Monthly Archives: May 2013

Testing Has Become the Reform Itself

Research demonstrates that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, fosters teacher-centered instruction and tends to undermine culturally relevant teaching. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of high-takes testing is the attention it draws away from enrichment, relevance and actual high standards. Testing has become the reform itself rather than simply one means of measuring achievement; it has become, in most cases, the sole measure of achievement.

Kathleen Nolan in, Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School

Things Are Getting Stinky

I ran across a couple of things that have coalesced for me.  One was Chris Thinnes’ wonderful blog post, The Abuse and Internalization of the ‘Free Market’ Model in Education.  In this post, Thinnes cogently dismantles the theoretical underpinnings of the neoliberal project that values the free market as the arbiter of all, and its effect on education.  The other was the revelation in Michigan of the Skunk Works Project, another real life attempt to bring the free market to the publicly held common good.  Let me start with Thinnes’ post as it provides some context for understanding the Skunk Works Project.

Thinnes quotes Pauline Lipman, who describes neoliberalism as, …

“…an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.”

The neoliberal project promotes individual self-interest over the common good, the market as the arbiter of values, and overall offers a hyper-privatized view of society.  Thinnes’ post goes on to show how much of this way of thinking has become the air we breathe, even within the field of education.  He writes,

The particularly vexing dilemma of this current ‘social imaginary’ of the ‘free market model’ — especially insofar as educational practice and policy are concerned — is that it is a deeply anti-social, so much so as to devalue not just the theoretical benefits but the practical urgency of prioritizing creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thought, and cultural competency in our education policy. …We are preoccupied as a nation with products, rather than processes; with competition, rather than collaboration; with dominance, rather than participation; with achievement, rather than imagination; and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.

This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

And this attempt to purposefully, ostensibly improve our schools is where the Skunk Works Project fits in.

The Skunk Works Project is a secret group of top aides to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder who have been meeting to sculpt a voucher like system of “value school.”  That is, a school that would operate on the “efficiency” of $5000 per student.  As quoted in the Detroit News, the group hopes to apply “concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money.”

After reading Thinnes’ blog post, it is easy to see the neoliberal agenda at work here.  The application of private sector principles to the publicly held common good- and until recently in secret outside of the public eye- is a trademark this agenda, regardless of how these principles have worked in any sector.

Since the news story broke, Snyder has asked Michigan Schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan to head up the group, thereby lending the appearance of acceptance by the education community.  However, this is a very superficial appearance.  As far as I can determine, there are no actual K-12 educators involved.  (I’m sorry, but I don’t call a state superintendent who has never taught an actual educator.  I don’t begrudge him this, and I would be willing to accept it if there were more evidence that he supported public education. In my mind, his agreement to head this group is a huge conflict of interest for the head of education in the state.)  The only educator who had been involved was Paul Galbenski.  Paul is  a person who I know as someone with great integrity, who said, “It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system.  That’s when I started questioning my involvement.”  Galbenski is no longer working with the group.

So, it looks like we educators and parents who care for the common good and public education have a lot of work ahead of us.

Please do your homework.  Start with Progress Michigan’s blog post that gives more background to this situation here.

Next, recognize the Skunk Works Project has officially changed their name to the catchy, 21st Century Learning styled title of The Education Technology Work Group.  They have a Facebook page here that will let you post your opinion.  There is also a survey to take that will allow you voice your thoughts   (However, though I’m not fully up on Facebook etiquette, I don’t suggest you ‘like’ their page.)

Also, please be sure to read Chris Thinnes’ full blog post here.

To the degree the Skunk Works Project succeeds is the degree to which the common good is at stake for all of us.

The Ethic of Care, Part 4: On the Measurement of Care (and the Messiness of Humanity)

Part 4 in a 4 part series based on, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates.

In light of our obsession for measuring, quantifying, holding accountable…, consider:

One time I had to send a senior boy home from school. (We’ll call him by the pseudonym Jeff here.) I didn’t think there was much of a choice. He had been struggling with addiction issues and was strung out, irritable, argumentative, disruptive to everybody. He wasn’t having a very good day. I called his dad to come and get him.

