Saturday, July 23, 2011

Schools and the Means of Education Shall Forever Be Encouraged

In case you missed it, the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a lovely piece by John U. Bacon, thanking teachers.

Here it is.

I took the title of this blog post from Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance (as cited in the article):
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To Form a More Perfect Union

The Lincoln Consolidated Schools were consolidated from thirteen smaller schools. 

Dusty Diary has a really great picture from the archives.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at a kids' baseball tournament. In a shocking turn of events, one of the teams got expelled for playing a young man who was two years older than the rest of the kids. Yes, that's illegal according to the rules of the tournament and the league.

It's also stupid, in my opinion. These kids were not even playing for medals, let alone money or athletic scholarships! And--as two coaches on two of the other teams voiced to me, "What kind of message does that send to the kids?" That you kids need an older kid to help you out because your team wouldn't be good enough otherwise? That cheating is ok?

Sometimes we don't have very much clarity about what "cheating" exactly is. I recall letting a friend copy off of me during a high school French test. I didn't think of it as cheating, because I wasn't the one copying...

In college I got more clarity. My college had an honor code, and exams were unproctored. (How is that for trust? I once saw someone go up to another student and say, "I saw you cheating. You can turn yourself in, or I will turn you in." They turned themselves in.) In any case, at the end of a test, we had to write the words, "I have neither given nor received aid." So apparently, giving aid (letting someone cheat off of you) was still cheating.

What surprised me about July's baseball cheating incident wasn't that there was cheating in baseball. Every baseball fan knows the story of baseball's infamous 1919 Black Sox. But that was the World Series! The stakes were high! No--what surprised me about the tournament cheating episode was that people cheated even though the stakes were so low--no money, no prizes, just being named the winner.

Maybe that shouldn't have surprised me. After all, if my friend had failed that French test, she probably still would have had a B in the class--it wasn't a big test!

But when the stakes are higher, can we expect more cheating?
Apparently the answer is yes.

And it's not the kids, but the ADULTS, who are cheating. Those principals and teachers are setting some kind of crummy example.

Look at these national educational scandals, focused on test results and whether a school is making adequate yearly progress.



Washington, D.C.


At the same time, let's not forget that some of the educators refused to cheat. (Although I still wonder why they didn't turn their colleagues in.)

In a 7/17/2011 article, the New York Times writes:
Principals, in turn, humiliated teachers. At Fain Elementary, the principal, Marcus Stallworth, had teachers with low test scores crawl under a table, according to the report. At Parks Middle School, teachers who refused to join “changing parties” that were organized by the principal, Christopher Waller, to doctor answer sheets were isolated or let go, the report said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution printed this column by Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing,  APS cheating scandal reflects U.S. trend, which says in part:
The Atlanta cheating scandal is likely the largest in scope in U.S. history in terms of the number of people implicated. But it is hardly an isolated incident.

For more than two decades, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), has tracked reports of cheating from across the nation. The number of cases has exploded in recent years, with new reports nearly every week.
In the past few months, improper test score manipulation have been uncovered in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando and many smaller communities.
The Georgia Office of Special Investigators’ report on the Atlanta scandal provides a particularly cogent analysis of the causes of the problem. If politicians who mandate school policies heed its findings, it should have powerful implications for both federal and state testing requirements.
Here’s what the Georgia investigators found:
“Three primary conditions led to widespread cheating on the 2009 CRCT. The targets set by the district were often unreasonable, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets.”
Unreasonable score gain targets coupled with unreasonable pressure on educators is standard operating procedure for testing programs across the nation. Independent analysts conclude that nearly all public schools ultimately will be declared “failing” under the No Child Left Behind mandate of 100 percent proficiency. Teachers and principals face stern sanctions, including job loss, if they do not boost scores.  “A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread throughout the district.”
Read more about ways to make evaluation better at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing's web page,

Monday, July 18, 2011

How Should Schools Pay for Technology?

About 25 years ago, I wrote one of my first grants. It was a request from a local nonprofit to a local funder, and the grant request included some small amount of staff time. The main reason that we wrote the grant was to get a computer. We wanted the computer for word processing and for layout purposes. The only computer for our office of ten people was an Apple IIe. We needed something better, but we didn't know how to finance the computer.

Fast forward a few years, and the price of computers has come down quite a bit. At the same time, our reliance on them has increased concomitantly. Twenty years ago, if a computer went down in an office, it was annoying. It might have been used for billing and it was probably a standalone computer. Now, if a computer network goes down in an office, it is a crisis. It affects scheduling, billing, electronic records, databases, email, word processing...

