Give them freedom, and watch them flourish

Supporters of the Common Core Standards claim that the new expectations will prepare students for college, touting certain skills that are needed to succeed beyond the high school classroom. However, nothing within the Common Core seems to mimic the amount of choices that are afforded you when you attend college. Universities pride themselves as a place where you can challenge your intellect, experiment with your interests, and develop your own sense of intrinsic motivation. To achieve this, you’re allowed to pick and choose the classes you want to take, within the limitations of the major you selected. But how often do we see this type of freedom in high school curricula? How much can the Common Core really prepare students for college if they don’t offer the same approaches for students to learn and thrive?

Kelli Krieger at Union Endicott High School is trying to change that. In her 11th grade English Language and Composition Advanced Placement class, she implemented the 20% Project. The idea was made famous by Google and has since been implemented in many other contexts outside of business, including educational settings like Mrs. Krieger’s class. Simply put, 20% of the students’ time is devoted to whatever they want to do. Kelli frames this time with a theme of exploring your passions in life and finding what motivates you by posing a simple question, “What have you always wanted to do?” So every Monday during the spring semester of 2015, students in Kelli Kreiger’s classes were given the freedom to work on whatever they’ve always wanted to do.

The projects ranged from learning the piano to breaking the world record for making the largest amount of mashed potatoes. At the close of the semester, students presented their work in a Ted Talk style presentation. I attended their Ted Talk 20%, and my expectations were blown away. Kelli had briefly shared some of the students’ successes with me prior to the Ted Talk, but hearing the students talk about their projects really displayed what they learned, which was so much more than the typical high school curriculum could provide.

Among the many academic skills that were honed as the students learned the details of their projects, there were two qualities that really jumped out at me as I sat in the auditorium and listened to each student describe his or her journey: confidence and humility. The student who wanted to learn how to make sushi discussed with humor her failed attempts, and in the end shared with the audience the feeling of success when the head sushi chef at a popular restaurant where she was training said he’d serve one of her rolls. Another student who wanted to learn how to play the piano was so sure that he’d be easily stroking the keys to a Mozart piece by the end of the semester, but then realized that wasn’t going to happen. In his own words he said, “It was so much harder than I thought, and I didn’t become as good as I thought I would. But that’s okay.” He then sat down at the piano and played three separate pieces, and played them well. I also saw two students who set out to be “Youtube famous” talk candidly about the serious nature of cyberbullying they experienced, even sharing some of the most tasteless comments that ridiculed their shows. More important, though, the girls rose above the immaturity and read the comments with a tone of confidence that took the power away from the cyberbullies, allowing the audience to see the perils of social media without feeling sorry for the girls.

There were many other projects, and none were more or less impressive than the others. Each student who presented (or at least the ones I was able to see) showed that they took the project seriously, and were able to articulate the failures and successes with an ease that showed how much they learned. And what these students learned was so much more than what we could measure or what can be learned in a curriculum that is filled with close reading and writing assignments and stuff that will get them “college ready.”

It’s safe to say that the skills within the Common Core will certainly, if taught correctly, build confidence in students and show them the importance of having humility. But there is something about learning these qualities through outlets that we choose–and were not simply assigned to us–that gives us a better understanding of who we are and how we handle the world around us. This was obvious to me as I watched these students talk about their work.

So to my readers who are working on their curriculum this summer, please consider implementing something like this with your students. I’ve linked the general idea of the 20% project in my description above, but if you’d like more information, just let me know. And for any readers who have connections to Common Core: Any chance we can fit this project in as an Anchor Standard for all grade levels?

Choice and Competition in Education: Guaranteed to Fail Our Students

Many critics and reformers of the current education system favor the idea of competition and choice as the savior of our perceived failing public schools. Even though many of their claims that attack the current system are unfounded, I find it more disheartening that they seem to forget who really loses in an education system that touts free-market policy solutions. While there is much more to cover than I’m going to here, I’ll only address the two prevailing topics in the competition and choice debate: merit pay and charter schools.

