Our Peculiar System

Our peculiar election system made from compromises over time and a distrust of direct democracy has led us to where our President-elect was elected despite losing the popular vote.

And the compromises that led us to the Representative and Senatorial bodies have given us a Senate led by Republicans despite the fact that they represent about 44% of the population versus the Democrats representing 55%. (This is assuming Republicans take the Louisiana seat that will be decided in December).

So any talk of a mandate by the Republicans is pure hypocrisy.

Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living

This is from Monty Neill, Executive Director of FairTest:

Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living (Mother Jones). Or is it, those whom tee gods would destroy, they first make mad. The latter might be true, but the first is all we can do.

On education in MA, our strategic path forward may not be so complex (not easy, just not so complex).

Nationally on the much wider range of ‘issues’ there are deep complexities that have I think led to the Democrat’s loss – specifically, the neoliberalism that grabbed the party perhaps as far back as Carter and certainly under Bill Clinton, then continued under Obama (who also aimed to promote more social democratic approaches such as on health care, but the two cannot really be reconciled).

Hillary was, I think, trying to get out from under it, at least partially (as with Obama), but could not (thus, as pundit land put it, was not seen as a change person). Compound that anger against neoliberalism with white racism and plus misogyny, it is a potent brew. Neoliberalism has in many ways has most hurt people of color, but they face R’s open racism; related was media’s apparent unwillingness to talk about racism – only ‘southern strategy; and media kept failing to qualify its term ‘working class’ with the modifier ‘white’ since by any meaningful definition of working class, it is composed disproportionately of blacks and Latinos.) It mixes also potently with cultural conservatism that for example led white evangelicals to massively support Trump.
Sanders offered something of a route forward for the Dems, but it is far from clear the Dems will break with neoliberalism – now a huge part of their base are folks who have relatively benefited from neoliberalism (those with college degrees, as media discussed incessantly last night, tho they used terms like ‘technology’ so they could avoid ‘neoliberalism’). That sector and it would seem large sectors of the ruling class/elite that brought us neoliberalism backed Hillary if only out of fear of the unknown that is Trump (see stock market sharp declines last night, internationally). Again, the Republicans were able to mix their strange alliances better than were the Dems.

Very weird political knots to even untangle clearly, never mind figure out how to address strategically.

BTW, I don’t mean to suggest our strategic thinking should be limited to terrain of major political parties.

Back to education:
Ed week just had a piece wondering what Trump will do – a useful reminder of the little he has said. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2016/11/donald_trump_wins_presidency_uncertainty_education_issues.html?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=campaignk-12

Monty Neill, Ed.D.; Executive Director, FairTest; P.O. Box 300204, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-477-9792; http://www.fairtest.org; Donate to FairTest: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/fairtest

The War on Blacks?

The United States has by an astronomical amount the largest proportion of its population in prison compared to other countries. Our competition, (though we still have them beat) are places like Russia and Uganda, and maybe China, though reliable statistics for China are hard to come by.

Prison population

And while Blacks make up around 10% of the population of the country as a whole, they make up about 40% (FBP) of the prison population on the federal level and similar disparities are found at the state level.

Fifty percent of the prison population at both federal and state levels are for drug related offenses (Drugwarfacts.org). The war on drug that produced these figures has had no measurable effect on reducing drug use. It has been a boon to the prison industrial complex, and possibly the effect of increasing the power of drug cartels.

This is not to mention the well documented disproportionate violence against Black by police, too often resulting in death as well.

A further repercussion is that for the most part prisoners cannot vote, and in some cases that lack of ability to vote carries past being released, sometimes for life.

Now add to that the recent voter suppression laws, and we see a pattern of the disenfranchisement of the Blacks and the Black vote.

If you look at this by numbers, it would be easy to interpret this as a police state for Blacks.

(I was recently hearing that similar statistics—if not even worse, are true for the Native American population).

Multi-graded Classroom

We think of the age-graded classroom as so normal, as if it is just the natural order of things—and forget that it is a relatively recent modern invention.


The first public schools were mostly small one room buildings with kids of all ages and a teacher. This was mostly done not out of any belief in multi-aged classroom, but since most people lived in rural areas, schools were not likely to have more than a classroom full of kids from the town and surrounding farms, and their attendance often sporadic.

