Monday, January 24, 2011

Muppet Family Fun

My children - ages five and eight - have seen, at most, four or five movies in their lives. Watching movies has simply never been a part of our parenting - as we've always felt the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations on limiting TV/movie viewing makes a lot of sense. Thus, our kids were never parked in front of The Lion King or Finding Nemo when they were younger. The first movie they saw about two years ago was Mary Poppins. After that we added Charlotte's Web, and recently saw Angels in the Outfield and then, one of my favorites, Little Giants. My wife and I have always watched these movies with them, and sometimes we space the viewing out over two nights.

It was a big deal recently when we took our eight-year-old son to the theater for the first time to watch Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows. He has read all the books - twice - and we had seen some scenes from the earlier movies when they were on regular television. Overall, though, movies aren't a significant part of our days. Thus, when we decided to have another movie night this last weekend, we searched for a while before finding a great, and classic, piece of family entertainment. Jim Henson's The Muppet Movie was a truly wonderful movie which is entirely appropriate for young audiences. It was a nice trip down Memory Lane for me and my wife, and it was refreshing to rediscover a movie that doesn't hide innuendo and adult themes in a child's movie just to entertain the adults. The story is simple, sweet, and quite inspiring, and it's quite a treat with all the cameos from famous actors and comedians.

It's definitely worth tuning in just to hear that pleasant and familiar sound of Kermit, plucking away at the banjo and singing:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows, And what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we've been told and some choose to believe it, I know they're wrong, wait and see.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star? Somebody thought of that, and someone believed it,
And look what it's done so far. What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing
And what do we think we might see? Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

... Have you been half asleep? And have you heard voices? I've heard them calling my name.
... Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?The voice might be one and the same
I've heard it too many times to ignore it, It's something that I'm s'posed to be...
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, The lovers, the dreamers, and me

Jim Henson was a brilliant man, and The Muppet Movie is truly wholesome family entertainment. It's not a cliche to say "They don't make them like this anymore."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why Read, Study, Learn

Each year at this time - on the first day of second semester, I ask my students to ponder the following two questions:

What do you dislike about the subjects you study in school?
What flaws in your intellect or character does this reveal about you?

You can imagine the blank stares as I pose the second one and then leave them to write down their thoughts. There isn't an option to disagree. The discussion that follows can get pretty animated and I generally play a serious Devil's Advocate.

These two questions come from a great book called Why Read, written Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Each year, as he hands out the obligatory class evaluations at the end of the semester, he adds these two questions. Edmundson's goal is to get past the obvious and general criticisms that students make about their education and instead get them to focus inward on what their relationship to learning is. Perhaps they don't like school because they don't have much discipline. In other words, they don't like to work or read or write or study or think, etc. Perhaps they have reached their level of incompetence, as we rarely enjoy those activities we aren't good at - and if reading is a burden, then higher education will be all the more so. The reality is that often subjects are innocuous - there is neither good nor bad. Thus, it's not that the class is boring or not - it might be that the student, however, is.

This is not intended to force the students to criticize themselves or see their approach to learning negatively. In fact, in a subsequent discussion, I seek to put a positive spin on the exercise. Understanding that some things are beyond our control, I urge them to consider the reality that the one thing - in their education - over which they will always have control is their thoughts. Thus, while the class or subject or teacher may be boring or frustrating - issues which they can't control - their perception or attitude toward the task is within their power. Thus, they may seek to find something positive in the class. They may seek to view mundane repetition as merely an opportunity to practice, refine, and even perfect a skill.

It's not a perfect discussion, but it certainly kicks off the second half of the year in an interesting way.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Going the Distance

Lately, I've been impressed by the quality of films put out in the Romantic-Comedy genre - as is evidence from recent posts. So, here's another. Drew Barrymore and Justin Long starred in a great film Going the Distance from director Nanette Burstein - documentary film director of American Teen, another recent posting. The long distance relationship story is a familiar, even cliched, one. But Barrymore, Long, and Burstein team for a refreshing look, driven by some great dialogue, surprising scenes, and some real honesty.

Overall, a well-written and occasionally surprising look at love. Take time to watch Going the Distance.

