Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

close up photography of colored pencils
Photo by Jess Watters on Pexels.com

I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).

So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.

Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools

The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA

Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?

While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.

Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.

Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.

This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”

Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.

A growing recognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.

What State and District Leaders Can Do

How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?

There are four moves that policy leaders can make:

  • Redefine literacy
  • Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
  • Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
  • Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments

Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy.
The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA (46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.

It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.

Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.

Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.

Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.

Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.

Anticipated Outcomes

What could we expect as a result of these moves?

Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.

MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.

Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.

Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.

Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.

Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.

References

1 Cambridge Assessment (2013) “What is literacy? An investigation into definitions of English as a subject and the relationship between English, literacy and ‘being literate’: A Research Report Commissioned by Cambridge Assessment.” http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/130433-what-is-literacy-an-investigation-into-definitions-of-english-as-a-subject-and-the-relationship-between-english-literacy-and-being-literate-.pdf

2 Wexler, N. (2018) “Why American Students Haven’t Gotten Better at Reading in 20 Years.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915/
Serino, L. (2017) “What international assessment scores reveal about American education.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2017/04/07/what-international-assessment-scores-reveal-about-american-education/

3 Shanahan, T. (2013) “You Want Me to Read What?!” Educational Leadership, ASCD. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/nov13/vol71/num03/You-Want-Me-to-Read-What%C2%A2!.aspx

4 King, K.V. and Zucker, S. (2005) “Curriculum Narrowing – Pearson Assessments.” 18 Aug. 2005, http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/CurriculumNarrowing.pdf

5 Workman, E. and Jones, S.D. (2016) “ESSA’s Well-Rounded Education.” Education Commission of the States. https://www.ecs.org/essas-well-rounded-education/

6 Kaufman, J., Lindsay, T., and V. Darleen Opfer. (2016) “Creating a Coherent System to Support Instruction Aligned with State Standards: Promising Practices of the Louisiana Department of Education.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1613.html
Kaufman, J. & Tsai, T. (2018). “School Supports for Teachers’ Implementation of State Standards Findings from the American School Leader Panel.” The Rand Corporation, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2318.html

7 Whitehurst, G.J. (2009) “Don’t forget curriculum.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/dont-forget-curriculum/
Chingos, M. M., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2012) “Choosing blindly: Instructional materials, teacher effectiveness, and the Common Core.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/choosing-blindly-instructional-materials-teacher-effectiveness-and-the-common-core/ Kane, T. J. (2016) “Never judge a book by its cover – use student achievement instead.” Brookings Institution, https://www.brookings.edu/research/never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-use-student-achievement-instead/ Steiner, D. (2017) “Curriculum research: What we know and where we need to go.” StandardsWork, https://standardswork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sw-curriculum-research-report-fnl.pdf Chiefs for Change (2018) “Statement on the need for high-quality curriculum.” http://chiefsforchange.org/statement-on-the-need-for-high-quality-curricula/

8 International Baccalaureate (2014) “Programme standards and practices.” https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/publications/become-an-ib-school/programme-standards-and-practices-en.pdf

9 Louisiana Department of Education (2018) “Louisiana Essa Innovative Assessment Pilot First To Receive Federal Approval.” https://www.louisianabelieves.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/07/27/louisiana-essa-innovative-assessment-pilot-first-to-receive-federal-approval.

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Smorgasbord: Advocacy, Accountability, and Singing Together

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This Tuesday I had the opportunity, thanks to a NY Educator Voice Policy Fellowship, to advocate for the desegregation of our schools in Albany. Many thanks to Assemblyman Michael Blake, Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator Jesse Hamilton, Senator Marty Golden, and Assemblywoman Yu-Line Niou and their staff for listening and for their time. And many thanks to America Achieves and the Educator Voice fellows who joined me in this advocacy: Arthur Everette, Ingrid Lafalaise, Darlene Cameron, Jodi Friedman, and John Heneghan. They were truly a great team. You can read more about them here.

