In 2010, money was tight in Cincinnati Public Schools. Principals were asked to take steps to save money by reducing our largest expense: cut back on staffing. I convened a meeting of the Instructional Leadership Team to examine the bleak prospects of eliminating parts of our music program in order to balance the budget.
The wisest thing I have ever heard a person say about grading came from my friend and sometimes co-worker Barb Scholtz. A long-time teacher of math and English and life, she taught my son in middle school at Clark Montessori. It was years later, in her role as a teacher educator, that she worked with a team of teachers who were doing an independent PD on differentiation at Gamble. (Read more about that here.) Here she asked the basic question that shook my thinking about failing grades. “If a child is learning, how can they be failing?”
This is more than a question. It is a revelation. We have to move past thinking of a grade in a gradebook as immutable truth, an unswayable bedrock fact which must be reported.
This article assumes you are in a situation where you are required to report a single letter grade, and perhaps a percentage, to sum up 10 weeks’ worth of effort, practice, improvement, success and failure on a multitude of social and academic skills. I’m sorry about your situation. I’m here to help.
There appear to be two philosophies among teachers when discussing grading. One camp asserts that grading is a time-consuming but relatively simple process – you set up your gradebook, assign different point totals for different types of assignments, set up weighting or assign more points to emphasize the more important work, and average it all out at the end of the quarter. The other camp suggests that grading is a laborious and challenging activity, where you try to find ways for students who are improving to demonstrate that growth without becoming discouraged or complacent, and the rules seem arbitrary so you change them relatively often to try and better match the growth you see in your students.
It is a fair bet that those of you who read this blog are not in the “grading is easy” camp.
I am not here to convince you that it is, though my message is simple: The best thing you can accomplish with a grade is to keep a student invested in her education. But how?
Few sentences carry so much uncertainty in the workplace. There are many unknowns in this invitation. Questions spring to mind. Why? For how long? When? And frequently, there are deep, unasked questions, like Will it be worth my time? Magazines like Forbes and Harvard Business Review frequently feature articles on improving meetings, maximizing meetings, shortening meetings, or avoiding meetings altogether. These topics are nearly guaranteed to drive readers to the site.
Meetings are not all bad, but we all have been in bad meetings. So our experience is tainted, and we are understandably wary. Even folks who understand that a lot can get accomplished at a meeting have to offer incentives and promises to get people to show up at all.
-by Jack M. Jose, originally published July 4, 2016, revised July 2017
I am bad at vacations. Really bad. Classically bad. I have trouble scheduling them. I dislike planning for them. I pack well enough, but I put it off to the moments before we leave. On occasion I vow, “This vacation will be different.” I claim I will get away from work for real, but it always creeps back in, usually through an open door. A door that I propped open. After sunset we return to the hotel room, and I sneak a glimpse at the computer. Or perhaps I take a quick look at my phone and handle an email discreetly while waiting for a table at a restaurant. I then look up into my wife’s disapproving stare.
July, 2015, I vowed to fix that.
A few years ago teachers at Gamble Montessori and Clark Montessori combined to do our back-to-school staff PD day. The work we did together was led by CMStep founder Marta Donahoe, and it explored a concept – new to me – enticingly called “Love and Logic”. I was intrigued by an approach to discipline in the school that included the word “love”, and further interested in the novel addition of “logic”. I was far more familiar with the common two-word request of teachers and even parents regarding school discipline: “law and order.”
In preparation for this time together, Marta suggested that I read Jim Fay’s administrator version of his Love and Logic book, called “Creating a Love and Logic School Culture.” I eagerly dove in, highlighting and annotating, excited to see an educator who had been down the path of law and order, and found it lacking.
-by Jack M. Jose
Originally published May 16, 2016. Updated June 2, 2017.
It is commencement season, and our Facebook feeds and conversations with friends are filled with celebrations: hard-won degrees earned, and lifelong goals met. It is a joyous time of year.
Every commencement is special, but some years and in some locations, there is magic. In 2014 Gamble Montessori senior Michael Tucker reached a personal milestone as he crossed the stage and received his diploma. Michael was not just graduating from high school. He was confined to a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy – or at least he had been. Though this was his situation during his entire time at Gamble, he had expressed to his teacher and mother that he wanted to walk across the stage at graduation. For more than a year, he regularly left school twice a week to get physical therapy that was at times painful for him, but he had a goal. He had knee surgery to extend his tendons so he could stand upright enough to walk, and he engaged in extensive recovery therapy. He even started walking to different places around the classroom, practicing the commencement walk tirelessly.
On commencement day, we had a lift available to get him on and off the stage. This was a precaution, in case fatigue or the excitement got in the way of his plans. At our rehearsal he stumbled a bit, but assured us through sign language and his determined look that he would be fine for the big event. That afternoon, when his name was called, he started confidently across the stage … and did exactly what he said he would, walking independently toward me to get his diploma. Michael’s mother reported that, behind her, another woman exclaimed loudly, “It’s a miracle!” Certainly it was. We were crying at the celebration of a goal visibly achieved through hard work and pain over an extended time. It was better than a miracle: it was a hard-won victory.
This celebration of personal and individual triumph is, of course, why we were crying and applauding for every child. For each graduate, the obstacles are very real, if not as dramatic or as visible.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar. There is no more powerful reminder of the importance of a teacher’s work, and the value of our time spent in conversations with students about quality of work and matters of integrity and timeliness. I remind my students that this particular ceremony is an important gateway into society. Their diplomas, already earned, wield the real power to their post-secondary future. The ceremony, however, remains an emotional symbolic transition into adulthood.
The photos and stories in our Facebook feed reveal that, over time, every school develops its own traditions and ways of taking care of the important business of sending students out into the world. Some have mechanical, no-nonsense commencement ceremonies, appropriate especially for schools with large graduating classes, while others have developed odd traditions, like the Smith College Diploma Circle, where students are handed someone else’s diploma and seek their own in a method described here: http://www.smith.edu/events/commencement_traditions.php . Almost all feature a speech by a student in the class, a dignitary or two, and representatives of the Board that oversees the school. Many feature music by the school’s choir, band, or orchestra, perhaps performing the processional and/or recessional.
In the spring of 2010, Gamble Montessori, in just our fifth year of formal existence, celebrated our first commencement, and faced a bit of a challenge. The Board of Education provided an outline of required events in a certain sequence (pledge of allegiance, conferring of diplomas, etc.) but these were not a graduation ceremony in themselves. There was no personality there, no recognition of what made us unique. So we turned to ourselves –a graduation committee consisting of teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, students and myself – to create an event worthy of our students.
Even in a ceremony lacking a miracle, commencement should be a required event on the teacher calendar.
For our first commencement, Janice Dale, a paraprofessional who had worked with our students for years, and who our students intermittently addressed as Mrs. Dale and “Grandma,” offered a bold proposal: in addition to focusing on the achievements and development of the individuals, we would have a series of 3 commencements that would served to place Gamble appropriately in the timeline of public Montessori schools. Our school was the 7th public Montessori school in the Cincinnati Public Schools system, and the second high school. There is no public Montessori system like it anywhere in the world, but we often took it for granted. She wanted to give our faculty, students, and families a remarkable gift. She suggested we should honor those who made our school possible, in order to remind ourselves how we were special. More importantly, with Mrs. Dale’s help, we made sure that our commencement was a space for our students to celebrate their individual talents, whether it was reciting poetry, dancing, or singing.
[Author’s note: We followed her plan. Our first 3 years we honored: the beginnings of Montessori in Cincinnati including those who worked to create the first public Montessori elementary schools here, then the more recent past including those who broadened the number of Montessori elementary openings in Cincinnati, and finally we recognized those individuals who were directly responsible for the creation of Gamble Montessori 12 years after the opening of the first public Montessori high school, Clark Montessori.]
