String Theory

Screenshot 2016-05-12 11.12.45

This piece is dedicated with love to the B family! You are awesome. Thank you to The New Yorker Magazine, 16 May 2016 edition, for a cartoon which best explains the complexities of connections in and around who does what when it comes to a 504 and/or IEP.

Looking at this image is the ever present reminder the student is in the middle of a complex, abstract equation of life –  every single connection is to the student, yet the strings often have to be connected, manipulated and flexed by the parent(s). The toughest job I have as a teacher/tutor is to assist in getting the right strings pulled in the exact right way to obtain the most appropriate assistance for any student.

Some days it is rope pulling (when I wish to keel haul someone); some days it is floating spider silk so gently, so discretely no one realizes they are caught in the ‘web’. There are days when only wool tapestry thread , coated with wax  will mend the hole and some days where the finest, purest and cleanest cotton must be used for carefully suturing voile with no known evidence. There are meetings where a hole needs to be made and sewn together later. I have had to use verbal seam rippers at times to be clear.

The existence of  confirms it is not just my perception, it is the perception of those of us on the front lines who wish to change the perception of special ed.  Before we had the label special ed, these children were often beaten, mentally abused and not cared for or about. They were and continue to be expendable based on how our various legislatures dysfunction in the U.S.

Most of our prisons are filled with people who fell into the category of special ed, if someone had but only noticed the discrepancy and got past the issues of race, poverty in upbringing and children who did not conform to a model of normal. The foster care system, coupled with special ed is almost a direct ticket to one of Dante’s  seven levels of hell as you rarely find anyone interested in weaving the fabric to make some one’s life whole.

I prefer to see the ‘system’ as a weaving machine. The better I become at woof and warp, shuttling the yarn, adjusting the tension, the more likely I can obtain the services to improve the quality of life for many, deplete the folks in line for prison and give the gift of loving to learn.

To be able to partake in the belief and then the journey  Sakichi Toyoda  began and his son Kiichiro continued would be to move special ed from flour sack rags to

MATERIAL from Theory

  • 88% wool, 12% silk
  • Dry clean
  • Italy
STYLE #: G0171201


It took a long time to get us the Toyota car of today and the perseverance was extraordinary.  We can get there!,default,pd.html?dwvar_G0171201_color=B7H&start=5



Frontal Lobe, Redaction (sanitization) and Freedom of Speech


First everyone became faklempt over guns, the NRA, President Kennedy.  They became faklempt again and again and again…..with every instance of mass violence including Columbine and up to the most recent Friday 14 December 2012, Newtown, CT.   Most people were so faklempt, they were looking for mental illness, gun licenses – anything to hang onto as to what caused some one to go stark raving mad and do something crazy.  While some people are busy looking for rationale for incredibly crazy behavior, some people have begun to actually admire the previous exploits of a variety of shooters.  The admiration society has always been pretty much an ‘underground’ affair as none of these followers/worshippers want anyone to really know they wish to emulate Lee Harvey Oswald, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, James Holmes and quite probably Adam Lanza.

As we attempt to even think about healing, we became much more aware of people who sympathized with the pathos of the above people who committed heinous crimes – for whatever reason.  We are realizing the enemy is us and we need to be more aware of each other.  This new dynamic (which most likely will last up to a year and then fade again, as it has so many times before, for all but the most intimately affected) makes us hyper sensitive….or does it?  Should the new dynamic make us sensitive?

As a teacher who is often given the custody of other people’s children during the course of the day, I am very sensitive surrounding the subject of safety for my students.  As a community member, I am sensitive regarding safety as I do not believe we need to live by intimidation/violence.  The part of me which studies student behavior and thinking to better understand students with differentiated needs is sensitive as  students (sometimes adults)  with some unusual/awkward behaviors have something amiss in part of their frontal lobe (the filter if you will) and through emotional import act in ways outside the realm of normal.  I am aware as students who have filtering issues often make impulse decisions which do not benefit them in the short or long run.  I hesitate to state filtering issues can lead to violence, rather I would say filtering issues can lead to frustration.  Frustration which can not be channeled productively can lead to violence.  Some students/people have perfectly fine frontal lobes and just experienced an insubstantial upbringing where they are not able to deal with some of the adversity of life and thus also act out of frustration.

