Poverty and Education Policy

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Los Angeles Charter School Leadership Symposium.  By far, the highlight of the day, was the thoughtful (if very fast) speech and Q and A by Los Angeles Superintendent of Schools, Dr. John Deasy.

When Dr. Deasy talks, I find myself desperate for a court reporter or transcription app.  He launches ideas out there (admirably) so quickly that you only have a second to grasp with one before the next one is knocking at your door.  But, one particular point that he made stuck with me right away.  It is one that I have been encountering for years, and which I feel requires some nuance in response.  It is the issue of poverty and how it effects our schools (locally) and our school system (perhaps globally).

Sometime in the future, I hope to write about Paolo Freire and his thoughts around the ways poverty as an issue and the poor as a people are co-opted to create an education system that serves the needs of the wealthy.  I hope to also explore the data around comparative U.S. school performance once poverty is controlled for.  But for this post, I want to discuss the way that poverty is characterized as an issue in the context of the education reform movement.

In his talk, Dr. Deasy told us of students he had visited who were too poor to afford basic hygiene, never mind medical and dental care.  He spoke of students too poor to afford food or even homes.  He provided a stark and challenging picture of the increasing number of extremely poor in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Then, at the height of our empathy, he shifted gears and claimed that what we needed to do for these children was provide them with a highly effective (read “test score” boosting) teacher.

This claim was made essentially without evidence at a moment designed to appeal to our empathy and emotional reasoning.  It has some serious flaws.  It illustrates the way that education reform has become essentially a faith-based movement.  Without demanding or producing much evidence, the reform movement has adopted the idea that changing schools (in highly specific ways) will inevitably lead to a better society—one with more equality and less poverty.  My question is, if such a society is the goal, why don’t reformers work for it directly.  This reminds me of the idea that a national prohibition of alcohol would make people more Christian—it vaguely resonates on a values level, but is ultimately nonsense.

If you want to eliminate economic injustice, perhaps the best use of your time would be to Occupy Wall Street.  Or, if that doesn’t resonate, perhaps it would be best to work directly in communities, or to work politically for robust civil rights.  If you want to attack poverty, attack poverty, don’t attack teachers.  Certainly you should at least be questioning the rationale that claims that magically having higher multiple choice test scores will lead to the end of economic injustice.


Blue Scholars — Commencement Day

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  I fell way behind my social media schedule, but am glad to announce that I am getting back on the blog train.  I thought I would kick this week off with another video (although its really just the audio since I couldn’t find the version I first saw a few years ago that had more interesting video accompaniment).  The song was introduced to me by a very radical educator who loves teaching kids to beat box.  Anyway, I enjoy it, hope you will too.


The trouble with “Us” vs “Them

Sorry I missed my schedule post on Friday, but I am making it up to you with a quick interlude.

@Stephe1234 on Twitter sent out the following couple of questions considering if there is an “Us” vs “Them” culture in school systems, and how it can be erased.  As any of my students would likely tell you, this is an issue dear to my heart.  I really hate terms like “they” and “them” and  “us” referring to groups like teachers, students, admin, parents, etc.  Sadly, these terms are incredibly difficult to avoid.  But we should try.  I am posting the questions and my answers below, anyone wanting to participate can answer the questions themselves at http://bit.ly/s4yoLX

Q: How do you think the “us vs. them” culture negatively impacts change in schools, ed reform, and creating high performaing schools fo All – students, community, parents, and teachers/administrators? *

A: Us vs Them is prevalent at all levels of the schooling system. In some ways, this derives from the fact that schools are inherently colonialist institutions–that is they derive their purpose from one “higher ranking” social group trying to help and/or control a “lower ranking” social group.  So, it is not surprising that power relationships pervade the institutions of schooling.  At every level, their is a tendency for paternalistic interactions with the next level.  This can cause the group being dominates, or treated paternalistically to feel a host of negative emotions which can be easily aimed at the higher power group.  Needless to say, this is problematic for building community.  If students, teachers, parents, admin, don’t trust each other, it can be very hard to embrace the more meaningful purposes of education.  Schools can become institutions seemingly without purpose other than control–and one can hardly blame a young person, a teacher, or even a whole community for “dropping out” of such a place.  Such a school has lost its educational purpose and retains only its institutional purpose and power relationships.  It is probably very rare for a school to swing to such an extreme, but many schools are further along the spectrum of “learning place – control place” than is advisable.