In a piece by The Atlantic titled “Why Are Teachers Dissatisfied with Their Jobs,” salary is not even mentioned in the author’s explanation of the new MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. Instead, the survey reveals that class size, job security (this survey came at around the time of a budget crisis) and lack of support services are the leading culprits for teachers leaving the profession, with no mention of how much teachers make. As a teacher for the past 13 years, this doesn’t surprise me at all. We don’t get into this profession for the money.

So if money is not the issue, then why is “merit pay” even a talking point for some of the reformers? It seems the neoliberals and their unlikely conservative allies feel that teachers should be paid for how good they are, and the only way we can determine that, according to them, is through test scores. While basing merit pay on test scores comes with many unintended consequences, there is one consequence that stands above the rest. If our goal is to ensure that all students get a great education, then pitting teachers against each other for better test scores will only ensure that a select group of students receive the best lesson. For example, if I have a lesson that gets great results, then what’s my incentive for sharing this with other teachers if my pay is predicated on doing better than them? Teaching is collaborative, and merit pay only disrupts this vital piece of the puzzle that is student learning. When teachers compete instead of collaborate, students lose.

This is the same when we apply it to school choice and the for-profit charter school movement. Charter schools are important, and historically have been a place for educators to be innovative, while also collaborating with their partner district school to share what is working. Today, however, most charters are considered public school competition, highlighting a system that reluctantly works together, if at all.

It’s evident that capitalism and competition are systems that bring out the best in many industries. Free markets have given us the iPhone, the dollar menu, affordable cars, and many other 1st world problems that we enjoy. It also weeds out the bad, keeping crappy products from becoming acceptable. The reformers want us to believe that this holds true in education as well: free-market policies in education will create competition, allowing the best to rise to the top, while driving out the bad. However, the bad never really gets driven out; it becomes a school for children. To believe in a competitive educational system is to believe in winners and losers when it comes to ensuring our children get a good education. Therefore, if you’re for competition and choice in education, then you’re okay with a portion of our kids “losing.”

I’m not okay with this. It’s one thing if Joe’s Widget Factory closes because he sells crappy widgets. He’s an adult who knows how a free-market works, and he pays the consequences as much as he would reap the benefits. That’s how it goes. But a child doesn’t make the decision of whether or not they’re going to choose the better school, their parents do. If parents can’t get their kid to the premier school because of transportation, or the parents don’t care, or the child doesn’t have parents to advocate for them, or they’re homeless, or… then that kid gets a crappy education, and the system of choice has just failed him or her. The point is that we can’t knowingly create losers in a system that serves our children. We must serve them all with the best education they deserve. That means funding all schools well enough to have the resources, social services, support, and job security that research suggests will stabilize the teaching profession.

To prove that we can effectively fund our schools for all children, all we have to do is look at our military. Our soldiers are inexcusably underpaid, yet we have the funding for resources that allow our US armed forces to be considered the most powerful and skillfully trained military in the world. How could this be? Did we privatize it? No. We made it a priority. As a country, we care about it. This could be the same in education. We just need to care enough so that teachers have the resources they need to make sure all students have a good education. 

I agree that we need better ways to compensate our best teachers, and it should certainly include their ability to collaborate and impact classrooms other than their own. But we can’t throw our nation’s children to mercy of a free-market system, because that will guarantee that we’ve failed, even if it’s just a small portion of our kids. We already know how to be the best. We just need to care about it. 

Roland Martin thinks he’s a teacher, a common problem in education

I got into my first “Twitter fight” with, of all people, former CNN contributor and host of News One Now Roland Martin. Up until now, I only really knew about his ascot that Jon Stewart made famous. I don’t follow him on Twitter, but as someone in education who likes to stay plugged in, I do follow Michelle Rhee. She retweeted the following tweet by Mr. Martin:


To which I responded with “@rolandsmartin Do you have a background in education?” He didn’t like that. He immediately fired off about 4 tweets in defense, starting with :

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But then came my favorite:

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Full disclosure, I probably deserved this last one. I egged him on a tad with a poor analogy of sitting on a healthcare committee because my son goes to a doctor. Honestly, I think it’s great that he is involved in education, and Students First surely needs many voices. However, his attitude–dare I say “arrogant”–is another example of how our education system is being run by those with the biggest mouth and/or the most money. And what’s worse is that they all use the same reasoning as Mr. Martin: I went to school, so I know what I’m talking about. This thinking not only demoralizes an already declining profession, but it makes it more difficult for research-based approaches to find their way into the classroom.