It was no surprise that Jeff blew up as I walked him out to his car. He escalated, called me every name you could think of. He screamed that I didn’t care, I didn’t understand, I was an idiot. It went on and on, and was interspersed with every word my mother told me never to say.

I stayed calm. I didn’t react in kind. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking at that time- that, of course, his habits created this situation, he had to take responsibility, he was sick, he needed to get better. I didn’t react to his pain by adding to it. I didn’t add to his shame. This wasn’t easy- I was hurt. I was angry. But when Jeff finally got in the car with his befuddled father, I was proud of myself. I’m no hero- I can write lots of stories that wouldn’t put me in a positive light, and this certainly wasn’t much, but in a unique way I had cared for him at time when, despite his behavior, he really needed it. And at least this one time, in this one instance, that care was displayed by a lack of response to his anger, frustration and deep pain. I refrained from piling on. I acted from this care, rather than reacting from my own vulnerable, hurt ego.

A half hour later, Jeff called me sobbing, ashamed and apologetic.

Working with a great staff, we finally were able to help his family get Jeff into a full-time drug rehabilitation program.

Before he left, Jeff stopped by my office to give me a ceramic work that he had made. He just said, “I want you to have this.” He didn’t try to voice anything more, or he couldn’t, it was kind of like a dog bringing its owner the gift of a dead bird on a porch, unspoken but so loyal. After all we had been through together, it meant a lot to me. He knew I cared.

I keep it on my book shelf still.

Another time a student left a note on my desk.

“Dear Bill,
Love Liz no matter how much she pisses you off.

Words to live by.

Hard to test for.

You see, we work in the real world, with real students. Things are complex, people can be messy.

The poet, William Stafford, wrote in A Ritual To Read To Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star….

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

The darkness around us right now is indeed deep. As educators in the trenches, we must be awake and be clear. There is no doubt that there is a pattern that others are making in an attempt to prevail, a pattern of those with money and institutional power, but not the power of experience of genuine care that we attempt to enact daily.

Let’s stay awake.

The Ethic of Care, Part 3: Caring in the Face of the Corporate Reform Movement

This is part 3 in a 4 part series based on the study, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates.

With this understanding of care in mind (see The Ethic of Care, Part 2), I would like to address the question of how the ethic of care is impacted by the current testing culture, which supports the contrary ethic of achievement.

As the authors note, “It is individuals and not organizations that care.” A school doesn’t care for a child, but a teacher does. However, “…schools can and should be organized in ways that support he efforts of teachers and others to care for children and adolescents.” The unwritten corollary of this, is that schools can also be organized in ways that do not support the efforts of teachers to care for children and adolescents.

Any school cultural practice that asks us to view our students as anything other than fully human, that objectifies them in order meet some abstract need (e.g., sufficient test score data), works to undermine all of our humanity. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to always treat the other as fully human- it would be too much to ask a fallible humans to do so. However, we do need to recognize the ways that patterns of behavior create a culture that encourages behaviors of objectification, “I/It” relationships, as opposed to a culture of humanity, “I/Thou” relationships.

Cassidy and Bates write that their study, “…reinforces the notion espoused by Greene (1991) and by Noddings (1988) that care, if implemented, will break apart existing structures, policies, and practices and manifest itself in less hierarchical and more student-centered ways.”

