For the monthly feature of cartoons, I have found that the cartoonist’s pen spared no ink on popular attitudes toward math and how it is taught in schools. Enjoy!
Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, consultant on the Internet, and writer. He is writing here about teaching his University courses and a recent decision that he made. The post appeared September 9, 2014.
I teach theory and practice of social media at NYU, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for internet censor, but I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.
I came late and reluctantly to this decision — I have been teaching classes about the internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect — it’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones — time management is their job, not mine.
Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room. The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students. Multi-tasking is cognitively exhausting — when we do it by choice, being asked to stop can come as a welcome change.
So this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.
We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.
This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory,” the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)
People often start multi-tasking because they believe it will help them get more done. Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded. However, it provides emotional gratification as a side-effect. (Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.) This side-effect is enough to keep people committed to multi-tasking despite worsening the very thing they set out to improve.
On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill. A study from Stanford reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. (“They are suckers for irrelevancy”, as Cliff Nass, one of the researchers put it.) Multi-taskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption.
This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”
This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)
Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)
The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.
Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.
After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)
Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — its me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions. I have a classroom full of riders and elephants, but I’m trying to teach the riders.
And while I do, who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army (including, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, many of my former students.) These designers and engineers have every incentive to capture as much of my students’ attention as they possibly can, without regard for any commitment those students may have made to me or to themselves about keeping on task.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Even a passing familiarity with the literature on programming, a famously arduous cognitive task, will acquaint you with stories of people falling into code-flow so deep they lose track of time, forgetting to eat or sleep. Computers are not inherent sources of distraction — they can in fact be powerful engines of focus — but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.
The fact that hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract was the first thing that made me willing to require rather than merely suggest that students not use devices in class. There are some counter-moves in the industry right now — software that takes over your screen to hide distractions, software that prevents you from logging into certain sites or using the internet at all, phones with Do Not Disturb options — but at the moment these are rear-guard actions. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.
The final realization — the one that firmly tipped me over into the “No devices in class” camp — was this: screens generate distraction in a manner akin to second-hand smoke. A paper with the blunt title Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers says it all:
We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.
I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.
The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.
Groups also have a rider-and-elephant problem, best described by Wilfred Bion in an oddly written but influential book, Experiences in Groups. In it, Bion, who practiced group therapy, observed how his patients would unconsciously coordinate their actions to defeat the purpose of therapy. In discussing the ramifications of this, Bion observed that effective groups often develop elaborate structures, designed to keep their sophisticated goals from being derailed by more primal group activities like gossiping about members and vilifying non-members.
The structure of a classroom, and especially a seminar room, exhibits the same tension. All present have an incentive for the class to be as engaging as possible; even though engagement often means waiting to speak while listening to other people wrestle with half-formed thoughts, that’s the process by which people get good at managing the clash of ideas. Against that long-term value, however, each member has an incentive to opt out, even if only momentarily. The smallest loss of focus can snowball, the impulse to check WeChat quickly and then put the phone away leading to just one message that needs a reply right now, and then, wait, what happened last night??? (To the people who say “Students have always passed notes in class”, I reply that old-model notes didn’t contain video and couldn’t arrive from anywhere in the world at 10 megabits a second.)
I have the good fortune to teach in cities richly provisioned with opportunities for distraction. Were I a 19-year-old planning an ideal day in Shanghai, I would not put “Listen to an old guy talk for an hour” at the top of my list. (Vanity prevents me from guessing where it would go.) And yet I can teach the students things they are interested in knowing, and despite all the literature on joyful learning, from Marie Montessori on down, some parts of making your brain do new things are just hard.
Indeed, college contains daily exercises in delayed gratification. “Discuss early modern European print culture” will never beat “Sing karaoke with friends” in a straight fight, but in the long run, having a passable Rhianna impression will be a less useful than understanding how media revolutions unfold.
Anyone distracted in class doesn’t just lose out on the content of the discussion, they create a sense of permission that opting out is OK, and, worse, a haze of second-hand distraction for their peers. In an environment like this, students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that structure is disproportionately provided by the professor, especially during the first weeks of class.
