Archive | May, 2017

I Am Done – I Hope Public Education is Not

24 May

June 2nd will be my last day as a classroom teacher. For the past 15 years, I have been teaching mathematics and physics. It has been exhilarating, it has been heart breaking. It reminds me of the way Charles Dicken’s opened A Tale of Two Cities,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, ….”

During my tenure in education, costly efforts were made to improve schools. However, the welfare of country and children were too often ignored in pursuit of new markets. Vast fortunes were spent by philanthropists mostly on foolish and destructive agendas which often appeared self-serving.

In 2010, Rupert Murdock stated, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone ….” From one point of view, our commitment to children is laudable, but this huge amount of money has engendered darkness. Integrity and community too often succumbed to greed. Corporate and political leaders regularly bowed to dark human tendencies.

Difficult Time for a New Teacher

In 1998, Prince rereleased “Party like its 1999.” In 1999, I didn’t feel it. I was driving around Silicon Valley ready to move on. The party seemed over. Hearing co-workers drone on about stock options or being regaled by stories of new startups creating instant millionaires got stale. I enjoyed my work but hated the traffic. It was time to go home to San Diego and become a teacher.

By 2001, I was in graduate school at the University of California San Diego. At the same time, Ted Kennedy was teaming up with George W. Bush to federalize public education with the “No Child Left Behind” rewrite of the education law. When, I earned a master’s degree in education, NCLB was the law of the land.

The new federal law mandated standards based multiple choice exams. These exams were completely useless for measuring school or teacher quality or for guiding instruction. The only outcome from these tests with statistical significance is that they accurately identified the economic health of the school’s community.

Standards based testing has been both cynically and foolishly used to claim that public schools are failing thus opening the door to a national tragedy. The world’s greatest public education system and our bulwark for democracy is being privatized. Wonderful and venerable institutions in tough neighborhoods like Crenshaw High are being destroyed. The generational legacy that spawned the likes of Ice-T, Darryl Strawberry and Marques Johnson has been stolen from its community.

My second year of teaching was one of my favorite years. I was given a one year temporary contract to teach at Mar Vista Middle School. I really enjoyed the kids (me and middle schoolers think alike), but it was my interactions with the staff that always engenders fond joyful memories. I was incredulous a few years later, when the middle school was reconstituted because of failing test scores. At the time I wrote about the “Unwarranted Demise of Mar Vista Middle School.”

It seems there was an effort to charterize Mar Vista Middle School, however, the community quickly rejected that. The school was reconstituted by firing half of the staff and reopened as Mar Vista Academy. The only result of the reconstitution was disruption in the lives of teachers, parents and students. The school still serves the same neighborhood. At the high school where I now work, we have seen no substantive change in the readiness of students coming from this feeder school.

I Was Victimized by the First Honored DFER

In the master’s program, we did some student teaching during the first year and then in the second year we were given paid intern positions to teach three classes a day. When that school year ended most of my classmates were offered a position. I wasn’t. It could be that I was not a very good teacher or it might have been that I was 52 years-old and schools wanted younger new teachers.

I finally got a position at Bell Junior High School teaching four sections of physics and one section of honors physics to 9th graders. Each class had 36 students. My classes scored amazingly well on the district end of course exams. They scored especially well at the end of semester 2. San Diego Unified School District has more than 130,000 students. My honors physics class at Bell was the second highest scoring honors class in the district and my 4 regular classes were the top scoring out of the 13 sections of physics at Bell.

Bell junior high school consisted of mostly minority students including many language learners and free lunch recipients. Several or my students were afraid to walk home after school. The neighborhood was that tough. It was at Bell that I started to realize that the experienced teachers were amazing and not the worthless slugs that I had heard so much about.

In her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch wrote about Alan Bersin a lawyer with no education experience being tapped to run what was arguably the top performing urban schools system in America. I have written about the Democrats for Education Reform (DEFR) and Bersin. The following citation honoring Bersin is from the DEFR web presence (it has since been removed):

“Appointed in 1998 as Superintendent of Public Education of the San Diego Unified School District, Bersin led the eighth largest urban school district in the country. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him as California’s Education Secretary. Bersin led the way as one of the nation’s first ‘non-traditional’ big city school leaders, promoting ambitious reform to raise the quality of education and bolster student achievement. …. Bersin was a founding board member of DFER.”

