14 August 2014

Leadership in Education?

I've seen many kinds of leadership in education across my life. I've know many directly, I've observed far more. At the far point on the scale I've watched the Chicago Public Schools and their leaders create one of the worst places to attend a public school on the planet, and its hard to believe that there has been anyone in charge of that system over the past 40 years who didn't really really want poor children to suffer, and to begin life as far behind as possible. They (Paul Vallas or Arne Duncan or Rahm Emanuel) can certainly argue with me, but I'd love to see any of them produce any actual evidence to the contrary.

Dr. Jonathan White, a real mentor to me, on leadership

At the other end are school systems like the one I work in now where the entire leadership, from the school board on down, is willing to take informed chances to continually do what is right for children. (That system is not great because I am in it, I have chosen to be in it because it is great.)

In between there are places like Detroit - a weakly led system sabotaged by a vicious anti-school state political agenda (pdf). And New York - where political style points over a 20-year-period have taken precedent over what children need.
I listened one day as Dr. Jesse Turner, the principal of our Monticello High School, explained to visitors from Australia and Michigan why he always calls his students "children." "My children don't always have a chance to be children," he said. "They go home and they need to work at jobs, or as caretakers, or sometimes to really be parents. So when they are here I want them to get to be children. I want them to play and explore. That's why I call them children, and they understand that."
And there are places like New Rochelle, New York - where I grew up and a system I continue to observe - which always seems to find ways to keep most kids - and, in contrast to Chicago, the full socio-economic range of kids - coming to school for the right reasons. And the Godfrey-Lee Schools in Western Michigan where great leadership is hamstrung by the horrendous inequality of resources for childhood we casually accept in the United States.

So I've watched for leadership. I think my elementary school - no matter what I thought about it - had pretty damn good leadership when I was a student there. It was a place of teacher innovation. I know my "junior high school" had terrible, unresponsive leadership which left students to fight for themselves. My high school had great leadership despite a tough place at a tough time. It was risk-taking leadership which greatly expanded opportunity across the spectrum of students and which began a tradition of trust in students - the open campus among others - which continues to this day.
"Of course there are other reasons why the 3Is [My alternative high school] is falling apart: the Steering Committee doesn't work (does the U.S. Congress do any better?), tutorials don't work (do you want them to do anything? If not, get rid of them; if so, do it), some classes don't work (complain, complain loudly and insistently or make some constructive criticisms or stop going to those that don't work for you). [Alan Shapiro wrote to students in the mid-1970s. Alan founded this school-within-a-school with Neil Postman, Charlie Weingartner, and Don Baughman in 1970.]

That sage, Kurt Ochshorn (also a non-classtaker, by the way) once said ["See Ira Socol and Tom Murphy on the art of not taking classes; on the other hand, for the art of taking classes, see Kim Jones, who amassed something like 12 credits and graduated after her sophomore year"], "The 3Is isn't a program. The 3Is doesn't have a program. You can do whatever you want." Kurt did. And he discovered what anyone discovers when he/she can do what he/she wants. T. H. Huxley, a 19th century biologist and teacher, said it well: "A man's worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes."

Now you may not be able to do exactly as you like, but even if you could, you wouldn't be satisfied. The problem with doing whatever you like is that first you have to discover what that is. That's a real problem. And further, assuming you do discover what you want to do, how long will it be before you don't want to do it anymore and recommence the search? Partial definition of a human being: a creature who is chronically dissatisfied (see Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents).

Nevertheless, Kurt was at least partly right -- 3Is is less a program than an opportunity. Admittedly one that has its limitations. Probably because the restless fires of youth no longer flame in me (wow), I don't mind the limits much, but am thankful for the opportunity. What that opportunity has been for me I discussed as well as I could at last year's graduation. (Those who missed this remarkable address, gnash yer teeth.)

So when I return this fall I expect to be greeted with an inadequate orientation and cries that 3Is is falling apart. But in my 25 years of teaching, I haven't found any group I like to fall apart with as much as you."
I saw meaningless leadership as an undergrad at Michigan State University long ago - a leader who wanted a different kind of job. I saw stronger leadership at two other schools I attended, Pratt Institute's School of Architecture and the New York City Police Academy, where there were clear, defined missions and yet a general respect for diversity. At Grand Valley State University I saw great leadership both where I worked - in Academic Computing - and where I studied - in Social Sciences. In Academic Computing we were groundbreakers in serving students - especially vulnerable students. In Social Sciences I watched a Dean take care of student needs above all other concerns, and I watched him lead in new ideas, such as digital curriculum (in 1998).

Unfortunately at Michigan State University a second time, I found no leaders at all, save a retired professor named Cleo Cherryholmes (Rest in Peace), in the College of Education - just gatekeepers and status builders. That's a terrible thing to say, but I'll defend MSU by noting its pretty universally true among US schools of education.
This July we ran Professional Learning seminars for about 750 educators (this August we got the other half of our professional staff). I led sessions on our "Seven Pathways" (with Meg Franco) and on "Design for Learning."  In two of those sessions I had wonderful elementary school principals - Kendra King and Lisa Molinaro join us. They both led by example - joining their, and other teachers, in committing summer hours to this work, and they led by effective conversation. Lisa gave examples. Whenever a teacher doubted that he or she could "make this work," Lisa waited through the conversation and then gave an example of similar transformation in her school - crediting the teacher involved, not herself. Kendra was quieter, but she raised essential questions at key moments. When we were talking about classroom rules such as "make eye contact" or "sit still," she spoke up. "Whenever you make a rule," she asked in moment I won't forget soon, "ask yourself, who am I leaving out?'
What I've learned is that leaders protect those under them, but not at all costs. And that real leaders most protect those risk takers who try to make things better for those served. That was true when I was in the NYPD, it is true in any school. That leaders constantly challenge those they lead to do better, and expect them to do better.

I've learned that leaders never accept the status quo, one who does that may be a "boss" but is not a leader. And I've learned that leaders never have double standards or differing moral systems. In schools that means that adult behaviors need to match expected child behaviors. If they don't, well, kids know exactly what's going on.

