The New-New Thing In Education: Being Aware/Being Involved

Many years ago I worked for Charles Schwab Inc. while in Denver, Co. People  (family, friends, etc.)were constantly telling me how privileged/fortunate I was since Schwab had such high values and cared about the common folk. The implication was that Schwab was the best house on the street since that was how Schwab was marketed. How would I know to  think otherwise- I was recently out of college. My father had invested with Schwab since the dawn of the operation when they were in Sacramento and they seemed to honestly care about making everyone an investor so they could obtain part of the American dream. In fact, at the time I worked there, Schwab was the  darling of San Francisco and anyone with an inkling of liberalism.

All was well in theory until Charles Schwab Inc. and the board of directors determined that going after big money would make the firm more profitable – it was exactly what every other firm on the street was doing so why not Schwab?  They sold their soul and the 1% got wealthy, the 99% (including employees who were not directors or unit presidents/vp) got stock option rights to buy shares of Schwab at a discount because paying employees what they were worth would not be profitable. Unless you were the 5% who made Schwab a  life career, you took a bath in very dirty water about 1998 and forward as Schwab, now wealthy like other houses on the street, began to disband employees over profits. I had left the firm (I felt Schwab was losing its mojo and cache) to pursue a larger dream – Peace Corps.  I, like most employees, who worked for Schwab during the go-go 90’s took a cold bath of reality and in realizing I was underpaid when I worked for them (remember the stock options). I later  took another bath when stocks went down and I needed to sell. Schwab, like every other firm was also affected by the most recent Wall Street and banking debacle, in spite of how it is worded on Wikipedia.

Who lost out? Well, it would appear the average investor or the 99% including me as I was once a ‘believer’. Whether it was mortgage-backed securities or not – investors took a hit, not the corporation. This is along the lines of ‘the house never loses’ in Las Vegas.

I bring all of this up as an example of perception versus reality and how we so wish to perceive what is being fed (read: marketed) to us that we truly overlook what is going on in the middle of the situation.

As with making money, education is not without a ‘fee’ for service. The fees paid take many forms: studying, fund-raisers, PTA, support of school teams, attending events. The list is too onerous to complete here.  No matter how much the new-new thing is touted, the new-new thing becomes yesterdays cold bath in the light of day if you do not pay attention.  In the late 1990’s to now (2012), charter schools were touted as the panacea for this ailing nation. We went from the’ everyone will go to college (the implication of this meant everyone would obtain a college degree – understatement is great marketing)’ to the light of day where reality crept in and getting to college is not as easy as it looks, no matter who is in the White House. Sadly, charter schools were supposed to improve everything.  The two articles above are but a very thin slice of a bigger picture that  charter schools, like Charles Schwab Inc.,  do not possess the luster the marketing and PR firms would like them to endow upon them.

As with the reforms being voted on in Congress and hopefully applied to banks, brokerages and mortgage lenders, charter schools themselves were given a revisit.

The issues at the top of this page are small in comparison to the marketing ploys of charter schools. It is doubtful that anything of value will come from the CA State Board of Education ordering new rules in 2011  to clarify how charter schools are granted statewide operating privileges. The action comes in the wake of a July 2010 Court of Appeals ruling that found the CA State Board of Education  improperly awarded statewide status to Aspire Public Schools, a charter school company founded in 2000.  The reason: being aware versus wanting to believe.

The parents of children at Miramonte Elementary School in  Los Angeles probably believe a charter school would be far better then LAUSD in light of recent events. Since Aspire Public Schools did not make the lawsuit(s) above newsworthy, parents will be fed exactly what they wish to believe.

Hopefully parents will realize it is about involvement – day in and day out. It is about being aware and it is about paying the ‘fees’ for their children to be educated.  These horrible events happen everywhere – unfortunately they happen most when people are not watching and not aware.


CSI: Education in America

It seems each generation gets a bit closer to identifying and capitalizing on the  magic of the educational process and I am eternally thankful.  I believe I speak for all teachers worldwide in stating that if some one could identify specifically the magic needed to be the best teacher in any classroom, we would all use it, no questions asked. It is not for a lack of desire to be a better teacher, rather, there are no direct and linear one answer fits all situations and  works.

My generation (which obviously tells you my age) was raised on Fred Jones and his Tools for Teaching as well as Harry K. Wong and his The First Days of School.  From doing a quick scan of, there are many, many books designed to help teachers become ‘better’ at their craft. I am thankful so many professionals want to share their insights. Sadly, I do not see how year over year test scores (the current leading indicator of success in America) have improved in spite of all these people sharing their hard earned wisdom.

