Monday, April 29, 2013

The New York Times Discovers Educational Public Health!

I'm racing to read my huge stack of student papers before Wednesday's grading deadline, but I have to note an excellent post that went up at the NYT this past weekend.  It's from a Stanford professor who's doing good work on income inequality and education--good work that would fit well into my fantasy graduate school of educational public health.  The post is called "No Rich Child Left Behind", and it makes the very important points that:

A) Educational outcomes are and have always been very, very dependent on class.

B) The disparity in achievement between rich and poor has increased over the past fifty years, with the big difference coming because the performance of rich kids has significantly increased since the 1980s, so that whereas in 1980 there wasn't much difference between the rich and the middle class, now there is a significant gap.

C) Test scores of poor kids are not dropping--on the contrary, they are increasing, and the widening gap between rich and poor is because the test scores of the poor and middle class are not improving as quickly as those of the rich.

D) School narrows the gap: over the nine-months of the school year, the gap narrows, but then it increases again (and a bit more) in the summer.

E) According to the author, some of the growing gap comes because of the significant increase in inequality over the last few decades, but some of it also comes because the rich have been devoting ever more resources to the support and have been engaging in, to borrow a phrase from other researchers, "concerted cultivation" of their children's cognitive resources.

In a wonderful section of the post, Reardon writes:

It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.
Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.
We need to start talking about this.

Yes, we do need to start talking about it, and Reardon starts talking about it in a very important way: rather than talking about how schools can narrow the gap, for instance by using schools to provide social services (something I've argued is silly), he talks about, not only  investing in quality early childhood care for  kids of working parents, but also on providing families with the time and resources to take better care of their own kids.  "Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children," he writes, and goes on to suggest the eminently sensible idea of providing more support for parental leave from work. In this spirit, I have suggested that raising the minimum wage and having a better national health insurance system should also be seen as important educational initiatives.

Reardon also mentions that the American Educational Research Association has decided to make the theme of its annual conference this year be "Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy and Praxis."  That is of course good news, and although the conference's theme is a bit mealy-mouthed, some of the responses to the theme are interesting--my favorite of the ones I've read so far is the obvious but necessary "The Poverty of Capitalism" by a UCLA prof named Peter McClaren, who says important things even as he conforms touchingly, as I think Noel Coward once wrote, to type (check out his picture in the appendix below), but I also like the idea that we have conversations with our poor students about how "poverty is a prejudiced construct sustained by those who are led to believe that “venerated” institutions are the preferred, superior and normative legislator for values and morals because of their power to grant and reproduce intellectual, academic, able-istic, gendered, classed, religious, environmental, ethnic, linguistic and heternormative capital within dominant culture."

Overall, however, what I'm seeing on the conference website looks a bit more like a backwater of clever theory than anything that will build the institutions we need to combat either capitalism or its constructs.  Again, what we need is a proper, scientific graduate school of educational public health. I think we need to speak the language of the society we live in, not plan for a revolution that may never come, and which, if it did come, would have nothing at all to do with our planning.  That's why I prefer Sean Reardon over Peter McClaren.  But I could be wrong!

In any case, I'm very glad to see the post at the Times, and I'm glad that some people are thinking and talking about the way poverty matters.  I look forward to reading some of McClaren's research.


For those who like visuals and want to be touched in that Noel Coward way, here's Peter McClaren, the revolutionary critic of Capitalism (or has Tom Petty found a second career?):
Peter McClaren
And, in a picture conforming a bit less touchingly to type, here's Sean Reardon, the Director of Stanford's Interdisicplinary doctoral Training Program in Quantitative Educational Policy Analysis and my hero for this week:

Sean F. Reardon
Sean Reardon

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Common Core baloney from the New York Times

I missed this NYT editorial from a few days ago on the Common Core, which the editorial calls "clearly the most important education reform in the country’s history."  That may be debatable, but what comes next is mostly just outright falsehood.

