Education Trust Report Emphasizes Need For Culture, Policy
Changes In High-Poverty, Low-Performing Public Schools
A new report released by The Education Trust emphasizes the need for policy and culture changes in the public education sector, and not just updated teacher evaluation systems.
“Making evaluations more meaningful is a critical step toward improving our schools. But being able to determine who our strongest teachers and principals are doesn’t mean that struggling students will magically get more of them,” Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at The Education Trust and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “We have to be intentional about creating the kinds of supportive working environments in our high-poverty and low-performing schools that will make them more attractive to our strongest teachers.”
According to the report, teachers’ job satisfaction hinges more on the culture of the school — namely the quality of school leadership and staff cohesion — than it does on the demographics of the students or teacher salaries. Teachers who view their work environment in a positive light are more likely to evoke positive outcomes in their students.
The researchers profiled five school districts across the country that are making strides to improve the conditions for teachers and learning that influence school culture.
For instance, Ascension Parish School System in southern Louisiana prioritized providing teachers with meaningful and continuous feedback, coupled with support and time during the school day to collaborate and reflect on instructional practice. Once teachers recognized that these performance evaluations were being used to improve practice, rather than as a punitive measure, they reportedly embraced the new culture of shared learning and responsibility.
Meanwhile, Fresno Unified School District in California launched a district-wide initiative to develop school principals into strong instructional leaders by teaching them how to recognize effective teaching practices and provide fellow educators with useful feedback.
California’s Sacramento City Unified School District and North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenberg Public Schools asked some of their strongest school leaders to commit at least three years to turning around the lowest performing schools in their districts. In exchange, these educators were granted more autonomy over school-level decisions, flexibility in developing their own course agendas and the opportunity to establish their own leadership teams.
Lastly, Boston Public Schools collaborated with Teach Plus, an organization dedicated to improving urban students’ access to effective teachers, to implement a model that trains teacher-leaders and enables them to promote cooperative instructional improvement within schools.
“The Education Trust’s latest report validates what every teacher knows is necessary to strengthen public schools and the teaching profession,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement. “Building a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among teachers, principals and administrators; focusing on continuous professional development for teachers; and ensuring teachers have the time, tools and trust they need to improve teaching and learning are essential ingredients to building strong public schools and a quality teaching force.”
People around the world were shocked and horrified by a viral video that showed Karen Klein, a 68-year-old public school bus monitor, desperately trying to ignore malicious verbal jabs by a group of middle schoolers on her own bus.
For most, it was extreme. For many educators and school staff members, it’s no surprise. School workers said it’s a regular aspect of their daily lives.
“I’ve had erasers thrown at me, among other things, but these are things that teachers go through,” said Rosalind Wiseman, author of the bestseller “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”
“When these types of things come up, there’s all of this attention. But most teachers have at least had one student call them a bad name under their breath.”
While bullying among students has dominated conversations in school, homes and in the media, kids bullying adults at school is a topic rarely discussed. What some call misbehavior, pranks or insubordination can be bullying, too, educators said. Kids can act threateningly and create a hostile environment inside the limitations of the law, said educator and author David M. Hall, who often leads anti-bullying workshops – and school workers might never report it.
“Schools often forget about the adults,” said Jessie Klein, author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying America’s Schools.” “People are so resigned to it. It’s almost invisible – it’s just the way things are. Kids can’t imagine what a school would look like without bullying, so teachers are resigned to it, too.”
Severe incidents, such as shootings, become part of police statistics. But there aren’t many numbers about kids bullying adults, according to Tom Lansworth, media affairs specialist for the American Federation of Teachers. Most school districts aren’t required to track incidents, he said. The Canadian Teachers Federation conducted a study in 2005 that found one-third of teachers in Ontario had been bullied by students. Part-time teachers and those without regular grade assignments were most likely to experience bullying, the study found.
Your take: What would you do with a mean kid?
Some educators said bullying incidents aren’t taken seriously by administrators, and school workers without unions might be discouraged from acting. Educators might be discouraged from reporting bullying because it could hurt the image of the school, or make them appear ineffective in their jobs, teachers said.
