Friday, January 30, 2009

Tenure Review

And so the battle over teacher tenure continues. Courtest of the National Council on Teacher Quality, comes a report showing that most states (48) don't require any evidence of teacher effectiveness before granting tenure to the teachers. The article does mention that tenure doesn't mean a guaranteed job for life (which is more than many discussions on the topic include), but is generally critical of the system.

I have to say that I'm with the Council on this one. I'm not opposed to tenure. I'm not one of those who thinks that KIPP schools are going to be ruined now that some of them are engaging in collective bargaining. Tenure is fine and teacher unionization is fine. Neither of them are automatically opposed to successful education.

However, tenure seems to me like something that must be earned. At college campuses the tenure review committee is a big deal and the process takes years (and evidence). I don't think that the situation should be so radically different for our public schools. Let's grant tenure to the good teachers. But let them show that they've earned it first.

Also, those that are struggling, let's not just cut them loose. Just like every student has the potential to learn, let's assume that every teacher has the potential to be a good teacher. Instead of focusing on ways to make firing teachers easier, let's look at ways to make teachers better. The Gates Foundation is doing it. Maybe that will help get some of the idealocrats on board.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mayoral Jiu Jitsu

When the New York Times says it, it must be official. So with that, it appears that the fight over mayoral control of the New York City schools is officially underway.

One thing that seems to be setting up the debate is the assertion from Learn NY and other mayoral control supporters that we shouldn't make this a referendum on what Michael Bloomberg has done while in control of the schools. The argument is essentially that while we don't use the tenure of George W. Bush to argue for abolishing the presidency, we shouldn't use Bloomberg's tenure to abolish mayoral control. The office (or control) is independent of the man (or woman) who holds it.

To me, this is a point well taken, though very hard to follow through on. What Bloomberg has done is not mayoral control. He has used mayoral control. In that light, the various complaints we offer (not enough parent input, manipulating test scores, constant reorganizations) are arguments against letting Bloomberg have another go at it, not necessarily against the system itself.

Where it gets tricky is that Bloomberg is the only one in New York's recent history to have mayoral control. (A Boss Tweed hack had it early in the 20th century, but that's a little distant for useful comparison.) Our image of mayoral control is so linked to Bloomberg that it's hard to see it any other way.

This is, of course, not helped by the fact that Bloomberg, Klein, and Learn NY aren't really even playing by their own rules. They will undoubtedly be highlighting rising test scores and graduation rates as evidence that mayoral control is working. They will point out the major dysfunctions that existed under many of the local school boards that mayoral control replaced. But that isn't playing fair. If we're really supposed to look at a governance system as a governance system, then we shouldn't be looking at the successes under one man (who the system is designed to eventually replace) or the failures of the previous administrators.

What's going on is a very sophisticated kind of mental jiu jitsu where every success under Bloomberg is hailed as proof that the system works while the failures are faults of the man and shouldn't affect our view of the system. We're also being asked to compare the platonic ideal of mayoral control (because we're not looking at the policies Bloomberg implemented through it) to the very messy realities of the previous governance structure.

This isn't exactly up is down thinking, but it certainly makes it hard to get a hold of a clear idea of what the terms of the debate actually are. In the end, I think the reality is that we're going to be looking at this as a referendum on Bloomberg as the mayor in control. And on those terms, things aren't looking so bad for him.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Idealocratest of Them All

I've been writing for a while now that I think we should call the new breed of school reformers idealocrats (as originally suggested by Gotham Schools). I've written before about why I think it's a great description for this particular school movement, but I don't think I've ever really put my finger on why exactly I like it so much. Until now. Let me back up for a moment.

You may have heard that Arne Duncan is the new Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. That left a vacancy at his old job running the Chicago public school system. So Mayor Richard Daley appointed a replacement with a strong background ... in transportation. That's right, Ron Huberman, the new head of the Chicago system, has a good reputation as an administrator from his time running CTA (which I'm guessing is the Chicago public transit system). In doing so, Daley just crowned himself as perhaps the idealocratest of them all.

