15 January 2013

Kurt Eisner and Aaron Swartz and the Freedom of Information

There's a famous bit of history from 1914. It's called "the blank cheque telegram," and it was sent by the German Imperial Chancellor,  Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to the Austrian ambassador in Berlin on the sixth of July.
"Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.

"The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship. - Bethmann-Hollweg
Historians suggest this communication allowed the Austro-Hungarian Empire to begin the Great War (World War I). And this telegram did much to "establish" - in British, French, and American eyes, the "German War Guilt" which would explain the massive reparations Germany was asked to pay in order to have peace.

This telegram was in public hands in 1919 because of an obscure political leader, Kurt Eisner, briefly, in 1918-1919, Minister-President of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Minister-President Eisner believed in many freedoms, including the freedom of information and the call by the American President Woodrow Wilson that, "there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." And believing thusly, he dumped the entirety of files of the Bavarian Foreign Office into public view.

Though Bavaria was part of the German Empire, and would be part of the German Republic, it functioned in many ways as the separate kingdom it had been before 1870. It had its own army, its own post office, and though it did not act separately from Germany, its own foreign office. All of Germany's diplomatic correspondence had thus been copied to Bavaria, and thus this Berlin telegram was there...

Eisner is kind of a hero of mine. He believed in democracy deeply, including democracy of the arts and education (he thought new and more diverse playwrites, composers, artists, and authors deserved more exposure), and he believed in a world of open communication.

In the end he was shot, murdered in the street. Diplomacy went back into secrecy.

Ah well.

Here we are in the "now," in the period of Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz. Of pay walls and locked down internet sites and government prosecutions and the classic midwestern mother bankrupted by the RIAA.

Eisner may have gotten off easy.

In this week after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, about to be tried for freeing publicly-funded research from behind pay walls maintained by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we all need to wonder where we stand, and perhaps we need to take action.
'"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," [Leo Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] wrote. "I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took."
"Rief added that he will share the report publicly once it has been completed."
Aaron Swartz
Swartz was facing, "a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines." Which is far more than many killers get, and incredibly severe considering no one from Wall Street in 2008 even was put on trial. Yup. 
Tweet from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web:
Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.
Swartz may not be the "inventor of the internet" that CNN called him, "but he was a factor in fashioning some of the Web's upper floors. With his contributions to RSS coding and the Web application framework, Swartz made some of today's more expansive Internet possible. But what Swartz also helped create was a philosophy of the Internet, one that remains the subject of great controversy almost 20 years into its life: the libertarian idea that information wants to be free."

Bradley Manning
Meanwhile, Bradley Manning remains under prison conditions close to torture for, like Kurt Eisner, following Woodrow Wilson's advice.  Because in this country it is the legacy of Michael Eisner, not Kurt, which rules. The Michael Eisner legacy is simple: If you are powerful, you get to profit from the work of others for all time. If you are not, life sucks. Eisner built the Disney empire (ABC, ESPN, etc) by leveraging the copyrights on the work of the long-dead Walt Disney.

"Invent a drug that's a cure for cancer," I tell kids who wonder about copyright law, "and the government will let you own it for a dozen years. Draw a mouse and you've got protection for more than a century."

It's not a system written to encourage the development of intellectual property, and its not a law designed to serve our nation or or world. It is a law written by greedy slobs who've never invented anything, but want to live well in perpetuity off the labors of others.

In the Manning and Swartz cases the issues are particularly absurd. Bradley Manning blew the whistle on horrific military and diplomatic practices. Aaron Swartz freed intellectual content, not from the author/researchers, but from companies like Elsevier who profit simply because moronic university tenure committees prefer pay-walled journals to open sourced journals and blogs.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The United States Justice Department, United States Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama, the administration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Disney Corporation (ABC/ESPN/Miramax/et al), The RIAA, Elsevier and other journal publishers, the members of the Authors' Guild of America, and many more people and organizations who should be held accountable. This group includes the faculties of our research universities who encourage paywalled publishing which benefits only the egos of those who grant PhDs and faculty tenure.