One feature of the “non-traditional” superintendent’s leadership was fear. At Bell, I witnessed three tenured teachers lose their jobs. Yes, a determined administrator can get rid of a tenured teacher. It appears there were targets for the number of teachers to be fired each year. It also seems that a certain percentage of new hires were required to be given unacceptable evaluations. I suspect being a new hire in my 50’s made me a target.

My final evaluation said that I was not able to control my classes and was not moving them towards achieving standards. The not moving them towards achieving standards comment meant that I could not even apply to be a substitute teacher. Ironically, my evaluation the next year by the principal at Mar Vista Middle School referenced classroom management as a particular strength.

Conclusions and Concerns

Standards based education is bad education theory. In the 1960’s Benjamin Bloom proposed mastery education in which instruction would be individualized and students would master certain skills before they moved ahead. By the 1970’s this idea had been married with B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist philosophy and teachers were given lists of discrete items for their students to master. The “reform” became derisively known as “seats and sheets.”

By the 1980’s corporate leaders and many politicians were turning these mastery skills into standards. In the 1990’s the IBM and former RJR Nabisco CEO, Louis Gerstner, made instituting education standards and standards based testing his mission in life. The result of his almost two decade effort are the Next Generation Science Standards and they are awful. I wrote about them here, here and here.

The other corporate leader that loves the concept of education standards is Bill Gates. Without him, there would be no Common Core State Standards. Bill Gates and Louis Gerstner share two traits, neither of them have any real experience or training in education and the education standards they have forced on America are horrible. I wrote about the Common Core standards here and here.

Vouchers have not led to better education outcomes. Allowing the privatization of public schools is foolhardy. Public schools are wonderful crucibles of democracy where parents have input. Vouchers undermine this democratic principle and they can be misused. Vouchers have been employed to force all taxpayers to fund religious schools and to promote segregation.

This March (2017) a Texas Superintendent of Schools, John Kuhn, informed the Association of Texas Professional Educators about vouchers. “Three different research studies published recently have found that voucher programs harm student learning—including one study sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation and the Fordham Institute, both proponents of vouchers. Students who use vouchers underperform their matched peers who stay in public schools.”

It is in all of our interest to adequately fund public education. Even if you do not want your children to attend a public school. On the other hand, tax money should not be spent on private or religious schools. If parents want that option, that is their right, but it is not the responsibility of society to fund their decision.

Charter schools are bad policy. There are some absolutely wonderful charters schools but the money they remove from the public system is causing significant damage to the schools that serve the vast majority of students.

If taxpayers want to fund charter schools they need to understand that it will cost more than just funding public schools. It costs more money to run multiple systems. Not providing adequate funding degrades the public system – bigger classes and less offerings. In extreme cases like Detroit, we see a complete collapse of both the public and charter systems.

Albert Shanker thought that charters could be used to unleash the creativity of teachers, but once he saw the early direction of the charter movement, he became a charter opponent. In her book School Choice, Mercedes Schneider shares this quote from Shanker:

“A pluralistic society cannot sustain a scheme in which the citizenry pays for a school but has no influence over how the school is run. … Public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interest of e pluribus unum. Charter schools and their like are definitely antithetical to this promise.” (Page 57)

When writing about Schneider’s School Choice I paraphrased her:

“Charter schools have never honestly out performed elected board directed public schools. In some cases, charter schools have gotten relatively good testing results, but on closer inspection these good testing results are not the result of good pedagogy. There are three common practices that help charters look good on testing; (1) instead of a balanced curriculum they focus on preparation for testing, (2) through various techniques, they only accept easier to educate students and (3) they do not back fill when students leave the school.”

Another bad idea is CBE. This big school privatization effort could be called the make Silicon Valley “great again” effort. It is known by various names: one-to-one, personalized education, blended learning, competency based education, etc. Its supporters, like Billionaires Reed Hastings and Bill Gates, are spending huge amounts of money promoting computer delivered education.

