Rigour – All Hail the Orphan Child

The Globe and Mail has recently been addressing an old chestnut: the question of rigour in schools. A few recent articles and letters-to-the-editor appeared in the past week or so. The general tenor: schools aren’t what they should be, technology is a distraction, and we should refocus our efforts on a conservative approach to teaching and learning. The excerpted editorial on texting here sums it up:

De shud b HHIS – which may be translated as “They should be hanging their heads in shame.”

Such is the scolding that some parents and teachers may want to give children and teenagers after reading the state of their homework, because a new study by a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Calgary confirms what some fear: that text messaging has a negative impact on language skills.

Ever since text messaging took off – Canadians send 154 million texts a day – linguists have debated the impact it has on the English language. Some experts insist that texting encourages creativity and writing, that asking “wot r u doin 2nite” isn’t laziness, but rather another way in which English is naturally evolving, as it has done for centuries. Besides, young people know the difference between communicating to make plans for Friday night and writing a formal essay. In New Zealand, educators certainly thought so when in 2006 they approved the use of text speak in high-school exams.

But the naysayers now have some ammunition on their side.

In the Calgary study, a group of university students were asked about their reading habits. Those who read widely in traditional print media such as books and magazines were able to identify more words on a checklist than students who said they did not read as much, but sent and received texts a lot.

Some of the words on the list were real, and others were fictitious. The conclusion was that traditional reading material exposes people to variety and creativity in the language. It helps develop skills that allow the interpretation of new and original words. This is not found in colloquial text speak, which actually constrains the use of English and caused the students to reject many words on the checklist.

It is a triumph for the traditionalists.

To which a teen’s flippant answer might be “wateva DBEYR,” or, Don’t believe everything you read.

You would be hard pressed to find a teacher who argued against rigour. Indeed, all teachers think they’re pursuing rigour in their own ways. But there is little shared agreement on what constitutes a rigourous program. And therein lies the rub. What goals should we be pursuing in our classrooms?

The usual turn of events goes like this: various groups (teachers, administrators, consultants) and different members within them, all argue for different end results. We should teach through games to build critical thinking; we should return to the basics; we should spend more time on math; no – more time on community service; and rest of all the old refrains.

There is obviously much by way of merit in debate, but unless we ask what the purpose of schooling is there is little point in persisting; no possibility of progress exists. One thing is clear, though – until we get a better answer to it, we’ll likely continue to work against ourselves.

The article below, in the same edition of the paper as the editorial above, argues – again – for a more conservative approach to education. At the very least, the purpose of schooling is hinted at: students should be able readers, writers, and adept at the classical subjects. I don’t find myself disagreeing with all of it.

The note is written in the shaky, giant letters favoured by children just learning to hold a pencil: “I am sorry for distracting the class too day,” the boy says. He goes on to apologize to his teacher for his disruptive behaviour; he knows the teacher wants more for him, because she has told him so, over and over. “I want to do good in life,” he adds. “I do not want to be a failier.”

The teacher has framed the note, and now, sitting in her south London living room, jabs a finger at it. “How old do you think that boy is?” Without waiting for an answer, she barks: “That boy is 15. He’s about to leave school. How is that possible?” She shakes her head. “I loved that boy. I saved his note. But really – how can this be?”

You don’t want to be disrupting Katharine Birbalsingh’s class, or misspelling words at 15, or indeed trying to prevent her from reaching her goal. That goal, depending on where you stand, is either to fix Britain’s broken schools or to rip apart a perfectly good system from within.

The Oxford University graduate is one of the more controversial figures in British education circles, and she’s not even from here. She was raised thousand of kilometres away, in a rich country where she never locked her bike when she went to the store, and where, to her dismay, she was taught woodworking in high school. That is, in Canada.

What exactly has she done to annoy the teaching establishment and a good section of middle-class London parents? Simply, she is setting up a “free school” – a secondary school that is free to set its own curriculum. At the Michaela Community School in Tooting, a rough-and-ready part of south London, the emphasis will be on discipline, competition and rigorous, back-to-basics instruction.