But there are also plenty of fixes possible. Some require new laws, some require personal efforts:
  1. Limit copyright protection to 35 years - or less (sign White House petition here)
  2. Require that academic research resulting from any form of public funding be published openly and remain freely available (sign White House petition here). This does not suggest that academics cannot create books which are paid for, simply that their research findings must be available.
  3. Limit any court judgment for online copyright "theft" (downloading content) to double the retail cost of that content.
  4. Fire US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor of Aaron Swartz (sign White House petition here).
  5. If you are an academic, stop citing any article not freely available. This is not only the "right thing to do" on this issue, but it is the only way that allows most people to vet your work.
  6. If you are an academic, post everything you've written to free sites.
  7. If you are an academic, require open publishing for both hiring and tenure.
  8. Refuse to purchase books written by members of the Authors' Guild - singled out for the viciousness of their attacks on even disability access.
  9. Consider whether you really want to support musicians whose work is protected by the RIAA.
  10. Extend full legal protection to military - and other government - whistle blowers.
This is important. Information wants to be free. And it is up to us to make that so.

- Ira Socol

10 January 2013

Who will bring the fight for children to the here and now?

Perhaps I was born to be a revolutionary. Perhaps.

At least I know I was born to be uncomfortable with the world as it is, and that is where revolutions begin - discomfort, dissatisfaction, perhaps distrust.

It is just past Christmas and the Solstice, Hanukkah and the New Year. It is that moment when we are at the darkest hour that the days begin to lengthen and hope begins to spring forth again. This is why, though Jesus was pretty assuredly born in July, and Hanukkah commemorates religious lunatics who would make the Taliban look reasonable, and the New Year might find itself at any point of our orbital ellipse, we bring our candles to this northern hemisphere moment of darkness and celebrate re-birth and re-commitment.

And so, in January 2013 I look at the world many of us live in, that world of public education. Those places where we say to every child, "come on in, we'll do our best for you." And as I look I wonder what it is that we must do next.

Revolutions are dangerous things. They can surely run way off the rails... see the French Reign of Terror, or the Soviet Union under Stalin, or even, in some ways, Cuba. But revolutions remain necessary, in those just mentioned cases, France's Ancien Régime, the Russian Empire, or the Cuba of dictator Batista that many (including the parents of Florida Senator Marco Rubio) fled, were all nightmarish places of hunger and poverty and vicious assaults on the most basic human rights. It's not like following the status quo in any of those places would have represented a more acceptable outcome.
Even Velvet Revolutions have
their cost. Prague Spring, 1968

So revolutions are dangerous, but revolutions are essential. "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion," Thomas Jefferson said. (later noting, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.")

And revolutions can be "velvet," they need not be violent and highly destructive... though destruction of accepted practice is what separates a true revolution from a rebellion/civil war like the "American Revolution." (The American Revolution simply separated 13 British North American colonies from the nation of Great Britain, in almost every case, government forms, practices (such as voting), economic life, and citizen rights carried over intact.) Velvet or not, revolutions have very high costs, and require participants to take very high risks, which is why they are rare things.

Do we need an educational revolution? I surely believe so, whether it is led by a heroic leader in place like Alexander Dubcek or by a charismatic outsider like Nelson Mandela or Mohandas Ghandi. We can do without the Lenin-types I'd imagine, but I am not sure that another 20 years of children can afford to live with the system we've inherited from Henry Barnard, the Carnegie Corporation, and Benjamin Disraeli, any more than another generation of Chinese could have survived under the abusive chaos and poverty of Chang Kai-shek's Republic of China in 1949.

We need child-centered schools which allow children real choices so that they can learn to make choices. We need schools which embrace holistic, human assessment of where children are and where they need to go. We need schools which allow children and adolescents to be children and adolescents, and universities which embrace exploration and not regurgitation. We need schools which celebrate challenge instead of conformity. We need schools devoted to every child's needs rather than being devoted to systems and adult needs.

And to get there we must take risks, we must challenge what we can, we must subvert when necessary. More than anything, we need passionate commitment to change.

Passionate commitment to jumping off of our comfort zones, whatever those comfort zones are, and however far that jump can carry you as a differing human. Your jump may not be like mine. Mine may not be like someone else's. We jump differently at 23 than we do at 35 than we do at 50 than we do at 70, but we can all still intellectually leap. And so we must.

Passion commitment also means accepting risk, and challenge, and doubt. That is, after all, what we ask of our students every day, and that must be what we ask of ourselves.