"The Common Core standards were the product of a heavily researched, bipartisan effort pioneered by the National Governors Association in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers. The effort arose from a broad recognition that the United States was losing ground to many of its competitors abroad because the learning standards as applied in most states were pathetically weak."

The parts I've bolded are, I believe, simply false. The Common Core is, as far as I can tell by reading its own literature, very thinly researched.  Also, the US is not losing ground to its competitors, and it is far from clear that student achievement has anything to do with "learning standards."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Against lockdowns

I've never liked lockdown drills, especially in schools.  They strike me as unnecessarily scary, making millions of children consider the possibility of a "shooter" (the term that was used in Leafstrewn when lockdowns were introduced a few years ago) roaming their school with intent to slaughter them, and I'm skeptical about their effectiveness.  And now it looks like the city-wide lockdown yesterday wasn't really necessary or effective.

From what the Boston Globe reported this morning, after the suspect eluded the police, he never left the neighborhood, but despite a complete lockdown of the area and a somewhat looser city-wide lockdown (my kids and I managed to slip out to a neighboring town to go to a park), the police weren't able to find him.  Only after the lockdown was lifted, and ordinary people were able to leave their houses, did a local guy go out to his yard, notice blood on his boat and a hole in his tarp, and find the fugitive.

It is of course possible that lockdowns are sometimes useful, but I remain very doubtful that they're worth the effort and the fear.  They mainly, I think, serve to heighten our general climate of paranoia and terror.  Incidents of terrorism are generally trending down in the US over the past many decades, but because our culture is much more terrified, the effectiveness of each incident is much increased, and lockdowns are a part of that trend.  We should think about stopping them.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

We may see improved educational outcomes over the next ten years... no thanks to ed reform

Despite the recession, the long-term unemployment disaster and the ever-higher rates of inequality, there are signs of hope on the educational public health front.  Infant mortality, which may be a leading indicator of other outcomes, has been falling pretty fast over the past several years.  Let's hope that Obamacare helps to continue this positive trend.

Economics research is better than education research, after all!

It's been interesting to follow the responses to the revelation that Reinhardt and Rogoff's influential 2010 paper about debt and growth was fundamentally flawed (their paper implied, and their own public advocacy made more explicit, that once a country's debt/GDP ratio got above 90%, economic growth fell off sharply, but it turns out that there is no such falling off).

I've already written about the first thing that interested me, the similarity between the shoddiness of economics research and the shoddiness of education research.  Neither field is particularly scientific, and both are subject to what looks to me like heavy cultural and political bias or influence. One problem is that it's difficult in both fields, and virtually impossible in macroeconomics, to do controlled experiments.  A related problem is that it's often hard to tell what's cause and what's effect. And both education and economics are central to culture and politics, so both are more subject to cultural and political pressures than, say, chemistry.

Another remarkable phenomenon has been the chutzpah of Reinhardt and Rogoff. In their response yesterday, they wrote that they didn't believe that their mistakes affected in any significant way the "central message" of the 2010 paper or their subsequent work. That is an eye-poppingly nervy assertion.  You would never know from their response that the supposed 90% tipping point had become central to the public debate, nor that they themselves, in testimony to Congress and in prominent opinion articles, like this one, had claimed that the 90% line was "an important marker," with "little association" between debt and growth below 90%. Nor, from their response, would you know that they had continually, in their public statements, implied that it was the debt that was causing the slow growth, rather than the other way around.