On to our roundup of links and thinks on education and more:

de Blasio, supposed progressive champion, keeps hedging on school desegregation

“Could we create the perfect model for diversified schools across the school system? No,” de Blasio said. “Because you have whole districts in this city that are overwhelmingly of one demographic background. You would have to do a massive transfer of students and families in order to achieve it. It’s just not real.”

It blows my mind that someone who campaigned on progressivism and “a tale of two cities” can make blithe statements like this.

When we talk about desegregating schools, I don’t think any advocate is saying that every school should be some perfect mix representative of the entire city. That’s not geographically possible. What we are talking about is leveraging the many opportunities to promote diversity where they exist.

If our mayor can’t understand the nuance of that, which he and his chancellor have repeatedly demonstrated, then I have little hope that this mysterious “big vision plan” will do anything at a structural level to address the issue.

And by the way, mayor: no one expects you to wipe away 400 years of American history of discrimination and poor housing and schooling policy. But we do expect you to take leadership when you are in charge of one of the largest and most segregated school systems in our nation.

Mayor de Blasio: I can’t ‘wipe away 400 years of American history’ in diversifying schools, Chalkbeat NY

The relationship between property and segregation

Matthew Desmond has a powerful piece on the housing subsidies for the middle and upper class and it’s devastating effect on increasing inequality. This problem relates strongly to segregation in the northeast — starting with the GI Bill and extending to the selfish property value battles over public schools today.

How Homeownership Became the Engine of American Inequality, NY Times

Meanwhile, white and wealthy districts are quietly splitting away to further segregate themselves

Behind the rhetoric of “local control,” what we see is more for some kids, and less for others. Guess who.

The Quiet Wave of School District Secessions, US News

School choice alone is not enough to diversify schools, nor provide quality options

If schools are going to become more diverse, than school choice must be coupled with admissions policies to cultivate diversity more intentionally. And all schools must be held to a higher standard to ensure quality.

The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools, NY Times

Emotional expressiveness is correlated with diversity

“In the countries with more immigrants, people smiled in order to bond socially. Compared to the less-diverse nations, they were more likely to say smiles were a sign someone “wants to be a close friend of yours.” But in the countries that are more uniform, people were more likely to smile to show they were superior to one another.”

Why Americans Smile So Much, The Atlantic

Insights from a researcher

On Head Start:

“The bottom-line question is whether Head Start helps kids in the long run, and the answer is yes.”

On accountability system design:

“I think that there is a lot of evidence, not just from our study but others, that we should be kind of small-c conservative in the design of these [accountability] systems. The more complicated you make it, the more incentives you create for strategic responses. I think really complicated systems and multiple targets and multiple ratings are kind of like technocratic exuberance. I think we really should scale back our ambitions with the accountability systems and focus on the most important challenges.”

On crime and social context:

“I think of school as the main social institution for kids at the age of peak criminality. When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising that the school context could have an important effect on crime.”

On school integration:

“I think [school integration is] about the non-academic outcomes: crime, civic participation, racial tolerance, all those things. If you look at the original justification for Brown v. Board of Education, it had nothing to do with achievement gaps.

It’s about, we want to bring society together, so that we can live together. Somewhere along the line, with the Coleman Report, we started to think about integration as a tool for closing achievement gaps. When actually to me, the first-order reason to integrate schools is so that we can all get along as a society and so that people can be more civically engaged and appreciate the perspectives of those who are different from them.”

Another way to say it is, we have other tools for closing achievement gaps. Like, we can do separate-but-equal if we want to — that’s what some of these no-excuses charter schools are: really good schools that are highly segregated. To me that’s an incomplete solution, because schools aren’t just factories for producing achievement — they’re social institutions, they’re democratic institutions.”

Word.

Harvard Researcher David Deming Takes the Long View on Head Start, Integration, the74

Let’s put our metrics on social relationships

“If relationships are a core component of opportunity, why not treat them as a 21st-century outcome unto themselves?

Alternatively, if our notion of an ideal graduate does not include a strong and diverse network, we’re likely to find ourselves routinely underinvesting in relationships.”

