Ego, money and false promises: Michelle Rhee’s big secret and the collapse of education “reform”

Ego, money and false promises: Michelle Rhee’s
big secret and the collapse of education “reform”

by Jeff Bryant

There’s big money in education “reform,” and now it’s
flowing to tech companies that want to disrupt public schools

When Michelle Rhee left the center stage of the movement known as “education reform,” inquiring minds wanted to know why.

Was it because “she didn’t play well in the sandbox.” Was it to solidify her and her husband’s image as “the next Bill and Hillary Clinton?”

But here’s one theory that no one seemed to consider: It was a good business decision.

Regardless of how you feel about Michelle Rhee, you have to admit she has been an adroit business person – tapping into a growing market demand, using a clever publicity campaign to reach celebrity recognition, outmaneuver her competitors (such as teachers unions), and amassing significant amounts of capital to roll out a formidable new “product,” her organization StudentsFirst.

So it’s not beyond reasonable to wonder if Rhee got out of the business of “education reform” while the gettin’ was good and left StudentsFirst at a time when it has likely peaked in influence and may even be in decline.

If that’s indeed the case, is Rhee’s exit the first sign of a larger exodus from the reform movement soon to follow? Is the whole enterprise known as education reform starting to go south? And if so, where is all the big money behind it going to go to next?

Becoming the Bickersons

Perhaps Rhee realized, just in time, the reform venture was turning into a money pit, as forces and personalities dragged the effort down with inefficiency, contention and lack of productivity.

Take what’s going on in the saga of lawsuits against teacher labor contracts.

In their eagerness to lower the professional status of teachers and dilute their job protections, lead plaintiffs in two New York City lawsuits against teachers’ job protections are now squabbling with each other.

As Chalkbeat New York reported, a judge recently consolidated the two lawsuits into one, but the plaintiff in the first suit, Mona Davids, “made it clear that she wasn’t interested in forging a unified effort” with the person leading the second, Campbell Brown.



Brown, a “news-anchor-turned-activist” with a history of attacking teachers unions and challenging the due process teachers get when their employment is threatened, leads the group Partnership for Educational Justice. Her group contends, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, students suffer from laws “making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

Brown’s ventures are closely tied to TNTP, the group formerly known as The New Teacher Project. TNTP is another organization founded by Rhee that is strongly associated with attacks on teachers’ unions and job protections.

Brown may play well with Rhee and her colleagues, but the harmony appears not to extend to just any old “reformer.”

As the independent blog site Eclectablog recently explained, Brown appears to have forced out the attorneys representing the Davids lawsuit, so she can remain the figurehead. In an interview with the blogger, Davids, and her associate in the lawsuit Sam Pirozzolo, accuse Brown of acting “like a playground bully.” Davids and Pirozzolo contend Brown threatened “everyone who supported them to isolate them and leave them without resources so that she and her group could take over their suit once it was consolidated with hers.”

When asked why Brown would do this, Davids and Pirozzolo stated, “She wants to be the next Michelle Rhee … This is all about her.”

Brown’s antics have also been noticed by Gloria Romero – another mover and shaker in the education reform movement, credited with creating what have become known as “parent trigger” laws to enable charter school takeovers of public schools.

Romero recently wrote on the website of a California news outlet that Brown’s scene-stealing has become the norm now of “the politicized world of education reform and the power brokers leading it.”

Not to be outdone in the ego department, Davids held a news conference to complain about the situation, where she handed out fake $100 bills with Brown’s face on them. “It’s our lawsuit,” she was quoted by Chalkbeat. “We filed first.”

And to think that everyone was under the impression this was “all about the children.”

Reforming What “Doesn’t Matter That Much”

Egos aren’t the only thing getting in the way of efforts to get rid of teachers’ job protections. An effort in Missouri to create a state constitutional amendment denying teachers those protections was recently abandoned by the group leading the campaign, despite a very large donation from a major political donor in that state. A spokesperson for that campaign explained, “the timing is not right.”

“Timing” in this case is being used as shorthand for “unpopular.”

As a new poll – the second installment of the annual survey conducted by PDK and Gallup – found, “a majority of Americans (77 percent) continue to trust and have confidence in their public school teachers.”

Further, most experts see any relationship between teachers’ job security and student achievement as mostly a “red herring,” which is how the economist Jesse Rothstein recently described these tenure lawsuits on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. “It just doesn’t matter that much … if you got rid of tenure,” he stated.

Writing at the Huffington Post, historian and professor Yohuru Williams observed, “The champions of corporate education reform insist that efforts to strip teachers of the procedural guarantees of due process embedded in tenure are somehow an extension of the Civil Rights Movement.”

But then Williams detailed how it was tenure that actually protected black teachers from a backlash of racially motivated teacher firings after the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board that forcibly integrated public schools. “If not for tenure,” he contended, “officials … might have succeeded in firing teachers as retaliation for involvement in Civil Rights activities or simply because of their race.”

He continued: “When so called ‘reformers’ like Campbell Brown try to make the case that tenure extends teachers an unfair guarantee of employment unlike other public servants, she is more than stretching the truth. To be clear, when confronted with inequalities in pay and the denial of tenure to Black teachers, the NAACP did not argue for an end to tenure, but for the extension of the same basic protections of due process to Black teachers … The lack of resources, bloated class sizes, high stakes testing, and zip code discrimination are real problems – not teacher tenure.”

So there you have it: a deeply unpopular campaign driven mostly by ego, money and false promises that in the long run “doesn’t matter much.” No wonder the wheels are coming off the reform cart.

Suffering From Over-Promises

Attacks to teacher tenure aren’t the only reform venture proving to be a rough road if not a downright blind alley.

As education policy analysts Matt Di Carlo recently observed on the blog site of the Albert Shanker Institute, education reform suffers from a “fatal flaw.”

He wrote, “This ‘movement’ (to whatever degree you can characterize it in those terms) may be doomed to stall out in the long run, not because their ideas are all bad, and certainly not because they lack the political skills and resources to get their policies enacted. Rather, they risk failure for a simple reason: They too often make promises that they cannot keep.” (emphasis original)

Di Carlo recounted the “inflated expectations” of the reformers, particularly those made by Michelle Rhee when she led the school system in the District of Columbia. “Rhee predicted that her district would be the highest performing in the nation within five years,” Di Carlo remembered.

D.C.-based blogger G.F. Brandenburg has gone into significantly more detail about Rhee’s overreach on his blog. Brandenburg, a retired math teacher, has been painstakingly combing through “50 measured targets” Rhee and her successor, Kaya Henderson, have pledged to achieve through their reform efforts. So far, he has found that “exactly one and one-half of the goals were reached … That is a score of 3 percent.”

The reform movement’s fatal flaw is not Rhee’s alone. As Di Carlo explained, “The public is peppered with unrealistic promises or plans to ‘close the achievement gap’ within ridiculously short periods of time, slogans such as ‘college for all,’ and talking points, such as the ubiquitous ‘fire the bottom teachers’ illustration, that imply the potential for huge short-term improvements.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan insisted his reform plan would “turn around” 1,000 schools every year for five consecutive years. Education policy leaders in Tennessee promised to “move the bottom 5 percent of schools to the top 25 percent within five years.” State reform leaders still talk with a straight face about making all students “proficient,” the goal of the now reviled No Child Left Behind law.

Now Duncan’s plan, grandiosely branded Race to the Top, is widely viewed as a “flop,” and a recent and comprehensive gauge on Tennessee student achievement – the state’s own assessments – shows that student performance levels have barely budged at all, even decreasing slightly in grades 3-8 for reading.

Whither “Reform”?

To prop up the faltering reform movement, rich private foundations – Broad, Bloomberg, Walton, and others – recently coughed up $12 million to start a new blog site Education Post to be led by, according to the Washington Post, Peter Cunningham – a former “communications guru” for Secretary Arne Duncan.

Cunningham announced that the purpose of his endeavor was to start a “new conversation” about education policy and reform – “an honest, open conversation … based on the facts.”

First, if Cunningham really wanted a “conversation” about education, it wouldn’t take $12 million to start one. Lots of people are willing to engage in that for free.

Second, it’s really doubtful that a mere $12 million – surely to these folks – is going to come up with a whole lot more “facts” and “honest” evidence than what the billions of dollars invested by the reformers have already come up with.

No, efforts such as Education Post seemingly amount to little more than a rear guard as the serious money heads elsewhere.

Get Ready for the Next Education Miracle

Judging from the latest report on the booming ed-tech industry, the big money headed out of school reform town is going to greener pastures. As ed-tech guru Audrey Watters observed on her own Hack Education blog, “Financing in Ed Tech has shown a clear upward trend, with consistent growth since 2010. Funding in 2013 represented a 212 percent growth in the sector since 2009. Deals have grown as well, with 334 deals occurring in 2013 representing a 35 percent year over year growth from 2012. Notably, 2014 is seeing funding and deal activity on pace to top 2013′s previous investment highs.”

In fact, ed tech companies raised $159 million in August alone, according to the website Edsurge.

