Wasting for Stuporman

I dragged myself to Waiting for Superman last night.

What a confused movie.

Have you ever been on the subway with a crazy person? I am from Boston, where I actually can’t remember this happening to me one time, although we do have crazy people; but it happens a lot in New York. You’ll be going from here to there and somebody on the subway car will just start discoursing, usually to no one in particular but as though they’re having a normal conversation. Sometimes angrily, which is always disconcerting to be around because if you’re simultaneously angry and totally disconnected from reality, who knows what you’ll do next. Often enough, though, it’ll be totally harmless. (Somehow, the time that the man next to me explained “when I cock my fist back, that’s potential energy; and when I throw it toward your face, that’s kinetic energy” managed to fit into the totally-harmless category. He was jovially illustrating a point. You could just tell.)

One of the most striking things about the discourse, though, whether harmless or angry, is that the person is usually speaking with conviction, but not making any sense. This is what it felt like to me watching Waiting for Superman.

Let me try to summarize this movie for you. SPOILER of sorts.

Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone) loved Superman when he was a kid. Davis Guggenheim (the filmmaker) decided to send his kids to private school. They have really cute kids in Boyle Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, and DC. Academic achievement in the US has not improved since 1971. In 2002 there was a moment when it looked like FINALLY THE SCHOOLS WOULD BE FIXED!!! because a republican (Bush) and a democrat (Teddy Kennedy) collaborated on a piece of legislation (NCLB). But it’s 8 years later and we still suck. People used to think that failing schools came from failing neighborhoods but now we realize it’s the OTHER WAY AROUND!! Our schools totally suck and that’s why our neighborhoods have crime and drugs. There are lots and lots of shitty teachers. Randi Weingarten is some kind of mediocrity nazi rallying the national teacher corps into a frenzy of mediocrity. The national Democratic party is basically owned by the teachers’ unions. Teacher tenure used to be useful, back when administrators were arbitrary and exploitative, but now all it does is keep useless, worthless humans in front of children. Even if you have a really kick-*ss teacher, you can’t pay them more money, even if you want to, because they already have a contract that says what you pay them. But then from out of the sky comes MICHELLE RHEE!! The public education bureaucracy prevents teachers from giving students the proper infusion of learning fluid. Michelle had a plan to save us all. Too bad the mediocrity nazis stopped her. US kids suck at math and think they rock, as we learn from Green Day. Tracking is evil because even though it’s supposed to be based on test scores, sometimes kids get tracked based on behavior. But actually, 50 years ago tracking was awesome because it reproduced the class structure, which was awesome. But the world has changed. Suburban schools have all the same problems as urban schools but the kids are higher-skilled so the grades are inflated. Urban schools have problems suburban schools don’t have to deal with. It’s really hard to be a teacher. Davis once made a movie about that. A great teacher is a work of art. Because all great teachers work for charter schools, the cute kids’ parents want them to go to KIPP, SEED and Harlem Success Academy, and basically they’ll DIE if they don’t get in. Bill [Gates] knows education.

There, that about covers it.

Then, as the credits roll, the film acts like this incoherent pastiche has added up to both a clear recipe for action and a movement. We get a summary of what Davis Guggenheim apparently thinks are the self-evident conclusions of the film –

The problem is COMPLEX
But the steps are SIMPLE
It starts with GREAT TEACHERS
More time in school
Getting the bureaucracy out of the way [I’m not remembering this word-for-word but this is the idea]
World-class standards
Real accountability

and a “change starts with you” message. Text “POSSIBLE” to such and such a number, we’re told.

I felt like the crazy person from the subway had just shown up on the corner wearing a PIRG t-shirt and holding a clipboard, trying to get me to sign a petition and donate money. And he was totally sure I was going to sign. It was really weird.

* * * * *

Let me be a little less coy about what I have to say about the content of this film.

Davis – I’m glad you got the draft in on time. You’re showing a lot of passion, but we’ve got to work on the clarity of your thesis and your evidentiary structure. In the meantime, you need to engage with some key sources of information you left out entirely:

1) Good teaching that is happening inside public schools.

You depict failing public schools, portrayed as the norm, and a handful of highly successful charter schools. This narrative makes successful public schools invisible. Have you never encountered one?

I have. Where I went to school, and where I learned how to teach. Unionized workforce and everything. And some of the best teaching you will see anywhere.

2) Teachers getting better.

It’s a shame that you left this image out of your narrative because this is the whole secret to successful education.

Where did you think great teachers come from? That they spring fully formed from the head of Zeus? Just about everybody who’s an accomplished teacher used to be an ineffective teacher, and as the maker of a documentary about first year teachers, I’m totally confused that you don’t seem to understand this. If you want to talk about great teachers, but don’t have anything to say about the conditions under which teachers become great, you are at a different stadium than where the game is happening.

