Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Ugly Underside of School Closings: A Telling Incident

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

If you think closing schools for low test scores doesn't hurt children, listen carefully. This morning, at 8 :30 AM I got a panicked call from a dear friend and colleague whose daughter, a special needs child, was auditioning for an arts junior high school in the Bronx. The teacher in charge of auditions told her ( something that the principal later confirmed) that the school didn't take special needs children, no matter how talented, and used reading scores as their primary criteria for admission. They let my friends daughter audition, so as not to hurt her feelings, but made it clear that she had
no chance of getting into the school.

This kind of educational triage, which we already know is widespread at charter schools, is now spreading to schools throughout the system,as the NYC DOE
makes it clear that low test schools will lead to school closings and firings of teachers and principals. If you are a principal, it is simply not in your interest
to take children, who because of developmental issues ( or in some cases poverty and stress) do not score well on standardized tests

So what happens to children like my friend's daughter who is bright, beautiful and talented, but doesn't test well? Is she systematically excluded
from the schools with the most resources, and the best programs and services and shunted to schools that the DOE has marked for closing?

School reformers who enthusiastically endorse school closings, like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee, say they are doing so because they represent "the children."

But which children are they talking about? Certainly not my friends wonderful daughter, and the millions of childrens like her, who mark my words, are
going to be casualties of this misguided movement

Mark Naison
February 12, 2011


Sunday, February 6, 2011


Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College writes and talks about “Practical Wisdom.” It seems that with all the hoopla about education reform and who is right about what it should look like, the powers that be simply keep overlooking practical wisdom – do the right thing the right way for the right reason. It seems they are only concerned with who is right about deciding the right way. And, it seems, once getting the power to decide their way is right they set up iron clad rules to exclude other ways. This systemic approach also appeals to reformers because it is supposedly “fool-proof”. So any teacher who can follow the model can do it. No tinkering, thinking, or practical wisdom required.

Detailed procedures or scripts are created to ensure that young inexperienced teachers, more and more TFA recruited, will fit right in to the “right” system’s “right” way of doing education “right”. These scripts also theoretically ensure that more experienced poor, mediocre, fair, or even fairly good teachers get on board with the program the “right” way. However what do these prescribed and proscribed scripts do to the very best creative and successful teachers who do not fit into the new “right”? Do they stop doing what worked extremely well? Do they stop using their practical wisdom?

According to Schwartz, one of the reformers' new right ways is behavior modification using incentives and negative sanctioning. They believe that, in our market based educational reform scheme, self-interest (or selfishness) will get everyone to do the reformers’ right things. So we offer bonus pay for higher test scores and threaten loss of job for lower test scores as if the test scores on poorly designed tests actually matter as much as the market based educators think.

Guess what? Psychologists know that doesn't work with kids or adults. They know it simply changes what is important to them. It changes the rules of the survival game. So, most teachers, being easily swayed by the incentives, simply stop helping kids learn and ensure they do well on the tests. These are not the same goals or achievements.

In a talk Schwartz did for, entitled Using Our Practical Wisdom, he tells a story about Aristotle.

“Aristotle was very interested in watching how the craftsmen around him worked. And he was impressed at how they would improvise novel solutions to novel problems -- problems that they hadn't anticipated. So one example is he sees these stonemasons working on the Isle of Lesbos, and they need to measure out round columns. Well if you think about it, it's really hard to measure out round columns using a ruler. So what do they do? They fashion a novel solution to the problem. They created a ruler that bends, what we would call these days a tape measure -- a flexible rule, a rule that bends. And Aristotle said, hah, they appreciated that sometimes to design rounded columns, you need to bend the rule. And Aristotle said often in dealing with other people, we need to bend the rules.”

The moral of this story is obvious. We need wise teachers, not scripted robots. As Schwartz put it in his TED talk, “A wise person knows when to improvise. And most important, a wise person does this improvising and rule-bending in the service of the right aims."

Weren’t your best teachers those who had this practical wisdom? Weren’t they the ones who had character, along with certain principals and virtues that you may have not appreciated at the time? Weren’t they the ones who obviously loved their work and you as a result? Weren't they the ones who almost always seemed to do the right things for the right reasons, the right way? And weren't they usually different from everyone else.

Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have most…practical wisdom. There is no substitute for it.

What’s Love Got to Do With It? Is Test Driven Educational Reform Driving the Joy in Learning from the Nation’s Classrooms.
Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

Sometime during my childhood, probably before the age of eight, I fell in love with learning new things. Maybe it was the trips to the Bronx Zoo and the Museum of Natural History I took with my parents, maybe it was the explosions I made with my chemistry set ( which today would mark me off as a future terrorist!) maybe it the wonder of reading about dinosaurs and how humans evolved from apes; maybe it was the excitement of memorizing the capitals of every state and the batting averages of major league players, but I became a person to whom the joy of acquiring and make sense of new information was as powerful as my love of food sports and music.

