Tag Archives: Educational leadership

Can We Keep it This Simple?: A Response to Amy Weisberg’s Huffington Post Article on Education

shutterstock_109809197The simplest solution may be the best…unless it really isn’t that simple at all.

Recently, a 32-year veteran teacher, Amy Weisberg, wrote an article for the Huffington Post outlining five necessary steps for improving education in this country.  She never claims that the solution is simple, and rightfully so.  Furthermore, her claims are based on her long experience as an educator, watching the ups and downs of the fads in educational theory.

Lastly, she points the finger of blame squarely at the so-called “experts” outside of the field of education, as she begins her article:

“It seems that everyone has an opinion about what is wrong with our educational program today…but few have solutions that are organically designed to meet the needs of the student population we currently teach in our nation’s public schools.”

That a blueprint for solving our education problems would come from a veteran teacher makes all the sense in the world.  Yet as she explains her necessary 5 steps for improvement, you can just sense that each one seems a little too easy:

“1. Start Young. Early Education is a fundamental factor to children’s school success and funding it adequately gives more children a chance to learn curriculum, early skills and about the world of school. Smaller class size has a profound impact on both classroom dynamics and the amount of attention a teacher can give to students and by reducing class size in kindergarten-3rd grade to 20 or less, and grade 4-12 to 25 or less we could see a dramatic improvement. Private schools and privately funded Charter schools provide this. We cannot compare public and private schools until the class size issue has been resolved and the scales are even.”

This is really two solutions, not one: funding early education and limiting class size.  Early education funding has had an extraordinarily rocky history in this country: starting with Head Start in the 1970s, controversy has raged about the funding, curriculum, scope and accountability of early childhood programs.  Pumping money is one thing: establishing the right atmosphere that allows a young child to thrive in the school environment is another matter—one that isn’t so easy to solve.

Class size is one issue where I echo Ms. Weisberg’s concerns.  This year, I taught close to 90 kids, three sections of at least 30 kids a pop.  To be honest, some kids fell through the cracks, not because I was mean or malicious, but because I had so many kids to keep track of I had to prioritize between those who really needed a lot of help and those who needed less.  It’s a tough balancing act with ONE classroom, let alone three.

“2. Treat Teachers as Professionals. Respect the training, education and experience teachers have in the field of education and pay them accordingly. A student’s test scores are not the sole indicator of a teacher’s worth and teachers are not motivated to further their education solely for the joy of learning. Most professionals are compensated for their expertise and given opportunities to further their knowledge in their professional field. Teachers have an extremely important job and huge responsibilities and we like to be respected, taken seriously and able to afford the cost of living in the cities we teach.”

This really is beating a dead horse.  Yes, teachers are underpaid.  Yes, teachers should be compensated for the education and training we receive and utilize.  Yes, teachers should be treated like professionals.

However, this can only happen if the teaching profession treats ITSELF like a professional.  Today, education is prone to self-abuse; the land of broken toys for those who can’t hack it in the real world.  This is the common myth because teaching treats it that way—if anyone can be a teacher, with lax rules of admission and lack of rigor in instruction, then it is NOT a professional career choice.  Professions develop by weeding out the chaff at the VERY BEGINNING.

This can only be done through massive reforms at the university level, propelled by government guidance.  How many education schools in this country are willing to change their diploma mill status—and take the requisite revenue cut—to make teaching a truly professional calling?  You tell me.

“3. Hold Parents Accountable. Parents must be held responsible for meeting their childrens’ basic needs and supporting their children in their educational program. We need to teach those who do not know, how to become better parents, in order to provide a supportive home environment that complements the educational program. Parenting is a life long responsibility and providing education and training for parents can have a positive impact on our students.”

In the areas that are struggling the most, this is absolutely important.  Many parents are barely kids themselves, and struggle raising children not out of any malice, but out of sheer ignorance.  They never learned about real parenting, sometimes never had real parents as role models, so they do the best they can with the knowledge that they have.  To bridge this gap is essential to keeping a home life that supports school.

