Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Job/Same Job

My family and I just completed a cross-country move to the Eastern Seaboard where I've just landed a new job as a special education teacher in a high-need urban high school. I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I'm happy to be back in the swing. I love working with underprivileged kids and there are fewer things more rewarding than knowing you've made a difference in the life of a young person who may have few positive influences in his life. They deserve all the support we can give them.

On the other hand, the school has been underperforming - or so say the benchmark tests - and there are all sorts of silly and pointless regulations we have to follow in the name of "accountability." Most of all, based only on the school tour and interview I had last week, I can already tell that test scores are the top priority, as established by the district higher-ups and evidenced by the scripted, canned curriculum we're apparently supposed to follow. It's this sort of crap that drives me nuts about what should be, what used to be, the most noble profession on Earth.

Still, perhaps this is an opportunity to effect change from within. How, exactly? ...I don't know. I do know this: education and test prep are each other's blood enemies.

Education creates flexible minds and psyches capable of dealing with the issues we'll face 20, 50, 80 years from now. Test prep teaches kids to bubble inside the lines.

Education provides the foundation for future learning and professional success. Test prep teaches kids that there's always, and only, one right answer to every question.

Education gives students the knowledge and confidence to ask, "why?" and "why not?" Test prep teaches you that the answer to both questions is "because I said so."

Education makes long-term research papers possible, allowing students to expand their intellectual horizons and pursue in depth a topic that interests them. Test prep is short-term, geared toward a specific exam that has no bearing on either the student's future learning or that young person's post-graduation life.

Education makes us smart. Test prep makes us stupid.

And yet, for all that, I've just signed on to help a school boost its test scores.

Like I said, I have mixed feelings about this. I know there's a lot of good I can do at this school and for the students I will have. And I'm really looking forward to meeting them.

And yet... and yet...

Our national obsession with test prep is educational malpractice, short-sighted at best, criminal at worst. The next Steve Jobs won't emerge because of it; if the creativity and passion aren't tested out of him, he'll emerge despite it. We're hobbling America's future economic standing in a pathetic attempt to appease people who call themselves reformers, who are in fact little more than hogs gorging at the taxpayer trough.

And worst of all, the testing mandate rests its corpulent backside most heavily on children in poverty. It's as if we've already given up on them, choosing to drill them in discipline and testing rather than offering the hope of a brighter future where they might actually be the ones asking questions at a job interview instead of answering them.

I worked in a high-poverty school right before we moved to our new state and the emphasis was on teaching students compliance before coursework. In some cases, this was sadly necessary but we inflicted this obedience first/teaching second philosophy on every child in the building. There was no way I'd send my kid to such a school. I'd homeschool first.

I hope this new school is different. I hope the regulations we must follow don't cross the line from onerous to asinine. I hope I actually get to teach. I'm afraid, though, that the testing mandates and scripted curriculum may get in the way of providing an education to the kids who need it most.

We shall see.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We've Moved Across the Country

My wife, daughter, and I are in the midst of a cross-country move. Things happened very quickly. I'll post a more substantial update when time permits.

Thanks for sticking with me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Cheating in Atlanta

For those of you who haven't heard the news yet, you can read about it and download all of the GBI's investigative documents here.  From the NY Times piece:
At the center of the cheating scandal is former Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year and has been considered one of the nation’s best at running large, urban districts.

Dr. Hall, who announced in November that she would be leaving the job at the end of June, left Tuesday for a Hawaiian vacation.

Dr. Hall is a veteran administrator of the New York and Newark public schools. She took over the Atlanta district in 1999 and enjoyed broad support. Under her administration, Atlanta schools had shown marked improvement in several areas.

Still, the investigation shows that cheating on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test began as early as 2001, and that “clear and significant” warnings were raised as early as December 2005. Dr. Hall’s administration punished whistle-blowers, hid or manipulated information and illegally altered documents related to the tests, the investigation found. The superintendent and her administration “emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics,” the investigators wrote.
So what do you get when you combine pressure to goose the numbers at all costs with a culture of fear and intimidation?  Apparently, you get the Atlanta Public School system.