The public schools I went to, though students sat in rows and did more than their share of memorization, did much to encourage the intellectual curiosity of kids like me! There were science fairs and spelling bees, regular trips to zoos and museums, science labs and arts projects and an audio visual squad that allowed its student members, once they were properly trained, show films for the entire school. There were assemblies where we sang and put on plays, regular recess where we played punch ball and Johnny on the Pony, and gym classes where we did calisthenics and played dodge ball. Sure, there were fights with tough kids and bad moments with mean teachers- and I had my share of both- but I loved going to school. So much so that I became a teacher myself, figuring that the best way to keep the joy of learning alive was to share it with future generations of students.

Today, with all the pressure on students to pass standardized tests, and the public humiliation, and possible loss of jobs, that awaits teachers and principals if their students don’t “perform,” I wonder if students who grew up in working class neighborhoods like mine ( Crown Heights Brookyln) are having the love of learning smothered and driven out of them in the schools they are attending? The feedback I am getting from my former students who teach in such schools is not encouraging. Huge amounts of their teaching time is devoted to test preparation, and they are under close and constant scrutiny by school administrators whose own careers are now entirely dependent on student performance. More and more, the principal becomes like a high level college coach whose future employment depends on their won loss percentage, and they pass that pressure on to their teachers and students as surely as those coaches do to their players. What disappears in that situation is joy- joy in playing, joy in learning. Young people who should be experiencing the wonder of discovery are being told, in ways indirect and direct, that the jobs of the teachers and administrators who work with them are dependent on their performance on the tests they are taking. No young person should be subjected to that kind of pressure at age 18, much less at age 8! What you have is a situation where the time and space for creative playful thinking, and experiential learning is being squeezed out of the school culture. School is no longer a place for dreamers, for adventurers, for people who live in a world of the imagination; it is a place for people who dutifully follow orders, and respond to a fear of failure.

Unfortunately, things have gotten much worse since Barack Obama took office and launched “Race to the Top.” Seven years ago, I was invited by a visionary school leader, Julia Swann, into thirteen Bronx elementary schools and middle schools to train teachers to do Oral and Community history projects with their students. Ms Swann had located a two month window of opportunity in the school year where teachers were no longer under pressure to do “test prep” and she thought that community history projects would be something that would energize school communities and get parents more involved in the schools

Ms Swann’s vision proved prophetic! The teachers leaped on the opportunity to bring the history of Bronx neighborhoods to life in the classroom. Students interviewed their parents and grandparents, their teachers, neighborhood merchants and created amazing visual as well as literary records of what they had learned. Some schools had day long oral history festivals, to which the entire neighborhood was invited, which included poster boards, exhibits ( some of near museum quality) journals and newspapers, performances, student made documentary films and food fairs highlighting the cuisines of the different cultural groups represented in the school. One school, PS 140 in Morrisania, created an “old school museum” honoring the cultural and musical traditions of the neighborhood and decided to make community history an integral part of the school culture. Everywhere I went (and I attended events at all 13 schools!) I saw incredible joy on the faces of teachers, students, parents, administrators when they showcased what they had done. There was no pressure to meet an external standard or pass muster with an outside reviewer. Rather, there was the joy of discovering that history lived right among them, in the stories told by the people closest to them, and in the material objects (immigration records, birth certificates, articles of clothing, recipes, records and tapes) that they had preserved. I even wrote a little rap, which I performed at all 13 schools, to honor what had taken place

Region 2 and Network 3
Are Rocking Oral History
Our 13 schools, in the BX
Are using daily life as text

We do food, music and immigration
To show how the Bronx leads the Nation’
With hip hop, salsa and R and B
The Mixing of Cultures is Our Family Tree

Working on this Project, with these remarkable Bronx students, teachers, and administrators, may have been the best single experience in my forty years as a college teachers

Unfortunately, it could never be done today? Why, because there is no longer a two month period in the school year where teachers are free of the pressure of test prep! Now, you are lucky if you could find a WEEK in which classroom learning is not dominated by the pressure of student, teacher and school evaluation.

This, to me is a crime . Not to the children of the wealthy, who go to private schools, or suburban public schools, where the arts and science and creative learning are still integral to the school experience, but to working class kids like I once was who are filled with intellectual curiosity and are having the joy in learning replaced by pressure and stress that is being passed down relentlessly from school administrators to teachers to students.

Make no mistake about it, when we destroy the joy of learning in a large portion of our youth, most of whom are from racial minorities and immigrant backgrounds, we are doing our nation irreparable harm

Will people please wake up and stop this travesty against the young people of our nation. Let students learn, let teachers teach, let the joy return to our schools

Mark Naison
February 5, 2011