About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Friday, October 26, 2012

Inside The Remedial Classroom

This post is an abridged and edited section of my new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. It appears as well in the "College Issue" of Dissent , Fall, 2012. 
* * *
            There is a lot of attention being given these days to remediation in higher education. “Failure to Launch,” reads one representative headline, “Community College Students Can’t Meet Higher Goals.”
The numbers vary but, on average, suggest that about 35-40% of students in state colleges and universities are held for one or more basic skills courses. The numbers increase in the community college, typically 60% and higher. So roughly half of post-secondary students in the United States need some assistance in order to do college-level work.

These numbers are alarming; however, some form of remediation has existed in American higher education for a very long time, and, by some estimates, the numbers have remained modestly stable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, more than 40% of entering students were involved in a preparatory program. In the 1970s, Berkeley was holding about 50% of its students for remedial English. On some campuses, the numbers are going up, and that increase can be accounted for by the declining conditions of some K-12 districts, but, also, by an increase in the number of people attending college: people who, a generation or two ago, would not have thought college possible or economically necessary. Here’s one telling statistic: Over the last thirty years, the percentage of people over 40 attending college has more than doubled.

Placement in basic English, reading, or mathematics is definitely affected by educational and economic inequality. Yet, in one national study 24% of students from the top income quartile took one or more such courses. Likewise, students who had a strong pre-collegiate education were also held – 10% of those from the top quartile of scorers on one national achievement test were held for one or more remedial courses. Both across and within basic skills classrooms, the students are a varied lot.

For students, basic skills courses extend time in school. They must take courses that typically earn no graduation or transfer credit, and if they have financial aid, they use it up. At the legislative level, it is the expense of large numbers of basic skills courses that is propelling remediation onto the national stage. But several studies suggest that the entire remedial effort accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the country’s higher educational budget – that’s a lot of money, but not at the catastrophic levels the headlines lead us to believe.

Legislative outrage is fueled not only by expense, but also by a string of reports showing that the success rates of students held for remedial courses is not good. For example, of those students placing at the lowest level of basic skills, especially in more than one area – math, English, reading – only 16% complete the entire remedial series. Yet, the research findings on effectiveness are mixed, and do show that for many students who are not severely underprepared (particularly in reading, the core academic skill), basic skills courses can make a positive difference in persistence and success in college.

The students who are the focus of the reports on remediation are represented in the aggregate, in statistical averages. Let us meet some of them by going into the kind of classroom that raises the most concern in state houses: one of the most basic English courses in the remedial sequence. The instructor, Mr. Quijada, is asking for the definition of a word in an article the students are reading.

* * *

            “Forlorn,” Mr. Quijada reads, looking up from the article. “What’s ‘forlorn’ mean?” “Desire,” says the older man in the middle of the room – glasses, graying dreadlocks pulled back – then in the same breath adds “longing.” “Close, Leonard,” Mr. Quijada replies, “longing can certainly lead to being forlorn.” Casually strategic, Mr. Quijada looks to the last row. “Kimberly, it’s good to see you back. Do you want to add to Leonard’s definition?” Kimberly shakes her head, softly says “no,” and looks to the young woman in the hoodie next to her who answers, “Sad… it means to be sad.”
This is English 55, the most basic of the three remedial English courses at this community college. Upon entering the college, students take a standardized, multiple-choice placement test in grammar, reading comprehension, and mathematics. This test can clear them to take the credit-bearing, transferrable course in English or mathematics, or, as is the case for almost 90% of the students at this college – a college that serves one of the poorest populations in the city – the test can slot them into some level of remedial coursework.

