Algorithms in Use: Evaluating Teachers and “Personalizing” Learning (Part 2)

In Part 1, I made the point that consumer-driven or educationally-oriented algorithms for all of their mathematical exactness and appearance of objectivity in regression equations contain different values among which programmers judge some to be more important than others.  In making value choices (like everyone else, programmers are constrained by space, time, and resources), decisions get made that have consequences for both teachers and students. In this post, I look first at those algorithms used to judge teachers’ effectiveness (or lack of it) and then I turn to “personalized learning” algorithms customized for individual students.

Washington, D.C.’s IMPACT program of teacher evaluation

Much has been written about the program that Chancellor Michelle Rhee created during her short tenure (2007-2010) leading the District of Columbia public schools (see here and here). Under Rhee, IMPACT,  a new system of teacher evaluation has been put into practice. The system is anchored in The “Teaching and Learning Framework,”  that D.C. teachers call the “nine commandments” of good teaching.

1. Lead well-organized, objective-driven lessons.

2. Explain content clearly.

3. Engage students at all learning levels in rigorous work.

4. Provide students with multiple ways to engage with content.

5. Check for student understanding.

6. Respond to student misunderstandings.

7. Develop higher-level understanding through effective questioning.

8. Maximize instructional time.

9. Build a supportive, learning-focused classroom community.

IMPACT uses multiple measures to judge the quality of teaching. At first, 50 percent of an annual evaluation was based upon student test scores; 35 percent based on judgments of instructional expertise (see “nine commandments”) drawn from five classroom observations by the principal and “master educators,” and 15 percent based on other measures. Note that policymakers initially decided on these percentages out of thin air. Using these multiple measures, IMPACT has awarded 600 teachers (out of 4,000) bonuses ranging from $3000 to $25,000 and fired nearly 300 teachers judged as “ineffective” in its initial years of full operation. For those teachers with insufficient student test data, different performance measures were used. Such a new system caused much controversy in and out of the city’s schools (see here and here)

Since then, changes have occurred. In 2012, the 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on student test scores had been lowered to 35 percent (why this number? No one says) and the number of classroom observations had been reduced. More policy changes have occurred since then (e.g., “master educator” observations have been abolished and now principals do all observations; student surveys of teachers added). All of these additions and subtractions to IMPACT mean that the algorithms used to judge teachers have had to be tweaked, that is, altered because some variables in the regression equation were deemed more (or less) important than others. These policy changes, of course, are value choices. For a technical report published in 2013 that reviewed IMPACT, see here.

And the content of the algorithms have remained secret. An email exchange between the overseer of the algorithm in the D.C. schools and a teacher (who gave her emails to a local blogger) in 2010-2011 reveal the secrecy surrounding the tinkering with such algorithms (see here). District officials have not yet revealed in plain language the complex algorithms to teachers, journalists, or the general public. That value judgments are made time and again in these mathematical equations is clear. As are judgements in the regression equations used to “personalize learning.”

Personalized Learning algorithms

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016

Bustillos had no reason to look at “personalized learning” in making her case that consumers are “herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.” Had she inquired into it, however, she would have seen the quiet work of algorithms constructing “playlists” of lessons for individual students and controlling students’ movement from one online lesson to another absent any teacher hand-prints on the skills and content being taught. Even though the rhetoric of “personalized learning” mythologizes the instructional materials and learning as student-centered, algorithms (mostly proprietary and unavailable for inspection) written by programmers making choices about what students should learn next are in control. “Personalized learning” is student-centered in its reliance on lessons tailored to ability and performance differences among students. And the work of teachers is student-centered in coaching, instructing, and individualizing their attention as well as monitoring small groups working together. All of that is important, to be sure. But the degree to which students are making choices out of their interests and strengths in a subject area, such as math, they have little discretion. Algorithms rule (see here, here, and here).

Deeply embedded in these algorithms are theories of learning that seldom are made explicit. For example, adaptive or “personalized learning” are contemporary, high-tech versions of old-style mastery learning. Mastery learning, then and now, is driven by behavioral theories of learning. The savaging of “behaviorism” by cognitive psychologists and other social scientists in the past few decades has clearly given the theory a bad name. Nonetheless, behaviorism and its varied off-shoots drive contemporary affection for “personalized learning” as it did for “mastery learning” a half-century ago (see here and here). I state this as a fact, not a criticism.

