Sunday, February 26, 2012

Fools Among Us

Three Fools of Carnival, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Keith Humphreys has a devilishly funny piece up about a terrible old colleague of his who never seemed to learn to be much of a good person and, regrettably, died a fool.  Pompous and rude, cruel and vain, he apparently took to wearing a toupe late in life, even as his trophy wife mocked him in her affairs with younger men.  For whatever reason, his words brought out in me some cathartic schadenfreude from my own recent tribulations.

   Instead of defining career success in absolute terms, Omphalus had an entirely relative view. Being smart and successful wasn’t enough. Rather, he felt the need to be smarter and more successful than everyone else, and to meet that standard forever. This transformed each generation’s arrival in his field from a source of stimulation to a terrifying threat. Where some saw new colleagues and new ideas, he perceived only a wave of potential usurpers. As he grew older and his powers began to wane, his fear of losing what he considered his eternal throne only intensified....
   Did he die happy? Perhaps he did. His self-delusions may have been strong enough to resist the evidence of his senses, present every time he put his fake hair on his hoary head in the mirror, overheard the increasingly derisive whispers of his colleagues, and saw his young wife wince at his withered body’s efforts at physical affection.
   What I do know though, as mid-life begins to recede in my rear view mirror, is that I do not want to emulate the many Dr. Omphalus’ I have known, whether they are inwardly happy or not. Partly it is because I regard their selfishness as inherently immoral, but I am equally influenced by my desire to have my physical aging be matched with progress in wisdom and maturity beyond what I possessed as an adolescent.
Always wanting to see the best in people (maybe worrying too much that they won't see the best in me), I’ve always had a blindspot for men such as this. I mean, surely I’ve known them, but I’ve always underestimated the extent to which they walk among us, seemingly successfully and capably despite what seem devastating character flaws.

I was just fired by one a few days ago.

Well, as a teacher, I was not “elected” for rehire. I’ve thought long and hard about what it was that he thought I lacked, after numerous observations and reviews, trying my best to divine just what exactly it was that he was looking for, I finally failed to measure up. Sure, I have my weaknesses, and much of the problem may lie in pedagogical or philosophical differences. But in the end it may just be that he is a small man with a chip on his shoulder, and who wants to take it out on the world (in this case, the untenured teacher who has no leverage other than the support of students and staff).

He’s the type of guy who never smiles, wears sunglasses indoors, walks around with his palms backwards (ala G.W.), and spends 10 minutes of every staff meeting regaling his audience with rock-climbing stories. I have no data on the actual size of his penis. It could be quite long. But metaphorically, these are the guys with such fragile egos, so ravaged by narcissism, that one can only assume their life is spent in perpetual unconscious agony over the fortitude of their member.

Sometimes life can feel like nothing but a string of painful reminders. These men (and women) walk among us like moral aliens, in so much as we’ll always fail to understand the root of their dysfunction, try as we might. And every once in a while you get cornered by one, outmaneuvered and run off the road.

Here’s to getting back up. ;)

Monday, February 20, 2012

I Had A Dream

Adam Elsheimer, "Jacob's Dream" (16th century)
I received an email the other day from a district official.  After reading my thoughts in their yearly teacher survey on school quality in their district, specifically on my site, my principal and what I felt they could do to better support my efforts to improve student achievement, they were so impressed that they wanted to talk to me in person.  They felt I had key insight into the roots of low student achievement and were intrigued by the transformational nature of my suggestions.

