Sunday, August 12, 2018

On Modern Educational Thinking, Part 1

Last week I ruminated on the evolution of my thinking about educational research. In short, I had joined my thinking to a large number of educators, policymakers, and researchers who valued quantitative measures as the best way to make decisions about education. This is a view I developed while working as a special education teacher and because I had to develop ways to redesign my entire classroom around teaching literacy. I spent time looking at handbooks of research and methodologies developed, largely, by educational psychologists, language pathologists, and cognitive linguists. The approaches were clinical. The research was clinical too - in one case I was reviewing FMRI results showing how reading, writing, listening, and speaking reinforced neural pathways and, in some cases, built new ones. These handbooks and articles were fairly uniform in their literacy recommendations: students should receive direct instruction in the specifics of phonemes, phonics, and grammar. These handbooks and articles were fairly uniform in their philosophy of education: the best practices emerged from quantitative measures of student performance. These could be full on experiments (and many of the articles were high quality randomized double blinded trials on students in literacy clinics) or they could be more practical research situated in classrooms or schools.

I am not totally divorced from the legitimacy of this kind of research. In fact, I think it offers the best option for students who need literacy interventions because they are not acquiring the reading and writing skills they need as they progress through grade levels. However, I made far too much of a connection between these kinds of studies and the larger testing apparatus. In part, I was chasing test scores too. My students improved dramatically in their literacy over the course of a few months of receiving direct instruction and the final measure, the one that would validate my work in the classroom, was the annual ELA exam given by my state. Because I assumed that my teaching was scientifically supported, I felt the test (and all high stakes testing) had some degree of scientific validity. It was a bit of flawed inductive reasoning on my part and motivated by my desire to do some good.  It turns out that my thinking wasn't unique or even that new. Indeed, the pursuit of more "scientific" curriculum and more "measurement" of learning is as old as modern education.

In the late 1800s, as Western countries rapidly industrialized in the wake of the industrial revolution, education moved from the domain of the wealthy and the connected to the masses. This was the result of a variety of forces but the primary motivator was economic. Manufacturing demanded a large and competent labor force able to mange valuable machinery. Laborers sought higher wages and prosperity, often best achieved through working in factories or other industrial activities. These pressures combined with a social impetus toward a more representative politics throughout Europe and America meant that the classical education of earlier centered came under pressure. Up to that point, education was largely along the lines of what we would today call a "classical" education or a "humanist" education. Students would learn Greek and Latin and would study the mythology, philosophy, mathematics, and history of both those ancient cultures in the ancient languages. Even the youngest of students would master the languages before mastering the remainder.

As that century closed, this view of education came under pressure from a movement for more scientific education. The masses would not value from mastery of the classics and weren't well served by learning ancient languages in elementary school - the average level of attendance was low and mostly through the early grades. What good would Latin do a young boy working mechanized looms in a Manhattan factory? The emerging science of psychology sought to answer these new demands. Becoming ever more separate from philosophy as a discipline, psychologists urged for schools to adopt a scientific approach to curriculum. The Kliebard text form which I am pulling some of this history calls this branch of reformers developmentalists.

Championed by G. Stanley Hall, developmentalists believed that schools ought to teach students in accordance with their mental development. If that sounds familiar, you're not alone. A lot of our current education, especially literacy education, is driven by a focus on students progressing through a variety of stages (probably the biggest name in modern literacy development is Jeanne Chall). At that time, Hall and his contemporaries were heavily influence by German pedagogical models which had their origins in pre-unification Prussia. Although less militaristic than the German versions, Hall brought back the "science" of child development and pushed for major education reforms based on those ideas.

I should probably mention at this point just how unscientific Hall's science was. The developmentalists followed a theory of development called "culture-epoch theory." You see, "science" taught them that the brain developed through stages just as human society had evolved. A young child was like a cave-man and should learn content similar to that which would be of interest to a cave man - put them outdoors, let them draw, learn sounds, or play at hunting. Then, as the child progressed through to the "ancient" epoch they could begin learning famous mythology and stories from the bible. Eventually the child's brain would reach the renaissance and then the modern era as they entered early adulthood. This strange view was initially the most dominant challenge to a classical education and much of early psychological science was built on testing students to determine their "culture-epoch" and deliver appropriate content. Much of it was driven, too, by social Darwinism which argued that many people (read brown people, women, some immigrants) would never reach the modern era and didn't need to be in school for very long.

There were two reasons this view was so popular. First, it was built on established "science" of the day and was widely respected. At this point, schools of education were not common and often existed as subsidiaries to psychology or philosophy departments. Those departments often set the agenda for research and recommendations about policy or curriculum. Second, the culture-epoch theory offered a model for her to organize schools for the masses. Children could be broken up largely by age and the content delivered apportioned according to their mental social evolution. In an era where there was little or no continuity from one school to the next or one state to the next, a uniform curriculum was something people recognized as a way to exert control - especially in states where universal compulsory education was enacted. This "legibility" was seen as a way to make schools accountable. If kids were progressing through the epochs, it was generally seen as an evidence of teachers and schools doing their jobs. Since the developmentalists relied heavily on testing, schools and their overseers were able to keep a close eye on performance.