So, wherever you are now, this new year is a great moment to leap. And with that in mind, I leave you with the music of revolutionary passion...

- Ira Socol

Do you hear the people sing?  
Singing a song of angry men?  
It is the music of a people  
Who will not be slaves again!  
When the beating of your heart 
Echoes the beating of the drums  
There is a life about to start  
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?  
Who will be strong and stand with me? 
Somewhere beyond the barricade  
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight  
That will give you the right to be free!!

Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people 
Who will not be slaves again!  
When the beating of your heart 
Echoes the beating of the drums  
There is a life about to start  
When tomorrow comes! 
Will you give all you can give  
So that our banner may advance 
Some will fall and some will live  
Will you stand up and take your chance?  
The blood of the martyrs  
Will water the meadows of France!

Do you hear the people sing?  
Singing a song of angry men? 
It is the music of a people  
Who will not be slaves again! 
When the beating of your heart 
Echoes the beating of the drums  
There is a life about to start  
When tomorrow comes


I sat within the valley green, I sat me with my true love
My sad heart strove the two between, the old love and the new love
The old for her, the new that made me think on Ireland dearly
While soft the wind blew down the glen and shook the golden barley

'Twas hard the woeful words to frame to break the ties that bound us
But harder still to bear the shame of foreign chains around us
And so I said, "The mountain glen I'll seek at morning early
And join the bold united men, while soft winds shake the barley"

While sad I kissed away her tears, my fond arms round her flinging
The foeman's shot burst on our ears from out the wildwood ringing
A bullet pierced my true love's side in life's young spring so early
And on my breast in blood she died while soft winds shook the barley

But blood for blood without remorse I've taken at Oulart Hollow
And laid my true love's clay cold corpse where I full soon may follow
As round her grave I wander drear, noon, night and morning early
With breaking heart when e'er I hear the wind that shakes the barley

Stand up, damned of the Earth
Stand up, prisoners of starvation
Reason thunders in its volcano
This is the eruption of the end.
Of the past let us make a clean slate
Enslaved masses, stand up, stand up.
The world is about to change its foundation
We are nothing, let us be all.
This is the final struggle,

Let us group together, and tomorrow 
The Internationale
Will be the human race.

My name is John Riley
Ill have your ear only a while
I left my dear home in Ireland
It was death, starvation or exile
And when I got to America
It was my duty to go
Enter the Army and slog across Texas
To join in the war against Mexico
It was there in the pueblos and hillsides
That I saw the mistake I had made
Part of a conquering army
With the morals of a bayonet blade
So in the midst of these poor, dying Catholics
Screaming children, the burning stench of it all
Myself and two hundred Irishmen
Decided to rise to the call
From Dublin City to San Diego
We witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion
And we fought on the Mexican side
We marched neath the green flag of Saint Patrick
Emblazoned with Erin Go Bragh
Bright with the harp and the shamrock
And Libertad pala Republica
Just fifty years after Wolftone
Five thousand miles away
The Yanks called us a Legion of Strangers
And they can talk as they may
From Dublin City to San Diego
We witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion
And we fought on the Mexican side
We fought them in Matamoros
While their volunteers were raping the nuns
In Monterey and Cerro Gordo
We fought on as Irelands sons
We were the red-headed fighters for freedom
Amidst these brown-skinned women and men
Side by side we fought against tyranny
And I daresay wed do it again
From Dublin City to San Diego
We witnessed freedom denied
So we formed the Saint Patrick Battalion
And we fought on the Mexican side
We fought them in five major battles
Churobusco was the last
Overwhelmed by the cannons from Boston
We fell after each mortar blast
Most of us died on that hillside
In the service of the Mexican state
So far from our occupied homeland
We were heroes and victims of fate

08 January 2013

Must IRBs Crack Down on Educational Researchers?

Where is the look at “side effects” so essential to the “medical model?”
“There really is no “science” in educational research, nor should there be. To do scientific studies we need to be able to actually control the variables – and we can’t in education. There are just too many of them. Also, to do stats we need numbers – volume. There are few studies where N is large enough to warrant statistical analysis, but they do them anyways and the results get used as though they have some validity.