The other interesting thing about the R&R debate this week has been the amount of attention, discussion, and thoughtful analysis their work has prompted.  And it is here that the economics research community has shown itself as vastly superior to the education research community.  Thoughtful and fundamental questions had been raised about the Reinhardt/Rogoff paper from the very beginning, with people like Dean Baker and Paul Krugman and many others suggesting that their 90% cut-off was bogus, that the causality was likely reversed (with the slow growth causing the debt, rather than vice versa), and that R&R should release their data set so that other researchers could analyze it.  Then this week, once the data was finally made available to the public, other scholars did immediately start to analyze it, with one of them finding that the causality did indeed seem to run the other way, since high debt was correlated more with low growth in prior years than with low growth in succeeding years, and with others noting that the negative relationship between debt and growth was more significant at the low levels of debt (<30%) that R&R had claimed showed "little association" than at the >90% levels that R&R had been telling everyone were so dangerous.

The level of debate, just over the past couple of days, has been impressive, and puts education debates to shame.  For instance, when I looked into vocabulary research last summer, what I found was virtually no scientific debate at all, and an apparently general innumeracy that supported Paul Krugman's contention that advanced mathematics is usually not important; what you need instead is just a level of comfort with numbers and a sense of how they relate to the real world.  The same was true when I looked closely at the most prominent statistical study of education research, John Hattie's meta-analysis of education studies; there were significant problems with his analysis that seemed to have been publicly noted, in the years since publication, only by a guy in Norway and by me, a high school English teacher.

This is not to say that education research is never thoughtfully debated.  When the Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff paper about the long-term effects of "high-VA" teachers came out, it was very carefully responded to by Bruce Baker, among others.  Overall, however, education research strikes me as basically a backwater, and especially those areas of research that have to do with actual pedagogy.  Perhaps this is partly because pedagogy, despite its central importance, seems more obscure to non-teachers than less important but larger-scale issues like school funding and class sizes.  These large-scale issues seem more like economics problems, and so tend to be studied, not by Ed. School professors, but by economists.  Some of the best work on class sizes was done by Alan Krueger, the chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, and the study on the long-term effects of "high-VA" teachers was done by Raj Chetty, who just won the Clark medal.

So, how can Education research get better?  I'm not sure.  I guess I hope people become more aware that it's lousy and that when scholarship is brought into public debate it is almost inevitably turned into propaganda, even by the scholars themselves. In particular I hope it becomes clear that some of the great received ideas of the ed. world are actually urban legends (vocabulary increases comprehension; schools can overcome poverty; etc.)--but that's another post.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

And I thought economics research was slightly more trustworthy than Ed. research?

I have often been amazed at how sloppy and thin education research is. An item in today's news reminds me that all human endeavor is subject to the same human error.

For years now, the public debate over governmental spending and governmental debt, which has led to the truly bizarre situation of a Democratic U.S. President proposing to cut Social Security and Medicare, has been heavily influenced by a 2010 study by two eminent economists, Reinhart and Rogoff.  The R/R study claimed to show, by rigorous analysis of the historical record, that countries with high government debt levels (above 90% of GDP, I think was the number) had very low economic growth--actually, economic growth of -0.1%, so not growth at all, but contraction.  This paper was used to argue that the correct response to the economic crisis of recent years was not stimulus spending, as per Keynes and much of standard textbook economics, because stimulus spending that increased debt levels too high would not be stimulative, but contractionary. Instead of doing stimulus spending, governments were supposed to respond to the deep recession by...  well, at any rate by doing something else (all too often education reform was dragged into the debate).

Now, with the publication of a paper by UMass researchers, it turns out that the Reinhart/Rogoff study was flawed, partly due to massaging the data in unconventional ways (picking and choosing, and weighting it weirdly), and partly--get this--due to a typo in the excel spreadsheet they used to work with their data. The typo (44 instead of 49) led to the exclusion several key countries.  Mike Konczal covers it here, but the key result is that if you handle the data normally and don't have the typo, countries with 90% debt/GDP ratios actually had average economic growth of 2.2%, not -0.1%.  2.2% is not great, but it's not negative, and it destroys the argument that most mainstream economists and pundits have been using to argue for cuts in government spending.

