Monday, November 22, 2010

LYNN: Michelle Rhee Wants Our Opinion

A week or two ago I signed up to get the latest news on outgoing DC Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee. She has started a new website/blog with the apparent goal of keeping a visible profile until she figures out what to do next with her life.

Today, I received an email from Michelle. Of course, I was honored.  So what does Michelle have to say to her followers? The theme of her emails seems to be -- let's share ideas. She says:

"Trust me, I'm no stranger to the challenges we face, and I know how hard real reform is going to be. But the reality is, too many children in America today are getting a really crappy education."

"Allowing the status quo to continue means condemning millions of children every year to substandard lives. That doesn't have to happen. Morally, economically, logically -- from every perspective -- it shouldn't be allowed to happen."

I've visited her website, and so far, I am not impressed. I really wanted to be impressed. Michelle showed a great deal of chutzpa as the DC head. Her wishy washy attitude on her website feels like a real step backwards, as if she has lost her nerve. Maybe it's an image consultant that is behind the site. Her fierce outrage at the system is gone. Her confidence seems to be shaken. What to make of this?

I'm thinking it may be time to mourn the passing of an outstanding education advocate. I can't say I would blame her. The system of education is so massively immovable, that she wouldn't be the first to give up in frustration.

Here is a link, where you can send your own suggestions to Michelle on how to reform the American education system. First thought on that subject? Dissolve all schools of education.

Michelle Rhee

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


After attending the Connecticut Forum at the Bushnell in Hartford last Thursday night, I have to admit – my head is spinning. The topic: Our Great Education Challenge.

Norah O’Donnell of MSNBC was the moderator, while the panelists were: Lily Eskelsen, Vice-President of the National Education Association, Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, Jon Schnur, Education Reform Pioneer and CEO of New Leaders for New Schools, Davis Guggenheim, Director of the film Waiting for Superman and my favorite panelist, Joel Klein, Chancellor, New York City Schools. Their bios can be seen by clicking on the link above.  The idea for the title of this post came from Mr. Schnur's remarks about how education in the U.S. has not gotten any worse (even though we have fallen from top place to number ten among industrialized nations in less than a generation), it just hasn't gotten any better.

The applause pattern at the event was most unusual.  It rippled around the Bushnell like a sort of Doppler Effect, mapping approval. The five panelists had distinct styles and often overlapped on ideas as often as they did not and all five had sympathizers in the audience.  So, depending on which of the panelists was responding to one of Ms. O’Donnell’s questions, one would hear either clapping, murmuring or grousing.  There was even a whoop or two.  And no matter who spoke, or who responded, I was dogged with this uneasy feeling that the point of our education challenge was never really addressed.  Kids do not need help with learning.  It’s what they do.  They are learning every waking minute and they are probably even learning in their sleep.  All environments are learning opportunities.  What they need help with is precisely the environment - the people, places and things that make up the culture of a school.  And the most important aspect of this environment, this culture is: WHAT are they learning? What constitutes the curriculum, and how are those decisions made?  How come there weren't any of the big textbook publishers on the panel?

Unbelievably, this was never addressed.  A lot of stuff about what children are not learning was bandied about, a lot of stuff about different classroom situations was put out there for discussion and a lot of stuff about what individual schools are “doing right” -creating a feeling of access and friendliness for parents and offering vibrant, rich classrooms - were offered up for pondering.  I only remember one remark addressing curriculum content: Mr. Schnur, on how important it is for us to make the transition from education based on the needs of the industrial age to education based on the needs of the information age. Oh, and Mr. Klein mentioned that some of the students in his schools would have liked to have taken an online AP level physics course, but it would not have counted since a real teacher would not be involved.  He even went to Albany to plead his students’ cause, but to no avail.  (The Chancellor of the New York City Public School system, which boasts more students than the entire population of the city of Albany, goes hat in hand to the seat of state government only to be told that what he was proposing would violate the terms of the contract with the teachers’ union.) Mr. Guggenheim spoke in that weird shaggy-headed Hollywood mix of humility and arrogance about the "hopes and dreams" of the children and parents in his documentary (why, they are just like any parent anywhere!) and added that, all things considered, he was more worried about global warming. Ms. Eskelsen did her best to defend the indefensible (tenure being the most glaring example) and Ms. Gist seemed to be constantly testing the vibe and found that picking on Ms. Eskelsen was her best bet as far as the sharing went.  And Norah O’Donnell deflected a little heat from the discussion by having everyone applaud all the educators in the audience and on the stage because Lord knows it’s a tough, important job.  She then undid that a bit later with a wisecrack about journalists not having tenure to protect them if they aren’t very good at what they do.