In 2010, the President-CEO of the Charter School Growth Fund (a Walton family effort), Kevin Hall, decided to purchase the struggling Dreambox Inc. of Bellevue, Washington for $15,000,000. He subsequently invested another $10,138,500 into Dreambox. [data from 2014 form 990]

A recent National Public Radio report on the Rocketship schools reported:

“Rocketship students often use adaptive math software from a company called Dreambox Learning. The company was struggling when Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder turned education philanthropist and investor, observed it in action at a Rocketship school several years ago. His investment allowed Dreambox to become one of the leading providers of math software in North America, currently used by about 2 million students.”

Reed Hastings is the founder of the Rocketship schools, a board member of the Charter Schools Association of California and the owner of Dreambox Learning. What he is not is a highly trained experienced educator.

An Organization for Economic-Cooperation and Development study concludes, “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance.” The last thing 21st century children need is more screen time.

San Jose State’s education Professor Roxana Marachi provides access to information about the possible health risks involved with screen time and juvenile cell phone use. I recommend her Educational Psychology & Technology page. The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, recently presented information about tech addiction being purposefully designed into digital devices.

Of course there is a place for technology in education, but that place should be driven by professionally experienced educators and not technology companies looking to enhance profitability.

My biggest take-away is that professional educators should be running education. The Regan era idea that business people, lawyers and Nobel Prize winning scientists were more equipped to lead America’s schools than experienced professional educators was a foolish error. Today, we have an amateur politician rich guy trying to run the country. His lack of experience is showing.

In the same way, insurance salesmen (Eli Broad), retailers (Doris Fisher) and technologists (Bill Gates) are harming America’s schools, because they do not know what they are doing. Experience and training matter in all fields of human endeavor and education is no different.

Shakespeare and the “Ocean Genius”

9 May

Fortune smiled on me in April. I was invited to the “Folly Garden Theater” for a benefit supporting theater arts for middle and high school students. The open air theater sits in Walter and Mary Munk’s back yard. We were also celebrating the Bards 453 birthday.

When I arrived three middle schools students were performing a scene from ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ and there was the great man himself giving them his full attention. For the past seventeen years Walter and his wife have opened their home for this event. At 99 years-old, the man the New York Times called the “Einstein of the Oceans” is still encouraging students.

The outdoor theater stage is at the bottom of a terraced incline. Each of the four grass covered terrace levels are wide enough for one row of folding chairs. A large cement balcony with room for more than 50 people tops off the seating. Behind the stage area is an unmolested canyon leading down to the beach at the Scripps Institute, where Walter has been affiliated since the late 1930’s. It is an amazing ocean view in which colorful hang gliders arc gracefully on ocean breezes.

The students were in full costume. In a scene from ‘Henry IV’, the young man playing Fallstaff was particularly amusing in both dress and demeanor. The stage sound system made the flawless delivery of the almost 450 year-old lines by the Bard’s newest enthusiasts easy to hear. Clearly, the students involved had spent many hours perfecting their performances and were truly enjoying their day in the sun. Doctor Munk rose from his wheel chair multiple times to express appreciation for their performances.

This is one of many events sponsored by the San Diego Shakespeare Society. Inspired by the idea “Teach a child Shakespeare at an early age and they can learn anything,” the Society sponsors many events for K-12 students. Amongst the largest of these is the annual event held on the various stages in Balboa Park’s Prado area at which about 500 students perform 10-minute scenes.

The Adults

The emcee for our event was author and performer, Richard Lederer. Among his many credits, Richard founded the PBS show “A Way with Words.” Richard who came dressed for the occasion in a costume topped off by a giant felt hat, seems to feel that his best credits are his champion poker playing son and daughter (Howard Lederer and Annie Duke) and his poet daughter, Katy Lederer.

Mr. Lederer showed off his word mastery whenever he spoke. He was also the fund raiser auctioneer. One of the items he auctioned was poker lessons. He claimed that his having sired two national poker champions was proof of the value his lessons would bring. His light hearted style was a delight.

Alex Sandie, the President of the Shakespeare Society delivered a few brief remarks. Not only did he grow up in Sean Connery’s home town of Edinburgh, he also bears a remarkable resemblance. He lamented bad things coming in threes by noting that he is 3 inches shorter, 30 pounds lighter and $300 million poorer than his famous Scottish doppelganger. For the past 16 years this delightful man has been leading the Society’s effort to educate the public, especially youths.