Friday, January 14, 2011

More KIPP, Charter, & Motivation

After watching the issue of charter schools and KIPP develop around Denver for the past eight years, I was intrigued by the recent exchange in the Washington Post between Jay Mathews and Valerie about KIPP retention rates. Conceding the success of KIPP and Green Dot and HCZ, I have always been an advocate of the "whatever works" approach to reform of failing - primarily urban - schools. Yet, remembering KIPP's retreat from the Cole Middle School neighborhood in Denver - even as another KIPP school had operated in successfully in Denver since 2003 - I would argue the primary factor in success still centers on student/parent motivations and expectations.

Clearly, the greatest evidence for success in charters - especially KIPP - is the self-selecting model of students and families committed to achievement at all costs. That includes the nine-hour days, mandatory summer programs, student contracts, parental requirements, etc. And, we can't discount the social services - nutrition, health care, counseling, baby-sitting - that are integral to the success at HCZ. These are all necessary to bring struggling students back to the standard expectations. Clearly, KIPP doesn't directly cherry-pick students - but the culture and expectations of the school is a de facto cherry picking scenario - and it is one that I support. Certainly, these kids need these high expectations and they need a rigid and rigorous environment that expects - even demands - that they meet them.

Sadly, this discussion among teacher critics too often ignores all the supplemental assistance and the role of student motivation as the charter school leaders often say they simply require the right to hire and fire teachers at will. Geoffery Canada is sadly guilty of this - going on the public stage to tout his model and making his comments all about "firing bad teachers" and rarely about all the student/family assistance he provides. The KIPP that failed in Denver never had the buy-in from the community - thus KIPP's explanation about teachers seems rather ambiguous and unverifiable.

Cole is in the absolute poorest most socially dysfunctional area in Denver - it is textbook case for why communities and neighborhood schools fail. All the ills are in abundance. The failure of the KIPP intervention was primarily because they could not force the changes and expectations on a whole community that was not choosing their model. Despite the school's administration of KIPP principles, the students did not follow their lead. Truancy and discipline problems remained and student achievement made no movement at all. In response, KIPP backed out of the school in a very short time. KIPP may argue that they couldn't find "effective leaders committed to the model," but the reality is they couldn't force an entire school of kids, and their parents, to commit to their model.

The entire theory of charter reform is that if neighborhood schools reformed around KIPP-style ideas, and dedicated teachers implement the philosophy, it will change the culture of the school. That was simply not the case at Cole. That, however, overlooks the fact that a percentage of kids in that neighborhood use "open enrollment" and leave the Cole neighborhood for other schools, including the KIPP Peak Academy and the Denver School of Science and Technology. That is, in fact, what many kids in that neighborhood have done. The ones who didn't remained at Cole - now closed completely - and they were the ones on whom the KIPP experiment made no impact.

Clearly, serious education reformers must consider the importance of student motivation and the self-selecting impact that leads to success in the 20% of charter schools that actually outperform neighborhood schools. I believe Colorado is in a pretty good position with its statewide rule of "open enrollment" and its promotion of charter schools. However, I'm not naive enough to see either as a panacea for larger social ills.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Content and Curriculum

Question - Who is Samuel Gompers?

Answer - Who the heck cares?

As first semester comes to a close, and our students drag themselves through the gauntlet of final exams, I am once again troubled by the nature of arbitrary knowledge. The study guides with extensive lists of terms for objective tests evaluating skills of rote memorization are fodder for criticism whenever we truly wonder what students - even people - really need to know. So, as students cram names of figures from American history into their heads for a short time, I challenge the significance of a name. No one needs to know who Samuel Gompers is, or was, any more than he needs to know about the struggles of Ralph and Piggy or Elizabeth Bennett. Certainly, society will survive if the function of the dorsal lateral pre-fontal lobe or the square root of one-hundred forty four is lost on most people. So, what are we really trying to accomplish.