This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.
Some of the students will still opt out, of course, which remains their prerogative and rightly so, but if I want to help the ones who do want to pay attention, I’ve decided it’s time to admit that I’ve brought whiteboard markers to a gun fight, and act accordingly.
Occasionally, I receive letters from parents concerned about the rollout of 1:1 iPads in their elementary school, especially for five to eight year-olds. The parents who write me may have concerns about the uses of devices in schools but, in this case, the Mom and Dad are concerned about their children and how the principal and staff are putting the 1:1 program into practice.
Here is one letter I recently received and answered. I have deleted the name of the school, principal, and parents who sent me the letter.
Dear Larry Cuban,
We have been attempting to influence better practices for 1:1 teaching practices with iPads at our daughters’ elementary school [in Southern California] for 4 months now.
Towards the end of last school year, the school announced they were going to implement [a 1:1 iPad program] starting in the fall. At first we were open to the idea, but after much research of journal articles we realized that the school is following a trend rather than implementing correctly. We agree that implementing technology is inevitable and there are likely good ways to enhance learning, but are very disappointed at how our daughters’ school is implementing it. At this point, because many parents are not buying their kids iPads, the school is stuck in a worse situation…a hybrid of school shared iPads and kids with their own. The school has even teamed up with Project Red, but [is not] even following Project Red’s guidelines.
[The parents sent me a recent letter that the principal sent to everyone in school community.]
A message from _______ ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Families of __________,
In April, we shared with you a plan for our [1:1] initiative to personalize learning for our … students utilizing technology tools. Over the past month, the staff and I have listened to parents’ voices and have heard both support and reservations around this proposed program. As a result of that input, we have decided to pause and rethink our next steps.
We now realize that while the staff and I enthusiastically created and rolled out this plan for transforming student learning, we had not fully engaged our parent community in the process. The … parent community has always been closely knit and very supportive. We need and want your support and we truly value your input.
As the staff and I rethink next steps, we will be communicating opportunities for you to engage with us and share your ideas about technology and learning.
While we are pausing on our full implementation of [1:1], we remain firm in our belief that technology can enhance student learning and ensure that each one of our students reaches his or her potential. Staff will continue to integrate technology into their daily lessons. We will also continue to provide options to any K-5 family who would like to purchase an iPad through the district for their child to use at school or to have their child bring an iPad from home. We will continue to have shared devices in the classroom to support teaching and learning.
Families wishing to purchase an iPad through the district should return your Option Letter by May 30, 2014. We will be following up with those of you who have already returned your letters requesting to purchase an iPad through the district to confirm your selection.
The staff and I value and appreciate your involvement and support. Thank you for engaging in this conversation and for being part of our process. We look forward to working together as we move forward.
[BACK TO PARENTS' LETTER TO ME]
We’ve been attempting to influence the Principal and also the school board without success. We believed there will be no substantial impact except extra cost to parents and the school after reading articles from your website. I’ve read many journal articles about technology implementation in schools and generally find:
1) We cannot find any success stories in grades lower than 3rd or 4th grade….
2) all success stories seem to be subjective rather than showing statistically significant and measurable improvements
We are trying to remain hopeful and wondering if you can help us with any of the following:
1) can you point us to any case studies or journal articles (if any) that show statistically significant success and proper ways to implement 1:1? We are especially interested in success in lower grades (K-3)….
LC: I do not have any studies to offer you. There may be single studies out there that do show success–as measured by increased student scores on standardized tests–but they are rare indeed. And single studies seldom forecast a trend. Overall, there is no substantial body of evidence that supports the claim that laptops, ipads, or devices in of themselves will produce increases in academic achievement or alter traditional ways of teaching. As you said in your email, anecdotes trump statistically significant results again and again when it comes to use of devices with young children and youth.
The claims that such devices will increase engagement of students in classwork and the like are supported. Keep in mind, however, two caveats: first, there is a novelty effect that advocates mistake for long-term engagement in learning but the effect wears off. And even if the effect is sustainable the assumption that engagement leads to academic gains or higher test scores remains only that–an assumption.
