Let EDUCATORS Guide Education!

Aaliyah Samuel penned a piece on U.S. News and World Report today about how state governors are the right choice to guide education, and she offered a set of guidelines to do so:

As we as a nation pursue effective education for all, it is paramount we commit to these three foundational principles:

  1. Equity. Ensure every child, from birth through college and career, receives a high-quality education and has access to the tools and resources they need to succeed.
  2. Alignment. Create coherence across disparate systems and connect education to economic opportunity to ensure a seamless pipeline from birth through college and career.
  3. Data-driven. Harness high-quality data to support students and improve schools, programs and educator quality with a fact-based approach.

On the whole, I agree with Samuel.  A top-down, one size fits all approach to teaching and learning doesn’t work.  However, having state governors guide education is STILL a top-down, one size fits all approach to education, just on the state level instead of the national level.  She argues for equity and alignment, which I think are admirable goals, but her third guideline, that education be data-driven, doesn’t work in conjunction with her first guideline.  If we want education to be equitable, then we can’t rely on what has been called “high-quality data.”  Standardized test results are NOT high quality data, and yet they have been used to make significant, sweeping decisions about education.  Test results tell us that schools in low income communities are almost universally failing, and that students, teachers, and schools there need to be fixed.

If we truly want equitable education, then we need to return control of education to individual schools, boost support and compensation for teachers, increase funding to schools in high need areas, and rely on information about schools that includes not just test scores, but observations of teachers, community, student, and teacher feedback, artifacts of student learning, and real world outcomes.

The best place to get that information, and the best place for decisions about education to occur is at the school level.  Districts and states can and should provide guidelines, but when it comes to decisions about instructional methods and measuring instructional quality, educators MUST be in charge.

There IS such a thing as a free lunch. 

photo credit: bookgrl lunchtime! via photopin (license)

Betsy DeVos spoke this week at CPAC, and told the crowd that she was the first one to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Well, Betsy, I’m here to tell you that there ARE free lunches, and they are so much more than that. 

Many kids come to school to eat; that is the only time they get fed. I know this firsthand, because I’ve taught these kids. I’ve been the teacher who keeps crackers in her desk to send home with kids that aren’t going to have any other food until the next morning. Our “free lunches” at public schools fill a critical gap; feeding impoverished children. When those kids get older, thanks to their free educations, many of them will apply to and attend public institutions of higher education. Many will receive grants, and if Bernie’s plans had come to fruition, they and many others would have received free tuition. 

I hear your Republican brain screaming now, about how that really isn’t free. You’re right; free lunches and free tuition are free to the recipient, but not to those who pay the bill. But here’s where you need to reframe your thinking to align with evidence.

Paying for school lunches, grants, and tuition is not just paying a bill. It’s making an investment. It’s saying that you believe that a well educated population is good for society. It’s saying that feeding poor children who can then grow up to become productive members of society is a good investment for all of us. Even if you live in a mansion in a gated neighborhood on the rich side of town, you benefit from poor kids being fed and educated. You benefit from EVERYONE being able to receive a high quality public education.

Because when people are fed and educated, they can grow up and get jobs. They can make discoveries. They can start businesses. They can spend their hard earned money in a strong economy.

Young people are seeds. They have incredible potential for growth, but they need the right light, enough water, and good soil. We have the ability as a nation to provide those things to all young people, and to reap the rewards of that investment. 

But that would involve a few things that Republicans are not in favor of:

– Recognizing that we have a social responsibility to care for the less fortunate and to dismantle systems of oppression and inequality that have pushed people down for generations.

– Supporting the creation of a well educated populace, who the research shows will likely not vote Republican.

So you’re right. There are no free lunches. There are investments in bettering individual people for the public good. Those of us who believe in the power of public investment in young people will fight you and your selfish agenda every step of the way. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy four years.

The Quandary of the Female Professor

Harriette J. Cooke, the first female full professor in the U.S., in 1871.

