Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Education Improvement" Not "Education Reform"

Reform: n. a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors.

Improvement: n. the act or process of making something better.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary has has several definitions for "reform" and "improvement," however, these two definitions embody the current divergent views of educational change in the United States. Language is important. How an argument is framed often reveals important subtext and nuance. For the past 20 years, politicians, the mainstream media, and many self-proclaimed educational spokespeople or "educational celebrities" (i.e. Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Wendy Kopp, Geoffrey Canada, Paul Vallas, Kaya Henderson) have been labeling their visions of educational change as "education reform." In fact, if others argue against their "education reforms," they are labeled as supporting the status quo or the interests of adults over students. Of course, this is an artful dodge. Yet, language matters, and those who stand for public education and sustainable change are loosing the public relations war (although the recent PDK/Gallup education poll shows the public opinion is starting to turn). 

I am proposing those who believe in meaningful educational change need to craft the argument in terms of "improvement," rather than "reform." Reform for reform's sake is not improvement. In fact, if you look at the outcomes of 20 years of so-called "education reform" (for a primer, read Diane Ravitch's new book), it becomes very clear that reform does not mean improvement. In many ways, it means regression in the form of a cementing a persistent education gap, re-segregating schools, and decreasing the morale for generally hard-working teachers and parents across the nation.

Those who frame their arguments in terms of "education reform" have been pushing for market-based solutions, mainly in the form of privatization or decentralization, while they claim they have the best interest of children at heart. These groups generally rely on one type of data to assess student learning, results from high-stakes standardized tests. Education reformers claim that "poverty is no excuse" and a lack of resources are not the problem (H.L. Mencken once said "When somebody says it's not about the money, it's about the money."). The education reformers create groups with names that no one can argue against, like "Stand for Children," "Teach for America," "Education Reform Now." They say, unlike career teachers and their unions or parent groups like the PTA, they are dedicated to helping all children get an quality education. Yet, there is an important narrative all these reformers have in common: Our schools are failing, now it is their turn to "reform" them. They generally tie the failures of the American economy to the lack of education reform and contend that if their reforms are not implemented, the U.S. will loose its global economic standing.

However, education reform is not a goal; it is an action. Educational improvement is the goal. Groups that believe in public education, equity of resources, desegregation and support for multiculturalism, and increasing teacher professionalism and retention, need to begin framing the debate in terms of "education reform" vs. "education improvement." Reduction in class size, increasing resources to the neediest schools, supporting the professional development of teachers, increasing teacher pay - these are all part of education improvement. These are what the globally high-achieving educational systems, such as Canada, Finland, Singapore, are enacting in their nations and they offer a different path to "improve," rather than "reform," the educational system in the United States.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Teaching America’s Past to Our Newest Americans: Immigrant Students and United States History

My colleague Kerry Dunne (Arlington Public Schools/Brandeis University) and I have an article titled "Teaching America’s Past to Our Newest Americans: Immigrant Students and United States History" featured in this month's Social Education. It discusses the barriers in teaching U.S. history to immigrant students and ways to overcome them.

Here is the abstract: Studying American history is a struggle for even the most diligent, high-achieving immigrant student. The strategies outlined here will make U.S. history more accessible for English language learners.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 4

In this final reflection on my visit to Singapore and its education system, I am choosing to examine Singapore's attempt to teach multiculturalism through its schools and society. Like the United States, Singapore is a multicultural society, as well as a multilingual and multi-religious society. Their nation's ethnic demographics are: 76.8% Chinese, 13.9% Malay, 7.9% Indian, and 1.4% other. As someone who studies multicultural education, I was intrigued to see firsthand how Singapore addresses the many different groups within their nation educationally. I was lucky enough to visit during the convergence of two important multicultural holidays: Hari Raya Puasa and Singapore National Day. Hari Raya Puasa, also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, is the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the conclusion of Ramadan. This holiday is rooted in the Muslim Malay community of Singapore, an ethnic minority. I was able to walk the bazaar, where food, clothing, and other celebration items were on sale. My wonderful host and friend Karen Lam, who works for the Ministry of Education, makes it a point to immerse herself in one community activity during each of the many ethnic holidays in Singapore. In Singapore, many non-Muslims visit the bazaars and partake in the celebrations at the end of Ramadan. A few days later was National Day, which celebrates Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965. This year's slogan was "Many Stories, One Singapore" and it emphasized the many different people that call Singapore home.

Singapore is a nation that projects strong narratives. Whether it is a narrative crafted through architecture, technology, or multiculturalism, they aspire to be better. However, their multicultural narrative rests more on "national unity" than "embracing differences." For example, the following language was used to describe this year's National Day theme: "all interconnected through our shared stories and history" and "despite our different backgrounds, we are one Singapore." The Singapore narrative on multiculturalism projects a desire to overcome some of the historical ethnic divisions. The reality is there are still signs of ethnic segregation in housing, education, and income. This is particularly prevalent in the ethnic make up of low-wage workers in Singapore, many of whom are Indian and Filipino. Despite the inequities in their society, Singapore has taken the important step of acknowledging this and framing a national conversation on how to improve this (For example, there are racial quotas imposed on public housing, which the vast majority of Singaporeans live in).

Historically, the education system in Singapore did not address multicultural education. British imperialism divided and separated ethnic groups, resulting in separate schools based on ethnicity. Today, Singapore has made great strides in reversing years of ethnic separation in schooling and preserving the many cultures of Singapore. The Ministry of Education has an official stance of creating national unity while helping "citizens not to lose their cultural heritage or traditional values." They have done this by providing required instructions in student's mother tongue (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) along side English. Moreover, "Every year, schools commemorate a few key events that mark the defining moments of Singapore's history... [including] Racial Harmony Day [and] ... International Friendship Day." Singapore has also increased civics education, with an emphasis on multicultural and global citizenship. More can be done. Much of the multicultural education in Singapore is still focused on the three Fs (food, flags, and festivals), but Singapore has taken important steps forward. The United States could benefit from similar attempts, especially teaching the "mother tongue" of our immigrant students or emphasizing the importance of international friendship and racial harmony in our school holidays (and curriculum).