Student Voice in the Mathematics Classroom

I have mentioned in earlier posts, some of the problems with the way students typically view themselves in relation to mathematics and mathematicians.  This is a deep problem, which pops up throughout our culture.

Let me illustrate:  How often have you heard an adult say (or said yourself) to a kid, “You don’t like (or are struggling with) math class, oh that’s ok, I am not a math person”?  Have you ever heard someone make a parallel statement about reading…”Oh me too, I’m not one of those people who reads”.  Is it surprising that students think math is inaccessible and reserved for the elite.

Even those who view themselves as good at math are spending the majority of the time repeating processes and rules that they only partially understand (which would be alright if they were also being encouraged to ask questions about those partial understandings).  Students don’t speak about mathematics.  Teachers speak about mathematics, textbooks speak about mathematics, the state and the principal might speak a little about mathematics.  These actors have authority.  Go to any classroom (mine included) and you will almost certainly find a version of a pattern in which a teacher asks a question (which presumably he or she already knows the answer to), a student answers the question, and the teacher pronounces the answer right or wrong.  Sometimes the textbook takes the place of the teacher as the pronouncer.  But isn’t the beauty of mathematics that the right answer is right without pronunciation? Aren’t their deeper ideas to be explored?  Do students and teachers have a sense that many of the things we declare right or wrong in mathematics are actually choices (negative times negative is positive, for example)?

Its not always bad to tell students what is correct and incorrect, or to ask questions you already know the answer to, but it is bad to always do these things.  It creates a culture where you do mathematics they way you do it because that’s what you were told to do.  Then we all wring our hands with surprise when students are bored, angry, alienated, or simply defeated by the exhausting list of procedures and rules.  Standardized tests obviously accelerate the problem since the least risky way to prepare for these tests is to compartmentalize each type of question and then try to execute the correct procedure when that question comes up.

In what is sadly a very typical exchange, I was observing a classroom where a student showed me her attempt to add fractions.  In her work, she had simply skipped the common denominator, adding “tops” and  “bottoms”, a mistake that quite common.  I am not sure if she sensed from my face that something was out of place, but she quickly stated, “that’s not right is it”?  I broke the mold a little by asking her why she thought it wasn’t right, to which she replied innocently, “because that’s how I do it on tests and they always tell me that I am wrong”.  This was not a young girl, but a student who had probably been receiving lessons on this topic for years.  Its clear that she did not feel she knew mathematically why her work was wrong, or that she had any sense that this type of knowledge might be important.

In my research, I have worked with teachers who want to try to address these types of problems.  The good news is that there are lots of things to try.  The bad news is that none of them work very well.  It is very difficult to overcome an entire culture.  Students can get nervous, teachers can get nervous, parents can get nervous, administrators can get nervous.  And if your test scores should happen to go down, then what?  Still, I would urge any math teachers to think about these difficulties.  We should expose and consider the problems in our practice.  How can we ensure that our classrooms are places where teachers and students do mathematics?  How can we promote and encourage our students to have a sense of control and authority in their mathematics education?

If you have anything good, let me know.

My First Ed Week Blog Post

I have been making progress in the social media world.  Its fun.  Experimenting with twitter and blogging has been a nice way to get some thoughts out there.  And last night, my good friend and I were able to publish our first guest-post on a major education blog. If you haven’t already, please read it. And, as always, let me know what you think (critical thoughts encouraged) in the comments section, or elsewhere.

