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

08 February 2014

Summarizing Grit: The Abundance Narratives

Procter&Gamble has the tagline very wrong, but their Olympics ads explain what is crucially wrong with the argument espoused by those writing the "Grit Narratives"...

...for what P&G is saying in their "#BecauseOfMom" campaign is that what children need is not "grit" but abundance. They need the support, time, resources, and love which makes persistence possible.

It is not "falling down" which makes you stronger, it is the people who help you get up after you've fallen, who teach you to get up after you've fallen, who tend your wounds after you've fallen, and who supply the resources which allow you to keep trying with a growing expectation of success.

I don't know if I've been a good father or not - as a long-term single dad I kind of object to the #becauseofmom meme, I bought the Tide for our house - for that analysis you'd have to ask the kid. But despite real money struggles, real resource issues, I tried to offer abundance when I could. The musical instruments he played, the soccer equipment he used (for which I often traded work), the drives to a distant high school which met his needs, the access to the computers he learned to build and control. But for the ability to do that I am grateful for the abundance I received as a child. My parents rarely had any money, but they had essential things. They both had university educations, they both had wide-ranging interests in the world, they both talked - in front of us kids - about anything and everything. The offered us a home in a place where everything from high culture to the fascinations of the natural world were easily accessible from very early ages. They lived in a place with a high school which brought all kinds of children - all socio-economic classes - together so I could see choices and opportunities. And they knew how to stand up for me, to prevent huge problems from becoming a death sentence.

Abundance being a relative term, measured on a sliding scale.

Abundance also being an inherited opportunity in a nation of vastly unequal wealth and opportunity. And if we do not work towards offering abundance to children in poverty, nothing we do via "intervention" will alter these facts of inheritance.
"But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty," Mike Rose writes, "My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

"We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinacy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness” and “planning for the future.” This language is way too familiar."
In a study of those proposing character education as a primary solution, those like Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough,  Smagorinsky and Taxel (pdf) noted, "We inferred from this list of at-risk students that the proposal authors believed that those most in need of character education were largely poor students from uneducated families in which standard English is not spoken at home. These young people, according to the proposals, tend to be sexually active, have histories of violence, abuse drugs, and have absentee parents. We further inferred that the document authors assumed that people not fitting these categories were not particularly in need of character education. We then classified this discourse as being in the category of class-based morality."

"Class-based morality," and class-based colonialism in my mind, for as James Gee asked, "What sort of social group do I intend to apprentice the learner into?" Not that you can't say, "I need my children to learn to act, to be, like white middle class Americans." You certainly can, and you can for some very good reasons. But you need to be aware of what you are saying.

The "Everyday Effect" - middle-class privilege in action

The debate about "the grit narrative" has ranged widely across the digital networks recently, which is a great thing. Because the next time a school administrator rises and quotes Paul Tough's book title, or shows Angela Duckworth's TEDtalk, there will now be other voices in the room, voices calling for the "abundandance narrative" as our essential foundation.

Here are some of the conversations:
Mike Rose: The Misguided Effort to Teach Character (Washington Post)
Paul Thomas: The Poverty Trap   
Paul Thomas: The Grit Narrative  
Nancy Flanagan: Kiss My Grit

Grant Lichtman: Does Grit Need a Deeper Discussion?
which includes a Paul Tough vs. Me "debate."

Josie Holford: Grit Hits the Fan

Joe Bower:
Let them eat grit - 4 reasons why "grit" is garbage  
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part One
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Two
(Slack, not Grit)

SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Three (Abundance)
SpeEdChange: Grit: Part Four (Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor)
Eric Juli: Grit or Slack? Are we asking the right questions? 
Eric Juli: Grit: Context Matters   
Peter Gow: In Which I Confess to Lacking Grit    
Vicki Davis: True Grit

I, of course, cannot tell you how to think about this. I cannot tell you how to read Tough's book, or how to consider Duckworth finding most of her inspiration in the work of "the father of eugenics." But I do hope you will wonder about, and perhaps challenge, the current pop psychology of "grit" education. I hope you will ask, if we do not go after the causes of the pathologies of poverty, how can we ever "cure" children fast enough to keep up with the damage we are doing?