“I think it’s very difficult for teachers to report to their administrators that their kids are being disrespectful,” said Wiseman, who is also a parent educator. “It’s shameful for teachers to admit that, because you’re admitting that you don’t have any control over the kids. It’s embarrassing.”
Teachers CNN talked with shared stories ranging from thrown erasers to verbal threats. Students are known to key teachers’ cars or deflate their tires, said Lansworth, the American Federation of Teachers spokesman. He’s heard about students who steal teachers’ property; cyber-bully teachers by creating fake Facebook pages or postings; push teachers to snap, and capture teachers’ responses on camera.
“We’re supposed to be strong,” said teacher Hall. “It’s the same embarrassment that kids feel.”
Just as students can create hostile environments for each other, they can do the same toward teachers, school janitors or cafeteria staff, Hall said. He said he worked with a Jewish teacher who felt intimidated by a student who professed to be a neo-Nazi. The student, he said, would insist on reading Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” in the teacher’s study hall periods.
“A kid may not be doing anything he can’t do, but he’s using his rights to extend intimidation against a teacher,” Hall said.
High school students develop app to fight bullying
Outside the view of principals and parents, workers who aren’t perceived to have power in school communities – bus monitors, for example – are often targets, educators said.
“If there are children who feel empowered to abuse somebody that they see as weaker, then it can happen that those children would go after an adult, especially someone that they see as someone without any authority,” Wiseman said.
Some educators said bullying is a matter of perspective; they draw a line between bad behavior and bullying at different points.
Elizabeth Jordan, a middle school teacher from California, said it’s important to remember that kids have their own struggles, too – few coping tools, rapidly changing bodies and bullies of their own.
“It’s just sort of an epidemic of the age that I teach, that the kids can be very angry,” Jordan said. “You’re going to find that the common thought everywhere is that they should get shipped out to an island for three years and they’ll come back as normal human beings. But you have to have a certain attitude when you teach middle school. I try to keep a sense of humor.”
When children cross “lines of respect” with peers and teachers at early ages, it’s misbehavior, said Ana Messinger, a fourth-grade teacher from South Carolina. As they get older, students figure out what they can and cannot get away with – and who will tolerate such behavior.
“When it becomes consistently directed at another, it’s bullying,” Messinger said. “I have seen incidences that have crossed the line of respect, of empathy for other people, absolutely.”
Messinger said it’s important for everyone in a school, not just the administration, to be vigilant in this regard.
“Student-on-student, student-on-teacher, teacher-on-student bullying? They each feed each other,” she said. “Teachers need to be diligent about documentation and communication with parents and children and within school buildings so that everybody is on the same page, so that when those lines are crossed we can respond appropriately and swiftly. Otherwise, the administration is just going on the teachers’ words.”
Thousands of schools, including Messinger’s, are adapting programs like Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, which works to improve learning environments and reward positive behavior. The program isn’t perfect, she said – a lack of negative consequences leaves boundaries incompletely defined, and it focuses on bullying between students. But the program has helped to shape a curriculum that highlights respect, effort, attitude, cooperation and honesty, she said.
Messinger said that programs focusing on respectful interaction can help “reteach” not just students about how to handle bullying interactions, but teachers as well.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said. “There’s no one culprit to this. I can’t say it’s so-and-so’s fault. It’s in society – it’s in the house, it’s on TV, it’s in the playground. It’s adult-on-adult bullying that they’re watching. We’ve lost, as a society, our decorum when we talk to one another.”
The worst thing an adult being bullied can do is pretend it’s not happening and go into denial, Wiseman said.
“Ignoring comes across as if she cannot handle it, to those kids. And so it empowers them to continue,” said Wiseman, referencing Karen Klein.
Rather than “writing a student up” or “reporting to the principal,” Wiseman suggests a clear, respectful reaction: Recognize students’ actions are inappropriate and shocking, but don’t appear to be weakened or negatively affected. It’s about maintaining the student-teacher dynamic.
“They wait to see what you’re going to do,” she said. “Before it escalates, you have one shot across the bough.”
