Batch Processing Students on an Assembly Line Using the Factory Model

There’s a revealing little clip in ‘Waiting for Superman’—the feel-bad documentary that was designed to damn public education before revealing and promoting its amazing new successor, charter schools. WFS was loaded with such cartoon animations, weak analogies and essentially irrelevant video captures from TV shows and industrial films from the bad old days (meaning always) when public education utterly failed students. This particular clip shows groups of students on conveyer belts being transported to their destinies as either well-educated ‘leaders’ or, alas, farms and factories, based on the schools they attend.

The belabored point being: a better education (now available by lottery!) would save kids—just like Superman does— from what, generations ago, were considered the natural outcomes of their station in life. Education—not parent income—as magic carpet to a materially good life.

I am heartily sick of reading about the also-inherited, traditional ‘failings’ of public education. I don’t want to read another column about the Committee of Ten and how, 125 years ago, they got it all wrong and now we’re stuck with a useless curriculum and ineffective instruction techniques. I don’t want to hear about the factory model of schooling and how clueless, timid, non-disruptive folk are running public schools like egg crates, isolating teachers and students in age-related cohorts, unwilling to innovate.

Ten to one, the proposed solution involves a whole lot of expensive technology, to ‘individualize’ or ‘personalize’ education for each and every child. But this isn’t a blog about kids and endless screens and profit-making and using unfair metrics to compare students’ memorization skills.

It’s about the concept that much of what happens in school, right now, with students in batches and the same curriculum and instruction being delivered to all 4th graders, factory-like, rather than custom-tailored is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, those old habits work pretty well. A great teacher can build a fine learning community (a phrase I don’t always trust) and teach the kids’ socks off. It happens every day.

And furthermore, people already doing the actual work—teachers—are a lot more amenable to carefully thought-out change, when you don’t refer to their current practice as an ‘assembly line.’

Hanging out on Twitter, I caught this comment from Dr. Tony Wagner, well-known author, presenter and expert on disruption and 21st Century education.

Tony Wagner‏ @DrTonyWagner 

 

Yes. Our assembly line education system was designed to both sort kids and also to batch process large numbers of immigrants & kids from farms to teach basic literacy & numeracy for the industrial era. Think of it as the “Model T” of education. Now we need “Tesla” schools.

Bearing in mind that he’s Dr. Tony Wagner (author of six books, as he points out during some contentious discussion following the next tweet), and I am just a small-potatoes teacher blogger, I nevertheless was irritated enough to respond:

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20

If you really want to transform public education, please stop using dismissive language like ‘batch process’ and ‘sort kids’ and ‘factory model.’ Your zingy ‘Tesla’ comment overlooks the millions in R&D spent on cars, but not on kids.

Dr. Tony Wagner Replying to @nancyflanagan

.@nancyflanagan My comments describe a system’s intent & is historically accurate. It is not a criticism of teachers who do their best in spite of a bad system design. I was one. And I agree that we need more $ for education. Tesla is an analogy for system redesign & edu R&D.

nancyflanagan‏ @nancyflanagan Nov 20 Replying to @DrTonyWagner

‘Assembly line,’ etc. *may* be historically derived, but are still a rank insult to the creative, humane work of modern educators, who don’t see kids as widgets. If you want genuine change, begin w/ those already leading it, not slam-tweets damning the ‘system.’

Because that’s the thing. All folks who are serious about dramatically changing an outmoded educational system feel they have to start by verbally tearing down time-honored practices first. It’s not a quid pro quo—supporting and strengthening what’s good in our community schools does not necessitate name-calling or castigating everything that we’ve been doing for years. Things like circle time, class discussion, reading silently or out loud, Q &A, on-demand writing, group work and games have not outlived their purpose and efficacy. Working with others doesn’t get old.

There are plenty of successful nations who are ‘batch processing’ children in same-age cohorts and getting good outcomes.  Here are 12 recommendations from Finland via the Hechinger Institute (sorry—I know—Finland again) on how to improve American public schools and not one of them suggests that we further ‘individualize’ education, using fine-tuned technologies. Instead, the focus is on community, trust and the well-being of children.

