31 December 2009

Solving the Last Problem: Schools and the TSA

Soon, if you are flying in America, you will be walking through the security arch naked while your underwear is scanned alongside your shoes.

This may have some social benefits. Americans will be forced to be less uptight about "sexual imagery" in advertising, in movies, on TV, if we get to see it all simply by purchasing a round trip ticket to Indianapolis. We might also see more dating resulting from casual travel encounters. And certain politicians might choose to fully fund Amtrak as an airline alternative after a lifetime of opposition.

But surely, it will not make anyone any safer.

Nor will shutting off airliner seatback GPS maps, taking blankets away from sleeping babies, or limiting restroom use.

Just as the x-raying of a couple of billion shoes since the "shoe bomber" got caught has not made anyone safer.

But that is not simply to say that the Obama Administration often seems no smarter than the Bush II Regime. It is also to note that the bizarre decision-making which often wrecks our schools is something which runs deep in our society.
"Call them Jihad Jockeys. These are the explosives-packed underpants worn by Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab when he tried to bring down a flight over Detroit - and managed only to set his crotch on fire. The frighty whities came with a special pouch sewn by al Qaeda's finest seamstresses. In it was a condom packed with 80 grams of PETN, a compound that's a key ingredient in the plastic explosive Semtex. The suicide bomber tried to set it off by using a hypodermic needle to inject it with a powerful acid, while trying to hide his actions by putting a blanket on his lap. The photos of the undies, obtained by ABC News, show they were only singed in Abdulmutallab's failed efforts to send the Airbus 380 careering to the ground. It was not immediately clear what the underpants were made of." - New York Post
We operate reactively in our "planning" for almost all things. At our airports we are working really hard to stop the 9/11 Hijackers, Richard Reid, and now Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab. We are so caught up in preventing those past actions that we are completely incapable of preventing some future attack.

We see this because nine years after 9/11 we haven't bothered to link our intelligence systems together in ways which might have blocked
Adbulmutallab's US Visa rights, or created a quick check of cash-paying airline passengers. Of course we haven't done this, we've been searching the shoes of grandmas and babies - millions of grandmas and babies - and that is expensive, time consuming work. Work which blocks the ability to do other work. Real work.

MSU Professor Yong Zhao on solving last generation's problems

We do the same things in schools, of course. As Yong Zhao points out, our entire school curriculum push right now is designed to help our students "catch up" with the Japanese students of 1970 who were producing excellent Datsuns while we struggled to produce Vegas. We put endless energy into preventing students from "cheating" on tests so worthless that the ability to cheat on them is actually more educationally relevant than the test answers are themselves. We adopt "zero tolerance" policies to prevent the last crisis at some other school. We use research studies completed five years ago, in an entirely different technological world, to plan for how our schools will work five years from now.

In a few hours we will be in the second decade of the 21st Century, this seems to be an excellent moment to consider that no one successfully plans for a future by being bound entirely by past experience. Whether we are making air travel safe or schools relevant, we will only do things of value if we place the future at the center of our thinking.

Because once we've pushed "the terrorists" beyond the underwear bomb, we need creative thinking to meet the next challenge. The answers will simply not be, A, B, C, D, or even, E.

Happy New Year - Ira Socol

17 December 2009

The Carnegie Unit

"Thus, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching encouraged the adoption of what came to be known as the Carnegie unit, which equates seat-time with learning. Each unit represented about 130 instructional hours. The Carnegie Foundation defined a unit as a course that met for a period each school day for about 50 to 55 minutes. The Carnegie unit continues to influence much that is crucial to teaching and learning in high schools–the length of the class period, the school day and the school year, as well as the time expended to receive a diploma." - StateUniversity.com

Does "time in seat" equal learning? Few have ever been sure, and I need to say, those who spurred the development of Carnegie Units between 1885 and 1915 were not sure.

Sitting in a chair and staring straight ahead is learning. The more we do do that, the more we learn. If that seems to be the underlying theory in your school, it is neither an accident of history nor a natural development. Rather, it is the result of a deliberate set of decisions made by business and educational leaders beginning about 120 years ago.

Back at the turn of the last century The Carnegie Foundation took standardization seriously. America's education system was already an oddly configured one, funded and operated locally - usually very locally - in often tiny school districts operating according to the cultural norms of wildly disparate population groups: America never quite embracing "nation" status within (a "single people") no matter how much "America" looked like an "idea" from abroad. As vast the differences which might lie between educational aspirations in Cornwall, Newcastle, and London (in England - which remained America's cultural model), or Bonn, Konigsberg, and Berlin (in Prussia - which was perceived as the model of modernity and efficiency), they paled beside the differences separating Salt Lake, Montgomery, and Boston - much less the thousands of miniscule towns hosting one-room schoolhouses across the vast North American continent.