“Academia and formal education have subscribed to the notion that anything “scientific” is better than anything that isn’t, so we bend and stretch the notion of the scientific process to the point that it becomes meaningless. Adding the word “Science” to something doesn’t make it so. Very few things are actually sciences. Social Science is NOT a science. Nor is computer science (or math), for that matter.

“So long as we keep pretending that we are doing ‘science’ in Ed Research, we will not make any real progress.” - Katrin Becker
If educational research is a “science,” what does that mean? What, specifically, does it mean for those who conduct educational research? And if educational research is science, must it not carry the same obligations which bedeviled, say, Einstein and Oppenheimer?

What are the rules? What are the ethics? What are those obligations?
IRB training always refers to the lack of informed
consent in the infamous Tuskegee Experiment

For now, what does “informed consent” look like in educational research? What do ethics suggest about the possible “side effects” of research on children?

What should, for example, a university IRB (Institutional Review Board, the way universities approve research projects and oversee ethical treatment of human - and other - research subjects) demand from a faculty member or student researcher in terms of information and ethical expectations before that researcher can participate in studies which have the potential to harm young people? And what kinds of research must be evaluated for that potential harm?

The lack of “package inserts” and nationally advertised side effect warnings haunts the field of educational research and, along with the inability to create “double-blind” trials, makes a joke of that field’s pretenses towards the “gold standard” “medical model” of research imagined by 2002’s troublesome guide, Scientific Research in Education.

In the United States, the faux “medical model” of research in education has been the ‘law of the land’ since 2001. According to the US Department of Education, through both the No Child Left Behind legislation and the “What Works Clearinghouse,” educational research is defined by:
“Randomized, controlled, experimental studies, using the medical model of research.
“Not matched comparisons.
“Not quasi-experimental designs.
“Must establish causality, ruling out plausible explanations.
“Small, focused “interventions.”
“Limited teacher professional development components.
“School patterns are not changed.
“Students are the unit of assignment, not classrooms or schools.
“No contextualization.” -
Ellen B. Mandinach and Naomi Hupert (powerpoint download) EDC Center for Children and Technology edc.org/CCT 
But this is one of those conundrums. The “Medical Model” being defined by one impossibility in education, that double-blind trial, and one thing educational researchers traditionally refuse to acknowledge, the side effect.

If indeed that “double-blind” trial - where neither subject nor experimenter knows who is receiving an intervention - is even possible in medicine. To quote Michael Barbour (responding to a Newsweek article):
“This article is a crock – as it continues the myth of the double-blind, quasi-experimental model as the gold standard. Unfortunately educational research has often been driven by what will be funded or, in the case of unfunded research, what is easy to accomplish. In both instances this has resulted in poor research – and as long as the method of medical research is used as the measure of what we consider good or what we consider as working (as evidenced by the “What Works Clearinghouse” – another laughable initiative), educational research will get no better.

“What folks won’t tell you is that the double-blind quasi-experiment model isn’t blind. Real medications have side effects, sugar pills don’t. Real medications often have scents or textures that placebos don’t, to the point that in most instances those administering the treatments know whether a patient is getting the medication or the placebo.

“Let’s also not forget that most medications work with the body and in randomized instances, most differences in bodies will be a wash. This is not the case with educational research, as while a randomly selected group of students has the same chance of having a higher percentage of free or reduced lunch students in both the treatment and the control groups, it doesn’t guarantee it. But any noticeable difference in the percentage of this population in your two groups should yield widely differing results, regardless of the instructional intervention.

“This is why many folks have begun to argue that design-based research (also called developmental research) is the direction we should be heading. The problem is that no one will fund a study that is designed to address local situations, and not designed to be generalizable.”

That other issue? The warnings? Those “package inserts”? “All ideas are dangerous,” said my friend and collaborator Dr. Greg Thompson on Twitter the other night as we discussed this, but maybe certain ideas and experiments present greater immediate risks than do others. If scientists genetically modify animals or plants, can they control the spread of that invented mutation before they understand the risks fully? If a pill will put the user to sleep don’t we generally advise that, “this formula may cause drowsiness, if affected do not operate heavy machinery or drive a vehicle"?