Arguably, it comes down to a simple reality of education - people use existing knowledge to make sense of new information. Thus, the more information a student has in his head, the more extensively he will be able to attack more complex problems. Higher level critical thinking is easier and more effective when the mind has a vast store of comparisons and contrasts and scenarios from which to draw. Clearly, as a colleague argues to me, Samuel Gompers is quite significant to my situation as an employed middle class American. His contributions to society continue to reverberate. And, familiarity with the situations of Ralph, Piggy, and Elizabeth can have significant impact on the decisions students make later in life as voters, parents, employees, and citizens. So, it all has significance in some way. But the arbitrary way in which it is presented and evaluated will always be troubling to me.

Gompers, by the way, was the founder of the American Federation of Labor.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Toxic Political Environment

The shooting in Tuscon, Arizona in which a congresswoman was targeted and shot and six citizens lost their lives is generating the expected hyperbole about vitriolic political speech and the loose gun laws in the United States. And, of course, everyone needs to calm down before any conclusions are drawn.

Clearly, politics was at issue in this tragedy, otherwise the crazed gunman would have simply walked into a supermarket or a school or a restaurant or a business and opened fire. However, the intense political environment of the past decade or so is no more at direct fault for this shooting than was Ozzy Osbourne responsible for the suicide of a depressed teen who listened to his song "Suicide Solution" or were the violent videos of Marylin Manson and violent video games responsible for the Columbine shootings. There is no way to prove the one negative influence that drove mentally unstable people over the edge.

However, language does matter, and nothing good can come from the intense animosity in American politics these days. We should be disturbed and challenge public figures like Sharon Angle who frivolously warn that "people are going to choose 2nd amendment solutions." We should not forget that Timothy McVeigh was not mentally unstable. He was just incredibly angry at the government. Thus, the anti-government positions of too many people these days is not good for the country. The talk of tyranny and "watering the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots" has serious ramifications. And language matters to people. It influences people. It enrages people like McVeigh - sometimes leading them to act. And it has the potential to drive mentally unstable people over the edge. We should not forget the Dept of Homeland Security report that warned of the increasing threat from domestic anti-government groups. That warning was valid and real.

Certainly, there is no political discussion in America that requires such vitriol. And we will all benefit from stepping back our political rhetoric.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Poverty Matters

Researchers at the University of Texas are concluding with a new study that poverty actually suppresses a child's genetic potential. Through a study of 750 sets of twins, researchers concluded that genetic potential can account for as much as half of the success a wealthier child achieves. By contrast, poor kids do not receive benefit from genetic qualities. Thus, it's not that poor people are genetically inferior to the wealthy, but instead that poverty is so damaging to children that its lack of opportunity inhibits any genetic advantages kids may have had.

Clearly, this has significant ramifications for education reform in a country where 1 in 5 children live in a state of poverty. That condition impacts kids through food insecurity and nutrition, adequate sleep and health care, early educational opportunities, and a sense of well being, among a myriad of other factors. Thus, it's not surprising the United States struggles in PISA scores against nations like Finland and Singapore where the poverty rate is 2% for school children. And, it creates a conundrum for communities seeking to improve their school performance.

Certainly, poor kids rise above their circumstances all the time - but not many and not without a great deal of additional support beyond the norms of public education.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

American Teen

Documentary film maker Nanatte Burstein has, in some ways, brought The Breakfast Club to life in her film American Teen. The film, which won the directors award at Sundance a couple years ago, follows five teens from a small Indiana town through their senior year. Burstein visited numerous high schools and interviewed thousands of teens in scouting out her decision for an average American high school on which to focus. She hits the standard archetypes of athlete, prom queen/honors student, misfit, and band geek - and she pretty much lets them tell their story.

Overall, this is a watch-able and reasonably thoughtful film about being a teenager in the twenty-first century. While it is obviously a bit contrived, my experience is that it offered a pretty accurate reflection of what is going on in the average suburban high school in this country. I was acutely aware of the naive lens through which so many teens perceive life and their future. For example, students believe everything will be fine if they can "just get into Notre Dame" or "just get a basketball scholarship" or "just get out of this town and move to California." And, it's poignant at times to see them struggle with the realities of their expectations.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Education Resolutions

Reprinted from The Answer Sheet Blog by Valerie Strauss

This was written by Mike Rose, who is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is the author of "Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.”

