Conservatives and the Common Core

There’s a state chapter of the Eagle Forum that hates the Common Core. They go to the Legislature every year to fight against it, along with sex education and other conservative issues.serious

As I understand it, they think that the Common Core will demand that everyone teach material that is offensive and that will corrode the family. They want teachers to have complete freedom in choosing curriculum so that somehow this will keep family values safe.

The irony here is that the Common Core material, which was selected by top teachers all over the nation, is very traditional. If you were to choose material that would actually suit conservatives this would be much of the Common Core. Ironically, if you have read Generation  Me, you know that many young teachers today are members of the Me Generation, many of whom might not have even been exposed to the standard literature works that the Common Core provides.

I wish that conservatives would take time to peruse the common core literature list to see the excellent works provided there. I think they would see that there’s nothing subversive here. Indeed, they will likely see that these are friendly and familiar works that they read when they grew up.

Using Choice for Intellectual Development

The bell rings; go to class. Take out your pencils, write your name on the top right of the paper. Answer the questions (correctly!) in the chapter and turn in to be checked.

All of this produces obedient children and potentially good test scores, but it cannot produce thinkers.

There is a well-researched, brilliant pedagogy (for visual art) that I think can be applied to self-contained classrooms as well: Teaching for Artistic Behavior.

The idea: Teach children basic techniques with varying materials, show how to use for the particular subject-matter projects, and let them choose how to do it.

Choose! Will children choose well? Will they work well?

What’s the choice: give it a try or raise a nation of automatons? Even one day of choice per week, even a morning or an afternoon, compels children to think about what they’re doing, instead of simply and mindlessly doing what they’re told.

Will they fool around? Waste time? Misbehave? Do mediocre work?

The research–and many teachers’ classroom practice–say otherwise. My own experience is that students work hard to reach excellence, far harder than they would otherwise.

If you use art projects to teach academics, students must review concepts over and over in order to include them in the project. This type of review is deeper and more lasting.

Eventually, our students will graduate and enter a world of choices. Many of them fall into serious debt, drug use, sometimes aimlessness. We adults like to blame young people for this behaviors, but what if we have contributed to such behaviors by never helping kids make real choices?

We have the chance to do this in our classrooms. We should give it a try.

Brain Friendly

What happens to your brain when you get stressed?

There may be several possible answers, but the one that is most important for educators and learners is this:

In stress conditions, the neural pathways to long-term and short-term learning are chemically blocked. This means that no matter how much you’ve studied, how hard you try, and how much you want to remember, it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to remember.

What causes stress?

These days, we live in stress. Kids go to school and eat breakfast loaded with refined carbs. They may have left their mom at home high, hungry, bruised, or worried to death. Dad may have been picked up late last night by the police. Kids may have been watching movies or TV shows filled with brutality and blood. They may have been exchanging bullying texts with other kids. We don’t know, but we do know that they live in an environment drenched with stress.

This means that no matter how hard they try to remember (and how hard we try to help them), the neural pathways are blocked, and it’s not going to happen, at least not very well.

How can we restore the neural pathways? For this, we have to replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals, such as dopamine and endorphins. And how can we do that in school?

Joyous surprise: our brains produce these pleasure chemicals with physical exercise and arts activities. Some schools, following the brilliant research in the recent book Spark, incorporate strenuous physical activity in the morning, sometimes throughout the day.

Lacking that, every classroom teacher can do one important thing: use arts activities to teach the academic core standards. Even very simple activities such as drawing or painting a science concept or vocabulary list can replace stress chemicals with pleasure chemicals.

Happily, these types of activities also reinforce learning, since they require higher-level thinking to produce them.

That’s my alternative-learning tip for today and for always: teach with arts activities.

Charter Schools I Love

If I were a young teacher, I’d work hard to set up an arts charter school.

There’s a cool one on the other side of the mountain here in Utah. On this side of the mountain, we are rather culturally deprived and certainly have far fewer funds than over there. The funny advertising slogan someone came up with is “the other side of Utah,” which we translate to mean, “the backside of Utah.” It certainly feels that way much of the time.

The arts charter school of which I speak is a great model. They practice performing arts, theater and music, during most of the day. There’s time provided during the day, and also provided after school and evenings, to do online core subjects. What a great way to do high school! What a great way to grow up!

There are many models of arts virtual schools. I like the idea of using cross-curricular instruction to teach the core, which is the model of Waldorf schools. There are Waldorf charter schools which do this very thing; two of my grandchildren attend such a school. Although they aren’t purist Waldorf schools, I think the adaptations they have to make to be charter schools, such as having certified teachers, are all good. Similarly, you can find Montessori charter schools which utilize this positive and humane approach.

For the science and technology charter schools, the reviews are mixed. This is because it’s very hard to find a large enough population, with the commitment and academic vigor, to sustain good work over the long-term in rigorous subjects.