With advances in compiling and analyzing masses of data by powerful computers, the age of the algorithm is here. As consumers, these rules govern choices we make in buying material goods and, as this post claims, in evaluating teachers and “personalized learning.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Consumer Choice in Schooling: Algorithms and Personalized Learning (Part 1)

“The consumerist path of least resistance in America takes you to Amazon for books, Uber for transportation, Starbucks for coffee, and Pandora for songs. Facebook’s ‘Trending’ list shows you the news, while Yelp ratings lead you to a nearby burger. The illusion of choice amid such plenty is easy to sustain, but it’s largely false; you’re being herded by algorithms from purchase to purchase.”

Mario Bustillos, This Brand Could be Your Life, June 28, 2016

 

I wish I had written that paragraph. It captures a definite feature not only of our consumerist-driven society but also in recent school reform (e.g., the growth of charter schools and expanded parental choice). I also include the media hype and techno-enthusiasm for “personalized learning.” The centerpiece of any form of “personalized learning” (or “adaptive learning“) is algorithms for tailoring lessons to individual students (see here, here, and here). What Bustillos omits  in the above article about the dominance of consumerism driven by algorithms is that regression equations embedded in algorithms make predictions based on data. Programmers decide on how much weight to put on particular variables in the equations. Such decisions are subjective; they contain value judgments about the independent and dependent variables and their relationship to one another. The numbers hide the subjectivity within these equations.

Like Facebook designers altering its algorithm so as to direct news tailored to each Facebook consumer “to put a higher priority on content shared by friends and family,” software engineers create different versions of  “personalized learning” and insert value judgments into the complicated regression equations with which they have written for online lessons. These equations are anchored in the data students produce in answering questions in previous lessons. These algorithms predict (not wholly since engineers and educators do tweak–“massage” is a favored word–the equations) what students should study and absorb in individualized, daily, online software lessons (see here).

Such “personalized” lessons alter the role of the teacher for the better, according to promoters of the trend. Instead of covering content and directly teaching skills, teachers can have students work online thereby freeing up the teacher to coach, give individual attention to students who move ahead of their classmates and those who struggle.

Critics, however, see the spread of online, algorithmic-based lessons as converting teaching to directing students to focus on screens and automated lessons thereby shrinking the all-important role of teacher-student relationships, the foundation for social, moral, and cognitive learning in public schools. Not so, advocates of “personalized learning” aver. There might be fewer certified teachers in schools committed to lessons geared to individual students (e.g., Rocketship) but teachers will continue to perform as mentors, role models, coaches, and advisers not as mere purveyors of content and skills.

As in other policy discussions, the slippage into either/or dichotomies beckons. The issue is not whether or not to use algorithms since each of us uses algorithmic thinking daily. Based on years of experiential data we have compiled in our heads (without regression equations) step-by-step routines just to get through the day (e.g., which of the usual routes to work should I take; how best to get the class’s attention at the beginning of a lesson). Beyond our experiences, however, we depend on mathematical algorithms embedded in the chips that power our Internet searches Internet, control portions of our driving cars and operate home appliances.

The issue is not that algorithms are value-free (they are not) or data rich (they are). The issue is whether practitioners and parents–consumers of fresh out-of-the-box products–come to depend automatically on carefully constructed algorithms which contain software designers’ value judgments displayed in flow charts and written into code for materials and lessons students will use tomorrow. Creators of algorithms (including ourselves) juggle certain values (e.g., favorite theory of learning, student-centered instruction, small group collaboration, correctness of information, increasing productivity and decreasing cost, ease of implementation) and choose among them  in constructing their equations. They judge what is important and select among those values since time, space, and other resources are limited in creating the “best” or “good enough” equation for a given task. Software designers choose to give more weight to some variables over others–see Facebook decision above. Rich, profuse data, then, never speaks for itself. Look for the values embedded in the algorithmic equations. Such simple facts are too often brushed aside.

What are algorithms?

Wikipedia’s definition of an algorithm is straight forward: a sequence of steps taken to solve a problem and complete a task. Some images make the point for simple algorithms.

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Or if you want a Kahn Academy video to explain an algorithm, see here.