However, the role of the parent as educational partner with the teacher is often ill-defined.  In today’s universe, it has come to mean that parents have final say in everything, no questions asked.  If teachers are to be professionals, they must be treated as masters, absolute experts whose advice may be ignored, but should be questioned openly.  If # 2 is implemented and teacher training made more professional, then the parent-teacher partnership can be most effective.

Both parents and teachers require a little more professionalism, in that sense.

“4. Fund Education. Our priority must be education because our students are our country’s future wage earners and tax payers. By funding education we are insuring our own future. We need to establish a permanent source of government funding for our public schools to take the stress off of the parents and individual schools currently forced to fundraise endlessly in order to provide a basic, quality educational program. Funding should include the arts, sports and physical education, and trade skills as well as the academic program.”

A permanent fund for education?  Wow.  Now were you thinking one national fund or 50 separate funds for each state plus one for DC?  Where would the revenue come from?  Property taxes, as they are now in many states?  Payroll taxes?  Direct government expenditures?  Oil money?  Gold bricks from Fort Knox?

The funding issue is NEVER as simple as it sounds.  The tie between schools and property taxes, in particular, is problematic.  To give an example, certain districts in Rockland County, NY are populated by Hasidic Jews who send their children to private religious schools.  The public schools are populated by Hispanic, black, Asian and some white families.  However, the school boards are often packed with Hasidic residents with little or no stake in the public school system, and they are determining education spending.

These situations where spending is misaligned and mismanaged need to be addressed.  Permanent funds, for the immediate future, seem like a pipe dream.

“5. Provide Support. Financial and personal support is needed to educate special needs students, lower class ratio and size, and to support the physical, intellectual, emotional and social development of all students. Schools need full-time nurses, psychologists, counselors and support staff to allow equal access to education and academic success for all students.”

See all of the above, particularly numbers 2 and 4.

I don’t want to belittle Ms. Weisberg: after her many years as an educator, her recommendations, on the surface, should be Gospel by now.  The sad fact is that they are not, and they aren’t because the microscope shows the complex and often nasty realities that need to be addressed that have no clear solution.

It shows school districts packed with children from broken homes, teen parents and families hovering the poverty line.

It shows diploma mills where teachers are cranked out regardless of intelligence or ability, along with alternative programs that throw idealistic young people to the lions of high-needs educational reality.

It shows parents that are confused, frustrated, underinformed, overinformed, brow-beaten, and talked down to when they should be seen at eye level.

It shows teachers that are treated the same way, if not worse.

It shows an incredibly misaligned funding scheme where property taxes are tied to education, even if the property owners have little if any stake in the public education process.

It shows issues of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, socioeconomic class, and political affiliation.

Can these issues and others be addressed using these five points?  Ms. Weisberg seems to think so in her closing, where she states that governments must “own these suggestions and form working committees to dedicate time and energy to developing a funding method that begins with our youngest students, limits class size, educates parents, compensates educators, and provides the support needed for all students including those with special needs.”

I really wish it were that simple.

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Cool Link for the Classroom: The Periodic Table of the Presidents

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

A huge thanks to P.J. Creek for sharing his amazing work here at the Neighborhood.

P.J. is an eighth grade social studies teacher and came up with a fun new tool to look at the American Presidency.  Noticing that the traditional flashcards and reference pages didn’t give a complete picture, he decided to borrow from the science department and create a tool that isn’t simply to look at inert gases and carcinogenic radioactive compounds that last a split second.

The Periodic Table of the Presidents is just that: an ordered, logical snapshot of the last two centuries of the executive branch.  It’s numbered 1 to 44, and I don’t have to tell you who’s 1 and who’s 44 (do I really?).  Like the other periodic table, the PTOTP gives each president a two-letter designation, color based on political party, years in office, number of times elected, and other info such as assassinations, resignations, etc.