This whole approach sounds decidedly current - with the exception of the weird culture-epoch thing. But, let me pose a question: As I noted last week, there is very strong evidence that our current testing regime is totally invalid and contributes to the marginalization of minorities, especially black men. Is our high-stakes testing regime any more valid than the developmentalist approach of the 1880s? For me, it seems like the answer is no. Both offered a solution to accountability and both led to significant abuses which resulted in a system supportive of white supremacy.

Thankfully, the humanists and developmentalists were not the only game in town during the construction of our modern education system. Another scientific approach to education was in the offing, social efficiency educators. Sharing the developmentalist's fondness for measurement, the social efficiency crowd sought to educate the masses specifically for employment. In my next post, I'll take a closer look at the ideas underpinning social efficiency and how they compare to our "new" focus on educating children for the workforce.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Reforming my thinking about Education and Research

I've been doing some reading recently in preparation for this fall's classes and figured I'd write a little about what I'd been thinking. Last year I had attempted to write about the research I'd come across. Throughout the summer courses, I kept pace with some of the interesting articles and concepts but once the core classes for the MA began in the fall, I found myself with little to write about. Now, that's not to say I didn't do a lot of writing but very little was about research - or at least what I thought of as research.

In the universe of education, as I have lamented before, there isn't a lot of quantitative research which trickles down into the classroom. Both this MA and my prior MAT focused heavily on "teacher research" and on research methods drawn from sociology and anthropology. When we do find quantitative research, it's often coming from economics and political science departments or, more often, policy oriented non-profits, NGOs, and foundations. My friends and many long time educators recognize the problems in taking quantitative research from outside education as a means for driving school, district, and state policy. That's more or less how we got NCLB, Common Core, and RTTT which have not been the panacea of reforms that were initially hoped for. That's not to say all all quantitative research is bad or even that quantitative research from outside schools of education is somehow always disconnected from the reality of schooling. Indeed, I can't think of a better example than economist and data scientist Raj Chetty's recent work with the Census Bureau's Maggie Jones and Sonya Porter.

In fact, as a fan of Chetty's work since his 2015 look at income mobility, I was struck by the granularity of the conclusions. More so than any other large dataset work I am aware of, Chetty, Jones, and Porter exposed the out and out racism of our society and, especially, our school system. Of particular interest are the results for black boys growing up in the US, but what stood out to me was something Chetty said repeatedly in several interviews. I'll excerpt a large section here from an interview he gave to Talk Poverty:
We really don’t think differences in ability explain the gaps that we’re documenting, and there are two simple reasons for that. The first is the pattern that I just described of downward mobility across generations. It’s really only there for black boys. Black women do just about as well as white women once you control for their parental income. And that suggests first of all, if you look at most prior theories of differences in cognitive ability, The Bell Curve book for example, it does not present evidence that you’d expect these differences to vary by gender. Furthermore, if you look at test score data, which is the basis for most prior theories about differences in ability, the fact that black kids when they’re in school tend to score lower on standardized tests than white kids, that actually is true for both black boys and for black girls to the same extent. In contrast when you look at earnings there are dramatic gender differences.
And so that suggests that these tests are actually not really capturing in a very accurate way differences in ability as they matter for long-term outcomes, which casts doubt on that whole body of evidence. So, based on that type of reasoning, we really think this is not about differences in ability. One final piece of evidence that echoes that is if you look at kids who move to different areas, areas where we see better outcomes for black kids, you see that they do much better themselves, which again demonstrates that environment seems to be important. This is not about immutable factors like differences in ability.
Let me emphasize a particular part again: "that suggests that these tests are actually not really capturing in a very accurate way differences in ability as they matter for long-term outcomes, which casts doubt on that whole body of evidence."

What Chetty's done here is confirm with data what people in education have been saying for decades. Teachers responded to the post-2001 testing regime (followed by Common Core standardized testing) by pointing out that tests are often racially biased and often fail to adequately capture students' real-world abilities. I've written before that schools have fallen under a bastardized view of constructivism which posits that access to the content standards is all that's required for a student to succeed. So, after almost two decades of reorganizing our system of schooling behind a testing regime, we have high quality empirical evidence that the whole thing is directly harmful to black males.

Why is this "reforming" my thinking, as the post's title suggests? It's because that conclusion was something that had already been reached. I figured it out during my teacher training. I saw that view confirmed in my teacher research in 2009 and again in my teacher research this year. (It's just a draft, be kind!) My friends in education and my own experiences as a teacher indicated the system was deeply flawed, racist, and classist. Systemic racism something that ethnographic researchers have been documenting in US education since the late 1800s. Why, then, was I so dismissive of qualitative research's findings and role in the classroom, in curriculum, and in educational policy? Why wait for someone like Chetty, who appears to be somewhat unique in the field, to publish findings pulled from large data sets? Moreover, if the vast majority of data used to make educational policy is pulled from the standardized tests which are deeply flawed, what good is the data?