Teaching is both an art and a science, and really only those who have been a teacher understand this concept. There is a lot of research that needs to be balanced with practical knowledge, and there are plenty of practices that need to be checked by research. What tends to happen when we have those who do not teach, or who have never taught, weigh in on education reform is that they more often than not scream the latest buzz words that sound good. High standards, cultural literacy, charter schools, text-dependent questions, Common Core, critical thinking–these are the latest talking points that make people feel like they care about education, so people like Mr. Martin get behind the machines that are pushing these ideals without really knowing where it’s headed. I know the destination is well-intentioned, but let’s have the researchers and teachers figure this out, not billionaires and media pundits.

We have a whole list of major players in k-12 education who have never seen the inside of a k-12 classroom as a teacher: Bill Gates, David Coleman, and even our US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to name a few. I certainly wouldn’t put Martin’s role with Students First on the same playing field as these guys, but I do think that his know-it-all demeanor on twitter speaks to the bigger issue. Just like those influential in education who lack the experience, Roland Martin is another neoliberal who knows as much about education from being a student as I know about fixing my car from driving it (a better analogy than my one on healthcare).

Oddly, I started my teaching career at a charter school in Houston, TX, close to where Mr. Martin went to high school. I surely admire his accomplishments, and I’m proud to see a fellow Texan on the main stage. I don’t mind that he shares his opinions, and I would hope that he is a part of his nieces’ education. But I’d ask that he reconsider his expertise, and show more respect for those out on the front line. More important, he needs to remember that his way of thinking is the status quo, and one that has proven to fail our children.

Kate Gerson: Her Rhetoric vs. Her Research

Last Friday, Kate Gerson spoke at the first regional conference in New York devoted to Common Core at Roberson Museum in Binghamton, NY. Her hour presentation covered a variety of topics, including the shifts in thinking, both for ELA and Math, as wells as ELLs and addressing the needs of all the students in a classroom. As I expected, her presentation was thoughtful, and I don’t wish to take issue with each of her points here. But I do think her overall message falls short of her intent, and her research only supports this assumption.

Gerson’s rhetoric doesn’t represent a balanced curriculum, which is what the research she presented on Friday morning supports.  Gerson presented pertinent research in reading, citing Adams’s 2010 article in American Educator, which claims that “if students read several texts on a single topic,”  then this will allow students to “be ready for texts of greater complexity” (p. 9). Gerson made this easy for us, “a kid who reads a lot about sharks gets better at reading about sharks.” More important, she notes that those skills are transferrable. Gerson’s power point slide accompanied this with research-based approaches to reading that included strategies grounded in both intensive and extensive reading methods. 

However, her mantra, and the one from David Coleman and NYSED, is “less texts; more depth.”  This repeated statement along with modules from the state that spend days on a single text, and Coleman claiming teachers should spend 3 days on two paragraphs, and you pretty much guarantee that teachers will avoid extensive reading strategies that are essential for growth in reading ability.

Research is clear on this: the more you read, the better you get. And not just for comprehension (Krashen, 2004, Power of Reading). The very first English education study done in 1927 by Nancy Coryell at Columbia’s Teachers College shows that extensively reading literature is more effective for improving analysis and evaluation than closely reading a few texts. More impressive, the results show an even greater impact on low-level students in the extensive reading classes. For my dissertation, I replicated this yearlong study and my results were identical, and, as my literature review covers, many studies in between support these findings.

I’m not arguing for an English class that only employs extensive reading. Close, intensive reading methods are important, and certainly have a place in the classroom. But we can’t forget that the intent for reading literature is to simply enjoy the experience, so we need to give students the opportunity to experience this. If we never offer these authentic experiences to students during school, then we have failed them. Voracious readers are not created through assignments that require close reading analyses. They become voracious readers by enjoying what they read, and making reading laborious every time it happens only ensures that we’ll produce a generation of nonreaders.

