Sunday, May 31, 2009

Susan and Sonia Sitting Up a Tree

The last few weeks have seen two ladies of a certain age take center stage in the public's mind. First there was Susan Boyle, that remarkably ordinary looking Scottish lady, who captured the You tube with her singing and dreaming on "Britain's Got Talent." The frumpy, wildhaired lady walked on stage and in a few notes won the hearts of the world with her crystaline voice and her lack of pretension. She became an instant pop culture phenomenon with barrels of ink devoted to dissecting just what it was that made her win the world. She was unexpected and upset the preconceptions of her audience and the judges. She was Cinderlla arriving at the ball in a simple dress with bushy eyebrows and she won the heart of the Prince (or at least Simon Cowell.) Of course, not every fairy tale has a fairly tale ending---at least not yet. She was upset by a dance group called Diversity.

Meanwhile back in the states another middle-aged lady who described herself as an "ordinary women who had had extra ordinary opportunities" walked onto the center stage of American political life and was excoriated for her views on diversity. The clock has not struck 12 just yet for Sonia and we don't know whether she will become queen of the ball or just get ridden out of town in a pumpkin, pulled by a group of rats.

Both of these stories share a common element. Women who rise above the station that others set for them sometimes get their comeuppance. For Susan, she was praised, then pilloried by the press. She made the mistake of showing that the thing she was praised for--her humanity--made her human. She lost her temper with some of the British press and was beaten by the tabloids for it. How dare she be human? The British voters on the show pulled her back to earth, at least for a little while. For Sonia, her every word is being parsed to see if she is a racist, or intellectually capable, or even if she has the "judicial temperament" to sit on the high court.

Both tales are rather silly. Susan Boyle has a gift that will ultimately win out over the pettiness of those who didn't like that she had dyed her hair or yelled at a photographer who was in her face. She'll get her record deal and will sell enough CD's to keep her cat Pebbles in catfood for a very long time.

Sonia, whose academic credentials are extraordinary and which belie her claim to ordinariness, and whose extensive experience on the court (more than any other nominess in a hundred years) will ultimately win out in the end--after the right wing have used her for their fund raising purposes. One of the great ironies of her story is that she is being accused of the very things her accusers have demonstrated over time--bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and foul behavior. My mother always taught me that you are judged by your friends and your enemies. On that basis alone Judge Sotomayor has earned the nation's support. If Rush, Newt and company are against her, that seems proof enough that she should be confirmed. It has been amusing to watch them dance around the fact that other justices have said much the same thing she has said, but of course they were white males which makes it ok. And if Karl Rove wants to accuse you of a lack of intellectual firepower (a man nicknamed "Turd Blossom" by his former boss) then it is bit like Alfalfa telling Susan Boyle she can't sing. Just step over it Susan and Sonia--just don't step in it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Educational Alchemy

Over the coming months, we can expect to see an increase in the number of stories about "heroic exceptions" in schools. These are places that overcome the ravages of poverty and still produce outstanding results. The trouble with these stories is there is a grain of truth to them. Education has always been about alchemy--turning base metal into gold. Most educators choose that profession because they believe they can make a difference. And most do to some extent. But as child poverty rates soar (from 18% in 2007 to a projected 28.3% in 2010) we need more than a few making a difference. We need someone weaving straw into gold 24/7

. There are certainly wonderful stories out there of schools that do a miraculous job of raising student achievement despite overwhelming odds. This has always been true. America is a land of heroic execptions. The fabric of the American dream is woven with these stories. Abe Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House. But sadly, most people who grow up in grinding poverty tend to stay there. Being born in Kennebunkport or Hyannisport is a surer path to the White House. I have seen very few people with money giving it all away so they can benefit from the challenge of overcoming the odds.

Heroic exceptions will not get it done. For a long time school folks had to listen to the argument that "money doesn't matter." These arguments were usually made by those with the money. I have yet to hear someone without money make that case. As the greed and prolifigancy of the last two decades have undercut that notion, we hear that argument less and less. Money does seem to matter and if you don't have it, it reallly matters. So now we have a new mantra. Poor kids can achieve if only they are educated by people who believe in them. We have attacked the "soft bigotry of low expecations." But we haven't heard much about the hard bigotry of high expecations without adequate support. It is comforting to believe that we can overcome the effects of poverty by diligence. I had a successful fellow tell me once that people are poor because they choose to be. That is no doubt true for a few. But it is a big lie for the many.

