile (for example) can attest.  Actually, I think most teachers of the history and philosophy of education in colleges of education are pretty balanced, overall, because...

...well, because in many of our courses (especially those in the Foundations of Education), we're trying to get our students to think. That's right:  to think.

"But what does "to think" mean?" you ask. "What does having prospective teachers read left-wing ideologues like Freire or Dewey or Rousseau have to do with teaching them to think? Even presenting these thinkers as if they are worth reading is introducing a bias right there, is it not?"

Hmmmm....soooo...let's see: having them read Locke or Jefferson isn't introducing bias?  Or..are you's okay to introduce certain kinds of bias? Or are these thinkers not biased? Some of the other readings I assign my students are clearly biased toward the right: articles by people like William Bennett and Chester Finn, who are known Republicans...and such documents as "A Nation At Risk," a report issued while Reagan was president.)  The goal is to help students to understand the wide range of perspectives on educational topics...not to indoctrinate them to think a particular way!

But as I'm writing this, I'm having an internal conversation that is flowing more rapidly than I'm able to write.  I'm thinking about what I consider to be the purposes of education, of what it means to be educated...of what it means to be a thinker.

And yes, in my conception of an educated person is....a willingness to read the works of people across the political spectrum, and a willingness to think about the variety of perspectives that exist, and a willingness to accept that each of these perspectives offers something important philosophically, historically, and educationally...and that the only way a reader can understand a reading is to understand that any reading reflects the values, experiences, social positions, and...yes...biases of its author.  This is what is meant by critical thinking: gaining the capacity to critique without merely understand without compare and contrast and contextualize while coming gradually to one's own short, to think for oneself.
Critical thinking, in its broadest sense has been described as "purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do." (source)

"But wait! Then you do have a bias," you're thinking.  "Your bias is that multiple perspectives need to be encountered, understood, digested, and then synthesized in the forming of one's own viewpoint.  Your bias is that education is about teaching each person to think for him or herself...rather than to merely accept the values and perspectives of a particular group (their parents, their peers, their community, the government, those in business, multinational corporations). In other words, you are trying to indoctrinate teachers into the view that getting their students to think for themselves is a worthy goal!"

Um, yes: guilty as charged.

"So you would rather have a young person form their own political beliefs than just vote the way their parents want them to?"  Yes.

"So you believe that all young people should be exposed to a variety of values, beliefs, and perspectives in school, and that they should be taught to evaluate these different perspectives critically rather than unquestioningly"? Yes.

"So you believe that there's no right or wrong...that everything is relative...that capitalism is not always great...that Communists shouldn't be ruthlessly investigated and "outed"...that students should understand why the Constitution prohibited the establishment of religion...that they should understand that the Constitution isn't perfect...that it allowed slavery to continue...and didn't let women or poor people vote.?" Well...maybe.

"So you admit a virulent left-wing bias?!?" Um...if by that you mean a set of values about what education consists of and how best to move young people towards a broader understanding of their world, ...then yes, I do.

"And you admit that your colleagues have the same beliefs about these things that you do?" Well, for the most part, yes...we pride ourselves in our commitments to democratic values, as shown in our Conceptual Framework.

"Okay, then: case closed."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

New chapter on Second Life....just out

The Affordances of Second Life for Education

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-822-3.ch007 ISBN13: 9781616928223
ISBN10: 1616928220
EISBN13: 9781616928230
Author(s): Craig A. Cunningham (National-Louis University, USA); Kimball Harrison (Virginia Beach City Public Schools, USA)
Pages: 94-119 pp.
Source Title: Teaching through Multi-User Virtual Environments: Applying Dynamic Elements to the Modern Classroom
Source Author(s)/Editor(s): Giovanni Vincenti (Towson University, USA); James Braman (Towson University, USA)
Copyright: 2011
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In this chapter, the authors discuss some of the possibilities of Second Life for education from both theoretical and practical standpoints. First, they outline a general theory of meaningful learning using technology that can be applied to Second Life as well as other technologies. Then, the authors discuss some of the particular aspects of Second Life that might support meaningful learning. Next, the authors outline some of the practical realities, or obstacles, that exist to using it in the environment. Finally, they make some recommendations about how educators who are interested in exploring the possibilities of Second Life might proceed. While the chapter focuses its discussion on Second Life, the theoretical framework and even many of the examples apply to any virtual world that allows users to build persistent objects and utilize scripts.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Learning more than I ever wanted to know about HP Backup and Recovery (*.fbw)

To see the "bottom line" solution, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

A friend of mine had a major computer meltdown a month or so ago. She, like many other people, had not made "system restore" disks when she first bought her HP laptop (HP being too cheap to include them with the system). With multiple Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) issues...