Really interesting point to consider here. As far as I know, absolutely no ESSA plans are considering social metrics for inclusion in accountability measures.

But I don’t know that accountability would be the right focus for these kinds of measures in any case, though I agree they should be measured. The author suggests utilizing name generator surveys, surveys of whether students know people in different professional fields, and relationship mapping between students and adults. This could be critical information for school staff to consider, alongside the kind of environmental survey information that is obtained from surveys like the NYC student/teacher/parent surveys and surveys like the Tripod survey or Panorama surveys.

If you think of a school as an ecosystem, mapping the social networks of students and adults and seeking to expand and diversify those networks makes a whole lot of sense.

For HS Grads, 21st-Century Thinking, Skills (and Robots) Can’t Replace Importance of Human Networks, the74

The only way to ensure there’s no lead in school water is to install new pipes

While we’re at it, might as well update the infrastructure and install air filters.

Replacing fixtures will get rid of lead in schools’ drinking water: expert, NY Post

Cormac McCarthy writes a science article, and it’s brilliant

What does it have to do with education? Well, his topic is language, and if you teach, then you should know something about linguistics. And his points about the relationship between problem-solving, the unconscious, and language bears some interest to educators as well.

Plus, it’s Cormac McCarthy.

“The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.”

The Kekulé Problem, Nautilus

Have kids first attempt to write a new word before showing them the correct spelling

Maybe a little tiny piece of initial “discovery learning” ain’t always a bad thing–when it comes to spelling and reading new words?

“To put this into practice, Ouellette recommends that teachers let students attempt to write words before showing them the correct spelling. “Instead of giving them a word list and telling them to memorize it, before a student has ever seen the word, you’d encourage them to spell it,” he said. “It’s a spelling-first approach.”

Invented Spelling Leads to Better Reading, Study Says, Ed Week

IEPs are the inspiration for personalized learning, apparently

“Our public education system essentially piloted personalized learning when it adopted the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students with disabilities. Perhaps ironically, special education is one of the few areas where policy and practice recognizes that kids are unique and that the one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. With personalized learning, we can take that idea to scale.”

It’s interesting to premise your advocacy for personalized learning on IEPs. Here’s a question: have IEPs demonstrated a significant impact on outcomes for students with disabilities?

IEPs are important to ensure that a student is guaranteed services and that they are given education commensurate with all other children. But unfortunately, they don’t necessarily equate with an improvement in outcomes.

Time for a New Conversation in Education, HuffPost

Though actually, personalized learning originated in the 1960s

It’s precursor was called “Individually Prescribed Instruction.”

The Rear-View Mirror on Personalized Learning, Larry Cuban

Multiage classrooms are an interesting idea, but they may present a problem for building knowledge

In order to effectively build and reinforce essential knowledge and skills, a curriculum must be carefully sequenced and aligned across classrooms and grades, as we’ve explored here before.

Fannie Lou Hamer, a school in the Bronx, is profiled in this Atlantic article on the potential of multi-age classrooms. But their approach necessitates a non-sequential curriculum:

Sumner says this fits with his school’s commitment to inquiry-based education, which teaches students certain key skills instead of facts that they can “regurgitate” on command.

“We’re leaving a lot of things out—we acknowledge that,” he says, explaining that their approach prioritizes depth over breadth. Students do not cover American history from the beginning to the present day, he says, but instead “learn to think like a historian and to understand the social, economic, and political drivers of any situation, so they know what the right questions are to ask about any period in history.”

Seems to me like this runs counter to everything we know about effective retention of information and learning. I’m not opposed to the idea of multi-age classrooms — I think it makes sense not to make curriculum dependent on a grade — but approaching curriculum like this is a disservice to students most in need of support.

