Thursday, May 25, 2006

Portfolio education

So I have my big portfolio project due for school tomorrow. I'm mostly done. Phoning something in doesn't take that long. The project is basically a compilation of a number of different assignments we had over the course of the year in different classes: a statement of our "philosophy" of social studies education, a resume, some units on history or economics, the social justice action project and a social justice "inquiry brief," the usual suspects. We also have to organize it around a quirky/peppy theme. For example, one person did a wedding theme, with her assignments grouped under subthemes like "dating," "proposing," "wedding planning," etc. Another one from a past year was about an ordinary boy transforming into a popular superhero. One girl in my class did something akin to "Riding the equity bus to the state capitol." (Equity is a really big word these days. I don't know what happened to "equality," but it's out.) Anyway, the portfolio is supposed to signify the changes you go through in the master's program. But it's just so silly. I think back to my undergraduate days and I simply cannot imagine a professor giving such a childish assignment. Can you imagine turning in an academic paper with the title "Peter Parker transforms into Superman"? It's almost insulting. And we get a master's degree for this? I think the program knows how silly it is too, because some of the language they use to describe the project requirements just sound like fancy language trying to cover up for intellectual bankruptcy. Witness:

  • "The portfolio should be integrative, synthetic, and evaluative.
    • Translation: The portfolio should be big word to make me look smart, big word to confirm smartness, big word to blow their minds with the smartness.
  • "The portfolio is not a scrapbook, although it may resemble one, but a new creation which assimilates the diverse aspects of the candidate's experiences during the master's program."
    • Translation: The portfolio is a scrapbook. Get over it.
  • "The portfolio should be organized around a theme which will be set out in an introductory essay explicating and organizing the choice of materials."
    • Translation: Choose a theme. Write an essay on why you chose your theme. Explain the materials you included.
  • Introductory essay: "This essay should indicate the organizing schema governing the selection of the 'artifacts' of the student's teaching 'journey' contained within the portfolio.
    • Translation: Write an essay on why you chose your theme. Explain the materials you included.
  • Curriculum Units: "Please make sure to include content goals and skill goals. For these goals, state concisely why you have chosen to include them in your unit as well as insuring your instructional objectives derive from your unit goals."
    • Here's what JLo would say to this: "Girl, please. You would not know concise if it hit you with a wood cutout of the word 'explicate.'"
    • I called JLo and asked her. She said that's what she would say.
  • Social justice paper: "What role has any of the following played in social studies over the last several decades and how, if at all, do these topics relate to social justice?
--cognitive pluralism
--notions of self-actualization
--current events
--Supreme Court cases
--Economic opportunity
--Global education

Does the inclusion of "self-actualization" mean we can use the book "I'm Ok, You're Ok" as a source? What if using that book would help me realize my full potential?
  • Social justice paper: "Your paper will be a reflection of your shared knowledge, acknowledged here as tentative and embryonic, of these signficant questions around social justice and social studies education."
    • Translation: Your paper will be about what you know and what your classmates know, which is not a lot. Your knowledge is, in fact, similar to a hesitant fetus.
  • Student teaching reflective papers: "What are the norms, practices, rituals, customs, values, power structures, group affiliations, and status systems that define and shape your classroom setting?
    • Well, let's see. We usually start off by sacrificing a goat on the altar of Mammon, cuz he's our favorite god. Then Raquita, who is the Queen Bee of the Nest, leads us through a little blood-letting and some chanting while Michael, affiliated with the school's most elite acapella group, tends the burning incense. Everyone gives a tithe to me, the Dragon Mother, and after that we start the Do Now.

That's all for today. I have to go finish my portfolio.

Friday, May 12, 2006


There were some really interesting comments on the last post. I'd like to say that I agree with the commentor who said that not all schools should be like KIPP schools. Obviously education is not a one size fits all type of joint. There should be choices, for parents and for students. Choice is part of the appeal of the charter school movement, and something that I think makes it so promising. In our society, we are obsessed with choice. New brands and flavors and colors are constantly cropping up, competing for our attention. And yet we are somehow afraid of letting people choose schools, as if the whole world would fall around us. Well, wealthy people have school choice because they have money. Less wealthy people should have choice too.

Having a choice, rather than something pushed on you, really creates a level of buy-in. If all schools were charter schools (it's ok, breathe), parents would have a tremendous level of choice as to where to send their child. The schools with the best records, teachers, and programs would be in high demand (and could be allocated money to expand), whereas the bad schools would have to improve or be pushed to the side. Even though there aren't huge profits in education, I think with some kind of market forces in place you will have schools cropping up if there is a demand for them. For example, if too many kids are getting kicked out of charter schools, more schools for kids with EBD will step in to fill the void. Believe it or not, there are people willing and able to help kids like that, and the state has allocated money for them. The DOE is so incredibly inefficient right now, in so many ways, that introducing any kind of market forces (through school choice, teacher selection, merit pay, etc) will free up money to be funneled into areas that need it, like special ed.