My awareness level has pretty much always been on the surface after years of teaching.  Awareness,  much like that of other teachers and administrators is tripped/triggered not so much by the normal range of ridiculous kid behaviors, instead it is based upon the outliers who are pretty far off the curve at any point.  These are most often the students who need help (whether they know it or not) and they are the ones most likely to need a productive way to channel the frustration of being different and the adversity they face due to their unique label.  This applies to the prodigies (Adam Lanza) and the students who perform at a substantially lower level for whatever reason.  Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence are NOT the same, thus the issue of the frontal lobe filter can affect some one who is indeed highly intelligent.  We notice this inconsistency most often when we talk about highly intelligent people and their odd behaviors – Einstein for example.

In most cases, the odd behavior is a phase or stage. Once a more appropriate way of dealing with others is established, the inconsistency lessens  and some one seems more normal to our perception/understanding. In other words, the package and the wrapping are congruent. Sometimes behavior has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with ones exposure to the world and upbringing. Behavior is not always related to intelligence – it can be related to exposure, social mores, and norms.  Within any group there is a ‘normal’ accepted by that group.  Those of us who know or work within those groups are aware of their normal.

The burden is knowing what is not ‘normal’ within the confines of a particular group such that you can be sensitive to alterations in the ebb and flow.  The ‘knowing’ is what could save you, your students, your community.  This ‘knowing’ is most likely why Courtni Webb was singled out for her written piece:

“I know why he pulled the trigger. Why are we oppressed by a dysfunctional community of haters and blamers?”

She may have been  singled out due to a lack of freedom of speech rights….. since Freedom of speech does NOT include

The Right to incite actions that would harm others (e.g. “[S]hout[ing] ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”). Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).

Whatever the reason, whether a ‘knowing’ or not allowing a student to incite actions which would harm others (in context of recent events), Courtni received an invaluable lesson.  If  Courtni and her mother continue to approach the situation with indignance,

“I feel like I really been made to almost look like a monster by my school and I don’t appreciate that at all,” Webb said. “Never in my life have I heard that you couldn’t mention a tragedy that happened. I didn’t say that I agree with it, I said I simply understand it.”

she will fall under speculation of poorly channeled frustration.  We all get to make a choice about our behaviors. We do not get to redact that which we wrote (intentionally or otherwise) simply due to feeling frustrated.  Choosing the path of  ‘victimization’ in the current climate of frayed nerves and worried parents only raises others awareness of poorly channeled frustration.  A far better and more mature choice would be to learn about the freedom of speech (it does not mean you are free in every possible way) and seek some help in dealing with the very raw emotions which led Courtni to write what she did.

Personal Best (to quote Dr. Atul Gawande from his piece in The New Yorker)- Part I of II

Part I of a II Part Blog

Gawande, Atul,  Personal Best, The New Yorker  3 October 2011  p. 44, 46-50, 51-52

I love reading pieces written by Dr. Atul Gawande  as it gives me insight into how doctors/surgeons think.  Understanding a different perspective allows one to ask better questions about their own health care and in my case, also helps me view science in a different way.  What I did not expect, but was pleased to read, was the Malcolm Gladwellian/Freakonomics spin out in this piece about coaching.

Having caught up on many episodes of Bones, Grey’s Anatomy and some bits of CSI, it never occurred to me to think that a doctor/surgeon might wish to be coached to improve their practice/craft.  This is not because I believe doctors/surgeons to be arrogant, rather it has to do with the fact that  they are perfectionists in the extreme and it seemed to me they are constantly trying to be more modern, better, thoughtful, creative.  Doctors and surgeons are as much artist as they are scientist. They perform magic and keep people ALIVE. Who knew they might wish feedback and assistance on minutiae details of their craft?

In the opening paragraphs of the article I kept thinking to myself, “Wow, this is how I think…..and many of my teaching friends and colleagues.” I never thought teachers would come up in the article and was pleasantly surprised when teachers were discussed and most especially how we were discussed.   Apparently education is indeed a life-long process and being coached can be a matter of choice as opposed to a matter of punishment.