In a first-year doctoral program course Dr. Robert Floden of Michigan State University presented us with a study he seemed to think was really good. It was a study by Dr. Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University and his collaborators of their Success for All reading program, one of those “gold standard,” “medical model” programs endorsed by the US Department of Education. Floden was upset when we challenged the report’s validity, but challenge it many of us did. One woman wondered if the effects seen were not a result of providing food to students throughout the day, or of increased time devoted to reading (effects not ruled out in the study). Others, including me, wondered about long-term interest in reading after being trained to read via chanting. Many of us wondered about the “pharma model” of research being conducted by those with a financial stake in the product’s success (Stockton, California spent between $4.6 million and $6 million to implement Success for All for one year). Still others wondered about psychological impacts, and I perhaps heightened tension in the room by suggesting that a program like this might, in a classroom of thirty kids, “improve reading scores for eight and cause two to kill themselves.” Inelegant, but a valid question even though my professor dismissed it. (Success for All, and its research base, has been challenged by others)

This week Macgregor Campbell, a New Scientist researcher and writer, brought this issue back to the fore for me, as I received a link to his article on TIMSS testing, West vs Asia education rankings are misleading, on the same day I received an email from a former professor and globetrotting TIMSS researcher.

If, as Campbell writes, those nations focusing on TIMSS results created demonstrably worse outcomes for children, what potential damage are TIMSS researchers doing to the children I work with in the United States and Ireland - two nations with political leaders deeply concerned about TIMSS results - or to hundreds of millions of children around the world?
“In 2007, Keith Baker of the US Department of Education made a rough comparison of long-term correlations between the 1964 mathematics scores and several measures of national success decades later.

“Baker found negative relationships between mathematics rankings and numerous measures of prosperity and well-being: 2002 per-capita wealth, economic growth from 1992 to 2002 and the UN's Quality of Life Index. Countries scoring well on the tests were also less democratic. Baker concluded that league tables of international success are "worthless" (
Phi Delta Kappan, vol 89, p 101).”
Lower prosperity, lower measures of well-being, less economic growth potential, less likely to live as citizens of a democracy. I considered this alongside the warnings I often laugh at in televised pharmaceutical advertisements. Will a focus on the skills necessary for TIMSS success cause democracy to fail? Most likely not. Nor have many meds with dangerous side effects hurt me when I have taken them. But other side effects may be far more common.

Anti-Depressive television advertisement. Which "sexual side effect" will help cure depression?

“The 2012 TIMSS report immediately identifies East Asian countries among the top performers in TIMSS 2011. Also high percentages of East Asian students reach TIMSS international benchmarks. Benchmarks are classified by score as low, intermediate, high, and advanced. These are arbitrary and do not have any basis in research. They are simply a way to differentiate and classify test ranges. The media focus on findings such as these, and leaves the impression that comparisons across countries are valid, and helpful. They are not,” writes Dr. Jack Hassard of Georgia State University. If these measures lack validity, and they are used to help set local and national educational policies, are they potentially dangerous?

If an Irish 5th grader finds her school day more devoted to mathematics computation because her nation fared poorly on a TIMSS test, and has less time for questions of passionate interest - including non-computational maths - might there be damage? And if there is damage, who is responsible? Who has sought the “informed consent” of this student? Who will be held accountable if she abandons an interest in conceptual mathematics and thus limits her future earning potential?

Asthma drug possible side effects. What warnings might appear with educational policy interventions?

This is not an idle, hypothetical question. Research on TIMSS often quoted by Yong Zhao suggests that “there is a negative correlation between TIMSS scores and how much children enjoy mathematics and how confident they are in their abilities.” Thus, if Ireland’s education minister Ruari Quinn encourages his teachers to push to raise TIMSS scores, that result may be likely to occur.

A Brookings Institution report on PISA test results notes that soon after that 2006 international comparative reading test’s results were reported the World Bank began pressing for nations to alter their educational programs. “Soon after, a World Bank study pressed harder on the theme of causality, “Poland’s reading score was below the OECD average in 2000, at the OECD average in 2003, and above the OECD average in 2006, ranking 9th among all countries in the world…. With regard to the factors responsible for the improvement, the delayed tracking into vocational streams appears to be the most critical factor.”