Management by Walking Around
Mostly I've learned that leadership is about listening and watching. It's surely not about talking and sending out directives. When leaders listen they enable conversations which have impact. When they don't listen, neither does anyone else.
My boss at GVSU Academic Computing listened one day while I told him that an Ed Psych prof had recommended that I investigate Text-To-Speech computer systems - this was early 1998 - and he looked at me and said, "huh, if you need that I bet a bunch of other people here need that." Without my asking a thing he gave me a year to investigate what we'd need to make the university computer system universally accessible and a budget to "buy one of everything and see what works." I loved that year, but that was hardly all I did. I'd do anything the department needed. I was the most loyal, productive person there. I'd finally really been heard and understood.
- Ira Socol

24 May 2014

Trained Immaturity, or, the Problem with Reading

There are scenes in films, on television, on the internet, and in books, which can deeply disturb me. I have actually walked out of theaters, once less than ten minutes into a film, because the soundtrack accompanying killings made it impossible for me to stay. There are books I had to pause in the listening, often, before I could resume reading - one of those comes immediately to mind, Stephen King's novella Apt Pupil in his Different Seasons collection, another was Robert Daley's Prince of the City- because, yes, literature is a powerful thing.
Bailey Loverin, sophomore at the
University of California-Santa Barbara,
committed to "trained immaturity"
[Photo, The New York Times]

So I know, and you know that I know, what Oberlin College dean Meredith Raimondo is trying to say when she tells The New York Times, "I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up. That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously." But I know that dean Raimondo also completely misses the point when she suggests that - thus - all literature read on campus should come with "trigger warnings" about disturbing content.

Authors have a right to surprise and shock. We might even hope that they have a duty to surprise and shock. That's a duty which converts a simple "story" - the completely predictable world of, say, a Tom Clancy, into "literature," something which forces the reader to see the world anew.
"Should students about to read The Great Gatsby be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?

"Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans.

"The warnings, which have their ideological roots in feminist thought, have gained the most traction at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the student government formally called for them. But there have been similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other schools." (The New York Times)
A variety of issues collide here. Feminist Theory collides (perhaps) with Queer Theory and Disability Studies. The norms of Social Media collide with the purpose of the university. Individualism (and maybe Reader Response Theory) collides with the purpose and intent of literature and its authors. Attempting to become an adult collides with the contemporary American middle class/upper class norm of the prolonged childhood. Community Rights collide with Individual Preference.
"Trigger warnings, which originally started in online feminist and activist spaces as a way to warn community members that the topic being discussed might “trigger” unpleasant memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, etc.," says professor Jade E. Davis on her blog, "have done that culture-jumping thing where they are no longer used in only those spaces. They are now somewhat ingrained in Internet culture as sort of the anti-troll, and they have become a standard that is used at times when the actual thing being discussed is not traumatic, but rather simply an uncomfortable encounter.

"What I find fascinating, and a bit odd, is that rather than entering the realm of popular culture, a place where a trigger warning might make sense, they’ve entered the realm of the university, a space where people are supposed to be challenged, pushed, and learn to think and understand in new, different and more diverse ways."
One of the biggest concerns I see is that certain issues seem to be afforded "Trigger Warnings" while others do not - a politically determined list created by elites. So, sexual assault, yes, the use of the term "Nigger" in Huckleberry Finn, probably not. Certain forms of violence, "Ms. Loverin draws a distinction between alerting students to material that might truly tap into memories of trauma — such as war and torture, since many students at Santa Barbara are veterans," but probably not the kind of street violence not experienced by "many" on a University of California campus. What about a story of absent mothers? What about, I wonder, a book like mine? What might I need to label... since none of it deals with Ms. Loverin's "many"?

The next biggest concern is the academic/political. I did not work within Feminist Theory, but I did/do work within Queer Theory and Disability Studies, or even a far left version of Disability Studies I have called "Retard Theory." In those there is a commitment to the challenging and the shocking. Those "Trigger Warnings" would compromise 'our' ability to attack the comfort of the status quo.
Man in his underwear. What do we censor?
National Geographic

Then there is what I might call, the "Trained Immaturity," the expectation of the eternal protection of perpetual childhood. This has changed dramatically since I was young, as I realized recently when I saw a librarian censoring National Geographic magazines before offering them to students, something unthinkable in the 1960s or 1970s. This problem comes from many things: the corrosive effects of helicopter parenting, television and film age-warnings, limited open play opportunities, and, yes, of the limited canonical reading list of many American Advanced Placement English teachers on not just their own students but, via the 'prep for AP mindset' which exists in many US high schools, on all the middle class children in those schools.

We screen for the "acceptable," we screen to "not disturb," we screen, all too often, to make the adults comfortable, to let the adults not have to deal with complex conversations. Oh how easy to let the concerns of 18th and 19th century wealthy white male novelists dominate our classrooms than to struggle with issues which challenge today's children.

But we do not have to. I have closely watched a seventh grade language arts class this year as they have read about the Holocaust, about American racism, about cancer and amputation - surely deeply disturbing topics for 12-13-year-olds, but I have seen them all rise to the complexities of the occasion. And I do not think, no matter what their personal issues, that they will need "Trigger Warnings" in their futures. First, they understand literary complexity. Second, they have enough Google skills to enable them to check out a book before they begin reading - at least to understand general themes. Third, they know how to advocate for themselves. Fourth, the are learning how to control their own learning environments - and thus know how to 'step outside' if they need to. These are all skills I wish those students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara and elsewhere had learned in their K-12 school experiences.

As Dr. Davis says, "I would never give my students a “Trigger Warning,” but I do tell them every semester that we will be going over things that they might find disturbing, uncomfortable, angering, or upsetting. If this is the case, they are free to leave the classroom. The rule is they have to engage respectfully and openly, but only in the classroom. They can think whatever they want outside of the space, but inside the space, they are vulnerable, and I work with that. If things are too much, they are free to step out of the classroom as well. I only require that they email me and let me know why so we can make sure that the course will be okay moving forward."

So I guess I don't believe in "Trigger Warnings." Instead, I believe in  students learning the skills of mature adults, and I believe in the process of literature.

- Ira Socol

10 April 2014

When "Education" is Used as a Weapon

I began watching the 1968 movie Charly last weekend. I thought, at first, that I wanted to see it again. But as it began to play I remembered the first time I'd seen it, in New Rochelle, New York's Town Theater, when I guess I was 13 and trying very hard to impress a young woman.

Charly 1968.(YouTube) It only took about two and a half minutes...
So I went to this film with this girl and a few of her friends, kids who were not in any of my circles. They were Honors Classes kids at Isaac E. Young Junior High School, and they had parents who were doctors and lawyers and stuff. They were also, being both African-American and professional-parent middle class, two unusual circumstances for kids in that school at that time, were keenly aware of their status. So, I was uncomfortable at the start, but then, the film began. And before three and a half minutes had gone by, I heard, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira."

The Town, towards the end of its existence
Five years before that afternoon I might have cried. Three years before I probably would have hit someone. At that moment though I did neither. I guess I retreated into a silent stare and watched myself be compared to a white rat. The other kids knew the story, honors English kids read Flowers for Algernon, my classes didn't, so I didn't, but it hadn't taken me long to figure this out.