The College Admissions Files: Legacy Status

Almost as soon as I woke up this morning, I stumbled upon a debate in the NY Times Blog about legacy admissions.  It happens that, at the moment, I am reading The Chosen by Jerome Karabel which gives a detailed history of admissions policies at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (which as the book correctly points out, are largely imitated by other selective universities in the U.S.).  I find the topic of legacy admissions interesting, and so, I thought this would be a good time to start writing on college admissions; a feature that I hope will be recurring over the course of this blog.

Legacy admissions is a great issue for debate because it seems to run directly counter to the compelling, and widespread, narratives of America as the land where success is possible for anyone who works hard and is capable, and of college as the place to go to launch a successful life.  It is natural for citizens, especially students and parents, to conclude that if you work hard and are capable, you should be admitted to a top college, where you can duly launch into your successful life.  A logical extension is that those admitted to the best colleges should be those who have worked hard and are most capable.

Several members of the media have argued that the failure of this narrative during the current recession is one of the primary motivations behind the Occupy Wall Street movement (and they may be right).  This resonates with me because I have always cautioned the students and parents I have worked with from considering the college admissions process as the sort of game you win by talent.  Simply put – the best and the brightest (if such people exist) are not guaranteed admissions to the best college.  The converse is more empowering—if you are rejected from the college of your choice, it is not because you are not good enough or smart enough.

Accepting the role of luck and rejecting the idea of meritocracy (a word that this commenter rightly points out was coined satirically to describe how the elite ensure success for their progeny in a democracy) is important for the emotional and mental well being of students and parents participating in the college admissions process.  It is equally important to understand that where you get in matters less than how you work once there, and that even how you do in college (much less high school) does not predestine you to success or failure.  Members of Occupy are wrong to expect that their college education should guarantee them a good job, but they are probably right to protest the “meritocracy” narrative whose ubiquitous place in our society led to such expectation (and they are protesting many other things besides which are beyond the scope of this writing).

Legacy admissions is indeed a way for institutions to attract and secure money by implicitly promising access (and associated “success”) to future generations of current members of the club.  This may not seem fair, but it is true.  Perhaps it should end, but perhaps also diversity preferences, athletic scholarships, or admitting that really talented tuba player to help round out the marching band should end as well.  I am more concerned with students and families correctly conceiving of the process of college admissions and which parts of it are and are not under their control, than I am of changing these policies.

I will review The Chosen when I am finished reading it, but even from its preface, it makes a very important point.  Selective admissions policies have always served as a way for the elite to reproduce itself, and to ensure success for its members’ children.  However, this is done through adopting values and then policies that reflect these values.  The elite colleges do indeed promote the idea of merit—but what constitutes merit changes throughout different times and contexts.  This is important to understand because it has wide ranging implications for those trying to enter these systems from the outside.  Currently, the values of diversity, equality (of opportunity), a well-rounded student body, and wide access to programs and research in the college dominate.  So do the values of need-blind admissions and financial aid for all who are eligible.

If you are applying to an elite college, you can use this to your advantage.  You can demonstrate your unique potential role in college life, you can show how you will bring diversity, engage with programs, conduct research, etc.  Or, you can show, through the largesse of your parents, that you will bring in money to support all of these missions.  What’s important, for legacy and non-legacy applicants alike, is to understand this, and then to understand that whatever you bring to the table there are thousands of others, who are not better, but are also bringing things to the table.  Purely logistically, luck is going to play a big role in the admissions decision.

Note: As I wrote this, I realized that I am bringing up many different points, all of which need to be explored more.  I am blogging in a very loose, quick, style, and so the writing is almost a stream of consciousness.  I hope you will forgive the disjointed and clumsy parts of these early attempts, and stay tuned…

Sir Ken Robinson Video on Changing Paradigms

This video is now over a year old, but still extremely relevant and important. We should remind ourselves of it from time to time. I am especially interested in the ideas around Divergent Thinking and Divergent Testing — have a great story to share about these issues and my sister as a child.

Watch the video.  Consider reading people like Carol Dweck and her research on motivation.  Stop reading think tank press releases.  Comment below.