Waiting For Superman

This year’s TED talks started today. The iPad 2 was announced, but I think I’ll post about something else today.

I just returned from seeing Waiting for Superman and think it’s worth mentioning and recommending (though I preferred Race to Nowhere). WFS is one of those movies that I’ll be processing for a while. It’s been a good year for education documentaries. There were many things that disturbed me about the film, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who may have it in their netflix cue. There are, however, a few things I thought I’d mention as well as questions I still have.

Geoffrey Canada’s optimism and unabashed honesty was great.

I’m still unsure about what to make of Michelle Rhee (I think her heart was in the right place – focused on the kids, but she didn’t have a heart with the adults she had to deal with).

I’m going to stay away from the union debate, although I will agree with one of my colleagues who saw the film with me that receiving tenure FOREVER after a year’s work is ridiculous. Although Finland, a country that is always compared to as having great student achievement, has strong teacher unions and tenure.

The film makers mention in the film that only one in five charter schools succeeds, but only focus on the successful ones. There are large public schools that do excellent jobs serving all people, but the film chooses to stick to its point of view and doesn’t show these.

The film also focuses on really bad teachers.  What about mediocre teachers? How can we grow them into excellent effective ones?

If charter schools offer choice in a public system, why are kids’ futures handled by lotteries – that’s not a choice.

It was sad to see a parent initiate a call with a teacher asking for a meeting and never hearing back from them. I give the parents of my class my cell phone number.

Nonetheless, there is a problem in much of public education, and if nothing else, even if flawed in some ways, there are many trying to do something about it.

For example, Bill Gates, who is featured in this movie and here is someone who had an elite private education, made his billions, and now dedicates his life to public service around the world. As an independent school teacher, it’s hard to grapple with some of the issues posed in the movie. But Gates’ philanthropic work gives me hope.

Here are some reviews I enjoyed reading (both slightly different):

New Yorker

New York Times

The last 10 minutes of WFS were incredibly hard to watch, and I’m guessing another movie released last year which received less press than WFS, The Lottery (next on my list) is a very similar doc. Below is the trailer.





What Do You Do When You Feel Overwhelmed?

Liz Coleman who’ll be speaking tomorrow at the NAIS conference answers the question in the title of my post by stating, “You have a mind. And you have other people. Start with those, and change the world.”

That quote is how she ends her talk about reinventing the liberal-arts education and its importance, saying that our current state of education is more likely to “engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.”

Teachers are faced with one-size-fits all scripted curriculums that don’t often help kids think for themselves. They are bound by inflexible standards that delve into the minutia of a subject matter for which they and their students are held accountable for.How could kids possibly do so, if teachers aren’t thinking for themselves?

Another quote from her talk:

“This brew, oversimplification of civic engagement,idealization of the expert,fragmentation of knowledge,emphasis on technical mastery,neutrality as a condition of academic integrity,is toxic when it comes to pursuing the vital connections between education and the public good,between intellectual integrity and human freedom.”

I look forward to hearing more about her talk at the conference with the title Independent Matters as I predict she will call upon educators to think for themselves and provide ample opportunities for students to do the same. Grappling with controversy is not new. Educational leader Ted Sizer was wrote about it many times. Controversy isn’t a bad thing if there is civil discourse. It allows people to find the common ground. Usually good ideas emerge from the diverse ideas of many people. Even if you take the extreme voices in politics and take a closer look, there is a lot of common ground where one can start.  Make no bones about it, Coleman does not mince her words. In fact, they are carefully chosen . Finally, here,s one more quote from this talk:

“The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

Here is the rest of her talk: 


The Influence of Teaching (or not)

A new book came out this week called, The Influence of Teachers: Reflections on Teaching and Leadership by John Merrow. It’s a good read that received some great advance praise including this:

“John Merrow’s incisive observations and powerful, moving stories in his new book, The Influence of Teachers:  Reflections on Teaching and Leadership, are prescient at a time when the public is searching for solutions to America’s systemic educational challenges. His dedication ‘To Outstanding Teachers Everywhere,’ and his preface ‘Fighting the Last War’ foreshadow the problems and solutions that the book richly develops. A ‘must read’ for those responsible for American’s children and their future: that would be all of us.”

– Patrick Bassett, Executive Director, The National Association of Independent Schools

Daniel Pink states in his book Drive that as long people are paid enough, they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Even though teachers are only paid modestly, I can agree with those three things.  It’s obvious Bill Gates doesn’t need to ‘work’ anymore, but he continues working through his foundation trying to make this world a better place.