....we decided that the best thing for her to do would be to restore the system back to factory condition. There WAS a "recovery" partition on the hard drive, so we figured we could get it back to "good as new" using that. But first, she ran a backup (using HP's supplied Backup and Recovery Tool) onto an external hard disk. That backup ran all night...and still seemed to stop in the middle...but it was all she had, at that point...she couldn't access her files anyway given that she couldn't get into Windows Vista.

So she ran the System Restore from the Recovery partition, and....more BSOD issues. (Now, we couldn't really understand why that would happen...wouldn't the Recovery partition contain a WORKING copy of Vista?!?!) Well, in any case, we finally decided the Vista install was toast, and that she should upgrade to Windows 7, which made sense for a whole lot of reasons. (For one thing, Windows 7 is, according to most commentators, vastly superior to--and faster than--Vista. For another...she'd have her CDs if she bought an upgrade.)

So, she upgraded to Win7, successfully...and has been running it, happily, since.

Of course, after she got her laptop working again, she was eager to get her files from the backup. There were two files in the backup (as I mentioned, I don't think it ever finished doing it's thing)...about 8 gigs of stuff (we're sure she had much more than that on her laptops 200 GB hard drive...but that's all she got). The files were backup.1.exe and backup.2.fbw. According to all the instructions we had read and could find, to restore the files, all you needed to do backup.1.exe.

Well, no. Running the file caused C++ run-time errors.

Despite looking around the 'net for workarounds (and learning ALL about how to make sure to delete the "System Recovery Files" folder before trying to run the damn thing AGAIN)... being tempted to follow instructions to copy these files onto CD or DVD (um...not possible...too big) and even transferring the files to my Windows XP machine to see if we could run it there (nope...more run-time errors)...she pretty much gave up.

Well, as those who know me know...I...don't...give up. (A friend of mine calls me the "bulldozer" or, variously, the "snow plow" for this aspect of my personality.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Thinking about systems thinking (and how to teach it)

In the next few months, I'm going to be collecting some quotes related to systems thinking, "21st century skills," and teaching. Here are two:

"The fault lies not with our technologies but with our systems." - Roger Levian

"Systems can't heal the diseased economy which systems thinkers have built--only sovereign human spirits intact can do that-- the kind which can't be fashioned in factory schools." - John Taylor Gatto

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Ten influential books: or at least ones that I found profound

Okay, I'll play....

Here are the ten most influential books I can come up with right now off the top of my head:

Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden, a book that I read as a teenager that has forever remained in the base of my brain as an affirmation that humans are animals and often (always?) act as such.

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections: this spiritual autobiography gave me, as a very young man, permission to take "spirituality" seriously, even though I think religions are mostly about power and domination.

John Dewey, Art as Experience: taught me that the aesthetic qualities of experience are more important than the cognitive ones, both for education and for life.

David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, the book that convinced me that paying attention to Joe Gauld's concept of "unique potential" was worthy scholarship.

Henry Perkins, An Imperfect Panacea, a history of American education that focuses on the degree to which the core purposes of schools are so often diluted by the demand that they handle other social problems.

Arthur Powell, et al. The Shopping Mall High School, a book in which the authors describe how the educational system really works to influence who "wins" and who doesn't. (I read this book together with Ted Sizer's Horace's equally revealing book that also offers the benefit of pointing toward some solutions to the ways that high schools get away from their core intellectual mission.)

Thomas F. Green et al., Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, a wonderful analysis of the ways that educational systems can be expected to evolve over time...I believe the principles enunciated there have pretty much proven to hold true in most cases.

Duncan Kennedy, Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A polemic Against the System, a little book that convinced me that my decision to drop out of Harvard Law School wasn't as ignoble as some people thought at the time.