Dumb kids can get bullied and its all fun. Dumb kids don't get the girl. When you're "smart" life is good. Being dumb, becoming "dumb" again, is tragic. And how do we know Charly Gordon is dumb? He plays on a playground, and he writes like I write, or, as my "friends" pointed out, better.

There are many ways to feel superior to others, and to make that supposed superiority apparent. There are, I suppose, "natural" ways, you might throw or hit a ball further than most others can, or you might draw pictures others cannot, or play music in ways few others are able. And then there are invented ways. Games are one of those, constructing a specific, invented experience at which some can excel and others fail (I know about this too, in high school I was on a basketball team that lost 107-30, no sh**). And much of the academic experience is traditionally another of those specific, invented experiences. In school you get belittled for expressing yourself the wrong way, taking in information the wrong way, often sitting the wrong way. As I've often said, I began school with them telling me I was making my fives wrong - they could tell they were fives but I wasn't following the "correct" order...

You're making your fives wrong. I mean, really?

...and I ended school with people telling me that my citations were wrong. They understood the citations well enough but I wasn't following whatever nonsensical protocol was in fashion. (I believe that the only valid citation these days is a link to your source, otherwise, honestly, nobody will check up on your sources.)

Of course I didn't just make my fives wrong, I made all my letters wrong. And not just in the wrong order, I made them backwards and upside down and often fully incomprehensible. And I couldn't read either. And in the world of "school" that meant that it didn't matter that I could take in stories - fiction and non-fiction - or that I could tell stories - fiction and non-fiction - effectively. It didn't matter that I could work in math in real life. All that mattered was what I couldn't do.

No, that's not quite it. It wasn't just what I couldn't do... it was who I couldn't replicate. I couldn't do things the ways those "in power" wanted them done.

What made me "dumb" was not what my brain might be able to do, or what my abilities or capabilities were. What made me "dumb" was that I didn't write, read, sit, or even persevere like those in power wanted me to. I was "dumb" because I couldn't, and wouldn't, comply.

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Non-compliance will cost you

With that in mind I found endless Tweets about a story about the decline of "serious reading" in the Washington Post. "Serious reading," if you can believe the pretense that this is somehow a technical term.

"I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing," said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain," in this paean to the sad level that academic research has seemingly sunk to in America.

The best selling author of the 1920s?
Dr. Wolf imagines a world which never existed. A world where everybody read like she does. I've met many academics who think like this. These are people who actually believe that F. Scott Fitzgerald was the best selling author of the 1920s. In fact, I'm quite certain that it was Dr. Seuss's original work, "Quick Henry, the Flit!"

These are the same people who railed against the "Dime Novels" of the 1890s, against film, radio, comic books, television, computers, the early internet... whatever didn't look like the kinds of information and story intake these "leaders" had found comfort in.

"Wolf, one of the world’s foremost experts on the study of reading," says the Post in a completely unsubstantiated assertion, "was startled last year to discover her brain was apparently adapting, too. After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game. ...“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.” Ahh... I say, wanting to give both the professor and reporter failing grades in research methods. Dr. Wolf begins research not with quality observation, and not with a developed research question, but with a Seinfeldesque random anecdote. "I was riding the subway the other day and noticed someone reading a TV Guide with Al Roker on the cover, and from this I became determined to write a book about the decline of intellectualism in America."

So, my personal anecdote cancels out Dr. Wolf's personal anecdote,
Why doesn't the Washington Post report that?

Do people read with in-depth processing? Sure, sometimes. And they do that whether they are decoding ink on paper symbols or listening to the radio or watching a film or television or listening to a friend talk. And mostly they don't, whether reading - say, Tom Clancy - or watching a James Bond movie, or listening to simplistic music. Is CNN worth deep reading? Was that Washington Post article? No, of course not. Is listening to my friends tell stories? Then, probably. But its always been that way. I also watched The Americanization of Emily recently, an amazing 1964 film that's surely demanding of serious attention. On the other hand, the current Cosmos TV series had me wandering off within 20 minutes. What can I say? Is that a web problem? A text messaging problem? A mobile phone problem? No, if those things weren't here I'd still stop paying attention to stuff without sufficient interest.
"You American haters bore me to tears, Ms. Barham. I've dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old Cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We over-tip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I've had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town." - "Serious Reading" in The Americanization of Emily
The research Dr. Wolf and others quoted in the article is so bad, it is laughable. "Before the Internet, the brain read mostly in linear ways — one page led to the next page, and so on. Sure, there might be pictures mixed in with the text, but there didn’t tend to be many distractions. Reading in print even gave us a remarkable ability to remember where key information was in a book simply by the layout, researchers said. We’d know a protagonist died on the page with the two long paragraphs after the page with all that dialogue.," Wolf says proving how little she has actually experienced of even literature - missing everything from poetry to DosPassos to the beats to all postcolonial literature, but, there you go... research and knowledge are not Dr.Wolf's, nor the Post's, purpose here.

The purpose in that article is the snarky over-educated equivalent of, "damn, look at his writing. He's already way smarter than Ira." The purpose of Dr. Wolf's book is to humiliate all who do not read like she does, so she can project her own superiority.

We'd simply laugh at her, and I guess eventually feel sorry for her incredibly limited life, if she was just making these assertions over cheap brandy in the faculty lounge ;-) - but what she and the Post are doing is incredibly dangerous - incredibly harmful - to a hundred million kids in America who may get branded as being "less intelligent" and "unserious readers" because they read more like, I don't know, Jack Kerouac or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, than Maryanne Wolf.

Maryanne Wolf is doing "research" into why more people aren't like Maryanne Wolf - which might be a legitimate question for her, but she has no right to demean others who might struggle with Hermann Hesse's writing, who might jump around when reading things of little interest.

"They're reading texts and watching TV and jumping around," people will say, while labeling them failures.

So here's my answer to those who want people to be like them, who think the way they do things is superior. It's the same answer I should have said way back when in the Town Theater, "Shut the F*** Up." That's a clear answer and anyone can read it really deeply, really seriously.

Because I am finished hearing about those "good ol' days," about how much better things were "back then." You know, "back then" our schools sucked for most kids. They were bored and frustrated. They read no better then than now. Many fewer graduated from high school, many, many fewer went to college. People chose bad movies and third rate books then, and now. Zane Grey for God's sake. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did very well in 1966, but if you add up Grand Prix, Lt. Robinson Crusoe, The Good The Bad and the Ugly, and The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, you'll see an audience three or four times as big. The same would be true today.