Inside a Multiage Classroom, The Atlantic

A special education teacher on the importance of accountability

“The accountability part is really key. I started teaching with the implementation of No Child Left Behind, and that was really the first time where we required states to report on their testing scores for students with severe disabilities … As a classroom teacher and someone who is advocating for inclusion, that gives me a leg to stand on when I go talk to administrators about why kids need to be in academic, grade-level classes, that we didn’t have before. I think focusing on designing assessments that align to standards, and that are also accessible to students with severe disabilities, is really important to show that there’s growth happening.”

Teacher of the Year Finalist Megan Gross on Embracing Students With Severe Disabilities, the74

Maybe public education needs to be run more like Central Park

Meaning more public-private partnerships

How Central Park Could Fix Public Education, The Atlantic

Maybe we need to sing together more, folks

“It dawned on me not long ago that people don’t gather to sing together much anymore. And it might help if we did. People do go to hear other people sing quite a lot these days. But it might help us all to move our muscles, get out of our heads, breathe the air, and sing together so that we might feel human again.”

TO MAINTAIN HARMONIOUS COMMUNITIES, HAUL OUT THE HYMNALS, SHOW TUNES, OR ANTHEMS, The Daily Yonder

Words are Important: Notes from an improved ‘gapper’

This post is brought to you via Louisiana professor and education-improver, Dr. Michael Hicks, continuing the exploration of the language that we use to describe education.

“Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.”

This quote from John Dewey is how I introduced myself to the students in my fall semester Intro to Education course.

The quote served as a challenge to students to think deeply about the word “education” and what it really means to them, to their families, and to the perspective schools, communities and students that they will ultimately serve.

It challenged me, too. Always has.

But (pardon the opening preposition) it challenged me to think about other words and their relevance in my everyday use. Words like reformer, which I know makes me feel a certain way when I am described as such, has a different meaning when I embrace the introspection of it. Reform, which by most accounts means to make changes in a particular structure of things (typically a social, economic, or political institution or practice) in order to improve it, has evolved to take on new meanings. Not everyone feels the noble tinge that I do here in Louisiana when I hear the word.

To me, education reformers are engaged in the not-so-popular work of calling things not as they are, but as they could be. They are engaged in uncovering the completely obvious—but seldom articulated—educational plights of poor and underserved students. They are the Sally Field-type whistle-blowers of practices and people within our own profession of public education who embrace the status quo and blame lack of school progress on the demographics of the students. They are brave, intelligent, and have the best interest of all students at heart. They are educators – public, virtual and online, private and parochial. Yes, some are politicians and preachers, but most are principals and parents whose connection to what happens in the classroom is real and unescapably personal.

But, this is my definition.

Within and without the great state of Louisiana, education reform has several meanings and connotations. Whitney Tilson, Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein and many, many others have formed their own variant of the word which has lead to many other strains, producing diverse meanings and equally diverse feelings and followers. This is life itself, and like life, education is personal and intertwined with our own distinct interpretations of humanity.

I now prefer education improver over education reformer. Some of the improvements that I advocate align me with the more modern meanings of the word reformer, but some do not. Some of the improvements that I advocate are pro charter schools, and some are not.

Some of the improvements I will fight for are Louisiana-centered, and some are not. Some of the improvements that make sense to me address refocusing the purpose and viability of traditional neighborhood schools, and some address the technology and structure that students might require in the next century. The word “reformer” limits me, and I want to know no bounds in my advocacy for students.

This conversation that I’m having with myself (of which you are now a guest) reminds me of when I stopped being a gapper. Early in my educational career, I became a poster child for calling out and trying to decrease the achievement gap between Black and White students. I studied authors who helped me articulate the statistics. I wrote blog articles on how to fix the inequalities. When the achievement gap fire began to wane, I jumped to the opportunity gap, then to the exposure gap and next the expectation gap. Gaps, gaps everywhere, and not a spot to think! I was gap obsessed.

Words are important. Real discrepancies do exist in public education, private education, pre-K, K-12, higher ed, and in everything, when you look deep enough. This is life itself. The deficit language I once employed in order to address and “fix” these discrepancies was weakening my efforts and limiting my effectiveness.

I now prefer strength based educator over achievement gap specialist. When I’m invited to speak to or engage faculties in school climate and high expectation culture topics, I rarely mention the gaps I once waved the flag for.