(As a side note, I really like this quote from the head of the Chicago teachers' union. I can't tell whether it's supposed to be funny or sad. "We were hoping the mayor would appoint someone with a strong background in education since we face so many challenges as an urban district. However, we will work with whomever the mayor sends ...")

Here's what makes this such an idealocrat thing to do. It assumes that knowledge of teaching/learning/pedagogy is not needed to run an education system. You don't need any knowledge to do it. All you need is to be a strong administrator because that's where the system is broken. The idealocrats are trying to create the ideal bureaucracy with clear lines of authority and an obvious system for measuring success. It's all focused on the bureaucratic systems, not the classrooms.

Think about it. Can you tell me where Joel Klein stands on math education? Is he in favor of traditional approaches or does he like the more progressive number-sense pedagogy? What about Michelle Rhee? Is she a phonics or whole language person? I could guess on each of these, but I don't know for sure. But you can bet that I can tell you where they stand on teacher tenure and high-stakes testing as a means of boosting accountability.

I think that there's a lot that needs to be done to improve the systems that are in place to ensure that our schools are working well. In that, I think the idealocrats may be on to something. But I think that more important than what happens in the central offices is what happens in the classrooms. I have trouble seeing how we can expect educational amateurs (no matter how gifted they are at administrating) to lead us to positive change in the actual process of educating kids.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Primed for Failure

I'm a firm believer that schools are a lever by which we can change much of society. Education provides many of the tools that will help individuals plan their own course in life. However, we can't just plop a kid down for 6 hours a day in a classroom and expect that to overcome all obstacles. School is great, but we can't expect it to work miracles.

I'd be curious to hear what the no-excuses idealocrats have to say about last Saturday's article in the New York Times about immigrant high schoolers who are just not receiving their first ever formal education. The story opens by talking about an 18 year old Liberian girl who last year entered school for the first time. Think about that. In terms of school-based skills, she's essentially a kindergartner who's thrown into a high school setting. Is she supposed to be able to pass a regent's exam by the end of the year?

The killer for me is that "state education officials do not offer a suggested curriculum, provide any additional financing or track their progress. Last year, New York City provided ... about $165 extra per person; they are entitled to the same extra services as others who are still learning English, but nothing more." That's just ridiculous.

It may or may not be fair to expect schools to overcome these kinds of challenges. Let's assume that because we don't have anything better, the responsibility falls on the schools. If that's the case, then we need to make sure that schools have the support they need to provide the support that the kids need. This holds true for whatever background the kids may be coming from. If we just dump kids into the school system and say "deal with it" then we're setting the schools up for failure. That's not in anybody's interests.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Trouble With Standards

I've written before about the advantages of national standards as a way to limit the race to the bottom effect that's become apparent through the No Child Left Behind Act. The idea is that if we're going to say that all states are responsible for meeting certain criteria, we should say what criteria those states are required to meet. If we're going to insist on high stakes standardized testing then I still think this makes a certain amount of sense. However, lately I've been thinking about some of the problems associated with that approach.

First of all, we've all heard talk about how standards limit the curriculum; especially when they're tied to high stakes tests. When we set standards for what must be taught we are excluding other topics that now won't be taught. This limiting effect is grounds for major pause as we consider the prospect of national standards. What's often not considered is that the curriculum could also be expanded, but in negative ways.

Let's look at Texas for a moment. Over the last week, the state board of education there was considering whether or not to include in their state science standards the "weaknesses of evolution." This pretty much translates into wanting to require that the state teach creationism as a valid (it's not) alternative to evolution. On the surface, this doesn't seem to have much national significance. If the folks in Texas want to do it, let 'em. However, Texas is one of the country's largest markets for textbooks (along with California and New York). Thus, textbook authors try to write their books to meet those standards. Since they tend to write only one version of the books that are then distributed nationwide, the Texas standards often act as a kind of de facto set of national standards. And look at where that almost got us.