Americans chose to fight a worthless war against Spain in 1898 and a very questionable war in Iraq more than a century later. Our media is still targeted at the 6th Grade reading level, now, as then, because that's where most people are. It was that way the first time we gave a standardized reading test in 1867 (pdf), it is that way on every NAEP result since.

So I'd rather find what works for people, in their worlds, instead of criticizing them or humiliating
When was the last time a five paragraph essay
was ever written outside of school?
them. I don't want to talk about "serious reading" or "slow reading" or "deep reading," I want to talk about effective reading which I define as getting information and stories into your head in ways which are useful to each individual.

I don't want to talk about inattention and divided attention and shallow attention. Nobody cares. We don't have the time. We need to help each other find ways to focus when we need to and how to be "ADHD" when we need that, and we need that a great deal. Because while you're doing your "serious reading" the world might be changing, and those changes might change how you understand what you just read.

And I don't want to talk about writing - of course - because your writing rules are tied to antique technologies. From your citation rules to your sentence structures - which, frankly, John DosPassos was tossing out over 80 years ago because they were already antiquated, from your use of pens and pencils to your grammatical limitations, from your belief in required lengths of certain works to your five paragraph essays... its all nonsense. What matters is communication, what matters is empowering voices.

Life is a real thing. People are real people. They all have different needs, differing abilities, capabilities, interests, and they change day-by-day, minute-by-minute. They want to play more than they want to work, but they want to do the things they want to do well. So let's stop telling them how they must do things and making them feel bad about what they do, and let's let them be human.

- Ira Socol

25 March 2014

Angela Duckworth's Eugenics - the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation

"The direct result of this inquiry is to make manifest the great and measurable differences between the mental and bodily faculties of individuals, and to prove that the laws of heredity are as applicable to the former as to the latter. Its indirect result is to show that a vast but unused power is vested in each generation over the very natures of their successors—that is, over their inborn faculties and dispositions. The brute power of doing this by means of appropriate marriages or abstention from marriage undoubted." (Francis Galton, 1869, page xix http://www.mugu.com/galton/books/hereditary-genius/text/pdf/galton-1869-genius-v3.pdf )
This is where the work of Grit Genius Angela Duckworth begins, with Francis Galton's 1869 book which pioneered the reprehensible science of eugenics. "Unlike many decisions (e.g., what to have for lunch), choosing to endure rather than desist is a choice that must be effortfully sustained over time. This is an important difference and means grit requires not just motivation but also volition--not just resolving to achieve something important but also protecting that resolution when tempted to reverse the decision; not just committing to our goals but, more difficult than that, translating intentions into actions; not just starting things but finishing what we begin; not just zeal, as Francis Galton concluded in his 1869 treatise on eminent achievement, but also the capacity for hard work; not just want but also will," Duckworth posted last August in one of her many fame chasing broadsides.

I have been struggling against the Grit Narrative for a few months, and I'm not at all alone. What has shocked me is the ease with which supposedly enlightened organizations - leading organizations within our society such as the Macarthur Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania, The New York Times, have unquestionably accepted the work of a professor who has based her research in the work of a writer whose work brutalized and killed millions during the 19th and 20th Centuries, including the Nazi Holocaust, the Japanese assault on China during World War II, and the ethnic cleansing in Europe's Balkans at the end of last century. There are also stories symbolized by the tale of Carrie Buck, where there's an unquestionable direct line from Angela Duckworth's favorite thinker to a deep well of human misery.

The brutality of Galton's work - celebrated continuously by Angela Duckworth

The deep problem I have with "the grit narrative" lies in its flawed assumptions that if poor kids just work harder, with more focus, everything will be fine. Now everyone who has ever worked with "at risk" kids, children in poverty, knows that isn't true. What did my friend Chad say when a high school wrestler he coached got shot walking out of his house? "He needed to work harder"? What could I say to homeless kids I worked with in Grand Rapids when they struggled to stay awake in school? "You just need to be more organized"? What might I have said to the kids I knew in The Bronx who lived in a nightmare of poverty and violence? "I wish you'd pay more attention to your teacher"? The "grit narrative" leaves out the entire socio-economic world which works against so many of our kids, and blames those kids for our failings. I'll also note that it's largely based in research with little basis in reality. Who succeeds in West Point's "Beast Barracks" is not a real question because it cannot be connected to success in anything other than West Point's "Beast Barracks." (The United States Military Academy has never attempted a "control group" class with no Beast Barracks, so we have no idea if success there has anything to do with success in the Army or even in the Academy). Likewise Duckworth's deep concern for Spelling Bee champions. Being able to spell unusual words really well is directly linked to, ummm, nothing except being able to spell unusual words very well. So we have untrue conclusions based in fairly nonsensical research.

The deep problem I have with Duckworth is not just the reliance on the despicable Galton, but the willingness to rehabilitate this man and his theories. "[T]he theory that grit actually overrides other seemingly essential attributes is not new," says a business online blog. "It goes back more than 120 years. In the 1890s, Sir Francis Galton studied success and concluded “ability alone did not bring about success in any field.” He found rather that success stemmed from “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labour.” Today, University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela L. Duckworth is following up on Galton’s work. She made grit the centerpiece of her research into high achievement. “Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine and law,” said Duckworth."And thus Duckworth has made Galton and Eugenics fully acceptable again.

Listen. We all quote the despicable on occasion. I've quoted Martin Heidegger often on technology, but my quotes look like this: '"Technology," to quote (nervously, because he was pretty much a Nazi) Heidegger, is the "art of manipulating the world."' or this, "Just as I may quote Heidegger, but only after very deep investigation, because I have to see, after a lot of reading, if I can separate truth from the other insanities of a pro-Nazi philosopher." I'm still troubled by using his ideas, but at least I express that. Something Duckworth never, ever, does." Here's her online research statement, "As Galton (1892) speculated in his pioneering treatise on the determinants of eminent achievement, the distinction has chiefly to do with timescale: Grit equips individuals to pursue especially challenging aims over years and even decades. Self-control, in contrast, operates at a more molecular timescale, in the battle against what Galton called the hourly temptations – among whose modern incarnations I would nominate Facebook, Angry Birds, Krispy Kreme donuts, and other pursuits which bring pleasure in the moment but are immediately regretted. Both self-control and grit are facets of Big Five conscientiousness, a taxonomy that organizes personality traits in both childhood and adulthood..." When she writes, "his pioneering treatise," she's hardly expressing doubts about Galton's work. And in her quoting of Galton through dozens of writings I have searched, she expresses doubts about his work not once.

