Dispatch from Pakistan #1 – Hitting the Ground

empty tea cupI arrived in Lahore, Pakistan 3:30 AM local time April 13. I’ll be here through April 23. I’m trying to capture my thoughts and experiences in this series of posts. They will be imperfect and fail to convey all the complex truths of this place. Think of this only as a container for my thoughts.

Initial perceptions. When I first traveled to South Africa and Kenya to work with teachers through Education Beyond Borders, all I had as a comparison were neighborhoods evoked by what I saw in those countries. Such is my similar experience here in Pakistan.

An unfair comparison, to be sure, my mind looks for what is similar to other places I’ve been in the world and then tries to puzzle those comparisons together to make sense of the foreign.

It doesn’t do the place justice, and it’s all I have. The more I’m here, the more I can reject the false comparisons in favor of the truths I’ve see here on the ground.

I’m staying with six teachers here to attend the weeklong workshop. Two are from Malaysian schools in the Beaconhouse network. Four are from schools and district offices in Karachi.

All of them are extremely dedicated to doing right by children. They are studying technology. They are enthused about project-based learning, they have been reading up on inquiry-based learning. It’s the same as you would expect from any group of teachers trying to get the mix right in American schools.

And yet it’s a bit different. When we talk about the issue of security in Karachi, the tone changes slightly. The people setting off bombs, the people kidnapping, the people who make fences and checkpoints necessary. “These people are not representative of Pakistan,” everyone I meet here is quick to point out.

From what I’m seeing (and it’s myopically limited based on only 10 days in-country), this is a country much different from what we see on the news. It turns out, only the bad news makes it out of Pakistan to the American media. No one has reported on the peacefulness I’ve seen here. Nor are they interested in the eggs, toast and jam on the table each morning when I come down to breakfast.

These are the pieces of ordinary daily life. The comings and goings of a people that aren’t worthy of report in papers and on the news networks.

It’s a mix of this. It’s the ordinary with the extraordinary. Daily life lives alongside a subtle shadow of actual insecurity. As a visitor, I’m trying to get my mind around it.

Leading from the Back

This piece from Ed Batista has me thinking about the kinds if leaders we need in the classroom. Batista’s point is well taken. Those who rise to leadership roles in organizations where their former contributions were aligned to separate skill sets n-ed to put those skills to the side to contemplate their role as leaders in the organization. They don’t need to be the craftsmen of the shop any longer. They are crafting new things.

Something similar can be said in the classroom. When I was teaching English to middle and high school students, my role shifted. I was no longer primarily to be learning about literature, writing, and reading the way I had been in K-12 or during my time in university.

Instead, I needed to understand what it took to help my students surpass me in learning about words and their uses and powers. My job, like the leaders xxx describes, was to step off the shop floor and start thinking about setting a vision for the space toward which all my students could work and in which they could all see their success.

This is not to say I stopped reading, writing, speaking and listening. I did those things, but they were not my primary roles.

In the math classroom, math teachers should still be curious about math, but the goal should be to make way for their students to surpass them as students of mathematics while they, the teachers, learn the new leadership skills key to teaching and fostering high-quality learning environments.

It might be easy to read the above as a suggestion that teachers relinquish the content areas they claim as specialties. This is not my intent anymore than I would suggest organizational leaders outside of education begin to neglect whatever domains in which their organizations specialize.

We must remain historians, musicians, scientists, etc. We must focus, though, on making way for our students to be better learners of any and all of those subjects than we are.


Image via Leo Reynolds

142/365 Teachers Know What They’re Doing, and We Shouldn’t be Surprised

EdNews Colorado has this piece up today reporting on the results of the pilot of Colorado’s new teacher evaluation system. For those outside the state, CO’s legislature passed Senate Bill 10-191 which structured evaluations around professional practices for 50% and the other half based on student scores.

We could go ’round and ’round on the weight of scores. (And, I’m happy to do that.) What struck me about the article was a tone I’m sure we’ll be seeing as this new initiative and others like it across the country come online.