The ages of the students in English 55 range from 19, right out of high school, to two people in their 50s. Some have had poor educations, and some are still learning to write English. Some have a learning disability. There is a student with a hearing impairment in front with a signer. Some have been away from school for a long time and haven’t taken a standardized test in decades. Some are misplaced; they write and read pretty well but test poorly. And some, unaware of the significance of the test, take it quickly and haphazardly, eager to get it over and get onto the next thing on their list: the counseling office, financial aid, childcare, or work. Hardly anyone knew about the test beforehand, and no one prepared for it.
For their first assignment, Mr. Quijada asked his students to write a short essay about the main obstacle that might prevent them from passing the class. The papers reveal quite a range of skill. There are a few that are deeply flawed, and at the other end of the spectrum are competent essays with well-crafted sentences and paragraphs. The rest fall somewhere in-between: some with sentence fragments, some with problems in phrasing, some not well-developed.
The features of their writing tell a story about the quality of the education these students had before coming here, and the content of the essays gives a glimpse into their lives right now. Five or six write pretty frankly about scaling back on club life or on sports, video games, and overall hanging out. But all the rest reveal weightier challenges. Several express concern about poor skills, how hard writing, and reading, and studying have been for them. One young woman writes about the loss of her family and subsequent struggles with depression – “How can I live without my parents?” Some write about trying to provide for their families, and two single parents wrestle with pursuing their own education without compromising the care of their children: “I want to succeed in life,” one writes, but “I will sacrifice anything for my child.”
The obstacles most students mention have to do with money: rent, bus fare, a car breaking down. People with families worry about child care. Others mention school supplies, books, and for those who have computers, the price of ink for the printer. There’s Internet fees and phone bills – I know from trying to reach students at the college how often Internet or phone service is temporarily shut off. And a lost job or health crisis would be devastating. One or two bad breaks could destabilize their plans for school. There’s little room for mishap.
Yet the desire in the essays, the can-do optimism is striking. You can attribute some of it to the school-paper formula: end on an up-note. And there’s a big dose of positive thinking here that can gloss over the depth of the challenge some of these students face. Still, they write of “taking one step at a time” and “learning from my mistakes.” “By taking this English class,” writes a single mother who was laid off last year, “I will become a better writer and I will get the skills that I need to reach my goals in life.”
* * *
A lot of low-income students entering community college come from schools that are struggling. A recent study of Southern California’s 51 community colleges by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project documents “a harmful cycle of segregation” whereby low-income students of color from low-performing high schools attend nearby community colleges that have low rates of certificate or degree completion or transfer. Such students are not only underprepared for college in terms of traditional bodies of knowledge and skills, they also get short shrift on other kinds of knowledge that are less clear cut and obvious.
When you start teaching at a college like the one we’re visiting – or, for that fact, a lot of colleges, two- and four-year – you soon notice some student behaviors that are puzzling, even strange, certainly counterproductive. There are students who have trouble keeping track of assignments and deadlines. Some misjudge – at times by a wide margin – the time it will take to do an assignment, or they work like crazy on one assignment and let others slide. Their note-taking is erratic or sparse – yet some might think they’re taking good notes. They don’t ask questions, don’t seek help, don’t go to your office hours, even when you underscore the need to do so. Part of what is puzzling is that some of the students in question seem committed to their education. You can’t chalk up their behaviors to a lack of motivation or engagement.
As with any complex practice – from baseball to weaving to singing opera – you learn how to do it well by doing it and doing it over time, typically in some sort of formal or informal setting with guidance and feedback from others who are more skilled. The same holds for learning how to be a student in the formal setting of school.

            Over the years I’ve come to understand that a key dimension of underpreparation is that some students have learned how to attend school in a routine and superficial manner, but haven’t had the kind of education that teaches them how to use their mind in certain systematic and strategic ways, how to monitor what they’re learning and assess it, and just the tricks of the trade of functioning effectively in this place called school.

            We typically talk about this sort of thing in terms of “study skills” and “time management,” and we attempt to remedy problems related to them through orientation programs or workshops. And students can learn useful techniques for scheduling your day or highlighting a textbook. But what I’m after is something that includes techniques but is more of an orientation to learning, a way of being in school. So what can seem like a lack of engagement or lack of focus can be more accurately understood as some of the results of a less-than-optimal education.           

In Mr. Quijada’s Basic English class, it turns out that several students – including the older gentleman who volunteered to define “forlorn” – dropped the class because they couldn’t master its auxiliary online platform. Two more students just stopped coming. Of the remaining 25, eight didn’t pass: They missed too many classes, or didn’t do the assignments, or did poorly on them. Many who did pass followed Mr. Quijada into the next course in the remedial series, and some of them did well – including the young woman who wrote of her depression and the older woman who had been laid off. But one single mother quit to take a job; another young woman who was doing good work got pregnant and dropped the class right at the end of the semester.

            Because of failure and attrition rates like these, there are calls to reconsider and possibly narrow the wide mission of the community college, including its open admissions policy. And some observers question the nation’s recent “college for all” ideology.