This is no ordinary villain. This isn't President William McKinley or even former Alabama Governor George Wallace, this is the writer whose theories stoked the atrocities in Hitler's death camps. "Hitler did not justify his social policies on the basis of Darwinism or eugenics. No reference to such subjects can be found in his books, Mein Kampf' or his Table-Talk. His social ideas appeared to derive more from the 19th century German philosophers Schopenhauer, Hegel and particularly Nietzsche who is quoted several times in Hitler's Table-Talk. The case is different with regard to the German biologists, anthropologists and geneticists of the period between 1933 and 1945. They actively invoked eugenic principles to justify the social policies of the Nazis. The consequences of these policies have been extensively documented elsewhere; suffice it to record that approximately 200,000 women were compulsorily sterilized and more than six million people belonging to "inferior races" suffered mass extermination." (Francis Galton and eugenics today, Journal of Medical Ethics, 1999 -pdf)

This is a monster, who deserves no rehabilitation, especially at the hands of the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation.
"This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being, though doomed in large numbers to perish prematurely. The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock." - Galton, Memories of My Life (1908), Chapter XXI
Why is Duckworth's attitude any different from this?
"One in ten young Austrians think Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler did some 'good things', a shocking poll has found.
"The Youth Culture Research Institute poll found 11.2 percent of respondents said Hitler 'did many good things for the people', The Daily Mail reports.
"The finding was described as ‘frightening’ by the local newspaper as it is coupled with the general mistrust and dislike of non-Austrians."
Why are we offended by people stating the idea that Hitler did "good things" but not that Galton is worth basing research on?

The problem is two-fold. Not only does Duckworth celebrate Galton and his work - a dramatic challenge to contemporary ethics ("Following the events of the second world war, overt eugenic ideas became unacceptable") - but she uses Galton's theories virtually whole. As Lauren Anderson noted on the EdWeek site:
"Watching the video that accompanied [Duckworth's MacArthur Genius biographical sketch}, resignation turned to vexation. Here was another familiar-sounding narrative deployed to rationalize a turn toward individualistic, "objective measures." [2] In it, Duckworth recounts her own frustration, felt during her short stints as a teacher, about, "how little I was able to change the number of hours that they [italics added] were willing to put in for me, as students."[3] Presumably these encounters informed the "distinctly different view of school reform" that Duckworth would later write about in her application to doctoral study:

"The problem," Duckworth writes, "I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves..."[4] Of course, in other directions lie other possible interpretations and corollary questions--about the effectiveness of one's own teaching practice (especially as a new teacher),[5] the relational ties between teachers and students (which develop over time), the broader set of forces at work in young people's lives (including, for example, institutional racism, conditions of poverty, and inequitable access to resources that we know impact development), and so on. That Duckworth, like many, has chosen to seek cause and cure for achievement, or lack thereof, primarily in the individual is, again, not particularly surprising; nor is the fact that doing so has brought her acclaim."
Dickens 1843... "this boy is ignorance,
this girl is want."
the failure is society's
This is not an issue of people "in their times." You see - apologies to those around me in Charlottesville, Virginia, but - Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew that slavery was wrong - even back "in their times." And Galton was writing 30 to 60 years after Charles Dickens, after Karl Marx, after many had made it clear that the Industrial Revolution and unchecked capitalism were the cause of the extremes of poverty. And Duckworth is writing in a time when people know the structures of our society are brutally unfair to many. The kid in inner Cleveland needs "grit," the kid in Shaker Heights really doesn't.

"Galton was a very insecure man who, in an effort to emulate his cousin's adventures, took an expedition to Africa, where he become convinced of the inherent inferiority of any races that were not of European descent. His insecurities led him to take a particular interest in those who were born into the "right families," or possessed certain forms of genius." And like Galton, Dr. Duckworth has a "particular interest in those who were born into the "right families."

"It reminds me of a study done of taxi drivers in 1997," Duckworth told ASCD in a very revealing interview. "When it's raining, everybody wants a taxi, and taxi drivers pick up a lot of fares. So if you're a taxi driver, the rational thing to do is to work more hours on a rainy day than on a sunny day because you're always busy so you're making more money per hour. But it turns out that on rainy days, taxi drivers work the fewest hours. They seem to have some figure in their head—"OK, every day I need to make $1,000"—and after they reach that goal, they go home. And on a rainy day, they get to that figure really quickly.

In other words, Duckworth is criticizing anyone born into, or raised in, a culture less financially aspirational then her own high-wealth background. Notice, the cab drivers she is criticizing are not failing to work, they are failing to accumulate excess wealth, and to Duckworth this decision to, say, return home to their families sooner, is a sign of unforgivable personal failure. Duckworth's "rational" is only "rational" to her and her kind. It isn't rational to me. It isn't - and this is a long time slander against everyone from the Irish to Africans - natural to many non-Protestants.

Whatever she claims, if you read her statement, you cannot conceivably believe she is doing anything but blaming the individuals. And, if you read her statement - this section ends with, "Your goal is, "How can I get the most out of my day?" Then you're like the taxi driver who drives all day whether it's rainy or not." - you cannot find a way to believe anything but that her work ranks cultures and is based in that classic of white protestant culture, "The Protestant Work Ethic."
"[O]ne’s duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture," Max Weber wrote in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, "and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it. It is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers. Or only of his material possessions (as capital)."
That work ethic and the "White" Supremacy it suggests - "white" in the 1900 sense of white excluding the Irish, Italians, and others - is not rational, not universal, and perhaps, not even healthy, as researchers have found a deep psychological hurt which it can engender.

Duckworth is hardly the only person in the business of blaming poor children, African-American children, and Latino children for their position in society, but she is the one making most clear the ugly foundation for this blame.

As we note that relatively few New York City taxi drivers were white, middle class, American-born in 1997 (or today) we see Duckworth's eugenics at work. OK, she wants us to "fix" the undesirables through "re-education," but that's just a small step away from Galton's ultimate solution if that "fix" doesn't take.

So as I read Duckworth's view of New York City's multi-ethnic cabbies, I thought back to a flight from Dublin to Chicago years ago. I was sitting next to a physician, born in Nigeria, educated in London, working in Dublin. He told me that he really hated American conferences, such as the one he was on his way to, "they always harass me because I make less than they do," he said. Then he told me that he worked 37 hours a week, never worried about billing, never asked a patient about insurance, and had days to play soccer with his kids. "I earn €90,000 a year," he added. "I live in a great house. We have two nice cars. Why would I need anything more?" Yes, this was a classic - an African-Irish from lazy, non-grit cultures. A failure by every Duckworth measure just as much as he would have been a 'drag on civilisation' to Galton.