“You have to be like, ‘Wait, you’re actually calling me a b**** right now? I’m coming at you with respect, and I’m absolutely expecting that I get that back. I can’t force you, but I expect the same in return.’”
Don’t expect the students to agree, or even apologize; what’s most important, educators said, is that they recognize adults who stand their ground.
“I usually look at them, like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” said Jordan, the California middle school teacher. “Like, are you really doing that? Perhaps it’s because I’ve been teaching for 13 years, but I’ve found that if you establish the rules in the classroom and you have good procedures, you generally don’t run into this.”
“Bully Society” author Jessie Klein said students have to feel like they have authority. She suggests “town hall” style meetings, run by students, where the whole school gathers to discuss issues.
“Instead of a school being a place of community, there’s a sense that you have to handle it on your own, teacher or student, or you’ll be perceived as weak,” Jessie Klein said. “Students should own the values in their schools, the values that you care about.”
by Michael Haberman
Across the country, students and teachers are saying farewell for the summer. Yet, the reality is that in far too many cases, they are actually saying goodbye for good.
Approximately half of New York City’s teachers leave their classrooms after the first year, and that trend extends beyond the five boroughs. According to a Harvard Education Review survey, 30 percent of teachers left after the first three years in the classroom and 50 percent left after five years.
Granted, not everyone is well-suited for teaching, and some turnover is healthy. Yet no business would survive if 50 percent of its employees left after their first year, and no leader could ever be effective in that environment. That’s why, to retain the best and brightest, the most successful businesses pay competitive salaries to recruit talent; invest in and empower their employees to retain them; and then evaluate their employees to hold them accountable and reward them for their success.
So at a time when it is universally accepted that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the teacher in their classroom, are our schools doing the same as successful businesses to recruit and retain the best and brightest to be teachers? The answer is a resounding ‘no.’
Nationwide, first-year teachers earn a median salary of $31,333 according to the United Federation of Teachers/TeacherPortal, 33 percent less than the median salary of someone with a bachelor’s degree. In New York City, the 2008 starting salary for teachers was $45,530, whereas entry-level PR professionals earned a median salary of $53,139 and financial analysts earned $57,442 in their first year. About one in five teachers work part-time jobs just to make ends meet.
It is true that teachers have never been at the top of the pay scale. But as Susan Moore Johnson at the Harvard Graduate School of Education states, it’s also true that until a few decades ago, women and men of color were often closed out of other careers. As a result, we had created a “hidden subsidy” for public education: “well-educated individuals who had few professional options and, therefore, were committed to teaching at pay levels far below those of professions in other fields.” Not anymore. Professions that once shunned talented women and people of color now have special initiatives designed to recruit them.
At the same time, students coming out of college with expertise in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) — the same expertise we so desperately need in our schools — are being highly recruited by the Facebooks, Instagrams, and Googles of the world with six-figure pay packages to start and the opportunity to make multiples more while working in an office filled with free food and basketball courts. Compare that to a New York City teacher who, after 30 years, will max out at roughly $100,000 and who, according to conventional wisdom, will be more likely to have a urinary tract infection than the average employee in other professions because they can’t leave the classroom to go to the bathroom.
While we can’t try to compete dollar for dollar or attract to teaching people whose primary goal is to make money, we can at least make sure that we are paying our teachers a competitive salary that doesn’t require working a second job.
Smart businesses invest in their employees so that they stay at the top of their game. Yet as 45 states are about to launch the Common Core Standards, 51 percent of teachers said they were only somewhat prepared and 27 percent said they were highly unprepared to meet these new standards. In New York City, it was recently reported that $100 million has been spent on professional development yet there is no indication of whether it has had any impact on our teachers.
In addition, Johnson found that too often new teachers are hired just before, or even after school started, leaving no time to prepare for their new responsibilities. And many times they are expected to teach outside their field or to take on the most challenging students, courses, or schedules.
Teaching is a profession — an ever-changing one. And we have to invest in teachers as professionals so they continue to grow as professionals and build on their knowledge, skills and expertise to most effectively educate our children.
