Making the Best of a Broken System

In my last post I defended the new Arizona law decreasing requirements for teacher certification. My point was basically: subject experts who are capable of teaching should be invited into our classrooms, not forced to take ineffectual teacher training courses.

Not to say that teaching is easy, just that it isn’t brain surgery. You can afford to struggle and learn from experience; you will eventually improve and become effective in the classroom. No one will die in the process. Kids might learn more from witnessing your determination than they would from a perfectly executed geography lesson.

Teaching will test your wits and drain your soul. The classroom atmosphere is supercharged with bundles of emotion. Because kids are powerless, the classroom often becomes a power struggle. What kind of teacher will you be? Because most kids wouldn’t voluntarily be doing what you are telling them to do, coercion is required. Will you be an authoritarian or a genteel motivator? Almost every minute of the day, a teacher makes a decision that impacts the psychic dynamic of the group. How to answer an off-topic question. Whether to let someone go to the bathroom during a lesson.

I’ve started to read Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, an Irish immigrant who ends up teaching at a New York vocational school for 30 years. (Also the author of Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis.) He perfectly captures the classroom dynamic in his narratives. And he started teaching in 1958! Shows you how sturdy the education system has been.

He’re a riff about the role of the teacher:

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Show me a certification program that prepares you for that, and I’ll sign up.

Another anecdote perfectly captures the problem with “teacher education.” On his first day in the classroom, Mr. McCourt encounters this scene:

Petey threw his brown-paper sandwich bag at the critic, Andy, and the class cheered. Fight, fight, they said. Fight, fight. The bag landed on the floor between the blackboard and Andy’s front-row desk.

I came from behind my desk and made the first sound of my teaching career: Hey. Four years of higher education at New York University and all I could think of was Hey.

I said it again. Hey.

They ignored me. They were busy promoting the fight that would kill time and divert me from any lesson I might be planning. I moved toward Petey and made my first teacher statement, Stop throwing sandwiches. Petey and the class looked startled. This teacher, new teacher, just stopped a good fight. New teachers are supposed to mind their own business or send for the principal or a dean and everyone knows it’s years before they come. Which means you can have a good fight while waiting. Besides, what are you gonna do with a teacher who tells you stop throwing sandwiches when you already threw the sandwich?

The full story is hilarious. After an internal monologue about what to do about this sandwich on the floor, McCourt ends up picking up the sandwich himself and eating it in front of the class. His students were impressed, but he winds up talking to the principal after school.

The principal doesn’t know the whole story, assumes McCourt decided to eat his own lunch in the morning instead of teaching class.

McCourt smiles and nods in his conversation with the principal, but he really wants to explain why he did it, and that… “there was nothing in the courses at college on sandwiches, the throwing and retrieving of.”

“Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.”

I think the same would be said by teachers getting started in today’s classrooms.

If I were elected King of the Education World, I would blow up the whole system and start from scratch. In that vein, any chipping away of this dinosaur system, like relaxing teacher certification laws, is most welcome.

The Teacher Certification Debate

teacherprotests2
Teacher protests at the Arizona State Capitol.

Arizona just passed a law reducing the requirements to become a classroom teacher. Before the new law, teachers needed formal training to become state certified. Now, as long as you have relevant experience in the subject, you can lead a classroom. The school districts and principals decide who is qualified.

Public education stalwarts are freaking out. How can you lower standards for teachers?

It even got national coverage. An article in the Washington Post said the new law “plays into a misconception that anyone can teach if they know a particular subject and that it is not really necessary to first learn about curriculum, classroom management, and instruction.”

Let’s examine whether this is a misconception or not.

Granted — not everyone who knows a subject will be a good teacher of the subject. Teaching is an inter-personal art form. An experimental scientist does not automatically make a good 8th grade science teacher.

However — Bill Nye the Science Guy would probably make an excellent 8th grade teacher. Why prevent a subject expert from teaching a class if the principal of the school, an education expert, thinks this person would be an effective teacher? A teaching candidate goes through an interview process, and usually teaches a sample lesson, before getting hired. We can trust a principal to hire someone who displays teaching competency.

During debate about the lax regulation, an Arizona congressman asked, “are there alternative pathways to become a surgeon, dentist, or lawyer?”

No.

But shouldn’t there be an alternative pathway for a former surgeon to teach high school biology? We’re really going to make a lawyer take classes on “curriculum” before teaching government?