It turns out that the Texas board backed down, but this has to reason for pause. We often talk about national standards as some sort of platonic form that is the perfect model for what learning should be across the country. But there is no guarantee that this would be the case. Any set of standards would be created by us mere mortals and would reflect the pedagogical (phonics vs. whole language), social (evolution vs. creationism), and political battles of our time. And the stakes would be really high. I don't know that I'm totally dead set against national standards now. But I'm certainly not as for them as I was a few weeks ago.

Friday, January 23, 2009

At Last

First of all, Caroline Kennedy, what was that all about? First she's in, then she's the frontrunner, then she's not the frontrunner, then she's out but she was the frontrunner, then she's out because she wasn't the frontrunner. All I can say is that it's looking like our long state nightmare is over and Governor Paterson has picked a replacement for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

I know next to nothing about Kirsten Gillibrand other than that she's a Democratic female Congresswoman from upstate New York. I've also heard some rumblings that she may be more conservative than some folks are happy with.

Honestly, I don't care. We heard a lot about "Clinton fatigue" during the 2000 presidential election. I think I'm suffering from "Clinton's senate seat fatigue." Basically it's left me inert to all news relating to the appointment of her successor. I'll try to read up more on this Gillibrand character today, but I probably won't enjoy it.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Photos of History

As promised, here are some of my photos from inauguration day. Hopefully it gives some sense of what it was like on the ground. I should emphasize that my camera does not have a zoom feature (I know) so what you're seeing is pretty much exactly what I saw. No camera tricks.

This is a picture of the mob trying to get into the silver gate. This is just the group going into one of the ticketed gates, which doesn't even touch on all the people who were standing out on the mall without tickets. Just to give some perspective.

I swear to you that this shot is of Obama taking the oath of office. Obviously, it's a little tough to tell from my vantage point, but it's really happening. I swear. Did I mention that my camera doesn't have a zoom?

This kid was from North Carolina. He was super excited to be there. As his mom said, "He loves Obama." Even though it was freezing cold and involved lots of standing (two things that kids don't usually do well with), he was smiling pretty much the whole time. This picture was taken just after Obama took the oath of office. I really wonder what he's thinking. From looking at him, he seems to be taking it very seriously. You could almost imagine him thinking, "I can do that" in a way that wouldn't really be the case with any of the other presidential candidates over the last year. Looking at this kid (even more than the crying woman just out of the frame on the left) I think I could understand a little more of what it means to have elected a black president.
The irony, of course, is that the kid was probably thinking about how cold he was or how he had to go to the bathroom. Still, it was a pretty incredible moment.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First Thoughts on the New President

Well, I made it there and back again. Between the early rising, the constant standing, and the endless traveling, I haven't had a lot of time to process the whole inaugural experience (or download my pictures yet). So here's a few simple thoughts.

First, the whole thing was incredible. Over the course of 24 hours I saw Washington D.C. at the most crowded I've ever seen it. Possibly that it's ever been. According to CNN, there were millions of people there who'd come from all over the country and the world. Everyone had come for one purpose. I should confess that I'm someone who is moved just by seeing the capitol building. I know it's Mr. Smith sappy, but I do. So to be there facing the capitol standing in the midst of millions of people from all over who'd gathered to watch the peaceful transition of the most powerful job on the whole planet was truly stunning. Makes me proud to be an American. Seriously.

As for Obama's speech, I think that there was more to it than it's probably going to get credit for. It was not a blow the roof of the place kind of speech, which would have been kind of nice to see. However, I think Obama set his aim even higher than that. To me, it sounded like he's trying to fundamentally shift the debate in Washington.

I don't mean that in the sense that he's said in his speeches about putting aside red/blue states and all that. I think his speech was about putting Congress and everyone on notice that there's a new sheriff in town and that he's the boss. Consider this passage:
"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

Notice that this debate pre-supposes that the big government model (contrasted with Barry Goldwater's vision) has already won the debate and now it's a question of how to implement it. That he said this to great applause from a crowd of millions of people there to see him surely must have sent a message to Congress, who were also sitting there watching the speech.

