Tag Archives: obama

Reply to Gary Stager’s HuffPo Post on Duncan

The comment thread on Gary Stager’s HuffPo article on the Duncan appointment wouldn’t allow this long response, so I’m posting it here.

Gary,

I’m still informing myself (and as others have noted, your links are now more of my homework), so I’m going to withhold judgment somewhat.

I will say that all the reading I’ve done so far – and I’ve been reading a lot – confirms that Duncan’s record in Chicago is far from miraculous.

But I’ve read some ‘benefit of the doubt’ types who note that Duncan’s hands may have been tied by the Daley machine. Since Duncan’s appointment is now a fait accompli, we can only hope he’ll surprise us under Obama.

I’ll also note that, a propos the tempest around gay-basher Rick Warren’s selection for the inauguration, Duncan gave strong support to a “gay-friendly” school in Chicago. (Yes, I’m aware such an idea smacks of “separate but equal,” but wrote here about why I still think it’s a good idea.) While not an educational feather, it’s still a refreshing one to see in a cabinet member’s cap.

We may as well add that Duncan is on record as condemning the lack of funding for NCLB, its stick-instead-of-carrot posture (which could be changed), and its low-cognition assessments. If he “reforms” NCLB along these lines – and yes, many more – I can think of worse outcomes.

In the end, the decisions on education under the Obama administration are Obama’s responsibility; what he said regarding HRC at State pertains to education as well: “I’ll make the decisions.”  And while I’m as nervous as the next guy over so many of his moves lately, I guess I’m holding out hope that all the recent theater is outside-the-box tactics in a longer-term strategy that will make progressives proud. His campaign – a masterpiece of proving the nay-sayers wrong – makes me think more than twice that I can unriddle his long-term plan. So maybe he is selling out or simply making stupid choices; but maybe he’s not. He’s so damn poker-faced and close to the chest, it’s beyond me to know at this point.

I also take heart in the fact that he tapped Darling-Hammond to lead his transition team, and by choosing Duncan instead of a Rhee or Klein, arguably signaled his opposition to those more extreme edubiz proponents. I also take heart in the possibility that BO is so enamored of the “cabinet of rivals” idea in the Lincoln book he’s been touting lately that his appointment of Duncan might not equal an endorsement of Duncan’s record. Again: fait accompli – I’ll cling to any shred of hope until actions in office shred it beyond clinging.

This is all a long-winded way of saying you may be right, but until we see more, you’re not yet. Let’s hope you never are :)

Parting shot: To me, the money quote of your article was this:  “Perhaps we need federal legislation requiring a fully qualified superintendent in every school district!”

I’ve been thinking the same thing since I began watching the Texas Board of Edu-Creationism try to jimmy Genesis into science classes and, worse yet, textbooks nationwide (Texas standards wag the national textbook industry dog: if Texas votes to deny Darwin, all the science textbooks will aim to please. I still pray somebody stateside takes on the Smart Mobs idea to protest this putsch).

So I’d revise your money quote to add Board of Education members to the list of politicians requiring expertise in education. Failing that, we’re prey to anti-primate jackasses evermore.

An Approach to Teacher Merit Pay I Could Live With

Who is Arne Duncan and how will his choice as Secretary of Education affect education in the US (and, for better or worse in this hegemonic age, much of the rest of the world)? I’ve spent so many hours since the announcement reading reactions online that both my eyes and my brain cells are fried. (Enjoy the Diigo bookmarks if you’re masochistic.) All that reading will have to steep for a while before I can serve it as tea.

Until that happens, I’m going to focus on one controversy surrounding Duncan, and toss out some thoughts on it. That controversy is performance pay for teachers.

Bill Ferriter’s excellent recent post on this issue at the Tempered Radical got me thinking. I replied there,

Bill, Great arguments all the way through – and greater for the admission there are no easy answers.

I had a conversation last week about merit pay, and why I didn’t believe in it. I said it pissed me off to no end that I _knew_ from all sorts of objective observations that I worked harder and more successfully than many of my colleagues, yet earned nothing more for it – BUT, until a system was implemented that could determine what we mean by ‘merit,’ and avoid causing all of us to teach to tests and thus damage student learning, I was still against it.

What’s the best solution to this dilemma that you’ve thought or read?

Thinking about it a little more, this is what I can come up with so far:

We’d have to define “merit” to include the higher-order thinking skills – analysis, synthesis, evalutation/critical thinking, creativity – that the best learning projects require. This is not the opposite of the “fact-based, right/wrong, multiple choice” testing that NCLB and the College Board/AP/SAT pushes, but what you might call the upward extension of it. Mastery of facts is the beginning, not the end, of the assessment for meritorious teaching and learning.