And please—can we stop saying that while a physician from 1918 would not recognize a surgical theatre from 2018, but classrooms today look pretty much the same? In addition to being false—there have been sweeping changes in purposes, practices and technologies at every level—it also overlooks the fact that most of our old-fashioned classrooms look that way because they’ve been seriously neglected for decades.

I do need to note that Dr. Wagner did not shy away from conversation on the Twitter exchange, even when challenged by more sharply articulate tweets than mine. But he has great influence in Ed World. He and other big-name commenters should not be recycling disrespectful ‘factory school’ language. It’s harmful, not helpful.

 

 

 

Black Friday. It’s Not a Thing, Really.

If this is Tuesday, tomorrow is Thanksgiving Eve. And Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, an excellent time to put up your sparkly, festive outdoor lights, weather permitting. Or read a book, supplemented by leftover pie with extra whipped cream, now that you don’t have to share. Or see friends who are home for a few days. In fact, there are dozens of healthy, life-affirming things you can do on Friday.

It’s not a good day to shop, however.  https_mashable.comwp-contentgalleryugly-turkeysugly-turkey-5

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine to shop early for gifts for your beloveds, and even those you don’t particularly care for but feel compelled to gift in the holiday season. The fun of gift-giving comes from knowing the recipient well and savoring the pleasure of their joy and surprise. That shopping, however, can happen in July or the first week of December or via the internet at some random midnight. Just don’t do it on Friday.

Friday is not ‘black’ in any sense. It’s merely the day after a national holiday–a day when frisky kids hoping for parental attention are out of school, when you may need to burn off a few calories, and when your residual musing about gratitude (thanks-giving, that is) may lead you to a day spent in profitable thought about the good, shareable things in your life. A day for people. Even (and I am deeply suspicious of this word) your blessings.

I do understand that it’s the day merchants want to recoup their ‘losses’ and turn them into a solid month of profit–black ink. More profit than last year, actually. This is kind of like the way the school reformers press to see this year’s test scores top last year’s. Every year must be bigger and better.

Everyone calls this ‘growth.’ There are famous, full-blown clubs for growth, replete with Republican operants, innovative strategies to reward greed, and probably secret handshakes. Growth is supposed to be the One Big Thing we all desire and pursue

But I have to ask: What do you owe these sellers and commercial interests? Why are you responding to their glitzy loss-leader bait, loading your shopping carts and packing the icy parking lot, to get a TV at 50% off? In addition to feeling tired and cranky, do you feel manipulated? You should

What impulse in our nature draws us to such a ‘bargain?’  Whatever it is, it wasn’t always part of the American story.  Early Christmases–even those in the 20th century–were far simpler but no less joyful. One of Bill McKibben’s early books was about celebrating the holiday with a $100 limit on spending, relying instead on creativity.

Most of us would consider this wistfully, then conclude that, given our obligations and habits, and the expectations of others, it’s impossible. But what if it weren’t? Most world religious customs see the ancient, cyclical return of the light as a time for celebration, and have stories and rituals associated with fending off the darkness. It’s not about spending. It’s about love and tradition.

Ignoring Black Friday is a great place to start. Black Friday was not widely recognized until the 1980s in most parts of the country. Like Sweetest Day gifts and Presidents’ Weekend sales, it was invented by folks who want your money.

Think for yourself. Black Friday is not really a thing.

The Best Woman for the Job

Now that I’m not in the classroom every day, I occasionally have breakfast with a group of retired band directors who live in Northern Michigan and meet monthly to reminisce about the good old days in public school music education. Here we are, in September. Notice anything?

cadillac breakfast.jpg

 

I’m guessing the gender ratio would be similar in any state, if you got retired school band teachers together.  Kind of looks like Congress did, in the 1970s, when I started teaching. Or graduation day at any law, engineering or medical school, back then. A man’s, man’s, etc. world.

