AB 466

When I was a teacher, I was very interested in watching how state and federal education policies played out in my school. I knew I was headed to grad school after my two-year stint, so I wanted to pay attention and develop some informed opinions about what policies worked and what didn’t, and whose decisions were governing the way I taught.

The extent to which this did not happen is remarkable. Anecdotal evidence: I went to a four-day professional development training on the curriculum I taught (Holt, language and literature), as did most of my fellow teachers. I rejoiced at the hefty stipend and may have even learned something. What did not occur to me until last week was that the name of the curriculum training (AB 466) referred to a bill passed by the California legislature related to improving teacher quality. I had just accepted it as a meaningless string of characters.

I did have other things on my mind.

It’s important for me to remember, as I tromp into the policy world expecting to “make a difference,” that even for people who are motivated to be informed and engaged, it’s awfully hard. There are all kinds of more pressing matters to deal with.

Crybaby

I swear I have teared up half a dozen times today. All it takes is the Inspirational Tale of Young [insert ethnic name here], Defying the Odds and Seizing a Chance at a Better Life. It’s like educator porn.

Some examples of times I dabbed at the corner of my eye to make sure my mascara wasn’t smearing:

1. A student speaker thanking his three golden lab puppies for all their support, without which he would not have earned his college scholarship.
2. The students of LA marching in the streets and filling up school board meetings to demand their district adopt a college prep curriculum for all students.
3. Leaning my head against the wall because I haven’t been sleeping well and I’m so. damn. tired.

Okay, that last one wasn’t inspirational. But it was true. It’s 8:45 on the East Coast and 5:45 on the West, and I am getting in bed.

Follow Up

We’re discussing high stakes testing in my education reform workshop today (with Alan Bersin, CA’s Secretary of Education – I wish I were not so impressed by names and status, but there it is), and our stack of preparatory readings included another on IQ testing. Hoo-ray. No more lectures, I promise, but I did enjoy this quote from a “founding father” of testing:

“It may be said in all soberness that…most indigents who produce children thereby commit crimes against humanity which are fully as serious as many acts now considered felonies. They have no moral right to produce such children, and therefore should have no legal right to immunity from punishment that constructively ‘fits the crime,’ such as some form of painless sterilization of both guilty parents…”

CRIMES against HUMANITY. Which you read and think, oh sure, eugenics, the 1930s, yadda yadda, but no. It’s from a letter to the ETS in 1972.

And the latest anecdotal counter to the “schools can’t make a difference” line: Baltimore experiment curbs drop-out rate. (Apparently I’m not above linking to USA Today.)

Oh my god, I have a CAREER

Matty asked me what I thought of this*, and boy did I have an answer. I may be dedicating years of my life to a frustrating and futile endeavor, but I love that what I’m about to do for a living makes me want to write in CAPS.

Brief synopsis of the argument, in case you don’t read the original post:
– Homework doesn’t seem to raise achievement.
– Most debates in education ignore the real cause of wide gaps in achievement (socioeconomic inequality).
– “Simple socioeconomic inequality is such an overwhelming factor that everything else combined is barely a blip on the radar.”

I started writing my response all quiet and rational, and by the end I was pounding on my desk. Here it is, basically:

1. True, the specific curriculum or instructional strategies don’t matter (much)—most alternatives credible enough to have gotten serious consideration are effective when taught well. What does matter, and tremendously, is the quality of the teaching.

2. True, vast socioeconomic inequality fuels gaps in achievement/attainment.

3. It’s wrong** to imply that schools can’t make a difference. Not only do we have plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest they can (individual schools and teachers that help poor kids do amazing things), but it’s awfully defeatist to suggest giving up on education policy entirely when the current state of things is so shitty. Schools serving already-privileged kids have more resources, better facilities, more experienced and higher quality teachers, more electives and extracurricular options, longer school days, and cultures focused more on passion for learning and preparation for life after high school than on preventing delinquency and making it to graduation. I think it’s quite ignorant (bullshit, if you like) to suggest that schools simply can’t make a difference in the face of vast socioeconomic disparities when the schools themselves are so, so, SO very far from equal themselves. Yes, there is much to overcome when you’re trying to educate kids who start with disadvantages—the policies have got to change in response and give them MORE instead of less. When that happens, and the differences in achievement still remain? Then I’ll buy that schools are “barely a blip on the radar.”

I may be waiting a while.

*Must include the caveat that normally I love Kevin Drum, but education is not his area of expertise.
**wrong, wrong, WRONG!