Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Finnish “paradox”

Over at Parenting is Political, NorthTOmom has a great post about the “paradox” of the Finnish educational system. An excerpt:

The Finnish education system is a paradox to American education “reformers” in the same way the French diet is a paradox to mainstream medical scientists. In Finnish education less is more. Kids start formal education late by North American standards (at age 7), and their school hours are shorter. Finnish teachers assign very little homework and carry out minimal standardized testing (performing sample testing only); teachers are less bound by rigid national curriculum standards, and are largely unburdened by hysteria over “accountability.” In Finnish classrooms there is little technology—fewer smart boards, more blackboards. There are no gifted classes, the idea being that the more able students will benefit from interacting with, and helping, the less able students in the classroom. Yet despite all this, Finnish students’ scores on international tests are among the highest in the world.

Read the full post here. Also posted here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The business of America

Martha Nussbaum:

Eager for economic growth, our nation, like many others, has begun to think of education in narrowly instrumental terms, as a set of useful skills that can generate short-term profit for industry. What is getting lost in the competitive flurry is the future of democracy.

As Socrates knew long ago, any democracy is a “noble but sluggish horse.” It needs lively watchful thought to keep it awake. This means that citizens need to cultivate the skill for which Socrates lost his life: the ability to criticize tradition and authority, to keep examining self and other, to accept no speech or proposal until one has tested it with one’s very own reasoning. By now psychological research confirms Socrates’ diagnosis: people have an alarming capacity to defer to authority and to peer pressure. Democracy can’t survive if we don’t limit these baneful tendencies, cultivating habits of inquisitive and critical thought. . . .

And yet, all over the world, the humanities, the arts, and even history are being cut away to make room for profit-making skills.

The White House last week:

Today, President Obama announced the launch of Change the Equation, a CEO-led effort to dramatically improve education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign. . . . In his remarks to day, the President emphasized the importance of providing American students with a solid foundation in these subjects in order to compete in the global economy:

“As I discussed this morning with my Export Council, our prosperity in a 21st century global marketplace depends on our ability to compete with nations around the world.”

News reports also noted:

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology also released recommendations Thursday: Over the next decade the federal government should help recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers, support the creation of 1,000 new STEM-focused schools, and reward the top 5 percent of STEM teachers.

I think the survival of democratic values in our country is more important, not to mention more genuinely at risk, than our competitive advantage in the global marketplace. Why is there no blue-ribbon panel trying to ensure that our schools serve that goal? On the other hand, I shudder to imagine the top-down “pro-democracy” curriculum -- with its own standardized tests, no doubt -- that such a panel would probably propose. (On that, more here.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

“Schools would be great if it weren’t for the kids”

The latest from Alfie Kohn here. Excerpt:

we have reason to worry when schooling is discussed primarily in the context of “global competitiveness” rather than in terms of what children need or what contributes to a democratic culture -- and, indeed, when the children themselves are seen mostly as future workers who will someday do their part to increase the profitability of their employers. . . .

People who blame students for not being “motivated” tend to think educational success means little more than higher scores on bad tests and they’re apt to see education itself as a means to making sure our corporations will beat their corporations. The sort of schooling that results is the type almost guaranteed to . . . kill students’ motivation.

(c/o Kid-Friendly Schools)

Is it time to give up on progressive education?

That’s the question being asked over at the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools. (I chime in in the comments.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Helicopter parents and hothouse flowers

Are “edubloggers” too harsh on their own kids’ teachers? In response to that question (posed here), Doug Johnson argues that by intervening in our kids’ problems at school, we might be

depriving them of some necessary experiences in which they could develop the whole-life dispositions of patience, adjustment, subversion, recognition that the world is sometimes unjust, and discrimination of the important and unimportant. Children raised as “hot house flowers” by parents who step in at the first sign of problem may well fall apart when encountering the first college professor or supervisor who is challenging to work for. Self-reliance is a lovely attribute too often acquired through ugly experiences that are hard for a parent to watch.

I do think that edubloggers are wrong to focus their discontent on teachers. In my opinion, teachers aren’t the problem. Sure, nobody’s perfect, but I have found them to be well-intentioned and trying their best to treat the kids well. When I don’t like what’s happening in the classroom, it’s almost always because of what the teachers are pressured to do because of decisions made at higher levels, usually in response to No Child Left Behind and related policies.

I agree to some extent with Johnson’s points. But I also question some of his premises. I think it’s easy to overestimate the prevalence of “helicopter parents” because they are more noticeable, especially if you’re a teacher. As a parent, I know far more parents who would never consider intervening in their kids’ classroom situation than parents who would. A lot of people who talk about the need to “pick your battles” seem to end up picking none. I guess I’m afraid that, rather than helping the child learn to cope with imperfect situations, that parental strategy often ends up encouraging the child to deny that there are problems at all, to blame him- or herself, or to become passively resigned to the futility of trying to change anything.