(Again, do we need to go over who got shot and who quit before they did?)

If it were simply a table, the PTOTP would be a nifty little poster for the classroom.  Thankfully, P.J.’s website includes information on each president, links to further information, electoral maps, a portrait gallery and even his own articles on interesting tales such as “Tecumseh’s curse“, or the death in office of any President elected in a year with a zero at the end (probably since debunked by Reagan and George W. Bush).

You can order the poster for your classroom for 10 dollars–but buy before July 11 and get 2 posters for one.  The PTOTP is a really neat way to explore the American presidency.  It shows the flow of parties, terms in office, important facts and especially how the transfer of power has endured pretty smoothly for two centuries.

At the very least, you can fool all those folks in the STEM departments into thinking you’re teaching science…hey, anything to save a good social studies teacher their job!

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Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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A Letter to Andrew Cuomo: Mr. D for New York’s new P-12 Assistant Education Secretary

English: New York State Capitol viewed from th...

English: New York State Capitol viewed from the south, located on the north end of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Governor Cuomo:

I hear that you’re losing one of your top advisors to…law school?

May I ask, do you recruit from the kiddie pool?  May I suggest your next interview be during adult swim?

When I heard of Katie Campos’ departure as Cuomo’s P-12 Assistant Education Secretary, I wasn’t surprised.  I mean, how much can a 20-something who has NO experience in the classroom, NOR in administering a school building know about New York’s arcane system?

Let me repeat that—she was never in a classroom.

She was never even a principal.

She was never a TFA drone, a Teaching Fellow, a Broad Fellow or any of the other alternative programs that the reform crowd love to tout as “experience.”

Michelle Rhee, Richard Barth, Geoffrey Canada…I have my issues with these people, but at least they had some real knowledge of the trenches of education.

Campos spent her three years between college graduation and her Albany post as nothing more than a political apparatchik, from Democrats for Education Reform to the New York State Charter Schools Association.  That’s akin to letting the late Ted Kennedy be principal of a girls’ high school—probably inept, and possibly disastrous.

And she was your “most experienced” team member?  I hear the lamentations of a thousand pairs of soiled undergarments.

So for Campos’ replacement, I humbly urge you, our esteemed governor, to select someone with experience, commitment, passion and above all a vested interest in education.

Someone like me.

Now, besides being ravishingly handsome, I do bring some important skills to the table.  So before I start sending my resume up to Albany, a few bullet points to strengthen my case:

  1. Classroom experience – I’m up on Ms. Campos by nine years in that department.  In my near-decade in the classroom, I’ve seen special education kids, English Language Learners, kids in trouble with the law, kids experimenting with drugs and sex, foster kids, homeless kids, kids on the run from abusive parents…you name it.  I’ve managed to reach a lot of them (NOT all…I wouldn’t pretend like that) and in the process, gotten to know what works and what doesn’t work for kids, parents, and teachers.
  2. Bipartisanship – Why not appoint a Republican to your team, Governor?  Especially an elephant like me with a long memory and (most importantly) an open mind to new ideas. I may have an “R” next to my name, but I’m not some Tea Party nincompoop, nor am I a Wall Street goon. After four years as an undergrad in DC, crossing the aisle is really no big thing; it’s more of a matter of getting the right mix of ideas that can help solve the problem.
  3. Honest feedback about current reforms – Testing, Common Core, teacher evaluations, class size: the big four in terms of gripes and controversies (if I’m missing something, let me know).  How about getting feedback from someone who has worked with and worked to implement your reforms at its base level?  The reform poobahs will gladly generate the spreadsheets and charts to keep you happy—but are they being upfront with you?  At least I can give an answer based on those who actually utilize these programs, rather than the bean counters who collect whatever data is given to them.
  4. A balanced approach to the Common Core – speaking of the Common Core, unlike many of the opposition, I really have no beef with these standards per se.  In fact, in several instances they serve as a necessary clarifier for benchmarks that were extremely vague and open to interpretation.  The Common Core is not the problem; implementation is.  The inconsistent nature of Common Core adoption—followed by ramrod exams that were clearly shown to be flawed—indicates a more nuanced approach to the problem.  It’ll be slower, but much more effective in the long run.
  5. A “people person” who gets along with teachers, students, administrators, unions and kids – The “carrot-and-stick” approach only goes so far in New York state among certain places: the “stick” might work in those districts where the opportunities are slim and teachers take what they can get.  Yet there are also places (NYC, Rochester, etc.) that just laugh at the stick and whip out a bigger one.  Whatever programs that need to implemented, the initial phases will be painful.  Don’t make it more painful by using ed reform blowhards who patronize teachers and keep harping that it’s all “for the children.”  We all know it’s for the kids—at least it’s supposed to be.  Send someone who can reach the best in all sides, who can bring people together instead of drive them apart.
  6. A good-looking guy – did I forget to mention I’m ravishingly handsome?  I was on TV, for Pete’s sake.