While I wish Mr. Lemov well and am sure he has best intentions, I can’t help but note that nothing in the article Elizabeth Green wrote (noted above) talks about PARENTS and parenting.  If indeed a proper autopsy was done, it would find that when children are parented and come to school with age appropriate literacy and behavior, learning does occur. 

Parenting includes prenatal and post natal nutrition, medical care as necessary, access to a library and parents who brought children into the world willfully, spending time with them each day to help them develop.  Parenting includes sacrifices of many things for the joy of parenting. Parenting is not about abdicating a child to the teacher for babysitting services when a teacher is for teaching, anymore than you would not drop a child off at a doctors office for day care.

If, as Mr. Lemov states, teachers can be improved upon and taught how to be better by micromanaging every detail/step/motion and content can equally be dispersed, this does not explain why education is not  in such dire straights in India, Korea, China, most of Europe – essentially any place which is not America.  Reasonably speaking,  education seems to be occuring quite favorably in other places and surely no one has put nearly as much effort into analyzing how to make bot teachers.  To my knowledge, Malcolm Gladwell has not addressed the dissociation of education from parenting although he did a piece on selecting a football player for two situations-NFL and universities and came up with some analogies which are fitting to this situation.   Me thinks we are not using the evidence properly as the focus has been on how to pretty much kill off any joy in teaching and has been for many years. Teachers stand to be the accused without counsel, without a jury of their peers, without actual evidence which can be corroborated.

If indeed,  skill sets are teachable/learnable, why have we not figured out how to stop having surgeons with major malpractice law suits……..we have gotten close as now the body part where the operation is to be performed is labeled and some one inventories what goes in and out of the body (scalpels, sponges) during surgery but still malpractice continues.  Why on earth could we not have ‘stopped’ the Wall Street meltdown as math is very easy to follow – you can not have multiple outcomes, there is indeed only one right answer and yet Wall Street went to the wall and slid to the gutter.  Isn’t it reasonable that with all the training we give police we should not have to read one more time about some one being shot accidentally (sometimes accidentally on purpose…).  Since teaching is as much an artful practice, it can not be run through a microscope nor assayed like DNA.

Surely it would be more cost effective if each and every child was given $500 in a future college bank account bearing interest if they came to school with basic literacy in kindergarten and another $500 for getting through algebra in Gr 7 ($250 for Gr 8 passing and $100 for Gr 9) and maybe $100 here and there for some other landmarks.  If they never went to college, the money is returned to the government. It is a reasonable investment for the future and it sets the precedent of teaching parents how to save for the future (another skill set Americans are sorely lacking in). 

By finding immense fault with  teacher’s practices and not putting any focus on what else is at the crime scene seems to delimit the art of investigation.

Bereft of moral compass, what does this teach our children?

For the past few months I have struggled heartily with my own moral compass: at what point was I solving or correcting a problem and at what point would I become complicit in the problem by not being able to turn it around even though I knew it existed.  My dilemma involved a school, students, a chronically corrupt and in some aspects morally bankrupt country (Kenya), people who thrive in manipulating moral situations to make them seem palatable,  some friends, my personal safety and my ability to accept I had made a sad choice for myself.

In spite of the personal hardships my choice would cause, I could not live with myself adding to the problem and did not see any possibility to problem solve without giving up some of my integrity.  Suffice it to say, I came home after lengthy consultation with my family, friends and a local pastor who knew much more the back history of the dilemma than I could sort out in five months.  It hurt. It stung. The very thing I had so desired for 10 years came crashing down but ultimately I found that I had to be able to sleep at night and I sorted out for myself the difference of right versus correct for this situation.

I have now been home three weeks.   At moments of weakness I still cry but I am getting better at accepting my choice and knowing my intent was to do more good than harm to all involved.

With this in mind, the above article was deeply disturbing in so much as it demonstrated adults who could not (would not?)  think and own their responsibility for one of the greatest catastrophic  financial events in my lifetime and quite possibly, the last hundred years by what I read from different analyses of the most recent banking debacle.

My questions are then. “How many of these people who run (administer) and work in the highest echelons of the banking and financial industries are complicit in and demonstration of a bereft moral compass? What does the behavior say about us and our willingness to accept this shoddy behavior by not demanding something different? What does this behavior say about those involved in the banking/financial industry on  a moral/personal level if they accept bonuses and can not apologize for destroying and devastating very real lives?” 