Complex algorithms

Most algorithms are hardly simple, however. Amazon’s proprietary algorithms on searches and popularity of books, for example, are unavailable to the public yet are heavily leaned upon by advertisers, authors, and consumers (e.g., also Amazon’s  algorithmic feature that appears on your screen: “customers who viewed this also viewed….”).  Among school reformers interested in evaluating teachers on the basis of students’ test scores, algorithms and their complex regression equations have meant the difference between getting a bonus or getting fired, for example,  in Washington, D.C. . And for those “personalized learning” advocates eager to advance student-centered classrooms,  algorithms  contain theories of action of what-causes-what that tilt toward one way of learning. In short, software designers’ value judgements matter as to what pops out at the other end of the equation. and then is used in making an evaluative judgment and an instructional decision.

Part 2 will look at values in algorithms that evaluate teachers and customize learning.

 

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Insider or Outsider? : Superintendents in Big Cities

In Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board appointed an insider–Michelle King–superintendent earlier this year after a string of prior superintendents came from outside the district.

In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appointed an insider–Carmen Farina– Chancellor in 2014 after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had appointed three outsiders since 2000.

These appointments of insiders to big city districts, people who spent their careers within the district as teachers, principals, and district office administrators, are the exception, not the rule. For large urban districts the rule has been appoint outsiders who promise major changes in course to solve serious problems.

Why is that?

Outsiders have been appointed time and again in these districts because the unspoken and strong belief was that the serious educational, social, and political problems besetting the schools needed an innovative, energetic, outsider, unbeholden to those inside the district. An outsider, policy elites assumed, would shake the system by the scruff of its neck in turning around a failing district–disrupt is the fashionable word today. Insiders who had risen through the ranks would prize stability while looking for incremental improvements. Insiders have been immersed in a network of relationships with peers and subordinates would be reluctant to disturb bureaucratic procedures, rules in effect for decades, and bonds of affection and respect for long-time peers and subordinates. Insiders would be loath to importing new staff and  innovations from elsewhere. They would rather seek new ideas and programs from sharp, knowledgeable insiders.

These strongly held beliefs about insiders and outsiders have shaped the appointment of superintendents to big city posts for well over a half-century.

In brief, the folk wisdom surrounding superintendents or chancellors heading urban districts says to appoint insiders if you like what has been happening in the system under the exiting superintendent in order to extend and protect what is working well for students, teachers, and the community. Stability and tweaking what works is the order of the day when insiders are appointed school chiefs. However, if you dislike what has been happening in the system, the dysfunctions, mediocre performance, the proliferation of problems, and the accompanying disarray, for heaven’s sake, appoint an outsider.

Washington, D.C. Schools

This situation now faces the mayor of Washington, D.C. who has to replace exiting Chancellor Kaya Henderson who has served six years. Her predecessor outsider Michelle Rhee who brought in Henderson with her was Mayor Adrian Fenty’s first mayoral appointment; she served 2007-2010. Now with the departure of Henderson,  Mayor Muriel Bowser who recently announced a national search for a successor to Henderson is faced with a similar issue of appointing an insider or outsider after the search is completed (see here) The Mayor knows well that the District of Columbia schools have had a long string of school-board appointed outsiders. To be specific,  over nearly sixty years, there have been 14 superintendents (excluding interim appointees) of whom 11 were outsiders (including Rhee and Henderson). The three insiders were Vince Reed, 1975-1980, Floretta McKenzie,  1981-1988, and Andrew Jenkins, 1988-1990. Reed and McKenzie served with distinction; Jenkins was fired.

What Does The Research Say on Insider and Outsider School Chiefs?

Scholars who have written about “superintendent succession”–the academic phrase for picking the next district leader–have studied this issue for over a half-century. Looking at insiders and outsiders who school boards appoint to the highest district post has produced a growing body of literature on a series of questions arising from who follows whom in a school district. Such questions as:

*Do outsider or insider superintendents outperform one another?

*Do insiders or outsiders stay longer?

*Does superintendent succession resemble succession in corporations and other organizations?

*What does matter when decision-makers (e.g., school boards, mayors)  in choosing an insider or outsider?

 

The answer is the first two questions is no. To the third question, the answer is yes. The last question I answer with more than one word.

On performance, thirty years of research have determined that neither outsider or insider school chiefs perform better because of where they come from. Sure, how one defines performance is important and will vary. But on various measures of the district’s  student outcomes,  teacher and parental satisfaction, relationships with community and unions, there is no substantial differences between districts appointing insiders or outsiders (see here, here, and here).