With a CV like that, there isn’t a statehouse in America that wouldn’t want me on their team, right?

If you are interested, Governor Cuomo, my LinkedIn profile is right here, and I can be reached through this blog or at my email ldorazio1@gmail.com.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Give my best to Sandra Lee (that was from Future Mrs. D).

Sincerely,

Mr. D

PS: If per chance you request an interview, please make sure it’s a nice day as Future Mrs. D enjoys the drive to Albany.

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More Slavery Math Problems: Another Example of Clumsy Content Integration in NYC

slaverymathditto152acf8d-97a2-4cc7-993a-52fe818552fdToday’s post is proof positive that not every teacher visits the Neighborhood—especially when it’s for their own good.

A year ago, we looked at the plight of a Georgia teacher who made a clumsy and altogether disastrous attempt to integrate social studies with mathematics, using the brutality of slavery to teach word problems.

Not only was the attempt slapdash and insensitive (the latter through no fault of the teacher, I’m guessing) but grossly inaccurate and leaving students with less of an understanding of BOTH subjects.

At PS 59 in Manhattan yesterday, someone (who probably didn’t read my post of a year ago) attempted a similar integration effort, using social studies content with word problems for a class of 9-year-olds—in a neighborhood where many were the children of UN personnel.

Again, slavery was the subject of the day—which was another not-so-bright move given the school’s community base.  Here are two examples:

“One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)?”

“In a slave ship, there can be 3,799 slaves. One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?”

And once again, a teacher trying to do the right thing in her mind gets herself in hot water.

Jane Youn assigned these kinds of questions for homework and almost handed them to a second class before a student teacher noticed the inflammatory questions and put the kibosh on the whole thing.

The Chancellor and the DOE displayed the appropriate amount of outrage, and “disciplinary action” will follow for the teachers responsible.  Yet as in the Georgia case a year ago, what exactly is Ms. Youn’s crime?

Was she being deliberately insensitive?  I would guess not.  Slavery is so explosive as a topic that any instruction—of any level—could be construed as inappropriate or insensitive given the audience.  After all, being around diplomat’s kids would give anyone a heightened sense of moral outrage over any perceived slight.  Putting a dinner fork in the wrong place could cause an international incident.

Yet is Ms. Youn at fault for clumsy, irresponsible lesson design?  Absolutely.

It’s not her fault entirely.  Such is the current trend of integration that science and social studies content miraculously show up on standardized tests aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards we hear so much about.  In this frenzy, a teacher with little, if any, time for content instruction would sneak social studies or science in any way they can…even if it means a math problem about slavery or a reading exercise about the discovery of the DNA double-helix.

However, it isn’t an excuse for bad planning.  Real content integration—true integration—uses the vehicles of English Language Arts and math to expand understanding of content knowledge, or the “stuff” you have to know.  A student should hone practical skills in reading, writing and math and also learn more about a subject.

