Regarding educational reform, I think there are two main dimensions to address: 1) Student socialization and culture, and 2) targeted student (and teacher) placement. (Though issues of teacher socialization and training are also relevant, in this essay I’m going to focus only on student socialization, which I think is the most critical issue in educational achievement; and, yes, in response to a comment to this essay on Facebook, that does include addressing parent socialization as well.) The issue of student socialization and culture involves how students are taught to be students and encouraged to engage in those behaviors most conducive to successful learning, both in the school and in all the years and hours outside of (including prior to) the school. The issue of targeted placement involves making sure that every student and teacher is placed in the environment most conducive to satisfying their particular needs (for students) and most able to exploit their particular talents (for teachers). In other words, neither students nor teachers are fungible (interchangeable) , and we need to stop acting as if they are.

Student socialization is really the critical factor in student success or failure: Those students who are better socialized to be good students will excel more certainly and in a broader array of contexts, whereas those who are not will require increasingly precise, expensive, and elaborate interventions (that are decreasingly successful) and will to varying degrees obstruct the education of those around them. Addressing student socialization requires both more attention to the role that time prior to and outside of the school plays in determining how students perform in school, and more attention to the role that kids play in encouraging/facilitating either educationally conducive or educationally counterproductive behaviors among one another both in school and out.

To address the socialization issue of what goes on prior to and outside the school, I think we need to implement a very robust volunteer tutoring and mentoring program, locally, statewide, and nationally. We have enormous social and professional resources, including a growing cadre of retirees looking for useful places to put their time and energy, and a huge need on the part of many students to be socialized into a sense of intellectual curiosity and how to feed the hunger for knowledge and comprehension that such curiosity instills. (To some extent, such socialization primarily requires careful nurturing of innate tendencies, because children are naturally curious.)

As for in-school, student mutual socialization, I worked on a research project years ago involving incentivizing mutual encouragement of positive behaviors in a target population (something I’ll call “group-mediated behavioral reinforcement”). The project was enormously successful, and can and should be applied to schools. We already have in Colorado programs like The Legacy Schools Project implemented by The Colorado Legacy Foundation, rewarding students for their own good academic work, but what if we extended such incentive-based programs to rewarding not only good academic work (e.g., passing an AP exam with a 3 or above, as Legacy does), but also helping others to do so as well, paying successful students for their recruits who also pass with a 3 or above? What you end up with is a positive pyramid-scheme of increasing numbers of successful students scouring the remaining student population search of recruits to train and assist in excelling academically.

Finally, targeted placement: We throw students with various and competing needs all together, and frequently don’t address any of their needs very well, particularly in failing schools. We need to identify student needs, and target their placement into schools that can specialize in meeting those needs. For instance, some of the most responsible and motivated students in the articulation areas of failing schools would benefit most from a college-like environment; others need military-like discipline due to the degree to which their own dysfunctional behaviors have become entrenched in them; and others still need more personal, emotional, and focused attention and nurturing. School choice does not really address this, because parents and students generally seek out the schools that they wish were right for them rather than those that actually are, or, in some cases, that satisfy needs and desires other than educational achievement. We need to find ways to target the assignment of students to schools in order to give them each what they really need, and to prevent those with incompatible needs from undermining the education of those around them.

“Targeted teacher placement” simply refers to the fact that we assign teachers too haphazardly, frequently  putting teachers with less subject area expertise but great technical and classroom management skills in high performing schools and advanced classes, and teachers with extraordinary subject area expertise but poorer technical and classroom management skills in behaviorally challenging schools and classes, losing the comparative advantage of both and setting both up for failure or sub-optimal performance (which in turn means that the students in both contexts receive educational services inferior to what they would have had teachers been more strategically and consciously placed).

Clearly, all of these recommendations raise a host of issues, primarily involving the tension between centralized decision-making and local autonomy. But identifying the most fundamental, underlying factors affecting educational success and failure is a critical component of any truly robust and ambitious plan for educational reform. It’s time to move past the superficial panaceas and start focusing on the real educational challenges we face and on developing richer, deeper and more structurally penetrating strategies for addressing them.

(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, A Colorado Teacher’s Perspective on Education Reform, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve)

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I returned to education and Denver Public Schools this year, after a five year foray into law and policy. I very vocally and rationally opposed SB191 when it was being debated by pointing out that it would do more to drive great teachers out of the profession and dissuade great potential new teachers from entering the profession than it would do either to weed bad teachers out or raise them up. In other words, it was going to have a larger effect on choking off the inflow and increasing the outflow of the most talented teachers (more than least talented teachers because more talented people generally have more alternatives in the competitive labor market) than it would have on removing or improving teachers who needed remediation or removal. I also argued that it focused on the one aspect of our educational system that was least broken –-the quality of our educators– while ignoring the factors that were most broken –what goes on outside the school building, years, and hours to socialize kids to be either successful or unsuccessful students.

