About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Remembering That Education Is Fun (Nevermind What They Say)

Alfie Kohn’s essay, “Corridor Wit:  Talking Back to Our Teachers” was an unfortunate choice to write or publish.

It’s smug, it’s dated, it’s unnecessary at this particular point in time, and it’s unfunny.

That’s the worst part.  It’s completely unfunny.  It has the same level of “wit” that my articles for my high school newspaper had back in the day.  Maybe less, in that I’m particularly proud of a column I wrote in which I changed the words to Christmas carols:

            O Christmas tree O Christmas tree,

            How lovely are your braches.

            The best of luck to all our teams,

            Coach Milkovich’s, Coach Vance’s.

It was tricky to get “Milkovich” in there but he was the wrestling coach and my high school was all about wrestling. 

Anyway, Kohn’s telling us now what he should have said to his teachers lo those many years ago is kind of snarky and makes you wonder why he’s hung on to that stuff all these years.  One might think (or hope) that teachers who said things like, “Would you like to share what you were saying to her with the rest of us?” would be long-retired from teaching or dead.  Not that I’m wishing they’re dead; it’s just that a lot of time has passed.  And today a kid could just text.

My point here is that except for a very few folks like Taylor Mali, there is very little humor in education today.  Look up “education humor” Win-win-movie-photos-02 or “funny education books” on Amazon and you’ll see what I mean.  Still, one of the best and funniest movies I’ve seen recently (no, not “Bad Teacher”) is “Win Win,“ a story, coincidentally enough, about high school wrestling.

Not a lot of people saw this little movie, but if you’re sick of listening to people criticize and complain about schools and teachers and parents and you haven’t laughed in a while, rent this movie and watch it by yourself or with people who actually care about kids.  It stars the wonderful Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, for starters, probably my favorite actors.  The kid who plays the high school wrestler, Alex Shaffer, is a kid who actually wrestles and is new to acting, but a natural.  This isn’t a sit-com; it’s more like The Winter of Our Discontent that ends in a way that is entirely believable and confirms your feeling deep down that whatever people are yapping about at the national level, what matters is kids and the adults who love them and teach them.

So, Alphie, get over it.  Times have changed, and people move on.  Rent the movie.




Soccer Grit and Character Education

Tingley-021 color The final score of the soccer game was Big Kid 3, little kids 0.

The age group is 5-7, but nearly all of the kids are in kindergarten. The coach has to take some of them by the hand and lead them to their place on the field. They are learning the fundamentals of the game, and right now they travel in a small mob up and down the field.  They cry when they are pushed and fall down.  They are mostly unaware of the score.  They do cartwheels while they’re waiting for play to begin.

The Big Kid was 7 and went right to his position on the front line for the opposing team.  He scored all of his goals by himself without any assistance (or interference) from teammates.

Both boys and girls play on the same teams at this level, and some coaches make sure that all the kids, regardless of gender, get to play all the positions and get equal playing time.  Others put all the boys on the front line and all the girls in the back.  The coach this morning did that, and he also left the Big Kid on the front line for the entire game.  

It’s been a long time since I coached little kids’ soccer, but I had to notice how some things haven’t changed. Some coaches, even at the little kid level, recruit before the season begins.  Others work to teach basic skills Kids-soccer to whatever kids they get through the luck of the draw.   One year when I was coaching I accidentally ended up with a pretty good team of 8-10 year olds --- good enough to challenge the coach of the perennial winners that he always cherrypicked.  The score was tied with just a few minutes to go, and that’s when he revealed his true coaching character.   “If you get your foot on the ball, kick it out of bounds as far as you can!”  he screamed. The idea was that he could run down the clock while kids chased down the ball (we had only one game ball).  The game ended in a tie and the kids slapped hands.   I thought about slapping his head.

So it was déjà vu this morning in the drizzle and damp as the Big Kid won his own personal game thanks to another coach who chose winning over character.

Trying to put a positive spin on the game, I thought about Paul Tough's article in last week’s New York Times Magazine.  Tough wonders whether the success and happiness of today’s kids will depend less on performance and more on the ability to deal with failure (when has it not?).   “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering,” one teacher is quoted as saying.  “And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents.”  So helping kids learn from failure is often a hard row to hoe.