By Mike Rose
The beginning of the year is the time to be hopeful, to feel the surge of possibility. So in that spirit I want to propose just over one dozen education resolutions that emerge from the troubling developments and bad, old habits of 2010. Feel free to add your own.

1) To have more young people get an engaging and challenging education.

2) To stop the accountability train long enough to define what we mean by “achievement” and what it should mean in a democratic society. Is it a rise in test scores? Is it getting a higher rank in international comparisons? Or should it be more?

3) To stop looking for the structural or technological magic bullet – whether it’s charter schools or value-added analysis – that will improve education. Just when you think the lesson is learned – that the failure of last year’s miracle cure is acknowledged and lamented – our attention is absorbed by a new quick fix.

4) To stop making the standardized test score the gold-standard of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. In what other profession do we use a single metric to judge goodness? Imagine judging competence of a cardiologist by the average of her patients’ cardiograms.

As a corollary resolution I would like to have school reformers pledge to read Stephen Jay Gould’s classic The Mismeasure of Man or just about anything by Canadian philosopher of science Ian Hacking to remind them of the logical fallacies and scientific follies involved in trying to find a single measure for a complex human phenomenon.

5) To assure that teacher professional development gets increased and thoughtful support. For this to happen, we will need at the least: a) A major shift from the last decade’s punitive accountability system toward a program of growth and development. b) A rejection of typical development fare: a consultant jets in, lays down a scheme, a grid, a handful of techniques and aphorisms, then jets out. c) A replacement of said fare with ongoing, comprehensive, intellectually rich programs of the kind offered by the National Writing Project and the National Science Foundation.

6) To ensure that people who actually know a lot about schools will appear on Oprah and will be consulted by politicians and policy makers. When President Obama visited my home state of California, the person he met with to talk about education was Steve Jobs.

7) To have the secretary of education, the president, and other officials stop repeating the phrase “We are going to educate ourselves toward a 21st Century economy.” It is smart economic policy more than anything else that will move us toward a 21st Century economy.

8) To convince policy makers and school officials to stop using corporate speak (or whatever it is) when talking about education: “game changer,” “non-starter,” “leverage,” “incentivize,” and so on. We would chastise our students for resorting to such a clichéd vocabulary. Education of all places should reflect a fresher language. And while we’re at it, how about a moratorium on this phrasing: “We’re doing it for the kids” or “It’s good for kids” when referring to just about any initiative or practice. Talk about clichéd language; the phrase is used as a substitute for evidence or a reasoned argument.

9) To rethink, or at least be cautious about, the drive to bring any successful practice or structure “to scale”. Of course we want to learn from what’s good and try to replicate it, but too often the notion of “scaling up” plays out in a mechanical way, doing more or building more of something without much thought given to the fact that any human activity occurs in a context, in a time and place, and therefore a simple replication of the practice in one community might not achieve the same results it did in its original setting.

10) To make do with fewer economists in education. These practitioners of the dismal science have flocked to education reform, though most know little about teaching and learning. I mean, my Lord, with a few exceptions they did such a terrific job analyzing the financial and housing markets – something they do know a lot about – that the field of economics itself, according to The Economist, is experiencing an identity crisis. So tell me again why they’re especially qualified to change education for the better.

11) To have the media, middle-brow and high-brow, quit giving such a free pass to the claims and initiatives of the Department of Education and school reformers. There is an occasional skeptical voice, but for any serious analysis, you have to go to sources like The Nation or Pacifica radio. Journalists and commentators who make their living by being skeptical – David Brooks, Nicholas Kristof, Arianna Huffington – leave their skepticism at the door when it comes to the topic of education.

12) To have education pundits check their tendency to resort to the quip, the catchy one-liner. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll give an extended example. I believe it was Hoover Institute economist Eric A. Hanushek who observed that if we simply got rid of the bottom 10% of teachers (as determined by test scores) and replaced them with teachers at the top 10% we’d erase the achievement gap, or leap way up the list on international comparisons, or some such. His observation got picked up by a number of commentators. It is one of those “smartest kids in the class” kinds of statements, at first striking but on reflection not very substantial.

