Three Conversations Ed Reformers Need to Move Past

I made a Tumblr last week for ed reform. I want to talk about education from a global platform, but I don’t know how. The Tumblr is my first step in that direction. But right now, it doesn’t have the kind of audience this blog has.

I’ve been talking about education a lot the past couple of days. I was at the Statehouse for a while listening to legislators talk about it. And I’m frustrated. I’m actually beyond frustrated. I’m angry. We never get to talk about the good stuff, the stuff that will change kids’ lives because we are so busy misunderstanding things and phrasing questions in the wrong way. Here are three things we are doing wrong in the education conversation in this nation:

1. Whose kids are going to go to the trade schools? Legislators love to talk about how it’s not that we don’t have enough jobs to go around, it’s that we don’t encourage children to learn trades. We are always going to need electricians, they say. That’s true. We  will always need electricians. But no legislator would encourage his or her child to be an electrician. Their  children are too smart for that kind of job, right? And that’s where we run into a wall. In this country, not every student has the option of going to college, even if he or she is achieving at the requisite level. And so encouraging kids into trade schools starting in the ninth grade is a form of forcing complacency. Give these kids a trade in which they will be earning $40,000 a year, but don’t give them the education my children get, the legislators say. And so while we masquerade the trade school solution as the thing that’s going to decrease the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it’s actually just a way to make it bigger. Senators’ sons will turn into more senators, and electricians’ sons will turn into more electricians until those two worlds hardly ever talk. So let’s put the trade school conversation on hold until we are sure that every kid, no matter of their zip code or parent’s income, is getting the option of going to college.*

2. Liberty and equality are not opposites. I heard a speaker the other day that was trying to tell me that they are. But they aren’t. If I have a penny, and I want a bagel, but the bagel costs $2.50, I can’t buy that bagel. I’m not free to buy that bagel. That’s how education works. If I have a second-rate K-12 education because I grew up in inner city Detroit, and college expects a first-rate education, I can’t go to college. I’m not free to do the things that I want. Equality is not (as some people like to put it into metaphor) about making sure everyone is on the same starting line or about putting some people in front of others for the start of the race. It’s about making sure that no one shoots any of the runner’s in the leg, while they are running.

3. If you get rid of standardized testing, what do you put in its place to evaluate schools, teachers, and students? Look, I’m no idealist. I don’t think standardized testing is perfect. And if I could come up with something that took more of the learning process into account, I totally would. But we can’t just keep saying “Get rid of standardized testing.” That’s not helping the conversation. Come up with an alternative. Then we will talk.

Please, when we talk about education, let’s stop having the above conversations, and let’s start talking about how we are going to save the kids.

*I want to point out that I don’t believe that being an electrician or having any other trade is anything to be ashamed about. All I’m saying is that when a senator’s kid is good at math, that kid is encouraged to become an engineer, not an electrician.

Why Kids are Rarely Skeptics

There are a lot of skeptics out there. They are hard to ignore and most of the time, they are impossible to escape. Maybe you are a skeptic. Society likes to train skeptics. The Enlightenment and the scientific revolution and all that jazz have proven skeptics useful, I guess. Universities spit out skeptics like it’s nobody’s business. I don’t know anyone who has recently been through four years of college who didn’t take at least once course that was greatly influenced by postmodernism.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of postmodernism. Heck, I’m an English major with an interest in communications and psychology. It would be almost impossible for me not to enjoy postmodernism. But there’s one realm of education postmodernism has not yet infiltrated – primary schools (preschools, kindergartens, grade schools, and to a great extent, middle schools).

In those grades, children are still taught short, optimistic slogans like “Hard work always pays off” or “Be an individual” or “Good things happen to good people” or something of this nature. I think, in most cases, if any student were to utter these words in a college course, there would be argumentation. And for good reason: they aren’t always true. We can all think of instances when bad things happen to good people, for instance.

But the thing we easily forget is that the reason these slogans exist is not because of some government conspiracy to keep citizens complacent (in most cases). They exist because they are simplifications of very complex truths that are beneficial for us. “Good things happen to good people” is not true, but something like “You have no control over the exterior things that happen to you, but if you act in a noble and optimistic way in the things you can control, chances are you will live a much happier and fuller life” is true.

So next time you walk through an elementary school, instead of scoffing at all of the seemingly overly-optimistic saying on posters and motivational pictures, be a little more forgiving.