Instead of the usual traits most character education programs identify – kindness, tolerance, honesty, etc. -- Tough describes a new list of desirable character traits adopted by a few private schools.  Based on recent research, those traits include zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.  It’s a thoughtful, interesting article describing a thoughtful, interesting process a handful of educational thinkers and practitioners have adopted, and it may be useful. (For a parent’s candid take on letting her kids fail I recommend Mellisa Sher’s “Learning by Failing.” Sher’s own blog is Mommalingo.com.) 

I’m a strong believer in character education whatever the target traits, and to my mind all the lists are pretty interchangeable   In the end, however, we teach by example, and the lists and signs and lessons and stories and words taped to the floor pale in comparison so adult examples of those traits or lack thereof.   I wonder what the Big Kid learned today.


Can Parents Tell Good Schools from Bad?

Are parents capable of telling a good school from a bad one?

That’s the question Peg Tyre asks in a NY Times opinion piece entitled, “Putting Parents in Charge”.  Tyre is the author of The Good School:  How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.

The assumption that parents ARE capable of distinguishing good schools from bad, of course, lies beneath the idea of the “parent trigger,” a law  adopted in California that allows a majority of parents in a failing school to petition to replace the school’s administrators or alternately, ask that the school become a charter school.

Parenttrigger12192010 The Parent Revolution, a non-profit in Los Angeles that is spearheading the parents-for-change movement, forced the passage of the parent trigger legislation last year.   One of the first test cases was Compton, California, where a majority of parents demanded that McKinley Elementary School become a charter.  The school board refused, so the charter operator that would have taken over McKinley opened a charter school down the street and is opening a second one in the neighborhood.  Parents will vote with their feet.

Still, as I noted a few weeks ago, a recent Harris poll found that if parents had to grade their local school, 35% would give it an A, 44% would give it a B, 15% would give it a C, 5% would give it a D, and only 1% would give it an F.  So only about 6% of parents think their local school is below average although it’s a good bet that number doesn’t reflect the true state of schools.  Additionally, a study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that schools in Hartford, Connecticut with the lowest levels of academic achievement also had the highest levels of parent satisfaction. 

But the winds of change are blowing in California, fanned by the Parent Revolution.  Jim Newton, in an op-ed for the LA Times says the Compton experience “has emboldened parents elsewhere, and the quiet stir of their revolution is as inspiring as the civil rights battles of modern times – the demands for racial equality in the South, the recognition of farmworkers’ right to unionize, the right of same-sex couples to marry.  This movement brings together parents of different ethnicities, races and ideologies, languages and backgrounds.  They are fiercely intent on change.”

Well, OK.  Peg Tyre agrees that “empowering parents may prove to be a crucial turning point in education reform in our generation.”  But, she cautions, if parents are going to have more power, they need to become more “sophisticated” about schooling.  “We need to supply public school parents with substantive training programs, “ Tyre insists, “to help them figure out, for instance, what a good reading program looks like….”

I’m not sure that parents need to be able to identify which reading programs are the best in order to determine whether their child is failing or the school is failing the child.  Perhaps the Parent Revolution can be instrumental in helping parents take action.

The parent trigger may not solve all the problems of poorly performing schools.  Still, even if parents don’t know a school is failing, teachers and administrators do.  And they clearly have the professional and moral obligation to trigger change without parents forcing them to.  If school people don’t recognize that obligation, parents need to act.



Performance Test

Tingley-021 color-1 A band director I once worked with said, “I honestly don’t know why regular teachers object to making their test scores public.  Every time I give a concert or parade, it’s a test.  And everybody in town can see how I’m doing.”

“Well,” I countered, “there is the Music Man effect.”  We often joked about the “Music Man” theory I trotted out whenever the director fretted about the band’s readiness to perform.  I reminded him of the ending of The Music Man, when Professor Harold Hill is finally forced to demonstrate how well his band can play using the “think method.”  His foes believe he will finally be revealed for the fraud he is.  What happens, however, is that everybody in town – parents and relatives in particular – is captivated by the fact that their children are performing, no matter how terrible it sounds.  Parental pride makes the music sweet.