Commencement is best when the focus is a celebration of students’ talents and interests, and those define the ceremony to make it unique. It is crucial to honor the individual student, and to honor each and every individual. Just as a conscientious teacher builds choice into classwork and tailors assignments to match the strengths and interests of individual students, a conscientious administrator understands that to truly celebrate community, we must celebrate each of our individuals at commencement. We understand that when we share the responsibility and share the limelight, we make our community stronger. For this reason, students can be entrusted with several opportunities to make the ceremony theirs.:
- Allow students to pick their student speaker, instead of having this determined by a GPA or by a committee. Many believe the valedictorian to be the student with the best grades at the completion of school, and that this person is required / entitled to give the main student speech at commencement. However, the accurate definition of valedictorian is less specific, simply the student chosen to give the main address at commencement. Rather than a formula or a committee deciding, our seniors choose this person internally. Often, as it was in 2017, students will choose the valedictorian, as this person has typically exemplified herself as a capable student who responds well to adversity and can be depended on to deliver a strong speech.
- Allow seniors to invite to the keynote speaker of their choice. Given enough lead time, local politicians and activists, and even celebrities, are honored to be asked to speak at a commencement. Our students have historically chosen favorite teachers from their younger years at Gamble. This year they chose two current teachers to share the responsibility. In each case, they have selected teachers who were storytellers and who both loved and frustrated them.
- Allow students to choose their graduation gown color from one of the school colors, instead of assigning them by gender. It creates an attractive and varied group picture, and avoids the discomfort and frustration that can come from mandating gown colors.
- Have student videos featuring pictures and quotes, or even baby pictures. Another option is to have posters featuring seniors’ favorite photos of themselves. Finding a different way to honor the students, rather than merely having their name read aloud the moment they cross the stage, makes for a more engaging ceremony for the crowd of family members who might only know one of the graduates and will be pleased to see their familiar face in more than one place.
- Allow students to choose which talented students will display their artistry at commencement. In five short years we have had singers, a praise dancer, and poetry readings. In 2017, our own band was able, for the first time, to perform Pomp and Circumstance.
- Allow students the chance to – tastefully and within appropriate boundaries – decorate some part of their gown or mortarboard.
In 2014 students asked if they could decorate their mortarboards, those flat-topped square hats that graduates wear. The traditionalists among us initially rejected the idea, but again, respect for the individual won out. We quickly created three simple rules for the mortarboard decoration and a new tradition was born: it had to be two-dimensional, it had to fit completely on the board, and it had to be school appropriate. What followed were dozens of decorations that compared their journey from kindergarten to commencement to a popular video game, touted their college choices and majors, and touchingly celebrated their friendships.
Certain parts of the ceremony have remained steadfastly the same, in place to make sure we honor each student individually. First, we remind our families early in the ceremony how important it is that we honor each student fully, but within the time provided. Many of our students have invited distant family relatives to this milestone ceremony, and they take the occasion of commencement to loudly exclaim their pride and love. Rather than suggest that it is not appropriate to applaud and cheer loudly (of course it is! This is a time of celebration!), we remind our parents that the child being introduced after their child is equally deserving of praise and applause. Then, as a cushion, we have built in a little extra time for each student. When a child’s name is called, she steps onto the stage to shake my hand, accept her diploma, get our picture taken together, and shake the hands of the Board member and other dignitaries. Rather than immediately calling the next name and being frustrated by continuing applause, we allow the student their full moment, only calling the next name when she reaches the top of the stairs to descend at the other side of the stage.
Gamble’s graduation has never been interrupted by cheering extending into another student’s introduction, or marred by silence as a graduate’s name was called and his small family’s applause was lost in the crowd and reaches of the conference center. Each year our families have honored every graduate, and demonstrated the sense of community we seek to instill in each of our students.
One year, the students asked Tara to sing a solo with the choir. She worked with the teacher to select the appropriate song, “Dare to Dream” by John Legend. Weeks of practice got her fully prepared, vocally, for commencement. Nothing had prepared her emotionally for singing in front of such a large crowd and – more importantly – singing to friends she was just starting to realize she might not ever see all together again. We cried with Tara as she stumbled through her solo, singing a prayer of hope as a gift to her classmates: “Hold on when hope is gone / Race may not belong to the swift or the strong / It’s given to the ones who can endure for long / I know we care.”
One year we laughed as teacher Jason Banks pulled the microphone free from the podium, jumped off the stage, and urged the graduates to leave their seats and sit Montessori-style in a circle on the floor. He reminded them of their marine biology study in Pigeon Key, Florida, and their whitewater rafting trip where they woke up to 4 inches of fresh snow. He prompted them with, “Always leave a place …” and they finished, “Better than you found it!” Then he read them key excerpts from Oh! The Places You’ll Go.
The best commencements are the ones where the crowd can feel just a little bit lost, but each student feels completely found.
Between our rehearsal and the actual ceremony, some time is carved out for students to be in community with one another. One year teacher Josh Vogt used the opportunity to read a short story to the seniors, one that challenged them to think about their relationships with one another an with the community. This year we used that time to open our gratitude box, filled over the past several years from various ceremonies around gratitude, and reflect on the people and circumstances that helped get us to this point. What is important is that you can take a minute to be, again, one last time, in community.
Each year, as we gather for graduation practice, I remind my students that commencement is an important ritual, yes, but also just a grand show. The hard work has been done. They have earned their diplomas with nights of hard work and days of concentration. They have raised and spent hundreds of dollars, and invested thousands of hours over 12 or more years of their lives. The big work of their lives so far has been completed, and everyone has gathered to honor them. They have earned this celebration, and we are so proud of them.
This is the time to pay close attention to each other, be patient, and be in love with the moment and with our students. We follow the child, hit our marks, and let the miracles happen.
– by Jack M. Jose
This week I was preparing a post about difficult conversations. I was reviewing some of the articles and books I have read about challenging conversations, and thinking back on the many times I have had to deliver hard news to a student’s family, or to a friend or an employee, or someone who is both. The topics at Angels and Superheroes are charted out weeks in advance. Our spreadsheet includes some ideas of what should be covered in the post. I had some ideas about what I wanted to say regarding the difficult conversations I often have to schedule and implement.
And then, serendipitously, someone who is both an employee and a friend came to me to have a difficult conversation. Or, more accurately, to deliver some hard news. Sometimes the situation comes to you.
He is a talented and bright young teacher. I interviewed him for the district several years ago, and walked away impressed, wishing I had a spot for him on my roster. I was devastated when, just a couple short weeks later, a spot opened up and I called human resources only to learn that he had been placed at another school. I kept in touch, and ran into him at social justice events, becoming more convinced over time that he would be an asset to the school. I periodically brought him up in conversations as “the one who got away.” Last spring, when we again had an opening, he transferred to our school. He turned out to be everything that I hoped he would be, and in some ways more.
In just his first year in the building he has taken on some leadership roles, and built a strong rapport with students and staff. Behind the scenes he operates with integrity, including helping facilitate difficult “elephant in the room” discussions, and brings insight to math and science instruction in the school. As for our Montessori approach, he just understands it. In the second semester when I stopped in to observe his classroom one day, he asked the class, “Who is our ambassador today?” When it was determined the designated student was absent, another student quickly volunteered and came over to me as he continued his lesson. She quietly welcomed me to the class, gave me a copy of a handout they were working on, told me the main point of the day’s lesson, and suggested places I could sit. She checked on me at each transition. This teacher had built leadership and community into his classroom process.
I identified very closely with him, perhaps because I saw an approach similar to mine. He was open to feedback, and eager to learn. I walked out of observations and discussions with him wondering what I could give to him to help him progress, wondering if perhaps I had anything to offer. Of course principals do not have favorite teachers, just as teachers do not have favorite students. But we know that in each group there are a few who make the day flow more smoothly, and who operate independently. They seem to put more in than they need out of the system.
Then he scheduled this meeting with me.
I was not worried about it at all. We had consulted closely on his intersession planning for several weeks, going back and forth with the CPS legal team and facilities department to ultimately decide that it would be unwise to build a climbing wall outdoors on school property. More recently we had spoken to back off of an outdoor climbing plan, and as he requested to add a second Gamble Moment to our annual Gamble Moments book.