But the causality suggested by the World Bank is simply not a truth. The Brookings report goes on to note that many of the nations involved in the PISA test showed similar gains among similar populations, though none of the World Bank’s causal interventions (which involved tracking) were involved in those other cases. In fact, other research indicated the issues created for many students by Poland’s particular approach to tracking. Now, the World Bank is a political organization, not an academic institution nor a research organization, but what of the academics who work for this organization? These researchers often are affiliated with major American and British universities, from Harvard “on down.” What, exactly, did they disclose about their research?

The issues for educational researchers stretch far deeper. Those involved in the development of America’s No Child Left Behind, and those involved in the work of organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation which support government testing schemes, should have their own ethical concerns. Testing, specifically standardized, high-stakes testing, has serious and significant side effects which threaten the health and safety of children, and which routinely go undisclosed by the educational faculties of US universities.

“Much of the debate surrounding standardized testing is focused on the effects the testing atmosphere has on teachers and students. Negative side effects are associated with teacher decision making, instruction, student learning, school climate, and teacher and student self-concept and motivation. The tests have turned into the objective of classroom instruction rather than the measure of teaching and learning. Gilman and Reynolds (1991) reported sixteen side effects associated with Indiana’s statewide test, including indirect control of local curriculum and instruction, lowering of faculty morale, cheating by administrations and teachers, unhealthy competition between schools, negative effects on school-community relations, negative psychological and physical effects on students, and loss of school time.

“Testing anxiety related to these assessments affects all populations associated with the institution of education, such as students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Research reports that elementary students experience high levels of anxiety, concern, and angst about high-stakes testing (Barksdale-Ladd and Thomas 2000; Triplett, Barksdale, and Leftwich 2003). Triplett and Barksdale (2005) investigated students’ perceptions of testing. They concluded that elementary students were anxious and angry about aspects of the testing culture, including the length of the tests, extended testing periods, and not being able to talk for long periods of time.

“Student anxiety increases when teachers are apprehensive about the exams (Triplett, Barksdale, and Leftwich 2003). When students are drilled every day about testing procedures and consequences, the fear of failure prevails.” -
Dr. Theoni Soublis Smyth, University of Tampa

My goal here is not to halt this kind of research, but to ask “educational researchers” and the review boards which monitor them, to own their responsibilities. I believe this begins with self-acknowledgement. We work in a field which involves the most vulnerable members of our human population, but we do not behave as if that is true. We constantly perform experiments on children with very, very little information given to the children, their parents, or even their teachers. We speak as if we “know,” when we usually do not. And in doing so we suggest to leaders - people like Barack Obama and Michael Gove along with thousands of local school administrators - that there are simple and definitive answers - that, for example, we might build a national database called “what works.”

Children are hurt daily by the actions of educational researchers. A child made miserable in classes with Success for All - perhaps a reasonably “achieving” student
for whom SFA has never been shown to have any benefit (pdf download) - may find reading a ‘waste of his time,’ or may end up feeling that way about school in general, and that is a child harmed. A student made miserable by a testing regime, or who has their self-image redefined by a test, is harmed. A student whose teachers and administrators are panicked by potential test results is harmed. These are real dangers. Real threats to real kids, and at the very least, “we,” those of us in this field, must be much better at disclosing these facts to everyone impacted by “our” work.

Alain Resnais, 1959, Hiroshima Mon Amour, where Einstein and Oppenheimer
carried us?

All ideas, as Dr. Thompson noted, are dangerous. And all research is dangerous as well. Albert Einstein set about discovering the forces at the root of our universe - powerful, brilliant, positive research, but research which somehow found a conclusion at Hiroshima. A real attempt to help solve the horrors of severe arthritis pain led to the Vioxx nightmare. Many American university researchers contributed to the disasters created by No Child Left Behind and Scientific Research in Education, a legacy only Diane Ravitch seems to have struggled with. My early work - back in the last century - which often suggested single “best assistive technology solutions” was flawed, and, I am sure, hurt students who had needs other than those I had considered. And so, perhaps, we all had responsibilities to warn people about the potential for harm, but none of us did.

This should not stop ideas, and it should not stop research. But it should give us all pause, and perhaps those overseeing our research should demand more significant, and more reflective pauses. These are children, and they are our responsibility.

- Ira Socol

02 January 2013

Christmas, Zombies, the Common Core, Neoliberalism, and Democratic Voice

On the F train on Christmas Eve my spousal equivalent, born and bred in the Protestant American heartland, turned to me and said, "I'm the only blond in this car." "Probably on this train," I answered.