Bolstering the bonanza are the very same think-tank cheerleaders who propped up previous education reform policy proposals with “research.” As Waters noted, “Research conducted by Matthew M. Chingos and Guido Schwerd argues that Florida Virtual School students ‘perform about the same or somewhat better on state tests’ than traditional public high school students.” Her prediction: “Expect these findings to be trotted out in future ed reform arguments.”

Already, there are news reports in mainstream media promising these new education technologies will forever change “the classroom as we know it,” ushering in a new era of “active learning” (while seated at a computer?) where children “absorb factual knowledge on their own time” (like you did when you were a kid?).

The fact that about 70 percent of America’s elementary schools still rely on slow Internet connections – and many schools in rural areas can’t get on at all according to the Hechinger Report – seems to matter little.

And there’s already even a scandal, just like the ones education reform folks brought us. As the Los Angeles Times has been reporting, the new controversy engulfing that school district is a “$1.3-billion technology project” involving superintendent John Deasy and technology providers.

A report from a school board member found that the bidding process the district administration conducted to acquire new iPads and software “may have had the appearance of favoritism toward Apple, which supplied the iPads, and Pearson, which provided the instructional software. Soon after, district emails were released that showed Deasy and former Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino had begun discussing a possible contract with Apple and Pearson two years before the bidding for the project began.”

No one but Deasy himself seems to doubt there could possibly be anything wrong with that.

So maybe it’s time to stick a fork in education reform, and get set for what the shiny, new ed-tech industrialists are going to bring us.

No doubt, it’s going to be great business.

US school districts given free machine guns and grenade launchers

US school districts given free
machine guns and grenade launchers

Calls to hand back weapons and gear, from M16 rifles
to mine-proof vehicles, obtained under Pentagon scheme

School police departments across the US have taken advantage of free military surplus gear, stocking up on mine-resistant armoured vehicles, grenade launchers and scores of M16 rifles.

At least 26 school districts have participated in the Pentagon’s surplus program, which is not new but has come under scrutiny after police responded to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, with teargas, armour-clad military trucks and riot gear.

Amid that increased criticism, several school districts have said they will give some of the equipment back but others plan to keep it. Nearly two dozen education and civil liberties groups have sent a letter to the Pentagon and the justice and education departments urging a stop to transfers of military weapons to school police.

The Los Angeles unified school district, the nation’s second-largest at 710 square miles with more than 900,000 students enrolled, said it would remove three grenade launchers it had acquired because they “are not essential life-saving items within the scope, duties and mission” of the district’s police force.

But the district would keep the 60 M16s and a military vehicle known as an MRAP used in Iraq and Afghanistan that was built to withstand mine blasts.

District police Chief Steve Zipperman told the Associated Press that the M16s were used for training and the MRAP, parked off campus, was acquired because the district could not afford to buy armoured vehicles that might be used to protect officers and help students in a school shooting.

“That vehicle is used in very extraordinary circumstances involving a life-saving situation for an armed threat,” Zipperman said. “Quite frankly I hope we never have to deploy it.”

Law enforcement agencies around the country equipped themselves by turning to the Pentagon program, which the defence department has used to get rid of gear it no longer needs. Since the Columbine school shooting in 1999 school districts have increasingly participated.

Federal records show schools in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Utah obtained surplus military gear. At least six California districts have received equipment, state records show.

Democratic congressman Adam Schiff said while there was a role for surplus equipment going to local police departments “it’s difficult to see what scenario would require a grenade launcher or a mine-resistant vehicle for a school police department”.

In Texas, Tina Veal-Gooch, executive director of public relations at Texarkana ISD, said the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, led the district to acquire assault rifles and it had no plans to return them.

In Florida, Rick Stelljes, the chief of Pinellas county schools police, said the county possessed 28 semi-automatic M16 rifles. They had never been used, and he hoped they never would be, but they were “something we need given the current situation we face in our nation. This is about preparing for the worst-case scenario.”

School officials in Utah’s Granite school district and Nevada’s Washoe county school district said they did not have any immediate plans to give back the M16s they received.

San Diego unified school district said it was painting its MRAP white and hoping to use the Red Cross symbol on it to assuage community worries, said Ursula Kroemer, a district spokeswoman. The MRAP had been stripped of weapon mounts and turrets and would be outfitted with medical supplies and teddy bears for use in emergencies to evacuate students and staff, she said.

Jill Poe, police chief in southern California’s Baldwin Park school district, said she would be returning the three M16 rifles acquired under her predecessor.

“Honestly I could not tell you why we acquired those,” Poe said. “They have never been used in the field and they will never been used in the field.”

 

A School Without Principals? Yes, Really

A School Without Principals? Yes, Really

By Allie Bidwell

Without the opportunity to grow, talented teachers
“wither or wander away,” one union leader says.

A group of teachers and union representatives gathered on a mid-summer morning in the small town of Forestville to discuss the details of opening a new school in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The five educators discussed budgeting, facilities, community engagement and curriculum, tucked away at the teachers’ union headquarters. There were no representatives from the state education department or local school board to get involved in the planning of staffing, transportation and food services, and notably, no principal – because there won’t be one.

“Teachers don’t really get a lot of say in what goes on in schools. So I thought, why not then have an avenue where teachers really get to step up to the plate and decide how schools actually operate, what the academic program would look like, and just the overall kind of structure that would give kids more engagement in their own learning?” says Dorothy Ray, director of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association’s UniServ program, which focuses on providing advocacy support to local union affiliates.

“Thank heavens some folks in here listened to me,” she adds.

 More often, teachers across the nation are looking to restructure their schools’ governance models and run them on their own. At a time when teacher evaluations and accountability have become linchpins in widespread and federally backed school improvement plans, the movement is born partly out of a frustration with the structure of America’s public school system and top-down reform. Currently, there are nearly 60 so-called teacher-powered schools nationwide in cities such as Denver, San Francisco, Boston and Cincinnati.

An April report released by Gallup showed that on two survey questions, teachers were the least likely of any profession to respond positively: whether they feel their opinions count at work, and whether their supervisor creates an “open and trusting environment.”

“Very talented people need ways to grow, and if you don’t give them that, they tend to wither or wander away,” Ray says. “We want to keep top-notch teachers in the classroom. I really see that as a major concern, and we want to stem that tide.”

This past February, the Prince George’s County teachers’ union won a competitive grant from its parent affiliate, the National Education Association, to develop a school led by teachers in the union.

The new school, scheduled to open for the 2015-2016 school year, will serve students in preschool through fifth grade as an alternative for parents who might want a less-traditional education for their children, the group explains. The goal, according to Ray, is to have the school operate as a contract school.

Similar to a charter school, contract schools receive greater levels of autonomy from the school district and have seats available for students who would normally attend other schools in the district. Unlike charter schools, contract schools are district schools managed by external organizations, whereas charter schools are independently operated public schools that are not affiliated with the school district.

“For some parents who have lost confidence in public schools for whatever reason, they’re out there seeking choices in schools,” says Lewis Robinson, executive director of the county’s union. “Why should we allow someone else to create those choices? Why aren’t we creating those choices internally that will attract parents and families back to our schools, or to stay with our schools?”

In Minnesota, Bianca Zick says that was the case for her family, when her son Max was not succeeding in a traditional public school. Finding a teacher-led school for Max to attend was “a godsend,” she says. Max, who just graduated from the teacher-led Avalon School in St. Paul, has dyslexia, a disorder that his mother says never caused much trouble, but was a contributing factor to his boredom in school.

Initially, Zick says the idea of a school without a formal administration or a principal seemed foreign, but the flexibility of the school governance allowed the teachers and school advisers to more deeply connect with her son and adapt the curriculum to his needs through project-based learning. Rather than applying the same assignment to everyone, the teachers at Avalon give their sixth through 12th grade students more choice and responsibility in the projects they choose to pursue, Zick says.

“The teachers have this vision together and work together as a cooperative,” Zick says. “What they’re doing is what they’re teaching the kids to do.” Teachers teach students indirectly, by collaborating with other teachers, as well as directly, by having kids engage in project-based learning opportunities, Zick explains.

Teachers at Avalon School in Minnesota discuss and vote on school-based decisions. Avalon is a democratically-run teacher-powered school that operates without a principal, leaving the faculty and staff collective to vote on all aspects of school operations.

“There’s much more of this cooperative energy – it’s not a top-down run school, even with the kids,” Zick adds. “They’re living their vision for their school through how they operate together.”

This fall, Max is attending a welding and metal fabrication program at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which Zick says suits her son’s hands-on and creative approach to learning .

There are a number of different ways teacher-led schools can form. Some, like the Avalon School, operate as charter schools, while others, such as the Denver Green School in Colorado, are formed when they receive state waivers. Despite their differences in origination, the restructured schools all provide more flexibility for the teachers leading them, when it comes to personnel decisions, salaries, curriculum development and even school schedules.

The Denver Green School, for example, has an extended school day four days a week, and shortens the fifth day so teachers have time to meet. The Avalon School, which opened in 2001, allows all school employees, including office managers and social workers, to vote on school policies.