Let’s be real. Teaching is not brain surgery. If you are organized, have the desire and some interpersonal skills, you can figure it out. In a well-functioning school, a new teacher will have guidance and support to figure it out.

I’ve taught seven different subjects over five years at the high school level. Because I’ve worked in private and charter schools, I am not certified in Arizona. Under the old laws, I would have to go back to school, pay a bunch of money for courses in curriculum and classroom management before teaching in a public district.

My first year was a struggle, but I adapted, read about strategies, learned from other teachers, and figured out a teaching style that worked for me and my students.

And here’s the thing. Everyone struggles their first year, regardless of their training or level of certification. The first year is notoriously challenging for everyone. All veteran teachers say you have to figure it out with experience.

Teacher education programs are like getting ready for a basketball season by making players watch powerpoint presentations on dribbling and shooting. You wrote an essay last month about defensive footwork, remember? Why can’t you stop these guys?!

In fairness, I’ve never gone through a certification program. Maybe it’s a blast. My perception is that it teaches you cryptic teacher lingo so you can understand what’s going on in faculty meetings.

Lots of factors are causing a teacher shortage in Arizona. If teaching paid more, more people would be willing to teach. If working conditions changed, reducing stress and improving work-life balance, more people would be willing to teach.

I see the certification debate as tangential to the main factors causing the shortage. It won’t solve the problem, nor will it lower the quality of education. It’s more of a morality and common sense thing. If someone can teach, don’t force them to jump through hoops to do it.

…Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

trump comey
Trump brings in Comey for the real thing.

Holy cow. Last week I thought I was processing a week’s worth of wild news. Little did I know.

Little do we know, still, what the heck is going on.

The story of the latest can be told by three quotes. First by David Plotz of the Slate Political Gabfest, during an introduction to Thursday’s podcast:

“It is exhausting keeping up with the machine gun fire of self-inflicted political scandal in Trump world.”

So exhausting, but I think worthwhile to stay aware, despite the ugliness and confusion.

Apparently Donald Trump let slip a few kernels of super secret information to the Russians during their meeting last week (whoopsie daisy.) Apparently, the information’s source was our special friend Israel. Apparently, during that same meeting, Trump had a few choice words to say about axed FBI director James Comey, calling him a “nut job” and expressing relief to have halted the pesky investigation.

Apparently, Trump had previously asked Comey to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had been firied for lying about his conversations with — you know who — the Russians. This request made Comey nervous, so he wrote down all of his interactions with Trump in memos, in case his recollection should come in handy down the road.

Which it now will, because the deputy Attorney General appointed a special counsel to oversee the FBI’s Russian investigation. (The actual Attorney General isn’t supposed to be involved, because of misleading statements he made about his conversations with the Russians.) Comey will also testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee after Memorial Day.

We really don’t know much for sure yet, though, because all these “apparent” stories slipped to the papers via leaks from the FBI, CIA, and Trump’s administration. The investigations will be revealing.

The second quote is from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, talking Sunday to John Dickerson on Face the Nation:

“Well, look. I mean, I don’t understand why people are that shocked. This president ran a very unconventional campaign. I was there for a big part of it at the beginning alongside being one of his competitors. And that’s what the American people voted for. And in essence, you know, this White House is not much different from the campaign.

I mean, people got what they voted for. They elected him. Obviously it’s in the best interest of this country to try to help him succeed. As far as the drama’s concerned, yeah, I mean, it’s unique. It’s different from anything we’ve ever confronted. I think our job remains to do our work.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio stands above the fray, here. He conveys a sense of maturity, a man whose job is to clean up after the mess of the silly voters.

Now, what he offers is probably the strongest argument against impeachment: No, Trump wasn’t obstructing justice, he’s just an ass clown, and everyone knew that already.

It’s yet to be determined whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia or whether Trump’s actions thus far amount to obstruction of justice. But Rubio can’t stand blameless. He’s among the spineless Republicans who knew better. He once called Trump a “con-artist,” but later endorsed him in the general election. You helped make him acceptable to Republican voters, it is your job to hold him accountable.

The final quote comes from the New York Times, because I trust the media and the leaks 100,000 times more than I trust Trump or anyone who speaks for Trump. Everything the White House claims is inevitably contradicted 24 hour later, if it’s not already an egregious lie. At this point, if Sean Spicer announced the sky was blue, I would think, oh crap what happened to the laws of physics, and go outside to check for myself.

