Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Badass Teachers Association

The Badass Teachers Association formed only last week and already has 16,000+ members and counting. That is certainly deserving of a blog post.

First off, I have to say that I think the name is brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a movement that recognizes members as Badass Teachers? It catches the eye but also captures the sentiment behind the movement. These are teachers who believe that their students deserve a say in their education. These are educators who are seen by their students as “badass,” an evaluation that can’t be made by any standardized test. These teachers are superheroes: they teach students by day and fight corporate reformers by night.  Indeed, they are badass.

On Monday, with only two days of existence under its belt, the Badass Teachers Association declared its first call to action: the BTA launched a campaign in which educators demanded that President Obama replace Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Within 24 hours, over 1,500 members had called the White House and asked Obama to replace Duncan with a lifetime educator, someone who could understand the struggles that teachers face. In addition, they outdid the calling campaign, furiously tweeting and retweeting support for @BadassTeachersA and starting a petition to build on the momentum of the call-in campaign.  So far, the petition has gained over 1,000 signatures towards its goal of 100,000. I highly recommend that everyone take a moment to sign it, every name counts!

The only real problem I see with the success of the Badass Teachers is the practicality of their request. Is it really realistic to expect Obama to replace Duncan based on a one-day-long social media campaign? Probably not. I’m not sure that anything could convince Obama to replace Duncan, firstly because Duncan is an old friend and secondly because he is a second-term presidency. But it’s worth a shot, for sure. The movement would probably gain more traction if badass teachers wrote a substantial piece about why Duncan must be removed or even held a strike for the cause (though of course that’s not really possible in the summertime).

However, this isn’t to say that I have no hope that the Badass Teachers movement can effect change. In fact, I believe that the education reform community has been awaiting something like the BTA for a while, an organization that has the power to bring frustrated and energetic educators from all over the country together to express their indignation as a whole. I think that Badass Teachers can ultimately join their voices together to successfully protest budget cuts, craft legislation, and claim a role for itself in education policy decisions. In short, I think and hope that the Badass Teachers can go on to be what they were meant to be–badass.

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06/25/2013 · 6:42 pm

Do Increased High School Graduation Rates Account for Academic Inflation?

Finally I have returned from my weekend without internet connection and am raring to go!

Today I’d like to talk about a study published by Education Week on public school graduation rates. The study comes with a nice interactive map that shows how public school graduation rates in different states changed between 1999/2000 and 2009/2010. The overall trend certainly reveals positive growth, with the nation as a whole nearing 75% public school graduation rate in 2010. In the summary, the editors claim that the study shows “good news: The nation’s high school graduation rate is at its highest point since the 1970s.” This is good news, of course, and the editors fairly address the “sobering news” as well, namely that approximately 1 million students drop out of high school each year.

I agree that an increase in public high school graduation rates is good news. But the report focuses on dropout rates as the “sobering news,” and I find it very difficult to believe that this is the only sobering news of the study. Just as we must calculate for inflation when studying economics over time, we must also factor in other matters when determining whether public education graduation rates are really so much improved now from 40 years ago. I believe that there are a few areas of clear inflation in the study of public education, which I will list below in an attempt to define inflation as it pertains to our valuation and evaluation of our education system.

What We Study

There are so many things we must learn about today that did not exist in the world of the 1970’s. History never ceases, so of course there is more that must be included in history curricula. New styles of writing have emerged, so there is more to include in English class curricula. There have been many advances in finances, yet we have actually decreased the number of opportunities that high school students have to learn home economics and financial literacy. In order to truly determine the worth of our high school graduation rates as compared to those of 40 years ago, we must determine if our curricula have been updated and enriched to reflect the many changes of the past few decades. Personally, I feel that this is not the case.

How We Study

Just as curricula reflect changes in the content of what we learn, they should also reflect the changes in how we learn. Students of the 1970’s learned in schools with the use of pens and paper, tools that prepared them for the “real world” of that time period. However, many students today still learn this way; they lack access to today’s technology that can enrich their studies and make their education more applicable to the present-day workforce. There is more technology available in the world today than there was 40 years ago, yet there has been relatively little change in what kind of technology is offered to the majority of high school students. In order to account for what I think of as educational inflation, we must recognize that we are now offering students access to a lower percentage of existent learning tools than we have in the past. Increasing access to innovative technology is an important part of education reform, one that the Obama administration has emphasized in announcing plans to increase the use of technology in schools.