My comments from the original survey:
Our students come to us in various forms of crisis, such as mental illness (depression, anxiety), substance abuse, chaotic home-life, emotional trauma, stemming from a variety of original causal factors.  Many of them have elementary-grade levels of academic, behavioral and emotional development.  We try and address their needs as best we can and provide excellent instruction.  But their needs are often much more severe, and cannot be addressed by teachers alone. 
I think it critical that each student receive comprehensive intervention ASAP (hopefully this would have been happening years prior in their academic career).  Site-level triggers ought to be established that target families in need for referral to the district to be assessed for intervention.  Most students likely have siblings that are in the same environment and thus it would be more efficient to intervene at the family level. 
Interventions would be differentiated according to need, and support services would be brought together in a holistic way, so that substance abuse, counseling, parenting, English classes, after-school programs, etc. be examined and recommended for the family according to need.  Incentive programs could be offered that reward reluctant parents for engagement. 
These district-level efforts would support teachers in a fundamental way that gets at the roots of issues that make student achievement - certainly at our site - often impossible for many students (truancy, substance abuse, defiance, etc.).  But as far as site-level support, apart from referral to intervention measures described previously, the teachers at our site could use the following: more security in the hallways, more prep time for phone calls home (we used to be able to do home-visits), smaller class sizes for more individualized instruction and personal relationship-building, a shift from professional development geared towards data-driven instruction that is based on "bad" data (i.e. data that is not reflective of the specific academic realities of our incredibly complicated student body) and towards data-driven instruction that accounts for their unique situation and needs.
In short, talking about student achievement, especially in the context of school and district policy, simply can't ignore the reality that student achievement is inexorably tied to home life.  For too long we haven't taken this aspect of academic achievement seriously, assuming it intransigent.  Yet there is much that can be done at the district and site level to facilitate the kinds of interventions that will ultimately lead to greatly increased student achievement and allow teachers much more room to leverage their capacity through quality instruction.
 They provided me with a sub for a day, and I met them at the district office.  I came prepared with copious notes, evidence from studies and journal articles, as well as my own writings and thoughts.  I held forth on the current state of the conversation on education and how I thought it repeatedly missed the fundamental crux of the issue: the fact that poverty correlates with a severe lack of human and social capital, and that these deficits manifest in the school performance of children from poor families.  I then proceed to outline my prescription for school policy: a shift away from endless professional development meetings, and instead to a focus on intervention teams established to quickly and comprehensively respond to specific needs of families identified at the site level for further evaluation and support.  Intervention strategies would include home visits, parenting classes, school-family liasons and dynamic integration with community and government social service networks.  This would be a radical shift in priority and organization structure for the district, but by tackling the root problems head-on it would be enormously more effective and ultimately cost-effective.

The district officials told me that my vision was just what they had been looking for.  For too long, they told me, they had been struggling to keep up with NCLB policies and reform efforts that piggy-backed on its flawed emphasis on test scores as a measure of teacher quality, as opposed to a serious look at the root causes of the achievement gap.  They asked me if I would like to join a task force responsible for designing the kind of district-level intervention program that I had been arguing for.  They were prepared to invest resources in development and implementation, and wanted our team to begin researching similar programs in other communities, and would arrange airfare for us to visit promising district initiatives if need be.

I left the meeting with a full heart, knowing that - finally - teachers, students and families would be getting the kind of support that they needed to truly achieve success, and find for themselves the freedom of opportunity, leveraged from elevated levels of human and social capital, that our country should have been offering long ago.

I reached into my pocket for my car keys, my mind still reveling in the good news - but they were gone.  A strange sensation of panic began to creep up into my chest.  I looked down and saw that the ground beneath me appeared to be falling away.  Either that, or I was floating into the sky.  The cars, people, buildings and roads receded from view.  I closed my eyes.  When I opened them I was staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, lying in quietly in bed.

There had been no meeting.  No task force.  No airfare to innovative programs across the country.  With any luck someone might read my survey response and nod in agreement.  But there was no reason to think that anything would ever come of it.  The conversation, the political will, the funding - was too misguided, too weak, too paltry to even begin thinking about such a radical proposition.  One day, maybe.  But for now, only in dreams.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

For the Public Good

Recently, a union leader, New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vincent Giordan, made what at first blush appeared an insensitive remark. When asked how he felt about the fact that poor parents can't afford to pay for their children to go to private schools, he replied: "Life's not fair."

While seemingly harsh he was in fact stating the reality of living in a capitalist system.  The original discussion had been around the issue of vouchers, and whether parents ought to be able to use them to leave their local public school.  School "choice" is basically the contemporary version of that argument.  Yet this sort of "privatization" framing of public goods misses the point.  There's nothing quite like public education, but imagine if approached public parks, or community centers similarly, offering paid tickets for country clubs and movie theaters.  These are public goods designed around the fundamental principle of guaranteeing access to the least among us, who would normally be shut out by market forces. 

The assumption behind school "choice" has always kind of irked me.  As I see it, the problem in education - certainly the achievement gap - is a simple matter of demographics.  SES essentially equates with high performance.  Public schools are an essentially socialist enterprise, in that they provide a free basic service to everyone and bill the taxpayer, much like roads, parks and traffic lights. 

Yet what we don't do, as we are not a communist country, is provide "free SES" everyone.  Citizens still must rely on their own income to pay their bills and pay rent.  Property values, largely a function of neighborhood SES, enforce and perpetuate SES segregation.  Thus, neighborhood schools will not be heterogeneous by SES, and achievement will be pulled up at schools with high social capital, and pushed downwards at schools with low social capital.

What we are currently doing is assuming that schools as traditionally designed can remedy the effects of low SES.  Attempts at "choice" and selective chartering play a sort of shell game in which parents who may be economically poor, yet are actually  high in social and human capital (have better parenting skills, more coherent and functional families, etc.), are given what amounts to a special pass out of the neighborhood school placement that their income would otherwise have enforced.

