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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Surprise! Kids Value Rote Learning...

Surprise! Kids Value Rote Learning...

...just not when they are the one expected to memorize knowledge. Have you ever had a child ask you a question that require a memorized fact to answer? It happened to me recently. We were listening to a CD of classical music that had no printed table of contents. With nearly every piece, the (junior high) child asked, “Who wrote that?” Luckily, I can google the answer. She became exasperated with my lack of certainty and my need to look up so many of the composers. She asked impatiently, “Didn't you have to study music history when you were in school?”

Me: Yes, I did.

Her: Then how come you don't know who wrote all these songs?

Me: Do you like history class?

Her: NO, I hate it.

Me: Why?

Her: Because we have to memorize so many dates and other trivia.

Me: I guess you will start applying more gusto to your memorization.

Her: Why would I do that?

Me: Because clearly you think that memorizing facts is an important part of your education.

Her: Nooo. Whatever gave you that idea?

Me: Because you think it was an important part of my education.

Her: I never said that!

Me: But you clearly expect me to remember music composers off the top of my head better than I do. How would I have learned that information in the first place, except by memorizing it as facts? And you expect me to still remember it? Don't you think you should hold yourself to the same expectation?

Her: Well, of course.

Me: So I guess you won't groan anymore when teachers expect you to memorize stuff.

Her: Who said I minded memorizing stuff?

Me: Whatever.

Her: Hey, that's my line.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In Case of Nothing to Do, Break Glass...

...and then sweep up broken glass.

Americans have hopes and ideals for public education. As David Sirota explains,

Here in the industrialized world’s most economically unequal nation, public education is still held up as the great equalizer — if not of outcome, then of opportunity. Schools are expected to be machines that overcome poverty, low wages, urban decay and budget cuts while somehow singlehandedly leveling the playing field for the next generation. And if they don’t fully level the playing field, they are at least supposed to act as a counter-force against both racial and economic inequality.
The American ideal is that public education is supposed to be not only the engine of the American Dream, but also the primary mechanism for overcoming the social-economic obstacles of birth. Meanwhile, public educators consistently cite the poverty of their students as the number one reason public education fails to perform its promise. So, public education is supposed to give poor students the tools they need to overcome poverty, but public education cannot give them these tools because the students are poor. Teachers say education reform proposals that fail to address poverty are doomed to fail. We are trapped in a vicious circle. In such an environment, no wonder policy-makers, most of whom lack education experience, feel pressured to do something---anything. Education policies thus tend to be a perpetual cycle of creating and cleaning up messes.
And no wonder. Policy makers lack expertise themselves, so they turn to advice from those who seem to have proper credentials. Who do they ask? Education professors. Sounds reasonable, but guess what? Many education professors lack significant in-the-trenches experience in the very places teachers must implement policies handed down from on high. American society does not trust teachers. The main reason for the lack of trust is the double-mindedness of society. Sometimes we consider teachers to be professionals, and then undermine their professional judgment when we consider them hired laborers subject to dismissal for insubordination. We steadfastly refuse to put teachers at the head of the policy table even though, as Nancy Flanagan puts it, the teachers know where the carts are.
If we want to invest in a highly skilled teaching force, perhaps it's time to stop positioning teachers as drop-in observers who should be grateful for the chance to "represent" their peers in important decision-making bodies...Teachers should be at the head of the table, calling the meeting. The more professional responsibilities we take off teachers' plates, to standardize and homogenize, the more teachers' professional judgment is weakened.
Teachers should not be the target of reform, but the drivers. Right now, teachers are lucky if they can stand outside the door and listen at the keyhole.

At the start of the Obama presidency, when the Department of Education had lots of openings, the administration solicited applications. Many teachers applied. It turned that the administration was only interested in perpetuating more of the same, not ushering the change we all hoped for. Any PhD, especially a well-published PhD, whether they have actual significant experience or not, trumped highly effective, veteran teachers every time. Perhaps the number one disappointment educators have with the Obama administration is the refusal to listen to real teachers. They do not listen because they do not trust. They do not trust because our present policies prevent recruitment from among the most academically able students.

Teaching is not a top job choice, but a last resort. I routinely ask my education students why they want to be teachers. The answers are underwhelming. My top two favorite answers because they indicate the status of teachers in America: “I flunked out of hotel management,” and “It is either teaching or the Army.” In such an environment, it is difficult for the American public to accord teachers the respect and esteem they enjoy in other countries. Meanwhile, administrators break the glass and expect teachers to clean up the mess.