It’s also worth asking what coping strategies, other than passive acceptance, are available to a student who has a justifiable complaint about how he or she is being treated at school. It’s certainly worth encouraging the student to raise his or her concerns with the teacher. But then what? Schools are notoriously not democracies. I wonder what lesson gets learned from such an encounter. Is it really about the value of self-reliance? Or is it that resistance is futile?

If today’s kids are insufficiently assertive, it’s probably not because of all those parents intervening constantly in their lives and classrooms. It’s probably because passive acceptance in the face of authority is the lesson schools teach day after day after day.

Johnson gives several examples of “constructive” ways to intervene in a problem situation -- “partnering with the teacher” in parent-teacher conferences, asking for more information about a homework project, making sure the child has satisfying extracurricular activities, or even choosing an alternative school or homeschooling. There is a conspicuous absence from his list: Isn’t there sometimes value in confronting the institution and arguing that it should change? As a parent, isn’t it important to at least sometimes model that behavior? For all the talk about helicopter parenting, the idea of actually complaining about what goes on in the school to a teacher or principal -- public employees paid with taxpayer money to care for the people we love -- seems to strike an awful lot of people as an unpardonable breach of etiquette and decorum. Who is the hothouse flower in that situation?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Elephant in the room, continued

In response to this post (and in the last days before I enabled comments), a reader wrote:

While you did not write much about the NYTimes article on school refusal issues, you seem to disagree with the article. I would like to know why. I found the article well written from a pediatrician’s perspective. School attendance can be a major factor in a child’s academic success, and it can affect their social lives as well. All of us just need a day off sometimes for whatever reason; but when a child is having recurring illnesses that are affecting their ability to attend school on a regular basis, multiple people (parents, teachers, and doctors) should be concerned. I liked Dr. Klass’ emphasis on these groups working together to find out why a child does not want to be in school. Is it really a medical issue, or is there something in the school environment that needs to change? Doctors can address these issues and help the parent bring them up at school or support the school in addressing them as well. I don’t think he was saying there was something wrong with the children. He wrote about potential medical problems or problems at the school. I think we need more of what Dr. Klass is proposing, collaboration between doctors, teachers and parents. Oftentimes, the school gets mad at the parent for not getting their child to school without supporting the parent in figuring out why, and doctors often ignore the fact that their young patients are seeing them quite a bit for minor or non-existent illnesses. Everyone is there to support the child. That support is more successful when everyone communicates with each other and works together.

Thanks for continuing to write about the insane world of education.

Yeah, it was a smart-alecky post, granted. I deserve to be called on it, if only as a reminder that I shouldn’t act as if I’m writing only to people who already agree with me.

The reason I felt provoked by that seemingly innocuous article was that, like so much other commentary about kids who have trouble “adjusting,” it never seemed to consider the possibility that it might be the school, and not the kid, that has the adjustment problem -- that “school refusal” might be a perfectly normal and even healthy reaction to the conditions of today’s schools. (Echoes of Peter Gray.) Yes, the author acknowledges that sometimes the school environment needs to change, but she refers to things like “a bully, a bathroom with no doors on the stalls.” How about an environment where learning is seen as “work” that no one would freely choose to do, or where kids have little or no autonomy over what they learn about or how they spend their time, or where “being good” is defined primarily in terms of being quiet and obedient, or where recess is cut back to a minimum and used as a punishment tool, or where education is conceived entirely in terms of one’s ability to score well on standardized tests in math and reading? Given the environment of our schools, I wonder as much about the kids who aren’t “school refusers” as the ones who are.

Am I exaggerating? My kids tell me they like going to school (though they sometimes have their complaints about it, and they never seem sorry to see summer vacation arrive). I know that some good things go on there, and I like the teachers and often think they are doing their best under difficult conditions. Yet there have been times when I have observed my kids in school and seen looks of boredom on their faces that I never thought possible. It seems to me that their happiness in school depends an awful lot on their ability not to think -- not to imagine how things might be different, not to wonder whether there might be more valuable and fulfilling ways to spend their time, not to notice the everyday petty unfairnesses of institutional life, and not to credit their own perceptions and experience. The child who thinks “I’m just not good at paying attention” might actually be happier than the one who thinks “I’m confined to a boring institution.” But is that the kind of happiness I want for my child? And do those have to be the choices?

I don’t want my kids to be malcontents, but I don’t want them to be Stepford children, either. Why is it only the malcontents who are sent to the school psychologist?