This is really remarkable news for anyone who's been following the public economics discourse recently.  The Reinhart/Rogoff study has been cited more than anything else in the debates these past few years over government spending (for example, just last week Paul Ryan's response to Obama's budget was entirely based on the R/R study) by people who needed an apparent scientific basis for cuts in government spending like those that have brought England back into recession and Europe to the first stages of dissolution, and yet the study seems to have been simply shoddy and wrong.

What to take away from this?  One, we can usually trust Dean Baker and Paul Krugman.  Two, it behooves us to be modest, compassionate and natural, and to beware of dodgy dossiers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Kids talking about not reading

Below is a video made by the estimable Penny Kittle, whose brand new title, Book Love, ably makes the case for an English curriculum of 50% free-choice reading.  The video's a bit self-serving, but that seems to be the nature of a lot of the discourse in the education world. In any case, she's doing the right thing, and I imagine her students are reading almost as much in her class as they say they are.  Here's hoping that this title, coming not so long after the similar but less amiably titled Readicide (though many years after the wonderful Mary Leonhardt books--and perhaps other books I don't know about yet), heralds a new age in adolescent literacy.

Here's the video:

A kid who "hates" reading

I. "I hate reading!"

At the beginning of one of my classes last Thursday, I asked the kids to get out their books and start reading.  We frequently spend the first ten to fifteen minutes of class reading silently, and some students had already started; others were opening backpacks and digging out their independent reading books.  Then one girl--I'll call her "Karenna"--slammed her copy of The Lovely Bones on her desk and said, loudly: "Why do we have to read?  I hate reading.  We spend forty-five minutes a day reading.  Can't we do something else?"

This got everyone's attention, and we hadn't talked about this issue recently, so I decided to speak to the whole class.  I suggested that in fact we averaged about ten minutes a day of reading, and that we had only once or twice all year spent more than half an hour reading in class, and I said, as I often do, that reading was important, it was what we were there in English class to get better at, there was no way to get better than to actually do it, and most people would prefer to read a book of their own choosing.  Then I asked the class how many of them would prefer to do something else.  One other girl, a friend of the first one, raised her hand.

In any case, Karenna, I went on, I don't believe that you just never enjoy reading.  You are smart and interesting, and there are lots of different books in the world.  Maybe The Lovely Bones just isn't the right book for you.  What's a book you've enjoyed?

She admitted to having liked an Ellen Hopkins book she read earlier in the year.  Well, I said, even though you've tried other Ellen Hopkins books and haven't liked them, we know you CAN like to read.  You just need to find a new book.  Then I turned to her friend.

Her friend, who happened to be reading another Alice Sebold book, Lucky, cannily said, "Well, I like my book.  But I don't like reading.  I just don't enjoy the activity."

I thought about this for a second.  Clearly with these two kids I hadn't succeeded in "teaching a love of reading."  What to do?

II. Inappropro... what kids like?

I ended up sending Karenna down to the library to find another book.  I sent another student (not her friend) along with her, to help out.  The girl I sent didn't want to go--maybe she wanted to read?--but I told her that since she had already read dozens of books this year, missing twenty minutes of reading wouldn't hurt her--and besides, as an avid reader, she'd be able to help Karenna find a book.  But, the girl said, I don't like the library; I haven't been to the library all year. Okay, I replied, it will be good for you, too, then--you should get to know the library!

After they left, the rest of the class got down to business.  It wasn't long before Karenna's friend, the one who had backed her up and said that she, too, hated reading, called me over to tell me about what had happened in her book. Last week, this girl had been amazed that Alice Sebold's memoir had moved so abruptly away from the verdict in the trial of her rapist, without going into how it had affected her.  Now she wanted to let me know that Sebold had started discussing the longer term effects of her trauma.  "She's got PTSD," the girl informed me.   I said something appreciative, and moved on.  A few minutes later, the same girl called me back over and informed me, in a loud voice, that Sebold was doing crack and heroin.  A few minutes later she had to tell me that Sebold had gone to Germany and let a bunch of guys have sex with her all in a row.  I was duly horrified, and I think the girl appreciated my horror.