I’ve seen that same audience reaction at dreadful dance recitals, losing swim meets, and lopsided softball games.  Parents are still proud of their kids, even when the performance isn’t stellar.

The band director laughed, but insisted that he had a point. If the band was awful that year (or any year), there was no way to hide it. And if it had a two-year awful streak, the board of education would hear about it.  The Music Man analogy only went so far.  Every performance was a test and feedback was instantaneous.  “It’s the same with art,” the band director said.  “The art teacher has to have an art show. The choir has to sing.  Even the physical education teacher has the Presidential Physical Fitness test.  He’s got to show some progress.”

“Then there are coaches, ” he added.  “If you can’t win, you don’t get to continue on as coach.  So the academic teachers have to reveal Musicman08
their test scores?  Big deal.  And by the way, special area teachers have everybody in their classes  -- just like regular teachers.”

I thought about our ongoing conversation the other day as I was reading about the many school districts currently wrestling with how to actually include student outcomes in teacher evaluations.  It was one thing to promise to do so to qualify for Race to the Top funds; it’s another thing entirely to try to implement.

Problems in implementation abound, some of them real and some of them simply political.  Which tests should be used?  How do we include all teachers?  What about principals?  What percentage of a teacher’s evaluation should be student outcomes?  Will administrators “fudge” observations so that teachers with poor outcomes look better?  Is it “fair” that some teachers don’t have standardized or state tests for their areas of instruction?

The devil is certainly in the details, and call me cynical, but I suspect that in the end some forms of implementation will be so unwieldy as to compromise the initiative.  The simpler, the better, I say, especially at the beginning.  We don’t have to solve all the problems at once.  And the band director had a point:  we don’t test kids the same way in every subject, so why would we test their teachers the same way? 

Being responsible for the outcomes you’re paid to deliver is not unreasonable.  I’m hoping we don’t make it harder than it needs to be, and that districts remember the poster I often see in the offices of school psychologists or guidance counselors:  “Treating people fairly doesn’t always mean treating people the same.”


Anti-Bullying Legislation: Not a Solution, But a Start

In 2001, New York State began to require all schools to file a Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, familiarly referred to as VADIR.  The idea was that school people would be held more accountable for school discipline if a report enumerating violent or disruptive incidents had to be filed with the state at the end of the school year.

That year, at a meeting of regional superintendents in my area, the number of incidents reported varied hugely from one district to the next.  Some of the largest districts reported a much smaller number of incidents than the smallest districts.  The district that reported the Bullying 1
greatest number of incidents by far (and was subsequently investigated by the State Education Department) was a small rural district which, from its report, looked like every day was pure mayhem.

The problem, of course, was in the interpretation of what constituted a violent or disruptive incident.  Some administrators felt as if they had to report every time a kid called another kid a dork.  Others felt that a fight in the hall was only reportable if blood were drawn.

Needless to say, over the years the State Education Department found it necessary to revise definitions, forms, and instructions.  Companies that profit from every new state initiative found a way to produce software that made reporting easier.  Money was spent from tight school budgets to train the reporters.  Still, I can find no data that leads me to believe that VADIR reporting resulted in a decrease of violent or disruptive incidents.  Maybe it has; I hope it has. 

The mandate was based on the idea that what gets measured gets done.  In this case, if principals had to report every incident, it seemed likely that they would pay more attention to maintaining order.  State Ed had the right intentions; whether the plan worked is debatable.

New Jersey schools have a similar reporting mandate this year in the form of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act passed by the state legislature.  There are teeth to this legislation in that if a principal fails to recognize or deal with an incident of bullying in a timely fashion, he or she can be subject to disciplinary action.  In addition, the state will grade each school on its progress and grades must be posted on the schools’ websites.

There is no question that we need to take bullying seriously and act immediately to protect all of our children.  Bullying is the more insidious form of violent or disruptive behaviors; the results can easily be the same.  The problem with New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, however, will be the same as with New York’s VADIR:  understanding the definitions of the behavior and responding appropriately.  Given the personal penalties to administrators, it seems likely that they will err on the most conservative side, and it’s possible that some kids, particularly in elementary school, may be disciplined or suspended for what would ordinarily pass as run of the mill childish behavior.  On the other hand, having to post the school’s grade for bullying reduction might entice administrators to put the most benign spin on a student’s behavior.  Alexandra Rice reports in EdWeek that Marcus Rayner, the executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, says that the law puts too much responsibility on administrators.  “There are so many ways they can make inadvertent or honest mistakes while trying to do the right thing, “ he says.  So who knows?  This whole set-up reminds me a little of the pressure on schools to improve test scores, and we all know that aberrations that have occurred as a result.