For example, the way Ms. Youn phrased her questions leads me to believe she really didn’t give a shit about teaching the kids about slavery, but would rather assess their math skills.  It’s obvious since her scenarios are so wildly unrealistic: whipping an enslaved man 5 times a day?  Wouldn’t it be easier to sell him?  How often did slave revolts happen during the Middle Passage?  My guess: not very likely.

How about questions that showed how much commerce slave-based industries such as cotton contributed to the growth of Northern industry?  Or if you dare touch the Middle Passage, how much an enslaved African was sold for on the market, and the profits of the slave-merchants per person?

If Ms. Youn really cared about content, she would’ve done enough research on slavery (as well as appropriate math skills) to answer the following:

  1. What do I want the kids to know about (insert content area here)?
  2. How can I use (insert ELA/Math skills here) to help my kids understand (insert objectives about content area here)?

In education today, the debate between content-driven versus skill-driven instruction has devolved into a chicken-before-the-egg argument: do skills drive content, or vice versa?  The reality is that skills are necessary to understand content, yet skills cannot be mastered without basic content knowledge as a foundation.  There’s no good answer to this.

Yet for the sake of Jane Youn and others who simply see social studies and science as a backdrop for their test prep, I do hope future teachers take integration seriously.

There’s too much at stake not to do so.

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Why don’t they want history taught right? A response to a History Commentary on Education Week

Cartoon - Why Study HistorySometimes it isn’t about whether someone is right or wrong.

Sometimes you’re just in the wrong conversation altogether.

That’s the vibe I got as I read a recent article in Education Week about how history is taught.   Even though the arguments in the piece are largely plausible and totally defensible,  I got a sense that the debate was altogether needless: the blame is completely misplaced, and the wrong questions are asked.

The article, by volunteer tutor and grant writer Vicky Schippers, stands as a polemic that history shouldn’t be taught as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam.”  Rather, teachers should take her example and make history connect with students.

As a tutor, she has the rarefied opportunity to work one-on-one with a student, in her case a 20-year old named Tony with a four-year-old son.  She uses Tony’s situation, his fears, and his worries as a struggling young parent looking for work to connect with American government, the development of American democracy, the need for taxes, tariffs, and especially the abortion debate, which troubled this young father.

Schippers ends by stating that:

“History is not boring. More important, it is relevant to the lives of every student, but none more than our most disadvantaged. Rather than teaching it as a series of eye-glazing events, it should be presented in a way that affords students the opportunity to delve in; question; and, above all, see in history’s unfolding, how we, the people, have traveled from there to here; and how that journey is relevant to all of us.”

To regular readers of the Neighborhood, this isn’t Earth-shattering.

A slew of comments followed, mostly from history teachers sneering at Schippers’ lack of “real” classroom experience, her rosy-glassed view of history education, her complete lack of understanding of the realities of teaching in the secondary classroom.

I’ve got to be honest.  Both sides are kind of full of shit.

The slew of educators slamming this poor woman are rightfully swamped, but they shouldn’t crucify her simply for stating what all of us history guys already know—that the parade of names and dates is a better  anesthetic than chloroform.

Then again, Schippers really should’ve taken a look around.

If she really took a hard look at how history teachers, good history teachers, are plying their craft today, she would notice that nary a one bothers with textbooks, outlines of dates, events, names of old white men, etc.

We already know how history should be taught.  We’ve been trying to do it for years now, and anyone who hasn’t realized it is either past saving or a complete ignoramus.

The question to ask isn’t “How is history taught?”

The real question is “Why does the education establishment not give a shit about how history should be taught?”

History teachers, often in isolation or in small groups, have been reinventing history education for a while now.  Our classrooms are our laboratories, where lessons, units, projects and assessments are tested, re-tested, evaluated, and celebrated—often to the bewilderment of administrators perplexed at how learning how to think critically could ever get those state test scores up.