So a softer version now is that if we just expect more from kids, they will rise to the challenge. That is also true, to a certain extent. But it is even more true that children with lots of needs have lots of needs and wishing them away is the vilest form of bigotry. I am glad we have a few schools who, because of great leadership or a special support system, have moved poor kids towards success. The real question is how will we do that for all the poor kids in poor schools? We can certainly benefit from learning about how these heroic exceptions become exceptional but we should start by understanding that we can't weave straw into gold. Gold comes from digging deeply and it takes a huge effort. We shouldn't be trying to bury the truth of the effects of poverty with a handful of feel good stories.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Amateurs in the Little Red School House

I am an expert flier. Over the last 15 years I have logged literally millions of miles on thousands of flights as a passenger. Every time I fly the same thing usually happens before the flight. As I am boarding, I walk down the jet way to the door of the plane. A flight attendant greets me warmly. I look to my left at the cockpit door which, at that point, is open. The pilot and co-pilot are busy going through their pre-flight rituals. I turn right, walk down the aisle and find my seat. I am proud to say in the millions of miles and thousands of flights, not once have I been tempted to turn left, walk into the cockpit and sit in the pilots lap and tell him or her that I am an expert flier and I think I will take this puppy up this time. It would be ridiculous. I know my place.

Yet every day school people are subjected to folks wanting to sit in their laps and take the controls simply because they have attended school and that makes them an expert school person. After the Nation at Risk Report came out in 1983 nearly every politician decided they were the "education representative," or "education governor" or even the ''education President." Since it had been said that schools were in crisis, everyone wanted to be credited with solving it.

The problem we have is, "Nation at Risk" was overblown in its rhetoric and flawed in its analysis. There may have been a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the schools but subsequent reforms have merely dumped more water on the problem. Schools have gradually gotten better over time; the problem is they have been making incremental progress in an exponential environment. They need to get better but do so by doing things differently. There may have been a "unilateral disarmament" as suggested by the report but if you recall the concern was over Japan and Germany, our vanquished World War II foes who seemed to be gaining on us and the schools were thought to be the cause of it.

There was much concern raised over the fact that more money was going into education but there had been a small but steady decline in the SAT scores--proof positive that the schools had failed. And drop-outs were a problem. Little mention was made of the fact that only a couple decades earlier more students were leaving school before graduating than were finishing and the drop-out problem only because a problem when more were staying in and it was noticed many were not. The other part of that equation was that in the 1950's when more were leaving, they could leave and still contribute to the economy and make a living. By the 1980's this was increasingly not possible.

No one talked about the fact that despite the long, slow steady drop in the average SAT score, every subgroup taking the test had increased its average score. The reason for the decline was that more students in the lower scoring subgroups (poor and minority children) were aspiring to college and taking the test--what might have been celebrated under different circumstances. The reason it wasn't was that the "amateurs" were now running in full-throated panic over the rise of Japan and Germany. Well, they did rise, until the late eighties, a few years after the study but then they ran into their own problems. I don't think they blamed their schools. That seems to be a uniquely American trait. Today we are in a panic over India and China. Same story, different villains. The reality if that the rest of the world is catching up--not because we are falling back but because they are finally in a position to move to first world status (although the reality is that millions of children in India and China are more than left behind--it is just that millions more are doing well and that creates pressure on us.)

The last decade has seen even more panic about the condition of education in America and "so-called" school reformers have taken flight with an emphasis on standards and accountability. They have done so with the aid and abetting of elected officials and corporate heads. The last few months should have put a lie to the wisdom of corporate America. They don't seem capable of running their own business much less dictating how education should be improved. And whether our elected officials know what they are doing is an ongoing matter of debate.

Here's the problem. Those who work in school on a day to day basis have been ignored ("they are part of the problem, not the solution" say some) and those calling the shots have little understanding of the complexity and difficulty of really changing a massive system affected directly by policies that have little to do with what happens in the classroom. If we, as a nation, did a better job of dealing with health care for children and with offsetting the debilitating effects of poverty it would be easier and more appropriate to move accountability directly into the schools and classrooms. As long as schools are affected by the context they exist within, we are apt not to see the kinds of improvements we want from the types of reforms we are currently pursuing.

Here's the real issue. The so-called reformers which have found even more power in the Obama administration know some things. But they don't know everything. It is great to consider charter schools as a part of the solution but they are just that--a part and thus far a small part. Most of America's children go to public schools. Some bad, some OK, some good and some wonderful. We could learn much from looking at the very good ones and seeing what they are doing and if it has any implications for the rest before we put too much effort into newer, untested models. It is good to look at alternative sources for teachers al la "Teach for America" or "New Leaders for New Schools" but they are the source of a very small fraction of new teachers and leaders. The problem, as I see it, is that these and other "amateurs" have pushed out the professionals. As the new administration was staffing up some of these folks even used the term "professional" in a pejorative sense. That is a recipe for a really bad outcome. I still want professionals handling my health, caring for my teeth an flying my planes. The new Secretary of Education, with his less than a decade of school leadership is somewhere between an amateur and a professional. He did some really interesting things in one school system. But I think everyone will be relieved to know that Chicago is not representative of the entire nation. He seems to be a listener and is willing to think about what he hears. He just needs to be sure that he hears some of the pros as well as the well-intentioned amateurs--and that he buffers the reform process from the real amateurs on the Hill and in the White House. Otherwise, his efforts won't get off the ground.