The other side of #becauseof mom, the feminization of poverty

- Ira Socol

04 February 2014

It's not "High Tech," it's "Possibility Tech"

Dateline: Digital Learning Day, 2014

A few images came together for me this past weekend. One was a Twitter conversation via #ATchat - the hashtag for "assistive technology" in which a tweeter suggested that we always start with the "simple," not, "high tech" when looking to help students. And then the Super Bowl came on, which I only barely watched, but from which I caught a couple of commercials.

I had suggested on #ATchat that when we seek to support students with disabilities, or really any students, we look for "appropriate technology," which is the heart of my "Toolbelt Theory." "Appropriate technology," for anyone, might be a pencil for certain people doing certain tasks, or might be a mobile digital device (a tablet or a "smartphone") for most people doing a task. Whether one is perceived in school as "high tech" or "low tech" is a nonsensical question - the question must always be, "what's the best answer for this student for this task?"


I said on #ATchat that "It's not "assistive technology," it's "Possibility Technology." And then I said, "It's not "high tech," it's "Possibility Tech."

And then I realized, as Digital Learning Day approached, that we just need our schools to catch up with the world.

Who else would have a "Digital Day"? Who else would need a "Digital Day"?


The world is digital. Out of 245 million Americans over the age of 13, 147.9 million owned smart phones in September 2013, which might be more than could find a pencil in their homes for all I know. A year ago there were 1.5 billion smart phones in the world, one for every 5 humans. This technology isn't "high tech" anywhere but in school. Everywhere else it is "technology" - as normal at this moment in time as books and pens were 40 years ago. 70% of US homes had broadband internet access as of 2013 - again, its the norm. 78.9% of US homes had a computer and almost 95% of those were connected to the internet in 2012 according to the US Census Bureau.

This "digital age" has been embraced because it works for people. It works for businesses. It works for the young and the old. And it even works for those who have often been, in the Gutenberg Era, powerless.

We write on digital devices and we read on digital devices. We create on digital devices and we consume on digital devices. We use our digital devices to help us overcome our inabilities and our disabilities. We use them to connect to people, information, and resources globally, even if we can't get to much of the world from where we physically are. We use them to communicate in ways rich and deep and in ways shallow and silly - yes, much like books or film or television, much like human conversation. We use them all day and much of the night...

That is, everywhere but in our schools. Which begs the question - what century are we expecting our students to graduate in to?

On this Digital Learning Day perhaps the most important thing for us to do is to promise ourselves to do our best to bring our schools into the present. It's not "assistive technology." It's not "high tech." It's not even "1:1." Rather, it is 2014, and that stuff we're not using? It represents possibilities we are refusing to offer to our students.

- Ira Socol

01 February 2014

Grit Part 4: Abundance, Authenticity, and the Multi-Year Mentor

A number of us in the school central office I work in share a common thread from childhood. Whatever the circumstances of our lives, whatever the challenges, we were afforded a key luxury: we had in our lives some adult who stuck with us for more than a single year. We had a multi-year mentor.

Industrial education has many destructive effects, but one rarely focused on is the refusal of our school design to allow adult support to stretch beyond a single school year. We have sixth grade teachers and tenth grade teachers. We have middle schools and high schools. We have programs, and thus teachers, who only work with certain age kids. We sometimes even have separate coaches for different age-defined sports. And this is disastrous. By doing this we create the ultimate scarcity of support.
"Beside my father, Coach Conaway was by far the most important man in my life. He knew about my family and the struggles we had. He gave me a chance. When I spent time with him, I felt smart and supported. He asked me tough questions. He told me stories about his childhood. He let me know when he was proud of me and when he was disappointed, and I always came back for more.  He got the best out of me. He helped me go on to college, and when I became an English teacher and wrestling and track coach with my first job, I emulated his approach." - Matt Haas
If resilience is our goal, I suggest we need, at a minimum, three things: The abundance which allows children space, time, resources, and safety. An authenticity of task which makes effort relevant. And, I now want to add, the luxury of multi-year mentoring, multi-year adult support, in a deep and meaningful way.