It’s also a way to retain effective teachers. Research has shown that nearly half of all new teachers leave within their first five years on the job. But at Avalon, the year-to-year teacher retention rate is around 95 percent, says Carrie Bakken, a teacher and program coordinator at Avalon. Some years, there is 100 percent retention, which is particularly unusual considering the latest federal data show about 8 percent of teachers quit from year to year, while another 8 percent move to a different school.

But with the flexibility and freedom also come challenges no school can avoid.

Chart showing public school teacher retention rates since 1988.

Chart showing public school teacher retention rates since 1988.
Click for larger.

“Avalon, like most schools, had to suffer through the Great Recession, and a lack of funding and things like that,” Bakken says. “Instead of being able to blame somebody, we had to make those tough choices. Sometimes people think it would be easier, but I think all of us would agree we’d rather take on the challenge and have control of it.”

A separate personnel committee handles the teachers evaluation process at Avalon, while technology, special education and facilities committees, for example, focus on other specific needs throughout the school.

You can’t just throw teachers together and expect it to run smoothly, Bakken says. “You have to pay attention to it and make procedures and have committees.”

Bob Farrace, director of communications and public relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says school leadership is its own discipline. Studies have shown that school leadership is second only to teaching among factors that can affect student learning, particularly in disadvantaged schools that need it most. Having a solid leader or group of leaders at the helm of a school, therefore, can be a crucial part of the students’ experience.

“Frankly, there’s a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of work that goes into school leadership to execute it well – and I’m not talking just about the paper-pushing tasks and compliance tasks that you can spread across a bunch of people,” Farrace says. “Is it reasonable to expect teachers are going to be able to put the time in to both being highly effective instructors and teachers, and also highly effective leaders?”

Both Farrace and Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, say that while they’re supportive of collaboration between principals and teachers, it’s too soon to tell whether teacher-led schools will be successful on a large scale. Effective principals, they say, know how to harness the talents of teachers within the school and provide more leadership opportunities for them – but it doesn’t happen in nearly enough schools.

“From our perspective, it’s not a matter of either/or. It’s principals and teachers working in collaboration and leading today’s complex learning environment,” Connelly says. “It takes both to really create the optimum learning environment that can help each and every child succeed.”

Still, both Farrace and Connelly questioned whether schools can function effectively when run by teachers who might not have the specific administrative and managerial training that help principals with the complexities of managing staff, time, performance data, funding and resources. When something goes wrong, the educational hierarchy at the district and state levels tend to look for an individual to hold accountable.

Students at Denver Green School in Denver, Colo. learn about horticulture while tending to Andrew’s Garden – a memorial garden for a teacher  colleague of the school’s founding teachers.

The Denver Green School in Denver, Colo. partners with local Sprout City Farms to provide hands-on learning opportunities for students, while also supplying fresh produce to the school and local needy families.

At Avalon, teachers make decisions through different committees using a 1 to 5 voting scale. All decisions, whether related to personnel, calendars or curriculum, must receive a 3 or higher on average before moving forward. At the Denver Green School, a leadership team of seven founding-partner teachers and six other partner teachers makes decisions about curriculum and other matters.

In Cincinnati, the Hughes STEM High School operates with a principal. But because the purpose of teacher-led schools is to promote teacher autonomy, all decisions are made by teachers in collaboration with the principal, who cannot veto what the teachers decide. The school has a district-approved principal as part of a collective bargaining agreement between the local school board and teachers’ union to ensure collective leadership.

“In the current educational structure, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to look to phase out one level of the bureaucracy because other levels are going to persist … They’re going to need to know who to look at in the school, whose head to put on the chopping block, whose head is going to roll in the event something goes wrong,” Farrace says. “Nobody’s crazy about working in bureaucracy, but a whole lot of other things are going to have to change if the teacher-led schools are really going to take off and be the wave of the future.”

One of the necessary changes is professionalizing the teaching industry, says Marc Tucker, president and chief executive officer of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit policy analysis organization.

“It’s pretty clear when you look at teaching in the United States, compared to the top-performing countries, you’re looking at a blue-collar occupation,” Tucker says. “You’re looking at a real profession in most of these other countries, by most measures.”

In a recently released report, Tucker argues for an overhaul of the country’s public school accountability system. Teachers, he argues, cannot be held accountable in a system that has essentially set them up to fail. In order to attract and retain more highly qualified and motivated teachers, the entire occupation should be restructured to allow for a career ladder, higher starting salaries, peer accountability systems and a shift in how teachers spend their time.

Teachers in the United States, Tucker says, usually have three to five hours each week to plan lessons, whereas teachers in top-performing countries have between 15 and 20 hours per week to work with colleagues on lessons, as well as observe other classrooms and meet with parents and students.

Tucker advocates a career ladder for teachers similar to that of lawyers, who are able to move up through firms to gain both more responsibility and higher pay. Likewise, improved working conditions would also lead to a peer accountability system, where newer and more experienced teachers evaluate one anothers’ performances.

Students engage with their teacher during a classroom project. At the teacher-powered Avalon School, project-based learning is a major aspect of the school’s curriculum.

At the teacher-powered Avalon School, project-based learning is a key aspect of the school’s curriculum.

“One of the central ideas in here is that if you’re setting up an accountability system, what you really want to do is set up a system in which everybody in the organization is constantly working to improve their game,” Tucker says. “They aren’t doing that because their boss is demanding it. They’re looking at a set of other professionals out there who are their peers, and they want to be good.”

In Prince George’s County, some of the teachers involved in planning and developing the forthcoming school say a lack of top-down instructions is appealing. Jayne Hirst, a 10-year teaching veteran in Prince George’s County, says moving away from the hierarchical structure of school reform and accountability is one of the things she’s most looking forward to.

“This trickle-down reform doesn’t work, because a teacher then is being told [what to do] by someone who has been out of the classroom forever,” says Hirst, who will be a teacher at the new school. “It’s roll the eyes and reform du jour, and we need the teachers to do the reform. We know what needs to happen … We will invest much more readily when we’re happy and satisfied and really part of it.”

But can the novel examples of teacher-led schools in places like Minnesota and Maryland be developed on a national scale? Many have been operating in smaller schools with an “extraordinary group of teachers who are willing to take this on and put a whole lot of extra time in to make this structure successful,” Farrace says.

In her book, “Trusting Teachers with School Success,” author Kim Farris-Berg, a senior associate with the school reform group Education Evolving, examined 11 teacher-led schools, where the enrollments ranged from 57 to 355 students.

“Teacher-powered schools are generally small,” Farris-Berg says. “That said, there are teachers in large high schools now considering converting their school governance to teacher-powered [in Minnesota and northern California] . There are ways of going about this that would work … Just as partners in other professional organizations do, these teams could establish a shared purpose and then delegate some of the decision-making to small groups and individuals among them, who they elect to work within that purpose.”

On average, the total school enrollment for those Farris-Berg studied was 169 students. Other teacher-led schools, such as Brick Avon Academy in New Jersey, serve as many as 650 students.

“We begin to move the needle with experimentation, with different things, so let’s let it roll, let’s see how it goes, and let’s examine it closely,” Farrace says. “We want to make sure that we’re asking the hard questions to make sure this isn’t something new for the sake of being new, or that it isn’t a movement that is simply born of frustration with a bureaucracy, but that it is a model that is actually better than what it is we had.”

Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions

Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions
Photo: Nick Pandolfo
By Annie Murphy Paul

Human tutors — teachers who work closely with students, one on one — are unrivaled in their ability to promote deep and lasting learning. Education researchers have known this for more than 30 years, but until recently they haven’t paid much attention to one important reason why tutoring is so effective: the management of emotion. Studies show that tutors spend about half their time dealing with pupils’ feelings about what and how they’re learning. Now the designers of computerized tutoring systems are beginning to make sensing and responding to emotions a key part of the process, and they’re finding that users learn more as a result. At the same time, researchers are using the data generated by these programs to make new discoveries about emotion and its central role in learning.

One such discovery is that the feelings that dominate psychology’s conventional theories of emotion — such as psychologist Paul Ekman’s six “basic emotions” of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise — are not, by and large, the feelings that are involved in learning. In educational settings, it’s the “academic emotions” that occur most frequently: curiosity, delight, flow, engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom.

Researchers have found ingenious ways to identify these emotions in students; for example, the Posture Analysis Seat. This is a chair equipped with pressure sensors on its seat and back, allowing it to monitor the way learners are arranging their bodies. A student leaning forward is likely exhibiting interest and engagement; a student lolling back is apt to be bored or disengaged.

Then there’s the Pressure Mouse, a computer mouse that can detect how much pressure a user applies when clicking. Researchers have manipulated the level of frustration users feel (by employing a “a frustration-inducing online application form,” of course) and have found that the more vexed users become, the greater the pressure they exert on the mouse.

Wireless skin conductance sensors collect another type of information about emotion. These small devices attach to the learner’s hand or arm and monitor nervous system arousal, which can be positive (excitement and curiosity) or negative (anxiety and frustration).

Cameras, too, may be trained on students as they learn on computers. One type of camera records and analyzes facial expressions: eyes opening wide in expectation or squinting in close attention, eyebrows knitting in concentration or rising in surprise. Another kind of camera can track head movements, following students’ gaze on the screen and noting any head shakes or nods. An eye tracker can monitor pupillary response (pupils dilate and grow larger when learners feel interested), and a microphone can permit an analysis of the pitch and amplitude of learner’s voices.