(Hint, by the way: in order to become great, teachers need to make and then learn from their mistakes. What kind of environment fosters making and learning from your mistakes? Fear that you will lose your job over your kids’ test scores? Or maybe transparent, non-defensive collegiality? Okay, good job on that one, now the followup: what kind of education policies are going to create the environment that fosters growth?)

Conversely – where do you think incompetent burnouts come from? The League of Committedly Useless Humans? Do you think anybody gets up at 5:45 every day and gets in front of kids and wants to suck? I know hundreds of teachers, and I don’t know ONE who is honestly okay with doing a bad job. Be that as it may, teaching is actually very hard, a fact to which you pay lip-service, and that means that in a difficult situation and with an absence of support, it can be a pretty crushing experience. (I will go on record with this: teaching is way, way harder than math. Galois theory is a walk in the park next to figuring out how to alter your planning, presence, discussion facilitation, assessment, etc. to get better results for your kids. No contest.) Lots of folks leave the profession; plenty more stay on board and give up. If you want to decrease the amount of incompetence in front of kids, and you don’t have anything to say about how to support teachers in growing, then again, you’re at the wrong stadium.

* * * * *

A lot of the above has already been pointed out by others. Let me direct you to one excellent critique among many –

Ben Allen belongs to a category of person I think I pretty much always get along with: he’s a professional mathematician (a complex systems theorist) who spent time (3 years) teaching math in urban public school. So, when he talks about Waiting for Superman, I’m listening.

Ben calls attention to the absurd scene in which what education is “supposed to be” is depicted in a cartoon as a teacher opening up students’ heads and pouring in a liquid (“knowledge”), before this process gets interrupted by public education’s bureaucratic constraints. I’ll add that I used to use more or less this exact metaphor as a send-up of how people who don’t understand education imagine it works. Learning as some kind of IV drip.

* * * * *

Okay, I thought I was done but I have one more thing to say.

What’s with the creepy appropriation of civil rights language?


Talking Openly about How to Do It Better

The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban SchoolLast week I somewhat impulsively picked up and read cover-to-cover the new book of an important mentor of mine.

The Hardest Questions Aren’t On the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School, by Linda Nathan

Linda is the principal of the Boston Arts Academy, where I did my student teaching a decade ago, in what I believe was the school’s 3rd year of existence. The book is largely a collection of vignettes from the BAA’s 12-year history. The vignettes have a theme:

Education involves facing difficult dilemmas. The thing that needs to be done is to bring together the people involved, open up the lines of communication, and try to figure out jointly what to do.

Some of these dilemmas are pedagogical, some pragmatic, some political, and some interpersonal. Some are a combination. The community of people involved may be administration, teachers, students, parents, or a combination. But however configured, Nathan is saying this process is at the heart of education: put the hard choice to the community, and keep everyone engaged with each other as you undertake to work it out.

This book was a very refreshing read for me. We are deep in the days of Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Race to the Top, the Common Core Standards, and the tendency among journalists1 to regard the KIPP schools as the greatest thing that have ever happened anywhere in the universe because they have high test scores. Now I have some nice things to say about some of these things. The Common Core Standards in 6th to 8th grade math are an order of magnitude better (i.e. shorter and less concerned with trivia) than the New York State standards have been, and while I have no firsthand knowledge of KIPP schools, I’ve been curious about them in a good way since my student teaching year at BAA, when a fellow student teacher came back from a visit to a KIPP school very excited about SLANT. But what this list is meant to capture is that I can’t escape the feeling that the highest-profile conversations about education in this country, in their frenzy regarding accountability and competition, have totally lost sight of the following facts:

a) Students are people and they have cares and values.
b) Teachers are people and they have cares and values.
c) Everybody involved has cares and values.
d) Education takes place in a community. (Corollary: improving education involves improving community.)

Reading The Hardest Questions… felt like walking into a room full of people who had never lost touch with any of this. Nathan is talking about thinking through educational dilemmas with her staff and students and being guided by what all the people involved value. Stating and working for what matters to her, and asking her teachers and her students what matters to them. It’s absurd that this should feel like a refreshing notion, but to me right now, it does. The Race to the Top funding criteria include a lot about assessments and data that will be used to measure teacher and principal effectiveness, and no encouragement whatsoever for students, teachers, principals or even state superintendents to reflect on what they value.