As to length of service for insiders or outsiders, studies of big cities show little difference also (see here and here)

Superintendent succession, researchers have found, similar to  CEOs and other top leadership posts in non-school organizations (see here, here, here, and here).

So D.C.  Mayor Muriel Bowser doing a national search to replace Kaya Henderson–such a search already tilts toward appointing an outsider–should at the very least consider what researchers have found out about superintendent succession.

Were she to do so, she should also consider the factors that come into play in influencing how either an insider or outsider appointee will perform. Such factors as the fit between school boards’ or mayors’ goals and the candidate’s experiences with, for example, the political decision-making that occurs in making educational policy and the features of the organizational setting and community and their match with the knowledge and skills of the applicant. These and other factors have to be considered in deciding whether to pick an insider or outsider to head a district. Simply picking one or the other because it is time to do so,  is a mindless way of making the most important decision for a major city’s schools.

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Cartoons on Schooling and Reform

The batch of cartoons I have collected for this month are about schooling, reform, and counter-reforms in the second decade of the 21st century. I hope you smile, chuckle, and grin. Or maybe, grind your teeth or slap your brow. Whatever your reaction, enjoy!merit+pay

 

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Hype on Steroids: Self-Driving Cars and School Technologies

A full week of mainstream and social media swept across the nation about the death of a Tesla car owner killed in Florida using the self-driving option. With the auto-pilot function turned on, the Tesla driver collided with a tractor-trailer and became the first known fatality in the industry’s surge to produce self-driving cars. Google and Tesla and 30 other companies (e.g., Honda, Ford, GM,Toyota) compete for what is hyped as the “next big thing”; such cars, they claim, will “disrupt” the century-old personal transportation market.

A Morgan Stanley Blue Paper announced in 2013:

Autonomous cars are no longer just the realm of science fiction.They are real and will be on roads sooner than you think. Cars with basic autonomous capability are in showrooms today, semi-autonomous cars are coming in 12-18 months, and completely autonomous cars are
set to be available before the end of the decade

Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk said the self-driving function on the Tesla meant that “[t]he probability of having an accident is 50 per cent lower if you have Autopilot on” …. “Even with our first version, it’s almost twice as good as a person.”

Skeptics have tossed in their two cents (see here and here; for rebutting skeptics, see here) but when it comes to questioning new technologies in U.S. culture, skeptics are alien creatures.

While the hype pumping up self-driving cars can lead to accidents and deaths, no such serious consequences accompany promoters of technological innovations who have promised increased teacher efficiency, improved student achievement, and the end of low-performing schools for the  past half-century.  Need I mention that Google has a “Chief Evangelist for Global Education?”

Nothing surprising about hype (even when  injected with steroids)  in a consumer-driven, highly commercial society committed to practicing democracy. Hype is hype either for self-driving cars or for school technologies. Parsing the hyped language and images becomes important because real-life consequences flow from these words and pictures.

 

Consider these advertisements championing new technologies since the 1950s.

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Over-stated claims are  commonplace when it comes to pumping up the benefits of the “next big thing.” Early adopters of new technologies discover the bugs in new hardware and software soon enough.  Glitches, however, seldom dissuade this crowd from peering around the corner for its replacement.

Does hype serve any social and political purpose other than to stimulate consumers to buy the product? I believe it does.

1. Over-the-top statements strengthen the popular belief that change is “good” for individuals and society overall. Not only is change “good” for Americans but in the technology industry and culture of school reform, change morphs into improvement. In Silicon Valley argot, “making the world a better place,” means a new product, a new service, a new app will improve life (a parody of this oft-repeated phrase can be seen here)

Equating change with improvement is a cognitive error. Surely, an improvement implies a change has occurred but because the change has happened, improvement does not necessarily follow. A moment’s thought would quickly squelch equating change with improvement. Stepping on a scale and seeing that you have gained five pounds while on a low-carb diet is clearly a change but not, in your view, an improvement. Think of a divorce in a family. The spouse initiating the divorce sees the split as a change for the better but for the others involved including children, few would see it as an improvement with two homes, living with different parents or weekend visits. Change occurs constantly but improvement is in the mind of the beholder.