In New York City Subway art, tourists (and odd old women) are denoted by blond hair
And I recalled how, in the decade previous to this one (when the century was new) I asked - in front of a classroom full of young teachers to be - for all those students with blond hair and blue eyes to stand up.

"You know," I then told this Midwestern grouping, "it is more common today for a child to be born with AIDS than with blond hair and blue eyes." Then I paused, let them sit down, and we began to wonder about how we define "the other" and about how we define "normal."

I do not know if it is indeed, "more common today for a child to be born with AIDS than with blond hair and blue eyes," which I later indicated to the students and asked them if they might use their phones to find an answer, but, you probably get the point.

Which brings me to stories from my niece, a New York City schools teacher in an elementary school in the Borough of Queens. She told two theologic-confusion stories from her incredibly diverse student population:
At Christmas 2011 a boy from India asked why Christmas was such a big holiday. "You do all this because one god had one baby?" "Well, we only have one God," my niece replied, and there is only one child. This didn't really help solve the boy's confusion.

At Easter 2012 a boy from China tried to figure out that holiday. When my niece tried to explain the resurrection, the boy said, "So he was alive, then he was dead, then he was alive again?" "Yes," my niece replied. "Ohhh," the boy said, holding his arms out straight in front of him and waving them up and down, "Zombie Jesus."

"You can't do that anyplace else in the school," my niece told him when she stopped laughing, "people really believe this." "Grown ups too?" he asked. "Grown ups too," my niece said. "Which grown ups?" he asked, wondering, of course, who in this American school he might be able to trust.
"Our" Anglo-American-Christian "core beliefs" are, quite often, a baffling mythology for others. As are "our" (essentially) religious commitment to market capitalism, "our" belief in linear - point A to point B - storytelling, and "our" (American) ignorance of history or "our" (English) refusal to acknowledge history. These accepted "norms," these structures of thought, which lie at the heart of the American "common core" and the English "e-bacc" of Michael Gove, and the "educational reform" efforts in the US, Canada, England, and Australia, are the very things which put our "Nation[s] at Risk." They are not a solution, they are the problem, and always have been, going back to the era in which public (or, in England, "state") education was created.
"America has long been known–despite our problems–as the country of freedom, innovation, and wealth.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is our democratic and free public education system.  Prior to NCLB in 2002 and Race to the Top eight years later, standardization was limited to SAT and ACT tests, NAEP and PISA tests, and graduation exams for Advanced Placement courses.  We valued music, art, drama, languages and the humanities just as much as valued science, math, and English (for the most part).  We believed in the well-rounded education.

Now, the Common Core State Standards has one goal: to create common people.  The accompanying standardized tests have one purpose: to create standardized people.  Why?  Because the movers and the shakers have a vested interest in it.  It’s about money and it’s about making sure all that money stays in one place." - Kris A. Nielsen 2012
Do we want "common people"? or is this effort by those with money and power, from ALEC to Bill Gates to Eli Broad to Goldman-Sachs, "how democracy ends" as the teacher quoted just above says?

Venn Diagram by Kris A. Nielsen
Democracy, like invention, requires uncommonalities, requires difference. Invention comes from (a) discomfort, combined with (b) thesis (an idea of how to solve the discomfort) plus (c) antithesis (a challenge to the thesis based in differing views), which leads to (d) synthesis - that new idea. Democracy, of course, in order to be democracy, requires constant invention, based in constant discomfort with how things are, combined with radically differing competing world views. Democracy is essential for invention, because it allows challenge to ideas. Invention is essential to democracy, because it allows creation of new answers. And our educational reform concepts, our Common Cores and E-baccs, allow neither to exist. And those who embrace these "answers" without apology are opposing all that is good about our nations and our economies.