The move towards standards and towards a test driven accountability system enacts a culture that moves in the opposite direction away from a “less hierarchical and more student centered” culture. Testing and standardization are dependent upon a scripted culture of compliance (most exemplified by the behaviorally driven KIPP charter school system) rather than a culture of student centered relationships. A data driven, objectifying culture that views students’ wholly individual, and thus unique, talents through a set of superficial, standard normed data destroys the whole idea of “student centered” and replaces it with the business outcome language of “achievement,” “results” and “outcomes” that may work when the goal is to produce profit, but not so much when the goal is to nurture children and adolescents. A culture that privileges achievement also undermines care because it values the illusion of the clean abstraction of data over the flesh and blood messiness of humanity. In No Excuses and the Culture of Shame, Paul Thomas writes:

“… the school perpetuates a culture in which only numbers and quantitative data matter. The focus on quantitative data within the school and the broader public discourse allows ‘no excuses’ advocates to mask their means by trying to justify their ends. To shift the gaze away from the children involved is to dehumanize the discussion and hide that those same children are being dehumanized in these schools.”

This “no excuses” approach that Paul Thomas critiques is dehumanizing exactly because it doesn’t consider what Thomas calls “the social context” of our humanity.

The question thus becomes, how can we act from an ethic of care in the face of current corporate reform movement? Where are the spaces that allow us to expand our humanity, and the humanity of the students we work with? This requires each of us to understand ourselves, our context, the culture we work within, and the students we work with. It requires, of each of us, a whole lot of critical thinking, and a whole lot of heart. And it requires that we recognize and support others we see doing this work.

Let’s get to it.

The Ethic of Care Part 4: On the Measurement of Care (and the Messiness of Humanity)

The Ethic of Care, Part 2: The Enactment of Care

Part 2 of a 4 part series based on, Drop Outs and Push Outs: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, by Wanda Cassidy and Antia Bates.

In Part One I pointed out the irony of the logic of the ethic of achievement. Here, I want to focus on the ethic of care itself. What is the ethic of care? What does it look like? How do we enact it?

The authors Of Drop Outs and Pushouts use Nel Noddings’ writing as a source for their frame of caring. They write, that, “According to Noddings (1984, 1992, 202) two essential elements of caring for one another are ‘apprehending the other’s reality’ (1984, 16) and being committed to caring action on the other’s behalf. For the caring relationship to be complete, care must be received; that is, the recipient of car must recognize, and in some way respond to, the care provided.”

What interests me here is that the enactment of caring requires, first and foremost, the “apprehending… the other’s reality.” It’s not easy to use the reality of “the other” as the starting point, rather than our own reality. This is perhaps the most difficult, and fundamentally important step in caring. From this starting point of the apprehension of the other, our behavior, our caring action, follows. It is too easy to abide by the illusion of caring from the starting point of our own needs, and a school environment can certainly add to this. When we try to a help students to “achieve” without first “apprehending” their realities, we are probably inflicting harm on them. When we attempt to “help” a student get a better test score, for instance, though there is nothing in that student’s reality that allows him/her to see the benefit of better test scores, that student is not likely “to recognize” our behavior as caring. And the student would be right. In order to care we need to start with the understanding of how the student views his/her world, and the relevance of our place in it.

At its root, care is grounded in the deepest form of respect. It shifts our perspective from relating from an “I/It” relationship (treating the other as an object for meeting our needs) , as philosopher Martin Buber writes, to an “I/Thou” relationship (treating the other as a mystery, one worthy of our deepest respect, and present as an interrelated aspect of our own self.)

William Isaacs, author of the book Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, describes this deep form of respect:

“Respect is not a passive act. To respect someone is to look for the spring that feeds the pool of their experience… At its core, the act of respect invites us to see others as legitimate. We may not like what they do or say or think, but we cannot deny their legitimacy as beings. In Zulu, a South African language, the word Sawu bona is spoken when people greet one another and when they depart. It means ‘I see you.’ To the Zulus, being seen has more meaning than in Western cultures. It means that the person is in some real way brought more fully into existence by virtue of the fact that they are seen.” (See Paul Thomas’s take on how this “being seen” is too often played out in schools: Many Closets, One Fear: How Not to Be Seen)

The educators featured in this study put it this way:

“The teachers stressed that what is important is not students’ respect for teachers and other staff, but rather the reverse, staff members’ respect for each and every student. Respect for students is given unconditionally and is not based on accomplishments, good behavior, or compliance, but simply as response to ‘their individuality.'”