Why School Choice Fails (?)

I’ve written before that the idea of school choice has a lot of merit, especially for those of us still under the spell of elegant philosophies behind Enlightenment economic thinkers.  I argued that across a whole system, applying principles of choice might be able to achieve change in ways more profound than well-meaning school leaders.  I did point out there is no evidence for the idea (some to the contrary, in fact), and it is quite unpopular in academic circles.A new salvo in the war emerged recently.  Natalie Hopkinson, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, created some controversy this winter when she declared, more or less, the US experiment with school choice and charter schools a failure.

She tells of a system where “neighbourhood schools are dying” because of school choice and charter schools.  The problem? Washington, D.C., like many cities in the US, in an effort to improve its school system, created choice-based incentives for schools to improve: “if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.”  Schools would be accountable to their stakeholders, and in so doing a “second education system” was created.

But a cycle emerges: local neighbourhood school, not doing so well, loses more and more students to the competition; eventually, stripped of resources, it is shut down and the kids move to a nearby public school that is not doing so well; soon, it is shut down, too.  Each wave of the cycle brings greater cynicism and disillusionment with the public system.  The second, shadow education system consumes resources that once went to local neighbourhood schools.

All of this leads to a few avenues: rich neighbourhoods have great schools with great programs; poor nieghbourhoods have poor schools with weak programs, and ultimately get shut down; the kinds in poor neighbourhoods have fewer and fewer options.  (Most Canadians are surprised to find out that one of the best options is to win a lottery to attend a better school out of your neighbourhood.)  Her son attended three elementary schools by the age of 11, and all of them were closed.  Living in an under-served, mostly black neighbourhood, means you probably won’t have a local school worth wanting to send your kid to.

She looks out at the broader US experiment with school choice and declares the future grim: “Like us, those places will face a stark decision: Do they want equitable investment in community education, or do they want to hand it over to private schools and charters? Let’s stop pretending we can fairly do both. As long as we do, some will keep winning, but many of us will lose.”

She does make a compelling point.  But given the obvious criticism supplied by some of her detractors, I think she has the wrong problem in mind, and the wrong solution.  Kevin Chavous, the chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, writes in response: “Ms. Hopkinson points to what she deems the fundamental unfairness of the lottery aspect of the charter school law. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system, but luck and chance have always determined where one attends school. If you are lucky enough to be born to reasonably well-off parents who can write checks to private schools or buy a house in an expensive suburb, opportunity is everywhere.
“If you aren’t so fortunate, your parents grit their teeth and send you to the neighborhood school, chosen for you based on nothing but your ZIP code. If access to high-performing schools has to come down to a number, better it be a lottery number than a ZIP code.”

A good point, though there is a lot less to find agreement with in his views in this clip:

The debate over choice is far from the centre, though; the solution to all this is not to quibble over school choice, but to examine the sources of funding.  In the US the tradition has been to fund schools from local tax bases – the richer the neighbourood, the richer the schools – ad vice versa.  It was like this in Ontario, too, but (under a very conservative regime, even) the province decided to apply a provincial funding model where the school receives the same amount for each student, no matter how rich the local neighbourhood.  This kind of centralized funding is an easy way to provide for poor niehgbourhoods – and it isn’t incompatible with school choice.

To Succeed, Try Failing

A friend passed on this fascinating article on the importance of struggle in the personal growth.  Here’s a short excerpt from Paul Tough’s superb article from the New York Times.
Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

School Choice – Should Markets Know Better?

Robert Heilbroner, the distinguished economist, had in an early section of his classic primer on economics, The Making of Economic Society, a thought experiment where he asked readers to imagine the improbability of the power of the market. He points out that if we were to imagine setting up our own society, a command economy would seem far more useful than a market. A king ordering around his subjects and directing their efforts with care and precision would seem to be the best way to ensure everyone had enough food to eat and a house to live in and clothes to wear.