“More than nine out of 10 of Colorado teachers evaluated during a pilot test of the state’s educator effectiveness were rated proficient or higher on the system’s five-step rating scale,” the reporter Todd Engdahl writes.

What follows is a general tone of incredulity that this could be true. It includes a not so subtle subtext of “surely more of our teachers have to be crappier than that.”

This is worrisome.

Statistically, it’s perhaps improbable that the pilot study is fine-tuned enough to determine what the final product will show.

This, though, is more a conversation of expectations. We should be expecting our teachers to be proficient. We should expect their professional practices to show our teachers are qualified to be working with our children.

Each time we imply differently, we do harm to education. We lower the status of teaching. We send a message of lowered expectations to teachers in the classroom. And, we say to those considering becoming teachers that the bar is low and they probably couldn’t do any worse than what is expected of those already in the classroom.

Such a tone also keeps the focus on the wrong elements of the work of our schools. Instead of altering assessment so that it “reveals” more teachers to lack proficiency in their practices, perhaps we could agree that the majority of teachers have the proficiency we should expect and start looking to other factors – health care, poverty, hunger – as contributing to lower-than-hoped-for student achievement.

I’m not surprised by findings that show teachers to be capable of doing their jobs. Sadly, I’m not surprised by those who are dedicated to believing the opposite to be true.

129/365 Poverty is a Thing and We’re Getting Worse at Fighting it

From a recent Bill Moyers post:

Most people in poverty do not receive cash assistance. In 1996, for every 100 families with children in poverty, there were 68 families who accessed cash assistance. In 2011, for every 100 families with children in poverty, 27 accessed cash assistance.

With the Farm Bill’s faltering in Congress putting food assistance for children in poverty in a dangerous limbo, maybe it’s time we agreed poverty as the most important issue in education. Anyone who thinks differently can remove themselves from the line of helpful voices.

119/365 Remembering the Third Way

In a conversation pre-Morsi resignation/soft military coup, I mentioned my frustration with the perceived dichotomy of the situation – military takeover or Morsi’s continued abuse of powers as seen by many Egyptian citizens.

“It’s as if the world has forgotten to look for the third way,” I said, and it is a thought that has been hanging around my brain ever since.

It was augmented when a friend shared a link to this NYT story on Oregon’s agreement to pilot a new way of funding higher education. It is a third way.

When I suggest the third way, I don’t mean to limit things to three possibilities, but to work against the idea that, when two options have presented themselves, we stop looking for others.

It’s akin to the lessons I tried to help my eighth grade students learn when they were starting to write persuasive essays. After deciding to write in response to a given prompt, the students would talk out their thinking regarding their stances on the issue. “Well,” someone would say, “I think I’m for it,” while another student across the room would announce that she was against whatever topic was up for debate. Then, they decided they were ready to start their planning of their argument.

I stood back.

A few minutes passed.

“Mr. Chase,” said one voice or another, “I’m trying to plan my argument, and I keep coming up with reasons why this is a good idea, but I’m arguing that it’s not.” The student would look over to me chagrinned, sure that the only option would be to switch sides, since the evidence was mounting over there.

“What if you acknowledged that the idea isn’t all bad?” I’d ask, “And, make the argument that your side is the better of the two.”

Usually with some coaxing, the student would agree to attempt this line of reasoning.

The best moments, though, were the students who sat confounded for several minutes, notes scratched all over their papers. “I keep thinking about it,” they would say, “and I don’t think either of these sides is the right way to go.”

“Do you have a better idea,” I’d ask.

“I think so.”

“Then, write that.”

These are the students I wish we were looking to more as models of the debates we wage over the important issues of our time. They are the ones who give themselves the space to lean back in their chairs, consider the information in front of them and decide they’d like to try to find a path different than those laid out for them by others.

Robert Frost may have seen two roads diverging in the woods, and that’s largely the basis for much of our contemporary policy decisions. What’s necessary though, is re-writing Frost and choosing the road not yet seen.

That will make all the difference.