While businesses compensate and invest in their employees, they also hold them accountable. Those who aren’t performing don’t last in their jobs, and those that excel are compensated for their achievements. Teachers, on the other hand, are not rewarded for success; they’re rewarded for longevity. As stated by Educators 4 Excellence, teachers’ careers advance through an outdated system that rewards time spent in classrooms and graduate school classes that “have shown no correlation with teacher effectiveness.” Rather than be rewarded for their professional success, teachers wait for incremental raises at predetermined intervals.
Although we are working on it, we are still yet to develop a comprehensive method for evaluating teachers that takes into account the numerous indicators of whether they are performing well — and where they need help. And the reality is that, for too many, teaching is a life-time job regardless of whether they are helping, or hurting, our students.
We often hear that teaching is just different — that it is not the same as business. No one knows that better than PENCIL, where we have developed a model to engage business leaders in public education in a way that supports principals and teachers, rather than “take over” public education. Yet the evidence shows that some business principles are 100 percent transferable. The Washington Post notes that the top-performing countries on standardized tests in math, science and reading all “selectively recruit for teacher training programs. The pay is much higher than in the United States. Professional work environments are excellent. And the cultural respect for teachers is very high. In Finland, the country with what is now considered one of the finest education systems in the world, teaching is the most admired job among top college students.”
Recently, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and representatives from other organizations committed to finding and keeping better teachers in their “shared vision for the future of the teaching profession,” which included recommendations to provide teachers with continuous growth and professional development, a professional career continuum with competitive compensation, and other suggestions that will produce better teachers and express America’s respect, support, and pride for our educators.
We say that there is nothing more important than our children’s education. Yet we aren’t making the investments we need to recruit the best and brightest to become teachers. It doesn’t take a great teacher to explain why that math doesn’t add up.
It has been 20 years since I began teaching high school in South Los Angeles. Twenty years of the noise, the grit of unwashed old classrooms, the darkness of windowless half-lit buildings, 20 years of gun-shots, lock-downs, helicopters hovering above while we fight battles on behalf of ill-prepared students whose motivation has been beaten down by an indifferent school district and city.
It has been a wonderful 20 years.
And I hope I can do this for 20 more — but the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without a few colleagues who have lightened me up when I needed it, who’ve helped me keep my perspective on things when I started to lose it.
And without those colleagues it is going to be a lot harder.
Yes, I love the students I teach and am committed to helping them and sometimes that is enough to keep going through the tough times. But teaching is work that isolates us from our peers. Sometimes we have to make the most of those few moments looking across a hallway or a breezeway or sitting around a battered lunch table and commiserating with another teacher.
I had some rough years in the late 1990s, when my life outside of school was in flux, and a colleague I’ll call CC (his initials) helped get me though.
He saved me with his sense of humor. With his appreciation of irony. And the joy with which he helped students, pushed them to be better, and laughed at their goofiness which was always just beneath the tough veneer they wore through the mean streets of their neighborhoods. He taught me that the greatest defense against burnout was to appreciate the goofiness, the anger, the craziness of teenagers at their worst — even as we were trying to contend with it — a way to make the most challenging moments the most fun and rewarding moments. Sometimes that is the very thing that can save a student — being appreciated for being childish just enough to make the child want to grow up.
I’m not sure I would still be teaching today if not for CC. Unfortunately, CC is no longer teaching — and that really sucks. He got sick with MDS in the spring of 2006. He taught until he couldn’t do it anymore. His wife had to drive him to work and give him his meds and monitor his vitals — but he refused to stay home. He wore a mask because his immune system had become so fragile — when he shouldn’t have been anywhere near our toxic campus wedged between an eight-lane interstate and a construction site with dirt and soot flying in all directions.
He passed away that summer.
I still miss him. I still find myself telling some of his jokes — and remain forever influenced by his outrageous sense of humor and his sensibility and his humanity.
I have tried to pass on that sensibility and that humanity and to share the humor with my students and with my colleagues, especially new teachers as they struggle to survive their first years in the classroom. As a mentor teacher I find that the sensibility and the humanity and the humor are as important as anything else. Not only to survive but to reach children.
