Category Archives: Education Policy

A Jarring Encounter with an Ignorant Counselor

My first impression of my urban high school at the age of 16 came in my guidance counselor’s office at my orientation. My family had just moved from a very small, very white town earlier that summer. My counselor felt the need to give me some background on the student body of the school.

“You’re going to experience quite a culture shock,” he said. He went on to tell me this was a very diverse school, but he was eager to add that there was no gang activity there, citing a lone example of a group of kids that had made a habit of rolling up one pant leg. He insisted that the administration had quickly put that to rest.

“Keep your head up, look assertive, and you’ll be fine,” he added. I can only imagine what my poor mother was thinking as she sat next to me.

This man clearly thought that he was doing me a favor my telling me to be on my guard. Instead, he was perpetuating a whole slew of stereotypes. Why did he assume that he needed to say these things to me? Did he think I couldn’t deal with kids who were different from me? Who were poorer than me? Did he expect me to become a victim in this situation because I was white?

It’s hard not to see the latent racism and ignorance in his words. For all I know, this was a decent man who had spent over 30 years counseling kids. He had probably seen the school and its student body change a lot. More poor families, more immigrant families, fewer white families. But why assume that a scrawny white girl from Northern Michigan would have a hard time flourishing in a diverse urban environment?

I went on to make friends with a lot of kids who were quite different from me in many ways. My life has been much richer for it. I don’t think I was a uniquely kind or open-minded teenager. Rather, my happiness and success were thanks to the kids at that school who were kind and friendly enough to want to be friends with the new kid.

Children are so perceptive, and they pick up on so many of the thoughts and emotions of adults. However, it’s also possible that they choose not to adopt the ignorant notions of older generations.

When I think back on that moment, the most difficult part for me to deal with is the fact that I wasn’t the one who was harmed in that exchange. Instead, that mentality harmed the minority kids at my school. I was 16 years old and I was already scared to be starting at a new school anyway. His planting of that suspicion of my fellow students in my head was nothing but destructive. In a different situation, that suspicion may have turned into an ignorance to match his. I’m so thankful that the diverse student body and group of teachers were welcoming enough to dispel those suspicions.

I’ve come to understand, though, that I had no reason to expect anything other than kindness. We send kids to school so that they learn to engage with other kids and become a community of learners. Growth doesn’t come from exposure to people just like ourselves. It comes from working with people who are different. There’s no reason to lead kids to believe that they won’t be able to handle those differences. Doing so only perpetuates ignorance, fear, and self-segregation. And worse yet, minority kids are always the ones that are harmed, not the white students who are told to be cautious and vigilant.

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How Can We Encourage Confidence in Girls?

But what if I mess up?

Failure can be a scary thing.

The Confidence Code, a new book authored by ABC’s Claire Shipman and BBC’s Katty Kay, reveals new research into the differences between men’s and women’s confidence and how those differences affect important areas of life such as workplace performance. This dynamic certainly begins even earlier, in the classroom. As Shipman points out, girls of today tend to work hard and strive for perfection in their grades rather than take academic risks. When they graduate from college with impressive degrees, the skills that helped them earn those degrees don’t necessarily transfer to the workplace. In an article posted today on ABCNews.com, she notes of women, “Perhaps we’ve contemplated taking a larger step – a run for local office or a change of career – but we opt for caution over risk.  For most women, such feelings are so commonplace we’ve discount[ed] them. But, in truth, they represent a profound confidence gap between men and women, especially in the workplace.” In contrast, men tend to be assertive in their contributions to discussion, decision making, and leadership. Women often take a back seat, fearing that they might make mistakes or be perceived as over-bearing.

As an educational researcher, I can’t help but wonder what educational structures and practices reinforce this confidence differential in schools. The article states that there are genetic and physiological determinants of an individual’s confidence levels, but the study also finds that individuals have agency in this. How can we teach girls the same non-cognitive skills of self-confidence and assertiveness that help boys succeed in the workplace? How can we encourage girls to take risks and view failure as a learning opportunity? Answers might be a long time coming, but the discourse generated by this research could go a long way in shifting educators’ approaches to preparing boys and girls alike for success in their careers.

Interested in taking The Confidence Quiz and contributing to this research? Click here for the link.

 

Trying to Improve Education? Talk to Some High School Dropouts

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I’ve learned more about education from high school dropouts than I’ve learned from any book, article, or lecture. Despite holding a master’s degree in educational studies, working as a GED instructor for adult minority students in Southeast Washington, DC opened my eyes more than any other experience to the realities that students face as they go through the American educational system.

In many ways, my classroom was a microcosm for larger systemic educational issues. Students were shockingly lacking in basic math and literacy skills. Most of them had been repeatedly told as children that they were lazy or stupid because school was difficult for them and to this day experience anxiety just from walking into a school building. I even had a mother and her 18-year-old son in my class, evidence of the cyclical nature of academic failure and lack of opportunity in families.