The age-graded classroom was a product of two simultaneous and connected changes in society: urbanization and industrialization. In a primarily agricultural society, there were too few students in close enough proximity to fill up more than a class or two, especially given that most did not spend much time in school. Most of what anyone needed to know could be, and really had to be, learned at home on the farm. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were all that was needed from school for most people, and not to a very sophisticated level.

Urbanization meant more of the population was living in larger cities, which meant schools could have larger enrollments. With more of the population living in large cities, now in many places there were enough children of one age to make a entire class or even more than one. It also meant more people’s jobs were working for someone else, and so schooling seemed more important as well. Further, since parents were working outside the home, they needed a place to send their kids.

Industrialization brought with it as well the idea of assembly line efficiency. It only made sense to apply the modern ideas of such efficiency to the classroom, especially given having so many children in one place. Curriculum was designed along these lines, where all teachers could give the same lessons to all the kids of a certain age in the proper order.

Soon this way of doing things, where students were grouped by age and taught subjects and content in a linear order, became what seemed the natural order of things. Multi-graded classrooms were now just an inconvenience of the few places left rural enough not to be able to have age-graded classrooms, or in larger schools to avoid hiring extra teachers when the numbers did not work out to have a complete class at every grade, putting the extra kids form two grades together.

When most teachers are now assigned such a combination grade class they dread it. After all, it is gong to mean two different curricula they have to teach; kids of different ages to manage; more different groups. How to instruct one group while keeping the other busy doing something meaningful? Given the paradigm of teaching as the delivery of curriculum, these fears are probably realistic ones.

However, if one has a different paradigm, multi-graded teaching can be wonderful. In my third year of teaching, when I had a second grade, I asked to keep my students the following year. I found it a huge advantage to start the year knowing my students. I felt I developed a much deeper relationship with these students. I could start the year right off and take them on from where they were. Classroom management was easier since we had already established the classroom norms. Having students for two years was a blessing.

The following year I switched school districts and was assigned a first grade. But as the year progressed, I started scouting among the other faculty for a teacher that might want to join me for teaming for multi-graded classrooms. My idea was to do a first/second, and keep half of my students, but the teacher I found that was willing to try this with me did not want to do first, so we ended up agreeing to do second/third. After doing that for several years, I also had years where I did 4/5, 4/5/6 and 3/4/5.

The big difference in the paradigm that makes one seem advantageous over the other is a belief in how people learn. Much of schooling is based, mostly implicitly, on a belief in learning as a linear process, generally passed from teacher (or any form of directed instruction which can be in the from text books, workbooks, or even computer programs as well as a teacher) to pupils. In this paradigm, teaching a group where everyone is around the same level is most efficient for delivering the correct instruction.

Another paradigm of learning—one which follows most of our out of school learning, is that we learn in communities of diversity, where different people have different levels of knowledge and ability, and just different ways of approaching and looking at things. We learn in this context by doing purposeful activities along side others—learning with and from them. If this is your paradigm for how learning takes place, then you will see multi-graded classrooms as an advantage rather than hardship.

As in moving up a grade with my students, my multi-grade classroom meant that I already knew half of my students. I could see how they were maturing, what they needed. In many ways knowing I had two years with them meant I had more patience for the natural differences in how children develop at different rates.

Learning is also to a large degree built on trust. Real trust is something that comes over time and with two years that trust is also deeper. This goes for the teacher’s relationship to the family families as well as the students themselves. In having my students for two or three years, I found the trust level increased exponentially.

Then there is socialization to how the classroom runs. With half the children knowing the routines, the other half easily learn them as well, as they can follow the lead of the students who were with me the previous year.

In terms of curriculum, for much of it, I use a thematic approach. A thematic approach allows students of a variety of interests, abilities and styles to approach the theme in their own way at their own level. When students are reading real books and literature rather than text books, they naturally find the books that interest them—and a book that is too easy or too hard is not interesting. The same goes for writing, using a writer’s workshop model. For math, students would have self-paced workbooks for arithmetic, and I would do on-the-spot grouping for particular skills, as well as thematic projects for the whole class to work together on. Themes could be anything from building a town, creating houses, studying bugs, investigating the environment, learning about the solar system, studying the peopling of the America’s to name just a few that I have done. The possibilities are practically endless.