I get a stomachache just thinking about it. I may have to go see the nurse.

Blog news: Comments are here!

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had no idea what to expect. I decided not to enable comments, because, as I wrote in the “Comment Policy” link:

People, including me, can naturally get pretty worked up about anything that affects their kids. But this is a small town, and when the argument’s over, we all have to keep living with each other. I’ve done enough web-surfing to be leery of opening up this blog to unlimited anonymous comments. I want to make sure that the focus stays on ideas, and not on personalities. So, at least for now, I’m going to take comments only through email.

There was another reason, too: I barely have time to write the posts (as you may have noticed recently), so I wasn’t sure where I’d find time to read and respond to comments.

This is still a small community, and I’m still worked up about some of the things that are going on in the schools here, and I still don’t have as much time as I’d like to devote to the blog. In fact, every couple of weeks or so, I decide to stop blogging altogether (but then I start again). But, though I have occasionally gotten great email responses from readers, the comment-by-email system has proved just too clunky and cumbersome. One of the whole reasons I started the blog was that I felt there were no effective ways for parents to engage with each other publicly about our kids’ schools -- that too often those discussions either were managed by the school authorities, on the one hand, or just disappeared into the ether, on the other. Without a working comment system, that purpose is defeated.

So, with some trepidation, I’ve decided to enable comments, at least going forward. Chime in if you’d like, and we’ll see what happens . . .

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Don’t sign the homework (part 1)

When I was in school, my homework habits were halfway to abysmal. I had no routine. I worked on the floor, at the dinner table, in my bed, almost never at my desk. I frequently did my homework, as I did many, many other things, in front of the television. (A disproportionate number of my vocabulary sentences involved Mork and Mindy.) If the television demanded my full attention, or if my brother offered to play gin rummy or ping pong, the homework could wait. I didn’t pace myself; I put big projects off until the eleventh hour, then lost sleep to crank them out. I raced through great novels on the day before we had to discuss them. I wrote reports on books I never read; once even on a book that didn’t exist (Up Mount Everest). My performance wasn’t terrible -- I generally did well in school, and I almost never missed a deadline -- but no one would have called me disciplined.

Homework was a pain, the deadlines were sometimes stressful, and in retrospect a lot of it was probably unnecessary busy work. But I don’t remember ever being genuinely bothered by it, ever feeling any real angst over it. The only time homework caused me any emotional turmoil was when my mother would nag me about it. “Did you do your homework?” “Don’t you have homework to do?” She couldn’t help herself, even though she knew it was counterproductive -- the last thing I was going to do, in response to those questions, was pull out the books -- and even though it caused ongoing tension between the two of us. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why I got so upset about it; she might only ask about it once or twice, and she certainly never asked me to show her that I had done it or, God forbid, to let her read it. (I don’t recall showing any of my homework to either of my parents, ever.) Yet I can still feel the agitation her inquiries provoked in me. As I saw it, my homework was my business, and my mother needed to mind her own business.

I look back on that time and I think: be grateful for what you had. I was lucky. My mother’s compulsive inquiries aside, the people who constructed my world -- my schools and my parents -- gave me something that today’s kids aren’t often given: autonomy. I was in charge of my schoolwork. If I succeeded, the success was mine. If I messed up, it was my problem. I was allowed to make mistakes, and to decide for myself whether I regretted them. It’s funny what you learn from mistakes when someone else isn’t telling you what to learn from them. I never did develop good work habits, but I learned my limits. I learned my own ways of doing things. I think it’s served me well, and even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher required her students to have their parents sign their homework before they turned it in. This practice -- which I never heard of as a child -- is apparently increasingly common. I have a number of objections to it, which I’ll spell out in part two of this post. But here, I want to make this one point: The teachers who use this practice may be well-intentioned, but they are taking something from your child. I don’t just mean educationally, though I think learning to manage your own affairs without unsolicited help is important. I mean psychologically and emotionally. Some degree of autonomy over your own life isn’t just an educational strategy, it’s an essential ingredient in human dignity. To take it away is demeaning and dehumanizing, all the more so given that most kids would probably be unable to put those feelings into words. That little island of autonomy in the sea of compulsory education went a long way toward keeping me a sane and relatively happy kid instead of an alienated teenage burnout.

Were my standardized test scores as high as they would have been if I had been made to conform to more conventional study habits? Who knows. Should I care?

UPDATE:  I see that Alfie Kohn has tweeted a link to this post, so maybe it's about time I get around to parts 2 and 3 of the argument.  Stay tuned; I'll include links here to those parts.  In the meantime, here is a brief description of this blog for new readers.

UPDATE: Part 2 (long overdue) is here.