How Our Studies Relate to Our World

Public high school should prepare students to be active in today’s world, both as citizens of our world and employees of our workforce. Both what schools teach and how schools teach influence our students’ abilities to do so. By offering only limited access to current technology, schools significantly decrease graduates’ ability to adjust to the workforce. This is an important part of the reason that high school graduates today are not as prepared to enter the workforce as they were 40 years ago. Good high schools 40 years ago gave students the skills they needed to enter the workforce, while good high schools today give students the skills they need to enter college. This is a huge difference. This means that students who are prepared to enter the workforce today have most likely paid huge sums of money to public or private universities in order to gain the skills needed to participate in our workforce, which widens the opportunity gap, shrinks the middle class, and decreases the feasibility of the American Dream.

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It is true that our public high school graduation rate is approaching a record high, and this is a very good thing. But we can’t fool ourselves: graduating from public high school doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Public high school graduates in past decades were prepared for the workforce much more than they are today. If the value of public high school graduates for society has declined, increased graduation rates really do not mean much, and they will not mean much until they can account for academic inflation.

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What the UFT Endorsement of Thompson Could Mean

For New Yorkers, one of the biggest pieces of news in the education world is the UFT’s endorsement of Bill Thompson in the mayoral race. With Mayor Bloomberg’s leaving office later this year, it has yet to be seen whether his self-declared title of “the education mayor” will stick in the history books. Whoever the next mayor is will play a significant role in determining how Bloomberg’s education policies are viewed in the long run. By electing a mayor who chooses to put a stop to the Bloomberg education policies, NYC voters may have a significant impact on Bloomberg’s education legacy. In endorsing Thompson, the UFT seems to be taking a definitive step in this direction, as Thompson has tried to set himself apart from Bloomberg in some ways while promising to simultaneously continue some of his iconic policies, such as mayoral control of the city’s schools. In light of this, it is rather difficult to determine whether Thompson believes that Bloomberg’s version of education reform should be seen as successful. 

Thompson may have received the UFT’s coveted endorsement, but this is certainly not a definitive conclusion to the question of which mayoral candidate the education reform community will ultimately support. The UFT last endorsed a winning candidate when it supported Dinkins in the 1989, and has had a losing streak ever since. Mayor Bloomberg has claimed that this is not simply coincidental, but that an endorsement by the UFT is practically a “kiss of death,” going on to explain that the voters should understand that “[i]f the UFT wants it, it ain’t good, and you don’t want that person.” 

The UFT is attempting a comeback by endorsing Thompson, but still faces competition posed by the multitude of fellow labor unions who have endorsed other candidates, mostly notably in the way of Quinn, de Blasio, and Liu. Interestingly, de Blasio seems to be the candidate who supports public education most strongly. If this comes down to a battle between support for public schools and allowances for charter schools, de Blasio may stand out as a singularly unique candidate. 

For further comparison of the candidates and where they stand on education policy, you can follow the candidates and their policy statements here.

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My Reaction to the “The Heart of the Matter”

An article printed in NYTimes today announced the publication of “The Heart of the Matter,” a 61-page report that has been produced by the Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences for planned distribution on Capitol Hill today. According to the brief offered by the commission, the report aims to identify how an education in the humanities develops the ability of American students to become competitive in both the domestic and global workforce.

I have somewhat mixed feelings regarding the report. The report is well-designed, with some particularly easy-to-read charts that I found enjoyable and enlightening. Supporting quotations from influential Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, President Eisenhower, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor are spread throughout the report and provide a second layer of context to the text’s assertion that an education in the humanities has developed and will continue to develop the American conception of good citizenship.