An “affect-sensitive” computer program might use several of these sensors to collect information about the learner’s emotional state; an algorithm then sorts through the data flowing in from each channel and offers its best guess about whether the learner is feeling interested, bored, confused or frustrated. One computerized tutoring program uses “mind-reader software” to identify 22 facial feature points, 12 facial expressions and six mental states.

But accurately detecting the learners’ feelings is only the first step. The computer then has to respond to such feelings in a way that promotes learning. A computerized tutoring program called Wayang Outpost, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, features an onscreen avatar that subtly mirrors the emotions the learner is feeling. When the learner smiles, the avatar smiles too, making the learner feel understood and supported. When the learners express negative feelings, the avatar mirrors their facial expression of, say, frustration, and offers verbal reassurance: “Sometimes I get frustrated when solving these math problems.” Then — in a shift that researchers have found to be essential — the avatar pivots toward the positive. “On the other hand,” the avatar might add, “more important than getting the problem right is putting in the effort and keeping in mind that we can all do math if we try.”

Researchers carefully consider the wording of these messages — using them, for example, to promote a “growth mindset,” or the notion that ability is not fixed and can expand with effort. The messages delivered by the Affective AutoTutor, a computerized tutor developed by Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame and his colleagues, always attribute the source of the learners’ emotions to the material being studied, not to a deficiency in the learners themselves. If the learner seems bored, for example, the AutoTutor might respond with the comment, “This stuff can be kind of dull sometimes, so I’m gonna try and help you get through it. Let’s go.” If the AutoTutor senses that the learner is confused, it might advise, “Some of this material can be confusing. Just keep going and I am sure you will get it.”

The many learning sessions scientists have run in their laboratories (and the lab is where most of this emerging technology still resides) have produced reams of data that can be analyzed for clues about the role emotion plays in learning — evidence that may then be integrated with findings collected from more conventional studies. Researchers working with affect-sensitive computers have confirmed that negative emotions like anxiety and frustration can consume cognitive resources, leaving fewer resources to devote to the learning task. Positive emotions like curiosity and surprise, by contrast, tend to improve performance on the learning task. Positive emotions promote the adoption of “mastery goals” — wanting to learn information for its own sake — while negative emotions promote the adoption of “performance goals” — wanting simply to get a good grade or test score. Positive feelings lead to flexible, creative and holistic ways of solving problems, while negative feelings lead to focused, detail-oriented and analytical ways of thinking.

Notwithstanding the cognitive benefits of positive emotion, researchers in affective computing also find that deep learning must always involve a fair amount of negative emotion, concentrated in the phase in which students are struggling mightily to grasp new ways of thinking. In fact, students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.

Patterns of negative and positive feelings tend to follow a predictable progression, in which students feel worst when they’re in the throes of “cognitive disequilibrium,” or a state of unresolved confusion, and then start to feel better as the material becomes more comprehensible. For learners who experience repeated failures to make headway, however, confusion transitions into frustration, which in turn results in disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).

Skilled human tutors likely arrived at these insights some time ago. Our computers are just now catching up to what good teachers have done forever: make students’ feelings part of the lesson.

Why I hate standardized tests: A teacher’s take on how to save public education

Why I hate standardized tests: A teacher’s
take on how to save public education

Thanks to tests, my students’ minds have been downsized
— while corporate interests profit. Here’s the answer

In recent years, I have begun each semester by asking my first-year composition students two questions, one theoretical and the other practical. First, the theoretical question: What is the purpose of testing? Then the practical question: What happens to the information they study for a test after students have taken the test. My students’ answers to both questions typically achieve virtual unanimity. The purpose of testing, they say, is to find out how much students have “learned,” which is to say, how much they “know.” After they take the test, these same students testify, they forget virtually all of the information they “learned” for the test.

In the subsequent discussion, I ask them what their answers to these questions suggest about their experience in the public school system (only a tiny minority of Miami Dade College students having attended private schools). Did the tests they took achieve the purpose of revealing how much they had learned, how much they know, about the subjects on which they were tested? If they passed those tests (as they must have in that they had been allowed to continue their education) and yet had forgotten the information about the subjects on which they were tested, can they legitimately say that they “learned” that information, and as a result, that they now “know” it? And if they didn’t learn it and, as a result, don’t know it, what was the outcome of their public education?

The answer is surely not that public school students don’t learn anything. They do, after all, learn how to take tests. As standardized testing has swallowed up public education in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, its ravenous hunger intensifying yearly since the federal mandate inaugurated by President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top, students have largely become test-takers. As a result, their minds have been increasingly downsized to the mental equivalent of shrunken heads (trophies of the class warfare waged by the corporate interests who profit so handsomely from standardized testing).

Of course, students have always had to take tests. But tests (i.e., multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank) used to be simply one of the tools in the educational tool box. And the least effective tool when it came to assessing student learning. Tests were also the refuge of teachers who lacked the skills or the motivation, first, to engage students’ interest in their subjects, opening their understanding and inspiring their imagination, and, second, to formulate meaningful ways to measure their students’ learning. All teachers had to test their students, but for good teachers (of which there have always been many) testing was, at best, a necessary evil.



The limits of public education must be acknowledged if the most is to be made of it. One teacher per 20 (to 40 or more) students necessarily limits what teachers can accomplish in the best of systems. The educational ideal of the Socratic dialogue assumes an ongoing interaction, whatever the subject may be, between a teacher and a few students, who avail themselves of equal opportunity to question and challenge their teacher, who questions and challenges each student. And the teacher is able to continually assess the students’ understanding of the subject matter based on what those students ask and answer. The classroom setting, by contrast, is an artificial learning environment that threatens to squelch curiosity by the sterility of its structure, and the teacher-to-student ratio typically precludes the kind of interactive dynamic that makes learning natural and lively. The best public school teachers have always found ways to mitigate and compensate for the limitations of the public school setting, but those limitations, nonetheless, remain. (And, as a result, education “reformers” can always point to inadequacies and shortcomings, to whatever degree inescapable—and to whatever degree typically exaggerated by would-be reformers—when they have an innovation to push.) Testing has always seemed necessary to assess the learning of students whose numbers make it impossible for teachers to know them well enough to measure individually their knowledge of subjects.

The seeming necessity of testing, however, is the very fallacy that my students so faithfully pass on from their elders: that the purpose of testing is to assess student learning, to find out how much students know. If this is the purpose of testing, then testing must be pronounced an abject failure. If students, once tested, proceed to forget the lion’s share of the information they “learned” for the test, then they did not, in fact, learn it and they do not, in fact, know it. (If you doubt that this is the case, ask yourself how much of what you “learned” in school you have retained in adulthood; the reality is that what you learned and, therefore, know, is not what you memorized for tests but, instead, what you understood and, as a result, continue to understand.) And if even the students who score highly on tests forget the information they “learned” for those tests, then they come away knowing little more than their low-scoring classmates.

In any case, the real purpose of testing in public education is not to assess student learning but to rank students themselves. Tests have always ranked students into “winners” and “losers,” “successes” and “failures.”The necessity of this was a function of twentieth-century American capitalism, which required that the “public” include enough “losers” at the testing game to work the assembly lines of industry, as well as enough unemployed, would-be workers to threaten the job security of the employed (and so, keep them under the thumb of their employers. Unions mitigated this feature of capitalism for a time, to the benefit of all workers, which is why unions have been under assault by the corporate state and now struggle to survive).

At one time, testing was used to identify the losers so as to attempt to address their deficiencies and bring them over to the winning side. In the twenty-first century, however, the effect (function?) of standardized testing (in the wake of the off-shoring and technologizing of American manufacturing jobs) has been to overwhelm the public school system with losers at the testing game, launching them into a likely future of unemployment and, as a result in a growing number of (largely minority) cases, imprisonment (in the interest not only of limiting, if not eliminating, the possibility of social uprisings, and the accompanying threat to the private property of the corporate rich, but also of expanding the private, for-profit prison industry).

The primary reason that testing is, in truth, opposed to learning—learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge through understanding—is that when students regurgitate memorized information, they are unable to digest it—that is, to process it into knowledge through understanding (just as the act of regurgitating food precludes the possibility that the body will digest that food). The very act of memorizing is a substitute for understanding, which is the key to retaining (as in learning) information. To memorize information for a test in order to repeat information on the test inevitably results in forgetting the information after the test. While students do not intentionally forget the information they regurgitate on tests, their minds reject it just as surely as physical regurgitation constitutes the body’s rejection of food. Their minds reject/forget regurgitated information because the human mind does not learn that way. The human mind requires time (along with other readily available resources, none of which is allowed to interfere with the testing schedule) to process information into knowledge through understanding. And no other bridge exists between information and knowledge than understanding.