At times, I wish I were a bird paleontologist – I’m intrigued with their research methodologies and their findings about our winged friends; but I am not. I am a professor of education and my words are important. When I ask my students how they will improve education, I get robust visions of the future of schooling from sharp young minds. When I ask who will be an education reformer, I’m met with blank stares. When I speak about the uniqueness of Black and Brown students and how to address underserved communities, I see excitement. When I talk about the gaps between certain NCLB groups, I get confused glances. It’s not what ideology you agree with more that I’m interested in, it’s much more personal than that. It is who will you serve as an educator, why will you serve them, and what will you do when you are blessed with the opportunity to do so.

I want my students to be engaged in the current happenings of American and global education. I want them to be informed. I want them to have very strong opinions. I also want them to know that words are important and that education, which per Dewey is also life itself, should constantly challenge them to examine the words they use to describe themselves and their very noble work of teaching other people’s children.

Politics: Language and Priorities

By Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States (vote for better tape Uploaded by Petronas) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Democrats took a drubbing at election time, as they are wont to do when voters are apathetic (and barriers to voting are erected). That’s my analysis of the results of yesterday’s elections.

We’ve been examining language over our last two posts, first in ecology and education, then on business, and now just a quick point about the use of language in our discourse on politics. Let’s examine a small tidbit from today’s NY Times:

The uneven character of the economic recovery added to a sense of anxiety, leaving voters in a punishing mood, particularly for Democrats in Southern states and the Mountain West,where political polarization deepened. [Bold added]

Here we see evidence of a common tactic in discussions of politics (HW assignment: scan the other articles from other news sources on the election and round-up other examples) — the personification of a mass of people as one entity. Can we truly state, with statistical accuracy and scientific verification, that voters, en masse, have been possessed by vengeance? Seems to me like such analysis and rhetoric is highly suspect, given the variety of contextual and individual decisions that voters may have made when choosing their positions on any given ballot.

NY Ballot Proposal 3: Technology, or Natural Light?

While we’re on the topic of the elections, I wanted to make an unrelated point about Ballot Proposal #3 in New York, which passed along with the other two measures on the ballot. For non-New Yorkers, this proposal

… authorizes the sale of state bonds of up to two billion dollars ($2,000,000,000) to provide access to classroom technology and high-speed internet connectivity to equalize opportunities for children to learn, to add classroom space to expand high-quality pre-kindergarten programs, to replace classroom trailers with permanent instructional space, and to install high-tech smart security features in schools.

I’m all for “replacing classroom trailers with permanent instructional space.” But this proposal’s general intent completely misses the mark. What should be a higher priority: retrofitting and building school infrastructure to incorporate more natural light, fresher air, and more greenery? Or installing more Smartboards and broadband access in schools?

Putting a Smartboard and wi-fi in a decrepit classroom will do little to benefit children. Children need healthy school environments first; Smartboards and broadband can come later. Let’s hope that we can redirect this misguided proposal towards this better purpose.

Let’s Change Mindsets About Both Business and Education

By Dipl.-Päd. Renate Henning (OSTO Systemberatung GmbH) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In his most recent post, Will wrote about how the language we use to discuss education can impact our understanding. He wrote:

I hope that when we talk about schools and ecosystems, we can avoid the practice of using the vague, technocratic jargon of the business world to describe worlds where financial profit should not be the ultimate goal. The problems of schools and ecosystems are the problems of living things. Let’s talk about them in language that illuminates, rather than obscures, the complex and specific worlds that human beings inhabit.

Will raises an important point: schools are social institutions, not ones of profit. And while we must acknowledge and pay close attention to the operational side of running school systems, we must not lose sight of the most important function of education: to cultivate the character and minds of our children. While we can argue that a quality education has a long-run payoff in economic gains for our nation, the functional and everyday purpose of a school is not to profit off our children, but rather to instill and inculcate the values and knowledge we hold critical for citizenship.