A few minutes later, as we were finishing up our twenty minutes of reading, the two other two girls returned from the library, the one who hated reading holding a copy of Lauren Myracle's l8r, g8r. Some adults don't like that book, focusing on the inappropriate sex--but maybe that's what some (all?) kids want to read about...

III.  What next?
I don't know yet how Karenna is liking l8r, g8r (and I wonder why she didn't start with the first book in the series!), but the day overall left me thinking about how I could have done a better job of encouraging these girls to find books they actually like. Karenna has been resistant since the beginning--I remember she told me on day one that she only liked Ellen Hopkins, and I had a talk with her very thoughtful mom on parents' night about how difficult it always was to get Karenna to read--but I think if I had been able to put in her hands a much wider variety of books, especially books that were easier than The Lovely Bones, then maybe by now she would have developed more "reading perseverance," as some people put it.

The best way to do this would be to have lots and lots of books in the classroom, since going to the library doesn't come easily to some kids (like the avid reader who hadn't yet been to the library), but I should have been taking the class to the library regularly, having kids booktalk more often, and talking often about how we find books.  (I also could have instituted a rule about how quickly you have to move through your book before you have to switch.  Karenna has been moving very slowly through The Lovely Bones for about a month now, and I should have forced her to switch.)

In any case, while independent reading has been working well for most of my students, there are some for whom it's not working.  I've often said that we need to be better at providing kids books to read and time to read them.  I've gotten much better at providing time; now I need to get better at providing books.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Classroom environments in elementary school and high school

Why is it that K-8 classrooms often seem better than high school classrooms? 
Like Nancie Atwell, I think we secondary English teachers can learn a lot from our elementary school colleagues. I remember thinking, when my son was in third grade, that the ELA curriculum he was getting (reader's and writer's workshop, basically) was in many ways better than what I was doing with my students, and much of the work I've done over the past few years has been trying, with mixed results, to replicate that feel in my own classes. It seems that every exciting curriculum idea I have, it turns out that elementary school teachers have been doing the same thing for years. I recently read a good book about reading conferences written by a third grade teacher (Conferring, by Patrick Allen); the book made a coherent, mature presentation of what my colleagues and I have been only beginning to investigate. It sometimes seems as if as if small bands of us high school teachers are hacking through the jungle in search of a lost garden that K-8 teachers rediscovered long ago.

What does the lost garden look like? 
In our department meeting last week, we were asked to list some things we would see if we spent ten minutes in an excellent English class.  Some of us came up with things like having a lesson plan on the board that students seemed to understand; others were more focused on whether there seemed to be evidence of engaged reading. When I got home, I asked the same question of my children, and my eight-year-old daughter said, "That's easy: no desks! Instead, you should have tables."  She did go on to list two other important things ("A nice teacher, and books--good books!"), but then she came back to the physical environment: "You should at least have a little cozy corner." My son, who's twelve, started by focusing on student independence ("kids should be working on their own projects 50% of the time"), but then he said, "oh, and there should be bean bag chairs and clipboards!"

My kids' focus on the physical space of the classroom, and in particular their insistence that an excellent English class would not have school desks, is well aligned with the practice of K-8 teachers. In the book I read about reading conferences, Patrick Allen has a section on the layout of the classroom.  He says that it is really important what the classroom looks and feels like, and he cites Debbie Miller and her book, Reading with Meaning, as inspiration. "Debbie taught me that beauty and organization are essential," Allen writes. "We have to be purposeful about how we set up our environment." This purposefulness is evident in the hours and hours that K-8 teachers spend in setting up their rooms.  We at the secondary level don't do the same, but maybe we should.