The powers that be, the education policy idiots and the talking heads in charge of education administration in this country, were never too swift on the uptake.

Programs that can really reach out and spread our skills and knowledge are first on the chopping block.  Anything related to social studies, especially history, is shoved way to the back burner   History is often forced to “integrate” into other subjects where the content and ideas are buried in reading skills and long division.

We know how the past should be taught.  Why not share the secret so that everyone can teach history the right way?

Schippers herself addressed this in a rebuttal comment on the Education Week site.  Obviously not wanting to shit on veteran teachers, she realized the limitations of the classroom and that “You all do what you must do to get your kids through their coursework. It’s up to education policy makers to make the changes that will allow you to teach history differently.”

Knowing how those policy makers think and operate, I doubt any change is coming soon.  Their conversations will never involve history in a serious way.   They see it as a means to an end—an end that can be charted and graphed.

Again, the wrong conversation is going on…and I’m skeptical about any chance of change.

So…we better teach history the best way we can, as long as we can.

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Making the case for Parochial Schools in the NCLB age

NunNewBedfordGeographyYes, Sister Mary Margaret, there is a place for you and the rest of the “penguins.”

It’s just difficult to see against the tests, the balance sheets, and the armada of charter and magnet schools competing in your home waters.

As much as our public schools take a beating, few institutions have take as severe a scourging as the Catholic Church in the US.

I’m not referring to the sex abuse scandals, which deserve pages of analysis.  The system of Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States is on an unprecedented retreat.

At the height of the baby boom in the 1960s, roughly 5.2 million students were enrolled at Catholic schools in communities across the country, according to a recent City Journal article by Sean Kennedy, a scholar at the Lexington Institute and co-author of a study on Catholic education.  Today, less than half attend a Catholic institution, only 2 million.  Running without government dollars, per-pupil costs skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010, from $5,600 to $10,800.  Average tuition for incoming ninth graders at Catholic high schools has more than doubled, from $4,300 to $8,800.

The result is a massive pandemic of building closure: between 2000 and 2012, 1,942 schools were either closed or consolidated (combined with other schools).  167 closed or consolidated in 2012 alone.  A recent report by the Archdiocese of New York stated at least 24 local schools will close, affecting over 4,000 students in the area.

How did it happen?  How did arguably the greatest private school system in America take such a beating?

Catholic schools, in a way, are a victim of their own success.

The Catholic parochial school system began in the mid-1800s as a response to the rising public school movement in America.  Early public school systems, in cities and towns, stressed preparation for adult life as farmers and workers—a preparation that included religious instruction.  Public schools encouraged Bible study, particularly the King James Bible used in Protestant churches.  Thus, public education was seen as a vehicle for evangelizing Protestant religious values.

The sea of Catholic immigrants in the mid-1800s, from Ireland and Germany, needed schools that reflected their own values.  Either through the diocese or independently, parochial schools of all levels would spring up right next door to local public schools.  The parochial system would grow to essentially become a mirror of the public school system, with elementary and secondary schools local to each city and town, as well as Catholic schools of higher learning (Boston College, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Georgetown, etc.) that served as centers of university training for Catholics who still felt discriminated at the Puritan, Presbyterian and Anglican campuses of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia.

Over time, Catholic schools developed a reputation for discipline, spiritual nourishment and academic excellence.  Without government money, these schools provided high-quality, low-cost education for immigrants and their children.  Clergy acting as the faculty kept costs low while instilling rigorous standards of discipline and academic achievement.

When new theories or fads would ravage American public education starting in the 1960’s, Catholic schools were a haven of stability, providing excellence the old-fashioned way: discipline and hard work.

Parochial school would become the true vehicle of upward mobility: many who rose from poverty to positions of power attribute their success to the values and rigor instilled in a Catholic education.