Most of the workplaces I know--whether nonprofit or for-profit--no longer think of computers as special capital expenses, unless they are extremely specialized pieces. Instead of thinking of them as capital expenses, they are treated as operating expenses, as a part of doing business. Depending on the business, they might be replaced every three, four, or five years, but ultimately they are items that need regular replacement.

And that explains why I was a little bit surprised to see that Ann Arbor's school board is considering a .5 mill technology millage for November.

First of all, they are proposing to use bond money (a long-term fund) to pay for a short-term expense. At this point, I think school districts everywhere need to think of technology expenses as items with a relatively short shelf-life; items that need regular replacement and need to be budgeted for within operating expenditures. Most people finance their houses with long-term mortgages, but if they need to replace the dishwasher or the hot water heater, that money really should come out of operating (ongoing) funds, and not be paid for with long-term financing.

Second, even if I thought this were a good idea--and let's say that at this point I could perhaps be convinced--I think the board is going about this the wrong way. Why don't they ask some likely voters first whether this would be supported? And here's a hint: don't ask your most ardent school supporters (for example, PTO Chairs). Do some focus groups with a mix of taxpayers. If it won't be supported, don't waste precious political capital.

I know that many people think technology is really essential. I admit that it has changed my life in ways that I think are both good and bad.

But I was thinking the other day that if I had ever become an engineer (a career path I never considered), I definitely would have chosen civil engineering, because I'm fascinated by the civil infrastructure--water pipes, sewer pipes, water towers, transportation systems--that underlie our cities. And I'm sure that computers make the lives of civil engineers a whole lot easier.

It's worth remembering, however, that the Romans had an elaborate aqueduct system before anyone could print multiple copies of books. It's worth remembering that today's water system and subways in Manhattan were largely built over 100 years ago, by people who had no computers, and many of whom had no college degrees. [See maps of the NYC subway system here.]

In the last few years, I've seen many more high school courses offered that integrate technology. But it's worth remembering that those of us who learned to "keyline" text and "kern" typefaces in the days before computers still learned the principles of graphic design. It is eminently possible to teach most of what we need to know without computers. I don't believe that students would learn any less.

Is it a case that we "must" teach technology? Or is it the case that we "have" the technology so now we want to use it?

If we only use technology to do the same things that we could do without technology (for instance, use an interactive whiteboard to write the same things we would write on a chalkboard), then the technology is being wasted. If we can't afford all the technology that we have, then maybe we can identify areas where we can use less of it. (For instance--could we take all computers out of the K-2 curriculum?)

You may think that I'm wrong; that technology is essential to education today. And if you do, then I would ask you to argue that we need to treat technology as just another operating expense. And for the most part, that means--put technology expenses in the operating budget, and expect to upgrade that technology regularly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

John Dewey: Great Philosopher. Great Teacher?

If you spend any time at all in education school--which I did--you will surely end up reading something of John Dewey's. He was a great educational philosopher, and his works feel timeless when you read them.

[Want to try something of his that is relatively short, and eminently readable? Try Experience and Education, published in 1938, and coming in under 100 pages. It feels like Dewey could have written it in the last few years.]

But I've been thinking about what makes a good teacher, and what makes a bad teacher. Therefore, I was extremely interested to find an article about John Dewey--who was actually a teacher at the University of Michigan--and even more (delightedly) surprised to find that it tries to answer the question: was Dewey a good teacher?
John Dewey in the 1880s

In 1998, Brian Williams wrote an article for the Bentley Historical Society (Bulletin No. 44, July 1998), Thought and Action: John Dewey at the University of Michigan.

John Dewey started out as a high school teacher, and as happens with so many school teachers, he decided that it wasn't for him.
Following graduation he embarked on a brief teaching career at the high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania. But his true interest was philosophy, and in 1881, he left Pennsylvania after arranging for a year of private study with his philosophy instructor at the University of Vermont. This period of study prompted Dewey to enroll as a graduate student in the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins University in 1882.  (p. 5)

Dewey was on the faculty of the Philosophy Department for most of the time period of 1884-1894, leaving for the University of Minnesota for a short while. He left and went to the University of Chicago, where he was able to found the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in 1896. (Yes, when they lived in Chicago, the Obama girls went to the Lab School.)