Note the lack of condition in both quotes. The granting of respect is not granted on the condition that respect is first received. It is not something that is achieved in any way, shape or form. Respect is granted as a fundamental matter of honoring another’s humanity.

We often hear adults speak of the need to “be respected” rather than the desire “to respect.” This is really a sign of insecurity. Please know that I understand that we are all insecure to some degree, and I know that I personally fall into this need far too often myself. I also work to remember that the only behavior I control is my own, and that my current behavior shapes my future identity. I want to be the kind of person who grants respect unconditionally.

With this said, it becomes a bit clearer that the need to be respected comes from an insecure wish to shore up the ego. It is a “me first” approach that starts with our needs, rather than the needs of the other. The educators cited in this study understand this. In terms of respect, all we really control is our ability to respect others- respect may, or may not, come back to us a result, but our identity is not dependent on others’ reaction to us. Instead, our identity is created by our actions towards others. We control who we are as educators, and who we are becoming, through our actions. Our identity is not determined or controlled by others. And by acting from the ethic of care, one that starts by apprehending the reality of the other, we both model for, and invite others into, a space that allows them to experience care, and to thus grow into the humane versions of their selves that such care naturally invites.

The Ethic of Care Part 3: Caring in the Face of the Corporate Reform Movement

Patience, Thought and the Common Core

Two important pieces have come out in the last couple of days that analyze the impact of the Common Core. In Will a Year’s Delay Save the Common Core?, Anthony Cody looks into intelligent, effective alternatives to Common Core. Paul Thomas calls for non-cooperation with it in, A Call for Non-Cooperation: So That Teachers Are Not Foreigners in Their Own Profession. Both pieces are fairly long, and each requires some patience and thought. One of my concerns with the whole conversation around the CCSS is that patience and thought are both hard to find. We are naively rushing forward to impose them without fully understand the implications. It seems to me that as public workers and learners, educators also have the obligation to be public intellectuals. And this task requires much thought, and much patience. So please patiently and thoughtfully consider my addition to this conversation, but, more importantly, read Cody and Thomas’s works completely.

In my mind, there are two separate conversations regarding the Common Core. (Please recognize that I know these are simplifications of more complex arguments.) One of them focuses on the instructional aspects of the standards, while another focuses on the political implications of them. Let me address each in turn:

1. Instructional Integration
This conversation attempts to justify or criticize the quality of the standards themselves. For instance, the controversy over the privileging of non-fiction works over fiction in the ELA portion of the Common Core falls into this category (though not neatly). The essential focus of the instructional aspect of the Common Core has to do with the standards’ ability to improve individual schools and classrooms. What is the quality of the standards themselves? Will these standards help make teacher instruction and individual schools better?

2. Political Purposes
This conversation is a bigger picture conversation about the impact of the adoption of the standards on the quality of, perception of, and funding of public education. This conversation ties into the broader concern of the CCSS as a tool of high stakes testing, accountability and the corporate education reform movement.

There are many educators that I respect who are proponents of the CCSS from the perspective of its instructional aspects. They honestly, thoughtfully believe that the adoption of the Common Core has the ability to improve their classrooms and/or schools. Their arguments are coherent, and though I disagree, I do respect their positions. There are no educators that I know who are in support of high stakes testing and the corporate education movement. So, though there are differing opinions on what the imposition of the CCSS means for classrooms, there is strong consensus among educators against the political purposes of the CCSS.