For me these three things came together in one person, a teacher named Alan Shapiro. Alan offered me space - the ability to not be in a classroom, time - a lack of deadlines, resources - a city full of learning opportunities instead of those limited by school walls, and safety - the certainty that I would always be welcomed back. He offered me authenticity of task - I did real work, language arts at a radio station, social studies at city hall, with real audiences. And perhaps most importantly he was there for me for four years, long enough to allow trust to build, long enough to impact my habits in significant ways, long enough to alter my long-term thinking.

Outside Chicago's Fenger High School,
if we're waiting to fix this here, we are
way, way too late.
At its heart, the debate between Paul Tough and I about "grit" is about who the primary burden of change should lie with. Tough's book - How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character- is primarily about how to "cure" (I do not necessarily mean this negatively), how to change, children. In his follow ups, and apparently now in his book tour speeches, and yes, in the last chapter of his book, he argues for some social change - improved welfare systems, better "wrap around" services, increased funding, yet his book is - titled, if we remember, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, not, "What Children Need: The Supports Our Society Must Provide." This is one perspective.

As you know, my writings are primarily about how to change systems. (This is different than my argument with Angela Duckworth, which is about both imposing religious beliefs in schools and beliefs in Social Darwinism.) This is another perspective.

In this debate Mr. Tough believes me to be elitist and theoretical. He doubts my understandings of "reality." I, on the other hand, have to admit to seeing him as an elitist diletante, at best a reporter for an elite news organization with no commitment to fundamental change, at worst a person willing to use the misery of children for profit without even having the courage to tackle the big issues. Both characterizations are likely unfair, and yet, these characterizations expose the depth of the divide which separates the "character camp" from those of us opposed to that.

School not working? Cure the child...
A number of years ago, I can't believe I actually found these, at the beginning of our northern hemisphere school year, both The New York Times and the Guardian ran stories about the difficulties of children beginning secondary school. What struck me then - what still hits me in the face - was that The Times story was about what psychiatric medicines should be given to children traumatized by their schools, while the Guardian article was about how schools needed to change adult behaviors, class organization, and even architecture in order to make students comfortable.

So Tough and I have been working parallel stories, like those two news organizations were, one embedded in the North American myth of individual responsibility, individual fault, and an individual relationship with God, the other based in, OK, a more Catholic/Socialist, even European, vision of social responsibility. Yet the fact that they are parallel does not mean that they do not collide, and it does not mean that we're not entitled to make our own moral judgements on the argument.

Abundance: Space, Time, Resources, Trust (High School HackerSpace)
For me, it is essential that we first ask questions about our systems, that we first ask what we can do to stop damaging children. If we do not, as I've said in this series before, we create damaged children at a far faster rate than we can possibly help them. Whatever the merits of the interventions Tough's book champions, from poorly prepared principals and questionable chess coaches on one end of the spectrum to deeply caring, deeply involved support on the other, nothing he promotes will halt the damage going on daily. I think we must be better than that.

Focusing instead on those three essentials, abundance, authenticity, and adult long-term human support will change the damage equation. We know that. And since we know that, we need to do it.

Authenticity: If the task has inherent value to the child, they will persist
(Elementary MakerSummer School)
Abundance: the spaces, time, resources, and supports our children need. This does require things to change, from taxpayer/community attitudes to those of teachers and administrators who put adult needs above the needs of children. It may require changing structures - architectural, time, and curricular. It may require changing work days. It may require different school district divisions. It may require teachers to give up "ownership" of classrooms. It will require investment. It will require new professional learning.

