Early childhood Education

I just got an email asking me to sign a petition to better fund early childhood education. I have to admit, though, that talk of early childhood education always raises mixed emotions with me. On the one hand, how could I not want to give disadvantaged youth the opportunity for quality early childhood education. And there is good research on the both how it can make a difference and on the real lack of it for many children.

But there is the rub. What is quality early childhood education? Over the past decade we have seen kindergarten turn into first grade. A place of worksheets and formal direct instruction.  A place where children quickly learn whether they are “good” or “poor” students. Where they are put in the “fast” or the “slow” group.

Yes research study after research study, as well as comparisons to other countries have shown that earlier is not better. Countries that start formal teaching of literacy later tend to actually do better at literacy over the years. Comparative studies of developmental early education versus formal instruction has shown similar results–developmental forms that do not stress formal teaching leads to better lasting results.

But when I hear of expanded early education, I see that in this country what that likely may mean is early formal instruction, early sorting kids into those who are seen as good at school and those who are not, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, and taking away a time that should be for children to explore their world, and learn to socialize, and play.

If early childhood education means a time when kids received supported opportunities to be involved in play, in exploration of materials, exposure to wonderful stories and print, to interact with playmates in a safe and supportive environment, I am all for it.

If it means starting “first grade” at 3 or 4, then might we doing more harm then good?

So it is with such fears that I hear talk of expanded early childhood education.

If I Were in Charge Part 2

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. In my previous blog, I addressed the first part of the question. Now I will briefly tackle the second part.

A good test of schooling is whether one would send one’s own children there. Those who have read my other blogs entries know I favor progressive/constructivist pedagogy. That means that students have to be engaged in activities that matter to them in order to learn. The more those activities are connected authentically to the kinds of activities one engages in outside of school, the more likely what they learn can and will be used beyond school. There is both the need for students to be able follow their own personal interests and abilities, and expanding those interests.

One also heeds to think bout how the experience of school shapes both what a student learns about, and what kind of climate and culture they learn it in. As psychologists such as Vygotsky, Bandura, Wenger and many others have shown, we learn more indirectly from how we experience the world, and watching how the adults in our world act and interact, as we do from any explicit instruction. Therefore, as much as possible the school should recreate the kind of culture, society we want our students to learn to be part of.

There is a built in tension of a democracy, between individual rights and pursuits, while recognizing that we are also part of a larger society. Fascist and totalitarian states focus on the state over the individual, and so schools in such a culture would teach students to obey and focus on obedience to higher authority. In an anarchist or libertarian state it would focus on the rights and liberties of the individual (would such a system even have public schooling, much less compulsory schooling?).

In my school students work not just individually, but also with others, others who are both alike and different than themselves. That in itself is one of the most important skills that I see any citizen needs. Most of what we do in life in in collaboration with others, in both the work and civic spheres. Humans are, by nature, social animals. The way a school and its curriculum is organized takes that into account. It means assessments that are part of the learning process and that mimic or are actual real like products or performances for the most part.

Long term projects would be at the center of most learning activities, activities that require students to integrate a variety of skills and abilities across disciplines. This mimics the kinds of activities and work people engage in for the most part outside of school. Real learning takes place when we work at real tasks that matter. The more in depth the project is, the deeper the learning will be, and the more likely it will stay with us. Such learning takes time.

Students would sty with the same teacher for a minimum of two years. Deep learning takes deep relationships, and when teachers and students only work together for one year, those deep relationships are hard to build, with the family as much as with the student. If you are changing whom you work with too often, it gets hard to put in the investment in the relationship.

The school would be run collaboratively among the faculty. While it is important for all members of the school community to have a say, how much say would vary depending on the kinds of decision. Major curricular decisions would be the purview of the teaching faculty.

Another aspect is school size. Most of the above is hard to implement in a large school. The larger the numbers of people the more such institutions must make decisions based on expediency and the smooth running of the institution rather on the educational needs of the students. Also, the number of people needs to be small enough so that the school can be a community where all members actually can get to know each other over time.