Although these students should have been in adult basic education programs, my supervisor informed me that the organization had abandoned that program years ago. Many students received negative pressure in their social circles about going back to school, but being able to say, “I’m getting my GED,” still held a good amount of social prestige. There was no prestige, however, for those students to say that they were learning basic math and literacy skills. Due to sharply falling attendance, the basic education program was dropped in favor of an all-GED program.

While I was frustrated that my students were underprepared, their desire to be in my class signaled some important realities to me: they took pride in their decision to go back to school and were emotionally invested in doing well. Their reasons for returning to school were noble. Most wanted to get good jobs or hold onto the ones they had. Others wanted to be able to help their children or grandchildren with their homework. A couple even told me that they wanted to go onto college.

In all likelihood, many of those students will need to study for years before they pass the GED, and many will never pass it. And yet, they maintain hope. Perhaps merely having a positive educational experience was enough to put them on a good path after years of discouraging encounters with education.

My students knew very little of the scholarly theories we use to explain their situations. I am sure that few of them have ever learned about social capital theory, non-cognitive skills, or the legacy of Brown vs. Board of Education. They made no excuses for why the American educational system did not work for them.

As scholars, we rarely understand high school dropouts as anything other than a set of statistics. I was fortunate enough to learn at an early age that these people are valuable for much more than that. In our discourse about educational reform, these should probably be the first people we talk to about how we can improve our system, not the last. They prove that it is just as important to learn from education’s failures as its successes. And they prove that the people behind those statistics can share with us a wealth of knowledge and perspective.

“Medora”: A Team, A School, A Community

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On this week’s episode of Independent Lens, we see PBS’s answer to March Madness in “Medora.” This documentary, surprisingly produced by Stanly Tucci and Steve Buschemi, relates the struggles of a high school basketball team, and those struggles directly mirror those of its tiny rural Indiana town. The team is the worst in the league. They haven’t won a game in over a year. But they just keep on trying. Basketball in Indiana is akin to football in Texas, and this film has all of the drama of an extended episode of “Friday Night Lights.”

“Medora” isn’t just a sports documentary. It’s about a school and its vital place in a community doing whatever it can to survive the fallout of a decimated local economy. As in so many rural areas, the school is innately tied to the town’s identity. “This town will die when that school leaves,” one local observes. With a swelling budget deficit, the school must consider consolidation, following the lead of all the other districts in the area.

The students and the team are caught in the middle of these politics. They have as many personal problems as the school and town do. I have to wonder if the responsibility for lifting the town up is a burden on the shoulders of these players or if that responsibility makes them stronger. Or maybe it’s both.

This film is difficult to watch at times, but it’s a wonderful reminder that small triumphs matter. Anybody who loves sports and loves schools should take the time to watch it. You can find a link to the entire film below.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365195424/

Teaching Is Hard Enough Without All the Haters Out There

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I just began reading The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One by Carol Frederick Steele (2009). I came upon it in a rather odd way. My dad was buying gas and a cup of coffee a few weeks ago and somehow struck up a conversation about me with a fellow patron. He mentioned that I had just gotten a degree in educational studies and she, who turned out to be a lecturer at Michigan State University, insisted that I read her book about teaching. My dad scribbled down her name and the book title and relayed them to me that evening.

Having never received any sort of formal teacher training (and very little informal at that), I’ve been wanting to gain some insight on pedagogy for a long time. I’m not sure yet whether this book is what I’ve been looking for, but I appreciate Steele’s desire to help all teachers improve their craft, regardless of their current levels of skill and experience. I’ve been intrigued by her discussion of a set of 8 qualities shared by expert teachers. Her list includes:

a strong sense of mission,
a desire to improve their teaching,
a holistic sense of teaching to develop individuals as well as impart facts,
a high degree of confidence in their own personal and professional views,
a peer support system that reinforces their sense of mission,
a form of support from significant others,
a sense of professional autonomy, and
a refusal to permit interference with their teaching mission.

I couldn’t help but consider how these traits related to the teachers I had while in school. I even went so far as to begin a chart in which I designated certain teachers as particularly good or particularly bad in each respect. Like probably everyone, I had a handful of favorite teachers through the years and a few that I really didn’t care for. It felt good to deeply reflect on my favorites and realize that the qualities on this list are indeed what made them great, or at least contributed to that.

But my analysis brought up some uncomfortable feelings as well. Feelings of guilt. I felt guilty for putting some teachers in the ‘bad’ column, even though I was trying to make an honest assessment. Why did I feel like I needed to do this? How much can I gain from reflecting on what I found to be bad teaching? How much of the big picture might I be missing?

I don’t think I was being unfair in recognizing that some of my teachers could have improved, but I was almost certainly wrong in labeling them as bad. It’s pretty unfair to label someone who has made a career out of an underpaid, usually thankless job as a bad teacher. As Steele points out, many teachers never progress beyond a ‘capable’ level of practice. Some might not believe it’s possible to get better, and some might not feel it’s worth the even greater self-sacrifice that’s required in order to do so.

It’s hard to blame them. The modern teachers’ college focuses on the practice of teaching much in the same way that medical schools train doctors in the practice of medicine. Teacher preparation has only recently taken on this clinical structure, but considering the import of the educator’s task, it certainly seems that saving a child’s livelihood is akin to a doctor saving her life. The American teacher sees only a shadow of the respect garnered by physicians, however. And certainly a mere shadow of the payscale.