We don’t particularly hear about athletic charter schools, but there are issues surrounding athletics, mainly that charter schools sometimes recruit and use top athletes that don’t attend their schools, and there is not enough regulation over that.

Measuring by academic achievement, there’s no good argument for thinking charter schools are better than regular public schools, but for these types of specialties, the arts, which are the birthright of all children but which are being cut in many schools, hurray for charters which will keep arts alive!

Online Charter Schools

Many states have enacted legislation that allows secondary students to take some online classes in lieu of their regularly scheduled classes.  Of course, this is often disliked by school districts, who lose per-pupil funding, which goes to the online providers. In addition, this generation of students often has a hard time actually staying with these independent courses and often fail to complete them.

The same problem goes for online charter schools.

It’s one thing to get all excited, leave your brick-and-mortar school, and enroll in an online charter school, most of which are using curricula prepared by commercial companies, and which curricula are generally quite good. It’s another thing to log on every day and complete the day’s assignments. Taken one bite at a time, these assignments are doable, though doing a full high-school schedule, for example, may take the typical five or six hours you’d spend in a regular school, especially if you are not a quick reader. Because of the nature of online learning, you need to be able to read quite well and type pretty quickly. You need to be an able test-taker as well, since the assessments are largely quizzes and tests, though in many courses, you will write short essays as well. In some courses like art and PE, you’ll have offline assignments that you then submit online.

For those students with academically-agressive parents, those with committed homeschool parents, those with stay-at-home parents, this can work, if the students are also intellectually alive and personally committed. Online schooling works well for them, as well as for students who are performers of some kind, since they can travel and still do their work.

These days, sadly, there are not that many of these types of families. Students with stressful family situations, and that includes many of us, do less well, and students also often deliberately choose to work full-time and ignore their online work. These count as dropouts at the end of the day, and since online schools are still under scrutiny to see how they work, the dropouts trouble virtual school administrators, both personally and statistically.

It’s sort of a catch-phrase, that virtual courses are the future of education. In theory, what could be better? Students can take a huge spectrum of courses, far more varied than could be offered in any particular school. Still, in practice, maybe it’s not educational nirvana, not yet.

Charter Schools: Better? Really? Check the Research!

It’s so easy. Make a broad claim: public schools are failing.

Now offer an easy solution: choice, particularly charter schools. The thing that makes these attractive in this scenario? They are not public schools, since as we said before, we all accept that public schools have already failed.

What’s wrong with all this? The main problem is that there is no evidence, no research, no support at all that public schools are failing and that charter schools produce superior results.  

In a national study of charter schools known as the CREDO study, conducted by Margaret Raymond, ” 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school.” Furthermore, Raymond’s husband, Eric Hanushek, widely quoted in the film “Waiting for Superman,” points out that it’s only the very few lowest-performing teachers (five to ten percent) that bring down the nation’s test scores (if test scores are an adquate measurement of good schools and good teaching!).

And furthermore, the charter schools that produce really brilliant results are only a tiny percentage of the 17% that outperform public schools.

So why the push? It’s because it’s so easy to repeat “common wisdom” that isn’t true at all. Realize that the above statistics originate from research for a film that pushes choice and charter schools, yet the numbers don’t show that charter schools produce particularly superior results at all; on the contrary!

In our local district, legislators promised, when the sole charter school here was brought in, that the charter would not use any funding intended for the public schools. That was a good thing, too, because in a high-poverty area like ours, we can ill afford funding to be siphoned away from our diminishing budgets.

However, a few years into it, the legislators changed their minds and the public schools are losing part of their funding to the charter. What happened to the original promise? Well, that’s the way of politics and legislators. Trust nothing.

Educational reform always takes a long time, because the educational system is a huge, ponderous beast. We can all improve, of course, but are we all failing? Not at all (see my former blog). Should we replace what we have with something that is not clearly proven to work? Obviously, we should not.

Not Broken!

One of the big arguments for alternatives–like charter schools–is that the public schools are broken, so we need choice.

Who says they are broken? It’s one of those knee-jerk commonplaces in public discourse that has nothing to do with reality.

You want a standardized-test measurement? We will ignore for a moment that standardized high-stakes tests reveal little to nothing about good education happening in schools (I agree with this commentator on that). You can see from this page, if you don’t mind wading through all the statistics, that most states are doing decently with  children passing tests.

I cannot speak for schools and students throughout the nation, but I’d like to give you a snapshot of a few experiences I’ve had lately in my high-poverty rural area.

Here’s one: our little recorder ensemble, consisting of four players (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, trading parts), doing serious classical music, mostly arrangments of madrigals, was invited to a local elementary school to do a performance for about a hundred second- and third-graders learning to play the recorder. It was a less-than-ideal environment (banging from cafeteria tables being put away etc.), but those students were 100% engaged, smiling, participating. When we told stories about the songs, they participated whole-heartedly, laughing, smiling, engaged. When we played the songs, you could feel everyone focused, engaged. They were so sweet afterward, as they toted their chairs back to the classroom and we packed up the instruments and stands: “You guys are awesome!” “Thank you SO much!”