When Getting Better Isn’t About Competition

It makes me really mad when people are better at things at which I consider myself skilled. There is a myth out there (or, you know, a lie the world tells us. I get tired of saying it this way.) that says that everything everywhere at all times is a competition.

In this line of thinking, anyone who succeeds in something more than me is succeeding to my disadvantage. They are doing awesome things, and thus, I cannot. I don’t tend to care in things I don’t like. It doesn’t bother me that Kanye West is nominated for a bunch of Grammys. I don’t make music. He can step on me to get ahead in music all he wants. But if Kanye was my peer in school (which, by the way, would be pretty cool), you better believe that every time he got a better grade or a higher position in an organization, I would grow more annoyed and angry at him.

I don’t like that I am this way. There are a lot of people who aren’t. I was hanging out with a man while he did his job today. And he was so excited. A lot of his excitement came from the fact that his coworkers were some of the best in his field. That didn’t discourage him or make him jealous; it made him hungry for knowledge. Instead of being disappointed with his own achievements, he was trying to figure out how to use his peers’ deeper knowledge to better himself.

I liked that.

5:1 Says that KIPP Journey has Relationships Figured Out

Two days ago, I wrote a post about visiting KIPP Journey in Columbus. In that time, it has become the most popular post on this site. Which is pretty cool. And it’s doubly cool because I didn’t even include everything that blew me away about the school.

In every classroom, there was a blue poster on the wall. All it said was “5:1.” As the day progressed, my peers and I routinely whispered about it. What did it mean? Why should a simple ratio have such a prominent place in the classroom?

We got our answer when we had the opportunity to sit down with Dustin Wood, the School Director and OU alum (Go Bobcats!).  He said 5:1 is a ratio that comes from psychologist, John Gottman’s study of marriages. Gottman found he could predict the success of marriages with 90% accuracy based on the ratio of the number of positive remarks said on a daily basis to the number of negative remarks said on a daily basis. If a relationship stayed around 5:1, it was probably going to succeed.

Wood and the teachers at KIPP Journey have started using the ratio as a way of ensuring the success of their students. When Wood does teacher evaluations, he records how many positive and negative remarks a teacher makes. The goal is to keep everyone above 5:1.

Observe any class at KIPP Journey, and it becomes exceedingly obvious that all of the teachers are constantly thinking about this ratio. They are like parents. They constantly hand out “I love you”s and terms of endearment and encouragement to their students. Even failures are repackaged as successes.

In one class, student had bell work. The teacher used two different students’ work as examples. One of them didn’t get full credit on the problem, though. But he had done something really great to deserve the first point, and so he was applauded for what he had done correctly instead of chastised for what he had done wrong.

I am convinced that interactions like these make all the difference.

I made a comment the other day that I wish the whole world was run like a KIPP school. The more I learn about the program, the more I am convinced that a wish like that could change everything. What if we made a conscious effort to follow the 5:1 ratio in everything we did? What would that look like?

Lessons from Eighth Graders

I’m in this really awesome national organization called Students for Education Reform. I started a chapter at my university. Our mission is to educate the next generation of leaders about the achievement gap so that we can close it. Because it needs to be closed.

This is our first quarter at OU, and it’s not been terribly easy. A lot of our plans have fallen through, but throughout the quarter, there have been some really great things that have kept me excited. Today, I had an experience that will keep me excited about ed reform for the rest of the year. I got the chance, with a couple of other students, to visit KIPP Journey in Columbus. The school was, simply put, kick ass.

KIPP Journey is a charter school for fifth through eighth graders. Most students enter KIPP well below grade level in both reading and math. By the time they leave, though, they are not only testing better than most of their peers in Columbus but also than most KIPP schools around the nation. That’s incredible!

One of the most notable things about the school was that in most of the classrooms we observed, the teachers had visible and public graphs, tracking each student’s test scores. I have heard stories about teachers doing this, and I’ve always been skeptical. I know in my own public schools, public information like that would have been toxic. Those at the top would have been ridiculed for being nerds and those at the bottom would have been ridiculed for being stupid. At least I thought so until today.