If we start there, that means teacher merit is measured by the types of projects that are assigned in the classroom – not by the standardized testing industry – and by the performance of students who complete these projects. This further means that said teacher measurement is performed not centrally, but locally – or perhaps by boards consisting of local and central judges. (I know that “central” is vague.)

My thinking is that if teachers were rewarded for designing learning activities that measured positively against a checklist of such higher-order thinking traits – and crucially, that the measurement was based not on a single unit, but on a portfolio of all units assigned throughout the semester or year (this eliminates the dog-and-pony show liability of single principal evaluations) – then the best teachers would be rewarded with higher pay, while the worst ones would have an incentive to change their practice for the better. Teaching to the test wouldn’t be the goal any more; teaching to higher instructional standards would be.

As for what those higher instructional standards would look like, we need look no further than Linda Darling-Hammond for answers. Her presentation linked in an earlier post lays the groundwork for such guidelines.

As I commented on Will’s post about the Duncan pick,

Since Darling-Hammond led BO’s ed transition team, she may have had his ear long enough to fill it with good sense on how to reform NCLB’s assessments for the better – so that they align with better teaching-and-learning.

And I just discovered Bill Ferriter posted a follow-up to my comment, so off I go to fry a few more cells. Bill’s worth it.

NCLB, Obama, and Global Implications

NCLB as a potential world epidemic

To riff off an old saw, “When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” This is beyond obvious when we think of the Iraq invasion, the refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and countless other examples.

Less obvious, though, are the effects of American education policy on the world. The “standards and accountability” movement, exemplified most notoriously by No Child Left Behind, can appear to be a mostly domestic, purely American issue.

But that appearance is wrong.

For evidence, look no further than New York City Education Chancellor Joel Klein’s recent visit to Australia – at the invitation of Australia’s Education Minister. Klein’s visit is stirring the same controversies in Australia that his policies have caused in the USA: should teacher unions be crippled? Should Australia look to the likes of Rupert Murdoch to privatize public education in the same way some Americans are looking to Bill Gates?

(We could extend this discussion to the encroachment of good ol’ American creationism and “Intelligent” Design into Australian science classrooms as well, but will leave that depressing subject for another post. My own secular warfare, here in Korea, with creationism edu-evangelists requires a stronger stomach and sense of humor than I have right now.)

Obama as education epidemiologist?

All of this points to the global importance of the incoming Obama administration’s education policies. Where will he stand on NCLB, on Charter Schools, on equity and finance and teacher tenure?

Cagey as ever, Obama has so far sent mixed signals. Pro-union, anti-privatizing advocates are heartened by his selection of progressive NCLB critic Linda Darling-Hammond as his education transition team manager, and hope he’ll follow up by appointing her Secretary of Education. But anti-union advocates who favor the likes of Klein and Washington D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee take hope in Obama’s stated support for expanding federal charter schools.

A closer inspection of Obama/Biden’s official education plan on Change.gov, though, suggests that progressives have more reasons to hope than the Klein-Rhee types. It seems to lay out reforms aiming at a “kinder, gentler,” more holistic NCLB. From the site:

Reform No Child Left Behind: Obama and Biden will reform NCLB, which starts by funding the law. Obama and Biden believe teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. They will improve the assessments used to track student progress . . . and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner. Obama and Biden will also improve NCLB’s accountability system so that we are supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them.

A heretical close?

The other elements of the plan are encouraging and well worth the read, but – heresy warning - nowhere in the plan do we see any mention of the one issue that, in my view, the anti-union camp rightly raises: how to remove inept teachers from schools. Let’s be honest: we teachers have all worked with “omigod” colleagues we’d never want to inflict on a child.

Corey Bower writes a nicely pragmatic post about the tensions between protecting unions and eliminating undesirable teachers, in which he speculates,

I don’t think any union, or any union member, would argue that we should protect bad teachers. My guess is that [unions could support] some sort of provision that allowed for the dismissal of the worst teachers.

Speculation is all well and good – but does anybody have concrete examples of such a thing in their unions?