Ian Pears, An Instance of the Finger Post, an amazing historical novel in which the story is told from three different perspectives...leaves one being pretty sure that we have no idea what's really going on much of the time.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, simply the best novel of all time? Has the added benefit of showing in a viscerally resonating way the social forces that create and reinforce poverty.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"If I have learned nothing from this class, I have learned I am not sure of anything"

I think it is instructive to look at the “final reflections” by my TIE 512 students for the Winter Quarter to see some of the ways in which my efforts to push their comfort zone with my complex modeling assignment may have paid off. 

Create a model of a complex, real-world problem or system utilizing the concepts and techniques described in Jonassen. This model must be created using application software (or other software/tools as approved by the instructor, including Google Maps or Sketch-up). While you can (and probably should) use a concept map or word-processor to collect ideas about your model, the final model should be dynamic and interactive, in the sense that variables or factors can be changed with the effects of those changes seen in the model. The model must both explain why a current situation exists (given data that represents the current situation) and provide a way of predicting what will happen if certain conditions change (given data that reflects those changes hypothetically). A proposal must be submitted to the instructor by the start of class on February 2, and the final model will be demonstrated to the class on March 16. 25% of grade.

>Note that I myself wasn’t sure how this assignment would play out.  I told the students the first day it was an “experiment.” Along the way, I modified my expectation to require a beginning brainstorming, and then the initial attempts at creating a model, with evidence that shows the student has struggled with the system, its factors, and the issues of modeling it.  All the students met that expectation.

But one thing is clear: student frustration is part of the learning process

Here are the links to their blogs with reflections:

This project has lead me down a long curvy road, with many bumps, twists and detours that lead be back to where I started. It took me a very long time to wrap my head around what I was being asked to do- create a model of a complex (unsolvable) problem. With some assistance, I finally came up with a topic; how having students with ADHD in a classroom affects the classroom environment and the teacher’s ability to service the other students in the class…I choose 5 categories that seemed to have the most impact. They were parents, resources, severity of ADHD, strategies and class size…..Although I feel like the five categories are strong and have a lot of influence on the classroom environment, there is not actual data to support my choices.”  (Student made enormous progress in identifying key factors, but had no data to test the model she had created.)

“But, in making this model in Inspiration I realized that this was just a picture of our system as it is now. I know that there is a problem with the way our system is but I decided that I needed to see how other more successful (in my humble opinion) healthcare systems around the world worked. I scoured the internet for sources comparing different healthcare systems. I found some really interesting resources that helped me piece together the differences between our system and other systems. I found a really great report that compares six different healthcare systems around the world across different categories. I used their data to create an excel file that I was going to use to find averages and such.   But then I found where they had simplified their data into a ranking system on different aspects. I took that and then added aspects from my model that I thought would be important to weigh the differences between healthcare systems. And I came up with this so far ... 
Now that I have conquered the where to begin question and have gotten a good jump on the data, where should I go from here... I plan on making a healthcare program that will show how the money being spent, people involved, and government involvement changes the way the whole system works. Hopefully by inputing different values into this program one can find the best balance of all the aspects for all involved. I don’t think that there is any perfect answer but I do think that a change might be a good thing.” (Student gained new understanding of the complexity of the problems with the healthcare system and the difficulties of comparing different systems in terms of their effectiveness.)

“In creating my model on the factors that influence a school meeting or not meeting AYP, I came across many hurdles….I discovered that the factors I included in my model didn't really help me understand why a school preformed like they did….Overall, creating this model helped me to better understand how schools make AYP and what factors contribute to it. If I were to expand on this model, I would include more specific factors such as reading/math scores, scores from previous years, Safe Harbor scores, etc. When first creating this model, I thought that the information I included in the database was sufficient, but looking back, I realized that I would need to look at more factors.”