I have a large collection of stories around being the only alto in a room full of tenors and basses, year after year. Some of them are funny (like my very first regional band directors’ association meeting, where I was offered the position of Secretary five minutes after introducing myself—and I took it). Some are terrible, heart-rending memories of being belittled, underestimated and ignored. Or worse.

The funny thing is, I didn’t set out to be a pioneer.

I wanted to teach instrumental music, for two simple reasons. One, playing music was my greatest joy in life. Nothing moved me and fulfilled me more than the challenge and the glory that came from making beautiful music.  That may sound like rhetorical overkill, but it’s true. I got hooked on gorgeous music early in life and wanted to turn it into my life’s work. I wanted to share that joy with kids—make their lives richer and more rewarding.

The second reason I became a band director is because I thought I’d be good at it.  I’d observed many instrumental conductors at all levels, played in lots of groups other than my school band—and knew something about what motivated me as a student musician. I had already worked hard to successfully master an instrument and was confident that I could learn the skills and knowledge necessary to become a school band teacher.

Of course, I knew that most band teachers were men. In fact, I’d never worked with or even met a woman director. My high school band instructor told me that he ‘didn’t believe in lady band directors’ and suggested I pursue elementary music education as a college major. The university I chose (like other universities at the time) did not permit women in the marching band—it took lawsuits to make that happen, around the country. Nobody was encouraging me or mentoring me.

Nevertheless, I persisted. It really wasn’t a dramatic personal quest to break a glass ceiling with my piccolo.  I just wanted to teach band.  It seemed like a fun and rewarding job. For anyone.

I went on job interviews where my fitness and stamina in directing a band were questioned. One principal I interviewed with told me he had no intention of hiring me—he just wanted to meet the girl who thought she could handle his HS band.  When I finally got a job, teaching middle school band, the principal who hired me had been on the job one day.  Maybe he didn’t know the rules about band directors? In any event, once I got a job, I was a band director for 30 years.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal, as mid-term election outcomes have become clear. You’ve probably seen the photographic comparison of Republican vs. Democratic freshmen in the House of Representatives.  ‘Diversity on Stark Display’ says the headline—and it would be difficult to argue, in a representative democracy, that diversity isn’t the crucial ingredient in a fair and equitable decision-making body—or teaching staff, for that matter.

Senator Debbie Stabenow wrote a piece about how the top four offices on the ballot in Michigan were won by women. Not because they were women. But because they were the best person running for the job. The entire mid-term election was a festival of firsts, on the diversity front—and the outcomes were good.

Numbers, in all jobs and experiences once thought to be (usually white) men’s work, are leveling out. The visible trends are positive. And that—in politics, education and the world of work—is good. I’m grateful to every woman who carved or smoothed the pathway for those who came after her.

That doesn’t mean that subtle, deeply embedded sexism has gone away, though. It hasn’t.

It’s often understated and frequently not recognized by its perpetrators. Men relate differently to other men than they do women, in the workplace (and on line). Sometimes, our buried assumptions drive actions in ways we can’t predict. It’s complicated. I learned to work around bias toward women as band directors, but it never went away.

I’m not just making this up, by the way. There’s research.

Whenever I’ve written a blog about the lopsided gender relationships in education, I get a lot of negative feedback. There is lots of room for growth in the way we value who’s teaching second grade, and who’s writing the laws that govern education, however.

You have to be careful before leveling a charge of sexism. But the fact remains, sometimes the best woman for the job is passed over for someone whose qualifications are being louder and ‘bolder.

 

 

Why Don’t People Vote for Public Education?

She’s a longtime friend, although we haven’t seen each other face to face in years. She lives in a very rural part of my (geographically large) state. She’s a picture-sharing, hands-on grandmother and a talented gardener. And–she’s a creative, award-winning veteran teacher, respected by generations of kids and parents in her remote school district. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has praised her patience, skill and dedication in the classroom.