My Venn Diagram of forces shaping US public education in 1850, the "Prussian Model"
imported by Henry Barnard was originally developed to ensure consistent training in
obedience for future imperial troops, and to discover potential fully-compliant low level officers.
The British Empire version looks slightly different in 1860: "Democracy Doubters"
includes those preserving unequal voting and the House of Lords, and "wealth schools"
represents the English "public school" (private) system.
What these diagrams share is the commitment to compliance and a matched citizenry which is easy to sell to and easy to derive labor from. What the resulting schools share is a failure to allow human accomplishment. It is important to note that even the very "best" American institutions of education could not hold Sergei Brinn or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg - people of ambition with all the gifts of American wealth. Even the most "radical" of American colleges could not hold Steve Jobs. But this is not new, Alexander Hamilton could not gain admission to The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and dropped out of Kings College (now Columbia University). Scott Fitzgerald could not handle more than half a day of primary school and dropped out of Princeton. Frank Lloyd Wright never graduated from either high school or university. The education systems we have inherited from that mid-19th Century have consistently, and intentionally, restricted who is allowed to succeed. We can easily build long lists of dropouts who have found great success - often because family wealth or connections allowed them alternative paths - but the biggest tragedy are the millions and millions dumped by these systems who found nothing but despair, mixed with the even greater number of millions who "succeeded" in these systems only to find the meaningless of mediocrity and powerlessness.

If American education has been successful at all, as Yong Zhaoargues, it is because teachers and building and local administrators have subverted the system, not because they have followed or embraced it.
"Dr. Zhao grew up in China and immigrated to the US in the 1990’s. From his perspective he sees that China seems to want an education that America seems eager to throw away. This is one that respects individual talents, supports divergent thinking, tolerates deviation, and encourages creativity. At the same time, the US government is pushing for the kind of education that China is moving away from. This is one that features standardization of curricula and an emphasis on preparing students for standardized tests. He wonders why Americans who hold individual rights in high regard would let the government dictate what children should learn, when they should learn it, and how they are evaluated."

Yong Zhao at ISTE 2012

It is the rule-shattering schools, from Summerhill in England to the 3Is and Parkway School of the 1970s, to low-compliance schools like SLA and Monticello High School today which have always produced the most interesting, most culturally competent, most innovative students. Those schools have/had a shared cultural commitment to freedom and democracy, to difference and synthesis. They are focused on educating all kinds of students with communal support, not focused on the neoliberal ideal of creating an all-the-same population based solely on individual resources.
"Neoliberalism is an ideology and set of policies that privilege market strategies over public institutions to redress social issues (Kumashiro, 2008). Such policies champion privatizing formerly public services, deregulating trade, and increasing efficiency while simultaneously reducing wages, deunionizing, and slashing public services (Martinez & Garcia, 2000; Tabb, 2001). Neoliberalism defends the rights of the individual and uses the ideology of individual choice to promote the idea of a meritocracy “that presumes an even playing field” (Kumashiro, p. 37). Unfortunately, within education, these policies work to challenge the legitimacy of public schooling by promoting vouchers, charters, and other quasi-private schools while privatizing services that were once the domain of public institutions, such as curriculum development and testing (Lipman, 2005). By focusing on the rights and responsibilities of individuals, neoliberal policies have resulted in increasing accountability systems that place blame and punishment on individual students and teachers rather than on the inequitable school systems that have inadequately served them. Rather than improving quality of education, this vicious circle creates school climates characterized by compliance, conformity, and fear." Bree Picower 2011
"Compliance, conformity, and fear," the toxic mix which is product of the "common core," of the directives of Michael Gove, of "educational reformers" from Wall Street to Sydney. This is "the place" where kids who sit still in chairs for three hour long exams are the norm. Where everyone finds the the same plot and the same theme in the same stories, even if the plot is irrelevant. Where every kid always raises their hand before speaking and happily stares straight at the eyes of every authority figure. Where every child dreams of growing up to be a blond, blue-eyed, straight, protestant, just like the dolls we sell them.

2006 film, "The Water is Wide" from Pat Conroy's first (originally self-published) book.

Somewhere out there we need more teachers, more administrators, more parents, and more citizens who, despite their own educations in compliance, will challenge this. Who will say that "we." like all successful human societies, need differences, need diversity of views, need creativity, need play, need imagination, need refusals to conform.

Somewhere out there we need more heroes. Educators, parents, citizens, humans, who will take the risks needed to create a better place for kids, rather than just 'going along' that path of least resistance.

Here, today, in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we celebrate, yes, just one child of one god, is a good time to recall that building an earthly heaven requires risk and sacrifice, and not risk aversion and compliance.

- Ira Socol