The “Einstein of the Oceans”

For me meeting Walter Munk was a special treat. And like all truly great people, he was a humble delightful person who shows gratitude and appreciation for any effort. Kasey Kay wrapped up the afternoon by playing some wonderful renditions of Chopin and other classics. Walter was there listening intently and applauding enthusiastically. In one touching moment while Kasey was playing, Walter’s wife Mary stood behind him with her hands on his shoulders – Walter reached up with his left hand and held her right hand affectionately.

In 2015, Kate Galbraith wrote about Walter for the New York Times. She began the article:

“In 1942, with World War II in full swing, a young military scientist learned of the Allies’ plans to invade northwestern Africa by sea to dislodge the nearby Axis forces.

“The scientist, Walter Munk, who was in his mid-20s, hastily did some research and found that waves in the region were often too high for the boats carrying troops to reach the beaches safely. Disaster could loom. He mentioned it to his commanding officer, but was brushed off.

“’They must have thought about that,’ Dr. Munk, now 97, recalled being told. But the young scientist persisted, calling in his mentor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to help.

“They devised a way to calculate the waves the boats could expect to face. Their work helped the boats land in a window of relative calm, and the science of wave prediction took off, becoming part of the planning for the D-Day landings in 1944.”

I was standing in the entryway garden in front of the Munk home talking with a friend when we noticed a meter by meter bronze plaque memorializing Roger Revelle. Walter Munk and Roger Revelle are widely considered the two most important scientists in the history of global climate change studies. The meaning behind the plaque is revealed in a 2013 UC San Diego news release about Munk being presented the Revelle award. From the release:

“Commonly referred to as the “greatest living oceanographer,” Munk is widely recognized for his groundbreaking investigations of wave propagation, tides, currents, circulation and other aspects of the ocean and Earth. The 95-year-old scientist is still active at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. His accomplishments have been recognized by a lengthy list of organizations from around the world. He won the National Medal of Science and the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. He was the inaugural recipient of the Prince Albert I Medal in the physical sciences of the oceans, which Prince Rainier of Monaco created in cooperation with the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans. Most recently, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Munk’s receipt of the Crafoord Prize.

“Yet for Munk, the Roger Revelle Medal is especially meaningful. ‘Roger was my best friend and the person who had the greatest influence on my career,’ said Munk, who received his Ph.D. in oceanography in 1947 from Scripps, where he went on to spend his entire academic career.”

Munk played a lead role in the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) project. Because sound travels through water at different rates depending on the temperature, Munk realized he could use sound to measure ocean temperatures. It gave him a method for tracking climate change.

Munk and Revelle cemented their long professional and personal relationship during a 1952 year long research voyage. They first went to the Eniwetok Atoll to monitor the hydrogen bomb test for possible tsunami issues. They didn’t find a tsunami but they did have to strip off their clothes and throw them overboard when they were doused with a nuclear polluted rain. This was Munk’s second trip to monitor the effect of nuclear testing on the oceans. He was also at the Bikini Atoll for the 1946 atomic bomb test where he put dye in the lagoons to see where the currents would disperse the radioactive products of the test.

1952 at Eniwetok Atol

New York Times Photo

After the hydrogen bomb test, Munk and Revelle spent many months doing ocean research in the beautiful islands of Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Marquesas, taking a full year to make their way back to San Diego.

In the 1960’s, the new University of California at San Diego campus quickly gained a reputation as one of the top public universities in America. This was due in no small measure to Revelle and Munk’s ability to recruit top young scientists.  Munk describes how they did it:

‘“Roger was a tremendous recruiter.… He became so interested in the work of these people and what they were doing that he could explain to them how they could do their work better at UC San Diego. He was a genuine participant in their dreams.”’

“Munk reminisced about his role in the recruiting effort. ‘Magically, Roger would turn up at our house with the recruits around martini time,’ said Munk. ‘He would show them the ocean view and we would have the martinis ready.’”

After my afternoon watching Shakespeare at that same house, I can see how effective the recruiting team of San Diego, Munk and Revelle was.

It was such a pleasure to see how great people share their largess. After years of watching pseudo philanthropy harm public schools, it was refreshing to see genuine public spirit on display.