I expect that as I go through the blogs and columns today I'm going to be hearing a lot about how Obama's speech was "measured" and "optimistic" and all those sorts of words. The word that's likely going to be missing is "aggressive." But I think that it probably belongs.

P.S. Check in tomorrow for pictures. I'll try to post a little photo diary.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Power of Symbols

Here's some food for thought in relation to last Friday's post. I've written on this blog again and again about how we shouldn't confuse symbolism for actually doing something. Seems like some people aren't taking that to heart.

I'm off to DC this morning where I'll be for the inauguration festivities. So keep your eyes open for me. I'll be back on Wednesday, hopefully with some pictures to post.

Happy Hope/Change Day!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Not Done Yet

I've been saying ever since Barack Obama was elected president that just because America has elected a black man to be president doesn't mean that all racial issues have magically been solved. It's not that simple. Now, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California has issued a report saying that they agree with me. (Well, my point at least.)

According to the report, public schools are more segregated now than at any point since the civil rights movement. In some ways, that's pretty shocking. I mean, we'd like to think that we've made some progress over the last half century. On the other hand, it's not really that surprising.

I would posit here that the operative factor in play is not race, but rather poverty. The way our public schools are structured (for the most part) is in residential zones whereby kids go to the school near where they live. Given that neighborhoods tend to be economically homogenous (think the Upper East Side's median income versus that in the South Bronx) it's not surprise that the schools are likewise divided along economic lines. Given that race and poverty tend to track together, it's no surprise that the schools are racially divided.

So what are we going to do about it?

Usually, I try to have some answers, but on this one I'm a little stumped. I would say that trying to racially/economically balance schools doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me (think bussing or a totally unzoned school system) because I don't think it gets at the underlying issues. This is one of those examples of a school issue that affects and is affects by all sorts of things outside of the school. And unfortunately, I don't know what the answer is. What I do know is that until we figure it out and get the system working so that upward mobility is more than a catchphrase from another era, the problems we're talking about now are only going to get worse.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

KIPP Union

As broken by Gotham Schools and later reported by the Times, it looks like two of the KIPP schools in New York are going to be unionizing and entering into collective bargaining. This is pretty big and I think that the Times headline kind of captures why: "Teachers at 2 Charter Schools Plan to Join Union, Despite Notion of Incompatibility."

That headline sums up a lot of the comments I've been reading about this since the story broke. Namely that the presence of a unionized workforce at these schools is going to destroy any chance for success that they have because the whole beauty of charter schools is that they aren't unionized.

Now, I've written before that I'm not sure if KIPP schools are the unalloyed good that they are often portrayed to be in the press. Let's set that aside for today. For today at least, let's pretend that there is no debate and that KIPP schools are all model schools that should be replicated across the country. (I do believe that KIPP schools serve their populations quite well. I just don't think it's a model for success everywhere.) If we assume this, the unionization of the KIPP schools is a major gamble for the UFT.

There are three potential outcomes after the teachers at these schools begin collectively bargaining. Either the school achievement stays the same, it gets better, or it gets worse. Despite predictions to the contrary, we don't really know which of those outcomes is most likely yet. But within a year or so, we should be starting to get a look. If results stay about the same or if the school improves, it's a major victory for the union. It would show that high achievement in schools is not incompatible with having a unionized teaching force. All those people who blast the "teachers union lobbyists" and "status quo defenders who are ruining education" would have to think twice (not that they would).

If, however, achievement at the school declines, it will be like throwing jet fuel onto the fires of those who want to abolish unions. There would be a widespread presumption of guilt for the union that it was the cause for ruining the utopian schooling system of KIPP. And that would present a very bleak situation for the unions.