Some people claim such schooling is only appropriate for the gifted, or is not practical, and could not work in the real world. However, as I have documented in earlier blogs the evidence is quite strong that it does work, and that actually such practices are probably more important for the disadvantaged than the advantaged, since the advantaged get so many of these advantages outside of school.

If I were in charge…

People sometimes ask me what I think needs to be done with the schools. This is really a two part question for me. One part is the policy side—what should or should or should not be required. The other part of the question is what are my ideas of what a good school and good teaching look like, which does not imply I believe in mandating those ideas even if I could. For this blog I will look at the former, and discuss the latter in my following blog.

miketest4What I would change is the mandating of curriculum (so called Standards). The mandating of standards for education in a democracy can only be justified in the case of an overwhelming consensus on such standards. There is no evidence for such a consensus, and lots of evidence that these is considerable controversy over both what such a curriculum should look like and whether there should be one at all. While I have my views on what I think all children should learn, I do not see it as my, or anyone else’s place to impose those beliefs on others, much less an entire nation.

Along with that is we need to get rid of high stakes mandated standardized testing. Standardized tests have so many problems, not the least of which is that they impose a standardized curriculum. If a certain test is required , and there are high stakes for how one does on that test, then teachers must teach to it, and students must gear themselves to it as well. That means standardized curriculum. Standardized tests are also, by definition, culturally biased—they have to be normed, which means an automatic bias to the dominant group. That is just a fact of psychometrics. And, as the test makers have admitted, their reliability for individuals is not all that great, and yet they are used to judge individual students. I also do not accept their validity for much more than a test taking skills, schools skills, and one’s zip code.

What I do support is a strong public school system. One thing such a system needs is at the very least equalized funding, and really more funding is need for those who live in poverty and have other strikes against them in life to at least begin to equalize some of the built in advantages those that are well to do and of the dominant culture can give easily to their kids without schools.

I also would not allow schools supported with public funds to select students. The only selection that can be justified is to balance in terms of demographics to more equally represent the community. Such balances do matter. It does matter that we are raised and schooled with those that represent the larger society. Schools of choice are great if the choice is the choice of the students and the parents and not of the schools. One way charter schools often get around this is counseling students out with such phrases as “Your child would/does not fit here.” I would ask of anyone stating that, “Do you have a better school for my child than this one?” If they cannot honestly find a better fit for that child, one that all parties agree to, then they have no place making such statements.

I would give local schools and localities autonomy over what and how to teach. But they would have to publicly justify their decisions, allow for public input and make their results public. What kind of results would vary, but again, they need to justify why they think the results they have used demonstrate a well educated democratic citizen. There would need to be some sort of democratic governance, but that can look different in different places.

These are the main things I see that are justifiable at the national or state level. Others you can think of?

The second part of the question is what do I think good teaching and schooling look like, which I will explore in my next blog.

School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.

FireTeachersCartoon

What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

1421: The Year China Discovered the World

1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America
Gavin Menzies
Harper Collins
650pp

1421

Occasionally we learn something that alters the way we see the world, that changes our paradigm. As Piaget put it, typically new information adds to and is fit into our schema of the world. However, sometimes new information does not fit the schema. When that happens we can dismiss the new information, decide it is an exception to the rule, or we may, when those strategies do not work, actually alter our schema. 1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America by Gavin Menzies was a book that did that for me.

The title of the book is actually a misnomer. It really should be called The Year the Chinese Discovered the World (as some editions—probably those sold outside the US are titled), as the book documents how they sent fleets that went virtually everywhere in the world except Europe.

The author, a retired British nuclear submarine admiral, has amassed an amazing assortment of evidence to support his claims of how they did this.  His telling the story of how and why the Chinese accomplished this feat is a telling of a fascinating journey, both of the Chinese journey, and the journey of his research. He discusses how he, as a non-academic researcher has had to fight the entrenched beliefs and assumption of the academics experts in the field, as his claims undermine much of what has been accepted truths in their fields.

This history was lost because when the fleets returned to China after their several year voyages, China had gone through an internal upheaval that led to a period of isolationism that lasted centuries.

The book is full of amazing discoveries of how many animals, inventions and customs thought to be indigenous to certain places, turn out to have been brought by the Chinese, and historically accepted beliefs of directions of transmission are reversed.