Examples (I took out the word doctor/surgeon and intentionally left it blank so you could see how these thoughts could also be by a teacher):

“….my performance in the ___________ has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it is a good thing-I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.”

“During the first two or three years in __________, your skills seem to improve almost daily.  It is not about __________, you have that down halfway through ___________.  As one of my professors once explained, doing _________ is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive.   _________mastery is about familiarity and judgement.  You learn the problems that can occur during _________ or with a particular __________, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.”

“Say you’ve got a _______ who needs __________ for _________……………..Even before you start, you need to make some judgements…………. You have to decide which ____________ to use or whether to abandon the ____________approach and do _________ the traditional way………..Then you’d have to decide whether you need additional ___________ or maybe it’s time to enlist _________.”

“Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and, when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance……….I’ve come to know most of the _______that could arise, and have worked out solutions.  For the others, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.”

“As I went along, I compared my _______against national data, and I began beating the ___________.”

and so on…….

Dr. Gawande discusses his perceived ranking for a bit, acknowledging he desires change and improvement and that possibly this is age in career.

and then this:

“____________(and I use this sparingly as I have no data to support this, but wanted to demonstrate similarities of profession) is, at least , a relatively late-peaking career. It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S. & P. 500  chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four.  _________( I use this again sparingly as I have no data to support this, but wanted to demonstrate similarities of profession) apparently fall somewhere between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgement that comes with experience. “

Dr, Gawande goes on to explore other times he has hit a plateau in life (tennis) and begins to digress into why professional athletes and singers have coaches, but what about the ‘rest of us’?  He discusses many various interactions relating to athletics and singing/professional musicians and states this:

“The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done.  You can go on the rest of the way yourself.”

He continues on with observations as to why Olympic level athletes and  concert-calibre musicians use coaches. The coaches are the external ears and eyes which ‘review’ the performance and offer feedback. Simple, or so it seems.  And the big question:

“What about regular professionals, who just want to do what they do as well as they can?”

At this point, it seems clear and reasonable why Dr. Gawande would seek out a coach for himself. What comes next is the meat of the matter. The article shifts to discussions with Jim Knight, director of the Kansas Coaching Project at the University of Kansas.  I find a bit of fault with one sentence in  the article which research confirms that the big factor in determining how much students learn is not class size or the extent of standardized testing but the quality of the teachers as this negates the all important parent, as if they do not matter.  However, the rest resonates and makes complete sense.

“Policymakers have pushed mostly carrot-and-stick remedies: firing underperforming teachers, giving merit pay to high performers, penalizing schools with poor student test scores.  People like Jim Knight think we should push coaching.”

Information from Jim Knight goes on to demonstrate some small studies of teacher coaching and what Mr. Knight has himself experienced  while teaching writing to students at a community college in Toronto, Canada.  Ultimately this experience helped him complete his PhD and begin a coaching program for schools in Topeka.  While Mr. Knight states encouraging data exists, he notes that not all coaches are effective.  Dr. Gawande then asks Mr. Knight to show what makes for a good coach.

In the example Dr. Gawande views, the coaching is focused on new teachers (generally all new teachers are required to have two years of coaching to clear their credential – this program has different names in each state), however it is open to any teacher who would like it.  Dr. Gawande notes,

“Not everyone has.  Researchers from the University of Virginia found that many teachers see no need for coaching.  Others hate the idea of being observed in the classroom, or fear that using a coach makes them look incompetent, or are convinced, despite assurances, that the coaches are reporting their evaluations to the principal. And some are skeptical that the school’s particular coaches would be of any use.”

One pairing is found – coach Diane Harding and mentee Jennie Critzer.   These two people seem a good fit although there is no mention of whether or not Ms. Critzer has tenure. Tenure can allow a teacher the sense that coaching is, just that, coaching while lack of tenure can indeed make coaching appear targeted to ‘nail’ the teacher instead of being supportive.  Ms. Crizter is observed teaching algebra and then there is the debrief. In this instance, the coaches let the teacher choose the direction for coaching as the teacher generally knows better what their own difficulties/shortcomings may be.