From an article last week about the chaos inside a besieged White House:

There is a growing sense that Mr. Trump seems unwilling or unable to do the things necessary to keep himself out of trouble and that the presidency has done little to tame a shoot-from-the-hip-into-his-own-foot style that characterized his campaign.

Some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground […]

In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.

The more we know, the more is painfully clear: Trump is not fit for office. The sooner he is no longer president, the better.

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men…

trump russians
Trump palling around with the Russians on Wednesday

Not since the video tape of Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault has his political situation seemed so precarious. Back then, even his most self-effaced supporters had to answer for it. A slew of Republican lawmakers withdrew their endorsements. After all, he couldn’t possibly win…right?

Trump fought back. Before the last presidential debate, he held a news conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers to inject some cognitive dissonance into voter’s minds. The debate itself started with 30 minutes of grotesque personal insults.

That’s where we were. The tide turned back against Hillary after the FBI director announced he was still looking into her emails. Two weeks later, Trump won the presidency.

Both presidential candidates, as it turned out, were under investigation by the FBI. Hillary Clinton for her private email server, Trump’s campaign for possibly coordinating with Russian efforts to interfere in our election.

Now, after firing FBI director James Comey on Tuesday — maybe for bungled handling of the Clinton investigation, maybe to stop the Russia investigation, maybe out of jealousy for hogging the spotlight, maybe just a bad mood — Trump is in hot water again.

Several lawmakers are calling for an independent investigation into Russian collusion.

To me, if firing Comey warrants an independent investigation, then it’s also grounds for impeachment. If you fire the FBI director to hinder an investigation of your campaign, that’s obstruction of justice.

Any defense of the firing without at least acknowledging the suspect timing is disingenuous. The Clinton email investigation ended months ago. The Russian investigation was apparently heating up.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell both regurgitated the (first) White House version of the story. Talk about a congressional check on presidential power: How’s that power going? Good? Ok, good.

If the firing was for a legit reason, Trump should be impeached for incompetence.

According to recent reporting, the decision happened on a whim. His communication team had less than an hour’s notice before the story broke. Many of his aides learned about the firing on TV. He met the next day with two Russian officials (yup, the election hacking dudes.)

Since Tuesday, the story of the firing has changed about four times. Trump admitted in an interview that the original version of the story — fired for bungled handling of Clinton investigation, per the recommendation of his deputy Attorney General — was wrong, and he was in fact thinking about, among other things, the pesky Russian investigation. The White House now claims the FBI was in “turmoil,” but that doesn’t jibe with any evidence, and the acting FBI director said that Comey “enjoyed wide support.

This morning Trump went on a Twitter rampage, calling the Russian investigation a witch hunt and threatening Comey to stay quiet.

Holy cow. For a short presidency, this episode is only the latest in a series of bungles, fumbles, conflicts of interest and egregious lies.

The national government is broken. Division is one thing. Chaos is another. No legitimate agenda can be pursued amidst a category four shit storm of a White House.

America in a Nutshell: K-Cups

KeurigI never drank coffee until I became a teacher. Sure, I would enjoy the occasional caffeinated beverage, but a month into teaching, a habit was born–thanks to late nights, early mornings, and a free-flowing coffee maker in the teacher’s lounge.

Since then I have been perfectly content brewing my own coffee each morning. For many years it was the usual drip coffee pot. Put the water into the machine, scoop the coffee into the filter, flip the switch and you’re out the door in five minutes. When you get home, clean the pot, throw out the filter, ready to go tomorrow morning.

Most recently it was the French press. With the benefit of not having to buy filters. Ground the coffee a bit coarser, boil the water yourself, and pour the water directly onto the grounds in the glass container. Let it steep for a few minutes, and it’s ready to go.

Then two unexpected occurrences changed everything. In the same week my French press broke, my parents offered me an extra Keurig machine they weren’t using.

The Keurig machine cuts approximately three minutes off my morning routine…and I’ve never gone back. Sometimes I consider my old coffee life and it seems tiring. How did I ever live like that?

Now, I see K-Cups at the doctor’s office. In the lobby of the bank. At work. They’re everywhere. In 2014, Keurig’s Green Mountain took in $4.7 billion in revenue.