Letting a market, where no one explicitly directs the efforts of any individuals, provide for the needs of the community seems absurd. Imagine: no one tells anyone how much food to grow, or what kinds; how many houses to build; the clothes to make. And yet, this is exactly how our markets work. No one dictates production, and yet there is enough for all. (The distribution of goods is another matter, of course.) More than that, the products from a market system are better than if they had been directed by a king. The market, for all its ills, has been the most powerful mechanism for increased production of higher-quality, cost-effective goods.

If education is a good, then why not apply market principles to it? Why not allow the market to change schools for the better? We could banish the king and letting the consumers drive changes. Let consumers choose schools, and the market will build better schools.

Except that, in places where school choice has been used, the results are mixed and modest at best. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame, points out that “The theory sounds great, but evidence confirming it has been hard to find. Julie Cullen and Brian Jacob, my good friends and co-authors, haven’t done school choice proponents any favors with their latest paper (the full version of which can be found here). Using kindergarten lottery outcomes that determine which kids get into the most sought-after schools, they are able to compare the outcomes of those who win the lottery versus those who lose. The students who win the lotteries go to “better” schools and have “better” peers, but they don’t have better outcomes.”

In a more recent article in National Affairs, Frederick M. Hess sums it up nicely: “It would seem, then, that school choice “works” in some respects and in some instances — but that choice alone could never work as well as many of its champions have expected, and promised. It is time for those who would like to transform America’s schools to let go of the dream that choice by itself is any kind of ‘solution.’”

Still, part of me does have a fondness for the market solution. Of course, not all goods are sensitive to market pressures – at least not in the right way. Medicine, for example, appears to work better for most with a partially-command approach. But I still wonder: if all parents could choose freely, even across class lines, wouldn’t schools adopt better practices? And where better practices were unclear, wouldn’t choice allow for greater clarity? Don’t markets sometimes show us what we don’t know?

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows…

The basic idea inhabiting most people’s minds about what goes on in classrooms is usually quite simple: students are taught by teachers, students learn (hopefully), and at some point, students show what they’ve learned. For this last part, we usually imagine a test, pen-on-paper, timed, and, if we’re honest, probably a somewhat arbitrary reflection of the curriculum. And most practicing teachers would, if pressed, probably agree.

The more discerning commentator, though, will point out a few new changes in how students are tested. Testing can be used to help students as often as stress them: by testing, we know what students are learning and what they are not. Also, to achieve change across a large system, testing might be required to gather the necessary data. After all, we need to know where we are as a system before we can decide where we need to go; as well, we need to know if we are getting there. This article by Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times does a good job of describing the current anxieties and imperatives around school testing:

Testing of young children had been out of favor for decades among early-childhood educators in the United States, who worry that it stifles creativity and harms self-esteem, and does not accurately reflect the style and irregular pace of children’s learning anyway. (There may be some truth to that. My son, who suffered the flash card assault, was by age 7 the family’s most voracious reader.) Testing young children has been so out of favor that even the test-based No Child Left Behind law doesn’t start testing students’ reading abilities until after third grade — at which point, some educators believe, it is too late to remedy deficiencies.But recently, American education’s “no test” philosophy for young children has been coming under assault, as government programs strongly promote the practice.First there was No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2003 and required states to give all students standardized tests to measure school progress.Now, President Obama’s Race to the Top educational competition — which announced billions of dollars in state grants this month — includes and encourages more reliance on what educators call “formative tests” or “formative assessments.” These are not the big once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime exams, like the SATs, but a stream of smaller, less monumental tests, designed in theory, at least, primarily to help students and their teachers know how they’re doing.Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

Students don’t generally like tests. Few adults enjoy being evaluated, either. It has become en vogue to suggest that we can all get better at anything we do, and that evaluation is key to that – books like Mindset have sold millions and appear in many a staff lunchroom left behind by superiors hoping to soothe the egos of the increasingly-scrutinized worker.

But, as the author points out, perhaps testing really isn’t a bad thing. She moved her children to Beijing, a place where testing can happen nearly daily, and then back to the US:

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

Teacher Hiring?