After reviewing a few of my old posts, I came across something I'd written:
Education, in general, dislikes quantitative research. Maybe this is a response to NCLB/RTTT and the current incarnation of the reform movement? Standardized testing is widely misused by states and districts and is a tool used by politicians to break the political power of teachers unions. This has bred distrust of any quantitative measures. In turn, any data which relies on high-stakes testing is seen as illegitimate by many educators whether the use of that data is accurate/valid or not. There are elements of social justice here because testing is seen as a proxy for race, socioeconomic status, and other factors. Any quantitative measure is potentially racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise heavily biased. 
Well, it turns out that standardized testing is racist. Data which relies on high-stakes testing is illegitimate. The critics of testing that I was so quick to doubt were right, and I should have given them more credence. Even my attempts to be even handed and consider multiple sides of issues were still filtered through my perception that data = test scores or something numerical and data != observations, interviews, or analysis of work samples, etc. What Chetty's work and my own work this past year have helped me to see is that I need to take a wider view of the qualitative side of things. I'm actually quite proud of what I wrote as part of my case studies for the Master's Project even if it was "only qualitative".

I've learned some other interesting things recently about the history of education and education research. Stay tuned for further posts because I'd like to tackle a pair of books: Kliebard's The Struggle for the American Curriculum and Lageman's An Elusive Science. What I've come to realize from reading these books is that education never forgets. Once an idea enters the educational universe, it sticks around and reemerges over and over. This is true of the supposedly scientific approach championed by the "reformers" who implemented our modern standardized testing regime.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Equality vs Equity?

This image appeared in my 4th grade classroom this week.

The context was a short discussion about why some students get additional resources or different assignments from others. The image is meant to show that our classroom operates on the principle of equity - each student gets what he or she needs in order to engage with the curriculum. The image, however, is really quite problematic.

It seems to me this image visually reinforces several aspects of inequity. You have the color of the spectators and their exclusion from the audience highlighting both their race and class. There's also the complicated factor of making up for naturally occurring biological differences (height) while so much of equity is focused on alleviating artificial constructs of race and class. The image really falls apart in a number of ways but I think it is an excellent example of where discussions of social justice in the classroom (and elsewhere) often fall short. We've become really good at identifying the shortcomings of an equalitarian approach because not everyone starts off at the same spot. Merely giving access to the same resources doesn't alleviate inequality. Giving a 10th grader who reads at a 4th grade level more 10th grade books isn't going help that kid's reading improve.

We are really bad at addressing the deeper causes of inequality. Why can't the 10th grader read at a 10th grade level and what can be done to fix a system which produces too many 10th graders reading below grade level? The short man in the image needs two boxes to see over the fence but what if he had a seat inside the stadium like all those other people? Sadly, these kinds of questions often escape us. It's too easy for us to look at our classrooms or our communities and seek to fix problems on a case by case basis. It's too hard for us to address systemic issues. I think part of the solution is to force ourselves to think critically about everything we do in and out of the classroom. When we explain why equity matters in the classroom, push for plain language and direct acknowledgment of inequality in all its forms. Be critical of how you choose to represent people in visuals and stories. Make an effort not to reinforce problematic depictions of race, class, gender, orientation, etc.

nota bene: As I searched online for a copy of the image to link in this post, I discovered that others had seen and addressed its problems. If you want to read a little about that, check out this post at It turns out there is more to the image which never made it into my classroom.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Thinking more about social justice and education

Much of the material and discussion I encounter in my education classes is focused on social justice and those ideas have an interesting interaction with the dilemmas faced by classroom teachers everywhere. I wrote earlier that I am critical of approaches which seem to focus a curriculum on examining specific issues of social justice without recognizing that education has another form of justice to which it ought to aspire; namely, students need to acquire the skills and knowledge to be able to succeed and empower themselves. Without accomplishing the latter goal, what good is teaching students to be critical? My readings for class recently have helped illuminate why this makes sense and I'm going to share some of that here.

Barbara Comber argues that there are issues of economic justice which should motivate teachers to teach "critical literacies" so as to help prepare their students to compete in a world of ever increasing inequality. She pulls from Piketty's comment that people who own only their own labor are at risk for being left out of income growth and other opportunities. The moral imperative is for teachers to push students toward more knowledge production skills, chiefly critical literacy. To accomplish this, she thinks students should be "researchers of language" - that they should not just learn the content but also learn how a particular field approaches and solves problems. That is, in short, teaching literacy instead of teaching content. Being critical, in Comber's case, applies to that role of students as language researchers. Once they take on that role, they can challenge flaws and argue for improvements. 

I think Comber threads the needle on this issue very well. She repeats again and again that critical literacies do entail a focus on the forces that create inequality and injustice but she doesn't think that is the measure of good critical literacy. I struggle, sometimes, to articulate this concept in discussions so it's nice to see someone do it better than I can. Overall, I don't know if I agree with the economic framing if only because so many education reformers reduce the role of education to job preparedness. Her use of Thomas Piketty is crucial, as he argues for significant social reforms and redistribution which I think education reformers would be uncomfortable with. 