“I tried to brainstorm a way to show the relation of world population to the consumption of food in a system. I became stuck. I then was using the "Stumble Upon!" tool that was showed to us in class, and I came upon this amazing website called "Breathing Earth". This site blew my mind! It shows the population of each country, the birth rate of each country, the death rate of each country, the world population, etc. (Keep in mind that the death rate does not include terrorist acts, natural disasters, etc.) It has so much useful and interesting information. I then started to is the birth and death rate going to change the population of each country in the future .I then settled on my new problem statement:Problem Statement: What will the population be in a specific country on a specific date be in the future?... My finished system is so fun to use now that it is finished! I can now choose any of the countries and type in any date in the future to get a predicted population of that country. Here is a screen shot of my finished system…. The user can input data into the yellow boxes: a future date and then click the drop down box to choose a country. Then automatically the predicted population, net change, and percentage of change appears. The system takes into consideration the chosen country's starting population on February 28, 2010, it's birth rate, and it's death rate. Overall, I really enjoyed building this system. It gave me an opportunity to learn more about Microsoft Excel. I discovered many tricks and formulas that I did not know before! Students can use this system to see how population can change in different countries and see how the change is different all over the world. Students can also use this system to compare different countries around the world!”

I chose to try to model the Achievement Gap. As it turns out it is a monster that keeps growing. Every time I investigate one idea there are more and more issues that turn up. Obviously there is no simple solution to the achievement gap or we would have solved it by now. The problem that I have encountered is that every single element of the Achievement Gap intertwines and intersects with each other. You can’t isolate any one factor, it is a never-ending rabbit hole and where does it end? The more I tried to refine the list of factors the more that it grew…. My conclusion is that with No Child Left Behind and schools trying to make AYP everyone is blaming the teachers for all of the troubles of our students while not wanting to address any of the other reasons for the Achievement Gap. We blame the teachers because it is easy. No one wants to point a finger at any of the other variables because it is too hard. It is impossible to isolate all (or any) of these factors so everyone likes to point a finger at teachers and make them the scapegoat in the Achievement Gap crisis.”

It has been quite an experience trying to wrap my head around this complex model project. After I finally chose my topic, I began to brainstorm how I would model my problem: Students not involved in extra-curricular activities don’t perform as well at school. I decided to use a concept map to begin to brainstorm my ideas. The complex problem that we modeled in class together about War helped me to understand how to start to model a concept. Through building upon concept maps or flowcharts, it is easier to make progress and develop a working model….After beginning my flow chart, I realized I had no idea how I would continue with this model. I couldn’t wrap my head around it and felt completely lost. I also didn’t think I had enough research or data to support the information that I was trying to display in the flow chart. I decided to scrap the flow chart. I needed better data!  To truly model this problem, I decided that I needed to compare the effect of extracurricular activities on student performance/success for different Chicago Public Schools. After searching for quality data, I found the CPS website to be very helpful….This model isn’t complete. There are still some factors that I would like to compare. I would like to explore the relationship between the causes of low extracurricular participation and the effects that not participating in extracurricular activities has on students. I would also like to explore the possible solutions for attempting to solve this problem. I am not sure if this problem can be solved, but I think I have created a good foundation in attempting to identify and explore this complex problem.”

I made a stab at modeling the use of paper from its invention to its current high level of consumption and how to recycle said consumption. When I started the research I became quickly overwhelmed with information. The more I searched the more interesting it became…and bigger and bigger… The whole process has been frustrating, painful, fascinating, intriguing and many other descriptive epithets. I’ve learned a ton about paper, recycling and the bad habits of humans. I’m sure I’ll learn even more as I add to my model.”

“I was completely confused by the assignment; in the beginning I tried to get clarification and thought I somewhat go the “jest” of the assignment. As I sat down in the beginning it became a clear reality that I was pretty confused. I read several articles with great ideas on how to ensure successful technology integration and inhibitors to be aware of when trying to help teachers integrate technology. The barrier for me is placing value on these items in order to create a system that can be altered. I tried to brainstorm a concept map to start my project but quickly realized that that just further confused me. So I did the next best thing I procrastinated, I told myself that tomorrow I would get it. After last week’s class I started to panic, there was no way I was going to get this project completed. Completed? What exactly was I trying to complete, accomplish? I emailed my concept map to Craig to see if I was any track and after receiving his email on Sunday was convinced I was totally off track. Any hope that I understood what a system in tales - vanished. So I for the past 24 hours I tried to rework this system using the direction I received from Craig. I first tried to input a finite number of influences into excel, giving them values. I believe that maybe (because if I have learned nothing from this class, I have learned I am not sure of anything) being able to change values will help see how influences effect the outcome. Therefore, I have to be able to change the effect of the influences in order to see how the outcome may change. After many revisions of the excel worksheet I abandoned that idea and decided to try Stella to create a system. This proved to be a pretty good idea; I believe it helped me to see the flow of influences. I enjoyed learning to use this software, although I am far from mastering it. I did learn what I wanted to get out of this model of the system; I am interested in what factors make a teacher integrate technology successfully into their curriculum and what factors hinder that success. So what did I learn, procrastinated is not the way to go, it just leads to more frustration. I needed to look to all possibilities for help, classmates, reading material… Face uncertainty head on instead of avoiding it. I have not completed my system but feel that I am on my way to completing it. I hope to use the experience from this class to make me a better teacher and student. I found a lot of information about helping teachers integrate technology into their curriculum, the trouble I had was converting that information to be used into the “system”.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