Authenticity: One of the keys to persistence on anything in life is relevance. How long would most people stay in a job which did not offer some kind of direct reward? For most jobs that comes as pay which enables the worker to have many other things and to avoid many miseries. For some other jobs - long term volunteering, for example, this comes with somewhat less tangible, but still quite real rewards. But in school we expect children to work - in some cases to work really, really hard, for completely intangible rewards. If you are one of those students for whom As matter, there can be a reward to schoolwork. That's the wonder of school for those completely dependent on adult approval and extrinsic rewards - grades and behavior rules actually work. But for others, what might we offer? We cannot even offer any promise that "education" will be a successful path out for children in poverty, as Paul Thomas makes clear in his most recent post on "The Grit Narrative," the odds are against this being true. A child might be the best, hardest working, best grade-making student on the South Side of Chicago or in inner Cleveland, or even in Martinsville, Virginia and still walk out of his house and get shot. This is, as Thomas says, no meritocracy.

So, why would kids in poverty put in the effort? Hell, why would any kid? I say all the time, why would a child who struggles with reading - and a large percentage do - put in that effort if the only reward is the worthless literature of school "leveled reading" books? And we all know that math becomes a disaster when math teachers cannot offer any relevant reason why anyone would need or want to know any of that subject. But for children in poverty this divide begins to extend to everything in school.

Eric Juli, who leads an inner-city school in Cleveland, Ohio wrote - on the issues of "grit," "slack," and "abundance":
"I know students who travel two hours to come to school; a place where they don’t feel valued, respected, cared for, and accepted...

"I have plenty of students who are below grade level. But I have plenty of students who are at or above grade level too. Regardless of how they read, write, or do math, most of my students are currently failing. And yet they are the toughest kids I know. If grit is just being tough, and persevering, then why are my kids struggling academically so much? Here’s what I think. The toughness my kids exhibit in life does not transfer to school. Academic perseverance, academic stick-to-it-ivness, academic courage, academic behaviors, academic skills, academic dispositions, do not transfer just because a student is “gritty” outside of school.

"My students with one shirt, no food, who travel two hours to get to school, who give up at nothing in life outside of school, give up all the time, a thousand times a day, in academic settings. I don’t really know Ira, but I think I can hear him say at this point, that this is what white middle class conformity expects of them and it isn’t right.

"To that I say, of course it isn’t right. But it’s the world. It also isn’t right that my students are in poverty to begin with. But they are; so we deal with it. I can only address what we have control over. To get out of poverty, my students need to be successful in school. I’ve built a career believing that education is the ticket out. To be successful in college and careers, my students need school-tough. And they just don’t have it. What’s right has very little to do with what is.
Why doesn't "life tough" translate to "school tough"? Because school, all too often, has not a thing to do with the lives of our students. And if school was bad about this historically - think of Mark Twain's documentation of this in Huck Finn - we make it worse every day. Two key fallacies of our Common Core are, (a) that age-based curriculum makes any sense at all, and that (b) localized curriculum - what Yong Zhao calls "mass localization" - is somehow bad. Only a person with no understanding at all of the diversity of America would think that its a "great idea" for Eric's tenth graders and those in Scarsdale, New York to have the same curricular and academic design.

It isn't just that it's OK for Virginia kids to get a different sense of history and literature than do New York kids or Michigan kids, it is that the very understanding of how we read and analyze text might need to change between Fairfax County, Virginia and Esmont, Virginia, between Shaker Heights, Ohio and Eric's school's neighborhood. Why? Because children begin in very different places and live in very different worlds, and the path to success is not made equitable by making it equal.

Now "relevance" does not mean "less," but it should mean "very different." We might need to alter the way we teach completely, the order in which we teach things completely. We might need to make our work much more hands-on for some kids, or connect the work to worlds we, if we're middle class adults, do not know very well.  We may need to read different texts, use numbers in new ways, consider science differently. And we're incredibly dumb about that in schools - we all know, for example - that once we put dollar signs in front of decimal numbers kids tend to understand them, but most American schools still refuse to do that first. I once saw a ninth grade biology teacher complain on Twitter that her students weren't interested. "Really?" I tweeted back, "you must be talking about the wrong bodies if you're boring 14-year-olds." I've had to fight with middle school teachers to use YouTube sports videos in speed and velocity lessons. I've seen hundreds of history lessons made completely uninteresting by focusing on dates and the adventures of long dead white guys. And that's what we refuse to do for middle class kids...