By the 1990’s, however, Catholic schools obtained a serious rival—a rival funded by public dollars.

The rise of No Child Left Behind was parallel to the rise of the charter school movement, schools funded by public monies but operating independently of the public school system.  When parents couldn’t afford rising costs of Catholic school, the charter school became a less-costly alternative.  Many of these charters have adopted norms and values long cultivated in the Catholic school system: high academic expectations, rigorous discipline, school uniforms.

The result is a hemorrhaging of enrollment at an unprecedented scale.  2012 marked the first year that charter school enrollment is higher than in Catholic schools, surging past the 2 million mark.  Currently they account for about 5% of children in public schools, and their numbers continue to rise.

Does this mean the slow death of the Catholic school, though?  Not necessarily.

Competition from charter schools has crippled a longstanding tradition of American education.  The question now is: should it be this way?  Is there a way for Catholic schools to regain lost ground?

Part of the problem is financial.  Catholic schools are playing on an uneven field: charters can, and often do, get continuous funding from public coffers, whilst the local parochial school is kept up largely by the parishioners and the local diocese.  This is a disparity that cannot really be leveled without massive government spending in religious schools—a controversial move on many levels.

Dioceses across America are learning to make do with less—a painful lesson in efficiency that will probably be helpful in the end.  Though the closures are painful, the Catholic system as a whole can still be main sustainable for at least the immediate future.

Yet fiscal discipline is only part of the solution.  To really re-establish its foothold on American schooling, the parochial school needs to emphasize those things that charters often get so wrong, and that St. Mary’s and St. Bernard’s get so right.

In terms of morals and ethics, it’s a no-brainer.  Recent scandals aside, at least on paper, the parochial school is a model for moral education, at least through the lens of Catholicism.  Catholic schools have long opened their doors to non-Catholics, as long as they take classes in religion and sit through the obligatory exercises.  Through this osmosis, many non-Catholics can’t help but develop ethically in this environment.  Historically, this deep moral education has also been coupled with a thorough civic education.  Catholic students also tended to be proud American citizens—which upends completely the discriminating notions of a century ago that equated Catholicism with anti-Americanism.

More importantly, though, parochial schools never mess with what works in education.  It’s a lesson we all know too well.

Charter schools, especially the well-known ones, often pride themselves on being up-to-date with the latest educational trends and theories.  Basically, they tie themselves to a philosophy or theoretical framework, drill their teachers and students to death in it, and if it doesn’t work, they find another theory or fad and start the process all over again.

Catholic schools never had to worry about Danielson frameworks, Bloom’s taxonomy, Understanding by Design, Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, or any other fly-by-night notions that catch an administrator’s eye like a shiny toy.  They understood long ago that as long as a dedicated staff is backed up by an administration hellbent on discipline and hard work, no theory was really necessary.

Unlike the twits that dictate education policy today, Catholic schools knew for a long time that the school environment matters a whole lot more than any newfangled theory.

Does that mean parochial schools can’t do a better job with English Language Learners or children with special needs?  Absolutely not.  In fact, many of the ding-dong theories we disparage can work for them on a limited basis.  Yet the majority of kids being sent to Catholic school are not being sent there because of Wiggins or Calkins or Fountas & Pinnell—they’re being sent because Sister Mary Margaret will conjure the fires of Hell if little Johnny doesn’t do his work.

In a way, the strict discipline and focus on work in the Catholic school is a lot more nurturing than even the most liberal-minded charters—places where the chanting, the slogans, and the high fives seem so…antiseptic…artificial…

…dare I say…fascist?

Catholic schools have a role as a viable alternative to the public school system.  They provide a discipline and focus that no charter can dream of providing, combined with a moral compass that makes KIPP look like a Dickensian workhouse.

Once they can get their financial house in order, America’s Catholic schools need to focus on how to compete effectively with charters and stake their ground in the 21st century education landscape.

After all, they do answer to a higher power.

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