Consider whether a new app that has a “smart” button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down or another app that locates rentable yachts are improvements to one’s life (see here). To those individuals who buy and download these apps they appear as improvements promising a better life but to others, they appear as trivial indulgences that hardly make the “world a better place.”

School reformers who believe that changes lead to improvements in teaching and learning, for example, often refer to gains in student test scores, increases in teacher productivity (i.e., less time to do routine tasks), and other measurable outcomes as evidence of  better schooling. Reformers holding divergent values (e.g., higher civic engagement, student well-being), however, would differ over whether test scores, et. al. are improvements. Quite often, then, the definition of improvement depends upon who does the defining and the values they prize.

2. Hype over new technologies raises questions about the existing institution’s quality.  Consider current health care where millions still lack health insurance, emergency rooms are over-crowded, wait time to see specialists physicians increases, and patients get less and less time when they do see their doctors. Hyping the “next big thing” in medical technology becomes a direct criticism of existing health care. Think of “hospital in a box,” or patient kiosks placed in pharmacies, where ill people go to the kiosk for video conferencing with one or more doctors about what ails them. Such new technologies raises implicit questions about access to adequate health care and to what degree the relationship between doctor and patient is important in improving health.

Or consider the thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads to accidents and human error in driving. Self-driving cars, once prevalent on the nation’s highways will, promoters claim, dramatically reduce the 32,000 deaths in car accidents while increasing worker productivity since with self-driving cars owners can complete other tasks that heretofore would have not been done. Self-driving cars raises anew questions about the lack of adequate public transportation and a society committed to one-person-per car.

And hype for technological innovations in schools for “personalized” or “adaptive” learning pictures the existing system as factory-like  whole-class, age graded, teacher-dominated instruction that ignores, even neglects individualized lessons, student-centered learning, and reconfigured classrooms.

3. Hype shrinks the time to show results to immediately. Most software products in the educational arena, for example, take time for teachers and students to grasp, understand, and use them in lessons. Education proceeds by short not long steps. Hyping these products leave the distinct impression that unless the desired result hasn’t happened in a few months then someone (note the beginnings of blame) has failed to do it right. And it ain’t the software developer.

4. Software and hardware developers come to believe their own hype. The cliche of “drinking the Kool-Aid–applies here and such self-deception occurs. And when it does, CEOs of start-ups and other companies start making short-cuts to get products into schools and stores. Those short-cuts increase software glitches, highten arguments with consumers of the products, and diminish faith in the innovation.

These outcomes of hype are not justifications for its ubiquity. They  help me understand the role that it (and its cousin, “magical thinking”) perform in U.S. society.

 

 

 

 

 

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Helping Professions: The Doctor-Patient Relationship (Joel Merenstein)

Relationships are at the core of the helping professions: teaching, medical practice, psychotherapy, nursing, and social work. Yes, expertise is important and skills are essential but the bond between student, patient, client and the professional is crucial for improved health, solving problems, understanding one’s self, and learning. Joel Merenstein, M.D., understands this at the core of his being. Merenstein has written posts for this blogs before. His most recent (see here) is about relationship with patients after he retired in 2010.

This post–taken from his recent co-authored book, The Human Side of Medicine: Three Generations of Family Physicians Share Their Storiesunderscores the centrality of the doctor-patient relationship. Obviously, there are differences among the helping professions but what draws them together is precisely this relationship, a bond that too many health, social policy, and educational policymakers seeking efficiency, increased productivity, and faster, and better outcomes, too often forget or ignore.

Mary Ann and I had a long and intense relationship as patient and doctor. She was bright, resourceful, and determined. She had her own ideas about medical management and did not hesitate to share them with me. We usually disagreed–until she was dying.

Actually, for many years our conflicts centered around her role as mother rather than patient. I believe, and still do, that both the doctors’ and the parents’ responsibility for children should be to aid and encourage independence. Mary Ann believed in total protection and guidance. So many of her phone calls would start, “I know that you think I’m an overprotective mother, but ….”

Real crises were no problem for her. When the second of her four daughters had acute glomerulonephritis [serious inflammation of the kidneys], she did not panic or become hysterical but remained calm. supportive, and caring. However, despite her daughter’s complete recovery, Mary Ann would forever ask, “Shouldn’t we check again to be sure her kidneys are still all right?”