It’s that time again for a new term to begin.  I’m meeting all of my master’s and doctoral students in these first couple of weeks, and I’m faced with the same dilemma I’ve faced since I began as a professor 6.5 years ago.  Do I change my teaching style to deal with the inherent sexism and internalized oppression of my students?

This might seem like a dramatic claim.  Most of my students are women, after all, so how can sexism be impacting my teaching?  Unfortunately, it’s the sad truth.  I’m a teaching professor, so the vast majority of my performance evaluation is based on student course evaluations.  Those little bubbles that students fill in at the end of the course are significant.  I usually do quite well on these evaluations.  Only a handful of my students every year rate me anything other than Above Average or Excellent.  What I find to be the most interesting, though, and the most telling, is the qualitative remarks that students make on my evaluations.  Generally, if I receive a lower quantitative mark, it is accompanied by a qualitative remark about how I’m not warm enough.  I’m intimidating.  I should present myself as more of a coach instead of a professor.  My comments on papers should be more kind.

I’m by no means a perfect professor.  Sometimes I forget to respond to emails.  I make mistakes in grading now and again.  Some students don’t like my low-lecture, high-collaborative-work teaching style.  I’m not for everyone, and that’s okay.  What does bother me, though, is when I see comments like I described above.  Perhaps as a bisexual professor of varying levels of “femininity,” this bothers me even more.

It bothers me because I care deeply about my students.  I have very high expectations of them, but I also spend an average of 23 hours a week meeting one on one with students so that I can provide feedback on their assignments in advance.  I remind them in every class session to take some time for self care in the upcoming week.  I reiterate weekly that I will provide them with as much support as needed in order for them to be successful, even after the course has ended.  I tell them I’ll meet with them daily if that’s what they need, and they should feel free to ask anything at any time, even if it’s something they “should already know.” I close every class session with a “benediction,” – an inspirational video about teaching designed to keep the wind in my students’ sails.

My care, though, doesn’t only manifest as kindness and inspiration.  I have very high standards for student work, and I expect those standards to be met. I expect that students will read the instructions on assignments and be proactive about asking questions if they don’t understand something. I give clear and straightforward feedback on assignments.  Once they choose to submit a final version, I don’t allow additional rewrites.  I often dispense with small talk in emails, simply because I’m answering hundreds.

When I see an article published like this one, Bias Against Female Instructors in Inside Higher Ed, it resonates with me.  This article reports on a 5 year long study that examined over 23,000 student evaluations of teaching, and found that:

““In two very different universities and in a broad range of course topics, SET [student evaluations of teaching] measure students’ gender biases better than they measure the instructor’s teaching effectiveness,” the paper says. “Overall, SET disadvantage female instructors. There is no evidence that this is the exception rather than the rule.”

Accordingly, the “onus should be on universities that rely on SET for employment decisions to provide convincing affirmative evidence that such reliance does not have disparate impact on women, underrepresented minorities, or other protected groups,” the paper says. Absent such specific evidence, “SET should not be used for personnel decisions.””

The results of the study indicate that for US instructors:

“perceived male instructors were rated significantly more highly not by male students but by female students. Male students rated the perceived male instructor somewhat significantly higher on only one criterion — fairness (p-value 0.09). But female students in the U.S. sample rated the perceived male instructor higher on overall satisfaction (p-value 0.11) and most aspects of teaching. Those include praise (p-value 0.01), enthusiasm (p-value 0.05) and fairness (p-value 0.04).”

Female students aren’t immune to the societal expectations of female behavior.  The fact that most of my students are female doesn’t protect me from feeling the impact of this systemic issue; internalized oppression is incredibly difficult to deal with, and it has taken me decades to even begin to address my own.

Thankfully, USC, where I teach in the Rossier School of Education’s stellar online programs, is quite progressive when it comes to the treatment of NTT (non tenure track) faculty.  Rossier even more so.  Active steps are being taken to improve evaluation of all faculty members’ teaching efforts, and to balance student evaluations with other measures of teaching.