But it may be objected that standardized tests do not, as they are currently constructed, require students to memorize information. Instead, they largely test students’ reading comprehension and composition skills (along with their mathematical skills), based on what students are supposed to already know. Aside from the fact that standardized tests often confront them with texts and topics about subjects that students know little to nothing about (because the specific subjects of those texts and topics have not been part of the curriculum), the main problem is that standardized testing has turned reading and writing into mere test-taking skills. The “reading” that students are trained to do as test preparation is little more than skimming a passage in order to find answers to multiple-choice questions (and, as I repeatedly discover, they don’t automatically switch from skimming to reading comprehension just because they have no multiple-choice questions to answer). And “writing” has been reduced to rough-drafting, which is all students can do in the allotted time (the rough draft consisting of three points repeated incessantly in slighting different wordings until the time has expired). Consequently, reading comprehension and writing as the process of drafting, revising and editing are in danger of becoming lost arts. This is, perhaps, the major contribution of standardized testing to public education.

Public school teachers should not be blamed for this state of affairs. They are as equally victims of the system as their students. As long as students are tested, teachers will “teach to the test,” just as students will “study” for the test. (The verb “study” is used by virtually all students with reference not to pursuing their studies through reading and writing and thinking about subjects but, rather, to the activities of test preparation.) Students want to succeed, and teachers want their students to succeed, and academic success is, now more than ever, measured in terms of test scores. And thanks to Obama’s Race to the Top regime (spearheaded by that colossal educational fraud, Arne Duncan), not only students’ success but also teachers’ success and, increasingly, their survival as teachers, depend on their students’ test scores. Tests have always ranked students, but in the age of standardized testing, tests also rank not only public school teachers but public schools themselves (which risk closure if their students’ test scores are persistently low enough) and nations as well (the U.S. ranking well down the list these days, indicating that American students are, generally speaking, not even learning to be proficient test-takers).

A disturbing feature of the plethora of articles over the past few years that bemoan the arrival of the Common Core State Standards and their accompanying (allegedly new-and-improved) standardized tests is that the authors (regardless of whether they come from the political right or left) rarely fail to pledge allegiance to the necessity of standardized testing. They oppose the “high stakes”—for students, teachers and schools—of standardized tests, the over-testing that crowds out instruction from the classroom, and the new non-age-appropriate and non-curriculum-aligned standardized tests that have been constructed to accompany the Common Core. Nevertheless, these writers seem nearly always to feel the need to clarify that they are not opposed to standardized testing itself, perhaps concluding (in compliance with the education reformers’ agenda) that standardized testing is a given and can, therefore, at best be limited as to the havoc it wreaks. The reality is that, whatever the pros and cons of the Common Core itself, as long as its impact on students will be “assessed” by standardized tests, it will fail to educate them. In fact, the standardized tests themselves will constitute its primary impact on students.

Here it is necessary to draw a distinction between testing, on the one hand, and assessment on the other, in that they are regularly conflated not only by the education reformers who champion standardized testing (and demonize those who oppose it to any degree as being anti-assessment and -accountability) but also by critics of standardized testing. If it is true that testing that requires regurgitation of information precludes the digestion (i.e., the process of understanding-into-knowledge) of that information, and that testing that turns reading and writing into test-taking skills cannot, at the same time, assess students’ reading comprehension and writing competence, then it is also true that testing, at least as it is and has long been employed in the vast majority of public school settings, does not assess students’ knowledge at all. Instead, it can only assess their skill at regurgitating information on tests, along with their skimming-for-answers and rudimentary rough-drafting skills.

Thoughtful and experienced teachers have always known that authentic assessments of students’ learning/knowledge require students to explain information about subjects. This is because students can only explain if they understand. Which is to say, if they know. Given the requirement to explain information about subjects, students without understanding quickly demonstrate that they don’t know what they’re talking (or writing) about. Authentic assessments may take the form of oral presentations, multiple-draft compositions, projects requiring demonstration, or other avenues of critical and creative expression. But they all have one feature in common: Authentic assessments cannot be made by technology; human expressions can only be evaluated—assessed—by human beings. Explanations require understanding on the part not only of the givers but also of the receivers of those explanations. (His unbounded confidence in the effectiveness of technology to both instruct and assess has made Bill Gates one of the leading “education reformers” in the U.S.) The success of the education reform movement in transferring “assessment” from the hands of teachers into the technological lap[top]s of computers, in the name of “accountability,” has amounted to the transfer of millions of taxpayer dollars from public-school instruction to private test-makers and technology providers, as well as to the bastardizing of teachers from respected professionals to wage slaves (forced to do the bidding of their corporate masters via the mediation of U.S. public school systems).

Of course, the authentic assessment of student learning assumes that students have acquired knowledge. If this is ever again to be the reality of public education, the foundation and structure of student learning must be rebuilt (and, ideally, improved upon in some fundamental ways).

Foundationally, the obscene amounts of (instructional) time and (public) money now spent on standardized testing production, preparation, and administration should be redirected to providing learning experiences that instill within students the prior knowledge they need to become readers who take primary responsibility for their own education. Field trips to museums, zoos, landmarks, fairs and other educational venues are visual experiences that become memories, in the form of mental images, of subjects that will enable students to visualize the information they later read about those subjects. Only if prior knowledge—in the form of these mental images—is present are students able subsequently to mentally see—and therefore, comprehend—the information they read, the words on the page recalling and replaying the mental pictures from those visual experiences. (Understanding is mental seeing.) In this way, reading comprehension of new information about subjects is enabled by their prior knowledge of those subjects, an experiential knowledge that comes not through reading but through the five senses, laying the necessary foundation for the building of additional knowledge of those subjects through reading. The current crisis of reading comprehension (and, as a result, of writing competence), cemented into place by standardized testing, is arguably due largely to a lack of prior knowledge, which can only be acquired through a wealth of visual experiences, especially, though not exclusively, provided during students’ most formative years.

Public schools have traditionally taken students on field trips, providing them with a modicum of the prior knowledge of subjects they need for the development of reading comprehension over a broad range of subjects. The more parents provide these kinds of educational experiences for their children (as was once more commonly the case than it is now), the less the burden on public schools to do so. This is a time, however, when parents, for whatever reason (two-income households, longer work hours, lower incomes, single-parent households), rely more than ever on public schools to single-handedly educate their children; and at the same time, public schools have largely redirected spending away from field trips (not to mention, tragically, from education in the arts) toward the ever-intensifying, and increasingly costly, regime of standardized testing. Public schools have always—even before the onslaught of standardized tests—spent too much time on testing, just as they have always spent too little time on field trips. If, however, the staggering amounts of time and money now spent on testing were redirected to field trips and films and other stimulating and captivating visual experiences, not just two or three times a school year but regularly (monthly?) throughout the school year, students would be equipped as never before to build, through reading comprehension, additional knowledge of subjects on the foundation of their prior knowledge, and therefore, to participate more actively and effectively in their own education (and, no doubt, spend far more time enjoying rather than enduring their public education).

Structurally, assuming students were adequately prepared to comprehend their textbooks and other reading materials by prior-knowledge-producing educational experiences, they would also be prepared to help increase their own and their classmates’ reading comprehension by teaching and learning from each other. Much of the classroom time now so wastefully spent on test preparation and administration could be profitably spent on classroom discussions and debates and other cooperative activities that would harness the dynamic social energy of students for deepening their understanding and broadening their application of their readings. And public-school teachers could take their rightful place as professional facilitators of their students’ education, knowledgeable sources of information for their students to draw upon, rather than merely the test-prep functionaries to which they are being increasingly reduced.

Only when public education has reconstituted itself to fulfill its responsibility to teach students to turn information about subjects into knowledge of the world should educational decision-makers have the nerve to address the question of how best to assess student learning. This is a question, in any case, that should be addressed not by politicians or technologists or others who stand to profit financially, either directly or indirectly (via campaign contributions), from instruments of “assessment,” and whose only qualification for educational decision-making is having sat as children and adolescents in classrooms. The question of how to assess student learning can adequately be addressed only by educators themselves, who alone have the training and the experience—the expertise—to make sound pedagogical judgments.

We can pretend that those who make the decisions that chart the course of public education are actually concerned with students’ acquisition of knowledge of the world in which they live, so that students can graduate into adults who will think critically, questioning and challenging the way things are and the powers that be, and creatively formulating solutions to the socio-economic, environmental and international problems that threaten the nation and the planet, all in the interest of making the United States freer and more equal, more socially and internationally secure and responsible. The reality, however, is that a society of tax-paying consumers who accept without question the way things are—and who regurgitate the answers that are handed down to them via the media from the powers that be—is so much easier to govern (i.e., to rule and fool) than a citizenry of well-informed readers, writers and thinkers. Moreover, the corporate interests that finance the campaigns of elected officials intend to continue to get their money’s worth out of the coffers of public education (and, increasingly, of higher education). And the best way to insure against the prospect of a student uprising against the military-industrial complex and the socio-economic injustices of American capitalism like the one that occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s is to nip it in the bud of public education.

C. Wright Mills wrote (in “The Power Elite,” 1956), “Two things are needed in a democracy: articulate and knowledgeable publics, and political leaders who if not men of reason are at least reasonably responsible to such knowledgeable publics as exist.” Alas, the political leaders of the twenty-first-century U.S. and their corporate owners have taken the necessary steps to seal the deal, ensuring that “articulate and knowledgeable publics” cannot emerge from U.S. public school systems.