I'm not necessarily opposed to this in principle.  I'd like to see every student's (and parent's) needs be met.  I'd also like to see every family be able to afford a house out of a poor neighborhood.  But, "life's not fair", right?  The system as presently designed isn't capable of remedying the effects of low SES. 

So let's make it more fair.  School "choice" isn't doing this.  It is, at the margins, for those few higher SES poor parents who can take advantage of it.  But for the rest, well, "life's not fair".  I want a system that is actually fair. 

There seems an irony of school "choice", in an implicit behavioral assumption: that poor parents "choose" low performance.  What else explains the low achievement at poor schools?  Bad teaching?  How could it be that all the bad teachers end up at poor schools, lowering achievement, while all the good teachers end up at more affluent schools, raising achievement?

So, how could we truly make life fair for poor parents - the whole spectrum - whom for whatever reason aren't able to prepare their children for academic success.  We start with differentiated classroom models.  Three things are proven to be crucial for low-SES students: smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, and school wide interventions.  On top of this, things like after-school programs, truancy intervention, home-visits and parent outreach would be even better. This means a dramatic restructuring of how we fund schools, with much more funding going to pay for these increased resources.  Currently, when you look at the breakdown of measurable levels of social capital between a high-SES and low-SES school, the disparity is enormous, with highly predictable effects on development of human capital among the student body.

It isn't at complicated as it seems.  But a dramatic shift away from the current model, towards one of differentiation across districts, emphasizing SES-based intervention, is a radical shift towards meaningful reform.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dead Horses

Apple Pipe in the Boy's Room
I often wonder how much I sound like a dead horse on this blog.  Err... you know what I mean.

But a Bloggingheads conversation between Harold Pollack and Glenn Loury spurred me to write.  The discussion lingered over Newt Gingrich's dubious statements on poor students and their behavior, and the kind of world in which the students to which he refers come from.

These are the kids I work with everyday. For instance, I nearly had a student physically assault me last week when I wouldn’t return his ipod. Many of these kids have been through so much – and continue to live through so much – that they are on a hair trigger.

Here are just a few factors in the escalation and perpetuation of their poor behavior:

- cognitively and emotionally “poor” homes: lifetimes spent with little vocabulary, world knowledge, emotional regulation and positive reinforcement modeled at home

- absent role-models: incarcerated or absent fathers, parents on drugs, or otherwise neglectful; or parents simply struggling to pay the bills working multiple jobs with little time for parenting

- negative role-models: many people in their families or neighborhoods who actively model poor behavior, both adults and peers who they are often left to be essentially raised by

- daily stress: this is huge. It could be from poor behaviors around them, but also from the circumstance of poverty, such as demeaning, low-pay occupations, or lack of health care in a population often defined by the advent of major illness or life hardship. My students’ family members seem to frequently be suffering medical problems.

- mental illness: genetic mental illness often leads to generational poverty, especially when conditions aren’t diagnosed and treated properly – especially without health care.

- cognitive deficits: learning disabilities and the effects of environmental toxins, or parent substance abuse while in utero lead to cognitive and emotional deficits

- multiplier effect: ghettos are by proxy filled with a low human/social capital population, leading to a net deficiency in social capital; the group just isn’t heterogeneous and lacks the kids of resources that might have been available were more high human/social capital individuals around.

- violence: at home and among peers, threat of violence is real and constant. Kids come to accept it and prepare for it, coming from any adult or peer.

- cultural isolation: different behavioral/cultural norms come to exist that envelop a community that are far outside normative behavior of wealthier neighborhoods. My students routinely express little regard for the property of others outside their kin group, and view drug use – especially soft drugs like pot or alcohol as perfectly normal daily activities.

This list isn’t nearly exhaustive. What should follow is the net effect this has on their brain and conscious state. Higher-order thinking is often difficult to achieve because of so much negative stimulus that the body will always prioritize. Education is often impossible because the student’s cognitive capacity has essentially been shut off. As long as they are living in this environment, it is very difficult to dial back that stress in a timely manner, so as to facilitate the acquisition of new skills.

However, as Harold points out, simply helping them learning self-regulation is enormously important. Unfortunately, it’s kind of like treating PTSD while a soldier is still in a war zone. Further, because of years of academic failure, school has become a place not of love, understanding and support, but an institution that demands what is often an unrealistic normative environment, thus setting the students up to fail. Still further, the focus on standards and superficial achievement leaves little room for the kind of non-academic learning that help teach practical human-human interaction skills.

As a science teacher at a continuation school, my task is to try and funnel in as much science knowledge as I can, while at the same time recognizing the unique circumstances these students face.  All are credit deficient, with some being merely a semester behind, and others 2-3 years behind.  A huge number of them test at an upper elementary grade level in reading and writing.  The average science textbook is written at a 10th grade level.  The state test questions are largely college-level.