            The critics of college-for-all are right in claiming that some students come to college without clear goals or direction.  Because of the open-door policy of most community colleges, there are students who arrive with academic skills that are so limited that even with basic skills courses and tutorial support, their chances of success are minimal. They need to be in a literacy program or Adult Basic Education. Other students enroll in college because they aren’t sure what else to do: They couldn’t find a job; their parents pushed them; their friends were going. With an uncertain future and few options, why not college? And some people enroll in college, particularly the community college, to get a financial aid award. They stay a few weeks and quit coming. Yet other students might have a specific goal in mind, a major or an occupation, but have a thin or inaccurate understanding of the course of study or the demands of the trade.
These are examples of types of people who arguably shouldn’t be going to college – at least at this stage of their lives. But they are also examples of the failure of other institutions in our society – or the lack of an appropriate institution at all – to help young people develop into adulthood. Students who come to college with fuzzy goals have probably had minimal counseling in high school. (Some beleaguered schools have a student:counselor ratio of 800 to 1, or worse. In under-resourced community colleges the ratio can jump to 2,000 to 1.) As for those young people with an unrealistic or incorrect understanding of a course of study or occupation, if their high school can’t provide such an orientation and if their family networks do not give them access to good information, where can they get it? Our society does not provide a range of options after high school for young people to grow in productive ways. We lack, for example, a robust system of occupational apprenticeships or a comprehensive national service effort. The military becomes for many our defacto occupational and service program.

            As for those coming to college to collect financial aid, doesn’t that practice to some degree reflect weakness in economic policy and job creation as well as inadequacies in the social safety net? Several quite successful students who came out of Mr. Quijada’s classes revealed to me that they’ve had to use their financial aid money to pay medical bills or keep their parents afloat.

            Acknowledging all the above, it is still a significant problem that a number of students attend for the wrong reasons. In some cases, however, these students find their way. Once you’re on the campus meeting new people, being exposed to fresh ideas, feeling the pull of opportunity – surprising things can happen. An instructor at another college across town tells this story: An honored African-American Studies professor died, and the college put on a memorial for him. One of the speakers was a man who explained that when he got out of prison and was kicking around, he decided he wanted to fix up his car. He found out that he could get financial aid, which he then used to buy a coveted set of chrome rims. During his first term, he enrolled in a course from the professor, and it pulled him in. He took another course and the older man began to mentor him. He continued in school and got his Associates degree. Even a guy setting out to scam the system can get turned around.

* * *

            I’ve taught for a very long time in a wide range of settings, kindergarten through graduate seminar and one thing I’ve learned is that there’s usually more to a student’s poor academic performance than meets the eye. The man who falls asleep in class is working the night shift to support his family. The young woman who doesn’t turn in assignments worries to the point of physical distress about revealing her poor writing skills. The guy who seems distracted, unfocused, flakey even, is wrestling with parental expectations about his major. The class clown; the sullen, withdrawn type; the girl who’s above it all, whatever – they all have something else going on.

            We tend to characterize these behaviors in a shorthand way, a way that both describes them and implies causation. A student “lacks motivation,” or isn’t “serious,” “committed,” or “disciplined,” or is “unfocused” and “scattered,” or is “immature,” maybe “lazy.” We’ve done this sort of thing for a very long time. Early nineteenth century educators referred to the poor common school performer as a “shirker” or “loafer;” in the last half of the nineteenth century the terms shifted a bit from a student’s character to development and intelligence: The poor student was “immature,” “sleepy-minded,” “dull.” As we move through the twentieth century we get a wide range of terms, from “dullards” to the more sociological: “alienated” and “socially maladjusted.” And so it goes. This way of describing academic performance can blinker our analytic vision. The terms lead us to think we know more than we do about a student’s behavior and circumstances and thereby limit our ability to create effective interventions.

            Remediation in higher education has been present in some form before there were yell leaders and fight songs. Remediation is not new, and unless we have an unprecedented transformation of our social order, it will be with us for some time to come. As we have seen, there are many reasons that lead people into classrooms like Mr. Quijada’s. To respond fully and well to them, we have to know them better, move beyond the ready-made labels and explanations and understand how they got into Basic English, or Basic Math, or Reading. Some of Mr. Quijada’s students would have benefited from richer academic support including technology support. Others needed more targeted counseling and mentoring. Yet others desperately needed coordinated social services – and just basic employment assistance.

We also need to do a better job – and Mr. Quijada is good at this – of drawing on these students’ strengths, the many experiences and qualities they bring with them. In that next course in the remedial series taught by Mr. Quijada, one of his students wrote about his return to college. He had been working regularly and had not been in school for many years, had no desire for it. Then the unexpected happened: He got laid off. Despondent, ashamed, his head bowed he went to talk to his brother who encouraged him to go back to school. Why not? It’s now or never. He did and discovered he liked it. Three or four months later his brother called him forlorn to tell him that he had just been laid off too. Well, the student said, you should join me, come back to school. “So I’m glad he took my advice. If not, he would not be sitting next to me writing this paper.”