My experience this year has overwhelmingly confirmed these observations. I started at West Generation Academy, an innovation school in DPS. Their plan sounded good to me, the passion of everyone involved appealed to me, and I wanted to be a part of it. The implementation was so badly botched that within weeks virtually every teacher there was desperate to get out. Many of the teachers (including me) have left, and the principal has resigned. The reason for this is that they assumed that they could accomplish everything in the building, without addressing the litany of issues affecting what would go on in that building, and without putting any discipline plan in place, and, as a result, it was complete chaos.

Now, at Abraham Lincoln High School, I see the most talented and passionate teachers talking about how the joy has been taken out of teaching, and how the micromanagement of teaching has crippled them and made them unable to teach effectively. More are talking about retiring early than ever before, when great, dedicated teachers were often reluctant to leave the job and children they loved.  I feel it myself, unable to do what I am best at –inspiring students with a sense of the wonder and adventure of life on Earth—because I am so bogged down in the bureaucratization of education, following a curriculum that teaches boring irrelevancies rather than inspiring insights, and engaging in practices that are like an off switch to whatever curiosity is left in these brutalized students’ minds. We are doubling down on the failed factory system of education, in a prime example of the doctor eagerly killing the patient.

Tom Boasberg (DPS Superintendent) came to Lincoln a couple of weeks ago, and answered one of the questions submitted to him. It happened to be mine. In reality, whether intentionally or unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter) he didn’t answer it but rather answered a similar question that I hadn’t asked. I wrote him to explain why the question I had actually asked was one that needed more attention. I also sent an email to two representatives of CDE who had come to roll-out our School Support Plan, to share with them my views, hoping that maybe this perspective I would like to see more integrated into our education policy could reach more ears with more ability to increase its salience in our education policy decision making. Those two emails (neither of which were responded to) follow below.

Email to Tom Boasberg:

Thank you for addressing my written question during your visit to ALHS today. I just wanted to clarify something that I think is very important, somewhat unique in the perspective being expressed, and may help inform a more nuanced approach to education reform. I apologize for the long email, but please indulge me; I think it will be worth your time. First, here’s the question again: 

How are we, as a district, going to preserve the comparative advantage that excellent teachers traditionally had in inspiring students, in pursuing spontaneous lines of inquiry that might arise in the course of instruction, of avoiding the overapplication of standardised approaches that might not be best suited to our particular grade level and population? And how are we going to stave off the loss of job satisfaction, the sense of despair and joylessness that is so apparently invading the minds and hearts of so many excellent teachers, who feel micromanaged and stripped of their ability to use their discretion to serve their students to the best of their ability?

I wasn’t referring to standardized tests so much, but rather standardized instruction. I don’t mind standardized tests particularly, as long as there is little pressure to teach to them (a potential problem with teacher evaluations increasingly based on their results). But I do have some concerns about standardized instruction. In some ways, i think it is the perfection of mediocrity.

Let me explain: My forte as a social studies teacher who spent years in his youth traveling around the world, who was a PhD student and college lecturer, who wrote a fantasy fiction novel, and who is now a lawyer and public policy analyst, is to take students on adventures of the mind and imagination, to incite their sense of wonder about the world, and to sometimes engage in spontaneous adventures that just emerge from our interactions, much as I do with my own nine year old daughter, who is “gifted and talented” and scores in the advanced range of standardized tests in all subjects. (And I think that her high performance is in large part due to these interactions.)

But, having returned to education this year after my foray into law and policy, I do not feel that my comparative advantage is being well utilized. This is no one’s fault, but a defect of our efforts to improve the quality of education, because we are focused on improving the performance of poorly performing teachers, but not attentive to preserving the special skills of teachers who have exceptional abillties of particular varieties.

I am in a PLC of fellow Geography teachers who aren’t particularly eager to adopt the games and simulations that I had developed in my previous teaching career, which leaves me more or less forced to teach in more conventional ways. My former joy in teaching is almost completely extinguished, and what I used to bring to my students I am no longer able to bring. They do not benefit as much from the energy and wonder and imaginative forays that was my trademark.

We may be lifting the lower performing teachers up, but we may also be pulling certain kinds of extraordinary teachers down. I think we need to work at preserving that spark of spontaneity, of imaginative innovation in the classroom, that some of our standardization of curriculum and instruction may be stifling. At least, it is stifling it in my case, and it breaks my heart to be in the classroom not fully liberated to do what I can do uniquely well. And Social Studies is the perfect discipline to allow such innovation and adventure in education.