Learning Grounds Ep. 15: Darren Hudgins and Bud Hunt Talk Learning Design Challenges

In this episode of Zac talks with Darren Hudgins and Bud Hunt about design challenges for learning with a focus on teacher development. The guys also talk risk aversion in education and where it might start.

Play

61/365 Investigating Ch. 13 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

This week’s reading takes us back to Losing Ground by Charles Murray. While the opening chapters bordered on the ridiculous in their cherry picking of facts, avoidance of sources and generally fallacious arguments, these final chapters were particularly frustrating. Surely conservative thinkers have a stronger argument to make than Murray’sI’ve decided to think of this series of posts as “Reading, so you don’t have to.”

Graph 1It is unlikely one will find a graph axis label that gives the appearance of saying much while, in reality, saying so little as the vertical label Murray includes on page 168, “Odds of Going Unarrested for 5 Crimes.” It acts as a suitable metaphor for the contents of the chapter.

Graph 2

The second graph on page 169 presents readers with an even more confusing story. Within the text, Murray points to the span between 1961 and 1969 as particularly unsettling because the number of incarcerated citizens fell so sharply. He fails to mention or find any problem with the soaring incarceration rates beginning in the early 70s.[1]

Murray implies throughout the opening of this chapter that police stopped arresting criminals and that crime rates were skyrocketing. In looking closely, his only mention of actual crime rates comes not from national statistics, but within Cook County, IL. Even then, Murray is making mention not of an actual increase in number of crimes, but concerns himself with juvenile crime (in this one county) “entering its highest rate of increase” (p.170). His conclusion that no reason existed not to commit delinquent acts in the 1970s is a strange one. Murray needed only look at his own graph to see the youth he mentions standing on the street corner had a fairly likely chance of knowing someone who had been arrested and imprisoned for committing a crime.

When turning his attention to education, Murray continues his focus on punishments and sanctions. His description of the frustrations inherent in working in schools with students from varied backgrounds was not incorrect. Students with little support from home present special challenges for learning. These are challenges that often require new approaches to teaching. Murray, once again assumes an external locus of control. This is not surprising, considering his application of such a theory to people living in poverty, those considering criminal activity, and Harold & Phyllis’ decision of whether or not to go on welfare. Children, like the adults Murray considers, are to be considered as driven solely by external forces.

Suspensions and expulsions, Murray reasons were key tools in helping students learn. Those who found themselves suspended had made their choice, and rejected the opportunity to learn. In defending these tools, Murray again ignores race and shows no signs of awareness of or interest in the school-to-prison pipeline[2] that was developing in America at the time. Further, in his dismissal of African American efforts to shift schooling for their children, Murray shows an ahistorical understanding of the goals and work of those schools as we discussed in class.

Murray’s main argument about education (that the inclusion of disinterested students who would otherwise have found themselves suspended or expelled destroyed the learning of interested students and lowered the standards of teachers) comes not surprisingly without evidence to support his claims. More frustrating is Murray’s lack of interest in changing what was going on inside of schools rather than kicking students out of them. He appears to be making a “business as usual” argument that education would have been fine if we could have kept the bad kids out. Again, this shows a lack of consideration of the ways in which the world was changing during the 60s and 70s. Murray would have done well to consider the idea that the misalignment of the world within the classroom with the world outside the classroom might have had more to do with a lack of student interest than the removal of the “bad” students.

One final note about this chapter, on page 177, Murray writes, “For blacks, the uncertainty and distance of the incentive have been compounded by discrimination that makes it harder to get and hold jobs.” Here, the emotional baggage of race in America moves to support his purpose and is picked up again. It raises the question of whether Murray ignored race in the previous chapter because it could muddy the clarity he found in his argument about welfare incentives.


[1] This is to say nothing of the abhorrent design of the graph.

[2] As documented by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana – http://jjpl.org/suspensions-matter/

60/365 Investigating Ch. 12 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

This week’s reading takes us back to Losing Ground by Charles Murray. While the opening chapters bordered on the ridiculous in their cherry picking of facts, avoidance of sources and generally fallacious arguments, these final chapters were particularly frustrating. Surely conservative thinkers have a stronger argument to make than Murray’s.