To Duckworth, as to Galton, the problem with the poor is the poor. In a presentation typical of her pitch
Duckworth PowerPoint
no mention of how wealthy daddy is
or of race or economics
, she never once mentions society, or cultural issues, or economic issues. The problem, if kids fail, is that her "talent multiplied by effort" equation indicates that the child is either stupid or lazy or both. She doesn't use the words, but her "grit tests" make it clear that those failing to succeed in our schools and our society are "lazy and shiftless," and fail to meet the decorum standards of the Leave it to Beaver all white, all middle class, all compliant, fantasy school. "I
interrupted other students while they were talking," is one negative on Duckworth's "Grit Test" for students. "My mind wandered when I should have been listening," is another. "I talked back to my teacher or parent when I was upset," a third.

The 'blame the poor' narrative runs deep in America, in Protestant nations informed by the New England belief that wealth equaled moral right. Of course poverty can also be linked, very powerfully, to those groups Galton found unable to measure up to his expectations. It's the issue Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed in the March 21, 2014 Atlantic. Coates begins by quoting Jonathan Chait over the question of Coates conflating Paul Ryan's social policies towards African-Americans with Barack Obama's:
"The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success."
Coates then responds:
If only he had grit.
The Jim Crow Museum
at Ferris State University
"The "structural conditions" Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase "white supremacy." I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be "independent" of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era. 

"We certainly do not find such a period during the Roosevelt-Truman era, when this country erected a racist social safety, leaving the NAACP to quip that the New Deal was "like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." Nor do we find it during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when African-Americans—as a matter of federal policy—were largely excluded from the legitimate housing market. Nor during the 1980s when we began the erection of a prison-industrial complex so vast that black males now comprise 8 percent of the world's entire incarcerated population.

"And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with "wealth-building seminars" and instead offering "ghetto loans" for "mud people"; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record "fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison"; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait's theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can't actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability."
Coates describes the cultural structure that locks people into poverty, a trap set by those in power, people like Angela Duckworth. Duckworth has now provided a new round of racist ammunition, whether she is assaulting the heavily Caribbean and African taxi workforce in New York, or children of color. "They lack grit," people will now say, "they can't succeed because of their own weakness."

This is vicious. I repeat, vicious. Not just vicious, but quite clearly untrue. And the blame, the need for an explanation, lies with two key American institutions. The University of Pennsylvania which gave Duckworth her PhD., hired her as a professor, and promoted her, and The MacArthur Foundation, which called her a "genius."

Which brings me to the deep problem I have with the University of Pennsylvania, the MacArthur Foundation, the Gates Foundation-supported TED Talks, and all the other organizations from The New York Times to ASCD who have treated Dr. Duckworth like a superstar savior of children. 

There is a fundamental irresponsibility here. Either the university and the foundation never looked up Francis Galton - a massive failure of academic capability and competence - or they didn't mind his rehabilitation - a massive failure of ethics. Either the university and the foundation and others support this kind of use of eugenics research, or they haven't actually read any of Duckworth's work - and either would lead us to doubt any right they have to lead in our society. I have emailed Dr. Duckworth, her dean, and the University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman, seeking any kind of justification or explanation, but all have been silent. I haven't emailed MacArthur. I'm pretty sure I've already blown any chance I'd ever get to be a "MacArthur Fellow," but I'm not sure I want to eliminate every possibility...

But the fundamental irresponsibility is to children. Children I deeply care about. I absolutely believe that "the grit narrative" damages our children because it lets society and the powerful off the hook. "Why change anything?" they'll ask, "the kids just need grit." "Grit" is one more excuse, its one more hammer to beat children with.

"I’d never give that little boy Duckworth’s survey. It would only reinforce all the negatives in his life." Pam Moran writes in a beautiful blog post about this subject, one I desperately want you to read, "And, I don’t think he lacked self-control at all. Every seemingly impulsive action he took -  from his anger to his distractedness -  was motivated to give him space to breathe and control over a world gone awry."

For our children who have nothing need "slack" from us. They need "abundance." They need the outstretched hand that raises them up and comforts them. The last thing they need is to be told to "get themselves up." They know all about that. They do it every day and the scarcity of support is what threatens to defeat them.

So please University of Pennsylvania, please MacArthur Foundation. please TED, The New York Times, NPR, et al... please stop. Duckworth's Grit is bad research based in horrific research. You cannot condone this return to eugenics. You just cannot.
"For hundreds of years our society allowed skin color and economic success to serve as facile proxies for the content of a person's character, and for a long time I was pleased to think that in my lifetime we might be getting beyond that," Peter Gow wrote in EdWeek earlier this month. He continued, "How wrong I seem to have been; the Grit Narrative, its shadow spreading back over the land under the guise of "research," threatens to take us straight back to an era where poverty is about laziness and where failure, unless it's the "failing up" of a revered entrepreneur, carries the stain of moral bankruptcy."
- Ira Socol

24 February 2014

Why we think 1970s Open Education failed, and considering what the truth really is...

There are some of us who remember a time, both in the US and the UK, when education seemed to be in search for humanity. In this period test scores mattered less than accomplishments, students became far more involved in, and responsible for, educational decisions, responsibility was something it was assumed children and adolescents could handle, and pedagogy began to meet students where they were. It was a time when teachers and even administrators began to rebel against the American factory schools and the British Disraeli-designed colonial education system.

1975 Open Classroom

Today we are taught that this period was a chaotic failure, but the truth lies elsewhere, and the reason we are told of this "failure" can be keenly instructive.

Little Rock, Arkansas in school integration crisis of 1957 - before
Robert Kennedy touring
eastern Kentucky, 1968
We tend now, after years of political conservatism, to look back at the 1960s and 1970s as a time of dangerous and ineffective turmoil, of assassinations, riots, disruptions, inflation, and the decline of traditional values. Thus we rarely understand the accomplishments. But between 1960 and 1976 a vast number of Americans, including Women, African-Americans, and even some Latinos and Gays,were liberated from those traditional values, with earthshaking changes made in legal racial segregation, legal limitations of women's educational opportunities, job opportunities, and pay, legal exploitation of farm workers, legal arrests for consensual sexual activity between adults. The now much maligned War on Poverty lifted tens of millions of Americans - mostly white Americans to be clear - from "developing world" levels of poverty, by redistributing income from the Northeast and West Coast to states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. When Republicans now say that the American poor have a lot more than the poor elsewhere, that is only true because of The Great Society program, its welfare structures, Medicaid, Medicare, and rural electrification.
"Still, a broad range of researchers interviewed by The New York Times stressed the improvement in the lives of low-income Americans since Mr. Johnson started his crusade. Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, malnutrition has all but disappeared. After all, when Mr. Johnson announced his campaign, parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing." (Lowrey, The New York Times, 2014)
And in those years Americans made "old age" much less miserable by increasing income and supporting health care, ended the nation's first ongoing "peacetime" military draft, began enforcing actual rights in the criminal justice system, began allowing the wide use of contraceptives, put men on the moon, invented and built the internet, began cleaning up an environment toxified by years of industrial abuse, began making cars safer, more efficient, and less polluting, forced a corrupt US President to resign, limited the ability of the government to legally spy on citizens without warrants obtained openly, and radically expanded educational opportunity from pre-school through graduate schools.

