Friday, July 17, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, and Conservative School Boards

Texas strikes me as a scarier and scarier place to live; in the push to reform state social studies standards, the Texas Board of Education appointed 6 outside reviewers, 3 from the conservative side and 3 from the more moderate side of the Board. From a Wall Street Journal Article:
The reviewers appointed by conservatives include two who run conservative Christian organizations: David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, a group that promotes America's Christian heritage; and Rev. Marshall, who preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War and Hurricane Katrina were God's judgments on the nation's sexual immorality...The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America's founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man's fall and inherent sinfulness, or "radical depravity," which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances. The curriculum, they say, should clearly present Christianity as an overall force for good -- and a key reason for American exceptionalism, the notion that the country stands above and apart.
Oh my good gracious. As a keen amateur historian, I'm well aware of the role religion has played in shaping the nation's history. But this just smacks of modern conservatism and evangelism riding roughshod over thinking critically about the history of the United States, and how to teach it. And mocking the principle of the separation of church and state by attempting to indoctrinate children into an evangelist, republican, white-privileged, Ameri-centric, and patriarchal view of society (based on their individual suggestions of which historical figures and events to include, remove, or de-emphasize).

Not to show my bias or anything.

Full reports from each of the reviewers are available here.

What makes this so terrible is that Texas is *SO* huge. Where Texas goes with standards and curricula, there go the textbook companies and testing companies, and there follows the rest of the country. So it's not just about what the crazies down in Texas are teaching their children, which is important, but it's also about how what they teach influences the books and other materials that are available to everyone else.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Academics vs. Practitioners

In a recent post on a Politico article on Who can hook you up with a White House job? Jon Schnur, CEO and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, is listed as one who helped Arne Duncan secure the position of secretary of education. In the article, the author notes:

Philanthropist and Democratic donor Eli Broad, who funds Teach for America and Schnur’s principals program, said he considered Schnur a counterweight against the “bunch of academics” on Obama’s education transition team. Soon after the election, Broad said he told Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that “the education secretary should not be an academic or ex-governor. ... He said, ‘I assure you. We’re going to have a practitioner.’” (emphasis mine)

Leaving aside (for this post, anyway) discussion of Arne's capabilities or whatever claims he might be able to make to his being a "practitioner," I am deeply disturbed at the assumption that academics are not practitioners. In my experience, that simply isn't true. Many researchers and university professors were at some point teachers in K-12 classrooms, and remain involved by working on curriculum development projects, conducting research in schools, leading professional development opportunities for teachers and other school staff, and in a host of other ways. In addition, in most schools of education, faculty who do research also teach--they teach future teachers. Just because they aren't working with children doesn't mean that they aren't "practicing" educators, and it doesn't mean that they turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what is going on in K-12 classrooms; they couldn't be effective at preparing teachers if they did so.

Even beyond the "are academics practitioners?" question, there's another deeply worrisome assumption: that only the viewpoints and experiences of the "true" practitioners are valid. This assumption preferences the individual teacher's experiences--and the knowledge that these experiences provide--above the knowledge that can be gleaned from deep study and years of collaboration between researchers, administrators, and teachers. Let me affirm that I do believe that teacher input and experiences are extremely valuable tools in research and in policy-making. That said, I think that a "practitioner" focus leads to a system which holds that knowledge gained by each individual as they grow as teachers is the most important component to their being able to understand education, student learning, how education system(s) work, and the role of policy in all these arenas. This focus denies the importance of research and the role of higher education in studying schools, in studying how students learn, and in looking at bigger picture issues like state policy or national standards; important work that cannot be done with by a group of teachers, no matter how experienced and knowledgeable they are. They don't have the resources--or even enough time in the day--to tackle these issues.

Yes, many teachers scoff at research and academe. Or at least see limited practical applications, and perhaps that's a good goal to shoot for: finding ways to get good research in the hands of teachers in ways that have practical applications,
but are not oversimplified, dumbed-down versions of the research.

What are some ways to cross the academic-practitioner/research-teacher divide?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So You Think You Can...Teach?

I will admit, I'm a huge fan of So You Think You Can Dance, affectionately abbreviated as SYTYCD. In trying to read an article on teacher education while watching last night's show, an observation bubbled up: The judges on SYTYCD often speak about a dancer's potential, and cite this potential for future growth as a reason to select a certain dancer to remain on the show. The converse is also true; wonderful dancers (last week's loser, Asuka, being a case in point) are often sent home not because they were the worst dancer, but because they aren't showing that they are growing with the show.

This made me think about teachers (and I don't just mean K-12, but teachers at all levels), and whether we look at potential for growth when evaluating candidates--or, indeed, if we should do. I think anyone who has ever taught would agree that when you first start out, you're just trying to keep your head above water. (And hope you don't screw up the students too badly.) I just wonder if there's any thought given at various points along the path to teacher-dom to a candidate's potential for growth--the corollary being, I suppose, potential to become an excellent teacher versus a merely adequate one. [I refuse to use the term "qualified" on general principle.]

On the other hand, looking at potential and growth is a tricky thing. Who would be assessing these qualities? How could they be subjectively assessed? Because while a choreographer's personal preference and body type and who you worked with in the past are all valid criteria in the world of dance, I don't see that flying so well in selecting a chemistry teacher. We educators like our objective criteria. We like our rubrics. We like at least the appearance of fairness.

Perhaps it's just too big a stretch to bring potential for growth or excellence into recruiting, preparing, and hiring teachers. Perhaps I would just like to think that there is room in between our rubrics and criteria referenced assessments for a little bit of subjective softness and talk of personal growth...