Gavin also explains how the maps of the early European explorers, such as Columbus and others were actually based on copies of the maps the Chinese had made on their voyages. (Spoiler: not only was Columbus not the first non-American to come to the Americas, there were also European colonies well established before his voyages.

I don’t want to repeat here the content of the book and the details that changed my understandings of history. I want to recommend that you read it yourself (or, if you are like me, listen to it as an audiobook. there is also a PBS video based on the book).

I hope you read this fascinating book, both because it is just a fascinating story, but also because it may change the way you understand history. What other assumptions or paradigms might you or I hold that turn out not to be true?

What is Wrong with Vouchers?

The rhetoric behind vouchers is that if everyone had vouchers parents could select the best school for their child instead of being forced to go to “government” schools*.

Where does such logic fall apart? There are two main logistical reasons it is really a false promise. One is economic and the other is question of who gets to choose.

The private schools that the elite send their children to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. I looked up a few progressive private schools and tuition ranged from $20,000 to well over $30,000, more than many private colleges. And the actual amount they spend per pupil is well over the tuition since they raise lots of extra money from alumni. (They also tend to pay their non-unionized teachers significantly less than public schools.)

Since at best the voucher proposals I have seen only pay a small fraction of that, these vouchers will leave the recipients with few real choices without putting out a lot more money. I do not think the public is going to go for vouchers of $20,000+ and have never even heard such figures discussed. If they did, the public education bugets would soar. (And those already in private schools would and should claim they should get the subsidies too). What it would do in effect, at the rates being proposed, is subsidize the middle class and rich to abandon public schools and send their children to private school, and while leaving such choices out of reach financially for the poor.

The other issue is who chooses. Most private schools have selective admission, and limited space. Since unlike public schools they get to choose their students, even if the voucher fully paid for them (which of course it will not), they would still most likely cream the easiest students to teach, leaving the more difficult to teach children in the public schools.

These two factors in combination would end up subsidizing private schools and middle and upper class families at the expense of public schools and the poor that are left in them. This would further segregate our schooling system into the haves and the have-nots.

Since I have never heard voucher proponents either suggest that vouchers should be at the levels necessary to have them cover the full cost of most private schools, nor to force private schools to take those children, I find their arguments disingenuous.

Charter schools, in theory at least, get around both of the above limitations. There is no tuition; schools receive the same funding as the other public schools, and (at least in California) schools cannot select the students. (In reality, though, they often find ways of using other means to “encourage” and “discourage” certain types of students.) So, is this not a solution?

Why I still do not favor even this is that it fundamentally changes the purpose of public schools. Traditionally we have considered the education of the next generation to be a concern of society as a whole. In fact, virtually every society has considered this to be true throughout history. For this reason, locally elected school boards have governed our public schools.

Charter schools and voucher systems make schooling a private consumer choice. In the charter and voucher systems consumers choose among the choices offered them, but have no guaranteed right to have a say about the schooling other than making that choice. Those who do not have children in the schools have no say at all. Private schools are run privately, and do not have to answer to the public. Charter schools usually have to answer for test scores and financial responsibility, but even there it is to the state and not in any direct way to the local public. While charter schools have governing boards, they select their own members of those boards. This gives control of the content of schooling to those who run the schools, often for-profit concerns, but even if not, private concerns of some sort. While our government is not perfect, should I really trust those who have private agendas and do not have to answer to the public to decide the how and what of our next generation’s schooling? Public school boards are elected, and have open meetings; private schools do not have to. Even if the charters do have open meetings, they are often run by national organizations and so are inaccessible and would probably just say, “Don’t send you child here if you don’t like it our agenda.”

Vouchers and charters are about redefining the public as consumers rather than citizens, which is part of a larger corporate agenda to destroy public institutions and the limit the power of the public.

For the above (and other) reasons, I see truly public schools as the only answer for those committed to a democratic society.

*Read between the lines the implication that anything the government does must be poor quality. Yet since parents in the suburbs and rich areas are perfectly happy with their public schools, why is it only the public schools that the poor kids go to that seem to be failing? “Government” schools for the rich and middle class are fine is seems–as long as they don’t have to share them with the poor.