Saturday, March 20, 2010

Debate: Will standards save public education?

I recently read Deborah Meier's Will Standards Save Public Education?  The book is a "New Democracy Forum" debate produced by the fantastic Boston Review (

It includes contributions by Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, Ted Sizer, Gary Nash, Linda Nathan, Abigail Thernstrom, Richard Murnane, William Ayers, and Bob Chase (former NEA President). The book was published in 2000, but it is more relevant than ever because of the Obama administration's push for national standards, the recent release of the Common Core standards in reading and math that are likely to serve as the basis of these standards, and the ongoing debate about the future of No Child Left Behind, a piece of standards-and-accountability legislation that has transformed the educational landscape in ways positive and negative, expected and unexpected.

Here are excerpts from a few of the essays to give you a sense of the debate:

From Jonathan Kozol, "Foreword":

Education writing, as John Holt observed when he and I were teaching high school English in the summer at the Urban School in Boston more than thirty years ago, is frequently a way of speaking indirectly of our own biographies and longings and unveiling our own souls. In speaking of "the aims of education" for a city or a nation, even for a neighborhood, we draw to some degree on who we are, and what we like (or don't like) in ourselves, and what we wish we might have been.

So when I listen to debates on education - whether about standards, pedagogic styles, or objectives, or "assessments," or whatever else - I listen first to voices. Before I pay attention to ideas, I want to gain some sense of character and value - lived experience - within the person who is telling us what he or she believes is best for children.

I do think...that there's such a thing as "bad" and "good" and "better" when it comes to books for children or to any other facet of our cultural endowment. ...So the question, for me, isn't if we ought to have some "standards" in our children's education. It is, rather, how and where they are determined, and by whom, and how we treat or penalize (or threaten, or abuse) the child or the teacher who won't swallow them.
Many of the teachers that I know in the South Bronx could teach in universities but choose to teach in elementary schools because they love the personalities of children and they also have a moral vision of a good society and want to do their part in bringing incremental bits of justice to an unjust city and an unjust world. They come with all the treasures they have gleaned from their own education. They want to share these treasures with the children, but they also want to find the treasures that exist already in those children, and they know they cannot do this if they're forced to march the kids in lockstep to the next "objective," or, God help us, the next "benchmark," so that they'll be ready - and God help us, please, a little more - to pass the next examination.

They worry about scripted journeys where there is no room for whimsical discoveries and unexpected learnings. They worry about outcomes that are stated in advance. ...These are teachers who have standards; but their standards may resemble those of Thomas Merton, or Thoreau, or Toni Morrison, more than of a market analyst or business CEO. The best teachers of little kids I know are poets in their personalities: they love the unpredictable. ...If we force them to be little more than the obedient floor managers for industry, they won't remain in public schools. The price will be too high. The poetry will have been turned into prose: the worst kind too, the prose of experts who know every single thing there is to know except their own destructiveness.

In this way, we'll lose the teachers who come to the world of childhood with ministries of love and, in their place, we'll get technicians of proficiency.

So the question, again, is not if we "need" standards in our schools but with what sensibilities we navigate between the two extremes of regimented learning with destructive overtones, on one hand, and pedagogic aimlessness and fatuous romanticism on the other. Somewhere between the world of Dickens's Gradgrind and John Silber and the world of pedagogic anarchy, there is a place of sanity where education is intense and substantive, and realistically competitive in a competitive society, but still respectful of the infinite variety of valued learnings and the limitless varieties of wisdom in the hearts of those who come to us as students.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Evolving thoughts about technology and education

This morning, I am writing from the MACUL (Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning) education technology conference in Grand Rapids, MI.

A couple of thoughts and takeaway lessons from my experience at the conference so far:

First, the profession of education is exciting, and it is important for teachers to be able to step back from the daily grind of teaching once in a while to participate in conferences like this. Not every "professional development" experience is valuable, but academic conferences like these provide an opportunity to gain quick exposure to a wide range of new ideas that can expand teachers' visions of what is possible in the classroom and of what it means to be an educator.

Second, I have a lot to learn. I thought I knew quite a bit about technology and the Internet - but I already feel behind the curve with things like digital audio and video technologies, and new tools are springing up every day. Even those of us who are "plugged in" and who read and/or write blogs, get our news from RSS feed readers (like Google Reader), and communicate by means of email and Facebook can easily fall behind the times, because the times are rapidly changing.

Keeping up with technological innovations in a well-informed way is a very real challenge that does not happen automatically; it has to happen through self-education, on one's own initiative. This does not necessarily mean adopting every new gadget that comes along; instead, what is important is to be knowledgeable about the tools that are out there so that you can make informed decisions about which to use and which to bypass.

(A key word here is "tools" - I do not believe that technology should lead us around by the nose and cause us to drop the traditional academic curriculum and give up the aim of real literacy - the ability to read and converse with challenging, idea-rich texts - in the name of new "literacies" which may, after all, be fads. I see more value in using educational technology as a means of delivering a traditional, rigorous liberal arts education in a more exciting, individualized, and self-paced way than has been possible to this point.)

Live blog: MACUL education technology conference, Grand Rapids, MI

Saturday, March 6, 2010

First thoughts about Diane Ravitch's changes of heart on school reform

I'm planning to purchase Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System as soon as possible - it sounds like a fascinating and heartfelt book about a great educator's rethinking of long-held positions on school reform. The reviews have been mostly glowing. (For a kind but critical review, check out Chester Finn's take in Forbes:

However, the tone of many of the stories about Ravitch's change of heart suggest to me that the politicization of education and school reform has become a serious problem. We need to refocus on whether a particular idea or a particular reform will strengthen student outcomes, and we should be less concerned about whether the proposal comes from the left or the right of the political spectrum.