The last few years have had the usual challenges and maybe a few extras — deteriorating working conditions, extra work, depleted resources and a shortened school year.
It would have been nice to have endured it all with CC — we would have laughed our way through it as we did everything else.
But actually I did have a colleague with the humor and the sensibility and the humanity — and we have laughed our way through.
One of those new teachers — who isn’t so new anymore. LW (his initials) and I have helped each other through some ridiculous challenges. We’ve helped each other to help our students through their outrageous misfortunes and just last week, at graduation, were like two proud papas congratulating our children as they get ready to go to college — one to Harvard, another Syracuse, others to Cal and UCLA and elsewhere.
And then LW got his layoff notice.
And we haven’t been able to laugh our way through this one. Not at all.
We are not amused by a school district that has squandered billions of dollars over the years. We are not amused by the education testing industry that keeps sucking dollars out of our schools and leaving us with less and less. We are not amused by politicians who say they want better schools and allow dedicated and highly effective teachers to get terminated.
I shouldn’t complain. I still have a job — though we may have just voted ourselves a paycut. LW, like thousands of other laid off teachers, has to figure out how to pay his mortgage and provide for his children.
Maybe he’ll get rehired in the fall. That is always possible. That the school district is terminating him temporarily to steal the summer paycheck he worked all year to earn — that they are balancing their bloated budget on the backs of their most vital assets, inflicting misery and stress upon those whose labor is the only real purpose of the entire system.
I hope so. Because otherwise I’ll have to explain to students why LW isn’t there in the fall to teach them history and Spanish and tutor them at lunch and after school and listen to their problems and enlighten them with his wisdom and brighten their lives with his sense of humor. I’ll have to try to convince students to believe in their education, even though the people in charge of their education so obviously don’t care about what is best for them.
Worst of all I’ll miss him. Damnit, I’ll miss him.
More evidence of the dumbing-down of America
Some students at private schools in Louisiana are being taught that Scotland’s fabled Loch Ness monster is real, a claim that is then held as evidence disproving Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Scotsman reports.
Thousands of students across the state are eligible to receive publicly funded vouchers to allow them to attend private Christian schools where textbooks published by Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) claim the monster was actually a dinosaur that existed at the same time as man, an assertion which conflicts with the theory of evolution.
The Times Educational Supplement, a British publication for teachers, published an article in 2009 that included an excerpt from Accelerated Christian Education’s Biology 1099 textbook, which was published in 1995:
Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the `Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? `Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.
Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.”
Loch Ness monster tour guide Tony Drummond, 47, told the Scottish Sun the curriculum is “ridiculous propaganda.”
And Bruce Wilson, a researcher specializing in the American political religious right, told the Scotsman that one of the texts also claims “dinosaurs were fire-breathing dragons.”
“It has little to do with science as we currently understand. It’s more like medieval scholasticism,” Wilson told the paper.
By CLAIRE NEEDELL HOLLANDER
BECAUSE I am a middle school reading enrichment teacher, parents and colleagues often ask my advice about summer assignments. My automatic reply echoes a hit song from the ’70s, “any love is good lovin’.” I tell them blithely that any reading is good reading, while I think to myself, we’ll take whatever we can get.
The data, however, show that my mantra holds true only for the least experienced readers, who attain knowledge every time they read. This age group is fast acquiring verbal knowledge (an increase in word recognition) and world knowledge (an increase in understanding about the world around them), even when they’re reading comic books or relatively simple narratives. For newly fluent readers, usually age 8 or 9, any reading is indeed good reading.
But for students in middle school and high school, reading selection does matter. Students attain more knowledge of both kinds reading Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” than they do reading the “Hunger Games” series. When the protagonist of “Red Badge” reflects on his pride in having “donned blue,” it requires both verbal and world knowledge to comprehend that he is proud of having enlisted as a Union soldier.
While “The Hunger Games” may entrance readers, what does a 13-year-old gain in verbal and world knowledge from the series? A student may encounter a handful of unfamiliar words, while contemplating human dynamics that are cartoonish, with violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance.