This is rambly assortment of ideas with no order imposed, so bear with me.

As for expulsion, I have a child in my class who was asked to leave a KIPP school in the 8th grade. He has a load of emotional/behavioral problems that prevent him from being able to handle such a structured environment. However, he is also the smartest kid in my class. A lot of the knowledge he has he learned at KIPP. He scores 4's on all his state exams. Now, he is a naturally smart young kid, but he didn't learn what he knows from watching TV. And his home life has been so chaotic for so long that the only possibility, I think, is that he learned at school. So even though he was expelled, I think he really did benefit from being at that school.

Furthermore, for a school to create a certain kind of culture, the power to ultimately expel a student has to be there. So let's say 3 kids out of a school of 75 kids are expelled in one year. If expelling those 3 kids was necessary (and often, it is) to maintain the culture and safety of the school for the other 72, does that mean we need to shut down the school? As for screening, even if there is some selection based on motivated parents and door-knocking, all the data shows that the students who enter these schools are almost identical to students at the neighborhood schools. Same low test scores, same income levels, same ethnic/racial backgrounds, same obstacles. That small sliver of selection cannot, in my view, ever overshadow the difference in gains between KIPP-type charter school kids and neighborhood public school kids. Let's say there were 5 KIPP schools in one area instead of 1. Maybe, because the program is so rigorous and not for everyone, those five schools would only help 3-4 times the number of students that the 1st one did. Does that mean those other 5 are not worth having? Just because not every kid can succeed (and many can) at a particular charter school does not provide a reason to shut down that school. That's just stupid. The purpose of a free public education is not to keep all kids at the same mediocre levels. If one school is doing things better than another, complain about the second school, not the first! Let's stop attacking things that work so we can cover our own asses.

As for the comment about preparing every kid for public office--yello? Isn't that what American democracy is all about? An assumption that everyone has the potential to be what he creates himself to be, and not what he was born as? Listen, if the kid is not interested in that path, fine. But how am I supposed to tell which kids should be afforded privileges? Which kids get the keys to power and which don't? If a sixth grader is unmotivated to do math, that doesn't mean he can't someday be an engineer. I don't think I have the right to select which students get which knowledge. I have to push them all, try to motivate them all. When they're older, then they can make a choice. Which is why I would definitely support a greater variety of high-quality high schools (charter high schools? eh? eh?)--vocational, professional, college prep, whatever. Students at that age are a little more self-aware.

Aaaanyway, I shall end with some typical whining, since that is really the true essence of this blog. My students are going nuts! They're 8th graders and want OUT of the school. This week 6 of them were suspended for having a crayon fight in another class. I believe I heard the phrase "the air was thick with crayons," or something to that effect. One little boy, who is constantly in trouble, saw what was about to start, got up, and ran out of the room, stating "I am not about to get expelled for no crayon fight." I was proud of his self-restraint. It's funny though, about this suspension punishment, since last week in class one of my students made an incredibly obscene remark/insult to another student (this was the worst behavior incident I have seen in my class) and was sent to the office. And yet, the very same day, she was playing in the championship basketball game. Oh, did I mention she's the star player? Right. Great message to send. Oh well, that's life. And at a charter school, no less! :)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

apologies to the social justice project for misdirected anger

Seems I hit a bit of a nerve on some people with the last entry. I understand some of the complaints--what's wrong with a little social justice here and there? etc. It's not that this assignment, standing alone, is so onerous. But it is part of a program that has consistently emphasized ideology, a particular and unbending view of urban education (that has, over the last 30 years, utterly failed, if we take the current situation as an assessment) and vague terms like "social justice" over concrete realities.

Social justice, at its root, is about change. We want to change the way our society works so that everyone can have the opportunity to create the lives they want. But if social justice succeeds only if change occurs, then we have to measure that change. We have to know if we have accomplished what we set out to do. If we don't measure, or even attempt to measure, all we are doing is patting ourselves on the back and convincing ourselves, without evidence, that we have done something good. Something good means change. Change must be measured.

