Wishes for the Holidays and New Year

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have had a good night’s sleep.

May they greet you when they come in and bid you goodbye when they leave.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May the sparks in their lives be of interest not notes.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them.

May your classroom not enchain you with gadgets or constrain you with needless routines.

May its main source of light be sunshine.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless.

May the only added value in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educators.

May they see the paradox in preparing individual students for standardized tests.

May they not think that schools are a business or education a product.

May your school’s mission be expressible in under ten words, none of them a superlative.

May nothing in your building leak.

May your school’s network work.

May you be possessed of the serenity to accept the human condition and the keenness to relish the good things you have.



Didact’s Dictionary (continued)

branding irony: a description or name chosen for its public relations value that is the opposite of what is actually the case with the thing named, as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Value Added Learning

era (n): 1. a brief period of time. a. in education, the time between the introduction of a great new reform like value-added learning and the point when it is cast off as unworkable. 2. (obsolete) any long period of time seen in light of a unifying factor

eternity (n.): in a school’s faculty room, the period before everything works as well and looks as nice as it does in the administrative offices.

failure (n): a key to success. The idea of building grit and building self-control … you get … through failure, and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.—Dominic Randolph, Headmaster, Riverdale Country School, New York. Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential—J. K. Rowling in her commencement address at Harvard.

profit (n): a tangible or intangible gain. non-profit education: teaching for the benefit of students. for-profit education: the simulation of teaching for the benefit of investors.




Closer Than Finland with Less Stormy Weather

As I write this, it is 37°F/3°C and raining in Helsinki, Finland. Fortunately, educators wanting to stay dry and save money on international fact-finding missions need not head for distant stormy weather. Instead they may go to Rockville Centre, New York (49°F/9° and partly sunny), where Diane Ravitch reports that South Side High School, a public high school, has “closed the achievement gap,” or is closing it, between its white and Asian students and its black and Latino students. Moreover, it has done so without tracking and without fund-doping by businessmen’s foundations. Best of all, these improvements, having taken place and been sustained over a number of years, look solid and believable, so unlike the overnight wonders and nocturnal remissions touted by the Instant Solutions balonists[1] in government and among the oh-so-helpful foundations. And, as Ravitch points out, Rockville Centre is “closer than Finland.”

It is against this backdrop of success that Carol Burris, the principal of South Side, wrote an open letter with another principal that has since been signed by over 650 principals from around New York State protesting RAce to the Top (RAT) and value-added learning. Principals protesting! Hardly are the words out when I race down Memory Lane to Mr. Wood, Mr. Bemis, Mr. Miller, Mr. Searles, and Sister St. Joan. Protest? What can have happened between their principalships and now? Readers of these postings will know, but it is one thing to read about a misbegotten policy and another to realize that it is forcing a state’s educators into open opposition.

I don’t think we will see Occupy the Lyndon Baines Johnson DOE Building just yet, but it will be fascinating to see how this disagreement plays out. The Department of Education’s approach attracted a wonderfully pungent comment from Mario Fernandez, a New York principal, who said, “They’re expecting a tornado to go through a junkyard and have a brand new Mercedes pop up.” Pan shot of schoolhouse wreckage with Lena Horne singing “Stormy Weather.” Fade to South Side High School.

* * *

Meanwhile, Rick Roach, a member of the Orange County, Fla. (68°F/20°C), Board of Education decided to sit down to the standardized tests of 10th-grade math and reading mandated in his school district. To his chagrin he got ten math answers right out of 60, and, he thought, those only by guesswork. He scored 62% on the reading test, which makes him barely passable—this though in his main line of work he has a position of responsibility in a large organization for which he has to “make sense of complex data” related to his responsibilities.

He notes with some indignation that the math test is used as part of the basis for counseling students into or away from college preparation (and, I fear, for evaluating teachers’ success in their work). He suggests that the test should have more of the kind of math used in the “real world,” whatever that is; and while I can understand his upset, I think this suggestion is somewhat misguided. More to the point in my mind is his complaint that the tests are being used without accountability. I don’t think he means the accountability of teachers through RAT and other “data” “proving” their high crimes and misdemeanors. Rather, he means an intellectual justification of the tests and of the precise use to which they are actually being put. Readers of this posting of mine may wonder whether that is possible. Readers of this posting, in which Valerie Strauss interviews Mr. Roach, will see that he has some serious and clearly stated objections to the test itself that should be carefully considered by people like those to whom Ms. Burris’s letter is addressed. Who knows that such study and attention won’t be the prelude to some educational climate change?

[1] See the definition of baloney in an extract from my Didact’s Dictionary.



Information Literacy from Blank to Blank

We seem to proceed as individuals and as groups by keeping a kind of balance between, on the one hand, our mental tendency to find (or create) structures and systems in whose stability and truth we can repose and, on the other, our tendency to leave those structures behind and “seek a great perhaps,” from which new patterns, structures, systems and truth emerge. When we stop proceeding, it is either because these structures have made us rigid and immobile, or because we stall or rattle around aimlessly, a perhaps turning out to have been a perhaps-not. A good education should therefore help us to know or become a part of some of these systems and structures while at the same time equipping us (or leaving us) with the means to seek our perhapses, great or otherwise.

That being the case, if David Weinberger is right that “knowledge…is going the way of the recording industry” and that “knowledge,” as a term, “won’t survive the generation,” we are looking at a prospect of serious imbalance between two of the main complementary aims of life. That is because knowledge in any useful sense has an institutional or formal aspect or component, whether created specially, found, or adapted. There are two extreme alternatives. One is the ossified knowledge—“caked wisdom,” as Barzun calls it—within ossified structures and institutions. The other, which Weinberger’s writing appears to predict, is the mind of Jorge Borges’s Funes the Memorious, which Funes himself calls a “garbage heap” and which I might call in this context a dysfunctional democracy of perhapses. As custodians of education we should examine the direction schooling is taking in order to prevent or minimize the extent of the disaster.

It is in this context that I propose we treat “information literacy” and the “democracy of information” with caution. For every one person gifted in powers of synthesis and creation who will gain from productive travel through the “big, blooming buzz of confusion,” there will be many who rattle around there, ending repeatedly in doleful perhaps-nots. For every John Campbell who grows rich “grazing the common of literature” we will have an awful lot of aimless cud-chewing, or worse:

From Blank to Blank—
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet—
To stop—or perish—or advance—
Alike indifferent—

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed—
I shut my eyes—and groped as well
‘Twas lighter—to be Blind—[1]


[1] Letting Emily Dickinson have the last word, in this case from poem number 761 in Thomas Johnson’s numbering of her complete poems.