K-Cups have two distinct qualities. While coffee-making used to be at least potentially communal, the K-Cups are rugged individualists, designed for one. Also, K-Cups offer plastic waste destined to decompose in a landfill for the next 500 years. The containers used so far would apparently wrap around the Earth 10 times over.

So goes K-Cups, so goes America. This new way of ingesting caffeine has us spending more money for something more individual, with the side-effect of destroying the environment. The price of convenience.

Alas.

After falling sales last year, Keurig sold out to a privately owned European company. More competition and increased environmental awareness are changing the single-serve coffee industry. Maybe the new coffee way is better for efficiency, as we only drink the coffee we plan to consume.

Per usual, technological development leaves me conflicted. Even coffee is complicated these days.

Free-Range Education

school
Why do we still learn like this?

Lost in the endless debate about education is an unavoidable reality: Kids kind of hate school.

And for good reason. From age 5, kids are forced to sit down, shut up, and follow orders for the next 13 years. At the end of the day, they are judged and compared with each other based on their levels of compliance and rote memory.

By high school, students are either bored out of their minds, rebellious, or stressed out. Responding in kind to the pressures and requirements of school.

Not all students are totally miserable. They may love their friends and teachers, and even a few of their subjects. But coercion gets old fast. Most kids can’t wait for the end of the school day. Most kids live for recess or lunch, or summer break. Or graduation day, freedom at last.

Another unavoidable reality: Teachers kind of hate school, too.

Teachers are frazzled and frustrated. Overworked, underpaid, disrespected. Some take out their frustration on powerless kids. Others give up.

Not all teachers are miserable all the time. They may love their students, watching them learn new stuff. They may love their course material, or their colleagues. But most teachers resent the taxing of their personal time, the misbehavior or apathy of certain students, the outside efforts to influence what they do in the classroom, the existence of standardized testing.

Everyone seems to acknowledge that education is so important. Crucial. Yet everyone secretly knows that teachers are glorified baby-sitters, and the kids who do well in school are the ones who best play the game. Everyone knows you forget most of what you learn in school. Everyone knows that at least a majority of important life skills are learned outside the classroom walls.

So goes the “un-schooling” movement, which has captured my attention lately.

I’ve had this growing feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we operate schools, so I tried to find a book on the history of education. Most of the books I found started with the assumption that public education, the standard quo, is the end-all, be-all. To make school better we need more money into more of the same. There are lots of versions of: History of the Ways Idiots Tried to Screw Up Public Education. And a few versions of: History of the Heroic Efforts to Improve Public Education.

One book challenged the core assumption. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for LifeIn the book, developmental psychologist Peter Gray asks the original question: Why do we force kids to sit in rooms, packaged by age, shuffle them through pre-planned lessons, and then measure individuals against each other?

Gray looks at primitive societies to theorize about our evolved learning methods. In primitive societies, kids just play all the time. But their play imitates the adult behavior they see around them. In the process of growing up, without any formal lessons, children learn complicated sets of survival skills and cultural behaviors.

Play and fun. Our hardwired learning functions, which happen to be precisely what is stifled in school, so our kids can get to “work” at learning. Not only is play stifled in school, but “work” is brought home, killing even more opportunities for play and fun.

One example. In play, kids in primitive societies interact in all different age groups. The older kids nurture and protect younger kids and model behavior incrementally closer to adult behavior. In today’s structured learning environments, students interact in strict peer-groups, leaving them unprotected from bullies, unable to mimic more mature behavior, not required to nurture or protect younger kids.

The types of skills we need in modern society are drastically different from a hunter-gatherer society, but our hardwired learning functions are the same. Unfortunately, today’s coercive and highly controlled environments deprive kids of nature’s programmed curriculum of exploring curiosities.

The Sudbury Valley School is an example of the un-schooled philosophy taken seriously. They have no classes, no grades, no curriculum, no nothing. They have a bunch of resources like computers, books, fields, playgrounds, etc. And they let the kids roam, with adults present if they wish to interact or ask for any guidance with anything. But they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. It’s truly free-range. Everything is self-directed by the students. If the students want a diploma, they arrange a thesis project with one of the staff members at the school. All decisions made by the school, even the hiring and firing of “teachers,” are done through a vote in which the students participate.

Apparently, the graduates of this school have done well in society, are currently studying in normal universities, doing perfectly well as professionals in all kinds of fields. Yes, even as doctors and lawyers.