Still, drawing attention to bullying is a good thing, and the policy will probably have to pass through several possibly painful iterations until it’s actually usable.  Whether it will actually diminish bullying remains to be seen.  I hope so, but I’m skeptical.  Still, it’s a start, and at the very least, it puts anti-bullying measures on the front burner.  It will be interesting to see the results of this new initiative.






Pregnant Pause

Tingley-021 color-1 Years ago, at the top of my undergraduate class, I confided to a professor that I thought I’d like to pursue a doctorate.  I still remember his response.  “You know it’s more difficult for a woman,” he said.  “You’ll have all your home responsibilities.”  Later, when I was in graduate school anyway, another male professor asked me who was going to “rear” the child I was carrying and would deliver between semesters.  Clearly, he indicated, it wasn’t going to be me.

I thought about those guys last week when a young pregnant woman I know told me about meeting with her male department chair.  The baby is due in January, so she figured she could finish the fall semester of graduate school without too much trouble.  “Well,“ said the chair, eying her baby bump, “you’re really stretching the boundaries of what can be done.”  More confident that I was years ago, she just laughed, wisely deciding to pretend he meant it not as an insult, but as a play on words.

Well, it turns out it can be more difficult for a woman, but not because of “all the home responsibilities,” although that can certainly be a factor.  Sometimes the attitudes of the very people who should be supporting and facilitating individual education can be a problem.  And, of course, the culture of an educational institution begins at the top; the leadership sets the tone. 

This is not to say that female professors or department heads would automatically be more supportive to female students, but there’s not Pregnant
enough gender equity in these positions to test the theory.  Of course, we have made general, if not always personal, progress.  In the ten
years from 1994 to 2004, public school principals who were female increased from 41% to 56% according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.  Secondary principals who were female increased from 14% to 24%. 

Women have also made progress in terms of accessing the superintendency.  Currently 22% of school superintendents are women according to an AASA report.  Of these, 55% lead small rural districts, 35% head up suburban districts, and 9% are chief officers in urban districts.  Still, about 75% of teachers are female, so “progress” may be an overstatement.

Nearly 40% of female superintendents enter the position from an assistant superintendent post.  Men, on the other hand, move into the position directly from the principalship.  “…The pipeline is women, primarily, and we’ve had a clogged pipeline,” says Paul Houston, president of AASA in 2008, the year of the report.  “I’ve always maintained that women culturally are well prepared for the role because they’re more collaborative and lean towards bringing more people together ….” 

At the college level, while more than half the current college undergraduate student population are women, only 33.6% of full-time faculty are women.   The American Council on Education (ACE) says that 23% of college presidents are women.  In a Forbes Magazine interview, Molly Broad, president of the ACE, says of the hiring process, “It wasn’t called the ‘old boys’ network’ for nothing.”

Still, more than half of all the students in law school and medical school are female.  In addition, currently more than half the students enrolled in school administration certification programs are female.

Some of them may even be pregnant.


Researching the Effectiveness of Technology

We were a captive audience and I was ready to leap out the window.  The state education official was twenty minutes into her PowerPoint presentation, and from the looks of her handout, we had another sixty minutes to go.  The actual topic wasn’t that boring, although it included WAY more detail that I wanted or needed.  The problem was that every single slide was laden with words – paragraph after paragraph, single spaced, small type.  Of course, it turned out that the small type didn’t really matter because the presenter read every word to the audience anyway.  A few assertive souls tried to disrupt the boredom with questions, but her pat answer was, “We’ll get to that later.”  Shoot me now, I thought.

Despite this experience (and many others like it) I should point out that I myself use the much-maligned Computerstudent PowerPoint as a teaching tool when I do presentations because it’s a ready-made structure to present an argument clearly, effectively, and efficiently. The tool itself doesn’t teach people anything, but it can make the content more interesting and accessible.  What matters is how the presenter uses the technology, but it’s hard to miss the eye-rolling when I put up the first slide.