2) do you have any advice on influencing better practices with the Principal or school board?
LC: Looks like your principal erred in ignoring a first principle of implementation: inform and discuss any innovation with parents before launching it. Just consider the massive foul up in Los Angeles Unified School District in their iPad purchase and deployment. It does, however, look like, at least from the principal’s letter that you sent me calling for a pause, that you and others may have, indeed, had some influence.
When I receive letters like yours I reply with the same advice. Go to the school and see how k-2 teachers use the devices over the course of a day. I know that such visits take a lot of time but such observations sort out the rhetoric from what actually occurs–some of which you may like, some of which you may not. I do not know your principal; she might get threatened and defensive or she might be the kind that will seek out help from parents in her efforts to implement iPads.
In short, gather data on what is going on at [your elementary school]. Going to the school board without such data is futile.
I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I delve into the two persistent dilemmas at the core of the work teachers and administrators do daily.
By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something to gain a bit of satisfaction. That is the compromise that all of us construct to reduce the tension.
There are two core dilemmas that educators face in the classroom, school site, and district office that won’t go away. They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink: the multiple roles we have to perform daily and the personal/professional conflict.
Multiple Roles Dilemmas
Teachers, principals, and superintendents have to perform three different roles in their classrooms and offices.
Instructional role. For teachers, that is obvious. For principals and superintendents, the pressure on these administrators to assume responsibility for instructionally guiding teachers has grown dramatically in the past three decades.
Since the 1980s, mainstream thinking about principals has shifted markedly from managing school-site decisions to re-asserting the importance of being instructional leaders. Now, principals and superintendents are expected to help teachers in meeting state academic standards, aligning curriculum, textbooks, and tests to those state standards, evaluating teachers, and producing higher student test scores.
Managerial role. Principals and superintendents have always been hired to administer schools. Superintendents expect their principals to set priorities consistent with district goals, use data for decision making, plan and schedule work of the school, oversee the budget and many other managerial tasks—including punctual submission of reports to the central office. School boards also expect their superintendents to discharge the managerial role. Currently, efforts by reformers to call superintendents and principals CEOs elevates the managerial role. And teachers, well, controlling a crowd of students to pay attention to a lesson, complete classroom tasks, and parcel out help to individual students requires sharply acute administrative skills.
Political role. A century ago, progressive reformers divorced partisan politics from schooling. The norm of political neutrality held that superintendents, principals, and teachers hide their political party preferences.
So most principals, superintendents, and teachers have avoided partisan politics in the workplace but they do act politically within the school community and classrooms. For example, to advance their school agenda, principals and superintendents negotiate with parents, individual teachers, student groups, central office administrators, and even city officials. They figure out ways to build political coalitions for their schools at budget time or to put a positive spin on bad news during crises. Such politics aim to improve a school’s image, implement an innovation, or secure new resources. Most principals and superintendents see this as going about their daily business, not politics. But it is acting politically.
And, yes, teachers also act politically when they figure out which students in their classes are the leaders, which students need to be cajoled into compliance or helpfulness, which students can help advance the teacher’s goals. Astute teachers build a coalition of support among their students for reaching the goals the teacher has set for the class. Experienced teachers often carry out that political analysis the first few weeks of the school year. Teachers are also political in dealing with their principal and district office in helping or hindering their school site leader achieve school goals.
Dilemmas inevitably arise when educators come to see that they are stronger at some roles than others, prefer some roles over the other but realize that often times they have to perform roles that they are less strong at and hardly prefer doing. This is the persistent dilemma of multiple core roles.
You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Both are highly prized. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.
Teachers, principals, and superintendents map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If nothing is done–another option–risks rise for hurting family and friends or the job.
This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into daily routines. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromises worked out may unravel and again, teachers, principals, and superintendents would face unattractive choices.
Keep in mind also that the personal/professional dilemma bind. The new teacher or principal who is single and is passionate about becoming a first-rate educator will come in early, go home late and think constantly about students and teachers. The job is her life. But once a partner and children enter her life, the personal/professional dilemma shifts and a new compromise between work and home has to be worked out. Compromises to dilemmas don’t stand still.