According to the article, Dewey came to Michigan at a time of change in educational methods.
The seminar method of teaching, introduced earlier at Michigan, was increasingly employed as a means of instruction, and students were offered a wider selection of elective courses to choose from and greater voice and freedom within the curriculum. The classical curriculum was giving way to the scientific curriculum, and chapel services, which previously had been mandatory, became voluntary, a nod to an increasingly secular society. Admission requirements were changing as well. Students from accredited high schools were now allowed to enroll on the strength of their diplomas rather than through the traditional formal entrance examinations, a move that dramatically altered the means by which students gained access to education. (pp. 3-4)
 Dewey wrote curricula.
Together, Dewey and Morris overhauled the Department of Philosophy, making it one of the leading centers of German scientific philosophy. They also established the modern foundations of psychology instruction at Michigan. (p. 5)
He accredited schools and evaluated teachers, including Ypsilanti High School.
Although Dewey was not formally affiliated with the pedagogical department, which held the departmental designation of the Science and the Art of Teaching, he was deeply interested in educational issues. He took an active role in high school accreditation visits and helped to found the Michigan Schoolmasters’ Club, an organization that united college-level instructors with their high school counterparts. The fact that Michigan was the first American college or university to create a permanent chair in education, in 1879, was not lost on Dewey.  (p. 15)
Dewey’s reports are flavored by his experience as a high school teacher and are suggestive of his future writing on education and schools. In June 1888, he inspected the high school in Ypsilanti, Michigan, visiting several classes and observing the instruction and the response of the students. His observations of the instruction in Greek are particularly insightful: “Mr. Hopkins’ methods are somewhat slow and at times tedious, and he spends much time on points rather finer than the average high school teacher devotes himself to; but the slowness does not arise from any lack of interest as he is personally enthusiastic about his subjects. While the class’s attention would at times be held better by less detailed attention to minutiae, I am bound to say that I thought Mr. Hopkins’ work if judged by results was more than ordinarily effective. The students upon the whole, were accurate and thorough in their work.” (p. 18, emphasis added)
 About a high school in Corunna, Michigan, he had this to say:
Dewey’s report on Corunna noted that there were two teachers, one he rated “medium or below” and the other “fair.” He went on to record that the school was “rather demoralized” and “altogether too large for two teachers.” He discussed his findings with members of the school board and related his impression of the superintendent as “straight forward and well meaning but not very energetic.” Observations made by Dewey during these inspection visits become significant when viewed in the context of the importance he placed on schools and education as instruments of change. (p. 18, emphasis added)
 But was Dewey himself a good teacher?
As it says on Facebook about some relationships--"It's complicated."

As with so many teachers, there was a lack of unanimity. Those who said yes, said:
Throughout his lifetime Dewey was known as a rather shy and unassuming man. His manner won him praise in the classroom. In 1890, an anonymous writer for the student newspaper the Chronicle, described Dewey as “modest and retiring” but noted that his “method of instruction is excellent” and he “is one of the most popular, most satisfactory class room lecturers in the University.” The writer went on to praise Dewey’s “easy, earnest and unconscious manner before a class” and the “utter lack of any spirit of pedantry.” In his classroom, Dewey fostered a sense of equality with his students and was praised for placing a “higher premium upon a single attempt at original, intelligent thought than upon the parrot- like repetition of whole volumes of other men’s thoughts.”56 William Warner Bishop, a former student and later librarian of the University of Michigan, writing over fifty years after being a student under Dewey, favorably recalled, “He was by far the ablest lecturer under whom I have studied; never dictating, he was clear and unmistakable in expression. You could get the whole of his talk, in contrast to the very little one often received from speakers who were more fluent.” (pp. 22-23)
 Those who said no, said:
An anonymous author in the student annual the Oracle offered some “specimen definitions” from the “Sophster’s New Dictionary.” One of the definitions read “Dew(e)y.- Adj. Cold, impersonal, psychological, sphinx-like, anomalous and petrifying to flunkers.” Student publications contain several sarcastic jabs at Dewey and the deep and heavy nature of some of his courses. His courses in psychology prompted a twelve-line poem in the Michigan Argonaut about “a girl who died Taking Dewey’s Psychology.” (p. 23, emphasis added)
O what is the matter with you, lank girl,
A pale and wild and haggard she,
Oh, don't you know, the old man said,
She's taking Dewey's Psychology.

Once she was fair to look upon,
Fair as a morning in June was she,
And now the wreck you see to-day
Is caused by Dewey's Psychology.

A year had passed, again I strayed
By the Medic's hall; what did I see
But some whitened bones of a girl who died
Taking Dewey's Psychology.

Poem about Dewey's psychology course appearing in the student paper Michigan Argonaut, Vol. 7, No. 6, November 10, 1888. Taken from Thought and Action: John Dewey at the University of Michigan (1998)

With this nuanced view, I think you get an idea of what makes teacher evaluation so difficult. What, exactly, do you value?

The Schools of 2020

According to Jen Sorensen...

Slowpoke Comics: The Schools of 2020

It's not all that pretty, is it? The nice thing about future thinking is that we can rewrite the future.