Friday, March 30, 2012

Against Evil

If we did a decent job of teaching media literacy in this country, our citizenry would know not to trust pundits who use words like "evil" to describe...well, anything short of Nazi-style genocide, really. And yet, in the current phase of education reform debates, the word is getting tossed around with wild abandon--either directly, or by suggestion.

Diane Ravitch and her acolytes call the "Billionaire Boys Club" of charter school operators evil. Alfie Kohn calls standardized testing evil. Conservatives call teacher unions evil. ENOUGH.

And these actors aren't just evil--they're all mired in evil conspiracies. Rich people are conspiring to turn America's youth into mindless worker-drones by destroying the public school system. Teacher unions are conspiring to undermine and destroy all efforts at reform to protect their jobs and their tenure.

The problem with all of this nonsense is that it keeps people from seeing the ugly facts that lie at the heart of this issue. If we could lower the heat and calm down a little--if we could talk with each other from a place of good faith, and assume that almost all the players in this arena are in the arena to do good (at least as they see it), we might understand things a little better.

Let's take the so-called Billionaire Boys Club first. The idea that Bill Gates and others are meddling in public education because they are satanic evil-doers intent on destroying our youth is idiotic. They are in this game because they want to do good...AND because, being businessmen, they think they can do well at the same time. These are not contradictory ideas to them, and just because most of us in the education business have no real understanding of business doesn't make it untrue. They see a need; they think they can help to meet that need; and they think they can make money doing it. That is business. They are not creating a need from a vaccuum. And they are not forcing people who don't want or need their help to accept it (most of them, anyway). They didn't wake up one day and say, "let's destroy public education." They woke up and saw a system in ruins, a system where the needs of children were routinely being ignored in favor of the needs or desires of the adults--a system where evidence is routinely ignored in favor of pedagogical ideology (see my previous post). And they thought they could do better.

Whether they can or they can't remains to be seen. But they didn't knock down the walls of happy, effective schools and demand to be let in. We let the walls fall down; we created the opportunity for them. And maybe even the need. The fact that some of them are proceding a little unscrupulously and ham-fistedly is unfortunate, but it's not all that surprising. They're businessmen, not saints. This is how they operate. They see opportunities and they seize them. If we were doing our jobs better, there wouldn't have been any opportunity for them to seize.

Teacher unions aren't evil, either. If they go to extremes to secure good working conditions for their members and protect them from evaluation and accountability to a ludicrous extent, none of that happened out of the blue. It happened in reaction to decades of bad faith and no trust, decades of abuse by petty, stupid, tyrannical administrators who routinely rewarded their toadies and punished anyone who got in their way. We have a school system that does everything in its power to chase away decent leaders and attract small-minded despots. The fact that we have any good principals and superintendents out there is a testament to the strong sense of mission that so many of our educators have. Because, by all rights, we should have none.

All of these actions and attitudes have grown in response to real conditions, real facts on the ground. We may not like the attitudes and we may disagree with the actions, but we need to acknowledge why they exist.

But we don't. Instead, we pass judgment--often blind judgment--on what is happening today, without understanding why it is happening or where it came from. We come up with nasty names for the people we disagree with, and ascribe the worst possible motives for them. We say, "There's nothing wrong with our schools or our teachers. Nothing. So anyone trying to start a charter school must be evil." And it's a lie. We should know better. We say, "These teachers are afraid of being held accountable and refuse to put in a full day's work. They just don't want to help those kids." And it's a lie. We should know better.

Blame is easy. Understanding is hard. Understanding requires empathy, and empathy requires shutting our piehole for two seconds--shutting down our judgment for two seconds--and listening to other people. It requires walking a mile in someone else's shoes. 

I wonder if we're capable of it. I wonder if we're even interested.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Things That Make You Go, "Gah!"