In the meantime, however, I face the same decision I’ve always faced.  Do I change how I teach and interact with my students to try to balance out the inherent bias that may be applied to my student evaluations? I shared an early version of this post with a colleague and mentor of mine, and she had some brilliant insight.  She connected this dilemma I’m in (we’re in) with the issues that face women on a larger scale.  How women are perceived in the workplace continues to be a major challenge to women at all levels, in all careers.  We tiptoe along on a balance beam of perception; if you’re sweet and kind, you’ll be seen as weak, but if you’re assertive and decisive, you’re seen as hostile.  It’s often a no-win situation.  Even in writing this piece, I struggled.  Do I share my own teaching evaluation scores? Do I explain what I do for students to try to build a community of care?  If I include these things, some will say I’m being defensive and overreacting (another common way that women’s voices are dismissed).  If I don’t include them, some will say I’m really just a terrible professor who is bitter about her teaching evaluations.  I elected to be open, and let the Internet judge me as it may, hoping that those who are in the same situation as I am will find it resonant, and knowing that no matter what I write, some will dismiss it.

I hope that these findings spur a larger conversation about not only how we evaluate instructors, but how we can support and challenge our female students as they begin to unpack the internalized oppression that many of them carry as a result of being raised in what is still a deeply sexist society.  These findings give me hope that things can change, and give me support when I speak up to ask that things be done differently. I can and will use my voice as a female professor to challenge these systems of oppression.

As for my courses, I’ll continue to do what I have done in the past; I’ll continue to hold my students to high standards and give clear feedback.  I won’t try to adjust my demeanor to be more “feminine.”  I stand by my teaching practices as being what students need even if it’s not always what they want. Student evaluations will be what they will be.

Teaching about Ferguson: A call to white teachers.

michael brown

The events in Ferguson have caused me to continually ask myself what could have prevented this situation.  I’ve seen no end of white people (and exactly one person of color) posting about how if Michael Brown had just behaved better toward Darren Wilson, then he wouldn’t have been killed.  If Trayvon Martin had just chosen “more appropriate” (read: “less black”) clothing, then he wouldn’t have been killed.  If any number of other black people had changed their behaviors or their appearances, then they would still be alive.

This is victim blaming.

So how do we prevent situations like this from happening again?  I’m going to speak just to the white teachers for a moment.

White teachers have a critical role in this process of preventing the unjust death of black people.  Because, you see, Darren Wilson was in someone’s class.  He never was asked to confront the prejudices that made him see Michael Brown as “a demon.”  One of the first steps to preventing another situation like the many that have resulted in dead black people is for white people to educate other white people.

Are you a white teacher with a class full of white students?  You have the privilege of never having to talk about race, because none of your students are going to be stopped on the street simply for the color of their skin.  I am asking you to talk about race anyway.  It is not the responsibility of black people to educate you or your students about how to not be racist, although that responsibility is often thrust upon their shoulders. Don’t trust that your white students are just going to figure it out on their own.  I didn’t.  I needed another white person to confront teenage me and challenge me on my “colorblindness” and ignorant beliefs until tears were streaming down my face.

Talk about it even though it might feel uncomfortable, and even though you might not feel like you have all the answers.  Talk about it even though you teach math, or science.  Talk about it with young students.  Talk about it with high schoolers.  Talk about their fears, and talk about their prejudices.  Be honest about your own prejudices and how you have overcome them.  Understand that confronting your own privilege can cause people to be defensive and emotional; talk about it anyway.

Read, read, read about how to talk to your students about race.  Talk to your colleagues.  Ask questions.  Educate yourself.

So why do I address this post primarily to white teachers?  Because black teachers can and will be dismissed by white students as being “angry.”  I’ve heard this time and time again at the postsecondary level from black professors, especially black female professors.  Black people ARE speaking up, and have been speaking up for decades, but white people are still nurturing their racism with thoughts like, “What about all this black on black violence?” and “Why are you destroying your own community?”

As a white teacher, you need to be prepared to intelligently challenge these ideas.  Educate yourself on why statements like these are racist and inaccurate.  Be ready to have these conversations with your students.

