Posts Tagged ‘information’

I think we’re going over the cliiiiiffff. . . . (a rant with stylistic apologies to Peter Greene)

December 8, 2015

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like Wile E. Coyote. You know the bit. The coyote runs off the cliff, then looks forlornly at the camera before crashing to the valley floor. Unfortunately, as we have driven Teacher Education off the cliff I’m not sure we’ll simply be able pick ourselves up and chase the Roadrunner again.

There was a time when (at least some) Teacher Education programs promoted high quality, engaging approaches to teaching, even though the teachers they worked with in the schools would say “oh that’s just college stuff, here in the real world we don’t do that.” But at least we tried, and the message got through to some of our students who became excellent and engaging teachers. I’m afraid the era is over and we may have driven the Teacher Education car off the cliff with no possibility of return.

A number of recent experiences have led me to this unfortunate conclusion. First a number of my colleagues often speak about creating a “Culture of Assessment” in our programs. Let’s get real here! Do you know any teachers, university faculty, or students who would want to work and learn in such a culture?  I guess some people might enjoy the constant surveillance but personally I’m not that kinky and I suspect most teachers and students aren’t either. Even the teacher educators are now focusing on surveillance instead of on engagement, creativity, self direction, wonder, or critique. Yuck!

It’s gotten so bad people are starting to suggest that we build our programs around our assessment tools rather the reverse. I recently heard a faculty member excitedly suggest that teacher education students could create an on-line portfolio based around the 11 required standards. She breathlessly told us how students could begin it in their introductory course and continue to build and update it as they mastered each standard through out their programs. WOW!  That sure sounds exciting! I bet we can find lots of 20 year olds who would think of that as an exciting and engaging way to spend their time and would love to spend two years working on it. Of course those standards are entirely focused on building wonder, engagement, love of learning, inquiry, critique and democratic values right?. What could possibly go wrong here? Doing that would surely help to turn our schools into joyous places that children will want to attend.

The same people who love this portfolio idea thought it would be an equally good idea to use the intro class to acquaint students with even more standards, and to start getting them ready for the edTPA (essentially they want to make teaching to the test raison d’etre of our programs.”) What a great way to introduce potential teachers to the profession and to get them imagining the great ways they’ll interact with kids!

I suppose that some folks might suggest that teaching is actually like that now in public schools so education students should get used to it. Actually the same argument is used when elementary kids are forced to change classes every hour because they need to “get ready” for doing it in High School. The underlying rationale could be described like this: They are going to have a lousy de-humanizing experience when they are in High School, so we better get them ready for it by giving them a lousy de-humanizing experience now.” By that logic race car drivers and airplane pilots should practice crashing their vehicles and airplanes so they can be ready for how bad it is going to be when it actually happens. I’m sure they’d all LOVE that. More seriously, the underlying stance of “that’s how it is, get used to it” also doesn’t leave any room for us to help teacher education students imagine something better either.

Unfortunately, the lunacy doesn’t stop there. CAEP (the successor to NCATE) wants to evaluate teacher education programs based on our graduates’ VAM scores. Never mind that most statisticians recommend against using VAM scores (for a variety of different reasons) in the first place. Even though VAM scores should not be used to evaluate individual teachers because of a wide variety of social and economic factors CAEP now thinks those scores could be used to evaluate institutions. There is however an easy solution to this. From now on we will only allow our students to take jobs in schools serving primarily white, middle to upper class students. That will make our VAM scores go up.

Lest you think it can’t get any worse you need to check this out. Go ahead and look. I dare you. For the faint of heart, I’ll describe what it is. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) is piloting a “National Observational Teacher Exam” (called NOTE)  in which education students will teach for 7 minutes in front of a set of electronic avatars. You read that right. Students will teach and be judged on a 7 minute lesson taught to electronic avatars. ETS claims it will standardize instructional contexts for assessment because, of course, all classrooms and kids come in standardized models. Perhaps we can stop this foolishness by having ETS pitch their new product to a bunch of avatars well.