From John Hattie's Visible Learning, page 258:

Perhaps the most famous example of policy makers not using or being convinced by evidence was Project Follow Through, which started in the late 1960s. It was conducted over 10 years, involved over 72,000 students, and had more than 22 sponsors who worked in more than 180 sites to find the most effective education innovations to break the cycle of poverty through enhancing student learning. The innovations included Direct Instruction, whole language, open education, and developmentally appropriate practices (see Carmine, 2000; House, Glass, McLean, & Walker, 178 for a history). The students in these programs were compared to control students (Stebbins, 1976; Stebbins, St. Pierre, Proper, Anderson, & Cerva, 1977). All but one program had close to zero effects (some had negative effects). Only Direct Instruction had positive effects on basic skills, on deeper comprehension measures, on social measures, and on affective measures. Meyer (1984) followed these students through to the end of their schooling, and those in the Direct instruction compared to peers not in this program were twice as likely to graduate from high school.....The outcome of this study, however, was not to support more implementation of Direct Instruction but to spend more resources on the methods that did not work but were preferred by educators. As Carmine (2000) commented, the romantic view of students discovering learning was more powerful than a method invented by a teacher that actually made a difference; a method that required an attention to detail, to deliberately changing behavior, and to teaching specific skills. The rejection of Direct Instruction in favor of Rousseian inspired methods "is a clear case of an immature profession, one that lacks a solid scientific base and has less respect for evidence than for opinion and ideology" (p.12).
I'd weep or scream, but I'm not even all that surprised.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The One Who Rakes Alone

Susan Cain is my new TED-crush. Her talk on "The Power of Introverts" hit me very powerfully, and spoke to some worries I've had recently about the mania we've made of collaboration in school and in the workplace. Collaboration is touted as a "21st century skill." Kids who do not learn how to collaborate in school are told that they will fail in the modern workplace. And they probably will. In my current job, I've had many--far too many--moments where individual, solitary thought and creativity has been denigrated and dismissed--held suspect, somehow, as though anything not put through the meat-grinder of group brainstorming cannot possibly be good.

I have no problem working in teams, but I need to know that it is "I" who is part of the team--that I am contributing something of myself, from myself, and that this individual contribution is important. When leaders act as though the group has one mind, and that individuals should subsume themselves to that mind--that the group is always smarter than the individual--well...I find that kind of scary. That's not 21st century thinking; in fact, it's very dangerously 20th century thinking, as seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

As Susan Cain points out, the great works of art and insights of science have come from solitary thinkers. The great revelations of religion and philosophy have come from solitary thinkers. The world needs time enough and space enough and quiet enough for us to go off in the woods, sometimes, and dive deep down into our own minds, to wrestle with our ideas in solitude and follow a line of thought wherever it might lead.

Bruce Chatwin wrote memorably about the power of walking, in aiding thought and creativity, in The Songlines. You could certainly walk and work with a partner, but most often, it's a solitary thing--you, setting off into the world, getting lost in the woods while lost in thought.

I am, at heart, an introvert, so I suppose it's just a bias of mine, but I truly believe that a group of people sitting around a table, yapping at each other incessantly and jockeying to be heard, can only (or if not only, then often) result in thinking that is superficial, that is brightly colored and clearly delineated--easy to see and appreciate--but that is not terribly profound or original. That's my bias, and I'm sticking with it.

Which is not to say that collaboration is bad. Bringing together a group of people who have had time to think and ponder alone, and letting them bounce ideas off each other, is definitely of use. Sending them away from the table again and letting them continue their work alone--that also has value. When I worked in a theatre company, I did my play writing alone, but then I brought my work to the group, and the collaboration within the group definitely improved my original contribution. I loved that collaboration. But I would have hated having to create the play in the harsh light of the group. In today's way of thinking, that seems to seen increasingly as hanging on to outmoded models of authorship and ownership: selfish; greedy. But I don't see it that way.

Life should be an ebb and flow--never one thing, incessantly. But we love to pounce on the Next Big Thing and work it to death, to the exclusion of all else. And nothing really works that way. There is a place for collaboration, and there is a place for quiet, individual thought.

Again--I'm basically an introvert, so of course I'm going to feel this way. When Susan Cain recites the "camp spirit" cheer she was forced to participate in as a child ("R-O-W-D-I-E!), I cringe. I remember moments like that, and I hated all of them. I never had camp spirit, or school spirit, and I hated chanting with a crowd. Like Cain, I've had too many moments where I've put my suitcase of books under a chair and gone out to big, loud parties. More often than not, I've stood with my back against some wall, feeling more isolated and alone than I would have felt in the solitude of my room. A loud, raucous table at a bar, somewhere, with a small group of friends? Love it. A loud, raucous dance club filled with strangers? My season in hell.