This all comes back to the “cult of efficiency” model for education (or as Diana Senechal more recently refers to it in, ironically, American Educator“The Cult of Success”), for which Gerson and NYSED are arguing. The thinking behind the “text dependency” derives from this obsession in today’s reform movement to make everything “accountable” and “measurable.” It seems easier to hold students accountable with “text dependent questions” than it would be to simply allow them time to read. However, there is too much literature out there on wide reading strategies, like individual reading programs, that it is not too much to ask of Gerson and NYSED to do a better job of touting them.What’s even more frustrating, though, is that Adams’s (2010) research suggests choice and wide reading (continuing with Gerson’s example, a kid who is interested in sharks should be allowed to choose books about sharks and read them extensively), so all Gerson has to do is highlight this within her presentation.

I know Gerson wants to see a balanced curriculum, and I feel confident that if we sat down to discuss all these points, then we’d agree on pretty much everything. However, I’d ask that she be more clear on this in her presentation. I’d ask that she argue for both intensive and extensive reading instead of repeating “less texts, more depth.” Her research is arguing for this balance, but that is not what her audience heard Friday morning.


Bill Gates Doesn’t Get It

Recently, Bill Gates wrote about the “myths” that are confusing the debate over “what the Common Core is, where it came from, and the impact it will have.” There are good arguments on both sides about the process in which the standards were made, how they will impact an already burdensome testing culture, and how the standards will hinder autonomy and creativity for teachers. While I could take aim at his reasoning for calling any of these points “myths,” that is not what I think is the real issue that is “confusing the debate.”

It is within the first two sentences of the article that reveal where Gates fundamentally misses the point of education: “I don’t know many business leaders who are satisfied with America’s schools. In fact, just about every CEO I know is worried that this country simply isn’t producing enough graduates with the skills they need to compete globally.” So business leaders and CEOs consult Mr. Gates about education policy? This frustrating question about the education experts informing Bill Gates reminded me of an article that I have my students read on the first day of my English methods class titled “The Learning Knights of Bell Telephone.”

In 1952, Bell executives started to worry about the education of their managers. One sociologist explained Bell executives’ concerns to a magazine:  “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Wanting their junior executives to know what “questions are worth asking,” Bell partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and created the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives, which was ultimately a 10 month liberal arts education. During their time in the Institute, the junior executives completed 550 hours of course work, with “more reading…than the average graduate was asked to do in a single time frame.” Along with the wide reading of literature, the Institute required “visits to museums and art galleries, orchestral concerts, day trips meant to foster thoughtful attention to the history and architecture of the city that surrounded the Penn campus, as well as that of New York and Washington.”

Interestingly, at the end of the Institute, the executives completed a questionnaire, and “their answers revealed that they were reading more widely than they had before — if they had read at all — and they were more curious about the world around them.”  And even more interesting, the graduates showed discontent with business being their sole purpose in life. One student in the program was quoted as saying that he felt “like a straw floating with the current down the stream,” and added, “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

Leading industrial psychologists at the time praised the Institute, but Bell pulled support shortly after another round of positive results. I guess the “questions worth asking” weren’t the ones that Bell executives wanted from their employees. But more importantly, does Bill Gates think these are the “questions worth asking”?

Last night, I had the honor of hearing Jonathan Zimmerman talk briefly on the topic of education in the US, and he made the point that what’s “lost in the argument” is the fact that the conversation revolves around a “vocational education instead of a classical, or liberal-with-a-lower-case-l education.” Mr. Gates engages America in an argument about vocational education, which really gives a classical education the short shrift. This is where the real confusion is, and a point that is more important than any of his “myths.”

Bill Gates needs to stop arguing for the utilitarian approach to education that his buddies think will help the US compete globally. Getting kids to be “curious about the world around them” will certainly have more of an impact than simply ensuring a set of skills has been acquired. If Mr. Gates wants an education that will give us a competitive edge globally, then we need kids challenging themselves and ideas instead of allowing them to feel like a “straw floating with the current down the stream.”

America Needs to Define the Purpose of Education

A former student of mine recently shared this video with me that raises questions about our current education system here in the US. The speaker argues that his generation “will not let exam results decide their fate.” I like it. Yet this claim and the reasoning presented in the video to support it come back to a central question about the education system in the US: What is the purpose of education?