At Leafstrewn, we share classrooms, so it's not as easy to make your room your own--and even those teachers who do personalize their rooms end up with what could be seen as basically high-quality window-dressing.  My colleagues Rich, Steve and Mark all have wonderful, very distinctive rooms whose walls are covered with fascinating art, maps and memorabilia, whose corners are stuffed with interesting artifacts (bicycles, stuffed ravens, etc.). But even these classrooms conform to the same basic formula:  the teacher's desk and a chalkboard at the front, and student desks arranged in a semicircle or double-horseshoe around the rest of the room.  The bric-a-brac, maps and artwork personalize the rooms, but while students certainly seem to appreciate these distinctive rooms, just as they appreciate these distinctive teachers, the rooms still put the focus on the teacher, not on the students. It could be argued that these are still more rooms for teachers to teach in, than rooms for students to work and learn in.

Nevertheless, I haven't even done what Rich, Steve and Mark have done.  I have always assumed, I guess, that the environment didn't matter, that reading and writing were so inherently interesting that they could be done just about anywhere. But I'm starting to think the second-grade teachers might be right, and I want to start planning how I will move my own classroom more in their direction.  Can we move away from the teacher-focused semicircle of desks?

Is a different kind of classroom possible in a conventional high school?
When I taught second and third grade, we had tables and a cozy corner, but every high school English classroom I've ever been in has had desks with attached chairs, even though no one really likes those things (there's even a Facebook page about hating them).  Obviously there are lots of reasons to use these desks (flexibility being the main one, since the desks are so easy to move around within and among classrooms to suit different purposes), but I am curious: what would a different model of a high school classroom look like?

I could envision a classroom that would feel more like the room that houses Leafstrewn's program for kids making the transition back to school after being hospitalized or out for serious emotional or mental disorders.  That room has both tables and easy chairs, it has potted plants, it has a few computers, and it has a little library of books and magazines.  Whenever I go in there I always think: why would anyone want to go from this wonderful, comfortable environment back to a regular classroom?  If only my own classroom could be as welcoming, attractive and richly furnished!  A few easy chairs, tables instead of desks, a wall of bookcases...

Nevertheless, putting this scheme into practice would not be easy.  There are, first of all, real space constraints. The transitional program usually seems to have only about seven students in the room. High school kids are larger than 2nd graders, and if we were to have tables instead of desks, it would be difficult to fit 26 students.  Another limitation is that tables are good for discussion, but they are also good for socializing.  I met with a librarian to talk about summer reading last week, and every few minutes she had to deal with trying to quiet kids down at the table they were sitting and supposedly working at (another issue at our school is that there are few attractive places besides the library for kids to hang out in, so the library is used as much for socializing, or for surfing the web, as for studying, and it’s rare that I see anybody sitting in the library and actually reading.  We need a literacy lounge!) Another problem is that we already have the desks...

What could be done within the constraints of our current rooms and desks?

1) I could get a few comfortable chairs.  Sitting in them could be a privilege…

2) I could have a tea corner.  Tea is calming, and students appreciate the vibe.  I think tea, in connection with a very serious attitude about reading, could make for a wonderful combination of treating the kids like students and treating them like human beings.

3) Classroom libraries!  This is really, really important.

4) In-class reading journals, for daily writing.  These could lead to a longer writing assignment that could be done at home—but in that case the notes in the journals would have to be transferred to computers during class time.

5) Space on the walls: for awesome student work, for students to put up raves about books they recommend to others, and for the teacher (me) to put up: things to remember; cool words of the week; the book(s) I’m reading now, and a list of all the books I have read over the course of the year.  Maybe students could put up the same things…

And what else?  What have I forgotten?  Is this impossible?  Is this important?  If the classroom changed, would the teaching practice have to change?  What do you think?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Teachers, per-pupil spending and student achievement

[Update: Many thanks to Louis F. Caruso for pointing out in a comment on this post that student achievement, whether flat or not, is all about shifting demographics.  I should have known that student achievement was largely about students, not schools!  Caruso mentions increasing ELL and SE students; after a quick look into the matter, it seems like other demographic shifts may be significant as well. In any case, the supposedly "flat" student achievement is, while understandable for the reasons I discuss below, also not as flat as it may seem on the surface.]