In my office last week, the look on his face was grave. “Mr. Jose, this is not an easy thing to say.”
I knew it right then. He was leaving. My heart sank. I know my feelings escaped onto my face because he reacted. I’m not certain, but as I remember it, the next words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” That was my confirmation of why he needed to talk.
He was leaving me.
Sure, I know, he was leaving the school, he was leaving the students, he was leaving all of us, but I became intensely aware that I was taking the news very personally. The rest of the conversation was important, perhaps crucial, but the news was all delivered in the set-up, the look on his face, and his apology.
He was leaving me.
Teachers leave buildings all the time. Teachers leave teaching too. In a recent NPR article, Linda Hammond, the President and CEO of the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, cited the national attrition rate – out of teaching – as 8%. The Shanker Institute, a nonprofit educational research group, asserted in this 2015 article that the “mover” and “leaver” rates were about 8% each, nationally, resulting in a combined typical rate of 16% attrition. Krista talks more powerfully about teacher burnout here.
Gamble Montessori had a bad year. As of the publication of this post, seven teachers are leaving the school, which is 18% of our 39 full-time teachers. Last year that number was better – we had five teachers leave, or 12%. (I want to rationalize even further: We have three itinerant academic teachers and an itinerant band director, if calculated in, this would push our rate this year to 16%. However, this is merely rationalization.) Two other teachers met with me during the year to discuss leaving; other possibilities they were pursuing in their personal lives could potentially pull them away. One went so far as to fill out a resignation paper from the district. However, both saw those prospects dim and are currently scheduled to return next year.
But why do teachers leave? Hammond provided two reasons. “[T]he first reason is lack of administrative support. The second one is concerns about the way accountability pressures in the No Child Left Behind era created pressure to teach to the test, burdensome sanctions and the loss of autonomy in the classroom.” Okay, I can deal with that. One of those reasons is in my control.
Jennifer Duffield, co-founder of Dancing Moose Montessori School in West Valley City, UT was pretty direct in her recent talk at the American Montessori Society (AMS) National Conference. In her words to administrators she said, simply, “The bad news is, we’re the problem. The good news is, we can also be the solution.” She stated that 63% of teachers who had negative feedback about administrators left, and 93% with positive feedback stayed.
Her data, like Hammond’s, points to a persistent 7% who leave despite positive feelings about administration.
It doesn’t take data, or an AMS presentation, for me to blame myself when a teacher leaves. Sometimes the reason presented is wholly unrelated to me, such as moving out of town following a marriage, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to follow a dream job. And to be certain, some of those who move on do so as a mutual parting of ways, perhaps after losing their zest for teaching, or exhibiting the same struggles with relationships or deadlines year after year. Nonetheless, I take each resignation or move personally.
As the leader of the school, I identify personally with each win or loss. This can be literal, like our first ever win with each of our athletics teams, or figurative, like the arrival and departure of staff. Our academic scores flood me with a range of emotions, despite my disparagement of using those scores to evaluate me, the school, the teachers, and our students. Each departure – or even rumor of a possible departure – sets off inside of me a volley of soul-searching and self-questioning. “What did I do wrong? How could I have better supported him/her? Was it something I said or did? Something I did NOT say or do?” And the list of reasons never seems to involve me. It is either a wedding, moving to be nearer to family, retirement, a dream job opportunity or similar reasons. However, I am certain that this is just people being polite to me. I queried him the same way I asked others: is there something I could have done better?
So what can be done about it? Duffield’s approach was straightforward: buy them coffee. Well, it was more complicated than that. She provided a host of solutions for the principal:
- Focus on teacher growth and well being
- Take more of the blame, and less of the credit
- Protect them from district initiatives and unimportant tasks
- Create an interdependent community where they have the resources to share problem-solving responsibilities
- Listen to them, and give them what they need (which is, sometimes, coffee)
- Have hard conversations, where you are nice, but tough [she used the word “nice,” but other authors and presenters, including Krista, and Patricia Jennings, would improve this suggestion by saying we should be “kind” but tough]
These rules describe the support that teachers need from their principals, and are not just rules for conversations. They seem to lay the groundwork for only the positive, growth-focused conversations, or for moments of praise and co-working to solve problems. Yet, because they help set the basis for building community, they actually help with all conversations. This includes hard conversations, like corrective feedback on observations, and addressing when someone falls short of our expectations. These can be uncomfortable. I used to flee from these conversations. Now sometimes I not only don’t avoid them, but I sort of relish them. I see each as a challenge and evidence of my growth, and a chance to use what I learned in reading Conversational Capacity. If I get a report that an adult in the school has spoken inappropriately to a student, or questioned another adult’s decision openly in front of others, I get the familiar rush of blood to my head. It would be easy to nod and promptly forget the report. Instead, now, I still give the nod, and a non-committal sound, then I seek the best way to address the issue directly. Sometimes the right answer is to say to the teacher in front of me, who has just complained about a colleague, “And what did they say when you addressed this with them?” If they did not have the conversation, which is often the case, I offer to help them structure the conversation, and offer my assistance for feedback if the meeting does not go as planned. Or if they have tried conversation and it did not work, instead of avoidance, I stride intentionally into the conversation. It is this recent practice that helped me be ready when my teacher sat down in my office and said, “This is hard.”
So I listened. He explained about a once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with friends on a way to help impoverished students. It had been a dream of theirs, but a grant meant that his friends could afford to pay him, at least for a year. This was his passion, and he could be paid to follow it.
In response, I told him, honestly, how sad I was to hear this. I explained his value to me personally, and to the team, and how I had figured him into plans moving forward at the school. I stated – bluntly, I thought – that while I would be happy to hear if he changed his mind, I was not trying to change his mind. I was simply expressing the facts. I reassured him that he was doing the right thing by pursuing his dream and that if he chose to return, I would endeavor to find a place for him at our school, because it was better with him here. No one should ever be given any message different than that.
Personally, I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. I didn’t see it coming. And I told him so. I just named the feeling. But in expressing that to him, and remaining focused on what he needed – support, reassurance, and the confidence that he could have a place to return if his dream could not be realized – I had the difficult conversation the right way. Most importantly, I did not waiver from my philosophy of supporting the person in front of me. The school is important, but not more important than any of the people in it.
At Gamble, we take time in our staff meetings for acknowledgements. This is the time we structure to build community by thanking others or pointing out good work they have done to help us individually or as a school. At Monday’s staff meeting, when it was time for acknowledgements, my teacher who was leaving spoke up. “I’d like to acknowledge Jack. We had a hard conversation last week, and he was extremely understanding and supportive. I really appreciate that.” This weekend, as I sought his permission to use the story for this blog, he added, “Still feeling that way too. Appreciate your grace.”
There was a time when this was not the conversation I would have. One year, my second as principal, a promising young teacher approached me and asked permission to leave. She had a chance to move to our sister school, where she indicated she had dreamed of teaching. The timing was very late, and she had to ask me because the internal transfer rounds were over, and a transfer would require permission from both principals. I considered the calendar, and the difficulty involved in getting a teacher into the vacancy in time for opening day, let alone one as promising as her. I prevented her move. I held my ground even after Krista came to me and strongly advocated for supporting the individual over the institution. I was doing what was best for the school, I felt, and certainly what was best for me.
I have come to believe that I was wrong.
This decision was, I believe, subconsciously held against me by the teacher for the rest of her tenure at our school. She once even said as much as we were discussing a different issue. I had broken the relationship in order to do what I believed was best for the school, and I had ultimately benefitted nothing. She stayed a few more years, and proved that my belief in her promise was well-placed. She developed a strong teaching presence and structured a highly functional classroom, working closely with other adults to meet the needs of students. When another opportunity came to leave, however, she took it. But really, she had left years before, and I wonder if perhaps she could have been a better teacher somewhere else, or perhaps she would have seen the grass was not greener and returned. Neither of us will ever know. I am certain that she is gone from our school forever.