In chapters 12, Murray continues to use an interesting approach to analyzing changes in American poverty beginning in the early-to-mid 1960s and using the 1950s as a basis of comparison. He decides not to look at the whole history. In the opening to Ch. 12, Murray writes, “It is not necessary to invoke the Zeitgeist of the 1960s, or changes in the work ethic, or racial differences, or the complexities of postindustrial economies, in order to explain increasing unemployment among the young, increased dropout from the labor force, or higher rates of illegitimacy and welfare dependency“ (p. 154). Here, as in earlier chapters, Murray is discounting the importance of other forces that may have been at work in shifting poverty rates and one of his main premises – that America started thinking differently about what it means to be poor.

While I understand the careless and ambiguous approach to data, charts, graphs, etc. could be particularly pernicious, this declaration of consideration of only pieces of the culture and society he’s decided to include undermines his entire argument. What’s more, Murray furthers his myopic analysis on the next page, writing, “Let us drop the racial baggage that goes with the American context and make the point first in a less emotional setting”  (p. 155). He then presents an example set in a developing nation as though his invocation of race in would not be in his readers’ minds. It is akin to telling someone not to picture an elephant. While this may be as easy for Murray as putting the sentence to the page, for those he writes about, separating race from any aspect of the American experience is not nearly so easy. It can be taken as more evidence to support the claim stated in last week’s class that Murray’s argument is meant more as permission for those feeling white guilt to let those feelings go. “It’s not about race, “ he writes in one form or another throughout the text. Yet, to deny race or drop the emotional baggage it includes only works to highlight Murray’s ignorance (fabricated or authentic) of the multitude of factors involved in poverty and class in America.

The crux of his argument in Ch. 12, though, is the story of Harold and Phyllis and Murray’s explanation of how these two might navigate having a child together in 1960 versus 1970 and their options in attempting to make ends meet. In presenting these characters, Murray takes great pains to work against the stereotype of a welfare recipient his target readership would likely hold. Through all of his detail, Murray’s subtext seems to be shouting, “No, they’re white, so you wouldn’t expect them to be on welfare.” This fact aside, Murray’s stated purpose is to have us ask, “[W]hat course of action makes sense?” (p. 157). Here, he asks us not only to strip away the cultural factors that might play a role in Harold and Phyllis’ decisions, but to strip away aspects of their humanity as well.[1] They will be driven by the logic of the math. Aside from removing any intrinsic will to work a job, Murray returns to his old tricks involving explaining the math of the situation. The explanation of Harold and Phyllis’ options in 1970 is particularly slippery, moving back and forth between the real amounts in 1970 and their 1980 equivalents. A reader could easily lose their way through the description to walk away with the idea that Harold and Phyllis were receiving a few hundred dollars per week through welfare benefits.

Murray’s prejudice is further displayed in his explanation of Phyllis’ decision to keep the baby. He removes all sense of agency and independence from his subject when he implies her two choices for “economic insurance” are either the government support her baby elicits or the support of a husband. It’s a disturbing image that also works against the bootstrap endgame Murray has been working toward throughout the book. Evidently, only men can pick themselves up out of poverty, and women can pick themselves up by latching on to a man on his way up.

In the end, it is not inconceivable that a couple who found themselves in the shoes of 1970 Harold and Phyllis could approach their situation in the calculated mathematical manner Murray describes. That this would be the case for all is not only unlikely, but highly insulting as well.


[1] This is to say nothing of the normalized assumptions about the benefits of the couple living together, which is presented devoid of any nuance of analysis of whether the economic best choice is also best for the socio-emotional needs of all three.

58/365 Investigating Ch. 7 of ‘Losing Ground’ by Charles A. Murray

As part of this week’s reading for my policy course, we’ve been asked to take a look at Charles Murray’s seminal tome, Losing GroundWhile my reaction to the text is different than my reading of Dewey’s Experience & Educationit seemed this might be a good chance to put another side of the argument into perspective.