So maybe I am just some old codger hopelessly caught in a bygone era. Perhaps I should just give up and shut up. But like Wile E Coyote I’m going to dust myself off, climb out of the valley and continue with the chase as long as I can. Maybe someday one of my attempts to catch and shake the lunacy will succeed. I know I’ll probably be driven over the cliff again, but like the coyote, I’m hopelessly compelled to keep trying.


Do our schools inadvertently promote the racism and intolerance we have been witnessing the last several months?

October 11, 2015

I’ve been wondering recently if our schools share any complicity in enabling the blatant racism, hatred and xenophobia we have been witnessing for the past several months. To be clear, I don’t believe that schools created these attitudes as racism and intolerance have a long pedigree in our country. It certainly wasn’t long after the first European immigrants got here seeking religious freedom of their own that they began importing slaves, eliminating the Native Americans that they felt were in their way and oppressing others that didn’t share the same religious beliefs as theirs.

So the hatred and bigotry we see coming from Donald Trump, Ben Carson, the supporters of the Confederate flag and others is really nothing new. But I’m wondering if the way we conduct schools might serve to enable these beliefs and behaviors rather than working against them. Here are some of the things I think could inadvertently promote bigotry and intolerance.

ABC Grading – We’ve all experienced this. At times grades seem to be arbitrary, and even when they aren’t it has been well documented that grades are as much or more a function of who we are when we enter the class, as they are of our work or effort. So, I’m wondering if the subtle message of grading that some folks take from school is that it is okay to judge some people as being better than others based on attributes that may be beyond their control. The folks most often judged negatively by grading are ELL students and students of color. As such it’s easy to see how such judgments in schools (in this case grades) could lead to the assumption that it’s okay judge people as “bad” or “inferior” especially if they are poor or people of color.

How we try to build a respect for others – We celebrate Black History Month in schools but how often is there any real depth to what happens. Many times African-American heroes include entertainers and athletes. I do think Duke Elllington (and others) should be recognized. But is there a subtle message here when the “heroes” we identify from communities of color include musicians, entertainers and athletes and all the white heroes do “important things?”

Many teachers will also engage their students in the well-known activity known as Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes. In this activity students are divided by their eye color, and one group gets to discriminate against the other. The roles are then reversed. At its best this activity really does help kids to empathize with what it feels like to be discriminated against. But the way it is done often misses some crucial depth and the solutions to discrimination and bigotry are more than getting kids to stop being “mean” to others. But we rarely engage kids with the larger cultural and social factors that drive intolerance and so the message kids get is that everything would be better if we just stopped doing it. This hardly gives them any tools to combat intolerance. We also need to consider if there is an underlying message here that it is okay to make others feel very bad as long as the ends are justified.

How we teach history and civics – Most students will happily tell you that civics and history are among their least favorite subjects. I suspect that for the most part this is a function of how we teach these subjects. In any event it is certainly the case that we have witnessed many public figures in the last several months that seem to not have a grip on basic civics and history. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum clearly don’t get the separation of powers between the branches of government. Others claim that we are a Christian nation (although there certainly are no documents to indicate that this is so). We also continue to hear the debunked canard that the Civil War was fought over states rights rather than slavery.

Even when we do attempt to address these issues they become over simplified and often treated as if the problem had been solved. This was brought home to me most powerfully by the 4th grade child who asked me with a puzzled look when we were discussing current discrimination “didn’t Martin Luther King fix all that?” In these cases we are not giving students sufficient tools to fight intolerance and our over simplified treatment of these issues could contribute to the belief that there isn’t really a problem. This in turn could lead to the targeting of those who raise the issue. much as we have recently seen in the media.