These two persistent dilemmas are at the core of the work teachers and administrators do daily.
The following brief resume is taken from Taylor Mali’s website:
Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.
Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)….
What Teachers Make
He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.
I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?
And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.
I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?
I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.
I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.
You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.
Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?
You can watch Taylor Mali recite his poem on YouTube.
Kevin Hodgson, an elementary school teacher in Southampton (MA) had this to say about the poem:
A few times a year, I play poker with a group of lawyers, businss owners, federal government employees and software developers. No long ago, one of them turned to me and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a public school teacher?”
The question was asked innocently enough, but the emphasis on “public” and the unspoken meaning–“Why would anyone be a public school teacher?” –thre me off balance. I would have loved to have had the wit of poet Taylor Mali and launched into a ferocious comeback worthy of his poem “What Teachers Make.”
Instead, I gave a passionate defense of the impact I have on the lives of young people every single day and then proceeded to win a few rounds of cards. Still, I could hear Mali’s poem ringing in my ear.
I’ve shared Mali’s poem with other educators in many professional development sessions, and I’ve given the poem as a gift to colleagues. With it defiant tone, the poem becomes a token of solidarity, and I am reminded of a quote from Charlie Parker that I use as a tagline for my blog: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The poem resonates with a similar message: as educators, we need to be proud of what we do and boldly confront misconceptions that surround us.
It’s almost as important as the work we do each and every day in the classroom.*
*Both the poem and Hodgson’s remarks come from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner (Eds.) Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), pp. 18-20
“Why do people argue so much about education?”
I heard this question as I pumped up Mt. Hamilton. Biking up a California mountain forces you to think about many things or else you note how goofy you are for taking five hours to climb nineteen miles just to eat peanut butter sandwiches in the parking lot of the James Lick Observatory. So two friends and I chat about biking, the panoramas of the Santa Clara valley and, yes, even education.
About halfway up the mountain my friends and I began talking about the constant disagreement over schools. Victor mentioned the uproar over whether a high school should provide condoms to students. Deborah remembered a conversation with an aunt who was a “creationist.” They knew I was an educator and this led to Deborah’s question: “Why do people argue so much about education?” Let me pick up the conversation as we passed a sign that said five miles to the top.
“There’s a lot of agreement among Americans,” I said. “Most folks believe that kids have to learn the basic skills,” I paused for some breath. “They want kids to know the humanities, sciences, and arts. They want their children to be prepared for college and getting a job. And most people believe that computers help kids learn more.”
Victor said: “OK, let’s say you’re right about the agreement but what about those controversial issues we just talked about? They show less consensus and more dissensus.” I liked how Victor could use those 50-cent words.
“Well, you’re right. Even with all of the agreement, there are serious differences among people about purposes of schooling.” I took a quick breath and said: “Many people want orderly schools where kids study academics, do well on tests, and get into college.”
Victor said that they had those schools when he grew up. I said: “Fine, but there are other people who want schools to help kids become independent thinkers who will use their minds and hearts to live full lives while working with others to build a better, more democratic society.”
Victor turned and looked at my face to see if I was joking. “Do you have anything else in that water bottle? Those are beautiful sentiments but are there people who think schools can do that with kids?” Before I could answer, Deborah said to Victor: “I do.”
Deborah said she had gone to a middle school where teachers and students worked in teams on projects that included math, science, writing, and social studies. For one project the class worked with elderly poor people in a neighborhood facility. She read the newspaper to an old man who had no children. In school, they studied what the town and state did for the elderly and the problems they have. She marveled at how much she recalled from those experiences.
We stopped for a break two miles from the summit but the conversation continued. While I munched on carrot sticks, Deborah recalled class discussions about whether euthanasia was right or wrong. She wrote short stories and even had one published in the school newspaper; for the first time math made sense to her because teachers made sure that every project–including learning about the elderly-blended math with other content. What she remembered best, as we resumed our last pull to the top, were the teachers and friends she had made that year. She wanted her kids to go to that kind of school.