Another refreshing aspect of The Hardest Questions… is that it doesn’t uniformly make Linda or the BAA look good. (Often – and from firsthand experience they are good – but not uniformly.) The book narrates some play-by-play encounters with some difficult conundrums that don’t have clear resolutions, so it airs some missteps. (Different readers will probably count different moves as missteps.) One of the most pernicious elements of the accountability-and-results orientation in the national conversation about education is that it gives everybody (states, schools, teachers and students) a great reason to hide every mistake. You can’t learn math while you’re trying to hide your mistakes and you can’t learn to teach that way and you can’t learn to run a school that way. You can’t learn that way, period.2

Some specific themes and highlights:

* Schools need to develop a “unifying framework” – what the school stands for educationally. This is not a mission statement that collects dust in an administrative folder but a vision articulated frequently to students of the most important themes in their education. The faculty needs to be involved in developing it. The administration needs to be willing to commit to it in a long-term way. The school community needs to periodically revisit whether and how the school is implementing this shared educational vision. At the BAA, the unifying framework the faculty eventually came to, after 2 years of discussion and debate, is a list of four “habits of the graduate” – refine, invent, connect, own. The idea is that these words are the faculty’s answer to the question, “what we are committed to cultivating in every student?” and that this goal defines the school. Nathan makes a point that she initially tried to have faculty sign on to other lists of words (that to an outsider now don’t look so different), but it turned out to be necessary for the faculty to go through the intense and time-expensive process of answering this question for themselves.

I am suspicious of statements that begin with “All schools should…” But this is one I truly stand behind: all schools should develop and use a unifying framework. The “new initiative every year” model doesn’t work. Teachers need to be involved in articulating the framework, and a school must be willing to commit to the implementation of the framework over the long haul. Finally, I would argue that schools without a unifying framework still have an unspoken one – a de facto assumption of what this school is about. If it were expressed in posters on the wall, these frameworks might be “We Are Failing: Who Should We Blame?” or “High Scores and College Admissions – Everything Else Be Damned!” To honestly answer the question “What does your school stand for?” takes a willingness to ask again and again how your practices are improving, what students know and can do, and how day-to-day realities in the classroom match the ideals you have articulated. pp. 30-1

* Developing a school’s commitment to social and moral values also takes a community-wide process, and this one has to go beyond the faculty to the students. And it needs to be continually recreated, because new kids come every year. Chapter 2 of Nathan’s book describes how the BAA faculty first articulated a group of “Shared Values” in response to a community crisis (a “white power” graffito in the bathroom), and then slowly learned more and more, over the course of a series of other community crises (involving theft, homophobia, alcohol…), about what it would take to make these shared values a part of student culture. Some highlights:

As Shared Values became a way to talk about what was important in our community, and even the way to address some of our rules, a few students suggested that we change our quarterly honor-roll assemblies to be called Honor Roll/Shared Values assemblies. They wanted the school to recognize students when they were “Caught in the Act of Shared Values,” a phrase they coined. Students or faculty could nominate students who had done something to exemplify a shared value. The action wouldn’t have to be a big deal, but it had to be something that everyone could applaud. We have, for instance, acknowledged students “caught in the act” of putting up posters that someone had ripped down, staying behind to help clean up a classroom, bringing in doughnuts for everyone in the class after a strenuous day of testing… pp. 38-9

In the spring of 2005, some BAA music students performed at a local music club… It was a wonderful concert; the house was packed… However, the next day the owner of the club called to report that alcohol had been stolen from her establishment.

Ms. Torres [the assistant principal] gathered all the musicians together, and initially had an awful time getting any of the students to say they had seen anything. Finally, one of the young musicians, Martin, a leader in the band, said to the whole group, “Hey, listen, someone saw something. It will be terrible for our school and our reputation if we don’t figure out who did it and make sure it doesn’t happen again….” Martin spoke fervently, but still nobody talked, not for another few days. During these days, the entire school was buzzing with talk about expulsions and rumors that the music department would never be able to perform outside of the school again. In the meantime, Ms. Torres and security personnel managed to uncover the truth: which students had actually stolen the alcohol, which had looked away but knew what was going on… They were all suspended and the ringleader… was expelled…

Even though this incident only directly involved one group of students, so many students were talking about it that Ms. Torres decided to hold another whole school assembly. She also decided to have students talk to students rather than… expect administrators to chastise everyone. Ms. Torres asked Martin if he would address the student body and explain why this was such a big deal… Ms. Torres explained, “I need you to talk about the larger issues, Martin…” He agreed.

At the assembly, Martin got out of his seat, twirling his drumsticks in one hand. “We all know this school is pretty amazing,” he began. “Sure, we’ve got beefs and there are things that we all think are stupid and try to change. Sometimes we do. I know all you freshmen want to have lunch off campus, for example. Well, maybe you can change that. But, you know, one thing that keeps us together is that we have these Shared Values. Sure, some of us might laugh when Ms. Torres gets on the intercom every morning and tells us to live one of the Shared Values, but it’s cool. We do believe in diversity with respect. Just look around at how many different kinds of people are in here. And passion with – ” And then he held his mic out to the audience like a DJ as they responded, “Balance!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Martin continued. “And we believe in community with – ” And again the audience responded, “Responsibility.”