This cheating scandal cut several ways.
  1. Tests were manipulated to show improvement where the was none, allowing teachers and administrators to collect accolades and, in some cases, cash bonuses they hadn't earned.
  2. Parents were given a false impression of the schools to which they sent their children.
  3. Teachers who didn't play along or tried to blow the whistle were penalized with a variety of reprimands that could have significant negative consequences on their careers.
  4. Students who noticed that their tests had been altered were brushed off or told they were mistaken.
  5. I'm sure there's something I'm leaving out... oh, right.  THE KIDS GOT SCREWED.
The most egregious examples were of children with special needs who didn't get the help they desperately needed because their test scores showed that they were doing well.  In one instance, a child hid under a desk and flatly refused to take the test.  Miraculously, he passed.

Imagine that.

This scandal will reverberate in Atlanta for years to come.  Other urban districts will take note and, in all likelihood, ramp up their anti-cheating measures.  The burden, of course, will be at the school level because, in the wake of this, I suspect every teacher will now be suspected of cheating when his or her kids' test scores are high.

These idiots in Atlanta make us, the teachers, look bad.  But that's nothing compared to the damage they've done to the kids themselves.  I am no fan of high-stakes testing - this blog will repeatedly demonstrate my antipathy - but such tests can be a useful diagnostic tool.  In Atlanta, the tests were treated as little more than a game, a system to be manipulated in any number of ways for the benefit of the adults.

Perhaps teachers and administrators contemplating gaming the system wherever they may be will take this lesson to heart. Simply put, when it comes standardized tests, you are not allowed to grease the knob before bending over.

Then there's the other side of this scandal, the side that's gotten little press: how a high-stakes testing system incentivizes precisely this sort of cheating.  I'll get into that in my next post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Standardized Testing, Where the Grass is Always Greener

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts these past few months. I've let this project slide far too long and I'll make sure that doesn't happen again.

The argument I make in this post isn't a new one. It is, however, unalterably true.

In the 1980s, when the economic war with Japan was heating up, many American educators looked to the Japanese system with envy. Universal literacy, high achievement on international tests in virtually every subject, a well-educated workforce powering what seemed like an unstoppable economic juggernaut. And how did they do it? A national curriculum, cram schools, and an obsession with standardized testing.

The pressure was, and remains, so great that it drives teens to suicide and has led to a class of students known as "ronin," who take a year off after high school for the sole purpose of studying for the make-or-break college entrance exams.

Meanwhile, Japanese educators were looking at the United States, marveling at the enormous strides made by her research universities. As the 1990s wore on and the Japanese economic bubble burst, many Japanese educators started calling for a more American educational system, one that rewards creativity as well as achievement. The problems with the Japanese economy, they said, could be traced in part to the rigidity of the national curriculum, a rigidity that allowed no room for the next Bill Gates to pursue his passion and flourish.

Today, we're once again seeing this cycle. This time, it's the Chinese being held up as a K-12 model for Americans to follow, a model built on testing, testing, and more testing. Howard Gardner, the developer of the multiple intelligences theory (MI), once saw a carton of milk in China that advertised how it would help children boost all 8 of their intelligences. A Chinese colleague explained that, while Americans used MI to find out where a child's strengths lay, Chinese used it as a guide for the 8 areas in which their children should excel.

And, once again, we're seeing Asian educators wondering how their universities can match the academic research powerhouses in the United States.

It is ironic that so many Chinese students, and their families, see an American college education as the ticket to success. The American university system is not based on a rigid admissions process - a student can theoretically work her way from an open-admissions community college to an Ivy League medical school - and attempts to consider the "whole person" during the application process.

Standardized testing is threatening to change that. The greatness of the American educational system lies in its diversity, the creative richness of multiple talents and interests in one place, sharing and rejecting ideas, thoughts, arguments. Standardized testing, especially of the multiple-choice variety, teaches instead that (a) there is only one right answer and (b) there is always a right answer.

The world doesn't work that way. Just ask any business executive.

If the United States is to maintain its economic and scientific mantle, we must ensure that standardized remains just one aspect of our children's curriculum. Too many school districts have adopted it as the primary driver of the curriculum. This has to stop.

I will deal with the increasing standardization of the American school system in a future post. For now, I will say only that the current uses of standardized testing are stupid, bordering on criminal. Something has to be done.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Internet and Its Fallacies

Indulge me briefly in some irony: don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Politics, parenting, scientific discoveries, sports... always check multiple competing sources. And teach your kids to do the same.