In one Arizona school district, parents and school people are beginning to wonder if it’s possible that technology has actually become an end in itself rather than a tool for better learning.  Since 2005, the Kyrene School District, has invested $33 million in technology for its 18,000 students.  The district has become a widely acknowledged leader in technology infusion.  But since 2005, test scores in reading and math have flatlined, even as scores in the rest of the state have risen.  School officials and parents alike are wondering what to make of this surprising outcome.

Despite an intuitive belief that the more technology the better, research is divided on the effectiveness of instructional technology. Larry Cuban of Stanford University says that supportive research simply doesn’t exist.  “There is insufficient evidence to spend that kind of money, period,” he says.  “Period, period, period.”

Karen Cantor, director of the office of educational technology for the US Department of Education, says you can’t measure the value of technology by standardized test scores.  “In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she says. “…Look at all the other things students are doing:  learning to use the internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.”  Still, a skeptic might wonder why none of these purported skills would improve test scores.

Clearly, technology is here to stay in our schools, but how much is enough?  Can we justify ever-increasing funding without reliable data to support the investment?  Some say that infusion of technology allows kids to learn at their own pace.  New technology really belongs to them, and teachers are always going to be behind kids when it comes to using it.  Still, the teacher’s job isn’t to be a technocrat, but to guide and direct the child’s learning.  Officials in the Kyrene district are beginning to wonder if all their technology enhances learning or whether some of it is just an unnecessary embellishment or even a distraction.  It’s a question that more and more administrators and parents will be asking as our economy limps along and more cuts will have to be made in school budgets.  Will we add computers while we lose teachers?







Financial Literacy

Tingley-021 color-1 The first time the high school business teacher taught a unit on personal finance, he used a commercial program that simulated individual life situations for each student.  Each was given a job, an income, and a family situation (single, married, married with kids), and each had to devise a personal budget. 

The teacher was astounded by the results of the unit.  Hardly any of the students understood that their budget was a real function of how much money they made, not how many things they wanted.  Many of them were surprised that the truck they thought was so cool would actually cost more than their entire year’s salary!  They didn’t understand how credit cards really worked, what an APR was, nor why a good credit score mattered.  It was an eye-opening experience for the teacher and for the students.

As a result of this experience, the teacher designed his own personal finance course for students and Truck
presented it to the Board of Education.  He suggested that the course be required for all seniors, and after he piloted it for a year, the board agreed.  While students were not excited about adding another course to a senior year that was mostly tying up loose ends for some of them, in the end nearly all agreed that it was one of the most immediately useful courses they had taken in high school.

Financial literacy has become a hot topic in schools, particularly during this continuing recession.  Of course, people who are financially literate can still lose their jobs and their homes, but knowing about money can help kids do a better job on the things they can control.

If you have kids who were in college during the 90s, you may be familiar with credit card companies’ execrable habit of offering credit cards to kids in school or recently graduated – kids with little understanding of credit and no means of paying off their charges.  So they used the card, couldn’t make they payment, were charged an astronomical late fee which they couldn’t pay, and the cycle continued until they ended up owning $4000 on a card with a $2000 limit. Luckily, recent legislation prohibits that execrable practice, but kids still need to know how credit works.

President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability recommends that students should take a course in financial literacy.  Currently, only 13 states require such a course, and a study at the University of Wisconsin found that only 20% of teachers surveyed felt competent to teach such a course.

While some insist that it’s the parent’s responsibility, not the school’s, to teach kids how to handle money, Laura Levine of Mediaplanet, writes in USA Today that it’s important to remember that many parents themselves don’t have the expertise to teach their own kids.  Financial education, she says, helps level the playing field for students whose parents may be “un-banked” or under-banked.” 

“The weakened state of our economy simply underscored the urgency for more, better, and earlier financial education,” Levine writes.  What we want to do is teach students “while they are still forming their attitudes, beliefs, and monetary habits, and before they’ve had to learn through costly mistakes.”

Making sure our high school graduates have an understanding of personal finance should be one of our goals.  We know what happens when they don’t.








Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.