Second, I have another article about the role of critical literacy in education. Hilary Janks provides a more conventional justification for teaching critical literacies: combating social injustice through education. 
In the actual world—where a 17-year-old boy sells one of his kidneys for an iPad; where adult men rape babies; where rebel fighters video themselves mutilating and cannibalizing the body of an enemy soldier to post on YouTube; where imprisonment without trial and tor- ture are condoned; where children are molested by adults they trust; where millions of people lack access to drinking water or sanitation; the list is endless—it is even more important that education enables young people to read both the word and the world critically 
Again, I worry about these kinds of approaches because I want tone sure students are not just getting a crash course in how fucked up the world is. They need to tools and the ability to fix it, too. She walks us through a lesson she's taught about access to clean drinking water and includes examples of data, photos, and other texts she brings to the students as they analyze the issue. The students are challenged to think about who gets access to a valuable resource, water, and how it is unevenly distributed. In a social studies context, I think this less works well and can fit both a pedagogy of social justice and a socially just pedagogy. The students don't stop at learning about a problem, they are assessing how the language creates and distributes power. I see this as a task very much inside the domain of a social scientist and the students are, therefore, going to be acting and thinking like a social scientist would. Lastly, the presence of solutions to externalities (plastic pollution) means there's a solution mindset which urges the students to be an active part of making things better. The connection to student empowerment is there. 

For me, these both helped me understand what a socially just pedagogy looks like that also engages specifically in teaching about a specific issue of social justice. I am, maybe, just a little, possibly, biased in favor of more traditional classroom approaches if only because I see so much emphasis on social justice curriculums and so little on making sure the kids can be successful. As I move into the fall and begin more specific coursework related to teaching literacy, I will have to be more open to how social justice can be woven into a socially just kind of teaching. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Power and Justice in Education

Two weeks ago I wrote a little about some paradoxes in education and how those made it hard to determine what America considers the role of its educational institutions to be. A brief part of that post was me noting that education is always an exercise in the use of power. I thought more about it this week and how that relates to ideas of justice, in part, because of a discussion I had with a classmate about a socially just pedagogy.

Education is always a exercise of power for a few reasons. For one, it's compulsory in the United States. Even though some parents opt out of the public school system through private or home schooling, the children still have to meet some definition of being educated. Choosing no education is not an option and the government will forcibly remove children from families who do not school their kids in some form. That is, in short, a use of power. The reasoning behind the government's use of power betrays another use of power: knowledge. At its core, the reason education is compulsory is to provide instruction in various kinds of knowledge. These might be specific academic fields. These might be social skills and knowledge needed to work and function in society. There are other. As my previous post points out, I don't think we have a good grip on what exactly we want education to be so it's stuck in a variety of competing modes. We, as a society, empower the government to force children into education so that they may acquire knowledge broadly deemed necessary. Power.

So far so good. An exercise of power by the state in the form of compulsory education is mostly non-controversial. The controversy comes in when the public has differences with the second aspect, the knowledge part. Maybe they don't like evolution being taught in schools because they feel schools should represent christian morals and doctrine. Maybe the public wants schools to be more responsive to the needs of minorities or to provide broader social services. The picture of what good schooling looks like quickly becomes muddled. I'd like to suggest that all these issues ultimately come down to a single idea, justice. When power is exercised in a way which a society broadly agrees with, we consider it just. When power is exercised in a way which a society broadly disagrees with, we consider it unjust. Obviously it's more complex than that binary as societies are capable of holding varied and contradictory views about how power is used by the state. Let's skip the whole discussion of political philosophy, though, because I have other things I'm interested in talking about right now. We can assume that compulsory education is just. Pretty much only extreme libertarians would argue the state has no role in educating children or maintaining an educated populace. Even then, I find most libertarians still accept public schooling but would prefer a more choice oriented model of it.

When is education unjust? Well, we think of it as unjust when schools somehow harm children. Few, if any schools, actively hurt kids anymore. Policy broadly reflects the desire to act justly toward children and attempt to provide them with a good education so that society is broadly capable of sustaining itself. Instead, children are harmed when we perceive their schooling to be inadequate. Maybe they never learn anything. Maybe they are over-disciplined and end up in suspension and, eventually, prison. Maybe they're getting good grades but lack any useful skills. When schools fail to use their power to accomplish their overarching goals, they are not just.

Which brings me to my discussion with a classmate. As I've mentioned before, my current class is about disciplinary literacy. The short version of the thesis for the class is that teachers across various disciplines should envision their classes as opportunities for the students to become members of a discipline (math, science, whatever). Rather than simple knowledge of the facts and procedures required of a discipline, students learn better and have greater opportunities when they are able to walk and talk like a member of that field. Don't just learn about history, learn how to think and speak like a historian. It's also more just. The idea here is that becoming a member of a discipline allows you more opportunities to pursue your own interests. In other words, you are granted the freedom to choose your own path because you have every option available to you.