The only real antidote to idiocy is an open mind using facts as a filter. You'll notice I didn't say "truth." Facts and facts only.

Everyone is entitled to their own truths, be they about religion, politics, or which city has the better football team, just as everyone is entitled to their own opinions.

But no one - no one - is entitled to their own facts.

The roiling stew that is the Internet provides a marvelous place for a child to explore the limits of human knowledge. Like any other wide open space, however, it can be dangerous. I'm not referring to the sick bastards who prey on kids or the proliferation of pornographic websites - those are, perhaps, topic for future posts - but rather the competing truths one finds on countless blogs, vlogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, opinion-masquerading-as-news sites, and the voices of the many commentators who write with more authority than they actually possess.

Commentators like, well, me. But, again, that's a post for another day. Here's your grain of salt.

How children navigate these sites will in large part be determined by what they have learned from their parents. If all they read or hear are the words of far-left or far-right political commentators, their view of the world will be filtered through those words. They will come to accept, with little critical thought, that certain religions, corporations, countries, ethnicities, or politicians are motived by pure malice, that entire nations or faiths are determined to rule and/or destroy the rest of us. I recall with great sadness reading, about 10 years ago, an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Palestinian-funded school that taught its kindergarteners that Israel was "the enemy."

"And what do we do to the enemy?" their teacher asked.

With apparent joy, the children cried, "kill them!"

Of course, children don't need to go school to be influenced in this way. It's all their fingertips, from the comfort of home.

What can parents do? Teach their children to read any website with one question in mind: "what would prove the author wrong?" And then seek out whatever occurs to them. Granted, the elementary school set is unlikely to independently seek out The Huffington Post or listen to Rush Limbaugh. Older kids, however, would benefit from this exercise.

Schools make a big deal of teaching the critical thinking needed to perform well on papers and exams. Those skills, properly taught in the classroom and reinforced at home, can apply to the virtual world. Collecting facts is good. They filter opinions and enrich dialogue. But best of all, they help vaccinate against idiocy.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When Parents Disagree About Discipline

One of the parenting truisms so often tossed about is "discipline begins in the home." I believe this to be true. Parents, after all, are a child's first - and primary - disciplinarians. Many of us say "no" to our children so often that the word starts to lose meaning. But what if parents don't agree with each other on how to discipline their child? Can two conflicting disciplinary philosophies manage to live under the same roof?

My wife and I had conversations about parental discipline even before we conceived, talking about stories we'd found online or in magazines and comparing notes from our own childhoods. You'd think that with such a long head start, two intelligent people with well-developed communication skills and three graduate degrees between them would have a solid discipline plan in place by the time their daughter was born.


We actually agreed on most things: what behaviors we wanted to reinforce, what behaviors we wanted to see die a quick death, what values we wanted to instill, and how we'd always present a united front if the little one tried to play one of us against the other. My wife and I would back each other to the hilt, no doubt, no questions asked. In fact, there was only one sticking point: spanking.

One of us was spanked as a child. The other was not. Consequently, one of us believes that spanking is an appropriate means of discipline. The other does not. We went round and round on this issue for months, before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and after our daughter was born, each of us certain that the other side was wrong and neither of us giving ground.

Finally, after seemingly endless conversation - which, I'm happy to say, was always civil - and after getting a better sense of our daughter's personality, we settled on a compromise. Our daughter was not to be spanked unless and until her behavior became so unmanageable that we were out of disciplinary ideas, at which point, we'd revisit the issue and consider it as a last resort, depending on the circumstances.

With luck, it will never be an issue again. I hate arguing with my wife and I know she hates arguing with me. Moreover, I'm a special education teacher who, in theory at least, has a repertoire of behavior management strategies that should last me well into old age. I've successfully worked with kids on more medications than I can count and never once have I raised a hand to a child.

But... it's one thing to discipline someone else's child. Disciplining your own is another thing entirely. And any teacher, any parent, will tell you that what works for one child may backfire horribly with another. So even if our discipline strategy works on our first child, it may be useless with the second. At which point, we'll get to enjoy the whole spanking debate all over again.