Pink’s name came up as a potential speaker for our regional fall conference, but it was clear that he needed a big carrot (too big for us) to come and speak. I don’t blame him. While he want’s to influence education, speaking to educators is clearly not is main purpose. But Whatever that is, I’m sure he has a great sentence that gives him meaning as well as enjoyment. I’m sure he wants to get better at it, and continue on his own  growth trajectory.  I’m also pretty certain that he has plenty of autonomy and can do whatever it is he loves without anyone else setting limits for him (except his publisher, perhaps).

Most great teachers make modest incomes, so they clearly didn’t go into education for the pay. It’s because of this that teachers fight so hard to protect the implied promise of tenure and increased pay over time. New teachers being paid low wages and the very senior teachers making the most. This implied promise of this pay scale, however, is being eroded in almost every state. Nonetheless, it’s not pay that drives teachers to teach. It would be nice if the US were like Singapore in this respect. They offer their top 20% of high-school graduates full scholarships (and stipends while they’re in college) to go into education. I know I work with many teachers who would meet this qualification. They are extremely smart people.

Teachers in the U.S. enter the profession after spending five years in college (most having much debt to contend with) and are then expected to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to be state certified. Many teachers will also go back to school to get a more advanced degree in order to increase their compensation. Some of the various teaching specific degrees can be found on Online Teaching Degree’s college program listings. Going to college is, of course all at the cost of the young teacher

This, of course is all at the cost of the young teacher – unless you are at a school that supports this and includes it in their professional development budgets. Some of those hoops are better in some states, but in the name of ‘accountability’ they are hoops nonetheless, and teachers must jump through them in order to remain certified. I know many teachers who spent three days away from their families to visit other schools as part of an accreditation team. Does the state recognize this time as professional development? Nope. In two weeks, the National Association of Independent Schools will have their annual conference. I was lucky to have my school support me attending this conference last year. This year others will be given the opportunity, and I can’t wait to hear back. Because this conference is out of state, however, teachers from outside that state will not be given any credit towards their professional development requirements by the state. Nonetheless, this conference last year made a huge impact on me. In fact, that conference was one of the main reasons I was inspired to start this blog.

Furthermore, new teachers (whether new to the profession, or new to a district are usually given the worst assignments – whatever that means). For me, my first year in public school, I taught in a portable with no furniture in the middle of a playground. It was still an amazing year, because walls and furniture aren’t the things that make a classroom, the relationships among the kids and what they learn are. In private schools, thankfully there is no seniority. While I don’t agree with teachers having permanent tenure, most independent schools only offer teachers one year contracts. There’s a downside to this, as some teachers feel like they cannot speak freely in fear that they may not have their contract renewed.

A lot of non-teachers will say, “but you get your summers off.” Well, they haven’t met most teachers. We work during the holidays. It’s not the same kind or pace of work as teaching during the school year, but let me assure you that all the teachers I work with put in significant amounts of their own time.  In the summer, many may use the time preparing for the new school year, adopting new curricula, learning new things to bring back to our classrooms. Teachers may seem to get more holidays than the average person, but teachers are not well compensated and are not able to choose when to take their vacations.

The book is a balanced, but provocative look at education, its problems, and possible solutions and Tony Wagner suggests both practitioners and leaders read the book. We’re held responsible to create healthy learning environments for children. Our leaders also need to create environments where teachers can truly be caring, collaborative, and respected.

I am extremely sensitive to our profession right now with all of noise, blame, and finger pointing in the headlines that place almost all the responsibility on the teacher. I’ll be the first to admit that teachers play a huge part in that responsibility and need to be accountable, but so do parents, administrators, and any policy maker involved in education.

The book talks about teacher pay, tenure, teacher evaluations, seniority, accountability based on testing and many other issues. Merrow also boiled down the reason for high teacher attrition to three things:

“Schools underpay and mistreat teachers and eventually drive them from the profession; inept school districts cannot find the qualified teachers living under their noses; and substandard training ill-prepares young men and women for the realities of classroom life.”

Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania told Merrow, “we can recruit all kinds of qualified people and persuade them to go into teaching, but if they get into jobs that aren’t well paid and don’t have particularly good working conditions in which they’re given little say in the way schools operate, it’s not going to really solve the problem because a lot of these people will leave.”

There is an illusion that teachers have a voice, for example, there are 8 people on the Think Tank for the NAIS national conference in DC which takes place in a couple of weeks. Not one of them is currently a classroom teacher. For an organization who prides itself on diversity leadership, I would suggest that the group (all administrators and one trustee) overlooked representation from a very important, but high stakeholder – a teacher. I’m glad to hear next year’s conference (in Seattle) will include a teacher.