The report does a particularly excellent job of arguing for education in the social sciences and humanities as a method of increasing global citizenship. The report covers a broad range of topics involved in global citizenship, including education in foreign languages, foreign histories, foreign cultures, international relations, global ethics, and transnational studies. To me, the strongest argument made for the urgency of education reform is the argument pertaining to national security. The report cites statistics on how severely funding for education of foreign languages and cultures has been cut, and then offers some very sound arguments for why this is problematic. One passage stood out to me as particularly excellent in communicating the urgency of this situation:

After the 9/11 attacks, intelligence intercepts from the Arab world sat unread because we lacked people adequately trained in this suddenly strategic language, which is not learned in a day. Whatever one’s politics, we can agree that the wars of the past decade have underlined the difficulty of fighting abroad without a subtle understanding of foreign histories, social constructs, belief systems, languages, and cultures. (39)

Rather than simply arguing for why an education in the humanities is crucial to the American economy and national security, the report also offers several substantial solutions to the problem. In the report, the commission proposes a number of educational initiatives, including funding for language immersion programs, increased support for undergraduate study abroad opportunities, a reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, and a public-private partnership to increase opportunities for collaborative transnational studies for students in both K-12 and higher education environments. The commission also suggests a increased support for volunteer-led programs that could bring veterans to speak to classes about their experiences with foreign cultures, a creative proposal that I think could be highly helpful and practical to implement.

While the report does a fine job of relating the need for humanities education to present and future national security needs, it argues less convincingly for other aspects of a humanities education. One problem I have after reading this report is that the commission says that it applauds the thinking behind the Common Core Standards Initiative, stating:

In its Common Core State Standards Initiative, the National Governors Association has outlined “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.” We applaud the thinking behind this plan, which defines foundational skills in communications and in mathematics. Although it is too soon to predict all the outcomes that will result from nationwide implementation, the proposed Core makes communication—reading, writing, and speaking—a fundamental element of education, opening doors for more advanced learning. (23)

I am willing to agree that we have not yet seen all of the effects of the Common Core initiative and do not yet know all of its consequences. However, we have already begun to witness that schools are using the Common Core mainly to emphasize math and reading standards and prepare for standardized tests. The commission argues for an increased emphasis on creativity founded in critical skills such as questioning, analyzing, and real world-problem solving, skills that I believe have been de-emphasized in the aftermath of the Common Core implementation.

Ultimately, I support the thinking behind the report, and even support many of the proposals in the report. This may be a good starting point, but only if congressional members are convinced of the urgency that the commission is clearly attempting to relay. At this point, I can only hope that a serious conversation about the value of humanities and social sciences is just getting started.

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Why I Believe in Education Reform

Today I went back to my high school, where soon-to-graduate seniors were bustling down the halls to turn in final papers, get yearbooks signed, and say goodbye to their teachers from the past four years. It was a nostalgic visit that allowed me to reflect on my high school experience. Even more than that, it made me think about why it is that I want to go into education reform. Did I love my school so much that I want to make other schools like it? Or did I experience so much grief in school that I want to prevent other students from encountering the same setbacks that I faced?

 

Most of the time, I can honestly say that I loved my high school, and continue to love it today. I attended one of few NYC public schools whose students are exempt from participating in Regents testing. As an alternative to standardized tests (and most tests in general) my high school required students to complete Performance-Based Assessments. PBAs usually contain one creative component (ie artwork, fictional writing, model-building) and one more traditional component (such as a research paper, analytical essay, or sometimes even a short exam). Unlike Regents exams, PBAs allow students to prove their comprehension of the subject matter by creatively applying it to real-world scenarios. Additionally, students must present their PBAs to a panel of teachers, which teaches students how to speak in public, discuss and defend their ideas, and develop opinions regarding the subject matter. 

 

Learning to present PBAs was possibly my most rewarding experience in high school. As a 9th grader, I was soft-spoken and fairly anxious about defending my work in front of teachers. I still remember rehearsing my arguments about cul-de-sac symbolism in The Bell Jar for hours the night before my freshman English PBA. While the majority of students entered high school anxious about PBAs, I have no doubt that each and every student graduated with a great appreciation for our high school’s alternative testing methodology. Unlike traditional exams, PBAs do not only test a student’s mastery of the subject matter, but also make testing itself an educational experience. Sure, high school taught me how to take exams, but it was by completing PBAs that I learned how to develop my curiosities and discuss my insights openly and confidently with my professors, a skill that I know will continue to serve me well in college and beyond. 