Reading literature should be intentional. The problem with much summer reading is that the intention is unclear. Increasingly, students are asked to choose their own summer reading from Web sites like ReadKiddoRead, where the same advanced Real World Fiction category includes “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Flipped,” by Wendelin Van Draanen, which centers on divorce and kissing. Both books can be enjoyed by middle schoolers, but how will the seventh grader determine which one to pick?
The issue is further compounded when summer assignments require students to write about what they read. The problem is that the tasks assigned are at once too open and too circumscribed to be of use. What summer reading needs to be is purposeful. But how do we ensure purposeful independent reading given the low accountability of summer assignments?
Some students will happily read off a recommended-reading list (which should include a companion list of resources to support understanding). They will head to the park with Dickens or Austen under their arms, so long as they can leave the Post-it notes at home. They should be permitted this luxury, to have their teachers treat them as independent learners capable of a first dip into a classic, with no destined-to-be-unread written responses required. Doing this allows the student who chooses tougher books to say, “I didn’t understand half of it.” What better time to allow students to struggle than summer, when no one is calling on them to interpret or explain?
So what should students be asked to do? I propose focusing on accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge. I recommend the following books. For middle schoolers: “Facing the Lion,” by Joseph Lemasolai Lekuton with Herman Viola; “A Long Way Home,” by Ishmael Beah; and “Iqbal,” by Francesco D’Adamo and Ann Leonori (which is a novel about a real kid). For upper middle school and high school students: “Hiroshima,” by John Hersey; “Night,” by Elie Wiesel; “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser; “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan; “Girls Like Us,” by Rachel Lloyd; and “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo.
These nonfiction books provoke students to desire an expanded world knowledge, to consider the flawed moral decision making of the past and the imperiled morality of the future. They all contain high-level vocabulary, but not so much that a typical student might fail to grasp major points.
As we rounded the corner into the tail end of eighth grade, I set out a number of these books for students to choose from for an informal reading class. One student chose to read “Hiroshima” during her last two weeks of school. After a day or so, I checked in with her. Although the eighth grade covered the dropping of the bomb in social studies, I wanted to be certain she could handle the material. I asked, as a casual conversation opener: “It’s pretty disgusting, isn’t it?” She replied, “I feel more sympathy than disgust for these people, Ms. Hollander.”
As the kids say, my bad.
Another student, a struggling reader, chose “A Long Way Home,” about a child soldier. When I checked in with him, he opened his laptop, pointing out his home country on a map that showed places in which young men, including his father, had been forced into armed service. He reminded me that I cannot always anticipate what a book will say to a reader.
While reading classic literature with students is my passion, I prefer that students explore literature in the summer as a pleasure and return to school curious about the world around them, not weary from having written about books they could not fully understand, or smug from having earned credit for an essay on a book they could have easily comprehended in fourth grade.
Summer assignments should be about why we need to learn and why we need to talk about what we think. We have to move students away from disgust at the unknown, at the horrors visited on other human beings, and toward sympathy. Students who have immersed themselves in real-world problems become excited by current events and history as well as literature. They can make connections between academic areas that are ordinarily divided. They will understand Dickens better for having read “Iqbal,” which tells the story of a boy who is sold into slavery at a carpet factory.
Reading serious nonfiction in the summer is an immersion in the world of necessary ideas. So let’s try that instead of the late August nagging and the relentless complaints from parents about their child’s stubborn refusal to enjoy, say, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” To those parents who wish ardently to re-experience their first literary love, I say, reread it yourself. Perhaps you will recall that the real horrors in that novel happen offstage, to characters who remain peripheral to the narrative. Perhaps your children need to confront some hard truths this summer that will make it easier for them to want to learn about the world.
Meet my best teachers. They are advocates of all cultures that learn, teach, model and show how to get more abundant supplies of food, energy, learning and health, along with cultures that cultivate access to opportunity to maximize potential for all groups and individuals.
Over the past 3 years, I have been learning from these community heroes who are modeling a new culture of solving age old problems with new tools.