The closest thing I’ve found is the mission statement on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. According to the statement, the standards are “what students are expected to learn” and are “relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” so that “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

This statement, along with the standards themselves, seem to advocate that the goal of education is simply skills-acquisition. Phrases like “success in college and careers” and “compete successfully in the global economy” only show one side of what education can do, and should be a product of a much more important goal. Sadly, though, we haven’t identified this important goal.

Because education is a product of society, the US education system is founded on meritocracy and the skills dictated by the business world. While we can find evidence in our history of education advancing religious and patriotic values, what seems to be driving policy in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on what Raymond Callahan coined the “cult of efficiency,” which demands the skills and goals of business procedures. This helps us justify why we label students with grades, and why learning has become a variable in a cost benefit analysis.

As a teacher, nothing bothers me more than to see a kid play the grade-game: Is this for a grade? Will this be on the test? It shows that I’ve failed in conveying the true meaning of my English class. If they walk away thinking they got nothing from reading Hemingway other than a grade, then somewhere along the way I didn’t make it clear to all my students the deeper understanding of the world around them that is offered in the Nick Adams stories. If I hold myself to this standard, why can’t America’s educational system?

Education makes you a better person, a better citizen. It allows you to empathize, to understand different perspectives without agreeing, and to have humility without shame. A good education requires you to question your world, your society, and to seek the truth even if it challenges what you’ve always believed or thought you knew. (And a life lived unchallenged isn’t worth living, in my opinion.) When you place these goals of education first, then the skills that the business world are touting will surely be acquired simply in an effort to achieve them. 

If teaching has taught me anything, it’s that students love learning, but they hate school. They don’t see a need for it unless they  see a direct correlation to their long term goals, whatever those might be. Students are not seeing education for what it really is, and that’s our fault for not identifying it.  We always say to students,  “You need an education because…” Instead, our society should simply argue, “You need an education.” Maybe if we conveyed goals that reflected the true intent of education, then students would love school as much as they love learning.

However, the message we send kids is that education is what you make on a test, and a passing grade will get you a good job. I’m glad to see kids are smart enough to know that a test doesn’t determine their fate. I’m glad to see our kids want more out of education than just grades. It would be nice if the policy wonks on Capitol Hill were on the same page.

I like your essay, but you failed!

Since I recently moved here to New York from Texas, I applied to be on a Common Core (CCSS) committee so that I could learn more about the education policies of my new home state. I’m not really sure what I can and cannot talk about, so I’ll just say that I was required to look closely at a few of the writing standards. By the end of the day, I was left thinking of Peter Greene’s excellent blog post about CCSS, and the limitations it presents.

What makes Greene’s argument so compelling is that he gives examples of famous authors who would fail under specific standards. I thought of this point yesterday while spending the majority of the day staring at one of the common core writing standards that New York has adopted:

WS.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

This writing standard is for 11th-12th graders, and seems innocuous until you read all the sub-standards that are alphabetized beneath it. One in particular concerns me, and became a topic of discussion as our meeting dragged on: d. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing. Much of the debate at our table centered around what an exemplar essay would look like to represent this standard. An essay that is completely void of voice?

The standard attempts to give a caveat by claiming that the students’ writing should be “attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline.” However, it reads as if all “norms and conventions” that will be attended to will require an “objective tone.” Let’s not forget that this standard is listed under the argumentative essay.

To echo Greene’s point, this would mean that a student who mimics Charles Blow, Thomas Friedman, Alan Brooks, or George Will would fail. These writers argue in a tone that is anything but objective, and, in my opinion, it is their tone and style that should be credited for much of their fan base. I might not agree with what they say, but I sure enjoy reading it!

According to the state of New York, though, that’s not authentic writing.

Good writing instruction should include mentor texts, and good argumentative mentor texts could include pieces from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Students should then be asked to find what interests them, and what they want to talk about. Then they write. They argue. And while their arguments should attend to the norms and conventions of style and tone, a good essay is not necessarily going to have an objective tone.

When teachers lead their students toward issues that they are passionate about, then it is imperative that we give them a voice. Where is that standard in the Common Core?