As observed by Button and Provenzo (1983), the social prestige of the teaching profession is directly correlated with the difficulty of the material being taught rather than the difficulty of actually teaching that material. Hundreds of years ago, school masters taught Latin, a language that hardly anyone know and thus carried a great deal of prestige. When values shifted toward teaching all children, regardless of class, just enough to read the Bible and perform basic math, teachers’ stock plummeted. Naturally, it fell even further when women got into the profession.

My point is this: even today, society thinks that teaching is easy. They think kindergarten is babysitting, elementary school is a recitation of facts, and secondary school means handing a kid a book to read and a stack of worksheets to fill out. Maybe you’ll get some respect if you’re an astrophysics professor with a PhD. In reality, a college professor never has to worry about a little kid who wet his pants in class. Or a teenager who just won’t put her phone away. Or a middle schooler who somehow never learned how to read. Teaching is so much more complex than knowing one’s subject. It means staying attuned to students and their needs, along with a big dose of introspection.

I ended up reading this book because my dad bought a cup of coffee one day, but I wish I had come across it sooner. Being an inspired teacher is a monumental task, and most people—myself included—need to appreciate that more. A lot of teachers have more work to do and more improvements to make. But so does everybody else.

Further Reading

Button, H. W. & Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1983). History of Education & Culture in America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Steele, C. F. (2009). The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One, or Be One. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

An Open Question: What Are Our Goals For Education?

 

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One of the most intriguing journal articles I’ve ever encountered is David F. Labaree’s “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.” I cited it in at least half of my graduate essays. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it while I was studying education. Labaree outlines three main goals that America has historically held in educating its young people: democratic equality, concerned with bringing up well-informed, patriotic citizens who are smart enough not to elect a walrus to the state legislature; social efficiency, concerned with producing well-fitting cogs in the industrial machine; and social mobility, concerned with aiding the most skilled and hard-working individuals to get ahead in the workforce and become your boss before they’re old enough to rent a car.

Labaree’s main argument is that our educational system is increasingly shifting toward supporting social mobility and away from a seemingly ideal balance of these three goals. Based on this, I’d like to pose a couple of questions:

Is Labaree’s argument accurate? Is our education really shifting toward a means to individual ends? Or has education always been this way?

And the big question: What should our goals for education be?

I have my own opinions, and so does everyone else. Please feel free to weigh in!

 

Further Reading

Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over
Educational Goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39–81.

 

The Psychology Behind Terms Like ‘Failing Schools’

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It’s a term that we’ve been hearing a lot lately. It’s a term that I’ve used myself. But I never thought twice about it until I was in one of my master’s classes last year. The course was entitled “The Social Context of Schooling.” Usually we discussed the social environment in which teachers run their classrooms, administrators run their schools, and policy makers shape our education system.

That day, however, we turned the lens on ourselves as educational thinkers. We all know that many, many schools are struggling. Struggling to give kids the education they deserve. Struggling to meet the expectations that have been put upon them by AYP and the policies behind it. Many of those schools feel that they are on the chopping block, bound to close, be turned over to the state, or be turned into a charter school.

This limbo is undeniable, but what are the implications of labeling a school as failing, even if that term is informal? My professor urged us to consider the impact that our language can have on our own thoughts and behaviors, along with those of others. She also wanted us to think about how we would feel if the school we worked in or sent our children to had garnered that label. What’s the likelihood that we would feel any power to turn that situation around? Probably pretty slim. What’s the likelihood that we would throw in the towel and accept that if those around us have given up on our school, we probably should too? Probably pretty high.

Talking about the challenges that schools face is essential, particularly in this era of standards and accountability. However, my professor was absolutely right in asserting that we need to show compassion in our thoughts and words. Education is all about building people up. Everyone deserves to feel like his or her school has a fighting chance.

A Very Weird Animal

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Ever try to explain charter schools to a Canadian? It’s . . . difficult. There are so many things about the American education system that make it a very weird animal. And just as unique as our one-of-a-kind educational landscape is the educational experience of every single student, parent, educator, and policy maker in America. We all have a story.

I’ve seen a lot of the American educational landscape. But so has just about everybody else in America. That’s what I love so much about education. Try bringing it up at a dinner party sometime, and everyone will have something to say. Or rant. It’s as ubiquitous as the weather and can elicit as much debate as sports, politics, or religion. It can lift us up. It can leave us out. It can give us hope.

Even within a single family, experiences can be incredibly diverse. From my mother’s one-room-schoolhouse to my father’s Catholic seminary (which obviously didn’t work out as planned) to my own urban high school, there are a lot of stories to be told.

There are few forums for the recounting of those stories, though. I want to change that, even if it’s just a little bit. For all of the books and articles and lectures on education, narrative is rare. In a field of practice and research, numbers and data are almost always privileged over personal accounts.

My goal is to bring more voices to the discourse about education. Luckily for me, everyone has something to say.