The discussion of the coaching session is well done. Of note, Dr. Gawande states what good coaches do:

“Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down in turn.” 

  in addition, elite performers are addressed

“Elite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”-sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.  You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed.  Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.”

Humans are resistant to expose their soft underbellies to criticism so coaches have to work around natural defense mechanisms.  Generally, coaches engage in conversation with their mentee and through this interaction, are able to address various points.  Typical questions are “What worked?” and progress to “What did you notice?”  and “How could you change it?”  In the course of this conversation, a person learns how to be more self-reflective. 

Mr. Knight indicates that good coaches have some specific qualities: they speak with credibility, make a personal connection and focus little on themselves……they listen more than they talk (I am guessing like a good psychologist). In addition, good coaches parcel out their communications carefully as they have some discomforting information which is to be conveyed but can be done respectfully.

Dr. Gawande speaks with Ms. Critzer to ask how she likes coaching. It appeals to her. She states the following,

“I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”  

 She stated she had begun to feel burned out and isolated. Coaching helped lessen the stress level.

These various ‘exercises’ convince Dr. Gawande to find his own surgical coach, and this person happens to be Dr. Robert Osteen.  In the next paragraphs, Dr. Gawande lays out exactly what coaching was like for him – the good, bad and ugly.  It seems that Dr. Osteen is an outstanding coach and over time the two of them work out a way to communicate so Dr. Gawande feels he can improve.  It can not be easy as we all carry a small amount of ego in us, yet what and how Dr. Osteen talks makes it clear he is ONLY ABOUT improving this surgeon and the patients experience.

The wind down becomes this: Dr. Gawande enjoys having a coach yet it is awkward to explain to other surgeons he is training and a patient he is going to operate on. It is clear that good coaches can foster effective innovation and judgement, not merely replication of technique based on what Dr. Gawande states……the sadness lies in the reality that these coaches may not be so easy to cultivate.

And so, as a population we have to overcome the fear of coaching and truly determine what it is to be used for in professional development – for doctors, teachers, anyone who is desirous of self-improvement.

“For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept-or pay for- a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence wha they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.  Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it.   And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgement that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement.  Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?”

If we accept coaching, we have to accept a lack of perfection and room for improvement. There is a difference between self-improvement based on ones free will and desire to improve and the application of coaching as a remedy to what may not even be a problem, just a plateau.

The final  two paragraphs above leads into the second part of this blog as I explore ‘grading teachers’ with the use of student test scores.

Numbers, Stats – Are We Even Looking For The Right Stuff??

Although convergence is a buzzword, I have been using it for years as a more sophisticated alternative to quinky-dink,  essentially an explanation for when the universe opens up and reveals something important (generally speaking, the universe has sent this message a million times before to myself and others but we were hearing, not listening and so the message was lost on us).   I belong to the group of people who actually ‘believe’ if you will, in possibilities which may have been floating on the far horizon suddenly docking on the doorstep. 

Seeing incentives used to raise college graduation rates was not news to my ears, not new to me, in fact it was older than this blog and the five previous years I had been mumbling and grumbling about it.   Apparently my complaint was one and the same with others and some one important was listening, took note and decided to do something:   How this actually plays itself out remains to be seen as there is no ‘convergence’ surrounding the issues of education reform.  Between Michelle Rhee, charter school madness (they now bicker with each other over space, at least in NYC), charter schools not actually putting more kids through college, economic melt down and real nuclear meltdown, there is not the least consensus except to say change needs to occur.  ‘This was not the message from the universe – this is what I call slight of hand.  While government is slaying dragons which it created, there was something else going on.

Which gets me back to what docked at the door step, David Brooks piece in the Jan 17, 2011 New Yorker Magazine.  The piece is from the Annals of Psychology and is titled Social Animal (which most of us humans tend to be).   Mr. Brooks addresses the idea (quite nicely I would add) that education and the various manifestations there of are quite small in comparison to what we really know.

We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness.  Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind.  Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows.  They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has the least to say.  Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.

A core finding of this work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking.  The conscious mind gives us one way of making sense of our environment.  But the unconscious mind gives us other, more supple ways.  The cognitive revoltion of the past thirty years provides a different perspective on our lives, one that emphasizes the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, moral intuition over abstract logic, perceptiveness over IQ.   It allows us to tell a different sort of success story, an inner story to go along with the conventional surface one.