I am passionate about education, not just as, or even primarily as, a vehicle for career success for our kids, but even more so as a vehicle for the growth of their consciousness and their spirits, their joy in the partcipation in the adventure of life on Earth, and yet do not feel that my own spirit is liberated enough to take them on that journey in the context of this new paradigm. And that breaks my heart.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Email to CDE representatives:

Thank you both for your excellent facilitation of our SST Reveiw Roll-out at Abraham Lincoln High School today. I want to take the opportunity to put on record some feed-back I have about the direction public education is taking in Colorado (and the nation), which will in some ways be familiar, but perhaps with a novel enough addition of nuance to be of value.

First, I think that it’s clear that the main variables differentiating highly successful students from unsuccessful students, and highly successful schools from failing schools, are found outside the schools rather than within them. That does not mean that what we do in the schools is irrelevant, or that we are therefore absolved of responsibility, but rather that, if we are serious about dramatically improving education in Colorado, we need to address the fundamental problems where they reside, and not focus all of our attention and resources on patching up the defects created by our failure to do address them where they reside.

We need to redefine education, from something that takes place in a school building during school hours and school years, to something that takes place everywhere, throughout the day, and throughout our lives. We need to redefine “schools” from the places where education more-or-less exclusively occurs to the focal places from where a less localized education is facilitated. And, most importantly, we need to stop killing the patient with desperate attempts to cure a cultural problem without ever actually addressing the cultural problem at all.

The main difference between highly successful suburban schools and failing urban schools is everything that goes on prior to and outside the school experience. It is primarily a function of socialization, in which more students in successful schools (wherever they are located, really) are better socialized to be successful students than in failing schools, creating critical masses that then create feedback loops amplifying either the success or failure of the school, and pulling students either up or down as a result. If we spent the resources we currently spend trying to “cure” education in the one place where it was actually somewhat functional -the schools themselves- and invested those resources instead into the place where reform is truly needed -the socialization of the children prior to and outside of the schools- we could dramatically improve educational outcomes in Colorado and America.

I understand the daunting political and practical obstacles to what I’m suggesting, but the consequence of failing to face those obstacles squarely and courageously isn’t just limiting ourselves to addressing educational challenges within the narrow confines of educational institutions, but actually harming the ability of those educational institutions to most effectively educate our children. Yes, we make marginal gains by all of this “scientific management” of education, by reducing it to its components and increasing the efficiency of performance of each component part (see “Taylorism”), but it is the perfection of mediocrity, and the prevention of true excellence, because truly excellent education is far more organic, far more inspired, far more spontaneous, and far more utilizing of the particular talents and expertises and knowledge and passion of the teachers who are truly the best and most effective teachers of all.

And it is precisely those teachers, those passionate, deeply knoweldgeable, charismatic teachers, who can inspire kids, who can ignite their sense of wonder about the world, who we are driving out of this new micro-managed, sterilized, oppressive paradigm of education, this attempt to save an institution we are in the process of killing, like Medieval doctors bleeding their unfortunate patients.

I want to be a voice for real education, for passionate education, for organic and inspired education. At the very least, let’s preserve some enclaves in which that organic, charismatic adventure can occur. My field, social studies, is one of those fields that should not be reduced to a mechanized and micro-managed discipline, but should be an enclave of wonder and adventure through which to ignite students’ curiosity. Let’s at least build more nuance into what we are doing, retain some of the spirit that we have forgotten to value, because we may raise test scores and increase graduation rates, but we are going to lose soaring souls in the process, and that is not a bargain we should feel compelled to make.

(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons.)

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Colin Powell spoke out on immigration reform recently ( He said what every reasonable person knows: That we have to provide a road to legal status for the roughly 12 million who are here illegally, and that we have to recognize that fairly massive immigration is still part of the life-blood of this country.

As Powell recognizes, leaving intact an underground undocumented population that constitutes over three percent of the entire population is simply untenable. Identifying, detaining, and removing a significant portion of that population is prohibitively costly, inhumane, and destructive to our own economy. The only reasonable course of action, by any measure, is to provide a path to some kind of legal status, and to make it more attractive than remaining undocumented.

Also, as Powell realizes, those millions of undocumented immigrants are fully integrated into our economy,  into our culture, and into our society. Simply removing them, even aside from the incredible inhumanity involved, would send shock waves through all three. It would undermine our economic vitality, disrupt our social systems and networks, and impoverish our culture.

Virtually everyone agrees that some kind of immigration reform is necessary. The argument is over what form it should take.