 

Clearly I appreciate my high school’s creative approach to testing, but there were still definite imperfections in my high school experience. The most distressing aspect of attending an NYC public school was the constant fear of budget cuts. There was never enough of anything, and an extreme shortage or non-existence of supplies required for adequate learning was the norm. Only after talking to college classmates from other school systems did I realize that my high school experience was fairly rare in this respect. It turns out that students in other schools never fought each other for supplies. They didn’t beg each other for printer paper. They didn’t stand for hours of class time or share seats with friends because their classrooms never ran out of chairs. They didn’t fight over which club got to hold the most bakesales because their clubs were not in constant competition for survival of the fittest. 

 

To me, the worst result of looming budget cuts is the constant uncertainty that ensues. For many students, particularly in urban areas, life is uncertain enough as it is. Some students don’t know if their parents are coming home at night, or where their next meal is coming from. Students shouldn’t need to also wonder how they are going to afford paper for printing their assignments, or whether the metrocards that provide free access to good schools will be taken away. The constant fear of budget cuts takes away the school’s ability to act as a safe haven for the struggling students who need it most. For students who live under a cloud of doubt, schools should be able to provide a small relief, not additional uncertainty.

 

So, what have I concluded? Am I going into education policy because I passionately support the opportunities my high school afforded me or because I adamantly wish to protect students from the pain that I’ve witnessed? I think the answer is probably a bit of both. The fact that my school managed to provide so many students with an exceptional education in the face of overwhelming setbacks makes me hopeful. I have hope that both schools and their students can overcome the gargantuan obstacles that they continue to encounter. But I also have hope in students’ abilities to recognize the wrongs being done to them. And I must believe that we can stand up to urban school systems and fight for the equal opportunities that all students deserve.

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Introduction

Welcome! This greeting is partly directed at myself, somewhat of a “welcome to the world of blogging, and welcome to the 21st century!” I have never been very interested in recording my thoughts and publishing them on the internet for who-knows-who to see. However, school is out for the summer and I figured that it might be a productive use of my time to become accustomed to this modern form of mass communication. So, here I am in a cliché NYC Starbucks, watching the bustle of Broadway and preparing to publish my thoughts for the world to see.

To start off, I suppose it might be a good idea to explain what this blog is about. And what better way to introduce something than the traditional 6 questions?

WHO:

As the name “EducationThinker” implies, I am a person who thinks about education. I am a college student planning on pursuing a career in education policy reform (and/or law? tbd). I grew up in New York City (with a short hiatus in New Jersey that I’d rather not talk about, but may come up in the future) and had some fairly significant trauma from dealing with bureaucracy in the education system, stories of which I’m sure will come out in this blog at some point or another. I’ve been interested in American education policy since about 8th grade. Currently I attend college in Chicago, where I work with the Neighborhood Schools Program, a great organization that sends university students to help teach classes and run extracurricular programs in underprivileged schools and community programs.

WHAT:

What will this blog be? Well, that is partly unpredictable. As of now, I plan to make this blog a sort of diary of my self-schooling on education policy over the summer (and perhaps beyond).

WHEN:

Daily. Hopefully. Aim high, right?

WHERE:

If you’re here already then you know this, but obviously the location is https://educationthinker.wordpress.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @KiaraNerenberg.

WHY:

This is probably the most important part of the introduction, as this is where I’m going to set some goals for myself and explain my reasoning for starting this blog.

1) Learn: The main goal of this blog is to learn and to educate. I want to educate myself and the public about the news going on in the world of education reform. Through analyzing news in the realm of education, I also hope to learn more about myself and further explore where my interests lie and what my role can be in education reform.

2) Write: Blogging allows people to keep their writing skills in shape, and will allow me to practice my writing while school is out. Additionally, blogging gives way to practicing a much more personable and useful type of writing. I love college, but after a while of writing papers about what Plato and Shakespeare said hundreds of years ago, you begin to feel disconnected from the interpersonal communication that writing is made for.

3) Stay Accountable: My summer focuses on an autodidactic approach to education policy. Writing this blog will help me keep track of what I learn and ensure that I am actively thinking about and analyzing the knowledge I gain.

HOW:

My plan is to post on EducationThinker daily, each day focusing on one thing that I read or watch or experience or witness or think or feel or…really anything relating to education. I think you get the idea.

So, there are my goals. I’m excited to start this experiment in self-education and excited to have you along for the ride!

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