In the multi-graded classroom, less-able students have more experienced and knowledgeable students to model and guide them, who are just enough above to act as effective models. The more-able students, in helping guide the less experienced, actually learn even more in the process of offering such help and guidance. It creates a form of having to meta-cognize—think about their own knowledge—in helping others. Teaching can actually be the most powerful form of learning.

In summary, multi-graded classrooms offer a variety of advantages: Getting to know students and families better; allowing more time to work with students; building greater levels of trust; easier classroom management; creating a more natural environment where those of different abilities learn from and with each other; and built in peer tutoring.

For these various reasons multi-graded classrooms can offer a more powerful environment for learning than a standard age graded classroom.


What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.

Sharing Economy

The term the sharing economy is thrown around a lot these days with new forms of online interactions. I would like to discuss here what it is and what it is not. The idea of a sharing economy is really very old. In fact, until the advent of capitalism, most people worked on some form of a sharing economy—I share with you what I have and you share what you have.

Sharing-Economy-Cover1-620x350However, these days all sorts of unregulated business, especially these that use the internet, are being referred to as the “sharing economy.” There are such things as Air B&B where people rent out their homes or rooms in their home. Another popular one is Uber and the like where people act as private taxi drivers using their own cars.

The rationale for calling this “sharing” economy is that these are things people have anyway and now they are “sharing” them with others.

However, the idea is really not “sharing” in the traditional sense of the word of what is mine is yours, but rather of making extra income. I do not see the primary motivation of these new businesses (which is what they are) as oh, i have something extra that I can let others have or use, but rather, a need for money. Such  businesses charge real money, and often use the advantage of not being regulated to undercut established businesses or offer a service where traditional business does not exist or do not find profitable. This is what in the rest of the world has always referred to as the “grey” market.

I actually see the growth of this economy not as a paradigm shift away from competitive capitalism, but more as the underbelly of that system, born in this country particularly out of a weak economy where many families can no longer support themselves due to the shrinking of decent paying jobs in the regular economy. Such grey markets have always been a large part of the economy of third world countries. I may have extra time without regular employment, yet I own a car, so I become an Uber driver. My kids have moved out and I have extra room, and am struggling on my fixed retirement, or low wage job—so I rent out my extra rooms.

However, this can actually lead to a downward spiral of income and job security. Regulated taxi drivers and their companies have large overhead and rules to meet. Their jobs are reduced when people can pay half the price to an Uber driver. The same with hotels and inns. Uber drivers and Air B&B types have no job security, no pensions, etc.—as it is based on the idea of it being “extra” income. And in the Air B&B market, some commercial companies are now buying properties in urban markets to run unregulated hotels, undercutting traditional hotels. They do not have to meet all sorts of regulations (as of yet) and do not have unionized protected employees.

I have a different idea of what a sharing economy really means. An authentic sharing economy is about bypassing the monetary economy. I have something that others can use, so I share it with others; others have something I can use, they share it with me. Examples of this from the relatively recent past might be a “roof raising,” when farmers and homesteaders built their own homes. While most of the house a man cold build himself, when it cam to putting up the roof, help was needed. The neighbors would come out and lend a hand. They knew when they needed something similar their neighbors would be there for them as well. No payment was given or expected.

Another example is farming cooperatives, where no one farmer could afford the some of the expensive machinery and they would pool resources and share them. Or even help plow each others field, or help at harvest time.

More recent forms of the sharing economy might be barter networks. While most of these do include some sort of exchange of an alternative “currency” (often in terms of hours of service rendered), they attempt to equalize the inequalities or the worth of some people’s time over others inherent in our current capitalist system. In some an hour is an hour, no matter what service is rendered. In others, their might be some leeway for differentials. Some even have no such accounting.

A real sharing economy is about thinking not how can I make the most money, but about how can I use my resources and skills in a way that contribute to others, giving back to my community. Capitalism is based on a competitive model, how can I get the most for myself and beat my competition. The sharing economy is based on a cooperative model, how can I help others.