“So, like you’ve heard from Ms. Torres, they’re dealing with the students who did this, but I just think we all have got to think about what this means for our whole community and our reputation out there. We live by our reputation as artists, and if it gets tight out there for us, we won’t be performing…”

We didn’t want students to dismiss the incident as “just something that happened to the music majors.” Dumb, destructive behavior like this is common among adolescents… As sad as I was that BAA students had stolen alcohol, and as disappointed as I was that other students hadn’t turned them in, I was proud of our school’s overall response to the incident. Martin’s leadership meant so much to me. It established a norm that respected student leaders could support school values publicly… pp. 48-51

* Great teachers are empowered to be great by the community they’re a part of. The principal needs to work for the creation and maintenance of this community in order to empower teachers to be great. Building a great school involves “transforming a faculty into a professional learning community.”

Success truly begets success… This plays out in Ms. Chan’s [dance] class, but we see it even more clearly in Mr. Ali’s [humanities class], where students are not all here by choice. Mr. Ali can build on Aleysha’s engaged identity as an artist to encourage in her an engaged identity as a scholar. He has listened to her concerts over the years, and he knows she has a gift and love for music. It is his challenge to create the same set of expectations and joys in his own humanities classroom. p. 78

Teaching at BAA is decidedly not a solitary activity. While I have very little influence on what goes on moment-to-moment in Ms. Chan’s or Mr. Ali’s classroom, I can, and do, work on the schedule (the skeletal system of a school) to ensure that teachers help each other, that worries and questions are shared among team members and the entire faculty. Mr. Ali meets weekly with academic and arts colleagues to discuss students and to develop curriculum. At the end of the year, he will spend two days with his team reviewing and critiquing each other’s units and lessons, and creating notebooks on the year’s courses so that they continue to build a collective archive of work.

Mr. Ali and Ms. Chan are not “one-offs” or “the exceptions” at BAA. I tell their stories here as representative of the ways in which our teachers can be successful. As a leader, it is my job to build a school in which all teachers work in teams, and have the time built into their schedules to talk, to visit each other’s classrooms, and to create curricula as carefully and self-critically as artists create their pieces. pp. 80-1

* A school that wants to make progress on the achievement gap needs to have frank and potentially uncomfortable conversations with faculty and students about race.

There are a lot of really compelling passages to quote on this one but it’s already several hours past the time I told myself I would have finished this post. Read the book.

More info:

Here is a video of a half-hour talk that Linda and some BAA students gave. (At Google I guess??) I found it much harder than the book to follow thematically, but it’s cool because the students do a performance based on the unifying framework (refine, invent, connect, own) and talk about it afterward.

Here is a review of the book written by a former BAA student for feministing.com.

[1] I’m thinking of Malcolm Gladwell (in Outliers) and Daniel Coyle (in The Talent Code), for example.

[2] As an aside, one of the reasons I think The Wire is such a significant show is its persistent exploration across different urban institutions (school, law enforcement, city politics) of the way that numerical “accountability” incentivizes maintaining the status quo and hiding the dirt rather than digging into the problems and seeking real improvement.

Late on the reblog, but better late than…

Riley Lark is my homie right now.

I’ve written a couple times about the usefulness of generating some cognitive dissonance, i.e. some sort of crisis of knowledge, to push students to think deeply. In both contexts I was talking about developing their skills with proof in particular, but actually I think shaking kids up / freaking them out / giving them something to look at that provokes them to question their assumptions is pretty much a great thing to do whatever you’re teaching. (It must be boring by now to also hear me say that I think proof should also be part of whatever you’re teaching, but there, I said it anyway.1)

Anyway, if it wasn’t completely clear what I meant by “cognitive dissonance” or “creating crisis,”2 this is what I meant.

Check out how in the last paragraph, the students have started to develop features of the language of mathematical rigor (“assuming that…”) spontaneously. No one told them to do that. But when your understanding is being shaken up, you don’t have a choice.

On the very same day that Riley posted this lesson description, he also started a conversation I’m very happy to see people having. He is leaving the full-time, full-pay job to hew an entrepreneurial path (designing SBG-supportive software). I did something like this as well. Like Riley, I’m not naturally comfortable with self-promotion, though the last three years have given me a lot of practice and really stretched me on this front. Anyway, Riley wants to hear your thoughts on the place of self-promotion in the math edublogosphere. I do too.

[1] Because I’ve been misunderstood before, let me just clarify that by “proof” I do not mean an overzealous exercize in rigor (mortis); I just mean that no matter what you’re teaching, everybody in the room should be talking about (even, accountable for) why they think it’s true. (In my humble opinion, class should never move on without this. Mathematics as a whole never moves on without this; why should math class be any different?)

[2] For the record, “creating crisis” is actually dy/dan’s vastly superior paraphrase of what I said. What I actually said was “giving them a crisis,” which sounds a great deal like “giving them a complex,” which is not what I had in mind.