As the girls grew older and less controllable, more of Mary Ann’s questions and concerns focused on her own symptoms. Once again we had our disagreements. She was not a bothersome patient. In fact she would often wait weeks or months with a particular set of symptoms before calling or making an appointment; but when she did call or come in, she would always want more answers than I had, more explanations than I was capable of–and at the same time, she offered more suggestions than I knew how to handle.

She recognized some of her symptoms as depression and would start medication, only to discontinue the visits and the therapy before they could be effective. At other times she would request tests to evaluate her joint and muscle pains and then want to know why they were normal when she was so uncomfortable.

She never criticized me personally for the lack of answers but was often hard on herself. She came in for an urgent visit with severe ear pain. When I found a small furuncle [a boil] in the external canal, she was upset that she had overacted and that the visit was unnecessary.

Whenever I recommended some referral or alternate form of therapy, she would counter, “That’s not the answer,” or “Do you really think that it will work?” When she finally agreed to see a rheumatology consultant, it seemed to be more to prove no one could diagnose her than to really get an answer. She was vindicated when the consultant could find nothing wrong.

Then a markedly elevated sedimentation rate was reported [blood test that shows inflammation in the body]. This prompted an extensive hospital evaluation, but again no answers. Six weeks later she developed chills, fever, and lymph nodes so large that it was hardly necessary to biopsy them to diagnose her lymphoma.

As she began to do battle with the first of two oncology groups, the strengths of our relationship surfaced. In response to the oncologist’s complaints, I noted that she had always been difficult. I told her and her husband that the oncologist should have been more open and informative. I was being truthful in both instances.

The second oncologist provided a little better communication but not much improvement or satisfaction. She failed to show any response to all of the radiation or chemotherapy.

There was much for me to deal with too: the lack of communication by the oncologists and their difficulty with her demands to know everything, a period of blaming her husband and then herself, and the oldest daughter’s guilt over her independence battles with her mother.

The oncologist reported that there was nothing more he could offer. Mary Ann accepted this and prepared herself.

Then came the house calls. We talked about the home visits I made when the girls were younger and we were all just starting out. We reminisced and bantered, and then she nodded toward her husband and said, “You have to make him understand.” So we stopped talking about the past and concentrated on the future.

Other home visits were to meet the visiting nurses and set up a regimen for pain medication and to see how things were going. There were no complaints and no disagreements. She made suggestions regarding adjustment of her medication and how the nurses might help. She was usually right, or at least she seemed to respond. There were no calls outside the regular visits until the end.

It was a cool but bright Sunday morning in March,and her husband called and asked if I could be there by noon. Her blood pressure had dropped,and they were afraid to give her the narcotic injection that was due then.

She was quiet but seemingly comfortable when I arrived. She said the priest had been there and given her the last rites and “everything was set.” I asked one of the girls if perhaps they had last comments to discuss with their mother. She informed me her mother had already taken care of that.

Her daughters, her husband, and her sister were all around in the large master bedroom. We all talked together almost lightheartedly. She seemed to doze,and I said to the family, “Maybe she doesn’t need the shot.” We all laughed when she immediately admonished me,”You said the wrong thing.”

I gave the morphine and reminded her husband that the injections were not killing her but relieving her pain. I told her to put in a good word for me in heaven and said goodbye. At the front door I wanted to hug her husband but was only able to put my arm around his shoulder.

As I drove away I had a sense of loss but yet felt good that it went well. Then I had an uneasy feeling and pulled the car off the road and thought maybe it had gone well because we did things her way this time. She died at 6:00 AM the next day, quietly and peacefully at the age of 48.

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The Failure of U.S. Schools as “Guardians of Democracy”

“If 50 percent of a school district‘s graduates could not read, we‘d fire the superintendent. Yet regularly less than half our graduates vote. In our ―accountability era, no superintendent has been fired for failing in this core mission of our ―’guardian of democracy.’ ”

The  quote comes from a paper written by Michael Johanek in 2011 about the century-old history of civic education in the U.S.. However,  since the early 1980s business-minded state and federal reformers “re-purposed”  K-12 schools into building  a stronger, globally competitive economy through higher academic standards, increased testing, and tougher accountability for student results; the traditional goal of civic education has become a “Second Hand Rose.” That has been the case for the past three decades.