Now, that’s something to write about.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing about Teaching and Learning through the Details of Classroom Life

Every once in a while, I post something on writing, and I get a lot of positive response. So let me post one more. This is something I wrote a while ago for The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. It was part of a primer for journalists new to the education beat, but I think the advice in it is relevant for anyone writing about classrooms. The illustrations in it come primarily from my Possible Lives.


“Detail,” wrote Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, “is the life of literature.”  And of education, as well.  I want to offer suggestions about how detail cannot only animate an education story, but provide insight into the thought processes of students and teachers.

These days, talk of teaching and learning is dominated by test scores, rankings,  standards and guidelines, and about how student transience and socio-economic status correlate with achievement.  Such data are important but not the key to getting at what goes on in schools. For that, reporters need to use their training to keep their eyes and ears open—and focus on the transaction between student and teacher. Let me suggest four prisms for observation: the classroom itself, the ways teachers talk to students, the lives of students, and the lives of teachers.

            The room.  Classrooms are so familiar to us that we can easily miss the significance of obvious things, like how desks or tables are arranged. So, suggestion one: follow the anthropologist’s adage and try to make the classroom strange, unfamiliar.  
I begin by sketching the room in my notes, starting at the door; sometimes, I’ll even take a photograph. I focus on details that reveal something about a teacher’s creativity and resourcefulness. For instance, in a third-grade bilingual classroom in the California border town of Calexico, teacher Elena Castro had set up learning stations – math, reading, art, etc. From the arrangement, I could see that a student’s day would mix whole-class instruction with rotation through the stations.  I was struck by the way every part of the room had a purpose and enabled students to explore their interests and access areas where they needed help. Also, clear from my sketch, Mrs. Castro had positioned her desk (“The Teacher’s Workshop,” she called it, revealing in itself) so that she could survey the room while privately attending to the student sitting alongside her.  Finally, there was Mrs. Castro’s skill in using meager materials – old tape recorders; unmatched encyclopedia volumes; small, wobbly tables—to fashion a vibrant classroom.   
            Scientists sometimes say that nothing interesting goes on in a neat laboratory.  I think the same could be said of classrooms.  Look for the physical residue of learning. Are any books lying around open, and do you see them in places other than the bookshelf—for example, by the science displays or the plants and animals, if the classroom has them?  Are there scraps of paper here and there with writing on them?  What about the remnants of projects?  Here’s a snapshot from a first-grade classroom in Baltimore:
The table itself was small and cluttered with the remnants of experiments past, the messiness of good science.  There was a cluster of acorns and orange and yellow gourds, the head of a big sunflower, a bird’s nest, some stray twigs, the corpse of a newt—carefully laid out on cardboard and labeled—five or six small magnifying glasses, several Audubon Pocket Guides, and a pile of crisp maple leaves. 

Of course, there’s a point past which messiness drifts into chaos.  Also, grade-level, subject, and teacher’s style matter.  I remember an Advanced Placement literature class in Chicago.  The students were reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  There was hardly anything on the walls; the desks were turned inward, forming a circle.  But the discussion was electric—this charged talk on a barren stage was a story in itself. 

            Teacher talk.  As a teacher myself, I’m fascinated by the way talk can impede or advance learning.  Watch how a teacher models the analysis of a problem. Does he think out loud? Walk the student through the process? Or simply tell the student what to do?  Here’s an example from an electrical wiring class in Phoenix:
Hector, in a quarter-twist of his torso, arms over his head, is trying to fasten a conduit strap into tight quarters.  “Mr. Padilla,” he moans, “the screw won’t go in.  Dang.  I can’t get leverage!”  Jim Padilla rests his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, one hand on the rail, watching… “Try a smaller screwdriver, Hector.”  Then, “Turn the hammer sideways.”  Then, “No? Well start the hole with a nail.”  Mr. Padilla intersperses these suggestions with homilies and exhortations: “Hector, there’s more than one way to get milk from a cow, verdad?”  And, “I’m not gonna let you give up.”  And, eventually, Hector does get the vexing strap affixed.

            Studies have found that the most common form of teacher-student interaction is this: the teacher asks a question, often factual (“Is freedom of speech a guaranteed right?”), a student answers (“Yes, it’s in the Bill of Rights.”), and the teacher evaluates (“That’s correct.”).  This kind of questioning has its place, but if it predominates, learning, not to mention classroom vitality, is narrowed.  Look for questioning that is interactive and opens up a wider range of thinking.           