 I ask this because these aforementioned people are our modern day  model of heros until we demonize them to villians. These people are what our children see as  perpetrators of victimless crimes because we are willing to not demand a very human and humble emotion- REGRET.

 These people who do not apologize about how they obtained their money,  for a variety of reasons – fear of shareholders, greed, ego, not conceptualizing what they did was wrong, psychological madness and other assorted reasons do not help us raise up future generations to think with more clarity about their actions. If anything, we ourselves begin to put immorality in a category of benign neglect and downplay the effects.

“Certainly the accepting of public responsibility is a virtue that companies and business schools should cultivate,” said Mr. Bruner. (Italics are mine!)

In order to teach children, young adults and quite frankly some adults about ethical behavior, we need to demand it from the very people who should be demonstrating the ability to be humble and contrite.

Tests, Tests, Tests and More Tests – Results??? Who Knows….


This blog was started three weeks ago when I first captured the headlines.  I needed time to process what it was about the article that was necessarily disturbing, discomforting and revealing of how little the data in education seems to point in a meaningful direction.

At the same time this article was written, I had just begun reading the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, ISBN 978-0-1410-3459-1.  What I began to realize is that the test  results, while based on PAST notions of what children need to learn to be successful, are not predictive in a linear fashion of student success or even a reasonable measure of progress towards college.

If, as is pointed out in The Black Swan,  this type of data that is based on bell curve scenarios is not a quality predictive indicator, why do we persist in using it and what do we hope to obtain from the data?  If we are looking for a predictive indicator, we will most certainly be let down.  If we are looking for a measure of individual success, we will be even more let down as student learning is not linear, rather it occurs in bursts as the brain acquires enough experiences to process the over all schema.  If we are looking for qualitative measures to substantiate what we do as educators, we are applying narrative, retrospective distortion and Platonifying (over evaluating  factual information) and we will find exactly what we are seeking through interpretation.

This, in my mind, does not mean we should immediately stop all testing of students or using tests as an evaluative technique, but it should not be the exacting measure of all success or failure as indicated in the case example of Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco.   ‘

What I am understanding about myself is that I most definitely believe in Black Swans, know they exist and although we try to plan around them, realize we are victims of the perception that we can avoid what we don’t know is possible.  It is this very part of myself that quite possibly drives others crazy, much in the same way Mr. Taleb explains it in his book.

If tests are the end all of predictive value, there needs to be more than a correlation in the evidence and yet, that is all there is at this time.  I have yet to see conclusive evidence (even by the most hard core believers out there – charter schools such as KIPP and Aspire) which supports test scores translating into something such as the ability to complete/graduate college.  There are so many black swans for students who come from poverty that even the best education can not guarantee success in college – nor should that be the only outcome of an education (thank you Bill Gates). No, Bill Gates was not poor, however, he did not finish college.

There are no studies which definitively indicate a college degree will help you obtain more money during your life time, be rich, be famous, be popular.  The studies I have read indicate there is greater potentiality/possibility for some one to earn more money over their lifetime by having higher education (the higher you go, potentially the more money you can obtain).   All of this is in naught as I have close friends with a PhD who do not have the earning potential they should right now as as it is cheaper to hire a lecturer than a bona fide PhD person to place on tenure track.  I have friends who have taken a royal bath with the fall out of Wall Street even though they have an Ivy Education, including MBA degrees.  There are other friends of mine who were or had been doing moderately well except for the housing mortgage meltdown.  Most of the friends who were ensnared in this debacle would have been fine if they could wait out 10 or 15 years for the economy to right itself and housing to regain momentum instead of moving for a job.  Each item I wrote about in the last four sentences was a Black Swan none of us saw coming when we were undergrads or graduate students.

Which means, all those great grades we  (the people talked about above – and they know who they are if they are reading this blog) obtained in elementary, middle and high school, the SAT’s, GRE’s, etc. were never predictive of our success, rather all those grades and scores were predictive of our future potential.

So, my question remains, what do the results mean?  How should we use these test results to improve education? How should we deliver tests (multiple choice/written, etc.) to obtain results with more predictive value?  Can testing provide predictive value?  The questions are endless.  All I know is education has become something completely counterintuitive to what we know from Piaget, Montessori, etc.   If we really want results, we need to be more longitudinal in our thinking and cope up to the Black Swans out there which will always change the penultimate outcome of our best written and delivered lessons.