Nevertheless, an uprising of public-school educators and parents is, if not yet sweeping the nation, at least increasingly making its displeasure with standardized testing felt. There may yet be time, even as it currently circles the drain, to save public education, reconstituting it in a way that gives willing students the opportunity to learn not only how to know about but also how to change the world in which they live.

 

Teaching Differently Than The Teacher Down The Hall

Teaching Differently Than The Teacher Down The Hall

by Terry Heick

While the call to innovate learning is strong, it isn’t an easy process for the classroom teacher even if they have strong understanding, resources, and wherewithal. With all of the admonishment to drag education (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century, there is precious little support for teachers in understanding the “social graces” in doing so.

You might have students identifying, analyzing, and evaluating through blogs, YouTube, and twitter within project-based learning to find personal, feasible solutions to authentic problems, while the teacher across the hall addresses the same learning standards using similar higher-order thinking, but with a completely different “look”: traditional book reports on posterboards, and physical artifacts like milk-jugs dangling on wire-hangers. Same standards, different products. One would think that as long as both teachers teach to those “same standards,” all would be well, but it’s not always that’s simple.

Challenges here surface everywhere, from how to best assess student understanding, to how different units “function” within increasingly important “data-team” processes within many public schools. Depending on your local approach, “Professional Learning Communities” can unwittingly put pressure on teachers to homogenize—not the best route for personalized learning and teaching, much less innovation.

Also, let’s not forget that students talk, parents murmur, and administrators try to reconcile all of your very public work—and thus very public value system and edu-thinking. Unlike many professions, all that you believe as an educator is on display to the world, and open to celebration—and criticism—from every side.

Before all of the quantification of knowledge, conjuring of data, and diagnostic revision of planned instruction, education is first an artistic effort on both the part of the educator and the educated. It is thus very personal, and so adapting your own teaching style to the needs of learners, communities, department members, “PLC” members, various school and district-level administrators is as much an art as the delivery of the content itself.

It can be a tremendous challenge that can be difficult for even the most diplomatic teacher. Here are some tips that can help.

Teaching Differently Than The Teacher Down The Hall: 6 Strategies To Ease The Process

1. When collaborating with other educators, focus on understanding, standards and assessments. The goal of your teaching is understanding, not to be “on the same page” with everyone else in the department. So start there–understanding of standards as measured by common assessments. Which leads us to…

2. When collaborating with other educators, emphasize what you have in common. It’s easy to focus on differences, because differences stand out. Do your best to steer the conversation back to what’s a) important, and b) shared between you.

3. Try new things. Great teachers are always adapting their craft, and willing to try out new ideas. It is amazing the amount of intricacy a great unit or lesson has embedded within it, and many of these ideas are taken piece-meal from others. A great strategy then is to try “their way,” and go all-in when you do so. Maybe they’ll do the same.

4. Embed curriculum within local community. Do your best to see learners, families, and communities as your primary audience, not colleagues in your department or building. Other teachers and administrators are your friends, colleagues, co-workers, and partners; they’re not your “purpose.”

5. Establish a global PLN. If the context for your teaching is small, so will be your resource pool, and your own willingness to adapt to new challenges with new tools and ideas. Push yourself, and connect with a lot of folks that think like you do outside of your school or district–and even more that think differently. This approach can keep you on the leading edge, and hopefully free from peda-dogma.

6. Embrace that there is no “best” way. While certain hallmarks of teaching and content don’t change, literally every other layer of education does, from the standards themselves, to district “pushes,” available technology, and even what are accepted as “best practices.” So maybe a better way to put it is, embrace change.

 

 

Common Core math standards add up to big money for education companies

Common Core math standards add up
to big money for education companies

Greta Anderson, a 5th grade math teacher at New Orleans' Dibert elementary school, has helped her peers adjust to the new Common Core curricular standards. (Photo: FirstLine schools)
By Sarah Carr

Teachers have to be savvy shoppers as
glut of new products enters the marketplace

The politically controversial standards known as the Common Core have been in the headlines for months, in Louisiana and across the country. But for most teachers and educators the standards have been quietly transforming classroom instruction for years. And for textbook publishers and other vendors, the new standards add up to new business. Sarah Carr reports on the dizzying array of new education products that claim to be Common Core aligned.

When thousands of math teachers descended on New Orleans earlier this year, two words proved more seductive than chocolate. Or sex. Or even quadratic equations.

Common Core.

The teachers were in town to attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference. The exhibit hall featured endless booths stocked with Common Core textbooks, Common Core legos, Common Core geometry sets, Common Core MOOCs (which stands for massive open online courses). There were even flying robots that vendors said could help children learn the Common Core.

“We sometimes laugh and say that Staples is going to make a lot of money on a rubber stamp that says ‘100 percent Common Core-aligned,’” said Linda Gojak, the council’s former president.

Gojak chuckles when I ask her if vendors feel pressured to put the Common Core stamp on their products.

“If they want to sell it,” she says.

A few companies are using the Common Core craze as a reason to sell more stuff and make more money. Stacy Monsman, a math coach in an Ohio school district, noticed a glut of products almost immediately.

“When Common Core comes out, literally within a few weeks you saw materials with that sticker on it and there’s no way, the Common Core just came out,” she said. “There’s no way that a good thorough job could have been done to truly incorporate everything into some kind of material.”

But Gojak and others say most vendors really want to align their products with the Common Core — whether they are textbook publishers who are rewriting lesson plans, or the creators of MOOCs aimed at explaining the standards to teachers. But all this change takes time.

So in the short term, at least, teachers need to be cautious consumers, said Greta Anderson, the chair of the math department at New Orleans’ Dibert elementary school.

“Everything is saying right now that they are ‘Common Core-aligned’ and some things are really top notch and others aren’t,” Anderson said. “It takes deeply knowing the standards. It takes looking at the whole package and not just the best sample unit that’s out there.”

One red flag that Anderson and Monsman have spotted? Math programs with too many gimmicks and shortcuts. The Common Core calls for students to grapple with challenging math on their own, writing out the steps. So a math program that promises to teach students math by having them memorize simple rhymes? It’s probably about as legit as…diet deep fried ice cream.

“We don’t want shortcuts,” says Anderson. “We don’t want gimmicks to get kids through a year of standardized testing. We want them to deeply understand the math.”

In Louisiana, state officials are trying to help schools and districts sift through all the new curricula and textbooks. Two years ago, the state was hoping to purchase new textbooks aligned with the Common Core. Officials conducted an extensive review of existing materials. The results were discouraging, says Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content at the Louisiana Department of Education.

“We didn’t feel as if there were any programs that were submitted to us that were fully aligned to the standards or would support a teacher to teach the standards,” she says.

Kockler helped create a team to assess curriculum materials as they come out, ranking them based largely on how well they align with the standards. A few are in “Tier 1,” which signifies the best alignment and quality, but most do not meet that bar. They might use those inappropriate math gimmicks, for instance, or include reading samples that are too easy.

Districts have been making these decisions for a very long time,” says Kockler. “We’re just trying to help give them the information they need to make the most informed decision.”

Not surprisingly, Louisiana districts have flocked to the few Tier 1 vendors. But Kockler says the department, which has been focused on grading textbook and curriculum programs, is just starting to grade other products. That means schools are largely on their own when deciding what legos to buy or which MOOCs to sign up for.

“It’s like going on the Internet,” says Gojak. “There’s some cool stuff you pull down and there’s some junk you pull down. And you have to know what you are looking for.”

Louisiana officials are not only ones to start ranking curriculum materials. Just last month, an organization comparing itself to “Consumer Reports” said it would begin posting free reviews written mostly by teachers of textbooks and other materials.

The exhibition hall at the math teacher conference was, as Gojak put it, like Toys ‘R’ Us for teachers.

“These are very popular,” one vendor told me. “They currently sell for $13.95. These are usually used in pocket charts in front of the classroom. We have a lot of teachers looking to grab these.”

The vendor sold laminated placards with Common Core standards written on the front, and the words “I can” written on the back. That way, students can keep track of which standards they have mastered. But before that happens, their teachers must master the standards and become savvy shoppers. Otherwise, they might find themselves stuck with a whole lot of useless gadgets and a bad case of buyer’s remorse.

Who Should Decide What High School Kids Are Allowed to Read?

Who Should Decide What High
School Kids Are Allowed to Read?


by Rob Kunzig

When a Delaware school board voted to remove a gay coming-of-age story from a reading list, it raised questions about what limits, if any, should be placed on books recommended for young teenagers.

A fictional young woman from Montana is causing raised eyebrows in Southern Delaware: Earlier this summer, the heroine of Emily M. Danforth’s edgy, sexual coming-of-age novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, was deemed too foul-mouthed, too racy, and possibly too gay for incoming freshmen at Cape Henlopen High School.

The Cape school board, citing parent complaints about the book’s liberal use of the word “fuck,” struck Cameron Post from a summer reading list, prompting both praise and outrage within the tiny coastal community. Perhaps spooked by controversy, the board voted to restore the book—then ditch the list altogether.