Mr. Brooks then creates a written diorama journey of  Harold, and later Erica, etc.  as they go through life.  The journey has spatterings of  insights given to us by science and throughtful studies.   For almost all of us, we can either identify with the dioramic of  life or at least have been exposed to what is portrayed here through reading novels and watching TV.  It is a dioramic representation of a life as some know it, generally those who think they know what education is and what education should be.

As the article ends, the character Harold attends a conference where he becomes enlightened, rather he becomes aware of the differences between an education in the abstract and education as a lifelong process, education as adding meaning to life, education which leads to self efficacy which leads to happiness and fulfillment.

Kind of like what I hear on NPR when they reference The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation –dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live healthy, productive lives.

And so  I continue to wonder – will a test score ever bring anyone happiness, and if so, will the happiness be fulfilling?

What Are YOU, the Parent, Willing to DO??  

David Denby, of The New Yorker Magazine,  wrote what I wanted to say broadly in regards to Waiting for Superman in the 11 October 2010 issue of the magazine.  I realized the similarity in critical ideas upon  reading the review after seeing the movie.  There were a  few items, not so obvious to the untrained eye of a non- educator which need addressing and so this is the addendum (in my mind) to what Mr. Denby already stated.

I have always hoped within my lifetime America will develop the fortitude to do what is right and correct rather than what is easy in the way of education.    Most of all, I desired seeing a film which advertised itself as able to demonstrate the capacity of what charter schools could do in the field of education, in spite of my self -knowledge by experience that  not all parents, families and students have the equal commitment to change.   In this manner, I was looking forward to the movie and had high hopes it would be the salve for my soul as I have taught in public, public charter and private schools and not yet  found  a  singular or set of  consistent solutions which work. I have yet to see an exemplar of what high quality education looks like without parent involvement from birth right through college and beyond.  There is some truth to the idea that parenting is a job which never ends.

 In order for charter schools to demonstrate their inherent differences from regular public schools, they would need to demonstrate education for all, not merely education for the willing.  Knowing what works and implementing it across the board are two very different tasks which are often lost on a public enamored with the concept of charter schools. Not all parents are clear on what the qualities of a charter school are and how charter schools are similar/different from a regular public school in America. The misconceptions surrounding what a charter school is and is not and how it will forever change their life, their child’s life and family dynamics is not clear nor well elucidated – at times I believe this is purposeful.  Education is very powerful – sometimes in ways we can not imagine, and so it is important to both wish for something (a different type of educational process) and be wary of what is wished for.

The issue of proper nutrition is addressed in the opening segment of the movie with the toast, milk and juice breakfast.  Immediately I felt the tug of wonderment as to why parents who want to do so much for their children would not provide for adequate nutrition so the children can learn.  It is essential for children (and for that matter anyone in the process of using their brain) to obtain protein (not necessarily meat).   I expected this opening to foreshadow something in the rest of the movie about nutrition – it did not. I am quite sure this is one of the ideas we know works in education and is in fact fundamental to the coming obesity issue.  Imagine if families gave up something such as the cost of Comcast or what ever TV provider they pay for to buy more protein rich foods for their children.

Although it may have been implied, it was not clear the ‘thing(s)’ which were missing at the failing  public schools in his (narrator) community  and how this was an adequate explination for sending his   children to private school.  The  key and core component of parent involvement  was, in fact, barely addressed in the movie. There was little evidence of what was being done to  rally parental involvement (other than to convince parents to bring their child to a charter school) – what we all know is the singular most telling component in the success of educating a child.  In fact, I would go so far as to say in many ways this movie made the ‘charter school’ (as character)   the paternalistic factor – all knowing, all experienced and ready to help fix the problems.