I don't think it's obvious in any way right now which way the chips are going to fall on this. But in a little over a year when the test results start coming out for the unionized KIPP schools you can bet that things are going to get heated.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Low Self-Esteem

Researchers at the University of Missouri have linked poor academic performance of students in first grade to low self-esteem in those students in sixth and seventh grade. According to the researchers, "Often, children with poor academic skills believe they have less influence on important outcomes in their life." Makes sense to me. I mean, don't people who can't read or write well have more limited life choices than those who can? Isn't that just a fact?

The researchers say that teachers should "honor skills in other areas, such as interpersonal skills, non-core academic areas, athletics and music." I believe that. Those are all useful and worthwhile skills to have and should be acknowledged as such.

What I don't believe is that these findings are any excuse to back down on the emphasis that we place on literacy and math skills in the classroom. Kids who don't learn to do those things and do them well actually will have less influence on the important outcomes in their lives. And it won't matter whether they have high or low self-esteem.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Stitch in Time

The St. Petersburg Times (Florida) ran a story last week about the effects of the Florida policy that has mandated that thousands of third graders repeat third grade after failing to meet the standards the first time. Apparently, minorities are more likely to be held back and that those students who are held back tend to do much better in school as a result of their retention. If you just read the first two (or even 12) paragraphs, it seems like a solid blow against that unspeak bugaboo, the dreaded social promotion.

For the purposes of this post, let's set aside the issues of minorities being more likely to be retained. This is apparently true even when you compare students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds and academic performances. That's interesting, but not what I'm looking at today.

Instead, I want to draw your attention to the 13th paragraph of the story which slips in that Florida law mandates that retained children get extra help including 90 minutes of extra reading instruction each day. No wonder the kids do better as a result. They get an extra hour and a half of reading instruction every day.

First of all, this is retention done right. Forcing kids to repeat a grade without providing extra help just proves that old definition of insanity (repeating the same action but expecting different results). If you're going to retain kids, you have to do something different to try to help them. An extra 90 minutes of reading instruction would do that trick.

If we were serious about educating kids instead of just showing how tough and "accountable" we're being, we might even say that it makes sense to try to be a little proactive about this stuff. Every school has a pretty good idea of who the kids are who aren't going to pass the test. Teachers know who's struggling in the classroom. So instead of waiting for the kids to fail and then retain them with the extra help, why not just give them the extra help. Intervene earlier to help close the knowledge and achievement gaps before they're really able to open. It just makes sense.

Monday, January 12, 2009

An NCLB Epiphany

Michael Petrilli, a self-proclaimed "true believer" in the No Child Left Behind Law and former Bush administration official who worked on implementing the law itself, has an interesting piece in the National Review where he concludes that "NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair."

In short, Petrilli has come to the same conclusion that educators across the country have been screaming about for years now. Namely, that requiring "highly-qualified teachers" sounds great on paper, but isn't so sensical in practice, that mandating state-defined proficiency leads to a race to the bottom, that focusing on accountability through testing leads to a narrowly focused curriculum/test prep factory, and that there aren't enough good schools around to ensure that every child could go to one if we allowed for school choice.

Amen, Michael.

That being said, he still holds to five ideas that he says are central to NCLB and that he does still support, even if the law doesn't.

1. All children (even the poor ones) have the ability to learn
2. Accountability helps schools and individuals improve
3. Good teachers are needed for good education
4. Giving parents choice has positive benefits
5. Improving education is a "national imperative" in which the federal government can have a productive role

I agree wholeheartedly and without reservation to 1, 3, and 5. I suspect that one would have a hard time finding anyone in the educational world (even the non-"reformers") who disagree with 1 and 3. Even 5 would get you a pretty good degree of agreement. It's the even numbers up there that present some potential sticky points.

As I've written on this site over and over again, "accountability" is a great word that it's hard to argue against, but doesn't really mean anything. Does it mean testing? High stakes testing? High stakes for students? Teachers? Schools? What does it actually mean? It's well and good to say that people should be accountable for teaching and learning. In theory, I'm for that. I just haven't seen a good system yet for making that happen in a way that doesn't lead to the problems that even Petrilli outlines.