This type of openness, freshness, engagement, and the unique and charming thank-you notes afterward (“Dear Ensemble, You made my heart nearly burst. Thank you for coming to our school”) let us know that this was an unguarded, genuine educational experience we shared together. It made our hearts nearly burst too.

But even more important, it revealed that these young students in a typical school are learning in a deeper way, that they are alive and engaged–and that all is well in that school.

We can extrapolate that things are going well generally in our area. I surely see it in my junior high where I teach art. My students–all my classes–walk into class and avidly set up without being told. They launch into work without me having to remind them about anything, and they clean up cheerfully the same way. When I teach them new things, they are always game to give it their best try. There’s that same openness and cooperation, that high level of engagement, that sweetness and curiosity we saw in the elementary children.

From the educational internet groups I participate in, I glean the same kinds of things. The schools struggle with budgets, schedules, and personality differences; so what’s new? This is true of every organization, big and small. We don’t just say they’re all failing because of it.

It’s too easy to denounce the whole (expensive, I agree) system as broken. Of course, I would change the system, mainly getting rid of those standardized tests and going for a whole-child arts-based curriculum, like the Waldorf schools do. My desire for that doesn’t say that the system is broken, though! It’s not.


“Last In, First Out”

Sounds logical, right? Just because a teacher has been teaching for over four years doesn’t mean she’s any good. When it’s sadly time to adjust to budget cuts, we need to get rid of the bad teachers. Inferred in this is that the newer teachers will be better than the older teachers, so we need to be sure to be able to get rid of the bad old teachers.

I know this is a little melodramatized, WTH, that’s how we artsy types roll.

There are some huge misapprehensions in this type of thinking. Start with the reality that the average teacher salary in America is about $40,000. Take out taxes and figure it out. Monthly take-home pay will be about $2500. Subtract from that typical mortgage payment or rent, utilities, basic living costs and you will have to conclude: most teachers don’t take home much money. They’re not there for the big bucks nor the big perks. They are there because they love their subject and their kids.

It doesn’t matter what our age. What if any of us have problems in our teaching? We should follow Obama’s suggestion and get training for the teacher. If he or she cannot improve, then yes, we could consider termination. But most of us want to improve. If we need help, we gladly accept it.

So truly the only fair rule is “last hired, first fired.” Otherwise our budget problems can turn into discrimination, ageism, and that is never right. Besides that, it’s illegal.

Teachers’ unions are not out to protect greedy fat-cat teachers who want to sit back and collect big paychecks without doing the work. We DO the work. We show up every day, no matter our age, no matter our headaches, no matter the struggles we face with poverty, lack of materials, endless garrulous faculty meetings, and other daily difficulties.

Add to this that most teachers spend a good deal out of pocket to make their classrooms work. As an example, a teacher (older!) in our poor, rural district noticed that his first-graders are walking off the bus in near-zero weather without jackets. He went out and bought warm jackets for his students. They often would come back in a day or two without them. “Where is your jacket?” he would ask. “I don’t know,” the student will shrug, but remember, these are tiny first-graders, so they won’t know but their careless caretakers should know. What does he do? He goes out and buys more. True, he gets these coats at the thrift store, but at $4-5 apiece, they still add up.

It is so easy to get on the bandwagon of thoughtless popular thought. Think again. “Last in, first out” is really the only fair solution to budget cuts.

Immeasurable (by a test anyway)

In my juvenile corrections class, we often get students who have pretty low IQs. No surprise that these students are mostly failing in school. Probably no matter what I would do with them in class–that is, what I would do to help them pass standardized tests–would make any difference.

Yet these students are have great success in writing, reading and art.

Why would this be so? It’s because we work for mastery, we start where the students actually are, and I encourage excellence, no matter how long it takes. (It’s always a joke that “inside,” we have nothing but time, but it’s actually true in any classroom. If we want excellence, we need to take the time. I note that the requirements of the Common Core totally reinforce that. One of our teachers, attending a Common Core training, brought along a pacing guide that is required in our district, and the CC instructor practically recoiled).

“No,” she said. “This is antithetical to the process. We stay with it till we get mastery. If some students reach basic mastery right away, we set up experiences for deeper mastery.”

That’s good pedagogy. So when a repeat offender with an IQ of 86 appears in my classroom over time, and we keep writing together, and he produces, after all this time, a really stunning story (about hunting, which is NOT my preference for subject  matter, believe me), it’s time for celebration.

Will his test scores improve? Almost certainly not. But he can write–now, and hopefully for a long time–since it took quite a long time to get here.

He’s a big kid, fair hair, ruddy face; you could say chunky. And there he stands in front the of the class, after reading aloud, flushing with joy at the spontaneous applause from his fellows.