Maybe this other young teacher, the one I supported instead of blocking, will come back. There is precedent for that at our school. Maybe he won’t. Ultimately, I am proud that I supported him in the ways I could.
I can’t fully change the fact that I feel like he, and the others, are leaving me. ME, personally. I can, however, take steps to help all of my teachers feel more supported, and to take the action I can to support them in their roles and in their careers, even if that means letting them go.
-by Jack M. Jose
Socratic Seminar for Every Classroom
The Friday before winter break, 17 years ago, in the middle of a formal classroom discussion – a seminar – I put down my pen. I stopped trying to capture what was happening in order to consciously be part of what had become a moment of transcendence. The gesture, putting down my pen, had an immediate effect on the students around the table. “Is something wrong?” a student asked. Other students seemed to have the same question. I searched for the right words. “Oh, no. In fact, it’s just about perfect. I’ve stopped writing because you’re all doing it.” This received a quizzical look, so I tried to explain. “You know … IT. You guys are having this great discussion about literature, citing the story, involving each other … you’re all getting 4’s. “ This was the highest possible score. “Please, don’t stop.” Fortunately, this interruption was not able to derail the conversation, and a student immediately picked up the thread of the previous question.
Two days earlier, my co-teacher and I had assigned “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote for our 11th grade students to read at home. The next day – yesterday – we read almost the whole thing aloud together. We had pointed out important aspects of characterization and setting, and highlighted other key elements of the story, working to answer questions as some students struggled to understand the text, while others picked up the subtleties of Capote’s masterful storytelling. In fact it was a small detail that the students examined in seminar that made me realize they understood the purpose of deep reading and conversation of good literature. The story examines a quirky relationship between an older woman and a young boy who are cousins in a large household. In the story, at Christmas time, they go in search of a Christmas tree. The boy describes their conversation about the tree, referring to the woman as “my friend”: “It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me.
A student focused on one part of the sentence, saying aloud, “twice as tall as a boy.”
The students dug in and explored the comment, and looked for other similar ideas in the story. They noticed a pattern of how much of the older woman’s actions revolve around the boy. “It’s like, not just any boy. She measures the tree by the narrator. She does everything for him,” says one of them. “And with him,” adds another. Suddenly they are sharing a new understanding of a text that a few minutes ago they thought they had finished because they read it once. Other students seize on this and find similar quotes in support. … And I put down my pen.
“It should be,” muses my friend, “twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can’t steal the star.” The one we pick is twice as tall as me.
Getting to a moment like this took hard work. These students entered the Paideia program at Hughes Center as 9th graders, and some of them had gone to a Paideia middle school prior to that. So years of nearly weekly practice went in to an 11th grade seminar. However, the conditions for a successful seminar can be created in any classroom.
Mortimer Adler was the father of the Paideia philosophy of instruction. Named with the Greek word for “all knowledge”, the philosophy emphasized the need to expose all people to the important philosophies from mankind’s history, such that any two people waiting for a bus could strike up a conversation about the “great ideas.” The philosophy provided a formula for teaching which suggested small amounts of didactic instruction, larger amounts of guided work time, and a dedication to regular, formal guided discussions called “seminar” It looks somewhat like the 3-part lesson in Montessori classrooms, and places responsibility on the teacher to present information accurately, then to guide the student in exploration of the content.
Seminar: Selecting the text
Adler proposed a formal book list, which he called the “Great Books.” His company accumulated, bound, and sold this series of books, which included the writings of Aristotle, Shakespeare, Plato, Galileo, and Tolstoy. It came with a guide to the “great questions” asked in each, which aligns to the understanding in education today that our minds seek to acquire knowledge in an organized way, and that thematic organization promotes memory. While Adler’s “Great Books” series came to be criticized for emphasizing western thought, teachers at Hughes supplemented Socrates with Gandhi, and DaVinci’s notebooks with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and we read Amy Tan, Alice Walker and others to intentionally broaden our worldview. These texts can range from historical documents such as The Declaration of Independence to short fiction such as Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find”, both of which explore notions related to good and evil. I have also conducted seminar on one poem or a group of poems, or even on one or more works of art.
The best text fits well with a larger quarterly theme, engages the students, challenges them as readers, and is well written so as to stand up to the rigors of close reading. Sometimes the choice is clear, as a particular document is a core part of the curriculum. Other times the selection can only be reached after weeks of discussion and exploration by a team of teachers during the process of developing the quarterly curriculum.
Seminar: Preparing the student
This seminar formula is replicable anywhere. Many of the readings that address these large issues are challenging, especially for adolescents, and so a careful reading in advance is necessary for a successful seminar. Students are asked to read and highlight each text independently in advance, then to do a guided reading together as a class. Many times this involves the teacher(s) reading aloud, though depending on the difficulty of the text, allowing student readers or even small group readings can achieve the same goal. During the close reading, we taught and reinforced the skills of close reading – highlighting key ideas in the text, writing questions in the margins, and seeking constantly for the “universal ideas” in the text.
Seeking the universal ideas in the text is a key goal of the reading and seminar process. For instance, “A Christmas Memory” may seem to be a warm story about an an older woman some may describe as “simple” and a young boy always excited to see what she has planned for them to do each day, but in fact it reveals a lot about love and how to be in relationship with each other in general. Who doesn’t want to be with someone who eccentrically measures their world in relation to yourself? The last preparation was for students to gather a few, say 5-10, of these universal questions , which we referred to together as “critical thinking questions,” in preparation for seminar. Once this preparation is complete, you are ready to seminar.
Seminar: Preparing the space
A prepared seminar room allows students to sit at tables or desks in a circle or rectangle, with each student able to see the others. The ideal size of a seminar is 10 to 15 students, roughly half a class. (This can be accomplished in most classrooms without the aid of a co-teacher by having half the students completing independent work while the others seminar, then switching.) Students’ last names are written neatly on small formal placards: “Ms. Robinson”, “Mr. Chin”, “Ms. Simmons”.
The teacher should be in this circle, as well. The skilled teacher seeks to play the role of a moderator, asking probing questions, challenging students to remain engaged in conversation on matters related to the text or the universal ideas, and seeking full engagement. The teacher may have prepared a list of dozens of questions, often gathered while seeking the best opening and core questions for the seminar. His text is marked with areas where students expressed confusion, excitement, or strong emotions; every well-chosen text has moments of clarity, important ideas, or strong emotions that must be visited in seminar, just as every foreign state has monuments and memorials that must be visited when one is travelling.
Additionally, the seminar space should have the formal rules of seminar, which have been taught to them previously, posted where students can see and be reminded of them. The final preparation is the formal display of the opening and core questions. These are visible to the student to avoid confusion and allow revisiting both questions throughout the conversation. Here is an example of the rules of seminar: Guidelines for Socratic Seminar final
Every well-chosen text has moments of clarity, important ideas, or strong emotions that must be visited in seminar, just as every foreign state has monuments and memorials that must be visited when one is travelling.
As participants entered the space, or prior to them doing so, the teacher might indicate which skills students should focus on during the seminar by marking their self-scoring sheet. Students entering should be asked to write down and respond to the opening question, if it was not assigned as homework. A good use of the arrival transition time as students are writing their opener is to check for the critical thinking questions, assisting students and the seminar by circling the questions most likely to lead to more in-depth conversation or to head toward the core question. This is especially important for those students who have trouble knowing when to interject in seminar; if a question has already been designated by the teacher as a “good” question, they are far more comfortable asking it in front of their peers.
Seminar begins with one person, usually the facilitator, asking the opening question aloud. The students respond to it by reading their written response, and often adding a brief comment reflecting their thoughts in the minute since their writing began, or contradictions the did not have time to address. From there, the guide or facilitator seeks to use questions to accomplish several tasks:
- Promote in-depth discussion of key questions
- Promote universal involvement
- Visit key text ideas to examine the author’s purpose
- Lead students to the core question
Seminar demands a lot from the facilitator, who must not only guide the intellectual direction of the conversation, but who must also help manage the behaviors of the group of adolescents in the room. The formality of the setting, and the advanced preparation of the students, helps everyone stay focused and successful during seminar.