As for school choice, again, Petrilli put his finger right on the issue: even if we give everyone a choice of where they'll be going to school, there aren't enough good schools for every child to be in one. If there were, then every child would already be in a good school. It's just basic logic on this. So instead of starting with the idea of school choice, let's start with the idea of making the schools better. Then everyone benefits. And I don't think anyone would disagree with that goal.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Best Schools

Earlier this week, Education Week announced their rankings of all 50 states in terms of how they're doing on education. The state that was ranked number 1 in the country is Maryland. Shortly after Maryland comes Massachusetts and then New York.

To my mind, the interesting question is not so much which state is on top, it's why that state is on top. And this is where is starts to get really interesting.

According to a report by MGT of America and given to the Maryland General Assembly, the difference is more money. As the Baltimore Sun reports, "For every additional $1,000 spent per student, there was a significant increase in pass rates in [reading and math]." A very interesting finding because every Republican and a fair number of Democrats will tell you that throwing more money at education is not the solution. And yet, more money seems to have made a difference in the top education state in the country.

That being said, I think that common sense will tell us that more money alone is not the solution. What really matters is how that money is spent. Again according to the Sun, 80% of the new money was put into the teaching staff in the form of increased pay, hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, and professional development. The money was also used in a targeted way that didn't spread it all around equally, but focused it "to provide the most help to special education and poor students and those learning English."

What a concept. Focus on the kids who most need help and use money to recruit and develop a high quality teaching staff. No wonder Maryland schools are doing so well.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Big News on Charters

So the debate over charter schools just got a little more complicated.

For years it's been pretty common knowledge that charters tended to outperform their traditional counterparts. This was often (rightly) explained away by saying that we were not comparing apples to apples in the studies. That's because charter schools conduct a lottery of parents who apply while traditional public schools take everyone who shows up. It's an important distinction because it means that the charter school population is drawn from those who are informed, interested, and motivated enough to sign up for the lottery in the first place. While there's no competitive application process, there is a certain amount of self-selection that goes into the process. Furthermore, a study comparing kids who applied for the DC voucher system showed no statistically significant difference in achievement between those who were accepted by the lottery and those who were not accepted and continued to attend public schools. In short, there was a lack of compelling evidence that charters were really operating better schools rather than just catering to more motivated students.

And then came the recent study from the Boston Foundation (Boston Globe write-up here and full report here). The study found that charter schools in Massachusetts performed not only the traditional public schools, but also outperformed the state's pilot schools, which are essentially state run charter schools. I'm not good enough at reading studies to say for myself how valid the findings are, but if it's good enough for Eduwonkette, it's good enough for me.

This is big because the pilot schools operate under the same general admissions process as the charter schools. So that self-selection element gets cancelled out when we compare charters to pilots. What the study seems to be indicating is that there is something about being a charter school that makes them better than even a public pilot school operating under many of the same general guidelines.

What is unfortunately not clear from the study is what makes that difference. I've always been doubtful about the miracle cure offered by charters and that doubt hasn't been totally diminished now. I still believe that what makes a difference at the end of the day is not who a teacher or principal ends up reporting to at the end of the day, but is rather what those teachers and principals do to educate children during the day. As such, I really believe that any success a charter school has should be able to be duplicated in a traditional public school. This study just makes me a little less sure of that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Who Watches the Watchers?

That seems to be the question surrounding education systems with mayoral control recently. Or, perhaps more accurately (though less fluently), who holds the people who say everyone should be held accountable accountable?

One of the big arguments for mayoral control is that it makes the system accountable for its results because you have one person in charge and you know where the buck stops. In turn, the buck stoppers have tended to try to implement accountability measures within the schools for students, teachers, and entire schools. The irony of all this is that despite all the hard data being collected, there's still a lot of debate as to what it means and whether or not it's working. Check out the Eduwonkette and Public School Parents blogs for probably hundreds of posts on this subject.