These things are with us from birth. Either we acknowledge them and honor them, or we spend our lives fighting them, feeling like the world is right and we are wrong. When I was 10 or 11, I had to help rake our yard. We lived in suburban New York, and the fall was filled with dead leaves--more and more every week. We had shrubs planted along every wall of the house, so raking involved not only the front and back lawns, but also required scrabbling through the underbrush to get at the leaves trapped there. Every weekend. And I noticed something pretty quickly. When my dad and my brother were outside with me, raking was a chore. But somehow, on the weekends that I had to do it all by myself, it wasn't. Somehow, being alone with the job--knowing it was mine to do and mine to own--that mattered to me, and made it something worth doing. Someone else could easily have felt the opposite--lonely and bored when working alone; happier when the family was pitching in. We're all wired differently.

Internet and Web 2.0 technology and tools have made collaboration across time and distance easy, affordable, and fun. I have no problem with it, and, in fact, I make use of it constantly. But we are not the Borg, and we are not ants in a colony. We are not undifferentiated neurons in a vast brain that is Humanity. We are human beings. Maybe it is an old fashioned view of things, and maybe I am old and outdated. But I do believe in the mystery and the sanctity of the individual human mind. I believe that each mind is a world unto itself, and holds within it a unique gift (or curse) for the world.

The world already has more R-O-W-D-I-E than it needs.  God bless the girl with the suitcase of books.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Arizona: Bringing the Crazy Since 1925

My former state of residence has added its own piece of chipotle-flavored gristle to the national stew of gynophobia with this proposed legislation, forcing women of "religious" employers to submit evidence from a doctor that any prescription contraceptive for which they want insurance coverage is being used for reasons other than birth control. Because God hates birth control, but he's willing to give women a pass if they need the pill to ease cramps, or whatever.

The blog post linked to, above, is not partisan hysteria. Here's a summary of the legislation, straight from the Arizona House of Representatives. It is what it is.

Look, I'm all for religious freedom. I'm all for freedom of conscience. People who truly believe that abortion is repellent shouldn't have to pay for other people to have it. People who believe in sin, and believe that contraception qualifies as a sin, shoulnd't have to provide it as an employment benefit.

But why is that the extent of the discussion, these days?  Why is it all about the choice between A) Force employers to pay for procedures and drugs they find morally offensive vs. B) Force women to pay for expensive drugs and procedures without the help of insurance? The real question is: why are we putting women and their employers in this position in the first place?

Why should it be any business of an employer how or to what extent a woman engages in family planning? Why should women have to go to their bosses, hat in hand, to beg for some kind of coverage. The whole thing is evil, and it doesn't seve either side of the equation well. I'm amazed that religious employers aren't pointing out that they shouldn't be put in this position at all.

The real problem here is our country's Fear of National Health Care. Employers should not be in the business of making medical decisions on behalf of their employees, but they shoudln't have to be in the business of covering their health care at all. It's none of their business, and it's an enormous expense and pain in the ass for them. Take it off their plates. Especially in this day and age when people change jobs and careers multiple times, why should a person's access to health care have change over and over again, purely dependent on what job she has. It's absurd on its face.

Why won't any of our Brave Leader and Statesmen talk about that?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New Formats!

Cool for Cats is now availabe in all e-Book formats, right here. So if you have a Nook, or a Kobo, or some other non-paper device for reading's your chance to get to know Jordan, Susannah, Oticha, Porkchop, and all the rest of the gang.

Monday, March 5, 2012

National Read an E-Book Week

Yeah,'s always National Something Week. But this week (March 4-10) just happens to be National Read an E-Book Week...or so say these folks.

So listen. If you haven't yet read my jazzy, breezy, more-than-occasionally funny mystery novel, Cool for Cats, (see blush-inducing reader reviews here), isn't this a perfect opportunity to do so? Not only will you get to read an entertaining new novel--you'll also get to support adeeply important pseudo-cause and participate in a national--perhaps even international non-event.

How can you say no to that?

You can't. So use the links on the left-hand side of this page, or just go here and snap up a copy. You won't regret it.