“The profanity is pretty extreme,” says board member Sandi Minard. “Not everything is appropriate for a high school library. We can’t have Hustler and Playboy and all those kinds of things. There has to be some kind of compass.”

Cameron Post is a bildungsroman with a twist: its eponymous character, a young girl growing up in rural Montana, is gay. After her parents die in a car crash, her ultra-conservative aunt sends Cameron to God’s Promise, where legions of born-again counselors try to hammer her round peg into the square hole of heteronormativity. Cameron struggles to resist the influence of her would-be mentors and maintain her sense of self.

“I wanted it to be a great big coming of gay-age story,” Danforth says. “It’s a fraught love letter to growing up gay in rural Montana.” Like a lot of debut novels, she says, there’s a good slice of her own story woven into Cameron’s.

At a time when young adult novels routinely deal with issues like sexuality and death, Cameron Post is hardly an anomaly. The book, which weighs in at 480 pages, was a 2013 finalist for the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award; it also made the 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, issued by the Young Adult Library Services Association. It is also included on The Blue Hen List, a set of 10 books chosen by state librarians as good choices for summer reading. The list includes mainstream YA fiction like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars—a story narrated by a teenage cancer patient—as well as quirkier works like Erin Jade Lange’s Butter, in which a lonely, obese boy plans to live-stream his suicide-by-overeating on the Internet.

At Cape Henlopen High School, where surfer kids from the coastal communities of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach mingle with the children of farmers, this year’s 314 incoming freshmen were given the Blue Hen List and required to pick one of the 10 books, read it, and write an essay over the summer. Honors students had to pick two. On June 4, a district parent emailed board members and district officials “shocked and appalled” by the Blue Hen List, and Cameron Post in particular. “We expected to see classics like Of Mice and Men or Lord Of The Flies,” the parent says. Instead, Cameron Post seemed to be “a roadmap or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.”

Board member Spencer Brittingham picked up Cameron Post to see for himself. The book stunned him. “I’ve been running the scenes in my head constantly,” he says.

* * *

As executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Joan Bertin says she sees about one case of book-banning or attempted censorship per week. “Censorship is using its power and authority and influence to approve certain ideas and disapprove others,” she says. “It’s the government putting its finger on the ideological scales.”

Minard vigorously denies the charge of censorship. Cameron Post sits in the library at Cape Henlopen High School, she says. The board didn’t ban the book; it simply refused to endorse it. “If it was geared towards an older student, I wouldn’t have been so adamant about it. But when we’re talking about incoming freshmen, you have to be more selective about the language and the sexual content.”

Bertin says she hears the “age-appropriate” argument often. “What educators generally mean is, does the child have the intellectual and emotional maturity to process the information?” Ulysses is not age-appropriate for 4th grade readers not because of its mature content, but because 6th graders aren’t mature enough to put it in context. Physics is not age-appropriate because it requires math skills not yet taught. Most freshmen are emotionally and intellectually capable of putting Cameron Post’s rough edges in context, Bertin says; it’s their day-to-day.

“So the term ‘age-appropriate’ is widely used as a proxy for the values and beliefs I want to impart to my kids, and how much I want to control them,” she says. “Boards, especially elected school boards that have no experience as educators—they have very little idea of what’s age appropriate.”

Still, at a time when students under 18 are still barred from entering R-rated movies, “adult themes” in school-assigned literature can raise concerns. Initially, the Cape school board cited four-letter words as its rationale for removing Cameron Post from its reading list. But Danforth, the book’s author, points out that the June 4 complaint voiced no qualms with Cameron Post’s salty language. “At the very least, there was a lot of hypocrisy at play,” she says. “There were a number of other books with but the same kinds of language. And it’s not just one other book. It’s several books.”

What the book does include is an exploration of teenage sexuality. One board member, Roni Posner, argues that this should have been a reason for the school board to recommend the book—not pull it from the list. “It would have been so helpful to me,” says board member Roni Posner—who, like Cameron Post, wrestled with her sexuality as a teenager. She says she understands why the book would rattle the more conservative members of the Cape community: “It’s untraditional. But it’s a very real, very honest book, and it’s a very important book.”

Posner was the lone dissenting vote on June 12, when the board decided 6-1 to remove Cameron Post from the list. The community response was swift and severe, both against the school board and the book itself. Conservative radio host Dan Gaffney posted an online index of Cameron Post’s swear words and sexual references. A brief mention of abortion, tattoos, and “ownership of the body” earned the label “PRO-LIFE ABORTION REFERENCE.”

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Delaware chapter issued a letter urging the board to rescind its banning. The chapter’s executive director, Kathleen MacRae, says she took interest after Cape parents informed her about the incident. The ACLU letter alleged that the board not only violated Delaware’s sunshine laws (measures intended to ensure open governance) by failing to notice a vote on Cameron Post for the June 12 meeting, but also violated its own policy regarding challenged materials (which requires, according to the ACLU, a review by librarians and teachers). “It was definitely an effort to restrict and influence what students were coming in to read,” MacRae says.

The board met again on July 24, and that’s when members voted to restore Cameron Post to the list of recommended reading—and then “remove” the Blue Hen List altogether. Instead of working from the librarian-curated recommendations, they declared, students could fulfill their summer reading with any book they chose—from Cameron Post to, presumably, Fifty Shades of Grey.

“As someone on a school board, you can’t please everyone,” says Brittingham. “But as long as you can find common ground, and forge ahead, you can claim victory.”

Posner is less certain anything can be claimed at all.

“Delawarean librarians put that list together,” she says. “If you can’t trust the librarians, whom can you trust?”

* * *

Not surprisingly, the controversy over Cameron Post has only brought more attention to the book itself. Over the summer, the local bookseller Browsabout Books had trouble keeping copies of Cameron Post on the shelves after the board’s decision. The sudden surge in demand had store manager Susan McAnelly placing orders by the 50s. “It’s in line with our mission,” McAnnelly says. “We put books in people’s hands. It’s not my job to tell people what they should be reading.”

Before long, Browsabout became a collection point for free copies of Cameron Post. McAnelly said donated copies came from Harper Collins, which published the book and AfterEllen.com, a lesbian/bisexual culture website, as well as from various individuals. To date, 250 of the 266 copies donated have left Browsabout in the hands of Cape students. Given the potential for 250 essays on Cameron Post, Lewes might be on the verge of becoming an unlikely epicenter of gay literary criticism.

Brittingham says he stands by his vote against the book. He freely admits he’s not a professional educator—he’s a former Marine who owns a moving business and works for the Delaware Department of Corrections. But he is an elected official, he says, and he’s served since 2006, even once running unopposed. He sees that as a clear mandate. “I’m military,” he says. “I’m about law and order. If I see something that you’re doing that’s going to bring you harm, I’m going to stop you.”

Posner, who holds a joint Ph.D. in educational planning and social policy from Harvard University and Northeastern University, adopts a more narrow view of the board’s authority. “Our work is to focus on policy, and not to get into the specifics of management,” she says. “We’re not 21st century educators. We’re a governing board. We should be looking at governance and policy, and staying there.”

Posner says the compass should stay at home, in the hands of the parents—not the school board. Of the 10 books offered on the Blue Hen List, students had to choose, at the most, two; among the remaining eight, surely even the most scrutinizing parent can find something agreeable?

Minard, meanwhile, won’t officially endorse the book as an elected official, but she refuses to condemn it as a work of art. She still believes it isn’t appropriate school-assigned reading for high school freshmen. But her vote, she says, “doesn’t mean that Cam Post isn’t a great book, or that it wouldn’t speak to someone who was struggling to find themselves.”

10 things students experience every day at school that we educators tend to forget about…

10 things students experience every day at
school that we educators tend to forget about…

By Justin Tarte

So, just recently I was challenged by our middle school principal, Ty Crain.

The challenge was simple… come be a student at the middle school for an entire day.

This would mean starting the day at school at breakfast and following a schedule throughout the entire day just like any student would.

The goal of this challenge is to experience what a student experiences and see the day-to-day operations of the middle school from an unbiased and difference set of eyes.

I accepted this challenge and have a new appreciation for what our students get to (have to) experience each and every day they are at school.

Here are 10 things our students experience every day that I believe many of us educators tend to forget about…

1). Limited amounts of time and constantly in a rush to go from one place to the next and having to eat at a pace that isn’t normal or ideal for most.

2). Trying to keep straight a different set of classroom expectations, procedures, and beliefs about learning for several different teachers.

3). Dressing out for gym class can be quite an intimidating and frightful experience for many.

4). Having to go the restroom and either being rushed or having to ask for permission to go to the restroom during a time in class when it’s convenient for the teacher.

5). The amount of food our students get at breakfast and lunch may not be enough to completely quench their hunger due to recent changes in food and nutrition regulations.

6). Lots of sitting only to be followed up by more sitting. A majority of a student’s day is comprised of sitting in an uncomfortable chair.

7). Students are asked to travel all throughout the building over the course of the day, and it seems like each classroom and each space in the building has a different temperature. One room may be too warm while the next room is too cold.