In one of the many animated scenes, it is demonstrated that teachers ‘pour’ information into the open heads of children.  I am completely unclear on this message as education is a lot of work – on the part of the student.  Learning involves paying attention, studying, grinding the numbers and doing what it takes to master a concept. Education is less about what a teacher ‘does’ to some one and more about what a student DOES to learn a concept.  Great educators facilitate learning – they do not actually deliver the knowledge on a plate. This one   segment of the movie demonstrated the burden of educating a nation rests with teachers and not with parents and students – it was an unfair and uneven representation and more demonstrative of tabula rasa thinking.  Most would conclude this segment was a  limited view of the educational process and this is definitely NOT what is considered college prep. College prep is arguably about the higher order thinking skills not demonstrated on multiple choice tests. 

While the movie narrator discussed the bloat of the  education ‘system’ and how this made for bad teachers, there was no clarity as to how charter schools had figured out the  vexing problem of teacher burnout (not addressed in the movie) by having teachers work even longer days and have to teach more content as  generally students at charter schools were  less academically successful than their counterparts in a functioning school (literacy and math specifically).  The examples shown were clear enough in demonstrating Mr. Canada, Ms. Rhee and others know there is a problem and yet have not actually solved it – they have been more surgical in identifying it exists. 

At one point a ‘cookie’ was even tossed in suggesting some experts are beginning to think failing schools create failing neighborhoods and not the other way around – failing neighborhoods create failing schools.  This defies the abstract idea of how communities are raised up – around the world, through community education.  Although this is rhetorically the chicken and the egg,  the position was used to condemn public schools and paint charter schools as the saviour.  There is no point in the movie where an example of how the bureaucracy has been changed, altered,  ameliorated within regular public schools based on evidence gleened from charter schools – instead a unique and different system of bureaucracy (including the fund raising component as these are non-proift or for profit organizations) has been created by charter schools who have only succeeded in  eliminating tenure.  When one person  in the film describes KIPP, they state that KIPP will not let students fail, however, the film fails to state that KIPP has an alarming retention rate for Grade 5 and 6 students across the country according to a recent report by Mathematica (which KIPP commissioned).   Michelle Rhee (now gone) created a scorched earth trail where even the community, and not just teachers, wanted her gone. At no point are special needs students ever addressed – and this group of children make up the largest portion of the public school budget.

The movie is done in such a manner that the audience is made to feel pangs of hurt (guilt?) for each child not successful in the lottery of a better education through a charter school…….no one questions what the parents will do to improve the very school where their child currently attends – as if this whole experience was wasted and there is no sense of how to turn angst into constructive change. 

It appears in the end the only possible solution is a charter school education and yet not all charter schools are successful and not all students have EQUAL ACCESS to a great education.  Children who attend a charter school have to have at least one adult on board  (as noted by the examples in this film).  How can this be a solution?  How is it part of the solution  to help the children who have a parent who cares enough to seek out a charter school and abandon any other child who does not have even one adult in their life who cares.  

What most astounded me about the movie was the complete lack of effort on the part of almost all the parents to be involved in the school – volunteering for PTA, attending school board meetings, attending parent conferences……..the glimmer I observed was when Francisco’s mother awkwardly tried to contact the teacher but did not do anything too overt and that was when I realized these are parents who, given training on advocacy, could actually go in to the school and make a difference.  I did not see an indication where a charter school was the only answer.

Having worked with incompetent principals at all schools (the principals at charter schools are most focused on test scores and positive PR, little else – such as special ed or physical education or actually holding parents accountable to their volunteer hours) I failed to see what the charter school principals did which was extraordinary.  Charter schools also practice a brand of tough love which borders on the worst type of behavioral change – KIPP is into public shaming of bad behaviors.

This movie was posited on the idea that education is a  commodity  and you have to WANT it – which, interestingly enough, is what education has always been except in America where we offer  a basic education to everyone – even those lacking the parental desire or resources. 

By the end of the movie, I was stuck with one thought: Only in America do we use capitalism to sell education as a commodity.  Perhaps we would be better served by demonstrating education is a value system.

Update: 24 November 2010

Paragraph Five and the last paragraph.  I don’t need to make a comment – Mr. Friedman said it nicely!