Are you a white teacher teaching students of color?  You might feel like you have no right to discuss race with your students.  You are wrong.  EVERYONE needs to talk about race.  The difference now is that if you’re a white teacher talking to students of color, you’re not going to be taking the approach of educating them about racism; they know it exists.  Instead, you’re going to help your students debrief and process recent events, and think through how to live in a world that consistently pushes them down.

No subject matter you could be teaching today is more important than talking about what happened in Ferguson.  Start the conversation.

Here are some resources to get you started:

Teaching Tolerance

Teaching the Levees

Jane Elliott

Understanding Prejudice

Teachers instead of Tests

origin_14994024015It is no secret that I am no fan of standardized tests.  I strongly believe that they are killing public education, and I am terrified at what our educational system will look like in 20 years.  We desperately want to be the best, and so we devise test after test to hold students and teachers accountable.

Who is it that we think we need to hold accountable?  We have these mythical “bad teachers” who just aren’t doing their jobs.  Those teachers do exist, but they are a small percentage.  The vast majority of teachers out there are good teachers. Because, you see, teachers don’t become teachers for the money (or even for the summer breaks).  They become teachers because they have a passion for inspiring and educating young minds.

So, the powers that be convince themselves that it’s these “bad teachers” who need to be held accountable.  They need to be forced into teaching properly with test after test after test.  So, perhaps, there are a few teachers out there who were coasting along, and decided to step up their games when standardized testing was implemented.  What about all the rest of the teachers, though?  The vast majority who are GOOD TEACHERS?  The joy of teaching and learning is being replaced with test-prep booklets, scantron sheets, and proclamations from legislators and number crunchers who have never stood in front of a classroom but are oh so sure that they know how to measure good teaching.

And so good teachers find less and less joy in the classroom, on top of their already abysmal pay. They hear that if they don’t get certain scores on a test that they know is invalid, they might be laid off.  They might not be able to feed their families.  Is it any wonder that teachers are resorting to unethical practices to deal with these pressures?

It’s not just about the testing, either.  It’s the opportunity cost of all of this testing. It’s the things teachers can’t do because they’re teaching students to bubble properly.  It’s the 1.7 billion dollars that states spend on testing annually that could be spent on teachers.  What is the impact of these lost opportunities?

We don’t give teachers adequate support from paraprofessionals.

We don’t give teachers adequate time to plan or grade.

We don’t give teachers control over what happens in their classrooms.

We don’t give teachers opportunities for high quality professional development.

We don’t give teachers a chance to be part of a larger community of professionals.

We don’t pay teachers nearly enough.

We give teachers standards that don’t make sense, or are too numerous to address in a single year.

We give teachers textbooks that are substandard, and encourage them to teach from them.

We give teachers pacing plans that tell them which standard to teach on which day, as if we can somehow plan out in advance how a group of completely unique individuals will learn.

We give teachers piles of paperwork.

We give teachers meaningless meetings.

We give teachers 5 subjects to teach in 2.5 hours total per week.

We give teachers endless, flat tests that measure only a small percentage of what we want a high quality teaching and learning experience to be.

We give teachers scores from these tests and assume that they somehow reflect a teacher’s quality, when we know that this isn’t true.

All of these things detract from the ability of teachers to do what we really want them to do: create and deliver engaging, differentiated lessons for their students.

I tell my students all the time that when you’re trying to create a successful classroom, you can go one of two ways.  You can implement a system of rewards and punishments so that students will sit through your boring lessons attentively. Or, you can create engaging, interactive, relevant lessons so that students voluntarily participate and learn because they want more of that type of teaching and learning.  The first option is little more than putting out fires.  It will quickly suck the life out of you, and it leaves little room for creativity, interaction, and mutual learning and growth.  The second option helps both you AND your students to eagerly anticipate walking into the classroom each day.

We’re doing a large scale version of the first option in our public schools.  We dangle merit pay in front of teachers, and threaten them with pink slips if their students don’t perform well enough.  What if, instead, we took that 1.7 billion dollars, and we used it to do things like provide professional development, peer observation time, classroom materials, grading/planning time, or any of the other things that teachers need? What if we made sure that teachers were highly qualified, and then trusted them to do their jobs?