How we treat English Language Learners; Finally, it has become fairly common practice to “help” (and I use that word advisedly) ELL learners become fluent in English by placing them in mainstream classrooms, with an ELL teacher for part of the day. This so-called “immersion” approach is supposed help the children “keep up” with the content while they are learning English. But the subtle underlying message is that the native language is somehow inferior (after all the English-speaking kids aren’t required to learn it!). Beyond that in some schools children are forbidden and sometimes even disciplined for speaking in their first languages. We often hear stories of the first languages being prohibited because teachers assume that children are saying something “bad” or plotting something if the teacher can’t understand them. So the subtle message here again is that non-English speakers (in schools almost all children of color) are “bad” and not to be trusted. (more…)

A Lesson from My Elementary Classroom about the Confederate Flag

July 20, 2015

I started teaching back in the mid 70’s, which admittedly were “wild and woolier” times in schools than the times we live in today The school in which I taught was an alternative school sponsored by parents, but run as a part of the local school system. One of the problems I experienced in my classroom from time to time was with kids “swearing” or using inappropriate language. Frankly, I had no personal problem with my students using such language. I grew up in the sixties and early 70’s. For my peers and I a sentence wasn’t complete unless it contained multiple, multi-syllabic variations of words beginning with f and ending with k. Besides, I believed words were just words, and they only had shock value if we gave it to them.

On the other hand, my peers and I did enjoy the shock value of the language, as I’m sure my students did as well. But my parents finally asked me to stop using four letter words around them as the words offended them. I snidely replied that I would do so if they stopped using certain five letter words that offended me. They agreed and asked what the words were. My reply; Nixon and Agnew.

But within my parents response to my teenage snark was the key to dealing with swearing in my classroom, and ultimately to the confederate flag. They didn’t tell me the words were bad, or not to use the words. They told me not to use those words around them because my parents found them offensive. I used that same approach with the children in my own classroom.

When kids used what some folks consider to be inappropriate language in my classroom we first had a class discussion about it. I told my class that those words made some kids uncomfortable, and made some of the kids parents uncomfortable. Because that language made some people uncomfortable it was unacceptable in our classroom. I neither made nor implied any judgment about the language itself nor did I say they couldn’t use it elsewhere.

That simple message, that in our community we don’t do things publicly that make other members of our community uncomfortable is the same message we should be giving to the folks who want to retain the confederate flag. They should be welcome to retain the flag for their own private purposes and fly it on their own homes and vehicles if they wish. But we do know that the flag offends some folks, and whereas some people see it as representing a distinct history and heritage, others see it as a symbol of hatred and racism. Simply because a significant number of people are offended by it is reason enough that it should no longer be displayed in public spaces.

My students learned this lesson about how we treat other members of our community in my elementary school classroom. I only wish that schools were still focused on teaching children how to treat others well in our society instead of on the common core, testing and test prep.

Are we getting overloaded with information?

January 10, 2010

I’m wondering if the world has gotten too complex for most of us to understand. Perhaps the speed, intensity and sheer volume of the information coming at us now is so great that it is beyond our ability to create a narrative and make sense out of it.

It seems to me our level of discourse is suffering because of it. We use oversimplified terms for complex ideas; like using the word Socialism to describe the process of providing more government services to folks who don’t currently have them. It’s a complex issue with social, political and economic ramifications, and it cuts to the bone of who and what we want to be as nation. But calling it socialism, and thus implying it is inherently evil doesn’t help us to understand the complexity and nuance of what we are considering.

A recent piece on NPR noted that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was fairly easy for regular folks to understand what was happening in science. ( )Now, the sheer volume and complexity of the information makes it impossible for most of us to understand. For example, I have a vague notion of what happens inside my computer, but really have no in depth or working knowledge of it. I bet most computer users are in the same boat.

This musing was prompted by a meeting I attended several weeks ago. The presenters were trying to show us what the potentials were for growth in some of our state retirement funds. I came away from the meeting wondering if there were simply too many variables to control, and that the nature of the financial instruments and the vagaries of “the market” were such that any sort of accuracy was beyond our reach.

Has the same thing happened in education, health care, finance and other venues – is there now simply too much information and complexity for the average person to make any sense of?

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