So what are many kids learning?  They learn that their learning doesn’t “count” if an educator isn’t the gatekeeper, and they then learn not to bother learning a subject if it won’t “count.”  They learn they can’t be trusted to learn on their own.  They learn that in some school systems, teachers are not allowed to stay late for enrichment opportunities.  They learn that if a teacher is not a good teacher, it doesn’t really matter.  They learn that if a teacher is a good teacher, it all comes to an end in ten short months and there’s no guarantee another good teacher will be waiting for them in September. The intention for students to learn these things is not explicit, but the way the system operates creates unavoidable consequences. Finland was offered up as an example of an admirable teacher training model featuring master teachers molding young teachers for pedagogical excellence, much as an attending physician leads around his or her gaggle of interns, residents or fellows.  (Apparently, the cream of the graduating Finnish university student crop goes into the teaching profession.)  Finland, however, is dazzlingly racially homogenous - where 93% of the population are Finns and 6% are Swedes.  Blondes and more blondes, but they do have that “Swedish as a Second Language” issue, so maybe the analogy can work. Ms. Eskelsen further expounded that Finland is doing right what "Teach for America" has backwards and then ...! She got an earful from Mr. Klein and Mr. Guggenheim, who apparently love "Teach for America."  Delving into the "Teach for America" dialectic beckons  to be fodder for a future blog post, but I have a feeling unions will be involved yet again.

My friend Lynn assures me that when Joel Klein alluded to the notion that the teachers’ unions might not be “in it for the children,” she sat up and took notice.  She told me that was about as radical a thing as she has ever heard in discussions of how we are to go about reforming education.  Lynn is quite sure it might be the beginning of a real dialogue on the subject.  I am not so sure.  I have done what Davis Guggenheim referred to as “take care of my own.”  I spent a good many years with children in the public school system, but in 1993 I began to homeschool.  Over the course of this blog, I hope to explain why I think the system itself is broken. 

In closing, here’s a quote from a true education reform pioneer, teacher John Taylor Gatto: "I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us … I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing (my students) down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior."

Educators may have “one of the hardest, most important jobs in the world,” but they also have the privilege of the company of our children for the best hours of the day, one-hundred-eighty days a year for six hours a day, doing work they love and have been trained to do. I contend that if we don’t admit that the focus on outcome is bogus when we won’t even talk about what our kids are learning, then the Great Education Challenge, or some permutation of it, will probably surface at the Connecticut Forum again, and in all likelihood, sooner rather than later.

To read the Connecticut Education Association's review of the Forum, click here  To read the Hartford Courant's assessment, click here. (And is it just me, or are there several grammar infractions in the first couple paragraphs of the Courant account? Tut tut.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

LYNN: Welcome!

After creating this blog in February 2009, I left it to molder as I pondered what to do with the empty space in front of me. Well, the time has come to wake up and dust off the accumulated pixel grime. Much has taken place in the past year. The Race to the Top left Connecticut in the dustbin, for one thing. For another — I no longer have a single child in the public school system. Shocking, I know. Other than that, the world of education has continued without even a burp in the machinery.

Also, a new movie has been released getting a great deal of attention in all the education world. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Waiting for Superman. I haven’t seen the movie, but hope to this weekend along with a few of my friends (if I can drag them along). Which brings me to my final point.

My friend Rosemary has suggested that this blog, the Throwing Curves thing that I started so long ago, be turned into a joint venture. The basic idea is that she, Rosemary, and I, Lynn will blog in this space cooperatively and as a team.

Rosemary will be the voice of the political right on all things education. I will do my best to balance her out with the liberal left.

We are well-suited to this task as 1) I am indeed liberal, and 2) Rosemary is conservative, and 3) we have both spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about education.

The best part of it all is that we are more than civil in our discussions. This will be a place for an intelligent discussion of all things education and a place to seek and find common ground. To that end, we will moderate all comments and delete anything offensive or of the ranting/flaming variety. And we will be the final judges of that.