These cultures all share one set of universal principles:
1. They are honest with a tendency toward one set of rules and shared mutual understanding and goals.
2. They emphasize FIRST STEPS. This means they are ruthless in evaluating where they are and what they have before they make any plans.
3. They use an “Apollo 13” mentality of making the best use of what the group does have, rather than itemize what the group doesn’t have only to get lost in fighting over why that is.
4. They have a clear imagination of
exactly what the goal of their mission is.
5. They make decisions based on the clarity of that imagination not in response to available or lost objects.
6. They use mission-based hierarchical structures to plan, brief and execute tasks. But the more power you wield in the hierarchy to more you are expected to serve the mission.
7. They use communal, egalitarian structures for mission analysis and debriefing before and after each plan, brief and execution.
All of this is definitive to any true problem-solvers culture.
Failure to have a good first step can result in jumping out of a plane without a parachute, building a bridge without any nuts and bolts, or planning a political reform that treats symptoms, not roots. It is the most important step, before planning or execution can begin.
The people in this playbook have been some of my best teachers the past 3 years and I believe their culture of thinking represents a clear success in achieving security, abundance and individual and collective freedom.
The best community heroes use a “mission” culture. This best defined in the Marine Corps, a surgical operating room, or while engineering a bridge, road or factory.
I believe that if we teach, model and show good first step practices — which are being shown to us by our “Greatest Generation,” returning war veterans, youth and countless civilians — a true renaissance is closer than we realize.
I am thrilled to share this Community Hero Playbook with you, featuring some of my most valuable teachers, and ask you to help me expand on them.
Here’s to the story of our lifetime!
Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia has been a critically important pioneer in studying what scientists call the executive functions of the brain.
These are the brain functions we use to manage our attention, our emotions, and our behavior in pursuit of our goals. Diamond finds that executive functions predict children’s success as well as — if not better than — IQ tests, as she explains:
Typical traditional IQ tests measure what’s called crystallized intelligence, which is mostly your recall of what you’ve already learned — like what’s the meaning of this word, or what’s the capital of that country? What executive functions tap is your ability to use what you already know — to be creative with it, to problem-solve with it — so it’s very related to fluid intelligence, because that requires reasoning and using information.
Executive functions emerge during the early years and don’t fully mature until early adulthood. They have a strong bearing on school success, too. Diamond says:
If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functions — working memory and inhibition — actually predict success better than IQ tests.
Diamond never expected to be in the place where she is now — as a leading expert in executive functions. As she thinks back on her life, she says:
I wasn’t expecting to have a career. I was going to have children and stay at home. I went to college just because I enjoyed learning and I was going to indulge myself and then settle down.
But all of that changed when she went to Swarthmore College and got very interested in “people, in society and culture.” She decided to go to graduate school to continue these pursuits. At Harvard, she worked with psychologist Jerry Kagan, a well-known expert on temperament. She says:
Jerry Kagan was jumping up and down about all the changes you see in baby’s behavior in the first year of life. He said, you see the same changes in children who are staying at home, who are in foster care, who are in day care, who are in the kibbutz — you see them in Africa, in Europe, and South America. It can’t be all learning and experience because [these children’s] experience is too different. There has to be a maturational component.
That led Diamond to become interested in the brain:
If there’s a maturational component, the maturation is in the brain. So it meant that I had to start studying the brain.
And she did, at Yale. It meant entering a whole new field of study. At that time, as she puts in, it was unheard of to work in both neuroscience and child development — the researchers in these fields “didn’t use the same vocabularies.” They didn’t even “talk to each other.” Her studies of the brain led her to an interest in inhibition. She says:
People talked a lot about the role of acquisition [in] acquiring more knowledge, acquiring more skills. What I realized is that’s important but what’s also important is being able to inhibit reactions that get in the way [of learning something new].
This journey led her to the concept of executive functions.
Just What Are Executive Functions?
Philip David Zelazo of the University of Minnesota, also a leading expert in executive functions, defines them as “the deliberate, goal-directed control of behavior.”
All of these functions take place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain in concert with other parts of the brains. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of our brains to develop and is responsible for our ability to exchange information across the high-level areas of the brain so that our behavior can be guided by our accumulated knowledge.