An ongoing study of mathematics instruction at UCLA is demonstrating that it’s not so much the teacher’s immediate response that counts—e.g., “How did you get that answer?”—but the question that comes after the student has explained her answer.  I try to keep a record of the kinds of questions a teacher asks and get a sense of sequence.  Rich questioning and exchange signals a teacher’s respect for students, and students pick that up; in my experience, the students then mirror that respect for each other.  Intellectual respect is a wonderful topic to write about.  See if you can sense it – or its absence – in the air.  

            The students.  Whatever you do, make sure to spend time with students. Find out about their responsibilities and duties in jobs, hobbies, church, and home.  Ask what languages they speak, whether they’ve immigrated, if they travel, what kind of knowledge they’re exposed to at home, from childrearing practices to craft traditions to parents’ talk about work. I’m always curious as to whether they have opportunities in the classroom to use the skills and knowledge they develop outside of school.  Conversely, I want to know if they have opportunities to use school-knowledge out in the world, bringing a new perspective to the familiar.  A nice example is the teacher in a Montana one-room schoolhouse who sent his students out to do scientific observations of the plant life along the creek that ran through their valley.   

            Try to talk with students while they’re working on something; general questions  about schooling will likely elicit the generic “it’s boring” or “it’s OK.”  But if you can get students to talk about what they’re doing while they’re doing it, you might get some insight into learning. 

            I also find it valuable to keep eyes and ears open for the cognitive nugget in student chatter that surrounds a classroom assignment.  I’m thinking here of an experiment in a chemistry class in Los Angeles.  While students were flirting and humming and apparently just going through the motions, they were also – if you listened closely – revealing their knowledge of the principles embodied in the experiment.

            I always remind myself to be cautious about my choice of words in depicting students’ lives and communities.  Besides the ethical reasons, it is easy to slip into standard story lines – the heroic teacher, the disaffected kid, the blighted community – that simplify a complex reality.  I remember sitting with two girls and listening to a news story about their school.  The piece was sympathetic, but in characterizing the school’s challenges the reporter called the surrounding community a “wasteland.” The students were shocked, then angry.  They knew about the unemployment, the disrepair, the gangs—who knew better than they?—but also felt that the reporter missed so much.  “This isn’t a wasteland,” one said, “We live here.”  Eliciting their take on things might have led to a more nuanced story and would have provided yet another insight into their intelligence and ability to analyze their own surroundings.

            The teacher.  Teaching is such a familiar occupation—we’ve all been exposed to lots of it—that we can fall into the trap of thinly representing the work, missing some of the skill involved. So, as with classrooms, I recommend the anthropologist’s strategy of making the familiar strange.

First, ask yourself what it would require to do what you’re observing.  Take, for example, the work of the primary teacher.  Most depictions address her kindness and patience, or her nice way with children, or the problems the children bring into the classroom.  But few focus on the work’s cognitive demands and complex interactions.  Here’s a moment from a primary grade in Los Angeles:
Ms. Cowan was all over the floor, on her haunches, kneeling, turning quickly on her knees, stretching backward, extending her line of sight.  “Count those out, Joey.”  “Watch, Sebastian, what happens when I do this,”  “Mantas, show Brittany what you just did.”  It is remarkable, this ability that good primary teachers have: to take in a room in a glance, to assess in a heartbeat, to, with a word to two, provide feedback, make a connection, pull a child into a task. 

Second, ask teachers about specific classroom events.  “I was interested in that question you asked,” you might say, “what were you trying to achieve with it?”  Or, “Is there something about that student that led you to ask it?”  Or “I saw this, what do you make of it?”  “Do you remember what you were thinking?”  Questions like these can reveal teachers’ broad strategies and goals, give insight into their moment-to-moment decisions, and reveal their underlying values and beliefs. 

            Third, explore these values by asking teachers about their own histories, particularly what school was like for them.  I also find it fruitful to ask about their first year of teaching: the big surprises and revelations, the crucial role an older teacher played.  I’m interested, too, in the things they struggle with, their professional dilemmas, or the kid who has them tied up in knots. 

            I find these stories compelling, especially the ways teachers’ histories and experiences interact with the work they do in the classroom.  There are all sorts of human interest moments—a teacher’s first-year hell, a teacher going back to work in his community—but I also look for intellectual and ideological complexity: the teacher trying to reconcile her fundamentalist religious beliefs with Darwin, the teacher who creatively integrates into her curriculum standardized tests that she deplores.  These are stories worth telling. 

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