Poverty rate with/without "Great Society" programs
Graphic, Washington Post (2014)
Maybe not a "golden age," but few periods have seen anywhere near that level of national accomplishment.

Among those accomplishments was broad progress against a systematized and legalized "achievement gap." Whereas in 1960 US classrooms, despite increasing numbers of Dewey-influenced classroom designs with large windows, movable furniture, and doors to the outside, were generally a one-size-fits-all environment of desks in rows, the teacher standing at the front with her or his blackboard, and mind-numbingly boring readers and textbooks turned to the exact same page by every student, by the late 1970s many, many students were experiencing something quite different - from Cuisinaire Rods for math, to Bank Street Readers, from desks grouped into table-like settings to new choice in secondary pathways, from New Math and Whole Language reading to a dramatic widening of the literary canon, from massive changes in dress codes and disciplinary codes to a few radical experiments in grading.

before... the Leave it to Beaver classroom

Classroom Discipline 1950s - as relevance and connection are beginning to be considered

These changes combined with racial integration and the massive expansion of very low-cost (or even effectively free) state university systems to radically alter opportunity in America.

Led by New York (State - expanding from about 35,000 students in 1959 to over 400,000 in 1975 - and City) and California, public universities expanded massively in this period, "In the year before Rockefeller became governor, New York State budgeted $44.5 million for the state university. In 1973, Rockefeller’s last year in office, SUNY state purposes budget was $464.4 million."
At the heart of all of this, however, was an inclusiveness previously unavailable in American or British classrooms, an inclusiveness born of abandoning both the "Protestant Church" classroom model (pews in rows, worshippers staring straight ahead, minister up front as the single focus, everyone in the same book, on the same page, at the same moment), and the "factory school" model (cells and bells).
"What is most striking is that there are no desks for pupils or teachers. Instead, the room is arranged as a workshop.

"Carelessly draped over the seat, arm, and back of a big old easy chair are three children, each reading to himself. Several other children nearby sprawl comfortably on a covered mattress on the floor, rehearsing a song they have written and copied into a song folio.

"One grouping of tables is a science area with . . . magnets, mirrors, a prism, magnifying glasses, a microscope. . . . Several other tables placed together and surrounded by chairs hold a great variety of math materials such as “geo blocks,” combination locks, and Cuisenaire rods, rulers, and graph paper. . . . The teacher sits down at a small round table for a few minutes with two boys, and they work together on vocabulary with word cards. . . . Children move in and out of the classroom constantly." - The New York Times Magazine 1971, as quoted by Larry Cuban
If this sounds a great deal like what progressive school systems are attempting to create today, well then you can understand the ongoing appeal of "human education" to those constantly and continually seeking to undo the industrial education model, from John Dewey to Marie Montessori to John Holtto Neil Postman to Alfie Kohn. Actually, this battle goes back much further, to the initial struggle between those who believed in William A. Alcott's humanistic schools of the 1830s and 1840s, and those who believed in the Prussian Model of factory preparation and compliance training imported by Horace Mann in the 1840s and Henry Barnard in the 1850s.
"Mann grew up in Massachusetts during the early part of the 19th century, where religious tension between Protestants and Catholics dominated public life. Parochial schools, in his view, only reinforced these divisions. The Prussian model, on the other hand, was designed to build a common sense of national identity.

"Applied back home, Mann thought, large groups of students learning together would help to blur the divisions among religious groups and establish a more unified and egalitarian society. And as that model became the American blueprint, Mann's vision ultimately became the foundation for our national system of schooling.

"Mann's vision also made sense for the industrial age in which he lived. The factory line was simply the most efficient way to scale production in general, and the analog factory-model classroom was the most sensible way to rapidly scale a system of schools. Factories weren't designed to support personalization. Neither were schools." - Joel Rose, The Atlantic, 2012
The alternative vision, beginning with Alcott, had children moving about, wondering, investigating, and established multiage environments with children learning from each other. Even the technologies Alcott pushed into American schools - the individual student slate and the big "Black-Board" - were designed to elicit student independence and collaboration. The slate allowed children to lower the cost of failure by not making writing the permanent thing it was with ink. The Black-Board allowed students to gather together on a large surface to work. The individual student desk allowed children to get up and move when they needed to, without kicking each other as happened with benches, "To some children, five minutes would be long enough ; and to most, ten minutes would he the full extent of what would be useful," Alcott noted about sitting still.

So, this tension between industrial education - education as a combination of filtering the population into "useful careers" and education as a method of instilling moral rules on the poor and different - and human education, where children were expected to be children, learning, playing, exploring. And the power in this battle has shifted back and forth over the 180 years of public (state) education.

There isn't any set of age limits in the theories behind the humanistic vision, nor limitations of income class or rural/urban - though in the years since the Reagan Administration the practice is far more common among the wealthy than the poor, and far more common in elementary than secondary. At the peak of political acceptance the concepts reached from kindergarten through high school, with the idea that freedom and responsibility were built in tandem, and that maximum freedom worked most effectively for those whom "regular school" had failed: "The School without Walls was a public school that accepted many of the young people for whom there was really no place anyway, who had already suffered debasement at the hands of parents, other school officials, welfare officers, truant officers, police officers. Parkway offered immunity to truants and “misbehavers” and instead of operating like a waiting room, in which students become accustomed to confinement until the time is right to release them on the assembly line, the school most radically unleashed these young people upon the city itself, asking them to recognize it and use it as their own," writes Sasha Moniker of Philadelphia's legendarily effective Parkway Program. In New Rochelle, New York, the Program for Inquiry, Involvement, and Independent Study - a creation of local teacher Alan Shapiro, NYU professor Neil Postman, and New Rochelle High School Principal James Gaddy, could boast that, "Ninety-seven percent of a 1980s 3I graduating class attended four-year colleges and universities, compared to a regular-school continuing-education rate that was much lower despite including vocational schools and military service," and despite a very high rate of special needs and behavioral issue students. "The traditional dynamic of student as recipient of the teacher’s knowledge was replaced by the question of what kind of experience will be valuable when studying a particular subject. Fundamental to such a situation is the premise, shared by [Elizabeth Cleaners Street School] and Parkway, that teachers are students and students are teachers," writes Moniker, and this altered the essential colonial structure of school - the missionary structure of the classroom in which teachers attempted to 'save and enlighten' those 'in the dark' - and which thus allowed a vastly wider range of students to find success. Even in this over-tested century, "Vicki Gustavson, president of the Connecticut Association of Alternative Schools and Programs and a teacher at the Wallingford Alternative High School, said there was a shorter day — and no clocks or bells — at her school. “Alternative schools are really the grass-roots effort to make sure that no child is left behind because these students would have fallen through the cracks and dropped out of high school,” she said" in The New York Times, and, in the same article, "The [Great Neck, NY] Village School chooses students based largely on referrals, transcripts and their individual needs, and tends to attract an unusually large percentage of special education students — about 50 percent— even though it does not offer special education services beyond that of a traditional high school. Mr. Goldberg said that students with learning disabilities and social and emotional issues often found their problems exacerbated by the stress of a traditional high school."