Every seminar, like every conversation, seems to have a natural length. Typically, a sustained conversation of 40 minutes is a good benchmark. Seldom is a question so engaging as to involve a group of students for much longer than that, and it is difficult to get very deep into a text in a shorter period than that.
That said, the best seminar is the one where the facilitator has taught and coached the students in the strategies such that they self-regulate – making sure everyone gets a chance to respond to the opening question, asking and answering each others’ questions, and finding the appropriate way to drive toward the core question with enough time left to adequately address it. Students in a high-functioning seminar, who have grasped the essential meaning of the text, might even have the confidence to reject a core question and replace it with one of their own.
Evaluation in my “A Christmas Memory” seminar was easy at the end, because I had observed (and noted) all of the key aspects of good seminar activity prior to setting down my pen. Prior to that I had been almost frantically recording notes, often in an improvised shorthand, to try and capture the thread of the conversation and who was exhibiting which key seminar skills. (In fact, it was likely the sudden lack of constant activity at my end of the table that disrupted the seminar.) The self-evaluation sheet I gave to every student looked for a series of appropriate actions they were to attempt, while being aware that they might not be able to do them all. A non-comprehensive list of these skills includes:
- ask questions for clarification
- make eye contact
- cite the text
- involve others
- help clarify ideas for others
- ask universal questions
- make allusions to other common texts
- allow others to speak.
This list can be modified for the needs of the class. A final score for seminar can be derived from looking at these items holistically: the marked text, the student’s critical thinking questions, the written response to the opening question, the student’s performance in the seminar itself, and the written response to the core question. Here is one example: Seminar Evaluation Form – modified
Seminar key items revisited
To recap, a successful seminar happens when conditions are right. The teacher has great responsibility for helping these conditions. Here is what can be prepared to provide the greatest chance for success:
- An engaging text, preferably related to a larger quarterly theme
- A plan for creating a group of 10-15 students
- A plan for allowing 40 to 60 minutes of unbroken conversation
- Formal name card for each student participant
- Room for a circle or rectangle where all students have equal access or status
- An opening question, one which requires some exploration of their prepared text and/or invites discussion or even disagreement
- Seminar evaluation form for each student (here’s another example: Conscience seminar form )
- A tracking document to note student involvement and performance; some use blank paper, some use a chart like this one: Seminar tracking document example
- A core question, one which exposes a universal question in the text and calls on the reader to address the question in their text, in the quarterly readings and experiences, and in their own experience.
The guided formal investigation of a topic is an essential part of a successful classroom plan. When students gain the ability to formally interact with each other to examine a topic in-depth, they are ready for the most demanding tasks we can place on them after they leave the classroom.
I invite you to comment with a specific piece of literature that you have used to address a key component of your curriculum – was it an historical text to support a social studies standard, or perhaps a work of fiction to help explain a science objective? Please share your story in the comments, and be sure to enter your address to subscribe to our blog, where you will get weekly updates delivered straight to your inbox.
Jack M. Jose
On September 15, 2008, the giant financial company Lehman Brothers, unable to meet its obligations to borrowers, completely collapsed, closing its doors and halting all transactions as it fell swiftly into unthinkably large debt. 25,000 Lehman employees lost their jobs. The company would never re-open. In the same week, the largest banks in the United States all shared warnings of nearing a similar fate. This event was the primary public face of the start of the Great Recession, the greatest economic downturn in modern history. The US government stepped in to bail out the largest banks before they followed suit with Lehman Brothers, eventually spending trillions of taxpayer dollars to shore up our economy. The Lehman crash, and the bank crash in general, was connected with the bursting of the US housing bubble, where suddenly home prices crashed back from extravagant highs, costing homeowners billions in actual and unrealized gains in their personal net worth. In the end, billions of dollars of value of stocks, companies, and people’s homes and jobs were essentially vaporized. Even after 5 years of sustained job and economic growth following the official end of the recession in 2012, by some measures the United States has not yet unburied itself from this financial disaster.
There were many contributing factors to this economic crash, and many books and even movies helped to tell parts of the story. One best-selling book-turned-movie exploring the causes of this crash was The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.
“Wait,” you say. “This is an education blog. Why are you discussing the economy?”
Current conditions in the educational system in the United States, and particularly in specific states, resemble the situation that preceded the crash and Great Recession. A generation of reforms, from the Reagan-era Nation at Risk report to the transformative and bipartisan Bush II No Child Left Behind law to the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act, have eroded safeguards that tied tax dollars and community oversight to the education of our children. This has left our nation open to an educational crash, the sort of which has never happened, for which there is no roadmap or precedent, just as there was no precedent for the real estate and banking collapse in 2008. For many of us, just as for many experts in the banking industry, this collapse was a complete shock. Nothing could have prepared us for the long-lasting effects of the crash, and only in hindsight could we see all the signs of the impending crisis. Only a few people, generally well-read experts in the field who had proven willing to buck prevailing wisdom, were able to see the coming default. No one listened to them.
The Great Recession was caused by a number of related factors in the economy. One cause of the crash was deregulation. In a major windfall to banks and other lending institutions, Congress loosened restrictions on lending practices, allowing for larger and riskier loans, with fewer safeguards for borrowers. New companies, envisioning windfall profits, sprang up seemingly overnight and began competing for customers. First time and repeat borrowers, excited for an opportunity to buy their first or their biggest house, flooded into the market, and found they had a wide array of companies competing to sell them a loan as cheaply as possible.
This deregulation combined with an extreme profit motive allowed for a second cause to emerge: predatory lending. With deregulation there came an expansion of banks, some of which became “too big to fail.” This phrase did not mean that they could not fail. It just meant that their failure would cause widespread economic disaster. The US government would, in this case, be forced to prop them up and to guarantee that their loans were covered. These institutions were assumed to be essentially unbreakable. Deregulation also meant such growth in the banking industry that new, non-bank companies got into the business of offering home loans and dealing mortgages. These new lending institutions looked and acted less and less like traditional banks, and they began enticing and even recruiting home buyers in the full knowledge that they would be unable to pay off the loans. This happened even while these institutions paid exorbitant salaries to CEOs, often with sales bonuses for the middle managers, creating incentives to make riskier and riskier loans.
Additionally, the oversight for these new kinds of banks, making these new kinds of loans, was essentially nonexistent. Traditional systems of measuring the effectiveness and liquidity of banks were overmatched by these new rules. The use of innovative and complex accounting, perhaps intentionally, made oversight of any sort more difficult. Specifically, the creation of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations made it nearly impossible to assess the riskiness of investments. It is hard to judge the risk inherent in buying something most people cannot understand or explain.
Finally, signs of an impending crash were ignored by almost everyone. Time and time again lenders and monitors alike allowed themselves to participate in what now is understood to have been “magical thinking”, the belief that these risky pools of unexplainable investments would somehow continue to increase in value forever. In fact, at times the warnings were so loud that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was notoriously reluctant to speak directly to future trends or concerns, made multiple public statements to dismiss these warnings. Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department economist, catalogued many of those warnings in his first article as a regular columnist at Forbes Magazine.
These factors have parallels in the current movement in education, as described below.
Deregulation – creating the bubble
In order to encourage the growth of the “ownership society” as espoused by President George W. Bush during his successful Presidential campaign, his administration and a Republican congress undertook several initiatives aimed at increasing home ownership. These were well-intentioned and broadly popular bipartisan acts aimed at placing more people in their own homes, and prompting them to be better citizens in general, because they would now have a stake in the success of the community. However, these enticements created unforeseen consequences. Homeowner down payment assistance and efforts to simplify home-buying drew in record amounts of new home owners. Some of these home buyers were not, according to traditional measures, a good bet to stay in the house and pay off their loan. Unscrupulous lenders capitalized on these eager new buyers, offering them larger and riskier loans than ever before. Folks with bad credit got loans, folks with good credit got larger loans than they could handle, all with the promise of future gains in the value of these houses.