Murray sets his sights on education in Ch. 7 and gives it a treatment no different than the previous three chapters.

Murray’s main point about education in the mid-to-late 60s is that minority populations, namely African Americans, were making progress at closing the gap with their white peers and that social welfare policies and moves to bring equity to the system messed that up.

At the outcomes end of the argument, he points to the findings of A Nation at Risk to show somewhere between the incremental gains in test scores in the 50s and the dire story told by Risk, we started charting the wrong course as a country. While I’d agree with his course contestation, Murray and I diverge when he points to federal programs aimed at equity as causing the widening of educational gaps.

In fact, Murray appears to ignore the unrest and riots of the late 60s in African American neighborhoods when groups of citizens saw violent riots as the means left to them following legislation and judicial decree’s failure to bring the equity of opportunity the country had promised. As I was reading, I found myself wanting to put my arm around Murray and say, “Don’t you think riots (understandable or not) finding their epicenters in the middle of African American communities might have done something to scar communities and detract from whatever education was happening in classrooms?” This is to say nothing of political scandal and a series of military actions that called a disproportionate  number of unfortunate sons from the African American community? While I don’t know enough and there might not be the kind of data we need to know whether the policies Murray cites had a negative causal relationship with minority academic achievement between 1964 and the release of A Nation at Risk, I don’t believe the numbers are there to support the kind of sweeping claims he’s making.

One final piece about this chapter. Of Risk, Murray writes:

Only scattered, limited criticisms of the report were voiced, despite the harsh language that the commission used. Few were prepared to defend the state of American education.

Charles Murray. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition (Kindle Locations 1243-1244). Kindle Edition.

While I have many possible arguments as to why this was true, the one that sticks in my mind the most was Murray’s own from Ch. 3. Perhaps defending American education was out of fashion. With the ascendance of President Reagan and the shifting of American politics to a more conservative favor, was this yet another conversation we failed to have as country because the conservative elite, led by Secretary Bell had picked up another trend of demonizing public education and deficit modeling that’s remained the model ever since.

Just maybe.

 

18/365 Back to Dewey 1.6 – ‘The Meaning of Purpose’

Since freedom resides in the operations of intelligent observation and judgment by which a purpose is developed, guidance given by the teacher to the exercise of the pupils’ intelligence is an aid to freedom, not a restriction upon it.

– John Dewey

Experience & Education

This post continues a mini-series examining John Dewey’s Experience & Education chapter-by-chapter.

For Chapter 6, Dewey continues clarification of terms, setting his sights on purpose.

The chapter provides yet another clarification of the frequent view that Dewey was proposing a melee approach to learning, letting students loose in a situation and then cleaning them up for learning later on. In Ch. 6, we find the opposite as Dewey highlights the importance of pausing in moments of impulse so that those impulses might lead to desire.

If the earlier chapters were instructing readers on the importance of a philosophical and critically considered approach to the broader scope of progressive education, here we find that need translated to the individual classrooms and students. What is being done, at all times, must be considered thoughtfully. While this is not surprising from a philosopher, Dewey’s considerations are not philosophical as much as they are practical.

If we are to have purpose in education, we must consider our impulses regarding our experiences, hold tight to them, and reflect on how (or whether) we would like to see them enacted.

To do this, Dewey asks that teachers and students observe the surroundings of the learning and move from there to collect knowledge, organize that knowledge and then set out with purpose driven by that knowledge.

He sets it out in clearer terms:

 The formation of purposes is, then, a rather complex intellectual operation. It involves (1) observation of surrounding conditions; (2) knowledge of what has happened in similar situations in the past, a knowledge obtained partly by recollection and partly from the in- formation, advice, and warning of those who have had a wider experience; and (3) judgment which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify. A purpose differs from an original impulse and desire through its translation into a plan and method of action based upon foresight of the consequences of acting under given observed conditions in a certain way.

 

Rather than rejecting tools of traditional education wholesale, Dewey asks for a blending. Attend to the impulses and nature of students, yes, but do not do so without an eye to judgement, observation, consideration and guidance.