American schools have spent more per pupil since the 1970s without seeing a proportionate improvement in student achievement.  Many proponents of "education reform" cite this fact as evidence that (A) our schools are failing, and that (B) we need to destroy teachers' unions. This doesn't make sense; here's why:

Yes, we have been spending more per student and seeing few achievement gains:

Below is a graph used by Bill Gates a couple of years ago. This graph is pretty similar to other graphs used by other Ed Reform types (see graph #3 here); it shows per pupil expenditure doubling since the 1970s, and NAEP scores not changing much.


This is a somewhat dubious graph, since it looks like there might be SOME improvement in the test scores, and the Y-axis scales are not necessarily comparable.  But let's grant that okay, we have spent more money without getting much improvement.  Now why would this be?  The answer Gates has generally given, and that Ed Reformers give, is that bad teachers and obstructive teachers' unions are getting in the way of improvement.  This strikes me as wrong for three reasons:

1. Teachers and kids are not getting better from century to century and decade to decade (there is no Moore's Law for teachers and children)

2. Even though teachers should be making more money, to share in the national wealth, in fact they are not--salaries have been flat since the seventies!

3. Therefore, the increase in per pupil spending has been in other areas--but what?

No wonder students and teachers haven't improved much: people are not like microchips 

Teaching, like parenting or art, takes just as much time as it always took, and is not necessarily better now than a generation ago.  It takes many fewer people-hours to make a computer than it did in 1975, and the computers we make are of dramatically better quality, but the art that we make, or the children that we raise, are not so dramatically better.  Maybe they're a little better, but they're not dramatically better.

Some things have gotten better:

Standard 1970s computer

Standard computer today

But some things have not gotten better:

Bobby Orr
Brad Marchant

People are not computers. To ask Brad Marchant to be a better hockey player than Bobby Orr, or a better sportsman, is absurd; to ask today's poets to be better than Larkin or Ashbery is absurd; and to ask today's teachers to be better than, say, my mom, is equally absurd.

Our national income has gone up, so teachers' incomes should have gone up, too... 

Over the thirty-plus years that Gates's graph covers, America has gotten much, much richer. One way to measure how rich we are is GDP; in order to adjust for an increase in population and for ups and downs in how many hours people work, we can use GDP per hour worked.  By this measure, America nearly twice as rich now as in 1975.

Graph of Real GDP per Hour Worked in the United States

If the national income has gone up a lot, then you might imagine that teachers, like hockey players, might get paid a bit more, even if we aren't much better than our 1975 counterparts.

...but, amazingly enough, teachers' salaries have NOT gone up!

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a high school teacher in 1973 made, in 2007 dollars, $51,961  In 2007, the average high school teacher made $52,367.  Teacher salaries have been flat for over 30 years, despite the remarkable GDP growth we've seen.

Teachers are not alone. Wages in America, except for the top 10% or so, have been flat for decades.  The country has gotten much richer, but the overwhelming majority of workers have not shared in this prosperity.  Here's a graph showing growth in GDP/hour worked ("productivity") and in hourly compensation for non-supervisory workers; you can see the divergence between GDP and wages, starting in the early 70s:

Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011

So even though teachers SHOULD be making more money, we're not.  This certainly begs the question of what that extra money has been spent on.  I'm not a school finance expert, but you'd think people like Bill Gates might be able to figure it out.  If he hasn't, this is another pretty good argument for his not being in good faith.  He sends his kids to their fancy private school, which no doubt has the same exact dynamic going on (rising per-pupil costs, flat student achievement numbers and flat teacher salaries), but it never occurs to him that maybe his attacks on teachers are fundamentally wrong?  (It's nice to see him, in his 4/3 WaPo piece, trying to be more diplomatic, but he has no credibility.)