The expansion of the charter school movement in the US parallels this change in the banking system, and seems poised to create a similar bubble. While a long-established system of education exists, with a history dating back to the first colonies on Plymouth Rock, and overseen by elected school boards in nearly every city and county in our country, recent deregulation in education law has created an expansion of school-like entities called charter schools. These schools often get permission to operate with a different set of rules than public schools, typically privileges to experiment with curriculum, seat time, salary scales, and more, often under the guise of being “laboratory schools”, free to experiment with ideas that might work better for education. These types of schools flourished under the Obama administration, and seem set to practically explode during the current administration. Just last week Florida approved $200M for a major expansion of charter schools in the Sunshine State. In addition to brick and mortar schools, largely to save on costs associated with maintenance and transportation, charter schools have innovated and quickly expanded online learning. Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania, lead states in enrolling students in online schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). And the expansion has been accelerated through the use of novel, some might say experimental or even suspect, techniques for delivering education. In the 2014-15 school year, 38,500 students in Ohio alone took all of their classes on computers from home through an online school. For the 2015-16 school year, Ohio paid online schools $267 million to educate those students — more than a quarter of what it paid all charter schools in the state. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the Ohio Virtual Academy (OVA), with 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively, are the largest online schools in Ohio. More on ECOT later.
In May of 2014, the New York City legislature created laws that they touted made New York “friendlier [to charters] than almost any other city in the nation.” By increasing the per pupil allocation allotted to charters, eliminating salary minimums for teachers and other staff, and by requiring public schools to offer up unused space at a significant discount, many charter schools are given advantages that would seem to tip the scale in their favor. It would be hard to argue that these private or public charters are indeed true laboratories for innovation of best practices, given the tremendous advantages they have over public or even private schools.
The US Senate’s Levin–Coburn Report concluded that the financial crisis was the result of “high risk, complex financial products; undisclosed conflicts of interest; the failure of regulators, the credit rating agencies, and the market itself to rein in the excesses of Wall Street.” Might a charter school bubble and resulting education crisis happen the same way? Might the leverage of a few powerful textbook and test printing companies create a system that is “too big to fail”? Might a pending educational crash similarly be the result of state and national legislatures failing to rein in the excesses of “Big Ed”, a conglomerate of test makers, book printers, and educational consultants profiting handsomely from the creation and amalgamation of more and more charter schools?
“Bundling”: Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and joining forces
One of the effects of deregulation was the creation of new ways to buy and sell groups of mortgages. One of the ways that the lenders protected themselves from economic trouble was by creating complex financial vehicles called credit default swaps (CDS). These CDSs could be created without collateral – that is, without proving that there was anything of value to be sold in case the investment went wrong – and thus they were at higher risk for a default. These junk bonds, accurately named because they were groups of mortgages that were without value (hence “junk”), were often quickly bundled with other similar loans and sold in large amounts to larger companies who were investing on the continued growth of the value of real estate in the United States.
Just like the creation of new banks and lenders looks like the expansion of charter schools, so too does the creation of CDS look like the persistent closing and combining happening among charter schools. Time and again failing charter schools are merged into larger existing entities, in much the way Lehman Brothers sopped up smaller banks in order to bundle their mortgage assets.
The national White Hat Management group’s Cleveland experiment is an example of how deregulation and recombination make it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of individual schools. White Hat management ran into legal difficulties, accused of being beholden to particular publishers and vendors, rather than operating independently. Instead of amending their practices, they chose to sell major operations to a Pansophic education (founded by the same people who helped found the charter school system K12) which overnight became one of the largest charter school sponsors in the state of Ohio.
Other national vendors of charter schools, such as K12 and KIPP, have expanded through a combination of opening new branches and purchasing or absorbing existing charter schools. This makes it impossible to truly gage the effectiveness of the schools. In 2014, the law in Ohio called for charter schools to release their state report cards in their third year of existence. The average length of operation of a charter school in Ohio was 2.5 years. On average, schools chose to fold or divest rather than reveal their results. This has the effect of skewing charter school data to look better than it actually is. How? If, in any data set, you allow the option for the low-performers to opt out before being counted, the resulting data is inaccurate. This makes the data, which shows that charter schools tend to slightly underperform public schools on average, even more frightening.
Also in Ohio, the I Can charter school chain – started by former leaders of the well-regarded Breakthrough charter schools – has faced poor results and negative feedback from the public in Cleveland. The chain has additional schools in Akron and Canton and one in Indiana. In response to the poor results, the chain was turned over to Accel Charter School network. In their public statement on the transition, school officials explained that “running quality schools at the state’s $6,000 funding per student is too great a challenge and that they want to be with a larger network to save money.”
“The teachers, the students and the parents will not notice a difference,” said I Can lawyer Jamie Callender, a former state representative for western Lake County.
It is hard to find these words reassuring, given that the transfer happened because of poor results.
Profit motive and predatory lending
Another contributing factor to the market crash and resulting recession was the large profit motive leading to predatory lending. Here is how it worked in the banking and mortgage business: mortgage lenders could bundle these mortgages (and the associated risks) and pass them on to banks and bank-replacements. They could – and did – adopt loose underwriting criteria (encouraged by regulators), and some developed aggressive lending practices.
What might this look like in the education world? Much the same as it did in the mortgage world, it might look like charter schools targeting residents of urban areas and promising a new world of opportunities. It might look like glossy postcards and slick advertising campaigns, and promises of access to the internet at home for people who cannot afford it for themselves. It might look like promises of safety and order. It might look like colleges enticing students to borrow beyond their means in the hope of enhanced future earnings.
It might look like dozens, maybe more than a hundred, for-profit colleges identified as having an unacceptable debt to earnings ratio. This ratio is “how much money typical program graduates are required to spend on student loan payments every year, and how much they earn in the job market two years after graduation.” The administration of President Barack Obama labeled schools with unacceptably high ratios of debt as “profit mills” – schools designed to create profit for themselves with little concern for their actual benefit to the students. A list of such programs was available at this Department of Education site at the time of publication of this article.
And there is big money to be made. One example of a well-paid executive in the charter school business is Ronald J. Packard, the CEO of K12 Inc. According to SourceWatch, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, Packard received compensation of over $19.48 million from 2009 to 20013, almost $4M a year. In 2013, he owned over 2 percent of K12, which had a market cap of around $1.25 billion in September 2013.
Education publication companies are already massive. Pearson, a textbook and testing company, has a market value over $4.5B. McGraw-Hill, according to Reuters, anticipated a valuation of nearly $5B when they offered an initial offering of stock in 2014. A third major educational publishing company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, currently is worth about $1.5B. The Chief Executive Officers of these companies are making major deals that will determine how our students and our schools are taught and tested, and their ability to work a deal that is good for the company will be a primary determinant of their value to the company, and the source of their compensation. They are even working in many states, as well as at the federal level, to create mandatory testing. Thus the law will guarantee that their product is purchased. They could be moving from free market salespeople to the sole deliverers of a multi-billion-dollar government mandate.
There is significant economic pressure to deliver a contract, especially a federal contract with billions of dollars.
Well-compensated CEOs, and multi-billion dollar publishing companies are sources of concern. But the mere ability to earn a major profit is not evidence of wrongdoing.
Profit-mill colleges are a bigger concern, but these do not, necessarily, rise to the level of wrongdoing or fraud. They are merely concerns.
However, actual wrongdoing was recently uncovered at Ohio’s ECOT school. This for-profit online k-12 school was cited this September by the Ohio Department of Education for charging the state for higher attendance than the school actually could verify. Online schools are very different from traditional schools, as students do not have to physically show up at school in order to be counted as present. They merely have to log in from home. The problem at ECOT was that they claimed compensation for 9,000 more students than they could prove they had. With about 6,500 students verifiably enrolled, ECOT received an estimated $60M in funding that they did not merit for the school year. This fraudulent claim on taxpayer dollars should be a major concern for taxpayers.