I started this post with Daniel Pink’s main thesis about what drives us to do what we do and, unless it’s a mundane, repetitive task, carrots and sticks are not what motivates teachers. It’s not the pay nor the time off that motivate teachers. And while teachers influence their students, teachers don’t really influence policy makers. Most teachers will agree that educating a child gives them plenty of meaning and a satisfying sense of purpose. Wanting to grow and become better at what we do, is something I firmly believe most teachers are committed to as well. When teachers become micromanaged, disrespected, and lose our autonomy to do what we do best, that drive (which includes working hard, caring deeply about what we do, and developing strong relationships with our students, for example) diminishes. And those impacted the most are the kids.

Pressure Cookers are Designed for Food, not Kids

I just returned from a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I would recommend any teacher, parent, administrator, school policy maker, and high school student to see it. This link shows where the nearest screenings are in your area. It’d be great if our school were able to host a screening for parents, teachers, and anyone in our community who wished to view it. There’s a link on that page to request a community screening.

In this country, starting in the 80s with Nation At Risk, followed in the 2000s by No Child Left Behind, the pressure for all kids to perform at high levels on tests in order to get into colleges has had an adverse effect on our students health and their ability to think critically, find and solve problems, and work well together. After a seven hour day of school and three to four hours of extra curricular activities, should our kids then tackle five to six hours of homework each night? Many of the examples were those of middle and high school students, but it was painful to watch a family end what was probably already a taxing day arguing about homework. The film reiterated what I’ve read and tried to advocate at my school, that there is no evidence linking homework in elementary school to achievement. The correlation begins in middle school, but after an hour of homework, the correlation disappears. By high school the correlation becomes stronger, but again, after two hours of homework, the correlation drops off significantly.

Many of the AP tests don’t test for critical thinking skills, but rather for a bulk of content. One teacher mentioned there is too much content to realistically learn, so they speed it up. The results are kids relying on cramming and cheating. Sadly, there is an increase in all kinds of stress related disorders with the extreme being an increase in teen suicide. It’s hard enough to be a teenager. It was extremely sad to see a parent discuss the suicide of her 13 year-old daughter over a letter grade (the letter grade was a B).

Something I struggled with was watching a teacher who, through her words and tears, was passionate about teaching and cared deeply about her students, However, through the bureaucracy of the system, she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to resign. There are already too few passionate teachers that care so much about what they do. Yet the system is so broken that it  makes them leave the profession.

What I liked about this film is that it showed many of the same kinds of pressures that kids face today to compete for a place in a ‘decent’ college regardless whether they came from an impoverished low-socio economic to wealthy suburban or private schools. The pressures trickle down from policy maker to school principal to teacher and to student. Not everyone needs to go to an Ivy league school, yet for many, they felt that it was the only choice if they wanted to be successful. What does being successful really mean anyway?  The movie mentioned that in Singapore, they offer the top 20% of the graduating class free college tuition – and a stipend – to go into the teaching profession. Here we have to go an extra year and pay for it on our own just to get the basic credentials.

Schools differ in many ways and whether a specialized public charter school or an independent one, the film makes a great case for reducing the stress on kids. Some want to extend the school day, take away recess, art, in order to cram more content into their brain. I can still remember the quadratic equation and know what to use it for, but I’ve NEVER used it since learning it in high school. Some other things, like the chemical structure of amino acids, I have completely forgotten. Are either of those things useful to me today? Did they in some way help me think in different ways? Perhaps. Or maybe I was just figured out what was going to be on the test. If that’s the case, that’s not learning. Why bother teaching if you’re just going to follow a script.

It made me think of this list from Tony Wagner’s book The Global Achievement Gap. He listed seven essential skills all people need to learn:

  1. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving
  2. Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
  3. Agility and Adaptability
  4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
  6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
  7. Curiosity and Imagination.

Are those things nurtured, taught, and fostered in schools?  Are they tested?

The movie calls on all stakeholders to be brave and do what they care about, say what they believe in, and take the risk when what that is may break the rules, go against policy, or even seem radical to some. If your heart is in it, and you’re doing it for the students’ benefit (and for me, stays true to the school’s mission), then it’s worth that risk. Those with the power to make decisions shouldn’t expect their employees to interact with students a certain way until they model what that looks like and treat their teachers the same way.

Below are a few related videos including the film’s trailer, and a round panel from Stanford discussing the issues.

If you watch the latter, you will hear that students in Finland (who are one of the countries that consistently produce top scores) are involved in project based learning, and have their social and emotional needs honored. They don’t ‘cover’ content. Here are some interesting links.