Open education, the open classroom and the schools-without-walls, succeeded when teachers understood the idea, had time to learn this radically new format, and were given the time, space, and resources to build a new system. The chaotic failures were the result of the opposite - unprepared teachers dumped into vast undifferentiated rooms by incompetent administrators, and schools where the political will to truly embrace universal access to learning did not exist.
"By itself, dividing a classroom into interest areas does not constitute open education; creating large open spaces does not constitute open education; individualizing instruction does not constitute open education. . . . For the open classroom . . . is not a model or set of techniques, it is an approach to teaching and learning.

"The artifacts of the open classroom–interest areas, concrete materials, wall displays–are not ends in themselves but rather means to other ends. . . . In addition, open classrooms are organized to encourage:
• Active learning rather than passive learning;
• Learning and expression in a variety of media, rather than just pencil and paper and the spoken word;
• Self-directed, student-initiated learning more than teacher-directed learning." - The Open Classroom Reader, 1973, Charles Silberman as quoted by Larry Cuban
So, did "Open Education" fail? That's a key question - because it is that assumption which lies behind every teacher, administrator, politician, or parent who says, dismissively, "we tried that before." But to answer the question, perhaps we first must decide whether the purpose of education is social reproduction and wealth preservation, or if it is to expand opportunity for the widest range of children and for society itself.

Because in terms of expanding opportunity, no period can touch the years between 1965 and 1985, the high water mark of alternative education and humanistic educational theories. The mixture of changed pedagogies, racial integration, and aggressive anti-poverty efforts - all of which began to be dramatically undone once Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" entered its second four years - altered, fundamentally, the achievement gap which leaders like Barnard, Elwood Cubberley, and Woodrow Wilson had built into the system.

The data to prove this comes in many forms - in the success of the graduates from the period, those who built the new American information age. In the way the US adapted to a completely changed economic reality with the leadership of the much maligned "Generation X." And in the data itself, the longitudinal test results over the past 40 years.

Alumni of Chicago's Metro High School (1970-1989)

As these changes took many forms, the opportunities opened, and thus the achievement gap closed. Children and adolescents were no longer dissed the minute they entered school, and "at risk" students, whether at risk due to poverty, race, or disability, found an educational system far more willing to meet them where they were. Is it any surprise there was success?

1960 Reader
1972 Reader

OK, still doubt this? Let's look at the data:
"Actual research on the effectiveness of alternative education in the 1970s was thin at best, and much of it was comprised of self-studies and impressionistic data. A review of research on alternative schools by Daniel Duke and Irene Muzio in 1978 concluded that data in 19 evaluations and reports examined did not permit any generalizations about the effectiveness of these schools in educating students. What was clear from the research, however, was students' attitudes about themselves and about school were more positive in alternative settings than in the conventional schools they had previously attended. Other reviews of research on alternative schools in the late 1970s drew the same conclusion. Studies also indicated that positive changes in student' attitudes about schools contributed to higher attendance rates and lower incidence of dropout in alternative schools, particularly among "special needs" students, those "at risk" of failure and/or dropout." (Neumann 2003, p.186)
If I take this paragraph and break it apart based on what I understand about educational research, I see that, back in the 1970s, studies of "alternative educational environments" were often "self-studies" - like, I suppose, those done by Robert Marzano and Robert Slavin in this century - and that they failed to include enough "numbers" - of course in a time of relatively few standardized tests, outside of New York State - but that the clear indications were the same as those claimed - but not quite yet substantiated - by the KIPP Foundation which has caused the federal government to pour millions into that program.

But we can get to numbers if we must, despite schools which were notoriously hard to describe via numbers.

Despite that difficulty, however, the numbers, through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we can find evidence much more clear than that for almost anything on the Department of Education's "What Works" Clearinghouse.

The school without walls, Philadelphia's Parkway Program, by John Bremer, Michael Von Moschzisker (1971)

For those whose elementary experience began to be radically different in the mid-1960s and 1970s, the gains at the end of high school - for those traditionally "filtered out," were both remarkable and unmatched. For those at the top, nothing went down.

For those entering their high school senior year, the smallest reading achievement gap
was achieved by those entering school in the mid-1970s, the high point of open education theories.
Four years later, as Reaganism began to have influence, the gap had widened.
The same evidence is clear in mathematics, the much maligned "New Math" led to the
smallest historic racial achievement gap.
The same curve is obvious among those reaching middle school, the growth in achievement for those "at risk" was greatest with "New Math" and "Whole Language" and open classrooms, and it pushed that stubborn "achievement gap" to historically low levels.

For children entering school between 1970 and 1978 the reading achievement gap
was cut in half on the NAEP measurements by age 13, to a level not matched since.
For both African-American and white students, the 1970s were clearly the high point of achievement. Now the political narrative we hear is quite different, but that's why, here, I am using their "facts" and not just the observational data which indicates happier, more engaged, more likely to stay-in-school students.

The peak of equality of outcomes (17-year-olds in the darkest line), came for those
students most impacted by the open education movement.

Is every bit of the above debatable? Well, of course. Its especially debatable within the context of my argument. I have three things going on - racial integration, open education, and dramatic anti-poverty programs all coalescing, and augmented by a fourth, the rapid expansion of very inexpensive university opportunity, so, what was the most important factor? Was there a most important factor?

But what seems difficult to argue is what is often argued - that the educational paradigms of the 1970s proved to be a complete failure - or that open education was a failure - or that open education represented a decline in educational standards. None of the quantitative data supports that view at all. Neither does any of the observed qualitative data.

So when people say, "we tried that before," perhaps it is time to say in reply, "yes, and it worked."

- Ira Socol