My classmate disagreed with this approach on a practical footing. She suggested that you can't be certain every student really feels like a member of a discourse and adopts the language and practices of that field. Moreover, just because you teach the students how to think like a mathematician doesn't mean they will have access to those institutions as they age and pursue their interests in college or the workforce. Larger societal forces are at play than just the school environment. She suggested explicitly teaching about those forces as a better and more just alternative. The context of this discussion was an analysis of a math lesson about the Census. We were discussing whether the lesson really did make kids members of math discourse and whether that was a just pedagogy.

My option here is nuanced because I see these as two very separate arguments. On one hand, my classmate is suggesting that the curriculum is only just if it teaches kids about the ways power is used and abused. By helping them see how math and statistics on the US Census can include or exclude various people and, therefore, change how they are represented politically, she is directly teaching students about issues of social justice through her math curriculum. They're still going to do math. They're still going to learn about statistics and how to analyse data but they're going to do so with a lense critical of those methods. The term for this is a pedagogy of social justice. The kids gain knowledge and skills primarily as a means to engage with and critique a field of knowledge. On the other hand, we have something a little bit different although not totally different (remember, I said nuanced). Instead of being concerned only with criticism and the misuse of power, teachers should be concerned with making sure their students acquire power. The way in which students acquire power is by actually learning and actually developing skills which they can use to elevate themselves.

If you've read my blog before, you probably recognize this dilemma because I keep returning to it time and time again.
...I don't see how it could exist outside of very selective areas of the country. How great is your social justice education if it's only happening in New York and San Francisco?
I haven't even brought out the larger critique of ignoring student's language needs to focus on their cultural needs.
There's a paradox here with regards to a pedagogy of social justice. A pedagogy of social justice is not just. Indeed, to the extent where it sometimes leads to ignoring the needed skills and knowledge in favor of a critical approach to learning a field, a pedagogy of social justice could actually be an injustice. If the kids learn all about how the census hurts the poor and minorities but don't learn how the statistics work or how they can be the mathematicians to improve the system, how much social justice is your curriculum really producing? Now, I don't think that's why my classmate was suggesting. I also don't think the two are mutually exclusive of one another but that doesn't mean they go hand in hand either. What a truly just pedagogy allows for is the student to freely engage with the curriculum as an equal - as a member of that field or discipline. This means than in addition to teaching about the US Census and the math behind it, we also teach about the norms, conventions, and practices of math. Can they take this knowledge and use it in real life? Can they take this knowledge and create a career, a cause, or a critique of their own? Ultimately, that is far more empowering than being walked through a series of critiques the teacher determined needed to be discussed.

So let's return to thinking about justice through this lense of power. The pedagogy of social justice my classmate envisions power flowing in one direction. The power to compulsory educate leads to the power of the educator to drive the curriculum in a way she sees fit. Therefore, she decides the best thing for the students to learn is that other institutions in the US abuse power - like how the US Census is a flawed instrument which uses statistics to systematically disenfranchise people. Justice, for a pedagogy of social justice, comes from students learning all about other injustices. The goal of schooling is to help students learn about injustices so they might fight to make it better. Power flows from the government to the schools to the teacher to the students. It's decidedly old fashioned and centered on the teacher and the institution as the center of knowledge and the arbiters of what is and is not worth learning about. Kids are in place to receive this knowledge and act upon it.

Meanwhile, an approach which creates a socially just pedagogy envisions power flowing differently. While school is clearly still compulsory in this model, the teacher is deemphasized as the source of power for the class. Instead, the discipline (mathematics, in the case of the Census lesson) contains the power and the goal of the teacher is to help kids feel like they're part of the discipline. With disciplinary knowledge, the students are the ones with power. They can choose to pursue criticisms and reform, they can choose to pick a different discipline which they find more interesting, they can do whatever they want, reall. Beyond being a more effective way for the students to learn the specific skills and knowledge we expect them to have, a pedagogy which seeks to bring all students into a discipline is one which seeks to give students power.

Between these two, which is ultimately going to prove more just? Which is going to exercise power in a way which society will broadly embrace?

Much of the discussion here pulls from Elizabeth Moje's Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching published in Review of Research in Education Vol. 31 from March 2007. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Thinking about educational paradoxes, the purpose of education, and engagement.

I get a little preoccupied sometimes because I don't really know what education is for. No. Really. I'm not sure I have a cogent understanding of what our system of education is intended to accomplish. I'm not sure I understand what it means to be educated on an individual level or as a society. Let me be clear, as well, that I understand there are a lot of answers to this question and I know what many of those answers are but find them unsatisfactory.


In part, my inability to understand education comes from some serious paradoxes which society and policy create surrounding education. A good example comes from a commenter on Arnold Kling's blog.
People in education tend to believe two things:
1) School is America’s great driver of social mobility. School lifts up the poor. Without our education system, we would be a terribly unequal, unjust, “rich get richer and the poor stay poor” society.
2) It is not just grudgingly acceptable but good and just that the more education you have, the better you are treated.
Arnold Kling is a libertarian blogger and it's important to note that a lot of his commenters probably share a skeptical view of the usefulness of public education. That's not to say views critical of "government education" are right or wrong but to point out that there's a particular bias here. In this case, I don't think that bias negates the usefulness of the critique.