No one interrupted Deborah’s recollections. When she had finished, Victor said: “Deborah, your school was really different than mine but I’m not sure I would like my kids to go to that kind of school. It sounds too loose.” He continued, “I want a school that is a real school where they teach you what you have to know to get the right job or get you into college. It is nice to help out old people and have discussions but that’s not what schools are about.”
As Deborah started to protest, I said: “Hey, look, here we are finally reaching the top of the mountain on a beautiful day and we are arguing about which schools are good for kids. Don’t you see,” I said, “that there is no right answer here. There is no one best purpose for public schools. There is no one best system of schooling. There is no one best way of teaching or learning. People are going to disagree because their values differ.”
As I sat in front of the planetarium soaking up the sun, I continued. “That’s why parental choice keeps coming up over and over. That’s why many districts offer kids different programs. Both purposes are attractive to different people. Too few educators and public officials, however, lay out these differences in purposes and then try to seek the best of both.” And that,” I ended, “is why schools have been a battleground.” There was an awkward silence. As I got back on my bike I knew that this conversation was over. The discussion had gotten me up the mountain but it gave us no neat answers to a puzzling question. And on that swift, beautiful descent down Mt. Hamilton I thought about other things.
Samuel G. Freedman has authored seven books one of which is Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School. He is a frequent contributor to the New Yorker. This piece was published September 1, 2014.
In the course of a few decades, I became separated from my copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” Bel Kaufman’s classic novel about a New York City schoolteacher. So after Kaufman died, in July, at the age of a hundred and three, I felt compelled to reread the book. I called up my neighborhood Barnes & Noble to reserve a copy. Considering the stunning popularity “Up the Down Staircase” had enjoyed—it spent sixty-four weeks on the best-seller list after its release, in 1965, inspired a popular film adaptation in 1967, and ultimately sold more than six million copies—I assumed that the coverage of Kaufman’s death had renewed interest in the book, and that copies would be selling out.
Instead, very much to my surprise, the Barnes & Noble clerk informed me that “Up the Down Staircase” was out of print. Unconvinced, I checked several online booksellers, and, sure enough, no current edition was available. So I grabbed a copy from the library, and as I plunged into it I realized just how sadly appropriate it was that the book had fallen into obsolescence What place can there be for a book about the large struggles and little glories of a teacher, at a time when teacher bashing has become a major strain, even the dominant strain, of what passes for “education reform.”
There is no small amount of autobiography in “Up the Down Staircase.” Kaufman was the granddaughter of the renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories inspired “Fiddler on the Roof.” She came to America as a twelve-year-old immigrant from Russia, and, like many Jewish immigrants, she used public school as a ladder of upward mobility and Americanization. And, like so many Jewish women of her era, she then became a teacher herself. She ultimately spent about thirty years in New York’s public schools, and those experiences deeply informed “Up the Down Staircase.”
Kaufman’s story centers upon Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher at a massive public high school named after Calvin Coolidge. At its most straightforward level, the book follows Barrett through one semester, as she learns her own craft through trial and error, and gives up a job offer from an élite private school in order to stay at overcrowded, underfunded Coolidge, where she is so desperately needed. Yet Kaufman composed the book in an almost presciently postmodern style, largely assembling her story through an accretion of found objects: bureaucratic circulars, homework assignments, wastebasket contents, doodles, and interoffice memos among teachers.
Though Sylvia is unmistakably the story’s heroine, Kaufman was no sentimentalist. Coolidge High has dropouts, runaways, mind-numbing rules, a lunchroom riot, intimations of heroin use out in the neighborhood. Sylvia’s students are reading, she estimates, at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. When she pours her attention into a brutish boy with some intellectual talent, he misreads the gesture as a come-on and very nearly rapes her. Another of Sylvia’s students, a sixteen-year-old girl, tries to commit suicide after the male teacher whom she adores returns a love letter she wrote him, line-edited as if it were a term paper. Sylvia’s nickname for her assistant principal is Admiral Ass, and some of her colleagues, she writes, are “the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields,” who “find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”
I have spent a good part of my journalistic career writing about education, which has involved going into schools and seeing teachers teach. To revisit “Up the Down Staircase” was to find myself in a recognizable and deeply truthful place. And to follow Sylvia Barrett on her exhausting and exhilarating trajectory was to see, in fictional form, many of the teachers I have admired for doing their valiant work in obscurity, at best, and amid societal contempt and scapegoating, at worst.