So what does all this have to do with idiot-proofing your child?

Kids need a predictable home environment to feel secure enough to explore the world around them on the terms you want. They need to be able to say to themselves, "If I do A, mom will have Reaction B." Our jobs, as parents, is, yes, to make sure Reaction B goes with Act A but to also ensure that we have Reactions C, D, and E - all of them appropriate to Act A - on the back burner in case Junior decides to take Act A to the next level. If there is one shared trait every child has, it's the need to push their boundaries.

What Junior doesn't need is mom having Reaction B and dad having Reaction Q, with any chance of effective discipline lost in the conflict. Junior needs to know that mom and dad will have similar reactions to Act A because, when mom and dad turn around and promise something he likes in exchange for a particular behavior (good grades, housecleaning, etc.) he'll know that they will keep their word. And thus is security reinforced.

By providing a stable disciplinary environment, parents provide a child with a stable home. Kids, even adolescents, need predictability in their lives if they're to grow into intelligent, purposeful, and responsible adults. Such adults can come from a chaotic environment as well but even then, there is usually an element of stability somewhere in their lives: school, a trusted relative, an extracurricular activity, something upon which they can consistently rely.

Disagreeing with your spouse about discipline is fine, so long as the child doesn't learn to use that disagreement to manipulate one of you against the other. By working out a compromise and presenting a united front, you can provide stability for your children while you're still hammering out the particulars. And that united front, even if it's an illusion, offers the temporary stability you'll need to work out a more permanent solution.

Even if that solution is to simply wait and see what happens next.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Parentelligensia

Most people with children are prone to moments of doubt about how good a job they're doing. They worry about seemingly minor details - should I have fed him something different for lunch? Why is she playing with these blocks instead of those ones? - and wonder, at every step, if they're doing the right thing for their child. These people are called "parents."

A few people with children, however, walk through parenting with the certitude of the righteous. They believe that not only are they doing what is right for their child, they know full well what is right for your child, too. These exemplary specimens of child-rearing brilliance are the "parentelligensia."

The parentelligensia have read every published word on parenting, from Dr. Spock to the latest celebrity mommy confessional, and don't hesitate to casually theory-drop what they've gleaned from the current issue of Parenting or Psychology Today. While there's certainly a great deal of merit in keeping up with parent-oriented periodicals, the parentelligensia have made it part of their life's work.

For most of us, it's enough to merely keep up with the Consumer Product Safety Commission's recall list or consult Consumer Reports before every major purchase. But not for the parentelligensia. They first check the various reports, then surreptitiously (or not) check your home for inferior or dangerous products the next time they drop by, delighting in the opportunity to enlighten you on the unsafe environment in which you are raising your little one.

Clearly, you are not as good a parent as they.

And while most parents are happy to indulge in an occasional spot of bragging at their child's accomplishments, the parentelligensia take it one step further, pointing out in various subtle and not-so-subtle ways that junior's athletic prowess or Ivy League scholarship is due in large part not to their child's hard work or constant practice but to superior parenting. My child did X, therefore I am a better parent than thou.

The true mark of the parentelligensia, however, isn't the obsessiveness of their reading or inability to separate their child's life from their own. Rather, it's their obliviousness to the idea that someone else with a contrary view might be right or - gasp! - that they themselves might be wrong. To hear it from them, there is one way and one way only to be a good parent. And that is the way of the parentelligensia.

The parentelligensia is filled with idiots. They're not idiots because they are stupid or are unwilling to work hard. They're idiots because they think they, and they alone, know how to raise a child "properly." They're the parents who tell your kid's teacher how her lessons should be planned, down to the bathroom breaks. They're the parents who tell your kid's coach how to maximize the potential of every player even though they themselves never played that particular sport. They're the parents who tell your kid directly that the way they do homework or treat their siblings is wrong, not because you said so, but because a magazine article/a book/their mothers said so.

The solution? For you the parent, it's simpler than you think, if you're willing to exercise a little patience: listen, nod, think about sex, wait for the conversation to end. Attempts at refutation will be useless... although, if you're in a snarky mood and quick on your feet, you can respond with some variation of, "Really? Because Howard Gardner - you know, the guy at Harvard who developed the whole multiple intelligences theory? - published a paper just last week that said the exact opposite of everything you just said."