Most educators and parents couldn’t tolerate this level of “un-control.” But it’s worth taking some time to reflect on that gut-reaction. Why do we feel the need to dictate our kids’ lives so completely? Are we worried they won’t learn how to do long division or format a five paragraph essay? That they won’t learn the capitals of all 50 states? That the entire school would sit around playing video games all day?

Why don’t we trust kids with the responsibility of freedom when, in other cultures and at different historical time periods, kids have shown the ability to embrace freedom and thrive?

Kids today are controlled more than ever before. They are also suffering from anxiety and depression, more than ever before. Our future world is more unpredictable than ever before. Maybe it’s time to let go a bit.

Personally, I hesitate to fully embrace this movement. It seems too radical. Too extreme on the opposite end. I like the idea of empowering students with more freedom, choice in their learning, and responsibility. But I still cling to the belief that kids today need more directed mentorship.

Either way, kudos for innovation. This is a genuine reform movement for a system in desperate need of change. The un-schooling folks are onto something better than the public-education stalwarts, who want to pour cash into a busted vehicle.

***

If you are interested in Gray’s take on the history of education, read a short blog post here: A Brief History of Education.

Civilize the Immigration System

We are almost halfway through the second semester at our high school. The other day a colleague told me he looked forward to “resetting” his classes to start the fourth quarter.

Schools set a lot of rules. Each classroom has its own subset of rules and procedures. Predictably over time, enforcement of certain rules grow lax and behaviors slip. The beginning of a new academic season, especially after a break, is a good time to adjust and reaffirm rules and expectations. Then you crack down to ensure discipline.

It’s only fair that way. If your dress code states: “Students must tuck their shirts in,” that’s your rule. It’s in the handbook. But if you never systematically enforce that rule, in two weeks 95% of the student body will be walking around with their shirts out.

Yes, the principal could, midway though the year, start randomly walking into classrooms to throw kids in detention for untucked shirts. But students would be surprised and (rightfully) feel resentful of this tactic. Morale and performance would suffer.

Once a behavioral norm has been established, the best way to install new discipline is to do a reset. Ponder the goals and efficacy of your rules. Reiterate– and perhaps modify– the rules so they best serve the mission of the school. Start afresh.

***

Our immigration laws need a reset. There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The laws haven’t been enforced consistently, this is business as usual.

These individuals–men, women, and children– are woven into the fabric of our communities. Children brought here as infants have grown up, are graduating from our schools and starting families of their own.

People migrate here primarily for opportunity. Americans hire unauthorized immigrants to work. There is a demand for their labor. It’s not easy to come legally, and it’s not easy to go back and forth across the border– to work seasonally on farms, for example. An estimated 65% of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico have been here for over a decade. 

Let’s put aside the economic and safety arguments. Despite the scapegoating, research shows that immigrants–authorized or not–commit fewer crimes than American citizens, and contribute a net positive to the economy. Besides, the rate of  immigration has actually reversed in recent years: more Mexicans are leaving than arriving.

But let’s put the “worthiness of immigrants” question aside and grant that the U.S. should have clear immigration laws that are followed and enforced.

If so, how should we proceed?

It is not practical, or ethical, to round up and deport 11 million people. It would cost a boatload of money. It would disrupt communities, turn cities into police states. It would separate families. It would create more lawlessness, as immigrants of all stripes would fear calling the police to report crimes.

“Amnesty” is a dirty word in politics, but it’s the only alternative. Let people who are here stay. You can argue what their status should be, but unless you provide a path to citizenship, you create a permanent sub-class of Americans. That’s more problematic than full integration.

As part of this reset you can establish a new enforcement mechanism.

The wall is expensive, impractical, and antagonistic.

Instead of intimidating poor Mexican people who just want to feed their families, why not crack down on American companies hiring unauthorized workers? They are the real culprits, the ones who “should know better.”

Given this pressure, I imagine companies would lobby for easier work-permit systems, allowing more workers to come and go across the border.

In our system of government, the Congress writes the laws. According to the letter of the law, we have 11 million people here illegally and subject to deportation. The job of the president is to enforce the laws written by Congress.

Previous presidents have understood concepts like “practicality” and “basic human decency,” and have enforced immigration laws accordingly.

The Congress desperately needs to update our immigration laws. Remove from the hands of this president the power to terrorize immigrant communities under the guise of law and order.