One reason “Up the Down Staircase” has aged so well has to do with the particular moment in which its story is set. Kaufman’s own teaching career coincided with a golden age in public education, and it was a golden age for some largely ignored reasons. Public schools were only expected to send a small fraction of students on to college. Congress’s restriction of immigration in 1924, not fully lifted until 1965, gave schools two generations to acculturate and assimilate newcomers. The horrific job market during the Great Depression, combined with commonplace sexism of the day, filled public-school faculties with overqualified educators, many of them women with no other career options apart from nursing.
At Coolidge High, though, the ground is beginning to shift. One of Kaufman’s characters is a black student sent there as part of an integration plan. Several others are Puerto Rican. Even before the urban upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, the relaxing of immigration laws, and the white flight from big cities and urban public schools, Kaufman was able to register and record the tremors of change. And she fully grasped the thankless position of the teachers left to impart knowledge and instill citizenship in the face of awesome obstacles.
Around the same time that “Up the Down Staircase” was published, New York City was convulsed by a battle over community control of public schools. The struggle reached its apogee between 1967 and 1968, with the installation of a black governing board in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn, its dismissal of several dozen white teachers, and a series of citywide teachers’ strikes in response. In retrospect, one of the most significant aspects of the controversy over “decentralization,” as community control was formally called, was how it fostered the idea of teachers as the enemy. Decentralization was the product of an alliance between organizations run by liberal élites, such as the Ford Foundation, and low-income black and Puerto Rican communities. This created a pincer effect, with middle-class white teachers and principals portrayed, from both above and below, as the problem. They didn’t live where they taught; they didn’t care.
The race-baiting element of teacher bashing has subsided over the years, as many nonwhites have gone into teaching. But the alliance against teachers remains intact, and, if anything, it has grown stronger. Today, the élites are not only foundations but also hedge-fund philanthropists and politicians from both parties. Teachers’ unions are routinely portrayed not as legitimate stakeholders but as nefarious special interests. The mass firing of teachers—whether in Central Falls, Rhode Island, or by Michelle Rhee during her reign as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C.—are widely hailed as an overdue cleansing of the Augean stables. Hurricane Katrina provided a convenient excuse for getting rid of virtually the entire teaching and administrative staff of New Orleans’s public schools.
The antipathy toward teachers is often expressed through extolling the exceptional ones. In the nineteen-eighties, that meant books and films and TV shows about Jaime Escalante and Marva Collins. In the current moment, it means valorizing Teach For America participants, who commit only two years to the job. And it means, as in the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” believing that charter schools are the answer precisely because they aren’t in the devious hands of teachers’ unions and career educators. After I finished reading my library copy of “Up the Down Staircase,” I discovered that it is also available as an e-book. So I can only hope that the download generation will discover it. Kaufman did not write a period piece; she wrote the most enduring account we have of teachers’ lives—not naïve, not exculpatory, but empathetic and aware. Early in the book, Sylvia writes, in a letter to a college classmate who is living in the suburbs:
“I’m told that Calvin Coolidge is not unique; it’s as average as any metropolitan school can be. There are many schools worse than this (the official phrase is ‘problem-area schools for the lower socioeconomic groups’) and a few better ones. Kids with an aptitude in a trade can go to vocational high schools; kids with outstanding talents in math, science, drama, dance, music, or art can attend special high schools which require entrance exams or auditions; kids with emotional problems or difficulties in learning are sent to the ‘600 schools.’ But the great majority, the ordinary kids, find themselves in Calvin Coolidge or its reasonable facsimile. And so do the teachers.”