School reform is not just another political issue: it is an issue that directly affects the lives of millions of students and their communities. It affects the social and economic future of society and the health of democracy.

Those who wade into these debates bear an especially heavy burden, and to handle that burden responsibly, we should read widely and listen with an open mind to ideas and proposals from as many perspectives as possible.

It seems to me that there may be more common ground than the current political lines-in-the-sand suggest. For instance, the progressive vision of small, personal, relationship-driven schools (advocated most prominently by Deborah Meier) seems more compatible with a flexible and choice-driven school structure than with large-scale, one-size-fits-all models of schooling.

Above all, perhaps, our education policy debates might become more sane if we stood back for a moment from debates about means - how and by whom education services are to be delivered (by public or private schools, charter schools, virtual schools, home-based schools, etc.) - and agreed first and foremost that educational outcomes (what knowledge, skills, habits, and dispositions students walk away with at the conclusion of their schooling) are what matters most.

It seems silly and shortsighted to pick a fight with a school that is truly serving its students and community well just because it is a particular type of school. Likewise, it seems wrong to stand up against any and all reform measures that target schools that are clearly not serving their students and community well simply because one is concerned about the broader implications of the reform or the political affiliation of those who are promoting the reform.

The simple reality is that there are excellent public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools, and there are extremely poor public, private, charter, virtual, and home-based schools. The means of schooling are less important than the outcomes.

(Image sources: Education Week ( and Barnes & Noble (

Further reading:

Diane Ravitch's homepage:

Diane Viadero, "In New Book, Ravitch Recants Long-Held Beliefs,", 3/5/10.

Steve Inskeep, "Former 'No Child Left Behind' Advocate Turns Critic,", 3/2/10.

Chester E. Finn, "School's Out: On Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System,", 3/3/10.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Interview: Self-educator Hoossam Malek

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Hoossam (Sam) Malek

Self-educator’s location: Baltimore, Maryland

Date: 4 March 2010

I met Sam Malek three summers ago, when the two of us were summer interns at Lehman Brothers, an investment bank, in Chicago. Sam has one of the most incredible minds I have ever encountered: his worldview is informed by a deep understanding of mathematics and economics as well as an insatiable curiosity and drive for growth, understanding, and academic and professional excellence.

The son of first-generation Syrian immigrants, Sam is proficient in Arabic, English and French. After earning a B.A. in Economics at Princeton, Sam spent a year working with the American Red Cross through AmeriCorps VISTA in West Baltimore City. He then worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, VA for three years while taking advanced courses in mathematics. He enrolled in the full-time M.B.A. program at the Chicago Booth School of Business and graduated towards the top of his class while also earning an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies. He began a career as an emerging markets bond analyst at Lehman Brothers in the turbulent late summer of 2008, and has since moved on to another firm where he focuses on high-yield Middle Eastern bonds.

WAM: On Wide Awake Minds, I promote a vision of education as a lifelong process in which certificates and degrees are important thresholds or signposts, but not signals that we have become "educated" persons with no need of further intellectual growth. You are someone who has gone far beyond the requirements of your profession and continued to pursue new learning opportunities at every stage of your life.

SM: What you are saying about thresholds - that you don't just cross a threshold and then be done - is, I think, very important. Human beings, especially here in the United States, are sometimes encouraged (unfortunately) to see life as a series of doors that you go through for whatever reason. Even that - to stop and think about that and reassess it may be very uncomfortable for some people.

Why learn? Why have a job? We have to put food on the table, we need to exist. We need knowledge to do our work as human beings. God puts you on this planet, and if you're lucky you have health - but education is supposed to take us beyond that and help us thrive in a difficult world. We don’t just get an education to check it off the list, but to survive and thrive.

It's kind of like the saying: "The truth can set you free." Life can be pretty oppressive at times. But education can prepare us for that by giving us foresight, the ability to be proactive, the ability to manage our passions, and the ability to see clearly in spite of whatever is going on around us. We are sentient people, not just rational creatures that see everything clearly - education can help us channel our emotions and not be slaves to them.

For example, you and I both do some of our work remotely, over the Internet, and I sincerely believe that that's the future of a lot of labor markets. This idea of making a living without waking up and going to a physical office building will be very uncomfortable for a lot of people. But there are ways to make the prospect of an uncertain future and new work environments more manageable and exciting; some of these ways include being aware of the world, seeing things, reading things, knowing things - in short, education.

And some people seem to be driven to go beyond the basics of what they need to know. Earlier tonight I was reading a friend's blog - he is in the field of bioengineering, but he really wants to be a philosopher. His post was explaining to his readers what an "axiom" is. Not everyone wants to be that thoughtful about the world around them, but some people need to - for these people, learning itself is a powerful need.

WAM: What you said about your friend's blog is very interesting - do you see anything significant about the fact that he was using the format of a blog? For example, was he "working" as a philosopher or exploring his identity as a philosopher? Was he self-educating by clarifying his thoughts on an issue and distilling these thoughts into a blog post? Was he performing the function of an educator, teaching his readers about a topic important to him?

SM: Absolutely, his use of the blog format is very significant. He has 800 friends on Facebook and seems very Internet-savvy - not only can he test the waters as a philosopher or public intellectual, but he can try to create a market for his ideas and attract a readership for his views. If readers with limited time feel compelled to go to his blog and read his writing, then he may be on to something that he can use to build new opportunities.

One good thing about technology is that it creates these marketplaces of ideas - not just for testing ideas, but for communication. If you feel passionate about something, you can go online and talk about it with others. Passion and sincerity are contagious - people will sense them in your writing and respond. My friend is lucky because the invention of blogs and the Internet gave him the opportunity to experiment and branch out beyond the narrow function of his career.