Dear Mr. Villaraigosa, RE: Op-Ed Piece in LA Times About Charter Schools

Dear Mr. Villaraigosa,

I read the op-ed piece you wrote while sipping a coffee in Camarillo, CA afterhaving a conversation with a woman who is a retired nurse from Kaiser and has a child in a charter school in Camarillo/Thousand Oaks.  Part of the conversation revolved around what she liked about the school and how it pertained to her child’s learning – the other part pertained to how she knew her child was learning.  Interestingly, this educated, white woman in a rather nice part of Ventura County told me ‘test scores’ and so I asked her to explain how that related to access to college and her children graduating college.

The conversation quickly  stopped. I felt as if the button on my blouse came undone and I was showing skin.  The woman thought for a moment and then stated that her child was happy.  I again asked  how that related to college attendance and graduation. Again, blank stare.  I began to explain what I was after – how did she determine the charter school did something for her child(ren) that no other public school with the exact same mandates could do?

Realistically speaking, charter schools are about choice.  They have the same exact mandates as any other public school in America – give children a solid education and the ability to access higher education (college).  Charter schools in and of themselves offer nothing new under the sun as far as curriculum and teaching practices.   Charter schools use the same text books, kits, strategies as what works in any other functioning public school.  They have the same 50 minute schedules and/or block scheduling.

Reform in education, with all due respect to your position, is a function of parents being called into accountability for what they do before a child enters school and while the child is in school.  It is called parenting. It has been around for a long time and seems to work quite well in other countries where education is valued.

If the same time (longer school day, planning time for teachers), money (grant funding from private industry which exceeds public funding) and parental accountability were to happen in any public school, the same results would be had.  Charter schools are not the iconic answer of the 21st Century or there would be more on their websites than test scores going up.   Frankly, there is nothing which goes on at a charter school that could not go on in a regular public school if parents would be parents.

At the same time I read your piece, there was an equally compelling piece in the NY Times about charter schools and unionization.   Teachers have finally realized the education crisis can not be solved on their backs, no matter how good it looks on paper.  As a former charter school (N. Ca.) and public school teacher (I taught for LAUSD in Compton after returning from Peace Corps), I can affirm the only real difference is in the parenting.   Both schools that I worked at had wonderful teachers and staff who were completely committed to education and student development. Both schools faced the same problems and some of the charter school problems were worse due to understaffing.

I encourage you to do an educated analysis charter schools. Teachers are paid worse for longer hours, (hence the desire for for unionization)  Charter schools are not better monitored, take for  example KIPP Fresno (which I also analyzed in a previous blog).  Test scores go up at a variety of schools around the country when the impetus is put to the parents and children are not allowed to be socially promoted- some charter schools hit the wall with test scores and the scores come down or plateau (ask for consecutive annual reports of any charter school organization and review the details – it is not on the websites as the truth would get in the way of marketing the charter school).

There is not a teacher I know that given the opportunity to educate a child and prepare them for college would fail to jump into action and do their best.  There are many parents who have children and abdicate their responsibility to others.  Do not jump on the bandwagon until you have done the due diligence.  I do not see the top schools (Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, U of WA, etc.) putting out ‘unmarketed praise’ charter schools as they know, as those of us who have worked in charter schools know, it is not the complete package as advertised.

I know LAUSD stands to rake in some money for accommodating charter schools – don’t let that be your  main justification. Read, research and find out.  Oh, and by the way, if you find a charter school that shows it graduates more kids from college than any other public school, let me know.  This would be newsworthy and different.

Lofty Goal Setting – Not Quite The Methodology of Success For Those With Strong Morals And Integrity

During my past visit to Kenya, I happened upon a copy of  Business Daily from 5 March 2009 while waiting somewhere. I began to thumb through the paper and caught an article about corporate targets/goals.  What was most interesting about the article was it took on some of the flaws in NCLB.

‘The ‘No Child Left Behind’ idea is compelling – after all, who wants to leave a child behind?  Schweitzer says, ‘But the reality of this program is that it is fundamentally flawed.  It is very difficult to monitor education, and this program narrows the focus of teachers in a domain that requires cooperation, innovation, broad thinking, high ethical standards and, we would hope, intrinsic motivation.’

This particular passage was enthralling as I was trying to formulate in my mind what might be a reasonable time line and reasonable development goals for the school I was interested in teaching at in Kenya.  I was discussing this piece with my friend and asked if I could keep the paper (I believe it was hers to begin with).