Anyway, the comment above gets to one of the paradoxes about education that keep me up at night. On one side we have the typical argument that education is a great equalizer and adequate levels of education will decrease economic and social inequality. However, what the commenter seems to be pointing out is that education increases inequality. The returns on completing college and getting a degree are higher than ever and higher relative to the non-college educated population than ever. Kids who go to college (a typical 4-year university type education, not 2-year associates degrees or private ITT-Tech type colleges) earn more and have significantly better lives in almost every measure we can apply.

'James, wait,' you might be saying, 'the problem is that not enough kids go to college.' Or something like that. Essentially, this boils down to education not being evenly distributed enough. I don't buy that argument for two reasons. First, it's not feasible to premise our education system on the idea that 100% of people should attend a 4-year college and receive a bachelor's degree. We tried that. It's called No Child Left Behind and one of its goals was literally that every kid would be college ready. Go read up on how well that worked.

Second, educational attainment is climbing. Fewer students are dropping out of high school than ever before. More students are entering college than ever before. More students are completing college than ever before. Advanced degree attainment is also huge and has grown significantly since the mid 2000s. Yet, wages are stagnant and inequality is growing. Upwards of 40 million Americans live in poverty, the highest number since at least the 1950s. As a percentage of all Americans, the number living in poverty has been relatively flat (~12-14%) since about the 1960s. The relationship between education attainment, poverty, and inequality is unclear. Why, then, do policymakers and society at large insist on a view of education as the only (or at least the primary) pathway to fixing inequality?

There is a related paradox which is very well stated by Fredrik deBoer:
9. Education is both a system for creating broad societal equality and for separating individuals into rigid tiers of relative performance. The tensions between these functions are to remain unexamined.
I highly recommend reading the whole post because he gets to the "dogma" that underpins education discourse in the United States. Here, he points out that you can't really have a system of education which accomplishes both of these stated goals. On one hand every student is supposed to come out of school and be able to attain some average quality of life and earn a living. On the other hand, schools and colleges rank and sort students into hierarchies which effectively limit their opportunities. SAT scores play a big role in what kinds of colleges kids access. A degree from Yale and a degree from the University of Georgia differ greatly. A kid graduating from Spiderman's High School, the Bronx High School of Science, has vastly different opportunities than a kid graduating from Herbert H Lehman High School, 5 miles away, where only about 52% of students graduate. Within schools there are class ranks and grades and various honor societies which all have criteria for determining which students are better than others at something (or everything).

In reality, we know that this ranking and sorting matters for students' futures but we pretend like that's all some kind of odd byproduct and the real purpose of education is to fix inequality. It can't be. Schools are a major driver of inequality by design. Our economy, higher education, and pretty much every social institution in the US require ranking and sorting students according to their relative performance on a bunch of metrics. We should stop pretending like it's not something we expect from our schools.

I think both of these paradoxes lead to a third: we think every single student is completely and 100% capable of accomplishing each and every educational challenge set before them. If you take the view that all of schooling is for producing vast amounts of equality, it's really easy to want every kid to accomplish similar levels of learning. The thing is, I taught special education. I know that every kid is not capable of attaining the exact same level of learning. I had students with significant impediments to their learning which placed them at a 1st grade reading level. I had students with behavioral disorders which eroded their productive class time and guaranteed they weren't going be learning that day/week/month. What I learned, among a great many things, is that not every kid is going to learn every thing. Some kids will learn some things. Some kids will learn many things. Zero kids will learn everything. AP Calculus is not the bar by which we ought to measure every child. Neither is AP British Literature.

And yet, when society and policymakers begin considering education, they want every kid in the most advanced and most challenging courses. They want to create a system where the most advanced opportunities are available. And, crucially, they place blame on schools and teachers for not achieving these goals. It's never a question of inappropriate expectations, it's a question of how a school or teacher failed to help that student. Never mind that 14% of our students have IEPs. Never mind that 9% of our students are learning English as a second language. Never mind all the other factors that play into a student's performance. All students have the same ability and are required to meet whatever arbitrary standard is set in some education task.

The Purpose of Education

It should seem pretty clear that I don't think the purpose of education is to solve poverty, inequality, or other social ills. Both the way we've built our educational system and the outcomes which actually occur lead me to believe that the rhetoric surrounding education doesn't match the reality of what our system does. Somehow we prefer to be paradoxical rather than to try and examine these contradictions and make changes.

So what do I think the goal of education ought to be? I don't know exactly. I don't have a complete answer but I'm going to take a stab at a few ideas. Try them on. See if they fit. That kind of thing.