So. What would be measurable social justice in reference to education? The ability for all students, regardless of income or race, to achieve at high levels. What is a "high level"? To me it is the ability to compete economically, socially, and politically with kids from suburban and private schools who have been drilled and tutored their entire lives. "Competing" means a) the ability to obtain a job with middle class, family-supporting wages, b) the ability to enter into and graduate from (there is an enormous difference between the two) 4 year academic institutions, c) the ability to obtain elite professional jobs reserved for only the most highly educated, d) the ability to run for, and win, public office. I am making no judgment as to whether anybody should or should not hold a,b,c, or d as goals. But withholding opportunity for others based on my own personal life preferences is morally reprehensible. I had all these opportunities. I chose not to take some of them. But I had a choice. Many kids don't, and that is unjust.

So now we have some social justice goals to work toward. Now we need to figure out how to achieve them. We could just sit around and think about it, and perhaps come up with one or two good ideas. But a much more efficient method would be to go out and see who is already achieving the goals we set out for ourselves. If we observe many different schools in many different places that are helping their kids obtain skill levels to accomplish a,b,c, and d, then we can analyze what each of these places has in common.

The tricky part is working backward from a,b,c, and d--we need to figure out what these goals look like in grade school, middle school, and high school. Let's focus on middle school for a second. We will use math and literacy test scores. This is a controversial move, but let's think through it. We have suburban kids being able to achieve certain levels on literacy and math tests. They are the ones who, currently, end up having the choices a,b,c, and d because of the special privileges life has afforded them. So if we have urban schools whose students achieve parity with, or outperform, these students on academic measures, then we have at least a rough indicator that a school is doing something right. Tests may not be the be-all and end-all of educational achievement, but let's face it: our kids should not be failing these tests. They are ridiculously, sadly easy. And they aren't some kind of tests from space with symbols no one recognizes. Math tests assess the ability to do math, reading tests assess the ability to read.

So, IF we can agree that tests show SOMETHING about how a school's children are being educated, THEN we can find the urban schools that are succeeding. It's an imperfect measure, but what else do we have? People argue that tests don't assess "creativity," "critical thinking," "passion," etc. But these things are essentially un-measurable. We can hide behind them, and say they are the only things that matter, but then we are back to the problem we started with: if we aren't willing to measure change, then we will never know if we have achieved social justice. And ignorance is the same as failure. Or we can accept these tests as imperfect but revealing.

Maybe I have lost some of you with the testing. If you can explain to me a better way to measure how students are doing on a large scale (social justice is nothing if not large scale), then please do so.

So now, the urban school systems that are succeeding at social justice as we have defined it here: KIPP, Achievement First, Yes Prep, Uncommon Schools. Individual schools: Roxbury Prep, North Star Academy, Amistad Academy, MATCH School, Excellence Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Bronx Prep, Boston Collegiate, and on and on. I encourage you to look up any and all information you can on these schools. Look at their scores, look at their student populations, look at their gains, look at how many of their kids are going to college. It's astounding.

What do all these schools have in common? Dreaded things. Traditional curricula, long school days, long school years, excellent teachers on call 24/7, administrators dedicated, obsessed with, student achievement, discipline, uniforms, insistence upon doing homework, insistence on parental involvement, rewards, character development. No bullshit. Hard work. Year after year. KIPP Academy has been the top-scoring middle school in math and reading for 11 years. It just works.

These schools focus on academics, whole-heartedly. They give their students perspectives, but first and foremost they expect students to work their hearts out and learn and learn. It's brutal sometimes, but these schools are communities, the kids love them. They help one another, they participate, they want to do well, they have community meetings where they sing and dance and cheer. Go visit one of these schools sometime. It makes you cry.

The teachers in these schools are experienced. They are the best and the brightest. They come from often disastrous public school environments where they had to figure everything out on their own. My question is: why can't ed schools learn from these schools? Why can't they take what those teachers have learned (and what has been proven to work) and show it to us? Why do we have to do social justice projects when nobody cares about how effective we are at teaching children what they need to know???? I swear, literacy should be the first item on any list devoted to social justice, and yet it is like a ghost in the hallways at ed school.

I complain and whine because I am angry. I am angry because I want to be like the teachers in these schools, but no one at my school will tell me how. They are against charter schools, against long school days, against traditional education. Even when they know these things work. One of my instructors told me that KIPP was bad because it "makes kids go to school too much." But what if that's just what it takes to achieve true social justice? How can you be so hypocritical?

The anger heaped upon the social justice project is disproportionate because it represents the anger I feel all the time, with everything. With wanting to learn how to make a difference and being shot down at every turn. With caring about urban kids and being told that I really actually don't. With seeing students thrive and being told I am seeing wrong. I'm sorry this was so long. It's been exhausting to write and I should have left it for another time. I have to go to sleep; I have another day of mucking through my own mistakes, trying desperately, and failing, to be good.