When we talk about education, how easy is it to slip into language (I’m frequently guilty of this) of “human capital,” “social capital,” “achievement gains,” or other proxies of the mindset of business? As Will pointed out, this can obscure the complex and alternately beautiful and excruciating human reality that working in a school really requires.

Yet I also believe that schools should not be set so far apart from the realm of business that we can’t establish relevant and necessary connections between them, and that such isolation can even be damaging, given the amount of research and funding that goes into management topics such as leadership, accountability, training, diversity, relationships, and institutional/organizational health. When I was attending The City College of New York to obtain my Master’s in special education, I did a literature review on the topic of self-control, and found it remarkable that some of the most useful research came from outside the realm of education (sports is another area which has a lot to offer).

I also believe that when schools are so isolated from local economies and the realm of business that students graduate from high school with nearly zero skills or knowledge applicable to a career, this is highly problematic and especially damaging to students living in isolated areas with few opportunities.

Speaking of language, there’s also something about the fanatical inveighing against “privatization” and “corporate deformers” in the education sphere that bothers me.  Perhaps because I’ve worked as a manager in both retail and hospitality industries, or perhaps because I think that markets do have a connection to schools, and that we are putting blinders on when we pretend that education can be something wholly pristine and apart from the influence and interaction of markets. It seems to me that the districts that seek to leverage markets to develop better schools, rather than ignore them, are ones more likely to be successful.

But the fact that education systems at the moment are most responsive and beholden to large investments of money from philanthropists and “Silicon Valley investors” also seems extremely problematic, let alone completely unsustainable.

So how to resolve this conundrum? Well, let’s take a closer look at the other side of things first: the realm of the marketplace itself. Is capitalism and entrepreneurship really only about profit? Perhaps we do a disservice to entrepreneurs to reduce their efforts to such banality.

Muhammad Yunus, who has done inspiring work with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and is a proponent of the concept of “social business,” makes the following point in a speech when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He states that our current conception of capitalism and business:

“originates from the assumption that entrepreneurs are one-dimensional human beings, who are dedicated to one mission in their business lives — to maximize profit. This interpretation of capitalism insulates the entrepreneurs from all political, emotional, social, spiritual, environmental dimensions of their lives. This was done perhaps as a reasonable simplification, but it stripped away the very essentials of human life.

Human beings are a wonderful creation embodied with limitless human qualities and capabilities. Our theoretical constructs should make room for the blossoming of those qualities, not assume them away.

Many of the world’s problems exist because of this restriction on the players of free-market. The world has not resolved the problem of crushing poverty that half of its population suffers. Healthcare remains out of the reach on the majority of the world population. The country with the richest and freest market fails to provide healthcare for one-fifth of its population.

We have remained so impressed by the success of the free-market that we never dared to express any doubt about our basic assumption. To make it worse, we worked extra hard to transform ourselves, as closely as possible, into the one-dimensional human beings as conceptualized in the theory, to allow smooth functioning of the free market mechanism.”

Interesting how Yunus’ sentiment on capitalism so closely parallels Will’s statement on the mindset and language around education!

Perhaps Yunus’ idea of a hybrid “social business” is a potential solution to the conundrum of what the service that a school provides stands in relation to the marketplace. School districts need sustainable funding and investment, but their goal cannot be one of profit. The goal is to provide the highest quality education to all children in that district:

Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company. Profit would be ploughed back into the company to expand its outreach and improve the quality of its product or service. A social business will be a non-loss, non-dividend company.

Once social business is recognized in law, many existing companies will come forward to create social businesses in addition to their foundation activities. Many activists from the non-profit sector will also find this an attractive option. Unlike the non-profit sector where one needs to collect donations to keep activities going, a social business will be self-sustaining and create surplus for expansion since it is a non-loss enterprise.”

A school as a social enterprise. Perhaps such a recognition of schools could help break down the unnecessarily ideological and political divides between charters and district schools? This is an interesting realm of hybridization that I’d like to hear about more, rather than the tired old debates between charter and district systems.