[Note: I picked Howard Gardner because of the large number of schools that have adopted curricula based on multiple intelligences (or so they claim) and, since these eight intelligences collectively describe most human endeavors, you'll probably be covered for at least as long as it takes to get out of the conversation. And, I hear, he's a pretty cool guy.]

For your child, it's a little tougher, especially if they're young. Teenagers usually have the fortitude to either politely hear out an obnoxious adult or simply suggest the adult engage in an anatomically impossible sexual act before walking away. Young children, by which I mean pre-teen or younger, usually have more outward respect for adults and are more likely to believe what they hear. Self-extraction from such a conversation is more difficult for a third-grader than a high school sophomore.

Your child's response in this situation depends on the relationship he or she has built with you, the parent. If your child knows that you'll provide backup in the face of confrontation, and if you've repeatedly spoken to your child about how you want them handle a situation with an otherwise trustworthy adult, odds are good that your child will respond the way you want: ignoring the adult, running away, engaging in conversation (if and only if it's adult they know they can otherwise trust), but, most of all, telling you all about it first chance they get.

If, on the other hand, your child isn't certain that you'll be there for support, they'll respond in whatever way they think is best. And if your kid is eight years old, your idea of what's best probably doesn't match theirs.

Idiot-proofing your child in this case means talking over with him or her how to deal with adults who say things that contradict what you say. The particulars of this conversation should be specific to you and your child, based on your own family values. Whatever you say, though, it should include two things: a default response they can always fall back on - "Daddy said I have to do this or he'll get mad" or "you'll have to talk to Mom about that. I just want my allowance." - and the reassurance that you'll support whatever they do or say, even if it's not what you might want (after all, even the smartest kids forget their lines in a moment of confrontation).

The parentelligensia are convinced that they were put on this Earth for one reason: to share their brilliant parenting tips with the rest of us. They read books, magazines, blogs - perhaps even this one - and use that knowledge to inflate their already overblown sense of themselves, usually at your expense. Just remember that they can take from you only what you allow them. In their obliviousness, they might not even notice that they're getting nothing from you.

If self-awareness is the beginning of wisdom, the parentelligensia are idiots indeed.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In the Beginning...

...there were no idiots. All living humans got along just fine. They worked together, helped raise each other's children, and supported each other in the face of an unforgiving world. Kumbaya.

And then, one day, along came The Idiot. He seemed normal at first. He was articulate, because many idiots are. He was charming, because many idiots get by on their charm. But most of all, he appeared to be the opposite of what he was. He appeared to be intelligent.

And then he decided to breed.

Soon, his progeny appeared. And they grew up, articulate, charming, and deceptively intelligent. They, too, bred. Today, the world is overrun with The Idiot's descendants.

The Idiot is what you make of him. He may be someone of a different faith, a different political party, a different value system. Everyone knows an idiot, but no two people know the same one.

Most idiots are tolerable. They bumble about, believing what they believe, saying what they say, but for the most part leaving you alone. When they don't leave you alone, a simple rebuff - polite or otherwise - is usually all you need. It's all you need because you're an adult.

But what about your kids?

That's where this blog comes in. This blog is about how to help your child when he or she isn't left alone. How do you raise your child in such a way that he or she can politely listen to an idiot, pay attention to what the idiot says, and still avoid falling under the idiot's spell?

This project was inspired by my daughter, who turned one year old this week. Is it possible, I wondered, to raise her in such a way that she listens to others with whom she disagrees and still holds true to what her mother and I teach her? And if it is possible, how do I do it?

Over the coming months, and perhaps years, I hope to find out. I've started contacting parents of various faiths, politics, sexual orientations, and marital statuses for insight into how they are raising their children and how they themselves were raised. All of these parents are accomplished, intelligent individuals who have managed to immerse themselves in the idiocy around them and still keep intact a moral code that guides them through their lives.

As I talk with these parents, I'll try to share their best tips here. And if you have any tips you'd like to offer, please feel free to share them. My other goal is the creation of an intelligent dialogue among people who may not always agree on life's trivialities but who can find common ground in raising the moral, courteous, and intelligent men and women the world will need between this century and the next.