Being a student in a whole new social context has exposed me to the idea of educating for social justice. I wish we had a better word because social justice is a very loaded term these days. Honestly, I'm having a bit of anxiety just typing it because I expect the internet trolls will descent upon me and obliterate me from the earth. If I could condense the ideas I'm encountering to a short statement, it would be that the purpose of education is to make students socially responsible members of society. They should go to school to learn about how they should make the world a better place through alleviating poverty, eliminating prejudice, and being generally the kind of people who care deeply about their fellow human beings.

It's the kind of thing that seems somewhat unobjectionable at the surface. Indeed, I don't think it's really that problematic on principle but rather is highly problematic in practice. I find myself feeling luckier and luckier to have grown up in the South. Being a Southerner gives me a very different view of institutions and their role in the world than I think I would otherwise have had. It's a worldview I'm only just beginning to realize I had.

You see, back home in Georgia, teaching social justice would end your career. People here look at me like I'm an insane person when I say that. They can't comprehend a world in which teachers cannot advocate, say, protesting the president over climate change. They don't see how a teacher advocating same sex marriage might lose her job or how a teacher posting in support of a women's march on Washington might land in hot water.

I attribute part of this to a lack of union protection (yes, they have good uses!) but also to a fundamentally different concept of the role of schools as an institution which the New Yorkers and costal academic types I encounter don't seem to understand. As an example let me quote my good friend Jason Jones:

Children who come to us don’t get a choice, so the least we can do is be careful in how we proceed with their education.  After all, when you have government representatives telling citizens how to think, we call that propaganda.
... High schoolers are mostly minors.  Minors are supposed to have special protections specifically because they aren’t yet mature enough to act as fully responsible persons, and one of those protections is not being overwhelmed with a specific, government sourced narrative.
I don't think this line of thinking even exists up here. I've never heard a single student or professor address an understanding of education as an exercise of power. They like to mention using power in all sorts of other social contexts. They love to mention that, before our more modern and enlightened times, educators and government exercised power to segregate and disenfranchise the poor and minorities. Somehow, they fail to see how educating for social justice is still an exercise of power. Sometimes people don't like institutions having the power do certain things, no matter how noble or justified.

Jason is not some reactionary conservative voice shouting down the system of public education. He's a committed public schoolteacher and an open, accepting humanist. But, like me, he grew up in the South and that context gives us a very different view of the role of government and of public education. Any curriculum and any "purpose" is always an exercise of state power. If we forget that lense, if we simply assume schools are now altruistic arms of the best elements of society, we blind ourselves to potential overreach and abuse. I also wonder how much assuming the institution is altruistic creates the paradoxes above? Social Justice at the beginning of the 20th century differed greatly from social justice in the 1950s and differs greatly from social justice now. That alone makes me skeptical of social justice as the purpose of education.

Is educating for social justice a bad thing? No. I think it's fine but I don't see how it could exist outside of very selective areas of the country. How great is your social justice education if it's only happening in New York and San Francisco? How can you endorse a system of schooling that half the country would reject? My opposition to social justice as the purpose of education is practical rather than theoretical. I would love to be able to have open and engaging conversations about LGBTQ issues with students in every state. I think being frank about it and examining the issues critically would make people more open and more accepting. I also think it would get me fired in about half of those states.

I've had a few occasions to explain this to people and most tell me the same thing: just go teach somewhere that would accept this. It's tough because I do want to return home to Georgia as my family and Lisa's family age. It's tough because the South offers significant cost of living advantages over New York and the Northeast. Moreover, I don't like the solution of ignoring some (most?) of the country. "Just don't teach them" is not a valid answer when considering the purpose of education. Social justice shouldn't leave people out just because they hold inconvenient views. Perhaps that should be another paradox I list: social justice education for some based primarily on the luck of geographic location.

Other often cited purposes for education also seem unlikely when you actually examine them. I hear many people concerned that education isn't doing enough career training. The assumption here is that education's purpose should be career preparatory. Mostly this is directed at STEM careers because those are well paying and in demand. While schools are rushing to push kids toward coding classes and advanced math and science AP placement, 40% of schools don't have any AP courses, much less AP STEM courses. Plus, who is going to leave a 6-figure programming career to teach computer science for $40k a year?

All the above assumes we even want every single kid moving into STEM careers and that school is the best way to prepare them for those careers. People should have some degree of freedom in choosing their life's work and not feel pigeonholed by well-meaning initiatives. Plus, a lot of these careers change rapidly but the curriculums in schools don't. When I worked as a Career and Technical  Education para professional in 2011, the web design course I worked in used methods and software that were 5-6 years out of date. They were learning industry standards which had ceased being industry standards three or more years prior. Schools, as an institution, aren't well equipped to manage this task. Now, there are other moves to make here, like redesigning schools completely and putting all the curriculum in a live-updating digitally delivered "personalized" platform. I have other problems with that approach but, again, is that the purpose of education? Should schools be redesigned to turn every kid into a programmer or physician's assistant? What does the workplace look like when there is an oversupply of these professionals?

