Sunday, December 08, 2013

Am I Growing Senile, or Is Tom Friedman Inadvertently Pro-Teacher?

I'm not a big fan of NY Times columnist Tom Friedman. In fact, I'm not a big fan of any NY Times columnist, particularly when they write about education. Recently, even Paul Krugman, my favorite by far, has been whoring himself out writing pro-Common Core nonsense.

Friedman is not precisely perfect. For example, he writes about the Shanghai secret, presented by a publicity-thirsty government, and almost seems to forget that the other 98% of China is not on display. He's got no problem aping the talking points of Arne Duncan, and like many of his colleagues, can't be bothered with cursory research that would prove him wrong.

But in this piece, looking at the much-ballyhooed PISA scores (for which China submitted only the city of Shanghai), he comes to conclusions I'd never expect from a corporate stooge like Duncan:

So now let’s look at the latest PISA. It found that the most successful students are those who feel real “ownership” of their education. In all the best performing school systems, said Schleicher, “students feel they personally can make a difference in their own outcomes and that education will make a difference for their future.”

It's pretty clear to me that students who see the importance of their studies will perform better. I'm not certain why we need the NY Times to tell us that, but since Arne Duncan and the Common Core enthusiasts show no awareness of this, it can't hurt. Friedman continues:

The PISA research, said Schleicher, also shows that “students whose parents have high expectations for them tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn.” 

I'd say that parental involvement is the single best predictor of student achievement (or lack thereof). While of course there are exceptions, parents who read with their kids, who demonstrate the importance of education, can really help their kids achieve in school. This also goes to poverty. Parents working three jobs and 200 hours a week don't have a lot of time to spend with their kids. Reformy hedge-funders looking to make a buck off these kids don't want to fix poverty, as that might affect their bottom line selling crappy online charter schools.

The highest performing PISA schools, he added, all have “ownership” cultures — a high degree of professional autonomy for teachers in the classrooms, where teachers get to participate in shaping standards and curriculum and have ample time for continuous professional development. So teaching is not treated as an industry where teachers just spew out and implement the ideas of others, but rather is “a profession where teachers have ownership of their practice and standards, and hold each other accountable,” said Schleicher.

This is what most surprised me, because this goes against the prevalent reformy culture of Common Core. Despite what supporters say, I'm persuaded few if any teachers had part in shaping it, and that those tokens they dragged in were no more than window dressing. I don't know a single teacher who was consulted.

Friedman is probably wrong that PISA predicts anything whatsoever about the economy, and as he knows little or nothing about education, he's probably better off not writing about it. But what he's suggesting here, that teachers ought to determine what goes on in their classrooms, is actually a great idea. It's ridiculous to say that no one should read To Kill A Mockingbird beyond grade six. It's absurd to suggest teaching Lincoln's Gettysburg Address without historical context. Good teachers know that.

Particularly offensive and stupid is the notion that "rigor" is what's needed to make kids read. Making kids love to read is about making connections, about instilling passion, and it's almost an act of seduction. There have been few things more gratifying in my teaching career than having kids thank me for forcing them to read their first novel, saying they'd never before read a book in English and that they never thought they could do it. If I'd been required to teach some tedious Common Core Crap that would never have happened.

It's our job to shape instruction to inspire our students, and Friedman is actually advocating for that. I'm not altogether sure whether he knows it. But it's time to take his advice. It's time to empower teachers, not with reformy crap and busy work, but in allowing us to write curriculum, to design lessons specifically for our students, and to design our own tests that will give feedback on how to help them even more.

It's time to let teachers do their jobs, and thus inspire children they can do theirs as well. Despite all the money the Walton Foundation sinks into anti-teacher, anti-public school nonsense, it's not our job to simply train future $8-an-hour Walmart "associates."

Of course, Friedman includes some typically ignorant crap:

Democrats who protect teachers’ unions that block reforms to give teachers more ownership and accountability...

Isn't Barack Obama a Democrat? Isn't he the reformiest guy in town? Didn't he appoint Arne Duncan and stand by him when he made unimaginably stupid remarks? Haven't unions supported just about every "reform" that's come down the pike, including Common Core, VAM, and charter schools?  While Friedman made a little bit of sense, the way to achieve the reasonable goals he's set out would be to empower unions rather than vilifying them, to allow them to stand up for what kids need rather than what Bill Gates wants.

But I can't expect someone like Tom Friedman to figure that out. This is the best we're ever gonna get from the likes of him.
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