Teaching the structure of mythic storytelling need not be a lecture

Breaking the rules of outdated, honestly never particularly effective, pedagogy is step one, for every child, but a crucial step one for our most "at-risk" children. Breaking the boundaries of traditional school rules is step two. From attendance requirement to assignment due dates, we need to think differently to allow children a greater abundance of options which can offer authenticity. Rethinking control can help too. If your school has any WiFi at all, open it up, then go beg Verizon and AT&T to collect used Android phones for you and build your technology options that way. Contemporary technology builds relevance in ways textbooks and the walls of a classroom cannot possibly. Afraid that will open up drug-dealing and bullying? I've got news for you, you are not solving those problems by blocking technology use.

Your mission is to make every class, every day, worth your student's time and attention. Not worth it by your standards, worth it by their standards. Every day, every minute, every child makes the microeconomic decision to do the work of your class by comparing the apparent reward to the apparent cost (effort). For kids, all over, who spend an hour or more just getting to school, for kids for whom school attendance has a direct and immediate cost vs. not attending, your need for relevance goes way, way up.

But in the end, it's all about relationships. What keeps adolescents on track, as I referenced at the top, are adults who are there. "Look," President Obama said in July 2012 in Roanoke, Virginia - bizarrely controversially, "if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own... If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help." And that help works best when it extends across real time, not school time.

"somebody along the line gave you some help"

"School time," a class a day for even a year, isn't "adolescent need time" or "child need time." This is why kids usually do better in elementary schools than in secondary schools. Why they do even better with teachers who loop with them, why they do even better than that with long-term multiage environments. This is why high school graduates looking back are most likely to thank their coaches or the rare multiple year or multiple class teachers when they look back. 
"The term "mentor" has its roots in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. In this myth, Odysseus, a great royal warrior, has been off fighting the Trojan War and has entrusted his son, Telemachus, to his friend and advisor, Mentor. Mentor has been charged with advising and serving as guardian to the entire royal household. As the story unfolds, Mentor accompanies and guides Telemachus on a journey in search of his father and ultimately for a new and fuller identity of his own." (Anderson and Shannon, 2012)
Length of the mentoring relationship, even the perception at the start of the expected duration, can change everything. "[Y]outh may have experienced unsatisfactory or rejecting parental relationships in the past. Consequently, they may have developed internal representations of relationships that incorporate fears and doubts about whether others will accept and support them (Bowlby, 1982; Egeland, Jacobvitz, & Sroufe, 1988)," say Grossman and Rhodes, 2002. "When such adolescents encounter cues that relationships will not proceed, however minimal or ambiguous, they may readily perceive intentional rejection from their mentors." In simpler terms, ones we see every day, research supports what we know. The "at risk" ninth grader is far more likely to invest in the relationship with a sports coaching staff he expects to have alongside him for four years than in the relationship with an English teacher he knows will end in nine months. Why would we provide this kind of essential support for football, basketball, even cheerleading but not with academics? I think that's a question we must ask ourselves.

We could reorganize ourselves as faculties. We could assemble teams which might carry middle school or high school children across their time in our schools. That might make our work a bit harder, but it might begin to offer our students that abundance of time, support, and trust they most need.

Laura Deisley
wrote on Eric Juli's blog that kids, "are coming to us from different and very real contexts and yet equally yearning for relationship and purpose. What your kids learn outside of school, and we are associating with "grit," is driven by both relationships and purpose. It is not their choice, and God knows they should not have to be in that situation. And, you're right we cannot change their immediate condition. However, if we too narrowly define outcomes--academic "success" as you call it--then they aren't going to see a purpose that is worth expending any more effort."

Abundance offers opportunity. Authenticity offers that purpose. Relationship offers that support. And I do not care where we teach, or who we teach, I believe that we can alter our systems to provide more of those three things than we do today. And by doing that we can begin to change the equations which defeat our children.

- Ira Socol