God, Obama, and Me

Annotations of Obama’s 2004 Interview on His Religious Beliefs

Obama is a year older than me, and that’s only the beginning of the list of ways I relate to him. Here are more things we have in common:

He didn’t grow up rich and privileged. When he got out of college, he drove a car with a rust-hole in the passenger side through which Michelle could see the sidewalk, but he didn’t seem to care: it got him from Point A to B. I had a ’66 VW Bus in the late ’80s with rust-holes too, and loved it as much as the ’68 Plymouth Valiant and ’66 Mercedes 220S I drove in the ’90s. (I especially loved the Mercedes because I found it covered in moss under a tree, where it had sat for years, and bought it for USD $700. I washed it, pulled its engine, learned auto mechanics by rebuilding it [call it a reaction to too much book-learning and not enough manual skills], dropped it back in, and drove it cross-country from Oregon to Tennessee the summer before I entered Boot Camp and the US Army.)

He studied philosophy, religion, politics, history, literature in college. He was seeking wisdom. That’s what I did too. I took my sweet time getting my college coupon – my Bachelor’s Degree – because I wasn’t in college to get out of it, but to get as much out of it as I could. So I took 16 years between my freshman year and my graduation date, studying whatever looked interesting in each semester’s catalogue, and dropping out altogether when I needed a break, or wanted to study more deeply than college permitted. The best drop-out year came after a philosophy class in which we read only a few chapters of Nietzsche. I dropped out to read all 16 or so of his complete works, plus a few biographies and scholarly studies. That took about a year. Then I went back to college for more. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was the same way, describing himself as a “college drop-in.” Obama read the Bible, read Nietzsche, and more, as a young adult. So did I.

Obama smoked, read, and wrote. So did I. I hope his writings were better than mine, but that’s not the point. The point is all of that reading and writing (the smoking was a fix to stay seated, awake, and focused) were self-compelled manifestations of a desire to make sense of life, history, and the world. Others were frying their brain cells in frat-house keg parties and sailing through classes they hoped would make them rich. I know that sounds self-righteous, but there it is. At 46 years old, I am thankful for all of that seeking. It has paid off in a daily happiness I never would have had otherwise. And when I compare myself to the rich parents of my students, who seem to have chosen those get-rich college classes and succeeded in reaching their goals – but at the expense of having a reading, writing, and culture life at all – I become even more thankful. They have more money than me, but they also seem poorer. I wouldn’t trade places.

Finally – the wrong word, since I suspect I’ll be fascinated by this man for the rest of my life, and will never delete the Google News “Obama” feed in my RSS Reader until Life deletes me – Obama says, in the interview below, that his life-long quest for values he felt right to live by (call it his “quest for God,” if you will) did not reach solid ground until he reached his fortieth year. Same here, roughly, though my years teaching Asian history in Shanghai threw some Buddha and Tao headily into my own mix, and very influentially, when I was 42 or so.

But the point is this: We talk, in our edu-lingo, about the importance of constructing meaning from our studies, not just swallowing and regurgitating received information.  What I love about the interview below is the same thing I (humbly) love about my own path: It shows an understanding of questions about God, the Sacred, and the Good and Right that are eminently constructed. This interview is an example of critical thinking about traditional religion at its best. And while I don’t share Obama’s views about many things below, I do admire that he seems to have gone through the hard work of reflecting his way to those views, instead of just believing the things he was taught by parents, preachers, and all teachers of old dogmas in his life.

Put another way, the interview below is an example of that other (rightfully) sacred cow of modern education, project-based learning – with a vengeance. Because the project was a life-long one, and so authentic it had nothing to do with assignments and grades – nothing to do with school at all. It had everything to do with authentic learning for its own sake, learning for the highest purpose of all: a life of wisdom. And if that sounds high-flown to you, it does to me too, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The guy just made history, after all, by becoming the first mixed-race president of the still very racist United States. If that doesn’t suggest a wisdom, I don’t know what does.

Before I tell you to “enjoy,” note the format of the below: the hollow bullets are snippets from the interview; the square indented bullets are my occasional annotations.

Now: “Enjoy.” We’ve got a life-long learner as our next president. Happy days are here again.

  • tags: obama, religion, christianity, politics, elections08

    • part of my project in life was probably to spend the first 40 years of my life figuring out what I did believe – I’m 42 now – and it’s not that I had it all completely worked out, but I’m spending a lot of time now trying to apply what I believe and trying to live up to those values.
    • My grandparents who were from small towns in Kansas. My grandmother was Methodist. My grandfather was Baptist. This was at a time when I think the Methodists felt slightly superior to the Baptists. And by the time I was born, they were, I think, my grandparents had joined a Universalist church.
      • Universal/Unitarian is my favorite denomination. – post by cburell

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