Schoolhouses in Lincoln County, Kansas circa 1900

So for more than half a century, since the 1840s, the US had wrestled with the problem: They wanted the Prussian model - an efficient, universal, education system which would both knit a diverse "empire" together (as in historically separate and religiously diverse "Germany") and properly prepare the lower classes for compliant citizenship and labor - but - they lacked the central control authorities of European nations.

If schools were to develop American citizens and workers and, in Jefferson's theories, discover who was deserving of publicly funded advanced training, could all decisions really be left to local school boards?

"A bill for the more general diffusion of learning... proposed to divide every county into wards of five or six miles square;... to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools, who might receive at the public expense a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects, to be completed at an University where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts." - Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:399

The first attempts to create standardization were, naturally, through education. Educational journals appeared - almost always containing at least one monthly study of Prussian methods - to disseminate "best practices." "Normal Schools" were established to train teachers in those "common norms" of instruction, behavior management, and content knowledge. Some states went further: by the late 1860s New York State already had standardized exams for secondary knowledge based in European models, though in most places curriculum remained a purely local decision.

Thus, defeating Jefferson, universities were left to find the "genius" through very imperfect methods - or through wealth and birth. Post-secondary institutions devised their own admissions tests or strategies for those available spaces not given to the children of wealth and power. Who deserved the ultimate in education? In an age increasingly dominated by complex technologies, in which nations competed in inventiveness and creativeness (think Marconi, Tesla, Wright, etc.), how would genius be uncovered, trained, encouraged?

At Harvard the issues began to be raised to a new level. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard's President for 40 years (1869-1909), didn't think much of his institution's oral comprehensive admissions examinations. He also thought that education, like manufacturing, would benefit from standardization. Why might Student A, studying with Professor X, read twice as much as Student B, studying with Professor Y? How could either the newly appearing post-graduate schools, or employers, judge that?

So Eliot pioneered both the "contact hour" and the idea of "credit distribution." The former was seen as a way of proving work - work in America (outside of agricultural labor and women's piecework) was now routinely judged in hourly terms rather than accomplishment. The latter meant that students would be exposed to both the "classics" (which had dominated universities) and the contemporary mechanics and sciences (which had risen in importance since the appearance of the Land Grant College).

Michigan Agricultural College's "Laboratory Row" in 1912

And then, as now, industry and big business joined in. For business, consumed with standardization, industrialization, efficiency, and preparation of future workers, creating an effective training structure - replicated across the nation as, say, time zones had been, was essential. So, into the fray came the Carnegie Foundation, funded by the biggest businessman of them all, Andrew Carnegie.

That is not to say that all the goals of the Carnegie Foundation were evil. As in most things, there was a mix of limited world view and good intentions. The people surrounding Carnegie were envisioning a meritocracy based firmly in the Protestant work ethic. They saw themselves as creating a Horatio Alger-esque path to success through doing well in school via "objective" standards. Exactly the same motivations which lie behind No Child Left Behind legislation and much of the American charter schools movement.

A student in western Nebraska would, under the Carnegie formula, have the same four years of high school with essentially the same seat time on various subjects as a student in New York's leafy suburbs. A student studying chemistry at a university in Iowa would have the same four years of study with essentially the same seat time as a student studying chemistry at Harvard. It was all democratic and scientific. We would measure what was measurable.

A key Carnegie Foundation key report of the time, written by publishing executive Morris L. Cooke, was titled Academic and Industrial Efficiency, if we needed further evidence of the point. Education would be structured by time card. Education would be standardized. Education would be national.


The Carnegie Unit lives with us today - truly, nothing structural has changed in US education since 1910. We still measure academics via seat time. We count our credits - both at the secondary and post-secondary level - by hours spent "in instruction" on specified subjects. Does it cripple us? Does it truly block reform? Does it prevent interdisciplinary instruction or open schooling?

"The unit affects the very way that knowledge is organized for instructional purposes, discouraging interdisciplinary teaching because of the difficult question of deciding how many units to attribute to each discipline. Those who would organize and convey knowledge differently inveigh against the "tyranny" of the Carnegie unit, asserting that seat-time is not a proxy for learning and that secondary schools must be flexible to engage students and to heighten learning." StateUniversity.com

The Carnegie Unit is a tyrant, but its tyranny is felt through attitude, not really through force of law. We see the power of the Carnegie divisions of knowledge because that is all most of us know. There are lots of ways around this.

My tenth grade "English class" and my tenth grade "Social Studies class" were one internship with the late night radio guy on WVOX-AM. Two nights a week I'd walk over to the "K" building in New Rochelle, NY and head down to the basement studios. There, I'd spend for 2 or 3 or 4 hours with the crazy overnight news guy. We'd ride around in the station's Vista Cruiser looking for news, or sit at the tape machines editing interviews, or grab stuff off the AP and UPI teletype machines. What did I learn? I learned editing (though not in print). I learned writing (though orally). I learned how news was constructed. I learned how radio actually worked. I learned how politicians spoke, and what news readers did not report from those conversations. I learned the structure of my "home town" in a whole new way. It was powerful stuff.