I read the article, made notes, nodded my head in the ah- ha, I agree nod and apparently put the article aside. This week while I was reading Angelo’s Ashes in The New Yorker, 29 June 2009,  I was also packing for my trip to Kenya. Inside one of my bags was the aforementioned article. Bells went off……it was indeed the ah-ha.

The cogent points which Schweitzer noted in the brief Business Daily piece were delivered with a smack down, item by item, in the figurative disemboweling of Angelo Mozilo (Countrywide Financial) as written by Connie Bruck.    Angelo was the perfect case example.

I went back and re-read the Schweitzer article as  have been organizing my thoughts regarding my new job – what is appropriate goal setting? Who should set the goals….should they be easily attainable and celebration worthy in the short-term and then ratchet up or should they be deep goals from the get go and hard-won?   Since the goals were not to benefit my ego or to make money, how did I want to approach them so there could be buy in from all stake holders and yet not too easy as to be unworthy of the wonderful people I would be dealing with.  How to strike a reasonable balance has been my mantra as I have lived through the escapades created by others who could not understand the unreasonableness of lofty goals.

As Schweitzer points out in the article ‘Corporate targets can lead to disaster with goals gone wild’ ,

….ambitious goal setting has become endemic in American business practice and scholarship over the last half-century.  Goals have pervaded industries as diverse as automotive repair, banking and information systems, even spilling over to the debate on how to improve America’s public schools.

my sense of being overwhelmed by the Sisyphean task at the charter school I worked for was not just a strong imagination (frankly, I have never considered myself creative enough for elaborate imagination), it was genuinely being overwhelmed and  the goal setting had some negative and disastrous consequences left in its wake.  (NB: My parents and friends all told I was not being unreasonable at the time, however, I thought they were saying it to make me feel better and get through the terribly difficult situation-it never occurred to me no one could tread the waters at my school).

While I understand how Angelo Mozilo’s ego got in his way and that of his sales force, I have not been able to understand how my principal and the CEO of the charter school organization I worked for, both supposed learned men with years of experience, fell into the lofty and unreasonable miasma of setting lofty goals.  Along the way they set up teachers to (1) have a narrow focus (essentially what Schweitzer calls sacrificing safety for speed) in achieving test score results, (2)created unrealistic time horizons which created substantial health (emotional and physical) problems for school employees, never mind students, (3) made schools, in essence principals and then teachers, set  highly specific and ambitious targets which resulted in staff being willing to engage in risky learning practices to meet the goals (the least of which was teaching to the test), (4) unethical behavior – finding and exploiting ways of  denying students who should have had special ed services the right to said services by figuring out ways for ‘those’ students/parents to opt out of standardized testing.

Schweitzer states that this over zealous goal setting I noted above is a form of creating a hedonic treadmill:

In fact, the authors argue that this failure to recognize the value of simply doing a good job can cause managers to instead set goals and rewards that harm intrinsic motivation and place employees on a “hedonic treadmill.”  The notion of a hedonic treadmill, says Scheweitzer, “is that people never ‘get’ to where they are going. For example, people constantly pursue happiness, but don’t get there.

When I reflect back on my time working for a charter school, I am thankful my principal and CEO were not able to inspire anything in me resembling David Sambol (Countrywide Financial, Sales Manager extraordinaire) and I had the good sense (and support of family and friends) to walk away.  It is only now through reading what others have written that I see the errors of my own short-lived magical thinking – meeting the lofty test score goals would surely provide my students with an excellent education and know, deep in my core, I was right to understand IT WAS NEVER ABOUT THE TEST SCORES.

A final comment by Schweitzer at the end of the article:

‘Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for students of management, experts need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision,’ the authors write.

‘Given the sway of goal setting on intellectual pursuits in management, we call for a more self-critical and less self-congratulatory approach to the study of goal setting.’

And so, with this in mind, I am making lists for discussion and revision of what will be goals worthy of pursuing at my new job and what goals may need to be tier II, sit in the background a bit longer and what goals may be worth festering over, but not in the immediate near future.  I want the goals for the teachers I work with, and our students, to be not only achievable, but something where the process is part and parcel of the overall practice of education.