Fortunately, this fraud was caught through oversight, and public records claims would help reveal the same information. Efforts to undermine the transparency of the system could create a system where such schools could hide their efforts to defraud states and taxpayers. In fact, reducing oversight seems to invite poor behavior.
Lack of Oversight
A final important cause of the 2008 economic collapse was that deregulation had led to a serious lack of oversight, which meant that important signs of impending collapse were ignored, or were never seen at all. “In 2007-2010 the lack of transparency in the large market became a concern to regulators as it could pose a systemic risk.” The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded that the financial crisis was avoidable and was caused by “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision.”
In a revealing scene in the movie version of The Big Short, an investor approaches a woman he knows well and who works at the Securities Exchange Commission, which is tasked with overseeing the banking market. He learns she is still providing oversight to these companies, even while she is actually seeking a higher-paying job from them – whichever one will hire her. He asks if there are laws preventing her from moving from a regulatory agency directly into a position with a large bank she was supposed to be investigating. She shrugs. “Since we got our budget cut, we don’t investigate much.”
For now, it is unclear whether the level of oversight is up to the task of managing the level of attempted fraud and poor performance. In addition to the ECOT investigation in Ohio, the Charter School Commission also proved willing to take charters away from low-performing schools. These are positive signs.
Despite these isolated reports of identified fraud, the national move has been to reduce the amount of oversight, rather than increase it. In fact, one legislator, Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky, introduced a bill to end the Department of Education on December 31, 2018. And while this is likely just a symbolic gesture, the symbolism is not empty in a government with Congress and the White House under the control of one party. The House of Representatives recently scaled back implementation of oversight proposed under the new ESSA law. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made millions of dollars buying and selling charter school companies, and seems predisposed to favor charter schools over public schools. Just last week Bloomberg reported efforts by Betsy DeVos’ education department to take away protections for students taking out large loans to attend college, including the profit mills described above.
So these 5 risk factors, which set the stage for the economic meltdown of 2008, seem to exist in education today: deregulation, “bundling”, profit motive and predatory lending, and the potential for a lack of oversight. But what does that presage?
Just what does a crash in the educational system look like, exactly? It has never happened, as far as we know. And an education, unlike a dollar, is incredibly complex to track and measure. But we can speculate.
It could look like individual communities bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, with state and federal dollars siphoned into the hands of a few corporations, who expand charter schools into additional markets, perhaps with the help of new federal laws. These communities whose public schools will be pitted against charter schools, already perpetually struggling to make ends meet, could find themselves over the next three years hit by a double-whammy of the loss of federal government support for individual programs and a federal hiring freeze, and the specter of funding a charter school system to run in direct competition with their own public system. Bankruptcy and receivership can mean the permanent fiscal end to a community, as inhabitants pack up and move away, or it can mean incorporation into a neighboring municipality.
The losses here, however, are perhaps as significant as they hard to measure.
On an individual scale the losses might be even worse than mere dollars and cents. Losing two or three years of a child’s education, as well-intentioned parents direct their children into profit-mill schools, can actually have a measurably devastating effect on a student. These schools often hire untrained and uncertificated teachers, or teachers who have been unable to find or keep work in other schools. We know that being assigned to an ineffective teacher for three consecutive years results in a 50% lower performance at the end of the three years than similar peers taught by the best teachers. We know that the lack of ties to a community that comes from answering to a private board rather than a public one can create a loss of identity for students and the community. What is the effect of schools that continually close, reorganize, and open again? How can they build continuity of relationships, standards and expectations, professional growth among teachers and administrators? What happens to students treated like widgets, or worse? What happens to the communities as these students grow up feeling a little less connected, a little less educated, a little less prepared for the future?
The housing bubble, and the resulting market crash, had devastating effects on people’s homes and lives. Billions of dollars were lost. The economy lost millions of jobs. People had to move from their homes. It was devastating. Money, however, can be earned back over time. The cost of thousands of lost educations, as corporations populate laboratory charter schools with our next generation, and those schools churn and change hands every couple of years, is incalculable.
 Sorkin, Andrew Ross. “Lehman Files for Bankruptcy; Merrill Is Sold.” Editorial. NY Times 25 Sept. 2008: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
-by Jack M. Jose
Every spring, conversations erupt in PTO meetings and team conferences about summer homework, and conflict blooms like forsythia bushes. It is a predictable pattern. Overworked parents, stressed students, concerned teachers join educational activists like Alfie Kohn to make a strong and rational case: let children be children, especially in the summer.
The Heart Says …
How true this feels! There is no debate that summer holds a romantic place in the memories of our childhood, spending leisurely days catching crayfish in the creek, playing whiffle ball outside until the streetlights came on, and the evening giving way to long nights spent chasing fireflies. 90 days free from concerns about school, free from responsibilities, unencumbered by deadlines and chores. The description is so fanciful that it seems almost mythical, and our love for our children is so great that we can’t imagine a childhood bereft of these idyllic landscapes.
Children use summer, and any length of available time, to create and to explore. With vast amounts of time and resources, they can build and learn in new ways. They can explore their bookshelves to find lost treasures of favorite books from the past, or stay up late in the evening building a new model or sorting cards acquired during the day.
The Data Says …
This is a lovely argument. One would surely be evil to suggest tampering with this particular Degas painting of summer! And for some students, perhaps as many as 30% of them residing in the top brackets of socio-economic status (SES) in the US, this might be their reality.
However, when it comes to the skill that is the building block of all learning – reading – summer homework is a necessary way to help our students achieve their greatest potential. It turns out that during that long summer away from the structure and routine of school instruction and work, students lose some of the skills they gained during the year. There is no dispute about summer slide – the fact that summer away from school results in a loss in reading skill, on average a month’s loss. In fact, through the average summer, this can create a “3-month gap in reading scores between middle- and low-income children.” And the gap between low-income and high-income students is even more pronounced. This happens as middle-income children maintain the reading level they had in May, while low-income students slide and high-income students continue to grow.
Worse yet, at the high school level, we are often trying to offset differences and deficits that were years in the making. An oft-cited Johns Hopkins meta study on summer slide reveals that “prior to high school, the achievement gap by family SES traces substantially to unequal learning opportunities in children’s home and community environments,” and shows that this gap can become the equivalent of several years’ gains in reading.
So “summers off” is a plan, but only if we are content to accept that a child’s parent’s income should determine that, at the end of the educational process, some children should be several grade levels ahead of others in reading skill. We believe that a strong education serves to limit our differences, and to provide each graduate with an equal opportunity for success. From there, a person’s effort, grit, and creativity should be the primary determinants of their success. Education, especially public education, should not content itself with perpetuating advantages provided by socio-economic status. Nor should we be in the business of reinforcing disadvantages among these groups.
Putting the Studies in Perspective
We understand that these studies are discussing averages, and trends over time, not describing individual families. The habits in a particular household are not determined by the parent’s income level. A studious low-income parent can help their child resist this trend, while a wealthy parent who provides no summer enrichment for their child can set them up for the type of slide that the studies suggest they will not experience. These are not absolute truths, but rather large-scale trends that we would ignore at our own peril.
The Johns Hopkins study cited earlier suggests that school might well be the answer to address this inequality. “[W]ith learning gains across social lines more nearly equal during the school year, the experience of schooling tends to offset the unequalizing press of children’s out-of-school learning environments.” So socio-economic differences at home can create large gaps in student achievement, and school can offset that gap by improving growth and academic performance for all students.