Update: On second thought, I shouldn't have said that the WaPo piece was nice.  Anthony Cody is right; that Gates is pompously criticizing an over-reliance on test scores is outrageously hypocritical, given that Gates has arguably the largest individual responsibility for our current testing mania.  But then, this is a guy who without a glimmer of irony has a Gatsby quote about failing to reach your dreams engraved in the library of his Gatsby-esque mansion.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Jane Austen's theory of education

I've been reading Pride and Prejudice out loud to my son, and last night I was happy to find that Austen's theory of education is similar to my own.  In chapter 29 she presents her thinking in the form of a dialogue between Lady Catherine de Bourgh, one of Austen's great monsters, and the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who is always right except about men.

Here is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, prefiguring Dickens's Gradgrind: "Nothing is to be done in education without steady and regular instruction, and nobody but a governess can give it."

And here is Lizzy Bennet defending, in the great tradition of Franklin, Douglass, Malcolm X and Stephen Krashen, her reading-based education: "We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary."

Novelists are biased, no doubt, but it is striking how often they portray education as coming entirely out of independent reading.  The only counterexample I can think of offhand is something John Updike said once--something like, "I read what I was assigned and thought myself the better for it."  But Updike was probably being contrarian.

Update on Updike: I was wrong; I just looked it up (the internet is amazing), and even in the passage I was thinking of, Updike, too, makes the case for self-selected reading in childhood and adolescence.  Updike was a very erudite guy, and did extremely well academically (top of his class in English at Harvard, for whatever that's worth), but his preparation seems to have been largely pleasure reading:

"I read books of humor by Thurber and Benchley and Wodehouse and Frank Sullivan and E. B. White, and mystery novels by Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner and John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh.  This diet pretty well took me up to Harvard, where I read what they told me, and was much the better for it."
     -- John Updike, Self Consiousness, page 109

Monday, April 1, 2013

The best book I've read so far about teaching high school English

A lot of the good books about teaching reading are by and for K-8 ELA teachers.  I like Nancie Atwell's The Reading Zone, and I just read a good one by Patrick Allen about reading conferences, which said everything I have been groping toward over the past month or two.  I haven't read many books aimed at high school English teachers, but of the ones I have looked at, this one is the best:

The author, Mary Leonhardt, who taught for 37 years and ended her career at Concord-Carlisle, published a bunch of well-received books about reading aimed at parents, but this one is for teachers.  Leonhardt writes in a clear, common-sense style, and she is very wise.  Basically, she advocates a lot of self-selected reading and daily in-class reading.  No wonder I like it!

The Secrets of a Happy Marriage...

No doubt appearances are sometimes deceiving, but I have been struck, over the years, by how many of my colleagues in Leafstrewn seem to have relatively happy and healthy marriages. Most of us are married, I'm pretty sure our divorce rate is well under 10%, and the marriages generally seem strong and fulfilling.  If my colleague RG's retirement book idea is "Kids These Days" (about adult disapproval through the ages), a book I always imagine writing in retirement is "Secrets to a Happy Marriage--How Leafstrewn Teachers Make Relationships Work."

A new Gallup survey makes me wonder if our happy marriages really are just due to our profession.  According to Gallup, teaching "may be one of the best careers for a person’s wellbeing."  Teachers rank just below doctors in overall life satisfaction, and they are the most likely of any profession to say they "smiled or laughed a lot yesterday."  Teachers also ranked high in saying they get to use their strengths at their work.  Interestingly, the only categories in which teachers were last were in the level of respect with which they feel they are treated and in saying that their supervisor creates a trusting and open environment.  Fortunately, we here at Leafstrewn have humane and competent administrators, so we're even happier!

(Then again, could our happy marriages just be due to the fact that we Leafstrewn teachers read a lot?)