8). Lots of being talked ‘at’ rather than being talked ‘with.’

9). Other kids in class who purposefully derail and consume large amounts of attention and time from the teacher which leaves other kids feeling like they aren’t important or don’t deserve any of the teacher’s time.

10). Lastly, and probably most frustrating, the tiny little desks and work spaces students are provided that make it difficult for everything to fit. Pencils and pens falling off desks, and books, devices, paper, and writing utensils all fitting on the desk at the same time are real problems.

So, in closing, let’s not forget about what our students experience every single day they are at school.

How Stephen King Teaches Writing

How Stephen King Teaches Writing

by Jessica Lahey

Looking back on his days in front of a high school classroom, the acclaimed writer shares his views on grammar and explains why discovering great literature is like losing one’s virginity.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has been a fixture in my English classroom for years, but it wasn’t until this summer, when I began teaching in a residential drug and alcohol rehab, that I discovered the full measure of its worth. For weeks, I struggled to engage my detoxing, frustrated, and reluctant teenage students. I trotted out all my best lessons and performed all my best tricks, but save for one rousing read-aloud of Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart,” I failed to engage their attention or imagination.

Until the day I handed out copies of On Writing. Stephen King’s memoir of the craft is more than an inventory of the writer’s toolbox or a voyeuristic peek into his prolific and successful writing life. King recounts his years as a high school English teacher, his own recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, and his love for his students (“even the Beavis and Butt-Head types”). Most importantly, he captivates the reader with his honest account of the challenges he’s faced, and promises redemption to anyone willing to come to the blank page with a sense of purpose.

I asked King to expound on the parts of On Writing I love most: the nuts and bolts of teaching, the geekiest details of grammar, and his ideas about how to encourage a love of language in all of our students.


Jessica Lahey: You write that you taught grammar “successfully.” How did you define “success” when you were teaching?

Stephen King:  Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.

Lahey: When people ask me to name my favorite books, I have to ask them to narrow their request: to read or to teach? You provide a fantastic list of books to read at the end of On Writing, but what were your favorite books to teach, and why?

King: When it comes to literature, the best luck I ever had with high school students was teaching James Dickey’s long poem “Falling.” It’s about a stewardess who’s sucked out of a plane. They see at once that it’s an extended metaphor for life itself, from the cradle to the grave, and they like the rich language. I had good success with The Lord of the Flies and short stories like “Big Blonde” and “The Lottery.” (They argued the shit out of that one—I’m smiling just thinking about it.) No one puts a grammar book on their list of riveting reads, but The Elements of Style is still a good handbook. The kids accept it.

Lahey: You write, “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.” If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?

King: When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

Lahey: While I love teaching grammar, I am conflicted on the utility of sentence diagramming. Did you teach diagramming, and if so, why?

King: I did teach it, always beginning by saying, “This is for fun, like solving a crossword puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube.” I told them to approach it as a game. I gave them sentences to diagram as homework but promised I would not test on it, and I never did. Do you really teach diagramming? Good for you! I didn’t think anyone did anymore.

Lahey: In the introduction to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, E.B. White recounts William Strunk’s instruction to “omit needless words.” While your books are voluminous, your writing remains concise. How do you decide which words are unnecessary and which words are required for the telling?

King: It’s what you hear in your head, but it’s never right the first time. So you have to rewrite it and revise it. My rule of thumb is that a short story of 3,000 words should be rewritten down to 2,500. It’s not always true, but mostly it is. You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!

Lahey: By extension, how can writing teachers help students recognize which words are required in their own writing?

King: Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go. I don’t think it’s the words per se, it’s the sentences. I used to give them a choice, sometimes: either write 400 words on “My Mother is Horrible” or “My Mother is Wonderful.” Make every sentence about your choice. That means leaving your dad and your snotty little brother out of it.

Jessica Lahey: In On Writing, you identified some phrases that should be excised from every writer’s toolbox: “At this point in time” and “at the end of the day.” Any new irksome phrases you’d be willing to share? (Mine’s “on accident.”)

King: “Some people say,” or “Many believe,” or “The consensus is.” That kind of lazy attribution makes me want to kick something. Also, IMHO, YOLO, and LOL.

Lahey: You write that “it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer.” If so, how should writing teachers proceed when it comes to our least talented students?

King: Ask yourself what they need to get on in life, the bare minimum (like filling in a job application), and concentrate on that. Sometimes it can be as simple as writing—as a class exercise—instructions on how to get from Point A in town to Point B. They tie themselves in knots, at least to start with. It can be pretty hilarious. My kids used to end up shouting at each other, “No, no, you go left at the water tower!” Stuff like that.

Lahey: Great writing often resides in the sweet spot between grammatical mastery and the careful bending of rules. How do you know when students are ready to start bending? When should a teacher put away his red pen and let those modifiers dangle?

King: I think you have to make sure they know what they’re doing with those danglers, those fragmentary and run-on sentences, those sudden digressions. If you can get a satisfactory answer to “Why did you write it this way?” they’re fine. And—come on, Teach—you know when it’s on purpose, don’t you? Fess up to your Uncle Stevie!

Lahey: Oxford comma: yea or nay?

King: It can go either way. For instance, I like “Jane bought eggs, milk, bread, and a candy bar for her brother.” But I also like “Jane raced home and slammed the door,” because I want to feel that whole thing as a single breath.

Lahey: You extol the benefits of writing first drafts with the door closed, but students are often so focused on giving teachers what they want and afraid of making mistakes that they become paralyzed. How can teachers encourage kids to close the door and write without fear?

King: In a class situation, this is very, very hard. That fearlessness always comes when a kid is writing for himself, and almost never when doing directed writing for the grade (unless you get one of those rare fearless kids who’s totally confident). The best thing—maybe the only thing—is to tell the student that telling the truth is the most important thing, much more important than the grammar. I would say, “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

Lahey: Of course, once they have something down on paper, they are going to have to open the door and invite the world to read what they have written. How did you cope with the editing process early in your writing career, and how did you teach your students to handle feedback?

King: A lot of them didn’t care; they were just hacking out assignments. For those that are sensitive and insecure, you have to combine gentleness with firmness. It’s a tightrope, particularly with teenagers. Did I have students actually bust out crying? I did. I’d say, “This is just a step to get you to the next step.”

Lahey: You warn writers not to “come lightly to the blank page.” How can teachers encourage kids to come the blank page with both gravity and enthusiasm?

King: It went best for me when I could communicate my own enthusiasm. I can remember teaching Dracula to sophomores and practically screaming, “Look at all the different voices in this book! Stoker’s a ventriloquist! I love that!” I don’t have much use for teachers who “perform,” like they’re onstage, but kids respond to enthusiasm. You can’t command a kid to have fun, but you can make the classroom a place that feels safe, where interesting things happen. I wanted every 50-minute class to feel like half an hour.

Lahey: You have called informal essays “silly and unsubstantial things,” not at all useful for teaching good writing. What kinds of essay assignments are useful?

King: I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

Lahey: I do a lot of reading out loud in my classroom because I think it’s the best way to ease students into challenging language and rhetoric. Do you have any favorite read-alouds, either from your classroom, or from reading to your own kids?

King: I used to read my lit kids “August Heat,” by W.F. Harvey. By the time I reached the last line—“The heat is enough to drive a man mad”—you could hear a pin drop. Wilfred Owen was also a hit: “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” My kids wanted comic books when they were small. Later it was The Hobbit, and from The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. On long trips, we all listened to audio books. A good reader digging into a good book is wonderful. Musical.

Lahey: English teachers tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to literacy: Those who believe we should let students read anything they want so they will be more likely to engage with books, and those who believe teachers should push kids to read more challenging texts in order to expose them to new vocabulary, genres, and ideas. Where would you pitch your tent?

King: You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teaching Moby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

Lahey: You paint a pretty bleak picture of teachers as professional writers. Teaching is, after all, a “consumptive profession,” as a friend of mine puts it, and it can be a real challenge to find the juice for our own creative endeavors after a day at school. Do you still feel that teaching full time while pursuing the writing life is a doomed proposition?

King: Many writers have to teach in order to put bread on the table. But I have no doubt teaching sucks away the creative juices and slows production. “Doomed proposition” is too strong, but it’s hard, Jessica. Even when you have the time, it’s hard to find the old N-R-G.

Lahey: If your writing had not panned out, do you think you would have continued teaching?

King: Yes, but I would have gotten a degree in elementary ed. I was discussing that with my wife just before I broke through with Carrie. Here’s the flat, sad truth: By the time they get to high school, a lot of these kids have already closed their minds to what we love. I wanted to get to them while they were still wide open. Teenagers are wonderful, beautiful freethinkers at the best of times. At the worst, it’s like beating your fists on a brick wall. Also, they’re so preoccupied with their hormones it’s often hard to get their attention.

Lahey: Do you think great teachers are born or do you think they can be trained?

King: Good teachers can be trained, if they really want to learn (some are pretty lazy). Great teachers, like Socrates, are born.

Lahey: You refer to writing as a craft rather than an art. What about teaching? Craft, or art?

King: It’s both. The best teachers are artists.