How Should School Principals Be Selected in Chicago?

[Cross-posed from social issues]

In the Chicago Public Schools, since 1988, school principals have been hired (for five year contracts) and fired by the Local School Council (LSC), an elected body of parents, community members, and teachers that also approves each year's school budget (within some limits imposed by the central office). 

A new bill in the Illinois legislature, sponsored by Chicago democrat (and minister) James Meeks, would shift the principal-selection power away from the LSC, returning it to the central office (and thus, the ultimate control of the mayor). Some progressive groups are complaining that this is an affront to the ideals of democracy.
"Why would he want to get rid of the last segment of democracy that exists in our schools, where people who are most directly affected can have a voice in how their schools are run?'' asked Jitu Brown of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. (from the Sun-Times article; see also this Tribune article)
I have mixed feelings about this one. Besides being democratically elected, do LSCs offer any special insights that give them a better perspective from which to appoint principals? We don't elect the civil engineers who oversee the building of  bridges and other critical public infrastructure democratically.  Rather, we expect the selection of civil engineers to be determined in accordance with professional standards of expertise. Certainly at some level this selection process is shaped by the democratic process, because the ultimate executive powers overseeing their selection are subjected to democratic elections. But we expect the selection process itself to be shielded from political considerations such as popularity, ability to raise funds, or the appeal of an Irish last name.

Nor do we elect our military leaders. As the Athenians had learned during the Peloponnesian War, military generals need to be able to make military decisions without regard to their personal popularity or appeal to populous impulses.  (Of course, the Commander-in-Chief is elected in the US, which of course sometimes results in military decisions that seem designed to shore up popular support for the regime.) Other professions in which popular election seems unwise (and is rarely seen) include  university professors, corporate CEOs, and scientists.

The most common way to select school principals in the US is appointment by a superintendent, who is in turn appointed by an elected school board. Yes, we do, in the US, largely follow the practice of electing school boards. This practice with long historical roots in the way that schools were first established in the US, village by village, and the gradual move toward financing those schools increasingly out of local property taxes (thus justifying the notion that their functioning should be subject to periodic public approval).

The key question, I think, that should be asked about how various professionals should be selected (appointed or elected) is the relative balance that the job requires between sensitivity to public desires (elect them) and professonal expertise (appoint them).   Amy Gutmann does a nice job of discussing this balance in a section entitled "Democratic Professionalism" in her widely respected book, Democratic Education. She writes that democratic local control of schools has the positive effect of permitting "educational content to vary, as it should, with local circumstances and local democratic preferences," and also ensures local public support of school policies. In addition, local elections of school boards provides a place for individual citizens and local groups to gain experience with active participation in governance (p. 74). The downsides of local control (most importantly, the possibility of tyrannical or corrupt policies) are minimized by both the public's access to school board decisions (if nothing else, people hear about it from their children) and by the on-the-ground presence of teachers, who have their own professional expertise and can, through their unions especially, raise a stink about what they see as bad policies.  This balance, Guttmann believes, helps to ensure that schools foster in students not just compliance to majority-supported behavioral and ideological standards, but also (we can only hope!) critical awareness.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the progressive movement worked to replace multiple school boards elected within each neighborhood (and often influenced heavily by local political heavyweights) with more centralized elected boards, especially in larger cities. The power of the elected boards was also moderated by requiring boards to appoint an experienced professional educator as superintendent. (In some states such as Alabama, school boards can only act with the recommendation of the superintendent.) This centralizing reform carried over to rural districts with the policy of district consolidation that prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, and the power of school boards has also been limited by the gradual assumption of power over local education by the federal government (and by the states as well) in the decades since. In a sense, then, Chicago's return in 1988 to the election of local school councils with control over each schools' budget and the hiring and firing of principals is a return to earlier conditions. The justification for that return to an earlier tradition was two-fold. First, Chicago's schools were so terrible (called "worst in the nation" by then US Secretary of Education, William Bennett), that decentralizing control of the schools couldn't make them any worse.  Second, the move reflected the growing power of minority groups in Chicago city politics, many of whom felt ill-served by the decisions of a largely white, largely high SES central school board. The actual effect of the change has been mixed, although most observers suggest that many school improvements can be traced to the wisdom of LSCs that make appropriate decisions in light of the unique circumstances of each school.