And in the end I signed off on my hours - more than enough, and claimed the two Carnegie Units. Yes, I had to take Regents Exams to complete the credits, but that simply involved a couple of weeks of nonsense fact cramming. I passed both - barely - but who cared? But if I hadn't, the problem would have been the standardized test, not the Carnegie Unit. Students in my high school picked up biology Carnegie Units working in the hospital or the city greenhouse, math Carnegie Units working with surveyors or architects, English Carnegie Units reading on their own or writing for the school newspaper - often two or even 3 to a year-long project or independent study. Even the courses we had challenged the Carnegie structure while operating within it.

In other words, Carnegie Units are a bad idea in practice, but they are not the real problem. Our problem is our lack of imagination - and our unwillingness to take real risks in changing a broken system.

Kill NCLB, kill the standardized test, kill the Carnegian/Bushian/Obamaesque belief in all children learning at the same rate, and you will break the essential chains holding back education.

But the Carnegie Unit - yes, it is an unfortunate remnant of good intentions run amok - but it is also a very easy roadblock to walk around.

- Ira Socol

01 December 2009

Mythic America v. What Our Students Need

In the Sierras last Friday night, climbing out of California, it began to snow. By the time we moved through Emigrant Gap it was a storm. At Donner Summit it felt blizzardy, wind-whipped flakes piling on the pavement. Truckers stopped to put on chains and clanked up the pass trailing the posse of plows clearing the way.

It was a short evening trip to get us started on the way home - we'd head east from Reno in the morning rather than starting back in Mountain View - but it turned into one of those 'white knuckle' journeys at the beginning of this old "Overland Route."

There is something about the name "Donner," of course, which focuses the mind on a winter night.

I can't help thinking about history as I drive Interstate 80 between San Francisco Bay and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is the ruggedest of the rugged pioneer trails across the American West. It crosses unbelievably steep mountains, vast deserts, unending grasslands, the Salt Flats. It is fiercely hot and unbearably cold. And people walked it alongside primitive wagons. And people - using hand tools - built a railroad across it in the second half of the 19th Century. Cheyenne, Fort Bridger, the Platte River, Reno, the Mormon Trail - these are places which define America's myth of tough independence, this is the wilderness Americans fought through, and the nation hewn from "nothing" with strong, free hands.

In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner produced his Frontier Thesis, in which he saw that in this individualistic belief in the conquest of "the west" was the definer of the American character. And yet... though those quoting him later missed the point, Turner knew these individuals were never alone, were never doing it "on their own":
"Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist."
The Donner Party was not one man, but a thinking, challenging, risk-taking group that came face-to-face with disaster and used their collaborative skills to find a solution.

In our classrooms today - in our society - we prize individual achievement. We see in each student the "Mountain Man" crossing the plains of grammar, facing the deserts of math equations, climbing through the rugged gaps of reading decoding, all independently. We view individual work, and all proving their worth in all the same skill sets, as the heart of our practice.

Yes, we do work together, but our goals in working together are individual. We take tests individually, we get graded individually, we don't accept the answer from Student "A" very often if Student "B" answers for him. Groups and collaborative efforts are addenda to raising the individual who can (get ready for the Americanisms here), "stand on her own two feet," "make his way in the world," "pull himself up by his bootstraps."

Now, individuals are wonderful, and I am a huge proponent of individualized education. But the cult of "individualism" - that mainly American and Australian disease of making oneself believe that they are successful on their own - is a huge problem for me.

Because we take the wrong lessons from our pioneers. Nobody did it alone. Nobody did it all themselves. And every group had people of differing abilities contributing differing things in differing ways. And, one might note, those first pioneers were sent out exploring by "big governments" who financed their way.

Lewis and Clark did not assemble their team because they all passed the same high school proficiency exam. Some could navigate, some could cipher, some could climb, some could write and draw, some could lift huge amounts, some could translate. Those who came after them not only built on the knowledge of those who came before, they brought their own assortments of skills, from reading the stars to cooking whatever could be found, from repairing wagons to sensing weather shifts. Meriwether Lewis didn't get flunked because he wasn't good at building canoes. Nor were other team members "left back" because they could not write. But alone, none of those people would have made it out of what is now Missouri.

So, damage from myth number one: Everyone must do the same things in school because we'll all be on our own when we "grow up." When we create one required skill set - our graduation cum NCLB "standards" - we make most, if not everyone, into a failure of some sort. But we should not be making failures, we should be finding ways to leverage every human talent.