Yesterday, this woman, vocal advocate of second chances for students, expressing gratitude and innovative math, was infuriated. Not only did a school bond issue go down in flames on Tuesday, the same citizens in her town enthusiastically voted to approve recreational marijuana use.

She let off more than a little steam online and was uncharacteristically bitter.  It wasn’t just about the asbestos in the walls, laughably old technology and sketchy outdated heating systems. (Think: Michigan winters, 125+ inches of snow. Seriously.)

It was about what her students perceive when they enter that building: this is what my community thinks is ‘good enough’ for me and my classmates.

More than 100 comments bloomed, from sympathetic friends across the country and right there in her hometown. Much of it was commiserating about how little the citizenry cares for public education. There were dozens of thank-yous from parents and students, testifying to her proficiency in teaching, patience and kindness, and there was plenty of anger over misplaced values. Short-term personal gratification ahead of better prospects for the next generation, that kind of thing.

She was right to be furious.

In Michigan, a state where per-pupil funding is not based on property taxes but is calculated by a unique –notice I didn’t say ‘fair’ or ‘effective’–formula developed in the 1990s, the only say voters have in determining how much of their tax contribution goes to schools is around bond issues. Voters can say yes to updating schools or building new ones. Bricks and mortar stuff—but not salaries or materials, operating expenses.

It’s ironic, this ability to vote on crumbling facilities—the new roof necessary because of ice dams or the toxic plume behind the bus garage—while all the dazzling stuff that the Tony Wagners of the world think will transform learning and make kids ready for the 21st century is not fundable by taxpayer voting.

And I’m not referring just to computers and other digital technologies (although my friend lives in a place where a high-speed connection and feature-loaded personal devices are by no means a given).  I’m talking about small, custom-tailored classes, personnel capable of dealing with personalized learning needs, and constantly updated materials. It all costs money, something that isn’t immediately obvious in the glossy pictures of ‘21st century’ high school students in their coffee-shop learning pods.

My friend has done more than the average teacher to personalize her practice and facilitate an unsexy version of 21st century learning. She has been recognized for innovative use of technology (vitally important in distance learning), but it’s way more than that. She feeds kids (literally and metaphorically) and clothes them and loves them as her own. And she worries about what they’re learning and how it impacts their future. She stays current. She hasn’t given up.

Naturally, there were comments about people in this underemployed area being unable to feed their families. That’s not just blowing smoke (of any flavor). Rural poverty is typical in this part of Michigan. And voting against taxation is a time-honored tradition in Red America, even if it means your kid attends a school where the drinking water isn’t safe, like this one.

I’ve heard parents say, repeatedly, that they can’t afford to say yes to even a slight increase. And I know the answer isn’t in scolding them for their purchasing choices or other financial values. We have lost our middle class and our working-class folks aren’t keeping up, economically. What we need, really, is a higher minimum wage and better jobs, the kind that make it possible to stretch a household budget and invest in your community.

It’s a systemic, deep-rooted problem. And it’s complicated by the fact that many ‘no’ voters feel powerless about so many things—they don’t control the cost of gas or groceries, they can’t find a new job, but they can say no to a bond issue. They can rationalize it by saying kids ‘don’t need’ fancy new amenities.

You can understand why charter schools, put up quickly and initially funded by for-profit CMOs, have curb appeal in rural areas.

The saddest comment came from a woman who noted that the school was the ‘beating heart’ of this tiny town. That, I think, is what this comes down to. We have lost our appreciation for place-based education, for having a common purpose of making things better for the next generation. We’ve been encouraged to focus on ourselves.

We have political role models whose greatest accomplishments have come from cheating others, on full display this week.

All politics are local—and there’s nothing more local than a school bond issue. I’m glad my friend shared her disappointment and resentment, because she lives there, too, and is part of the community. Today was Parent-Teacher conference day, and she posted a cheery message about how important it is to know more about her students. This is what democracy looks like–saying your piece, then moving ahead. It’s what we did on Tuesday.

She’ll survive. I have my doubts about public education.sad-505857_960_720