Think for a moment. There are many factors that affect student academic performance, and the largest is parental income – so canning the bottom 10 percent won’t erase all the barriers to achievement. Furthermore, what exactly is this statement’s purpose? It seems to be a suggestion for policy. So let’s play it out. There are about 3½ million teachers out there. Ten percent is 350,000. As a policy move, how do you fire 350,000 people without creating overwhelming administrative and legal havoc, and where do you quickly find the stellar 350,000 to replace them? Also, since the removal of that bottom 10 percent one year creates a new 10 percent the next (I think Richard Rothstein also made this point), do we repeat the process annually?

It is this kind of quip that zips through the chattering classes, but really is a linguistic bright, shining object that distracts us from the real work of improving our schools.

13) To have my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, stop advocating for the use of value-added analysis as the key metric for judging teacher effectiveness and return to reporting as comprehensively as it can news about education and employing the journalist’s skepticism about any technique that seems too good to be true. The Times does offer the contrary voice, but in a minor key, and too often from teachers union officials who lack credibility rather than the wide range of statisticians and measurement experts who raise a whole host of concerns about value-added analysis used this way.

14) I’m going to end by repeating my initial resolution in case the universe missed it the first time around: That through whatever combination of factors – from policy initiatives to individual effort – more young people get an engaging and challenging education in 2011.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Health Care Reform

While I was a little put off by the speed and scope of the Affordable Health Care Act, I am not on the bandwagon for repeal. There is too much good, and necessary, reform in that bill to be repealed. Modification is fine - though the arguments for how to provide access and make sure there is a large enough risk pool to keep costs down is complicated. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post identifies the keys to the law that should not be compromised:

Already in effect are parts of the reform package that no self-interested politician is going to vote to take away.

No child can be denied insurance coverage because of a pre-existing condition. Coverage can no longer be canceled when the policyholder gets sick. Insurance companies can no longer impose annual or lifetime limits on payments for care. Adult children can remain on their parents' policies until they turn 26. Policyholders cannot be charged extra for seeking urgent care at an emergency room that is not in the insurance company's approved network of providers. Those measures took effect in September. Another set of provisions became law on Saturday: requirements that insurance companies spend a certain percentage of the premiums they collect on actual care; a discount on prescription drugs for some seniors covered by Medicare; a rule that gives seniors free screening for cancer and other diseases.

Republican leaders aren't dumb enough to explicitly propose taking all these benefits away. But Democrats can, and should, force them to have that debate.

Fix it, but stop this nonsense about the symbolic act of a "repeal vote."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Motivated Students with High Expectations

As the critics and pundits - and billionaire do-gooders - continue to crow about how to fix failing schools, there are some interesting ideas floating around about the importance of the students in the equation. Several months ago, Robert Samuelson pointed out that the one factor that is notoriously missing in discussions of education reforms is the hard reality of "student motivation." Clearly, there can be no more significant factor in a child's educational success than a child who is simply determined to succeed.

Interestingly, some research on the success of charter schools reveals that KIPP charter schools have a drop-out rate of 60%. Clearly, the forty percent who remain are going to represent the most motivated students who are going to accept the challenge of the intense rigor as they attempt to catch up from potentially years of neglected education. Granted, those percentages must correct for kids who move out of the district - but that can't be many.

This is not to exclude the significance of socioeconomic status. For, it is indisputable that schools designated as "failing" in this country are literally never found in affluent areas. And, while occasionally some high performing schools are in poor areas, these are most often schools that have undergone some sort of charter reformation that mandates student achievement. Keep in mind that Finland - the darling of the education reformers lately - has a child poverty rate of 2%. So, poverty matters and student motivation and high expectations matter.

Maybe more than anything else.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Speak With Conviction

Slam poet Taylor Mali - a former teacher - takes on what he calls the "most aggressively inarticulate generation in history." This piece is an effective tool for addressing the way our students - and many of our adults - communicate .... or, at times, fail to communicate.

It's important to engage with students on the issue of communication and help them understand why they speak as they do. For, it is only when we are comfortable with who we are and what we are saying that we stop saying "like, what I mean" and asking whether "you know ..."

You know what I'm sayin'