Every explorer and every pioneer depended and depends on the tools crafted by those who came before them. Columbus did not invent the kind of ship he sailed in or the quadrant. John Fremont had dozens of maps on which to base his "pathfinding." Those travelling to the California gold fields did not build or design their Conestoga Wagons, make their weapons, or found the US forts which offered shelter at the start of the path. What makes human history amazing is our ability to build on the previous invention of our predecessors, and rarely can this be seen more clearly than in the spread of Europeans across two distant continents: it is a kind of evolution run wild. Verrazano's maps lead to Dutch explorers, fur traders lead to the need for farming, and roads. Farming and roads lead to the need for wagons suited to those roads. Bad roads lead to canals, canals lead to a new kind of boat, which brings farmers to new kinds of land, which requires new kind of plows, which requires new kind of factories which make those plows, which... It is a stunning story - a story based in the rapid adoption of new technologies no matter what the investment in the old. I passed Pony Express stations on this trip. The Pony Express was a brilliant solution to an immediate problem. It lasted less than two years before a better technological solution was found (telegraph wires).

Damage from myth number two: Humans all need to "go back to basics." Students can not deal with the technologies of their own time until they master the technology of the past. The problem here is that "the basics" are always "where the last generation began." Nobody teaches quill cutting anymore or filling a fountain pen, but "handwriting still matters." It is our obligation to give our students the world they have inherited, so they can move forward. Not the world you inherited, because we hope you have already moved forward.

The Spanish Government sent Columbus. Jefferson's Administration sent Lewis and Clark. Dewitt Clinton's New York State Government built the Erie Canal. Abraham Lincoln - the first really "big government" president - financed the Trans-Continental Railway, created the Homestead Act, and the Land Grant Colleges Act. US Administration after US Administration sent soldiers out to protect settlers and travellers, and built roads and canals, while publishing maps. In other words, our accomplishments are not those of individuals, but those of a society working together - building, exploring, educating together from the first forays into North America to the Moon Landing. The thing that matters most is creating a place where individual creativity flourishes and nurtures group learning and group action. On the Oregon coast Lewis and Clark took a vote - a vote which included a Black Slave and an Indian Woman. The Donner Party made the horrific - but essential - group decision to suspend conventional morality, to adopt situational ethics, in order to survive. Western towns banded together and enforced gun prohibitions to build their communities. Learning is not individual, action is rarely individual, both are part of the social construction which makes us human.

Damage from myth number three: Children who attend school sitting and working only or primarily individually will be ill-prepared to function in our society. If only individual goals are measured, our students will not learn to function effectively in the world as it really exists. Our classrooms must be about group learning, group dynamics, and group decision-making. Collaboration, the ability to make those around you better, the ability to allow those around you to make you better, is the essential human skill. The ability to effectively lead and to effectively follow, is critical, as is the ability to form groups for study and action, as is the ability to move effectively into new environments and the ability to welcome newcomers from unfamiliar environments. When these are not the priority in our schools, when they are not taught and modelled in our schools, we have failed our students.

Meriwether Lewis was constantly surprised. So were many pioneers. They looked around and were astonished. Imagine a thousand mile tall grass prairie broken only by cottonwood edged flat rivers. Imagine mountain ranges which dwarf the Alps in every dimension. Imagine a three or four day hike across a surface of pure salt, white and so flat it literally curves with the earth. Imagine a million buffalo rushing across a plain. Imagine meeting people with nothing culturally in common with yourself. Now move in and settle down.

The adaptive skills of our pioneers were remarkable. No wood? Build houses of sod. Grow crops in a salt earth? Carry dirt from the mountains and dig irrigation channels to move the snow melt. Develop new engineering methods, new bridge types, new forms of social organization, new clothing, new professions. It is that art of adaptation, as Frederick Jackson Turner saw, which truly created the identity of the young United States.

Damage from myth number four: "We are a conservative nation." Well, not when we are good. When we believe we are a conservative nation we idolize a past rather than celebrating it. Only someone with no actual understanding of American history could argue for "strict construction" views of the national constitution, or think that something is a good method simply because it was done in the past. If those who built our history thought that we'd still be a tiny nation clustered around the Atlantic Coast and our open hearth stoves. And so our students need to be honored for their adaptive capabilities, for their invention, for their challenges to the system. When we honor compliance and storing of old knowledge we tell our students they have abdicated their position of global leadership.

By the time we sat down to dinner in Council Bluffs, Iowa, not so far from where Abraham Lincoln selected the start point of the great Union Pacific Railway, not far from where the Mormon Exodus outfitted its wagons, I knew the history of America's rise lay not in individualism, but in the wonder of creative, adaptive, flexible, forward-looking, future-accepting, dynamic groups.

If I looked into your classroom today, is that what I would see in progress?

- Ira Socol