We got a chance to talk to a couple of outstanding eighth graders. I asked them about the charts. They smiled at me, knowingly. The following is a paraphrase of their answer:

Of course we like knowing where we are. It’s important to know where we have come and where we are going. And plus, we can see where other kids are. So we can help the ones who are beneath us. And we can ask for help from the ones who are above us. It’s not really about being smart or dumb. Sometimes certain subjects are just easier for some people. I may be better at math. But she might be better at science. It doesn’t really matter. In fact, it’s better that way. It makes it easier to help each other. We have a goal here of everyone scoring Proficient on the OAA. That’s a tough goal, but we are helping each other get there.

I still don’t know if the chart thing would be successful in my junior high, but I do know that the culture at my school was completely different than that. At my school, being an A student was important in and of itself. I didn’t really care about learning as long as I was getting A’s. A lot of this was my fault, but a lot of it was also that I didn’t know what else to base my academic goals on. If someone had told me, “Hey, you are reading at a tenth grade reading level. That’s great, but here’s what you could do to be reading at a college level,” I would have loved it.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in KIPP Journey. The culture isn’t about valuing the grade. It’s about valuing knowledge and learning. If a student masters a skill, s/he doesn’t say, “This is good enough.” Instead, s/he asks, “What else can I master?” And they realize there is always someone who is above them. That’s so so healthy. KIPP Journey isn’t about being the best. It’s about being the best you can be. And somehow, as the test results show, when kids/people concentrate on that, they become the best.

As Relient K Says, We Should Get Jerseys

When I was in the fifth grade, we had these teen mentors that came from the high school. I think their purpose was to get us all ready for junior high and the halfway high school things we would experience there like kissing and truth-or-dare sleepovers. They railed against peer pressure and taught us about character. I was totally into that sort of thing. I’m still into that sort of thing. I wish I had an adult mentor or something now.

Anyway, we had a boy and a girl. And I remember that our class was obsessed with the fictional idea that they were dating. We used to put questions in the anonymous question box about it. The girl would always answer. She would blush a whole lot and then talk about how great of friends they were, but no, they weren’t dating.

I’ve been thinking about that idea a lot because I am now a leader volunteering with middle school students. And I wonder if they have fictional ideas about my love life.

I think the tendency of kids to think a boy and girl team are dating actually tells us a lot about love in a really simple sort of way. In college, I see a lot of people thinking that love is having a warm body with which to cuddle, or having somebody to whom to complain, or having someone with whom to go on dates.

None of those conceptions really gets to the heart of the matter, though. The married couples I see as successful and the relationships that I admire are the ones that operate like a two-person team. Love is a beautiful, half-choreographed, half-improvised dance duet.

Children understand this. That’s why when they see a boy and a girl working efficiently together, they assume dating status. At some point we forget it, though. We get caught up in doing the same-old Electric Slide and never really think about the beauty of creating something new and original with another person.

Leadership as Servitude

As I’ve mentioned once before, I help with a Writer’s Workshop for middle school students. It’s rewarding work. And I am blessed to be able to work with these young people so often. This past Friday we were finishing up our acrostic name poems. We work with them in the school’s library. The volunteers are waiting for the students as they come in and so we watch them group off to the several library tables. Most of the time, this is done down strict gender lines. This Friday was no different. The girls giggled into their respective corners. And the guys guffawed into theirs.

I like to change up who I work with so I can start to get a feel for tailoring instruction methods to different groups of students. This week, I targeted the boys’ table full of the class clowns. Two of them weren’t even finished with the rough drafts of their acrostics. The third was rather above and beyond where he needed to be. I sat down and introduced myself and then waited. I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of these kids if I tried to force feed it. So I sat there and watched how they interacted, trying to catch on to their inside jokes and get a feel for their slang and junior high jargon.

After a couple of minutes, I had a rough sketch of how they interacted as a group, what made them tick as individuals and what was holding them back, and then I started instructing. Boy number one, the most creative of the group, was held back by his need to be the class clown, which he mostly achieved by self-deprecating humor. I know how that is. But when I showed him that his poetry could involve things like noises or slang, he immediately took a new liking to it.

Boy number two was mainly held back by his lack of will. All he needed was a few reminders to keep working, and he was fine. Boy number three needed someone to buffer the disruptions from the other two or else he got distracted.

As I have more interactions with people in which I am in some kind of position of authority, I am becoming more and more convinced that I cannot help them unless I actively work against the formality of that position. Leadership as servitude is a very powerful thing.

I’m interested; do you find that it is easier to lead when you are attempting to serve others?