I have only ever worked in a private school.  This isn’t by intention; though most would imagine that I would prefer the privileges of private school, the truth is that the public system has never been interested in hiring me.  Six years into a teaching career, three university degrees and a fourth under way, six 100-hour-plus additional qualification courses, and the public system is still closed to me.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like private schools.  The school I started my career with, and the one I am starting a new position at this month, are wonderful schools with great programs, and looking back I wouldn’t change the past six years for anything.  But it is to say two things: part of the reason these (private) schools work well is that teachers could be – and sometimes were – fired; and two, if the public systems across the continent are to achieve greatness, they need to adopt the nimble approach of private schools – that is to say, the practice of any organization committed to success where hiring and firing decisions are based on competence, and competence alone.

There are three possible reasons the public system doesn’t hire people like me – or nearly all of my teacher friends who, like me, can only find work in private schools.  It could be that we are weak candidates, or that we present poorly on our CVs or in interviews – this remains an open possibility.  Second, it could be that those interviewing don’t know how to pick good candidates out of the pile.  But I think the third possibility is most likely: public boards are so burdened with bureaucracy and unionism that hiring decisions are often driven not by applicant quality, but by inflexible and unworkable set of practices designed for the needs of the organization, not student success.

The hiring process in the Toronto District School Board illustrates the point.  While much of what follows is conjecture, there are a set of agreed upon facts.  Any teacher wishing to be hired for the fall needs to apply the previous winter.  Exactly when isn’t clear – the TDSB website encourages applications from December until an indeterminate point, but there are lots of rumours about secret deadlines earlier in the year.  The application is on-line, and fairly basic: which degrees are possessed, what additional qualifications have been earned, and the like.  If those in charge of hiring (often former teachers who have moved up the board hierarchy) choose to, they invite applicants to a board interview.  At the interview, applicants are asked five questions – and the questions are easily guessed at through a Google search.   In order to keep the interviews standard (and fair, goes the logic), interviewers are not allowed to ask follow-up questions, but instead largely check-off a set of ‘look-fors’ – sadly, sometimes not more than educational buzzwords strung together.  You cannot leave any supplementary paperwork, like letters of reference, copies of a teaching portfolio, or even a sample lesson plan.  In fact, to remain impartial, the interviewers do not have a resume in front of them.  If against all odds you manage to impress during the interview, you are placed on the eligible-to-hire list.

And what a list it is. On it sit the collected hopefuls of the fourth largest school board in North America, and a district with two teaching faculties over-producing teachers.  There are rumours that there are divisions within the list between those ‘recommended’ and those ‘strongly’ so, but no evidence of this is available on the board’s website.  Principals determine staffing needs sometime in the late spring, and begin to fill vacancies.  First, openings are available only to those currently in the board.  And finally, when the leftover spots are still leftover, principals access a list of candidates who are ‘eligible-to-hire.’  The board maintains that those on the list could be called for one last school-lever interview starting in June – but it seems most common to get calls much later, even well into the fall term.  And by the time the principal interviews the candidate for the school-level job, the situation is often desperate and nearly anyone will do; teachers are frequently hired mere days before they are expected to teach.

The process, then, is at least six months long, and often much longer.   And at the end of it, questions remain: how can the best candidates emerge from such a slow process, on which is biased towards existing union membership, and relies primarily not on the judgment of the person legally responsible for the program of any school, the principal, but an educational Russian doll of sets of committees within committees?

Earlier I had argued there are three reasons the public board has never seen fit to hire people like me and my teacher friends, but there will be those arguing there is a fourth: they will say that as part of a demographic crisis in education there are fewer children, and therefore fewer jobs.  Public boards aren’t hiring, they say.  Doubtlessly true, but I would argue that with so many underperforming teachers, surely there are some on the unemployment rolls who would be better in the classroom than those with tenure.  And the argument against reform on the basis that ‘unionism prevents us’ is hardly a response.  If education is important, clever politicians and passionate educators must find ways around any impediment to the overall success and dynamism of our education system.  If we don’t change (some of) the teachers, any talk about reforming our education system is mostly air.