A few quick facts to keep in mind:

1) The United States has historically exploited the permeability of our southern border, and the relative poverty south of it, to create a membrane through which cheap disposable labor can pass (sometimes assertively imported) when it is convenient for us, and can be blocked and removed when it is inconvenient for us.

2) The true economic impact of illegal immigration is far more complex, and far less large, than the xenophobes contend. Most analyses conclude that there is either pretty much a net nation-wide economic wash, or a small net nation-wide economic gain due to illegal immigration, though the distribution of costs and benefits does lead to real strains on local social services. Illegal immigrants pay far more taxes, and are far more obstructed from collecting the benefits funded for by those taxes, than some people realize. Most importantly, they are paying into social security to support current retirees, but are not accruing social security benefits upon which they can draw. 

3) Human beings have always migrated away from poverty and toward opportunity, and always will. Any responsible parent would place greater weight on their children’s future than on the prohibition to cross a line drawn in the sand by historical (and opportunistic) military conflicts. To villify people for doing so is simply reprehensible.

4) The more factors of production can flow freely, which includes how open borders are, the more global wealth is produced, and, in this case, the less inequitably it is distributed.

5) We rely on massive immigration demographically, with a burgeoning retired population and a shrinking working-age population supporting them. Immigrants come to work, redressing that imbalance.

Here’s my analysis:

From a global economic efficiency and distributional justice point-of-view, the ideal is the free flow of people and goods across borders. From a global leadership and fairness in distributing the burden point-of-view, the US should be in the lead on moving the world in the direction of that ideal.

I’m both a global humanist and a realist: I recognize the ideals we should be striving for, and the current realities that force us to compromise our efforts. One of the realities of the world is that people are locally and immediately biased: costs and benefits closer to home and closer to the present are weighted much more heavily than costs and benefits farther from home and farther in the future.

I’m less sympathetic to the reactions of people who resent (though are only marginally burdened by) the unstoppable flow of people from poverty and destitution toward opportunity than I am cognizant of its inevitability. For that reason, more than any other, we need federal laws that are enforceable, and that are a reasonable compromise between who and what we should be, and who and what we are.

The history of immigration law in America is a lot uglier than a lot of people realize, more often racist than not, and still somewhat brutal in the fierce protection of what’s ours, even against the most innocent and vulnerable victims of a cruel world. It’s hard to admire that, when the vast majority in America are walking around with i-phones, and pay cable subscriptions, and live comfortably and eat well. And here’s one of my objections to some in my own party: the branch of American labor that does not recognize any international responsibility beyond protecting our own wealth against foreign intrusion is as odious to me as any aspect of right-wing ideology.

Furthermore, we are capable of restructuring our priorities, and investing in our future, in ways which will provide native-born Americans with better opportunities to fill higher-paying, more information-intensive positions in our national (and the global) economy, leaving those eager souls from beyond our borders with the opportunity to fill the lower-paying, unskilled positions that Americans no longer want. This is, to a limited extent, the nature of illegal immigration today; in reality, the demand for low-paid foreign labor exists because Americans want, and can usually find, better opportunities (and the demand for highly paid, highly skilled foreign labor exists because we are failing to educate our own children to be able to satisfy it). But to the extent that there still is some competition for jobs between those born here or here legally, at the bottom of our economic ladder, and those who are newly arriving illegally, a greater commitment on our part to robust and effective public education, and provision of affordable, varied higher educational opportunities, will mitigate this problem, by moving those already here up the economic ladder, and leaving the rungs at the bottom to those newly arriving. 

Even so, the use of immigrant labor to depress wages and to displace higher paid American labor still exists. Despite our relative wealth and comfort, the pressures and anxieties of an uncertain economy, of an uncertain future, of family responsibilities and assumptions about what we will be able to give to our children, all make our protectionist reflexes understandable, if neither ideal nor admirable. I’m not unsympathetic to the worker whose livelihood is made less secure by the competition of desparately poor people elsewhere, nor to the folks in border states and communities whose local resources are strained by undocumented waves of humanity pouring in.

But I’m a human being first, and an American second. The problems and stresses of Americans are nothing compared to the problems and stresses of those against whom we are protecting ourselves. And our mythologies and rationalizations with which we reassure ourselves that that is just and right do not in any way actually make it just and right. Furthermore, our own long-term interests are best served by including massive immigration in the equation, and creating a context in which those who enter fill positions that those who are here no longer need to settle for.

So that’s the nature of the challenge, as I see it. How do we negotiate all of those imperatives, all of those needs, all of those legitimate concerns? I don’t know. But the first step is to achieve a higher degree of honesty about the nature of the world in which we live, and the nature of the role we play, and could play, in it.

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