This position creates challenging conversations, especially in a diverse school like Gamble Montessori. Some of our students, 15% or so, have parents who are college educated professionals. More of our students’ parents are working-class, who despite their hard work and full employment qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch – our best measure of students living at or near the poverty line. Finally, a large percentage of our students live in poverty. Each spring, one or more of our college-educated, active, and involved parents who have time and inclination to join our PTO or Instructional Leadership Team, make the case against summer homework. They make it passionately, in much the same terms as it is made in the opening paragraphs of this essay. It is a compelling argument for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is likely be true for their child. They are right to make this argument and to raise these important questions, and I welcome their involvement in the discussion.
It was in one of these meetings two years ago where I realized the nature of the argument against summer homework, but I could not find a gentle way to word it. Finally, I decided on asking simply this: “Are we suggesting that we should only give summer homework to the poor kids?” The answer is, of course, no.
So if we know that summer homework helps our poorest readers, and we know that it does no harm to our best readers, except for infringing upon the idyllic summer that we recall, how can we do summer homework well, so it meets the needs of all of our children and families? Here is our best answer.
Doing Summer Homework Right – For Everyone
With the help of the parents, our Instructional Leadership Team set out to right-size summer homework so that it would encourage and foster the growth of skills among all of our students, without eliminating the magic of summer for any of them. In doing so, we set some parameters, asking ourselves, how do we measure the work to determine whether it was just the right amount? The parameters we discuss divide the rest of the conversation below: the amount of time it took to complete, the number of subjects we covered, its value in the class for which it was assigned, whether it was new or review work, and its role in helping a child develop skills that relate to success beyond school such as managing their time and meeting deadlines.
To make the rest of the conversation possible, we had to first set limits on the amount of time a child should have to spend completing homework. More than one conscientious parent had shared with us the story of their child, who struggled with homework in general, spending many summer nights figuratively chained to their kitchen tables, crying at the weight of the work. This was no one’s idea of a summer well spent.
After some debate, we concluded, without basis in any scientific research, that 40 or so hours was right for an entire summer’s worth of school work. With June, July, and about half of August comprising summer, this meant about 50 minutes a day. This seemed a reasonable amount of time over the summer. Not intrusive, just a regular checking in to keep the skills sharp. Once this number was proposed, there was little further official discussion, though away from the table the question is still alive. We generally agreed that this felt right.
The summer slide research cited above focuses on reading skills. A RAND corporation study cites the research of Cooper and Nye (1996) that determined “summer learning loss was greater, on average, in math than in reading,” and that this was more consistent across socio-economic lines than was the reading slide. It was reasonable to expect that reading was the skill that students were MOST likely to use in the summer. Therefore, a thoughtful summer homework program would involve all core subjects.
Again, we applied the cap of 40 hours total, which left 10 or 8 hours, depending on the grade of the student and whether foreign language work was included.
Connection to class / function
A common complaint among students, and a very valid one, was that their summer homework assignments languished on the teacher’s desk and had no connection to what they were covering in class. I knew, from discussions with teachers, that this was indeed the case. Papers would sit on their desks, or in briefcases or files, for weeks and weeks, checked in but not graded.
Apparently, both students and teachers saw summer homework as meaningless busywork!
Some teachers were magnifying the impression by not grading and returning the work promptly, other than to indicate whether it was complete. Worse yet, no connections were being made between the work they did over the summer and the work that was to be completed in class the first few weeks. Small wonder that year after year we struggled to get students to complete this work!
So at Gamble we added a stipulation that summer homework had to relate directly to instruction the first two weeks of the school year. This served the purpose of emphasizing its importance, while helping to explain why there was a deadline at all.
New vs Review Content
The term “summer slide” indicates the loss of existing knowledge. If this is what we were attempting to avoid through the administration of summer homework, then we had to assign work that was not new. The first year we reviewed our summer homework through this lens, the work seemed nearly impossible, especially in math. In addition to a short review of the previous year’s skills, much of the work in our existing summer homework covered topics (albeit in introductory form) that our students had not been exposed to in the classroom. Especially in math, this seemed counter-intuitive, and the math teachers at the table immediately agreed to change it. How can we justify grading students for doing quality work on problem types that they have never seen before?
We set the expectation moving forward that work was meant to be a review, and not for new content. Of course, students could read new books, and apply their grade-level reading skills to new texts, but in science and math, summer was not the time to try to add new skills without the aid of a teacher or guide.
Timing / Executive Function
Of course, we found that two types of students completely undermined our plans: the procrastinators, and the planners. One year, my last in the classroom, we handed the summer homework out a week prior to dismissal. One the last day, Lisa approached me, “Here, Mr. Jose.” She handed me a folder, inside were several stapled packets. “What’s this, Lisa?” I asked.
“My summer homework,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Math and science on the left, English and social studies on the right.”
“Umm,” I tried to buy time. “I, uh, don’t really have a place to put this right now, it’s due in, what, August? So,” I handed the folder back. “I’m going to have to ask you to hold on to this.” Lisa was a planner, and she was not about to let the few last days of packing up rooms and free time in some classes go by unused. She had completed her summer homework, she told me, mostly in the classrooms of other teachers, some of whom were showing movies or not providing work at the conclusion of final exams.
Our procrastinators are a different kind of problem. These are the students who plan on having the opportunity in the first weeks of school to complete all of their summer homework. I’ve worked in schools where those students were held in the auditorium or some classroom until they completed the work, or even suspended, not allowed to join their classmates for the opening days of instruction. While this may have provided a strong message that summer homework was required, it really undermined our message that what happens in the classrooms in the opening days is essential to a successful year, and sets those students up for failure. These same procrastinators could rightly argue in some cases, as explained above, that since the work was not graded anyway, they should not rightfully receive a deduction for completing it near the end of the first quarter. (This was part of the reason we instituted the expectation that teachers would utilize the work in a meaningful way in the first weeks of class. In this way, students were rewarded for doing the work, the significance of the class time was upheld, and students’ grades would be appropriately harmed not by an arbitrary grade given by a teacher, but by their own lack of having completed the requisite work.)
These students, both the planners and the procrastinators, lost the primary executive function practice that can be gained from summer homework. Done consistently, these periods of student work can not only erase summer slide, but can reinforce schedule-making and time-management skills among students. This is the hidden goal of summer homework, and the advantage to all students: practicing your ability to manage your time helps promote self-efficacy and leads to greater success far beyond the classroom.
One thing that every student gains from summer homework, if done well, are the skills that collectively are called executive functioning, some of which are: planning and organizing, managing time, strategizing, remembering details, making corrections, and knowing when – and who – to ask for help. The best summer homework structure that I have seen for this is one that we have not implemented at Gamble, but was required of students at Clark Montessori. The work was to be mailed in at certain intervals in the summer. The beauty of their plan was that it helped structure the summer, and developed executive function. It worked to the strengths of the planner, and to eliminate the weaknesses of the procrastinator.
While this obviously served to help the teacher manage the grading load, the effect on the students was even more pronounced. To make this work, students had to plan their summer a little more meticulously, figuring out when and how they were going to complete this work. Instead of cramming it in to one or two weeks just before school started, this plan required students to do the very thing that prevented summer slide: to do their work periodically and summon those same skills repeatedly over time. Students were required to not only complete the homework, but to manage a range of skills that would serve them in many other places in life.
In Conclusion / In Perspective
Summer homework is not a villain, stealing away summer from our children. Nor is it a panacea, for while it does save our students from regression and the achievement gap, it comes at a cost. Done correctly, summer homework is a meaningful review of work that bridges the gap between last year and next, while helping a student develop the management skills needed to not just pass a class, but to structure the more complex projects that lie ahead of them.
In his instructive work The Conditions of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out that periods of intense engagement heighten the sense of value of the time around the event itself. Put another way, moments of structured time in the summer could, in fact, help make the rest of the time seem more precious in context. The flipside of the perfect summer, with the whole time idled away, is the moment of terror the day before school begins again, and the inability to remember what happened as the days melted into a blur of hours lost doing whatever came to mind. The summer best spent is with a mix of structured and unstructured time; time to do the things that need to be done, and time to discover what wants to be done. In fact, the summer well spent might look like a good spring break.