There are 98,817 public schools out there.  What could we do with that 1.7 billion if we divided it up among those schools? That’s just over $17,000 per year per school. Now, sure, $17,000 is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things.  I would wager, though, that if allowed to spend that $17,000 themselves, teachers could find any number of productive uses for it.

$17,000 is a computer lab or a class set of iPads.

$17,000 is piles of books.

$17,000 is time for teachers to engage in collaborative planning.

$17,000 is sending a team of teachers to a professional conference.

$17,000 is musical instruments.

$17,000 can be a thousand useful things.

What isn’t useful is obstructive and invalid standardized testing.

“But we NEED to know if teachers are doing their jobs,” you say.  “What if kids aren’t learning?”  Well, if  you really don’t trust trained teachers and administrators to take care of themselves, then we’re going to need a lot MORE money.

$1.7 billion dollars won’t even come close.  You’re going to need trained observers at school sites.  You’re going to need to buy administrators and teachers out of time they are currently spending elsewhere so they can engage in peer observation.  You’re going to need assessment instruments that aren’t scored by a machine, which means training and paying professionals to hand-score each assessment.  You’re going to need assessments that reflect the unique needs of each school site.  You’re going to need assessments in multiple languages, because I don’t care how many times you make them take it, a math test in English can’t gauge the math skills of someone who is still learning English.  You’re going to need to implement dynamic assessment practices, which will involve training teachers on how to scaffold learners during assessments.

Or, we could just, you know, let teachers do their jobs.


photo credit: Truthout.org via photopin cc

Voting for School Board


Okay, I’m going to rant a little here.  As you all know, today is election day.  If you’re not sure who to vote for, try a resource like this to help you find candidates that match your values.  Go here to find out what’s on the ballot and where you can vote.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the small-scale stuff.  I live in a somewhat rural Parish in Louisiana.  We’re mostly oil refineries and plants, with a few towns thrown in.  Now, in my district, we’ve got a contentious school board election happening.  What that means is that every intersection is peppered with campaign signs, including a sign campaigning for someone with the nickname “Worm.”  It’s Louisiana – what can I say?  I’ve had numerous pamphlets dropped off at the door, quite a few robocalls, and several candidates knocking on my door.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for them) they all knocked at inopportune times so I wasn’t able to talk to them.

If I had been able to talk to them I might have asked them simple questions like:

  • Your mailers and robocalls tell me absolutely nothing about your expertise related to education.  Simply having reproduced or lived in Iberville Parish your whole life is not sufficient.  What experience do you have in schools?
  • What is your position on any number of major issues facing students and teachers?  Nowhere on any of these campaign materials did I see any information about standardized testing, charter schools, vouchers, church/state separation, Common Core, or any of the other issues of critical importance to our schools.
  • Why are you a better choice than the other million people who appear to be running for school board?  Simply having a bigger sign is not sufficient qualification.

Now, I’m someone who considers myself to be an educated voter.  I look up information on amendments and candidates before I hit the polling place.  For school board, though, I was stymied.  I found Facebook pages for some of the candidates, and some of them even had information about their positions.  These Facebook pages weren’t listed on their campaign materials, though.  I taught class the night of the Candidate Forum, and I would imagine the majority of residents also did not attend.  So what are people basing their decisions on? For me, as much as I hate to admit it, it boiled down to voting for people based on party affiliation (I vote D even though I’m Green because Green basically doesn’t exist here) and what little I know of them from word of mouth (“Worm” actually had some good stuff on his Facebook page, and my husband’s told me good things about Larry Rouse, who works at LSU).

I shudder to think what a less obsessive voter might base their decisions on, though.  Who sent the most mailers?  Who robocalled the most?  Whose sign was the biggest (Katie Mascarella wins that contest)?  It’s terrifying to me that major decisions about the education of students in my parish might be made by people elected because their sign was the biggest.  But then, I guess that’s American politics…

photo credit: secretlondon123 via photopin cc