Fair Test

NYTimes article about this film.

This screening was the first in a series of three parts hosted by Seattle University. I really liked what the Dean of Education said when introducing the film. The next in the series is the screening of the film “Waiting for Superman” – I can’t wait.





King’s Speech

Today we celebrate a great man who tirelessly fought for the rights of everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose helped to change the world. His “I Have a Dream” speech inspired many to take up that cause. Is his dream fulfilled. Not yet, but thanks to countless individuals who fight for liberty and justice across the world for all people, I hope to see it in my lifetime.

When you add the article ‘the’ to the title of my post, you get the title of a movie I saw this weekend, “The King’s Speech” which I highly recommend. I won’t spoil it here by summarizing plot, but it is also about a man, King Goerge VI of England who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose also had an impact on the world.

Not having gone to elementary school or high school here, American History is viewed somewhat differently. Here we look at this country’s history from within, elsewhere they look at it (if at all) from the outside. While I knew of Dr. King growing up, it wasn’t central to the social studies program at my school. Growing up in Hong Kong (then still a colony of Britain), I attended an elementary school based on the British school system. Had my family stayed, the secondary school I most likely would have attended was named King George V school. Still a colony by the time we left, what I can remember of any social studies classes were those of British History – in England. I learned about Kings and Queens, William the Conqueror, Guy Fawkes, Parliament, the geography of England, and so on. What I never learned in school was the history of Hong Kong, cultural information, nor the geography. Thankfully, things have changed, and looking at the website of my former school, I see that, while instruction is purposefully done in English, they have a second language program in Mandarin which also features history and culture. I think I would have benefited from a class like that.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve returned to Hong Kong, and I can hardly wait until our break in April where I’ve planned a trip to return. In doing so, I started reading about what to do and trying to see if any of it sparked any childhood memories. As I started discovering the history of Hong Kong in the travel books, what struck me was that I had never learned this. Any of it! Any history, I got from my grandparents (one who fought against the Japanese who occupied Hong Kong during WWII and was interred as a prisoner of war until his escape. I only wish I had the curiosity I have now to ask him more questions. Nor was the local language (Cantonese) taught. I acquired it out of necessity. I spoke it, but didn’t read nor write Chinese. In brushing up some of what I do know, I was looking at the vast array of vocabulary that didn’t even exist when I left such as: Email, wireless internet, ATM, or “Text me.”

It is true that there would be too many subjects to cover if we were to teach everything, especially history as events keep getting added. Nonetheless, it’s important for children, even in this flattening world, to learn about their own history (both personal and political), their communities (school, neighborhood and other), and so on. Multicultural/Diversity education is crucial to the dream Dr. King once had. When we see that we have more in common than our differences, and see those differences as strengths rather than fear them, there’s no telling what we can do.

King George VI had to deliver a speech to his nation to rally the people in order to stop Hitler. Dr. King delivered one to rally his nation to work for justice. In today’s youtube age, it’s quite rich to be able and view the video of Dr. Martin Luther King delivering that speech at the Lincoln Memorial. For those reluctant to accept technology in the classroom, just remembered what your teachers had to do to show you his speech. If you were lucky, you received the text and an audio recording. If you were lucky enough to view the speech, your teacher would have had to book the reel-to-reel projector, order the film (at great cost), and set up the film. Now, you can hook your laptop to a projector and get it free in a couple of clicks. One things’ for sure, teachers also have to work toward these universal values: hard work and effort, the ability to fail and persevere, a purpose to unite people. In other words, the 3 R’s – rigor, resilience, and relationships.

This is a clear example where technology can save you time. One can also embed these vidoes into their websites/blogs/wikis, etc. so here it is. Enjoy the rest of this marvelous holiday.



Do The Right Thing

I guess it’s been a long, but inspiring day. Tonight after getting home to Seattle, I attended a lecture by Michael Sandel, author of many books including Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

It was a great talk on philosophy, Aristotle’s view of justice, and how our political discourse today has become empty shouting matches. He engaged the audience in various moral and ethical issues, but the one thing that stood out in this lecture was that in order to have a functioning democracy, we need to start listening to each other and engage with those who disagree.

What is the purpose of what you are debating, and what is it’s value and qualities that make it worthy were questions he came back to for every question he posed to the audience.

I think this can be done with second graders too. They can debate what are difficult questions that are related to them such as: do zoos belong in a community? Which is better paper or plastic? Teaching kids to listen actively to opposing views can deepen their ability to think critically, and appreciate differences.

Even as adults, when we are engaged in something that we are emotionally tied to –  being able to listen and be rational, will bring us closer to justice.