The problem is, that by agreeing with the adoption of the Common Core based on an instructional argument, educators also accept all of the political implications that come with it. As the standards are adopted, measurement of those standards will also be adopted. And we have enough experience to know that the superficial testing measures of the accountability movement, and the national testing that tied to national standards, actually means the continued dismantling of public education as we know it. The two different conversations as I have outlined them are necessarily conflated. (And for a great example of this conflation, see Common Core Standards Are Common Sense from the Detroit Free Press. The author, one who I generally admire, uses the argument of instruction- posed from a position of neutrality that veils the political consequences of her argument- to react to a politically ideological stance.) By agreeing with and accepting the CCSS as means of improving instruction, we also condone and accept its political consequences as a tool of the corporate education reform movement. As public intellectuals of thoughtfulness and patience, we can no longer be naive in our belief that classroom practices tied to accountability measures have been beneficial for what’s left of public education in this age of neo-liberalism. As Thomas writes in another article, Corporations Are Behind the Common Core- And That’s Why They’ll Never Work

“In other words, high-stakes testing labels and creates achievement gaps; it doesn’t help close the gap. Since the history of accountability has shown that all standards that are linked to high-stakes tests become what is tested is what is taught, CCSS are destined to the same failure as found during the preceding thirty years.”

By leveraging the gaps that it necessarily creates, the standards and testing movement continues to dismantle the commons of public education, and to profit corporations such as Pearson and a number of for profit charter companies. And by naively condoning the instructional aspects of the CCSS, we continue to allow the nefarious political implications.

Thought and patience, followed by a good dose of activism, please.

For another thorough example of thinking about the Common Core, read Diane Ravitch’s, Why I Cannot Support the Common Core Standards

The Ethic of Care, Part 1: The Irony of the Achievement Ethic

A friend forwarded me this study, “Drop-Outs” and “Push Outs”: Finding Hope at a School That Actualizes the Ethic of Care, and I can’t stop thinking about it. It gets to the crux of so much of what is necessary in developing schools as humane institutions, and to the crux so much of what is happening in the ed reform movement that creates obstacles to that.

We tend to look at schools through the ethic of achievement. Students’ purpose is to achieve success, and this success is measured by grades and test scores. Part of the hidden curriculum in this view is that students are valued in accordance to their level of achievement. This valuing is not overt, but it is nonetheless real. And achievement becomes the means to garnering future economic success. This, again (see Schooling for Economics or Citizenship?), reinforces a privatized view of student as consumer, and sees the purpose of schools as being the production of economic achievers and consumers.

This study, on the other hand, shows the much deeper purpose of valuing all of our students through the ethic of care. Its authors, Wanda Cassidy and Anita Bates, write:

“The positive social, emotional, and academic development of children and adolescents depends, to a considerable degree, on whether the contexts in which they develop, including schools, are reliable sources of caring relationships (Noddings 1984, 1992,2002; Rauner 2000). Unfortunately, in today’s schools, caring is rarely placed at the center of policies and practices (Noddings 1005, 2002). Instead, educators are under pressure to increase students’ academic performance, as measured by high stakes standardized tests (Kohn 2000). Finding spaces for caring is becoming increasingly difficult as administrators, teachers, and students are pushed toward preordained goals set by distant bureaucrats.

Noddings (1984, 1992, 2002) claims that the need for care is universal and that young people suffer when schools become less caring places. Those most severely affected are those who can least afford to be in an uncaring environment, that is, students whose social background and academic history put them at risk for school failure, or dropping out of school prior to high school graduation (Croninger and Lee 2001; Deschenes et al. 2001; rossi and Stringfield 1995).” (Emphasis added)

There is so much that can be said about these two paragraphs.

For now, let me just point out the faulty logic of the current, achievement oriented corporate education reform movement in light of this study:

* The logic of corporate education reform says that student achievement is most important (and note that this achievement is invariably measured through the superficial ease of test score results)

* The logic of reform says by increasing student achievement, we benefit students

* However, those most likely to achieve are those least in need of a caring school environment (though all students benefit from an environment that places care at its center)

* Those most likely to be hurt by the ethic of achievement are those we all agree are most in need of support, and those who, ostensibly, this reform is designed to benefit

* Thus the logic of the current school reform movement is that it benefits those least in need of that benefit, and hurts most those that it is designed to help

Isn’t it ironic? It would be hilariously so if so many students and educators weren’t traumatized by it.

The Ethic of Care Part 2: The Enactment of Care