The problem with mayoral control is that all the authority for the district and for analyzing its results ends up resting in the hands of the very people being analyzed. This leads to the kind of phony accountability measures we've seen in New York, like the school progress reports.

Now, DC is getting on the bandwagon as their city council is pushing to have independent oversight over Michelle Rhee and her educational reform agenda. They Mayor there would like the oversight to be done by people who are on the record supporting Rhee and mayoral control. (Do you think he'd let kids choose friends to write high stakes test questions for them?) The Council hasn't made its wishes known on the matter yet, but they'll probably be looking for someone more skeptical.

New York opened their own independent research center just recently, though we haven't seen any results from it yet and it took most of Mayor Bloomberg's two terms (so far) in office to get it open. The irony here is that for all the talk from the administration about how important accountability is for the system, we see very little real accountability. Kids are held "accountable" entirely based on standardized test scores. Teachers are then (sort-of) held accountable for how the kids do on the tests. Schools are given grades based on how the kids do. But the system itself has never been looked at from an outside, independent, analytical perspective and judged based on it's performance. That's true in New York and it's true in DC. And that's what we're calling accountability?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Beyond Motivation

The Boston Globe ran a story recently about a poor Massachusetts district that's using rewards to try to improve student behavior. Good behavior can earn students a pizza party, ice skating trip, or even a rap concert in the school auditorium. Frankly, all of these prizes seem pretty tame when you consider that in New York we were paying students in cash for getting good grades.

Philosophically, I'm split about the virtues of these kinds of rewards. On the one hand, it seems to cheapen the school day and the value of learning. It becomes about what do I have to do in order to go ice skating at the end of the month, rather than what can I do to become a better-educated person ready to succeed in the world. That being said, many adults get paid bonuses for doing well (or on Wall Street, even not doing so well). The extra incentive can boost motivation and that's part of life and why fight it? So philosophically, I'm divided.

But in the practical realm, I see this effort as not nearly enough.

Consider for a moment the thought of me (a liberal arts major who hasn't taken a real math class in the last 8 years) trying to figure out calculus. So I sit down at my kitchen table with a pencil and some lined paper and start trying to do some derivatives. I can't imagine that I would get very far. You can offer me all the pizza parties or ice skating trips in the world and it won't make a difference. You could offer to give me a million dollars. I'll be as motivated as can be, but I'm not going to get any closer to solving calclulus problems. I just don't have that ability. Motivation wouldn't give me the ability.

To return to our real life schools in Randolph, the motivation alone isn't enough to make kids learn. It may increase their receptivity to learning, but the learning itself still has to come from good teaching. That means good, well-trained, teachers working with engaging curriculums to reach all the students. That is going to be what makes the difference. The motivation element may help, but that alone is not going to do the trick. Classroom learning still comes down to effective teaching.

Monday, January 5, 2009

And We're Back

I hope that everyone enjoyed their holidays and is off to a great start to a new year. Somehow, the world was able to carry on without this blog over the last two weeks, which is a positive sign indeed.

Over those weeks, the mess in Illinois got messier, the situation between Israel and Palestein got uglier, it became pretty clear that Congresswoman Yvette Clark wasn't going to give me tickets to the inauguration, and the Arizona Cardinals won the first playoff game they've hosted in 60 years. So in all, it's kind of a mixed bag in terms of world events.

The thing that I don't get is what could possibly be going on in Roland Burris' head to accept a senate appointment from someone under investigation for trying to sell that appointment to the highest bidder. By pretty much every account I've read, the guy is ethically clean which makes you wonder about his willingness to immerse himself in a situation that is so totally and completely un-clean. Maybe it's just ego and the knowledge that never again is he going to have a shot at just getting a seat in the United States Senate. I don't know. I'm just glad that it's not my mess to clean up.