In general, the tradition of local control of schools through elected school boards has had mixed effects over the years, and even the idea of that they are democratically elected can be questioned in light of extremely low voter turnout in most school board elections. In some areas, elected school boards include people who are elected on a single issue, such as the goal of restoring creationism to the curriculum. The tradition of elected school boards has also recently come under attack (at least with regard to large urban districts) from some conservative educational critics (e.g. Chubb & Moe, and Checker Finn), as well as US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, a supposed progressive who believes that such districts need "leadership from the top." Duncan has cited his seven-year experience as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, where the school board has, since 1992, been appointed by the mayor, rather than elected, as evidence that appointed boards are less likely than elected ones to shuffle school leadership for political purposes. But as Jim Horn has pointed out, Duncan's call for appointed school boards only extends to those large urban districts where schools seem most devoted to creating compliance among poor and minority children (rather than learning), and not to the pretty successful suburban districts where elected school boards retain the general support of most of the voting public.

Truly, the election of Local School Councils represents one of very few examples of neighborhood control of urban public institutions anywhere, and (at least according to some research summarized by Designs for Change, a local progressive advocacy group) the majority of the 600+ LSCs actually work fairly well. (Of course, this conclusion depends upon agreeing that have 10-15% of schools in the city with "LSCs ... enmeshed in sustained conflict, ...inactive, or hav[ing] engaged in unethical behavior" -- that's 60 - 90 schools, by the way -- is okay.

It is those 10-15% of LSCs (more or less) that aren't functioning well that are the primary targets of Meek's proposed legislation.  The schools with these LSCs are generally awful by any measure, and tend to be in neighborhoods with limited local social capital (such as educated parents or strong community institutions).  An LSC "enmeshed in sustained conflict, inactive, or engaged in unethical behavior" simply cannot be trusted to name an effective principal; however, it has proven politically impossible for CPS to take over the selection process in those schools without a change in the law.

Some elected LSCs seem to be doing a decent job of selecting principals.  If we roughly accept the numbers cited by Designs for Change, 50-60$ of schools have "highly functioning" LSCs, and another 25-33% are "performing well."  Those LSCs can legitimately claim to be offering democratic local control of a process that must place a priority on criteria of professionalism and effectiveness. But the other LSCs probably lack the capacity to understand those criteria or to make selection decisions that are free from personal bias, factionalism, or faulty reasoning.  In those cases, most likely democratic control is leading to worse schools than would be the case with more centralized control by educational experts.

I have some experience in one South Side school where the principal has been re-appointed four times, where (it seems to me) the primary reason for this reappointment is the political activities of the principal in maintaining the support of the public in the local community, rather than in his educational policies, which seem (to me, anyway) pretty wrong-headed.  For example, this principal works with funders and food distribution companies to ensure that each family in the community has a turkey for Thanksgiving. It's a nice gesture, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with student learning. It's a pretty blatant effort to secure public support. 

As Winston Churchill said,
"No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Democracy is a messy thing, and it makes mistakes.(Witness the repeated election of George W. Bush.)  But when democratically-elected LSCs make mistakes in the selection of school principals, it is the children who ultimately suffer, and they don't have a vote.  So it makes sense to me that the people with the ultimate authority for the effectiveness of the schools in Chicago (that is, the mayor and his appointed school board) should, in some cases, overrule the principal-selection decisions of the Local School Councils, not in order to curtail democracy, per se, but in order to do what's best for those poor kids. Democracy is, indeed, under siege in America these days, but we shouldn't use these kids as human shields in its defense.