Relegated to applause lines in graduation talks, making students into citizens who are engaged in their communities gets occasionally resuscitated by national commissions, occasional reports and books, and pronouncements from top officials (see here, here, and here), but the sad truth is that until the dominant  rationale for schooling the young shifts from its current economic purpose to its historic role as “guardian of democracy,” only   fleeting references to the civic purpose of schooling will occur.

I do not know whether such a shift will occur in the immediate future. I surely want it to occur.  Trimming back the prevailing economic purpose for tax-supported schools and correcting the current imbalance in preparing children and youth for civic participation is long overdue. Consumerism  has enveloped public schools over the past three decades. The role of schools to teach democratic values and skills and insure that students have opportunities to practice the skills and values in their communities has been shoved aside. Were such a political change to occur,  it will be gradual as more and more parents, taxpayers, and policymakers come to see the harmful imbalance among the multiple aims for schools in a commerce-driven democracy. Were that political shift in purposes to occur, the crucial question of what kind of a citizen does the nation want will re-emerge as it had in earlier generations of school reformers.

That question of what kind of citizen has been around since tax-supported public schools were founded two centuries ago. No one answer has sufficed then or now because there are different ways of viewing a “good” citizen (see here and here). Nor has any answer in the 1920s, 1940s, 1960s–when schools were expected to prepare students to participate and engage in the community–sufficed. Arguments over the kinds of citizenship that should be practiced in and out of school, the threadbare quality of the programs, and frequent conflicts over whether teachers should deal with controversial topics within the school day arose time and again (see here, here and here)

Professors Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne, knowledgeable about the history of civic education in U.S. and Canadian schools, have been wrestling with these different views and have come up with a conceptual map laying out three types of citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and social justice oriented  (WhatKindOfCitizenAERJ).   Westheimers recent book, What Kind of Citizen, summarizes these different views.

Personally Responsible Citizen

The core assumption for this kind of citizen is that to “solve social problems and improve society, citizens must have good character; they must be honest, responsible, and law-abiding members of the community.” Such a citizen would, for example, donate blood, recycle, and contribute food to a food drive.

Participatory Citizen

The core assumption here is that “to solve problems and improve society, citizens must participate and take leadership positions within established systems and community structures.” Such a citizen would, for example vote, serve on juries, form a street Neighborhood Watch to combat crime,  help organize a food drive, join the town’s recycling committee, and help register voters.

Justice-oriented Citizen

For this kind of a citizen the basic assumption is that “to solve social problems and improve society, citizens must question, debate, and change established systems and structures that reproduce patterns of injustice over time.” This kind of citizen would analyze the current structures and culture that create, say, hunger, homelessness or an epidemic of drug overdoses; the person would write letters, meet with local officials, and join committees seeking out ways of solving these problems.

For decades, these different views of a citizen have been embedded in the curriculum, especially in the 1930s and 1960s, and taught in schools. One kind of citizen, however, is not better than the other. In a democracy such divergent views of  citizenship are normal. Of course, these differences also lead to the larger question of what kind of democratic society do parents, voters, and taxpayers want their schools to work toward. No such debate, unfortunately, exists now.

But some public and private schools over the decades, surviving reform wave after wave, have practiced their version of preparing children and youth for citizenship. Often mixes of the above views of citizenship has emerged over time.

A few examples in 2016 are:

Sudbury Valley School–1968 (Framingham, MA)

Jefferson County Open School–1969 (Colorado)

El Puente–1982 (New York City)

Mission Hill--1997 (Boston, MA)

Bell Gardens High School –pp. 22-23 of report and here (Los Angeles, CA)

Westside Village Magnet School (Bend, Oregon)

That such schools (and these are a sampling) enact different forms of citizenship laid out above by Westheimer and Kahne is a proof point that schools enacting democratic practices exist. In these schools, student exercise responsible behavior in and out of school, participate in and out of school in various civic institutions from restorative justice programs to community service, and analyze causes of socioeconomic problems while working to reduce their effects in their communities. These schools, with much variation among them, embody different answers to the question: What kind of  citizen?

But such schools are scarce in the current market-driven reforms harnessing schools to the economy. Whether a swell of popular opinion will rise and crest into political action to reassert the fundamental civic aim for tax-supported public school, I cannot predict. But I sure hope it will.

 

 

 

 

 

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