That’s the beauty and the purpose of executive functions: they enable us to control ourselves, to reflect deeply, and to consider things from multiple points of view. As such, they involve paying attention, remembering what we need to remember to pursue our goals, thinking flexibly and not going on automatic, exercising inhibition.
1. Paying Attention or Focus
Focusing is obviously central to achieving our goals. If we are so distracted that we can’t pay attention, we can’t concentrate.
2. Working Memory
Adele Diamond defines working memory as holding information in our minds while mentally working with it or updating it, such as relating what you’re reading now to what you just read or relating what you are learning now to what you learned earlier.
3. Cognitive Flexibility
Diamond defines cognitive flexibility as being able to flexibly switch perspectives or the focus of attention and flexibly adjust to changed demands or priorities.
4. Inhibitory Control
According to Diamond, this is “the ability to resist a strong inclination to do one thing and instead do what is most appropriate.” It means sticking with something you are doing after you’ve had an initial failure — inhibiting the strong inclination to give up or continuing to work on something even when you’re bored.
An Experiment Testing Executive Functions
Perhaps this is best exemplified by showing one of Diamond’s experiments to measure executive functions — the Day-Night Task. When shown a picture of a black background with a yellow moon and stars, children are supposed to say “day.” When shown a picture of a white background with a yellow sun, they’re supposed to say “night.”
You can see from the video that children have to pay attention, remember the rules, think flexibly and not go on automatic.
Even more amazing is that something so simple can help children thrive now and in the future. These are things we can do everyday with our children while waiting for dinner, for example, such as Simon Says or Red/Light Green Light, or Freeze Tag.
Adele Diamond cautions:
I think that we should be focusing on helping children get better at these skills early. I’m hesitant to use the word teach, because when you say teach, people have this image of children sitting like little college students in their seats with somebody lecturing at them.
Promoting these skills should involve weaving them naturally into everyday activities in school and at home in playful and fun ways!
Homework — how much, for whom, and to what end — has long been a focus of discussion and concern among parents, teachers and PTA associations across the country. But since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001 and Obama’s more recent Race to the Top incentive program, the homework debate has intensified. Educators are under increasing pressure to meet state standards and churn out high test scores in exchange for federal support. Inundating students with homework in this fraught and numbers-focused climate is often seen as a logical response to anxieties about funding, international competitiveness and performance.
But here’s what most of today’s typical homework does: It encourages conformity. It diminishes a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn. It invites cheating. It turns kids off to learning. It emphasizes getting through the material at the cost of sleep, friendship, family time, play, physical activity and health. It stresses that rote repetition is somehow superior to passion, curiosity, creativity and invention.
How is this possible? Because most homework robs our children and our families of our most precious resource: time. Time to think, time to play, time to connect time to be bored. Time to read, rest, discover, run, fail, fall and learn from it all.
It’s time to change! Two weeks ago, on behalf of the Race to Nowhere community, we joined with education and homework experts Alfie Kohn (author, The Homework Myth), Dr. Etta Kralovec (Associate Professor, Univ. of Arizona and co-author, The End of Homework) and Sara Bennett (co-author, The Case Against Homework) in launching a national online petition on Change.org, which urges the PTA to adopt a set of homework guidelines that would provide local districts, school boards, administrators and teachers with a national policy framework to use as a reference and model for decision making locally. The initiative seeks to realign homework policy and practice with the best research on student learning, health and engagement.
Among the goals of the guidelines are increased educational equity and a narrowing of the achievement gap between students at well funded and poorly funded schools; enhanced parental and family influence on and engagement with homework practices; and a rebalancing of student’s academic lives with their extra-curricular, family and community commitments and their developmental needs as children and adolescents.
The petition has been signed by more than 16,000 educators, parents and policymakers across the country. Thousands have been inspired to share their stories.
The Resolutions Committee of the National PTA will be considering adoption of these guidelines for healthy homework this week at the National PTA’s convention in San Jose, California.
Adopting these guidelines will not only give American parents and students relief from the unnecessary burden of homework, it will also help teachers think differently about how to support student learning.