Truancy is enormously high, so some students only make an appearance once or twice a week.  The overall graduation rate is probably 25% if we are lucky.  These students take yearly state tests, which they routinely fill in half-heartedly - no doubt torn between the idea that their teachers all want them desperately to try their best, and the knowledge that the test has zero meaning or impact on their lives as they live them. 

So I must decide, on what often seems like a second-to-second basis, between raising the bar so that they might one day graduate, and that their diploma will be meaningful.  For instance, I know that many students aren't getting the best education.  And I know that others are put off by the amount of work I require, and might leave and never return.  Yet others are learning self-control, determination, and social skills, as well as whatever content they might remember.  Divining this behavioral sweet spot is a form of educational wizardry even Newt Gingrich might struggle with.

So, between the principal breathing down my neck about portions of my students failing to take notes on the lesson during my evaluation, students recounting tales of rape and violence, others hiding meth pipes in their socks, personal confessions of illegal border crossings when they were barely out of diapers, drunken parents and fisticuffs in the lobby, after a night spent worrying what to do about this or that student, I'll try to keep my eye on what is best for my students.  And one day, I may find out what that is.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Origins of Compassion

A small child slips and falls down a well, breaking his arm.  We feel a strong pang of compassion for the boy.  A grown man, after a night of drinking, walks out onto the thin ice of a pond and falls when it breaks, nearly drowning before he is finally rescued.  We feel very little sympathy for him.  In both cases, someone has experienced great pain and anguish, yet our emotional response is different.  Though they may seem to come to us almost instinctively, an expression of our purest selves, our emotions in fact precede from a framework of logic and reason, albeit one that is often hidden in our unconscious and only discoverable through careful analysis.

So why the different emotional responses to the circumstances of boy and the man?  The question is one of agency.  There is little a child can do to control his reality.  Even if it was unwise for him to have been playing near the well, his actions can be viewed in terms of a clear lack of intellectual and behavioral development.  Past a certain point, we cannot blame him for acting in the manner he did.  We would be assuming in him too much agency.

Like wise, our lack of compassion for the adult stems directly from the sense in which we assume in him greater agency.  He should have known better, i.e. because of his age, he should have been intellectually and behaviorally developed enough to have made different choices, and not gotten so drunk and taken a walk on think ice.

Interestingly, when human action is viewed in terms of agency, as a matter of intellectual and behavioral development, it becomes difficult not to have compassion for everyone; if there is a clear cause of their actions (their relative cognitive and behavioral agency), there is no reason not to mourn any suffering they cause, either to themselves or anyone else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It is logical to feel less compassion for one who brings suffering on himself.  Which brings us to Mitt Romney, whose most recent campaign gaffe was to appear to be saying that he did not care about the poor.  It's debatable what he was actually saying, whether he was literally making that claim.  I'm inclined to believe that he - a profoundly religious man running for president of the free world - did not intend, in public remarks, to say that he didn't care about the poor.  We all know that sounds terrible.  But here's the thing: it is true.

Well, in large part.  It is an incontrovertible fact that Republicans embrace a view of human development and behavior that tends to view the poor as responsible for their own lack of success.  They will be the first to point to all the opportunities for success out there, and how this or that individual overcame great personal difficulty to find it.  The implication is that if you are poor, you are probably to blame for your own situation.  It is entirely logical with someone who has such a view to have little sympathy for the poor, i.e. to "not care about them".

Thus, much like our drunken man who falls through the ice, and relinquishes a good deal of our compassion, Republicans feel the poor have given up much of their claim on our collective sympathy.  In so much as this is true, there is no real moral weakness on display, just as there is no moral weakness on display when we feel more compassionate towards an innocent, suffering child than a stupid adult who "should have known better".

Now, we can argue against this naive view of human development by pointing to any number of empirical facts about how the brain develops, and how this process is determinative of individual human agency.  But until we win that argument, Republicans will continue to be perfectly morally coherent in not feeling compassion for those who they genuinely feel have brought pain on themselves. 

We can imagine a number of ugly reasons for why Republicans might stubbornly hew to this view.  Many of those reasons no doubt reside in the unconscious as biases, and are self-reinforcing and appeal to the worst of human nature.  But as with any unconscious process, because of its inaccessibility, it cannot be said to be a freely-chosen line of reasoning.  It is greatly ironic that the same appeal to the unconscious nature of human development and thought that points to compassion for those who seemingly make bad choices, is no less forgiving to those who fail to find their own compassion, as they too are likely caught in a causal web of unconscious bias.