We can also dispense with the illusion that the purpose of education is to make children into good citizens, a favorite of social studies teachers I have known. Invariability this purpose appeals to the need of each child to learn how their government and civic society function. First, I don't think anyone understands how any of it works anymore and our system of government is a train gone off the rails. Second, there's a lot of disagreement about this, see social justice education above. The role of government is envisioned differently depending on who is teaching and where they are teaching it. Third, it is not clear how, say, a good chemistry class builds civic virtues. Fourth, schools cut civics and government classes because they're not on the high stakes tests. It seems clear that this isn't the purpose of our educational system.

The signaling model of education is an interesting if depressing one. The signaling model of education is simply that acquiring education is a means of showing some group that you're a part of the group. The skills and knowledge, while important, are secondary. That's why a BA at Harvard often gets you more money and connections than an advanced degree in the same field elsewhere. That's why our CEOs and Presidents and other Very Serious People all went to the same schools and live in the same places.

If you can't tell, I have a little bit of belief in the signaling model. It seems to explain some of the "bubble" that has developed in the country. It is not, however, a good purpose for education. It's inherently exclusionary. It's inherently classist. It's inherently anti-meritocratic. Accurate, perhaps, but not what the purpose of education should be.

Engagement: my current koolaid

Recently I've decided to dig into the idea of "engagement." Prior to doing a little learning, I always felt like engagement was a gimmick. Maybe it was a gimmick for many people who talked about it. My principal used to dress up like a little blonde cheer leader and barge into classrooms shouting school cheers in the name of engagement. Gimmick. Also, not engagement. Engagement isn't fun. Engagement isn't making school some kind of enthusiastic and desirable environment. Those might be good things to do but they're not engagement.

My current understanding of engagement is that it is basically the self-motivated followthrough to interest. If a student is interested in a topic and that student takes it upon herself to seek out more information and deepen her understanding, that is engagement. Engagement is intrinsically motivated and only something that a person can accomplish for herself.

So why is engagement interesting to me? Well, I think engagement may be a good purpose for education. This is a bit of an Aristotelean idea but bear with me. Ultimately teachers and society want schools to produce students capable of accomplishing things. As I noted above, those things are varied and inconsistent. What if, rather than focusing on the "accomplishing things" we focused on the "capable". To me engagement is the primary capability we should be seeking to help our students cultivate (see, totally Aristotelean). We want kids to leave school knowing that they can pursue their interests and develop further in whatever areas they choose. We want to equip them with the skills to handle the new content but we also want to help them realize that they are ultimately the agents of their own education. Engagement places the responsibility for learning on the child and tells her that she needs to pursue what is interesting using what tools she has available. Engagement also means that student may need to develop new tools to further refine her ability to engage.

Now, I'm still trying to wrap my head around what a pedagogy focused on engagement would look like but I think this is a great way to address the various cross purposes and paradoxes we find in the educational world. If a kid is interested in programming, let her become engaged in learning about it. Give her books and activities and practice and turn her loose. The same goes for social justice or civics or anything else.

Hopefully I can refine and better explain engagement as I learn more but I'll summarize with this: I feel like the best thing a good education can do for a child is to build in them the desire to never stop learning. That's engagement. Next I need to learn how to teach it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Next up: Disciplinary Literacy

I'm beginning the second summer semester and my only course is Disciplinary Literacy. Essentially, the course is going to be a consideration of how literacy plays out across non-ELA and non-reading classes. (Non-reading as in the class is not titled 'Reading' but Math or Science or something like that.) This should be an interesting course as I don't know much about what teachers in other subjects do. Yes, I did teach Algebra I during half of summer school but that was mostly the result of an incompetent and possibly intellectually disabled administrator just parking warm bodies in a classroom full of 40 remedial math students. It wasn't pretty.

Anyway, the overall gist of the class is that every discipline has it's own culture. A scientist, mathematician, computer programmer, or engineer (see, those are the only acceptable careers so they're all anyone talks about) each work within a discipline that expects certain things of them. Some of what's expected is explicit and that's generally what is taught in the classroom: scientific method, pythagorean theorem, object oriented coding, and whatever the hell an engineer learns. The problem is, there's also a lot of stuff that's not communicated.

A good example of this is the differing citation systems. While we teach that every discipline has a different way of creating citations (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc), we don't ever explain why. In the grand scheme of things this particular why is small beans but there's a lot of disciplinary weight placed on how citations are written. Each discipline features dozens if not hundreds of similar signifiers which show someone as either participating in a discipline or not. Added together, these start to make the culture of that discipline.

Now, I don't know much about other disciplines and I can't think of many from, say, science to fill this post with examples but I hope you catch my meaning. It's not enough to take a kid into science class and have them work through a bunch of science information without giving them the inside scoop on the culture that is academic science. Part of the reason scientists think like scientists is that they've been trained in the culture of science. Students don't automatically have that culture unless they're lucky enough to have parents who make that their home culture. Even then, they will lack some other disciplinary literacy.

I'm interested to see what methods the class brings up to support better teaching of disciplinary literacy. I can already see that student discussions and debate are going to feature heavily but I would like to know how structured those are. Just because kids talk about plant biology doesn't mean they're in the discipline. How explicit do I have to be to help them learn to participate in science like a scientist would? And what about math?