I appreciate all of the kind people of Singapore, who supported my visit. My trip to Singapore was eye-opening and I could not have accomplished this trip without their help. I look forward to returning in the future and learning more about this amazing little red dot.

Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: Remembering 50 Years Later

On this date 50 years ago, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, who were four girls attending Sunday School in the basement. This bombing followed Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's "Birmingham Campaign, which included the "Children's Crusade," where children were encouraged to protest in the streets leading to the use of police dogs and fire hoses on children by segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety "Bull" Connor. The murder of four innocent girls in the church bombing opened the nation's eyes to the level of brutality and violent resistance that could be waged against desegregation. One of the most powerful historical sources for teaching the bombing is Dudley Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham." 

Ballad of Birmingham 
By Dudley Randall (On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”


Saturday, September 7, 2013

Learning from Singapore: Part 3

My second visit in Singapore was the National Institute of Education (NIE), where I met with their humanities and social studies teacher education faculty members Mark Baildon, Ho Li-Ching, and Chelva Rajah. Mark, Li-Ching, and Chelva are my counterparts in Singapore and our conversations were thought-provoking.

The NIE, located at Nanyang Technological University, houses the only teacher preparation program in Singapore. This allows Singapore to have greater curriculum consistency across their teachers' preparation. Like many universities in the U.S., the NIE has two tracks for entering teaching, a 4 year bachelor's program or a 1 year master's program. Singapore is a nation of 5.3 million people in 225 square miles. It is relatively comparable to Massachusetts, which has a population of 6.6 million (however, that is across 7,800 square miles). Throughout my visit to the NIE, I was envisioning what this would look like in Massachusetts. Even with 80 institutions and organizations that prepare teachers (a number that has risen in recent years with the increasing number of non-university entities, such as Boston Teacher Residency and Teach for America), could Massachusetts ever have the same consistency in teacher preparation as Singapore?

Much like some of the social studies teacher preparation programs in Massachusetts, NIE's faculty has increased their emphasis on inquiry-based teaching. However, three differences struck me about their program. First, the social studies program houses both teacher educators and disciplinary educators. The floor was comprised of professors that taught courses in social studies pedagogy, but also social studies content. For example, a history educator's office is located across the hall from a historian's office. This appeared to allow for regular conversations between those who teach content and those who teach pedagogy, and acknowledged that both groups need to teach both content and pedagogy together. It seemed to help break down the traditional divide between schools of education and colleges of arts and science, which is quite common in U.S. universities. It made me think about the rarity of social studies education professors and history and social science professors collaborating in U.S. Since history and social science professors usually teach future social studies teachers, bridging that divide through unified purpose, location, and regular department meetings could be helpful.

Second, as part of their faculty, the NIE has Senior Teaching Fellows and Teaching Fellows. These are experienced teachers who work with the preservice teachers in their programs. This model allows for experienced educators with significant practical knowledge of teaching to be working along side traditional teacher educators with significant knowledge of research and theory (and who sometimes may have less practical knowledge).

Third, NIE's teacher education programs, through the Ministry of Education, pay teachers at entrance to the program. Preservice teachers are considered teachers from the moment they enter the program. Moreover, the Ministry of Education pays students' tuition with a requirement that they will teach in Singapore. This allows teachers to not become saddled in debt (Singapore also pays their teachers well) and ensures that teachers who are being prepared will most likely find teaching positions upon graduation (two problems preservice teachers face in Massachusetts). During my visit, I was imagining how this could look in Massachusetts or other U.S. states. It seems quite difficult with the current free-market system of teacher preparation. In some fields there are too many teachers being prepared, while other fields have shortages - in both cases the lack of coordination is clear. Would a central agency to manage that help? At minimum, could the state (or local municipalities) recruit teachers before their are prepared, then pay them and their tuition during teacher preparation, with the assurance that they will teach in a district for their career? There are programs that have attempted to create this, such as Teach Next Year or Boston Teacher Residency, but can it be done on a larger scale and with state government-university partnerships? Do alternative-route programs like Teach for America, with high turnover and short-term teacher commitments, make this type of teacher pipeline more difficult?

Finally, while at the NIE, I learned about two new ideas that the NIE had recently begun to implement. The first was their brown bag series, where students come to listen to short talks on social studies-related topics that may not be typically taught in coursework. Second, is the new release of their own publication on teaching and learning called SingTeach, which this month features the work of Mark and Li-Ching. Although our conversations about these new initiatives were brief, I am curious to see if either add a new dimension to the preparation of Singapore teachers.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Turn of the Century Labor Simulation on Labor Day

Labor Day was first proposed in 1882 in New York City and it became a federal holiday in 1894 following the deaths that year of striking workers during the Pullman Strike (Click here for a lesson plan involving a Pullman Strike Mock Trial). To help students better understand the history of workers, unions, immigration, and industry, on this Labor Day, I am posting a Labor Simulation Activity, which was created by myself and former colleagues at Framingham High School. In this simulation, students take on the roles of immigrant laborers, industrial factory owner, political boss, and labor union organizer. By the end of the activity students should have a better understanding of the complex political and social structures that governed the lives of immigrant workers. Following this activity, I also recommend using this Tenement Problem Solving activity to help students gain understanding of the conditions immigrants faced in the inadequate tenement housing of the time.